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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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‘It’s the same way a diplomat makes peace after war,’ I said. ‘And having me as his wife will be punishment enough. Especially if you live nearby.’

‘I’m not meant for that. To be on the sly. I’m meant to be your husband. You know that, Nan. What’s more, I’m not sure I could lay eyes on that man without killing him.’

This might have been hyperbole but I knew that urge well enough to take him at his word. And, of course, I couldn’t risk it, Finbarr losing his freedom over killing Archie. Or Archie being killed, for that matter. Whatever he was guilty of, nothing he’d done was terrible enough to merit death as punishment.

‘The only answer,’ Finbarr said, still holding on, ‘is for us to leave this place together.’

I didn’t agree out loud. Neither did I disagree. Somewhere in our embrace, in the tightening of his grip on me, I could feel Finbarr take heart in my silence.

By the time Chilton arrived at the Bellefort, I was already back in my room. He knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he pressed the Galsworthy novel into my hands.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘How very kind. Though I don’t imagine I’ll have time to read it before it needs to be returned. I do need to get back to London before long.’

‘Do you?’ he said. ‘I thought perhaps you’d be returning to Ireland with Mr Mahoney.’

‘I will never return to Ireland.’

Chilton must have noticed, I didn’t say I’d never go away with Finbarr. ‘Speaking of Ireland,’ he said, ‘I must tell you the strangest thing. I heard Mr and Mrs Race talking just now and it was as if they were two entirely different people. Not only kind to each other, but also sounding as though they’d just got off the boat from Dublin.’

My face went hot and my eyes flooded. I didn’t want him in my room. ‘You know, Mr Chilton, if you’ve opted not to reveal Mrs Christie’s whereabouts, shouldn’t
you
be going back home?’

‘I imagine my reasons for staying are similar to yours.’ He said it kindly. He said everything kindly. But that didn’t necessarily bode kindness, did it?

‘Won’t you be in terrible trouble,’ I said pointedly, ‘when they find out she was here all along?’

‘It’s not trouble if you’re never caught, is it?’

I remembered my hands around Sister Mary Clare’s throat. I imagined a gravestone behind the convent, marked like all the rest.
Here Lies Sister Mary
. But this one was just for her.

Down the hall a door opened. Young Miss Armstrong emerged, her black hair loose, her face bright and clean of any troubling past. If only I could have willed my soul out of my own body and into hers, and lived my whole life differently.

‘Oh, Mr Chilton,’ I said, and the floorboards rushed to meet my face.

Chilton hadn’t meant to upset me, at least not to this degree. It was part of his job to disarm people, make them vulnerable and get them talking. He did it almost by force of habit. What was less practised was disarming himself. Before I hit the floor he
reached out his good arm – sufficient only in protecting my head from a more severe blow.

‘My goodness,’ said Miss Armstrong, bustling to my side. ‘Shall we get her into bed?’

‘No.’ I sat up and pulled at the collar of my dress. ‘I’m fine.’ I shrugged away from both pairs of hands. ‘I just need some air. Some room and some air.’

‘Let me at least walk you downstairs for luncheon,’ Miss Armstrong said. ‘The combination of cold air and hot water is said to be so healthful. But I’ve been feeling rather light-headed since we arrived. Perhaps that’s what killed the Marstons. Some kind of shock to their system. It must be all the worse, for old people.’ She glanced at Chilton as if in concerned warning.

Chilton remained focused on me. ‘You’re sure you’re all right?’

‘Perfectly fine. Just feeling a bit ridiculous.’

‘Is that nurse afoot?’ asked Miss Armstrong. ‘Mrs Race?’

‘I don’t believe she is,’ Chilton said. ‘Perhaps you can consult with her later.’

‘That won’t be necessary,’ I said.

Accepting Miss Armstrong’s hand, I got to my feet. I would eat to oblige them. And then steal away to see Finbarr. I should have returned to London already. One more day, I kept telling myself. Just give me one more day.

Chilton watched as Miss Armstrong and I walked off, her arm wrapped around me with genuine concern. People can be so kind, he thought. Women especially. The way one woman naturally allows another to lean on her in times of trouble.

The Disappearance

Last Day Seen
Friday, 3 December 1926

W
OULD IT SURPRISE
you to know that most women, if they saw Finbarr and Archie side by side, would choose Archie as the handsomer? Especially after the war, once Finbarr had lost his joyful gleam.

Whereas the years had made me more attractive than I’d been as a girl. Something about the way I learned to conceal my shattered self. It made me fascinating to men.

‘Oh, Nan,’ Archie said, taking me into his arms that night at the Owens’, before we knew what tomorrow held. If you can see your way to never minding, that he’d taken his own wife in much the same way not twenty-four hours earlier, then try to understand: he loved me, he did.

