Authors: Nina de Gramont
One Day Before
Thursday, 2 December 1926
N THE HISTORY
of the world there’s been one story a man tells his mistress: he doesn’t love his wife, perhaps never loved her at all; there’s been no sex for years, not a whisper of it; his marriage is absent passion, absent affection, absent joy – a barren and miserable place; he stays for the children, or for money, or for propriety; it’s a matter of convenience; the new lover is his only respite.
How many times has this story been true? Not many, is my guess. I know it wasn’t true of the Christies.
That evening Archie made his usual commute from London to Sunningdale. The couple had named their home Styles after the manor in Agatha’s first novel. It was a lovely Victorian house with substantial gardens. When Archie came through the front door Agatha was waiting for him, dressed for dinner. He never told me what she was wearing but I know it was a chiffon dress the shade of seafoam. I imagine the cut emphasized the swell of her bosom, but Archie only said she seemed so distracted he decided to wait till morning to tell her he was leaving. ‘Emotions do run higher at night, don’t they?’ he said.
Agatha, who knew the news was coming, resolved to do silent battle. Usually her little terrier Peter never left her side
but tonight she had sent the dog to bed with Teddy so he wouldn’t be an annoyance. She tried to exude the cheerful countenance her husband required.
I’ve sometimes thought Agatha invented Hercule Poirot as an antidote to Archie. There was never an emotional cue Poirot missed, nor a wayward emotion for which he didn’t feel sympathy. Poirot could absorb and assess a person’s sadness, then forgive it. Whereas Archie simply wanted to say
and have the order followed.
Having decided to postpone the inevitable scene, Archie sat down to a quiet dinner with his wife, the two of them seated at opposite ends of the long dining table. When I asked what they’d discussed, he said, ‘Just small talk.’
‘How did she seem?’
‘Sullen.’ Archie spoke the word as if it were a great personal affront. ‘She seemed self-indulgently morose.’
After dinner Agatha asked him to adjourn to the sitting room for a glass of brandy. He declined and went upstairs to see Teddy. Honoria, who doubled as Agatha’s personal secretary and Teddy’s nanny, was in the middle of putting her to bed.
The little dog dashed out the door as soon as Archie stepped inside and Teddy let out a wail of protest. ‘Mother promised Peter would stay with me tonight!’
Luckily Archie had my gift,
Winnie the Pooh
, to offer as consolation. Once Teddy had torn away the wrapping excitedly, he told me, he read her the first chapter. She begged him to go on reading, so that by the time he retired, Agatha – never knowing this was her last chance to recover him – was already asleep. ‘Like the dead,’ Archie added.
But the following Saturday, when I arrived at Styles to return Archie’s car from Godalming, I saw
Winnie the Pooh
a table in the vestibule, still in its brown paper wrapping. And at Simpson’s, Agatha had had the vague and scarcely animated look of an insomniac, feeling her way through the day after too many sleepless nights. She loved her husband. After twelve years of marriage, she loved him blindly and hopefully, as if in her thirty-six years of life she’d learned nothing about the world.
I know she wouldn’t have gone to sleep before Archie came to bed. Here’s what I think really happened:
Agatha was there to greet Archie when he arrived home. That much would have been true. The colour in her cheeks was high and determined. She’d resolved to win him back not with anger and threats but with the sheer force of her adoration, and so had dressed carefully. I know exactly what she wore because on Saturday morning it still lay crumpled in a heap on their bedroom floor, the maid having been too upset to collect and launder it. When I saw it there I kneeled and picked it up, holding it against me as if trying it on. It was much too long, seafoam chiffon flowing past my feet. It smelled of Yardley perfume, Old English Lavender, light and pretty.
A silly garment to wear in the middle of winter but still. How lovely she would have looked, there to greet him. Freckles sprinkled across her nose and across her breasts, high and visible. Perhaps she had a drink in her hand, not for herself (she almost never drank) but to hand to him; his favourite Scotch.
‘A.C.,’ she said, stepping close to him, placing one hand on his chest, letting him trade his winter coat for the drink. Since their wedding night they’d called each other that, A.C.
‘Here.’ Archie did not return the endearment. Along with his
coat he handed her the wrapped children’s book. ‘It’s for Teddy.’ He didn’t tell her I was the one who’d bought it, but she likely suspected. Archie wasn’t one for books – he hadn’t even read the novels she’d written, not since the first was published. Agatha slid the package unopened onto the table.
In the sitting room she poured water for herself. She was good at waiting things out. She’d waited years to marry Archie, then she waited out the war for them to live together. She sent her first book to a publisher and waited two years before they accepted it – so that by the time she received word that it would be published, she’d almost forgotten she’d written a book. She signed a miserable contract with Bodley Head for her first five novels, realized her mistake almost immediately, then waited it out instead of accepting their many offers to renegotiate. Now she was free and had moved on to a far superior publisher. A person
to put her mind to something and hope for the best. A person had to be willing to bide her time.
The house was too cold. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms, propelling her to stand closer to Archie. He had a hale and impenetrable mien, radiating warmth, not of the personal kind, but actual heat.
‘Where’s Teddy?’ he asked.
‘Upstairs with Honoria. Having a bath before bed.’
