Two people, a man and a woman, are walking along a hospital corridor. It is obvious that they have been here before. The woman’s face is soft, remembering; the man looks wary, holding back slightly at the entrance to the ward. Indeed, the list of restrictions printed on the door looks enough to frighten anyone. No flowers, no phones, no children under eight, no coughers or sneezers. The woman points at the phone sign (a firmly crossed out silhouette of a rather dated-looking phone) but the man just shrugs. The woman smiles, as if she is used to getting this sort of response from him.
They press a buzzer and are admitted.
Three beds in, they stop. A brown-haired woman is sitting up in bed holding a baby. She is not feeding it, she is just looking at it, staring, as if she is trying to memorise every feature. The visiting woman, who is blonde and attractive, swoops down and kisses the new mother. Then she bends over the baby, brushing it with her hair. The baby opens opaque dark eyes but doesn’t cry. The man hovers in the background and the blonde woman gestures for him to come closer. He doesn’t kiss mother or baby but he says something which makes both women laugh indulgently.
The baby’s sex is easy to guess: the bed is surrounded by pink cards and rosettes, even a slightly deflated balloon announcing ‘It’s a girl’. The baby herself, though, is dressed in navy blue as if the mother is taking an early stand against such stereotyping. The blonde woman holds the baby, who stares at her with those dark, solemn eyes. The brown-haired woman looks at the man, and looks away again quickly.
When visiting time is over, the blonde woman leaves presents and kisses and one last caress of the baby’s head. The man stands at the foot of the bed, pawing the ground slightly as if impatient to be off. The mother smiles, cradling her baby in an ageless gesture of serene maternity.
At the door, the blonde woman turns and waves. The man has already left.
But five minutes later he is back, alone, walking fast, almost running. He comes to a halt by the bed. Wordlessly, the woman puts the baby into his arms. She is crying, though the baby is still silent.
‘She looks like you,’ she whispers.
The tide is out. In the early evening light, the sands stretch into the distance, bands of yellow and grey and gold. The water in the rock pools reflects a pale blue sky. Three men and a woman walk slowly over the beach, occasionally stooping and looking intently at the ground, taking samples and photographs. One of the men holds something that looks rather like a staff, which he plants into the sand at regular intervals. They pass a lighthouse marooned on a rock, its jaunty red and white paint peeling, and a beach where a recent rock fall means that they have to wade in the sea, splashing through the shallow water. Now the coastline has transformed into a series of little coves which appear to have been eaten out of the soft, sandstone cliff. Their progress slows when they have to clamber over rocks slippery with seaweed and the remains of old sea walls. One of the men falls into the water and the other men laugh, the sound echoing in the still evening air. The woman trudges on ahead, not looking back.
Eventually they reach a spot where the cliff juts out into the sea, forming a bleak headland. The land curves away sharply, leaving a v-shaped inlet where the tide seems to be moving particularly fast. White-topped waves race towards jagged rocks and the seagulls are calling wildly. High up, on the furthest point of the cliff, is a grey stone house, faintly gothic in style, with battlements and a curved tower facing out to sea. A Union Jack is flying from the tower.
‘Sea’s End House,’ says one of the men, stopping to rest his back.
‘Doesn’t that MP live there?’ asks another.
The woman has stopped at the far side of the bay and is looking across at the house. The battlements are dark grey, almost black, in the fading light.
‘Jack Hastings,’ she says. ‘He’s an MEP.’
Although the woman is the youngest of the four and has a distinctly alternative look – purple spiky hair, piercings and an army surplus jacket – the others seem to treat her with respect. Now one of the men says, almost pleadingly, ‘Don’t you think we should knock off, Trace?’
The man holding the staff, a bald giant known as Irish Ted, adds, ‘There’s a good pub here. The Sea’s End.’
The other men stifle smiles. Ted is famous for knowing every pub in Norfolk, no mean feat in a county reputed to have a pub for every day of the year.
‘Let’s just walk this beach,’ says Trace, getting out a camera. ‘We can take some GPS readings.’
‘Erosion’s bad here,’ says Ted. ‘I’ve been reading about it. Sea’s End House has been declared unsafe. Jack Hastings is in a right old two and eight. Keeps ranting on about an Englishman’s home being his castle.’
