Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 30
Next: Chapter 32

31

Gwen pulled the heavy brocade curtain aside. From her viewpoint at the window of their apartment in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, on their first morning in the great city, she was surprised to see trees and the rocky shore of a lake glittering in the September sunshine. She didn’t know what she had expected, but it certainly wasn’t this glorious shining morning, or such an enormous park in the centre of New York.

She twisted back to survey the room. The glossy black, silver and shades of green took quite some getting used to, but she decided she liked the geometric shapes and angular lines. A huge painting dominated one wall. She wasn’t sure how to interpret the daubs of black on a cream background, apparently not representing anything in particular, but the painting made her think of Savi Ravasinghe. Christina had proposed a visit to see his latest show in a gallery in Greenwich Village at some point, and Gwen was not looking forward to going. It was a series of paintings depicting the native population of Ceylon at work; not the usual portraits of rich, beautiful women. Although it was from these canvasses that Christina had picked the one to represent Hooper’s tea, Gwen had decided to claim one of her headaches as an excuse not to go and hoped that would mean Laurence would stay with her.

Free from the constant knot in her stomach she had grown used to at home, Gwen couldn’t help feeling a burst of excitement. ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’ was playing on the wireless. It seemed apt – New York was that kind of place. Laurence had already left for a meeting with Christina, and Gwen was considering what she might do in the meantime. To distract herself from thinking about Laurence spending time alone with Christina, she picked up a glossy copy of Vogue magazine and glanced through images of the new fashions, then picked up her bag, slipped a jacket on and took the plunge. Laurence had promised to be back by twelve, which left her with over two hours to herself.

Out in the street, she glanced up at their hotel building. Christina had booked them in at the Savoy-Plaza because it was a livelier place than its older sister across Fifth Avenue, and you could listen to music in the bar at midnight. But when they’d arrived the night before, they’d been too tired to listen to anything. Gwen felt a little intimidated by the place: the series of arched windows on the ground floor, the Tudor-style slanted roof with the two chimneys and the masculine look of the edifice itself, so much more imposing than the buildings in Ceylon, which seemed gentle and elegant by comparison.

It was noisy, the horns of a handful of motor cars blaring as they wove round trolleybuses, a few double-decker gasoline-powered buses and what looked like newer and smarter single deckers. She noticed a sign resembling an oversize lollipop on a stick, standing on what Christina called the sidewalk. On closer inspection, Gwen worked out it was a bus stop. She joined the troops of men wearing trilby hats, and attempted to stroll as nonchalantly as them while she considered what to do. She decided a taxi was safer. A bus might be going anywhere. But then, before she had time to flag a taxi, she spotted a cream bus with a glass top and Manhattan Sightseeing Tour advertised on the side. Without a moment’s hesitation, she queued to buy her ticket.

From her vantage point, leaning out of the window of the bus, she eavesdropped on a couple sitting in front of her, while watching street after street pass by. The man was complaining about a lawyer who had been indicted on a charge of hoarding gold. Two hundred thousand dollars’ worth, the man said. Whatever next. His wife, if that’s who she was, and Gwen was certain she was, muttered, ‘Yes, dear,’ in all the correct places, but Gwen could tell that the woman, as entranced by the sights as she was herself, did not care.

The subject of gold did, however, trigger thoughts of Laurence’s reason to be in New York. However much she would like to think so, she and Laurence weren’t here as tourists. Today he was going for meetings with Christina at the bank, and tomorrow they were all going to an advertising agency, and after that a solicitor’s. Tonight, by way of celebration, they’d been promised an evening of non-stop entertainment. Even the idea of it took Gwen’s breath away. Laurence was all for a visit to a jazz club, though Gwen would have preferred a show. They passed a series of billboards advertising 42nd Street at the Strand Theater. That would be just the ticket, she thought.

That wasn’t the only difference of opinion. There had been a continuing disagreement between Laurence and Christina over which advertising agency suited them better, so much so that they’d sounded like an old married couple. In the end it had boiled down to a choice between the James Walter Thompson Agency or Masefield, Moore and Clements, on Madison Avenue. The former had apparently invented the grilled cheese sandwich for one of its clients, and that impressed Christina no end, but it was rumoured the latter were planning the first ever commercially sponsored radio show, and that was even better. Accustomed to the slow rhythms of their Ceylon tea plantation, Gwen didn’t know what to make of it all.

