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 11

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Chapter thirty four

"Nyamplu?"

The line was fuzzy; much too fuzzy to be an overseas call. It had to be local.

"Nyamplu, Sharman here."

"Yes, Mr Sharman," It had been nearly two months since Charles and James had met him.

"How about a spot of lunch?"

"Today?"

"If you and your colleague are not too busy."

Charles would have rescheduled St. Peter for this.

"We'd be delighted," He said.

"Shall we say Sabbatini's? Twelve thirty?"

It wasn't really a question.

"We'll be there."

A magnificent Thuyawood Dunhill humidor, glowing softly with the warm patina of years of patient polish, its splendidly knotted grain twisting and turning like that of an exotic Walnut. Three exquisite crystal brandy balloons, sunlight dancing in iridescent points of fire along their rims, a pool of golden nectar within each one. Such were a part of the pleasures of Sabbatini's.

Aloysius had eaten slowly, savouring his food with careful pleasure, his conversation deliberately confined to social small-talk. There was plenty of time; one did not hurry a Sabbatini meal.

Aloysius lifted the lid of the humidor, breathing in the gentle bouquet of cedar wood and Havana leaf, seeming not to notice the aching impatience of his guests. From the serried ranks of cigars before him he withdrew one, fingering it gently, feeling its firm-packed weight. He clipped the end, rolling the rich brown cylinder deftly as the waiter lit the end for him. He puffed contentedly for a minute or so, before reaching inside his jacket.

"Something that may be of interest to you two," Aloysius withdrew a small sheaf of typewritten pages and passed them across the table. Charles shunted them on to James.

"You're quicker," He said, "You tell me what it all says."

James read, as fast as he dared. Aloysius waited, watching, a gentle trickle of blue smoke curling upward from the corner of his mouth.

"Well?" Demanded Charles, bristling with curiosity.

"It's an agreement," Said James.

"Draft agreement," Corrected Aloysius.

"It's a draft agreement," James started again, "Between the government of Ngombia and AAA"

"That's us," Said Charles, pleased with himself.

"Indeed it is," Aloysius murmured.

"And two sub-agreements," James slid the pages from one hand to the other, "One between AAA and an outfit called Administrative Services of Luxembourg,"

"That's me," Aloysius was inspecting the inch of fine grey ash on the tip of his cigar.

"The other," James continued, "Between Administrative Services and something called Prendergast Procurement of the Cayman Islands."

"That's the President."

"O.K., O.K.," Charles held up both hands, "We have three agreements; would one of you guys please tell me what they agree to?"

Aloysius had decided that his ash was a modicum too long; he leant forward and tapped it, very gently, into the crystal ashtray in front of him.

"They agree," Aloysius spoke evenly, quietly, imperturbable as ever, "To pay all of us a very great deal of money."

The Farm to Market project was going ahead, Aloysius told them, with AAA as the official purchasing agent of the Ngombian government. The technical details, he said, could be explained later. The main point was that deliveries were to commence as soon as practicable but, since local resources would be totally overwhelmed by a single consignment of this magnitude, shipments were to be phased over a period of approximately twelve months.

"AAA," Said Aloysius, "Will shortly be advised by its bank that a series of irrevocable letters of credit have been established in its favour." He was quite clearly feeling monstrously pleased with himself; after years lying dormant, the thrill of the kill had been reawakened, "Payments to AAA will be effected against presentation of shipping documents."

Charles and James sat silent, stunned. It was several minutes before James spoke.

"Are we allowed to ask how you managed to persuade the president to agree to the Farm to Market project?"

"I just reminded him," Aloysius told them, "That the project coincided precisely with one of the principal aims of the Organisation for African Unity."

"Which is?"

"The development and restructuring of agriculture on the African continent."

"I told you about that," Charles whispered in James' ear, "At Willie's; remember?"

Aloysius glared Charles into silence,

"Since the OAU regards agricultural development as a priority," He went on, "Implementation of the Farm to Market project would provide the president with substantial prestige in the eyes of visiting heads of state."

"Whilst also providing a cover story that would allow the U.S. government to pay for a chunk of his OAU costs," James interrupted.

Aloysius shrugged.

"A not inconsiderable side benefit," He acknowledged.

There was a pause; Aloysius flagged the hovering waiter for a second round of brandy.

"I did also mention," He continued, "That there was little point in his approving the Farm-to-Market project unless rice farmers could sell their produce at a profit - which they can't do at present."

A small alarm was sounding at the back of James' mind.

"You mean," He interrupted, "Rice prices would have to rise."

"Precisely," Aloysius, "Subsidies would have to end."

"People in Tuehville won't like that."

"No," Acknowledged Aloysius, "They won't. Prices will double."

