It is late afternoon by the time Hannah leaves her apartment. A gale pipes through the trees, sending copper leaves tumbling through the cool Autumn air. Hannah walks hard against the gust, muscles working, a flag of tousled hair. Winter is a scoundrel, slinking up to throttle the season of its remaining mirth. Hannah quivers and fastens her cardigan, and suddenly her red stockings and denim shorts seem like a bad idea. Soon the happy Berliners, the festive Berliners—who greet you in Treptower park—will soon turn into miserable beasts: scowling at passers-by, their faces pale and crumpled like cardboard, mouths wired shut and jammed into trains. Yes they will change, like those mutable rain frogs that can change their skin in a matter of seconds – shifting from spiny to smooth in a few blinks. Crafty little critters.
What most people don’t realise it that Berlin is not one city but two, like a painted wooden clam mask: a city brimming with life, music and parties during the warmer months—with a much colder, sombre affair beneath. And when winter truly takes hold, it becomes a city that resembles little more than iron skies and granite edifices. This is the other city, the one most visitors dare to endure.
And while winter may be sharpening its claws, for now, life clings like a shoot through asphalt. On a weekday in winter, you will often find commuters charging down Jonasstraße like soldiers into a blitzkrieg, pinched faces ripe with impatience or suspicion; bustling to escape the cold. But not today. The ambience on the street is calm and there is no traffic – only a few scattered pedestrians and the occasional figure bicycling past. Hannah is drawn by music spilling out of Hermannstraße and she follows the melody as if her feet are being guided by the click clack click of a metronome. Music often does this: sometimes it lures her into bars, cafes, clubs, as it lures her now … come come come it calls … rattatata rattatata cha cha cha tacca tacca cha.
The music is coming from Café Rösterei, a group called Alpha Haze. She has heard them before. It is jazz of a different soup: a rare spice of intoxicating trumpet, drums, bass, keyboard. Her hips are the problem. If music is the drug then dancing is the high, and her hips always lead the way … sometimes right through doors and into all-night cafes and bars, sometimes down cobbled alleyways and up stairs into smoky warehouse clubs, and on occasion, into car doors and strange apartments. She doesn’t consider herself to be a fatuous kind of girl, or a person who abandons all reason—she just follows her feet. Her feet she can trust.
Hannah pats her back pocket and smiles. The photograph is still there. It is a gesture of love she is embarking on; an impossible gesture of love and perhaps a little wishful. Her father has always been a difficult man, a stolid man—yet a gesture of love is enduring. She will deliver the photograph to her sick father and no words will be needed, the photograph will be her mouthpiece. It will say: there was a time when there was love before dying became a mantra. And her father will gaze deep into the picture and for the first time in many years he will cry. Hannah pictures all of this and more.
A well-built man with dark wiry hair is leaning against the wall of the bar’s entrance where the quartet are playing. Wires slink out of the bar like baby snakes escaping a fire. Hannah takes notice of the stranger and he flashes his dark eyes – a nonchalant glance. She returns another glance and this time he offers an almost imperceptible smile. She spies a tattoo over a strong sun-kissed arm; an inky tail rising out from beneath a bunched sleeve. Most likely a snake, Hannah decides. For whatever reason, some men believe the snake symbolises power; a machismo add-on—when in fact serpents represent fertility; the shedding of skin, rebirth.
Hannah brings her attention back to the music. Her hips are only just beginning to catch the drift of the beat, the snap of the snare, the kick of the bass drum and then, the sound of keys flow out of the street bar like a watery sigh – underwater chords offering up a kind of stillness, a quiescence settling around the torrents of her mind. A rousing quiet. Hannah breathes it in and then realises that the trumpet player is also down there somewhere, crooning along in the cool spree. She closes her eyes and swims along, wanting to ignore the stranger – she can feel his prodding eyes attempting to unmask her.
She decides to buy a drink: a Negroni. It gleams against the afternoon haze as if hundreds of tiny lights are seeping from the ice causing the amber gloaming. Hannah lets her lips play with the rim of the glass before taking a sip while her hips sweep up more of the beat. Another stare from the stranger, followed by a half-contrived, self-controlled smirk. She loathes arrogant men, she tells herself, and yet …
What’s your colour I wonder? What’s your shadow?
