DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of Shed Productions. I am using them solely to explore my creative ability.

Both Sides of the Prison Walls
By Richard

Chapter Fifteen

The cell door to the 2 Julies cell was left hospitably open when Denny mooched past, looking long faced and downcast. Julie Saunders took that in with a flash and waved and called out to her. Denny's face brightened up making her look curiously younger than her years and made herself comfortable.

"Everything all right, Denny." Julie Saunders asked with a big smile

"Yeah, man, great," Denny replied unconvincingly. "Still it's nice you asking after me. At least someone notices."

The tone that crept back into her voice told the 2 Julies in turn everything. "It's Yvonne, getting out tomorrow. Don't worry, we understand, we're your mates, aren't we."

Denny fished in her loose trouser pocket and flipped open a crumpled cigarette packet and angled the cigarette end to the flame from her lighter. It gave her time to work out her feelings as she took a big puff and blew smoke into the air.

"You're right, man. It's that Yvonne's around so long she's been a real Mum to me and it scares me she's going. I can't tell her that and ruin her day for her. She's going back to her daughter Lauren, and………."

"We know, love." They broke in, in near unison chorus.

"Lauren's cool, Julies." Denny went on in a less confused tone. At isolated moments when she'd seen her own Mum in visiting, she'd seen an attractive dark haired classy woman with a posh accent stare down Fenner and Bodybag with total disdain and get away with it. She definitely looked and sounded like an up market version of Yvonne. Besides, it was Lauren who fixed up for her mother to collect the money Yvonne gave her even if it end up with her going back on the piss.

"It's that, first I lose Shaz, then Yvonne, though that's not the same thing " as Denny hastily excused herself, blushing a bit. "It's just that I know she'll not be around for me once she's on the outside."

The 2 Julies were worried. They could remember the Denny who was totally thuggish and would hit or kick anyone Shell told her to without the slightest provocation. First sight of Denny and they picked up something edgy and paranoid about her manner. Then, face to face, they spotted that her face was expressionless and her eyes were dead. The way she glared made even Fenner not want to push his luck All the tattoos on her arms and around her neck made her look a real 'hard case' not to mention the muscles on her. They used to keep their distance from Denny in particular, as the Julies were mates with Nikki and Denny more than mates with Shell. It was one of the basic unwritten rules of prison life of deciding which gang you were attached to. Denny had changed out of all recognition since those days. She's like an excitable kid, she's got a nice smile now and dead friendly and easy going.

"You've got us, Denny." Julie Johnson said with all the warmth in her voice she could summon up as if to reassure an upset child. "It's not like we're going anywhere. Just look round, no holiday brochures for Benedorm are there? You hang around with us."

Denny looked thoughtfully at them without speaking. The 2 Julies had always been a little in the background .Her life had revolved round, first with Shell, then Shaz and the comforting mother figure of Yvonne always there as a solid reassuring presence. Then a puzzled worried expression crept across her face.

"I'd love to hang around with you guys but there's only one thing man. I am not" and Denny became emphatic and fearful at the same time," becoming Julie Blood and dressing in short skirts. I'd feel like a bleeding drag queen. I did it only once and only as Yvonne conned me into It.. I didn't know which way to cross my bleeding legs. I'll never forget that one….and coming on to Al like that."

The 2 Julies grinned at their memories of the makeover they did on Denny, and the real fear in her eyes at the prospect of being persuaded to do something against her will. It always happened to her like that.

"We'll give Yvonne a real send off tomorrow. Make it good for her." And at that, Denny smiled, feeling much happier about herself. She had that feeling of security which she craved as much as anything. She'll miss Yvonne more than she could say but now she couldn't feel angry at Yvonne at deserting her like this like she did before. Trouble was that she couldn't tell Yvonne, or anyone else or herself even, about she had felt deep down inside.

It was Yvonne's last night and lock up time. The familiar sounds of prison warders' heavy footsteps, the clang of metal doors and the sporadic conversations between prisoners and officers, some friendly, others confrontational. Yvonne could hear Bodybag moaning away to some new faceless twat of a screw how overworked she was due to these stupid shifts and one of these days, she'll go sick. It's all bollocks, she loves lording it over everyone rather than running round full time after that bad tempered old git of a husband. Bodybag getting high as a kite on that ecstasy tablet showed her what twenty five years of wedded bliss in the Hollamby family was really like with a cantankerous man that was too old to get it up anymore. That's why she has to take it out on the rest of us. Never mind, Bodybag will be past history, and she will be someone she'll be glad to leave behind. Out of her life and out of her mind.

Yvonne stared round at her cell. She had managed to make it as cosy as it could be made in a dump like Larkhall. She took in the nice curtains, the wardrobe jammed full of her clothes and the magazines and the blue carpet, which were all little things but softened the whitewashed brick walls that stared at her every night. She was familiar with every crevice in the arched roof of the cell that she looked up at last thing before she went to sleep. Part of her was at Larkhall but, at last, part of her was mentally moving on to the future as some long delayed constant party she was barred from but the prison walls in her mind were starting to come down.

Yvonne was fidgety tonight and couldn't get comfortable in her narrow bunk bed tonight, however she lay. Normally she slept pretty well but her mind just wouldn't switch off tonight. It was the thought of all she had to do tomorrow and her mind kept repeating itself like a stuck record that at 2pm Lauren was going to come over and pick her up from outside the prison. She ought to be able to think, yeah, that's sorted out this didn't work. The more it annoyed her, the more it kept her awake so the more it annoyed her, etc, etc in a hopeless spiral. You soft cow, she finally thought, can you remembered Nikki had a last night too and that was before she went back to the Court of Appeal when it was quite possible that she would be shoved back into prison for the rest of her bleeding life. Get a grip, woman, was the final thought that settled her down to commit herself to the future whatever that future might be.

Chapter Sixteen

Beams of sunshine slid through the gaps in Yvonne's curtains to wake her up out of her sleep. With the mental cotton wool of sleep interfering with her thoughts, Yvonne absent mindedly cursed being deprived of an extra hour's sleep till the thought like an electric shock jabbed her into life. This was the big day which she had built up to after all these months. Something she tried to do the hard dangerous way twice in breaking out was now being handed to her on a plate. That Larkhill prison, after all this time would let her simply walk out of the gates and never return seemed strange to her.

Normally she wouldn't hurry too much to get up as sometimes when she was down, she would ask herself what was there anything to get up for. Today, Yvonne was keyed up and laid out all her possessions in a neat pile ready for the polythene sacks to carry all her possessions out of Larkhall along with herself. She put on her favourite leather outfit and today, went to town on her makeup. She was going to look her best so that she could go out with a bang.

