Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: 3: THE STRUGGLE
Next: Chapter 16


Three Years Later, 1929

Gwen and Hugh sat on opposite sides of the table waiting for the others to arrive. Hugh looked angelic, dressed in a smart little sailor suit, and with his wild fair hair brushed and flattened for once. Gwen was wearing a dress Fran had bought as a present while she had been staying with her in London, a diaphanous blue chiffon with the new, slightly longer skirt, and she loved that it made her feel young and feminine.

After nearly four years in Ceylon without going home once, it had been a long-overdue trip to England. First she spent two weeks at Owl Tree with her parents, who had burst with pride at the sight of Hugh. With promises of picnics and rides on a train to Cheddar Gorge, they couldn’t wait to have him to themselves for a week. Then Gwen had taken the train for London to stay with Fran. The apartment was situated on the top floor of a grand, architect-developed building, with wonderful views over the River Thames, though Gwen couldn’t help but compare the grey expanse of water with her beautiful lake at home.

The two women had exchanged letters, planning exciting outings for almost every day, but on the afternoon of her arrival, she’d found Fran not quite her usual self. A little reserved, a little pale. After a much-needed cup of best Ceylon tea, Fran asked Gwen if she’d like the maid to unpack her case, and linked arms with her.

‘I’ll do it myself, Frannie, if you don’t mind.’

‘Of course.’

Upstairs, in a well-aired, prettily decorated room, Fran went over to the window to close off the noise and dust of London. Gwen opened her case and started to take out her dresses, while Fran remained with her back to the room, gazing out of the window.

‘Is anything the matter, Fran?’

Fran shook her head.

Gwen picked up a French navy suit, suitable for a shopping expedition to Mr Selfridge’s store later that day, and went over to hang it in a large mahogany wardrobe. In the gloomy interior of the wardrobe, she couldn’t see much at first, but as she reached up for a hanger, her hand brushed against something. As she explored with the tips of her fingers, she realized it was a heavily embroidered silk garment and, judging by the size of it, not a woman’s piece either.

She took it down by the hanger and held the garment to the light. It was the most gorgeous red and gold embroidered waistcoat and, Gwen was sure, the one Savi Ravasinghe had worn at the ball. Fran twisted back at that moment and stared at it.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think he’d left it behind.’

‘Mr Ravasinghe’s been here?’

‘He was staying while undertaking a commission. Rather an important one, actually. He’s in great demand.’

‘You didn’t say a word.’

Fran shrugged. ‘I didn’t know I had to.’

‘Is it serious?’

‘Let’s just say it’s a bit up and down.’

After that, Gwen had tried to encourage Fran to speak, but whenever she raised the subject, a closed look came on her cousin’s face. For the first time, a gap had opened up between the women, and Gwen didn’t know how to fix it.

By the penultimate day, the possibility of Fran being really serious about Ravasinghe left a bitter taste in Gwen’s mouth and her stomach in knots. She had never seen her cousin lovesick and, as she sat on her bed thinking, she desperately wanted to tell Fran about Liyoni and warn her about Savi Ravasinghe. But now she did not dare. If she were to speak of it, Fran would be outraged, and would certainly confront Savi. Who knew where that might lead? He might even insist on knowing his daughter, and that didn’t bear thinking about.

So Gwen kept her silence and felt as if she had betrayed her friend. The two women spent their last day together with everything remaining unsaid, and after another bittersweet week with her parents, Gwen had been glad to set off on her homeward journey back to Ceylon.

Now, as Gwen smiled across the birthday table at her son, she felt so proud, but was aware she felt something more than love, something ineffable that struck to the core of her. Hugh grinned at her, not at all able to sit still, and it brought her back to basics. Children did that. One moment they inspired such a surge of love that it sent you reeling and gasping for breath, and the next moment it was jelly and biscuits, or needing a number two.

