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 Twenty Four

Yvonne was smiling to herself in the mirror putting the final touches to her makeup now she'd got her first wage packet from the betting office where she worked. It wasn't just that she had had to go cap in hand all the time to Lauren for money all the time but she was so bloody determined and bloody tight with handing out the notes. It takes another female Atkins to be a match for a female Atkins, she thought ruefully, even though she knew Lauren loved her. Surely tonight would be the final reward for all the time she's spent in Larkhall. It would be the first time she'd be out on the town and if she can't pull, then she's losing her touch bigtime.

Lauren and Yvonne weren't so clinging to each other so fearfully as they had been when Yvonne first came out of prison. It was the reaction to the years Yvonne was inside and Lauren had her own friends to see and was much more casual about those sort of things. It was "Hello, mum," "Goodbye mum" as Lauren could be heard letting herself in to the house while Yvonne was elsewhere and a little while later was zooming off elsewhere. They were working towards a new balance with Charlie out of the picture now in thought as well as in reality and Lauren moved upstage as equals with Yvonne now. So tonight was the night of reward for Yvonne's good behaviour to adjusting to the outside world.

Mark Waddle was alone by himself on a cold windswept street in Larkhall, the place he'd sworn he'd never come back to. He liked the durable feel of the stone buildings and, life in a Northern town and the down to earth accent that went with it that he'd got used to hearing about him. The town was a sanctuary and such a relief after the treacherous emotional cross currents that threatened to pull him under in Larkhall. He felt that he'd got out while the going was good. After a life so far of being against attachments and responsibilities and, because of it, finally messing up his relationship with Gina, he had tried to do the responsible thing with Karen only being the caring sensitive "new man" with Karen, she had cast that in his teeth so it was time to get out. So why on earth was he back in Larkhall in the one place he's sworn never to revisit? Nothing much, only that he'd promised an old mate to meet up for a few jars and it happened to be at Larkhall. He was sold on the idea very reluctantly that, after all, he need not set foot anywhere near the prison which was tucked down a minor road and out of sight but not out of mind. He had acute misgivings from the moment he set foot in the town and waited for disaster to strike at any moment in this ill omened town. Of course, predictably enough, his mate failed to turn up and, after standing around on the street corner with a chill wind whipping past him, he gave it up as a bad job and headed for the nearest place to get out of the cold. It happened to be a wine bar, the sort of place that his real ale mates took the piss out of but, no matter, it was warm and it served something alcoholic. He gratefully accepted a glass of wine and sat in the corner feeling the circulation return to his frozen legs. At least this corner of Larkhall was safe.

"Yvonne Atkins," Mark's astonished tones rang out when this incredibly sexy woman made straight in his direction with a distinct 'come on' look." What brings you here?"

"I'm a free agent now, mark Waddle." Yvonne answered with a smile. "Been here a few weeks now and I'm a free agent. Completely free." she finished, packing in all the meaning that she could in the last two words.

An electric shock went through Mark at the informal use of his name and the way she said. The 'don't touch' rule he used with prisoners, well nearly all the time, was swept away with a look and this extremely fanciable woman sprang into place and " Atkins 03624" was expunged from his life. Everything, which appeared humdrum from where he stood now, suddenly came alive.

H couldn't remember the process which took them to the upstairs of the wine bar but the presence of Yvonne close up as nearly draped round him as she could get promised him everything later on wherever that later on would be.

"Drink up, Mark," Yvonne said invitingly as the contents of the shared bottle of wine went straight to his head giving him a pleasantly woozy feel. Hardly had he put the glass down, when she kissed him passionately and wrapped her arms around him. The rest of the pub, already far distanced disappeared entirely with him conscious of nothing else than Yvonne's hands wandering all over him.

"Hope you haven't got a bad back, Mark, not with what you are up for later on."

Time passed and he was transported into another magical place and he realised that a Yvonne Atkins who had been several years inside who had a reputation for being into men was going to make up for lost time.

The pleasant warm feel carried them down the slightly out of focus wooden staircase and, unknowingly, past Karen's shocked unbelieving eyes.

Inside the taxicab they seemed to be forever in the black womblike space in the back with streetlights flickering at them from each side while they grappled with each other. By the time they were poured out at the other end and were swept upstairs in one smooth move and into Yvonne's large luxurious bed. Then, they ripped the clothes off each other and Mark was where he wanted to be with Yvonne's legs wrapped round him for ages until they collapsed in a heap together with their clothes strewn round each other. But it wasn't very long when Mark realised that Yvonne hadn't finished with him yet……….

Chapter Twenty Five

The sun looked down into various bedrooms and might have wondered whether the couples it looked down were in the right bed or not if their thoughts were visible.

Karen was warm in the arms of Paul who was as nice and gentle a lover as she could have wanted and made her feel very special but…she had to admit it…he wasn't Mark. In the back of her mind, she could picture her telling Mark Waddle "I'm sorry Mark, but it isn't happening." What a fool she was and if she knew then what she knew then, she would never have let him go. But no, she let events move relentlessly onwards and let him move away out of Larkhall and out of her life. She came back to the Prison Officer's room to hear a leering Fenner tell her that Mark had shot out of Larkhall like a cork out of a bottle, no leaving collection, no "meet up at the social club", no nothing. She would have liked to at least say what a good Prison Officer amongst all the sentimental farewells from the likes of Ken. As that was how he felt about her, she took the huff a bit and had pushed him out of her thoughts from that day onwards, and truly thought that Mark was past history, till last night. And yet in the bad times of her relationship with Mark, he had been obviously insecure about Jim Fenner and the guy was right, she hadn't got over that bastard, believe it or not. She froze out the support he was willing to give and looking backwards she really needed. Everything that happened in that period was frozen in time, packed away into the attic room of her mind, overlooked, passed by, hidden away, till tonight.

Meanwhile, she stretched herself out and gratefully accepted a cup of tea from this gentle man and moved her smile into the appropriate position and said, she had really enjoyed last night, it was something special. And if Mark was a minute or so later or earlier walking down that staircase, it would have been special, no doubt of it.

So what was she to do, to pine away for a lost love who, for all she knew would be speeding up in a car or train many miles up north to a life or future which she had no part of. Meanwhile this man in the here and now wanted more than "Wham bam, thank you man" and wanted to know when they could see each other again.

And she had gone out only last night as her life was in rut and she wanted some excitement out of life?

"Of course I'd like to meet you again. I'll phone you tonight." Karen smiled but her thoughts were elsewhere. She would phone Paul tonight. She couldn't be a total heel and leave him hanging. That wasn't fair.

"So you only gave me the 'come on' to screw a screw." Mark threw at Yvonne bitterly. He felt as if he'd been dragged through a bush backwards after a night of lovemaking with Yvonne Atkins. The last thing he wanted or felt like was an argument. So that was on her mind, he thought bitterly.

"Well, Mr Waddle , three years inside and not had a decent shag all that time." Yvonne gave Mark her hard aggressive stare and suppressed the little matter of the fake solicitors. "Hardly likely to spend the evening holding hands, am I. Besides all you blokes do the same without a second thought and boast about it afterwards to your mates. What did you want, hearts and flowers, Mr Waddle. "Yvonne finished, her contempt deepening rubbing in the 'prisoner / screw" status into his face.

