Places in Berlin

A Trip Home from the Club

Get up! Aufstehen!

The sun’s up already and somehow Noah’s woken this crazy old man with his cane and his daschund. The dog found him first, barking its head into a blur. Now, the old man is sputtering incoherently. The pool of spit draining to the garden gnome seemed, at first, the old man’s, but Noah’s the one sleeping in his doorway, somewhere in Berlin. He doesn’t know where, because his head’s still in the club, the booming hundred decibels, the bass beat making the sound real, like wind blowing in your bones. It’s the electronic pulse, the soaring voice, and the darkness looming under. He let everything go last night: his grad student woes, the archive stoop, the lumbar pain, the spasm of footnotes. Everything started unhinging, pages flying loose from their covers.

It wasn’t long after Noah took it that he could see through the girls’ shirts, so many compliments and then so many high-pitched insults. Then the demons, awoken from the eaves of the old power plant, began to congregate on the transistors, swaying on the cables and charting his progress towards the door. Their ghastly wings opened, he could see their perspective, above the throbbing crowd, lifted by cloud and strobe lights. The demons’ shadows moved above the growing excitement, the DJs promising relief, a break in the music’s rising tension. He pushed his way through the club kids, goths, bears, fetishists, maintenance men, power-plant engineers, then the architects, builders, surveyers. Stone by stone the place came down around him, a landslide of sound, until, click.

He stood out in the cold, the door darkened by the bouncer, a Francis Bacon slotted with piercings and a bearded scowl. Noah swayed to and fro, the lights still bouncing within, the noise faint, retreating, his walk unsteady. He heard a few laughs from the endless shuffle of clubbers waiting in the line stretching far back to the road. His eyes looked for the lit ribbon of the S-Bahn overhead train, with only one thought, as he glanced nervously over his shoulder, sure the demons were about to appear–that he wanted to go home.

So home Noah went.

His eyes struggle open, the sun rising, searing across the lake. He recognises it, Wannsee, Berlin’s far south-west, the edge of the city. It is the last stop of the S-Bahn. He must have fallen asleep, found his way here.
What did he take in the club? The drug rushes through him. The waters are black and move with the drift of man-eating fish, he imagines his body covered with bites. It is an image from a Bruegel, or a Bosch, so many tiny Germanic people painted on the greater canvas, swallowed by the beast from the lake. The drug eats him, just like that.

The old man barks, Get up!
His grandfather’s voice!He feels a quick kick to his ribs.

No, it’s not his grandfather.

Noah stands up, unsteady. He really can’t find his feet, the garden is a pool of green, the lake is washing over them, like the music in the club, everything is sound and water and the angry voice. He is standing, or wading rather, before the spitting man.

Get out! This is my house!

Noah stares, a well of sadness rising up, overflowing with thought. He looks up to the windows.

The room to the right was his father’s as a little boy, to the left was a study with a balcony, where there was a piano. On long summer days, the doors would open to the lake, and the splash of swimmers would mix with the sound of Schumann. His grandmother played as an amateur, his grandfather turned the pages, never wincing at the mistakes. And in the morning, the sun came in downstairs from the lake. Sometimes, waking early, his grandfather would take a walk there.
The trails, close to the shore, were empty that hour of swimmers perched on the grass or between the tree trunks. Noah’s grandfather was alone with the wind, nature somehow immune to the change that gave him heartache. He wondered what was coming next, how long he could keep his job at the publishers, whether he should leave too, like so many of his colleagues, to England or to Switzerland. In France, where it seemed safe, they had relatives. And he knew, what with Kristallnacht, that he had to act quickly. It wasn’t long before he would come home and announce the house would be sold, while they still could do so legally. No matter that the family had always lived here, in Berlin.
Get out! This is my house!Yes, Noah is now the trespasser, and looks up to the upstairs window, the doors now open, and someone is standing there, looking down, observing, in a night dress. She stares at him for just an instant. Could it be his grandmother? He had never met her, she died in the camps. He calls up, her name comes instantaneously to him.


But the doors close, the reflections from the lake against them. There is no reply.


Get out of here!

He turns, his face wet he realises, the gate passing through him as if it is all imaginary, as if he has never been here. It seems uncanny that this happened to him, to his family. The irony of ending up at this house after a night of delirium seems as much a fiction. Maybe he had come looking, driven by those demons, for something he thought he could find. But he knows now it wasn’t there. The moment he leaves, the house will transform. It will cease to be the home of his ancestors and become but stone and wood and mortar and bricks. The construction has no memory and the people living there cannot share the stories he was told. The moment he steps off the front lawn, he takes the vision with him. Noah thought they were still alive somewhere in that house, but he now knows what it means to be dead.

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Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.