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 14

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Chapter forty two

"Mr Davidson," Major General Stanley Livingston picked a sheaf of documents up off his desk, "Do you recognise these?"

James recognised them instantly.

"These," The General held the papers in front of James, "Refer to the first shipment of equipment under the Farm to Market project."

James knew that.

"You presented these yourself to the Ngombia National Bank, did you not?"

James shrugged; he could hardly deny it.

"Mr Davidson, the documents bear two authorised signatures," Stanley Livingston dropped the papers back on his desk, "Who's are they?"

"You already know that," James felt as if a noose had been placed around his neck; he forced himself to remain calm, "Charles Nyamplu and myself."

"Where is he, this Nyamplu?"

"I don't know."

That was true; James hadn't got a clue where Charles was at that moment.

"But you do have ways of contacting him."

The noose was frighteningly tight.

"Tell me, Mr Davidson," Stanley Livingston suddenly switched tracks, "How much did you bribe the members of the last government?"

Stanley Livingston may not have possessed significant schooling but he did possess significant cunning. And power; absolute power. James said nothing.

"Come now," Livingston moved round behind his desk, "This is a very substantial order; AAA would naturally wish to demonstrate its gratitude to those concerned."

James wished to goodness that the man would let the matter drop, but Livingston wouldn't; he worried at it like a dog with a meaty bone.

"How much?" Livingston tugged at the rope.

"Does it matter? The people are dead now."

"Your partner could be too."

James said nothing; he watched as Stanley Livingston slid down into his chair.

"You met minister Gbandulo this morning."

"Yes," James was caught off guard; where on earth did Gbandulo fit in?

"Why?" Livingston persisted.

"To pay my respects to the new Mnister."

"Who was your friend?"

"Steven Harrison," Livingston probably knew already, "From GTE."

"Why was he there?"

"The Minister of Agriculture is chairman of GTE. Mr Harrison came to pay his respects as the company's acting general manager."

"And you want to do business together with your friend?"

"My company would like to do business with GTE," James corrected carefully.

For a moment, Livingston wondered if he had perhaps been over-generous in giving Agriculture to his young cousin; Tourism might have been more appropriate.

"And did the Mnister give you any business?"

"Not today."

"Maybe GTE has no need of anything."

"Maybe," James wasn't going to give anything away.

Livingston knew perfectly well that two white men would never have risked such an approach unless there was a great deal at stake. He would like to know more, a lot more.

"Coffee, Mr Davidson?" Livingston loosened the rope for the moment, "Or do you English prefer tea?"

Livingston had probed cautiously, sounding out what it was that James was offering, hinting that the new People's Emancipation Committee could be in need of many things, but that they would need to evaluate potential suppliers carefully.

Privately, the leader of the PEC could not understand Gbandulo's hesitation; the potential for personal gain was so obvious. Perhaps the man simply had not understood what was being said. The thought did not entirely surprise him.

"Perhaps," Livingston had suggested carefully to James, "Minister Gbandulo and I might review your company's value to GTE, just in case there have been any misunderstandings."

"I think we've found the key, Steve."

"What's that?"

"Not what, Steve, who."

"OK," Steven waved his half-empty whiskey glass in acknowledgement, "Who?"

"You remember you said we needed an interpreter?"

"Yeah, but I was sort of joking."

"Well, I'm not, and I've found him."

"Alright, who've you found?"

"Livingston."

"Stanley Livingston?" Steven almost choked on his whiskey, "The new President?"

"Yup."

"Christ!"

Steven signalled the bartender for two more whiskies.

"How'd you get to meet him, James?"

"He had me arrested."

"Oh, great; that’s just the interpreter we need. How the hell is that going to help our cause with Gbandulo?"

As briefly as he could, James outlined the afternoon's course of events.

"Livingston thinks Gbandulo's struck it lucky, and he wants in on any deal," James concluded, "But he's being very, very careful. He's never played this game before, and the stakes could be huge."

"Not huge, James," Stevens’ knuckles were pale around his glass, "Fatal."

Chapter forty three

"Mr Davidson, I talked with Gbandulo yesterday."

What had happened to the Minister bit?

"I think he understands the situation more clearly now."

"Thank you, General," James still didn't know how Livingston preferred to be addressed, "We appreciate your assistance very much."

"Since this is a non-military matter, I think 'Mr President' would be better."

"Yes, Mr President," James knew now, "My apologies."

