The train is delayed, presumably a software problem. I curse into the pages of my book. We reach Bern at two minutes to midnight. Emerging from the Christoffel subway, I see the last number 19 bus turning into Bundesgasse. The people on Loeb Egge are swaying about. A sheepdog stretches, lays his front paws on his master’s chest. His master shouts something incomprehensible, a beer bottle smashes by the ticket machine. The dog whines and jumps like a drunken dancer. A few steps away, three taxi drivers are standing in front of the closed kebab stall.
“Spicy sauce and all the trimmings!”
I realise I haven’t eaten properly all day. The yellow signs on the cars’ roofs pull me in like sweet blood to mosquitoes. You don’t have to take the first taxi in line any more.
“Who’ll take me to Wildstrasse the cheapest?”
One man breaks off from the group, gestures towards his taxi. He’s the first in line. We get in.
“Twelve francs, ok?”
I only realise the meter is not turned on when we turn onto Kirchenfeld Bridge.
“Do you do this often?”
The driver glances briefly at me, then back at the road.
“My wife’s pregnant with our fourth kid. What can I do?”
A no smoking sign is stuck to the ashtray. The traffic lights take a long time to turn to green. I have a sudden craving for a beer.
“Turn left here, across Monbijou Bridge. We’ll stop off on Eigerplatz.”
“That’ll be seventeen francs then.”
I murmur my consent.
“You’ve got three children already?”
“Yes, all girls.”
Against my expectation, he doesn’t say he’s hoping for a boy this time. I look out at the brightly lit Bundeshaus.
“What if the anarchists really had bombed the parliament building a hundred years ago, like they threatened?”
“I don’t know much about politics,” says the taxi driver, whose name I can now read on the little plastic card: Erwin Krüger.
“The man who wrote the threats was a German too.”
I tap my finger against the window, pointing towards the Bundeshaus.
“He lived in Heiden, he was a refugee. Traumatised by the Franco-Prussian war, I assume.”
I’m enjoying getting on the driver’s nerves. I don’t want him to earn his money too easily.
“So your name’s Krüger? But you speak perfect Bernese dialect.”
“Do you want to see my passport? My father came from Zurich. My mother came from the Bernese Oberland.”
“The Bundeshaus blackmailer was a Swabian hairdresser who cut the hair of the ladies in all of Appenzell. On request, he even offered special services. Not just head massages. Spicy sauce and all the trimmings, if you know what I mean.”
“Whereabouts on Eigerplatz?”
“Right here, by the Turkish snack-bar. I need a couple of things. It’s been a hard day.”
“If I have to wait more than five minutes it’ll cost more, OK?”
“Do you find kebab stalls are actually a culinary enrichment for the city?”
Krüger rubs at his head as if he could scratch the right answer clear underneath his skin.
“Well, you know, the Turks and the drunks by the Heiliggeistkirche…”
“Should we launch a counterattack by opening fondue restaurants on every other corner of Istanbul?”
He laughs and stops the car.
“Five minutes, OK?”
“Fine. Do you want anything?”
He shakes his head.
Four minutes and thirty seconds later, I sink back onto the passenger seat, a kebab in pita bread in aluminium foil in a paper serviette in a plastic bag in one hand, a can of beer in the other. Krüger throws his cigarette out of the window and turns off the radio.
“Wildstrasse now? Or are we off to Gurten Park for a midnight picnic?”
His voice is not entirely free from ridicule. We’re getting to know each other.
“Not tonight; looking at cities by night makes me feel melancholy.”
We drive back over Monbijou Bridge.
“I think the Swabian hairdresser was stabbed to death with a sword by an enraged husband from Appenzell. The police found another letter in the dead man’s home, in which he threatened to blow up the whole of Bern’s old centre.”
Green lights all the way to the corner of Ägertenstrasse. Krüger is silent, letting the car roll along almost noiselessly. I see the wire fences protectively surrounding the American Embassy.
“You can stop here on the right.”
