An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Next morning a telegram arrived. PROCEED IMMEDIATELY KARACHI BRANCH STOP MANAGER ILL. That was all it said.
I broke the news to Sebastian, whose main aim in life now was to get this trip over and done with and see his family again. He said lugubriously “We no go Bombay soon, Sahib?”
I shrugged. Words seemed inadequate. So we packed.
It’s a long journey to Karachi–a very hot and tedious one, especially at that time of year. It’s well over a thousand miles from Peshawar through the Sind desert. People had been known to drop down dead on the way. But orders were orders.
The Karachi branch was quite a departure for the firm from the way it normally did business. So far it had proved nothing but a drain on resources, or so the staff in Bombay claimed. Its manager though, a man called Bradford whom I had never met, was well-regarded by the heads of the firm. They told me in passing that he had a wife, a one-time actress of sorts. I pictured her as someone like Gertie.
Two days later we were at our destination. Seemingly drained of any further ability to perspire, I found a couple of gharries at the station to take our boxes to a smallish shop on Karachi’s only proper street. But it was Saturday afternoon, the shutters were up and my banging and rattling on the door brought no response. A passer-by suggested we should try the back way. This turned out to be an outside wooden stairway leading to the manager’s living-quarters.
The door was ajar. From the end of the corridor I could hear excited female giggling, but it ceased abruptly as my feet clattered on the floorboards. Before knocking on the door I paused to listen. I could hear a girl inside saying:
“Oh you mustn’t! No–please–not again! No… no… no!” Then silence. It didn’t seem the kind of conversation a doctor would engage in with the patient, even supposing she was a woman doctor.
I knocked on the door. A man’s voice groaned “Come in–damn you!”
I pushed the door open. Straight in front of me I saw a large iron bedstead. Lying on it were a white man and a dark-skinned woman. He was evidently a person of some bulk. She wasn’t. The man’s expression changed at once into a broad grin, though I surmised it was less out of welcome than to cover his embarrassment.
“Who the hell are you?” he laughed. Then he frowned. “Er–you’re not from Bombay, are you?”
The young woman–I would have said “girl” in other circumstances–quickly covered herself with the sheet. Neither made any move to get up.
“No,” I blushed. “I’ve just come from Peshawar.”
“Well, what do you want? The place isn’t open today, as you might have noticed. And I’ve been in bed for over a week.”
“I got a telegram to come because the manager was sick.”
“Then you are from Gore’s! Why didn’t you say? You must be the new youngster I’ve been hearing about.”
Grinning broadly now, he tugged the sheet away from the girl. “This is Alice. She’s my nurse–among other things. Alice, this is Mr–er… sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“That’s right. Colvin tells me you’ve been doing well.”
“Not too badly…”
“We’ll talk later. Right this moment Alice wants me to tickle her. She loves it, don’t you dear?” Laughing, he gave her a hug.
Underneath the sheet the girl was fully dressed, although her clothes were awry. She jumped out of bed and smoothed herself down. Completely unabashed she said “He’s a naughty man, isn’t he?” –and ran off to the bathroom.
To say I was taken aback was putting it mildly. Bradford had a wife. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, with a hint of challenge in his voice. “But my wife’s been back home six months–and she isn’t coming out again. Good enough excuse, I trust.”
Ignoring what he’d just said, I asked if there was anything I could do.
“Not until Monday when we open up again. I didn’t expect you till then. I’m not getting up today. Alice is keeping house for me.”
I turned to go, thinking I was being dismissed until Monday. He called out after me “You’ll find a bed through that door. It’s the only other bed I’ve got. Hope it will do.”
I put my nose into the hutch of a spare bedroom to give it a quick look-over, then went back down the steps to the street. There I found Sebastian chatting to another bearer, who happened to be Bradford’s. Between them they got my cases into the shop.
I opened them up to check the contents–and was aghast at their condition. The two-day journey from Peshawar had rendered most of the articles fit only for a jumble sale. Just as well, I thought, that I didn’t have to go out immediately and try and sell them. The grimace on my face was enough to send Sebastian slithering off without a word in the company of his new companion.
I spend most of the evening talking to Bradford by his bedside. He proved a cheerful and easy conversationalist. Tailor’s cutter was his real trade, he said. He’d been drafted here to develop the outfitting side, after spending six months in the shop in Bombay. He looked twice my age.
“If I’m feeling fit enough on Monday, my boy, I’ll pop on the BI boat on Tuesday and go down and see the bosses. He laughed out loud at the effect this had on me. “You’ll have Alice all to yourself until I get back. Won’t that be nice for you!”
He looked disappointed at my lack of enthusiasm. He must have thought I’d lost my manners, showing not a bit of gratitude.
Bradford had the attitude of somebody without a care in the world. And that despite his recent illness–a bout of malaria which had lasted ten days. In just over a year he had managed to get the branch well enough established that the amount of money it was losing was very little. After a lifetime of cutting cheap suits at a Brixton tailor’s, he told me, he loved the feeling of being his own master.
“One’s got to make one’s own life out here–and it’s not that difficult to do. Funnily enough there’s no one to make it with. My wife was bored stiff with the place–and the people. You see, you’ve only the Indian Civils for company, the military–and the staff of a couple of banks and merchant houses. They’re all eligible to join the Sind Club. But the likes of you and I have to keep our place, only to be met and talked-to in the shop. So when they come in here, what do I do but twist them as hard as I dare, give the firm its fair price and pocket the rest. He cupped his hand, feigning whispering in my ear. “That’s all between you and me of course. If you’re clever you can make quite a bit of cash. In ten years I’ll be fit for retirement.”
He asked if I’d ever measured anyone for clothes. So I told him how I’d begun, and the scores of suits I had taken orders for since.
“Measuring is an art, my boy. Almost as much as cutting.” He was serious now. “Like to show me your method?”
I did–and it caused him to laugh until his sides ached.
“You mean you put the tape outside their jackets? I shouldn’t be surprised if Bombay isn’t piled high with rejects. When I’m up and about, remind me to put you right for the future.”
That depressed me terribly. I contemplated the thousands of rupees’ worth of clothes which even now were being returned for a refund. Possibly all along my route, people were remonstrating vehemently, as Sir Edward had done in Delhi, or posting back their parcels in a white fury. If Bradford’s attitude had been more forgiving I might have thought to mention Sir Edward’s repeat order, but I was too proud to go justifying myself.
…to be continued.