If you take a jolly good look around – and I mean a rootin’-tootin’ jolly good look around, there aren’t many women in the world with naturally blue hair. Very, very, few, as evidenced by the facts. Hair scientists say this rare phenomena occurs due to a specific genetic defect caught unawares, buried deep, about halfway down within the spiral structure of our DNA.
Conversely, as a committed appreciator, I say naturally blue hair is the eighth wonder of the world, a biological miracle, invoking a sense of much awesomeness. No less, I say, than a heavenly blessing from God’s can’t-leave-it-alone tinkering fingers. Still, to this very day, I can recall in reasonable-to-fair detail, the circumstances as a young teen, when I saw my very first one.
Reader, friend, this tale will take but a short time to unpack. However, for a metaphysical context, a sturdy backdrop if you will, I am duty-bound to roughly sketch-in the circumstances within which I found myself.
For the best part of a year’s unauthorised leave of absence from school, I had been co-habiting with Uncle Wilfried, in an apartment located on the far side of the Tiergarten. Elderly, tall and plump, medium grey, light wispy hair, reddish cheeks, retired and more than a bit of an oddball, Wilfried had worked as an architect employed by the Berlin Urban Development Department. Over countless years, he’d enjoyed a long career designing municipal buildings of function, some beauty and pleasure.
An early claim to fame in his career had involved converting the few remaining buildings erected by the notorious, justice-escaping Nazi architect Albert Speer. The original, rather severe classicism, contrasted nicely with Uncle Wilfried’s vision then, for public conveniences – a provision in short supply up to the mid-1970s in West Berlin.
“So now,” he’d told me, beaming, “you can come to Berlin and literally shit on Nazi ideology!”
Uncle Wilfried served as a trusty guide, my very own Saint Christopher with a paunch, showing me around the somewhat lesser-known sights of Berlin. One evening, with the sun still in the sky – yet wasting no time in its approach to the horizon, Wilfried, drunk on red wine imbibed earlier, escorted me to a secluded spot next to the Landwehr Canal.
“This,” he explained in a solemn tone – and not just a few tears, “is the spot where the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg was summarily executed in 1919. Soldiers, acting on orders issued by the German government, completed their task by throwing her body into the waters.” There, like bookends struck by tragedy, we stood back-to-back in the twilight, heads bowed in a most respectful silence.
Soon afterwards, we trekked the long walk to Lichtenberg on the opposite side of the city, to view Rosa’s grave and the monument to the socialist martyrs in the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde. On this occasion, we sat on the ground together under the yellow glow of street lamps. The soles of my feet were throbbing and perspiration dotted across the entire expanse of my brow. While there, Uncle Wilfried explained the history of post First World War German politics, finishing at the point just before the National Socialists came onto the scene in significant numbers. To be honest, it all went in my left ear and straight out of my right ear. Wilfried, although quite definitely an oddball, I also came to view him as very deep indeed.
“Hey! Excuse me, young mehn.”
What? Who’s there! Who’s that?
“Young mehn! I cannot let you get avay with that.”
I beg your pardon? Who are you?
“Vell, who do you think, Dumm·kopf! I am the ghost of Albert Speer and I can’t have you spouting off like so and in such a vay about my architecture. Frankly, if my grand designs for a new and vibrant Berlin acropolis are too much for you, you Banause, then I make no apologies!”
Excuse me, this is a narrative monologue, that means one voice – and no interruptions.
“Oh! I am so sorry, have I spoilt your little format for you? Severe classicism, quatsch! I’ve never heard such tvaddle. You can’t even pronounce my name properly: Speer, Speer, Speer – it’s Schpeer!”
Look, Albert Schpeer, I’m just telling it how it is, it wasn’t my invention: severe classicism, I stole that description from somewhere else. Look, who the heck do you think you are, interrupting this story? You’re a liar and a fucking monster!
“So ein Misthaufen! How many times do I have to say it, I vas’nt at the Posen Speeches, at least not vhen Heinrich vas speaking.”
Himmler referred to you, by name, in his speech.
“I smoke like a locomotive and during the talking, after dinner, I’d popped outside and chain-smoked seventeen cigarettes. And no! Heinrich suffered from terrible vind, he vould belch and fart in sequence, alvays this vay, and vhen he did, it sounded like my name, like so:
Al-buurp … Schpeeeeeer.
