My girlfriend, who for the sake of her privacy we shall refer to as Maya (always liked that name), came to visit me a couple of weeks ago. She doesn’t live in Berlin, which has its ups and downs. On the plus side, the autonomy allows us the freedom to grow as people and not rely too heavily on each other, but the downside is the lonely nights, the constant, grinding heartache, and the fact I get laid but one weekend a month, which as far as I’m concerned is a violation of my human rights. On Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, sex may only come in the middle of the table, but listen to me: Maslow is full of shit.
I picked Maya (wink) up at the station, and we wasted no time in diving out into the city to explore. I mean, we spent couple of hours gleefully doing ungodly things to each other in the buff, but that is not time wasted, and so my previous sentence remains technically accurate. Our chosen destination was one of Berlin’s many abandoned buildings, Bärenquell Brewery. We got the S Bahn out of the city, armed with beers and scarves and gloves and beers.
As we navigated to the brewery, we kept our eyes peeled for decrepit-looking buildings. I was expecting some run down warehouse, maybe a hollowed out office block or two. What I was not expecting, however, was a crumbling Hogwarts looming on the horizon, with minarets and lightning towers and moss-clung turrets squatting on the pockmarked tile rooftops. Two football pitches of dishevelled masonry and solemn red brick rose before us as we approached. We began to circle the fifteen foot perimeter wall, looking for a chink in the armour, and I briefed Maya.
“It might be scary inside, or dangerous. I need to know you’ll be calm, and you’ll be tough. Can you promise me you’ll be tough?”
“I promise,” she replied. “I can look after myself.”
“I know you can, I just also know that in the past you’ve had a tendency to panic or get upset in difficult situations. You just need to listen to me inside, and we’ll be safe,” I lectured. I knew I was being condescending, but I was a little nervous myself, and wanted to be sure my girl had my back.
“I can handle it!” she protested, stubborn and sweet.
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
Three minutes later I’m stood at the bottom of a rickety ladder shout-whispering until I’m blue in the face as Maya weeps in terror above me, struggling to swing her leg over a razor wire-laden exterior wall. My denim jacket and hands were covered in dust and dirt from her flailing feet as I shunted her bum cheeks over the wall. I took a wild boot to the face and grunted in barely-concealed rage. We were painfully, hilariously obvious, a bargain-bin Laurel and Hardy shrieking at each other alongside a busy road, cars slowing to watch.
“Listen honey, I don’t want to rush you, sweetie, but you have to get fucking over that wall right fucking now before the police come.”
“You know I’m scared of heights you bastard!”
“It’s not high! You said you would be brave!”
“I didn’t know it would be like this!”
“Well what the hell did you expect breaking into an abandoned building would be like!?”
“I don’t know! You’re panicking me!”
“You’re panicking me!”
My eyes were swimming with visions of Maya slipping and nicking an artery on the razor wire, and me sprinting back down the road with her slung over my shoulder, screaming for an ambulance. Oh god, oh god. I shut up and carefully unhooked her clothes from where they were caught on the barbs. Daintily, yet somehow also clumsily, she shifted her weight over the wall and down onto the ladder on the other side. She shakily dropped to the floor. I climbed over and dropped next to her, ripping a small hole in my jacket in the process. We stared at each other in silence; adrenaline, fury and wonder coursing through our veins.
“Sorry. I got scared.”
“I’m sorry too.”
“Do you want a beer?”
I took off my backpack and pulled out a couple of bottles, popped the tops off on a nearby wall, and we sauntered through the silent complex. We were in a gigantic courtyard, completely cut off from the outside world. Debris was strewn everywhere, like the aftermath of a rave held in the eye of a tornado. We felt like the stars of our own post-apocalyptic epic. Glass crunched underfoot. We passed discarded shoes, faded gang tags, burned up wooden beams and partially collapsed ceilings, and smashed up porcelain toilets that people had evidently had a great time wrenching out of the ground and hurling from third storey windows.
We found a couple of wrecked, battered cars painted in bright colours that looked like if Herbie had started smoking dope as a teen, joined art school, dropped out after getting into harder drugs, went off the rails, and joined the Warriors. Distant, echoing laughter made our ears prick up, and we figured there were other miscreants exploring the brewery, too. We never saw them, the place is too huge.
