Berlin is a city where you expect to see everything. With the cheapest beer available for 45 cents, there are people drinking everywhere at midday. Artists, hippies and travellers from all over the world scratch out a living and hang out in trendy cafes and the parks. The waves of bohemian parents feeding their children falafel and soya milk are offset only by the die-hard punks with facial tattoos and piercings who are so committed to anarchism that they pick up the shit their dogs leave in the park rather than leave it to the authorities.
It’s a city that’s too big to ever really know and changing too fast for anyone to understand. All you can hope to do is dive in and see where the currents take you as you swirl through different social scenes, each flourishing in their own little niche within the bio diversity of Berlin. And everywhere there is graffiti. Giant murals covering whole sides of buildings, a hundred metres high. Graffiti so well done that you wonder why it’s not in a gallery until you realise that the entire city is a gallery full of secret exhibitions that you discover only through the window of the Metro as you pass a bridge where an enormous monkey sweats nervously under a soldier’s helmet. Or you hit the brakes on your bicycle along a main road to take in the sight of a giant astronaut tumbling across the side of an apartment building.
Hearing that I liked street art, when I first arrived in Berlin my friends suggested I go down to Warschauer Bridge to see some of the world-famous paintings there; across the river on the side of a building facing a bit of waste ground were enormous murals of a man handcuffed by a golden chain running between Rolex watches on each wrist. Better still was the image on the next building along of two symmetrical men in masks, one of them upside down, and both of them trying to pull the cover off the other’s face.
Before I could think about the artist was trying to say, I was distracted by the sound of manic shouting behind me. There was man who seemed to be fighting with himself, to all appearances, swinging his arms around in the air and yelling at no one in particular. Passers by stepped into the road to avoid him and I held back trying to work out if he was a danger to anyone else or only himself.
“He sees them. People always tell you how to open your eyes. They never tell you how wide.” I turned to see an Englishman in an long army jacket, with thinning, unwashed hair, cheap sunglasses and the inevitable bottle of beer in his hand.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand – he sees what?”
Ignoring my question and not meeting my eyes, he continued: “A thousand years ago people didn’t know there was such a thing as electricity. But there was. A hundred years ago, before Max Planck came along, people didn’t know there was anything smaller than the atom. But there was. And today, you tell a doctor you hear voices he’ll give you drugs before he ever asks what they have to say.”
The man suffering the psychotic episode crumpled into a heap besides the railing of the bridge, shooting terrified look at the people walking past. My new acquaintance gave me his bottle to hold while he rolled himself a cigarette.
“So you’re saying he sees something that we don’t?”
“Him and me both.”
“So how come you’re not in the same state he is?”
“I’m an artist. Artists swim in the same river others drown in.”
Normally a statement that pretentious would have been the end of the conversation as far as I was concerned. But this was Berlin and each new character I met was another page for the mental scrapbook.
“Alright, so what is it you both see that we mortals don’t?”
He lowered his sunglasses and peered at me to see if I merited the answer. “Demons,” he revealed.
I smiled and was about to walk away but he quickly reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small green tablet. From his dilated eyeballs I guessed it must be drugs. East German industrial-strength drugs. “For those who have eyes to see, eh?” he said, extending the pill towards me.
I still don’t know why I took it. Maybe it was because I’d recently rewatched the Matrix and, in his military greatcoat, my new friend looked for all the world like a pale and grungy version of Morpheus, reset in Berlin, inviting me to find out how deep the rabbit hole went. Or maybe free will is just a convenient illusion and I’d already agreed to take it the moment I started talking to him. Either way, just saying ‘no’ didn’t seem like an option.
I slipped the green pill into my mouth and washed it down with a slug of my friend’s lukewarm beer, who now seemed to be on a roll.
“Everyone’s running around trying to find Paradise. Fuck Paradise! I’ve been there and it’s boring. It’s hell that’s worth a closer look.”
“So where’s that?” I asked, feeling my heart start to beat faster and an aching, tingling feeling start to chew at the end of my nerves.