"It's Mark Waddle now, same as you're Yvonne Atkins. Besides I've never needed to do a Sylvia and rub my pips into your face or anyone else's. You ought to know that one,"

"Oh me, a convicted criminal Tell the truth?" Yvonne's smile was as hard edged as her glare.

"Stuff that one, Yvonne.You're as honest as anyone….either side of the prison bars. I've never had any lies from you, have I?" Mark shot back with more force and determination, looking Yvonne in the eyes. In the clash of wills, Yvonne's eyes dropped.

"Don't try to play bleeding trick cyclist." Yvonne replied in a softer tone than before.

"OK Yvonne, I've done everything in the past that you say, I've screwed Di in the gent's loo when I was going out with Gina and I've boasted with the lads about it if it wouldn't have got back to Gina. I've played around just like you said till I had to grow up when Gina miscarried. That's when I knew you have responsibilities, when my girlfriend was expecting a baby and she lost it because I acted like a pillock …..and you get to the point when you finally see what you've done in life, there are no cop outs and you need to grow up and act responsible …for what you do and for other people. And if it sounds like a load of sentimental crap, I couldn't give a toss, Yvonne Atkins."

The force of Mark's words were like a bucketful of cold water thrown in Yvonne's face.

"You're masterful, Mark Waddle, when you get going." Yvonne replied with a touch of flippant irony but Mark was alert enough to spot that the change of name reflected the change in heart.

"You're bloody good in bed, Yvonne Atkins, and you'll make some man very happy if you let them."

"Oh, and it isn't going to be me, Mark. I'm disappointed."

"I don't know what I want right now, Yvonne." Mark frankly admitted. "Not since I lost Karen Betts. But I've got to move on."

"Tell me about it, Mark. I'm a good listener." Yvonne's answer had all the softness in her voice she tried so often to conceal. The guy had his problems and needed to unburden himself. "Let's get back into bed."

Both of them suddenly felt weak and worn out and Yvonne's bed was as cosy a place as any place. Yvonne wrapped a friendly arm round Mark's shoulders as, after an initial hesitation, he plunged into the story in detail. There was a soft sympathetic side of Yvonne he hadn't seen and only Yvonne of all the people around him now has direct experience of half of what he'd lived through. How could he describe Jim Fenner or Karen Betts to the workmates at the prison he worked at now where the chief occupational disease was death from boredom.

"You have been a pillock in the past, Mark," Yvonne said reflectively and Mark was strangely soothed by Yvonne's words.."but we've all screwed up in the past. I trusted to my bastard son Ritchie like I did to my bastard husband Charlie. You're not so bad."

Mark lay on his back while Yvonne gradually shifted her position so that she was nearly lying on Mark as she softly and tenderly stroked him.

"Don't worry, Mark. I'll make it better for you this time. I'd do that for a friend."

And this time Yvonne melted into Mark's arms as between them, they healed the hurts both of them knew they'd suffered.

The sun smiled down into Helen and Nikki's bedroom.

"Nikki, you're doing great." Helen said.

"I'll ride this one," Nikki said with confidently, "I think I'm through the worst of all this. I think I've got through all the surprises I've pulled on myself. I'm feeling stronger now………..I wouldn't have made this one, Helen, without you….just like I wouldn't have got out of prison without your help."

Helen kissed Nikki slowly and softly. All the calm of the weekend lay in front of them And next on the list was facing up to Nikki's parents, the last challenge on the list. They both knew instinctively they were ready for this one.

Chapter Twenty Six

Karen was in a blinding hurry to pop out and get some shopping done last thing in the evening before the supermarket closed and found herself weaving her way down unfamiliar streets. She was on her own on the night after seeing Paul. It was pleasant enough, having company for two but she couldn't swear that he was the soulmate she had waited for all her life. It did make a difference to lonely nights and that was all. To say she didn't know her own mind was the underestimate of the century and she felt guilty inflicting her confusions on another human being and especially to make that person the victim of them. She had done that once before and that was enough…….

All this led her to miss the plot in her driving and lose her way. The next thing she knew was the car she was driving suddenly made a spluttering sound and she lost all power. Frantically she jammed her foot on the accelerator to keep the car going by sheer willpower but that wasn't enough. She was right on a junction and the car was barely making any speed and she panicked that a normally reliable piece of machinery was suddenly letting her down. She saw a spot to park the car just past the junction and coasted to a stop. Her immediate sensation was that the jumble of thoughts surrounding Paul and Mark were driven to the back of her mind while she had an immediate crisis to deal with. She grabbed her mobile and a blank screen betrayed the fact that the battery had gone dead.

"Shit" Karen cursed at two instances of useless machinery. Her mind going click click on overdrive, it was to drive her to call at the nearest house and phone the AA for help. She rapped on the front door and a crack appeared revealing a familiar face.

"You here, Karen." Came a very unwelcoming and familiar Scottish accent."I'm not going to be a total hypocrite to say that this is a nice surprise, Karen, walk right in. Not how I feel after you threatened me because I didn't believe that the sun shines out of the backside of that bastard Jim Fenner, your bloody boyfriend."

"Please ,Helen." Karen pleaded with Helen. Helen's anger was the last thing she needed right now on top of everything else. "I didn't know you lived here…"

"So why did you come, Karen Betts?" came Nikki's level tones from behind Helen, not unfriendly but businesslike.

"My bloody car broke down, my mobile's on the blink and I came to the nearest house I could find to borrow a phone to phone the AA." Karen replied with a bit of heat. "I know, Helen, that I am not exactly a welcome guest and until tonight, I never knew you lived here."

Nikki gestured to Karen to take a seat and borrow the phone. They were chilling out after a day at work and Karen was hardly the most relaxing company. Karen felt the atmosphere and was highly conscious of both their feelings that they would wait for Karen to do what she had to do and make her way elsewhere. Two's company, three was a definite crowd. Karen picked up the phone to dial for help………

Yvonne had the curious sensation for the first time of having shared her bed with a decent guy who cared. This was unheard of in the Atkins world. The attractive guys to her were the evil bastards, every one of them. This disorientated her even more than sharing the bed with a guy that at one time locked her, and others, up for a living. Her thoughts of 'screwing a screw' were gently rebounding on her.

"You've got to go, Mark?" Yvonne said with as near to tenderness as she let herself.

"I've got work tomorrow…….don't worry, it's not some lame excuse of 'getting back to the girlfriend or the wife and thanks for the screw.' I meant what I said about friendship." This was the truth, Yvonne said to herself. Any other guy would have laid on the excuses with a trowel and have given her a load of flannel. There was as much regret expressed in his eyes as the regret that leaked through Yvonne's own affected nonchalance.

"Don't suppose you'll be around these parts again, not the way your mate let you down and there's nothing much else to bring you back here."Yvonne said, her eyes to the ground.

"I can't think too well right now, Yvonne, but I don't like the thought of losing good friends right now so if you give me your phone number and I'll give you mine. If I'd been asked once would I want to come back to Larkhall, I would have said that you must have been joking. Now I've got a reason to come back".

"And Karen Betts, if you meet up with her again." Yvonne said with a little bitterness that surprised her to hear the way she spoke.

"I don't know the answer to that one Yvonne. If I met her, I'd be as likely as not to call her a few names." Mark said with a little heat, his mouth tight set.

