Somewhere to review books I'm reading without giving away any spoilers!
In southeast London, a young mother has been accused of an unthinkable crime: poisoning her own child – and then leaving him to die.
The mother, Ellie, is secretive and challenging – she’s had a troubled upbringing – but does that mean she’s capable of murder?
Balancing the case with raising her disabled five-year-old son, criminal defence lawyer Sarah Kellerman sets out in desperate pursuit of the truth. But when her own child becomes unwell, Sarah realises she’s been drawn into a dangerous game.
Unsettling and compulsive, In the Blood is a chilling study of class, motherhood and power from a new star in crime fiction.
It’s a Tuesday in mid-August when I get the call. Ben has kept me up half the night and I’ve come to the office with his lunchbag (pureed carrot and ricotta, Marmite soldiers, Peppa Pig yoghurt), while he’s at nursery with mine (tuna bean salad and fizzy water). It’s eleven thirty when the phone rings, and I’m playing the game I play where I divide the day into manageable quarters. I’ve already made it from breakfast to the mid-morning crime team diary meeting and, by lunchtime, I’ll be halfway there. There will only be another two quarters of the day – I can’t even begin to think of it as a fourteen-hour stretch; that’s way too long – until I can crawl back under the duvet and close my eyes, even if just for a while.
I pick up the phone. Lucy, our receptionist, says, ‘Annalise Finch for you,’ and then she’s gone.
‘Sarah! How are you?’ Annalise speaks earnestly into the receiver, with an emphasis on the ‘you’. She waits for an answer (which not everybody does).
‘Yeah, good. Good,’ I tell her, and then I feel the bitter sting of tears. This is my latent, Pavlovian response to any gesture of kindness towards me, no matter how small. Annalise is an ex-work colleague, but I also think of her as a friend. Do I tell her that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in months? That my head is throbbing and my eye sockets ache? Do I warn her that I’m scared to open my mouth and talk, on days like today, for fear of jumbling up my sentences or dropping nouns?
I know Annalise well enough to know that she’s not the sort of person that judges you, and besides, she’s a woman who has had small children, so she’s halfway to knowing what this is like. Although her children are ordinary, regular children, of course. Her children are normal. I wonder, fleetingly, whether I will ever be able to think about another woman’s ordinary, regular children without feeling overwhelmed with grief and pain.
‘Sarah?’ she asks. ‘Are you still there?’
‘Sorry. Yes,’ I tell her. ‘How are you? It’s nice to hear from you.’
It is. I had forgotten how much I liked Annalise, or Anna as I’ve always known her at work. She’s a family lawyer. She gets called a divorce lawyer but that’s not really what she does. She deals with child custody, mostly, specifically public law cases, the ones where there are child protection issues and the local authority want to take the child away. We used to see each other at the local magistrates’ court sometimes when we both worked at Cartwright & Taylor, and when we were both there late, as we often were, we would stop off for a drink on the way home.
Of course, that was before Ben. I don’t get to do things like that very much these days, but I’m happy to hear a friendly voice on the phone, the voice of someone with whom – on a day like today, when I’m feeling at my very most mortal – I don’t have to pretend to be the sort of professional superwoman that I’m always reading about in the Law Society Gazette.
‘I’d love to chat,’ Anna says, ‘but, listen, I’ve got a case for you.’ Her voice echoes a little down the receiver. I’m guessing I’m on speakerphone. ‘It’s serious. It’s an attempted murder. Of a child.’
And then she’s off, talking rapidly, and I’m missing what she’s said. I reach for a pen, grabbing the notebook that’s on the desk in front of me and finding a fresh page. As I do so I nudge my coffee cup and a stream of light brown liquid leaps over the rim and across the desk. I’m instantly overwhelmed with the urge to either punch somebody or throw myself out of the window, the small puddle of coffee in front of me magnified by lack of sleep into Atlantic proportions. Instead I tuck the phone under my chin, pull a pack of baby wipes out of my handbag, take out a handful and drop them, one by one, onto the desk.
‘You’re really the best person I can think of for this,’ Anna is saying.
‘I’m really sorry, Anna,’ I interrupt her. ‘I didn’t catch all of that. Would you mind starting again?’
‘Oh. No. Of course not.’ She picks up the phone, and her voice comes into focus. ‘It’s one of my clients. She’s accused of trying to kill her eleven-month-old baby. Her name’s Ellie. She’s a young mum – twenty years old. Cut a long story short, she’s poisoned him. Then, while he’s in hospital recovering, she’s gone onto the ward and tried to kill him again.’
