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 4

Home page
Home page
Who we are
Who we are
Story Pages
Children`s story pages
 
Chapter eleven

On the night of Annie's third birthday, the first of that year’s change-of-season storms broke.

The power supply had failed with the first distant flash of lightning, and the storm had ground remorselessly and malevolently nearer through the utter darkness.

The lightening was now so close they could hear the fizz as it struck, a fraction of a second before the colossal, tearing cracks of thunder. It was unbelievably, terrifyingly violent.

Suddenly, inexplicably, the night fell silent. James and Julie lay frozen in the blackness, tense as violin strings, whilst, deep underneath the bedclothes, Lucy and Annie huddled between them in silent terror. The storm hung over them, invisibly threatening, as if waiting.

Out of the dark, Julie screamed. James felt her leap upright.

"It ran over my face!" She shrieked, "It ran over my face!"

"What did?" James heard her scrambling out of bed. He could see nothing in the blackness.

"I don't know," Julie wailed miserably, "But it ran right over my face. I wish we had a light."

"We got a packet of candles for Annie's cake," James spoke into the night, "I'll fetch them from the kitchen."

He swung his legs out of bed, feeling for the floor.

The night turned pure, blinding white. This time the explosion of thunder was instantaneous, a part of the searing flash: overwhelming, mind-numbing, louder than anything that James had imagined could be possible. The whole unbelievable roar seemed to swallow him, blasting thought from his mind. This had nothing at all to do with storms as he knew them; it was raw, malevolent power.

"Christ," He whispered to the dark. He was genuinely frightened.

"James?" Julie's voice was tiny. He could hear Lucy and Annie whimpering beneath the bedclothes, "James?"

"I'm here," He answered.

"I'm scared to get back into bed; I don't know what's there."

Scared to get back into bed? Julie must be standing on her own somewhere in the dark: whatever it was had really terrified her.

There was nothing for it; they needed light. James began to feel his way along the wall of the bedroom. His heart was thumping: if a strike like the last one caught him midway, he knew he'd die with fright. He felt his way out of the bedroom, into the living room, his hands outstretched, utterly blind in the void of night. Along the living room wall, through the door, along the corridor to the kitchen. He could hear the wind buffeting the house; rain lashing at the windows, drumming on the roof. The hairs on the back of his neck stood rigid; his hands were clammy, ice cold. Never, even as a child, had he been so scared by a storm.

He bumped into the cooker; his fingers found the matchbox lying on the surface. He scrabbled the box open, frantically scratching three matches at once on its edge.

Darkness fled to the corners of the kitchen.

James pulled the packet of candles out of a kitchen drawer and lit four of them. He walked slowly back down the corridor, shielding them with his hand. Invisible gusts of wind from nowhere tugged at the flames; shadows leapt and threatened with silent malice.

As James reached at the bedroom, the flickering candlelight showed Julie standing by the bed, white as a sheet.

"Look," She said, not moving, her eyes fixed on the far corner of the room, "That's what ran over my face."

James turned.

Where the walls met, three enormous cockroaches clung silently, their antennae waving, feeling for movement. Julie shuddered. James reached to pick up a shoe from the floor.

"Don't!" Julie squeaked, "If you miss, we'll never find them. I'd rather they just stayed there; at least I know where they are."

James dripped hot wax on the bedside tables and glued two candles to the top of each. In the stillness of the bedroom, their flames steadied.

There was a flash, a fizz, and a breath-stopping explosion; but, in the face of candlelight, terror admitted defeat.

James climbed back into bed.

"Coming?" He asked Julie.

Gingerly, she lifted a corner of the sheet, then slid carefully onto the bed. Annie burrowed up against her, snug and warm.

"Promise you'll never, ever not be here when it's night and there's a storm?"

"I promise."
 
The next morning, James made a tour of inspection under the house. Lucy and Annie came with him, clutching his hands, almost too scared to look but driven by insatiable childish curiosity.
He was amazed at the lack of damage. The lightening bolt had passed clean under the house and, apart from a small crater in one of the brick pillars, there wasn't a mark on the building.
"Night times can be really scary," Observed Lucy solemnly.
"I don't like thunder," Declared Annie.
"If you're frightened," Said James, "You can always come into our bed."
"Promise you'll always be there?" Lucy squeezed his hand earnestly, "Being alone is horrible."

