The café is in Berlin, but it could be in Belfast, Brighton or possibly Brussels too. Not France, certainly not the south of it. The wallpaper is red, bedding canvas paintings with price tags attached to them. It is not busy, however conversations can be overheard with little effort, and a table behind us are speaking a mix of German and English. This happens a lot here. The coffee is black and average, poured into dainty white mugs that are very similar to the ones in the apartment that I am staying in, which makes me wonder if the place is a Polish joint, as the apartment owner is a Pole. It would only be ignorant guesses, trying to work out whether the décor had a Polish look. I’m sat at the window that looks out onto a narrow street, something incredibly uncommon in this city, where three-lane roads are a mountain to climb every time you need to be on the other side, a tally in the con’s column. Across the street is a beige building, around three floors of rectangle, and a protruding tower that rises two floors higher. It is peri-metered by a gate that would take a ladder to traverse, before worrying about the spikes at the top. Through the bars I can see an etched in stone marking that reads: Jüdisch Gymnasium. The rest underneath is not visible. I glance over to my companion, who looks even more tired than they did yesterday, and older than I’ve ever seen them. They are fifteen years older than I am and starting to show it. I glance back outside to see that two policemen have appeared. It is peculiar seeing regular police with guns, and they are hopping around whilst chatting, trying to stay warm. There is a clear impression that they have been walking this beat a while and walking it together a while too. A woman with a limp walks by, then another woman with a similar injury, causing me to infer that there must be some kind of physical surgery facility down the road. I make a comment about this to my companion, who is writing ineligible notes down, and ignoring me. The policemen are chatting vigorously, as a man approaches them. He’s short, has dark hair and a moustache. On his approach the policemen have stopped talking, and the man instigates a handshake, to which is completed with familiar smiles. My eyes track the moustache man as he advances along the gate, out of my vision, then returns on the inside, entering the building.
“That was nice,” I say, sipping my coffee.
My companion looks up from his notebook. “What was?” He asks.
“It doesn’t matter.”
I continue to gaze outside. After some deliberation, one of the policemen leaves the other, and the remaining one crosses the road to come right up to the glass, putting a single air-pod in his left ear as he is moving. For a second, I think that he is looking at me, then he begins talking to himself, obviously in some kind of telephone conversation, still pacing to keep warm, his gun shaking gently on his hip.
“I’m sorry,” my companion says. “I actually feel inspired to write something down for once. I think the art might have helped. You were right to take me there, all the years I’ve been living here, not once have I seen something made after 1990, until today. Maybe I’m exaggerating.”
His American accent is more subtle than it used to be, having spent the majority of his life in Europe by now. He’s forty-six and called Paul, the greys in his beard are more prevalent than the ones in his head, and he’s put on a bit of weight. The good looks are not fading just yet, and during the last week he has attracted some female attention, thanks to some fame and some precise complexion in his face.
“You look tired,” I say. “You could put the notebook down for a while, enjoy the coffee.”
“The coffee is shit,” he says. “They get it wrong here and besides, I thought you wanted me to write more, isn’t that why you’ve been sent to Berlin?”
“I’ve not been sent here. I’m here as a friend, I’m here to help.”
“So the tasteless coffee isn’t going on the expenses? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t get so worked up. It’s this damned book, short stories, who would have thought? I don’t think I’ve read a short story in my life. They’ve always seemed pointless to me, and we both know no-one buys them. I like you; I do, you are about the only person I trust in publishing, and you’re definitely the youngest person I speak to these days, but I know why you’re here. You want another novel, your bosses want to bleed me dry one more time before the contract ends, before I’m out in the wilderness, eating rice for breakfast, probably scratching poetry into the walls. I can’t write anything long anymore, there is no commitment in my life for it. News moves too fast and I can’t take another line being added to the subway map. It’s the same everywhere. I would have been happier being a carpenter like my father, he was making shelves for money till the day he died, the miserable bastard.”
