Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 9
Next: Chapter 11
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2

 

THE SECRET

10

The mural had cleaned up beautifully, and Gwen was pleased she had decided to keep it, rather than paint it over. The colours might not be as bright as they once were, but the purple highlands were clear, the silvery blue lakes seemed to shine as if they were real, and luckily they hadn’t needed Mr Ravasinghe to retouch the paintwork.

She looked about her, holding Ginger, the one remaining puppy. The primrose yellow room was ready. Two new white cribs stood side by side, and an antique satinwood nursing chair with cream embroidered cushions had been sent up from Colombo. A pretty locally made rug added the final touch. She opened the window to air the room, then eased herself into the chair and imagined how it would feel to hold her babies in her arms, rather than just a puppy. She patted her stomach and felt a little tearful. Being so young, she had suffered few of the complications that carrying the next generation could bring, so it wasn’t pregnancy itself making her eyes water: it was her own lonely, internal voice.

By the evening her head was throbbing and she decided fresh air might help. She felt a slight twinge and stood still, but then threw on a jacket and left the house. The night-time lake was rarely black, but deep purple, and shone when the stars and moon were reflected. Tonight there was no shine. As she moved she was halted by a pain that sliced round her belly from her lower back. When it eased, she managed to open the door again before doubling over, almost crying in relief when Naveena arrived.

The woman’s face was full of concern. ‘Lady, I am looking for you.’

With Naveena supporting her weight, they reached the bedroom, where Gwen struggled out of her day clothes and pulled a starched nightdress over her head. She was sitting on the edge of the bed when she felt warm liquid flow down her inner thighs. She stood, horrified.

‘Lady. It is only the waters.’

‘Phone Doctor Partridge,’ Gwen said. ‘Right away.’

Naveena nodded and went out to the hall. When she came back in, her face was glum.

‘Having no reply.’

Gwen’s heart began to race.

‘Do not worry, Lady, I have delivered babies.’

‘But twins?’

The woman shook her head. ‘We will call doctor again later. I get warm drink.’

She was only gone for a few minutes and returned with a glass filled with a strong-smelling brew.

‘Are you sure?’ Gwen said, wrinkling her nose as she sniffed the ginger and cloves.

Naveena nodded.

Gwen drank it, but a few minutes later felt herself overheat and was violently sick.

Nothing was easy now that she was so big, but Naveena helped her out of her nightdress and then wrapped her in a soft woollen blanket. Frightened as the pain soared, all Gwen could hear was the sound of her own breathing. She closed her eyes and tried to picture Laurence as Naveena fetched clean sheets and remade the bed. The serving woman, accustomed to passivity, was a calming presence, but Gwen missed her husband and her eyes filled up. She wiped away the tears but then, as another tearing pain ripped her in two, she bent forward and groaned.

Naveena turned as if to go. ‘I ring the doctor again.’

Gwen clutched her sleeve. ‘Don’t leave me. Get the butler to do it.’

Naveena nodded, waiting by the door after giving the butler the instruction. As he made the call Gwen prayed, but with the door ajar she could hear that the doctor was still out. Her heart raced again.

Neither of them spoke.

Naveena stared at the floor and Gwen, feeling the panic rising, struggled to hold her nerve. What would they do if something went wrong? She closed her eyes and with an effort of will managed to calm her heart. Once it had slowed, she glanced up at Naveena.

‘You were with Caroline when she gave birth?’

‘Yes, Lady.’

‘And Laurence?’

‘In the house too.’

‘Did she have a dreadful labour?’

‘Normal. Like you.’

‘Surely this isn’t normal!’At another searing contraction, Gwen choked back a sob. ‘Why did nobody say it would hurt like this?’

Naveena made soothing noises, helped her to her feet and brought over a small stool to use as a step. Though she still felt clammy, the pain lessened, giving Naveena time to help her back to bed. Gwen shuffled down a bit and, as she lay quietly under a sheet smelling of melons, her labour seemed to slow. The contractions dulled and became further apart, and the next few hours passed relatively easily. Gwen even began to hope that perhaps she might cope rather well.

