Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 2
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1

 

THE NEW LIFE

1

Twelve Years Later, Ceylon 1925

With her straw sun hat in one hand, Gwen leant against the salty railings and glanced down again. She’d been watching the shifting colour of the sea for an hour, tracing the shreds of paper, the curls of orange peel and the leaves drifting by. Now that the water had changed from deepest turquoise to dingy grey, she knew it couldn’t be long. She leant a little further over the rail to watch a piece of silver fabric float out of sight.

When the ship’s horn sounded – loud, prolonged and very close – she jumped, lifting her hand from the rail in surprise. The little satin purse, a farewell present from her mother, with its delicate beaded drawstring, slid over her hand. She gasped and reached out, but saw it was too late as the purse dropped into the ocean, swirled in the dirty water and then sank. And with it her money, and Laurence’s letter with his instructions folded neatly inside.

She looked about her and felt another stirring of the unease she hadn’t been able to shake off since leaving England. You can’t get much further from Gloucestershire than Ceylon, her father had said. As his voice echoed in her head, she was startled when she heard another voice, distinctly male but with an unusually honeyed tone.

‘New to the East?’

Accustomed to the fact that her violet eyes and pale complexion always attracted attention, she turned to look, and was forced to squint into bright sunlight.

‘I … Yes. I’m joining my husband. We’re only recently married.’ She took a breath, just stopping herself from blurting out the whole story.

A broad-shouldered man of medium height, with a strong nose and glittering caramel eyes, gazed back at her. His black brows, curling hair and dark polished skin stopped her in her tracks. She stared, feeling a little unnerved, until he smiled in an open sort of way.

‘You’re lucky. By May the sea would normally be a great deal wilder. A tea planter, I’m guessing,’ he said. ‘Your husband.’

‘How did you know?’

He spread his hands. ‘There is a type.’

She glanced down at her beige-coloured dress: drop-waisted, but with a high collar and long sleeves. She didn’t want to be a ‘type’, but realized that if it wasn’t for the chiffon scarf knotted at her neck, she might appear drab.

‘I saw what happened. I’m sorry about your purse.’

‘It was stupid of me,’ she said, and hoped she wasn’t blushing.

Had she been a little more like her cousin, Fran, she might have engaged him in conversation, but instead, imagining the short exchange to be over, she turned back to watch as the ship slipped closer to Colombo.

Above the shimmering city, a cobalt sky stretched into distant purple hills, trees gave shade and the air was filled with the cries of gulls as they swooped over the small boats massing on the water. The thrill of doing something so different bubbled through her. She had missed Laurence and, for a moment, allowed herself to dream of him. Dreaming was effortless, but the reality was so exciting it set butterflies alight in her stomach. She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.

‘What is that?’ she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.

He paused and sniffed deeply. ‘Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.’

‘There’s something sweet.’

‘Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.’

‘How lovely,’ she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.

‘Bad drains too, I’m afraid.’

She nodded. Perhaps that was it.

‘I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Savi Ravasinghe.’

‘Oh.’ She paused. ‘You’re … I mean, I haven’t seen you at dinner.’

He pulled a face. ‘Not a first-class passenger is what you mean, I think. I’m Sinhalese.’

She hadn’t noticed until now that the man stood on the other side of the rope that separated the classes. ‘Well, it’s very nice to meet you,’ she said, pulling off one of her white gloves. ‘I’m Gwendolyn Hooper.’

‘Then you must be Laurence Hooper’s new wife.’

She fingered the large Ceylon sapphire of her ring and nodded in surprise. ‘You know my husband?’

He inclined his head. ‘I have met your husband, yes, but now I’m afraid I must take my leave.’

She held out her hand, pleased to have met him.

‘I hope you’ll be very happy in Ceylon, Mrs Hooper.’

When he ignored her hand, she let it fall. He pressed his palms together in front of his chest, fingers pointing upwards, and bowed very slightly.

‘May your dreams be fulfilled …’ With closed eyes, he paused for a moment, then walked off.

