Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 12
Next: Chapter 14

13

At three in the morning, Gwen sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat and shaking. Three in the morning was the hour when she used to wake as a child, fearing the ghosts of the Owl Tree had come for her. She called out for Naveena, who came through from the nursery where she now slept. But Gwen could only stutter. In the dream something was wrong with both her children, and though she had tried her utmost, she’d only been able to save one of them.

In the morning, Gwen thought she heard the little girl cry. She wasn’t sure if she had heard the cry in her sleep or if it had been at the moment of waking. Whichever it was, the shock remained the same.

After the fourth night of waking, trembling and breathless, she made a decision and called Naveena. As Gwen swung between flashes of anger and heart-stopping guilt, she knew Liyoni’s absence was beginning to have more impact on her than Hugh’s presence. She needed to put her mind at rest, and had decided that if the child was well cared for, she’d be able to let go. Naveena was less convinced by the idea and Gwen had to coerce the woman into agreeing to do what she asked. Once she had done that, all she could do was wait for a time when Laurence and Verity would both be absent. Until then the nightmares would go on, as would the sound of the little girl’s cries.

She waited and on the appointed day, with Laurence and Verity finally having stayed overnight in Nuwara Eliya – Laurence to play a few hands of poker at the Hill Club and Verity to see her old chums – Gwen prepared herself to go. She thought about Laurence at the all-male club. She had peeked once and seen a gloomy interior with only boars’ heads, hunting pictures and stuffed fish for decoration. The contrast between that and what she was about to do could not have been greater.

‘But, Lady,’ Naveena said as she wrapped Hugh up in a blanket, ‘it is a danger. What if it is going wrong?’

‘Just do what we agreed.’

The woman bowed her head.

Despite wearing an old cloak of Naveena’s over her own clothes, Gwen shivered in the chilly early-morning air. In the hope of concealing her eyes, she pulled the hood down over her forehead then wrapped a dark shawl round her shoulders and the lower part of her face.

‘I have the buggy ready at the side of the house.’ A look of embarrassment reddened Naveena’s face. ‘You have the money, Lady?’

Gwen nodded. ‘I think we’d better go now. It will be fully light soon. I’ve locked my door and left a note with the butler, telling him I am not to be disturbed at all today.’

Gwen had sounded a great deal more confident than she felt, and as they slipped out through a side door she saw the bullock standing in the blue half-light. She gritted her teeth and clambered up beneath a woven palm-leaf roof stretched over curved cane hoops. Her heart thumped against her ribs, she felt hot and her hands began to shake; the buggy’s rough planked seating was not welcoming. Naveena passed Hugh up in a basket, then sat in the front and flicked the reins. The bullock snorted, and they slowly moved off.

Nobody had seen.

The buggy smelt of sweat, smoke and tea, and Gwen glanced back as they made their way up the hill. She picked Hugh up and held the sleeping baby to her, wanting to stop caring about the other. The lights in the house were coming on now, just visible in the mist that gathered around the place first thing. Hurry, she thought, hurry. But the bullock cart was not a speedy way to travel, and until they reached the brow of the hill, she would feel uneasy. Hugh gave a little cry and she murmured to him as a mother does.

Once they had reached the top, the grand house looked small and indistinct and then, as they started along the road, it disappeared completely. Daylight took over from night, the sky turned yellow and the mist melted, revealing a clear fresh morning. As they went on, it seemed as if the rounded hills, with their rows and rows of startling green tea bushes, went on forever.

Gwen rolled her shoulders to release the tension, and when they drew away from the plantation her breath came a little more easily. As the birdsong started up, she began to enjoy the sweet smells of jasmine, wild orchid and mint. She closed her eyes.

The day before, she had taken Hugh outside. After the usual damp start, the sun had shown up and the day had warmed. The poor little thing had needed warmth on his cheeks and, exhausted by the broken nights and frenzied days, so had she. But in the spaces of the garden where the light and shade met, she felt the little girl’s presence too easily, and Hugh had begun to cry. He held out his little arms, and his fists opened and closed repeatedly, as if he was reaching for something that should have been there.

