Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 33
Next: Chapter 35

34

March 1934

Now that the rains were long gone, the days were bright. Laurence had spent most of the last couple of months travelling, leaving McGregor in charge, though Gwen had had very little to do with the man. When Laurence was home he seemed a little cut off, as if he was troubled by something. When she questioned him he brushed her off and said that with so many plantations abandoned due to the fall in tea prices, far from riots being the biggest worry, it was the spread of the anopheles mosquito.

Fran and Savi were temporarily in Colombo while they decided what to do about a more permanent home, and Verity, delighted to have her allowance back, was staying with friends in Kandy until the rental lease on her home in England ran out. Gwen had made reinstating Verity’s allowance conditional on her living in England. It didn’t mean she would not come back with further demands, but it gave Gwen a chance to catch her breath.

Fran had spoken to Savi and, while Laurence was away, Gwen agreed to meet up with them both in Nuwara Eliya. Savi wanted to talk to Gwen in private, so they decided to take a walk round a part of the lake there. She didn’t really want to see him at all, but knew she must.

He walked towards her and held out a hand.

She gazed at the ground and did not take it.

‘How are things in Colombo?’ she managed to say without looking at him. ‘We saw the start of a riot.’

There was a pause and she heard him sigh as she stood still for a little longer. When she glanced up she saw a tightness in the skin round his eyes.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.

His nostrils flared and she could feel his pent-up anger.

‘When Fran told me, I was appalled. I thought we were friends, Gwen. How could you ever think I’d have hurt you?’

She felt a burst of heat and bowed her head again. ‘I didn’t know what to think.’

‘And yet you thought that of me. For heaven’s sake, Gwen. Can’t you even look at me?’

She looked up and, devastated by the pain she saw in his eyes, shook her head.

He cracked his knuckles but didn’t speak.

In the tense atmosphere she struggled to speak, her mind running over everything that had gone on, but after a few moments found the words.

‘I didn’t want to think that of you,’ she said. ‘It made me ill but I couldn’t see how else it could have happened. I am so sorry.’

‘Oh, Gwen.’

She felt a flash of anger, though more at herself than at him. ‘I am starting to love Liyoni. Do you know that? And all I’ve ever done is turn her away. Can you imagine how that feels? Can you even begin to understand?’

‘And yet if she’d been white, even if I had actually done this terrible thing, you wouldn’t have thought twice.’

‘That isn’t fair. If she had been white I’d have had no cause to believe she was not Laurence’s daughter.’

Savi sighed. ‘He never did like me. I have no idea why.’

‘He’s a reasonable man.’

‘Not where I’m concerned.’

She reached out a hand to him. He did not take it but walked over to the water’s edge. Gwen swallowed rapidly and watched the birds gathering nearby. He turned abruptly and the birds took flight over the water.

‘All these years, you must have been through hell. Why didn’t you talk to me?’

‘Back then I was very young and very frightened. I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been here long and I didn’t know you.’

She watched a vein pulse in his neck and waited for him to speak. When he didn’t she continued.

‘I thought you charming. More than charming, if I’m being honest. Laurence was being cool towards me. I was lonely. But then, once Liyoni was born, I hated you.’

‘I’m sorry if I gave you any cause,’ he said, with sadness in his voice.

She looked back at him. His sincerity was utterly convincing, but she didn’t know how to cope with her mixed feelings. She felt immense relief that she truly believed he was not Liyoni’s father, but also felt awful that she could have thought so badly of him.

There were tears in his eyes but he smiled as he spoke. ‘Shall we draw a line under this? I’m married to your cousin, virtually your brother-in-law. Can we be friends again?’

‘I’d like that.’

He held out his arms and she went to him, trembling with relief as her tears fell. When they parted, she wiped her eyes. He took her hand and gently kissed it.

‘If there is anything I can do to help … search the records, look through the Colombo archives. See if there’s anything that might give us a clue as to Liyoni’s heritage. By that, of course, I mean your husband’s heritage.’

