My Uncle Wendell
By Dibyajyoti Sarma
Those days we used to walk to school. It was not far. Just the big turning at the corner of the Church of the Immaculate Heart and there was our convent. Men were not allowed to enter inside the gate. Uncle Wendell would bid us goodbye here, but not before buying candies for us. This was one of the reasons why he was popular among my friends: Annie, Rosy, Jenny and of course, Maria. After school was done, he would be waiting for us near the gate, to escort us back home. Sometimes, when he couldn’t make to those afternoon walks, Maria would miss him terribly. It was not only the candies! The entire persona of my uncle, the way he talked, his stories and jokes, and his immense knowledge of various things enamoured the girls, especially Maria. We used to tease her that she was in love with him. She would bend her head and blush. She was indeed!
When we reached ninth standard, uncle stopped accompanying us to school. We were big girls now, he told us; we could take care of ourselves. But the girls could not do without meeting Wendell. They would visit us every Sunday. I was very happy to receive them except for one thing. I did not want them to meet my father. He was a hopeless drunkard, locking himself up in his room, and drinking and painting. Nobody knew what he painted. Once the canvas was over, he would wrap it meticulously in brown papers, bring it to the courtyard, and set fire to it. He would stand solemnly over the burning canvas, and as the canvas turned into ashes, he would retire into his room to work on his next painting. On rare occasions, he would come out of his cocoon and meander aimlessly along the house, holding a glass of drink in his hand; speaking obscenities to whoever dared to face him. On those occasions I preferred to stay out. I would rather have killed myself than allow my friends to meet my father.
Wendell knew this. He took utmost care that girls didn’t stay in the house for long. On those occasions he would try his culinary skills, cook some exotic food, pack them, and we would be off to the beach for a picnic. Maria would bring flowers for him every time. When she would offer him the bouquet, we’d giggle with knowing smugness. Uncle knew this little secret of Maria; I guess he encouraged it. I couldn’t be sure.
My uncle Wendell! The year I joined college, he ordered me to call him Wendell, no uncle, nothing, just Wendell. “For Christ’s sake, Anna, I’m just 18 years older than you,” he would argue, “don’t make me feel old by calling me uncle.”
It was the same year I asked him to get married.
“Why?” he asked me pointedly.
“Because.” I answered.
“Because everyone gets married. This is high time, Wendell, that you get married. You’re getting no younger.”
“This is not a sound argument, Anna,” he would answer, while tidying the cushion covers of the living room sofa. “It is not necessary that one should get married when one grows old!”
Wendell was always good at argument. I could not beat him. Then I resorted to extremes.
“You know, Wendell, sometimes I desperately feel the need of a mother…”
“Why?” He would ask menacingly.
“It’s just that a girl of my age has so many things to learn from her mother…”
“What the f…k is a mother going to teach you, anyways?” It was the only subject that made him grow red with anger and use abusive words. “What is a bloody mother going to teach you, Anna, tell me? Without a mother you can handle your menstruation all right.”
Yes, I could handle my menstruation, and so many other things without a mother. In fact, I did not need a mother. But Wendell? Did he not need a wife? I was sure, he did.
I had a perfect childhood. Nothing was unusual, not even the fact that there was no woman in the household. While at school, I asked Wendell about it—why I didn’t have a mother like other girls did. He answered simply. It is not necessary that every girl should have a mother. And, especially, a smart and intelligent girl like I didn’t need a mother.
I was smart and intelligent, and beautiful, and Wendell took every care to prove that I was. While other girls of my age were busy playing with their dolls, I was busy with Wendell discussing which flowers we should plant in our garden this winter. While other girls were busy swinging in the garden, I was busy decorating my room. While other girls were busy bitching about our math teacher, Ms Rosy, I was busy with their mothers preparing the Easter cake.
It all began with Wendell. As far back as I could remember, he would treat me as a grown-up. He’d tell me everything: about our cashew nut plants, about Panjim, and Goa, our neighbours, about politics and legends, everything. He was my constant companion. We’d go to jogging every morning; he would take me to school and then back home. While I’d do homework, he’d take up a book and sit beside me. After dinner, we would sit in the garden and share the day’s adventures. Sometimes, I’d ask him how he spent his day while I was away in school. His answer was always the same: “Oh, I have to catch up with a lot many things, you know, to keep up with you.” It was very flattering, coupled with an overpowering sense of responsibility. I shouldered it graciously.
Wendell knew half of the people of Panjim. So did I. And his attitude towards me was contagious. Before I knew it, everyone around me began to behave with me as with an adult. If Ms Rosy had problems handling the class, she’d ask for my help. While Jenny’s mother would scream at her daughter for not studying, she would ask my advice on household affairs. And my friends! I was their unofficial advisor.
And mine was Wendell.
No, I did not miss anything in my childhood; not my dolls, my swings, nothing. As Wendell convinced me, intelligent girls have better things to do than playing with dolls. In Wendell’s company everything was possible. He was everything, the length and breadth of my life. I took him for granted.