Do you think, as Finbarr did, I should have hated Archie? Perhaps I did. When it all started I did, I’m sure of it. Looking back now, it’s hard to say. I married the man, after all. I bore him a child whom I love as dearly and deeply as the one I lost. Thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours have been spent alongside him, both waking and sleeping. From this particular hour the only answer I can give, as to whether I hated him, is sometimes. And in some ways. If that’s what you’d like to call hate.

The way a certain man can walk through the world. If in that day and country Archie had been allowed more than one wife, he might have had ten and loved us all, with waxing and waning preferences. Which is not to say he loved Agatha or me as possessions. He did
see
us in his way. On the golf course he would stand back, arms crossed, assessing my swing, my form, the arc of the ball I propelled. ‘Ripping,’ he would say, for all to hear. And when we were alone: ‘Ripping, gorgeous girl.’

I could have won at golf with Archie but I never let myself. He wanted me to be good but not better than him. He liked to watch me play tennis at the club, against other women. And it pleased me that this aspect of myself pleased him. My plan to land Archie was born of urgency but that didn’t mean I never found pleasure in it. Running again, swinging a racket, winning.

Funktionslust
. It’s a German word for the joy of doing what one does best. Seducing Archie, stealing him away from his wife, had a very specific purpose. But as it turned out, I was good at it. Better than good. It might have been a tennis match. No other woman at the club, no other woman anywhere, could touch me.

‘Oh, Nan,’ Archie said. Smooth hands down my smoother side. He had good lips, Archie did, tasting like Scotch in the evening. By now I’d learned how to arch and whisper, how to climb and conquer. The night before Archie’s wife disappeared I could sense the night before, enough to understand the imperative of reclaiming him. Now that he’d decided to move forward there could be no more lapses or wavering. My claim on him as a shark, swim or die.

I clamped my hand over Archie’s mouth, hard enough for it to hurt him. ‘Hush,’ I commanded.

‘Nan,’ he answered, a tight gurgle. And then, when all had come to rest, ‘I love you.’

The covers had been thrown to the floor and my head rested on his slick chest, his breath still coming out hard and forced.

‘Dear Nan,’ Archie said. ‘How I love you.’

In nine days’ time it would finally occur to Archie to wonder in earnest. Where had I gone?

He would have an afternoon to escape the confines of Styles and the chaos of the fruitless search. He would travel to London.

Turning his collar up against the cold, he would march down city streets to my flat. Walk up the steps and rap on my door. Hold his ear against it when there was no answer. The silence inside sounding like it had taken time to build. An uninhabited place.

Nothing in the world removes the ills a wife causes like the balm of a mistress. Even as Archie listened for me, he thought if I were to swing the door open and welcome him inside with a seductive smile, I’d be nothing but a poor substitute, the satisfaction I offered him temporary, fleeting. Only enough to carry him through this terrible grief until his wife was found.

My door sat sealed, the room on the other side of it soundless. My neighbour, old Mrs Kettering, opened the door. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen Archie and she frowned at him as she always did. He responded with a placating smile. People like her, who’d witnessed us together, might be trouble down the road.

Still the question bubbled up inside of him, impossible not to ask. ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Kettering. I wonder, have you seen Miss O’Dea?’

‘Not for days,’ she said. ‘More than a week, I’d say. Not a
glimpse of her nor a peep from her. Here’s hoping she’s run off with some bloke her own age.’ She bestowed one last, hawk-like glare before slamming the door behind her and stamping down the stairs. There are too many women in the world helping men with their dirty work. But so many more taking each other’s side in unexpected moments.

Equally unexpected, Archie would find the moment of reprieve he’d wanted. For the first time in days, his mind went blank with sheer perplexity. The question eclipsed emotion, for just one moment.
Where had Nan gone?

He hurried down the stairs to the street. Walked quickly, his breath coming out in gusts. Willing his hands not to rise and cover his face. Any tears in his eyes could be explained away by the cold. Miles away in Harrogate, I wasn’t thinking of Archie. Hardly a bit. Hardly at all.

While he was thinking: How peculiar, and what has precipitated this? The Age of Disappearing Women.

The age of disappearing women did not begin with Agatha Christie. It had begun long before Agatha hopped into a car and motored away from Newlands Corner with Finbarr. And it would continue for quite a bit longer. We disappeared from schools. From our hometowns. From our families and our jobs. One day we would be going about our business, sitting in class, or laughing with friends, or walking hand in hand with a beau. Then, poof.

What ever happened to that girl? Don’t you remember her? Where did she go?

In America we went to Florence Crittenton homes. In England to Clark’s House, or any of the various homes run mostly
by the Anglican Church. In Australian hospitals, babies were taken from mothers who were drugged, incapacitated, unwilling. And, of course, some of us didn’t go anywhere at all. We bled to death on butchers’ tables. We jumped off bridges.

The age of disappearing women
. It had been going on forever. Thousands of us vanished, with not a single police officer searching. Not a word from the newspapers. Only our long absences and quiet returns. If we ever returned at all.

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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