‘Exactly!’ said Mr Swaine. ‘The pub. The Britannia. A quaint old hostelry, as British as . . . bowler hats and fish and chips, representng the finest hospitality our nation can offer.’
Mr Ellis shuddered. ‘Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.’
‘In 1949,’ Mr Cooke reminded him, ‘a Yorkshire inn was constructed in Toronto, for the International Trade Fair. It was considered a great success. We hope to repeat that success; and indeed build on it.’
‘Well, to each his own,’ Mr Ellis conceded, with a shrug. ‘When I visit the fair, I shall be hunting down a bowl of moules and a decent bottle of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, my concern – our concern, I should say – is that this dubious venture should be properly organized, and overseen.’
Thomas wondered about the force of that plural pronoun. On whose behalf was Mr Ellis speaking? The Foreign Office, presumably . . .
‘Exactly, Ellis, exactly. We are of one mind.’ Mr Cooke conducted a vague search of his desk, found a cherrywood pipe and slipped it into his mouth, apparently with no thought of lighting it. ‘The trouble with this pub, you see, is its . . . provenance. Whitbread are going to set it up and run it. So in that sense it’s nothing to do with us. But the fact remains that it’s on our site. It will be seen, inevitably, as part of the official British presence. To my mind . . .’ (he puffed on the pipe as though it were burning merrily) ‘. . . this presents a definite problem.’
‘But not an insoluble problem, Cooke,’ said Mr Swaine, stepping forward from the fireplace. ‘By no means insoluble. All it means is that we have to be there, in some shape or form, to put our stamp on it – as it were – and make sure that . . . well, that things are as they should be.’
‘Quite,’ said Mr Ellis. ‘So, in effect, what is required is that someone from your office should be on hand – and indeed, on site – to run things. Or keep an eye on them, at the very least.’
It was very obtuse of him, but even at this stage Thomas could not see where he was supposed to fit into all this. He watched with increasing stupefaction as Mr Cooke opened the manila file beside him and began to flip languidly through its contents.
‘Now, Foley,’ he said, ‘I’ve been looking through your file here, and one or two things . . . One or two things seem to rather leap out at me. For instance, it says here –’ (he raised his eyes and glanced at Thomas questioningly, as though the information he had just lighted upon could hardly be credited) ‘– it says here that your mother was Belgian. Is that true?’
Thomas nodded. ‘She still is, if it comes to that. She was born in Leuven, but she had to leave at the beginning of the war – the Great War, that is – when she was ten years old.’
‘So you’re half-Belgian, in other words?’
‘Yes. But I’ve never been there.’
‘Leuven . . . Is that Flemish-speaking, or French?’
‘I see. Speak any of the lingo?’
‘Not really. A few words.’
Mr Cooke returned to his file. ‘I’ve also been reading a little bit about your father’s . . . your father’s background.’ This time he actually shook his head while skimming over the pages, as if lost in rueful amazement. ‘It says here – it says here that your father actually runs a pub. Can that be true, as well?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Ah.’ Mr Cooke seemed torn between relief and disappointment.
‘He did run a pub, yes, for almost twenty years. He was the landlord of the Rose and Crown, in Leatherhead. But I’m afraid that my father died, three years ago. He was rather young. In his mid-fifties.’
Mr Cooke lowered his gaze. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Foley.’
‘It was lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker.’
The three men stared at him, puzzled by this information.
‘A recent study has shown,’ Thomas explained carefully, ‘that there may be a link between smoking and lung cancer.’
‘Funny,’ Mr Swaine mused, aloud. ‘I always feel much healthier after a gasper or two.’
There was an embarrassed pause.
‘Well, Foley,’ said Mr Cooke, ‘this is pretty dreadful for you. You certainly have our commiserations.’
‘Thank you, sir. He’s been much missed, by my mother and me.’
‘Erm – yes, there is your father’s loss, of course,’ said Mr Cooke hastily, although it appeared that this was not what he’d actually been referring to. ‘But we were commiserating with you, rather, on your . . . start in life. What with one thing and another – the pub, and the Belgian thing – you must have felt pretty severely handicapped.’
Temporarily lost for words, Thomas could only let him speak on.
‘You made it into the local grammar, I see, so that must have been something. Still, you’ve done frightfully well, I think, to get where you have since then. Wouldn’t you agree, gentlemen? That young Foley here has shown a good deal of pluck, and determination?’
‘Rather,’ said Mr Swaine.
‘Absolutely,’ said Mr Ellis.
In the silence that followed, Thomas felt himself sinking into a state of absolute indifference to the conversation. He gazed through the sash window and out into the distance, towards the park, and while waiting for Mr Cooke to speak he had a savage craving to be there, walking alongside Sylvia, pushing the pram, both of them looking down at the baby as she lay deep in a dreamless, animal sleep.
‘Well, Foley,’ said the Central Office of Information’s Director of Exhibitions, slapping the file shut with sudden decisiveness, ‘it’s pretty obvious that you’re our man.’
‘Your man?’ said Thomas, his eyes slowly coming back into focus.
‘Our man, yes. Our man in Brussels.’
‘Foley, have you not been listening? As Mr Ellis here was explaining, we need someone from the COI to oversee the whole running of the Britannia. We need someone on site, on the premises, for the whole six months of the fair. And that someone is going to be you.’
‘Me, sir? But . . .’
‘But what? Your father ran a pub for twenty years, didn’t he? So you must have learned something about it in that time.’
‘Yes, but . . .’
‘And your mother comes from Belgium, for Heaven’s sake. You’ve got Belgian blood coursing through your veins. It’ll be like a second home to you.’
‘But . . . But what about my family, sir? I can’t just abandon them for all that time. I’ve got a wife. We’ve got a little baby girl.’
Mr Cooke waved his hand airily. ‘Well, take them with you, if you like. Although a lot of men, quite frankly, would jump at the opportunity to get away from nappies and rattles for six months. I know I would have done, at your age.’ He beamed a happy smile around the room. ‘So, is it all settled, then?’
Thomas asked if he could have the weekend to think about it. Mr Cooke looked bemused and offended, but he agreed.