DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betaed by Jen.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and One

When Jo awoke on the Sunday morning, it took her a moment or two to remember where she was. But as she lay under the duvet, listening to the birds through the slightly open window, it all came back to her. George had got about as drunk as she, Jo, had been, on the night Jason Powell had died. George had finally admitted to being suicidal, and all because of John's total lack of sensitivity. They'd exchanged some very deep confidences, not something they'd done for quite a while. Then, when all the talking, crying, and even a little shouting was over, she had actually kissed George. She, Jo, who had never kissed a woman in her life, and who regarded herself as sexually unadventurous, had voluntarily, all of her own accord, kissed another woman, kissed George. She had no idea what had made her do it, except that she was so angry and so worried about George, on realising what she'd been intending to do, that all her feelings for this complicated woman had come out in a rush. Jo knew they'd been getting closer, and she wouldn't have had it any other way. But added to this feeling of very deep affection, had been her colossal reaction to what had happened two weeks before. The fact that she'd been thinking of George, when she'd been brought to orgasm, clearly meant that she had the capacity to be attracted to a woman, so what did that make her? She really didn't know. Jo knew she had enjoyed that kiss, or both kisses if she was strictly honest, but she also knew that any feelings she might have for George in that respect, had to be banished before they emerged. George was with Karen, not her. She was also aware that whilst John might make the odd, light suggestion about being with them both at once, anything more serious would terrify him. It would frighten him immensely that both of the women he loved, could one day stop needing him in their lives. As much as John had clearly hurt George, both recently and in the past, Jo wasn't about to hurt him herself. He was obviously still very insecure about George and Karen, and Jo wasn't about to make that worse. Besides, George might not even remember what had happened last night, never mind want anything to come of it. Yes, last night, Jo had been determined to remember every second of it, but now, in the cold light of day, she knew that it had to be forgotten.

After having a long, hot shower to wake herself up, Jo went downstairs to make a cup of tea. It was only nine thirty, and she thought that George would probably sleep a good while longer. Opening the French windows to let in some air, she stood with her cup of tea and looked out on the garden. It was the first of May, and spring was well and truly here. A light breeze ruffled the flowers, and the birds flitted in and out of the trees, tending to their young. When Jo went back inside, she picked up their glasses from the coffee table. After washing them and emptying the ashtray, she picked up the newspaper, intending to sit down and read it for a while. But when she lifted up Saturday's copy of The Guardian, Jo stared at the packet of sleeping pills that had been revealed. So, George really had been intent on going through with it. She must have hidden them under the newspaper, when the doorbell had rung the night before. It brought a rush of tears to Jo's eyes, to know that George felt so low, that she had seriously considered killing herself. Slipping the tablets into the pocket of her skirt, Jo made George a cup of tea and went to wake her.

As George drifted into gradual awareness, vague memories of the night before began to emerge. The later the evening had become, the patchier were her recollections of what had happened. One thing was definitely very odd though. Waking up in bed entirely naked was normal, that's how she slept nearly all the time, and waking up wearing a nightie, that would also have been fine. But waking up wearing nothing but a pair of knickers, that was different. She groaned aloud when she realised that Jo must have put her to bed. Jesus, just how drunk had she really been? She was lying half on her left side, and vowed to stay as still as possible for the foreseeable future. But when she heard Jo enter the room, and put what sounded like a mug down on the bedside table, she opened one bleary eye.

"What time is it?" She asked, as Jo sat down on the side of the bed.

"Nearly ten o'clock. How do you feel?"

"Stupid, miserable, and hung over."

"I've brought you a cup of tea, if you think you can stomach it."

"Thank you," She said, though still not wanting to move. Then, after a moment, she asked, "Jo, did I do, or say, anything totally outrageous last night?" Jo smiled in spite of her concern.

"You didn't do anything you need to worry about," She said evasively, still not sure if George remembered their kiss.

"That doesn't exactly fill me with confidence," George said dryly, slowly turning onto her back to face Jo. But as she made to sit up, she remembered how little she was wearing. Squinting up at Jo, George became aware of the trace of recent tears in her eyes. "You've been crying," She stated quietly.

"Not really," Jo replied, feeling a little uncomfortable. "I found these, and it upset me, that's all." Removing the sleeping pills from her pocket, she dropped them on the bedside table. Glancing at them, George was assailed with a feeling of guilt.

"I'm sorry, Jo," George said soberly, feeling such a sense of desolate aloneness, that it made her want to reach out for Jo, to be back in her arms again, to... "Oh, no!" She moaned, covering her face with her hands. "No, no, no. Please, tell me I didn't do anything quite so stupid as that?" That was what had happened, she had kissed Jo. God, the feel of her lips had been incredible, she could remember that much, but what in the world had made her do it?

"George," Jo said with a faint smile. "Before you entirely die of humiliation, you might be interested to know, that it was I who kissed you, not the other way round. So, as I said, you didn't do anything you need to worry about."

"Are you sure?" George asked, staring up at her in amazement. "I mean, it's not... You're not..." She couldn't find the right words.

"If you're asking what made me do it, I couldn't possibly tell you. But I shouldn't have done, and I'm sorry. I was just so angry with you," She added, the tears again rising to her eyes. "You really were considering killing yourself, and you couldn't even tell me. If you'd been sober, you wouldn't have let it slip out in the way you did. I couldn't bear it if you did that. But it's not just that. Do you have any idea how thin you actually look? When I arrived last night, I could tell with a glance that you'd barely eaten all week, but when you came upstairs and undressed to go to bed, I could have counted every rib. It hurts me, every time you do this. I know you don't want to hear it, but it does."

"Jo, please calm down," George said slowly but firmly, reaching out to take Jo's hands in hers. "From what I can remember, I know I upset you last night, and I'm sorry for that. I didn't want you to know how I was feeling, because I know it hurts you when I do feel like this. As for the not eating, I know that hurts you too, and believe me, if I could stop myself doing it, I would. But you know that things like that aren't quite so simple. I don't know how to explain what I was thinking before you arrived last night, because I would do anything not to have to feel like that again. You know what provoked it, and I know that you think my reasons for it silly and incredibly unjust, but if it makes you feel better, I don't want to lose you either."

"I'm sorry," Jo said, feeling silly herself now. "I just can't bear the thought, that I might have left it another day before coming to see you."

"Don't, don't think like that," George said in a slightly choked voice. "It won't do either of us any good." Pulling herself into a sitting position, she tugged the duvet upwards to cover as much of her body as possible. As she put out her arms, Jo clung to her, both of them desperately needing the safety and comfort of each other's embrace. It didn't occur to Jo that she had her arms full of a half-naked George, until George murmured something into her shoulder.

"What did you say?" She said, gently touching George's cheek.

"I said, for a kiss that wasn't supposed to happen, it was really quite incredible."

"So I'm forgiven then?" Jo asked with a shaky smile.

"Nothing to forgive," George said, detaching herself from Jo's hold. "But we do need to talk about it."

"That, and other things," Jo said seriously, remembering the other subject she needed to broach very carefully some time today. "So, while I suggest you get another couple of hours sleep, I am going home to get some clothes. After at least one of the conversations I know we're going to have some time today, you might end up feeling as bad as you did last night. So I'm afraid that you'll have my company until tomorrow."

"You don't have to," George told her, feeling a trifle guilty.

"Oh, yes I do," Jo said firmly. "Because I am not taking any chances with someone as resourceful in such matters as you clearly are."

As George rolled herself back up in the duvet and drifted off to sleep, thinking about nothing but that kiss the night before, Jo drove away, praying that George really would stay asleep till she returned. On reaching her house, she changed her clothes, threw some more into a bag, and got back in the car. But as she began the drive back to George's, she passed the turning off towards Karen's flat. George would probably be asleep for another hour at least, so it wouldn't hurt to stop and put Karen in the picture. She found Karen doing the ironing and listening to something that thankfully wasn't Haydn.

"Would you like a coffee?" Karen asked, when they'd reached the lounge. Saying she would, Jo sank gratefully into an armchair. Karen could tell that something was wrong, because Jo looked not only tired, but emotionally on edge.

"What's happened?" She asked, putting a steaming mug into Jo's hands, and moving her basket of ironing off the sofa so she could sit down.

"I went to see George last night, and I'm heartily glad I did."

"Why?" Karen looked and sounded extremely worried.

"Calm down," Jo said persuasively. "She's all right, just. She was in the middle of getting very drunk when I arrived, and judging by the packet of sleeping pills I found this morning, I don't think she intended on being around for the hang over." Then seeing Karen's aghast expression, she said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it like that, but I think I'm in shock." Being very much acquainted with the signs and symptoms of emotional shock from her days as a nurse, Karen understood. Lighting two cigarettes and handing one to Jo, Karen asked,

"Where is she now?"

"At home, asleep. She wouldn't have told me how she was really feeling, but she let it slip out in her usual euphemistic fashion because she was drunk. That's what scares me so much about her, the fact that she is so good at hiding things like this. But then, I think she's been doing it all her life." Karen took a long, thoughtful drag of her cigarette.

"Do you think she'd want me to come and see her?" Jo hesitated over this.

"Don't take it personally, but no, not today. She tried picking a fight with me last night, and though I don't think she's going to feel like one today, we are due for a very difficult conversation."

"Okay, but you know where I am, if either of you change your mind."

When Jo re-entered George's house, she found herself trying to feel that sense of a living being, the sixth sense awareness of a life within its walls. Quickly going upstairs just to make sure George was still asleep, and finding her just as she'd left her, Jo thought she may as well do some work until George woke up. Going into George's office on the other side of the hall to the lounge, she was assaulted by a familiar waft of George's perfume. As she waited for the computer to start up, she kept repeating a mantra in her head. Forget that kiss, forget that kiss. That was a complication none of them needed, least of all George. Jo worked quite happily for a time, eventually hearing the unmistakable sounds of George surfacing and taking a shower. Reaching the end of a paragraph, Jo wondered if George might initiate the coming conversation, or whether she would have to drag it out of her by force.

When George came downstairs, she stopped in her office doorway, feeling a sudden warmth to see Jo so at home in her space.

"You don't mind me invading your office?" Jo said, glancing at George over her shoulder.

"No, of course not. Do you want a coffee?" Saying that yes she would, and that she would be through in a minute, Jo finished the paragraph she was writing, saved it, and switched off the computer. The smell of freshly percolating coffee permeated the house, making Jo wonder if George had any intention of eating at some point today. When George joined her in the lounge carrying two mugs of steaming coffee, they again assumed their almost accustomed places at each end of the sofa. George looked pale, still a little tired, and in the sunlight, even thinner than she had done last night.

"The first thing I'm going to say to you, is relax," George said, lighting herself a cigarette.

"I am," Jo insisted, reaching for one of her own.

"Jo, I can feel the nervous tension coming off you in waves. I'm not going to bite, I promise. Well, not unless you ask me nicely," She added with a smirk, immediately making Jo smile. "You ought to know by now," She said, taking a long drag. "That there isn't anything you can't say to me."

"I know," Jo replied. "It's just all a bit too odd, that's all."

"What is?" George asked gently, wanting to provoke Jo into talking about what she was feeling.

"The fact that I kissed you, the fact that I enjoyed it, and the fact that I could have gone on doing it all night." Jo seemed surprised that she'd said all this so easily. Taking a sip of her steaming coffee, George said,

"I think this goes back to before last night, doesn't it."

"Probably," Jo conceded miserably, steadily avoiding George's gaze. But when nothing more was forthcoming, George prompted her.

"When John suggested that we both spend the night with him, you said that my finding the idea appealing, didn't bother you. Did you mean that, or did you say it to make me feel better?"

"I meant it," Jo said with utter certainty. "After you left, I told John that he shouldn't play with you like that. I also told him that his suggestion hadn't bothered me, because I knew it would never happen. At the time, that was what I thought. I knew that the idea had aroused you, and that you felt guilty and confused because of that. It sounds funny to say it now, but I felt flattered that you found me attractive enough to consider doing that with me. Then, a week later, everything changed. You've got absolutely no idea just how incredible I thought you looked with Karen that Sunday. I think it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. But do you know what struck me most? It was the way you clearly knew how beautiful you looked. You haven't acknowledged just how attractive you are, ever since Neil gave you that black eye, more than eighteen months ago. What you did that Sunday, it showed me that you were starting to get some of that awareness back. I didn't think about it like that at the time, because other considerations took over. It shocked me that I found the sight of you and Karen together so erotic. Thinking about what two women might do together, wasn't something I'd ever really considered before. I'd seen you and Karen kiss each other, but that had never made me contemplate what else you did. It surprised John that I clearly liked what I was seeing, but it didn't bother him. I haven't felt as turned on as that, for quite a long time, which is why I made John take me home."

"Something new can often spice things up a bit," George put in, as she stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray.

"Is that why you and John tried different things when you were married?"

"Not really, at least not in the beginning. We just liked venturing into the unknown sometimes. But once, when Charlie was four, John took her up to stay with his sister for a week, so that we could spend some time together, trying to put some life back into our marriage. When he walked back in through the door, he was carrying a blue movie." Jo laughed.

"Well now," She said in amazement. "I never would have thought John would go for something like that."

"Oh, believe me, he loved it," George said with a smirk. "But then, it was about two women and a man, so I'm not surprised."

"And what about you?"

