Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 15
Next: Chapter 17

16

For over a week everyone held their breath. Hugh was a much-loved member of the family, and even the houseboys and kitchen coolies walked around with long faces and spoke in hushed whispers. But once he had turned a corner and began to drink and sit up in bed, the household became a lighter place again, and the normal bang and rattle of daily life resumed.

As she watched over the child, unable to leave his side for long, Gwen’s relief was as consuming as her fear had been. Laurence clattered about with a grin on his face and eyes sparkling with happiness. There was laughter as he sat with his son doing jigsaws on the bed and reading his best books while Gwen arranged for all Hugh’s favourite foods to be made: a Victoria sponge, green macaroons, cardamom and mango ice cream – anything she could think of to tempt him, anything that might enable him to become once again the noisy, energetic child he had been.

Yet when he felt well enough to run around outside, she wanted to keep him with her.

‘We mustn’t smother the lad,’ Laurence said.

‘Is that what you think I’m doing?’

‘Let him run. It’ll do him good.’

‘It is quite cold today.’

‘Gwen. He’s a boy.’

So she relented and watched for half an hour as he ran after the dogs, but when Laurence had gone in, she tempted Hugh back inside with crayons and a new pad of drawing paper. While she was watching him, her determination not to allow a moment’s distraction grew. As long as she was watching Hugh, she was not worrying about Liyoni. In her room, he scribbled nonsense pictures of Bobbins and Spew and little Ginger, who was still smaller than the other two. In fact, it was Ginger being under his bed that made him happiest of all.

But the sight of the little boy’s drawings made her feel ill at ease. Full moon had been and gone and the little girl’s latest drawing had not arrived. Though she could barely breathe with the relief of knowing that her son would live, each day that he improved, she began to hear a trace of her daughter’s voice as it breached the wall of noise in her head. The child’s whispers pulled her through open doorways, beckoned her along the gloomy hallway and up the polished stairs. She thought she saw the girl silhouetted in one of the landing windows, but then the light moved and she realized it had only been a shadow cast by clouds against the sun.

What she could suppress by day, became enormous at night. Liyoni’s voice grew loud, demanding her attention, haunting her dreams and feeling so real, she believed the child was actually in her room. When she woke, sweating and shaking, it was with a feeling of reprieve that there was no one there but Hugh, or Naveena coming in with her bed tea.

She insisted on fresh flowers being placed throughout the house: in the hall, in the dining room, the drawing room and all their bedrooms. The moment any flower seemed to droop, the whole bunch had to go, and fresh ones were arranged in their place. But no amount of flowers could lessen her anxiety. Gwen had made a bargain with God, but she had not kept her side of it and now lived in fear of the consequences.

After Hugh returned to sleep in the nursery, Laurence found her sitting at her small desk with her shoulders hunched, playing patience. He stood behind and stooped down to kiss the top of her head. She glanced up. For a moment their eyes met in the mirror but, afraid the tell-tale shine of hers would give her away, she turned her face so that his lips only brushed her hair.

‘I came to ask if you would like me to stay with you tonight?’ He glanced at the cards. ‘Or play a game with you?’

‘I would, but there’s no point neither of us getting any sleep.’

‘I thought you’d be sleeping, now Hugh’s so much better?’

‘I’ll be all right, Laurence. Please don’t fuss. I’ll be all right.’

‘Well, if you’re sure.’

She pressed her hands together to stop them shaking. ‘I am.’

She didn’t get into her bed when he had gone, but carried on playing cards. After an hour, she leant back in the chair, but the moment she closed her eyes and the feeling of relaxation began to spread, her eyes flew open again. She brushed all the cards to the ground.

‘Damn it. Leave me alone,’ she said aloud.

But the little girl would not leave.

Gwen walked around the room, picking up ornaments and putting them back down again. What if the child was ill? What if the child needed her?

Eventually, too tired to stay awake, she slept. And then the nightmares began. She was back at the Owl Tree, falling out of its branches, or riding in a bullock cart that never arrived at any destination. She woke and paced the room, then wrote a long letter to Fran telling her about Savi Ravasinghe. She put it in an envelope, addressed it, looked for a stamp and then ripped the whole thing into dozens of fragments and threw them at the wastepaper basket. After that she just stared out at the darkness of the lake.

The next day she couldn’t concentrate and lost the thread of things. Was this feeling that her world might be about to collapse around her God’s punishment? Maybe the drawing hadn’t arrived because Liyoni wasn’t well, she argued. Some trifling childhood ailment. Nothing serious. Or had she been taken? Children were sometimes taken. Or had Savi found out and was now looking for the right moment to speak up? Each day that she waited, biting her nails, unable to eat, and not knowing, the feeling of dread grew.

She was short-tempered with Laurence, Naveena wasn’t there when she needed her and Hugh avoided her, spending time with Verity instead.

She took out all her clothes from her wardrobe and laid them on the bed, intending to decide which might be updated, and which she no longer wore at all. She tried them on, one by one, but every time she looked in the mirror, nothing looked right. The clothes hung from her, and she decided to remove her wedding ring, for fear it would slip from her finger and be lost. As she tried on her hats, she began to cry. Naveena came into the room and found her sitting motionless on the floor, gulping at air and surrounded by hats: felt hats, feathered hats, beaded hats and sun hats. The woman held out a hand to her and Gwen took it, then stumbled to her feet. When she was standing, she leant against Naveena, and the woman held her tight.

‘I’ve lost weight. Nothing fits,’ she said through her sobs.

Naveena carried on holding her. ‘You’ve gone down a little, that is what.’

‘I feel so awful,’ she said when the tears stopped falling.

Naveena handed her a handkerchief to mop her face with. ‘Hugh is better. You do not need to worry.’

‘It isn’t Hugh. Well, it is Hugh, but it’s not just Hugh.’

Unable to say the words, she went to her desk and took out the little box, found the key and unlocked it. She held up the drawings to Naveena.

‘What if she is sick?’

Naveena patted her back. ‘I understand. You must not break your head. Put away. Next drawing will come. You call doctor for you, Lady.’

Gwen shook her head.

But later that day, when she prickled all over, feeling as if her skin had been peeled away, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Her deteriorating mental state, exacerbated by the lack of sleep, made her whole body ache. She jumped at the slightest sound, heard things that weren’t there, felt unequal to the simplest task and found herself going round in circles, starting something, leaving it, then forgetting what it was she’d been doing in the first place. At the point where she felt she was losing her connection with everything she loved, she capitulated, knowing she would have to ask for help.

Previous: Chapter 15
Next: Chapter 17