Sprite and brandy, pomp and vinegar
Marie lives next door to us here in Goa’s Defence Colony. She’s eighty-one years young and the widow of a Captain. She speaks (and looks) like the Queen of England. Marie has seven servants, five dogs, and one newly-fractured femur that requires risky surgery.
Before yesterday (when the ambulance and doctor came to take her to Vrundavan Hospital and Research Centre), Marie made it a habit of navigating the loose gravel between her house and ours with one hand on the handle of her walking stick and the other on the shoulder of her night-staff, Maria, for a nightly visit.
“Aloysius?” she’d call out as she opened the gate and stepped gingerly up the drive. “Is this a good time?” Of course we would stop whatever we were doing and help her up the steps. The first time she paid us a social call, I ran to put on the kettle.
“What are you doing?” asked Aloysius when he caught me setting out the cups and tea pot. I told him I wa making tea for our guest and he made a face.
“She won’t drink that,” he said, “She’ll bring her own.”
I’m not sure what he meant, but Marie made her entrance, and I was instantly captivated. Her hair and make-up were beautifully done, her flat ballerina shoes matched her clutch handbag, and her two-piece jersey ensemble was the picture of taste and good-breeding.
“Can I bring you anything?” I asked her, looking over at Aloysius.
“No need, dear,” she replied in the crispest high english, “I’ve brought something along, so as to not be a bother.” Marie unsnapped her clutch purse and pulled out an airline-sized bottle of Honey Bee brandy and a small bottle of Sprite. “I’d appreciate a glass, if you’d be so kind.” I ran for a tumbler glass and Marie smartly poured herself a highball.
“I carry these with me when I go ‘visiting,’” she said. “This purse is the perfect size as I don’t carry anything else in it.” She snapped the purse shut and over the next few visits I learned that her late husband was the comander of all the ports in Goa during his duty with the Royal Navy and that she’d enjoyed the life of an officer’s wife in a number of subsequent exotic foreign assignments.
The Defence Colony springs to action
Naturally, our “Defence Colony” was comprised of retired officers and their families, including Aloysius’s father who served in the Indian Armed Forces. When Marie lost her balance getting up from her kitchen table, the community sprang to action with almost military precision, and with no less than an Admiral driving ahead to the hospital to ensure Mrs. Telles was speedily admitted, examined by a recommended doctor and given a private room – all on her husband’s military pension plan.
I held Marie’s hand while we all waited for the ambulance to arrive. Her staff (I can’t call them servants) packed a small bag for her: water, a cup, pillows, toilet paper. It seems that though the privately-run, ISO-certified hospital has “the latest multi-parameter monitoring gadgets” (their brochure), they don’t provide the basics: food, medication, wash cloths. These must be purchased and brought in.
I asked Aloysius about this, and he blamed the caste system. “Some people won’t eat the food if they don’t know the caste of the person who prepared it. Other people have specific foods they won’t eat – the Jain won’t eat onions or garlic, for example.”
The hospital apparently avoids offending sensibilities accordingly. The offshoot of that is that some well-meaning family members bring ghee-saturated foods for their loved ones who’ve suffered heart attacks, because they believe the fat-rich diet will make them healthy again.
The Defence Colony has taken shifts at keeping Marie fed and supported. Her room has a spare bed for Maria, who ate the fried chicken that Aloysius brought because she needs food too. I brought Marie flowers and magazines because you can only stare at the same four yellow walls for so long.
“You need something beautiful to look at,” I said, “To help you get better.”
I’m nervous for Marie. She’s eighty-one years old and admits her bones are brittle. A heart attack earlier this year doesn’t help either. I’ve been looking forward to hearing the “many, many stories” she’s been promising me.
“Pray for me,” she says as we leave her room. “And God bless you.” We return to the Defence Colony and her house is uncharacteristically quiet. Two of her staff sit on the moonlit steps and talk quietly. Her dogs either bark for no reason or hide under her bed.
Awful as it sounds, I pray she’ll be back to bellowing at her staff in Hindi, full of pomp and vinegar. Until then, the Defence Colony does what it can: help, wait, and pray.