"It was incredible, and just for those few days, we got back what we'd had before Charlie was born. The point is, it isn't wrong to find something unexpectedly erotic." Jo looked very uncomfortable, a sudden blush rising to her cheeks. "What happened when you got home?" George asked, seeing that there was something Jo wasn't telling her. "Other than the obvious," She added hurriedly.

"I don't entirely let myself go with John, not usually anyway. I don't know why, I just don't. There's always been a part of me that's somehow detached from the situation. But not that time. Everything I had went into it, giving me three of the most explosive orgasms I think I've ever had. Sorry, too much information," She added, still unable to meet George's eye. Reaching out a hand, George gently turned Jo's face towards her, forcing Jo to meet her gaze.

"Look at me," she said cajolingly. Then, when Jo's eyes finally rose to meet hers, she said, "There's still something you're not telling me, something that you think is going to make me run a mile."

"When John was... When we were..." She couldn't seem to find the right words. "I couldn't stop thinking about you, about what you and Karen were probably doing right at that moment. I've never thought about a woman whilst reaching orgasm before, but I did then."

"Well," George said slowly, after a moment's silence. "That's certainly a compliment and a half."

"I'm sorry," Jo said, now looking even more uncomfortable.

"What on earth for?" George asked, though she thought she knew. "I don't have a problem with you having thought about me like that, I promise you."

"Don't you?" Jo was genuinely mystified.

"No, of course not." Putting out her arms, George gave Jo a tentative hug, taking it slow because of the look of hesitation on Jo's face. "First and foremost," George began, with her face very close to Jo's. "We are friends, which means that as long as we are honest with each other, we aren't likely to have a problem in staying friends. Secondly, we are both John's lovers, and we both know that if he were to ever discover what happened last night, part of him would love the idea and pressure us both into taking it too far too soon, and the rest of him would be terrified of losing both of us. Last, though by no means least, we appear to have discovered a tiny flicker of mutual attraction. I think you kissed me last night, because you were angry with me, worried about me, and were subconsciously still remembering your extreme reaction from two weeks before. Whether it was a very brief moment of sheer inspiration, or a hint of something you don't yet know you feel, neither of us can possibly tell. But whichever it is, it doesn't matter. I am just as mystified by this as you are. I might not show it, but I am."

"But what if I do discover that it's something more, what if we both do?"

"Then we deal with it, if and when it happens. All right?"

"Yes," Jo replied, feeling an immense warmth for the woman who would never, not in a million years, pressure her into anything she wasn't entirely comfortable with. Softly kissing her cheek, George detached herself, somehow knowing that Jo was about to put her under the spotlight, and not for anything as beautiful or enchanting as that kiss had been last night.

"The other thing I wanted to talk to you about," Jo said carefully. "Might not be quite so pleasant." Draining her mug of coffee, she tried to assemble her thoughts. "Why did you drink as much as you did last night?"

"Now that, I certainly wasn't expecting," George replied. "But to answer your question, it was simply a means to an end. On their own, those sleeping pills wouldn't have done the trick, they're not supposed to. They might have knocked me out for a couple of days, but nothing more. Combined with alcohol, they would have proved to be far more lethal. So, the more alcohol, the more success I was likely to have."

"But you still kept on drinking, even though I was here, which meant that you wouldn't have been able to take the pills without my noticing."

"I didn't know you were going to stay, did I."

"So, getting drunk was a means to an end, not the end itself."

"Definitely," George said without hesitation. "I'm no alcoholic, Jo, I never have been."

"I'm sorry," Jo said with sincere contrition. "I just wondered if your tendency to addictions might have encompassed alcohol as well."

"No. But what made you ask?" This was a difficult one for Jo, making her think that she was about to tread a very unsteady tightrope.

"The way you were last night, reminded me of how I was, on the night that led to my hearing with the professional conduct committee."

"You know, that's one little set of circumstances I've never had cleared up for me," George said in reply, her curiosity unbearable.

"There's not much to tell really. I was defending a fifteen-year-old's right, to say no to a heart transplant. He was by far the most intelligent boy of his age I've ever known. He was trying to get an injunction, to stop the hospital from operating on him. He was going against his parent's wishes. John heard the injunction, and after talking to everyone concerned, including Jason, he lifted the injunction, meaning that Jason would be forced to have the operation, even though it went against everything he believed in. I sought leave to appeal, even though John expressed his wish that I wouldn't. But the appeal failed as well. Jason died during the operation, when he'd fought against having it till the end. I was so angry, with myself for failing, and with John for denying Jason his one last wish, that I went to see John at the digs. I was so distraught, that I left my keys in the ignition, and my handbag on the passenger seat, not things I would normally do. I drank more scotch that night than I had done in a long time. I badly wanted a fight with John, but he insisted on being his maddeningly reasonable self. He let me shout at him, he watched me drink far too much of his scotch, and when we realised how late it was, he put me to bed, much as I did you last night. I couldn't believe where I was when I woke in the morning, held in John's arms and wearing nothing but one of his T-shirts. I couldn't even stomach a cup of coffee I felt so rough, and when I went out to my car, I couldn't believe I'd left it the way I had. It frightened me that I had been quite so irresponsible. I learned afterwards, that Michael Nivin saw me leaving, clearly wearing yesterday's clothes and looking very much the worse for wear. What I obviously didn't know till a year later, was that you had prompted someone into taking photographs of us in bed together."

"I cringe, every time I am reminded of that little stunt," George said regretfully.

"Yes, so do I," Jo said sardonically.

"But why," George asked slowly and carefully. "Does the similarity of my behaviour to yours, make you consider that I might have a problem with alcohol?" Jo could have cursed her own stupidity to hell and back. George, in her utterly bloody but at times wonderful sensitivity, had alighted on the fact that Jo herself had an occasional problem with alcohol.

"Am I in the company of John mark two?" Jo asked a little sharply, to cover up her rising tension.

"No," George said sincerely. "Because unlike John, I am not about to force you to explain, not if you don't want to."

"This isn't easy, George," Jo prevaricated.

"Neither was telling you about my addiction to starving myself," George said bluntly. "But as I said, you don't have to tell me. I might professionally be in the business of extracting confessions and confidences from people, but it's something I generally prefer to avoid with those I care about." Jo's eyes made a circuit of the room, from the Monet above the fireplace, to the Stubbs above the piano, to the stereo, the television, and back to George, who simply sat and watched her, knowing that Jo was having a furious internal battle with herself.

"My father was an alcoholic," She said eventually, still not looking at George. "And I suppose I have inherited his tendency to turn to it, in times of extreme stress. I haven't got drunk like that since, and that had been the first time for years. If everything's fairly plain sailing, I can drink, a few glasses of wine, or a couple of glasses of scotch, being nothing I can't handle. But if I'm very angry, or very upset, I have to purposefully avoid even so much as one glass of wine. If I don't, and allow myself the luxury of getting as drunk as you did last night, then I end up doing career destroying things, such as spending the night with John." After a few moments silence, where George took in what Jo had told her, she moved along the sofa, and put her arms round her.

"That was a very brave thing you just did," George said gently, turning Jo's face towards hers.

"No, it wasn't," Jo replied, her voice slightly huskier with repressed emotion.

"Yes, it was," George insisted. "Because you weren't expecting to have to tell me, and even though I gave you the option of backing out, you didn't. Having had to explain my own little addiction, I know how difficult that was for you."

"Why didn't I find you years ago?" Jo asked, through a few stray tears that were speckling her cheeks.

"Because neither of us would have been able to take the shock," George told her with a wry smile. This time, when Jo's lips descended on hers, George was sober. As their mouths entwined, first gently, then more passionately, George had to rein in every impulse she had, that was begging her to take Jo upstairs right now, and make long, glorious, delicious love to her.

"I'm sorry," Jo said, as if suddenly realising what she was doing.

"Shh, calm down," George told her, softly stroking Jo's cheek, and wiping a tear away with a finger. "Darling, there is nothing I would enjoy more, than to take you to bed right now, and to give you the best time you've ever had in your life. I could make love to you all night long, the way I feel at the moment. But I mustn't, both for your sake, and for Karen's." At the mention of Karen's name, Jo froze, having only just remembered the one real complication to what was clearly happening between them. As though Karen's name had provided them both with an extremely cold shower, they drew apart. "You know I have to consider her feelings as well as yours," George continued, reaching for a cigarette. "She doesn't deserve to be hurt, no matter how open or unofficial my relationship might be with her."

"I know," Jo said regretfully. "And I'm sorry I got carried away like that."

"Don't be," George said, briefly touching her hand. "Your feelings about a lot of things are very up in the air today, and I think you need to give them time to settle. Neither of us are in an emotionally stable condition, which would only mean a recipe for disaster if we followed the calling of our instincts. You may well regret you ever did this, which is why you shouldn't rush into anything."

"And if I don't? If you don't?"

"Then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Part One Hundred and Two

On a Sunday morning, Helen found it common enough for a dog tired Nikki to slip into her bed in the early hours in the morning and to sleep in late from her turn at a Saturday night at the club. She knew not to disturb her and that Nikki only became human after a painful period of resurrection to become her normal self. This time, her tousled hair emerged from under the duvet but her expression was grim as Helen handed her a steaming hot mug of coffee. There was also an ugly purple bruise round her eye.

"Jesus, Nikki, whatever happened to you? You should have woken me up," Helen exclaimed in shock.

"Well, I won't spin you the usual line that I walked into a door," Came the reply with her patented understated graveyard humour. "I got something from the medicine cupboard, as I didn't want to disturb you. It isn't as painful as it looks. Really."

"You're sure?" Helen looked doubtfully but not wanting to make too much fuss.

"This cup of coffee is fine and I could do with a cigarette. I need something like this after last night's drama."

Helen was beginning to sense that there was a lot more to it than a black eye and that Nikki's emotions were full to the brim and wanted to talk. She knew that the right thing to do was to be all ears and wait for Nikki to spill the beans.

"Did you get that from a rough night at the club?"

"You can say that again." Nikki winced at the memory and took a swig from the coffee mug while her thoughts spewed out. "It's not easy keeping your eyes open while the party's going and the place is packed out on a Saturday night. The money's good and the place is doing better than ever. The only problem is the gang of kids that have started to come around in recent months. Sure everyone's out for a good time on a Saturday night as I know way back when. It's different these days……."

Helen resisted the temptation to make light of it and joke about Nikki getting old. Sure, the years were passing for all of them but Nikki was Nikki and remained as open minded as she had always been and yet sticking rigidly to a set of beliefs which she would not compromise for love nor money. She had grown up mature for her age without the need to keep up with superficial trends.

"How different?"

Nikki was grateful for the way that Helen reacted very quickly to every minor shift of her moods and could read her mind. That was how they first connected.

"A lot of the old customers were friends who I grew up with. The place was more like a big family. More and more of them move away or just stop coming and those that replace them are kids that just want to get out of it as quickly as possible. They've read too many bloody celebrity magazines so they want to use alcohol to knock away any trace of civilised behaviour to become argumentative, and let all that nasty side of them to come out ….."

All Nikki's anger and contempt boiled over at this point to Helen's horror. Nikki had always tended to minimise any sense of her own personal danger and this was new to her.

"…..They behave like the Peckham Boot Gang only they wear up to the minute designer dresses with lots of money to throw away. You watch current affairs programmes of that sort of thing happening outside straight clubs and it's creeping in at mine also and I don't like it."

"So you're saying that the world's changing for the worse and away from the standards that you believe in."

Nikki smiled gratefully at Helen for the understanding, The last thing she wanted to sound like was a Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells coming out with a load of reactionary dogma, the sort of beliefs that she had spent her life fighting against in various forms. Now she looked back on it, everything blended into one, running up against the authority figures at her boarding school when she and her first girlfriend were found out and standing up against the vicious homophobic remarks that Bodybag and Fenner used to come out with. She never hated the prison system on principle, only the sort of petty minded people that worked in it who were no different to the sort of people you might bump into on the street. Yet she saw these young kids and she started feeling sympathy for their mothers. That was a turn up for the book, she thought bitterly, to feel that way for the ultimate authority symbol who had been instrumental in casting her aside when she was young.

"It was late last night that it all blew up. I saw a bunch of them start to pick an argument with one of the barmaids and quietly and politely asked them to leave it out. I got some cheek from one of them but I thought no more about it as they backed off. It happens from time to time and I didn't expect any more trouble. It was only when I was closing the doors and three of them came from nowhere and started getting really mouthy and it started getting dangerous. I pushed a couple of them out of the club and one of them took a swing at me and I didn't move back quickly enough. That started off a right tussle when round the corner came a couple of policemen. I shouted at them to come over when they pretended not to notice what was going on."

"Why the hell was that? You are an ordinary law abiding citizen who is entitled to have police protection?" Helen stormed with anger.

Nikki smiled fondly at Helen. It was so like her to be more than ordinarily defensive of her rights and expected her to be treated as equal as anyone in the land, queen or commoner. It was a pity life didn't work out like that.

"Police have long memories, Helen. They remembered that I killed one of them. It doesn't matter to them that I finally had the slate wiped clean. Take a line through the way the likes of Fenner and Bodybag will be only too ready to hand out their type of justice. Remember that time you sent me down the block and I ended up in strips."

Those words sunk in. Helen remembered and understood only too well.

"So what happened."

