When Cajetan Xavier sold his ten-year-old Vespa to buy a ten-year-old Maruti 800 it came as no surprise to the other residents of St. Jerome’s Colony in Dona Paula. The wiry frame of Cajetan putt-putting on his aging scooter up the steep slope before the National Institute of Oceanography and in the hash-mark streets of Panjim was a familiar sight. In the colony itself he was a well-known figure as he tinkered with the old scooter, injecting it with a few more months of sustenance in his crowded makeshift garage, or as he rode up the slope to his house, the chassis, backseat, and handlebars loaded with bags of his weekly provisions. Other residents passing by in their swanky cars would often gesture if he needed any help with his load, but Caji was an independent sort and he would simply wave them on. They were now pleased and relieved to see him in the comparative safety of his car. A secondhand car, undoubtedly, but still safer than that old, rundown Vespa.
Cajetan was quite content to live all alone at St. Jerome’s with a few daguerreotypes of his ancestors in tailcoats, hoary moustaches, and hats hanging from the walls of his dining room. He hired no maids and did his own frugal cooking, swept and swabbed his own floors, and kept his garbage out in the green and black dustbins provided by the Panjim municipal corporation. He attended Sunday Mass regularly in the village chapel nearby in his grey suit, off-white shirt, striped tie, and slightly scuffed shoes—his apparel never changing in all the years he had attended Mass at the chapel. The other residents of St. Jerome’s, who were not in the least bit surprised when he bought the secondhand car, wondered if he possessed another suit or formal shirt and tie.
Behind his back they often passed catty comments. On his latest acquisition one said: “Maybe the government in Lisbon has doubled his pension.”
“At last I think he has dipped into his savings . . . Such a skinflint,” said another.
“Why can’t he buy something new for a change? Even on installments . . .” said his immediate neighbor, Hector Gonsalves.
That last comment, even given its waspish tone, was most pertinent. Ever since Cajetan had settled in the colony all those years ago, none of the residents could recall him buying anything new. His purchase of the secondhand car after the sale of his secondhand scooter had followed a set pattern. His fellow residents knew that all the furniture in his house had been bought secondhand, some of it from the previous owner of the house and other pieces from households who had migrated to the Middle East or to Canada. The fans, the refrigerator, the cooking gas stove, and the mixer-juicer had all been bought from previous owners. There were rumors in the colony that even his clothes, including the Sunday suit and shoes, had been bought secondhand from Chor Bazaar in Bombay. No one knew for sure the antecedents of his crockery and cutlery. Some of the residents were even convinced that they had all been bequeathed to him by some kind families in Beira. To be fair to the Jeromites (as they called themselves), they were not off the mark on the used origins of Caji’s belongings, and on his cognomen “Mr. Secondhand.”
Cajetan, indeed, harbored a compulsive fondness for used goods. But it was not a proclivity born out of stinginess or financial necessity. Caji simply liked old things and could not bear to discard used goods. He had a knack with discarded stuff, especially old machinery. With a deft touch of his hands and a reservoir of patience, he could inject new life into a discarded fan or air conditioner or carburetor. Cajetan hated throwing out old things and his makeshift garage and backyard were filled with rusted parts of all kinds of machinery—domestic and vehicular. In fact, in Mozambique he had gained a reputation as something of a miracle worker with obsolete trucks and cars, farm machinery, water pumps, and such other mechanical goods. In the school he had taught in he was well known for fixing old laboratory equipment and machines and the cycles of his many students.
It was this particular talent for creating born-again machinery that had forced him to flee the country. In the many internecine conflicts that had plagued Mozambique, Caji’s services had often been called upon to repair jammed and rusted weaponry and quasi-military vehicles. Caji was a peaceable man, neutral as Bern in his political views, and his services and talent had often been compelled into use by opposing forces. It was this double-edged situation he found himself in that had finally compelled him to leave Mozambique. He had tried to be impartial in his forced services, but in times of conflict this had proved to be a most inequitable position to be in. Thus he had reluctantly left the country and his chosen vocation. But in return for his many years of service, the Portuguese government still sent him his monthly pension. And he came away to Goa with his knack of repairing old machinery and other goods still intact. When any of the residents of St. Jerome approached him with a faulty mixer-cum-grinder or table fan, Caji was willing to extend a helping hand. And as he never charged for his services, there was an uncharitable element to his nickname “Mr. Secondhand.”
Caji now enjoyed the comfort of his old car. With his adroit and versatile hands he had streamlined the engine, fixed the headlights with workable bulbs, set right the brake linings, and stitched a tear in the backseat. He had loved his trusted Vespa, but had been forced to get rid of it not because it had turned unreliable and obsolete, but because of a newfound status he had recently acquired—or was about to acquire. The clothes he wore, though old and worn, were now always freshly washed and ironed. And his shoes of late had acquired a shiny new look. Not that Caji was sloppy or untidily dressed in the past; it was only that now he took extra care with his demeanor and general appearance. Even the Maruti 800 had acquired a fresh coat of bright yellow paint, cadged no doubt from leftovers from friendly garages and Maruti repair facilities, but still in his capable hands made to extend to the length and breadth of his car. Only a few, like the nosey and sharp as a pine-leaf Isobel Cotta, noticed the change in Caji’s outlook and general behavior.
