The newspaper ad read „I’m exchanging a one-bedroom flat on the east side for one of the same size on the west side. Contacts listed below.“
It occured to me that it might be a good deal, since everyone was doing it- the former front line was like a stitch through the middle of the city and both groups spontaneously decided to move backwards from it. Like some sort of a subcoscious mutual agreement, everyone started trading places- no one wanted to be on the wrong side of the city, out of the protective, invisible walls of his own pack, so this minuscule exodus quickly re-shaped formerly mixed neighborhoods with frenemies in abundance. On the other hand, this tidal wave of switching homes proved to be a good opportunity to land a decent new address. I picked up my phone and called the number listed in the ad. We scheduled the meeting for tomorrow and he gave me the exact address of the building. Since I couldn’t afford the risk of a broken windshield, I walked. The army was long gone. Or at least, well hidden behind the rubble around the main street which was deserted for the most part, with the occasional car passing by.
On the corner, the former The famous Cafe Wien was reduced to a pile of stones; all that remained of the toilets was a patch of white tiles on the side, still sticking to a stone wall overgrown by weeds. On the entrance corner, all that was left were the stairs leading into the void. Right behind it, a row of concrete skeletons full of trash, with lighting fixtures and wires dangling from the ceilings like electric stalactites above carpets of broken lightbulbs and bottles. On the other side of the river, right next to the bridge, there was the giant carcass of the old Bristol Hotel, a building dating back to the 19th century which played host to the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph in 1910., when he visited the city in a procession the like of which had never been seen in the city before. That was now long gone, the entrance hall looked like one of those Greek temples with only a group of marble columns standing up, supporting nothing but the skies.
The building was a couple of blocks away, a three-story edifice with a front covered with bullethole constellations , which were more like an outside ornament than a serious threat to the safety of the building. It was probably due to the fact that it was a bit tucked away, with a small garden and playground behind it, now littered with the roof tiles from a house next door. He was in front of the building , waiting for me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and went upstairs. The flat was at the end of a corridor with pale yellow walls, and the heavy wooden double doors revealed a foyer with a toilet on the side and the door of a spacious living room. It was well-lit, with a view of the backyard garden. One of those old-fashioned places with tall stucco ceilings, big windows and a small kitchen. The bedroom was looking onto the street downstairs. He told me I had made the right decision, but I knew he made a wrong one. Who cares.
I moved my things in a couple of days and started inhabiting the place. In a way, inhabiting is like breaking in a new pair of shoes. It takes a while to get used to all the angles and walls. There was only one more tenant in the whole building. An old lady on the first floor, a former art history professor who had fled to Berlin during the conflict and returned years later, to find the apartment in shambles and her books scattered all over the library floor. Didn’t take long until we met. It happened in a nearby grocery store, when we realized we were going back to the same address. Already over 60, she looked what you might call well-maintained. She invited me over for a drink in the evening, and I promised to drop by as soon as I settle in. The former owner left behind a lot of things as they usually do- all of those unnecessities in the form of tea sets, piles of crocheted table cloths no one had any use for, boxes full of old LP’s and bookcases loaded with all sorts of books. There were records by Charles Aznavour and Bill Evans and Chet Baker; collected works of Dostoevsky and French in 30 days. There was work to be done in the kitchen: the stove wasn’t working properly and the tap was leaking. But where do you find a decent plummer here? That’s when I remembered the woman next door.
