‘You’re getting sloppy, Ms Fischer.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘No . . .’
‘So you admit you’re getting sloppy, Ms Fischer.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I just had a bad day, I –’
‘You’ve been working here long enough, you know we can’t afford complaints.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘It won’t happen –’
‘It most certainly won’t. We’re counting on you, you’re part of our team. But if you can’t keep up, we do understand.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I can keep up, it was just –’
‘Not to worry, Ms Fischer, anyone can have a bad day.’ She held the two cherry stones in her clenched fist for the whole walk alongside the tracks to the station. She was wearing her luminous orange high-vis vest over her blue dungarees, like she always did when she walked along the tracks to the station after the afternoon shift. In the onsetting night, she saw the arches leading into the huge station building like gateways. The tracks shimmered reddish and in some places silver in the dusk, it was early September, and the remains of the day still dimmed late when the sky was clear.
She threw her cloth bag with the eleven empty deposit bottles into a bush beside the tracks. Then she turned back and tried to tug the bag out of the brushy, thorny bush. She squatted down by the bush and she heard a train, the clank and hum of the branching and crossing tracks, but she knew the train was far enough away.
She put her fist down on the bar. Opened it and felt the two cherry stones falling out. No, she’d been clenching her fist so tightly as she walked alongside the tracks to the station that one stone stuck for a moment to the skin of her palm. She’d abandoned the bag in the tangled bush after all. Even though the bottles were worth two seventy-five. But the supermarket in the station basement was closing in a few minutes and she didn’t want to run. It had been a long hard day with a long evening on the trains. She could have taken the bag of bottles home with her but she didn’t feel like sitting on the tram with a beer-soaked bag after that middle shift. And she had thrown the bag away in anger because she could still hear the Chief Cleaning Inspector’s voice. It chattered away beside her over the railway sleepers, ‘You’re – get-ting – sloppy . . . ’ screeched the brakes of the trains as they entered the station, left the station. She went back for the bag the next day.
‘And do you know what else we found?’
‘Apart from the two cherry stones? Bet it wasn’t your wrinkly old balls.’
She laughed and drank a sip of her coffee. She’d tipped a small Maria into the cup, a small glass of Mariacron brandy. The station pub was right next to the staircase leading down from the platforms to the lower West concourse. When she turned around she could see through the long, narrow pub windows to the hairdresser’s on the other side of the big staircase. A room made of glass, hood dryers standing in a semi-circle. Two young women finishing off for the night in the bright light, clearing up, sweeping the cut hair off the floor, time to go now, after ten already. Later, the dryers stood in the dark as the station prepared for the night, the last trains, shadows on the platforms, last travellers climbing the stairs to the platforms. She heard the screech of trams in the forecourt as security guards passed the pub, always in pairs, night shift, time to go home. The dryers stood in the dark and she turned back to the bar.
‘Another small Maria?’ The chubby pub landlord was already holding the bottle of Mariacron brandy and smiling at her over his round metal-rimmed glasses, looking more like a friendly primary school teacher than a publican. She nodded and laid her hand over the cherry stones. For a few years now, she’d been going for a drink in the station pub now and then after the middle shift, but she didn’t know the landlord’s name. Klaus? No. Jimmy the Wasp? No, that was a whole ’nother story. Sometimes his wife ran the place, a heavy smoker with her hair already half grey, and sometimes, when the place was busy, at weekends or over Christmas, they were both behind the bar.
She sipped at her small Maria. She couldn’t take much alcohol; it made her tired. She sipped at her small Maria, closed her eyes and listened to the strange sounds of the station by night. Someone shouted something somewhere – it echoed beneath the dome, between the arches. The pub had two doors, usually open except in winter when the cold came in with the trains through the great gateways. The station would steam, then, sending steam out into the darkness while she strode towards it alongside the tracks after the middle shift, as though it were breathing out through the great arches, as though its breath were freezing in the cold. She’d trudge alongside the track, trudge through the snow, deposit bottles clinking in the bag hitting her leg. Another ten minutes before the supermarket on the ground floor closed. Fifteen bottles, three seventy-five.
Good thing there aren’t that many winter days and winter nights any more, she thought as she approached the station’s arches. The yellow light of the platforms mixing with the white breath. She could barely see her own breath. She clenched her fists, her work gloves still on. She opened and closed her palms over and over to ward off the cold, made a fist that she opened and then closed again.