He nodded, inhaling the lavender. A man does like it when a woman tries, especially when she’s foreign to him, as his wife had become the moment he’d decided to tell her he was leaving. Agatha had instructed the cook to prepare his favourite meal, Beef Wellington, a good winter dinner. She lit candles. Just the two of them and a bottle of good French wine. Agatha poured herself a glass to be companionable but didn’t take so much as a sip. She sat, not all the way across the table, as Archie told me,
but just beside him. He, left-handed, she, right-handed, their elbows bumped against each other with the intimacy of people who’d passed so many hours, living in the same home, sleeping in the same bed. Archie was only human, and worse than that, only a man. A kind of melancholy overtook him. It wasn’t true that he’d never loved her at all. In fact, his determination to marry me brought to mind the last time he’d felt such urgency, which was to marry Agatha, even though the war was raging, they had no money, and both their families – especially his mother – insisted they wait. Now in the candlelight she looked much as she had on their wedding night. Their anniversary, Christmas Eve, approached. It was impossible not to dwell on memories like that, this time of year.
He finished his meal and did not stop in the nursery to bid Teddy goodnight. It was late, after all, and she would already be sleeping.
I know it was Archie who removed his wife’s dress and left it crumpled on the floor. He liked a naked woman while he was fully clothed. And this was his last chance with this particular woman. Alone in their bedroom, his wife shivered with relief and joy as much as the cold. The maid had lit the fire in their bedroom. In the dim and flickering light, Agatha looked vulnerable with adoration.
Marriage. The way two lives intertwine. It’s a stubborn thing, difficult to let go. Archie was not an unfeeling man and on this last night with his wife, after so many months of damming his feelings towards her, he let the floodgates open one final time.
‘Agatha,’ he said to her, over and over again. I suspect he also said,
I love you
. So that she would have returned the words, tears running down her cheeks as though she’d won him back for
good. Not realizing, as they stayed up late, the sheets increasingly tangled as they made love again and again – that for this one night she was the mistress, never again to be his wife.
Last Day Seen
Friday, 3 December 1926
GATHA OPENED HER
eyes to find herself alone. Archie had risen before dawn, leaving their night behind him as only a man can. He bathed, washing away the scent of his wife, whatever emotions he had for her already abandoned in the bedroom. Whereas Agatha stirred, the irregular discovery of her nakedness beneath the sheets immediately reminding her of all that had happened. She smiled victoriously and stretched. Archie was hers again. She had won him back.
Humming to herself, she dressed in what she would have slept in, a long silk nightdress. Before she went downstairs she added a flannel dressing gown. A quick glance in the mirror showed all she needed was quick fingers through her fading red hair. Even she, critical of herself, could see that she looked lovely. Flushed with happiness.
. The aspect Archie admired most. Today his first glimpse of her radiant self would fill him with love, visible love. She hurried downstairs to catch him before he left for the office.
Imagine her dismay as she reached the bottom of the stairs to find Archie, dressed, his weekend valise packed, his attitude hardened.
‘Surely you’re not still going on your weekend?’ Her face
paled, the flush left. All the delight and joy vanished before Archie could see it.
‘Agatha.’ His voice was full of warning. A scold. As if she were a child who had misbehaved.
‘Agatha,’ she echoed. Her voice rose, high pitched, spiralling up the stairs. Perhaps it travelled through the door of the nursery where Teddy lay – asleep or awake; neither parent had gone in to check on her. ‘
,’ she said again. ‘You sound as if
the one doing something wrong. As if
the one causing trouble. I say it’s you. It’s
He sighed and glanced towards the kitchen, where the cook was preparing breakfast. Honoria would bring Teddy down any moment. He didn’t want anyone to overhear Agatha, whose hysteria would only grow once he’d said what there was no longer any way to avoid. He had a plan and nothing would derail it. My engagement ring sat in his valise, its hefty price tag paid in full.
‘Come here,’ he said, maintaining the tone of a father scolding an unruly child. ‘We can talk in my study.’ He stepped forward and grabbed her by the elbow.
Agatha didn’t have an office of her own. She wrote her books wherever she found herself, so long as she had a table and a typewriter. Really, she didn’t even think of herself as an author. Her primary occupation and identity was Married Lady. That’s who she was. Married. To Archie. Who would she be if that were no longer the case?
She took a seat on the silk sofa in Archie’s study. Peter trotted in and jumped up beside her. Archie didn’t like dogs on the furniture but he had more important matters to address so he held his tongue and pulled the door closed with a click.
Agatha once told me that upon her first heartbreak, thrown
over by a boy she’d adored, she’d run to her mother with quivering lips. Clarissa Miller had handed her daughter a handkerchief with one hand and raised the other with forefinger pointed, moving it up and down to mark her syllables. ‘Don’t you dare cry. I forbid it.’ Obedient by nature and wanting nothing more than to please her mother, Agatha had shuddered once, swallowing the tears as they threatened to fall.
But there hadn’t only been heartbreaks. In her youth she had been gay and lively, turning down one marriage proposal after another. In fact, when Archie pressed his hand upon her she was already engaged to another young man, Tommy, who was diffident and kind, and never – she felt sure of it – would have brought her to this moment, struggling to follow her mother’s erstwhile advice.
Archie didn’t sit beside her on the sofa, but settled into a wingback chair close enough for her to be able to reach for him. It was a natural gesture after the night they’d spent together and she gave into it, holding out her arms.
‘Agatha,’ came the hard reply, and then the words she’d been dreading for months. ‘There’s no easy way to say this.’
‘Then don’t say it,’ she pleaded, dropping her pathetic, outstretched arms and pulling Peter into her lap, stroking the dog to calm herself. ‘Please just don’t say it at all.’
‘I’m only telling you what you must already know. I love Nan O’Dea and I’m going to marry her.’
‘No. I won’t have that. It can’t be. You love
.’ The memories of last night hovered so clear, so close, it might still have been happening. Unlike Archie she hadn’t bathed. His scent clung to her, drowning out the lavender perfume. ‘I’m your wife.’