Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 7
Next: Chapter 9

8

The minute Fran was well again, she was up, dressed and all set to take the train from Hatton for Nanu Oya, the station nearest to Nuwara Eliya. Her cases were going on ahead to Colombo, and Mr Ravasinghe had promised to drive her to Colombo himself, after her little sightseeing tour up in Kandy. From Colombo she’d be returning to England. The two women hugged as McGregor brought round the car, muttering that he wasn’t a bloody chauffeur. Gwen smiled, but she was really going to miss her friend.

‘Now you be careful, Fran.’

Fran laughed. ‘When am I not?’

‘Just all the time. I will miss you, Fran.’

‘And I’ll miss you too, but I’ll be back, maybe next year.’

Fran gave Gwen one more hug, then got into the car, and as McGregor steered them round and then up the hill, she hung out of the window waving until they disappeared over the brow of the hill. Gwen thought back to their breakfast together, when, blushing deeply, she’d confided her jealousy over Christina.

Fran had laughed. ‘Are you afraid Laurence might not be able to resist her?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Don’t be so silly. It’s obvious he adores you, and he wouldn’t put your love in jeopardy over an excessively made-up American.’

Gwen stubbed her toe in the gravel, shook her head and, hoping her cousin was right, hurried inside to write to her mother. Fran’s departure had made her feel homesick.

The next morning, when Gwen awoke, she had to rush to the bathroom to be sick in the lavatory. Either it was that wretched brinjal or she’d caught whatever it had been that had made Fran ill, though Fran hadn’t mentioned actually having been sick. The latrine coolie hadn’t yet been, and as she threw in half a bucket of sawdust, the smell made her reel.

She rang the bell for Naveena and, while she waited, she opened the curtains on a summery sky with only fine trails of light cloud. Hoping that the rain might be over until October, when the second monsoon of the year would begin, she took deep breaths of sweet-smelling air.

Naveena knocked and brought in two boiled eggs on an ebony tray, with a silver spoon and two porcelain egg cups. ‘Good morning, Lady,’ she said.

‘Oh, I couldn’t eat a thing, I’ve been awfully sick.’

‘You must be knowing eating is good. An egg hopper maybe?’

Gwen shook her head. An egg hopper was a curious bowl-shaped biscuity thing, with an egg cooked in the bottom of it.

The woman smiled and waggled her head. ‘Won’t you try the spiced tea, Lady?’

‘What’s in it?’

‘Cinnamon bark, cloves, a little ginger.’

‘And our best Hooper’s tea, I hope,’ Gwen added. ‘But as I said, I’ve been awfully sick. I think a cup of normal tea, don’t you?’

The woman smiled again and her face lit up. ‘I have made it specially. And it is good for your condition.’

Gwen stared at her. ‘For a tummy upset? My mother always said the blander the better.’

The woman kept on smiling and nodding, and making funny little gestures with her hands, like birds’ wings fluttering. Gwen couldn’t think of the servants as people who did not feel or think, in the way Florence did, and often wondered what went on in their minds. This was the first time the woman’s normally calm face had shown so much emotion.

‘Well, what is it, Naveena? Why are you grinning at me that way?’

‘You Ladies! Master’s first wife just the same. You are not observing your calendar, Lady.’

‘Why? Have I missed something important? I’ll get dressed immediately. I feel much better now. Whatever it was seems to have passed.’

The woman brought over a calendar from the small desk where Gwen kept her lists of household tasks.

‘We will be needing to prepare the nursery, Lady.’

The nursery? She felt a flash of heat and her face tingled as she scrutinized the dates. How could she have not realized? It must have been the day after the ball, the time Laurence had opened up, and they had made love properly, unless it had happened the time before. Still, what did that matter! This was what she had hoped for, what she had dreamt of, from the moment she set eyes on Laurence and thought, That man is the father of my children. She should have known. She’d felt queasy, there had been a languor about her too, some moments of intense hunger, and her breasts had felt unusually full. But, never regular, she hadn’t even considered it. And with Fran ill, there had been so much going on, she hadn’t kept track. Now that she knew, she couldn’t wait to tell Laurence, and hugged herself in anticipation.

It had all happened so quickly that Gwen realized she had no idea where the nursery was. It seemed ridiculous that she still hadn’t explored the whole house. There was Laurence’s study on the ground floor; she had tried the handle once or twice when she was looking for him, but it had always been locked. His bedroom she had seen again when she’d gone to gaze at the photograph of the blonde woman. She’d turned the picture over and noticed Caroline’s name on the back, and then she’d looked for Savi’s painting, but it was nowhere obvious. She’d also explored five guestrooms and two more bathrooms, but there were two other locked doors that she’d assumed must be storage cupboards, one in her bathroom and the other in the corridor. It was remiss. She should have asked to see inside them.

