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Things change – prices go up, schedules change – good places go bad and bad places go bankrupt – nothing stays the same.

standard warning from the front of each of the Lonely Planet travel guides, 1980s–1990s


It is a rare and beautiful feeling to walk into a place for the first time and know that you belong together. To know that the scene is not complete without you, and to understand that you are completed by it, that is terrible, for it cannot last, and wonderful simply because it is.

For Blackie and Whitey, the Grape Place wasn't home – home is what there's no place like, or where one starts from, or where they have to take you in (depending on whom you consult) – it was more like the eye of the I, the vortex that called them and awaited them for its own completion. The courtyard was empty without them, and they wanted a place to sit. As in a movie filmed on a great location, the actors and scenery molded to each other; they fitted together just as they were, and the universe knew it.

While Barb checked that Ed hadn't got back yet, Blackie scouted the courtyard, with its tables and flowers, and the second-story balcony overlooking it all. He fancied an airy double upstairs and did the math in his head – less than two quid a week for the pair of them wouldn't exactly bust the budget. Shit, at this rate they could live like Sultans for practically forever.

Whitey didn't even look around.

"Fancy a game?" he said to Barb and led her over to the big chess set in the middle of the quadrangle. Presumably he had observed it out of the corner of his eye but it certainly seemed as though he were operating on automatic. When the 'boy' (who was, let us be clear, in fact a pre-adolescent male human) showed with the mint tea that the house supplied gratis to players and kibitzers alike, Whitey inclined his head in an elegant bow of acceptance.

"And a hash biccie," he ordered with élan.

"Charras cookie?" clarified the urchin.


"Far out," added Blackie, "I'll have one too. You tried them, Barb? Any good?"

"Not me," she demurred, accepting white and pushing forward the King's Pawn two squares. "But they speak very highly of them."

"They speak, do they?" responded Blackie, as though disappointed. He was new enough to this scene that it still seemed pretty exciting but he wasn't so naive as to admit it forthrightly. "Can't be enough in 'em. They won't care if I roll a stoney here do they?"

"Oh, no," answered the angel, "They've even got papers if you need them."

"Later, maybe, I'm all right for now. Hey man, how the fuck did you know about the cookies?"

Whitey was still moving through the opening gambits, which he actually knew, so he looked up from the board and shrugged. Nothing about the Grape Place would ever surprise him in that incarnation and he accepted the knowledge as no more than his due. Blackie knew the rules almost as well and knew that he knew but was far more conscious about what he didn't know, which was why he knew, and worried the question, the way he might keep feeling a cavity with his tongue in the hope that he would find out more about it. He never did, but the activity reassured him.

Telepathy was always a favorite among the seriously stoned, and so was precognition, but we don't actually need them to explain the strange familiarity of the familiar strangeness they sauntered into. It could be that they had registered some stranger's description while crashed out in Herat or catching z's in Qandahar or possibly even while doing the laundry in Teheran. Certainly they had already reached that plateau of traveling insouciance on which you take advice but never notes and look at guidebooks mostly for giggles. Even at that early date in the development of the tourist infrastructure of Kabul and Kathmandu, Kashmir and Kerala, Calcutta and Quetta, the local entrepreneurs needed the punters as much as the heads needed the rooms – and the right punters, just as the heads needed the right space. If you've got a hotel full of laid-back dopers, the last thing you need is aggressive Okker boy scouts disturbing the peace with drunken brawls or calling the cops in a panic because someone offered them opium. Supply and demand work at least as efficiently in Asia as in Vegas, and with less distortion from misleading advertising. Once you've tuned into that, you can pretty much toss the reference library.

It could also be that the Grape Place was the apotheosis of the hashish dream of the Kabul cowboys, a sort of paradise conjured into being by force of collective will that could not exist without being perfect and could not be perfect without everything that therein was. Given that, if Whitey was as tuned in as everyone thought he was, how could he not know it down to every last detail?

Now we're getting close to archetypes and unconscious collectives and coming right back round to that ol' debbil mental telepathy, hippie dreams for the Jung at heart.

Be that as it may, which it inevitably would, it falls to the reputable historian to record that the first and only occasion on which Whitey mated Barb took place the day he was handicapped by the first of many famous hash cookies (and certainly the mating was restricted to the board of chess, what could you have been thinking). The epic contest rolled on like Columbia through lunchtime and siesta, past the heat and on into tea-time, English tea-time that is: every hour was time for a glass of the Afghan brew. Spassky would have seen no threat to his title; Fischer, the terrible infant of world chess who actually was that threat at the time, would have dismissed the match in a heartbeat (if he had one); purists of every hue would have cried havoc, but dogged persistence wore Whitey's opponent down at last. In the first hour, they merely exchanged pawns; the next saw the slowest knight-for-bishop swap in recent recorded history, yet it remained inconclusive for it was followed, with all the headlong momentum of cooling lava, with the reverse bishop-for-knight, leaving each with one of each; in the fourth, Whitey forced the elimination of queens and edged his way to dominance, finally compelling Barb to let a pawn through to ascension. After that, though it took a while, the end was inevitable, even if his moves emerged through increasingly visible layers of fog, while hers by then were no quicker, being filtered through an endlessly looping clarity of desperation.

Blackie hung around, lackadaisically rolling smokes and occasionally monitoring the living sculpture developing suntans in the middle of the courtyard. Sometime in the early afternoon he took an executive decision and went on an extensive tour of the available housing arrangements. Pausing only briefly for nominal consultations with his distracted partner, he entered negotiations with Yusufi, establishing that they would take up residence on the next day, initially in a large room next door to the upstairs bathroom, with right of first refusal for the corner when it came free. Not incidentally, the languorous pace of the discussion, and his mate's association with everyone's favorite customer, recommended him to the manager as gentleman of quality. They exchanged civilities, cigarettes and compliments; at last they even told each other their names, just barely in time to close the conversation with ritual politesse and the promise of future discussion. It was an auspicious introduction, or so it seemed at the time.

Ed showed in the middle of the endgame, or perhaps at the end of the middle game (it was hard to tell), to be waved aside with an affectionate "Hi, there," a distracted kiss and an unanswerable, "Later."

So Ed and Blackie filled each other in on the missing days and established plans. They were joined in casual chatter by some Dutchman on his way west, not very sick, who told them tales of rural Nepal and promised adventures at every instant. Then he broke out a pack of cards, hailed a passing Swede, and engulfed them in an elementary game of Bridge that lasted till the Chess couple were finally packing it in.

All in all, it was as relaxing a time as any of them could remember.

More of the same seem more than merely called for. It seemed inexorable.