Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 13
Next: 3: THE STRUGGLE

14

Florence Shoebotham’s strong floral scent filled the room. She sat on the sofa and leant back against the leopard skin. Gwen smiled inwardly at the unlikely combination of a wild animal skin and Florence’s typical British restraint, the muted shades of blue no competition against even a dead leopard’s dark energy. Florence raised the china teacup to her lips, and as she took a sip her chin wobbled. Poor Florence, with her fading hair and multiplying chin.

‘It is nice to see you looking so well,’ Florence said.

Gwen’s face fell into a well-rehearsed position. Since seeing Liyoni, she had lied to herself repeatedly in front of the mirror, until she had grown accustomed to knowing how to place her face, where to look, what to do with her hands.

She smiled now, and went on smiling until her jaw ached. ‘How are you, Florence?’

‘I can’t complain. Verity’s been telling me all about the cheese.’

Gwen glanced in Verity’s direction. Her sister-in-law was studying her nails and taking no interest in the conversation, so it seemed unlikely that it had been she who had mentioned cheese. In fact, apart from the first day when she had helped clear out the store, Verity had expressed no interest at all.

‘I’ve not made a lot of progress. We cleared the room out about a month ago. It has been cleaned and whitewashed, and we’ve got some basic furniture and utensils ready. We already had some bits and pieces, but I had to order a cheese thermometer and cheese moulds from England.’

‘But it’s a good idea. You are clever.’

‘My mother is sending over an old cheese press from our farm at Owl Tree.’

‘It’s hard to get good cheese out here.’

‘It’s not difficult to make, but you do have to know how to handle the milk.’

‘Are you actually planning to sell the cheese?’

Gwen shook her head. ‘No. I don’t even know if we can make it work in this climate. I really just thought of making it for the household, and any friend who might enjoy it.’

‘Well, do please include me in that, my dear.’

‘Of course. As I said, cheese isn’t difficult, it’s the accounts that give me a headache. I’m afraid numbers are not my forte. I just can’t get them to tally. I’ll probably find it’s my own mistake.’

‘Well,’ Verity said, interrupting. ‘It’s thrilling that you take such an interest in the business side of things. I don’t think Caroline bothered much.’

Florence’s voice dropped a little. ‘I’m so glad you’ve settled down here.’

‘Settled down?’

‘I mean settled in. I was worried at first. You seemed to be spending a lot of time with that painter chap.’

Gwen’s heart lurched. ‘Do you mean Mr Ravasinghe?’

‘That’s the chap.’

‘I’ve only met him on two or three occasions.’

‘Yes, but he’s not British, you see. They do have a way of being rather more forward than we would consider correct.’

Gwen faked a laugh. ‘Florence, I can assure you, he was perfectly correct with me.’

‘Of course, I didn’t mean anything by it.’ She turned to Verity. ‘And are you helping your brother’s wife make the cheese?’

Verity looked up again. ‘What?’

‘Do stop biting your nails, dear.’ Florence paused. ‘I was talking about the cheese. Are you helping Gwen?’

Florence was always so eager to be involved, and keen to give unwanted advice. Gwen felt a moment of sympathy for her sister-in-law and came to her rescue.

‘Oh, I’m sure Verity has her own plans,’ she said.

Verity sighed.

‘Such a wonderful idea,’ Florence carried on saying. ‘You have such a clever new sister-in-law, don’t you, Verity dear? Don’t take this amiss, but maybe you should think up some kind of useful occupation too. Something that might help you appeal to the gentlemen.’

‘And what might you suggest?’

‘Men like to have a resourceful wife, you know, like Gwen here. She manages the household, is a wife and mother, and now here she is, busy as a bee, making cheese no less.’

Verity stood up, gave Florence a dirty look, then swept out of the room, knocking over a side table. The teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl clattered to the floor.

Gwen felt irritated. Her sympathy for Verity evaporating, she rang the bell for one of the houseboys. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s got into her.’

‘She was a difficult child.’

‘How did Caroline cope?’

‘Ignored her mostly. I don’t think they got on particularly well. Verity was a lot younger then, of course, and still at school. Caroline was rather remote. Though I do remember Verity once went so far as to suggest that Laurence suspected his wife of having an affair.’

‘Surely not!’

‘Verity said she’d heard them arguing about it during the school holidays and that Caroline denied it adamantly. I think Verity made it up. You know what girls are like.’

Gwen inclined her head.

‘And then, after she left school, Verity spent some time at the house in England, and when she came back she seemed to cling all the more to Laurence. It isn’t healthy. That much I do know. I don’t know what happened in England, but something must have.’

‘Caroline’s death must have troubled her too?’

‘Terribly.’

A few days later, Gwen assembled her equipment on the long trestle table in the storeroom. The cheese press, newly arrived from England, sat on a table on the other side of the room. Various-sized colanders, several milk jugs, some wooden stirring spoons, a palette knife and a large ladle occupied another smaller table. The cheese moulds had been washed, dried and neatly piled, and the cheese cloths hung on the line in the sunshine.