Then came the revelation. It was my first birthday after I joined college. I wanted to celebrate it on a yacht with my friends, like my classmate Emon did. But Wendell found the idea silly. He told me so at the dining table. But I was adamant. I left the dinner half-eaten, and went straight to bed. Next morning, I went to college without meeting him. I was feeling sad about him. I knew he would be upset. But I wanted to have my wish. From collage I went to Jenny’s place. Aunt Margaret gave me a glass of lemonade, and I began to complain to her about Wendell. When my blabber was over, she came and sat beside me.
“Anna, are you sure, you are cross with Wendell?”
No. I was not cross with Wendell. I just wanted him allow me borrow the yacht…
“But, Anna, if Wendell says no, there must be some reasons for it.”
I made a face.
“But, darling, you must not make Wendell upset. You don’t know what he has done for you.”
Then I knew. And I was miserable.
Wendell was the most promising student in the class. He wanted to be a doctor. Father Joshua was sure that one day his favourite student, Wendell Fernandez, would become a doctor. He always stood first in class. Francesca was second. They were studying for their twelfth exam.
Then the tornado came. That year the sea was calm, fish aplenty, and the cashew nut trees were full of fruit and promise.
The Fernandez brothers of downtown Panjim had nothing much to worry about. Their parents were dead for many years. They had an old spacious bungalow for themselves, and 100 acres of cashew nut fields in the hills of Bicholim. While Wendell studied, elder brother Mario looked after the fields, and the world outside. He also painted. He had already earned a name as a painter among local circles.
That day, when he returned home, Mario was in a jovial mood. He called his brother from his studies and opened a bottle of champagne. “What’s the occasion, Mario?” Wendell asked.
“I am getting married,” Mario announced without much ado.
It was great news. Finally, a woman would come to inhabit this house. And knowing how Mario was always averse to marriage, Wendell was doubly happy. He drank a toast to his brother’s happy married life.
“But who’s the lucky girl?” He asked finally.
“She’s Gomez’s daughter,” Mario informed him in a matter-of-fact voice. “I did not know that Gomez had a daughter, that too a beautiful one. Today I went to his house and she opened the door. Wow, brother! I was bowled over! So I decided to get married.”
As Mario was going on and on talking about his bride-to-be, Wendell’s heart began to sink. He knew Gomez’s daughter. He feared the worse.
“But, Mario, What’s her name?”
“Francesca. You might know her. She studies in your college.”
Wendell knew Francesca. She was his best friend. And she was in love with Jerome.
Next day, Francesca did not come to college. As Wendell was leaving college, Jerome approached him. Francesca was supposed to meet him. But there was no sign of her. So, Wendell had to go find Francesca. He knew he had to do that. He felt a pang of responsibility for his best friend and for his brother, whom he loved dearly.
Gomez himself opened the door. He was an old, burly sort of man who was always drunk. He invited Wendell in warmly. Wendell asked about Francesca’s whereabouts. Her mother provided the answer: “She’s not feeling well, Wendell. It’s good that you came along. Why don’t you take her for a walk?” So they went for a walk on the tar road of the Madgaon-Vasco Highway. Francesca looked disheveled. Her eyes were red. She had been crying. After a long, tense silence, Wendell was the first to speak:
“Jerome was asking about you!”
“You must be very happy, Wendell!”
“Your brother is finally getting married.”
Francesca gave him a look which in normal circumstances would have meant ‘never mind.’
“But, Francesca, I know you love Jerome, and he loves you, then...”
Francesca halted and stood face to face with Wendell.
“Then, if I refuse to marry your brother, my father would slit his wrist.” Her voice was a cold sea breeze.
“Jesus Christ!” Wendell swore. Francesca burst into tears.
“My father thinks that Mario is the best groom I could ever find. He would never take no for an answer. He wants me to inherit your property.”
For a long time Wendell did not know what to say. Then he said, “It’s not a question of property, Francesca. It’s a question of happiness. If you cannot accept Mario, what’s the point marrying him?”
“Father says time will heal everything. I’ll forget Jerome and begin to love Mario.”
“And if you can’t? What’ll happen to Mario?”
“What’ll happen to me?”
“And what about Jerome?”
“But, Wendell, what about me?”
“This nonsense must stop, Francesca. It can’t go on like this. Your father can’t just destroy three lives like this! I must talk to your father. And I must inform my brother.”
Now Francesca was hysterical. She clutched Wendell’s arms in a tight grip and began to shake him. “No, Wendell, NO! You are not doing anything like that. My father would kill himself.”
When Wendell returned home that night, he was already under oath from Francesca. He wouldn’t utter a word for the sake of friendship. Francesca will wed Mario. She’ll save her father’s life. About the happiness part, let the future decide.
Mario and Francesca become man and wife at a grand ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mario was happy to have a beautiful bride. And Francesca? She looked stunning in her white bridal gown. She was smiling radiantly. After marriage, they went on a honeymoon in Manali.
That year Wendell topped the board exams, and that year he stopped studies.
Nobody knew what happened in the honeymoon. But, once they were back, signs of destruction were unmistakable. There was something wrong between them. Soon, Mario got busy with his social activities and his painting. Often he would come home late, drunk, and, if Francesca were awake, he would pick a fight that would last for 2 hours. Most of the days Francesca was awake, and most of the days they fought. Sometimes, Mario would shut himself up in his study and paint. He was working like mad those days. It was probably the only way he could handle his frustration. The connection between the brothers soon began to drift apart. They would hardly meet and, whenever they did, they did not have much to say. Wendell began to feel guilty. It was his fault after all. He should have told Mario about Francesca before marriage.