They all look up at the grey house on the cliff. The curved wall of the tower is only two or three feet from the precipice. The remains of a fence hang crazily in midair.
‘There was a whole garden at the back of the house once. Summer house, the lot,’ says Craig, one of the men. ‘My granddad used to do the gardening.’
‘Beach has silted up too,’ says Trace. ‘That big storm in February has shifted a lot of stone.’
They all look towards the narrow beach. Below the cliffs, banks of pebbles form a shelf which then falls steeply into the sea. It’s an inhospitable place, hard to imagine families picnicking here, children with buckets and spades, sunbathing adults.
‘Looks like a cliff fall,’ says Ted.
‘Maybe,’ says Trace. ‘Let’s get some readings anyway.’
She leads the way along the beach, keeping to the edge of the cliff. A sloping path leads from Sea’s End House down to the sea and fishing boats are moored higher up, above the tide line, but the sea is coming in fast.
‘There’s no way off the beach this side,’ says the man whose grandfather was a gardener. ‘We don’t want to get cut off.’
‘It’s shallow enough,’ says Trace. ‘We can wade.’
‘The current’s treacherous here,’ warns Ted. ‘We’d better head straight for the pub.’
Trace ignores him; she is photographing the cliff face, the lines of grey and black with the occasional shocking stripe of red. Ted plunges his staff into the ground and takes a GPS reading. The third man, whose name is Steve, wanders over to a point where a fissure in the cliff has created a deep ravine. The mouth of the ravine is filled up with stones, probably from a rock fall. Steve starts to climb over the rubble, his boots slipping on the loose stones.
‘Careful,’ says Trace, not looking round.
The sea is louder now, thundering in towards land, and the sea birds are returning to their nests, high up in the cliffs. ‘We’d better head back,’ says Ted again, but Steve calls from the cliff face. ‘Hey, look at this!’
They walk over to him. Steve has made a gap in the pile of rubble and is crouching in the cave-like space behind. It’s a deep recess, almost an alleyway, the cliffs looming above, dark and oppressive. Steve has shifted some of the larger stones and is leaning over something that lies half-exposed in the sandy soil.
‘What is it?’
‘Looks like a human arm,’ says Ted matter-of-factly.
Detective Sergeant David Clough is eating. Nothing new in that. Clough eats almost constantly throughout the working day, starting with a McDonald’s breakfast, moving on through several Mars Bars and a Pot Noodle for lunch, through a sustaining sandwich and cake at tea time before treating himself to a pint and a curry for supper. Despite this, Clough’s waistline is admirably trim, a fact he attributes to ‘football and shagging’. Recently, though, he has acquired a girlfriend, which has cut down on at least one of these activities.
Clough has had a trying day. His boss is on holiday and Clough was secretly hoping that this would be the week when a serial killer stalked Norfolk and was caught personally by super-policeman David, soon to be Sir, Clough. But, instead, he has had two break-ins, one taking and driving away and one old dear found dead on a stairlift. It’s not exactly Miami Vice.
His phone rings, blasting out an irritating jingle from The Simpsons. ‘Trace! Hi, babe.’
Detective Sergeant Judy Johnson, who is (under protest) sharing a desk with Clough, makes gagging motions. Clough ignores her, ingesting the last of his blueberry muffin.
‘Dave, you’d better come,’ says Trace. ‘We’ve found some bones.’
Clough leaps into action, grabs his phone and dives for the door, yelling for Judy to follow him. The effect is slightly ruined by the fact that he has forgotten his car keys and has to come back for them. Judy is still sitting at the desk, stony faced.
‘What do you mean “follow me”? You don’t outrank me.’ Clough sighs. It’s typical of Judy to raise objections and ruin their only chance of action this week. Ever since she was promoted last year she’s been getting above herself, in Clough’s opinion. Okay, she’s a good enough cop but she’s always picking him up on detail – a piece of paperwork left undone, a date missed, a phone call unrecorded – paperwork never solved a crime, Clough tells her in his head, though not in person; Judy is fairly formidable.
Now he tries to fix his face into an imitation of the boss at his most impatient.
‘Human bones found at Broughton Sea’s End. We’d better get going pronto.’
Still Judy doesn’t move.