The larger than usual supply of buffalo milk had arrived just after dawn, and Gwen was up at half past six, ready for it. She had tied her hair up in a net and wore a large white apron that had been bleached and scrubbed. She was standing in the middle of the storeroom surveying her domain when Laurence popped in.

‘I thought you’d gone already,’ she said.

‘I couldn’t go without catching a glimpse of our new dairymaid.’ He came over and studied her face. ‘And quite a picture she looks too. I could sweep her right off her feet, and make away with her to the hayloft.’

Pleased he was looking happy, she smiled. ‘We don’t have a hayloft.’

‘Pity.’

He pulled her to him, hugged her, then relaxed his hold. ‘Best of luck on your first day, darling.’

She smiled. ‘Thank you. Now shoo. I’m busy.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

She watched him go. Whenever she saw him unexpectedly like that, he made her heart skip, just as he had the very first time. After carefully unwrapping the starter culture specially sent down from Kandy, she poured the milk into a large pan ready to be carried to the kitchen in order to heat it. She took a couple of steps, using both hands to carry the pan, but at the door she realized she didn’t have a free hand to open it. She balanced the pan against one side of the door, and was about to open the door with the other, when the pan slipped and slid to the concrete floor, drenching her in milk.

Now she had to waste time changing her clothes.

By the time she was back in the storeroom, clean and ready to start all over again, Naveena turned up with Hugh, who was wide awake and screaming.

The appu stood at the kitchen door and watched the whole procedure with a wry smile. He couldn’t voice his objection to what she was doing, but when she’d told him her plans, his disapproval had been plain to see. Her agreement with him was that she would disrupt the smooth running of the kitchen as little as possible, only using it at designated times. So far things were not going well.

Once Hugh was settled, Naveena took him to the nursery, and Gwen began again.

A kitchen boy carried the second batch of milk to the kitchen, while Gwen opened and closed the door. The appu oversaw the heating of the milk, and Gwen walked down the three terraces to the lake while she waited for the milk to cool. She sat on a bench at the bottom, glanced up at the fat white clouds and then watched the water ripple as she listened to the birds. With a light breeze to cool the skin, it was a perfect day. She heard a door creak to her left and swung round to see Laurence emerge from the boathouse.

‘What are you doing?’ she called out. ‘I thought you’d be up at the factory, now that the weather’s improved.’

‘It’s a surprise.’

‘For me?’

‘No, for the brigadier’s wife!’

She frowned.

‘Of course for you. Come and see.’ He flung the door of the boathouse open.

She walked over and glanced in.

It had been spruced up. The interior had been freshly painted and the gloomy old place had been transformed from a rarely used storage space to a lovely outdoor room. The wide window that overlooked the lake sparkled, the new curtains fluttered, and fresh orange marigolds had been arranged on a small satinwood coffee table in front of a large, though rather threadbare, sofa. He stooped to kiss her cheek, then sat on the sofa, put his feet up on a newly covered footstool and looked out at the water.

‘And the boat?’ she asked.

‘Right underneath, patched, painted and ready for us to sail into the sunset. It’s my way of saying I’m a fool for not taking into account how tiring it is when you have a new baby. Do you like it?’

‘It’s lovely. But how did you get all this done without my noticing?’

He winked and tapped the side of his nose.

‘Well, I am thrilled.’

She came to sit beside him on the sofa and he put his arm round her. It was peaceful watching the water shining in the sunlight and listening to the birds through the open window.

‘I wanted to talk to you, Gwen.’

She nodded but, not knowing what was coming, felt a moment of anxiety.

‘About Caroline.’

‘Oh?’

‘I told you she was mentally ill but I don’t suppose anyone has told you that she drowned?’

She inhaled sharply, covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a single sheet of notepaper, unfolded it and smoothed it out.

‘I asked the servants not to speak of her death but I think you should see this.’

He handed the sheet of paper to Gwen.

My darling Laurence,

I know you will not understand this, and that you may never forgive me, but it is quite impossible for me to go on bearing the pain that I’ve been in since Thomas was born. From the moment of his birth, I have lived as if a devil were inside me. A devil that blackens my thoughts and steals my equilibrium. It is a hell that I could never have imagined possible. I see no way out but this. I am so very sorry, my love, but I cannot leave poor Thomas without his mother to protect him. So, and this grieves me terribly, I have decided he must come with me, and that together we shall be at peace. May God forgive me. Once I am gone, find a new and better wife, Laurence dear, I shall not mind. In fact I shall pray for it.

Do not blame yourself.

Your Caroline

When she had finished reading it, Gwen swallowed the lump that had tightened her throat. This was not her tragedy, she told herself. She had to control her feelings and help Laurence.

‘I haven’t found it easy,’ he said and paused for a moment. ‘First my parents and then Caroline.’

‘And the baby,’ she added.

