Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 21
Next: Chapter 23

22

On the drive back home, Gwen couldn’t stop thinking about Fran. She missed her indomitable spirit and the way her chestnut hair shone as it swung. She missed her laughing blue eyes and would have given anything for a chance to bridge the gap that had opened up between them in London. Gwen felt as if something infinitely precious had been lost. She had no sister. Fran had been her sister, perhaps even more than a sister. They had, after all, shared much of their childhood, and had continued to be best of friends until Mr Ravasinghe had turned up in their lives.

She wanted to get the thought of that man out of her head, so while the rain held off for most of the way, she attempted to engage Nick McGregor in conversation, but with the engine vibrating so much, especially where the roads had been affected by the weather, it wasn’t easy.

‘I’m sorry we haven’t always seen eye to eye,’ she said during a lull.

‘Indeed,’ he said and changed the subject. ‘The state of these roads! They have improved over the years, but look at them. The monsoons break them up.’

‘So how are the labour lines in this kind of weather?’

‘It can be difficult, I’ll admit. The children do sicken.’

She frowned. ‘I thought we provided a medical clinic.’

‘It’s very rudimentary, Mrs Hooper. Just an estate pharmacist really.’

‘It’s not Doctor Partridge who runs it?’

He laughed. ‘Not for the Tamils. It’s a Sinhalese chap, up from Colombo. They don’t like him, mind, the Tamils.’

‘Why not?’

‘He’s Sinhalese, Mrs Hooper.’

She sighed with irritation. ‘Then get a Tamil doctor instead, one who maybe understands them better.’

‘Oh, he speaks Tamil all right.’

She glanced sideways at McGregor. ‘I wasn’t referring to their language. It was their culture I was speaking of.’

‘I’m afraid there is no Tamil doctor available. The next thing you’ll be wanting is to provide them with sickness pay when they aren’t able to work.’

‘Is that such a bad idea? Surely the welfare of the people matters.’

‘You don’t understand the native mind, my dear. If you give them what you suggest, they’ll all be complaining of some imaginary illness and lie about all day. We’d never get the tea plucked and processed.’

Gwen realized that, whatever she said, it would make no difference. Nick McGregor’s obstinate conviction in his own rightness was absolute.

‘And now with all the cuts I’m going to have to make, there’s no money for anything extra. No, my dear lady, best leave the labourers to me.’

‘Cuts, Mr McGregor?’

‘To the workforce. We’re going to be laying off two hundred, maybe more. A few have already gone.’

She shook her head. ‘I didn’t know. What will they do?’

‘Go back to India I expect.’

‘But some of them were born here. India isn’t their home.’

He glanced across at her and their eyes met briefly. ‘That isn’t my problem, Mrs Hooper.’

She thought of the beggar woman with the bush-cutting knife and felt a little ashamed. Perhaps the woman was one who had already been displaced. ‘I should like to learn their language.’

He inclined his head.

For several miles of tortuous hairpin bends and uphill roads there was silence, during which she looked out of the window at the heavy mists and thought of Laurence.

McGregor was the first to speak again.

‘You will miss your husband,’ he said.

She nodded and felt the tension building round her eyes. ‘I will, indeed. But what about you, do you have any family?’

‘My mother is still alive.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Edinburgh.’

‘But you’ve never been back in all the time I’ve been here.’

She glanced at McGregor as he shrugged. ‘We’re not close. The army was my family, until I injured my knee.’

‘That’s how you met Laurence?’

‘Yes, he gave me a job here, then during the war he left me in charge. I’m sorry if I may sometimes appear a little brusque, but I know the plantation inside and out. I ran the place for four years, and it’s sometimes difficult to accommodate the opinions of others.’

‘And you never married?’

‘If you don’t mind, Mrs Hooper, I’d rather not talk about it. We are not all lucky enough to find the right partner in life.’

The rest of the journey passed slowly, but they managed to arrive back by nightfall. Gwen was surprised to see Verity’s car still parked outside, and as she stood in the hall, she heard voices in the drawing room. Verity and a man, it seemed. Heels clicking, she marched to the drawing room and flung open the door.