The next day, James and George made their weekly inspection of the most seriously bed-ridden of the rusting hulks lying in the care of M&M's garage. The weather was once again suffocatingly hot and humid.

"I thought," James squirmed as perspiration trickled down inside his shirt, "A storm like that would have cleared the air for years to come."

"Not a chance," Said George, "It's always the same. Things get worse and worse until it's absolutely unbearable. Then it all explodes and, for a little while, life seems better." He reached inside the cabin of an engineless truck and pulled out an ancient grease-smeared work-order, "But it doesn't last."

George scanned the work-order, noting how long the vehicle had been in the garage, and the customer's potential for humbug.

"It soon becomes just like it was before, nothing really changes," He tossed the work-order back onto the driver's seat, "A bit like Africa in general."

Above them, the sun blazed from an azure sky; from the depths of the garage around them came the hum of distant chatter and the occasional clink of a spanner dropped onto concrete. James sighed.

"It all seems so placid."

George shot him a sideways glance.

"Don't let the blue skies and balmy breezes fool you," He said, "Africa has an amazing capacity for violence; it’s there, under the surface, all the time."

Chapter twelve

James stood at the rear doorway of the spare parts warehouse. It was pouring, and the drumming roar of torrential rain on the corrugated metal roof was deafening. In front of him, a concrete ramp sloped down to an open courtyard, some fifty yards square, already ankle deep in water. Around the perimeter of the courtyard huddled ramshackle tin-roofed service bays, their concrete floors raised a few inches above water level. From the roofs of the bays hung aged, twisted gutters, hopelessly overwhelmed by the floods of storm-water that sluiced, unchecked, over their sides and cascaded into the courtyard lake below.

James stared, lost in thought, as the wall of rain seemed to explode off the ramp and a misty spray blew past him into the gloom of the warehouse behind. He recalled his first meeting with George in London.

"M&M is one of the largest trading companies in Ngombia," George had explained, "M&M Motors is just one part of it; the part that we'd like you to run."

James had listened attentively as George continued.

"We import cars, pickups and trucks," George had told him, "Our principal markets are the Government and foreign concessions."

"Timber operations and an iron ore mine," James had interrupted: he’d looked M&M up in his directory.

George had nodded, "We also have the misfortune to be importers of cars that the Cabinet like."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Put very simply," George had explained, "Government ministers are a major pain in the rear. They demand immediate attention, terrorise garage personnel with threats of instant jail, harass you mercilessly, and never pay their bills."

"Then why don't you stop handling their cars?"

"If we did," George had replied, "They'd simply close us down until we changed our mind."

There had been a silence that seemed to go on for ever.

"Ngombia," George had said at last, "Is different from the U.K."

James turned, and walked back into the warehouse. In the shadowy gloom on either side, dust-laden vehicle body parts were stacked haphazardly against the walls. On shelves all around him, dilapidated cardboard boxes held aged, unknown spares for long-forgotten vehicles. Everything, everywhere, was grey with dust and corroded by years of tropical heat and humidity.

Ngombia was, indeed, different.

"M&M imported this vehicle into Ngombia?"

"Yes, Minister."

"You are aware that it is a requirement of the Ministry that all automobile dealers maintain stocks of spare parts for vehicles that they import?"

"Yes, Minister."

"You say the transmission on my car is beyond repair?"

"Yes, Minister."

"And you do not have another transmission in stock?"

"No, Minister."

"You realise that it is essential for me to have my car available at all times for official business?"

"Yes, Minister."

"So, you must airfreight in a new transmission and, in the meantime, provide me with suitable alternative transportation."
Six months into his new appointment, James was facing his first major incident; Agamemnon Nautilus Nagbeh, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Transportation, had just destroyed the transmission on his official limousine. Or, at least, his driver had. He had done so by driving over a rock on the road to the Minister’s farm, splitting the housing, and driving on until forced to a smoking halt. The Minister now wished to have his car restored to health forthwith. Payment was not a subject to be discussed: at least, not if M&M wished to stay in business.

"Two things," Said George later, "Just two things."

James waited.

"One, maximise ministerial happiness; two, minimise M&M’s costs."

James got up to leave. He was at the door of the office when George called after him.

"Have a word with Charles Nyamplu; he might have some ideas. He and Nagbeh were at school together."

