Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 4

3

The next evening Gwen stood at her window looking at the sunset. The sky and water had turned almost the exact same shade of gold, and the lake was framed by hills in varying shades of sepia. She moved away and dressed carefully, then studied her reflection. The woman had helped thread silver beads through the heavy coil of hair at the nape of her neck, but Gwen teased out a ringlet at the side. Laurence had arranged a little supper party to launch her as the new mistress of Hooper’s Plantation. She wanted to look her absolute best, though she’d decided to save her new dress for when Fran arrived. Then they could practise dancing the Charleston together.

Her dress tonight was pale green silk with a trim of lace at the neckline, and lower than she normally wore. It was, of course, drop-waisted, with chiffon godets hanging in points at the dangerously short hem. There was a knock at the door.

‘Come in.’

Laurence pushed open the door and stood with his legs slightly apart as they stared at each other.

He wore a black dress suit, white shirt, white waistcoat and a white bow tie, and had attempted a parting in his hair. Gwen felt herself tremble under his prolonged gaze and held her breath.

‘I … You … My God, Gwendolyn!’ He swallowed.

‘You look very handsome yourself, Laurence. I’d rather got used to you wearing shorts.’

He came across, put an arm round her and kissed her neck just below the hairline at the back. ‘You look ravishing.’

She adored the feeling of his warm breath on her skin and knew the night was going to be wonderful. Who could doubt a man like Laurence? He was so strong, you just had to be near him to feel wanted, and so safe that nothing could ever go wrong.

‘I mean it. You’ll put all the others to shame in that dress.’

She glanced down at her shimmering dress. ‘It is quite short.’

‘Maybe we all need a bit of a shake-up now and then. Don’t forget your stole. Even with a fire it can be a little cool after sundown, as you probably gathered last night.’

The night before Laurence had been busy with estate business, so the cosy time together beside the fire had not materialized. At nine, the servants had come in singly, and in strict order of importance. First, the turbaned butler, who was in charge of the whole house, then the head cook, or appu as he was known, who was either bald or had shaved halfway back to his crown, the remaining hair tied up in a fancy knot. He had slightly oriental features, as if somewhere in the past there had been an ancestor from Indo-China, and he wore a long white apron over a blue and gold sarong. Then Naveena had brought in hot goat’s milk, sweetened with bee honey as opposed to jaggery, she had explained, before saying goodnight with a charming smile. She was followed by the five houseboys, who stood in a line and wished her goodnight in unison, and then, finally, it was the turn of the kitchen coolies who simply gazed at their bare feet and bowed. Soon after the elaborate household-staff ritual had taken place, Gwen had gone to bed alone, claiming a painful ankle. Now she smiled at the thought of how strange it had been.

‘What’s so funny?’ Laurence said.

‘I was just thinking about the staff.’

‘You’ll soon get used to them.’

Laurence kissed her on the lips and she smelt soap and lemons on his skin. Arm in arm they left the room to go to the drawing room, where they were to enjoy cocktails before dinner.

‘What is the scent the serving woman has about herself?’ Gwen asked.

‘Are you speaking of Naveena?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t know. It’s probably a mix of cardamom and nutmeg. For as long as I can remember she has had it.’

‘How long has she worked here?’

‘Since my mother ferreted her out to be my ayah.’

‘Poor Naveena. I can just imagine you as a boy, thundering about the place.’

He laughed. ‘Mother assembled a family history of sorts: letters, photographs, birth certificates, wedding records, you know the kind of thing. Anyway, I think there may have been some photos of Naveena, when she was younger.’

‘I’d love to see. I want to know everything about you.’

‘I haven’t seen it all myself. Verity keeps a box of that stuff in England. I am so looking forward to you meeting her, by the way.’

‘A shame she missed our wedding. Maybe she could bring the family albums over next time she visits?’

He nodded. ‘Of course.’

‘Was Naveena Verity’s ayah too?’

‘No, Verity had a younger woman as her ayah, until she went to boarding school that is. It was hard for her when our parents died, poor girl. She was only ten.’

‘What happens when Naveena’s too old to work?’

‘Then we look after her,’ he said, and flung open the tall French windows. ‘Let’s go via the verandah.’

She took a step forward and laughed. Outside, the sounds were deafening. Rat-tat-tat. Twee twee. Tap tap. The rustles, whistles and guttural croaks rose to a crescendo, before dying back and starting over. Then came a whoosh of running water and a loud scree scree scree, and the singing of cicadas filling the humid air. Over in the dark bushes minute flashes of light darted and swooped in their dozens.

‘Fireflies,’ he said.

Gwen glimpsed flaming torches down by the lake.

‘I thought afterwards we’d take a midnight stroll,’ Laurence said. ‘The lake is gorgeous lit only by torches and the moon.’