At the same time as she marvelled at the succession of streets and tall buildings, she continued to be preoccupied by her thoughts, and was surprised when the tour ended abruptly and she found herself back somewhere near the park. As she moved out of the bus and on to the pavement, she spotted Laurence guiding Christina by the elbow as they headed towards the hotel entrance. A woman in less need of guiding, Gwen could not imagine.

‘Laurence!’ she called and, determined not to feel wounded, she swallowed her irritation. The noise in the street blocked the sound of her voice and he did not turn.

She ran and caught up with them a few moments later.

‘How did it go?’ she asked, slightly out of breath.

Laurence grinned and kissed her cheek. ‘We have a master plan in place.’

‘And we’re seeing the advertising agency tomorrow at ten,’ Christina added, linking arms with them both as if absolutely nothing was wrong. ‘Perhaps we should lunch now. Gwen and I have some heavy shopping to get through this afternoon, Laurence. And a new suit for you wouldn’t go amiss.’

Later that day Gwen had just returned from the shopping trip to Saks and the House of Hawes. Outside, the daylight was fading, and as the electric lights came on, tiny yellow rectangles patterned the dark edifices of the looming buildings. In the sitting room of their apartment, Laurence smoked a pipe as he relaxed in one of two square leather armchairs. The bellboy carried in Gwen’s packages and placed them just inside the door. After she’d tipped him, she sprawled on the other chair opposite Laurence.

It had been more exhausting than any shopping trip she’d ever experienced, but she’d come away with three wonderful new outfits that brought her bang up to date. If she was honest, she’d actually rather enjoyed it. She had an evening dress in palest beige, with a slash of purple at the neckline and butterfly sleeves, and a beautifully cut two-piece in soft pea green, plus a business suit. All had the new mid-calf-length hemline and sleek bodices. Christina had insisted on gloves and a hat to match the suit. With a brim, it was a style that flattered Gwen’s face more than her old cloche hats had done. She was happy that she’d packed her fox-fur stole as it lent a touch of class to the off-the-peg outfits.

‘Laurence, have you noticed that hardly any of the bellboys and elevator attendants are white?’ She rubbed her ankles and hesitated for a moment. ‘Some are very dark, but some are a sort of toffee colour.’

‘Can’t say I’ve noticed,’ he said from behind his newspaper. ‘I guess some people may well be descended from white slave owners.’

‘Was that common?’

He nodded and carried on reading.

‘Are you reading about the lawyer who was charged with hoarding gold?’

‘Yes, and there’s an interesting article about that Hitler chap in Germany. They’ve had monumental inflation there. Could be he’ll be the one to sort it out.’

‘Do you really think so? I heard he’s blaming the Jewish banks over there.’

‘You may be right. Where did you hear that?’

‘I listen when I’m out and about.’

There was a short silence while Laurence carried on reading, and Gwen bided her time.

‘Shall I ring for some tea?’ she asked.

As he didn’t reply, she went ahead, then screwed up her eyes as she decided how to broach the subject that had been preoccupying her.

‘Laurence, I’ve been thinking.’

‘Oh dear,’ he said and grinned at her, then folded his paper and put it down.

‘Since I am to be a director of the new company, even if it is in name only, you need me to sign the papers too, don’t you?’

He nodded.

‘I will sign everything you want me to, of course I will.’

‘I never doubted that.’

‘And I’ll give the project my full support, but on one condition.’ Laurence’s brows shot up, but he didn’t say a word as she continued. ‘If we do make pots of money –’

‘Not if, when!’

‘According to Christina, yes.’

‘I think she’s right.’

‘Well, if we succeed, I’d like to see conditions improve for our labourers. I’d like the children to have better access to medicine, for example.’

‘Is that all?’

She took a breath in. ‘No. I want to improve their housing too.’

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Though I hope I’ve already improved things since my father’s day. Dreadful to think of it now, but did you know that on a crocodile shoot, it was once common practice to use a chubby brown infant as bait?’

Her hand flew to her mouth.

‘The hunters would haggle the price for the child then tether him or her to a tree to lure the crocodile out of the water.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘True, I’m afraid. The croc makes a rush for the child, and the hunter, hidden in the rushes, fires and shoots him dead. Child is untied and everyone smiles.’

