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Usually I’d walk into town by the river, taking the boardwalk, but this day I turned onto Talbot St and as I neared the intersection with O’Connell St I saw a female figure in front of me, staring up at the Spire. Thick black sheening curls cascaded down her shoulders as she craned her neck skywards. There were clouds scrolling past, the afternoon bright and fresh. It was her generous curves from behind that had drawn me in but as I closed the distance between us, something in me suddenly hoped her face would be a disappointment. It wasn’t. I asked her if she’d like a photo beside the monument. She was holding up her phone.
I zoomed in with the camera. She had these big pillowy lips too. I zoomed out, and when I handed her back the phone I told her that the Spire was meant to inspire, that the architects were asking Dubliners to be more surefooted, to have confidence in themselves.
— See, if you say it quickly – a spire – it sounds like aspire.
I invited her to press up close to the steepling steel structure and explained that when you looked up from tight in, it gave the impression of tapering off into infinity. Our heads brushed once or twice as we circled the base and stared up.
— I feel dizzy, she said. — But it’s a beautiful theory. Aspire.
— Yes, aspire, I said. I fanned my hands out to the city. — The sky’s the limit. Of course they couldn’t find an Irishman with enough confidence to build the damn thing.
— Oh really?
— An English company designed it in the end.
Her name was Sabine. She was from Berlin. She’d been here only a month, she was looking for work. I told her if she needed a guide I’d be happy to show her around the city. We swapped numbers, exchanged a few texts about meeting up. Then one or two of my messages went unanswered, and I didn’t persist.
It was months later and I was out running on the seafront in Clontarf. The promenade was littered in plastic bottles, driftwood, condoms, polystyrene cartons, seaweed; there had been a storm surge the day before. I reached a crumbling old concrete jetty that had half sunk into the sea. Clouds trembled on the water; the rigging of sailboats chimed in a soft breeze; the tide sucked and sloshed below me. When I turned to come back in I saw Sabine strolling along the promenade. I waved.
— Hello! she called.
— It’s … Sabine, right?
I remembered her name perfectly well.
— Did I see you out here a few times? Sabine said.
— I run this way sometimes.
— I was thinking to text you.
— Oh. Why didn’t you?
— I don’t know. She shrugged. — Thought maybe you’d better offers by now.
— Better offers? Yeah, there was a stampede of women chasing me all the way up Fairview.
— It must be the sweat. It’s so attractive!
— I think I lost them. I wiped my brow theatrically.
— So, you still trying to pick up tourists at the Spire?
— I’m barred now. The police said I was becoming a pest.
Sabine laughed. — You still have the same number?
— No, I said, a mock-wounded tone. – Got a new one after you didn’t answer.
— Yeah. It’s one, two, three, four—
— Hey! She shook her head playfully, the loose chignon her hair was tied up in tumbling down.
— I still have the same number, Sabine. I’d be happy to hear from you sometime.
— Okay, I’ll text you next week. I’m late now but I promise not to disappear this time, she said. A few paces on she looked back. She was smiling now. — You know, you’re in my contacts as Mr Spire.
The following week, we met by Stephen’s Green railings, strolled round. I was unsure what to do with her on our date. I felt clumsy as I pointed out memorials to the famine, busts of political figures, the bullet-scarred stonework. I was doing most of the talking, nothing but inanities really, and it was a pressure to perform that had me on edge. Was this even a date anyway? I grew conscious I was talking too much.
— It’s hardly the weather you moved here for, I said as a light rain started to fall. The green that was still in the trees formed a canopy against it.
— Oh please. Even now it’s like summer in Berlin.
— So what has you in Dublin?
— I’m a refugee.
I couldn’t be certain she was joking. – But you’re a German citizen, no?
— I ran away from a man, she laughed. — A love refugee.
— We should have our own country, and she laughed again.
— Well, I said, unsure where to go with this, – I suppose it’s a kind of fleeing.
Past the cherry blossoms we came to a bridge. In the stagnant water below a pair of swans swam past a pontoon in the stateliest manner. I suddenly wished I had some of that same self-possession, those same slow sure movements. Sabine smiled at me, placed a gloved hand on my arm.
— Show me something I haven’t seen. I’m around this part of town every day.
I brought her up The Coombe, on into The Liberties. The Tivoli theatre was still there then. On Francis St we browsed in an art gallery, some antique stores, and on Thomas St I had to translate what the stall-traders were shouting, the hoarse flinty voices lost on Sabine. We continued on into Pimlico, taking all these backstreets along rows of redbricked terraced houses. As we walked, Sabine explained that her ex-boyfriend Dieter had actually followed her over here for a time; this was why she’d gone silent shortly after we first met. There was no need for an explanation, I said, feeling a jolt of jealousy.
— Dieter thought we could fall in love twice, she shook her head. — But once something is spoiled.
