The Planter's Wife
WINDY RIDGE ESTATE, MALAYA 1962
The big white house dominated the crest of the hill and looked out over the lines of rubber trees to the jungle beyond. It was quite alone, miles from any neighbours, and hardly any traffic ever ventured along the rutted dirt road that ran the five miles between the estate and the nearest settlement, Kuala Lipis. It had been a proud, grand building in the years before the war, its paintwork startling white against the blue of the tropical sky, but now the walls were scabbed and peeling and there were a few gaping holes in the roof where the tiles had blown off during the high monsoon winds.
The deep veranda running the length of the ground floor was shaded with bamboo chicks, which were rolled up near the front door so that Juliet Crosby, relaxing in her deep rattan chair, had a view of the faint breeze playing in the rubber trees. She watched it ruffling the leaves, turning them from green to grey and back again.
She always sat here at this time of day, before the sun had begun its descent behind the jungle-covered horizon, and the cicadas were still chattering in the casuarina trees in the garden. This was the best hour of her unwavering routine. She liked to sit with her afternoon tea tray on the little cane table, her two Dalmatians lazing on the boards of the veranda beside her, and take deep breaths to empty her mind of everything but the mundane business of running the estate, banishing any other thoughts that might trouble her. She loved the sharp light of the early evening. It was as if the sun was burning with renewed intensity before it dipped away.
Today was a day like any other. It had begun before dawn for Juliet, with her routine tour of the estate. As usual she had walked through the trees at first light, the dogs at her heels, to the tappers lines. She knew all the workers on the estate and chatted to them in fluent Malay as she took the roll call, made sure that all was running smoothly and that everyone knew their tasks for the day. She then checked on the workers in the production sheds, assessing the stocks of latex, making sure the machines and presses were running properly. As usual she’d walked out through the lines of trees to check that the maintenance gangs were at work, weeding between the trees, digging ditches for drainage. And like any other working day it had ended like this.
She had grown to enjoy the comfortable rhythm to her life, this pleasing, safe routine that she had been following for twenty-odd years. She rarely saw anyone other than the rubber workers. There was no need. Very occasionally she would take the old Morris from the stable behind the house and drive the bumpy road into Kuala Lipis to visit the few friends who had outlived the war and the Malayan Emergency. They would play a rubber of bridge or two in the decaying building that housed the club, or go for a drink at the bar in the Government Guest House. There were still a couple of survivors from the old days living in Kuala Lumpur, too, and once or twice a year she would take the train down for a short visit. Juliet was always glad to get back to the estate, though, and the comfort of her quiet, reclusive routine.
The old house was rather shabby now it was true, but business was not what it had been, and the estate only just made enough to pay the workers and turn in a tiny profit. There was no money to pay for repairs, but after all what did it matter? It was only her living here now. And after she was gone there would be no-one. It was not like the war years when rubber had been booming and money had rolled in effortlessly. Of course Juliet hadn’t been managing the estate then. She had had nothing to do with it. No, it had been down to her husband to run things then. She felt her fingers tightening around the arms of the chair, nails digging into the wood, and her breath quickening at the mere thought of him. Uninvited, an image of him swam into her mind: an image of her first encounter with him that very first evening at the Penang Club. How he had leaned casually at the bar, toying with his glass, watching her, and when he had crossed the room to ask her to dance, her cheeks had burned with anxiety and pleasure. Juliet stopped and checked herself. Sweat was standing in little beads on her brow.
The dogs sensed something before she did. One moment they were lounging on the floor, the next sitting bolt upright, ears pricked, poised for attack.
‘What’s the matter? Caesar? Cleo?’ Juliet sat forward in her chair. She had a dread of unexpected callers. She peered towards the gate beyond the expanse of lawn, just where the garden ended and the rubber trees began. There was nothing there, but both her dogs were on their feet now, whining, wagging their tails.
‘Sit down!’ she commanded and they obeyed instantly.
Juliet quickly went inside and fetched her leather binoculars from the hall stand. She leaned over the rail and trained them on the drive. She could see nothing. Just the palms waving in the breeze, and the heat haze hovering above the empty drive. She sighed and was about to put them away when there was a movement, and through the glasses she caught sight of a figure moving at the limits of her vision. She peered more closely. A lone figure was moving towards the house, short and slight and carrying a heavy load.
Who the hell could that be? She put down the binoculars, afraid of getting caught snooping, and clung to the railings, confused. Then, beginning to panic, she went inside and closed the front door. She stood behind it, her fists clenching and unclenching, her eyes closed, breathing heavily, wondering what to do. She never had visitors. Who could it be?
She went to the window and peered out, careful to keep hidden behind the curtain. Whoever it was, was drawing closer now. There was something in the way the intruder moved, that way of striding that stirred something deep inside Juliet, something buried beneath the dry layers of long forgotten memories. As the figure moved closer, she saw that it was a young woman, with a mop of short dark hair and dressed simply in blue pedal-pushers, flat shoes and a white shirt. The girl was carrying a rucksack. It was a bloody backpacker! There were too many of them now, lazing on the beaches of Penang, staying in squalid hostels in the seedy parts of KL, doing the Southeast-Asia trail. But she’d never seen one anywhere near the estate before.
Her mouth went dry and she began to panic again. What on earth would she say to the stranger? The girl was crossing the semi-circle of gravel in front of the house now. Juliet stepped well away from the window. She could hear the footsteps on the front steps, crossing the veranda, stopping at the front door. And then came the firm knock.
Juliet froze, her back pressed against the wall, and held her breath. If she waited long enough surely the girl would go away? She must have come to the wrong place, or was looking for a free bed for the night. It would be far easier to let her think there was no-one at home than have to actually turn her away. Juliet waited and counted the seconds. She had reached forty when there was another knock, even firmer this time. Juliet passed her hand through her hair, agitated. Why didn’t the girl just leave? She was still in a state of panic when her elderly houseboy appeared from the direction of the kitchen, making for the front door. She held up her hand.
‘It’s alright, Abdul. I will answer it.’ He shrugged and shuffled away.
She took a deep breath, smoothed her crumpled skirt and opened the door a fraction. The dogs burst through the open door, wagging their tails in excitement. The girl looked into her eyes and smiled. Her face was tanned, and she had eager blue eyes, a freckled nose and white, white teeth.
‘Are you Mrs. Juliet Crosby?’ Although the girl looked European, she had a strong accent, as if English wasn’t her first language.
Juliet nodded. Words just wouldn’t come to her. Her throat felt paralysed.
‘I realise this will probably come as a shock to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I think you and I might be related.’...