Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 22
Next: Chapter 24

23

The next day was a Poya day, a Buddhist public holiday which happened at each full moon, and because it was so quiet Gwen overslept. Laurence always gave the household staff the day off, so that they could visit the temple to worship. For true followers it was a fast day or uposatha. For others, it meant shops and businesses were closed, and the sale of alcohol and meat was forbidden.

Most of the workers were Tamil, and therefore Hindu, but some of the household staff, like Naveena and the butler, were Sinhalese Buddhists. Laurence found it improved relations to close the plantation down on the twelve or thirteen times a year that full moon came around. And, of course, on the Hindu harvest festival too. It meant less division among the workers, and ensured everybody had a break of sorts.

First thing, Gwen checked on the little girl, with Hugh and Ginger at her heels. Hugh carried his favourite bear under his arm and, once in the room, held out his best Dinky toy to the girl. She took it, turned it over and spun the wheels, then broke out in a wide grin.

‘She likes it, Mummy.’

‘I think she does. Well done. It was nice of you to bring some toys for her.’ Gwen didn’t say, but thought that the little girl probably had no toys of her own.

‘I wanted to make her happy.’

‘Good for you.’

‘I’ve brought the bear too. And I asked Wilf, but he didn’t want to come.’

‘Why was that?’

Hugh shrugged in that comical way little children do when they look as if they’re trying to be adult.

She watched the two children for a moment. ‘I have some work to do. Would you like to play in my room?’

‘No, Mummy. I want to stay with Anandi.’

‘You can, but don’t ask her to move about. I’ll leave my door open so that I can hear you. Be good.’

‘Mummy, her name means happy person. She told me yesterday.’

‘Well, I’m pleased to see you two getting on so well. Now remember –’

‘I know. Be a good boy.’

She smiled and drew Hugh to her for a hug before she left the room.

In the hall, she listened to her son and the girl rattling on in Tamil, followed by the sound of laughter. He is a good boy, she thought as she went to her room to catch up with her correspondence.

After an hour or so the sound of raised voices disturbed her. Once she’d made out McGregor’s Scottish accent, and realizing she should not have left Hugh and the Tamil child alone, she hurried to the boot room.

The door to the courtyard was open and Gwen could hear that the shouting was originating there. When she glimpsed McGregor shake his fist at a woman wearing an orange sari, she took a breath and scanned the room. In one corner, Hugh sat on his bottom, arms wrapped round his knees. With a pinched face, and biting his lip, he looked as if he was trying not to cry. The girl was sitting up, tears spilling down her cheeks and dripping on to her open palms, almost as if she’d positioned her hands to catch them.

McGregor must have heard her come in, because he turned round with a blazing face.

‘What the devil is going on here, Mrs Hooper? As soon as your husband turns his back, you bring a labourer’s child to the house. What were you thinking?’

Gwen was surprised to see Verity come in, then squat at Hugh’s side.

‘I didn’t realize you were back,’ Gwen said, ignoring McGregor, but she couldn’t help feel that Verity had been waiting for an opportunity to alert the man.

Gwen went to Hugh. She leant over him and ruffled his hair. ‘Are you all right, darling?’

He nodded but didn’t speak. With a deep breath, she straightened up, took a step towards the man and folded her arms. ‘You have frightened these children half to death, Mr McGregor. Look at their faces. It’s inexcusable.’

He spluttered and she noticed his fists were clenched. ‘What is inexcusable is you interfering once again with the plantation workers. I’ve done my best to help you, given you gardeners, smoothed the waters for the cheesemaking, and you repay me like this.’

She stiffened. ‘Repay you? This is not about repaying you, or anyone else. This is about a little girl with a broken ankle. Even the doctor said she would end up crippled if it was not set quickly.’

‘The Tamil do not use Doctor Partridge.’

She felt her jaw twitch. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, listen to yourself. She is just a child.’

‘Is there a reason you care about this girl?’

She stared at him blankly.

‘Do you know who her father is?’

