31 October 2009
The coffin is definitely a health and safety hazard. It fills the entrance hall, impeding the view of the stuffed Auk, a map of King’s Lynn in the 1800s and a rather dirty oil painting of Lord Percival Smith, the founder of the museum. The coffin’s wooden sides are swollen and rotten and look likely to disgorge their contents in a singularly gruesome manner. Any visitors would find its presence unhelpful, not to say distressing. But today, as on most days, there are no visitors to the Smith Museum. The curator, Neil Topham, stands alone at the far end of the hall looking rather helplessly at the ominously shaped box on the floor. The two policemen who have carried it this far look disinclined to go further. They stand, sweating and mutinous in their protective clothing, under the dusty chandelier donated by Lady Caroline Smith (1884–1960).
‘You can’t leave it here,’ says Neil.
‘We were told “take it to the Smith museum,”’ says the younger of the two men, PC Roy ‘Rocky’ Taylor.
‘But you can’t just leave it in the hall,’ protests Neil. ‘I want it in the Local History Room.’
‘Is that upstairs?’ asks the older man, Sergeant Tom Henty.
‘Good, because we don’t do upstairs. Our union won’t allow it.’
Neil doesn’t know if they are joking or not. Do policemen have unions? But he stands aside as the two men shoulder their burden again and carry it, watched by myriad glass eyes, through the Natural History Room and into a smaller room decorated with a mural of Norfolk Through The Ages. There is a trestle table waiting in the centre of the room and, on this, the policemen lower the coffin.
‘It’s all yours,’ says Taylor, breathing heavily.
‘But don’t open it, mind,’ warns Henty. ‘Not until the Big Guns get here.’
‘I won’t,’ says Neil, although he looks with fascination, almost hunger, at the box, whose cracked lid offers a coy glimpse of the horrors within.
‘Superintendent Whitcliffe’s on his way.’
‘Is the boss coming?’ asks Taylor. Whitcliffe may be the most senior policeman in Norfolk, but for Taylor and others like him the boss will always be Detective Inspector Harry Nelson.
‘Nah,’ says Henty. ‘Not his type of thing, is it? There’ll be journalists, the works. You know how the boss hates journos.’
‘Someone’s coming from the university,’ puts in Neil.
‘Doctor Ruth Galloway, head of Forensic Archaeology. She’s going to supervise the opening.’
‘I’ve met her,’ says Henty. ‘She knows her stuff.’
‘It’s very exciting,’ says Neil. Again he gives the coffin a furtive, almost greedy, look.
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ says Henty. ‘Come on, Rocky. Back to work. No peace for the wicked.’
Doctor Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, is not thinking about coffins or journalists or even about whether she will encounter DCI Harry Nelson at the Smith Museum. Instead, she is racing through the King’s Lynn branch of Somerfield wondering whether chocolate fingers count as bad mothering and how much wine four mothers and assorted partners can be expected to drink. Tomorrow is Ruth’s daughter’s first birthday and, much against Ruth’s better judgement, she has been persuaded to have a party for her. ‘But she won’t remember it,’ Ruth wailed to her best friend Shona, herself five months pregnant and glowing with impending maternity. ‘You will though,’ said Shona. ‘It’ll be a lovely occasion. Kate’s first birthday. Having a cake, opening her presents, playing with all her little friends.’
‘Kate doesn’t play with her friends,’ Ruth had protested. ‘She hits them over the head with stickle bricks mostly.’ But she had allowed herself to be convinced. And part of her does think that it will be a lovely occasion, a rare chance for her to sit back and watch Kate tearing off wrapping paper and shoving E-numbers in her mouth and think: I haven’t done such a bad job of being a mother, after all.
As Ruth races past the soft drinks aisle, she becomes aware for the first time that the supermarket has been taken over by the forces of darkness. Broomsticks and cauldrons jostle for shelf space with plastic pumpkins and glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs. Bats hang from the ceiling and, as Ruth rounds the last bend, she comes face to face with a life-size figure wearing a witch’s cloak and hat and a mask – based (rather convincingly, it must be said) on Munch’s The Scream. Ruth stifles her own scream. Of course, it’s Halloween. Kate only just escaped being born on 31 October, which, when combined with having a Pagan godfather, might have been one augury too far. Instead, her daughter was born on 1 November, All Saints’ Day according to a Catholic priest who, to Ruth’s surprise, is almost a friend. Ruth doesn’t believe in God or the Devil but, she reflects, as she piles her shopping onto the conveyor belt, it’s always useful to have a few saints on your side. Funny how the Day of the Dead is followed by the Day of the Saints. Or maybe not so funny. What are saints, after all, if not dead people? And Ruth knows to her cost that the path between saint and sinner is not always well defined.
