I’d never been to an airport, certainly not on a school night. My father had packed a thermos of coffee, telling my mother we were just going for a drive. He always had a tape playing in the car, some endless wailing of guitars and no real tune that I could make out, but tonight, as we drove through the empty city, watching traffic lights change silently for no one but us, I heard something else. No guitars or drums, no verse or chorus; a classical music that was epic and sweeping, but also repetitive, hypnotic. The sound was cold and metallic, the voice robotic, sometimes menacing, sometimes joyful, and I caught a few words that I’d learned in first-year German. As we left the city and turned onto the motorway, I let the music synchronise with the rhythms of the road, each lamp-post arriving with a tinny beep, so that we were sliding through a corridor of sound and light.
We parked by the chain-link fence half-a-mile from the airport entrance, and stood in the yellow circle of a streetlamp, each holding a homemade walkie-talkie with its antenna pulled out to its full length; with its eight batteries and thick plastic shell, mine weighed as much as my school satchel. It had one dial, like a radio, and two buttons: one to switch it on, and one to press down when you wanted to speak.
‘What do you think, Rebecca?’ asked my father. ‘Shall we test them first?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘let’s wait until we can’t see each other.”
My father smiled down at me. He told me to wait by the car while he walked a few hundred yards along the fence and down towards the end of the runway. I watched him disappear into the darkness, but still wanted to be sure we couldn’t possibly see each other, so I sat behind the boot of the car, on the kerb, looking through the fence at the airport terminal and the one plane whistling on the tarmac.
The terminal was lit by a ring of floodlights, an empty football stadium. I’d seen airports on television, and could imagine the long rows of empty check-in desks, the shops and bars all shut for the night. What would it feel like to be inside there now, alone? The concrete was cold under my skirt, the music hummed in my head. Ter-tut-tut-whoosh, ter-tut-tut-whoosh, like a night train.
‘Major Bob to ground control,’ crackled the voice. ‘Do you read me? Over.’
I looked up, thinking my father had walked back to the car, but then I understood. I held down my talk-button, and the hiss disappeared. I’d cut a channel into the night.
‘Affirmative, Major Bob.’ I stifled a laugh and let the button out for a second. ‘Reading you loud and clear. Over.’
‘Preparing to land, ground control,’ replied my father. ‘Waiting for green light. Over.’
More hiss and crackle, and I looked through the fence to the puddles on the black runway, searching for my next line.
‘Ground control to Major Bob,’ I said. ‘Runway two is clear and ready for landing. Take it steady, please. Surface still slippery after rain. Over.’
‘Check that, ground control,’ said my father. ‘Reducing speed now. Put the kettle on. Over and out.’
I smile now as I remember every word, waiting for my father in the arrivals hall of a busy airport, in the middle of the afternoon, a few miles outside the centre of Berlin. The memory has become our signature tune, the founding myth of a world that he and I created, the moment I discovered a music that was made for the night and its melancholy hours, a ‘sound for our continent’s circuit board of cities and railways,’ as I wrote last week in a preview of tonight’s celebration.
I position myself close to the security exits. I want him to see me first, and know that I’m here, for him. I’m smiling before he even appears, thinking myself back to that smaller airport of the English Midlands and a father forty years younger. Our reunions now are tinged with my fear that he might have acquired some new infirmity or mark of decline, but today is kind: he marches briskly through the sliding doors, straight-backed, and his smile is all I need to know.
Our taxi sets off for the city centre, and we exchange news on the back seat. He’s been interviewed by local radio about his trip, with most of the questions about how he built a synthesizer in his garage: ‘Well, I’d studied electrical engineering for four years, so it wasn’t that hard. Getting it down to a size that you could take on the road, now that was tricky.’ I’ve written the obituary for one of the broadsheets here, which I’ll translate for him later at the hotel, and then my father falls silent for the rest of the journey. The rush of Berlin on a Saturday afternoon, the long avenues of a history that is not yet done, all of it overwhelms a man who has seldom travelled. He’s the child now, and I’m proud I can give him this.
‘Are you sure mum didn’t want to come?’ I ask.
‘Yes, I’m sure,’ says my father. He has wound down his window to take in the Gedächtniskirche.
