A captivating journey through their lives, love affairs and misdemeanours, across the city's turbulent history.
Echoes within echoes. Circles within circles. Wealth, poverty and moral compromise. The privilege and toxic masculinity of the Prussian Officer class.
Grey sky. It has been so for the last few days, or weeks,
months perhaps. It had been his decision to move here
so there is no one else to blame. That irks him no end, no
one to blame, no one to shout at.
Up here on the sixth floor one can barely hear the traffic
below and there is never much of it anyway; it’s early
morning and he lives on a quiet and leafy street, upmarket,
expensive, unaffordable for most people.
The air is warm and all he wears is pyjama bottoms; he
prefers to walk around the apartment barefoot though he
misses a soft thick carpet. But more often than not homes
come with beautiful wooden parquet here: beautiful but
uncomfortable for his feet which have lost some of the
supple elasticity they used to have. Age, always age; he
wishes he could log out from thinking about ageing.
Coffee time. He walks back inside through the French
doors and inserts a capsule in the machine, the mechanical
noise reassuring, another morning with the same routine.
Frau Greta is on her way and he needs to get out. It’s his
rule number one or, rather, hers: get out of the cleaning
lady’s way, you’re just a hindrance and when she took on
the job she dropped a few stern hints which allowed no
debate. Very German, he smiles.
No breakfast at home; he’ll walk to the Bismarck Bistro
for mid-morning brunch. The temperature is warm enough
to sit outside with just a light jacket and watch the world
Except that it never does. The bistro is quaint and the fare
of good quality but it never seems to be that busy, though
the lack of a crowd has lately developed into a pleasure
rather than a shortcoming.
Either way the bistro is close, reasonably priced, and on
the edge of that vast and wild forest in the centre of the
city peculiarly described as a ‘garten’.
He’s ready now and he feels pleasantly casual: slacks, a
polo and a light blue jacket. A scarf around his neck protects
him from the light breeze.
And sunglasses. He has spent a good chunk of his previous
life in a part of the world where everyone wore sunglasses,
outdoor and indoor. You could never see anyone’s eyes.
Beautiful eyes, old eyes, blue, green, black, it didn’t matter;
they were all behind dark lenses. All the fucking time.
But he has kept the habit; perhaps one day he’ll lose it.
Habits come and go.
He strolls along the oak-lined paths before turning
towards the bistro. Empty roads. Is that Sunday? Perhaps
not, but the roads are always empty here anyway. Which
he loves. Or not. He’s not yet sure.
When he reaches the bistro, he lazily scans the area: a few
tables outside, almost empty as usual, one middle-aged guy
tapping away at his laptop in the far corner.
He takes a seat and then remembers the free newspapers
inside so he gets up again and strolls in to pick up a copy
of the Morgenpost.
Ella is at the till. The owner greets him in a low voice
and with a smile. She must do that with all the regular
customers, he thinks, but he likes it as it makes him feel
special even if he is dead sure he isn’t.
After three years his German has improved dramatically.
He has subjected himself to a gruelling and eye-wateringly
expensive blitz of private tuitions. He can now finish reading
long-winded and often completely irrelevant opinion
pieces. Nothing much ever seems to happen here anyway.
He prefers books to news but he forgot to bring one along.
‘Good morning sir, what can I get you today?’
Not Ella’s voice. It sounds soft and warm, young, almost
female though clearly not.
As he turns, a young man of perhaps less than twenty
stands there with a smile and detectable eagerness. The
eagerness of the new employee, the excitement of a new
job, the freshness of a new chapter.
The boy gently shifts the wheat blond fringe along his
forehead; a pair of black framed spectacles sits on his angular
nose, the thick prescription lenses magnifying his light
‘Good morning, let’s see: a cappuccino for a start, I
haven’t decided on the food, may I have a minute?’
‘Sure, sir, I’ll get the drink ready for you, take your time.’
The manners are calm and polite. Unassuming, he
After a few minutes the young man returns with the
cappuccino and briefly stands there, clearly waiting for the
order but with no impatient insistence.
‘Oh, thanks, how embarrassing, I still haven’t decided.
‘There is no worry, sir, give us a shout when you’ve
chosen. I’m Karl, I’ll be inside.’
