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 7

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Chapter twenty two

Pencil was a watchman. He'd been one for twenty years. Ever since the big man in the big house had told him that it was to be his job to watch over the things inside the little brick hut. The hut that nestled under the clump of palm trees beside the narrow dusty track that led to the Tuehville municipal sewage plant.

Ten years had passed since Pencil's last official visitor; ten years during which his routine had never varied. Every weekday morning he unlocked the increasingly weather-beaten wooden door for the start of another day's vigil. Every day, he dusted the wooden shelves and swept the concrete floor with a palm frond cut fresh from one of the nearby trees. He had no fellow staff; neither equals, nor superiors, nor subordinates. But Pencil had never been lonely. His chores completed, he would install himself on his crude three-legged palm-wood stool by the door of the hut, from where he would greet the steady stream of passers-by. Occasionally, one or two would stop to chat, and it had not been long before one of the army of market women that peopled the landscape had set up her stall alongside. As time went by, Pencil's hut became a little social gathering point, and his days passed in amiable, contented conversation.

On the last day of every month, Pencil reported to the paymaster's office at the U.S. embassy to collect his modest stipend. There was no-one in the payroll section who knew, or even cared to ask, what it was that Pencil actually watched over. Nor could Pencil have told them. He swept the floor of the little hut, and dusted the shelves and their contents. But what lay there he knew not, and neither could he have understood. For Pencil was totally illiterate, and had never in his life seen a map.

"This is it?"

"Look at the sign."

Twenty years ago, the lettering had been fresh duck-egg blue on white; today, the faded, peeling characters were barely visible. James screwed up his eyes in the blinding mid-morning glare.

"U.S. MILITARY MISSION: CORPS OF ENGINEERING."

He read. Then, under that, in smaller letters,

"CARTOGRAPHIC SECTION."

Below, all that was left of the rest of the forgotten signwriter's long-lost message were word-sized patches of bare wooden board, sun-split and sun-bleached to a lifeless grey.

Charles parked his car as far under the clump of palms as he could, where the shade offered at least some protection from the furnace-like heat. They got out and walked towards the hut, Charles' green suit iridescent in the sunlight.

Pencil leant back against the wall of his hut and eyed their approach. His palm frond stood beside him, propped against the doorpost.

"What you say, old man?" Charles' greeting acknowledged respect for Pencil's superiority in years, without elevating his humble social status.

"What you say, boss?" Pencil could sense officialdom, and shifted uncomfortably on his stool, wondering whether he should get up. Charles resolved the dilemma by squatting beside him. James hovered uncertainly in the background.

Charles handed ten cents to the nearby market woman and picked two cola nuts off her tray. He passed one to Pencil. They chewed companionably for some minutes. Eventually, Charles broke the silence.

"I say, old man," Charles had adopted his Very Important Voice, "You in charge here?"

Pencil stiffened on his stool.

"Yeah, boss. I the one in charge."

"What's your name, old man?"

"Pencil, boss."

Charles' gaze wandered leisurely over the little hut.

"Hmm," There was approval in the Very Important Voice, "The place looks fine, Pencil." Pencil's chest swelled slightly under his threadbare vest.

Charles bought a red and white packet of Du Maurier cigarettes from the market woman's tray. He undid the cellophane wrapping, flipped open the lid, pulled out the silver foil leaf and offered the pack to Pencil. Pencil's forehead creased as his eyebrows lifted; he dearly loved cigarettes. Sometimes, at the end of the month, he would throw caution to the wind and buy two at once. A fresh one straight from a new pack was a rare treat. Today, he knew, something very special was happening.

Charles lit a match and held it out; Pencil leant forward with his cigarette and drew deeply. His eyes closed with pleasure for a few seconds.

"Old man; we are from the embassy."

Pencil's eyes snapped open. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth.

Charles felt in the inside pocket of his jacket and withdrew Stan Borman's letter. He passed it over.

The words meant nothing to Pencil, but he recognised the seal at the top easily. It was the same as that on his pay envelope, only this was in colour, not black and white. As with Charles' voice, Pencil knew instantly that the letter must be Very Important.

"Yeah, boss?" Pencil had the illiterate's fear of official communications.

