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 2

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Chapter five

British Caledonian Flight No. 267 flew overnight from Gatwick to Gbedeh International Airport, Ngombia, landing once en-route at Freetown, Sierra Leone. It did so in the dead of an African night, an hour before daybreak.

James watched sleepily as the seemingly endless stream of bleary-eyed passengers shuffled down the aisle towards the exit: through the open door, all he could see was impenetrable blackness. Warm moist air wafted in from outside, curling damply around the interior, condensing instantly in little droplets on the armrest beside him. "Will you and your family be travelling with us on to Gbedeh?" James looked up; the hundred watt professional smile was tinged with uncertainty. He nodded, waiting patiently whilst the stewardess rummaged for a set of Ngombian entry cards. Whilst she did so, an African in green overalls climbed aboard and walked up the aisle spraying an aerosol-can of insect repellant with determined zeal. The acrid, pungent fumes clawed at the back of James' throat. From her carrycot slung from the overhead luggage bins, Annie sneezed dramatically in her sleep. "Mummy," Lucy lay across Julie's lap, white with tiredness, "My nose hurts." Overalls waved his now empty can cheerfully. "Mosquito's all gone," He grinned, and stomped out through the door of the plane into the night, his job done. James listened to the sound of Overalls' footsteps descending the steps from the plane, and craned round to see who else was travelling with them. The entire plane was empty.

From Freetown to Gbedeh the flight was short and the altitude low. As dawn broke, James could see beneath him fingers of pink reaching out across an endless sea of pale grey mist.  Here and there the top of a tree poked through, tiny and isolated.

From the rear of the plane came the sounds of distant chatter and laughter as the crew divided the remains of the in-flight drinks stock amongst themselves. James looked back out of the window:  Ngombian visas for himself and his family had taken four months to process; it was now half a year since their interviews in London. 'We appreciate your expertise, Mr. Davidson,’ George Sanders of McTavish and Michaelides Trading Company (‘we call ourselves M& M') had said at their last meeting, 'But please understand that we are taking as much of a risk with you as you are with us.' The attrition rate for first-tourers, he told James, was something like fifty percent. The culture shock was total; many people couldn't even begin to adjust, they simply froze. It was particularly difficult for wives. A husband would come home from his new office to find his wife in tears; isolated, terrified, wanting only to get on the first plane home. Many couples quit within a week, leaving their employer with airfares, return shipment of belongings, and empty accommodation leased for their occupation. Not to mention the original costs of recruitment. "That is why," George had paused to light a comfortably battered pipe, "I wanted very much to meet you and your wife together." James gazed again at the limitless mist below; it was beginning to thin in the early morning sun, dissolving slowly into tenuous grey-white tendrils that drifted over an infinity of jungle. There were no fields, no houses, no roads; just endless, endless jungle. It was all so utterly different from anything he'd imagined.

In a row of four, James and his family stood at the top of the steps from the plane. The hot, clammy air was alive with the incessant high-pitched chirping of countless unknown insects.  Next to James, staunchly upright, Lucy stood clutching a copy of the in-flight magazine: there was a picture still to be coloured.  Next to Julie, Annie was poking curiously at a bright orange flying something that had settled on one of her shoes.

James and Julie gazed around them; to their left, the single runway stretched straight and black, through chest-high yellow-green grass. In the distance, two small mud huts, their roofs thatched with desiccated pale brown palm fronds, clung to the base of the airport control tower that reared up, stark and alien against the sky. To the right, about two hundred yards away, the sun-blistered walls of the terminal building stared silently back at them. Across the top of the building, peeling faded letters announced

"WELCOME TO GBEDEH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT"

Underneath, in smaller letters, signs above adjacent doors announced
"T ANS T" and "ARR V LS".
There were no staff, and no buses.

Hesitantly, they descended the steps and began to walk across the tarmac, heat pulsing up at them off the baking black surface. They passed through the ARR V LS door and into a bare concrete hall. A solitary fan hung from the flaking grey-white ceiling, its blades stationary. Three wooden folding seats stood against one of the chipped green walls. An empty desk and chair stood in the middle of the floor. A sign on the desk read 'Ministry of Health, Gbedeh International Airport'. There was nobody in sight.

James and Julie stood uneasily in the centre of the hall, not knowing what to do next.

