DISCLAIMER: Shed Productions made the original Bad Girl element of the characters, wrote the stories, and have full copyright to them. We are using these characters simply for non-profit, entertainment value. Likewise I am giving credits to G F Newman who wrote the Judge John Deed copyrighted characters and storylines via BBC Productions in this cross over fiction. There are other characters who are original creations.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to give credits to Norfolkpoodle and her barrister brother for her invaluable assistance in constructing the legal background. I would likewise give credits to the Bad Girl Annex Site for help with chronology from their 'Timelines' piece to William Shakespeare for the loan of his words.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Cleanup Time The Nikki Wade Retrial
The atmosphere within the hallowed walls of the Lord Chancellor's Department was always cool and restrained. After all, it was built of ancient stone to reflect the true majesty of law and only the select few could pass by the doorman. The lucky few could stroll down wide corridors and high ceilings and past ancient portraits of past judges of renown, which were hung on the walls in gilt frames. Everything about the establishment spoke of an elevated and refined consciousness, of continuity back through the ages. Outside the building, Sky dishes may sprout in all their modern vulgarity and increased numbers of motorized vehicles create their cacophonous noise across the land but the catacombs of the Lord Chancellor's Department keeps them removed. The only significant changes that had taken place in the department were the introduction of computers where needed and the odd portable television that was hidden away in a corner.
For all that veneer of ancient civilization, the department was very well attuned to the demands of the state. It had developed the art to a fine degree in allowing the judiciary the belief that they were free thinking citizens while at the same time, they had that sixth sense in terms of where their public duty lay. Somehow, the findings of the judges managed not to rock the boat. It was not unassisted by the fact that they had all gone to the same schools and universities, cheek by jowl with future politicians and captains of industry. To say that strings were pulled would be far too crude it was just that they had an automatic instinct for the greater good of the country. Behind the self-deprecating manner, those who had their hands on the machinery of government had a steely grasp of power and were determined just where to draw the line. They could also draw on the network of who's who in order to head off trouble.
The problem was that in modern times, there was a steady decline of deference towards the natural betters and an awkward tendency for troublemakers to ask awkward questions that were better left unasked. The trouble with liberal thought was that, inevitably, some high-minded people took it seriously, not just as a plaything of Hampstead intellectuals. That spirit turned up in the most unexpected of places and it was this that kept the establishment jumpy when all it asked for was that they should continue to steer the Ship of State in their own time honoured way.
Two custodians of the ancient order were now conferring in a comfortably appointed office. The taller man was slightly built, smartly dressed with a veneer of a patrician manner. He viewed the world through suspicious eyes but secretly regretted that he hadn't the strength of personality that he wanted. In his effort to come over as dominating, he suspected that he only appeared as petulant. His position gave him no problems in exercising his authority on those below him. They knew just how revengeful the man could be. It was those over whom he held no sanctions that spelled potential trouble such as the judiciary and barristers. While they could be an argumentative, hopelessly individualistic lot, he was able to get along with them with a certain discreet charm while he tolerated their idiosyncrasies. At least, this applied to the majority of them .
"So how do you consider the Wade appeal will go," a very tense Sir Ian asked of his sidekick, Lawrence James.
"Huntley is a safe pair of hands. He can be relied upon to do what is necessary for the greater good. Besides, Frobisher is our man who is conducting the prosecution. He is very confident of the outcome."
His colleague was of Jamaican descent who had successfully erased every trace of his origins except for the colour of his skin. In his enthusiasm to be assimilated into the grateful, outstretched arms of the British ruling class, his zealousness was noteworthy along with the fact that his suit was just that bit shinier and more immaculate than Sir Ian's. He spoke in a deep harsh tone of voice as befitting the circuit administrator with total power over the destinies of the functionaries of his court staff.
"And what about Ms Chambers who is conducting the defence? A loose cannon if ever there is one like our own Mrs. Mills." Sir Ian demanded snappishly, with the deliberate emphasis of an angry bee on the title.
"My source of information is that the original verdict is sound. The original statement to the police is utterly damning."
The silence that hung heavy on the room wasn't a comfortable one despite all the positive sentiments expressed. Each of them had that sneaking suspicion that Marian Chambers had something up her sleeve. The fact that the notorious lesbian cop killer had engaged the services of a young female solicitor who must have some eye to her future career and, still more, engaged the services of that particular barrister, made them feel that not everything was as it should be. For all their imperious dominance of the legal system, they both had the feeling that the future was threatening to slip out of their hands. For control freaks like them, this was a primal fear.
"It could have been worse, Sir Ian. The case has been kept out of the hands of Deed. Imagine what mischief he could make."
Sir Ian shuddered. That man was the biggest thorn in his flesh and occasionally came into view into his nightmares. Despite his humble beginnings, he had had chance of the best of educations and yet he had become a complete maverick. He was a crusading liberal whom a mischievous fate must have played a practical joke on the Lord Chancellor's Department in bestowing on him his exceptional talents. John Deed had an enquiring mind and an ability to nose out the truth. He had that knack of producing startlingly original judgments, as if he were producing a rabbit out of a hat. He had made his name as a brilliant barrister and, in these meritocratic modern times, his abilities could not be denied by the establishment so that his recent promotion as a High Court judge had some merit. What the establishment could not forgive was that, as soon as he achieved this elevation, he used his position to hand down judgments that were at best, idiosyncratic and at worst, verging on treasonable. The worst thing about it was that very few of his cases had been overturned at the Court of Appeal. It seemed that the devil looked after his own.
" .and Mrs. Mills as defence barrister."
"Enough," snapped Sir Ian." It is quite bad enough that we have to contend with Ms Chambers' busy bodying ways without wishing real ill fortune on ourselves. To dwell on it tempts face. We can but hope."
Sir Ian sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. Before him was that image of Deed looking at him with that knack of thinly veiled contempt and rebuffing every attempt to bring him into line. If he threatened Deed, the man just laughed in his face. If he attempted to appeal to his sense of reason, the man impudently spun the conversation off in an unexpected direction. The worst of it was that he had exacted exemplary damages in a couple of cases against wealth creators whose friendship was immensely valued by the government. The man never had that sense of discretion, but on the other hand, seemed to positively revel in his recklessness.
At that precise moment that Nikki Wade was transported in the large shiny black prison car, nervously contemplating taking her stand in court. The streets of London whizzed past her in a blur. All she could focus her mind on was that Claire Walker was at the other end of the journey, no matter how frightening the vast bulk of the Old Bailey was. She just had to be strong in herself. She had to blot out of her mind that lowering presence of that evil bastard Fenner at her side, to pretend that he didn't exist. She clung to the crumb of satisfaction that she'd always faced him out and, who knows, would be rid of him. She was not to know that the establishment was no more certain of their chances than she was of hers. In particular, all the hard slog that Helen had exerted over the past months had secretly made Sir Ian and Lawrence James nervous and unsure of themselves, as it wasn't supposed to happen that the case got as far as an appeal. Something had gone wrong somewhere. The implacable wall of the establishment was not as rock solid as it appeared to be.
Neil Haughton, the smooth upwardly mobile newly appointed Home Secretary whose most passionate speeches were always on sale to the highest bidder, casually drifted by to talk to Sir Ian for no particular reason, or so he said.
"How did she slip past the Home Office's guard? As I hear it, some eager beaver petitioned the Home Office who put no obstacles in the way of a retrial." Sir Ian asked in even tones. Inwardly, he was fuming as his understanding was that it would have been absurdly simple for them to block off that particular approach.
"My predecessor granted Ms Wade leave to appeal." Neil Haughton responded, an artificial grin pasted on his face that didn't really convince. Sir Ian looked stonily into the distance. Typical politician he thought. "Left to me, I would have left her there to rot. I believe in law and order, being tough on crime," he added eagerly, already slipping into Party Political Broadcast mode of talking, his arms outstretched. "After all, we can't allow our Bobbies on the beat to be shown such disrespect. How can the ordinary citizen feel safe in bed if such outrages are allowed to spread unchecked?"
"Quite," concluded Sir Ian."
The tension in the court wound itself tight as if it were an elastic band ready to snap, as the entire world seemed to focus in on the words that hovered on the lips of the Judge Huntley, ready to be spoken. The logic of the judgment demanded that it should happen but the words needed to be said, most of all for Nikki who tensely grasped the rail, her eyes wide open and staring.
"Nicola Wade, you are free to go," pronounced Judge Huntley in grave tones.
Donald Frobisher slumped down in his place and stared down at his sheaf of papers, now rendered suddenly obsolete. He knew that he was beaten when Ms Chambers had utterly overturned the credibility of the police. He also knew that he had won no popularity contests with the establishment and that his card would be marked. He slunk out of court while Nikki walked with legs of jelly down the staircase and held up only by the rapturous applause. At the bottom of the staircase, Claire and Marion were there to greet her. Trisha was especially excited and she supposed that she was destined to return to her old life. But somewhere out there was Helen, the one person who had made it possible, who had said goodbye to her with as many tears in her eyes as there were in Nikki's.
To the side of the gathering crowd and ignored by them, an expectant young man dressed in a sharp suit looked questioningly at Donald Frobisher as he stumbled towards him.
"Three years only for manslaughter and she's done the time. She's in the middle of the crowd over there ready to gloat to the press out there."
"This way. I'll have to phone in the bad news right now. The press will make a meal of this."
At that very moment, Lawrence James picked up the phone. As a few brief words sounded in his ear, he reddened, clutched the mobile in his hand as if to break it and turned to Neil Haughton.
"It'll be on the news right now. Let's hear the worst," groaned Neil Haughton.
Lawrence James clicked the remote control on the small portable TV and the screen showed the view down onto the steps of the Court of Appeal and a small group. The camera zoomed in on a tall woman with short hair dressed in black not looking as half as jubilant as they had expected and holding centre stage.
"How does it feel like to be free?"
"It goes without saying that I'm delighted to be set free ..Prison's a terrible place. People don't know the half of what goes on. There's male officers employed on female residential wings, abusing vulnerable women. Anyway, I was one of the lucky few inside to get access to some real education and there's one woman I want to thank for all that because she always believed in me no matter how bad things got. I owe her not only my freedom but my life."
In an unknown bar, tears streamed down Helen's face as she saw through the television screen as Nikki poured out her heart to her. It was absolutely certain that Nikki would head off to her club to celebrate and she had to see her and talk to her. Precisely what she would say to her, she hadn't the faintest idea. For once in her life, she was utterly incapable of planning the way ahead.
At the Lord Chancellor's Department, a stony silence reigned, flavoured with slight puzzlement.
"The tabloids will crucify us." Sir Ian said at length.
"I suppose some bleeding heart liberal will be satisfied- till the next time." Neil Haughton said eventually. "You would have thought she would be grateful to get out and thank 'British justice' like they all do. She's got a nerve to criticize our wonderful prison service. If you don't want to do the time, don't commit the crime, as they say."
Quite unconscious how his words echoed that of Shell Dockley he stomped off in disgust. His avaricious temperament had been long accustomed to winning whatever he set his mind on and was an especially bad loser.
"Who on earth was that do-gooding woman she was talking about?"
"I suppose we'll never know. I suppose I had better get back to work. There's nothing for us here. I suppose every judge in England will hear what's happened." Sir Ian exclaimed disgustedly. For once, the establishment grapevine was silent on the subject
A few miles away, in a side street where passing cars flashed by, two women were locked in a passionate embrace. The smaller woman pressed the other up against a wall and her fingers were eagerly running through the other woman's short-cropped hair. For them, time hung suspended and their lives were only just beginning.
Claire Walker was in a jubilant mood as she walked behind Nikki to the steps of the Court of Appeal and, next to Marian Chambers, stood behind Nikki. She was conscious of the pressure that the other woman had been under, watching the trial being fought over her head. She couldn't help noticing the way the prison officer next to her glower when the verdict was announced. Claire's sympathies went out to her as the array of pressmen crowded in and the TV camera and sound gear pointed at them all. Mentally, she prayed that Nikki would have the presence of mind to pull together the words that needed saying at such an emotionally charged moment like this. Claire was overjoyed to witness how she gave an emotional speech that must surely have reached out into the disembodied space and into the millions of TV screens. It moved her that Nikki spoke so self deprecatingly of herself, how she denounced the iniquities of the prison system in trenchant terms and gave heartfelt thanks to a woman who could only have been Helen. But where was she, Claire wondered? She was starting to feel tired. Even if Marian Chambers who had forcefully argued the case in the cut and thrust of court proceedings, a lot of the content went back to her investigations way back when.
"I must be going, Claire as I'm exhausted. After today's result, you'll be my favourite solicitor for any high profile case that ends up my way."
"I'm really glad that everything went so well. It makes my job worth while that good has come out of this and that justice has been secured for Nikki."
Claire shook Marian's hand. The barrister had been impressed by Nikki's strength of character for the brief period that she had come across her. She reflected that this time, she wasn't acting as a hired gun but for a case that had engaged her sympathies. Eventually, she moved away to hail a passing taxi.
Claire hadn't noticed how the crowd of well-wishers had dispersed so quickly after congratulating a dazed looking Nikki. The blond haired woman had her arm round her shoulders when they went off in a taxi. The only other person who was left standing on the broad pavement was Sally Ann Howe. She had been in the witness gallery after giving evidence the day before and was in no hurry to leave.
"I can't thank you enough for giving evidence in court the other day, Sally. It made all the difference."
She didn't speak right away. The emotion that had threatened to overcome her in court the other day seeped back into her expression and her eyes were edged with tears. She hastily dabbed a tissue at them.
"Hey, it's all over now. At least Gossard can't do anymore damage from the grave he's lying in. That's one in the eye for him," Claire started to say and stopped as the literal meaning crossed her mind.
Sally Ann Howe gave a watery smile in reply before replying.
"I'm afraid it isn't over for me. Even after all this time, I get panic attacks from nowhere, for no reason ..except that I know that, at the back of it is Gossard. I had a good job, one which I believed in. I really thought that I was dong a good job out there out on the street and I thought that I had the support of my colleagues. Do you know what it was like to know how they betrayed me, every single one of them? I had nowhere to go to but out of the police force and I've still nowhere to go."
"Forgive me if it sounds trite but you must have friends, or family or a councillor. You must have someone to help you. You deserve it after all you've done for us."
Claire Walker never thought that her manner was very expressive of sympathy. She had known Helen a long time and felt that they were like chalk and cheese, Claire, the sensible level headed solicitor in the making and Helen's Scottish passion in search of an ideal to attach herself to. She was gratified to see that her words did get through.
"I'm just getting emotional. It's just that getting back onto my feet is taking time, longer than I thought."
Claire was feeling tired but she thought that the least she should do was to offer to take the other woman for a drink somewhere.
"Have you any plans to go anywhere else? I could do with going to the local Starbucks unless you prefer a pub. Do you want to join me?"
The kind tone in Claire's voice cheered up the other woman who was going through a peculiar emotional reaction to the build up in tension over the last few weeks, from the day when the date of the trial became engraved in her mind from when the witness summons was posted through her letter box. It had seemed as if she couldn't think beyond the event and now the future was a blank sheet of paper. Her flat was a lonely enough place to go back to and the idea of going to a café sounded a good idea. She was conscious of how desperately short of money she was so that even going there was a luxury. Her smart pale blue suit normally hung in her wardrobe and was a relic of better days. Right now, this was a bright patch in her darkness.
"I'd love to come. The Starbucks sounds fine."
Claire grinned led the way and it was obvious that she would know the convenient pubs and cafes in convenient walking distance. The two women rounded the corner and walked briskly up to the place in question. Soon, they were closeted in a convenient alcove at a time when the café wasn't too crowded.
"Well at least Nikki Wade getting free is a slap in the face to some of your ex colleagues if you can call them such," Claire said cheerily. It was incumbent on her to shed a little light and company to the other woman.
"Won't it just," Sally answered, with more self confidence and positive spirit than she had felt for a long time. "I hope that the misogynist bastards that I used to work with are choking on their pints of beer. It will really wind them up and serve them right."
"That goes the same for men like them everywhere," agreed Claire. "Word will get round and it will worry a lot of organizations that they can't get away with cover ups like this in future. At least this is something that I can see coming out of this case."
Sally leant her head back and stared into the distant horizon, outside her narrow constrained life. She might not get the chance to feel that way for long but, for now, she basked in the part of history that she'd taken part in while it was still vivid in her mind.
"I remember when you first approached me," Sally said at last in a more meditative tone of voice. "I felt strangulated, that there was so much injustice that I'd been through but I was helpless to do anything about it. I was just shut up at home, feeling miserable and depressed. When you first mentioned the idea of taking the stand in a court of law, I was terrified .."
"I could tell."
" .I felt, ridiculous though it might be, that I was asked to volunteer to face trial even though I knew that I was innocent. It was when you talked about Nikki Wade, a woman who came to the help of Gossard's next victim after me. He did it even when he had all the reason in the world that she would be no more interested in him than I was .."
Claire Walker raised her eyebrows but said nothing. She was a tactful woman and could tell that now was the time for Sally to express all her feelings that had been bottled up in all those months of mental isolation, especially now that the trial was over. She would quietly let the train of thoughts wherever it would lead.
"If I had only had had someone like Nikki around to step in, the same way that Trisha had, I wouldn't be in the mess that I am. She got life for that and it was that realization which succeeded in doing something precious for me. It got me angry and fired up enough to do something useful with my life. I'm the only person around who knew what Gossard was really like. I couldn't remain silent and I had to tell the truth where it would do most good."
Right then two large mugs of coffee were served. The sun shone brightly through the window and bathed the scene in a clear pure light. It seemed to heighten the feelings of peace and tranquility around them. Just at that moment, a thought struck Claire. In the moment of celebration, she had clean forgotten her promise to let Helen know of the result. She remembered that sense of urgency in Helen's voice in contacting her about Nikki's appeal.
"You don't mind, Sally but there's a phone call I must make. I must tell Helen what happened."
"Go ahead, Claire," Sally said imperturbably.
She took out her mobile and pressed the button. Helen was sure to have her mobile to hand as she always did. To her surprise, Helen took her time to pick up the call.
"Hi Helen. I thought I'd phone and tell you of the brilliant news. The Appeal Court judges freed Nikki. They dropped it down to three years, which she's already done. She's out."
"Hi Claire. It's lovely to hear from you. What a fantastic day it is. Everything in life is so wonderful."
Helen's tone of voice sounded a bit muffled but her exuberance positively smiled down the phone. Claire couldn't help but wonder why Helen wasn't asking for a blow by blow account of the trial instead of this abstract enthusiasm.
"Don't you want to hear the details, Helen? You're really letting your reputation down as the most inquisitive woman I've ever known in my life."
This time, there was the sound of giggling in the background and a shuffling sound.
"I'll let you into a little secret, Claire. As it happens, I've had a first hand account already. Nikki is right next to me now."
"Hi Claire, hope you're out celebrating because we are," sang out Nikki in that well known tone of voice.
"I'm with Sally Ann Howe at the nearest Starbucks to the Court of Appeal."
"Sally Anne Howe, we love you," came a two part harmony chant."You tell her that Claire," Helen added.
"I'll make sure to pass the message on. Sally, Helen and Nikki want to tell you that they love you." Claire responded firstly to Helen in amused tones and automatically turning away to talk to the woman sitting the other side of the coffee table. Sally flushed with pleasure in mattering so much in the grand scheme of things.
"Can I let you into another little secret," Helen said in a surprisingly coy tone of voice. "I'm not sure if I should tell you but as you are my oldest friend "
"Go on darling, tell her," Nikki cut in, her drawling tone of voice being unmistakable. So was the sound of the kiss on Helen's skin.
"When I first came to you about appealing Nikki's original sentence, I did it for the most transparent of motives. I strongly felt that there was a miscarriage of justice. It's just that I have to confess that I, I mean we, stand to benefit personally."
Claire cut in on Helen's nervous gabbling. She knew Helen of old.
"I remember getting really worried for you that you were really serious about getting hitched to that waste of space, Sean Parr. He was nothing more than a minor public school smoothie. I see them every day in my job. If it means that you have at last found someone who's decent and reliable who'll treat you right, then you have my blessing."
"Thank you so much Claire. She certainly does that for me," Helen admitted.