“There is something afoot with Caji,” she said in a voice as tangy and astringent as cashew fruit. “He actually smiled and wished me good morning.”
“Maybe he has received a Christmas bonus in his pension. That’s why he could buy that car,” said her friend Lavina, a retired clerk from the Cooperative Bank of Mapusa.
“He seems just the same to me,” said Winston Dourado, who sold life insurance policies. “He still pays his premiums on the dot.”
“Something is definitely afoot,” repeated Isobel, pursing her lips.
Two weeks later, the “something afoot” took a clear and startling direction. The entire colony was agog with a shudder of excitement when each of the residents found an invitation card in their mailboxes. The card, embossed with silver bells at its four corners, simply read:
John and Joanna Pacheco Graciously Invite You
to the Nuptials of Their Daughter
Christobel with Cajetan Xavier
Son of (Late) Martin and (Late) Belinda
On January 25
At the Church of Mary Immaculate Conception,
Municipal Square, Panjim
At 5.30 pm
Followed by Cocktails and Dinner at the Taj
Holiday Village, Candolim
At 8.30 pm
NO PRESENTS PLEASE
Though impressed by the Taj location and the polished tone of the invitation, the very first questions that the stunned residents of St. Jerome’s asked were, of course: “Who is Christobel Pacheco?” and “How old is she?” They wondered if she was the daughter of the Pachecos of Betalbatim village who owned “Pacheco Wines and Spirits” in the tinto. Or was she from the Pachecos of Rivona who had recently migrated to Portugal? Even with all their networking and crosschecking and church connections, the Jeromites could not figure out the provenance of the bride. Till one evening, Isobel and Lavina, armed with flowers and a bottle of wine, knocked on Cajetan’s door. He welcomed them warmly and invited them to sit on his carved, refurbished love seat—or that is what Isobel imagined it to be.
After a few congratulatory offerings and some graceless hints, Caji opened up a little. He told them that the Pachecos were old friends and colleagues from Mozambique. And Christobel had been a primary school teacher in the very school he had taught in for many years in Beira. The two ladies told Caji how thrilled they were at this late union of two loving souls, with Lavina interjecting with the rather impolite remark: “Better late than never.” In his open happiness, the remark seemed to have no effect on Cajetan, who even divulged what they most wanted to hear: “She is fifty-four, six years my junior . . .” After the pair left with this precious bit of news, Isobel remarked: “Fifty-four? Mr. Secondhand ties the knot with Miss Secondhand!”
This rather predictable joke spread like a summer landclearing fire among the Jeromites, which was supplemented by: “Better late than never.” Another said, “Old wine tastes better.” Another wondered rather crudely if “Caji could rise to the occasion.” But knowing Caji’s frugal disposition, they were all agreed that this would be far from a lavish wedding. In this they were all mistaken.
At the ceremony itself, among the older men, the polite good wishes turned to envy when they saw Christobel. Tall and stately, with dark, luminous hair, she smiled shyly as she accompanied Caji, attired in a brand new double-breasted suit, waistcoat and tie, and spanking new shoes, walking down the aisle of the church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Panjim. And the reception that followed in the five-star hotel was truly grand with a six-minute-long fireworks display and a sumptuous dinner. And a most energetic and convivial wedding march, with the bride’s father giving a touching and humorous toast with remarks on “fine, mellow old spirit” and “the wisdom that comes with age.”
The bride herself was most gracious, mingling diffidently with the other guests, speaking to those who knew the language in a Portuguese as refined and eloquent as any spoken by them. A few, of course, sat in a corner with their overweight and jaded husbands, remarking on her fair complexion and wondering if she had any Portuguese blood. That this allegation was wholly untrue did not prevent Isobel from making an acid comment on “oversexed” Portuguese officers stationed in Maputo and Beira.
Such unpleasant remarks and the envy of over-the-hill spouses had no effect on the newly married couple. As soon as they had settled into Caji’s bungalow, Christobel set to work. She deweeded the garden, got the interiors of the house repainted, bought some (spanking new) kitchen equipment, imposed some sort of order into the garage-cum-dumpyard, and quite easily convinced her husband to make a down payment on a new Maruti car—with a substantial advance from her parents. And though Christobel, without her bridal makeup, looked closer to her age, there was an unbridled energy about her. She chatted with her neighbors and remained on cordial terms with her fellow Jeromites. There were rumors that she had been married before and that her previous husband had disappeared in the numerous civil wars that had besieged Mozambique, reinforcing the joke of Mr. Secondhand acquiring a secondhand bride.
But Caji knew better. The Portuguese, despite all their failings, were masters at keeping records. Records of births, deaths, and marital status. And Caji still maintained contacts with the church and old friends at the registry in Beira . . . But in their newfound and profound happiness, the newly married couple didn’t give a fig—or a fig leaf—for unfounded gossip or past history. They were like nervous but giggly teenagers in their exploration of unknown territory. Their untried concupiscence reached their most tender depths. And Caji being Caji, he often ate the leftovers from Christobel’s plate and loved the taste of melted ice cream on her tongue.