'In Berlin by the wall
You were five foot ten inches tall.
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice
We were in a small cafe
You could hear the guitars play
It was very nice
Oh, honey it was paradise'
(Berlin – Lou Reed)
I guess we all have life changing moments or, perhaps, a better definition would be life shaping moments. Looking back over the years, I can identify many such moments. Am I extremely fortunate to have had so many crammed into my life or am I being punished for something I have done, people I've hurt? After all these years I still don't have an answer and I've stopped looking, relishing instead the memories.
Where did it all begin? I lightly moved my paintbrush over the canvas and looked back through the years, the years of a man.
My life took a sharp turn down a different road when I stayed in Berlin for a few months many years ago, a road I have followed for the remainder of my life as, in reality, I've had no choice. I also would not have wanted it any other way.
Exactly when did that first life shaping moment occur? Was it when I stood in the London rain outside the grand old newspaper 'The Daily Empire'? Or was it when Claire offered me an alternative escape route that same damp afternoon in the 'Kings and Keys'?
Or, maybe it was everyday I spent with Caroline in Berlin?
'Oh, honey it was paradise'
Part 1: Men of Good Fortune
'Men of good fortune, often cause empires to fall
while men of poor beginnings, often can't do anything at all.
The rich son waits for his father to die
The poor just drink and cry
And me I just don't care at all'
(Men of Good Fortune - Lou Reed)
My father called me as soon as he heard which was about forty minutes after it happened. I was standing in the drizzling rain, a sodden cardboard box filled with my meagre personal effects, wondering what I was going to do next when my cell phone chimed in my overcoat pocket.
"James," he boomed down the line. "What are you going to do now?"
"What do you mean?" I said weakly.
"Don't bullshit me, my boy. Clarkson just fired you, didn't he?"
"It was a difference of opinion," I said defensively, watching a bus splash through some puddles on the road.
"You don't have differences of opinion with the editor of the best newspaper in London, especially when you're low down in the pecking order," he said mildly. "Clarkson told me he fired you because you just fucking lazy!"
That solved the question of how my father found out about it so quickly. "Not lazy, maybe I procrastinated a little on some tasks. Anyway, I resigned," I added plaintively.
"Fool yourself, Einstein, if you want," he said sarcastically. "Christ knows why I let your mother talk me into sending you to school in England. You've become more of a limey than an American. You haven't been home for nearly three years! The only time I saw you was when Lois and I flew to London eighteen months ago!"
"Can we leave Mother out of this, please!" Especially in the same breath as Lois, I thought meanly.
He ignored me and kept on. "I've deposited enough money in your account to buy a ticket back to New York. You can work for me." He hung up without another word and my heart sank at the thought of being absorbed into my father's huge corporation. I had worked at carefully avoiding exactly that fate as well as America for most of my life but it now appeared I had no choice but to face it. I had visions of myself wearing baseball caps backwards and large, ill fitting cheap T-shirts with some obscure rap artists name splayed across my chest.
Moodily, I thrust my free hand into the pockets of my overcoat, the box tucked under the other arm and sloshed through the rain to the pub. A few pots later, I had a nice beer chill happening when a few of my fellow workers filed in. "Sorry to see you go," Rodney said sheepishly. "At least you've got your father to help you out." Claire, an advertising executive at the paper stood by Rodney's elbow and smiled at me. As usual, she was bloody gorgeous, long dark hair; wide staring brown eyes and lush red and kissable lips. We had been friendly at the newspaper but she was such a dynamo, so focussed in the business that I felt a possibility of a relationship was extremely remote, I mean, she was so beautiful, what could she possibly see in me? Every time I saw her I felt my cock stir but I knew I would be wasting my time even trying to date her, especially since I was pretty inept at that sort of thing. "Guess you'll leave London?" Rodney added.
"Yes, I suppose that's unavoidable now," I muttered as I drained the last of the lager. Did I detect a note of happiness in his shrill and irritating voice, I wondered?
"I suppose you are going back to New York?" Claire asked and I just shrugged, tapping the bar with the empty beer mug to attract the barmaids' attention. Rodney shuffled off, leaving us alone, and Claire moved a little closer. "Are you going back to New York?" she repeated and her sharp tone made me turn back to her.
