The Outcast Dead(2)
Author:Elly Griffiths

    ‘You know our find earlier,’ he says, lowering his voice.

    ‘Our’ is pushing it, Phil wasn’t even on site when Ruth uncovered the woman’s body, though he came quickly enough when he heard the news.

    ‘Well, there’s been some interest,’ he says.

    ‘From English Heritage?’ asks Ruth, genuinely excited. If English Heritage fund a really big dig, who knows what they could find? Norwich Castle dates back to medieval times, there must be layers and layers of treasures beneath their feet.

    ‘Better than that,’ says Phil his face holy with joy. ‘Television.’


    Ruth drives home through apparently endless traffic. She has left the other archaeologists having a party in the castle grounds, with warm white wine and vegetarian snacks supplied by Janet. This is one of the worst things about being a working mother. Oh, the work’s all right. You can make arrangements for the work. It’s all the other stuff. The drinks after work, the leaving dos, the Friday nights when someone suggests a curry. All the times, in fact, when the important bonding gets done. Ruth has to miss all that, and she’s lost count of the times when she’s been the last to hear about a dig because ‘we discussed it last night in the pub’. Phil is a great one for networking, he’s always skulking off with a few cronies to plot over pasta but, then again, Phil is only a working father. Having children doesn’t seem to impinge on his professional life at all.

    But Ruth has no time to lie on the grass talking about the dead. As it is, it’ll be past eight before she collects Kate from the childminder. Sandra is always very understanding but Ruth doesn’t want to use up all her credit in one go. She never knows when she might need another favour. So she embarks on the tedious drive from Norwich to King’s Lynn, all the way across the fattest part of the county. But as she switches lanes, gets stuck at red lights, and chooses countless short cuts which actually take more time but at least keep her moving, she isn’t thinking about her colleagues or even about her beloved daughter. She is thinking about the body in the trench.

    As soon as she saw it she knew. A skeleton, still clad in a few shreds of clothing, face down, arms tied behind its back. But what made Ruth catch her breath was what was on the end of one of the arms. An iron hook, almost rusted away at the point, crudely screwed into the carpal bone. When the body was excavated and she could see by the pelvic bones that it was female, she was even more convinced that she was looking at the skeleton of Jemima Green, otherwise known as Mother Hook. Even Ruth, who avoids ‘real crime’ stories like the plague (though she’s actually quite interested in the plague), has heard of Mother Hook, probably the most notorious murderess in Norfolk’s history. A so-called baby farmer, Jemima Green was convicted of murdering a child who had been fostered out to her in a nightmarish Victorian version of childminding. It was thought at the time that she may have killed as many as twenty more. She was one of the last women hanged at the castle, doubtless in front of a capacity crowd. Yet her name had lived on. Partly it was the grisly fascination of the hook. From Peter Pan onwards, metal limbs have added to the horror of pantomime villains. And the fact that Jemima Green had a hook instead of a hand added to the idea of a woman lost to all natural instincts, a mother who killed instead of cherishing. The hand that rocks the cradle became an instrument of torture. Without realising it, Ruth starts to drive faster, almost missing the turning for the A47.

    If they have found the remains of Mother Hook, the publicity implications are tremendous. There have been countless books written about Jemima Green, even a rather dubious musical comedy entitled Hook, Line and Sinker. No wonder a TV programme is interested. But every time Ruth thinks about the skeleton, still with a hood over its head, iron hook glinting in the light, she feels a chill to the bone. She almost feels like saying that she doesn’t want to be involved in this dig any more but, remembering Phil’s ecstatic expression, she knows that she has no chance of escaping.

    Kate is asleep by the time she reaches Sandra’s house, which only adds to Ruth’s feeling of guilt. She carries her daughter out to the car but, as she manoeuvres her into the baby seat, Kate wakes up. ‘Mum’, she says accusingly.

    ‘Hi Kate. We’re going home.’

    ‘Home,’ says Kate, shutting her eyes.

    Home. As Ruth drives through the summer evening, past the outskirts of King’s Lynn, the tantalising glimpses of sea, the caravan parks filling up for the season, she thinks about their home, hers and Kate’s. Ruth lives in an isolated cottage on the very edge of the Saltmarsh. For most of the year her only neighbours are the birds that fly above the coarse grass and sand dunes leading to the sea. Sometimes she has the company of her nomadic Indigenous Australian neighbour, Bob Woolunga, or the weekenders who have the cottage on the other side. But mostly it’s just her and Kate. And mostly that’s just how Ruth likes it. But recently, particularly this winter when they were snowed in for several days, she has begun to wonder if this is really the best place to bring up a child. Shouldn’t she be nearer to civilisation, playgroups, Chinese takeaways, that sort of thing? The trouble is that Ruth doesn’t always like civilisation very much.

    It’s still light when she reaches her house but the shadows are darkening. The security light (fitted by Nelson three years ago) comes on as she carries a still-sleeping Kate up to the front door. Ruth’s ginger cat, Flint, greets them enthusiastically, weaving around Ruth’s legs as she climbs the stairs with Kate in her arms. ‘Don’t wake up,’ Ruth implores silently. She loves her daughter more than life itself, but the prospect of an evening watching TV with Flint and a glass of wine is more attractive than the thought of hours singing nursery rhymes and reading about Dora the Explorer. But though Kate snuffles and sighs when Ruth puts her in her bed, she doesn’t wake up. Ruth tiptoes downstairs with Flint close on her heels. He wants to make sure that his supper is her highest priority.

    Ruth feeds Flint, makes herself a sandwich and pours a glass of red. Then she pushes a pile of books off the sofa and sits down to flick through the channels. Cookery? No thanks, she has enough problems with her weight without indulging in cup-cake porn. Restoration Homes? No, her sympathy for people who buy million-pound mansions and then have trouble with dry rot in the orangery is limited. The News? Oh, all right then. She really should know something about the real world.

    The screen shows a heavily built dark-haired man scowling at the camera.

    ‘DCI Harry Nelson,’ says the announcer, ‘refused to comment today, but King’s Lynn police confirmed that they are questioning thirty-seven-year-old Liz Donaldson in connection with the deaths of her three children.’

    Now the picture is of a blonde woman, laughing as she holds her baby in her arms.


    By the time DCI Harry Nelson reaches home he feels as if he’s been awake for several years. Seeing his wife’s car on the drive he wishes, for almost the first time in their married life, that Michelle was out with the girls or visiting her mother, not waiting for him with a hot meal and wanting to know the details of his day. What can he say? I’ve been questioning a young mother, a woman not unlike you – attractive, independent, intelligent – asking her if she held a pillow over the mouths of her three children and choked the life out of them. I’ve been asking a woman who has just lost her third child whether her loss was not, in fact, tragedy but outright murder. I’ve been doing this in the face of open hostility from my team. Judy, who believes Liz Donaldson is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Clough, who says ‘no mum could do a thing like that’ though he knows that they can and do. Even Tim, who Nelson has brought down from Blackpool to be the calm voice of reason on the team, says he feels uncomfortable about the whole process. ‘The coroner found natural causes in the cases of the first two children. It’s possible that we’re talking about a congenital health defect here.’ Possible but not, in Nelson’s view, probable. He’s been involved in cases like this before and he knows that it goes against all human feelings to believe a mother capable of killing her children. As a devoted father he finds it rather insulting to realise that people are all too happy to pin the blame on Daddy. But Mummy … Mummy’s different.

Most Read
Top Books