Marilyn Lobo was known as the miser of St Jerome’s Colony. And not without just cause. During Christmas, when all the Christian households of the colony illuminated their gardens and homes with flickering lights and stars through the nights and well into the first week of January, Marilyn lit up her own veranda with one forlorn string of coloured bulbs and a small star. These she put on at Christmas Eve and turned off immediately after Boxing Day. Not for her a dazzling celebration running into the New Year. And while the other families gave generously to the groups of carol singers from the nearby village who rendered their rather falsetto “Silent Nights”, Marilyn turned all her lights off and pretended to be absent from her home as soon as she heard the singers four houses away. At the Panjim market, vegetable vendors feared her bargaining skills and quickly agreed to her prices merely to get rid of her and move on to the next, more pliable, customer. Even the redoubtable fish vendors with their grim-set faces, beedis tucked behind the ear and jangling cylinders of bangles saw Marilyn as a formidable customer though she only ever bought sardines and other small species like minnows which people bought for their cats—the cheapest wares in their baskets.
It was not that Marilyn had fallen on hard times and was short of money. Her late husband, Evaristo, had left her a pension from a multinational corporation he had devoted his life to in Bombay. And her son and daughter who lived in Perth and Swindon sent her more than adequate allowances to meet her frugal needs. It was not that Marilyn, like some miser in a folk tale, loved to count her money and listen to the rustle of notes or the sound of clinking coins. She withdrew just enough to meet her needs from her bank and lately with her ATM card. The thought of losing interest on cash lying at home was abhorrent to her. Thus, she earned the nickname Miserly Marilyn, which was soon abbreviated to MM throughout the colony.
Marilyn was also not known for her hospitality, unlike most other residents of St Jerome’s who threw lavish parties on every celebratory occasion—birthdays, christenings, anniversaries, Easter Sunday, whenever the kids returned from a long stint abroad and, of course, Christmas and the New Year, though Christmas was usually a family affair. Marilyn was also a compulsive hoarder. This was the result of the Panjim market going on strike for eight days a few years ago over what the local vendors considered an unfair allotment of stalls to “outsiders” from Belgaum and Hubli. Piles of unsold vegetables had turned to compost in the market with swarms of flies mobbing the festering garbage. Fresh vegetables would not last too long even in her fridge, so, over time, Marilyn turned to cereals and varieties of dals, and the occasional luxury of a tin of baked beans or sweet corn soup. She bought two paos every day—one each for breakfast and dinner—from the baker who honked from his bicycle as he made the rounds of the colony every morning and evening. She ate the local brown rice, not because it was healthier than basmati, but because it was cheaper. And she considered servants an extravagance. She did all the housework herself, from cooking to cleaning and swabbing the floors and bathrooms. She paid tribute to her husband’s memory on All Soul’s Day, but only with a bunch of flowers plucked from her own garden which she placed dutifully on his grave, the headstone whitewashed only every other year. And though she was a regular churchgoer, she was never known to have dropped a coin or two in the collection box. As her neighbour Vitor once remarked rather caustically, “She even eats the holy communion wafer as part of her breakfast.”
Before the advent of email, Marilyn only communicated with her children through postcards or aerogrammes, never the more expensive stamped envelope. And she rarely made phone calls. For Marilyn, email was as manna from the skies.
When her fellow Jeromites gathered at the community centre at dusk, the talk would invariably turn to Marilyn’s fortune. The bank manager, Joseph Abreau, would be asked by his ex-merchant navy pal, Edwin da Silva: “How much money she got, man?” To which the honest banker would reply, “Can’t disclose, Ed. It’s confidential.” Vitor would persist: “Don’t have to tell exact figure. Only roughly tell us.” The polite silence would lead to the engineer Eugene Albuquerque asking: “In lakhs? Or in crores?” Joseph would smile like a piano and suggest to his fellow Jeromites the possibility of clients putting their savings in more than one bank. “Not that I’m disclosing anything, but people are free to open accounts in several banks, as you well know. So what she has in my branch could be only the tip of the iceberg. Plus, of course, she can make safe investments in other avenues.” This answer always left everyone making wild conjectures about Marilyn’s “net worth”.
Marilyn, however, had a weakness that no one in the colony knew about. She suffered compulsively from imaginary ailments and magnified in her mind the smallest discomfort. If her knee creaked as she climbed her staircase, she wondered if she had arthritis. If she had a cold, she feared it would soon develop into pneumonia. And if she coughed, she inspected her throat in the bathroom mirror, fearfully looking for a growth. No one in the colony knew the full extent of her medical bills. There were three doctors who resided in the colony, but she never consulted them knowing all too well that patient confidentiality meant nothing to them. She instead visited a virtual team of doctors and specialists, sometimes even taking a taxi to Margao to consult a renowned cardiologist. In Panjim, she was a familiar figure to pathologists, radiologists and assorted pharmacists. All the doctors, after making sympathetic noises, would prescribe placebos for her or medicines that couldn’t do her much harm such as assorted vitamins, tonics and calcium tablets. She was also prescribed various exercises which she did privately in her bedroom instead of paying for fitness classes or a gym.