On the other end of the phone, with her arm round Helen's bare shoulders, Nikki couldn't believe how much Helen was loosening up, even after making passionate love for hours and lying in a delirious haze of joyous love until the phone rang and Helen had reached across the crumpled duvet for the phone next to their double bed. What had promised to be an irritating interruption had turned out totally unexpectedly and had made her grin at Helen's last statement.
"I won't keep you from your party. I'll keep in touch and visit you both. I'm really happy for you both," Claire concluded tactfully.
"She's really happy for us both," Helen repeated to Nikki with a look of Dawn's Awakening on her face. Not only had she finally emerged from the tumult of the last few days, come out to be the woman she really wanted to be all along, she now received the precious present of public approval from her oldest friend. As Nikki wrapped her arms round Helen, Claire looked at Sally with a smile on her face.
"I think you got the message that your help did more good than I expected."
The two women were only drinking an ordinary cup of coffee at a typical Starbucks but this drink of celebration was more precious than any champagne. Right then, life felt good to both women.
Sir Ian's guess was no less accurate than he feared. There was a curious clubbishness about the judges of whatever rank so that the strange collective term 'the brethren' was habitually used by them. It had connotations of an upper class club in Pall Mall and suggested an acute consciousness and pride in themselves. Of course, there were rows, intrigues and enmities fought amongst themselves as in any organization. There were some members, like John Deed, who were considered to be total reprobates, as John was both in his private life and as a socially conscious judge, but he was still a member of the club. Periodic social gatherings had their place in the scheme of things which officials of the Lord Chancellor's Department and barristers attended and were fuelled by a certain fuzzy bonhomie and a certain measure of alcohol which maintained these bonds. At one time, they resembled a more elderly version of an Oxford or Cambridge gentlemen's drinking club but, with the recent admission of women to the highest ranks of the legal profession, the system was flexible to accommodate newcomers as long as they conformed to the ethos of the 'brethren', which functioned like England's unwritten constitution. In other words, the rules weren't spelled out but everyone knew what they were.
The consequence of such a close-knit association was that news and gossip made its way round the members far quicker than might be expected. That was the case when Jo Mills got home to her pleasant brick built terraced cottage which was her home and that of her two adolescent sons, Tom and Mark. Widowed young, Jo was a slim built woman, short fair unruly hair and blue eyes that could blaze with the passions that she felt for justice. While her sons were up in their bedrooms, occupied as adolescent boys will be, Jo was at the table idly studying the next set of court papers when her mobile rang.
"It's John here, may I pop over?"
"Am I right to guess that you're outside my flat already?" Jo sighed. Typical John.
"I thought I would save you the trouble," he blithely replied. Jo reached for the buzzer to let him in, accepting the inevitable and sure enough, he entered the flat quietly.
On first glance, the man looked hardly the demonic figure Sir Ian's fevered imaginings, being a little over average built and wearing a blue suit and open neck shirt. He was the sort of man whose looks became distinguished looking rather than ageing, being of trim build, shortish graying hair and a relatively unlined face. It wasn't until the observer looked closely at the half smile on his face and his intense blue eyes that a flicker of his force of personality was noticeable, even in repose and away from his accustomed throne. Jo noticed a perceptible spring in his step as they exchanged pleasantries. He made his way to the armchair and Jo poured him a drink.
"Something's pleasing you," observed Jo.
"I've heard that the forces of reaction definitely stubbed their toe today and, for once, not of my doing," John replied, in amused tones.
"You mean the Nikki Wade appeal."
"Yeah, that's the one. Coope filled me in on the details before I heard it from Michael Niven."
Jo grinned. Trust John to have two sources of information. John was referring to his personal assistant, the very resourceful Rita Cooper.
"You know, I would like to have got my teeth into that case." John said in a meditative fashion.
"They wouldn't dare have let you within a mile of the case," exclaimed Jo, laughing at the prospect.
"Not even as a 'winger'?" John enquired with a misleadingly innocent expression on his face. While John Deed hadn't the rank to preside over the case himself, the Court of Appeal featured as always two other judges of his rank to sit in on the case and to play a full part in the hearing and in behind the scenes deliberations.
"You know very well, John, that your inquisitive mind couldn't resist sticking your oar in, asking questions of the two barristers and even conducting your own investigation."
"Mmm, that's not impossible."
" .just as in the same way you operate when I or any other barrister appear before you in court. It's not just that your independence of mind that frightens the LCD so much."
"I always did think that there are weaknesses in the adversarial system that there is in place. It focusses on the gladiatorial contest rather than the search for the truth," John replied with an utterly misleading look of innocence on his face and a studious expression in his voice..
"They wanted Judge Huntley as a 'nice safe pair of hands,' and Donald Frobisher to represent the establishment. Marian Chambers was let in to give the impression of a 'level playing field.' It's just that she acquitted herself rather better than they thought possible."
"She didn't get all out of the case that a tenacious barrister could have extracted out of it," replied John with an appreciative nod at the aptness of Jo's observations.
"I'm afraid it's too late now. You have to let it go."
Despite John's age, he had that restlessness often associated with adolescent enthusiasm in the most positive sense. Jo's steady eye gradually wore down John's expression of his boundless curiosity, one of his most striking features, but she knew that that thought wouldn't be forgotten.
"Well, Jo, since you don't want to talk about this little intellectual exercise that has preoccupied me, why don't you come away with me for a weekend break, That way, I promise not to talk about tiresome legal cases."
Jo rolled her eyes in despair. She had walked right into that and, even after all the years that she had known him, she should have been prepared for his knack of suddenly changing the tack of conversation towards the personal. She had had an affair with him years ago and they had remained close, both due to the nature of their work, their shared ideals and that magnetism that kept her working with him.
"It won't work, not when you are already skating on thin ice with your affair with Franchesca Rochester. She's Sir Ian's wife in case you had forgotten the fact. She's danger enough as it is. If you two want to fall through the ice, that's your affair. I would sooner keep our boundaries the way they are. I feel safer that way."
"These affairs don't last. You know it, Jo."
"That's not the point, John. You'll never change, not after all these years."
"I can try."
"It's quite enough that the LCD are breathing down my collar in their suspicions of a relationship between us, especially the way that cases go whenever I appear before you. You and I know that our consciences are clean but that's not the way it looks. You, they can't touch. Me they can take off the road."
John sat silent, an enigmatic half smile on his face. With his courage in the face of official disapproval and his strength of will to see justice done, he wasn't best able to take advice which ran counter to his inclinations.
"Well, I propose a toast to the brave woman who has fought for her freedom. It's just as well that there are people around with that strength of will."
Jo raised her glass willingly. She had no doubts as to the sincerity of his words which chimed very much with own her beliefs, just as they had always done.
Claire Walker had slept like a log after the built up tension and the celebration of Nikki's successful appeal. The trial had taken place on a Friday and the weekend following passed in a blurred haze and minimal physical activity. It was only as she got ready for work the following Monday that she realized that the court case had been and gone. Up till then, it had absorbed all her energies and consumed every sense of the future. There was a curious sense of something missing in her life, that life couldn't return to the mundane and commonplace as she slipped on her suit jacket. Despite her unassuming nature, she couldn't resist buying a couple of newspapers from a passing newsagent and slipped them under her arm. It gave her a curious feeling and that, when she got to work, one very bulky file could be finally laid to rest.
She opened the solid old-fashioned oak door of the group practice where she worked as a comparatively junior partner. It had made itself a tidy reputation, which was now much enhanced. When she entered the office, she was greeted by a row of smiles. This disconcerted her. All she had somehow expected was to come to work to do a normal day at the office.
"Well done, Claire. The firm is proud of you."
Claire found her hand gripped and pumped up and down by the senior partner, Jim Patterson. The tight smile on his face was matched by his smart shiny suit and his cold blue eyes.
"I'm only too glad that there was a successful outcome. I'm sure the firm will benefit from such a high profile case."
In the ambitious pecking order of eager young, thrusting solicitors, Claire Walker found that her natural gifts of imperturbability and diplomacy were invaluable. Her talents would speak for themselves in the cases that she handled and not in boosting her public reputation. She turned to all the others who greeted her in various degrees of effusiveness and sincerity.
After that, the day quietened down for Claire Walker as she entered her office, which was neat and airy. It overlooked a quiet side street situated a little distance from the heart of the City of London. She could have let this success go to her head but she carried on in her normal unpretentious fashion as prospects opened up for the routine criminal trials for assaults and robberies. She was greeted by her warm-hearted mumsy secretary who organized her work with quiet efficiency.
"I've given your files and all your work a good spring clean. There's not much to look at which is just as well as you look tired."
Claire smiled freely at the other woman's thoughtfulness. It enabled her to look at the papers with a clear conscience. She rifled through the typical respectable broadsheet, which had devoted a small column on page 7 to the case.
FREE AT LAST
"There were sensational developments at the Court of Appeal over Ms Wade's original sentence for killing DC Gossard. Lawyers acting for Ms Wade have been challenging her conviction for murder. Fresh evidence was presented so that the original conviction for murder was reduced to manslaughter. Ms Wade, having served a three-year sentence has left the court a free woman. Ms Wade was quoted as saying 'It goes without saying that I'm delighted to be set free. Prison's a terrible place. People don't know the half of what goes on. There's male officers employed on female residential wings, abusing vulnerable women.' A spokesman for the Home Office was unavailable for comment."
She sighed with mild exasperation at the modest placing in the reporting of the day's news. The case must matter more than the editor thought. Next, she took out the tabloid and immediately, she wished she hadn't. Her stomach heaved when the spiteful vindictive headline assaulted her sentence. The article, which followed, was sheer prejudice, dressed up in polite language.
CONSTERNATION AS LESBIAN COP KILLER IS FREED.
"The controversial decision of the Court of Appeal to free Miss Wade, notorious cop killer, into the community has given grave cause for concern. She had been jailed for life for a particularly cold-blooded murder of a well-respected member of the police force which expert opinion considered was a particularly open and shut case. Sources close to the Home Secretary questioned just how much licence the judges should have in the modern age when traditional authority is flouted and the streets of England are not safe from crime. If judges are unable to keep their more irresponsible members in order, then it may be the case that legislation may be needed to curtail their powers."
Claire threw the paper away. She remembered the original lurid reporting of Nikki's original trial and life sentence on page 1 of this tabloid. It was obvious that they were eager to pander to the bigoted audience it imagined to exist out there whereas in reality, it fed them with the poison which it had given them the appetite for.
Some distance away, other equally concerned eyes studied the newspaper with great concern.
"I don't like the look of this one bit," fumed John Deed in his chambers as his hands crumpled the newspaper.
Coope, his personal assistant had, of course, seen the newspaper and looked on in some concern. Her approach to him was somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, her attitude was somewhat maternal as if he were her wayward son who could recklessly get himself into trouble, both in his personal and professional life. On the other hand, her astute nature enabled her to secure through the listings office cases that she knew ought to come his way. They made a good combination as her superficially serious and correct manner concealed her talent for the creatively unorthodox. She had maintained her position with the tenacity of a limpet and so far, Lawrence James had not detached her from her master. One ace that she had up her sleeve was that there was no other personal assistant that would fit John Deed's idiosyncratic ways.
She was not surprised that John suddenly got up to his feet and strode out of his chambers with that suggestion of violence of manner. His face was set hard with anger as he headed for the chambers of a fellow judge, Monty Everard, who raised his eyebrows as John burst in, brandishing the newspaper.
"Have you seen what the gutter press is saying about the Nikki Wade trial?"
Monty Everard was a stiff natured, touchy man who was reasonably willing to help grease the wheels of the machinery of justice and not rock the boat. It was no secret that he regarded John Deed as a bit of a maverick.
"If the press are giving us a lashing, then it could be argued that some of your outlandish judgments have given them ready ammunition."
"Monty, will you listen to a reasoned point of view. For once, this article does not relate to a case that I handled or influenced in any way. You can hardly say that Huntley is the sort of judge that likes upsetting the apple cart."
"Like you John."
"Be that as it may, Huntley must have had very good reason to make the judgment as he did. He could have possibly pushed it further as I might have done. This isn't an attack on me but all of us."
"You mean,'all for one and all for one,'" scoffed Monty.
"Well, it could be you next time. Just how comfortable are you with making a judgment and being sniped at in the press? You can hardly say that our beloved Home Secretary is our natural defender and you know that the Lord Chancellor will sit on the fence. These days, we are right out there in the open."
Monty Everard paused for reflection. He had a contempt for the press, the gutter press most of all and also disliked public controversy. He knew Huntley and had to admit that the man was sound. If the Times had denounced Deed, it wouldn't have come between him and his sleep as Deed positively courted and relished controversy. Huntley was different.
"We must seek out Joseph Channing and make some preliminary enquiries though I don't exactly want to make a public spectacle where it isn't needed," he pronounced in measured tones.
John let the other man lead the way to his former father in law. Relations between the two of them were frosty, both on the personal level and in their political outlooks. He laid the blame on John in the breakdown of the marriage of his beloved daughter and considered that the man let his emotions ruin his understanding and application of the law.
"What can I do for you, Monty? Oh, I see John is with you."
"Is that a problem, Joe?"
"No, oh no, you can both take a seat, take a seat. A cup of tea perhaps or would you prefer something stronger?"
Joe Channing was disconcerted by the challenge and ingrained courtesies automatically covered took over. His favourite tipple was finest malt whisky. Monty accepted the offer with a gleaming eye while John declined. In matters of food and drink, he was perversely abstemious in relation to both his restless nature and likewise the general preference of his peers for hard liquor. His manner was that of some old time actor and he rumbled when he spoke with a very expressive intonation in his voice, a million miles away from the standard BBC announcer
"I suppose you've come about that article in the gutter press?"
"We have, Joe. It raises some cause for concern."
"As you know, I never pay heed to the gutter press as a rule. I'd lay odds that it was some junior hack flying a kite. After all, it says 'sources close to the Home Office.' It does not name him. He probably made it all up to boost sales as they'd had a bad week. Sensation sells those kind of papers, that and page 3."
John rolled his eyes and chafed impatiently while the other two men had that disinterested abstracted manner of an Oxford debating society. For all their learning, they seemed to be political innocents. In their efforts to further their careers, they were blind to the steadily encroaching power of the establishment.
"You think so?" asked Monty, willing to be reassured.
"I'm positive. Some hothead will be carpeted by his editor and he will know how to behave himself in future."
Murmuring sounds of mutual reassurances signified the concensus on the matter. At that point, John decided that he had to spoil the party.
"What if the journalist got a tip off from the Home Secretary to judge if he could chance their arm."
"It wasn't in the Times," proclaimed Joe Channing, self-importantly.
"There is a world that exists outside the Times. In any case, conspiracies are never launched on their front page. It gives away the advantage of surprise."
"Stuff and nonsense."
"So if I am the victim of an over active imagination and my suggestion is so absurd, it won't do any harm to have a quiet word with Neil Haughton. It would set my mind at rest so that I can adopt a cool, relaxed approach to the world," John urged in silken tones.
They were trapped. Monty and Joe Channing exchanged glances, expressing their discomfort.
"Perhaps I might make the approach as I am the most concerned of the three of them."
"You will not," argued Joe Channing with twice the force of character than he appeared to have on first acquaintance. It was fear of the consequences that roused him to action. "I will ask him myself. I think that I can trust to my sense of diplomacy than yours. There are ways of handling these delicate matters."
John let it go. He could do no more and his concern was that the minister would have all the false guile of a second hand car salesman. The problem was that Joe Channing wanted to believe there was nothing untoward.
"Bastards," snapped Nikki concisely in disgust. "They never give up do they."
"Hush now sweetheart," Helen urged. "That's the establishment throwing the rattle out of his pram. The case didn't go the way they wanted so they're venting their spleen at you. You're free and you've got the job you were after. In a day or two's time, all it will be used for is wrapping up fish and chips and that hack journalist will find something else to write about. Forget about them and move on."
The tensions in her body evaporated as Helen embraced her. She was right. They weren't worth bothering about.
Joe Channing had mixed emotions in setting off with Monty to confront Neil Haughton. He was an elderly patrician whose lifetime orbit of the judiciary made him feel ill equipped in dealing with the ruthless men of the political world. It was not what he was accustomed. At one time, everyone knew his place and the system moved forward in an amiably paced fashion. Everyone he knew went to the right schools and universities and it was a guarantee of good behaviour. He was uncomfortably aware that his world had been taken over, a bit at a time, and life was changing, going to the dogs as that old fashioned phrase had it. He was only half convinced of the necessity of the visit. Surely some grubby little hack had been acting over zealously. Monty wasn't really relishing the occasion and both men greeted John curtly when he strolled into the room.
"I can see that you are both worried. Perhaps I can also come along for the ride," John added in soft, nonchalant tones.
"That is likely to make matters worse. You know that he loathes the sight of you and your quarrels with George haven't improved your standing," snapped Joe Channing testily, his eyebrows riding up and down.
"Is that my standing in Haughton's eyes? I never knew that he was such an exemplar and a paragon of virtue," drawled John deliberately lightly.
"If you do the talking, you will get nowhere with him. It needs someone with a sense of diplomacy, some savior faire," Joe insisted.
John could sense that the other man was digging in his heels and offered an option that he could get away with.
"I suggest a fair compromise, Joe. I'll stay in the background and only make a few helpful suggestions, only if I absolutely have to. I can be discreet if I want to."
"Just remember, John that the status of the negotiating team is decided by status," Monty cut in nastily." That makes you a definitely junior member of this group."
John thrust his hands in his pocket and nodded calmly. He had a feeling that he could insinuate his presence no matter what the other two had decided. He agreed to tag along with the others- for the moment while Joe made the necessary phone call.
Joe hailed down a black cab and directed it to Neil Haughton's offices in the new block of offices outside the Houses of Parliament. They were duly frisked at the entrance to ensure that they weren't international terrorists while John took in the opulence of modern brickwork and glass, and the dining areas where no expense was spared. They zoomed up on the lift, were shown to the first room on the right and entered.
"Ah Joe," Neil greeted them, a dazzling smile on his face and hand outstretched, greeting first Joe and then Monty. His smile stayed frozen on his face but his eyes turned cold as John came into view and his greeting perfunctory. Joe took the chair nearest the Minister.
"Ahem, ahem, we've come to see you on a rather delicate matter which we hoped a friendly chat might resolve amicably."
"That's what I'm here for," came the utterly insincere reply in his best soothing tones.
"Quite by chance, we caught sight of a front page article in a gutter rag. We thought that possibly, some overenthusiastic cub reporter got overexcited but some of us thought it would be best to check, from the horses mouth as it were."
The slippery man's mind immediately put two and two together and waited to see what this old dodderer wanted.
"I'm only too happy to put your minds at rest if I possibly can."
There was a pause as the Minister's reply only served to confuse Joe Channing further. Monty was no help in coming to the aid of the party while John longed to jump in with both feet.
"It's that it was suggested that there were suggestions to restrict the right of judges to pass sentence. Now, you know that, if such an idea were serious, it would upset some of the brethren. They would feel unsettled, yes unsettled.
"Now, now, Joe, I can assure you that I at any rate have no plans to curtail the power of judges. They have a very right and very proper function in upholding the rule of law. Where would we be without their learned ways?" Neil pronounced, visibly fitting the frame of a television party political broadcast round himself.
"The article did quote 'sources close to the Home Secretary.'" Monty said mildly.
"Well, you're talking to the genuine article and I can give you my personal assurance that is simply no reason to make any changes. What's the point, I ask you?"
"You can?" a very flustered Joe Channing said, totally taken aback. He was prepared for a bit of an argument and now the wind was taken clean out of his sails.
"I'm always having problems with the press in getting just a bit over zealous. Someone, somewhere in the vast department that I run floats a suggestion off the top of his head and, next day, the press are door stepping me about a matter which I haven't the faintest idea about it."
"Dear me, how very inconvenient." John said at last, fighting a losing battle with his urge to give voice and let rip.
"Yes, very," Neil replied in a less oily tone of voice, struggling to suppress his feelings of anger. It was the stock in trade of his profession to trade honesty of self expression for material advantage.
