Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 26

25

The weeks that followed remained tense, with a kind of gloom settling about the house. Gwen bravely attempted to behave as normally as possible for Hugh’s sake, though it soon became clear Verity was drinking to excess. Almost overnight she became withdrawn, brooding in her room for hours on end, and at times Gwen heard her sobbing. At other times, she seemed brittle, even losing her temper with Hugh. Once or twice, Gwen had to admonish her, and afterwards she heard her moving about in Laurence’s room in the middle of the night. Melancholy hung about Verity when she did come down, and then, tall and thin, she loped around the house like a creature dispossessed.

There were no shortcuts to understanding her sister-in-law, and now Gwen worried for the girl’s state of mind. Mood swings were one thing, but this! When she tried to ask what it was about, Verity squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. It seemed as if her sister-in-law was trying not to give in to her feelings and, in the end, Gwen felt it better to let it run its course. If Verity’s unhappiness could be regarded as her just desserts, equally Gwen’s ‘revenge’ – if that is what it was – was not so sweet, and something about the girl drew her pity.

Gwen also felt bruised by what had happened with McGregor and kept out of his way, though with Naveena’s help she had managed to contact the dead man’s family. In the empty detached weeks until Laurence came home, she attended to her household duties, agreed the menus, ensured no laundry was being stolen and kept a firm eye on the accounts. But still she tormented herself over the man’s death and it left her feeling insecure and guilty.

On breezy days when the timbers of the bungalow creaked and groaned, she heard the footsteps of her absent child. Then she’d stand completely still as if waiting for the wind to bring some news, or, in order to break the spell, she’d compile a list of the contents of the storeroom, though anything mind-numbingly practical would do.

One morning she went to the kitchen and found only McGregor there, looking morose.

‘Mr McGregor,’ she said and turned to leave.

‘Have a cup of tea with me, Mrs Hooper,’ he said in a tone less brusque than usual.

She was surprised and hesitated.

‘Don’t worry, I won’t bite.’

‘I wasn’t thinking that.’

As he fetched a second cup and then poured the tea for her, she seated herself at the opposite side of the table.

‘All my life, I’ve worked in tea,’ he said, not looking up at her.

‘Laurence told me.’

‘I know these workers. But you come over here and you want to change everything. How is it that, knowing nothing, Mrs Hooper, you want to change everything?’

She started to reply, but he held up his hand, and she smelt a trace of whisky on his breath.

‘Let me finish. The thing is, the terrible thing is, the thing that has started to keep me awake at night …’

There was a long pause.

‘Mr McGregor?’

‘Is that, after everything, you may have been right about the flogging.’

‘Is that such a bad thing?’

‘For you, maybe not …’

Gwen cast around for an appropriate response. ‘What is it that really worries you?’

He hesitated and shook his head. There was another stretch of silence while his jaw worked and he appeared to be thinking. With no idea what went on inside this man, Gwen had only ever seen his gruff exterior.

‘What worries me, if you must know, is that I may not be able to adjust. I’ve given my life to tea, been part of the way it has been for so long … it’s in my blood, do you see? In the beginning we never thought anything of flogging the blacks. We hardly even thought of them as people, at least not people like you and me.’

‘But they are people, aren’t they, and one of them has lost his life.’

He nodded. ‘I changed my view a long time ago. I am not a cruel man, Mrs Hooper. I try to be fair, I hope you realize that.’

‘I believe we are all capable of change if we want it badly enough,’ she said.

‘Aye,’ he said. ‘If we want it. I have been happy here but, like it or not, our days are numbered.’

‘We have to move with the times.’

He sighed. ‘They won’t want us, you know, when it comes. For all we’ve done for them, it’ll be the end of everything.’

‘And maybe because of what we’ve done to them.’

‘And then I do not know what I shall do.’

Gwen watched, feeling the sense of resignation in him as his shoulders drooped.

‘How are things with the labourers now?’

‘Quiet. I think the man’s death shocked them as much as it did us. Nobody wants to lose their job.’

‘And the ones who started the fire?’