I place two ten-franc notes and some change in his hand.
“To round off the day I’ll chuck a couple of molotov cocktails over the fence. With best wishes to the American Sector. You can read the details in tomorrow’s paper.”
He looks at me the way people look at harmless idiots. Emotionless, neither inviting nor rejecting, but with his muscles mobilised. I attempt a smile.
“A fourth girl, wouldn’t that be great?”
It takes me two attempts to close the car door properly.
“Can you sit at the front please?”
A green fir tree dangles from the rear-view mirror. A plastic figure on a metal spring wobbles above the glove compartment. Next to it is the driver’s ID card, the name illegible in the semi-darkness. The face in the photo sports a beard, eyes hidden behind a giant pair of glasses.
“Wildstrasse. By the American Embassy.”
The driver growls. I’ve offended his professional pride, I think, and watch him typing the address into his GPS.
“Why do you want me to sit at the front?”
Not many cars on the roads. It is just after two in the morning. Drizzling rain, gusts of wind, swaying lights. Not a night for strolling home.
“Because,” says the taxi driver, turning right towards the Kornhaus, “because of the metal on me collar. The first time was three months ago, in January. It was snowing so I had to concentrate. Suddenly it went cold at the back of me neck. And then again a week ago, last Sunday as a matter of fact. All my money gone!”
The red numbers on the taximeter remind me of my digital radio alarm clock. The wind rattles at the poster boards in front of the Stadttheater. We turn off. A young man standing by the Zytglogge Tower presses a cigarette out with his foot.
“It’d have been cleverer to just drive into a wall with the bandits, don’t you think?”
He looks over at me. I laugh a little, convinced he’s just thought up the whole thing.
“Time passes quickly on your radio alarm clock,” I say, pointing at the taximeter. The driver puts his foot down.
I say: “This morning I was woken up by Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again.”
We drive over Kirchenfeld Bridge.
“Once someone shouted at me because he didn’t like the song they were playing on the radio.” He does a pretty risky overtake of a woman on a bike and adds: “People are getting crazier and crazier.”
I give a vague shake of my head, which he can read as either agreement or disagreement.
“I took all my embarrassing records to the flea market years ago: Simon and Garfunkel, Barclay James Harvest, Uriah Heep. And what happens now? Bridge over Troubled Water and Lady in Black everywhere you listen. D’you get it, there’s no escaping the past.”
Now it’s the taxi driver’s turn to move his head about indistinctly. We don’t say anything until we get to Wildstrasse.
“You can let me out here on the right.”
He stops the meter – “Thirteen seventy, please,” – and turns on the light.
I walk to my front door slightly stooped, offering the wind as little surface for attack as possible, open the door, and only then do I notice I’m whistling a tune to myself: Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world.
Dazed by the music of Tchaikovsky and all the stage blood, I’m standing on the outside staircase of Bern’s Stadttheater. Looking at the taxis reminds me of my trip to Moscow at the end of January 1999. We’d got tickets for the Bolshoi Theatre, Romeo and Juliet, and I had fallen asleep after the second act and only woke up at the final applause. After a few steps in the biting cold, unable to take my eyes off the tall, elegant women in fur coats with their corpulent husbands, the glowing faces, the frosted buildings – it had been snowing all day – the stream of cars, only a few taxis, otherwise mainly the private limousines of the new Russians, waiting chauffeurs in livery elegantly doffing their caps after the first eye contact with their lords and masters, brushing the snow off their hats. Pjotr in his rusty Lada was nowhere to be seen in the constant silent movement of the row of cars. My companion lit up a cigarette and said he might be embarrassed and waiting around the corner until they all disappeared. Only a few minutes later Pjotr was standing in front of us, smiling an apology from an almost toothless mouth, patting his lumpish parka into shape and tugging at his scruffy woolly hat as if he wanted to imitate his more elegant colleagues’ cap-doffing. He told us that his car couldn’t cope with the cold and was frozen still on Majakovski Prospect waiting for the tow-truck.