She smiled. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much. I can’t tell you what this means to me. I’m so sorry.’

‘I did wonder when our paths so rarely crossed again, and you didn’t seem yourself when I came to the house with Verity that time.’

‘Verity only brought you there to undermine me.’

‘I think you should speak to the ayah. Quite often lifelong servants know more about a family than the family themselves.’

With one hand she swept away the hair blowing in her eyes, then ran her fingers through the tangles.

‘I don’t think Naveena knows anything. She was the one who persuaded me to take Liyoni to the village in the first place.’

‘I see. Well, the search might take a little while. These things are often well hidden, but I have good contacts and if there is anything to find, as I’m sure there must be, I will find it. I’ll let you know the moment I have something concrete to report.’

‘Thank you.’

‘So now, what about lunch? Fran is expecting us both.’

‘Thank you, but I think I’ll sit for a while.’

He pressed his palms together in front of his chest, fingers pointing upwards, and bowed very slightly just as he had done on their first meeting. It seemed so long ago.

After he had gone, free at last of the burden of guilt, she felt almost light-headed. But how oddly it had come about! If Fran had not got to know Savi and then married him, she would never have found out that she hadn’t been unfaithful. Now that she was certain, she still had to find a way to approach Laurence. He needed to be told that Liyoni was his daughter, and the only question was whether to speak to him immediately or wait until she had dug up evidence of Ceylonese blood in his family.

She turned it over in her mind. It was better to wait. She pulled her shawl more tightly round her shoulders as the wind began to blow, hardly able to believe that this day had come. Yet despite her joy at no longer having to harbour the hate she’d felt for Savi, nothing could wipe away the fact that she had given her own child away. She sat on the bench watching the wind bending the trees on the opposite side of the Nuwara Eliya lake and had never felt so alone.

Once both Gwen and Laurence were back home, they heard that the new brand had enjoyed good sales after its launch in December and, despite the price of tea being so low, profits were likely to be reasonable. Christina had wired too, from America, her words encouraging them to stay positive because things could only get better. For the first time, Gwen heard Christina’s name without the slightest wobble.

Hugh was also back for the weekend. He’d grown used to the fact that Liyoni could no longer play outside or swim in the lake with him, yet he spent hours at her side, reading to her and showing her how to do crossword puzzles.

Gwen came upon them huddled together in a corner of the nursery, giggling and looking so happy in each other’s company that her heart skipped a beat. At eight years old, they were so different in appearance: Hugh well-built and tall, just like Laurence, and Liyoni delicate and pretty. With every month that passed, she looked more like Gwen. Her English had come on, and she even spoke with a fairly authentic accent. And with Verity gone, this was a much-needed space for Gwen to spend a little time with both her children.

She found her voice and smiled. ‘What are you two doing?’

‘Drawing, Mummy,’ said Hugh.

‘Can I see?’

He pushed the two pieces of paper towards her and she squatted down to look. Hugh had drawn a rather good aeroplane, a type used during the Great War.

‘It’s a German plane,’ he said.

‘Very nice.’

But when she looked at the other drawing she saw that, once again, Liyoni had drawn a waterfall.

‘She only draws waterfalls, Mummy.’

‘Yes.’

‘Can’t you take her to see it, Mummy? Just one time,’ he said in a wheedling tone of voice.

‘I haven’t come in here to talk about waterfalls, darling. I’ve come to say it’s time to wash your hands before lunch.’

‘Can Liyoni have her lunch with us?’

‘You know Liyoni has her lunch with Naveena.’

‘I really don’t think that’s fair.’

‘Don’t you indeed. Well, perhaps you’d like to discuss the matter with your father over luncheon.’

He grinned at her. ‘All right, Mummy, you win.’

Gwen had never got used to sleeping in Laurence’s room, so when he was back, more often than not, he spent the night with her in her room. On his final night home before he set off again, she was moved by his tenderness. After they’d made love, he kissed her firmly on the mouth and there were tears in his eyes as he stroked her cheek.

