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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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‘What was that?’ I asked. ‘Was that from Agatha?’

‘This is all some damnable stunt,’ Archie said. ‘To punish me. To punish
you
. To get your name into the papers.’

‘That doesn’t sound like her.’

‘That’s the point, isn’t it? She’s not herself. This whole bloody business has made her not like herself.’

Me. I was the whole bloody business. I didn’t know what to say. Certainly this was no time for the smiles he always craved.
Archie clapped his hands, as though he had a task to complete but first had a few things to get out of the way. In the corner of the room, on the floor, I saw light glint off a band of gold, Agatha’s wedding ring. I pointed to it and Archie bent, reddening, to scoop it up and bury it in his suit pocket.

‘The important thing,’ he said, ‘is for you to get out of here fast as possible.’

I stood, unsure of what to do. In a way this was perfect – an added excuse to be out of touch over the next several days. At the same time it was unnerving, what seemed like Archie’s momentary defection. That wouldn’t do, not at all.

‘Nan, are you listening? You mustn’t be here. It doesn’t look right.’ He reached out and drew me to him. When I pressed my head against his chest, I could hear his heart, knocking away at an alarming clip. For a woman, a damaged reputation could bring about all manner of horror, in those days. But I knew it wasn’t concern for me that was making his heart erratic.

‘Agatha,’ he whispered into my hair as he held me tight, ‘where are you?’

On the ten-minute walk to the Sunningdale station, the bitter cold stung my face. Unlike Agatha I did not own a fur coat. I wondered how she managed now, wherever she was, having left her warmest garment in her car. What if I wandered by Newlands Corner and helped myself to it? The thought made me laugh and frown at the same time, pulling my wool coat close around me.

With luck Agatha would turn up by the end of the day. At this very moment police were searching through the brush all around Sunningdale, but certainly she wouldn’t be found there;
she would return, perfectly hale and well, under her own steam. It wasn’t for me to worry about. My knuckles burned with the cold. I blew into my hands. They smelled like Teddy’s soap and I wondered what they’d tell her about Agatha’s whereabouts. If anything happened to Agatha – anything permanent – I would become the little girl’s full-time mother. That was if Archie wasn’t too traumatized to go ahead with our plans, and didn’t blame me for whatever happened to his wife. A certain kind of man does tend to blame a woman.

But if he didn’t, I could take over. I could be the one walking Teddy to school in the morning and stealing into Archie’s study while he was at work to scribble down stories. Even Honoria would have to change her tone, wouldn’t she, if she wanted to stay on at Styles.

I shook these thoughts away. I didn’t want any harm to come to Agatha. I wanted her to be found, whole and healthy. But there was nothing I could do to help and I needed to turn to my own affairs. I needed to focus on the week ahead, leaving the Christie family behind for just a little while, before coming back to join it forever.

The Disappearance

Day One
Saturday, 4 December 1926

W
HEREVER YOU MAY
be sitting, reading these pages, however much time has passed, you will know that Agatha Christie did not stay missing. You know she didn’t die in December of 1926. She survived to a ripe old age and wrote many more novels and stories. At least one book a year – ‘Christie for Christmas,’ her publisher used to say, banking on those December profits. Agatha moved past Archie and her shattered marriage, not only to become the bestselling author of all time, but also to find a love much better suited to her, the way a woman with a little life under her belt will, once she’s clear-eyed about her past and can see what’s best for her future.

Nobody could know any of that when the police fetched her car back to the road. There was plenty of petrol in the tank, the engine seemed to be in fine working order. No signs of any trouble. No explanation readily discernible. A little ways away another group of policemen, perhaps six of them, stood on the edge of the Silent Pool. Over the years more than one corpse had been dredged from those spring-fed waters.

One of the policemen said, ‘We’ll have to drag it if she doesn’t turn up by morning.’

At Styles the police gave Archie a brief rundown about what
little they’d discovered, and what they planned next. Archie imagined nets cast into the Silent Pool. He envisioned them returning to shore, his wife’s body snarled in their threads, and covered his face with such sincere horror for a moment that the police stopped suspecting him of having done something criminal.

In the nursery Teddy said bedtime prayers as usual, Agatha’s absence regular enough, Archie’s agitation far removed. Outside, night had fallen but still policemen spread out, along with volunteers from the town, scouring and searching all over the countryside. Bodies of water glimmered ominously. By now everyone in Berkshire and Surrey was developing a theory about where Agatha might have gone, what might have happened. Not one of them anywhere close to the truth.

I didn’t have a telephone in my flat but there was a call box on the corner. In the evening I walked out to it, pressed the A button, deposited my pennies, and waited for Archie to answer.

‘How are you?’ I asked, speaking in a low voice, as if the passers-by might hear. ‘Is there any word?’

‘No.’ If I hadn’t known it was him, I’m not sure I would have recognized his voice. There was a tremor, an uncertainty that seemed wholly out of character. ‘The police are involved, Nan. They are highly involved.’

‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it? They’re serious about finding her.’

‘Frightfully serious. They mean to find her as quickly as possible. She’ll be mortified when she finds out about all this fuss.’

I nodded, imagining it, the crack in her dignity. It did seem alarming that she wouldn’t rush back immediately to prevent
exactly that. I could tell from Archie’s voice, it terrified him. He’d take more comfort if the police had dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.