You see? It vas an innocent escape of gas from his otherwise perfect, Aryan, upper and lower intestinal tract!”
I am not buying it – not for one second. Ghost of Albert Speer, be gone!
Anyway, back to the story, where was I? Wilfried, architect, Rosa, the cemetery, the Bauhaus Museum? Yes, well, not so interesting really. Lots of chairs… lots and lots of chairs. A nice wooden floor in the café, I think. Swiftly moving on, well, that’s most of what to say about Uncle Wilfried. For the majority of my discoveries in Berlin, I valked – I mean walked, by myself.
…One last thing to say about Uncle Wilfried. Sometimes, I would awake to find him standing over my bed. He never touched me, he would just be stood there in his white vest, Y-fronts and socks, staring through his large, metal-framed glasses, grinning. Then, as I came to, he would immediately turn around and leave the bedroom without saying a word. Nor would he ever refer to those incidences, afterwards. Like I say, quite a bit of an oddball.
Naturally, at the age I was then, it seemed we largely lived our lives in different time zones. This unspoken arrangement worked fine, eating and sleeping and doing our own things in our own time.
One evening, upon my uncle’s recommendation, I had sought out a district in the old East Berlin known as Friedrichshain. At that time, more than a decade and a half after most of the city’s dividing wall had been torn down, the area had seen rapid gentrification. Restaurants, cafés, bars and private clubs had sprung up, broadly scattered around the vicinity of Boxhagener Platz.
On Simon-Dach-Straße, I found a building resembling something between a domestic house and a pub. Now, it is a strange thing, the distinction between a bar and a pub. All my references stated the availability of cocktails, light snacks, music pumped out of loudspeakers and younger people present, in a bar. Whereas, a pub may play no music, serve only basic alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, offer full meals and provide harbour to an older, more embittered, local clientele.
Interestingly, I couldn’t find any distinction in my sources made for the design of the buildings. This seems a strange omission. For, in my mind, pubs are usually established in old buildings, often purpose-built. Compare this to a bar, which can be found set up in any premises designed for entertainment. From a personal perspective, this is an obvious distinction. Anyway, I digress.
Inside, this Berlin pub felt like a throwback to twenty or thirty years ago. The floral patterned wallpaper, a plastic clock on the wall, faded framed prints, beige carpet and curtains. Were it not for the presence of a large, wooden service counter, glasses and drinks stacked on a shelving unit up against a wall, I might have thought I’d walked into somebody’s lounge! Although to be fair, the presence of a green-cloth pool table, lit by the glow from a single, dusty brass and glass ceiling lamp, reinforced the notion of a licensed establishment.
Lone drinkers were sprinkled around small, round wooden tables designed to seat two or four patrons. Each nursed their purity-law lagers, several puffed-out swirling plumes drawn from cigarettes, soon assimilated into a grey sea of smoke suspended across the room. Although, usually a chameleon type, able to merge easily into any background, there I was a foreigner.
Stood upright, the landlord: overweight, balding and whiskered, dressed in a saggy grey waistcoat that had seen better days. Rolled-up shirt-sleeves revealed hairy, folded forearms; his eyes narrowed as I approached. Despite my actual youthfulness, I usually passed for a 16 or 17 year old. To my advantage, I had my height – marginally taller then, than I am now. Also, I wore my sister’s boyfriend’s leather motorcycle jacket, out-sized and well-worn. This helped to bulk-out my rather lean, if wiry frame.
“You vant a beer?” The landlord asked, impassively.
“How did you know I was English?”
“Because you look English. Now, do you vant a beer?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I’d like to play pool.”
“Okay. Then there’ll be a 5 euro deposit for the cue.” He crouched down momentarily and reappeared balancing a cue horizontally across his upturned hands. “Who are you going to play with?” He enquired.
“I am going to play with myself.”
“Hah! You’re going to play with yourself? I hope you don’t mind an audience.” Laced with sarcasm, his tone mocked me. “Normally, one vould have to travel to Der Boiler bathhouse in Kreuzberg to see such a spectacle!”
My face still red from embarrassment, I carried beer and cue stick to the pool table, established what coinage I needed and proceeded to rack-up the balls. Immediately, I was struck by the size of the balls, far larger than the balls I’d been familiar with, back in England. Instead of fitting comfortably inside my palm, I realised I was handling balls of a size suitable for propulsion from an early 18th century, French cannon!