Spew steamed quietly in his basket on the floor beside Mr Ravasinghe, who sat on a sofa, looking very relaxed and smoking a cigar. The shock of seeing him in her home jolted her and, suddenly disorientated, she wanted him gone.

‘Mr Ravasinghe,’ she managed to say. ‘I didn’t expect you to be here.’

He stood and bowed. ‘We took the dog for a walk. He does rather pong.’

She was shaking inside, so much so that she couldn’t believe it didn’t show, but when she spoke her voice remained level. ‘He normally stays in the boot room until he has dried off.’

‘Oh, that was my fault,’ Verity said with a smile. ‘Sorry.’

Gwen turned to face her sister-in-law. ‘I thought you’d have already left for Nuwara Eliya, Verity.’

‘Nuwara Eliya? Whatever for?’

‘To start your new job.’

Verity waved her hand in the air dismissively. ‘Oh, that! It all fell through.’

Already rattled by the glimpse of Christina in Colombo, and now horrified at seeing Savi Ravasinghe, Gwen drew in her breath. She had worked hard to get over her illness, had ensured that life at the plantation ran smoothly again, meals happened on time, rooms were cleaned in the correct order and the accounts all tallied, and yet Verity still managed to get under her skin.

‘Is it all right if Savi stays the night?’ Verity said with a wide grin. ‘I know you’ll say yes, because I’ve already asked one of the boys to make up a bed in the room next to mine. It would be too embarrassing if you said no now.’

Defeated for the moment, Gwen did not smile. She would have to choose her battles very carefully. She clasped her hands behind her back and dug a nail into the fleshy part of her hand, then, keeping very still, she replied. ‘Yes, of course Mr Ravasinghe must stay. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve had a rather long and tiring day. Is Hugh in bed?’

‘Yes. I gave Naveena the evening off and put him to bed myself. He and Wilf sung “Baa Baa Black Sheep” together.’ Verity glanced at Gwen’s wrist. ‘Goodness, that isn’t your cousin’s lost charm bracelet, is it? The one she made such a song and dance about?’

‘I’m very surprised you recognized it. Doesn’t one look much like another?’

‘I noticed the temple, that’s all. Was it here all the time?’

Gwen shook her head, making a mental note that Verity had paused before replying.

‘So where did it turn up?’

‘In a shop in Colombo.’

‘If you ask me, I think you should keep a watch on Naveena.’

Gwen clenched her jaw and left the room, not trusting herself to speak. The gall of the girl, she thought as she walked down the corridor. Naveena indeed! You might fool your brother, Verity, but I wouldn’t put it past you to have taken the bracelet yourself.

The next day the heat was building up earlier than usual, and the refreshing early-morning air had already thickened. Seeing Savi Ravasinghe had left a sour taste in Gwen’s mouth and brought frightening memories flooding back. With her heart pounding for most of the night, she had barely slept, but anxious to avoid seeing him again before he left, she wanted to keep busy.

Though her body ached with tiredness, she decided to check on the cheesemaking, before it grew too hot. The kitchen boy who’d taken over from her while she had been ill had made a pretty good fist of it, but it was time she took charge again. In any case, she’d missed the sense of pride it gave her to actually produce something more than an embroidered cushion.

As she closed the side door and looked around the courtyard, it was with some satisfaction that she noticed the banks of bulbs she had planted were now in flower. It was surprising how well some of the English varieties grew here: roses, carnations, even sweet peas.

Hugh had come out with her and was pushing a trolley around.

‘Come on, Hugh,’ she said, still feeling jumpy but doing her best to contain it. ‘Do you want to see Mummy make the cheese?’

‘Nooooo. I want to play out here with Wilf.’

‘Very well, darling. But you know not to go into the trees, don’t you?’

‘Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.’

She laughed. ‘All right, I think I got that. Come and tell Mummy if you want to go back inside.’

She unlocked the door of the cheese room and then left it slightly ajar, so that she could hear Hugh, who was happily singing to himself. She looked about her. There was something indefinably soothing about making cheese and she smiled, happy to be in her own domain. Everything was tidy. The marble slab they stirred the milk on was spotlessly clean, but a faintly sour smell hung in the air and somebody had left the window open. That’s odd, she thought, we never leave it open.

