Festival of Carna
The house is waiting. It knows. When I sacrificed yesterday, the entrails were black. Everything is turned to night. Outside it is spring but in the house there is a coldness, a pall of despair that covers everything.
We are cursed. This is no longer a house but a grave. The birds do not sing in the garden and even the sun does not dare penetrate the windows. No one knows how to lift the curse. They have given in and lie as if waiting for death. But I know and the house knows.
Only blood will save us now.
A light breeze runs through the long grass at the top of the hill. Close up, the land looks ordinary, just heather and coarse pasture with the occasional white stone standing out like a signpost. But if you were to fly up above these unremarkable hills you would be able to see circular raised banks and darker rectangles amongst the greens and browns – sure signs that this land has been occupied many, many times before.
Ruth Galloway, walking rather slowly up the hill, does not need the eagle’s eye view to know that this is an archaeological site of some importance. Colleagues from the university have been digging on this hill for days and they have uncovered not only evidence of a Roman villa but also of earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements.
Ruth had planned to visit the site earlier but she has been busy marking papers and preparing for the end of term. It is May and the air is sweet, full of pollen and the scent of rain. She stops, getting her breath back and enjoying the feeling of being outdoors on a spring afternoon. The year has been dark so far, though not without unexpected bonuses, and she relishes the chance just to stand still, letting the sun beat down on her face.
‘Ruth!’ She turns and sees a man walking towards her. He is wearing jeans and a work-stained shirt and he treats the hill with disdain, hardly altering his long stride. He is tall and slim with curly dark hair greying at the temples. Ruth recognises him, as he obviously does her, from a talk he gave at her university several months ago. Dr Max Grey, from the University of Sussex, an archaeologist and an expert on Roman Britain.
‘I’m glad you could come,’ he says and he actually does look glad. A change from most archaeologists, who resent another expert on their patch. And Ruth is an acknowledged expert – on bones, decomposition and death. She is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk.
‘Are you down to the foundations?’ asks Ruth, following Max to the summit of the hill. It is colder here and, somewhere high above, a skylark sings.
‘Yes, I think so,’ says Max, pointing to a neat trench in front of them. Halfway down, a line of grey stone can be seen. ‘I think we may have found something that will interest you, actually.’
Ruth knows without being told. ‘Bones,’ she says.
Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is shouting. Despite a notoriously short fuse at work (at home with his wife and daughters he is a pussy cat) he is not normally a shouter. Brusque commands are more his line, usually delivered on the run whilst moving on to the next job. He is a man of quick decisions and limited patience. He likes doing things: catching criminals, interrogating suspects, driving too fast and eating too much. He does not like meetings, pointless discussions or listening to advice. Above all, he does not like sitting in his office on a fine spring day trying to persuade his new computer to communicate with him. Hence the shouting.
‘Leah!’ he bellows.
Leah, Nelson’s admin assistant (or secretary, as he likes to call her), edges cautiously into the room. She is a delicate, dark girl of twenty-five, much admired by the younger officers. Nelson, though, sees her mainly as a source of coffee and an interpreter of new technology, which seems to get newer and more temperamental every day.
‘Leah,’ he complains, ‘the screen’s gone blank again.’
‘Did you switch it off?’ asks Leah. Nelson has been known to pull out plugs in moments of frustration, once fusing all the lights on the second floor.
‘No. Well, once or twice.’
Leah dives beneath the desk to check the connections. ‘Seems OK,’ she says. ‘Press a key.’
Nelson thumps the space bar and the computer miraculously comes to life, saying smugly, ‘Good afternoon, DCI Nelson.’
‘Fuck off,’ responds Nelson, reaching for the mouse.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Leah’s eyebrows rise.
‘Not you,’ says Nelson, ‘This thing. When I want small talk, I’ll ask for it.’
‘I assume it’s programmed to say good morning,’ says Leah equably. ‘Mine plays me a tune.’
‘Chief Superintendent Whitcliffe says everyone’s got to familiarise themselves with the new computers. There’s a training session at four today.’
‘I’m busy,’ says Nelson without looking up. ‘Got a case conference out Swaffham way.’