As I cradled two of the balls in my hands, I became aware of an undefined number of twitching eyes becoming focussed and fixed upon me, waiting for a reaction, I supposed.
“Big balls!” I said obligingly, sounding impressed. “Really, big balls. Very nice and shiny too!” My assessment amounted to a statement of fact, as I could clearly make out a hemispherical reflection of my own handsome facial features, spread pleasingly across the surface of both balls.
“You don’t have such big, shiny balls in England?” The landlord seemed to be enjoying himself; several of his patrons grunted their appreciation.
“No,” I said, “not such big balls.” I could feel the skin on my cheeks prickle as they began to redden once again.
“Are your cue sticks shorter, as vell?” A barfly had joined in, knocking back the dregs of a beer and slamming his decorative tankard down onto the counter with some force, followed by a loud, cartoon-like belch.
“No, I think they’re about the same size. Although often, you will find different sizes available. Unlike here.” More grunts sounded and more smoke wafted across the room.
After this, I was left alone. Despite my lack of familiarity with the ball size, as logic would dictate, I found the pockets to be larger, also. This led me to conclude that the Berlin version of pool was actually easier to play than the English one. I cleared-up and finished the game in good time, beating my other self by three balls and clearing those away too, straight after sinking the black.
Back out on the street, darkness had fallen fully and I realised I needed to pee. I couldn’t face returning to the pub and, despite having no scruples when it came to relieving myself outside in any English city, town, village or churchyard, somehow it felt disrespectful to do so, as a guest in a foreign land.
“Tie a knot in it!” I recalled my mother saying to me when I was a tiny child. This piece of advice confounded me for years. There just didn’t seem like enough to work with, to tie the damned thing into a knot. The proportions and scale of a decent-sized earth worm worked, I know this to be true because I experimented at the time. However, take a caterpillar, well… in that scenario, you end-up with a sticky mess all over your fingers. Length is important, when it comes to tying a knot.
I decided to hold on, to look out for another licensed establishment and after I had ordered myself a drink, I resolved to make use of their amenities. This proved easier said than done, because, as is typical for me, when I am looking for something specific, I take a route that leads me absolutely nowhere. And so it was, I soon found myself walking in an almost exclusively residential quarter. Looking ahead, I saw parked cars lining the street on both sides and a row of yellow post boxes staring blankly out into the night. No pubs, no bars, one closed café, next door to a closed delicatessen.
All the while, the maximum-level bladder capacity reached, had become the cause of much discomfort and ever more increasingly unmanageable. Paused, next to the post boxes, I reached for my phone and finger-punched a sequence of buttons to reach my contacts list. I waited, listening keenly to an unfamiliar ring tone for what seemed like an age. Until finally, he picked-up.
The monotone voice speaking German that answered my call, sounded tired and depressed. As Uncle Wilfried reeled-off his telephone number and full name, I couldn’t be sure if it was an answerphone announcement.
“Uncle Wilfried! Can you hear me?”
“Was? Bist du das?”
“Ja Onkel Wilfried, ich bin es.”
“Is everything agreeable with your situation, Neffe?” A degree of concern had pitched his voice upwards, slightly.
“Ja Onkel, it’s just – I really need to pee.”
“Du musst pinkeln?”
“Yes uncle – and I thought you might know where I could find a public convenience in the city – ein öffentliche Bedürfnisanstalt?”
“Ja, natürlich. What is your positioning?”
Having kept blind faith with my internal, navigational gut-feeling, I’d remained walking on the same road, for some time. A mental note of the street name, restated at several different junctions I’d crossed, had become absorbed into my memory.
“Seumestraße? It’s a residential area, full of apartments.”
“Oh.” Uncle Wilfried’s reply had deepened in tone, mixed-in with a noisy inhale of air through both of his nostrils. “Ja, no, I can’t help you Neffe. I built all my toilets for the public in West Berlin, long before the wall came down. Find yourself a bush to hide behind.”
With my pace quickened, another road junction soon came into view. There, up ahead, I espied a modest-sized, public park. I could just about discern a sculptural fountain set amongst greenery: a lawn, a scattering of young trees and, joy-of-joys, a neatly trimmed, fairly decent-sized bush! Only a shoulder-height, wrought-iron railing fence now stood in my way of paradise. I scanned the area for pedestrians and saw none.