‘It’s just that, I thought she might like to be with you here,’ I say, ‘where it all began.’
‘Ah, but it didn’t begin here, Rebecca, you know that. Düsseldorf – that was the beginning. Berlin is just the capital.’
I let that final remark go. My father knows that a whole generation of clubbers, including his daughter, danced and got high – he doesn’t know that part – to the same beats that he coaxed from his homemade machine, and he knows that Berlin was a hub. But, for him, it was always about the unprecedented sound, ‘manufactured but human’, as he’d called it. Once he drew a Venn diagram in my schoolbook, with two circles overlapping, one labelled ‘euphoria’, the other ‘melancholy’. ‘And what’s that part, young lady?’ he asked, pointing at the shaded part in the middle. That’s what I learned only years later, on the dancefloor.
I ask our cab driver to stop in front of the Holocaust Memorial, a small ritual when I have friends in town. As we come to a halt, my father gently shakes his head as he looks through the window at the undulating field of black slabs. ‘Thank you,’ he whispers to the driver, or perhaps to me.
Over the last ten years I’ve observed a dozen friends enter this grid of stones from different angles. Some charge in like they’re entering a maze, sure they’ll find their way to the centre; others stay a moment outside, casting their eye over the blocks and tunnels, a model of a city without light, and I watch them as they struggle to summon the unthinkable; one crossed himself and turned away. Now, my father walks up to the tallest monolith on this edge of the grid, places his palm on the flat surface. He smiles, and nods for me to come over.
‘Touch, Rebecca. It’s so smooth,’ he says. He looks down the long row of black oblongs. ‘Like a keyboard.’
‘Let’s come back tomorrow,’ I say. ‘We’ll have more time.’
Five minutes’ walk and we’re at the hotel. My father says he needs to lie down in his room, and we agree to meet at six for a drink, a couple of hours before the event. As he steps into the lift, I kiss him on the cheek and squeeze his elbow, then head back to the lobby. I’ve agreed to meet one of the organisers in the bar, to go through the running order. For my father, it ought to be straightforward. I’ve read in the programme that his name appears only twice in the early history of the band, and I can’t imagine he’ll need to do anything during the show, but the organisers – and I see him now, sitting at a table in the far corner of the bar – well, they think he ought to come on stage at least. I know what my father will think about that.
‘Hallo Rebecca, wie sieht’s aus?’ he asks me, rising to shake my hand.
Karl is the perfect copy of his WhatsApp profile: greying hair still thick and heavy but shaved on the back and sides, leaving a neatly sculpted quiff on top – David Lynch would be proud. I still have a soft spot for the simple white shirt, buttoned to the top, a look perfected by my first boyfriend at journalism school.
Karl quickly runs through the agenda, which helps me to imagine the structure of the piece I’m preparing for the magazine, the first and probably last time that I’ll write about my own father, but which the editor thinks is appropriate: ‘Don’t hold back, Rebecca, he’s part of the whole story, and so are you. Just write it like a regular piece.’ Easier said than done.
On our second coffee, Karl asks me whether my father wants to check the synthesizer before the show. The technicians have unwrapped it and tested all the effects, but maybe my father wants to do a quick sound-check of his own. And is he really sure that he doesn’t want to play the machine himself?
‘The band think it might be fitting,’ says Karl. ‘Sure, they could simply programme the machine in advance, but they would prefer someone to be standing behind it.’
‘I really don’t know,’ I say.
The truth is, I haven’t asked my father yet. I’m saving it for our drink.
Karl is still smiling but now there’s a frown too, which I can read. The Chancellor will be there tonight and, more importantly, the cultural aristocracy of Berlin in its tight jeans and white sneakers. Twenty years of organising the city’s nightlife have taught Karl that improvisation is over-rated; people prefer clockwork, and I’m with him.
‘Look, I’ll talk to him,’ I promise, ‘and text you his answer.’
Karl would prefer an answer now, but he’ll have to settle for that.
‘One last question, Rebecca, if I may. Your father is the only person from England here tonight. On stage, I mean. That is, if he agrees to go on stage.’
