The English Friend
By James Lynch
“It is easier to establish thoughts in desolate landscapes than in those already occupied.” – Blixa Bargeld
His hair was too long and his suit, though it was a good suit, was too shiny. As with all German avant-garde artists it seemed that Edward was as behind in his sense of fashion as he was forward looking in his art. He was a big man, would have been physically imposing when he was younger. Now he had something of the sense of an old tree, large and still and bare of leaves.
These were the thoughts just then making their way through Walter’s mind as they sat opposite each other in a Berlin bar.
“I like these cigarettes, the ones you must build yourself,” Edward said reaching for his packet of papers and tobacco, “because they will go out if you stop smoking them. They require your breath to keep them alive. This is a friendly, companionable thing. Those other, those tailor made cigarettes. You can light one and put it on the side of the table and it will burn down all the way without you, baa- this is not so friendly I think.”
Edward Meier, one of the seminal and most consistently relevant of the generation of German New Wave film-makers who came to prominence during the early 1970s and Walter Igo, Englishman, twenty years Edward’s junior, writer, journalist, public figure, food and film critic were about to get to the point, the reason Edward had invited Walter to come to Germany, the details of the project Edward wanted to collaborate with Walter on.
Walter leaned in slightly as Edward continued- “Let me tell you the story. I know I should have given you more information before now but I like to set things out face to face, you know?”
“So the meat of the matter is this- when I was a young man, twelve maybe thirteen years old I was in my Grandmother’s house very shortly after she died. I was in her living room. I had spent a lot of time in that room, a lot of time. In this room there was a large rat and I was feeding him stale bread from my hand. The rat was friendly but he was greedy in his manner, grabby with the food. He was young and strong and hungry. I enjoyed feeding the rat. I like watching his little mouth moving so fast and so neatly over the pieces of bread. The rat was bright and intelligent, you could see it in his eyes and the connection to him felt good, comfortable you know.”
“As the bread began to run out I started to feel a little nervous. The rat’s appetite was not slackening. I broke the bread into smaller and smaller pieces but the smart little rat was not to be fooled. The rat was getting more and more aggressive as he began to realise that the food was running out. “
“So I tried to lead the rat out the door with small pieces of bread, like Hansel and Gretel. The rat was far too bright though and I could not get him to go to the other side of the door so that I could shut him out of the room.”
“So, I became somewhat panicky. I looked around the room for some inspiration. I remember the perpetual light in front of the picture of the sacred heart. The light was always on, it had no switch to turn it off, and my grandmother was a Catholic by the way. The picture of Christ had been signed by the Cardinal on behalf of some long dead pope. ‘Peace in this home’ it read. There was the large plastic record player under the small TV. There was the small wooden shaving mirror my grandfather had used after he had removed his false teeth and before he drank his tea from the saucer.”
“Well, the rat got the last of the food and he got angry. He leapt up and sank his sharp little teeth into my finger. He hung there and it was very painful, very painful indeed.”
“I ran to the back door, threw it open and shook my arm over and over again until the rat flew off my hand with a sort of wet sound. The rat hit the ground running and ran off into the overgrown garden past the green coal-shed and under the leaves of the monstrously overgrown cabbages my grandmother grow there but never harvested.”
“I remember looking up because of the pain and seeing the lilacs blossoming on the tree at the end of the small garden. Over the days that followed my hand swelled up and turned a light shade of green. I watched it like it was a separate animal that was aging too fast and before it healed I thought at times that it would fall off.”
Edward stopped speaking and clapped his hands together once very hard and laughed.
“So, I don’t know if this is a true thing or if I dreamed it. I really do not know. I know I have this small scar on my finger.”
He stretched his right hand out towards Walter and yes indeed there was a clear scar near the end of the index finger.
“So this is what I would like your help with. I have found out that my grandmother’s house, which is in Hamburg, that’s where I’m from, is still there and is vacant, it is for sale. I have contacted the estate agent. They will allow us to go back there, you and me. We will spend some time there and feel the place and talk and I hope we will get together a story, a script that will help with understanding time and memory, how we make reality, consciousness and such things. I sometimes work like this, building from the nexus of a memory and emotion. What do you think?”
