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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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BOOK: The Christie Affair
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‘A divorce,’ Archie said. It was easier to just burst out with the word as a simple statement of fact. An end goal so obvious
it needed no context, not even a complete sentence. What a triumph over emotion. Archie felt nothing, not even worry about his wife collapsing in front of him, only a commitment to the word. Divorce.

Agatha sat, silent. Her hand ran faster and faster over the terrier’s soft fur, her expression unchanging. Archie, unwisely emboldened, began to talk. He admitted our relationship had been going on for nearly two years.

‘You needn’t have told her that,’ I said later, though I knew he hated to be chastised.

‘You’re right,’ he admitted. ‘I was fooled by her silence. It was the last thing I expected. It was almost as if she couldn’t hear me.’

Turning too quickly to detail, he instructed Agatha to file for the divorce. ‘It will have to be adultery,’ he said. In those days that was the principle claim the courts allowed. ‘I’ve spoken to Brunskill . . .’

‘Brunskill!’ Mr Brunskill was Archie’s solicitor, an addled, moustached man. A new outrage, that he should know this assault lay in wait for her.

‘Yes. Brunskill says you can just say, unnamed third party. The important thing is to keep Nan’s name out of all this.’

Agatha’s fervent petting of Peter halted abruptly. ‘
That
is the important thing?’

Archie should have realized his mistake but instead he pressed on. ‘This might be in the papers,’ he said, ‘because of your books. Your name. A bit known, these days.’

She stood up, Peter falling to the floor with a reproachful yelp. Usually solicitous of the dog, she barely seemed to notice.

Archie remained seated. As he told me later, ‘There’s never any point trying to reason with a woman once she’s become unhinged.’

Agatha’s husband was in love with someone else. A life-changing transgression stated simply as the time of day. Now she was meant to receive this information with calm and dignity. Archie had broken rules with passion as his excuse and she was asked to rationally pick up the pieces. She was to take measures to protect her rival’s reputation. It was more than she could bear. She clenched her fists and let out a scream, loud and full of rage.

‘Agatha,’ said Archie. ‘Please. The servants will hear you, and the child.’

‘The child. The child! Don’t you talk to me about the child.’ Because he refused to stand, she had to bend from the waist to pummel him, fists balled up, raining down upon his suited chest. The blows caused Archie no pain. He told me he had to watch himself to keep from laughing.

‘How cruel you are,’ I said, but let the words fall lightly, as if cruelty bothered me not one whit.

Poor Agatha. She had woken from her fondest dream into her worst nightmare. And nothing she said or did could wrest any emotion from her husband.

Finally, Archie stood. He grabbed her wrists to stop the blows. ‘Enough of this,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving. After work, I’ll be going to the Owens’ for the weekend. We can sort the rest next week.’

‘I suppose she’ll be there too?’

‘No,’ Archie said, because it was the reply he thought would cause the least reaction, and lying had become second nature to him since he first got tangled up with me.

‘She
will
be there,’ Agatha said. ‘I know she will. A house party, a couples’ weekend. Only you won’t be with your wife, you’ll be with her, that harlot. That nasty little harlot.’

A common mistake wives make as they watch their husbands
go. The road back to Archie’s affections was not paved with insults to me. He was that most impenetrable of creatures, an infatuated man. The darkest scowl crossed his face and he tightened his grip.

‘You mustn’t talk about Nan that way.’

‘You,’ she said. ‘Telling me what I shouldn’t do.
You
shouldn’t go away with a woman who’s not your wife.
You
shouldn’t be leaving me now, when I need you most. I will talk about Nan any way I like.’

‘Calm down, Agatha.’

She kicked him in the shins. As she only wore slippers it barely made him flinch. How maddening her own ineffectual strength must have been. She twisted her wrists out of his grasp so furiously that when he let go she fell backwards. Archie noted welts already beginning to form as Agatha stroked each wrist in turn, but he wasn’t able to regret it, so firm was his conviction that she had brought this on herself. He had one goal and one goal only and that was to be rid of her.

The night before, Archie had succumbed to nostalgia and carnal longing. But today he returned to his mission. Like any good zealot he would not allow himself to be dissuaded. With long-legged strides he crossed the study to return to the front hallway. He picked up his valise and walked out to his car, the second-hand Delage Agatha had bought for him with money from her new contract. It was rather a grand car and Archie preened in its presence, as if its ownership were something he’d achieved entirely on his own. It had an electric starter motor, no cranking was necessary, and he could just hop in and escape. How galling it must have been, as she flung herself through the doorway, seeing him drive away in that extravagant gift.

