David Slipper was never there, and then he was. I hadn’t expected him to appear, but when he did, it seemed to make perfect sense.
I met him in the first week of May, when it had just turned warm. I was on my way home after school, struggling with three books and trying to keep distance between me and the Boczek brothers, who had once again followed me from the bus stop. The Boczek brothers were flat-nosed and had fat arms and I despised them. I never knew why they picked on me: they didn’t know my secret and I had never done or said anything to cross them. I suspect their motives would have confused them just as much had they themselves had the intelligence to question them. But bullies never reflect on who or what they are until Sweet Justice sees them working as bottle collectors, or in Aldi for the rest of their lives.
As usual, the brothers started on me as soon as I turned the corner into my street. They sniggered and jeered that I was a trespasser in “their area” and, as punishment, planned to tear up my books and “wipe their asses with them”. I ran, but even with my long legs didn’t get very far. They caught up with me and one of them shoved me forwards. The books slid out of my arms and skated over the footpath.
“Hey, freckle head, you dropped your books!” the older one bayed.
“What are they anyway? Books about dresses?” said the other.
Arms outstretched I scrambled after the books, ready to scoop them up and flee, when my foot caught the edge of something and I fell to my hands and knees. I remained there for a few seconds; the concrete only centimetres away from my face and hoping that the brothers would get bored and move on. I felt a wave of tears froth up inside of me but I breathed it back in to my stomach.
And then David was there.
“Get lost before I beat your heads in, you little dickheads!”
The brothers’ faces sagged. David stamped once on the ground and they sprinted in the other direction.
David gathered up my books and helped me to my feet.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“Well, I just moved into that building there, so you just tell me if they pull that sort of nonsense again.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live there too, on the second floor. With Mother.”
“That makes us neighbours! I’m David.”
He smiled and we shook hands. David’s grip was strong but he didn’t crush me. His arms were long and tanned and were covered with blonde hairs. He had a broad face with dimples on each cheek and two silver earrings hanging from his left earlobe.
“What are you reading?”
“Just history books. I wanted to take them back to the bookshop.”
“I can help you if it’s not too far away.”
My eyes bulged. “No, it’s on this road. Just down there. Another Country.” I made sure to stick out my tongue to make the ‘th’ sound.
“That’s the name of my favourite play.”
It was pleasant to walk with David. He was still carrying my books. I walked beside him matching his slow pace and I didn’t feel awkward at all with empty hands.
“Are you from Germany?” I asked him.
“Nope. You have to guess where I’m from.”
“I don’t know. America?”
“Not even close. I’ll give you a hint.” He pulled his arms towards his chest and started jumping on the spot.
I shook my head.
“That was supposed to be a kangaroo. Not a very good one, I admit. I’m from Australia, near the beach, you know?”
I knew that Australia was far away but it didn’t mean anything else to me.
“I had to get out for a while,” David continued. “So I thought Berlin would be the perfect spot to hang out. I’ve been here about a month or two now. My father has a friend who knows the owner of the apartment I’m in and I get to stay there for free. But don’t tell anyone about it, okay?”
“Do they speak German in Australia?”
“Not a bit. We have our own version of English. But I learnt German at school. Man, you’re lucky you don’t have to learn it, it’s not the easiest language in the world. Fortunately for me I don’t really need it much. The creative writing course I’m doing is all in English.”
“I think you speak German fine,” I said.
As we spoke David laughed a lot and thumped me softly on the arm every time he made joke; this made me feel glad.
“I want to be a writer too,” I told him.
“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” he said “There are lots of writers out there and like me, most of them aren’t very good. But I bet you’re going to be great.”
It was incredible. In the space of ten minutes I’d come from being pushed to the ground by the Boczek brothers to being saved by a stranger, who was a writer and from a faraway place. It was an impossible scenario: one that could only have been meant to happen. I had to get closer to him.
I told Mother about my encounter with David and it turned out that she had already seen him. It was the day the final patches of snow had melted, and he’d come trampling down the street under the weight of two backpacks “like a monkey carrying its babies”.
“He looked like a backpacker.”
“Yes,” I said nodding. “But he is really clever. And his German is fine too. He always uses ‘das’ for everything but he doesn’t have an American or English accent or anything.”
“Oh good, I find those people appalling to listen to.”
“He’s from Australia.”
“Is that so?”
“Do you know where that is?”
“He wants to be a writer too.”
Mother rolled her eyes. She hated talking about reading and writing and bookshops.