‘Excuse me, you’ve dropped something.’
‘What?’ She opened her eyes and turned around.
There was a woman at one of the tables behind her.
The woman pointed at the floor. ‘You just dropped something.’ The woman had dark hair, shiny and black like patent leather, presumably dyed because she had to be in her early sixties. Her face was gaunt and when she took a drag on her cigarette it looked like the wrinkles around the edges of her mouth got deeper and longer.
‘Oh, thanks.’ She looked at the floor but she couldn’t see anything there. She got up from her bar stool to bend over.
‘Hold on, right there next to the chair leg.’ The other woman stood up too and they almost bumped heads.
‘Sorry,’ said the dark-haired woman, and took a step back. ‘There, it’s down there, you just dropped it . . .’
And now she saw the cherry stone. The other one was still on the bar next to her small Maria. She squatted down and picked up the cherry stone between finger and thumb. Standing up, she felt the pain in her back again, right above her tailbone, that had been troubling her for days. ‘Thank you, but it’s . . . it’s nothing much.’ She put the cherry stone in the ashtray a little way from her small Maria on the bar.
‘Is it a . . .’ said the dark-haired woman, walking slowly over to her at the bar. ‘It looked like a pearl.’ She held her cigarette slightly behind her, one arm away from her body as though she didn’t want to bother her with the smoke.
‘A pearl?’ she said, and felt herself smiling. ‘No, afraid not.’
The dark-haired woman extinguished her cigarette in the ashtray where the cherry stone now was.
‘The smoke doesn’t bother me,’ she said to the dark-haired woman. ‘It’s a smoking bar. And I like the smell.’
‘You’re from the smoking days too,’ said the dark-haired woman, and nodded.
‘The smoking days,’ she said. ‘Yes . . .’ and she nodded too and looked out through the window past the dark-haired woman at the semi-dark station concourse empty below them, and then she saw the mini bottle of sparkling wine on the table by the window.
‘Your drink,’ she said and turned back to the bar, ‘you’ve forgotten your drink.’
‘Thanks,’ said the dark-haired woman. ‘Don’t mind if I do.’ She got up, fetched the bottle and the tall, thin glass and put them down next to the ashtray. ‘Cheers,’ she said, raising her half-full sparkling wine, and then they clinked glasses.
The small Maria was almost gone and she waved over the fat man whose name she’d forgotten and ordered another shot.
‘You used to smoke?’ asked the woman with the dark hair that shone like patent leather, topping up her glass from the miniature bottle.
‘No, my husband smoked,’ she said, ‘and I miss it sometimes.’
And they both nodded again and fell silent and looked somewhere, past each other, at the glass panes that reflected the inside of the station pub back at them, the other tables and chairs, the chubby landlord topping someone up, the chubby landlord who looked like a teacher, round glasses slipping down a nose shining with sweat, beer foam on pint glasses, a man leaning into the slot machine on the other side of the room and putting more money in it and the bright lights of the slot machine flickering on his face, smoke above the square of the bar, a man eating a sausage at one table, the radio so low they could barely hear it.
‘So you work for Deutsche Bahn?’ asked the dark- haired woman, reaching into the inside pocket of her summer coat.
‘Why d’you ask?’ she asked, and then she remembered she was still wearing her orange safety vest, and then the dark-haired woman tapped at the lapels of her summer coat to remind her of the vest, and she got angry with herself and said very loudly, ‘Yes, OK, I know.’
‘Sorry,’ said the dark-haired woman. ‘I didn’t mean to . . .’
‘Never mind,’ she said, and took a sip of her small Maria and sensed that she was already slightly drunk, and she shook her head, trying to shake the small Marias out of it before she went on – she didn’t usually drink this much.
‘I always take it off, usually,’ she said. ‘I always have a bag with me for putting this orange firecracker in.’
‘It suits you,’ said the dark-haired woman, and looked at her and then lowered her eyes and took a pack of cigarettes out of the inside pocket of her summer coat. ‘Why do you want to take it off now?’
‘Because I’ve finished work,’ she said, and took off the vest and put it on the bar stool between them. ‘Sorry about just now . . .’
‘No, don’t be,’ said the woman with the dark hair and the summer coat, scuffed and threadbare at the sleeves and elbows. ‘I understand. When I leave work, I want to . . . leave my work behind, too.’
‘Where do you work?’ she asked, and sipped at her small Maria and felt calmer again and her head clearer.
