The Page

A tale of intimacy and loss

Tag: Nude photography

Return to the City of Faust

LongingAfter two years, Sarah decides to return to Berlin, the city where last she lived with her husband. She longs to see again the banks of the Spree, crowds of youths on Museen Insel, the cafés of Bergmannstraße, the runners along the Landwehrkanal… Above all, she wants to find the spirit  of Julian, the one who left, leaving her, alone with his ghosts. Maybe she’ll be better armed to exorcise them, there, in the light and peaceful apartment where they lived, in Neukölln, through the quiet streets of Friedrichshain, in the park of Charlottenburg…

She’s tired of her lucrative business. For two years, after her last encounter with Helga, she travelled across the world, from financial centre to another, tirelessly making money, negotiating deals, to saturation. With Julian’s inheritance, and her own fortune, she can retire comfortably, keeping her house in London – she may well let it now – and living the life she wants in the city of Faust. She is not without men, a cohort of admirers that have long followed her and showered her with presents, offers, sometime to absurdity. But her only attachment is for Jane, Julian’s young sister, a regular visitor to her place in London, and now in Berlin. Jane, more beautiful than ever, a successful actor and model, and her lover since her first stay with the couple in Berlin. Jane, loyal, for ever missing her brother – Sarah’s well aware of her romantic attachment to him – and whose smile may turn, in the light of this late summer, so much like that of Julian.

Sarah moves back to their Neukölln apartment in late July, with those pieces of furniture, art and books she wants to retains from London. She makes Julian’s study her room, and shifts the HiFi and bookshelves to their former bedroom. The lounge is now her workshop, where she intends to write, paint, and spend hours with Jane, nude, to design the photography album they have decided to make together.

One evening, as she walks back through Kreuzberg from a visit to the Altegallerie, she stops at a restaurant in Bergmanngieß where Julian and her used to go, in Melissa’s time. She likes the place but it is the first time she goes back there since Julian’s departure. She orders an Italian dish and some wine, and, as she waits for the wine to arrive, she suddenly recalls what Helga shared with her, at their last meeting in London. Through her Eastern contacts, Helga had learnt of Julian’s activity in shipping arms to the insurgency via the Caucasus. She also knew that this displeased the authorities of the Federation to the extreme. Late into the night they had discussed the implications of Julian’s actions, for his and his wife’s safety. Was Julian’s death natural? This was also the question Sarah was determined to resolve, here, in the city of Faust.

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Of Arnold Böcklin

Böcklin's tomb, by Albert von Keller

Julian and his wife were in love with Böcklin. Wherever they were, they looked for his work, and that of artists who praised him. So it was no surprise, when, at long last, Sarah let her husband in the secret apartment on Jägerstraße, and he saw the numerous reproductions of the master’s work on the walls of his wife’s hideout. As she let him in, a hint of mischief in the eyes, he walked into the small entrance with some anxiety: after all, this had remained Sarah’s exclusive domain since their arrival in Faust’s city, more than a year before.

She explained to him how she’d inherited the apartment from an old friend of her late father, a lifelong Berliner, who refused to sell it to “bankers”. Sarah also said she’d almost forgotten about it, until one day she felt like having a look, as she and Melissa were walking through the Gendarmenmarkt. Julian was walking behind Sarah, who seemed delighted to show him the place. In the bedroom, her bedroom, he saw the pictures: Böcklin’s self-portrait with Death, and a large photograph of a young woman, a Native American,  looking straight at the camera (was Sarah taking the shot then?) with the most beautiful smile on her face.

“Yes,” said Sarah, reading his mind, as ever, “I took this picture of Marie in Tucson, when we were at the university.”

There was  another picture, just above the Queen’s size bed, and Julian stopped on his track when he saw it, as Sarah was already walking out of the room into the wide lounge. It was a picture of the two of them, Sarah and Melissa, naked, on the bed, looking at the camera and laughing, a vision of fun and lust. Sarah was calling him. She stood in front of the open bay window, facing the Dom. The morning was clear, children were already playing on the square. Sarah was talking about Albert von Keller’s painting of Böcklin’s tomb. She wanted to look for a copy. They decided to do this soon.

“Oh, you realise there is no kitchen in this apartment?” she said jokingly, Julian laughed, then replied, kissing his wife: “I’ve realised this place is for art and culture… only… But there are plenty of nice places where to go and eat nearby!”

