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 3

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Chapter eight

Robert Quentin Murchison, Her Brittanic Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Ngombia, poked contentedly at the cubes of ice with his finger, steering them gently through the vegetation floating on the surface of his Pimms and lemonade. He wondered where on earth George had managed to get his hands on fresh mint.

A long, faithful, and undistinguished career had been rewarded with a final posting of ambassadorial rank in a distant and almost forgotten outpost. Barring unimagined heroic deeds, there was now no chance of a knighthood but, given a fair wind and decent drinking companions, Robert's CBE should be safe. Content, he stretched his long, thin legs out under the coffee table in front of him, smoothed back what was left of his carefully brylcreemed grey hair, and watched the sun slip slowly behind the distant trees.

Next to Robert on the Sanders' first-floor verandah, James tried desperately to relax in his wickerwork cane chair. He had never met an ambassador before, and was frankly unsure as to how he should address one. His uneasiness was short-lived.

"I say, Robert, George's view is rather splendid, isn't it?"

The booming voice swept James' uncertainties away like cobwebs in a sudden squall of wind.

"Aren't these nibbles absolutely spiffing? Why don't you have some at the Q.B.P.? Nina tells me its shirtsleeve order this year; jolly good show. I say," The squall suddenly shifted its bearings, "James Davidson, isn't it? Rupert Mainwaring," Rupert's right hand shot out, "Ngombia Insurance, we met earlier on. I've just been chatting to your wife. What do you think of Ngombia so far?"

But there was not the slightest chance of James replying. Rupert Mainwaring was at full throttle, firing bonhomie at all and sundry like some irrepressible Gattling gun. Public school had provided the accent, rugger the build, and military service the bearing. Now, in his late forties, a job far beneath his capabilities had provided Rupert with the time and surplus energy with which to organise other peoples' lives.

"Oh, look," Fresh quarry had been sighted downwind, "I've just seen Tom Edwards. Excuse me; must dash."

And Rupert was gone. Bulldog jaw thrust forward, trim hair swept back, he bustled busily across the verandah to where a slightly crumpled figure stood morosely eyeing the cubes of ice at the bottom of a nearly empty glass.

"What ho, Tom; icebergs grounding on the seabed, eh?"

As the verbal cyclone spun off out of earshot, Robert Murchison leant over towards James.

"You know," He murmured conspiratorially, "I think every community needs a Rupert. They may drive people potty, but they do make things happen."

From St. George's Day dinners to golf monthly medals, from tennis tournaments to Christmas beach barbecues, from charity bazaars to school sports days, there was hardly an event on the expatriate calendar that had not, somewhere, felt the hand of Rupert Mainwaring.

"And," Robert nodded in the direction of the verandah rail, "He's right; it is a splendid view."

A pale green sea of grass ('carpet-grass', George had told James, 'You don't seed it, you plant it in tufts. Grows best in the sunlight') swept down to the edge of the St. Luke river, broad, black and somnolent in the fading evening light. Two immense Cottonwood trees, their silvery trunks rising straight and branchless for seventy feet above their massive, finned bases, stood one on each side of the sward, framing the scene. Groups of white egrets patrolled the longer grass near the river, searching for insects and frogs. Amongst the well-spaced trees and Hibiscus bushes, neighbouring residences glowed softly pink in the sunset. There were no fences; with slightly more than three acres per house, there was little need.

"Looks beautiful, doesn't it?" George Sanders lowered his heavy frame into the chair next to James, "Pity it's not ours."

James was puzzled.

"I thought these were company houses."

George smiled, a little ruefully.

"They belong to Aloysius Sharman."

James had never heard of Aloysius Sharman; he wondered how on earth the man had found the money to build such a development.

"We lent it to him," Said George easily.

"What?" James was staggered, "All of it? Weren't you worried about getting it back?"

"No," George shovelled up a generous handful of peanuts from the glass dish beside him, "We lent him the money and he built the houses. He then leased them to us with four years rent payable in advance, which just happened to pay off the entire loan."

George chewed contentedly.

"Aloysius owns everything you can see from here, collects rent on all of it, and paid nothing for any of it."

James was amazed.

"How come M & M agreed to a deal like that?" He asked.

"We needed his goodwill," Said George simply.

Mary Sanders appeared next to them, resting her comfortably ample shape on the back of George's chair.

"What on earth are you men gossiping about?"

Everything about Mary Sanders was comfortable, thought James. He wondered idly what her dress was made of; elastic felt, perhaps; soft, grey elastic felt.

Mary Sanders smiled down at her husband.

"Time for a couple of rounds before dinner?"

James sat next to George at the green-clothed table, toying with his pencil. He hoped he could remember how to score.

"So who was this Aloysius Sharman?" He asked.

George was busy shuffling a rather dog-eared pack of cards.