"The minister's not terribly happy," Said Charles.

"No," Agreed James, "He's not. As far as he's concerned, we supplied the car, it's gone wrong, he's the Minister of Commerce and we're to blame."

"You got the drift," Observed Charles.

"Nagbeh has demanded a courtesy car while his own is in our garage," Continued James, "A new one, of at least equal standing to his own."

"Naturally," Charles shrugged.

"We'd have to airfreight a complete new transmission from the States," James pointed out, "The cost would be horrific."

"On top of which," Added Charles, "Nagbeh would have beaten his courtesy car to death driving to his farm every weekend."

"By the time we got it back," Said James, "It would be worth next to nothing."

Charles was unperturbed. "It costs a lot to keep a minister happy."

"The pity is," Said James, "We wouldn't have made him happy. In his eyes, we'd have done no more than was necessary."

Charles sighed, "Got any other bright ideas?"

"Yes," James surprised himself with his own confidence, "Don't lend him a car; give him one."

"Jeez," Charles shook his head in disbelief, "One minute you're worried about the cost of lending the minister a car; the next you want to give him one."

"That's right," James was warming to his theme, "Take him to the best restaurant in town, present the car to him as a mark of our esteem and appreciation. He'd love being able to brag about the deal he pulled."

"I'm sure he would," Observed Charles dryly, "But it would cost us a bomb."

James disagreed.

"We wouldn’t have to provide a courtesy car, and we could sea-freight in a transmission for his old car, instead of air-freighting it. We’d save a bundle. Besides, just think what the ministerial goodwill might be worth."

Charles was silent for a few moments.

"You know, James," He said eventually, "You might just do rather well in Ngombia."

"I like the idea," Said George later, "Now you and Charles sort it out."

"You don't think you should make the presentation?"

"No, James," Said George, "I don't. If people here think I'm the one who solves their problems, they'll keep on bringing them to my door. In which case," He added darkly, "Your job would be redundant."

They dined at Sabbatini's on Friday.

Set halfway up Tuehville’s only hill where, during the city's chronic power cuts, breezes eased the worst of the stifling humidity, Sabbatini's restaurant was Ngombia's number one meeting and eating spot. There, deals were done, new relationships quietly nurtured, and old ones discreetly sustained. There was not a government minister or senior manager who did not find reason to dine on the hill at least once a week. The list was long of customers who, over the years, had found reason to be grateful for the cuisine, wines, and ambience that were so conducive to mellifluous negotiations.

"Dammit!" Agamemnon Nagbeh beamed delightedly.

Heavy with food and alcohol, he swayed gently as he stood between Charles and James on the sidewalk outside Sabbatini's.

"Dammit," He repeated, "M&M is alright!"

The sultry afternoon heat weighed down on them like a steamy blanket. In front of them, Nagbeh's new prize glistened in the sunlight. He eyed it covetously. Light emerald green metallic; his favourite colour. Few people knew that. Nagbeh knew instinctively that this car was a good omen.

The engine idled silently, a faint soft burble from the exhaust the only evidence of life. James opened the rear door of the sedan; a wave of cool air wafted out. Nagbeh held out his hand.

"My friends," He smiled, grasping each of their hands warmly in turn, "You know how to do business. I do not think you will have big problems this year."

Nagbeh folded his bulk in to the automobile, sinking deep into the rear seat. James shut the door, and stood back as the car moved off. He and Charles watched as it slid silently down the hill, the rolls of flesh on the back of the Minister's neck visible through the rear window.

"What a good thing it was," James confided to Charles, "That you went to school with Nagbeh; I’d never have known about Emerald Green."

"So," Enquired Julie that evening, "Did any morsels of priceless inside information fall from the table of power at lunch?"

James reached behind him, trying to do up the buttons on his back-to-front shirt: Tom and Helen were holding a Vicars and Tarts fancy dress party that evening.

"None that we'd make any money out of," James had his elbows over his ears as he groped for the top button at the back of his neck, "But get ready to be uncomfortable next dry season."

Julie was pulling on a pair of black fishnet tights.

"It's always uncomfortable in the dry season," She remarked, "What's so special about the next one?"

"Power and water shortages," Said James.

"Why?"

"Ever thought where Tuehville's electricity comes from?"