Walter wasn’t sure what he thought but he was no less excited than he had been when Edward had first contacted him a few weeks again. Walter had been a fan of Edward’s films for many years. Some for them had been genuinely formative in his artistic sensibility and he was more than happy to work with one of his few heroes. He was slightly nervous about meeting someone he had admired so much from such a young age but the opportunity, when all was said and done, was too much to miss. So he had said ‘yes’ he would come to Berlin and meet with Edward Meier to discuss working with him on a film script, despite the lack of detail in the hand written letter sent care of his publisher.
Now here they were, one middle aged man and one elderly man, talking in a fairly relaxed way and, it seemed, about to embark on a new film together.
The next day they boarded the train north from Berlin Ostbahnhof to Hamburg Altona at 9am. It was the Intercity and would take them something in the region of two and a half hours. Walter enjoyed the journey, watching the country roll by close to the pace of human understanding and listening to Edward talk pleasantly about the differences between Berlin as an inland city ‘an island unto itself’ and Hamburg as ‘a port city, open to the north, to Britain and Scandinavia. When you face the sea like that all the foreign lands and persons are constantly there, there like ghost or gods, foreign or supernatural, it is the same thing at some point in the imagination.’
Edward was a lovely story teller- you would not be sure that what he said was exactly true but it was definitely entertaining and good natured. Even when he was striking quite a sombre note speaking about his trip back home his words sounded positive, like ice cubes dropping into a drink.”
“Nobody who comes from a truly nice place can ever really feel that nostalgic ‘I want to go home again feeling’. If you come from a truly nice place you don’t leave or if you do it’s for some simple, decent reason like getting a better job, or going to live with a woman you love and when you want to go back to visit, that’s what you do. Only people who leave home to get any job or because they’ve been stabbed one more time than they can take or something like this can have that really strong ‘American country music’ feeling about home. That nostalgia mixed with guilt. Guilt towards the people you left behind and the ones you ran away from.”
Walter was enjoying the journey, enjoying what at some level you would have to call the performance but he had one or two questions to ask before they arrived and was constantly on the look out for the right moment to get them in.
When Edward was ordering one of the many, surprisingly good, short cups of coffee that he drank with gusto and in quantity Walter found the time to insert the most important questions he had.
“And your grandmother, what was she like, what kind of person, what kind of presence?”
The happy flow of Edward’s words stopped somewhat abruptly. He pinched his nose and shifted in his seat.
“My grandmother was not the fairytale grandmother shall we say. She was a tough person and see could see the end of everything- and only that. That was her tragedy, and she shared it with others. The wolf, from the stories, he might have had a hard time with her you know.”
Walter asked his second question-
“You didn’t say anything last night about your grandfather, can you tell me something about him?”
“Oh, he was a big kind man but a weak one too I think. He died when I was quite young and he was sick for a number of years before that. I think. I didn’t know him so well as my grandmother and he was not so dominant a personality. We will get a taxi from the station to lunch and then to the house I think and maybe a little shopping should be done, a couple of sleeping bags perhaps. There is an army surplus store I know.”
As Walter discovered Edward planned for them to ‘camp’ in the house for a day or two to ‘really get the feel of the place’. Edward wasn’t unhappy with the idea. He was up for the adventure and it would give him a little more time to talk to Edward and to get more information out of him.
It was a small grey terraced house with a tiny front lawn. An ordinary working class home among others of its like near the docks. All the narrow streets around, many of them cobbled, inclined downwards towards the water making Walter feel somewhat off balance, as if he were standing on the deck of a boat looking out to sea at the hints of gods from foreign lands.
The house itself was vacant and slightly neglected. Edward led the way through the rusty old iron gate and stood in the porch for a moment before taking a key from his pocket and opening the faded green door.
