Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 19
Next: Chapter 21

20

Time passed by and, despite moments of intense anxiety when she still had to fight the panic, Gwen felt stronger every day. Hugh clattered about the place on his new bike and Laurence was cheerful. Gwen read her favourite books, sitting on a bench near the lake, where, listening to birds and the gentle lapping of water, she allowed nature to heal her. Gradually she started to feel like her old self, her worries about the drawing and the guilt about her broken bargain with God beginning to fade.

She knew she was properly better when she ate her first cooked breakfast in months. Sausages, slightly burnt the way she liked them, one fried egg, two rashers of lean bacon, a slice of fried bread, and all of it washed down by two cups of tea.

Where the months had gone, she really couldn’t say, but now it was October, and at last she was feeling bright. She glanced out of the window and down towards the lake where a fresh wind was chopping up the surface of the water. A walk with Hugh might be just the thing. She called Spew and Bobbins, and then found Hugh sitting on his rocking horse and shouting ‘giddyup’.

‘Darling, do you want to come for a walk with Mummy?’

‘Can Wilf come too?’

‘Of course he can. Just wear your wellingtons. It’ll be wet.’

‘Not raining now.’

Gwen pulled a face, and looked up at the sky. During the last few months, the weather had barely registered. ‘Maybe silly old Mummy didn’t notice that the rain had stopped.’

He laughed. ‘Silly old Mummy. That’s what Verity says. I’ll bring my kite.’

Gwen thought of her sister-in-law. There had been no trouble recently. Verity had taken Laurence’s comments on board, and though she was back now, at least she had been gone for a while.

Neither Verity nor McGregor had mentioned the drawings again and since McGregor had banned the use of the bullock cart to bring messages, Naveena had bribed the dhobi to bring them whenever he could. It no longer worked as a warning system, however, as the drawings now arrived erratically, rather than around full moon, and there was no guarantee that the dhobi would keep his mouth shut. But he was a greedy man and she hoped the money he received would be enough of a deterrent.

As Gwen and Hugh reached the lake, the path was still muddy. Gwen had not tied back her hair and enjoyed the way it flew in the wind as they ambled along and the dogs raced ahead. On the other side of the lake, a band of purple shadows darkened the water. Hugh was still at the age where every tiny speck was of infinite interest. With a determined look that brooked no argument, he picked up and examined each pebble or leaf that caught his eye, then filled his pockets, and hers, with treasures that ten minutes later would be forgotten.

Grateful for a return to her life after a long absence, she watched her son and her heart burst with love for his smile, his little stocky legs, his unruly hair and his infectious giggles. The happy sound of chattering birds filled the air and, when she lifted her face to feel the warmth of the sun, she felt at peace; yet, despite that, one thing still nagged at her.

They went on a bit further, but Hugh cried when the kite got tangled up and would not fly.

‘What’s the matter with it, Mummy? Can you fix it?’

‘I think Daddy will probably be able to fix it, sweetheart.’

‘But I want to fly it now.’ Livid with anger at his hopes being dashed, he threw it on the ground.

She picked it up. ‘Come on, hold my hand and we’ll sing a song all the way home.’

He grinned. ‘Can Wilf choose?’

She nodded. ‘If you’re sure Wilf knows any songs.’

Hugh jumped up and down with excitement. ‘He does. He does. He does.’

‘Well?’

‘He’s singing, Mummy. He’s singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”.’

She laughed and glanced back to see Laurence coming down the steps. ‘Of course. Silly old Mummy.’

‘There you are,’ Laurence called out. ‘Better get back in.’

‘We went for a walk by the lake.’

‘You look absolutely wonderful. It has put the roses back.’

‘Have I got roses too, Daddy?’

Laurence laughed.

‘I do feel better,’ she said. ‘And we both have roses.’

There was just one thing Gwen still needed to do to put her mind completely at rest, so the next morning she prepared herself, telling Naveena she wanted the stretch of a good long walk. At the back of her mind she knew the old ayah would object if she knew the real reason.