Presently, came the jangle of the keys outside and the door opened and, in the gap came the scowling face of Bodybag.

"And what sort of service do you call this? On my special day and all" Yvonne smirked at Bodybag. True to form she glared back at her with anger. Surely on her last bleeding day, she'd lighten up.

"You'll get seen to when we're ready, Atkins. Not before."

"And have you got the de luxe plastic bags so I can move all my belongings."

"You have the standard one bag that is in the rule book. No more than that."

"But that won't be enough, Sylvia, Miss, to move my clothes, my bottles of Chanel perfume you've got locked away unless you thieving bastards have nicked them. Do I have to see Miss Betts and complain about this?" Yvonne knew that Bodybag was doing her usual petty obstructive routine one last time.

"Go on, Mrs Hollamby. You don't have to pay for these out of your wages" Denny Blood chirped in, having been let out earlier.

"I know it, Mrs Hollamby is dead cut up about Yvonne leaving so she's trying to make it impossible for her to leave." Julie Saunders , knowing she was onto a good thing, joined in the stirring.

A ripple of laughter was already stirring along the wing and so Bodybag stalked away down the landing. She would ask the new young prison officer to dish out the extra bags to that Atkins woman so she wouldn't lose face publicly.

Karen finished her sip of coffee and replaced the cup to the left of her papers crowding out her desk.

"Sylvia, can you tell the dayshift that I will be briefly seeing off Yvonne Atkins when she leaves. There is bound to be some sort of send-off organised by the prisoners."

Sylvia's mouth was frozen in a "O" shape of protest as she was stuck for words to express her outraged feelings so Fenner stuck his oar in instead.

"Are you raving mad, Karen. Is Atkins some kind of VIP? Might as well roll out the red carpet, except that it's for on the way out, not the way in. Anyway, it's the first time anyone's mentioned a send-off to me." Fenner's voice managed to both sneer and patronise Karen at the same time. If he had his way, Atkins would just piss off quietly and get out of the way.

" Get real, the pair of you." Karen saw red at their combined stupidity and mean mindedness. "I don't know if you want to keep Yvonne Atkins banged up for life and continue to squabble over her or see her out of your way. Make your mind up." Karen looked in contempt at the lack of imagination and inability to foresee the obvious. Thank God she used to be a nurse and not in the bloody Army, as in Jim Fenner's case, or a traffic warden, as in Sylvia's case. It was that rigid straight line thinking that got drummed into them that they couldn't shake loose.

"Any prisoner who ends up being top dog or who means something to the other prisoners in some way ends up with a send-off." Karen spoke patiently and slowly hoping that Sylvia's eyes wouldn't glaze over with incomprehension. "It's happened with Crystal, twice, Nikki Wade and others. In our own interests, we would be well advised, publicly, to go along with and be part of what will happen. Besides, I want you two to think of what prison life will be without Yvonne Atkins……."

"Sheer paradise, no cheek ….." Bodybag broke in with that idiotic smile on her face.

"I mean that there will be a prisoner or some combination of prisoners who will dominate. You will either get the likes of Yvonne Atkins, who I agree will take the piss, and can be bloody minded, but the vulnerable or the easily led like Denny Blood and Charlotte Middleton get looked after. Either that or you get the likes of the Peckham Boot Gang causing mayhem within a week of their arrival. Though I know I wasn't there but I get the strong feeling," and here Karen's eyes bored through Sylvia's with all the deep contempt that she felt for the stupid woman as much as, she had to admit it, Yvonne Atkins felt, "that if there hadn't been some cack handed, jackboot approach to the situation, the situation wouldn't have blown up in our faces in a full blown riot."

Fenner looked totally innocent as, for once, he was as he was totally uninvolved with the riot while Bodybag looked sweaty and uncomfortable.

"There will be a power vacuum when Yvonne Atkins leaves. You had better be on the ball and see who fills it. There are a lot worse prisoners around……like Snowball Merriman."

Having saved the strongest argument to last and seeing both Sylvia and Fenner wince at that, Karen strolled out to the landing to casually look around knowing that, very shortly, Yvonne was due to leave Larkhall forever.

Chapter Seventeen

So this is it, Yvonne thought to herself. The fact that her cell was stripped bare and everything in her life was packed up in two bulky plastic bags was a minor one. She had to say goodbye to everyone.

Memories flooded back in her mind of seeing Crystal and Nikki leave Larkhall. A large and generous part of her feelings was joy that someone was showing those bastards by getting out and walking out, proud and strong. Those who got out, deserved to get out and they weren't walking out meekly and apologetically, bowing and scraping to the likes of Fenner and Bodybag Yvonne's heart had leapt when Nikki, bold as brass, told Bodybag that she'd "miss her, at least taking the piss out of her" and knew that Nikki was one of her kind, at a time when Nikki was by no means sure she would walk. She knew from the moment she gave Nikki a big hug that she'd miss Nikki's strength in the weeks after she left. At that very second and for that very reason she knew that she would go into a tremendous down, a sort of "after the party is over" feeling. Being banged up over O'Kane's murder, was a big part of that feeling but not all of it.

The maternal side of Yvonne went out to Crystal getting free in being reunited with her baby like mums should be and having a decent fella like Josh, not many around that would stand by her.

And now it was her turn.

She opened her cell door and a tremendous cheer echoed through the cell wing. Yvonne blinked with real surprise. She knew she was popular but not that she was some bleeding star. Denny came forward to take her bags off her while prisoner after prisoner shook her hand or kissed her on the cheek as she walked. A massed chant of "Yvonne, Yvonne" started up. Now I know I am some bleeding star, she thought self deprecatingly. I thought I was a cocky upstart tough bitch but I can't believe all this and a few tears ran down her face.

Yvonne was sharp enough to ask herself, why aren't the screws kicking up at this, Bodybag and Fenner of all people. Then Karen Betts came into view, smiling broadly.

"Yvonne, I just want to say from me and my fellow officers that we wish you all the best in the outside world. I know for certain that you have a lot to offer in the outside world and I hope and trust that it will be for the good."

Yvonne was just about to say, are you bleeding kidding, Karen Betts. You may wish me well but Fenner and Bodybag would be delighted if I got run over by a bus five minutes after getting out of this dump and would throw a champagne party to celebrate. The barrage of cheers temporarily faded into Yvonne's background but continued to echo round the wing. She looked into Karen's eyes which said, this is me, Karen Betts, wishing you all the best and I am keeping the prison officers in line, just follow the script, get it. Yvonne got the message and thought to herself, you crafty sod but thanks Karen, thanks a lot.

"Grateful as I am for your kind wishes." And her the expression in Yvonne's eyes belied the gently mockery in her tones, " I am intrigued that Jim Fenner and Body- I mean Mrs Hollamby were unable to find time to see me off."

