Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 8
Next: 2: THE SECRET

9

The picnic was timed to coordinate with Verity’s arrival back from the south. Two of the houseboys had carried the hamper, along with the blankets, and had brought out a chair for Gwen from the weather-beaten boathouse at the edge of the lake. As Laurence, Verity and her friend Pru Bertram made themselves comfortable on tartan rugs, they were watched by a long-tailed toque monkey in a nearby tree.

Gwen was wearing a green cotton over-dress, smocked at the top to create volume where she needed it, and was sitting with a large sun hat sheltering her face. Each morning, when she ran her hands over her breasts and belly after her bath, she gazed in wonder at her rapidly changing body, and carefully rubbed in a spoonful of nut oil infused with ginger. Now that the weeks of nausea were well and truly over, she hoped for some respite before growing even bigger.

Nick McGregor had been invited to join them, but had refused, claiming a coolie problem.

‘Is there another problem in the labour lines?’ she whispered to Laurence.

‘There are always minor disputes. Nothing to concern yourself with.’

She nodded. Since the incident over the Tamil with the injured foot, McGregor had been cool with her. He’d helped her communicate with the new gardeners, and had shown a mild interest in her cheesemaking plans, but other than that had remained distant. She’d tried including him in her ideas for the place, but he was only interested in tea.

It was a brilliant day, with the sun glittering on the lake and a light breeze to cool the skin. Gwen watched a cloud of pale butterflies float just above the surface of the water. Spew bounded in, jumping, splashing and enjoying being a nuisance. Bobbins sat at the edge with her head resting on her paws. She was not as adventurous as her brother, added to which she was heavily pregnant. Gwen had been watching her with interest, and felt a great deal of sympathy for the animal’s huge distended abdomen.

‘How funny,’ Gwen said. She leant back to feel a little of the sun on her face. ‘Bobbins is the observer and Spew the doer. A bit like me and Fran. I do wish she were here, Laurence.’

‘We’ve been over that, sweetheart.’

‘I promise I’ll do everything I can to help,’ Verity said. ‘That’s why I haven’t gone back to England.’

‘I’m sure Gwen is grateful.’

Verity gave her a wide smile. ‘Darling, do let’s open the hamper now.’

Laurence undid the catches, pulled out two bottles of champagne, several glasses, which he handed round, and then three plates of sandwiches.

‘Mmm,’ he said, taking the cover off one of the plates and sniffing. ‘These look like salmon and cucumber.’

‘What about the rest?’ Gwen asked, feeling ravenous.

‘Why don’t you tell us what’s in the other two, Pru?’ Laurence said.

Pru was quiet and unassuming, a typically pale-skinned Englishwoman who under the Ceylon sunshine seemed to turn bright pink, and though a little older, she had been a loyal friend to Verity.

‘Certainly.’ She took the two plates. ‘Egg and lettuce in these, and something I don’t recognize in these … Oh yes, of course, it’s brinjal.’

‘Brinjal in a sandwich?’ Gwen said, remembering her lunch at Christina’s.

Verity nodded. ‘Absolutely! We always have one foreign dish on our picnics, don’t we, Laurence? It’s a family tradition. Don’t you have family traditions in your own family?’

Laurence straightened his hat as he glanced at his sister. ‘We are Gwen’s family now, Verity.’

Verity coloured. ‘Of course. I didn’t mean …’

He uncorked the champagne, filled their glasses, then stood and held up his glass. ‘To my wonderful wife.’

‘Hear, hear!’ Pru said.

When they had eaten their fill, Verity, who had polished off more than her share of the champagne, got up. ‘Well, as you know, Laurence, a walk round part of the lake is what follows. Are you coming?’

‘I don’t think I’ll be able to manage that,’ Gwen said, reaching out a hand to Laurence.

‘But you’ll come, won’t you, Laurence? You always do. Gwen will be fine with Pru.’

‘Nevertheless, I shall stay with Gwen.’

Gwen shot him a thank you smile and he squeezed her hand.

‘Keep an eye open for water buffalo,’ he said as Verity started to move off, looking a little miffed.

At that moment Spew came rushing out of the lake as he chased away a group of herons, then raced round Verity, showering her with water. Gwen looked round for Bobbins, who, it seemed, had disappeared.

‘Dratted dog!’ Verity said, brushing off her damp dress. As usual she’d chosen the wrong colour, Gwen thought. Orange didn’t suit a sallow complexion. And a yellow sun, reflecting its colour on to her face, made her look quite acid.

‘I’ll accompany you, Verity,’ Pru said, and started to make a move.

‘No. I’ll take Spew for a run. You’re not fit enough and you’ll get too hot. Come on, Spew.’