"Somehow even though my eye was hurting like hell, I called out to them very politely and told them that if they let those three go down the street and attack some other innocent passer by, then it will be on their head. I took a leaf out of your book and I lectured them very nicely in my best imitation Wing Governor's style of their public duties and responsibilities. It's interesting that if you pitch it right, even the thickest and most pig headed copper will get the message and jump to it. They slipped the handcuffs on the three of them and bundled them into the nearest police van. I thanked them very graciously, being very understanding of how they must be really stretched on Saturday nights."

Helen grinned broadly at Nikki's account in the way she shifted her approach around showed how versatile and resourceful she was in an emergency. She knew very well that force of personality and semi-official status, which she could assume as a prisoner. Having spent the last few years out of prison and having daily responsibility for the running of her own place only sharpened up her skills.

"This goes further than just a bad night at the club, doesn't it Nikki."

A huge feeling of relief that ran through Nikki gave her the strength to push on with what most troubled her, deep down.

"I'm looking at what I'm doing and I can't see myself running a club for the rest of my life. In fact, I need a change of job as soon as I can get one, a regular nine to five job where I get the recognition I deserve for what I can do. I did Open University at Larkhall and I ought to make proper use of my degree."

The precisely formulated words fell out of Nikki's brain, fully formed. Helen realised that this was a pivotal moment in their lives.

"What do you want out of life, Nikki."

"Well, for a start, having all the time in the world to grow old with you, Helen and spend more nights sleeping with you than we get the chance to with the insane hours of my job."

Nikki's wide smile revealed the unashamed romantic that she had always been and Helen gently stroked her perfectly formed hands.

"That sounds like paradise to me, Nikki." Her soft Scottish accent caressed Nikki gently without the need for the touch of her fingers.

" I would like enough money to pay my share of the bills, enough for clothes, the odd holidays and more books that I haven't read and music that I haven't heard though I don't get as much time as I would like to read or listen….." Nikki started slowly on a more serious note starting with the more trivial and inconsequential as a way of leading her way into what was deepest on her mind.

"What I don't want is living the luxury life that Trisha wants to lead. I'm not really into money like she is. She was honest about it when we talked business yesterday. She wants to use the club to make money and sod the social consequences. That's when I decided that we don't even have anything in common professionally any more."

"I want to be able to have a job where I can do some good in this world, like yours," Nikki added after a long pause.

Helen smiled. Those were her own very favourite words even before she ever joined the prison service. Nikki wasn't copying her but speaking from her own independently worked out ideas. It was simply that their thoughts and their love which had come together.

"I envy you, Helen. Every day, you can go to work and you are directly involved in trying to make individual's lives better. All I'm asked to do is to act as bouncer and talk about theme nights which I really don't give a toss about."

Helen's smile faded. Nikki had a romantic view of her day to day job which, out of professional discretion, she couldn't talk about. She felt as if she were in a losing battle with her most difficult patient. Nikki's battle was a desperate encounter, alone on a late night darkened alley with three vicious women and a couple of policemen who were prepared to turn a blind eye to their duty. Hers was her desperate attempt to fix her certain eyes with his wavering will, at sixes and sevens with himself. Each time he came in, he greeted her with the shrug of indifference, that air of going to see her only to be sure of his prescription which she knew he would sell for the vilest quality of street heroin which he injected into himself. His story was one that he grew up with a mother who may have given him what he wanted materially for him but one who was never there for him when he needed her. He complained that his mother was hard, unsympathetic and demanded the best out of him, more than he could deliver. She could never recognise when he was scared though Helen suspected that at times like that, he came over as a truculent, aggressive adolescent who appeared to shrug off his mother. There was a childish element to him who would never accept responsibility for what mistakes he had made in his life. He was well enough educated to know better but Helen's bitter experience was that this was no guarantee of anything. He had gone to university but had dropped out and had got into that hopeless spiral in his lack of self worth, having too much time on his hands and the friends whom he sought approval on pulling him into the drug scene. She had tried all sorts of approaches and they were obviously failing. Every time she saw him, he looked rougher and more neglected than the time before. All the same, Helen knew that she had that recognised authority which Nikki had not really got. Running a gay club gave her responsibility but Helen knew that Nikki wanted to move on in her work and be closer to her. For months there had been hints from Nikki that she was half aware of, that her heart wasn't really in her job, only her determined commitment to carry on what she had started and her pride in contributing her honest half share of money to their union.

"While you started the club , you did it to fight a cause, didn't you. The money was helpful but incidental. You want a different cause to take on, don't you."

Nikki nodded, tears of gratitude running down her face at this extraordinary woman who was that soul mate she had spent her life searching for. Her arms reached out to clasp this beautiful woman to her though she gingerly avoided Helen's cheek to come too close to her eye, which was still tender.

"That's exactly it, Helen," She whispered into Helen's ear while her hair brushed her face. "That's what I want out of life."

Somehow, everything made sense. The only thing she needed to do was to find this job.

Part One Hundred And Three

When they arrived at the rehearsal on the Monday afternoon, it being the bank holiday, George had a brief moment of nervousness. This would be the first time she'd seen John since their row, and the first time she'd seen Karen since Jo had talked to her yesterday. She would also be forced to conceal from her father, just how emotionally fragile she still felt.

"You do know that the chorus is joining us today?" Jo said, as they drew up outside the church hall.

"Oh, that's all I need," George grumbled. "I've smoked far too much as it is this weekend, without having to prove myself in front of a load of new people."

"Well, I'm sure that Vera Everard will steal all your thunder, so you'll have nothing to worry about."

"Good god," Said George in disgust. "I can't believe she wanted to play Eve. Haydn would turn in his grave at the thought."

"I'm looking forward to seeing how your father will handle her," Jo said in amusement.

"I wouldn't bother," George replied, a slight smile cracking her air of moroseness. "Daddy's afraid of her, he always has been."

Seeing that they were clearly the last to arrive, George said she would stay outside for a quick cigarette.

"I suppose you may as well make a bad situation worse," Said Jo with an affectionate roll of her eyes. As she left George to it and walked inside, she saw John, sitting tuning up his Strad, with a very thoughtful look on his face. When he saw her, he lowered his violin and walked over to her.

"Is George with you?" He asked in greeting.

"Yes," Jo replied, briefly leaning her cello against the wall.

"Is she all right?" He asked almost casually.

"Not really," Jo told him, her anger beginning to rise. Then, before he could speak, she held up a hand to forestall him. "Don't, John, don't say whatever it is you're about to say. I could strangle you for what she's gone through this last week, but I have no intention of getting myself a mandatory life sentence."

"Jo, I..." He tried to interrupt.

"Why, John, why do I always have to pick up the pieces when you start playing with her feelings, as if she really was nothing more to you than your latest conquest?"

"I didn't ask you to," He countered back.

"No, and neither did George. But somehow, I always end up doing it. It really is about time you learnt to clear up your own mess." As Jo stalked away to take her place, John stared after her, utterly flabbergasted. As Brian Cantwell hadn't yet arrived, Karen leaned across the space to speak to Jo.

"How is she?"

"Outside having a cigarette, if you want to speak to her." Moving across to sit in Brian's chair, so that they could talk with a little more privacy, Karen said,

"I heard what you said to John, and I feel a bit guilty that I didn't do more this weekend."

"You shouldn't," Jo told her, calming down a little. "Much as this might hurt you, George wouldn't have wanted you to see her like that. The best thing you could do, is to take her home with you afterwards, and give her what I can't." Seeing the shutters coming down in Jo's face as she said this, Karen silently got up and left her to it. Leaving her viola on her chair, she walked outside, to find that George was the only one taking a last, hopeful drag.

"I thought I might find you out here," She said quietly.

"Once an addict, always an addict," George said matter-of-factly.

"How are you?"

"Oh, all right," George replied, not really knowing what to say.

"George, I know you probably don't want to hear it," Karen began slowly. "But there's something I need to say."

"Don't," George almost pleaded. "Or you'll make me feel even more stupid than I already do."

"Just let me say my piece," Karen persuaded gently. "Then I'll shut up, I promise." When George remained quiet, Karen suddenly didn't know how to phrase it. "There isn't anything you can't say to me," She said eventually. "Nothing I don't want to hear. No matter what you feel, no matter how good or bad it is, I want to know. There isn't anything you could say, or feel, that would frighten me off in any way. I know this relationship is unconventional to say the least, but that doesn't mean that I don't care for you a great deal. I... I just wanted you to know that," She finished quietly, thinking that that had possibly been the lamest speech she'd come out with in years. But George was staring at her, a rush of tenderness flooding her heart. What she'd said to Jo yesterday was right, Karen didn't deserve to be hurt, not ever. Reaching up to put her arms round Karen's neck, George gently kissed her.

"Thank you," She said softly. "That's the most beautiful thing anyone's said to me in a long time."

"I know it's difficult," Karen said into George's hair. "But try not to shut me out."

"I think we'd better go in," George said, after a while of standing close to each other. "And it's probably a very good job that I'm not conducting today. I would probably take it out on all and sundry."

When everyone had been assembled, including the twenty strong chorus, Joe Channing took his place on the rostrum.

"Now, I know that my daughter will have given you all a fairly hectic ride when she stood in for me last week, so I am expecting you all to have improved dramatically." At a sound of disgust from Sir Ian, Joe Channing raised an eyebrow. "Something to say, Rochester?" He demanded silkily, seeing that something had obviously happened that he didn't know about.

"No," Sir Ian replied, his feathers a little ruffled by being addressed in such an unaccustomed manner.

"Good," Joe replied, vowing to discover what had happened at the earliest opportunity. It wouldn't surprise him in the least if George had offended quite a number of people in her stint as conductor. "As we have the members of the chorus with us for this rehearsal," He continued. "We will be concentrating on those pieces which include them, most of which do not require the participation of our soloists. However, we shall begin with one that does include everyone, and that ought to ease our singers in gently."

As he raised his baton for the opening of 'The Heavens are telling', George became suddenly aware of John's gaze behind her. She could feel his eyes burning into her back, as if the notes of his score were printed on the back of her blouse. As there is no orchestral introduction to this particular piece, the chorus seemed almost surprised that they were expected to sing.

"Let's try that again," Joe Channing said patiently. "Without the fluff this time." The second attempt wasn't much better, but by the third, the members of the chorus seemed to realise that at least some of them had to take the plunge. Finally! George thought as they moved into the piece, the fairly simple chords not appearing to pose any immediate problems. When the trio of soloists entered for their few bars, George realised just how many cigarettes she must have smoked this weekend, in other words, far too many. Her voice didn't crack, it didn't even waver, but she was all too aware of just how much she wouldn't be able to sing anything particularly high today. At the same time, a good many of the orchestra, though happy to have Joe back as their conductor, were occasionally missing George's far clearer beat. Her rhythm had been clipped, precise, like a knife driving through butter. Joe's on the other hand was a little less certain. After a few abortive entries, they finally stumbled to the end.

"Well, that wasn't exactly an unmitigated success," Joe told them. "But practice is supposed to make perfect, so we'll try this again." They added Monty's few preceding solo tenor lines this time, giving the chorus a little more warning of their entry. After the trio had completed their few lines in the middle, George suddenly became aware of a most unpleasant noise, the sound of an alto who was singing distinctly out of tune. By the end of the second run through of the piece, she had pinpointed the lack of tone, to none other than Vera Everard. But she wasn't the only one to become aware of this. John had noticed it, so had Roisin, and many others. But how to tell her? She was one of the most formidable wives on the legal circuit, causing fear and dread everywhere she went, from the Lord Chief Justice downwards.

When Joe announced that they would then move on to 'the marvelous work behold amazed', Neil glanced over to see a look of horror on George's face. She couldn't believe it. No, not that song, please. The one of her solos that included the chorus, went right up to top C, sixth, octave, C. She knew she couldn't do it. No way on earth could she get up that high today. Knowing that she was about to make an even bigger fool of herself than she had ever done before, George began to tremble. She could feel her throat closing up, a barrier rising to prevent her voice coming out. John could feel her tension from where he sat, and from what Jo had said, this was probably because she'd been smoking far too much this weekend, and didn't think she would be able to do what was required of her. He stretched out a hand to touch her shoulder, to offer some sort of comfort, but retracted it before he could. After the last time they'd spoken, he thought she would probably reject his touch. As George rose to her feet, she had to resist the urge to simply walk out of the hall. She listened to Lawrence James' oboe, her hands balled into fists at her sides. She sang the first few bars adequately enough, but she could feel the constriction that her nervous tension was putting on her throat and breathing muscles. The chorus came in at the right time, their lines interweaving with hers just as they should. But when she reached the second verse, she knew the moment of her downfall was approaching. It was during the word 'Volts', that she had to soar up to the top C, her voice rising above every other sound. But this wasn't to be, not today. As George reached the point of no return, she got so far up the scale, and then stopped. She tried to go on, but her voice just wouldn't come. John was surprised by the sudden ceasing of her voice, and he glanced over at her, to see her standing as stiff and taut as a lamppost. Joe brought the orchestra to a halt.

"What happened?" He asked, looking over at his daughter, taking instant note of the look of terror, anger and humiliation in her face.

"Nothing," She mumbled, refusing to meet her father's gaze. She was letting him down, and she couldn't bear that. Saying that they would take the piece from a few bars earlier, Joe raised his baton. But the same thing happened again. Try as she might, George could not force her throat to open enough to let out the sound, because she knew that as a result of her drinking and smoking this weekend, the note would crack if she tried to sing it. She would far rather make no sound at all, than make one that bore any resemblance to a tomcat being garroted by knicker elastic. They tried these few bars over and over again, but every time George failed to complete them. It wasn't helping her concentration, that Vera Everard was becoming more and more irritating. After the sixth failed attempt, George finally snapped.

