King of the Sting by Tim Lay

‘King of the Sting’

by Tim Lay

 

Ali sits with Moussa spinning tops against the wall. Moussa is the same age but he isn’t so smart. He has a silly grin, even when he’s sad. Ali’s father says it’s because his mother dropped him on his head when he was a baby.

The morning is grey in Tangiers and a cold wind blows in from the sea. Ali wipes his nose on his sleeve and looks up from the game. In the distance he sees Hakim. He is walking beside the two tourists.

“Look,” says Moussa. “I win.” He points to his top which still spins, a big grin.

“I’m busy now,” says Ali with a frown.

He picks up his spin top and runs to the café. At the back, in the gloom, a man looks up and nods. Ali runs back to the corner and waits. Hakim is wearing a suit and strokes his beard as he talks to the tourists from England.

The tourists are relaxed. This is good.

When they are close, Ali turns on to the street and walks towards them, naturally, as if he is walking to his house. Hakim and the tourists look up at the same time, recognition on their faces. As he approaches they exchange words.

Ali doesn’t understand all the words, but he knows Hakim is telling the tourists that the boy is his nephew. The tourists are telling Hakim they have already met the boy, outside their hotel. He makes a show of looking very surprised.

This is how the fishing goes. It was no accident that the tourists met Ali outside their hotel.

The tourists are white and very pale. Their trousers are ripped. One wears a good pair of boots. Timberland. The real deal. But  they haven’t been cleaned for a long time and the laces are frayed.  Both men need a shave. One has long hair, the other has knotted hair, like Bob Marley but shorter.  This one pats Ali on the head, like a dog.

The tourists are relaxed. This is good.

I will have to wash my hair now that idiot has put his dirty hands on me,” Ali says in Arabic.

“That idiot will be putting food on your mother’s table. Inshallah,” replies Hakim. He still smiles, but there is irritation in his tone.

The tourists just smile.

“Have the fish bitten?” Ali asks.

“We shall see.”

“They smell,” the boy adds.

“Of course they smell,” shrugs Hakim. He turns back to the tourists, his face looking serious. He pats his forehead with the flat of his hand. The tourists lose their smiles and enquire what’s wrong.

Ali watches the conversation. Hakim is telling them that his nephew has told him the bus station office is closed. The tourists look concerned and exchange words. Hakim looks at his watch, appears to think and then tells them that the office will open in two hours.

Ali doesn’t hear this, he just knows this is how the conversation goes.

From across the street there is a shout. It’s the man from the café, the Berber. He is a big bear of a man with a scar above his eye and a beard birds could nest in.

He isn’t a Berber at all, but the tourists like to think that he is. Hakim says tourists trust Berbers more than Arabs. Tourists are strange.

Hakim tells the tourists that the Berber is an old friend who has come down from the Rif mountains for the market. He suggests they all go to drink some mint tea while they wait for the office to open and maybe smoke a little too. The tourists nod and smile.

It is in this moment the fish are hooked.

Hakim gives Ali a nod which means to meet them at place. The boy waves goodbye, and Hakim and the Berber begin to stroll with the tourists.

“You want to play some more?” asks Moussa. He has crossed the street and stands, with his spin top. He is frowning but with a big grin.

“No.”

“Can I come fishing with you?”

“It’s not a game,” Ali snaps and pushes him away.

The place is the Rolling Stones café. Hakim likes to take tourists there. He says the Rolling Stones were crazy English musicians who came to Tangiers to smoke hashish a long time ago. The place is not a café. It is a house that belongs to Hakim’s friend, a rich man. The Rolling Stones did not smoke hashish there, but Hakim says fish like things that sparkle. Tourists like to feel special.

To get to the Rolling Stones café, Ali takes a short cut through the narrow streets of the medina. It’s Ramadan and everyone is hungry and in a bad mood. It’s dangerous for him to do this journey in the day. He has to pick his way carefully, keep his eyes open, blend into the walls like a lizard. If he is seen and his father is told he is not at school he will be beaten.

On the rooftop terrace, four floors up, the view is fantastic. The cloud has shifted and now Tangiers sparkles in the winter sunshine. Below, the Medina is an uneven patchwork of roofs and terraces, the sounds and smells wafting up from the streets while seagulls shriek from above.

But Damon and Jerome, Gap year students on Interrail tickets, are no longer enthusing about the view. An hour ago they’d been on their way to check bus times when Hakim had introduced himself, offered to walk with them to the bus station so he could practice his English. He’d seemed like a friendly guy. He doesn’t seem that friendly now.