And Francesca? She was no longer Wendell’s best friend. She was no longer the person who would seek Wendell’s advice. They met every morning and exchanged greetings. Then Francesca would either lock herself up in her room, or go for a walk. In a sense she was following her husband’s path, but for different goals. Wendell tried to persuade her to resume her studies, but she declined. She had other pressing things to do. By then, she was sporting sure signs of pregnancy; and she was visiting churches with alarming regularity.
Francesca spent the last few months of her gestation at her parents’ house. One day, she came home with a little girl in her arms. Wendell was ecstatic. The infant bought new hopes to the household. Wendell hoped that the dark days were over now. He undertook all the responsibilities of the infant. Mario came to see his daughter only once. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she, brother?” he mumbled drunkenly. “Can we call her Anna?” So, they decided to call her Anna. A nanny was appointed for the child. But most of the time it was Wendell who took care of her. Francesca was busy with other things. Her visits to churches were getting more frequent.
One evening, Mario was away. He was attending an exhibition of his paintings in town. Anna was asleep after her evening cereal. Wendell was studying for his medical exam. Suddenly Francesca entered the room like a shadow.
“I am leaving, Wendell.”
She was wearing the wedding dress with the full regalia of a bride, including the veil. It took Wendell some time to comprehend the gravity of the scene.
“With, Jerome?” he finally asked.
“Yes. He’ll arrive at any minute, and we’ll be off.”
“What about Mario?”
Francesca was silent for few seconds. Then she spoke very slowly, uttering every word with such conviction that there was no room for any argument.
“I am sorry, if that gives you some solace. It was his choice and he has to bear the consequences. I am afraid, I cannot help him.”
Jerome arrived just then. He helped Francesca carry her luggage to the car. Wendell stood watching from the verandah, little Anna sleeping in his arms. The baggage done, Francesca came towards Wendell and stretched her hands for the baby.
Wendell’s head was boiling. His heart was pounding with rage and a maddening sense of guilt. He wanted to scream at Francesca. For long, had he watched this game silently; for long had he watched his brother’s life being destroyed.
“Wendell, my daughter…” Francesca gestured towards baby Anna.
Wendell’s eyes were moist. He was holding Mario’s daughter in his arms. He was holding the progeny of the Fernandez family in his arms. It was time for Wendell to step into the picture.
“Good bye, Francesca,” he said, “May you find your happiness somewhere!”
Francesca’s hands were still stretched.
“Anna is part of my family. I can’t let her go.”
Wendell’s eyes were burning. Francesca dropped her hands.
“Good bye, Francesca,” Wendell repeated. “I promise you, Anna won’t miss anything here. I promise you, I’ll love her more that you and Jerome ever would.”
He went inside and slammed the door behind him.
That was the night for Wendell! Clasping little Anna in his arms, he felt a strong desire to cry, to let go of the heaviness that was cluttering his soul. But he could not. Anna was sleeping peacefully. Wendell placed her in bed and covered her with a rug. Then, with a sudden impulse, he began to bang his head on the wall. Why? Why? His mind was screaming at him. Why didn’t he tell Mario about Francesca and Jerome? His forehead was throbbing with pain and he was feeling uncontrollably guilty. He took out a bottle of Old Monk and gulped a peg neat. Soon, he was quite drunk and his sense of guilt was turning into an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
It was time for Wendell to act. He could not afford to become a drunkard. He had responsibilities. He had Anna to take care of. Wendell got up and put the bottle away. He had to atone for his guilt, his responsibility towards his brother.
It broke his heart to do that, but he did it. That night, he packed all his books, papers, pencils, and all the paraphernalia of his studies neatly and stored them in the attic. The upbringing of Anna was more important for him than his studies.
Mario came late. He went to his room, changed, and then knocked at Wendell’s. Wendell opened the door, drunk and blood dripping from his forehead.
“Yes,” Wendell replied.
“Good!” Mario mumbled almost inaudibly. “What about Anna?”
“She’s here.” Wendell pointed to the bed.
Mario did not say anything. He entered the room and sat on the chair. Finally, he spoke: “Wendell, where are your books?”
“Brother, I am not studying any more.”
It was then that Mario noticed the blood on Wendell’s forehead.
“You’re hurt, Wendell.”
“Wash it, and put some Dettol.”
That was the last piece of conversation between the brothers. Wendell’s sense of guilt was complete, so was Mario’s self-destruction.
Next day, Mario undertook a nasty fight with the organizers of his painting exhibition. At length, he broke off the contract, packed all his 57 paintings and brought them home. He placed the paintings in a pyre in front of his house and watched them turn into fire, as black smoke tried to reach the sky with the smell of burning oil paints.
With a blackened heart, Wendell watched the smoke through the window. He was rearranging the house. He was planning to change everything in the household. He wanted a brand new environment for Anna to grow up in.
Since the day of his burning the paintings Mario never left home. One morning, a few days later, when he came up to Wendell and asked him for some oil paints, some canvas and a box of beer, Wendell knew he must do it immediately. He could not make himself stop Mario. It was his fault after all.