‘I recognized him, if that’s what you mean.’

‘He is one of the main agitators on the estate. You may remember he put a nail through his own foot once, in an effort to claim wages he hadn’t earned. He probably broke the child’s ankle himself.’

By now Gwen was almost shaking with a mixture of anger and fear. ‘No, Mr McGregor, he did not. She fell from the cheese-room window.’

‘And you know this how?’

She held his gaze, wishing she hadn’t said that. ‘Can we just concentrate on getting the child home safely?’

‘What was she doing at the cheese-room window? The workers are not allowed near the house. You know that.’

Gwen felt her face burn.

‘You’d better not tell him,’ Hugh piped up.

McGregor glanced into the room and spoke in a clipped tone of voice. ‘What had you better not tell me? What was she doing at the cheese-room window?’

‘I …’

There was a tense silence.

‘I think she may have come for some milk.’

‘Mummy!’ Hugh shouted.

‘Come for some milk! Let me get this straight. You are telling me she was stealing?’

Gwen stared straight ahead and felt absolutely awful. ‘I didn’t see her. It’s just that she had milk on her dress, the window had been left open and there was milk spilt on the cheese-room floor.’

Hugh came outside to stand at her side. He slipped his hand into hers. ‘She took the milk for her little brother,’ he said. ‘Her brother isn’t very well and she thought it would make him better. She’s very sorry.’

McGregor grimaced. ‘She certainly will be, and so will her father. No doubt he put her up to this. The father will be flogged and docked a day’s wages. I will not have my workers stealing from the house.’

Gwen gasped. The man seemed completely impervious to human misery. ‘Mr McGregor, please. It was only a little milk.’

‘No, Mrs Hooper. If you let one get away with it, they will all try. And I might add that I fail to understand why you are taking such a keen interest in this one girl. Remember how many there are of them. We have to rule them firmly or there will be chaos.’

‘But –’

He held up his hand. ‘I have nothing else to say on this matter.’

‘He’s right,’ Verity said. ‘There are fewer floggings than there used to be, but even now they are sometimes necessary to remind the workers who is boss.’

Gwen had to work to control her voice. ‘But they have rights now, don’t they?’

Verity shrugged. ‘Sort of. The minimum wage order raised wages for plantation workers and made subsidized rice prices compulsory, but that’s it. Mind you, we already provided subsidized rice three years before that. Laurence has always been fair.’

‘I know.’

‘But, you see, there’s nothing in the ordinance to prevent a flogging.’

The woman in the courtyard, who had hung back during this exchange, spoke again, and Gwen went over to her. She noticed her hair parted in the middle, her wide nostrils, her pronounced cheekbones and the gold earrings in her long-lobed ears. Under the orange sari, she wore a clean cotton blouse. It looked like she’d dressed especially to come to the house.

‘What is she saying, Hugh?’

‘She has put on her best clothes and has come to take Anandi home.’

‘Tell her to go back. It’s too far for the child to hop on one leg. Verity and I will take Anandi round in the car. She can put her leg up on the back seat.’ She glanced at Verity, who looked dubious.

‘Verity?’

‘Well, all right.’

They spent the evening quietly. Nothing more had been said about Savi Ravasinghe’s visit, though Gwen remained unhappy, partly because of that and partly because of the incident with McGregor. She assumed Verity had been the one to tell him, as there was no reason for him to be up at the house on a Poya day. It wasn’t really cold, but a fire was comforting, so Verity made it up, and as the servants were off-duty, Gwen prepared a simple meal of eggy bread, followed by jaggery pancakes filled with coconut and fruit.

Gwen left the curtains open, watching the moonlight shining on the water. Something about its soft, silvery blue surface reminded her of the spirits in the Owl Tree and the dew pond at the top of the hill at home. Under a full moon it gleamed in the same way, and she’d always thought there had been a feeling of other-worldliness about the Owl Tree at night.

‘Look, Mummy, I’m eating my carrots,’ Hugh said. ‘And so is Wilf.’