"Will someone please get that caterwauling alto out of here!" Everyone knew to whom she was referring by this time, and a few of them laughed.

"At least said alto is trying to sing her part, which is more than can be said for you," Sir Ian put in, knowing he was signing his own death warrant, but being utterly unable to resist. Whirling round, George snatched the open score from the music stand in front of John, and hurled it over the heads of the first and second violins. Its pages briefly fluttered, like autumn leaves in a gently blowing breeze. But there was nothing gentle about the way the spine of the score crashed into Sir Ian's face. There was a stunned, awful pause.

"Georgina!" Joe Channing roared, whipping round to glare at his daughter for doing such a thing. Knowing she'd definitely gone too far, George picked up her handbag and walked out.

When the door had closed behind her, Joe Channing cleared his throat.

"I think we will move onto something that doesn't involve any soloists. Will somebody retrieve that score please?" Getting up from her chair, Barbara picked up the score, and walking passed the first desk of the second violins, handed it to John. When she'd returned to her seat, Joe instructed them all to turn to 'Awake the harp.' John tried to tune out the sound of the music, playing his own part as if on autopilot. He knew George had the potential to fly off the handle sometimes, but that had even been beyond what she was usually capable of. He glanced over at Sir Ian, observing that the blood from his injured nose had splattered down onto his pristine white shirt. She could end up in an awful lot of trouble for this, but John didn't think so. Ian wouldn't dare pull a stunt like that, not after the conversation they'd had last week. This was stupid, he thought to himself, eventually lowering his violin. He was worried about George, and he wanted to make sure she was all right. As he rose to his feet, leaving his violin on his chair, it also occurred to him that now might be a good time to apologise to her.

George was sitting on the bench, on the other side of the carpark. It was a memorial to someone she'd never heard of, and its back was nestling in the arms of the hawthorn hedge that bordered the beech wood behind the church. She couldn't believe she'd done that, actually hurled a score in someone's face, possibly doing what amounted to criminal damage. She felt so up in the air today, unable to keep herself afloat, yet unable to reach back to the firm, safe ground beneath her. She felt cut adrift, tossed asunder, though this didn't make any sense to her. What Karen had said meant a great deal to her, as had Jo's friendship and support over the last weekend, so what was wrong with her? The answer came to her when she saw him. She didn't just want John in her life, she needed him. When he wasn't there, everything seemed to become unraveled. She didn't speak to him as he approached, not having the slightest idea of what she could say to him. As he sat down beside her, all John wanted to do was to hold her, to gather her into his arms, and to soothe away all the hurt. But he still couldn't be sure that his advances would be appreciated. He found his thoughts briefly straying to his conquest of the week before. Yes, she had looked like George, and once in bed she had certainly acted like George, but she hadn't touched his heart like George. Nobody, with the obvious exception of Jo, had ever, could ever, touch his heart in the way George always did. As his resolve weakened, and he gently reached for her, she still didn't speak, but she did allow him to put his arms round her. She knew this was his way of saying he was sorry, and for now, it was good enough for her. She knew she would change her mind, once she felt emotionally stronger, but for now, she just needed him.

"Did Daddy send you out here?" She asked eventually, her face resting against his shoulder.

"No," He said, brushing a strand of hair back from her face. "That was certainly some aim," He added with a smile. "I couldn't have done it better myself." George didn't smile, she couldn't.

"I can't believe he called me Georgina," She said disgustedly. John laughed.

"I can't have heard your full name since our wedding day."

"Who in their right mind would call their daughter, Georgina Rosalind?"

"It's very pretty," He said in defence of his ex-father-in-law. She stayed quiet, not feeling remotely pretty, even if he thought her name was. Tilting her face up towards his, he softly kissed her.

"I'm sorry," He said quietly. "About last week."

"Yes," She said resignedly. "So am I."

"You're very subdued today," He observed. "And you look tired."

"Oh, don't you start," She replied, thinking that this must be the understatement of the year. "I've had similar from Jo all weekend."

"Ah," He said in realisation. "So, is that why she was shouting at me earlier?"

"Probably, though I wish she hadn't." It was perhaps the fact that not even the thought of Jo shouting at him could raise a smile in her, which really got John worried.

"I love you," He said, stroking her far too pale cheek.

"Do you?" she asked dully, almost as if she didn't care.

"Yes," He said sincerely, fixing her with his all too penetrating gaze. He looked as though he meant it, and even sounded as though he meant it, but did he? George wanted to be sure, she really did, but John had said this so many times to her, and on every occasion he'd broken his promise. When he kissed her this time, he could feel the need in her, the need to have his love proved to her in some way. Their kisses became more passionate, the spring sunshine seeming to give their love a renewed vigour. When he gently touched her breast, still through her blouse, she gasped.

"John, stop it," She said, as he began caressing her with those addictive fingers of his. "You can't do that here."

"Do you want to find somewhere, where I can do that, and other things?" He suggested between kisses, clearly feeling her nipple harden under his fingertips. My god, his offer was tempting. But should she do it?

"All right," She said after a moment's thought, deciding that with all the sexual frustration and emotional ups and downs she'd had over the weekend, a very forbidden, utterly animalistic screw might be what she needed.

Taking her hand, he led her towards the trees at the edge of the wood, the path leading away from the churchyard, and away from where all the cars were parked. He seemed so sure of where he was going, that George would have wondered if he'd been here before if she hadn't known better. They'd gone a good way down the woodland path before they reached the clearing, a sprawl of fresh, springy grass, surrounded by trees and bushes of hawthorn and flowering currant. When they moved away from the path, they were entirely hidden from anyone who might come looking for them. They collapsed onto the grass, continuing where they'd left off, their mouths in a perpetual dance, and their hands feverishly undoing clothes. As she reached for his belt, he stayed her hand.

"You first," He said, pushing her back on the grass, raising her skirt and swiftly removing her knickers. As he gently parted her legs and lay on the grass between them, it briefly occurred to George that this would surely make a far more compromising photograph than the one of John and Jo in bed asleep together. She half gasped, half cried out when John's tongue inched its way inside her, reclaiming her taste as part of his raison d'être. She knew it wouldn't take much for her to come, her extreme tension making every nerve ending aware of each sensation.

"John, please," She almost begged, aching to feel his tongue on her clitoris, desperate to have the rush of feelings overwhelm her. He gave her what she wanted, down to every last swipe of his tongue, every last, gentle nibble. She almost screamed as she came, her cry of abandon frightening away some of the nesting birds in the trees above her head. Whilst her internal muscles were still throbbing from her orgasm, John swiftly unzipped his fly and plunged himself inside her. She could tell how much he wanted her, the enormity of him filling her to capacity. She clung to him as he thrust into her again and again, needing the hard and vigorous treatment as proof that he still loved and needed her. But when John in turn reached his own climax, the words, "I love you," were torn from his mouth. That was when it hit her. He didn't love her, really, she was just kidding herself. He loved fucking her, but that was it. His words left her cold, flat, emotionally numb. They didn't mean anything to her, because she didn't know what he wanted them to mean, especially when they spewed forth at the point of orgasm, just as the seed did from his body. When he withdrew from her and lay down beside her, she stayed still for a moment, allowing the May sun and the spring breeze to play lightly over her debauched flesh.

They were silent as they put on their clothes, both aware that all they'd really done was to make the situation between them worse. They'd taken their physical gratification at a moment's notice, but nothing between them had been resolved. George didn't believe he loved her, and John didn't know how to convince her. He tried to take her hand as they walked back along the path, but she moved it away from him, knowing that if she touched him again, she would yet again give into his protestations. She held back as he moved to go inside, wanting a minute or two to marshal her thoughts.

When John returned to his seat in the front desk of the first violins, it could certainly be said that he did so with a swagger. This wasn't intentional, but simply a result of his very recent sexual satisfaction. The male barrister sitting next to him gave him a conspiratorial wink, but Joe Channing simply glared. When George returned a few minutes later, Neil beckoned her over to him, using the cover of the singing from the chorus to tell her that the top two buttons of her blouse were undone. Blushing furiously and fastening them, she moved to take her seat. When the orchestra and chorus reached the end of the piece they were going through, Joe turned round and gave his daughter an assessing look without saying a word. George barely noticed as they waded their way through the final piece of the work, using up the talents of orchestra, chorus and soloists alike. She knew it backwards, and hardly needed to think about her entries. It seemed no time at all before they were putting away the chairs and collecting instruments and handbags together in preparation for leaving. George found that she simply wanted to escape as quickly as possible. But before she could, her father approached her.

"Daddy, I've got to go," She said, trying to make her get away before he started.

"I've no doubt," He said sternly but quietly, guiding her into a corner with his familiar, heavy hand on her shoulder. When they were out of earshot of everyone else, he said, "I am well aware of your relationship with Deed, and much as you know I disapprove, I realise that I cannot run your life for you. But what I will not have, is the pair of you flaunting your relationship so blatantly, right under my very nose. I neither want nor need to know about what exists between you and Deed, though after today's performance it has become blindingly obvious to everyone here. I will not have my daughter behaving like a common slut in public. Is that understood?" George was speechless. "Yes, I see that it is," He finished a little more gently, seeing that his words had perhaps hit home a little too forcefully.

"I'm sorry," She said, feeling utterly disgusted with herself.

"Good," He replied curtly, the worry for his daughter's welfare evident in his face.

When George emerged into the late afternoon air, she saw Karen and Jo waiting for her, sitting on the bench where her little detour with John had begun.

"No prizes for guessing where you went during that rehearsal," Karen said with a wry smile as George sat down between them.

"Don't," George said tightly. "Just don't make me feel cheaper than I already do. Daddy's just told me that he won't have his daughter acting like a common slut in public."

"Ouch," Said Jo in sympathy.

"I'm sorry, to both of you," George said, feeling a sudden urge to put an arm round each of them. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Sweetheart," Karen said fondly. "It doesn't matter. I couldn't be more aware of you and John than I already am, so it really doesn't bother me."

"And think about it this way," Jo said matter-of-factly. "At least it'll stop the likes of Ian Rochester thinking that John's sleeping with me."

"Why are you both so nice to me?" George asked wonderingly. Unbeknown to the other, Jo and Karen both opened their mouths to say, "Because we love you," And thankfully thought better of it in time.

"Because you're fabulous in bed," Karen said with a completely straight face. "Why else?" This seemed to break the ice, making George laugh and Jo smile.

"Well, as I clearly can't testify to that particular quality, I shall have to defer that answer to another time," Jo told her, giving George a look that said she would certainly like to be able to. When they saw John emerge with his Strad, Karen said to George,

"Do you want to come home with me?"

"Now that really is an offer I can't refuse," George said, as she got to her feet.

John watched George and Karen leave in Karen's car, and he wondered what they'd all three been talking about. Jo was still sat on the bench waiting for him, and John found himself unsure as to what to say to her. When he sat down beside her, she asked nonchalantly,

"Nice afternoon, was it?"

"Yes," He replied quietly, seeing the glimmer of laughter in her eyes.

"You do realise that you have well and truly confused all the usual gossips, don't you."

"Oh, that's good," He said with a smile. "At least they'll really have something to think about for a change."

"Can I see you this evening?" She asked, because they needed to talk about George, and the flippant way John appeared to have apologised to her yet again.

"Is that so you can finish what you started earlier?" He asked, knowing her too well.

"Partly," She conceded. "But I'll try not to shout at you, I promise." As they stood to leave, he tenderly put his arms round her, never feeling quite right if he parted from Jo without a kiss. But when Jo's lips connected with his, she immediately knew that something was different. The taste on him had altered, it having become a muskier, slightly sweeter flavour that was vaguely familiar. Then it struck her, and she reeled back from him in shock.

"What?" He asked, wondering what had made her blush quite so beautifully.

"You... You... You even taste of her!" She said, her voice higher with embarrassment but quiet because of her need for propriety.

"Oh, dear, do I?" He said, beginning to laugh. "I'm sorry," He added, seeing that it had made her feel extremely uncomfortable.

"Go home, have a shower, and then come and see me, but not before," She told him firmly, the taste of George's sexual secretion on him having thoroughly confused her. When John had showed her what she, herself, tasted like, on that Sunday of a fortnight ago, it had been very similar to what she'd tasted on him today. She could feel the beginnings of her own arousal at the thought, and she desperately wanted to get rid of him before he could suspect anything of the sort. But as she drove home, she wondered just what it would be like to do that to a woman, to do that to George, and if she, Jo, could ever be any good at it.

Part One Hundred and Four

Roisin was miles away in her head as she walked the short distance up to her front door. Her attitude towards her fellow beings was to 'live and let live', especially in relation to her still censorious ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law. However much of a tentative accommodation she had made with them it would be as much to expect that they would finally warm to her and Cassie as it would to expect Ian Paisley to become bosom buddies with the Pope. Regarding her fellow musicians, all she wanted to do was to humbly fit in, play her music and be on friendly terms with them. After all, she, Babs and in his way Grayling were relative outsiders. As she mulled things over in her mind, she had a gut feeling that such detachment may be as difficult to assume as part of the orchestra as it was at Larkhall.

