In a new feature, we collaborate with Daniel Le Ray. I'll pick one of my photographs for the talented Mr. to be inspired by and to write on.
The tectonic rumble of tracks against wheels complemented the music beating against Alice's eardrums. The sky was reddening a little, ready to break out into sunshine once the typical Berlin morning haze abated. But for now it was content, as was she, to accompany the familiar squeals and rolls of the tram coming to a halt just before the intersection ahead.
Rosenthaler Platz was already occupied by commuters, punks and trains disgorging inconstant streams of people. Three floors up and across the street, the windows of Alice's office were illuminated. Behind the glass she saw an anonymous co-worker, more a shape causing absence of light than the outline of a man or woman, and she was relieved not to be the first person to arrive. She popped an earphone bud out and, for a moment, a cacophony of cars and foreign consonants mixed in with the music. Crossing Torstrasse against the green light, the sun cracked through the cotton-ball clouds and she went inside.
On the third floor, she entered the office. Christian's feet protruded from beneath his desk, then disappeared, turtle-like, as he straightened up. He enunciated a stiff "good morning". Alice parroted the words back to him.
₰. ₰. ₰.
She left the office at six p.m., took the train to Alexanderplatz and then expertly navigated her way through the labyrinth of tunnels and staircases to the U2. Exiting at Wittenbergplatz, the sun was falling in the sky. She pulled her headphones out and listened closely to the foreign city wildlife as she made her way home. Exhausts sputtered on the Kudamm, punks surrounded by German Shepherds and half-broken guitars peppered the sidewalks beneath department store buildings and foreign words spun in her ears.
Eventually she reached the familiar graffitied door that led to her apartment. Alice entered and glanced to the right and into Die Grüne Tür, a bar that was clustered in the small, poorly-lit space on the ground floor. It was empty but for Jutta, the middle-aged German woman who was, perhaps literally, a fixture at the bar. She made her way upstairs and deposited her things in her one-room apartment on the first floor, little more than a rabbit hole at the centre of a large square of concrete and steel.
When it reached nine p.m. and the hum of voices was filtering up through her floorboards, Alice went down to the Grüne Tür. Jutta was sitting in her usual seat, elbow crooked upright on the bar with a cigarette drifting grey smoke over the room.
"Good evening," Jutta said, without looking up. Alice stubbornly returned her greeting in German. Behind the woman was a foot-high, hollow statuette of what Alice had taken to be a spaniel, though on recent inspection she had thought it also had something of the primate about it. Lit from the inside and emitting a warm, yellowish glow from head to tail, the spaniel was the main source of light in the rear of the Grüne Tür.
The bartender finally served her drink in a short glass tumbler. She placed it on the bar next to Jutta and rose to go to the bathroom. Between the two doors, marked D and H to denote women's and men's, Alice found something unusual. A tall and narrow, green and wooden door, unmarked but for the fine grain still visible beneath the fresh paint.
It was barely wide enough for her to fit through with hunched shoulders. She reached out a hand to the doorknob, also daubed with a neon shade of green, twisted it and pulled. Nothing happened. It was locked, she thought. But she leaned forward and the green door fell in on itself. For a moment it felt as though a fishing hook had grasped at her ribcage and was tugging her forwards, then, just as suddenly, everything was engulfed in a wave of blackness.
₰. ₰. ₰.
To her left and right, torches lit in succession along the walls, steel brackets holding the flames high above her head. Alice was in a tunnel. She couldn't make out a ceiling above her, and the flames signaled that the tunnel was little wider than the green door had been. Squeezing forwards until her shoulders were freer, Alice thought she could hear trains shunting around her. If she was indeed beneath the Grüne Tür, perhaps Wittenbergplatz and the U2 were passing nearby. But the further she went, the less distinct the subway noise became.
As breathing became harder, she ventured a word, released it tenderly into the cavernous space:
Nothing, then: Clunk.
"Hah. Low?" It echoed like static from another room, louder than the train noises. Then again: "Hallow?"
Something creaked open up ahead and she rushed forwards before realizing that she was rather anxious. A door had swung open to her right, and from it protruded a head. Christian's head.
"Hallo!" He nodded as though to signal her to follow. As his face retreated, Alice clambered through the doorway and fell into a large, white room, identical to her office. She turned to close the door, its interior a faded green, and faced Christian. If she had had breath left in her body, she would have screamed.
His smiling head bobbled from side to side barely two feet off the ground. He was on all fours, an American sneaker attached to each appendage. But stranger than this, both his head and each limb protruded from what appeared to be an enormous turtle shell covering the rest of his body.
"Holy shit, Christian, what the--"
"Hallo!" His head lilted merrily and he smiled at her from beneath the armored shell atop his back.
"Haaaaa-llo." As his enjoyment of the word seemed to peak, Alice backed away towards the office door and flung it open. She stepped out and onto the train platform at Alexanderplatz. The source, she thought, of the U-Bahn noises she had been hearing.
Except that the platform, though full of people, was silent. The women - for there were no men or children - were frozen. Alice's steps echoed eerily across the vast underground network that was Alex, rebounded into tunnels and along staircases, until it was all she could hear. Reaching one of the platform's occupants, she stopped and stared into their face. It was Jutta. They were all Jutta, framed by long, greying curtains of hair, sternly and stubbornly impassive.
Alice reached out a hand. Slap. Jutta didn't react. She shook the statuesque Jutta by the shoulders and the woman tumbled sideways and fell with a dull thud against the platform, a plastic mannequin, the triangle of hair that fell across her face the only part of her that had moved during her fall.
She had to get to the escalator at the other side of the platform. Footfall crashed around the ceilings as Alice ran towards it, bustling past a number of immobile Juttas waiting on a never-to-arrive train, and knocking one facsimile of the woman down the unmoving escalator steps as she climbed higher. If she could only find the green door that might lead back to the Grüne Tür and back to her apartment.
The clunk of feet against cavernous space was becoming deafening and Alice's breathing growing heavier as the escalator narrowed and came to an end. Her knees collapsed against the crenellated steps and nausea gripped the base of her diaphragm.
₰. ₰. ₰.
The warm glow of the spaniel lamp bathed the bar in a soft light. Jutta's face, seemingly disembodied, swam in front of Alice's eyes. Behind her, the bartender hovered anxiously next to the illuminated statue, his piercings reflecting the light.
"You are okay?" Jutta said. Alice sat up. She was at the table at the rear of the bar, her glass still full, the middle-aged German venturing a smile in silhouette against the lamp. Turning, Alice glanced to the back of the room. Between the two bathroom doors there was a green panel of wood. She stumbled upright and back to the panel to find mere streaks of paint against the wall, no door knob, no folds and creases to signify a jamb.That night, Alice left the Grüne Tür empty but for Jutta. But for the smoke curling in perfect twists over the bar, Alice would have thought her a silent, stone gargoyle protecting the green door.