“Shall we take a taxi?”
My thoughts travel back from Moscow to Bern for a few seconds. There are only a few people left on the steps of the Stadttheater.
“Taxi? Where to?”
My wife doesn’t wait for an answer, just flags down a car. We get in.
“So how did you like it?”
“My thoughts flew to Moscow.”
“Was it cold?”
“We were at the Bolshoi Theatre. Our driver’s car broke down.”
“Wildstrasse, by the ice rink, right?”
The taxi driver looks in the rear-view mirror.
“Yes, that’s right, at the bus stop.”
On the left-hand side of the Historical Museum. The sound of the tyres on the cobblestones.
“It turned out later that Pjotr’s Lada was fine. What we didn’t know was, he shared the car with a colleague. They had a double booking that evening. They played cards and the winner got to use the car. The loser had to lie to his customers.”
The taxi driver switches the light on and turns round to us. My wife pays and we get out.
“He accompanied us all the way to the hotel. That’s how I got my very first ride on the underground with a private chauffeur.”
She smiles, looks at me with feigned admiration and tugs me across the pavement like an old ship.
“A woman. That’s unusual.”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“I was just thinking out loud. I usually get driven home by men.”
“And almost all of them are foreigners, I know.”
We have been driving a few moments before she switches the taximeter on.
“Not the right job for the spoilt Swiss, I can tell you. Especially not for Swiss women.”
I squint at her taxi permit. Elsa Matter. Unlike most of her colleagues, she doesn’t drive a Mercedes, but some kind of Opel. She looks tired. Her face forms waves like those dogs, what are they called again? And she’s fat, very fat. I assume she never leaves the car any more, only eats at McDrive, puts a pillow on the steering wheel to sleep on, throws her full colostomy bags out of the window while she’s driving along like other people do with cigarette ends. If she ever had to leave the car, she’d immediately disintegrate like a beached jellyfish.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to pop.”
I’m a little ashamed. She laughs so loud I’m afraid she’ll use up all the oxygen in the car.
“Do you mind if I open the window?”
“As long as you’re not worried about your hairstyle.”
She turns a corner, slightly too fast for my taste, pressing me against the car door. She seems to be exempt from centrifugal force.
“And you? Knocked off work so late?”
I look at my watch. It is twenty to eight.
“No, not at all, this is when my working day starts.”
“Oh right, night shift.”
“I’m a writer.”
“You write books? Detective stories?”
“At the moment I’m writing taxi stories.”
“Encounters with taxi drivers, short conversations about anything and everything, including hairstyles.”
I look down at the river Aare. On the riverbed next to the banks, gravel hills rise out of the water. The driver looks in her rear-view mirror.
“If you ask me, we’re on our way out.”
“Do you mean just the two of us or the whole of mankind?”
She gives an earnest nod. The folds in her chin remind me of sand dunes.
“You look more or less healthy, but most people are pale and much too thin.”
A building site on Bernastrasse causes a jam. She turns on the radio. Jazz. I have a sudden craving for a glass of white wine.
“This health mania, you know, people don’t know how to enjoy life any more. Young man, you’re a writer, what wonderful word rhymes with bliss?”
She winks at me.
“People should do more kissing, you write that in your books.”
Drops of sweat pearl on her forehead like dead bugs, sticking her yellow hair down to her giant skull.
“Passengers get stranger every quarter of an hour after midnight. I could tell you some stories.”
She looks over at me.
“You live on Wildstrasse? Nice area… It’s none of my business,” she lowers her voice as if someone might be eavesdropping, “but it’s time the Yanks got out of the area, and best of all out of the country. All that leaping about in tight trousers and artificial food – it all comes from them.”
She turns on the interior light.
“That’ll be twelve seventy, just for you.”
I flash a tired smile, glad to be getting out of the car. Before I close the door, she bends over to the passenger seat and looks up at me.
“If you do write about me, knock off a couple of pounds, all right?”
I give her an earnest nod and still see her laughing after she’s driven off.
