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Authors: Oscar Coop-Phane

Tomorrow Berlin

BOOK: Tomorrow Berlin
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Tomorrow, Berlin

Oscar Coop-Phane

Translated from the French
by George Miller

Tobias isn’t very tall. He has brown hair. Sometimes his voice sounds like a madwoman’s or a little boy’s, as though he’s never recovered from his childhood. He’s capable of being extremely calm, but most of the time he flaps about like crazy, to escape his black butterflies.

He couldn’t have lived without crutches. So even if the drugs are ruining him, destroying him gradually, that’s preferable to dying suddenly, drowning himself in the Spree or hanged with his belt.

It’s not that he doesn’t have the courage to go on living, just that he’s taken such a pummelling that he’s no longer cut out for it. The drugs save him, in the same way that they kill other people. It’s a slow destruction guided by his instinct for self-preservation. That stops him doing the deed, bringing the final, brutal blow down on his neck.

Tobias’s childhood was tragic in the way that an item of local news can be. His uncle tore him apart, gave him years of pain though no one would believe him. Whenever he went to Cologne, it was
always the same story, he knew his uncle would grip him in his strong arms and he’d go home a bit more damaged. But he wouldn’t talk about it; nobody had believed him the first time, so he learned to keep quiet, zip his mouth. He would only be in his uncle’s clutches for a week, eventually he’d return to his father; no one would take care of him, but they wouldn’t do him harm. Then back he’d go to school, far away from his uncle until the next holidays. A few months’ peace.

Tobias has never liked holidays.

 

No one really knew what to do with this child who’d already tried to kill himself by the time he was seven by sticking his head in the hand basin. He was sent off to his mother in New York, far from his father’s native Germany.

That was the time when the uncle died, when they’d finally sent Tobias far away, when he was almost old enough to defend himself. Life’s little ironies.

In the United States his mother was as loving as a mother can be when she comes to it late. By then, the dice had been cast; childhood had left its mark. She didn’t really know what to make of this son who was gradually becoming an adult. She didn’t know what to do with her affection.
Without going into it too deeply, she sensed that Tobias had already been broken. Before she went off to her job at the airport, she would always leave him some money on the kitchen table and something nice to heat up, carefully wrapped in tinfoil. She didn’t know what else to do. From time to time, she took him to the cinema.

Tobias didn’t talk much, as though he didn’t feel the need.

Every day he would get up, go to school, speak English, carefully throw the dish his mother had made into the communal bin so that she didn’t find the remains and buy a hotdog or a slice of pizza from the place on the corner with the dollars from the kitchen table.

He walked the streets, then went back home. He waited for his mother.

They’d talk a bit about his day, eat again and sleep, the best that life could offer.

He was spending his life going through the motions.

Tobias was lonely, but above all, he was bored.

 

He could have chosen books or music. He chose drugs. Maybe because he was given them, maybe because they better answered his needs. They offered a sense of risk, a life distinct from other
people’s, as though a new part of the world awaited.

He discovered unfamiliar sensations, his boredom vanished, and a warm sense of pleasure enveloped him gently and completely. He met people who were a bit like him, but somehow different. They liked this new kid, who was younger than them, a bit of a laugh, always happy to do you a favour.

Because above all, Tobias wants to please. With a fix or with food, gifts or letters.

He’s not a solitary addict, for him drugs are something to share, like love. To be enjoyed together, away from the rest of the world. Tobias likes drug addicts even more than drugs. He shuts himself away with them. With their little routines, their regular life, a petit-bourgeois life at home around the mirror. Curtains closed, among friends, stay-at-homes. The old druggie girls are there, gossiping; always the same faces – far away from the non-believers. You have to avoid non-addicts like the plague.

He joined their circle and hasn’t been able to leave, no matter where he lands. Always the same little circle, the closed world of people convinced they’re living more intensely.

 

When he turned twenty, he went to live with his sister in Paris. They’d spent very little time together before. When Tobias was sent to New York, his sister, who was three years older, ended up with their grandfather in France. Families get torn apart when no one knows what to do with them.

Even though they hardly knew each other any more, there was something strong which bound them together, though it would be hard to say if it was blood or childhood memories. But he wasn’t really seeking a reunion; he’d come to break free. She had no idea; she took him in without a murmur, as a brother.

