Won Highly Recommended at the Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition
“My money’s running out,” said Hanna on the phone, “let’s decide quickly. How about one of the clubs by the canal?” “Which?” “I don’t know, they keep changing. Saturday night then?” “OK. It’ll be great to see you again” I shouted over the beeps as the line went dead.
That was on Wednesday. Now it’s Saturday noon and I’m snacking at the Kaufhaus in what used to be East Berlin. So much has changed from the time when I passed between the city’s halves more easily than she could. But why a two-minute call after all these years? I wander the streets, letting the city soak iry each new vista unlocking memories. While spinning postcard racks I keep noticing an arty photo of a long, straight canal at dawn, the fore-grounded, fore-lit railings olive-green against the glowing water. When part of the canal was drained, I once watched two men fill bag after bag with bottles and mysterious lumps, each thrust of a shovel loosening a stench I still remember.
I book into a hotel and make a tea -Lipton’s English Breakfast. Flicking through channels I find Wacky Races on Cartoon Network, which I haven’t seen for years. Why so few female role-models? And why are no-one’s thoughts private? How come only the baddies talk to the narrator? And why wasn’t it boring when I was little, when I used to record the results, adding up the points? How did she get my number? I fall asleep before the end, the early flight catching up on me.
I’m still dozy when I catch an evening tram out west. I loiter along the narrow canal, hoping I’ll bump into Hanna before it gets too dark, then decide I’ll be safer indoors. Down the first lane I find an open doorway with a sign saying Tangram above a hand-painted saxophone. Holding out some money I venture down the staircase, lit only by the street lamp. I hesitate when I hear raised voices, then push through the raffia screen into darkness. It’s even smaller than I recall it -no bigger than a classroom, the ceiling low, the floor rubber, like a student bar or operating theatre. The voices come from a TV at the back of the bar -a panel of old men heatedly discussing football. The fat, balding bartender wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt turns to me. I ask for a Skol and hand him my note. Barely taking his eyes from the screen he gives me a bottle and half the change I expected.
I check the shadows for faces. None. A low platform made of metre-square blocks fills one corner, with music stands in various stages of collapse. Haphazard wires snake towards the single socket. Paintings cover the walls of bare, uneven plaster: acrylics mostly, derivative student stuff. I’ve a hunch that Hanna will choose this place. I sit in the corner furthest from the stage. At my elbow I notice some scribbled sums on the wall -bills I guess -and further along, a line of phrases: “Music is everywhere. It is we who turn away”, “Give chance a chance” …. I’m distracted by a gaunt, peak-capped man who enters with a music case -a clarinet perhaps -talks to the bartender and leaves. A foul on TV is replayed again and again forwards and backwards, trying to catch the moment. Where is she?
Fresh out of Art College I’d gone to Berlin to make it as an artist, ready to take risks -each day, dissatisfied, I overwrote myself. I lived in a suburb where Hanna worked on the hot-meat van on Thursdays, high above the customers she flirted with. I always bought warm legs of chicken in a greaseproof bag. I was shy then, especially with girls. I wanted someone confident to support me. Once when I paid I gave her a letter with my money. She phoned me back. The first night that we slept together her nails woke me. “Sorry,” she said, “l’m like that when I’m scared. I sort of cling, like this”. “Ow!” I said again as her nails dug in. I realised there was another way to feel strong -find someone more vulnerable than myself. In the afternoons she’d practise at a dance studio. Some evenings she worked -cabarets for tourists, scenery-shifting in plays. More often we hung around the jazz clubs or visited her ex-art student friends – a wild bunch who never quite trusted me. The city’s desperation made me impressionable. For some people their past solidifies around a parent’s death. For me, like many others, it was loss of first love. Hanna. Once my past had fallen into place, my future could take root. That happened later, but it all began here. The raffia flickers, I tense up –will I recognise her? A couple enters. The girl steals glances at me. Maybe it’s her, those vivid blue eyes. But no. I try not to return the gaze. They buy drinks, then she comes over.
“You’re waiting for Hanna?”
“So, you’re the famous artist who’s always first and never looks back. Sorry but she couldn’t make it. She said you might be hoping for a fuck, so she sent me.”
I look back at the bar’
“Just a friend,” she says.
“Where is she?What’s going on? Ls this some sort of trick?”
“Fair enough. Well, she’s been thinking about you. That,s why she got in touch”. She sits down. “I’m Katy.”
“What does she do nowadays?”
“Oh, this and that. that’s her on the wall”, she says, making no gesture.”
“Music is everywhere?”
“No, that’s some Buddhist shit The painting over the bar.”
“She does abstracts now?”
“She was the model”
“She’s changed. Greener”
“You haven’t. You moved away.”
The man wlth the instrument case returns,placing it on the stage before perching awkwardly on a bar-stool. He doesn’t ask for a drink or watch the TV The girl leans towards me.
“I bet you think there’s a gun in that case,” she whispers, “that you’re living on the edge.”
“Do you come here often?”
She laughs. “Just for the quiet and the old men. When the jazz starts, [‘m away. Well,” she says, rising and offering her hand so that I don’t know whether to shake or kiss it, “nice of you to fly over. I know you’ve got no kids and no partner, but you must be busy. She was going to come, really she was. She’s ill you see. She phoned me only this morning. We all make mistakes.”
“Ill? Do you have her number?”
