Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 7

6

Fran had left a note at reception saying she might stay on at the Grand in Nuwara Eliya, and to go back without her. It worried Gwen because as they got in the car straight after breakfast, the massing thunder clouds and the strange light that came with them had tinted the sky yellow. If the rains came soon, Fran mightn’t even be able to get back. Laurence said that the previous year parts of the road to Hatton had been washed clean away, and the only means of travel had been by canoe. Though Gwen was excited to experience her first monsoon, she’d be happier if Fran was safely back with them.

Once home, Gwen and Laurence skirted round each other for part of the afternoon, and then he went to the tea factory. Inside the house, the air had changed. It seemed full of moisture in a way that it had not before: hot and thick, so heavy you could almost slice it, and with an unfamiliar oversweet smell. It was oppressively quiet too and, wanting to tell Fran about Thomas, Gwen was feeling miserable.

At teatime when she went to the kitchen to check on the rice supply, she found Nick McGregor sitting at the table with his pipe and a cup of steaming tea. Although he lived in his own bungalow, not far from theirs, he was often to be found in the main house kitchen resting his leg.

When she broached the subject of gardeners, he was surprisingly helpful, agreeing to allocate workers for the vegetable garden, who would work on a rotation basis. Gwen was delighted at the outcome. She had got McGregor completely wrong, it seemed. Perhaps pain in his bad leg made him irritable.

After that Gwen wondered whether to brave an early-evening walk by the lake with Spew. It was not such a good proposition with the prospect of imminent rain, and resultant slippery steps and pathways back up to the house. Instead, she plumped up one of the tapestry cushions behind her head, sank back on the sofa and closed her eyes.

The sound of Laurence coming in drew her attention. She always recognized the sound of him. She wasn’t sure why. A sureness in his steps perhaps, a feeling in the air of the master having returned, or maybe it was just the sound of Tapper finally rising from his basket.

She went out and found Laurence standing in the corridor, staring at his hands, his white shirt soaked with blood. Her breath caught in her throat.

‘What on earth has happened?’

He glanced at her for a moment, his brows drew together, then he jerked his head in the direction of one of Tapper’s three baskets. She looked around and saw that Tapper had not come into the hall.

‘Where’s Tapper?’

Laurence’s jaw was working and it looked as if he was trying to control himself.

‘Darling, tell me,’ she said.

He attempted to speak but the words came out too brusquely for her to make any sense of them. She picked up the little hand bell from the hall table and rang it twice. While they waited she tried to comfort him, but he brushed her hands away and continued to stare at the floor.

Within minutes the butler arrived.

‘Please ask Naveena to bring water and a fresh shirt for the master. Tell her she can take them to the master’s room.’

‘Yes, Lady.’

‘Come on, Laurence,’ she said. ‘We’re going to your room. You can tell me what has happened when you’re ready.’

She took hold of his elbow and he allowed her to guide him upstairs to his room at the end of the long corridor. She’d only been in Laurence’s room twice before; on both occasions she’d been interrupted, once by a houseboy who came to dust and once by Naveena bringing up Laurence’s ironed shirts.

He pushed open the door. A slight trace of incense hung in the air and the deep-blue velvet curtains were almost closed, with just a strip of late daylight showing.

‘It’s gloomy,’ she said as she turned on two of the electric lamps.

He didn’t seem to notice.

It was a room so sumptuous and so unlike Laurence it couldn’t be imagined, not the masculine hideaway she had at first expected. There were two blue-fringed lampshades, some framed photographs on a table and a few china ornaments on the mantelpiece. A large Persian rug covered a part of the glossy floorboards and the bed was covered in a satin eiderdown the colour of bitter chocolate. The mosquito net hung from a large ring attached to the ceiling and had been tied in a knot above the bed. The furniture, unlike her own, was dark.

There was a knock at the door and Naveena came in with a towel, a bowl of water and a freshly laundered white shirt for Laurence. Though she must have seen the blood on his shirt as he stood by the bed, she didn’t speak, just reached out a hand to pat his arm. He glanced up and a look passed between them. Gwen didn’t understand what it meant, but could see the two understood each other.