„May I come in?“
„Please do. Finally someone who’s not dropping just because he’s paid to. I’m bored beyond comprehension.“
„Wow, I had no idea there were escorts on this side of town.“
„Not escorts, silly. Postmen.“
„I got a leaking tap at my place and I need it fixed. Maybe you know someone who could help out with that?“
„You have got to be kidding me. I’m almost old enough to be your grandmother!“
„No, that’s not what I meant. I need a handyman and maybe you can hook me up.“
„Well, I’m no pimp, but if you go through the personals section in the papers, I’m sure you’ll find the man of your dreams.“
„Ah, forget it, it’s all about sex with you. I’ll fix the tap myself.“
„I’ve been taking care of mine myself for quite a few years now and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.“
„Do tell. What made you come back here? You only have one neighbor and the street is still spooky at night.“
„It wasn’t when we first moved in, ages ago. My husband was a violin professor at the music academy. The other tenants were mostly young couples with kids, we never had any of our own. The garden in the back was very vivid, we did lots of entertaining for local artists, intellectuals and our neighbors. In the spring, my husband would teach our neighbour’s teenage son to play the violin, and the boy was talented. It wasn’t long before he persuaded his parents to buy him one, so the two of them occasionally performed at our little garden soirees. The usual stuff, Mozart and Chopin. There was a large cherry tree in the back of the garden, but everything burned down during the conflict. He died in the bombings, one day he went outside to get food, and boom! he was gone. I took the first opportunity to get out, left everything as it was and packed only as much as I could carry in that old leather suitcase that still sits on top of the armoire in the bedroom. The other neighbors had fled too, most of them to Sweden. I didn’t want someone move into my own memories and re-appropriate them as their own. They belong to me. Too many things happened here to just give up on them so easy. Why did you do it anyway? „
„I didn’t like the apartment I lived in until the conflict. You might call me an opportunist, but I really don’t care. Historic places like these feel much better than the highrises.“
„Didn’t see that coming. But you’re right- if they’re all nuts, take advantage of it. You could do much worse than this place, from what I’ve seen.“
„I took a risk, it was the first ad I jumped across. But, so far everything looks good.“
„You never buy the first car that the vendor shows you, didn’t you know that?“
„That’s true. But I have no regrets. Anyway, I should be heading back. Still lots of unpacking to be done. Ring me up if you need anything.“
„Thank you for your company. I was bored to death until you moved in.“
„I might just as well do that, if I happen to need to borrow a carton of milk.“
When I returned, the window in the kitchen was open, and it looked to the backyard of the building next door. All of these old buildings have gardens and courtyards hidden from the street. In the yard next door, there was a suspended laundry line hung with bedsheets and a table with four wooden chairs next to a small fountain in the corner. A young woman was sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine. Red-haired, dressed in an ankle-length dress with short sleeves and lips colored in pink. She couldn’t see me, I felt like James Stewart minus the wheelchair. From that day on, I turned into one of those people who spend a lot of time leaning on the window sill and observing the street down below. Only in this case, I was only interested in one particular person. It was a curious mis-en-scene, the house behind the neighboring one was in ruins, looming behind the wisteria-covered garden wall; decay frozen in time. In the kitchen cupboard, there were all sorts of things: old china, pepper mills and empty tin boxes for herbal teas. There are tea people and coffee people, but those who enjoy both are like bisexuals, quite rare and pendulous. One of the downsides of living in a city like this is that it’s difficult to get your hand on the good stuff, no matter what tickles your appetite. Fortunately, I made friends with a German guy from the peace keeping forces who occasionally hooked me up with the real deal, boxes of green and Rooibos tea from a well-stocked tea shop in Berlin, so it didn’t feel like I was completely cut off from the outside world that much.
In the bedroom closet, there was a lot of bedsheets and a duvet. I took it all down into the basement and burned it in the incinerator which previously had to be repaired. The smell of burning cotton filled the small vaulted room with wooden crates full of coal and sealed containers with names on them. Probably former tenants that stashed away things that had to be left behind. Boxes full of private lives locked away to pretend they never happened in the first place. The building felt like a ghost town anyway, until something I never saw coming occured. When I came back upstairs, there was a plate covered with a sheet of cloth on my doorstep. It was a big piece of apple pie with a note saying „curiosity killed the cat“ pinned to the top. Fortunately, there were no cats in the building so the cake remained untouched. Inside, I put the plate on the kitchen table and had a closer look at the piece of paper from the plate. It was hand-written, the style slightly leaning to the right. Missuz Havisham next door seemed as skilled with desserts as with mind games. The pie though was tasty- just the right amount of cinnamon and crust to keep it together.
The following morning, I had the pie leftovers for breakfast and went to work. It was a private business specialized in medical equipment for postwar hospitals in the county. Of course, it was all crappy stuff that foreigners couldn’t possibly pitch at home, but here it was marketable as humanitarian aid so no one questioned anything as long as it was affordable. The odd patient or two became collateral damages to the scam but it was all successfully hushed up. When I showed up, there was the usual folks who were all anxious to hear about living on the wrong side of town. It was an exotic endevour- very few of them didn’t even go there for a walk or stuff. It was the dark, dangerous Over There, and in this constellation of things, everyone knew which side the other side was. Apart from a couple of older, codescending people at the office, others were rather intrigued than appaled. This is as close as I’ll ever get to being a dissident, I thought to myself. In fact, I could tell them all sorts of cock and bull stories and they’d buy it all since no one would dare to cross the invisible line and prove me otherwise.
