The chapter after the first meeting with ML
Miss Lemon has been my secretary for many years. She is the most efficient woman that ever lived. I am sometimes afraid of her.
Agatha Christie, Elephants Can Remember
I had returned to London from the Argentine the previous year. It was not a question of coming home and wanting to ‘do my bit’; I was 55 and had been invalided out of the Army over twenty years before. The truth was that I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Argentina had been a great adventure, but with my darling Bella buried in South American soil and my son John more than capable of running our ranch without me, there was nothing to keep me there: our other children had long gone. So, I made a series of (somewhat hairy) voyages, taking a necessarily circuitous route back to Blighty. I wasn’t too concerned about the dangers aboard ship – far from it. If we had bought it crossing the South Atlantic, I would have been happy enough: I firmly believe that it would simply have enabled me to re-join my beloved Bella.
We arrived in England after a few scares, and I made my way to London, hoping to look up an old friend.
London had always been my second home. Compared to the glorious fresh air of the Pampas, it was dark, smelly and damp, but those wonderful times on the hunt with the great Hercule Poirot had inspired in me a huge well of affection for the place. The fact that huge swathes of the city had been blasted to smithereens during three months of Blitzkrieg did not deter me in the least. If anything, it inspired me, for I had found during the Great War that it is when the chips are down that we see people as they really are; we get to see the best, and occasionally the worst, of them. Should the chips be up, on the other hand, people often hide their true selves as they manoeuvre to take advantage, elbowing others out of the way as they head for the trough. Everyone is out for themselves and meaner instincts take over. This is what I had found in the Argentine.
So I came ‘home’, as we ex-pats always referred to England. I was at a loose end, unsure what my next moves might be, when I received a letter from Poirot asking me to join him at Styles, the location of our first great adventure. It was clear to me as soon as I beheld him that our re-acquaintance was to be a brief one, and so it turned out; within weeks, he too was buried, and I was alone again.
I took a room in a cheap hotel in Bloomsbury and spent my time trying to convince myself of the joys of the British Museum there, but in truth I was going through the motions, and beginning to feel sorry for myself. I could not see what the future held for me.
Then, out of the blue, Poirot’s solicitors contacted me. Poirot had left with them an extraordinary document with instructions to pass it on to me after his death. I cannot yet reveal the contents, but for me it was like receiving an electric shock, my tingling nerve ends bringing me back to life. When they then asked me if I would help them to sort out Poirot’s business affairs, I agreed readily. The fee was a generous one and, frankly I needed some money coming in while I awaited the income from the sale of some business concerns of my own in South America (I should add that even today, three years later, I am still waiting…). At least I would be doing something.
The day that I had just spent with Miss Lemon had further revived my spirits.
As I sat in my hotel room I found myself considering the character of the woman I had hired (and also wondering what had inspired me to hire her). My first impression of Miss Lemon had been of a thin, almost gaunt woman of indeterminate age, conservatively dressed with a pair of pince nez perched toward the end of a sharp nose. Her expression had been that of someone interrupted while on far more important business.
Poirot had only mentioned Miss Lemon a few times to me. Somewhat unfairly, he had described her as ‘hideous’! The contrast with his own ideal of womankind – the voluptuous whirlwind of immorality that was the Countess Vera Rossakoff – could hardly have been more marked. But one other thing that he had said stuck with me. According to Poirot, on the rare occasions when Miss Lemon raised her head from her typewriter to say something, it was usually worth hearing. She was always right, so there was little point in ever arguing with her.
Now this was someone to have on your side – no nonsense, straight to the point (and always to the right point); just the person I desperately wanted on my side at that time, someone totally incurious about my feelings for Bella, and, now, Poirot.
The prospect of sorting through that labyrinthine filing system to extract the everyday details of Poirot’s legacy and fulfil my commission had not been particularly inspiring at first, but now I could not wait to get started.
For the little mystery of the Gratowski letter had been an unexpected bonus. Even though my head told me that all was likely to be revealed when we spoke to the estate agents the following day, in my heart I felt (and, yes, hoped) that it was the beginning of a new adventure.
I went to bed early, and experienced the best night’s sleep that I had known for months.