Suddenly, I felt so lonely, so lucky and so miserably guilty!
I thought about that woman called Francesca. That time her age was a little more than mine. And what guts she might have had to sacrifice everything for the sake of her lover. It needs real courage of love to forsake your own daughter of flesh and bone! Suddenly, I was admiring her courage.
And my father! He was nowhere there in my life. As I grew up, he was turning into another child for Wendell, who would regulate Mario’s eating habits, force him to have a shave and bathe at regular intervals. When Mario would haunt the house with the overflow of obscene words, Wendell would face him with the patience of a father.
He was my father, I was told, and was asked to revere him. But just that. For months I wouldn’t see him and, when he did come out, he was a monster. I could never feel close to him. At best, I tried to shun away his existence from my life.
Now, as I was walking home from Jenny’s place, my heart cried for the man who helped me be reborn. Wendell, Wendell, why did you keep him away from me? My father! I was suddenly angry with the woman who gave birth to me. How dare she destroy a life like this! And Mario, why had he acted like a dumb shit-hole? Marriages often fail; it was not a big deal. Why could he not just stand up and face the situation the way Wendell did.
The very thought of Wendell heightened my anger towards my father. Why, why could he not take care of his baby daughter and spare his brother, his brother, who wanted to be a doctor? Your brother, who scarified his life for you?
Oh, Wendell, Wendell!
By the time I reached home, I was weeping uncontrollably. I entered the courtyard trying to wipe away my tears. Wendell came running from nowhere.
“Anna dear, there’s a good news for you,” he paused, his blue eyes sparkled, “the yacht is yours.”
Now I failed to hide my emotions. I hugged him. “Wendell, Wendell, I don’t need any yacht, really…”
That night at dinner I broached the subject.
“Wendell, Jenny’s mother has told me everything.” I began chewing a fried fish.
Wendell put a spoonful of rice in his mouth and, without chewing it, looked at me. His eyes reflected the timidity of a thief. He put the spoon away.
“What?” he asked finally.
“What everything?” his voice was impatient, eager.
“That…” I bent my head mischievously and whispered, “that you were in love with a girl and she got married to someone else.” I concentrated on the fish.
“Oh, that!” He heaved a sigh of relief and responded in an encouraging voice.
It was time for the real issue. I finished my fish, wiped my lips, and stood behind Wendell’s chair, touching his arms.
“Don’t worry, Wendell, I am a mature girl now. I can understand.” I paused, and then spoke slowly, “I came to know about Mario and Francesca and about you.”
Wendell did not respond. I could feel him shiver through his flannel shirt.
“Are you all right?” Concern was in my voice.
He turned and looked at me.
“I guess you are right, Anna. You have really grown up.”
That night, when I went to bed, I really felt like a real grown up, filled with tremendous sense of responsibility for Wendell, which stemmed from an overpowering sense of guilt. He had done so much for me and, in return, what have I given him? Nothing. He scarified his future, his career, his ambition to become a doctor only to raise me. And I? I was just enjoying myself.
That night, I wondered desperately if I could become a doctor! I wanted to fulfill his ambition for him. But it was not possible. I was doing Arts.
That night, I decided for Wendell. Till now, he was doing things for others. It was now time for him to enjoy his life. I decided to help him achieve that. It was the least thing I could do for him.
After arriving at the decision, the first thing that came to my mind was Maria’s name. Maria loves Wendell. They would make a wonderful couple.
I tried to talk the marriage thing out with Wendell. But he always evaded the subject either by being angry, or by being unresponsive. I persisted, discreetly and diligently. And Wendell’s reasons were numerous. He did not have time; he was planning to purchase another cashew nut field; he was thinking of redoing the house; Mario could not do without him; he did not have any intention to take part in such frivolities; and, when thing would go out of control, he would end up saying that he was actually thinking of my marriage. I would then scream and declare that I was not going to get married. It was a conscious decision. I knew Wendell would be utterly alone without me and I could not bear to think about it.
Our Sunday picnics at the beach continued, but only occasionally. That Sunday, I talked to Maria about Wendell.
“Maria, tell me, weren’t you in love with Wendell when were at school?
“Why do you ask that?”
“Just tell me, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was,” she said, her eyes twinkling, “And to tell you the truth, Anna, I still am. Isn’t he handsome?” She pointed towards Wendell trying to catch the waves of the Arabian Sea.
“Tell me, do you see yourself marrying Wendell some day—tell me, Maria?” I continued, “I mean, there’s big age-difference, yet…”
“Oh, I would love to,” Maria beamed. “But I think he has some other plans.”
Suddenly I was happy. “You mean he’s seeing someone. How come I don’t know about it?”
“Oh, no, not that,“ Maria blushed, “I mean, I am seeing Jay.”
And I was mad at Maria. “You bitch! You did not tell me about that!” Jay was our manager. After patiently dodging my complaints and my curses, Maria informed, “You know, Wendell asked me to keep it a secret from you.”
Oh, Wendell, Wendell, you stupid man.
I wondered whether Wendell could read my moves, my intentions. And he was guarding his privacy zealously. The reasons notwithstanding, I was getting nowhere with Wendell’s future.
Then Peter came into my life, and Mario, my father was gone. I’m sorry father; I could not love you more.
