I stepped off the train in Barcelona at 7.30 in the evening and followed directions to the hostel. The February night air felt almost balmy. I found the street easily enough — a busy thoroughfare of bars and independent shops. The hostel entrance was an ancient door in the wall. Next to it was a button to press before speaking. The door swung open to reveal a glorious marbled and tiled entrance hall with an old-fashioned cage elevator that had ceased going up and down a long time ago. Marble and tile continued all the way to the top. The hostel manager and his girlfriend were leaning over the stairwell to guide and welcome me.
He was called Pedro and she was called Lucinda. They’d liked the sound of my voice when I buzzed up to be admitted, they said. Did I smoke? Yes, I said. I did. The manager was triumphant. ‘We knew we would like you! And do you smoke weed?’ I said yes, I had been known to smoke weed. ‘Come and look at this, man,’ he said. Pedro led me into his and Lucinda’s bedroom — which I was welcome to use at any time, he said, and for whatever purpose — and he showed me about three ounces of skunk in a wooden box. He gathered up a handful of buds, pressed them to his face, inhaled exultantly, and invited me to do the same. Then he set about rolling a joint.
He made the spliff with tremendous love and care but the completed item was surprisingly lopsided. Before he lit it, we agreed that perhaps it was best if we first sorted out payment and key allocation. So we did that. Then Pedro and Lucinda sat on their low bed and I sat on a divan and we smoked the joint to complete the check-in process.
After the second revolution of the joint a wonderful empathy sprang up between the three of us. After the fourth, everything I thought, looked at, said and heard struck me as either highly significant or wildly funny. After the fifth, my personality disintegrated. All of my life, I now realised, I had presented a persona to the world that had absolutely nothing behind it to back it up. I had no opinions, beliefs, morals, or character. I was a liar and a fake. My voice was fake. Even my laugh was fake. Worse still, I was certain that these thoughts were transparent to Pedro and Lucinda, who now seemed to me to be the wisest, kindest and most intelligent young people I had ever met.
Pedro rolled one joint after another. It took him about five strong joints to get properly stoned nowadays, he lamented. Did I know that cannabis possession was legal in Barcelona? I didn’t, I said. And did I know, he said, that the world was ruled by extra-terrestrial lizards in human form called Illuminati? And that these Illuminati controlled thousands of cloned robots designed to infiltrate the worlds of film, finance and government? And that most of the Hollywood stars are clones? Tom Cruise, anyone? Brad Pitt? I looked at Lucinda. She was nodding enthusiastically. ‘Of course, man!’ she said.
Then this tall, sensitive-looking man, languid, a bit shy, pencil-thin beardy-arrangement thing, grey bouffant hair, possibly Indian, came in. This was the hostel owner. He introduced himself as Ahmed but I was too wrecked to commit any more names to memory. I called him either Rachid or Racine. He looked like a Racine. He’d stopped by to smoke weed with us for a while and meet the new guest. Pedro passed him the wooden box with the weed in it and all the makings, including a grinder. Racine received it with alacrity, as though he’d been looking forward to it.
‘So what brings you here to Barcelona, my friend?’ Racine said conversationally while his fingertips did intricate things with cigarette papers. ‘Because I am depressed,’ I said. I added that I was on a month-long rail trip to try and change my outlook. ‘Everybody is depressed,’ said Racine, lowering his voice confidentially. ‘The whole world is depressed. How could it not be? In this world depression is a sign of sanity. The question is not whether you have depression but how you choose to handle your depression while you are alive.’ He spoke with kindness but I also detected a definite note of didacticism, and now a fresh delusion gripped me, which was that I had checked in to some sort of mental-health clinic run by Scientologists.
I excused myself and went and stood out on the small balcony overlooking the street to smoke a fag. A clock on the wall of the Happy Day English School directly opposite said 8.15. It felt like months, but I had been in Barcelona for only three-quarters of an hour.