Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 11
Next: Chapter 13

12

The doctor had suggested activity, so although she wanted to bury herself in her bed and never face another day, a few days later she forced herself up. She dressed, trying not to think about anything, then asked Naveena to take care of Hugh and to fetch her only for timed feeds. It wouldn’t be easy as the baby cried so much, but for everyone’s sake, she had to find a way. When she emerged from her room, nervous energy flooded her body and, as if awakened from a long slumber, the call to action took over from feelings of self-recrimination.

She had spotted a storeroom at the back of the house – a cool ground-floor room with thick walls in a shady part of the garden, and because it was situated next to the kitchen there would be access to water – a good place to make cheese. With her head held high, she walked through the house and out of the side door into the courtyard. A tiny purplish-black sunbird took off right in front of her and was followed by another as it rose into the big blue sky. It was a lovely sunny day, and as she glanced up to follow the flight of the birds, she heard a window open. Verity leant out and waved.

‘Hello. You’re up and about, I see.’

‘Yes. Yes, I am.’ Squinting, she looked at her sister-in-law.

‘Are you going for a walk? I’ll join you. I won’t be a tick.’

‘No, I’m actually going to sort out the storeroom.’

Verity shook her head. ‘Get a houseboy to do that. You’ve just had a baby.’

‘Why does everybody keep treating me as if I was ill?’

‘In that case, I’ll give you a hand. I’ve got nothing to do today.’

Undeterred, Gwen attempted to smile. ‘There’s really no need.’

‘I insist. I’ll be right down. It’ll be fun. Goodness knows what we’ll find squirrelled away. I’d really like to help.’

‘Very well.’

As Gwen walked across the courtyard to the storeroom, she glanced up at the tall trees. Today they seemed bright and light, not the gloomy tunnel she had once rushed through in fear, and feeling the sun’s warmth on her skin, she felt hope stirring. She’d already requested the key from McGregor, and though he’d been surprised that she really intended to go through with her plan to make cheese, he had not objected. He’d even smiled quite warmly and wished her luck.

‘Here I am,’ Verity said as she came up behind her.

The padlock on the storeroom door came apart with a tug. Together they pulled the doors, the sudden draught of air sending dust motes swirling in a room that smelt of old, forgotten things.

‘First, we need to get everything out,’ Gwen said as the dust gradually settled.

‘I still think we need houseboys to lift the heavy stuff.’

Gwen scanned the room. ‘You’re right. There’s some furniture back there we’d never be able to shift.’

A couple of kitchen boys had come out to see what was going on. Verity spoke to them in Tamil and one of them went to fetch the appu, who nodded at Gwen when he came out, but smiled when he saw Verity. They chatted together as he smoked a cigarette and leant against the wall.

‘You seem to get on well with him,’ Gwen said as the appu went back in. ‘I always find him a little terse.’

‘He’s nice to me. Well, he would be, I was the one who got him the job here.’

‘Oh?’

‘Anyway, he says he’ll call a couple of the houseboys. Though they won’t be pleased to get their nice white clothes dirty. It’s not a cleaning day today.’

Gwen smiled. ‘I know that. I was the one who drew up their timetable, remember.’

‘Of course you were.’

Gwen squeezed past an old chest of drawers that looked as if it had seen better days. ‘This piece is riddled with some kind of woodworm.’

‘It might be termites. It should go on the bonfire. Oh, let’s have one. I do love a bonfire.’

‘Is the gardener around? I’ve rather lost track, what with the baby and everything.’

‘I’ll go and look.’

While Verity was gone, Gwen, driven by a jittery kind of energy, carried out the smaller items: broken kitchen chairs, a couple of cracked vases, a bent umbrella missing one or two spokes, a few dusty cases, some metal boxes. This stuff should have been chucked years ago, she thought, as she made a pile for burning. When the houseboys arrived, she pointed at the chest of drawers and the furniture at the back, and they began to shuffle it out, piece by piece. Dust flew about in clouds and their white clothes soon dirtied.

