Authors: Nina de Gramont
‘Absolutely not. As a point of honour, Mr Chilton, I never lie.’ Mrs Leech folded her arms, her voice sounding all the more musical. The words comforted Chilton. Anyone who says
I never lie
has by that very statement told at least one.
‘Have I had a chance to tell you?’ Chilton said. ‘I’ve concluded my investigation. Of the Marston incident. And I’m determined there’s no murderer at large.’
Leech and Lippincott emerged from the drawing room in time to hear this pronouncement. Mrs Leech blinked slowly, absorbing whether a bargain was being offered.
‘No need for word to get out,’ he went on, confirming her suspicions. ‘As there’s no danger to the public and never has been. Mrs Marston killed her husband and then herself.’
‘There.’ Mr Leech clapped, with an expression that couldn’t have been jollier. ‘Just as Sam thought all along, eh? We’ll keep that unpleasantness nice and quiet. And the Christie woman
stopping here, we’ll keep nice and loud. Business will be booming, Isabelle, just you wait.’
Mrs Leech let out a stream of breath. As her husband turned to say something to his cousin, Chilton whispered, ‘It will help Miss O’Dea and her young man a great deal.’
Finally, Mrs Leech nodded, acquiescing. She preferred the idea of lying to help Nan to lying to save her hotel’s reputation. ‘I knew she was a Miss and not a Mrs,’ she whispered back. ‘I have a sixth sense for that sort of thing. I do hope she’ll marry that sad, handsome fellow. I love a happy ending, Mr Chilton.’
‘So do we all,’ Chilton said. ‘So do we all.’
The library door opened, and Archie and Agatha emerged. Chilton had never wanted anything so badly as to catch her eye in that moment, but she kept her gaze steadily to the floor, like a child who’d been properly chastised.
‘Mrs Christie,’ Chilton said, trying to regulate his voice into an official capacity. ‘Perhaps you’d better return to your room, so we can conduct an interview.’
‘She’ll do no such thing,’ Archie said. ‘This case is solved. There’s been no crime. Only a misunderstanding. There’s no need for any more police, we’ve had quite enough of that to last our lifetime.’
Chilton wondered if he himself had ever spoken with such certainty. It pained him to note that when Archie turned to his wife he spoke much more softly.
‘Agatha, darling. Go collect your things. We need to be on our way before the newspapers get wind of your discovery. I’m afraid you’ll have rather a to-doing with them in the next weeks.’
Still without a look at Chilton, Agatha climbed the stairs to
my room. Chilton took a step, as if to follow her, but Lippincott caught him by the sleeve.
Upstairs in my hotel room, Agatha looked around, as if the place where our identities overlapped could betray anything about me, or herself, that she didn’t already know. Her eyes landed on a flash of lilac, a shawl thrown across the chair by the table. She picked it up sat down. The paper and pen I’d bought sat on the desk, unused. Agatha took up both, printing words so that her hand would not be recognizable, then folded the piece of paper in half and wrote ‘Inspector Chilton’ in large block letters. She didn’t worry someone else might find and read it. She knew he’d be here searching for clues the moment she left the hotel.
Agatha wrapped my shawl around her shoulders, as if it could transform her mannish outfit into something more respectable. She glided out of the room and down the stairs to her husband, who stood waiting for her, his face open and relieved all over again, every bit of love and hope she’d longed to see when once it had gone missing.
‘Where are your things?’ Archie asked, a tremor of fear in his voice, as if worried she’d decided to stay.
‘There’s nothing I need here.’
She walked past him, out of the hotel, into the waiting car, my new shawl pulled tightly around her. On the drive back to Sunningdale, Archie plied her with all the questions that had befuddled him to the point of madness.
‘Why did you abandon your car so precipitously?’
‘How did you manage to get to Yorkshire?’
‘Why are you dressed like that?’
‘Didn’t you see the papers? Didn’t you know how many
people were looking for you? I can’t believe you would stay away if you knew about all that fuss.’
She didn’t answer, but rolled down the window a touch, needing the cold air to revive her. Archie shivered. Two weeks prior she would have closed the window hastily. Now she decided he’d have to endure it. She remembered her pearl ring and necklace, left behind at the manor house. They would do nicely, to pay for her time there, and all the provisions they’d stolen. Already she was returning to lawful ways of thinking.
‘Did you know, A.C.?’ Archie pressed. ‘How many people were looking for you?’
‘I don’t remember,’ she said, watching the landscape roll by through the window. Again and again, when pressed for an explanation, that’s what she said.
