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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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BOOK: The Christie Affair
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Before Agatha disappeared, before I knew Finbarr had returned to Britain, the plan I’d authored was well underway. In the Owens’ house, in the borrowed bed, my arms wrapped tight around Archie. The overriding element was mercenary, true. But there were other elements.

‘I love you, Nan,’ Archie said, as if he couldn’t say it enough, as if the words needed to be repeated ad infinitum until the world conspired to let this moment last, the delicious, breathless secret of it.

I loved him too. If that’s what you’d like to call love.

The Disappearance

Day Eight
Saturday, 11 December 1926

I
N THE MIDST
of all the maelstrom, Agatha’s work was another place for her to go. A world to visit apart from her own. She could lose herself there no matter what occurred. In the Timeless Manor the typewriter keys clicked and clacked. Let them search. Let Archie worry. When her fingers flew over the typewriter keys it was the whole world that vanished. Not her.

I was not so lucky. In Harrogate, in the moments without Finbarr, my mind assaulted me with fear, worry and misgivings. I tried to concentrate on reading the novel Chilton had given me. I’d barely fought my way to the second chapter when a rap came on my door. I opened it to find Mrs Leech.

‘There’s a man downstairs to see you.’ I knew from the way her brow cocked, not sure of the propriety, that it was Finbarr, and my face changed so suddenly – lighting up – that Mrs Leech smiled.

‘You’re not really married, are you,
Miss
O’Dea?’

‘No,’ I admitted. ‘I’m not.’

‘There, there.’ She patted my shoulder to comfort me. Anyone who’s been in love knows it’s a state that requires comforting. ‘You go on downstairs. Tell him to cheer up, that’s all. And you mustn’t bring him to your room. We’re not that kind of hotel.’

‘Of course. Thank you, Mrs Leech.’

In the lobby Finbarr sat on the settee, his pea coat open, rubbing his hands across his knees. He stood, and we walked outside together into the cold, where I stepped into him, sliding my hands into his coat pocket. I felt a square of paper, glossy against my fingertips, and pulled out the photograph I’d sent him, years ago. It was bent and battered, tearing around the edges. Tiny holes at its corners gathered upon themselves, indicating it had been pinned to more than one wall.

Have you ever looked at a picture of someone – from when they were very young – and thought: how sad? All that promise, all that hope. The girl looking back at me from that photograph may have known sadness (her broken mother, stiff upper lip, bringing her to have the picture made) but she didn’t know where her own road would lead. She grieved for her sister but felt sure no such fate would ever befall her. She knew the war was on but didn’t quite believe it. How could any war reach English shores? Impossible. If I had presented that girl with any of the obstacles approaching her – as predictions – she would have offered intractable solutions to each one. The face staring back at me believed better things lay ahead. Making a picture for a soldier, who’d return from the war exactly as he had been, to marry her, escorting her off to Ireland and perpetual happiness.

‘I wish I had a picture of you from that time,’ I said. ‘Why is it girls send pictures to soldiers but not the other way round?’

‘Listen to me, Nan.’ Finbarr took the picture back from me carefully, a precious relic, and returned it to his pocket. ‘Come away with me now and I won’t carry this with me anymore. We’ll have a new one taken. We’ll put this one in a book to show our children.’

‘But then I’ll never be able to show myself again. To our child.’

‘We’ve both become things we never saw for ourselves,’ he persisted. ‘I never wanted to go to war. I never wanted to fall sick. I never wanted to leave my own country, or even Ballycotton. What I never wanted most of all were the things that happened to you.’

I grabbed his hands and kissed them.

‘I’ll tell you something terrible,’ he went on. ‘If I had a choice, to make every man that died in war, from 1914 till now – Irishmen, Englishmen, Australians, Germans, Turks, all of them – if I had the choice to go back in time and let them live, or put our baby back in your arms, they’d all remain dead, every last one of them.’

‘If you can see that, Finbarr, can’t you see I need to continue?’

‘There’s only one road back to you, the real you. The road back to yourself, Nan. And that’s with me.’

‘But I don’t want the road back to me. I want the road to Genevieve.’

For the first time in a long while I pictured my daughter’s face not as the little girl purported to belong to the Christies, but the baby I’d last seen, seven years ago, carried away by Sister Mary Clare. I breathed in, unexpectedly harsh, like my own lungs had received a dose of mustard gas. Perhaps the kindest thing Agatha Christie could do – not only for Finbarr, but for me – was to convince me the child was indeed hers.

By the time Chilton reached the Timeless Manor’s second floor, the sound of Agatha’s typewriter was audible. A cheerful and industrious
click clack click clack
. He could imagine the way it would fill a house of his own. Every evening he would come home
and put on a kettle, the sound of the typewriter from the other room, she so absorbed that she wouldn’t know he’d arrived, until he came into the room with a steaming mug of tea.
Oh, darling
, she would say,
the day was lost to me.
That would be fine with Chilton. He was used to doing for himself and would be glad to do for her, too.
You keep writing
, he’d say.
I’ll take care of dinner.

Now she answered his knock, industry ceasing, her face alight with the joy of seeing him. Once he was no longer a novelty, disturbing her work would be something they’d quarrel about. It pleased Chilton to think of it, how he’d have to learn to tiptoe. He’d become adept at removing the kettle just before it whistled, slipping a mug quietly on the table beside her, and still she’d scold him for breaking her concentration.
Must you always interrupt me?
He’d kiss the crown of her head and steal away, leaving her to her work.

