Eating Cake – Kay McKenzie Cooke
No. 1 Unter den Linden – M. R. Selatcia
The Hitler Oak – Jeff Taylor
A Cold War – Alison Woodhouse
Devil’s Mountain (Teufelsberg) – Jan FitzGerald
condemned forever to becoming – Melanie Dixon
What do you know? – Evie Jay
Reflections of the Cold War at Teufelsberg, Field Station Berlin – Henry Bladon
In the doorway – Keith Nunes
The Berlin Wall – Trish Palmer
Bonus story: Lost and found in Berlin – Michelle Elvy
Interview: Vivienne Plumb
Philip Temple: Berlin poems from the past
Book Extract: Diane Brown, writing in Berlin
Interview: Ulrich Schreiber, Literature Festival Berlin
Die besten Blicke auf Berlin
Europe’s fastest lift brings Marita here: brings her quickly, so she can get on with looking down on the highs and lows of a life and the muddle of a relationship.
A sign says DIE BESTEN BLICKE AUF BERLIN. She finds it hard to disagree as she looks on a view she has never seen before. It makes her buckle.
She sees the roads less travelled and all the paths she could have taken. She sees the shop doorway where she kissed Giles. She somehow sees herself at a bus stop waiting to go to him.
She sees him in Kreuzberg, and wonders about the wisdom of that third beer. Everything was too strong that night.
The guidebook clearly says she should be able to see die Siegessäule, but she can’t see it. She can’t see victory.
She sees an older version of herself pushing Giles away into the arms of her twenty-year-old self.
She sees corners and junctions. All those corners, all those junctions.
She sees him playing guitar and harmonica in a dirty bar. She sees him look at her as he plays. She sees his fingers press down so hard on new steel strings she will have to kiss them later.
She sees them both at Jodi’s Schnell-Imbiss, drinking coffee to wake themselves up, to make things clearer. It won’t work. She sees them going for a beer. She waits for the Schnapps and the regrets to come into view.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
You choose chocolate, I choose apple. We’re eating cake behind glass, out of the bitter autumn wind bearing down on to the Reichstag’s roof-top lookout. Earlier, we’d shuffled around its concrete rim, looking over Berlin, the river Spree and all the buildings so resolute in their silence. Maybe it’s up to tour guides like you to tell their story. Like you did the other day for the group of tourists (including me) out at Sachsenhausen, located on the edge of a German town full of pretty, pastel buildings. The former concentration camp has been reduced to a soulless arrangement of leached greens and washed-out browns, due to time’s distance and the limits of the imagination to successfully hold the weight of wrong. An all-encompassing, invisible heaviness bore down on our small group, as if the grey chill that day was already giving off had nothing more to add. It was your job to fill in any desultory gaps, any horrors not already apparent in this museum’s remains of tidy buildings. But even with your commentary, for me full comprehension remained obstinately out of reach. I noted how measured your voice was, especially when describing the method of executions. Sometimes you were quiet, leaving it to our inadequate, leaky imaginations. I worry that at some time in the future, you’ll get flashbacks. But for now on another day altogether, here we are, mother and son in a café on top of the Reichstag, eating cake. You choosing chocolate, me choosing apple.
No. 1 Unter den Linden
M. R. Selatcia
Once I owned a series of sepia prints, circa 1880 and acquired in a flea market, showing various scenes on Unter den Linden extending from the Brandeburg Gate to the Victory Column. For some reason I was particularly attracted to the pre-war opulence of the Hotel Adlon, and determined to take tea there when I was next in Berlin.
The Adlon had of course been rebuilt, and in place of the Fords, Rockefellers and assorted émigré royalty its restaurant now played host to associated spivs, eccentrics and other oddballs that might have been plucked straight out of The Threepenny Opera. This I did not expect, though as events unfolded I was not to regret it.
It transpired that the tradition of decadence – as a self-indulgent profligate I say this in the most approving sense – of the old Weimar days had been preserved unspoilt at the Adlon. The restaurant became my second home. It became a fulcrum for assignations of the most exquisite kind. A stolen glance or raised eyebrow was an unspoken invitation to cruise – and to be cruised – the length of the thoroughfare. And all of this under the very eyes of Frederick the Great’s equestrian statue (a King who, though a Prussian, would have appreciated the mad, bad and ultimately life-affirming nature of it all).
That summer eventually came to an end: Alles hat ein Ende. I still have my sepia prints.
The Hitler Oak
Hey, look out! Watch where you’re bloody going, kid! Careful of that young tree!
Granddad. Settle Down. Everyone’s looking at you.