I don’t remember.
Because to say anything remotely resembling the truth would not only damn me, but possibly land her where, until recently, she’d wanted so badly to be: with Archie, forever.
When they arrived home in Sunningdale to face the press, Archie – whose job it was to shield his wife and who had so little imagination of his own – told them the answer she’d given him.
She doesn’t remember.
‘The next year in my life is one I hate recalling,’ she wrote in her autobiography.
Years later, reading that sentence, I found myself smiling, as I often did when I saw little bits of our time out of time in her book. She scattered pieces of it, little remembrances, I never knew where or when they’d show up.
‘Must you read every one?’ Archie would ask, when I brought her newest novel to bed.
‘I’m sorry,’ I always answered, ‘they’re just so diverting.’
Agatha may have hated recalling some of that year. But not all of it. Certainly, not all of it.
Chilton watched Archie drive away with Agatha, then went back inside the hotel. He was aware of eyes upon him. The Leeches and Lippincott. He knew it should be an effort to remain composed. But it wasn’t. He didn’t feel numb. He only felt the absence of feeling. Which, strangely, gave him hope.
‘Chilton,’ Lippincott said, sterner than he cared to be with his dear friend. ‘I believe you have some explaining to do.’
‘I was tasked with finding Agatha Christie,’ Chilton said. ‘And so I have.’
Before Lippincott could answer Chilton turned and walked up the steps, taking them two at a time. Miss O’Dea’s door had been left ajar. He pushed and it swung inward with a sad creak. No doubt Leech would oil the hinge before the next guest arrived. He might already have been envisioning a plaque for the door, commemorating the author’s stay.
There on the desk, a folded piece of notepaper, Chilton’s name written across it in plain letters. He walked over and touched it. Brought it to his nose. If she had been living, these past ten days, in her own world, it would have smelled of Yardley Old English Lavender. But instead, from the brief interaction she’d had with the paper, the side of her wrist resting as she wrote, it smelled of woodsmoke and pine. The barest bit of sweat. Even a little like himself. He opened the paper carefully. He thought it might say,
I love you
. He most hoped it would contain instructions as to where they should meet, what their next course of action should be, how they would manage to be together.
Please see to my typewriter and most importantly my papers
, her note read.
I must have my work returned discreetly and as soon as possible.
He turned it over once, then twice. But that was all she’d written.
As for me:
When I was a girl, I fell in love with the sea. I fell in love with impossible green, and the long, cheeping syllables of skylarks, and kind, gentle people. ‘It’s like a country full of Father Christmases,’ I told Da, the first summer I returned from Ireland, and he laughed and said, ‘You make me wonder why I ever left.’ Neither of us could know what the future held for us, back when I loved him without reservation, so we hugged in solidarity.
When I was a girl, I fell in love with sheep roaming emerald hillsides and the dogs that chased them. Swooping gulls and plovers. The clattering of hooves and the dampness in the air, salty seafoam spraying the land. Seals lolling on rocks. The lilting sound of the brogue my mother teased me for acquiring, whenever I returned to London.
And I fell in love with a boy. The years took away my love for all but the last. Never an accomplice but my fellow victim, the only one on earth who could comprehend the barest thread of what I’d lost. And I knew if I saw him even one more time, my resolve would waver. Finbarr had never seen Genevieve, or held her. He’d never learned she existed until after she was already gone. And so he might persist in his attempts to lure me away, and if I saw him even one more time, I might very well succumb.
I thought of Cornelia Armstrong’s Yue Lao. The invisible
thread. But not the one between Finbarr and me. The one that connected me, still and always, to Genevieve. I could feel it like a living, tactile object, stretching out from my heart to hers. Taking me not to the Timeless Manor, but to the train station. Chilton had agreed not to prosecute me for murder. I felt safe in assuming he’d overlook auto theft as well. After all, anything I could do to win Archie back was to his benefit.
If Agatha and Archie reunited, I’d never again have access to Teddy. I needed to see her at least one more time. I needed to tell her if she ever found herself in trouble, she could find me, and I would take care of her. Whatever it took. I don’t know why I believed that would help. My mother had made me the same offer.
I love you.
I sent the message telepathically, which was not something I believed was possible. But still I hoped and prayed Finbarr – however abandoned – would hear it and understand. Perhaps there was a part of me that hoped I’d return to London to find myself shut out of the Christies’ world. The failure of the plan I’d worked on single-mindedly for three years was the only chance for Finbarr and me to be together. If I had to accept its failure, then so be it. But I would never be the one to let it go.