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 9

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Chapter twenty seven

James felt himself flicker back to consciousness. All he could see was the back of a car seat, plastic and torn. He stared at it, trying desperately to remember where he was, and why. He glanced down at his feet; beyond them, he could see the car door, its bare metal border painted custard yellow. He tried to concentrate, but his thoughts kept wandering, and he couldn't focus his eyes. Only taxis were painted yellow.

James lay across the rear of the tiny taxicab, his feet on Lucy's lap, his head on Julie's. He felt the car shudder and skitter as it rounded a corner; heard the engine straining, heard the horn blaring. His gaze wandered again to the front of the car. In the passenger seat he could see a policeman. Sitting on the policeman's knee, clinging tightly to his tunic, was Annie. Suddenly, James remembered where he was, and why.

Intoxicated by the sense of drama, and assured by the presence of the policeman beside him of total dispensation from traffic regulations, the driver threw his rusty, rattling little yellow taxi around every bend with electrifying enthusiasm. For the moment, Ngombia's generally accepted practice of driving on the right hand side of the road had become as irrelevant as the speed limit.

Determinedly dramatic to the last, the taxi driver slithered to a halt outside City hospital, a single black stripe on the approach road indicating where his one and only operative brake had locked up.

Slowly, James inched his way out of the cab door and stood up, Julie clutching his arm anxiously. Almost by reflex, he reached into his pocket for the twenty-five cent standard fare. The driver waited, expressionless; a fare was a fare, blood soaked or not.

The entrance foyer of the hospital was choked with people. The sick, the injured, and those who had brought them clogged the litter-strewn floor in a seething mass of humanity. There was not a doctor or nurse in sight.

James stood for what seemed like an age, not knowing what to do. His head was beginning to hurt, and he wanted very much to sit down. He was beginning to think that he might have to stand forever, when a door opened and a white-coated Ngombian beckoned him to enter. The combination of pale skin, fresh blood, and a police bodyguard had broken through official indifference.

He lay on his back on the table; from the corners of his eyes, he caught occasional glimpses of people milling around. He heard a voice mutter.

"Where is the razor?"

There was the sound of hands searching amongst the bottles and implements on the counter that ran around the sides of the room.

"I have it." From the corner of an eye, James saw a black arm in white sleeves hold an ancient safety razor triumphantly aloft.

"There is no blade," The voice sucked irritatedly through its teeth. "Bring me a blade."

More scrabbling; the sounds of drawers opening and closing. Eventually, James saw another black hand hold up a blade; he wondered how new it was. He saw white-sleeves load the blade in the razor, then move around behind him. He felt someone start to hack at the hair on his head; it felt as if he were being scalped.

"Give me syringe."

Another long suck of irritation.

"Where is the needle?"

More scrabbling; more opening and closing of drawers.

"Here, boss."

The mismatch was obvious even from where James lay.

"Too big," The suck of irritation sounded almost dispirited, "Give me smaller needle."

Eventually, syringe and needle were coupled. A small brown glass bottle was withdrawn from a glass-fronted drugs cabinet on the wall. James prayed silently that the choice had been correct. He watched as the tip of the needle was pushed through the cap of the bottle and the colourless liquid extracted. There seemed to be an alarming number of air bubbles in the syringe.

Whitecoat moved around behind James' head again; James felt the needle penetrate the skin of his scalp near the wound; it hurt, badly. He felt the point of the needle pressing harder. The pressure grew and grew; it felt as if the needle were about to be driven through his skull.

"Dammit," Whitecoat grunted with the effort, "The skin is tough."

The pressure grew, seemed to swell within his head.

"Oiyah!!"

With explosive force, the syringe ruptured; watery fluid burst across the room in a shimmering arc. The pressure ended.

"Dammit, the syringe is spoiled."

Whitecoat tossed the syringe on to the counter top.

"There is enough inside the head."

Preparations thus concluded, Whitecoat began to stitch the wound. To James' immense relief, his scalp had gone numb; he felt nothing more than a dull, remote pushing and pulling. There had, after all, been enough inside his head.

Eventually, the ordeal was over.

"O.K.; sit."

Slowly, groggily, James sat.

"Sit still, ya?"