We came out to the Guinness factory. Sabine recognized the cobbled streets, the big black gates. — I think I saw it on TV, she said, and when she turned her face to mine I got a different kind of jolt. I had noticed a metal stud flashing silver just below her mouth.
A string of cars sped past, tires slapping off the centuries-worn stones. A tourist couple in a horse-drawn carriage stared down at us as they went by. The strangest scent hung in the air, horseshit mingling with the barley being malted inside the brewery.
— It’s total kitsch inside there, I said, gesturing at the black gates. — But if you want a really good pint, I can take you someplace. I reached out a hand to take a sprig of something that had caught in her hair. I handed it to her.
— Oh, Sabine said. — From the park. It’s wild rosemary, I think.
— You have amazing hair.
— I have a lot of hair, she groaned, grabbing a fistful of curls. Then this teasing smile skipped over eyes as she threw the rosemary away. – People will think we were rolling in the hay, she said.
— God! I laughed out loud. — We wouldn’t want that, would we, I said and immediately wished I’d said something else.
We crossed the river. The rain got heavier all of a sudden. We broke into a run. We stopped up at a set of lights, panting and smiling at each other. I felt Sabine’s hand touching my hand. I felt it again. Our bodies eased into a sort of embrace as the traffic swam past.
— Okay, come, quickly, I blurted and surged out onto the road, the smacking sound of my shoes off the wet tarmac growing louder with each step, turning more like laughter. When I reached the other side Sabine was still standing on the far pavement.
— So the trick is to let it settle, I said, placing her drink on a coaster. We had a table in a dim corner of a bar in Stoneybatter. — Let it go completely black.
A creamy moustache formed on Sabine’s lip as she took her first sip of the stout. I brushed the white foam away, and we exchanged looks. A man was tuning a fiddle by the fireplace. The front door opened, and more musicians piled in.
Sabine told me she’d wanted to be a musician herself, she’d been in a conservatory in Bremen but had dropped out. Dieter was in an orchestra; they’d met at the conservatory. An arrow of jealousy sliced through me. I pictured a tall charismatic figure, wild-haired and prone to tempestuous outbursts followed by tender, defenseless apologies. I took up my drink. When I put it down Sabine reached for my hands. She stroked my fingers.
— You could play piano with these, she said. — They’re the perfect proportions.
This was my opening. But I hesitated. Then I began complaining how I had no talent for music and slowly slid my hands from hers. — I’m actually tone-deaf, I said with a laugh.
The musicians started up. I always drank too fast when I was nervous. I rose to get us another.
When I sat back down, the band was droning through a repertoire that sounded like some animal quietly dying in the sump of a low field. Sabine said she could appreciate traditional music intellectually and historically but not in any emotional sense.
— It’s deeply unsexy, isn’t it, I said.
— Yes I cannot picture those men ever having sex.
I made a joke about requesting the band to play “Sexual Healing” but Sabine didn’t laugh. We were constantly out of step with one another. She picked at something on her top, then she turned away. She was concentrating on the music now, the glow of light from the fire dancing amber over the instruments. I knew the moment was gone.
I thought I might have blown things for good with Sabine. But early the following week, she texted with another invite, this time to a party at an apartment in Rathfarnham, followed by a gig at a club I’d never heard of, The Balkanarama.
Bicycles cluttered the hallway of the apartment. I squeezed past them, came into the living room. Barely audible electronic music was coming from a laptop in a corner. On a wall was a poster for the film Blue Velvet. I spotted Sabine standing by an open window. She had on a silver sequined dress that stopped well above the knee. Some bloke with high-set cheekbones and feathered hair handed her a drink before I got all the way across the floor. This turned out to be Julian, who lived in the house and worked with Sabine. He didn’t make eye contact with me once, he didn’t offer me a drink, and he was standing far closer than necessary to Sabine. They had been discussing Berlin, and Julian was making out like the city was his spiritual fucking homeland or something.
— I literally had the best night of my life in the Berghain, he said. — Well, it was a three-night rollover all wrapped into one, and he laughed.
— The party scene in Berlin is big, Sabine said.
— I really have to visit, I cut in. — Sabine, what neighborhood are you from?
— My God! Julian said, still without looking at me. — You haven’t been to Berlin! You’d swear I’d just confessed to never having seen indoor plumbing. — I lived in P-Berg with these deejay mates last summer, he boasted. – They’re on the Derelikt label over there. Then he began telling us about all the drugs he’d taken in the city, this pill, that powder, uppers, downers, sometimes both at the same time. He laughed again and I thought about pushing him out the window.
— I don’t do drugs, Sabine said in the bluntest Germanic manner.
— Me neither, I lied, and shrugged. — I find drugs are … I guess they’re just kind of boring.
— Well, it was just a phase really, Julian retreated. — Not that I’d touch them anymore.
