Authors: Nina de Gramont
She told Archie, likely for the second or third time, that she’d had a meeting with Donald Fraser, her new literary agent. ‘Since I’m in town, I thought we might go to luncheon. Before your weekend away.’
‘I can’t today.’ Archie gestured unconvincingly towards his empty desk. ‘I’ve a mountain of work to get through.’
‘Ah,’ said Agatha. ‘You sure? I’ve booked a table at Simpson’s.’
‘I’m certain,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid you’ve come by for nothing.’
‘Would you like to come with me, Miss O’Dea? A girls’ luncheon?’
I couldn’t bear seeing her rejected twice. ‘Oh, yes. That would be lovely.’
Archie coughed, irritated. Another man might have been nervous, faced with this meeting, wife and lover. But he’d moved past caring. He wanted his marriage over and if that came about from Agatha walking in on us, so be it. While his wife and I lunched he would keep an appointment at Garrard and Company to buy the most beautiful ring, my first real diamond.
‘You must tell me about your new literary agent,’ I said, getting to my feet. ‘What an exciting career you have, Mrs Christie.’ This was not flattery. Agatha’s career was leagues more interesting to me than Archie’s work in finance, though she wasn’t well known at this time, not in the way she would come to be. A rising star not quite risen. I envied her.
Agatha put her arm though mine. I accepted the gesture with ease. Nothing came more naturally to me than intimacy with other women. I had three sisters. Agatha’s face set into a smile that managed to be both dreamy and determined. Archie sometimes complained about the weight she’d gained over the past seven years, since Teddy had arrived, but her arm felt thin and delicate. I let her lead me through the offices and out onto the busy London street. My cheeks turned pink from the cold. Agatha released my arm abruptly and brought a hand to her forehead, steadying herself.
‘Are you all right, Mrs Christie?’
‘Agatha,’ she said, her voice sharper than it had been in Archie’s office. ‘Please call me Agatha.’
I nodded. And then proceeded to do what I did every time she made this request – for the bulk of our time that afternoon, I didn’t call her anything at all.
Have you ever known a woman who went on to become famous? Looking back, you can see things in memory, can’t you? About the way she held herself. The determination with which she spoke. To her dying day Agatha claimed not to be an ambitious person. She thought she kept her intensity secret, but I could see it in the way her eyes swept over a room. The way she examined everyone who crossed her line of vision, imagining a backstory she could sum up in a single sentence. Unlike Archie, Agatha always wanted to know about your past. If you didn’t care to reveal it, she’d create something of her own and convince herself it was true.
At Simpson’s Agatha and I were escorted upstairs to the ladies’ dining room. When we were seated, she removed her hat so I did too, though many other ladies wore theirs. She fluffed her pretty hair back into place. The gesture seemed less one of vanity than a way to comfort herself. She might have asked me what I’d been doing in Archie’s office. But she knew I’d have a lie at the ready and didn’t want to hear it.
Instead she said, ‘Your mother’s still living, isn’t she, Miss O’Dea?’
‘Yes, both my parents.’
She stared at me frankly. Assessing me. One is allowed to say it in retrospect. I was pretty. Slim, young, athletic. At the same time, I was no Helen of Troy. If I had been, my relationship with Archie might have been less alarming. The modesty of my charms indicated he might very well be in love.
‘How’s Teddy?’ I asked.
‘And the writing?’
‘It’s fine.’ She waved her hand as if nothing mattered less. ‘It’s all a parlour trick. Shiny objects and red herrings.’ A look
crossed her face, as if she couldn’t help but smile when thinking of it, so I knew, despite her dismissal, she was proud of her work.
An enormous bang erupted as a white-coated waiter dropped his tray of empty dishes. I couldn’t help but jump. At the table next to us, a man dining with his wife covered his head with his arms in a reflex. Not so long ago loud crashes in London meant something far more ominous than shattered dishware and, of course, so many of our men had seen the worst of it.
Agatha took a sip of tea and said, ‘How I miss the calm before the war. Do you think we’ll ever recover, Miss O’Dea?’
‘I don’t see how we can.’
‘I suppose you were too young to do any nursing,’ she said.
I nodded. During the war it was mostly matronly types who tended the soldiers, by design, to avert the bloom of unsuitable romances. Agatha had been assigned to a hospital dispensary in Torquay. It was where she learned so much about poison.
‘My sister Megs became a nurse,’ I said. ‘After the war, as her profession. In fact, she works now at a hospital in Torquay.’
Agatha did not ask more about this. She wouldn’t know someone like my sister. Instead she asked, ‘Did you lose anyone close to you?’
‘A boy I used to know. In Ireland.’
‘Was he killed?’
‘Let’s just say he never came home. Not really.’
‘Archie was in the Flying Corps. Of course, you know that. I suppose it was different for those in the air.’
Didn’t that sum up the whole world? Always the poor ones carrying the world’s scars. Agatha liked to quote William Blake: ‘Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.’ In my mind, even at that moment – lunching at Simpson’s while
her husband shopped for my engagement ring – I considered Agatha the former and myself the latter.
An expression kept rising to Agatha’s face that I could see her actively pushing away. As if she wanted to say something, but couldn’t bring herself to. She had brought me to luncheon, I’m sure of it, to confront me. Perhaps to ask for mercy. But it’s easy to postpone the most unpleasant conversations, especially if confrontation is not in your nature.
To do so, and because she meant it, Agatha said, ‘What rubbish, war. Any war. It’s a terrible thing for a man to endure. If I had a son, I’d do whatever I could to keep him away from it – whatever the cause, even if England was at stake.’
