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 5

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Chapter fourteen

"Grebo Timber Enterprises," Said George, "Owned by Worldwide Resources of Houston, Texas, and the largest timber operation in Ngombia. Their spares business is worth millions."

They stood on a small hillock at the edge of a clearing, watching a wheeled log loader lower a massive tree trunk onto a waiting pole trailer. The previous night a light dry-season shower had fallen, and the air steamed in the morning sun. In the centre of the clearing, a large, mud-spattered white man stood directing operations, his shirt open to his navel.

"And that's Grebo's bush manager, Steve Harrison."

As if hearing his name, the man turned and saw them. He waved and started forward to meet them, his feet slipping on the shiny wet ground.

"George Sanders," Steven Harrison beamed, "How're you doing?"

He extended a massive arm and shook George's hand vigorously.

"Good to see you, you old rogue," George grinned, "How’s business?"

Steven shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

"Oh, not bad, not bad," He grinned back at George, "But your bloody spare parts prices are murderous."

George had heard this one before. He and Steven fought the same battle every visit and the answer never changed.

During the dry season, GTE's trucks worked flat out, thundering down ruinously rough roads to Grebo port hauling trailers laden with massive, and massively valuable, hardwood logs. Availability of spares on M & M's shelves was vital, but it cost money, lots of it. Warehousing, finance, staff, deterioration and obsolescence; not to mention the risk of doing business in Ngombia in the first place. It all had a price and, ultimately, that price had to be paid.

"I could make my spares cheaper," Said George, "If I just stocked the fast-moving items but," He nodded in the direction of the truck and pole trailer, "If that machine over there went down for ten days waiting for a spare part to be shipped in, what would that cost you?"

"O.K," Steven grinned, and clamped an arm around George's shoulders, "Forget the spares; let’s talk about new machines instead."

They wandered off, Steve's arm still around George's shoulder, heading for the shade at the edge of the clearing.

An hour later, the haggling was over. Sat together on an abandoned log, Steven and George were both looking enormously pleased with themselves. 'Tweedledum and Tweedledee,’ Thought James.

"James," Steven’s voice interrupted James thoughts, "You and George will be joining me for a noggin, won't you?"

It was abominably hot and humid; sweat trickled down the back of James' neck, and his shirt and trousers were sodden. Flies buzzed infuriatingly about his head. The apparent lack of discomfort of the other two irritated him, but politeness compelled him to smile.

"That's very kind of you," He said.

The noggin lasted through the afternoon and late into the evening.

"Steven's an old west-coaster," George and James walked back across the compound to their sleeping quarters. The night air was soft and warm; above them, rimmed in colourless moonlight, heavy dark clouds hung silent and still, "It would have been unthinkable to leave before we'd finished the bottle."

Bottles,’ thought James.

"He's as rough as a tree stump," George’s voice came out of the blackness, "And he's a little eccentric in deciding who'll be his friends. He's been in the bush for almost twenty years, and I've known him for most of those."

Swarms of storm-flies gyrated around the camp floodlights. The never-ending songs of unseen insects filled the air. From far away in the darkness came the distant steady thump of the camp generator. Gravel crunched under their feet.

"Steve's never, ever asked me for a commission or kickback," George stabbed at an invisible stone with his boot, "But something still tells me that, underneath it all, the man's a crook."

They arrived at the door of their trailer home; George pushed it open.

"Or would be if he could."

Chapter fifteen

James’ trip upcountry had been followed by one of the longest and hottest dry seasons in living memory. For months, PUA had run their hydroelectric plant flat out, eventually exhausting the already depleted St. Luke reservoir. Power and mains water were now available only at night. The last stand-by generating set had long since been sold, and tanker drivers were plying a thriving trade.

It was wretchedly hot. James' office, like all others, had been without air-conditioning all day. Sodden in the stifling humidity, he gazed wistfully at the green grass and multi-coloured crocuses on the March page of his 'In Britain' calendar. He longed for his nighttime shower and the possibility of air-conditioning.

"Mr. Davidson?"