— You should visit sometime, Sabine said to me. — You’re my Dublin guide, I can be your Berlin guide.
— Sounds like a plan, I said brightly.
I went in search of the toilet and a drink. When I came back a woman called Lorraine was talking with Sabine. Julian had left.
— So you’re the Spire guy, Lorraine said. — I’ve heard about you.
— All good I hope.
— I’d say you’re still on probation, and she laughed. Sabine smiled at her shoes, shook her head.
A bottle of mescal was produced. Sabine and Lorraine were all conspiratorial glances, trills of speech, as they filled me in on the romantic intrigues playing out at the party. Lorraine was on the lookout for a fellow called Ferdia, but he’d failed to turn up. Then some other girl came over and told us taxis were on the way, the doorstaff in this place were strict, if we arrived late we mightn’t get in. Sabine fixed us a large measure of the mescal. We clinked glasses.
People jumped into three waiting cars outside. When I went to get in beside Lorraine and Sabine the taxi was already full. I ended up sharing with a guy I recognized from college, whose name was Simon.
— Crawling with foreign chicks, was how Simon described The Balkanarama as we rode along.
— I’ve an eye on that German myself. Sabine.
— You’ve a well-trained eye then, Simon mock-punched my arm.
Once we reached town he directed the taxi driver down a series of roads that grew narrower the closer we got to the club. We talked about our old lecturers, the mad sessions back in the day. Simon worked as a band booker now. Both his arms were busy with tattoos that I didn’t remember. The car turned down a laneway, then went through a low tunnel. When we came out the other side, a long queue had formed along the wall by the entrance. Simon told me to follow him. He walked straight up to the head of the queue. Simon and the bouncer high-fived. We got in for free, the big metal door banging shut behind us.
I had to shout to be heard over the music. — I’ll get us SHOTS, I said to Simon. — Back in a SEC. Heat pulsed off the packed-in bodies, strip-lights flickered overhead. Alcoves with little private booths flanked a dancefloor. On a stage beneath a blue spotlight an accordionist, snare-drummer and violinist were tearing through some gypsy numbers. The violinist, sweat-filmed and swarthy, had his eyes shut in a shamanic trance as he zigzagged his bowing arm faster, building up to a crescendo. I shouldered my way past a girl ahead of me, straining to catch the barman’s attention.
After I finally got served, I went looking for Simon to give him his drink. I found Sabine and Julian instead, seated at a table in an alcove and deep in conversation. Julian was pressing in close to Sabine. She was laughing at whatever he was saying. She crossed, re-crossed her legs, she ran her hands through her hair.
I sat down with them, and my arrival brought their talk to a sharp end. A silence developed. I downed my drink in one. A wry look on her face, Sabine idly fingered the lip of her glass. Julian strained his neck to get a better look at the band. I reached for Simon’s drink, thinking I should ask Sabine if she was up for a dance.
— Hey! Julian said suddenly, standing up, gesturing for us to do likewise. — This is where the music goes mad.
The violinist was jerking his bowing arm violently, his eyes feverishly wild. The thump of the bass beat faster; the snare-drum fizzed a crackling tempo. The music climbed, climbed, until, for the briefest instant, it seemed suspended in the charged air. Then, from behind the thick pleats of a scarlet curtain, a woman wearing nothing but a see-through sarong and a fuchsia-pink lei flounced onto the stage, crashing cymbals overhead—
The crowd went berserk.
Julian jutted his chin to Sabine. — Shall we? and he inclined his head towards the dancefloor.
I stood frozen by the table, watching as Julian wrapped an arm round Sabine’s waist. They disappeared into the crush of writhing bodies. I picked up a drink from the table. It was Sabine’s, her dark red lipstick staining the rim of the glass. I drained that too.
I shoved my way to the bar again. I downed another shot. Before I knew it, I was barrelling past dancing young men and women. I remember knocking into a woman’s side, sending her drink splashing onto her blouse, her boyfriend glowering. I pushed past another swarm of bodies, and another, only to find the same frantic dancers everywhere. Passing a table I picked up someone’s drink, tossed it back. Scanned the room. They were not visible anywhere.
Stepping into the bathroom, I kneeled and craned my neck up under the cubicle doors. Simon was in the last one, racking out a line of cocaine.
— Simon, I called. He opened the door.
Back out on the dancefloor a vaporous mist was rising from the neon tiles, and beneath the confusing flicker of the strip-lighting I tried to think as I danced like a lunatic next to Simon. I thought Julian and Sabine must have left. I thought that’s what they were laughing about at the table, and that I was the butt of some elaborate joke the two of them were playing.
A jovial, stocky man wrapped a strong arm round me, pulled me in tight. Dancers spun past me, a sea of singing faces swimming in and out of focus. Breaking free, I staggered, but as I righted myself I felt a tug at my elbow. When my eyes focused again, it was Sabine’s face I saw first.