Naveena glanced at the sky. ‘It will be raining soon, Lady.’

‘I’ll take an umbrella.’

Once out of the house she followed the sweep of the road. Breathing deeply and swinging her arms, she was able to think more clearly when she walked. When the silver sheet of the lake could no longer be seen, she reached the part of the road where ferns laden with water almost brushed the ground. The smell of cooking fires from the labour lines still drifted across, and with it the distant sound of barking dogs. An expectant stillness hung in the air; the calm before the storm, she thought as she glanced at the approaching lines of black clouds divided by slivers of light.

She had always considered herself a good person, one who’d been brought up to know right from wrong. Since the birth of the twins her self-belief had been severely shaken, although her love for Hugh and Laurence was right; that much she did know. But what about Liyoni? Gwen didn’t doubt that the little girl was safe, now that the missing drawing had arrived, but what if she was not loved?

A memory came back of the day Liyoni was born and, as other images returned to her, the more sure she felt that going to the village was the right thing to do. She hated to think that Liyoni, cut off from her real mother, might be growing up with an inexplicable sense of abandonment. Shivering with the anticipation of seeing her daughter again, she imagined taking Liyoni home with her, but as the rain started up and grew steadily louder, her heart began to pound. Laurence might not be as offended by the colour of Liyoni’s skin as the rest of the European set, but he would be deeply hurt by her infidelity.

All along the road she searched for the turning, but now rainwater was dripping from the trees and into her eyes, making it difficult to see ahead. Eventually she found a track to the left, marked by a large lichen-coated rock, and there she stopped to collect her breath before continuing. She managed to break a path through the overhanging branches with her umbrella, but after just twenty or thirty yards the wall of trees became too dense. When the spokes of the umbrella caught in one of the trees, she tore at it and her hair knotted in the branches. Panting with the effort of freeing herself, it tangled even more and she panicked until, almost in tears, she pulled herself free. The trail had petered out and now the umbrella was ruined too.

She picked the leaves and twigs from her hair and, as the rain became heavier, she made her way back to the road, straining to see through the thick white mist that had descended. Dark shapes seemed to appear and disappear at the edges of the road and she held out a hand to ward them off, suddenly feeling afraid. A bird screeched, there was a loud crash and that was followed by the crackle of snapping branches.

She lifted her heavy wet hair from her neck and shook the water off. Now that she had started, she didn’t want to stop. She wanted to see her daughter again: wanted to see what she looked like, wanted to look in her eyes and see her smile. She wanted to hold her hand, kiss her cheek again and swing her round as she did Hugh. For a few moments she allowed herself to feel the emotions she had trained herself to deny. Instinctively she’d always known that if she permitted herself to feel love for her daughter she would not be able to cope with her absence. Now, as she allowed herself to want her daughter, she let in a little of that need, and it hurt so much that she doubled up with the pain of it. When she straightened up, she wiped her eyes, took a long slow breath and looked about her. She’d never find the village in this. Dizzy from the rush of blood to her head, she sat on a rock in the pouring rain with her arms wrapped round herself, and made believe it was Liyoni she was hugging.

She stayed until she was completely soaked through, then she choked back a sob and let her little girl go. With her chest tight and hardly able to breathe, she stood. For several minutes she did not move but watched the huge drops of rain as they bounced off the road, then, leaving her daughter behind again, she began the long uphill walk as the road slowly climbed towards home.

Laurence had not seen her arriving home drenched and swollen-eyed. In spite of her fatigue, she had lit candles and run a bath. Though the electricity supply from their own generator was unreliable during a storm, there had been hot water and she’d soaked in the scented bath so that the pain and tiredness might dissolve away. Then she’d taken two headache powders and splashed her face with ice-cold water.

Now as they both settled down to read after dinner, the oil lamps were lit. She sniffed their faintly smoky smell, hoping the gentle peace of the evening might stitch up the wound in her heart.

‘Why did you go for such a long walk in the rain?’ Laurence asked as he poured them both a brandy.

