Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: 4: THE TRUTH
Next: Chapter 28

27

1933

As Gwen bent down to pick up some pens that Hugh had abandoned on the boot-room floor, she twisted her head to glance through the window at the men erecting a scaffold of bamboo outside her old cheese room. Though it had taken all these years for the work to begin, at least it was now underway. She couldn’t begin to explain the delay, except that there had been endless discussions over alternative uses, and at one point it had even been on the cards to pull it down.

She went through to the dining room where the August sun, shining through horizontal blinds, had painted the walls with yellow lines. Outside the birds were singing, but poor old Hugh, now seven, was sitting at the table, scratching his head while poring over his sums. Gwen wanted him to be well up to the mark in Maths and English grammar before he started school in Nuwara Eliya as a weekly boarder.

Laurence pushed open the door. ‘How’s it going?’

Gwen pulled a face. ‘Arithmetic isn’t his favourite.’

‘Wasn’t mine either, I have to admit.’

She smiled. ‘Actually, Laurence, his drawing is wonderful. What would you say to giving him private lessons?’

‘I think private Maths tuition would be money better spent.’

She sighed. Hugh’s drawings were so much more advanced than Liyoni’s, but she’d kept all the little girl’s attempts at human figures with overlarge heads and the strange-looking animals that didn’t quite match up to any living thing. Only when she was alone at night did she dare look at them. But there had been a long gap since the last one and Gwen, beginning to worry, had sent Naveena to find out if something was wrong. Children had been going missing from some of the local villages and turning up later as cheap labour in the paddy fields.

She looked up at Laurence and wished they could really talk. It always seemed to be about money ever since Laurence’s ‘welcome home’ party nearly four years before.

He smiled. ‘It’s not all bad. One good thing about this damn Depression is that it’s forced the union to moderate its demands. People are too worried about their jobs to persist in radical action. I know we need change but we have to find the right way to do it.’

She rubbed her forehead. Despite more than three hundred of his immigrant workers having returned to India, over-production and the Depression had caused the price of tea to plunge. She felt horrified that so many of the poor had lost their jobs, and with them what little they owned in the world, the extent of their poverty a truly dreadful thing.

‘Our biggest problem at the moment is what to do about the plantation Tamils,’ Laurence continued. ‘It was a big mistake not to give them the vote too. Just adds to their sense of injustice.’

Gwen nodded. Ever since the fire, tensions had rumbled on, with minor eruptions all over Ceylon, though more serious disputes had begun in 1931, when everyone but the Tamil workers had been given the vote.

‘I don’t see how they can still be considered temporary.’

‘Quite. As I said, it’s made things worse,’ Laurence added.

Though Gwen kept a close eye on the household accounts, and restricted spending rigorously, in comparison with the workers she still lived in the lap of luxury. Since she was a girl, every breath Gwen had taken, every word she’d spoken, every thought she’d had were geared towards being a wife and mother, and she had done her best. But it had been saddening to watch Laurence’s hopes for new growth being dashed over and over. Although he’d grumbled when her father had offered to pay Hugh’s school fees, just until they were back on their feet, she’d been happy to accept.

‘Have you heard from Fran?’ Laurence asked.

‘She’s coming in a few months’ time.’

‘I’m glad. We owe your cousin a great deal.’ He ruffled his son’s hair. ‘Now, you work hard for your mother, Hugh, and I’ll take you up to the factory tomorrow. Is it a deal?’

Hugh’s eyes sparkled.

‘Laurence, why is Verity here again? She just doesn’t seem to want to leave us alone.’

Verity kept turning up like a bad penny, with a stream of unlikely excuses, from a burst water pipe preventing her from washing her hair to the smell of fish giving her headaches. Her marriage hadn’t prevented her clinging to her brother, and now that there was a touch of desperation about it, Gwen felt something serious had to be fuelling her behaviour.

Laurence frowned. ‘Truth is, I don’t really know.’

‘Can’t you find out what’s wrong? She’s here far too often for a newlywed. Surely she needs to work through her problems with Alexander, not just run away to us?’