— Where have you two been? I said quickly. Julian was behind her.
— Where have you two been?
She pointed to a spot in front of me. — Are you blind?
— That’s quite the traditional gypsy dance you were doing, Julian said, a big stupid grin across his face. He nodded at the still-spinning dancers. — I think it’s called kolo style.
— Julian, is there anything you don’t know about?
— You’re just so knowledgeable about Berlin, Berlin nightclubs. Now it’s gypsy dancing rituals, I said. At least he was looking at me now. — What else are you an expert on?
— Dude, whatever, he said and turned back to Sabine. They danced.
She had such grace, the way she would dip her hips on the downbeat, her torso twisting and sliding in a groove that seemed to belong to her alone. I beckoned Simon over and we elbowed our way in on them, my eyes locking with Sabine’s as I bobbed and half-stepped. I was feeling fired up all of a sudden; guess it was Simon’s cocaine on top of all the drink. I was feeling good, I got into the dancing, I felt myself absorbed in the music that was mixing with the sweat and the perfume and the humid heat until I noticed that Lorraine and some others had joined our little group. Lorraine was dancing with Simon. Happily, Julian was nowhere to be seen now.
A thump of the drums came from the stage, as if announcing a new phase of the night. Lorraine and Simon kissed. There was a loud crash of cymbals. The spotlight above the bandstand swerved, beaming a big blue shaft out onto a section of the crowd. I could see Sabine looking at Lorraine and Simon. I took Sabine by the hand. She felt sleek and pliant as I spun her out, drew her back in to the quick number. Then the band slowed to a kind of waltz. I leaned into Sabine. Julian could go fuck himself, I thought. I could feel her breath on my cheek like fingertips. Then, realising she’d clasped her arms round my neck, I slipped my hands down the scaly fabric of her dress and rested them just above the swell of her ass. She looked up into my face, her eyes big, expectant.
And I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t bring myself to lower my head and seal my lips on hers. She was just too beautiful. I looked away, I made a space between us. A short time later Julian returned, and he seized his chance to muscle in again. With a jerk of his head Simon indicated we get off the dancefloor.
— Boyo you’d want to wise up, Simon said as he slammed the cubicle door shut. He cut me out a particularly large line of cocaine. – Horse that into ya. That German is game.
— I don’t know, I said, whipping my head off the cistern lid, — stiff competition out there. That Julian’s a real prettyboy. Looks like he’s in a boyband.
— Exactly! A fucken boyband, and he shoved me out the door. — You look like you’re in a real fucken band.
Back out on the dancefloor I couldn’t find Sabine. I fell in beside a bunch of strangers and danced with them for what felt like a long time…
A male figure poised in the motion of fleeing was stencilled into a neon exit sign. Julian had just come back from the bar with drinks. He was rangy, his long frame arched up over Sabine as he handed her a glass. She laughed at something he said and her head tilted towards his. Then Julian held his glass to Sabine’s mouth and she drank from his drink. I turned round. I felt drenched in my own failure. I felt I might choke on spite. I had a better idea than sucker-punching Julian as I pressed my way through the crowd that was already thinning. — Hey, I said to a bouncer. — That guy over there, I pointed at Julian’s back. — Yeah, by the exit. I’m pretty sure he spiked that girl’s drink. Yeah, the one with the hair. He dropped some kind of pill in it, it went all fizzy and she was drinking from it.
The bouncer said something into his earpiece. A moment later he was joined by the bouncer posted on the door outside. I was asked to repeat my story. Then both bouncers ploughed through the crowd and in one swift violent maneuver they had Julian hoisted up by his arms like a pathetic ragdoll and carted out the exit door. I laughed. I had at least salvaged something. I left through the front entrance. I never saw nor heard from Sabine again after that night. Even today, I still fantasize about a time machine where I could travel back to that nightclub, to that pub, to that set of traffic lights, to the foot of the Spire. I want to grab that young eejit I was and tell him that you need to pounce on the opportunities when they come round, because the truth is that Sabines don’t keep on coming round and Sabines are far fewer that you’d ever have imagined.
The Balkanarama’s heavy metal door banged hard as it closed after me. It was not a pleasant sound. It seemed to ring in my ears as I walked the maze of empty streets, turning this way and that. I had no idea where I was going. A parked car had its passenger window put in, a spray of broken glass all over the pavement. I turned down another street, and another, and when I looked up it was the light on top of the Spire that I saw blinking. On, off, on, off it blinked as I walked, but no matter what turn I took, it never seemed to draw closer. It was always a street away. Then a taxi came up behind me and slowed. I put out my hand for it to stop.
David Ralph is from Ireland. He writes essays and short stories. He has been published in The Dublin Review and New Irish Writing.