The Old Farmhouse
The Old Farmhouse

If He Should Lose His Own Soul
by Jan Luthman

A full-length book in sixteen weekly instalments for grown ups

Instalment 8

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Chapter twenty four

It was pouring when Charles stopped by James' office. He pulled out a chair and sat down, drops of rain glistening in the nest of his tightly curled hair.

"Thought you'd want to know," He said, "Mayor Digbeh liked the signs. He's processing an order."

Just like that: no drums, no trumpets. James was amazed at the matter-of-fact tone of Charles' voice.

"He said we could pick it up at the end of next week."

It seemed an appropriate time to quit M&M.

Julie was very upset.

"I never thought you'd really leave," She said, "I thought it was all just a bit of a day-dream."

"We've already got our first order in process, and there are lots more waiting to be picked up."

"Are there?" She asked, "Are there, James? Or will you just be chasing rainbows?"

He didn't know; but he did know he wanted to find out.

"And we'll have to leave this house, won't we?" Julie pursued relentlessly, miserably.

"Yes," Not since Bill Haslam had offered him promotion, all those years ago, had James felt so desperately torn. "I'm sorry, we would. The house goes with my job."

Julie was suddenly very subdued; there really wasn't any more to say.

"I shall miss it," She was near to tears, "It's been a lovely home."

George was disappointed, but wished James well.

"I'm sorry you're leaving, but I won't try to stop you," He shook James' hand, "You can buy me a beer when you've made your first million. Meantime, I'd appreciate it if you'd make one last bush trip; the rainy season's about to start, and it'll be months before we're able to visit the logging camps again."

James could hardly refuse.

The red-brown dusty road was strewn with small heaps of green-leaved branches, the universal bush signal for an accident. James slowed to a cautious crawl as he rounded the bend.

The laterite highway widened slightly, the bush on either side giving way to a clearing within which clustered a tiny, nameless hamlet of half-a-dozen mud huts. By the edge of the road stood an empty tractor-trailer unit; underneath the trailer's rear axle a white Peugeot saloon lay buried up to its windscreen. On the ground nearby lay an inert form, a small group huddled around it. James knew instantly who it was.

"Christ!" He skidded to a halt, "Steve!"

James leapt from the car and ran back across the gravelly, wash-boarded road. He squatted next to where Steven Harrison lay, motionless but clearly conscious. There were no obvious signs of damage.

"What happened, Steve?"

Steven turned his head slowly.

"My own fault," He said, "Couldn't see the thing for dust. I should have hung back, but I was in a hurry." He grimaced, "Lucky I missed the pole, or I'd have lost my head as well."

"Do you know where you're hurt?" Asked James.

"Sure," Steven winced, "It's my bleeding back." Steven's face was pallid under its dry-season tan; beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and upper lip. He was clearly in considerable pain. "Do me a favour, James, will you? Pinch my legs."

"Pinch your legs?"

"I don't mean steal them, idiot," Steven’s exclamation ended in a gasp of pain, "I need to know if I can still feel them."

James pinched, hard.

"Bloody hell! Not that hard, you bugger!" Steven grinned, tight-lipped, "At least my back's not broken."

James scratched his head.

"If we try and get you in the car, we'll probably do you some serious damage."

"How about calling your office on your radio and asking them to have a taxi plane sent up?"

"Where'd it land, Steve? There isn't a strip within twenty miles."

"There's bloody miles of strip right in front of us," Steven winced as another spasm of pain knifed through him.

"Eh?" James looked around him, "Where?"

"The bloody road, man."

The rutted, pitted laterite track stretched straight for perhaps three hundred yards in one direction, slightly more in the other. Apart from the little clearing surrounding the group of huts, the road was hemmed in on either side by great banks of trees.

"It's easy," Said Steven, "The pilots do it all the time."

James rose to his feet; he hoped Steven was right.

"And James," From where he lay, Steven cracked a small, thin grin, "Could you ask them to make it just a tiny bit speedy? I'm not exactly comfortable, you know."

James touched Steven's shoulder briefly, and sprinted back to his car.

It was nearly three hours before the plane appeared overhead. The villagers, clearly familiar with such events, had already blocked the road at each end of the straight stretch with great armfuls of green-leaved branches. There was an approving waggle of the plane's wingtips.

