DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of Shed Productions. I am using them solely to explore my creative ability.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILRERS: Up to series 5.

It Ain't Me Babe
An Alternative series 5 Karen / Yvonne Tribute
By Richard

Scene 14

A very rubberlegged Lauren wobbled up the steep slate drive. The high heel of her leather boot disappeared down a crack in the stone drive and she lurched sideways, thrown off balance nearly spraining her ankle. Oh yeah give me the joys of the countryside, Lauren groaned to herself. Eventually, she hobbled to the front door where she virtually fell into the house and collapsed into the ancient carved wooden rocking chair.

"You all right, Lauren." Helen's concerned expression took in the white-faced exhausted shape slumped in the chair while Nikki went to fetch a big glass of lemon squash. She brought up a footstool and Lauren's body eagerly embraced the gentle rocking sensation.

"Jesus, how in hell do you country people manage to get around. I've totally had it." Lauren replied weakly. "Give me a bit of time to recover."

"There's time." Helen replied calmly, reassuring Lauren that she could have a break from the frenetic lifestyle of running the Atkins business. For the first time, she was conscious of the cool air gently wafting through the open front door and the tranquillity of time passing. This was out in the country, not the urban jungle where you triple lock your front door in case the burglars break in. Lauren was conscious too, that her smart dress, boots, swish hairstyle and female Atkins perfect makeup also spoke a different lifestyle to the two suntanned relaxed women dressed in comfortable trainers, jeans and casual tops.

"Thanks, Helen." Lauren said gratefully.

She saw two expectant faces looking at her, waiting for to be ready to talk, and collecting her thoughts into some sort of shape, plunged in.

Lauren stumbled her way into the conversation as she was working off what Karen had told her in a long conversation on the phone of a world that was the other side of the prison bars. Even regular visits to Larkhall provided an inadequate patchwork effect of material to dress her arguments in to Helen and Nikki. The fact that they had been there in the past made things worse as Larkhall had moved on since their time.

"Karen mentioned that Larkhall has a new boss called Grayling." Lauren finished before stopping for a fresh swig of lemon squash. Not her normal drink but it satisfied a ravening thirst in these parts.

Helen's expressive face twisted into a grimace of disgust and loathing.

"You know him, Hel." Nikki politely asked.

"I was on a management course with him once." Helen exploded with passion." A treacherous, self centred deceitful bastard out for his own ends. Mr Buzz Word. A man who would sell his own grandmother if he would get something out of it. He was hanging round all the time with the area man in charge of the course as if he was up his arse. If he's anything to do with Larkhall, it means real trouble. I don't like this one."

"Probably was if what Karen says is true. And also about him being after Fenner's arse also." smiled Lauren wickedly.

"Well, if he's giving Fenner a hard time, there's something to be said for him." Nikki replied, for once in her life totally missing the point.

"I mean, Grayling was after Fenner's arse. He was trying to shag him. Karen knows the full story."

Time counted one, two, three, four and Helen and Nikki fell about in helpless laughter. This was really rich for both of them to savour. After all those venomous jibes that both Nikki and Helen had received from him, this was a turnup for the book. Helen's very raucous laugh could be heard from outside the cottage with Nikki's slightly higher pitched tones harmonising with it. Even though the story wasn't new to Lauren, the mood was so infectious that Lauren joined in.

"You haven't come all the way to tell us the biggest joke I've ever heard, Lauren." Nikki smiled broadly, the period of hilarity having broken the ice between them." There's more to tell."

"It's that Karen is asking for help from both of you. Not for herself." Lauren hastily added on seeing the expression on Helen's face. "But that there are real problems at Larkhall, now. They are threatening to privatise it."

Helen and Nikki's face registered shock at this one.

"But they can't do this. You can't lock up prisoners for profit." they chorused.

"I don't know the details," Lauren said hesitantly. "You'll have to talk to Karen if you want to. She's broken with Fenner shortly after you left Larkhall. She's seen him for what he is and I think she's about the only screw wanting to do anything about it. But she's got Grayling out to run her out of the service especially if she doesn't get her own job if Lynford Securities takeover. And Fenner is stabbing her in the back for all he's worth. She wanted more than anything else to apologise to you, Helen. She knows that she gave you a hard time and she stuck up for that bastard against you. And guess what, the bastard raped her."

Helen's face was a picture as the raw details of Lauren's story delivered without artifice, but brutally short statements which her imagination could fill in. The thought jumped into Helen's mind that Karen is in exactly the same position that she was a few years ago but with a few twists. Nikki felt total incredulity at the whole thing. Surely Larkhall couldn't dream up more horrors than she had lived through. But it was as plain as could be that they could. The cosy sunlit cottage felt cold and Nikki had a sudden shiver.

"..There were rumours of strange things happening in the world outside, and as Gandalf had not at that time appeared or sent any messages for several years. Frodo gathered all the news he could. ..now Frodo often met strange dwarves of far countries, seeking refuge in the West. They were troubled and some spoke in whispers of the Enemy and of the Land of Mordor...that name the hobbits only knew in legends of the dark past, like a shadow in the background of their memories, but it was ominous and disquieting. The Dark Tower had been rebuilt, it was said. From there, the power was spreading far and wide, and away, far east and south there were wars and growing fear...."

"Of course, we will help." Helen spoke for them decisively though a fear ran through her of what they were letting themselves in for. They had to see Karen, sort out their past differences and take it from there. Quite how they could help was beyond her but she was content to let events unfold. Besides, at the bottom of her thoughts lurked the mischievous curiosity to find out more about Fenner and Grayling, a very minor personal insignificant matter in the grand order of things but still somehow fitting.

Scene 15

"I thought I'd call you all together, you guys, to put in the picture. As you know I believe in open management." Grayling spoke, his hands opened wide, summoning up his best sincere manner. "So I thought it only right and proper to inform you all that Area have given the all clear for Lynford Securities to hold a series of informal chats to the staff, a 'getting to know you' process so that we can see each other less as strangers to be feared and more a new force to reinvigorate the spirit of G Wing. This does not signal that in any way," Grayling spoke emphatically while Karen smiled cynically "that there has been a secret deal to let Lynford in with a nod and wink before a final decision is made, one way or the other. As POA rep, Sylvia, I take it you have no problems with these arrangements."

"Er no..not at all." Bodybag's eyes swivelled round in a state of confusion.

"So, that will be that and arrangements will be made to proceed as discussed. A list will be prepared as to when your informal chat is. Let me know if there are any clashes with your own personal arrangements, if you please."

"As informal as that." Karen said drily.

Karen left it a couple of seconds for someone else to speak and just as Grayling was going to put his papers away and depart, she decided that this was the point that she was going to start the battle.

"How much information do we have about their plans for G Wing, their reputation in terms of staff relations, health and safety standards, union recognition." Karen asked quietly. "What I've had through the official channels hasn't exactly been clear or specific."

"Have you disseminated the information from Area in the Q and A that I left you, Karen" Grayling snapped. "I gave you specific written instructions to do that." The way his lips were pursed together and the glare in his eyes gave off very clear danger signals.

"You mean you've been holding back on information to give the troops, Karen." Fenner said in his oiliest tones. "That wasn't very open of you."

"It's there in the wastebin if you want to look at it, Jim Fenner. By all means, go on, take a look at it. It's obvious that Area don't mind looking a laughing stock in the eyes of the staff. It's just that I don't want to be one." Karen finished with a nonchalant touch, gesturing to Fenner who was frozen in a mid crouch position.

"In answer to your question, Karen, Area have confirmed that, as far as they know, Lynfords conform to the standards as laid down in the national personnel policies and should be a good alternative employer. After all, Lynfords are ultimately answerable by their contract to the Home Office. Area would not clear it unless they have the interests of staff in hand."

"Actually, I've been doing a bit of research of my own. There was a very recent suicide of a PO at a prison Bostock's been running, a guy called Stuart Lander. The reported circumstances of his death are of a sudden tragic set of circumstances." Karen underlined in her voice with an unwavering stare in Fenner's direction who looked away. "The reality I learned indirectly from his mate who's since left Lynfords and he had some very interesting stories to tell about Lynford Securities, the sort of stuff that doesn't turn up in the prospectuses. Let me see, for a start constant bullying, shit training, pressure to not go off work sick when that person is in no fit state to work. Stuart Lander was pressurised to alter his self cert so that that word 'stress' doesn't appear in Lynford's personnel records. That way, people like you believe what you want to believe that everything in the garden is smelling of roses. And I'm not talking about the way the prisoners get treated. You create a climate where POs are treated like shit, then why in overcrowded prisons will prisoners get treated any better? It's like the cat that's just been kicked that takes it out on the mouse, the one thing that's weaker. Oh yes, Sylvia, they don't recognise unions. Is that open enough for everyone?"

"I'm sick to death of seeing things
from tight lipped, condescending mommies little chauvinists
all I want is the truth
just gimme some truth
all I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth."

During this confrontation, Grayling had stared fixedly at a little badge Karen wore discretely and it irritated him that this distracted him at a tense moment like this, PGA. How in hell has this woman been able to open a can of worms like this, he raged inwardly? Both anger and fear flamed up inside him that in an area he felt secure that he knew all the secrets, someone knew more than him. Knowledge is power and for a control freak like Grayling, his paralysing weakness and vulnerability was more painful and traumatic than for anyone else.

"I remember the words you spoke that day you came back to work, you know, after Cassie Tyler and Roisin Connor pulled you out of that fire risking their lives and, OK, you got them a free pardon but that was no less than what they deserved. 'None of us can forget what we shared that terrible day but along with the horror, there was a fantastic pulling togetherness. It's up to us in this prison to build on that bond so that Shaz Wiley did not die in vain.' Those are the words you spoke, Neil. Looks like we've had some pulling together, Neil, haven't we. And you wonder why I didn't circulate that heap of junk. Not worth cutting down the Amazon forests for, is it?"

Grayling turned red in the face and stormed out while Fenner went to follow him. Sylvia sat open mouthed at Karen, being utterly dumbstruck how extraordinary well informed Karen was. Grayling's behaviour betrayed that clear enough.