Karl’s smile has gone now. This is what our coffee has really been about. I nod but keep quiet.
‘We wanted to know whether he might want to say something about the political situation, you know, about Brexit and what it means for him. He’s one of the architects of the European sound…’ – ouch, he’s lifted that straight from the programme – ‘and well, people think he might have something to say about what is being lost.’
This is one of those moments where I used to light up, to help me think through a problem. Now all I have is my hair, which I pull back tight across my head.
‘That whole thing is complicated,’ I say, ‘and still is. You know how I feel about it, all those useless articles, but my father blames us, people like me, and I’m starting to think he was right.’
I’ve added to Karl’s last-minute worries, one hour before the start of his show. My father will be coming down from his room any moment now, and I don’t want the two of them to meet here.
‘My father thinks we failed, back home, to tell the real story,’ I say. ‘Not just now but for the last forty years. He’s always argued that it’s about peace. That’s the beginning and the end, he says, and he’s right. I tell him that people take peace for granted, they get bored with stability. He says we never turned Europe into a feeling, and he’s right there too, but I think we need a new story now, something that looks to the future, and today’s generation needs to write it.’
‘Well, I think your father should speak to the Chancellor tonight,’ Karl smiles. ‘They’re both scientists, after all.’
‘An engineer,’ I say. ‘My father was never happy unless he was building things in the garage, and then making them work.’
Karl points at his watch, he needs to go. We stand, offering each other a cheek. We’ll see each other again in an hour, but something has changed between us.
‘There are lots of people there tonight who want our friendship to continue,’ he says. ‘You know that better than anyone else.’
‘And it will,’ I say, thinking that it really isn’t a given. Not for the first time in this anxious city, I feel like a doctor at the patient’s bedside.
‘Our bonds are deeper than we think,’ I add.
It’s a line from one of my articles, and it feels stale.
When I walk over the road to the Einstein, it’s already six o’clock. My father is sitting behind one of the tables, reading a menu. He’s fresh from the shower, his gaunt cheeks flushed pink, his white hair combed neatly backwards, and I can smell the shampoo when I kiss the top of his head. His eyes tell me he’s awake and ready.
‘Time for a beer,’ he says, giving me a questioning look when I opt for water.
I’ve decided to keep a clear head for the evening, suddenly unnerved about what it holds in store. My father scans the rows of black-and-white photos on the walls, the waiters in their tidy uniforms carrying hefty slices of Wiener schnitzel to the early diners, the first clinks of cutlery on white plates. He approves.
‘Your grandparents met in a place like this,’ he says.
‘I know, in Vienna,’ I say. ‘I envy the life they had. The history, the drama. Every street a stage.’
He leans his head slightly to one side, a gentle rebuke, and silently asks me whether any Jewish couple was to be envied at the end of the 1930s. He’s right, but I’ve never stopped longing for the Europe I first saw in our living room, watching the old films: the men and women in heavy wool suits, the bright cafés in the shadowy streets, the click of heels, the city, the night.
My father’s beer arrives, he takes two long gulps, working a cleanly-shaved Adam’s apple. I watch the skin stretch tight across his neck – oh, still young! – and then slowly gather in little folds as he lowers his glass.
‘Do you know why I built that first machine?’ he asks, catching me off guard.
‘The synthesizer? You loved the music,’ I say. ‘You wanted to be part of it.’
But suddenly I realise that I’ve never asked him, not really. My nerves have climbed a notch. Perhaps he and Karl should have met after all. I catch the waiter’s eye and order a beer.
‘I wanted to make something for the Germans,’ he says. ‘They were the best in electronics, and I wanted to show them what I could do. I was only a student, and a mediocre one at that, but I knew I could make a machine as good as theirs. Because I knew the sound they were trying to make.’
I’ve never heard him talk like this. He isn’t boasting, he never would, but he wants to tell me something. Perhaps he should say something tonight, and I steal a glance at the clock on the wall.
‘They asked me if I wanted to go on tour with them,’ he says, looking out the window behind me. ‘As a sound engineer. But I’d met your mother. We were happy. You were on the way. And I never really enjoyed travelling. I was always happiest at home, pottering away in the garage, wiring things up. I don’t regret it, you know.’
