I must have been about four years old as I recall our earliest meetings with Dominic Machado, one of a gang of young men who played cricket and tennis and swam together and who would gather at our house in Thompson Street in Rangoon. My twin sisters Mary and Dotty would have been 15 or 16 years old and like sisters of all sporty boys formed part of the group socially.
The Burmese capital developed its cosmopolitan character at the end of the 19th century, and like other oriental cities comprised many varied cultures. Our particular group was a blend of European and Asian traditions, racial, social. religious, generally endogamous and in due course defined by the British Raj as Anglo-Burmans, as our birthplace was in Burma. Our parents were formerly called Eurasian viz of Indian, Portuguese, French and English joint descent. Ma was Burma born but Pops was aggressively “Anglo-Indian.”
Pops came to Burma shortly before he met and married Ma whose parents were Indo-French and Anglo-Indian; after their marriage they settled into comfortable colonial life within a group of people who shared their background and origins. Part of their social mores were based sadly on racism, the causes and effects of which have been exhaustively researched but have not yet been quite overcome. Pops was Portuguese, English and Indian.
Dominic was a Goan. Machado is a Portuguese name, given to his ancestors by the infiltrating colonisers who forced their religion and culture, and their names at baptism, upon large numbers of Indians in the western coastal region of Goa, five centuries ago.
The Machado family had established themselves in Rangoon, in every sphere –Education, the Church, Law Medicine and Government. The eldest son Freddie was Professor of Mathematics at the University, and all the others were well placed in whatever profession they followed – Ernest was a senior master at our school (St. Paul’s, Rangoon) and was a popular and highly respected head of Science. They were all very conventional people, and there was never any gossip about any of them.
Dominic was a maverick. He was not outstandingly academic like his brothers, but trained as a marine engineer and went to sea. He was very popular when he was home ashore, and it was no surprise that he looked beyond his own community for companionship and friends. And of course Mary de Souza was there at the right time and place.
Pops was a popular figure in the community and although occasionally gruff and a little blunt he was very generous. But I recall one occasion when he was very uncivil to Dominic. I was seated on Mary’s bed while she was slightly unwell and resting, and Dommie came to visit. She called him to come in and he sat beside me talking to us. Pops came into the room for some reason, saw Dommie sitting on the bed and told him off roundly. Poor Dommie was utterly confused and shuffled out of the room and out of the house. Mary remonstrated with Pops who turned on her and asked her if she really wanted to spend her life with an Indian and wear a sari! (Years later this scene was repeated in the John Masters’novel, Bhowani Junction and it brought a lump to my throat.)
Dot and Jumbo appeared to develop their relationship and became engaged in 1935. Then Mary left home to train as a nurse in Mandalay and Dommie went to sea. Their romance seemed to have been put on the back burner for some years. Dom’s ship rarely called at Rangoon and Mary was away until she qualified. She then returned to train in midwifery at the Dufferin maternity Hospital, Rangoon.
I think Pops quietly hoped that Mary had ‘grown up’ increasing her circle of friends, which of course included several admirers – easy to see why from contemporary photographs. Dot had married Jumbo, by 1939 they had a little girl and boy pigeon pair. A lively social life now developed in our circle: we were all growing up. My big brothers had left home, John came back to live with us and go to Rangoon University, Gladys was working as a stenographer, we three young ones were making good progress at school. And Mary – well Mary seemed to have a steady suitor, Harry Milner, and we thought they would settle down together, for he was very eligible.
Then along came Dommie, back after several years away. His ship had been reconstructed and with war broken out in Europe the effects were felt much more widely. The shipping lines’ itinerary now included Rangoon, a strategic point in the American aid route to China and a regular port of call.
Almost at once Harry Milner disappeared from the scene and Dommie returned. There was not a lot Pops could do. Mary was now nearly twenty-seven years old and well settled in her chosen profession. [Nursing in India and Burma was regarded as a middle class profession which in those days in England it was regarded as a more artisan course to follow.] It was not necessary for Dommie to meet Mary at our house and they re-established their friendship and courtship quite outside the family home. Nevertheless we were all except Pops agreed in approval of their marriage which they announced would take place in September 1940, just under a year away.