Naveena had become more than a servant to her: not quite a friend, not quite a mother. It was an unusual relationship, but Gwen was grateful. She drifted for a while in a vaguely pleasant sort of haze, thinking of her actual mother and how it must have been when she gave birth.

Then a new agony sliced her back in two. She twisted on to her side and drew up her knees. The pain gnawed and pulled, and she felt as if a part of her was being torn away.

‘I want to turn over again. Help me!’

Naveena helped her to crawl on to all fours on the bed. ‘Do not push – pant when the pain comes. It will pass, Lady.’

Gwen parted her lips and blew out her breath in small puffs, but then the contractions came faster. She twisted as their sharp edge ripped her belly apart, and when she heard screaming as if it were coming from outside of her, she felt there were more than just two little babies wanting to be born. Something far huger. Why would women inflict this torture on themselves? She fought it by trying to recall childhood fairy tales and screwed up her face in the effort of remembering: anything to take her mind off the hell that was boring through her. At each contraction, she bit her lip until she tasted blood. This is all about blood, she thought, thick red blood. Then, as she dripped moisture on to already sodden sheets and attempted not to scream, the brief respites grew even briefer.

More excruciating pain. Now she was in despair. She pounded her fists on the mattress, twisted on to her side, and cried for her mother, absolutely certain she was going to die.

‘Jesus,’ she whispered, between gritted teeth. ‘Help me!’

Naveena stayed with her and continued to hold her hand, encouraging her all the time.

After a while, feeling too exhausted to speak, she exhaled slowly and rolled over to lie on her back again, stretched out her pale legs for a moment, then drew her feet up towards her bottom. As she lifted her head to look, something unbuckled in her and she parted her knees, any shred of dignity completely deserting her.

‘Take deep breath when I start count, Lady, and holding breath as pushing. At ten, take new breath, hold and pushing again.’

‘Where’s the doctor? I need the doctor!’

Naveena shook her head.

Gwen inhaled deeply and did as she was told. Then, with her eyes closed and her hair wringing, she felt a stinging sensation. First there was the smell of faeces, and Gwen, already too exposed to care, thought that was all, but then, with one excruciating push, she felt a burning sensation between her open thighs. She was about to push again when Naveena touched her wrist.

‘No, Lady, you must not push. You must let baby slide out.’

For a few moments nothing happened, then there was a slithery feeling between her legs. Naveena bent over to cut the cord then pick up the baby. She wiped him down and grinned, her eyes swimming with tears. ‘Oh, my Lady. You have beautiful boy, that is what.’

‘A boy.’

‘Yes, Lady.’

Gwen held out her arms, and stared at the bruised and wrinkled red face of her firstborn. She felt a moment of utter peacefulness, so powerful it almost erased everything she had just been through. The baby’s hand contracted and expanded as if his fingers were trying to identify the place where he had arrived. He was perfect, and she, feeling like the first woman who had ever given birth, was so proud that she wept.

‘Hello, little boy,’ she said, between her sobs.

The sound of his sudden shrieking filled the room.

Gwen looked up at Naveena. ‘Gosh, he sounds absolutely furious.’

‘It is good sign. Healthy lungs. Good strong boy.’

Gwen smiled. ‘I feel so tired.’

‘You must rest now, the second one coming soon.’ She took the baby boy, wrapped him up, put a little hat on his head and rocked him in her arms before laying him in his crib, where he mewed intermittently.

Soon after Naveena cleaned her up, Gwen delivered the afterbirth. Another hour and a half passed, and it was early morning by the time Gwen delivered her second baby. All her strength had deserted her and all she could think was thank God it was over. She pulled herself up to try to look at the second baby, but collapsed straight back against the pillows, then watched as Naveena wrapped the baby in a blanket.

‘What is it? A girl or boy?’

Seconds passed. The world hung still, finely balanced.

‘Well?’

‘It is a girl, Lady.’

‘How lovely, one of each.’

Again Gwen struggled to raise her head to look, but when she did, she was only able to catch a glimpse of the baby before Naveena left the room without speaking. Gwen held her breath and listened. From the nursery there was only the faintest sound of crying. Too weak. Much too weak. The air suddenly became too thick to breathe. She hadn’t seen her daughter properly, and wasn’t sure, but the tiny baby had seemed to be a strange colour.