The woman with the dark hair and the threadbare but still elegant summer coat blew out smoke, and she breathed it in and smelled the cigarette smoke. She loved smoking along like that; her husband had smoked a lot – hadn’t she even told the other woman that, earlier? All the things you tell people in the night. After the middle shift. They came from the smoking days.
‘At the hairdresser’s.’
‘You asked me where I work.’
‘Yes. Oh, you work right over there?’ She lowered her head to the big window with the staircase behind it, leading down into the West concourse. The hairdresser’s on the other side of the stairs. The semi-circle of dryers.
‘No, not over there,’ the dark-haired woman smiled and tapped her cigarette with her forefinger, sending the ash down to the glass ashtray. ‘Only young things work in there. Super Cut – no, they’d never take me.’
‘Super Cut? What a stupid name.’ She lowered her head and read the writing on the other side of the staircase. ‘I’ve never been in there. I always go to the place round the corner from me.’
‘Whereabouts do you live?’
‘Schönefeld. Always have.’
‘Schönefeld – beautiful field.’
She laughed at that. ‘No, not these days. Hoffmann’s Hairdressing. Do you know it? A really old salon.’
‘Hoffmann’s, yes.’ The woman with the dark hair and the summer coat nodded and put out her cigarette. ‘It really has been going a long time. I used to know old Mrs Hoffmann.’
‘The one with the wonky nose?’
‘No, that’s her daughter. Is the place still going strong?’
‘Well, young Mrs Hoffmann’s not young any more and it’s not easy. But as long as I’m still going there . . .’ She laughed and ran her hands through her hair and remembered she hadn’t been to Hoffmann’s Hairdressing for a long time.
‘I work over there in the East concourse,’ said the woman with the dark hair and the summer coat, ‘by the other staircase.’
‘I often pass by,’ she said, and sipped at her small Maria again even though the glass was empty now. ‘It seems to be a good, quiet salon.’
‘We don’t have music blaring all day long like they do, anyway.’ The dark-haired woman nodded towards the staircase, towards Super Cut. ‘We’re a clean, quiet, well-run business. That place over there is nothing but chaos – I can tell straight away just from walking past.’
And a little later, the two of them are outside the clean, quiet, well-run business by the staircase to the East concourse. The station is abandoned now. Night beneath the arches. Trains on some platforms. She knows her workmates from the night shift are going through the carriages. In the station and out on the sidings. The dark-haired woman reaches into the side pocket of her summer coat, which looks very elegant in the dim station light, almost French. She’s a little envious of the woman: of her coat, her dark hair . . . She touches the coarse fabric of her shapeless blue dungarees.
A mobile had rung in the summer coat. ‘Something’s buzzing,’ she’d said, and the dark-haired woman had answered the call.
‘I have to go back over,’ she said, then. ‘Left something behind?’ she asked.
‘No, the light. Someone left the light on, and that someone must have been me.’
‘Worse things happen at sea.’
‘Yes. A friend of the boss saw it and called my boss,’ she said.
‘But you can’t hardly see anything,’ she said as she and the hairdresser stood outside the clean, quiet, well-run hairdressing salon by the staircase to the East concourse.
The only light to be seen was a weak yellow glow somewhere at the back of the shop. They were outside the large shop window. Hood dryers in a row along one wall. In the yellow light, casting strange shadows behind the big window, it looked for a moment as though there were customers sitting waiting under some of the hoods. She clutched her folded safety vest to her chest and the hairdresser said nothing either, and they stood like that for a while and stared at the big shop window, behind which the yellow light sparsely illuminated the salon, empty mirrors facing empty chairs… ‘There’s this lamp, just a standing lamp, and I always leave it on when I finish off. When I’ve switched everything off. When I lock everything up. My boss always says, don’t forget the light. Costs electricity.’
‘That’s rubbish with the electricity. Pennies. Deposit money.’
‘Forget it. I just meant, I often leave the hall light on before I go to sleep. It’s on all night. So what? What does that cost? Nothing. Sod it.’
‘Is it calming?’
‘Is what calming?’
‘The light in the hall.’
‘It’s good to see it through the crack in the door.’
‘I’ll just pop in, if you want to wait . . . ’
‘I have to run, the last tram.’
‘You were going to tell me about the cherry stones . . . ’
‘The cherry stones? I want to plant them, in the garden of the block where I live. Two cherry trees. And then I’ll be a cherry-seller.’
