March 18, 2019
I spent an hour or so working on the same short story I’d been tinkering with for months. Despite this being the seventh or eighth draft, I was concerned that it was, after all this time, not very good. I’d initially decided to write more fiction to create a counterpoint to the faster, more media-driven part of my life, but this particular story had slowed time to a standstill.
I brewed some coffee, a little stronger than usual, in the hope of accelerating the morning. The coffee pot was one of those old Italian ones that you rest on the stovetop, where the flames lick the sides and turn it black. It also makes very bitter coffee, although I’ve been told this means I’m doing it wrong. I had to go to a meeting about some work I didn’t especially want to do so. I put on a black cashmere jumper and black wide-leg trousers, the tiniest slick of mascara. I was vaguely aware that I was going to be late.
I took the U7 line, the one marked in bright blue on the map. Along with its sibling the U8, this is one of the city’s more chaotic train lines. Its trains are crowded, and its stations urine-scented. People play music and socialise. It provides refuge for street sleepers and addicts, at least until the police arrive. A 2015 viral song, ‘Is Mir Egal’, paints a picture of the Berlin ubahn as a carnivalesque place full of mariachi bands, horses and people chopping raw onions, which is only a slight exaggeration. It was therefore here, on the U7 line, that I saw her: the Celine Dion busker.
Or, more correctly, I heard her, far down the carriage. The distorted first few notes of “My Heart Will Go On” blared from a speaker fixed to a shopping trolley, that unmistakable Celtic flute that inaugurates one of the best-selling singles of all time. Then, the Celine Dion busker began to sing. A truly terrible rendition of a song I’ve always disliked, written for a movie I hate. This was not the first time I’ve seen the Celine Dion busker; she is, on certain U-bahn lines, a known and notorious presence. “Have you ever seen the Celine Dion busker?” people ask each other, as though letting them in on a secret. She only ever sings that one song, to the same backing track.
After a few bars — at almost five minutes long, she rarely does the song in its entirety — she strolls down the carriage, shaking a paper cup with a few coins inside. When she reaches me, I smile and shake my head. She moves on to the next person.
The meeting went badly, and I kicked myself for not having trusted my intuition.
I called my parents. “Happy anniversary! What are you doing to celebrate?”
“That was last week,” said my dad.
“Huh. Are you sure? I have it in my calendar as today.”
“I’m pretty sure. Your mum had a dentist appointment, remember?” I did not remember.
I went to a notary on Kufürstendamm, the old centre of West Berlin. It’s a part of town I rarely go to, the sort of street where you can buy Louis Vuitton but not a toothbrush. I was seeing the notary as part of a citizenship application, a process of such increasing complexity that I almost regretted starting it. I had to remind myself that, as a British person living in the EU, doing this quite complicated thing now might prevent an even more complicated thing later. The notary office was filled with strange works of art. I contemplated a painting of some cows depicted at different sizes and weight classes. Eventually, the notary’s assistant handed me a single sheet of A4 paper.
On the return journey, I saw the Celine Dion busker again. This time on the platform of Hermannplatz station, where I had to make a brief stop. The station is an interchange point between the chaotic siblings, the U8 and the U7. It was, I think, at one point a much grander station, one that had led to an enormous art deco department store and Europe’s first escalator. Today, it’s grand only in terms of being big. The Celine Dion busker managed to extend her voice to the ceilings. Her heart went on and on and on and on, bouncing over tiled columns and up staircases.
A woman who was also watching the busker with me said something in German, too fast for me to make out the words. I caught one or two: what I thought sounded like verrückt, which means mad or crazy, and oder, which is how Berliners turn statements into questions. I gave her a startled look.
“Ach so,” said the woman. “I said, she is still doing this for a long time.”
I looked at the electronic sign directly above us. The next train was due in nine minutes. The one after that was in 12 minutes.
At home, I readied myself to meet a friend for dinner. I dropped a handful of food into the cat’s bowl, and walked briskly to the station. I lamented having bought single tickets rather than a day ticket, which would have saved me two euros. To kill time on the journey I counted all the small luxuries that could be achieved with two euros: a Ritter Sport chocolate bar, two scoops of ice cream, two bottles of beer, depending on where you got them from.
I had to change at Hermannplatz station again, and was amazed to see the Celine Dion busker still there. Her heart still going on and on and on and on. As I passed her, I dropped two euros into her paper cup.