Pru looked deflated and settled down again. ‘No, of course, you’re right. I’m not as energetic as you.’

Gwen called out to Laurence, who had taken a few steps towards the lake. ‘Do you think I might just dip my toes in?’

Laurence twisted round. ‘I don’t see why not. I wouldn’t want to mollycoddle you.’

‘Do you want to come, Pru?’ Gwen said as she took off her shoes.

When Pru shook her head Gwen walked down to the bank with Laurence, then sat and rolled down her stockings with one hand while holding on to her sun hat with the other. He helped her up and they wandered a little further along. The water was gently lapping the earthy edge and she wriggled her toes in the cool of it.

‘This is so lovely, isn’t it?’ she said.

‘It’s you that makes it lovely.’

‘Oh, Laurence, I am so happy. I hope it never ends.’

‘There’s absolutely no reason why it should,’ he said, and kissed her.

She watched a bird hop on to a rock nearby. ‘Do look at that robin,’ she said.

‘It’s a Kashmir flycatcher actually. Wonder what’s brought it here. You usually see them on the golf course at Nuwara Eliya. It’s the most beautiful place, sits between the town and the hills.’

‘You know a lot about birds.’

‘Birds and tea.’

She laughed. ‘You must tell me what they all are, so that I can teach our baby.’

‘Our babies, you mean!’

As he wrapped his arms round her, she glanced up at him. His eyes were sparkling and he looked so proud and happy she felt her heart would burst.

But then, as he held both her hands and searched her face, he looked suddenly serious. ‘Gwen, if I could only tell you how much you’ve changed my life.’

She drew back. ‘For the better I hope.’

He took a deep breath and she loved the way his whole face seemed to be smiling.

‘More than you’ll ever know,’ he said.

A gust of wind blew her hair into her eyes. He tucked a ringlet behind her ear. ‘After Caroline, I felt my life was over, but you’ve given me hope.’

As the wind got up a little more, she took off her hat, then leaning back against the warmth of his chest, turned to look at the lake again. He wasn’t always able to say what he clearly felt, but as he stroked her hair, she understood how much he loved her. He dipped his head and twisted her round. She closed her eyes against the intense glare of a yellow sun reflecting off the waves, then she felt his lips on her neck just behind her ears. A shiver ran through her. If only I could fix this moment in my mind for ever, she thought.

They walked further on for a while before turning back, but the peace was disturbed by frenzied barking. Gwen glanced across to see Spew scratching at the door of the boathouse.

‘I’ll bet Bobbins has got in there to deliver her puppies,’ Laurence said. He glanced back as the sound of an oar splashing the water drew his attention. ‘I don’t believe it. What is he doing here?’

‘It seems like Verity is with him. And Christina.’

He muttered under his breath, but went to lend an elbow to help Verity and then Christina out of the outrigger canoe. While Verity shook herself down, Christina grinned.

‘Hello, darling,’ she said, before putting both palms on the sides of Laurence’s head and kissing his cheeks. She took a step away, allowing her palm to trail down Laurence’s bare arm, her fingers lightly tickling him as she did.

As Laurence reddened, Gwen bristled at this act of overt intimacy, but forced herself to smile. ‘How nice to see you, Christina.’

‘My, you do look well, I must remember to get myself pregnant sometime.’ She winked at Laurence.

The nerve of the woman, Gwen thought. How dare she flirt with my husband in front of me. She moved closer to Laurence and pushed the hair off his forehead in a proprietary way.

‘I came across them on my walk,’ Verity said. ‘He was sketching her with one of the islands as a backdrop. Their canoe was tied up nearby, so he offered me a lift. I can’t resist a ride in a canoe with a handsome man.’

Savi Ravasinghe seemed untroubled as he climbed out of the canoe, but Laurence looked tense.

‘My apologies for intruding,’ Savi said.

‘Not at all.’ Gwen held out her hand. ‘But I’m afraid we’re just wrapping up here.’

He smiled as he took her hand. ‘You look absolutely blooming, Mrs Hooper, if I may say so.’

‘Thank you. I do feel rather wonderful. It’s lovely to see you again. How was your trip to London? I sometimes think it’s –’

‘It’s time we went in,’ Laurence said, interrupting and nodding curtly at Savi before turning his back on him and holding out a hand to Christina. ‘Would you like to come up to the house?’

Gwen frowned.

‘Thank you, Laurence. I am, of course, deeply tempted,’ she said, and blew him a kiss, ‘but I think on this occasion I’ll go back with Savi.’

Laurence didn’t speak.

‘Actually, I have something for Mrs Hooper,’ Savi said. He reached into a brown leather sketching satchel and pulled out a page of heavy cartridge paper protected by tissue paper. ‘I’ve been carrying this around for a while now. It’s just a little watercolour.’

