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Article  •  7 May 2017

 

Short story club – 18 May

Read the story being discussed onJesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 18 May 2017

Alexander, Two

by Sarah Quigley

 

HE HADN’T WANTED TO COME HERE but, for some reason he refused to understand, they had made him. It was as if they believed he had no life of his own to get on with, and simply expected him to fall in with their plans. But although he had been brought here against his will, he hadn’t kicked or screamed when he was forced into the car — he had remained locked in himself in a safe silence.
      Here he stood, surrounded by white noise and grey concrete, feeling black. When he tipped his head back and looked up, it was hard to tell if the cranes, with their swinging loads of concrete, were falling against the building or if the building was toppling towards him. This was how fast the clouds were running today: faster than in any other city he had been to, faster than wolves on an open snowfield, dark grey on a dull light background.
      Beside him Eva sighed. Eva was always sighing, and he hated it: it irritated the hell out of him. This is what he would say to her — The way you sigh, it irritates the hell out of me! — but he wasn’t speaking to her right now, hadn’t spoken since the moment they had driven away from the house. Her sighs made her ugly; they blew out her skinny cheeks and stretched the skin around her eyes, so she looked like an old woman.
      They stood in silence, side by side on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, across the road from the demolition site, watching the iron ball smash into the side of the building. Other people were also gathered at a safe distance, mouths falling open as they tilted backwards to watch the smashing. At least they looked amazed, those people. At least they stood in awe of the power of the machine, destroying in minutes what men had built up over months. Whereas Eva — well, Eva simply looked tired.
      Now she was grasping his arm, holding it too hard above the elbow as if he were about to run away, escape.She hadn’t wanted to come here either, she pointed out to him. It was Their fault.
      Didn’t she realise, he thought in sour, silent amusement, that she was one of Them?
      Apparently she didn’t, for she went on grumbling. They were always sending her out for things, she said, forcing her to drive for thirty minutes into the city centre to Alexanderplatz, this godforsaken square where there were punks and dogs and other things you didn’t want to get too close to, and all this noise and dirt, not to mention the cost of parking. When she could quite easily get what was needed in the local supermarket, where things were clean, and no one came up to you and asked you for money.
     His arm hurt. He shrugged, hoping this would loosen her grip, but she was holding onto him as if he were a crazy person, as if he might run right out in front of a tram or something! ‘I’m not crazy,’ he muttered. ‘Let go, you’re hurting me.’
     ‘Let’s get on with it,’ she said, and she sighed again. There were rings of sweat under her arms, turning the pale pink of her dress to a dark cherry colour. So she hadn’t even heard him! He wrenched his arm away from her, and exaggeratedly looked left and right and left again before marching across the four-lane road towards the department store Kaufhof. Beside the shop stood rows of beige taxis, forming parallel lines to the S-Bahn tracks. He stepped between the cars like a goose, feet raised high, neck extended in a ridiculous way so all the taxi drivers who were doing crosswords or smoking or eating Currywurst pointed at him out the windows of their cars and laughed. He knew this would annoy Eva, so she would leave him alone for a while: she hated being the centre of attention.

 

