by Redfern Jon Barrett
Imagine: the foundations dug by thieves. Imagine: these mighty walls raised by Jews. Think of five indestructible floors which tower toward the roaring sky. Of space for five thousand to shelter from the deadly bombs. Think of the possibility: of a world in which anyone can be useful and anything accomplished.
For an example, examine the Tunte. These Lady Men work by lamp, with sickened faces cracked by half-light. These gender deviants are put to work, sissy-limp hands holding stencils and dipping paintbrushes. Think of it. They paint luminous arrows against grey walls: white by light, green by dark.
Think of it.
Other officers grump and moan about the grimness and dimness, but they’re from soft landscapes and carry softer bellies. They can’t comprehend the value of this bunker.
One of the lady men stops painting and stares at me. Stares directly. Familiar eyes shimmer, luminescent in low light.
Memories rustle with the trees of Tiergarten: I’m a teenager again, my stomach a cold dark hole as I grasped other men with hand and mouth; knees scratching twigs for a few scattered coins. When the trees were felled for firewood there were piss-reek alleyways and forgotten boarding rooms. That was before the call to arms; before they took us, the hungry and the desperate. They wrapped us in uniform and filled our bellies with warm meals. They brought me to the new bunker, that I might find use from sodomites and freaks.
I order the perverts to keep working. Keep working!
Outside is chaos: rubble and the deafening echoes of war; degenerate parties which spring like weeds from ruined brickwork. Berlin could be flattened, repopulated and renamed, but it will ever be a pit of perversion. A hundred thousand bombs couldn’t save this city, but here we are safe.
I bark a final warning; of thousands of young men rescued from the country’s long winter; of the serenity which can be found only within the bunker.
Still the queen gazes at me, mouth hanging like a Useless Eater; life unworthy of life.
I slam that gaping faggot mouth with my hand. He whimpers. Paintbrush trembling, the fairy returns to work, as I
walk with an elegance and poise befitting my role. I’ve practiced this, both in my apartment and here at work. See, my gait is purposeful, though not too masculine, and I refuse to mimic my male co-workers. When alone I laugh at them. Truly! I cannot help it, there’s such comedy in their adolescent swaggers.
In turn I amuse them: they chuckle in the dim break rooms, they whisper as I pass. The others in the Banana Bunker are threatened by the Man-Woman, a name I’ve heard echoed down the bare corridors. Little can be done—I’m a worker at the VEB Obst Gemüse Speisekartoffeln, just like them. I serve the socialist republic, just like them. But a uniform stretches only so far.
Their jeers rebound from the concrete walls. This is why I walk with such self-conscious pride, as I pass the fading arrows and cherry-brown stains, as I savour the bursts of pineapple and papaya which seep from storage (and the bunker is perfect for storage, strong and secure, dark and cool). The truth is I’m proud of this work; sorting shipments of food, ensuring the People are fed.
I am proud. Well, socialism liberated the workers, so why not the women? It was we rebuilt this war-torn city, carving a capital from broken bricks. Lifting and carrying, cobbles and mortar, women and girls.
We built a new city, but in the West, you see, the old ways persisted. I watched as my sisters were married, one by one. First the bedroom, then the kitchen.
Sometimes we must snatch our own escape, and mine had been tangled in the barbed wire which lay over Bernauerstrasse, dividing us from the fresh hope of the East. I ran for this brave new world, with my mother screaming stop, stop, please stop. (I shall always hear that cry, late at night.)
And I jumped: over a border, over old obstacles and old ways, over the life laid out for me. I landed in the East, and eventually found my way to the bunker—a relic from dark times, now put to good use.
The second floor brings a wonderful orange tang. This delight is my reward, as I inspect shipment and supply, checking new Cuban deliveries against the clipboard.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling indulgent, I imagine working here with my sisters, and yes, perhaps even my mother. I think of the pride we would wield together, serving common purpose, something greater than steaming kitchens and colicky infants. Sometimes
it’s hard to see each person when they’re all a mass of dancing shapes, flickering with the strobe as arms and legs surround me, as I’m embraced from all sides. They call this The Hardest Club on Earth, but after taking two pills it seems soft, soft, soft. Someone places gum into my palm, their fingers brushing mine with deliberate sensuality, giving me something to chew on, something to stop the grind-grind-grinding of my teeth. It feels good, so good, those soft stroking hands and rib-pounding beat, I may as well be in heaven, heaven with old arrows on the walls.
A man puts his arm around my shoulder as I nuzzle into the crook, legs splayed over my girlfriend’s lap. This place is stressless and safe, this is a place where we can be ourselves, man woman, neither, both. The gum tastes like kid’s toothpaste, the sort my girlfriend uses because she says the grown-up mint burns her tongue, a tongue that’s now on mine as she kisses me, and I can taste her as the man’s arm squeezes my shoulders, as I imbibe the love of perfect strangers.