‘He was on dialysis after his kidneys failed. She pulled out the tube – the line, they call it – that took the blood out of his body and into the machine, and of course the machine just kept pumping the blood out of him. She covered him with a blanket to hide it. He nearly bled to death.’
‘Jesus,’ I say again. ‘What’s the evidence that it was her?’
‘Well, no one saw it happen. But she was there when they found him. She was asleep on a camp bed beside him – or pretending to be; that’s what the police are saying. A nurse spotted a pool of blood under the cot. He’d lost around a quarter of it, gone into heart failure. They managed to resuscitate him, but he’s still in a critical condition.’
‘Which hospital is it?’
‘Southwark St Martin’s.’
I feel a sharp jolt of pain. St Martin’s. The same hospital. I throw the bundle of soggy wipes into the bin under my desk and sit back in my chair. I can see the ward; I can feel the heat of it, smell the antiseptic air. I can see the cot and the blanket – white, crocheted with a blue and white Southwark St Martin’s trim. I can see the baby, pale and still. I can picture it all, as if I’m there.
‘Also, he was with her when he was poisoned,’ adds Anna.
I pull a fresh notepad from my drawer. ‘How was he poisoned?’
‘Yep. It causes a potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance. It’s called hypernatraemia.’
I think about this for a moment. I think about Ben. ‘How do you force salt into a one-year-old?’
‘I don’t know. But somebody did. And he was with her. Ellie. She’d had him overnight, unsupervised, for the first time in months. He was in care at the time. He’d already been taken away from her.’
‘They found injuries. Bruises – and burns – when he was around eight months old. That’s how I got her case. Although we managed to fight it that time. Our expert report was favourable; it said that no one could be certain that the injuries were non-accidental. She was well on the way to getting him back again, but then he’s admitted to hospital with what they think is a virus, which turns out to be sodium poisoning.’
‘And they left her alone with him, in hospital?’
‘They knew he was seriously ill, but they didn’t know he’d been poisoned at that stage, not until the tests came back.’
Anna pauses. My pen hovers above the page while I take this in.
‘I’ve got to admit, it doesn’t look great for her,’ Anna says. ‘The prosecution case is that the three separate incidences of harm combine to build an overall picture of deliberate abuse. They each support each other. It all kind of stacks up. And Ellie… well, unfortunately, she doesn’t come across well.’
‘Why? What does she say?’
‘Oh, she denies it – all of it. Says she’d never hurt her baby. But she wasn’t great in interview. She can’t explain how it happened, any of it, other than to say it wasn’t her. She doesn’t… well, volunteer information. She just gets angry and then clams up. I know she’s scared. She’s a “looked after” kid herself – she grew up in a care home in Stockwell – and she’s like many of our young people: naturally reticent and suspicious of the authorities. She has no faith that anyone is going to believe her side of things. But it comes across the wrong way. She appears… overly defensive. And secretive, as if she’s hiding something.’
‘What’s her previous?’
‘Thefts, cars and stuff as a youth. Peer pressure probably. Nothing like this, and nothing for a while.’
‘So, when’s the first hearing?’ I look up as the door opens and Matt, my colleague, walks in. He takes off his coat and sits down at the desk next to me. I flash him a smile. He purses his lips and switches on his computer.
‘That’s the thing,’ Anna says. ‘It’s been and gone. The case has been sent to Inner London Crown Court. She’s been remanded to Bronzefield. There’s a bail hearing tomorrow.’
‘I’m sorry, I know it’s short notice. But I was on holiday when they arrested and charged her. We went to Sri Lanka, Tim and I and the girls, for a fortnight. I didn’t find out until I got back into the office this morning.’
‘Sri Lanka. Wow. Sounds wonderful.’ I can’t help feeling a stab of envy; I can’t take those sorts of holidays any more.
‘Look, are you OK with this?’ Anna asks me. ‘I mean, I did think about it, that it might drag stuff up for you. But that’s why I also think you’d be the best person to take this on. You spent a lot of time in hospitals when Ben was small. You know what it’s like to have a sick child.’
‘Yes, I… it’s fine. Really,’ I say. ‘I want to do it.’
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Ruth Mancini is a criminal defence lawyer, author and freelance writer. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children.
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