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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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Finbarr laughed. He clucked and his horse took off, galloping towards Ballywilling Beach. I understood I was meant to follow, the two of us outrunning my cousin, but Seamus was a stalwart sort and he saw through this plan. He had also been practically born in the saddle and was a much better rider than Finbarr, who’d never had his own horse, or me, who’d only learned to ride two years ago. So, as Aunt Rosie envisioned, it was the three of us, riding in a group, sandpipers and plovers rising into the sky to get out of our way. Clouds overhead moved aside to let the
sun through. I would have betrayed my mother in an instant, taking myself and future children away from London, across the sea, to live on these shores forever.

‘The tide’s out,’ Finbarr said, as my horse came to walk abreast of his. ‘We can pick across the tide pools from one beach to the next.’

Horse hooves clipped over tiny pebbles and dipped into the salty water. Alby splashed through the waves, porpoising through the deeper shallows. We climbed off the horses and Finbarr showed me some whistles he’d been working on as commands. Seamus stayed on his horse, a polite distance, eyes on us.

‘Here,’ Finbarr said, trying to teach me to whistle. He cupped his hand around my chin, pushing my lips into a pucker.

I tried to release the same sharp-noted whistle that had made Alby run forward, then backtrack in a wide circle. But the saddest little bit of breath came out.

‘Try with your fingers,’ Finbarr said. He put both forefingers into his mouth and let out a noise so loud it made me jump. Alby raced forward and came to a sitting stop at our feet. Finbarr took a small rubber ball from his pocket and cocked his arm to throw it.

‘Make a wish,’ he said.

‘I wish this day would never end.’

The ball and the dog flew.

‘Granted,’ Finbarr said, when Alby caught it.

Alby trotted back to us and spat the ball at our feet. I kneeled to embrace him. ‘Thank you, Alby. You’re beautiful. You’re perfect.’

‘Just like you.’ Finbarr kneeled beside me and pushed my hair behind my ears.

‘None of that,’ Seamus called. His voice hadn’t changed yet.

‘Thank you for joining me, Nan,’ Finbarr said, when we’d
returned the horses to the barn. ‘There’s always work to be done but I hope we can go for another ride together before the summer’s end.’

‘I hope so too.’

August came and with it the war. Finbarr appeared at our farm. That’s how I’d come to think of it. Not just Jack’s, Rosie’s and Seamus’s farm. Mine too.

From the window in the kitchen I could see Finbarr walking over the hill, Alby at his heels. The boy and dog with matching strides, at once purposeful and carefree. There was no conscription; Finbarr joined the British Forces with his parents’ blessing because that’s what patriotism meant in those days, to a certain kind of person.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves
and
Come and do your bit
. My Uncle Jack would join, too, once the efforts were underway. But we didn’t know that yet. For now war was a young man’s business.

‘Go on out,’ Aunt Rosie said, when she caught me watching through the window. This time she didn’t send Seamus with me. She knew what Finbarr had come to say. We make special dispensations for soldiers, even when it comes to girls.

‘I’m sorry to leave,’ Finbarr said. His voice was sombre but the lightness hadn’t left him. None of this was real. War was nothing but a ruined summer. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined things would go.’

Tears clouded my eyes. At first this embarrassed me but Finbarr reached out and took my hand.

‘Are you frightened?’ I asked.

‘Sure, I think I am. Though I don’t quite know what to be frightened of. I can’t hardly imagine what it’ll be like.’ The world
around us stood green and untroubled. ‘Do you know what I
can
imagine? After it all. The war won’t take long. Six months tops and it’ll all be over. And you’ll come to Ireland to stay, and we’ll have a farm of our own, and I’ll train dogs, and you’ll write books.’

My face broke open into a smile that nearly cracked my body in two. He hadn’t said the word, married, I was too young for that, but everything else he’d said spelled it out, didn’t it? I could marry Finbarr. I could marry Ireland. My future was sealed, just one quick war to get out of the way.