Voices

MindAlone, in a crowd of strangers, or in deserted streets, he feels her gaze: she’s watching him, her calm loving eyes forever binding him to her. Twice now he has walked to a woman he thought he recognised, and twice, at the last second, he saw his mistake. Then, he hears her voice, not only in his sleep, but awake, when he lets his mind wander. He’s decided for now not to conclude: onset of mental distress, or overheated inspiration.

From the small balcony, he can see the buildings at the street junction with Monumentenstraße: colourful fronts, small flower displays on the window sills, silent doorways. He takes pictures at different times of day, observing the city’s lights playing on the roofs and alleyways. Four floors below, on the pavement , someone is growing a miniature city garden at the foot of a chestnut tree.

Observer and observed, he meshes with the objects and inhabitants of the city. Soon, he will walk to the Brandenburger Tor to join in the celebrations of the Worldcup. He’s never felt more inspired, his writing flowing, from the scenes out on the street, from the faces of youth, the smiles, the limitless freedom, to the pages.

On one of his nighttime walks he tried to discover the entrance to the apartment on Jägerstraße, and of course found nothing. It has been some months now since he last visited the place, in his dreams. The details are still vivid in his imagination: the art objects in the lounge, the paintings, the long balcony, the view over Gendarmenmarkt. He has not asked Sarah any question about the apartment, as if he did not want to break the spell.

For now, Sarah and Melissa are somewhere in France, perhaps up on the high plateau of the Gévaudan. The two of them went off, giggling, in his wife’s battered holiday Peugeot, after the girl tenderly embraced him, kissing him full mouth, under Sarah’s indulgent stare. In their loveliness, their pictures, two women in various stages of nakedness, and postures of intimacy, are everywhere in the studio: a permanent exhibition of his passion.

In the morning he goes running for a couple hours along his beloved canal. The chestnut trees now in full leaves, their welcome shade protecting lovers and runners. And, always, those eyes watching him, and her voice floating, as a crystal stream, in the peace of the city.

Carnival

MelissaIt was a long week-end, the real start of Summer in the city. Crowds of young people were walking and singing along the streets from mid morning, a rare sight on a Saturday. Julian took his camera and went out for a spell of street photography. A few days before, Sarah had told him she had arranged with Melissa for him to take a series of nude shots of the young woman. Sarah’s instructions were precise, and Melissa had been thoroughly briefed. She came to Julian’s studio, and lent herself to a couple hours shooting, in good humour, flirting a little with Julian, without pretension.

Now Melissa had gone to her mother in Köpenick, and Julian had the weekend to himself. Kreuzberg, at the time of Carnival, was a wonderful place where to be: the streets were alive, musicians everywhere, food and drinks stalls, acrobats, thousands of people enjoying themselves in the sunshine. He decided to walk up Linden Straße, up to the Jewish museum, perhaps even as far as the Berlinische Galerie, and back towards the canal through the smaller streets, and on to the Treptower Park, along the Maybachufer. On the way he would take pictures of places and people, the kind of photography he enjoyed most. The air was full of laughter and joyous songs. His mind still full of images of her young naked body, Julian thought of Melissa. She had become a permanent companion, discrete, helpful, always charming. Julian did not doubt that she was entirely under Sarah’s spell. They cooked together, played games, listened to jazz and rock and roll, sometimes, late at night, to classical music which often made Melissa cry.

He was surprised as to how quickly he had accepted her presence in his life, and trusted her. Until the shoot, he had seen her in briefs, or her running shorts, at times without much else (she had asked him if she could go about bra-less in the studio, and he had agreed). During the shoot she had surprised him with her modest demeanour, following, with good grace and charm, Sarah’s orders, that led her to reveal everything to Julian. He had felt very protective, a feeling that was, above all, made of his sense of responsibility for her.

Seeing the camera and guessing at his interest, a group of young people, sitting on the terrace of one of the fashionable cafés, asked him to take a group picture: Julian obliged, taking several shots, and a few more for some of the girls who asked for a personal pic. Then he had to make notes of email addresses to send the pictures, and he felt really on a holiday.

He crossed the Böckler Park, full of couples and children playing, and soon was at the Kottbusser bridge. Eons ago, Sarah, himself, and another woman he could not recognise in his memories, had stood on this bridge, he thought, before running to the Hasenheide. He paused and let the image dilutes in the warm air.

Those pictures of Melissa. He posted them, as instructed, on a private web site Sarah had given him access to. There were pictures of his sister Jane there too. Julian had been a little surprised, but was not in the habit of questioning his wife’s projects.