SHE HADN’T WANTED TO COME. She always associated Alexanderplatz with feeling cold, and hungry, and homesick; the passing of thirty years hadn’t changed a thing.
      Standing there on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse and looking at the dull light glinting on the Fernsehturm (that ridiculous TV tower! A golfball on a knitting needle, some people said) she was suddenly eleven years old again. Eleven, and on a school trip when she’d been sent to stay with a family in Dunckerstrasse in an apartment smelling of dog and boiled cabbage and bad tempers. Four nights she’d stayed, and on the first one she’d shut herself in the tiny bathroom and cried, before being discovered by the older boy with the spiky hair. He’d laughed at her. ‘Go home, you baby! Go back to the countryside where you belong.’ On the second night she’d cried under the blankets so no one could hear, but when she came out for breakfast her eyes were puffed up so that she could hardly see, and the spiky boy had called her Potato-head, and said she didn’t belong in a city like Berlin, that she should go back to her stupid village and stick her head in cowshit.
     On the third morning when she woke up she was very angry. Under the table, she kicked the older boy so hard in the front of his leg that it went red and purple, and he had flushed right up to the roots of his horrible hair. He had gone and showed his leg to his mother, who had marched over and taken the bread off Eva’s plate just as she was about to bite into it. ‘Bad girls don’t deserve breakfast,’ the mother had said. ‘It’s lucky you’re going home tomorrow.’
      By the time the class was about to board the bus for Alexanderplatz, Eva was so angry and hungry that she could hardly see straight. ‘I won’t go,’ she said to the teacher, and she reared away from the bus door like a horse. ‘My parents don’t want me to go to Alexanderplatz.’
      The teacher, Frau Schenk, was a lumpy woman with big clumsy hands. ‘You will go,’ she said, taking hold of Eva’s collar and pulling at her. ‘What do your parents know about Alexanderplatz, anyway?’
      ‘They know that it’s an ugly testimony to the limitations of state policy,’ said Eva, quoting her father. ‘And a disgrace to socialist ambition.’ Frau Schenk’s fish-mouth fell open. ‘It’s an aesthetic disaster, and an urban experiment gone wrong,’ said Eva, quoting her mother.
      Frau Schenk turned red, and she glanced fearfully over her shoulder, though there was no one there; everyone else was already on the bus. ‘Be quiet!’ she hissed. ‘Hush your mouth!’ Now she dragged on Eva’s collar so hard that there was a loud ripping sound. ‘Help me,’ Frau Schenk ordered the bus driver, who hadn’t understood a word of Eva’s diatribe. Together they bundled Eva onto the bus, and pushed her down the aisle in front of the whole class, who had stared and whispered at her, and pointed. And so she was taken to Alexanderplatz as if she were a prisoner — a captive, and a freak.
      When she first saw the supposed centre of Berlin, the square was of such an alien greyness — so hard, so unfriendly — that her heart became heavier than it had ever been in the whole of her eleven years and four months. She stood in the observation level of the Fernsehturm with her forehead pressed hard against the glass, and saw the buildings ranged around below like heavy animals with small, staring window-eyes.
     ‘That is the Haus des Lehrers,’ droned the guide. ‘That is Alexanderhaus.’
      It was no kind of square, thought Eva: no meeting place. There were such wide and dangerous gaps between the buildings! She imagined that the wind would tear through those gaps, whistling and shrieking, picking up people and bicycles and dogs, and blowing them away, away, to who knew where.
      Her eyes blurred. The long wide roads stretched out below her became shimmering rivers, and the small-windowed Plattenbauten — as grey and forbidding as Alexanderplatz itself — wavered as if they were underwater.
      ‘Don’t cry,’ said Hannes, who was the only friend to come and sit by her in the bus, where she had been banished to the back seat: the seat of disgrace. He gave her hand a friendly squeeze, so that she felt the hard little warts on his palm. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘Just one more day, and you’ll be on your way home again.’
      But it wasn’t homesickness that was making Eva’s eyes water and her nose run. It was the sudden realisation that it was possible for the whole world to be covered in concrete. That flowers could be trampled down and pulled out, trees could be outlawed, and people’s faces could be turned to stone. She was sorry for the world, that was what was wrong with her. Sorry and sad for the whole world.

 

JUST AS THEY WERE about to go through the dusty entranceway, with the electrical cables swinging overhead, Anna appeared beside them. Her two sons lingered around behind her, staring back over their shoulders at the digger ploughing up the paving stones.
      ‘Eva!’ said Anna. ‘What are you doing here?’
      ‘Gerhard’s parents,’ said Eva vaguely, still in a daze, caught between past and present. ‘They sent me to buy American food. Sent me to buy brownie mix.’
      ‘Can’t you get it in Zehlendorf?’ asked Anna. ‘Apparently not the right sort,’ said Eva. ‘Only in Kaufhof.’ She looked around, in a sudden panic.
      ‘It’s okay,’ said Anna. ‘He’s right there, watching the digger.’
      Sure enough, there he was, his face averted. He had been angry with Eva ever since leaving home, had wanted to go on with something secret in his room, something to do with a city.
      ‘I don’t suppose —’ said Eva. ‘He hates shopping. Could you —?’
      ‘No problems,’ said Anna. ‘We were just about to get ice cream. How long do you need?’
      ‘An hour?’ said Eva. She watched Anna walk away through the clouds of dust, with three small figures trailing behind her instead of two. ‘See you at the clock!’ she called. ‘In an hour!’ No one looked around and she felt glad. Glad to be alone, and unobserved. Glad to be free.