"We would like to see inside your office. Maybe there are some things there we need."

"Yeah; OK, boss." Pencil clambered to his feet and led the way, bowlegged and bare foot, through the open door, Charles and James following behind.

"Dammit, old man; you look after it well."

Pencil glowed silently; his discomfort was easing. His bare feet padded silently on the concrete floor as he followed his visitors along each row of shelves. He watched as they pulled down and examined one after another of the mysterious rolls of paper that lay there.

James was becoming despondent. It was just as Stan had told him it might be; nothing but endless maps of coastlines and coastal waters, all dated towards the end of World War Two. The allies charting the channels and reefs, harbours and creeks for their supply craft.

Suddenly, his attention was caught by one of the sheets;

"Look at this, Charles."

"What's that, James? You got it?"

Charles peered over James' shoulder.

"That's not Tuehville, man."

"No, I know that. It's Ngombia; but look at the middle."

The centre of the map was entirely blank. A great rectangular swathe of white, bounded by straight dotted lines. In the middle of all the white, the legend 'No cartographic coverage'. Charles looked quizzically at James.

"So?"

"It's like Stanley and Livingstone. These are the only maps of Ngombia in existence, and they're blank in the middle. Nobody in the world knows what's there."

"Bullshit, man," Charles sucked loudly through his teeth, "The people who live there know what's there. What's it matter to anyone else?"

James wondered if Cook and Columbus had faced similar attitudes. He shrugged and rolled up the map, pushing it back into its place on the shelf.

It was Charles who found it.

"What the hell is this, James?" Charles pulled the roll from a massive pile and held it up in front of him. "Looks like New York. What's it doing here?"

They spread the map out on the floor: an urban sprawl with a complex grid of horizontal streets and vertical avenues. It did look like New York. James' eyes travelled to the legend at the bottom.

"Tuehville, Sheet 1 of 4"

His stomach knotted.

"This is it, Charles; look."

Charles looked; peering over James' shoulder.

"Nah," His voice was scornfully dismissive, "That's not Tuehville; look at all those highways." He peered closer. "And look at all those names; 'Montgomery Street', 'Robertson Street', 'Jefferson Street'; ain’t no streets called that in Tuehville."

James was inching his way across the sheet, poring over each tiny segment.

"It is Tuehville, you know. Look at it carefully. It's an aerial photograph, with a grid of streets superimposed, and every one of them named. Look closer."

Charles looked closer.

"Yeah, you're right." He ran his finger along a bright red line that wandered, artery-like, across the page. "That's Unification St., and there's the presidential palace." His finger moved to the bottom of the map. "What's all this, James?"

"What's all what?"

"This."

James looked to where Charles was pointing. 'This' was an emblem, a black and white quartered shield, in its centre a miniature globe. Above the shield lay a highly stylised representation of a star and the sun. Around it all, a circle of words.

"'CORPS OF ENGINEERING'," Read James, "'U.S. ARMY TOPOGRAPHIC COMMAND'."

"Yeah," Murmured Charles, "And look what's written beside it."

James looked.

'DISTRIBUTION RESTRICTED', he read, 'SEE DOD MAP OR CHART CATALOG FOR GUIDANCE ON RELEASE OUTSIDE THE US GOVERNMENT.'. It was all in bright red letters.

"What the hell's a DOD map, Charles?"

Charles shrugged.

"Department of Defence?" He hazarded, "After all, it was wartime."

"Charles, something tells me we're not supposed to be looking at this."

"Hey, come on James, that was 1943. Didn't you just tell me that these things were declassified years ago?"

"I suppose so." James was uneasy; it was all so very far away from Number 8, Acacia Avenue. Charles was crawling over the map again.

"So where are we, brain box?"

"Must be on another sheet; look, down there," James pointed to the corner of the map, "See? Continued, Sheet 3."

"Where the hell's sheet three?"

"Must be here, Charles, we've looked everywhere else."

James tugged a fresh roll out of the huge pile; another Sheet 1. He tried again; Sheet 2. And again; another sheet 2. The massive mound of paper rolls had neither order nor labels. It was several minutes before he found a copy of Sheet 3, and spread it out before them.