Livingston waved the apology aside.

"Mr Davidson, you say your company could help GTE and the People's Emancipation Committee?"

"Yes, Mr President." James' face was poker straight.

"Perhaps we could discuss that in more detail?"

Livingston was nibbling.

"Steve?"

"How long would it take you to prepare a trial order?"

"Trial order? What for?"

"Anything you like."

"Why?"

"To see if Gbandulo will approve it. I think Livingston's convinced him we're O.K."

Stevens' eyes widened; a tiny gleam of greed lit up within them.

"In that case," He said, "I'll make it a big one."

"James," Julie poured herself a second mug of breakfast coffee, "You remember, ages ago, when you said that any new government would become as corrupt as the old one?"

"Yes; and they did, didn't they?"

"Don't you feel that perhaps the same sort of thing is happening to you?"

"No," James was somewhat taken aback, "I don't. Why? Do you?"

"Sometimes," Said Julie, "Sometimes I do. I remember when we first came here how upset you used to get about the greed and injustice, and now look at you."

James shrugged. "If you want to join the table..."

"It just seems as if the fun has somehow gone out of what you're doing," Julie sounded almost sad, "When you first started it was exciting and, in a way, innocent. Now it's just plain cold-blooded bribery and corruption."

James shrugged again

"I may be bribing," He acknowledged, "But I'm not corrupting; corruption was well established long before I came along. I've just temporarily adjusted my business tactics to suit local circumstances."

Julie didn't reply. Instead, she stared into her coffee, thinking quietly.

"I just want," She said at least, not looking up, "I just want for you to be the way you used to be; and for us to be a family again."

"But we still are," Protested James, "Always have been."

"Are we?" Asked Julie, looking up at him, "Are we really a family, James? Sometimes it seems as if you're out there, centre-stage, doing what's important to you, and we've become just background silhouettes."

"Silhouettes?"

"Yes, James," Julie stared straight at him, "Silhouettes of the family you used to have."

The order from GTE took James by surprise.

"I said I'd make it a big one," Steven grinned.

James scanned through it. Tyres; thousands of tyres; and not little ones. Tyres for graders, tyres for logloaders, for log-skidders, for trucks, for trailers, for pickups. And, of course, for cars. For a trial order, it was very big. But then, GTE was a very big timber concession.

"I decided to consolidate our entire annual requirements into one single consignment," Explained Steven.

James inspected the space at the bottom of the last page.

"The order still needs Gbandulo's signature," He observed.

"Yup," Agreed Steven, "And so does this."

He held out a rectangular slip of paper. It was a payment voucher, made out to AAA, covering the entire requisition.

"As indicated in your quotation," Steven smiled, "Cash with order."

He got up to leave.

"If you can get this one through, there are dozens more ready and waiting in my office."

"Your order," Gbandulo handed over what had become a somewhat dog-eared document, "Has been approved."

"Thank you, Minister."

Another, smaller, equally dog-eared document appeared in Gbandulo's hand.

"And so has your cheque."

"Thank you very much indeed."

Gbandulo did not pause.

"All commission," He instructed, "Is to be paid into my bank account."

Clearly, finesse was not one of Gbandulos' strong points.

"I am to pay Livingston his share in cash; later."

Gbandulo liked the arrangement. He liked having his own bank account; it made him feel important. And he liked the way Livingston had to ask him for money; it made him feel as if he were the one in charge.

"As you wish, minister." James murmured, "May we have details of the account into which you would like us to arrange payment?"

"Brilliant, man!" Charles signed the application forms for the documentary credit to cover GTE's order, "I knew this was going to go well."

"Livingston was the one who persuaded Gbandulo to deal with us," Said James, "Yet he knows I need your signature on every transaction."

Charles grinned happily

"Must have decided to let bygones to be bygones."

From the back of the room, Aloysius snorted derisively.

"Only for so long as it's worth his while."

Charles fell silent.

"Tell me," Aloysius continued pensively, "What are the financial arrangements on this transaction?"

James recounted Gbandulos' instructions. Aloysius thought for a while.

"There is something not quite right here," He said at last, "May I suggest that, before you pay anything into Gbandulo's bank account, you air the matter with the new President?"

Aloysius had acknowledged, if not accepted, the new political status quo.

"How am I supposed to do that?"

Aloysius smiled.

"With your usual delicacy."

"Mr President?" Strange how the title no longer seemed out of place.

"Yes, Mr Davidson?"