She closed the window to stop flying insects contaminating the milk, then wiped down the surfaces to be sure they were still hygienic. She went over to the heavy milk churn, and only managing to shift it to one side, she noticed a spillage on the floor, just behind where it had been. She cleaned up and then tilted the container to pour a day’s supply of milk into the large pan they used for heating. Afterwards she went out to ask a kitchen coolie to carry it for her, but once outside she realized the courtyard was quiet. Too quiet.

‘Hugh, where are you?’ she called.

There was no reply.

She told the kitchen coolie what she needed him to do, then went to peer into the tall trees.

‘Hugh, are you in there?’

No reply.

She walked back to the house but stopped outside the door. He might have gone in but he would have said; and, she reasoned, she’d have heard the door. She crossed the yard and at the edge of the tall trees she heard barking coming from the path ahead. Hugh must have gone into the woods after one of the dogs.

She took a few steps through the tunnel of trees and, after a moment or two, lost her footing as Hugh charged into her.

‘It’s a girl, Mummy. A big girl.’

She sat on the ground and frowned as Spew and Ginger jumped on to her lap and licked her face. She batted them away then wiped her face with her sleeve.

‘Is this somebody real, Hugh?’

‘Yes. She can’t stand up, Mummy. Spew heard, and Ginger and me go after.’

‘Went after, darling,’ Gwen said, standing up and brushing herself down. ‘Now look at the mess I’m in.’

‘Mummy. Come on!’

‘Well, I suppose you’d better show me, hadn’t you, if she’s real.’

He took hold of her hand and tugged.

As they walked along, Hugh spotted a broken earthenware jug that lay abandoned in the middle of the path. He bent to pick it up.

‘No. Best leave it,’ Gwen said.

He pulled a face, but did as he was told.

‘Is she far?’ she said, and ruffled her son’s hair.

‘No, she’s near.’

Gwen sighed, thinking of her cheese as they walked on. This was such a waste of time and would probably turn out to be a wild goose chase. But then, a little further on, she noticed a labourer bending over somebody sitting on the ground.

‘He wasn’t there,’ Hugh said. ‘She was all on her own.’

‘I think we’ll turn back,’ Gwen said. ‘Now there’s somebody to look after her.’

‘Mummy!’ Hugh pulled a face. ‘I want to stay.’

‘No. Come on now,’ she said, and tugged at Hugh’s hand.

She called Spew, but as they turned to go, a sharp cry halted them. They both twisted round to look.

‘Mummy, you must help her,’ Hugh said with an obstinate look that reminded her of Laurence.

As she watched the man and the child, it was clear that the child could not stand, and every time the man tried to lift her, she cried out.

‘Very well. Let’s see what’s going on.’

Hugh clapped his hands. ‘Good Mummy! Good Mummy!’

She smiled. Her son was repeating the way she often spoke to him when he’d been her ‘good boy’.

He ran on ahead and waited a few feet away from the man, who was now bent over the girl.

‘Her leg looks funny,’ Hugh said, wide-eyed.

The man glanced up at them, and Gwen was surprised to recognize the Tamil man she’d helped when she first arrived, the one who’d hurt his foot. From the look of distress on his face, it was clear he knew who she was too. He’d been in trouble because of their previous encounter, and she was well aware he might not relish her assistance. As she squatted down and looked her over, the little girl raised her head and gazed up with large brown eyes swimming with tears. Gwen’s breath quickened. The child’s eyes reminded her of Liyoni and instinctively she reached out with a surge of longing, the blood rushing to her head.

She did her best to draw back from the memory of her daughter and managed to steady herself. This girl was older than Liyoni, about eight, she thought, and she was Tamil, not Sinhalese, and much darker skinned. Her foot was lying at a strange angle from her swollen ankle, and her clothing was damp. At first Gwen thought the child must have wet herself, but when she sniffed, she realized it was milk.

‘Go and fetch the jug we saw, Hugh. The broken one on the path.’

When he returned carrying two pieces of the jug, the little girl shrank back and spoke in Tamil.

‘She’s sorry, Mummy.’

‘Can you understand her?’

‘Yes, Mummy. I listen to the houseboys every day.’