Later that evening, I invited my Missuz Havisham to my place to thank her for the cake and reciprocate her hospitality. She arrived on time, as people of that age usually do, and brought a box of chocolates with her. That thing you usually call hostess gift, but I was living on my own so it was treated merely as a present. The good thing about visiting a neighbor is that they don’t mind if you show up in slippers and a sweater, like her. We went over to the living room and she took a seat while I went on about preparing a pot of tea. She took a glance around the room as if she was mentally inventorizing the details: the sofa, bookshelves, the rug, the window dressings.
„It’s a pretty little place you have here. The previous owner left all of these things behind?“
„Some of it. Other stuff I found in abandoned apartments, like that armchair in the corner or the lamp on that table over there.“
„You know that’s called theft, do you? I didn’t expect you were a grave robber.“
„Come on now, what do you mean by that? I ain’t a grave robber, never touched one in my whole life!“
„You got me wrong. I’m talking about abandoned homes. They’re something like a grave, housing the remains of a life that was once lived inside. Everything good and bad that happened. People who were happy, or might have had been. Their own memories, clothes, books, photos. It’s like being stuck in a mortuary full of invisible corpses. And then someone comes and grabs the first thing that catches their attention.“
„Now you’re freaking me out. It’s not a museum. And I intend to look at this rather as a continuous process, where every new tenant contributes something new to the permanent exhibition in the flat.“
„Don’t try to white-wash it. But who am I kidding, I can’t blame you for it- if it hadn’t been you, it would have had been someone else. It seems to me that this place is in good hands, judging by its present condition.“
„Thank you, I’m starting to get accustomed to the place. I got some excellent yellow tea, how about a pot of that?“
„Oh would you be so kind. I’ve never had something like that. Ever since the conflict ended it’s been a bitch to get your hands on some decent quality tea. The douchy stuff they try to sell you as tea in the shops isn’t even worthy of the name. Or maybe I’m just spoiled and picky.“
„No, you’re most certainly not. I’m like that myself. It’s the same with cakes. Your apple cake was one of the best I had in months. It was quite a surprise that you didn’t wait for me to return and just left it on my doorstep instead.“
„I don’t remember having done such a thing. Are you positive it was me? I have no idea what you’re talking about.“
„Oh, c’mon lady, stop it. And that note you sent with it literally takes the cake- „curiosity killed the cat. What on earth was that supposed to mean? What’s your game?“
„I have none whatsoever. Your imagination is way too playful, I’m afraid. Who’d do something like that? You should rather concern yourself with the flat. I didn’t particularly like the man who used to live here, never invited me over. I’d doesn’t surprise me one bit that he didn’t mind selling. But it puzzles me he never bothered to pack everything up, if what you say is true. Every home is haunted, you know. There’s always something people leave behind. It’s palpable, like emotional mould. And it smells of dust and humidity.“
Above the sofa, there is a painting a landscape with a river running straight through it. It’s probably still here because either no one wanted to steal it or it was impossible to pitch it at a flea market (if it’s not worth stealing, it’s not worth buying either). The markets were thriving, all sorts of stolen stuff from houses all over town. It could happen that you run into your own belongings, looking like hostages or stray dogs. In one of those, I bought a 1960s armchair upholstered in caramel brown fabric and a gramophone which was still working, to use for the small collection of vinyls. Mostly indie stuff like The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and classical music like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. She noticed the pile of vinyls and went over to have a look.
