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Hashish Double Zero Café: Exposition



The draft exposition - Chapter 1:


A small huddle of patients stood in the exercise yard of Holt ward. Despite the drizzling rain, they chain-smoked, happy to be from the ever-watchful eyes of the nurses. Tom Coldicott stood out from the group of smokers. With his tanned skin, expensive clothes, and natural charm, he’d pass as one of the senior psychiatrists rather than an inmate. This was Tom’s first experience of incarceration. The yard area, where he stood, was surrounded by fifteen feet of closely messed wire fence. And atop each fence post a bright halogen lamp triggered by nocturnal activity. Inside, it felt practical and institutional. No hard objects, no dangling ropes or belts, and basic furniture which was easy to clean but made your bum sweat. Most of his time inside the ward was spent trying to avoid eye contact with the patients who were keen to talk gibberish to anyone. And search for something other than mental health leaflets or trashy lifestyle magazines to read. Most of the nurses were fine, but one or two seemed to have bigger baggage than the inmates and claimed “victimhood” by default. Tom’s happy-go-lucky nature and his public school agent seemed to crawl under the skin of those types. Strangely his fellow inmates didn’t seem to notice his “privilege”, perhaps they bonded over genuine mental health issues.


The Holt ward was the Northampton Hospital Mental Health Unit, a mixed-gender assessment facility for patients in acute crisis. Tom felt strangely at home among the unfortunate, and often tortured souls. It was a great leveller, no matter your social standing on the outside, you joined the same queue for meds, breakfast, lunch and dinner. On the occasion, he had a conversation with another inmate, he often found their accounts fascinating. Hearing others’ stories, Tom felt an uneasy sense of guilt, he wasn’t sure he qualified to be there, and that his life had been charmed in comparison. At least, to the extent, he could recall it.


What Tom called “Brain-frying” sessions dulled his memory. The official term was Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT for short. This procedure was like something out of Frankenstein. It involved the attachment of electrodes to the head. These then delivered multiple shocks to the brain. It was a treatment reserved for the seriously depressed. And while it did elevate depression, patchy memory loss was a side effect. Tom was trying to piece together recent events. Staff told him that he’d arrived at the hospital with a young woman with a French accent. And that he had come from the general ward after treatment for minor cuts and bruises following a car accident.


Other flashes of memory were more pleasant. Playing with a dog called Kalinté who’d become his best pal and chatting with his friend Sammy in his café in Tangiers. He could also recall the more distant past. A pretty little house in London, and a successful career in the music industry. And before that, when he was a child growing up on a farm in Gloucestershire. Helping feed the sheep and galloping across green pastures. He remembered hating boarding school and leaving at the first opportunity. But for the life of him, he had no idea what had caused his incarceration in Holt ward.


Yet his dreams were lucid and full of clear memories, always forgotten by the morning. He would dream of snatches of life on the farm. Happy memories of working in the stables and riding his pony, “Tiddlywinks”. In contrast, he was haunted by memories of holding the reins of horses as they were euthanised. He had a hatred of guns ever since. Other dreams were more blissful, soaring through iridescent blue skies in his sailplane. Or spending time at a meditation retreat in Nepal. He reflected on how lucky he was and how often the planets would seem to align. He was a true believer in universal Karma and that the story of his life was somehow pre-ordained. The outcomes of his life’s adventures were writ large in a cosmic book of naughty or nice. And some recollections were about kinship, the joy of spending time with old friends and laughing so much it hurt. His dreams had soundtracks that were born of his innate love of music, sometimes hard-hitting & powerful, sometimes sweet & ethereal, and sometimes dramatic & foreboding. When he awoke, however, his thoughts were trammelled and ran in an endless loop until he next slept.


How did I end up here?

Dunno. But I’m told I’m in Northampton, but don’t know how or why.


Who’s the French girl?


I think I recall the name Sabine, and she’s a bit prickly,

Why do I keep thinking about a dog? I can see him right now, he’s alternating between licking my hand, and excitedly bashing my legs with his tail!


You prefer dogs to people.


Does this have something to do with the long-forgotten past?


I think you mean nefarious past, does smuggling hash ring a bell?


But that was back in the late ’70s-’80s, I was in my early twenties then, and I must be at least thirty-five now.


Your past has caught up with you. You’re a villain.

But I’ve changed, I do want to make the world a better place!


In an attempt to stop the hamster wheel of thoughts, Tom picked up the Financial Times, his one permitted concession. and checked the date - June 15th 2015. His eyes were drawn to an editorial piece on cybersecurity concerns with China’s Digital Silk Road project. One particular sub-section caught his eye.


Morocco is the first North African nation

to commit to China’s Belt and Road Initiative


He read on as he returned inside to the communal area.


“Between 2011 and 2015, Chinese investment in Morocco increased by 195% with a 93% Increase between 2014 and 2015. Although, this can largely be attributed to the Noor solar plant investment in 2014. In May 2016, President Xi and King Mohammed announced the establishment of a strategic partnership and signed numerous agreements in a variety of economic sectors. There are multiple investments which focus on industry, free trade, and finance centres. This includes Chinese investment in the Casablanca Finance City, Huawei’s regional logistics centre at the Tangier Med Port Complex, and China Communications Construction Company’s partnership to build the Mohammed VI Tangier Tech City.


In the short term, Digital Silk Road may serve Morocco to strengthen its digital infrastructure, but the long-term repercussions may create serious risks of cyber espionage, mass data collection, and political leverage that should not be ignored”.


Tom’s ties to Morocco, and Tangier were never in doubt even with his foggy memory, but he couldn’t quite nail down why this article was important and relevant to his current situation. Tom reread the article to see if anything jogged his memory, but alas it didn’t. Not that he knew it, but the article would become apparent very soon. He tore out the feature and stuffed it in his pocket. Something told him Sabine would be interested in China’s plans for digital domination in her homeland.


