Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 20
Next: Chapter 22

21

Though she hadn’t realized it at the time, it had been a wrong move on Gwen’s part to pre-empt Laurence’s decision to inform Verity himself about the cut to her allowance, and that her car would have to go.

They were all together in the drawing room with their after-dinner coffee when Laurence brought the subject up. Verity acted shocked, claiming to have just landed her dream job, looking after horses up at Nuwara Eliya. Then she knelt beside Laurence and wrapped her arms round his legs.

‘I need the car, you see,’ she said, looking up at him with moist eyes. ‘I’ll be driving around to different stables every day. Laurence, please. This is such a chance for me to prove myself. You’ve always said I should do something useful, and now you’re going to stop me doing it.’

She lowered her head and began to cry, but he unwrapped her arms and stood up. ‘I see. I hadn’t realized about the job.’

Gwen thought that Laurence was simply sounding more patient than he actually felt, and expected that at any moment he would deny Verity’s plea.

‘They aren’t paying me to begin with,’ Verity said, raising her head and smiling across at Gwen. ‘If I prove myself, in a month or so they will. So you see, I really will need my allowance too, just for a little longer, and maybe a little extra to cover the cost of lodgings.’

There was a pause.

‘Very well,’ Laurence said after a moment. ‘For now your allowance will remain, but absolutely no extra.’

He had made his decision without even a glance in Gwen’s direction. She shook her head, appalled.

‘No, of course,’ Verity was saying. ‘Thank you, Laurence. You won’t regret your decision. Anyway, I must dash. Have a wonderful trip, my darling brother. Come back with oodles of money, won’t you!’

As she skipped from the room, flashing another smile in Gwen’s direction, Laurence looked satisfied.

‘She does appear to be turning a corner, doesn’t she? A bit of responsibility might help her grow up.’

Gwen bit her tongue and kept what she hoped was a dignified silence. The only good that might come out of it was that at least Verity wouldn’t be there.

Laurence must have noticed her expression. ‘What’s up? You seem a bit jumpy.’

Gwen looked away.

‘Is it Verity? Look, don’t be so down on her, give her another chance. She knows you don’t see eye to eye.’

Gwen kept her voice level but struggled to suppress her anger. ‘Don’t you think you should have discussed that decision with me?’

He frowned. ‘She’s my sister.’

‘And I am your wife. It really can’t go on like this. I am not prepared to spend the rest of my married life sharing my home, and I might add, my husband, with his spoilt, indulged sister.’

She left the room, narrowly avoiding trapping her fingers in the door as she slammed it.

Two days later, she accompanied Laurence as Nick McGregor drove him to Colombo. With the heavy monsoon in full force, it wasn’t an easy journey, and in places small landslides almost blocked the road. Gwen gazed out of the window, and as she watched sheeting rain drench the countryside, sucking colour from the world and obliterating the view, she knew an uncertain future hung over all of them. Nobody spoke. Even if they’d wanted to, the pounding rain on the roof of the car would have drowned out speech. Gwen felt tense, her stomach in knots. Laurence had barely said a word since her outburst, and neither had she.

The drive had taken far longer than it should have, but as soon as they had walked through the grand carved goddesses of the tall doorway of the Galle Face Hotel, and climbed the few steps into the elegant entrance hall, a shutter seemed to have come down over what had passed. Without a word being said, they both knew what they would do next. The porters carried their cases, and while they waited Gwen worried that the charge of unresolved energy between them was obvious to all. She’d seen that look in Laurence’s eyes before, and though it excited her, she felt herself tremble.

Upstairs, after racing up the right-hand staircase to the first floor, and before unpacking, they made love, though he was so fierce, she could barely breathe. Only when he shuddered at the end and his breathing relaxed, did she realize that Laurence was a man who needed sex to alleviate his fears. For a moment it shook her, this difference between them, but then she thought of all the times he’d been tender. At those times he had needed sex in order to feel his love for her, yet even then there were differences, for at those gentle times, she’d needed sex because she already felt her love for him. She closed her eyes and slept for an hour. When she woke, his eyes were open and he was leaning on one elbow, gazing down at her face.