She packs her shopping into her trusty, rusty car. Two o’clock. She has to be at the museum at three so there’s not enough time to go home first. She hopes the chocolate fingers won’t melt in the boot. Still, the day, though mild for October, is not exactly hot. Ruth is wearing black trousers and a black jacket. She winds a long green scarf round her neck and hopes for the best. She knows there’ll be photographers at the museum, but with any luck she can hide behind Superintendent Whitcliffe. She’d never normally get to go to an event like this. Her boss, Phil, adores the limelight so is always first in line for anything involving the press. Two years ago, when Time Team came to a nearby Roman dig, Phil muscled his way in front of the cameras while Ruth lurked in a trench. ‘It wasn’t fair,’ said Shona who, despite being in a relationship with Phil, knows his faults. ‘You were the expert, not him.’ But Ruth hadn’t minded. She hates being the centre of attention; she prefers the research, the backroom stuff, the careful sifting of evidence. Besides, the camera is meant to put ten pounds on you, which Ruth, at nearly thirteen stone, can well do without.
But Phil is away at a conference so it’s Ruth who is to be present at the grand opening of the coffin. It’s the sort of thing she would normally avoid like the plague. She dislikes appearing in public and she feels distinctly queasy about opening a coffin live on Prime Time TV (well, Look East anyhow). ‘Beware of disturbing the dead,’ that’s what Erik used to say. Erik Anderssen, Erik the Viking, Ruth’s tutor at university and for many years afterwards her mentor and role model. Now her feelings about Erik are rather more complicated, but that doesn’t stop his voice popping into her head at alarmingly regular intervals. Of course, disturbing the dead is an occupational hazard for archaeologists, but Ruth makes sure that no matter how long-dead the bones are, she always treats them with respect. For one nightmarish summer she excavated war graves in Bosnia, places where the bodies, sometimes killed only months earlier, were flung into pits to fester in the sun. She has dug up the bones of a girl who died over two thousand years ago, an Iron Age girl whose perfectly preserved arm still wore its bracelet of dried grass. She has found Roman bodies buried under walls, offerings to Janus, the two-faced God, and she has unearthed the bones of soldiers killed only seventy years ago. But she never lets herself forget that she is dealing with people who once lived and were once loved. Ruth doesn’t believe in an afterlife which, in her opinion, is all the more reason to treat human relics with respect. They are all we have left.
The wooden coffin, believed to be that of Bishop Augustine Smith, was discovered when builders began work on a new supermarket in King’s Lynn. The site, for many years derelict industrial land, had once been a church. The church, rather romantically called Saint Mary Outside the Walls, had been bombed in the war and, in the Fifties, was levelled to make way for a fish-canning factory. The factory itself fell into disrepair and now a shiny new supermarket is being built on top. But because of the site’s history, the builders were obliged to call in the field archaeologists who, as was only to be expected, discovered the foundations of a medieval church. What was less expected was another discovery below what was once the high altar, of a coffin containing the remains, it was thought, of the fourteenth-century bishop.
The discovery was newsworthy for several reasons. The church was mentioned in the Domesday Book and Bishop Augustine himself features prominently in a fourteenth-century chronicle kept at Norwich Cathedral. In fact, Augustine, one of the earliest bishops, was always supposed to have been buried at the cathedral. What was he doing, then, buried under a fairly minor parish church in King’s Lynn? But inscriptions on the coffin and dating of the wood pointed definitely to Bishop Augustine. The next step was carbon dating of the bones themselves, and somewhere along the line the decision was made to open the coffin in public – watched by the great and the good, including members of the Smith family.
And that’s the other reason. The Smith family are still alive and well and living in Norfolk. Along the way they have been Catholic martyrs and Protestant traitors, ennobled by Elizabeth I, and involved in a doomed attempt to hold King’s Lynn for the Royalists in the Civil War. Lord Danforth Smith, the current title holder, is a racehorse trainer and unwilling local celebrity. His son, Randolph, usually to be found draped around an American actress or Russian tennis player, is more relaxed about being in the public eye and is a regular feature of the gossip columns. Previous Smiths have been rather more serious-minded and evidence of their philanthropy is everywhere in Norfolk. As well as the museum there is the Smith wing in the hospital and the Smith Art Collection at the castle. Ruth’s university even has a Smith Professor of Local History, though he hasn’t been seen in public for years and Ruth thinks he may well be dead.