"If they turned up, they would be too overcome with emotion. I am sure you've said everything to them in the past you could have said now. Best of luck, Yvonne." And with that Karen's elaborate irony changed to a genuine, from the heart, handshake to the accompaniment of cheering that continued to resound through the prison. They had truly said to each other what they wanted to say.

Near the end of the procession, in the foyer, Yvonne looked up, hearing the sounds of cheering coming from overhead and she saw prisoners lining the railings of the three floors. Yvonne nearly broke down at this as she saw the numbers of prisoners all there for her.

"You're all right, man." Denny said squeezing her hand.

Right at the end of the procession stood the 2 Julies. They weren't the brightest women around but they could feel Yvonne's thoughts as if they were their own.

"Denny and I wanted to tell you that we're going to be all right after you go free. Denny isn't going to be the third Julie but as good as. Just you give our love to Lauren and you look after yourself. Don't you worry about us but if you get the chance to write, we'll be here", Julie Saunders spoke in the most convincing tones she could with Julie Johnson's delayed echo of "We'll be fine."

"You take care, man." was Denny's short and sharp reply. It seemed for ages that Yvonne exchanged a final hug and a kiss for each woman who had helped her get through yet another day at Larkhall. Amazingly, there was no screw around to bellow at her to hurry up. Only later on did she realise that she was given that amount of respect. All three knew how each other really felt but no matter how they would miss Yvonne, it was time for her to go.

Yvonne turned for one last look at G wing with Denny, the 2 Julies in the front of a tableau of all the familiar faces of her prison life, all in position and ready to disappear behind her. Even Karen Betts, towards the back and to the left waved goodbye one more time. Her eyes misted over with the tears in her eyes as she turned away towards her future.

Di appeared perhaps not Yvonne's best friend but as screws go but she was genuinely kind hearted. Yvonne felt a pang of guilt at all the jokes she had made in the past about Di's love life. Di took over carrying Yvonne's bags and they stepped into the courtyard, always only seen from a window. After the comparative gloom of the wing, the bright light almost blinded Yvonne. Yvonne looked back briefly at the ancient castle wall towering into the sky behind which were rows of small windows each one of which represented some woman's life held in limbo. Yvonne came at last to the stout wooden gates and Ken, the doorman, smiled at her and opened the door to the outside world. He scribbled notes on his clipboard "03624 Atkins prisoner – discharged at 14.00 hours" and signed off Yvonne's prison identity forever.

Yvonne stepped forward into the hurly burly of the outside world.

Chapter Eighteen

Nikki was stretched out on their big double bed where she was at her most comfortable while Helen occupied a bedside chair. Some instinct told both of them to get the physical setting right and they would find it easier to talk. It was a long cool summery evening after the heat and bustle of their working day and a gentle wind played with the drawn curtains

"I've never talked about when I was little, Helen, but I'm talking about Nicola Wade, the child my parents wanted me to be but never was." started Nikki. At that very moment, the name which none but the appeal judge had used for years came back to her mind. She remembered the habitual flick of her mother's voice who, in her distant way, called out to her to stop playing and to sit down for dinner……..and when the interminable ceremony of Sunday dinner meal was dragged out to an excruciating pitch of boredom, getting impatient and wriggling on this impossibly high dining chair, longing to get down from the table and play but for her parents. She wasn't allowed to talk at the table, only grown ups could.

Nikki floated memories into the cool calm air of their bedroom of her and her elder brother Stephen being got ready for her mother's interminable parties for her friends. She was made to wear this hideous party dress and put up with her mother endlessly brushing her long hair…….

"What," Helen said laughing," You Nikki Wade, with your ultimate cool get up?"

"Yes, yes, yes," Nikki said, half laughing, half blushing at the memory," there is an old photograph album of me at home?….at my parents…with pictures of me I would never show even you, Helen Stewart, they were so bad…" Then a more serious expression spread over Nikki's face now she was on a roll to relive her past, come what may.

"There was never the love and attention on me…or Stephen either, all my childhood….we were exhibited more as showcases for my successful father, a Naval captain and his dutiful wife….we were expected to sit in a corner and make occasional polite conversation while the braying sounds of adults talking about sod all went on and on. Then we were dismissed and told to play elsewhere which was a relief to get out of that hellhole. You could hardly see across the room it was so full of cigarette smoke…."

"And you a twenty a day smoker…" murmured Helen.

Nikki smiled at that irony. Helen's occasional interjections made it easier for her push on into the story. She knew Helen knew just what she was doing.

"Going to boarding school was a relief to begin with. It got me out of the house and I thought I would get friends my own age, not my parent's friends…….." mused Nikki. "It was when I got there, I found that I was surrounded by mini adults, same thinking, same narrow minded values. We were all supposed to think the same but I used to argue back at them, ask them why things had to be that way but they didn't know. Worse than that, I came across my share of bullies who used to pick on the few friends I had there who were smaller, weaker or more timid than they were…..till I caught up with them …..my older brother used to challenge me to wrestling matches when we were little but gave up when I began to win all the time, that's how I learnt to beat hell out of them……."

Helen smiled at that one. She could imagine Nikki as a tough wiry fearless little kid who could take on schoolyard bullies verbally or physically.

"Of course, at that age in my best parent's clothes and so on, I didn't look any different, I was just different inside and talked differently. I used to think of myself as a bit of a loner, apart from my friends."

"That's because you were right and they were wrong, Nikki.You've got to be yourself before anything else. I learnt that from you more than twenty years further down the line than when you worked it out for yourself." Helen gently intervened

Nikki turned her head and smiled at Helen, pleased that Helen was with her on this journey every inch of the way.

"When I was just started into my teens, being different took on a whole new meaning.

All these other girls, apart from my friends, started buying these copies of "Smash Hits" and all became Duran Duran fans. They were the same idiots I always loathed. There used to be a record player we all shared and that bloody song 'Rio' kept being played and replayed……if Fenner had known how much I hated it, he'd have had me banged up in seg and stuck that record on constant replay." Nikki shot off on a sudden tangent of thinking that made Helen smile. "What was worse were these mindless girls who kept asking me how bloody wonderful they thought Simon Le Bon was and I kept thinking, what's the big deal? All these centre spreads of the group were pinned up everywhere. Even today, I still hate that group."

Helen had a whole load of mixed emotions running through her. She had sensed that running through Nikki was this anger and defiance mixed with this need to be loved and to belong. All of this made sense to her. Helen's training in looking objectively at things enabled her to mentally take a stance from just far enough 'outside' the situation at the same time that she felt Nikki's feelings with her. Helen, herself, had come a long long way from the period in her life when she couldn't talk straight, couldn't fully face herself and Nikki was the one who confronted her feelings with defiance, scorn, friendship, love all of which confused her at the time.

