Read The Christie Affair Online
Authors: Nina de Gramont
‘It is,’ Teddy said. ‘Mr Sonny gave it to me.’
‘Is that who you were talking to? Mr Sonny?’
‘Yes. He said I could call this dog Sonny, too, if I like.’
‘Well, then you shall.’ Agatha took the little girl’s hand.
‘He says in America all dogs are named Sonny.’
‘That hardly seems likely, does it? Was he American?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘We’d better get a move on,’ said Honoria, ‘if we’re to get to school on time.’
‘I think I’ll go home,’ Agatha said. ‘See what I can get done.’
‘You won’t go anywhere?’ Honoria cautioned, meaning, you won’t go to Archie. ‘Promise?’
Agatha stood in the road as Honoria and Teddy walked on.
She watched them until they disappeared, Teddy with a jolly skip in her step, holding the hand-whittled dog high in her hand. Agatha found herself racked with inordinate worry and regret. She should have taken the dog herself, put it in her pocket, to make sure it wouldn’t be lost.
Perhaps Archie will come home, she thought. Perhaps during the day he’d remember all that passed between them last night – and all these last years – and return to his senses. Become, once more, the man who’d pressed so urgently for her hand in marriage. When dinnertime came round, he would march through the door, suitcase in hand, no use for it now, as he’d decided to come home to stay.
You may well wonder if you can believe what I tell you about things that occurred when I myself was not present. But this is as reliable an account as you can ever hope to receive. Think for a moment. Don’t you know about events that pertain to you, but which you didn’t witness? Don’t you find yourself, sometimes, recounting them? There’s plenty we remember that we never saw with our own eyes, or lived with our own bodies. It’s a simple matter of weaving together what we know, what we’ve been told and what we imagine. Not unlike the way a detective pieces together the answers to a crime.
For example, Inspector Frank Chilton, who’s not yet important to this story but who will soon become so. The two of us have stayed in touch, written letters to each other about the different ways we remember this time, recreating for each other what little we didn’t already know. And then there’s everything Archie and Agatha have told me. And what I know about both of them.
Some reports of this day, the one which would turn into the night Agatha disappeared, claim Agatha paid a visit to Archie’s mother. But Peg – who meted out admonishments in her thick Irish brogue – was the last person Agatha would have wanted to see. Peg had never been on Agatha’s side, not a single time. Like my father, Peg hailed from County Cork. Her answer to all ills was a dismissive admonition:
You must get over it.
Why visit someone who’d tell Agatha what she already knew? There was no choice but to get over her mother’s death and the defection of her husband. Agatha was brought up to get on with things, to keep her head and never make a fuss.
But that evening, the clock’s chimes persisted, one after the other, and her husband didn’t return. How she lost her head. How the fuss rose up inside her.
Agatha locked herself in Archie’s study, feeling torn to pieces over the battle between what she wanted to happen (Archie striding through the door) and what was proving to be true (Archie somewhere else, gathering me in his arms instead of her).
No, no, no, no.
Who hasn’t heard that word, ringing through the body, rebelling against events unfolding contrary to our dearest, most desperate wishes? No matter what happened in Agatha’s novels her characters always reacted with admirably low affect. ‘It’s a bad knock,’ one of them might say, upon discovering their loved one’s murder. In my experience loss is seldom taken so lightly, even by those who pride themselves on cool heads and unquavering lips. When something unendingly dear to you is taken away, with no hope of return, wails can’t help but ensue.
Somewhere in the midst of her sorrow Agatha stopped to make an inventory. The things she couldn’t live without. Her
car – the wonderful car she’d bought all on her own. The typewriter that had made it happen. Her child and her dog. What if she did lose Archie? Given all the pain he was causing her, might Nan in fact be taking her biggest problem off her hands?
That wouldn’t do. It couldn’t be borne. Archie was hers. Her own husband. She would never give him up,
‘The only person who can really hurt you in life,’ she would write, many years later, ‘is a husband.’
Agatha’s wails recommenced. Honoria, the cook, the butler and Anna, the new parlourmaid – all of them lived at Styles with the Christies but not one reported hearing these wails. Still, I know they occurred. She must have stifled them somehow. Her sleeve. A pillow from one of the chairs.
This was not a bad knock. This was a demolition. Agatha’s pretty face grew puffy, her blue eyes narrowed to slits. Peter covered her face with kisses in an attempt to console her. She pushed him away then grabbed him tightly to her chest. Tears wet his wiry fur. The sobs that could be contained but not halted ravaged her throat.
No, no, no, no.
be her life. This
be how events unfolded.
She tried to muster up the resolve her mother would have demanded, but it was not to be achieved, any more than Archie’s return. The night stood stubborn and dark outside the windows. Agatha gave herself over to utter collapse – falling into red-faced, sobbing, wounded pieces.
By now Archie and I were fully ensconced in our weekend away with Noel and Ursula Owen at their cottage in Godalming. After a lovely dinner we’d adjourned to the drawing room for
brandy. Earlier, upon his arrival, Archie had taken me aside to announce he’d ended his marriage.
‘We’d best lie low for a bit,’ I said. ‘After this weekend. We should stay out of each other’s way, to give you a chance to sort out the details, let the dust settle.’ If Archie hadn’t left Agatha as promised, I would have fabricated a trip to my sister Megs so he wouldn’t question my upcoming absence.
