Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 29
Next: Chapter 31

30

Over the next two days, Gwen heard Laurence moving around at night. With the renewed anxiety she was feeling at hearing Ravasinghe’s name adding to her annoyance about Christina, she longed for Laurence to share her bed so that she could draw him close. But he did not. And also to Gwen’s irritation, Verity, still very much on Christina’s side, had remained. The brand issue had taken over the house, and the subject of Verity’s leaving had not been broached again.

While everyone was preoccupied, Gwen allowed Liyoni and Hugh to play in her room. Sunlight poured through the bedroom window, and Gwen, sitting at the table in the window with Naveena, felt the warmth on the back of her neck. She watched the twins bouncing on the bed, while chanting something that sounded like a Sinhalese version of ‘Humpty Dumpty’. She was thinking about Christina, and the effect the woman’s arrival had had on Laurence, who was becoming more remote.

Through the window she caught sight of them huddled together in the garden, and tried to convince herself it was only the brand they were discussing. But as a hollow feeling took hold of her, she felt out of place and excluded from her husband in her own home. She understood home wasn’t a place. It was her daily relationship with everything she touched, saw and heard. It was the certainty of familiarity and the reassurance of safe, well-trodden pathways. The fabric, the threads, the scents: the exact colour of her morning cup of tea, Laurence throwing down his newspaper before heading off to work and Hugh clattering up and down the stairs a thousand times a day. But now there was something extraordinary, the ground was shifting, and everything was different.

She felt a burst of heat and for a moment hated Christina almost as much as she hated Savi Ravasinghe; but more than that, she hated that they had turned her into such a jealous, fearful woman. What she longed for was some kind of escape, but then she looked at the children and, feeling ashamed, the anger drained out of her.

‘Be careful, Hugh,’ she called out. ‘Remember Liyoni’s bad leg.’

‘Yes, Mummy. That’s why she’s only bouncing on her bottom.’

There was a tap on the door and Verity came in. ‘I thought you should know that Laurence has agreed to Christina’s proposal.’

Gwen rubbed her neck. ‘Oh my Lord, really?’

‘They want your signature on a form. There will be more later.’ She paused and glanced at the children who were now sitting quietly on the bed. ‘I’d get rid of the brown girl, if I were you.’

‘I’m not sure I know what you mean.’

Verity inclined her head and with a partial smile continued. ‘The servants are talking. They don’t understand why the girl gets preferential treatment; you know what they’re like.’

Gwen frowned at her. ‘I was thinking you might be preparing to pack your bags.’

Verity smiled again. ‘Oh no. You may be his wife, Gwendolyn, second wife at that, but I am his only sister. Now I’m off to play tennis with Pru Bertram at the club. Cheerio.’

‘What about your husband? Surely this isn’t fair on him?’

Verity shrugged. ‘That really isn’t any of your business.’

‘Is it true?’ Gwen asked Naveena once Verity had left. ‘About the gossip?’

The old lady sighed. ‘It means nothing.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘I tell them it is good that Hugh has a friend.’

There was a noise in the corridor and then the sound of footsteps. Gwen looked round, startled.

Naveena clicked her tongue. ‘Just one of the houseboys, Lady.’

As Hugh and Liyoni started to bounce again, Gwen’s attention wandered. Verity’s warning had hit home. Since the day she’d brought Liyoni to live with them her life had lost its cohesion. Trapped by her own fear, she jumped at noises and each time she heard the timbers of the house creak, she spun round expecting the worst, torturing herself with terrible outcomes until she couldn’t see straight.

She needed Laurence to remind her of who she was, but instead of that they were slipping apart. She felt fractured, frightened to be near him in case she gave herself away, and at the same time needing him more than ever. When Laurence was nice to her, she was irritable and short-tempered; when he was distant, she worried about Christina’s hold on him.

Suddenly there was a loud thump. Gwen glanced up and saw Liyoni had fallen from the bed and now lay on the floor, not making a sound. She leapt from the chair.