"I'd pass the word round that there is plenty of room for a natural understanding between the Home Office and the learned judges of this country. All of us are there to help the hard working men and women, yes and children too, to sleep peacefully in their beds tonight."
"And how do you see the work of the prison service," John slipped in his retort just before an overflow of fuzzy bonhomie could sweep all before them." Just out of interest."
"Well, I won't beat about the bush. I've only recently taken over and I can see that there is a misplaced liberalism in the higher echelons of the home office, an over concern with prisoner's rights. It's all very well in its way but it tends to overlook with the rights of victims. It's of great personal concern to me, from the letters I receive from my constituents, and I intend to make this my personal crusade."
"Quite," mouthed Joe Channing, smiling nervously." So long as we have an understanding."
"Oh yes, we understand each other very well. I'd like to talk longer but I really have to get on with my work. The life of a busy minister never ends, you know."
Joe exchanged glances with Monty and, after a little while, both raised themselves to their feet in stages. John sprang to his feet. He wanted to get out into clean, unpolluted air and with congenial company but couldn't resist one parting shot.
"Oh, next time you see George, tell her that I enjoyed my last meeting with her."
Neil Haughton looked murderously at John, his false veneer being brutally stripped from him, revealing the petty minded, vindictive, egomaniac for all to see. It wasn't an attractive sight but John wasn't expecting any better.
John smiled impishly and headed for the door followed by an apologetic Joe and Monty. Everyone remained silent until they got through security and then the two other men rounded on John.
"Did you have to aggravate that man after we were doing so well to create a harmonious working relationship and preserve our independence. Just out of petty spite, you risk jeopardizing our position."
"That was shoddy behaviour, John, damned shoddy." Monty stormed.
John laughed out loud. The matter was serious but he needed some light relief.
"We have let that man bamboozle the pair of you with a promise that isn't worth the weight of air that it is breathed upon. An utter reactionary will set his foot on the prison service and will bind us to his project. Surely, you could see what he was getting despite his weasel words. You two have given notice that you will be craven accomplices."
"Now, now, John, you are going too far. You are letting your emotions get the better of you."
"Time will tell," John shot back at the other two." What I'm gravely afraid of is that 'that man' will make his moves, bit by bit, and you and the others won't see it until its too late. If nothing else, do you really want the apparatchiks of the LCD telling you how to do your job?"
John could see that he had struck a chord. He could see that they were both having second thoughts and becoming uncomfortably aware that they had got less out of the conversation than they had thought. The problem was they didn't want to lose face.
"We'll think about it John. It would be unfair and unwise not to pay heed to your remarks."
"And if they cross that line which I think I sense that both of you have marked out, you will consider that sterner action is required?" pursued John relentlessly.
"If the time is right, should the need arise, John," Joe Channing finally conceded, half annoyed and half alarmed at the frightening vista John opened up before his eyes.
"I shall hold you to your word on this," John said, his presence commanding in the power of his words. The edicts of the Old School Tie, unwritten but nonetheless all powerful, spoke through John's voice. Yes, they had committed themselves, however vaguely and reluctantly.
Hours later, John lay on the sofa on his front lounge. He was eating the last remnants of a Chinese takeaway, in defiance of the meat and mashed potato diet and because he felt like it. His eyes were glued to an old black and white American western and gunfire and shouts echoed in the front room and held him captivated. He had a positive weakness for such films.
"Are you trying to make your position even more untenable than it is already?"
The female voice that burst in on his consciousness from somewhere above him broke his concentration. That aristocratic anger and the lack of consideration could have come from only one person, John's ex wife George (short for Georgia) Channing and mother of their child Charlie Deed. George was a QC but engaged in the highly lucrative field of civil cases, having earned a solid reputation as a tenacious and dependable advocate.
She had longish blond hair, a curved aristocratic nose, large blue eyes, a short temper and a willful personality. She and John had parted acrimoniously some years ago yet it did not stop John from admiring her elegant figure and flirting outrageously with her to defuse her anger.
"You mean, my encounter with Lover Boy and hearing his not so subtle megalomaniac plans to shackle the judiciary to the over mighty executive."
"That's not what Daddy told me," George retorted defiantly, rising to the bait that John dangled in front of her in his sneering, sarcastic reference to the all-powerful Minister.
"The man is a modern day politician, someone whose ethics would fit inside a matchbox, with all the matches left inside it. Don't believe a words he says, just unscramble his twisted and inadequate version of the English Language."
"Oooohhh," stormed George in a fit of rage with the sound of the Great Western hurtling through a railway tunnel at high speed at John's dig at her boyfriend." I suppose you think he is engaged in a 'conspiracy' like all those cranks who spout on about Kennedy's assassination. I suppose it pays some publisher a nice fortune."
"It sounds perfectly feasible. My concern is that too many of the brethren are insular, self-centred or have no stomach for a fight when needed," John replied in languid tones, still trying to watch the TV programme. George grabbed the TV remote control and clicked the programme off just to annoy John.
"You're only going to sound like some tiresome man carrying placards shouting out that 'The End of the World is Nigh," she retorted with heavy-handed sarcasm.
"You know, you're awfully attractive when you're angry. You've still got great legs." John silkily replied, lying on the sofa and looking up at her swirling green cocktail dress.
"You're still insufferable, John. I suppose that you have not listened to a single word I've been saying. Just this once I've given you good advice not to be so pompous and self righteous and there's nothing in it for me."
"You're quite right, I haven't listened, at least not to anything that you say to help Lover Boy."
"In which case, I have nothing more to say. Goodbye."
With that, George threw the remote control into a corner of the room and stormed out in a swirl of back draft.
John got up, retrieved the remote control and switched the programme back on.
To Nikki, things looked better in the morning. Before her sleepy eyes opened, she dreamed that she was back in Larkhall, lying on a thin hard bunk and discoloured scratchy blankets on top of her and facing the drab yellow brickwork of the opposite wall. Instead, her world changed so that she was floating on a soft white double bed and a fresh white duvet rested gently on her skin. Most delicious of all, Helen's straight nose, soft cheeks, parted lips and straight brown hair faced her. Nikki lay back in their bed sighing with relief. Everything was normal in her world, reassuring. She could forget about the newspapers as Helen said quite rightly. They were history while their future was just opening out around them. She glanced sideways and the intensely cold November sky looked through a gap in the curtain at them. She cuddled up close to Helen and drifted off happily to sleep.
First thing in the morning was bright and cheerful. They each sipped a steaming hot mug of coffee while condensation ran trickles of moisture down the windows. Nikki's heart was so full to bursting that the words came out of her.
"I'm just so happy, darling. I never thought that life could be so perfect."
"You must know how amazing it has been in just a few days living with you. We can go for a walk if we want to, go to the pictures, go to a pub and do the sort of ordinary things couples just take for granted? Everything has been so magical, like walking on air. Everything seems so brand new. At one time, the prospect frightened me- you remember when we kissed and cuddled in the library?"
Nikki smiled warmly. She remembered. What was fascinating was how the words just poured out of Helen in a stream of emotion.
"You're a completely different lover to anyone I've ever known."
"I hope you mean better "
"You've always been so honest with me, whether I've liked it or not. I know now that it's the only way to be. I feel different, talk different and act differently than I've ever been before but it's taken a lot of getting used to."
"You're talking about men," Nikki answered eagerly but there was a lurking fear in her eyes, which Helen spotted straightaway.
"This is important, Nikki. I have to stay with this one while it's on my mind. Bear with me."
The gently pressure on Helen's hand from Nikki's reassured her.
"You must know that, if I have a fault, I'm a bit of a flirt. I can't understand or explain it. It meant with my looks and not knowing better, the boyfriends in my past. I can see now that what I was doing was playing a part, of acting in the way that I expected men would want me to be to be attractive. The other half of me that really wanted to prove myself and do some good in the world ..I really used to be a pretty mixed up girl." Helen added dazedly, shaking her head. She had never revealed herself so much but, curiously, the words came quicker to her lips than her mind could digest the implications.
"Playing a part, that's what I was doing with men. If they got too close or possessive, it made me back off. 'There's plenty of fish in the sea,' 'I'm young, a carefree single girl,'
I used to tell myself. I never questioned why I behaved that way. I now know the reason why. I never knew what love is- till I met you."
Nikki felt weak at the knees when the full intensity of the other woman's emotions looked right into her own eyes. Helen placed her forefinger on Nikki's lips. There was no need for answering.
"It meant that I had to unlearn everything I knew about relationships and take a step, a large number of steps into the unknown. That is what scared me. Deep down, I knew what I needed to do but the rest of me took a long time to catch up. Old habits die hard."
"Let's face it. We never had much of a chance to go somewhere private and talk things over the way we now can if we want to."
"You bet ..which means that we have to talk about our past."
Nikki's blood was chilled by the quiet determination in Helen's voice. She knew that the other woman meant every word that she said. The last week had been deliriously happy and serene, all her dreams come true and she didn't want anything to spoil it.
"Do we really have to?" Nikki asked wearily.
"We don't have to but you and I both know that we've had a rocky road to get to where we are now."
"That may have been true some of the time but what are you getting at?"
"So both of us got hurt along the way. It isn't a blame thing. We need to heal old wounds, not put sticking plaster over them. I want us to be in the position that nothing holds us back again, ever. I want nothing so much in my life as the rest of my life living with you."
"And you think this is necessary?" questioned Nikki though she flushed slightly at Helen's bold declaration of faith in their future. Helen had changed markedly ever since she had got out of Larkhall. She expressed herself straightforwardly and exposed her emotions in bold simple unmistakable colours.
"I could never order you to do this. I voluntarily gave up that power that I had over you when we met outside your club. I'm simply asking you."
"So where do we start?" Nikki asked, fumbling for a cigarette. She needed something to calm her nerves. In turn, Helen's eyes flicked nervously round the room before closing them and gathering her thoughts together.
"When we were at Larkhall, we had to watch every step, how certain it was that someone or other would come through the door and risk us being 'outed.' I felt that I had to wear a permanent rubber mask and almost pretend to be someone else so that I could keep my hands off you. The only faint trace she had ever had of anything like normal was when we first slept together."
"So what went wrong, Helen? I know I completely lost it when I had that mad idea of going on the run to San Francisco. You were right to drag me back to Larkhall. What you didn't know was how much being on the outside of those gates suddenly went to my head. On top of that, all those dreams I had of wanting you came true. You've no idea of how the combination of the two felt to me."
Helen was taken aback by Nikki's words. She had never really thought just what it might be like to be shut up as a prisoner. It was all around her but she had never made that imaginative leap. Nikki's actions made the sense that she could feel rather than some abstract psychological condition that she had read as part of her degree.
"I never really thought you're right, Nikki", came her halting reply.
"That's the first time you've said that, Helen darling," came her grinning reply, which made Helen laugh.
"There's a lot of things I'm doing for the first time," came the wry answer. It helped unlock her thoughts as that interchange helped them break the riddle of what had really gone down between them. The craziness of the riot, for one, started to make sense, as they talked. Together, each one laid a piece in the puzzle that the other one hadn't known of. So Nikki really didn't mean to betray Helen's incredible hard work to get the petition for granting Nikki's appeal as there were reasons why she acted as she did. So Helen's remoteness from Nikki was more comprehensible when seen through her eyes. More than anything else how ironical it was that each of them was trying to contain the madness that had been unleashed from opposite ends.
"What you didn't know Nikki," said Helen thoughtfully," was just what it took to manoeuvre the petition through the home office. You take a look at the wider picture. You'll remember that I came back to Larkhall doing reports into just why Britain has the highest proportion of women lifers in Europe. Therefore, there are those in the Home Office with my kind of politics and yours when I come to think of it. You're only going to ask a particular question when you suspect there may be an answer and not one that the 'hang them and flog them' brigade want to hear. Then again, there were those in the Home Office that welcomed some young keen progressive getting to reshape how prisons should be run. I wouldn't have got my chance unless someone on high was willing to give me a chance, especially as I never hid my opinions and especially when I got the job of acting Governing Governor. On the other hand, there are the reactionaries. You remember when Shell, Denny and Shaz escaped? There was an enquiry led by Area and I came under the spotlight when this very dodgy diary written by Shell Dockley was in their hands."
"Dockley writing a diary? Some chance," exclaimed Nikki in disgust.
"There was a definite attempt to stitch me up and no guesses as to which bastard helped her out. However, he overreached himself and they had to look around for another scapegoat, first ensuring that no blame attaches itself to them. I remember those two very hard-faced investigators, Alison Warner being one of them and the more dangerous of them being typical of some of those at the top of the shit heap. They have this outlook that, once they make a decision, they can't be seen to back down. They have this completely macho outlook on being tough on crime and are the last people to present a petition to. The worst of it was that I was working in the dark. I never knew that the person who I thought would be best to approach was going to slam the door in our faces. Once you make a false move, there's no retrieving that step. I was just incredibly lucky to chance upon that opening and made contact with the right people."
"Jesus, I never knew it was that hard. So that's why you got so angry with me."
"It's all right, sweetheart," Helen whispered tenderly as she instinctively clasped the other woman to her chest. She allowed a decent interval to elapse before plunging onwards. She was feeling more certain of the way ahead.
"It shouldn't have been that way," exclaimed Helen angrily." I should have been able to make a straight professional approach and had the case heard fairly on the merits of the case."
"So I really did risk screwing up my appeal."
"You did what you had to do, Nikki. I was in such a wierd position. On the one hand, I had had to struggle so hard with the appeal and the rest of the shit that went down at Larkhall, including Fenner sexually assaulting me and not being able to do a damned thing about it, to finally get all the authority I ever dreamed of from when I first joined the prison service. Everything went to my head until the riot blew up in my face. Then you look off with Caroline "
"The less said about her, the better. I really got used " came the terse reply.
"I couldn't make head not tail of what was going on and Thomas Waugh was around."
Helen could almost feel the sharp intake of breath on her arm. This was the trickiest area to negotiate.
"So, about Thomas," Helen added with more firmness than she felt. She couldn't help feeling the other woman's jumpiness as she held her in her arms. She let Nikki move away a little distance from her as she knew that it was important for Nikki look at her as well as hear her.
"I've only just worked out what I ever saw in him which I never knew at the time. Do you know just how similar he is to you? He's got that same gentle irony, he cares, he's got principles and he's got a fiery temper when he needs to."
"Worse than me," Nikki asked incredulously. She had only observed him in a handful of situations and her immediate reaction was that he was no fool. She was pleasantly startled by the way the conversation was going and knew that there was no one better placed than Helen to make this comparison.
"The night that Thomas and I split up, just before I was going to order the salmon at some restaurant, I noticed that there was bruising on his knuckles. He said that he'd had a verbal run in with Fenner, just before I'd done the same on my way out of Larkhall. He'd made one wisecrack too many about the two of us and I wouldn't be surprised that he'd punched Fenner out."
"What? That's fantastic news," exclaimed Nikki, laughing.
"I thought that would cheer you up. Thomas has one big fault, though."
"And what's that?" enquired Nikki, casting her mental net around and overlooking what was right under her nose.
"The real problem with Thomas was that he is a man and he isn't you. He could never give me that shiver up the spine just to hear your voice. I went back to playing that part, the same as I ever did. He was happy enough in his role but I wasn't in mine. He was smart enough to realize what I'd been bottling up and told me in no uncertain terms that 'I wasn't being honest with myself.' He was right."
"So come on, what did you see in me," Nikki asked mischievously with a half smile on her lips
" Having arrived in the snake pit that was G wing, Larkhall, I knew that I needed allies. I told myself that you would make a great ally on the wing as the one person even more contemptuous of 'the old boy's system' and for the right reasons. I always respected and admired you from afar even if you were a pain in the arse "
The grin with which Nikki received such frankness was an enormous feeling of relief to her. Helen continued speaking slowly and deliberately, inscribing the air between them with all the heartfelt emotion within her.
" .It was when I saw the softer side of you that I really fell for you. I suppose that I've never really been in love till I met you only that it took time to work out what love is and for us to be safe to love each other as it is now."
"Come here, Helen."
That delicious feeling ran round Helen's system to hear those sultry tones. It was the height of pleasure to see those incredible eyes looking into her soul. Everything was cleansed, made whole despite verbalizing a lot of painful memories. She moved closer to Nikki and rejoiced in the glorious thought that nothing and no one could stop them.
Once again, Nikki stood outside the club, where she'd been only two weeks ago. So much had happened since then. She remembered Helen's feelings and hers of delirious excitement. They chattered away to each other to fill in the gaps of what they couldn't say in the past, of really getting to know each other. Most of all she recalled their passionate lovemaking. Somehow, this was different from every relationship she had ever entered into because, after all, they were good friends who had known each other for a long time. It was blindingly obvious to each of them from that intense discussion of a week ago just how incredibly constrained they had lived their lives and how deeply the prison officer / prisoner relationship had distorted the natural balance of their personalities at every turn. Above all, both women knew that, if they had somehow survived the incredible pressures on them, then they were well set up for the long haul.
It felt very strange to go further back in time and remember also that she and Trisha had set up this club years ago. What was still vivid in her mind was how much effort and toil she had put into it, just like anything else in her life. In particular, the 'Chix' emblem reminded her just how that emblem typified the union that there had been between them. They had worked so hard to scrape the money together and taken that dizzying step into launching their business with no guarentees of anything but bills to pay and the uncertainties that the income to cover them rested on their own efforts and nothing else. They had made a fine partnership as Trisha had a natural business flair and Nikki's experience of working pubs and clubs gave her the solid grounding in the practicalities of how a club operated. She remembered having given the bar counter one last nervous polish on opening night and wondered if she had done the right thing. Much to their surprise, the club had got off to a flying start as the money came rolling in. There had been more women amongst the teeming hordes of London and further afield who needed that place where they could be themselves and let their hair down after the working day. As she and Trisha found out in talking to them, there were so many of them who pretended to be someone else and were lonely amongst the crowds in which they worked.
As Nikki contemplated the past, she couldn't help thinking of the plain and ordinary concrete wall where she'd first kissed Helen, , the first time they were both on the outside of Larkhall. Someone ought to put up a blue plaque on the wall to show how sacred it is in their memories for whenever they passed that way, she thought to herself. This was where her future lay. She felt curiously and inwardly calm and relaxed for what she had to do yet her thoughts kept flitting about at random. Finally, Nikki addressed the here and now and turned her key in the lock to the front door to the club. The feel of the action was unfamiliar, as if she was speaking the words to a language she'd last spoken when she had studied it at school. She didn't feel more at home with it than when she had just got her freedom. It wasn't just that sense of dislocation in ceasing to be a prisoner. Nevertheless, she opened the door to do what she had to do.
Once inside, she peered through the gloom of the corner of the club. Silence hung on the air along with last night's tobacco fumes. It was the time to clean up after the celebrations of the night before. A faint trace of the routine wafted its way through to Nikki's consciousness but only a trace. So many nights had been passed in dancing and drinking while she had been away. Nikki stared at every corner of the club as it brought back memories yet she knew that they felt disjointed from the woman that she now was. That was the problem.
"Hi ,Nik," Trisha called out from the neighbourhood of the bar. It was where she had last seen her, drinking from a bottle of Moet to drown her sorrows while Nikki shot out to catch up with Helen and hope she wasn't too late.
"Hi Trisha. The place hasn't changed much, hey."
"You probably have."
Nikki nodded silently, her thoughts floating away from the here and now. Trisha was right on the mark. The bare austerity of Larkhall and the mixture of shared hardships and naked injustices had seeped into her soul. It made her past existence as the party girl she used to be as something unreal. Lying in Helen's arms at night and exploring the wide open world that she offered distanced her from her past most of all. In all her most secret dreams in her bare bunk at Larkhall, she had never guessed the nature of Helen's passionate love for her, finally laid bare.
"You have something pleasant on your mind, Nik. I can read you like a book. It must be Helen."
"I'm living with her, if that's what you mean. I don't suppose you are surprised by that." Nikki replied, mixing with her customary honesty with a flicker of embarrassment at the way Trisha behaved. She couldn't stop the muscles in her face flinching at delivering a straight answer.
"No, I'm not."
"It isn't some kind of fling," Nikki said defensively.
