Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 34
Next: Author’s Note

35

Five weeks later, on a beautiful May morning, Liyoni died peacefully in her sleep. Gwen had spent most of the time at her side, stroking her forehead and keeping her cool. Afterwards, she and Naveena gently washed her and brushed her hair. But as Gwen sank deeper into heartache, so far removed from anything she had known, she despaired of ever feeling normal again.

Soon after the incident at the waterfall, Laurence had wanted to explain how he’d found out. Something in the family records, he’d said, just as Fran had suggested there would be, but Gwen was so upset about Liyoni’s deterioration, she wasn’t ready to hear the details. Later, she’d said, tell me everything later. Then she’d burst into tears and hurried from the room, not at all ready to share the anguish she felt at having given their daughter away.

Now, unable to speak, drink or eat, her deepest regret was that she had discovered too late how much she loved Liyoni. She would never see her again, never touch her hair, never hear her voice, and she would never be able to make up for what she had done. That was worst of all. The ache for her child’s lost life did not diminish. That she should live while her daughter was gone seemed like a physical impossibility. A terrible joke played out by an indifferent world.

In the nursery, Naveena laid Liyoni out in a long white dress. Gwen, standing several feet away, watched in numb silence. Several of the servants came in to place flowers around the little girl. Even McGregor came, and as he entered the room, Gwen’s throat constricted. She glanced at him before he looked at Liyoni and she saw his face was white. She swallowed the lump in her throat and stepped towards the bed. McGregor looked at her and held out his hand, his eyes full of pain. She had never seen him look like that before, and wondered if he was remembering the day they had laid Thomas to rest.

Eventually, when they had all gone and she was alone, she touched her daughter’s cheek, cold and so much paler than it had been in life. In that moment she welcomed how much it hurt. It was a just punishment. She kissed Liyoni’s forehead, stroked her hair one last time, then turned and fled, hardly able to take a breath.

Hugh had been kept in the dark. Laurence thought it better for him to board for a few weeks, and only be told when he next came home in the school holidays. So when the funeral was held the next day, Hugh was absent.

Gwen felt her mind grow numb as she walked along the path the gardener had cut to the place where Thomas was buried, but almost fainted when she first glimpsed the deep rectangular hole waiting for Liyoni’s coffin. Naveena walked beside her, with an arm round her waist, holding her up as she herself had held Liyoni. Unable to stand up straight, Gwen felt very old. Naveena’s face did not give much away, and Gwen wondered what the ayah must be feeling. It flashed into Gwen’s mind that all the servants must have trained themselves to be impassive.

When the coffin was lowered Gwen had to suppress the urge to jump in after it. Instead she knelt at the edge and threw in a bunch of large white daisies, which landed with a thud. She glanced up and, almost unbearably immune to any feelings of hope, she heard the movement of the lake behind her. That was what would save her. Liyoni’s water.

‘I think I’d like to go swimming now,’ she said as Laurence helped her to her feet.

He spoke to Naveena, then came with her to her room, where he stood still, watching as she undressed before putting on her bathing clothes. As she struggled out of a badly fitting black dress, he was right not to lend a hand. She had resisted all offers of help, and now, it seemed, he understood that she must do everything by herself, because if she did not, there might never come a time when she would know how. When she was ready, he went to his room, changed, and then came back to collect her.

The water, as they stepped into it, was cold.

‘Once you start swimming, you’ll warm up,’ Laurence said. ‘Shall we head across to the island?’

She went further in and began to swim, feeling as if she could go on and on and never stop. Halfway across, Laurence wanted her to rest at the island. She complied, but when they pulled themselves out of the water and on to the bank, it was far too cold to sit in the wind. She glanced back at their home across the lake, the place she loved but where so much fear had torn her apart.

‘Let’s swim to the boathouse,’ Laurence said, interrupting her thoughts. ‘As soon as you suggested a swim, I asked Naveena to organize dry towels, a log fire and a flask of tea.’

She nodded, swimming back more slowly as her energy began to fade. Her legs gave way as he helped her out of the water and then up the steps to the door of the little building.

Inside the boathouse, the logs were just catching and she sat on the floor beside the fire with her knees drawn up, holding out her palms to feel the heat. He came across and wrapped a large fluffy towel round her, and used another to dry her hair. As he rubbed, she leant against him, and finally the tears began to spill. She turned round and, feeling his heart thump against her, she sobbed into his chest. She sobbed for her little girl’s lost life and for Laurence never having been able to acknowledge his daughter. She sobbed that life could bring such incredible joy, while at the same time be capable of dealing a blow so cruel that it seemed impossible to withstand.

