-Chapter 2-

Joseph Merlin the Builder Meets Teresa Vinagre

Mascarenhas Colonial Mansion, Curepipe
Mascarenhas Colonial Mansion, Curepipe

They had met for the first time on 16th April 1952. Joseph Merlin remembered it as if it were yesterday. He had gone to prepare a quotation to build a Summer House in Curepipe. for a certain Senhora Mascarenhas, a 70-year-old Portuguese spinster of considerable means whose life had been dedicated to the Works of God and to the management of a fortune inherited from her family’s sugar plantations in Mauritius and Mozambique. Now unfortunately confined to a wheel chair, she was preparing to enjoy her remaining years in the more congenial environment of a ground floor Summer House built to her exact -and exacting- standards.

He had arrived at the house early not knowing quite what to expect but had been promptly attended by a Creole doorman with kinked white-hair who ushered him to a vast wood panelled Hall. Joseph Merlin eyed a comfortable armchair in the corner and sat down and, from his new vantage point, he surveyed the vastness of the Hall. He couldn’t understand how any one could live in such a gloom-ridden tomb. It was as if light and life had been banished by three defensive walls composed of curtains, blinds and oak shutters. High on the surrounding walls, respectfully clad figures with anaemic faces looked down disdainfully at him from a height. He leaned back, closed his eyes and tried to think of something more pleasant than this sarcophagus of a house…

And promptly fell asleep.

Echoing footsteps penetrated his dreams as a sweet-smelling red tent of hair tickled his cheeks,
Monsieur Merlin, are you all right?”

He realised with a start that he had nodded off. Before he had had time to apologise, the red mane had already bolted and was busy tugging at a curtain sash and with each, and every, rhythmic tug of her wrists light cascaded into the room like a mile-high waterfall surges into a plunge pool to expose the diamonds below. When she eventually turned to face him, sunlight peeped shyly through tumbling red mounds of hair into his unbelieving eyes.

He found himself gaping at a beautiful 15-year-old virgin.

As surely as the silver fish is trapped and flipped onto terra firma, his senses had been emprisoned there and then and he had made a decision. It was the only thing that made any sense at that exact moment: that he would one day marry the red haired virgin girl.

As he stared at her, the exact meaning of her words evaporated into pure oblivion,
Mr Merlin! Do you understand what Senhora Mascarenhas wants for the floors? The parquet floors must be laid out in exactly the same herring bone pattern as in the Great Hall”.

He mumbled intelligent-eyed assent, but imbibed her words like a hopeless drunk.

bicycleThe quotation for the Summer House was the swiftest he had ever prepared.  It was duly accepted and work commenced. As construction progressed, he worked hard on a plan –any plan– to overcome the insurmountable barrier that separated him from the beautiful virgin he had fallen in love with. Construction work was slowed down to a crawl and he was beginning to despair when, early one morning, he overheard the gardener mumbling, “la pauvre petite” as he wheeled his bicycle onto the Estate.

Pauvre petite”, continued Evariste as he yanked his bicycle clips off, “She has no one. When Senhora Mascarenhas dies, that family of hers will chomp her fortune in a few weeks. This house will be auctioned faster than you can say MO-NEY, or my name is not EVARISTE.

20 years… 20 years and 2 months, I’ve been working here, TWENTY YEARS AND TWO MONTHS, Monsieur Merlin, and I’ll be lucky to get a single month’s compensation. Yes, her nephews will flog the whole lot and blow it on fast cars from Europe. They’ll be out every night with those Creole girls. Yes, Sir, I know those Mascarenhas nephews. Money goes through their hands like water.  Et la petite Térésa, pas un sou pour elle; elle n’est pas de la Fa-mille.”[1]

She is adopted, Monsieur. When the Senhora dies, Pfffffffft, they’ll have Mademoiselle Térésa packing the very next day. They are jealous of her.  Senhora Mascarenhas rescued her from the orphanage and took her in but there’s no future for Mademoiselle here as she was never legally adopted. But what a wonderful deed by la Patronne Mascarenhas to have taken the little angel out of that hellhole of an orphanage in Port Louis. They treat animals better than they do kids at that pit. You should have seen her here on the first day No shoes, dirty and full of lice holding a letter from her dead Father as if it was made of solid gold.”

Vieux Évariste was always grateful to find an audience. He proceeded to explain how Teresa Vinagre had come to the house when she was six years old and had been educated by private tutors ever since, at home. She had never attended school with other children.

She is very unspoilt, Monsieur Merlin. She’s not exactly your every-day sort of girl. She’s been coddled and protected by the Senhora since her arrival from the orphanage. I’ll bet she’s only been out of this estate a handful of times. There’s always been this tutor and that tutor but she won’t be able to fend for herself once the Mascarenhas boys get hold of this Estate.”

Teresa had a tragic background. Years later, he was to hear it from her very own lips. When she was 4 years old, in December 1941, her mother died giving birth to her younger brother, Francisco (“Chico”). A frail Chico had accompanied her to the grave a day later. They had clasped his little rubbery hands tight round the back of his mother’s neck and dispatched them back to the earth as a job lot of desperation. This destroyed her Portuguese father and he had fled his grief; with great difficulty -and not a little influence- he managed to secure a place to Cape Town on a converted hospital ship on her way to Southampton.

