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 1

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Chapter one

"It fell?"

"Yeah, boss."

"From the ship's side?"

"Yeah, boss."

"Onto the quayside?"

"Yeah, boss."

"On its roof?"

"Yeah, boss."

"The Minister's new limousine?"

"Yeah, boss."

"Damn!"

James Davidson swore angrily, frustration and disappointment boiling up inside him. On the other side of the office, Amos Gbaggalo, monosyllabic pre-delivery inspector at M & M Motors, Ngombia's oldest vehicle distributorship cracked his knuckles nervously and wished fervently that he were elsewhere.

James glanced at his watch; twelve thirty on a Saturday. Tuehville Freeport would have closed for the weekend. The car, a birthday present for Minister Agamemnon Nautilus Nagbeh, Secretary of State for Commerce Industry and Transportation, would have to wait: not that it was likely to go anywhere.

"WAWA," James muttered to himself.

"Eh, boss?" Amos halted mid-crack.

James looked up.

"West Africa Wins Again, Amos." He explained. It always did, he thought to himself.

"Yeah, boss," Amos was shifting anxiously from one foot to the other, "I can go now?"

"Yes, Amos, you can go," James shrugged resignedly, "And thanks for letting me know. We'll go down and inspect the car on Monday."

Relieved, Amos backed cautiously out of the office. James set about tidying his desk, sweeping disorderly piles of paper into a drawer. He wondered what Rupert Mainwaring at Ngombia Insurance would say to this one; probably self-destruct on the spot. James pushed the drawer shut; Monday, he decided, was going to be bloody.

James walked out of the office, into the wall of heat that was the midday sun. Stifling, clammy humidity wrapped itself stickily around him as he hurried across the baking parking lot to his car. He'd promised Julie he'd meet her at the beach, but the roads were bound to be crowded. Amos had been muttering all morning about a demonstration; people were angry about rice prices, he'd said.

Through the palm trees he could see them, silhouettes against the sea. Little Lucy on the left, tiny Annie (Never Anne) on the right, Julie in the middle. Arms outstretched, they were holding hands.

James turned off the laterite track, nosing the car under a clump of palms by the beach, then sat with the engine and air-conditioning running, waiting for the swirling red-brown clouds of dust to settle. It was March, the Ngombian dry season was ending, and for weeks now the lush green vegetation along every roadside had been dulled with ochreous powder.

He opened the car door, stepping onto the brittle spiky remains of fallen palm fronds that lay like ancient grey sacking on the sand. The rains would soon be here, and the air was heavy with damp, hazy heat.

Julie looked up as he approached: face flushed with the heat, fair hair filled with sunlight, blue eyes enormous. She grinned happily.

"We've been practising Tigger jumps," She told him.

Lucy pointed to a weary-looking hibiscus twig stuck in the sand.

"That's Eeyore's thistle," She explained, "We bounce on it."

"Like this," Said Annie. She stumped up and down on the demoralised plant, humming happily to herself.

Julie reached down and lifted the lid of the coolbox beside her.

"Have a sandwich," She held up a foil-wrapped parcel, "I made you an egg one specially."

James took the package gratefully, settling himself down on the sand beside her.

"Thanks," He smiled.

"You're late," Julie observed mildly, "What kept you?"

"Crowds," Said James, kicking off his shoes, "Huge crowds on the way out of town." He wriggled out of his shirt, "Amos from the garage said they were demonstrating about rice prices, but it seemed more like a carnival to me." James began to unwrap his parcel, the foil glinting in the sunlight, "I could hear fireworks banging away like anything in the distance."

"Fireworks?" Julie was guddling around in the cool box, "In March?"

James shrugged.

"Maybe someone kept a supply of them from last November."

Julie located a bottle of lemonade and passed it over: still cold, its sides misted instantly with droplets of condensation.

"But why demonstrate about rice prices?" She asked, "The local newspaper said the president had ordered traders to reduce them."

"He did," James replied, "But he knows they can't; the real problem is his removal of the rice subsidy."

"Oh," Julie was poking around in the depths of the coolbox again: it came with them on every beach trip.

"I don't suppose it'll affect us very much," Her voice came muffled from under the lid, "The only time we ever eat the stuff is when somebody has a curry lunch. Ooh, goody!"

Squashed at the bottom of the coolbox, Julie had found the remains of most of a chocolate biscuit. She nestled sandily next to James, setting the fragments in a jumbly row on her small brown stomach.

A distant yell floated across the beach. Julie looked up, shading her eyes against the brilliant sunlight.

"There's Helen."

