Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 4
Next: Chapter 6

5

Two days later, at the sound of Laurence’s car pulling up, and despite a trace of anxiety, a pleasant feeling of anticipation ran through her. It had been a cool, misty day, and she’d occupied herself with the household accounts once again. They did not tally, and she couldn’t work out exactly what was wrong, but at least she’d managed to organize a message to be taken to the dhobi, telling him that she wanted to see him the next day. Apart from that, she hadn’t even been able to complete a garden walk, and the lake itself had remained annoyingly hidden behind the mist.

She threw on a tasselled wrap to cover the scratches on her arms, and ran down the corridor, then out through the front door.

Fran was climbing out of the back of the Daimler with an enormous grin on her face. Gwen ran straight to her, wrapped her arms round her and hugged her fiercely. Then she pulled back to scrutinize her cousin.

‘Heavens, Fran, look at you!’

Fran tore off her very nearly brimless cloche hat, yellow with a red felt flower, and did a twirl, pointing to her hair. ‘What do you think?’

Fran’s shiny chestnut hair was shingled at the back, cut in an even sleeker bob than before, and with a long fringe. In the sunlight, the lighter threads in it showed up like gold. She had circled a black outline round her eyes and she wore bright-red lipstick. And from under her fringe, her blue eyes sparkled.

She laughed and spun round again.

The spin showed off her curvaceous figure, loosely enveloped by a sleeveless cotton voile dress. A band of lace at the hem and a rope of jet beads hanging to her waist completed the look. Her gloves, which came to just below her elbows, perfectly matched her yellow dress and her hat.

‘It’s a bit chilly, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘I thought it would be hot.’

‘I have plenty of warm wraps you can borrow. It will be quite a bit cooler when the monsoon comes. They say it’s due any day now. What was it like in Colombo?’

‘Ghastly. Humid as hell. And everybody seems to be so cross. But what an amazing journey. I have never seen anything like it. We must have climbed thousands of feet. And the views from those iron bridges!’

‘The views are marvellous but they gave me a headache,’ Gwen said, and turned round to Laurence. ‘How high are we up here, Laurence?’

‘Hello, darling.’ His happy grin and obvious pleasure at seeing her was enough to momentarily wipe away the memory of their last time in bed. He paused for a moment then bent down to help another woman climb out of the front passenger seat.

‘And in answer to your question,’ he said, straightening up, ‘nearly five thousand feet.’

‘It’s his sister,’ Fran whispered, and pulled a face. ‘She was already in Colombo, staying at the Galle Face. We picked her up. Barely said a word to me all the way here.’

The tall woman standing on the gravel on the other side of the car threw back her head and laughed with Laurence about something he’d said.

‘Gwendolyn,’ Laurence called out as he moved towards her. ‘Say hello to my dearest sister, Verity.’

Laurence and his sister came round and Verity held out her hand. Like her brother, she had deep-brown eyes, and the same cleft in the chin. Her face was long and rather sallow, and Gwen couldn’t help think that the Hooper features didn’t sit half so well on a woman. When she leant forward and kissed Gwen’s cheek, Gwen smelt stale scent on her skin.

‘What’s that graze?’ Laurence said, and touched Gwen’s arm.

She smiled. ‘Just where I bumped into a tree. You know me.’

‘Dear Gwendolyn,’ Verity said. ‘I have so been looking forward to meeting you. Laurence has told me everything.’

Gwen smiled again. She knew Laurence and his sister were close, but sincerely hoped Laurence had not told her everything.

‘I am so sorry I missed your wedding. Unforgivable I know, but I was in darkest Africa.’ She gave a little laugh, pursed up her thin lips into a pout, then turned to Laurence. ‘Am I in my old room?’

He grinned and took her arm. ‘Where else?’

She kissed him on the cheek twice. ‘My darling, darling brother, how I have missed you.’ Then they both walked, arm in arm, up the steps and into the house.

‘Oh, Gwendolyn,’ Verity twisted her head and called back. ‘Have one of the servants bring up my bag. The trunk’s not arriving until tomorrow.’

‘Of course,’ Gwen said as she stared after them. A trunk. How long was Laurence’s sister planning on staying?

Fran was watching her face. ‘Is everything all right?’

‘Absolutely marvellous,’ Gwen said, and smiled. Well, it will be marvellous, she thought. ‘But I am so pleased you are here, at last.’

‘I expect to hear everything,’ Fran said, and nudged Gwen. ‘And I do mean everything.’

They both laughed.

The next morning Gwen got up early to catch Laurence at breakfast. Full of anticipation at the prospect of surprising him and finally being able to talk, she smiled and flung open the dining-room door.

‘Oh,’ she said at the sight of Verity tucking into kedgeree, the smell of the fish turning her stomach.

