Decider - By Dick Francis


OK, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.

They looked pretty harmless on my doorstep: two middle-aged civil Englishmen in country-gent tweeds and flat caps, their eyebrows in unison raised enquiringly, their shared expression one of embarrassed anxiety.

‘Lee Morris?’ one of them said, his diction clipped, secure, expensive. ‘Could we speak to him?’

‘Selling insurance?’ I asked dryly.

Their embarrassment deepened.

‘No, actually…’

Late March evening, sun low and strong, gold light falling sideways onto their benign faces, their eyes achingly narrowed against the glare. They stood a pace or two from me, careful not to crowd. Good manners all around.

I realised that I knew one of them by sight, and I spent a few extended seconds wondering why on earth he’d sought me out on a Sunday a long way from his normal habitat.

During this pause three small boys padded up the flagstoned passage from the depths of the house behind me, concentratedly threaded a way around me and out through the pair beyond and silently climbed like cats up into the fuzzy bursting leaf-bud embrace of an ancient spreading oak nearby on the lawn. There the three figures rested, becoming immobile, lying on their stomachs along the old boughs, half seen, intent, secretive, deep in an espionage game.

The visitors watched in bemusement.

‘You’d better come in,’ I said. ‘They’re expecting pirates.’

The man I’d recognised smiled suddenly with delight, then stepped forward as if in decision and held out his hand.

‘Roger Gardner,’ he said, ‘and this is Oliver Wells. We’re from Stratton Park racecourse.’

‘Yes,’ I said, and made a gesture for them to follow me into the shadowy passage, which they did, slowly, tentatively, half blinded by the slanting sun outside.

I led them along the flagstones and into the cavernous room I’d spent six months converting from a rotting barn into a comfortable house. The revitalising of such ruins was my chief livelihood, but recently the inevitable had finally happened and my family were currently rebelling against moving to yet another building site and were telling me that this house, this one, was where they wanted to live.

The sunlight fell through tall west-facing windows onto the sheen of universal slate-grey flagstones which were softened here and there by rugs from Turkey. Round the north, south and east sides of the barn now ran a railed gallery bearing a row of bedrooms, with a staircase giving access at either end.

Under the gallery, a series of rooms stood open-fronted to the great room, though one could close each off with folding doors for privacy. They offered a book-lined room for watching television, an office, a playroom, a sewing room and a long capacious dining room. A breakfast room in the south-east corner led into a big half-visible kitchen with utilities and a workshop wholly out of sight beyond. The partition walls between the open-fronted rooms, partitions which looked merely like space dividers, were in fact the extremely strong load-bearers of the gallery above.

Furniture in the central atrium consisted chiefly of squashy armchairs scattered in informal groups, with many small tables handy. A fireplace in the western wall glowed red with logs.

The effect I’d aimed for, a dwelling built like a small roofed market square, had come out even better than I’d imagined, and in my own mind (though I hadn’t told the family) I had intended all along to keep it, if it had been a success.

Roger Gardner and Oliver Wells, as was usual with visitors, came to a halt and looked around in frank surprise, though they seemed too inhibited to comment.

A naked baby appeared, crawling across the flagstones, pausing when he reached a rug, wobbling onto his bottom and looking around, considering things.

‘Is that yours?’ Roger asked faintly, watching him.

‘Very probably,’ I said.

A young woman in jeans and sweater, fair hair flying, came jogging out of the far part of the kitchen in businesslike trainers.

‘Have you seen Jamie?’ she demanded from a distance.

I pointed.

She swooped on the baby and gathered him up unceremoniously. ‘I take my eyes off him for two seconds…’ She bore him away, delivering a fleeting glance to the visitors, but not stopping, vanishing again from our view.

‘Sit down,’ I invited. ‘What can I do for you?’

They tentatively sat where I indicated and visibly wondered how to begin.

‘Lord Stratton recently died,’ Roger said eventually. ‘A month ago.’

‘Yes, I noticed,’ I said.

‘You sent flowers to the funeral.’

‘It seemed merely decent,’ I agreed, nodding.

The two men glanced at each other. Roger spoke.

‘Someone told us