He loves her, Yvonne thought.

"Well, Mark Waddle," Yvonne said with a faint trace of the smile on her lips that first drew him to her."What about a farewell kiss."

Mark's confusion cleared like that of a fog blown away as the very sexy and attractive woman approached him and they exchanged a long lingering kiss and clung onto each other for ages.

Then he was gone.

"So how come you two are sharing the same house," Karen said with a little of her spirit returning to her. The AA man had told her that a pickup van would be there in an hour as they had a lot of callouts.

"We live together." Helen said shortly, a defensive tone in her voice.

"Oh and how long has this been going on, Helen. I take it the day Nikki was released, you met up in a street somewhere and fell in love at first sight." Karen's raised eyebrow triggered off an overpowering feeling of guilt of breaking the professional standards that still haunted Helen even though she had left the job far behind.

"The difference between us and you are, Karen," Nikki's level voice chipped in."That ours was a love from opposite sides of the wire and don't you dare, Karen Betts, to make Helen feel guiltier than she feels even after all these months for the one thing that could be called a lapse in Helen's high standards. OK you fell for Jim Fenner, yeah…."

"And you a lesbian can't understand that." Karen threw back in Nikki's face.

"Shut up Karen," Helen found her voice."Of course you haven't done wrong directly. It's just that you picked the wrong guy, a total evil bastard. If you had picked Mark Waddle, do you really think we'd be picking on you, as he's decent and we wouldn't say a single word against him? And perhaps you'd better start thinking of what you'd let Jim Fenner get away at Larkhall with owing to him pulling the wool over your eyes as you were too blind to see through him. I found the right woman in Nikki, that's all." Helen finished on a triumphant note with no trace of apology in her mind. For Karen's part, the words were a slap in the face that had her speechless, especially when Mark's name was brought up. Why do events conspire to push marks name and presence back into her mind when she had done her best to forget about him and failed so dismally?

"I'd better go if you both feel that way…."Karen said very apologetically. "It's obvious that you don't want me around."

"You stay there, Karen Betts." Nikki's voice rang with authority. "We're not that inhospitable and leave anyone hanging around on a street corner at this time of night."

And Karen Betts sat down meekly, obeying Nikki's command.

Chapter Twenty Seven

"Are you ready, Nikki." Helen asked in concern sensing the tension in Nikki when she got into the car after packing for the drive to Nikki's parents.

Nikki bit her lip and nodded, not trusting her to answer Helen. In turn, Helen thought, how like Nikki to waver under her own troubles yet the minute anyone else, especially Helen, has problems , she snaps back to being the old resilient, forceful, totally in command and very protective Nikki. She shook her head in wonder at the way Karen was meek as a lamb under Nikki's steely eye. This was the Karen Betts who threatened her with all sorts of trouble over Jim Fenner when Helen was acting Governor and made to feel very defensive despite the rank.

Soon they were out of the town and speeding on fast motorways the long distance over to Nikki's parents. Normally, they would share the driving but in this case, Helen thought she would take that off Nikki. Helen had gone through their favourite CDs and picked out the most soothing ones for the journey. There would be time to talk later.

The time crawled by as they drove in limbo land, along the flat featureless roads of today's driving, Helen keeping her eyes and the car pinned in to the endless white lines of the motorways. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nikki's eyelids closing as her head rested against the side of the car- she hadn't slept well last night and was catching up on it now. Meanwhile, Joni Mitchell's singing "Hejira" and her acoustic strumming set off by the light bass and drums and faintly whining electric lead guitar accented the rhythm of the car's driving and rested her thoughts of being out of town and out on the endless highway. Nikki's parents was a destination that hadn't happened yet- she would catch up with it while the endless driving kept it at bay.

When Helen had got half way there and she was getting dangerously sleepy, she pulled the car off into a service station. Nikki was in a confused dream state where everything meandered in front of her dreamlike eyes in no particular form when suddenly, daylight shone into her dark dreams. In the middle of her confusion in being half awake, a sudden shaft of fear panicked her into waking and Helen's tender eyes looked in almost maternal fashion down on her blunting the edge of the panic. She felt as rough as hell in waking up.

"Come on, Nikki, lets grab a coffee." Coffee, that magic word, was what she was after. Helen grabbed her hand and dragged her into the service station.

The service station was full of its transient population linked to each other only by time and chance and, after the tedium of the endless queue, were sat down comfortably enough.

"Do you know what we're doing when we get there," Helen asked anxiously.

Nikki was silent and glazed eyed for a bit but Helen knew better than to hurry her.

"I don't know, Helen. I've still kept the front door key to…….I don't know why I've kept it all these years, just a symbol of what I called home…..the lock might be changed for all I know……If I'd phoned up in advance, they'd find some way of putting me off…..I think. But "And here, Nikki became more definite at this point." If I, I mean we, land ourselves on their doorsteps, they will have to deal with us."

"Have you worked what you will say," Helen asked anxiously.

"No," Nikki said firmly. "I've never been one for prepared speeches. As you know," and Helen joined with Nikki's smile in shared memories of this" I've found words choose themselves. Here's hoping this time. Come on, Helen." And Nikki drained the coffee in one gulp." Let's get going."

Presently, they came close to Nikki's home town through the sprawl of recent buildings replacing the fields and country walks she had known and Nikki made a stream of observations on how things had changed. They made their way to the older parts of town, white painted mock Tudor, mock Georgian housed of every shape and design which had not changed since Nikki's youth. The blinkered conservatism about the area and its people made Nikki tense and rigid with the feel of long forgotten bad memories rising to the surface. Remember, Nikki, you are not that child or teenager anymore, she tried to tell herself, looking in the mirror at herself, and struggled to fight that fear down.

Eventually, they swung round the corner and, there it stood, foursquare, with neat front garden, like a castle and no obvious signs of life.

"Come on, Helen, we're going in," and Nikki headed straight for the front door, snatching at the sudden uprush of confidence and trusting it to carry her through.

"Nicola ," two voices from the ageing couple of impeccably dressed Conservative upright citizens frozen by shock in mid action.

"You remember my name at least," Nikki forced a smile," and this is my partner Helen Stewart and we've come to visit you after all this time." An enormous feeling of confidence swept over Nikki as their sudden appearance out of nowhere totally shook up her parents and consequently boosted her confidence. They are older, smaller and more frail than I remember. She would have to see how the cards fell in the ultimate game of her life and assuming to the fullest her middle class persona was the next card to pick off the pack to play.

Chapter Twenty Eight

Helen blinked as she took in the almost physical barrier of the coldness displayed by Nikki's parents to them. Her own father was an unbending Presbyterian Minister and the last person likely to approve when Nikki was first introduced to him but then she'd never approved of anything she'd done in her life anyway. Helen's father would never admit it to Helen openly but Nikki's firm moral views, as he saw it, and force of personality made a favourable contrast to the public school smoothies like her ex fiancée Sean and that had eventually broken the ice. Helen couldn't get her head around the thought that Nikki's parents hadn't kept in contact for nearly twenty years, not even at the time of her first trial or the Court of Appeal. She looked round in the front room which was covered with photos of different sizes, all of her brother Steven, his wife and children also. Nothing of Nikki

"You should have phoned us first," her father said abruptly. He was dressed in a check jacket, smart shirt and tie with that military bearing that he could never relax from. Curiously, his face had a vague similarity to Nikki's, though a lot older and with a clipped moustache.