‘Darling,’ Verity said, and patted the chair next to her. ‘Laurence has just left, but this is perfect, we can spend the morning getting to know each other.’

‘That would be nice. Did you sleep well?’

‘Not brilliantly, but I’m the world’s worst sleeper. Though I can see the same can’t be said of your cousin Fran.’

Gwen laughed, but noticed the dark circles round Verity’s eyes that hadn’t seemed so obvious the day before. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘Fran does like a good long lie-in.’

‘I thought a walk might be a treat, just for the morning. What do you say?’

‘I do have to see the dhobi at half past eleven. I think a couple of Laurence’s better shirts may have gone missing from the laundry.’

‘Oh, we’ll have acres of time before then, darling. Do say you’ll come. I shall be perfectly miserable if you don’t.’

Gwen glanced at Verity. She wasn’t unattractive exactly, but she lacked warmth; the permanent frown lines between her brows might have something to do with that. She must have been aware of them as every now and then she deliberately raised her eyebrows to smooth out the skin. This, unfortunately, rounded her eyes and gave her a slightly owl-like appearance. But apart from the circles under her eyes, this morning she looked brighter, less sallow. The hill country air must suit her, Gwen thought.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘We can’t have you being miserable, but I’ll only go on condition that I’m back in time to see the dhobi before lunch. And I’ll have to change my shoes.’

‘I promise. Now come and sit down. This kedgeree is divine. Or you might try the buffalo curd with jaggery. It’s the syrup they extract from kithul trees.’

‘I know.’

‘Of course you do.’

Gwen glanced at the bowl of buffalo curd. It looked rather like clotted cream with brown treacle drizzled over it. ‘Not today. Just toast for me.’

‘Well, no wonder you’re so tiny, if that’s all you eat!’

Gwen smiled, but felt slightly unsettled by her sister-in-law who was now drumming her fingers on the table with a nervous kind of urgency. The prospect of a walk with her was not really what Gwen had planned for the morning, especially as straight after lunch they’d all be going to Nuwara Eliya, and she still hadn’t packed her case.

When she went to change into her walking shoes, she found Naveena tidying her bedroom.

‘You are walking with the sister, Lady.’

‘Indeed.’

For a moment Naveena looked as if she wanted to speak, but did not, and simply handed Gwen her shoes.

Once out in the early sunshine, Gwen felt more enthusiastic about the outing. It was a glorious morning and still cool, although the mists were burning off rapidly. You could see for miles and only small white clouds flecked the sky. In the trees the birds were singing and the air smelt sweet.

‘We’ll head down to the lake and then walk on round it for a while. I’ll lead the way. Does that suit you?’ said Verity.

‘Absolutely. I really don’t know anything about the walks yet.’

Verity smiled and linked arms with her.

Gwen gazed at the nearest tea-covered hills, bright green and shining in the sun. Intrigued by the women’s fingers flying over the tips as they picked, she pointed at the pathways zigzagging between them and travelling upwards to the top.

‘I wouldn’t mind walking along those paths. I’d love to see the pickers close up.’

Verity frowned. ‘Pluckers, darling, not pickers. But no, not today. You might fall in one of the irrigation channels. I have a better idea. We’ll branch off from the lakeside in a minute and head towards my favourite woods. They’re absolutely magical. Laurence and I used to play hide and seek there in the summer holidays.’

‘Did you both go to boarding school in England?’

‘Oh yes, though not at the same time. I was at Malvern. Laurence is much older than me. Of course, you know that.’

Gwen nodded, and they continued to walk on the path round the lake for about half an hour. The lake was calm in the centre and very dark. At the edge it rippled white against the rocky banks, where grey birds with white breasts and cinnamon bellies stretched their wings and preened.

‘Water hens,’ Verity said. ‘Here’s where we turn off.’ She pointed at a track.

The woods were sparse at first, but as they went deeper, the air was chock-full of smells and the sound of creatures shifting about. Gwen stopped to listen.

‘It’s just lizards,’ Verity said. ‘And birds, of course, and maybe the odd tree snake. Nothing to worry about, I promise. It’s a bit wild and woolly, but keep up with me and you’ll be fine. Single file now. You follow.’

Gwen reached out to touch the branches of a stumpy tree, but the leaves pricked her and she quickly withdrew her hand. The woods felt wilder than anything she had known before, though not in a threatening way. She rather liked the feeling it gave her of a bygone time. Twigs cracked underfoot and the air seemed to be tinged with green in the damp spots where the sun did not reach.

Verity smiled. ‘If there’s anything you need to know, do just ask. I’m sure you’re going to fit in wonderfully well.’