‘Will you pray for me?’ Finbarr asked.

My father had left his religion when he left Ireland. I had never prayed in my life, not even when I went to church with Rosie and Jack, but I promised I would.

‘May I have a picture of you?’ he said, another soldierly request.

‘I don’t have one here.’ My parents had exactly one picture of me, with my three sisters, taken and framed years ago. ‘But I’ll get one made. I’ll send it to you. I promise.’

Finbarr gathered me in his arms and held me a long while. He didn’t rock or sway or move. He just stood, his arms tight, our bodies together. I wished we could stay inside that stillness. No moving forward into the future, nor ever leaving that precise spot. Finbarr’s lips rested in the curve of my neck. I could feel Aunt Rosie watching from the window but I didn’t care, not even when Finbarr finally pulled away and kissed me a long time, until Rosie knocked on the window loud enough for us to hear and pull apart.

‘You’re my girl,’ he said, holding me by the shoulders. ‘Isn’t that the truth, Nan?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is.’

He pulled a Claddagh from his pocket and slipped it onto my
right ring finger, crown pointing towards me. I was taken. There was a tiny emerald in the crown, no bigger than a crumb from a slice of soda bread. Terrible to admit, the main emotion I felt was joy, crackling through my body. How many girls that summer felt the same callow happiness, a boy admitting his love and bestowing a ring before walking off to war? We didn’t know what it meant. None of us did.

The Disappearance

Last Day Seen
Friday, 3 December 1926

S
OMETIMES A LIFE
is so entirely disrupted, on such a large and ungraspable scale, all one can do is face the ruined day. After Archie drove away, Agatha tried to pull herself together. Briefly, she placed her hands on the keys of her typewriter then gave up at once. Nothing she wrote would be any good. Nothing she did would be any good until she could sort things out with Archie – until she could rectify this mess. She would find a way to do this today and then she would write tomorrow.

Despite what was widely reported only days later, Agatha never contemplated suicide. This was not in her nature. In fact, the idea affronted her. When hearing of someone else’s suicide, she always felt enraged. Wasteful and cowardly. As long as there was life there was hope.

Hope. She could crank up her beloved Morris Cowley and follow Archie to London. She could march into his office and grab him by the lapel and insist he see the necessity of working things out. She could shake his love for her back into him. He would remember she was flesh of his flesh. He would not go away for the weekend with his mistress but end things with her, and return home where he belonged.

All of that would involve a scene. Agatha had not been
raised to cause scenes, or to display emotions in public. She was raised to keep busy, so she bundled up in her fur coat and accompanied Honoria and Teddy on their walk to school. ‘Here,’ she said to Teddy, handing the little girl her hoop and stick. ‘You can spin this along the way.’

Teddy obliged till the end of the drive, then tossed the hoop on the grass to skip ahead. Peter followed her. He was a wonderfully companionable dog; there was never any question of a leash. Agatha reclaimed the hoop and rolled it herself as they walked along the dirt road.

‘My mother didn’t believe in schooling for a girl,’ Agatha said to Honoria. ‘She thought it was best to let my mind develop naturally.’

Honoria knew this perfectly well but listened attentively as if hearing it for the first time. A person in despair likes to visit the past. Agatha’s past had included her beloved Nursie, and a governess here and there. She’d spent occasional months in proper schools in Torquay, and overseas when she was older. And she’d gone to finishing school; one couldn’t do without that. Honoria nodded, as if finishing school would have been an option for her.

‘But mostly I ran wild in Torquay, all over the grounds at Ashfield.’ She stared after Teddy, a pretty child whose brown hair seemed to grow richer and darker by the day. Agatha’s eyes glazed over with the past, as she remembered how she used to roll her hoop in the gardens at home, through the dark ilex, past the elms, around the big beech tree, making up imaginary friends to keep her company. Did Teddy have the same goings-on in her private thoughts? Did she entertain herself with endless stories and invented companions? Or was she only concerned with the tangible world, the real friends that would preclude a need for pretending?

