PREFACE—Berlin, August 2007
“Stories have a tendency to begin…” He clicked off the Dictaphone. Around him on the desk lay several cassettes, a sheaf of old manuscript paper and a small pile of magnetic tape long past its playback date. Despite being three floors up he could project into the distance beyond the windows the outline of the courtyard below, its dimensions and features, the bicycles and trash, the graffiti on the walls, the doors leading to hallways, leading to apartments and snaking up beneath him to the third storey and to him.
This was going to be method writing, he told himself. The life of stories had always seemed so much more real than real life had ever managed. But his hands moved only between his lap, the arms of his swivel chair and an invisible keyboard about an inch above the real keys; he couldn’t transfer the neurons from his head to the screen. In front of him were two large sash windows propped open on blocks of wood. In front of the windows was the invisible projection of the courtyard below, three stories up. And beyond the invisible courtyard was the building opposite his.
Its edifice was in the state of disrepair typical for this part of the city, but with only a few spots of graffiti. Directly opposite and a floor below was the apartment whose windows he couldn’t keep his eyes from. There was a reflection in the glass that he couldn’t make out from this distance—around forty feet of invisible courtyard air separated him from the windows—but he didn’t much care. It was not the contemporary place that he cared for, but the space it had occupied in the past, the space populated by semi-fiction and smoky rooms. If only it were a reflection of himself in that window it would have added a touch of literary aptness, thought Faber.
It seemed to take an inordinate effort to reach and spread the papers out with his right hand. He knew that the message which was being wired to him across the invisible space was not making it through clearly enough. Perhaps the messenger was choking on all that smoke, losing his connection amidst the fiction and the time and the third story projection of graffiti and bicycles. The sheet on the bottom of the pile contained notes he had made about six weeks ago, scraps from the start of a short story which was titled—in biro at the top of the typed sheet of A4—50 Things to Do After You Die. Thinking it might help, Faber shifted in his chair and began to retype it, adding in his self-edited comments.
50 Things to Do After You Die
CT sat behind his desk with his feet perched on the edge of a half-size filing cabinet. It was rusting at the edges, and the key no longer turned in the lock, but it served its purpose well — he was comfortable. The desk chair supported his back and the nape of his neck with moulded plastic fibre and polyester trim. His hat lay on the desk to his left, but he couldn’t remember the last time he had worn it. The felt had turned to bobbles and filaments which threaded together just enough to keep it in one piece.
The light was back — a brief, flickering glint which blotted out the window with sunglare in between sips of a coffee which had turned murky grey. It seemed to be an unobservant observer who hadn’t realised that the binocular glass would reflect the afternoon sunlight and produce an unintentional Morse code. He could not translate the message. It was lost in transmission.
He picked up the phone receiver and dialled for the building superintendent for the opposite block, Mr U—-. As usual the line rang distantly before fading slightly and clicking dead. He hadn’t been able to reach U—- for some time. This was worrying. CT sipped coffee. It tasted like the underside of bus.
It was 11am. He decided to call the day a washout and exited.
Faber screwed up the notes into a rough-edged ball and tossed it across the room. The ball landed with a barely perceptible white noise scrunch beneath the right-hand window. He automatically went to pick it up; opening the window around half way he skimmed it into the air between the apartment blocks and watched it fall into the rectangular entryway beneath, safe in the knowledge that its third storey version would live on just outside his window. Leaning on the sill he could make out more details of the reflection. Tilted inwards, it mirrored only blue summer skies and the odd telegraph wires intersecting with a powdery cloud.
Static and garish, the graffiti underneath the windows was still there. In block, black letters stencilled on to a purple and white background were the words vonkriegzufrieden, his rudimentary German allowing him to translate it but still not fully understand why it was there. The city seemed to jumble meaningless phrases and images together and slap them on to buildings, advertisements, trains and streets. Faber had never seen anyone applying these words and pictures and wondered if they simply seeped out from the cracks when no one was looking. They appeared of their own accord, springing up according the city’s growth like acne or scabbed-over tattoo scars.
He shut the window and rubbed down the summer evening goose skin on his arms. The cursor was still patiently blip-blip-blipping on the screen, but selecting all of the text he had retyped, he hit delete. His cut-up memories of the last year slowly began to form pockets in his head, and each pocket drew a thin line to another, and to another, until they began to interconnect.
January 2007. It was a building like any other, all peeling plaster, peeling posters and unappealing graffiti. All of Degarmo Straße was much the same, I saw, as I strolled up one side and back down the other with a feigned idleness hopefully befitting a local.
I stopped in front of the dilapidated exterior of an otherwise ordinary building – the building in which he had spent the last years of his life. Led with such a reckless carefulness, CT had settled here, in this country, in this city, in this street, and in this building. Encased in a dirty cube of concrete and graffiti, alone and sick but tirelessly writing.
The dirty cube of concrete and graffiti was still staring back at Faber with its urban tattoos and mirror images; the invisible courtyard was expanding its horizons with telegraph poles and sky by proxy. He leaned over to pick up the Dictaphone, switching it on and rewinding the ancient tape in the slot. He mouthed the transcription word for word from start to finish. As the clipped crackling ran out the line between memory and memory—at first just a series of Morse-coded blips themselves—stretched to become clearer. Stories higher up in this imagined space, Faber skipped back if not to the beginning, then at least to a beginning.
There it was, lying on the table. It was small and black and rectangular. It was short and stuffy and somewhat old-fashioned. And it was a thing. A clue, something of substance bearing the burden of something with none. And I’d put bullets through thick and thin to get this far. It was half-wound through, so I hit the button marked rew and hung my coat on the obligatory coat-stand, tipped my hat forward off my head and tipped myself backward into a welcoming, warm-seated recliner. And there it was, this thing. This symbol, this cipher, this sign, I alliterated mentally. Of course it had its symbolic value – it was, after all, a part of a narrative, of my narrative. And now I watched the reels as they wound another story back to its very own ‘once upon a time’.
It clicked. Half wrapped in shadow, I leaned forward to press play. Distant voices, the buzzing of white noise bees and the scratching of a catfight in a trashcan. The sound built up and subsided. Then thunk! Silence followed by the squeak of new cotton on old leather. And there it was… The voice began to speak, and I cracked a rare smile in the darkness of the room. As a wise man once said, “stories have a tendency to begin…” [ends]