Gwen sighed and settled back as the buggy, despite its clumpy wooden wheels, ran fairly smoothly along the road. After a while, the drifting scent of lemons caught her attention. As she breathed in deeply her distress began to ease and the tightness in her chest loosened. It felt like her first relaxed breath since the day the babies were born.

‘We turn off now, Lady,’ Naveena said and glanced over her shoulder.

Gwen nodded, but was almost shaken from her seat as the buggy bumped and jolted down a dirt track. She leant forward to look out at the small rocks and holes in the ground, and saw on either side dark trees towering over the track, but with little undergrowth.

‘Do not look into the trees, Lady.’

‘Why ever not? Is it the Veddha?’ Laurence had told her about the ancient forest dwellers, known by the Sinhalese word Veddha, which, as far as she could tell, simply meant they were uncivilized. Recalling the grotesque mask, the thought frightened her.

Naveena shook her head. ‘The uneasy spirits live there.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Naveena! You don’t believe in that, do you?’

Gwen watched the back of Naveena’s head as she wobbled it.

Neither of them, it seemed, felt inclined to pursue this conversation. At the side of the track, Gwen spotted a sambhur raise its head in alarm, and then stand stock-still. A large caramel-coloured creature, it faced her full on, with warm eyes and beautiful antlers curving up on either side of its head. Tranquil and calm, it didn’t look away as they passed.

The forest was quieter than she had expected and only the sound of the buggy’s squeaking wheels accompanied them. Lost in thought, she barely noticed when Naveena turned in a different direction. A new kind of tree came in sight, with trailing leaves, and as they carried on a monkey leapt on to the side of the buggy. It clung to the canvas and stretched its fingers as it stared. The hands and fingernails were black, but its fierce eyes were so human it shocked her.

‘It is the purple-faced monkey. It will not hurt,’ Naveena said, glancing back.

Further on, where the trees thinned out, there was a smell of burning charcoal. She heard voices in the distance and asked Naveena if they were nearly there.

‘Not yet, Lady. Soon.’

Here there was shallow undergrowth, and their path became less disrupted by rocks and holes in the track. The going became a little faster, and eventually the path curved inwards to follow the steep bank of the river. Gwen glanced down into the clear water, where soft dancing greens mirrored the trees on the opposite bank. The air smelt different here, not just of earth and vegetation, but also of something spicy. The land either side of the flattish path was studded with little daisy-like flowers and, ahead of her, the trees were draped in unripe wild figs. Beyond them, where the river widened, two elephants seemed to be sleeping in water up to their ears.

Naveena stopped the buggy and tied the reins to one of the trees. ‘Wait here, Lady.’

Gwen watched Naveena go and knew she could trust her. Naveena had been so accepting, so unjudgemental, that Gwen felt it must be something to do with the Buddhist faith and the ayah’s belief in fate. Then she glanced down at Hugh, still asleep where she’d put him back in the basket. In the river, two sinuous brown men, with long hair knotted at the back of their heads, led two more elephants into the water. The elephants sat down with slow, lumbering movements, and the men began to wash their heads. When one of the elephants trumpeted, a huge spray of water arced from its trunk, almost reaching Gwen and making her cry out. One of the men looked up, slid out of the water and came to investigate. She drew back and covered her face, so that only her eyes could be seen. He wore a loincloth, but a belt round his waist held a knife of sorts. Her heart was pounding as she placed a protective arm round Hugh in his basket, and she tried to tell herself the knife must be for opening coconuts.

The man drew out the knife and advanced towards her. She narrowed her eyes in fear. Naveena had all the money with her, so she had nothing to give him. The man spoke and gesticulated, waving the knife in the air.

Gwen spoke no Sinhala at all, so shook her head. He stared at her for a moment without moving, and then Naveena returned, carrying a bundle in her arms. She spoke to the man and shooed him away, then climbed into the buggy. As Naveena passed the bundle over, Gwen longed to turn back. She did not look down at the child immediately, just held her wrapped up in the shawl and felt the warmth against her chest.

‘What did that man want?’ she asked.