"You'll be pleased to know, Charles," James was examining the map minutely, "That the track outside here is known officially as 'King Sao Bosso Street'."

Charles snorted.

"Yeah," Pencil was muttering softly to himself, "Sao Bosso Street."

Charles whirled.

"What's that? You know the name?"

"Sure, boss." Pencil looked startled.

"How come? Who told you, old man? Who told you the name?"

"Oh, boss," Pencil tugged nervously at his vest, "The people came, boss. They told us this place called Sao Bosso Street."

"Which people, Pencil. When?"

"Big people, boss," Pencil was miserably uncomfortable, "Big people came, long ago. This place been Sao Bosso Street ever since."

"Damn," Charles was pacing the floor, "I don't understand. How come someone like Pencil knows, and I've never heard of the street?" He stopped pacing.

James had picked up the map.

"Let's go outside, Charles." A thought was niggling at the back of his mind.

They stood in the middle of the track, the map held out between them.

"Look at that, man," Charles growled at the dusty trail that wandered between scrubby bushes, "Ain't no straight line highway there."

James let go of his side of the map and stepped a few paces into the bushes, gazing into the distance. Charles watched him, puzzled.

"You looking for somebody, James?"

James was staring straight ahead, intent on something.

"Charles," James beckoned, "Look at the houses."

Charles came and stood beside him, peering over his shoulder. In amongst the trees and bushes on either side of the track the corrugated tin roofs of occasional houses and shacks poked through.

"I'm looking. So?"

"Don't you see? They're all in a straight line."

Charles screwed up his eyes, mentally filtering out the random sizes, random shapes, and random spacing; ignoring the clumps of trees and walls of bushes. It wasn't easy.

"Yeah, man; you’re right. They are."

They were, too. On both sides. Two parallel lines, thirty-five yards apart, a broad avenue filled with trees.

"You see what it means, don't you," James flapped his arms excitedly, "It's already here; the routes for all the streets were cleared, years ago, but they got overgrown. Now we've just found the plans for all of it."

James knew instinctively that they'd find exactly the same arrangement on every one of the warren of tracks and dirt roads that burrowed through the suburban undergrowth of Tuehville.

"So how come there's nothing here now?"

"The war ended," James shrugged, "Plans got shelved, and pretty soon all that was left was paths between the bushes."

"Huh," Grunted Charles, "Hell of a way to run a city. Draw the plans, then hide them so nobody can find them. No wonder no-one knows what any of the streets are called."

"But we do, Charles," James was flapping his arms again, "We're the only ones who know what the street names are."

"Christ," For a moment, Charles was dumbfounded. Then, his brow darkened, "Unless someone else finds this place."

James stopped in mid flap.

"Oh, Damn," He said.

"My thoughts exactly, James. There are hundreds of these maps in there."

"Mmm, there are. Two hundred and twenty eight of them; I counted all the rolls while you were grilling Pencil." James made a quick mental calculation, "That's fifty seven complete maps of Tuehville."

"So, Mr. Heinz, are you going to let fifty six other people in on the act? Because, if you are, you can kiss goodbye to this project."

"What do you suggest we do then? Hide all the maps?"

"No; burn them."

"Burn them?" James was horrified, "Christ, Charles, these are official U.S. Government property. People get shot for doing things like that."

"Oh, Come on man," Charles gazed pityingly at him, "This is Ngombia. Important papers go missing all the time here. You ever heard of anyone getting into trouble on account of something small like that?"

James hadn't, although that didn't make him feel any better.

"Besides," Charles pressed home the attack, "You heard what Stan Borman said; nobody even knows these maps are here. There hasn't been a stock check in twenty years."

James still didn't feel entirely at ease.

"Anyway," Charles delivered his best shot, "He said we could take what we wanted. You told me, remember?"

James didn't think this was quite what Stan had meant, but he was weakening.

"How about if we just took one sheet from every set except ours? Three quarters of a map wouldn't be much use to anyone else."

"Forget it, James. We don't even want anyone to know they exist."

Eventually, they compromised. The entire collection of maps would be transferred to Charles' home for safekeeping.

Charles turned and walked back towards the hut.

"Pencil!"

