Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 3

2

Two days later Gwen woke early to sunlight streaming through her muslin curtains. She was looking forward to breakfasting with Laurence, and then being taken on the grand tour. She sat on the side of the bed and undid the plaits in her hair, then swivelled round to sink her feet into a sleek fur rug. She glanced down and wriggled her toes in its whiteness, wondering what animal it had belonged to. Out of bed, she slipped on a pale silk gown someone had draped over a nearby chair.

They’d arrived at the plantation in the hill country the night before, just as the sun went down. With a head aching from exhaustion, and dazzled by the violent reds and purples of the evening sky, Gwen had fallen into bed.

Now she marched across the wooden floorboards and went to the window to pull the curtains apart. She took a deep breath when she looked out on the first morning of her new world and, blinking in the brightness, reeled at the barrage of buzzing, whistling and chirping that filled the air.

Below her, gentle flower-filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.

Just outside her bedroom window, there was a grapefruit tree beside another tree she didn’t recognize, but that looked as if it was laden with cherries. She would actually pick some for breakfast, she decided. On the table out there, a small creature stared back at her with round saucer-like eyes, looking half monkey and half owl. She glanced back at the enormous four-poster bed, surrounded by a mosquito net. The satin spread was barely crumpled and she thought it odd that Laurence hadn’t joined her. Perhaps, wanting her to have an uninterrupted sleep after the journey, he had gone to his own room. She looked round, hearing the door creak as it opened. ‘Oh, Laurence I –’

‘Lady. You must be knowing, I am Naveena. Here to wait on you.’

Gwen stared at the small, square-shaped woman. She wore a long blue and yellow wraparound skirt with a white blouse, and had a long greying plait that hung all the way down her back. Her round face was a mass of wrinkles and her dark-ringed eyes gave nothing away.

‘Where’s Laurence?’

‘Master is at work. Since two hours going now.’

Deflated, Gwen took a step back and sat on the bed.

‘You wishing breakfast here?’ The woman indicated a small table in the window. There was a pause as they stared at each other. ‘Or verandah?’

‘I’d like to wash first. Where is the bathroom?’

The woman walked across to the other side of the room, and as she moved, Gwen noticed her hair and clothes were infused with an unusual spicy fragrance.

‘Here, Lady,’ the woman said. ‘Behind screen is your bathing room, but latrine coolie not coming yet.’

‘Latrine coolie?’

‘Yes, Lady. Coming soon.’

‘Is the water hot?’

The woman waggled her head. Gwen was unsure whether she had meant yes it was or no it wasn’t, and realized she must have shown her uncertainty.

‘There is wood-burn boiler, Lady. Albizia wood. Hot water coming in, morning and evening, one hour.’

Gwen held her head high and attempted to sound more self-assured than she felt. ‘Very well. I shall wash first and then take breakfast outside.’

‘Very good, Lady.’

The woman pointed at the French windows. ‘They open to verandah. I will go and come. Bring tea for you there.’

‘What is the creature out there?’

The woman turned to look, but the creature had gone.

In complete contrast to the sweltering humidity of Colombo, it was a bright but slightly chilly morning. After breakfasting she picked a cherry; the fruit was a lovely dark red, but when she bit, it tasted sour, and she spat it out. She wrapped her shawl round her shoulders and set off to investigate the house.

First she explored a wide, high-ceilinged corridor that ran the length of the house. The dark wooden floor gleamed and the walls were punctuated by oil lamps along its length. She sniffed the air. She’d expected the place to smell of cigar smoke, which it did, but it also smelt strongly of coconut oil and aromatic polish. Laurence called it a bungalow, but Gwen noticed a sweeping teak staircase that led off from an airy hall to another floor. On the other side of the stairs, a beautiful chiffonier inlaid with mother of pearl leant against the wall, and next to that was a door. She pushed open the door and walked into a spacious drawing room.

Surprised by its size, she took a deep breath, opened one of the brown shuttered windows from a bank of windows running across the entire wall, and saw this room also fronted the lake. As light filled the room she glanced around. The walls were painted the softest blue-green you could imagine and the general effect of the place was refreshingly cool, with comfy-looking armchairs and two pale sofas piled high with embroidered cushions depicting birds, elephants and exotic flowers. A leopard skin hung across the back of one of the sofas.

Gwen stood on one of two navy-blue and cream Persian rugs, and twirled round with her arms held out. This would do nicely. Very nicely indeed.