Terrified the cord had strangled the baby, she tried to shout for Naveena, but her voice came out as a screech. She tried again, then swung her legs round and attempted to stand, but feeling hot, immediately fell back against the bed. She glanced over at her son. Hugh, they had agreed to call him. Their little miracle. He had stopped crying the moment his twin was born, and was now fast asleep. Using the stool, Gwen climbed into bed again, every muscle feeling raw. She closed her eyes.

When she opened them, Naveena’s face swam into focus. She was sitting in the chair by her bed.

‘I bringing tea, here for you, Lady.’

Gwen sat up and wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead. ‘Where is the twin?’

Naveena lowered her eyes.

Gwen reached out and clutched the woman’s sleeve. ‘Where is my daughter?’

Naveena opened her mouth as if it to speak, but no sound came out. Her face was calm, but the gnarled hands twisting in her lap gave her away.

‘What have you done with her? Is something wrong with her?’

Still no reply.

‘Naveena, bring the child now. Do you hear me?’ Gwen’s voice was shrill with fear.

The woman shook her head.

Gwen gulped for breath. ‘Is she dead?’

‘No.’

‘I don’t understand. I must see her, now. Get her for me! I order you to bring her to me, or you will leave this house this instant.’

Naveena stood up slowly. ‘Very well, Lady.’

As a world of imagined horrors grew to gigantic proportions, Gwen felt as if an iron band was constricting her chest. What had happened to her child? Was she hideously malformed? Sick in some terrible way? She wanted Laurence. Why wasn’t he here?

After a few minutes, Naveena came back into the room with a baby bundled in her arms. Gwen heard a weak cry and held out her arms. The ayah settled the child into them, shuffled back and stared at the floor. Gwen took a deep breath and unwrapped the warm blanket. All the tiny baby girl wore beneath the blanket was a white terry-towelling napkin.

The baby opened her eyes. Gwen held her breath as she looked the child over. The little fingers, the rounded belly, the dark, dark eyes and her skin shining as if it was polished. Numb with shock, Gwen glanced up at Naveena. ‘This child is perfect.’

Naveena nodded.

‘Perfect.’

The ayah bowed her head.

‘But this is not a white child.’

‘No, Lady.’

Gwen glared at the woman. ‘What kind of trick is this? Where is my child?’

‘She is your daughter.’

‘Did you think I wouldn’t notice that you’ve replaced my baby with this one?’

She began to cry, and her tears fell on the little girl’s face.

‘This is your daughter,’ Naveena repeated.

In a state of utter shock, Gwen closed her eyes, squeezing them tight to blot out the sight of the baby, then she held out the child for the woman to take. It was impossible that something so dark could have come out of her. Impossible! Naveena stood by the bed, rocking back and forth while cradling the child. Gwen folded her arms round herself and, shaking her head from side to side, groaned. Overwhelmed by confusion, she could not meet the ayah’s eyes.

‘Lady –’

Gwen hung her head. Nobody spoke. It did not make sense. None of this made any sense. She stared at the lines of her palms, turned her hands over, ran a finger round her wedding ring. Several minutes passed while her heart thumped and jumped erratically. Eventually she glanced up at Naveena, and when she saw no judgement in the woman’s eyes, it gave her courage to speak.

‘How can she be mine? How can she?’ she said, brushing her tears away with the back of her hand. ‘I don’t understand. Naveena, tell me what has happened. Am I going crazy?’

Naveena’s head wobbled. ‘Things happening. The willing of the gods.’

‘What things? What things happen?’

The old lady shrugged. Gwen tried to hold on to her tears, grew rigid with trying to keep her jaw firm, but it was hopeless. Her face crumpled and more tears spilt on to her sheets. Why had this happened? How could it have happened?

Until now the full impact had not hit her. Now it did. What was she going to tell Laurence? She struggled with it but, worn down by exhaustion and with a feeling of utter dread consuming her, she felt far from herself. What was right? She blew her nose and wiped her eyes again, and in her mind’s eye saw the little girl open dark eyes and stare at her. Maybe something was wrong with the baby’s blood, that was it, or maybe Laurence had some Spanish ancestors. Thoughts crowded her head. Air. That’s what she needed. A night breeze. So that she could think.