The thunderstorm predicted in the morning news on the radio has taken its time arriving. The first drops of rain fall from the yellow sky around six in the evening. I hail a taxi.
The driver is wearing a black shirt that gives off a sour smell. He starts the taximeter.
“The American Embassy.”
By now it has got dark, the clouds hanging in the sky like piles of coal. The windscreen wipers sweep to and fro very fast, but it’s still hard to see. We drive slowly.
The driver hasn’t taken off his sunglasses. Like Roberto Benigni in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. Only this one doesn’t seem so talkative. When I hesitantly complain that the clean air after a thunderstorm is only clean when you’re outside, and that storms only make things worse because they get your feet soaking wet, his only reaction is a faint nod.
I try and imagine how much the sunglasses are blocking his view. A lot, I think, too much for him to be driving safely, and laugh to myself about Benigni, who literally talks the priest on the back seat of his taxi to death with his confession.
Everywhere, people have taken cover from the rain. I wonder how to go about asking the driver to take off his sunglasses. I squint over at him. He has thin sideburns, a hirsute gutter, very well kempt. Do I know him? Maybe he’s one of the Kurdish Communists who wave their red flags with pictures of Marx and Lenin in front of the American Embassy’s fence every couple of weeks. He might have an eye disease.
At the red light on the corner of Ägertenstrasse and Kirchenfeldstrasse I briefly submit to the absurd idea that the man might be blind.
I pay the wordlessly demanded fourteen francs fifty. Although I run the twenty metres to my front door with great strides, I’m absolutely wet through by the time I put my key in the lock.
The reporter’s voice cracks, the driver turns down the radio. He seems annoyed, bends over the steering wheel and looks up at the sky.
“We’ll just have to invade Austria!”
I’m not interested in skiing. I find the taxi driver’s annoyance amusing.
“It’s the revenge of the Habsburgs!”
He looks at me with a loose jaw, screwing up his eyes as if something were blinding him. We drive across Eigerplatz and stop at a red light.
“My father was at the world skiing championship in St. Moritz in 1934. Up at the top, in the starting hut. He had to check the numbers and the material.”
I guess the taxi driver is about sixty. His skin is smooth and thin like white tissue paper. His hands on the steering wheel seem older, too large for the man’s body. We drive over Monbijou Bridge.
“Turn right here at Ägertenstrasse.”
“The automatic stopclock was a whole new sensation back then. Exact to a hundredth of a second! But the thing stopped after the third skier. Frozen, kaput!”
His face lights up, the tissue paper gets tiny wrinkles and red veins show up like side streets on old maps.
“You can stop at the next bus stop, by the ice rink.”
“My father had to tell them on the telephone when a racer had started. Now! And the guy at the other end set off his stopwatch.”
It’s only now that I recognise the various layers of his dialect, a linguistic mongrel from Oberengadin right through to Bern.
“The Swiss racer David Zogg started with number seven. My father held off with his now for one or two seconds. And guess who won the race!”
He laughs and stops the taximeter. I rummage through my bag, looking for my wallet.
“What an unbelievable story!”
“The people from Heuer made damn sure no one found out about it. It would have been a huge blow to the Swiss watch industry!”
I count out the money into his palm.
“Did they stop the time properly for the other races?”
“It stayed cold in St. Moritz. My father was up in the starting hut every time.”
“So I assume Switzerland won all the medals in the other disciplines too.”
He looks up from his wallet.
“A German sports official noticed my father was always on the phone during the first race. He blackmailed him. Take a look at the results: all the medal-winners were Swiss or German.”
The taxi driver’s earnest face, looking older now than in profile, ought to prevent any ironic comment. I open the car door a hand’s breadth.
“So we don’t have to annex Austria, we’ll just go back to manual time measurement.”
My right foot sways above the asphalt. The taxi driver holds me back by the arm.
“My father suffered his whole life because he’d collaborated with the Nazis, as he put it.”
I can’t find any words that would be appropriate for the situation, and attempt an understanding nod of the head. The driver smiles.