"So Nicola Wade would go home at the end of term for the holidays. At home, my brother who I grew up with was buying his first yuppie suit and meekly doing what he was told and becoming a stranger. When his friends came round, I used to shut myself away in my bedroom with a book. Reading was the only place I felt free."

Helen had a vivid mental flashback to the first time she had gone into Larkhall Prison library only to get the cold shoulder from Nikki. It wasn't just because she was a Wing Governor wearing a suit.

In the meantime, the bedroom was getting darker and darker and Helen could just about see the vague shape of Nikki stretched out on the bed. Helen was getting neckache from the bedside chair that she had been sitting on for what seemed a long time but she was duty bound to see this one through to the finish.

"My best friend, Jane, I used to spend more time than with anyone standing up for than anyone…..and not just the obvious stuff but the two faced bitchiness you get. That was what brought us together. She was the one who shortened my name to Nikki. I decided that sounded so much better, more me. " Nikki continued with a slight smile on her lips at some of the antics they got up to, the two of them versus the others. "We got labelled us as troublemakers because of Jane's Clash first LP. She'd got hold of that in the holidays and one day when both of us were really totally pissed off, we stuck that one on, maximum volume. "

Nikki laughed out loud in her unrestrained style when she described and relived in her mind that blast of amplified guitars coming out of nowhere and that angry singing that said the truth, more than that pretty pretty Simon Le Bon crooning. When she realised that Helen's dirty laugh that registered high on the Richter scale was less than she was accustomed to, Nikki broke off to politely enquire and Helen sheepishly confessed that that very same LP was Thomas's favourite LP from when he was young.

"I can't believe that one," and Helen just knew that Nikki's irony loving soul just loved that twist of fate.

"Jane finally got hold of this Eurythmics record which we used to play when we got the chance- and a poster pin up we could finally put up on the wall of Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. All the other girls gave us weird looks like why were we fancying this guy who looked like a short haired bearded hippie and we had to pretend to show an interest in him when really it was Annie Lennox . Nikki's voice speaking out of the darkness went on to paint in words in quick brush strokes when and how her feelings for Jane blossomed into love, her first love, the first time she had found someone to love and be loved by. "You know what young love is like…….and you know Helen when you find out what love is really about." Helen didn't need to be able to see Nikki to know that everything in Nikki focussed that last remark at Helen.

"It should never have happened," Nikki broke out with sudden passion." that sneak Michelle Foster saw me and Jane kissing and grassed me up to the headmistress .We got hauled up before the Headmistress, Miss Large and thrown out of school at a moment's notice, without a proper hearing. I can still hear that awful voice going on about 'the good name of the school' and that 'other girls must be protected from girls like you ' and the usual 'disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' sort of stuff. She had power over me but I hated her and despised her and had no respect for her .I vowed that no one, but no one would ever hold that unjust power over me. Of course, when I went home," Nikki went on with all the pent up bitterness in her voice, "I got the same from my parents and my brother. I packed my bags and left the same night."

Nikki dissolved into tears and Helen, tears running down her face, joined her on the bed to hold her. Even at that moment, while they clung on to each other the thought was there at the back of both their minds that the trauma of these last few days had brought them closer with more understanding and that there was as way out of this one.

Chapter Nineteen

Yvonne set off down the narrow approach road to the high street to wait on the street corner where she had arranged meet Lauren. Everything was suddenly still now, in her ears and in her senses, after the high drama of her leaving. She was on her own now as all the cast had left. She took one last look at Larkhall Prison, the stout wooden door set in the ancient walls capped with coiled wire and the castle buildings already diminished in size and distance, turned back and made her way forwards to the street corner. Yvonne worried that Lauren wasn't here – she should be here by now to whisk her away back to home and security,

Out on the main street, there seemed to be a multitude of people hurrying in every directions on the pavement and the revved up sounds of cars fighting for every spare scrap of tarmac and for dominance of the roads. Surely, this must be a busy day, Yvonne thought, I can't remember outside life being as brash and hectic as this. Yet Yvonne had been brought up in the East End and she was quite at home in modern city life, or at least she thought she was.

"Watch out where you're going you stupid cow," came this angry female voice out of the periphery of her vision.

'Do you know who you're talking to' nearly came to her lips in that deadly quiet tone of Yvonne's just before she told that person just where to get off when a shock came to her that this total stranger knew nothing about her at all. It wasn't personal, it was just that she was cluttering up the pavement with her belongings and she was in a hurry to go somewhere else. In the impersonal anonymous ways of city life this was perfectly normal behaviour.

"There's enough bloody space for the two of us, just clear off." Yvonne replied but with only a quarter of the force of personality she normally used. In this world, this woman didn't know her from Adam and didn't want to know her and that unsettled her. She was used to being Yvonne Atkins "top dog" of G wing and not some middle aged woman cast adrift in a big city. Likely thing was that she wouldn't see the cow again but that didn't do her self esteem any good.

It was the open space that was starting to make her feel weird. She had had four years of 'keeping her elbows in' along the corridors and while she walked and going to bed in a pretty confined space and the biggest space was the kitchen area. All that time she'd spent in Larkhall, she had had dreamed of visions of free open spaces, no wall, no fences to hem her in, the way she remembered and liked it. Now, she was starting to feel like a bleeding freak.

What the hell was holding up Lauren, she'd given her enough time, Yvonne thought impatiently. She fished inside for some coins for the coin box nearby to phone her up. The metallic feel of the coins was totally bizarre, as she had had a life where she bought things on 'weekly spends' and she'd been used to using phone cards. Now this was a tiny step back into the 'real world' where, after all, she'd been nearly forty years. Get a grip, girl.

Manhandling her bags inside the red painted phone box, she dropped the coins into the slot and, to her relief, Lauren answered on her mobile.

"Lauren, what the bleeding hell has held you up?" Yvonne asked, half in anxiety. Then her spirits zoomed skywards when she was told she was five minutes away by car and hang on at the street corner, she'll spot her. The pips started to sound and Yvonne snatched one last minute of chat time before the phone went dead. Lauren would explain later what kept her.

After getting out, Yvonne was more rested. She had been dropped in the deep end of the outside world, no wonder she felt a bit funny. All the same, she couldn't wait till she was whisked away in Lauren's car and get back to home and hearth and chill out and not with those thimble sizes of booze she got smuggled in from time to time. Now she was experiencing the freedom she had wanted all these years, she felt she ought to take it a bit easy. It wasn't as easy as she had thought.

Suddenly a quick double toot broke into Yvonne's train of thought as she stared out into space. Lauren pulled in to the kerb in a smart red Ford Fiesta.