"Minister of Commerce and Transportation," He grunted, "Quite a wheel in his day."

George passed the pack across to Rupert who cut for the ambassador to deal.

"Still is, in fact," George went on, "It was Aloysius who first hired the customs clerk who is now the president of this country." He watched nervously as Robert Murchison began enthusiastically scattering cards around the table, "Aloysius made him, and he's one of the very few who could still break him."

"The man has interests in just about everything," Robert chipped in, pausing mid-deal, "From paint to trash."

"Trash?"

"Mmm," Robert scratched his head, trying to remember where he'd dealt the last card, "Aloysius has a monopoly on all of Tuehville's rubbish collection: very lucrative."

Unaccustomed to his own silence, Rupert Mainwaring could stand it no longer.

"Rumour has it," He tapped the side of his nose knowingly, "Aloysius agreed the deal with the mayor in exchange for persuading the Minister of Public Works to build a road out to the mayor's new farm. Mind you," He added, "Nobody knows where the mayor got the money for the farm."

George was getting restive; the ambassador still couldn't decide where he'd last dealt.

"Aloysius gave the concession to his wife as a birthday present," George explained, and pointed helpfully at a haphazard pile of cards next to him, sighing quietly with relief as Robert began happily spraying cards around the table again, "She calls her operation Gertrude's Garbage; everyone else calls it Gertie Garbo."

It was all suddenly too much for James.

"How can you be so calm about it all?"

"About all what?"

"All this corruption and wheeling and dealing." James felt vaguely dispirited, "Does it have to be that way in this country? Why can't things be run the way they are at home, without all this skulduggery?"

George's right eyebrow twitched.

"James," He said, carefully counting the heap of cards in front of him, "If you choose to stay in Ngombia, there's a saying you may find useful."

James waited attentively.

"One short," Muttered George, helping himself to a spare card from the jumbled pile in front of the ambassador.

James was still waiting.

"If you want to join the game," George continued, picking his cards up one by one, nestling them between thumb and forefinger, "You don't tell everyone that they've got to play your way; you play by the rules of the table."

Chapter nine

"No lines."

The telecommunications supervisor took James' application form and inserted it at the bottom of an enormous pile of ageing, faded documents.

"Come on man," James felt Charles bristle beside him: he had come with James specially to arrange a telephone for his home.

"Come on, man," Charles urged; the honour of the Nyamplu name as Tuehville's premier Mr. Fixit was now at stake, "This is my friend. You can find a line."

"No lines," The supervisor repeated, sliding the foot-high pending column out of sight under the counter.

"My brother," Charles switched tack, "My friend tells me he knows someone who left Ngombia and never paid his telephone bill. The man is not coming back. If we pay his bill, can we have his line?"

The friend was fictional, both parties knew that: it was simply part of the etiquette of corruption that negotiations be conducted obliquely.

"How much was his bill?" The supervisor did not look up.

"Twenty Nomba?" Suggested Charles.

The supervisor sucked his teeth.

"No, man; we never cut lines for twenty nomba."

"You're right," Charles settled his elbow more comfortably on the counter, "Maybe his bill was thirty five nomba."

"Hmmm." The supervisor delved into the drawer on his right, pulling out a much thumbed and creased sheet of telephone numbers. He looked up at Charles.

"There is one man owed seventy five nombas."

"Dammit! How could he owe so much?"

The supervisor shrugged. "Maybe he called England too many times."

"You can give a discount for cash?"

The supervisor pondered silently; he needed the money. Business had been slack recently, and he was paying fifty nombas every month to his supervisor to keep his job.

"O.K., sixty nomba."

"Agreed." Charles extracted a small wad of very used notes from his back pocket.

The supervisor pulled the pile of green papers back into the middle of his desk and slid James' form out from underneath. He wrote '21229' on both pages, and handed one to Charles.

"Two weeks." He said. He almost smiled.

They walked down the shallow steps outside the telecommunications centre.

"Thanks, Charles; I don't think I'd have got very far without you."

"Hey, man, it was nothing. Let's go have a coffee."

James went to open the passenger door of the car. As he did so, a voice came from the gutter.

"Boss? Give me one nomba, yah?"

James looked down, and felt instantly sick to the pit of his stomach.

Leprosy is a desperate affliction; slowly, inexorably, remorselessly, it literally consumes its victims, rotting their bodies from within. All it requires is poverty, squalor, and time. And the being at James' feet, crippled by polio and abandoned early in childhood, had given generously of all three. What should have been a young man of perhaps twenty-five had become instead a monstrously deformed creature. In a face grotesquely distorted by massive swellings and weeping sores there was no nose; just two gaping holes in the skull. At the ends of stick-thin arms and legs, hands and feet had been eroded to mere stumps, thick with twisted scar tissue. To each hand, and to each knee, were tied crude blocks of wood. On these the creature crawled from one street corner to another in an endless, pitiless quest for alms.