 

RELUCTANTLY, HE FOLLOWED MICHAEL, who was following Stefan, who was following Anna. He didn’t particularly like these boys. They were noisy, and they didn’t understand the importance of rules when you played games; they always ended up hitting and pushing. But he didn’t care now: he had his own plans.
      Walking like Indians in a line, they turned the corner of Kaufhof to be met by more noise. The jackhammers were behind them, but in front of them were hotdog vendors and jewellery sellers, and barking dogs; and there were three police vans parked nose to tail in an ominous green line.
      ‘Don’t look,’ said Anna, over her shoulder. She marched on towards the other side of the square, turning her head in the opposite direction.
      Of course he looked: he couldn’t help it. An old man was lying in a pool of blood, with broken glass spread all around him. Some men with shaved heads and tattoos were arguing loudly with the policemen. There was a bad smell, a mixture of sweat and fear.
      He breathed through his mouth, walked on with short steps to join Anna and the others in front of the ice cream place. ‘I don’t want an ice cream,’ he announced.
      ‘Are you sure?’ Anna looked concerned, distracted. (She was concentrating on Michael, who was ordering in a loud voice: chocolate ice cream, chocolate sprinkles, and chocolate sauce.)
      ‘I’m not hungry,’ he said, to no one in particular. ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ And he took off and ran, not looking back, veering left of the tiered fountain with its falling layers of water, and the tired teenagers lying around its edges. In case Anna was watching, he headed towards the front doors of Kaufhof as if he was going in and then, at the last minute, he detoured away and sprinted into the middle of the crowds heading for the station. Yellow trains flashed in front of his eyes. Overhead, the clouds were purple and swollen.
      He ran past a stand of cheap pink handbags: saw LONDON written across them, saw NEW YORK. He pushed the stand over. He hated this place! He had only wanted to be at home in his room, building his tall white city that would be beautiful, and silent. Past the hotdog seller, into the chaos of the station where people dragged suitcases, pointed at maps, ran up escalators, pushed, laughed and shouted. Only quiet people would be allowed in his white city. Only the quiet ones: no one stupid or noisy, and especially no one who wanted chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles.
      Now he was out the other side, back into the grey air. In front of him the Fernsehturm rose high into the sky, like a rocket about to be launched into the storm clouds. Its large white struts splayed out like feet, keeping it upright. At the entranceway tourists were milling around, squeezing through the doorway into the foyer. He didn’t think, ran up behind the group and pushed and wove his way into the middle of them. They were like jellyfish: soft pudgy thighs and soft white hands. It was easy for him to merge, to swim along in their midst.
      Through the foyer they drifted, past display cases full of pens and key rings, lit up like aquariums. Up some steps, and now they were at a ticket booth, with a low metal barrier before them. He took a deep breath, and ducked under the barrier, merging with the legs on the other side. Next, a short walk to the elevator — and at last he stood camouflaged by a forest of legs and cameras and swaying bags. The doors slid shut. Buttons were pushed.
      He felt his stomach falling away inside him, but he kept his balance by staring at the varicose veins on the legs in front of him. His ears first rang, and then blocked: but he didn’t mind. Above him the babbling voices were muted, no longer a distraction. He was headed for the sky. And he was free.