In this frame of mind, she fumbled with her front door key to open the door for a few minutes until the keyhole swung back gently out of reach and the Cassie's welcoming smile was revealed in the crack in the door which opened up in front of her.

"You look tired, babe. Take the weight off your feet," Cassie urged as Michael and Niamh welcomed her into her other world of cosy domesticity.

Michael proudly took Roisin's violin from her while she collapsed unthinking into a chair.

"Be careful with my violin, Michael. It's precious," She called out anxiously, scared in case the child might accidentally damaged an instrument that was priceless as the conveyor of music and of past long association. Despite her tiredness from the hard day's work spent in exacting rehearsals, that faculty was still alive within her.

"I'll look after it, mum. Don't worry," He stopped himself from saying that, as a twelve-year-old, he wasn't a child any more. He was three years older than Niamh and he could tell the difference at that age even if mum and Cassie sometimes couldn't.

"He'll be all right," Cassie added quietly. "He just wants to help."

Roisin smiled nervously but let him place the violin in pride of place on the sideboard with more sense of delicacy than the increasingly larger and more boisterous boy was capable of. Niamh, instead, plonked herself on Mum's lap to welcome her home. From the moment both of them first heard mum practice in the kitchen, they were proud of her.

Cassie passed her a lovely hot cup of tea, which Roisin placed, carefully on a side table to sip from when she felt like it.

"So, come on, what's the latest gossip?" Cassie called out jokingly, standing in front of her.

"I've only been part of Barristers Behaving Badly, nothing much," Roisin answered, grasping at the first snapshot memory image that came to her mind.

"Hey, and I thought you were mixing with high society who knew how to behave themselves. After all, they judge people or prosecute or defend people for a living."

"I stayed out of it. I don't want any trouble," Came Roisin's virtuous reply.

Cassie rolled her eyes heavenwards at Roisin's elliptical way of telling a story. She did not want to hear how much of a goody goody her beloved was as she knew that already. She wanted to hear the scandal. And her frustrated curiosity was at screaming point.

"Now Roash, like the kids English teacher say for writing essays, start at the beginning and finish at the end," she commanded.

"For a start, there was some terrible woman in the chorus line who was screeching away and putting me off my music. Finally George lost her temper and shouted out for someone to take that caterwauling alto out of the hall."

"Whew, that was telling her," Cassie said, deeply impressed. In the first trial ages ago, she had seen George in action as a hard faced woman who had a ferocious line of verbal attack. More recently in the very same court, she had seen a much softer, almost diffident woman who was all the more attractive for it and who wanted so much to be part of their company. It touched her that she wished to belong to them when she clearly came from the sort of background that might not have wanted to pass the time of day with them. There was a fair amount of class to all the women in all their different ways but this woman was different league altogether. Cassie noticed that George hit it off with Nikki, the woman who once would have been condemned to the longest stretch in prison as a lifer.

"If she was so bad, why was that woman allowed to be in the orchestra in the first place. After all, you and Karen auditioned to get into the orchestra," Cassie said reflectively.

This stopped Roisin short. In her innocence, she had not thought to ask herself the question, as she was preoccupied in making an honest effort to keep up to standard.

"I'm not sure."

"Well," grinned Cassie wickedly. "There's the one obvious answer. She's either married to someone important or……."

"Her name is Vera Everard," recalled Roisin from her memory and her husband is the tenor who sings with George and Neil." There was a melee when everyone was taking their places and George smiled kindly at me and made a cryptic aside about her. Reflecting now how stressed George had looked, Roisin had concluded that George had wanted the chorus to buttress and support her solo, and not produce an atonal sound that grated and threatened to put her off her stroke more than she was already.

"George would talk to you as you're restful company for anyone who's stressed out. That's no reason for Vera Whatshername that to be there," Cassie reflected soberly. "So what happened next?"

"One of those men who were at the back of the visitor's gallery in court made a horrible crack about George as she couldn't hit her top notes this time, but just stopped short. The last time she could hit that very high top C note with no trouble."

"Hmmn," Cassie said reflectively. It sounded like she was digging in her heels for some reason which was well within Cassie's own range of sympathies."

"So she picked up a score and hurled it through the air at him and hit him right in the face."

Cassie and the children burst out in laughter at that piece of news. The children had watched too many Tom and Jerry cartoons so that it appealed on a basic level and they had gleaned third hand through George via mum and Cassie just how bad they were.

"It couldn't happen to a better person, except someone like Bodybag," Cassie exclaimed slowly with a satisfaction which was savoured as she spoke before a thought crossed her mind. "Hey, you don't suppose that hanging out with us and the rest of the gang has lured her off the straight and narrow? She would have been right at home on G Wing."

The reality of their present life was that if either of them were torn away either from each other or from the children and ended up in Larkhall, would be the worst nightmare imaginable. When they were in Larkhall, the many horrible periods included Roisin's terrifying slide into drug addiction and how far away she was from her children who she had seen rarely in Aiden's hateful company. It was curious that for all that, they could think themselves back nostalgically to the better times when there was that intense feeling of closeness that they had between themselves, Babs and Yvonne and others like the Julies and Denny and now Lauren who were shut inside that foreign world where everything is done differently, there.

"For all the bad times, there were good times, weren't there. And George would have fitted right in there………." Cassie started to say hesitantly.

"Oh children, don't worry. Everything's fine," Roisin urged with that pure maternal love that had held in the children through the fraught times leading up to their trial and that horrible period when she was gone except in their minds. Many times they had had that repeated nightmare of them crying out to mum and hearing her voice from afar that "Mum's coming" and seeing her outstretched arms and face blown back in the wind only to wake up to hear the iron voices of Aiden and his mother. They did wish that mum and Cassie didn't talk about Larkhall so much as it only had evil memories for them of scowling huge grownups, ugly uniforms and locks, bolts and bars.

"Hey, we're really sorry, kids," Cassie's incredibly tender voice and big blue open eyes said as much as her words did. They both started to calm down as Roisin and Cassie hugged them.

"George is more likely to end up inside than we are, kids. She'll have the best to defend her like Jo Mills who defended Lauren."

"When's Auntie Lauren getting out?" Niamh and Michael asked in chorus. At that moment, they both loved Cassie as being totally cool and for her very endearingly humourous way of putting things that took away both their fears of losing what had become dear to them. In turn, Cassie and Roisin were instantly overjoyed that that inadvertent reference to Lauren had steered the conversation away from a sticky moment.

"Let's see," reflected Cassie. "The trial took place in late January and Lauren got a year. If she gets time off for good behaviour, she could be out in August or September."

"That's ages away," They wailed but there was nothing like the upset tones in their voices as there was in their thoughts a minute ago.

"Well, why don't you both write to her so long as you get your homework done as well," Cassie gently persuaded them.

"We'll do the card first, then homework."

Roisin exchanged doubtful glances with Cassie as this wasn't their favoured order of events but they conceded the point.

"We'll get the dinner while you're working," Roisin called out with a sidelong look at Cassie.

Instantly, a purposeful positive feeling came over the house and Roisin reached for a potato peeler as she started to talk.

"I hadn't finished my story of what happened today."

"You're a sly one, Roisin Connor. You're going to tell me the stuff that is not in front of the children," Grinned Cassie before turning to the fridge to select some beefsteaks which had been taken out of the freezer to defrost. At moments like this, they had this curious way of carrying on conversations in the same way as of every busy mother perpetually on the move.

"After George left the hall, we carried on with some orchestral pieces which were hard work but enjoyable. It was only out of the corner of my eye that I saw the judge make a very quiet exit out of the rehearsal. I can't remember how long that time passed, as I was busy enough with keeping up with the rest of the musicians…… Anyway, I noticed when John came back after a long time," Roisin explained as she started to slice up the first of the potatoes into the saucepan,

"How sort of came back, Roashe. Don't be coy," Cassie probed in her inevitable way. "Well, he sort of swaggered in as if ……."

"He'd been screwing George," Finished Cassie before she went to turn the beefsteaks over.

"How are you getting on with your cards. I hope you're starting your homework," Yelled Cassie the virtuous mother who was only too concerned that the children didn't expend all their efforts on the cards and then skimp the homework.

"It's OK," Michael called back. "We're starting our homework now."

"But in the open air near the church? I'm not a prude but won't there be the risk of anyone passing."

"It's easy, Roash," Replied Cassie, that very sexual woman. "I've done it myself in my single days. You've just got to watch out for any thistles. We ought to try it some day."

Cassie's smug smile and nonchalant manner could not have help but make Roisin laugh and the idea of it sounded intriguing if the umbilical chords could be safely detached and put on hold. Cassie was one for suggesting interesting possibilities. It was that look in her eye and the smile at the corner of her mouth that had led her to Cassie when she was a so-called respectably married woman. Well, she still was but in a different way.

"So what's with, the judge, George, Jo and Karen? It all sounds very decadent."

Roisin grinned when she heard Cassie put it this way.

"I get the feeling that there's a tie between George Jo and John but then again, I thought Karen and George were an item. It gets very confusing."

"It's not my scene being bi but many women are. Doing the round of the clubs taught me exactly what is possible and what isn't."

"But what about Jo?"

"Was she particularly thrown or did she go into a strop when they made their very obvious entrance."

"Well, no," Roisin confessed.

"Sweetheart, every woman is gay. It's just that not all of them know it yet. You never know even Jo might be or one day she will be."

"What makes you say that. There are some straight women around. I meet them every day…………." Roisin started to say before Cassie's big grin gave her enough answer not to presume conventional respectability on surface impression.

"You were once," Cassie added, quite unnecessarily.

Roisin shook her head incredulously before breaking off to boil the potatoes and grab for a bagful of frozen broccoli, knowing that Cassie would attend to the gravy.

"When's dinner ready?" came the inevitable call.

"Give us twenty minutes or so," yelled out Cassie with that voice that could carry through brick walls. "You'd better have done your homework by then."

"The only slightly unpleasant note was when that oily man came sidling up to me at breaktime and started making all sorts of personal remarks. I told him that their personal lives were nothing to do with me and that everyone has the right to be exempt from malicious evil gossip. The judge had been so very kind to a dear friend of mine, Lauren Atkins and I am proud to name Jo Mills and George Channing as friends of mine."

Roisin quoted her fierce impassioned reaction with some heat and much pride. She always had fierce loyalties and strong views on petty gossip from when she was a little girl, either despite or because of her conservative Catholic upbringing. However much she had changed in recent years, her God, like Babss', was still very real to her before whom she felt she could hold her head up high with pride. Cassie was not religious but it was that highly moral quality in Roisin which she loved so much.

Part One Hundred And Five

As George followed Karen up the stairs to her flat, she could feel the slightly protesting tenderness from where John had thrust into her so powerfully. God, that screw had been good, but she wished she could have felt better about it afterwards.

"Darling, do I look like I feel?" She asked, when they'd reached the lounge and Karen had put some music on.

"That depends how you do feel," Karen replied with a smirk. "To me, you look disheveled but gorgeous, but then I suppose I'm biased."

"Please can I have a bath? I feel as though I've got John all over me." Karen laughed.

"Yes, of course, as long as I can join you," She said, running a lazy finger down George's cheek.

"Sounds exactly what the doctor ordered," George replied in a low, inviting drawl, leaning forward to kiss her. "Or should I say the nurse," She added, suddenly knowing that she needed to lose herself in whatever Karen might do for her tonight. She needed some thoroughly intoxicating lovemaking, with the added bonus of not one, single complication. She shouldn't have had sex with John like that, and she still didn't know how she felt about having kissed Jo this weekend, but with Karen she could forget all this. Just for a while, she could return to the Georgia Channing she'd been a few weeks ago.

Asking if she could put the clothes she'd been wearing in the washing machine, George began filling the bath with hot, scented water. As she scrutinized herself in the mirror, she could certainly see why her father hadn't been particularly impressed at her appearance. Her hair was tousled, her blouse not entirely tucked into her skirt, and her lipstick had all quite obviously been kissed off. When she was lying in the blissfully soothing water, Karen asked her if she wanted a glass of wine.

"I'd prefer something soft," She replied. "I drank enough on Saturday to last me a lifetime." When Karen returned, she was carrying a glass of wine for herself and one of orange juice for George. Karen's bathtub was possibly her favourite part of this flat, it being just wide enough to comfortably accommodate her and George side by side.

"How was the hangover?" She asked, taking a sip from her wine and putting the glass on the corner of the bath.

"Not quite as bad as I probably deserved. God, when I get drunk, I really do go all out to do it thoroughly."

"I'll assume the alcohol was to help the sleeping pills on their way."

"Jo tell you that as well, did she?" George demanded, the guilt at what she'd nearly done, giving her voice the strident quality it had always possessed in the old days.

"Yes, she did," Karen told her, not phased in the least by George's tone of voice. "Just tell me this, were you actually prepared for what might have happened to you?" George took a sip of the orange juice, now heartily wishing it was alcohol.

"I don't understand."

"What do you think would have happened to you, if you really had taken those pills on top of a large quantity of Martini?"

"Well, as they were sleeping pills, I'm guessing I would have passed out at some point. End of feeling miserable and depressed, end of George Channing, end of story. Why?" Karen resisted the urge to shake some sense into her.