‘I think I’ll do the same. If I ever have a son.’
Our meat was carved tableside and I chose a piece that was rarer than I liked. I suppose I was trying to impress Agatha. The richer the people, the bloodier they liked their steak. As I sawed into the meat the red oozing made my stomach turn.
‘Do you still think of the Irish boy?’ Agatha asked me.
‘Only every day of my life.’
‘Is that why you never married?’
As if I never would. ‘I suppose it is.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’re still young. And who knows? Perhaps he’ll turn up one day, recovered.’
‘I doubt that very much.’
‘There was a time during the war that I thought Archie and I would never be able to marry. But we did and we’ve been so happy. We have, you know. Been happy.’
‘I’m sure that’s true.’ Clipped and stern. Talk of the war had steeled me. A person who has nothing might be excused for taking one thing – a husband – from a person who has everything.
The waiter returned and asked if we wanted a cheese course.
We both declined. Agatha put down her fork with her meat half eaten. If her manners had been less perfect, she would have pushed her plate away. ‘I must start eating less. I’m too fat, Archie says.’
‘You look just fine,’ I said, to soothe her and because it was true. ‘You look beautiful.’
Agatha laughed, a little meanly, derision towards herself, not me, and I softened again. It gave me no pleasure to cause anyone pain. The death of her mother was dreadfully timed, too close to Archie’s leaving. I’d never planned on that. Agatha’s father had died when she was eleven, so in addition to the loss of her mother she now found herself in her family’s oldest generation at far too young an age.
We walked outside together after Agatha insisted on paying the bill. On the street she turned to me and reached out, curling her forefinger and thumb around my chin.
‘Do you have plans for this weekend, Miss O’Dea?’ Her tone insinuated she knew perfectly well what my plans were.
‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’m taking a holiday next week. At the Bellefort Hotel in Harrogate.’ Immediately, I wondered why I’d told her. I hadn’t even told Archie. But something about sharing a woman’s husband makes you feel close to her. Sometimes even closer than to him.
‘Treating yourself,’ she said, as if the concept did not appeal to her sensible nature. ‘Lovely for you.’
I was thankful she didn’t ask how I could afford such an extravagance. She let go of my chin. Her eyes held something I couldn’t quite read.
‘Well, goodbye, then,’ she said. ‘Enjoy your holiday.’
She turned and walked a few steps, paused, then walked back to me. ‘You don’t love him,’ she said. Her face had utterly
changed. From contained and still to wide-eyed and tremulous. ‘It would be bad enough if you did. But since you don’t, please leave him to the person who does.’
All my edges disappeared. I felt ghostly in my refusal to respond, like I might dissipate, the pieces of me floating off and away into the air. Agatha didn’t touch me again. Instead she held my face in her gaze, examining my response – blood leaving my cheeks, the guilty refusal to move or breathe.
‘Mrs Christie.’ It was all I could manage to say. She was demanding a confession I did not have permission to make.
‘Miss O’Dea.’ Clipped, final. Returning to her usual self. Her name on my lips had prefaced a denial. My name on hers was a stern dismissal.
I stood in front of the restaurant and watched her walk away. In my memory she vanishes into a great cloud of fog but that can’t be right. It was broad daylight – crisp and clear. More likely she simply walked around a corner, or into a crowd.
I was due to return to work but instead I headed towards Archie’s office. My secretarial job no longer meant much to me as Archie covered more and more of my expenses. I knew he would be worried about my lunching with Agatha, and if he really did tell her he was leaving tonight, she might level the charge that I didn’t love him. So it was important to leave him feeling as though I did.
On my way I passed a bookshop that displayed a mountain of copies of a pink children’s book, a little teddy bear clutching the string of a balloon and flying off into the air.
Winnie the Pooh
. It looked so whimsical, I went in and bought a copy for Archie to give to Teddy. For a moment I considered giving it to her myself,
as a Christmas gift. By then her parents might be living apart. Perhaps Teddy would spend Christmas with her father and me. Cosy, the three of us, exchanging gifts beneath a Christmas tree. Sometimes one did hear of children living with their father, after a divorce. And Archie always claimed Teddy loved him better. Though that was like Archie, wasn’t it, not only to say such a thing but also to believe it.
When I returned to Archie’s office I gave him the book to give to Teddy himself. He locked the door and drew me into his lap, unbuttoning my skirt and pulling it up around my waist.
‘It won’t be like this much longer,’ he breathed into my ear, shuddering, though I did believe he liked it like this. Didn’t all men?
I stepped off him and smoothed my skirt. My hat was still on my head, it had barely budged.
‘How did she seem?’ he asked, returning to his desk.
‘Sad.’ If she ever told him she’d confronted me, I’d deny it. ‘And worried.’
‘You mustn’t go soft on her,’ he said. ‘It’s kinder to plunge the knife quickly.’
‘I’m sure you’re right.’
I blew him a kiss and headed towards the door, hoping none of my protestations had made a dent in his resolve. My conversation with Agatha made his leaving her all the more urgent. I unlocked the latch.
‘Nan,’ Archie said, before I could step through the doorway. ‘Next time you see me I’ll be a free man.’
‘Not at all,’ I told him. ‘You’ll belong to me.’
He smiled, and I knew there was nothing for me to worry about, at least in terms of Archie breaking the news to Agatha. The man had a mission. Once he decided to do something, he
did it with the coldness required of a pilot releasing bombs to cause death and havoc below. All the while sailing through the sky, untouchable.