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 13

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Chapter forty

Exalted military rank is curiously seductive; even committed emancipators of the people are not always entirely immune to its charms.

On June 15th., three weeks after Annie's seventh birthday, the PEC announced promotions for all its members. The president, as befitted his learning and status as a sergeant, was to be elevated to the rank of Major General; the remainder had to be content with the level below, that of Brigadier.

The same week, as if to celebrate, Tuehville's telephone system sputtered back to life and the curfew was rolled back to midnight.

The impact was dramatic. Small dinner parties blossomed, the lost art of conversation was gradually rediscovered, and tensions receded. A sense, if not of actual relaxation or well-being, then at least of unstiffening began to percolate back into everyday life.

"I say," Burbled Rupert one evening, "I heard a new abbreviation for the Road Soldiers the other day."

The table waited patiently.

"The R-Sols," He announced triumphantly.

Life could almost have been said to be looking up.

"Boss?"

Nathaniel clutched nervously at his dishcloth.

"Yes, Nathaniel."

"My brother said your friend would be at AMEN clinic this Tuesday, ten o'clock."

"Which friend?"

"Oh, boss," Nathaniel tugged anxiously at the towel, "My brother didn't say; he just said your friend. I thought you would know."

James didn't, but he could guess.

The modest single-storey building that was AMEN clinic stood alone at one end of the mission compound, its clean white walls spattered waist-high with brown mud thrown up by torrential wet-season rains. Along each side stood occasional clumps of hibiscus and palm whilst, at the front, a flamboyantly purple bougainvillea clambered over the wooden, mosquito-screened verandah.

A pale shaft of sunlight had broken through the heavy wet-season clouds and the clinic gleamed brightly amidst soft warm clouds of steam lifting from the sodden grass and trees. Slumped against the mud-spattered wall, a disconsolate market woman sat feeding chunks of overripe mango to a wide-eyed infant. Next to them, a spectacularly dishevelled tramp stared morosely into the distance. A mange-ridden bush-dog, its ears ringed with bright red weeping sores, sniffed with hungry fascination at the man's filthy, sandal-clad feet. A cloud of ravaging flies spoilt for choice, buzzed with voracious enthusiasm between the dirt-encrusted feet, the weeping sores and the dripping mango.

James opened the dusty, squeaking screen door of the clinic and sat down on one of the chairs inside. At least he felt he could breathe there.

"Boss?"

James heard the screen door swing rustily open.

"Yes?"

"Boss?" James winced involuntarily; the tramp had clearly yet to make acquaintance with either soap or water, "You want to talk about Farm-to-Market roads?"

James very nearly fell off his chair; he thought very fast.

"In my car," He said, and left.

"Where on earth have you been, Charles?" The odour really was corrosively powerful.

"Learning to be poor, man."

The well-fleshed cheeks had hollowed, the clear eye-whites had yellowed, and the tightly curled hair was matted, muddy and lustreless. A colony of flies were exploring the fringes of his beard. Charles had clearly been a star pupil.

"You don't have to," Said James, "You can hide, but you don't have to starve."

"How do I buy food, man?"

"We could cash a company cheque."

"Needs both our signatures."

James shrugged.

"We're both here, aren't we? I could take it to the bank for you."

Charles gazed pityingly at him.

"James, the minute you handed it over the counter they'd arrest you."

"Why?"

"Christ, James, don't you understand? If you cashed a cheque with my signature on it, they'd know that you knew where I was."

"Oh," James hadn't thought of that. He pondered for a moment, then,

"We could use some of my account; there’s enough there for years."

Charles looked at him.

"I've got a family to feed," He said quietly, "I won't say no, but I will say thank you, and I will repay you; somehow."

"I know you will," Said James, "Meantime, what do we do?"

"For the moment, nothing. We wait, and we watch. Right now, all that these guys want is revenge but, sooner or later, they're going to want to do business."

James told him of George Wainwright's assessment.

"He's right," Agreed Charles, "There's no way the OAU summit ain't going to happen."

"Wonder who'll be running it," Mused James.

"People you've never heard of," Said Charles, "People you'd never even have dreamt of."

"Why? What's going to be so odd about them?"

"You'll see," Charles glowered darkly, "This lot's about to start putting their friends in power."

"So did the last regime."