‘No one is talking. I have either to make a big show of involving the authorities or make it widely known that I believe it was an accident. It goes against the grain, but I have decided to let it pass as an accident.’

‘You don’t think there will be further trouble?’

‘Who knows? But it’s my bet the real trouble will begin in Colombo. The workers here have too much to lose.’

She sighed. Neither of them spoke for a while after that and, realizing there really wasn’t anything else to say, Gwen got up.

‘Thank you for the tea, but now I must find Hugh.’

She spent most of her free time with Hugh. Sometimes they played soldiers advancing on the enemy, usually one of the dogs. Sadly, the dogs didn’t understand their roles as vanquished soldiers and ran round in circles instead of lying down to die. Hugh shouted at them and stamped his feet.

‘Lie down, Spew! You too, Bobbins. Ginger, you’re supposed to be dead!’

Today Hugh whirled around the drawing room with his arms outstretched, pretending to be a British triplane and making himself dizzy.

‘Mummy, you be a plane too. You can be a German Albatros, and we can have a dog fight.’

She shuddered at the thought of air-to-air eruptions in the skies. ‘Darling, I don’t think I’m quite up to that. Why not let Aunty Verity read to you?’

Verity picked out a book and Hugh settled on the sofa beside her.

‘Which book is it?’ Gwen asked, and frowned when she looked over Verity’s shoulder. Gwen preferred Beatrix Potter, and claimed Verity’s choice, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, might frighten him. It was a long-standing difference of opinion.

Verity stood her ground. ‘He’s not a baby. Hasn’t he just been rushing around pretending to be a bomber aircraft?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, then. The Andersen stories are sometimes sad, but it’s such a wonderful imaginary world. I don’t want Hugh to miss out.’

‘And I don’t want him scarred for ever.’

‘But, Gwen, they are so much better than Grimm’s.’

‘You have a point. Maybe when he’s a little older.’

Verity threw down the book of fairy tales. ‘I can never do anything right for you, can I?’

Gwen was taken aback and felt a little exasperated. ‘Why not try Alice in Wonderland?’

Verity shrugged.

Gwen passed the book over. ‘Come on, Verity. Please don’t spoil things.’

Verity stared at the book, but didn’t reply, and when Gwen noticed tears in her eyes, she wondered if she was missing her brother.

‘What’s wrong?’ Gwen asked.

Verity shook her head.

‘Nothing can be that bad, can it?’

As Verity hung her head, Gwen went across to her and held her hands, squeezing them gently. ‘Come on, old thing. Chin up.’

Verity raised her head. ‘You do know I love Hugh, don’t you?’

‘Of course. It goes without saying.’

Verity sighed and no more was said.

A little later, just as Alice was sliding down the rabbit hole, the phone rang. All three looked up, but Gwen was first on her feet. When she answered it, a crackling voice told her that it was Laurence’s agent in Colombo, and that he’d received a wire saying that Laurence would be arriving in exactly one week’s time. Would McGregor pick him up from the docks? She said a silent prayer and went back into the drawing room. Watching her sister-in-law with her son, she wished she could keep the warm feeling to herself for a little longer.

Verity glanced up. ‘Who was on the phone?’

Gwen grinned.

‘Come on, tell. You look as pleased as punch.’

She couldn’t hold it in. ‘Laurence is coming home.’

‘When? He’s not already in Colombo, is he?’

Gwen shook her head. ‘He’s arriving in a week. He wants McGregor to pick him up.’

‘No,’ Verity said. ‘We’ll do it.’

Not sure if she wanted to go with Verity, Gwen pulled a face. ‘You’d have to drive.’

Hugh jumped up and down and clapped his hands.

Verity stood up, lifted Hugh off his feet and spun him round.

‘I’d love to throw a party to welcome him home,’ Gwen said. ‘It’s been so grim, and we all deserve a little fun.’

‘We’re supposed to be tightening our belts.’

‘It doesn’t have to be lavish.’

As Verity put Hugh down and stepped back, Gwen considered for a minute or two.