James was overwhelmed by a sudden, childlike wish for a magic wand. He had a momentary vision of himself showering notes and coins in a glittering cascade upon the crippled leper, and of a spontaneous, miraculous cure. But all that he had was a crumpled five-nomba note, buried at the bottom of his trouser pocket. He tugged it out, tattered and pitifully inadequate.

"Here," He said, "Take it."

The leper's eye widened.

"Thank you; thank you, boss." He said. His lipless mouth could not smile.

"You coming, James?" Charles was standing by his open door, one foot on the sill, watching him over the car roof.

"Come on, man, what you doing?"

"Sorry, Charles." James opened his door and climbed in. Charles pulled out into the traffic.

"Poor bastard," James muttered.

Charles looked at him sideways. "Yeah," He said.

James sat in silent thought for a few minutes. Then,

"Doesn't it make you feel awkward, seeing people like that?"

"Awkward? For what? I feel sorry for the guy, but I didn't ask God to make him that way. Maybe God should feel awkward."

"It just doesn't seem right, some people get such a rotten deal out of life."

"Yeah, well, that's life; it never was fair."

They drove in silence for a few minutes.

"Did you give him any money, James?"

"Yes," James was embarrassed, it seemed such a very small amount, "I gave him five nombas."

"Five nombas!?" Charles was aghast, "What the hell for? Now you'll have every beggar in Tuehville harassing you. There are thousands of them, just like him."

James was suddenly angry.

"If there are thousands of them, just like him," James had never felt like this before, "Then for Pity's sake, why does nobody do anything about it? We just gave sixty nombas to some cheap little crook to fix me a telephone, and you're upset because I gave five to a dying leper crawling in the gutter."

Charles tried to interrupt, but James wouldn't let him.

"Last night, Charles, I had dinner at the M & M compound. Every single residence out there is owned by just one man; a man who was a senior government minister. You know, and now I know too, that he never paid a cent for any of them. It was just a monstrous bribe to someone with influence." James' voice was bitter, furious, "And it's the same at every level; the only thing different is the amounts involved. Meantime, Charles, there are cripples crawling and dying in the streets of Tuehville. How can you possibly justify that?"

Charles' knuckles were pale with the strength of his grip on the steering wheel.

"James," Charles’ voice was hoarse with restraint, "You'd better be glad you said that to me and not to anyone else. You don't know enough about what goes on here to talk like that."

"You mean just because I'm white and a foreigner I'm not entitled to object to corruption and injustice?"

Charles was suddenly openly angry.

"No, James, I mean you've never even met the minister you're talking about; you know nothing about what he and his wife do in this community, and you haven't tried to find out anything. All you know is what some other foreigner told you at a cocktail party." Charles drove straight through the red lights on Sekou Toure Avenue without even slowing, "You know nothing yet about our country, and you sure as hell don't have any right to tell us how to run it. Life's not fair, and some people get a lousy deal, but that's just the way it is. It ain't nobody's fault, and you’d better not go around trying to blame the guys who got to pick the long straws."

They drove back to the office in silence.

If you want to join the game, you play by the rules of the table.

Chapter ten

"The Queen."

Robert Murchison beamed from the embassy balcony. Far below him, Atlantic waves gasped and flopped against the base of the cliffs on which stood the British and all the other western diplomatic compounds. High above, the afternoon sun blazed from a cloudless sky. On either side, the dull green fronds of nearby palm trees stirred imperceptibly in the whisper of a breeze. It was desperately hot, and Robert longed for the change-of-season storms and the rains that would follow.

"The Queen."

On the terrace beneath the balcony, two hundred and sixty eight members of the British community echoed the Loyal Toast. Two hundred and sixty eight glasses of sun-warmed champagne glinted in salute and were drained. The Queen, for whom every expatriate would do anything except live in her country, had been properly acknowledged. As one, the British community in Ngombia returned to its favourite occupations of gossip and seduction.

"Oh, I say, James, this is rather fun, isn't it?"

Foghorning and semaphoring greetings to all and sundry, Rupert Mainwaring steamed through the throng, his pertly diminutive wife Andrea bobbing dutifully in his wake.

A battleship and its corvette escort, thought James.

The battleship hove to alongside and dropped a temporary sea anchor.

"Isn't bubbly wizard?" Rupert drained the last of his glass and grimaced slightly, "Even if it is a trifle overcooked."

James was about to reply when Rupert spun through ninety degrees, a gun turret on red alert, "Oh look, Andrea, there's Robert; I really must chat about the tennis pairings."

Rupert churned off, Andrea in tow, a trail of slapped backs and spilt champagne in his wake. All of a sudden, James and Julie found themselves adrift in a sea of chatter.