Another new language, new streets to wander. Tobias grew up rootless. He felt more American than German. Soon perhaps France would suit him.

They lived in a small apartment on the rue Campagne-Première. Tobias slept on the couch, which has long been his habit. Every day his sister went off to work. Tobias didn’t really understand what she did; on the phone, she talked about client meetings and interests to safeguard. But in the evening, he waited for her, as he had done with his mother all those years.

They led a quiet life. During the day, Tobias
explored the new city. He was learning French, walking the streets. Then, with nothing better to do, he made dinner. At the weekend, they went to the cinema.

Tobias thought about drugs. This clean life was a bit dull. He didn’t mention it. His sister was well aware that there was something in him that was damaged, but she didn’t dwell on it.

She met Stéphane; he was a colleague; it was an office romance. It soon became awkward for Tobias, the gooseberry brother. They got tired of going out as a threesome, of the depressive younger brother sleeping on the sofa, the nice kid who, apart from the meals he made, didn’t seem to be doing much to tackle the emptiness of his life.

Tobias’s idleness got on Stéphane’s nerves. For God’s sake, he was a man now, he needed to work, find an apartment. You can’t stay on your sister’s sofa all your life; you can’t make soup like a kept woman. Come on, old son, show a bit of spunk. You have to grapple with life, climb the ladder. There’ll be time for sitting by the fireside later, but first there’s the race. You need to sweat, get out of breath, sweat some more. You know Paris now, you know how it works. Find a job. Flex your muscles. You’ll get eaten alive otherwise. If you don’t fight,
that’s what happens. You’re just a juicy bit of prey lying quietly on the sofa. I know people, we’ll find you a job. But if you’re not up for it, there’s nothing I can do. It’s a war, mate. It’s a war, and if you don’t run, you get shot at. Avoid the traps, jump into the holes and crawl forward. It’s not too late. You can do it. I’m saying this because I like you. And I love your sister. And you know, it’s driving us apart, having you in between us. I don’t want that. It’s time you made your way in life. You’re a man, so get on your feet. You need to run. Get breathless and sweat – breathless and sweat.

OK, let’s try what you’ve cooked up today. You’re a good lad. I like you, you know. And I love your sister.

 

Stéphane both attracted and repelled Tobias. He looked so strong, as if troubles just slid off him. Life’s misfortunes had no purchase on Stéphane. He stood tall, a proud big guy, like a soldier with his short haircut. Tobias was the reject from the ranks. He needed crutches to limp his way through life.

And since the soldier always wins, Tobias had to get up off the sofa. He found an attic on the rue des Écoles and a job in a café on the boulevard Saint-Michel.

At first, his colleagues really took the piss out of him. He was so effeminate, like a poof. And that’s exactly what he was, but he couldn’t say that to them.

He didn’t know what to tell them. They were men like Stéphane. Hardened against life, proud of their clothes and their bearing. And they talked about the chicks they were screwing and Tobias felt alone. He did his job and he felt bored. A small Vichy and two espressos; the bill for table eight; a white coffee and two hot chocolates; the bill for table eight, the bill for table eight.

And every day he put on his black waistcoat with all the pockets for coins, he carried his aluminium tray, he opened bottles of Ricqlès and Cacolac. He made a decent living, with his shifts and his tips, paid daily and in cash. He caught on quickly and worked hard. And his colleagues began to take to him, even if he never went for a drink after their shift.

This one time, though, he did go along. They’d had a rotten day. Nothing but guys knocking back cappuccinos with hot girls. All of them the sort who look like they never do a day’s work.

At the end of their shift they went to another joint on the rue d’Assas. The owner didn’t make them pay and there was a chance of picking up a
chick. They had Picon beer and cocaine. So Tobias put a straw up his nose; he was with his colleagues, a long way from his New York friends, but he still did it to feel alive, to stop thinking about things, to feel as strong as Stéphane.

They got really wasted that night on the rue d’Assas.

 

So he’d relapsed a bit but he didn’t worry. He finally had something in common with his colleagues, with Maurice, Paulo and Gégé. Like he belonged to a group and that felt really good. Life went on like that, between the attic on the rue des Écoles and the bar on the boulevard Saint-Michel, punctuated by the lines he did.