"You guard the seats," Said James eventually, "I'll go and see if I can find someone."

Julie sank wearily onto the middle chair, Lucy and Annie either side of her. James walked over to a nearby doorway and peered round it: two officials were deep in conversation beside a booth marked 'IMMIGRATION'. He coughed politely.

"Excuse me," He began, "I wonder if you could help? My family and I....".

"Eh?" Queried the nearest official. James repeated his message, to be met by the same wall of incomprehension. He decided on a simpler, more direct approach: "In arrivals," He gestured behind him to where Julie and Lucy sat, "Over there." "O.K.," The official grunted, "Coming."

The official sauntered to his desk and slumped into the chair behind it. He opened the top drawer and withdrew a peaked cap which he placed on his head. Without looking up, he held out his hand.

"Health cards."

James handed over the four new-looking yellow International Certificates of Vaccination. The official scrutinised them one by one, passing them slowly from hand to hand. He shuffled them back into a pack of four.

"Twenty-four Nomba," He said.

"Pardon?" Said James.

The official spread the cards out across the desk.

"Inspection fee," He explained, "Six Nomba, six Nomba, six Nomba, six Nomba." He gathered the cards up again.

"But," Objected James, "It doesn't say anything about inspection fees in the travel guide." He lifted Lucy's in-flight magazine from her hands, opening it at the page headed 'Useful information about Ngombia'. The official sucked through his teeth contemptuously. "That book-thing," He said, "That is not Ngombian. It don't know nothing." James gave the book-thing back to Lucy and pulled out his wallet. He withdrew three ten-Nomba notes and handed them over. The official handed back the cards. James waited. "My change, please," He asked eventually. The official stared at James. "No change," He declared flatly. James stared at him incredulously. The official shrugged; business concluded he began to remove his cap. James sensed a door closing, he looked inside his wallet and found a five Nomba note.

"O.K.," He said, handing over the well-worn bill, "Here's five; give me back one of my tens."

The official's eyebrows gathered like thunderclouds.

"What's this?" He challenged, "You joke me?"

"No," Said James, "I'm not joking anyone. You want twenty-four Nomba, I'm giving you twenty-five; you can keep the change."

The official glared; he briefly considered raising the inspection fee to eight Nomba, but the mathematics of such a move eluded him. Besides, having returned the health cards, his bargaining power was limited. With enormous bad grace, he handed over the ten-Nomba note then sat and brooded, staring silently into space.

"Thanks," Said James, "'Bye."

The official stared the other way and sucked dismissively through his teeth.

It came as something of less than a total surprise to find the same routine repeated at the next barrier.

"Thirty Nomba," The immigration officer settled into a leisurely perusal of their passports, "Certification fee." "No money," Said James blandly. "Eh?" Passport Control was flabbergasted. "No money," James repeated, "My company is sending someone to meet us; they will be able to pay you."

Passport Control's eyes narrowed: he stared carefully at James.

"I can wait," James smiled blandly.

Abandoning the charade, Passport Control sucked contemptuously through his teeth and slung the passports under the glass window to them.

"O.K.," He said, "Go."

James was beginning to adapt.

