The young English filmmaker joins a commune – and visits a sauna…
(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)
I awoke, bladder bursting, and peered over the edge of my eerie to see if the coast was clear. My mattress – seven feet above the floor and four feet below the ceiling – lay on a raised platform made of timber from a demolition site with a homemade ladder for ascent and descent. I put a foot on the top rung, but retreated again as the bathroom door opened.
“Morning!” a male voice grunted, as it passed beneath the bed.
I lay back and pretended to sleep. The mattress felt lumpy and – according to Dieter – came from a demolition site too.
“Good morning, Englishman,” called a female voice, sailing under my bed in the opposite direction. “Breakfast in thirty minutes.”
“Good morning,” I replied, still not sure which voice belonged to what person.
The room that I occupied had a high ceiling and overlooked a dank courtyard. It had two doors and acted as a passageway between the only bathroom and the bedroom of a woman called Christa. The room’s previous occupant had left a week earlier and I had moved in. Not an easy decision, but I needed the company. Dieter had explained my situation to the commune committee and the committee – on the basis of an interview dominated by a man called Hubertus – had approved my admission..
Lying in bed, waiting to pee, I wondered whether I had done the right thing. No lack of company, but also no solitude and a strict roster of duties: cook once a week for six, wash up for same, clean communal areas, shop at weekends. And no privacy: ‘locked doors represent repression and the bathroom must be accessible to all at all times’. This meant trying to pass water (or more) while Dieter and Sasha shared a bath; bathing as Christa fitted a tampon and talked about her periods; and shaving to the background grunts and groans of Hubertus and Erwin – the sixth member of the household – engaging in oral sex on the toilet seat. I raised the matter, but received little support. Learning to perform and observe private acts in a public context would help purge petit-bourgeois peccadilloes from my system. So far, however, no purge, just constipation.
I pulled on my jeans, shimmied down the ladder and bolted to the bathroom. I wanted to urinate before Dieter or Sasha or Hubertus or Erwin or Christa put in an appearance and stemmed the flow. On weekdays they went to university or work, but today was Saturday and after shopping – part purchase, part theft, to reduce supermarket profits – a breakfast meeting was being held to consider a new candidate for the commune. Erwin, a psychology student, had received a grant to study a lunatic asylum on the Greek island of Leros and – despite protests from Hubertus – had suggested a female as his replacement.
Half an hour later, at ten o’clock sharp, we seated ourselves around an oblong table in the front room and prepared to breakfast: Hubertus at one end, Erwin to his left and Dieter to his right, Sasha next to Dieter and Christa next to Erwin; me next to Christa and on my left, at the end of the oblong opposite Hubertus, a chair for the candidate. The room was lined with books and boasted a floor to ceiling window with a door to the street at one end. Our landlord let the property as accommodation, but previous owners had kept shop and passers-by would still stop to sample the wares within. Commune members acknowledged this audience and invited poorer members in for a drink. ‘Socialism in practice’ Hubertus explained. I did not contradict him, but – given his background – sensed the gesture owed more to old-fashioned alms giving than alternative politics.
The table lay buried under a mound of food: rye, wheat, and sourdough bread; eggs, ham, salami and liver sausage; Emmenthaler, brie and Tilsiter cheese; tomatoes, celery, apples and bananas; yoghurt and muesli; tea, coffee and juice, as well as bottles of beer and a carafe of wine. The fruit and vegetables represented the Catholic South – Dieter from Baden, Christa from Bavaria and Sasha from the Tyrol; the leg of ham, boiled eggs and stiff salamis mirrored the no nonsense approach of the Protestant North – Hubertus from Bonn and Erwin from Hamburg. I had contributed a pot of marmalade.
Hubertus banged the table.
“Fellow commune members, before we eat” – I wanted to laugh; this man with his long face, aristocratic nose and perfectly enunciated Hochdeutsch reminded me of a paterfamilias insisting on grace before gluttony – “let us first table matters for discussion.”
“Isn’t the candidate invited to the meal?” asked Sasha, pointing at the empty chair, her singsong Tyrolean accent adding to the old world homeliness of the scene.
“She’ll be here shortly,” Erwin said. “I told her to come at ten fifteen.”
“Satisfied?” Hubertus queried, raising his eyebrows at Sasha.