“Questions, questions.’That’s the trouble with you conceptual artists.”
“You’ll tell her I came won’t you?”
“l wouldn’t stick around here too long if I were you. It gets crowded. Deals and stuff. We artists provide the cover for them, don’t we. If you get lonely my offer’s still open. I’m quite sweet really you know. I’ve got a settee.”
“I’ve a hotel room in town.”
“Let me guess.The Holiday Inn.”
“Watch out for the girls in the foyer -they’re not cheap.”
“Thanks for that.”
“You must be really pissed off”, she says, chewing her gum and blowing a big, blue bubble.
I’m not though. Hanna could never make me angry. I owed her too much. Her impulsiveness had made me whole. I’ct hoped that in exchange I’d given her a sense of structure, the possibility of progress and linearity. She’d said that she wanted to try things out alone for a while. I didn’t stand in her way.
On the tram back all the anticipation suddenly collapses into fatigue. At each stop more people get on, dressed up for the evening. I wonder about mingling with them, but seeing my reflection in the window I realise I’m too old. In middle age there’s no time for nostalgia other than to re-establish old reference points that are beginning to drift, unsettling the future. I get out a few stops beiore the hotel, thinking about forthcoming magazine interviews, how I could bring Wacky Races into a sound-bite –art as a race that never ends, perhaps, or Damien the Dick Dastardly of art. some artists copy what they see, following the popular fashion. When fashions move on, they’re forgotten’ Then there are those who can sense where things are going and get there first. Originality’s not just ideas, it’s timing too. Picasso had the idea of producing a blank canvas years before anuone else did, but he knew the time wasn’t right. He was too many steps ahead. one’s enough. My timing’s not right yet; I’m never part of the movements. I’m not summer, I’m the first cuckoo, one that only artists can hear. A loner.
I collect my key from reception. Waiting for the lift I overhear someone behind me saying. “When’s your plane?” No-one replies’ I turn. “Hanna! Are you ok?” She’s shorter than I remember, all in black, tucking her hair under a Che Guevara beret. She clears her throat. “Yeah, just a cold. Katy phoned me. I was just going to look. Then I saw the lift arriving. I’m sorry.”
“Let’s go to the bar. I could do with a snack”
We sit by a window watching taxis come and go. I wait for her to explain, sneaking a glance at her Profile. “Like tunnels under the Amazon,” she said’ “What?” “Remember? We’d planned to meet once at the open festival. We were both squeezing through the crowds and suddenly found ourselves face-to-face, like tunnels dug under the Amazon.”
“So why the call?”
“I read about you sometimes.”
“You mustn’t believe all that stuff. Once the gallery took me on, things just snowballed. I tried to stay in touch with you.” She looks out of the window. “What have I done wrong Hanna?”
“Why do you say that?” She blinks several times. I worry that she’s going to burst in tears. “Even for the hippies that free-love stuff was a con”, she continues, “The girls especially hated it. There were suicides in sunny California.”
What does she mean? I was loyal to her, even after I left. She starts swaying her head as if to music. I stare into her eyes and she stops. “You’ve aged,” she says, lolling extravagantly across the window seat. I glance around to see if anyone’s staring at us. “What are you working on at the moment?” she asks.
“Time. Change. Hold out your palm.”
She offers her hand. When I reach out she pulls it away’
“I’m more fortune-teller than artist -guessing little by little, picking up hints, showing people what they already know.”
“I’ve never blamed you,” she says, shaking her head, “ we were wrapped round each other like sides of a Mobius strip, you said, no inside or outside. You must remember, you used the idea at your Serpentine show. Each other’s therapist’ But I guess you can afford expensive ones.”
“There are enough amateur psychologists in the press. If I don’t care what others think, if I’m detached, they put me on the autistic spectrum. Asperger’s all the rage nowadays. It’s better than Freudians I suppose. Jealousy if you ask me. Hey, didyou really tell Katy that I’d be expecting sex?” she laughs. “Sorry. I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. She hates men – except when she’s lonely.”
“What do you do nowadays? I Google for your name sometimes”
“You won’t find me. I pole-dance under various names. It pays for my art studio. Silly I know, but I keep trying.”
Another burst of blinks.
“Hey look, I can pay for the studio. I’d love to see it.”
“It’s too late now.”
She looks away. “Sorry I phoned. Just a spur of the moment thing. As usual – you know me.” She sighs. “They don’t wait on us here, it’s not that sort of place. You have to order at the bar.”
“What would you like?”
“A lemonade will do. Anything.”
“I’m sure.” She looks into my eyes, holds my gaze as I stand. I’d seen that expression before. I know there’s nothing I can do. The barman asks if I want slices in the lemonade. I say yes. I sip slowly to clear the lump in my throat. I could leave tomorrow and never return. she’s got my number now. she can always phone. she needs Art more than I do. Perhaps I could buy her paintings somehow, anonymously.
A blonde, sophisticated, drifts onto the next stool. I feel suddenly weak again.
“Waiting for someone?” she asks in an East European accent.
“I’m sorry,” I reply, “l really am. Some other time,” then gulp the last of my lemonade and get up.
“Your face is familiar. I did art at college. You’re English aren’t you?”
“Sorry,” I say, and rush off, heading first towards the lift then to the revolving door. I see my reflection superimposed against the night street. I push until I can’t see myself at all, then keep pushing.