She glanced at his plate. ‘Those aren’t carrots, they’re oranges.’

‘Don’t oranges make you see in the dark too?’

Gwen laughed. ‘No, but they are good for you. All fruit is.’

‘Shall I play?’ Verity said, rising from her chair.

While Verity played, Hugh sang along to wartime marching songs, making up most of the words when he didn’t know them, and thank goodness he didn’t know some of them. He wanted Gwen to sing too, and looked at her with eager eyes, but she shook her head, claiming she was tired, though really she was simply sick at heart.

After Hugh was packed off to bed, Gwen crouched by the fire, poking it to let in air.

Verity leant back against the leopard skin. ‘I do like moon days.’

Gwen didn’t really want to talk, but if her sister-in-law was making an effort to be friendly, she had to try. ‘Yes. I quite like fending for myself. I just pray we don’t end up losing the plantation. It’s bad enough that Mr McGregor will have to lay off so many workers.’

‘Oh, he’s already done that. Didn’t you know?’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, the day before yesterday.’

‘He told you and not me?’

‘Don’t read anything into that. He’d have told you if you’d asked, I’m sure.’

Gwen nodded, but she wasn’t so sure.

Because she’d felt so low, Gwen had taken to her bed during the afternoon while Hugh was resting, so there was still a subject she hadn’t broached. She didn’t know if McGregor had carried out his threat to flog the man, and tried to imagine what Laurence would have done if he’d been here. Would he have left it to McGregor, or would he have intervened? To her knowledge there had not been a flogging while she’d been living at the plantation.

She rubbed the back of her neck but could not rid herself of the tension. ‘Do you know if McGregor carried through his threat?’ she eventually said. ‘Was the man flogged?’

‘He was.’

Gwen groaned.

‘It wasn’t pretty. His wife was made to watch.’

Gwen looked at her, trying to take it in. ‘You surely didn’t see it?’

Verity nodded. ‘The woman squatted on her haunches and made an awful moaning sound. She sounded like an animal.’

‘Oh God. You went? Where was it?’

‘At the factory. Come on. Don’t think about it. Shall we play cards?’

As she bit her lip to hold back her tears, Gwen felt raw.

Some hours later, Gwen lay awake and could not get the flogging out of her mind. Shadows played about the bedroom as she went over the part she had played. Had she only helped the child because of Liyoni? As the thoughts spun, she felt lonely and longed for Laurence’s arms round her.

There was an unusual sound outside – a muffled noise – not loud enough for her to be able to make out where it was coming from. She went through to check on Hugh in the nursery, but he was fast asleep, as was Naveena, and as Gwen listened to the old ayah’s gentle snores, she made a mental note to decide on a proper bedroom for Hugh. Not a baby any more, he needed space for his growing collection of toys, plus a little desk to do his dinosaur drawings. Back in her bedroom, she opened the shutter and peered out.

At first she saw nothing unusual, but as her eyes adjusted to the moonlight she made out a trace of tiny lights, too far away to see clearly. She thought nothing of it, assuming it was something to do with the full-moon holiday, so she closed and fastened her shutter, but left the window ajar.

She must have fallen asleep, because when she woke again the noise was louder. There was a faint sound of chanting, the voices rhythmic and almost musical. It sounded strangely magical and although it seemed to be coming from somewhere fairly nearby, she wasn’t afraid. Now that she was awake, and still thinking it was part of a full-moon ritual, she decided to look. It was probably nothing; it might even be that the sound had simply carried on the breeze.

She opened the shutter to peer out then stared at the sight of dozens of men marching along the path beside the lake. The dark figures looked deathly in the moonlight, but it was the smell of the smoke and kerosene from their flaming torches, and maybe some kind of pitch or tar, that really worried her. She quickly shut the window, ran through to close Hugh’s window, and woke Naveena.

‘Take Hugh upstairs to the master’s room, please, and wake Verity.’

