Authors: Nina de Gramont
Nina de Gramont
THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR
For Liza Jane Hanson
Here Lies Sister Mary
ago, in another country, I nearly killed a woman.
It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. First comes rage, greater than any you’ve ever imagined. It takes over your body so completely it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. It conveys a strength you never knew you possessed. Your hands, harmless until now, rise up to squeeze another person’s life away. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect, it’s frightening, but in the moment, it feels sweet, the way justice feels sweet.
Agatha Christie had a fascination with murder. But she was a tender-hearted person. She never wanted to kill anyone. Not for a moment. Not even me.
‘Call me Agatha,’ she always said, reaching out a slender hand. But I never would, not in those early days, no matter how many weekends I spent at one of her homes, no matter how many private moments we shared. The familiarity didn’t feel proper, though propriety was already waning in the years after the Great War. Agatha was upper crust and elegant, but perfectly willing to dispense with manners and social mores. Whereas I had worked too hard to learn those manners and mores to ever abandon them easily.
I liked her. Back then I refused to think highly of her writing. But I always admitted to admiring her as a person. I still admire her. Recently, when I confided this to one of my sisters, she asked me if I had regrets about what I’d done, and how much pain it had caused.
‘Of course I do,’ I told her, without hesitation. Anyone who says
I have no regrets
is either a psychopath or a liar. I am neither of those things, simply adept at keeping secrets. In this way the first Mrs Christie and the second are very much alike. We both know you can’t tell your own story without exposing someone else’s. Her whole life, Agatha refused to answer any questions about the eleven days she went missing, and it wasn’t only because she needed to protect herself.
I would have refused to answer, too, if anyone had thought to ask.
One Day Before
Thursday, 2 December 1926
was the wrong time to leave his wife but I didn’t mean it. As far as I was concerned, this game had gone on far too long. It was time for me to play the winning hand. But he liked things to be his own idea, so I protested.
‘She’s too fragile,’ I said. Agatha was still reeling from her mother’s death.
‘Clarissa died months ago,’ Archie said. ‘And no matter when I tell her it will be beastly.’
was the last word anyone would use to describe Archie. He sat at the great mahogany desk in his London office, all pomp and power. ‘There’s no making everybody happy,’ he said. ‘Somebody has got to be unhappy and I’m tired of it being me.’
I faced him, perched on the leather chair usually reserved for financiers and businessmen. ‘Darling,’ I said. My voice would never achieve the genteel tones of Agatha’s, but by then I had at least managed to wash away the East End. ‘She needs more time to recover.’
‘She’s a grown woman.’
‘A person never stops needing her mother.’
‘You’re too indulgent, Nan. Too kind.’
I smiled as if this were true. The things Archie hated most in
the world were illness, weakness, sadness. He had no patience for recuperation. As his mistress, I always maintained a cheerful demeanour. Light and airy. The perfect contrast to his not-quite-fooled and grief-stricken wife.
His face softened. A smile twitched the corner of his mouth. As the French like to say, ‘Happy people have no history.’ Archie never enquired after my past. He only wanted me now, beaming and willing. He ran a hand over his hair, smoothing what was already perfectly neat. I noticed a bit of grey at the temples. It made him looked distinguished. There may have been a mercenary element to my relationship with Archie but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy him. He was tall, handsome and in love with me.
He stood up and crossed the room to kneel before my chair.
‘Archie,’ I said, pretending to scold, ‘what if someone comes in?’
‘No one will come in.’ He put his arms round my waist and laid his head in my lap. I wore a pleated skirt, a button-up blouse, a loose cardigan and stockings. Fake pearls and a smart new hat. I stroked Archie’s head but gently pushed it away as he pressed his face against me.
‘Not here,’ I said, but without urgency. Cheerful, cheerful, cheerful. A girl who’d never been sick or sad a day in her life.
Archie kissed me. He tasted like pipe smoke. I closed my hands on the lapel of his jacket and didn’t object when he cupped his hand around my breast. Tonight he would be going home to his wife. If the course I’d planned so carefully were to continue, it was best to send him to her thinking of me. A sponge soaked in quinine sulphate – procured by my married younger sister – stood guard inside me, protecting against pregnancy. Never once had I encountered Archie without preparing myself in this way,
but for the moment my precautions proved unnecessary. He pulled my skirt modestly back into place, smoothing over the pleats, then stood and walked back round his desk.
Almost the moment he returned to his chair, in walked Agatha. She rapped lightly on the door and at the same time pushed it open. Her sensible heels made the barest sound on the carpet. At thirty-six, she was much taller than me and nearly ten years older. Her auburn hair had faded towards brown.
‘Agatha,’ Archie said sharply, ‘you might have knocked.’
‘Oh, Archie. This isn’t a dressing room.’ Then she turned to me and said, ‘Miss O’Dea. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.’
Archie’s strategy had always been to hide me in plain sight. I was regularly invited to parties and even weekends at their home. Six months ago, he would at least have made an excuse for my presence in his office.
Stan’s loaned Nan to do some shorthand
, he might have said. Stan was my employer at the Imperial British Rubber Company. He was a friend of Archie’s but never loaned anybody anything.
This time Archie didn’t offer up a single word to explain me, perched where I didn’t belong. Agatha’s brows arched as she realized her husband couldn’t be bothered with the usual subterfuge. She gathered her composure by addressing me.
‘Look at us,’ she said, pointing to her outfit and then mine. ‘We’re twins.’
It was an effort not to touch my face. I was blushing furiously. What if she had come in two minutes earlier? Would she have pretended ignorance despite all evidence, just as doggedly as she did now?
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, it’s true, we are.’
That season nearly every woman in London was a twin, the same clothes, the same shoulder-length hair. But Agatha’s suit
was authentic Chanel, and her pearls were not fake. She didn’t register these discrepancies with any disdain, if at all. She wasn’t that sort of person, a virtue that backfired when it came to me. Never once did Agatha object to the daughter of a clerk, a mere secretary, entering her social circles. ‘She’s friends with Stan’s daughter,’ Archie had told her. ‘Excellent golfer.’ And that was all the explanation she ever required.
In photographs from this time, Agatha looks much darker, less pretty than she really was. Her eyes were sparkling and blue. She had a girlish sprinkling of freckles across her nose and a face that moved quickly from one expression to the next. Finally, Archie stood to greet her, taking her hand as though she were a business associate. And I decided – the way someone who’s doing something cruel can decide – it’s all to the good: she deserves better than Archie, this pretty and ambitious woman. She deserves someone who’ll collect her in his arms with un-abashed adoration and be faithful to her. As guilt crept in to discourage me, I reminded myself that Agatha was born on her feet, and that’s how she’d always land.