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 6

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Chapter eighteen

"You'll probably find," Tom Edwards lifted his Santa Claus beard so that James could hear him, "Business with Gbang falling off a bit."

Christmas barbecue on the beach. James hadn't been at all sure about it. Christmas was supposed to be snow and sledges and frosted breath on moonlit nights. A beach barbecue in the sun didn't sound right at all.

Maybe it didn't to him, Julie had said, but it did to her. That's how she'd grown up, and she couldn't bear the miserable English Christmas weather after her father had retired; made it all seem so bleak and dreary.

James had acquiesced, as Julie had known he would. Besides, Tom had been volunteered as Father Christmas and would need moral support.

Tom dropped his sack of presents on the sand, settled himself down beside it and hauled a brown, still cold bottle of beer from the folds of his costume.

"Climax are not at all happy with the Minister of Mines," Tom patted at his bright red robe, like an absent-minded smoker searching for matches, "Or with Ngombia."

"Greedy, was he?"

"Very," Said Tom, "And it rankles."

"But why should they be unhappy with Ngombia as well?"

Tom stopped patting, a look of relief on his rubicund face.

"Climax never have liked the place," He withdrew a bottle opener from deep within a hidden pocket, "Ever since the palaver they had over bodies."

"Bodies?"

"Mmm," Tom gritted his teeth as he levered the cap off the bottle, "On the railroad."

There was a hiss and amber-flecked froth bubbled over Tom's fingers. He dropped the cap and opener back in his pocket and raised the bottle to his lips, his tangled white beard matting damply around it. James watched as Tom's Adam's apple bobbed happily up and down.

"It all started," Tom pulled the bottle free of its hairy nest and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "Years ago."

When Gbang mine had opened, the railway line built to carry ore trains from Mount Erskine to Tuehville harbour had proved both irresistible and immensely popular as a footpath through the bush. Eventually, the inevitable had happened.

"He was an old fellow," Tom recounted the story, "Deaf as a post, never heard the train coming up behind him."

"Didn't the driver see him?"

"Ha!" Tom almost choked on the last of his beer, "You ever tried to stop a fully-loaded ore train?"

James had to admit that he hadn't.

"Took miles," Said Tom, "And by then the old boy was in pieces."

James felt slightly sick.

"His family carried the bits up to Mount Erskine," Tom continued with his tale, "And demanded compensation."

"Climax could hardly be unhappy with them for trying."

"No," Agreed Tom, "They weren't. They paid what was asked, and added a modest sum on top as a goodwill gesture."

"So what was the problem?"

"A couple of weeks later, another chopped up corpse was brought in. This time it was an old woman. She'd been run over that morning; they brought the train driver with them to confirm it."

"And?"

They'd taken the bits of body up to the mortuary, said Tom, where Gbang's doctor had had a look at the remains. Been dead for days, he'd told them, dead long before any train got near her.

"You mean?"

"Yup," Tom nodded, "They'd kept the old crone's body after she'd died, then dumped it on the track during the night, out of sight round a bend. The first train down in the morning went straight through her."

James ' stomach was churning.

"What happened in the end?" He croaked.

The family had sued. Gbang Mine had protested its innocence, but nobody had wanted to listen. The courts had simply added a fine to the compensation demanded. Naive, and unfamiliar with third world politics, Climax had appealed. The Minister of Lands and Mines had sensed a popular cause and a lucrative opportunity. The minister had threatened closure, and the rest was history.

"Climax had just invested hundreds of millions," Said Tom, "They couldn't afford to walk away. They bought peace for a small fortune, then discovered that all they'd done was set a precedent for future disbursements. The harassment and mutual distrust have continued to this day." Tom emptied the last of his rapidly warming beer down his throat, "Climax's first real experience of WAWA."

"WAWA?"

"West Africa Wins Again," Said Tom, "It always does."

"But," James pointed out, "Despite all that, Climax still stayed."

"They stayed," Tom dropped his empty bottle back into the depths of his gown, "Because they were making money; lots of it. But they've always been itching for an excuse to pull the plug on Ngombia, and they may soon have one. Western economies are slowing, demand is slackening, and ore prices are falling. Gbang is barely profitable, and Climax have huge new, low-cost reserves to exploit in Brazil."

He straightened his beard and clambered to his feet, swathes of powdery sand clinging to his robes, white against the brilliant red.

"Ngombia depends on iron ore revenues," Tom hoisted his sack over one shoulder and stood, swaying slightly, studying the sea of expectant, childish faces waiting for him across the beach, "If Climax pull the plug, Ngombia goes down the drain."

Father Christmas performed magnificently. He tripped cheerfully and often over his sack and most of the children; consumed half of a monstrous slice of Christmas cake, and lost the other half in his beard; pinched Helen's bottom once (Behave, Helen squeaked, delighted) and Julie's twice (Behave, Helen purred, livid); and, eventually, reluctantly, wove erratically towards the palms from whence he had come. Everyone had got a present; quite often the right one.