‘What would have happened if the hunter had missed?’

‘I guess the croc would have had a good lunch. Outrageous, isn’t it?’

Gwen looked at her feet, shaking her head in disbelief. Laurence sighed and picked up his paper again, but didn’t unfold it.

She took a deep breath. ‘My point is that a school without good medical care and better housing is a waste of time. We have to improve all three to make any kind of difference to their lives. Imagine what it must be like to have so little.’

He considered for a moment. ‘My father thought they were happy to have a job and be looked after.’

‘He believed that because it’s what he wanted to believe.’

‘Why didn’t you mention this before?’

‘It’s being here. I want to do something for our people if I can, that’s all.’

She waited while he opened out the newspaper and thumped it flat again.

‘In principle, I do agree,’ he said. ‘But it would mean a huge capital expenditure, so only if our profits allow it. Now, my darling, please may I read my paper?’

‘Is it one we’ll be advertising in?’

‘We’ll find that out tomorrow.’

‘It’s terribly exciting, isn’t it?’ she said and leant back in her chair.

She picked up a magazine and flicked through, then as she came across one particular article, tucked the magazine under her arm. This was something she needed to read alone.

‘I’m just going to the bathroom,’ she said.

In the bathroom she bit a fingernail as she read, then she opened the cabinet, took out her nail scissors and very carefully cut out the article before folding the magazine and throwing it in the bin.

At Masefield, Moore and Clements the next day, Laurence, Christina and Gwen were ushered through to a meeting room with a bank of windows that overlooked the busy street.

William Moore was the Creative Director. He nodded and grinned at them all, while indicating some designs already pinned to two large easels. While the introductions were being made, Gwen gazed at the transformation of Savi Ravasinghe’s original painting. She steeled herself not to reveal any unease at the mention of his name, but it was harder not to react to his work. The picture had been lovely before, but now, with the colours heightened and slightly adjusted, the image of the woman’s red sari against the luminous green of the tea bushes shimmered with vitality.

‘Sure will stand out,’ Mr Moore said with a broad smile, showing startling white teeth.

‘It is beautiful,’ Gwen said.

‘Well, we have to thank Christina here for the idea. The artist has seen the images, by the way, and he’s happy too.’

‘So that’s how the package of tea will look. What about the advertisements?’ Laurence said as he pulled out a chair at the large oval table.

They settled themselves and Moore handed out a sheet of typescript, while a girl brought in coffee and bagels.

‘It’s a list of the magazines and papers we’re aiming for. Radio stations too. We’ll be pushing out in the New Year.’

Laurence nodded. ‘Very impressive.’

Moore stood and flipped over the two sheets on the easels to reveal the design and layout for the billboards, and an enlarged version of a typical magazine advert. The smile never left his face.

‘The idea is to carry the image through on everything. We want to implant it deep in the American mind, and colour is by far the best way to go with Hooper’s tea. The colour of the woman’s sari, the colour of the tea bushes and so on, though it does work quite prettily in sepia tones too.’

‘And the exact launch date?’ Christina asked as she lit a cigarette.

‘At the start of the New Year. I’m just waiting to finalize the details. We want to emphasize the provenance.’

‘Pardon?’

He turned towards Gwen. ‘It’s all about where it comes from. In this case, rich-flavoured, pure Ceylon tea.’

While they drank their coffee, an irony that made Gwen smile, Moore showed her other advertisements currently posted on hoardings and in magazines. As she gazed at the pictures, she heard Laurence and Christina talking about the new investors she’d managed to convince. Gwen glanced across at her perfectly made-up face and glossy nails, and at her hair swept up in an elegant style. She wore black, as always, but with a red silk scarf knotted at the neck, and shoes to match. In a way Gwen admired her. She knew all the wealthy families and wasn’t afraid to use her connections.

During a pause in the conversation the intercom buzzed.

‘Excuse me a moment,’ Moore said, and left the room.

‘So what do you think, Gwen?’ Christina said. ‘Pretty exciting, huh?’

Gwen’s smile widened. ‘I am dazzled, to be honest.’

‘And this is just the start. You wait until we are the first commercial backers of a radio show.’

‘Is that on the cards?’

‘Not yet, but you bet it will be.’