James watched, fascinated, as the tiny craft came in over the tree tops, flaps full down, rocking and slipping in the warm-air turbulence. As soon as it cleared the last of the trees, the plane dropped like a stone, bouncing hard as its wheels hit the road. It bounced twice more, roaring past them in a cloud of dust before coming to a halt, seemingly just inches from the massive wall of forest at the far end. It turned and taxied back towards them. James was amazed; the plane seemed so very much bigger than the space available.

Loading Steven on board proved exasperatingly difficult. James and the pilot lashed him to a plank, but the plane had never been intended for use as an ambulance craft and the wing struts kept on getting in the way. Several times they very nearly dropped him. The bindings held, but Steven was obviously suffering. Eventually, they removed the plane's rear seats and slid Steven and his board in diagonally across the floor.

"Good luck!" Yelled James.

Steven grinned; he was on his way.

"Thanks, James," He said, "I owe you one," He winked, "I'll not forget."

Chapter twenty five

James found a furnished house on Banda Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the main road out of town.

"It's not as nice as our real home," Lucy glared at the white bungalow with its flaking paintwork and overgrown garden.

"It's got a lovely big verandah," Julie tried to be loyally cheerful, "We'd to be able to sit out in the evening; or have breakfast there on weekends."

They went inside, wandering disconsolately from room to lifeless room.

"It doesn't have any big toy cupboards like home does." Annie clutched her ageing and well-worn elephant protectively.

"The kitchen's next to the dining room," Said Julie helpfully, "No corridor, just a swing door; that should make dinners easier."

Puddle sniffed suspiciously at a very large, very dead spider crumpled crisply on the floor under the kitchen table. The husk of an equally ancient cockroach lay on its back in the dusty bottom of the sink.

"It does seem a little bit gloomy inside," Julie confided in James' ear, "And it smells a bit damp. Do you think it's just the rainy season?"

James' shoulders drooped dispiritedly; he wondered if he was making a terrible mistake.

George Sanders let James have the use of Moses the chief gardener and the maintenance pickup all weekend to shift their belongings across town.

"Where on earth did it all come from?" Julie gazed at the mountain of personal possessions crammed in to the back of the truck.

"Years of being a family," Said James.

He was amazed at how quickly their old home had become just a place where they once lived. He checked through each of the rooms, searching for any items they might have overlooked. It all felt incredibly forlorn.

He locked the front door and walked down the steps.

"Here, Moses," James handed the key through the window of the pickup, "Please give this to Mr. Sanders."

"Yeah, boss." Moses grinned and rattled off up the drive, his precious cargo swaying alarmingly. James opened the doors of his car.

"Come on, folks," He beckoned them, "Time to go."

They swept up the gravel driveway, Lucy and Annie kneeling on the back seat, Puddle between them, staring out of the rear window.

"Bye, house."

Julie sat quietly, too upset to say anything.

"It's me, Helen; I saw your car. What are you up to in our neck of the woods?"

Immaculate pink trouser suit, pearl-pink nails flashing in the afternoon sun, makeup still fresh and unmuddied by sweat, Helen stood at the kitchen door, bristling with hair lacquer and curiosity.

"Come in, Helen," Julie rubbed the palms of her filthy hands on her filthy jeans, "We're unpacking."

"Oooh," Helen’s appraising eyes traversed the empty shelves, the half-unpacked crates on the floor, the crockery and kitchenware stacked on top of the table, "Are you moving in?"

"That's right," Julie lifted a pile of plates off the table.

"Why?" Helen slid into one of the kitchen chairs; her fingers trailed along the table top, "Has James lost his job with M&M?" She inspected the grime on her fingertips.

"No," Julie lowered herself onto one knee and pushed the plates into a floor-level cupboard, "He's starting his own business."

"Whatever for?"

"I think he felt," Julie climbed back up off the floor, wiping her grime-covered hands on her jeans again, "That he wanted an achievement in his life."

"Any idea which box the bedclothes got packed in?" James's voice preceded him into the kitchen, "Oh," He said as he rounded the door.

"James," Julie pushed back a stray strand of hair with a dust-caked hand; a large brown smudge appeared on her forehead, "Helen came to say hallo."

"Hallo Helen," James tried unsuccessfully to conceal the non-enthusiasm in his voice, "How nice to see you."

Helen nodded brief acknowledgement from her chair beside the kitchen table. James surveyed the scene.

"Cup of tea?" He suggested.

"Thank you James," Helen dug herself in behind the parapet of unpacked crockery, "That would be very nice of you."

At least, thought James, there was now no need for them to send out change-of-address notices.

