It’s like an illness in the family. Or, rather, the announcement. Neighbours glance at you in embarrassed sympathy. You shrug, smile, say, ‘It won’t be long now.’ You’ve been preparing for it, ever since the first letter came. Energetische Sanierung. Modernisierung. Novellierung. Wärmedämmung. Reminds me of ‘Götterdämmerung’. Or ‘our house is literally verdämmt’. The letter for everyone in the house.
Funny how we call it ‘house’, this collection of apartments – eleven kids, last count, including: six-month-old twins (when their Mum’s on her own with the shopping, she has to bring everything upstairs in stages, like the fox-chicken-bag of seed over the river problem, so you sometimes encounter a placid neonate eyeing you from a pram carriage on the stairwell; two lawyers; a judge who’s at least ten years younger than me (I took a wrong turn somewhere); a graphic designer creating 3D landscapes of the new luxury ‘development’ over the road, rendering the precise shadows it will cast over the urban farm (and allowing you to zoom in and stand on your actual virtual balcony in order to pinpoint the precise quadrant of the sky where the new cubes will block your view of the setting sun), skin cancer in remission and water dripping through his ceiling from whatever rooftop activities the workers are busy with; various American coders (a ‘cloud’ of coders?), clearly in on the groundfloor of some plinky-plonky little Play-Doh® start-up; the schoolgirl learning piano who, every evening at six, spends half an hour with a single index finger transforming the first four bars of Handel’s Messiah into a 15bpm dirge; that couple who really rock out with the window open at night so you’re trying to get to sleep to a symphony of pubis-to-buttock dermal slapping (turning the whole house into reluctant aural equivalents of voyeurs – ‘auditeurs’ perhaps?) which sounds like it ought to be erotic until you realise, when you meet the guy checking their postbox in the morning, that seeing him naked must be like facing the last chicken hanging in Aldi®’s, and that him bearing down on you in the privacy of your boudoir must be like having a wardrobe fall on top of you with the key sticking out; the Polish newlyweds, recently moved in on the daylight-bereft ground floor, who were told by the landlord just after they signed the contract that there might be a couple of months’ work done on the house (exactly 20% true); a sweet little lesbo couple who never leave the house together but just scowl at you singly on the stairs, though everyone living here knows they’re a sweet little lesbo couple, and a guy in the back house, some mechanic to do with high-end cars (lovely bloke – looks like he’s dropped out of every institution society put in front of him, running from money like all of us here, baccy-brown roll-up fingers, face like fire-damaged Lego® – I said to him once as he was coming back, I said, ‘You’ve had a good night’ and he said, ‘Yeah, long week – well earned – it was like I hardly needed to lift the bottle. The beer just leapt down my throat.’) Whatever garage he’s at, every Sunday he literally pulls a fast one, and turns up in a Lamborghini™ or Ferrari™ or something, just parks it outside for the kids, so all the parents at the corner café can have a break. It’s not like he pulls up with a clichéd throaty roar, cos there’s double parking and the place is rammed anyway with prams on the pavement and half ‘n’ half ice cream and ‘I want that one’ and tantrums and eight-year-olds hustling their old dinosaurs on a blanket where the walking trade is densest, but the Italian engine purrs low, and my man’s in the driving seat, sat on the hide of an unborn lamb vacuum-suctioned out of a freshly zapped ewe by Italian artisans, top down, shiny dials, elbow out, radio on, parents at the café saying to their kids, ‘Course you can have a look,’ and wondering if he’s a kiddie-fiddler like that bubble-guy in the park a few years back (what was his name, Paedophilio the Clown?) and my backyard mechanic neighbour, reclining in a soft-leather half-driving seat/half-beach-recliner designed for account managers to spread their capacious arses on and fantasise about Romanian hitch-hikers – who’s just been told his apartment is to have a new balcony affording a luxury sunless prospect of bikes and bins that ups his rent by a quarter – just sits there absorbing the kids’ awe, on the executive sports-car vellum, rolling up a single-skinner and living the grease-monkey dream.
So, everyone in the house got this letter from a legal firm – to paraphrase:
‘Sehr geehrte Okkupant/Okkupantin, Objekt Vierzehn, Rollerkoffer Straße, We’re gonna fuck you up and charge you for the pleasure. Details to follow. You have to agree to this in writing by the end of the month, otherwise we will sow your ancestral lands with salt and have you up before a landlord-friendly judge who will authorise us to open your pitiful bank account like a shucked oyster so that you, your dreams, your descendants and your descendants’ dreams shall be as our playthings unto the nth generation. Mit freundlichen Grüßen, Wilhemina Kotzenfutter.’
So the scaffolding is in place, the balcony plants are up to their dessicated stamens in dust, all the original doors and windows will be replaced by their generic Scandinavian-effect equivalents, meaning everything within two metres of the frames needs to be either removed and piled up in the middle of the rooms under plastic sheeting or, in the case of the kids’ bunkbed (a wooden monster whose construction consumed most of last December and which is now known as ‘The Bed That Ate Advent’), dismantled and stacked in the corridor, the planks labelled ‘Left upright 1’ and ‘4th crossbeam, underside, right front’, and the sound of industrial drilling reverberates so intensely and at such low frequency throughout the building that, if you’re sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, it’s like someone’s feathering the underside of your balls with an egg whisk, which is not as pleasant as it sounds.