‘Oh, Honoria,’ Agatha said. The hoop calmed her but slowed them down. It was child-size and she had to stoop to make it work. Teddy ran ahead down the road, in sight but out of earshot. Agatha gave up, tossing it to the side to collect on their way home.

‘You’ll have to face it, Agatha.’ Honoria was weary of the way Agatha believed the game was still on, when so clearly it had already been won by someone else. ‘I know it’s hard but face it you must. He’s gone for good.’

‘I simply can’t believe that.’ Agatha would never speak of intimate things between herself and her husband so she didn’t tell Honoria about the night before. Instead she rattled off a list of examples, friends she knew whose husbands had had a lark with some other woman but then got over it and returned home. She thought again of waiting out her contract with Bodley Head so that she could settle handsomely at William Collins. The strategy had worked with her career and now it would work with her marriage. All one needed to get through these things was patience and a plan.

Honoria listened but it sounded to her like desperation. She could tell by the way Agatha wrung her hands, she knew it was desperation too. Sometimes hard truths needed to be stated plainly.

‘Colonel Christie won’t get over it,’ Honoria insisted. ‘I’m sorry to say so, but it’s no use painting the lily. I see it in his face. And why would you want to stay married to a man who prefers that little tart? Better to face facts. He’s gone from you.’

‘Gone from me,’ Agatha echoed. Her cheeks stung from the chilly air.

Her mother had warned her only last summer – the summer that turned out to be her last – not to spend too much time in
Torquay, away from her husband. ‘If a woman spends too much time away from her husband, she loses him,’ her mother had said. ‘Especially a husband like Archie.’

And indeed at that time Archie was already deeply embroiled with me, and somewhere inside her Agatha knew it, and all the same she
refused
to know it – refused to see she could lose her mother and her husband in so brief a span of time. So she had squeezed her mother’s frail hand and ignored the death rattle in her voice, and promised, ‘There’s no man more loyal that Archie. He’s faithful to his core. You can bet your life on that.’

Perhaps her mother
had
bet her life on it. And lost.

By this time Teddy, always bold and impatient, had gained a considerable distance ahead of Agatha and Honoria. Sunningdale, in Berkshire abutting Surrey, was an easy distance to London by train. The houses were far apart from each other and private, with lovely gardens. The roads weren’t paved, and dust flew up when the occasional carriage or bicycle or automobile went by. The two women were not hoverers by nature and were happy to let Teddy meander ahead. They didn’t worry when she crested the hill and disappeared.

As Honoria and Agatha caught sight of her again, a good way down the road, they could also make out the figure of a man, kneeling on the ground, talking to her.

‘Do you know him?’ Agatha asked Honoria. For all she knew this was someone they ran into regularly, part of their daily routine.

‘No. I don’t believe I do.’

Both women shielded their eyes from the sun with their hands. Strangers always seemed to take to Teddy. Once on the beach at Torquay a woman had scooped her up and hugged her.

Agatha could see the man patting Peter’s scruff with both
hands in a way that made her feel he must be the right sort. Then the man stood. He was tall – taller than Archie – and young. Seeing the women, he raised his hand to his forehead in a salute. Instead of heading towards them or away from them on the road he stepped into the hedgerow.

‘How peculiar.’ Agatha watched the spot where he’d stood, as if he’d been a mirage she could make reappear by squinting into the sun.

‘Teddy,’ Honoria called. ‘Stay where you are now, you hear me?’

By the time they reached her the man was nowhere in sight. Teddy waited, shifting from one foot to another. ‘It’s too cold to stand still,’ she said. In her mittened hands she held a little figure, carved from wood recently; Agatha caught the scent of sawdust as Teddy held it up to show her.

‘How lovely,’ Agatha said, though her brow furrowed in consternation. ‘Is it a dog?’

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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