"And Tom," The shambolic shape was unmistakable.

Julie sat up, squinting in the afternoon glare. Helen was running, her feet flailing clumsily in the soft sand.

"She's in a hurry,"

They watched the angular figure's agitated approach. It seemed to take her an age to reach them.

"Julie," Helen gasped to a halt in a flurry of sand.

"James," She bent over with a stitch, fingernails digging into her knees as she tried to regain her breath.

"Julie," She began again, speaking to the sand, "Have you heard the radio?"

"No," There was an edge to Julie's voice, "Why?"

Helen managed to straighten upright, sweat-limp hair matted about her face.

"It said they're rioting in town."

"Rioting?" A sudden tic of concern tugged at Julie's cheek, "Who said?"

"The announcer did. He said everyone had to go to their homes; anyone seen on the streets would be shot." Helen was flapping her arms in agitation, "Oh, Julie," She wailed, "We could hear it; the soldiers are shooting people."

Julie turned to where James was busy doodling in the sand, not looking at her.

"Tell me, " She enquired sweetly, "What was it you were saying about fireworks?"

How it all began - long ago

Chapter two

James gazed, silently, through the plate-glass window of the Students' Union. Outside, he could see and hear the screeches, flashes and bangs as the rest of the world celebrated. Inside, the Guy-Fawkes hop was turning out to be just the same as any Saturday night. Along each wall, on chrome-legged black plastic chairs, girls huddled in clam-tight men-proof groups. In a far off corner, bathed in spotlights and sweat, this weeks group crashed out last years hits, drowning conversation and thought. At strategic sites around the hall, packs of male students smoked and drank with determined nonchalance, bellowing beer-fuddled banalities at one another through the din. Alone in one corner, James clung grimly to his half-pint of cider and wondered why he'd come. He peered gloomily into his drink, pondering upon the social Gobi desert into which he had somehow wandered and now found himself stranded.

Apart from a single brief and inconsequential encounter, James' first two years as a student had proven dismayingly devoid of romantic content. This year, his final one, promised to be no different. None of the girls on James' course had so far given any indication that his physical attractions differed significantly from those of the lecture-hall door-post. Had they been pushed, some might have recalled his height (six foot two), or possibly his build ('ramshackle' his bedroom mirror told him; 'slim' a kindly aunt had volunteered), or even his unruly dark brown hair. Few would have remembered, or even noticed, his light brown ('tawny', the aunt had said) eyes. His problem, James had confided to his aunt, was simple; he was boring: boring and shy. Nonsense, his aunt had said, rummaging valiantly through the collected wisdom of her forty-something maiden years for the right words, He was earnest, she had smiled triumphantly, Earnest and Dependable.

With a start, James awoke from his reverie: he looked around cautiously to see if anyone was watching.

Six or seven seats away a girl sat alone, unencumbered by friends. James slid his half-empty glass under a nearby chair and started to walk towards her. From nowhere, a circling predator swooped in, carrying his prey off to the hidden depths of the floor. James strode on, pretending not to notice, his gaze straight ahead. 'Wait until the end of the dance,’ He told himself, 'Ask her when she comes back to her seat.'

But she didn't come back to her seat; she stayed with her new-found partner for the next dance. And for the one after that.

James repeated his circuit. On impulse, he asked a girl in green. She giggled behind her hand to a friend beside her and shook her head. Flaming with embarrassment, James immediately asked the friend. She rose in silent acquiescence, furious at her second fiddle role, unwilling to remain a wallflower. She followed him to the centre of the floor. They danced wordlessly until the music ended.

"'Scuse me," She muttered, not looking at him. She returned to her seat and resumed her behind-hand conversation with her friend.

Dejected, James retrieved his glass from under its chair and sought anonymous refuge in the shadows by the emergency exit. He remained there, silently wondering why it was every male except him seemed capable of such easy conquests.

The clock on the wall opposite said a quarter to twelve. Just fifteen minutes and two inches of cider remained. James hesitated, wondering whether to slip out now, quietly, on his own, or wait and be swallowed by the anonymous crowds of the midnight exodus.

On impulse, determined to salvage something of the evening, he gulped the last of his drink and dived into the noise beyond. Striding past the knees, ignoring the dancers' flailing limbs, surging forward along the edge of the floor, he searched for somebody, anybody.

But there was nobody, only couples and clusters. He pressed on, despair gathering as he felt his resolution begin to fade. He slowed, eyes narrowing, trying to peer through the smoky gloom.