Cape Town Castle 1941

Hospital Ship (former mail ship)
Hospital Ship (former mail ship)

Papa Vinagre left little Teresa Vinagre in the safe care of friends. He wanted to organise a new life and proper accommodation for his daughter before returning.

But he never returned.

But fate took a hand. Whilst looking for work, Pai  Vinagre met the daughter of a vineyard owner in Stellenbosch. She consoled him after the loss of his wife. By late 1942, he had already remarried and lived in the tidy Cape Town suburbs with his new wife. She was a craggy Boer woman who was every bit as tough as the granite mountain [2]under whose shadow he now lived. He was a soft touch in her hands and she, safely hitched, now point-blank refused to take another woman’s child.

A weak, broken man he was forced to write to his daughter explaining he could not come back for her, as he had intended. This was his first and only letter to his daughter and it was many years before Teresa could comprehend either its meaning or the impact it would have on the rest of her life. Cast adrift at the tender age of 5, no one at the orphanage had the stomach to explain the letter to her. They reasoned that there was no point in trying to explain to her what not having a father was when she had already spent most of her life not knowing what one was anyway. What difference would it make to tell her that she wasn’t going to get something she didn’t have?!

Table Mountain, Close up
Table Mountain, Close up

In 1944, when Teresa reached her seventh birthday, her father died. Years later, his faded photograph remained firmly bayoneted to his pathetic letter and to a yellowing Cape Argus clipping with a hatpin. The Cape Argus article described Mr Vinagre[3] as having been run over, on the lip of a hill, after a newspaper (Teresa wickedly couldn’t help wondering if it had been the Cape Argus) had blown off the pavement onto the windscreen of an oncoming car. The driver’s vision had been impaired and he had swerved off the road and killed her hapless father on the spot.

And the uncertainty accompanied Teresa to her dying day: Had her father lived longer, would he have come back for her? Later, as a 12-year-old, she would dream the same recurring dream: she would see his ghost running from the accident, mumbling in Portuguese like a lost maniac, “If only! …If only! If only! If only I could go back and tell her, just once. Once, that’s all, yes, only once. Once. If only….  a minha filha, a minha filha, a minha única filha! O meu amor, a minha vida[4]. I know I abandoned you but now I am back, just for you. Yes, and I know…  I know… I know you will forgive me.“

There on that lonely Boer road where his blood bubbled on the hot tarmac, she saw her father running towards her, crying with the despair of the damned and rabidly asking for forgiveness.

But she never knew for certain and the insecurity of the abandoned filled her every moment till her dying day. For he had been that last tenuous link, the last earthly proof that somebody had wanted her to be born, that somebody had loved her, that she wasn’t just another cheap spasm of throw-away pleasure on the rubbish heap of human existence.

CurepipeAs Joseph watched his workmen put the finishing touches to the Summer House, he shook his head at the thought of anyone abandoning such a beauty. And slowly, day-by-day, Teresa Vinagre had begun to feel the inner strength of the builder from Curepipe and in his company she felt his authority and his self-assurance as if she she could almost touch them, as surely as if she took her forefinger and thumb and pinched the ruby veins on his flexed biceps. She was attracted to his fierce independence and to his green, green eyes that radiated integrity and filled her with confidence, warmth and happiness. Sometimes when she basked in the warmth of his radiant emerald eyes, they would penetrate and mesmerise her till she saw her own reflection in them and she would look away and blush as his ringing laugh encircled her giddy senses.

At first, Senhora Mascarenhas was against their engagement, never mind any thought marriage. Joseph Merlin was 32 years old. There was an age difference and there was a class difference and both were not insignificant. But, on further careful reflection, the spinster concluded that both, in fact, had quite a lot in common. Mr Merlin’s mother had died when he was still a young boy and his father (who had passed away only a few months earlier of cancer of the tongue) had brought him up. Both were only children and neither had living relatives on the island. Senhora Mascarenhas had therefore gracefully given way: Teresa was, after all, her creation, her gift to God and not her legally adopted daughter; she would have had to build her own life sooner or later as her destiny could never be intertwined with that of the Mascarenhas family. In order to quash any potential family squabbling when she had first adopted Teresa, Sra Mascarenhas had made it clear to all her heirs from the very beginning that, “Teresa n’est pas de la famille[5]”. This was to be a constant refrain throughout the years.

“Teresa n’est pas de la famille” they would echo as if she had been little more than a maid at the Mascarenhas mansion.

Sra Mascarenhas also knew that once Teresa had chosen, she would not budge an inch. Her manners and her upbringing belied an exceptional mental strength, a steely determination that had been evident since the first day she had crossed the Mascarenhas threshold. Perhaps this energetic builder could help to give stability to her life and make up for some of the injustices life had heaped upon her to that point. So Senhora Mascarenhas had relented, given her blessing to the marriage and died a little over a year later knowing that Francisco, little “Chico” had been born and that Teresa was well on the way to creating a new life with Joseph Merlin, the hardworking builder from Rue Remono in Curepipe.

[1] “And little Teresa, not a penny for her. She’s not Family”
[2] Table Mountain
[3] Vinegar in English
[4] “My daughter, my daughter, my only daughter… My darling, my life”
[5] “Teresa is not family”

Cup of Vinegar

© Craig Adamson