‘Very kind, thank you. I’m William. I’m quite a regular
here, you must have just started today.’
‘Yes, first day. Part-time. Or, more precisely, when I have
the time available I call them and come to work.’
‘Nice to meet you Karl, I’ll take a look at the menu, I
almost know it by heart anyway.’
A little laugh of approval, not the most original humour
but still something, he thinks.
He’s back at the Bismarck after a couple of days and Ella
comes to take the order. He chooses not to enquire about
Karl though from time to time over the last few days he
has sprung unannounced into his mind; fleetingly, pleasantly
and most conspicuously never sexually. He has felt
no enthusiasm for picturing him naked or walking around
in his underwear, or any other vaguely lewd fantasy. Most
of the times it does happen. He has mostly recalled his
voice and his few words, the not yet deep tone of his voice:
neither a boy nor yet a man.
Then business calls and he has to fly back to his former
workplace. He has virtually retired but his expertise is
prized and they never discuss the fees of his consultancy;
sometimes he receives his first class return ticket before
Jack, his former boss, even calls him. They are busy men.
Karl freely floats in and out of his mind but in his mind
only. He remains rather puzzled at the thought of a geeky
young man failing to arouse his low instincts. The voice and
the smile stay lodged, though he can hardly remember his
body. Did he actually look at it?
After a few weeks he’s back and finally taking full advantage
of the much improved weather. He can now idle outside
in a polo shirt holding the Morgenpost wide open in front
‘Good morning, Herr William.’
He lets the paper fold in half and looks at Karl unsurprised
as he did say he was to work whenever he was free
from university. He knew that one day or the next he would
have seen him again. That never worried him.
‘Good morning, young man.’
‘How are you, sir? We haven’t seen you for a while.’
‘No, indeed. I had to go abroad for a week.’
‘Where to? Anywhere nice?’
‘California. But on a business trip.’
‘Thought you had a start of a tan. Had a few breaks
between work then?’
‘Yes, thank you. I managed to have a couple of days at
‘Lucky you, sir. Would love to see California. Love swimming.
Is that where you are from?’
‘Boston actually, only worked there.’
‘Your German is cool.’
‘Still a strong accent though, and my cases are rather
deplorable, I’m afraid. Sorry.’
‘It’s not that.’
‘Thank you, what is it?’
Karl throws an engaging laugh, friendlier than ever
‘It’s the “thank you” and “sorry”, you put one of those
every three words.’ William reddens a bit. ‘It sounds funny.
We don’t really apologise or thank so much.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
Karl opens his arms and his eyebrows lift: ‘That’s what
‘Oh no, don’t. It’s funny but cool. Cappuccino?’
‘That would be awesome.’
He thinks he should stop interjecting Americanisms in
his German; he has been living in Berlin for three years
and, except for business phone calls , his conversations
are mostly in German, though everyone here speaks
perfect English anyway. Karl seems to rather like the term
‘awesome’ though, as he repeats it with a thumb up. And
a smile. That smile.
He has come to realise what is so attractive about that
smile: it lacks malice. It seems bereft of a second motive
and it is neither forced nor flirting.
The following day Karl comes to the table with a cappuccino
on his tray. He loves the fact that he no longer needs to
order and he makes him feel like part of a family. Patently
absurd yet harmless.
‘I haven’t asked you what you are studying.’
‘I am, well, was, in IT, that’s the Silicon Valley bit. Kind
of retired but still offering my services from time to time.’
‘You’re dead young to be retired, perhaps I’m studying
the wrong subject.’
‘Not that young.’ And he worries about Karl asking his
age: just shy of forty-five though fit and healthy and with
all his greying hair; Karl remains oblivious to it anyway.
‘Do you live with your parents?’
‘Student hall and a nightmare if you ask. Loud, not that
clean, drinking and shouting, had enough already.’
‘How come you don’t join in? I did.’
‘I said I’m a nerd?’ They both laugh, first time together,
almost in unison. ‘That is why I got this job, would like to
move out but not that easy.’
‘Rents are cheap here.’
‘Still not that cheap for me though. I’m in the humiliating
process of begging my parents at the moment, not going
‘You might make some good friends in the student home.’
‘I have, don’t get me wrong, they are all good guys, no
troubles. Maybe I’m a hopeless loner.’