‘Isn’t that where they’re doing that Roman dig?’ asks Leah. ‘I saw it on Time Team.’
She has her back to Nelson, straightening files on his shelves, and so fails to see the sudden expression of interest on his face.
‘A dig? Archaeology?’
‘Yes,’ says Leah, turning round. ‘They’ve found a whole Roman town there, they think.’
Nelson now bends his head to his computer screen. ‘Lots of archaeologists there, are there?’
‘Yes. My uncle owns the local pub, the Phoenix, and he says they’re in there every night. He’s had to double his cider order.’
‘Typical,’ grunts Nelson. He can just imagine archaeologists drinking cider when everyone knows that bitter’s a man’s drink. Women archaeologists, though, are another matter.
‘I might have a look at the site on my way back,’ he says.
‘Are you interested in history?’ asks Leah disbelievingly.
‘Me? Yes, fascinated. Never miss an episode of Sharpe.’
‘You should be on our pub quiz team then.’
‘I get too nervous,’ says Nelson blandly, typing in his password with one finger. Nelson1; he’s not one for ambiguity.
‘Do me a favour, love, make us a cup of coffee would you?’
Swaffham is a picturesque market town, the kind Nelson drives through every day without noticing. A few miles outside and you are deep in the country – fields waist high with grass, signposts pointing in both directions at once, cows wandering across the road shepherded by a vacant-looking boy on a quad bike. Nelson is lost in seconds and almost gives up before it occurs to him to ask the vacant youth the way to the Phoenix pub. When in doubt in Norfolk, ask the way to a pub. It turns out to be quite near so Nelson does a U-turn in the mud, turns into a road that is no more than a track and there it is, a low thatched building facing a high, grassy bank. Nelson parks in the pub car park and, with a heart turn that he does not want to acknowledge as excitement, he recognises the battered red Renault parked across the road, at the foot of the hill. I just haven’t seen her for a while, he tells himself, it’ll be good to catch up.
He has no idea where to find the dig, or even what it will look like, but he reckons he’ll be able to see more from the top of the bank. It’s a beautiful evening, the shadows are long on the grass and the air is soft. But Nelson does not notice his surroundings; he is thinking of a bleak coastline, of bodies washed out to sea by a relentless tide, of the circumstances in which he met Ruth Galloway. She had been the forensic archaeologist called in when human bones were found on the Saltmarsh, a desolate spot on the North Norfolk coast. Though those bones had turned out to be over two thousand years old, Ruth had subsequently become involved in a much more recent case, that of a five-year-old girl, abducted, believed murdered. He hasn’t seen Ruth since the case ended three months ago.
At the top of the hill all he can see is more hills. The only features of interest are some earthworks in the distance, and two figures walking along the top of a curving bank: one a brown-haired woman in loose, dark clothes, the other a tall man in mud-stained jeans. A cider-drinker, he’ll be bound.
‘Ruth,’ calls Nelson. He can see her smile; she has a remarkably lovely smile, not that he would ever tell her so.
‘Nelson!’ She looks good too, he thinks, her eyes bright, her cheeks pink with exercise. She hasn’t lost any weight though and he realises that he would have been rather disappointed if she had.
‘What are you doing here?’ asks Ruth. They don’t kiss or even shake hands but both are grinning broadly.
‘Had a case conference nearby. Heard there was a dig here.’
‘What, are you watching Time Team now?’
‘My favourite viewing.’
Ruth smiles sceptically and introduces her companion. ‘This is Dr Max Grey from Sussex University. He’s in charge of the dig. Max, this is DCI Nelson.’
The man, Max, looks up in surprise. Nelson himself is aware that his title sounds incongruous in the golden evening. Crime happens, even here, Nelson tells Max Grey silently. Academics are never keen on the police.
But Dr Grey manages a smile. ‘Are you interested in archaeology, DCI Nelson?’
‘Sometimes,’ says Nelson cautiously. ‘Ruth . . . Dr Galloway. . . and I worked on a case together recently.’
‘That affair on the Saltmarsh?’ asks Max, his eyes wide.