‘Thank you,’ Gwen said. ‘There is something. I wondered about the storeroom keys. There are two sets. Should I keep them both?’

‘No, that would be an awful fag for you. Give one set to the appu. Then he doesn’t have to bother you for every little thing.’ She pointed to some violet flowers at the edge of the path. ‘Aren’t they lovely! I wish I’d brought a basket.’

‘Maybe next time.’

‘Put one in your hair,’ Verity said and bent down to pick one of the flowers. ‘Here, I’ll do it for you.’

She threaded the flower through one of Gwen’s escaped ringlets and then stood back. ‘There. Perfectly lovely. It matches your eyes. Shall we go on?’

They walked on, Verity chatting and seeming so pleased to be out with her that Gwen relaxed and lost all track of time. The smell of the lake was long gone when she suddenly remembered her meeting with the dhobi.

‘Oh Lord. I had forgotten. Verity, we must turn back.’ She began to turn round.

‘Of course, but don’t go back the way we came. It’ll take ages. There’s a short cut just along here. Laurence and I used to use it all the time. It’ll get you back much sooner.’ Verity pointed at the path and then took a step in the other direction.

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘I think I’ll go back the long way, if you don’t mind. It’s such a beautiful morning and I’m not pushed for time. See that track? Just go down it for about fifty yards and then turn right, where there’s a little crossroads. There’s a fig tree in the middle. You can’t miss it.’

‘Thank you.’

Verity gave her a beaming smile. ‘It’ll take you straight home. Just follow your nose. See you back at the house.’

Gwen walked on in the direction Verity had indicated, then turned where the fig tree grew in the middle of a small open patch. She had really enjoyed the morning and came to the conclusion that her sister-in-law was a lot friendlier than she had first thought. She was glad. It would be lovely if the two of them became good friends.

She walked on, expecting to soon see the glittering water of the lake, but after some distance she noticed the path was disappearing deeper and deeper into the woods. Large boulders blocked her way and now even the birdsong had stopped. She looked about her, but a sense of direction had never been her strong point.

A little further on, the path sloped steeply downwards. That couldn’t be right. She glanced back and saw that she’d been heading slowly downwards for some time, when, to get back to the house, she felt sure she needed to be heading upwards.

She sat on a mossy boulder, ran her fingers through her hair and wiped away the line of sweat, then decided to turn back and retrace her steps. She wasn’t frightened, she was annoyed with herself for getting lost, and the trouble was that the further she went, the less she recognized the path. A drooping branch caught in her hair, and when she pulled it out, her hair tumbled from its clip. A little further on she tripped and fell on her bottom, ripping her new cotton voile dress.

With grazed hands, she picked the leaves from her clothes, but when she stood, the backs of her thighs were stinging. She twisted round to check them and saw the normally pale skin was bright red. Something had bitten her. She glanced around and noticed swarming ants just where she’d been sitting.

At least it was a bright sunny day. She started moving again and, after several wrong turns, eventually found the fig tree. It meant going the long way round and she had no option but to make a beeline for the path she and Verity had originally taken. She would be late, very late.

When she emerged at the lake, her heart lifted at the sight of her new home in the distance. She ran back, not caring about the state of her hair and clothes. Nearing the house, she saw Laurence pacing up and down at the edge of the lake, using his hand to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun. He saw her and stood still, watching as she ran up to him.

She was so pleased to see him, she felt her chest might burst with happiness.

‘Nice walk?’ he said, looking serious, then, with his mouth turning up further on one side and his eyebrows very slightly raised, he grinned.

‘Don’t tease. I got lost.’

‘What am I to do with you?’

‘I didn’t mean to get lost.’ She scratched the back of her legs. ‘I bloody well got bitten too.’

‘By what?’

She pulled a face. ‘Just ants.’

‘There are no “just ants” in Ceylon. But, seriously, I would never forgive myself if you were to get hurt. Promise me you’ll take more care.’

She arranged her face to look suitably solemn but, unable to maintain it, broke into a grin and they both ended up laughing.

‘You sound like my father.’

‘Sometimes I feel like him.’ He pulled her closer. ‘Except for this.’

The kiss was long and deep.

At that moment Verity came out. ‘Oh, there you are,’ she called out breezily. ‘Sorry to interrupt. I’ve been back for ages. We were terribly worried.’

‘But I took the path you said. I got bitten by ants.’

‘Did you take the path to the right? You remember, at the fig tree.’

Gwen frowned.

‘Never mind. You’re here now.’ Laurence put an arm round her and took out a clean handkerchief to rub the dirt from her cheeks. ‘You’ve missed lunch, of course, but you can thank Verity for seeing the dhobi in your place.’

Verity nodded and smiled. ‘No need for thanks. I’ll tell the appu to prepare some sandwiches for you, shall I? And I’ll find some lotion to soothe the ant bites.’