"Hardly going back, Claire, I've just gone there for the school hols so it's certainly not home for me." I sighed and shook my head. "I hate the bloody place but I don't have a choice, do I?" I said sulkily as I took the new glass of beer.
"Everybody has choices," she said firmly and, startled, I looked up at her. Claire smiled and flicked my hair with her fingers. "Your hair has turned frizzy in the rain. Does your ever loving Daddy know you've grown it?" I shook my head, as growing my hair long was a small rebellious act that, in the long run, was probably futile because I knew I would cut it before I saw him. "So," Claire prompted quietly, "are you going back?"
"I don't know," I said miserably. "I don't know what to do. I see London as my home but once I get back to New York he won't let me come back. I'll be watching gridiron before you know it!"
"James, " she said with an exasperated air. "Why do you allow your father to make all the decisions in your life?"
"He always has and he owns a gridiron team, by the way."
"Who cares! And you let him make all your decisions."
"I suppose I do," I muttered. "You don't know him, how ugly he can get, how demanding! Mother used to shield me but now…" I turned back to the bar and I felt Claire's arm touch my elbow.
"I sorry, James, about your Mother," she said softly.
"Doesn't matter now," I said, turning to inspect the crowd as they jostled in the bar. Rain was falling steadily and the open fire to the right crackled and danced in a merry way, completely the opposite to how I was feeling.
A lad with long hair in a skinny suit, tie hanging loose from his collar, selected 'West End Girls' on the jukebox in the corner and the Pet Shop Boys swirled in the air with the blue haze of cigarette smoke.
'In a west end town a dead end world
The east end boys and the west end girls
west end girls
Too many shadows, whispering voices
faces on posters, too many choices'
In spite of everything, I started to hum along with the music, life goes on even though I'm jobless, even in the Kings and Keys on a wet London afternoon with a soggy cardboard box filled with the remains of my journalistic career. Claire studied me for a moment, thinking something through and then she spoke. "I can help you make a decision," she said quietly. "At least I can give you another choice if you want one."
I sipped the beer and nodded. "Maybe. What are you talking about?"
She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, then spoke, "I know of a job in Berlin."
"I don't speak German."
She laughed softly. "Is that your first reaction? Look, it doesn't matter. The job is really private secretary to a German movie star. She speaks English and most of the people you'd be dealing with speak it as well."
"Private secretary," I said incredulously. "I can't do that!"
"Why not?" Claire suddenly snapped. "Beneath you?"
"No, I just wouldn't know what to do," I said defensively.
Claire smiled strangely. "Oh don't worry about that James, she'll tell you what to do. You'll enjoy it."
"Who is she?"
"A friend, someone I met a while ago and we have mutual interests," Claire said airily. "You'll like her, everyone does. What about it?"
"I don't know. I mean, Berlin?"
"So go back to New York," she snapped.
"I don't want that. Berlin would have to be better than that. I'll have to tell father," I said, draining my beer.
"Why?" Claire asked and I looked at her. "Why tell him? You're an adult, you can make some decisions on your own, can't you? Just tell him you're not coming home."
"Yes," I said slowly. "I could but he would find me."
"Not if you work under another name and I'm afraid you'll have to. My friend won't give you the job if she knows you're James McNamara, son of a media magnate."
"Change my name? To what?"
Claire thought for a moment and, with a sly smile, she leaned forward. "How about Robin? Robin Humphreys?"
I looked at her in surprise wondering how she had thought of that so quickly. "Robin? Isn't that a girls name?"
Claire smiled and shook her head. "Have you forgotten Robin Hood?"
"Of course, Robin Hood." My mind whirled and I started to believe I could just go away, ignore my father and do something else, something he doesn't want me to do. I felt a sense of relief surge through me as I realised I had just made a decision, albeit with Claire's help. "Robin Hood," I joked. "I won't have to wear green tights, will I?"
Claire smiled strangely at me over her glass. "No," she murmured "Not straight away, anyway." Startled, I stared at her and she smiled warmly back at me. "Just a joke, James," she said, patting my arm. "We'll just change your last name so you'll be James Humphreys. And don't worry, I'll help you make all the arrangements."
I was surprised when Claire took complete control of the arrangements but as she seemed to know what she was doing so I let her, allowing myself to be swept along with the flow.