Then all at once he’s there … lips moving. He’s trying to talk over the wailing trumpet but it’s a fight he’s not going to win. Hannah bobs her head, swaying on the spot. She takes a sip and holds the liquid in her mouth a moment. He inches closer. His face is defined by hard lines with eyebrows that slope downwards and thin pale lips that are still moving.
‘Why I … Berlin … the best … been to … think.’
The last part must be a question Hannah decides, because his voice cinched up at the end. She nods in acknowledgement, her face flush, albeit she has no idea what he’s said …
‘Mmm hmm.’ She finishes her drink and gestures towards the bar.
He raises his palm. ‘What are you drinking?’
‘A Negroni,’ she says.
His brows come together. ‘A what?’
Hannah leans in a little closer, but not too close. ‘A Negroni,’ she repeats, louder this time.
He squares his shoulders, shows Hannah his thumb and stalks towards the bar. It is the perfect chance to escape, take charge of her incogitant, self-willed hips and glide away unnoticed. But before she can decide, he’s already back. She accepts the drink, careful not to appear giddy or let her eyes give chase. She doesn’t want to set him off. She knows how easily men can get “set off.” Sometimes it’s as if they are walking slot machines. Her mind traces back to her father and she feels for the photograph again. It’s like a nervous twitch, grabbing her ass like someone with a cold would rub their nose.
Stop it. That will definitely set him off.
She drifts a little away from the music and he follows. They’re still close enough to the bar but the air seems more intimate here.
‘Good music,’ he says, more audibly now. His accent is strong, commanding.
She brings her drinking arm up over her chest. ‘Have you heard them before?’
‘No. Never,’ he replies, still shouting.
‘I can hear you,’ Hannah says.
‘Are you from Berlin?’ he asks in a softer voice.
She nods. ‘Of course. You can’t tell?’
He pulls back on his beer and wipes his mouth. ‘I thought maybe, but there are many tourists here.’
Hannah’s eyes roll back. ‘Do I look like a tourist?’
‘No. I don’t know—’
‘If you stay in Berlin long enough you get to know how Berliners dress … we have our own style.’
‘My name is Ruhak,’ he says and holds out his hand.
Hannah forms a grip. ‘Hannah.’
He nods and takes another drink. Now his eyes are welded to hers, like a Schnauzer that’s caught it’s scent. He smirks. ‘Yes, yes you have style, fashion. But where I am from women must respect the clothes rule, the ahh …’ he trails off, searching for the word, ‘ma hadhih alkalamata?’
‘Yes. Right. Dress code.’
‘Where is it you’re from exactly?’
‘Alexandria. Egypt,’ Ruhak says and his eyes drift over her blouse, shorts and pink stockings. ‘They could not wear shorts like this, for instance.’
‘I know,’ Hannah says. ‘I’ve been to Cairo.’
Ruhak laughs. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, with my friend Adriana.’
‘But two German girls visiting Cairo. This is difficult yes?’
Hannah shakes her head. ‘No, not really.’ It’s a lie of course. During her first week she had worn snug safari shorts and a pink tank top exposing a black bra beneath. A mistake. They had felt like buffalo being pursed by a swarm of flies, with a flap flap flap of her ears every few seconds. Within a week they were both covered up like lepers.
‘I’m surprised. It’s unwise for women to draw unwanted attention to themselves,’ he says fluently, almost mechanically as if learned by rote.
‘So then being in Berlin must make you feel very uncomfortable,’ Hannah quips.
He frowns. ‘It’s different when you are in a new place that’s different from your home. When you become a traveller you must leave your traditions behind. It is not easy. Like my father. He wants me to stay home with the business, but I must fly, see the world. You know?’
Hannah nods. ‘Is it your family business?’
‘Yes. Much furniture, rugs, other things,’ Ruhak says flatly. ‘So he tell me to stay. You are a man now Ruhak, he tell me. But he does not know my heart. I am like a small bird that must—how do you say when the birds must go south?’
‘Yes, like this. I am a bird that must migrate, chase the sun,’ he says.
‘But you didn’t migrate south, you went north.’
‘Yes,’ Ruhak smiles, exposing a row of tiny white teeth that seem much too small for his build. ‘Yes I did.’