‘You know you can tell me anything, Gwen.’

‘Of course. And you me.’

He closed his eyes, but she saw that his chin was trembling very slightly.

They decided to let the candle burn itself out and she stared at the ceiling in the flickering light, thinking about what he’d said. Might it be better, after all, to tell him the truth about Liyoni now, even though she had not come up with anything yet? She began by saying something about Hugh. Laurence murmured a response, but then, almost instantly, he fell asleep. She listened to his slow breathing, turned on her side and folded her body up close.

They were woken by the sound of faint sobbing coming from the nursery. She fumbled for the switch to her bedside lamp, pulled back the blanket on her side, swung her feet to the white rug on the floor, then got out of bed. She glanced at the clock. Three in the morning. She wrapped a gown round her shoulders, then pulled on some thick socks, glad that Hugh was back at school and wouldn’t be disturbed.

She touched Laurence’s face. ‘I’ll go. You’ve got a long journey in the morning.’

He grunted and rolled over.

In the nursery, Naveena stooped over Liyoni’s bed. ‘She says her legs pain, Lady.’

Gwen leant over her daughter.

‘Pull up the chair, Naveena. I’ll have her on my lap. I know the doctor told you to rub her legs when they got painful, but I’d like to do it myself tonight.’

Naveena pulled up the chair and, while Gwen settled with the child, she went to the cupboard and took out a small bottle of aromatic oil. She poured a little into Gwen’s outstretched palm.

‘Rub gentle, Lady. Like a butterfly.’

‘I will, don’t worry.’ Gwen had watched Naveena do it and knew exactly how much pressure to apply.

Liyoni continued to whimper and cough, but as Gwen massaged the child’s limbs, she sang very softly. Gradually Liyoni closed her eyes and slept. Gwen didn’t want to wake her, so stayed as she was for the remainder of the night, and only realized how stiff she had become when Laurence came through in the half-light of early dawn.

‘I brought you some tea,’ he said, putting the cup and saucer on the small table. ‘You must be exhausted.’

‘A little cold maybe.’

‘Here, I’ll put the child into her bed. Will you let me?’ He looked at her with such concern in his eyes, she could only nod.

After Liyoni was tucked up, he asked Naveena to fetch a blanket for Gwen.

When she stood, every muscle in her body seemed to be aching. She stretched and put a finger to her lips. ‘Let’s leave her to sleep now.’

‘I’ll call the doctor if you like.’

‘It’s all right. There’s nothing he can do. He’s given me some strong painkillers for her. He said to use them sparingly, until …’ She swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘She was such a wonderful swimmer.’

He put an arm round her and led her to her room. ‘I think I’ll phone the doctor anyway, if you don’t mind. I’m afraid I shall have to be off fairly soon, if I’m to catch the train in time. But, before I go, I have something to show you.’

‘Darling, please can it wait? I’m so tired I think I’ll try to sleep for an hour or so.’

The doctor, when he came, suggested it was time to give Liyoni more painkillers. ‘Not all the time,’ he said, ‘but if you think it’s necessary, don’t hold back.’

‘She isn’t going to get better, is she?’

He shook his head.

‘How long?’ Gwen asked, holding his gaze.

‘That’s impossible to tell. She could go on for some time longer … On the other hand …’ He spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. ‘Can she still stand?’

‘Yes.’

As the realization sank in, a feeling of calm washed over her. Now that there was so little time, she would tell Laurence as soon as he returned. But before that, there was one thing she had to do for Liyoni.

After the doctor had gone, Gwen brought Liyoni through to her own bedroom, sat her on the chair in the window and went to fetch some clean clothes from the nursery. Liyoni clapped her hands when she saw the dress Gwen came back with. It was one of Gwen’s that Naveena had cut down for the child: a bright red, almost scarlet, broderie anglaise dress. She had a favourite red shawl too and some red socks which she wore inside her wellington boots. Hugh always said she looked like Little Red Riding Hood.