‘Thank you.’

While Verity turned and headed back into the house, Laurence took Gwen’s hand. ‘And then, darling, we need to prepare to go to the ball.’

‘Laurence,’ she said, squeezing his hand. ‘I’ve been wanting to say … about the other day.’

His face clouded. ‘I’m sorry I was rough.’

She stared at the ground for a moment. This was a conversation she wanted to have but not right now with his sister possibly in earshot. Maybe after the ball they would have a better chance to talk in private.

‘Let’s forget that, shall we, for now?’ she said. ‘But what I meant was that I wanted to explain why I went to the labour lines.’

He interrupted. ‘McGregor has already told me.’

‘You do know the man was hurt?’

‘You are kind, Gwen, and very caring, but he’s a known troublemaker. The belief is that he injured himself.’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘To try to force our hand over sickness pay.’

‘Well, if people are injured, of course we must help them.’

‘Not if it’s self-inflicted.’

She thought for a moment. ‘I didn’t much like the way McGregor spoke to me.’

‘It’s just his manner. Nothing personal.’

Gwen sighed and, remembering McGregor’s steely eyes and thin lips, she wasn’t sure.

‘Just leave the plantation workforce to McGregor. He does resent his authority being challenged, I’m afraid, and especially by a woman. He’s a stalwart of the old-school type.’

‘There seem to be rather a lot of those around.’

He shrugged. ‘There’s so much still to do, but with the different factions at work in Ceylon, we can’t afford to alienate people by rushing through change. We need a consensus to make any sizeable difference to the country as a whole.’

‘And if there is no consensus?’

He looked very serious as he replied. ‘There has to be, Gwen.’

There was a pause.

‘You’re fond of McGregor?’

‘I suppose I am. I left him in charge during the war, with just two assistant managers. He couldn’t fight, you see.’

‘Oh?’

‘You might have noticed his slight limp. But he managed the thousand-strong labour force admirably, and I’d trust him with my life.’

‘I shall have to learn to like him.’

‘Strictly speaking, it’s more like fifteen hundred now that I’ve taken over another estate. There have been some teething problems with some of the coolie labourers who’ve been transferred. There’s a lot more going on than just the plucking of the leaves.’

‘Why is it always women who pick?’

‘Nimble fingers. We call it plucking.’

‘Verity said. And the men?’

‘There are plenty of jobs that need brawn. Digging, planting, fertilizing, drain clearing and, of course, pruning. We have gangs of pruners, and their children run along collecting the trimmings to take home for the fire. Just remember, while you acted out of pure decency, McGregor’s job is to ensure your safety.’

She nodded.

‘You might have noticed that the household staff think themselves a cut above the estate staff. We don’t want to upset them either. How are you getting on? Nobody causing too much trouble?’

She considered telling him about the accounts, but decided against it. The household was her responsibility and she would find a way to understand what was going wrong.

As he kissed her on the lips she caught the trace of soap and lemons again. ‘Now come on, my gorgeous wife,’ he said. ‘Isn’t it time we had some fun?’

The golf club’s Annual Ball was to be held at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Exactly like an Elizabethan manor house, it was surrounded by immaculate gardens with buffalo- and blue-grass lawns covered in daisies. Gwen had been looking forward to this for days. Now she’d have the chance to wear her new flapper dress in pink and silver, and she and Fran would finally dance the Charleston.

It was a three-hour drive to the town, embracing steep mountain roads, and Gwen felt slightly nauseous. But when they eventually arrived, she climbed out of the car and, in air smelling of mint, she soon revived. The town looked as if it could have been in Gloucestershire, with a clock spire, steps up to an imposing war memorial, and an English-looking church.

Earlier, as Gwen stepped out of the house, she had been surprised to see that Verity had installed herself in the front passenger seat next to Laurence. There was a flicker of annoyance on his face but he didn’t tell her to get out.

Verity had twisted round. ‘You don’t mind, do you, Gwen? I haven’t seen him for ages.’

Gwen’s vanity was a little injured – after all, the front seat should have been hers – but she understood that Verity and Laurence might want to catch up.

Laurence had already booked them all hotel rooms and when they reached the foyer she stood at the reception desk with him.

‘I’ve arranged for you and Fran to share a room,’ he said. ‘You’ll enjoy the time together.’

She looked at the people milling about and tried to swallow the words she wanted to say.

‘It’ll be like old times,’ he said, his tone a little defensive. Then he turned to talk to the clerk.

‘That’s not the point,’ she hissed. ‘For goodness’ sake, Laurence –’

‘Not now, Gwen, please. Here’s the key.’

She caught hold of his sleeve. ‘This isn’t settled!’