Minutes later, during the required manoeuvre, the cuff of my jeans caught on a railing spike. I dangled there, like a housefly half-heartedly trying to disentangle from a spider’s web. Just as must surely happen to a fly, a sense of doom quickly swept through all my remaining, healthy brain cells.
I calculated, that if I could free-up my left arm and wriggle ambitiously, I might have a chance to escape. After several false-starts, I concluded the risk as too high, likely to result in a pendulum swing, crashing my head onto the pavement. I didn’t want hospitalisation, not like this.
With the relentless thrashing of my leg, muscle fatigue set-in. As I was about to give up, a nearby front door opened, releasing a throbbing bass and underground dance beat into the night air. Footsteps approached, matching the rhythm of the music. I struggled to turn my head to see who it was, when seemingly out of nowhere, a hand as white as snow grabbed hold of my ankle and hoisted it up. This action released my jeans from the railing and allowed me to collapse into a heap on the ground. Dishevelled, but free.
With the best part of my composure regained, I could make-out an impression of a young woman standing in side profile, wearing a concerned expression. Several complementary shades of blue-coloured hair framed her face and shimmered over her shoulders. Set above the delicate features of a mouth and a nose, her eyes appeared large and her stare, penetrating. She said something in a language I didn’t understand, but guessed as Russian.
“Danke, Blaue.” I said.
“You’re not German.” She said, in English, with a Slavic accent.
“Nor are you.” My attention became caught by the blue in her eyebrows, eyelashes and the downy hair on her arms. She was a real, natural bluehead, like no one I’d ever seen before.
“What were you trying to do?”
“I wanted to, um…” Images of the fountain came to mind, with its trickling water. I quickly swapped the thought for a sweet little kitten, in case the need to pee threatened unbearableness. “I wanted to um… study… the wildlife.”
“You wanted to study the wildlife?” Unconvinced upon hearing my untruth, her look of concern seemingly vaporised. “What were you expecting to find in there, a pride of lions?”
“You-know, if it’s animals in cages you want to see, there’s a proper zoo in Berlin you can visit. Also,” she pointed with her forefinger and a beautifully decorated blue and white nail, “there’s a gate just here, look.” She pulled it open with her hand and let it go. We watched together, as it slowly re-closed, creaking on its rusty springs.
By now, my internal voice had become an internal and repeated scream.
“Do not pee! Do not pee! Do not pee!”.
The pressure and distress had set-off muscular tics, rippling across my cheeks and forehead, while jerky spasms animated all my arms and legs.
“Are you okay?” She asked, as her lacy T-shirt billowed in the night’s cool breeze. “You look… a little unwell?”
“I’m sorry!” I blurted out. “I’ve really got to go!” At this, I scrambled to my feet, reached out to the gate, pushing instead of pulling, finding resistance and frantically pulling it back into my chest. My breath came to me in short gasps as I sprinted like a baboon down the meandering pathway, scattering gravel onto the lawn at every curve requiring a directional correction.
Inside my head, I heard Uncle Wilfried’s voice of reason on repeat:
“Find yourself a bush, Neffe. Find yourself a bush”.
The bush I’d spotted earlier proved not to be a mirage. I dived onto a grassy knoll, completed a commando-style triple roll and sprang onto my feet, positioned on the far side of the improvised toilet.
On each out-breath as my bladder drained, an involuntary, unrecognisable animalistic growl sounded from my throat. That feeling of such deep relief, now had its very own theme song. Clocks stopped and all time ceased to exist. Moving my head from side to side, as if in a trance, I gave my trusty appendage a good shake and one single squeeze between two fingers and a thumb, travelling slowly along the base to the tip, making sure every last drop of pee had been expelled. Gently, I folded it safely back inside my underwear and very carefully zipped-up the fly on my jeans. At last, albeit briefly, I truly felt at peace.
“Hey!” I heard her voice again. Looking out from my position, glancing left and right, I located her, sat on the fountain wall, a few metres before me. With an air of indifference, she hooked a strand of wayward blue hair behind her ear. “What exactly, are you doing?”
As heat welled-up in my cheeks, a familiar prickling sensation broke-out and my complexion reddened. This time, I knew I was going to cry.