Charles and James decided to call themselves AAA Inc.

"That way we get to be on page one of every directory."

"What's it stand for?"

"Anglo-African Acquisitions."

"Or Americo-African."

"It's an adaptable name."

They found themselves an office of ample space and remarkably low cost.

"Why's it so cheap, Charles?"

"Nobody told the guy who built it that the water table is just below the surface. It floods every rainy season."

"So how do we keep the water out?"

"The doorways have high thresholds."

Tuehville Central Bank served as Ngombia's principal bank for the simple reason that it was also the country's only bank, and it was there that Charles and James presented the Mayor's order together with their supplier's quotation.

The Manager for Foreign Transactions eyed the documentation without enthusiasm.

"Your supplier requires a confirmed irrevocable letter of credit," He observed, "That means that it is this bank that would have the ultimate obligation to pay your supplier."

"But we'll be paying you," Said James, "As soon as the mayor pays us."

The official smiled patiently, patronisingly. Unctuous servility and supercilious condescension oozed from every oily pore, and his lank, straightened black hair clung limply to his grease-filmed forehead. He looked as if he should dwell in dark places. 'Dipstick', James decided he would call the man: he didn't trust him an inch.

"Mr. Davidson," Explained Dipstick, "We have much experience of Government payment procedures. They are not always entirely straightforward."

James knew that.

"Mr Davidson, what would happen if the payment to you were delayed, or if there were some dispute and the payment were never made?" Dipstick spread his hands expressively, "Such things do happen."

James knew that too.

"Perhaps," Dipstick offered solicitously, "You could persuade the mayor to open his own L/C?"

"Letter of Credit? Nah," Charles intervened, "The government hardly ever opens L/C's. If the mayor did that, he'd raise every eyebrow in the country."

"Then," Dipstick was firm, "We should need sufficient collateral from yourselves to cover the full amount: just in case things should go wrong."

James turned and whispered to Charles.

"You feel like putting your house on the line for the mayor?"

"Uh, uh; no way man," Charles didn't like the idea at all, "I worked hard for my home. I ain't about to lose it."

So near yet so far. They had the order, but couldn't accept it because the government was a lousy credit risk.

"WAWA," James muttered despondently as they headed for the exit.

"The hell with WAWA," Charles stomped off towards his car, "You only get one crack at an OAU in a lifetime, and I ain't about to let no WAWA business mess me up."

"Where are you off to, Charles?"

"I'm off," He called over his shoulder, "For a drink and a think."

"A think about what?"

"About how we can do business with no money."

"That's easy," Said James dejectedly, "We can't."

"Bullshit, man," Charles pronounced over the roof of his car, "All we need is customers who pay cash with order."

"Oh, hah, very funny," Said James bitterly, "You know they never do; that’s impossible."

"Ain't no impossible in Ngombia," Said Charles easily, "Just needs sufficient inducement."

"Sufficient inducement?"

"Yeah," Charles opened the door of his car, ready to go, "You know what I mean."

"Yes, Charles," James sighed, "I know exactly what you mean; I also know that, right now, we don't even have enough to induce a barman to sell us a beer."

James went home, more depressed than at any time in his life. Julie took one look at his dejected form, and decided not to say that she'd told him so.

Chapter twenty six

A particularly large cockroach was clinging to the kitchen wall.

"Let's take the childen to the cinema," Julie gave the creature a determined blast with her aerosol can, "Take your mind off things."

James glared malevolently at the cockroach; its legs were beginning to wobble.

"Why not?" He shrugged, "We could catch the early evening show."

Julie gave another quick puff from her can.

"We could treat ourselves to a hamburger as well," She said.

"Go down with flags flying, eh?"

The cockroach dropped with a thud on to the counter top; it lay there, on its back, its legs twitching. Julie swept it over the edge, into the bin below.

James drove down Horatio Kingsley Street; dusk was falling. Businesses had closed for the day, but it was still too early for Tuehville's bustling nightlife; there was little traffic. A light rain was falling, and the streets glistened black in the gathering gloom.

The traffic lights at the intersection with Sekou Toure Avenue ahead gleamed green, as they had done for as long as anyone could remember. James cruised comfortably past the rows of small stores, his window open. One of the minor compensations of the wet season was the relative coolness of the evenings and the relief from relentless air-conditioning.

Gertie Garbo truck number seven was behind schedule; the crew had had a particularly lucrative afternoon delving amongst the garbage cans of the U.S. embassy compound, and were heading back to base in high spirits.