‘Can you open the window, Naveena?’

Naveena held the baby with one arm and went to the window to undo the catch, allowing a cool breeze into the room, and with it the scent of vegetation.

What could she do? Perhaps she could say that she had delivered only one child, or maybe she could pretend the baby was dead – but no, for that they would need a body. Gwen watched Naveena sitting by the window with the baby in her arms, and wished herself far away from this awful country where a white woman could give birth to a brown baby for no reason. No reason at all. The air stilled and for a horrible fractured moment Savi Ravasinghe’s face slid into her mind. No! Oh God. No! Not that. It couldn’t be. With her breath knocked right out of her, she doubled over.

Utterly worn by her labour, she couldn’t be thinking straight. Surely she would have known if the man had taken advantage of her? And then another thought almost tipped her over the edge. What about Hugh? Dear God. This couldn’t be happening. If it was possible that the baby girl might be Savi’s child – terrible, terrible thought – what about Hugh? Was it likely that two fathers could have been involved? She’d never heard anyone speak of such a thing. Was it possible? Could it be possible?

She looked over at Naveena again and, with a heavy heart, glimpsed the moon between breaks in the cloud where it was high in the fading night sky. Almost morning. What was she going to do? Time was running short. She had to decide before the servants started moving about the house. Nobody could know. The wind seemed to get up and then the sound of a car’s tyres crunching on the gravel sent blood pounding to her temples.

Both she and Naveena froze.

Naveena was the first to rise. ‘It is the master’s sister,’ she said, and wrapped the covering blanket over the baby’s tiny head.

‘Oh God! Verity,’ Gwen said. ‘Help me, Naveena.’

‘I hiding the baba.’

‘Quickly, do it quickly.’

‘In nursery?’

‘I don’t know. Yes. In the nursery.’ Gwen nodded, then stared straight ahead in absolute panic. As Naveena hurried from the room, Gwen listened to the sounds of Verity entering the hall and then heading down the corridor. Within minutes there was a knock on the door. Gwen’s breath was coming way too fast, her mind so frantic she could not think of a single coherent thing to say, and, as Verity swooped in looking flushed and over bright, she was certain she would give herself away.

‘Darling, I am so sorry. Are you all right? Can I see them?’

Gwen inclined her head towards Hugh’s crib.

‘Where’s the other one?’

Gwen’s lips twisted slightly and she felt her chin tremble, but she took a breath and stiffened before speaking. ‘Doctor Partridge was wrong. There was only one. He’s a boy.’

Verity walked across and stooped over the crib. ‘Oh, isn’t he gorgeous! May I hold him?’

Gwen nodded, but her heart was thumping so hard she pulled the bed covers up to her chin to hide her chest. ‘If you wish. But please don’t wake him, he’s only just fallen asleep.’

Her sister-in-law picked Hugh up. ‘My, but he’s so tiny.’

Gwen’s throat felt strangled. She managed to improvise an answer, though her voice came out sounding thin. ‘I must have been carrying a lot of water.’

‘Of course. Has the doctor seen you yet?’ Verity said as she put Hugh back in his crib. ‘You look awfully pale.’

‘He’ll come when he can. He was out on another call last night apparently.’ Gwen felt her eyes smart, but did not say any more. The less she said about anything the better.

‘Oh, darling, was it perfectly awful?’

‘Perfectly, yes.’

Verity drew up the chair and settled herself beside Gwen. ‘You must have been awfully brave to do this on your own.’

‘I had Naveena.’

Gwen closed her eyes for a moment, hoping Verity would take the hint. She was acutely aware that, in the rush, Naveena had not closed the door to the bathroom, and although she must have shut the door to the nursery from the bathroom, she wanted her sister-in-law to leave before the baby girl woke.

‘Shall I tell you about the party to cheer you up?’ Verity said.

‘Well, actually –’ Gwen began.

‘It was wonderful,’ Verity continued, taking no notice. ‘I danced for so long I’ve actually got blisters, and can you believe it, but Savi Ravasinghe was there too, dancing most of the night with that Christina woman. He asked after you.’