‘Where were they found? Exactly?’
Clough doesn’t know. He was too busy swinging into action to ask questions. He glowers.
‘Was that Trace on the phone? Did she find them?’ ‘Yeah. She’s doing some sort of survey of the cliffs and what have you.’
‘An archaeological survey?’
‘I don’t know. All I know is they’ve found some bones, human remains. Are you coming or are you going to ask questions all day?’
Sure enough, by the time that they arrive at Broughton Sea’s End, the tide is coming in and it’s too dangerous to go down onto the beach. Clough shoots Judy a reproachful look which she ignores completely.
Trace and Steve are waiting for them at the top of the cliff, near the entrance to Sea’s End House. The sea has reached the bottom of the sloping path, the waves breaking with a smack against the stone. On the far side of the cove, the cliffs rise up, dark and straight, cut off now by the tide. ‘You were a long time,’ Trace greets Clough. ‘Ted and Craig have gone to the pub.’
‘Irish Ted?’ says Clough. ‘He’s always in the pub.’
Judy gets out her notebook and double checks the time before writing it down. Clough is finding her incredibly irritating.
‘Where exactly did you find the bones?’ she asks.
‘There’s a gap in the cliff,’ says Steve. ‘A sort of ravine.’ He’s a wiry weather-beaten man with grey hair in a ponytail. Typical archaeologist, thinks Clough.
‘How did you find them?’ asks Judy.
‘I was investigating a rock fall. I moved some of the bigger stones and there they were, underneath. The soil was probably dislodged by the landslide.’
‘Are they above the tide line?’ asks Judy. Across the bay, the first waves are breaking against the foot of the cliffs.
‘At present we think they’re protected by the debris from the rock fall,’ says Trace.
‘Spring tide though,’ says Steve. ‘It’ll be a high one.’
‘If we clear away the rocks and dig a trench,’ says Trace, ‘the sea’ll get them for sure.’
They watch as the water advances, incredibly quickly now, joining rock pools together, submerging the sea walls, turning the little bay into a churning pool of white.
Trace looks at her watch. She hasn’t made eye-contact with Clough since he arrived; he doesn’t know if she is pissed off with him for being late or just in professional, archaeologist mode. It’s a new departure for him, going out with a career girl, much less a girl with punk hair and a pierced tongue who wears Doc Martens. They met when Trace was involved with another case involving archaeologists and buried bones. Clough remembers how strongly he felt drawn to Trace from the very first when he saw her digging, her thin arms quilted with muscles. Even now he still finds the muscles (and the piercing) incredibly sexy. For his part, he just hopes that the sixpack compensates for the fact that he hasn’t read a book since he got stuck halfway through Of Mice and Men for O-Level English.
‘Are you sure they were human bones?’ Judy is asking. ‘Pretty sure,’ says Trace. She shivers slightly. The sun has gone in and the wind is rising. ‘How old?’
‘I don’t know. We’d need Ruth Galloway to have a look.’ Trace, Clough and Judy exchange looks. They all have their own memories of Ruth Galloway. Only Steve does not react to the name. ‘Isn’t she the forensics girl? I thought she’d left.’
‘She was on maternity leave,’ says Judy. ‘I think she’s back at work now.’
‘Should be at home looking after her kiddie,’ says Clough, rather ill-advisedly.
‘She’s a single mother,’ snaps Trace. ‘Presumably she needs the money.’
‘How did you come to be on the beach?’ asks Judy hastily. ‘We’re doing a survey for the university on coastal erosion. We’re surveying all the north-east Norfolk beaches. We’ve made some interesting finds as well. Palaeolithic hand axe at Titchwell, a Roman bracelet at Burgh Castle, lots of shipwrecks. Steve was examining the cliffs here when he saw the rockfall. The bones were in the gap behind. It looks like they were buried fairly deeply but the earth got dislodged when the stones came down.’
‘How come you’re discovering these things?’ asks Judy, as they walk back along the cliff path. ‘If the sea’s advancing, wouldn’t it cover everything up?’
Clough is glad she has asked this. He’d wanted to but was scared of looking stupid in front of Trace.
‘Tides change,’ says Trace shortly. ‘Sand gets moved; parts get silted up, other parts uncovered. The pebbles get pushed further up the beach. Things that were buried become exposed.’