"There is a delicate matter on which we would appreciate your advice."

"Yes?"

"We have recently received a substantial order from the Ministry of Agriculture for tyres."

"Mr Davidson, this is the Presidential Office; I do not see quite what an agricultural order for tyres has to do with me."

"It concerns the matter of fees."

"And what are they, Mr Davidson?"

James swallowed.

"The Ministry of Agriculture has indicated that it wishes us to agree to certain disbursements. However, since this is a financial matter of some delicacy, we felt that your office should be consulted first."

"Very wise, Mr Davidson, very wise," Livingston spoke carefully, "However, special arrangements between the Ministry of Agriculture and its suppliers do not concern this office. I know nothing of this matter and would suggest that you be guided by Minister Gbandulo."

"Yes, Mr President."

Livingston was giving Gbandulo a lot of rope; the new Minister of Agriculture would either climb to the top of the mountain, or hang himself.

"The British School breaks up in a couple of weeks," Julie poddled round the kitchen, clearing the remains of their breakfast off the table, "For Summer holidays."

Summer holidays; James hadn't really given them a thought. Suddenly, impulsively, he did.

"Fancy a spot of leave?" He asked.

"What? Back to the U.K?"

Why not, James thought, they could afford it. They could afford it every month of the year for the rest of their lives.

"Yup," He said

"Soon?"

"Last day of term suit you?"

Julie squealed and leapt on him, arms winding round his neck like a starving python. Visions of home flooded her mind: of bus stops and railway stations, pavements and gardens, hedgerows and meadows, of her parent's modest house with its birdtables and nesting boxes. Never had suburbia seemed so overwhelmingly appealing.

"Can I start packing?" She mumbled in his ear.

On Friday July Fifteenth, term ended and British Caledonian flight number 268 left Gbedeh International Airport bound for Gatwick. On board, Lucy and Annie debated with fierce intensity who would tell which grandparent what stories. There were so many to remember that, long before negotiations had been completed, both children had fallen sound asleep. Beside them, James gazed out of his window at the grey sea of cloud beneath them. He still found it strange that ten inches of rain could fall on the first day of what every Brit in Ngombia insisted on calling the summer holidays.

Chapter forty four

"How was your leave, James?" Steven Harrison beamed from behind a phalanx of brown beer bottles arrayed in front of him across the hotel bar, "Do anything interesting?"

How had their leave been? Done anything interesting? Where did one start, James wondered.

For all of them, there had been the pleasure of their parents delight at their offsprings' irrepressibly good health; their congratulations at the success of his venture; their rapt attention to endlessly repeated children's stories of events beyond childish ken. And everybody's concern at what those really meant.

For James, there had been the unique experience of a bank manager bounding out of his office to greet him; of a secretary despatched scurrying for coffee; of comfortable, unhurried discussion peppered with phrases like 'successful entrepreneurs' and 'substantial assets' and 'valued high net worth clients'. His bank manager had been curious; did James have an exit route for the wealth that was locked up within his company? Was he thinking of transferring some of this back home? Yes, James had said, but not just yet; cash assets gave them a unique advantage over their competitors. His bank manager had persisted; he really should give the matter some thought. Yes, said James, thank you, he would think about it.

For Julie, there had been the strange excitement of browsing through back numbers of Country Life and realising that, if she and James wished it, any of the mellow-bricked mansions and timber-framed manors that nestled within its luxurious, glossy pages could be theirs. Curled up in her favourite armchair, she had wrapped the dream blissfully around herself all evening.

They had looked at a few of them; just for fun. James had asked his bank manager for a reference, and had requested that he be specific. Observing its impact on the sniffy young man at a particularly upmarket estate agent had provided one the holidays more memorable moments.

It had all been wonderful, heady stuff.

"How was our leave, Steve?" James helped himself to one of the contingent of beers, "Usual kind, I suppose; took the children to see their grandparents; paid my respects to the bank manager; pottered around a bit. That sort of thing."

Steven lifted an arm to beckon the barman; with the other, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from the hip pocket of his trousers.

"I thought this might interest you," He said.

"Looks like a list; what is it?"

"Just that," Said Steven, "A list."

"Of what?"

"All the orders I've placed on AAA whilst you've been away," Steven accepted the refilled glass from the barman with a nod of acknowledgement, "They're waiting for you in Gbandulo's office."