"Yeah, boss?" Pencil hovered nervously in the doorway. Charles pointed at the great mound of maps on the floor of the hut.

"You put all these in the car, you hear?"

"Yeah, boss."

Pencil scurried to and fro, transferring the maps to the boot of Charles' car. He was loading the last armful when Charles pulled out one of the rolls and spread it over the bonnet.

"You see this, old man?"

"Yeah, boss."

"You can remember it?"

"Yeah, boss." Pencil had no difficulty remembering pictures, it was only words that failed to register.

"You find any more the same, you keep them for me, you hear?"

"Yeah, boss."

Charles rolled up the map and slung it in the boot along with the rest. There seemed to be an incredible number of them. He turned to Pencil.

"You did well, old man," Charles handed him a small folded note.

"Thank you, boss." Pencil's eyes sparkled, "Thank you." He stood, waiting for further instruction.

"You can go, old man."

"Yeah, boss; thank you, boss." Pencil scampered back to his hut, Charles' note clutched in his hand. Ten Nombas: enough to buy a whole carton of cigarettes. He grabbed his palm frond and disappeared inside.

Charles reversed the car carefully out from under the palm trees. James leant back gingerly against his seat; it was scorchingly hot.

"Just you and me, Charles," He directed one of the dashboard air-conditioning vents at himself; the stream of air was like a jet from an oven, "We're the only people who know the names of Tuehville's streets."

Charles nosed the car down the track, tooting in response to Pencil's enthusiastic salute.

"Yeah," He growled, "Now all we got to do is persuade the mayor to buy signs for all of them."

Chapter twenty three

"Good party, was it?"

Charles crunched cheerfully on the head of his salted fish. Dark blue pouches under James' eyes showed dully through his tan. He'd been up almost the entire night poring over the survey maps of Tuehville.

"Charles, do you know how many intersections there are in this city?"

"Nope." Crunch.

"Or how many words we'll need for all the signs?"

"Nope." Crunch.

"Want me to tell you?"

"You're going to, anyway." Crunch.

"Exactly one hundred and forty eight thousand one hundred and sixty."

"Christ!" Splash.

James squeezed his teabag against the side of his cup whilst Charles dredged his fishhead out of his coffee. Eventually, Charles spoke.

"James," He said, "We need to get our quote in pronto."

"I know," James pushed back his chair.

Charles looked up, startled

"Where you off to, man?"

"British embassy," Said James, "To find out which companies make signs."

He found the single red volume, 'Kelly's Directory of British Companies', on the small rack of books in the entrance foyer of the British embassy; it was four years out of date.

The first half of the directory contained an alphabetical listing of 'Trades and Products', together with the names and addresses of those who supplied them. James found the heading 'Signs, street', and ran his finger down the list of manufacturers beneath it; there were thirty-nine of them. The embassy photocopier had been commandeered by Nina Murchison for the BWA newsletter, so he settled down to write out the names and addresses by hand. It took quite a while.

"There you are."

James set an enormous bundle of large brown envelopes on the table next to Charles' coffee. Charles' eyebrows shot up like window blinds.

"What's all this, man?"

"Literature," Said James, "All about signs."

Charles pulled a pamphlet out of the first envelope and began to read. His brows furrowed slowly, until they met over the bridge of his nose.

"Goddam it, James," Charles dropped the pamphlet onto the table, "If we show this to the mayor, he'll never make a decision."

James wasn't really listening; he was battling with his teabag, trying to squeeze a bit of colour into his cup of milky hot water.

"I mean, look at all the different kinds of writing they got," Charles began to read, "'Four Inch M.O.T. Revised Alphabet', 'Three and a Half Inch Kindersley', 'Five Inch Gill'," He looked up, "Hell fire, James, nobody's even going to know what we're talking about."

But James hadn't been listening. The string had come adrift from his teabag and he was guddling around in the pale khaki depths of his cup with his teaspoon, muttering to himself.

"James?"

James looked up momentarily.

"Yeah?"

"You listening?"

"Sorry. Lost my teabag."

"James," Charles marked his place with a forefinger, "I thought if someone wanted to write a sign, they'd just use an ordinary alphabet; you know, A, B, C, that kind of thing."