"I never thought it was. I know you, Nik. I got the feeling that night you were released that you really weren't back with me as soon as you came into the club. You looked like a fish out of water. The moment that Helen came to talk to you, I knew it for certain. I could feel it. I could have kept quiet and said nothing but I would have only been laying more trouble for myself in the long run. I wasn't being noble and self sacrificing when I pushed you away in her direction. I was really thinking of myself." Trisha responded with more firmness and decisiveness in her voice than she felt.
"I'm glad we understand each other."
"You've come to see me and it's not just to talk about the old times."
Nikki looked embarrassed and then took in everything that Trisha was saying. She might as well not beat about the bush and get to the point.
"I've got a problem that I need to make a living. It would be obvious to take my place back here running the club with you but ."
"Would you really want it or would I want you to?"
"You've obviously had three years running the club on your own while I've been away. I remember you saying that you're doing very well. You've learnt to manage without me."
"Not altogether but I'll manage," Trisha interjected, not successfully keeping her feelings out of her voice." .but that's not really why you came to see me."
"Ah yes," came Nikki's uncertain reply."When we used to work the club together, we were working the same shifts together and no matter how weird the hours, we always had the time together when we needed it. We both know that there isn't a future in me coming back to the club and I'm doing a job on normal hours, the same as Helen. It isn't much, seeing as I've still got a prison record but I could do with my share of the money from the club."
"You want me to buy out your share, Nik?"
"Something like that, less the three grand I've had already."
Trisha smiled faintly. Nikki's fearless honesty had that ability to move her from way back. Best not to dwell on it or I'll only regret it, she thought to herself.
"I can afford it, Nik, I've been doing fine in the last few years, better than in the old days when we were struggling. The gay scene has gone semi overground in the last few years. The Pink Pound and all that."
"I'm really glad."
"Give me a chance to go over the books and see how much of a bank loan I need to raise. Leave it to me."
A heavy silence hung upon the air. This felt like the final stages in what an amicable divorce hearing would sound like in the straight world. Everything sounded so incongruously civilized to Nikki. In the past, her break ups with previous partners had been emotional and acrimonious and her temporary rifts with Helen had been the same. This was something new.
"What will you do with the rest of your life, Trisha?" Nikki finally enquired with gentle concern written all over her face.
'Oh, I'll get along. I'm having a great time with the club, making lots of money out of it. I get to enjoy myself every night, whatever new experiences come my way. Right now, I'm just a happy go lucky single woman."
Nikki's brown eyes looked straight into Trisha's soul, She could see through the falsity of Trisha's smile and felt sad for the other woman. Right now, she felt that she had all the luck and that Trisha had none.
"Hey, Nik, you've got your life to get on with. You deserve some good luck coming your way especially the last few years. You don't have to worry about me."
"So we'll still be friends."
"Would we be anything else but?"
Nikki briefly kissed Trisha on the cheek, gave her a quick reassuring hug and turned on her heel. She emerged from the darkness into the bright light. Trisha was right. Helen was waiting for her and their future together.
Just when Claire thought that she would settle back into a humdrum life, she received a phone call from Jim Patterson, her senior partner to pop into his office.
"We've got a case fresh in which will be right up your street. It's a rape case and as it is more of a woman thing, I thought you'd be the one to take it. Besides that, it's a little bit controversial as the offender is well connected."
What he really means is that he and the other men are squeamish and, if the case goes pear shaped, I'll bear the blame, Claire thought cynically. .
Claire was a self-possessed woman, not given to displays of public emotion, but as soon as she met the mother and daughter, her heart went out to them, sitting tensely the other side of her table. She suspected that the file before her only told half the story. The mother's face was written in lines of anxious worry and that sideways glance at her daughter never stopped, even when she faced Claire. Despite her makeup, there were dark smudges under the daughter's eyes and her hands trembled and fidgeted as she talked. Her smart clothes, too, were only there to cover up her nerves.
"I'm Claire Walker. I've been assigned to your case but I'm here to help and advise you as best as I can. In order to do that I need to ask you to take me through what happened that night but feel free if and where you want your mother to help you out."
"Isn't everything there in the statement my Zoë made to the police? They interrogated her for long enough," butted in the mother, with a dash of aggression.
"You must understand that written statements only take me so far. They're phrased in police language. I want to hear your story in your words, not theirs. If you really want to go ahead with the prosecution and there's enough of a case- you'll end up telling the story more than once."
"It's all right, mum, I have to do it" came the soft reply from the daughter, as she sat upright in the chair instead of slouching in it. "Where do you want me to start?"
"From the beginning, Zoë and take your time."
"I split up with my boyfriend a few weeks ago. We'd been having rows about him spending more time with his mates rather than me. Of course, I found out that he'd been seeing someone else, hadn't he."
"It hit her hard."
"After a while, I'd had enough just watching the box and hanging round my bedroom. I was supposed to meet a couple of my mates at a new pub that one of us had heard of. I found myself outside on my own as somehow, I missed the phone messages that they had gone elsewhere as the battery on my mobile had run low .. so I found myself in a strange bar with nobody I knew .."
Zoë Carson looked frail and young for her age as she hesitated and took a sip of the glass of water before her. It didn't necessarily mean that she was thirsty.
"It was actually on the tip of my tongue to forget about it, to go back home but I didn't want to. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and this nice fair haired, clean cut man smiled at me and started chatting me up. In no time at all, he bought me a drink and I felt great. My depression went straight out of the window. It was what I thought I needed."
"Because of what Alan Partridge was like? What sort of impression did he make on you," interjected Claire softly.
Zoë stopped to pause for reflection, a thoughtful expression on her face.
"He was real posh, very fresh faced, a bit like Prince Andrew or how I've seen him in the papers. He spoke with a public school accent. He didn't look like the average lad you met in a pub. He was polite, considerate or so I thought."
"Were you attracted to him?"
"I I don't know. He was nice. I just wanted some company and he was good to talk to. I didn't think anything more about that."
"Can you tell me how he reacted?"
"I thought he was just playing it cool. That's why I felt safe. He played everything cool in the way he talked about everything. He didn't get worked up about anything."
"So that's how the evening went, just talking and drinking. Can you remember how many drinks you had?"
"I had four vodkas and tonics. Yeah, I'm sure of it."
"How did you feel at the end of the evening, Zoë?"
"I felt happy, mellow, in control of myself, certainly not legless. No way."
"So what happened next?"
"When we went out of the pub, he insisted he'd drive me home."
"After drinking all night in a pub? How many drinks had he had?"
"He'd only had a couple. I remember that, as I was so pleased that I'd not been picked up by some guy who was out of his face. I though it showed that he was responsible."
"Did you think you ought to take a taxi home, that you oughtn't to get into a car with a strange man whom you'd only just met? I'm sorry to ask this question but I'm playing Devil's Advocate and asking you an obvious question you'll be asked on the stand."
The girl coloured slightly but otherwise retained her composure. Her mother squeezed her hand to comfort her and smiled slightly at Claire. That meant that she was being forgiven for her intrusive question and that her good faith wasn't being doubted.
"I don't accept lifts back like you say. I normally walk through town with my mates for safety's sake and travel back in a taxi with them. First my mates didn't show up after I hadn't been out for ages. I'm young and going out is all what it's about ..anyway, I suppose I agreed to get into the car was because I thought he was a gentleman. I thought that just for once, I was safe."
Claire allowed a pause in the conversation. The girl was holding up well but she didn't want to push her too far and too much.
"So what happened when you started to make your way back, Zoë?"
"If you mean, did we have a kiss or a cuddle along the way, the answer is no. He just asked me the directions to my house and we set off. We set off along the main streets in a straight line for home."
"You're sure of that?"
"Perfectly sure. It was only when we came up to a turn off to a well known 'lover's lane' spot, a patch of woodland and high fences when he suddenly swung off down the lane. That took me totally by surprise."
"How do you know it was a lover's lane, Zoë? Is that from direct experience? This is an important question."
Zoë blushed as her mother's sharp eye was on her. Her eyes flickered round the room until a sudden resolution forced out the confession.
"I used to go there with my ex-boyfriend but not at once. I mean I knew him and, idiot though he is, I did at least know him enough to realize that it was safe. I don't just throw myself at men. I'm not some kind of slapper."
"You're a good girl, Zoë. I always knew you were," added her mother in soothing, reassuring tones. Strangely enough, that released the dam of tears that had been building up and her mother put her arm round her shoulders. A flickering look of gratitude was directed at Claire from Zoë's mother for respecting her silence when the flood of tears dried up.
"You're doing fine, Zoë. I've learnt far more about this case than I could ever hope to understand. I've got to come to the hard part of the story and I have to ask you to tell it but before you start, can you tell me if there was any change in his manner as he drove?"
"I, I don't really know. I had the feeling when I talked to him in the bar that he was a nice reasonable guy. Suddenly, I found myself with this creepy stranger who wasn't going to listen to me. I got the feeling of what he was after and wasn't going to accept no for an answer. I started shouting at him that we were going the wrong way and to let me out of the car. He totally ignored me and sped down the lane right to the end.
It all happened so fast. He never said a thing to me, just ripped at my dress and .He had his hand over my face ..He was so strong. There was nothing I could do about it .."
At that moment, Claire twitched slightly. Those words had a real resonance for her. This was precisely what Sally Anne Howe had said in court, and before that when Claire had first talked to her. This account was distinct because the experience was more recent and this girl was so recently damaged. It made what she had heard from Sally that much more painful, even after that long heart to heart talk they'd had after the trial.
"I hurt down there when he had finished with me and only then did he speak.' You don't really think we weren't going to have some fun and games, do you?' he said in his coldest, most disdainful manner, as if what he did was perfectly reasonable. 'After all, that's what tarts like you really want. Come on, I'll drive you home.' He treated me just like a piece of meat."
"Did you let him drive you home?" Claire said in tones of utter horror. She could follow this story as if it were on a TV screen. Everything made sense in its horrific way.
"I was too terrified to cross him. I let him drive me the half mile home, told him where to pull up as if he was the most reliable taxi driver in the world, stumbled up to the front door and knocked on it for all I was worth."
Claire closed her eyes as the words trailed off. What had happened was too intense for her feelings to put it into words. It took her a while to switch back into professional solicitor mode of thinking and speaking. She had to do so to do the best for her client.
"Mrs Carson I was going to ask you a few questions. For a start, what sort of condition was Zoë when you first saw her."
"I've never seen her in such a state in all my life. She was crying her eyes out and totally hysterical. As for the state of her clothes, well it was obvious what had happened. I had to stay with her in her bedroom for a couple of hours before I phoned the police and the ambulance. My Zoë is a good girl. She would never have got into such a situation willingly."
Claire took a deep breath. She was fired up with the desire to push this case for all she was worth. This looked like another case for her and Marian Chambers to repeat their successful double act. The two women looked up at her with rising hope that perhaps their injustice wasn't going to be shunted aside by the justice system.
"It's all right. I believe everything you say and I'll do my level best to help get this criminal put away. You have my word on it. I'll keep in touch with you about the next step."
A look of fear crossed both women's eyes.
"We'll take it a step at a time. You have to think this way if you want the justice you both deserve."
Zoë shook her hand limply and her mother gave her a quick hug, Claire's mind was buzzing. She jumped to it and was soon hard at work scribbling up her notes and committing this to memory. There was most certainly a case and her witness was credible. After she finished, she realized that she needed fresh air more than she ever had done. It was just as well that she checked her watch just in time to remember her lunchtime meeting with Helen.
She swung out of the office and her heels clicked their way to the nearby Starbucks to which Helen was approaching from the opposite direction. They swung into the café and chose a quiet corner.
"You look surprisingly radiant especially just before Christmas and I'm only half way through Christmas shopping. I suppose it's leaving that ball and chain behind at Larkhall."
"Partly, Claire," Helen beamed back at her. "It's just that life feels pretty good right now."
Claire ran a close eye over her old friend as they ordered two café lattes. She hadn't understated Helen's well being to herself.
"I can only think of two reasons why you look on top of the world. You've got a partner who'll actually be good for you or else someone's left you a large fortune."
"You mean you've never liked my ex-partners, Claire?" Helen retorted with a challenging gleam in her eye.
"Do you really want me to be honest about them?"
"Feel free," Helen gestured with a broad grin on her face." I'm making a new start in life and they definitely belong to the past."
"Well," Claire began at a slow leisurely pace," they all had good looks and superficial charm but there just wasn't any substance to them."
"To be fair, the last one, Thomas was something of an exception ."
"I never knew him ."
" .but I can see now why I couldn't settle for any of them."
"And you think this time that things will be different. Instead of John, or Colin or Sean or Thomas, you have ."
"Obviously not as in Nikki Wade," murmured Claire automatically, without thinking until a curious mixture of anxiety and satisfaction on Helen's expressive features met her gaze. Claire couldn't believe it but her training placed logical observation ahead of expectation. A slow smile spread over her face as revelation dawned on her.
"My, you're a dark horse, Helen. I certainly didn't expect that one."
"Are you bothered that I benefited personally from pushing the appeal when it was a cause that I absolutely believed was right?"
"I know you of old, Helen, and I've always trusted to your sense of judgment of what was right or wrong. Why else do you think I took your case in the first place? You were always one for causes and I know that you would have pushed Nikki's appeal just as hard even if you weren't lovers," came Claire's decisive reply.
A soft slow smile spread over Helen's face, melting away that temporary anxiety. She liked the way Claire described them and that this was the first person she knew that approved of her union. The Starbucks café had that sense of wraparound intimacy of others chatting away over coffee. Her intimate confession was just one of the streams of conversations slowly wafting round the room like tobacco smoke.
"You've chosen well, Helen. Nikki impressed me what I saw of her. She has that very unusual mixture of feelings and strength and dignity about her. Yes, she is a big step up in the world by your standards, or anyone's come to think of it. It gives me some faith in humanity."
Helen caught that fleeting look of sadness in Claire's eye. Normally she didn't give that much away in her manner.
"What's wrong, Claire?"
"It's just that I've interviewed a client who was raped in a pretty brutal fashion. Her mother was with her trying to take away the daughter's pain but of course she couldn't. Some of my work makes me see the rough side of life, as I'm sure you'll know from the Prison Service. It's an occupational hazard."
"Tell me about it, Claire," agreed Helen in heartfelt tones.
"So hearing you being settled with Nikki gives me hope for the future."
There was a real glow on Helen's face. There was a lot about Claire that she hadn't known before. She had hidden depths.
"It's a shame we haven't seen more of each other than we have in recent years. I remember that you got drawn into Sean's crowd and then the Prison Service never gave you spare time, not the way you worked."
"We could do something about the future if we want it. I've more time on my hands than I used to."
"Perhaps you and Nikki care to come round for a quiet evening with me and Peter if that's all right with you both."
"That's excellent. I'm sure Nikki would be delighted." Helen beamed and even a rather tired, dispirited Claire was starting to feel whole again as she sat back in her chair. Then again, Helen's company always had the knack of cheering her up.
Helen's alarm clock rang shrilly out of their deep contented sleep to summons them both for the duties of their day. To Helen's perpetual surprise, Nikki slid out of bed as promptly as Helen had. There was natural sense of consideration about her, which was new to her experience. She couldn't help but make unfavourable comparisons with the way Sean always got in the way with all the time in his world which only wound her up all the more. They were just starting to settle into a new routine, of getting up and going to work and a completely fresh start for both of them.
Nikki looked in her part of the mirror as she, like Helen applied her make up. Everything she needed was set out neatly and compactly on her side of the dressing table. It came easily enough for her to share the space with Helen after three years of a bare rectangle of glass and her Spartan regime. Nikki promptly chose her favourite dark suit while Helen hovered indecisively which outfit to choose from. Nikki finally slid unobtrusively out of the bedroom towards the kitchen. Helen smiled to herself knowing that the other woman found it a novel experience going off to work for a regular nine to five job.
"Do you want a mug of coffee?" Nikki called out in her carrying voice.
That was a total novelty to her, Helen thought fondly, not to be chief cook, bottle washer and finder of various bits and pieces that she was supposed to know the location of.
"Yes please," Helen yelled back.
They sipped their drinks in that portion of time they allotted themselves to be the calm before the storm of an ordinary day at work and then they set off for Helen's red Peugeot.
Helen had quickly secured a well-paid job in the weeks after Larkhall while Nikki had had to devote all her efforts to getting a pretty mundane office job despite her hard won degree. It wasn't quite what she was looking for though Helen was heart warmingly enthusiastic for this bit of success. It gave her what she wanted, a job where at least they would be working the same side of the day.
Helen sat back in her seat, more relaxed than she ever had been in working her way through the busy London traffic. Nikki maintained a companionable silence, happy for Helen to do the driving. She'd been cloistered away for three years and she felt that both her driving skills and her knowledge of the streets was going to be a little rusty and was content to watch the world pass by her window. They both had the feeling that they were out there in the big wide world. She looked at the red London double decker busses lumbering their way while upwardly mobile steel grey cars and the inevitable much larger 4 wheel drives proclaimed their superiority in looking down on everyone around them. Finally, they got to Nikki's place of work and Helen gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Nikki shut the door to, watched Helen zoom off into the traffic and headed for the small flight of steps to the front door. All this was a new experience for her, and she felt as if, once again, she was the new girl on the block.
All the women wondered and speculated about their new boss. She was certainly glamorous enough and was forceful and decisive in work matters. Some of them tried to lead her into conversations and found Miss Stewart somewhat reticent about her personal life. Most women in the offices complained about the lack of help they got from their husbands and spoke at length about their offspring. The main topic of idle conversation were the soaps and how so and so was a right bitch and how much they fancied the new heartthrob on the block. All the celebrity magazines went on about what a hunk he was and they were right. The new boss kept up a glassy façade that responded nicely to everything but there was something different about her. They noticed that she didn't have any rings in her fingers and didn't chat about the same things as they did. The most that could be found out about her was that she once worked for the prison service but otherwise, she was a bit of a mystery. Some of the more inquisitive women were wondering about her, that there was something about her that they didn't know.
The women who worked with Nikki Wade were quietly and effectively told that, no she wasn't married, no she didn't have children and yes, that she had a partner and yes, her partner was female. She wanted to get that out of the way to make sure that she wasn't sailing under false colours. Speaking on a soft but determined tone, she explained that she was as content with her partner as they were with theirs and that, really, they weren't that much dissimilar from each other and should take a relaxed attitude about her. She got out a small photo frame with a picture of Helen and propped it up at the back of her working area, at the side of her computer. Yes, they could see that Helen looked really attractive, they said with a curious blank look in their eyes. The dark haired woman wearing a smart black suit was considerably puzzled to hear them moan on about if only they knew what husbands are like. You can't depend on them to do anything round the house and they have to do all the organizing, not that Nikki would know anything of course, they added tactfully. She refrained from asking why they got married in the first place and made soothing sympathetic noises. They had to admit that she picked up the job nicely and could be relied on to help out in an emergency, for example, if they had an awkward customer on the phone. She did have that way of quietening them down, they had to hand it to her.
John was taking his usual abstemious early morning cup of tea in his chambers first thing in the morning when Coope came forward with a suspicion of a sly grin on her face.
"Something up, Coope."
"I'm pleased to tell you that the Partridge rape case is coming your way."
John raised his eyebrows. The case involved the son of an important industrialist was one that was of considerable concern and potential to the establishment. His father was a colourful 'rags to riches' character who had risen to be one of the modern day wealth creating entrepreneurs that the present government favoured. True to form, his son had gone to the finest public school and had gained a reputation as a typical party going Hooray Henry. The unpleasant charge of statutory rape committed against a perfectly ordinary woman whose main weakness was an attraction to superficial charm promised to be controversial. John had made a safe bet that the case wouldn't be coming his way but would go to a judge who was considered to have a safe pair of hands and true to form, the case had ended up with Judge Hulme. John's suspicions were heightened when he had considered the suspicious run of uncontroversial cases, which had left him with plenty of time on his hands.
However, one of those quirks of fate had intervened and he had been taken ill and it meant that the workload would need to be shared round.
"May I ask you how you come to know this?"
"Oh, I went and fixed it with my friends in the listings office before anyone else could interfere," she said in perfectly nonchalant tones. It was as if his own passionate desire for justice had permeated into the mindset of the apparently solidly conventional middle-aged woman who worked for him. The reality was that she operated in defence of John with all the imperturbable subtleness of a modern day Jeeves.