He was now following the footpath along Maybachufer, one of his and Melissa’s favourite running tracks, together with Tempelhof and the Tiergarten. The Landwehr canal had its summer suite on: the water greener and deeper than ever, both banks alive with families and couples, the trees smiling to them. There was hardly any traffic noise, the city was moving effortlessly into carnival mood. He headed toward the river and the Puschkinallee. Sarah and him had followed the same route at his first visit to the Treptower Park, and since then he had been many times, flanked by loyal Melissa. He wondered if he was beginning to miss her when she was not with him.

He took several pictures of the wonderful murals along Puschkinallee. There was little traffic there either, with crowds of pedestrians occupying the whole street. As he was approaching the entrance to the park, his phone rang. Hesitantly he took the call: the tune was that he had set for Melissa, if she needed help. Her voice was low and quiet, incredibly young:

“I hope not to disrupt your walk, Julian, I just wanted you to know, I love you and I miss you, terribly.” He was silent, seconds passed, he could hear her breathing, almost sense her being there, attentive, nervous. “I love you too Melissa: please don’t worry about anything, I am here, will always be here for you…” “I was afraid you were angry with me for posing nude for you…” “Of course not, Sarah wanted this, and you are beautiful, very beautiful.” More seconds passed, then she asked in one breath: “Would you like me to join you tonight?” He could hear her heartbeat, hesitated again; then made his move: “I thought you wanted to have time with your mum, but if she had enough of you, then, yes, pop in when you want, but after six…”

He resumed his walk, his mind floating. The park was already full of children and young adults, but the long alleys lined by the ancient elms were welcoming and shady. In the hours that followed he took more pictures of strangers, of trees, and walking back toward Kreuzberg, of bridges, and smiling girls pretending to pose for him. At the corner grocery, back on Eylauer Straße, he picked up a few bottles of Melissa’s favourite Trento wine, and a few beers for himself. He would cook risotto, dance with her, show her what a gentle lover he could be.

In the night

MelissaHis interest in photography is boosted by his sister’s evident talent, and his curiosity for her work. Now he notices far more the light variations during the day, the subtle changes of hue and shifting skies’ s reflections that are so typical of northern climates. Jane is amused by his renewed passion. He is also taking a close interest in portraits. She, without consulting him, started taking nude pictures of Sarah a year ago, and her visits are a chance for them to continue with this project. They then disappear in Sarah’s room, and even sometime the study, after kicking Julian out and locking the door. In summer they have been seen taking shots out there, in the beautiful garden, away from preying eyes. He’s not upset by it, intrigued perhaps, and, more than ever, curious. The pictures are all black and white, and do more than justice to his wife’s beautiful body. At the beginning he was startled by the erotic style of Jane’s work, but what did he expect: two gorgeous women accomplice in making art? He was wondering if Sarah, in turn, was taking pictures of Jane, but he never asked. Since he was not briefed, nor invited to participate, he chose to remain quiet on the subject, and just enjoy what he is invited to look at.

The incident of the screen shots on Chi no longer worries Julian. He has made up his mind that it was merely an accident of simulation, or perhaps even editing. After Jane’s visit he feels rejuvenated, and full of new ideas. It has given a boost to his libido too, not that he’s ever short of that, but somehow the presence of both Sarah and Jane in his house inspires him. Sarah finds it hilarious, and teases him about it.  One night, before Jane left, he woke up from some dream, and notices that Sarah is no longer in bed. It did not bother him but, feeling thirsty, he walks downstairs to the kitchen for a drink of water. Sarah is nowhere to be seen, not in the back-room, nor in the lounge, nor the bathrooms. The only place where she could be, Julian concludes, is in Jane’s room. Indeed he could hear, walking past Jane’s door, a low sound of giggles. He smiles and goes back to bed, falling back into sleep immediately.

He finds a new inspiration for the novel too, writing for long hours non-stop, to the extent of neglecting his weekly visits to the gym, as he realises quickly by checking his weight. He knows that his wife won’t let him put on weight and get fat: she would immediately impose the kind of spartan regime she can very well design for her “boy”. So he reorganises his time, making space for gym and running, and still making the best of day light hours for his writing. He’s almost forgotten about the phone call, and the message on his page.

Then, one day, as he checks his wall, he incidentally clicks on the link that did not work, on the message “she” had left. And this time it works. It takes him straight to “her” Page.

