Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Ghosts of Berlin

Berlin is a city filled with ghosts. It's a city that has a strange atmosphere that hangs over it, one that can't quite be explained. This is by no means a slate on what is a beautiful place. Quite the opposite, in fact, in that this odd feeling only adds to the allure, drawing in people from all walks of life.

It's taken me several weeks to analyse the forty-eight hours that I spent in Germany's capital city. I'm still mulling it over even as I write this.

This is a city that has experienced a lot and much of it is embedded in the streets and buildings. A feeling that someone is constantly watching you. A sense that anarchy could break loose at any moment. A feeling that anything could happen and that the extraordinary would surprise no one.

Last year, I wrote about ghostly encounters in Las Vegas. This year, it's the turn of Berlin and, for a city so steeped in history, it certainly doesn't hold back with the spirit activity.

On November 7th, I flew into the city on my very first visit (it won't be my last). The hotel I'd picked had come on the recommendation of a friend and, for the first time, I found myself staying in luxury. While the exterior matched a lot of the city in its stark grey concrete, it turned out that this was just a facade, one that fooled me. With a lobby that could fit my entire apartment building in it and a chandelier that looked like something from a fairy tale, I definitely felt like I was in the wrong place. Except that I wasn't.

My room was equally as beautiful with a comfortable bed and a view over the main road outside. The hotel was based in Berlin's business district and, across the road, were buildings that had bore the appearance of housing something useful. Much like the hotel, the exteriors were bland and functional, hiding what they truly were.

Yet there was a strange feeling to the room, one that made me cold and nervous. Turning off the lights only made the atmosphere heavier and, like a character in a horror film, I dived beneath the bed's covers. And, as night fell, I discovered why the room felt like it did.

I went to bed at around 2am on that first night. I hadn't drunk any alcohol and I'm now completely free of drugs and other medications. The only thing bothering me was the weight of the exhaustion that lay on my shoulders and head. I felt as though I was going to sleep for an age, hopefully only waking once the sun was up.

But there was something in the room that refused to let me rest. At the end of my bed stood a dark figure. Even with the light from the streetlights outside, I couldn't make out any of the figure's features. It was just a tall shadowy being that gave off an evil feeling. To me, it felt as though it had served in the military, more than likely in a far higher capacity than a mere foot soldier. This was someone who had been in charge. Someone who had issued orders rather than follow them.

As I've done so many times before, I commanded the being to leave. Yet it refused, instead steadfastly remaining at the end of the bed. Its presence made me ill and, some time during the night, I heard something that sounded like a gunshot.

That night I slept less than three hours. Normally I can fall asleep wherever I am (I'm one of those people who can, and will, fall asleep on planes, trains and in cars) and being in a new place rarely bothers me as I carry a few small creature comforts that help me to settle. On average I sleep around six hours a night.

The following morning, I was out of the room as soon as I could make myself presentable. I went and had breakfast and started on the rest of my plans despite the fog that eclipsed my brain. I was beyond tired and all I wanted to do was crawl somewhere warm and quiet for a few more hours.

I left the hotel at around mid-day and didn't return for another thirteen hours, falling into bed at around 1am. By now, I was beyond exhausted. I'd battled my fears, delivered a pumpkin, walked for what felt like miles, been out in the cold, attended a concert, danced like a fool, and had several long discussions with my friend. All I wanted was to sleep.

But that wasn't going to happen. As soon as the lights were out, that omnipresent feeling returned, cloaking the room in a darkness that was far blacker than the night outside. Again, the figure was at the end of my bed, watching over me like some kind of evil godfather. Again, I asked it to leave. Again, it didn't. It never moved and, despite the lack of facial features, I got the distinct feeling that it was looking at me.

That night I slept for less than two hours.

Once I'd returned home, I decided to do some research on the area. The adjacent streets house a number of embassies, museums and other government agencies. The building that was directly opposite the hotel, and which I could see from the window, was the German Resistance Movement Memorial Center.

Resistance Movement Memorial Center

During WW2, there was a plot to assassinate Hitler. It didn't go to plan and the members of this plot were executed in the courtyard of the building that now holds the memorial centre. Was the being in my hotel room one of the firing squad? Or perhaps the person who had ordered those executions? Maybe the hotel now stands in the footprint of another building that housed a military division and the spirit I was seeing was linked to that?

Thankfully it wasn't all bad. There was one presence that spent the weekend with me, making sure that I was in the right places at the right times. Were the people that apparently appeared out of nowhere to guide me on to trains, help me when I became sick, and helped me around a city that I felt like an alien in placed there by this being? Whatever it was and wherever it was from, it was a constant source of comfort during my two days in Berlin. After I'd dropped my package at the arena, I decided to take a walk. Despite my tears, there was a feeling of love and comfort that surrounded me. This was the complete opposite of the darkened being in my hotel room. Whatever was with me in those hours had the colour pink associated with it and was forever at my right shoulder. I don't know what it was, nor where it came from, but its presence was one that I was constantly thankful for.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Christmas Cat

The Christmas Cat
(2015 Christmas Story)

War raged across London with the East and West at odds over certain political decisions. Zeppelins from the Royal Air Defences cruised the skies, determined to keep the situation as peaceful as possible. They took to the skies every night, even as a thick, neverending fog descended over the metropolis. Travel between the sides had been halted with underground trains and buses being stopped at the unofficial borders. Hospitals were crippled under the injuries that had been sustained by protestors and political fighters. The government were doing little to reverse the decisions they had made, instead choosing to hide in fortified buildings. From north to south, rolls of barbed wire had been stretched through the city to remind all that the capital's state was fragile and unpredictable.

