Authors: Nina de Gramont
‘Did she cut your hair?’ I pictured Agatha’s hands blowing the stubborn wisps off the back of his neck. Running her fingers through the thick silk strands to hold, snip and release. Her hands, brushing the last of it off his shoulders.
‘She did,’ he said, running his hand over his scalp as if just remembering. ‘Do you like it?’
‘I like it long.’ My head dropped back to the stale, bare pillow. The house was outfitted so meanly it was as if we were camping. Outlaws and borrowers. Finbarr got up to put another log on the fire. I stared at the ceiling, which had medallions carved into it, unnecessarily ornate. I had never once thought of Archie’s hands on his wife with any kind of jealousy. But how I hated the thought of Agatha’s hands on Finbarr. It gave me a clearer glimpse of how it must feel for her, Archie’s hands on me, doing far more than cutting my hair.
‘And she’s here in this house, right now?’
‘Of course. I’ve already said so. Where else would she be?’
‘Her own fine house in Torquay. Or a fine hotel. She’s got plenty of money, you know, she can well afford it.’
‘Like you’re affording it?’
I didn’t answer. Finbarr got back into bed. ‘She loves her husband, Nan. She wants him back. Give him back to her and come away with me. We can do what we should have done directly after the war.’
‘We can go back to Ballycotton.’
‘You’re daft if you think I’m ever setting foot in Ireland.’
‘You can hate Ireland for what it did to you,’ Finbarr said. ‘But I’m Ireland too. Do you hate me, Nan?’
‘Never. You know that.’
‘And Ireland’s not the only country where these things happen.’
‘But it’s where it happened to me.’
He closed his eyes. I stroked the cropped hair off his forehead, fingernails grazing his scalp, willing it to grow into its usual
floppy disarray. And I felt what I always did. That he was my favourite person on earth, the one in whose presence I most belonged. At the same time, I loved Genevieve more.
‘Finbarr,’ I whispered, to erase the hardness of what I’d just said. ‘You’re my favourite. You’re still my favourite.’
He opened his eyes. Although his interior weather had gone cloudy, I could see it like a memory, the old insistence on sunlight. Perhaps I could bring it back to him. And so we returned to lips and hands and furtive sentiments.
We couldn’t hear Agatha, upstairs, clacking away on her typewriter. She knew it was mad to stay here, to not reveal her whereabouts. She ought to get in Miss Oliver’s car and drive straight to the police station and turn herself in.
Turn herself in! She baulked with indignation at her own interior words. What crime had she committed? None at all. She had every right to storm out of the world.
And still. With so many people searching and worrying, she knew she should return home immediately. For the same reason, she knew she could never return at all. Face all those people? Provide an explanation? Look again into Archie’s face and see it entirely devoid of love? Impossible.
She hoped she could trust Chilton to keep his word. Last night his body had thrummed with respectful restraint. His lips were softer than Archie’s. He didn’t smell like any kind of soap or fancy emollients, just himself, a good grassy smell, a touch of salt water. She herself had traded her scent in these last few days, the last of the lavender fading in favour of woodsmoke and good old-fashioned sweat.
No matter that Mr Chilton was a police inspector. She could trust him to keep her secret. She knew she could.
Chilton was also awake at first light, not having changed his clothes or slept a wink. He could hardly remember the last time he’d kissed a woman. Ridiculous to feel happy. This was a conundrum. The whole world looking for a woman he’d found, and what had he done but kiss her and promise to keep her whereabouts a secret? However the years may have changed him, they certainly hadn’t made him any smarter.
From overhead he heard an unexpected thump that put him on immediate alert. One doesn’t wake to screaming one day without expecting more of the same. But after a few moments passed with only quiet, he allowed himself to breathe again. Today he would focus on the Marstons, so he could confirm Lippincott’s theory and make sure there wasn’t a murderer on the loose. Harm could be wrought by inaction as much as action. And since the war, Chilton had made an oath to himself to do no more harm in the world.
It’s not something you imagine, as a boy, even as you pretend at swords or gunfire. The lives that will end at your hands. It was a German boy from a trench raid who stuck most consistently in Chilton’s memory. The boy had been crawling out of the trenches on his hands and knees, and Chilton stooped to bayonet him through the heart. How surprised the boy looked, as if no one had told him going off to war might result in this outcome. Chilton felt so terrible, he’d kneeled to give him a drink of water from his canteen, though for this boy there was no more wanting water, or wanting anything.
What are you doing, mate?
a corporal had said, tossing a bomb into the trenches. Chilton
screwed the top back onto his canteen. The boy was so young he still had roses in his cheeks – translucent and girlish skin, as if he’d never shaved. Later, when Chilton heard his youngest brother had also been bayoneted, the two men swapped faces, and it was Malcolm, his baby brother, everybody’s favourite, eyes glossing over with the shock of it. Young enough to be immortal amid the blaring canons. Stupid bloody idiots we all were, Chilton thought. We walked over corpses and still believed death might not touch us.