‘A cherry-seller? You say the craziest things…’
The dark-haired woman shook her head and unlocked the salon door, went inside.
She waved at her before she went down the stairs to the East concourse, and the dark-haired woman waved back from behind the door, and then she walked slowly, one step at a time, down to the concourse.
‘Why didn’t you want to tell me the thing about the cherry stones the other day?’
‘Because it’s not true. They found them under a seat, on the trains, the inspection commission.’
‘Inspection commission? You’re kidding?’
‘You should plant them, you really should.’
‘You see, that was a much nicer idea. But you insisted.’ And as she walked slowly across the East concourse to the exit, to the tram stop, she turned back around and saw the light going out behind the big window by the staircase.
She saw her behind the big window. The dark-haired woman crossed the hairdressing salon, a little unsure, as though she had just woken up.
She had taken off the orange safety vest and was clutching it to her chest. She saw the dark-haired woman putting on her white work coat. It was just after six in the morning, the end of the night shift on the trains, the start of the early shift in the salon. She’d swept and wiped all night, her workmates taciturn in the morning hours and everything difficult, and it seemed as though the trains they worked on got longer and longer, a new carriage waiting after every one they’d cleaned.
At first, she hadn’t wanted to walk back to the station, alongside the tracks, after she and her workmates had stopped off at the maintenance building where the shifts began and ended, by the side of the tracks, but then she’d put her orange safety vest back on and marched off. The morning was dark and grey, as though still night. She was wearing a jumper under her blue dungarees now; after the night shift they stowed the deposit bottles and cans they found on the trains in the cleaning services building and divided them up later.
The first trains pulled into the station, drizzle in the air, a wet grey morning, and the tracks glinted silver in the light of the illuminated carriages, the trains clanked and rumbled over the tangle of rails and into the great gates beneath the arches of the dome. As she finally reached the outside platform, rising up ahead of her like a giant step, she felt her back twinge again. She squatted down and ran her broom beneath the seats, no cherry stones in among all the rubbish she swept out. ‘You’re getting sloppy, Ms Fischer.’ She swept for half the night, then she took over the train windows. She dunked the wiper in the bucket, leaned forward and touched the glass with the wet window wiper, running it across the glass. She felt her back twinge and swayed along the outside platform. ‘You know what, you walk like a sailor.’
‘Me, like a sailor? I don’t . . .’
‘You do, like a sailor just going on land.’
‘I’m not some old sea dog . . .’
‘Like a first officer just going on land.’
‘You’re not making it any better!’
‘But I like the way you walk. I like watching it.’
At six in the morning the station was full of people, filling up with commuters, workers, travellers, and she regretted not going straight from the cleaning services building to the tram stop. But then she saw the glass walls of the hairdressing salon, far off still, and she raised a hand as though to say hello, although she didn’t even know if she was behind the glass and setting up for the day shift, and the salon was still so far away that her hand covered the whole window, and she put her hands back in the pockets of her blue work overalls and walked, slowly and swaying a little, past the morning people. She took the shortcut through a tunnel beneath the platforms, a subterranean link between the platforms. She liked the tunnel – there was usually no one else there. Only a few travellers and station people used the shortcut. She stopped for a moment and looked along the sparsely lit tube, in which her steps would echo again any minute now; she liked the sounds down there too. The footsteps bouncing off the walls, the echo when she coughed. She always wondered why the punks who sat drinking outside the entrances didn’t use the tunnel, the homeless and the foreigners who stood around the station and often crisscrossed the concourses, -why they didn’t come down for a little peace or to do their dirty business. She never saw the station security men down there.
She walked along the tunnel underneath the platforms, heard the trains rumbling above the bricks and mortar, walked past the steel doors leading deep into the ground on either side, who knows where to, and then she slowly climbed the steps to platform eleven. And then she saw her behind the big shop window. She was putting on her white work tunic and setting everything up for the day shift in the salon. And she stood there on platform eleven and watched her and heard the train to Berlin pulling in, and all the early-morning travelers dashed past her, and she took off her orange safety vest and walked between them with the orange safety vest clutched to her chest, swaying a little after the long night. She leaned against one of the yellow timetables and watched her bending over the row of hood dryers and switching the lights on, and she saw her reflected in the many mirrors.
They hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks but their shifts would be ending together again soon. How often had they met now, three or four times?