She shivered, fearing she had caught a chill. ‘I just needed fresh air. I had an umbrella.’

He fetched the blanket from the other sofa, wrapped it round her and rubbed the back of her neck. ‘You’ve only just got better. We don’t want you ill again, my darling. We need you too much.’

‘I’ll be fine.’

The truth was the soaking had left her feeling drained, though more from emotion than the weather. However, she needed to appear her normal self so decided to read for a while then write to her mother. She’d been disappointed when, due to her father’s shortness of breath, her parents had cancelled their long-awaited trip to Ceylon.

‘It’s muggy, isn’t it,’ she said, ‘now that the rain has stopped?’

‘It will rain again soon.’

He went back to sit in his favourite armchair and picked up his paper.

Thoughts of Liyoni still threatened to spill over, but she swallowed back the distress and fought against them. She made herself comfortable on the sofa, not the one with the leopard skin. Gwen never felt at ease leaning against a dead animal. With a cushion behind her head, she put up her feet on one of the tapestry footstools and determined to concentrate on her book, but still the words swam.

‘What are you reading?’ he asked as he reached for his brandy.

‘It’s an Agatha Christie. The Mystery of the Blue Train. It only came out last year, so I’m quite lucky to get it. I do love Agatha Christie. It’s so vivid, and so exciting, you really think you’re there.’

‘A little unrealistic though.’

‘True, but I like to lose myself in a story. And I can’t bear those heavy tomes you keep in the library. Apart from the poetry, of course.’

He grinned, raised his brows and blew her a kiss. ‘Glad we have something else in common then.’

‘Darling!’

She closed her eyes but the need to confess all to Laurence was still there. She imagined throwing herself at his feet and begging for mercy, like one of the heroines in the novels she so liked to read. But no, that was ludicrous. Her heart raced frantically and she put a hand to her breast as she rehearsed the words silently. She only had to open her mouth and speak.

‘All right?’ he said, noticing.

She nodded, aching not to have to keep Liyoni secret from him any longer. In that one night at Nuwara Eliya she had exchanged the love of her life for a drunken moment, but the price had been too high for too long, and she felt she could not go on. She tried the words again. Laurence, I gave birth to another man’s child; a child I have hidden away. No. That sounded terrible, but what better way was there to say it?

When the doorbell rang, he raised his brows and she put down her book.

‘Are we expecting someone?’

She shook her head, hiding the relief that washed through her.

‘Who could it be at this hour?’

‘I’ve no idea. Maybe when Verity left, she didn’t take her key.’

He frowned. ‘The door isn’t locked. If it were Verity, she’d come straight in.’

They heard the butler’s shuffling footsteps in the hall, and then a woman’s voice. A woman with an American accent. That was followed by the sound of high heels briskly tapping on the parquet floor, becoming louder as she walked along the corridor.

‘Christina?’ Gwen said in a low voice.

‘I don’t know any other Americans, do you?’

‘What can she –?’

The door opened and Christina came in. She wore her usual black, but was devoid of all jewellery. She looked as if she’d dressed in a hurry and had simply forgotten to put it on. While Gwen was coping with her misgivings at seeing the woman, Laurence had gone over and, with a smile on his face, was offering her a highball. She didn’t smile back.

‘No. Large whisky. Neat.’

Gwen watched as Christina sat on a straight-backed chair at the card table. Her hair, usually so elaborately styled, was hanging loose over her shoulders, and Gwen could see from the colour of the roots that it was dyed. Something about that made her look vulnerable.

Christina pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her bag. She put the cigarette into a silver holder, but when she attempted to light it, her hand shook so much she couldn’t manage it. Laurence stepped in, took the lighter from her and reached over to offer the flame. She drew in a long breath, the cigarette lit, then she leant her head back and exhaled, sending rings of smoke to the ceiling.

‘Is something wrong?’ Laurence asked her with a concerned look, and touched her bare arm. Not a caress, not that, but gentle.