"Would you have ever let us come near you?" asked Nikki with a smile.

"That's not the point. It is a matter of principle." Her father gruffly retorted.

"Oh, I know about principles. I've led my life according to principles though you would never understand."

There was a silence and all of them adopted frozen postures as if in a modern play. Helen chimed in with the traditional conversational opener a question about the weather down this way with the brightest of smiles in her most confident of tones.

"Oh. I ought to introduce you. This is my partner Helen Stewart." Nikki jumped in with her best polite voice.

"It's been nice and sunny with a pleasant breeze, good for this time of the year…….." started Nikki's mother, in her elegant dress talking automatically in reply to that very British question which convention had it must be replied to. "……….oh yes, that sort of partner." She ended on a chillier note as the penny dropped.

"Didn't want you to think I'd got married behind your back and hadn't sent you an invitation." Nikki said brightly.

Helen had to admire the way Nikki stuck to her guns while her parents never gave out any signs of human feeling. It was an interesting her use of that formal word to think of them, Mum or Dad would have been the obvious one in a house that really was a home.

"Nikki's not talked much about you but since we're here, perhaps we can get to know each other a bit better," Helen buttressed Nikki's attempt to pull down the barriers.

"Why did you come down here after all these years, Nicola." Her father ignored Helen but burst out with more display of emotion than was there to begin with. "We'd got enough of a family with Steven and Laura and the children. He is a good son to us."

"Because things have gone on long enough of not speaking, not communicating. It's time one of us made the first move and at my age in life, early thirties, it might as well be me as anyone." Nikki came back, unruffled, feeling abnormally calm and in command. She had by now 'turned off the video in her head' of the younger more helpless Nikki, far less confident but with a fragile egg shell teenage bravado, just holding out against the overwhelming avalanche force of parental disapproval. Now, she quietly lay claim to being adult equals with them, in fact a slight edge in being more forward thinking. For the first time in her life, she sensed their hesitations and uncertainties. And she blessed the felt presence of Helen beside her.

"Can we have a cup of tea, Dad. It's been a long drive and I always remember that that was the first thing you always wanted when we went out for a day trip when we were little. I'll make it if you want." Nikki said quietly, making the next move. Straight from her unconscious came the very rare happy moments when her father took them all out for the day in his elderly Ford Anglia and she and Steven were sat in the back with all the picnic gear and rugs which swallowed them up.

"No one does anything in my kitchen," Nikki's mother with all the fussiness in her tones that always irritated Nikki when she was little though, truth to tell, Nikki was not so tolerant of anyone mucking around in the kitchen that she and Helen shared.

Helen could sense Nikki's parents treating her with a rather starchy civility, which she sensed, was them looking at her as 'Nikki's friend' and automatically recoiling from the thought of 'Nikki's lover.' She smiled to herself thinking that that was enough for the present.

Nikki and Helen's parents were not the only people coming to terms with life's changes. Karen Betts was reflecting on the events of the previous night.

"So what were you up to last night, Karen." Paul asked.

"Oh nothing much, just happened to pop round to see an old work colleague." Karen said casually. She started to ramble at that point in being exaggeratedly casual till Paul got the point that, no, she hadn't had the intention of seeing Helen, it's just that her car broke down outside Helen's house. Though a nice guy, he held down a regular job where nothing very unremarkable happened. The same couldn't be said about Karen……

"So who was this friend of yours, Karen?"

"Oh she used to be my boss, acting Governor of the prison till she resigned. I'd had a blazing row with her over an old boyfriend. I was in the wrong, totally." Karen winced at the memory.

"So how did you get on with her, last night ?" Paul asked, all sympathy.

"Very tense to begin with but her girlfriend stepped in and told me straight how things were. Very impressive Nikki Wade is and she'll be good for Helen. She was inside at the same prison we were all at, for stabbing a policeman who was trying to rape her ex- girlfriend. Like a comfortable married couple, Nikki and Helen were."

She couldn't very well tell Paul that she felt the odd one out in being single as he would be upset at that remark but it was true.

Paul looked incredulously at Karen. It was only till then that Karen looked through Paul's eyes, used as he was to staid conventional ways that Karen's casually dropped words, for that reason sounded like part of some bizarre world. Then she focussed her eyes at herself where run of the mill prisoners were really part of some darkly exotic dangerous world and part of the colouring of this world was Karen's casual acceptance of lesbian relationships which, to him were the stuff of tabloid magazines. Even in company like this, Karen could not quite escape the world she worked in.

"It's all very well, Lauren at your age," being a single carefree woman but at my age a lot of the men are either a bleeding walking disaster area, still at home with mummy and Daddy, bleeding gay or got some other attachment, like Mark waddle," burst out Yvonne to Lauren as she was getting ready to go out. "It's not so easy at my age starting out again."

"So what do you want, Mum." Lauren asked her directly.

"Wish I knew Lauren, " Yvonne admitted frankly.

Mark was kicking his heels at the bus station waiting for the National Express bus that would take him back to his other world. He didn't know whether he was glad to be leaving or bitterly regretting that part of his past he wanted to be attached to would be pulled away from him no matter what he wanted to do. While he was there, a middle aged man was busking, with a harmonica holder round his neck and strumming a big acoustic guitar. If he was shopping, he would have half heard a snatch of the song and just walked on. Now his ears took in the mournful song about the breakup of a relationship in all its painful detail that was too close to home. A moment of relief came when the singer blew harmonica phrases drifting in some abstract pattern of its own when the final words hit home.

"Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me.

How good, how good does it feel to be free

When I answer them back most mysteriously

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

Without knowing why and not caring who might watch, Mark put his hands to his eyes and he cried and cried. He knew right enough what the words were all about.

Chapter Twenty Nine

"So your friend, Helen has got a degree." Nikki's mother said, for the first time summoning up a little bit of interest in Helen, whose smile was beginning to cause her facial muscles severe cramp.

"Yes, mother, a psychology degree while mine is in arts," Nikki replied in an understated way.

"How did you get to go to University, Nicola? Which university did you go to," Nikki's mother asked with an image of the dreaming spires of Oxford in her mind and a topic of conversation ready made for the next coffee morning in the eternal game of 'oneupmanship.'

"You might not like this one but it was at Larkhall Prison." Nikki started off in an apologetic fashion. "but I did get a two one degree. I've got some photographs to show you" Nikki finished on a more triumphant note, feeling in her handbag for the packet of photos she had got printed ready in advance. She looked around and noticed her parents start to take a real interest in her now. She crushed the momentary feeling of anger that they would parade her accomplishments around their friends for totally snobbish reasons and now she had accomplished something do they value her. The only thing that matters is to bridge the gap and it doesn't matter how it's done, the realistic side of her told her.

Time seemed to be ageless to Helen, right now. She smiled at the curious fact that while Nikki was still generally edgy and uncertain in mundane matters and wasn't out of the wood by a long way, the worst was over and Nikki had some sort of a grip on the situation. Come the biggest challenge to her life outside the Appeal Court trial, she rises magnificently to the challenge. Helen looks on fondly as Nikki talks to her parents with more animation. Nikki's whole persona was that she has knocked around a bit and she has experience of life she can tell her parents about and now they are starting to listen. At last, Helen sat back more comfortably in her chair as she throws in the odd observation or two and the muscles in her face can relax a bit. All it took was sheer bloody persistence, ingenuity and the ability to play a two handed game of cards which they were more than capable of………….

