16 may 2017

Sad Fog. That is what the sign says, the script a kind of twist on old New York subway graffiti, on a wooden board on the side of a prefab at the end of an alley in a blank suburb of what was the east city, not far from where the wall stood. A muso friend has warned you to come here, as it may well be your only time in Berlin for a while.

It is a Sunday. This shop only opens on Sundays. Possibly not on sunny Sundays.

It’s just one room, up on broken bricks. There are nettles and a gap in the nettles where there’s a concrete step. You step up and push the door, and it gives way with a rattle of dreamcatcher on wire-meshed frosted glass. There’s patchouli, and as you cross the threshold the first bassline of the first song on the Cocteau Twins’ first album comes to meet you across the black linoleum floor.

There are racks of CDs and vinyl, about half of each. At the end of the shop is a black counter, with a record deck and a till; behind it, a woman who might be any age between twenty and thirty. She is wearing a lot of eyeliner. If you mentioned to her that she looked “a bit goth” she would screw up her face in disgust, wondering in horror at how little you know.

You move towards the counter, flipping at a few record sleeves on the way. You are looking for the new album by The Toffee Apples.

The Toffee Apples are a relatively recent band from Idaho, or possibly Iowa. They wear floral print thrift shop dresses and Doc Martens; one of them has a banjo. Their fringes are cut across straight, in the certainty of their youth. They play murder ballads, rediscovered country blues, Americana of a kind so obscure that possibly they are writing it themselves. Their songs are mostly slow-paced, but there are occasional up-tempo numbers with bright banjo breaks.

As you approach the counter, noting the woman behind it staring at you blankly, you begin to wonder whether The Toffee Apples are Sad Fog material at all. Suddenly, floral print thrift shop dresses and banjos seem mere frivolity; clothes should be acquired properly on the city dump, as you shoulder aside the seagulls.

You look at the woman, wondering about articles. Der Die and Das you are fine with, but is it Des or Den? Des Toffee Apples. You mumble it, leaving out the article completely in your panic, and now it seems that you have asked whether Sad Fog stocks actual toffee apples. Judging by the little plastic tray of Black Flag guitar picks on the shiny flaking paint on the counter, and what appear to be home-made bongs grouped in an aromatic cloud of superglue, they might not.

The woman looks at you, expressionless, and says in unaccented English, “I don’t believe so.”

You feel relieved. It could have been much worse: she could have skewered you with a glance that placed you as an insect on a pin, or worse still, as once happened in San Francisco, jerked her head at you and said sotto voce to a colleague, “Mister Jones.” You think that that was what was said, but you have never been certain. But there is no colleague, and she has expressed no enmity toward you.

You look down at the countertop, and see the word “BUMS” scratched into the wood. You know that it is an onomatopoeic formulation used in the case of a crash or collision. You wish that you could say it upon turning away, “Bums!”, that it was a charming idiomatic way of admitting defeat. You settle for a limp Berlitz “Danke.”

As you move towards the door, she raises her voice slightly, and says after you, “The Toffee Apples. I’ll check them out. They sound cool.” All still without accent, apart from the last word, where a trace of German enters, like a drop of ethanol on the back of the hand.

Outside you trudge into the wind which the tower blocks generate, and after a few steps a plastic bag clamps itself to one of your shins.

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