Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 10
Next: Chapter 12

11

They waited until almost dusk. Verity had not yet returned from Hatton, so Gwen kept watch as Naveena bundled up the baby and placed her in an old tea-picker’s basket. She climbed into a bullock buggy and put the baby in the back, but just as they were about to leave, McGregor stepped out of the darkness. Gwen hid in the shadows of the porch, holding her breath and listening as Naveena claimed she was going to visit a sick friend in one of the Sinhalese villages.

‘The buggy is not for your own private purpose,’ McGregor was saying.

Gwen felt her jaw grow rigid.

‘Going just one time, sir.’

Please make him let her go.

‘Do you have the master’s permission?’

‘The mistress say.’

‘What do you have in the basket?’

Panic swept through Gwen, the breath sucked right out of her.

‘Just old blanket the mistress give.’

McGregor moved to the other side of the buggy, and Gwen couldn’t hear what he said. If he were to check the basket now, she might as well be dead. As a few more words were spoken, Gwen prayed, for the sake of all that she held dear, to please let McGregor leave. She couldn’t hear what they were saying now, couldn’t even hear if they were still talking, and in the darkness she couldn’t see if McGregor was already looking inside the basket.

As the memory of her foolishness on the night of the ball overcame her, she longed to step forward and admit her wrong. If she hadn’t been jealous of Christina she never would have accepted help from Savi Ravasinghe, so only had herself to blame. If she spoke now it would all be over … but then, hearing the sound of footsteps and the buggy starting to move off, Gwen slipped back into the house, dizzy with relief.

Poor Naveena had not wanted to go in the dark, but the difficulty of keeping the baby without her cries being heard was too great.

In the time that Gwen was alone she longed for sleep, but every few minutes she kept checking on Hugh. After an hour or so she heard Laurence’s car. She threaded her fingers through her tangled hair to tidy it then made her escape to the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She pressed her fists to the sides of her head and longed to sink to the ground. But knowing she could not, she splashed her face and tied back her hair then sat on the edge of the bath and waited for her hands to stop shaking. When she heard Laurence enter the bedroom, she pinned a smile on her face, found her courage and went through to the bedroom.

Laurence was standing motionless with a look of amazement on his face as he gazed at his son for the first time. She watched while he remained unaware of her presence, taking in his broad shoulders and the way his hair waved at the front. Struck by how happy he looked, she knew she couldn’t bear to reopen the hole in his heart. It wasn’t all about protecting Laurence – a selfish current ran through her too – but for both their sakes she had to go through with this.

She took a step forward and he turned at the sound. She realized that, along with amazement, there was also a look of what she could only call relief on his shining face. Unsurpassable relief. As they stared at each other, his eyes sparkled, but then he screwed up his face as if to stem the tears.

‘He’s like you, don’t you think?’ she said.

‘He’s perfect.’ He stared at her in awe. ‘You’ve been so brave. But where’s his twin?’

She froze, unable to think or feel, as if every moment that had passed between them had never been. He was a stranger. She fought the urge to run, and with an effort of great will walked across to him instead, somehow able to hide her distress.

‘There was only one baby after all. I’m sorry.’

‘Darling girl, you have nothing to be sorry for. I couldn’t love you more, but this … this means so much.’

She forced herself to smile.

He held out his arms. ‘Come here. Let me hold you.’ He hugged her and as she leant her head against his chest she felt his heart beating.

‘Gwen. I’m so sorry I’ve been distant. Forgive me.’

She stretched up and kissed him, but felt torn. She ached to share this terrible confusion, get the truth into the open and stave off the lifetime of lies before they began, but his wide, spreading smile stopped her. After so many weeks Laurence was back, not just physically, but emotionally too. She was able to hold herself in and allowed him to continue hugging her, but she knew nothing could ever be the same again. Something was flowing out of her: safety, security, she wasn’t sure what, but it left her feeling shaken and desperately alone. She listened to the harsh screech of birds taking off over the lake, and felt the thump of his heart against her cheek again. She was drained, and not even the warmth of Laurence’s smile could stop the crushing pain she felt.

Once the doctor had been to check Gwen over, she made up a string of excuses to explain why Laurence must leave her alone, but the truth was she could only grapple with her pain during his absence. The same thought kept recurring: could two men father twins? She’d wondered if she could pretend to be finding out for a friend, but because of her pregnancy she’d had no time to forge individual friendships here, so Laurence would see through that. For much of the time they lived in isolation and most social functions, like the Governor’s Ball or the Golf Club Ball, they attended together. Who could she trust with this? Not her parents. They’d be horrified. Fran? Maybe she could talk to Fran, but it would be ages before she saw her again. The fact that she could not actually remember Mr Ravasinghe making love to her didn’t help. He had seemed to be so kind. He had stroked her forehead. He had stayed with her while she felt sick. But what more? Not knowing was driving her mad.