Lauren looked curiously at her mother. It seemed strange that she was the one asking her mother about her love life, boyfriends, staying in and watching TV as opposed to going out on the latest hot date. Only a few years ago, Mum as a happily married woman with her Charlie at her side was comforting her own tears and telling her that one day, she would meet the man of her dreams.

"So what about Mark Waddle," Lauren asked.

Yvonne's face softened at the memories of him, brief and fleeting but none the less sweet for that. It was painful as it aroused feelings of what she could be and how complete she could feel except that events swept them away.

"It's no bloody good, Lauren. He works up north, there's no telling when he'll be back and anyway, if he did come back, it would be to the arms of Karen Betts." Yvonne finished on a downcast note.

"But you've got each other's phone number, Mum." Lauren reassured her.

"It's no use, Lauren. I'm too scared to phone up in case I get let down."

"What about friends," Lauren asked.

"It's funny, Lauren."Yvonne smiled." Before I went inside, all Charlie's friends and their bleeding wives were in and out of this house all the time. Now I'm on my own, they've forgotten to call. Outside of work, my best mates are Helen and Nikki. Funny how times change."

"You ought to look them up. Friends will stay around them as long as you don't forget them." insisted Lauren, desperate to break Yvonne out of her down mood. "You needn't go out every night on the pull. There's time"

"And I used to say the same things to you not that long ago," Yvonne smiled fondly on her very caring and very perceptive daughter.

It all started when Mark Waddle was called into his boss's office.

"I want you to take a couple of days off to go down to Larkhall Prison on a matter that needs sorting out, Mark. There's too many times that files coming in from Larkhall have glaring things missed off the reports. I've gone carefully into why one of our most careful prison officers nearly got killed last week and it's all part of the pattern."

"But that will leave this place short staffed," Mark said, partly as that automatic uprush of fear that Larkhall always caused.

" There's no way out, Mark. Every time there's something going pear shaped, that's the prison that causes all our problems.it's happened too many times now. Giving the prison an earful on the phone only catches the fall guy. You know the prison and the prison officers. You're the man to sort it out and you know the people. I'm writing to the Governor, a Mr Grayling and telling him that you have my full authority and backing for whatever you do or say. You are not to be mucked around with and I'll arrange cover for your job here."

With such glowing commendations from a boss who he liked and respected, what could he say to that one?

"Yes Miss" he answered.

Once again he was back on the National Express bus travelling down to Larkhall and the humming sounds of the engine steadily eating up the miles.

Chapter Thirty

Mark stepped out of the taxi which had deposited him outside Larkhall prison and, there it was in all its forbidding appearance. A sick feeling came into his stomach as he remembers the painful memories of the criss cross emotions of anger, jealousy and hurt pride and others swirling around that he couldn't put a name to. Most of all was the prospect of meeting Karen again. Then he remembered why he was here. He was Senior Officer Waddle, on a par now with Sylvia, one grade below Fenner and a few below Grayling. But he'd never given a toss about Fenner and, this time, he was the "nice guy friendly investigator" quite able to pull out and let the "nasty guys from Area" pull the place to pieces.

Once signed in by Ken who made him feel at home, he went into G Wing and immediately a chorus of cheers came from some of the prisoners.

"Mr Waddle, sir," Julie Saunders came up with a big welcoming smile."Things ain't been the same since you left. If you hadn't have gone so quick, some of the girls would have made up some sort of card for you. How are you doin'"

"A lot better from seeing you and some of the other prisoners around." Mark responded with a warm smile, overcome by the reception. He knew he was fairly well liked but he didn't know he was missed that way. His feelings of hurt blocked him from seeing the way others saw him. It was a bit of a film star's welcome and it buoyed up his feeling of well being till he saw the forbidding face of Sylvia in the distance. It wasn't lost on him that he'd got more to worry about from his fellow officers than the prisoners whom all the bolts and bars were built to guard him against.

."Have you come back for good? Mr Waddle?" Denny greeted him. "We miss you …sir." she finished hesitantly, just stopping saying her trademark 'man.'

"Only just down for the day. I'm sorry, everyone," he finished seeing their disappointed faces and part of him actually feeling nostalgic about Larkhall.

"If you're looking for Yvonne, she got released, man."

"A pity then, Denny." Mark replied not knowing if he could keep a straight face." I'm really glad for her."

He knew he'd got a meeting now and he had to make his farewells, cheered up by his reception. He would need it, he thought to himself. Presently, he made his way to the PO's room where Fenner was taking the meeting. Karen, he understood, was off for the day and he felt more relieved than anything. It made matters less complicated somehow and he could stick to business.

"And you'll all remember Mark Waddle. He's not come back here permanently but to improve the liaison between Larkhall and the nick up north where he works. He'll chat to some of us afterwards"

Mark smiled grimly at Fenner's typical 'sweep everything under the carpet' approach. came over as Mr Smooth except for the odd glare in his direction when people weren't looking.

Presently, he was assembled in a private room with Sylvia, Di Barker and Fenner and Mark found himself at the head of the table. He took in Di's friendly but nervous expression, Bodybag's best po faced glare and Fenner's more hidden hostility, helped himself to a glass of water.

"Look here, lads……and Sylvia. I'll come clean. I' ve come over from my nick, at my Governor's request to sort out in a friendly way, some problems we've been having with the files coming over from you………"

"A snooper, that's what I call you. Snitching on your workmates." Bodybag piled into the debate with both feet and minus brain. Di raised her eyes at Bodybag's rant in exasperation while Fenner erased all expression on his face. Play it cool and see what waddle comes up with.

"Sylvia, you have two choices. We talk quite informally and try to stop some of the cock ups coming from Larkhall, some of the botched reports and the sort of thing that one of my best mates got done over by a dangerous prisoner and all because someone, and I think I know who it is," and at this point, Mark, having taken fire, stared intensely into Bodybag's eyes with contempt and anger,"didn't write up how she kicked off here. We know it happened from talking to the prisoner but was there a whisper of it from the file coming in? Was there hell. And you'd better make up your mind that either things get sorted out the nice friendly way or I pull out, go back to my boss who will get onto Area and you take the consequences. So which way is it to be?"

"Sylvia, we'd better talk with Mark like he says," Di said urgently. "I feel terrible that one of us was attacked that way. There's no excuse. Come on, Mark knows us and we know Mark."

There was a deadly silence where a pin could have dropped and echoes round the room. Sylvia's expression was even more hostile but she knew when she was beaten. Mark didn't believe at first that he had asserted himself as much as he had and read the riot act to them and what he had said felt unreal to himself as if someone else had done it Then a delicious feeling swelled up inside him of making some of those bastards jump that needed to and keeping them jumping while he prodded them with a stick from behind. It is not a good idea, Mark reflected, for anyone to take for granted an easy going good guy like himself as God help anyone if he gets angry. The last time he felt as good about himself this way was when he kneed Fenner in the bollocks. This is the same sort of thing, only more permanent. Very satisfying feelings of controlled, focussed anger ran through him making him think lightning quick. All eyes were focussed on him for them to hear and accept what he had to say next. Sylvia's heart sank when he took her down to the files where he raked over them with a fine tooth comb much to Sylvia's embarrassment. He knew where the bodies were buried from working there and where to look.