James sat still. Bandages were wound, turban-like, around and across his head. The hands were surprisingly gentle.

"O.K.; you can go."

James reached down gingerly with his toes, feeling for the floor. He stood up unsteadily. He turned to whitecoat, tried to smile.

"Thank you," He said.

Whitecoat relaxed visibly.

"It was nothing man," He grinned back at James; people did not often say thank you; mostly they just died.

"Drive carefully, huh?"

James teetered through the door, back out into the seething mass of humanity in the corridor. A white faced Julie was standing against the opposite wall, her arms around the shoulders of Lucy and Annie. Worry, compassion, and relief were all stamped on her face. She came forward and slipped her arm through his, supporting him.

"Let's go home," She said.

Chapter twenty eight

Charles called round the next morning.

"How's the head?"

"Sore," Grumbled James.

"Never mind," Said Charles breezily, "It’ll mend."

James grinned.

"I’ve been thinking."

"Tell me."

"You remember what you said about Nagbeh being Highways and Road Safety?"

"Yeah."

"Does that include traffic signs?"

"I guess so," Charles shrugged, "Why?"

"Tuehville doesn't have any of those," Said James, "Anywhere."

Charles was silent.

"And no road markings either," James added, "No centre lines, no side lines, no nothing."

Charles was still silent; he was silent for several years. Eventually, he spoke.

"Son of a gun," He said softly, "Why didn't you think of this before?"

"I never time off to think before."

"You mean I'm going to have to arrange for one of Gertie's trucks to run you down every time we need a good idea?"

James grinned and scratched at the turbanned bandages on his head; underneath, it was still sore.

"What do we do now, Charles?"

"We go see the minister. Nagbeh owes us a favour; he can tell us what he needs: we'll supply it."

"How do I know what I need?" Agamemnon Nagbeh grumbled, "You guys are supposed to be the experts, you go out there and prepare a report on everything that you think should be done to the roads."

"All of them?"

"All the roads that anybody who comes to the OAU is likely to see."

"What if they go sightseeing around town?"

"Include all that, too."

"There's not only traffic signs, minister." James pointed out, "There would be all the road marking equipment to consider."

"Listen," Nagbeh was suddenly bored, "Don't bother me with all those things now. You go and make your investigations and submit your report. You want the business, you're going to have to do some work for it."

"Yes, minister."

They left.

"Back again, Mr. James?"

The Ngombian secretary at the British Embassy commercial section grinned as he watched James thumb through the red Kelly's directory.

"Nobody else likes that book as much as you do, Mr James."

James smiled back, but made no comment. He riffled through the pages until he found road marking equipment manufacturers. He ran his finger down the column; there were just six companies listed.

That evening, he wrote to all six, requesting literature and price lists.

"There you are," James emptied the contents of the large manila envelope on to the empty space between the coffee cups. "Everything you wanted to know about painting lines on roads."

Charles peered at the photograph that lay in front of them. The contraption in the picture vaguely resembled an enormous motorised bathchair, laden with compressors, pumps, cauldrons and stirrers and bristling with hoses, spikes, knobs and nozzles.

"Complicated, isn't it?" He said at last.

"A little."

"You know how to drive one, James?"

"No."

"So how do we show people how to use it?"

"We get the manufacturer to send out an instructor."

"Oh sure," Said Charles sarcastically, "Great idea. A week of his time plus airfares and hotel bills would just about wipe out our profit."

"No it wouldn't; it would almost double it."

"Eh?"

"Easy," Declared James confidently, "We ask for a firm quote for the cost of his services, multiply by two or three, and add it to the price of the machine. Nagbeh's got no idea of what these things cost; he’s never even heard of them; he’d never know."

Charles relaxed in his chair.

"I knew you'd do well in Ngombia," He sighed happily, "I told you before, remember?"

Chapter twenty nine

"Guess what I've got here, James."

"Haven't a clue."

Charles opened his briefcase and withdrew a buff coloured envelope. At the top left-hand corner James could see the crest of the Ngombian Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Transportation.

"Take a look," Charles handed the envelope to James.

James opened it, unfolding the letter that had been inside.

"Christ, Charles," He felt his stomach lurch with excitement, "It's an order!"