‘Like our bones,’ says Steve. ‘They may have been buried well above the tidal line but the water’s getting closer, it’s wearing the earth away. Then part of the cliff came down on top of them.’
‘Did you get a good look at them?’ asks Clough.
‘Not really,’ says Steve. ‘Tide was coming in too fast. We didn’t want to get stranded on the wrong side of the beach. But, just at a glance, I’d say we were looking at more than one body.’
Clough and Judy exchange glances. ‘Definitely human?’
‘In my humble opinion, yes.’
‘We found something else too,’ says Trace, whose opinions are never humble.
They have reached the pub. Its sign, which, rather tactlessly, shows a man falling off a cliff, creaks in the gathering wind. They can see Ted through the window, raising a pint to his lips. In the yellow light from the window, Trace holds out something that looks a bit like loft insulation, a small ball of fluffy, yellowish fibres.
‘What is it?’ asks Judy.
‘Cotton wool?’ suggests Clough.
‘Whiffs a bit,’ says Steve. There is, indeed, a strong sulphuric smell coming from the material.
‘Fantastic,’ Clough rubs his hands together. ‘The boss is going to love this.’
‘Where is Nelson anyway?’ says Trace.
‘On holiday,’ says Clough. ‘Back on Monday. He’ll be counting the days.’
Judy laughs. Nelson’s dislike of holidays is a byword at the station.
Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is sitting by a pool with a glass of beer in his hand, thinking dark thoughts. It is evening and fairy lights, strung in the trees, are twinkling manically in the still water. Nelson’s wife Michelle is sitting beside him, but she is carrying on an intense discussion about highlights with the woman at the next table and has her back turned. Michelle is a hairdresser so this is her area of expertise, and Nelson knows better than to expect a pause in the monologue. His own area of expertise – murder – is less likely to prove a promising starting point for conversation.
When Nelson informed Michelle that he had a week’s holiday still owing, she suggested that they go somewhere ‘just the two of us’. At the time, he had quite liked the sound of this. Their eldest daughter, Laura, had left for university in September and their seventeen-year-old, Rebecca, was unlikely to want to spend an entire week with her parents. ‘Besides,’ said Michelle, ‘she won’t want to miss school.’
Nelson had grunted sceptically. Rebecca hardly ever seemed to go to school, her life as a sixth-former apparently consisting entirely of mysterious ‘free periods’ and even more mysterious ‘field trips’. Even her A-Level subjects are incomprehensible to Nelson. Psychology, Media Studies and Environmental Science. Psychology? He’s seen enough of that at work. Every so often his boss, Gerry Whitcliffe, will wheel out some weedy psychologist to give him an ‘offender profile’. The upshot of this always seems to be that they are looking for an inadequate loner who likes hurting people. Well, thanks and all that, but Nelson reckoned he could have worked that out for himself, with no qualifications except a lifetime in the police force and an O level in metalwork. Media Studies seemed to be another name for watching TV, and what the hell was Environmental Science when it was at home? It’s about climate change, Michelle had said knowledgeably, but she couldn’t fool him. They had both left school at sixteen; as far as higher education was concerned, their children had entered a different world.
Nelson had fancied Scotland, or even Norway, but he had to use up his week before the end of March and Michelle wanted sun. If you don’t go for long haul, the only sun in March seemed to be in the Canary Islands, so Michelle had booked them a week’s full board in a four star hotel in Lanzarote.
The hotel was nice enough and the island had a strange ash-grey charm of its own, but for Nelson the week was purgatory. On the first night, Michelle had struck up a conversation with another couple, Lisa and Ken from Farnborough. Within ten minutes, Nelson had learnt all he had ever wanted to know about Ken’s job as an IT consultant or Lisa’s as a beautician. He learnt that they had two children, teenagers, currently staying with Lisa’s parents (Stan and Evelyn), that they preferred Chinese takeaways to Indian and considered George Michael to be a great all-round entertainer. He learnt that Lisa was allergic to avocados and that Ken had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He learnt that Lisa went to Salsa on Wednesdays and that Ken had a golf handicap of thirteen.