 

THE AISLES OF KAUFHOF were quite empty. ‘The construction noise outside,’ explained the woman at the cheese counter. ‘It keeps the customers away.’
      Eva nodded. ‘From the outside it looks as if the whole department store’s closed down.’
      The woman picked up a block of Gouda, using a square of plastic. She placed the cheese neatly on waxed paper and wrapped it up as if it were a Christmas present. ‘Soon the whole facade will be gone, and good riddance. This place needs an update. They say it’ll look a bit like New York.’
      ‘Really?’ Eva put the cheese in her basket. ‘I’ve never been there.’
      ‘Neither have I,’ mused the cheese-woman. ‘But after this I won’t need to bother. We’ll have a bit of Manhattan here in our own backyard.’
      ‘Don’t you want to travel?’ asked Eva.
      ‘I’ve lived right beside Alex all my life.’ There were lines around the woman’s eyes: from age, or from tiredness? ‘Why go anywhere else? I’ve got everything I need.’
      Why indeed? thought Eva, but something in her rebelled against this attitude — the unthinking, unquestioning acceptance of the life that was handed to you. She went unseeingly, routinely, to the American produce aisle. Marshmallow fluff, butter-flavoured popcorn, Swiss Miss drinking chocolate. She hoped the ice cream expedition was going all right: she had almost felt the anger crackling in the air as he’d marched away from her, head down, the vulnerable back of his neck belying his determination to live his own fierce inner life.
      She looked at her watch. Thirty minutes. She heard Frau Schenk’s voice again, as heavy as over-kneaded dough, calling down the long tunnel of thirty years. She was droning the rules of the Alexanderplatz class visit. ‘Don’t run, and don’t shout. Don’t drop litter. It is forbidden to buy food or drink before the official hour of lunchtime. If for any reason you get separated from the class, go straight to the World Time Clock. Do not talk to anyone there. Wait at the World Clock until we arrive to pick you up.’ After which, she managed to imply, you will be taken back to school in disgrace. Then she had marched them past the clock, to show them where to go if misfortune struck.
      Eva had stared hard at the list of cities and times on the enamel panels. Budapest, Prag, Warschau: nowhere she wanted to be. Wien, St Petersburg: not far enough away. Beirut. She stared fiercely at the name until the strong letters — the bold B, the upright T — became branded on her vision. She knew nothing at all about Beirut, but thought it must be better than this windswept desert of piss-stained concrete and asphalt. Even after they had been ordered onwards, and the threatening shadow of the TV tower fell over their faces, she could still see the hot, dry letters of Beirut burnt onto the surface of her eyeballs. 

 