"Goddam!" Growled Charles, "They'll go wild. How come the president agreed to something like that?"

"Because," Said Aloysius, "He and his family bought a hundred thousand acres of abandoned paddy land first."

"Cheap, I suppose?"

"Very cheap," Acknowledged Aloysius, "It was worthless."

"I'll bet it was," Said James; there was a trace of bitterness in his voice, "But it won't be when rice prices rise."

Aloysius exhaled a gentle cloud of light blue cigar smoke.

"I believe," He observed placidly, "That is what you white people call WAWA."

Charles drove carefully; the second brandy on top of wine and aperitifs was proving troublesome. James sat beside him, scribbling furiously. He wished there were a quicker way to do arithmetic.

"Charles," He said at last.

"Yeah?" Charles eyes were screwed tight with concentration on the road, "What?"

"I just worked out that I owe George Sanders a pack of beers."

It was better than that, James thought to himself. By the time the last consignment had been shipped, he would owe George flagons of the stuff. He relaxed back into his seat and closed his eyes, a small, satisfied smile playing across his mouth. This time it was different; it wasn't excitement that he felt surging through his veins.

It was power.

The following Friday, the SS Amazonia, eleven days out of Baltimore and with Agamemnon Nautilus Nagbeh's new birthday present safely stowed in its forward hold, docked at Tuehville Freeport.

"The ship discharges tomorrow morning," James told Julie after supper that evening, "I've arranged for Amos Gbagalo, my old pre-delivery inspector at M&M, to keep an eye on the limousine as it gets offloaded."

Julie poured a second cup of tea and slid it across the table to James.

"I was going to take Lucy and Annie to AMEN beach in the morning," She said, "Couldn't you come as well? It would do you good to get away from the hassle and get some fresh air in your lungs."

James wavered; Julie was right, it would do him good.

"We were going to take some sandwiches and have a picnic," She smiled, "I could make some egg ones specially for you."

Egg sandwiches: James was sorely tempted. :

"I really wish I could," He pushed himself up from the table, "But I promised Charles I'd be around in case Amos calls."

Julie sighed resignedly: a promise to Charles was set in steel.

"When will you be finished?" She asked.

"Lunchtime," He said, "I'll see you at the beach."

And so - back to the present

Chapter thirty five

Julie was prodding James with her toe.

"What was it," She enquired sweetly, "You were saying about fireworks?"

From behind, they heard Helen explode in exasperation

"But they weren't fireworks," She wailed, her hands flailing against her thighs in agitation, "They were shots: we heard them; they were real shots."

"Of course they were real," Julie waved a dismissive hand at the still-doodling James, "Come and help me find the children, then we can sit down and have a think."

Together, she and Helen prised a protesting Lucy and Annie out of the bushes where they'd been poking sticks into a massive nest of furious red ants. The four of them grouped themselves around where James sat.

"O.K., clever clogs," Demanded Julie, "Now what do we do?"

James was thinking hard, anxious not to put a second dent in his image as the font of family wisdom.

"Maybe we should listen to the radio," He suggested cautiously, "If I brought the car down to the edge of the beach, we could hear if there were any announcements."

Tom hove to.

"Hallo all," He waved a group greeting, "Isn't this exciting?"

And in a strange way, it was. An indefinable sense of drama had charged the air; James could already feel the invisible bonds of adversity drawing the group together. It was almost pleasurable.

James and Tom parked their cars nose to tail, parallel to the beach, doors open, both radios switched on.

"Quadrasonic riots," Said Tom.

There was no news; just classical music with breaks every ten minutes or so for an announcement that never varied in its crude, stark brevity.

"This is NBC, Ngombia Broadcasting Corporation. The government of Ngombia instructs all persons to remain off the streets. Everyone is to go to their homes. Anyone seen in the streets will be shot."

In a little patch of shade at the foot of two palm trees, they sat and listened; two couples out for a picnic on the beach; two small children playing in the sand. Above them, the dark green fronds lifted gently in the soft afternoon breeze. Far out to sea, distant waves flashed and glittered in the brilliance of the sun that flamed from a cloudless blue sky. Julie raised a corner of the lid of her coolbox and peered inside.

"Drink, anyone?" She asked, "There are four left."

Six miles away, the heart was being torn out of Tuehville.

"I think," Said James eventually, "That we need to find out what is actually going on. There are no phones at AMEN, so we'll have to drive in to town and have a look."

Julie wasn't at all sure about the idea.

"What happens if the roads have been blocked?"

"Then we can sleep in the car. But let's find out now, when it's daylight, not later on when it's getting dark."