Once Liyoni was well wrapped up, Gwen went outside to see if McGregor had already brought the Daimler back from dropping Laurence at the station. She grinned when she spotted the car parked just outside with the keys still in the ignition. She pocketed the keys. No need to even mention that she was taking the car.

Back in her room, Naveena was hovering around Liyoni.

‘You think I’m doing the right thing?’ she asked the woman.

Naveena nodded slowly. ‘One time letting her see the water.’

As they started off, Gwen hoped she’d find the turning Verity had once pointed out during a driving lesson.

Gwen had acted on impulse, but didn’t regret bringing Liyoni out. The little girl had asked so many times and as long as she was careful it would be fine. As she drove, she thought of Liyoni’s time at the plantation: the way she’d shout, ‘I’m flying!’ as she took off through the water and the way she’d twirl in delight at anything that pleased her.

Lost in thought, Gwen almost drove right past the overgrown turning. Specks of broken cloud flecked the pale sky and there was just a slight breeze. She stopped for a moment and rolled the windows right down so they could smell the fresh mint and eucalyptus, and listen to the hum of flying creatures. Then she drove especially carefully so as not to jolt the child too much as they bumped over potholes and mounds of stone.

‘Lean out, Liyoni,’ she said. ‘Can you smell the water? We can’t be far.’

The little girl leant out and, glancing across, Gwen saw her daughter’s dark hair streaming out behind her. She carried on driving, concentrating on the track, but when she heard the sound of falling water, she knew they were almost there.

‘Do you hear it?’ she said in a loud voice, twisting to look at Liyoni. The little girl’s face shone with pleasure.

After Gwen had parked, she climbed down, walked round to the passenger side and opened the door.

‘I can’t take the car any closer.’

Gwen leant against the side of the car, while Liyoni sat on the edge of her seat, absorbing the sound of the waterfall. After a while the little girl tapped Gwen’s hand, interrupting her thoughts. She bent her head to hear what Liyoni was saying.

‘I cannot see. Get out?’

Gwen frowned. The doctor had said that although the child could still walk or stand for maybe ten minutes, any prolonged use of her legs would cause pain.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s dangerous.’

‘Please. Little closer. Please.’ Liyoni looked up at her with a pleading look.

‘It’s not a good idea. Just look from here.’

‘I be careful.’

When she saw the longing in her little girl’s eyes, Gwen gave in. If the disease progressed as the doctor expected, this might be her only chance to really see how the water fell.

‘Very well, but you must let me hold you all the time. I’ll carry you to where you will be able to see a little better.’

The force of water had carved a horseshoe shape in the rocky surroundings, so Gwen carried her to a spot close to where the curve began. They stood far enough away from the edge to be perfectly safe, but near enough to see the water that fed the fall on the opposite side.

‘Don’t move at all. Hold tight. See over there,’ Gwen said and pointed several yards over to the right. ‘See just over there where the ground is a bit crumbly.’

‘I be careful.’

Gwen looked up. The clouds had thickened and the sun had gone in. The smell now was of damp vegetation, moist earth and something indefinable coming from the water itself. Minerals, Gwen thought, or else something the water might have picked up en route. She heard a noise behind her and glanced over her shoulder, but it was only a couple of monkeys flying through the air and thumping as they landed.

‘You do like water, don’t you?’ Gwen said, speaking loudly and tightening her hold round the child’s waist.

Liyoni glanced up, her face flushed with excitement.

A few minutes passed as Gwen gazed at the rocky ledges opposite, where the water flew off before thundering to the pool where Caroline had drowned. The pool itself was out of sight, and Gwen could only imagine the foaming whiteness at the bottom and the despair her predecessor must have felt.

