Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Oberbaumbrucke, 1988

O

ld postcards.

Take this card, from Berlin. A girl called Luanna Wechsler sent me a black-and-white photo of Gösta Ekman; folded a corner by the looks of it, licked a stamp. Here on my living room table, caught in a bright, hot, slant of sunshine, it’s like a ramp back into the past; one I don’t particularly want to slide down.

Luanna. Crazy Luanna. The one who drank too much and worked in vaudeville shows on the Eastern side, and had a costume for every occasion. If she wanted to be a cow, she was a cow. If she wanted to be contrite or flirtatious, she had the stockings and suspenders to prove it.

She drank too much: red wine by the cocktail glass. Feathers in her hair. Feathers in my teeth. Feathers floating in the bathroom porcelain, like little sail boats.

Her flat was tall, straight and narrow. Wooden floors under my unlaced paratrooper boots. A view out to the plazas, and churches, and the old walls, and the new wall, stretching out through a twisting maze of guard towers and barbed wire, where searchlights would suddenly focus on one fleeing body or another.

Luanna would laugh, and flop down on her couch, rich with throws, in a room that was empty of everything but plaster dust, and a fireplace with a mirror over it the size of a double-bed (Luanna always was a flirt, and if no one else was around, why, well, she’d do). And a record player. One of the old ones. The really old ones with the black ice cream cone, and the cranking handle from an old car, and the records that came in brown, rice-paper sleeves, and small writing I couldn’t be bothered to read, and the disks themselves heavy and brittle like hard liquorish.

She’d put one on and insist on dancing, eyes forward, stance like a ballroom dancer; my pulling back dreads and trying to shuffle along with her, wondering when-in-the-hell she was going to get curtains on those great, big bays, that showed half the city, and showed half the city Luanna when she got up in the morning and stretched – right out in one window or another – as soft and naked as the early morning sun; showing the day she had more than enough attitude and flesh to make it.

This is no longer a postcard, etched with her elaborate, copperplate scrawl.

At night, I know we must stand out like mannequins dancing in a department store. The lights are on – some five-Deutsche-mark bulbs shaped like candles, in an East-German light fitting shaped like a candelabra – and while she smiles and smiles, pirouetting, hands held in mine, just so, back arched, head tilted just a little left so that her throat shows, I shamble around, trying to get my bearings, trying to imagine us dancing above the city – amongst the lights – with some passer-by down below wondering, what the hell are those two crazies up to?

I wish I’d thought of that first. What were we up to?

Verrückten.

The mirror’s gilding looks fake in this too-much light, the record wheezes on in some ancient old waltz, with a woman singing in Swedish, I think, though its sounds as if she’s doing it into a cup, or her cupped hands, and as the dance progresses, there’s a dull, repetitive, click coming from the mechanism that’s making the handle twitch, and I can smell Luanna’s perfume all over again – some trip to Paris, but the artisans quarter or the artist’s promenade – and, as she laughs, and places her head to my chest, content to have me shuffle her around, I wonder if she’s listening for heart or clockwork, or imagines herself a child again; and the music is slowly pulling out and distorting, as all that energy she put in slowly plays out in grooved revolutions; the record wobbling, the voice starting to sound nasal and crazed.

Later, we sit on the balcony. It smells of pigeons. A light wind stirs a dangling aerial cable, from that annoying flat upstairs – “They’re bourgeois,” Luanna explains with a tip of her glass and exposes more of a leg from that V in her skirt. Long, attractive legs.

“I should have been a ballerina,” she sighs.

Cars beep and run furiously down below. Feathers detach from her boa, and drift like pink birds, intent on swirling back into the flat. On the floor, now, a simple mattress. I hauled it out of the cupboard.

“What should you have been?” she says, prodding my chest. She leaves the finger pointed there, bent like a sprung piece of metal. “Well?”

“I… I don’t know. Lots of things, I guess.”

“Like?”

She sips from her glass, lips fruitful; wine a crimson, shiny explosion of the heart.

“I dunno. Someone who could dance, I guess.”

She laughs, but says she’ll ask me again tomorrow.