In the farthest corner, a blue and white striped matelot top was deep in animated conversation with a friend. James knew she hadn't been there before: he'd have noticed. His courage wavered; she was far, far too pretty to ask. Paralysis threatened, but desperation took command:

"Excuse me, would you like to dance?" Christ, he sounded so banal. Suddenly, blue eyes were looking up at him: enormous. His stomach fell a thousand feet. The matelot top bounced up, smiling: "Yes, please." Excitement knotted inside him. They danced; she chattered happily. Half a second later, the music stopped. "May I have the next one?" Blue eyes again; wide; laughing. "Mmm, yes." He couldn't believe it. Within moments, it was the last waltz: 'I'm hopeless at this' she warned him, 'I'll tread on your feet'. She did too, all over them, but he didn't care. You don't feel a thing when you're dancing on a cloud.

It was a two-mile trek back to her hall of residence. The top of her head came up exactly to his shoulder. She burbled contentedly all the way, now and then glancing up at him through her straw blonde fringe, eyes wide like a baby owl, never noticing his shyness. They stood outside the grim fortress that was her hostel, their breath steaming in the winter dark, and watched as a distant rocket climbed silently into the clear black sky.

"Like a trail of diamonds," She sighed, and leant her head against his arm, just a little, "Being pulled up into the night by some invisible thread."

James started to explain how fireworks really worked; about thrust and acceleration and important things like that.

"Oh," She said, her voice small with disappointment, "But that's not magic at all."

James felt he'd broken some sort of spell, but didn't know the words to mend it. Instead, he asked her if she'd like to come out the next Saturday, but not to the hop.

"Of course," She said, and buried her nose in the sleeve of his pullover for warmth.

James stood, stunned into silence.

"By the way," Her voice came woollily from the depths of his jumper, "I'm Julie."

"I'm James," He said, and knew he'd never wash his jumper again - ever.

Chapter three

She was everything that he knew himself not to be.

A butterfly, iridescent in the sunshine of youth, Julie flew before him, carefree, unfettered by the humdrummery of ordinariness. Entranced, captivated, and terrified of losing her, James plotted his desperate pursuit with napoleonic thoroughness, and all the spontaneity of a political manifesto.

Three months later, the butterfly settled beside him.

"Let's get married," She said.

And so they did.

On September 15th., she, only daughter of a retired and doting major, child of Indian hill stations and far off foreign lands, held out a tiny trusting finger for the ring that had been her grandmother's over half a century before. With surprising confidence, and enormous tenderness, he, son of a not very senior civil servant and product of prudence and suburbia, completed the timeless ritual.

"Well done, sprog," Julie's father glowed exuberantly pink at the reception afterwards, "Got yourself a good man there: pity he isn't putting in for a commission."

"She's a lovely girl, dear," James’ mother whispered in his ear, "Now just you look after her."

James was offered a job with a major vehicle manufacturer in the industrial North; Julie declined one in the South.

"If we're going to have a proper family," She told him, "It's your career that needs to be fostered." She reached up to adjust an imaginary tie. "I'm proud of you," She smoothed an invisible lapel, "My market analyst."

"Trainee," He corrected.

"Not for long," She said.

With surprising shyness, and a lot of hrrrumphing, Julie's father stumped up a modest deposit on an old semidetached greystone house ('Posted overseas all our lives, Deirdre and me. Lived off our allowances, most of the time. Saved a bit over the years. No sense in just sitting and counting it. Ought to be put to good use.'). James thought it was one of the nicest gestures anyone had ever made.

They moved in soon after New Year, with three chairs, a gate-leg table, and a magnificently impractical brass bedstead. That first night, they ate their supper in front of the living room fire; the floorboards were bare, winter winds howled down off the moors, and the ancient sash windows rattled and thumped in their worn wooden frames. Their faces glowed and their backs froze, but it was home. Julie was ecstatic.

That night they climbed under the blankets, the aged bedsprings twanging in protest. They lay there, waiting for warmth, listening to the wind outside.

"You know," Julie mumbled in the darkness, "We should call this bed Ben."

"Ben?"

"As in 'Big'."

Julie slid across in the dark, parking herself against him. Far below them, there was a muted clanging.

"See?" She said.

Julie snuggled closer; James wound his arm around her.

"'Ben'," She murmured into his pyjama sleeve, "I like that; it’s like having an old friend."

James squeezed her gently; his chin brushed against her ear and her hair tickled his nose. She wriggled contentedly, cosy and warm.

Ben clanked happily.

Lucinda Stephanie Davidson was born on October 31st.