"Yeah," Charles sucked contemptuously through his teeth, "But their friends weren't houseboys, yardboys and drivers."

Major General Stanley Livingston was delighted with his official uniform; he particularly liked the thick mass of gold braid on his brand-new, cellophane-wrapped cap. He gazed admiringly at himself in the mirror; he could almost hear the adoring cheers of the people whom he'd rescued from oppression.

Unlike his fellow chiefs of staff, Stanley Livingston was not unintelligent; just unschooled. He was aware of the distrust and resentments already beginning to fester within the PEC, and could sense the power struggles that would surely come. They would be crude, and unskilled, but none the less deadly for that. Alliances would be made, groupings would form, rivalries would develop and battles would be fought. He wondered who he would appoint to the various ministries; which of his friends he would trust in the positions of power that were now his to grant. Of one thing he was sure, few would be from within the PEC.

"Mr Davidson?"

"Yes?" James struggled to recognise the voice.

"Ngombia National Bank here. We have received a set of shipping documents covering a large consignment of earthmoving equipment. You are free to draw against various letters of credit," The voice read out a long series of reference numbers, "Established in your favour by USAID."

"Thank you," Said James.

He put the phone down and thought for a while.

"Nathaniel!" He called towards the kitchen.

"Yeah, boss?" Nathaniel's cheery head appeared around the door.

"Nathaniel; I need to go to the clinic. Would you please ask your brother to tell my friend?"

"Yeah, boss," Nathaniel grinned, thrilled at the subterfuge, "You going tomorrow?"

"Yes," Said James, "Early."

Charles was deeply uneasy.

"I wish we could have waited until things had settled."

James shrugged.

"So do I," He said, "But we can't. If we want our money, we're going to have to risk it."

Charles took the bundle of papers from James.

"When did you collect these?" He asked.

"Yesterday."

Charles began to sift through them, signing alongside James' signature wherever it appeared.

"James," He shuffled the papers together and handed them back, "Promise me one thing, will you?"

"Sure; what?"

"Don't hand these papers back to the bank for at least three days."

"Why?"

"If you hand them back sooner, they'll know I must be close to town."

It was only then that James realised that Charles might just have signed his own death warrant.

"I'll wait four days, Charles; I promise."

Charles felt for the door handle.

"Next time, James, we meet in Pelepah."

"Pelepah? That's hundreds of miles from here."

"Precisely."

"OK," James shrugged, "You send a message: I’ll drive up and meet you."

"James, driving this car would be like hanging out Follow-Me stickers for the PEC. Go by pulley-pulley bus."

"Oh, sure," James’s voice was heavy with sarcasm, "One white city face in a bus-load of black Ngombian country folk: nobody will notice that."

Charles shrugged.

"So buy yourself some old clothes and pretend to be Peace-Corps; they don't count as white."

"I'm not American."

"OK, VSO then."

James hoped he wouldn't bump into any genuine Voluntary Service Overseas workers; most of them were only just out of school. He'd stand out like Methuselah.

Chapter forty one

"How's the bush rescue service today?"

"Steve!" James was stunned, "Steven bloody Harrison!"

James had no idea how Steven had managed to track him down. He hadn't even known that the man was still in the country. It was years since he'd last seen him, strapped to a plank in the bush.

"What are you doing up in town? On a buying trip for GTE?"

"No, James," Steven was impatient with news, "I've come to repay a friend a debt." He nodded towards the door, "Can we go for a coffee somewhere? You and I need to talk."

Willie Wils was quieter these days; terror had tied the lower ranks of government to their dusty office desks. In the corner farthest from the window, two Lebanese were attacking a bowl of Hommus with handfuls of pitta bread. Behind the coffee machine Peter the waiter skulked in silent, unaccustomed idleness. Otherwise, the place was empty. James led the way to a window seat; visible, unsuspicious, isolated.

"So," He said, "What's on your mind, Steve?"

Peter the waiter sidled up beside them.

"Morning, Peter; how’s your tea today?"

But Peter didn't smile; times had changed. People didn't joke any more.

"Never mind," Said James, "Just bring us two coffees, please."

Peter grunted and shuffled off.

Steven Harrison looked up at the clock on the wall.

"Fifteen minutes ago," He toyed with the salt and pepper pots on the table, "The entire expatriate staff at GTE took off from Gbedeh airstrip. They should land in Freetown, around lunch time."