‘I hope I didn’t hurt you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry for the other day. I couldn’t bear to go away still at odds with you.’

She shook her head and lifted her hand to touch his cheek.

He got up and walked to the window. Laurence loved a room with a sea view and a balcony, so that is what they had, though Gwen preferred the view over the vast stretch of grass known as the Galle Face lawn. She liked to see the locals taking their evening walk there, and loved to watch the children playing ball.

When the clouds briefly cleared, they went outside and breathed in the salty ocean smell.

Laurence turned to her. ‘Do you think we might have just made another baby?’

She shrugged, staring over his shoulder at the twenty-foot white spray flying against the wall and bouncing back as foam. The fierce movement of the sea and the pounding noise echoed her own restless anxiety. He kissed the top of her head and seemed to be trying to keep the worry from his voice.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asked.

‘Nothing,’ she said as they walked along the sandy carriageway that edged the lawn, and with their backs to the sea watched a perfect scarlet sunset. When they turned round the ocean had turned to liquid gold, though further out black clouds were slowly gathering again.

‘Please don’t worry, Gwen. Just look after yourself and Hugh. I can do the worrying for both of us. Have faith. We will withstand this blow.’

The next morning, the weather was too inclement to take breakfast on the long hotel verandah overlooking the lawns; the sunrise over the sea had been unexceptional and now they sat among the potted palms of the lounge. She listened to the clink of teacups on saucers and watched well-fed Europeans chatting as they sipped their tea and buttered their toast, smiling and nodding without a care. She had hardly slept. The ocean had been too loud and so had the thoughts in her head. She glanced at her own untouched breakfast, at the egg congealing and the bacon drying out. She attempted a bite of toast, but it tasted flavourless and felt like cardboard in her mouth.

She poured the tea and handed Laurence a cup.

For a moment she felt angry with him for listening to Christina. None of the other planters had followed suit, so why had he? Why did it have to be them who faced an uncertain future?

‘Time is getting on,’ he said as he picked up his hat, and then stood. ‘Aren’t you going to give me a farewell hug?’

She stood abruptly, ashamed of her flash of anger, and knocked over her full cup of tea. As a waiter hurried over to clear up the mess, Gwen hung back, keeping her eyes lowered to the ground and blinking rapidly. She had promised herself she would show Laurence a confident happy face, and under no circumstances was she going to cry.

‘Darling?’ Laurence said with raised brows. He held out his arms.

She barely noticed people looking, and wishing so much that he did not have to go, she ran to him then clung on with a kind of desperation. They drew apart and his fingertips brushed her cheek, solicitous and loving. Her heart filled with love for him and she felt the pain of his going.

‘We will be all right, won’t we?’ she whispered.

Did she imagine it or did he turn his head away before he answered? She needed him to be strong in a way that wasn’t really fair. Nobody could be sure where the world was heading now. Only yesterday a New York banker had thrown himself from the roof of the stock exchange. And though she longed to tell Laurence about the sadness she felt, and how she dreaded the way it would slip round her heart the moment he was gone, she kept her mouth shut.

‘Of course we will be all right,’ he said. ‘Just remember, no matter how you feel about it, there are set ways of doing things.’

She frowned and, tilting her head to the side, stepped back. ‘But are they always the right ways, Laurence?’

He puckered his chin. ‘Maybe not, but now is not the time for change.’

She didn’t want to argue just as he was leaving, but couldn’t help feeling irritated. ‘So, my opinion doesn’t count?’

‘That’s not what I said.’

‘You implied as much.’

He shrugged. ‘I’m only trying to make things easier for you.’

‘For me or for you?’

He put on his hat. ‘I’m sorry, darling, let’s not quarrel. I really do have to go.’

‘You said I’d be in charge.’