Christina lowered her head and didn’t reply. Gwen noticed how the woman’s face, stripped of make-up, was incredibly pale, and maybe because of that she appeared to be at least ten years older. Not a woman in her thirties after all. Not so glamorous either. But Christina looked so strained that the thought didn’t comfort Gwen.

‘You had better sit down, Laurence.’

Gwen and Laurence exchanged puzzled looks.

‘Very well,’ he said and pulled up a chair.

‘You too, Gwen.’

‘Oh, I’m sure Gwen won’t want to be bothered, if it’s about business. She has been ill.’

Christina looked up at Gwen. ‘I heard. Are you recovered now?’

‘Thank you, yes,’ she said, smarting at the thought that Laurence might want to exclude her. ‘But I will stay, if you don’t mind, Laurence.’

‘Of course.’

‘I’m afraid there is no easy way to say this.’ Christina paused and with a strangled sound almost choked on her words as she tried to speak. They waited for her to compose herself.

‘Is it Verity? Has something happened to her?’ Laurence asked, looking alarmed.

Christina shook her head, but didn’t raise her eyes. ‘No, nothing like that.’

‘What then?’

Another pause.

As Christina frowned, took a sharp breath in and stared at the floor for a few minutes more, Gwen felt her heart jump. If it wasn’t Verity, what was it? Was there news of Fran maybe or Savi Ravasinghe? It must be something serious for her to look so distraught.

Christina lifted her gaze and, biting her lip, looked from one to the other.

‘Just tell us,’ Laurence said, drumming his fingertips on the tabletop.

She seemed to suddenly straighten up. ‘The simple truth is that the New York stock market has collapsed.’

Laurence didn’t speak, but stared at her, remaining unnaturally still.

‘How does that matter to us, Christina?’ Gwen said with a frown.

‘On my advice, Laurence was heavily invested in Chilean copper mining.’

Gwen frowned again. ‘Chilean copper?’

A smile hovered round Christina’s mouth. Not a happy smile. ‘The shares are virtually worthless. And whatever they’re worth today, it’ll be even less tomorrow. You can be damn sure of that.’

‘So sell,’ Gwen said.

‘You can’t sell anything. I just said. They’re worthless.’

Laurence stood up, took a step away and clasped his hands together behind his back. In the uncomfortable silence, Gwen wanted to ask questions, but held her tongue as she watched Laurence.

‘How could this happen?’ he eventually said. ‘How is it possible? You said with the growth in the provision of electricity, copper was rock solid. You said that electricity would be coming to every house. That copper would take off beyond our wildest dreams.’

‘It looked that way. I promise you. It really did.’

‘But how did this happen?’ Gwen asked.

Christina shook her head. ‘It started with a bumper harvest. A glut.’

‘But wouldn’t that be a good thing?’ Gwen said.

‘The prices dropped too low, farmers couldn’t repay their debts to their suppliers, the labour, and so on. They hadn’t the usual profits, so they had to draw cash from the banks to pay their bills.’

Laurence frowned. ‘You’re telling me there was a run on the bank?’

She nodded.

‘Your bank?’

Christina twisted her hands as she stood. ‘More people than expected wanted to withdraw. None of the banks keep that kind of money on deposit. There wasn’t enough to meet the demand.’

‘I still don’t understand,’ Gwen said, and looked across at Laurence. ‘We didn’t want to withdraw money, did we, Laurence?’

‘It’s not that,’ he said.

‘No. It’s the knock-on effect. If there’s no cash, interest rates will rocket. People will go bust.’

‘And one of the things that has suffered most is copper mining?’ he said.

Christina nodded.

‘And you’re saying the rapid boom in electricity isn’t going to happen?’

The American went across to him and put her hands on both his shoulders. ‘I acted in good faith. It will happen, I promise you, but not now. Not until the economy picks up.’

‘It could take months,’ Laurence said, looking into her eyes.

Christina glanced down for a moment before raising a hand to caress his face, then left her palm resting on his cheek ‘I’m so sorry, my dear, dear man. It will take years. How many years is anybody’s guess.’