‘Right,’ Gwen said, once Naveena had left the room. ‘Let’s get that shirt off.’

She pulled back the bed covers and Laurence sat on the edge of the mattress as she undid the buttons of his braces and his shirt, then gingerly slid the shirt away from his arms and back in case of injury. She wiped the blood from his hands, and he stood up to remove his trousers. When she examined him, she saw he did not appear to be hurt.

‘Do you want to tell me what happened now?’ she said.

He took a breath, then sat back on the bed and slammed his fists down on the mattress. ‘They killed Tapper. My Tapper. The bastards cut his throat.’

Gwen’s hand flew to her own throat. ‘Oh, Laurence. I am so sorry.’

She sat down next to him and he leant against her. She watched his hands as they flexed and contracted in his lap. Neither of them spoke, but she could feel the pent-up emotion in her husband’s hands, each movement as eloquent as if they were trying to communicate on his behalf. Eventually he went limp and she held him in her arms, stroking his hair and murmuring. Then he began to make great gulping, sobbing sounds that seemed to come from somewhere deep within.

Gwen had only ever seen her father cry once, and that had been when his brother, Fran’s father, had drowned. Then, she had sat on the stairs with her head in her hands, and been frightened by the sound of her brave, strong father sobbing like a baby. But at least it had taught her to wait for Laurence’s sorrow to pass, as her father’s had eventually done.

When he seemed to quieten, she wiped his face and kissed him repeatedly on the cheeks, tasting the saltiness of his tears. Then she kissed his forehead and nose, just as her mother used to do when she was hurt.

She cupped her hands round his face and looked in his eyes, and what she saw instantly confirmed that this was not only about Tapper.

She kissed him on the lips. ‘Come to bed.’

They both partly undressed, then lay down on the bed, side by side, and didn’t move for a stretch of time. She felt the heat of his body against hers and listened as his breathing steadied.

‘Do you want to tell me why Tapper was killed?’

He moved on to his side and looked in her eyes. ‘There has been some trouble in the lines.’

Gwen’s brows shot up. ‘Laurence, why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I don’t like to worry you.’

‘I’d like to be more involved. My mother and father always talk their problems over and I want to do the same.’

‘It’s a man’s work, running a plantation. And you have enough to do, getting to grips with the household.’ He paused. ‘The thing is, maybe I allowed McGregor to treat the culprits too harshly.’

‘What will you do?’

He frowned. ‘I don’t know, I really don’t know. Attitudes are changing and I am making progress with some of the other planters but it’s hard-going. Things used to be so simple.’

‘Why don’t you start by telling me about how it used to be? Right back to the beginning. Tell me about Caroline and Thomas.’

There was silence for a while and Gwen hoped she had not misjudged the moment.

‘You must have loved Caroline very much.’

A little on edge, she waited. Eventually he rolled on to his back and, staring at the ceiling, he paused to swallow. When he spoke again she had to strain to hear.

‘I did love her, Gwen.’ There was a very long pause. ‘But after the baby –’

‘Was that when she became sick?’

He didn’t speak, but his breath shook, and she wrapped an arm round his chest then kissed the side of his face, the stubble there prickling her lips.

‘Where is she buried?’

‘At the Anglican church.’

She frowned. ‘But not Thomas?’

He paused again and seemed to be weighing his words, then he turned to face her.

She watched him carefully and suddenly felt shaky.

‘She would have wanted him to remain here, at home. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about him. I know I should have. What happened was too painful.’

She looked in his eyes and a lump came in her throat. For someone accustomed to keeping his unhappiness hidden, he looked profoundly stricken, in a way she’d never seen before. It seemed as if something inaccessible underlined the sorrow, something more than grief, and it appeared to be tormenting him. Though she was curious to know what the sickness was that had caused Caroline and baby Thomas’s death, she felt unable to press him.