She parks her battered car in front of the museum. The car park round the side is empty. She’s early; it’s only two-fifteen but still not enough time to get home and back. She might as well go into the museum and look around. Ruth loves museums, which is just as well because, as an archaeologist, she’s done more than her share of looking in dusty glass cases. She remembers going to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill as a child. It was a magical place, full of masks and stuffed birds. Come to think of it, the Horniman was probably the place where she first got interested in archaeology; they had a collection of flint tools, including some from Grimes Graves in Norfolk. She remembers the shock when she realised that these oddly shaped pieces of stone had actually been held by someone who had been alive thousands of years ago. The idea that you could actually go and dig up something that old – something that had been worked and honed by that mysterious creature known as Stone Age man – that idea still sends a shiver down her spine, and has sustained her through many a long and unsuccessful excavation. There is always the thought that under the next clod of earth there is the object – weathered and unrecognisable except to an expert – that is going to change human thought forever. Ruth has made a few lucky discoveries herself. But there is always the tantalising thought of the one big find, of the glass case with the inscription ‘discovered by Doctor Ruth Galloway’, of the articles, the book . . . She pushes open the door.
The Horniman is a small museum but impressive in its way, with a clock tower at the front and glass conservatory at the back. The Smith Museum is something else. It’s a low brick building, squashed between two office blocks. Overhanging gables, painted dull red, make it look as if it’s wearing a hat pulled down low upon its head. Steps lead up to an arched red door with a promising sign saying ‘welcome’. Ruth pushes open the door and finds herself in a small entrance lobby dominated by a stuffed bird in a case and a picture of an angry-looking man in a wig. There’s a notice board adorned with a few faded flyers and a table containing some photocopied sheets labelled, somewhat optimistically, ‘For School Parties’, but no sign that a media event is taking place. No canapés or glasses of wine (Ruth is sure there was a mention of food), no press packs, not even a poster announcing the Grand Opening of the Bishop’s Coffin. A yellowing chandelier overhead is still jangling from the opening of the door. Otherwise there is complete silence.
Ruth pushes through the swing doors and finds herself in a long room, lined on both sides with glass cases reaching up to the ceiling. There are no windows and the only light comes from the cabinets themselves, which shimmer with an eerie phosphorescence. Ruth stops and peers into one of the cases. It is labelled ‘Eagle Owl’ and contains a large stuffed bird which peers at her accusingly. She moves on quickly, unable to shake the conviction that the owl’s eyes are following her. The next case, ‘Black-backed gulls’, shows a family of seagulls in the act of pecking a lamb to death. Painted blood smears the birds’ beaks and the lamb looks up with an expression of resignation and cynicism. A few yards along and you are into woodland; dusty foxes gaze into brown-painted holes, squirrels are tied to tree trunks, badgers look glassily at moth-eaten rabbits, a three-legged deer is propped against a papier-mâché rock. Ruth finds herself walking faster and faster, the fur and feathers merging into one, her footsteps echoing on the tiled floor.
She crosses the room to look at the cases on the other side. Here, taxidermy gives way to Halloween. The animals on this side are skeletons, their thin bones dangling like children’s mobiles against walls painted blue to resemble the sky, with white clouds and v-shaped flocks of birds. Giant otter shrew, pigmy shrew, giant golden mole, European hedgehog. They all look the same and rather sad, hanging there beside their little typewritten name tags. In the biggest case is a skeleton that seems massive by comparison. Ruth is surprised to learn that, according to the label, it is only a domestic horse. The long skull and large teeth grin out of the gloom. Ruth, who rather likes horses, gives it a sympathetic smile and hurries on.
At the end of the gallery she steps from tile to carpet and, to her surprise, finds herself in a red-walled Victorian study. A stag’s head looms over a painted fireplace and a man sits at a desk, frowning fiercely as he dips his quill into an inkwell.
‘Excuse me . . .’ begins Ruth, before realising that the man’s eyes are dusty and one of his arms is missing. A rope separates her from the figure and his desk but she leans forward and reads the inscription:
Lord Percival Smith 1830–1902, adventurer and taxidermist. Most of the exhibits in this museum were acquired by Lord Smith in the course of a fascinating life. Lord Smith’s love of the natural world is shown in his magnificent collection of animals and birds, most of which he shot and stuffed himself.
Funny way to show your love of the natural world, by shooting most of it, thinks Ruth. She notices a brace of guns over the head of the waxwork Lord Smith. He looks a nasty customer, alive or dead.
There are two ways out of Lord Smith’s study. One says ‘New World Collection’ and one ‘Local History.’ She pauses, feeling like Alice in Wonderland. A slight sound, a kind of whispering or fluttering, makes her turn towards Local History. She feels in the mood for a soothing collection of Norfolk artefacts. She hopes there are no more waxworks or embalmed animals.
Her wish is granted. The Local History Room seems to be empty apart from a coffin on a trestle table and a body lying beside it. A breeze from an open window is riffling through the pages of a guidebook lying on the floor, making a sound like the wings of a trapped bird.
Excerpted from A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2012 by Elly Griffiths.
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