Gwen felt a little disconcerted by his words, and the odd departing gesture, but with more pressing matters on her mind, she shrugged. She really must try to remember Laurence’s lost instructions.

Luckily, first class disembarked first, and that meant her. She thought of the man again and couldn’t help but feel fascinated. She’d never met anyone so exotic and it would have been much more fun if he’d stayed to keep her company – though, of course, he could not.

Nothing had prepared her for the shock of Ceylon’s scorching heat, nor its clashing colours, nor the contrast between the bright white light and the depth of the shade. Noise bombarded her: bells, horns, people and buzzing insects surrounding her, swirling and eddying, until she felt as if she were being tipped about, like one of the pieces of flotsam she’d been watching earlier. When the background noise was eclipsed by loud trumpeting, she spun round to stare at the timber wharf, mesmerized by the sight of an elephant raising its trunk in the air and bellowing.

When watching an elephant had become quite normal, she braved the Port Authority building, made arrangements for her trunk, then sat on a wooden bench in the hot steamy air with nothing but her hat to shade her, and with which, from time to time, she swatted the clusters of flies that crawled along her hairline. Laurence had promised to be at the dockside but, so far, there was no sign of him. She tried to recall what he’d said to do in the event of an emergency, and spotted Mr Ravasinghe again, making his way out of the second-class hatch in the side of the ship. By avoiding looking at the man, she hoped to hide her flush of embarrassment at her predicament, and turned the other way to watch the haphazard loading of tea chests on to a barge at the other end of the docks.

The smell of drains had long since overpowered the spicy fragrance of cinnamon, and now mingled with other rank odours: grease, bullock dung, rotting fish. And as the dockside filled with more disgruntled passengers being besieged by traders and hawkers peddling gemstones and silk, she felt sick with nerves. What would she do if Laurence didn’t come? He had promised. She was only nineteen, and he knew she’d never been further from Owl Tree Manor than a trip or two to London with Fran. Feeling very alone, her spirits sank. It was too bad her cousin hadn’t been able to travel out with her, but straight after the wedding Fran had been called away by her solicitor, and though Gwen would have entrusted Laurence with her life, all things considered, she couldn’t help feeling a bit upset.

A swarm of semi-naked brown-skinned children flitted among the crowd, offering bundles of cinnamon sticks, and with enormous, imploring eyes, begged for rupees. A child who couldn’t have been more than five pulled out a bundle for Gwen. She held it to her nose and sniffed. The child spoke, but it was gobbledegook to Gwen, and sadly she had no rupees to give the urchin, nor any English money either, now.

She stood and walked about. There was a brief gust of wind, and, from somewhere in the distance, came a troubling sound – boom, boom, boom. Drums, she thought. Loud, but not quite loud enough to identify a regular beat. She didn’t wander far from the small case she’d left by the bench, and when she heard Mr Ravasinghe call out, she felt her forehead bead with perspiration.

‘Mrs Hooper. You cannot leave your case unguarded.’

She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. ‘I was keeping my eye on it.’

‘People are poor and opportunistic. Come, I’ll carry your case and find you somewhere cooler to wait.’

‘You’re very kind.’

‘Not at all.’ He held her by the elbow with just his fingertips, and forged a path through the Port Authority building. ‘This is Church Street. Now look over there – just at the edge of Gordon Gardens is the Suriya, or tulip tree as it is known.’

She glanced at the tree. Its fat trunk folded deeply like a woman’s skirt, and a canopy studded with bright orange bell-shaped flowers offered an oddly flaming kind of shade.

‘It will provide a degree of cool, though with the afternoon heat coming on so strong, and the monsoon not yet arrived, you will find little relief.’

‘Really,’ she said. ‘There’s no need for you to stay with me.’

He smiled and his eyes narrowed. ‘I cannot leave you here alone, a penniless stranger in our city.’

Glad of his company, she smiled back.