Don’t care. Stupid kid nearly ran into that sapling on his bloody scooter.
They’re Lime Scooters, Granddad. They’re cool. And it’s not much of a tree anyway.
That’s no ordinary tree, Jason. It’s a Hitler Oak that’s been specially planted here. Look, read the plaque.
This Black Oak grew from an acorn off the tree that was awarded to Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, gold medal winner at the 1936 Olympics 1500 metres in Berlin.
You heard of Hitler, I hope?
’Course, Granddad. German dude. With a moustache. Nasty bugger. Haven’t heard of Lovelock though.
Well, it was the Olympics just before the Second World War, and Lovelock really annoyed Hitler because he thought his German athletes were unbeatable. Jesse Owens was another one, an African-American runner, who particularly upset him because he was a black man who beat the white German favourite. Anyway, Hitler gave all the gold medal winners a young oak tree to take home and plant.
What happened to this Lovelock then?
He was killed, sadly. Run over by a train in New York, of all places. They reckon he’d been feeling unwell. So it’s not just any old tree, Jason. Its roots grow deep in our history.
Okay. But it’s still only a tree. Granddad. Ice-cream?
A Cold War
(RAF Gatow, West Berlin, 1975)
I stopped running when I came to a fence topped with loops of barbed wire, a concrete tower with a wooden hut and a man in a brown uniform with a rifle.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a gun. I’d been to Checkpoint Charlie, but I’d never had one pointed at me before.
“Lori!” Dad said from behind. I needed to wee, urgently, and couldn’t hold on. Hot urine ran down my leg. I looked down at my yellow soaked sock. When I looked up, the soldier rested his gun against the railing and raised his right hand in a mock salute.
Dad marched me back to the pond. My damp knickers rubbed and my shoe squeaked every other step. I thought he must be able to smell the wee as strongly as I could.
“If that was the Wall, why were there no bricks?” I said, to distract him. Years later, I read about Operation Centre on Wikipedia and the plan to send tanks through that wire fence, but by then Dad was dead and I couldn’t tell him how illusory peace is.
Back at the pond, I tried to dry the inside of my thighs with the edge of the rug without him seeing. I thought he’d smack my bottom, the usual stinging slaps on bare skin, but he just picked up his fishing rod and stared at the murky water until it was time to go home.
Devil’s Mountain (Teufelsberg)
It wasn’t the first time my brother Arndt and I had broken the law that week. The day before, we had illegally fished Devil’s Lake, so it was natural Devil’s Mountain would beckon next.
Rising in Grünewald Rorest, the man-made hill had been the site of an American listening station after the World War II. Beneath it lay a Nazi military-technical college, which allies found so indestructible, it was easier to cover with West Berlin rubble than bomb to bits.
We gazed at the antenna radomes, like globes of the Taj Mahal rising among the trees. Ignoring ZUTRITT VERBOTEN signs, Arndt scaled the fence first, clipping away barbed wire.
Warning me to stay until he signalled all clear, he ploughed through grass towards the nearest radome.
Just as I noticed a breach in the fence further along, there was a yell and Arndt tore through the grass, throwing himself high on the fence like a bee smacking into a windshield, as a Wildschwein charged through the opening and into deeper forest.
It was stupid of us not to take our hunting rifles, but we were fuelled by stories of spies and secret codes.
When Mother found out where we’d been, she gave father a wink and asked him to fetch an old chest from the loft.
“See if you recognise anyone in these photographs,” she said, blowing dust off the lid. “There: that woman standing outside Field Station Berlin, smoking a cigarette….”
condemned forever to becoming
The man next to her has expensive-looking brown leather shoes. His laces are undone, and they flap up and down as he saunters along with the crowd. He’ll trip if he doesn’t do them up. She could say something, but he wouldn’t listen. He’s not that sort of a man. This is a man who buys his suits from Ede & Ravenscroft; a man who wears an Elgin watch, a pure silk tie, and too much aftershave. A man like her father.
It’s her first time in Berlin and everything feels wrong. She hadn’t wanted to come, but Father insisted. It’s his big chance to make his mark in this ‘brave new post-war Europe’. His words. No matter that she hated leaving her friends in London; no matter that she didn’t speak German so meeting new people will be almost impossible.
She pulls up the collar of her winter coat to keep out the seeping cold. There are shouts from the old ghettos to the east. She walks faster, her small heels clicking on the pavement. Her mother will worry if she’s late home. She steps to one side, trying to push past the man and his expensive suit. She stumbles and nearly falls. The man catches her elbow and steadies her, then turns to her and smiles. ‘Good evening,’ he says in a deep New York accent. He releases her elbow then tips his hat. Their eyes meet. Heat rushes unbidden to her cheeks. “Welcome to Berlin,” he says.