Winter had also settled over London, bringing with it biting frosts and drifts of snow. Despite all that was happening, the citizens of the city were doing their best to celebrate the coming festive season. Trees had been erected in homes and gifts, no matter how small, had been bought or crafted. Candles twinkled on window ledges and, where it was safe to do so, people walked the streets singing carols.

Fires burned in the hearths of a beautiful town house in the fashionable West End of London. A Christmas tree, decorated with sparkling glass ornaments, stood proudly in the front room. Beneath its boughs sat wrapped gifts. And, before the roaring fire, a clockwork cat slumbered. It brass-coloured body was scratched and burnished and the light in its belly was not as bright as it should have been. One of its glass eyes flickered, the lamp inside damaged by the war.

Yet it lived and that was all that mattered.

The cat had been built to sniff out bombs, a job it had successfully carried out for several months. One night, the cat had been caught in the blast of a device that had been hidden in a railroad carriage. The cat's internal workings had been damaged, leaving it no longer able to detect the danger it was designed to seek out. Like a broken toy the cat had been discarded, left on the street to fend for itself.

For weeks, the cat had wandered alone as it had tried to find those who had abandoned it. It had been built to not feel fear yet, deep in its wire filled body, a strange empty feeling had grown.

Then the sky had begun to burn. Zeppelins had cruised through the night, bombs falling from their bellies. The cat had smelled the cordite and felt the heat as the fire had seared through the clouds. Hiding in the rubble, the cat had waited until dawn before it had continued its journey.

London lay in ruins around the metallic creature. Tower Bridge had fallen and Big Ben was no more. Still the cat walked, trying to find somewhere safe to live out its days.

On one particularly dark and gloomy night, strong hands had plucked the cat from the street. The metal creature had found itself looking into dark, friendly eyes. Before it knew what was happening, the cat was being carried through the city and away from the nightmare that had become its life.

The animal-like automatons had been created to perform a variety of jobs. Brass birds collected and cleared rubble. Metallic spiders carefully reassembled buildings using undamaged bricks and synthetic webs. Dogs pulled survivors from the broken city and sat beside the deceased. The public had responded well to the image of animals serving them during the darkened months of the war, the creatures more of a comfort than any human-looking robot would have been.

The cat had found itself in the workshop of a very nice house. Here it had been tended to by the man's kindly hands. Wires were fixed and fittings tightened. The cat's creaking joints were repaired and oiled. Its chest was carefully opened and the energy cells and dynamos that gave the cat its power were replaced. Finally, the cat was placed back on the floor and, after stretching out its back, it walked up from the workshop and out into the house.

For several days, the cat had explored its new surroundings. As night fell, it was gently shooed in to hiding, creeping into a cupboard just as the man's children returned from school.
“I don't want them to see you until Christmas Day,” he had softly said. “They will fall in love with you the second they lay eyes on you.”

Indeed, the children already had several other mechanical animals. All had no doubt been rescued from the ruined streets of London. And, on Christmas Eve, the cat found itself curled in front of the fire with a mouse, rat, and bird nestled close by. No longer was it a collection of wires and metal. Instead it was becoming a loved and cherished family friend.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

More Thoughts on Paris

It's been nearly a month since the attacks in Paris and I'm still coming to terms with what happened, especially inside the Bataclan. I'm still trying to process why anyone would walk into a packed music venue and plough down nearly one hundred people.

I know the basic whys and wherefores of what happened at the Bataclan. It was a soft target. There were a lot of people in one place. In the eyes of the terrorists, music is the work of the devil and no one should be allowed to enjoy it.

But there's still that other “why?”. The one question that will never quite be formulated. Just “Why?”.

Why did it have to happen?

Why did so many people have to die?

Why did they even have to die at all?

Why can't we just live in peace?

Yet still I struggle with the senselessness of it all. People who were having a night out were cut down in their prime. People who didn't expect to die that night didn't have the chance to tell their friends and families that they loved them one last time. People who were just enjoying life never went home. People who survived now having to rebuild their lives.

I know that part of it is the feeling that I had a lucky escape. Just a few days before Paris happened, I returned from a trip around Europe that saw me take in two concerts. I laughed, I sang, I danced, I lived. I did exactly what those people were doing on that fateful night in Paris.

Paris was one of the options I had back in November. I was going to go there to see the Foo Fighters play before maybe moving on to catch a concert in the days afterwards. Or I may have seen a show in the days before theirs.

Then Megadeth announced a short European tour. While I could still have seen them in Birmingham (before flying on to Paris the day after for the Foo Fighters) it was decided that I'd go and see Megadeth play in Dublin on November 9th. My Foo Fighters show was moved to the November 8th Berlin show.

I returned home from my trip on November 10th.

On Friday November 13th, while curled up on the couch, I watched in horror as Paris came under siege. I cried as the death toll rose. I mourned for those who'd lost their lives, whether at the restaurants, stadium or the Bataclan. With a heavy and aching heart, I realised that live music will never be the same again.