"You and me need to talk Sylvia. No matter what arguments and clashes we've had in the past, ultimately we need to be on the same side. And it's not Grayling's."

"What is that badge stand for that you're wearing, if you please Ma'am." In a very hushed and polite tone.

"You'll find out soon enough," Karen smiled enigmatically. "Seriously enough, ten o'clock, my office tomorrow."

Karen passed along the 3s in her rounds of G wing and saw Yvonne in the distance who smiled at her. Much closer to her was Colin Hedges who was Yvonne's personal officer. He gestured to Yvonne and hustled her in to her cell with more urgency than she thought justified. Come to think of that, Colin Hedges seemed to spend more time with Yvonne Atkins than the other prisoners he was personal officer for. That would be all very well, as she knew that Yvonne could give any PO a rough ride of it. The trouble was that Colin Hedges reports on the files were pretty thin on the ground. With an ironical raised eyebrow, she passed on to arranging a meeting which she was dreading but yet could be her salvation. Now was the time to phone Helen up as, though the dustup with Grayling this morning made her feel deep down, that she was writing out her compulsory transfer notice, the buzz she got from it added edge to her confidence.

Scene 16

Karen gave her flat a quite unnecessary quick retidy up a little before Helen was due to arrive and helped herself to a glass of wine in advance. The minute hand of her clock crept inexorably towards the six o'clock when Helen was due to arrive and, knowing Helen, that would be when she would arrive. Sure enough, a loud peal of the doorbell announced Helen's arrival. Karen flung the door open and a radiantly alive, sunblessed Helen greeted her and gave her a big hug.

"It's really good of you to see me like this, Helen. I was wondering in my deepest fears that you'd come just to spit in my face the way I ended up treating you." Karen said with an attempt of a joke to break the ice but only revealing Karen's fears to Helen's sharp eyes.

"Nonsense, Karen." Helen said emphatically. "Naturally I was exasperated at the infuriating way you would not see what was before your very eyes, but I came to realise," Helen added, seeing Karen's discomfiture "that my experience of Fenner was so much different to yours. The bastard puts on the correct face to suit the person. In any case, from what Lauren has said to Nikki and I, if I thought things were desperate at Larkhall in my time, it's nothing compared to what's happening now. It's no time to let any past differences to come between us, Karen, not with the prisoners in your charge and not the officers either. More than ever before, they need the help of any ideas we can come up with between us."

The utter sincerity of tone and the passion with which Helen spoke washed away the last of Karen's reservations. The 'us' and 'we' words welcomed her in. Tears blinked in Karen's eyes as it was such a long time since she'd had that feeling of loyal unselfish support behind her.

"No need to get excited
The thief he kindly spoke
There are many of us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I we've been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely
The hour is getting late."

Gradually, Karen unfolded the story, a little hesitantly as Helen had been out of Larkhall for what seemed like ages and this casually dressed sunburnt creature seemed a mile away from the blue suited Wing Governor of Karen's earliest memories. Yet the searching eyes were of old and the short questions to clarify loose ends in the story was the Helen of old. There was a calm and patience in Helen's manner that was new and Karen came to feel that Helen had grown, in her time away from Larkhall. Helen was focussed in just right and it wasn't the refills of wine that made Karen relax more and more.

Helen, for her part, had gone through a mix of emotions. The very first seconds of Karen's welcome decided her either to tell her to tell Karen to piss off, she'd only herself to blame or to drop her feelings of resentment still lingering. Instead, Karen played things straight down the line when Helen forgave her as she really wanted to. When she thought about it later, the issue was really simple, when she is confronted by the bully and the tyrant, then she does not have to question who's side she is on. Blended in to the immediate wave of sympathy, Karen felt for her was a feeling of sheer horror which pinned to her chair as Karen's flat understated tones unfolded the story.

"So where do Nikki and I come in," Helen asked at the end.

"Nikki Wade," echoed Karen uncomprehendingly. "Oh you mean that...."

"Precisely," grinned Helen.

"Oh well, right now, I'm happy to get the help of someone who Fenner badmouthed all the time I was with him as that 'that cunning dyke Wade,' excuse me Helen for that..... Nikki must have a hell of a lot going for her to be at the top of Fenner's hate list." Karen rambled on threading together her thoughts as she spoke.

"And, talking about Fenner if we must," Helen replied with a roguish grin, "what's with Fenner and Grayling. Come on, Karen, give us the gossip as that was part of the reason why I came down here."

"Oh nothing much, just the time Fenner stopped at Grayling's house and going out with Grayling on his stag night before his wedding to Di Barker." Karen replied pretending vagueness.

"Lauren never told me about the stag night. What else are you holding out on? Now then, Karen Betts, I know I'm little but I'm more dangerous than you, especially armed with this cushion. Or if that doesn't work, then I used to be your boss so I order you to tell me the gossip." Helen finished, wagging a wobbling finger in Karen's direction and assuming a slightly drunken air of authority.

Karen succumbed to a helpless attack of the giggles as bit by bit, she told Helen everything she knew and it was soon Helen's turn to be speechless with laughter. Karen had not known such a carefree feeling like this for so long where she could let her hair down. She did not want the evening to finish so buoyed up as she was by good feeling and the flat wasn't so empty now, as much as it had felt for a long time. It was like old times being with Helen, Karen thought, the old times that should have taken place as they chattered nineteen to the dozen and they put away the wine.

Presently, Helen asked. "So where do I fit in with helping you? Cheering from the sidelines is nice but it isn't very practical."

"I don't know, Helen. Just let me list what we've got and chip in where you want. Let's brainstorm this one through. Horrible word but it will do."

Helen stopped Karen's when she was pulling thoughts out of her head and came to an upcoming press event with Wheels in Action where Christopher Biggins was presenting a motorised wheelchair to Buki Lester's disabled son, Lennox and help 'Lynford Securities launch Larkhall Prison PLC' as Karen sneered in a disgusted tone.

"That's where Nikki and I come in. Trust me, we'll be there. And I'm sure Yvonne and the other old lags would make the day that those bastards won't forget, especially if you give them a discreet helping hand."

A feeling swelled inside Karen of a positive feeling that fate had dealt her some winning cards and a grin stretched effortlessly on her face from ear to ear. It had been a long time she'd had anything to smile at.

"What's the initials on the badge you're wearing, Karen." Helen asked out of interest.

"'Prison Governor's Association', Helen. Well, it's about time I joined a union, isn't it." Karen replied with aplomb.

Scene 17

Sylvia peered round the corner to see if anyone was spying on her and then scuttled down the corridor to Karen Betts's room. In reality, the only person who spotted her was Yvonne who merely wondered what the nosy old cow was up to now. Karen's office was somewhere she had gone to in the past when she had to, to get a dressing down from 'Her Majesty.'. For her to go there voluntarily was a novel experience to her. Sylvia had turned everything over in her mind all last night even to accidentally burning her steak pudding, an unknown in her household.

For so long, Jim Fenner had been the one solid reliable feature in her life at work. He'd been the friendly source of advice, someone she could moan to about the daily things in her life that irritated her. He could have his odd funny moods but what else could she expect from a man? Her Bobby had been just the same and it was something you learnt to live with. Jim was one of the old timers who she felt a deep bond with from having shared so many shifts in the good times and the bad while other POs came and went.

"It was just a formality. A woman of my experience. Recruitment the way it is." Sylvia had bragged to the crowded mess of her assurance that, no matter what happened to the other POs, her job was safe and that she would waltz through the interview for Lynfords.

But all this time, she had been worried. From the day Mr Grayling gave them notice of the possible privatisation, deep down she was scared. She knew that her attendance record was spotted with times off work with backache and that her doctor was used to, if not bored by, her constant recitals of her various ailments. Miss Stewart and Miss Betts had had a periodic go at her about her sick record, especially the physical fitness regime Karen Betts had ordered for her, prancing around in that stupid tracksuit that made her a mockery to all the cons.

She never forgave any slight to her and she had a score of resentments against Miss Betts. But, cutting through all that was the bewildering but certain conviction that she was talking the absolute truth. Grayling knew that, that's for sure as he never denied any of it and why oh why, did Jim follow after Grayling and not stand his ground and stay with the rest of us? For the first time in his life, Jim looked shifty and suspicious as if he had something to hide. Her mind was made up, unlikely though it seemed, she must join forces with Miss Betts. She had no choice because if she didn't, she was ruined.

"Come in, Sylvia." Karen called out with, to her, a forced cordiality. "Take a seat."

Karen moved out from behind her official desk to a comfy chair next to it and had gestured Sylvia to sit in the other one opposite it.

It was a strange sensation for Sylvia to be sitting in this less formal atmosphere which jarred with her long conditioning of etiquette in a prison officer hierarchy.

"Mind if I smoke." Karen asked politely and on the silent assent, pulled out a cigarette and took a long drag from it to relax and get into what she was going to say.

"You were asking the other day, Sylvia, what this badge stands for. The answer is simple. I've joined the union, the Prison Governor's Association. I'd never heard of it before but I'd browsed the Internet, picked up the phone and joined up straightaway."

"But it's unheard of, a boss to join a union." gaped Sylvia at the totally unexpected news.

"So is locking up prisoners for profit, Sylvia." Karen proceeded gently, prepared for the long haul to get through to her. "A lot of things are happening these days that are unheard of. When it comes down to it, my job can be sold over my head as it were a piece of merchandise quite as easily in my case as it is in yours. Sure, I've got more authority than you, Sylvia have but that's all. As for being a Wing Governor, my position is clear. As Wing Governor, I am responsible for the welfare of the POs under me and I have authority over them. As a Union Member, I will do my best for our collective welfare and work my butt off to use everything in my power to help defend their terms and conditions. As far as the prisoners are concerned, you and I will disagree till the end of time but we can live with these differences, surely.".

"Mr Grayling's not going to like this," Sylvia replied, still trying to get her head round all this.