It surprised her how quickly three years had passed, and that she had become so accustomed to living with what had happened that at times it almost seemed like a dream; almost, but not quite. She glanced out of the window towards the lake and then beyond to the rounded hills, carpeted with tea and dotted with tall, spindly trees. It was a lovely, cloudless, bright blue day. In the almost three years since their first trip to the boathouse, she and Laurence had revisited it often. Life had settled down. They had been happy, with the joys outweighing the sorrows, and in the end, as something toughened up inside her, Gwen had managed to suppress some of her regrets about Liyoni.

Laurence didn’t understand why she hadn’t conceived another child, despite, as he put it, his best efforts. He didn’t know that Gwen had secretly done everything she could to prevent it. Remembering the heartbreak over giving Liyoni away, Gwen felt she didn’t deserve another child, and used her douche bag every time. If she felt in any danger, she drank a large quantity of gin and took a hot bath. Naveena understood her reluctance and concocted bitter-tasting herbs which always brought the monthly cycle on.

A noise at the door interrupted her thoughts. She twisted round to see McGregor, Verity and Naveena coming in together.

Verity clapped her hands. ‘This looks wonderful, doesn’t it, Hugh?’

Today was Hugh’s third birthday. The table was laid with fresh flowers, piles of sandwiches, two pink and yellow blancmanges and a space in the middle for the cake. As Laurence came through trailing a bunch of balloons, his arms loaded with presents, Hugh’s little cheeks flushed with excitement.

‘I open them now, Daddy?’

Laurence put them on the table. ‘Of course. Do you want the big one first?’

Hugh jumped up and down, squealing as he did.

‘Well, you’ll have to wait a minute, it’s in the hall.’ Laurence went back out and a few minutes later wheeled in a tricycle, with a big yellow ribbon tied round the handlebar. ‘This is from Mummy and Daddy,’ he said.

Hugh stared at the gleaming machine, then ran over and needed help from Naveena to climb on to the seat. His face fell when his feet didn’t quite reach the pedals.

‘We can adjust the seat a little, but you might have to grow into it.’

‘Did we choose the wrong size?’ Gwen said.

‘It will be fine in a month or two,’ Laurence said.

Hugh was already tearing the paper from the rest of the presents: a giant jigsaw from Verity, a wooden fire engine from Gwen’s parents and a cricket bat and ball from McGregor.

Gwen sat back and watched her family, feeling blessed. Hugh was a whirlwind of energy, exuberant in the way only a three-year-old can be, and Laurence was beaming with pride as he watched his son. Even Verity seemed happy, though the fact that she was still with them was a thorn in Gwen’s side.

After they’d polished off the sandwiches and blancmanges, Hugh shrieked when Laurence turned the act of extinguishing the lights and drawing the curtains into a matter of great solemnity. He squared his shoulders and, with a serious face, told them the moment had arrived.

Naveena brought in the cake and placed it on the table in front of Hugh. Hugh’s rapt attention was a picture, and the innocence of his little face as he looked up at them all, while they sang ‘Happy Birthday’, triggered a feeling of intense joy in Gwen. She would tear the head off a leopard to protect her little boy. She covered up the surge of emotion by fussing round the cake and shifting it slightly closer to her son. It was a large square cake with a spaniel made out of icing sugar on the top, made by Verity who, it turned out, had a distinct talent for sugarcraft.

‘It’s Spew,’ Hugh shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Spew is on the cake!’

‘Blow out the candles, darling,’ Gwen said. ‘And make a wish.’

As the child puffed out his cheeks and blew, Gwen thought of Hugh’s twin and made a wish of her own.

‘Did you make a wish?’ Laurence asked.

‘It’s a secret, Mummy said. Didn’t you, Mummy?’

‘I did, darling.’

As Hugh raised his face to his father, Gwen thought for the hundredth time how like Laurence he had grown. They had the same colour eyes, the same square chin and the same shaped head, with a double crown at the back that made his hair so difficult to tame. There was no doubt as to Hugh’s parentage.

‘There are secrets, Daddy.’

Laurence grinned. ‘I suppose there must be.’

Hugh wriggled in his seat, unable to suppress his energy. ‘I got one.’