Chapter six
The southern border of Ngombia is its coastline with the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern border is the river Kwahn. At the mouth of the Kwahn lies Gbedeh International Airport and, thirty-six miles to the west sprawls Ngombia's capital city, Tuehville. Between the two lies featureless coastal swamp and low lying scrubland, uninhabited save for an occasional hamlet of palm-roofed mud huts. George Sanders wove his mud-encrusted Peugeot 404 with confident, unrushed speed along the pitted highway that ran across the swampland from Gbedeh to Tuehville. Years of monsoon rains had eaten away at its laterite base until the edges had crumbled, and the surface had collapsed into countless enormous potholes. "The U.S. military built this during the Second World War," He told James who sat beside him, "They used Tuehville as a major supply base for the allied campaign in the northern Sahara." George took a hand from the steering wheel and pulled a thick wad of extraordinarily crumpled bank notes from his shirt pocket. They smelt strongly, and unmistakably, of garlic. "Listen," He said, "The fee palaver was my fault; I should have warned you beforehand." Resting both wrists on top of the wheel, George peeled off two limp notes and handed them to James. "Take them," He said, "That'll go down as a lunch in my expense account." He stuffed the wad of notes back into his shirt pocket. "Officially," He explained, "Dash doesn't exist. In reality, it's a way of life out here.  You'll be harassed by every petty official you come across - police over your car, Labour Department over your houseboy, Communications Department over your telephone." George swung the car across the road and, without reducing speed, drove along the opposite side for a few hundred yards, bypassing a series of particularly huge craters.  "And P.U.A.," He went on, "Over your electricity." "P.U.A.?"  Queried James, "What's that?"  "Public Utilities Authority," George explained, "Their favourite trick is to cut the power to your house on a Friday afternoon." "What on earth for?" "Because they know you'll pay for reconnection to avoid a weekend without air-conditioning." George pulled out to pass a bus of staggering decrepitude; its battered body leant steeply to one side as if in a state of terminal exhaustion, its windows were entirely glassless, and its chassis and rear axle were quite plainly in fundamental dispute as to the intended direction of travel. "Pulley-pulley bus," Said George, "There are no formal bus-stops here; if you're a passenger and you want to get off you just yell 'Pull-in!  Pull-in!'. Ngombians find it difficult to pronounce the ends of our syllables, so it comes out as 'Pulley!  Pulley!'".  Half an hour later, the outskirts of Tuehville began to appear: on either side of the road, narrow red-brown dirt tracks snaked off toward isolated tin-roofed dwellings set deep amongst dark green trees. After the close-packed orderly rows of English suburbia, James found the random aloneness of these buildings faintly unsettling. He turned to George.  "How do you find your way around?"  He asked. "Memory," Said George. In the centre of town, he explained, some of the main streets had names, but there were no signs. Outside the centre, there was a whole warren of dirt roads, but nobody knew what they were called, or even if they had ever had names. There were no maps. "You have to rely on local landmarks," George continued, "Sort of 'left at the large green house with the blue wall, right after half a mile at the derelict truck, our place is next to the small group of coconut palms'." James gazed out of the window, and said nothing. Travel weariness and a growing sense of loneliness were depressing him; he wondered if this was what was meant by 'culture shock'.

The journey continued in silence.

