It’s just started to rain and we’re looking for somewhere to eat. The place we chose earlier is full and the fall-back place has a large TV above the only available table so we head back to Hackescher Markt to see what we can find. Hackescher Markt has a station on the S-Bahn and the train line runs above a series of arches, most of them transformed along this stretch – from Alexanderplatz to Museuminsel – into restaurants. We had breakfast in one this morning and a pre-dinner beer outside another less than an hour ago, sitting beneath a rust-coloured umbrella beside a patio heater as light rain fell around us, having our usual holiday conversation about the oddness of time. The entrance to the station is three arches down and we pass beneath to get to the square where all the restaurants are and to escape, for a moment, from the rain. There’s a girl there, busking with a band. She’s singing Satisfaction, her voice hard and compact, powerful and aware of its power as she sings, repeatedly, and I try, fists bunched, head thrusting forward. It’s the first time I’ve actually heard the song in more than thirty years. I put a coin in the almost empty guitar case and we walk across the square to a restaurant that specialises, as far as we can tell, in southern German cuisine. We’re greeted by a tall young woman in traditional Heidi-style dress, and placed at one end of a long scrubbed table. At the other end a man and woman in their sixties are finishing litre glasses of beer. They nod and smile and raise their glasses to us. When I look for the toilet, the Heidi woman points me downstairs where middle-aged and older couples are dancing to a band of musicians in Alpine costume. Upstairs again, I order a dish that’s described on the haphazardly translated menu as a ‘meal for men’ – pork knuckle, sauerkraut and potato dumplings, with a litre of ‘festival’ beer.
Ninety minutes later, we head back across the square, and the girl and her band are still there. There’s a small audience by this time, and more money in the guitar case. They’ve moved on from 60s British R’n’B to classic reggae. Everything is gonna be all right, she’s singing and we stop to listen along with fifteen, maybe twenty other people. There’s a woman with half her hair shaved off, and a man in a striped pullover, dancing in a loose-limbed semi-catatonic way, a beer bottle in his hand. Another man, very tall and very thin, is moving in a way I haven’t seen for years, an intricate, hippie-like weaving of angular limbs. The band has three or four musicians, but my eyes are on the girl. She’s small, white, a long blonde fringe, pretty but tough with it. Singing or not, she doesn’t stop moving, she has a little dance that reminds me of the way children suddenly break into a skipping run as though walking just doesn’t do it for them, there’s more to moving around than just walking. She has what looks like a large Moleskine, the size below A4, and a list of the songs she knows must be written in it because she’ll crouch down between one piece and another to thumb through it, then tell one of the other musicians, a guitarist, the chords he needs to play. I watch them running through the sequence, her eyes on his left hand. Other people wander past as they perform. A man we noticed yesterday, dressed in a colourful clown’s outfit like a child’s all-in-one pyjama suit, complete with red nose and a rain hat, walks past, talks briefly to one of the band, moves on, comes back a little later. The music continues, some songs familiar and others not, but the girls’ voice takes them all on and makes them her own. So much busking is a sort of karaoke, it’s startling to hear something that isn’t, something that reminds you that Joni Mitchell might also have stood beneath a railway arch in a foreign capital and sung as though her life depended on it. I say to Giuseppe, I hope her parents are proud of her, but we both know how unlikely that is. I’m useless, she sings, but not for long. She’s wearing a pair of low-slung skinny jeans she has to keep hitching up and a red sleeve that it takes me a while to realise is the covering of a cast. When we clap, as we do at the end of each song, she wants to thump the air with pleasure but the cast gets in the way, transforming the gesture into something less triumphant and more touching, elbows out, ungainly. Other things happen while they’re performing. A young guy with a dog and half a dozen plastic bags cadges a cigarette from Giuseppe and stands beside us, drug-swaying, cigarette unlit, until the girl he was with comes back and leads them both off. A woman in a wheelchair, encased in rainproof plastic, also with a dog, is approached by another woman. Money is exchanged and the woman in the wheelchair reaches under the plastic and pulls out what turns out to be a snack for the dog, which the standing woman takes and offers. I’ve no idea what’s happening but I watch the scene anyway. I love places where dogs are loved. Minutes later, a stocky man in his forties passes under the arch. He pauses and begins to dance in a comically hip-grinding fashion with the shaven-headed woman, knees bent, faux– humping, his arms embracing the space around her, almost, but not quite touching. Then, as surprisingly as he began, he stops, straightens up, moves on, his life picked up where he left it, momentarily, only moments ago, a dozen feet from where he’s standing now.
Ten minutes later, a couple of drunks in suits and white shirts come over and ask the girl to sing Look Back in Anger. They ask her more than once, in a bullying, truculent way. They’re English and I’ve heard her speak enough to know that English is also her mother tongue. She might be American, I think. When she refuses, one of the drunks kicks at the guitar case on the floor and starts to push around a musician, a black guy with locks and two guitars. He’s turned up late to the party and it’s hard not to think he saw the money on the floor in front of the band and decided to play along and take his share. Other men pull the drunk away but the mood’s been damaged, a hairline crack that doesn’t spoil everything but still can’t not be heard. The original audience is drifting away now, and so I walk across and tell one of the guitarists how much I’ve enjoyed their work. I ask if they’ll be back tomorrow and they say they will as the girl turns round. Tonight has been a good night, she says. She can’t stop smiling. She asks me my name, and tells me hers. Alice. She comes from South Africa. Cape Town. She has something special, I tell her, a special gift, and she smiles even more and shakes her head, but she knows I’m right and I know she knows. She didn’t realise she’d broken her arm until a few days later, she says, she normally plays the guitar, and I can see how her dance, which is all footwork, is the result of that. See you tomorrow, I say, and put some more money in the guitar case at her feet.