He hesitates, as if on the edge of a deep fault, unable to see how far he would fall. Then he plunges…

At first he is lost. His own page is minimalist. “Her” wall appears to be densely packed, with an impressive list of “friends” and pictures. He looks at her profile picture. The red hair, the young face, the green eyes, the full lips, a simple flowered blouse… a beautiful young woman, a little old-fashion. Something stirs at the deep end of his memories…  That picture looks strangely familiar, but still he cannot recall who she is. He decides to read her profile. “She” has listed as much as she could, her schools, where she lived, where she worked.

She was born two years before him, near the town where he spent most of his childhood. She’s also attended the same high school. He pauses. Suddenly her name comes to him: Melissa. Something attracts him on Melissa’s page. One of her pictures is that of an adolescent, fresh-faced, athletic, standing in front of what looks like a school entrance with other youngsters. Julian looks at the picture, heart beating, suddenly transported in time. It was his school, and that young man is him, probably shortly before he left for the army – all those years back. He realises suddenly that Sarah is standing behind him: “An old flame has caught up with you?” she asks tenderly, with a touch of concern in her voice.

There is something else on Melissa’s page, a link to a location with a photograph: a place called Chi.

Julian pauses again, his mind a whirlpool of conflicting feelings and memories. Then, as he sits still, his mind suddenly sees her, the girl at the school gate, waiting for him, tall and smiling. A wave of memories submerges him: the old town, the medieval streets, the library where he worked and studied, the provincial railway station, the ugly buildings from the post-war period, the school, the calm waters of the canal… and Melissa: his forgotten friend, his adolescence sweetheart. What happened to her? And why all that secrecy? Why could not she just approach him, write to him, say who she was? Reading his mind Sarah says: “Maybe she has a grudge?”

Nostalgia has overcome Julian, and thousands of pictures are flashing past his eyes: the small shops, the cathedral, Mel at the swimming pool, her breasts, him boxing to pulp that big thug, who had insulted her, their walks along the river, his mother asking him: who is that tall girl she saw with him at the market… A sudden dread seizes him: where is Melissa now? And this page, what is the meaning of it? He takes a closer look: the friends listed on her page are all of her, his, generation, and there is something else: when he tries to follow the links they all lead to the same message: he is not allowed to see their profiles. “She’s protecting their privacy” Sarah says calmly.

Something else attracts Julian’s attention: there are notes, scores of them, some by Melissa.

For a second he hesitates, then starts reading.

The early notes sweep through three years of her life: the years they have been “together”, his school years, before the war and the world took him away.  Melissa has written at first a sort of journal, recounting their first meeting, their first kiss, her hopes, their walks, the many kisses that had followed, the tender touches, her wondering why he seems to be so gentle, almost shy, with her, and such a tiger with the others, whoever they are. She guesses at his internal violence, the turmoil in his young mind. She, who is ready to give him everything, admits to her puzzlement, at times her irritation. And yet she is writing about the delight of those days, their intimacy, his way of ignoring the jealous looks, the sly comments of the other girls. His way also to fight for her, suddenly changed, his fists tight, his jaws hardened, the pitiless concentration of a street fighter. She has made it her mission to win him over, and to give him happiness – for ever, her virgin lover. The last sad note is of a walk they take along the river, when he speaks to her of the war, and of a man’s duty. She was puzzled, and worried. Then the tone of the notes change. Melissa is alone, he is gone, silent, with hardly a good bye.

At first she is expecting him to write, perhaps even to visit. She tries to talk to some of his friends, those who, she thought, would be willing to share their knowledge of where he might be. No-one she spoke to knew.  In desperation she decides to contact his parents. His mother only says that her son has gone to fight. Neither she nor Julian’s dad would  give away anything else. Mel is desperate.

There is only one country he could have gone to, and this is beyond Mel’s reach, a hellhole of murder, torture and destruction, closed to anyone not directly involved with the fighting. At night she cries, remembering the days, with him, with him alive, their love. Then the notes stop being a journal. It is as if someone else has taken over, and is reporting, factually, without any feeling.

The first note is a newspaper extract. 

Julian turns pale as a wraith. Sarah, suddenly aware of a deadly silence, looks up: her husband is crying. Silent, cold tears, tears of despair. She looks at the screen.

The note states that the body of Ms Melissa xxx, daughter of Mr and Mrs xxx of a local village, aged nineteen, has been found at dawn, in a small lane near a night club where she was seen dancing with several men two hours earlier.  She was strangled by unknown assailants and her wrists cut. 

There is a date: Melissa was murdered twenty years earlier.

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