An age later, the car drew to a halt. "This is it," Announced George, "The M&M compound." In front of them, a ten-foot high steel mesh gate swung open, a blue-uniformed Ngombian clinging like a cheerful tree-frog to its frame. George waved in acknowledgment and drove through, piloting the car along a winding, gravelled driveway between clumps of mango, palm, and bougainvillea. After several hundred yards they drew up in front of a large, brick-built house.  Standing on pillars, it seemed to hover amongst the surrounding greenery. "Being up in the air helps catch the breeze," Explained George, "And keep snakes out." Stone stairways led up to the front and rear doors of the house. The eaves of the roof were enormously wide. "The overhang keeps out the sun," George lead them up the front stairs, "Useful during power cuts in the dry season." The accommodation was laid along the length of the house. At one end, down a long corridor, was the kitchen. At the other lay the sleeping quarters. In the centre, a massive living room filled with comfortably worn, chintz upholstered, colonial wood furniture looked out over a panorama of bamboo clumps, palm trees and hibiscus bushes stretching down to a broad dark stretch of water. "The St. Luke River," George explained. Outside the house, at the bottom of the front stairway, grew a large Avocado tree: at the bottom of the rear grew a coconut palm. On every window was fitted a white-painted, diamond-patterned, steel grille. From a distance, they gave the impression of leaded windows. ('Rogue bars,’ George explained, 'They help discourage petty theft.'). "We're lucky," Said George, "M & M is one of the oldest trading companies in Ngombia, and we got the pick of the sites in the days before property became big business." He waved a massive brown forearm at the surrounding scene;  "There are a dozen houses on this compound, squeezed into forty acres or so." It was all so different from Sevenoaks. "Your house is next to the tennis court," George continued, "It's a bit dilapidated, but the bumps and cracks give the home team an advantage when we have guests to play."  Very different. George helped them unload their luggage and carry it inside. Until their shipment of personal effects arrived, he explained, M & M would provide them with an ‘emergency kit’ of basic household items - kitchen utensils, crockery, glasses, bed linen, towels, and so on. "It is basic, I'm afraid," He apologised, "Just three or four of most things, and I don't think much of it matches, but at least you won't have to eat off bare boards."  He turned to go, and handed a large collection of keys to James.  "I'll send the car and driver to fetch you in a couple of hours and take you shopping. In the meantime, you can unpack and sort yourselves out a bit." He turned to Julie. "My wife said that, if you felt up to it, she'd pick you up at ten o'clock tomorrow morning and introduce you to her bridge group. Her name's Mary.  Don't worry about the children, just bring them with you."
Chapter seven
"What was that Helen? Two Spades? What did you say your husband's name was my dear? Oh, James, of course, you told me before, silly me. Did you say something, Andrea? Three Hearts? Oh, no bid, I'm afraid, Helen. Moses, bring some more coffee, please: yes, please; on the tray with the milk and sugar. What was that? Four Hearts? Whose are they? Yours, my dear? What was it your husband was doing before you came here? Market Analyst? My Goodness! How on earth could anyone analyse this place? No wonder George wanted your husband to work with him; he’s still baffled after twenty five years, poor lamb." Mary Sanders, twenty-five year resident of Ngombia, chairwoman of the British Women's Association and doyenne of the bridge and bazaar circuit, was holding comfortable court. Fifty-something and plumply placid, it would never have occurred to her that it had been her unpretentious and loyal support of the ambassador's wife's endless social obligations that lay behind George Sanders' recent MBE for 'Services to the British Community'. "Now, whose trick was that?" Mary reached out and poked at the upturned cards lying on the table, a bracelet of squashed milk-bottle tops, present from her eldest grandchild, clattering around her wrist, "Oh, dummy's queen held, did it? Silly me; I suppose your bid must have meant length not strength, Helen? Thank you, Moses, just put it there, please. The Q.B.P., Andrea? Funny you should mention that: I was talking to Nina up at the Golf Club about the Queen's Birthday Party, and she said that she was trying to persuade Robert to make it shirtsleeve order this time; it does get so wretchedly hot and humid at the end of the dry season. You'll be coming to the Q.B.P. won't you, Julie my dear? What do you mean, you're only small fry? My dear, nobody's big fry in Ngombia; you just jolly well make sure you nip down to the embassy and get yourself registered first thing tomorrow. In fact, I've a better idea; why don't I pop round and pick you up and take you down myself? We'll enrol you in the BWA whilst we're there; the British Women's Association could do with some younger people on the committee. What was that Andrea? Oh, my turn is it? Oh, you had the last Spade, Andrea; that was brave of you to bid a three-card suit with no honours, Helen. Well, that's the end of that hand; how many tricks did we take, Doris? Three? Oh, well played, Julie, my dear! Four hearts bid and made."

"Got all your family's passports, James? We'll need to register them with Immigration. You and your wife both got U.K. driving licences? Fine; we should be able to arrange a direct swap for Ngombian licences without a test, once we've got your residence permits stamped in your passports. We'll bung them over to Charles Nyamplu, our Mr. Fixit; with luck, he'll have it all sorted out in a couple of weeks or so. I thought we might spend this morning paying a few social calls to show your face around. If you're going to survive in this part of the world, one thing you'll have to have is friends - and the best are those you'll hopefully need the least.  Amos, drive to police headquarters, please."

"This is Unification Street: it continues on into Emancipation Boulevard, the main route out of town if you're going to Gbedeh airport. Just over the brow of this hill there's a junction with Julius Nyrere Avenue. There; see the traffic lights in the tree? You can't spot them until it's too late to stop; makes this a popular place for the boys in blue."

"This is Horatio Kingsley Street; there are no signs, but it's one-way. There are hardly any traffic signs anywhere; that’s something you'll have to get used to in Ngombia. Those green lights we just passed mark the intersection with Sekou Toure Avenue. They've been stuck like that for the past two years. Bit of a nuisance if you're using Sekou Toure; that way they're always at red."