“Take me home please!”
He switches on the taximeter.
“As soon as you tell me where you live, we’ll be off.”
“Oh, sorry. Wildstrasse, by the American Embassy.”
The driver sticks his right index finger in his nostril and drives off.
“Have you heard this one: a manager gets in a taxi. The driver says: where to mister? And the manager says: doesn’t matter, I’m needed everywhere.”
I laugh a little, although I’ve hard the joke before. The driver’s finger is still up his nose. A battered newspaper photo of Pope John Paul II is stuck to the glove compartment. I don’t want to talk, especially not about the deceased pope.
“Saved my life!”
The driver takes his finger out of his nose and points it at the photo. I’m so tired I can’t quite work out whether he means his finger or the head of the Catholic Church.
“Car accident. Bang! Some drunk crashed right into the left-hand side. I was in a coma for three weeks.”
I think of the woman driver who recently told me taxi driving was not for the spoilt Swiss.
“Where are you from?”
He points to the picture again.
“Your German’s very good.”
“I worked in East Germany for a long time.”
“And then you came to the west after the wall came down?”
He winds the window down, calls out to a passer-by and exchanges a few words with him. We drive over Kirchenfeld Bridge. The mountains in the background look pale. Spring is taking its time. People are moving carefully, as if there were still a threat of black ice.
“Yes, in ninety-two. Since then it’s been all bad luck. The accident in ninety-four and then…”
He gives a pedestrian right of way. I try to look uninterested. I don’t want to encourage him to tell me his whole life story. His finger is back in his nostril. He seems to be in pain. I look out of the window. I remember my first trip to Paris. Before I left from Gare du Nord, I was already in my seat on the train when a man came into my compartment and said his name was Michael and he had no money for a ticket to Zurich. I gave him the money and up until just before Dijon I genuinely believed his mother would pay it back to me. Years later, someone in Warsaw tried the same trick. I pretended I didn’t understand German or English. Travel broadens the mind.
“I’ve only been to Poland once. To Warsaw, in fact.”
He gives me a brief nod. My tiredness is like a lead waistcoat: it presses me into the seat and cuts me off from the outside world. My lack of interest seems to be contagious.
“By the American Embassy?”
“Yes, right here.”
I dig a twenty-franc note out of my pocket. On any other day I’d have regretted that the journey was already over. I give too large a tip. The Pole hesitates. I give him a nod.
“I’m not a manager. Just tired and grateful to be home.”
He worms through his wallet for change with the index finger of his right hand. I restrain my nausea. He hands me a two-franc coin. I thank him and get out of the car.
A sleeping dachshund on the back seat. A sharp smell of after-shave and cold cigarette smoke in the car. The driver looks at me wordlessly.
“To the American Embassy, please.”
He looks in the rear-view mirror. We pull out.
“What’s the dog’s name?”
The driver shrugs his shoulders.
“Don’t know. Someone left it behind.”
Water shoots out of the ground on Bundesplatz. A couple of people are watching the fountains.
The driver nods his head towards the playing water.
“What are you going to do with the dog?”
“I’ve reported it to the office.”
“Maybe they did it on purpose?”
The driver ducks his head. We drive over Kirchenfeld Bridge.
“You wouldn’t believe what people have left in my car!”
The dog gives a quiet whine. I look back at it.
“A few years ago every car had a dachshund behind the rear window, a plastic one mind you, and a toilet roll in a crocheted cover.”
The driver laughs.
“Once this guy left behind a whole bundle of hundred-franc notes on the back seat. The next passenger sat down on it and then held it up in front of my nose. He got such a shock he couldn’t say a word!”
“Watch out that no one sits on the dachshund!”
The driver looks at me and grins.
“Do you want to take it with you?”
I shake my head and pay the fare. The moon is crouching over Gurten hill like a giant snowball. At the bus stop outside the ice rink, a couple of kids are shouting and messing around. The dachshund wakes up and starts barking.