‘So what am I supposed to do?’

She let her hand fall then took a step back. ‘Sit tight and wait. That’s all you can do.’

‘But I was relying on those profits to fund the new plantation. The third one. I’ve already signed the contract.’

Gwen swallowed the irritation she felt at seeing them so close. Christina sighed and dug out a tissue from her bag.

‘And you,’ Gwen said, choking back her anger. ‘What about you?’

Christina dabbed her eyes. ‘Me? I will survive. People like me always do. I’m heading back to the States now. Once again, I am so sorry.’

‘I’ll see you to the door,’ Gwen said.

‘That’s not necessary,’ she said as she turned to leave.

Gwen glanced over her shoulder at Laurence. ‘Nevertheless.’

Laurence was now sitting at the small card table with his head in his hands. The irony of that was not lost on Gwen. Only it was not just a few dollars lost in a game of poker.

Out in the hall, Gwen stood tall. She opened the front door and, provoked beyond her limits, felt the urge to push the American through it. She restrained herself but spoke in a stiff voice.

‘From now on, Christina, you are to stay away from my husband. Is that clear? No more financial advice and no more social occasions.’

‘Are you warning me off?’

‘I think that’s about right.’

Christina gave a little snort and shook her head. ‘You really don’t understand him, do you!’

As Gwen and Laurence left the house at first light, she pulled her woollen shawl tightly round her shoulders. After the storm, the path was littered with nature’s debris: broken twigs and branches, flower heads, leaves. With the dip in temperature and the air full of moisture, the rains hadn’t finished with them. She glanced ahead as they walked the hill in the direction of the tea factory. After Christina’s shock announcement the night before, they had stayed up for hours, Laurence drinking brandy and looking morose, and Gwen wondering what Christina’s parting shot had meant. How dare she imply that Gwen didn’t understand her own husband, and what did Christina know about him that she, his wife, did not? Neither she nor Laurence had slept.

As they walked, the silence between them grew longer. She filled her lungs and with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude she thanked God that she had not confessed to Laurence. Christina’s news as well as the truth about Liyoni would have finished him. Halfway up they stopped and looked at each other, as if searching for answers, or if not that, at least appealing for a glimmer of something that might help them find a way through this. He was the first to look away.

Gwen glanced up at the massing clouds and felt her heart thump.

‘I don’t know what this is going to mean for us,’ he said.

The silence went on a little too long and she bit her lip, frightened to voice all her concerns.

He took her hands and held them between his. ‘Your hands are cold.’

She nodded, and they walked on a little. At the top, they turned round to look at the view. She took in the lime-green sheen on the damp tea bushes, the women pluckers in cerise, orange and purple saris, the manicured garden and their light, airy house. It was all so lovingly cared for, but Laurence had explained that if the bushes weren’t pruned, they’d grow into trees, and as she looked across air that shimmered in sunlight reflected from the surface of the lake, she tried to imagine what it would look like wild.

Laurence bent to pick some orange marigolds from the verge then handed them to her.

She sniffed them and thought of their home and their life together. The times they went out in the boat, the flies in the hot months, the moths crisping when they flew into candlelight. A life filled with the sound of laughter. She listened carefully as pipe music from the kitchens floated up through an open window.

A cooler wind blew the trees about and, under the ever-darkening sky, they stood without speaking. When she could bear it no longer, she swallowed the lump in her throat and the words she had not wanted to say spilt out.

‘Christina said I didn’t understand you. Why was that?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Was she talking about your attachment to her or to the plantation? Will we have to sell?’

‘Other than friendship, I have no attachment to her.’ He paused for a second before he spoke again, this time with a crack in his voice. ‘And over my dead body will we sell.’

‘We won’t have to lose our home?’

He sighed. ‘No. In any case, where would we find a buyer? And even if we did, the price we’d get would be laughable.’

‘So what are we going to do?’