‘How many children do you have?’ Lisa had asked Nelson, fixing him with an intense short-sighted stare.
‘Three,’ said Nelson shortly. ‘Three daughters.’
‘Harry!’ Michelle leant forward, gold necklaces jangling. ‘We’ve got two daughters, Lisa. He’ll forget his own name next.’
‘Sorry.’ Nelson turned back to his prawn cocktail. ‘Two girls, nineteen and seventeen.’
Only once, in the course of the evening, did the conversation falter and die.
‘What do you do for a living, Harry?’ asked Ken.
‘I’m a policeman,’ answered Nelson, stabbing ferociously at his steak.
‘Thank God,’ said Nelson to Michelle when they got back to their room. ‘We’ll never have to talk to those God-awful people again.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Michelle, wrapping herself in a towel and heading for the shower.
Nelson hesitated before answering; he didn’t want to piss her off too much as he was counting on first-night-of-the-holiday sex. ‘Well, we haven’t got a lot in common with them, have we?’
‘I liked them,’ said Michelle, turning on the water. ‘I’ve asked them to join us for crazy golf tomorrow.’
And that was it. They played golf with Lisa and Ken, they went sightseeing together, in the evenings they ate at adjoining tables and once, in a night of unparalleled awfulness, they had visited a karaoke bar. Hell, muses Nelson as he sits listening to the relative merits of gold versus red with a hint of honey, can hold nothing worse than singing ‘Wonderwall’ in a duet with a computer programmer from Farnborough.
‘We must get together another time,’ Ken is saying now, leaning towards Nelson. ‘Lees and I were thinking of Florida next year.’
‘We’ve been to Disneyland Florida,’ says Michelle, ‘when the girls were younger. It was great, wasn’t it Harry?’
‘Well, time to go again without the kids,’ says Ken. ‘Why should they have all the fun eh?’
Nelson regards him stonily. ‘Harry’s a real workaholic,’ says Michelle. ‘It’s hard to get him to relax.’
‘Must be a stressful job, being a policeman,’ says Lisa. She’d said the same thing, with variations, whenever his job was mentioned.
‘You could say that,’ says Nelson.
‘Harry’s had a tough year,’ says Michelle, in a sympathetic undertone.
You could say that, too, thinks Nelson, as they finally leave the poolside restaurant and repair to the lounge for coffee. Last year had produced two child-killers, at least three madmen and a curious relationship, the like of which he had never known before. Thinking about this relationship, Nelson stands up suddenly.
‘Going to stretch my legs,’ he explains. ‘Might give Rebecca a quick call too.’ Mobile phone reception is better in the open air.
Outside, Nelson walks around the pool twice, thinking of crimes with which he could charge Ken. Then he retreats into the darkness of the ‘Italian Terrace’, a rather desolate area full of empty urns and artistically broken columns.
He clicks onto Names and scrolls down the Rs. ‘Hallo,’ he says at last. ‘How are you doing?’
Dr Ruth Galloway is, in fact, doing rather badly. Phil, her Head of Department at the University of North Norfolk (UNN), had insisted on holding a planning meeting at five o’clock. As a result, Ruth was late at the childminder’s for the third time that week. As she screeches to a halt in front of the terraced house in King’s Lynn, she can’t help thinking that her name is now on some mysterious blacklist of Bad Mothers. The childminder, a comfortable older woman called Sandra, found after much exhaustive interviewing and reference checking, is understanding. ‘Doesn’t matter, love. I know how it is when you’re working,’ but Ruth still feels guilty. She never knows quite how to talk to Sandra. She’s not exactly a friend but she’s not a student or another academic either. She once heard one of the other mothers (Sandra looks after two other children) having a chat with Sandra in her kitchen, all about her husband and his untidiness, about her other children refusing to do their homework or eat their greens. It sounded so friendly and comfortable, Ruth longed to join in. But she doesn’t have a husband or any other children. And her job as a forensic archaeologist, specialising in long-dead bones, is hardly conducive to cosy kitchen chats.
As soon as four-month-old Kate sees Ruth, she starts to cry.
‘That always happens,’ says Sandra. ‘It’s relief at seeing Mum again.’
But as Ruth struggles to get Kate into her car seat, she can’t detect any relief or even affection in her crying. If anything, she just sounds plain angry.