A deep growl startled her. She glanced down to see that she’d trodden on the paw of a sleeping short-haired dog. A glossy black Labrador she thought it might be, though not quite the usual kind. She took a step back, wondering if it might bite. At that moment a middle-aged foreign man almost soundlessly entered the room. A narrow-shouldered man, with small features and a saffron-brown face, he wore a white sarong, white jacket and a white turban.

‘The old dog’s name is Tapper, Lady. Master’s favourite dog. I am butler, and here is tiffin.’ He held out the tray he was carrying then deposited it on a small nest of tables. ‘Our own Broken Orange Pekoe.’

‘Really? I’ve only just had breakfast.’

‘Master will return after twelve. You will hear the workers’ horn, Lady, and then he will be here.’ He indicated a wooden rack beside the fireplace. ‘There are magazines for you to read.’

‘Thank you.’

It was a large stone-surround fireplace, with brass tongs, shovel and a poker, the usual trappings of a fire, and beside them an enormous basket piled high with logs. She smiled. A cosy evening lay ahead, with just the two of them curled up beside the fire.

She had just an hour before Laurence returned so, ignoring the tea, she decided to explore the outside of the house. It had been dusk when they’d arrived in Laurence’s new Daimler, and she hadn’t been able to see what the front of the house really looked like. She found her way back along the corridor and into the main hall, then pushed open one of the dark double doors, with a pretty decorative fanlight above it, and found herself on the front step, under a shady porch. A gravel drive, lined with flowering tulip trees, and interspersed with palms, led away from the house, and then twisted upwards into the hills. A few of the blooms lay scattered like large orange tulips, bright against the grassy verge.

She longed to walk up into the hills, but first went round to the side of the house, where a covered, but wall-less room fronted the lake, though at a slightly different angle from her own room. This outdoor room or portico had eight dark wooden pillars, a marble floor and rattan furniture, and the table was already set for lunch. When a small striped squirrel raced up one of the pillars and disappeared behind a beam, she grinned.

Retracing her steps to the front of the house, she began to climb the gravel drive, counting the trees. The further she climbed, the stickier she felt, but she didn’t want to look back until she reached twenty. As she counted, and smelt the scent of Persian roses, the heat was building up, though thankfully still nothing like the blistering hub of Colombo. Either side of her, lush verges were carpeted with bushes crammed with large heart-shaped leaves and peachy white flowers.

At the twentieth tree she threw off her wrap, closed her eyes and spun round. Everything glittered. The lake, the red roof of the house, even the air. She took a deep breath as if by doing so she might absorb every particle of the beauty before her: the scented flowers, the thrill of the view, the luminous green of the plantation hills, the sound of the birds. It was heady stuff. Nothing kept still, and the air, filled with vivid bustling life, buzzed in continuous motion.

From her vantage point the shape of the house was clear. The back elevation was parallel with the lake, with the outdoor room on the right, and at one side of the house it looked like an extension had been added, thus forming an ‘L’. Beside it was a courtyard and a path that disappeared through a wall of tall trees. She took several more deep breaths of clean air.

The ugly loud hooting of the midday horn shattered the tranquillity. She had lost track of time, but her heart skipped a beat when she picked out Laurence with another man as they strode from the tall trees towards the house. He looked in his element, strong and in charge. She threw her shawl over her shoulder and made a dash for it. But running down the steep slope was more awkward than climbing up, and after a few minutes she slid on the gravel, caught her toe in a root, lost her footing and fell forward so hard it forced the air from her lungs.

When she was able to breathe and attempted to stand, her left ankle gave way. She rubbed her grazed forehead and felt so dizzy she sat back on her behind, already feeling the start of another headache, set off by the sun’s heat. It had been so cool earlier, she hadn’t thought to wear a sun hat. From beyond the tall trees she heard a frightful shriek, like a cat or a child in pain, or perhaps a jackal. She didn’t want to wait to find out, so she forced herself to stand again, this time managing not to yield to the pain, and began to hop back down to the house.

Just as she was in clear sight of the front door, Laurence came back out and hurried towards her.

‘I’m so pleased to see you,’ she called out as her breath quickened. ‘I went up to see the view but I fell.’

‘Sweetheart, it isn’t safe. There are snakes. Grass snakes, tree snakes. Snakes that rid the gardens of rats. All kinds of biting ants and beetles. Better not go off on your own. Not yet.’

She pointed at where the women had been picking tea. ‘I’m not as delicate as I look, and those women were in the countryside.’