"I sort of thought so too," James was feeling unsettled.

"And listen to this" Charles started to read again. "There's Engineer Grade reflective sheeting or High Intensity reflective sheeting; and we can have it in white or blue or red or yellow or green or orange."

Charle's favourite pepper soup arrived at the table, but he hardly noticed.

"And here's some more," He went on, "Do we want brackets and fittings to be rustproofed and enamelled, or PVC coated, or stainless steel? Do we want our signs mounted on twin posts or single posts or twin angle irons, or just plain wall-mounted?"

Charles closed the pamphlet with a sigh.

"Dammit, James, all the mayor wants is a sign with a name on it."

"So that's what we offer him," James had recovered from his momentary disquiet, "We choose; we don't mention alternatives."

Charles' gloom lifted, just a fraction.

"How do we choose?"

"Open the booklet."

"What page?"

"Any page."

Mystified, Charles did so. James was swinging his teabag between two fingers, high above the table.

"What the hell you doing, James?"

"Watch."

James let go of the bag; it dropped with a splat onto the opened page beneath it, about two thirds of the way down.

"There," James lifted the bag and examined the damp, milky-brown patch beneath it, "That's what we'll quote to the mayor."

Halfway back to the office, another thought occurred to James.

"There is just one other small problem, Charles."

"What's that?"

"We don't have a company."

"That's a problem?"

James felt strangely defensive. "Isn't it?"

"How could it be?" Charles spread his hands expressively, "My brother can handle the paperwork this evening and Nagbeh will nod the registration through tomorrow."

"Just like that?"

"Sure, why not?"

James wondered if the rest of their business would be as easy.

It wasn't.

"James, I had a word with the mayor yesterday."

"And?"

"He said why couldn't he just have someone paint some name plates?"

"Paint them?"

"That's what he said."

"Charles, there's no comparison."

"That's what I've been telling him; but he wants us to show him as well."

"O.K.; so we order a couple of samples."

The samples arrived a month later. Charles and James drove out to Gbedeh International Airport to clear them through customs.

The customs clerk was not impressed.

"Damn," He re-scrutinised the shipping documents minutely, trying to find some flaw in the description that would allow him to reassign the goods to a different sector. He thumbed through his tattered guidebook once again, but the tariff definition was indisputable:

'Signs, Traffic…....Free of import duty.'

He sucked dispiritedly through his teeth.

"Seventeen nomba," He began stamping the sheaf of papers.

"Documentation fee?" James enquired innocently.

"Yeah," The clerk did not look up, "Documentation fee".

James almost laughed; he was too excited to feel irritated. He handed over a twenty-nomba note.

"Don't tell me," He said, "You don't have change."

The clerk eyed him with something akin to loathing.

"No change," He confirmed. He opened a drawer and dropped the note in. The bottom of the drawer was two inches deep in one-nomba coins.

"Over there," The customs clerk jerked a thumb behind him towards a haphazard mountain of parcels and boxes in a gloomy corner of the warehouse, "Underneath; at the bottom."

It was airless, dusty, humid and overpoweringly hot. After what seemed an eternity of heavy labour, Charles and James stood, gasping for breath and sodden with sweat, eyeing their prizes: the two oblong wooden crates were far larger than either of them had expected.

"Dammit, James, what kind of signs are these?"

"I guess they just chose long names for the samples," James wasn't sure whether the sizes impressed him or worried him.

"Let's go to your house," He suggested, "It's a lot less public than mine."

"Jeez, James. These are fantastic."

Even out of their boxes, the signs were much bigger than they'd seemed in the catalogues. James lifted the edge of one of them; sunlight shimmered off the reflective background behind the immaculate, precisely cut lettering. The quality of workmanship was obvious.

"Almost works of art," He mused, "That should help persuade the mayor."

"That bit," Charles told him firmly, "Is politics. You leave it to me."

"O.K.," Said James, "But there is one other thing."

"What's that?"

"If the mayor agrees to place an order, and we set up in business, then I have to quit M&M."

Charles shrugged.

"That's your decision," Was all he said.

Instalment 8

 
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In particular, they should not be passed off as original works by any other person.

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