Reluctantly, Julie agreed. James started the engine and switched on the air-conditioning. They waited a couple of minutes for the car to cool before they all clambered in.

"We'll follow a bit later," Tom gave them a cheery salute, "See you at our party tonight."

For several miles, all was normal. As they passed through Sessaka suburb and headed into town along Emancipation Boulevard, James began to wonder if the radio reports had not been either a hoax or a massive exaggeration. Eventually, he broke the silence.

"Haven't seen any rampaging hordes yet."

Julie sat next to him, stiffly disapproving.

"Hmmph," Was all she said.

They were approaching the long right hand bend before the Imelda cinema when Julie screamed.

"James!" She shrieked, her fists clenched tight in front of her face, "Look out!"

From nowhere, a massive, gold-coloured saloon hurtled towards them. Canted hard over on its soft suspension, straining to hold the turn, it howled down the centre of the road. James pulled hard to the left, very quickly. The car slammed past, its engine screaming its open windows festooned with soldiers brandishing automatic rifles, waving him off the road.

"James," Julie was taut as a wound spring, "Turn round; let’s go back."

James was shaken, but reluctant to admit defeat.

"Let's just see round the corner; it might be a clear run home from here."

He gentled the car round the gradual curve, pricklingly conscious of Julie's intense unease. Round the curve, and into the mile long straight that led past the Imelda cinema and on to the heart of the city.

Three hundred yards ahead a jumbled array of overturned vehicles, broken furniture and concrete breezeblocks filled the road. There was not a single person in sight.

Suddenly, from behind the barricade, a massive blue and white police car leapt like some mechanical beast that had scented prey. Tyres screeching, lights flashing, siren wailing demonically, it charged straight at them.

"Get off! Get off! James, get off the road!" Julie screamed.

She buried her face in her hands, terrified. James wrenched at the steering and stamped on the brakes; the car thumped up onto the pavement and slewed to a halt in a cloud of dust. The great blue and white monster thundered past, furious faces at every window, furious arms waving him out of the way.

"Please," Julie was talking at the floor, not looking up, her head in her hands, "Please James. I'm really scared. Let's go back."

"Please, daddy, let's go," Lucy’s voice came from behind, "I don't like this."

Suddenly, everything had become desperately serious. James U-turned across the broad avenue and headed back the way they'd come. Very carefully, he accelerated, eyes and ears straining for sight or sound of other vehicles. Nobody said a thing.

After a long silence, Julie spoke.

"James," She ventured hesitantly, "Doesn't Charles live out this way?"

"Sessaka suburb? Yes, he does."

"He knows everybody who's anybody. He'd know what was going on, wouldn't he?"

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind us asking,"

Charles didn't.

"Come on in, James, welcome to our home. Hi, Julie, nice to see you. Hi, Lucy; Hi, Annie." He led them up the white stone steps to the verandah that ran along two sides of the house. "Our daughter's told us all about you from school."

"Grab a seat," Charles swung a selection of cane chairs away from the wall and slid them around a large cane table in the middle of the verandah. He pulled open the mosquito screen that covered the front doorway,

"Friday!" Charles bellowed into the interior of his house, "Friday! You come here, you hear?"

Charles moved back to where they now sat around the cane table; with almost deliberate ease, he lowered himself into the chair next to James. Charles' houseboy appeared in the doorway.

"Yeah, boss?"

"Friday, you bring tea for all, you hear?"

"Yeah, boss." Friday vanished back inside.

Charles turned himself to face James.

"So," He breathed, "Exciting times, hmm?"

James declined the proffered cigar; he would have dearly loved to have accepted. Charles put the cabinet back on the table and set about cutting the end of his own cigar. Friday darted between them, clearing the cups and saucers and plates.

"Want to make any phone calls, James? Maybe you ought to let somebody know where you are."

"If I may, I'd like to call the embassy."

"Sure, go ahead; the phone's in the hall, on the right of the door as you go in."

Jonathan Swift was duty officer. James outlined their story as well as he could. There was a long silence at the other end of the line.

"Riots, you say?"

"Yes, Jonathan."

"Barricades, you say?" James could almost hear Jonathan's brain trying to engage gear, "In the streets?"

"Yes, Jonathan. Nobody can get into or out of town. Anyone seen on the streets is liable to be shot. It's been announced on the radio all afternoon."

"Aah, well," The relief in the voice was almost tangible, "That would explain it. Don't listen to that local sort of stuff very much up here: prefer BBC World Service."

"Jonathan, we left Tom and Helen at AMEN beach; they said they would try to get back to town later. We haven't seen them since."

The silence at the other end of the line was deafening.

"Drat it," Jonathan’s voice came at last, "Does that mean their party tonight is off?"

