Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 28
Next: Chapter 30

29

For some time after that, Laurence was quiet. Whenever she came into a room he glanced up at her as if waiting for her to say something, but she was damned if she would apologize for her temper. Aware that bringing Liyoni to the house might turn out to be the worst mistake of her life, she had tried to look for alternatives but had drawn a blank.

On the pretext of going to a meeting of the Women’s Charity Union, she visited an orphanage in Colombo, an overcrowded place reeking of urine. Afterwards the memory of it gave her sleepless nights. Above all, she wanted to protect her marriage, but she could not bear for Liyoni to be sent there.

During the next few weeks, Laurence occasionally asked how her plans to find the girl another home were going, and so far Gwen had managed to change the subject, but it had strained her nerves to breaking point. Meanwhile, Hugh thrived on helping Liyoni learn. She was now able to understand simple English commands, and to ask for what she needed. But the little girl tired easily and, until Hugh started school in the autumn, Gwen still had to find ways to keep the children apart, for at least part of the time. Far from Liyoni’s arrival causing jealousy, Hugh absolutely worshipped her, and on the occasion she was sick in bed with a bad cough, he had to be forced to keep away.

Verity was another matter. With no further clarification of her reluctance to return to her husband, she was still around on the afternoon of Laurence’s birthday, and when Hugh came in for the birthday tea with Liyoni in tow, she glowered at her brother. Though Gwen thought it a shame when Verity spoiled her looks in that manner, her sister-in-law was looking quite chic in a long, slim-fitting outfit. It crossed Gwen’s mind to wonder where she was finding the cash for expensive new clothes. Her husband wasn’t especially wealthy.

‘I put my foot down at this,’ Verity said. ‘That child is not a member of our family and this is a family birthday celebration. In fact, Laurence, why is she still living here? I thought you said you’d speak to Gwen.’

‘Let’s not have a scene, Verity.’

‘But you said –’

Gwen stepped in quickly and, making a fist to contain her anger, she spoke to Hugh. ‘Sorry, darling, but your Aunty Verity is right. Tell Liyoni to go and find Naveena. She can find something for her to do.’

Hugh pulled a sulky face, but did as he was told. During this exchange, Verity continued to complain about Liyoni’s presence in the house.

Still vexed by her sister-in-law’s constant intrusion in their lives, Gwen interrupted again. ‘Actually, Laurence and I have discussed the matter, and he has left it up to me to deal with the situation. Let me remind you once again, Verity, that I am mistress here, and since your marriage you are merely here as a guest.’

‘Hang on, Gwen,’ Laurence said.

‘No. I will not hang on. Not for you. Not for Verity. Either I am mistress here or I am not. I am absolutely sick of your sister poking her nose into my affairs. It’s time she went back to her husband.’

Laurence tried to put an arm round her shoulders, but, feeling shaken, she shrugged him off.

‘Come on, darling. It is my birthday.’

‘I don’t want Aunty Verity to go, Mummy,’ Hugh protested.

Gwen glanced at the table, set for the four of them, with the best china and silverware, prettily arranged on a freshly starched damask tablecloth. She controlled her anger.

‘All right, darling. Mummy and Daddy will talk about this later. Let’s have the birthday tea.’

But the days of free-flowing champagne were gone, and when the appu brought in Laurence’s fruitcake on a silver platter, they washed it down with cups of tea. And the presents, once towering almost to the ceiling, now struggled to reach even a small pile.

‘Let’s not bother with the search,’ Laurence said.

‘I think we should,’ Verity said.

Gwen sighed. If Verity wanted the blindfold, the blindfold she would have. She went to the sideboard, sifted though the remains of the party paraphernalia, and pulled out a long strip of thick black fabric which she bound round Laurence’s eyes, knotting it at the back.

‘Now turn Daddy round three times,’ Hugh ordered.

The idea was that the pile of presents would magically vanish and Laurence, blindfolded, would have to find them all before he could unwrap any.

He dutifully stumbled around the room, play-acting the oaf, which sent Hugh into hoots of laughter. He was on all fours, tapping the floor round the open door, when they all heard clicking heels. Everyone froze.

‘Well, I say, I hoped you’d be thrilled to see me, but bowing and scraping takes the biscuit. I never thought I’d see the day.’

Laurence tore off his blindfold and smoothed his hair as he stood. ‘Christina!’

‘The very same.’

‘But you’re not due until next week,’ Gwen said.

Hugh stamped his foot and turned red. ‘She’s spoilt it! Daddy didn’t even find his presents.’

‘Ah,’ Christina said. ‘Maybe I can make up for that. I have presents too.’

Laurence and Gwen exchanged looks.

‘Did you know it was Laurence’s birthday?’ Verity said.

‘What do you think? But these are for all of you, not just for Laurence. My man is waiting in the corridor.’ She spun round and snapped her fingers. A Sinhalese man in a long white linen coat came in, loaded with shopping bags.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to get them wrapped.’ She dug into one of the bags, pulled something soft out, still on its hanger, and then passed it to Gwen.

Gwen caught it, unrolled the beautiful fabric and held up a two-piece outfit, just like the ones in Good Housekeeping.