In the days that followed I was feeling positive. The Boczek brothers no longer bothered me, which helped, and I was looking forward to seeing David again. I ended up going up to his floor every day, sometimes three or four times, just to see if he was there. The first time I tapped on his door, only twice and quietly, because I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping or reading. But I soon lost my courage and reduced my efforts to loitering in the staircase waiting for the chance that he might come by. On one occasion, it was in the morning before school, I tip-toed up the stairs and put my ear to his door. I thought I heard voices and kitchen sounds, but couldn’t tell for sure if they were coming from his flat. When Mrs Koch from the top floor came down and nearly caught me in the act, (I told her I was collecting a parcel) I decided it was too risky and moved my operation outside.
It would have appeared a little strange just to sit out front: it was hot and there were no seats or trees, and besides, the essential factor in my plan was that our meeting be one of coincidence. So I rolled Mother’s scooter out of the courtyard and into the street. She had wanted to take it to a garage for a service. I protested saying that we could save money if I did it myself.
“You? Fixing motorbikes? This I have to see!” she said laughing.
I cleaned the body and polished the various parts, careful not to get too much grease on my hands. I knew nothing about machines and loathed motor racing of any kind, but I was able to take my time and observe the comings and goings into our house without looking suspicious. After three days David finally turned up. I saw him exit the building and coast towards me. He was wearing oversized sunglasses with gold-coloured arms. He hadn’t shaved and was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Game over’’. I instantly wanted one.
“Hey, Sebastian” he said. “Having fun?”
“Hi,” I said wiping my hands against my shirt. “Not really.”
“Did you leave that battery in over winter?” A question I hadn’t expected.
“It’s probably dead.”
I looked around helplessly at the tools lying on the ground.
“Let’s take a look,” he said crouching down. He fiddled with the wires for a few minutes checked some other pieces, the names of which he didn’t know in German and I didn’t know at all. I stared at him as he worked. His t-shirt had come up revealing the skin of his lower back and bottom. I desperately wanted to say something intelligent.
“How far away is Australia? I mean, I’ve never met anyone from Australia before. Isn’t it on the other side of the planet?”
“That’s right.” He laughed and I noticed that his teeth looked unnaturally white against his skin. “I think if you started digging right here, you might make it all the way down to Sydney.”
“Really?” I asked, astonished.
“Maybe. Anyway, you probably wouldn’t want to. It’s faster to take a plane.”
David said that my battery was indeed dead, which was a relief since Mother would have gone crazy if I hadn’t discovered this vital piece of information after three days of tinkering. He wrote down the battery number on a piece of paper for me and we put away the tools.
“I’d kill for a coffee,” he said. “Shall we go to that Turkish place around the corner? My shout.”
At the cafe we ordered a cola for me and an espresso and two croissants for David. When we sat down he leaned towards me and raised his tiny cup.
“Prost,” he said and drank the coffee in one gulp. With a mouthful of croissant he asked: “Are you and your Mother from Berlin?”
“No, we’re from Dresden. We only came to Berlin a few years ago.”
“Oh, I see. Well, Berlin is a nice place. I haven’t seen much outside of the city yet. But I might take a tour of the country later if I can afford it. I might have to sell off a kidney or two first.” I found this marvellously funny and laughed so hard that cola nearly came out my nose.
David lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I took it and put it unsteadily in my mouth. The butt tasted bitter. David lit it and I sucked hard with my cheeks, trying not to inhale the smoke.
“So, who do you read?” he asked.
“I like everything. Schleiermacher, Tieck even modern stuff like Charlotte Link and Elias Canetti. They are fine writers.”
“Hmmm… never heard of any of them. I’m reading John Steinbeck and Patrick White at the moment. Have you ever heard of Tim Winton? Another Australian author. No? Well, him too. I can lend you all these if you like.”
“Oh, yes please! Do you read in German?” I was on the edge of my chair.
“Not as much as I should. But you can read in English right?’
“A little.” I didn’t want David to ask me if I actually spoke the language so I went to the bathroom. I didn’t need to go so I just washed my hands and checked for facial spots.
When I returned, I was surprised to see that my Mother was there. She was sitting in my chair and laughing. Thank God I’d put the cigarette out.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her.
“I was just on my way back from the hairdresser,” she said.
David grinned and raised an eyebrow as if to show me he was as surprised to see her as I was.
“David,” Mother said placing her hand on David’s. “Why don’t you come over for dinner soon? I want to learn more about Australia and I’m sure that David would love to talk to you about writing and books.”
“I’d love to,” David said.
“Come on, Sebastian,” Mother said. I shrugged and followed her out the door and we walked home in silence.
“When were going to tell me that you’d started smoking?” she asked when we got in the door.