Gwen was surprised. Her own Tamil was poor, and though she knew Hugh was able to speak Sinhala, she hadn’t realized about the Tamil. ‘Ask her why she is sorry.’

Hugh spoke a few words and the girl said something, and then burst into tears.

‘She won’t say.’

‘Are you sure?’

He nodded very importantly.

‘Did she say anything?’

He shook his head.

‘Well, never mind that now. Run to the kitchen and say Mummy wants two kitchen boys to help her. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘And bring them here, straight away. Tell them it’s an emergency.’

‘What’s an emergency?’

‘This is, darling. Now hurry.’

The man was attempting to lift the girl again, but when the child shrieked in pain, Gwen shook her head and he seemed to give up. He glanced back in the direction of the labour lines and flapped his hands about, seeming anxious to be gone, but she couldn’t let him take the girl in that condition.

A few minutes later, Hugh came back with two kitchen staff. They spoke in rapid Tamil to the man and he replied in the same way.

‘What are they saying?’

‘They spoke too fast, Mummy.’

When Gwen indicated they were to lift the child, they did so, one holding her under her arms, the other by her legs. As she began to wail, they took a few steps in the direction of the labour lines.

Gwen told them to stop, and pointed back at the house.

The kitchen boys exchanged uneasy glances.

‘To the house, now,’ she said, in what she hoped was understandable Tamil, and Hugh repeated it, sticking his chest out and trying to look like the master.

Gwen led them to the boot room, cleared the table of junk and indicated they should put the child there. The man had followed them in and now stood shifting from foot to foot.

She pulled up a chair. ‘Hugh, tell the man to sit down. I’m phoning for the doctor.’

The butler, hearing the commotion, appeared at the door with a houseboy, but drew back at the sight of the Tamil father and child.

‘These should not be here, Lady. There is pharmacist, out in the tea bushes. You must call the factory.’

‘I’m calling the doctor,’ she repeated, and marched into the hall, past the astonished butler.

Luckily, John Partridge was in his surgery near Hatton, and it didn’t take him long to arrive. Gwen answered the front door and he came in huffing and puffing, and smelling of pipe tobacco. ‘I came as fast as I could. An injured child, you say.’

‘Yes. She’s in the boot room.’

‘Really?’

‘I didn’t want to move her more than necessary. I think she might have a broken ankle.’

When he entered the room, she heard him gasp quietly.

‘You didn’t say she was a Tamil child.’

‘Does it matter?’

He shrugged. ‘Perhaps not to you or to me, but still –’

‘They say there’s a pharmacist who deals with emergencies, but I thought she needed to see a qualified doctor right away.’

She held the child’s hand while the doctor examined her.

‘You were right,’ he said as he straightened up. ‘If this had been allowed to heal without being properly set, she would have been crippled for life.’

Relieved, Gwen let out her breath slowly. She couldn’t admit that the longing for Liyoni had stayed with her, though she didn’t believe she only wanted to take care of this girl because of that.

‘Have you plaster of Paris in the house?’

She nodded and instructed a houseboy to fetch it. ‘Laurence and Hugh make models with it.’

He then examined the child and patted her hand, before speaking to her in her own language.

‘I didn’t realize you spoke the language so well.’

‘I worked in India before coming here, picked up a smattering of Tamil there.’

‘I’m ashamed to say I have little of the language. The household staff always speak to me in English, so I have almost no chance to practise. Would you mind telling the father what you’re going to do? I’m assuming he is the father.’

The doctor spoke a few words and the man nodded. He glanced up at Gwen. ‘He is the father, and he wants to take her home now. He has a job cutting back the overgrown areas and he’s worried he’ll be in trouble for bringing the child in here. He’s right, McGregor won’t like it at all.’

‘To hell with McGregor. She’s just a little girl. Look at her face. Tell the father you have to set her ankle.’

‘Very well. Really, she shouldn’t be moved for a day or so.’

‘In that case, I insist she stays here until she is well enough to be moved. We’ll put a couple of camp beds in here and the father can stay too.’

‘Gwen, it might be better if the man goes back to the labour lines. He won’t want an unexplained absence. Not only will his wages be docked, but there is a danger he’ll lose his job.’