Gbandulo's driver would have needed a year's wages to pay for his master's new suit - a tenth of what he would have required for the diamond cufflinks and tie-pin.

"Tell me," Gbandulo began to sign the haphazard heap of papers, pushing them one-by-one across the desk to James, "Who is this guy Nyamplu?"

James explained, paying particular attention to Charles' close relationship with Aloysius.

"Sounds like he might be O.K.," Gbandulo lifted a goldbuckled, stacked-heel, patent leather shoe onto his desk, "Maybe he and I should meet sometime."

Nathaniel drove wordlessly away from Gbandulo's office. James sat silently beside him, thinking what a good choice he'd been as a driver. Julie hadn't been too thrilled, but the extra hours of work and the overtime pay had delighted Nathaniel. They drove past glistening, rain-smoothed mounds of mud and rubble, the wheels of the car splashing and thumping every now and then into one of the scores of rain-filled potholes that littered the road. It was now late in the wet season, and work on the roadbuilding programme for the new OAU Conference Centre had been abandoned. On either side of the car, walls of rubble and haphazardly parked machinery made the road a grim grey cresta run. James was glad there was no other traffic around, particularly military vehicles with their manic drivers and automatic priority.

The office was still an island, surrounded by a lake a hundred yards across. The same arrangement of planks and concrete breeze block islets lead to the front door. It was still raining, and the surface of the lake was pocked with raindrops. Not much had changed.

James teetered along the planks, using his opened umbrella as a balance. He reached the doorway, let down the umbrella, and stepped inside.

"Mr Davidson?"

"Yes?" He turned.

"Mr Davidson," James wondered if he'd ever get used to meeting the wrong end of an M-16, "You're under arrest."

Stanley Livingston waved the last of the soldiers out of his office. James stood in the middle of the floor, waiting for the roof to fall on his head. He wondered what it would be like to share a cell with Gbandulo.

"My apologies, Mr Davidson."

"Eh?"

Livingston almost smiled.

"My apologies," He repeated, "Arresting you was the only safe means of arranging a meeting."

"Oh," Said James; he could think of nothing sensible to say, "Oh, I see."

"Have a seat," Livingston was very clearly in charge; and so very clearly enjoying being so. James pulled a large black leather chair out from beside the massive presidential desk and sat down.

"There are some matters," Livingston began, "That I should like to discuss with you."

"As you wish, Mr President." James tried his best to look attentive, relaxed and confident all at the same time.

"As you know, there are more than twenty timber concessions in this country," Livingston spoke as if reciting a memorised passage, "All competing and bickering amongst themselves. This is wasteful and does not benefit Ngombia."

James listened, curious to hear what was coming next.

"It is our intention," Livingston continued impassively, "To harmonise matters by creating a National Timber Industry."

James felt his breath quicken; he could sense what was coming.

"We would eliminate waste and inefficiency by centralising procurement of machinery, spare parts, and other requirements through one officially approved agent."

James nodded, not daring to interrupt.

"There is no reason why AAA should not be considered for such an undertaking."

Twenty-two concessions, James thought to himself, the entire Ngombian timber industry. The business would be worth a fortune.

"To avoid competing amongst ourselves," Livingston forged ahead relentlessly, "And to achieve better prices for Ngombia, export of all timber and timber products would be processed through one central marketing organisation."

There was a pause; James had stopped breathing.

"Again, I see no reason why AAA should not be considered for this role."

Two fortunes thought James, immense ones.

"Thank you, Mr President; we would be honoured."

"The two organisations would, of course, form a part of the Ministry of Agriculture."

"Of course, Mr President."

"I would suggest that you discuss with Minister Gbandulo how he would like to proceed."

"Yes, Mr President."

James already knew exactly how Gbandulo would like to proceed.

Chapter forty five

"Well, well," Said Julie, "Does the new president intend to make a habit of arresting those with whom he wishes to speak?"

James told her what Livingston had said; he was still shaking with excitement.

To his utter disbelief, Julie wanted nothing to do with it.

"James," She gave him one of her steeliest looks, "Quit; you’re out of your depth. These characters murdered the previous regime and they'd do the same to Charles if they could find him."

"Gbandulo said he'd like to meet Charles."

"I'll bet he would," Julie’s voice was scathingly sarcastic.

James sighed exasperatedly.

"Not for revenge," He tried to sound convincing, "The coup's over; forgotten. Gbandulo wants to do business."

Julie was still deeply uneasy.