Sasha shrugged her shoulders.
“Not very friendly, starting without her.”
My stomach rumbled and I wondered which kind of bread to eat first, the hard Vollkorn or the soft white French ‘lifted’ that morning from the supermarket.
“Start or wait,” Hubertus summarised. “Shall we vote?”
“Hubertus!’ Dieter exclaimed. “This is a breakfast for undogmatic Marxists and associated artists not a plenary session of the KPD.”
“Well…” began Hubertus.
“I propose waiting and vote for my proposal,” chimed in Sasha, breaking ranks with her partner’s libertarian approach despite a dig in the shoulder.
“Me too,” seconded Christa, putting down a half-peeled banana.
“I abstain,” Erwin mumbled too under the sway of Hubertus to offer opposition.
“Against,” sighed Dieter, closing his eyes and sinking his chin on his chest.
“And you?” called Hubertus down the table.
All eyes turned to me.
“I propose an amendment,” I said. “Let’s wait with food, but start on drinks.”
The others laughed. Hubertus banged the table with his knife.
“British fence-sitting,” cried Erwin. “What do you say Hubertus?”
Hubertus took a deep breath.
“I support the amendment and as chair have the casting vote. Motion – as amended – carried.”
Hands reached for tea, coffee and juice – apart from Dieter’s, which went for wine and Erwin’s, which settled on beer. I poured an apple juice, downed it in one and waited for the glass teapot. My eyes moved to the street, focused on a Turkish child playing with a dog on the far pavement and then refocused on a woman peering in at us through the shop window.
Mathilde? The mad seductress from Kreuzberg, had she followed me here?
Erwin saw her too.
“Ah!” he said, rising from his seat. “Our candidate. Now we can drink and eat.”
He crossed to the window, opened the door and stood back to let the figure in.
“This is Mathilde Merkel, an old sparring partner of mine.”
He led her to the table.
“Hubertus… Christa… Dieter… Sasha…”
Each person took her hand, welcomed her to the commune and said what they were doing in terms of work or study. Dieter stood and gave her a kiss, apparently unaware that he had met her before.
“And last but not least, our newest member.”
Mathilde held out a hand to me, no hint of flirtation or flicker of recognition.
“Hello. What do you study?”
“I make films,” I replied, taking her hand and recalling what it had held the last time we met. “An artist.”
“Then we have something in common,” laughed Mathilde. “I paint.”
I watched her sit down and my dismay subsided. In her sailor-front trousers, velvet top and sleeveless Afghan, she appeared to be a sane, intelligent and attractive woman, not someone to be confronted with the wisdom or otherwise of past actions.
“Tea, coffee…” I began and then hesitated – “Or wine?”
But the alcoholic had reformed, too.
“Apple juice, please.”
She smiled and bent down until her mouth was next to my ear.
“I do remember you, but thanks for forgetting me! I was very drunk!”
I felt a hand, a gentle hand, pat my knee and then withdraw.
Later that day, we went to a mixed sauna. The expedition had been proposed at the meeting, which, despite all the food and drink consumed, managed to merge the chores of washing up and cooking (‘Christa washes up as she goes, Dieter leaves everything’), reject my request to reopen the bathroom lock issue (‘discussion of a topic twice is forbidden by the commune’s constitution’), accept a reversion to shopping in pairs (‘to streamline profit reduction’), and approve Mathilde’s candidacy.
At the sauna, I discovered what ‘mixed’ meant. Changing rooms separate, but pool, hot cabins and showers shared – with swimsuits and trunks not recommended.
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Hubertus said as we strode from changing room to pool. “Acceptance of nudity is a key principle of our commune – and of many people in Germany. One of the nation’s few saving graces. Whether fat, skinny, crippled or crazy we are all humans underneath and must accept each other’s bodies as well as each other’s minds. Been to a nudist beach?”
“No,” I said.
“I will take you.”
We entered the pool area. I felt the eyes of men and women – fat, thin, old and young – survey the new bodies and then return to reading or sleeping or minding their own business. The looks were not voyeuristic just curious, fellow members of the species registering new specimens and assessing assets as others did clothes. A man coughed, his fat rolled up and down. A woman rearranged a breast and took a sip of wine. Nudity as normality – a new experience for me, whose English heritage had consisted of changing beneath damp towels on freezing beaches or sniggering at pin-ups in the school bog.