He read on down the page, his brow furrowing.

"Bloody hell," He exclaimed, "It's enormous."

"Yup," Charles agreed happily, "Nagbeh decided he didn't want to choose, he just wanted everything in our report."

James sat a dazed smile on his face. Charles coughed.

"There is some additional documentation, James."

"Yeah?" James looked up, "What?"

"Here," Charles handed over a pink form with a yellow duplicate stapled at one corner. James scanned it rapidly.

"Jeeze," He breathed, "A payment voucher; for the whole bloody thing."

"You see?" Charles was looking impossibly pleased with himself, "I told you he owed us, didn't I?"

It proved quite extraordinarily tedious to process the payment voucher. Eight signatures, in eight different offices, in eight different buildings. Eventually, in a state of almost terminal exhaustion, they reached the cheque disbursement office.

"Aah," The clerk guarding the office door appraised their voucher, "Big business."

Charles shrugged non-commitally.

"Plenty profits," The clerk persisted.

Charles shrugged again. "Some," He said.

The clerk placed their voucher in his in-tray.

"Come back after tomorrow."

"Can we wait?"

"The man is not here."

They sat in silence for a while. The clerk started to reload his typewriter with paper. Charles opened his briefcase and withdrew the order form.

"My friend," He folded the document and passed it across the desk, "Please check that the amount is correct."

The fifty-nomba note was slipped out as deftly as it had been inserted.

"Sorry," The order was handed back, "The amount is too small. Please recheck."

Another fifty. A long pause.

"OK; please wait small."

The clerk disappeared inside the office, a sheaf of papers in one hand, the payment voucher in the other. Charles and James waited, not speaking.

Much, much later, the door opened.

"AAA?" The clerk's voice was expressionless.

"Yeah," So was Charles'.

"Sign here for your cheque."

Side by side, they walked back down the corridor. Along the dusty chipped terrazzo tiled floor; between the dull, dark green walls; under the single ceiling fan, stationary as it had been for as long as anyone could remember. Past the receptionist, his head resting on the crude little table at which he slept every day whilst the steady stream of humanity passed him by. Between the pockmarked concrete doorposts that framed the entrance; down the three shallow steps, and out into the blinding sunlight.

Without warning, Charles let out an almighty whoop, grabbing both James' hands and whirling him around and around the dusty courtyard.

"We did it! We did it!" He enveloped him in an exuberant bearhug, "Dammit James, we're on our way!"

"That's yours? All of it?" Julie was satisfyingly overwhelmed.

"Well, not all of it," James allowed, "We do have to pay the manufacturer for making and shipping the signs."

"So how much is left for you and Charles?"

"And we have to allow for a token of our appreciation for our good friend Agamemnon Nagbeh."

"James," There was just a hint of frost, "Stop wittering. Just tell me how much will be left for you and Charles after all your costs."

"About half."

"Half!?" Julie was incredulous.

"About that, plus or minus a few nomba."

"And you share that with Charles?"

"Mmmm."

"Just you two?"

"Yup."

"But," Julie was silent for a moment, "You'd have enough to buy a house," She looked at the cheque again, "Quite a nice house."

"Mmmm," James was deliberately nonchalant, "I suppose I would."

"I don't believe this," Julie stared once more at the cheque, then handed it back to James, "What are you going to do with it?"

"Now? It's too late to do anything with it; I’ll take it to bed with us.

"Take it to bed?"

"Why not? Can you think of anywhere safer?"

No, said Julie, she couldn't.

"It's a bit like sleeping on buried treasure, isn't it?" Julie lay beside him, unseen in the dark.

"But not quite so bumpy."

Julie slid closer.

"They say," She whispered in his ear, "That money's a marvellous aphrodisiac."

"Do they?"

"Mmm."

"What do you think?"

"James?"

"Mmm?"

"I think they were right, don't you?"

In the middle of the night James suddenly sat bolt upright in bed.

"Bloody hell!"

"Whassamarrer?" Julie mumbled into her pillow.

"I just had a thought," He said.

"Well don't," Said Julie, "Go back to sleep."

James ignored her.

"I just had a thought," He repeated, "It's not the machine that's important; it’s the paint."