Julie had to admit that it was not a topic that had greatly exercised her curiosity.

"Two sources," Said James, "The hydro-electric dam up the St. Luke river, and an old gas turbine station." He wriggled his arms uncomfortably inside the straitjacket of his reversed shirt.

"Hooray," Said Julie, "I'm so glad you told me."

"The turbine station is out of commission and will be for months. PUA are running their hydro-electric plant flat out."

"Why's that a problem?" Julie teetered around the bedroom; black lacy bra, black fishnet tights, black stiletto heels.

"The problem," James was beginning to feel singularly unvicarly, "Is that, in a few weeks time, there won't be enough of a head of water at the dam to generate any power."

"I suppose that means even more power cuts," Julie sighed. She bent down to pick up a miniscule mini skirt off the floor, "They're a real pest if you've got a bridge morning going."

"It's going to be a bit more awkward than that," Said James, "St. Luke is the only source of water for Tuehville. There are going to be water cuts as well."

"What?" Julie was horrified, "No electricity and no water?" She grimaced, "Parties are going to be fun, aren't they?"

James watched as Julie hitched herself into her microbrief mini skirt, and thought what a powerful combination were innocence and wickedness.

Chapter thirteen

"Corporate gifts," George loaded a second carton of whisky into the back of his car, "For our logging customers."

The rains had ended, and roads up-country had dried out. It was time, said George, to visit each of the twenty-two timber concessions scattered throughout Ngombia's interior.

"We'll start tomorrow," George breathed deeply as he eyed the remaining six cartons that sat on the dusty road beside the car, "The first leg's a longish one."

They set off early, the warm grey mists of dawn still clinging to the trees by the roadside, the massive radio antenna on the rear of their car swaying like a deep-sea fishing rod. They drove steadily eastwards across open swamp and scrubland, the landscape empty of human habitation save for the occasional lone palm-frond hut.

About two hours later, the open landscape grew increasingly crowded with bushes and clumps of palm trees. The first of a straggle of mud huts appeared, surrounded by gaggles of hens, goats and small children.

"Tpoteh village," Announced George, weaving between potholes at a steady sixty five miles per hour, "The surfaced road ends here."

The car flew off the end of the road and dropped like a stone onto bone-hard, washboarded laterite, ramming James into his seat. Red dust plumed up instantly in a massive cloud behind them. The car filled with brain-numbing noise as the wheels hammered over the rock-hard ruts with relentless violence. James clung grimly to the door handle: disintegration could not be many minutes away.

It was several miles before George slowed to a halt. James waited for him to announce that he'd decided to abandon the trip.

"Here," Instructed George, "You drive."

"Me?" James was stunned, "Where?"

George grinned.

"Just follow the road. After about a hundred and fifty miles it reaches Pelepah, then forks; we take the left one." He unbuckled his seat belt and got out of the car. James did the same; he wondered if skydivers felt like this before their first jump.

"Nothing to it," George reassured him, "It's a bit like driving on ball bearings."

George buckled himself into his seat.

"Try not to brake too suddenly," He advised, "Especially on bends."

James was surprised at how quickly he adjusted to the constant noise and vibration, and to the occasional sideways hops and skips of the rear wheels on the corrugated surface. The road twisted and turned through mile after mile of seemingly endless jungle; no open spaces, and nothing to see except walls of bushes and trees on either side. From ground to eye level, every leaf and every blade of grass beside the road was coated thick with brown-red dust.

"Gets more interesting after Pelepah," Said George, "The high bush begins there."

Shortly before noon, the jungle began to thin, opening out into a broad green plain, dotted with shrubs and small trees. The road bent in a gradual curve to the right, crossing a wide, rock strewn riverbed, before snaking up a distant hill. On the faraway summit, James could just make out a gathering of huts and shacks.

"Pelepah," George yawned and leant back in his seat, "It's got a couple of small stores. We'll stop there for a bite to eat and stretch our legs."

"Carbide lamps!" James picked up what looked like a coalminer's lamp from the creaking wooden counter, "I thought those went out with the Model T." He held it up in front of him, "And what on earth's the strap on it for?"