‘I thought it would complement your eyes,’ Christina said. ‘Such a lovely shade of lilac. And, Hugh, this train set is for you.’

She put the box on the table and Hugh’s eyes shone as he ran his fingers over the pictures of the engine and its compartments.

‘What do you say to Christina, old son?’ Laurence said.

Hugh only just managed to drag his eyes from the train set. ‘Thank you very much, American lady.’

Everyone laughed.

‘Verity,’ Christina continued, ‘I have a crocodile-skin bag for you. I thought you’d like it.’

‘Thank you. You didn’t have to.’

‘I never do anything I have to. This was just for fun.’ She paused and winked at Laurence, then blew him a kiss. ‘And now for the birthday boy. I have something extra special for you, darling, though I’m afraid it isn’t anything you can hold in your hands.’

‘Is it a car? Are you giving Daddy a new car? He wouldn’t be able to hold that in his hands.’

‘No, sweetie, do you think it should be a car?’

‘Yes I do!’

‘Actually, if you all don’t mind, I’m rather tired now. Your daddy’s present will have to wait until after your bedtime.’

Hugh started to complain but, still seething over Christina’s unannounced arrival, which no number of expensive presents could atone for, Gwen silenced him with a look.

‘It’s almost time for Hugh’s bath, Christina, so if you don’t mind, Verity will show you to the guest room and I’ll see you again at dinner. We don’t dress these days.’

‘Oh, but you must. I insist. It is a special occasion, after all.’

Gwen nodded with a mix of annoyance and suspicion, and took hold of Hugh’s hand. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Off we trot. You can have your bath in my room today.’

Hugh clapped his hands and chatted excitedly all the way to her bedroom. While she ran the bath, she couldn’t help wonder how Liyoni had fared. Although she looked a little better, her limp seemed to be more pronounced each day. If it got any worse, the child wouldn’t be able to carry out the few light household duties Gwen had found for her. It was work for appearance’s sake and didn’t really matter, but she had to maintain the illusion.

There had been an infected sore on the little girl’s foot which Naveena had treated with herbal tincture and then bound. Gwen had expected the limp to have disappeared once the wound cleared up, but it had not. Doctor Partridge would come to give Hugh the once over in a couple of days’ time, and she decided to ask him to look at Liyoni too.

They were enjoying coffee in the drawing room after dinner, when Christina revealed her great idea. Verity was sitting on the leopard-skin sofa next to the drinks table, Laurence stood by the mantelpiece and Gwen was perched on an upright chair on the other side of the sofa, keeping an eye on the brandy bottle. They’d left the curtains open and the night-time world outside was lit by an almost-full moon.

‘Brands,’ Christina said, with a wide grin. She leant back in her armchair and placed what looked like a picture wrapped in brown paper on the floor beside her chair.

‘Pardon?’ Laurence said.

‘Brands. It’s the way to go.’ She got up and went to stand next to Laurence, placing a hand on his shoulder and leaning against him. Then, with her face close to his, she looked into his eyes. ‘Didn’t you look at the magazine I sent you, darling?’

‘Laurence glanced at it,’ Gwen said, feeling like spitting but managing to maintain a calm exterior. ‘Neither of us had a clue what you meant.’

Christina, who was smiling at Laurence, twisted back to face Gwen. ‘What did you notice in the magazine?’

Gwen eyed the room. As well as the presents, Christina had arrived laden with bouquets of flowers that were now elegantly arranged in four cut-glass vases, their perfume filling the air.

‘There were an awful lot of advertisements.’

Christina clapped her hands. ‘Well done you!’

‘Are you suggesting we advertise?’ Laurence said as he took a step away from the American. ‘That doesn’t seem much of an idea, if you’ll pardon my bluntness.’

Christina threw back her head and laughed. ‘Darling, I’m American. Of course I don’t mind your bluntness. How funny you English are.’

Laurence jutted out his chin and Gwen wanted to rush across and smother the cleft with kisses. She restrained herself and addressed Christina instead. ‘Well, why don’t you explain to us funny English exactly what you mean.’

‘Sweetheart, don’t take offence. I’m not taking the mickey. I think you’re all utterly adorable, and your husband, well, you know what I think about him – but yes, you’re right, let’s get down to business.’

Gwen, who had been holding her breath, released it slowly.

‘What is happening in America is that, despite the depression, some people are simply raking it in. The bigger the company, and the more ordinary the product, the better it is.’

‘You mean like the soap powders and shoe polish we saw in the magazine?’ Laurence said.

‘Yes, and here’s my point … also like tea. Think of Lipton.’

Gwen shook her head. ‘But there weren’t any advertisements for tea.’

‘Exactamundo, chérie. My idea is that we develop Hooper’s as a brand. You’d no longer just be a wholesale producer and manufacturer of tea, but actually a brand of tea.’

Laurence nodded. ‘People are suffering in the depression, but they still have to wash their clothes and polish their boots. That’s your idea.’

‘Yes. And they have to buy their tea, week after week. But this only works if you go big.’

Laurence shook his head. ‘We’d never be able to produce enough. Not even with the three plantations at full throttle. I don’t see how it could work.’

