We are sitting at a table by the window. The street is deserted except for a group of black men standing at the entrance to the park, as if they are on duty, or perhaps are charging a fee for entrance to the park. They say things to people who go past, but are mostly ignored. Every now and then someone, usually another black man, will stop and speak with them. They seem menacing to me and make me feel aware of being old and a stranger here and vulnerable without a word of the language. There is rubbish blowing about in the street and in the gutters. Paper and plastic and broken bottles. Large garbage collection bins are parked on the footpath next to the group of black men. Me and my wife of 37 years. So we don’t have a lot to say to each other. It is small signs and a kind of telepathy these days. Our silence embarrasses me. Young people see our silence as if it is an aura of old age. We wear it uneasily and would rather be at home where there is no need for us to talk to each other. When I look out the window again the black men are staring back at me. They speak to each other and laugh and look across at me sitting in the cafe window with my wife. It worries me that they might decide to come over and enter the cafe and say something to me. A challenge of some kind. I will not be able to answer them. I will not know what they have said. I fear to be shamed by them. My wife and I look out the window frequently. We do it anxiously and together, like the Queen’s guardsmen turning their heads to salute the passing of their monarch. But we do not see our daughter coming along this strange street in Berlin.
The black drug dealers at the park gates opposite are at the same time idle and alert in the windy sunshine. I can’t help looking at them. Lilac trees thrash about behind them. Theirs is a manner I could not hope to mimic. I am fascinated and for some reason I think of the German Erich Auerbach’s book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, and the great pleasure and consolation it has given me over the years. It is a great book that hardly anyone reads now. I wonder if it will die and its influence disappear from our cultural life. In the park behind the group of black drug dealers, through a small green opening between the wall and the lilacs, I see girls and young men jogging. They are wearing loose shorts and singlets. And there are dogs running after balls. And then, as I watch, a young man goes past pushing a pram. He is smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone. This little window of normality reassures me. All the young people smoke. I too loved to smoke when I was young. Every wall surface is covered with graffiti tags, as if this is the language of a newly arrived civilisation. Doors too. Everything. Undiscriminating. Everything. I stare at it and understand nothing of it. In its presence I am illiterate. Like Australians looking helplessly at the intricate knowledge maps of Aborigines and claiming the Aborigines had no written language. I am silenced by it, just as the anthropologists are silenced by the knowledge maps of Australia’s first peoples. The alien language of the graffiti.
I say to my wife, “What did she say the name of this suburb was?” I know we are facing a street called Görlitzerstrasse but I can’t remember the name of the suburb. Perhaps I don’t need to remember it, but I want to. It seems important to me to remember it. My wife says something. I don’t catch it. It sounds like she said, “Half an hour.” Then she adds, “It’s a bit much.”
I agree but I don’t say anything. We finished our coffee a long time ago and I wonder if the young man behind the bar would like us to either order lunch or vacate the table. I look at him but he is talking on his mobile phone and appears to be indifferent to our presence.
I’m looking at the menu again. It is written in German. My wife watches me flicking through the pages. I feel her mounting irritation with me. After a minute she says, “The English version is at the back.” As if I am not able to understand the simplest of things. But I don’t want to see the English version. I want to test my poor understanding of German. There are several other customers in the cafe. They are all in their 20s and they talk and laugh, their voices loud and free and full of enthusiasms. I recognise the word Berghain from my daughter’s talk. It is a club where electronic music is played all night. Muscled-up, sweating half-naked men being excessively polite in tricksy voices to other half-naked young things. Half-naked young things like our daughter. Everyone enjoying themselves and dancing to the music until four or five in the morning. A scene from Fellini’s Satyricon, is it? The Degenerates? Was I ever so free? Even then?
My wife says, “Three-quarters of an hour. It’s not fair.”
We both look out the window. I am relieved to see the black men jumping around and engaged among themselves. My confidence returns.
“It’s so thoughtless of her,” my wife says.