"Sierra Leone?" James was taken aback, "What are they going to do over there?"

"Catch a flight to London," Steven was swinging the salt and pepper pots by their plastic tops, clacking their bases against each other, "They're not coming back, James."

"Not coming back?"

"That's what I said, not coming back." Steven was still clacking his pots, "Our parent company, Worldwide Resources, decided to quit."

Steven settled the two pots back on the table.

"Ngombia's gone down the tube, Jamie, and Worldwide don't think it can be pulled back up again."

Worldwide's London office had arranged a private charter of two Trislander aircraft. The planes had flown in early that morning from Sierra Leone. Within thirty minutes of landing, they'd refuelled, loaded everybody on board, and left.

"So what are you doing here, Steve?"

"As of twenty minutes ago," Another brief check of the clock, "By default, I became acting general manager of Ngombia's largest timber concession. I am here to present my compliments to the new Minister of Agriculture."

James was caught unawares.

"Is there one?"

"We were informed yesterday," Said Steven, "He takes office this morning. Someone called Sunday Gbandulo."

James had never heard of him.

"So what happens after you've said hallo to this Sunday whatnot?"

"Gbandulo."

"Whatever."

"I have to find a way to keep GTE alive."

"With no senior staff?"

"Senior staff!" Steven snorted contemptuously, "We had plenty of them, James, but that's not what we need."

"So what do you need, Steve?"

"Workers, Jamie, workers; mechanics, operators, enumerators; white bushmen."

"And where do you find them?"

"That's not hard," Steven shrugged, "If I offered the facilities and pay that GTE personnel enjoyed, I could fill every slot twice over in a week; and with better people."

"Yes," Said James, "You might. But how would you start up a new operation?"

"James, all the equipment and facilities have been abandoned; it’s all there for free."

"You'd still need finance. Where's that coming from? Banks here are hardly falling over themselves to lend money, and Worldwide won't have left anything behind in the safes."

"Not in the safes, James," Steven grinned, "But there's millions of dollars worth of felled timber lying around in the camp and nearby bush, and I've got half a dozen buyers who'll pay cash at site and arrange their own shipment."

"Steven," James was feeling just a trifle confused, "Why are you telling me all this?"

"I told you," Steven had completely forgotten his coffee, "I came to repay a debt I owe a friend. Remember, James?"

"Thanks, Steve, but I'm still lost."

"I hear that you and your partner are good at dealing with government officials."

James shrugged non-commitally.

"We've had some success," He acknowledged, "So?"

"Worldwide have abandoned their concession, James. The PEC will take over."

"And?"

"The Minister of Agriculture will be our new chairman. He's the one who will be approving suppliers and signing purchase orders. Provided that you and I can cobble together the right kind of agreement, I'll be recommending that GTE appoint yourselves as sole suppliers."

"In that case," James pushed back his chair, "May I suggest that you and I go and pay our respects to your new chairman?"

They sat outside the minister's office for nearly two hours; neither was particularly concerned, both having long since acquired the Ngombian knack of falling easily asleep in queues, whether sitting or standing.

"You can go in now."

Instantly awake, the two of them rose and were ushered in through the green baize door.

The minister's head was lowered, his face almost on the desk. He was writing a letter; slowly and painfully, it was true, but nevertheless writing. His was an appointment from outside the PEC.

James and Steven waited silently.

"Yes, gentlemen?" The minister did not look up.

"Mr Minister," James began, "We came to offer our congratulations and pay our respects to you in your new position."

"Thank you, gentlemen," The minister pushed his letter to one side and turned towards them. James stared at him, dumbstruck.

Sunday Gbandulo, the new Minister of Agriculture and Chairman of the largest timber concession in Ngombia, 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.

The minister smiled and held out his hand to James.

"I am glad to see your head is fixed," He said, "I think I owe you a favour."

"I take it," Said Steven later on, "That you and Gbandulo met somewhere before?"

James recounted the story of his accident with Gertrude Sharman's garbage truck.

"Christ," Breathed Steven, "How to make friends and influence people."

"He may be influenced," Said James, "But he's hardly a friend. Besides, how could he possibly evaluate suppliers?"

"He couldn't," Steven grinned, "Not without my advice."

"Meaning?" James was determined to make Steven spell it out.