He didn’t reply. She bit her tongue, choking back the sudden burst of emotion, and, not wanting to be seen crying in a hotel foyer, started to turn away.

He reached out a hand. ‘I’m sorry, I know we need to talk. I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely –’

On the point of saying more, he took a sharp breath as Verity swept towards them. With a friendly look at Gwen, she wrapped herself round her brother and leant her head against his shoulder. He gave Gwen an apologetic look but, flushed with anger, she turned on her heels and went in search of Fran.

Their room was large and comfortable, with a sofa, two mosquito-netted beds, a wardrobe, two little bedside tables and a matching dressing table, where three pale orchids had been tastefully arranged. Fran peeled off her dress and the warm woollen wrap Gwen had lent her, and immediately slid under the crisp sheets of one of the beds. She held out her hand and a bracelet tinkled on her wrist. ‘Look, it’s a Buddhist temple. I bought it in one of those noisy bazaar streets in Colombo.’

Gwen examined the new charm on Fran’s bracelet.

‘So how are you enjoying married life?’ Fran said, with raised eyebrows and a wide grin.

‘It’s very nice.’

‘Nice? It should be a lot more thrilling than that.’

Gwen pretended ignorance and shrugged.

‘Come on, spill. You know what I’m talking about.’

Gwen’s face fell and she looked down.

Fran sat up immediately. ‘Oh, Gwennie, what is it?’

There was a short silence as Gwen fought the need to tell all while still remaining loyal to Laurence.

‘You’re scaring me. Has he hurt you?’ Fran held out a hand.

Gwen shook her head and looked up. ‘He didn’t mean to.’

‘You’re covered in scratches.’

‘The scratches were my own stupid fault.’

‘Good. Laurence seems far too nice for that.’

Gwen frowned. ‘He is nice.’

‘Then why are you looking so unhappy?’ She paused. ‘That’s it, isn’t it? He actually is nice, far too nice. You’re not having any fun, are you?’

Gwen swallowed a lump in her throat and felt her neck grow hot. ‘We were. Then –’

‘Oh, that’s no good at all. What’s the point of being tied to one man if you aren’t having a whale of a time. Does he know what to do?’

‘He was married before. Of course he knows.’

Fran shook her head. ‘Doesn’t always follow. Some men just aren’t cut out for it.’

‘It was wonderful in England.’ Gwen felt the blush spread. ‘And in Colombo.’

‘There’s something troubling him then.’

‘Actually, I think there is something worrying him, but he won’t talk.’

‘Talk won’t do it. Let’s make you look so utterly irresistible, he won’t be able to keep his hands off you. That’s the way to a man’s heart!’

Gwen grinned. After Fran had gone back to London the last time, and before her marriage to Laurence, Gwen had tried to talk to her mother about intimate matters. The attempt had ended in hopeless stuttering. Her mother had probably never heard of orgasms, and the thought of her handlebar-moustached father enabling her mother to have one was enough to make a person cringe, or die laughing. Mother hadn’t even come out with the ‘men have needs’ guff they all used to laugh about at boarding school.

Fran interrupted her thoughts. ‘I forgot to tell you. I thought I might get a job when I go back home.’

‘You don’t need a job. You’ve got your rental properties.’

‘I don’t need one for the money, but I was getting bored with parties and champagne. You’ve always had your smelly old cheesemaking, so why shouldn’t I have something?’

The memory hit home. It hurt how much she missed her parents and the ramshackle old manor they lived in. After her mother had converted an old barn to take up cheesemaking, the whole place had become infused with the smell of it. She shook her head. She was here now, in the land of cinnamon and jasmine, and there was no point looking back.

‘Shall we get ready now?’ Fran said.

After they’d both bathed, Gwen put on a pearl-beaded hairband, and Fran helped her arrange her hair so that her dark ringlets fell loosely at the nape of her slim neck. Fran’s own chestnut hair, short and chic, swung about her head, shining beneath a red headband and matching feather.

Fran looked Gwen up and down.

‘Will I do?’

Fran grinned. ‘Let operation seduction begin!’

By eleven that night the ball was in full swing. The orchestra had taken a break and Gwen looked around the room at the people dotted about. Most of the women wore old-fashioned pastel dresses, barely showing an ankle, and even the young ones were dressed like their mothers.

Laurence, handsome in a white tuxedo, hadn’t been able to keep his eyes off Gwen, and they’d been enjoying a close waltz until his sister commandeered him. As Gwen stepped away he gave her a wry smile. Now, unable to spot Fran anywhere, she felt at a loose end. She was leaning against a column at the entrance, listening to the swell of voices and nodding at vaguely familiar faces, when a man spoke.

‘Mrs Hooper. How lovely.’