What do you know?
I got stuck with the Loomises at the party. They were old friends of my parents, so I had to grin and bear them, their inane chatter, their irritating habit of finishing each other’s sentences.
They asked what I was up to. “Writing a novel!” I said. A spy thriller, set in Cold War Berlin. A beautiful Stasi agent, Nina, wanted to defect. A crack MI6 team was on the case, and – my book’s twist, to ensure local sales – they’d be helped by a New Zealander, reluctant but in love with Nina. There’d be car chases, assassinations and treachery galore.
Olive said, “But you …” and Bob said, “… haven’t been to Berlin, have you? Do you know what it’s like?”
I said one of my mates who’d been there was filling me in on street names and so on.
Olive said, “But do you …”and Bob said, “…know how things worked in those days? Governments and so on?”
Who’d’ve thought the Loomises were budding literary critics? My mate and I were looking up stuff like that online, I told them.
With relief, I now saw that mate wave to me. I made my farewells to the Loomises. As I moved away, Olive said quietly, “He knows.” Bob said, “No, Nina darling, it’s pure coincidence, they wouldn’t tell him.”
What? What? The Loomises? I looked over at my parents. I thought of the characters building in my novel. All I could see now was pudgy Bob and proper Olive.
Reflections of the Cold War at Teufelsberg, Field Station Berlin
I was a young man when I was here back in the 50s: enthusiastic, impressionable, and with millions of tons of old Berlin under my feet. The remnants of a different war. I recall the smell of German sausages in my sandwiches and the sound of the tinny car radio spewing Beatles tunes as I drove to work. Then there was the beer when we finished. There was happiness among the politics and the threats. When I took my lunch break, I would stand on the Hill and take in the panorama as my colleagues all kept eyes and ears trained on the East. We listened to the Soviets listening to us – it was all part of the mutual paranoia.
Now I sit here on Devil’s Mountain, on top of the buried Nazi college that Albert Speer never completed. That my war was described as cold seems appropriate, as the listening domes always looked particularly magnificent in winter amidst the snow and under the grey German skies. They say nobody profits from war, but someone sells the missiles and guns. When the Cold War ended we were evicted from the rubble mound. I was shipped back to America with most of the equipment. The antennae were left to perish.
The buildings have been redecorated with street art. Field Station Berlin has become little more than a memory. War moved somewhere else.
In the doorway
Katharina stares at me, body stunned, mind affronted.
“You are still here,” she says in blue-sky Berlin, clouded with traffic noise.
“I thought you had given up on us, I thought you did not …”
“There doesn’t seem any need for me to think at all,” I say.
She sits up in bed.
“Sarcasm at 7am – early even for you.”
“Oh, you’re looking for real, for the genuine. It’s a little too late for that, especially for you.”
Under the polka-dot sheets she kicks out.
My fascination with this unhinged city, with Katharina, has created a pit-bull angst that won’t let me go.
I’ve been unable to contend with the country or the language. Three months in and I keep wanting out.
Yet standing in the bedroom doorway, I’m reluctant to leave.
“Do you wait for a farewell taste?” she says, accent dangling.
Her English as perfect as her apartment, her art, her friends. Nothing is out of place except me.
“I’m not sure,” I say, faltering.
“I seem to have the upper hand,” she says. “What should I do to hang on to it?”
“Keep talking,” I say.
She looks at me, penetrating.
“You seem, what is your word … rattled! You do not want to believe I can hold your attention with just words. Sehr schön.”
My hands on both sides of the doorjamb were for posture but now they’re holding me steady.
We’re staring at each other.
“Stay,” she says. “There is more.”
The Berlin Wall
The day the Berlin Wall came down was a personal triumph for my father – a war waged and won.
We lived in suburban New Zealand, and conflicts tended to be small, which only served to magnify the significance of the Great War between my father and Mr Berlin. It started when the Berlins moved in next door. My father, being neighbourly, lit the bbq, put a beer in the fridge, cut steaks from the carcass hanging in the garden, then jumped the fence to invite the Berlins for tea. Mr Berlin, eyeing the half-naked, bearded and tattooed piece of humanity that was my father, politely refused. He also had the cheek to ask my father to clean up our backyard because all our stuff was an eyesore. My father was so furious he invited the whole neighbourhood over, turned up the stereo, and partied all night.