‘What is it, darling?’ Gwen said.

‘My friend, Wilfred.’

Laurence grimaced. ‘Not this again.’

‘But, darling,’ Gwen said, ‘we all know about Wilfred, so it isn’t a secret.’

‘Yes it is. You can’t see him.’

‘That’s true,’ Verity said.

‘I can see him. And he wants a piece of cake.’

‘Naveena, please cut a piece of cake for Wilfred.’

‘Not pretend piece, Neena.’ Neena was the name Hugh used for her when he had first begun to speak, and the name had stuck.

‘I don’t think we should indulge him,’ Laurence said, and put an arm round Gwen’s waist.

‘Does it matter so very much?’

Laurence stuck out his chin. ‘An invisible friend will not help him at school.’

She laughed. ‘Come on, Laurence, he’s only three. Let’s not talk about this now. It’s his birthday party.’

‘Me have ’nother slice too?’ Hugh said in a wheedling tone of voice.

‘Two is quite enough,’ she said.

Hugh stuck out his bottom lip. ‘Daddy?’

‘Oh, let him have it, it is his birthday,’ Verity said. ‘Everyone should be indulged on their birthday.’

‘No more cake, old chap,’ Laurence said. ‘Mummy’s always right.’

‘I’m glad that’s clear.’

He laughed, picked Gwen up and spun her round. ‘But it doesn’t stop me doing this.’

Hugh giggled at the sight of his mother being twirled as if she was weightless.

‘Laurence Hooper, put me down this instant!’

‘As I said, Mummy’s always right. That’s something I’ve had to learn. So I better had put her down.’

‘No. No. Spin again!’ Hugh cried.

‘Laurence, if you don’t put me down, I swear I will be sick.’

He laughed and let her drop to the floor.

‘Can we go to the waterfall, Daddy? We never go.’

‘Not right now. Tell you what, why don’t you and I have a kick around outside? Have you got your new ball?’

Hugh grinned, the cake seemingly completely forgotten. ‘Yes, I have got the ball. I have. It’s mine.’

It was only as Laurence, Hugh and Verity went out that Gwen noticed Wilf’s empty plate. Hugh, the little monkey, had managed to pilfer his third slice of cake after all. Gwen shook her head, but smiled, and then went to her room.

There, she pulled out a child’s charcoal drawing from a locked box in her desk. It was the most recent of the drawings, and had arrived about a month before. For a few uneasy days each month Gwen waited for the next drawing. She clung to each one because it meant the child was well. At first the foster woman had drawn them herself, but now Liyoni’s small scribbles had taken their place. Gwen touched the charcoal lines. Was it a dog or a chicken? Hard to tell. She had always burned the woman’s drawings, but the longing that had never completely left her meant she kept Liyoni’s.

That night when Hugh was sick in his bed, Gwen thought it must be something to do with the three pieces of cake. She asked Naveena to bring the child to sleep with her. He was sick two more times and after that he slept, and she managed to sleep herself on and off.

In the morning Hugh shook and cried out that he was cold, but when she felt the back of his neck, it was fiery, and his forehead was burning too. She changed his nightclothes, but in no doubt that Hugh had a fever, she called Naveena to bring cold cloths. While she waited, Gwen opened the window for air and listened to the birds making their usual morning racket as they woke up the household. The unlikely combination of tuneful song and wild squawking would normally bring a smile to her face, but today it seemed loud and intrusive.

When Naveena came in carrying the cloths, Gwen placed them on the back of Hugh’s neck and on his forehead, then after he’d cooled down a little, they looked him over.

‘It wasn’t the cake. The vomiting seems to have stopped, but he isn’t well.’

Naveena’s nose twitched, but she didn’t speak as she examined his arms and legs, then pulled up his nightshirt and ran a palm over his trunk to search for raised spots. When she didn’t find any, she shook her head.

‘Ask Laurence to call the doctor,’ Gwen said when the woman had finished. ‘Tell him Hugh’s very sweaty, but complaining of the cold.’

‘Yes, Lady.’ Naveena turned to go.