AS SOON AS THE TOURIST GROUP spilled out of the lift, he broke free. They had served their purpose; he no longer needed them. ‘Three hundred and sixty-five metres tall,’ he heard. ‘Just think, one metre for every day of the calendar year!’
      Cameras began clicking, tongues wagging. ‘Look Mary, down there’s where they had the demonstrations,’ he heard. ‘Four days later, it was Goodbye Wall!’
      That wall: he’d heard the stories, how his mother had grown up on one side and his father on the other. Once he’d asked if they’d ever talked through a hole in the bricks, like he sometimes did with his neighbour through the fence. They’d laughed at this, but not at him — more towards each other.
      ‘Did you at least hold hands over the top of it?’ he asked. ‘Once in a while?’ He had done this with Elsa, too, for a second: he didn’t really like touching girls, even Elsa whose hands were warm but never sweaty.
      ‘You’ll understand one day,’ they said. They were always saying this to him, when they weren’t saying, ‘We know you understand, don’t be deliberately obtuse’ — whatever that meant. Understanding, not understanding: the whole thing made him sick, sick and tired of the grown-up world, and he would go to his room, lock the door, and pull out the big board from under his bed. Then, very carefully, he would add a little bit more to the building he currently liked the best — the City Hall, which eventually would have a very tall spire with a view right into another country.
      ‘Three hundred and sixty-five metres,’ he said, consideringly. That would be a perfect height for a City Hall.
      To the right of him was a counter, where a woman with bright-red hair was hanging up coats. She was staring at him a little too hard, and he could smell food wafting down the stairs nearby, so he darted away (like the fish he was), leaving the jellyfish-tourists and the red-haired octopus behind.
      Up the stairs, and he was in a restaurant — though there was hardly anyone there. Only a couple of tables of people, who were too busy staring out the huge windows to notice him. He stared too, because there was the city of Berlin spread out in front of him: a huge sprawling carpet of streets and trees and buildings — and he could even see the big gate with the four horses on top, though from here it looked tiny, far away in the blue-grey distance. He took a step down onto the carpet, stood with one leg forward and one back, and suddenly he felt his right leg being carried away from under him. The floor was moving!
      Quickly, he stepped forward so he wouldn’t be split in two. Once he got used to the feeling of unsteadiness, he quite liked it. He stood still and hummed a little tune, and watched the way that, very slowly, the part of the city he had been looking at was left behind, and he could see new things: a big glass dome, a mass of trees, a round building with lots of gold on top like a wedding cake.
      ‘You all right, love?’ It was a waitress, who was probably as old as his grandmother because she was very wrinkly. She looked quite kind, all the same. ‘Lost your parents?’ she asked. She didn’t wait for an answer but walked away, white apron strings swaying over a broad black bottom. He followed her at a safe distance, past lines of empty white tables and unlit candles, until he came to a counter that stopped him in his tracks.
      Cakes! He hadn’t eaten anything at all since breakfast, and suddenly his stomach was roaring. He stared longingly at the cheesecake. Someone had taken a slice out of it, so its moist yellow insides were exposed, and he wanted to put his hands right into it and pull out a big fistful and eat it with his fingers, all crumbly and messy. Or perhaps he should pick one of those strawberry tarts, shiny and peaked and red? Or perhaps —
      ‘You want some cake?’ It was the same waitress, who had somehow reappeared behind the glass cabinet. He stared at the tempting plates full of white sugar and golden pastry, but he was dimly aware of her sturdy legs standing on the other side of the glass. As she waited, she bent down and hitched up her skirt, and he saw she had on long nylon socks pulled up over her knees. Maybe she wasn’t as old as his grandmother? His grandmother never wore socks, only long woollen tights so baggy that it was hard to tell if there were any legs inside at all.
      ‘Tell you what,’ said the waitress. ‘You can have one of those muffins, for free. Don’t tell anyone but they’ve been here since yesterday, and they’re hard as rocks.’
      He looked at the label in front of the tray. ‘A-M,’ he spelled. ‘E-R.’
      ‘American,’ she said, reaching into the cabinet. ‘American muffins! Didn’t have these around when I started working here.’
      ‘When was that?’ he asked politely. ‘About fifty years ago?’
      She laughed and dumped the muffin on a plate. ‘Not quite as long as that. I’d have been twirling around in thin air if I was up here fifty years ago.’ She laughed again, as if she’d made a good joke, and disappeared towards the kitchen.
      He took up the muffin, tore off a huge hunk, and crammed it into his mouth. She’d been right, it was rock-hard, and it tasted of nothing, but he was so hungry he didn’t care. And there was a tiny US flag on a toothpick stuck jauntily into the top! He licked the toothpick clean and carefully put the flag into his buttonhole. Then he went in search of the music he could hear.