Given the excessive self-medication, it seemed almost inevitable that one day she would fall ill. It was her kindly neighbour, Silveira, who, on seeing her looking frail and stumbling about in her garden, asked her how she felt. “Fit as a fiddle,” she said. “Thank you for asking.”
Francis Silveira, at 65, was four years older than Marilyn. He was tall and upright as a betelnut tree. A widower for over five years, his only son had settled in Toronto a decade ago. Silveira rarely heard from him. He eyed Marilyn up and down, as he usually did. He said, “If you need any help, you know I’m always there for you.”
Marilyn nodded and smiled thinly at him. He admired her trim figure and found the lock of grey hair falling over her round glasses curiously endearing.
But more misfortune was around the corner for Marilyn. One morning she discovered that her bank balance had fallen sharply. Updating her passbook, she found that it had been three months since her son in Perth had made his usual remittance to her account. At the same time her daughter in Swindon had also stopped her remittances. Within a few days, she received emails from them saying they had lost their jobs and couldn’t send her money any longer. The first thing Marilyn did was check her medicine cabinet. There were still a few strips and bottles of capsules left. But in a couple of weeks she ran out of medicines. She soon discovered that the only doctor she could afford was the GP, who, noticing her fragile condition, prescribed a series of blood tests and an x-ray of her lungs. She reluctantly paid for the tests and though the x-ray was clear, there were remarks underlined in red in a few of her test results. The GP prescribed some remedies and when Marilyn went to the pharmacist, she was shocked by the cost of the medicines. And she felt no better after diligently completing the course. She still suffered from headaches and what she perceived to be flutters in the heart. She continued to fret about her dwindling bank balance and the uncertainty of the pension that she received in fits and starts from her husband’s former company.
Marilyn had never been sociable and rarely joined the colony’s regular gatherings at the club premises. One night she attended a party only to seek free advice from one of the doctors who often graced the occasion. Amid the hubbub and drinks and children’s games, she managed to locate Adelmo Gonsalves, a gynaecologist and the friendliest of the three doctors, sitting quietly in a corner, nursing a glass of beer. She walked over and sat timidly next to him.
“Hello, Marilyn,” the doctor said. “You look a bit under the weather.”
“Yes, doctor. I don’t feel too well these days.”
“What seems to be the matter?”
“Headaches and palpitations.”
“Have you been taking any treatment?”
“Yes, but the medicines don’t seem to work.”
“Oh really? Why don’t you visit me in the clinic?”
Marilyn hesitated. The good doctor, well aware of her thrifty nature added, “Don’t worry about the fee. I don’t charge my friends and neighbours.”
Marilyn felt a great sense of relief.
A couple of days later, she visited him in his clinic opposite the Mandovi river. The doctor made a thorough examination. After pulling off his gloves, he had her sit across his table. He said, “Your blood pressure is a little above normal. Your chest is clear. Everything seems fine, but at your age I can’t take any chances. I need you to do these tests.”
He wrote down the tests, exactly the same ones that had been prescribed by the GP.
Marilyn walked slowly down the stairs of the building. She sat on a bench on the pavement and watched the mellow sun setting into the sea. She wondered how many fortunes were won and lost in the many casinos anchored opposite her in the Mandovi river, casinos which some local environmentalists had accused of “muddying the historical waters”. Then she crossed the road to catch the rickety bus named “Pink Panther” for St Jerome’s Colony.
On the way, she crumpled up the prescription and tossed it out of the window.
When she got home, she opened her medicine cabinet, collected all the half-empty bottles, tubes and strips of capsules and threw them into the dustbin. She cooked herself a packet of instant noodles, ate a large chocolate éclair, drank two glasses of white wine and was soon fast asleep.
Over the following weeks she continued to do her regular exercises, read and watched television, and cooked herself choice undercuts of beef and boiled, salted potatoes followed by generous helpings of ice cream and a slice of bebinca. Out in the garden one evening she met her neighbour Francis Silveira.
She hailed him and said cheerfully, “Hello there, Francis. Such fine weather, isn’t it?”
Silveira looked at her in surprise and said, “Hi, Marilyn, yes, it is. Trust all is well? You’re looking good.”
“I feel just fine. And you?”
“I’m as fit as a fiddle. Just baked a lovely sponge cake. You’re more than welcome to share it. And come, let me help you clear up the garden. I won’t take no for an answer. There are just too many dead leaves choking up those fresh flowers.”
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.