"Happy Halloween, Lucy," Said James, "One day you shall have your very own pumpkin."

"Don't you think her initials are just a little bit, well, mercenary dear?" James' mother still hadn't accepted the new-fangled decimalisation of money, and clung determinedly to £, s and d.

Julie's father harrumphed loudly from the other side of the hospital bed. Bursting with pride, he wasn't quite sure what to say; it had never really occurred to him that his daughter knew about things like having babies.

Winter passed, and with it went James' 'trainee' prefix. Project complexities grew and, as they did, so did travel and time away from home. By the end of summer, James was regularly away for two or three nights in a row. In October, he narrowly missed being away for Lucy's first birthday.

The trips continued, without let up, on through the grey and cheerless chill of a second winter and into a colourless northern spring. Unwilling to break her promise of support, Julie didn't fight, or even complain; she just seemed to lose her sparkle; like a glass of lemonade forgotten at a party. Aware of Julie's unhappiness, but uncertain how to handle it, James found it increasingly easy to immerse himself in his work. Summer came, and Julie remained politely interested in his job, but James knew the old thrill and excitement had gone.

In July, a particularly gruelling schedule pushed aside their hoped-for holiday like some malevolent, invisible bulldozer. Julie's patience finally snapped.

"James," She demanded, "You have got to take a break."

"How can I?" His arm swept over the piles of paper spread across the dining room table.

"Just tell them you need to take a holiday before your effectiveness suffers," She eyed him firmly, "And don't just tell them sometime soon; give them definite dates."

"OK," James knew she was right, "You win; when would you like to go?"

They went in September.

Two sets of delighted grandparents were given an entire week each in which to look after and outrageously spoil what was for all of them their first, and so far only grandchild.

James and Julie spent their third wedding anniversary flat out on the quiet, late summer beaches of Corfu. For the first time in many months, they were happy.

Five weeks after their return, on the eve of Lucy's second birthday, Julie announced that she was pregnant again.

The pressures of work were quick to reassert themselves. James sensed that he was being noticed by others, senior to himself, and he liked it. Excitement spurred him on. He found it easier to justify extended trips and longer hours. As a third winter ground on, and Julie's pregnancy advanced, so she seemed to withdraw increasingly into a world of her own; a world that embraced Lucy and the coming baby, but from which James knew himself to be excluded. He found he preferred it that way; he didn't feel so guilty.

On the twenty third of May, at three in the afternoon of a day when Spring was cheerfully handing over to Summer, Anne Belinda arrived, ten days early. James was in Bristol, and didn't reach the hospital until late that evening. Julie was absorbed with her new creation, and seemed almost not to notice James's belated arrival and nervous presence.

"Annie," Julie spoke to the bundle in her arms, "This is your father."

James leant closer, peering cautiously at his new daughter.

"Hallo Anne," He said.

"Annie," Said Julie firmly, "Never Anne: it’s old-fashioned."

"She's lovely," He offered tentatively. She was, and he meant it. He just didn't sound right.

"Mmm," Julie smiled wistfully, "She is, isn't she?" She gazed down at the shawled bundle in her arms, "But, sometimes, I wish….."

Her voice tailed away.

James sat silent, waiting, not sure what to say

"Sometimes," Julie was talking to Annie again, not him, "I just wish that your father could be with us a little more."

An invisible curtain seemed to draw itself around Julie, silent and unseen but impenetrable as steel. James wished he could break through, wished he could sweep his wife and daughter up in his arms and carry them away: there were so many things he longed to tell her. But he couldn't find the actions, couldn't say the words. Instead, he hovered uncertainly, unsure whether to stay or leave.

It was evening when he did eventually manage to drag himself away. He edged down the ward and backed through the swing doors at the end, waving hesitantly to where Julie's small silhouette was melting softly into the lengthening shadows: she seemed very far away.

James drove back home slowly, confused by the mixture of emotions jumbling through his mind, wondering how it was that he could feel proud and happy, yet sad and guilty, all at the same time. Lucy was staying with the next door neighbour, and the house was gloomy and empty. He poured himself a generous Scotch with very little water, opened his briefcase, and sought refuge in his field reports.

Chapter four

Annie was two years old when James was offered promotion to International Markets Analyst.

"The job," Bill Haslam, marketing director, spoke bluntly, "Is a good one, but the away time is lousy. Have a word with your wife before you decide."

Julie listened as James outlined the offer; behind his careful restraint, she could hear the excitement in his voice. She was silent for a moment after he'd finished.

"Would you be away a lot?" She asked.

"About two weeks a month; maybe three sometimes." There was no point in pretending otherwise.