‘Why don’t you show me the nursery this morning?’ she said, smiling at Naveena.

The woman’s face fell. ‘I am not sure, Lady. It has not been touched since the day –’

‘Oh, I see. Well, I’m not afraid of a little dust. I insist you show it to me, the moment I am fully dressed.’

The woman nodded and backed out of the room.

When Naveena came back an hour later, Gwen was surprised that the woman led her straight to the locked door in the bathroom.

‘It is through here, Lady. I have the key.’

She unlocked the door then pushed it open, and they walked into a short corridor, more of a passageway really, which Gwen realized must run parallel to the main corridor of the ground floor. It turned left at the end and into another room.

Inside the room, Gwen stood rooted to the spot, feeling uneasy. It was dark and the acrid smell made her nose sting.

Naveena opened a window and the shutters. ‘I am sorry, Lady. The master would not let us touch.’

Now there was light, Gwen scanned the room, startled to see cobwebs so dense the wall was barely visible behind them, and a thick layer of insect-encrusted dust lying over the furniture, the floor, a nursing chair and the crib. What the smell actually was, she could not say. Decay certainly, not a smell you’d normally associate with a nursery, but more than that: the room smelt of sadness and she couldn’t help imagine Laurence’s crushed hopes.

‘Oh, Naveena. It is so sad. How long ago?’

‘Twelve years, Lady,’ Naveena said as she surveyed the room.

‘You must have been fond of Caroline and little Thomas.’

‘We do not speak of it …’ she said, her voice tapering off.

‘Was it because of the birth that Caroline became ill?’

Naveena’s face clouded. She nodded but said nothing.

Gwen wanted to know more, but seeing the old woman’s distress she changed the subject.

‘It certainly needs a good clean in here,’ she said.

‘Yes, Lady.’

Gwen knew that cleaning a room in Ceylon bore no resemblance to cleaning a room in Gloucestershire. Here, every single item was removed, and that included carpets, wall hangings and heavy furniture. Then everything was piled up on the lawn. While the room was being cleaned and disinfected, another team of houseboys beat the rugs and polished the furniture. Nothing was left untouched.

‘Once everything is outside, make sure they burn it.’

Gwen looked at the end wall. On closer inspection, what she had first thought was mould was actually a mural, and you could just about make out the scene. Closer still, when she touched it, a light film of dirt came off on her fingers.

‘Can you get me a rag, Naveena?’

The woman handed her a muslin from her pocket, and Gwen wiped a section of the wall.

She peered at it, her fingers tracing the images. ‘It’s a fantasy land, isn’t it? Look. Waterfalls and rivers, and here, look right here, there are beautiful mountains and … maybe a palace, or is it a temple?’

‘It is Buddhist temple near Kandy. Painted by master’s first wife. Picture is of our country, Lady. It is Ceylon.’

‘She was an artist?’

Naveena nodded.

Gwen inhaled, held her breath for a moment, then quickly exhaled. ‘Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get all this outside. And I think it would be best to paint over that mural.’

While Gwen walked back to her room she thought about Caroline. She had put so much effort into making the room beautiful, and Gwen wondered how much of the elegant house had been her doing too. She regretted her snap decision to paint over the wall. Maybe Mr Ravasinghe could be persuaded to restore it, though Laurence’s irrational dislike of the man might prevent that.

By the time Laurence was back for lunch, a fire was burning in the yard and the last of the nursery furniture was going up.

‘Hello there,’ he said as he burst into the living room looking surprised. ‘Having a bonfire?’

She stared at him, a wide smile spreading across her face. ‘Darling,’ she said, and patted the sofa where she was sitting. ‘Come and sit down. I have something to tell you.’

The next day, before Verity went south to stay on a friend’s fish farm, with talk of possibly a visit to England after that, she, Laurence and Gwen were sitting on the verandah finishing off breakfast.

‘There’s a horse I’m interested in buying,’ Verity said. ‘I’ve been missing having my own horse.’

Gwen couldn’t hide her surprise. ‘Goodness, how can you afford that?’

‘Oh, I have my allowance.’

Laurence turned sideways to fondle one of the dogs.

‘I didn’t realize it was so generous.’

Verity smiled sweetly. ‘Laurence has always looked after me, why would he stop now?’

Gwen shrugged. If Laurence was always to be so generous she’d probably never leave.

‘But you must want to be married and set up a family home of your own?’

‘Must I?’

Gwen didn’t know what to make of her, but after her sister-in-law had gone, she decided to broach the subject with Laurence.

‘I don’t think Verity should remain under the impression that she may always live with us. She does have the house in England.’

He sighed deeply. ‘She’s my sister, Gwen. She’s lonely there. What else can I do?’