I tried to reconcile with him. But it was difficult. He was already a burnt man, turning into ashes. I went there and touched him, and the ashes were scattered everywhere, and the person who was my father, was gone.
In the last 18 years, he had created a cocoon for himself that was very difficult, almost impossible to intrude upon. Apart from his world, the only person he recognized was Wendell, who was his link between himself and the real world of sound and sight, hunger and oil paint. I asked Wendell’s permission to attend to his needs. He asked me whether I was sure I wanted to do this. I said I was.
I began to carry food and other stuff to Mario, in the meantime, trying to jog his memory. “Father, it’s Anna, your daughter.” He would stare at me, and say, “Where’s Wendell? I wanted a brush!” The routine continued for months. I did not give up. Since there were no expectations, there was no question of giving up. Slowly, he began to show signs of recognition. He began to call me Anna. He began to listen to my small talk.
Then, one day, he took pity on me and let me enter his cocoon one last time. I knocked on his door at the usual time, handed him the lunch tray, exchanged a few words—as usual I talked and he listened—and turned to leave. As I was descending the stairs, he called back, “Anna, my portrait is over. Can I get a new canvas?”
“When do you want it, father?” I asked.
So, half an hour later, I knocked on the door again holding the canvas in my hand. He opened the door and said thank you. The finished portrait was lying on the floor, upside down, ready to be wrapped up and burned.
“Father, won’t you invite me into your room?”
He stared at me longer than usual and said, “You want to come? Come then.” The room smelt strongly of liquor. I settled myself on the nearby chair. He was busy trying to wrap the canvas. “Father,” I called him twice to get his attention. He did not respond. “Father, won’t you show me the portrait?” His movements froze and he looked at me; his deep, unblinking eyes scrutinising me. There was a long pause. He was moving his fingers over the rim of the canvas, bending his head.
“Okay then,” he said suddenly, “if you insist.
With a jolt, he turned the canvas towards me and I saw: the close up of a beautiful face, which had been mutilated mercilessly, with blood dripping from every pore of her visage. The goriness of the picture shook me. Suddenly the spell was gone: “That’s enough. Now, just get lost, you bitch!” he snarled.
When I returned at night carrying the dinner tray, the door was ajar. He was lying on the bed, eyes closed. I tried to awake him. He opened his eyes with an effort. “Anna,” he mumbled. I took his hands into mine and pressed it against my cheek. I was crying. “I’m dying. Can you please call Wendell?”
When my father’s life left his body, Wendell was inconsolable. He began to cry like a child. He began to wail like a fishwife who had lost her husband to the sea. He flung himself over his dead brother’s body and cried bitterly. Tears were in my eyes too. But they were more for Wendell than for my father. I could not weep for Mario. I was never close to him. I looked at the portrait of the mutilated woman all over again, the one portrait which father failed to burn. I was glad that she was mutilated. She deserved the torture.
As Wendell continued to sob, I arranged for the funeral. I called Aunt Margaret and Maria’s father. Soon, they took over the situation. As the funeral party was ready to leave, I helped Wendell with his black trousers, and his black coat. “Your father is dead, Anna, Mario is dead.” He kept muttering.
When we returned, Wendell was already tired of weeping. I led him to the bedroom, and soon he fell asleep. I unstrung his shoes, loosened the belt of his trousers and, holding his body, undid his coat. As I was holding him, for the first time I discovered the masculinity of Wendell’s body, his veined hands, and the hair of his chest. I was fascinated by this maleness of Wendell. Now I could agree with Maria. Wendell was undoubtedly handsome. His face glowed with childlike serenity. It was a hot summer day. He was perspiring. I began to unbutton his shirt, felt his chest and the hairline. Then my fingers felt the deep scar of a cut-mark on his upper abdomen. I hurriedly undid the remaining buttons. It was unmistakably a cut-mark, obviously made by a sharp knife. The mark had healed now, but the deep black wound remained, bearing witness to the severity of a hurt once inflicted. I felt the scar with my fingers and my heart ached. Poor Wendell! And, lo, there were several similar marks on the lower abdomen too!
Oh, Wendell, Wendell, what have you done to yourself! And what for? I came face to face with Wendell’s sense of guilt. Oh, Wendell! You don’t deserve to be mutilated. You’re not guilty, I tell you. If anyone deserves to be mutilated it’s that bitch of a woman, Francesca, and my father who has tortured her enough.
Father’s last painting was neatly packed and stored in the attic.
Once our household regained its normalcy, and Wendell was back to business with the same vivacity and strength (but to me more masculine and more tragic, as the lone coconut tree looks tragic on the backdrop of a vast ocean), I asked him about the scar marks. He smiled, ruffled my hair in a loving, irritating way and answered: “Love’s labour lost.”
Then Peter came into my life. Maria got married and Mark came to live with us.
After father’s death, the house suddenly felt very big and empty. I mentioned this to Wendell. After 2 days he asked me whether I would mind if someone comes to live with us. It depended on who was coming. Wendell informed me that it was Mark.
Mark was our new manager. Jay now owned a restaurant on Mapusa. It was Jay’s dream to open a restaurant and he wanted to do it before his marriage. So, Wendell lent him some money and asked Mark to occupy the vacant post.