A young couple has just arrived and taken a table. Ella
has to slightly shout to shake Karl from whatever dream he
seems to be trapped in. He nods and leaves but he clearly
shows displeasure at having to stop this chat.
He takes the order, serves the customers and swiftly
returns to William’s table, the place as usual very quiet.
William folds back the Morgenpost again and sits up with
his hands in a fist under his chin.
‘I had an idea, Karl.’
‘What do you think about renting a room at my place?’
‘It’s a smallish room at the end of the corridor but all
furnished and with a single bed. Oh, and it has a desk, for
‘Where do you live?’
‘Not far from Viktoria-Luise-Platz.’ The location sets off
a whistle from Karl.
‘Nice area. More than nice.’
‘Your own bathroom too. I can’t give you one of the guest
rooms as my older brother and sister do come to visit sometimes,
without mentioning nephews and nieces. An uncle in
Berlin seems to be cooler than the previous one in California
‘How many rooms do you have?’
His tone is mildly reproachful of suspected wealth yet only
in jest as he’s neither capable nor willing to be reproachful.
He’s not in the least interested in the answer anyway, the
question was rhetorical and William just shrugs it away.
‘Sounds amazing but also unaffordable, how much would
the rent be?’
‘How much do you pay at Uni?’
‘Around three-hundred, subsidised. No bills.’
‘Good enough for me.’ He sees a hint of suspicion in Karl’s
face and with reason, he thinks.
‘I know what you are thinking: where’s the catch? There
isn’t one. It’s not charity. I don’t need a tenant but I’m away
a fair bit and could do with a presence of some kind in the
apartment when I’m not there. It’s very safe, of course, but
also very big. I’d like someone else living in it.’
Karl has listened attentively; he always listens before
replying and he never interrupts.
‘Why me though?’
‘I wouldn’t advertise and I’m slightly weary of strange
characters or total loonies turning up anyway. Only thought
about it when you said you wanted to move out of your
quarters.’ There is a trace of excitement in Karl’s expression
while William hears his conscience tapping his shoulder and
whispering in his ear that he’s a reprehensible liar.
‘And you’re not a serial killer or an axe murderer, are you?’
‘I’ll leave the machete at my parents’ then.’
They laugh. Together. Again.
‘You know how many landlords it has slaughtered in its
career? My most treasured possession.’
‘Can you spare the life of the next one?’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
A touch of barbaric humour, William thinks, but it has
nevertheless broken the ice.
‘No pressure anyway, come around and see the place.’
‘I think I will, sir.’
They agree the day and the time and Karl is making his
way back into the bistro though he briefly turns around.
‘Very kind of you to think of me, sir.’
He turns up on time and rings the entry phone of an old
sandstone mansion block with an imposing oak double door
as its main entrance. He feels overwhelmed by the elegance
and the cleanliness and for a moment he considers that
perhaps this isn’t suited for him. A voice comes through
when the video camera flashes white.
‘Top floor, come up.’
He walks tentatively through the grand lobby and he’s
pleased by the absence of a concierge because he now feels
even more inadequate for the place.
William opens the door. Slacks and red Lacoste, colourful
‘Better take my shoes off.’
‘You just guessed the first rule of the house. Don’t worry,
there aren’t many others.’
He nods and comes in, leaving his battered Converses
on the side. He whistles in appreciation: the small hallway
leads to a vast sitting room split in two sections by large and
fluffy sofas; two tall French windows are casually ajar onto
a square terrace where some wooden furniture is sheltered
by a white and yellow awning. The taste of the interior
design is impeccable; modern minimalist, but with occasional
period pieces of furniture. The walls randomly host
exquisite - and authentic - works of art. Though he’s only
eighteen, Karl can recognise refined taste.
‘Come through. Here is the kitchen.’
Another state-of-the-art little gem. He follows William
onto the terrace.
‘Wow, what a view. You can see the Siegessäule sticking
out of the Tiergarten.’
‘I understand we’re not that far from your college. By
the way, there is storage for your bike in the underground
Karl puts his thumb up. He’s starting to feel the excitement
about a possible move and he’s afraid that he’s
struggling to conceal it.