"I know for an absolute fact that he won't like it one bit. In fact, I'm sure that I'm going to get a phone call to report to his office any time now, once he's tracked me down."

"I'll.I'll go in with you, Karen if you want any help," Sylvia found herself saying eagerly, suddenly aware exactly what sort of interview Karen was talking about.

"That is really nice of you, Sylvia but I've got an alternative plan which will stitch up Grayling very nicely. Your part in this will be in not being available, this will work better. Believe me." Karen added gently, seeing her in Sylvia's eyes as a tired out, not very bright old war-horse and, for all her posturing, not a very good POA rep. "I'll let you know how I've gone on. And thanks, Sylvia, thanks for your offer. It was very kind of you and well meant."

"So where do I fit in, Miss. I'm not very sure there's much that I can do." sniffed Sylvia, dabbing her eyes. A mix of unsettling emotions flowed through her but she latched onto the lifeline of the kindness and tenderness of Karen's last words, so far from their traditional enmities, to pull her through.

"I'm on your side when times get rough
and friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled waters
I will lay me down."

"There is a lot that you can do, Sylvia. For a start, I know that there has been sniping at me for what I've done at Larkhall, OK some of it from you. You can help reverse that, OK, I'm not asking you to say that Karen Betts is a Joan of Arc and the sun shines out of her backside." smiled Karen. "But at least if I'm fighting Grayling, I'd find it much easier to take on the one enemy. You are there amongst the POs much more of your time than I am."

"But what about Jim Fenner." Asked Sylvia anxiously. "It's not easy, me being friends with him for so long and you and him not exactly getting on very well."

Karen smiled at the monumental understatement of the century.

"I know about you and Jim, that you go back a long way and I wouldn't want to make you feel like a traitor or to snitch on him," Karen said evenly ,"Just as long as Jim doesn't dump on the rest of us and leave us in the lurch. If you did hear anything of that, at that point I would ask you to tell me, as Karen Betts and a fellow member of a union. There's too much at stake not to tell"

At that point, the fog of confusion in Sylvia's brain cleared and, for the first time in her life, a decisive shift in her thinking took place and Sylvia smiled warmly at Karen. Sylvia now knew that if Karen couldn't save them all, no one could and she had a part to play in this. The firm handshake between them at the end of the interview was the first time they had ever made any physical contact that symbolised a meeting of minds, however against all normal odds.

Scene 18

Karen strolled along the corridor, pleased that matters had gone so well with Sylvia but that indefinable prickly feeling in her skin of impending danger in the air. She chided herself for being fanciful. She bloody knew that she was going to get an almighty bollocking from Grayling, as she'd pushed him pretty far. It was only a matter of when and how the blow would fall.

Passing into the PO's mess, Jim Fenner was pouring himself a cup of tea.

"Oh Karen, by the way, the Number One passed me on the landing to ask you to pop up to his room. He said he wanted to have a chat to clear the air, so to speak. Nothing to worry about." Fenner's best 'butter wouldn't melt in his mouth' soothing tones and innocent expression in his eyes did not work for one second now that Karen saw him for what he was. Believe the opposite of what that bastard is saying and you'll be pretty close to the truth, she told herself.

"I'd best pop along and reassure Grayling in that case. You know, put his mind at rest." Karen replied with her best icy smile and assumed casual unhurried air that she could summon up though, in truth, there were a few butterflies in her stomach.

Once in his room, one look at Grayling told Karen that she was walking into a war zone. The expression on his face gave that away.

"Come in, Karen. I expect you know what this interview is about. I intend to give you a written warning under the disciplinary procedures for your behaviour which was contrary to good discipline. I must caution you are not obliged to say anything but anything that you say in your defence..."

"Hold it, hold it, Neil, there are a couple of things you have overlooked before you hand out summary justice like this. If this is a formal disciplinary matter, I insist on union representation before you take one step further. I know my rights."

"Union member, Karen, since when." Grayling said, his face tense and white. "Since when do Governor Grades join a union? Besides," and here Grayling attempted a confidential smile that turned out to look more like a grimace. "Unions aren't the thing for governors to get involved with if you want to get on. You know that"

"Since a few days ago, Neil. PGA on this badge means Prison Governor Association." Karen smiled broadly, having clearly enunciated the last few words as if for a stranger from a different land which, in a sense, he was. "I'm a union member. You are alleging that I have committed some kind of misdemeanour. You wish to press disciplinary proceedings. You cannot do it without allowing me rights of representation, and in fact, you cannot do it without giving clear written notice in advance of this meeting."

"There's an obvious way to clear our way through this needless red tape. What about Sylvia Hollamby. This matter cannot be deferred." Grayling started to go red in the face and slip in his ploy of laying the responsibility on Karen for throwing a spanner in the works and use her sense of responsibility as a baited trap.

"There's still the matter of the advance notice and Sylvia is a POA Rep, not PGA, you are presuming in advance that she will go ahead with a matter. What if she can't or won't?"

Karen's breath intake was short and rapid as she dealt with this deadly verbal fencing. Grayling's anger was part fuelled by a sudden loss of confidence in himself that he could bend someone else to his will by blandishments, threats or bribery. He'd had a shock this morning that his schemes were starting to unravel.

"Of course, there is a solution..." and Karen dragged out the pause to wind Grayling up. "A National Union officer could come out, with prior appointment, on a date that's convenient to both of us and we are busy people what with Lynfords crawling round the place keeping us both busier than we would otherwise be. On these conditions, it is not unreasonable that you could go ahead with what you have in mind." Karen was at her most provokingly casual at this point and she could see that every word was working him up into a state of anger. Good, she thought, as anyone angry like him won't think straight.

"Unthinkable, Karen, utterly unthinkable. I shall not have some outsider union official meddling in the private affairs of this prison that he doesn't understand."

"But you'll welcome Lynfords with open arms. There's obviously a difference in principle here. Perhaps you could explain it to me Neil as I don't quite understand." Karen replied at her most icy cool, apparently most innocent and most dangerous.

It wasn't often that Grayling was stuck for words but his anger choked him as his imperious nature and ability to manipulate was blocked at every turn. He just gestured to Karen to leave.

Karen looked around at the spacious room and aware of the vast space between her and the safety of Grayling's closed door. With the feeling that a dangerous beast was temporarily paralysed, she discreetly edged her way out of Grayling's lair. She beat a retreat back to the safety of her office with the thrill of victory written on her face visible to Yvonne's sharp eyes. Yvonne's curiosity was definitely aroused, first seeing Bodybag emerge from Karen's room and be smiling and now Karen looking very pleased with herself about something.

"Now I long for the morning when they realise
Brutality and unjust laws can't defeat us
But who'll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us."

When Karen had drawn a huge breath of relief and had collected herself, she grabbed the phone for the PGA National Rep. For once in her life, Karen's account of events was ragged and disjointed, drunk as she was with the victory of battle that left her on a total emotional high, a mood not suited for a cool dispassionate recital of the facts of the matter. The guy on the other end of the phone patiently asked her to rerun chunks of the conversation. He was used to calming down the first panic-stricken cry for help but this was different, remembering the calm self assured voice he'd previously heard on first contact. Helen's version of the latest news was more back to the controlled Karen of old but her sharp ears picked up the vibrant tones of a recent battle.

Next thing on Karen's list is to talk to Yvonne and then, after that, she'll deal with the mundane bundle of files in her in tray, which were threatening to spill off onto her desk.

Scene 19

Karen strode along the 3s to Yvonne's cell, her heels clicking rapidly, still charged up from the events of the morning. She opened her cell door which swung back silently on its hinges without her usual preliminary warning knock. There before her, Yvonne had had her arms wrapped round Colin with her tongue down his throat and she was rapidly making up for lost time on the outside. Colin was highly nervous, not being used to a ravenously sexual woman taking the initiative the way she was. Colin jerked back violently when the cell door opened pulling back from the obvious embrace with Yvonne more than a very few unsplit seconds way too late. Colin had the delusion that he had moved quicker than Superman did, back through a timewarp, that he had saved the day and his reputation and Yvonne's.

"I was helping Yvonne Atkins get a fly out of her eye, Miss" Colin Hedges sheepishly said, using the oldest feeble excuse under the sun.

Yvonne choked as an intake of air went the wrong way down her windpipe and then started laughing as not even the most bleeding brain dead person could come up with something like that Yvonne thought that when she got caught out with her first teenage boyfriend, he came up with a better line than that. The expression of total disbelief on Karen's face was priceless to Yvonne. If you're going to lie, Colin Hedges, make it a good one, Karen thought as I've heard them all before from my exes.

"I must congratulate you on your single minded zeal in tending to Yvonne Atkins' needs. Other personal officers like Sylvia had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see Yvonne. Yvonne must really appreciate all your special efforts. However, I have some personal business of my own with Yvonne Atkins. If you don't mind, Colin."

Colin Hedges beat a hasty and grateful retreat while Yvonne's smirk grew broader all the time.

"I see you've got a new boyfriend
No, I've never seen him before
I saw him making love with you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It's your brand new leopardskin pillbox hat"

"I ought to have words with Mr Hedges about this matter, but I'll overlook it this one time. Perhaps it would be a bit unfair to blame him." Karen said with a hint of a smile on her lips. "I won't turn a blind eye for ever as well you know." Karen added a little more severely. "However, after having had two blazing rows with Grayling this morning, and I mean blazing, I have to ask myself what really matters around here. Keep this under your hat what I've just said, Yvonne."

Yvonne's mind was whizzing like lightning, reacting to every one of Karen's words and mannerisms. There was an unspoken agreement between the two of them that neither of them would pry into each other's business but if the one of them talked, the other listened with the sort of perception that age and experience of life brings.

"Look, I thought you might be interested to know. The dream machine wheelchair presentation has been scheduled. It's taking place here in Larkhall. In the gardens. Christopher Biggins, the patron of Kids on Wheels UK will be attending to accept the chair on Lennox's behalf."

What the frigging hell was Karen on about, Yvonne wondered? Why the sudden mention of this irrelevant crap to me of all people.