"You'd better jump in sharpish, mum, as there's a stream of traffic waiting to hit me up the backside."

Yvonne blinked and lobbed her bags into the back and sort of fell in sideways as, with impossible speed, Lauren ratcheted the gears up to full speed.

"Sorry about that, mum. I'll explain later why I was late."

Yvonne felt that she was pulled away from her past and in some sort of time travel machine propelling her into her future. She felt strange enough right now so she let Lauren take charge and drive her, as she wanted to.

She felt a strange sensation that everything to the side of her vision flashed past at a ridiculous speed that made her feel dizzy and sick yet she looked at the speedometer and it was only 40 miles an hour, not exactly having a good burnup was it. She huddled in the corner of the car and looked at Lauren who was dressed immaculately in her leather jacket while her sleek dark hair hung free. It was as if Lauren was the adult at the moment and Yvonne was the child.

"Here you are mum. Welcome home." And Lauren brought the car to a halt in a drive in front of a very flash house which made her blink to realise was actually hers yet it seemed so strange.

Karen shut her front door behind herself with an exhausted sigh. Dealing with Sylvia Hollamby's predictable last minute rant about treating Yvonne as if she was royalty and explaining to Sylvia that there was alternatives to 'banging prisoners up twenty four hours a day' made her think, screw the paperwork, it will wait till tomorrow. She reached for a couple of extra strong Anadin tablets in her handbag and swallowed them to dull the headache.

Karen was tired and had had enough. She had had week after week of solid grind at work and slump in an armchair at home in the evening. This wasn't the care free Karen of how many year's back that relished going out in the evening. This was the price of success that the more she got on in her job, the more she was married to it. Somehow, ordinary life got squeezed out. It was fine to begin with to be on her own but her house sounded too quiet and you could have too much of 'her own space'. She looked at herself in the mirror and there weren't too many wrinkle lines to be pasted over. She was still young though the presence of her son at university proclaimed she was not that young. She poured herself a generous measure of gin and tonic into a glass and put her feet up and let the latest soap on TV give her a chance to wind down. There must be life outside Larkhall prison.

Chapter Twenty

Yvonne couldn't believe her eyes when she walked into the front room of the house, her house, at the sheer opulence and space of it all. In the corner was a huge flat screened TV and DVD player with enough controls to equip NASA, not like the poxy TV that she used to watch at Larkhall. To one side was a large mirror and Yvonne had the first chance for a few years to see the reflection of herself in a mirror and full length at that. She'd not changed very much since she last looked at herself in her mirror, had she? Next to her in the wide angle view, she thought Lauren looked much like the way she used to. She turned away from the mirror and the direct impression was much the same, everything looked all sleek and perfect, everything brand new and brightly coloured with a vast space to left and right of her and straight ahead.

"I can't believe it, Lauren. Back home after all this time."

"Are you all right, Mum. You look as if you're a stranger in your own home. Nothing much has changed, has it?" Lauren looked both questioningly and reassuringly at Yvonne, both at the same time, as Yvonne looked dazed and feeling for some sort of identity. To Lauren's eyes, there had only the slow process by which the odd thing was thrown out and replaced and odd a lick of paint slapped on the walls. This was a normal day at home with Mum back where she belonged.

"You're home, now, Mum. Really home."

And at that both instinctively moved forward to hug each other. Both clung to each other to tell each other that there would be no more separations, no more Lauren walking away under the watchful eye of Bodybag. Time seemed to stand still to make up for the days, months and finally years that had crawled by to go to waste. There were tears in Yvonne's eyes when she thought that Lauren had stuck by her from the very beginning and this was the "and all ends happily after" like all the stories she'd heard of or read.

Finally, Yvonne broke free and her instinct was to wash all the creased up feeling of travel and, yes she had to say so, to get all the feel of the prison out of her skin.

"Is it all right, Lauren, to go upstairs and take a shower?" Yvonne suddenly broke in.

"Mum, of course it's OK. It's your house after all." Lauren laughingly replied. I'd better keep it light, Lauren thought to herself, Mum will take a lot of getting used to being back home after four years away, it's not that simple her coming back after me being in charge here. "Look, you have a soak in the shower, Mum. Take as long as you like while I finish off getting the dinner." Bloody hell, Yvonne thought, I've got so used to asking permission to do the slightest thing from the screws even while I've spent years taking the piss out of them over the slightest little thing. They aren't even there now and I can just decide what the hell I want. First time I've thought of that till now.

Instinctively Yvonne flinched for the possibility of Larkhall's cranky shower shooting either a stream of liquid ice or a scalding trickle all over her. This time, when the spray of water just at the right heat, gushed forth, Yvonne surrendered to the blissful feeling of the feeling of warm water soaking down her in her own shower. She had all the time in the world and no other cow wanting her to hurry up and she consciously thought, no screw telling her how much time she should take. This was the first physical feel of luxury that she had experienced for a long long time.

Meanwhile, Lauren clattered about in the kitchen, conscious, for once, not of the emptiness in the large house but the invisible reassuring presence of her mother upstairs. It was only then that Lauren realised how tough and independent she'd had to be all this time in an empty house and how nice it was to have company, even if it was invisible.

Dinner at the table was an exercise in slowly eating the meal set out in front of her by Lauren with all the time in the world and a couple of glasses of wine which went straight to her head. While eating, the initial natter of conversation faded away to a quiet intimacy over soft lights with her grown up daughter.

Yvonne looked into the sitting room and at the chair in the corner. The largest chair with the best view was 'Charlie's chair' and it had been an unwritten rule, policed by Yvonne as much as anyone that no one dared sit there. Yvonne glanced sideways at Lauren who gestured to her, yes, you can make that choice. Lauren had long been used to the absence of the black lowering shadow of Charlie and the way they jumped to it when Charlie clicked his fingers. Yvonne had to push very hard to keep at bay that invisible presence. Eventually, Yvonne slumped into the armchair that seemed to swallow her up in comfort.

"What do you want to do now, mum?" Lauren presently asked.

"Do?" as a past conversation in her voice echoed to her that she 'promised herself to go out on the pull….or the best bottle of booze around….' Thinking seriously about it, Yvonne wanted to stay in so that she could get acclimatised to the outside world …………"I'd sooner stop in with you tonight, Lauren."

Lauren had anticipated that one and had cancelled an invitation to see her best mate. That could wait.

"I thought I'd explain why it was that I was late. The bloody car wouldn't start and it took for ages for the AA to fix it."

"But you could have gone out in the BMW. A bit flash but I wouldn't mind." Yvonne replied with a grin but secretly wondering what the hell Lauren was playing at.