As she clung to Laurence, he stroked her back, bringing back feeling to her muscles and skin. It seemed to go on for a very long time. And then, as he dried her tears, she felt relief that she had been able to release a little of the pain and grateful for his generosity.

They sat on the floor together, Gwen gazing at the fire, while he poured tea into two cups, adding a splash of brandy to each.

‘Is it time to talk?’ he asked.

There was a long stretch of silence and then, when she was ready, Gwen looked up at him.

‘How long have you known?’

‘About Liyoni?’

She nodded. ‘I know you tried to tell me before. Will you tell me now?’

‘You remember the parcel that arrived? The one you asked me about?’

‘I’d almost forgotten.’

There was a pause.

‘I contacted our solicitor in England and asked him to gain access to a small apartment in our house. It’s excluded from the tenancy agreement. A lot of old papers are kept there from the days when my parents lived part of the year there.’

‘What kind of papers?’

‘Old family records. My mother loved that old house, had always looked forward to retiring there, which is why she kept the papers there.’

Gwen nodded.

‘I asked the solicitor to find them and send everything on to me. I knew Verity had seen my mother’s records, but I had not. It was just an impulse, but Verity had once implied that there were things I didn’t know about the family. At the time, quite frankly, I didn’t believe her, but I wondered if there might be clues to Liyoni’s relationship with Naveena. I wanted to know if they really were related.’

‘What did you find?’

‘Photos, letters, documents … and a very delicate and much-folded piece of parchment.’ He paused. ‘A marriage certificate that recorded the marriage of my great-grandfather, Albert.’

She waited.

‘My great-grandmother’s name was Sukeena. She wasn’t English, wasn’t even European – she was Sinhalese. She died soon after my grandmother was born and my parents never told me anything about her.’

At last, she thought; here was the truth that had lain buried for so long. ‘You’re saying the colour of Liyoni’s skin came from her?’

He nodded. ‘I believe so. If only you had told me, Gwen, we might have been able to find that out from the start. We could have kept our daughter.’

She shook her head. ‘We hadn’t been married long and hardly even knew each other. If I had told you then, you would have sent me away. You wouldn’t have wanted to, but that is what would have happened. You would have thought I’d had an affair.’

The colour left his face as he started to speak, but she put a finger to his lips. ‘It’s true,’ she said. ‘We would never have got as far as looking for an alternative reason.’

From the short pause that followed Gwen knew her words had hit home and, for a moment, they stared at each other without speaking.

He took a deep breath. ‘When I persuaded Naveena to confirm what I guessed from the records, she admitted you had really given birth to twins. It took some doing, mind you. Naveena is very loyal to you.’ He hesitated. ‘What you must have gone through all these years. I am so sorry.’

Gwen blinked rapidly to hold back the tears.

‘When Verity came to me with the story of Liyoni and your supposed affair with Savi Ravasinghe, and asked for her allowance back, I already knew it wasn’t true.’

‘But you gave her the allowance and then let me think it was because I’d asked you?’

He nodded.

‘Has Verity seen this wedding certificate?’

‘I’m so sorry, Gwen. I’m sure she has, but I didn’t want to tell her I knew about Sukeena until I could find the way to tell you first.’ He frowned. ‘I just didn’t know where to start.’

She shook her head. ‘Verity knew the truth, but she still tried to blackmail me. Why did she need her allowance so badly?’

‘I think she was afraid to remain married to Alexander in case she too gave birth to a coloured child.’

‘But she fell in love with Savi?’

‘I don’t think she loved him. It was just that a mixed marriage would, in some circles, have been an acceptable reason for a coloured child. She needed money to live independently. She’s not strong like you, Gwen, the shame would have destroyed her. When you didn’t give in to her, she came to me.’

Gwen let out her breath slowly. ‘But I did give in. I asked you about the allowance.’

‘I don’t think Verity believed you would.’

Gwen paused. ‘She was taking money too, Laurence, by fiddling the accounts. Must have been stockpiling for years before I warned her that I knew.’

He hung his head. ‘I can’t begin to make excuses for her.’

Gwen sipped the warm tea and thought about what he’d said.

He looked up. ‘I think on some level I had begun to see the truth the day I carried Liyoni to swim in the lake, though I denied it to myself. But once the records arrived and I really opened my eyes, I saw how much like you she was.’

Gwen felt a wave of loss pass through her, so intense she didn’t know if she could bear it. This was how it would be now, yet at the same time she knew she had to find courage for Hugh’s sake.

‘So where do we go from here?’ she managed to say.

