The interview, which had already been going unfavorably, took a turn for the irreparable when the glob of phlegm that had been lodged in Dave’s throat all morning fired abruptly out of his mouth, shot over the language school owner’s desk, and landed with ruinous precision on that same man’s left eyebrow.
The wretched affair had begun an hour earlier when Dave, holding a scribbled address and a mislaid confidence in his sense of direction, had taken a wrong turn out of the U-Bahn station, leading to a progressively scurried spell of backtracking and recalibrating, until he arrived at the language school, runny of nose and rumpled from head to waist, ten minutes late. At reception he was met by a middle-aged woman speaking in thick Berliner deutsch, who briskly signaled for him to follow her down a short corridor. Realizing that there would be no comfort break in which to attend to his appearance’s most pressing needs (hair, shirt, nose), Dave’s instinctual solution, while keeping a step behind the woman, was to reintroduce his shirt to his waistband with his right hand, wipe his left hand across his leaking nostrils, then immediately thrust the same hand through his wayward hair, with the notion of reaffixing the smart side parting he had designed at home. He would have preferred to use his more reliable right hand for this part of the maneuver, but Dave was a courteous young man and he knew there was a handshake coming up.
The woman led him to a small classroom at the end of the corridor, in which sat Mr. Roland Appelbaum, a neat, grey, fifty-something New Yorker in a sombre black polo neck, who greeted him with an august nod and said, ‘Seeing as we’re twenty minutes behind schedule I’ll have to be brief. Take a seat.’
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” said Dave, secretly bristling at Mr. Appelbaum’s exaggeration of the delay. ‘I took a wrong turn and I’m really sorry that–’
Appelbaum told him to ‘forget it’, then without preamble launched into an imperious ten-minute lecture on the school’s history and teaching philosophy, breaking only once to ask Dave, who was sniffing and stifling coughs throughout, ‘You sick?’
“Just a bit of a cold, sorry,” said Dave, unable to stop apologizing.
When the lecture came to a close Dave was invited to speak about his language teaching credentials, and he put forward a few platitudes on the merits of his online TEFL course in a disjointed sequence which, with hindsight, could have stood a little rehearsal. Appelbaum gravely waited for the jumbled monologue to finish, then said, “So you would comfortably be able to, for instance, explain the distinction between the words ‘some’ and ‘any’?”
“Err…yeah…” began Dave, entering a state of panic. “Some is like… ‘I have some apples.'” He paused to take an almighty sniff, and Appelbaum offered him a tissue. “Thanks, thank you,” said Dave, bringing the tissue to his nose. “And any…any is like… ‘Hey, do you have any apples?'”
The silence that followed was long enough for Dave to regret moving to Germany. Appelbaum, with eyes that contained both coolness and impatience, stared at his sniffling interviewee in expectance of a concluding statement, which, after several painful seconds, he acknowledged had already been made.
“Okay…” Appelbaum said slowly, picking up a pen and bringing it towards his notepad, ultimately deciding not to write anything. “Und wie ist Ihr deutsch?”
“Err…ja,” said Dave, with a desperate nod.
“I said how is your German,” was the stone-faced rejoinder.
“Oh ja,” Dave nodded again, “Well I’ve only been here two weeks…aber ick lerne…at moment.”
“It is of our philosophy,” sighed Appelbaum, folding his arms, “that a bilingual teacher, with regard to transferral of vocabulary to lower level learners, is more expedient than–”
“Hock!” went the unanticipated, unstiflable cough, sending the sputum missile to its lamentable terminus. A stuttering flash flood of apologies gushed forth, meeting a dam of silent, magisterial scorn.
“Should I just leave?” Dave asked eventually.
“Probably a good idea,” said Appelbaum, still dabbing a tissue at the violated brow.