She nodded. ‘It’s all right.’

He closed his eyes.

Lying next to him like this, Gwen felt a familiar craving and tried to ignore the flutter in her heart. But as if he had felt it too, he put a palm on her breast at exactly the spot, opened his eyes and smiled at her. Then, with a very different look, he touched his thumbs to the hollows at the base of her neck and his lips brushed the corners of her mouth, tentative at first, but soon with more force. Her lips parted and she felt the warmth of his tongue. As he pressed her down against the mattress, she realized that the depth of his anguish had somehow triggered his desire. Without her even knowing how it had happened, he was pulling up her skirt, and she was helping him remove her underclothes. She moaned as he raised her body, bending her forward to remove her chemise. And then, when he laid her back down and she pushed her hips against his, they were making love. She had felt so lost without him, but now that Laurence was back to his old self she could hardly contain her joy.

When they were finished, there was the sound of breaking thunder, louder than gunfire, and of immense rainfall; the sky had uncurled its fist and was now releasing the entire contents on the earth below. Gwen lay listening with her back curled against him. She started to laugh and she could feel his body shake as he laughed with her, a free, happy sound, and it was as if everything that had been holding him back had fallen away.

‘I’m so sorry, Gwen, about before. I don’t really know what happened.’

‘Shhh.’

He turned her round and put a finger to her lips. ‘No, I have to say it. Please forgive me. I haven’t been myself. I was just so –’

She saw him hesitate and she watched a kind of struggle going on in his face. When he looked as if he was on the verge of saying more, she cast around for something to say that might encourage him.

‘It wasn’t because of Caroline?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Then?’

He sighed deeply. ‘Being here at the plantation with you … it just brought everything back.’

The rain had cooled the air by quite a few degrees, and Gwen, energized, shifted in the bed, feeling as if the power of a tropical storm had taken root in her and was now flowing in her blood.

‘I wish we could stay here for ever, but it’s probably time we went down,’ she said.

After they had dressed, just before she turned off the bedroom lights, Gwen glanced back at the photographs she’d seen on the side table earlier. One, of a woman sitting on a tartan rug in the garden, with Tapper’s head on her lap, caught her eye. The woman was blonde and smiling. Laurence didn’t notice her looking.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and took her hand as they walked along the landing.

‘You don’t have to thank me.’

‘But I do. You have no idea how much.’ He kissed her again, and then as they went down for dinner, hearing crows shouting, she looked out of a landing window. It was nightfall, but she could still see the white mist cloaking everything.

In the drawing room, Gwen was pleased to see Fran deep in conversation with Verity. Both women turned to look as she and Laurence walked into the room, holding hands.

‘Well, you two look positively radiant,’ Fran said.

Laurence grinned and winked at her. Gwen noticed that although Verity smiled, it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

‘You changed your mind. How did you get back?’ Gwen asked, turning to Fran.

Though her cousin always showed a confident face to the world, Gwen knew it wasn’t the whole story, and that she’d struggled to get over the death of her parents. It struck her that it was something Fran and Verity had in common, and wondered if it might bring them together.

‘After a hair of the dog, I caught the train to Hatton,’ Fran was saying. ‘What a journey! But Savi was so kind. He lent me the money for the fare and arranged a lift to the station at Nanu Oya. I’d left all my wherewithal here at the house, you see.’

Laurence’s lips tightened. ‘Well, you must send Mr Ravasinghe what you owe, immediately.’

‘No need. I’m meeting him in Nuwara Eliya next week, weather permitting. It’s such a marvellous little country, isn’t it? He’s promised to show me more. Gwen, you’re invited too. We’re both going to have lunch with Christina, and he’s going to unveil her portrait. Isn’t that jolly?’

Laurence turned his back and Gwen noticed his shoulders were tense.

‘I hope I’m invited too,’ Verity said with a little laugh.

Fran glanced at her and shrugged. ‘They didn’t mention you, I’m afraid. So, no, I think it’s just Gwen and me.’