They are back to the small hallway and stroll into a long
corridor flanked by several doors.
‘This is my room and bathroom, then the two guest
bedrooms with the guest bathrooms, and here we are. It’s
the last at the end but it means it’s quiet and private. I
imagine you as a diligent student?’
A self-deprecating smile appears on Karl’s closed lips.
The room is much bigger than Karl had imagined and
elegantly furnished with a single bed made up with a fresh
and fluffy white duvet, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and
a desk. The window is large and a warm, golden light filters
through the off-white curtains.
‘Your bathroom is right in front of your door. And that’s
just you using it.’
Karl is silent. He sees himself living here, he really does.
‘Well, I’ve just realised how rude I have been. Would
you like some tea or coffee or even a beer, it’s already late
‘What?… Ah, yes.’ He was dreaming of himself here, his
They walk to the sitting room.
‘A beer sounds a good idea, why not?’
‘Great, go and sit on the terrace, I’ll be along in a sec.’
Karl slumps into a comfortable armchair and he turns it
in the direction of the Tiergarten, awed.
William comes back with two bottles and no glasses. The
informality relaxes and pleases Karl: one thing he’s a bit
worried about is how to behave in this plush apartment as
he has never lived in one of these in his still young life. The
beer bottles without glasses have eased his worries. He was
mildly concerned that William was expecting him to behave
like a young aristocrat.
‘So, what do you think?’
‘Well, wow. It’s an amazing place you have here. Just
wow.’ Both have a sip.
‘Life here is not as pretentious as the apartment, Karl.
Don’t feel intimidated. You can walk around as you please. I
do. Slack on the sofa, watch rubbish TV, lazy Sunday mornings
and all that. Fridge-wise it’s, well, help yourself really,
just add whatever you feel eating that I might not order
online at Edeka. I haven’t kept up with teenagers’ culinary
tastes. I do like to cook, welcome to join me for dinner
Karl struggles to explain to himself why he never feels
any discomfort in William’s company, why he’s always at
ease and feels he can say whatever he likes without thinking
it out first. Not that he ever does. He always thinks before
‘Further rules: Frau Greta, the cleaning lady, comes
Tuesday and Thursday from eight to three. I strongly
suggest to get out of her way. Actually, I don’t suggest it,
I’m telling you for your own benefit as she made it clear
when she started that no one is to be in the apartment
when she cleans. On those evenings we can have dinner
on the floor as it’ll be cleaner than an operating table.’ Karl
nods and takes another sip. ‘She will blitz your room and
laundry, I warn you.’
‘I can’t possibly ask that.’
‘You won’t be able to stop her, trust me. Last but not
least. Guests. I’m uber-liberal, so whoever comes along,
no problem: Grindr, bars, whatever. As long as you check
out they are not coming along with that machete of yours.’
As soon as he finishes the sentence it dawns on him that
he has just assumed something which he never actually
asked. He freezes and a panic sets in. He has made a big
mistake and he might have offended him. He has so far
assumed but he now remembers that he was never hundred
per cent sure and Karl might not be what Bill thinks he is;
not all straight boys are brutes or football fanatics, some
are sweet and sensitive. Polite. Respectful. Sensible.
Fuck, he thinks, how stupid he has been.
Karl stares ahead at the Siegessäule, bottle in his hand.
He doesn’t turn to William.
‘Is it that obvious?’
Relief in William’s heart.
‘No, not really. I fear I have offended you.’
‘Nah. I’m not easily offended, sir. I don’t hide it, I’m out
at uni and with the old folks, just thought that perhaps you
hadn’t guessed.’ He waits and then grins. ‘Or perhaps I just
wanted to keep you guessing.’
‘No hidden motives either by the way. I mean, I’m a
‘I know you are.’
‘Most importantly, whether you move in or not, I would
really prefer if you stop this “Herr William” and “Sir” stuff;
back in the US they call me Bill.’
‘I like that. Yeah. Bill.’
He moves in the day after as there is really no notice to
give to the hall, they have a waiting list for new students.
Bill is around when he appears with a big rucksack, an
even bigger holdall and the nowadays indispensable IT
‘I can help with the rest of your stuff, though I don’t own
‘There is no other stuff. I haven’t lived long enough to
hoard other stuff.’