Julie tugged at his arm.

"Now that we're here," She said, "Let me introduce you to some of my friends.

James was amazed at how many people Julie knew. She and he bounced from one beaming unfamiliar pink face to another, squeaks and shrieks of prattle and tattle ricocheting with random abandon about his ears. Confused and bewildered, he felt the world begin to whirl: he wished it would stop.
"Ah," Announced Julie, "Someone you do know."
James blinked with relief; he recognised the rather crumpled figure, but the name of its owner escaped him entirely.
"Tom Edwards," Julie introduced him, "We met at the Sanders."
"And Helen," Tom waved a half-empty glass of gin and tonic vaguely at a pink catsuit shimmering beside him, "My wife."
Positioned precisely in the shade of a nearby palm, Helen Edwards acknowledged their presence as if she were wearing a neck brace.
"Isn't this nice," The knife-straight lips barely moved. Shielded carefully all afternoon from direct sunlight, Helen's pancake make-up was only now beginning to allow the first tiny droplets of perspiration to break through. Her hair, blonde streaked with mouse, bristled with a texture somewhere between wirewool and meringue, a frosted rebuke to the limp, humidity-sodden mops of other, lesser wives.
How odd it was, thought James, that Helen Edwards could make forty seem like a threat, whilst Mary Sanders made fifty seem like a haven.
"Isn't this nice," Repeated Tom. He beamed at James through steam-clouded spectacles. His shirt clung damply to his portly frame, a slick of brown hair, streaked prematurely grey, hung soggily across his sweat-beaded forehead and his rimless pebble glasses had slipped precariously close to the tip of his heat-shiny nose. James could not, for the life of him, imagine what it was that Tom found nice.
"No office," Said Tom, "And no politics."
James couldn't even remember what it was that Tom did.

"Adviser to the Minister of Lands and Mines," Said Tom, "The U.N. pays me to tell him how to make the most money out of Ngombia's iron ore."

"Sounds a worthwhile cause to me."

"Trouble is," Tom waved his now-empty glass at no-one in particular, "Trouble is, the minister thinks he's the worthwhile cause."

Helen was getting bored.

"Come on," She slid a gold-braceletted, pink-sleeved arm through Julie's, "Let's find some interesting company."

Unabashed, Tom trundled on with his story.

"Ever heard of Gbang Mine?"

James had, but he wasn't at all sure where it was.

"About thirty miles west of Tuehville," Tom told him, "Sixty by road. Bloody great mountain of almost pure iron. They call it Mount Erskine; you can see it from the beach, it's where the sun sets."

A tray-laden steward hove into view; Tom’s eyebrows lifted gratefully as he exchanged his empty glass for a new, ice-packed gin and tonic.

"The mine's operated by an American outfit called Climax Steel," Tom continued, "The minister wants them to renegotiate their concession agreement. He thinks he can cut himself a larger slice of the cake."

"And could he?"

Tom shrugged and loosened the knot of his tie with one hand; the afternoon sun really was uncomfortably warm.

"It would be very easy for him to make life in Ngombia difficult for Gbang Mine." Tom tugged at one end of his tie, trying unsuccessfully to pull it out of his collar, "You know the kind of thing: refuse work permits for expatriate personnel; delay customs documents on machinery imports and ore exports; enact bogus health and safety regulations and shut the mine down every time there was an infringement." Tom paused to glare at the crumpled, doggedly immobile tail of his tie, "That sort of nonsense."

"Would that really persuade Climax to pay more?"

Red-faced, Tom wrenched his tie free from his collar: the glass in his other hand swayed alarmingly.

"It would if they wanted to keep Gbang," Tom undid the top button of his shirt, sighing with relief as his collar flopped open, "But it's not the only iron ore mine in the world, and western industrial demand is weakening."

"And if Climax didn't?" Asked James, "Want Gbang, I mean."

Tom gazed thoughtfully out to sea, his eyes huge and owlish behind his glasses.

"Iron ore and timber are virtually all that this country has," He said at last, "Without Gbang, you could wave goodbye to Ngombia."

"Goodnight all."

Robert and Nina Murchison had appeared on the Residency balcony, clad in their dressing gowns.

"We're off to bed," Robert boomed, "You folk carry on and enjoy yourselves - you know where everything is."

A contented chorus of voices wished the Ambassador and his wife a good night's sleep. Everyone was happy; another year had passed, tomorrow the sun would shine again, and all was right with the world.

From off the Atlantic Ocean, the breeze began to freshen, and the evening to cool. The fronds of the coconut palms around the edge of the terrace lifted gently and swayed, their thin sharp leaves rattling lightly against each other. Far out to sea, lightening played behind gathering clouds. The rains would soon be coming.

Instalment 4

 
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