From upstairs the silence was again interrupted. Chilton heard a shout, instantly muffled, followed by a door opening and closing. He hastened upstairs, quickly but not running, to avoid the pounding of footsteps that could wake the entire hotel. In the upstairs hall he found Mr and Mrs Race, such a beautiful pair, both faces flushed – the husband’s with rage, the wife’s with anguish. Mr Race had his hand around Mrs Race’s wrist, a painful grasp that Chilton knew would leave a mark.
‘There now, let her go.’ Chilton’s voice was low and calm, as he might speak to a menacing dog while backing away. Except in this case he didn’t back away, but took a step closer.
‘This has nothing to with you, sir,’ Race said. ‘I suggest you return to your room.’
‘Good God, man. She’s your wife. That’s no way to behave towards her.’
Mrs Race wrenched her hand from her husband and held it to her chest. Her husband made a motion as if to grab her again and Chilton took another step towards him.
‘Before you wake the entire hotel,’ Chilton said, his voice still steady, ‘why don’t I escort Mrs Race to the kitchen for a cup of tea, while you go back to your room and cool off?’
The couple focused on Chilton for the first time. He saw
them registering that he was fully clothed, including his overcoat, while the two of them wore night clothes, their attire, if not their behaviour, far more appropriate for the time of day.
‘Very well,’ Mrs Race said. She smoothed her hair back in one graceful motion. ‘I could do with a cup of tea. Thank you, Mr Chilton.’
Chilton had promised her tea but the hotel staff had not yet convened. Instead of the kitchen he brought her to the drawing room just off the front hall. Chilton’s nerves felt awfully frayed – too frayed, he thought, to calm someone else down. The young woman paced the small room, arms tight around her waist. He reached into his interior jacket pocket for a cigarette. When he lit it she jerked her head towards him, as if she’d forgotten he were there. Chilton stood, holding the open cigarette case towards her. She took one. He returned the case to his pocket and lit it for her. Always an intimate moment. He noted her wrist was not marked, as he feared it would be, but smooth and unharmed. Her bright blonde hair was shoulder length and silken. Uncurled and mussed from sleep. One of those women who probably don’t know they’re more beautiful without make-up, or done-up hair. Like Agatha Christie. A surprising, involuntary smile twitched his lip at the thought of her.
Mrs Race inhaled her cigarette deeply, hungrily, then blew an expert stream of smoke to the side.
‘It might be more useful to pour you a brandy,’ Chilton said. ‘I’ve seen where Mrs Leech keeps a bottle behind the reception desk, though I can’t account to its quality.’
‘That sounds grand,’ she said, marching over to a couch and collapsing onto it. ‘Might as well become the sort of person who
pours a scoop and lights a cigarette before the sun’s properly risen. You see what I’ve let this marriage make me, Mr Chilton?’
‘I’m afraid you’ve married a brute.’
‘I’m afraid I have.’ She spoke through clenched teeth, staring at some point past him. ‘And now I’m stuck with him. My family would never abide a divorce. They’re not much for scandal.’
‘Did you know what he was like?’ Chilton asked. ‘Before you married him?’
Mrs Race inhaled deeply from her cigarette. ‘I had my suspicions.’
‘Then may I ask why you went through with it?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No you may not, Mr Chilton.’
‘Perhaps you can fill me in on another matter, then. I’m curious about the other day. In the dining room. Poor Mr Marston. You were quite heroic.’
‘Not at all,’ she said.
‘I wonder if you had the chance to talk to either of that couple. Before all the . . . unfortunateness.’
‘I did not. I’ve been rather preoccupied with my own unfortunateness.’ She stubbed out her cigarette, harder than was necessary, in the porcelain ashtray on the coffee table. Then she stood. ‘Thank you for your care, Mr Chilton, but I’m off to face the music. Life’s not a fairy tale. I thought that was something you old people learned during the war.’
She glided out of the room, head held high, as if she had been a dancer rather than a nurse. Chilton inhaled his cigarette to find it already worn down to his fingertips. The small burn shook him awake, nearly taking the place of a goodnight’s sleep, or any night’s sleep.
Back at the Timeless Manor, as she had already begun thinking of it, Agatha sat downstairs at the long servants’ dining table in the kitchen. She did not consider returning to Sunningdale. Unlike Styles, this house had a good energy. Or perhaps she had brought the good energy with her. Not just she, but Finbarr, brimming with the most unexpected good energy since they’d left Newlands Corner on the wind of excitement, leaving responsibilities behind. She could worry about Teddy but chose not to. The girl would be diligently cared for by Honoria. She would
worry about Archie and indeed had to admit it gave her pleasure, having him worrying about her for a change.