"And?" Yvonne asked with a poker face.

"It's going to be quite an event. I know Bostock is hoping to attract a lot of publicity for his company. If I've got it right, we might see some old friends from Larkhall there." Karen finished with raised eyebrows and a subtle change in tone from official correctness and more than a hint of a smirk at the corner of her mouth.

"We'll be on our best behaviour," Yvonne replied softly.

"I'm counting on it." Karen's smirk was more obvious than ever.

Karen looked at the list of 'informal chats' that had been prepared and the headed notepaper, Lynford Securities on which it appeared and the curt way he expected people to be there as ordered. His master's voice indeed. Well, I've got news for you, Mr Bostock, Karen thought grimly. I'm swapping with Sylvia who was only too keen to see Karen go in first and thanked her effusively. Shame the note to tell Bostock of this got stuck in the post There's bureaucracy for you, she smiled to herself.

"Oh, I was expecting Sylvia Hollamby instead," Eric Bostock's monotone expressionless voice somehow conveyed his displeasure.

"I'm sorry, didn't my note reach you to say we've swapped times as Sylvia was on the wrong shift on the time you gave her," Karen smiled. "Can't get the staff these days."

"Well, I'd better get on with it while I'm here. Time costs money, you know."

"This is just a friendly chat," Karen asked as a polite overture.

"That's right."

"Then maybe you can clarify something for me?" Karen pursued. "Prisoner numbers go up, so does profits."

"Go on."

"There are already women in this prison who shouldn't be here. A majority of them if you ask me. So why should privatisation make this place work better for even more of them? Frankly this is a dysfunctional system, isn't it?" Karen finished acidly her resolution to mildly reason with this bastard going out of the window.

"Then why are you in it?" Bostock's chilly voice announcing in black and white, expect no welcoming red carpet from Lynfords for Karen Betts.

"Because I came into the system to change it but not in your way."

"Well, if there are no other questions, we'll let you know the results of the job you've applied for, Miss Betts. Any queries you have, ask your Area people. They've got enough pen pushers to do that."

The meeting ended on a note of chilly formality and Eric Bostock started looking at his files without the usual formality of closing the interview. Might as well shove in an application to join Al Quieeda wearing her slinkiest low cut dress than to join Lynfords, she thought.

A further mild deflation of her spirits took place. She had got further advice from the PGA and had seen Grayling and reached some sort of accommodation with him. The line that she hammered out with him was to tell him don't pull any stunts, don't try and manipulate me and in return, she would promise not to go out of her way to antagonise him and make his job more difficult than it was. Grayling's stony expression belied the false smile and told her that he was playing things cool till she got her marching orders from Area to get posted God knows where. A part of this left a bitter taste in her mouth of having to play politics with the guy but with him, Bostock and Grayling as three people united in emnity to bring her down, it wasn't worth the candle to be overprovocative. Besides, with the Kids on Wheels presentation taking place, she ought to stay in the background, quietly look after things her side of the wire and cross fingers.

Scene 20

"They must be raving mad," exclaimed Fenner at the weekly meeting when Karen announced the news. "Why in hell are they sticking their oar in and not let us handle security like we've always done."

"The decision is out of my hands and Neil's also. It's an Area decision that the names of all those attending the function are positively vetted by them. Everything else, we had better make sure runs smoothly. At the end of the day, it's about Buki's son Baxter. That is what matters." Karen said in an uncharacteristically subdued fashion. "If you have any concerns with the arrangements that Area have made, let me know and I'll chase them up."

At area office, Rob Kendall lounged back in his chair in one of the plushest rooms in the modern air-conditioned office suite that made the offices at Larkhall look like something left over from the second World War. His spacious, well ordered desk was in an airy open plan office with state of the art computers and acres of space. It all added dignity to the proceedings. He had worked hard to get where he had got to in the prison service and his present comfortable lifestyle reflected what he felt were his just deserts out of life.

In contrast the tatty offices at the end of corridors smelling of disinfectant was the most upmarket part of the crumbling Victorian pile of Larkhall. He had visited it once in Stubberfield's day. That was a pretty distasteful experience with a cold cup of tea served by some slapper in a short skirt and brassy dyed hair. Of course, that visit was from before he got his present job on the Joint Implementation Team. He was kept hard at work mainly on drafting submissions on the new Value System in the Prison Service which was pretty tricky stuff, not the sort of thing that the ignorant jailer rattling his bunch of keys could ever understand. They had no conception of the wider vision and where the pieces in the chess set were going to be moved. That was for higher level thinking to manage in discreet stages according to the central strategic vision. His position enabled him to work according to the directions from the Home Office and report on his work to management meetings. He did have real headaches in his life in ensuring that his item of the agenda was given a high enough priority and that there was a full discussion of the points at issue. The thing that preoccupied him and was a hobbyhorse of his was to update the terminology- such thing as "Prison Service" carried all the old fashioned negative ideas that held the organisation back. The idea that he was campaigning for was "Work Preparation Units" which carried all the positive Government ideas of enabling the inmates to be gently guided back to a work regime rather than the negative concept of merely locking people up. Trouble was these damn places cost a fortune for the Exchequer. He was in the middle of preparing a paper to present for the next Joint Implementation Sub Committee meeting. Just recently however, he had been involved as a side project on evaluating Prison security.

"Is this project really appropriate for me," he sighed to the nice young lad John Edwards who had popped the folder on his desk. This appeared to be some sort of security checklist on that Larkhall place. Terrible reputation it had with all sorts of things going on and, to be frank, the Area Director was trying to unload it on the first private firm that was half way interested. He knew his best friend John Wilkes had the lead on that issue but because of his past experience of security issues, the whole thing had been palmed off onto him. He decided that he was too tied up to deal with it personally and some fresh blood ought to have a crack at the nuts and bolts which really wasn't his thing.

"Do you want to take this one on, John." He asked the fresh faced eager lad in his smart suit with razor cut creases. "Clearing this could be added to your Personal Development Plan for next year's annual report that we discussed earlier. I'm sure you'll sort it out." Bob smiled in a friendly fashion, bestowing his confidence on the lad.

John Edwards looked dubiously at this but thought he could sort it out. It looks a routine matter. His eyes glanced down the list and ended with the two last names, 'N Wade, H Stewart Press reporters for Gardeners World.' It added a nice homely touch to it and it all looked straightforward enough.

"Show me a prison, show me a jail,
Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale
And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I "

Yvonne looked at the notice Mr Bostock was putting up on the wall and thought she ought to size up the enemy and see just how bad he was but did not expect great miracles from Karen's description..

"You're Mr Bostock, aren't you." Yvonne talked to Bostock's back as he made minute adjustments for straightness as a way of blanking one of the cons.

"And you." Bostock's back replied.

"Yvonne. Yvonne Atkins."

"I've heard all about you."

"Good things I hope. Then you know I'm calling the shots round here." Yvonne replied softly to Eric Bostock who started to walk away down the wing while Yvonne kept pace with him and maintained the conversation.

"There's one person calling the shots round here. And that's me." Bostock started to get prickly

"I meant with the cons. Got their ear. Thought a bit of friendly would help."

"Really." Bostock's monotone reply chilled the wing more than it already was.

"We've all seen you lot come and go on the wing and, to tell you the truth, we're not keen, no offence but I'd hate to see you lot spend a lot of money doing up this place only to see it smashed to bits. Know what I mean, love." replied Yvonne who realised that subtleties were wasted on a mental brick wall and a turned away back.

Eric Bostock's bad temper exploded at this point. Never being amenable to polite reason, the menacing threats from this gangster's moll caused his temper to flash, especially as they threatened to trash all his spending plans he had worked in the contract bid and thereby imperilling this year's profit ratio for the company. He had sized up how to make a killing on this place and no con was going to stand in his way.

"Now you listen to me, love. Reckon you lot have been on one long picnic but when we get here, if you so much as break wind in the wrong direction, we'll be on you like a brickload. I'll remember your face and so will my cameras."

"You've met Mr Bostock, then." Karen asked Yvonne casually.

"Ain't I just. You know I would never thought I would believe that I'd be glad to see a familiar screw. But I'd sooner have you lot than those load of shits." Yvonne said with real feeling, even including that evil cow Bodybag. She would sooner spend the rest of her days badmouthing Bodybag if only she and her lot would stay. Somehow the first thing in the morning sparring match already seemed to have a nostalgic feel about it, a reassurance of normality.

Karen had smiled at this and knew that Yvonne clearly meant all of them, not just herself as their relationship was an easy relaxed one born of unspoken trust.

"You know, at least they'll be keeping one of us. Fenner. Bostock loves him." Shit, thought Yvonne. That's one bastard that might go but no such luck. The devil looks after its own.

There was a sudden loud crash and one of the CCTV cameras pulled the bracket out of the ceiling nearly braining Mr Bostock as he was passing.

"What the hell happened? Mr Bostock, are you all right?" Karen's nursing training jumped to the fore. "All right everyone, back away from the cameras. Mr Fenner, I want someone from the Works Department to check over those fittings and everything else those cowboys have touched."

"Those lads were working under my orders, Miss Betts. No one touches their work till a contract goes in." Mr Bostock angrily replied.

"Mr Bostock, at the present, Larkhall is not yours to own. I'm ordering a full health and safety inspection but I want to ensure that G Wing is safe first. Di, can you get onto the Works Department to come as soon as they can and Jim, can you arrange early association so that the prisoners are clear of the danger area." Karen rattled out the series of orders and a red faced Mr Bostock was humiliatingly sidelined.

"Oh yes, Sylvia, can you tell Neil what's happened. He should know of this and when you get back, can you help Jim."

"Yes, Ma'am," Sylvia responded with more willingness than she was used to display. Rushing around wasn't Sylvia's thing but she knew that Karen wanted her to lay it on thick to Mr Grayling.

"Come along girls. Move" Yvonne Atkins's carrying voice called out and G wing clicked into action with precision.