The menu is illustrated with photocopies of grainy black and greyish-white photographs from a hundred years ago. I’m looking at one of a group of young men and women, the women in long dresses to the ground and broad hats and the men in dark suits and hats. They are standing very close to the edge of a sheer rocky precipice above a valley and have assumed various poses for the camera. One girl stands on the very lip of a jutting piece of the cliff that looks as if it might break off under her weight. Her head thrown back as if she is defying someone who has told her to come away from the edge. A parent, I suppose. In her mind. In her memory of parents and home and restrictions on her freedom against which she must demonstrate the realities of her freedom. Even to die.
Are they on a picnic? Out for the day? Are the men artists and the women their models? Will the women pose naked for the men on the rocks later after they have drunk the wine and made love? They are not English, after all, and might be like the expressionist artist Kirschner and his group of soulful libertines.
My wife says irritably, “What are you writing? You’re always writing something.”
I say, “It’s some notes I’m making. An idea for a short story.”
She looks at her watch and then out the window.
“An old man waits for his daughter in a cafe in Berlin,” I say. “The old man hasn’t seen his daughter for more than a year. When his daughter doesn’t turn up to greet him at the appointed time he begins to lose the dream he has had of meeting her and of them both embracing joyfully, and to fear that something has happened to prevent her from keeping the appointment with him.”
My wife says something but I don’t catch it.
“I’m afraid I have to leave you out of the story,” I say. “A solitary old man waiting in the cafe is more inviting for the reader to engage with than an old couple. If I say you are with me in the cafe it becomes a story about the old man’s relationship with his wife.”
My wife says, “I’ll bet she’s forgotten and is still asleep. I bet you that’s what’s happened.”
I decide to repeat myself. “If I put you in the story,” I say, “it becomes a story about the relationship of these two old people. The way they have nothing left to say to each other and how when they get anxious about their daughter they begin taking out their anxiety on each other. Picking at each other irritably without seeing what they are doing.”
My wife is looking at her watch again. She was given the watch by her parents for her 21st birthday and she has to remember to wind it and often forgets to wind it and needs to check with me to find out if it is showing the correct time. She gave me my watch for my 70th birthday. It is a Longines and keeps perfect time without ever needing any attention from me. She frowns at her watch now and winds it. The face of her watch, she has told me often, is crystal and does not show any wear or scratches after all these decades of use. She is proud of owning the watch and dreads to lose it one day. To leave it somewhere or not notice that the band has broken and it has slipped from her wrist. That is her dread. The insensitivity of skin as it ages. The peril of her watch. She clings to the past with it. I watch her winding it and frowning at it and I suppose there is another story in her fears for her watch that goes all the way back to her 21st birthday. And possibly even before that. But I don’t let myself get distracted by the possibilities of this story.
The next photo in the menu is of another group of young people, or perhaps it’s the same group but they have moved on and rearranged themselves into a new tableau. They are balancing precariously on a huge boulder that is itself balancing on another enormous boulder which appears to be teetering on the brink of an abyss. I can see their skirts and hats flying through the empty air, the grey boulder keeping alongside them, dislodged from its perch after how many millions of years? Was it glacial activity that perched it there? Or is the boulder the weathered core of something much vaster and more ancient even than that? Now, of course, they are all dead anyway.
My wife says, “You wait here. I’m going to call her and go and see if I can find her flat.”
I sit at the window in the cafe and watch my wife walking away along the strange road and I feel an immense longing and love for her and my throat tightens with fear for us all.
Alex Miller is a highly acclaimed Australian writer. He is the author of Lovesong, Journey to the Stone Country, Landscape of Farewell and Autumn Laing. He won the 2012 Melbourne Prize for Literature for his “outstanding contribution” to Australian culture.
We are sitting at a table by the window. The street is deserted except for a group of black men standing at the entrance to the park, as if they are on duty, or perhaps are charging a fee for entrance to the park. They say things to people who go past, but are mostly ignored. Every now and then someone, usually another black man, will stop and speak with them. They seem menacing to me and make me feel aware of being old and a stranger here and vulnerable without a word of the language. There is rubbish blowing about in the street and in the gutters. Paper and plastic and broken bottles. Large garbage collection bins are parked on the footpath next to the group of black men. Me and my wife of 37 years. So we don’t have a lot to say to each other. It is small signs and a kind of telepathy these days. Our silence embarrasses me. Young people see our silence as if it is an aura of old...