By Laurence’s third night back at home, Naveena had still not returned from the village and Gwen hardly dared imagine what would happen if the woman had been unable to find a foster mother. As her anxiety increased, the child’s dark eyes began to haunt her. She was on high alert, edgy, jumping at sudden noises, and the constant worry that Laurence might discover the truth made her feel ill.

He tiptoed into her room just as she was finishing off Hugh’s late-night feed.

‘Why are you always creeping up on me?’ she said. ‘You gave me a fright.’

‘Darling, you look tired,’ Laurence said, ignoring her bad temper.

She sighed and wiped the curtain of ringlets away from her face.

Now the milk had come in, Hugh was a voracious little feeder, but had fallen asleep at the breast. Laurence adjusted her pillows, then sat on the edge of her bed and twisted round to face her. She shuffled her bottom up a little, then rotated her neck to ease the tightness that came from allowing the baby to feed for too long.

He took her hand. ‘Are you managing to get any sleep, Gwen? You look so pale.’

‘Not really. I take so long to fall asleep, and by the time I do, he’s awake again.’

‘I am a little worried that you don’t seem yourself.’

‘For heaven’s sake, Laurence, I’ve just given birth. What do you expect?’

‘Only for you to seem a little happier. I would have thought you’d be so tired from feeding Hugh that you’d fall asleep instantly.’

‘Well, I can’t.’ She’d spoken abruptly, really barking at him, and felt shamed by the sad look on his face. ‘The baby doesn’t sleep much either.’

His brow furrowed. ‘I’ll call John Partridge again.’

‘There’s nothing wrong. I’m just tired.’

‘You’ll feel much better if you have some decent sleep. Maybe you should limit the time you spend feeding?’

‘Whatever you think,’ she said, but could not tell him that the times when Hugh was feeding were her only moments of internal peace. Something primal about the suckling infant soothed her. She could watch his soft curved cheek and fluttering lashes, and feel better; yet if he opened his blue eyes to stare at her, she could see only the dark eyes of the other.

When he wasn’t feeding, he cried. Cried so much that all she could do was hide her head under her pillow and weep.

Laurence leant across to kiss her, but she turned her face away and pretended to fuss over Hugh.

‘I’d better put him in the crib or he’ll be awake before I know it.’

Laurence stood and reached over to squeeze her shoulder. ‘Sleep. That’s what you need. I hope Naveena has been a help.’

Gwen dug a nail into the fleshy part of her palm and kept her eyes lowered. ‘She’s visiting a sick friend.’

You should be her priority.’

‘I’m all right.’

‘Well, if you’re sure. Goodnight, my love. I hope you feel better in the morning.’

Gwen nodded. She couldn’t tell him she felt that she might never sleep again.

After he had gone, she blinked angry tears away. She tucked the baby in his crib and then looked herself over in her bathroom mirror. Her nightdress needed changing and her hair stuck to her neck in damp trails; the skin of her breasts and upper chest was almost translucent and marbled with fine blue veins, but it was her eyes that shocked her. Her usually bright, violet eyes had darkened to almost purple.

Back in her room, bereft of all hope, Gwen slumped in her chair. She wanted to cry but had to hold on to herself somehow. Naveena had been gone a day longer than she had expected, but at last she heard the sound of a bullock cart pulling up, followed by voices. Her mind emptied as she waited.

A few minutes later Naveena came into the room and Gwen sat up, sharply drawing in her breath.

‘It is done,’ Naveena said.

Gwen let out her breath. ‘Thank you,’ she said, almost sobbing with relief. ‘You must never speak to anyone of this. You understand?’

Naveena nodded, then said that she had told the Sinhalese village woman who had taken the baby that Liyoni was the orphan child of a distant cousin, and that she, Naveena, could not look after her. She had arranged for messages to come up from the village. Once a month, on either the day after full moon or the day before, the foster mother, who could neither read nor write, would slip a charcoal drawing into the hand of the coolie driving the daily bullock cart that fetched milk for the plantation. The coolie would be paid a few rupees and told that the drawings were for Naveena. As long as the drawings arrived at roughly the right time, Gwen would know the child was well.

After Naveena had left, another chilling thought held Gwen in its grip. What if Naveena didn’t keep her promise? What if she spoke of it? The accusing voices in her head would not stop going on and on, until she covered her ears and cried out against their words.