By the time they had almost finished, Verity still hadn’t returned. There was just a large ottoman trunk left at the very back of the room. When the boys carried it out, she saw the sides were covered in fabric, now stained and ripped in places, and when she lifted the leather top, she saw it was a metal-lined container, the kind that they used in the house for storing linen. But there was no household linen in this trunk and she was shocked to see towelling nappies and dozens of immaculately folded tiny baby clothes, each one wrapped separately in tissue paper. Matinee jackets, bootees, woolly hats, all hand-knitted and lovingly embroidered. At the very bottom she spotted some yellowing lace. She reached for it and stood up to shake it out. It was long, perfectly preserved apart from the colour, and Gwen’s eyes stung as she realized that it must have been Caroline’s bridal veil. She wiped her hands on her skirt then brushed the tears away, wishing she’d never seen such sad reminders. She asked the boys to carry it all indoors, certain that Laurence would tell her what to do with it.

She was relieved to see Naveena coming across with Hugh in her arms, and feeling the fullness in her breasts and the dragging sensation as the milk began to seep, she went over to the ayah and reached for her child.

As Gwen went indoors, she took stock. For almost the whole morning she had not focussed on the little baby girl, and apart from the moment when she had seen the contents of the trunk, she had not felt wretched. Encouraged by her progress, she saw that if she could only erect a wall around herself by keeping busy, the misery might fade.

At lunch, Laurence was in a jovial mood. Gwen was amazed that she’d been able to hide her unease so well that he hadn’t noticed her true state of mind, but he joked with her and Verity, and was delighted to hear that Hugh had smiled.

‘Well, it might not have been a real smile,’ Verity said. ‘But he is such a darling and he didn’t cry so much today, did he, Gwen?’

‘Perhaps the doctor was right about scheduling his feeds,’ Laurence said.

Verity smiled. ‘I can’t wait for him to grow up a bit.’

Laurence turned away to look at Gwen. ‘It’s wonderful to see you looking so much better, Gwen. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me.’

‘I’ve been helping Gwen sort out the old storeroom for her to make cheese there,’ Verity said.

‘Really, Verity?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, I’m jolly pleased to hear it.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

Laurence smiled. ‘Exactly what I said.’

‘But you said it as if you meant something by it.’

‘Verity, I meant nothing. Come on. We were a having a nice lunch. And I’ve got some good news as it happens.’

‘Tell us,’ Gwen said.

‘Well, you know I was investing in copper-mining shares through Christina’s bank, or rather the bank in which she is the major shareholder? They’re doing rather well, and as long as things go on like this, in a couple of years I hope to be able to buy the neighbouring plantation. My third. We’ll be the biggest tea planters in Ceylon!’

Gwen forced a smile. ‘How marvellous, Laurence. Well done.’

‘It’s Christina you have to thank. She persuaded me to invest even more during that ball in Nuwara Eliya. America, that’s where the money is to be made these days. England’s lagging behind.’

Gwen pulled a face.

His brows drew together a little. ‘I wish you’d try to like her. She was very good to me after Caroline died.’

‘Was that when you gave her that devil mask?’

‘I didn’t know you’d seen it.’

‘I went for lunch the day Mr Ravasinghe’s painting of her was unveiled. I thought the mask was perfectly horrible.’

He frowned slightly. ‘They’re pretty hard to get hold of. The natives use them, or used to use them, for their devil dancing. Some still do, I believe. Caroline actually saw one take place.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t quite remember the circumstances. They wear the masks and some grotesque outfit and then lose themselves in wild primitive dancing.’

‘Sounds ghastly,’ Verity said.

‘Actually, I think Caroline found it fascinating.’

When they’d finished their pudding, Verity got up abruptly, claiming a headache.

Laurence held out a hand to Gwen after his sister had gone. She reached up to touch his cleft chin and fought to conceal her hesitation. If she wanted to keep her husband she had to get over this.