James gazed around him, fascinated; the store was an Aladdin’s cave of frontiering treasures. On the warped, dust-laden shelves, patent medicines jostled for space with crude machetes, bales of coloured cloth and packets of tobacco; hammers, nails, knives and tins of powdered milk; bags of flour, packets of tea and boxes of candles; pots, pans and enamelled basins. Most of it seemed to have come from China. Curled up in a corner, a boy of about ten slept on top of a brown hessian mountain of rice sacks.

At the front, the store had neither door nor window nor wall; it simply opened on to the dusty packed-earth road. It was owned, as were the two other stores in Pelepah, by one of three Lebanese brothers: their sole source of supply was a general import-export house in distant Tuehville, owned by their cousin.

George took the lamp from James and hooked the strap over his head. "Night hunting," He explained, "Tie it on your head, and off you go. Shine it in the face of a leopard, and the animal freezes. Gives you time to shoot." He pulled the apparatus off his head and put it back down on the counter, "Or so I'm told."

They sauntered back out into the sun; James could feel his shirt clinging soggily to his back.

"Boss, you want Rokor?"

By the side of the store, a wizened market-woman was tending a small charcoal brazier; on it lay four singed, soot-blackened corncobs.

"Roast corn," George translated, "Try one. They're tough as old boots, but they taste good if you're hungry."

They ambled slowly down the middle of Pelepah's only street, avoiding the green slime of the open drains on either side. James gnawed valiantly until his jaws ached, then gave up and decided he wasn't quite hungry enough.

They arrived back at their car, and James waited while George leant against the side, contentedly chewing the last of his cob.

"Hmmm," He murmured to James over the roof of the car, "I really must remember to invite Egon Ronay round one day."

George tossed the cob-stem into nearby bushes.

"My turn to drive," He opened his door, slid down into the seat, and started the engine.

An hour later, they stopped at the roadside.

"Let's take a leak," Suggested George.

As they stood by the side of the car all seemed silent, save for the creaking of the engine as it cooled. Gradually, as his ears adjusted, James became aware of the intense, incessant insect song that was so much a part of Ngombia. The sound seemed to swell and fill the air, broken occasionally by the raucous cry of some strange, unseen creature hidden in the trees. The dusty brown road baked in the sun, hemmed in on either side by massive dark green bushes. The heat and stillness was oppressive; there was not a breath of wind. James was sweltering.

"The heat's not so bad at this time in the afternoon," George opened the passenger door and knocked the dust off his shoe against the sill, "In the morning, before the humidity's burnt off, it can be a bit uncomfortable."

Another hour passed.

"We turn left in a couple of miles," George was watching every tree as it passed.

James checked the speedometer; three hundred and twenty seven miles from Tuehville, eighty-seven from Pelepah. 'It's a good idea to learn and remember distances', George had said before they set out, 'Just in case you find yourself travelling at night. One tree's very much the same as another in the dark.'

"Just here," George pointed through the windscreen.

A small white wooden board about fifteen inches square was nailed to a tree; on it were painted the letters 'GTE".

"Forget the sign," Said George, "Remember the termite hill beside it; that’ll be there long after the board's rotted."

James swung off the road, and down a narrow winding track. Dark green bushes, twice the height of a man, walled them in. Leaves and branches brushed against the sides of the car.

"About twelve miles more," Said George, and slumped back in his chair, half dozing.

After what seemed an eternity, the track widened and they emerged into a large clearing, several hundred yards wide and half a mile long. Dotted at random around the scrub-covered open space were half-a-dozen trailer caravans, each sheltered by a wooden roof and verandah. Two of the trailer homes had tiny gardens. At the far end of the clearing, a white bungalow, slightly larger than the trailers, stood next to an open-sided, tin-roofed workshop. Across the floor of the clearing ran ragged gullies, eighteen inches deep and twice as wide, cut like miniature Grand Canyons into the coarse gravelly red soil by last year's rains. Around the edge of the clearing the massive dark green wall of the jungle stood, silent and gloomy in the late afternoon twilight. It seemed to watch their every move.

"This is it," George yawned and stretched in his seat, "GTE Camp; our home for the next fortnight."

Instalment 5

 
Back to previous page
  Sign Our Guestbook Guestbook by GuestWorldView Our Guestbook
  Please remember that all the stories are Copyright© 2000 Jan Luthman, and must not be copied, distributed or incorporated in other works without my prior written consent.
In particular, they should not be passed off as original works by any other person.

Fables ........... Author ............ Childrens stories ............ Contact details