It was hard not to laugh and I would kill for half of the talent he has or used to have. “The projections for the short story collection are solid,” I say, calculations running through my mind. “And they are going to be posted online, so they’ll get read and you’ll get paid. What more do you want?”
“I don’t know anymore,” he says. “The joke would be to ask my ex-wife I guess, wherever she is. You know when we first met you sounded a lot like a writer, now you sound more like one of them.”
“I’m not a writer.”
“Neither am I, anymore. I’m an old computer cycling through programmed instincts, hitting simple notes on a piano that will get a definite reaction. I haven’t written anything good for years. Perhaps I ought to move again, rinse another European city for every last drop of inspiration it can give me, suck the oil out of the ground, and ignore the cries of the dying children.”
He lit up a cigarette and wafted smoke way from his eyeline, knocking spectral thoughts into the ether.
“You’re lucid now that you have stopped drinking,” I say. “If you can’t write, talk, and dictate.”
He coughed. “I have no daughters or sons to dictate to,” he says. “That’s disgusting anyway, like I have a disability or something. Next one, surely the bosses gave you more tactics than that, rather than the pressure of you looking over my typewriter.”
“There’s no tactics Paul, and no pressure. To be completely honest with you, I think the company cares less about your output than you think. Sure, you used to be a cash cow, and lately less so, but that works in your favour because they have less to lose now. Times are changing and if you asked for another contract extension, they’d give you one. It would be less money of course, and they might ask you to move back to London, or even New York.”
Out of the corner of my eye I can see the policeman jolt away and run down the street.
“That’s not happening,” Paul says, getting my attention back. “There is no way I am going back to either of those godforsaken places, not in this life. I don’t want another contract with the leeches you work for, no offence. I want to be able to write again, to feel something in my fingers other than pragmaticism. I should start drinking again. I’ll take brief painful anxiety over eternal depression. Or I’ll get back on the meds, and call it quits completely, check myself into the home for washed-up writers, call all of the people I’ve wronged and apologise.”
He had finished his cigarette too fast and I could tell he was dizzy. I order two more coffees, and he gets up to go to the bathroom. The street outside had lost all of its foot traffic, and I notice we were now in the café alone, with the employees making muted noises in the back after delivering the fresh cups of coffee. On the table is Paul’s notebook, only a short movement away from my hand, and to resist the temptation I’m drinking the coffee quickly, tasting the same bland liquid as the first one. Paul has returned and is sitting back down like he is in pain.
“I feel better now,” he says. “Always do after a piss, or a meal. Or a cup of coffee that tastes better than this. Let’s talk about something else and get out of here soon.”
I wonder what there is to talk about with a man like Paul, in a state like this, not anything distressful that’s for sure. Sometimes when I visit him, he asks about my two children, or my wife, which usually led to a conversation about how I manage to keep everything so stable. Lying to myself, I would tell him, and having no talent.
“My son is five now,” I say. “And has started to read a little.”
“Poor kid,” he says. “Get him out of that and get him in a team of some kind, talking to other kids.”
“Thanks for the advice. My daughter is the sporty one, like her mother.”
He has drifted away again and has pushed the new coffee away from him. In silence, he is starting to put on his coat and scarf, and I’m looking up at him like he’s one of the great Berlin memorial statues.
“Are we leaving?” I ask.
“I have a headache,” he says, whipping a scarf tail around his neck. “We have to get the train before it gets too crowded. I’m sick of touching other people involuntarily.”
I’m standing up, and looking outside once more, seeing an eerily sparse scene, where the city seems to have died in between sips of my drink. Paul gives me a flat smile now that we’re both ready to leave. We get to the front door, saying danke and auf wiedersehen to women that we cannot see nor hear, then suddenly we’re hearing a bang in the distance, that is followed by an echoing crackle.
“What was that?” Paul says, hand on the door handle.
It could have been an earthquake, a train derailment, a gunshot, an explosion, a plane crash, or a dog barking at a stranger.