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The door swung open and a couple came clattering in, bringing with them a gust of wind and the foul smell of lignite from the East, which they burned in their power stations. The famous Berliner Luft, the Berlin air. God, I hated this city. The closer you got to the Wall, and even more so if you crossed into the Russian Sector, everything was dirty, all the time. Buildings, cars, clothes. Lungs, I suppose. As a teenager I had a collapsed lung — pneumothorax, if you want to be medical about it — and my breathing had been a problem ever since, so I felt the harsh tang of the brown coal and tried to ration my breaths until the breeze abated.
I say I hated Berlin, and that’s true. I hated the ruined buildings, the air, the tackiness of parts of the city and the seediness of others. But hating Berlin in my job was like hating your mother-in-law: it might be true, but you had to get on with it. Maybe it would have been different if I’d ever been posted there. I might have used the cultural facilities, strolled the parks, discovered great restaurants and bars. As it was, I’d only got to know cheap, anonymous cafes and the sort of dives where people don’t remember your name. Or ask. Or want to know.
Still, not much longer. It was well past three o’clock, and my deadline was 5:00 p.m. After that, I was off‐duty and I could find somewhere to have that drink I so desperately craved. Company rules on company time, but after that I’d probably end up back at the hotel. I liked the anonymity and blandness of hotel bars. You didn’t need to pretend. Everyone was a transient, and mostly you were left to your own devices. When I’d had a quick look this morning, the menu in the hotel restaurant looked halfway decent. Not too heavy on lumpen German food. Sauerkraut turned my stomach, and pork knuckle was not my idea of a good time.
I looked at the number of butts in the ashtray and decided I could allow myself another cigarette. I was trying to cut down — God knows why, my body’s hardly a temple — but I’m naturally fidgety and smoking gives me something to do with my hands without sitting on them. I pulled out one of the Lucky Strike packets I’d bought at the airport and lit one.
For the third time, I tried to read an article in Der Tagesspiegel about BMW. My German is fine, but I couldn’t concentrate, and I was making slow progress. Mostly I was nervous. I didn’t know why. This was a routine job. Maybe that was it. Any old duffer could have done this run. You didn’t even need to speak German, since I was assured Andrei had reasonable English and was doing most of the legwork himself. It did make me wonder about the esteem in which I was held back home.
Eventually, I got to the end of the article, the gist of which was BMW introducing a new high-performance saloon. I don’t have much interest in cars, but I felt a small feeling of accomplishment. My coffee cup was empty. I held up my hand to indicate I wanted another, definitely my last. The waiter nodded and turned to the big machine which steamed and hissed and had obviously been installed at great expense. Then I thought, Fuck it, and added, “And a schnapps, bitte.”
He was efficient, I’ll give him that. The coffee and the little glass of firewater were with me in a matter of minutes, along with a glass of tapwater and a little almond biscuit. Jesus, did he think I needed mothering? Maybe he was right. We were in the last straight now. Andrei wasn’t coming, I was increasingly sure of that. Had he bottled out, or been put in the bag? I was too jaded to care. What I wanted was a hot meal, a bottle of wine, a bed, and a flight home. I’d need to notify the office here of my failure, but that could be done in the morning. Close enough to my departure time to avoid any awkward questions. Must dash, sorry for the rush, ’bye.
Outside, it was starting to snow. Dismal, wet flakes heavy with pollution. I wasn’t sure if it would lie, or whether the streets would simply clog up with brown slush.
I went for what seemed like my hundredth piss of the day. When I came back, a few more people had come in, and I sat down carefully, wondering if any of them was Andrei. I presented my profile to the room, in case anyone was looking for a man answering my description. But after five minutes of posturing, it seemed that no-one was particularly attentive. It was just a tea time rush. I glanced at my watch: 4:50 p.m. Ten minutes left. My hunch was right. He wouldn’t show.