James rose from behind his desk; the proffered hand might have been that of a woman, and its owner well past youth, but its grip was firm, assured.

"My name is Gertrude Sharman."

James' visitor sat down, stationing a massive fortress of a handbag squarely in the middle of her lap.

"I would like to buy a new truck," Gertrude Sharman paused, "A fleet of new trucks."

"From ourselves?" Gertrude's Garbage had never before dealt with M&M.

"Maybe," James’ visitor settled back into the chair, resting her hands on the ramparts of her handbag, "If your offer is the most attractive."

"Is there anything that you would particularly like us to consider in preparing our offer?"

Gertrude smiled.

"Let us just say," She had a remarkably direct gaze, "That I would prefer to deal with someone sympathetic to my ideals."

James hadn't got a clue what Gertrude Sharman was on about; he stalled as diplomatically as he could.

"We'll do our best to come up with an appropriate proposal."

"I'm sure you will, Mr. Davidson."

Gertrude Sharman was not one to waste time. She hoisted her handbag back up off the plateau of her lap and rose to her feet.

"I'll wait to hear from you," She said.

James stood and held out his hand.

"I'm sorry we couldn't offer you a coffee or tea."

"No coffee? No tea?" Gertrude smiled disapprovingly, "My, my, how little you and I have to worry about."

James was caught off-guard again.

"I'm sorry?"

"Mr. Davidson, you and I cannot have coffee or tea this afternoon because there is no power to boil our water," Gertrude lowered her handbag onto James' desk, "But some of us do not even have water. The streams are dry, and the poor cannot afford tankers; they must walk to what is left of the river," James was taken aback by the sudden strength of emotion in Gertrude’s voice, "They must walk, Mr. Davidson," Gertrude continued, "With old buckets and rusty basins, then walk back again, taking care not to spill too much. That is miles, Mr Davidson, miles and miles. Every morning, every evening, every day; for every drop that they need."

Gertrude swept her handbag from the desk-top.

"Think about it, Mr Davidson."

James did think about it.

"What should I do, Charles?" He squeezed a tea bag hard against the inside of his cup with a spoon, "What's the best way to handle Gertrude?"

A cup of hot water, a dusty teabag in the saucer, and a battered tin jug of lukewarm condensed milk; such was M&M's office tea. It ranked high on the list of the world's worst.

James struggled to infuse a hint of colour and flavour into his drink, "I got the impression that a big discount wasn't her main consideration."

"Nah," Charles sucked through his teeth dismissively, "You're right; it isn't."

"She told me she'd prefer to deal with someone sympathetic to her ideals, whatever they are."

Charles thought for a while.

"There's something not many people know," He said eventually, "Gertrude likes to get involved in charity work; she might appreciate some support."

"You mean, like a donation?"

"No, man, that's too easy; anyone can write out a cheque. Think of something more imaginative."

"I'll try," Said James.

And he did.

"Where on earth did it come from?" Asked James.

The small black furry ball nestled in Julie's lap, fast asleep. On the couch beside her, Lucy and Annie reached out with timid fascination to stroke it.

"Helen Edwards found the litter on her doorstep," Explained Julie, "Nobody knows if there's an owner, and she couldn't just let them starve. She wondered if we'd like to have one."

Julie picked the little black ball out of her lap and put it down on the floor. It wobbled uncertainly over to James's left shoe and began tugging at the lace. Lucy and Annie watched, spellbound.

"It's mostly bush dog," Said Julie, "But Helen thinks there's a bit of Labrador in there somewhere."

James reached down and stroked the furry ball softly; it licked his finger.

"I never had a dog," He murmured, half to himself, then, "How on earth do you housetrain them?"

"You don't have to," Replied Julie, "They live outside, otherwise you end up with ticks all over the house."

"How about vets and innoculations and things?"

For just a second, Julie's face hardened.

"Forget it," She said, "Ngombia doesn't even have enough doctors for people. Pets either survive, or they don't."

Oblivious to the discussions going on above it, the little furry ball squatted.

