Elephants can remember – Agatha Christie
“I suppose,” she said, again to herself and not to Maria, who had had to return rather hurriedly to the kitchen, summoned by a smell of overflowing jam which she happened to have on the stove, “I wanted to see what it felt like. I’m always being asked to literary lunches or something like that and I never go.” Mrs. Oliver arrived at the last course of the grand luncheon with a sigh of satisfaction as she toyed with the remains of the meringue on her plate. She was particularly fond of meringues and it was a delicious last course in a very delicious luncheon. Nevertheless, when one reached middle age, one had to be careful with meringues. One’s teeth! They looked all right, they had the great advantage that they could not ache, they were white and quite agreeable-looking–just like the real thing. But it was true enough that they were not real teeth. And teeth that were not real teeth–or so Mrs. Oliver believed–were not really of high-class material. Dogs, she had always understood, had teeth of real ivory, but human beings had teeth merely of bone. Or, she supposed, if they were false teeth, of plastic. Anyway, the point was that you mustn’t get involved in some rather shame-making appearance, which false teeth might lead you into. Lettuce was a difficulty, and salted almonds, and such things as chocolates with hard centers, clinging caramels and the delicious stickiness and adherence of meringues. With a sigh of satisfaction, she dealt with the final mouthful. It had been a good lunch, a very good lunch.
Mrs. Oliver was fond of her creature comforts. She had enjoyed the luncheon very much. She had enjoyed the company, too. The luncheon, which had been given to celebrated female writers, had fortunately not been confined to female writers only. There had been other writers, and critics, and those who read books as well as those who wrote them. Mrs. Oliver had sat between two very charming members of the male sex.
Edwin Aubyn, whose poetry she always enjoyed, an extremely entertaining person who had had various entertaining experiences in his tours abroad, and various literary and personal adventures. Also he was interested in restaurants and food and they had talked very happily about food, and left the subject of literature aside.
Sir Wesley Kent, on her other side, had also been an agreeable lunch companion. He had said very nice things about her books, and had had the tact to say things that did not make her feel embarrassed, which so many people could do almost without trying. He had mentioned one or two reasons why he had liked one or other of her books, and they had been the right reasons, and therefore Mrs. Oliver had thought favorably of him for that reason. Praise from men, Mrs. Oliver thought to herself, is always acceptable. It was women who gushed. Some of the things that women wrote to her! Really!
Not always women, of course. Sometimes emotional young men from very faraway countries. Only last week she had received a fan letter beginning, “Reading your book, I feel what a noble woman you must be.” After reading The Second Goldfish he had then gone off into an intense kind of literary ecstasy which was, Mrs. Oliver felt, completely unfitting.
She was not unduly modest. She thought the detective stories she wrote were quite good of their kind. Some were not so good and some were much better than others. But there was no reason, so far as she could see, to make anyone think she was a noble woman. She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read. Wonderful luck that was, Mrs. Oliver thought to herself.
Well, all things considered, she had got through this ordeal very well. She had quite enjoyed herself, talked to some nice people. Now they were moving to where coffee was being handed round and where you could change partners and chat with other people. This was the moment of danger, as Mrs.
Oliver knew well. This was now where other women would come and attack her. Attack her with fulsome praise, and where she always felt lamentably inefficient at giving the right answers because there weren’t really any right answers that you could give. It went really rather like a travel book for going abroad with the right phrases.
Question: “I must tell you how very fond I am of reading your books and how wonderful I think they are.” Answer from flustered author: “Well, that’s very kind. I am so glad.” “You must understand that I’ve been waiting to meet you for months. It really is wonderful.” “Oh, it’s very nice of you. Very nice indeed.” It went on very much like that. Neither of you seemed to be able to talk about anything of outside interest. It had to be all about your books, or the other woman’s books if you knew what her books were. You were in the literary web and you weren’t good at this sort of stuff. Some people could do it, but Mrs. Oliver was bitterly aware of not having the proper capacity. A foreign friend of hers had once put her, when she was staying at an embassy abroad, through a kind of course.
“I listen to you,” Albertina had said in her charming, low, foreign voice. “I have listened to what you say to that young man who came from the newspaper to interview you. You have not got–no! you have not got the pride you should have in your work. You should say ‘Yes, I write well. I write better than anyone else who writes detective stories.’ ” “But I don’t,” Mrs. Oliver had said at that moment. “I’m not bad but–” “Ah, do not say ‘I don’t’ like that. You must say you do; even if you do not think you do, you ought to say you do.” “I wish, Albertina,” said Mrs. Oliver, “that you could interview these journalists who come. You would do it so well.
Can’t you pretend to be me one day, and I’ll listen behind the door?” “Yes, I suppose I could do it. It would be rather fun. But they would know I was not you. They know your face. But you must say ‘Yes, yes, I know that I am better than anyone else.’ You must say that to everybody. They should know it.
They should announce it. Oh, yes–it is terrible to hear you sitting there and say things as though you apologize for what you are. It must not be like that.” It had been rather, Mrs. Oliver thought, as though she had been a budding actress trying to learn a part, and the director had found her hopelessly bad at taking direction. Well, anyway, there’d be not much difficulty here. There’d be a few waiting females when they all got up from the table. In fact, she could see one or two hovering already. That wouldn’t matter much.