She smiled, unable to contain her pleasure at the raucous night.

‘And there’s less danger of running into a water buffalo at night. They have poor eyesight, so tend to stagger into the water in the middle of the day when it’s hot.’

‘Goodness, do they?’

‘Make no mistake, they are dangerous, and will gore or trample you if they’re feeling particularly aggressive. Don’t worry, we don’t get many here. It’s up on Horton Plains that they’re prolific.’

Back in the drawing room, Florence Shoebotham and her husband, Gregory, were the first to arrive, and while Laurence and Mr Shoebotham talked over by the drinks cabinet, Gwen sipped a sherry and made small talk with his wife. The woman was large, with the typical wide hips and narrow shoulders of an Englishwoman. She wore a pale yellow floral dress almost to her ankles, and had a high-pitched, squeaky voice, which sounded odd coming from someone so large.

‘Well, you are a little young thing, aren’t you?’ Florence said, her chins wobbling as she spoke. ‘I do hope you’ll be able to cope.’

Gwen tried her best not to laugh. ‘Cope?’

Florence plumped the cushion that had been behind her on the sofa, then held it on her lap as she shifted closer to Gwen. The woman had a low forehead and her hair was a faded salt-and-pepper colour, wiry and hard to control by the look of it. Gwen smelt a mix of gin and body odour.

‘I’m sure you’ll soon grow used to our ways. Take my advice, girl, and whatever you do, don’t become over friendly with the servants. It doesn’t do. They don’t like it and they will not respect you for it.’

‘I was always friendly with our maid in England.’

‘It’s different here. The dark races are different, you see. Kindness does them no good. No good at all. And the mongrel are even worse.’

As more couples were announced, Gwen felt disturbed. She knew the word ‘mongrel’ but hated hearing it used like that.

‘Treat them like children, and keep your eyes on your dhobi. Only last week I found my silky Chinese pyjamas had been swopped for some old things that must have come from the street market in Hatton.’

Gwen was now completely at sea and beginning to panic. How could she keep her eyes on the dhobi, when she didn’t even know who – or what – a dhobi was?

She looked around the room. This was supposed to be a small supper party, but there were more than a dozen couples already, and plenty of space for more. She tried to catch her husband’s eye, but had to laugh when she saw Laurence absorbed in conversation with a bald man whose ears stuck out at right angles from his head. A teapot man.

‘Probably talking about the price of tea,’ Florence said, seeing her look.

‘Is there a problem with tea prices?’

‘Oh no, dear. Quite the opposite. We’re all doing rather swimmingly well. Your husband’s new Daimler should be enough to convince you of that.’

Gwen smiled. ‘It is rather splendid.’

A white-coated houseboy, positioned by the door, sounded a brass gong.

‘Now don’t worry, if there’s anything, just ask. I’m happy to help. I can remember how it felt to be young and newly married. So much to take in.’ Florence discarded her cushion, then held out her hand. Gwen recognized it was a command so stood to help the woman up.

The dining room looked pretty with all the silver candelabra lit. Everything gleamed or sparkled, and the air smelt fresh from sweet peas arranged in shallow glass vases dotted about. Gwen spotted a trim, youngish woman, smiling broadly at Laurence. She had green eyes, pronounced cheekbones and a long neck. Her blonde hair was styled so that it looked like a waving bob from the front, but when she turned sideways, Gwen saw her hair was long and knotted elegantly at the back. She was heavily laden with rubies and dressed, quite simply, in black. Gwen tried to catch her eye, hoping they might soon become friends.

The mild-looking, bespectacled man sitting on her left introduced himself as Partridge. She took in his slightly jutting chin, the small bristly moustache and the kind look in his grey eyes. He hoped she was settling in and told her she should call him John.

As they spoke a little longer, all eyes were on her, but soon the conversation turned to the latest gossip from Nuwara Eliya – who was who and what they’d done, to whom, and why. Most of it went over Gwen’s head. She didn’t know any of the people concerned, and found it hard to care. Only when the table went quiet, and the teapot man banged his fist on the table, did she pick up and take notice.

‘Bloody disgrace if you ask me. Should have shot the lot of them.’

There were a few ‘hear hears’ from one or two others as the man continued with his diatribe.

‘What are they talking about, John?’ Gwen whispered.

‘There was a skirmish in Kandy recently. The British government acted rather brutally with the offenders, it seems. Now that has caused uproar. Thing is, there’s word on the street that it wasn’t a protest against the British at all, but something to do with remembrance flowers.’

‘So we’re not in any danger?’

He shook his head. ‘No. It just gives some of the old colonels something to bang on about. It all began about ten years ago when the British shot at a gathering group of Muslims. It was all a bit of a blunder as a matter of fact.’

‘It doesn’t sound very satisfactory.’