‘And your surname?’
‘I told you mine . . . ’
‘Like the politician?’
‘No, with t-z.’
‘Thank God for that. That old Krenz was a real blue-shirted commie. Egon, the chief of the blue-shirts.’
‘I was a blue-shirt too. I was really into the Free German Youth as a girl, back in the GDR.’
‘Me too, Birgitt. But it’s decades ago now. We were probably all young communists.’
‘Yes, pretty young socialists, whatever. Blue-shirts. And I still have to wear that same shade of blue overalls to work.’
‘Blue you,’ said Birgitt, the woman with dark hair. They were sitting at the bar, sharing a miniature bottle of sparkling wine. They looked tired, their heads resting on their hands, their elbows on the wood of the bar.
‘Oh yes,’ said Christa Fischer, ‘I’m a working-class heroine.’
And later, and nights and weeks had passed and before – how often had they met now? – shortly before the station pub by the staircase leading down to the West concourse closed, midnight, they heard the song ‘Lady in Black’ on the radio.
‘I used to dance to this one at the disco.’ ‘Me too. A hundred years ago.’
‘Do you understand the words?’
‘Not really. She came one morning. And then something about winter wind.’
‘It’ll be winter soon enough.’ ‘Shall we share another bottle?’
‘Yes, let’s.’ And Birgitt, the hairdresser, ordered another miniature bottle of sparkling wine and two glasses.
‘That’s the last round,’ said the chubby landlord who looked like a gentle teacher with his metal-rimmed glasses.
‘No need to tell us that, Jimmy,’ said Christa.
‘My name’s not Jimmy,’ said the landlord, taking the bottle out of the fridge.
‘Have you got children?’ Birgitt asked as they drank. They drank their last glass and suddenly they weren’t tired any more, though the station was now silent and empty and descending into night.
‘A daughter. She works in Berlin. And you?’
‘No. I had something done when I was young. Here.’ She laid her flat hand on her stomach. She was still wearing the summer coat, although the nights were growing cooler now. ‘I couldn’t after that. Are you a grandmother yet?’
‘No, but they’re working on it,’ she said. ‘She’s thirty-two. But I was a late mother.’
‘My marriage?’ She laughed and dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. ‘It was a long time ago.’
‘I mean your daughter’s.’
‘Oh, well… they’ll make a better job of it. She doesn’t come to visit all that often, and I’m always working. Are you married, Birgitt?’
‘I was. Twice.’
‘A double Rittberger.’
‘Oh, just one of those things you say, Birgitt. From figure-skating.’
‘Never got into it, Christa. Despite our gorgeous Katharina.’
‘In a few years there’ll be no-one left who remembers our beautiful Katharina Witt. The great socialist figure-skater.’
They said nothing for a while, drinking sips of their wine and pouring ever smaller amounts from the bottle into their thin, tall glasses and watching the last miniature bottle gradually emptying.
‘I don’t know if I should look forward to retiring, Christa.’
‘Have you got long to go?’
‘Not that long. A couple of years.’
‘Me too,’ she said. ‘But you . . . you still look good. You don’t look like . . . well, you know.’
‘No, I mean it. You look after yourself, you look good.’
‘You do too, Christa.’
‘Oh, come off it, I’m a cleaning lady. It’s bad for your skin.’ She laid her hands on the bar, palms upwards. Her hands were raw and her skin was chapped in several places.
‘You’re not a cleaning lady,’ said Birgitt. She wanted to put her hand in one of the open palms, but then she left it and stroked the lapels of her summer coat.
‘Have you always been on the trains?’ she asked. ‘Nearly twenty years now,’ said Christa. ‘That’s almost like always – it feels like forever.’ ‘And before that?’
‘Worked in a big hotel, right next to the station, on the west side. Right next to the West concourse. That’s where I did my training too. The best hotel in the city, it was.’
‘I remember,’ said Birgitt. ‘They closed it down in the early nineties.’
‘Right,’ said Christa, ‘and I was out of work for a while, then I applied to the railway cleaning services. I don’t want to start complaining, it’s late.’
‘I know what you mean,’ said Birgitt. ‘Makes you kind of sentimental.’
‘And you, how long have you been here, cutting hair by the trains?’
‘Feels like forever,’ said Birgitt.
‘And we never saw each other before?’
‘Never mind, we see each other now, that’s good enough,’ said Birgitt.
