The moment I arrive in the smoking lounge, I start remembering an old self I had. It does not surprise me that even though a decade or more has passed, in which everything around it has changed at a ravishing speed, this old smoking lounge is still the same. Only the furnishings are a little more chipped – even more chipped – and the floor boards worn even thinner. The faces of the smokers within look just a little bit older and more worn-out. A classic case of the passage of one decade.
I sit on a wooden bench, which runs all along the side wall. An old coffee house table with a beer-stained marble top is unsteady on its feet before me. I kick it with one foot, and clamp it down with the other, to prevent my milky coffee from splashing out of its cereal bowl. I rock absent-mindedly back and forth, flick ashes approximately into an ugly ashtray of bottle brown glass, and imbue all my clothing with kilos of dead smoke, soaking every inch of my skin and the roots of my hair. I sit around by candle-light in this puffy silver, the chemical cloud.
It is February and I am happy to have found a place of comfort I still remember from before. I have come here to put a stop to my own unfurling life. This is where I will sit, day in, day out, and blow out every phantom of a painful story. This isn't London, where the money making wheel keeps everybody on their toes, where the soul's inner demons grow untended, well-watered by alcohol. This is a breathing space. And I'm smoking.
A few days go by. This place turns into a bar at night, and gets lively around late afternoon. In the daytime, I am largely alone here. A pleasing selection of indie bands and glamrock music is on the speakers, and I sit undisturbed with my laptop. My head is crowded: I am writing a book. As long as I won't make any new friends in here, it's perfect.
The first returning face will be a confused, somewhat traumatized-seeming black woman with a wooly hat, who walks in and out a lot with her arms crossed, muttering to herself, sometimes shouting, smoking, drinking teas, sitting motionless for half an hour staring out of the window, then getting agitated and leaving the place abruptly. I recognize the behaviour for having lived in a psychiatric ward before, and would love to offer her the feeling, in a small way, that she has an ally. Just in a small way : I am not able to help anyone in a big way. I want to be. This is part of my own get-well mission.
The seating order changes a few times, and faces reappear. I notice a tall and lithe, pale and elegant woman in her forties who always has perfect make-up and her hair in a bun, drinking red wine by the window and gazing out, with a closed moleskin book in front of her on the table. It is not long until she is joined by an intellectual type with grey hair and a velvet jacket, and I cannot help but eavesdrop as they sit and smoke – they are talking about other guests of the cafe, from yesterday or two nights ago. Apparently, someone said something a little too loudly at the drinking table. I notice that she is particular when it comes to hygiene, wiping the rim of her wine glass frequently. It goes with the perfect make-up, I figure. She looks attractive, chain smoking slim lights, and I like the sound of her voice, even if it sounds a little dry and a twinge depressed. It's February, in Berlin: ice cold and dark days. I zone out, again.
The days go by. These two women appear again and again. They know each other, as I soon realise, but they don't speak. The elegant tall one begins to acknowledge my existence: when she sees me coming in, she nods, and forces a smile. I know already that I would like to meet her, but I will leave it for her to make the first move. Let's see how long until...
One afternoon soon afterwards, I find myself sharing a table with an androgynous-looking young man. He has long blond hair and is extremely skinny, he is wearing a Japanese comics t-shirt with a shiny suit jacket, and has a sketchpad in front of him, into which he is busily drawing robots and fantasy machines. They remind me of the robotic monsters on display outside the cafe, and in the horror cabinet night club at the end of the backyard. As it turns out, he is a regular there as well. It is open until six in the morning, and people can smoke spliffs in there, which he tells me he quite enjoys. We end up sharing a bottle of red, and in the candle light I see the deep circles under his eyes. He tells me that he has been in and out of psychiatric clinics for the last few years. We talk at length about it, and it leaves me angry with the system – again.
In sum, my first conversation in Berlin ends up being about that. So much for leaving the past behind by moving somewhere new. We start to talk about the tall thin woman. It turns out he was waiting for her, but she failed to turn up. The bottle of wine he ordered had been for her, but now he is sharing it with me. He tells me that over the years, they have had a few erotic encounters, but that the connection always breaks off. On and off, like a faulty electric contact. I find it interesting, because I have already seen the woman. But something about prying on her stranger's love life feels dishonourable, and I shake off the thought of those two, entangled against a doorway, somewhere between here and the horror cabinet in the back. We split, and agree to meet again the following Thursday: same time, same place. Already in the parting, I have second thoughts about seeing him again but I decide to see how I feel about it one week from now.
What you've just read is going toward the sequel of my book "Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway", available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cured-Meat-Memoirs-Psychiatric-Runaway/dp/1497590442