Mark was an orphan raised by Father Rodriguez of the Church of the Immaculate Heart. Wendell met him while accompanying us to school. Mark was then a young brat, very intelligent and very willing, another livewire. After high school, he left his studies to do various odd jobs like being a sailor and a tourist guide and, as he shamelessly boasted later, supplier of women to foreign tourists. But his friendship with Wendell remained intact for the last 18 years. So when Wendell was thinking a permanent solution for the manager’s vacancy, Mark’s name came up inevitably.
I liked Mark. He was a gallant sort of man who had a way with women. Whenever he came, he’d bring flowers for me, always complimented my looks, and sometimes offered beauty tips for my hair. I liked his dashing personality and the fact that he could sing very well. He could copy Remo Fernandez so well that even Remo himself would be surprised.
Maria’s wedding was arranged in Mapusa. I was the bridesmaid. Mark helped me with the dress. We drove to Mapusa in our old Fiat. I was in my happiest mood, though Mark kept snapping at me for not holding the flowers properly. Wendell beamed self-consciously. He looked especially handsome today in his black-gold suit. Maria was certainly going to miss him. I kept asking Wendell what gift he had for Maria. He smiled mischievously and said that it was a secret. Finally the marriage was over. The crowd blessed the man and wife: Jay and Maria. Wendell offered his gift. It was a big diamond ring. Maria wore it on her left index finger and looked at me. Her eyes were moist. And I knew another secret. Wendell loved Maria after all. He kissed her on the cheek.
After the mass, I was dead tired. Everyone was busy congratulating each other. I looked for Wendell or Mark. Neither was there and I wanted to have a glass of lemonade desperately. I was too tired to walk to the buffet table. Then someone approached me.
“Can I help you?”
I turned to look at the stranger. He was a young man with chopped hair and a bottle-green bow tie. He was holding two glasses of lemonade.
“Care for a drinks?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, thank you.” I said, took the glass and gulped its contents in one go. The young man was staring at me. I was beginning to feel awkward. I handed the empty glass to him. “But how did you know that I wanted to have some lemonade?”
“Bridesmaids don’t usually drink whisky, do they?”
He was Peter. Peter Olivier, a fifth-year medical student from Goa Medical College. We soon got talking. I introduced him to Wendell and Mark; the latter even forced him to join him singing. Peter had a good voice though not as good as Mark’s. And his dancing was graceful. Even Wendell agreed.
I was not aware of the chemistry, but there was something in Peter, a quiet charm which even Mark’s extravagant gallantry could not dim. Wendell took a special liking in him, one important reason being, I thought, that Peter was doing medicine, which was once Wendell’s ambition. Probably, it was the same reason I was drawn to him.
A formal dinner invitation and Peter became part of our family. He dropped by whenever he was free. If I were not around, he would talk to Wendell. When I’d appear in the scene, Wendell would leave both of us alone. For once, I was thankful of Wendell’s tricks.
In no time, Peter and I became good friends. We would talk endlessly. I’d tell him things close to my heart and he’d tell his stories. Sometimes, he would take me on long drives to the interiors of Old Goa, or to the highways of Madgaon and Vasco.
On some occasions, he would come to visit Wendell specially. That was when he had some problems with his studies. It was another of Wendell’s secrets. For the past few years he had been frantically reading all the medical books he could lay his hands on. He had already made himself a master of diseases, only it was theoretical and he never hoped to get a degree. But Peter swore by the fact that Wendell knew more about diseases than the dean of the Medical College. Wendell would remind me that Peter was exaggerating. But I believed Peter. Whenever he approached Wendell with a problem he always got a solution.
On those occasions, Peter would stay for dinner. Mark would arrive at 8, have his shower, and would meet us at the patio. He would hug Wendell and kiss me on the cheek, smelling of Marco-Polo perfumes. At the dining table he would ask me to sit facing Peter while he would sit facing Wendell, next to Peter. Those were dream evenings!
No matter how hard I tried to be Wendell’s guardian thinking about his future, he remained my guardian. Now, he had an assistant in Mark.
We were watching Casablanca on TV in Wendell’s bedroom, 3 of us lying on the bed hugging each other. I liked Humphrey Bogart, while Mark liked Ingrid Bergman’s husband. Nobody liked the girl. Wendell was silent. Mark got up to get himself a drink, and asked suddenly.
“So, Anna, when are you marrying Peter?”
Me? Marrying Peter? I was genuinely surprised. I looked at Wendell. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“What rubbish!” I screamed.
“Seriously, baby, do you want something, Wendell? Peter is a good guy. He loves you.”
“Why?” It was Wendell’s voice.
“You know why.”
“But I don’t know.” Mark shouted, “You can tell me.”
“There is nothing to tell. I am not thinking of marriage or anything like that till…” I did not bother to complete the sentence.
“But Peter proposed to you last Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, you know that already,” I was irritated. They were encroaching on my private space. “I guess, by now all of Goa knows about it.”
“No. Only two of us,” Mark answered in mock seriousness, “besides Peter himself.”
“Very good. Then why are you asking me?”
“Decisions can change.”
But this decision was not easy to alter. I liked Peter and I had never allowed myself to think beyond that. I had responsibilities to Wendell, far more important that my own happiness.
