Berlin life. Part 1 -Tubes

Open doors.

A biology Noble Prize winner, once said, ‘The world is made up of tubes.’ Consider the human body as an example! Of course, tubes need doors, otherwise our longest tube, the alimentary canal, would be a disaster. We have a door each end, a few in the middle and a mobile door, driven by peristalsis, which is a kind of moving door. Perhaps the doors are more important than the tubes.

Since hearing about the tube-theory of the Nobel scientist, I am obsessed with his observation. I count tubes wherever I stand.

My apartment access has two tubes and four doors before one gets inside. On the way you negotiate five staircase bits going up and two going down. One didn’t consider old or disabled people in 1906.

My niece came to call. She is so scatty that I struggle to stay on the same page as her. We spoke briefly on the phone.

‘That would be great if you can drop by,’ I truthfully tell her. ‘Can I buy you dinner?’

‘Best not,’ she replies. ‘I’m on late shift, won’t get to yours until 9.00. Early shift tomorrow. I’ll just come and say hi and go again.’

I smell a catastrophe. My niece is never that uncomplicated. She always carries her bike into the secure area, which involves four doors, which are never open and six stairways – and that for a quick call. Ooof.

She arrives at 8.00pm punctually – she has never managed that before. I give her a hug – an act of which we both disapprove. She ignores it and she counters with, ‘do you have an allen key set?’

I look at her. I’m mystified and fail to hide my incomprehension.

‘Er…. yes.’

‘Good! There some people out the front who asked me if I had an allen key for their bike. I said I hadn’t, but I’d ask my uncle if he had.’

‘I should take them out some tools to fix their bike before making you welcome?’

‘Please do. Take what they need now.’

I go to my man-drawer and amazingly put my hand on my allen key set and stroll off for the front of the house, leaving my niece talking on the phone to her bloke. I glean, as I pass her, this will not be a flying visit after all.

 I grab a tin of WD 40 as I leave the flat.

There are three young people at the front of the house. One of them greets me like a long-lost pal. I don’t recognise her as I only have eyes for the other woman, who is of far eastern origin, is wearing the cheekiest bright red lipstick ever invented and spectacles that look so perfectly formed in her face that I consider asking her for the name of her optician. She looks as though she has been born with them. Maybe evolution put them there. Furthermore – the face! To die for! I gasp! In one way her expression is a too severe for one so young, but it is also kind and full of determination.

I manage to glance in the direction of the greeting. I recognise the hair on my neighbour. The face is a mystery. I bet the little tinker has changed her make up again because she knows I can’t keep up. A slight change, and a door in my brain shuts. I hope my hasty reply was within the bounds of the socially acceptable, but I think she is deliberately fooling around. Why do women play these tricks?

I speak to the man in the group, who seems to be in charge of the bike problem.

‘I hope the right size is among them,’ I say as I hand the bundle of keys over. He is the young man every mother wants her daughter to bring home. He already has ‘it’ – a great smile and impeccable manners without a hint of obsequiousness. I am put at ease.

‘The seat is far too high for my friend to ride this bike,’ he explains and looks at an ancient and very rusty woman’s bike, leaning against the Eastern Beauty. How did she ride the bike here, if the saddle is so much too high? Who cares? I’m glad she managed. I want to put some penetrating oil on the rusty clamp thread. I can’t because she is standing in the way. I think she will move. She doesn’t. I ask her to move. She doesn’t. I manage to circumnavigate her cute backside and get some oil on the thread. Someone tell me what is going on!

The young man releases the clamp and she energetically adjusts the saddle tube to her preferred height. He begins to re-tighten the clamp and I watch what he is doing. I feel a huge force dig at my shoulder, powerful enough to leave a bruise. I look round and see Eastern Beauty pointing at my oilcan and then at a very dry set of gear sprockets. She says nothing, but points from one to the other. I get the message and oil the sprockets. I know that many Asians speak remarkable English so I ask her in English, ‘is there anything else that needs oiling?’

She isn’t looking at me as I say it and she ignores me. It’s as if I haven’t spoken. She turns her back on me and gives the bike an analytical once over. She is so independent and decisive in her actions, but her back remains my only view.

The young man intervenes.

‘She is profoundly deaf and can’t speak,’ he explains.

I try to make consoling noises, but she doesn’t want my sympathy. I know that if she is looking at me she may be able to lip read and I don’t want to patronise, so I grunt something indistinct. Not even33 I have understood myself. Why didn’t I speak directly at her face? Did she think me rude, too? I remember that lip-reading doesn’t cross language barriers, but one never knows with remarkable people. Maybe she can lip-read in Chinese and half a dozen European languages. Maybe she isn’t a foreigner at all! I am a foreigner and I’m sure she can’t read my lips.

He gives me the tools and thanks me. I look round for my neighbour. I want to take the time to chat and make amends for my earlier rudeness even if it is she, who is to blame.

She has disappeared. She probably thought, ‘if God wants a fool, he dangles a pretty woman in front of an old man,’ and left, before it became embarrassing. She was right.

I turn and watch the young man and Eastern Beauty ride off together and wonder how many tubes are involved in that scene. Two bikes, two bodies – immeasurable.

How does a profoundly deaf woman cycle in city traffic? I hope for his sake she can at least make appreciative noises when they make love. I’m back to tubes again.

An unruly tear forms in my eye, delivered no doubt, by a tiny tube.

I should have learned the old maxim about disabled people by now – after all I spent sixteen years working with deaf and blind pupils.

‘See the person, not the disability!’ we always said. My favourite poster on our staffroom wall showed a young loving couple, but he was in a wheel chair. Underneath was written in large font, ‘Sue and Tom have a problem with sex!’ Then in a much smaller font, ‘Sue is a screamer! See the person!’

See the person! Not the disability.

 I can’t.

I wonder how Eastern Beauty communicates emotions in bed. OK. Nasty voyeurism on my part, and my thoughts mean I’m not seeing the person. I’m back to seeing the disability, but I’m going to indulge myself.

The problem is, deaf people never learn subtlety. Theirs is a binary world of on and off switches, because there is no aural input and thus, no nuance. If you ask a deaf person, ‘How was it for you?’ they will answer with unintended brutal honesty, because sign language or lip-reading don’t do shades of meaning. They don’t intend to be hurtful, but it is unavoidable in a world of on or off – nothing in between. So, if they say, ‘You were rubbish,’ it can mean anything from 0 to 10. ‘That was OK,’ can mean anything from 0 to 10.

You don’t believe me. Try it out.

Say,  ‘That was OK.’ giving it 0/10

Now say, ‘That was OK.’ but giving it 10/10

Sign language however, is a Dalek.  Now say ‘That was OK’, in a Dalek voice. You understand the problem.

Another problem – signing and lip-reading don’t work in the dark and signing requires the girl to be on top. Now you understand my sympathy for Eastern Beauty’s boyfriend. Communication can easily become more important than the loving act.

Fortunately, there remains the ‘open door,’ method of measuring meaning – wait until next time and observe how quickly the door opens.


Much later I learned that Eastern Beauty was an established New York artist, making a name for herself in Europe. See the person!

Published by Clive La Pensée

Clive La Pensée, ex-science teacher, recognised writer on history of beer, novelist, expressionist, dreamer, believer in never giving up, empathiser, hopeful for a future without class, gender or racial prejudice. It's tough and at the moment, one has to remember distance travelled, rather than where we are at.

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