The Baron Hotel in Aleppo had an air of faded glory. Gone were the days of English predominance in Syria; gone was the gentility and the security that Old Money brings; and gone was the original owner Mr Mazloumian.
I asked at reception if I could see the famous visitors book and was told ‘the lady’ would come to see me at seven o’clock.
The lady in question was Mrs Sally Mazloumian, her husband having died the year before. I met her in the office behind reception. She was younger than I expected: perhaps in her early sixties.
We sat down at the desk, the book in front of her with me at her side. I was not allowed to touch the book, that, along with her slow and precise way of speaking, made me feel as though I would have to be on my best behaviour.
My view was of her left cheek, delicately corrugated like crepe paper, and of her pale coloured eyes wandering down the lines of spidery signatures on the yellowed pages.
She recited her memories of some of the names as if by rote, ‘Oh yes, the Bourbons, the pretenders to the French throne you know…and Charles Lindbergh, his son was kidnapped…’
The early signatures in the late thirties and early forties were mostly British, but during the war years there were two signatures from Melbourne.
‘Oh yes, they all based themselves here during those years. Well, they took over the place.’
More pages passed and along with them the signature of Amy Mollison ne Johnson. Finally the signature I had been waiting for floated over on the next page. Agatha Mallowan and her husband’s Max Mallowan.
‘She wrote The Murder on the Orient Express here. Wrapped up against the winds, out on the balcony in the sun. She wrote over half of it here.’ Mrs Mazloumian allowed herself a small smile in reflection.
‘She had piercing blue eyes,’ here she turned to pierce me with her own, ‘You felt she was looking you through and through. You wouldn’t tell a lie to those eyes.’
Sally Mazloumian related her first encounter with the Mallowans. An awkward dinner party where she felt it must have looked as though this ‘brash British girl’ had invited all her friends to come and see whom she had present for dinner. It turned out most of her friends thought ‘the old lady’ was a relative.
Trying to break the ice in the accepted way only made life more awkward when Mrs Mallowan revealed she neither smoke nor drank. She did, however, come to life when she heard the ladies on the other side of the room discussing how they coped with replacing the messy refills for their fashionable lipsticks. These ladies were surprised Mrs Mallowan was even the type to wear lipstick.
‘That night we all sat around at her feet telling her about dreams we’d had and things that had happened to us. On our asking, she said she never used people she knew for characters in her books. Nevertheless, we all rushed out to buy her next book to see if she’d used any of our stories.’
‘And you know,’ she continued, ‘after they’d left, someone said “and who does he remind you of?” and we thought for a bit, and someone eventually said “Poirot!”’
‘Poirot?’ I asked
‘Yes, Max Mallowan wasn’t the least foreign, very British in fact. It was just his manner. Very pompous and proper. Maybe she didn’t even realise it herself.’
The last of the pages were turning at this point and we had arrived into the late eighties. Just as we started to chat about life in Aleppo in general in those times, one of the staff came in.
‘There is a phone call for Madam.’
With that, our interview was unfortunately closed.
Later on, returning from a walk, I encountered Sally Mazloumian leaving the hotel. I noted her faded and fuzzy red hair and her pastel aqua skirt and blouse and again the phrase ‘faded glory’ came to mind. She smiled her acknowledgement and walked out of the hotel.