‘Yes,’ says Ruth shortly. ‘DCI Nelson called me in when he found some bones on the marsh.’
‘Turned out to be bloody Stone Age,’ says Nelson.
‘Iron Age,’ corrects Ruth automatically. ‘Actually, Nelson, Max found some human bones today.’
‘Iron Age?’ asks Nelson.
‘Roman, we think. They seem to have been buried under the wall of a house. Come and see.’ She leads them down the bank and towards the earthworks. Close up, Nelson sees that the land is full of these strange mounds and hills, some curving round, some standing alone like large molehills.
‘What are all these bumps?’ he asks Max Grey.
‘We think they’re walls,’ replies Max, his face lighting up in the way that archaeologists have when they are about to bore the pants off you. ‘You know, we think there was a whole settlement here, we’re fairly near the old Roman road but, from the surface, the only signs are some brown lines in the grass, crop marks, that sort of thing.’
Nelson looks back at the smoothly curving bank. He can just about imagine it as a wall but the rest just looks like grass to him.
‘This body, you say it’s under a wall?’
‘Yes. We just dug a trial trench and there it was. We think it’s the wall of a villa, quite a sizeable one, by the looks of it.’
‘Funny place to find bones, under a wall,’ says Nelson.
‘They may have been a foundation sacrifice,’ says Max.
‘The Celts, and the Romans sometimes, used to bury bodies under walls and doors as offerings to the Gods Janus and Terminus.’
‘The God of boundaries.’
‘I pray to him whenever I go to Heathrow. And the other one?’
‘Janus, God of doors and openings.’
‘So they killed people and stuck their bodies under their houses? Funny sort of luck.’
‘We don’t know if they killed them or if they were dead already,’ says Max calmly, ‘but the bodies are often children’s’.
They have reached the trench which has been covered by a blue tarpaulin. Ruth peels back the covering and kneels on the edge of the trench. Nelson crouches beside her. He sees a neat, rectangular hole (he often wishes that his crime-scene boys were as tidy as archaeologists), the edges sharp and straight. The trench is about a metre deep and Nelson can see a clear cross-section of the layers as the topsoil gives way to clay and then chalk. Below the chalk, a line of grey stones can be seen. Next to the stones a deeper hole has been dug. At the bottom of this hole is a gleam of white.
‘Haven’t you dug them up?’ asks Nelson.
‘No,’ says Ruth, ‘we need to record and draw the grave and skeleton on plan so that we can understand its context. It’ll be really important to check which way the skeleton is lying. Could be significant if it points to the east, for example.’
‘The brothers used to tell us to sleep with our feet to the east,’ says Nelson suddenly remembering, ‘so that if we died in the night we could walk to heaven.’
‘An interesting survival of superstition,’ says Ruth coolly. Nelson remembers that she has no time for religion.
‘Churches,’ Ruth goes on, ‘are nearly always built east to west, never north to south.’
‘I’ll remember that.’
‘And sometimes,’ cuts in Max, ‘men are buried facing west and women facing east.’
‘Sounds sexist to me,’ says Nelson straightening up.
‘And you’re never sexist,’ says Ruth.
‘Never. I’ve just been on a course all about redefining gender roles in the police force.’
‘What was it like?’
‘Crap. I left at lunchtime.’
Ruth laughs and Max, who has been looking disapproving, smiles too, looking from Ruth to Nelson and back again. Clearly more is going on here than he realised.
‘We’re just off to the Phoenix for a drink,’ Ruth is saying. ‘Do you want to come?’
‘I can’t,’ says Nelson regretfully, ‘I’ve got some sort of do to go to.’
‘A ball in aid of the festival. It’s being held at the castle. Black tie and all that. Michelle wanted to go.’
‘How the other half lives,’ says Ruth.
Nelson’s only reply is a grunt. He can’t think of anything worse than poncing around in a monkey suit in the company of a load of arty-farty types. But not only his wife but his boss, Gerry Whitcliffe, were insistent that he should go. ‘Just the sort of PR the force needs,’ Whitcliffe had said, carefully not mentioning that it was Nelson’s handling of the Saltmarsh case that had left the local force so in need of good publicity. PR! Jesus wept.