Gwen held out her hand to receive it and removed the tissue. ‘Oh, it’s beautiful.’

‘I painted it from that quick sketch I made of you at Christina’s house.’

Laurence’s face darkened. He didn’t speak, simply clasped hold of Gwen’s arm and began striding up the bank towards the steps where Pru stood watching. As they passed her and carried on up, Gwen glanced back at the others, feeling mortified. A little further up she exploded.

‘That was uncalled for. It was a gift. Why were you so rude? You could at least be civil to the man!’

Laurence folded his arms. ‘I will not have him here.’

‘What’s wrong with you? I like Savi, and all he did was make a five-minute sketch of me.’

Laurence was standing still, though she could almost feel him shaking.

‘I don’t want you to see him again.’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘What about you and Christina?’ she said, her voice rising dangerously.

‘What about it?’

‘You still find her attractive. I didn’t notice you pushing her hand away. Don’t think I can’t see how she bewitches you.’

He snorted. ‘We were talking about Mr Ravasinghe, not Christina.’

‘It’s because of his colour, isn’t it?’

‘No. You’re being ridiculous. And that’s quite enough. Now come on.’

‘I’ll decide what is enough, thank you very much, and I’ll also decide who I choose to befriend.’

He unfolded his arms and held out a hand. ‘Don’t shout, Gwen. Do you want Pru to hear?’

‘I don’t give a damn if she does. Though if you bothered to look back you’d see she’s already looking very uncomfortable.’ Her lip trembled, and she jutted out her chin. ‘And also if you cared to look you’d see your sainted sister has got back in the boat with Mr Ravasinghe, as well as Christina, and Mr Ravasinghe is checking their ankles for leeches. There’s obviously something about him that women like!’

And no longer trying to control her anger, she stormed off as best as her size allowed.

She smarted for days but they didn’t speak of the episode again, at least not then; Gwen, because she didn’t want to upset herself – her heart had raced abominably after their argument – and Laurence because he was pig-headed. The silences between them grew longer and her eyes stung with unshed tears. Neither apologized and Laurence continued to brood. She hadn’t really meant to hurt him so badly with her parting shot, but it was clear she had, and relations between them suffered, which was exactly the opposite of what Gwen really wanted. It was bad enough that Verity was there again, without now also feeling cut off from Laurence. She longed to touch the cleft in his chin and make him smile again but was too stubborn to do it.

One gloomy evening, with the arrival of the migrating Himalayan blue and yellow pitta bird, the purple sky of the autumn monsoon took over their lives. Everything seemed to be damp. Drawers wouldn’t open, and if they did you couldn’t close them. Doors suddenly didn’t fit. The ground was muddy, insects were multiplying, and on the few occasions that Gwen ventured into the garden, the air was white.

The rain dragged on into December, but once it had ended, Gwen was too heavily pregnant to stray far from the house. Doctor Partridge visited again, and still diagnosed that twins were likely, but also said he couldn’t be certain.

After ten weeks in the boot room, the puppies, five of them, had been allowed to scamper about the rest of the house. Gwen, unable to see her feet for the size of her bump, spent her life frightened she’d step on them. Either that or one of the bundles of fur would trip her up. But when Laurence suggested they might live in an outhouse, she shook her head. Homes had been found for four of them, and they’d be going soon, but her special favourite, the runt of the litter, was still unwanted.

One morning she answered a phone call from Christina.

‘Can you tell Laurence that he left some papers here last time he was over,’ the woman said in a breezy voice.

‘Where?’

‘At my place, of course.’

‘Very well. Was there anything else?’

‘Get him to call me, will you, or he could just drop by and pick them up.’

Later, when Gwen mentioned that Christina had phoned, Laurence looked surprised.

‘What did she want?’

‘Papers. She said you’d left some papers at her house.’

‘I haven’t been at her house.’

‘She said the last time you were over.’

‘But that was when I signed the agreements on the investments, months ago. I’ve already got everything I need.’

Gwen frowned. Either he wasn’t telling the truth or Christina was still playing games.

By the time January arrived, when Gwen was just into her ninth month, she stood on the front step of her home at dawn and glanced over towards the bushes where a thrush was whistling. She shivered, feeling lonely. A cool day was on its way, and the trees and bushes sparkled with dew.

‘Now make sure you wrap up this evening. The temperature can drop, as you know.’ Laurence gave her a kiss on the cheek and took a step away.

‘Do you have to go to Colombo?’ she said, holding on to his arm and wanting more from him.

His face softened as he turned back to her. ‘I know the timing isn’t good, but you still have a couple of weeks to go. My agent wants to talk finance.’