"If you'd been lucky, that's what would have happened, but it's by no means a certainty. A combination of that type of drug and a lot of alcohol could have screwed up your liver, long before it killed you. Bleeding to death via your oesophagus, isn't a very pleasant way to die, believe me. I'm not going to give you the guilt trip, because I suspect Jo has already done that, and it's not as if you need any more. I'm also not going to demand that you never have thoughts like that again, because I know it's not that simple. You undoubtedly will feel like this again, but next time, just remember what I've said." George stayed quiet for a few minutes, just taking in all that Karen had told her. She really hadn't thought that anything so horrific might happen to her. She had assumed that she would drift into unconsciousness, never to wake up again.

"I'm sorry," She said eventually. "I'm sorry that I frightened you like that."

"I know you are," Karen said, gently kissing her. When they'd simply held each other close for a time, George asked,

"Have you ever seen anyone die like that, when you were nursing, I mean?"

"Yes, which is why I never want you to consider trying anything like that again." They gently soaped each other's bodies, hands seeking out pleasure points that they didn't appear to have visited in far too long.

"I've missed this," George said between kisses, Karen's fingers delicately spanning her nipples.

"It's only been less than a fortnight," Karen teased, loving anew the way George's nipples became so hard and erect under her touch.

"I know, but it feels much longer." George always found the feeling of Karen's soft, silky skin incredible under her hands, and this time was no exception. Karen's body was now so familiar to her, that George wondered how she could ever have been nervous of touching it. But as Karen moved her hand down George's side, she found herself counting her ribs with the tip of a finger.

"I do bear a certain resemblance to a xylophone, don't I," George observed dryly.

"You will always be beautiful to me, no matter how you look," Karen told her, wanting George to know that she could see beyond her outer covering. George would have replied, but Karen managed to distract her by slipping a hand between her legs. George groaned luxuriously as Karen slid a long, tapered finger inside her, soon to be joined by a second.

"God, I need you so much," George said, her breath quickening as Karen's hand took her to heights of sheer ecstasy.

"I'm not going anywhere," Karen said fondly, gasping as she felt George's hand insinuate itself into replicating her own actions. They made love in that warm, scented water, hands creeping into soft, familiar places, mouths duelling in the pursuit of passion. George cried out as they simultaneously plunged over the abyss, and Karen held George to her, desperate never to let her go.

"I couldn't bear it if I lost you," Karen told her, brief tears rising to her eyes.

"Shh, I know," George said softly, remembering Jo's words of Saturday night. She'd said that Karen felt far more for her than she knew, but didn't want to put any further pressure on her. Well, perhaps she really did. She could see that what she'd considered doing had greatly upset Karen, and for that she was sincerely sorry. Karen was incredibly precious to her, and George would rather do anything than hurt her further. Where that left what may be happening with Jo, she couldn't yet begin to imagine.

When John arrived at Jo's house later that evening, he found himself wondering just what he might be in for. Something had clearly happened this weekend, something he didn't yet know about, something to make all her protective instincts rise up in defence of his treatment of George. Jo kissed him as usual, their greetings and partings almost always being the same, a familiarity he would never change. Pouring them both a glass of red wine, she joined him on the sofa, but he could feel the lecturing part of Jo working steadily away below the surface. When his curiosity couldn't hold out any more, he asked,

"What happened this weekend?"

"Before I tell you, let me ask you something," She said, reaching for a cigarette, even though she knew how it always irritated him not to have a similar, time buying prop. "When you took her into the woods this afternoon, did you notice anything different about her?" John thought about it, but couldn't immediately find the answer she was obviously waiting for. "Did George perhaps look thinner to you?"

"Oh, no," He said in dawning horror. "Don't tell me she's been doing that again."

"Yes, though it hasn't been allowed to get as bad as it did eighteen months ago, because both Karen and I knew what we were dealing with. Do you have any idea why she stopped eating again?"

"No way," He said in rising anger. "You are not putting this one on me, Jo. What George chooses to do to herself is entirely her own decision. I don't like what she does, but I can no more stop her than you can. Addicts are a law unto themselves, Jo, you know that."

"Oh, how self-righteous you are," Jo said quietly, and he could see in her eyes that he'd gone too far. "Let me remind you," She continued icily. "That George certainly isn't the only one with an addiction in this relationship. What about me? And what about your own little exotic craving? Don't even try to come all holier than thou about George, because you know it won't wash."

"At least I can keep the lid on mine," He said stubbornly. "At least I don't revert to type at the slightest sign of crisis."

"Oh, and how do I know that?" She countered back. "I wouldn't know if you'd done exactly that after your row with George last week."

"Jo, you have my word on that, you always have had."

"Yes, and wasn't that exactly what you said to me, just before you slept with Rachel Crawchek?"

"That was different," He said quietly.

"How different, John? But, that isn't exactly what we need to talk about right now," She added, not wanting to have this particular argument with him. "You need to know just how bad things got for her this weekend."

"Jo, I don't like the sound of this," He said, getting a terrible feeling about what she might say.

"When you argued with her last week, some of it was about Karen, wasn't it?"

"How much did she tell you?"

"Not a lot, which does give me cause for concern over what she didn't tell me. John, why does George being with Karen still get to you?"

"Does there have to be a reason?" He asked belligerently, not wanting to discuss his intense feeling of insecurity with her.

"For George to feel as bad as she did, yes, there most certainly does have to be a reason. She feels torn in two, John. One way by her feelings for Karen, and the other by your continuing jealousy. George did not ask to be attracted to women, just as you didn't. You need to understand that."

"But why did she have to go and do something about it?"

"Because she found an outlet for her need to express that part of who she is," Jo said reasonably. "Why she waited until Karen, I don't know. But she did find someone who could help her explore that part of her. Is that really so wrong?"

"And is it so wrong for me not to want to lose her to someone else?"

"No, of course it's not," Jo said gently. "But what you cannot do, is to expect something of her that you don't of me. John, two weeks ago, when I found the sight of Karen and George together erotic, you said it didn't bother you. You said that it was neither wrong nor bad for me to feel that way. Yet, when it comes to George, you seemed to have placed on her, the choice of either staying with Karen and hurting you, or of denying the part of her that finds women attractive."

"Are you accusing me of having double standards?" He demanded angrily.

"Yes, in this instance, I am. You can't deny it, John, no matter how much you shout and bluster at me. Where George and I are concerned, you do have double standards. In your expectations of us as your lovers, you have one rule for her and another for me. That isn't right, John, you know it isn't. George deserves an awful lot better than this."

"I love you both. Where's the difference in that?"

"So why," Jo asked, now beginning to lose her patience. "Can you accept my finding the thought of two women attractive, when you still can't live with the fact that George is actually sleeping with one?"

"Because you'll never do it," He said without hesitating. "Yes, you might like the thought of two women, you might even fantasise about one in your spare time for all I know, but that's as far as you'll ever go."

"Oh, and what makes you so sure?" She knew she was goading him, but she couldn't help it. So, thinking about it was as far as she would ever go was it? That was all he knew.

"Jo, it's perfectly natural to have occasional, little fantasies like that, but apart from those odd, few wonderings, you're as straight as I am."

"John, do you have any idea what George has been going through?" Jo said, returning to the attack because she wasn't about to actually lie to him and shatter all his illusions. "She has been trying to reconcile herself with either losing you, or Karen. She can't bear to lose either of you, yet just because of your continual refusal to accept the situation, George really was contemplating having to deny part of who she is. When I went to see her on Saturday night, she was well on her way to getting very drunk. I learnt more about your marriage that night than I really wanted to know. She couldn't bear to hurt you, John, but she knew she would end up resenting you if she were forced to give up her relationship with Karen. John, if I hadn't turned up when I did, she probably wouldn't be here now." She saw the shock register on his face, and knew that by telling him this, she had finally hit home.

"How serious was she?" He asked after a moment's silence.

"Very," Jo told him quietly. "Luckily, she hadn't got round to taking the sleeping pills. She hid them when I rang the doorbell."

"She never used to be like this, not after a row, not even one like last week."

"George has changed, John, mostly for the better, but there is always a negative side to every coin. In bringing her out of that downward spiral after the Merriman/Atkins trial, we have both managed to persuade her to abandon the crass, angry, self-defensive armour she used to wear so well. You can't deny that it has made her a much nicer person, and that we have all become much closer because of it. But at the same time, she no longer has that armour to hide behind. George isn't as emotionally strong as she used to be, or as we both used to think she was. When she hurts someone she cares about, which even you will admit is very rare these days, it is likely to hurt her far more than it will anyone else. You need to be careful with her, John, we both do."

"Is that why she was funny with me this afternoon?" Then, at Jo's raised eyebrow, he clarified. "She wanted what happened as much as I did. But afterwards, when we were walking back, she was very quiet. I thought we'd got everything sorted. We'd both apologised, and we'd made up, just like the old days. But it didn't seem to have worked."

"John," Jo said in utter exasperation. "The argument you had with her last week, plus your extremely unresolved feelings about Karen, cannot be sorted out with a quick bonk in the bushes." John winced, hating to hear his Jo talk like this. "Let me guess," She continued. "When you climaxed, you told her you loved her, didn't you. That's what you always do with me if we've been arguing."

"I might have done," He said evasively.

"If you really expect her to believe you, John, you need to say it at any other time, and really, actually mean it. You know something else she said to me on Saturday? She said that you only love sleeping with her, and that part of you loves her for Charlie. She doesn't know just how much you do love her. You don't just need to tell her, you need to show her, and I don't mean by having sex with her."

"What other way is there?"

"That's for you to find out," She said maddeningly. "Everyone has their different ways. I would suggest talking to her as a start. You need to resolve whatever it was that caused last week's argument, before you do anything else." Seeing that she'd said quite enough, she put her arms round him, offering him the simple comfort she knew he needed.

"I didn't mean to hurt her, Jo," He said into her hair.

"I know you didn't. But you need to tell her that, not me." Gently kissing him, she added, "Oh, and she did tell me one other very interesting thing about you."

"What?" He asked, very wary of the innocent smile on her face.

"Oh, nothing of importance," She replied, playing with a strand of his hair.

"Come on, I'm intrigued now," He pleaded.

"You never told me you liked watching blue movies," She said, her mouth opening in a laugh as he began to look thoroughly embarrassed.

"Once, I did that, once," He insisted.

"Oh, I believe you," She said unconvincingly. "After all, you are talking to the uninitiated."

"Nothing's going to be sacred between you two, is it," He said in resigned acceptance.

"Nothing has been, not since this relationship began. You know everything about us, so it's only right that we know everything about you." As she began kissing him again, he spared a thought to the woman he'd seduced over a week ago. He would pray to god that they never found out about her.

As Karen and George lay in bed that night, cuddled in each other's arms and slowly drifting towards sleep, Karen reflected back on their evening. She had cooked them a very light meal, George having said that if she ate too much to soon, the results would be disastrous. George had been wearing one of Karen's dressing gowns, with her clothes bearing evidence of her afternoon's diversion, being first in the washing machine then the tumble dryer. She'd been wearing the black, silk one, the one that Karen only ever wore when she was feeling particularly sexy. With this providing delightfully easy access to George's body, they had ended up making love most of the evening, either on the sofa whilst listening to music, or later on in her bed. They couldn't seem to get enough of each other tonight, George's inability to become aroused the previous Tuesday, having given her a subconscious wish to make up for lost time. Karen listened to George's deep, regular breathing, her soft, silky curves entwined with Karen's. Her eyes were fully closed now, the long, blonde lashes caressing her cheeks. Pressing a tiny, feather-light kiss to the corner of George's mouth, Karen allowed herself to say those forbidden words.

"I love you." They shouldn't be forbidden, she thought. They should never be condemned to be said almost in silence, but Karen wasn't about to make George's burden any heavier than it already was.

Part One Hundred and Six

Gina went to answer the phone call from Karen and felt comfortable enough when she first heard her distinctively mellow expressive voice. She had got to enjoy a closer working relationship with her than she was used to, and had found her feet on G Wing. There was a quality about her where she felt taken out of herself and her eye for what was going on around her was sharpened. She knew that it wasn't going to last but while it did, she might as well enjoy it and the extra money that came with it. There was something in Karen's tone of voice this time that sent out a warning message that all was not well.

"Come in, Gina," Karen smiled as usual and gestured to the empty seat in her friendliest fashion but there was a very slight nervousness about her manner. Gina's senses picked up on that one straightaway.

"I'd thought I'd call you in to be the first to hear the news and it isn't good, I'm afraid for either of us…….."

Gina started to take a sharp intake of breath but Karen's inclusion of herself in the bad news took the edge off her sense of panic. Fortunately, she had the sense not to hold Gina in suspense and waffle round the point. She preferred it this way.

"I've had a difficult decision to make and I'm afraid that I have only one answer to your shortage of prison officers, and I know that she won't be your favourite choice. It's Di Barker."

"You mean that that poisoned dwarf is coming back onto G Wing, to carry on with her evil schemes where she left off?"

What there was of Gina's sense of verbal appropriateness was stripped off her by such a ghastly prospect. Even the vision of her smug simpering face was in front of her eyes provoked a violent impulse in her to slap her hard round the face. She would never trust her on her own with the genuine article.

"Gina, can you hear me out as to why I've made this decision. Please." Karen's courteous low-pitched voice persuaded Gina to at least be quiet even while she was still in shock. Normally her ability to speak her mind was her very last faculty to give out on her.