‘And you missed the summer.’
‘Yes. Yes, very silly bird.’
They laugh. Hannah drinks, she can feel the alcohol working now. Her blood will soon be thick with it. She closes her eyes and smiles, rocking gently to the music; the trumpet, still simmering above the rift.
‘And I understand him,’ Ruhak continues, ‘I know he wants me to take a wife, start a family, but Alexandria is getting very busy. People come every day, many children also, most from Cairo and from Shubra El-Kheima. They come to find work but there is nothing, so they sell fruit on the street.’
‘That’s sad,’ Hannah says, gazing down into her drink. Images of thread-bear children wheeling carts full of watermelons rise up in the dark passages of her mind.
‘And you? What do you look for Hannah?’
Hannah produces the photograph from her back pocket. ‘My father is dying. He doesn’t have long and I want to show him this photograph.’
Ruhak takes the photo, examining it closely. ‘This is you with your parents?’
‘You’re just a child.’
‘I was fourteen. It was taken before—when my mother was still with us.’
Ruhak hands back the photo and says,‘Why must you show him this now?’
‘I thought maybe … it will be nice for him to have a happy memory before he dies. He carries many unhappy ones.’
Ruhak nods. ‘And what if it does not make him happy. What if it makes him angry?’
Hannah levels her eyes. ‘Then he will be angry. And that will be OK,’ she says, returning the photograph to her pocket.
‘I hope he finds peace,’ Ruhak says. He’s closer now, and Hannah has to raise her head to meet his eyes. ‘And I hope you keep smiling,’ he says. He has a smell, a redolent, pleasant odour she almost recognises.
She can feel his eyes on her, watching her mop up the last of her drink. ‘As long as there’s music,’ she grins and sways away from him.
Her hips lead her back to the pulse of the bar and soon she is dancing again, slow and effortlessly. Time is elastic. She doesn’t want to think about the last wishes of a dying old man, not right now. And still her fingers search for the edges of the old photograph. The child. A photograph, Hannah reminds herself, it’s only a piece of paper exposed with light and drowned in chemicals. Someone captures it, someone develops it. It can represent a memory. But it is not memory itself. It’s no more than an object, like a necklace is a piece of jewellery and not a curse. A photograph can not harbour life, only reflect it like a mirror, of what we are, what we were and what we will never be again. There is only entropy in this world, Hannah thinks, entropy … eating away our time.
She rests her eyes, moving in her own tiny orbit. The band are changing gears, easing down into a cloud —but the music’s become a blur. A somatic tingle spreads down her arm and into her fingers. There are snapshots: shattered glass like hundreds of teeth, a cameo brooch waxed in blood, her young body in pins. When she opens her eyes the stranger is standing with his hands buried in his pockets. He has a somewhat dejected look on his face. ‘Is something wrong Hannah?’ he asks.
Hannah shakes her head. ‘Nothing,’ she says and smiles.
But she’s waiting for a sign, hoping she’ll see his colour. It’s usually the colours that come first, like fireflies caught in a fog—a wan of spectral hues shifting with each thought, as if each person has their own private Aurora Borealis swimming just above their head. But what she will most likely see is his shadow, his schatten. Maybe even the shape of his umbra: Tiger, Snake, Bear, Pig. And men like Ruhak usually have more than one.
‘Everything is fine,’ Hannah says, and then all at once Ruhak’s hands are on her and they are kissing. It has happened within moments, as quick as a car crash.
She can hear her father’s voice now: ‘Jagen Sie nicht Ihren eigenen Schatten.’ It was the sort off thing he liked to say when she was a teenager. Do not chase your own shadow. What about someone else’s? she would ask, and he’d strike her with a fierce glare: ‘Especially someone else’s.’
Hannah raises her eyes to the stranger. From this angle his nose appears as straight as an arrow, like the “Artemision Bronze” statue of Poseidon but without his beard. She wonders if he will be a selfish lover or if he will tend to her needs. She wonders if he will hurt her. If she could see his shadow she might know better, but the only shadows present are the long silhouettes of their bodies, cast across the paving from the evening sun, like two thin ghosts. Soon the evening will plunge into night. She will leave with the stranger, a man she doesn’t know at all. She will follow her feet, because her feet always know best.
by Jakob Ryce