Edward stood framed in the doorway and from the gate Walter saw an endless stream of gulls passing over the house towards the sea with Edward beneath framed in the doorway and he had to stop himself putting his fingers up in that ‘director checking a shot’ gesture of popular imagination.
Edward turned to Walter and smiled a boyish smile-
“So, welcome to the house that made me.” He winked.
The door opened into a short hall. The floor was covered in aged linoleum, little pieces of it damaged and chipped away here and there. On the left was a wooden stand with long legs on which sat an old black phone. On the right was a wooden coat and hat stand with a mirror at its centre. The stairs ran up on the right and the hall lead on the left to three downstairs rooms- a front room, a living room and a kitchen leading out to a small back garden. Carpet, linoleum, plastic, old wood painted an unpleasant faded green, all somewhat cramped and a little too dark Walter felt.
Edward flicked on a light.
“A little dark eh?’ he said as he made his way through to the back room.
Walter went through to the kitchen. There was a single bar electric heater hung high up on the wall over a cheap plastic table. At the end of the kitchen two small steps down lead to the cooker. It was a small, dirty, gas cooker. There was a frying pan on one of the rings which had a large, white lump of cooking lard piled at one side. It was flecked with tiny black points and gave off a faint smell of fat.
“Ah,” Walter gave a start as Edward’s large hand landed on his shoulder, “but this is amazing. She was not a cook my grandmother. This is the only way she would really cook. Sausages and bacon in the pan here and after the fat saved for next time. Over and over. Surprisingly tasty. Come and see the living room. And toast from the open fire in the living room, come see. It is like she never left, really.”
Walter lingered a moment looking at the greasy pan. He could almost smell the fat cooking; a trick of the mind, the visual image strong enough to create the illusion of a corresponding olfactory one. He followed an excited Edward into the back room.
Edward sat at the family table and took from his bag an iPad and attached it to a portable speaker.
“We will play her favourite,” he searched through his music for something specific, “Die Winterreise, these she loved, loved. These and the song of blackbirds. Real blackbirds I mean.”
The music began.
‘Sit there Walter, near the sacred heart. I am so happy it is still here and the light still flickers on. These songs she loved and when she was young she went to funerals for entertainment, there were fewer social gathering then I suppose, and bad times, lean times. She would sit in that chair where you are sitting now Walter and smoke menthol cigarettes. She would only smoke in front to of the children. She wished to pretend that she didn’t smoke and so not to be seen, children didn’t count though. I too will have a smoke though not in shame and not in secret eh, in celebration. We are here to uncover emotions and those emotions will reveal a story and that story will help us to write a script, which in turn will help us begin to build a film.”
Edward lit his cigarette and almost immediately dissolved into a fit of coughing.
“She loved the cigarettes and they were good for her mentally, they made her calm for a little while.. but of course she died from cancer, so..”
“So,” asked Walter, “she was a nervous or anxious person?”
“No,” came the answer, ”she was an angry woman. She was a very angry woman. Anyway this is the room in which the rat and I met. I sat where you are sitting now. The rat between me and the door.”
Walter watched Edward’s face as he spoke and smoked. He was an old man and he was telling the story of the rat again as a way not to speak about his grandmother. Walter was beginning to think that in a way the whole trip was, for Walter, a way not to talk about his grandmother.
“Tell me more about your grandmother Edward, “ Walter finally interrupted when he was finished watching the show of emotions that was playing across Edward’s face.
“She was not a happy woman Walter, not a happy woman and she passed it on. She passed it on, mostly to my mother.” Edward started coughing again. His body was shaking and he suddenly looked quite weak.
“I’ll get you some water,” said Walter and he went to the kitchen.
In the kitchen the smell of cooking fat was stronger now and he went to the cooker. There in the pan were three snails, in their shells, cooking away. The gas ring was off but clearly must have just been on. Walter moved the pan to a different ring, checked that all the knobs were set to zero, not really sure of why he was doing so, just a habit brought from home.
He brought the water in to Edward.
“Can you tell me anything about snails?”