"And while Larkhall prison is public, there'll be a full investigation. So this is what privatisation means," Karen's last stinging insult was the final end to a lousy day. His long suffering wife was not to know that evening that this explained the outburst of bad temper that caused him to lay into her that she was a lousy cook, that she couldn't cook the way his mother used to in far off Newcastle.

Scene 21

It wasn't usual, thought Helen sleepily as she cautiously felt her sleepy way down the open plan staircase, for Nikki to be up before her. After Nikki's initial irrepressible burst of laughter which had woken Helen, Nikki was grinning broadly as she pored over the letter in her hand and pointed to the identical buff official franked letter addressed to Helen.

"Hear this, Hel, it's the letter about the Open Day. Just listen to this."

'Larkhall Prison will be delighted to welcome ----Miss N Wade, Gardener's World correspondent -------- to the forthcoming presentation on August 12th 2003. You need to present this letter of accreditation to the gatehouse as proof of identity for the press event. You will need to bear in mind that, as a civilian visitor, you will be subject to the same checks as any other civilian visitor and be mindful of the rules and regulations governing the operation of this prison. Subject to this, I hope your visit to Larkhall Prison will be rewarding and enjoyable.

I attach a map of directions, both road and rail, as to how to find the prison. Yours sincerely, Mr Squiggle p p Manager.'

Last time I got taken there, they weren't so polite. "Get in the cattle truck, dyke." That bastard at the police station said and slammed the door shut. I remember it well." And Nikki's eyes clouded over at the memory.

"But you're a distinguished visitor now, Nikki. Times have changed. And, yes, I think I know all about the 'rules and regulations governing the operation of the prison, and so do you. We're real experts, aren't we? And I think I'll figure out how to drive to Larkhall Prison. I'll get on the phone to Karen and let her know." Helen's expressive face reflected all her passing emotions, the lightness of derisive glee at the same old incompetent Larkhall spirit meekly letting in such troublemakers through the front door and a bitter irony that they knew so much more than the faceless Area official could ever know about the reality of 'rules and regulations'. Dark shades clouded over her face, remembering bitter feelings each day of her car endlessly retreading the same daily tracks to yet another battle with the 'Old Boys Network' at Larkhall, the monstrosity of injustice of the incarceration of a free spirit like Nikki and their desperate struggles to both get free of the place.

Sylvia had made her way to Karen's room as she did on a regular basis these days and had settled in for a cup of coffee.

"The most slovenly work he'd seen in ages, that's what the Works Department said about those cowboys. No standards, that's the matter. Neil wasn't very happy when I reported it to him."

"I imagine Neil wasn't pleased at all," smiled Karen though she was sure that what displeased him most was that Larkhall had broken the Eleventh Commandment 'thou shalt not be found out'. Likewise, from the pursed expression that she saw on Grayling's face, Bostock most certainly had grilled him about it over a 'business lunch.'

"I thought Mr Bostock was going to ban the Health and Safety Executive from coming in, if you ask me" Sylvia carried on in full flow to a polite Karen who was grateful for a new ally but wished occasionally that she could be allowed to go on with her work quietly.

"Even Bostock wouldn't go that far." Karen smiled grimly. "Not recognising unions isn't illegal, to do the same to the Health and Safety Executive is and he knows it and knows we'll blow the whistle on that."

Just then, the phone rang and Sylvia's inquisitiveness took in the broad grin on Karen's face and the way she broke off laughing at the end. "I'll look forward to seeing you both, Helen, though I know that a lot of people here won't."

"Helen." Sylvia echoed, a horrid suspicion starting to percolate through her mind. "It can't be.."

"Sylvia, I'm Wing Governor of G Wing. And yes, Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade are in the list of guests. Area's decision to let them in but my head on the block on this one if things go wrong. That's before they clear us all out anyway. You've always complained Joe Public isn't concerned what goes on in prisons these days, and perhaps in the past, you're right. Helen and Nikki will help make Joe Public care. You must put these old antagonisms behind us though I know how strongly you feel. I know Helen and Nikki will behave properly to you. Trust me, Sylvia."

Sylvia sighed at these modern times and all these cataclysmic upheavals in the solid foundation of her rigidly structured life, one after another. It didn't come comfortable to her, with the way her mother brought her up. But if it took those two to help drive her fears away, even she'll smile nicely at Nikki Wade.

"As you're probably aware," Karen's light official tones addressed the POs in the office. "top of the agenda is the Kids on Wheels presentation. We're expecting Christopher Biggins any time now."

"Thought we were getting a celebrity." Fenner quipped.

"Obviously it's a press event so security is at a premium....", Karen started to say.

"Karen, have we got the list from area of visitors coming? Some of the lads are uneasy at any Tom, Dick or Harry coming traipsing round Larkhall. Can't you get Area to pull their finger out and get us the list sharpish ?" Fenner complained in a concerned voice.

The bastard wants to insinuate that I'm to blame for not chasing this up, Karen thought resentfully. But he's right, that list should be there.

"I've been promised I'll get it first post, Jim. If I don't get it, then I'll be on their backs to FAX over a list. When I get it, I'll personally pass it to you, Colin, on the gate."

"Word is when Bostock takes over, you're leaving," Di said, her vacant eyes looking into the distance. "Only some of us were wondering."

"We're not there yet, Di." Karen smiled tightly, wondering if God ever gave her a brain beyond trying to ensnare the next unfortunate man who came close to her web. This smacks of cosy cosy chats with Grayling.

"No, but if you're stepping down, it's only right that we should know." Di foolishly persisted, conveying a ghastly tactlessness in appearing to want to shovel the first load of earth on her grave while she was still alive.

"I thought I'd made my feelings clear but for the record, prisoners for profit isn't a banner I'm happy to wave." Images of revolt in Karen's short reply shaped the metaphor straight up from her unconscious into the spoken word.

"You are leaving then," Fenner's dark shape and voice pursued the matter and not in Di's dopey ignorant tones.

"I like to know that some of us have principles. Though there are those of us who will fit right into the new regime." Karen sniped back before the meeting was closed.

On the wing, the atmosphere was a mixture of keyed up excitement and playfulness. Yvonne was dressed in her favourite black leathers as almost a badge of authority in itself. There was a playful smile on her face and her eyes were alive. She strolled casually over to the group of women who sensed her approach before they saw her.

"Listen up. We know what we've got to do this morning. But you take your lead from me. Got it." Yvonne's last minute pep talk whittled away at the last trace of fears amongst them.

"Are you sure this is the right way? You know how these things can spiral out of control." Babs cautious questioning voice echoed another nightmare sit in a long time ago when the Peckham Boot Gang hijacked a peaceful sit down protest into a mayhem of smashing furniture and papers pouring down and even Nikki's authoritative tones failed to cut through the chaos.

"Not with me in charge." Yvonne reassured them.

"It's our only chance, Babs. They won't sodding listen to us otherwise." The 2 Julies spoke with determination to Yvonne's approval. Light hearted and playful as a rule, if the Julies were prepared to move, then it was certain that G Wing would back this one to the hilt. They eased Yvonne's very well hidden worries that had been in her dreaming thoughts last night of what if all the others would back down at the last moment and she was left on her own feeling a right plonker.

"'Ere, oo is this Biggles person anyway?" Tina's charmingly innocent tones resounded a little too loudly for comfort to Yvonne's ears.

"At the end of the day, he's definitely going to know who we are." Al's thick Scottish accent spoke of her will to action though to Yvonne, there was a worryingly psychopathic undertone to it. Al has been OK recently but she used to be Maxi's murdering heavy in the past.

There was a constant lively restlessness and lively sense of anticipation. Celebrities, even this Biggins character, whoever he was, added a novelty to the day. Denny had scoured through a worn out copy of "Heat" magazine and though it told you of "20 ways to tell if your lover is a liar" and had pictures of slim expensively dressed suntanned women, this Biggins guy wasn't in it.

"Not going to bang on for ages is he Miss," she enquired of a harassed Bodybag, nursing a secret that made her a touch more nervous and therefore tetchy than normal.

"OK, Ju, right there, got you, click click," the 2 Julies enacted celebrity dreams they read about in the magazines, wearing more makeup and, a total first in Larkhall, decorous kneelength skirts.

Karen was hanging around casually quietly in a corner of Larkhall with a feeling of nervous excitement when Eric Mellors, the gateman, ushered a very actorish man wearing an open necked shirt who was clearly Christopher Biggins and was loudly arguing with Eric Mellors.

Nearly all the pieces on the human game of chess were assembled. The game was about to begin.

In contrast, Colin Hedges had made his furtive way to the toilet, with his syringe, needle and spoon and a small packet of heroin. A bit of him got a kick out of going into an obviously dangerous situation when an unknown hand could have felt his collar. The other major part of him craved for the moment when he had tied off and one thrust of a syringe took him into the state of mind he cared most, of never being afraid, never feeling pain and feeling strong forever even while his head lolled back against the top of the toilet cistern and his eyes stared up at the harsh electric light without blinking.

"I don't know just where I'm going
But I gonna try for the kingdom if I can
'Cause it make me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know
Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
And thank God that I just don't care
And thank God that I just don't care"

After what seemed an infinity of time, the shape of the toilet door emerged out of the mist and instinct told him that he had to return to the real world. Colin stared into the mirror and the stranger with pinned eyes, drawn face looked out of it and passed him by, unrecognised.

"Where the hell have you been, Colin." Karen snapped at him and pushed this piece of paper into his hand, the FAXed guest list. Colin stumbled off to the front where he welcomed in with a vague smile the procession of press reporters that the No 1 had asked for.

A fresh faced Helen and Nikki kept a low profile and their hearts leapt with joy that the security guard, the one person who might have blown the whistle on them, let them through with a smile.

Scene 22

Karen politely listened to the complaints that Christopher Biggins was making about Larkhall. To tell the truth, she had trouble in adjusting to this guy. If all the world's a stage, this man clearly wanted more than his share of it, but that was perhaps unkind. He had a flamboyance about him that was part of the way he made his living. In the same way that her patient and methodical nature and her genuine interest in the prisoners in her charge were the tools of her trade. It wasn't anything personal, she decided, just the way they both were.