"I'm sure that you'll give that poor woman the justice she's entitled to and that dreadful spoilt brat a lesson he deserves," she added just to make her purpose unmistakable.
"Why am I surprised to hear that you have made such an arrangement, Coope?"
"You shouldn't be, judge. You should know me by now. After all, I've worked long enough for you."
The suspicion of a wink and her perfectly pitched answer answered him well enough. He should have expected it as he laughed to himself. For all that, he wondered just how long it would take before the establishment would get to hear of it. He suspected that it wouldn't take long and that he should prepare for unwelcome company.
Sir Ian turned red in the face and clutched the expensive fountain pen, which was a gift from his aged aunt. Somehow, it had survived the periodic internal rages that he was subject to when things went wrong for him. While his patrician, inexpressive background had emotionally stifled him, there were moments when his feelings bubbled to the surface.
"Can I have an explanation of how Deed of all people was ever allowed to get his hands on the Partridge case, one which required sensitive handling?" he snapped at Lawrence James. At moments like these, Sir Ian found Lawrence James a handy object to kick at in his rage. It then became only a matter of time before Lawrence James did precisely the same to a particularly ingratiating underling. This was what they were made for, after all.
"Surely there can be weightier cases for Deed to be involved with which will occupy his time more fruitfully? Arrangements could be made, surely."
Sir Ian glared down at his junior who clearly didn't see the urgency of the situation.
"You're deceiving yourself. We'll go over to him to confront him on the matter ourselves."
John was carefully examining the file in the peace and quiet of his chambers when the door was suddenly pushed open. Without glancing sideways, he knew who the visitors were. He turned slowly and motioned them to take their place on his sofa.
"Might I have a word of your time, John?" Sir Ian said with tight-lipped politeness.
"Cup of tea?" John offered, as Coope slid forward, trying to avert her gaze.
John sat back in his armchair with the suspicion of a smile on his face waiting for Sir Ian to place his cup and saucer to his side and commence hostilities.
"It has come to my attention that you have acquired the Partridge case by certain underhand subterfuges."
"Exactly what are you referring to, Ian?" John answered in amused tones. He would lay easy money that the pair of them wouldn't have the hard evidence to back up their suspicions.
"What makes it worse is that the case needs a certain delicate handling. The family concerned is somewhat in the public eye and the press is bound to make a meal of the case. The case will inevitably give rise to a lot of emotional attitudes which are not helpful."
"When the victim concerned is the sort of young woman who could be anyone's daughter or sister, such feelings are quite understandable." John replied in his smoothest tones. Coope managed to suppress an appreciative grin with the greatest difficulty as she retired to her own desk.
"You must admit, you are not the safest pair of hands, especially with the real danger of cheap headlines."
"You know very well by now that I shall rigidly enforce appropriate restrictions on press reporting to the very letter. I shall see that justice is done without either fear or favour," came the prompt answer with clicking precision. "The file is on my desk as we speak and you know very well that it is as good as in front of me in court."
"It's all very well for you to make lofty pronouncements but it is we, at the Lord Chancellor's Department who have to deal with the press," sneered Sir Ian, visibly rattled at his lack of success.
"I'm sure the government press machine will rise to the challenge. Besides, this case will be more of a challenge than the run of the mill cases which have come my way."
"I had hoped that I could appeal to your sense of decency and responsibility but it clear that I was being over optimistic," Sir Ian said in the tightest of voices." I shall not take up any more of your valuable time."
He promptly stood up, Lawrence James moving in unison and glaring at Coope's back. They swept out of the room and out. John sipped the rest of his cup of tea while Coope moved in his direction to clear away, the faintest of smiles wreathing her face. It was an ordinary day in John's world.
It was the Saturday before Christmas. Both Helen and Nikki had spent the last week doing last minute Christmas shopping. So much had happened in their lives in the past month that the seasonal events had taken a back seat for both of them. It made them both search in their minds for those people they knew that weren't normally around. In the middle of this came a total bolt from out of the blue, the reappearance in their lives of Nikki's parents, which were heralded by a phone call earlier in the week.
"I still don't believe it," Nikki repeated herself again with wide-open eyes. "I've had no contact with my parents for years, not since I was thrown out of boarding school. What in hell can they want?"
Helen wasn't sure what to say. Her own background didn't give her the necessary sympathetic detachment of perspective that she wanted to give. There wasn't much to choose between a Scottish Methodist minister and a Home Counties naval captain and his wife for tolerance and understanding.
"There isn't much I can say, Nikki," she confessed frankly." They must have read the papers about getting out on appeal. That must have been a total surprise. Just how good are they at dealing with surprises?"
"Not very good," came Nikki's short reply. "My father thinks along straight lines, everything in its rightful place. He wouldn't get his head round it far less come and meet me."
"Do you want me around when they come?"
"Of course I do. I want you here to stop me going into a complete blind panic or shoot my mouth off and say something I'd regret."
"Good. Well that's settled."
The flat was as silent as the grave as the time ticked by at a funereal pace to the expected time of arrival. Nikki was visibly nervous as she fidgeted about, fluffed up cushions and adjusted her makeup. Helen tried to be a calming influence but wasn't sure that she was doing very well.
"There's one good thing. They're always punctual. It comes of commanding ships all his life," joked Nikki nervously. Finally, a smart tat tat tattoo resounded at the precisely appointed time. As Helen opened the front door, a dapper man, dressed in a smart blazer and immaculately creased trousers hove into view. His wife stood to one side and a little further back, a colourless woman, dressed in an appropriately Older Woman's coat and flowered hat. Nikki concluded with one sideways glance that she hadn't changed over the years. In this sudden pause, Nikki and her father both looked at each other with amazement. Through Nikki's eyes, he had become much more lined, grayer haired and had lost a little of his all-powerful dominance. Through his eyes, he had expected the same angry truculent teenager he had last seen. This woman's manner was quieter, more sophisticated and yet more self-possessed. It struck her father that he was facing a woman in her mid thirties and not a sixteen-year-old teenager. In Helen's eyes, the physical resemblance between the two of them struck her immediately.
"Hi, dad," came the tentative answer before she collected her wits. "Come on inside."
There was a fraction of a pause before they shuffled inside to the living room without a word being exchanged. There wasn't a meeting of either eye or mind. Who would make the first move?
"Can I take your coat, Mrs. Wade?" Helen volunteered with her brightest smile, remembering her education in polite conversation.
"Thank you," came the stiff reply.
"I expect you're wondering why we've come to see you after all these years, Nicola."
"The thought did cross my mind," came the guarded reply.
"You know how set in my ways I am. Your ways aren't mine, as you know very well. Once I make up my mind, I stick to it."
"That doesn't mean that we can't talk if we both want it," Nikki persisted with quiet assurance. Inwardly, her anger at her father's harsh description of parental neglect but she bottled it down with that patience that she had acquired over the years. Her own life had changed so drastically in this last month so why shouldn't the relationship between her and her parents?
'I'm sorry," she continued as she became aware of Helen's presence at the side of her and less fixated on her parents. "I'm forgetting my manners. I'd like to introduce you to Helen Stewart. She's my partner, in case you hadn't guessed."
"Hiya," came Helen's enthusiastic greetings as she offered a firm handshake." It's a pleasure to meet you. It's obvious to see you that you're Nikki's parents."
"Nicola, if you please," Nikki's mother said stiffly," That was what she was christened."
"You know as well as I do that I changed my name decades ago. That was an old battle. It seems strange to hear me called anything different."
"Not to us it isn't."
'OK, you make a fair point so let's have a compromise. To Helen, I'm Nikki but to the both of you, I'm Nicola. I can live with being called both names at the same time."
Her parents were dumfounded by Nikki's smooth adroit verbal footwork. They had both anticipated the conversation ending up in all out warfare and the wind was clean taken out of their sails. They had been used to teenage tantrums, not firm diplomacy. It made her father start to seriously engage with Nikki as she now was.
"Be that as it may, we thought we ought to come and exchange Christmas presents."
The dry formality of tone was an utterly surreal experience to Nikki who had shopped for two strangers and her nerveless fingers grasped at rectangular shapes wrapped up very neatly in traditional Christmas wrapping up paper. They felt like either makeup or perfume and she handed over her version of a couple of books she had found which she vaguely thought might suit their interests. He father coughed in an embarrassed fashion and continued, as if as an afterthought.
"We also wanted to tell you that we were impressed by what we saw of you on the news. You weren't the same girl we knew so we thought it was high time we came to see you."
"I..I don't know what to say " Nikki started to say. The situation was beyond her.
"Do you both want a cup of tea after your journey," Helen intervened with perfect timing with her best drawing room manner. Nikki couldn't repress a tiny half smile of affectionate amusement and her father found his resolutions wavering.
"That would be excellent. Milk and one sugar for me and milk only for my wife but not too strong mind you."
Helen bustled away in the kitchen to bring everything through on a tea tray she dug out of the recesses of the pantry. Don't be away too long, Nikki thought, not believing that she was out of the woods by a long way. Dear me, Nikki's father murmured to herself, this is starting to feel perfectly normal after all.
"It took a lot of hard work to get me out on appeal, believe you me. So much of it was down to Helen for the case to ever get to court. She got me onto an Open University degree course in English and, as we speak, I'm waiting for the results. She was wing governor at Larkhall."
"It sounds all very meritorious but, seeing that you have both ended up here, it strikes me that she must have compromised her position somewhere along the line."
"I assure you, Mr. Wade, that in all the time I worked at Larkhall, I did my duty as a complete professional. My feelings for Nikki were kept completely separate except for one lapse. It was this lapse that meant that I was railroaded out of Larkhall by a prison officer who should have been sacked years ago for his offences against vulnerable women in his charge. That's what you heard Nikki talk about. The reason why he's still there is that he is the most dangerous 'cover up' merchant that it has been my misfortune to ever meet," Helen declared in ringing tones.
Paradoxically, the still strained ultra polite conversation was tilted on its axis by Helen's outburst. Mr. Wade smiled with approval for the very first time since they crossed the threshold, followed by Mrs. Wade. A distinct warmth of manner emanated from them for the first time.
"Duty? That's not a word I hear much of these days. Nicola's absence has spared her hearing me holding forth at regular intervals how the country has gone to the dogs. You are making a very bold claim and, strangely enough, one that convinces me. Just where does your sense of duty come from, if I might ask."
"As the only daughter of a Scottish Methodist minister," declared Helen. In her mind, she replayed her words, dazzled by that sudden revelation. Of course it's obvious. How could she have overlooked that connection for all these years?
"You see, Nicola, we can't be expected to easily approve of your lifestyle but I must say that your friend has spirit."
"Dad, we're not expecting you or mum to approve of gay women in general, become New Age converts in the officer's mess .."
Her father chuckled at Nikki's wit. He had never seen that side of her before. In turn, she was starting to tune into the stranger before her who was certainly not all bad.
" but just to accept us as we are."
"I'm a died in the wool conservative, having served Queen and Country for years. So are all my friends who are all born and bred the same way. You are asking a lot of us to be straight and above board with two different sets of people."
What really disconcerted Nikki was that her father was showing unexpected debating skills. She realized that she was going to have to have to roll with it and work hard to top that one.
"You should get a more diverse circle of friends, dad. It's never too late to change."
"You never give up an argument without a struggle, do you, Nicola?"
"Well, you must know where I get that from."
"We always thought that you would make the perfect match in our tight knit community."
"Should you be greatly surprised when you think about it? You always thought I was a bit of a tomboy when I was little. I was always climbing trees instead of playing with dolls."
"I always wanted you to make me a proud father."
"Well, I'm proud enough of myself and who knows, you will be. I worked hard to became a businesswoman running a club. I hadn't done badly till I ran across that policeman who I took out to stop him raping my then partner. Just you wait and see what I now do with my life now I've come out of Larkhall. I've managed to get a job. It's not great but it's a start."
"You make Larkhall Prison sound like a high class finishing school, Nicola."
"I won't deny that I've had some bad experiences there but I learned such a lot about myself from being there as well. more than arranging dinner tables anyway. I think I've come out the stronger."
Helen couldn't help but grin as she saw father and daughter start to lock horns in verbal combat and detected the lurking respect and affection between them. She noticed that her mother was left on the sidelines and suspected that this was the pattern of family relationships , way back when.
"Can I take you for a tour round the garden and the flat, Mrs Wade? Nikki and your husband have made themselves thoroughly at home."
The other woman accepted the offer eagerly. She made a bee line for the garden which had relapsed down to its normal winter condition and she pottered round, looking closely.
"Are you a keen gardener, Helen?"
"I'm hopeless," admitted Helen frankly."Nikki's the keen one. I know that she has big ambitions for next summer. I'll leave her to it apart from being her assistant."
The other woman was pleased by the news and it loosened her up to talk. Her conversation came out in a great stream, as if she had dammed it up for years. They strolled round the garden as she talked and Helen made the odd interjection. The fierce December cold bit into their skin but neither of them noticed.
" ..Nicola has always been the apple of my husband's eye she was always quicker and brighter than John who has been a fine son, mind you. He has always done what we expected of him. He couldn't help but be jealous of her as they grew up so when Nicola got into trouble at school, he was happy to side against her. A lot of her school friends had navy backgrounds so news traveled fast. My husband couldn't stand the disgrace and we all shut her out of our lives and pretended she didn't exist."
"I understand," Helen said automatically though her mind was struggling to comprehend the other side of the coin of parental rejection.
"He's a solicitor with his own wife and two young children. He's been ever so successful and has a nice house just outside Oxford. We normally visit them for Boxing day as we always do ."
"It sounds nice."
"Your flat looks nice what I've seen of it. Perhaps we could look round?"
Mrs Wade is a bit of a hint dropper though perfectly harmless, Helen concluded as she led the way into their kitchen
"You haven't got any plans for Christmas?" she enquired vaguely, peering at Helen for reassurance.
"This will be the first Christmas that Nikki and I will spend together and will be special. We wouldn't want to get in the way of your arrangements but there are days after Christmas and other Christmasses to come." Helen said firmly and reassuringly.
Mrs Wade smiled back in a reassured fashion. There was something soothing and almost maternal in the other woman's manner. As they passed into the living room, two voices could be heard
" .and make sure you eat properly, Nicola. You always used to peck at your food. You need a good breakfast down you to set you up for the rest of the day ."
"I need to watch my waistline instead of getting all that cholesterol into my system."
"All this modern obsession with dieting. You'll do yourself no good in the long run."
"You're not getting any younger, Dad. You're the one who needs to take care of yourself."
"Nonsense, I'm as fit as a fiddle."
"Have you two been carrying on the same conversation?" laughed Helen.
"More or less," retorted Nikki with a grin on her face, echoed by her father's approving nod.
"Donald, you remember that we'd arranged to drop in on John's family to give them their presents. We've got a long drive there and back."
It was obvious to Helen that Mrs Wade spoke with regret. This wasn't some elaborate charade to willingly disengage them. She looked at her watch. It was remarkable how time had flown by.
"A pity. A promise is a promise as you know, Nicola ."he said with regret." But you can be sure that we'll come back, that's a promise. I want to carry on where we left. I can't let my own daughter beat me in fair battle. I would never live it down."
The resonances of those last words passed them all by, unregarded. A much younger Nikki looked out at the world, with a wide-eyed grin and sparkling eyes. She made a vow that next time she met dad, she would counter his bishop's advance with her sideways knight's move out of nowhere. That would really show him.
The run up to Christmas was a less problematic affair for John. The one area of agreement between John and George in the bitter fallout of their divorce many years ago was over Charlie's upbringing. They had agreed that John would bring up Charlie since there was more of a rapport between the two of them than Charlie ever had with George. For all George's blustering confidence and mastery of the social occasion, she found herself strangely inexpressive and inarticulate when it came to the needs of a child. Typically, John's 'new age' ways made him the ideal modern parent, much to Joe Channing's chagrin and he disagreed with John about his novel idea of parenting as much as anything else. If Joe Channing had his way, Charlie would have gone to the finest public school instead of the local comprehensive that he contemptuously nicknamed the 'cess pit.' Likewise she would have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge instead of that fearful concrete and glass construction that was Sussex University. Paradoxically, despite Joe Channing's gloomy prognostications for her future, his granddaughter was his granddaughter and, when he had the chance, he spoiled her outrageously.
What helped Charlie's upbringing was that, no matter how John quarrelled with George and Joe, all three of them had that knack of somehow uniting where it mattered. She accepted that her mother kept her distance and grew up to view her father as somehow all-powerful and godlike in his professional duties and tolerantly accepting of his frailties in his private life. As a result, Charlie was a normal carefree law student who was home for the Christmas vacation.
"Did you have a good night out?" John enquired as a very sleepy looking Charlie slid in to her accustomed chair for a late breakfast. She was very grateful that bacon and eggs weren't waiting for her, as her stomach would have protested.
"I met some of the guys and we did a pub crawl. I wished I hadn't now."
She poured herself a black coffee, no sugar to see if the world might look brighter. It didn't though. She nibbled tentatively at a half slice of buttered toast.
"Aha, the price we pay for pleasure, Charlie. Would I be foolish to suggest that the lesson is now well learnt?"
"Hardly that, dad. I'm a student. It's just that I can't afford to go out till New Year's Eve. That doesn't matter as all my friends are also broke."
"So I'll be sharing your company for the next few days."
John took for granted the unpredictable comings and goings of his daughter with complete imperturbability. He was, after all, an upholder of liberal beliefs.
"That suits me fine. I could do with the quiet life for a bit."
In Charlie's eyes, she could safely lie back and take life easy. Christmas was a period when her normal taste in TV went out the window and she could indulge herself in kid's television because, well, it was Christmas. It was a time of Christmas presents, Christmas trees and decorations, and all that corny stuff and eating and drinking under her father's more indulgent eye than normal.
"Grandad will be coming round on Boxing Day."
Charlie's face lit up at the news. She knew that there was a temporary armistice in the normal tense atmosphere between the two men and that it centred on her. She could bask in the affection both of them held for her and granddad, like his father, was immortal in the strength of spirit within him.
"You know that your mother will be coming round today, minus Lover Boy."
Charlie's face fell at the thought. Maybe it had seemed logical for her father to bring her up but she had piled up so many resentments for her mother who had seemingly abandoned her. Her name for her mother 'the Ice Maiden" was one that her father heartily disapproved of. She could never work out how her father could overlook something so obvious about her.
"She is your mother, Charlie. I know that she loves you in her own way."
"She has a funny way of showing it," muttered Charlie rebelliously." I'm not sure I'll be around when she comes round."
"Charlie, you know that your mother has an immaculate taste in Christmas presents. You simply can't exploit that shamelessly and give nothing in return. The only thing that is asked for is your time and civil behaviour."
"It's only given out of guilt."
"I can't remember you ever turning your nose up at her choice of presents. Maybe she does feel guilty but she is to be pitied for that and not criticized. What was decided for your upbringing years ago was the one instance of your mother and I getting together and deciding unselfishly what was best for you. It is a lot easier for all concerned for her to come over rather than go and visit her."
"So you don't have to see Neil. What's the difference?"
"Simply that I am not related to him in any way and, while your mother and I are legally divorced, you never truly break the ties where a child is concerned. Your mother and I both know that to be a fact without saying it."
"Well, she'd better come over and get it done with," Charlie concluded grumpily. She knew that there was no way out of this unwelcome situation so she should face it as best as she could.
The weekend before Christmas for Neil Haughton and George Channing was a very formal affair. Their opulent house was a testimonial to George's good taste, which her partner was far too busily engaged in public affairs to be involved with in any detail. The long brocaded curtains that were tied neatly back and pale greenish, slightly patterned wallpaper were details, which she had overseen in every detail.
"You must wear that new dress I bought you. It cost a fortune but it will show the others that we are people of consequence."
The formal smile on George's face graciously acknowledged the compliment.
"I will later on but I need to visit Charlie and exchange Christmas presents. Duty calls, you know."
"You know that we have the reception to go to. We absolutely must allow enough time to be ready."
George knew that very well and Neil Haughton's proud emphasis on the word 'the' marked it as the exercise in mutual self-congratulation of the inner circle of the political 'movers and shakers' that decided the destiny of the country. She knew very well how nervous Neil was of time spend in the Deed's company, as she referred to him.