But for now she stepped aside and let him in. He flopped onto the narrow bed – their bed, he thought of it now – and reached for a piece of typewritten paper on top of a neat stack on the second bare bed. Agatha snapped it out of his hand, put it back where it belonged and returned to her seat.

‘But when can I read it?’

‘When it’s printed, bound and sewn, and not a moment sooner.’

She went back to typing, a twitching smile betraying how his interest pleased her.

While she clicked and clacked he told her about what he’d witnessed between Mr and Mrs Race.

‘Are you listening?’ he asked, after a while. ‘Or are you writing?’

‘I’m doing both.’ But she stood, and collected the missing pieces of him by falling onto the bed. It had been years since
he’d felt he had two arms but Agatha wrapped them both around herself. ‘I never knew kissing could be such fun,’ she said, after much agreeable time had passed.

But she had known, hadn’t she? Agatha had learned how much fun kissing could be years ago, in her early days with Archie, when he was a different man, when his invincibility had the power to protect her rather than harm. What she hadn’t known, really, is how bereavement can shift. How it can open up the world to a place where there’s nothing to lose and you can make a grab for joy in the form of a rumpled, but really rather lovely police inspector.

Chilton went down to the larder and returned with two tins of tongue. She had already made a vow never to eat tinned tongue again but she found herself starving, so much so that even this poor, repetitive food tasted wonderful.

‘Do you know what I’d like to do?’ Agatha said. ‘Go to the baths.’

‘A long walk in the cold followed by grotesquely hot water?’

‘What could be better?’

They walked briskly, arm in arm. There were few cars on the road. A young farrier driving a horse-drawn carriage stopped and offered a ride. They said no at first but changed their minds, running after him, calling to him and climbing in the back when he drew his team of two bay mares to a halt. Agatha sat on a bale of hay amidst clanking tools, petting a panting Labrador who cuddled up beside her. She laughed when the dog licked her chin, and kissed him back for good measure. The cold made colour rise in her cheeks. Her laughter sounded like wind chimes.

‘Tell me, Mr Chilton,’ she said, raising her voice above the
clatter of hooves and jingled metal. ‘How do you feel about dogs?’

‘I think they’re just fine,’ he said. As Agatha put her arms around the beast and pressed her face into its dirty fur, he decided to be more emphatic. ‘I love them.’ And then he added, ‘You look wonderful. You look like a young girl.’

It was the wrong thing to say. Her smile vanished and her colour waned. ‘But I’m not a young girl.’ As soon as she spoke the words it became so. Lines on her brow, a shadow across her jaw.

The farrier let them off at the Karnak Baths and Spa, and they parted quietly, Chilton to the dressing room and Agatha to the gift shop to buy a bathing dress. This would mean showing herself to more people, but who was observant enough to connect the proper woman in the photographs to the one before them, with her wind-mussed hair and men’s clothing? She buttoned Miss Oliver’s plain woollen coat to her chin in the hopes of not looking quite so odd. In the shop she bought the most modest bathing dress she could find, a green and blue V-neck that just skimmed her knees. She bought a matching cap, too.

Unlike the segregated caves at the Bellefort, the Karnak’s baths were open to men and women in an airy atrium, humid and dripping with ferns, the fog from hot water and human breath obscuring what should have been visible through the glass ceiling. Chilton was already soaking when Agatha returned from the dressing room, wearing a thick dressing gown issued by the establishment. Steam rose around them as she removed the dressing gown and stepped gingerly into the hot water, flinching in pain and pleasure as she lowered herself in, smiling at him once again.

Chilton felt a restriction in his throat. A catch. He regretted
leaving the manor. Outside in the world time revealed itself as fleeting in a way no amount of wishing could reverse.

‘Agatha,’ he said.

She glanced with concern at the other bathers, worried they’d hear her name and connect it to the morning’s headlines. But the only person who seemed to have noticed was a young woman with kindly eyes, not bothering with a cap but with her black hair piled high on her head: Miss Cornelia Armstrong.

‘Oh, hello,’ Miss Armstrong said, ever sweet-natured. ‘You must be Mrs Chilton. Come to join your husband?’

Agatha smiled. It pleased Chilton no end that she might like the sound of that: Mrs Chilton.

‘Yes,’ Agatha said. ‘He claimed this was a trip for work but to me it sounded like a holiday. So I thought I’d join in.’

Chilton said to Miss Armstrong, ‘I thought you’d gone off these hot waters.’

‘Oh, not at all, Mr Chilton. One must keep trying new things, and soldier through. And when I thought how my mother would object to this particular bath I couldn’t resist. Men and women bathing together. Quite scandalous.’ Miss Armstrong spoke the last as if it were the most delightful word in the English language. ‘I’m determined to enjoy myself despite the bad business with the Marstons.’ She turned back to Agatha. ‘Has your husband told you? About all that’s been going on at our little hotel?’

‘Yes,’ said Agatha. ‘How awfully sad.’

‘You’ve no idea. That is, I’m sure a man wouldn’t tell it right. Their love story was something special. All those years of longing to be together. And then when they finally were, when the moment they’d longed for arrived, all the years ahead of them were taken away. Just like that. There’s a lesson in that, don’t you think, Mrs Chilton? A person can’t waste time being unhappy.’

‘Quite right,’ Agatha said. ‘I far prefer to waste my time being happy.’

Chilton thought, if I can talk her into boarding a train, first thing in the morning, we could waste the rest of our lives being happy.

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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