"What BMW?" Lauren said bluntly. And refilling Yvonne's glass with a generous measure of wine, Lauren brought Yvonne up to speed on the home front and Yvonne was reeling under the impact. Charlie had not just left behind that blond tart he was knocking off that day he was rubbed out by Lauren's hit man, it was the pile of debts that he'd taken on that poured through the letter box from the day he was first nicked.

"I went through all the letters, everything to do with the business. That bastard had gone to all the credit companies and spent a bloody fortune, no doubt on all the tarts he'd been knocking off. I ……. "

"What happened to the villa in Spain?" Yvonne shot at Lauren though a chill feeling inside her told her the bad news already.

"That got sold…..and the BMW……and half the bloody business." Lauren shortly trying to minimise the impact of the shock on Yvonne. One glance into Yvonne's eyes told her that that was a non starter."

"Why didn't you bleeding well tell me about this, Lauren?" Yvonne asked more sharply than she meant. Right first night of freedom this was turning out to be.

Lauren bit back with great difficulty her first inclination to lose her temper.

"You've had the idea that everything in the garden outside Larkhall has been coming up rosy and I'd let you believe it as you've had enough on your plate being in Larkhall. You've not been in the position to deal with bailiffs and debt collectors but I have and I had to learn it on my own." Lauren said slowly and evenly, looking at Yvonne straight in the eye….."to keep your peace and mind…."

One look at Lauren's face told Yvonne that this was the plain unvarnished truth, no bullshit. She nodded at Lauren to continue.

"The closest I told you the truth was when I'd told you that 'Charlie was a dinosaur who had buggered up every deal that he'd been involved….that he can't help himself and that I'd sorted out all the bloody crap', remember Mum?".

The words came back to Yvonne's razor sharp memory with total recall. She had had a pipedream of extravagant luxury all those years in Larkhall when things were at their worst. That pipedream was going up in smoke but in return she'd got a daughter, a roof over her head and someone she could bloody trust.

"Come on Lauren. Let's split this bottle of wine and chill out." And she poured two generous measures into the cut glass wineglasses. They both jumped at the idea and turned the lights down low and switched on the TV to watch some crap together. This would be a boring humdrum event in any family but to Yvonne and Lauren, anything but.

Chapter Twenty One

Helen gradually pieced together the emerging day from the mists of unconsciousness only the waking up process took longer than normal after the emotional upheaval of the previous evening. She rolled over in bed to find empty space and her eyes, coming into focus, caught Nikki finishing off the last of her makeup and turning to her with a smile.

"Wake up, Helen, its time for work."

This is a turnaround. It's me normally waking up the living dead first thing.

"I've made a few decisions, Helen." Nikki chattered very brightly and confidently, "OK, I accept that mentally I'm wobbling all over the place. I don't know how long it will last but there's no point in trying to fight it, that will only make things worse. I'm just going to have to work around it and I know I'll really need your help." Helen's mind jumped the connection even though a quarter awake to think that this was a remarkable call for help from someone like Nikki who was as proud and as independent as you could get.

"My memory is lousy, "continued Nikki," so I'd better get a jotter book or something to remind myself to do things. I don't care if it looks ridiculous to others. I'm sure you'll back me up on this and that's all that matters."

Helen rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and, engaging brain fully in place, nodded agreement and for Nikki to carry on and thought proudly to herself, typical Nikki to bounce back like this after hitting emotional rock bottom last night.

"I need to see my parents." Nikki said. "I've not had contact with them for nearly twenty years. They won't make the first move so it's up to me to do so. I need to lay some ghosts of the past, that's obvious." Then, in a much softer tone, she asked Helen. "You've heard me talk about them and I know that it is hardly a holiday and I'd understand if you backed out of this one but will you come with me?"

"I'll come, Nikki. Can't be harder than moving heaven and earth to get you sprung out of Larkhall." Helen replied with more confidence than she felt while a little voice at the back of Nikki's mind told her that she might not feel so grandly decisive later on.

"And somehow, I need to put Larkhall prison finally behind me though I haven't figured that out yet."

A little while later, they were both off for a day's work and a few hours later after the front door slammed shut, the sleeping house was briefly woken when the phone rang for the normal seven rings before cutting off and recording up the message left for Nikki.

A similar sunny morning's scene saw Lauren putting on her best leather coat and glugging a cup of coffee which she used to swallow a couple of headache tablets. She'd been hitting the alcohol a bit last night but it was not every day your Mum comes home from prison, isn't it. Mum was still sound asleep, conked out in bed as she'd had much more to drink than Lauren and she'd had to help her up the stairs to the spare room.

Lauren peeked in to see her Mum curled up in a tangle of quilts while she went off to work. She tried not to let herself think that half the cars from the car hire business had been flogged off and she had a business, just, but one that paid the bills and not much more. The periodic red reminders for bills were the grim reality behind the appearance of ostentatious wealth of a house built on past freely flowing rivers of wealth. Lauren wondered how much of what she'd tried to tell her had sunk in. She knew how much Mum had been accustomed in the past to just going out and buying the most expensive perfume or item of clothing on a passing whim. Lauren was born into this but she'd suddenly had to learn the hard way how to manage on very little.

Karen's day started with a steaming hot mug of coffee and the lingering feeling from her night-time dreams of some sort of excitement in her life. Her life was neat and organised and she reached for her favourite tailored outfit. She had got another day in Larkhall Prison to face, a place that was her career and inescapable destiny. She put together all the papers in her black briefcase , held another few files under her left arm while the heavy weight of the briefcase stretched her right arm out of joint. She kicked the front door shut and set out in her car for the everyday journey, same time, same route to Larkhall Prison.

Three hours after Lauren left the house, Yvonne started to wake expecting to see the usual sight of the dingy yellow rough brick wall of her prison cell only something was wrong. The bed she was lying on was wider than she was used to and the quilt didn't let in the cold from the unheated bare stone cell. A bit in her mind wondered when the screw was coming round to turn the keys, march into her cell and call out "Let's be having you." She thought she'd lie it out for as long as possible and force the buggers to shout out to her to get up. Never let it be said that Yvonne Atkins would pass up a chance of a little fun at the expense of your average screw. She'd got a name to live up to on the wing.

"What the bloody hell's happened to me," exclaimed Yvonne as her eyes unglued as she took in the width of the kingsized bed with the white quilt to match and the built in wardrobes facing her and the sheer fresh brilliant whiteness of the room. The state of tension she was building herself up to face the day evaporated instantly and an enormous feeling of relief swept over her. 'I'm bloody free, aren't I.' She told herself and the thought that she could get up when she liked, do what she wanted made her feel weak with relief.

First day out, she treated herself to breakfast in bed with a spot of morning television though Tessa with her morning problem programme she could do without as she'd had enough bleeding problems to last her the rest of her life.

