Agatha: A Life in Unauthorized Fragments

Every story is an escape story.

Pyrenees, Southern France
It wasn’t the hard, dangerous edge of cliff that her mule traversed. For that was excitement. It was the butterfly that the guide pinned to her felt hat, still live. Fluttering in agony. She could feel its pain, hear its silent scream. But she did not want to hurt the nice guide, so she kept it all in till it came out in floods of tears. She did not yet know how to express herself anyway, so with relief, it was her mother who knew what was wrong and finally unpinned the now dead Purple Emperor. Her mother, Clara, the only one who knew how to release her from the “long bondage of silence.”

Pau, Southern France
This time it was not a cliff, but the narrow hotel window ledge that drew her. Out the small window and on to the hard manmade parapet to escape a locked closet, a maid’s punishment. She knew the guests would admire her courage and that the two girls she was playing with would like her even more. Four stories down below, a woman screamed and pointed at her. Agatha still said nothing. She was learning her own power.

Madge’s Tree, Torquay, England
Agatha took over her older sister’s tree. Branches drooping and encircling, dripping with lore and myth. Deep within, a thick branch bench that held the dreaming, otherworldly young girl whose imagination stretched way beyond the confines of the estate. Tales of good versus evil, continuing the fairy tales her mother made up at a moment’s notice. And her own friends: The Kittens (she was one herself) and Mrs. Green (who had a hundred doglike children). And it was here that the future writer taught herself to read at the age of five, interpreting the black words on the white page as any archaeologist would study ancient hieroglyphs. Slowly, the key was turned in the lock.

The Gun Man
Eyes the color of cornflowers. This soldier haunted her. Musket at the ready, tri-cornered hat. He was not there to kill or hurt her. But he melted into people she knew, and his blue eyes looked out from their familiar faces, masking him from the world. But she could see him. She knew he was there and it was his warning that she could not trust anyone fully, that everyone she loved was a stranger. So she kept quiet.

In music, Agatha spoke. She ran her hands over the ivory with skill and love, for she was speaking through the keys and the scores. At fifteen, everything she wanted to tell the world, she told through musical notes that someone else—Tchaikovsky, Chopin—had written for her. But she could only speak in small spaces and to few people. She got lost in a vast echoing theater. She could not speak to the number of people needed to fill that arena. Or so she was told. She learned in Paris how to abandon what she loved.

Waiting for The Man
Her new cliff edge: dangling men to a certain point. And there were many. Her body blossomed, and, with it, her confidence. Music was taken from her, and she saw a way out with Archie Christie, who revved his motor-bicycle and raised her fever for this new dance with fire. Agatha’s mother tried vainly to warn her by subscribing French realist novels with heroines such as the ill-fated Emma Bovary. But the passionate couple married on Christmas Eve. The Gun Man did not show, then. Perhaps he was already there.

She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment to assist nurses in helping the wounded who were shipped into the harbor and carted to Torquay Town Hall. Because she could walk that line between the sanity of order and the insanity of war, she was promoted to the worst ward that held the most wounded and dying. She alone of her friends could tend to the soldiers who did not look like soldiers anymore, who rotted and railed. Her apron was often drenched in their blood before the rest of the blood slowed and stopped flowing.

The Dare
While Agatha recovered from influenza, Clara encouraged her to write stories. And handed her an exercise book. “The Call of Wings.” “The Lonely God.” All rejected. Then Madge decided to give her sister a task and dared her to write a detective story. Agatha accepted. Could this be the way to make money needed to keep her beloved Ashfield estate, now falling into disrepair? Could she type on her sister’s Empire typewriter and communicate with the world in the way that she used to communicate through the ivory keys in Paris?

Apothecaries’ Hall
This is how Agatha learned how to poison people. In the hospital’s dispensary. She would become so knowledgeable, after she earned a degree, that she was able to dispense the drugs herself. The formulas and chemistry of the elements were just as challenging as musical notes and could be arranged in similar fashion to create something new. New and, in some cases, deadly.

Poison and Poirot
Her mother sent her away on holiday in Hay Tor to finish the mystery she had begun the year before, while Archie fought in the war. Agatha’s tall figure haunted the moors, speaking into the fog, her red hair bespeckled with dew, hearing and channeling. What she could not say to people, she could breathe into the heavy air. She became her characters in the same way she had spoken to her Girls, the imaginary friends she lived with as a teenager. Through the fog, a little man with a distinct mustache emerged and walked with her, and then in her. He was as different from Sherlock Holmes and the Gun Man as she could make him, but he was of her. He observed, felt alone, but conquered with his superior wits. He would show the world all she knew in her “little gray cells.” Later, she realized she made him too old. But how could she have known, when she became him for the first time, that in the end he would outlast her?

Agatha cleaved almost in two to deliver Archie what he wanted, a girl. Another creation, but she felt she had little to do with this one and was not in control. She once again played a part, the role of mother. She worried about the girl’s attachment to anyone but herself. Jealous of the bond with Archie. Agatha needed too much, sometimes. And given the chance, between the two, she chose The Man.

How to Drive a Morris Cowley
It was like flying, like that time her mother paid the pilot to take her up for an hour on a plane ride. Like walking the ledge, almost. Her four-seater bottle-nosed Morris Cowley could take her beyond the places she could only walk to before, with her hair flying in the wind if she drove faster. Faster. She was never quite sure if she was driving away from something, or to something. But it was one of the few times she felt she was in the moment, in her own skin, playing the role of herself.