In the apartment block on the rue des Écoles, staircase C, on the top floor where you find the attics and poverty, and where everyone shits in the communal toilet, Tobias made friends with his nearest neighbour.

Jérôme didn’t seem to work. He got up late and listened to music. Tobias could hear it clearly through the walls on his days off. That man had a very different life; you got the feeling he had time to have fun.

Perhaps because they were immediate neighbours, Tobias and Jérôme became friends. They’d
have a drink together in one apartment or the other. For the first time in his life, Tobias found himself speaking openly – and for the first time someone listened.

One evening when they were drinking grappa, Tobias offered Jérôme some cocaine. He hesitated at first, then said something like, ‘If you fancy it, I’ve got a pick-me-up, something we take at work.’ Jérôme laughed, ‘Ah, if I’d known you were into that… Go on then, give me a line and the next one’s on me.’ He had a good laugh; cocaine was his bread and butter.

They did coke all evening and danced a bit to the music from Jérôme’s turntable. They talked quickly, as though there was an urgent need to unload all the thoughts that came whizzing into their heads.

Grappa evenings became coke evenings, in one apartment or the other, talking, as before.

Paulo and Maurice’s gear was rubbish compared to Jérôme’s. One day, Tobias let them try some at work. No contest, this was the real deal. You couldn’t feel your teeth, your mind buzzed with ideas, you stopped feeling sick of life.

Tobias and Jérôme went into partnership. In the bar on the boulevard alone there were plenty of takers.

 

For Jérôme, all this was temporary. He wanted to leave his attic far behind and go to Montevideo to be with the only woman he’d ever loved. He talked about it all the time. This life would soon be a thing of the past; then it would be sunshine and Luisa, the little business they’d set up together, the taste of freedom in his mouth. But he needed to buy his plane ticket and have some money for when he got there; he couldn’t very well arrive with nothing in his pocket.

He’d met Luisa just a week before she returned to her country. But he knew instantly that she was the woman he’d marry.

There was no Luisa for Tobias, but it was nice making a bit of money – perhaps one day he’d be able to move out.

Business was easy. Jérôme looked after the supply – he had contacts – and the regulars, the people he’d known for ages. Tobias supplied the café on the boulevard, but only his colleagues or customers he knew – he mustn’t get nabbed.

And it turned out that between them they knew a lot of people. The money rolled in. The work wasn’t unpleasant, a few handshakes and as many drugs as you wanted, a seemingly endless supply. Tobias worked less at the café on the boulevard. From time to time he saw his sister.
She was going to marry Stéphane. They wanted children.

 

Then, since Tobias didn’t have a Luisa, Jérôme decided to find him one. He’d been by himself long enough.

Tobias found it hard explaining to Jérôme that he liked boys, that it was a Louis that he needed. But that was no problem for Jérôme. He liked both girls and boys himself.

So he took Tobias to gay bars. A new world opened up, a world of easy, rough sex; of getting high and sweaty bodies; of hands touching him, grasping him all over his body; of stiff cocks and strong arms.

They sold a bit of cocaine there, but mainly they fucked until they could take no more; cocks and arses until they were sick of them.

It calmed Tobias down. Whenever he got bored, he would slip into those bars; people recognised him, he was part of that world. It felt like a secret, the sense of belonging to a scene and especially the anger he got out of his system among those stripped bodies, all keyed up to satisfy his desires – yes, all of it, the atmosphere, the emotion and the anger gave him a kind of wisdom, the wisdom of a calm man. It was in these stinking bars, soaked in
violence, sweat, brutality and passion, that Tobias discovered that other people could give him pleasure, that drugs were not the only thing that could make his soul quiver. Other people, other bodies could also be part of it, could serve his pleasure.

He began to like his life. He had a strange feeling, like when you return from a journey – a feeling of having changed, of wanting to describe everything but finding the words won’t come, other people wouldn’t understand. He felt he had something to live for. It didn’t really matter that it was sex and drugs; he’d found a place, somewhere he could come to rest. He felt legitimate among other people. Yes, he had found the right place to come to rest, no one would tell him off. It was an incredible feeling to know he’d found his place. He’s there, being touched – not with the fingertips, but the whole hand, because he belongs.

BOOK: Tomorrow Berlin
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