"Please come in," Mr Grayling's more than usually hospitable tones greeted him, eye contact in his direction, well away from her.

"Mr Grayling, our Governing Governor. This is Mr Biggins." Karen announced formally.

"Christopher." He corrected, extending his hand intruding into Grayling's fastidious sense of space.

"I take it you found us all right." Grayling ill advisedly asked.

"Twice round the ring road," Christopher Biggins loudly exclaimed. "A light roasting from Mr Mellors on the gate. What next, a strip search?"

Oh my God, what have I done, Karen groaned inwardly wondering how he would fare with the safe but potentially alarming care of Yvonne and the others. I sense a sustained piss taking in store, Mr Biggins, a very reluctant double act and them writing the lines.

"I know it seems strange to civilians but every visitor must undergo routine checks, I'm afraid." Karen replied in soothing tones. That reminds me, I hope in hell Helen and Nikki get on all right and don't get pulled up. For once, she prayed for lax security and, if Colin Hedges takes over, that might be what we'll get.

"The little Hitler confiscated the entire contents of my bag. What exactly does he think I was going to do with a packet of Rennies?" Christopher Biggins shot back in tones, heavy with sarcasm.

You don't really know the half of what goes on and you're going to get an eye opener, Karen thought but diplomatically kept her silence.

Grayling stared at him without expression. His straightjacketed buttoned up to the neck secretive persona clashed with the flamboyant actor who he pegged straight off as gay. Must be. Wouldn't last ten seconds in this place. Nevertheless, this man was the meal ticket for him to perform on stage before the nation's press so he must tolerate him blethering on about 'Within These walls' and Googie Withers.

"It's ever so good of you to spare the time," he started in his best sincere manner, so good that he almost believed in himself.

As the prisoners filed out into the exercise yard, Yvonne was racking her brains to work out who are the mysterious old friends that Karen hinted at that were coming. She'd got enough on her plate anyway, to watch out how the event was going to pan out and when to make the first move. At this moment, she was keyed up, ready for anything and as in command of herself and her surroundings as at any time in her life. Wearing her leathers helped to make herself feel good in herself and comfortable. It went back to when she used to wear biker jackets in her teens but she'd gone a bit upmarket since then. A light wind ruffled her hair and the sun smiled down at her. Behind her, Denny filed into place to listen to the speech in an attitude of apparent mild boredom and the 2 Julius smiled ready to pose for any photographers who came their way.

The exercise yard was an unexpected splash of colour due to the display stand for Kids on Wheels and the festive balloons. The logo "Every single chair shows how much we care" proclaimed the heartfelt intentions of the charity which Grayling saw as providing just the right caring image for public consumption of the Larkhall to be, his face on the front page and his career well and truly launched.

With a practised art, Christopher Biggins took the microphone for his address to the growing throng including the attentive and eager press lenses and notebooks at the ready held by the hardened pressmen. Yvonne, loitering near the back of the crowd of G wing prisoners, took up the best position to see everything and be ready for action and a feeling of exhilaration swelled up inside herself. Bloody hell, that's Miss Stewart and Nikki Wade. How the Fuck did they break their way in?

"Kids on Wheels UK want to say a very special thank you to all the women who put so much time and effort into making this machine for young Winston.."

"Lennox, that's his real name, innit" Buki called out.

"..When I spoke to the care home yesterday," Christopher Biggins carried on, past experience making subtle adjustments to his lines second nature. "they emphasised to me just how excited the little boy is.." and Christopher Biggins recalled the shining eyes of the little boy who had been imprisoned to his chair by his illness. "Receiving a customised chair and especially one as marvellous as this one, why it's like Christmasses and birthdays rolled into one. I'm sure it will warm the cockles of our hearts to know that in a couple of hours, he will be racing round like a demented Damon Hill." Christopher Biggins finished in an oratorical flourish, glancing at the vehicle which was far better than he expected it to be and genuinely impressed him.

"You tell him it was his mum's idea and tell him I love him." Buki pointed out to the press, amongst whom Nikki and Helen felt.

"Maybe a good moment for a piccy or two." Christopher Biggins said the words Grayling had been waiting for.

The event had all the atmosphere of a School Speech Day, but Helen looked with utter contempt when she saw how Grayling shamelessly took centre stage between two very upmarket prisoners who had been the brains behind the project. He announces their transfer to an open prisoner and the slimy bastard gets his face on the front page as the governor who made it all possible. Oh well, click, click and minister to his overblown ego but save photos till the real action. Nikki glanced at a very bored looking Fenner, mind switched off hearing all this sentimental crap, and marvelling that, even with her shoulder length hair, cap perched on her head and smartest outfit, he didn't spot her.

"You must be the kid's mum," Peter Thompson, the Daily Mirror correspondent spoke to the young black woman.

"Buki Lester, yeah."

"Been separated from him long." Came the automatic response.

"Only all his life."

"I can't begin to imagine what that feels like, Buki. You tell it like it is and we'll get it printed" Nikki broke in, in her gentle tones. She'd been there but Buki was not to know.

""Kills me every day. So that's why I came up with this 'cos them at the care home won't let me see him. You don't stop loving your own flesh, do you." Buki finished, seeing this fresh faced woman with a posh accent who seemed on the level while Nikki remembered Monica and her dead son Spencer which sent a shiver down her soul.

"This is the way to work the press machine." Grayling told Bostock smugly. "Private initiative, charity linked. The story writes himself."

"I'm very impressed, Neil. What's more, our investors will be. Now if we can drop the name Lynford Securities into a couple of broadsheets," Bostock replied, visualising the jump Lynfords would take in the share index and an item to report at the next Shareholders Annual Meeting.

Christopher Biggins unwound a bit, now that his speech was over. He could circulate a bit, away from that Grayling character who somehow made his flesh creep.

"You should be very proud of yourself, Buki. I'm absolutely sure that your son will be absolutely delighted."

"Hey Chris" a young teenager with frizzy hair bounded up to him. "Check the lights out, man, the way they flash."

"Oh well," Christopher Biggins smiled indulgently at her and sat down in the vehicle.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries
On such a full sea are we now afloat
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures."

No greater contrast to the recent mood of affable relaxation was the cloth suddenly rammed up his mouth and the way he was whisked up the path, pushed hard from behind with confused yelling sounds coming from behind him. Bostock and Grayling were rooted to the spot in total horror while Fenner at last saw the two worst nightmares in female form move to the front of the press crowd with cameras at the ready and likewise couldn't believe the evidence of his own eyes.

Scene 23

Yvonne had watched the press cluster round Buki, Grayling and the Costa Cons and timed it with precision. She gave the nod to the others in the plot and they sprang into action. While Denny held a gag to Christopher Biggins mouth, Yvonne grabbed the back of the chair and pushed at the back of the chair for all she was worth. The open door to the greenhouse invited the crowd to rush in and slam the door shut. Immediately they piled rows of trestle tables and trays of plants in front of the door as a barricade.

From the outside, a startled Christopher Biggins was clearly visible in his bright orange cardigan with Denny and Al in close attendance.

Meanwhile the massed ranks of the press sensed that there was a more interesting story than a picture of the Governor posing between two posh looking elderly prisoners. News value I think not, they had thought, especially if something turns up better and this was that something.

"All right, can you all move back inside," Karen ordered the more docile members of G Wing. "Sylvia, can you look after that with half a dozen POs while the rest of us deal with the situation outside. Mind you, keep it cool." And Sylvia then suddenly discovered to her amazement that a quarter of her level of her usual bluster and threats to the prisoners got double her results. She wondered why she had never tried it before.

Fenner's face was contorted with real anger, more than either Helen and Nikki had been used to for a long time. Lazy country ways had fractionally blunted their reaction time. "All right you two, Wade and Stewart, you two are out of this prison. You don't belong here and you should never have been let in."

Fenner grabbed at Nikki's camera which had been slung round her neck by a shoulder strap and tried to pull it off her. While Nikki struggled furiously with him, Helen stood back and blasted off shot after shot of Fenner's malevolent face and then grabbed at him from behind.

"Oy Fenner, you can't do that." Yvonne yelled out, her voice echoing round the exercise yard. "Is this the way a bastard like you is going to behave if Lynfords take over?"

Fenner was stopped dead in his tracks when Karen whirled over, incandescent with pure anger and loathing for the man.

"Jim Fenner, take your hands off our visitor immediately or you'll be up on a disciplinary charge. You as a professional officer should know better than to manhandle a woman like this. Don't you ever treat anyone like that from the other side of the prison walls any more than you would a prisoner in G wing while I'm in charge."

"Break it up, Jim." Grayling called in a cold hard voice.

Fenner looked around himself wildly, then tried to rearrange his features into a suitably contrite appearance. A look of total fear came into his eyes as he first saw Karen's angry blue eyes looking out from beneath the fair fringe that covered her forehead. He looked away from the sight only to see Helen look at him with total loathing, rerunning in his mind a kaleidoscope of images of her, back through the past. Likewise, written over Nikki's suntanned face was that contempt with which she had always viewed him and added to that, the fear instilled in him that this woman now wasn't someone he could put the handcuffs on, or send down the block. She gave out that deadly aura of one who saw right through him coupled with a power on the outside that was new and scary. Through the mists of confusion, he sensed the prisoners jeering at him and cheering the others.

"Hi Nikki, long time no see. Are you one of the paparazzi? Look here, pose for free and you can have my autograph." Julie J called out, striking a pose as if born to it.

"Keep Fenner out of my sight, Neil. And his sidekick Bostock," Karen hissed under her breath to Grayling.

"All right Karen but I'm in charge, not you." Grayling hissed back.

"Over to you, Neil, then." Karen said, handing him the poisoned chalice.

"I hear you're batting for the other team these days, Fenner." Nikki's parting shot stopped Fenner in his tracks before he sloped off.

"What the hell are you on about, Wade." He shouted back, concentrated fury in his eyes.