‘I’ll try, but I’ve got to make tracks now – I’m off to Hatton in the truck.’

‘Not the Daimler?’

He glanced away. ‘It’s still in the garage waiting for repairs.’

After Laurence left, Gwen thought about Verity as she settled down in the chair opposite her son. Despite her sister-in-law remaining a victim of mood changes, she’d eventually married Alexander Franklin, a decent but unexciting chap, and they lived down by the coast where he owned a fish farm. The marriage, six months previously, had surprised them all, but Gwen had been hugely relieved, and had hoped that married life might straighten her out. Now, it seemed, those hopes had been misplaced.

She watched Hugh chew the end of his pencil, then scrub out his most recent answer. Arithmetic was a struggle for him and she worried about how he’d cope at school. His hair had darkened, and now fell exactly the same way that Laurence’s did, with a double crown and a wave at the front. Hugh’s eyes were the same dark brown as his father’s too, though his skin remained fair, like her own. He still talked of his imaginary friend, Wilf, as if he were real, and Laurence didn’t like it.

She was about to point out a mistake in his calculations when Naveena came in and hovered just inside the door.

Gwen glanced up at her.

‘Lady, may I speak with you?’

‘Of course, come in.’

But Naveena nodded at the door, and Gwen, seeing the worried look in the old ayah’s eyes, immediately went over to her.

Gwen sat on the bench under the curved top of the bullock cart and twisted her wedding ring round. Although it had been seven years since her previous visit to the Sinhalese village, she remembered exactly how it had felt. They passed the place she had mistaken for the track on her wild walk in the rain, and soon after turned down a potholed trail where dark trees had been permanently bent by wind.

In the almost silent forest, the light was green and gloomy, but when they came out into more open territory, the same smell of charcoal and spice filled the air, just as it had done before. When they reached the steep riverbank, Naveena did not stop, but carried on through the village to a place where the banks were only slightly higher than the level of the water, and the river was wider. Today it looked brown and muddy, not clear and sparkling as it had been before, and there were no elephants taking a bath. Instead, several children were jumping about in the river, dipping earthenware pots and tipping the water over their heads.

Gwen dismounted and watched as the children called to each other while pointing at the bullock cart. After a few minutes they ignored the cart and carried on as before. The younger ones had round bellies and their ribs showed more than they ought. It was hard to tell their ages, but they seemed to range from about three to eleven or twelve. With sharp concentration, Gwen attempted to pick out a girl of seven.

‘There is a strong wind blowing today,’ Naveena said and pointed at the trees on the opposite bank, where a girl was pulling herself out of the water.

‘Liyoni?’

Naveena nodded.

Unable to stop staring, Gwen saw that the child was too thin. She wore only a cotton sarong, dripping from her swim across the river. Her hair was tied back with some kind of ribbon and hung in a long wet column down her back.

‘Apart from being thin, she looks all right,’ Gwen said, twisting her head to glance at Naveena.

All the ayah had revealed so far was that there was a problem. Nothing more.

‘So what is the problem?’

As Naveena started to explain, Gwen was so absorbed in watching the girl slide into the water and begin her swim back across the river that she stopped listening. First the child’s head was showing above the water and then, after a minute, her body was completely submerged.

‘She swims like a fish,’ Gwen said, more to herself than to Naveena.

‘Just wait, Lady.’

As she followed the stream of water the child was leaving in her wake, Gwen continued to be amazed by the fearless way she swam and the ease with which she flew from the far side of the river to the nearer edge.

Naveena tapped her arm. ‘Now.’

As the little girl climbed out of the water, Gwen narrowed her eyes in an effort to see, but it was only when the child began to walk along the riverbank that Gwen realized.

‘She has a limp.’

‘Yes.’

‘What is the matter with her?’

Naveena shrugged. ‘That is only one part of the problem. Her foster mother will no longer keep her. She is sick, and her own two children have gone to live with their grandmother.’

‘So who is looking after Liyoni now?’