“Right here!” he smiled, revealing yellow teeth that made his face seem even more pale and unhealthy. His face started to contort and it seemed the drugs were starting to work quicker than I expected. The grin on his face was somewhere between manic and inspired, and as the air started to vibrate I slowly became aware there was something sitting on his shoulder; I hadn’t noticed it before but I was now somehow sure that it had been there all along: huddled over and fidgeting with itself, there sat a creature too big to be a cat or a ferret…and anyway it had hands a little bald head which bent forwards, whispering into my friend’s ear; whispering, muttering dark words like a steady trickle of poison.
“What’s it saying?” I cried.
“Oh, terrible things! And it’s not the only one.” He said, gesturing around us.
I turned around to see the world gone mad.
In the busy street scene of daytime Berlin, everyone was surrounded by demons; scurrying along the floor and pulling at our ankles; fluttering through the air on noisy, agitated wings and landing on our shoulders; swinging by their tails from lamp posts and singing disgusting songs; covered in scales, pierced by horns, their pointed feet and hands scratching scrabbling, clawing the air, their voices screaming, moaning, begging and growling.
I closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears but the voice of a demon on my left got my attention:
“No one will ever know. It’ll be our little secret. No need to tell the wife. After all, you work for your money.Why shouldn’t you have a little fun?”I turned to see a white-haired demon wearing a tie and carrying a walking stick as he lectured a businessman who stood hesitating in front of an erotic massage parlour. Then a girl on a bicycle rode past with a nervous red demon with yellow eyes sat in the basket who hissed:
“Go faster! They’re all looking at you!Do you know what they’d do to you if they could? They want to hold you down and tear off your clothes! They…”
“Have a drink. After all, it’s nearly mid-day. Half the city has already had their first beer. You’ll feel better. You know you will,” said a fat, grey demon with enormous bloodshot eyes as he counselled a homeless man who sat in a doorway next to a plastic bag of empty bottles that he would soon redeem for 8 cents each.
I turned to face the Englishman responsible for making me see all these awful visions. “Make it stop!” I begged him.
“Oh, you don’t like what you see? Personally, I find it inspiring. Without them I never could have made that.” he said, pointing up at the side of a building and a mural I’d somehow not seen until now: the image was 50 meter high and was comprised of bodies, hundreds of pink, naked bodies piled up on top of each other, climbing, writhing, pushing, wrestling one another and together they made the shape of a monster whose outstretched hand – made of squirming bodies – was lifting up one terrified, naked white man towards his mouth, soon to be absorbed along with the others.
“We consume ourselves. Is that not the message?” I swung around to see a bony, white demon with a pair of spectacles balanced on a bleeding nose as he hovered in the air before me, his moth-eaten wings fluttering faster than the eye could see. “Now you and I both there’s no return to innocence. You’ll never be the same again. Scratch out your eyes and you’ll still see. Cut off your ears and you’ll still hear. It will never stop.”
I turned and ran.
I dashed across the road and could hear the horns of the cars and the scream of brakes behind me. I heard angry shouts of the people I pushed out of my way as I sprinted along the pavement. I ran blindly, desperately – until my feet were somehow no longer touching the ground and a moment of perfect weightlessness was followed by violent landing that knocked the breath out of me.
I don’t know how long I lay there. I lay with my eyes closed, my brain ignoring the repeated messages of pain coming in from the broken skin on my hands and knees.
“Are you okay?” someone asked me in a voice that seemed too gentle to belong to a demon. I opened my eyes cautiously to see a tourist with a camera in one hand and a map of Berlin in the other. “You took a bit of a fall, eh? You want one of these?” she offered, digging into her pocket to bring out one of the green pills that had started the whole affair. I drew back and she shrugged as she popped it in her mouth. “I didn’t like German chewing gum at first either but you get used to it.”
I looked around me and found to my relief that there were no demons to be seen. I picked myself up and limped back towards the bridge where a small crown had gathered by the railings. I could hear sirens in the distance. I pushed my way to the front and looked down onto the tracks below to see the lifeless body of the man I’d first seen fighting demons.
I only hoped he could no longer see them.