‘True.’ And then they fell silent for a while and drank sips of their cold sparkling wine, which wasn’t that cold any more, last sips, and watched the chubby barman who Christa always called Jimmy washing glasses, and other glasses moved to and fro, half-full on the bar, the last movements of the last guests, a ticket inspector drinking coffee, his blue cap with its black peak beside him on the bar. A telephone buzzed in Birgitt’s summer coat but she didn’t react, took a cigarette out of her pack and lit it.
‘Something’s buzzing in your pocket,’ said Christa. ‘No, it’s not,’ said Birgitt.
‘Let’s hope it’s not your boss again.’
‘No, not at this time of night. It’s after midnight.’
The telephone fell silent and they sipped at their glasses, and then it started buzzing again and Birgitt took it out of the inside pocket of her summer coat, glanced at the illuminated screen and rejected the call.
‘I haven’t got a mobile phone,’ said Christa, ‘because of the radiation.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘No, and this way no one can get on my wick at this time of night . . . ’
She wanted to order a small Maria but then she remembered the landlord had already called last orders. She looked at the illuminated screen of Birgitt’s phone, which had buzzed again and was still buzzing, and she read some name and looked away quickly before it went out and Birgitt put the phone back in the pocket of her summer coat.
‘I feel safer with a phone. Imagine if you got mugged. It’s dangerous here at night. Outside, I mean.’
‘Yes, it is dangerous. I sometimes walk if I miss the last tram. I steer clear of certain areas, if you know what I mean, but I always have this with me.’ She reached into the large front pocket of her canvas dungarees and put a can of pepper spray down on the bar next to the miniature bottle. ‘If anyone bothers me . . . and a phone would be no use then, anyway.’
‘What if I want to call you?’ Birgitt cautiously picked up the pepper spray, holding it in both hands and moving her lips as if reading the writing on the can.
‘I’ve got a landline. But… I might get a mobile for you, maybe. There’s that big electronics store round the corner here.’
‘You really don’t have a mobile phone?’ Birgitt smiled and put the pepper spray back down on the bar.
‘I sometimes think it’s not good for us,’ said Christa. ‘All the air, everything here, everywhere, all the conversations pass through it and the internet and all the signals . . . It can’t be good for our brains.’ She tapped her temple with her forefinger and then ran a hand through her hair.
‘It’s time you went to the hairdresser’s, Christa.’
And she leaned against the yellow timetable and looked over at the salon by the staircase leading down to the East concourse, until an old man pulling a huge suit- case on wheels stopped in front of her and then, because she was still looking that way, the crumpled orange safety vest clutched to her chest, he went up close to her and said, ‘Excuse me!’ And then again, ‘Excuse me, please.’ She hadn’t heard him because he spoke very quietly, but perhaps it was the sounds and the voices of the morning station that swallowed up his voice. She stepped aside and the old man leaned into the timetable, his head almost touching the glass over the yellow paper, he was leaning so far forwards.
She went to one of the bakery stalls that opened at that time of day, at the station end of the platforms, and bought a cardboard cup of coffee. She took off the plastic lid and threw it in the bin next to the stall and blew on the hot drink. She looked up at the big clock above the passage leading to the staircase down to the East concourse. The salon was really busy now. At first, she thought it was the mirrors and she was seeing Birgitt over and over.
But the salon opened in forty minutes’ time and it must have been Birgitt’s workmates who were arriving now.
She was tired and the coffee wasn’t improving matters.
But she wanted to wait until the salon opened. ‘Good morning, I’d like a haircut.’
She ran a hand through her hair; it was lank and long and the ends were curling up, stuck together with sweat. The night before last – so yesterday, no, the day before? – she was a little confused because the days and nights were flowing together more and more . . . the night before last, she’d taken over the rubbish bins for a few hours. On the trains. She held the rubbish bag under the bin, saw herself in the window pane, bending over the rubbish bin, gripped the metal on either side and pulled and levered until the bin fell towards her, almost emptying itself into the big black bag as she held it and shook it so it was really empty before she levered it back into its mounting. And again, she saw herself in the window pane in the yellow of the night lighting, and they touched each other briefly on the shoulders as she walked to the next bin.