„Do you like music, ma’am?“
„I do. There’s a piano at my place. I once saw David Bowie, it was one of those moments you never forget. He was in a restaurant in London, sitting at the table not very far away from mine and having a beef steak. Nothing is more embarassing than seeing someone you admire eating-it’s an intimate moment, all out there for everyone to see. There’s something latently exhibitionist in restaurants. You find it difficult to relate the mouth that sang Space Oddity to the one chewing on a piece of lettuce. But I couldn’t work up the courage to come over and say hi. He’s probably already had enough people ruin his lunch like that.“
„Wow…that’s a beautiful story. Did you taste his food when he left?“
„Are you out of your friggin mind? I’m no groupie.“
„Do you like his stuff?“
„I’m not exactly a fan of that style, but I’m certainly a fan of that hairstyle. Ziggy Stardust looks a bird from the Garden of Earthly Delights.“
„Oh, that’s from Fellini’s Satyricon? Sick shit, the movie.“
„No. That’s from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. A tryptichon with images from heaven and hell.„
„On which side of this town would be that heaven?“
„On the opposite side of hell, young man. I just don’t know where that is.“
The following morning, I saw the girl again. She was hanging her laundry on the hanger outside in the backyard. A couple of blouses, a skirt, a pair of jeans and three bras. Trying to get a better glimpse of her, I leaned over the windowsill and the pushed the heavy crystal ashtray over it. It shattered into a thousand pieces down there and that was when we first locked eyes. She knew the whole time. I should have guessed right away. She winked at me, and I winked back, subsequently returning inside. Now was the time to return the favor. But how do you bake a cake? Never baked one in my whole life. A chocolate-coated sponge cake was easy enough to do, so I decided to give it a try. The cake turned out edible enough and so I found myself in front of the girl’s door with the dessert on her plate. Soon the turning of the key announced her presence. There she was: smaller than I thought, her hair dark and almond eyes, full upper lip and a thin, straight nose. I wiped my shoes on the doormat and came in. Her place was bigger than mine and it was in the ground floor. We proceded into her living room.
„Did you really think I didn’t notice? Men are so obvious these days.“
She remarked, sitting down into the recliner and offering me a seat on the sofa. The space was uncluttered, elegant and airy. The femme fatale pretense was so intense and oh, so last year. I wasn’t buying it, but she was, and she loved every moment of it. Sometimes it’s best to let people keep their illusions. In this city of desperate leftovers, there wasn’t anything fatal anymore, aside from the occasional ruin dangeriously leaning towards the pavement.
„Well, I wasn’t sure. But the cake was tasty, though you almost ruined it with that corny message. The suspence was quite short-lived. I believe the plate is yours.“
„Oh come on, I did my best. Not very often that someone new and exciting moves next door. The former tenant was boring as hell. Never said a word to me.“
„Me? Exciting? You seem used to male attention.“
„I usually get what I want. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be here now, wouldn’t you?“
„That’s true. But if it weren’t for me, now you’d be staring at the telly instead of a man.“
„Such a preposterous thing to say. I almost regret inviting you over. „
„No you don’t, you’re just playing hard to get. Now, try the cake, it took me a while to get a grip of it.“
She took the knife, cut a piece and dipped her fork deep into it. She took a bite, licking the remains of the chocolate topping off her lips. I took a piece myself and tasted it. It was a darn good sponge cake for a straight guy. She concurred and poured me a glass of red wine. I was anxious to know what brought her there in the first place.
„I switched places with a family that used to live here. Fools. But it turned out good for me, so much more space than I had over there, on the other side. It’s ok.„
Good to know I wasn’t the only one who crossed borders like a rope dancer. We just didn’t care. It was all bullshit, and the stench was everywhere. The only way to protect yourself from the insanity of the world was to build an invisible wall from your own insanities. And it worked, but it came at a price. Which I was more than willing to pay. I had no friends left here so I had nothing to lose. It actually felt good. This feeling of whatever.
„You know, here they say hell is always on the other side. My neighbor said it’s opposite heaven. Do you know where that might be in this city?“
„I thought you’d never ask. If you follow me into the other room, I’ll show it to you.“
„Heaven or hell?“
„That’s up to you to decide.“
Then she led me into her bedroom. I still don’t know where either one of those is, but a couple of months after that lame introduction, she moved in with me. And that’s when our heaven and hell came together. Like the two sponges of the Victoria cake, with a chocolate purgatorium squeezed in between. Amazing what a guy would do to get some, isn’t it? Even write a story. I wish I was Hieronymus Bosch to spoil the happy ending with demons and martyrs. But fortunately, they were all outside, on a safe distance from us, the Whatevers.