A God-fearing Englishwoman does not give birth to a coloured child.

When Gwen opened her mouth, at first no sound came out, but then, as the loss of her baby girl tore at her heart, a deep moan began to rise from the pit of her stomach. By the time it reached her open mouth it had become a terrible growling animal sound over which she had no control. She had given her own tiny newborn baby away.

It was another day before Doctor Partridge managed to make a second appearance, and by the time he did, the afternoon was drawing to a close. Gwen looked out at the lengthening shadows in the garden and squeezed her hands together. She scanned the room and ran a palm over her towel-dried hair. Naveena had left the window ajar and placed a large vase of wild peonies on the table nearby, so at least the room smelt fresh.

Gwen sat up in bed waiting for the doctor, turning her hands over and over, examining her nails without seeing them as her fingers twisted this way and that. Wearing a newly laundered nightdress, she stilled her hands and, pinching her cheeks to bring back the roses, she muttered the words she must say. Inside she felt sick with nerves, but if she could just remember the right words … She heard the shriek of tyres and tensed.

Then, through the open window, came Laurence’s voice. She had to strain to hear but he was not a quiet man, and she thought she heard him say something about Caroline. Then came the doctor’s quieter response.

‘But damn it, man,’ Laurence said even more loudly, ‘Gwen is not herself. You should have come straight here. I know there’s something wrong. There has to be something you can do.’

Again the doctor’s soft-voiced reply.

‘Good God,’ Laurence said, and then continued in a hushed voice. ‘What if the same thing happens? What if I can’t help her?’

‘Childbirth affects some women badly. Some recover. Some do not.’

Gwen could not make it out, but she heard Laurence mention Caroline’s name again. She felt like a child, eavesdropping on her parents.

‘How long has she been like this?’ the doctor asked, and then the two men walked out of earshot. He’d taken the doctor to the lakeside, so that they would not be overheard by the servants. He already knew! Her throat dried and, just in time, Gwen stopped herself thinking that way, though every muscle throbbed with the tension of waiting. She cast around the room, wanting to hide, while sliding further down beneath the sheets. She heard a door bang, then footsteps in the corridor. The doctor would be in her room. Any moment now.

The door opened. Laurence came first and then the doctor, who approached with a hand stretched out in greeting. When she took it and felt the warmth of his palm, tears stung her eyes. He was so kind, she longed to tell him, to just blurt it all out and be done with it.

‘So how are you now?’ he said.

She gritted her teeth, looked him in the face and, quelling the fear that he might smell the guilt on her, swallowed before speaking. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Can I check the baby over again?’

‘Of course.’

Laurence went to the crib and lifted his sleeping son. Her heart constricted at his rapt attention.

‘He’s quite a chap. Feeds non-stop.’

Gwen interpreted Laurence’s comment as a criticism. ‘He’s hungry, Laurence, and it soothes him. Surely you must hear him cry?’

The doctor sat in the chair beside Gwen and, taking the baby in his arms, looked him over. ‘A bit on the small side, but he does seem to be growing bonnier every day.’

‘He was early,’ Laurence said.

‘Yes, of course. Yet I am surprised it wasn’t twins. Must have been water retention after all.’

Gwen took a sharp breath in.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be with you, though I’m sure you were very brave.’

‘I can hardly remember it, to be honest with you.’

The doctor nodded. ‘That is what so many mothers say. And thank goodness for selective memory.’

‘Indeed.’

Laurence, who had been standing at the end of the bed, spoke up. ‘Actually, John, it’s Gwen I’m worried about. She’s hardly sleeping and you can see how white she looks.’

‘Yes. She is pale.’

‘Well then? What are you going to do?’

‘Laurence, don’t worry.’

‘Don’t worry?’ He balled a fist and slammed it into the palm of his other hand. ‘How can you say that!’

‘I’ll give her a good tonic, but I’m afraid a sleeping draught could harm the baby. It’s thought that it might seep into the mother’s milk. Give things another fortnight to settle, and if she is not improved, we’ll rethink. Maybe a wet nurse.’

Laurence puffed out his cheeks, then let the breath go. ‘If that’s all you can suggest, that will have to do for now. But damn it, man, I want you to keep a strict eye on my wife.’

‘Of course, Laurence. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Rest assured, Gwen is in safe hands.’

‘I’ll leave you with her for a moment or two,’ Laurence said.

Had Laurence and the doctor concocted this plan between them?

‘What’s troubling you, Gwen?’ the doctor said, once Laurence had gone. He laid Hugh in his crib then gave her a puzzled look.