‘Pity,’ says Max lightly, his hand just hovering around Ruth’s shoulders. ‘Another time perhaps.’
Nelson watches them go. The beer garden of the Phoenix is filling up with early evening drinkers. He can hear laughter and the clink of glasses. He can’t help hoping that Leah’s uncle has run out of cider.
Ruth drives slowly along the A47 towards King’s Lynn. Although it is past eight, the traffic is never-ending. Where can they all be going, thinks Ruth, tapping impatiently on her steering wheel and looking out at the stream of lorries, cars, caravans and people carriers. It’s not the holiday season yet and it’s far too late for the school run or even the commuter traffic. What are all these people doing, heading for Narborough, Marham and West Winch? Why are they all trapped on this particular circle of hell? For several junctions now she has been stuck behind a large BMW with two smug riding hats on the back shelf. She starts to hate the BMW family with their Longleat sticker and personalised number-plate (SH3LLY 40) and their horse riding at weekends. She bets they don’t even really like horses. Brought up in a London suburb, Ruth has never been on a horse though she does have a secret fondness for books about ponies. She bets that Shelly got the car for her fortieth birthday along with a holiday in the Caribbean and a special session of Botox. Ruth will be forty in two months’ time.
She’d enjoyed the drinks in the pub, though she’d only had orange juice. Max had been very interesting, talking about Roman burial traditions. We tend to think of the Romans as so civilised, he’d said, so outraged by the barbaric Iron Age practices but there is plenty of evidence of Roman punishment burials, ritual killing and even infanticide. A boy’s skull found in St Albans about ten years ago, for example, showed that its owner had been battered to death and then decapitated. At Springfield in Kent foundation sacrifices of paired babies had been found at all four corners of a Roman temple. Ruth shivers and passes a hand lightly across her stomach.
But Max had been good company for all his tales of death and decapitation. He’d been brought up in Norfolk and obviously loved the place. Ruth told him about her home on the north Norfolk coast, about the winds that come directly from Siberia and the marshes flowering purple with sea lavender. I’d like to visit one day, Max had said. That would be nice, Ruth had replied but neither had said more. Ruth had agreed to visit the dig next week though. Max has a whole team coming up from Sussex. They are going to camp in the fields and dig all through May and June. Ruth feels a rush of nostalgia for summer digs; for the camaraderie, the songs and dope-smoking round the camp fire, the days of back-breaking labour. She doesn’t miss the lack of proper loos or showers though. She’s too old for all that.
Thank God, SH3LLY 40 has turned off to the left and Ruth can see signs for Snettisham and Hunstanton. She’s nearly home. On Radio 4 someone is talking about bereavement: ‘for everything there is a season’. Ruth loves Radio 4 but there are limits. She switches to cassette (her car is too old for a CD player) and the air is filled with Bruce Springsteen’s heartfelt all-American whine. Ruth loves Bruce Springsteen – the open road, the doomed love, the friends called Bobby Joe who’ve fallen on hard times – and no amount of derision is going to make her change her mind. She turns the sound up.
Ruth is now driving between overhanging trees, the verges rich with cow parsley. In a moment, she knows, the trees will vanish as if by magic and the sea will be in front of her. She never tires of this moment, when the horizon suddenly stretches away into infinity, blue turning to white turning to gold. She drives faster and, when she reaches the caravan site that marks the start of her road home, she stops and gets out of the car, letting the sea breeze blow back her hair.
Ahead of her are the sand dunes, blown into fantastic shapes by the wind. The tide is out and the sea is barely visible, a line of blue against the grey sand. Seagulls call high above and the red sail of a windsurfer shimmers silently past.
Without warning, Ruth leans over and is violently sick.
Norwich Castle, a Victorian icing covering a rich medieval cake, is now a museum. Nelson has been there several times with his daughters. They used to love the dungeons, he remembers, and Laura had a soft spot for the teapot collection. He hasn’t been for years though and as he and his wife Michelle ascend the winding pathway, floodlit and decorated with heraldic banners, he fears the worst. His fears are justified when they are met by serving wenches. The invitation did not mention fancy dress but these girls are very definitely wenches, wearing low-cut, vaguely medieval dresses and sporting frilly caps on their heads. They are proffering trays of champagne and Nelson takes the fullest glass, a fact not wasted on Michelle.