‘It’s not the first time we’ve had our back against the wall. In 1900 when the demand for tea didn’t keep up with production, the London price fell from around eight pence per pound to well below seven pence. Some plantations failed. My father found ways of improving his methods of cultivation, and he brought down the cost of production. But he also found new markets abroad. Russia was one and, believe it or not, China another. Three years later, exports had risen.’

‘So we need to do that again?’

He shrugged. ‘Not necessarily.’

‘We can look at making spending cuts,’ she suggested. ‘Draw in our belts.’

‘That goes without saying. If there are any household cuts you can make, do so.’

It would probably amount to no more than a drop in the ocean, even if she budgeted hard, but now that their spending actually mattered, she was determined not to let Laurence down.

‘Verity’s car will have to go,’ he said.

‘Oh dear, she loves that little Morris Cowley,’ Gwen said, but thinking it was only because of her beloved royal blue car that Verity had kept out of their hair at all.

‘She may well love it. I’ll need to look at cutting her allowance too, though I’ll have to break it to her gently.’

Gwen sighed deeply.

‘My plan to expand the school for the plantation children will have to be delayed. As it is, fewer than half the children attend. I wanted to improve on that.’

But for their footsteps and the sound of the birds, there was a painful hush, as if nature itself was on tenterhooks. Though so many thoughts were battling in her head and, she thought, must be in Laurence’s head too, nothing more was said for a few minutes.

‘The thing is, Gwen,’ he eventually said, ‘I will have to go away.’

She stood still. ‘Must you?’

‘I think so. First to London and then America. We can sit tight on the mining shares, but I have to buy time to work out how to fund the new plantation. And if, on top of everything else, the price of tea falls …’

‘Will that happen?’

‘It may. In any case, I’d like to be at the next London auctions, rowdy affairs that they are. I suspect we may be in for a bit of a bumpy ride.’

As they walked the last few yards to the factory, his words sent a shiver up her spine.

‘What about Hugh?’

‘Well, he’s not yet four, so I’m sure things will have improved by the time he needs to go to prep school in England.’

Gwen stretched up to kiss him on the cheek. ‘We’ll get through this, Laurence, and we’ll do it together.’

He didn’t reply.

‘When will you leave?’

‘The day after tomorrow.’

‘So soon?’

He drew in his breath. ‘You are all right, aren’t you? You’ll be in charge. Just say if you don’t feel well enough to handle it. Verity will do it, if you can’t.’

‘I’m well enough.’

‘Good. I was hoping you’d say that. You’ll liaise with Nick McGregor, of course.’

As she walked away, she thought about Hugh being sent off when he reached the age of eight; an inhuman thing to do to a little boy. Meanwhile, a voice at the very back of her mind whispered her hypocrisy. Then she thought about the challenge of being left in charge. She was well again, but this would mean dealing with McGregor on a regular basis, and reining in her sister-in-law.

Back at the house, Verity had arrived home and was parking up her Morris. When she got out Gwen gestured her to come over.

‘I’d like a word, if you’ve got a moment.’

‘Of course. Is it about the crash? Everyone’s talking about it in Nuwara Eliya.’

‘As well they might. Laurence is leaving me in charge while he is away. I think it would be better if we could all pull together at such a difficult time.’

‘Where’s he going?’

‘London, and then America.’

‘Blimey! That means he’ll be gone for months.’

Gwen drew her shoulders back. ‘And you might as well prepare yourself. Laurence says your car is going to have to go. We’ll all share the Daimler. McGregor, you and I.’

‘That’s not fair. And anyway, you don’t drive.’

‘I shall learn.’

‘How?’

‘You’re going to teach me. Laurence has lost everything in the crash. All his investments. Your allowance will be cut and, if we’re to survive, we’ll all have to tighten our belts.’

Gwen left Verity standing on the gravel and walked off without another word. Once inside, there was a clap of thunder. She glanced back over her shoulder and looked through the open door. Outside, sheets of rain bounced off the ground and ran in rivulets across the surface. She saw Verity climb into her car, rev the engine and sweep back up the hill.

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Next: Chapter 21