They walked across to the spot he’d indicated, and she spent another hour leaning against the tree, perspiring and dripping beneath her clothes, and wondering what she’d let herself in for by agreeing to live in Ceylon. The noise had amplified, and though he stood close, hemmed in by the crowds, he still had to shout to be heard.

‘If your husband has not arrived by three, I hope you won’t mind my suggesting you retire to the Galle Face Hotel to wait. It is airy, there are fans and soft drinks and you will be infinitely cooler.’

She hesitated, reluctant to leave the spot. ‘But how will Laurence know I’m there?’

‘He’ll know. Anyone British of any standing goes to the Galle Face.’

She glanced at the imposing façade of the Grand Oriental. ‘Not there?’

‘Definitely not there. Trust me.’

In the fierce brightness of the afternoon, the wind blew a cloud of grit into her face, sending tears streaming down her cheeks. She blinked rapidly, then rubbed her eyes, hoping she really could trust him. Perhaps he was right. A person could die in this heat.

A short distance from where she stood, a tight bundle had formed beneath rows and rows of fluttering white ribbons strung across the street, and a man in brown robes, making a repetitive high-pitched sound, stood in the centre of a group of colourful women. Mr Ravasinghe saw Gwen watching.

‘The monk is pirith chanting,’ he said. ‘It is often required at the deathbed to ensure a good passing. Here I think it is because great evil may have transpired at that spot, or at the very least a death. The monk is attempting to purify the place of any remaining malignancy by calling for the blessings of the gods. We believe in ghosts in Ceylon.’

‘You are all Buddhists?’

‘I myself am, but there are Hindus and Muslims too.’

‘And Christians?’

He inclined his head.

When by three there was still no sign of Laurence, the man held out a hand and took a step away. ‘Well?’

She nodded, and he called out to one of the rickshaw men, who wore very little more than a turban and a greasy-looking loincloth.

She shuddered at how thin the man’s brown naked back was. ‘I’m surely not going in that?’

‘Would you prefer a bullock cart?’

She felt herself redden as she glanced at the heap of oval orange fruits piled up in a cart that had huge wooden wheels and a matted canopy.

‘I do beg your pardon, Mrs Hooper. I shouldn’t tease. Your husband uses carts to transport the tea chests. We would actually ride in a small buggy. Just the one bullock and with a shady palm-leaf hood.’

She pointed at the orange fruits. ‘What are those?’

‘King coconut. Only for the juice. Are you thirsty?’

Even though she was, she shook her head. On the wall just behind Mr Ravasinghe, a large poster showed a dark-skinned woman balancing a wicker basket on her head and wearing a yellow and red sari. She had bare feet and gold bangles on her ankles and she wore a yellow headscarf. MAZZAWATTEE TEA the poster proclaimed. Gwen’s hands grew clammy and a flood of sickening panic swept through her. She was very far from home.

‘As you can see,’ Mr Ravasinghe was saying, ‘cars are few and far between, and a rickshaw is certainly faster. If you are unhappy, we can wait, and I’ll try to obtain a horse and carriage. Or, if it helps, I can accompany you in the rickshaw.’

At that moment, a large black car came hooting its way through the crowd of pedestrians, bicyclists, carts and carriages, only narrowly missing numerous sleeping dogs. Laurence, she thought with a surge of relief, but when she looked in through the window of the passing vehicle, she saw it contained only two large middle-aged European women. One turned to look at Gwen, her face a picture of disapproval.

Right, Gwen thought, galvanized into action, a rickshaw it is.

A cluster of thin palms stood waving in the breeze outside the Galle Face Hotel, and the building itself sided the ocean in a very British way. When Mr Ravasinghe had given her the oriental manner of salutation, and a very warm smile, she was sorry to see him go, but walked past the two curved staircases and settled herself to wait in the relative cool of the Palm Lounge. She instantly felt at home and closed her eyes, pleased to have a small respite from the almost total invasion of her senses. Her rest didn’t last long. If Laurence were to arrive now, she was only too aware of the sorry state she was in, and that was not the impression she wanted to create. She sipped her cup of Ceylon tea, and then looked across the tables and chairs dotted about the polished teak floor. In one corner a discreet sign pinpointed the location of the ladies’ powder room.