‘Trust you to take the biggest,’ she says, accepting a glass of orange juice.
‘I’m going to need alcohol to get through this evening,’ says Nelson as they walk up to the heavy wooden doors. ‘You didn’t tell me it was fancy dress.’
‘It isn’t.’ Michelle is wearing a silver mini-dress which is definitely not medieval. In fact, Nelson feels that it could do with a bit more material, a train or a crinoline or whatever women wore in those days. She looks good though, he has to admit.
They enter a circular reception room to be met by more champagne, someone playing the lute, and, most disturbingly, a jester. Nelson takes a step backwards.
‘Go on,’ Michelle pushes him from behind.
‘There’s a man in tights!’
‘So? He won’t kill you.’
Nelson steps warily into the room, keeping his eye on the jester. He has ignored another danger though, which advances from the opposite direction.
‘Ah Harry! And the beautiful Mrs Nelson.’
It is Whitcliffe, resplendent in a dinner jacket with an open-neck shirt, which he presumably thinks is trendy. He’s also wearing a white scarf. Wanker.
Whitcliffe is kissing Michelle’s hand. The jester is hovering hopefully, shaking his bells.
‘You didn’t tell me there’d be people dressed up funny,’ says Nelson, his northern accent, always evident in times of stress, coming to the fore.
‘It’s a medieval theme,’ says Whitcliffe smoothly. ‘Edward does these things so well.’
‘Edward Spens,’ says Whitcliffe. ‘You remember I told you that Spens and Co are sponsoring this evening.’
‘The builders. Yes.’
‘Building contractors,’ says a voice behind them.
Nelson swings round to see a good-looking man of his own age, wearing faultless evening dress. No white scarf or openneck shirt for him, just a conventional white shirt and black tie, setting off tanned skin and thick dark hair. Nelson dislikes him instantly.
‘Edward!’ Whitcliffe obviously doesn’t share this feeling. ‘This is Edward Spens, our host. Edward, this is Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson and his lovely wife, Michelle.’
Edward Spens looks admiringly at Michelle. ‘I never knew policemen had such beautiful wives, Gerry.’
‘It’s a perk of the job,’ says Nelson tightly.
Whitcliffe, who isn’t married (a cause of much speculation), says nothing. Michelle, who is used to male admiration, flashes a wide but slightly distancing smile.
‘Nelson,’ Edward Spens is saying, ‘weren’t you the copper involved in the Saltmarsh affair?’
‘Yes.’ Nelson hates talking about his work and he particularly dislikes being called a ‘copper’.
‘What a terrible business.’ Spens is looking serious. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, thank God you solved it.’ Spens pats him heartily on the back.
Thank Ruth Galloway as well, thinks Nelson. But Ruth has always wanted her involvement in the case kept as low-key as possible.
‘Luckily cases like that don’t occur very often,’ he says.
‘I’ll drink to that!’ Spens pushes another glass of champagne into his hand.
Nobody has seen Ruth throw up so she simply kicks some dirt over the vomit and gets back in the car. Bruce Springsteen is telling the improbably named Wendy that they are born to run. Ruth backs the car out of the caravan site and heads for home.
Her cottage is one of three on the edge of the Saltmarsh. One cottage is empty and the other is owned by weekenders who visit less and less now that their children are growing up. The isolation does not bother Ruth. In fact, as she gets out of her car and drinks in the wide expanse of marsh, the distant sand dunes and the far-off murmur of the sea, her enjoyment is enhanced by the thought that this view is hers and hers alone. Smiling she opens her front door.
Ruth’s ginger cat, Flint, has been lying in wait and now advances, complaining loudly. He has food in his bowl but it is obviously out of the question that he should eat it. He purrs around Ruth’s legs until she gives him a fresh bowlful, heaving slightly at the smell. Then he sniffs it fastidiously and goes out of the cat flap.