‘You pushed her, didn’t you, Hugh?’

Hugh turned bright red and started to cry. ‘No, Mummy. I did not!’

As Gwen ran over, he climbed down from the bed. She picked up the girl and held her in her arms, and Hugh squatted right beside them.

‘I’m so sorry, Hugh. It’s not your fault. I had stopped watching you both.’

She stroked Liyoni’s cheek and looked into her scared eyes. The child blinked and a single tear fell. Gwen’s heart almost stopped. She was looking at her daughter without seeing the colour of her skin – truly thinking of her as her own flesh and blood for the first time. In that moment of utter clarity, time seemed to stand still. This was her own little girl, who she hadn’t known how to love, and who she had given away like an unwanted puppy. The guilt over what she had done, and the pain of knowing that she could never openly acknowledge her own daughter, ripped her heart open. She made a strangled sound as she fought back the tears, then wrapped an arm round Hugh too, and drew them both to her. With her heart thumping wildly, she felt another rush of love and kissed Liyoni on both cheeks. When she looked up, she smiled at Naveena – but the ayah looked stiff, her eyes fixed on the door and her mouth slightly open.

With her back to the door and her attention on the children, Gwen hadn’t heard it open, and only knew now because she heard Laurence cough.

‘The girl fall,’ Naveena quickly said.

Gwen lifted Liyoni, then carefully placed her back on the bed, but her guilt cast a long shadow, and if Laurence had seen the fall, then he must have seen everything else too.

Laurence remained silent as he stood watching.

Gwen tried to think, unsure if she’d actually said anything out loud, or if she had simply been thinking. Fear blocked her mouth and airways as she swallowed and attempted to formulate a sequence of sounds that made sense.

Laurence cleared his throat and spoke directly to Naveena. ‘Phone Doctor Partridge. Tell him to come.’

He came across to look at the child and Hugh took his hand. ‘She is my best friend, Daddy.’

‘She’s just had a fall. Landed badly, I should think. That’s all.’

Gwen tried to keep the fear from her eyes. What had Laurence seen? What had he heard? Her skin prickled. She scratched her scalp, then the back of her neck and her shoulder blades. The scratching did not help. The prickle crawled over her until she wanted to scream.

‘Partridge has seen her about the limp?’ Laurence said, jolting her.

Gwen nodded.

‘And?’ Laurence asked.

She managed to find her voice. ‘He thought it was nothing. He said he’d be back. But how did you know? You weren’t even here.’

‘McGregor said.’

Though Laurence’s usual expression was unchanged, there was something in his eyes. As he held her gaze, her stomach tightened. There were several moments before he spoke again.

‘He said you seemed concerned about the child.’

Gwen gulped. Why had she assumed McGregor was not watching her? ‘She is a sweet child, and I felt so sorry for her coming to live among strangers at such a young age.’

‘I went to boarding school in England at her age.’

‘And you know what I think about that.’

For a few moments, Laurence gazed at her without speaking. She had no idea what was going through his mind. If she were to lose him now …

In an attempt to calm her nerves in the tense silence, she concentrated on her breathing.

‘Hugh will be gone soon,’ he eventually said. ‘And then we’ll decide what to do about the girl.’

Gwen twisted her head away, so that Laurence wouldn’t see her eyes fill with tears.

‘There are some papers to sign in the dining room. Come through after the doctor has been. And, by the way, we’ll be travelling to America sometime after Christina. She’s gone ahead today.’

Gone. She was gone.

Gwen passed the hour that they waited for the doctor drinking tea and playing Patience with Hugh. Liyoni slept, and when she did wake, she was silent, and refused all offers of fruit or water. Gwen’s heart jumped every time she heard footsteps in the corridor, frightened that it was Laurence come back, and by the time the doctor did actually appear in the room, Liyoni had grown quite weak.

The doctor put down his bag. ‘It might be an idea if the ayah takes Hugh out of here, Gwen.’