"I've tried all the possible options that are open to me and to be equally fair to the other wings. My first thought was an external transfer. I don't take it for granted that just because I've not heard of a request, then none exists. I phoned up Neil Grayling at area, explaining why I was making such a request and he has personally scoured everywhere but the cupboard is absolutely bare. You're going to ask me why don't I move a prison officer off another wing instead of Di but every other wing has far too many inexperienced basic grade Prison Officers, and none whom I can spare at her grade. Even a three-way move won't work. The jungle drums beat very quickly about those two resignations on the spot so that her present Wing Governor lost no time in reminding me of the initially temporary nature of the move, and that it was extended for the foreseeable future against his wishes. Your staff shortage has put me in a cleft stick that way. Now this has come up, you can see that there is no alternative. On the face of it, if Di has nothing else, she has experience, more so than a number of other Officers."

"Yeah right, Karen. That drama queen is bloody good at setting staff against each other. Ought to get a bloody degree in it. Her and Sylvia will have a right time moaning away together the second my back's turned."

You've made a mistake, Karen thought as she had attempted to improve on what was perfect and spoiled all. She cut in and urged Gina with all the patience she could muster.

"Don't I know it, Gina.I won't lightly forgive or forget her despicable behaviour at the Lauren Atkins trial. You saw me………"

"I'm sorry, Karen," Gina said remorsefully. She suddenly noticed, as the heat of the moment died down, how nervously Karen fiddled with her hands, something very unusual for such a cool, calm and collected woman. Poor sod, she thought sympathetically. She's feeling it more for myself than she was for her. "I'm forgetting and I should have thought before I opened my big gob. I'll have to manage, that's all. "

Karen smiled freely, moved by Gina's loyalty and understanding but knew that there was more to the matter than that.

"There's more to it than that, Gina. You're right to some extent. You'll have to be prepared for, and expect trouble from the minute she sets foot on G Wing. She'll make Sylvia worse than she is, that you may be certain of, as those two will feed off each other. It's your decision but I would strongly advise you to talk to Di immediately and set the boundaries straightaway. You might be best to encourage her to play ball, but warn her that you'll take full disciplinary action against her the moment she crosses the line. You would be welcome to say that you have discussed matters with me first. I'll leave that up to you. I would urge you to remind her, above all else that, while you're acting wing Governor, you're Wing Governor and not the Senior Officer she used to know. It will work."

"Are you sure?" Gina asked. She was fine when it came to telling some stupid sod to pull their finger out but anything smacking of disciplinary procedures made her nervous in case she messed up.

"It worked with you. Remember when I first saw you?"

Karen grinned impishly and Gina remembered Karen laying down the law and giving her a right kick up the backside. They had come a long way since that very first day she barged in while Karen was talking to Sylvia and had tried to give her a load of bull about why she was transferred. She must have seemed a right gobby immature brat and could see how and why Karen took the line that she did.

"Yeah, that's true but I had the bad habit of slapping around prisoners who fancied my ex. My problem was that I was just mouthy but I was never the evil snake that she is."

" If anyone's got a sense of decency, you'll get there in the end. When you get to someone like Di, I'd be kidding you if I didn't say that it is much harder. You've just got to look for the way in. The principle's the same whoever you're dealing with. Get in first before she does. You've no choice."

Gina had started listening very closely to Karen's sensible advice and had made a mental note to follow it to the letter. It was when her final words pulled everything together in her mind, that Gina had a plan of action that she had confidence in.

"I'll do that, Karen only I'll have to make sure I don't lose my temper."

"You'll manage," Karen grinned. A feeling of immense relief poured over her when she had sensed that Gina had risen to the situation.

"I'd like to stay but I've got my weekly meeting to do."

"There's just one other thing." Karen interrupted."I meant to tell you that Denny Blood has got permission to visit Shell Dockley at Ashmore.I expect the paperwork for the inter prison visit and I'll pass it to you as soon as I get it."

Gina's fired up feeling of self confidence rapidly drained at Karen's casual announcement and the smile disappeared from her face.

"Sylvia's going to go off the deep end," Came Gina's gloomy reply, eventually after deep thought. She could handle telling the POs these two items separately but not together. Sitting on the news felt out of the question as hadn't she moaned in the past at not being told what was going on? "And if most of the others are relaxed about it, Di's return will put the mockers on the atmosphere."

"Look here, Gina. Would it help if I sat in on your meeting? I have left you to it partly, as I felt self-conscious coming back to the wing where I was Wing Governor. I'm still learning my way in when to intervene and when to keep in the background."

It somehow reassured Gina in a peculiar way that Karen had her occasions of self-doubt, something she thought was impossible. She weighed everything up in her mind and nodded in agreement.

"I'll stay in the background to make it easier on you," Added Karen helpfully.

Gina was back in command of herself, words and phrases being pulled from the back of her mind as she mentally roughed out the meeting. She grinned, grabbed her papers and led the way to the door.

Gina could see Bodybag's mouth opening and closing like a fish taking in air as she led the way to the door, the way her head turned round to spot Karen coming as well and her lips tightening.

"Hi everyone," Gina breezed in, papers tucked under her arm while Karen made a subdued entrance, smiling briefly. "Yes I know by the clock, Sylvia, what time it is. Time we started this meeting. Karen's sitting in on this meeting just to get out and about amongst us. Now if everyone is comfortable then I'll begin."

Karen smiled at Gina's very individual yet effective style of grabbing the meeting by the scruff of its neck leaving Bodybag to glower into the carpet that her planned opening little ploy had been brushed aside. She sat right in the corner, far to one side of the centre stage position that she had adopted and was highly conscious of being an onlooker which gave her a strange feeling. So many times, she had briskly run through the agenda of the meeting chipping the conversation back and forth between those more vocal PO's. How peculiar it was to see another person in her role that she once wore, in her shoes and metaphorically speaking, her outer garb. She had passed on and if she hadn't known before, it was made plain at this moment.

"….and for your information, I'm picking two volunteers to do prison escort when Denny visits Shell Dockley at Ashmore this Friday….." Gina started to announce when Bodybag had to stick her oar in.

"Hmmph. Might as well fix up for her to spend the day at Butlins, all expenses paid. That evil woman deserves no favours for what they did to me and my Bobby."

"One thing I got to hand it to you, Sylvia, you always come out with the most original punchlines. Let's get it straight, Denny Blood's been bending our ears to visit Shell Dockley and it makes sense as she's behaved well enough by my book to deserve it."

"And what strings did she pull, I wonder to get this free holiday?" Bodybag muttered.

"I arranged it with the powers that be for the reasons Gina's explained. That makes me responsible for giving Denny a pep talk before she goes," Karen intervened quietly, stealing one of Bodybag's favourite cliches. "I am perfectly aware what happened to you and Bobby all that time ago and I don't expect you to forget it but there will be no open-ended revenge trip around here. Not in my prison."

"I want to be kept up to speed on how Denny is after the visit and Karen also," Gina concluded to which Karen nodded in agreement. "Now, next business since everyone who's going to be involved with the visit will get to know what's going on. "

Bodybag glared down at her stout shoes while the smart way that Gina dealt with the meeting impressed Karen. She observed with interest that Gina had a real snap in her delivery and was much plainer and blunter than ever she was. Gina, shrewdly, left a long gap in the agenda for the ripples to calm down before broaching the matter of Di Barker

"…..and before I forget, we're getting a prison officer transferred from another wing, date to be arranged. She's no stranger to G wing as it's Di Barker."

An evil smile of satisfaction spread across Bodybag's face. A shining vista opened up before her that she would no longer be on her own with these young upstarts. She pictured all that time she and Di could have a good moan and, between them, turn G Wing around.

"We're grateful for another pair of hands to take the pressure off us but this place has changed since she was last here. I hope she fits in."

Karen suppressed a smile as Selena's crisp voice sailed as close to the wind in directly insulting Di and also at the murmured agreement with one significant exception. Her smile was harder to suppress as the opening in the conversation was immediately filled by Gina with slick precision.

"As soon as Di sets foot through the door, I'm going to have a nice friendly chat with her to make her feel right at home. Wouldn't want her to miss out on all the latest gossip, would I?"

Karen definitely smirked, as did all the others, at Gina's highly effective brand of plain speaking, entirely different from her own style. Gina would never be accused of being overly politically correct but she thrived on her own style.

"There might be a few changes round here when Di comes back," Bodybag sniffily observed.

"Not if I can help it, Sylvia. Why should this place change for one prison officer? Those who shout the loudest don't get special favours, in my book. Life's a bitch that way."

Gina's frozen smile changed by degrees into a glare straight between Bodybag's eyes. Unknown to all but Karen, she marvelled to herself at the way she had persuaded herself that Di Barker could be dealt with if she handled her cards right. The reality of it might be different when it came to the crunch but she would have a good stab at it. It reassured her to run a swift glance round the room and saw just how well her thinly disguised hatred of that evil cow went down.

"Now the usual locks, bolts and bars. Chop chop everyone," Gina concluded.

All the prison officers offered brief but sincere friendly greetings to Karen as they went out with one exception. Bodybag could swear on her mother's grave that this scheme had clearly been cooked up between the two of them. It was at moments like this that she missed Jim Fenner but she was the only mourner on G Wing.

Part One Hundred And Seven

On the Wednesday morning, George felt thoroughly out of sorts. Nothing had been resolved with John, she felt pathetic at not having been able to sing her part on Monday, and one of her richest clients had just informed her that he was going somewhere else for his legal work in future, meaning that her one appointment for this afternoon had been canceled. It made her smile slightly, to realise that what she really needed was a good, long, whinge. When, before her world had been figuratively turned inside-out, had she ever longed for the opportunity to do nothing more than have a good gossip with one of the girls. But that was the problem, everyone she knew was working at this time of the day. Karen, Jo, Cassie, Helen, even Roisin would be busy, stuck at home looking after the children as it was half term. Taking a mouthful of cold coffee, she suddenly remembered the one person who she'd not considered, and who, more than likely, would be at a loose end. Most of Nikki's work was centred around the nightlife of her club, meaning that her days were possibly a little emptier than most people's. Flipping through her address book, she hoped she wouldn't sound quite as feeble and pathetic as she felt. When Nikki answered, her voice was deeper, sounding half awake, and to George's ears, really quite sexy.

"Nikki, it's George. I hope I didn't wake you."

"No, not quite," Nikki said with a yawn. "This is a nice surprise."

"Did you have a late night?" George asked, immediately kicking herself for the inanity of the question.

"A very late night, enhanced by the sheer delight of having to go through the club's CCTV cameras some time today, because I think one of my bar staff is pushing drugs."

"Not nice," George sympathised.

"No. Trish always manages to leave the hiring and firing to me. So, what can I do for you?"

"Erm, as lame as it sounds, I'm not sure," George found herself saying.

"Is everything all right?" Nikki asked, instantly on the alert, hearing a woman who desperately wanted a chat, but who didn't know how to ask for it.

"No, not really," George replied, seeing no point in saying otherwise.

"George," Nikki said reassuringly. "You didn't phone me up in the middle of a working day, seriously in need of a talk, only to bottle out at the last minute." George gave the Munnings above her desk a watery smile.

"No, I didn't," She said. "Apart from the detective work, are you busy today?"

"No, not at all. Do you want to come and see me?"

"Yes, I would, if that's all right."

"Tell me," Nikki said with sudden inspiration. "Have you ever seen inside a gay club?"

"As Karen is my first in that line of discovery, no I haven't," George said with a laugh.

"Then maybe you can learn something at the same time. I've got to go through these tapes of last night, but I should be finished around three."

When George followed Nikki's directions later that afternoon, she had to admit to feeling a certain sense of intrigue. She hadn't been near a nightclub since the seventies, the brushfire smell of pot, clouding both the sight and judgment of everyone in the room. She'd worn her skirts barely coming to mid-thigh in those days, with her long, blonde hair streaming out behind her. As she drew her sleek, black BMW into a space behind Nikki's, she glanced up at the club's sign.

"Chix!" It was called, with the X forming the parted legs of a woman. George couldn't help laughing to herself when she saw this. It some how signified that a sense of humour was vital, if one's obviously different sexuality wasn't going to cause too many problems. As she entered the foyer of the club, she could see a line of very wide panes of glass separating the foyer from the main part of the club. Before she could wonder where to look for Nikki, a brunette looking no older than fifteen approached her.

"Are you George Channing?" She asked.

"Yes," George told her, wondering what a girl as young as this was doing working for a club.

"Nikki asked me to show you up to her office." As George followed the young girl up some carpeted stairs, she could feel the beginnings of a lecture forming in her head, about the employment of under-aged schoolgirls. When the girl showed her into a large, spacious office, lined floor to ceiling with windows, some looking out onto the street and some onto the dance floor downstairs, Nikki was scrolling through a CCTV tape.

"Hi," She said, looking up with a smile. "You found it okay then?"

"Yes. I like your sign." Asking the girl to bring them some coffee, she said,

"What happened to you? You look a bit under the weather."

"Anorexia happened to me," George told her, immediately putting a hand to her mouth in shock. Yes, it was true, she did still look tired, pale, and definitely too thin, but she hadn't meant to say something like that. "I'm sorry," She said, "I didn't mean to tell you that." Seeing that George needed something to put her back on track, Nikki gestured George to look at something on the TV screen.

"What do you make of that?" As she watched, George was greeted to the sight of a hard-nosed, black-haired woman, clearly handing over a small plastic bag of something to another.

"What do you suppose is in the bag?" George asked, moving away from the TV and sitting down on the leather sofa.