“She hated snails, or maybe she loved them. She loved to kill them, that is it. She enjoyed pouring salt on them and watching them die.”
Edward did not seem unduly troubled when Walter told him about the snail frying outside in the kitchen.
“She never ate them before”, was all he said.
The music was still playing. Schubert must have taken a lot of winter walks. Walter might have been glad just then if he had taken fewer.
“Ha,” said Edward, “it is good that I have brought some beers. Let’s drink my friend, if it’s ok to call you my friend?”
Yes it was ok with Walter. They drank and talked about some of Edward’s old films. The strange and interesting characters he had worked with. It was a dream come true for Walter.
They rolled upstairs and rolled out their sleeping bags at something close to midnight.
Walter woke in the dark, aware that it was far too early. He slowly became aware that it was Edward’s coughing that had woken him. He consulted his watch and saw that it was 3.12am. He turned onto his left elbow and saw Edward sitting up, smoking and coughing.
“A man has lung cancer and he stills smokes. What does that say about him? I’m sorry to have woken you Walter. And I don’t expect you to answer that question.”
“Thank you,” said Walter.
“I am not so well Walter,” Edward continued, “I have been sick for some time and I won’t be getting well, I have stopped the treatment. I am now an old man going back to the beginning, a snake biting its own tail simply to distract itself from the fear of death.”
They spoke. They spoke easily now they were tired and had too little energy to hold their masks up to their faces and it became clear, as only things recounted in the darkness will, what a large and brutal presence his Edward’s grandmother had been. A countrywoman from a good farm with some social esteem who moved to the city and was disappointed with the working class life she found there.
“My grandma was ‘free with her hands’ as they say. She beat my mother and caused a lot of hurt, hurt that rippled out through the generations, as it goes. You could see it in her eyes. When I was a small child I would catch my grandma looking at me sometimes and her eyes were dark with anger and perhaps hate. That is so difficult still for me to say. Hate she had in her and I cannot explain why because she would never talk about herself, her feelings. She would always say ‘don’t tell anyone your business’ and raise the back of her hand. I imagined that she was possessed sometimes by a demon from out across the sea, from somewhere strange with gods that were different to our own. An unhappy god stuck in the body of an old lady in the wrong place. The tumour I have in me I think of as her hate sometimes but I don’t like to think that way Walter.”
“So if someone hurts you or passes a hurt down to you it is difficult to forgive them, difficult to put things back in balance for yourself and it is even more difficult if that person has no intention of acknowledging the wrongs they have done- and they are also dead. That’s what I am doing here Walter. That is something I thought you would understand, something that you could do some good with.”
Walter woke again later because he needed to use the toilet. It was cold and he waked slowly, feeling about for the door in the unfamiliar darkness. On the landing he noticed a sweet smell in the air. A heady and sickly smell of lilac. He followed it. It was stronger on the stairs and stronger still downstairs.
It was strongest in the kitchen. So strong he couldn’t stay there. He retreated to the living room and almost immediately noticed that the perpetual light was out in front of the sacred heart. Looking at the darkened face of Jesus and into his open chest which he imagined as much more biological than it was really depicted as it appeared now in the shadow. Open and now that it was not shining out a light it was inviting something in.
The smell was gone.
Walter was tired. The stairs were work. He went back to the bedroom and found the door wouldn’t open. He tried the knob this way and that but it didn’t work. Eventually he began to call to Edward inside. Softly at first. No reply. Louder and louder he called.
Walter realised that the door needed to be forced. He kicked it in without too much effort, the door was old and Walter was a big man.
There was no coughing in the room. The shape of Edward was quiet and still in his sleeping bag on the floor.
Later that week. On the train back to Berlin. The German countryside was sliding by backwards outside the window. The sun was low and hard and Walter was heading inland away from the sea and the things beyond it. Was it the sun or the cups of short, strong coffee he had been drinking greedily since that had left the station, Walter couldn’t quite clear his throat. Something foreign was definitely stuck in there.