That year, I fulfilled my wish to have a party on a yacht. It was St. Valentine’s Day. Peter accompanied me. Then he literally went down his knees and proposed to me. I never imagined he was that serious. I took the rose from him and screamed:
“What’s this, Peter?”
“Will you marry me, Anna?”
“Just get up, Peter, don’t create a scene.”
“Not till you say yes.”
“What rubbish. Just get up. We’ve got to talk about it.”
And I told him. I liked Peter. If I had to marry at all, I would be happy to be Peter’s wife. But it was not possible. I was sure Wendell wouldn’t ever get married; hence, I had to be there by his side, even if it meant my remaining a spinster for the rest of my life. “And, Peter, I am very sorry, if ever I inflicted the feeling of love on you. I thought we’re good friends. Now, since I know your feelings, please don’t try to meet me again lest I become the cause of your suffering.”
That night, I cried bitterly. I really, really liked Peter. The sense of loss was terrible. But I knew I had done the right thing. I had no alternative.
Next morning, Peter arrived with a big bouquet of flowers. He began without much ado. “Anna, yesterday you told me your side of the story. I must appreciate that. But you did not care to listen to my version. Here it is. I appreciate your decision and would abide by it. But I love you, and I can’t help it. I’ll wait, I don’t know how long, but I’ll wait till it’s humanly possible. Meantime, you can’t stop me from seeing you.”
That night, I allowed Peter to kiss me, but after extracting the promise that he wouldn’t talk about marriage again.
Those were busy days. Two days after Jenny had a baby boy, Maria also became the proud mother of a baby boy. Wendell was requested to become the godfather to both the kids. He obliged happily.
“See, Anna, I’m the father of 2 children already.”
“And ignore the ‘god’ part of it,” Mark chimed in.
“Why not? Now, who wants to get married anyways?”
“That way you’re the father of a grown-up daughter, too.” I tried to reason. “But, Wendell, marriage is not only about having babies.”
“Then what? Physical pleasures? Now, who told you that I am deprived of physical pleasures?”
“That too, when I am around.” Mark added.
“You 2 are impossible,” I snapped. Sometimes, you can’t just continue a conversation.
Finally, Peter passed the medical exams. He stood third in all Goa. Next day, there was a big party at our house.
“So, young man, when are you going to Boston?” Mark asked. The plan was that, after his studies were over, Peter would go to Boston to do his MD. Everything was already prepared.
“I am going nowhere,” he said.
“Why?” Both Wendell and Mark gasped. But every body knew why.
He was the stupid ass of a lover!
I was in the midst of turmoil. I knew I was taking the best course of action. My life was for Wendell. He had done so many things for me—why can’t I just do one thing for him? Why can’t I just forget Peter? Why can’t just I stop meeting him? And there was Peter, waiting like those big rocks on the Anjuna beach withstanding the surf, and still intact. What shall I do about him? I loved that poor idiot!
I tossed and turned on the bed. But sleep was nowhere. I left the room to get some fresh air. The lights of Wendell’s room were on. Earlier, he would solve each of my problems. But he wouldn’t be able to help me now. He would say, ‘get married and go to Boston.’ As if it was that easy!
Involuntarily, I knocked on the door.
“Wendell, are you asleep?”
“What is it, darling? It was Mark’s voice. He opened the door. He was topless, wearing only a Bermuda. He smiled timidly. He was drunk. Wendell was at his study table, writing, and a lit cigarette in his hand.
“I hope I haven’t disturbed you guys,” I tried to be funny.
“You have actually,” Mark answered. “Since you have already, why don’t you come in?”
I entered the room and sat on the bed.
“Wendell, I thought you don’t smoke.”
“Sometimes, honey, when you have to do the accounts.” One just can’t argue with Wendell.
“You want something, Anna?” Mark asked, refilling his glass.
“One whisky on the rocks, please.”
“What?” Both of them cried together. “Anna, you seem upset. What’s the matter with you, honey?” Mark asked while Wendell looked at me curiously.
“Nothing. I just can’t sleep.”
Mark offered me the drink. The air in the room was tense. I did not like it. “Mark, I did not know you have such a macho body. Please wear something before I fall in love with you.”
“I’d be the luckiest man in the world, honey,” he answered gallantly. He was such a joker!
I asked Wendell if I could spend the night with him. He agreed readily. When I was a kid, I would often sleep in Wendell’s room while he’d tell me stories of sailors.
After a few more jokes, and a few more songs, Mark retired to his den. We were lying on the bed.
“Wendell, can I see those scars again?”
“Why now, darling?”
“Just like that.”
Wendell unbuttoned his nightshirt. I touched the scars. The touch was like a poisonous arrow upon my heart.
“Why did you do this, Wendell?”
“I don’t know, dear. Probably, I was desperate. You were crying, and I did not know what to do. I went to the kitchen to get you some milk, there I saw the knife…it was very painful. I called Mark. He arrived promptly and forced me to apply Dettol. It was more painful.” He smiled. I hid my face in the pillow. I was trying not to cry. “Oh, Wendell, you have done so much for me.”
“And I can’t do anything for you.”
“Don’t tell me about marriage. I’ll do anything other than getting married and going to Boston.”
“But, Anna, I don’t understand this. Why don’t you want to get married? You know Peter loves you. You love him too, don’t you?”