She thought for a moment. ‘McGregor did say there would be job losses.’

‘Well, then. Is it agreed? I’ll tell him he can go.’

She nodded and the doctor explained the situation to the man. The father nodded and squeezed the little girl’s hand, but when he turned his back and left the room, her face crumpled.

John Partridge glanced at Gwen and coloured slightly. ‘I’m afraid I never got to the bottom of that mix-up over your prescription. I’m so sorry. I’ve never made a mistake like that before.’

‘It doesn’t matter now.’

He shook his head. ‘It has worried me. I’ve only ever prescribed the higher strength for people with terminal conditions.’

‘Well, there was no real harm done and, as you can see, I’m as right as rain. I’ll leave you to your task, John. Come along, Hugh.’

‘I want to watch.’

‘No. Come with me now.’

A little later she was jolted from her pre-luncheon rest by the sound of Verity and Savi Ravasinghe returning from a walk round the lake. She stood up and caught sight of her reflection in the window, with what appeared to be the shadow of a girl slightly behind her.

‘Liyoni,’ she said, her voice no more than a whisper. She spun round. Nothing. A trick of the light.

She had desperately hoped that Verity and Savi Ravasinghe would have been gone and was barely able to look at the man as he entered the room.

‘I hear we missed all the drama this morning,’ Verity said, then sprawled on a sofa. ‘Do sit, Savi, it makes me nervous when people hover.’

‘I really must be going,’ he said with an apologetic smile.

Verity pulled a face. ‘You can’t go unless I drive you.’

Gwen swallowed her anxiety and prepared herself to cope with the small talk that would get her through. ‘I’m sure Mr Ravasinghe must be itching to get back to his work. Whose portrait are you currently painting?’

‘I’ve been in England, actually. I had a commission there.’

‘Oh, I hope it was somebody terribly important. Did you see much of my cousin?’

He smiled once more and inclined his head. ‘A little, yes.’

She tried to look at him dispassionately; thought again how attractive he must be to single women – good-looking, charming and, of course, very talented. Women liked that in a man, the same way they liked a man who could make them laugh. She admired his skin, so beautifully burnished with a hint of saffron, but it brought back the horror of what she knew must have happened. It was followed by a flash of anger so extreme she felt as if she’d been physically attacked. She clenched her fists and turned away, a band of tension tightening her chest.

‘Actually, it was your cousin he painted,’ Verity said with a smile. ‘Isn’t that absolutely fabulous of him? I’m surprised she didn’t tell you.’

Gwen swallowed. Fran had not told her.

‘Did you hear what I said, Gwen?’

She turned to face the man. ‘That is wonderful, Mr Ravasinghe. I shall look forward to seeing it when I’m next in England. There seems to be so much else to do, I’m not always able to keep in touch.’

‘Like rescuing injured Tamil children. Is that what you mean, Gwen?’ Verity had spoken with an innocent look on her face and raised her brows, then smiled at Savi, as if to communicate something Gwen was not intended to understand.

Something snapped in Gwen, so much so that she didn’t care if they could see she was actually shaking.

‘I didn’t particularly mean that. I meant being a wife to Laurence, looking after Hugh and running the household, especially now that we have to keep a close eye on what we spend. The accounts, Verity. You know. And all the money that went missing. I wondered, actually, if you might be able to throw some light on that.’

At least her sister-in-law had the decency to redden before she glanced away.

‘Mr Ravasinghe, Verity will take you to the station now.’

‘That’s just it,’ he said. ‘There aren’t any trains at this time.’

‘In that case, Verity will drive you to Nuwara Eliya.’

‘Gwen, really –’

‘And to avoid any confusion, I mean right now.’

She turned her back on them both and marched over to the window again, so taut she felt as if she might easily snap in two. She watched a heron fly low just above the layer of white mist rising from the lake and listened until they both got up and left. As she heard the squeal of tyres she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, the relief warming her skin and softening her muscles. She felt poised at the point when life shakes itself up, and you have no idea where you’ll be standing when it settles in a new pattern, or whether you will be standing at all. What she did know was that now Laurence was not around, the battle lines had been drawn.

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Next: Chapter 23