Dismayed by the turn the conversation had taken, Gwen raised a hand to fend off the woman. ‘Verity, if you don’t mind, I need to rest before the doctor comes.’

‘Oh, of course, darling. Silly old me chattering on when you must be absolutely shredded.’

Verity stood and took a few steps towards the crib. ‘He’s still asleep. I can’t wait for him to wake up.’

Gwen shifted in the bed. ‘He will soon enough. Now, if you don’t mind.’

‘You must rest, I see that. I had planned to see Pru in Hatton today, if that’s all right with you. But I’ll stay if you need me …’

So much for helping out, Gwen thought but didn’t say, although she was intensely grateful Verity would be leaving again.

‘Go,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’

Verity turned and headed for the door. There was the faint sound of a baby’s cry and then it stopped. As her sister-in-law spun round with a grin, Gwen went rigid.

‘Oh, lovely, he’s woken up,’ Verity said as she came back over to the crib, but when she saw Hugh she frowned. ‘That’s odd, he’s still asleep.’

There was silence, and though it lasted for just a moment, for Gwen it was so fraught that it seemed to go on for a lifetime. As she closed her eyes, willing the baby girl not to cry again, she felt as if her skin was on fire. Please God, don’t let her make any noise while Verity is staring at Hugh.

‘They do cry in their sleep,’ she managed to say in the end. ‘Now do go to Hatton. I have Naveena.’

‘Very well, if you’re sure.’

As her sister-in-law closed the door behind her, Gwen leant forward and hugged her knees. A sensation of being uprooted from the earth took over, and she felt so fragile that one gust of wind might lift her from the bed and carry her off. She rang the bell for Naveena.

When the ayah came back she sat at Gwen’s side and held her hand.

‘Naveena, what am I going to do?’ Gwen whispered. ‘Tell me what to do.’

The old lady stared at the floor, but didn’t speak.

‘Help me. Please help me. I’ve already told Verity there was only one baby.’

‘Lady, I do not know.’

Gwen started to cry again.

‘There has to be a way. There has to be.’

Naveena seemed to struggle for a moment, then took a deep breath. ‘I am finding village women in the valley to look after baba.’

Gwen stared at her and the woman met her gaze. Was she suggesting she should give the baby away to a stranger? Her own child?

‘It is only way.’

‘Oh, Naveena, how can I just give her up like that?’

Naveena reached out a hand. ‘You must be trusting me, Lady.’

Gwen shook her head. ‘I can’t do this.’

‘Lady, you must.’

Gwen bowed her head in desperation. Then she looked up and when she spoke her voice shook. ‘No. This can’t be the only way.’

‘Just one other, Lady.’

‘Yes?’

Naveena picked up a pillow.

Gwen gasped. ‘You mean smother her?’

Naveena nodded.

‘No! Not that. Under no circumstances.’

‘People are doing it, Lady, but it is not good.’

‘No, it’s not, it’s terrible,’ Gwen said and, horrified that they’d even spoken of such a thing, she hid her face in her hands.

‘I am thinking, Lady. Going to far valley with baba. You pay a little money?’

For a moment Gwen did not reply, but lifted her head and stared straight ahead with tears blurring her vision. She shivered. The truth was she could not keep the baby. If she did she would be cast out with a child that was clearly not her husband’s. She’d probably never see her baby boy again. Where would she go? Even her parents might have no option but to turn their backs. With no money, no home, it would be a far worse life for the little girl than going to live in the village. At least there she wouldn’t be too far away, and maybe one day … She paused. No. The truth was there never would be one day. If she sent the child away it would be for ever.

She looked at the old woman and spoke in a whisper. ‘What shall I tell Laurence?’

‘Nothing, Lady. I begging you. Like with his sister we are saying only one baby.’

Gwen nodded. Naveena was right, but she trembled at the thought of speaking such a terrible lie. Verity was one thing. With Laurence it would be so much harder.

Naveena’s eyes filled with tears. ‘It is best. The master being scorned, if you keeping.’

‘But, Naveena, how could this have happened?’

The old lady shook her head and her eyes looked terribly pained.