In the sweet-smelling, multiple-mirrored room, she splashed the repeated image of her face, and applied a dab of Après L’Ondée, which luckily had been safely stowed in her small case, and not in her drowned purse. She felt sticky, with sweat running down under her arms, but pinned up her hair again so that it coiled neatly at the nape of her neck. Her hair was her crowning glory, Laurence said. It was dark, long and ringleted when unpinned. When she’d mentioned she was considering having it cut short like Fran’s, flapper style, he’d looked horrified, and tugged loose a curl at the back of her neck, then leant down and rubbed his chin on top of her head. After that, with his palms placed on either side of her jaw, his fingers gathering up her hair, he’d stared at her.

‘Never cut your hair. Promise me.’

She’d nodded, unable to speak, the tingle from his hands so delicious that all manner of hitherto unfelt sensations arose in her.

Their wedding night had been perfect and so had the following week. On their final night neither of them had slept, and he’d had to rise before dawn in order to reach Southampton in time to board the ship for Ceylon. Though he was disappointed she wasn’t coming with him, he had business in Ceylon and they agreed the time would soon pass. He hadn’t minded her staying on to wait for Fran, but she had regretted the decision the moment he was gone and hardly knew how she would bear to be apart from him. Then, when Fran had been delayed still further in London over a property she was letting out, Gwen decided to travel alone.

With her captivating looks, Gwen had never been short of beaux, but she’d fallen for Laurence from the moment she spotted him at a musical evening Fran had taken her to in London, and when he had grinned at her and charged over determined to introduce himself, she was lost. They’d seen each other every day after that, and when he proposed, she’d raised a burning face and, with no hesitation, said yes. Her parents had been none too pleased that a thirty-seven-year-old widower wanted to marry her, and her father had taken a little persuading, but was impressed when Laurence offered to leave a manager in charge of the plantation and return to live in England. Gwen would not hear of it. If Ceylon was where his heart belonged, it was where her heart would belong too.

As she closed the powder-room door behind her, she saw him standing with his back to her in the large entrance hall and her breath caught in her throat. She touched the beads at her neck, adjusting the blue droplet so that it sat in the centre, and, awed by the intensity of her feelings, stood still to drink in the sight of him. He was tall, with a good broad back and short light-brown hair, flecked with early grey at the temples. A product of Winchester school, he looked as if confidence ran in his veins: a man who women adored and men respected. Yet he read Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. She loved him for it, and for the fact that he already knew she was far from the demure girl people expected her to be.

As if he had felt her eyes on him, he spun round. She took in the relief in his fierce brown eyes, and the wide spreading smile as he came striding towards her. He had a square jaw and a cleft chin, which, along with the way his hair waved at the front and went crazy at the double crown, she found utterly irresistible. Because he was wearing shorts, she could see his legs were tanned, and he looked so much more dusty and rugged here than he had done in the chilly English countryside.

Full of energy, she ran across to meet him. He held her at arm’s length for just a moment, then wrapped her in a bear hug so tight she could hardly breathe. Her heart was still racing when he’d finished swinging her round and finally let her go.

‘You have no idea how much I’ve missed you,’ he said, his voice deep and a little gruff.

‘How did you know I was here?’

‘I asked the harbour master where the most beautiful woman in Ceylon had gone.’

She smiled. ‘That’s very nice, but of course I am not.’

‘One of the most adorable things about you is that you have no idea how lovely you are.’ He held both her hands in his. ‘I’m so sorry I was late.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Someone looked after me. He said he knew you. Mr Ravasinghe, I think that was his name.’

‘Savi Ravasinghe?’

‘Yes.’ She felt the skin at the back of her neck prickle. He frowned and narrowed his eyes, increasing the fan of fine lines that were prematurely etched into his skin. She longed to touch them. He was a man who had lived and, to her, that made him even more attractive.

