I know this is a fair way into November to be part of October’s story series, but this is the truth and it was burning in my stomach like a coal. I spent time in Germany last month and this is what happened. – Jack
I met a man named Tom Holiday Delaney in the lobby of the hourly hotel at Beijing International. We were each breaking up a ten hour stopover before heading on to Frankfurt on what turned out to be the same flight, and for no other reason than there being no real alternative we become very good friends very quickly.
Listen, he said to me. I’ve got these pain killers and I’m worried they’re going to put me away.
What kind of pain killers?
Just, you know, German ones.
I looked at the girl at the front desk of the lobby. It was 6am.
I’ve already paid for a room, I said.
Are you kidding me? he said, standing up. Have you seen Chinese money? It’s printed on wood, it’s useless.
He had little sachets of paracetamol and pseudoephedrine. We mixed about five of them together in a bottle of water in the lobby bathroom and then headed out into a morning that was already glowing.
We sat in recliners for hours facing onto the runways. Tom had been married and he’d been divorced and now he was going to get married again. He had a kid somewhere. He had false teeth, an entire set, though he wasn’t that old.
Army, he said with nod.
Outside, the sun was burning like phosphorus through a great white cloud of ash that, before dawn, I swore was just mist. It was like the landing planes had brought with them all the chalk that filled the clouds, tossing it into the air as they shook themselves clean.
That’s grim, said Tom, gesturing with the bottle towards a dark scepter watching us down past the runway. I realised it was the air traffic control tower.
How’re they meant to see shit in all this muck?
Planes taxied through the haze, grey and dark-eyed as geese. Men in masks walked along their wings and fed into them crates of cigarettes and egg noodles. A few weeks later, coming back, the day was clear and bright and I could see all the way to the mountains.
In transit above Kyrgizstan
Tom was going to set us up. He’d been in Hong Kong on business but he wanted to work another field. He knew men who had access to hydraulic drilling equipment, miles and miles of piping, trucks. There was natural gas everywhere, he said. He would even find people who would publish my poems.
Have you ever wanted to run a publishing house?
We were halfway over central Asia. I was three days late for a funeral and the idea seemed alright to me.
Great, said Tom, mixing the last of the painkillers into a plastic cup of cola. We’ll find the men I mean. We’ll get rich and strong, I’ll remarry my wife and you can be there for the ceremony, we’ll do all that, but could we please, please, first go and see my girlfriend in Munich? Can we do that? Is it ok if we do that?
In a phone booth outside Hauptbahnhoff in Munich I waited for Tom to finish a phone call with some people who he’d assured me were “squeezing all the right balls”. It wasn’t going well.
They’re all too scared to try anything that hasn’t been advertised during the news, he said.
He dialed another number and looked at me.
I shook my head.
Food’s sort of cheap here, he said.
There was a sound from the receiver as someone picked up.
Before you hang up, Tom said, I just want you to know I’m desperate. My friend’s in town and I’m scared he’s gonna kill himself.
The University of Finance and Administration, Munich
Missy lived in a single-gender dorm above a women’s-lacrosse field where women’s-lacrosse players ran drills in the early mornings. I slept on pillows on the linoleum floor of a communal kitchen and listened to German girls tip-toeing around my head
Each morning Missy came home from Tom’s hotel to check on her son and get ready for class while Tom tried to chase leads. Her son was deaf; his name was Baby, which was the first of many red flags concerning Missy.
I hope you’re comfortable, Missy said to me one morning while she was making coffee. Her accent was sweet and soft. She was beautiful, and fascinating in that way that all beautiful women with virtues beyond being beautiful seem to men like Tom and Me.
I’ve slept worse in better places, I said.
She turned the kettle off.
What do you mean?
What do I mean?
I searched for an answer and shrugged.
So aren’t you worried that I’m going to kill myself?
Five years ago, maybe. Did he tell you we nearly got married five years ago?
I forgot to ask, I said.
She smiled at me in that kind of sideways way. Missy was too old to be staying on campus but no one seemed to mind. She was still much younger than Tom. She had slim shoulders and a tattoo on the nape of her neck that she probably realised now was a bad idea. Later, very late that night, we bumped into each other in the dim hallway to the bathroom, her coming back and me going. We were half asleep and we kissed without bothering to stop our teeth from clashing. Then I unhooked her bra and she pushed me away and wandered off to bed while I waited with my eyes shut for the fluorescent light in the toilet to come on.
Along the Isar river
About a week, maybe two weeks later Tom took us, me and Missy and Missy’s deaf son Baby, on a ferry ride on the river where they served lunch and played horns. It was a terrible day. There was a squall. The boat rocked like a ride at a carnival, one man was sick into the wind and it sprayed back onto the band and plastered them like a fire extinguisher.
This is it! Tom said, laughing as he tried to stand up and excuse himself. This is what you people must write about!
I looked at Baby, blonde haired and glassy eyed, staring vacantly at the table behind me. I waved a hand in front of his face and he blinked.
Windy today, I said.