“David gave me some of his, that’s all. I just wanted to try it. I didn’t like it anyway. And besides, what do you care? You smoke all the time!”
“I was just asking, Sebastian. David should know better. I’ll talk with him.”
“No! Don’t! I mean, I won’t do it again.” I was still angry at her for interrupting my time with David in the bakery just as it had started to go so well. We were already on the subject of reading and writing and I was probably going to invite him over to read some of my stories eventually. I didn’t see why she had to bring it up, especially since she’d never taken any interest in it before.
“David is studying literature at Humbolt.”
“Did he tell you?”
“Maybe, or you told me. I can’t remember.”
“I should also like to study something like that one day,” I said. “Don’t you think it would be good? David says he’ll lend me some books. I can’t wait to find out what types of books they read in Australia.”
“Books about Kangaroos, I expect.”
“I want to study writing too,” I said and felt my face flush.
Mother threw her keys onto the table. “We’ve already been through this a million times! How do you intend to support yourself? Money doesn’t fall out of the sky. ”
“I’ll ask Father.”
“Well, good luck with that, my boy. He’s probably already spent everything he has on that whore.”
“On Aunty Dörte, you mean.”
Mother pursed her lips and glared at me. I could see her mouth filling up with words but she swallowed whatever she wanted to say and went into her bedroom.
The next day at school I told my friends and teachers at school about David and they all were very impressed that I had met an Australian author and that he was going to help me with my writing. On the way home I even promised the guys at the bookshop that I would invite David in to give a reading or recommend areas of acquisition. They agreed it would be a good idea. It was stupid of me to embellish, but it was gratifying to have a foreign friend, particularly one who was studying at a university. That I actually knew someone who was smart and from another country and who talked to me as an equal was a grand thing indeed; especially for a fifteen year-old.
“David is coming to dinner tonight,” Mother said as I came home.
“At seven. I’m cooking soup.”
“How do you know? I mean, did you see him?”
“I ran into him this morning. He mentioned he had the day off today so… I said it would mean a lot to you if he came around.”
“What? I’m right aren’t I?”
It was already five-thirty so I immediately showered and began tidying the house. My bedroom was in its usual state: littered with books and magazines and unwashed clothes, and Mother had left her ashtray under the tap again, leaving a black pool in the sink. While I worked Mother sat on the sofa plucking her eyebrows.
“Just leave that, Sebastian,” she said every so often. “Everything is ready.”
Just after seven the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it!” I ran out of the kitchen.
Mother adjusted her hair, put the tweezers under the sofa cushion and did one of her practice smiles as I opened the door. David had a buttoned-up black jacket and white jeans on, which made him look like the handsome cop from Miami Vice; not the other one. He removed his shoes and took a quick glance around. I felt relieved that I had started to clean early. Mother lept from the sofa holding out her hand.
“David! Nice to see you again.”
“Good evening, Mrs Dietermann,” David said showing his straight teeth.
“Oh, please call me Helena. Would you like something to drink?”
“Yes, a beer would be good, thanks. Here, Sebastian. I brought over some books for you. The play I told you about is in there.”
We all sat on the sofa. Mother had a glass of vodka with ice, David was drinking a beer and I sat between them with a cola.
“Tell me about Australia,” Mother said. “Are the animals really so dangerous? Every time we hear about it it seems that someone or other has been attacked by a shark or crocodile.” Mother laughed and placed her hand on my shoulder as if confirming that I too shared this belief.
“It depends where you live. I’m from Sydney, which is the biggest city-”
“That’s on the east coast, isn’t it?” I already knew the answer.
“Exactly. In the cities there are not so many nasties as in the outback. Although, I was surfing once or twice when they let off the shark alarm.”
“How frightening!” Mother declared and appeared so anxious she had to put down her vodka.
Over dinner the conversation continued much in the same way: David recounted anecdotes about his homeland, Mother whooped with pleasure and, in between, I interjected with previously researched facts, all of which David politely confirmed.
I made sure to memorise everything about what he liked and disliked.
Did he like cars?
What was his favourite country in Europe?
Did he like German food?
Mother unwittingly did me a favour and asked if he had a girlfriend. I pretended to be absorbed in my food but secretly rejoiced at the answer.
“Auf keinen Fall.” No way.
After a several drinks, Mother and David started talking more loudly.