‘Archie!’ she cried, running down the long drive. ‘Archie!’

Dust flew up from the tyres, a cloud in front of her. Archie didn’t even turn to glance through the back windscreen. His shoulders were set, firm and determined. He was gone from her, unreachable in every possible way.

‘Unreachable’ is the same word Honoria used later, to describe Agatha. It was Honoria’s job to wake Teddy and ready her for school, and after she’d risen, she heard loud voices from inside Mr Christie’s study: a marital squabble and a bad one at that. So she went to the nursery, where Teddy sat in a corner, already awake and playing with her dolls. That was the sort of child Teddy was, a seven-year-old who could climb out of bed and set to amusing herself, troubling no one.

‘Hello there, Teddy.’

‘Good morning.’ Teddy pushed dark hair out of her eyes. She was not surprised to see Honoria. Often Teddy awoke to find both parents already gone for the day. Before she was five her parents had left her an entire year, to travel round the world. Agatha herself had been raised largely by a beloved servant she called ‘Nursie’. To Agatha, it was a perfectly reasonable way to bring up a child.

‘Come,’ Honoria said, reaching out her hand. ‘Let’s find you some breakfast. Then it’s dressed and off to school.’

Teddy got to her feet and slipped her hand into Honoria’s. The two of them reached the top of the stairs just as Archie was escaping Agatha’s histrionics in his study. Teddy reached out, as if to wave in greeting, but Archie didn’t see her. He closed the door behind him. It only stood closed a moment before Agatha emerged, the air around her so thick with urgency that for a moment Honoria thought she’d been attacked. She stepped forward as Agatha flung the door open and ran outside. Teddy grabbed the edge of Honoria’s cardigan, keeping her there with
her, and Honoria hugged the child to her ample hip, patting her in comfort, as Agatha cried, ‘Archie! Archie!’

Honoria waited inside, politely pretending none of this was happening. She heard the car drive away, but Agatha didn’t return. So she shepherded Teddy downstairs and into the kitchen. Then she went back into the front hall. Styles boasted great windows at the front and back of the house. Through the former, Honoria could see Agatha standing in her dressing gown and slippers, her hair moving in the slight wind, the dust around her settling in the flat morning light. Honoria had never seen a person stand so still and yet emanate so kinetic a sense of disarray.

‘Agatha?’ Honoria said, stepping outside. The two women were intimate enough to put aside the formality of employee and grand lady. Honoria reached out and touched her shoulder. ‘Agatha, are you all right?’

Agatha stood as if she couldn’t hear, looking after the long-gone car in disbelief. When Honoria spoke again, she didn’t answer. Honoria didn’t feel right going back into the house, leaving her alone, but it felt so odd, the two of them. One fully clothed and ready for the day, one still as a statue, dressed as an invalid with a long road to recovery.

The spell didn’t last too long. Agatha roused herself and headed into Archie’s study, where she sat down to write a letter to her husband. It may have been a plea. It may have been a declaration of war. Nobody would ever know, except for Archie, who read it once then threw it in the fire.

I wonder now if Agatha had a plan. A writer, after all, she would have carefully considered every line of prose she wrote and every possibility to spring from her next movement. When I picture her at her desk, I don’t see a woman in a fugue state or
on the verge of amnesia. I see the kind of determination you only recognize if you’ve felt it yourself. Determination borne of desperation transformed into purpose. Soon afterwards, when I learned of her disappearance, I wasn’t the least surprised. I understood.

I had disappeared once, too.

Here Lies Sister Mary

P
ERHAPS YOU’RE FINDING
it difficult to feel kindly towards a homewrecker like me. But I don’t require your affection. I only ask you to see me on a wintry day in Ireland, riding in a borrowed milk wagon. I was nineteen years old.