Much later, the good feelings from a good day's work and a few old scores settled, he went out on his own but felt a bit disappointed that all his old mates, once up for a 'lad's night out' seemed to have gone all domesticated since his absence.

"Sorry, Mark,"Ken explained, feeling genuinely regretful as he'd heard whispers along the grapevine already what Mark had done."It's my wife. She's been on at me to spend more time with her and the kids. I get enough stick from her about being a single parent with the shifts I've done recently. If you're around another time, give us a bit more notice and I'll have more time to talk her round,"

"I'll go out on the town on my own." Mark said and shot off back to his hotel, a quick change and freshen up and out on the town.

The feel of the city in the evening cheered him up, as the streetlife and bright lights looked more attractive. Certainly better than hanging round the hotel lounge being bored out of his brain and drinking to numb the boredom. It was on expenses so he shouldn't complain.

He pushed his way into a bar tucked a little way off the busy main street and it wasn't too crowded inside. He was served a pint of bitter and gulped a generous measure down with a sigh of satisfaction. The feel of being off duty and the first pint did a lot to restore his belief that all was right with the world. He turned round and, right in front of his eyes was the one woman who had been at the back of his mind all the time he had been away but he could never admit it. The shock temporarily rooted him to the spot.

Chapter Thirty One

"What the hell are you doing back in Larkhall, Mark Waddle? Seeing you once a few weeks ago was enough." Karen's sharp voice cut through the usual noise level in the bar, helped by years of doing the same in prisons.

"I think I can come and go as I bloody well please, Karen Betts. Remember, you were the one saying 'It's not happening.' This was after I'd tried to be the sensitive caring guy…well as best as I could." Mark fired back though a little voice at the back of her head asked himself, how the hell did Karen know he had been here before in the first place?

"Oh don't think I mind and that I want to cramp your style, Mark Waddle. And yes did I really want you cross questioning me all the time, asking me endless questions about that night." There were traces of other feelings in Karen's angry tones running opposite to the words. In arguing with Mark, she was exhuming a tangled up packages of memories and experiences she had buried and thought she had dealt with. Did she really want to have to relive those experiences and, worse still, to work out again was she right or wrong about matters that she wanted to see the back of?

Mark shook his head in the chances that led them both to meet in this way and, of course the wide scale black and white film of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca was running in his head while he struggled with his feelings.

"Of all the bars in all the towns, I have to meet you tonight, Karen Betts." A disconnected voice in head told himself there was no piano player singing "As time goes by" but the normal bar crowd. Karen gave an ironical twist to her mouth as she realised where the words came from. "Look here, we could do with somewhere quiet to talk, Karen." he said more quietly.

"Oh yes, so you can talk sweet nothings and ask me if we can start again. I don't think so." Karen's scornful tones were pitched over the sounds of the pub.

"No, Karen Betts, it's because this pub is so bloody noisy I can't hear you too well and I don't see why I should shout above the crowd. This way." Mark pushed at Karen's shoulder and gestured to an alcove which was away.

"You don't push me around Mark Waddle in trying to be all masterful."

"Oh shut up, Karen."

Mark took a swig from the pint of beer he was holding and said nothing for a bit while Karen glared in silence.

"So how did you know I've been here in Larkhall, Karen? I don't deny it but just for the record, how did you know?" Mark said at last.

"Just that you were arm in arm with that Yvonne Atkins. Remember, that wine bar and you two walking down the stairs. Do I have to draw a picture?"

Mark was having more and more trouble in working out what Karen was playing at. He felt that he was in a revolving door and meeting himself coming out the other side.

"What in hell is going on in your mind, Karen." Mark said in bewilderment." All the time, I was the one getting heavy when you wanted to 'let it flow, have some fun. 'In that case, I have gone out of your life, been out of it for a long time and as far as you know, I might easily be with someone else and you shouldn't care less who I see and what I am doing? You're not making any sense. Unless……………" and Mark paused.

"It's that it is unprofessional Mark Waddle."

"Oh so you really care about me. Only you've got a funny way of showing it." Mark yelled in sheer frustration.

"It's a purely professional matter, Mark," Karen urged, the anger in her voice a lot more softened now. "I don't want to see anything bad happen to a good officer. God knows, there aren't many of those round now."

The conversation ground to a temporary halt, neither of them knowing what to say next.

"Let me get you a drink, Karen. While I'm here for the night."

"I though you might be going out with Yvonne," Karen retorted drily."I'm sure you can't prefer my company to hers."

"It's none of your bloody business, Karen Betts, but I'm not going out with Yvonne. It was a one night stand that night you saw us. We're just good friends, that's all. Yvonne knows it. Besides, I'm here for the day on business at Larkhall and going back tomorrow." Mark said quietly and evenly. He didn't repeat the jab of 'being out of her life' as he was not altogether sure that that was what she wanted. He felt very confused now and the long day including early start with travelling down by coach started to catch up with him. He sat back against the bar seat and closed his eyes. He was really tired. Images flashed back into his mind of the smiling faces of Denny and the 2 Julies and the hostile faces of Sylvia and Fenner. He'd been worrying about this day, how it would pan out, and now a stand up row with Karen was something he did not need.

A touch of concern for Mark came into Karen's eyes as she calmed down a bit. She couldn't deny that he had told her the truths, in fact some unpleasant truths that she didn't want to here.

So what does she do now, she thought as she sipped her glass of wine?

Much later at night, Mark was sprawled full length on his hotel bed with the room spinning round. The rest of the night had faded away into a more friendly yet impersonal conversation which he had more and more trouble in keeping up with,

Eventually, Karen helped steer him in the direction of his hotel, as, so she told herself, he wasn't safe out on the streets in case he got mugged. She would do it for anyone. The dark ceiling high above spun gently overhead. He was too tired to work anything out anymore.

Chapter Thirty Two

With that famous world weary sigh, Bodybag climbed into the driving seat of the huge black hearse to pop into town to do some food shopping. Larkhall hadn't built one of those out of town supermarkets so Sylvia was stuck with manoeuvring the huge vehicle through the busy streets. The damned thing stuck out a mile at the back and she was always nervous of scraping the back corners on someone else's vehicle. Last time, Bobby moaned on for months about the trouble in making the insurance claims, losing his no claims bonus and for weeks looking like an eyesore with the huge gash and dent on the corner. And all for his braised meatballs and a few bits and pieces. A little runabout was more to his taste. This on a Saturday morning after she had slaved in the files at work doing endless corrections and write ups of reports after that cheeky Mark Waddle had made her feel like a prize fool when he turned up out of the blue.

On the second time round the block, Bodybag couldn't believe her luck when she saw a line of parking spaces nice and convenient to Sainsbury's. The fools who hadn't seen those spaces needed their eyes tested. She reversed the hearse into the parking spot she'd seen with loads of room back and front, and her eye on the shop noticed out of the corner of her eye some yellow markings on the road which made not the blindest bit of sense to her and rushed on with her shopping bag.