Later, as the sun began to set, they sat by the shore and watched the Fanti fishermen launch their boats from the beach and paddle off into the dusk. Half hidden in the gloaming, Lucy was busy building sandcastles for Annie to sit on. Julie leant against James, her head on his shoulder.

"Happy?" She asked.

"Mmm," Murmured James. He was; it had been a good day.

Julie reached out and adjusted his paper hat for him. Her fawn-coloured skin was dusted lightly with salt; the evening breeze had tousled her hair; there was a patch of sand on one cheek.

"I'm glad," She said.

Helen Edwards teetered up and laid an immaculate pink towel carefully on the sand beside them.

"Did I tell you," She lowered herself cautiously, as if worried she might overbalance, "That we're moving?"

"No," Julie lifted her head up off James' shoulder, "Where to?"

"Oh," Helen’s voice was studiedly casual, "Out of town a bit, where it's quieter."

Cheaper’, James thought uncharitably. You could always tell UN personnel; except for the Resident Representative, whose house was provided, they took the cheapest housing and saved their allowances.

"I'll tell you how to get there," Said Helen.

She began to trace a map in the sand with her forefinger, her voice adding a turn by turn commentary. Halfway through, she stopped, her shell-pink fingernail encrusted with sand.

"James," She said accusingly, "You're not listening."

She was right; he wasn't. He sat still and silent, his eyes glazed, not seeing anything.

"Of course," He whispered to himself, "Of course."

Not since Christmas Eve as a five-year-old had he felt such excitement. He longed for tomorrow.

Chapter nineteen

"Charles, tell me where you live."

"You know that, James; Sessaka suburb."

"Try telling me how to get to your house."

"You know that too."

"Pretend I don't."

"O.K.," Charles shrugged, "If you insist."

James listened, drinking his insipid, lukewarm tea with grim determination, waiting until Charles had finished.

"Charles, in the U.K. I can tell you exactly where my house is in three words."

Charles looked vacant.

"Eight, Acacia Avenue."

"So?" Charles still looked vacant.

"Christ, Charles, don't you see?" James put his cup back in its saucer, "What's the name of your street? You don't know, do you? Neither does anyone else. Nor do you know the name of any of the streets near you."

Charles stared at James in silent non-comprehension.

"Charles," James pushed his cup and saucer aside, "There's not one single street name sign anywhere in Tuehville."

Charles was silent for several seconds more, then

"Seems to me," He said at last, "The mayor should be ordering a bunch of them."

"The mayor?" James felt a twinge of disappointment, "Why not Nagbeh?"

"Nagbeh's Ministry of Commerce and Transport," Said Charles, "The Transport bit includes vehicles, highways and road safety. Street names are like municipal park signs; they come under the mayor."

"He could still order from us, though."

"Natch," Shrugged Charles, "But how many?"

"Try counting how many roads there are in Tuehville."

"Hundreds, man," Charles reached out for a toothpick, "And all of them need a sign."

"No, Charles; each one needs two signs."

"Two, eh?"

"At every intersection."

"Two signs? At every intersection? Dammit man, you'd need thousands of them."

"Thousands and thousands, Charles."

Another silence, then.

"James," Charles was pensive, "I just thought of something."

"What?"

"If nobody knows the names of the streets, what do we put on the signs?"

James was stopped in his tracks.

"Damn," He said at last, bitterly disappointed.

It had been such a good idea.

Chapter twenty

"Mummy, Annie and Puddle and me nearly caught a cobra today."

"Puddle and I," Corrected Julie, fishing around in the back seat of her ancient, battle-scarred car for her tennis racket and towel.

"Puddle and I," Said Lucy, "We all of us found this great big black cobra in the rocks and we chased it into one of the storm drains and Puddle stood at one end and barked and we stood at the other end and threw stones in."

Puddle skittered around the car, delighted with himself and his mornings work.

"Did you? That was nice." Julie's voice came muffled from under the front seat where she was trying to retrieve a spilt bag of tennis balls.

"Mummy," Lucy persisted, "Do cobras bite?"

Julie emerged backwards from the car and stood up, her face brick red from a morning on the embassy court with Nina Murchison and Helen Edwards and Andrea Mainwaring. Rupert's annual 'Across the Pond' tennis match between the American and British communities was imminent, and practice had become a social priority.

"Do what bite?"

Puddle jumped hopefully at a passing butterfly,

"Cobras."

"Cobras? Of course they do."

"This one didn't."

"Which one didn't?"

"The one Puddle was barking at."

Julie's eyes froze. Puddle recognised the storm warning cones and tried desperately to pretend that he was a rock.

"One day, dog," She glared at him, "You're going to get bitten; then you'll be sorry."