Ruth sits at the table by the window to check her answerphone messages. One is from her mother asking if Ruth is still coming to stay at the weekend. Her mother always expects Ruth’s plans to change at the last minute, despite the fact that Ruth is actually extremely punctual and reliable. The second message is from her friend Shona, burbling on about her married boyfriend Phil. The third is from Max Grey. Interesting.
‘Hi Ruth. Just to say how much I enjoyed our chat. I was just thinking about our body. If the head is missing, that could be evidence of a head-cult. Have you heard of the Lankhills excavations in Winchester? Seven decapitated bodies were found in a Roman cemetery, including a child’s. Could that be what we’ve got here, I wonder? Anyway, speak soon.’
Ruth thinks how strangely archaeologists speak sometimes. ‘Our body’. The bones found buried under the Roman foundations have become ‘our body’, linking Ruth and Max in some strange, surreal way. They both feel a sense of ownership, even sympathy, towards them. But is this enough reason for Max to leave this message? Did he really just want a cosy chat about decapitated bodies or did he, just possibly, want to talk to her again?
Ruth sighs. It’s all too complicated for her. Besides, she has other things on her mind. Tomorrow she has to drive to London and tell her mother that’s she’s pregnant.
‘So, you see, we’re developing three key sites in the heart of Norwich. The old tannery, the Odeon cinema and the derelict house on Woolmarket Street.’
‘Woolmarket Street?’ Whitcliffe cuts in. ‘Didn’t that used to be a children’s home?’
‘I believe so, yes,’ says Edward Spens, spreading butter on his roll. ‘Are you a local Norwich boy, Gerry?’
That explains a lot, thinks Nelson, as Whitcliffe nods. Nelson was born in Blackpool and would be back there like a shot if it wasn’t for Michelle and the girls. It had been Michelle’s idea for him to take the Norfolk job and, deep down, he still resents her for it. The girls don’t like Blackpool; everyone talks funnily and you eat your supper at five o’clock. And it’s too cold for them, although the local girls seem to wear miniskirts all year round.
They are at the ‘banquet’ stage now; roast pork disguised as suckling pig. Michelle has left most of hers. She is sparkling away at her neighbour, some goon called Leo wearing a pink shirt and ridiculous glasses. Nelson’s neighbour, a regal woman in blue satin, has ignored him completely, which has left him listening to Edward Spens’ relentless sales pitch. ‘It’s a family company,’ Spens is saying. ‘Built up by my father, Roderick Spens. Actually it’s Sir Roderick, he was knighted for services to the building trade. Dad’s supposed to be retired but he still comes into the office every day. Tries to tell me how to run things. He’s against me developing the Woolmarket site, for example, but it’s a prime piece of real estate.’ He laughs expansively. Nelson regards him stonily. Real estate. Who does this guy think he is? ‘Harry!’ Nelson is aware that his wife is actually speaking to him, twinkling charmingly from across the table. ‘Harry. Leo was talking about the Roman settlement that they’ve dug up. The one near Swaffham. I was telling him that we’ve got a friend who’s an archaeologist.’
Michelle and Ruth, rather to Nelson’s surprise, hit it off immediately. Michelle likes boasting about her intellectual friend. ‘Honestly, she doesn’t care what she looks like.’ Michelle will be delighted to hear that Ruth hasn’t lost any weight.
‘Yes,’ says Nelson guardedly, ‘she works at the university.’
‘I’m writing a play,’ says Leo earnestly, ‘about the Roman God Janus. The two-faced God. The God of beginnings and endings, of doorways and openings, of the past and the future.’
Janus. Something is echoing in Nelson’s head but is having trouble fighting through the champagne and the suckling pig. Of course, it was Ruth’s know-all friend, the one from Sussex University. Janus, God of doors and openings.
And suddenly Nelson realises something else. It is as if he is seeing a film rewound and, in the second viewing, recognising something that was there all the time. He sees Ruth walking towards him, her loose shirt blown flat against her body. She hasn’t lost weight. In fact, she may even have put some on.
Could Ruth possibly be pregnant? Because, if so, he could be the father.
Excerpted from The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2010 by Elly Griffiths.
First published in Great Britain in 2010 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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