‘And tell him Hugh’s skin looks a little bit blue, and he’s starting to cough.’

While Hugh slept in fits and starts, Gwen closed the shutters and paced the room. When Laurence came in, the concerned look in his eyes forced her to stay calm.

‘It’s probably just one of the childhood ailments,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry. Doctor Partridge won’t be long. Why don’t you go to the kitchen and ask the appu to make us some chai?’

He nodded and left the room, coming back ten minutes later with two glass mugs on a silver tray. She smiled at him. The last thing he needed was for her to show her growing anxiety. She went to Laurence and took the tray.

While they waited for the doctor, Gwen sang nursery rhymes, with Laurence attempting to join in, but using the wrong words and jumbling them up in an effort to make Hugh smile.

By the time Doctor Partridge arrived, carrying his usual brown leather bag, Hugh was still awake but very drowsy.

The doctor sat on the bed.

‘Let’s have a look at you, old chap,’ he said, and opened his own mouth wide to show Hugh what to do. But the room was dimly lit, and it was clear he was unable to see. ‘Laurence, open the shutters. Would you mind?’

With the shutters open, Doctor Partridge lifted Hugh and carried him to the light, then sat in Gwen’s window chair and examined the child’s mouth. He felt Hugh’s neck, which looked a little swollen, then he felt the pulse at his wrist. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

‘Let’s see if you can drink, shall we? Have you got a glass of water handy, Gwen?’

She passed him her own glass, and he sat Hugh up, then raised the glass to the child’s lips. The little boy put a hand to his swollen neck and took a sip, but choked and spat it out, then coughed for several minutes.

When he had finished, the doctor listened to his chest and then looked up at Gwen. ‘He has a rattle. Has he been coughing much?’

‘On and off.’

‘All right, back to bed with you.’

Gwen carried Hugh to her bed and covered him.

‘He must have absolute rest. Even if he seems to recover a bit, don’t allow him to move. His heart rate is fast, as is his breathing. If you put a couple of pillows behind him, it’ll help the breathing, and get as much moisture in the air as you can. Then we just have to wait and see.’

Gwen and Laurence exchanged worried looks.

‘So what is this condition?’ Gwen asked, trying to keep her voice level.

‘It’s the diphtheria.’

She covered her mouth in shock and saw Laurence stiffen.

‘I’m afraid the blue tinge to his skin predicted it. Several children in one of the local villages have recently contracted it too.’

‘But he was vaccinated,’ Laurence said as he twisted round to her. ‘Gwen?’

She squeezed her eyes shut and nodded.

The doctor shrugged. ‘Might have been a faulty batch.’

‘And the prognosis?’ Gwen asked in a shaking voice.

The doctor tilted his head. ‘Hard to say at this stage. I’m sorry. If he starts to show lesions on his skin, just keep them clean. Try to get him to drink, if you can. And in his presence, you will all need to cover your mouths and noses with cotton masks. You’ll probably have one or two in the house, but I’ll have more sent down immediately.’

‘What if –’

There was a terrible silence in the room. Her voice had risen sharply and Laurence covered her hand with his own, holding it tightly, as if to stop her saying words that could not be erased.

‘Let’s not think of that just yet,’ he said in a gruff voice.

She knew by saying that he was hoping to stave off the inevitable and felt an explosion of heat in her head. ‘Just yet?’

‘I meant let’s wait and see; that’s all we can do.’

She wanted to give vent to her fear, but forced herself to remain calm.

In the days that followed, Verity and Gwen wiped the beads of sweat that kept forming on Hugh’s forehead, and tried to keep him cool. Naveena brought in a wet towel and hung it at the window, to moisten the air, she said. She also pinned a soaking wet sheet across the door. Then she arranged some small pieces of charcoal in a shallow bowl and poured a little hot water over them.

‘What is that for?’ Gwen asked.

‘Whole trouble is to keep the air clean, Lady.’