‘The food can just be canapés and we’ll have massive bowls of fruit punch, with honey from the hives and plenty of fruit from the trees. That’ll disguise the cheap alcohol. We don’t need a string quartet, we can play the gramophone.’

Verity smiled and Gwen realized she hadn’t seen her sister-in-law this happy for weeks.

‘We’ll spend as little as possible. Laurence will be furious if he comes home to a big display. And we’ll need to be here to oversee the preparations, so maybe McGregor had better fetch him after all.’

Verity shook her head. ‘You don’t want McGregor getting in first and telling tales. Because of the injured girl, he still blames you for the fire, and the man’s death.’

‘I thought he’d come round a little.’

‘Who knows? But do you want him speaking to Laurence before you have a chance to put your side of the story?’

‘I suppose I could drive myself.’

‘Gwen, I know you’ve got the hang of driving out and about around here, but all the way to Colombo? It’s not an easy route. What if you had an accident?’

She knew Verity was right.

‘Tell you what. The servants are accustomed to the old parties here, those opulent, money-no-object affairs. Why not stay to make sure it’s done your way? Keep an eye on the arrangements, and I’ll pick Laurence up on my own.’

‘I want terribly to go, but I don’t see how I can leave Hugh, when everyone will be so busy.’ And, not wanting to burst Verity’s happy bubble, Gwen decided to let her go.

‘Good. Now that’s decided, let’s draw up a list.’

Two days later, Gwen rose early. She stood outside her bedroom in her dressing gown and gazed at the mist curling between trees of the deepest green imaginable. She loved the lake, the views of the hills around it and the sound of the water lapping against the small inlets. And whatever happened in the future, she prayed with all her heart that they would not have to leave Ceylon. It had become the most beautiful place in the world to her, and though she missed her parents, Hooper’s Plantation was her home.

A little later she walked round to the top terrace, where the boys were already setting the table for breakfast. She sat down in a comfy rattan chair and watched the birds hop along the gravel pathways. Verity joined her briefly to say she was leaving for Colombo sooner than they had planned. She had some personal shopping to see to before she met Laurence at the harbour. In fact, while she was there, she hoped to see an exhibition of Savi Ravasinghe’s. He’d been taken up by the New York art crowd, so wouldn’t often be in Ceylon now. It meant she’d be away for about five days and she hoped Gwen didn’t mind.

Gwen shook her head. Though pleased that she was less likely to see Savi, she still felt a chill at the mention of the painter. ‘You go. Just bring your brother back in one piece.’

‘There’s talk of another harbour strike, so that’s another reason to go early.’

Gwen sighed. The expanding population of Colombo had led to a scarcity of rice, which had caused a tramway strike earlier in the year, and another harbour strike would be even worse. But she was also well aware that Verity’s early departure gave her no chance to change her mind about going too, unless she wanted to sit in a car alone with McGregor all the way to Colombo.

‘So, I’ll leave you now.’ Verity got up, kissed Gwen lightly on the cheek, waved at Hugh who was playing on the grass with Ginger, and she was gone.

Gwen had been living with her secret for so long that the initial heartbreak over the loss of her daughter had settled down into a dull but persistent sorrow. Occasionally it felt good to be alone, for, without Verity, she was free to allow her heart some space. She wondered what her daughter looked like now. Was she stocky like Hugh or fine-boned and petite like herself?

She longed to go to the village again and paced the room, crossing and uncrossing her arms, shaking her head and stopping to listen to the sounds of the house as she weighed it up. In her mind she pictured the peace of the village and all the noises of nature that surrounded it, but although she was tempted to try to find the way, the memory of the last time stopped her. She folded herself up in the chair by the window and, closing her eyes, imagined Liyoni swimming in the lake. Then she pictured her little girl running to her to be enfolded in a soft towel and smiling up at her mother as she gave her a cuddle.

She cried until the sadness passed, and then, after she’d wiped her eyes, she splashed her face. Maybe one day when Hugh was older and at school. Then she’d persuade Naveena to take her.

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Next: Chapter 26