The Outcast Dead(7)
Author:Elly Griffiths


    But today the sky is clear. It’s another beautiful June day and Kate is shouting with delight as she is led around the paddock. Last summer’s trip to Blackpool may have dark memories for Ruth, but for Kate its abiding legacy is a love of donkeys. And a fear of roller coasters. Michelle has gone to get coffee (she often leaves them alone for tactful, but rationed, spaces of time) and Ruth has seized her moment. Nelson, though, is glowering.

    ‘Did Cathbad put you up to this?’

    Of course he did, Ruth wants to shout. Bloody Cathbad. How can he still be pulling the strings from two hundred miles away? But all she says is, ‘He says he knows Liz Donaldson very well.’

    ‘I’m sure he does. I’m sure he knows all sorts of nutcases.’

    ‘Is that what she is, a nutcase?’

    Ruth looked up the case last night. There are any number of internet experts prepared to bet on the odds of three children from the same family dying from cot death. Articles range from ‘The horror of mums who kill’ to ‘A mother’s worst nightmare’. Other cases are trawled out: mothers jailed for killing their children, only to be released when new medical evidence comes to light, mothers who poison their babies and then act the heartbroken parent for the cameras. She can see them all, the mothers and their babies, in endlessly repeating patterns, like wallpaper. She sees Mother Hook too, in the one surviving photograph of Norfolk’s worst murderess. A square, heavy-browed face, scowling out of the gentle sepia. There was a gruesome lullaby written at the time: Don’t cry little darling. Don’t cry little dear. Don’t cry little darling. Or Mother Hook will hear.

    Kate waves. Ruth and Nelson wave back.

    ‘Look Ruth,’ says Nelson, in the voice that he uses when he’s trying to be reasonable. ‘I’m sympathetic to any parent who loses a child, but three children are dead and I’ve got to keep an open mind. That’s all I’m doing. Keeping an open mind.’

    ‘She’s a friend of Delilah’s,’ says Ruth.

    Nelson doesn’t respond to the name. He stares straight ahead but Ruth knows that he’s not seeing Kate wobble past on her donkey. He’s seeing the Saltmarsh at first light, the seagulls calling overhead, the sudden silence as the sand revealed its secrets. Nelson’s hand is clenched on the gatepost. Ruth has a crazy desire to touch it.

    ‘Delilah was an irresponsible hippie,’ says Nelson, his voice harsh. ‘It’s no recommendation being a friend of hers.’

    ‘Liz used to babysit for the children,’ says Ruth. She doesn’t say ‘she may have known Scarlet’. She doesn’t have to. She knows that Nelson is thinking about Scarlet, about the family. There were three other children too.

    ‘If she’s innocent she’s got nothing to worry about.’

    ‘Do you think she’s innocent?’

    ‘Like I say, I’ve got an open mind.’

    ‘What do Judy and Clough think?’

    ‘Judy thinks she’s the bloody Virgin Mary. Clough believes everything he reads in the Sun.’

    ‘What about Tim?’ Ruth, too, is a little wary of Tim. They met in rather inauspicious circumstances and Ruth feels that Tim – like his old boss Sandy – slightly disapproves of her.

    ‘Tim’s just doing his job. He’s a good copper.’

    He looks as if he’s about to say more, but at that moment Kate’s ride comes to an end. Excited children rush to the fence to claim the next go. ‘Dada!’ shouts Kate as she is lifted out of the saddle. ‘Look at me, Dada.’ Michelle arrives just in time to see Nelson’s fleeting expression of pure delight.

    *

    Nelson and Michelle leave soon afterwards. Ruth thinks that Michelle may have had enough for one day, especially after a carthorse slobbered on her pink cardigan. But before Ruth can go, Kate demands that they visit Ranger. In a weak moment last year Ruth agreed to sponsor Ranger, a bad-tempered Shetland, and many pictures of his cross, hairy face now adorn their fridge. Ranger sends nice letters to Kate, enthusing about eating carrots and frolicking in the fields with his mates, but when they meet face to face he usually seems distinctly underwhelmed. Today is no exception. Visitors aren’t allowed to feed the horses, so when Ranger realises that they aren’t about to be forthcoming with the carrots he turns his back on them.

    ‘Oh, look at his tail,’ says Ruth in desperation, ‘Isn’t it swishy?’

    She is aware that another couple are doing their best to interest their child in the ponies.

    ‘Look,’ the father is saying, ‘Lovely gee-gees. Look Michael.’

    Michael. Ruth turns. A ginger-haired father is holding a baby on the gate. The mother stands nearby with an empty pushchair. She looks rather bored.

    ‘Judy?’

    ‘Ruth! Fancy meeting you here.’

    ‘Oh, Kate and I love the horses,’ says Ruth airily. What would have happened if Judy had seen her with Nelson earlier? What if she’d heard Kate say ‘Dada’ …

    ‘Ranger’s naughty,’ says Kate.

    ‘He looks naughty,’ agrees Judy. ‘I’m a policeman so I can tell.’

    Kate looks at her dubiously. The policeman in her ‘Going to Work’ book doesn’t look anything like Judy.

    ‘You know Darren don’t you?’ Judy is saying.

    ‘We met at your wedding,’ says Ruth.

    ‘Well, I was there all right,’ laughs Darren, holding the baby in front of him like a trophy. ‘Have you met our little superstar?’

    ‘He’s grown so much,’ says Ruth. ‘I hardly recognised him.’

    ‘It was his first birthday last week.’

    Michael looks at her out of big brown eyes. He’s very dark, far darker than the pink-skinned Darren or pale, freckled Judy.

    ‘The boss was here,’ says Judy. ‘Did you see him?’

    ‘Nelson? Oh yes. He was with Michelle.’

    ‘Wouldn’t have thought horses were their thing,’ says Darren.

    ‘The boss likes horses,’ says Judy. ‘It’s Cloughie who’s scared of them.’

    ‘Kate,’ says Ruth, wanting to change the subject. ‘Come and say hallo to the lovely baby.’

    ‘Hallo baby,’ says Kate, without enthusiasm.

    ‘Can you say ‘Kate’,’ says Darren to Michael. ‘Can you say ‘Hallo Kate’?’

    Michael looks intently at Kate but declines to comment.

    ‘Kate’s growing too,’ says Judy. ‘How old is she?’

    ‘She’ll be three in November.’

    ‘Do you remember that time I babysat? In the snowstorm?’

    ‘Yes,’ says Ruth. She doesn’t think she’ll ever forget that night.

    ‘Heard anything from Cathbad?’ asks Judy.

    ‘Yes. I spoke to him on Friday.’

    ‘I never thought he’d stay up there,’ says Judy. ‘Living on his own in the middle of a forest.’

    ‘It’s not exactly a forest,’ says Ruth. ‘I think he likes it. He’s got his dog and he works part-time at the university.’

    ‘I never thought he’d stay,’ says Judy again. She turns and fiddles with the straps on the pushchair.

    ‘Is that the druid chap?’ says Darren. ‘Maybe he’s joined a coven. He lives in Pendle doesn’t he? Pendle witches and all that.’

    ‘A druid isn’t the same as a witch,’ says Judy. ‘Come on Darren, we’d better get Michael home. He’s a nightmare if he doesn’t have his nap. ’Bye Ruth. ’Bye Kate.’

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