‘To know if you have work for him. He show you his knife, so you know he has own tools to cut the garden.’

‘Does he know who I am?’

Naveena shrugged. ‘He call you white lady.’

‘Does that mean he knows?’

Naveena shook her head. ‘Many white ladies. I am going through village. I cannot turn buggy here. Too narrow. Cover face. Put baby girl in basket with Hugh.’

Gwen did as she was told, and then looked out through the open back of the buggy as they passed through a village of thatch-roofed daub and wattle huts. Children played and laughed in the dirt, women carried packages on their heads, and from deep in the woods came the faintest sound of singing. They passed a man making earthenware pots by coiling mud round and round and upwards. Outside another hut, a woman wove a blanket on a primitive loom; another was stirring a pot hung over a wood fire. The village seemed peaceful.

Once through, and safely on the other side, they stopped away from the glances of curious eyes. As Gwen unwrapped the baby girl her heart almost stopped. She stroked the baby’s soft cheek and gazed in wonder at the precious sight. Liyoni was breathtakingly beautiful, so perfect that it brought tears to Gwen’s eyes. Hugh had not cried at all since his sister had been in the basket with him, but now he began to whimper. A girl of about twelve had followed the buggy and Gwen caught sight of her standing a few yards away.

‘You hold Hugh, while I check the baby girl,’ Gwen said. ‘And tell that girl over there to go away.’

Liyoni was wide awake but silent, and staring up at her mother. The shock almost derailed her, but Gwen steeled herself. She was only there to see that the child was being cared for and was not suffering. That was all. With a mixture of longing and fear running through her, she examined the baby carefully, separating the child’s fingers and toes, and looking at her legs, her arms and her skin. She kissed her forehead and her nose but resisted the impulse to bury her face in the shiny dark hair. She took a deep breath, her eyes smarted and a tear drop fell on the child’s cheek. The baby didn’t smell of talcum powder and milk like Hugh, and the dampness on her skin already carried a trace of cinnamon. Gwen’s stomach knotted and, swallowing rapidly, she drew back. She longed to keep on cradling the baby and never let her go, but knew with absolute certainty that Liyoni could not be allowed to steal her heart.

At least she was thriving, Gwen told herself. She had fattened out a little and was clean, and that went some way to assuage her guilt.

‘That’s enough,’ she said. ‘The child is well.’

‘Yes, Lady. I am all the time telling you.’

‘Let the woman know we are happy and shall continue with the payments.’

Naveena nodded.

‘Very well, take her back and give Hugh to me.’

Naveena and Gwen transferred their bundles and, as Liyoni was taken away, Gwen felt a lump develop in her throat. She listened to the wind getting up in the trees, but this time did not look out as she waited. As the minutes passed, Gwen realized there was no point compulsively dwelling on how Liyoni’s conception had come about: what mattered was making sure that it never came to light. She determined never to breathe a word to Mr Ravasinghe, or to anyone else, for as long as she might live.

‘What do they survive on?’ Gwen asked, when Naveena returned.

‘They have chenas. Growing grain and vegetable there, isn’t it. And in the forest, fruits. You have seen fig.’

‘But what else?’

‘They are having goats and a pig. They are surviving so.’

‘But the money you gave her will help?’

‘Yes.’

On their way back through the village, Gwen glanced out, wondering if she might be able to guess which of the women was the one who would bring up her daughter. At the side of the track, a large land monitor lizard with razor-sharp claws raced up a tree. Gwen noticed one woman who seemed to be watching the buggy with intense dark eyes. She was small, but had rounded breasts, wide hips and a broad-cheeked, dark face. Her black hair was tied at the nape of her neck and a beaded plait hung down her back. The woman smiled as they passed by, and Gwen wondered if it had been a knowing smile or just the absent smile of a woman at peace with the world. For a moment she panicked over what she had done, and longed to hold the baby again, but when a bright orange Peacock Pansy butterfly landed at the base of one of the bullock buggy’s hoops, she steadied her breathing. Liyoni was being well cared for, that was what mattered, and it was better not to know by whom.

Previous: Chapter 12
Next: Chapter 14