As a result, George drove up to John's flat, more inwardly flustered than she let on and her makeup was that much more elaborate. She had always set a great store on appearance but it didn't conceal how jumpy she felt. It always made her more tactless and more prickly than normal. After the round of greetings and maternal and paternal commonplaces, George found herself saying these words to her great surprise as onlooker.
"Neil is taking me to a fantastic party today of the great and the good. I shall wear my finest dress."
"I would have more fun visiting my father's council house in Birmingham if he were still alive," muttered John in retaliation, contemptuous of her shallowness while Charlie rolled her eyes at her mother.
"I suppose your impoverished background gives you street credibility in the circles you mix in."
"It is a fact of my life that I am not ashamed to want to conceal it. I accept myself, warts and all. Perhaps it has given me more backbone than some of my contemporaries."
It was a curious fact of John Deed's persona that while he had mimicked the languid public school accents to perfection, he stood apart from the contemporaries who had grown with him. In his earlier years, he was known behind his back as the 'baker's boy' but this had given him his boldness and pugnacity.
"Parents," Charlie proclaimed loudly above the growing hubbub." It is Christmas day, or nearly."
"I apologise, Charlie. It was unforgivable."
In the sudden hush, John had been the first to collect his wits while George's mouth remained open, the next taunt on her lips, unspoken. Even in moments of contrition, her mind raged, that infuriating man is somehow being dominant.
"Darling," George said with that aristocratic drawl and wide smile which encapsulated her to Charlie for good or bad." I'm sorry that we have been in horrid moods. I hope that your studies are going well but, remember that you only have one life so make the most of it."
"I'll remember," Charlie said tonelessly, conscious how far away her vague well-intentioned words were from her world.
"Perhaps I can offer you a drink," John offered in neutral tones. For Charlie's sake, he didn't want the Christmas memory of her mother to be yet another tasteless row and her flouncing off in a rage.
"That would be nice, John," she answered. Charlie stood aside as an onlooker and her eyes weren't deceived by appearances.
The run up to Christmas at Larkhall was no different than any other year. The Julies got the miniscule Christmas tree and arranged the baubles on the straggling silver foil branches, at least those that hadn't cracked on them. Denny and Yvonne looked on. This was Christmas as normal. The only thing they had to look forward to was the screws serving them Christmas dinner and how much it choked them to do it.
The day after New Year's Day was when the nation had to creak back into the gear and the mellowness to gradually fade as reality came back. For John, it meant a new set of battles to be fought. For Claire and Jo Mills alike, they had another high profile case and a new client to represent. For Neil Haughton, it meant picking up the tab for the extravagance of last Christmas with hardly a murmur. At Larkhall Prison, it meant business as usual, bangers and eggs for breakfast, sunny side up. Old enmities could be safely resumed, the establishment's desire for power remained unceasing and awake throughout Christmas and the never-ending stream of work poured on top of them all.
For Helen and Nikki their combination of a honeymoon and Christmas would give way to a more purposeful start to their new year.
The alarm clock woke them up to tell them that they weren't fated to cuddle up to each other for as long as they liked but to switch on to the new year.
"I really hate the thought of going back to work, especially after the best Christmas in my life," murmured Helen sleepily, stretching her body. Nikki leant over to caress her and kiss her on her lips."
"Call me eccentric, darling but I kind of love the thought of getting out into the world. A year ago, all I had to look forward to was Bodybag knocking on my cell door. Of course I wouldn't say no to another day's holiday."
Helen grinned with understanding of Nikki's work ethic and reluctantly slid out of bed. As Nikki was getting dressed after her dry observation, she saw a thoughtful expression on Helen's face and rightly concluded that there was more than met the eye.
"What's up, Helen?"
Helen collected her thoughts to get them in the right order and then spoke. She had had time over Christmas to reappraise the one part of life, which she felt needed to be brought up to date with the rest of it.
"I've always thought that you must have been a lesbian all your life but there must have been some time in your life when you had to 'come out' to those around you."
Nikki's soulful eyes looked into Helen's and slipped her arm round her shoulder. In the short period of time before Christmas, she had developed that consciousness of the ticking clock. In retrospect, she could now understand and empathize with the many occasions when Helen had been compelled to tell her 'Gotta go', giving her notice that their precious stolen moments of intimacy would end.
"You're not just talking about my past but you at work?"
Helen nodded her head, her large eyes being the windows direct to her soul.
"I know the time has come to set them straight but I don't know just how to put it. Anything I come up with sounds nervous and apologetic for something that I'm proud of. Do I say something like 'Look here, just in case you're all gossiping to me, I'm a lesbian and I'm living with another woman in a happy committed relationship. Just look upon me as just the same as a happily married woman and treat me the same as any other boss.'"
Nikki's eyes opened wide and a whole souled smile spread across her face. Helen had scored a bull's eye and had most directly spoken out loud her commitment to her.
"Is that the simple and honest truth as to how you feel?"
"Of course it is."
"Then why don't you tell them just that? It sounds pretty good to me. It lays it on the line. They might not like it but they have to accept it and you. If they give up, then they just might lighten up and then you've won."
A wide smile spread across Helen's face as the dawning awareness of the simple effectiveness of such words swept away her doubts and fears.
"You could say that you've had boyfriends in the past just in case you need any 'straight cred,'" put in Nikki. Helen laughed out loud. Since they had lived together, she was struck by Nikki's frequent shafts of sparkling wit and gentle irony.
"I'll hold that one in reserve. You don't know just how narrow-minded and censorious they are. They get easily confused."
"Don't tell me about it. I'm having extreme difficulty in getting them to get some of their tiny minds to think that, no I'm not into Take That, whoever they are."
"You will tell me sometime about how it was when you were a kid? It would help me to have something to compare with."
"Definitely," Nikki said with deliberate emphasis. She could see how important it was to Helen." Come on, let's go or we'll both be late."
Reassured by the promise, Helen grinned to herself, grabbed her handbag and followed the enthusiastic Nikki out the door.
Donald Frobisher had crept in to his place of work, the worse for wear after the New Year and his unsteady eye lighted upon the file on top of the pile.
"Good grief," he muttered to himself," I could do without a high profile case. I suppose the CPS think that if I once failed, I may as well fail again."
So deep in thought was he that he never noticed the silently opening door and the inaudible tread of highly polished shoes approaching him.
"You underrate yourself, Donald," came the faintly smarmy Old Etonian tone of voice from somewhere behind him." We need a barrister with the appropriate killer instinct. We think that you're our man."
"That's very decent of you, Sir Ian," came the reply in a more confident tone." I'm just getting over the New Year's festivities. I'll be as right as rain in a little while when I've worked it off."
"You know that you'll be up against Deed .."
" ..Good God ."
"And, of course, his sidekick, Mrs Mills. You should treat this as a challenge and wipe the floor with the pair of them "
"A pair of bleeding heart liberals." Donald Frobisher said with growing malice." I'll have to get myself in fighting trim and not give either of them an inch."
Sir Ian smiled at the interesting thought that venom was the emotion capable of rousing the man to action and hoped that it would sustain him. He wished that there were more barristers like him, as he feared that the alien forces that threatened his power and position were seeping into the hitherto safe world of the judiciary.
Claire Walker was one of the few who had come to relish the thought of John Deed conducting her next trial. Her role in court trials was always conjectural, depending on the particular barrister she worked for. Both professions seemed to attract particular character types and to perpetuate the styles of both professions. Claire was studious, quiet and methodical, all the hallmarks of a good solicitor but she wasn't called to exhibit the theatrical flamboyant skills of a barrister. In the court trials themselves, she sat meekly back while two rival barristers clashed with oratorical thunder and fenced with sharp pointed thrusts. Only on occasion was her advice sought on a matter of detail in whispered asides. Some barrister's egos were out of control to the point that she was virtually relegated to the position of being the barristers' gofer and she endured such temporary professional relationships with as much fortitude that she could summon up.
Marian Chambers was one of her favourite barristers who was kindly and courteous. Just before Christmas, she was told by her practice that she had moved to serve in the European Courts of Justice. She was given the name of a red hot barrister called Mrs Mills who had a passion for causes. When Claire heard this news, she regretted that she hadn't taken the chance to go for a celebratory drink with her after the Nikki Wade appeal but she was tired out and Claire didn't want to get between her and some much needed rest. She resolved to see what this Mrs Mills turned out like. By the sound of her name, she sounded very Middle England and Claire wasn't sure that she would fit the bill but would see how she shaped up.
For this reason, Claire had become acquainted with Jo Mills for the first time and the tall, slim blue-eyed woman shook her hand firmly. It was a good portent.
"I am impressed with the file that you've put together. It looks as good as it can be. Of course, a lot will depends on what the prosecution comes up with. How do you think the witness will hold up in court?"
"She's genuine enough but she's been badly shaken up by the ordeal. I'm not sure how she'll hold up under hostile cross-examination. Who's the other barrister?"
"Donald Frobisher,' said Jo shortly." I shall have a battle royal on my hands. You must know his reputation."
"I got the full flavour of him at the Nikki Wade appeal. He was only crossing swords with Marian Chambers and that was enough."
A silence fell on the room as they started to visualize the future unfold before them.
"You know the judge who we'll be appearing before," Jo suddenly asked with a mischievous smile on her face." John Deed."
The blank look on Claire Walker's face conveyed an obvious ignorance of John's idiosyncrasies.
"He's different from every judge I've appeared beforehand. For a start, he's a liberal and an idealist and won't have any truck with letting the victim having her morals tried. For another, he will insist on asking very searching questions for both defence and prosecution. You will find him a completely different experience from any judge you've ever seen."
Normally, the judge sat back impassively on his throne with just a word or two of intervention apart from a measured summing up of the case. The fact that Jo spoke so warmly of John Deed overseeing her next trial registered very strongly with her. Claire was definitely intrigued
The following Tuesday gave Claire the opportunity to satisfy this curiosity about John Deed. As it happened, she found herself at the Old Bailey with time to kill and, checking the court listings saw his name in court number 5. She climbed the stairs and quietly slid into a spare gallery seat to watch the theatre below. As she took her seat, this commonly applied metaphor sprang very much to life as she had arrived in the middle of a dramatic altercation.
A female barrister with shapely carved features and blond hair tucked up underneath the traditional wig was remonstrating at John Deed in very assured aristocratic tones and considerable force of personality.
"My lord, I urge you to reconsider the matter. Lord Denning's judgment is the higher authority."
John Deed smiled slightly and looked down at the barrister and delivered his verdict in a mellow yet firm and unbreakable tone of voice.
"Mrs Channing, you must know that there is no ranking in the court of appeal judgments.
I have explained in full detail why the Scarman judgment is the preferable one. I would remind you that I have ruled on the matter."
Claire focused in closely on the man sitting up on high who happened to wear the traditional robes of office. The guy certainly has charisma. Judge Huntley came over as pale and anaemic in comparison with only his rank to bolster him.
"My lord, I wish a short adjournment to take further advice from my client."
"Mrs Channing, you know very well that you have the opportunity to appeal the decision at the end of the hearing should it not go in favour of your client. Any objections to my rulings or any other matters of law can be brought up at the conclusion of this hearing."
"You're not being fair to my client. It's pure prejudice," the woman snapped petulantly, pointing at him with her pen and forefinger.
"If you seek to disrupt the progress of the court hearing, I'll have you jailed for contempt."
The fair-haired woman glared upwards at the judge and promptly shut up. She had registered the hardening tone in John Deed's voice and she dropped back down to her bench, frowning angrily.
A fair haired, motherly woman silently came and sat next to Claire. She could have been taken to be one of the legions of Mrs Middle England except for the knowing twinkle in her eye and her alert manner. While Claire Walker's mouth hung open in amazement, as she was unaccustomed to threats of imprisonment to such august personages, the other woman took everything blithely in her stride.
"She always tries it on with the judge. She never wins no matter how hard she tries."
"Who is she?"
"She's Mrs Channing, the judge's ex-wife. He once did jail her for contempt and wouldn't let her back until she apologized."
Claire grinned at the other woman. Jo Mills' words came back to her mind and they became real before her very eyes. This judge was certainly exceptional and unusual.
"Would it be true to say that you make your living grubbing round electronic dustbins for reject E mails, Mr Arditi?" George barrelled in, her voice dripping with patronizing contempt. She had bounced back from her narrow escape with hardly a backward look and not a thought of how perilously she had perched on the edge of ruin.
"Firms employ us to retrieve deleted E mails. With the increasing trend towards electronic records instead of paper files, mistakes are inevitable and we are specialists in retrieving this data. Business is booming right now."
"Won't the public advance in computer literacy tend to reduce your custom and tend to make your skills redundant?" John butted in to the obvious irritation of both barristers.
Claire rubbed her eyes. This was the judge talking and, from her experience, judges didn't intervene and ask searching questions.
"The area that we work in is expanding all the time. Firms want computers to do more. It stands to reason that there is more room for things to go wrong."
"Are you employed to carry out espionage on other firms?" George Channing leapt in with lightning timing while John Deed's mouth remained open, just beaten to the question.
"Objection, my lord," came the prompt reply from the other barrister.
"And I agree. You know better than to ask leading and prejudicial questions, Mrs Channing."
"My apologies, my Lord. Let's put it this way. Are there occasions when you are asked to retrieve E mails on behalf of your clients without the knowledge of companies with whom your client is in dispute?"
"How can this be done? I would have thought, Mr Arditi that you would be required to make a formal approach to the USP provider. Can you clarify this point," John chimed in.
"Might I ask your lord that, while we are grateful for your legal wisdom, I was wondering if you intend to take over both the prosecution and the defence at the same time," the defence barrister enquired wearily while George grinned slightly from behind her hand.
"I think that Mr. Arditi would be well advised to answer both questions to expedite the hearings. I am merely allowing my desire for the truth to outrun normal procedures. Carry on, Mrs Channing."
Claire was fascinated to see the remarkable facility with which John Deed extricated himself from displaying any annoyance or embarrassment. He also possessed a restless intelligence and an endearing reluctance to be constrained by formalities.
"Quite, my Lord." George replied with a slightly acid touch.
"It depends on the nature of the business. As it happens, I know of friends who work for Internet companies. They are able to give me all the information I need."
The defence barrister rolled his eyes up and gave the case up as lost. The evidence that might have proved that the waste company knowingly allowed pollutants to pour from their chimneys and cause a high concentration of cancers and birth malformations was likewise going up in smoke before his very eyes
"I submit that the evidence of intercepted E mails be rules as inadmissible evidence and that they be stricken from the record. I also submit that there is no case to answer as it is also clear that there is no evidence that my clients had any guilty knowledge of the defendant's unfortunate health problems which is clearly a statistical aberration."
George had promptly rushed in with a stream of syllables that rushed out of her mouth as quickly as she could articulate them. Aided by whispered asides by Coope, Claire had learned enough of the case by now to conclude why the case was now apparently dead in the water.
"Not so fast, Mrs Channing. I am minded to consider the first part of your submission that the E-mails were illegally obtained and cannot be admitted as evidence. However, I am making a direction that all E mails in the period of time in issue will be retrieved from the USP provider and be made available to both defence and prosecution within forty-eight hours. I am determined to get to the bottom of the matter and find out the truth come what may."
"If your client is innocent, he will have nothing to fear. Court is adjourned," intoned John with impressive finality. He stared down the stony glare that George directed at him and those in the court started to gradually file out of the court.
When Claire got down to the foyer, she was immersed in a large cavernous ornate hall, full of muffled sounds and people either criss crossing their way on urgent business or talking together in huddled groups. She could see one of them at a distance, where George Channing was explaining away at length the situation to her disgruntled client the full consequences of the ruling. The other barrister looked distinctly cheerful as his case was rescued at the last minute by this wayward and unpredictable judge.
Claire looked at her watch and knew that it was time to get back to her office for her next client, Nikki Wade and so she headed off back to her office. The purpose of the call was the much more mundane matter of transferring the title deeds of the 'Chix' club to Trisha's sole name. The matter was simple enough as Nikki explained to her on the phone. Claire could place the fair-haired woman who had flung her arms round Nikki at the conclusion of the appeal. She was beginning to sense that this transaction had complicated history at the back of it and that she should tread carefully.
As soon as Nikki entered the room, Claire could see that she looked much fresher and much more outwardly self-possessed than when she has last seen her. Trisha looked pale and washed out by comparison. Sitting on the opposite side of her desk, she was immediately aware of the atmosphere of constrained politeness between the two of them. She dared not express some all purpose sympathy for fear that it would be misplaced so she broached the matter in hand in a gently businesslike fashion.
"The transfer document is straight forward. All you have to do is for both of you to sign in the appropriate places. I take it that you know what the implications are."
"Oh yeah, both of us have worked out exactly what it means," said Trisha in a weary, defeated tone of voice.
"Trisha and I know that this will give her full financial independence and goes with a bank loan to buy my share out. Everything has been worked out very amicably. It doesn't mean that we won't stay friends," Nikki said with a mixture of bright precision and a soothing undertone to soften the pill.
"You have a new life, Nik. It's only right that you get your chance and your share of what you put into building the club up to where it is now. You worked hard enough over the years but I know that it isn't your scene any longer. We have to go our separate ways."
Nikki's emotions were churning around beneath that bright smile. It was as if they were signing final divorce papers. The symbolism of the legal contract was all too plain and they were both being so nice about it. Memories of her shared past with Trisha made her feel strongly that she must not come out with well meaning nothings. She owed Trisha that much.
"At least we can both trust Claire to draw up the contracts properly and be fair to both of us."
A watery smile spread across Trisha's face. She felt far more comfortable with this quiet kindly woman whose good faith couldn't be doubted. Her history proved that without doubt. She needed that area of certainty right now.
"I wouldn't be happy with some jumped up arrogant young man who thinks he knows everything. You were there for Nik and that means everything to us."
"Hardly that. I did what I could to help the proceedings along."
The two other women knew differently, of course. Her modest self-effacement gave them added confidence. A paralyzed stillness fell across the three of them, each temporarily unable to act.
Someone had to make the first move, Nikki finally thought, rather than perpetually spin round in an endless cycle of words. It might as well be her as anyone. After all, her leadership skills had been polished up in the past few years, whatever the situation. She caught Claire's eye, who passed the contract over to her. She took the document and read it carefully. It made sense to her once she allowed for the legalese. She added her signature carefully.
"It's like the end of a chapter, Trisha. I know that, after the last three years, you've made a total success of the club. It is effectively your club and my name on the deeds has only been there for old times sake and whatever I put into the club originally. It just has to be sorted out in a civilized practical fashion."
The other woman's eyes filled with tears at Nikki's attempt at polite gallantry. She dabbed a tissue to her eyes. It was somehow only while her thoughts free floated when distant memories came back to the surface. She remembered that the boot was on the other foot when she told Nikki that she had found someone else and that she had left Nikki helplessly alone and imprisoned without hope. Now she was the one who was left on her own. Nikki's terms were fair, and wouldn't bleed her dry.
"You're right, Nik. Pass the papers to me. After all, I'm the one with a head for business. This deal has got to be done properly."
Moving more decisively than she felt, Trisha put her signatures with a confident sprawling squiggle. She had to look for the future. There were a lot more parties, bright lights and drink to face. She may as well pretend to be confident. After all, it was what she did best and after all, she had choices in her life.
"We're still friends, Trisha." Nikki said in a soft, gentle tone of voice.
A whole kaleidoscope of emotions and memories swept through Trisha. Her experiences of ex- girlfriends had been of bitterness and rancour. Nikki was different. She'd always been different.
"We're still friends, Nik."
She offered her hand and Nikki shook her hand on the deal without hesitation.
It was Friday morning at the Old Bailey underneath leaden skies. Outside, an icy cold whipped down the London streets but the courtroom by contrast was the scene of heated exchanges. Right in the gallery sat an elderly man with the appearance and manner of a theatrical. Nobody questioned his presence there.
The Alan Partridge trial was in full swing and Jo Mills had led Zoë Carson very sympathetically through her story. The girl could feel the barrister's warm blue eyes and her comforting smile put some spirit into her but the time inevitably came when the other woman sat down. Zoë immediately felt like a deserted and abandoned child when Donald Frobisher rose to his feet. The smile on his face was not reassuring.