I did not answer. Wendell continued.
“Or is it that you are thinking about Mario and Francesca?” It was for the first time that he uttered my mother’s name. His voice was calm. “But, Anna, every person has the right to decide his destiny. After a certain point you can’t help them. I hope you are not angry with your mother.”
“I don’t know any mother, Wendell,” I said. “That woman, Francesca, does not exist for me. You were my mother and my father too. I am worried about you.”
“What about me?”
“You would be alone if I go away.”
“That’s true. I’ll miss you. But you can’t run away from the facts, can you? I won’t be happy either to see you turning into an old spinster.”
“But Wendell, whenever I think about marriage, I feel like I’m being selfish. I can’t do that. I feel guilty.”
On the Easter morning we went to the church. Wendell and Peter went inside, Mark and I hung around outside. The interior of a church gives me creeps. And Mark stopped visiting the church after the death of Father Rodriguez. He was telling me about his misadventure with a tourist who could not speak English. Suddenly he asked, “What do you think about me, Anna?”
The seriousness of his tone caught me by surprise. “Meaning what?” I asked.
“Meaning, what kind of person do you think I am?”
“Oh,” I smiled. “You are smart, handsome, intelligent…”
“Why are you asking me all this, Mark? You’re a nice guy. I like, or rather, I love you. I can trust you with anything.”
“Do you, Anna?” he asked, very seriously, “Do you really trust me?”
“Why, Mark, I really do.”
“And you love Wendell.”
“Then agree to marry Peter.”
“Mark, don’t start this all over again.”
“No, one last time, please. I know you from your convent days. That’s where I met Wendell. That’s where we became friends. I know you, Anna. I understand you. You don’t want to get married because you think, if you get married and go away, Wendell would be utterly alone. Isn’t it?”
I nodded. Mark was lost in thought. I watched the resplendent crowd outside.
“You want to see Wendell happy, but don’t know where his happiness lies. He would be happy to see you married. But you can’t do that. You can’t stand the idea of leaving him alone. You love him too much.”
There was nothing for me say. Mark was telling the truth.
“And I love him, too,” Mark paused. He was visibly looking for words. “How shall I begin?” he continued, “Let’s say, in many ways, Wendell is to me what he is to you. In many ways, I am grateful to him. He’s more than a friend, philosopher and guide to me. He is my benefactor, my mentor. I can promise you one thing; I would never make him feel lonely. I know nobody can take your place in his life. I can only promise that I’ll give Wendell the company he needs. I can only promise you that I’ll try to keep Wendell happy. If you trust me, I can only tell you that I love Wendell as a man can love another man, no more, no less.” After speaking so much in one breath, he paused. I did not know what to say. “If you trust me, Anna,” he began, “just one request. Make Wendell happy, get married.”
I trusted Mark.
I decided to make Wendell happy.
I got married and went to Boston.
Two years in Boston, and I still missed my home in Goa: Panjim, its streets, coconut trees, sea beaches. And its people, Mark, Jay and Maria, Jenny, their kids, Aunt Margaret and, above all, Wendell. I missed him terribly. The morning before I caught the flight, Mark repeated his promise; he’ll look after Wendell. I was not worried about that, but I longed for Wendell’s company.
Then, one day, in the hospital where Peter worked as a neurosurgeon, I gave birth to a baby girl. It was an absurd feeling—being a mother, so painful yet so fulfilling. Holding the tiny little thing of a girl, I thought about Wendell. He would be ecstatic. Then I thought about her, that mutilated face of the beautiful woman that I saw in my father’s last painting. What love could have been more powerful than this, I wondered.
I called Wendell up. He said that he could not believe it. He asked if I could just fly down to Goa. He wanted see his granddaughter. I wanted the same. But Peter was busy. We had to wait for 6 months.
As I was taking care of my daughter, from changing her nappies in the night to feeding her, I realised what an enormous task it was for Wendell to raise me single-handedly. And he has certainly been successful in his efforts. I can vouch for it, any time.
As my daughter cried, and as I held her in my arms, I shuddered with the thought of whether I would be able to raise her half as properly as Wendell did.
Then the idea crossed my mind. Why don’t I give my daughter to Wendell to raise? He can make her a fine lady as he did of me. I was convinced with my idea. Peter tried to reason with me. But I wouldn’t listen. I was sure what I wanted to do. No one could bring my daughter up better than Wendell, not even me. Surprised and angry, Peter finally gave up. If the mother herself supports such absurd thoughts, how long can the father protest?
Finally, we were back in Goa. Wendell was overjoyed. He wouldn’t let go of the baby for a second. But happiest was Mark. When we were in the kitchen together, he said, “What do you say, Anna? I have kept my promise.”
“Yes, Mark, you did,” I hugged him.
That evening, I told Wendell about my idea. I gave him all my reasons, one by one. He listened to me silently.
Finally he spoke. “You know, Anna,” he said in a cheerful voice, “I was always apprehensive about you. You had always a mind of your own. Now, my worries are over. Now, you are a mother too.”
He looked at me, his blue eyes sparkling.
“And remember, Anna, some girls deserve to have a mother.”
He held my face in both of his palms, kissed my forehead and spoke softly:
“And a girl like you surely deserves to be a mother.”