For the next two days his condition did not change, either for the worse or for the better. On the third day, his cough began to worsen; he struggled for breath and his colour was grey. As she watched flies batter themselves against the window then drop to the floor, Gwen felt unable to breathe. She ripped off her face mask and, fighting back her fear for Hugh, laid beside him with her cheek against his and held him close to her. Laurence buried himself in his study, from time to time appearing at the bedside to relieve Gwen of her vigil. She kept a fixed smile on her face for Laurence’s sake, but barely left the room.

Laurence would not allow her to stay in the room to eat what little she could, saying there was no point her becoming sick too, and that she’d need her strength. While Gwen attempted to eat, Verity watched over Hugh, and with an anguished look offered to stay whenever Gwen came back in.

Naveena brought some sweet-smelling herbs to put in a bowl over a candle in an earthenware pot.

‘This will help, Lady,’ she said.

But the fragrance did not help. When she was alone with Hugh, Gwen sat at his bedside, closed her aching eyes and, twisting her hands in her lap, pleaded with God to allow her child to live.

‘I’ll do anything you ask,’ she said. ‘Anything. I’ll be a better wife, a better mother.’

She went to the window while Hugh slept and had no idea how long she watched the colours of the garden change during the course of the day, from pale leafy green in the morning to deep shadowy purple by night. She stared at the lake with tears in her eyes, and the boundary between the water and the treeline blurred. While her child’s condition deteriorated she listened to the household and, with a constantly heavy feeling in her chest, heard people going about things in the way they did. None of it seemed real. Not the liveliness of the mornings, nor the sleepiness of the afternoons. She asked Naveena to fetch some mending, Hugh’s preferably, but anything would do if it kept her hands occupied.

Every moment that Hugh slept was a relief and, when he did, Gwen stitched, the tiny needle weaving in and out, pulling the silk thread in a long line of minute stitches. Verity and Laurence tiptoed in and out, but no one spoke. The more Hugh slept, the better chance he stood.

Night was different and not shared with anyone, and then the silence was unbearable. When Hugh’s breathing became laboured, it broke her heart to hear his small body struggling so, but at least she knew he was still alive. When it seemed to stop, she froze, and her heart only began to beat normally when the rasping breath started up again.

In the night, she was overwhelmed with memories of Hugh as a baby. Such a crying baby he had been. She refused to think that the worst might happen, or how she would be able to go on living without her darling boy.

She remembered him as a chubby toddler attempting his first wary steps, then later, how his thundering footsteps woke her in the morning. She thought of his first haircut, and the fuss he’d made at the sight of the scissors, so much so that Naveena had had to hold him down. She thought of the way he hated scrambled eggs for tea, but loved them boiled, with soldiers, in the morning. And his first words: Neena, Mumma and Dadda. Verity had so wanted him to say her name too, and had sat with him for ages, saying ‘Verity’ over and over. All Hugh had been able to manage was Witty.

All Gwen’s old anxieties flooded back. She remembered Savi Ravasinghe’s painting of Christina, and what the woman had said more than three years ago. Everybody falls in love with him in the end. Was that it? She thought back to the ball, and the way Savi had escorted her to her room. She thought of Fran being with a man like that and ached for her cousin. And, as she watched Hugh’s eyelids flicker in his sleep, her mind returned to the Sinhalese village where Liyoni lived. If this terrible illness could strike Hugh down, a child living in luxury, how vulnerable must her little girl be?

In the moments when she was neither awake nor asleep, she prayed for her daughter, as well as for Hugh, and entered an obscure luminal world. With her thoughts wheeling, she was torn between the village and her home. She thought of the lads washing elephants in the river and the simple way of life there, the women cooking over an open fire and men weaving on their primitive looms. Her own privileged life swam sharply into focus, now lacking even the most simple kind of peace.

Eventually one thought dominated her mind.

She had given up one child already. If Hugh’s illness was her punishment for sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for her own, the only way she would ever save Hugh would be by doing what was right. The truth in return for his life. It would be an exchange, a bargain with God, and even if it meant losing everything, she must confess or otherwise watch her son die.

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Next: Chapter 16