‘Since last week, nobody.’

‘Call her over, will you?’

Naveena beckoned and called out. At first the girl carried on walking, and it looked as if she was going to ignore them, but then she spun round and stared. She took a few awkward steps towards them then stood still again.

Naveena spoke to her in Sinhala, and the girl shook her head.

‘What is it?’ Gwen said. ‘Why won’t she come?’

‘Give her a few minutes. She is thinking.’

As Gwen watched, she was aware of the little girl’s uncertainty and realized that with the strong instincts of a native child, she must have sensed that something unusual was happening.

‘Tell her she is safe, that we won’t hurt her.’

Naveena spoke again, and this time Liyoni hung her head, but did come closer.

Gwen winced at the way the child’s limp was hindering her movement. ‘Is she in pain, do you think?’

‘I think, yes.’

As thoughts swam in her head, Gwen closed her eyes for a moment. When she looked again she saw the little girl walk up to the cart and stop just a couple of feet away. The sun lit Liyoni’s face and Gwen noticed that though the child’s eyes were brown they were flecked with a similar shade of violet to her own.

‘Is there no one to take her?’

Naveena shook her head. ‘I have asked, Lady.’

‘Are you sure?’

In the silence, Gwen tried to think, but the panicky feeling in her throat and chest stopped her brain from working. She thrashed around for solutions, but with her thoughts flying off in different directions, she kept returning to an image of her home. When she closed her eyes, all she could see was the plantation and everything she had built up over the years. It was not just her own downfall that frightened her, but the thought of the pain she would cause Laurence. She buried her face in her hands. She could never expect to be forgiven, never; yet if Naveena could not find a home for Liyoni …

When she looked up, she smelt burning wood and food cooking – but no one would be cooking for Liyoni.

‘There is nobody?’

The ayah shook her head.

‘Not even for more money?’

‘They are afraid of the child, that is what. She is not one of them.’

Gwen closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of life with just one thought spinning in her mind.

‘We can’t leave her to fend for herself.’

As the truth of what she must do hit home, fear dragged the breath from her lungs. She wiped her clammy hands on her skirt and, despite the gravest misgivings, she made her decision. She could not leave her daughter on her own. That’s what it boiled down to. With just the one choice, she braced herself and swallowed hard before she spoke.

‘Very well, then. She must come with us.’

Naveena’s wrinkled brow showed her anxiety.

‘When it’s dry,’ Gwen asked, ‘does her hair curl like mine, in ringlets?’

Naveena nodded.

Gwen chewed the inside of her cheek and tasted her own blood.

‘If we keep her hair plaited and tied back, and dress her plainly, nobody will guess she has anything to do with me. It’s only an unusual eye colour, after all, and nobody will be looking for similarities, will they?’

Naveena still looked uncertain.

Gwen managed to distance herself from her fear and momentarily gave way to a more primal desire: the desire to be a mother to her child.

‘Then it is settled. We shall say she is a relative of yours, come to learn the duties of a housemaid and ayah’s helper. Can you explain it to her, please?’

As Naveena spoke to the child in soft, soothing tones, Gwen watched carefully, focussing all her attention as if her life depended on it. At first the child shook her head and backed away, but Naveena caught hold of her hand and pointed to her bad leg. The girl glanced at her leg, and then up at Gwen, and said something in Sinhala.

‘What did she say?’

‘She wants to know if she will still be able to swim if she comes with us.’

‘Tell her she shall swim in the lake every day.’

This time, when Naveena spoke, Liyoni smiled.

‘I have explained to her, Lady. She knows that her foster mother has gone and that she is alone. Of course, she thinks of the woman as her mother and is very sad.’

As a lump formed in her throat, Gwen nodded but could not speak. The little girl had lost her family. She gulped, and Naveena, seeing her emotion, allowed her a moment to recover while sympathetically busying herself with the girl. Gwen felt sick with guilt and shame. She tried to convince herself that it would work out, but couldn’t deny the very real current of fear that continued to run alongside her feelings for the child.