One grey afternoon, Claire was helping me pack when I suddenly realised I had no idea who I would be working for. "Claire," I said, frozen in the midst of folding some shirts. "Exactly who will I be working for when I go to Berlin?"
She smiled at me. "I thought you had no interest in where you were going?" she teased as she rummaged in her briefcase. "You will me working for Caroline Bahlsen."
"Never heard of her," I said, finishing folding the shirt.
"Here," Claire said, handing me a photograph of a woman. It was obviously a publicity still as she was wearing a flowing white dress and posed against a tree with a small dark cigarette in one hand. Although she was much older than I, she was extremely attractive.
"Gosh," I breathed. "She's beautiful."
"The photo doesn't do her justice," Claire said. "Wait until you see her."
I turned the photograph around and saw something written on the back. Although it was written in German, I could decipher Claire's' name. "What does this say?"
"Oh, just warm regards or something like that," she said airily.
"Why are you doing all this?" I asked quietly and Claire stopped folding to look at me.
"You don't know?" I shook my head slowly, feeling a little stupid. "I like you, James, in fact," she added in that serious tone of hers, "I like you a lot."
"Me?" I yelped in surprise. "But, I never knew," I stammered.
Claire laughed. "Never mind, James, we aren't quite ready for each other yet. Now, what other clothes have you got to pack?"
Soon, my flat was wound up, my belongings except for some of my clothes were placed in storage and James Humprehys was ready to travel to Berlin.
"Goodbye, James," Claire said at the airport and she quickly pecked me on the cheek.
"Thanks for arranging everything," I said sheepishly, wondering if I should hug and kiss her.
Her leather coat creaked as she folded her arms and she looked me up and down. "Give my regards to Caroline and don't worry, she'll like you, you look sweet," she said. "Just remember she has a bad temper so don't get her angry. Enjoy your self," she added with a strange smile and quickly walked away without a backward glance.
Once again, I checked the written instructions Claire had given me and wondered, for the thousandth time, what Caroline Bahlsen was like.
Part 2: Loving the Alien
'Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They're travelling the Holy land
Opening telegrams oh oh'
(Loving the Alien – David Bowie)
The plane was full of serious businessmen and women, deep in sheafs of papers and laptop computers as we spiralled towards Germany. My feelings were mixed. On one hand I was relieved I had something to go to, while on the other I wondered how I would fare in a strange country. I had never been to Germany; somehow I had avoided it in my quick jaunts across the channel, choosing instead to visit France and Spain.
I took a cab to the hotel Claire had reserved for my first night as Caroline Bahlsen expected me early tomorrow morning. The Hotel Tiergarten was a small hotel reasonably close to the Alexanderplatz and, the cab driver assured me, assuming I was another English Public Servant, easy to get to the government buildings.
After checking in, I spent a while wandering the city, taking the underground from Tumstr three stops to Kurfurstendamm. People ebbed and flowed around me but I felt apart, separate and detached as I knew I was only avoiding the inevitable so I wandered back to my room.
For sometime I perched on the edge of the bed staring at the telephone until finally, I plucked up enough courage to ring New York. A deep breath and I picked the phone up, my hand trembling as I rang the direct number to my father's office.
"Yeah?" a soft voice musically answered and I felt a surge of relief, as it was Susan, my father's long serving personal assistant.
"Susan," I said quickly. "It's James."
"Jimmy," she exclaimed with genuine delight. "You've still got that sexy little accent, honey," she drawled. "It's great to hear from you. Your father isn't here but Bob is. Will I put you through?"
I agreed and a moment later my stepbrother answered. "Jimmy, is that you?"
"Hello Bob. How are you?" I asked politely. We were not close, the hostile divorce followed by my father marrying his mother, Lois, put a strain on our interactions, especially after my mother died.
"Fucking busy, as usual. Hear you're coming home?"
"Ah, actually, no."
"No? What do you mean?"
"I have something else to go to so I'll be busy for a while. Tell Father, will you?"
"Tell father, will you," he mimicked. "Hey, buddy, you know it's not going to be that easy. He's not going to like it," Bob warned. "He'll come looking for you, Jim and he will be really pissed. You know what he's like, man."
"He won't find me. Look, I have to go. Do your best to calm him down for me?"
"Ok, I'll do what I can. Jim," he added after a moment, "good luck."