The ayah’s obvious emotion made Gwen feel even worse. She closed her eyes, but then all she saw were her silky French knickers lying on the hotel bedroom floor. She forced herself back to the night of the ball, tried to remember every detail, got to the point where Savi was stroking her temple, then … nothing. Trapped in a moment she could not recall, she felt violated. What had he done to her? What had she allowed him to do? She could only remember waking up half undressed when Fran came in. Again she wondered if it was even possible for there to be two fathers. The thought that it might not be only intensified her sense of violation, and sent her heart beating wildly. Hugh had to be Laurence’s son. He had to be.

‘Lady, do not distress.’ Naveena took hold of Gwen’s hand and stroked it. ‘You wish to name the baby?’

‘I don’t know the right kind of name, for a child like –’

‘Liyoni is a very good name.’

‘Very well.’ She paused. ‘But I must see her one more time.’

‘Not good, Lady. Better she go now. Do not be sad, Lady. It is her fate.’

Gwen’s eyes stung. ‘I can’t just send her away without seeing her again. Please. Maybe if we lock the door to the corridor? I have to see her.’

‘Lady –’

‘Bring her to me so that I can at least feed her, can’t you, just once, and then later a wet nurse in one of the villages down in the valley can take over?’

With a sigh that seemed to give away her fatigue, Naveena took a step back. ‘First, we waiting for the sister to leave.’

Neither spoke as they waited, but the moment they heard Verity’s car take off, Naveena closed the bedroom shutters and brought the baby back.

There were no bruises, no red face, she was nothing like Hugh at all. A perfect baby the colour of dark milky coffee.

‘She is so small,’ Gwen whispered, and touched the softness of her silky cheeks.

The little thing latched on the moment Naveena put her to Gwen’s breast. The sensation of the suckling was strange enough, but then, shocked once again by the darkness of the child’s face against her own white skin, Gwen trembled. As she unlatched the child from her breast, the baby’s eyes were huge; she shrieked once, sounding indignant, then sucked at the air. Gwen turned to face the wall.

‘Take her. I cannot do it.’ And though her voice sounded harsh, the stark pain of knowing she was turning away her own flesh and blood was worse than the pain of her birth.

Naveena took the baby from her. ‘For two days I be gone.’

‘Let me know as soon as you’re back. Are you sure you can find someone?’

Naveena shrugged. ‘I am hoping.’

Gwen glanced over at Hugh, desperate to hold him tight and terrified he might be taken too. ‘They will look after her properly?’

‘She will grow up well. I light a candle, Lady? It is peaceful. Will help you rest. Here is water. I will get hot tea and come. To ease the heart, Lady.’

Thoughts sped through Gwen’s brain as she reached for the glass of water, shaking uncontrollably. She tried to think if there was anyone who could act on her behalf, but looking for a different answer to explain the colour of the child’s skin would take time she didn’t have. Right now she had given birth to a baby that was not her husband’s, and if she were to talk about the night at the ball, nobody would believe she hadn’t been intimate with Savi Ravasinghe willingly. She had allowed him up to her room, hadn’t she? Laurence would reject her and Verity would have him to herself. It was as simple as that. And if she were ever to question anyone, she would have to admit the fact of Liyoni’s birth. She couldn’t do that. Not ever.

Although at first the baby’s colour had shocked her, it was what that colour really meant that stopped her heart from beating. She felt lost. Godforsaken. Her hand shook so much that the water spilt, soaking her nightdress and trickling down her chest. She felt as if this terrible thing she had agreed to would mean peace and sleep were gone for ever. And her guilt would surely destroy the return of those heavenly feelings she had discovered with Laurence. The girl’s dark eyes came back to her – an innocent newborn baby needing her mother – and for a moment Gwen’s longing to cradle both her babies grew stronger than her desire to keep her marriage intact. She picked up Hugh and rocked him, then she wept and wept again. But when she thought of Laurence’s trusting smile and his strong arms wrapped round her, she knew she could not keep her tiny baby girl. As the grief bit into her heart, she realized she and her daughter would never enjoy happy memories. But worse – far worse – was that this poor little girl, through no fault of her own, would be forced to live with neither a father nor a mother.

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Next: Chapter 11