فصل 08

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فصل 08

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Chapter eight

Cambridge, February 1990

‘Hello, old chap. Do come in. Have a seat. How about a glass of sherry? Or would you prefer something stronger? Dry or sweet? Dry. Fine. Me too. Nothing like a glass of old Fino is there? Good for the soul I always say. My goodness though, long time no see, isn’t it?’

Now knighted, Sir Percy Hancock, former Chief Executive of Trakton, and before that Head of the Delhi office of the company, sank back into his leather armchair, sherry glass in hand, eyes twinkling behind his half-moon spectacles. di@k guessed that what he meant by ‘long time no see’ was - ‘What the hell have you come to see me about after all these years? I smell a rat. What are you trying to get out of me?’

Sir Percy was well-known for his charm. He was the son of a baronet, had been educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, had a distinguished record with the Guards during the Second World War, for which he had been awarded a DSO, had married the daughter of a banker, done very well for himself with Trakton - and was now, a widower, enjoying his sunset years alone in Cambridge. The last thing he wanted was trouble. And, despite his sophisticated, kindly, charming manner, he had a reputation for acting ruthlessly if the occasion demanded it.

But everyone said he also had the memory of an elephant. That was the key issue for di@k. Would he remember what had gone on in Madras over twenty years earlier? And, even if he did, would he tell di@k what he knew?

di@k had telephoned him, simply saying he would like to see him on a brief visit to Cambridge while carrying out some ‘research’. Sir Percy had invited him to lunch; he could hardly have done less for a former colleague.

The Georgian house in Chaucer Road was spacious and comfortable in the English style. There was no sign of modern interior design. The furniture was comfortable rather than stylish. There were antique Persian rugs on the floor. The walls were covered with old pictures of Eton and Cambridge, with framed photographs of Sir Percy’s father being introduced to King George V, of Sir Percy with Nehru… It was not exactly a museum but it had a strong sense of history about it. A long garden stretched away behind the house - equally English, with wide flower beds, flowering trees and perfectly kept grass. Even in winter, there were flowers.

‘So what’s all this about research, eh? Didn’t know you were into the academic stuff. What’s it all about then?’

There was a suspicious edge to his voice but he continued to smile.

‘Well, it’s just that I have plenty of time on my hands now, so I’ve been thinking of writing a book. I thought I could do a sort of study of economic development in India. I’d use Trakton as a kind of case study. So I’m just collecting some background information, filling in details I’m not familiar with - that sort of thing… I know you’re a real encyclopaedia on the early days of the company, so I thought I’d try to pick your brains - to see if my idea is possible.’

‘Not many brains left now, dear boy,’ Sir Percy said innocently. ‘I say, mustn’t let the food get cold. Let’s have our lunch. Cooks are so hard to find these days. I’m lucky to have Mrs Dobbs - can’t afford to upset her, you know.’

Mrs Dobbs, a large, silent woman in her fifties served them smoked salmon, followed by a delicious meat pie and a lemon sorbet for dessert. They drank Gaillac Perle with the salmon. ‘Get it from a chum of mine. Has a vineyard, you know. Not bad, eh?’ They also drank a dark red, fruity Cahors with the pie.

‘You have to take care of yourself when you’re my age,’ said Sir Percy, referring to the lunch. ‘Regular meals. Good solid food, proper food, none of this junk food, you know. Keep it simple though. Nothing in excess, what? Have another glass to finish off? Never mind, I’ll finish it for supper. Good for the blood-pressure, I believe. Let’s have some coffee in the study.’

As they sat in the comfortable, book-lined study, di@k realised that Sir Percy had successfully diverted him away from the subject of Trakton all through lunch. He must find a way of getting back to the subject now.

‘How long were you with the company in India, sir?’ he asked casually.

‘Over ten years, dear boy. Over ten years. But of course I don’t remember much now. I’ve lost contact with everyone, you know. No-one has any time for an old fool like me, what? I just look after my garden these days. Are you interested in flowers at all?’

di@k did not reply to this and returned to his questions.

‘One of the things I’m hoping to cover in the book is the career profiles of Indian staff - to try to show how office and factory workers became managers - that sort of thing.’

‘Rather, dear boy. Good idea.’

di@k decided that he must circle round the subject to confuse Sir Percy, before coming to the point. So he asked Sir Percy about a number of staff from the Delhi headquarters who had done well for themselves as managers. He asked about staff in Bombay, in Calcutta, in Kanpur. Sir Percy talked on and on about what he remembered of them, much of it surprisingly frank and honest. It certainly showed that his memory was as sharp as ever.

di@k swallowed hard and attacked.

‘Do you remember the Visvanathans in Madras, sir? Now they did very well.’

‘Oh yes. Molly and Vish. I remember sending both of them on training courses at various times, that sort of thing. Excellent material. Splendid. Nice couple too, as I recall. Of course, I didn’t know them personally, or anything like that.’

di@k decided to try a daring tactic to surprise Sir Percy. Perhaps it would work. At least it might catch Sir Percy off his guard and make him tell di@k something useful.

‘I wonder if you know what happened to Molly Visvanathans child? The one she had in Britain during her year off. You did know about that, of course? You must have approved her special leave.’

di@k realised with a thrill of excitement that he had accidentally stumbled on the truth. He had hit his target. It was as if a chill suddenly came over the room. Sir Percy had been taken off his guard and for a split second only, he lost his easy, self-assured manner. But, almost at once, he recovered it. When he replied, his voice was as silky and relaxed as ever.

‘Yes. Yes, of course. Bad business that, what? Poor gal got in trouble with one of the British staff in Madras, you know. Couldn’t have that sort of thing going on. Had to get her away for a bit. She could have stayed on in the UK with the boy but she decided to go back. Named him John I think, yes, John. Gave him her own family name - Verghese.’

‘But what became of him? Where is he now? He must be over twenty by now. Does Molly still keep in touch with him?’ di@k was anxious to follow up on his unexpected advantage. But Sir Percy was already steering him away from the danger zone.

‘Couldn’t say, dear boy. Went to a good school and all that. His father paid for it all, as far as I know. Then he came up here I believe. Went to St John’s College, if I’m not mistaken. But, I say old boy, I can’t see what all this has to do with career development of Indian staff, eh? It was all a long time ago. Better forgotten. There’s no point in stirring it all up again. It won’t do anyone any good. How about a cognac?’

di@k accepted. They sipped the golden liquid in silence.

‘How do you find it, dear boy? It’s Armagnac. actually. I prefer it. It’s got a bit more “oomph” than cognac. Matter of personal taste I suppose.’

di@k nodded appreciatively. He was about to ask his final question, but Sir Percy got in first.

‘By the way, there’s no point in asking who the father was. I couldn’t possibly tell you that, could I? I’d leave it all alone if I were you, dear boy.’

di@k decided that he would get no more information from Sir Percy, thanked him and left. Sir Percy, elegant in his bow tie and expensive tweeds, walked with him to the gate.

‘Take my advice, dear boy. By all means write your book, if that’s your intention - but forget about all this Molly business. It could get you into trouble; serious trouble. Do come again, dear boy, when you can spare the time. I’ve got a really nice Chablis in the cellar I’d like to try on you. Come in the summer when we can sit out and enjoy the garden.’

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