"Look!" Annie squeaked in delight, "Puddle!"

"Oh, wow, great," Muttered Julie, "The entire city of Tuehville without water and we have our own little tanker deliver it free on the carpet."

Thus did the Davidsons acquire their dog, and Puddle his name.

And James the solution to his problem.

"Fit tanks to her new garbage trucks?" George was floundering, "What on earth would Gertrude do with tanker trucks?"

"Distribute water free to the shanty town areas."

"But why?"

"Charles tells me she's heavily involved in charity work."

"So why can't we just provide a donation?"

James shrugged.

"Why don't we just provide a donation to the British Women's Association?"

"I'm not with you."

"Every year, Nina Murchison and the BWA Committee work themselves to a frazzle over their fete. Why?"

"We all know why," Said George, "To raise funds for charity."

"Why don't they save themselves a load of hassle, forget the fete and just ask every British company in Tuehville for a cheque?"

"Would hardly be the same," Murmured George.

"No," James Agreed, "No visible righteousness."

George's eyebrows rose in query.

"If you write out a cheque," Explained James, "You're just rich, but," He continued, "Organise a fete in aid of charity, and you become a pillar of society." He shrugged, "You’re seen to be doing something worthy: you’ve got visible righteousness."

George sighed.

"You're a cynic," He observed, "But you may be right."

"And," Added James, "It would be the same for Gertrude: particularly if the tankers had her name on the side."

George thought for a moment.

"What happens when the rains come and all this is over?"

"Gertrude swaps the tanks for garbage bodies."

"I rather suspect," Said George dryly, "That we'll be the ones who do the swapping for her, at our expense."

James was ready for that one.

"I allowed for that in my costing."

George raised his hands in mock surrender.

"You win," He said, "Go sell the woman some trucks."

It was still suffocatingly hot. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on the back of Gertrude's smooth plump black hand as she signed her name.

"May I ask what gave you this idea?"

James scratched the back of his head awkwardly.

"It was sort of a combined family effort," He told her.

Gertrude smiled.

"That's nice," She said, "I like a good family: everybody should have one."

She dropped her chequebook into the cavernous depths of her handbag.

"You will, of course," She switched instantaneously back into business mode, "Be able to exchange the tanks for garbage bodies later on?"

"Of course."

"Free of charge?"

James gave himself a mental pat on the back.

"Naturally."

Gertrude smiled.

"It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr Davidson," She tore the cheque from its book, "I hope that we meet again.

Chapter sixteen

James sat in his office and stared at nothing. The dry season had ended, it was pouring, and in two years time he would be thirty years old.

At ten past eight, Charles breezed in through the door, an emerald green blur of good cheer.

"What's up James?" Charles sprayed raindrops energetically across the floor, "You look like you just forgot where you put your brain."

James looked up and smiled weakly.

"I feel old," He said.

Charles sucked disapprovingly through his teeth.

"Bullshit, man, you're one day younger than you will be tomorrow, same as you are everyday. Come on," He hauled James out of his chair, "We need to talk. Let's go grab a breakfast at Willie's."

Wilhelm Wiesenthal's modest restaurant was informal, neutral, and discreet and, within its walls, the lesser cogs of the Ngombian economy were oiled. There, over pepper soup with palm butter and cassava, pitta bread with hommus and chicken livers, or tea and toast with bacon and eggs, Lebanese garage proprietors met government purchasing officers, Asian importers met Ministry of Commerce price inspectors, and the junior ranks of the British business community discussed other men's wives. It was known to all simply as 'Willie's'.

Charles' driver double-parked outside the restaurant. He watched as his passengers disappeared from view, then tilted his seat back as far as it would go. Within seconds he was fast asleep: he and the car were well known to Tuehville police; he would not be disturbed.

"You made some good friends over the past months," Charles crunched happily at the fishheads in his soup, "You should keep on looking after them."

"Thanks, Charles, I intend to; but the question is, how well?"

"How well?" Charles almost choked, "How well? The Minister of Commerce and the wife of the richest man in the country? You just look after them, period."