"There are a number of points in your heart rending testimony that need clearing up, Miss Carson, points which my learned friend glossed over "
Zoë Carson looked as if she were a rabbit on the middle of the motorway trying to outstare the lights of the juggernaut bearing down on her. This was what she'd been dreading all this time.
" .Perhaps the standards of the jury are not as modern as the world that you live in but is it normal to go to a bar you had never been to before where there was no one that you knew and choose to remain there?"
"It wasn't usual for me. I explained before how my mobile ."
"That's not the point. You had the choice of leaving the establishment and returning to whence you came, did you not?"
"I suppose I did."
"So what purpose did you serve in such an apparently pointless activity?"
"Not much at all like you say. That's why I very nearly left the pub," Zoë said softly with guileless eyes as the words sprang into her mind.
Donald Frobisher was taken aback by the girl's frank and innocent reply and could feel the jury laughing at him. His glasses slid slightly down his nose as he glared at the witness.
"Isn't it possible that you had another purpose, to ensnare the most likely looking lad that came your way for your own particular purposes?"
"I don't know what you mean," the girl answered, looking bewildered and confused. She had trouble relating this suggestion to how she felt that night.
"Come on. Miss Carson. I put it to you that you were lonely and looking for a one night stand."
"I can't deny that I was lonely but I do have my standards."
"So you say, Miss Carson, so you say. Be that as it may, would it not be true to say that you were eager to chat up the defendant as soon as he entered the bar?"
"It wasn't quite like that."
"Come on, you are being asked a straightforward question to which there is a clear straightforward answer, either yes or no."
"You must answer the question, Miss Carson. It is a legitimate one to ask of you."
It was John Deed's mild and regretful tone of voice that started to break Zoë Carson's defences. He seemed to be almost fatherly and apologetic in his manner and that was the worst of it.
"Yes, I suppose I wanted company. I didn't want to .."
"That's enough, Miss Carson. Let me ask another highly relevant question. How many boyfriends have you had in the last year?"
"I'm not sure."
"The question is simple, is it one five, ten, fifteen, twenty, more than that."
"Objection my lord," Jo Mills exclaimed loudly. She was in a white hot rage at seeing the witness being mercilessly browbeaten." My learned counsel is seeking to somehow put the witness on trial to distract attention."
"I am merely seeking to probe the witness as to her veracity and reliability. The trial is one person's word against another. Obviously the credibility of the witness is material. Under the Human Rights Act, I should be allowed to represent my client," came the bland reply, complete with outstretched hands. Jo Mills silently fumed with anger, knowing that the other barrister had a case. John's penetrating gaze fixed itself on both barristers as a sign to them to allow him time to reflect.
"I'll allow this line of questioning but mind you don't stray too far, Mr. Frobisher or I'll hit you like a ton of bricks."
"Are you directing me to go deliberately easy on the witness?"
"Don't push your luck, that's all."
"I'll repeat my question, how many boyfriends have you had this year?"
"I've had three boyfriends, all lasting over a period of months."
"Can you count the men that you've been with altogether, Miss Carson?"
"I I don't know," she stammered and her words made her feel incredibly foolish. She wished that the earth beneath her feet would swallow her up. Her mouth was dry and her right hand clung to the witness stand that felt as if it were her coffin.
"Let's come to the events when you had a lift from the accused. If you really didn't have consensual sex in mind with the accused, why didn't you hire a taxi?"
"Mr. Partridge kept insisting. He seemed responsible and genuine and he'd only had a couple of drinks."
"But you didn't persist and get a taxi, Miss Carson. This lends suspicion to the jury that this was an indication that you weren't really interested in going straight home. The night was still young."
"I really thought it meant he was going to give me a lift home and nothing else. I assumed I was on his route home."
"Did he tell you that you were on his route home?"
"Well, no actually. I just assumed I was."
"I put it to you that you ensnared this man into the situation for your own twisted reasons. The truth is that you'd do anything for sex."
"No, no." Zoë cried out in denial, tears streaming down her face. This was nightmarish, far worse than she'd been warned to expect. It was as if she were being assaulted all over again, only with words.
"Didn't you just agree to sex with the accused and overdo it? You wanted sex with the man as you had done before. Your innocent routine is just a front and a tissue of lies."
"That's enough," roared John Deed, his face crimson with fury." You are pushing your cross examination far beyond the bounds of human decency. I am directing that the last remarks be stricken from the record and that the witness is therefore not obliged to make any reply if she doesn't want to."
Donald Frobisher flushed with anger at such a public reprimand. He hadn't had much previous experience of John Deed and wasn't used to being pulled up short in this way. All this time, the tension had been building up in Claire Walker as she had helplessly watched from the sidelines, her hands gripping the rail tightly. A warm flush of satisfaction swept through her system as John Deed's display of mercy silenced the barrister. She knew beyond doubt that Nikki would heartily approve of John Deed.
"No further questions," Donald Frobisher muttered.
"Do you wish to take a short break or a glass of water or both? You can if you want," John offered in gentle comforting tones.
"No, no. thanks judge. I might as well finish giving the evidence that I came here to do. I could do with the water though."
The muttered remarks drew an appreciative smile from John Deed for her spirit.
"Do you wish to reexamine the witness, Mrs Mills?"John asked quietly.
"Most definitely so," Jo Mills responded, with that manner of being at last unchained and desirous of recovering as much ground as she could. What was most important was that the witness appeared at worst confused but, more importantly, that she was honest. She needed to build on that.
"Miss Carson, I want to ask you questions to make it entirely clear why you acted as you did. Is it normal for you to accept lifts with perfect strangers?
"Definitely not. This was a complete one off. I'll never, never do that ever again."
"You mentioned that you had standards, a point that my learned counsel avoided pursuing. Could you elaborate on this?"
"Well, I've never cheated on a boyfriend and I've always tried to make a go of relationships. I've just been unlucky in love, that's all."
"Was there anything in Mr. Partridge's manner that gave you the slightest doubt whatsoever that you were taking any risks in accepting the lift?"
"Absolutely nothing at all. There was nothing about him that appeared creepy or dangerous whatsoever. He came over as the most perfect gentleman, a bit like someone out of a Jane Austin novel ..I remember doing her at school years ago."
"Someone out of a Jane Austin novel," Jo repeated with evident relish, immensely grateful for such a telling a metaphor. "No further questions. She is my final witness."
"You may leave the witness box, Miss Carson." John Deed said softly and with evident sympathy." I have another case this afternoon to conclude so it would be more convenient for the defendant to be ready first thing tomorrow. It will give you both time to organize your cases. Mr. Frobisher, I trust that the defendant will be ready on time."
The barrister duly nodded assent.
"Court is adjourned till tomorrow," intoned John.
Claire Walker couldn't wait to get out and meet the very shaken Miss Carson who had had such a gruelling morning. Her mother had an arm round her shoulder while tears streamed down her face. She waited patiently until Zoë cast an eye in her direction.
"I made a right idiot of myself," she muttered partly to herself." I'll never live it down."
"You were very brave to take the stand as you did. Some women back out at the last minute."
"I'm beginning to wish I had."
"If it helps you feel better, you did a fine job on the stand, really you did. The most important thing is that you came over as honest to a jury. That goes a long way. We'll have our turn when Jo Mills gets to puts the defendant through the mincer. Verbally speaking of course."
Claire's cheeriness drew a wan smile from Zoë and her mother.
"I didn't want my Zoë to suffer," muttered her mother." She didn't deserve this."
"All I can say is that this may stop some other woman going through what you have. I know that it's small comfort."
Claire felt inadequate in the face of the mother's steady gaze, not knowing that she responded to her honesty. She preferred that than false comfort and gushing insincerities any day.
"I hope you don't mind if we leave but my daughter needs home and family round her."
"If both of you want to sit in the witness gallery, you can if you want. It does mean that you cannot conceivably be recalled as a witness. I'll understand it if you choose not to but the choice is there."
"We wouldn't want to make a promise we aren't intending to keep. If we turn up, we turn up, that's all."
"Give Mrs. Mills our best wishes for the rest of the trial. We're grateful to her kindness."
"I'll pass the message on to her."
Claire watched the two women fade into the hurly burly of the foyer. She sighed as mixed emotions washed over her and went in search of Jo Mills. There was bound to be more work to be done.
The two women were glad to get home on Friday evening after a week at work. This time of the year was when the Christmas decorations had been taken down and the winter weather cut into their bones. Nikki had been used to previous years when the club was quiet after the customers had spent all their money on Christmas celebrations. No such luck was granted to her in her present job. So far from family life being enhanced for all the 'men, women and two point four children' as she observed them, the women she worked with were that much grumpier than before, moaning on about their husbands. Nikki shrugged her shoulders in despair. Anyone would think that they were imprisoned by extra quality time with their husbands at such a family oriented time of the year, or so the films on TV would have everyone believe.
"Jesus, am I glad to get home to normality," Nikki exclaimed as she threw her coat onto the coat hook into the large front hall.
"You mean life at work isn't normal?" Helen teased. Nikki laughed tersely in reply at the joke. Helen concluded that her attempt at a joke had hit a sensitive nerve. She made no further comment until they were sat down on the large sofa and Nikki had kicked off her shoes.
"I don't know if it's just the novelty of being back at work wearing off but it beats me how I end up at work with all the most narrow minded people in the world, my boss worst of all. They have to be seen to be believed."
"Would you have been spared all that with running that club of yours? Are you saying that lesbians monopolize all the virtues?"
Nikki was struck by Helen's soft perceptive question. She couldn't give a snap answer, as she would be the first to admit that she'd lived anything but an orthodox life. She wasn't clear at all on what an 'average life' was like anyway.
"I'm not certain, Helen. I need to think that one over In my youth, I really believed in the sisterhood. I've always had ideals. Without them, you're lonely no matter how crowded the room is. I thought that women with women were more tender, more sensitive, more caring about each other and a lot of times they were. Couples broke up, sure, and it left a lot of bitterness behind. You didn't have any problems about whose side you were on as everyone accepted that you had a right to whatever loyalties you had. Of course there were basically straight women who were on the fringes who wanted a 'typical lesbian' to experiment with and then go straight back to the land of heterosexuality. They might have got some illicit thrill out of it all. It wasn't exactly the same for any woman on the receiving end."
"You're talking about yourself," put in Helen, placing her hand tenderly on Nikki's sleeve. She's picked up on the suppressed anger in the flat, dispassionate tones.
The other woman smiled and nodded as her lover's presence gently soothed her dark memories.
"I once told Barbara that I'd had affairs with straight women before who didn't know what truth meant as they were so used to manipulating men. Yeah, there were the bad times as well as good times in my past .you know, when I was in Larkhall, we had all the reason in the world to bitch about what was going on . What I didn't know that there are straight women who'll manipulate and backstab everyone in sight given half a chance and for such stupid petty reasons they really don't care what harm they do."
" Whereas we have a choice in how we live our lives. So come on, was I on the hate list along with Jim Fenner?" chimed in Helen with a little smile on her face. She'd known well enough to let Nikki's mind drift where it chose.
"Not you, darling you were perfect apart from occasional lapses in wanting to rule the world," Nikki replied sliding her arm round Helen's shoulder and giving her a long kiss. Being held by her made all the difference. During her drifting monologue, she'd stared sightlessly off to space, feeling all that sense of abandoned loneliness when there was less need to feel that way than she felt.
"We'd normally bitch about Fenner and Bodybag for every good reason under the sun but we were different amongst ourselves. I remember what Yvonne was like. She was the wife of a gangland criminal but there was no bullshit about her. She was as honest as they came. I'd have the odd argument with her, we'd shout at each other and next minute, we'd be best friends. A friend there was a real friend and an enemy like Dockley was an enemy. At least she was honest with me in her own twisted way When I first started work, I got the feeling that everything was prim and proper even though their heterosexuality was so resounding. Everything is so emotionally constipated in contrast with prison. I could live with that like, hey, this is a different world than I've been used to so I'd better get used to it. I laid it on the line when I started just who I was and even put a small picture of you on my desk so there could be no misunderstandings better to start off with a clean slate as I once told you "
" .and now, you're not so sure."
"I really don't know who to trust, that's what it comes down to. You know what I'm like. When I'm around people I'm paranoid about, I feel like lashing out. I know very well how stupid that is as I'd get the sack just when I want to build up some regular job credentials, even such a shit job as this."
Helen was speechless. She'd assumed that Nikki was moderately content. Certainly she wasn't doing half the job that her work experience and degree called for but she never thought that Nikki was as miserable as this. It brought back painful memories of when she first became wing governor at Larkhall. She knew, she empathized.
"Have you any friends at work or anyone halfway resembling a friend? You need one."
Nikki laughed shortly at the total irony of the situation.
"It's really funny but the one person I can really talk to when it's quiet is a guy called Tony. He's quiet, withdrawn and right on the edges of the office gossip machine. Strangely enough, he's straight."
"Careful, Nikki, or there'll be tongues wagging about you."
That delicious sly humour and Helen's gleaming smile made Nikki laugh out loud and disperse the black cloud that was hanging over her. She couldn't help but admire the way Helen had made all her enemies at work look absurd and really believe it. She needed that sense of release.
"I really ought to write to Yvonne and Barbara and Shaz. I promised to do so," uttered Nikki with a choked falter in her tones. "I need to."
"So long as there is something positive you can tell them. Perhaps later this weekend when you feel better."
The tears ran down Nikki's cheeks and her chin set squarer and firmer than her lips were. Helen silently drew Nikki's head down to her breasts. Nikki clung to Helen and drank in the faint healing perfume that exuded from her. The sheer silence and the gentle feel of Helen's slim fingers on her skin started to break through her despair, if only for one night. Thank God for Friday nights, she thought, as did a disturbingly high proportion of the working population.
"I thought you were going to ask me why I hadn't told you about this before," Nikki suddenly asked in a small voice against Helen's soft skin.
"It isn't necessary. I know you'd want to buckle down to your first job outside Larkhall and you'd need to work it out in your mind first before you can tell me. It's the way it goes."
"Thank you, Helen .for understanding," Nikki said with heartfelt emotion, her voice breaking slightly.
"Right, Helen. I'm going to scour the papers straight away, sign up to any private employment agencies, anything and get the hell out of this place. My mind is made up,"
vowed Nikki a little while later. It meant that her present job was as temporary as she wanted to make it. She knew instinctively that she had put the worst of her torments and indecisions behind her. It was the same with all her decisions.
"Sounds right to me," chimed in Helen." If there's any way I can help, let me know or if you don't want my help, feel free to do it on your own, with my emotional support."
Nikki smiled in pure bliss in reply. There were times when she had faced hardships in life but this wasn't one of them. She was happiest in life with a partner for all her sense of independence.
"While I'm about it, I've recently noticed that my passport has run out," she added carelessly," I guess I need to get that renewed."
"You've got something in mind, Nikki. I can tell."
"If we get to scrape the money together, what do you say about a holiday to San Francisco? I've always had dreams of heading out there, so that we can walk down the street holding hands and nobody cares."
There was a distant faraway look in Nikki's eyes and Helen knew that this was no idle whim.
"Weren't you going to tell me what it was like to be growing up," Helen enquired tentatively while an intense feeling of peace percolated down on them both.
Nikki put her hand to her head in despair. She had promised Helen that. A promise was a promise. It would give her the sense of helping Helen out in return. She had started delving back into her past and the time felt right.
"Right. You sit down and I'll make a cup of tea for us both. It will give me the best chance to collect my thoughts and get talking."
"You want help in being able to do that?"
Nikki stuck her tongue out in reply and headed for the kitchen. Helen sat back with a feeling of well being at the soothing sounds of domesticity. Previously, this had been her empire where she ruled but was happy to share it with the neat and methodical Nikki.
"So, what was it like growing up in a family with nearly two point four kids. Well, you've seen my parents but only on our home territory. Let's just say that I really found growing up where I lived really boring. I was always an inquisitive child, always asked questions and especially why things should be as they are. I ran my mother out of questions very quickly and, when he was around, my father got to see me as some kind of mutinous seaman he couldn't really order about. I was a child then, couldn't have views of my own according to them. My older brother was just bland, accepted what he was told to accept. It didn't take long before I grew up to outsmart him in arguments. You wouldn't be surprised to know that I was a bit of a tomboy, always climbing trees. That was OK but what happens when you expected to grow up and out of it? There seemed no ready made answer whichever way I looked, certainly not where I grew up. I figured out that I had to look for my own answers, whatever they might be. I suppose I've taken that philosophy through my entire life. Looking back at everything, I think that was why my parents sent me off to boarding school, to train me to become a lady, a stab at getting me who they wanted to be."
"Some hope. So what was it like, being at boarding school? "
". It was just another hierarchical society to get through, with lower forms, upper forms, prefects and teachers. I didn't mind being away from home, such as it was. What I still can't understand is just what those who owned the school expected in penning up adolescent girls together for months on end and get married off, lie there and think of England and bring up kids to go through exactly the sort of institutionalization I was put through "
"So you learnt to become a rebel there."
"Boarding schools can turn out the most tenacious kind of rebels and also those who are utterly conformist, empty air heads. As I became a teenager, half the girls were daydreaming of men and the other half kept quiet and just didn't talk about them.
"So did boys ever make any kind of impression on you?"
"I didn't mind them. I had no problems with them. They didn't real to me or anything else that didn't grab my interest."
"I remember ages ago you telling me that men weren't your flavour."
"It's just that anyone I was close to was another girl. Being in an all girls' school gave me that very convenient camouflage. I was always fiercely protective of a girl who was being picked on by some of the bullies, either with my mouth or my fists. I didn't care who I made enemies of."
"So what is it like when you first fall in love, or something like it?
"Just the same as when you had your first boyfriend. Naturally, I'm not in a position to compare notes but it seemed perfectly natural but I was always one to go my own way on things. Let's face it, I wasn't the only one to indulge in 'lesbian activities' as the headmistress charmingly called it. I suspect now I think about it that half the teachers were dykes but they'd never admit it so they inflicted all their false hand me down values on us all to cover up their own guilt. When I was 'outed' thanks to the neighbourhood sneak, I was made the scapegoat. I was hauled before the headmistress and lectured at for hours. I felt as if I were on trial for my lifestyle and forbidden to defend myself."
A feeling of rage burned through Nikki as her scathing anger recalled being on the wrong side of the old fashioned desk, the seat of power only for doing what she felt was right. Those past feelings felt so real, of love and betrayal and blazing feelings of injustice. Helen's thoughtful expression slowly came back into focus.
"I'm sorry, darling, I haven't been much use to you, just rambling away about my past. I know that it doesn't have much, if anything, to what you'd been through. You must have had such a different path to travel, especially this last year and a bit."
"Shush, sweetheart. It doesn't matter where we come from. It matters much more where we get to. I wanted to hear about your life. Every little detail matters to me."
This time, Helen came right back to her present. This was her reality and not the ghosts of the past. She smiled freely and her arms went to receive her beloved. She would write letters to her old friends, get some application forms off in the post and renew her passport. A couple of weeks in San Francisco would be the ideal treat for them both.
Claire watched with contempt the way Alan Partridge gave the impression that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He had that look of pink-faced innocence and his public school accent wasn't loud and arrogant which might have rubbed a jury up the wrong way, especially one that was composed of decent working class Londoners. His manner was polite and regretful. She had to hand it to him that he didn't obviously badmouth her client. Either he was the superb con artist, who had deceived her client, or he had been cleverly coached or else he was really innocent. Even Tony Blair in his prime couldn't have done a better performance in giving an impression of sincerity. As the testimony continued, Claire started to doubt if an average jury wouldn't belief that Zoë hadn't consented to a sexual relationship, especially in the low-key way that he spoke. As the testimony continued, she hoped with all her heart that Jo Mills would pick apart the case.
Finally, Jo Mills rose to her feet to begin the cross-examination. She was fully aware of the lowering presence of Sir Ian Rochester and his sidekick, Lawrence James sitting at the back of the court like dark, threatening statues. She was in the same keyed-up frame of mind that an actor feels, just before going on stage. Claire caught her eye and willed as much encouragement as she could at her based on sheer faith. Taking a deep breath and moving away from the rail, Jo adopted the poised stance that made her feel most comfortable and started her attack.