With weak torchlight from our phones, we explored every nook and cranny. It turns out my bravery is increased tenfold by the presence of a hot girl. I was channelling my inner Indiana, prising open rusting metal doors and inching into silent, pitch black rooms. Traversing a wreck pinches your inner child awake, and we were a tumble of gasps and marvel as we worked from room to room of a four storey house that lay on the outskirts of the compound.
As the sun shrugged lower in the sky, we turned our attention to the main attraction; the biggest building by a mile, the one with smashed-in windows and lonesome, wind-swept towers. The only way in was up blackened staircase. I ran a finger along the ashen walls, and was taken aback to see the years of grime rub away to reveal vibrant yellow tiles beneath. We wound our way higher and higher up the stairwell. I found a lone window pane and half-heartedly lobbed a rock at it. I was intending for a cool little smash, but instead the entire pane exploded with an echo that rolled around the entire complex. The unexpected shatter was ear splitting. We fell over each other as we scuttled away in terror, like a pair of buffoon woodlice fleeing the sunlight.
Deeper and deeper into the silent labyrinth. We hauled each other up ledges and held hands as we tiptoed across narrow beams and rust eaten stairways. We passed through three huge chambers, all empty save for deep, stagnant vats filled with pooled black liquid that reflected our torchlights back at us. The sun would be setting soon, and we pushed on in a hurry. We had to get to the top. Its madness what human beings will put themselves through in search of a good view.
That’s always fascinated me – evolution can explain away many of our weird preferences and aversions; sweet or bitter foods, a fear of the dark and heights and spiders and so on, but I can think of no reason, scientifically, why a lovely view is so desirable. People climb mountains in the rain for hours on end, simply to stand at the summit and look back at the landscape they just traversed. Everyone knows the feeling of stumbling across a beautiful place while alone and wishing for someone to share it with. Why? I don’t know, but it warms my heart. Maybe someone out there has an answer, but I don’t think I want to hear it. For reasons unknown, humans like to share beauty. That’s a mystery I’d rather leave unsolved.
We edged our way past a terrifying stairwell with all bannisters collapsed and half the steps missing, and I made the mistake of peering over the edge. My stomach lurched; we were four storeys up, and a foot out of place would mean a straight drop fifty feet down the gaping centre of the stairwell. There’s something about a staircase without bannisters that is nightmarish; utterly uncanny. I’ll challenge MC Hammer to a dance-off on a windy cliff edge in a heartbeat, but I won’t go anywhere near a staircase without bannisters. The idea is classically abject – it is an everyday object with a vital component removed, and this unfamiliarity and implied danger combine into a creeping horror.
I shuddered away from the hell stairs and pressed on. We entered an enormous factory floor, burned out and all as black as pitch. Weak daylight streamed in through the windows along one wall, but the sun’s rays were afraid to penetrate further than a few metres. The floor was grit and rubble, and piled up to waist height in the centre of the cavernous chamber were millions upon millions of old beer bottle stickers adorned with the Bärenquell name. We sifted through and scavenged a fistful of pristine labels, and stuffed them in my bag. There was another staircase ahead, and the end was in sight.
We wound our way up the corkscrew stairs to the eighth storey, and emerged into the fresh air. Somehow, we had found our way to the highest tower, and somehow, we had made it just before sunset. The top of the tower was cold and blustery, but the railings around the edges were secure enough that it felt safe. The crumbling brickwork was gaudy with the sprayed shapes and colours of those who had gone before us. We circumnavigated the ledge that circled the tower, and discovered that we weren’t the only lifeform at the end of the labyrinth. The lone guardian of Bärenquell, a solemn watchman, had been waiting for us, monitoring our progress the entire time.
With hazy miles of woodland, river and industry unfolding below, a single gnarled tree watched the red sun sinking. Its roots clung hard to the masonry, facing down the biting winds. In summer, the tree will grow leaves again. I bet it will look beautiful. I kissed Maya and we clinked our bottles; we didn’t need to say much. I took a few photos of her against the magnificent backdrop of the immediate dystopia below and the forests beyond. It’s no mean feat to steal the limelight from such a stunning landscape, but she managed it. With a final toast to the sun, we descended back into the darkness.
One last expletive-filled borderline panic attack as we hopped the barbed wire fence at the perimeter, and we made it out. We walked back to the train station holding hands.