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Excerpt: "A Master from Germany" from SJ Naude's The Alphabet of Birds

The Alphabet of BirdsThe Alphabet of Birds is a collection of seven short stories by SJ Naudé that scrutinises South Africans at home and abroad.

“A Master from Germany” is a story about a man visiting his lover, Joschka. He follows Joschka, “the dark prince of Berlin nightlife”, through clouds of cocaine, rivers of drink and a populous country of unfamiliar names and faces that he could never remember.

Read the excerpt:

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Excerpt from “A Master from Germany”

Shortly before his mother’s death he sees her naked for the first time in his life.

He enters the bedroom. The bathroom door has been left open, in case she should fall or lose consciousness. It frames her: the body shapeless, the small towel she quickly presses against herself too small to cover her lower abdomen. Each pubic hair with a drop of clear water clinging to the tip. They both look away. Later they pretend it never happened.

Let’s first go back in time, a few months, to where he is standing, halfway down the cellar stairs, looking up at Joschka. Joschka is hesitant, calling him back, a large old-fashioned key in his hand. They are staying at Joschka’s brother-in-law’s castle, Burg Heimhof, in the Oberpfalz, not far from Nuremberg.

The castle sits on a rocky promontory, overlooking a quiet little Bavarian valley through which a Harley Davidson roars once or twice a day. The castle has a waterless moat on one side; on the other side it overlooks the edge of the cliff. The moat is overgrown and scattered with rubble. There is an eighteenth-century gate with metal-plated doors and ornamental carpentry. The part of the castle in which they are standing dates from the eleventh century. It is five storeys high. The oak floors have partially collapsed. The stairs, too, are broken off in places: as you ascend, they suddenly vanish. If you look down, you can see through three floors, all the way to the stairs descending to the cellar. If you look up, there are pigeons beneath heavy beams, light radiating through holes in the roof. The broken lines of the floors and stairs and beams form a three-dimensional diagram, an optical illusion. It is hard to get a grip on scale. Through openings in the wall you can see fragments of the valley and surrounding hills and forests, the hamlet at the foot. On the metre-wide sills there are birds’ nests.

Joschka’s brother-in-law, whose parents bought this castle from the German government for a song shortly after the war, has been restoring one room on the middle floor for decades. Painfully precise: wall paintings of knights and unicorns, floors and ceilings of reclaimed Southern German oak, torches on the walls. A knight’s armour stands in the corner with a lance clutched in the gauntlet. You could imagine that he is still in there.

A strange sensation: standing in a beautiful room, but when you open a door, you are in a ruin. Or let’s go back a week further. Berlin. They are staying with Joschka’s friends Aarik and Wilfred in Kreuzberg. Joschka lived in Berlin for a few years before moving to London, where they met. It is Joschka’s opportunity to show him his Berlin, everything from the sublime to the abject. Mostly the abject.

On the first evening there, they go out on the town. They move from bar to restaurant to party to bar to party to underground event to nightclub. They meet friends of Joschka’s, and acquaintances. And friends and acquaintances of friends and acquaintances. Joschka snorts too much cocaine in toilets. He moves with purpose, as if heading somewhere, as if his feet are lifting off the street. There are taxis, long walks through wide streets, lifts in speeding cars. From Kreuzberg to Schöneberg to Mitte, to Prenzlauer Berg and back to Mitte. They join people and take their leave, meet and move on: a night of greeting and departure, of random trips and changes of direction. He drinks too much himself, swallows or snorts things he is offered without knowing what they are. There are times when they linger – sometimes it feels like an eternity, sometimes like seconds – in apartments all over town. The places of friends and acquaintances – or those of strangers. Fragmented conversations, shared cigarettes. Apartments overlooking courtyard gardens, one on the Landwehrkanal, a penthouse by the Spree, a place in Mitte deep inside the Hackesche Höfe, another next to the gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg. A place in a massive Communist-era block by Alexanderplatz. Here he stands on a little concrete balcony next to a blonde nymph dressed in metallic tights. The Fernsehturm’s sphere hovers above them like a disco ball.

Everywhere there are people; all of them know Joschka. They remember him or know of him, have something to say about him (‘ein wilder Junge, this guy of yours,’ or someone nodding in Joschka’s direction, a kind of hero worship in his eyes: ‘Der dunkle Prinz des Nachtlebens dieser Stadt, dein Freund’). Joschka as the dark prince of Berlin nightlife: he is not all that surprised. He meets all of those milling around Joschka, immediately forgets their names again. In one place there are Ulrich, Aloysius, Ebermud, Detlef, Ida and Petra. Elsewhere there are Arno, Theodulf, Finn, Christian, Ava, Till, Lauri, Eriulf, Hilderic, Reiner and Ervig. In diverse places they encounter Sven, Nardo, Hugo and Wolfgang. And then there are also Ladewig, Kai, Adelfriede, Leander, Monika, Arno, Irnfried . . . Or similar names. There is no end to the list.

Later he will be unable to recall large parts of that night. In reality it was probably two or three nights, people and events having since merged. Like shadows observed through a smoke-blackened pane.

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