"Oh," Julie’s voice was small, "Oh," She said, "I see."

She sat on the couch by the big bay window, twisting gently at her engagement ring on her left hand; summer sunlight glinted from its stones.

"How long would it go on for?" She stared at her fingers, "Would it be for years and years?"

"I don't know," He tried to be as honest as he could, "It might be."

Julie was silent for a while.

"We have a family now," She said, "Children need a father; not just a name that pays the bills."

"I know," Conflicting emotions flooded James' mind: excitement over his promotion; disappointment that it could not be shared.

"They're not babies any more," Julie went on, "They'd miss you."

James sat in silent helplessness, watching as Julie twisted at her rings again. Eventually, quietly, she spoke, not looking at him.

"I'd miss you," she whispered.

That night, James dreamt. He dreamt of themselves; on a cruise ship full of bright lights and activity, Julie vibrant with excitement and anticipation. Suddenly, in the middle of their journey, the scene changed. He stood at the ship’s rail, watching as a lifeboat was lowered seawards: it was empty, save for Julie. He didn't know why the ship was leaving her behind, and no-one would tell him. She sat, alone and frightened, her eyes pleading silently with him to come with her; but he couldn't; the pull of the ship's bright lights and the excitement of the journey were too strong. He watched, torn, helpless, as the boat was cast off and drifted away. He saw Julie raise a tiny sail and try to follow, but she could not possibly keep up. He called desperately to her, but his ship surged on, unheeding, confident of its unknown destination. He watched as Julie fell further and further astern until, eventually, in the distance, he saw her give up and lower her sail. He could hardly see her but, far away as she was, he knew she was crying. She sat, very small, utterly alone, gazing after his ship until it was lost to view.

The Directory of International Dealerships covered all third world territories, and listed key personnel and market statistics for what it euphemistically termed "External Markets". It was one hundred and fifty two pages long.

"The markets are tiny," Said Bill, "And distributors find it almost impossible to recruit decent staff. Any local national with a reasonable education is either in politics, or making millions in business, or both."

Employing westerners was expensive, and often difficult. Competent men young enough to adapt were too busy chasing careers at home, or were scared of not being able to get back into the mainstream when they returned.

"And most of the older men," Bill explained, "Are too set in their ways to handle the culture shock of a first tour."

'Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon...’ Vague pictures born of childhood geography lessons flitted through James' mind; 'Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Gabon...’ He wondered who the people were and what their lives were like; 'Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia...’ At least they didn't have to travel the globe and leave their families; 'Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Ngombia...’ He put the images aside. They were back in five minutes. 'Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone...’ They came and went a hundred times that morning; insistent; persistent; ever more intriguing. He sifted idly through the directory, noting the occasional British name under 'Key Personnel'. 'Just out of curiosity,' He told himself; he wasn't seriously thinking about it.

"Fancy living in Ngombia?" James joked across the table after dinner that evening.

Julie's eyes widened.

"In West Africa?" She asked.

"Christ!" He was dumbfounded, "Where'd you ever hear of the place?"

Julie smiled Cheshire Cat inscrutable.

"You forgot, my darling," She told him, "I grew up overseas; the expatriate community's a very small one - everybody knows somebody who's been somewhere."

She poured him a fresh cup of coffee. Somehow, James knew that, far off, Julie had scented landfall and safety in her sea of uncertainty.

"Now, my dear," She murmured, "How was the office?"

It all took much longer than James had expected; letters needed over a week to travel by airmail, and correspondence dragged on interminably. In August, he was invited down to London for an initial interview ('fits in with our home leave schedule', he was told), then another meeting three weeks later. The second time, they'd asked him to bring Julie as well. After that, all went silent.

At the end of October, Lucy had her fourth birthday; it was a Saturday. Julie was trying to extract Annie's fingers from a wedge of cake when the phone rang.

"Probably Mary from the playgroup." Julie went to answer.

"Yes? Oh, hallo, Mr. Sanders," She clutched the receiver, frowning with concentration, "Yes, of course I remember you. James? Yes, he's here; just a minute."

"For you," Julie handed James the phone, sticky with icing and cake crumbs, "George Sanders."

"Mr. Davidson?" James was surprised at how clear the line was. "Mr. Davidson? George Sanders here, M & M Motors in Ngombia. We'd like to offer you a job."

Instalment 2

 
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Please remember that all the stories are Copyright© 2000 Jan Luthman, and must not be copied, distributed or incorporated in other works without my prior written consent.
In particular, they should not be passed off as original works by any other person.

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