She’s my neighbour. We’ve been living on the same floor for years. Every now and then, we insert our heavy keys into the Prussian doors in sync. Then I disappear into my hallway, a long, narrow tunnel lined with yellow hemp carpet, barely three feet wide. And she into hers, with the floorboards still painted the standard 1940s’ brown. The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.
For a week now, it has been silent in the side wing of the formerly elegant Jewish apartment house on Lehniner Strasse, of which she and I are the only residents. A wing of gloomy rooms typical of Berlin’s architecture, shaped like rectangles with one corner chopped off, rooms with three external walls, practically impossible to heat, with shared toilets half a floor down.
The last few remaining tenants moved out before the winter began, most of them to the vicinity of some relative or other, into the concrete tower blocks with central heating and waste disposal units out in Marzahn or Hellersdorf. The last to leave was a bedraggled old woman who lived halfway down to the basement. For twenty years she had refused to leave her quarters. Semi-blind, her ulcerous legs wrapped in floral-patterned rags, she was taken to a home in early November.
I’m sure now that I’m alone in the building. I’ve been the only one to trigger the roars of our shared cistern for days; my neighbour isn’t here any more. No jangling of keys, no coughing, no other people’s footsteps echoes off the splintering glazed tiles of the entrance area. I pull up the hood of my anorak, shoulder a bundle of plastic bags and enter the yard. Armed with a long hooked pole, I plan to get rid of the past week’s trash. Since the last dustmen turned up here in the summer and took away the old iron trashcans, this has been a procedure that calls for special tools and a degree of dexterity not to be underestimated. Late mornings are ideal, when the people in the neighbouring building are at work and not staring out of their windows in disapproval.
I step up to the wire fence put up above the low brick wall since the reintroduction of private property, diving their premises from ours. Cautiously, I push the pole through a fist-sized hole until the hook grabs the plastic handle of the trash container, and open the lid by lowering my end of the pole abruptly. Then I have to throw the plumply tied, pale green bags up in the air so that they fall down at an acute angle on the other side of the wire, landing in the opening if possible, or at least near to it.
I spend several minutes throwing bags over the fierce and correcting their position. Then I turn around, reaching for a bag of deposit bottles behind me. And suddenly I see the sign.
It wasn’t there yesterday.
It’s screwed to the grey-scabbed wall smeared with graffiti and wet briquette ash. A shiny new sign , the sign of a construction company. A name and address are framed below a blue enamelled symbol of a house.
I lean against the fence and close my eyes, breathing wet winter air and imagining the wall bare. Then I open my eyes again. The sign is still there.
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In The Shadow-Boxing Woman, a novel from German writer Inka Parei, a decaying apartment building in post-Wall Berlin is home to Hell, a young woman with a passion for martial arts. When Hell’s neighbour disappears she sets out across the city in search of her. In the course of her quest, she falls in love with a bank robber, confronts her own dark memories, and ends up saving more than just her missing neighbour.
For a visual journey through the locations the book is set in, visit Shadow Boxing Berlin.