“Oh Sebastian, don’t you think David looks like Steve McQueen?”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
She ignored me and went on talking. “When we came to Berlin we had nothing, didn’t we, Sebastian? The wall had just come down and after my trainwreck of a marriage I just wanted something new. New experiences, new people and a new life, especially after living with all those dull people in Dresden. Have you been there? Those people don’t know the meaning of the word fun. I mean, we Germans may have a bad reputation, but I know how to have fun, believe me, David!” Mother roared. I put my head in my hands and wished for Sweet Justice to see that she spilled her vodka or choked on her bread; anything to stop her tattling on like a fool. But David didn’t seem to mind. He was obviously too polite.
After Dinner I showed David my bedroom and my piles of books, which I’d stacked neatly on the floor grouped by genre, then author.
“Wow! You really have an impressive collection! It’s going to take me forever to read all of these.”
“You can borrow them whenever you like. This pile is science fiction, which I don’t really like anymore, this one is history, there are some fine German history books there and that pile has the ones I couldn’t sort.”
“Great. I’ll have a good look at them next time I’m around.”
“Sorry about Mother,” I said. “I guess she’s excited because we don’t get many visitors.”
“Not at all. I think she’s very nice. She can cook a mean asparagus soup.”
Mother came in holding a cigarette.
“Sebastian, you have school in the morning,” she said. “Off to bed.”
“Come now. You can talk to David tomorrow, can’t he David?”
“Sure thing. I have to go anyway. Lots to do tomorrow. Sleep tight, kiddo and enjoy those books,” he said and left the room. Mother looked around my room and just nodded. She was obviously pleased at how well I’d clean it.
I locked the door and pulled out David’s copy of the play, Another Country. It looked new. There were no torn or folded pages and nothing was written on the inside. I began translating it line by line with my poor English skills and pocket dictionary, and it didn’t take long for me to work out the overall setting and the characters. It was the story of an English spy who was a student at an upper class boys school. However it was the theme that made me sit up on my bed. I had never before read any book in which the hero was gay. Moreover, in one of the first scenes two boys were caught by a teacher making love! The details of what they were actually doing weren’t there, but I knew well enough. I looked around to check if my door and curtains were closed and read the page again. The revelation made my mind whirl with exhilaration. Was this the answer to why David had insisted that, out of all the material he could have given me, I have this play? I felt a new energy and read on making sure to absorb every word and write down themes and questions I thought David would find interesting. I couldn’t wait to see him again. I read as much as I could and then lay in bed, tired but fulfilled like never before. It was clear to me that David also had a secret and I wondered if he wanted to talk about it. It didn’t matter. I would be there for him regardless. I would reveal my secret to him and tell him that I understood.
That night he was in my dreams. I dreamt I was passing the bookshop and he was walking on the other side of the street wearing a black hat, which I thought looked good on him. He was speaking to a boy with frizzy, blond hair. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I was angry and wanted to run over and punch the other boy. I hesitated, unable to cross the street. I watched them talking and laughing . And then suddenly the boy disappeared and I was in his place. David asked me what I thought about Australian literature. “I think it is mature and sophisticated,” I replied. Then he held my chin and kissed me. Not like a kiss one would give a friend or aunt, but a real kiss that lasted for minutes. Our open mouths moved like the way fish breathe out of water. I woke up, masturbated and then drifted off again into an easy sleep.
The next morning, I got up early. I went into the kitchen, drank straight from the tap and looked around for something to eat. We’d eaten all the bread the night before. I opened the refrigerator and was staring at the emtpy shelves, when I heard a series of whispers and then hushing. I stopped and listened. More hushing. I went back into the living room and this time noticed the black bra and white t-shirt which were draped over the arm of the sofa. The t-shirt was reversed but I could still recognise the words inside, printed in capital letters on the front, like the flashing warnings of a neon sign: “Game over”.
Mother’s bedroom door was ajar. Peering through I saw that the bed was still made, but the pillows were on the floor. I moved soundlessly towards the door to get a better view. I couldn’t see Mother’s face, but I saw her legs and painted toenails. Her feet were splayed and were pointing at each corner of the room. She let out a horrible moan that made me flinch. David was on top of her facing the wall. A tattoo of a barbed wire just below his neck writhed over his shoulders; with each slap of his stroke, Mother’s legs stretched further out towards the outer edges of her bedroom. I swallowed hard and retreated back into the living room.
There was silence.
“Sebastian? Is that you?” I heard Mother call.
I didn’t move.
I stood in the middle of the room not daring to move or breath. I picked up David’s t-shirt and for a reason I cannot explain, put it on. I waited for something to happen: the door to open, thunder to boom or even a song to start playing. I waited and I waited, shaking my head. I can still feel the same stillness of that room today when I think back. When I wait for Sweet Justice to come.