The telegraph. Immediately Agatha was on the train (“to travel by train is to see life”) to visit her mother for the last time in Abney, rehearsing how to say good-bye to the love of her life, when she felt an internal door open, then shut and a sudden coldness. She knew before she arrived at her sister’s home that she was too late. Her mother released from the prison of her body. Her mother’s daughter was inconsolable and refused Archie’s attempt to heal her in Spain. How could he expect her to leave her mother a second time? She must pack up Ashfield, the shell of an estate that drips rain inside and rots from within but still holds who Agatha is at the very core. Eating little, she wandered the empty rooms at night, recalling love, handling the dusty pressed flowers within yellowed paper, packets of unopened, stale sugar for tea never to be served, musty silk, her mother’s Album of Confessions. All had to go to the dustmen. Agatha almost couldn’t bear it. Almost. In her old bedroom, she heard her mother whisper “sweet pea,” felt the communion in her hand held after every emotional trauma. She shivered from the cold in her bones and pummeled heart. She forgot her name. Pleas to Archie to join her, to help her, were ignored. Just get through this, she told herself, then she could “live again.”

“Love passes out into the silent night”
When she reunited with Archie at the end of the summer, she did not know him. He was the Gun Man. He shot her with his callousness, delivered the news of their mutual friend Nancy Neele, “that dark girl,” as if he were delivering the weather for the week.

How to Disappear
Leave behind two letters, one for your assistant, one for your unfaithful husband. Take the Morris Cowley out into the night, drive it through the dark tree tunnels with all the urgency of a woman scorned who is temporarily insane and ready to confront at all costs. Head to their weekend retreat. Recall that you are Agatha, a woman who once flew in an aeroplane, the woman who knows how to make characters disappear. Leave your car in a ditch. That will scare him. Walk through the night, past the Secret Pool, to the train station again. Find your way to a spa and decide, just until you are found, that you will be someone else. You need to be someone else. You can no longer remain in your own skin. Isn’t that what spas are about? To shed the old skin and revive? “Mrs. Teresa Neele of South Africa,” not Emma Bovary, takes a room, buys a sheer peach georgette evening gown and perfume from Bentalls, books, of course, and can’t wait for her husband to see who she has become. Each day you read the papers and shake your head at the stupidity of the police. Didn’t you leave enough clues for those journalists who hunt you like a fox? The expired driver’s license in the car, the letters, the latest letter to your brother, the ad in the paper. Every night you have sung your heart out publicly, waiting for someone to say, You are the missing mystery writer! But you have done your job too well, and the only way out, when Archie finds you, is for him to declare you are mentally unwell. You know it’s a travesty to all women to accept this public summary of your grand feat, but he has the gun, you let him hold it, and it was good to get out of your skin for a while, wasn’t it? To sing and dance and not have to write, to not be someone’s daughter or wife or mother, to just be floating in your own ether?
You have not written since your mother died.

Surrey Police Files, 1945

All records and files of the eleven-day disappearance by Agatha Christie are destroyed.

Between the tell and the Tigris, Mesopotamia
Shards of pottery, bits of ivory, detritus from ancient soil, pulled carefully from the earth, created by the hands of someone who once lived on this earth. This was what Agatha fell in love with during her second marriage, to Max. Archaelogy after all is almost the same craft as writing—pulling words from air, listening to ancient callings, recalling prehistoric wants and needs. She brought them forth and set them into her innocuous British villages. We are really all the same people, she believed. That was the secret to her success, she often said, knowing people, knowing every village has the same gathering of people. That each village repeats the same patterns. That each era and each century does the same, repeats, in its own way. The trick is in reinventing the art and mastering the molds and imagining something that will last when you are gone.

An Autobiography
“I do not know the whole Agatha,” she wrote in Nimrud, Iraq, 1950, in a mud-brick room that she commissioned to be built for 50 pounds. Far from Ashfield, the woman with bent shoulders and wavy gray hair was bathed in the deep hot red of a Middle Eastern sunset. On the room’s door: Beit Agatha, Agatha’s House.

“Hercule Poirot Is Dead”…
…read the 1975 Times obituary for the great detective. After enjoying some years of reading, sea bathing, walking, savoring apples and raw blackberries, Agatha let Poirot go by releasing her vaulted manuscript Curtain. It was always her plan, to have him exit with her. His life ebbed away to great acclaim during the busiest sale time of the year, Christmastime, and his creator, Agatha, who loved living, departed a month later, holding her second husband’s hand. On her desk: a faded black-and-white photo of young Agatha as a “dot” in the sky, daring to take an early aeroplane ride for 5 pounds at a country flying exhibition. For her last curtain call, London dimmed the lights for the Dame of Mystery at every West End theater. It was her final disappearance.

Tara Lynn Masih is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award for Young Readers for her debut novel, My Real Name Is Hanna. Her anthologies include The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning EssaysHow We Disappear: Novella & Stories is her second story collection forthcoming from Press 53She founded The Best Small Fictions series in 2015. Additional awards for her work include the Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Award, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Wigleaf Top 50 recognition, and Pushcart Prize nominations.