She spun round and there he was, looking splendid in a dark dinner suit, with a rather extraordinary embroidered waistcoat in shades of red and gold. His eyes lingered a little too long on her face. She remembered the glittering caramel eyes from the day they’d met, and now, as then, when he smiled they warmed, transforming the look of his face. She felt ruffled and searched for a word to describe the man. Exotic, she had thought before, but it was more than that. Disconcerting maybe? She tried for a smile but wasn’t quite able to, then, remembering her manners, she offered her hand and his lips brushed over the silk glove that extended as far as her bare underarm.

‘Mr Ravasinghe. How are you?’

‘You look very lovely tonight. Not dancing?’

‘Thank you, and no, not dancing at the moment.’ This time, flattered to have caught his attention, she managed a smile but then instantly felt self-conscious. ‘Laurence is over there with his sister.’

He nodded. ‘Ah yes. Verity Hooper.’

‘You know her?’

He inclined his head. ‘Our paths have crossed.’

‘I’ve only recently met her. She seems very fond of Laurence.’

‘Yes, I do recall that.’ He paused and smiled at her. ‘Would you care to dance, Mrs Hooper, when the orchestra return?’

‘Please do call me Gwen. But I’m not sure if I should.’ She glanced around and saw Fran coming back into the room from the opposite entrance, carrying something under her arm. Fran, as usual, looked suitably dramatic in her scarlet swing dress, with little red button shoes to match.

‘Oh, look. I must introduce you to my cousin, and best friend, Frances Myant.’

As Fran came up, Gwen saw the instant attraction between Savi Ravasinghe and her cousin. They stared at each for too long, and he seemed unable to speak. Fran glowed with health and glamour, and Gwen realized her cousin had never looked more beautiful, though more than anything it was Fran’s zest for life that made her stand out. Her confidence seemed to draw people to her, as if by being close some of her shine might rub off on them. Either that, or they were disapproving.

For a moment Gwen felt a twinge of envy. Although on the two occasions that they’d met, Savi Ravasinghe had clearly admired her, he had not looked at her like that. And the truth was that when he had looked at her, she’d been ashamed to feel her skin flushing. Now she just felt silly. He’d looked after her, as an older brother might, taking her under his wing, and even his offer to dance, just now, she judged must have been made out of kindness. She coughed to get their attention and was then able to introduce them.

‘Look, I’ve brought these,’ Fran said. She held out two recordings made by the new electric microphone process.

‘I’m going to ask that young fellow to play them.’ She pointed to a dinner-suited man who was in charge of a wind-up gramophone. ‘Do you Charleston, Mr Ravasinghe?’

He shook his head and feigned dismay.

She grinned and took his arm. ‘Well, never mind, I’ll teach you both.’

Over Fran’s shoulder, Gwen noticed that Laurence had been waylaid by Christina, the American widow. She was the sort of woman who drew a circle of men around her; the bias-cut, slinky black satin dress that clung in all the right places saw to that. Gwen looked at the wave at the front of Laurence’s hair, and wanted to march across and claim her husband. She raised a hand to signal, but then noticed that Laurence hadn’t even spotted her, his wife, and did not stop smiling at the woman. She suppressed the hot prickle of jealousy as she saw the woman reach up a hand and touch his cheek. When Laurence eventually glanced up and saw her looking, he nodded at Christina before making his way across.

‘Gwendolyn. There you are.’

‘What were you saying to that woman?’ She knew her voice sounded painfully petulant.

He pulled a face. ‘A bit of business.’

She narrowed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘Laurence, I saw her touch your face.’

He laughed.

‘It isn’t funny –’

He wrapped an arm round her waist and, drawing her to him, he grinned. ‘I have eyes for only you. Anyway, she more or less owns a bank.’

He’d spoken as if that explained it. Then his face darkened and he grew serious.

‘More importantly, I saw you speaking to Ravasinghe. Look, have fun, dance the Charleston with Fran, do anything you want, but I’d rather you didn’t spend time with him.’

She unwrapped his arm. ‘Don’t you like him?’

‘It doesn’t matter whether I like him or not.’

‘Then what? Surely it’s not because he’s Sinhalese?’

‘I hope you don’t think me that shallow.’

‘I don’t, actually. But I do think Mr Ravasinghe is a charming man.’

Laurence shot her a troubled look. ‘Charming? Is that what you think?’

‘Yes.’ She paused for a moment or two. ‘Do your Sinhalese acquaintances ever come to the house?’

‘Occasionally.’

‘Do we go to theirs?’

‘I know it must seem strange to you, but no, not even the relatively well-off ones like Ravasinghe.’ He shook his head and when he spoke again the tone of his voice had changed. ‘He’s painting Christina’s portrait, as it happens.’