The workers have Gaffa®-ed in on the ground floor that building-site carpet analogue that prisoners make, the ambient colour of an old lump of plasticene where the original tones have leached into a greasy grey. The carpet is also flecked with tufty bits of stringy red and blue, presumably from the miscellaneous offcuts woven by nonces and wife-beaters in their cells, so the whole ensemble resembles what you’d get if you force-fed a dog a fistful of Buntestreuse and then kicked it in the stomach till it sicked up the whole lot. Just looking at it makes my teeth itch.
The carpet serves as an olfactory aperitif to the looming styropur main course – this plastinated insulating material that will eventually clad the outside walls in its stifling embrace. The tiles, stonework and inter-war wainscoting of the hallway used to provide a blessed coolness to the space so that the kids and I had a ritual, when we came in after a day out in the global-warming world (30+° in mid-September? You’ll be telling me you don’t believe in evolution next. There are people sunbathing in the park and conkers are dropping on their heads, I have to put on my burkini just to go to the corner bakery and I’d be typing this naked were it not for the distraction of my gorgeous body). The kids and I would come in and lean our foreheads on the cool tiles and go aaahhh like Ben Hur reaching the oasis. But the entrance now has a claggy sort of staleness about it, the carpet smelling like a flood-damaged charity bookshop crossed with the back room of a butcher’s where the blood has seeped into the sawdust. There’s a certain retch-friendly, umami undertone where weeks of meat-fat cooking smells have started to infiltrate the carpet fibres. The air seems smaller somehow, as if the nitrogen and oxygen are being elbowed aside by free radicals dislodged with each step you take on the weave, exotic molecular compounds slaloming down your glottis to latch their styptic little receptor chemicals onto the alveoli branching deep within your lungs.
Some of this stuff that will cover the house has been linked with birth defects but, happily, the power of lobbyists has ensured that the ban on its use has been put back a year, which is one reason you see so many of these scaffolds being put up now – metastasizing like cancer through the body of the city. The location and indeed aetiology of these points of infection depends on various exogenous factors: whether a building has recently been sold to some tentacular tax-haven company with a bland, Esperanto-ish, big-Pharma name (Vivico®, Immo®, Vonovia®, Bonobo) that sounds like a brand of suppositories, keen to monetise the property as quickly as possible; the existence of legislative frameworks that are careful to distinguish work that goes on inside a property from changes to its outer structure, where tenants have far less chance of legal redress; the primitive legal system in Germany that, unlike in most other European countries, doesn’t allow for court cases brought by groups – class-action suits – rather than by individuals (hence the divide-and-rule method applied so successfully in our house, whereby everyone has been making their own little deals with the owners to keep their particular rent increase as low as possible, which accounts for the shit-eating grin you’ve suddenly started getting from that lawyer guy who lives downstairs); a Gestasi culture of corporate snooping that leads to nominally ‘social’ housing providers compiling dossiers on uppity tenants whom they don’t want as candidates for the boards of tenant-landlord associations; the inefficacy of transnational political and legislative bodies when it comes to challenging the asset-stripping approach of non-national companies that has seen old-fashioned third-way concepts like ‘paying tax’ go the way of phlogiston, phrenology and MySpace®; a lazy-thinking and egoistic political class, especially in Berlin, that conflates putting up buildings with development, and this whole hegemonic superstructure of patronage, patronising, lies, marketisation, ecohypocrisy and small-minded, present-dwelling cultural cowardice is supported by a bestiary (look at them circling you like it’s Fletcher’s Hecate scene in Macbeth and you’re in the cauldron) of lawyers, lobbyists, investment bankers and hedge-fund managers, architects, accountants, apologists, marketers, conference organisers, brochure-, infofilm- and website-designers, chemical companies, copywriters, bottom-feeding employers and guppy-faced provincial politicians hoisting up their waistbands like they’ve just voided an annoying obstruction (only now you’re in the toilet bowl, looking up as they flush you away), radiating their conceit from placards tied to lampposts with those police-issue plastic handcuffs you always see around lefties’ wrists on May Day, the trailing strap sticking out horizontally, ready to scythe through a passing iris, the superiority in their thin-lipped visages all but inviting anointment with a balloonful of piss, a swirl of freaks and pencil-skirted demons on swivel chairs, a Bosch triptych of expensively tailored leeches on top of their game, getting out of cars and brushing down their jackets, studying spreadsheets at an elliptical conference table of sustainable pine-substitute, untouched Perrier® bottles lined up like specimen jars in front of them, and smiling as they stick a spade into the ground, the ground which now seems to be morphing into the top of your head, the whole Hogarthian gallimaufry cavorting round your brain, bestriders of the Earth surrounded by a Goyan chorus of imps with outstretched mikes and a deadline to make, masters of a prostitute universe, fundamentally and irrevocably altering the face of an entire capital city for generations to come.