"James," She tried again, a more placatory approach, "You and Charles have had a wonderful run for your money. You've got a fortune stashed away in the bank. Now it's time to leave the table; cash in your chips whilst you're ahead."

"But, Julie," James was not to be deterred, "Don't you see what Livingston's doing?"

If looks could have killed, James would have been ashes. He plunged on undeterred.

"He's using Gbandulo as a stalking horse to flush us out with the big deals," James felt his excitement return, "Whilst he stays out of sight."

"And what," Julie was wholly unimpressed, "Do you think happens to those who get flushed out?"

James hadn't a clue.

"The hunter stays out of sight," Julie glowered darkly at him, "And shoots them."

The next day was Lucy's birthday.

Julie baked a cake with nine candles and, after tea when it was dark, Lucy lit them with a single match.

"You got a wish," Said Annie.

Lucy promptly blew them all out with one breath.

"And another," Said Annie.

"Mummy, can I open my presents now?"

"You're not supposed to say your wishes," Protested Annie.

"I didn't," Lucy contested hotly, "That wasn't a WI..."

The thumping at the front door was thunderous; peremptorily urgent.

"What on earth?" James got up from the table and walked out into the hallway; he was halfway across it when six unkempt Ngombian youths burst through the front door into the house, four of them carrying crude wooden clubs. They halted in the centre of the hall, glaring balefully around them. The stale odour of cheap liquor swirled about the room like an invisible, nauseous fog.

James wondered if these were what George Wainright had meant by self-appointed vigilantes. Rupert's vision of marauding hordes seemed much more appropriate.

"People's Protection Party," Announced one of the gang, his eyes red and swollen, "We're here to inspect your house."

"What for?"

Out of the corner of his eye, through the doorway to the dining room, James could see Julie edging up from the table. Lucy and Annie stood next to her, staring wide-eyed at the intruders.

"We need to see what you got man, in case you get rogued."

The leader stalked across the hall, his group knotted tightly around him. James could neither stop them nor push his way past them. He followed the gang through the doorway into the dining room. A clearly frightened Julie was backing away from the table, Lucy and Annie clinging in terror to her skirt.

"What you frightened for?" The leader spat contemptuously, "We here to protect you."

He moved forward; Julie pressed herself back against the wall, sliding along it towards the kitchen door.

"Leave them alone," James was furiously aware of his powerlessness, "That's my family. Just tell me what you want."

For a tiny moment, the leader's gaze left Julie. With a shriek, she leapt through the swing door to the kitchen, Lucy and Annie almost flying behind her. Unopened birthday presents cascaded from the table onto the floor. The youth shrugged and turned to James.

"We're here to inspect your house," He said, "See if there are any things we need to protect."

His gaze travelled to the sideboard.

"What's in there?"

"Nothing special."

The youth sucked through his teeth.

"We'll see." He knelt down and pulled open the sideboard doors.

"Dammit!" He exclaimed, "You got plenty booze."

"For parties," Explained James, "For friends."

"Rogues could steal that," The youth was lifting bottles off the shelves, onto the floor, "We look after them for you."

"Thank you," Said James, "But I don't need your help."

The youth sucked loudly, not listening.

"Here," He said to one of his gang, "You take these."

He climbed back to his feet, looking leisurely around him.

"What else you got, man?"

James stood, helpless, acutely conscious of the youths' weapons, and of their volatile, drink-fuddled mood. There was no police force that he could call, there was nothing he could do to protect his family except keep calm and let the mob take what they wanted. Anger at his impotence swelled hotly within him.

There was an unearthly howl from outside the house.

James whirled.

"Whassat?" The leader of the pack swivelled, his eyes darting from side to side, alert, deeply suspicious.

"Shiiiit!" Frozen solid, he stared horrified at the window. James turned to follow the stricken man's marble-eyed gaze.

In the dark beyond the window two hideously grinning disembodied skulls floated in the night air, orange fire flickering from within the sockets of their eyes.

With lost, terrified, despairing wails the group fled for the front door, crashing through it with desperate haste. James stared in utter disbelief as they disappeared down Banda Avenue, shrieking as if the very fiends of Hell were at their heels.

"What on earth's out there?" James strode through to the kitchen, yanking open the back door.

On the step in front of him, a grinning, candle-lit pumpkin lantern in each hand stood Helen Edwards.

"Happy Hallowe'en," She said, and fainted into James' arms.

Instalment 15

 
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