At that moment Liyoni threw back her head, giggling with joy, then stretched out her arms above her. A gust of wind snatched the red woollen shawl away. As Gwen bent to retrieve it, she relaxed her grip on Liyoni’s waist for just a second or two. There was a burst of sunlight and, blinded by the brightness, Gwen stared into the torrent of glittering crystal water. A sudden gust of strong wind blew grit in her face, but at the back of her mind she was aware of the sound of an engine pulling up. With streaming eyes she reached out to catch hold of Liyoni, but the child had moved.

In the time that it took for Gwen’s eyes to clear, the sun lit Liyoni’s face as she turned, there was another gust of wind and, startled by it, she wobbled. With her back to the waterfall Liyoni seemed confused and took a step backwards instead of forward. As Gwen reached out, Liyoni stumbled, her red dress billowing out behind her with the wind forcing her back again.

In that split second Gwen felt the full force of her love for her daughter. Heart-stopping, absolute love.

Liyoni fell forward on to her knees.

‘Stay down,’ Gwen shouted and, on all fours herself, crawled forward to grasp the little girl.

Suddenly Laurence was there. He scooped Liyoni up and tenderly carried her to the car. Gwen, still on her knees, looked down, winded by the shock. It had been too close. The wind dropped, Gwen got up and ran to where Laurence now stood.

‘Give her to me,’ she cried, then wrapped her arms round her shaking child.

Nobody had told her that being a mother would mean living with love so unqualified that it left you breathless, and fear so awful that it shook you to your soul. Nor had they said how close those two feelings were. At the back of Gwen’s mind a single tiny dreadful thought crept in. If she had just had the courage to tip herself over the edge, it would all have been over. The years of guilt. The fear. The self-loathing. Everything. And then the thought was gone.

But Laurence must have seen something in her face.

‘No, Gwen. Think of your other child.’

Still reeling from the shock of what had happened, she had registered his voice in a disconnected kind of way. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said, think of your other child.’

She stared at him. Everything went silent. Isolated in the moment, she felt the wind brush her skin. She gazed about, seeing every detail of everything going on without really looking. The grass looked different, as if the wind blew it about more slowly than usual. And the insects – so many insects, hovering, hardly moving – and the birds swooping in slow motion from tree to tree. She heard a noise in the distance. Something calling. What was it? A goat? A bell? For a moment, her mind felt unnaturally serene, as if the world had come to rescue her from the pain of what she had done. But the pain had not gone. And, in the end, it came rushing back as the noise of the water came crashing in.

She looked at Laurence. ‘You know?’

He nodded.

‘How long?’

‘Not long.’

‘I thought you had already gone to Colombo.’

Laurence shook his head, looking stiff and worried. ‘I needed to talk to you. I couldn’t leave. Look, there are blankets in the boot of the car. I’m taking you both back now. Nick and I can pick up the truck later.’

She twisted back to look at the spot where she and Liyoni had been standing, and trembled at what might have happened. While Laurence got out the blankets she held Liyoni and, stroking her cheeks, whispered all the things she had never dared say. Told her she was sorry, asked for her forgiveness, repeating it over and over. Though the little girl could not understand all the words, she gazed into Gwen’s eyes and managed a smile.

As Laurence came back round, Gwen glanced up at him. ‘It was reckless. I shouldn’t have brought her here, but she wanted to see it so much.’

‘It’s the shock. She’ll be fine. You kept far enough from the edge. The wind made it seem worse than it was, but you weren’t really in danger. Come on, let’s get you both away from here.’

He took Liyoni and held her close, then placed her on the back seat and gently stroked her hair.

‘You’re all right now, little one,’ he said.

A bird screeched in the sky and Gwen glanced at the length of fabric she still held: Liyoni’s red shawl. She lifted it into the air for a moment, then released her grip. The shawl spun gently and was carried downstream on the wind, like a red kite reeling and twisting as it surrendered to its inevitable descent. Then, standing out against the shining water, it fluttered momentarily before it disappeared.

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Next: Chapter 35