"Charles, I have the entire Cabinet running around in our cars; there’s no way I can look after all of them the same way."

"Who said anything about the same way for all? You think you need to look after the Minister of Tourism the same way you look after the Minister of Commerce or the Minister of Finance?" Charles sucked loudly and disparagingly between his teeth, "Come on, man, use your brains."

"O.K.," James shrugged the topic to a close, "Point taken."

"James," Charles was prising pieces of fishhead from between his teeth with one of the wooden toothpicks that Willie's provided on every table, "How long have you been in Ngombia?"

"Just over a year."

"How many more are you going to be here?"

"Never really thought about it very much. A few."

"Then what? Back home?"

"Probably."

"James, you're not building a career out here. When you get back home, all your old friends will be years ahead of you."

'Busy chasing careers back home….' From far away, the words of Bill Haslam echoed in James' mind: the meeting seemed a century ago.

"So," Charles probed, "What will you have instead?"

"Well," James stirred uncomfortably, "We'll have a little bit of savings."

"A little bit of savings." Charles mimicked him, "James, you don't need a little bit, you need a great big bit."

James felt even more uncomfortable; he had a nagging suspicion that Charles was right.

"So what am I supposed to do?" James asked.

"James, you ever thought of running your own business?"

"Here?"

"Yes."

"No."

"Want to try?"

"What kind of business?"

"James," Asked Charles, "Have you heard of the O.A.U?"

"You mean the Organisation of African Unity?"

"You got it in one."

"Of course I've heard of it," Said James.

"You know anything about it?"

"Not much," James admitted.

"Then let me tell you."

Established some years previously in 1963, the OAU had its headquarters in Addis Ababa. Every African state except South Africa and Namibia was a member. The Organisation maintained the 'Africa Group' at the United Nations; one of its principal aims was the development and restructuring of agriculture in the African continent.

The highlight of the OAU calendar was its annual assembly of heads of state and government. These summit conferences rotated from one member state to another, and the opportunity to play host was a highly prized honour.

"Fascinating," Said James, "But what's it got to do with me?"

"Four years from now, the OAU conference will be held in Ngombia."

"Whoopee for Ngombia," Said James, "But what am I supposed to do about it? Arrange hotel accommodation? Book air tickets? Set up as a security guard service?"

"James, hosting the OAU is a once in a lifetime thrill," Explained Charles, "Whoever's staging the event blows everything to make sure their place looks bigger, better, newer, grander and richer than anybody else's."

"Sounds great, Charles, but there's just one small snag."

"What's that?"

"How's Ngombia going to pay for this jamboree?"

"Easy, man, the USA and USSR will be falling over themselves trying to work out how they can fund the shindig. They both know that if you want to keep a friend in Africa, you help him pay for the party when it's his turn."

"Charles, western governments give aid to help the starving poor; not to pay for the frolics of cabinet ministers."

"So?" Replied Charles, "Some clever diplomat will have to think up a way of funding it under a legitimate aid programme. But that's not our worry; all we've got to do is figure out what's needed, and sell it to the government."

"Just like that, eh?"

Charles grinned.

"Why not? I've got the political contacts at this end; you know how to arrange suppliers at the other end. Between us, we could sew this thing up."

"Of course," James voice bore just a tinge of sarcasm, "No-one else is thinking of doing anything similar."

"No-one like you and me."

"If we did," James toyed with his teaspoon, "I'd have to leave M&M."

Charles shrugged.

"If you want to fly, you've got to quit the nest."

"I wonder what Julie would think."

Julie thought James was quite daft.

"You can have as many dreams as you want," She warned, "But just make sure they stay in your pipe where they belong."

"I'd still like to have a crack at my own business."

"But why?"

"Excitement: the chance to build something of my own," He shrugged, "To be rich."

"Rich?" Julie had never thought of James as being avaricious, "Do you really want money that much?"

"It's not just money," He knew he wasn't handling it very well, "I'd like an achievement in my life."

