The memory game - By Nicci French


I close my eyes. It’s all there, inside my skull. Mist following the contours of the lawn. A shock of cold stinging in my nostrils. I have to make a conscious effort if I want to remember what else happened on the day we found the body; her body. The reek of wet, brown leaves.

As I made my way down the short slimy grass slope away from the house, I saw that the workmen were standing there ready. They were clutching mugs of tea and smoking and their warm, wet breath produced a cloud of vapour that rose up from their faces. They looked like an old bonfire that was being rained on. It was only October but this was early in the morning and as yet there was just the promise of sun, somewhere behind the clouds, over the copse on the far hill. I was wearing my overalls tucked a little too neatly into my wellingtons. The men, of course, were obstinately in the traditional rural proletarian costume of jeans, synthetic sweaters and dirty leather boots. They were stamping to keep warm and laughing at something I couldn’t hear.

When they caught sight of me they felt silent. We’d all known each other for ever and now they were unsure how to react to me as their boss. It didn’t bother me, though. I was used to men on building sites, even the miniature, domestic variety of building site like this one, my father-in-law’s soggy patch of Shropshire, the Stead, as it was absurdly called, a self-mocking joke about rural squireship that had become serious over the years.

‘Hello, Jim,’ I said, holding out my hand. ‘You couldn’t resist coming yourself. I’m glad.’

Jim Weston was as much a part of the Stead as the treehouse or the cellar with its sweet smell of apples that lingered even at Easter. He was associated with almost every man-made object on the property: he had replaced and painted the window frames, spent searing August days stripped to the waist on the roof dealing out tiles. There would be a crisis, a growth on a wall, an electricity black-out, a flood, and Alan would summon Jim from Westbury. Jim would refuse, too busy, he would say. Then an hour later he would creak up the drive in his rickety van. He would contemplate the damage, tapping out his pipe and shaking his head sadly, and mutter something about modern rubbish. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he would say. ‘I’ll try to patch something together.’

It was a matter of local folklore that Jim Weston never bought anything at list price and wouldn’t buy anything at all if he could obtain it through favour or barter or through even murkier means in his own contribution to Shropshire’s black economy.

When Jim had seen my plan for the new house, his face had fallen even further than usual, as if an architect’s drawing was some newfangled invention for the benefit of mollycoddled fools like me from London who’d never got their hands dirty. I’d given a silent prayer of thanks that he’d never seen my original idea. This small house, an overflow space for the Stead, for all the children and grandchildren and ex-wives and so on that accumulate at the Martello gatherings, was the greatest offering I would ever make to the family, so I’d planned for them the dream house that I would have built for myself.

I had taken advantage of the relatively sheltered situation of the original site to conceive a structure of total clarity, nothing but beams, pipes, joists and plate glass, a functionalist dream: the most beautiful object I have ever drawn. I’d shown the plans to my soon-to-be-ex-husband, Claud, and he’d crinkled his brow and run his fingers through his thin brown hair and murmured something about it being really very interesting and well done, which meant nothing at all because this has been his reaction to virtually everything up to and including my announcement to him that I had decided that we should get divorced. I’d thought that his brother Theo at least might see what I was getting at. He’d commented that it looked like one of his old Meccano sets and I’d said, ‘Yes, exactly, lovely, isn’t it?’, but he’d meant it as an insult. Then I had taken it into the presence of the Great Man himself, Alan Martello, my father-in-law, the patriarch of the Stead, and it had been a disaster.

‘What’s this? The metal frame? What about