‘You might encourage her to make her own life. Once the baby is here –’

He broke in. ‘Once the baby is here, I’m sure she’ll buck up and be a great help to you.’

Gwen pulled a face. ‘I don’t want her to be a help to me.’

‘Without your mother at hand, you’ll need someone.’

‘I’d rather ask Fran.’

‘I’m afraid I must put my foot down. Verity is already based here, and I’m not at all sure, charming though she is, that your cousin is the sort of person you’ll need.’

Gwen fought back angry tears. ‘I don’t recall ever being consulted about Verity being “based” here.’

A muscle in Laurence’s jaw was twitching. ‘I’m sorry, darling, but that was not your decision to make.’

‘And what makes you think Verity is the right sort of person? I don’t want her help. It’s my baby and I want Fran.’

‘I think you’ll find it is “our” baby.’ He grinned. ‘Unless, of course, the baby is the result of some kind of immaculate conception.’

She flung her napkin on the table and, feeling much too tense, stood up. ‘It’s not fair, Laurence, it really isn’t!’

She ran to her room, took off her shoes and, in a blaze of temper, threw them at the wall before bursting into loud sobs. She closed the curtains and the shutters, took off her dress, then flung herself on the bed face down and thumped the pillow. After a while, when he did not come, she crawled under the covers and, feeling sorry for herself, pulled them up over her head, just as she’d done as a child. The thought of home brought forth even more sobs and, curled up in a ball, she cried until her eyes were stinging.

She thought back to the day before when she’d asked Naveena why she hadn’t been Verity’s ayah too.

Naveena had shaken her head. ‘Younger woman. More strong.’

‘But you know Verity well?’

Naveena wobbled her head. ‘Yes and no, Lady.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You are facing difficulty with that one. Since she is a girl she is everytime causing trouble.’

Thinking of that now, Gwen felt even more strongly that she wanted Fran to be there when she had the baby.

A little later she heard a knock at the door, and then she heard Laurence’s voice. ‘Are you all right, Gwendolyn?’

She wiped her eyes with the sheet, but didn’t speak. It really wasn’t fair, and now she’d been made to look like a fool. She decided not to speak to him.

‘Gwendolyn?’

She sniffed.

‘Darling, I’m sorry I was brusque.’

‘Go away.’

She heard him stifle a chuckle and then, despite her previous decision, found herself laughing and crying at the same time.

When he pushed the door open and came over to sit on the bed beside her, she reached out a hand.

‘Gwen, I love you. I never intended to upset you.’

He wiped her face and began kissing her damp cheeks, then he pulled up her chemise and turned her on to her back. She watched while he removed his shoes and trousers. He was so tough and his skin so tanned from the outdoor life that the sight of him undressing never failed to excite her. As he pulled his shirt over his head she felt her breasts tingle and her stomach twist. The fact that she couldn’t hide how much she wanted him seemed to drive him on, and fired up even stronger feelings within her.

‘Come,’ she said, unable to wait and reaching out her arms to him.

He grinned and she could tell from his eyes he was going to draw this out. He placed his warm palm on the barely perceptible curve of her belly, stroking softly until she moaned. Then he kissed her there and with small butterfly kisses carried on to the place where his head disappeared between her legs.

She was right, of course. He did draw it out and by the end she was almost crying with relief.

When her parents had rowed, her father seemed never to have heard of the word ‘sorry’. Instead he would make her mother a cup of tea and bring her a rock bun. She laughed out loud. This was so much better than a rock bun and, if they were always to make up in this fashion, it might be worth falling out more frequently.

Apart from the argument over Verity, Laurence was the soul of consideration. She was only expecting a baby, she would repeat, though in reality she was delighted by his affectionate concern. In July, after only a minor battle with him over the advisability of travelling in her condition, they both went to Kandy with Christina and another friend, but not Mr Ravasinghe. When Gwen asked Christina where Savi was, she just shrugged and said he was in London.

The procession was inspiring, though Gwen clung to Laurence for fear of being trampled by the crowd, if not by the elephants. The air smelt of incense and flowers, and she had to keep pinching herself to check she wasn’t dreaming. While Gwen felt a bit drab in her maternity smock, Christina looked spectacular in floating black chiffon. Despite the American’s continued attempts to draw Laurence aside, he appeared to show no particular interest and, hugely relieved, Gwen felt she’d been silly to suspect that he would not be able to resist the woman.

After that, despite some weeks of nausea, she seemed to float in a kind of perpetual haze. Laurence said she was blooming, and looked more beautiful than ever. And that was how she felt. Verity had stayed away and time had moved on. It was not until she was into her fifth month, on a day when Florence Shoebotham had been invited for afternoon tea, that her size was remarked on. Other people may have noticed it too, but it was Florence who pointed out that Gwen looked rather too big, and she offered to call Doctor Partridge.