That year saw Dommie’s ship call regularly at Rangoon and Mary would spend her off-duty days at home. Dommie would visit, sometimes he would encounter a scowling Pops. Dommie was always a gentleman and Pops could not, we told ourselves, hold out against him for ever.
I became specially attached to Mary and Dommie. He thought I might benefit if I were to take formal instruction in drawing and he sent for a prospectus from a London school named Hassall that specialised in distanced tuition (correspondence courses). So I enrolled , but postal systems, exacerbated by wartime risks, were not up to speed and I never received a lesson beyond an introductory sample.
Dommie also encouraged me to follow my piano lessons with Miss Strong. Pops had paid for me as a recognition for winning the High School scholarship in the national exam. Dommie introduced me to popular Jazz – 1930’s musicals were the last word in modern music and Dommie took us to see Carmen Miranda, the sensation of the decade, and other cinema classics.
By August 1940 the atmosphere at the house was getting somewhat heated. Mary had ordered her wedding gown and trousseau from Miss Diomede, Rangoon’s haute courturier and the banns were to be called at St Mary’s Cathedral for three weeks starting at the end of August. Ma and Pa were clearly at loggerheads and I heard Ma threaten to leave him if he did not relent. Her one fear against this extreme course would be the effect it would have on me. I only knew because I eavesdropped on one of her conversations with an aunt.
Meanwhile, Dommie had refurbished the ground floor flat in the large Machado house at the end of our street (49th Street). Chinese carpenters laid new teak floors, new suites of furniture were made to order, curtains hung, a new oil-stove bought for Mary to indulge her love of cookery – everything was so promising.
Except for Pops. His obstinacy was astonishing and he was alone in his view.
One night, I heard him shout in a nightmare imploring his daughter “not to do this to me.” I woke up and listened quietly. I heard Ma leave her room and go into his: there followed an excited but inaudible conversation after which Ma walked back to her bedroom. I lay awake until nearly dawn and then fell asleep again. And I woke at the sound of voices, to hear Ma say “we must tell everybody we can before Mass.” It was Sunday morning and the first of the banns were to be called.
Pops had relented. He said that Mary and Dommie would have his blessing.
They had three weeks to prepare for the wedding. A Rangoon wedding at the Cathedral and a reception at my father’s club!
It was done. And it was beautiful. And for once one actually witnessed tears of joy.
They had several weeks together while Dommie’s ship was in dock at Rangoon, and just before Christmas he went back to sea. Mary was quite sad to be left on her own, sadder still because they were hoping for a child but no sign had yet appeared. Early in the New Year Dom was back in Rangoon and they were delighted; and he returned several times in the following weeks. By the Spring of 1941 they were overjoyed to know that a baby was on the way.
All through those early months of their marriage and most of 1941 as I recall they only had brief, sporadic spells together whenever his ship came to Rangoon. But all our family kept an eye on Mary when she was on her own. I remember many a hearty meal cooked for me, always hungry at 15/16, by my big sister who lived a few yards away from us And Pops…. he had made a complete somersault and spent a great deal of time with Mary and Dommie and it was a “joy to behold.” 1941 was the happiest year of our childhood in Rangoon.
Anne Marie was born on November 1st 1941. Ships’ movements during war time were never publicly known. It seemed that weeks went by and there had been no sign of Dom. On December 6th the Japs struck at Pearl Harbour. In the weeks that followed his ship called at Rangoon just once. Dom jumped ashore secretly to see his wife and baby. It was their only meeting and for just a few hours.
By Christmas we were caught in the tragedy of invasion, evacuation and fleeing for our lives to the safety of India. One day, we got a telegram from Pops to say that Dom’s ship had been torpedoed and there was no news of any survivors. We never heard of any in all the years that followed.
Why do all Romeo and Juliet stories end sadly?