Kate was a big baby. Long rather than heavy. ‘Is your partner tall?’ one of the midwives had asked, putting the red-faced bundle into Ruth’s arms. Ruth was saved from having to answer by the arrival of her parents, hot-foot from Eltham, bearing flowers and a copy of Baby’s First Bible Stories. Her mother was meant to have been with her during the birth but contractions had started during a Halloween party hosted by Ruth’s friend and sometime druid, Cathbad.
Cathbad, wearing white robes to honour the good spirits, had accompanied Ruth to hospital. ‘First babies take ages,’ he had assured her.
‘How do you know?’ Ruth had shouted, rent by pain which seemed both unbearable and continuous.
‘I have had a daughter,’ said Cathbad with dignity.
‘You didn’t have her,’ Ruth yelled, ‘your girlfriend did.’
Cathbad had ignored Ruth’s yelling, swearing, and assertions that she hated all men and him in particular. He had scattered herbs on her, walked around the bed muttering incantations, and finally had just held her hand.
‘She’ll be hours yet,’ said the midwives cheerfully. But Kate had been born at ten minutes past midnight, thus avoiding Halloween and arriving in time for All Saints’ Day.
‘I don’t hold with all that Catholic nonsense,’ said her mother, when Ruth informed her of this fact. Ruth’s parents were both Born Again Christians and considered that they alone of all denominations knew The Truth – a delusion which, as Ruth could have told them, they probably shared with every religious cult since the Assyrians first started burying bits of pottery alongside their ancestors, just to be on the safe side.
When Ruth had looked down at her daughter’s furious little face, she had been surprised by a rush of recognition. Whatever she had expected, it wasn’t this. The books had talked about Mother Love, about euphoria and joyfulness and feeding on demand. Ruth was too exhausted to feel euphoric. She wasn’t even sure if, at that moment, what she felt was love. All she felt was that she knew her baby: she wasn’t a stranger, she was Ruth’s daughter. That feeling carried her through the agonies of breast-feeding (nothing like the bucolic descriptions in the book), through the loneliness that engulfed her as soon as her parents had left, through the sleepless nights and zombie-like days that followed. She knew her baby. They were in this thing together.
Her mother had been pleased with the choice of name.
‘Short for Catherine, just like your Auntie Catherine in Thornton Heath’.
‘It’s not short for anything,’ Ruth had retorted, but she found that, increasingly, when she spoke, people tended not to hear. This was a shock for Ruth, who has been a university lecturer for all her working life. People used to pay to listen to her. Now, unless she was talking specifically about the baby, her mouth simply opened and shut like one of those nodding dogs in cars.
Cathbad had also liked the name. ‘After Hecate, the witch goddess. Very powerful magic.’
Her friend Max, an expert in Roman History, had made the same point.
‘Hecate was sometimes called the child nurse, you know.’
Ruth did know, but Kate was not named after Hecate or Auntie Catherine or Santa Caterina of Siena (suggested by a Catholic priest of Ruth’s acquaintance). She was simply Kate because Ruth liked the name. It was attractive without being twee, strong without being hard. You could hear it prefaced by Doctor or followed by MP. At the same time it was cute enough for a baby.
The future Dr Kate Galloway continues to yell in the back seat as Ruth makes for home. She lives outside King’s Lynn, on the North Norfolk coast, not in one of the many picturesque seaside resorts but in an isolated cottage facing a desolate but beautiful stretch of land known as the Saltmarsh. ‘You won’t be staying in that awful house after you have the baby, will you?’ her mother had asked. ‘Why not?’ Ruth had answered.
She loves the house, loves the view that stretches over the marshes into nothingness, loves the expanse of sky and the sound of the sea, loves the birds that darken the evening sky, their wings turned to pink by the setting sun. But she has to admit that the winter was hard. She spent Christmas with her parents in south London and was only too glad to leave, having had enough of praying before meals and listening to her sister-in-law talk about calories. But when she and Kate were finally home, alone in the little house with the wind roaring in from the sea, she had felt a slight but none the less real stab of fear. They were on their own; they truly were in this thing together. Ruth’s cottage is one of three but one house is empty and the other is owned by weekenders who visit less and less often now that their children have grown up. Her nearest neighbours are in the village, a mile away along a dark, exposed road raised up over the flat marshland, and the houses were mostly boarded up for the winter.