***

Sabine Bercier’s father came from Marrakech, Morocco and her mother from Marseilles, the famous port city on the Mediterranean coast of Southern France. Her father decide to adopt her mother’s maiden name when they married. He thought it sounded more sophisticated than his family name, El-Baza. Her relaxed attitude to rule-following came from her father. But her adventurous nature and disdain for most of the human race, from her mother’s side. In her late teens, she left the family home in Marrakech and moved to a small apartment in Tangier. Using this as a base, she often took off travelling around Europe on a whim. The only thing she had in common with her fellow traveller, the annoying Englishman, was their shared patronage of Sammy’s Café. Now here she was, stuck in a crappy hotel in dreary, shit-food, England.


Putain!


What’s more, she was hanging around waiting for the “rosbif” to be released from incarceration. Even for her, there’d been enough adventure recently, she was ready to resume her normal life in Tangier. There, she’d make some much-needed money as a freelance cybersecurity expert.


As hard as she tried, she couldn’t blame her predicament entirely on Tom. She did think he should consider himself lucky that she was around to make decisions and get them out of trouble. But the reality was that she needed his help to ensure the safety of Sammy and his family. Tom had the resources to make that happen and, begrudgingly, she admitted he had the occasional good idea. But first things first, she needed to spring the “rosbif” from the mental health ward, she had put him in. She tapped a number into her phone and waited for a response.

“‘ello, is that the ‘olt ward? Can I make an appointment to visit Mr Tom Coldicott?”

“Sure, are you family?”

“Qui, I mean yes, I’m his niece.” She lied.

The appointment was set for 3 PM the next day so Sabine put her mind to finding a half-decent restaurant in Northampton, at least one that might have a decent wine. A tall order. But before dinner, she felt the need to let off steam. She changed into her parkour kit and headed out into the grey English weather, ready for adrenalin-inducing climbs, leaps and falls.


***


Nadia was more outgoing than her sister elder Maria. Maria would be happy in her own company, often with her head in a romantic novel, whereas Nadia was out and about, seeing things and chatting to random people about pretty much everything. They both grew up in a small apartment above their dad’s Cafe in Tangier, but would often visit their grandparent's farm up in the mountains. It was beautiful there and the people were warm and friendly, many of them were distant relatives of the girls. Nadia wanted to become a journalist, and the local villagers got used to a nine-year-old Nadia stopping the for “interviews”.


Morocco was her home country, and she inherited her father’s passion for its health and well-being. And its ability to thrive in a rapidly changing world. She was keen to see how new technologies could work alongside traditional practices without destroying them. And, how technologies could help reduce carbon emissions and deliver energy to all at a reasonable cost. When it came to politics, she was most concerned about the corruption that was endemic throughout the systems of power. And long-term external threats that arose from short-term bribes and other brown-envelope sweeteners. Watching the deals being done with China across the rest of Africa made her nervous for the future. While not necessary for her career in journalism, Nadia studied the basics of international law.


After university, Nadia got a position with a new broadcaster in Tangier. It was a small business but its ethos was similar to hers. They were following in the footsteps of Al-Jazeera, the popular Kuwaiti TV station, that aimed to provide a balanced view of middle eastern and world events. It was a great place for Nadia to cut her teeth in broadcast journalism. In her free time, Nadia ran her own video channel and had over one hundred thousand followers on social media.


After her dad’s disappearance, her first reaction was to post an appeal for his whereabouts. There were many reactions to the photo of her dad, but they were either misidentified or too vague to help. But she continued with her search while her school friend Sabine and her dad’s friend Tom followed a lead to the UK. It was frustrating not to be with them but they had agreed she could probably do more to help from where she was.


***


With Nadia spending long hours at work, Maria and her mum, Fatima, were left running the café. It was a popular café was on a narrow cobbled street in the older part of Tangier town. It was frequented by locals and travellers alike and got a top rating on TripAdvisor. Patrons would drop by for coffee and sweetmeats or to smoke sweet shisha.


Fatima was worried about the whereabouts of her husband and Maria and Kalinté the dog did what they could to keep her distracted. Maria had seen a change in Kalinté’s behaviour since Sabine and Tom had gone. Before he was a typical stray, scrounging food all day long, and becoming best pals with anyone that gave him food. But now, he spent most of his day at Fatima’s feet, occasionally licking her hand or nuzzling her neck. And woe betide anyone who was rude to either woman, he would snarl, bark and sometimes chase them from the café. Maria was certain he was doing exactly what Tom had told him the day they left.


“Look after Fatima and Maria”.


Maria, now in her thirties, had once thought she might follow her younger sibling in trying to change the world, but now she just wanted to settle down and have kids. Her problem was finding the right husband. Dad had offered the traditional route that would mean marrying a distant cousin from Rif, however, he could see in her face that wasn’t going to be an option. He respected his girl’s wishes in such life-determining matters, after all, why spend all that money on education if you then limit their choices? Maria also felt more of a responsibility than Nadia, to look after mum and dad in their dotage. Nadia loved her family but was very focused on her work. and Maria respected that. Although a home bird, Maria, was certainly not to be underestimated. She knew how to deal with difficult customers and eject undesirables. No one messed with her tribe and got away with it. She had that steely protection innate to lionesses and their cubs. When her mum wasn’t looking she’d wrap a sweet pie in a napkin to give to Kalinté.


Maria was a cup-half-full person. She looked on the bright side of life and treated everyone as a friend until proven otherwise. She was certain her dad would show up and everything would be fine. What she didn’t know was that the train of events triggered by her dad’s disappearance would change the course of her life.


***

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