More wine. More dancing. This time, to no music. Lights out, the ambient light of the city floods in for us to gawk at. I stare at none of it, of course: ignoring, as I, no doubt, have been previously ignored.

Later, we go to the bed we have been literally and figuratively dancing around.

If you lay flat, the hard parts of your body don’t clatter on the floor. It’s surprisingly comfortable. Luanna is warm. Her skin feels like velvet. Our empty glasses act like prisms for the moonlight, casting red arcs across the floor.

“I have a show tomorrow. Big German dancing. Sleep,” she commands, hair tousled. I was wrong about the Parisian perfume. She smells of patchouli. The mattress is a raft. Two plates lie next to us, like islands on that big, wooden floor.

If I wanted a memory that said I was all at sea, then this is it.

The postcard says, “I miss you, but I don’t love you.”

It was a lie, I think. But I got scared and let things drift away.

 

10 comments

1 Lara Dunning { 04.09.11 at 2:08 am }

Part of this piece read very poetically. You captivated the mood, mystic of Luanna and the essence of their time together. Loved this!

2 tre { 04.09.11 at 3:08 am }

Enjoyed the whole thing, but was particularly fond of the description of the flat. Loved the way it moved from inside to outside, creating a strong sense of place in a very simple way.

3 John Xero { 04.09.11 at 7:45 am }

This is great Stephen, really great. Some excellent turns of phrase, a well-constructed sense of place, some lovely imagery – from the “Feathers… Feathers… Feathers floating in the bathroom porcelain, like little sail boats” of the fourth paragraph and onwards. You get a really good feel for Luanna too, and the complex of emotions the protagonist feels for her.

I really love the otherworldly twists your stories usually have, but even without that I think this is possibly the best of yours I’ve read. Love it. =)

4 Stephen Hewitt { 04.11.11 at 10:45 pm }

@Lara, I’m always keen to push the boundaries a bit with language. I was heading out on holiday twenty minutes after I hit ‘publish’, so didn’t have too long to edit this one. Really glad you enjoyed it. There were a few long sentences in there and some chopping around between ideas…

@tre, glad you enjoyed the story and liked that flat (and how it was described). I’m beginning to wish I owned it. Thanks for popping on a comment 🙂

@John, really glad you liked the imagery, those feathers, and what was going on between the protagonists. Plenty more layers to explore, I’m sure. When it comes to the otherworldly twists, just have to remember I like writing other things too. And will endeavour to do so every now and then 😉

5 Steve Green { 04.09.11 at 1:24 pm }

I think you must have used your poetic quill for this one too Stephen, it is very rich in description and imagery, very intense.

6 Stephen Hewitt { 04.11.11 at 11:07 pm }

@Steve, I keep that quill in an amber box that was hand carved in Xanadu and shipped down the Euphrates. 😉

@Harry, lol. ‘…flocks more dropping feathers in loft apartments all over the Gaslamp Quarter…’ — your turn of phrase gave me a laugh (not for the first time). Sounds like San Diego was an interesting place to be in 1988. Really glad you liked this. St.

7 Harry B. Sanderford { 04.09.11 at 9:52 pm }

I wonder if Oberbaumbrucke wasn’t an awful lot like San Diego back in 1988. Anyway, that’s what your story reminded me of. As exotic a bird as Luanna surely was, there were flocks more dropping feathers in loft apartments all over the Gaslamp Quarter back then.

As always your writing is a pleasure to read. Wonderful details, and heartfelt emotion.

8 Aidan Fritz { 04.10.11 at 5:57 pm }

I enjoyed the way this starts out with them exposed to the voyeurs on the street and then it twists around in a wonderful way where we become voyeurs into their dance, their sex, their broken hearts. Great images throughout this piece.

9 Icy Sedgwick { 04.10.11 at 10:18 pm }

Gorgeous language. Very evocative of the fragmentary way that memory works, and the way we impose a present day narrative on the past. Excellent stuff.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 04.11.11 at 11:36 pm }

@Aidan, voyeurism definitely one of the defining elements of this story. Glad you liked the imagery and the view into the flat. 🙂 St.

@Icy, thanks Icy. Language and remembrance both fun things to play with. Glad you liked this little slice of Oberbaumbrucke in 1988. St.

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