      Just around the corner was an old man in a dingy blue suit, playing on an electronic keyboard. A dance tune, the sort that his father used to put on sometimes, using an old record and a scratchy needle instead of the CD player. The old man sounded much better, so he sat down with his muffin at the table opposite, and listened attentively. But before the tune had even finished, the old man was being carried away — or the room was moving on, it was hard to tell. He jumped off his chair and trotted back to where the old man sat, on a raised platform near the still centre of the tower.
      The old man nodded at him, scrunching over on the seat to make room. ‘Tired of revolving? Want to sit still a while?’
      They sat shoulder to shoulder, while the old man played another tune. They passed the first tableful of people who were still gazing out the window, raising food to their mouths in a mechanical way, not looking where they were putting their forks.
      ‘Mesmerised by the view, see?’ the old man said to him, his fingers still flitting over the keys. ‘They all want to work out where the Wall used to be.’
      ‘Oh, the Wall!’ he said in a casual voice. ‘I know.’
      The old man finished his tune and reached for the beer glass down by his feet. ‘Afternoon break,’ he explained, taking a big gulp. ‘You want a sip?’
      ‘I’m not really allowed to drink beer,’ he said regretfully. ‘Anyway, I’ve just eaten a whole muffin.’
      ‘That’s right, don’t overdo it.’ The old man seemed to understand. ‘You’re pretty wise for someone so young.’
      He wanted to be truthful with this old man, who’d been so kind as to share his seat and offer his afternoon beer. ‘Well, I’m not that young,’ he admitted. ‘I’m seven years and ten months. That’s nearly eight.’
      ‘Is that a fact?’ said the old man, sipping quietly, watching the tables of eating tourists revolve away from him.
      Was the old man disappointed? It seemed a shame no one listened to him properly, when he played even better than an LP. ‘Don’t you wish people listened to you?’ he asked the old man. ‘Instead of looking for that ancient wall?’
      ‘No, that’s what I like best about this job,’ said the old man. ‘No one ever looks at me. I like it that way.’
      He perfectly understood this: for it was this that made him angry — his family not leaving him alone. ‘They’re always fussing,’ he explained to the old man. ‘Always making me go to Kaufhof when I’d rather get some work done on my city.’
      ‘Yes, shopping’s an awful waste of time,’ said the old man sympathetically.
      ‘Perhaps I could have your job when you get too old to play any more?’ he suggested. ‘And you could come and live in my city, and have a rest for a while?’
      ‘A very good idea,’ said the old man. ‘What’s your name, so I can find you when I want to retire?’
      ‘Well, They call me Alex,’ he said. ‘But I prefer Alexander.’
      ‘Alexander?’ said the old man, and he played a rippling, triumphant chord on his keyboard. ‘So they named the whole square after you, then?’
      ‘What square?’ he asked. He was a little confused, with the revolving room and everything.
      ‘The square we’re in the middle of,’ said the old man. ‘That!’ And he pointed, with his quavery finger, over the empty white tables, through the windows and down into the huge expanse of empty space. ‘Alexanderplatz. Some people think it’s ugly but I always say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. Or do I mean — the beer holder?’ He cackled to himself. ‘Anyway, it’s a great honour to have a whole square named after you.’
      ‘Are you sure about that? Is it really named after me?’ He was not quite certain; he liked the old man, but perhaps he had drunk too much beer too early in the day?
      The old man reached into his crumpled jacket, and pulled out an equally crumpled map, covered in red crosses. ‘Tourists often ask me the good places to go,’ he explained, bending over the map, breathing heavily. ‘Here, you see?’
      There it was, already written in properly printed letters: Alexanderplatz. He was so pleased that he could hardly breathe. To think he hadn’t wanted to come here!
      ‘I’d better go down and find my mother now,’ he said, his cheeks hot with surprise. ‘We’re meeting at that clock. Do you know it? A whole lot of cities are listed on it, even ones really far away like Russia.’
      ‘Speaking of Russia,’ said the old man, ‘some people might try to tell you that Alexanderplatz was named after another Alexander, a tsar who came here two hundred years ago. But now at least you know the truth.’
      ‘Should I keep it between us?’ asked Alexander. ‘Our secret?’
      ‘That would be a good idea,’ agreed the old man.
      By walking anti-clockwise along the non-moving part of the floor, Alexander discovered the doorway to the stairs down. But he had forgotten something, and he ran quickly back to the old man. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘This is for you.’
      ‘A Yankee flag!’ said the old man. ‘Well, thanks very much. I’ll treasure it.’ He put it in his empty beer glass on top of the keyboard, where it looked like a red, white and blue flower in a vase. ‘How things have changed. Americans in Alex once again, but in happier times.’ He bowed low over his keyboard, and then began to play a tune Alexander didn’t know.
      Alexander walked to the windows and took one last look over his square. The buildings didn’t seem so grimy from here: they looked almost white, and there were the cranes, silently swinging their long yellow arms around, creating a new city. The purple clouds were sweeping low over the afternoon rooftops. Soon, the rain would begin. 

 

‘Alexander, Two’ was published in the short-story collection Tenderness © Sarah Quigley, Vintage, 2014.
A new novel by Sarah Quigley, Suicide Club, was published on 1 May 2017.

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