‘I’ve missed you so much, Gwen,’ he said, lowering his head to kiss the soft skin at the base of her neck.

She shivered. Then, as he hugged her, she felt herself unbend a little and, despite her sorrow, had to admit that by sending the baby away she had managed to save her marriage. She buried her face in his chest, wanting everything he was and everything he would always be, but feeling heavy-hearted that she must now keep something of herself apart. She pulled back and looked into his eyes: eyes so full of love and longing that she held her breath. He was entirely blameless and must never know.

‘Come on then,’ she said with a smile. ‘What are you waiting for?’

He laughed. ‘Just you.’

In the days and weeks that followed, Gwen kept busy by going through the baby clothes she had found, separating them into those that were damaged and those that had remained intact, and also worked hard to get the storeroom ready. But Liyoni’s birth had opened up a seam in her and she felt it wouldn’t take much for the fabric of her life to rip apart.

Still finding it hard to believe what had happened, she felt cut off from the household and trapped in her own confusion. Had Savi Ravasinghe really behaved so abominably? She tried to focus on Laurence’s love for her, her love for Hugh and their lives together as a family, but whenever she thought of Liyoni, she felt as if part of her had died. Liyoni had to be the result of that night at the Grand, and because she and Laurence had made love the very next day, she prayed with all her heart that Hugh really was Laurence’s child. She had no way of finding out if it was possible – she could hardly ask the doctor – and had no choice but to live with uncertainty. She told herself that as long as Naveena never spoke of what had passed, nobody would suspect.

Although Gwen thought she had managed to convince Laurence that all was well, he seemed to sense that really it was not, and on 14 April he decided that a trip to see the New Year celebrations in the afternoon would be just the thing to cheer her up. When he suggested it, they were standing at the edge of the lake looking at birds dive, pick off their prey, then swoop up into the air. It was a blazing afternoon, with a clear blue sky and a lovely smell of blossom in the air. Gwen glanced up as an eagle flew right across the sky and then disappeared behind the trees.

‘I thought it might do you good,’ he said. ‘It’s just that you still don’t seem very happy.’

She swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘I’ve told you, I’m perfectly happy. It’s just tiredness.’

‘The doctor did suggest a wet nurse if the tiredness didn’t diminish.’

‘No,’ she snapped, and then felt awful for biting his head off.

‘Well, let’s celebrate this moment between the old and the new, when everything stands still and hope rises.’

‘I don’t know. Hugh is still so little.’

‘It’s not a formal religious festival. It’s just about eating and wearing new clothes. A family occasion really.’

She made an effort and smiled. ‘That does sound good. What else?’

‘Lanterns and dancers, if we’re lucky.’

‘If we go, we must take Hugh and I think Naveena should come too.’

‘Absolutely. You’ll hear the brass drums. Rabanas they’re called. Make a heck of a din, but it’s fun. What do you think?’

She nodded. ‘What shall I wear?’

‘Something new, of course.’

‘In that case, I’d better see what I’ve got.’

She turned to go up to the house, but he caught hold of her hand and pulled her back. She glanced at her feet, then out at the lake again, then he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it.

‘Darling,’ he said. ‘Please throw the old baby clothes away. I should never have kept them. At the time I just didn’t know what to do.’

‘And Caroline’s veil?’

Something flickered on his face. ‘Was that in there too?’

She nodded. ‘Naveena washed it and hung it out in the sun. It’s still a bit yellow.’

‘It was my mother’s veil, before Caroline.’

‘Then it’s a family heirloom. We should keep it.’

‘No. There is too much darkness attached to it now. Get rid of it.’

‘What was the matter with Caroline, Laurence?’

He paused before speaking then took a sharp breath in. ‘She was mentally ill.’

Gwen stared at him for a moment before she voiced her thoughts.

‘Laurence, how did that kill her?’

‘I’m sorry … I don’t think I can talk about it.’