Days later, an army of tradies arrived next door. The Berlin Wall rose along our boundary; a concrete monolith that blocked my father’s treasured mountain views. We kids decorated our side with clever slogans about Mr Berlin, but my father said it wasn’t the same.
So the campaign began. The wall mysteriously developed holes. An explosion late one night left a cavern underneath. Eventually the wall developed a lean. My father complained to Council that the wall was dangerous, and they agreed.
The day the Berlin Wall came down, my father lit the bbq, put a beer in the fridge, and invited the Berlins for tea.
Bonus story: Lost and found in Berlin
for Werner and Gisela
Flash Frontier Editor Michelle Elvy lived in Berlin 1988-90. This story is a work of fiction, but the old man and the old woman in Lichtenrade are real. Previously published by Nivalis Short Story Competition, 2016.
1. City Center
You arrive in the city from far away. You’ve come by train, from the west. You’ve come to be a scholar, with little more than a winter jacket and a suitcase full of books. Great scholars breathed in this city. This was a place for philosophy, education, music, poetry. Still is, though some of the city is closed now. You’ve come to open doors and peek inside. It’s your habit, this curiosity. Your work takes you back through time. Not to converse with poets and philosophers but to ask questions of men and women doing ordinary things. You’re not interested in ideologues from the past. This is 1988. Politics carved the world in pieces that almost make sense. But you’ve got an inkling that the world is more than Us and Them. You’ve got your own set of questions. Some are harder than others.
Day after day you sit in musty archives and read letters of dead clerks of state, men who did nothing other than maintain books and keep things running. You like being alone with old correspondence, piecing together puzzles – words and meaning darting out of view like blackbirds flying off the page. It’s your job to call them back, to line them up on the fence, one by one. To listen to them even when you don’t like the caw-caw of their voice. This is how you connect the dots and write history. It’s easy enough to do; you take one step at a time. Methodology matters when you are peering into someone else’s life, when you are telling someone else’ story. You dig deeper into the center of it all. You are a fine scholar.
These books, these letters, these words – this is all that matters.
2. The suburbs
One morning you take the S-Bahn south, all the way to the end of the green line. Lichtenrade. You have an address on a small scrap of paper, friends of friends. Go have coffee, they say. You’ll like these people. So you travel an hour outside the city, heading away from your familiar musty world into a landscape green and packed neatly with rows of houses. You have never been this far outside the city; it seems like a different world altogether. You arrive at the house and knock. You are greeted by an old woman with gooseberry bushes in her garden and an old man with trains in his basement. They are story-book characters, she with plump cheeks and a smile you can’t resist, he with an angular gait and a curious grey glint in his eye.
“Come in, have some cake,” the old woman says. “We have berries and cream, too.”
“Come to my basement,” the old man says. “I’ll show you my city.”
You go to the basement first. Here you find a miniature city sprawling on a massive table made of several old doors. There are city blocks and recognizable monuments; there are parks and lakes. There is the Ku-damm, there is Alexanderplatz, and way off over there is the Wannsee. And there are trains – old trains and new trains, all on perfect tracks taking them in large circles around the old man’s basement. Trains travelling impossible routes, crisscrossing the city center like they’ve not done in forty years. Where dark spaces exist in the world above, in this old man’s basement a whole city breathes and lives, connected and electric.
“You see,” says the old man, “This is my city. I once lived in this city where the trains ran like this,” – he motions expansively – “from here to here.”
3. The countryside
On the next visit, you watch the old woman pluck gooseberries in her garden. The bush is much higher than you expected, its prickly branches towering over her small frame. You reach to help and snag the back of your hand.
“Careful,” the old woman says, and she takes your hand in hers. Her fingers are small with knobby knuckles, but strong. She gazes at your palms. You hope she’s not about to tell you your future, but instead she says, “You don’t go outside much, do you?”
When the berries have been collected, the old man says, “Come, let’s go for a walk.”
You follow them down a path leading out the back of their tidy garden. You arrive at a set of train tracks and the old man stops. He pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wipes his brow.
“If you listen, you can still hear the trains,” he says. His wife then takes his hand and leads him farther down the path. You go with them as they walk along the tracks. You follow as far as they go. This turns out to be not very far at all, because soon you come to a thick, weedy place, greened over fully but with rusty bits peering out in patches. You are in the countryside now. There is nothing around but empty space. A wildflower reaches out just on the edge of an abandoned field. Beyond, on the other side of the field, is a wall that cannot be climbed.
In the evening the old man and the old woman tell you of a past you know from books: airstrikes and airlifts, hunger and hurried footsteps in broken streets. You feel very young next to them. You feel like you know nothing. You think about the dead men and their letters in the archives. You think about the story you are trying to write. You listen to the old man and the old woman and you hear their whole story in those tracks behind their garden.