She ran along the corridor and into the drawing room, where she stopped short. Through the open curtains she stared out at the blue moonlit garden. Beyond it, the smoke and yellow flames of the torches lit the faces of the men, and had turned the air above the lake brown. When it seemed as if the men were passing the house, she exhaled in relief and dashed over to close the curtains. Just then, a man came into view on the other side of the windowpane and, with a leap, his face loomed inches from her own. He glared at her, with wide eyes set in a shiny, dark-skinned face. Dressed only in cloth wrapped round his lower body, his long frizzy hair stood out round his head, a living incarnation of the mask Laurence had given Christina.

As he raised his fist and stared back at her, she froze, too terrified to move, though her heart was pumping harder than ever. He carried on staring and did not move off. She couldn’t bear to look any longer and, with shaking hands, forced herself to close the curtains to shut him out. She didn’t know if there were more like him coming up behind, ready to surround the house, but if there were, what should she do? She felt sick at the thought of Hugh being hurt, and ran to fetch Laurence’s rifle from the gun cupboard.

As the fear took hold, she could hardly think. There was no way to let McGregor know there were dozens of natives with burning torches who looked as if they were heading for his house. She pressed an arm against her ribs, as if to contain the panic, then ran up the stairs to Laurence’s room, where Verity, Naveena and Hugh were at the window.

‘Look, Mummy. They are going past. They aren’t coming here.’

Gwen opened the window and pointed the rifle. She watched for a moment as the stragglers continued to move past the house. One or two turned to glance back at her. One man shook his torch in the air.

‘Dear God, I hope McGregor will be all right.’

‘The noise will have woken him and Nick McGregor knows how to take care of himself,’ Verity said. ‘But, Hugh, you need to keep back from the window.’

Suddenly a shot rang out and then another. A terrible shrieking filled the air.

‘Oh God, he’s shooting them!’ Gwen said. As Hugh jumped and ran to be folded into Gwen’s arms, she passed the rifle to Verity.

‘Turn off the light. I don’t want them to see us.’

‘They’ve already seen us,’ Verity said. ‘Anyway, he won’t be shooting at them. He’ll be shooting into the air to scare them off.’

‘What if he hits one?’

‘Well, he might hit one or two, but it would be accidental. He’s got to disperse them somehow. Look, it’s working.’

Though she was scared, Gwen pitied the men, and feared McGregor’s pursuit of them, but while the workers’ wretched poverty moved her to tears, she realized that to Verity, they were too poor and insignificant to matter.

She looked across towards McGregor’s bungalow where a scene of immense confusion was unfolding. The men, like bees being smoked from a hive, were scattering; some had turned back and were already escaping. A few torches were burning out, some sizzling as they were thrown in the lake, and there was a sour, acrid smell spreading everywhere. Several failing flames continued to stain the air, but with relief Gwen saw that whatever it had been about, the men seemed to be taking the lake path and none of the stragglers appeared to be coming back up to the house. She prayed that nobody had been killed.

At that point, Verity, still hanging out of the window with the rifle, fired it into the air, the noise so loud it frightened Gwen half to death.

‘Why did you do that, Verity?’

‘I just want them to know that even though Laurence isn’t here, we can still shoot.’

Gwen took over the position at the window and remained watching until there was nothing left to see.

‘I think we should all go back to bed,’ she said after a while. ‘I’ll stay in here with Hugh. Naveena, use the spare room next to us. Now, goodnight, everybody.’

‘I’m not sure it’s over yet,’ Verity said. ‘Please can I stay here with you both? To help make sure Hugh is safe?’

Gwen thought for a moment. It probably would be better if they were together.

‘I’ll have the gun,’ she said, and though she would have done anything to protect her son, the thought of actually pointing the thing at another human being and killing them made her blood run cold.

Once Hugh had fallen asleep, Gwen touched his soft warm cheek, then lay staring at the darkness with thoughts crowding her mind. She felt ill at ease with Hugh sandwiched in between her and Verity, and wondered how she was going to tell Laurence why the men were so angry and vengeful. It had to be because of the flogging, but McGregor might have been killed – they all might have been killed.