The car turned off the road along a boulder-strewn and mountainously uneven track. It nosed carefully between dilapidated corrugated steel shanties, its nose rising and falling like a ship in heavy seas. All around, clusters of market women with great basins of fruit and vegetables sought the custom of the milling crowds of pedestrians. Ragged urchins, balancing on their heads crude wooden trays of cigarettes, matches, chewing gum and cola nuts, darted, minnow-like, amongst the endless shoals of humanity. They passed under a large tree, its branches laden with what looked like enormous, and very gnarled, grapefruit. "Breadfruit," Said George, "I've never tried eating it myself, but I'm told it tastes like a heavy dough." The track bent to the left, then widened into a large and dusty clearing, within which stood half a dozen single-storey tin-roofed breezeblock buildings. On the right of the clearing a huddle of accident-damaged vehicles baked rustily in the sunshine. At the far end, a bare flagpole stood outside a building slightly larger than its neighbours. At the base of the pole were parked two large blue and white American Ford police cars and three Harley-Davidson police motorcycles. Apart from an occasional blue uniform lounging against verandah railings, the location appeared deserted. "This," Announced George, "Is police headquarters. We'll say hallo to Superintendent Grigsby first. No point in trying to go higher at this stage - if you need help at that level when you're new you'll be on the next plane home anyway." Amos parked, and they climbed out of the car. After the air-conditioned interior, the steamy heat hit James like a wall. "When we've finished here," George strode briskly up onto the verandah of the largest building, seemingly unaffected by the sweltering warmth, "We'll pop back to the office and meet Charles Nyamplu; he’s the Mr. Fixit I mentioned before. Charles is an old schoolfriend of half the cabinet, and his brother's an attorney with the Ministry of Justice. Useful to have on your side."

Mary reached out and gathered the random heap of cards towards her, fashioning them into an approximate deck. "Right," She pushed the litter of empty coffee cups aside, lifting the edges of their saucers one by one to peer underneath, "Where's the scorepad? Afraid I wasn't much use to you there, Helen; only had six points. That must be your rubber, Julie. This is your lucky morning, Andrea. Delhi, was it, where your mother taught you bridge, my dear? I wonder if your parents knew the Murchisons - they used to play quite a lot out there in those days: still do, occasionally. Nina's quite good, but Robert's a bit vague when it comes to things like remembering who's got what cards. Does your husband play? He does? Oh, good. You really must come and have dinner with us one evening when you've had a chance to catch your breath. Now, what's the other table up to? Time for a quickie, everyone, while they catch up? Whose deal is it?"  

"Charles, this is James Davidson. James, this is Charles Nyamplu, our Government Relations Officer: if you run into an impossible problem that's anything to do with a government department, Charles can probably help. If he can't find a way out, the chances are nobody can."

"Welcome to Ngombia," Charles Nyamplu's unusually deep and resonant voice seemed to fill the room, "Pull up a chair." James stared, fascinated. Attired in emerald green shoes, green socks, green trousers, green jacket, green shirt, and blindingly flamboyant paisley-pattern green tie, Charles Nyamplu surveyed the world from behind tortoise-shell dark glasses of a size and hue perhaps better suited to an A-bomb test site. James wondered if he wore them as a precaution against unexpectedly coming across a mirror. Charles swivelled gently in an outsize executive chair, his hands behind his head. What might have been a section of anchor chain from King Midas's personal yacht hung loosely from one wrist. "So," He breathed, "Tell me, Mr. Davidson; what can I do for you?"

"How was the office, dear?"

Julie pottered around the kitchen, looking vaguely for food to cook. James relaxed against the fridge door and told her: it took quite a while.

"Want to hear about my day?"  Julie asked when he'd finished. "Tell me while I peel the spuds," He said, easing himself over to the sink.

And so she did, chattering happily into the cupboards and drawers as she searched for the few bits of kitchenware that she'd hidden away earlier on.

"They're so hopeless," Julie giggled at the end, "They remind me of my mother. All they've ever done in their lives is play bridge, drink coffee, gossip, and plan fetes and bazaars and dinner parties." Julie hauled two battered pots out of a cupboard and clattered them down on the counter top. "Mary Sanders is quite sweet though; she’s found us a houseboy."

"A houseboy?"

"Mmm; his name's Nathaniel. Mary's bringing him over tomorrow."

Julie opened the fridge, pulling out two massive, deeply seamed tomatoes. "She also said that we should register Lucy with the British School for next September. It's got a four-month waiting list, so we're just in time." She joined him at the sink.

"And," She began washing the tomatoes busily under the tap, "We have an invitation: dinner and bridge at the Sanders's. Mary thought we might be interested to meet some of their friends."

Instalment 3

 
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