‘Laurence. My dear –’ she glanced round – ‘and funny Englishman, who I respect, admire and love – that’s where I come in.’

Gwen swallowed her irritation.

‘There won’t be huge margins, but what you have to sell is the sort of thing people buy frequently and cannot do without.’ Christina paused. ‘Tell me, how are you coping in this depression?’

Laurence coughed and looked at his feet.

‘Quite. So we need to think of something new. There’s a packet of tea in every house, and I want the name on that packet to be Hooper’s. If we can come second to Lipton, we’ll be flying.’

Gwen’s resentment of the woman seemed to explode in her throat. What did Christina really want? Was she toying with them, rubbing it in and showing that she had the power to do so? Had she come back to try again with Laurence? Gwen wanted to remove her from their lives as she had tried to do once before, but she was not keen to embarrass Laurence by causing a jealous scene. Her first instinct was to keep a rigid face and speak firmly.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Let this be an end to your crazy idea. Laurence has already said, we can’t produce that kind of quantity.’

Christina seemed oblivious. ‘Not you, darling. You will buy it in from all over Ceylon. Make deals with other plantations. We’ll package the tea and advertise it like crazy. You don’t need a big margin if you have the quantity.’

‘I don’t have the cash for the capital expenditure,’ Laurence said.

‘You don’t, no, but I do. I’m suggesting I buy shares in Hooper’s and you use that money to start up the business.’

Gwen stood up on trembling legs and went to Laurence’s side. Her voice, when she spoke, shook too. ‘And if it fails? What then? We can’t risk anything more.’

‘It will be me who risks, not you. Mark my words, honey, this is the future. Advertising is really taking off in America. You saw the magazine, didn’t you?’

‘I’m not sure I’m all that happy about the way the future looks,’ Gwen said.

‘Like it or not, you will stand to make millions. And it really is as simple as that.’

‘You may be right. Can we think about it?’ Laurence said, linking his arm through Gwen’s.

Gwen sighed. The woman was winning Laurence over, and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

‘You have two days. Then I’m off. We need to act quickly, and if we don’t, someone else will get there before us.’

She stood, smoothed down her very expensive-looking dress, and turned to Gwen with a persuasive smile. ‘Do you like my dress?’

Gwen muttered a reply.

‘Off the peg, dirt cheap, not even silk. The world is changing, folks. You’re either in for the ride or you’re not. Now, I’ve had a long journey today, so I’m more than ready for my bed.’

Verity, who had been quiet, stood too, though she appeared unsteady on her feet, and when she spoke her words were a little slurred. ‘I think it’s a wonderful idea, Christina.’

Gwen felt like saying that it had absolutely nothing to do with Verity, but kept her mouth shut.

‘Thank you. I forgot to say, Laurence, you and Gwen will need to come to New York. It will help the brand to become known and respected.’

‘Really, is that necessary? For how long?’

‘Absolutely necessary, and not for long. And, of course, I’ll cover all your expenses.’

‘What about Hugh?’

‘He’ll be at school soon, won’t he?’

Gwen frowned. ‘Why are you doing this, Christina, if the losses will be all yours?’

‘Because there will be no losses. I am that sure … and also because I’m fond of you both. You’ve been struggling, and I felt so badly for Laurence’s losses in Chile. Though I am sure, once this depression eases, you’ll make your money back there too, and more besides.’

Gwen nodded slowly. She had no choice but to let whatever was going to happen, happen.

‘The campaign will be run from New York, and they’ll need to see your faces. And talking of faces, I’d almost forgotten. Verity, if you don’t mind, would you unwrap that small painting leaning against the sofa?’

‘I wondered if that was going to be my present,’ Laurence said.

‘In a way, it is,’ Christina said as Verity took off the brown paper.

‘Well, let’s all see,’ Laurence said.

Verity looked up at him. ‘It’s one of Savi Ravasinghe’s paintings.’

Gwen’s heart sank. She had never confronted Savi over what had happened that night, and gradually it had become easier to bury it at the back of her mind. But now, with Liyoni in the house as a constant reminder, why did he have to come back like this too?

Laurence frowned as Verity turned the painting round, and then held it up so that they could see.

‘It’s a Tamil tea plucker,’ Laurence said.

Gwen took in the gorgeous scarlet colour of the woman’s sari, that seemed to shimmer against the luminous green of the tea bushes, and had to admit it was very beautiful. As she stared, she felt a flush spread from her neck to her cheeks and hoped nobody had noticed, though of course the one who did was Verity.

‘Are you all right, Gwen?’ Verity said.

‘Just hot,’ she said, waving a hand in front of her face.

Laurence was silent as Christina explained that she thought it was the perfect image for Hooper’s tea. It would be printed on the packets themselves, on the giant billboards and in the magazine advertisements.

When she had finished, he shook her hand. ‘You’ve certainly given us food for thought. We’ll speak again tomorrow. I hope you have a comfortable night.’

As they all departed for their rooms, Gwen thought about it. There wasn’t much space in her mind for reason where Christina was concerned, and in that moment she felt as if the American would be the wind that blew her house down.

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Next: Chapter 30