You visit the old man and the old woman many times. You must take the S-Bahn one hour from the city center and then walk another ten minutes to arrive at their house. You usually spend a whole day. More and more you think the dead men and their letters can wait. You need to hear these stories. You spend many autumn evenings in the garden, and when winter comes you sit at their kitchen table and sometimes you read in the basement while the old man tinkers with his trains – a new bridge here or a new tree there. You come to love the sour paint smell of his basement. You come to love gooseberry jam and peppery biscuits. And you come to know their early life, how they scoured piles of rubble for bricks for the house they would build, how they hand-polished each one, together. They tell you how they worked morning noon and night until they had built a proper house for their children. You think of the dead men’s letters in the archives and how some of them may have died just as the first son of the old man and the old woman was born. You imagine the world then, decades back. The dead men, not dead yet but defeated and broken. This old man and woman, then quite young, building a new life brick by brick.
5. No man’s land
You have been here more than a year when you wake to great commotion. People are running through the streets. There is a pounding on your door. It’s your neighbor: “Come, we are running to the Wall.” Die Mauer. It has become a fixture in your life – a place you bring your sister and brother when they visit, a place for graffiti and artwork. A place that inspires poetry in spite of itself, poetry read in dark cafés with tea lights on tables. Your neighbor rushes off, his footsteps gathering momentum as he rumbles down the stairs. You think this is a protest so you follow him, for you know you will not be able to sleep. What you don’t know is that the whole city will wake up on this night.
You dance on the Wall – for days, for weeks, for months. People who never visited this city before arrive in droves. Relatives visit with heavy-duty suitcases. They carry large pieces of concrete away to set out in their shiny homes. “A piece of history,” they say.
One cold winter day you take the train all the way south to the last stop and visit the old man and the old woman.
“Come, let’s walk,” says the old man, and he takes his wife’s small hand in his. You follow them into the garden and out the back. You walk along the train tracks as far as they go, and this time when the tracks end you continue on through a patch of scrub and overgrowth. You keep walking, past the tracks and out into the open field. There is no sound but your crunching boots and the wind passing over the tops of stray weeds. Just beyond is a wall that could not be climbed.
“Listen,” says the old man. “You hear that?” You cock your head; you hear nothing. “That is the sound I’ve been waiting for. Quiet. Peace. We are standing here. We are standing here and we do not have to leave. We can go this way, or that way. We can go forward, or back. Which way do you want to go?”
You are chilled to the bone. You are standing in no man’s land. You do not answer.
The old man smiles with his grey eyes and takes your hand. “We will stand in this space as long as we like,” he says. “This land is ours. It is ours.”
6. Big City
In time, trains rumble behind the old couple’s house again. Months have passed since you’ve visited. You have been reading and writing and understanding dead men’s letters, and now you must leave. You travel on the S-Bahn once more to the end of the green line, this time to say farewell. When you arrive the coffee is on the table and the garden is abloom. It is May. You hug the old woman and step inside. It is dark in the house and the old man lies in bed. His breathing is shallow. The old woman leads you into his room, says, “Look who’s come to see you.”
“You’ve seen my new train?” he says.
You walk down the basement steps. You expect a new bridge, a new tree. You discover that the train has taken over the entire basement. It sprawls into rooms you’ve never seen. Old stations have new lights and new stations have been added.
Back upstairs, you say, “You’ve been busy.” The old man smiles weakly. His grey eyes are grey.
“Your city is big,” you say. He looks small in his bed. He takes your hand.
“Yes,” he says. “My city is great. Großartig.”
The S-Bahn rumbles past – so close you think it is crossing the back yard. The old man closes his eyes and sleeps.
Later, you board a train that carries you away from this city. You write stories from the dead men’s letters. You become an accomplished scholar. You are very good with words and are invited to attend conferences and symposia. You lecture and tour and discuss the meaning of dead men and their letters. Time and again you are asked the same questions.
“You lived in Berlin? You lived there before the Wall came down?”
“Yes,” you say. “Yes.”
“Did you march on November 9? Did you dance with a Vopo? Did you collect pieces of the Wall?”
“Yes, yes,” you say. “Yes.”
But you can’t tell them some things. You can’t describe what it was like to feel the rumble in your chest when the train trundled down the track behind the old man’s house once more. You can’t capture what it was like to see the old man and the old woman smile in that grey field where nothing grew for forty years.
To stand in that space between lands and hold the old man’s hand.