When, the next day, John Partridge entered Gwen’s room, his hand outstretched, she was delighted to see him.

‘Oh, I am so glad it is you, John,’ she said, and got up. ‘I do hope there is nothing wrong with me.’

‘No need to get up,’ he said, then asked how she was feeling as she perched on the edge of her bed.

‘I am quite tired, and awfully hot.’

‘That is normal. Is there nothing else worrying you?’

She swung her legs up on to the bed. ‘My ankles do swell up a bit.’

He smoothed his moustache as he pulled up a chair. ‘Well then, you must rest more often. Though in a woman as young as yourself, I don’t think swelling ankles will be much of an issue.’

‘I get awful headaches, but then I always have.’

He twisted his mouth around as he thought, then patted her hand. ‘You are big. I think the best thing would be to take a look at you. Would you like a woman with you?’

‘Oh, there really isn’t anybody. Only Naveena. My cousin Frances has been back in England for some time now.’ She sighed deeply.

‘What is it, Gwen?’

She wondered what to say. Laurence would not budge from his view that Verity was the person to assist with the delivery, and with the baby. This was the one thorn in her side, and it was a big one. She had been feeling so content, but as the months rolled on and her confinement grew closer, she longed for her mother. She needed someone she felt comfortable with, and hated the thought that Laurence believed Verity should be that person. If she was honest, she didn’t exactly distrust her sister-in-law, but the thought of having nobody she loved to turn to caused her deep misgivings. What if the birth was tricky, what if she couldn’t cope? But whenever she broached the subject with Laurence, he dug in his heels and she’d begun to think she was being irrational.

She sighed and looked at the doctor. ‘It’s just that Laurence has invited his sister to keep me company and to help, you know, with everything. She’s on the coast at present, but may go back to their family place in Yorkshire for a bit. It’s let out, but they keep a small apartment.’

‘Would you rather be confined in England, Gwen?’

‘No. At least, not in Yorkshire. It’s not that. It’s just that I’m not sure about Verity being here.’ She pulled a face and her lower lip wobbled.

‘I’m sure you have no need to worry. Your sister-in-law will be a help, and perhaps some time spent with just her and your baby might assist you all to get to know each other a little better.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘She suffered, you know, more than Laurence, I think.’

‘Oh?’

‘When their parents died, she was still young, and Laurence was like a father to her. The trouble was he married so soon after their parents died and, of course, most of the year she was packed off to boarding school.’

‘Why didn’t she come to live here after she left school?’

‘She did for a while, she certainly loved it here, but all her old school friends were in England. I think Laurence thought she’d make a better life there. So when she was twenty-one, he gave her the place in Yorkshire.’

‘He does look after her.’

‘And that’s a good thing. Rumour has it she was passed over by the one person she really wanted.’

‘Who was that?’

He shook his head. ‘All families have secrets of one kind or another, don’t they? Maybe ask Laurence. But I think Verity could do with feeling useful to you. It might help her feel better about herself. Now lie back and I’ll examine your tummy.’

Once Gwen was lying flat on the bed, he opened his black leather bag and drew out something that looked like a horn. She wasn’t sure that all families had secrets, and thought about her own family, but bringing her mother and father to mind only served to bring on an awful spasm of homesickness.

‘I’ll just have a listen,’ he said.

‘Are there any other family secrets?’ she asked.

The doctor just shrugged. ‘Who knows, Gwen? Especially when it comes to human relationships.’

She stared up at the ceiling and, listening to the bumping and scraping going on overhead, thought about what he’d said about Verity. He glanced up too.

‘It’s just cleaning day. Laurence’s room today.’

‘How are you and your husband getting on, Gwen? Looking forward to being parents?’

‘Of course. Why do you ask?’

‘No reason. Are there twins in your family, or perhaps in his?’

‘My grandmother was a twin.’

‘Well, it looks to me that the reason for your advanced size is not due to anything being wrong. I think you might be carrying twins.’

Her mouth fell open as she gasped. ‘Really? Are you sure?’

‘I can’t be sure, but it does appear to be the case.’

Gwen glanced out through the window as she tried to unscramble her feelings. Two babies! That was a good thing, wasn’t it? A furry langur was sitting on the breakfast table on the verandah, with a baby clinging to its tummy. The mother langur stared at Gwen with round, brown eyes and with fluffy golden hair standing up in a halo around its dark face.

‘Is there anything particular I shouldn’t do?’ She felt herself turning red. ‘I mean with Laurence.’

He smiled. ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s good for you. We just have to keep an eye on you, that’s all, and you must take adequate rest. I can’t stress that enough.’

‘Thank you, John. I was thinking of having a picnic before the rains, down by the lake. Would that be all right?’

‘Yes, but don’t go into the water, and watch out for leeches at the edge.’

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Next: Chapter 9