‘We carry on. For now, only you and I and Naveena know the whole truth about Liyoni.’

‘And Verity.’

‘And my suggestion is that we don’t tell Hugh until he is old enough to understand.’

‘Maybe you’re right, though I think he’d understand perfectly well that his playmate was actually his sister.’ She paused. ‘What do you want to do about Verity?’

‘Whatever you feel best, Gwen. I am ashamed of her, but I can’t completely turn my back on her. She’s very troubled, I’m afraid.’

Gwen shook her head but almost felt sorry for her sister-in-law.

‘We can go back to England if you want,’ Laurence said. ‘It’s still some years off, I believe, but we may have little choice once independence comes.’

She looked up at him and smiled. ‘I seem to remember saying that if the plantation was where your heart belonged, it was where my heart belonged too. Ceylon is still our home. Maybe we really can improve conditions here. Let’s stay until we’re forced to go.’

‘I’ll do whatever I can to make up for the past. All of the past.’

‘Can we keep the path to their resting places clear, and the view of the lake from there?’

He nodded.

‘We can plant flowers,’ she added, with a lump in her throat. ‘Orange marigolds.’

He took her hand. She leant against him and gazed through the window at the deep lake, where water birds were gathering. Herons, ibises, storks.

‘There was another thing I found in my mother’s papers. Something I never knew.’

‘Oh?’

‘Naveena’s mother and my grandmother were cousins.’

Gwen felt shaken. ‘Does Naveena know?’

‘I don’t think so.’

There was a short silence.

‘She’s had a good life here,’ he said.

‘Yes.’

‘But I feel heartbroken that I didn’t have enough time with Liyoni, and that I never had a chance to love her.’

Gwen took a deep breath. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘I’m not blaming you. At least in the time she did have here she was happy.’

‘It could have been so much better.’

Laurence looked at his feet before speaking again, in a low voice. ‘There is one more thing, and I don’t know if you’ll be able to forgive me for not telling you before.’

Gwen closed her eyes. What else could there be?

‘I was too ashamed. I’m dreadfully sorry. It’s about Caroline.’

She opened her eyes. ‘Yes?’

‘And Thomas.’

He paused and she watched a muscle in his neck pulse.

‘You see Caroline’s son, my son … Thomas. He was coloured too.’

Gwen’s hand flew to her mouth.

‘I’m so sorry for not telling you. I think that’s what tipped Caroline over the edge. She was such a beautiful and sensitive woman, and I’d have done anything for her, but she was fragile emotionally. Soon after Thomas was born she had prolonged crying spells and terrible panic attacks. They were so bad she was actually sick. I sat with her night after night holding her, trying to find a way to comfort her … but it was impossible. Nothing I did helped. You should have seen the haunted look in her eyes, Gwen. It broke my heart.’

‘Did she talk to you?’

‘No, though I tried to get through to her. Outside the family, only the doctor knew about Thomas, and Naveena. We’d kept him hidden from the rest of the servants, though, of course, McGregor found out when he retrieved Thomas from the water. Verity was home. It was the school holidays.’

Gwen drew a little apart from him and shook her head. ‘Verity knew?’

‘It had a terrible impact on her.’

‘That explains a lot.’

He nodded. ‘I think it’s probably why I’ve always given her so much leeway.’

‘Why didn’t Naveena tell me?’

‘I had begged her never to speak of it.’

‘But she was the one who came up with the idea of sending Liyoni to live at the village.’

‘She’d seen what had happened to Caroline. She must have wanted to ensure you wouldn’t go the same way.’ He paused and closed his eyes for a moment, before speaking. ‘There’s more, I’m afraid. You see, I’m to blame.’

‘It wasn’t your fault.’

He shook his head. ‘It was. When I first saw Thomas I felt betrayed and I accused Caroline of having an affair with Savi Ravasinghe when he painted her portrait. Even though she absolutely denied it, I didn’t believe her.’

Gwen pressed her lips together hard and squeezed her eyes shut in shock.

‘I promise you I still loved her and tried so hard to help her.’

She opened her eyes and scrutinized his face. ‘Good God, Laurence, there must have been something more you could have done?’

‘I tried, really tried. But she’d lost all interest in her appearance. I helped her wash, I helped her dress, I even helped her feed the baby. I did everything I could think of to pull her out of the blackness, and I thought I had succeeded, Gwen, because just before the end she seemed to recover enough for me to leave her for the day …’

There was silence as he swallowed rapidly.

‘But I was wrong … that was the day she took her own life. The awful thing is that even after she died I still didn’t believe her denial of the affair. That might have been the one thing that could have made a difference.’