The thought of Caroline and Thomas brought tears welling up. She cried so easily nowadays. Everything set her off, and the strain of keeping the secret of Liyoni’s birth was becoming harder. With Laurence near, she couldn’t prevent the sadness bubbling up, but if she allowed the tears to fall, and if he was kind, the truth might spill out too.

He reached for her and she was horrified to find her mouth open of its own accord. A word escaped, she let go of his hand, made some excuse and ran into the house to her room, only just holding herself together.

In the bathroom she sat on the edge of the bath. Her bathroom was simple and beautiful. Green tiles on the walls, blue on the floor, and a silver-framed mirror. A good place to cry alone. She got up and glanced at her puffy eyes. She undressed slowly and looked down at the extra layer of fat on her breasts, stomach and thighs, and once again she felt far from herself.

She’d been so happy when she’d believed her destiny was to be a wife to Laurence, and a mother to his children. Naveena had said it was the child’s fate; if so, had it been her fate to give birth to a baby after a night she could barely recall? And the more she tried not to think of what she might have done, the more Savi’s dark eyes haunted her. She clenched her jaw and made a fist. She hated Mr Ravasinghe, with all her heart she hated him, and hated what he had done to her. She raised her fist and smashed it hard against the mirror. Besides the dozen fractured reflections of her naked self, it gave her the oddest sense of relief to see the repeated image of blood dripping from the cuts in her fist.

The festival was quite low key. The torches around people’s houses sent smoke laced with incense to swirl in the evening air, and Gwen recognized the same drumming that she’d first heard on her arrival in Colombo. People drifted about in brightly dressed, happy groups. When they came across a troupe of dancers in the small square, they stopped to watch.

Gwen leant back against Laurence with Hugh in her arms and attempted to relax. Naveena had bandaged her cuts and Gwen felt better than she had before. It had been a good idea, this outing. Verity seemed happy and Naveena spent most of the time grinning and nodding.

‘They are Kandyan dancers,’ Laurence said.

She looked on as male dancers in long white skirts, with bells on their wrists and jewelled belts, were followed by turbaned men in red and gold, with drums tied to the waists. The beat was mesmerizing.

Women dancers followed, wearing delicate traditional dress and clapping their hands as they moved away. Then came a string of little girls. Gwen felt hot as she watched their slim brown bodies twist and turn. She watched the trance-like looks on their faces, the simple but dignified way they moved, the delicate flicks of their wrists and their lovely dark curling hair, allowed to fall free. They each had her daughter’s face, her daughter’s body, or the face and body she would one day have. As her longing for Liyoni took over, her throat closed and she could only gulp for air. Breathe, she told herself. Breathe. She took a step forward and felt her knees buckle. Laurence caught her just as she started to fall. Naveena took Hugh, then Laurence shepherded them through the crowd and over to a bench at the edge of the marketplace.

‘Put your head between your knees, Gwen.’

She did as she was told, as much as anything to hide her face from his scrutiny. She felt his palm on her back, gently stroking, and tears pricked her lids.

She fought to regain her breath, and once she had, and her head had stopped spinning, she sat up again, still trembling inside.

Laurence felt her forehead. ‘You’re terribly hot, darling.’

‘I don’t know what happened. I did suddenly feel hot, as if I might keel over. My head hurts.’

Verity, who hadn’t noticed until now that they’d left the crowd, came running up. ‘You missed the absolutely best bit. There was a fire-eater. One of those little kids, can you believe it?’

Gwen looked up at her.

‘You look pale. What’s happened? Is it Hugh?’

‘We’re all going home,’ Laurence said.

Verity pulled a face. ‘Must we? I was really enjoying myself.’

‘Well, there’s no question, I’m afraid. Gwen has a headache.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Laurence. Gwen and her headaches. What about me? Nobody considers what I want!’

Laurence took hold of Verity’s elbow and pulled her a few steps away, but Verity’s angry voice still reached Gwen.

Previous: Chapter 11
Next: Chapter 13