Moore came back into the room with a sharp-looking younger man. His hair was slick and his suit immaculate, but he tugged at his tie and shuffled his feet. Moore took a deep breath and didn’t smile for once. It was an awkward moment, and Laurence stood up, seeming to sense that something had changed and that it required a response from him. As the atmosphere shifted from excited hopefulness into a silent hiatus, Gwen and Christina exchanged looks.

‘I’m afraid there’s been a glitch.’ Moore held up a hand as they all fidgeted. ‘But it’s nothing too serious, and I hope we can work round it.’

Gwen glanced at Laurence, whose chin was jutting out.

‘Like I say, I hope that we might still be able to proceed.’

The tension grew, and Gwen, seeing that Laurence was irritated, was not surprised at the sharp tone of his voice when he spoke.

‘Might? What do you mean? Just tell us what the glitch is, man,’ he said.

Moore, glancing at each one, pulled a series of faces, as if he was going over what to say in his head. ‘Well, the thing is, we’ve heard from our contact in another agency. Unfortunately another brand has bought up all the space we were going to advise you to take out.’

‘Brand of what?’ Christina asked.

The man glanced at his feet before cracking his knuckles and speaking. ‘Tea … I’m afraid, it’s tea.’

Gwen’s shoulders drooped. She’d known it was all too good to be true.

‘There will be room for Hooper’s in the marketplace. I do believe that. There are, after all, plenty of smaller companies selling tea. But this means we’ll have to go later with our launch.’

‘And let them get the edge on us?’ Laurence said, rubbing his chin.

The man did not smile, just swallowed awkwardly.

‘If we want to rival Lipton, it’s all about getting there first,’ Christina said. ‘I thought I made that clear at the outset.’

‘I do understand,’ Moore said, attempting a smile. ‘Unfortunately, we aren’t party to everything that the other agencies are doing. We do our best.’

‘It had better not be one of your own people who gave the other agency the nod about our plans,’ Christina said, tight-lipped.

Gwen stood up. ‘It is immaterial. Whoever told whom, we will not be going second with this.’

Christina attempted to interrupt.

Gwen held up a hand to stop her. ‘Let me finish. We will not be going second. We will be going first. If you can arrange for our advertisements to go out in December, instead of the New Year, we still have a deal. If not, the whole thing is off.’

Laurence was grinning at her and Christina was staring, open-mouthed.

In the brief pause, Moore scanned all their faces.

‘Well?’ Gwen said, trying to ignore the butterflies taking flight in her stomach.

‘Give me until tonight. Where will you be?’

The mood that evening was not as celebratory as they had planned. Christina had delayed the meeting with their solicitor, who had been none too pleased. All the contracts had been rushed through in double-quick time and were now languishing on his desk waiting to be signed. She’d managed to play down the delay; the last thing they needed now was investors getting cold feet. But they all knew that if Moore didn’t come through and the launch of the campaign had to be delayed, they would lose an important advantage against their competitor.

Gwen, wearing her new evening dress, was in a quiet mood as Christina led them to the Stork Club on East 51st Street. Cab Calloway was playing later and, as a newly converted lover of jazz, Laurence brightened up as they made their way through the throng of people. As they reached the tables, Christina nodded at a woman in a floral satin gown.

‘Who was that?’ Gwen asked when they had passed.

‘Oh, just one of the Vanderbilts. Nothing but money and glamour here, honey.’

It was the intermission, and Christina, dressed in black satin and with her blonde hair shining, sashayed up to one of three musicians sitting at a table at the back and kissed him, leaving a red lipstick mark on his cheek.

‘Shuffle up, fellas,’ she said. ‘These are friends of mine over from Ceylon.’

A bar tender brought them a tray with several glasses of beer on it.

‘It’s weak stuff, less than three point two per cent alcohol,’ Christina said, and winked at the barman. ‘Any chance of livening it up?’

Gwen listened as Christina chatted to her friends, and when the beer came back, discreetly fortified with vodka, she spluttered over her first sip.

‘Prohibition is set to end soon,’ Christina whispered. ‘That awful beer is an interim measure.’