Dave trudged, hot red face to the floor, down the corridor and out into the chill March air. “That did not go as well as I had envisioned,” he surmised, thinking back to the cocksure version of himself striding out of the apartment that morning. The phlegm assault had been unfortunate, one couldn’t legislate for freak occurrences like that – but the overall failure of the interview had been due to complacency, the unguarded belief that the dream which had compelled him to leave England, to come to Berlin and teach English part time and play his songs in trendy bars, would be effortlessly obtainable. He traipsed along, coughing and sniffing, taking turns without deliberation, vaguely wondering how to fill the deflated afternoon. After a while he found himself under the stately shadow of the TV Tower, and took a moment to train his eyes up the monolithic white mast to its oversize disco ball focal point which shimmered against the clear blue background that the early spring day had delivered. It was an arresting sight, and it momentarily seemed to lessen the significance of his recent disaster, reawakening the theory that this new uncertain life in a big foreign city was still preferable to living at home and working for his father at the building society. Feeling an emergent hunger, he pushed on into the motley bustle of Alexanderplatz, where he bought a coffee and a bratwurst and sat down on the stone seatwall that circled a large copper fountain.
On completion of the bratwurst he was approached by a woman in a silk headscarf carrying a portly toddler in one arm.
“Not well enough to teach it,” quipped Dave.
“Speak English?” repeated his nonplussed interlocutor.
The woman, straining with the weight of the child (who was absently licking an ice cream cone), used her other hand to thrust in front of Dave a square of cardboard, baring six lines of neatly capitalized text. Dave stopped reading after the first line: “I AM A POOR SINGLE MOTHER WITH NO” and, speculating that a good deed couldn’t do his chances of a karmic upturn any harm, took out his wallet and rooted around for a fifty-cent piece. In one deft motion the woman hoisted the sign under her arm and presented Dave with a cupped hand, into which he placed his donation.
“Need more. Please. Very poor. Please!” she said with a theatrically beseeching expression. Dave again regarded the chubby child’s ice cream, a two-scooper with sprinkles; he looked at the child’s shoes, sporty new ones with little lights that flashed in the heels; then he returned his gaze to the woman’s face, which was approaching sensational levels of supplication.
“I’m pretty confident you have more money than me,” he said cordially, “and I’ve already given you fifty cents. So I’d rather keep what little I have left to myself until I find a job, if that’s okay with you. Goodbye.”
He picked up his coffee and rose to leave with dignity. The woman, who by now was looking at him as though he had debased her entire family, wailed and roughly clutched his elbow, which sent a large splash of coffee out of his cup and onto his shoes. Dave’s cool was broken and he swore aloud, shook his arm free, spilling the rest of the coffee, and marched, bitter and bewildered, out of Alexanderplatz.
He was halfway home on the U-Bahn before he managed to banish that spurious yet convincing hatred in the woman’s eyes from his thoughts. The running of his nose was becoming unmanageable and it was a welcome stroke of luck that the paper napkin that had come with his bratwurst was still in his pocket. He blew his nose lustily, then asserted that if one useful thing could be done with the day, it should be to combat those pesky snuffles. He got off the U-Bahn at the penultimate station before home, with the nearby Schlecker drugstore in mind. He had looked up the German medical word for a cold the previous day, and now he scoured the aisles for the Erkältung section, amongst which he found a little glass bottle with green contents and the word Erkältungsbad on the label. “Bad?” he thought, regarding the unexpected suffix. “Yeah too right it’s bad – just cost me a job!”
He bought the bottle and went on his way. Not far into the walk home he was brought to a halt by a particularly vicious coughing fit. As he stood there wetly hacking, his hands fumbled with the screw top of the medicine bottle. There was no complimentary plastic cap with which to administer a level dose, but so ardent and malicious was the coughing that the moment it subsided, he brought the bottle to his lips to gulp a mentally prescribed measure.
The biggest shock of Dave’s life thus far had come when, as a child, he had stretched on tiptoes to flick a piece of black card that he had noticed somehow wedged behind his wall clock, only to find the piece of card to be a rudely awoken, raging butterfly. Now, as he swallowed the medicine on this lively street in East Berlin, a new champion in this league of shocks was surely crowned, because Dave had always considered it a fundamental standard of medicine that it should not initiate from the patient a virulent, waxen burning of the throat, closely followed by projectile vomiting and blurred vision.