‘The Tamils know the land,’ he said as he came across to her. ‘Never mind, hold on to my arm and we’ll get you inside, and I’ll ask Naveena to strap that ankle up. I can get the local doctor down from Hatton if you like.’

‘Naveena?’

‘The ayah.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘She looked after me as a child and I’m fond of her. When we have children –’

Gwen raised her brows and gave him a slow smile. He grinned, then finished his sentence: ‘She’ll look after them.’

She stroked his arm. ‘What will I have to do?’

‘There’s plenty to do. You’ll soon find out.’

On the way back down to the house, she felt the warmth of his body against hers. Despite the pain in her ankle, she experienced the familiar tingle, and lifted a hand to touch the deep cleft in his chin.

Once her ankle had been bandaged, they both sat down together in the outdoor room.

‘Well,’ he said, with a sparkle in his eyes. ‘Do you like what you see?’

‘It’s perfect, Laurence. I’m going to be very happy here with you.’

‘I blame myself for your fall. I’d intended to talk to you last night, but your headache was so bad, I decided to wait. There are a few little things I need to mention.’

She glanced up. ‘Oh?’

The furrows on his forehead deepened, and when he narrowed his eyes, it was clear how the sun had enhanced the wrinkles there.

‘For your own safety, steer clear of workforce matters. You don’t need to bother yourself with the labour lines.’

‘What on earth are they?’

‘They’re where the plantation workers and their families live.’

‘But that sounds interesting.’

‘To be honest, there’s nothing much to see.’

She shrugged. ‘Anything else?’

‘Best not to wander about unaccompanied.’

She snorted.

‘Just until you’re more familiar with things.’

‘Very well.’

‘Only allow Naveena to see you in your nightgown. She’ll bring your morning tea at eight. Bed tea, they call it.’

She smiled. ‘And do you stay with me for bed tea?’

‘Every chance I get.’

She blew him a kiss across the table. ‘I can’t wait.’

‘Me neither. Now don’t worry about a thing. You’ll soon pick up on how things are done. You’ll meet some of the other planters’ wives tomorrow. She’s a funny old bird, but Florence Shoebotham may be a great help to you.’

‘I haven’t got anything left to wear.’

He grinned. ‘That’s my girl. McGregor has already sent someone in a bullock cart to pick up your trunk from Hatton station. Later, I’ll introduce you to the staff, but apparently there’s a crate waiting for you from Selfridges too. Things you ordered before you came out I’m guessing?’

She stretched out her arms, feeling suddenly brighter at the thought of the Waterford crystal and a wonderful new evening dress. The dress was just the thing, short with several layers of fringes in silver and pink. She remembered the day in London when Fran had insisted she have it made. Only ten days and Fran would be here too. A large jackdaw swept across the table and, quick as a wink, snatched a bread roll from the basket. She laughed and Laurence did too.

‘There’s a lot of wildlife. I saw a striped squirrel run into the verandah roof.’

‘There are two. They have a nest up there. They do no harm.’

‘I like that.’ She touched his hand and he lifted it to kiss her palm.

‘One last thing. I’d almost forgotten, but it’s probably the most essential point. Household matters are entirely your affair. I won’t interfere. The household staff answer to you and only to you.’

He paused.

‘You may find things have gone a little awry. The staff have had their own way for far too long. It might be a struggle, but I’m sure you’ll pull them back into shape.’

‘Laurence, it’ll be fun. But you haven’t really told me much about the estate itself.’

‘Well, it’s a large Tamil workforce. The Tamil are excellent workers, unlike most of the Sinhalese. We house at least fifteen hundred. Provide a school of sorts, a dispensary and basic medical aid. They have various benefits, a shop, subsidized rice.’

‘And the actual tea making?’

‘That’s all done in our tea factory. It’s a long process but I’ll show you one day, if you like.’

‘I’d love it.’

‘Good. So now that’s settled, I suggest an afternoon rest,’ he said, standing up.

She looked down at the remains of their luncheon and hugged herself. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Now was the time. When Laurence bent down to kiss her forehead, she closed her eyes and couldn’t stifle the grin of pleasure, but as she opened her eyes, she saw he had already moved off.

‘I’ll see you this evening,’ he was saying. ‘I’m so sorry, darling, but I have to see McGregor now. The tea factory horn will sound at four, and I’ll be away from the house then, but do sleep on.’

She felt tears warm the back of her lids but wiped her eyes with her table napkin. She knew how busy Laurence was and, of course, the plantation had to come first, but was she only imagining that her lovely, sensitive husband was being just a teeny bit distant?

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Next: Chapter 3