Undersides

I meandered through a concrete skyline at 7.00am on a south-bound S7. Graffiti was splattered across the passing buildings. Tags, catchphrases, gigantic couples shagging — usual stuff. The clouds were low, dark blue. Street lamps were long extinguished but there was little sign of sunlight. I closed my eyes and pushed my head up against the glass. It was the first time in a long time I had been commuting anywhere. A bit of structure to my life. A bit of routine. A pack of mints in my shoulder bag poked me in the ribs. My shoes nestled into the carpet underfoot, rigid for fear of upsetting the delicate neatness of the cabin. The train rattled reassuringly, the undulations massaging me back towards sleep, the awkward murmurings of passengers melting into background music.

Drawn to the angles outside, my eyes wouldn’t stay shut for long. The grey buildings captured the industrious charm of Berlin. They were sharp, but simple, protruding, yet not intrusive. They were ubiquitous and unique. Even the Plattenbauten, nothing more than large concrete slabs thrown together, had character. The graffiti gave them a freshness, a buzziness. It reflected the urgency and vitality found on the Wall. East Side Gallery, there’s a placement I would have killed for. The buildings outside were all stamped with Berlin’s past, but were not held back by it. They were ordered and structured and efficient, but had their own colour. They were alive. They were singing. They were the reason I was on a south-bound S7 at 7.00 a.m. My building was out there. I just had to think of it.

Not that there was a lack of colour inside the train. In my black skirt and blazer, I was the dullest thing going. Three young Norwegians slumped in front of me, drenched in sweat, stinking of Marlboro and excitement and cheap perfume. They were wearing tie dye and black skinny jeans and their hands were swamped in stamps. First clubbing experience of Berlin. They looked ready for more, but weren’t getting any dressed like that. Opposite were two businessmen. Well preened, shiny, with tailored suits and matching ties, they were too lawyer for this district. Their spotless briefcases were moulded into their spotless laps. They both had snake tattoos curling out of their collars — a faded reminder of the past. Two seats and ten years back, a couple were getting ready for a morning of frenzied head bopping. They were calm, silent. Every now and again one would take a small, sophisticated sip from a Wodka bottle. The girl was blonde, tall, dressed in an oversized skirt and a coat to match. The guy was wearing a black leather jacket, leather jeans and trainers. A collar was stashed in his right pocket, deemed too Berghain for the train journey. I leant against the glass again. 7.10.

Strobes plunged me in and out of darkness. I stumbled forward, wading through the swathes of dancers. I was walking down a corridor. Grunting to my left meant eyes straight ahead. I was sweating. The lights were sending me into a spin. Two legs shot out from a groove up front. By my side two 40 year olds were intertwined. Kept walking. Shapes spotted my vision. Circles of light and black. Emerged in a dark room, could make out mattresses and shadows. Got through the next door and back into the main room. The music throbbed. Red light, smoke. My head throbbed. Hundreds of people moving, captured. Then I made out his face across the room, motionless, staring at me.

One of the Norwegians coughed. I sighed. A baby began to cry behind me. The mother failed to shut it up. She tried pulling faces, no dice, kid was just creeped out. The train hissed to a stop and the couple sauntered off, replaced by three teenagers with watermelons and watermelon grins. Tourists, English. They busied themselves grazing, juice flying everywhere. I opened my briefcase, checked inside and closed it again. Still empty. Outside the clouds had thickened, bloated with charcoal. We crossed the Spree. The banks were misty, the river dark. The back of a man in a trench coat briefly swam into my line of sight. We meandered on.

“Dan-kuh”

“Dan-key”

“Dan-kee”

The language app didn’t take into account social awareness. The businessmen were not impressed. They put in headphones in unison. I reached into my shoulder bag and took out the pack of mints. Fingers shaking I repeeled the wrapper and popped a mint into my mouth. Swallowed straightaway. I checked his watch. 7.20. The hands ticked after some effort. The strap hung clumsily on my wrist. Didn’t fit. Never had done.

Him: 2 kids, a mortgage and a dog called Lukas.

Her: For real?

Him: They hope.

The pair sprawled under the thin sheets. He was smoking. She was watching.

Her: And the kids, what are they called?

Him: Juliette and Mathias.

Her: Is she pretty?

Him: Not so much. Has her mother’s chin.

Her: Do they get on well?

Him: Except when they’re fighting.

Her: Do you love them?

Him: Not at all.

Her: Do you love me?

He turns to her. Puts out his cigarette.

“Ouf Vidersen. Owf Viersay. Auf Vidsen.”

I watched my stop slip away behind me. The businessmen had gone, the baby had shut up, the Norwegians had fallen asleep. I stood up and walked towards the carriage door. Outside, the sky had brightened and the buildings had changed. They were more severe, more straight, more dominating. More shiny and more dull. Business district. Cranes swung overhead. Business district swung by and the East Side Gallery marked the arrival of Ostbahnhof. Doors slid open and I fell out. A reflection in the train window opposite made me start. 7.40. Brown hair, piercing eyes. I brushed myself down, headed out of the station and back towards the business district. Friedrichstraße 219, Etage 7, intern Büros.

The streets were busy. I trotted behind a group of young-looking-lawyer-types. They trotted too. A group of men brushed past me, eyes burning. I overtook the lawyers, but was swallowed by another regiment. Kebab shops on either side were opening up. 7.45. Turkish pizza, no garlic, no pepper, mayo, and a can of Staropramen. Two cyclists shot past, just too close. Gesticulations from disgruntled lawyer-types followed. I crossed the street. An abandoned cinema was being eviscerated by men in hats. King Kong dangled precariously above me. I kicked on through the dust. I walked past a bank. I walked past a bank. I walked past a bank. It began to rain. I fished out an umbrella. The regiments picked up pace opposite. I shivered. Two men with currywursts in each hand barged past me, looking up to examine my legs. A boy in vest and shorts followed them intently. There was a brown dumpster down an alleyway to my right. 7.49.

The trickle of coffee stalls turned into a steady flow. I took a right onto a main road. No markets round here. The offices began to tower up above. Adverts were splattered across the passing buildings. Brands, catchphrases, gigantic couples shagging — usual stuff. Among the swathes of businessfolk, one woman stood out. She had short black hair. She was dressed the same as the rest of us, but had a familiar look in her eyes. They were empty and very white. She turned her head in my direction. Her face was pale. She didn’t see anything.

7.54. His eyes bored into me. I knelt next to him. The ground was cold. My head throbbed. I kissed his face. I stood up again. The night was heavy. Lights flashed. A man with a torch pushed a trolley past me. Glass clinked and cracked and smashed. No more music. Rainwater formed thick puddles. The street opened out into darkness. I smiled. The taste of blood on my tongue.

8.22. The rain had stopped. I was in an alleyway. In front of me was a large derelict building. Its roof was half torn off. The windows had gone and the window panes were rotting. The brickwork was crumbling. The front face of the building was plastered with the head of a green snake. It had red eyes and a black, gaping mouth. I stared into the darkness. At the foot of the mouth, was a door. It was charred black. It had a brass knocker in the middle. The door was shaking slightly. My head started to throb. I took out the pack of mints, found a pill nestled in the centre. I swallowed the pill and slipped inside.

He would have been proud.

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