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ She leapt up from her squatting position, let go of the bin as the liquid ran into the black bag, ran over the rubbish bag, dripped onto the floor, onto her legs, darkening the blue of her work trousers, and now the blue fabric was dark and wet on her knees and she smelled the piss running out of the bin. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’ She stumbled back, held her wet hands away from her body, then dipped them in the bucket of cleaning water. She wanted to open a sliding window – wasn’t there a light there on another train? The inspectors only came rarely, inspected the floor and the windows and the bins with torches, moved almost soundlessly along the trains and between the sidings, popped up and left again.
She held the coffee up so close to her face that she felt the steam hot and damp on her skin and she closed her eyes. She hadn’t got in a mess during the night shift just gone but she still wanted to take a shower before she went to see her. Sometimes she changed in the cleaning services building and showered there too.
She was naked and she turned the hot water up until it would go no further. She had put five euros in the slot. Deposit money from the past few days. The big WC Centre with the showers was only a few yards away from the salon. There was a pet shop between the two. She looked at the cages of green and yellow birds sleeping on their perches, the dog collars, food bowls and litter boxes, and she said, ‘I’ve never had a pet. Have you?’
‘Two hamsters, when I was little. I’ve often thought about getting a cat.’
‘I don’t know. I think then you’re really alone.’
‘Yes.’ They saw each other in the window, standing shoulder to shoulder. Far behind them, a train passed through one of the arches that looked like great gateways, into the night.
She kept pressing the plastic shampoo dispenser and then spread the shampoo over her hair and body. It stung her eyes and she blinked and looked down at herself and sucked in her stomach. Her hair felt soft and good under the water of the shower, and the warm water ran down her back.
‘Keep your head still. You have to hold it straight or I’ll cut your ear off.’ She felt Birgitt’s hands on her scalp, heard the quiet snip of the scissors.
She opened her eyes and saw herself in the mirror, a white towel covering her upper body, more and more hair falling onto the fabric. She saw the grey tips, some tufts entirely grey, and she looked in the mirror again, saw Birgitt’s hands in her hair, the quiet snip of the scissors moving through her hair with and between the hands. She imagined herself standing outside the shop, watching two women all alone in the salon, one wearing overalls, barely recognizable under the white towel with hair falling onto it, the other behind her, leaning over her, the silver glint of the scissors…
And again she closed her eyes and felt Birgitt’s hands and her fingertips on her scalp, and she got goose pimples like she used to when she went to the hairdresser’s as a girl. Those touches.
Birgitt laid her hand on hers, felt the chapped, raw skin – ‘I’m a working-class heroine’ – for a moment it seemed like Christa wanted to pull her hand away but it was just a subtle movement on the wood of the bar.
‘Come over with me, I’ll cut your hair.’
‘What, now, in the middle of the night?’
‘Yes. We’ll get you back to scratch.’
‘It’s not that bad, is it?’
‘It’s bad enough. We’ll just go over and I’ll cut your hair.’
‘If you say so . . . It’d be nice.’
‘Oh, come off it.’
‘That’s sweet of you. You know what, I was outside your salon the other morning . . . ’
‘After your night shift? Before my early shift, then.’
‘Why didn’t you come in?’
‘I don’t know. I . . . I don’t know.’
‘Probably too many hairdressers in one place for your taste.’
‘No, that wasn’t it. I’d made sure . . . ’
‘Doesn’t matter, Christa. It’s much nicer now anyway.’
‘Yes, it is.’
She sat at the bar and waited, but Birgitt didn’t come. She drank a coffee and a small Maria, then she paid the bill and went over to the salon. She could tell there were no lights on from far off. She walked a few minutes past the ends of the platforms but she didn’t see Birgitt anywhere. There were a few young lads standing around at the other end, by the late-night minimart and the fast- food outlet.
She went back to the station pub. For a tiny moment she was sure Birgitt would be sitting at the bar and smoking when she came in, but there was no one there and she went back to her coffee and small Maria, sipping at it slowly as she waited.
She ran her hands through her new haircut a few times, through her medium-length hair, and a few times it seemed like she saw tiny silvery tips of hair floating on the air above the bar.
It was a few days ago now that they’d been to the salon in the middle of the night and Birgitt had cut her hair. The shifts had changed over and twice Birgitt had left the light on in the salon, as she’d promised almost as a joke. ‘Like a message in a bottle, you know?’
‘There’s no light on in a bottle, Birgitt.’
‘Hmm… Like a message in a bottle with a glowworm in it.’
‘You say the craziest things, Birgitt.’