‘He’s a painter? I didn’t realize. You sound as if you mind.’

‘Why should I mind?’ he said. ‘Now, there are some people I want to show you off to.’

‘Oh no. Fran is going to teach Savi and me how to dance the Charleston now.’ And, feeling annoyed with him, she turned her back and followed the other two to the gramophone.

After that, Laurence did not come near. While pretending to look the other way, Gwen watched him dance with Christina more than once. She was trying to be grown-up about it, but the sight of them together actually made her feel sick. The nerve of him, telling her who she should pass time with, when the woman was pressing herself against him and touching his face as if she owned him. After seeing that, and with a rising sense of devilment, Gwen drank several glasses of champagne straight off.

For about an hour, Fran, Savi Ravasinghe and Gwen practised the Charleston, to looks of barely disguised disapproval from some of the older onlookers, who were no doubt itching for the return of the orchestra and the chance to continue their waltzes and foxtrots. One or two younger ones had linked up, and for a while even Verity joined in, laughing so much that Gwen found herself really warming to her.

Afterwards, when Fran had disappeared off somewhere and Verity couldn’t be seen, Gwen wilted, her earlier bravado fading. She grabbed another glass of champagne from a passing waiter, left the ballroom and went out to the hall where she leant against the wall behind the stairwell, feeling tipsy, and wondered how to dig Laurence out from the American woman’s clutches.

When Savi Ravasinghe came across, her eyes were drooping.

‘You wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ll find your husband.’

‘I feel faint. Please don’t leave me.’

‘Very well. Which is your room? I’ll help you up the stairs.’

She giggled. ‘I think I might be a little drunk.’

He took the glass from her and put it on a table. ‘It’s nothing that a glass of water and a good night’s sleep won’t cure. Come along. Lean on me.’

He kissed her gloved hand and placed his hand under her arm. Through the silk of her dress, she felt the coolness of his hand against the warmth of her body. At the back of her mind she knew it wasn’t entirely proper to allow a stranger to take her upstairs, but after the way Laurence had been dancing with Christina, she decided to throw caution aside.

‘Have you the key?’

‘In my purse.’ She paused to look at him. ‘You always seem to be helping me out of scrapes.’

He laughed. ‘Well, if you will insist on getting into them.’

‘Actually, I feel a bit sick.’

‘Right. Upstairs with you now, Mrs Hooper.’ He gave her a comforting squeeze and she felt her knees loosen. ‘Hold on to my arm, and once I’ve got you settled, I’ll find your cousin.’

As he helped her up a few steps, she heard the sound of footsteps. She glanced up and saw Florence Shoebotham approaching, her nose shining and her chins wobbling. How those chins could speak, Gwen thought as she waited for a pointed comment, but was surprised when none came and Florence shuffled off without a word.

‘Drat! She’ll probably tell Laurence.’

‘Tell him what?’

She waved her hands about and felt extremely woozy. ‘Oh, nothing. Just that I was tipsy.’

Mr Ravasinghe led her to her room and they went in together. When she felt his fingers on her ankles as he pulled off her shoes, she was flustered by his proximity. She bit her lip in an effort not to reveal that she’d felt something she shouldn’t have. He helped her lie down on top of the bed. As she closed her eyes, he gently stroked her temple. It was comforting and she wanted him to go on doing it but, feeling a little ashamed, she shifted slightly.

‘I love Laurence,’ she muttered, the words slurring.

‘Of course you do. Are you still feeling sick?’

‘A bit. The room is wavery.’

‘Then I’ll just stay until you fall asleep. I wouldn’t want to leave you while you might be sick.’

He was a lovely man, she thought between giddy spells, then she said it out loud, hiccupped, and her hand flew to her mouth. ‘Ooops!’

He continued to gently stroke her face.

Part of her knew she should ask him to go, but feeling so alone and homesick, this was the kind of contact she’d been longing for, and any thoughts of genuine caution had disappeared with the last glass of champagne. A recurring image of Christina in her black dress, flirting with Laurence, made her eyes sting and she muttered to herself.

‘I can help you get a little more comfortable, if you like.’

‘Thank you.’

He held the glass while she sipped some water and then he slipped another pillow under her head. She threw off her wrap, feeling too warm, and then, falling in and out of a feverish sleep, seemed to burn up. As she lay on the bed with her arms stretched out, the back of her head hurt. Sometimes he was still there, or still seemed to be, and sometimes he was gone. And she had the most disturbing dreams of Mr Ravasinghe touching her, and her own hands reaching for him, only suddenly he turned into Laurence and everything was all right. She was allowed to make love to her husband. When she woke properly she saw that she must have unfastened the buttons of her dress and rolled down her stockings in her sleep – she remembered feeling terribly hot – and her new silky French knickers lay on the floor. When Fran turned up in the middle of the night, she ordered Gwen to get under the covers.