When a good lie in had exhausted its pleasures, she thought the best thing was to phone up Nikki and take the chance to visit an old friend. She needed a few ideas in getting used to the outside world and Nikki was the best person to advise her.

She grabbed hold of the phone and heard Nikki's calm clear measured instruction after the beep to "leave a message and phone number for either Nikki or Helen and they'll get back to you."

Chapter Twenty Two

"Going into town, Mum," Lauren asked casually, too casually it seemed.

"I'm going to show the shops how an Atkins can shop." Yvonne replied with a big smile of satisfaction on her face

"That's what I was afraid of," Lauren explained with a tinge of fear in her eyes."In return for getting us in the clear after Charlie dumped on us, all our credit cards, charge cards, the lot were cut up and returned. There is no chance of either you or I from getting stuff that way. It's solid cash from now on."

Yvonne felt a quick flash of anger in being told, yet again, what to do. Lauren was her bleeding daughter and dads and mums ruled over daughters in her world when she was growing up and now it was her own bleeding daughter that was breaking the Atkins family rules.

"If you don't believe what I'm saying, just come and have a look at the bank statements and see for herself". Lauren patiently asked Yvonne. Lauren was different from when she went inside that Yvonne hadn't noticed before. There was a new assurance about her and the flexibility of Lauren's reasoning caught Yvonne flatfooted for the first time in her life. Yvonne stomped off out the door with a few banknotes in her purse from Lauren which wouldn't last more than ten bleeding minutes in the old days. Underneath all this, Yvonne was thrown by all this, as she was used to taking the piss out of authority figures at Larkhall who tried to lay down the law in all their flat footed sanctimonious fashion.

Yvonne spent the day mingling with the other shoppers heading for Topshop, GAP, and other long forgotten sights and sounds started to make her feel normal. She was part of the great Shopping Public after all these years and this made her feel that she had come into her own but there was one thing that had taken away from the sweetness of the dream come true. That was the absence of her passport to happiness, her credit card with which she was used to sweeping into the shop of her choice and adding to the shelf full of Chanel perfume whose existence she'd taken for granted. Instead, she'd bought a few bits of makeup and had had to check which was the moderately cheap without being totally embarrassed and drifted on to a open air cafe where she could eye up the possible talent. That was something else that she had been denied nearly all her time in Larkhall. Pity that it seemed to be gangs of teenagers out round the shops or obviously married couples who were walking around town.

Yvonne felt happier later on out on her own and the wind blowing through her hair in a nice motor. Pity Lauren's red Ford Fiesta didn't have a bit more poke under the bonnet but no matter. She was headed over to Nikki's that evening and she found the way to a very smart flat and rang the bell. Minutes passed slowly to Yvonne's impatience till a crack in the door widened to reveal a casually dressed Helen.

"Miss Stewart," Yvonne exclaimed in total bewilderment as a familiar face in an unexpected and unfamiliar setting. Yvonne nearly said 'What the bloody hell are you doing here' but checked herself in time and came out with her nearest she could get to polite conversation. "It's a bloody coincidence that we're both visiting Nikki the same night."

"Visiting?" Helen's must puzzled expression and voice replied. "I live here." followed as if it were the most natural thing in the world which further threw Yvonne.

"Yvonne, it's great to see you." Nikki said at last after coming out of the kitchen and hugging her. "Sorry for leaving you out on the doorstep."

Yvonne's sharp eyes noticed that Nikki was a bit dishevelled and beads of sweat on her forehead. This wasn't quite the Nikki Yvonne had known.

"You all right, Nikki." Yvonne softer tones reached out to Nikki. Something wasn't right.

"It's nothing," Nikki tried unsuccessfully to smile."I've just had a lousy day at work. These things happen. Now what drink do you like?" Nikki finished in a more animated fashion and Yvonne noticed the way Nikki rapidly shifted the conversation.

A little while later, Yvonne edged into a topic that her mind working overdrive was half way working out the answers to. "I'm sorry, Miss Stewart…."

"Call me Helen," Helen smiled broadly, "I'm not governor at Larkhall any more. "

"I've been calling Helen that way for years." Nikki said quietly with mock innocence as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

"You said to me that time we were running G wing." Yvonne replied with a knowing grin,"that you had someone on the outside and you were bloody shifty when I started asking questions."

Nikki found despite herself that she wanted to catch up on how things were at Larkhall now that Yvonne was there. A voice in the back of her head asked if it was a really good idea but with a leap of blind faith, she went ahead. What swung it was that Yvonne would be bound to give the lighter side of things which would cast a bit of a nostalgic sheen over the grimmer events which had been freaking her out.

"You won't have heard the latest about Fenner's boyfriend." Yvonne mischievously tossed out a tasty morsel of gossip.

"What." Nikki and Helen shouted out together, sitting bolt upright with the widest grins on their faces. "Tell us more. Yvonne, you know all the bloody gossip. You can't hold out on us on this one."

Bit by bit, Yvonne told them the whole story, Nikki and Helen keenly relishing the vision of Jim Fenner, devil incarnate as abuser of power and sexual predator being harried and hunted in turn. They could just picture him.

"Poor Jim Fenner," smiled Helen with not a bit of sympathy," What a dilemma, forced to choose between his ambition and his sexuality. Things were never so complicated when he could creep and connive his way to Mr Stubberfield's office to stab me in the back. So that's what the Old boy's Network comes down to now." smirked Helen at which point Nikki collapsed on the floor laughing at the delicious irony of it.

"What is this Grayling like, Yvonne." Helen said on a slightly more serious note though she was still grinning. The way Helen came upfront to Yvonne showed Yvonne how she had changed, none of this "Yes Minister" type coded language for the prisoners. They were all out of there now and Helen could say what the hell she liked. In fact living with Nikki had made her come out of herself in more ways than one.

"A hard faced slimy bastard. Wouldn't trust him further than I could piss on him….."

"Which means they'll be a happy couple. Well suited." Nikki said after she'd recovered from an attack of the giggles.

"Hate to let you down, Helen but Di Barker's got there first. She'd married the bastard."

Neither Nikki or Helen could get their heads round that grotesque idea till Yvonne suggested that Di Barker would do that as she's bloody desperate and Grayling would cover his back that way. Helen grimly nodded, as the obvious corrupt motive would be the right answer. It gave her a nasty taste of Larkhall that she thought she'd put behind her.

"A toast to the happy couple, Fenner and Grayling." Nikki flourished her full glass of wine in the air in a sarcastic ceremonial flourish which Helen and Yvonne noisily joined in.

