When I was little, I saw a butcher lead a pig from a small cage into a bigger one so that it could be stunned and killed. The pig hadn’t known what was coming; it must have seen the other pigs being led into the tunnel and assumed they’d gone somewhere better. Even as a child, I thought this was a strange and perverted thing to do to an animal, and had trouble eating meat for weeks afterwards, but over time the strength of my reaction faded, and I went back to sausages, to bacon, beef, even veal.
I suppose I never knew that there was any other way to live or to eat – where I grew up, people are in contact with the land and the fields, and they know exactly what they’re eating and how it’s made. I knew there were people who didn’t eat meat, but I never really understood it until I came here, where food and people arrive from every corner of the country as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. For a long time I was filled with wonder at the plainest facts of city life, until this feeling too faded and the buildings I saw every day were just that: everyday.
It was during this period that I had an experience I thought of often during my first weeks and months in the city. I was catching the U-Bahn home from work one night – the shop in which I was working at the time was surrounded by hotels, and open later than most – and sat opposite a group of young women, probably not much younger than me, who were talking amongst themselves in loud and rapid-fire dialect. There were three of them, and I was sat by the loudest and fastest-talking; I don’t mind admitting that I was eavesdropping. This was how I became aware that they were on their way home from a meal, although where the meal had been I couldn’t tell. After a little while, one turned to the loudest and said clearly:
– Marian, die Kekse.
No, said her friend. Keine Kekse.
Yes, she insisted. They gave us some.
Slowly, the loud one reached into her bag and drew out four shining packages. She gave one to each of her friends, and, seeing me watching them, offered me the fourth. I took it and watched as they opened theirs before doing the same, revealing a folded biscuit, which the girls snapped in half, exposing in turn a tiny scroll of paper. I snapped mine and popped the sweet shards in my mouth as I read the note. On one side was a group of Chinese characters and on the other side offered a translation:
AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE WILL REENTER YOUR LIFE
The girls read theirs aloud, giggling, and soon the carriage was filled with the peals of their laughter as they teased one another about what the messages could mean. One had a tall and handsome man in her life already; another deadpanned that riches and success would never be hers. I was just beginning to retreat back into myself, convinced they had forgotten me, when the loudest turned sideways to face me.
– Und du? she asked. Was sagst deine? I shrugged.
– Nichts, I said. It says nothing.
– Das stimmt nicht.
I conceded that it did have writing on it. Read it, they said. I don’t believe in it, I countered, but they wanted me to read it anyway, and, eventually, I did.
– Do you miss anyone? they asked. I didn’t, really. That was why I’d come to the city in the first place, I said.
Before I had the chance to explain any further, the train pulled into Ostkreuz, and I had to get off. It’s an interchange station; I was heading to Baumschulenweg, and I guess they were going somewhere in the south of the city. I waved gently from the platform but they were already engrossed in a new conversation and I was going down the steps to get my train before the last carriage had left the platform behind.
The tunnel between platforms was tiled in a mixture of shining white and stained yellow: the LED glare of strip lighting bounced painfully off the white tiles. After the dim lighting of the train and the darkness of the platform, it was jarring – my eyes took a few seconds to refocus. Ahead of me in the passage were a few shadowed figures, men, I realised, speaking English. The straight lines on the wall seemed to bend slightly as I saw them see me.
One of them said something to his friend: I knew they were looking. I was coming closer to them and my stomach was folding in on itself. I tried to look at the floor. I went to turn my headphones up and realised sickeningly that I didn’t have them on, that I could hear them, that I couldn’t block it out. What is that she looks like a man. Mate that is a man it’s one of those what do you call them. I don’t care they’re all just. God it’s disgusting how could you do that to yourself. One of them pointed to the crotch of his lurid chinos, hey you! Ew man how could you want that? In my head other voices were joining in, jeering. The stairs were near, none of them were moving out of the group, they were staying in position. I put a hand on the banister. I was having trouble breathing. The air was coming in bursts, something was pressing on my chest. One step, another step. The voices were echoing in the tunnel and in my ears. The lights were fading. Hey! Hey where you going sweetheart! I told myself not to look back. A train was waiting, I didn’t check which way it was going. When I reached the cold air of the platform, I half broke into a run, desperate to sit down, to breathe, to listen to the silence. The doors clunked behind me; the voices were still in my head.
I felt very young, hugging my legs against myself on the ratty seat. I was winded, like I’d been running to the bus stop after school, desperate to get home. Really, it was just the same, only it could never be outrun. I wondered if there had been any point in coming here, whether I would always have to live this way. Maybe it had been better, once; maybe it had been better when I’d heard that it was, and all the time I’d been nurturing that hope, growing it within me, things had been getting worse and worse, far away from the small town I was trying to escape.
I had a hard time getting back to mine that night – my legs kept giving out. When I finally got there, I collapsed into bed, and dreamt of pigs.
Art by Abigail Hodges