"You and Grayling. Match made in heaven." Nikki's most dangerous smile wound Fenner up to near snapping point and her soft voice carried just far enough to Yvonne's sharp ears. Fenner slunk away to join his mate Bostock. He hoped Bostock was naïve enough not to understand that one or else his best drinking mate is going to treat him as if he has leprosy.

"Yeah that was what we were saying, Nikki." Yvonne shouted back.

Inside the greenhouse, everyone had a sudden sense of reclaimed land, a tiny part of Larkhall where they were temporarily free. Yvonne came into her own straightaway as the leader of the rebels and Nikki, separated only by her freedom and a pane of glass could see that it was like old times.

"Listen, ladies. A bit of respect, yeah. We've got a few complaints about the changes they want to make around here. We can't exactly lobby the local council or have a one to one with our MP. So you're the best way of us getting out...oh yeah, plus some unexpected friends from the old days."

Christopher Biggins had got over the initial primal fear of being grabbed by a load of female hooligans and expecting to be done over. This calm dignity and respect that Yvonne Atkins, who had introduced herself, impressed his actor's sensitivities except there was no script and he depended on noone but himself.

"Yeah, that's Miss Stewart, our old Governing Governor out there and Nikki Wade, an old lag once equal top dog to me, bless them. They're on our side, Chris, as part of the press."

Christopher Biggins powers of comprehension utterly gave out at this point but he trusted to the magnetic personality and honesty of this woman who had no trappings of power as in the real world but commanded with the force of her integrity. His heart warmed to her.

Conscious of the malevolent stares of Fenner and Bostock expecting him to do something, Grayling stepped forward to the centre stage, conscious of the click click of cameras in the background, as it were, tapping on his back.

"All right, Atkins. You've got 14 seconds for you to explain yourselves. I want to know what this is about." Helen and Karen's eyes rolled skywards. Surely he must know, he's caused all the trouble in the first place, he's Governing Governor, for God's sake.

"We might be locked up Grayling but we're not idiots. Privatising this place will make this place a whole lot worse. And we don't want it. And we don't want that pillock here as our Governor." yelled Yvonne defiantly. She was pleasantly surprised to see the reporters scribble down her words in shorthand and Nikki and Helen pressed to the front to catch the best view of her profile through the window which she swung upwards to give the best view of her. To the reporters, she gave brilliant copy and her hawk like profile was very photogenic. In the background, the other women had a natural gift as to how to bulk up a convincing crowd scene.

Grayling did his feeble best to offer a meaningless compromise deal which Yvonne contemptuously swept aside.

"Nobody moves till Lynford Securities drop their bid." Yvonne finished emphatically.

Karen's hardest job during all that time was to keep a straight face seeing events pan out so smoothly and seeing Grayling get so rattled and vulnerable. Fenner had gone off sulking with that bastard Bostock after the most satisfying trial by sisterhood that she could ever dream of. The summer air ruffled her hair and gave her more fresh air than she normally had stuck inside Larkhall.

"What do you think they're going to do next, Ju." Julie Johnson asked.

"Shitting themselves, ladies." Yvonne gleefully replied.

"We shall, we shall not be moved
We shall, we shall not be moved
Just like a tree standing by the waterside
We shall not be moved."

"Why aren't you doing anything. Why don't you clear out those troublemakers, and show some muscle." Bostock glowered to Grayling, gesturing to Nikki and Helen and not in the direction of the greenhouse.

"Because I'd sooner sit this one out." Grayling's agitated tones replied. The successive events had broken his nerve to do anything decisive, especially as he saw Helen Stewart looking at him with a challenging smile which had a mindlock on his weaknesses, one being his fear of a bad press. Knowledge is power was his favourite saying but these women knew too much and that scared him the most. Right now, he wanted to do no more than play safe and pray for a chance to come his way.

"Those two have got friends on the outside that are only too willing and able to stuff us. And the rest of the press will run the story of them being thrown out, not Kids on Wheels, not what Lynfords can do for the Prison Service."

"Well, don't count on Lynfords the way things are going." Bostock's cold voice made a clear direct threat which unnerved Grayling further.

"Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight"

The latest gentle harmonies from the greenhouse could be heard in the exercise yard as Bob Marley's Rastafarian spirit of universal struggle blended in with the defiant dancing women in the greenhouse, all making good copy for the press.

Scene 24

"Mr Grayling," Helen's chirpily offensive Scottish accent cut in. "We were commissioned to cover a feature of floral life in prisons. The problem is that due to your provocative actions of exploiting a real human tragedy of Buki Lester's crippled child in a crass attempt to sell Larkhall Prison HMP to the public, you have made it difficult to do our business as we had the greenhouse in mind. We're giving you notice that we're going in."

"My staff will be unable to guarantee your safety, Miss Stewart." Grayling said stiffly. "If you get into any trouble, be it on your head."

"I think we'll be all right, Neil. I've found in the past that prisoners can do a pretty good job of looking after themselves, don't they Nikki?" Helen's broad smile added to Grayling's exasperation and while Nikki smiled at the memories Helen's words conjured up, Karen grinned wondering what these two mischief makers were cooking up. Oh well, let's go with the flow, they know what they are doing. Sure as hell Grayling doesn't.

"Of course, you could be of assistance in trying to smooth this little difficulty over, you being a former Governor, then we would be most grateful, Helen." Grayling's false smile attached itself badly to his face as he desperately clutched at straws.

"We do no deals, Grayling," Helen looked hard at him in contempt. "You know what would get the sit in called off. I've handled tougher problems in my time than this in my time here."

"And you keep that human gorilla off us," added Nikki icily.

Stepping forward to the window, Nikki handed their expensive cameras through the window and, one by one, they slid carefully through the narrow gap and did a sideways roll, landing on their backs .

Helen looked up at the glasshouse ceiling and the familiar faces looming up above her. She was at her most physically vulnerable yet felt no fear, only warmth and safety amongst old friends.

"Miss Stewart, how did you and Nikki wangle your way in," Julie J's kind voice asked her.

"To do our photo commission for Gardener's World set in a prison. Who better than us?" Helen said with a big grin.

"Ere you are, try some of this jungle juice the Costa Cons have brewed up. It's good stuff." Tina chirped up, hospitably.

"Better than the plonk they serve at Claridges." A beaming, slightly wobbly Christopher Biggins reassured them. "Got a kick like a mule."

Both Nikki and Helen took a swig out of the blue Larkhall tea mugs and found the potent spirits went right into their bloodstreams. Helen's eyes lit up as this was way better than the vodka she used to drink nightly when she worked here, or perhaps it was the good feelings of the here and now that overlay the last bitter memories of Larkhall.

"Careful Helen. You're not that light I can carry you up to bed." Nikki

"Are you two living together then. That's cool, man." Denny's sharp ears had picked up on that one and a big grin lightened her face and made her look like the happy go lucky teenager that Shaz knew her to be.

"Come on, photo time." Helen's bossy tones brought a bit of order to the party and the greenhouse was a flurry of activity while Grayling fidgeted in a state of indecision and Bostock was clearly getting restive. Time was not on their side in the short run while management was made a laughing stock and he became more and more exposed to carry the can as time went on. He was in charge and he stood to carry the can.

Time flowed on in that little bubble of freedom as they all chatted excitedly to each other catching up on old times and the naturalness that was always at the basis of Helen's personality was there, stripped of all authority and her vivacious personality sparked against Yvonne's down to earth humour and, in turn off Nikki's more relaxed, less edgy style. Nikki and Babs both were appreciative of Christopher Biggins Shakespearian soliloquies performed on an improvised stage, less grand than he was used to but as meaningful to perform as anywhere. Denny, the Julies and Buki were just happy and content, if a bit pissed.

"How are those lot getting on out there," Yvonne asked Helen.

"Five more minutes, Yvonne. They'll crack." Helen replied confidently, her once rusty jailcraft now a polished and finely honed weapon

"We're real sorry about starting off that riot with Maxi. We didn't mean to give you a load of grief. We're sorry we never said before." Al and Tina chorused to a smiling Helen who waved that incident farewell into the past.

"That's it, you can stick your prison, Neil. There's no way I can recommend my shareholders to take over this hornets nest and make it economically viable. I'm off." Bostock final chilly tones finally buried the privatisation plan together with Grayling's dreams.

Grayling made his final appearance on stage and with his best salesman's sincere expression called for attention amongst the slightly sozzled audience.

"Guys, I've had a rethink in strategy and have an offer to put on the table. Perhaps I have been a little hasty in rushing ahead with the project to privatise Larkhall. Perhaps it is not as compatible with the needs of the prison service than I first thought. I have an offer that the bid by Lynfords and any other bid is dropped. In return, you have to accept that however well intentioned, you have all seriously interfered with the good order of this prison. You will all lose 28 days of remission on your sentences and two weeks spends. In return for this, I promise that there will be no victimisation by the prison officers. I will personally see to that. I also require an absolute promise from you all of good behaviour, no victory celebrations or else the only loser is Larkhall. Without this last assurance in particular, this deal is off the table."

"Accept this," Helen spoke confidently to the others, recognising that this was a slap on the wrist and things could go much worse. "If you don't mind me saying. It's your decision as I'm an outsider."

"Girls, we're walking out, like Miss Stewart says and we'll accept Grayling's deal. Yeah?" Yvonne decided straightaway. "And Nikki and Helen," Yvonne spoke in a much softer, more affectionate tone. "You can come here and interfere any time you want. Sometime, somewhere, we'll all be thinking of you."

Yvonne had had a revelation. Strange that she had never really known Helen Stewart before though she had known her as her jailer for years.

"You know Nikki and I have jobs and lives outside Larkhall and there are limits on what we can do...but I'll be in regular touch with Karen."

And they trooped out, nervously looking around between the two lines of stony faced POs hemming them in on each side, but Yvonne caught the brief smile on Karen's face before it reverted to her usual impassive expression.

Scene 25

It was impossible for Fenner to even guess at the concentrated fury and humiliation that he felt that terrible day. He had gone on an alcoholic bender of large proportions for him and shouted and raved and boasted drunkenly in the local pub while more nervous drinkers kept to the edges, frightened by the vibes coming off him as an out of control dangerous headcase. They tried to avoid eye contact with the man in case he picked on them. The fact that he had no reason to start trouble with them was irrelevant.