‘Has she much to bring?’

‘Only little. I shall go with her. You waiting here.’

As Naveena and the girl walked away, Gwen scanned the compacted earth street. Over in the trees beyond, a family of squirrels raced along the branches, sending out a high-pitched trill. Nearby, a couple of women wearing white tops and coloured saris carried large baskets balanced on their heads. Another woman stopped at the bullock cart and stared in. She had thick lips, but a fine nose and deeply shadowed eyes. Gwen quickly covered her own face with her shawl.

To Gwen, Ceylon was a place where British dreams had been built and fortunes made, where English families had lived and children had been born, and where her life had changed beyond her wildest dreams. Yet here was a different world, where girls ran about in simple cotton tops and threadbare skirts, where babies gurgled and crawled in the dirt, and people did not have enough to eat.

Liyoni was dressed like the other girls when Naveena brought her back, and she carried a small bundle under her arm.

Gwen glanced up at the sky. Heavy rain clouds had massed on the horizon and they’d be lucky to get back before the weather broke.

On the long journey back, Gwen had felt so sick that Naveena needed to stop the buggy twice for her to vomit in the bushes. But in between bouts of sickness, she and the ayah had concocted a plan.

Back at the house, Gwen helped the child down from the cart and wrapped her shawl round her to protect her from the rain. She glanced at the front door and, heart in mouth, decided to duck round the house to the lakeside, and then slip in through her own full-length verandah windows. Less chance of being spotted, even if it did mean a soaking.

When Naveena turned to attend to the bullock, Liyoni attempted to follow the ayah. Gwen shook her head and took the child’s hand, scared she might struggle, but the girl only hung her head and walked meekly by her side.

As the two skirted the drawing room, Verity was standing at the window wearing a flowing yellow dress, seemingly just staring at the gardener mowing the lawns. She raised a hand to wave and Gwen saw it freeze in mid-air, its stillness an exact mirror of the surprise on her sister-in-law’s face.

A gust of wind cut through her and, teeth chattering with fear, Gwen nodded and hurried to her room, wanting to slip the girl through to the nursery as quickly as she could. Damn! It had to be Verity. The butler had kept an eye on Hugh all day and when she heard her son thundering about upstairs, she was relieved that he was playing with his train set, just as she’d hoped. How he might feel about another child being in the house she could only wonder.

She motioned to Liyoni to come with her and they went in, stopping only to lock the windows and the bedroom door from the inside. She picked up a dry shawl, removed the wet one from Liyoni’s shoulders, and then, once through the bathroom and the door adjoining the small passageway, it was only a moment before they reached the nursery, and temporary sanctuary. Before she lost courage, Gwen closed the curtain against the daylight, and any other curious onlookers who may have noticed their arrival, then she leant against the wall with her head bowed. How would she cope under Verity’s scrutiny? She calmed her breathing and closed her eyes to stop the tears. Naveena wasn’t in the room, but Gwen knew she would be gathering her things to bring them to the nursery where she and the child would sleep.

In an attempt to get Liyoni out of her wet clothing, Gwen mimed what she wanted her to do, but the girl shook her head and stared at her.

‘You, Liyoni,’ Gwen said, pointing at the child. ‘Me, Gwen. I am the Lady.’

She tried a few words of Sinhala, but with no effect. She hesitated. Liyoni looked doubtful and sullen. Gwen herself felt wary. She knew nothing about the child. Nothing about her character, nothing about her life up until now. Nothing about what she liked or what she didn’t like. She held out a hand to her daughter, but the little girl stared at the floor and didn’t respond. Gwen felt a lump in her throat again. Whatever she did, she must not let her daughter see her cry.

She tried again to divest Liyoni of her clothes, and was struck by how far the little girl might have to go to accept her new life, and how much further she herself needed to go to properly care for her. The feeling of unease grew as she heard her sister-in-law calling from the corridor outside her bedroom. She shuddered, terribly aware of the risk she was taking.

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Next: Chapter 28