"Isn't a happy and secure childhood for the children an achievement?" A hint of irritation had crept into Julie's voice, "Besides, you're supposed to be running M&M Motors."

The difficult bit; James had been dreading it.

"I'd have to leave."

"Now I know you're not being serious," Julie wasn't even bothered enough to be angry.

A week later, she'd completely forgotten the discussion.

Chapter seventeen

"Some weeks ago," Dr. Dempster confided to James, "I was talking with God."

James glanced surreptitiously around the table; forks continued to pass from plates to mouths and back without hitch, and conversation murmured on undisturbed. He wondered if this were a joke.

"I was telling Him," Alan Dempster ran a hand through his tousled black hair and hitched his tie-dye tee shirt into a more comfortable position, "I was telling Him about the difficulties of maintaining our clinic when we are so desperately short of funds."

It all sounded so matter of fact, not like a joke at all.

"Which clinic is that?" James asked cautiously.

"AMEN."

"AMEN?"

"Alleluiah Missionaries Embracing Ngombia," Alan didn't bat an eyelid.

"Missionaries?"

"Yes, missionaries," Dr. Dempster smiled, "And we welcome new faces at our services. You don't have to be a Christian to join us, although we’d hope you became one."

James realised there never had been a joke: he listened as Alan Dempster continued.

"We have a station about halfway between Tuehville and Gbedeh airport," He explained, "With a church, school, hospital, clinic, and a radio station. Our hospital is one of only two in the country. The other is the City hospital; you’ve probably heard about it."

James had; not very encouragingly.

"They lose a lot of patients," Alan sighed; he sounded tired, "But they, like us, have little money for medicines and equipment. And," His face tightened fractionally, "What little they do have is all too often stolen by senior medical staff for use in their own private practices."

There were no clinics in the interior. To obtain treatment, country folk had to travel enormous distances by pulley-pulley buses on roads that were no more than dirt tracks through the bush. They would do so only when all other traditional medicines had failed.

"By the time they arrive at City's doorstep," Alan concluded, "All that most of them can do is just die."

James had never in his life met a missionary; until that moment he hadn't been at all sure that they even existed outside Sunday school stories about Dr. Livingstone.

"Have you been a missionary long?" He asked.

"This is my wife's and my first post," Dr Dempster told him, "We've been here just three years. Some of our brothers and sisters have been here over thirty."

"Thirty years?" James was staggered, "Here? In Tuehville?"

"No," Dr. Dempster shrugged lightly, "Some have been called to bring the word of the Lord to people in the interior."

"But how?" James protested, "I mean, most bush people can't even read or write."

"Many of them," Said Alan, "Don't even have a written language for them to learn to read or write."

"So where on earth do you start?"

The Wycliffe Bible Translators, Alan told him, had dedicated life-times to building new, written languages for what might be called the small tongues of the world. Tribal tongues such as those found in Ngombia.

"Of course," He added, "Building a new written language is one thing. Teaching those who speak it to read it is quite another."

Dr. Dempster took a sip of water from the glass beside him; like everyone else at AMEN, he did not drink alcohol.

"But, eventually," He said, "Some do learn, and another small candle will have been lit in a dark corner of the world."

"It sounds," Remarked James, "Like something out of 'Famous Bible Stories'; your faith must be very strong."

"Thank you," Said Alan, "It is."

"But how does that help you to deal with all the corruption in this place?" James was intrigued, "Everyone I've met just says that's the way the game is played here. Don't you ever feel despondent?"

Alan Dempster smiled, a little sadly,

"Of course we do," He acknowledged, "It is very easy to give way to doubt, to anger, to despair. But, at the end of the day, God is there to guide us."

James scratched the side of his head, puzzled.

"You talk as if you are able to actually communicate with God," He said.

"Yes."

"But how?" James was finding Alan's matter-of-fact accounts of divine conversations increasingly disconcerting, "I mean, I remember Sunday school as a child; I used to say prayers, along with everyone else, but God never spoke back to me; not once."

Dr. Dempster looked James straight in the eye, plainly not in the least disconcerted.