An hour and a half later, Bodybag came out of the store breathless and harrassed from battling with the Saturday morning shopping but satisfied with what she had got. She heaved open the boot to the huge back end of the hearse and dumped the carrier bags in the car. That left her a nice amount of time for her to cook dinner before her Bobby came back from the local British Legion club. Coming round the front of the car, she noticed a strange object taped to the front windscreen.

"Who the hell has left junk mail," she sighed impatiently.

She skimmed the notice and to her shock the first paragraph informed her in unbending official language that her car had been left in a space 'not permitted to her' and that she was to "pay to the Magistrates Clerk, Fines and Fees Department, Town Hall, Larkhall the sum of thirty pounds within fourteen days without fail"

"Poppycock" Bodybag exploded and marched over to the traffic warden who was waiting for her like to come blustering over to him. He knew the type.

"My man." Bodybag said in her best haughty official tone."You have left an unauthorised object on my windscreen as I am within my rights in parking my vehicle where it is on this thoroughfare."

The traffic warden patiently led her to the hearse and his outstretched finger silently pointed to the worn and chipped words "disabled" written in capitals the length of the road.

"Under the Traffic Act on this notice, you are not permitted to park your vehicle earmarked for the needs of the disabled" intones the traffic warden in tones that harked back to his Army days.

"But this is ridiculous," exploded Bodybag. "I do not see why the disabled should be mollycoddled by the state in this fashion."

Jim Fenner came out of the pub across the road having had a skinful. All he wanted was to lurch his way onto the nearest bus to take him home. Oh my God, that's Sylvia having a run in with a traffic warden. The silly cow had got nicked by a traffic warden, he thought. Well, I'm off duty, if a prisoner kicks off at her at work, I'll come and drag her

off Sylvia but nobody's paying me for getting her out of a spot of bother today so I'm off. Pulling his coat lapels up and doing his best to look inconspicuous, Fenner nipped off down the side alley at the back of the pub.

As the argument gathered force between the two opposing dinosaurs, a crowd of people started the gather. Nikki and Helen were just about to pop into the same pub that Fenner had vacated only a minute earlier when some impromptu street entertainment caught their attention which was vastly more entertaining.

"Hey, that's Bodybag," Nikki called out in glee with the biggest smile on her face that Helen had seen for months. "Come on, we must watch out for this one."

Helen moved forward, instinctively, to intervene to help out what in one mental flash was someone who she was responsible for as Wing Governor when Nikki grabbed her arm.

"Helen, you aren't at Larkhall anymore. You've left there months ago and you're just an ordinary passer by. The cow never had any time for you when you were there when it mattered most, remember?"

Right in front of Helen's eyes was the image of Bodybag when she was just about to explain to an outraged wing, headed by Nikki that Carol Byatt's miscarriage was a 'tragic set of circumstances' out of loyalty for the system and the later full scale riot when she knew later from Nikki's account that Bodybag's jackboot approach had fanned the flames in the first place. She shook her head and was back to the present and a similar broad grin spread across her face and a mischievous glint lit her eyes.

"You're right, Nikki" she said squeezing her arm in gratitude. "Let's take a seat in the rear stalls and watch the show."

Helen felt a light tap on her shoulder and spun round to see Yvonne's grinning face and twinkling eyes.

"Hey Yvonne. Come and watch the show."

"You're not stepping in to help Bodybag out?" Yvonne said in her most innocent tones which did not deceive Nikki or Helen one bit

In a moment of mixed shock and hilarity, Mark Waddle and Karen Betts arriving on the scene totally independently, were just in time to see an exasperated Bodybag thinking of Bobby moaning about her being late as always, raise her handbag and wallop the man in the face with it and the heavy object landed smack on target.

Chapter Thirty Three

Out of the corner of Nikki's eye, she spotted the familiar form of a policeman on the beat and, flashing a quick devilish smile at Helen, she ran lightly over to him with her best innocent look in her eyes.

The policeman was bored with being on foot patrol watching the shoppers pass by. Suddenly, an attractive neatly dressed well spoken woman hurried over to him in a tearing hurry.

"Please, sir, a traffic warden has just been attacked. Can you help out? It's just over here"

He responded at once to that plea in the woman's big brown eyes, and hurried over to deal with, and apprehend what sounded like a very dangerous villain and to ensure the streets of Larkhall are kept safe for ordinary decent citizens to go about their lawful business. Lumbering over, he made his way towards the crowd which had built in size to a full scale event, Nikki trailing after him.

"I'm glad that there are normal, decent minded respectable citizens ready and willing to report crime. Too many people walk on by, these days. Thanks, Madam." the policeman described in his ponderous manner.

Nikki had melted back into the crowd when the policeman passed through to the scene of the disturbance and came up, with his surprise, to an apparently respectable middle aged woman but who was very abusive towards the traffic warden. His spectacles were lying smashed on the ground and he was holding his face which had received the impact of the blow from a very full ladies handbag, delivered with some considerable force leaving him in some pain. He needed to make a preliminary investigation into the incident and find out the background details.

"Now then, now then what started this all off" the policeman demanded in a peremptory tone.

Karen watching from the side saw Nikki Wade having the cheek to pose as the respectable citizen and couldn't help but smile. However, she really thought she can't leave Bodybag to struggle on her own and dig herself even deeper into a hole.

"Hey, Karen, "Mark said with a grin on her face."I know you're conscientious and all that but do you really need to get involved in a private matter on a Saturday morning. Think. It's the weekend, your time off."

"This is a serious matter, Mark if you must know." Karen replied, straightening her face and trying to look severe."I am responsible for the wellbeing of my staff. And in any case, are you trying to run my life again, Mark Waddle?" Karen finished suddenly on a sharper note, remembering the stand up row they had last night.

"It's up to you, Karen." Mark said evenly, suppressing the impulse to say that he didn't give a toss what she decided for a more diplomatic approach."It's only my advice which you can take or leave but I'm just explaining to you that you are her boss but you aren't her nanny. Sure if Ross calls on you for help then go to the rescue if you want but not Sylvia. Not the one person who gets into one scrape after another because of her stupidity or because Mrs Jobsworth treating people like crap. Not the woman you had to demote. She's getting a bit of her own flavour now, just look." Mark spoke nonchalantly yet persuasively to Karen.

At that point, Karen's serious mask split asunder and a wide grin split her face in two and she nearly gave way to impulse to reach out for Mark's arm to hold onto while they stood and watched. At least for now they are safe with each other while they watched the spectacle from a safe place.

"Mrs Hollamby, I must insist that you accompany me to the Police Station round the corner." the policeman insisted." Your hearse can remain there for the duration of the enquiries without any further penalty."

"But you can't arrest me," spluttered Bodybag. "I've got my husband's dinner to cook for him. I am needed elsewhere."

Suddenly, Bodybag looking in despair at the crowd around her saw the twinkling eyes of that gangster's moll, Yvonne Atkins looking mockingly at her.

"Tut tut, Mrs Hollamby, what have the streets of Britain come to."

"And don't you say anything Wade or I'll….." started Bodybag.

"…..or what, Sylvia." Nikki gleefully replied. "Arrest me?"

Helen maintained an amused silence and let the policeman escort Bodybag away while the injured traffic warden trailed after the couple. She did not need to say anything as the smile on her face said enough.

"All right, the party's over now," called the policeman. If the intention was to disperse the crowd it failed abjectly as groups of people nattered away to each other what they saw. In the crowd that was left, Karen and Mark sidled their way through the crowd to where Nikki Helen and Yvonne were still assembled.