"Thank you Bob. Good luck in running the corporation."
"Me? That's not decided," he said quickly and I smiled to myself in my small hotel room, imagining Bob sitting astride a huge leather chair while New York sprawled, ready to be taken, outside his skyscraper window.
"I don't want it, Bob," I said and realised for the first time that was true. "I really don't and you do. And you are good at it. Good luck," I added and I meant it.
"Thanks Jimmy," he said very slowly and paused. "I'll do what I can for you, man," he added after a moment. "Take care, man," he said and I hung up. I never spoke to him again although, over the years, I've seen photographs of him in magazines with his wives and many children and I knew I made the right decision.
I spent a lonely night in my room watching German television, a surreal experience, and half expected my father and some of his people to come bursting through the door to take me back. After tossing and turning all night, I checked out and took a cab to the address Claire had provided.
Flecks of snow were visible on the wind as I scurried for a cab in the busy streets. Unfortunately, I was running late when the cab dropped me off outside Caroline Bahlsen's house, which was surrounded by a high wall. Nervously, I buzzed the intercom and a female voice snappily said, "Guten Morgen".
"Ah, James Humphrey's to see Caroline Bahlsen," I said into the small grill, smiling sheepishly when I realised that I was being watched from a security camera.
"You are late," the woman snapped in English and the gate slowly opened. She was waiting for me at the front door and I gaped at her. Claire was right, the photograph did not do her justice and she was extraordinarily beautiful. Her blonde hair framed her regal features and she was dressed in a simple pale blouse and long flowing black skirt. "I do not appreciate lateness," she said coldly as she held the door open for me and motioned for me to quickly to enter.
"I am so sorry, Ms Bahlsen," I stuttered. "This is my first visit to Berlin." I looked around as we stood in the foyer. It was a dark area; a single chandelier hung from the domed ceiling and cast deep shadows against the paintings on the walls that surrounded us. The paintings were portraits of serious people who all looked like they also disapproved of my lateness.
A large staircase wound its way upward to the light, I saw a large fern on a landing perched on a carved table and a leather armchair. Music, I guessed it was Mozart, played quietly in the background and pale light filtered down from a frosted sky light at the top of the stairs.
"A poor excuse,' she interrupted me and pointed to a door under the staircase. "Your room is there. Leave your luggage there and join me in the office." Without another word, she strode off into a doorway close to the stair well. The room under the stairs was small but comfortable and I left my suitcase on the narrow iron bed and quickly walked to the other room where Caroline was waiting.
She was standing next to a long window that overlooked the street, sheer white curtains stirred around her as she sucked on a short, dark cigarette. "I despise lateness," she said, not looking around as I entered. "It is a sign of weakness." The room was hot from the central heating and I suspected she had the window open to remove the cigarette odour.
"I am terribly sorry, Ms Bahlsen," I said quickly. "It won't happen again."
Her eyes ran over me and I was startled by how blue they were, a cold blue that seem to be impassive to all that went on around them. "Nein," she said calmly, closing the window with a bang. "It will not happen again." I watched as she moved to a white sofa adjoining the fireplace and sat, arranging her long flared black skirt around her. "So," Caroline said in that crisp accented English I was becoming used to, "you are recommended by Claire?"
"Yes," I said nervously, wondering if I should sit down as well, "Claire suggested I come here."
"You are lovers?"
I was astounded by the bluntness of her question and felt my face flush. "No, of course not," I stuttered."
"So, you don't like the women?" She asked the question evenly while looking me up and down. "You prefer the boys, perhaps little ones?"
"No, of course not!" I exclaimed. "Claire and I are just friends."
"Impossible. Ich verstehe nicht," she said calmly, stubbed her cigarette out in a large crystal ashtray on the coffee table and regally stood. "It is impossible to be just friends, especially when you are so young, when you should be so full of passion. What was your name once again?"
"James Humphreys," I stammered.
She wrinkled her nose. "Hässlich! Boring English name for such a gutaussehend boy. Perhaps it should be changed." Caroline gestured at the room. "This is my office and you will work there." A finger with a deep red nail pointed at a desk and a electric typewriter in the corner. "The telephone is the most important device here and," she said, a half smile on her beautiful face as she knowingly tapped the side of her nose, "it is also important how we answer the telephone."