With a primal groan Dave rubbed his blearing eyes and regarded the disturbing new puddle at his feet, emerald green and foaming. “What is it?” he managed to ponder aloud before his searing gullet forced him into a second stooping disgorge. It was after a third such emission that he noticed he had become quite the spectacle on the busy pavement. An old lady, evidently scandalized by his conduct, was attempting to berate him in German; a couple of young Turkish boys were laughing hysterically, one of them filming him on his phone; a small child was sobbing into her perplexed father’s leg. Dave looked around his undesired audience with a terrible grimace, made the announcement, “I don’t know what’s happening!” and, in a fashion that was becoming distressingly routine, left the fiasco behind him with his head down.
With dignity a forgotten pipedream Dave trudged morosely onwards, spitting to the ground the bitter green saliva that filled his mouth every few steps. Dim thoughts of home and the building society seeped into his mind: the security, the friendly faces, the English language. Two blocks from home, he was wrenched back into the hostile present by the frantic ringing of a bell behind him, followed by the whoosh of a cyclist flying closely past his shoulder. Before speeding into the distance, the cyclist sacrificed some of his haste to turn his head and hurl back towards him the clearly distinguishable remark, “Arschloch!”
Dave sidestepped out of the cycle path down which he had been unwittingly spit-walking. He watched the cyclist accelerate into the distance, then muttered in a plaintive tone that resembled a child close to tears: “I’m not an arsehole.”
He entered his building and climbed the two flights to the apartment without debacle. He spent five minutes in the bathroom swilling mouthwash and water until his saliva was free of green. His next stop was his dictionary, and the revelation that the English word for ‘bad’ was ‘bath’. So that was what he had become: a public bubble bath drinker.
He went to his bedroom and slumped onto the threadbare sofa he had found on the street the day after moving in. He languidly reached for his guitar and began plucking at it, fanning the last ember of hope that something positive could be wrought from the day. After a while he was working with the opening refrain, “He was phlegmatic and highbrow; And I phlegmed on his eyebrow…” but inspiration for a furtherance of the new song eluded him. He put the guitar down with a sigh as his Berlin dream shed another layer of credibility. He turned on his laptop and called his parents on Skype, but there was no answer. He sat in silence, tried his parents again, then sat in further silence.
He heard Ralph come home. Tense Ralph with his busy start-up company. The longest conversation they had had as flatmates so far had been about Dave leaving the toilet seat up. “You have to sit-pee,” Ralph had told him. “The splashing is too much the other way.”
Ralph knocked on his door.
“Yes?” Dave croaked. If this was news of him breaking another obscure house rule, he couldn’t promise himself he wouldn’t cry. He cleared his throat. “Come in?”
Tall dark Ralph entered, holding two bottles of beer and sporting a surprisingly unknitted brow.
“Na, Dave, what’s up?” he said. His voice had a convivial lightness to it; there was, without ambiguity, a smile on his face.
“Oh you know, not much,” said Dave, remaining watchfully neutral.
“I wanted to say sorry for being so…sensible since you arrived,” Ralph continued, his eyes clemently surveying the sparse room. “I had a lot of stress but today we got some big progress. Take a beer, man.”
Ralph’s words awakened such a tenderness in Dave’s heart that he almost jumped up from the couch to embrace him. He managed to restrict his show of appreciation to an unguarded, moist-eyed grin, and was about to say something excessively thankful when the room was suddenly filled with the beeps and clucks of the Skype ring tone.
“You want to answer that?” asked Ralph.
“Nah,” said Dave, clapping his laptop shut. “I’ll call them back tomorrow.” He took the outstretched beer, and Ralph sat next to him on the sofa with a loud creak.
“So Dave,” he said, “how was your day?”
Image Credit: Salvador Dalí “Butterfly Landscape (The Great Masturbator in a Surrealist Landscape with D.N.A.) (1957)
Laurence Edmondson grew up in the countryside of North Yorkshire and East Lancashire, received an MA in English Literature from Lancaster University, and has lived in Berlin since 2007. His work has been published by Fictive Dream, Bandit Fiction and the Rubery Book Award Anthology.