‘No,’ Hugh said and stamped his foot. ‘I want to stay. She’s my friend, not yours or Mummy’s.’

‘I’ve got lollipops in here. If you’re very good and go with Naveena, I’ll give you one.’

‘Are they yellow?’

‘Yes, and pink.’

‘Only if Liyoni can have one too, the same colour as mine.’

‘Absolutely agreed, old chap.’

‘And you promise not to hurt her?’

‘It’s a deal.’

‘And can we go swimming later? She likes to fly.’

‘Fly?’

Hugh nodded. ‘That’s her word for swimming.’

After Naveena had taken Hugh out to play ball, the doctor pulled up a chair and looked Liyoni over carefully, and very gently pulled and prodded.

Gwen came up to stand behind him, and when the little girl’s eyes opened, she smiled. Gwen saw the trust that had begun to grow in her, and smiled back. The look wasn’t lost on the doctor, who glanced at Liyoni and then at Gwen. She prayed he hadn’t noticed the colour of the child’s eyes, halfway between brown and violet, or her dark ringlets spread out across the pillow.

‘Is there anything you want to tell me, Gwen?’

She held her breath. If only he knew how much she really did need to unburden herself, after all these years.

‘About the fall, I mean.’

Gwen let out her breath. ‘She rolled off the bed. They were bouncing. It was my fault. I should have known she isn’t as strong as Hugh. My attention wandered.’

‘Very well. It’s most probably a weakness caused by a deficiency of some kind. Feed her up, that’s my advice.’

‘Oh, that is a relief. And there’s nothing else? Nothing contagious?’

‘Not at all. Just the shock of the fall.’

A month later, Gwen was in her bedroom packing the last of Hugh’s clothes for school. She’d given a great deal of thought to his leisurewear, and had prepared for any changes in the weather. His school uniform had arrived from Nuwara Eliya the day before. Two sets of everything the letter had stipulated, and the list was long. She was grateful her father was footing the bill, though part of her didn’t want Hugh to have to go away at all.

Looking glum, he sat on his old rocking horse, which they now kept in Gwen’s bedroom. ‘Can’t I come to the wild west with you?’

‘We’re not going to the wild west. We’re going to New York.’

‘But there will still be cowboys, won’t there?’

She shook her head. ‘I think you’re more likely to see a cowboy in Nuwara Eliya than I am in New York.’

‘It isn’t fair. You can teach me arithmetic and spelling, can’t you?’

‘Darling, you have to receive a good education, so that you can grow up to be clever like Daddy.’

‘He isn’t clever.’

‘Of course he is.’

‘Well, it isn’t very clever to say I can’t go to the waterfall with Liyoni.’

Gwen knew there was a waterfall but had heard it was a bit of a climb and so had never ventured there. ‘I think Daddy thinks it’s rather dangerous.’

‘Liyoni loves water. She would like it. I’ve seen it. You can actually drive there too. Verity took me.’

‘To the top?’

‘Yes, right at the top. I didn’t go too close to the edge.’

‘Well, I’m jolly glad to hear that. Now, come on, help me with the catches on this trunk. I need a good strong man to help me.’

He laughed. ‘All right, Mummy.’

Later, while she was attempting to pack her own case, Laurence came in with a broad smile on his face. Since Christina had left to get things moving in New York, he’d been busy meeting with plantation owners and setting up deals. Gwen had barely seen him, a fact that she was grateful for. When he was there, he’d given no indication he knew anything more about why Liyoni was in the house, though Gwen watched him carefully for signs that he might.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I’ve missed my two favourite people.’

‘Daddy!’ Hugh shouted, and jumped off the horse to run and hug him.

‘Careful, old boy, Daddy’s tired. You don’t want to knock me over, do you?’

Hugh laughed. ‘Yes I do, Daddy.’

He smiled and looked over the top of Hugh’s head at Gwen. ‘I’ve managed to make the arrangements for Hugh to board for the first few months.’