He nodded slowly but didn’t meet her eyes. ‘And then the trenches, though in some ways the war was almost a relief. You just had to get on with it. No opportunity to dwell.’

She fought back warm tears. ‘Caroline must have been very disturbed to kill herself.’

He cleared his throat, then shook his head, for a moment seeming reluctant to speak.

‘Did it happen at the lake?’

She waited.

‘No. That would have been even harder to bear.’

She understood that, though really it was equally awful wherever it had happened. It was just that the lake would have never seemed quite so beautiful again.

‘Why did she do it, Laurence?’

‘It was … complicated. Even the doctor didn’t know what to do. He did say some women never seem to recover from childbirth – mentally, I mean. She wasn’t herself. Could barely care for the child. I tried to talk, you know, to comfort her, but nothing worked. She just sat staring at her hands and shaking.’

‘Oh, Laurence.’

‘I felt so helpless. There was absolutely no way of getting through. Apart from the feeding, Naveena took over almost completely. In the end the doctor did suggest a mental hospital, but I was worried she might end up in some awful asylum. Afterwards I couldn’t forgive myself for not having sent her away.’

She leant against him. ‘You didn’t know.’

‘I might have saved her life.’

Gwen stroked his face gently, then drew away and held both his hands while she scrutinized his face. ‘I’m so sorry, Laurence.’

‘A baby is supposed to bring such joy, but for us …’ He stopped.

‘You don’t have to tell me.’

‘There’s so much I wish I could say.’

‘One thing I don’t understand. What did she mean – poor Thomas without her to protect him? Surely she must have known you would have protected him?’

He just shook his head.

There was a long silence.

‘Sometimes it is better just to cry, Laurence,’ she eventually said, seeing the pain on his face.

He blinked and his jaw trembled. The tears when they came were slow and silent. She kissed his wet lips and wiped his cheeks with her hands. Laurence was proud, and not a man given to crying easily, yet this was the second time she’d seen him weep.

‘How does anyone recover after something like that?’ she said.

‘Time helps, and keeping busy, and now there’s you and Hugh.’

‘But something must remain, surely?’

‘Yes, I suppose it does.’

His gaze fixed somewhere over her shoulder. Then he turned to look at her again. ‘It affected Verity badly. She was afraid to let me out of her sight.’

‘Afraid that you might die too?’

‘No. I … I’m not sure.’

He narrowed his eyes as if he was thinking, and seemed to want to say more, but did not know how. The moment of intensity passed.

She hugged him and swore to herself she would never do anything that might wound him further. While she was thinking that, he loosened the strings of her apron then lifted it over her head. She lay back on the sofa and he carefully undid the tiny pearl buttons of her dress. She slipped it off and removed her underwear as he undressed himself.

Since Hugh’s birth, apart from the one time, they had barely touched. Now that their bodies made contact, the fragility of love, and what that meant, came home to her. So easy for it to be ruined. So easy, it seemed, for it to break. She held her breath, not wanting the moment to pass, and as they lay together on the sofa, she felt a world apart from the usual plantation day.

‘What if somebody comes?’ she whispered.

‘Nobody will.’

When he stroked her thighs and kissed her toes, she felt the thrill as her body responded, until she could bear it no longer and wrapped her legs round him.

Afterwards she lay folded in his arms, with one pale arm curled round his chest. She lifted her hand to trace the contours of his face with her fingertips, intensely conscious of the warmth of his hand resting on her thigh.

‘I love you, Laurence Hooper. I’m so very sorry about what happened to Caroline.’

He nodded and took her hand.

She gazed at him, and saw that his eyes were less pained than they had been a little earlier.

‘Will I have spoilt the cheese?’ he said.

‘No. The milk has to cool anyway, but the boy will have carried the pan back to the storeroom by now, so I’d better get back.’ She smoothed down her damp, tangled hair. ‘I must look a fright.’

‘You never look a fright. But just one thing,’ he said.

‘Yes?’

‘This place is just for you and me. It’s a place for us to come whenever either of us needs a sanctuary. Agreed?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘And here we begin afresh, whenever the need.’

She placed a hand over her heart and nodded.

Back in the storeroom she added the starter culture to the milk, and left it for an hour or so while she fed Hugh. He grizzled when she tried to put him down inside, so Naveena wheeled out his pram, with a large parasol to shade him. Gwen rocked the pram, feeling the sun on her face and thinking of Laurence as she listened to the insects buzzing. Hugh quickly fell asleep and Gwen told Naveena she could take a well-earned rest. It was perfectly possible to hear if Hugh woke from where she was in the storeroom.

Inside the little room, Gwen added the rennet and stirred, then left it under a small window at the back of the room for the sun’s warmth to help set the milk.

Though she felt terribly sad about what had happened to Caroline, today had been a good day’s work. And at the back of her mind a brown baby girl slept peacefully in her hammock.

Previous: Chapter 13
Next: 3: THE STRUGGLE