The commune women – including Mathilde – were in the water, three sets of white buttocks rising and falling in unison as they swam from one end of the bath to the other. Dieter dived in and surfaced beneath Sasha, who screamed and, along with the other two, ducked and re-ducked the invading male until he begged for mercy. Hubertus seemed more interested in my behind and suggested a drink at the bar before swimming.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked, after ordering two beers.
“Not in Germany, no.”
“Sort of. But not really.”
Hubertus lent across and put a hand on my thigh.
“I’ve never had one,” he confided. “Too much flesh and too… soft!”
I glanced down at the hand and noticed something else: Hubertus’ erect penis. Was that allowed, in a mixed sauna?
“You prefer men, then,” I said, tearing my eyes from the phallus. “Like Erwin.”
Erwin was back at the commune packing for Greece, but I felt a mention of the name might calm things down.
“I prefer you,” hissed Hubertus. “Shall we go to a cabin?”
“But the others…” I protested.
“They horseplay for hours. Dieter likes many women. Hopelessly heterosexual.”
I panicked. A commune that had seemed like a serious attempt to counter the worst aspects of dominant culture and consumer society and provide a refuge from the rat race of capitalism was turning into a News of the World exposé: “Commune Capers” – “Queer goings on!”
“Can’t we just talk?” I said.
“Of course, but in the sauna, no?”
Hubertus’ tone was urgent and, despite misgivings, I agreed. We slipped off our stools and descended a stairway. I had no idea what to expect as I followed him down into the underworld, and, despite a determination to stay in the here and now, found myself recalling a similar experience eight years earlier.
In Germany then, too, because my father – terminally ill, but determined to do his best by the youngest son – had sent me off for a term to the University of Freiburg to improve my German. Being April, and late in the academic year, the only accommodation available was above a shoe shop in the outlying village of Wolfenweiler, breakfast included but no evening meal. So, after classes and before taking a bus home, I ate a meal in town. I was, I suppose, quite an attractive man – my hair soft, my eyelashes long, my body slim and well proportioned – and on the fourth evening of the second week I found a restaurant situated in a curtained-off ground floor room of a seventeenth century house. I ordered scrambled eggs with ham and salad and had almost finished the meal when an elderly German man accompanied by a Turkish boy joined me at the table.
“I’ll pay for that,” the man said when the waiter brought my bill. “And, please, another beer for the young man.”
I said I should go, but the man insisted. After a second beer, the boy – like me, in his late teens – drew closer and rested a hand on my knee. The older man smiled.
“In Turkey, no distinction between the touch of man and the touch of woman.”
I nodded and noticed the absence of females in the restaurant – older men and younger boys, but no women. The hand on my leg moved.
“Ahmed” – the man used the boy’s name for the first time – “can be a woman for you. He is gentle, experienced. And I would watch to see that you came to no harm.”
I repeated that I must go. I had a lecture the next morning. The man laughed.
“Upstairs is a room where you can forget studies, enjoy yourself and then sleep soundly until the cock crows – with Ahmed by your side. I will wake you for the class.”
The boy lent across and kissed me on the cheek.
“What do you say?” the man cooed, leaning forward.
I felt nervous, but curious.
“Until you have tried you cannot know,” the man added. “Girl, boy, man, woman, the touch of a fellow human is the closest we get to paradise. Is that not so, Ahmed?”
Ahmed nodded, took my hand and helped me up from the table. The older man led us across the lamp-lit restaurant to a curtained stairway.
“Please,” said the man, drawing the curtain aside and standing back to let us through.
Ahmed smiled and again kissed me on the cheek. I glanced from boy to man and back again, hesitated and then – perhaps because the man resembled my father in some way, or out of a sense of filial duty to the patient back home – turned and ran out of the restaurant, past the cathedral and into the safety of a bus bound for Wolfenweiler.
Now, descending the stairway behind Hubertus – the stairway not ascended then – I wondered if I would run again.
“I use the last cabin on the left,” said Hubertus, as we padded along a corridor with cubicles on both sides. “More privacy.”
He reached the door, opened it and – like the man in Freiburg – stood aside to let me through. Hot air hit my face, searing my lungs, and it took me a moment to accustom myself to the heat. When I had, I found myself in a low-lit space with raked benches ascending into darkness at the back and a basket of coals in the foreground.