"Perhaps," He suggested mildly, "You never listened."

Julie was thoughtful on the way home.

"They were a nice couple, the Dempsters, weren't they?"

"He was certainly different," Acknowledged James, "But I didn't meet her. What was her name?"

"Sarah," Replied Julie, "She's very quiet; a bit timid, but just as committed as her husband."

Julie lapsed into unaccustomed silence.

"You know," She said at last, "We haven't been to church once since we came to Ngombia. I sometimes miss it, don't you?"

James didn't very much; he hmm'd non-committally.

"It's Christmas in a few weeks time," Julie went on, "Perhaps we could try and see what an AMEN service is like?"

"Do they have evening services?" Asked James. He didn't mind attending, but wasn't too sure about doing so in the heat of the midday sun. He decided that he wouldn't make a very good missionary.

AMEN chapel had no soaring spire. No arches, apse or ambulatory graced its lines. Chancel, transept, and gallery were but words of another tongue, another time. Instead, standing at the eastern end of a crescent shaped beach, on a small hummock that caught the sea breezes, AMEN chapel was no more than humbly utilitarian. But it was full; full to bursting with a singing, chanting, technicolour congregation praying and swaying in a sea of faith.

"My text today," Alan Dempster called out to his congregation, "Is taken from the Gospel according to Saint Mathew, Chapter sixteen, verse twenty-six."

An agitated chorus of rustling pages whispered through the church, like dry autumn leaves blowing amongst the pews. Alan waited patiently until all had found the right place.

"For what is a man profited," Alan did not read from the bible on the lectern behind which he stood, but instead spoke straight to the sea of faces before him, "If he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul."

Alan paused. His congregation waited silently in comfortable, attentive anticipation, ready to be entertained. And they were not disappointed. For the next thirty minutes, Alan delivered a scathing indictment of greed and corruption: an impassioned, unequivocal condemnation of those who abused trust or power for their own material gains; of those who turned their backs on their Maker and pursued the road to easy riches, and ultimate perdition.

James was electrified. What might have passed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands for a standard Sabbath-Day warning of hell-fire and damnation was in Ngombia nothing other than a blazing call to insurrection. James felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and, as the congregation stood for the final hymn, he wondered, not altogether idly, whether Ngombia executed enemies of the State, and how.

After the service, James and his family filed out into the blinding sunlight to find Alan and Sarah Dempster waiting by the chapel door, both clearly delighted to see them.

James held out his hand.

"Brave sermon," He said to Alan, "I'm amazed the authorities haven't slung you behind bars."

Alan shrugged resignedly.

"I told no terrors for them," He observed, "Senior government officials go to church with their families every Sunday, and listen to the preacher fulminate against the sins of the flesh." He smiled briefly, without humour, "And it's the ministers of state who say 'Amen' the loudest. They're like the wealthy in Victorian England: models of rectitude in public, but privately morally rotten to the very cores of their souls."

Standing close to her husband, Sarah's gaze fell on Lucy, perspiring in stoic silence, and Annie clinging damply and steadfastly to her sister's hand like a sticky pink sweet,

"We live down by the beach," She offered hesitantly, "Why don't you come back with us for a cold drink?"

They walked with the Dempsters down the little dusty track that led from the chapel, meandering between the palm trees that lined the shore and past the tiny graveyard.

"Most of those buried here are Ngombian folk who worked with us at AMEN," Alan explained, "But a few are people like ourselves who came here with the mission and spent their lives in Ngombia." He stopped, indicating a gravestone set amongst a bank of cheerful pink and white Periwinkles, "Martha and Wesley Harman," He said, "They lived here almost thirty five years; Ngombia was their home. They chose to rest here."

"I think it's beautiful," Julie was clearly entranced, "I'd love to be here, overlooking the sea, surrounded by people who cared; not in some anonymous corporation cemetery in dreary grey England."

James was silent; he still wasn't quite sure whether Alan Dempster was an unusually brave man, or just a very foolish one.

Instalment 6

 
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