Sisters sisters sisters sisters, the track pounds over and over as our huddled mass of cuddlers shrinks, the music tempting them away, both my girlfriend and the man who’s been holding me. I sprawl about the floor, examining the walls with their bright reds and pinks and oranges sprayed over slate grey concrete, letters and figures and all sorts of anarchy.
It occurs to me that maybe this chaotic colour is the true surface, maybe it existed before the uniform concrete, maybe it was waiting, biding its time before it could show, waiting for the fall of fascism, of communism. Maybe it needs a space like this to come through, and yes it’s safe, right now it feels perfect, but once it was a haunted place, spooked by torture and sorrow, I know all about that, all about it.
Anything can be remade, I think, as I stagger to my feet and stumble toward the giddy pound of the dance floor. Given enough time. Our monuments outlast us and our ideas, but it’s not a tragedy no no no, it’s a blessing, at least for those living, for those riding the times. My body sways as though lured, as though the music beats in my very bones, like I’m not in control, but Berlin was always a place to be reborn, Berlin is where
“…there’s no phone signal. No, I’m afraid there isn’t, not anywhere in the building. It’s just the way it was built—the concrete walls are two metres thick. We may as well be underground.”
This aggravates the tour group, who glance with piecemeal irritation at their devices, but the lack of signal is actually my favourite thing about this job. Well, it’s not a job, exactly, but a volunteer position. (A paid volunteer position, which is a contradiction in terms lost on the welfare office.) I guide the group to the next room, the next installation.
“…created the work solely from wires stretching from wall to wall, forming geometric shapes. These three-dimensional images are intricate and fragile, in contrast to the bunker which surrounds them. A step in any direction changes your perception of the piece, and its sprawling networks form something overwhelmingly human…”
Still they’re looking at their phones, but for me this is peace. Until I finish there will be no messages from my grandmother.
Over and over she repeats that final ambush. My transition she accepted, my new home she has not. To her this will always been the land of the enemy. Those who slaughtered our people. Our relatives. Does it matter that I couldn’t afford the rent back home? That I chased millennial dreams of a small apartment and food in the fridge, all the way here?
Pound pound pound, we march to the next exhibit. It doesn’t matter how quietly I tread, my footsteps always echo. Down corridors and up stairs.
It’s not just my grandmother. The online world is at war, and trans women are ever-caught in the crossfire. Here I get a break. A break from the fights and campaigns, from far-right surges and hate-swamped messages. Without my phone I can be nothing, just a curiosity in the collection.
(And it is a collection, not a gallery. A single family owns the building, perched in a penthouse on the top floor. They made it all a blunt white, a blank to house the pieces.)
Like the dead tree which towers before us: an installation built from blocks of wood, held together with oversize screws. It stretches from the third floor to the fourth, reaching through a gap in the ceiling. We climb to the next storey, until we’re level with its leafless branches.
“…a metaphor for the cycle of life and death, the natural and the unnatural, growth and decay. This once-natural arborage has been made mechanical by being chopped apart and pieced back together. An imitation of something real using something real. Yet by reaching between the floors it gives the impression of growing through the bunker, speaking to the transitory nature of everything we build…”
They’re not looking at their phones now; there’s a commotion as the tour group peers over the railing, down at the dead tree’s trunk. I join them.
A woman is climbing its branches, climbing up toward us. It happens more often than they’ll admit, though it’s not always this. Sometimes they try to spray a painting, or throw fruit at a sculpture. Some of them are on drugs.
The woman’s skirt catches a branch, tearing at the seams.
She doesn’t notice. I can’t tell how old she is: is it the sweat, pouring down her face? Is it her contorted expression, twisting with the effort of her limbs?
Guests take forbidden photos. Her look is wild, eyes all-whites wide, an animal fleeing for its life.
Up she looks now, but not at them. She looks at me.
Security arrive. One begins climbing from the bottom, the other nudges me away. The climbing woman shrieks, out of sight as I usher the group to the next room. The popcorn room. (I never understood the art, not really.) Everything whirrs with the noise of the installation, spewing out yellow puffs as it’s done for months and months and months. It’s dizzying, and I can only think of the strange woman.
“…changes over time. The longer the popcorn machine runs the more popcorn fills the room, making the piece seem alive…”
But I can’t continue. I can’t breathe. The popcorn falls from the nozzle to the floor, flurrying into dusty piles. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe and I don’t know why. I think of unpaid bills and meagre wages, of the cold winter ahead, and I hold hands to my ears and try to block it all out, to keep myself from
the last party, and I can’t believe I’m even saying it, but I am, mumbling the unreal words, last party last party last party, and I’m high again. The New Year has almost fallen, and they call this night The Last Days of Saigon, which fits, it fits and it hurts and we’re not supposed to be here, it’s not our place any more. What of the days when the bunker meant something, when it choked with pounding love and unruly dreaming? Though the music rages it only settles on my skin, it can’t sink into my bones, and the whirling forms of the dance floor mock my own distance, my inability to feel. I head to the toilets, just to wander, to frame each and every scene before it’s nothing more than an anecdote, but a man is on his knees grasping another with hand and mouth so I leave them to it, because someone should celebrate, and I just don’t know how.