A sorrowful Irishman – old by my standards at the time – held the reins of two shaggy horses who pulled the cart. My coat wasn’t warm enough for the damp chill. If Finbarr had driven me instead of his father, I could have cuddled beside him for extra warmth. But Finbarr never would have driven me where we were headed. Mr Mahoney, though, was not entirely without kindness. Every now and then he would let one hand go of the reins and pat my shoulder. It may have made him feel better but it did nothing for me. Empty milk bottles clanged as we rode over rutted dirt roads. If the bottles had been full, I expect the milk would have frozen by the time we reached the convent. It was a long road to Sunday’s Corner from Ballycotton.

‘I won’t be here long,’ I said, allowing my father’s brogue into the rhythm of my words, as if anything could endear me to Mr Mahoney. ‘Finbarr will come for me as soon as he recovers.’


If
he recovers.’ His eyes were grim and looking anywhere but at me. Which would be worse? I wondered. His only son dying?
Or recovering and claiming me and the shame I’d brought? As far as Mr Mahoney was concerned the best outcome would be Finbarr getting well, then forgetting he’d ever laid eyes on me. For now what he wanted was me safely locked and stored away so he could get home and see his son alive at least one more time.

‘He
will
recover,’ I said, fierce with believing the impossible as only the very young can be. Beneath my coat the dress I wore held a faint spattering of blood from Finbarr’s coughing.

‘You sound like an Irish girl,’ he said. ‘Not a bad idea to keep that up. The English aren’t so popular these days, around here.’

I nodded but I only understand his words in retrospect. If he had said
Sinn Fein
aloud, it would have meant nothing to me. I wouldn’t have been able to say what IRA stood for. My Ireland was the ocean, the shore birds, the sheep. Green hills and Finbarr. Nothing to do with any government, its or my own.

‘You’re a lucky girl,’ Mr Mahoney said. ‘Not so long ago the only place for you would have been the workhouse. But these nuns look out for mothers and babies.’

I thought it would be better if the workhouse was the only place for me. Surely Mr Mahoney would never have the heart to deliver me to a place meant for criminals, so he’d have to let me stay with his family. As it was, I’d spent my last penny on the journey to his door. I suppose I went along with him voluntarily, but that doesn’t seem the right word when you’ve nowhere else to go.

Finally we arrived at the convent in Sunday’s Corner. Mr Mahoney jumped from the wagon and offered a broad, calloused hand to help me down. The convent was beautiful. With red bricks and turrets it loomed and rambled, looking like a cross between a university and a castle, both places I never expected
to see inside. On the grass out front stood a statue of a winged angel, hands clenched at her side rather than raised in prayer. Over the convent’s door, in a vaulted nook where a window should have been, stood another statue made of plaster – a nun wearing a blue-and-white habit, her palms at her sides, face out, as if offering sanctuary to all who entered.

My parents had never been religious. ‘Sunday’s for resting,’ my father used to say, explaining why he didn’t go to Mass. My mother was Protestant. I’d mostly only been to church with my Aunt Rosie and Uncle Jack.

‘That must be the Virgin Mary,’ I murmured.

Mr Mahoney let out a joyless chuff of a laugh, a sound that derided how little I knew about everything in the world. I’d come to Ireland hoping to live in his modest, dirt-floored house. Mr Mahoney had deep circles under his faded eyes but I could tell they’d once been just like Finbarr’s. I looked at him, willing him to see me and change his mind.

‘The Sisters will take good care of you.’ He may have believed this was true. His voice was gentle, almost regretful. Perhaps he’d go a little way down the road then turn around to come back for me before I could even unpack. ‘We’ll send word to you about Finbarr. I promise that.’

He lurched my suitcase from the back of the wagon – my mother’s suitcase; I’d stolen it from her before I left. She would have given it to me if I’d asked. Better yet, she would have begged me to stay, or run away with me herself. ‘How could you ever have thought otherwise?’ she would ask me, too late. ‘I would have done anything, fought anyone, including your father, to keep from losing another daughter.’

If I’d known in that moment what I do now, I would have trudged off on my own two feet, away from the convent. I would
have walked down its long drive, over the hills, and swum across the freezing Irish Sea back to England.

Inside the nuns traded my clothes for a drab, shapeless dress that wouldn’t need replacing no matter how big my belly grew, and a pair of ill-fitting clogs. A young, sweet-faced nun took my suitcase. She smiled warmly and promised, ‘We’ll take good care of this for you.’ I never saw it again. An older nun sat me down and cut my hair so that it barely covered my ears. I’d only ever worn it long and worried what Finbarr would think when he came to get me.

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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