"How d'you do; I’m Jonathan Swift, second secretary. I believe we're partners for the first match."

Tall, bespectacled, and with prematurely thinning dark hair, Jonathan carried about him an air of earnest confusion. Recently arrived in Ngombia, he was desperately trying to adjust to his first overseas posting. He wrinkled his nose and fidgeted uncomfortably.

"Bit sticky, isn't it?"

Daylight had broken on Rupert's tournament and the first of the competitors and their supporters were milling around sleepily in the early morning humidity. Shafts of colourless sunlight, portents of the heat to come, stabbed blindingly between the slender trunks of the trees that surrounded the British embassy courts.

Jonathan and James' American opponents came up to introduce themselves.

"Hi, I'm Stan Borman, and this here's Vince Yates."

The four men shook hands.

"Vince is an economics analyst with USAID. I'm the embassy archivist; that’s kind of a filing clerk."

Vince intervened.

"Stan's the one with the computer brain; I just try to find useful ways to spend U.S. taxpayers' money in Ngombia."

"And have you?"

"Have I what?"

"Found any useful ways to spend your taxpayers' money."

Vince thought for a few moments; the question was a bit heavy for first thing in the morning.

"I guess that depends on your definition of 'useful'," He replied eventually.

"How about building health clinics up-country?" Suggested James, "Wouldn't that be useful?"

"Mighty useful to folk in the bush," Vince conceded, "And just what all presidents should do for their people."

James tried a few practice swipes with his tennis racquet.

"So why don't they?"

Vince paused for a moment to reflect.

"I guess," He spoke thoughtfully, "It's a case of working the system. If presidents used their own people's taxes to build clinics, then asked us for our people's taxes to build palaces, we'd refuse." He shrugged, "So they do it the other way round."

"You mean, they use their own people’s money to build palaces for themselves, then, when the money runs out, turn to you to look after the starving poor?"

"You got it," Vince agreed, "And it's hard to refuse."

"You’d look like the rich man turning away the starving poor."

Vince nodded.

"And eventually," He said, "The poor become our responsibility, not theirs."

Rupert Mainwaring came bustling through the trees, a slightly crumpled programme clutched in his left hand.

"I say, chaps," Rupert’s gaze swivelled busily between schedule and wristwatch, "Could we buck things up, just a teensy bit?"

The four players wandered down to their allotted court, Rupert clucking and fussing around them like an anxious mother hen. As soon as they were settled, Rupert squawked off, schedule flapping, in search of other tardy competitors. James wondered idly whether, if Rupert stood still, he'd lay an egg.

"Suppose," James returned to his original conversation with Vince, "Suppose you could approve any one project you wanted, what would do the most good for Ngombia?"

Vince turned.

"Easy," Sunlight flashed from his glasses, "Farm to market roads."

"What on earth are they?"

"A network of simple feeder roads," Said Vince, "To give rural farmers access to markets where they could sell their produce. Their lives would be transformed. The long term economic impact on the country would be fundamental."

The project would be huge, said Vince, and would only work if country farmers could sell their produce at a profit. Subsidies on imported rice would have to end, which would mean that rice prices in Tuehville city would have to rise. The president had turned the idea down flat.

"Why? What's so special about rice prices in the city?"

Vince gave James a sideways look.

"People in the interior are invisible. If they can't afford to grow food, they just go hungry," He unzipped his kitbag and pulled out a motley collection of racquets, balls and towels, "But if people in the city can't afford to buy it, they riot."

The Brits lost, six games to three, despite their opponents' good-natured determination to surrender every line call.

"All stems from premature independence," Rupert muttered darkly.

"Quit worrying," Stan Borman handed Rupert a freezing can of Budweiser, "You can beat us all at golf next week."

Chapter twenty one

"Your putt, Stan; for another birdie."

Tom Edwards retreated out of Stan Borman's line of sight.

Stan's meticulous nature was reflected in his play, and his deft accuracy around the tiny, oiled-sand greens of Ngombia's only golf-course had already elevated him to scratch status, an experience he was unlikely to repeat in his lifetime and one which he treasured dearly.

Stan's ball drilled its way across the dark brown oily sand, trailing a tiny furrow. It dropped, with a satisfying plomp, into the centre of the hole.

"How come you Americans are always so good at this game?"

Rupert's voice came from the edge of the green.

"You're always so wretchedly enthusiastic," He rattled on; Rupert rarely worried unduly about replies. "Into everything, all over the place. How many of you are there in the country? There must be hundreds."

"Oh, I guess there's a few of us," Stan observed mildly.

"Can't help wondering," Rupert was undeterred, "What on earth brought Americans here in the first place."

"I'm not exactly sure myself," Stan smiled his slow easy smile, "But I guess it started with the Second World War."

