Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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In memory of my son Jamie


Ceylon, 1913

The woman held a slim white envelope to her lips. She hesitated for a moment longer, pausing to listen to the achingly sweet notes of a distant Sinhalese flute. She considered her resolve, turning it over as she would a pebble in her palm, then sealed the envelope and propped it against a vase of wilting red roses.

The antique ottoman stood at the end of the four-poster bed. Made from dark wood, its sides were covered in satin moiré with a padded leather lid. She lifted the lid, took out her ivory wedding dress and draped it over the back of a chair, wrinkling her nose at the sickly scent of mothballs.

She selected a rose, broke off the bloom and glanced at the baby, glad that he still slept. At her dressing table she raised the flower and held it against her fair hair; such fine threads of silk he had always said. She shook her head and let the flower go. Not today.

On the bed the baby’s clothes were already placed in random piles. With the tips of her fingers she touched a freshly laundered matinee jacket, remembering the hours she’d spent knitting until her eyes had stung. Lying beside the clothing were sheets of white tissue paper. Without further delay she folded the little blue jacket, placed it between two sheets of the paper and carried it to the zinc-lined ottoman where she laid it at the bottom.

Each item was folded, placed between tissue and then added to the other layers of woolly hats, bootees, nightgowns and romper suits. Blue. White. Blue. White. Last of all were the muslin squares and terry napkins. These she folded edge to edge, and then, when it was done, she surveyed her morning’s work. Despite what it meant, she did not blanch at the sight.

Another glance at the baby’s fluttering lashes signalled that he would be waking soon. She’d need to be quick. The dress she had chosen for herself was made from oriental silk in vivid sea green, slightly raised above the ankles and with a high-waisted sash. This had been her favourite dress sent over from Paris. She’d worn it the night of the party, the night she was certain the child had been conceived. She paused again. Might wearing it be viewed as a bitter attempt to wound? She couldn’t be sure. She loved the colour. That’s what she told herself. Above all, it was the colour.

The baby whimpered and began to fret. She glanced at the clock, lifted the child from his crib and sat in the nursing chair by the window, feeling a light breeze cooling her skin. Outside the sun was high in the sky and the heat would be building; somewhere in the house a dog barked and from the kitchens came the heady scents of cooking.

She opened her nightgown to reveal a pale marbled breast. The baby nuzzled and then latched on. A fine strong jaw he had, so much so that her nipples were cracked and raw and, in order to bear the pain, she was forced to bite her lip. To distract herself she glanced around her room. In each of its four corners, memories had attached themselves in the form of objects: the carved footstool that had come from the north; the bedside lampshade she had sewn herself; the rug from Indo-China.

As she stroked the baby’s cheek, he stopped feeding, lifted his free hand and, in one heartbreakingly beautiful moment, his delicate fingers reached for her face. That would have been the moment for tears.

When she had winded him, she laid him on the bed wrapped in a soft crocheted shawl and, once dressed, she cradled him with one arm and took a last look round. With her free hand she closed the lid of the ottoman, threw the abandoned rose in a lacquered wastepaper basket, and then ran her palm over the remaining flowers in the vase, loosening the bruised petals. They floated past the white envelope to fall like splashes of blood on the polished mahogany floor.

She opened the French windows and, glancing around the garden, took three deep breaths of jasmine-scented air. The breeze had dropped; the flute silenced. She had expected to feel afraid, but instead was filled with a welcome sense of relief. That was all, and it was enough. Then, with firm footsteps, she began to walk, one inevitable step after another, and as she left the house behind, she pictured the palest shade of the colour lilac: the colour of tranquillity.

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