It's OK now, Nikki drew a deep breath of relief. She had gone into a panic state when Yvonne was due to call, not that there was the slightest problem with Yvonne being there but the fear that the conversation would drag back memories she was having trouble in facing. Thank heavens, Helen was there to talk her out of it. Nikki relaxed totally into the sofa next to Helen while the three of them let their hair down.

Yvonne's 'uniform reaction' had gone out of the window with Helen's vivacious manner and her ability to call a spade a bloody shovel. Yvonne wondered why she'd had her reservations about Helen and thought her stiff and starchy all those years. All the funny stories came back on a slightly alcoholic stream of conversation as they were drawn together. As for Nikki and Helen being lovers, she could not give a toss about that.she'd got used to that sort of thing at Larkhall. It was like being with a happy married couple.

"Was I all right to come round tonight, Nikki." Yvonne asked in a sudden serious moment. The thought had been on her mind and there wasn't any other way of putting it.

"It wasn't you, Yvonne" Nikki earnestly reassured her. I was just that just after I'd written to you, it brought back a lot of bad memories of Larkhall and before. Helen and I are really glad you came round. You've done us a lot of good. Any time you want to drop round, you just give us a ring."

Yvonne gave an enormous sigh of relief. It's always better not to beat around the bloody bush. She picked up the very letter she had written to Nikki just before she'd been released and it gave her a curious perspective on herself. She couldn't think straight now as the wine she'd been knocking back had gone to her head.

"Is it all right if I kip here the night on the sofa?" She asked? "If I go back in this state, I'll only be pulled over by the Old Bill."

As Helen nodded, painfully conscious of the last time she'd been pulled over, Lauren went to phone Lauren. It gave her a strange feeling to do that, the way things had been since she'd got out of prison, as if she were the teenager asking permission to stay out for the night.

Chapter Twenty Three

Karen looked vacantly into the front room mirror looking at herself, at who and what she was, spending more time doing this than the last minute adjustments she normally made before hurrying off for work.

Of course, the symbol of success, her favourite works tailored suit was very welcome after years of unflattering prison uniforms and before that her nurses uniform. This is what she'd worked hard for. She'd settled insidiously into a pattern where her work had taken over her life and was too caught up in her daily routine to question it. That moment, years ago, that she swore that she was as at least as bright as any of the men of her prison officer grade and could do better than them set her on this path. Of course, she'd needed the money and had a son to bring up and that made her decision very sensible and practical, very Karen. She'd single mindedly climbed the uncertain slippery ladder of the prison service. When she saw the official circulars offering the chance of studying for a degree part time, that was more time cut into her evening. Managing her time was everything and giving Ross "quality time", that was the phrase wasn't it, made her feel that she fitted into life. Now Ross was away at university which brought her round full circle to who she was when, in her teens, she started her voyage of self discovery. She'd got everything she'd ever wanted…..except a real partner in life. She didn't want to think of that too much.

Looking at herself in that mirror sparked the unaccustomed impulse to do something completely different. Life sitting at home watching TV or looking at some work papers was comfortable but was stifling her. For Christ's sake, get a life, a rebel voice from within said to herself. Why not, for once in your life, step outside your neat well ordered routine.

Going out on a Saturday night for Karen for the first time in years frankly scared her if she was honest. It was easy enough, her thoughts skidded away, going out for a meal as part of a couple with Jim Fenner and, before him, Steve Bennett, the guy she lived with that got her into the prison service in the first place. It was almost incestuous the way relationships in the Prison Service blossomed and then withered when she thought about it………..

This was the first time in years that she was going out on her own. She had a moment of panic that she had not done this in years and the fear of the unknown. What had happened to all the discos that she used to go to when she was in her teens? They were long since closed, moved on except in her mind. They do things differently these days, do they?

When she was dropped off in the night club area of town, she saw the garish lights from what were the quiet pubs she'd known and the streams of girls with skirts half way up their backside and not much else besides. Bet their mothers don't know about this and ought to have more control over them. As she caught the reflection of herself in a passing window, she ruefully and gleefully thought that her own best short black dress wasn't much longer. Not bad looking after all these years, she thought to herself, as Karen Betts single woman footloose and fancy free gave a quick flounce and finally took over.

She edged sideways bit at a time as the stream of night people swept her along and more to her taste was a wine bar that she saw a little way ahead. There was a sweet feeling of intoxication that swept her up to a place that she had not been for a long time which the street lights illuminated.

Once inside the wine bar, she felt comfortable with the feel of the bar and she made her way to be served through the crush of people. The man behind the bar was more flamboyant than she was used to but then again, male prison officers were a load of undemonstrative pint of beer drinkers who though that lager and lime was definitely a bit suspect. This man poured a glass of wine and chatted away to her.

"Not seen you at this pub before, darling."

A bit of Karen's mind thought that the man was a bit presumptuous, but she squashed that thought as Karen Betts wing governor sticking her mind in where it wasn't wanted.

"Oh ,it's the first time I've been out on the town for a while. Not used to the nightlife about here. " Karen replied with her friendliest smile.

The man carried on chatting her up which gave Karen a nice ego boost that she realised she'd needed for a long while. After Fenner's 'snake in the grass' false flattery, this must be a step up. Karen was a bit disconcerted in noticing the sideways glances he kept giving her. Presently, he excused himself and he went to serve another man who came to the bar.

It was only now that Karen had a chance to look round and she noticed that there was something odd. She was used to pubs where there was a mix of men and women, this pub had all men. It wasn't till she saw two men put their arms round each other and start kissing that she blushed a delicate shade of pink. This was totally unlike Karen who was self-possessed and doesn't do blushes. Now she knew.

"Thanks for the drink," she called out to the barman who waved back as she drained the glass in one go and headed for the exit. If she was looking for a night out, no disrespect but this wasn't the place to be. She smiled and shook her head and saw the humour of the situation. Of all the huge numbers of nightspots that there are in town, she has to pick a gar bar.

The street was still full of an assorted stream of people going their ways and the next wine bar looked promising, but this time, take a good look round. After a quick glance round, this bar was much more promising and before she knew what was happening, she was chatting to a friendly guy her age called Paul. She was swept up into a whirl of conversation so that the wine bar, the low lights all faded away into the backdrop. At last she was having a conversation which didn't revolve around bloody prisons. She felt young again.

"I'll get the next round, Paul " Karen said.

While she was waiting to be served, her heart stopped and she blinked her eyes. A whirl of emotions hit her as her eyes, unbelieving, took in the couple, arm in arm, that walked down the wooden staircase from the upstairs bar, Yvonne Atkins and Mark Waddle. Her face like a mask was turned towards Paul who was smiling at her and waiting. It was just as well that the barman took his time to serve the drinks so Karen could steal time to remember how to act or feel or be at that frozen moment in time.

Chapter 24

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