‘You mean not come home at weekends? Laurence, no. He’ll hate it.’

‘Just while we’re away. A trip to New York and back is quite an undertaking. By the way, it’s all fixed. Christina has sorted the tickets.’

‘Hugh, run along now and play,’ she said. ‘Why not try out the new swing in the garden?’

Hugh pulled a face but did as he was told. In the way of all growing children, he was quick to sense a disagreement brewing between his parents.

Laurence stood with his back to the light. She looked up at him, shading her eyes from the bright sunlight streaming through the open window. ‘Can’t Naveena look after him at weekends?’

‘I think she’ll have her hands full with the little girl.’ He sighed deeply. ‘I really had hoped we’d have done something about that child by now.’

‘I have tried.’

‘I’m sure you have.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘Nothing at all, just what I said. Why are you being so touchy? I must say you have been increasingly tetchy since that child came to live here. Whatever is the matter?’

Gwen shook her head.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to you about Verity. I’ve told her she cannot stay here while we are gone. She must go back to Alexander.’

Delighted by the news, Gwen breathed more freely. ‘Good for you. It seems you have thought of everything. Did she tell you what the trouble was between her and Alexander?’

‘She hinted at difficulties.’

‘What difficulties?’

‘Can’t you imagine?’

‘Really?’

‘I told her she had to sort it out with him. The truth is this behaviour of hers has gone on long enough. Added to which she’s drinking too much again. She’s her husband’s responsibility now, not mine.’

Hallelujah, Gwen thought, and managed to stop herself from applauding.

‘We can decide what to do about the little girl when we come back. I know I said that we’d look after Naveena in her old age, but I wasn’t planning on including her long-lost relatives, if that really is what the child is.’

‘Oh, Laurence, of course she is.’

‘There’s something odd about it. I’ve sent for my mother’s old family history papers, just in case there’s anything that might tell us where she came from. Maybe some hint that might link her to Naveena.’

‘I doubt that will explain anything. Even Naveena didn’t know of the child’s existence.’

‘I know. I spoke to her.’

Gwen’s heart leapt into her throat. ‘What did she say?’

‘Nothing more than we already know.’ He paused. ‘Gwen, you do look pale.’

‘I’m fine, just a little tired maybe.’

She saw the concern in his eyes, but was relieved when he glanced at the dresses laid out on the bed.

‘They all look lovely, but don’t pack too much. I thought you might like to know Christina is taking you shopping on Fifth Avenue. She thinks you might like some more fashionable clothes.’

She straightened up and, with her hands on her hips, she glared at him. ‘Who does bloody Christina think she is? I am not a charity case, and I do not need her to take me shopping.’

His chin jutted out. ‘I thought you’d be pleased.’

‘Well, I am not. I’m fed up with being patronized by her. And by you.’

‘Darling, I’m sorry. I know you’re upset about Hugh going away.’

‘I am not upset,’ she said.

‘Darling –’

‘Don’t darling me! I am not upset at all.’ And then she burst into tears.

He came to fold his arms round her. She struggled, but he held her so tightly she couldn’t break free. She couldn’t tell him what she was really feeling about Liyoni, and although she would indeed miss Hugh terribly, the truth was he would probably enjoy himself at school. It was actually the thought of leaving everything in the lap of the gods for so long that sent a spasm of fear through her, and it didn’t help that not for one minute did she believe Verity would stay away.

‘We’ll be back before you know it, sweetheart.’ He tilted her chin up towards him and kissed her on the lips, and she wanted him at that moment, so much that she couldn’t speak.

‘Shall I lock the door?’ he said with a grin.

‘And the window. Sound carries.’ She glanced back at the bed, littered with clothes.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said, and gathered them all up and chucked them in a shambolic heap on the floor, before heading to the door and locking it.

‘Laurence! Those things had all been ironed.’

He ignored what she had said, picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder and carried her to the bed. She laughed as he threw her down and then began to help him remove her clothes.

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Next: Chapter 31