That’s the least of our troubles, said Missy. I’m pregnant.
I forked some bread dumpling into my mouth.
Bearing in mind, I said, that we did only kiss.
Yes, well, I’ve ruled you out as the culprit.
So what do you want to do?
She said something but it was taken by the wind.
Get Tom to take care of it, she said.
I looked at the tables behind me where a senior’s tourist group were trying desperately to keep themselves from being ill. I leaned in.
Can you do that here?
I mean raise the fucking thing. Jesus Christ. Or at least give me the means to raise this one again.
Sorry, I said.
She shook her head.
But he’s getting married again, I said.
Do you actually think that?
Think what? said Tom, sitting back down. This Rhine can really do it, right?
It’s not the Rhine, said Missy, getting back to her salad. It’s the Isar. The Rhine is at the other end of the country. Excuse me.
The Isar, said Tom, smiling, looking between me and Baby. Did you hear that? My god. Isn’t that something?
Berlin on a Saturday night
That afternoon in Berlin it got cold again as the clouds opened up to the pale Autumn sky. By evening they’d come back together and it rained again, but for those few hours it was sweet and clear and we walked around until we found a flea market, me and Tom, both of us rolling on slow-swelling hangovers. I felt like I could unravel. We laid ourselves out on the barely dried grass where families were eating plates of wurst and we deflated.
God, said Tom breathlessly, I don’t want to die.
I reached over and patted him on the stomach.
You just need some food.
I mean it man, I really don’t.
The previous night we’d gone to meet some men that Tom was sure, really sure, could help us out. It was at the bar of a foyer of another bar, a businessman’s bar. Everybody had placards on the tables in front of them with their name and their organization.
You’ll love them, he said. They’ll love you. They love poetry. Big Goethe guys.
Who? I said
Tom’s leg was jerking up and down rapidly. The man whose placard I’d stolen to get in was named Henry De Whitt. It was a fat man’s name. He worked for a financial strategy firm and the whole thing made me feel so sad that I had to go and smoke two cigarettes outside. As I perched on the edge of a pot plant and fell briefly in love with a Turkish girl who’d just gotten engaged, right there that night, I made myself realise that I wasn’t at all interested any more in starting out with Tom, and that really what I wanted to do was feel like a regular shithead for missing that funeral, and for not telling Tom about Missy’s plans, or about how, the evening of the boat ride, I’d come into her room and I’d levered her up on the dresser and pulled her dress over her head and her skin was clammy and cold and so were my hands and she’d kissed me more. She’d bit my lip and spoken English to me.
I caught myself dozing outside the bar and woke up a few minutes later with a light drizzle collecting down the back of my neck. The Turkish girl couldn’t have been more than fifteen, she was so slight and pure, but sleeping had let me forget her.
Inside, the two men Tom was meeting with were speaking to each other quickly in German and were drinking gin so quickly that it dripped from their chins.
All good? I asked. Tom spread his hands.
Girls dressed in red and black stewardess outfits were wandering around the hall selling cigarettes and cigars and matches.
Any relation to the real Tom Delaney? one said as she passed. Her accent was indistinguishable from Missy’s. Everything on her tray cost twelve euro.
What do you mean? I am the real Tom Delaney, Tom said.
No, the woman said. I mean the real Tom Delaney. You know. Like, the real one?
Tom stared at her.
No, he said. I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean. I’m the real Tom fucking Delaney. Tom Holiday
She pushed her chest out slightly and the tray moved closer into our view. The girl was still smiling, but I know she’d been through this before. I thought the way she looked was like paper folded over enough times that it was hard as wood. Over the tray her breasts sat high and small and opened at the top and shining dimly with sweat.
Berlin on a Sunday
Lying on the grass, patting Tom on the stomach, I tried to remember the time when I felt happiest most recently and it seemed very far away now. Sitting in the terminal with Tom back in Beijing I’d felt well and good towards all things. I was high, I knew, but I felt reminded of how easy it was for things to become right. I remembered thinking that it was like the broken heart of the world had mended itself and that we could all speak in the same language if we didn’t mind waiting a real long time.
That feeling, or the reminder of it, had lasted for the whole plane trip, all nine hours, and further too; through the first nights in Frankfurt, the taxi ride to the train station and the wait on the train before it headed on to Munich, ending only when, while the train was paused over a barely occupied highway running in the dusk alongside a canal, we’d seen a goose, startled by something, suddenly wheel out of its group and slam into the left headlight of the only car to pass along that stretch of highway several minutes.
Oh fuck me, I’d said.
In one movement, the goose sliding along the corner of the car and wheeling to the side of the road and flapping down with one wing up towards the sky like a broken kite in the wind.
Lying in the grass, thinking about that, I didn’t realise at first, but Tom was reaching over too, gripping my arm. He gave it a squeeze. I looked at him. He smiled.
Thanks, he said.
I gotta tell you something, I said.
But he just patted me back and then crossed his arms and then closed his eyes.
We’ll work it out, he said.