When he got up the morning after, feeling numb and hungover, he slipped on his prison officer's uniform and stared at himself in the mirror. A sweaty face with angry eyes, unshaven, looking hungover stared back at him, and dressed after all these sodding years, in his hated bloody pissing uniform and all the seething anger in him came boiling out. It was all those bloody scheming vindictive women who were responsible, Stewart and Wade who didn't belong there and were out to get him. And Grayling, frightened of his own shadow and scared shitless about ordering the lads to get the riot gear on and sort out that rabble for once and for all. So what if Wade and Stewart got roughed up with the rest of them? Serve them right for sticking their nose in where they weren't wanted. And that Atkins woman and all the other rabble were laughing at him. Suddenly he picked up a hard object and hurled it at the mirror for all he was worth, splintering it into shards of glass that tinkled down onto the ground. The fractured jagged chunks that were still left sticking to the wall were, as if frosted over so that he couldn't see. Never liked mirrors anyway.

"I can see her coming
And she sure looks pretty
Her breasts are bold and her mouth is large
She wants to get me
She wants to hurt me
She wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little straighter
I will come across a stranger
Who'll remind me of the danger
And then I'll run him over
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark"

And Karen 'politically correct' Betts comes over to join that coven of women and gives him a bollocking before all the lads making him feel ten inches tall. She was the bitch who engineered this all to get in the way of a job that, by rights, should have been his years ago. Eric Osborne his old Wing Governor had been grooming him for promotion, coached him in his round of golf and knew how to drink like a man went and retired and before he knew it, the Home Office appointed this young upstart Stewart in his place. His mind was made up. He has to get rid of Betts before she gets rid of him.

Grayling had slunk into work and was wearily looking through the morning's post after the disaster the other day. How was he going to explain this one to Area? It was so unfair as everything was going smooth as clockwork till a load of dangerous women hijacked the event. He buried his head in his hands.

There was a hesitant double knock at the door and the most unwelcome sight of Di Grayling poked her head rashly round the corner.

"It's all right, love." She spoke in the sort of overdone mumsy fussing tones that made him want to crawl back inside his own skin. "It's not the end of the world, what happened yesterday. Every cloud has a silver lining. I'll get a bottle of wine in, we'll have an early finish and cosy up together." And Di touched his hand which shot back as if he were electrocuted.

After another bout of tears and tantrums before Di stomped out of the room, Grayling reached desperately for some comfort and found it in the thought of Tony that he'd met last night. Definitely an evening out with him was preferable to a night in with Di.

He opened a "private and confidential" letter in his in tray and that only brought on an extra special headache

"Dear Neil

I wanted to write to you to congratulate you, once again, about your splendid idea for the forthcoming 'Kids On Wheels UK' charity launch presented by Christopher Biggins in conjunction with Lynford Securities. I enclose a copy of the guest list which I hope has reached you in time and, to make especially sure that we at Area have played our full part in ensuring the success of the event, I have FAXed over a copy of the list.

Between ourselves, the recent publicity for the Prison Service has been rather mixed especially with unfounded rumours circulated by isolated malcontents within the prison Service and the Trade Unions about Lynfords. We are counting on you to ensure that the press launch will squash these rumours and establish in the public eye exactly what Lynfords can do to bolster up the Prison Service. We at Area have always noticed your real flair for handling publicity and have every confidence in the successful outcome of the presentation.

Don't hesitate to send us what press cuttings you can obtain locally and phone me up to let us know how you have got on so I can hear the good news personally.

Yours sincerely

John Wilkes

All Grayling could do was groan at the hideous inappropriateness of the letter, dated only a day before the Christopher Biggins disaster. What does he say to Area now? He grabbed for a packet of Cocodimol tablets he kept in his drawer and a glass of water.

Helen was stretched out on a recliner in the back garden with a sheaf of daily papers on her lap back home in the mountains of Wales. Nikki smiled as she brought out two hot mugs of coffee. She kneeled down, leaning her chin over Helen's shoulder and wrapped her arms round her from behind. It gave her a real buzz, reading about the news that they were an intimate part of and, for once not with dread when reading Crystal's ill judged letter to the Guardian.

'PRISON SELL OFF BLOCKED BY DARING PRISONER'S SIT IN' was the triumphant headline in the Daily Mirror running a breathless story which showed Yvonne's profile to the best advantage on Page 1. The story started, Helen was pleased, giving a brief account of Buki's disabled child and moved on to expose 'Lynfords for cynically exploiting it for their own ends.' Helen and Nikki were relieved to read this as afterwards, they had misgivings that the very real human tragedy and the efforts made by the prisoners will have been pushed out of the headlines by the more eyecatching action stuff. Yvonne was quoted in saying "Nobody moves till Lynford Securities drop their bid."

The article referred to one of the Prison Officers manhandling one of the freelance journalists present and Yvonne Atkins comment. "Is this the way a bastard like you is going to behave if Lynfords take over?" A senior official of the Home Office was asked for an interview but he declined to comment.

The article finished with a superb quote from Christopher Biggins who commented that 'I was a bit alarmed when I was first grabbed and wheeled into the greenhouse but I think that they are all splendid caring women whatever the reasons they were imprisoned and Lynford Securities are the only people who profit from crime."

"Ah, they didn't get a picture of us, Nikki." Helen said with a mock downcast look.

Nikki grinned. "I bet Yvonne is on cloud 9, and Karen also and those bastards are kicking themselves. Still we got some good pictures for our feature and some pictures of Fenner that will come in handy. Are you going to phone Karen or do you want me to?" she gleefully replied.

"How you're keeping, Miss Betts. You look happy with yourself today," Julie J smiled knowingly at Karen whose very posture betrayed a lightness of spirit and a holiday spirit about her.

"Let's just say, Julie, that I've had a bit of good news. How's things with you and Julie Saunders."

"Oh, can't complain, Miss. You know how it is, only I'm dying for a fag, having lost my weekly spends. Still, it's a chance to give up" Julie J's smile widened and she strolled over.

Karen sighed. She owed these women so much for sticking their necks on the line and, though she knew word would get about, she discreetly slipped Julie J a few cigarettes.

"Thanks, Miss. You're a star."

"You conniving bitch," hissed Fenner's voice two seconds later in the PO's room. "You and Yvonne. All girls together. The whole sodding sisterhood."

"Careful, Fenner." Karen coolly replied. "You nearly ended up on the front pages of the paper instead of Neil." And Karen unfolded the front page spread of the Mirror and pinned it up on the notice board. "Good news, isn't it? Our jobs are safe now."

"Well, since you are acting as Voice of the People, I'm resigning from the POA. Your little escapade will have cost the union quite a few members around here. Your General secretary won't be quite so pleased with his latest star recruit." And Fenner thrust his union card and a scrawled letter of resignation into her hand.

"Actually, Jim, the General Secretary is female. And, for the record," Karen replied feeling glacially calm and thoroughly in command of the debate, "It's bad enough to share the same human race as you, still more the same workplace but I'm bloody well not going to share membership of a trade union with you. You're just an opportunist, out for what you can get out of the POA to save your skin when it suits you. So don't pull the 'old soldier' stuff with me, Jim Fenner. And talking about resignations," and here Karen spoke very softly and looked at her most deceptively innocent. "While you're writing out one letter of resignation, couldn't you write out the other letter of resignation while you're in the mood. Don't worry, Larkhall won't collapse without you"

The fact that Fenner stomped off without saying a word lifted Karen's spirits. It wasn't every day that he was speechless for words.

When Yvonne entered the wing a footfall cheer of a winning team started up but Yvonne cut it short.

"Listen up, girls. You heard what was agreed yesterday in the greenhouse. No victory celebrations. Keep it quiet and keep everything peaceful. Just a normal day in Larkhall."

Sylvia was pleasantly surprised how the other prisoners shut up straightaway. She had heard what had happened from Karen who advised her, play it cool and everything would be all right. A part of her thought, 'give the prisoners half an inch and they will take a mile' but she was pleasantly disappointed. When she thought later about it, the mundane boring filing job would be under the safety and security of the Home Office. The black nightmare of having to uproot herself at her time of life and be shoved into some other prison, if it would have her, was banished and she was aware of the sunlight shining in through the high glass domed roof which she'd never noticed before. Sylvia smiled, a rare occurrence, when Yvonne crossed her path on the way to the metal staircase.

Yvonne had gone back to her cell to rest on her bed a bit. She was getting a bit of a kickback from the adrenaline rush of the events of yesterday and had hardly slept that night as she found it impossible to come down off that total high.

"Morning, Yvonne. Feeling better after yesterday." And Karen's face broke into a smile, exposing her even white teeth and her blue eyes lit up from within and subtly dropping the Wing Governor guise. In Yvonne's eyes, Betts was always on the level but she had only once seen her apart from the uniform she wore and the constraints it imposed on her and that was at the pub, as another mother with her head screwed on her shoulders. Now Yvonne could see her simply as another woman, radiantly happy within herself.

Yvonne's smile was much more relaxed than Karen was used to seeing. The poker player felt free to show her hand as it was safe to.

"I was wondering, Yvonne, if you wanted to take the opportunity of visiting Ritchie in hospital. I can arrange it. He's on the mend and in good spirits so I hear."

"He'll be bleeding fine till he sees me." Yvonne said a bit downcast.

"And after that, we go over to the pub, same as went to last time, that is, if you are willing. We'll be able to talk properly over there." Karen said softly in an understated tone.

"So long as you aren't putting your head on the chopping block over this." Yvonne replied grateful to the woman who had pushed it as far as she could against the likes of Grayling and Bostock. Being grateful to another human being for unadulterated acts of generosity was new to her as she was the one with power over her life and others and she had grown up in a cut-throat world. This was a new experience for her.

"So that means I get another date with you then." Karen said softly with an indefinable expression in her voice.

Scene 26

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