"Mr. Partridge, I have listened with close interest to your obvious clarity of speaking in giving evidence. Would you describe yourself as someone who is above average intelligence?"
"I would like to think I am. Of course, those who know me best will be best able to tell."
Jo smiled cynically at the man's assumed modesty. In reality, she had appealed to his vanity and he had taken the bait.
"I take it this is a definite yes."
"So intelligent that I refer you to item 4B in the bundle of evidence. It shows GCSE grades, 4 Grade A's, 3 grade Bs and 2 grade Cs in July 1997 and 3 A levels, 2 grade Bs and 1 grade C in July 1999. Is it a reasonable conclusion that your understanding in general, both reading and verbal is similarly above average?"
"I'm good at passing examinations, that's all."
"Come come, Mr. Partridge, you are being over modest. Can you really maintain that your proven abilities as demonstrated on the written page won't translate to verbal understanding?"
"I've spent my education in all boys institutions. It doesn't mean that I'm some expert on women."
"That isn't something that deterred from you going to the pub in question to pick up a woman on some random chance. That demonstrates a level of self confidence, does it not?"
"I was feeling in a fairly good mood that night. That might have made the difference."
"So when evidence given by Miss Carson that she tried to decline accepting a lift from you, someone you hadn't met until that night, is it really likely that you wouldn't understand the meaning of the words, that she was expressing a genuine reluctance."
"Well, some girls say no when really they mean yes. It's common knowledge," he muttered sulkily to Denis Frobisher's obvious embarrassment.
"Some girls say no when they really mean yes," Jo Mills echoed loudly, sweeping her arm in a dramatic gesture and smiling at the jury, whose composition included a fair number of middle aged men and women." I leave it to the jury to place a proper interpretation on these words."
Claire gleefully watched the masterly way that Jo allowed a long enough pause for her words to sink in before returning to the attack.
"So how do you account for the way you turned down the lane in question away from the route back to Miss Carson's parent's house?"
"It was an understood thing that she wanted a bit of fun and games first."
"Just how was it understood by Miss Carson?"
"Not in so many words. I could tell by her manner."
"Assisted by your excellent intelligence despite no words being uttered by Miss Carson to this effect."
"I can only tell you what I saw and heard. You weren't there that night," Alan Partridge added sneakily.
"Oh, from what evidence has been given in court, that absence is one that any woman would be glad to have been blessed with."
"Objection. My learned friend's questioning is verging on the personal and abusive," Donald Frobisher's acid tones cut through the tension that was gripping the courtroom.
"I withdraw that last remark," Jo Mills added very quickly, realizing that while the sarcasm with which that last crack had been delivered, it strayed too far into Donald Frobisher's territory. John Deed nodded with satisfaction at Jo's prudence.
"I am turning to the evidence of the torn clothing which Miss Carson wore that night as Exhibit A. Can you explain how the clothes have got to be in that state?"
"Zoë could have done itself to try and blacken her name."
"Like the forensic report of the internal injuries inflicted on her?" Jo Mills shot back.
An electric silence hung on the air as the veil in front of the truth was being precisely pulled aside.
"Mr. Partridge, how many girlfriends have you had this year?"
"And when you are courting them, how would you describe your behaviour?"
"Let's put it this way, I have had no complaints."
"Is this because you have done nothing to be complained about or else that, for some reason, the potential complainants have been reluctant to come forward?"
"Of course not. If I had done anything to be complained about, I would have heard about it soon enough."
"From who, Mr. Partridge? Do they come from families in some social proximity to yours? Is that why such consequences would be visited on you 'soon enough' as you put it?"
Alan Partridge sat there red-faced, tension in every muscle of his body. He was trapped by this implacable woman, who was steadily demolishing his case. A strong-minded, intelligent woman like her brought out a latent fury in him close to the surface.
"I insist on an answer, Mr. Partridge. The jury is waiting to hear from you."
"Mr. Partridge, you have been asked a direct question which is material to the case. To refuse to answer would place you in contempt of court," intervened John quietly but forcefully.
"You might say that my family knows theirs," came the sulky response.
"No further questions, my lord," Jo Mills concluded, with that rush of elated emotion through her system from having fought her way to the truth and laid it out for all to see.
"Have you any questions, Mr. Frobisher?" John Deed asked the other barrister who was looking red-faced and impotent.
"Mr. Partridge, as someone whose character has never before been called into question, can you repeat what you said earlier on, that sexual intercourse between you and Miss Carson was consensual."
"Can you explain for the benefit of the jury just why this is the case?"
"If I might explain, it ought to be understood that sex amongst the younger generation is more varied, more innovative than in previous generations and what might be questioned in an earlier generation is taken for granted these days."
John Deed smiled cynically at the impertinence of the man though he had to hand it to him to be able to come up so resourcefully with a plausible argument so smoothly after being hard pressed. His own sexual experiences over the decades, frequently with younger women, led him to conclude the remark a total falsehood. Had this young man not been called to account in court, he might have easily been a politician in the making. Neil Haughton was the finest example of how such self-delusion and the gift of the gab worked hand in hand. The association of the two trains of thought and his irresistible urge to intervene once overcame his sense of discretion.
"You talk, Mr. Partridge, as if sexual mores are universal for each generation. There is the false presumption that everyone behaves in the same way as those in the public eye, especially untenable for that most private of acts. It is more likely that some people are more traditionally minded than others. What led you to believe that, in effect, Miss Carson consented to sexual intercourse despite indications that might have indicated otherwise, someone you had never met before in your life?"
Jo Mills was torn between two violently contradictory emotions, one being exasperation that John had once again interfered, putting her nose out of joint and the other being delirious joy that he had delivered so expertly the final knock out punch.
"I can't say anything specific. You get these feelings about people," he said lamely.
John Deed smiled enigmatically to himself while the jury made restive noises to themselves. Donald Frobisher covered his eyes with total embarrassment at how his client had sunk himself with one sentence while Jo Mills had to stop herself smirking openly. Sir Ian glowered at John Deed who affected to be oblivious of him while Lawrence James like the good civil servant, took notes.
"Do you have no further questions to ask the defendant, my lord?" Donald Frobisher asked wearily.
"Not if you don't," John replied in quiet faintly amused tones." Court is adjourned."
Claire was thrilled and couldn't wait to join Jo Mills as everyone poured out of the court, and out of the back doors.. As Clair threaded her way over to Jo in the foyer, the other woman had a big, triumphant smile on her face.
"Congratulations, Jo. You did a wonderful job in the cross examination."
"I feel we're on the home straight, now but not entirely out of the woods. Do you want to come back to my office for a coffee? I need to unwind a bit. Your company would help."
Jo's manner was definitely close mouthed and Claire maintained a respectful silence as Jo drove them back to her office. Jo's mind was starting to be on the next reel of the movie as good barristers ought to be. She closed the door behind them in a fairly definite fashion.
"I didn't want to say too much in the foyer. There are too many people who can overhear you there."
"You mean those too officials who were in the visitor's gallery? Did you notice them?"
"Didn't I just. I could feel them glaring daggers into the side of my head."
She dumped her briefcase into a corner of the office and placed her wig and gown on the side.
"Ah well, I've only got my closing speech tomorrow and the whole thing is in the lap of the gods."
"You mean John Deed?"
Jo laughed aloud at such a comment, which said more than Claire actually knew of the situation. She poured out a comforting cup of tea for each of them to busy her hands.
"Well, I bet you anything that the two of them, Sir Ian Rochester, the LCD Permanent Secretary and his sidekick Lawrence James, the circuit administrator, will be heading for John's chambers to pressurize him into handing down some insignificant sentence. You know that Alan Partridge's family has connections."
"But they couldn't do that, Jo," Claire exclaimed," That's outright corruption."
Jo smiled a faint weary smile. She felt a century older than this young, fresh-faced conscientious helpful woman. No doubt she looked and felt the same when she had first been exposed to the murkier goings on of high profile cases. By contrast, she felt contaminated by what she knew even if it helped her to avoid the obvious pitfalls. She squared the circle in justifying it as necessary self-protective knowledge.
"They will, Claire but you must remember that John is extremely stubborn, often infuriatingly so and the more he is pushed to act in a particular way, the more he wants to do the exact opposite."
"You're fond of him, Jo." It was less a question than a statement of fact as Claire watched a light of affection and pleasure illuminate her features, even when a note of exasperation entered her voice.
"I admire and respect him. He was my pupil master who saw me through law school. He and his ideals represent everything I have ever aspired to be. It, he is a living example, someone who is rare to find these days."
"So, is this your first experience of a high profile case, Claire," Jo asked presently. She did it to make polite conversation as they sipped their cups of tea in relaxation. Jo's eyelids were starting to droop over her blue eyes in sheer exhaustion.
"Not the first one, Jo. I worked on the Nikki Wade appeal."
Jo's eyes opened wide with astonishment. In her world, that was a positive cause celebre. She fired off a series of well-informed questions and Claire's memory banks retrieved the information more faultlessly than on other more mundane cases.
"So the conviction was reduced to three year's manslaughter," Jo enquired, a meditative expression on her face.
"Everyone was hugely relieved at the verdict. There was quite enough sheer slog in petitioning the Home Office for leave to appeal. What I remember most of all was the verdict. First of all, The Appeal Court judge froze our nerves with his talk of 'Nikki Wade taking the life of D C Gossard in a most vicious manner' as if he were readying himself to reach for the black cap, metaphorically speaking, and then he backed off by stating that Nikki Wade had acted under provocation by Gossard.
Jo's blue eyes looked keenly at Claire as a train of thought was started. She knew herself to trust such instincts and to follow them whichever unexpected way they led. What she didn't know was what had triggered off the thought or had some distant memory prompted her?
"That's not the line of defence I would have run or am I missing something?"
Claire raised her eyebrows. On the one hand, Jo was being a bit critical of Marian Chambers who had worked miracles that day but her training to be open minded bade her listen to this highly talented barrister who had impressed her.
"Don't get me wrong, I've come across Marian Chambers before. She did a fine job in destroying the credibility of a policeman, no easy task but by running provocation, she was only seeking a mitigating factor. I'm surprised that she didn't run 'acting in defence of another.'
This was a total bombshell to Claire. Her mind started to engage with Jo's rapid confident exposition of her case as if she had personally been at the court hearing. She could see the possibilities open up before her. She wondered why they hadn't occurred to her before.
John strolled back to his chambers in his usual leisurely fashion. It was his habit to regard it as his haven, to seek calm and contemplation with only the soothing presence of Coope, quietly working in the background. However, he suspected his luck would be out. He had been highly aware of Sir Ian and Lawrence James, sitting in the visitor's gallery like dark threatening statues. He knew that he'd behaved with all the willful recklessness of a delinquent school kid throwing a stone through a greenhouse window. He was equally aware that he would be visited by the forces of authority, roused to fury by the reverberating crash. His trouble was that something in his psychological make up that relished the confrontation, especially against petty authority.
Sure enough, he had barely sat down to a cup of tea when a misleadingly restrained tap on the door greeted his ears and both of them entered the room.
"A cup of tea?" he offered. There was a time and place for polite preliminaries though he doubted that they would seriously blunten the attack. He poured three cups of tea and offered them round. However, even the restrained clinking of the silver spoons against the china sounded like the drumbeats of approaching war.
"I'm sure you know why we're here to visit you, John. It's about this wretched Alan Partridge rape case."
"Wretched certainly for the victim, most certainly. It is highly likely that there will be those amongst the jury who are bound to feel sympathy for her. They may well take a correspondingly hard line against rapists, no matter what their social origin."
"Come come, John, that's pitching it a bit strong."
"Not where I'm coming from, Ian," muttered John in a mutinous tone of voice that undercut Sir Ian's false heartiness.
Sir Ian pulled himself together with a great effort and suppressed the rising tide of anger within him. Asking him to consider the fate of one of England's most prominent wealth creators seemed the height of futility. Having tried this and every other gambit before and failed, he resorted to the Classics. Perhaps an approach out in left field might work.
"I wonder if you would consider a merciful approach to Alan Partridge, John," Sir Ian continued in soothing tones which temporarily threw John off balance. He had been prepared for threats and bluster." Shakespeare put it most eloquently in 'The Merchant of Venice.'
'The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes .'"
" 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown,'"
continued John in rolling mellow tones without a pause. Even if he might be considered to be showing off, he did what he knew best with temptation, which was to surrender to it. It seemed a good idea at the time as it always did to him.
" 'His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.' "
"I rather fancy that from the way the trial is stacking up, Ian, this strict court of mine is very likely to give sentence against Alan Partridge. Of course, there's no accounting for juries."
"You are being deliberately awkward and perverse, John. You may have the right to misquote Shakespeare if you insist. What you cannot ignore is the danger that you will cause a political storm of the first magnitude is if you impose a vindictive custodial sentence on the man. All the right-wing press will be baying for your blood and no one from the LCD will lift a finger to defend you."
John laughed in the man's face with that measure of contempt, which both inflamed his anger and diminished him psychologically.
"Assuming it comes to that, Ian," John said lazily with the faintest yawn in his voice," they will no doubt expend their extremely limited invective on me and then pass on to some other target. The attention span of the press is notoriously fickle, Ian as you know very well."
"I can see that there is no possible advantage in carrying on this unseemly row. All I can tell you is to advise you to be very, very careful."
Sir Ian glared at John with as much force of personality as he could summon up, stood up haughtily and made for the door, Lawrence James remaining blank-faced. John merely shrugged his shoulders and sipped the rest of his cup of tea while Coope emerged discreetly from the background. She had learned to take stand up rows in the chambers in her stride. At least, life working as PA to John Deed was never boring.
"Ian," rumbled Joe with a quick flash of a smile at the other man as the door silently opened." It's an unexpected pleasure for the call. Do you want a drink?"
"Not before lunch, Joe," said the relentlessly abstemious Sir Ian. His rapid strides from John's chambers to Joe Channing had calmed him down sufficiently for Mandarin habits of decorum to take full control once again.
"Then you don't mind if I do," Joe Channing blithely replied as he reached for his whisky decanter and a glass. "Now, to what do I owe you your company?"
Sir Ian hesitated a second and began to speak slowly in a careful, conspiratorial fashion, as if he were wary of being overheard.
"I've got a bit of a problem with Deed ."
" .don't we all, Ian .." Joe Channing guffawed, eliciting a brief smile in return.
" .it's just that there's a tricky case going through court involving young Alan Partridge who's got himself into something of a scrape. Deed's sitting on a rather unpleasant case where he's supposed to have attacked some girl he picked up in a pub. The whole situation is delicate as his father is a self made man, the kind that finds favour with the government these days. He's not just a wealth creator but one who's what you would call a 'self made man.' Both he and his son are in the public eye and the father is one who the government feels sets our country an especially good example of hard work and dedication. I've sat in on the most recent day's hearing and it looks as if Deed is in one of his more than averagely perverse, vindictive moods. The whole case is one where if a little leniency is observed, it will more than pay for himself in the long run."
"When you say, attacked, do you mean just physically?"
"I think it may be a little more than that."
Joe's face was completely immobile. He put two and two together and concluded that this case was the very heart-rending one that he had sat in on. The young girl struck him as genuine enough. She might have been his beloved granddaughter Charlie who was up at university and not even under the over permissive shelter of her father's roof. He started to feel very uncomfortable and hoped that Sir Ian would make his brief point and quietly disappear.
"So how lenient do you call lenient?" Joe enquired as casually as he could to fabricate the right pitch of the necessary mannerism to suit the occasion.
"I had in mind a suspended sentence," Sir Ian spoke with elaborate care," It would be enough to give him a severe warning and teach him to behave himself in future. In the very unlikely event that should he ever reoffend, he would, of course place himself beyond the pale and he would take the consequences for any new offence but the old one as well."
"You have no doubt that the lad was guilty of the offence in question?"
"I was only making contingency plans should the worst come to the worst," Sir Ian maintained coolly." It is, of course, up to the court to decide guilt or innocence."
"You are asking rather a lot of me. You know very well that, if convicted, a custodial sentence is normally both right and proper. The only question might well be, how long a sentence. We would be laying ourselves open to public criticism of being unduly soft in crime."
"Joe, we can't allow a night out with some nameless tart to spoil the reputation of the son of once of this country's wealth creator. So much has been built up of Keith Partridge, how he struggled for success in the American styled 'rags to riches' style. There is too much bound up in him to let his reputation be sullied by association. You have to see that, in the greater good, he is not expendable. A slap on the wrist, true contrition for his lapses and the lad will no doubt follow in his father's footsteps. All his friends speak well of him."
Joe thought hard and deep as Sir Ian reacted with an unexpected flash of irritation. He was red in the face and his tone of his voice sounded hard and unfeeling. He remembered looking down on the girl concerned and feeling sorry for her. It could have been his beloved granddaughter Charlie giving evidence in the witness box. The words 'nameless tart' rang a horribly discordant tone in his ear.
It made him feel all the more disturbed, the longer he thought about the matter. He felt as if he was being unduly pressured by Sir Ian. He wanted space to think but wasn't being allowed this grace. He could not see quite for the life of him why Sir Ian thought he had influence with John but he wasn't going to tell him that. Instinct made him conceal his hand at all costs. Joe took another sip of his malt whisky and another memory swam its way to his surface consciousness.
'I'd pass the word round that there is plenty of room for a natural understanding between the Home Office and the learned judges of this country. All of us are there to help the hard working men and women, yes and children too, to sleep peacefully in their beds tonight,' he heard someone say to him once. Was it only a couple of months ago when Neil Haughton smiled like a Cheshire Cat and poured oil on troubled waters, promising not to restrict the power of the judges. Of course he wasn't not yet. His intellect was too sharp not to see how he had smiled so fatuously at Haughton, he and Monty smug in his assumption of superior savoir-faire to John. Somewhere from that accursed circle, an attempt was being made right now to nobble him, very discreetly, very deviously. After he like the others had all rolled over and died, it would be the easiest thing in the world for Haughton's cronies to finally go for the jugular.
As he reflected on the recent trend of events, on the growing appetite for control in the Home Office guidelines, he remembered happier days when a judge like him was perfectly able to make up his own mind without some nitwit from the Home Office lecturing him on how to do his job. The trend was insidious and only became revealed as one when he looked close enough and tuned in to what this man was saying to him. Every one of the judges hung back from acting as conscience dictated, all except John. He started to suspect that the man was more far sighted than he gave him credit for and that he'd misjudged the man.
"So where do I enter the picture, Ian?"
"You might reason with Deed as his ex father in law."
"Have you had a word with him yourself?"
"I have, but regrettably he wouldn't listen. I may have been a little precipitate in my manner."
"So you see that smooth reason might succeed, my words of silver tongued guile for instance?"
"Something like that."
"Hmmn" Joe murmured reflectively. "You are asking a lot of me. I have not been on good terms with Deed for years but, in the exceptional case, which you are pointing out to me, I will try for the greater good. Of course, I might not succeed."
Joe felt a growing desire to speak to the man to clarify his thoughts but not on Sir Ian's agenda, in fact quite the opposite. He was becoming increasingly determined that Sir Ian's plan should not succeed if he had anything to do with it.
"I have faith in your natural abilities, Joe."
There you are, Joe thought bitterly to himself. At one time he might have acted in the same way that a cat might behave when being tickled under its ear. The ploy was obvious.
"Leave it to me, Ian. I shall leave Deed time to cool down before I approach him. "
"I am happy to leave it to your sense of discretion and timing. In the meantime I must be going elsewhere. I get so little spare time these days."
Joe smiled vaguely in Sir Ian's general direction. Keep smiling, he thought to himself, right up until the door was closed.
Joe sat in his chair, a kaleidoscope of thoughts whirling round in his head. He drank deeply of the glass of whisky. From deep within him, long damned up feeling of rage welled up inside him, like a lava flow breaking the bounds of what had held them back. He was a curious observer to the violence of his feelings and he was curiously elated to feel this way.
"Weasels, damned weasels," he raged at the world. His anger made him feel a whole lot better and made him realize that he'd missed out on a whole chunk of his life. It lay within his hands to reclaim it.
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