Charles and his cheerfully plump wife, Matilda, were overwhelmingly hospitable. Julie was embarrassed at the fuss being made over Lucy and Annie, and at the enormous supper that was somehow conjured up out of nowhere. As soon as the meal was over, and whilst Friday was busying around in the kitchen brewing coffee, the two women disappeared with both sets of children. Charles laid a two-way pocket radio on the dining table.

"One advantage of having political contacts. Let's find out what's happening."

They sat in the pool of light that surrounded the cane table on Charles' verandah. They sat and listened as the laconic reports crackled in of riot and looting, of death and destruction; the collapse of civil law and order. Around them the night insects whirred and fluttered against the lamps; far away in the kitchen James could hear the chink of china as Friday washed the dishes. There were two worlds that night, and neither seemed real.

Julie and Matilda came to join them, and Friday bustled out with steaming cups of coffee.

"Bring the brandy and four glasses, you hear, Friday?"

"Yeah, boss."

Much later, Charles lit his second cigar. Julie was still on edge.

"Do you think the riots will reach out here?"

"Nah," Charles was savouring his brandy, "It's like containing a forest fire. We've got it cordoned off in the centre of town; now we just let it burn itself out."

Charles swilled his brandy gently in its balloon.

"I've had Friday make up beds for all of you," He said, "You'd all better stay with us tonight."

The incongruity of a Ngombian family offering refuge from rioting Ngombians to white foreigners struck James hard; for a brief moment, he considered declining the offer.

"Thank you," Was what he actually said, "We'd be very grateful."

James was surprised at how well he slept.

In the bright light of morning, the night's violence and terrors seemed to have evaporated. Charles' two-way radio had fallen silent, as had NBC. It was decided that James would drive into town first; if all were clear, he would come back for Julie and the two girls.

Apart from the rubble, the streets were empty. The violence had vanished, but an invisible atmosphere of unremitting hostility blanketed everything. James drove deeper and deeper into Tuehville, the hairs on the back of his neck bristling. His eyes searched unceasingly for any signs of life; he felt he could not trust anyone; not the army, not the police, nobody.

He passed store after store, office after office, their steel shutters and roller blinds peeled back like skins from oranges, their windows smashed, their interiors utterly gutted. Nothing had escaped. The streets were scattered with bricks and stones, broken glass and broken furniture, odd shoes and sandals. But, more than anything else, James noticed the paper; thousands and thousands of sheets of it strewn over streets, over pavements, in amongst bushes, hanging from trees; dumped, scattered, littered everywhere. It was as if a hundred massive garbage trucks had emptied their bellies in the streets of Tuehville.

He drove on, unchallenged.

Exactly what happened during that day and night of violence would never be known in full. But, little by little, from conversation and rumour, James pieced together the bare bones.

On the morning of that fateful day, a large, enthusiastic, but peaceable demonstration had gathered before the presidential palace. In front of them, a detachment of troops had stood uncertain, fidgety guard at the foot of the palace steps. When the people refused to disperse, an order was given to fire in the air. A stray ricochet struck one of the demonstrators. He collapsed, screaming, and those nearby turned to flee in fright. Like wildfire, their fear fanned outwards. Within minutes, the horde was in flight, surging down the mall that led from the palace towards the town centre. As they ran, as terror diminished, so fear and panic gave way to anger; anger at their summary dispersal, anger at their powerlessness, anger that swelled and exploded into overwhelming fury over the squalor, degradation and eternal nothingness of their lives. Blind, directionless anger; violent, uncontrolled, and mindless save for a sudden, burning desire to avenge the suffering and misery that the endless years of grinding poverty and deprivation had imposed. Within moments, a stampede of terror became a riot of rage and revenge, of destruction and looting.

Untrained, undisciplined, and terrified, the army blasted with dreadful abandon at the rampaging mobs. Eventually, hopelessly outnumbered and impossibly tempted by the sight of looted riches beyond their dreams of avarice, the army mutinied. The mob and the troops became one.

By the following morning they had laid waste every office, travel agency, and garage; every bookshop, toyshop, and dress shop; every chemist and jeweller; every hardware store, department store and supermarket; everything. What could not be eaten or worn or sold had been burnt or smashed and broken. The economic heart of the country had been ripped out.

Of the eight hundred and sixty British men women and children living in Ngombia before the riots, one hundred and seven left on the first available flight, never to return. Capital investment plans by foreign companies were frozen immediately and indefinitely, whilst banks insisted on parent company guarantees to cover local credit facilities. The waiting list for the British school shrank from four months to one and, three nights after the riots, two hundred and forty two of Tuehville's nameless poor were tipped into an unmarked grave in the swamps.

Instalment 12

 
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