Gwen felt sorry for her sister-in-law as she watched her turn away. She seemed rather alone in the world, apart from her brother, and Gwen couldn’t help think there was something troubling the girl. She never seemed quite at ease, though the truth was she didn’t make the best of herself. The short straight hairstyle didn’t suit her long angular face and, apart from one rust-coloured dress, she wore all the wrong colours. She should wear colours that complemented her brown eyes, not the drab fawns and acid colours she chose.

Gwen favoured violet, not just because it matched her eyes, but because she loved and wore all the English summer colours. Sweet-pea colours, Fran called them. Her dress tonight was the palest green, and though she hadn’t had a chance to change, she still felt fresh. A typical outdoors man, Laurence didn’t care what he wore, and liked nothing better than to stride about the estate in his shorts and an old cream short-sleeved shirt, with a battered hat on his head. Tonight, looking self-assured and happy, with no trace of that unsettling look in his eyes, he wore something resembling evening wear.

After supper Laurence threw a couple of logs on the fire, and Verity sat at the piano; on it a dozen or more photographs in silver frames showed Laurence gazing out, with a mixture of dogs around him, and silhouetted men in plus fours leaning on their rifles.

Verity played, singing quite tunefully, and seeming to have recovered from Fran’s slight. As Gwen read the words over Verity’s shoulder, she noticed for the first time that her sister-in-law was a nail biter.

It was Fran who made them laugh when they began a game of charades and Gwen developed a knot in her throat from laughing.

‘What to do about Fran,’ had been a constant refrain throughout Gwen’s childhood. For as long as she could remember, Fran had liked to perform, either by constructing a puppet theatre and using papier-mâché puppets to relate a tale, or by leaping on to a makeshift stage of orange boxes and flinging her arms about while singing an operetta. Her choice of clothes usually matched her dramatic performances: crimson dresses, sequinned jackets or sunflower-yellow gowns.

The family were used to it, and though Laurence was ready to accept Fran, it seemed Verity didn’t quite know how to take her. Gwen knew Fran was, in reality, a sensitive and clever woman, and that her behaviour was just a defence against an unjust world. But by the look of Verity’s slightly raised brows, Gwen worried that her sister-in-law might think Fran brazen, especially when, with a small smile, she interrupted to speak to her brother.

‘Laurence, shall we take a ride round the lake tomorrow? We could take the estate horses. I’m sure Nick wouldn’t mind.’

Laurence pointed at the rain.

‘Well, we could swim, just you and me, remember, like we used to when we were children? I’m sure Gwen wouldn’t want to come.’

Gwen overheard. ‘Come where?’

‘Oh, I was wondering about riding or maybe swimming.’ She smiled. ‘I thought you wouldn’t want to come … but of course you must join us.’

‘We never swam during the monsoon,’ Laurence muttered.

Verity clung on to his arm. ‘We did swim. I’m sure we did.’

Laurence’s relationship with his sister was complex. Gwen knew that after their parents died, he had become responsible, giving her an allowance and generally protecting her. Gwen thought Verity, at twenty-six, should really be married and not relying on her brother. Yet from what Laurence had said, when a wedding had eventually been announced, Verity had cried off at the last minute.

Gwen couldn’t help wonder how Caroline had got on with her. Her sister-in-law seemed friendly enough, but Gwen sensed that that might not always be the case. She went to the window and looked out. The rain was falling in silver sheets, lit by the sheen from the house lamps. There would be puddles in the dips and hollows of the lawn by morning, she thought as she turned back to face the room. Laurence winked at her. She couldn’t resist and walked over, then seated herself on the arm of his chair. He unhooked Verity from him, and put his hand on Gwen’s knee, gently stroking, but as soon as no one was looking, slid his hand beneath her underskirt. It made her feel light-headed and she longed to be alone with him. While Tapper’s death had been terrible, because of it everything had changed. Laurence had opened up and was himself again, and she was determined to do everything she could to keep him that way.

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Next: Chapter 7