My Friend Agatha


she looked at her thighs then took a train

My thickened thighs made me frown and since frowns cause wrinkles,  I decided to check into the Old Swan at Harrogate. My friend Mona told me that their hydrotherapy could easily blast away fat and even more.  It was a cold evening in December of 1926 when I arrived. The train trip from London had been fatiguing so I was glad when the bellboy quickly helped me to my room.  After a good night’s sleep, I got up the next morning ready to explore the hotel facilities.  Exploration accomplished, I made my way back towards my room. Or at least I thought so.  But when I opened the door to the room I thought was mine, I saw a woman in her mid-thirties sitting at the desk writing. She looked at me with such a fearful expression that I quickly said “Sorry” and left the room. You can imagine my embarrassment when, later, I went down for breakfast and found that we’d been assigned the same dining table. Immediately I started apologizing, excessively so embarrassed that I was. But she gently said to me, Please, what’s done is done.

at the Swan they exercized in the pool

While waiting for our breakfast to arrive, we stumbled at conversation. There was something somewhat sad and mysterious about this woman who said her name was Teresa Neele. For the next few days, we shared meals together and often saw one another while exercising in the pool but without making any overtures of camaraderie. That’s why it came as a surprise when one evening I answered the knock on my door and found Teresa looking at me her eyes full of tears. Of course I invited her in and offered her tea (thanks to the cozy, the pot was still warm). She shook her head no, sat down, said “there’s nothing like love for getting you down” then started to cry.  If tears were a form of hydrotherapy, she would have been cured of any ails right on the spot.

Teresa said her heart was broken and she needed to talk. I knew from experience that a good talk helps the emotions more than any drug can so I made myself available. She burst like a badly built dam and told me the most incredible story. Her husband had dumped her for another woman and the trauma was so great she often felt she was losing contact with reality. So much so she didn’t even really understand how she’d arrived at the Swan.  And, are you ready for this, her name wasn’t Teresa Neele but Agatha Christie! I squinted my eyes to scrutinize her. Slowly I began making out the features of the woman who’d been front page news for several days now. Yes, it was her, the author of my favorite novels. The missing writer who many feared had met foul play.

the newspapers suggested disguises for Agatha

Sometimes we are embarrassed about the revelations we’ve made in a time of despair. Maybe that’s why the next morning at breakfast Agatha seemed awkward as if she wanted to avoid me.  But I let her know that I understood and that her secret was safe with me.  Pity that Bob Tappin didn’t feel the same.  He was the hotel’s banjo player and had recognized Agatha one night wearing a lovely Georgette frock dancing the Charleston.  He notified the police who notified the husband who showed up only because he wanted to take Agatha home and stop the sensationalism.

she danced the Charleston in a georgette frock

A few days later I, too, left the Swan and normal life went back on the rails. Every so often I’d see Agatha’s name in the newspapers as her books sold with great success. It must have been early in 1929 when Agatha wrote and invited me to her home in Chelsea for the weekend.

After tea and cucumber sandwiches, Agatha told me she had a new man in her life.  His name was Leonard and he was an archaeologist. You know, she said laughingly, an archaeologist is the best kind of husband to have because the older a woman gets, the more her husband is interested in her.

they went from thunderclaps to a fireplace

The next morning after breakfast we took a long walk around the neighborhood (Cresswell Place is so lovely).  But at the sound of thunderclaps, we rushed back to the house and eagerly sat down in front of the fireplace for a long talk.

Agatha was one of my favorite authors (and Miss Marple my favorite psychologist) thus I was really curious about her writing habits. She said she didn’t any particular work routine but when ideas came into her head, she would pick up any one of the many notebooks she had lying around, and jot them down.

Much had been written about what had made her so successful. One theory was that, by keeping things simple via the use of plain language, short sentences, and much dialogue, she made it easier for the reader to follow the plot. Even experimenting neurolinguists had their say and said Agatha owed much of her success to repetition. If the author repeats words at least three times in a paragraph, the reader becomes more easily convinced.

“Dash it all!” said Agatha. “My success doesn’t come from all these techniques they say I use. My success comes from the story. And the story comes from my imagination.”

Agatha Chrisite and The Girls

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, Agatha continued, is to have a happy childhood that permits you to develop your imagination. Her childhood had been rather unconventional as she had no formal education and her older siblings were away at boarding school. So, not having playmates,  she made up imaginary friends. When playing with The Girls, as she called them, Agatha talked for herself and for them as well. This is probably where she learned to become so good at dialogue.

 A child’s world is far more exciting than that of an adult because the imagination has yet to be dulled by reality. A child can put on momma’s heels and become an adult.  Or ride on a broomstick that becomes a horse. Or hold a bottle to a doll that becomes a baby.

she put on  heels, he rode a broomstick

Imagination was Agatha’s best friend and frequently appeared unexpectedly. Often, she said, a plot would come to her at such odd moments such as when she was walking down the street or examining a hat in a shop or even while washing dishes.

plots unexpectedly arrived

Later, alone in my room I reflected on my day spent with Agatha. Because my memory was like snow upon the desert, I wanted to write in my diary the lessons I’d learned:

  1. Make friends with your imagination. Your imagination will not only keep you company but will continually supply you with options and solutions.
  2. Learn from Miss Marple and observe, observe, observe. Then, like Miss Marple in her chintzy St. Margaret Mead drawing room, use these observations to discover something new about others about yourself.
  3. Listen for the facts. Like Hercule Poirot sitting in his armchair (hopefully with an antimacassar!), you can find solutions without going anywhere if you have the right information.
  4. Read aloud as often as possible. Agatha, like many young children, was often read to. Reading to children increases their vocabulary, develops attention span, helps pronunciation, and imprints the value of books. But reading aloud is good for adults, too. It helps our memory because we create not only visual but auditory links to our brain as well. Sounding out a word is a physical process because you must use your lungs, your diaphragm, and related mouth muscles forcing mind and body to collaborate.

Was silent reading an anomaly in the classical world?  Scholars disagree.  Marshall McLuhan says that in antiquity and the Middle Ages, readying was necessarily aloud.  Other scholars disagree.  But have you ever seen a small child reading to himself who doesn’t move his lips? And Hugh told me that many throat cancer patients have difficulties reading after surgery as if words can only be expressed with the voice.

And what about poetry? What is the need for meter and rhyme if poems are not meant to be read aloud?

As for myself, I plan on taking the word off the page and into my lungs by reading my diary aloud the first Sunday of the month…will I sound the same to myself aloud and I do in silence?

drawing

(from The Diary of Luz Corazzini, Cynthia Korzekwa © )

Related: Agatha’s Disappearance + guided walk of Agatha’s London  (see, too, her house at 22 Cresswell Place in Chelsea   and 48 Swan Court where Agatha Christie lived with second husband, Max Mallowan)

Bibliography:
Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. William Morrow Paperbacks. New York City. 2012.
Maida, Patricia and Spornick, Nicholas. Murder She Wrote: A Study of Agatha Christie’s Detective Fiction. Popular Press 1. 1982

 

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