"Right now, I'm the only person in GTE that knows what we need and where to get it; Gbandulo may be a nice guy, but he hasn't got a clue." Steven was suddenly serious, "Like I said this morning, if you and I can cobble together the right kind of agreement, I'd be prepared to channel all GTE's business through your outfit."

"And what's the right kind of agreement?"

"James, I didn't let those two planes go without me just for fun. I stayed for my wealth, not my health."

Would be a crook if he could, thought James; George had been right about Steven after all.

Peter the waiter lumbered up with two coffees, thumping them down gracelessly on the table. Muddy liquid slopped over into both saucers.

"Thanks for being so straightforward, Steven," James lifted his cup and drained the saucer into it, "In return, I'll offer you equally straightforward terms of business. No credit, and no warranty."

"Cash on delivery, eh?"

"No," Said James, "Cash with order."

"You're crazy, nobody pays cash with order."

"The boot's on the other foot, Steve. After today, nobody anywhere will deal with GTE on credit, and you know it."

Steven was silent, nursing his cup of coffee in his hands.

"O.K.," He said at last, "But we still have to sell the idea to Gbandulo."

"And I have to sell the idea to my partner."

Julie was curious.

"Who are you going to see?"

"Charles."

"In tennis shorts and tee-shirt?"

"I'm supposed to be VSO."

"Then throw your comb away," She instructed, "And don't wash or shave for a few days. Meanwhile, go down to the market and buy yourself a tie-dye shirt and leave it out in the garden in the rain with your shorts until you go."

The journey took just under twenty-four hours; it seemed to James more like twenty-four years. Every time the pulley-pulley bus had got stuck in a mud-hole, he and the rest of the passengers had had to disembark and push the thing to dry land. James arrived miserably hungry, caked in filth, and so stiff he could hardly stand. He sank to the roadside, exhausted.

"What you say, my brother?"

James looked up at the dishevelled, shoeless tramp looming over him; his face cracked into a grin behind its red-brown mask.

"Fine, my friend," He said, "Just fine."

He reached up to grab Charles' outstretched hand, and hauled himself laboriously to his feet.

"Come on," Said Charles, "There's someboday I'd like you to meet"

They set off down the muddy track, its surface pock-marked with slime-green puddles, that served as the village high street; between the rows of crude, white-painted huts with their blank, empty glassless windows; past the huddled groups of market women with their enamelled basins of fruit and vegetables and their charcoal braziers. As they passed, one of the women called out

"My friends, you want rokor?"

Charles fished in the pocket of his filthy trousers,

"Yeah, old lady," He sauntered over to where she squatted, hunched, wizened and rheumy-eyed, wreathed in blue-grey smoke, "Give me two."

The market woman picked two cobs off her brazier, knocking the ash away with burn-scarred hands. Charles handed one to James.

They wandered on together, the tramp and the ageing VSO worker, hopping over the stagnant pools and discarded rotting fruit and vegetables that lay scattered along the length of Pelepah's sodden, soggy main highway, contentedly chewing on their blackened corncobs. James had never tasted anything quite so delicious.

Charles led James to the dilapidated dwelling buried amongst the myriad shacks and tracks that was Pelepah village. The ground all around the hut had been swept meticulously clean and, in front of the door, a stocky Ngombian sat watchful guard over the entrance, a palm-frond broom at his side. He grinned as they approached.

"What you say, boss?"

James stared; something about the man was familiar.

"Christ! Pencil!"

Pencil's face beamed as if it would burst; he grabbed both of James' hands inside his own horny paws, shaking them with childlike excitement.

"Welcome, boss," Pencils’ great brown eyes shone with delight, "You go on inside."

"Yeah," Charles took him by the shoulder, "Come on in; there’s somebody else I'd like you to meet."

After the colourless glare of the wet-season sun, the gloom of the interior left James temporarily blinded.

"Good afternoon, Mr Davidson; welcome to our humble abode."

The face was lost in the dark, but the voice was unmistakable.

"Mr Sharman!"

The voice coughed politely.

"Formalities, I think, belong to yesterday: perhaps I might be known as Aloysius."

"But," James looked around him in the empty, unlit hut, "You're all alone: both of you. Where is everybody? Your families?"

"Safe," Said Aloysius; he didn't say more and James didn't ask again.