‘Look at the state of you, Gwen, you’re half dressed and all crumpled. What on earth have you been doing?’

‘I can’t ’member.’

‘You stink of booze.’

‘Drinkin’, Franny,’ Gwen said, still feeling groggy. ‘Drinkin’ champagne.’

Fran snuffed out their gas light and climbed into the same bed, snuggling up close behind her, just as they had done as children.

The next morning, over breakfast, Fran was nowhere to be seen and Verity had gone for a walk. Laurence seemed in a good mood and asked if she had enjoyed herself. She replied that she had, but that she’d had rather too much fizz and had gone to bed early nursing a sore head.

‘I looked for you, but when I couldn’t find you, Verity said she thought you’d gone up and that Fran was with you.’

‘Verity was pretty blotto herself. Why didn’t you come to check on me?’

‘I didn’t want to wake you.’ He paused and grinned. ‘I think you and Fran gave our staid group of friends something of a shake-up.’

Gwen’s face burned. Her memory of the night was somewhat fuddled but she could remember feeling terribly light-headed, and then Mr Ravasinghe had helped her up the stairs.

She looked at her husband and thought about what to say. ‘Did you enjoy dancing with Christina?’ she asked, aiming for lightness, though what came out sounded tense.

He shrugged and buttered his toast, then spread the jam thickly. ‘She’s an old friend.’

‘And that’s all?’

He gazed at her and smiled. ‘That’s all now.’

‘It didn’t use to be?’

‘No, before you, it didn’t use to be.’

Gwen bit her lip. She knew it wasn’t fair, but couldn’t help feeling stung. ‘And it’s over now?’

‘Completely.’

‘It didn’t look over.’

He frowned. ‘She enjoys being provocative. Take no notice.’

‘It isn’t because of her then?’

‘What isn’t?’

She took a sharp breath in. ‘The way you’ve been.’

Did she imagine that his face clouded as he shook his head?

‘It’s all over for her as well, is it?’

‘What is this, Gwen, the Spanish Inquisition? I’ve said it’s over.’

‘And is this what you were about to tell me yesterday?’

He looked puzzled.

‘In the foyer when we arrived.’

‘Ah, that … yes … yes, of course.’

She decided not to pursue it further. She cast around for something different to talk about, then she remembered. This was her first proper chance to raise the subject of the little grave she’d found. She drank her tea and dabbed at her mouth, then over the toast and marmalade – especially imported from Fortnum & Mason, she noticed – she gave him a quick half-smile and spoke.

‘Who was Thomas, Laurence?’

His body stiffened and he kept his eyes lowered.

In the time that he didn’t speak, she heard the sounds of breakfast: the desultory early-morning murmurs, the light-footed waiters, the genteel clinks of cutlery on china. The time stretched out, extending uncomfortably. Was Laurence going to say anything at all? She felt an itch starting at the nape of her neck and she couldn’t help shifting slightly against the chair. She buttered another piece of toast, then reached out across the table to give it to him.

‘Laurence?’

He looked up, raising a hand, and as he accidentally knocked the toast out of her hand it was as if he had wiped his eyes of expression. ‘It would have been better if you had not poked around in there.’

His voice was flat, but she felt the rebuke and frowned, partly in dismay and partly in anger. ‘I wasn’t poking, as you put it. I was searching for the perfect spot for my arbour. And anyway, Spew had run in there and I had to fetch him. I had no idea I would stumble across a grave.’

‘Your arbour?’ He took a deep shuddering breath.

‘Yes.’

There was another pause.

‘Please tell me. Who was Thomas?’

As he exhaled, Laurence seemed to be looking over her left shoulder and not at her. She took a last bite of toast and watched him closely as he rubbed his chin.

‘It seemed so sad that he was all alone there. Why wasn’t he laid to rest at the church? People don’t usually bury other people in their garden, even if it’s just a child.’ She took another sip of tea.

‘Thomas was not just a child. He was Caroline’s son.’

She almost choked on the tea.

There was silence as Laurence wiped his mouth, then after he had put the crumpled napkin down, he cleared his throat as if he was about to speak. When he did not, she decided to just come out with it.

‘Do you mean only Caroline’s son?’

‘Caroline’s son … and mine.’ He stood up and left the table.

She leant back in her chair. All she knew of Caroline was what Laurence had told her when they first met. He had been married before, his wife had been ill and then she had died. No mention of a little boy. She felt awfully sorry for him, but why had he never said, and if it mattered so much, as it clearly must, why had he allowed his own child’s grave to become so overgrown?

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Next: Chapter 6