‘But, Laurence, couldn’t you send McGregor?’

‘I’m sorry, Gwen. I really have no choice.’

She let go of his arm and stared at the ground, struggling to control her tears.

He tipped up her chin so that she had to look at him. ‘Hey, I’ll only be gone two or three days. And you won’t be alone. Verity will look after you.’

Gwen’s shoulders drooped as he got into the car, rolled up the window and switched on the ignition. The car spluttered a couple of times, so a houseboy cranked the engine and she hoped for a minute that it might not start, but then it burst into life and Laurence waved as he drove past her and roared up the hill.

As she watched the car slip out of sight, she brushed away tears that continued to drip. Things had not been properly resolved since they’d exchanged cross words the day Mr Ravasinghe had turned up with the watercolour, and even now a shadow still hung between them. That day had been a turning point of sorts. They had been polite with each other, but he remained a bit aloof and, although he shared her bed, he wasn’t keen to make love. He said it was for the sake of the babies, but she missed the intimacy and felt very alone.

The one time they had made love was a couple of weeks before he left. She’d known there was only one way to bring him round so one night when he was sitting on the bed, she’d kissed him gently across the base of his neck while stroking his shoulders and then running her fingers down his spine. After that she got into bed with her back to him. He curled up behind her and she could feel how much he wanted her.

‘You are sure it’s safe?’ she said.

‘There is a way.’

He helped her turn over on to her knees with her hands on the pillow taking the rest of her weight.

‘Just tell me if it hurts,’ he said as he knelt behind her.

She was still amazed by what happened when they were together, and now he was so gentle that the sensations were even more intense. Maybe it was the pregnancy that had tipped her into another level of being a woman. Whatever it was, when it was over she fell asleep quickly and slept more soundly than she had in days. After that, things between them had lightened, though not completely, and when she’d asked what was the matter, he’d said nothing was wrong. She hoped very much it wasn’t anything to do with Christina.

Now that he was gone, she missed him and wished she’d made more of an effort. She walked round the house to look at the lake. It was almost completely still, deep purple at the nearer edge, with a wide silvery streak in the middle. The lake always lifted her mood. She listened to the regular beat of a woodpecker for a minute or two, and glanced up as an eagle flew above the house.

‘Can you hear them, my little ones?’ she said, and put a hand on her tummy. Then she quickly went indoors to warm up by the log fire. She had planned to carry on with her needlepoint, but felt drowsy, and fell into a stupor in that semi-sleep way that is so seductive, but leaves you more tired than you were. She was vaguely aware of Naveena tiptoeing in and out, and the butler bringing tea and biscuits, but could not rouse herself enough to pick up her cup. It was only when Verity came in and coughed that Gwen came round.

‘Oh, darling, you are awake.’

Gwen blinked.

‘Look, I’m awfully sorry about this, but an old friend is throwing a party in Nuwara Eliya tonight. It’s only one night. I’ll be back tomorrow, or the day after at the latest, I promise. Will you be all right? I have missed so much this year.’

Gwen yawned. ‘Of course, you must go. I have Naveena, and we have Doctor Partridge’s phone number in Hatton. Go and enjoy yourself.’

‘I’ll just take Spew for a trot by the lake, and then I’ll be off. I’ll say goodbye now.’ She came across and kissed Gwen’s cheek. ‘If you like, I can deliver the puppies to their new homes at the same time.’

Gwen thanked her and watched as she left the room. It was true, by staying at home to keep her company, Verity had missed several seasonal dances. She had gone to the New Year Ball at the Grand in Nuwara, but that was all. Normally they would all have attended, Laurence said, but Gwen was too far advanced in her pregnancy. It was only fair that Verity should have a chance to let her hair down before the babies came. In any case, how would she find a husband if she never got out?

Gwen felt big and clumsy. It was awkward getting out of a chair now, but she struggled up to go to the window. Laurence’s departure and the chillier weather had left her feeling homesick. Not only did she miss her parents but Fran too, though Fran’s frequent letters kept her abreast of things. Fran had barely mentioned Savi in her letters, but had hinted at a new romantic attachment, and Gwen sincerely hoped her cousin had found somebody to love her.

She glanced out at the garden. It was very still, and although she was so alone, it felt as if the whole earth was waiting with her. She spotted a large antlered sambhur moving between the trees. It must have come down from the cloud forests in the highlands of Horton Plains and lost its way. Laurence had promised a trip to Horton Plains, a forest wreathed in lilac mists that hung between gnarled squat trees with rounded tops. To Gwen it sounded magical and reminded her of Caroline’s mural in the nursery. And with that thought she decided to go and check that everything was completely ready in there.

Previous: Chapter 8
Next: 2: THE SECRET