‘Never mind,’ he said, quickly recovering his good humour. ‘I’m here now. The darned car had a problem. Luckily, Nick McGregor managed to sort it out. It’s too late to drive back, so I’m just booking us rooms.’

They walked back to the desk, then, finished with the clerk, he reached for her, and as his lips brushed her cheek her breath escaped in a little puff.

‘Your trunk will go up by train,’ he said. ‘At least as far as Hatton.’

‘I know, I talked to the man in the Port Authority building.’

‘Right. McGregor will arrange for one of the coolies to fetch it from the station in a bullock cart. Will you have enough in that case until tomorrow?’

‘Just about.’

‘Do you want some tea?’ he said.

‘Do you?’

‘What do you think?’

She grinned and suppressed the urge to laugh out loud as he asked the clerk to send the bags up double quick.

They walked to the stairs arm in arm, but once round the bend in the stairwell she felt unexpectedly shy. He let go of her and went on ahead to unlock and then throw open the door.

She took the last few steps and gazed in at the room.

Late afternoon sunlight spilt through tall windows, tinting the walls a delicate shade of pink; the painted lamps either side of the bed were already lit and the room smelt of oranges. Looking at a scene so clearly set for intimacy, she felt a burst of heat at the back of her neck and scratched the skin there. The moment she had imagined over and over was finally here, and yet she stood hesitating in the doorway.

‘Don’t you like it?’ he said, his eyes bright and shiny.

She felt her pulse jump in her throat.

‘Darling?’

‘I love it,’ she managed to say.

He came across to her and let loose the hair that was pinned up. ‘There. That’s better.’

She nodded. ‘They’ll be bringing the bags.’

‘I think we have a few moments,’ he said, and touched her bottom lip with his fingertip. But then, as if on cue, there was a knock at the door.

‘I’ll just open the window,’ she said, stepping back, glad of an excuse not to let the porter witness her stupid anxiety.

Their room faced the ocean and as she pushed the window ajar she looked out at ripples of silvery gold where the sun caught the tips of the waves. This was what she wanted, and it wasn’t as if they hadn’t spent a week together in England, but home felt very distant and that thought brought her close to tears. She closed her eyes and listened as the porter carried in their bags, then, once the man had gone, she twisted back to look at Laurence.

He gave her a crooked smile. ‘Is something wrong?’

She bowed her head and stared at the floor.

‘Gwen, look at me.’

She blinked rapidly and the room seemed to hush. Thoughts raced through her mind as she wondered how to explain the sensation of being catapulted into a world she didn’t understand, though it wasn’t just that – the feeling of being naked under his gaze had unnerved her too. Not wanting the embarrassment to ambush her, she looked up and, moving very slowly, took a few steps towards him.

He looked relieved. ‘I was worried for a moment there.’

Her legs began to shake. ‘I’m being silly. Everything is so new … You’re so new.’

He smiled and came to her. ‘Well, if that’s all, it’s easily remedied.’

She leant in towards him, feeling light-headed as he fumbled with the button at the back of her dress.

‘Here, let me,’ she said and, reaching behind, slipped the button through the loop. ‘It’s a knack.’

He laughed. ‘One I shall have to learn.’

An hour later and Laurence was asleep. Fuelled by the long wait, their love-making had been intense, even more so than on their wedding night. She thought back to the moments when she first arrived in the country; it was as if the hot Colombo sun had sucked the energy from her body. She’d been wrong. There was abundant energy lying in reserve, although now as she lay listening to the threads of sound drifting in from the outside world, her arms and legs felt heavy and she wasn’t far from sleep. She realized how perfectly natural lying beside Laurence was beginning to feel and, smiling at her earlier nervousness, shifted a little so that she could look at him while still feeling the strength of his body in the places where he seemed to be glued to her. Blanched of all emotion but one, her love had somehow distilled into this perfect moment. It was going to be all right. For another minute or two she breathed in the muskiness of him while watching the shadows of the room lengthen and then rapidly darken. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

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Next: Chapter 2