Chapter thirty

"Charles?"

"Hi, James."

A correct connection and a line that was working: hooray for Ngombia Telecommunications.

"Charles, you know that road-striping machine Nagbeh's ordered?"

"Yeah?"

"I've been doing some calculations."

"Mmm?"

"By the time you add them all up, there are about two hundred and fifty miles of roads in Tuehville."

"Just proves how much Nagbeh needs the machine."

"That's not the point, Charles."

"So what is?"

"Two hundred and fifty miles of centre lines and side lines means seven hundred and fifty miles of stripe."

"Like I said, James, just proves Nagbeh needs the machine."

"Charles," James was trying very hard to keep his voice even, "Have you any idea how much paint that would need."

Charles sucked loudly through his teeth.

"Come on, man, you're supposed to be the brains of the outfit. You tell me."

James did.

"Seven hundred and fifty miles of four inch stripe," He spoke carefully,

"Would need around a hundred thousand gallons of paint."

There was silence at the other end of the line.

"And the same again when the roads are repainted." James added.

Silence again.

"Charles?"

"I'm thinking man."

"Charles, do you know what sort of profit Tuehville Paint makes on a gallon of paint?"

"Doesn't matter what they make; they’ve got a monopoly. That's what I'm thinking about."

"They've only got a monopoly on paints that they manufacture; anything else is freely importable. Tuehville Paint don't manufacture road marking paint."

"Not now they don't, but there's nothing to stop them from doing so if they wanted to."

"No, Charles, there isn't; that’s why you and I need to sit down and negotiate a deal with them."

"James, Tuehville Paints is owned by Aloysius Sharman."

"I know that."

"Aloysius is old enough to be my grandfather and rich enough to buy the half of Ngombia he doesn't already own. How're we going to sit down and negotiate with someone like that?"

"Phone him and ask to see him."

"To tell him what?"

"To tell him all the reasons why it would be to his benefit to let us handle the road paint business."

"You know I don't need you, don't you?"

A patrician, silver-haired elder statesman, Aloysius Sharman enjoyed the easy imperturbability that comes with advancing years and great wealth. He had listened goodnaturedly to Charles and James throughout their presentation.

"If I wanted to add road paint to my production schedule, a simple phone call would arrange the appropriate import embargo." Aloysius gazed unblinkingly at James, "The business would be mine; untouchable."

Charles scratched the back of his head; James stared at the rosewood pipe rack and tobacco pot that sat, side by side, on Aloysius' enormous mahogany desk. He sensed that what little time they had was running out.

"Mr Sharman," James decided on one last-ditch effort, "May I ask you a question?"

"Please do."

"Your monopoly extends to every paint that you choose to manufacture, yet you don't manufacture vehicle paints. Why?"

"Simple. Colours don't always match properly."

"That doesn't seem to bother the average motorist in Tuehville."

"It is not the average motorist who bothers me, Mr Davidson," Aloysius sucked quietly through his teeth, "It is the one with authority."

"Yes," Said James, "I'm familiar with the problem."

Aloysius raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you are, Mr Davidson," He said, "And I'm sure you can also imagine the reactions of a minister if one of my paints did not match exactly the original colour of his limousine."

James had his opening.

"Yes, Mr Sharman, I can. The minister would probably demand to know why you should enjoy a monopoly when your product was inferior."

Aloysius Sharman said nothing; he was watching James carefully.

"And suppose," James continued, "Suppose he demanded the withdrawal of your monopoly concession. What then?"

"I'd have competition," Agreed Aloysius, "But I could still produce."

"Mr Sharman, we all know it costs more to produce paint locally than to import it; you’d lose money on every gallon you made. A factory that can only produce at a loss is worthless; you’d have lost your entire investment."

"My Goodness, Mr Davidson," Aloysius raised an eyebrow, "You do paint a gloomy picture."

"Just illustrating a point, Mr Sharman."

"And what point is that?"

"That if a mistake on one single can of car paint could cause that kind of problem, imagine what the consequences might be of a mistake on the supply of special paint to mark the highways for the OAU."

Aloysius smiled quietly to himself.

"My wife said she'd enjoyed doing business with you."