"Come on, Rupert," Tom nudged him gently in the ribs, "The foursome behind us is waiting to play."

They set off up the slope to the next tee, leaving behind them the green boy, dragging his block of wood around and around the hole in ever widening circles, smoothing out the footprints and furrows in the sandy surface ready for the next set of players. Stan continued his story.

"Ngombia pledged loyalty to the allied cause, and we shipped in mountains of supplies for the Mediterranean campaign. But there was nothing here; Tuehville was just a tiny shanty town."

Stan took a two iron and a freshly polished ball from his caddy.

"We started from scratch; mapped out the entire country, built a new port, and had just finished drawing up plans for a new Tuehville when D-Day happened and the urgency kind of disappeared."

Stan placed the ball carefully on a tuft of grass and dried his hands on the little towel clipped to his trolley.

"We've probably still got all the old maps buried somewhere in the archives," He gave a brief, neat practice swing, "I doubt if anyone's seen them in twenty years. Might be interesting to dig them out one day."

The next morning, James called to congratulate Stan Borman. It had been Stan's third medal in three months.

"Thanks, James. Trouble is, now the committee are insisting I play off minus two."

It didn't really trouble Stan at all; a negative handicap was better than being ambassador. Almost.

"Stan," James hesitated, "This may seem a dumb question."

"Fire away."

"The BWA has a real problem in trying to help new wives find their way around Tuehville."

"Heck; don’t we all."

"After what you said yesterday, I wondered if it would be possible to have a rootle around your archives and see if any of those old maps still exist?"

"Sure, I don't see why not; they were military maps, but they must have been declassified years ago. To be honest, I think most of them were just coastal surveys, not maps of the city."

Stan saw the look of disappointment on James' face.

"Still," He offered encouragingly, "No harm in having a look. Come on over tomorrow morning and I'll let you know if I've found anything."

James returned the next morning just after sunrise; Stan’s coffee percolator had only just come to the boil.

"Hey," Stan peered at him over the top of his half-moon reading glasses, "You are an eager beaver."

James smiled. "The morning rush is over; the garage should be quite for an hour or so."

Stan opened a cupboard door and withdrew two mugs.

"Sit yourself down," He offered, "Have a coffee whilst I tell what I know."

"Thanks," James was trying very hard to be patient, "I'd appreciate it."

Stan placed a steaming mug on the notepad that lay on the desk.

"It looks like you may find your street maps after all."

James felt his skin prickle slightly.

"How do you know?"

"Old memos," Said Stan, "I came across some very old memos."

The prickle was stronger.

"And I managed to identify the location of this particular archive."

"Where?" James was on the edge of his seat.

"Do you know the Tuehville sewage plant is?"

Ye gods! thought James, no wonder nobody hadd ever found the maps.

"Sorry, Stan; it’s not been one of my priorities."

"No," Mused Stan, "No, I don't suppose it is for most people. I guess that's why nobody's been down there."

"You're not going to tell me..."

"Don't worry," Stan smiled, "The maps are stored in a small hut on a track leading to the plant. I'll draw you a diagram of how to get there."

Stan's amateur cartography was as precise as everything else about him; James watched the elegantly concise maze of black lines blossom before his eyes.

"Normally, James, there's no way we'd allow a non-embassy official anywhere near our records, but I checked this one out. It's not actually an archive; the maps were declassified years ago and have been available for sale to the general public ever since."

"For sale to the public?" James was staggered, "How come nobody knows?"

The slow smile again. "They're military maps, James, and the military are not strong on advertising and promotion. Besides, who'd want a thirty year old map of part of the coastline of a tiny West African state?"

"Point taken," James conceded, "But if I did want one, how would I go about buying it?"

"Theoretically," Stan took a mouthful of his coffee, "There's a charge of one Nomba per map but, to be honest, it's not worth the paperwork. If you find anything that interests you, just help yourself. I believe there's an old caretaker who looks after the store; he probably can't read, but I've written a note authorising him to release any maps you want."

Stan handed over a brief letter typed on embassy letterhead; James took it without reading it.

"Thanks very much Stan; I really appreciate all your help."

"Hey, it was nothing; I don't often handle a request like this. Good luck with your rootling."

James turned to go; he was halfway to the door when Stan called after him.

"James?"

"Yes?"

"Those old memos I mentioned."

"What about them?"

"They told an interesting story. Seems like somebody did try to name Tuehville's streets after all, but sorting it all out was no easy task. The issue went all the way up to cabinet level. Finally had to get the Minister of Transport to approve each and every one."

"The Minister?"

"Yeah," Stan poured himself another mug of coffee, "He and his cabinet went stomping all over Tuehville, deciding which street would have what name."

"Any idea who he was?" Asked James.

"Sure do," Replied Stan, "It was Aloysius Sharman; Gertie Garbo's old man."

Instalment 7

 
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