‘No. You see, the Ceylon National Congress are not actually asking for independence yet, just for more autonomy.’ He shook his head. ‘But, if you ask me, we need to tread more carefully. What with everything going on in India, it won’t be long before Ceylon follows suit. It’s still early days, but mark my words, trouble is brewing.’

‘Tell me, are you a socialist?’

‘No, my dear, I’m a doctor.’

She smiled at the amusement in his eyes, but then his look grew serious.

‘The trouble is that only three Kandyans were elected to the Council, so this year some of them left the Ceylon National Congress and they’ve created the Kandyan National Assembly instead. That’s what we’ve got to keep an eye on, that and the Young Lanka League, who are beginning to promote opposition to the British.’

Gwen glanced over to Laurence at the other end of the table, hoping he might give her the sign they’d agreed for the ladies to withdraw, but he was looking into the distance with narrowed eyes.

‘We feed them,’ another of the men was saying, ‘look after them, give them a roof over their heads. We more than meet all the required standards. What more do they want? Personally –’

‘But there is much more we could do,’ Laurence said, interrupting him while clearly controlling his temper. ‘I’ve built a school, yet hardly any of the children attend. It’s time we found a solution.’

His wave of hair was sticking up at the front, a sure sign he had been raking his fingers through it, and she realized it was something he did when he felt uneasy. It made him seem younger than he was and she desperately wanted to hug him.

The doctor tapped her hand.

‘Ceylon is … well, Ceylon is Ceylon. You’ll form your own impression soon enough,’ he said. ‘Change is still a way off, but we won’t remain immune to Gandhi’s message of swaraj for ever.’

Swaraj?’

‘Self-governance.’

‘I see. Would that be a bad thing?’

‘At this stage, who knows.’

After all the guests had gone, she was thrilled when Laurence came to her room and fell spread-eagled on her bed. With a log fire blazing, the room was too warm. Would they be going down to the lake together now?

‘Come on, darling,’ he said. ‘Come and join me.’

She went across to him and lay down on top of the counterpane, fully dressed. He sat up, resting his weight on one elbow, and grinned.

‘God, you’re lovely.’

‘Laurence, who was the blonde woman in black? I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.’

‘Black?’

‘Yes. There was only one.’

He frowned. ‘You must mean Christina Bradshaw. She’s an American widow. Her husband was the banker Ernest Bradshaw, hence all the jewels.’

‘She doesn’t look like a grieving widow.’ She paused and looked at his intelligent, well-shaped face. ‘Laurence, you do love me, don’t you?’

He looked surprised. ‘What’s brought this on?’

She bit her lip, wondering exactly how to say it. ‘But you don’t … what I mean to say is, I’ve felt a bit lonely since I arrived at the plantation. I want to spend time with you.’

‘You’re with me now.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

There was a brief silence, during which Gwen felt a little unsure of herself. ‘What’s the tree outside my window?’ she said. ‘It looks just like a cherry tree.’

‘Oh Christ, you didn’t try one, did you?’

She nodded.

‘Bitter fruit. They make chutney out of it. I never touch the stuff.’ He rolled on top of her suddenly, then, pinning her down, kissed her on the mouth. She liked the slight smell of alcohol on his breath and, flushed with expectation, parted her lips. He traced the outline of her mouth with his finger and she felt her muscles lose all their tension, but then something odd happened. As he drew in his breath and stiffened, she caught a glimpse of something disturbing in his eyes. She touched his cheek, wanting to make it go away, but he stared at her – almost stared through her – as if he didn’t know who she was. Then he swallowed rapidly, got up and walked away.

She froze for a moment then ran to the door to call to him, but after a few steps along the corridor, she saw he was already heading up the stairs. Rather than allow any of the servants to catch her chasing after her husband, she turned back to her room and, once inside, leant against the door to steady her breath. She closed her eyes and gave in to a hollow, lonely feeling. Her vision of the torch-lit midnight lake was over too. What on earth was the matter with him?

She undressed and climbed into bed. Accustomed to straightforward emotions, she felt confused, and longing to feel Laurence’s arms round her, a wave of homesickness swept over her. Her father might have patted her hand and said, ‘Chin up,’ and her mother would probably shoot her a commiserating look as she brought in a mug of cocoa. Cousin Fran, with a hopeless pretence at a stern face, would simply tell her to toughen up. She wished she were more like Fran. Nobody approved when Fran went to see that medium, Madame Sostarjinski, but Fran went all the same, and who could blame her when her parents had died so tragically when the Titanic sank.

With her worries over Laurence thwarting any attempt to sleep, and feeling she’d probably stay awake all night, Gwen lay on her back with her eyes wide open. He must have his reasons, she thought, but surely nothing that would explain that strange look in his eyes?

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Next: Chapter 4