Throughout the whole of that January, Ruth and Kate scarcely left the house. Ruth was sustained by Radio 4 (the two episodes of The Archers were oases of delight in her day) and by watching Kate. She hadn’t realised that a baby would change day by day. One day Kate could smile – she mostly smiled at Ruth’s cat, Flint – the next gurgle, and on one joyous occasion she slept through the night. Soon she was greeting her mother with a whole-body wriggle and delighted waving of the legs. This probably saved Ruth’s sanity.
When, in February, Cathbad arrived to celebrate Imbolc, the coming of Spring (slightly premature as there was still snow on the ground), he astounded Ruth by asking her when she was going to return to work. Her hermit-like existence had become her only reality; her world had shrunk to four walls and a computer screen. But when Cathbad mentioned work she realised how much she missed it. She missed her students and her colleagues but most of all she missed the archaeology, the painstaking sifting of evidence, the age-old puzzles of bones and soil, the delight in discovery.
Leaving Kate with her friend Shona, who seemed to have bought the whole of Toys R Us for the occasion, she went to see Phil. Then she came home, ordered some work clothes on-line (her pre-baby clothes had become mysteriously tight) and set about weaning Kate onto a bottle. This last task proved so difficult and emotional that it severely tested Ruth’s new-found resolve. But she persevered, and by early March she was back at work.
For years Ruth has been a fan of Woman’s Hour but it is only now that she begins to see the point of all those features about ‘juggling’ and the impossibility of ‘having it all’. With a little application, it was perfectly possible to put adequate childcare provisions in place. What she hadn’t bargained for were the emotions. She felt terrible about leaving Kate, yet when she entered her office for the first time, her own office with her name on the door, she felt a relief so strong that she almost cried (and Ruth doesn’t, on the whole, do tears). If she is late to pick up Kate, she feels guilty of almost every crime against humanity. She longs to be with her baby, but when she is she’s assailed by a feeling almost of panic. Will she ever escape or will she be trapped in the mother world forever?
Now, she parks her rusty car outside her cottage. The security light comes on, illuminating the overgrown garden and the scrub bushes blown flat by the wind. Kate has fallen asleep and, though this means she probably now won’t sleep again before midnight, Ruth is grateful. She carries the car seat into the house and places it in the middle of the sitting room. Flint comes up and sniffs Kate’s face. Ruth carries him away. Her mother is full of stories about cats sitting on babies and suffocating them but Flint’s attitude so far has been one of detached friendliness and Ruth relies too much on his companionship to suspect him of sinister motives. She feeds him, makes tea and toast for herself and prepares to enjoy an hour’s peace.
The phone rings as soon as she has sat down. It is Nelson. ‘Hallo. How are you doing?’
‘I’m fine. Where are you ringing from? Are you back?’
A hollow laugh. ‘No, I’m still here in bloody Lanzarote listening to the most boring man in the world talk about hard drives.’
‘Sounds like fun.’
‘You’ve no idea.’
There is an expensive international pause. ‘How’s Katie?’
Impatient grunt. ‘Is she okay?’
‘She’s fine. She’s sleeping.’ From where she is sitting Ruth can see Kate’s little chest rising and falling. Though she no longer checks every ten minutes to see if her daughter is breathing, she still does it every hour.
‘How’s the childminder? Working out all right?’
‘Jesus. You ran a police check on her. Twice.’ ‘Things can get past those checks.’
‘She’s fine. Not a murderer or a child molester. Fine.’
There is another silence while they both think of people who turned out to be not quite what they seemed. Ruth has assisted the police on two murder cases, both involving children.
‘I’ll be home tomorrow.’
But Ruth knows that home does not mean home to her.
‘It’s very cold in Norfolk,’ she says, dampeningly.
‘Christ Almighty. It’s always cold in bloody Norfolk.’
He rings off and Ruth sits on the sofa thinking complicated and uncomfortable thoughts. When Trace rings and tell her that they have discovered a mass grave at Broughton Sea’s End, it’s a relief as much as anything.
Excerpted from The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2011 by Elly Griffiths.
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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