‘Ultimately, you are. But allow yourself to be guided by Nick McGregor on matters of the estate. And, above all, remember I have faith in you, Gwen, and I trust you to make the right decisions.’

He hugged her again, while glancing at his watch.

‘And Verity?’

‘I’ll leave her to you.’

She nodded, fighting back the tears.

He moved off quickly, then, with a wide grin, he twisted back to wave. Her heart lurched, but she managed to lift her hand in return. For a moment after he had been driven away, she pretended he’d just gone for a stroll round the garden. But then her shoulders drooped. She’d miss him so much. Miss the familiar pattern of his breathing, miss the little looks that sometimes passed between them and the warmth she felt when he held her close.

She gave herself a talking to. There was no point wallowing, and their financial situation was something that had to be seen through until the end, though it seemed amazing that something that had happened as far away as America could have such a profound effect on her life, tucked away as she was on the little pearl drop that was Ceylon.

In the grand hall of the hotel, she glanced through the open doors again and, with some surprise, she saw Christina climbing into one of the new smaller-style Rolls-Royce cars. Part of her wanted to rush after Laurence to ensure the American wasn’t travelling on the same ship. The other part of her knew it would only make things worse and Laurence would think she didn’t trust him. She took a deep breath and decided to stock up on a few essential items for Hugh. Naveena skilfully cut down Laurence’s clothes for Hugh, but the child needed crayons and paper.

A little later, and just before she walked through the doors of the fancy red and cream brick-built building that was Cargills, a gnarled and wrinkled Tamil woman sidled up to her. She spoke rapidly and grinned, revealing a few black teeth with red tips. She spat on her palm then rubbed it against Gwen’s hand. The woman spoke again but still Gwen felt confused and glanced at the arched frontage of the store, itching to make her escape. As she turned away, the woman said ‘money’ in English. Gwen glanced down and saw the old lady carried a large curved bush-cutting knife under her arm. She delved into her purse and handed over some coins, then rubbed her hand on her skirt to remove the old lady’s spittle.

The incident stayed with her as she watched the team of brass polishers working on the metal vacuum tubes that slid the money up and down to a cashier on a higher floor. She bought the crayons and left.

With a general air of depression in the streets, the hum of the city had lessened somehow. It still smelt aromatic, of coconut, cinnamon and fried fish, but people looked thinner and more than usually dispirited, and fewer tea stalls lined the streets. She tried not to worry about what Laurence might be having to face alone – if he was facing it alone – but couldn’t help feel he hadn’t told her everything. She just hoped it was true that he would never have to sell the plantation. It had become her home, Hugh’s too, and they all loved it. Much as she missed England in a nostalgic sort of a way, she couldn’t imagine going back to live there, and could barely admit one of the reasons was that, if it happened, she would never know anything more about her daughter and would certainly never see her again.

As she walked through the Chinese bazaar on Chatham Street, she passed small fabric shops laden with silks, two or three herbalists and several shops selling lacquered goods. Pru Bertram was sitting in the window of a tea shop and waved at Gwen to come in, but Gwen tapped her watch and shook her head. Further on, more shops displayed Sinhalese brassware and delicate patterned glasses. Eventually she stood outside a jewellery shop, and from there could see McGregor drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited in the car a few yards down from the clock tower. She glanced at the shop window and paused. She looked a little closer; surely it couldn’t be, not after all this time? It couldn’t be. She narrowed her eyes to see more clearly, and held up a hand to protect her eyes from the sunlight. There had to be dozens that looked more or less the same, but still. She marched into the shop.

The jeweller handed her the bracelet for examination. She hesitated over the expense and haggled, but she could not leave it to be bought – and worn – by someone else. Hang the cost, she thought as she handed over the cash, and, after examining the catch, she fastened the bracelet round her own wrist for safekeeping. Puzzled by how it had turned up like this, she carefully turned over each silver charm until she found Fran’s little Buddhist temple. Perhaps it was a good omen.

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Next: Chapter 22