Chapter Thirty Four

All five of them felt a bit strange all meeting up like some sort of reunion, especially the ill assorted collection of people bound together by friendship and love and others driven apart by rivalries and past arguments.

Mark was the first to break the ice with the dreadfully obvious but effective lead in.

"Hi Nikki, Hi Helen. Haven't seen you two for months. How are you both doing."

"Doing great, " Helen beamed "Though Nikki's been under the weather recently…."

"…..but very much cheered up seeing old Bodybag being carted away. Think they'll shove her in the police lock up for the night?" Nikki finished off.

At that choice remark, they all burst out laughing, Helen's laugh audible for yards, drowning out Mark's. They couldn't stop laughing for some time and when one of them was about to stop, another would set them off again. Karen had by now fully relaxed and they were all the better for it.

"Come on, now we're altogether, let's hit the nearest pub." Mark called out.

"All that extra rank's gone to your head, Mark Waddle, "Karen smiled.

"Not that, Karen but the beer will," grinned Mark.

Karen looked around and saw a shadow cross Yvonne's face like a cloud floating across the sky and the sunlight on a lake turn to shadows. She was happy enough but with that edge and she thought she knew why. If she ended back with Mark, and this seemed increasingly likely, then Yvonne will feel the 'odd one out' amongst the couples even though she was happy enough. She needed to take Yvonne aside and clear the air at some point.

They found an alcove and table seated for four people and Mark manhandled a chair to sit at the top table.

"So what brings Mr Waddle back down these parts," Yvonne asked with gentle irony.

"Back on business," Mark replied, taking a swig from his beer." I want to make sure that Sylvia……"

"You mean Bodybag," interjected Nikki with a grin.

"…does what she is supposed to so the files are kept in order. No more headcases slipping into my nick and no one noticing."

"So why should we…I mean, anyone care." Nikki asked.

"You remember when Tessa Spall got transferred to Larkhall, Nikki. Someone and I'm not naming any names,"and Karen's look of irony gave the game away," mixed up the file with Barbara Hunt's. And the result, I got a woman holding a syringe of her blood, HIV positive to my face, and you got attacked by her yourself, so I hear and………….." Karen stopped short, mindful of the fact that they were in a pub and that Nikki would not appreciate a chunk of her past being broadcast round a public place, like 'losing her privileges.' Karen and Mark exchanged mental notes to ask later on how come as, the observant prison officers of Larkhall, they didn't know that one and can someone explain that one to them.

"Thanks, Karen." Helen smiled appreciatively, for the first time for what seemed a lifetime, being grateful for the woman and not being angry with her.

"Anytime, Helen." Karen replied, now fully relaxed round them and feeling the warmth of the company and the taste of the vodka ran through her.

As the chit chat went on, Mark was feeling that he was slipping back into the old easy comfortable way of living with Karen where the camaraderie of the daytime was bookended by the tenderness of the evenings. He remembered laughing and joking with Karen when she, the supposed squash team winner was left distinctly flagging from the shots he was playing on the court and, yes, it seemed an eternity ago that they went out to the very same pub they were now in and he kissed her for the first time. Thinking back to the last time he'd met her he thought she had a funny way of caring for him but, then again, he wasn't much better. Karen, for her part, let a bit of her mind drift back to the dreadful time after she had made that fateful blunder to turn her car right and drive to a certain bed and breakfast place when she could have easily kept going straight over that junction and gone back home, watched a soap or something undemanding and things could have worked out so much easier and better. Ah well, second chance now.

Helen was chattering vivaciously away, feeling happy for herself and happy for Nikki who was back to her old self and who was well away in good company. It had been a tough few months acting as Nikki's carer and treading that fine line between respecting her tough individualism and gently intervening when she felt she had to.

Helen gazed straight into the sunlight as it streamed through the leaded light windows of the pub, bathing the place in tints of gold. Karen's blond mane of hair was caught up by the sun and her blue eyes glinted the happiness she was feeling and it was obvious to her that her and Mark were going to be an item. Karen for her part dreamily reflected that they would not have argued so much in that way if the feelings weren't fundamentally there. If there had been cold indifference, either of them were free individuals and could have simply walked away from each other and, no, she wasn't just doing her duty in helping him back to his hotel that night, much though she tried to tell herself otherwise at the time. Karen looked sideways and caught a look on Yvonne's face. She was happy enough and relaxed but there was a sadness and look of envy that she was on her own and Karen soon would be not. Her heart suddenly went out to the woman whom she could now see that she respected however often they had been at odds with in the past. She was in charge now either as Wing governor or plain Karen Betts of what she must do.

"Hey, Yvonne, do you want to help me get the next round in." Karen asked looking Yvonne in her eyes who, true to form, got the message.

"Look here, I don't know how to say this but I thought I'd be the first to tell you that it looks like me and Mark are getting back together. I feel bad about it ………"

"So why are you telling me about this one, Miss Betts." Yvonne looked at her coldly.

"Because I want to do things straight down the line and if Mark did feel that he wanted to be with you rather than me, I wouldn't throw myself at him and spoil things for you. I like and respect you too much………despite past bad experiences, despite everything."

"You're telling me this straight?" Yvonne stared right into Karen's eyes if not her soul.

"Straight as a die, Yvonne." Karen said without hesitation.

"Well, Karen," There was a flicker of a smile on Yvonne's face and Karen knew she'd passed the exacting Atkins test for ruthless honesty and was proud to be so judged by her strangely after years of being her jailer" We'd better get the drinks in or else Mark and Helen will be calling for our blood. They can both put the bloody booze away."

"You're in charge Yvonne." Karen smiled broadly and at the back of her mind this was the first time Yvonne had called her by her first name.

"About bloody time, you two." Mark called out jokingly.What were you two talking about at the bar?"

Yvonne looked at Karen and replied straight away.

"Oh only a bit of girl's talk."

"So then, Mark." Helen called out with a smile on her face. "When are you going to put in for a transfer back to Larkhall and help put the bloody place right. Karen can't do it on her own, you know. I tried it that way and look where it got me."

"Yeah, Mark." Nikki chimed in with her dazzling smile. "Yvonne and me aren't around any more and by the sound of what we've heard of Grayling, Karen can do with all the help she can get."

"It's a lovely idea," Mark grinned, blushing" But I'd feel bad at letting the guys down where I am. I don't know if it can be done."

"You know bloody well, Mark Waddle, that the only danger you have where you work is death by boredom. If you want a comfy life, fine, if that is where your heart is settled………..."Karen went on very nonchalantly while Yvonne thought to herself, you crafty con artist, Karen Betts,"………….but if we can lure you to the rigours of Larkhall, sneering in Fenner's face, looking after prisoners who need your caring touch, then I suggest putting in for a transfer. Right away".

"And that's an order from me, Mark Waddle. And if you disobey, then be scared. Be very scared." And Yvonne's hard penetrating stare gave Mark Waddle the treatment and he agreed After all, what else could he do?

The End

In this fic, I must give credit to Kristine for her very helpful suggestions and encouragement as always. Likewise, I am really grateful for the intelligent interest by Mad Scientist and I am proud and honoured to be among a circle of like minded people with whom I feel spiritually at home.

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