They had arrived after midnight to clean two long-distance trains due to travel again the next morning. And even from far off, Christa had seen the salon’s yellow light, though it was only dim, that yellow light of the standing lamp that Birgitt sometimes switched on when she cleaned everything up, turned off the other lights, the last few jobs, put the hair-cutting machines in their chargers, locked all the doors and left the salon.
She’ll get in trouble, she thought before she got on the train with the others. But the light was on again the next night, and she smiled as she got on the long-distance train with her broom and cleaning fluids.
The light wasn’t on any more, but actually she’d been glad of that – why should Birgitt get in a row with her boss? Still, it would have been nice, a message in a bottle in the dark station concourse. The bar by the staircase was shut at that time too, only a few people standing around over by the West exit at the fast-food outlet, open twenty-four hours.
‘And it’s only for you. No one else will ever notice.’ She finished her small Maria and paid and left.
She didn’t meet Birgitt the next evening either, in the pub by the stairs leading down to the West concourse. Again, she walked a few minutes along the ends of the platforms then went down the escalator, walked through the levels of the big station, briefly considered going to the tunnel linking the platforms, but what was the point? And again the shifts changed over, days off in between, and she was annoyed at herself for not having a mobile phone. The nights were cold, the first frost came, then it warmed up again slightly. The year was almost over.
She watched the haircutters setting everything up for work. ‘I’m a hairdresser, Christa, not a haircutter. Haircutters is what you get at Super Cut.’ But Birgitt wasn’t one of them. ‘Super Cut, what a stupid name…’ They laughed. Her fingertips on her scalp. Behind her ears. She leaned against the tiled wall of the shower cubicle, the time was up, the water no longer running, five minutes for five euros, and she took her hand off her stomach and ran it through her wet hair, and water dripped from her hair onto her face.
She had stood outside the building for a good while. Now she climbed the stairs, one at a time. She didn’t want to ring the bell at the bottom, didn’t know what to say when she heard her voice through the intercom. ‘Yes?’
‘It’s me. Christa, I mean.’ ‘Yes?’
‘I just wanted . . . ’ She had stood in front of the doorbell panel for a long time, looking at the names, her hand on the knob of the locked door.
‘You’re getting sloppy, Ms Fischer.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘Yes. It’s the night.’
‘Well, if you can’t . . . ’
‘Oh, just shut up, will you?’
She had gone into the salon in the morning after that shift, had changed beforehand in the cleaning services building, hung her overalls up in her locker. She’d brought along her good winter coat but now she was sweating in the far too thick coat, with her orange safety vest over the top. Nasty cold sleet had set in and they were glad to get inside the trains. She had cleaned the windows from inside while the wet flakes smacked against the glass outside, melting and drawing long lines and curves along the panes.
At first the hairdresser wouldn’t tell her where Birgitt was and where she lived. Christa only knew which neighbourhood it was. She had taken off the safety vest and put it in her cloth bag. She had gone without her share of the deposit cans and bottles they found on the trains.
‘We know each other well, I just . . . ’
‘She’s off sick. I don’t know any more than that.’
‘If you had a number or an address . . . ’
‘I’m not allowed to just tell you.’
She stood like that for a while in front of the mirrors, between the hood dryers, while the first customers, men and women, walked past her. She clutched the cloth bag containing the orange safety vest to her chest.
‘But Birgitt’s my friend, we . . . I just want to go and visit her.’
The snip of the scissors, the buzz of the hair clippers, and outside the big shop window of the salon the station was awakening, the trains she’d cleaned in the nights before now moving out, through the arches that looked like great gateways.
‘Excuse me, excuse me please.’ She hadn’t heard the boy, even though he was bending over her. She was sitting on the doorstep and the rush-hour traffic was passing on the main road, and perhaps that noise had swallowed up the boy’s voice.
And once the boy with a key on a chain around his neck had let her in, she went up the stairs, one at a time. The boy turned around to her a couple of times; he was holding a huge mobile phone in both hands.
He talked into the telephone and she watched him ahead of her before he ran up the staircase.
Then she was outside the door to the flat. Birgitt’s name on the doorbell. She stepped up close to the door. She stood like that for a while, listening to the flat. All was quiet. She took a step back, adjusted the lapels of her winter coat, ran a hand through her hair and over her forehead, and then she knocked.
This story is included in Clemens Meyer’s collection Dark Satellites, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo.
Photograph © universaldilletant