Gwen suddenly understood what he was saying. ‘You think she killed herself because of you?’

He nodded. His face crumpled and his eyes filled with tears but he brushed them away. ‘She had been telling the truth all along, though I only knew that after I sent for my mother’s records and found out about Sukeena. I wanted to talk to you then, tell you everything about Caroline and Thomas … but I felt as if I had taken them to the pool under the falls and pushed them into the water myself. I couldn’t bear to tell you.’

Hardly able to believe what she was hearing, Gwen was in absolute turmoil. She watched him shudder as he tried to control his emotions. The moment seemed to last for ever.

When he spoke again, his voice was shaking. ‘How do I live with this, Gwen? How can you forgive me?’

She shook her head.

‘It’s not only Caroline’s death. She felt she had to take our baby with her, that she couldn’t trust me to care for him. A tiny, defenceless baby.’

As Gwen listened to the wind blowing the water about at the edge of the lake, she felt crushed.

Laurence took her hand. ‘I know I should have told you at the start, but I was certain I would lose you too.’

She removed her hand from his and held her breath for a moment before speaking. When she did it was with sorrow in her voice. ‘Yes, Laurence, you should have.’

There was a pause during which she didn’t trust herself to speak again. If he had told her about Thomas at the beginning, would she still have married him? She had been so young, far too young really.

‘I’m desperately sorry you’ve had to go through all this alone. And sorrier than I will ever be able to say for what I drove Caroline to do. I loved her so much.’

Gwen closed her eyes. ‘Poor, poor woman.’

‘Can you forgive me for not telling you everything?’

While she tried to take it in, she opened her eyes and for a moment watched Laurence staring at the floor with his head in his hands and his shoulders hunched. What could she say? Outside the birds had silenced and even the wind had dropped. She had to make a decision that could mean the end of everything. She understood so much more now, but images from the past were crowding her mind and she felt such utter loss that she couldn’t respond.

The silence dragged on, but when she glanced at Laurence again and saw the depth of his grief, that made her decision easier. It was not up to her to forgive him.

‘You should have told me,’ she said.

He looked up and swallowed rapidly.

‘But it was a mistake.’

His brow creased as he nodded.

‘There’s nothing I can say to change what happened to Caroline. You have to find a way to live with that. But, Laurence, you’re a good man and to keep on blaming yourself won’t bring her back.’

He reached out a hand but she didn’t take it at first.

‘You’re not the only one. I made a terrible mistake too … I gave my own daughter away.’ Her eyes burned and she choked on her words. ‘And now she’s dead.’

She looked deep into his eyes and then took his hand. She knew what living with guilt and fear could do. It hurt. It hurt so much. She thought of all he had been through, and all she had been through too. The day of her own arrival in Ceylon came back to her, and she remembered that girl who had stood on the deck of the ship and met Savi Ravasinghe. Everything had been in front of her, with no hint of the terrifying fragility of happiness.

She recalled the moment of utter peacefulness when she had stared at the bruised and wrinkled red face of her newborn son, his baby hands trembling and juddering as he screamed. Then, as if it was only yesterday, she remembered unwrapping the warm blanket covering Liyoni. She experienced again the shock at seeing those little fingers, the rounded belly, the dark, dark eyes.

She thought of the years of guilt and shame, but also of everything that had been beautiful and glorious about Ceylon: the precious moments when the smell of cinnamon combined with blossom; the mornings when the sparkling dews of the chilly season sent her spirit soaring; the monsoons with their endless curtains of rain, and the sheen of the tea bushes when the rain had gone. And then tears spilt down her cheeks again, and with them a memory she handled with infinite tenderness: Liyoni, swimming like a fish across to the island, whirling in the water and singing. Free.

For such a small girl, Liyoni had left a long shadow; her ghost would not simply vanish, and Gwen wouldn’t let it.

As Laurence stroked her hair soothingly, as you would a child, she thought of Caroline, and felt such an affinity with her it took her breath away. And, finally, she remembered the moment when she no longer noticed the colour of her daughter’s skin. She felt her husband’s warm hand on her hair, and knew she would carry Liyoni’s last words in her heart for the rest of her life.

I love you, Mama.

That was what the little girl had said, the night before she died.

Gwen wiped her tears away and smiled as she watched a flight of birds take off from the lake. Life goes on, she thought. God knows how, but it does, somehow. And she hoped that one day, maybe, if she was very lucky, she might find a way to forgive herself.

Previous: Chapter 34
Next: Author’s Note