Charles moved next to where James stood.

"Take a seat, James; tell us what's been happening."

It took James quite some time to finish. Aloysius stretched and cracked his knuckles.

"It would appear to be a most propitious development."

"Appear?" Charles was incredulous, "Ain't no appear about it, man. This is bonanza time: big bonanza time."

"Mmm, possibly," Acknowledged Aloysius cautiously, "On the surface, this would indeed appear to be absolutely ideal for us." He paced the small earth-floored room, summarising the situation as he saw it. "One, Sunday is an ex-employee of my wife; two, he has acknowledged that he owes James a considerable debt of gratitude; three, he is in a position to give us very considerable amounts of business; four, he depends on the advice of a senior manager who is also, as they say, in James's pocket."

"Not much wrong with that," Offered Charles.

"No," Agreed Aloysius, "Not much; except that Gbandulo is very young and is about to become very wealthy very quickly."

James sensed where Aloysius was leading.

"And you think he might get carried away," He suggested, "Become too big a spender too quickly."

"Yes," Said Aloysius, "I think he might."

"Hey, come on you two," Charles was impatient, "What's so wrong about a guy who enjoys his success?"

Aloysius peered at Charles through the gloom.

"Jealousy," He said, his voice mildly reproachful, "Other people's jealousy: jealousy of former friends left behind and jealousy of enemies overtaken. There is nothing so bitter."

"I still think we should go for it," Declared Charles defensively, "How often do you get a minister all to yourself, right at the beginning? This could get to be really big."

"Yes," Said Aloysius, "It could. But it will all rest on the shoulders of one naive young man; and that could be very dangerous indeed."

Sunday Gbandulo wanted to help. At least, he wanted to help the white man who had protected him after the accident. He didn't know the other one. He wanted to help, but he didn't understand a word that either of them was saying. And that made him suspicious.

"Mr. Minister," James was treading the tightrope between simplicity and condescension, "Mr. Minister, we need your assistance."

They needed his assistance; Gbandulo smiled.

"There are many Ngombians working at GTE; you can help us save their jobs. They will be very grateful to you."

Grateful people? Gbandulo liked that. He could feel the sun shine.

"Mr Minister, perhaps you would like to fly down and inspect the operation?"

Fly? Up in the air? For what? To walk around and look at machinery and things that meant nothing to him? Gbandulo did not like that at all.

"Mr Minister, perhaps you do not have time to visit GTE. You are a very busy man, and you have many things to do."

Gbandulo couldn't think of one single thing he had to do; after all, he was now a minister, why should he have to do anything?

"Mr Minister," Steven interrupted, "Perhaps, as chairman of GTE, you might find that your obligations as a director interfere with your ministerial functions."

Obligations as a director? Ministerial functions? The words meant nothing to him. Gbandulo was suddenly deeply suspicious again.

"If you will allow us," Seething, James tried to bring the conversation back on course, "We could take care of some of your work for you. You are the man in charge, you just tell us what to do."

Tell white men what to do? Gbandulo remembered his childhood days as a starving beggar; his adolescence first as a labourer, then as a driver. He was torn between disbelief and longing.

"All you need do is sign these papers, and we will arrange everything."

But Gbandulo did not want to sign. He did not understand, and he was becoming bored.

James could sense that today was not the day.

"Mr Minister, perhaps you would like to think about the matter? Perhaps we may discuss this with you again tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Gbandulo waved them out of his office, "Tomorrow."

They drove back to the cheap, dilapidated hotel where Steven was staying.

"It may sound daft," Steven clambered out of the car, "But what we need is an interpreter; someone who could express what we want to say in a way Gbandulo could understand."

"You know," James was thoughtful, "I don't think that's daft at all."

He declined Steven's invitation to come into the hotel for a drink.

"Thanks," He said, "But I need to go back to the office and do some serious thinking."

Half an hour later, James parked his car by the edge of the lake surrounding his office. He opened the car door, raised his umbrella, and stepped on to the plank and breezeblock walkway that led across the pond to the office door. He sensed someone beside him.

"Mr Davidson?"

"Yes?"

James looked round; a sergeant and two privates stood behind him, all three of them armed with automatic rifles.

"You're under arrest," The sergeant beckoned with the muzzle of his weapon, "Let's go."

Instalment 14

 
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