As she stared into his friendly grey eyes, a lump came in her throat. But how could she tell him about Liyoni? And how could she tell him that by controlling her tears so they spilt only when she was alone, or with Hugh, she lived with the added fear that her son might grow up with her guilt running through his veins.

‘Is it just lack of sleep? You can tell me, you know. It’s my job to help.’ He patted her hand. ‘There is something else, isn’t there?’

She swallowed the lump. ‘I –’

He ran his fingers through the thinning hair at his temple. ‘Is it resuming relations with Laurence that’s bothering you? I can have a word.’

She lowered her head, acutely embarrassed. ‘No, nothing like that.’

‘You seem so terribly unhappy.’

‘Do I?’

‘I think you must know you do. It’s normal for a woman to feel exhausted after a prolonged labour, and then with a heavily feeding baby, it’s no wonder, but it seems to me, well, it seems to me that there’s something more.’

Gwen bit her lip in an attempt to control her emotions, and avoided looking at him. A God-fearing white woman does not give birth to a coloured child – nor does she give a child away, she thought. Though she tried to convince herself that giving a baby away was better than smothering one, she felt so far beneath contempt that no words could ever lessen her wretchedness.

‘Do you want to tell me?’

‘Oh, Doctor, if –’

The door opened and Laurence walked in. ‘All done?’

The doctor glanced at Gwen. She nodded.

‘Yes, all done, for now. I think if your wife tries to establish a regular feeding schedule and takes some gentle exercise, that might help. And remember, you can call me any time, Mrs Hooper.’

As Laurence showed the doctor out, he glanced back at Gwen. ‘Would you like company? I’m sure Verity would be happy to sit with you. She wants to help.’

‘No thanks, Laurence,’ Gwen snapped. ‘I’m fine on my own.’

He looked miserable as he turned away. At the door he looked back again. ‘We are all right, you and me, I mean?’

‘Of course.’

He nodded and went out. She had almost told the doctor, had really wanted to, and she had made her husband unhappy. Her lip trembled and she whimpered as a flash of pain seared through her temple. Another headache. When her head felt so swollen that she could not remain awake, she slept fitfully. As dawn spread a pale grey light across her room, she woke: thirsty, lonely and wanting Laurence.

She imagined holding the baby girl in her arms, saw her lying in the cot beside Hugh, gazed so long that the line between what was real and what was not became blurred. She pictured the baby suckling, her lashes fluttering on her dark cheeks. The image seemed so real she felt compelled to run through to the nursery, fully expecting Liyoni to still be there, and hoping, half in terror and half in genuine hunger, that she would be fast asleep in the cot next to Hugh’s. But when she got there she saw, straight away, that only one child slept in the nursery. She stood still, listening to Hugh – only one tiny breath where there should have been two – and felt as if her whole being had been sliced in two.

She clenched her fists, then turned and fled, knowing nothing would ever fill the aching void. It drove her to the mirror again, in search of her own real face. She stared at herself and screwed up her eyes in the effort of remembering what she had overheard Laurence say to the doctor. Until now, the words had seemed to dislocate. She didn’t know what she’d expected them to be, but they had seemed important at the time. Suddenly they came back again, and this time the meaning was clear.

‘God willing, she’s not going the same way as Caroline.’

Yes, that was it. And Caroline was dead.

After that, she tried not to think. Not about what had happened to Caroline and not about her daughter. But she still wept, and sat for hours in the dark of her bathroom where she could hide her tears. Naveena brought her tea and toast, but the sight of food made her nauseous; she left it to grow cold on the bedside table.

Gwen knew she could not remain in her room for ever, and nor could she let what had happened ruin her life, or Laurence’s. She had to find some inner resolve: the grit she’d never needed until now. Mechanically, she forced herself to wash.

At her dressing table she examined herself in the mirror. Her face had changed. It might not be obvious to others but Gwen saw the damage. How long would it take for her face to reveal the guilt? Five years? Ten? She scanned the row of glass bottles, picked up her favourite, Après L’Ondée, and dabbed some behind her ears. As the lovely scent filled the air, she took her silver-handled hairbrush and, while she was brushing her hair, made a decision. She put the brush down and from between her silk scarves she took out the pretty little watercolour Mr Ravasinghe had made of her.

She picked up the box of matches that Naveena used to light her fire then looked out of the window. It seemed as if flickering coins of liquid gold floated on the lake, and with the sound of the household coming to life, the morning sky appeared brighter, the clouds fluffier, her heart a little lighter. She took the painting to the wastepaper basket, struck a single match and watched the image curl as it burned and fell.

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Next: Chapter 12