‘Don’t you know I’ll go mad without you?’ The kiss that followed was furtive and triumphant, but I could tell he accepted my reasoning. I’d have the next week, at least, to myself.
Noel Owen was a ruddy-faced man who’d inherited a good-sized fortune from a titled relative. He had the air of someone who’d rather be outdoors shooting doves, and he always spoke loudly, as if his voice had to carry a great distance over the sound of popping rifles. He and Ursula claimed to be fond of Agatha but this did not intrude upon their willingness to accept me as a fourth in golf and as a guest at weekend house parties.
Ursula and I sat together on a lilac settee, talking about an article she’d read recently about a new term in psychology called Lucid Dreaming.
‘The idea,’ she said, ‘is that in a dream a person might be able to control events. And I thought how much better I’d like it if there were such a thing as Lucid Living. Much better to control what happens in life than what happens in your dreams.’
She laughed and so did I, though it brought me back to summers in Ireland, which always hit me with a kick in the gut. Those days when the whole world had seemed like lucid living, and I could summon a boy cresting the hill to visit me as if out of thin air.
Noel poured me another brandy, then grabbed my hand and
bellowed to Archie, ‘Can’t you give her any better jewellery than that, Mr Christie?’
I wanted to snatch my hand away but instead I smiled, letting him examine the ring. From this company’s point of view it must have looked inexpensive and insignificant, like something a child might wear, turning the skin beneath it faintly green.
‘It’s sentimental,’ I said.
Noel did not let go. Ursula’s smile looked waxen. She was bespectacled and too thin but, as far as I could tell, her husband adored her almost as heartily as he seemed to adore Archie.
‘She’ll have something better than that soon enough,’ Archie said. He stood smartly, holding his snifter, elbow resting on the mantle. He had the something better in his suitcase, and planned to present it to me before the weekend was out. He smiled at me over the rim of his glass. He wasn’t one to worry over past romance and had never asked me a word about the Claddagh. In his presence I always wore it with the crown pointed away from me.
A little while later, Archie and I stood upstairs in the hallway between our rooms. If he fretted at all about his wife’s wellbeing, his countenance did not betray it. He kissed me, fierce and anticipatory, before the brief subterfuge of retiring to his own room. It would not do for the Owens’ servants to find his bed undisturbed in the morning.
At the bookshop the day before, along with
Winnie the Pooh
, I had bought a copy of a new novel by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald:
The Great Gatsby
. I read a chapter while waiting for Archie to sneak back across the hall. I’ve said already, haven’t I, that at the time I didn’t think much of Agatha’s novels, though, unlike Archie, I had at least read them. I fancied myself more high minded. E. M. Forster and John
Galsworthy were my favourites, though lately I’d also taken a liking to American writers like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. And Fitzgerald. As I turned the pages of his novel, I thought he was on to something very fine indeed.
When Archie crept into my room – stealthy, as if the household didn’t know full well what we were up to – I put aside my book to do what he liked best, taking off my clothes while he lay on the bed, still in his suit and even his shoes, watching me.
‘Take your hair down,’ he said, his voice hoarse.
I did as I was told, wondering if we’d continue like this – the commands, the straddling, his thrusts through unzipped trousers – once we were married. If a part of me hated him – despised him, even – that only abetted the performance he most enjoyed. His smooth hands ran down my sides and I closed my eyes, shutting out the consequences, the devastated wife, and even my own motives, to enjoy what pleasure there was, in completing the task at hand.
Last Day Seen
Friday, 3 December 1926
T HER NEW
home in Ascot, not far from Sunningdale, Miss Annabelle Oliver – aged seventy-seven – was experiencing lady troubles.
It had been going on for some days. It was what her mother used to call heat from the bladder. Not the sort of thing one likes to talk about, even to a doctor. Doctors were men, after all. It would be better if she took care of it on her own. Drinking lots of water was the thing to cure it. That had always worked in the past. There was no telephone at the house she’d inherited when her brother died. He hadn’t believed in them and neither did she.
It was a clock that woke her up with unfamiliar chimes. Gongs, ten of them, sounding through the house that was much too big for just one person. Miss Oliver’s eyes flickered open. Her face felt rather hot but she had the distinct feeling she ought to be somewhere. A party, that was it. She got out of bed and dressed, disappointed with the clothes she found. High of neck and dark of colour. Why, you would think they belonged to an old lady.
She walked outside expecting to find a carriage waiting for her. Instead there was only a car, a black Bentley, sitting unused
and forlorn in the drive. Very well. She preferred horses to engines but was used to doing things for herself. It was not entirely appropriate for a young lady to arrive at a party alone but if she didn’t show up, her hosts might worry. She rolled up her sleeves, cranked up the car and sat herself behind the wheel to drive off into the night.
The car, like the house, had belonged to her brother. Miss Oliver didn’t remember that at the moment. She did remember how to drive, and so she did, away from her house, lurching down the dark roads in no particular direction, only her phantom destination.
Goodness, it was hot. She lifted the back of her hand to her brow. It was almost pleasing, the pulse of heat, skin on skin, proof that she was alive and heading somewhere exciting, where many loved ones awaited. She only had one light hand on the wheel and the car swerved a bit to the left, one wheel skittering on pebbles and brush. She grasped the wheel and righted herself on the road, peering through the windscreen at the road ahead of her.