Stoned and spinning, Jerome shakes his head at the spliff that Hakim now shoves his way. Damon does accept, but he puffs on it nervously, as if it’s a Benson. The two exchange looks and wonder how the fuck they’re going to get out of this.

The mellow rooftop terrace is now Rapunzel’s tower, and even if they do get past the Berber they still have to find their way out of the old city. Right now the Berber’s pacing the terrace, spouting Arabic, every word of which sounds like a threat.

They’ve offended him. Smoked his hash and now they insult him. His words have been translated. “If you don’t want to be friend, then you are an enemy and if you don’t want to pay with money, you pay with blood.”

Fuck’s sake, thinks Jerome. The only reason we’re here is because they invited us for a smoke. He looks at Damon and wishes he could mind read.

Hakim smiles, and for a moment Jerome thinks it’s all going to be OK. “I don’t know what to say my friends,” he shrugs, rubbing his chin. “He offers you a very good price. 200 grams of hashish. You won’t have to buy again in all your holiday.”

“Look man,” says Damon. “We don’t want that much. You say we owe him for what we’ve smoked. That’s all the cash we have.” He nods at the pile of dihram notes on the Formica table. Fifty pounds in sterling. Today’s budget.

Hakim looks at the notes, and at each boy in turn. He sighs and leans back. “Then we have problem.”

The Berber asks him something and before long the two men appear to be quarrelling. Hakim looks like he might be defending them, but the vibe is heavy.

Into this scenario comes a woman, appearing in the doorway which leads to the staircase, holding a mop. She looks surprised.

The boys swap glances, as if Jerome’s mind reading wish has come true. They rise together. The Moroccans look up, and by that point the boys are squeezing past the woman and scrambling down the marble stairs like they’re rolling down loose scree on a mountainside.

From his hiding place on the street, Ali sees the tourists emerge. They are moving quickly, fear on their pale faces. Behind them comes Hakim. “My friends! Wait!” he calls after them. He touches his hand to his heart and shakes his head to show them how crazy the Berber is.

The tourists’ fear and anxiety eases and Hakim passes them the small block of hashish, three grams, a token of his sincere apology for the behaviour of the Berber. He is a very bad man. Very dangerous, he tells them. They should leave the Medina now.

This is Ali’s sign. He comes walking towards them, naturally, as if he is walking to his house.

Now Hakim has finished he will drive the fish to Black Mohammad, who will be waiting at the bus station. he will tell the tourists they were seen buying hashish off two Moroccans at The Rolling Stones cafe and that the police are looking for them…. but for a small payment he will keep them safe.

This is how the fishing works. Hakim is not the only fisherman in Tangiers but he is one of the smartest. Some say he is the king of the fishermen.

Hakim pretends to see Ali and waves him over. He tells the tourists his nephew will guide them safely back to their hotel. They seem relieved and thank Hakim.

‘When will you pay me for bringing you these fish?’ Ali asks in Arabic.

‘You cheeky little bastard. I’ll pay you when I’m ready.’ He pretends he is angry, but Ali can see he is smiling. He knows he is Hakim’s favourite.

‘Take them to their hotel. Find Black Mohammed and tell him they will be on the five o’clock bus to Asilah. Then come back to see me for your money.’

The boy nods and turns to lead the tourists into the Medina. One day, he tells himself, he will be a King of the fishermen too.

 

Did you like the story? Opinions? Praise? Please leave a comment below

 

Bio:

Tim LayTim Lay counts himself fortunate to have done most of his travelling before the invention of the internet, smart phones and Google maps. He has worked as a journalist, builder’s mate, TEFL teacher and inventor of card games. His debut novel, The Sewerside Chronicles, won the Undiscovered Authors prize in 2007. His other works include a collection short stories, and scripts for graphic novel and film. He runs Brighton literary night Grit Lit.
 

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Photo by Anjumon Sahin

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6 Responses to King of the Sting by Tim Lay

  1. I really like the change in pace between the two story threads, and the disdain that the kid has for the tourists. Nice work.

    • Roadside

      The strange sounding English in places also added to the story. I agree the kid had total disdain, well observed.

  2. Orla McAlinden

    to me, this story is what Roadside Fiction is all about, I came away from the story with a completely undeserved feeling of having learned about a wholly unknown culture. great realism. Orla McAlinden

  3. C.D.Linton

    Rings true .

  4. Love the piece, felt I was there too.

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