He reached out and withdrew a pipe from the rack beside him.

"Mr Davidson," Aloysius lifted the lid off the rosewood tobacco pot and began to finger soft wads of tobacco into the bowl of his pipe, pressing them down with careful deliberation, "Mr Davidson, if I were to permit you to handle this business, would you be prepared to effect suitable royalty payments to Tuehville Paints?"

James was nearly home.

"That is what we came to negotiate, Mr Sharman."

An hour later, they had their deal.

"Congratulations," Aloysius walked with them across the echoing, marble-floored hall, "It's good to see that your head came to no lasting harm."

He leant forward to push open the massive wooden double front doors, ushering Charles and James through before him.

"Your defence of my wife's driver was commendable," Aloysius smiled, "It is good to meet someone who does not simply trample on the little people of this life. I wish you well."

He walked with them down the broad flight of steps to the gravelled driveway that curved gently in front of the Sharman family mansion.

"By the way, Mr Davidson," Aloysius held open James' door for him, "Did you find your street maps useful?"

James whirled.

"How on earth....?"

Aloysius smiled again, a twinkle in his eye.

"The little people, Mr Davidson, I listen to the little people. They tell me what is really happening." He closed James' door and stepped back from the car, "Ask your friend, Mr Nyamplu, he is one of the few who knows my story."

"So," James turned to Charles as they swept down Aloysius's driveway, "What is his story?"

Charles told the tale as he drove.

Many years ago, as Aloysius' political power and personal wealth had grown, so he had felt an increasing need to share at least some of it with those less fortunate than himself. Eventually, without fanfare, he and his wife had set about providing a refuge for some of the vagrant children with which the streets of Tuehville teemed.

"They looked after thousands of them in their time," Said Charles, "With no official backing or outside funding."

Aloysius and Gertrude had provided basic food, basic clothes, basic education, and a roof over the children’s' heads.

"It wasn't much," Charles continued, "But it was all those kids had and, to all of them, it was home."

Aloysius had shamelessly and tirelessly badgered his contacts to provide his charges with employment. Almost invariably, the positions had been humble, but they had provided young adolescents who would otherwise have faced a lifetime as beggars or prostitutes with a vital first foothold on the ladder of life.

"There are hundreds of Sharman kids all over town," Charles stared straight ahead as he drove, "Only some of them aren't kids any more; they’re middle-aged men and women."

James thought back to his outburst outside the telecommunications centre, the day he'd met the crippled leper. He remembered Charles' words 'You don't know anything about him except what some other foreigner told you over cocktails...’

"Why didn't you tell me any of this before?" He asked.

"Aloysius has always wanted to keep it quiet; he’s just that kind of man."

James was silent for a while.

"But how did he know about our map business?"

"That's another story, James. I only found out when I asked Aloysius if we could see him. I'll tell you over a coffee."

They drove to Willie's where Charles found them a corner table. James waited, bristling with curiosity, whilst Charles folded himself bonelessly into his chair. Comfortable at last, Charles began his tale.

Thirty-two years ago, he told James, Aloysius and his wife had gone out for the first time to search Tuehville's nighttime streets for stray children. It had not been long before they’d found the first of their emaciated waifs. Huddled at the back of a garbage-strewn alleyway, he was filthy, starving, terrified, and utterly alone. They guessed him to be about ten years old, but nobody ever found out for sure.

"He'd never had a day in school," Said Charles, "And years of severe malnutrition meant he'd be simple-minded for ever."

That first child stayed with Aloysius and his wife for years, clinging with complete devotion to the only people ever to have shown him any kindness. He stayed with them until he was a grown man, when Aloysius had managed to find him a job as a watchman.

"The boy's name," Said Charles, "Was Pencil."

Aloysius smiled to himself: he’d enjoyed the negotiations; there were all too few opportunities these days to exercise his wits. It had taken skill to ensure that that young Mr Davidson felt he'd won a victory. Normally, Aloysius would never have let such business go but, if the murmurings he was hearing these days were true…. What was it that old sparring partner of his, George Sanders, used to say? 'If you want to join the game, you have to play by the rules of the table'. True, Aloysius thought to himself; but you also had to know when to fold.

Instalment 10

 
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