As Gwen took another sip, the butterflies in her stomach had not subsided. Christina, however, managed to appear light-hearted and vivacious, no matter what was going on in her life, and Gwen sensed she hardly knew her at all. Here, in New York, she seemed more wholly American than she had in Ceylon. At first Gwen had been overawed, then jealous of the smooth way she had attempted to captivate Laurence, and then, with the loss of value in Laurence’s shares, she’d been angry. Now that the anger had blunted a little, she was surprised to find she genuinely admired Christina’s spirit and determination. It must have taken courage for her to come back to them with this new idea, after things had gone so badly wrong before.

One of the band got up and Christina came to sit by Gwen.

‘I’m so glad we’ve buried the hatchet,’ she said and squeezed Gwen’s hand.

‘The hatchet?’

‘Come on, you must have known I was deadly jealous when Laurence came back from England with the news that he’d married you.’

‘You were jealous of me?’

‘Who wouldn’t be? You’re beautiful, Gwen, and in that lovely natural way men adore.’

Gwen shook her head.

‘Of course, I had hoped Laurence would be happy with you as the mother of his children and me as his mistress.’

‘You thought that?’ Gwen’s breath caught in her throat. ‘Did he give you that impression?’

Christina laughed. ‘Not at all, though it wasn’t for want of trying on my part.’

‘Did he ever … I mean, did you both ever –’

‘After you were married?’

Gwen nodded.

‘Not really, though we came close once. At that first ball in Nuwara Eliya.’

Gwen bit her lip and dug her nails into the fleshy part of her palm. She would not cry.

Christina reached out a hand. ‘Darling. Not that close. Just a kiss.’

‘And now?’

‘It’s long been over. I promise. You really never had anything to worry about, though I admit I wanted you to think you had.’

‘Why did you?’

‘It was fun, I suppose, and I’m a bad loser. But believe me when I say I care about both of you now.’

Gwen frowned very slightly.

‘I do, truly. Anyway, I now have a bit of a thing with that rather delicious bass player.’ She inclined her head in the direction of the man she had kissed on the cheek.

Gwen laughed and Christina laughed with her. Ashamed that she had ever doubted Laurence, but overjoyed to hear that he really had not been tempted, Gwen felt more relaxed than she had in days.

Just as the musicians were standing up and gathering their instruments to continue the set, the bass player came across to Christina. She grinned and he bent down to kiss her on the lips. Then, as the band members joked together, Gwen caught a glimpse of Mr Moore heading their way, too far off for her to be able to see if he was smiling. Christina had noticed his arrival too, and reached out a hand. Gwen took it and was surprised how tightly Christina gripped. It clearly mattered as much to her as it did to them. They both kept their eyes on Moore as he advanced, ducking and diving through the jumbled knots of drinkers and dancers.

That night their love-making was powerful and largely silent. Afterwards, Laurence looked at Gwen with so much appreciation in his eyes that she wondered how she could ever have imagined he might have still wanted Christina. When she tried to add up the small and large tokens of his love throughout the years – the jade necklace he’d given her for her birthday, the beautiful silk painting from India and the dozens of small but thoughtful kindnesses – she saw the sum could never be totalled. Grateful for every single moment, she kissed him repeatedly.

‘What’s brought this on?’

‘I’m a very lucky woman, that’s all.’

‘The luck’s all mine.’

She smiled. ‘We’re both very lucky,’ she said, then got up to go to the bathroom.

It had been a good night after all. Thank goodness the news had been positive, she thought as she ran the water to rinse her face. It turned out that Moore had managed to shift some of his other clients’ advertising for December, and though the splash they would make might be a fraction reduced, it would still be enough, just. And they would repeat the whole show in February, sandwiching their competitor between the two promotions.

After turning off the tap, she dabbed herself dry, then heard the phone ring in their bedroom. The bathroom door was very slightly ajar so she knew that Laurence had already picked up.

‘You know what I told you.’ He spoke in a low but audible voice. ‘Why is it so very important to talk now? I thought we’d reached an understanding.’

There was silence while the other person was speaking, then Laurence was speaking again.

‘My dear, you know I love you. Please don’t cry. I care very much. But that’s just not going to happen. Those days are over. I’ve already explained how it has to be.’

Another short silence, though Gwen could hear her heart thumping in suspense.

‘Very well, I’ll see what I can do. Of course I love you. But you really must stop all this.’

Gwen hugged herself.

‘Yes, as soon as possible. I promise.’

Gwen doubled over. She had been completely taken in by Christina.

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Next: Chapter 32