They clattered happily down Sekou Toure Avenue towards the junction with Horatio Kingsley Street. The light at the intersection ahead shone red, as it always did. Clad in his bright yellow jersey, hardly worn and fresh from the commercial attaché’s bin, Gertie's driver reached into his shirt pocket for a well-earned cigarette.

James was halfway across Sekou Toure when he saw the truck; it seemed to leap from nowhere. He felt it hammer into them; right behind his seat. The car spun viciously, slewing wildly across the rain-slicked intersection, crunching sideways against the opposite pavement, jolting to a halt.

For several seconds, there was silence; deafening silence. Dazed, James sat clinging to the steering wheel, trying desperately to collect his thoughts; he did not feel hurt. He opened his door and climbed out; the car seemed to end at the rear wheels, the tail almost severed by the impact.

'Christ!' He thought, 'The children.'

He grabbed the handle of the rear door and tore it open; inside, huddled together on the back seat, Lucy and Annie stared out at him; they were unhurt, but white as sheets.

"Daddy!" Lucy screamed, eyes dilated with horror, "You're bleeding!"

James felt something running down his cheeks and the back of his neck. He stared down at himself; blood was pouring from somewhere, soaking his shirtfront and sleeves, running in thin scarlet rivulets across the backs of his hands, dripping onto his trouser legs. He reached up, feeling carefully as he went. In the midst of sodden, matted hair, his fingers found the gash; it felt enormous. He must have hit his head on the window frame; he could feel no pain.

"Daddy!" Lucy's wail was desperate in its childish helplessness, "Do something!"

From nowhere, a crowd had appeared, clustering in fascination about the scene of the accident. A policeman pushed his way through the ranks of jostling, chattering onlookers.

"Your head is hurt, man. You need hospital." He peered inside the car, "Dammit! You got family inside." He whirled round, storming across the street to where Gertie's driver stood anxiously beside his truck.

"You crazy?" He flew at the driver, "There's small children in there! You almost killed them! Ain't you seen the light was red?" Livid, he hauled his riot stick from its holster, gesticulating wildly.

With frightening rapidity, the mood of the bystanders began to change. Taking their cue from the policeman, the crowd started to murmur, and then to shout. Several of them started to close in on the truck. Sensing danger, the driver tried to back away, his expression bewildered and anxious. He took just two steps before he found himself pressed against the door of the vehicle.

Furious with self-righteous indignation, the policeman was jabbing his riot stick at the driver's stomach, shouting and yelling as he shoved his victim back against the door of his truck. The surrounding throng, no longer mere onlookers, were becoming agitated, their mood darkening with every thrust of the truncheon.

Through a haze of confusion and shock, James saw the events unroll. They seemed unreal, a long way away; he heard no sound.


Julie's voice cut through the fog like a knife.

"James!" She was almost in tears, "James, do something! They'll kill him!"

The fog was gone. James stumbled forward towards the crowd.

"Wait!" He shouted, "Wait!" But no-one heard.

James could catch only intermittent glimpses of the blue uniform amongst the milling, agitated throng. He reached out and placed his hand on the shoulder of the nearest person.

"Wait, please," He urged. The man turned and saw James, drenched from head to waist in blood. He stepped aside, grabbing his neighbour; silence fell like a blanket across the crowd. Several paces in front, the policeman had stopped frozen, staring at James. Behind the policeman, James could see the driver clinging to the door of his truck, his wide, frightened eyes flicking fearfully from side to side. He was very young, barely out of his teens; across the top of his left eyebrow, there was a scar; crescent shaped, it stood out pale grey against the black of his skin.

"It was not his fault." James could feel blood running steadily down the back of his neck; it was sticky and uncomfortable.

"Not his fault?" The policeman was confused, unwilling to let his anger go.

"I knew the lights were broken; I should have stopped first. I didn't wait."

"But his light was red," The policeman's voice was indignant with disbelief, "He should have stopped."

"We were both wrong," James was beginning to feel weary again, "It was not all his fault." He saw the driver staring at him; incredulous.

Quite suddenly, James felt very tired indeed. He swayed his eyes closed, unable to say more. He felt his legs buckle beneath him and, abruptly and without ceremony, he sat down in the middle of the road. He looked up, surprised; he opened his mouth as if to speak, but the words would not come.

The last thing he heard as he folded over onto the cold wet tarmac was Lucy screaming; far, far away.

Instalment 9

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