‘I’ve been searching through her papers,’ he said. ‘There’s a story about you, I think.’

‘Is there?’

‘Yes. I’m quite sure it’s you. An adulteress. The main character pushes her over a cliff in the end.’

I drew in a breath that was half inhale, half laugh. Perhaps Agatha really had gone mad. Though one could argue her wanting to kill me was perfectly reasonable.

‘Perhaps I should be looking over my shoulder.’ I made my voice sound light, but Archie had already moved on to other worries.

‘Oh, Nan. Why did I have to be so callous with her? You were right. I should have waited.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘There never would have been a right time.’ It was disconcerting to hear him so distraught, his voice strangled by what seemed to be real grief. ‘She’ll turn up. She’s just upset. The moment she realizes what a fuss has started she’ll run right home.’

But cheering up didn’t seem to be what Archie wanted. I could hear someone come into the room and he told me he needed to ring off. Quickly, I asked what he’d told Teddy about Agatha’s whereabouts.

‘I said she went to Ashfield to see after her mother’s things.’

‘Might she really be there?’

‘The Torquay police have already looked into it. She’s not there. She’s not anywhere.’

I didn’t know how to reply.

‘Look,’ he said, his voice hardening. ‘Better if we don’t
communicate till this is all sorted out. We don’t want your name in all this.’

‘No,’ I agreed, ‘we don’t.’

He rang off without saying goodbye.

I placed the earpiece back on its rung and opened the door to the box, stepping out onto the street. The sky had gone dark, streaked with the last colours of a sunset I’d managed to miss. My breath tumbled out, visible in the frigid air, and I didn’t realize until I’d walked halfway home that I’d been examining the face of every woman, to see if it was Agatha.

She would be all right. I felt sure of it. She was far more practical than I. And it wasn’t as though she were a desperate young girl, with no resources or place to go. The whole world stood with its arms out, holding a net to catch her once she fell. She might be distraught but I knew she would never commit suicide. Nor would she endure discomfort, the way I did, walking a while instead of returning straight home, past the point of shivering, without gloves, teeth beginning to chatter.

When you don’t see someone, standing right before your eyes, when you don’t know where she is, you imagine all manner of horror befalling her. By now the number of people were increasing – their minds picturing Agatha struggling through the brush. Running off into the wood, stumbling into a freezing cold lake.

I shook my head. She had taken my chin in her hand. She had chastened me.
You don’t love him.
As her Inspector Poirot liked to say, ‘One must respect the psychology.’

Agatha was a rational, practical, contained Englishwoman. How fond her novels were of categorizing people. A woman does this, an American does that, Italians are just like this. Perhaps she felt comfortable with these generalities because she fit her own so splendidly. Stiff upper lip, a fine English lady.

Now she had abandoned her natural character, thanks to me. At the same time, what she did best was spin stories. Plot. And all of this had the air of a plot, a way to remind Archie how much she meant to him. Indeed how much he loved her. Worry tends to give way to such emotion, doesn’t it?

I gave into the cold and went home. My flat was tidy, like a barracks. No decorations, no photographs, no mementos. My quilt was the same colour as the walls, not quite white, not quite ivory. The landlord had rented it to me on the condition that I entertain no men. My neighbour, Mrs Kettering, an ancient widow, was supposed to keep an eye out for misbehaviour, but she liked me, and hadn’t revealed the rare occasions Archie had come to my door. You’d think he might have noticed, even from standing on the threshold: this was no home, but a station, for someone on a quest, who doesn’t have time to adorn the present day, only to plan for the future.

I packed for my trip to Harrogate, my mind unwelcomely focused on Agatha. I folded a pair of knickers and thought: she’s gone off to a posh hotel to nurse her wounds, not even realizing anybody’s worried. But that didn’t explain the abandoned car. So I thought: she left the car so we
would
worry, which would serve us right, and then she’d gone off to a posh hotel to laugh at us, or to wait for Archie to find her, his worry rekindling his love. But what were the chances she’d pull something like that off without help? Honoria – the most likely accomplice – seemed as worried as the rest of us.

‘Agatha’s an emotional sort,’ Archie once said to me. ‘Don’t let the manners fool you.’

An emotional sort. As if there’s any other kind of human. Show me an unemotional sort and I’ll show you someone dangerous. How can emotion be avoided, when life careens in its
unexpected directions? During the war Agatha had written to her new husband, exhortations for his safety like incantations upon the page, fountain pen flying over paper. Now, in Sunningdale, it wasn’t Archie in danger but Agatha. Archie realizing he was rather an emotional sort himself – not allowed to join the search. He paced the floors of the house, fit to climb the walls. He regretted tossing her letter upon the fire so hastily. What clues might she have hidden in those words that could have been useful to the search? How dear the evidence of her being alive and vital and forming sentences, so recently, heat and heart upon the page.

I took the Claddagh off my finger and put it back on, crown pointing towards me. The last time I saw Finbarr, years ago by now, was when he came to find me in London, after our child was lost to us. He’d gathered me up in his arms and cried, soaking the hair at the crown of my head.

‘Was she beautiful?’ he asked, when I told him I’d had his baby.

‘Yes,’ I said, past the point of weeping, my hands clutching his collar. ‘More beautiful than you can imagine.’

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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