The cold dark truth is I don’t know what I’ll do. There might be other clubs, but this place is a home-from-home, and though anything can be remade, it’s not so easy to remake yourself. Not just the bunker but the city itself shifts, sold to grasping hands with gold watches, and I know that I can’t keep up, and I think, over and over and over, what will happen when this wild world is bought up, when the millionaires and billionaires have colonised it all?
It flashes before closed eyes, a maze of colours muted white, the thud of noise smothered into quiet sterility. Police, someone cries, and everyone is running, they want to escape our illegal utopia. My stomach rumbles, it pound pound pounds to the stomp of fleeing feet, and I rush down a floor, to other toilets, past neon graffiti and old arrows, and I could swear I smell pineapple as I retch, as I kneel and choke into the bowl, as the world spins on and on and on remorseless until
it’s all right. I no longer avert my eyes like I used to in my youth, in the early days of the socialist republic when I avoided those cherry-brown stains over the floors and walls. I avoided what they were and what they meant. I knew, and I chose not to. Who likes to think of such things, particularly when they’re beyond one’s reach?
My mother is in a heaven which cannot exist. My sisters could be anywhere, doing anything, though the sad truth is they’ll still be married. They’ll be grandmothers. I think of them, wiping filthy mouths and sweeping away tears, and I can only hope they have enjoyed their time as I have my own. Each moment is clutched close, treasured. I walk through these corridors with the poise of youth as I await the end of our country, of our work.
I will not be a cherry-brown stain upon these walls—this upheaval is less bloody than the last. In some ways I’m glad for it, in others, not. Is it better to be a stain? Or is it better to watch all you know and love sink into the past, to be a living, wandering relic, a reminder no-one wants?
There’s a television on the second floor, and it blares excitable news. The fall of The Wall. Fuzzed words mix with the scent of oranges, and silly though it might be, I worry for the bunker itself. When all this is done there will be no Cuban fruits here. A whole world will be lost.
You see, it isn’t a wall that crumbles, but a levee, one which has been holding back chaotic tides. Chunks are pulled free until it bursts, washing through the streets and rinsing away the old. Me too. Oh, I wouldn’t rage or mourn the fall of our republic. After all, only fools rail against the inevitable, and any dunce can see what’s going to happen. But I fought for all this, for my place here—no longer a joke, no longer the Man-Woman. I’m just another worker, and where will I rest, once swept away? Where will I find
shelter. Imagine: the foundations dug by thieves. Imagine: these mighty walls raised by Jews. Think of five indestructible floors which yet tower toward the roaring sky. Space for five thousand to shelter from the deadly storm; the Russian tide. Think of what it was, the world which could construct such grace. A world in which anyone could be useful and anything accomplished.
Think of what is lost, for it’s always something. Even when we cannot see it. Even when we do not want it.
The Red Army stomps over Posen; it tramples Brandenburg. Crimson floods about their ankles and laps at Berlin. This city is being flattened. It could be repopulated, even renamed, but indecent shoots will still crack through the brickwork, flourishing even when doused in something as pure as blood. Consensus says I’m fortunate: other officers lie outside, bullets to their skulls. Some ran, reading the future as it’s being written.
I myself pace the corridors, beneath the dim cast of each bulb. I pass an arrow, and wonder what happened to the Lady Men.
I know they’re shelling the structure from without, but I do not hear it. So I tour once more: the bunker is empty. The place that rescued me, that filled my belly and saved me from corruption. It is perfect without people. I do not believe anyone else would understand that.
Pound pound pound
And it’s time. Gunshots ring down distant corridors. I make my way down the stairs, down to the first floor. Each shot bursts louder. I cannot stand walking, it is too slow. I am no coward, I shall run toward my fate, sprinting past abandoned rooms and empty bunks, on toward the infernal noise.
I cannot tell if I am weeping or laughing, but I do know this: the world spins in endless cycles. Someday there will be a cold winter and empty bellies. Someday they shall wrap us in uniform once more.
Foreign words are barked, and now I see them; now I stop. Understand that I too read the future. Understand that I need only wait.
Redfern Jon Barrett is a writer and activist. Author to novels including The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights, their stories have appeared or are upcoming in Booth, The Sun, and Flash Fiction Online. Redfern’s nonfiction has featured in Guernica and PinkNews, while their campaigns and personal life have been referenced throughout the British press. Read more at redjon.com.