“Please,” said Hubertus indicating the second bench up, while laying his own towel out on the lowest one. “That is a good place for you, I think.”
I did as I was told and, when settled on the hard slats, found myself directly behind Hubertus, who lent back and rested his head on my knees.
“And now we talk, no?”
Heat penetrated my pores, sweat streamed down my body. My legs were as slippery as eels and, if they opened, Hubertus’ head would slide into my groin. I concentrated on keeping my knees closed, frightened they might part of their own accord.
Hubertus reached back and moved a hand up my calves.
“Mm,” I mumbled.
Why had I agreed to come to this cabin? Why wasn’t I swimming in the pool or cutting my film at home? Why was I letting Hubertus stroke my legs?
I wiped moisture from my eyes. I must get my priorities straight. Experiencing everything that crossed my path was risky. Without shape and order, without a chart from past to future, the present tended to take control and sweep you, willing or unwilling, into its more treacherous currents and then drown you in its endless voids and vacuums. Make a map and stick to it; don’t dawdle in doorways, or dillydally on the way; keep the big picture in view. That’s what my father always said.
“You don’t want to talk?” inquired Hubertus.
“No,” I replied. “Perhaps not.”
“Then,” he said, turning to face me, “I think we should play.”
He opened my knees and thrust his head into the void between. At the same moment, the door swung open silhouetting a figure against the neon light.
“Hubertus!” the figure called. “Hubertus Ziegler!’
Hubertus turned and peered over his shoulder.
“Yes? Who is it?”
“Me!” said the figure.
“Erwin?” stammered Hubertus, shading his eyes and peering into the light. “What are you doing here? I thought you were packing?”
“I thought you were taking a sauna. But please… carry on.”
The figure retreated and Hubertus grabbed his towel and ran off in pursuit.
“Erwin! I was just…”
The door swung shut. I lay alone in a pool of sweat and confusion. Saying Hello to Berlin in the manner Isherwood had bid it Goodbye? Becoming a Bi in Berlin? Was that what I had come here for? Had I allowed Hubertus to open my knees? Had I intended to let the moral-minded chairman of the morning’s meeting proceed with whatever immoral activity it was he intended to proceed with? And was it immoral? No more so than with a woman, surely? And had I wanted it to proceed? My mind bubbled and boiled with the ‘what ifs’ of an incomplete piece of the future that had bypassed the present and, as in Freiburg, ended up as part of my imaginary past. I closed my eyes and laid my head on the bench behind. Whatever the meaning of the episode it seemed homosexuality was not to be in my book of life – at least not in this chapter. I would, perhaps, be an adventurer with adventures that never quite took off; one whose escapades never progressed beyond the first act, never made it to acts two and three; a man with a future less exciting than imagined and a past of might-have-beens. Could I accept such a fate? Was the world of imagination enough to honour the sense of otherness that had dogged me since childhood? Would art be a sufficient outlet for an oddball like me? Not art perched on a plateau of present perception as the formalists demanded, but the art of an artist weaving stories from past and future, a yarn-spinner mixing fact with fiction – a maker of new clothes who bonded visible and invisible threads into the memory of something that had never happened. That might be enough. Yes. So my next film would be different: a story not a painting; set in a sauna, spectators on benches behind watching from within, the audience in cinema seats in front watching from without; a story set in the here and now, but retold as then; a tale of two perceptions dovetailed into one. Yes…
A while later, I awoke to find another body beside me, a feminine body. I rolled my head to the left. Mathilde lay gazing at me, a quizzical expression on her face.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” she whispered. “But I’ve turned the heat down.”
“You all right?” Mathilde asked.
“All right?” I retorted. “Of course. Why not?”
“Erwin made Hubertus confess. In front of everyone.”
“And ask forgiveness for his betrayal of Erwin.”
“I thought we were Communists not Catholics.”
“It was Dieter’s idea. We formed a circle round Hubertus in the swimming bath, heard his confession and then held him under water for more than a minute while Erwin did something horrible to his balls. He won’t try again.”
“And you,” I laughed. “Will you try again?”
“No. Christa and I have decided to become lesbians.“ She paused. “Starting tomorrow.”