Just before dawn, she sat bolt upright in the bed. Verity was at the door, wrapped in a blanket and speaking with Naveena in whispers. She held a candle and the rifle, and turned when she heard Gwen getting out of bed. She gave the candle to Naveena and put a finger to her lips, then held the door open for Gwen.

‘Quickly. Don’t wake Hugh. Put on Laurence’s dressing gown.’

Gwen did so and then went through to the landing, closing the door behind her.

‘Come on,’ Verity said, sounding excited.

‘What’s going on? Why is the smell worse than before?’

‘You’ll see.’

Naveena led the way along the landing, down the stairs, along the corridor and to the boot room, with only the flickering light illuminating their way. Gwen heard the snapping and crackling before she saw the fire, then through the boot-room window, saw that the sky had turned a dull orange.

In a panic, she pushed past Verity and Naveena to unlock the side door to the courtyard. Her hand flew to her throat as clouds of blue smoke billowed from the left side of the building adjoining the main house. It seemed out of control, with so much smoke that it wasn’t clear what was actually burning. There was a deep rumble followed by a loud crash as the main roof timbers of the cheese room collapsed, sending sparks and embers flying and black smoke exploding upwards into the half-light of the early-morning sky. Gwen’s eyes streamed as the stench of smoke and burning cheese spread right across the yard, and it became impossible to breathe.

The noise continued, though the cheese-room structure itself, built of stone with a concrete floor, was safe. Now the danger was that the flames might spread to the kitchens and the servants’ quarters via the wooden ceiling beams that connected them, and then the whole house. Terrified by the thought of what might happen next, and worried for her son, Gwen ran forward, but despite covering her mouth and nose, she began to splutter and cough, flapping her arms wildly as she did so.

Verity came after her.

‘Isn’t it exciting! Look, the appu and the kitchen coolies are already fighting it. The houseboys are round at the other side.’

As the men rushed about, shouting instructions to each other, she saw Verity’s eyes light up, but as her sister-in-law moved closer, Gwen stepped back from the heat.

It seemed to go on and on as the flames consumed the entire roof structure. Then, spitting and whooshing, they died back as the men dampened everything with pots of water and a hose. Gwen watched in relief, but when, after a moment, the flames burst through again, seeming to grow even wilder, it shocked her afresh. She felt helpless as the wind dragged noxious black smoke to spiral across the lake and orange flames to rise into the air above.

Eventually, as they watched the fire surrender, the men smothered the embers with rugs and Gwen, breathing more freely, wiped her stinging eyes. When it was completely dead, the men grasped each other’s hands, but as the appu checked to make certain that nothing more could catch, a heavy pall of smoke hung over the courtyard.

Verity shouted to him in Tamil.

He nodded, and said something Gwen couldn’t understand.

‘What did he say?’ she asked.

‘Nothing much. Just confirming the fire is out.’

Everything was smothered in ash and Gwen felt contaminated by the feel of it on her clothes and in her hair. ‘I’m glad you woke me,’ she said, brushing off the powdery flakes.

Tears pooled in Verity’s dark eyes. ‘Of course I woke you. Hugh means so much to me. I would never want to put him in danger.’

Together they went indoors. As Gwen went back up to Laurence’s room to be with Hugh, her eyes still smarting from the smoke, she shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if the fire hadn’t been spotted so early. It wasn’t the damage it had done that bothered her – the cheese room could be repaired – it was the damage it might have done. She wiped her face, and as the light slid across the room, she curled up in bed and stroked her son’s cheek. Thank God he was safe.

The only person she trusted to judge if things had become really serious was Laurence. She thought of him and the day he had gone away. She wanted to cry. Really cry. As the image of Christina getting into the car outside the Galle Face Hotel came back, a ray of weak light illuminated the table where Caroline’s face still shone out from its silver frame. I wish I could talk to you, she thought. Maybe you’d know what to do.

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Next: Chapter 24