My father’s gaze leaves the window, and he looks me in the eye.
‘Not one bit,’ he says.
I’ve learned that sometimes you don’t need to answer someone straight away. It’s better just to hold their gaze, a technique I’ve used when I interview a politician or a writer. I’m not testing them, but inviting them to continue, and perhaps opening myself, to their truth. It feels odd to be doing this with my own father.
‘The organisers have asked me whether you want to say anything tonight,’ I say. ‘Actually, they’d like you to be on stage, behind the machine.’
‘Me? What on earth do they want me to say? I’m just the electrician,’ he says.
His accent has drifted a bit further north, reaching for modesty, just as mine does sometimes, but his laugh couldn’t be more genuine, and I want to hold him now, this white-haired man who built the sound of my youth, and who still puts himself down, even as he worships the musicians, the Germans, who used his machine.
The waiter puts my beer on the table, and I buy a few seconds, taking my first sip.
‘I think this is where you and I have been so different,’ I say. ‘You could hear Europe in a sound; I thought I had to write about it. You worked alone in the garage, unseen; I moved from city to city, trying to find a new home. You stood where you were, dug beneath your feet, found the treasure; I hopped from one job to the next, and now I don’t know what it all adds up to. It all feels very thin.’
‘There’s your next article,’ he says, laying his hand on mine. ‘I’ve never understood why you were so hard on yourself.’
‘I’ve lived here for more than ten years, and I’m still not sure whether it’s home. I don’t even know the names of the streets where I live, but can still walk round the whole of Nottingham in my head.’
‘You have most of your friends here now,’ he says, ‘and you’re all close, aren’t you?’
‘I’m blessed, Dad, really. I have no complaints. It’s just that, it doesn’t seem to weigh anything.’
‘It will do,’ he says. ‘Give it time.’
‘I check my watch: we’re late. I leave a twenty on the table, and we grab one of the taxis outside the hotel. ‘Potsdamer Platz, bitte.’ I freshen my lipstick at the next traffic lights, then stare at the last of the Saturday shoppers as they head for bars or for home. Maybe that’s my problem: I want to be with them still, setting off into the night and whatever it holds, even now as I close in on my 40th birthday and a time in life where, really, I should know the lay of the land.
‘Come back to us, Rebecca,’ says my father, and the car sets off again.
A small group of ushers are whisking the last arrivals down the red carpet and through the front doors of the theatre. My heart’s beating a little faster. A shiny programme is thrust into each hand: Europe Endless, a map of the blue continent and its major railways, the circuits and the connectors, and one that still runs under the narrow sleeve of sea.
We are led down the outer wall of the auditorium, I can hear the applause on the inside. My step quickens, and I thrust our tickets into the hands of the young student, who points to the last door, closest the stage. Our seats are near the end of the row, with only one couple to squeeze past. I apologise. Then, as I lower myself into the seat and turn to smile at my father, I see that he’s not there. I look to the doors I’ve just come through, but they’re shut tight, and now the lights are dimming as the Chancellor walks onto the stage. I don’t join the applause but grip my armrests.
She starts her speech – ‘What do we hear, when we listen for Europe?’ – and I’m still looking at the door, not sure whether I should go back outside. The nation’s leader talks about discord and harmony, man and machine, and it comes in at ten minutes, as all speeches should. It could do with a personal anecdote, and the line about hearing the music from behind the Wall, in East Germany, is not hers. But this is not her stage, she’s at her best in one-to-ones, and I’m dreading the day she leaves.
She reads out the final words, and then introduces the band herself, saying each of their names, including that of the founder who has just passed away – ten seconds that are more powerful than anything she said in her speech – and my father is still not here. The applause has become a standing ovation, and I’m up on my feet with everyone else as the three old men walk onto the stage, each wearing a red shirt and black tie, to take their place behind the machines. The house lights are dimmed, the screen at the back of the stage lights up. We’re driving fast down an empty motorway, the lights flashing over our heads, and there’s nothing in the night but a cold electronic pulse. I feel my father’s arm as it brushes against mine.
‘It sounds better from here,’ he whispers in my ear.