"Could be crack, could be pills, I'm not sure."

"And that's definitely someone who works for you?"

"Oh, yes," Nikki said firmly. "She's not due in till tomorrow, but when she is, it'll be the shortest stay she's ever had. I could wring her neck for bringing drugs in here, never mind bloody selling them." This time, it was Nikki's turn to look a little uncomfortable. "And given what I did once do in this club, I really shouldn't say things like that." Then, at George's raised eyebrow, she added, "This is where I killed Detective Sergeant Gossard." George opened her mouth to speak, but unable to find anything to say, she shut it again.

"How can you still work here, knowing that?" She asked eventually, thinking that Nikki had far more stamina than she would in such a situation.

"If I couldn't have come back here," Nikki told her quietly. "He would have won, and if Trisha could do it, when the bastard had been trying to rape her, so could I. Besides, every time I look at that bar, I remember that I've got my freedom, and that I wouldn't have that freedom without Helen." It was very rare that George was stunned into silence, but this time she was. Nikki was so sincere in her determination to succeed, and her appreciation of everything those around her had achieved, that it made George feel extremely humble. The things that worried and angered her on a daily basis, seemed so superficial in comparison.

When the girl came in with the coffee, it seemed to break the ice. As Nikki sat in the leather armchair opposite, George said,

"That reminds me, just how old is she?" As she said this, she gestured in the direction of the door through which the girl had just left.

"Yeah, I know, looks about fifteen, doesn't she. But don't worry, she was nineteen last week. Her name's Rhiannon Dawson, Julie J's daughter."

"Julie, as in the two Julies?"

"Yeah," Nikki said with a smile. "They managed to persuade Rhiannon to get off drugs, go back to college and make something of herself. So, when she turned eighteen, I said if she wanted it, she could have a job here. She's under a strict threat of instant dismissal and grassing up to her mum if she doesn't stay clean, and so far it's worked, and no, before you ask, it definitely isn't her who's bringing the drugs in. It was Rhiannon who put me onto it in the first place. She doesn't usually work behind the bar, but we were short staffed last night, and I'm bloody glad she did."

"She looks so young," George said in astonishment.

"She looked even younger a few years ago, and she was working on the streets in those days."

They talked for a while about their mutual friends, until Nikki said,

"Sweetheart, why are you really here?"

"It sounds so stupid," George said, reaching for a cigarette. "I thought I'd stopped feeling like a fifteen-year-old, when I got used to being with Karen, but the older I get, the more adolescent I seem to behave. My life is already quite complicated enough, and I don't want to hurt anyone else, least of all Jo or Karen." Nikki held up a hand.

"George," She said with a slight laugh. "Start at the beginning."

"I'm sorry," George said, smiling at her. "Everything's just getting a bit on top of me, and I think I need a sounding board."

"Is that why you stop eating?" Nikki asked gently.

"Yes," George told her, looking slightly away from her. "I started doing it when I was fifteen, stupid really. But it only became very noticeable and therefore a problem, after my daughter was born. But that's another story, and definitely not one for today."

"I take it your daughter is also John's daughter?"

"Yes, perhaps the one thing I gave him that he actually wanted, and I didn't even manage to get that right. But I'm not here to talk about that. I know you know about the slightly insane arrangement I have with John and Karen."

"Yeah, creative if nothing else," Nikki said dryly. "It wouldn't be my cup of tea, but if it works, then great."

"It's supposed to, and if I hadn't pushed things a little too far, it probably would have stayed that way. A couple of weeks ago, the four of us almost ended up..." She didn't seem to know how to phrase it.

"Jesus," Nikki said, sounding impressed. "That's not even something I've ever done."

"We didn't," George said, looking relieved that she hadn't had to be more explicit. "But it uncovered something between me and Jo, that neither of us had ever expected to find."

"Many a truth spoken in jest, eh?"

"It was more by actions than by words, but yes, something like that. I wasn't surprised at my attraction to her, because Jo is perhaps the closest friend I have, and I've found women attractive ever since I can remember. It just took Karen to make me do something about it."

"Why wait so long?"

"My father wouldn't have understood," George told her simply. "I don't think he would quite have disowned me, but it would have driven an enormous wedge between us, and I couldn't bear that. My mother died when I was ten, so daddy is all I have in that respect."

"Aha, the threat of parental disapproval," Said Nikki bitterly. "My parents kicked me out when I was sixteen because they discovered I was gay. It didn't quite fit in with their middle class, middle England lifestyle. Have you ever flirted with Jo?"

"Yes, I suppose so, occasionally, probably because I always thought it was safe, that it would never achieve anything."

"So, what happened to throw everything up in the air?"

"I got very drunk last Saturday. I'd had a pretty awful row with John the week before, and when I say things that are well and truly uncalled for, they usually hurt me far more than they do the recipient."

"Don't I know the feeling," Nikki said in sympathy. "The countless times in Larkhall, when I said things to Helen that I immediately regretted."

"Jo came to see me when I was already half cut, and did her typically sensitive and entirely accurate routine on me by making me talk. That's why she's so good as a criminal barrister, she can extract confessions out of people before they know what's hit them. Anyway, something I told her, made her both concerned and furious with me."

"Don't tell me," Nikki said in dawning realisation. "You kissed her, didn't you?"

"No, actually it was the other way round. That was what shocked me, because I've always assumed her to be as straight as you get. Mind you, when I woke up the next morning and remembered it, I couldn't quite believe it was Jo who had initiated it."

"It's always the quiet ones," Nikki said with a broad smile. Then, turning serious again, she asked, "How do you feel about this?"

"I don't know. I shouldn't feel anything. All it should be is something I did in a drunken moment of insanity."

"That's what Helen wanted to believe, the first time I kissed her, only neither of us were drunk," Nikki said with a fond smile of memory. "She'd had a really bad day. One of her officers had been caught smuggling drugs for Shell Dockley, the Governing Governor was on her back every second, and Crystal had sent a letter to the Guardian about the drugs problem in Larkhall, and in particular, on Helen's wing. She came up to my cell, probably just looking for a bit of tea and sympathy, and instead she got more than she bargained for."

"What did she say?" George asked, always fascinated by the very personal stories she was told of life in Larkhall.

"She was furious with me," Nikki said fondly. "She called me into her office, warned me as to my future conduct, the works. Every bloody time I did something that threatened her professional security, she'd pull rank on me. Every time I pushed it that little bit too far, all in an attempt to convince her that what she was feeling wasn't wrong, she'd use the keys and the bars to put me in my place. But do you know something, the more she fought it, the more I loved her. The harder she tried to prove that she didn't have feelings for me, the more I knew she did. I'd wait a whole week for a smile from Helen, and if she gave me a smile, that would get me through another week."

"Every time I stop eating, or end up feeling stupid, drastic things like I did this weekend, Jo always manages to pull me out. It hasn't even been two years since we started being nice to each other, yet I don't know how I ever got through everything without her."

"It got really bad for you this weekend, didn't it," Nikki said quietly, knowing with that instinctive sensitivity of hers just how bad.

"Please, don't go there, Nikki," George pleaded.

"Okay," Nikki said to calm her down, seeing in an instant that George was desperately ashamed of having felt so low.

"You know something Jo said to me? She said, you're not normal, you're not abnormal, you're just you."

"I remember saying something very similar to Helen," Nikki said in wonder.

"Ever since we called a truce, and this slightly odd relationship began with John, Jo has always just accepted me for who I am. Even when she found out about Karen and me, she hardly batted an eyelid. I can't explain how I feel about Jo, but I do know that I don't want to hurt Karen. She doesn't deserve that."

"I don't know that Karen would be all that surprised," Nikki said reasonably. "There isn't much she doesn't see. Well, except for her total blind spot with Fenner, but I guess we all have to have those once in a while. But I see what you mean. I think you need to give any feelings you might have for Jo, a lot more time to either surface or die, before you make any major decisions. The same goes for her too. If you keep this going with Karen, because I'm assuming you still want to, it'll keep any pressure off both you and Jo."

"I know that really, I just think I needed to talk everything out with someone."

"Any time," Nikki said with a smile. "Barbara used to say that I was the best listener on the wing. Mind you, she listened to me going on about Helen often enough, never mind covering up for me when I got out on the night Fenner was stabbed."

"Did you hate it, going back, I mean?"

"I think that was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I had all these plans, I was going to get out of the country using Trish's passport, and go to San Francisco of all places. Helen persuaded me to let her drive me to the airport, and when I realised she was heading back to Larkhall, I almost got us killed in a car crash. She wasn't very amused to be pulled by the police for reckless driving, but even then she didn't give me away. But yeah, the few weeks that followed that night were hell. I was going slowly and not so quietly mad. But she knew she was doing the right thing, and eventually I had to agree with her."

"You said that Helen used to pull rank on you? Well, John frequently does the same. He's banged me up in a cell for contempt, on no less than three occasions. It is strictly forbidden for a barrister to appear before a judge with whom they are having any kind of affair. Sometimes I can't decide whether he's pulling rank on either me or Jo to keep the LCD off the scent, or simply out of sheer bloody mindedness."

"There isn't much to choose between me and Helen for stubbornness," Nikki said with a smile. "We're both as bad as each other. You will sort this out, you know, because things like this always do, you've just got to let it ride the course. But if you ever want to talk, about anything, any time, I'm always here." As she reached forward to give George a hug, she could feel the far too prominent Channing bone structure. "Crystal did that once," She said, holding George slightly back from her.

"Did what?"

"Starved herself to almost skeletal proportions. She did it to prove a point, but that didn't make it any less lethal. It was when Di Barker switched the drugs tests so that Crystal's would come out positive. She looked even thinner than you do now."

"Believe me, Nikki, I've been far thinner than this in my time."

"It might not feel like it when things get this bad," Nikki said, looking deep into George's eyes. "But there are people who care for you, really quite a lot of them when you think about it, and every single one of us would be there if you wanted to cry, or to shout, or just to stop you from staring at the four walls when things get a bit too much. Just remember that."

"Thank you," George said, hugging her back with a few stray tears in her eyes, and wondering just how she'd coped before she discovered the true meaning of real, sincere friendship.

Part One Hundred and Eight

Denny had been keyed up about the visit for days and days but the big unknown in her mind was who would accompany her. Gina was in charge and she was great but Denny had a belief in Sod's Law, which meant that bad luck would dog her at crucial moments in her life. Burnt into her mind was the way that Shaz had been ghosted out of Larkhall just when things were good between them, and the way she was spaced out of her mind on magic mushrooms and was more worried about the sharks swimming close by their boat instead of jumping off their upended table and getting out of their room before the flames poured through the hole in the door. That was the one-day of the whole frigging year that Shaz had come over for the day. Her visit to see Shell might just end up the same way.

"Who's taking me to see Shell?" Denny asked a very distracted Gina for the second time that morning. Gina's mind was very distracted by that very same problem and was only half listening to Denny. After a few seconds, her mind registered the voice, which turned into words after a further delay.

"I'm sorting it out, Denny. Can't be everywhere at once all at the same time. Just give me a bloody break and shut it," Gina snapped.

Denny glared at this fat cow. Surely she should understand that something that she had been planning and replanning in her mind, day after day, meant more than some frigging bits of papers being shuffled about. Zandra was right. In her overheated mind, they did these things deliberately to her just to wind you up.

"Look here, Denny. Everything's sorted but I need to find someone to go with you. You're going to a maximum security prison and not Yvonne Atkins house. There's a difference between the two."

"Like what?" Denny asked with a trace of belligerence.

"Like I'm less worried about you being in Yvonne's hands. Now just wait out on the wing and let me get on with sorting this mess out."

The concentrated glare in Gina's eyes and the realisation that she was trying her best made Denny feel sheepish and a little ashamed.

"Sorry, man."

Karen sat staring into the width and depth of the computer screen as the figures of how her budget allocation was being spent. This was the least pleasurable part of her duties having reluctantly acquiesced to Grayling's regretful tones that there was no more money to be had for Larkhall. Her mind went back to the time of Grayling's very first speech where he came out with the all time tired cliche of HMS Larkhall and him as the captain. The way the ship was steaming, she ruefully reflected, it was going to run out of fuel fifty miles short of harbour and she was going to need a tug to tow them all in.

She ran her fingers through her hair and her eyes felt tired even first thing in the morning. Whichever way she went, someone was going to protest to her in the same way that she might have done at one time, and with good reason.

The shrill discordant tones of the phone took five rings to penetrate Karen's deep train of thought.

"Gina here. I've hit a problem for escort duty for Denny to Ashmore. The only officer I can spare to go is Dominic. Even though Denny's basically a good kid, I don't like the idea as it's asking for trouble in case anything kicks off."

"You're right. It isn't safe, not by a long way," exclaimed Karen to Gina and the mathematics of the computer screen. All the books on financial management are only worth so much until you have a real situation on the ground. After that 'calculated risks' blow up in your face like now if she took the easy way out and from how she remembered hearing how the riot on G Wing started when Helen was short staffed in her turn and especially when she was away.

"Can you think of anyone from another wing we could get at short notice to help out?" Gina asked.

"You need look no further. I'll do it," Karen's decisive tones gave Gina at least one solution, herself rather than make promises to look into an overstretched budget. "I was the one who arranged the visit in the first place, so I might as well see it through."

"You sure you can spare the time?" Gina asked anxiously. She was finding herself creeping into the habit as Wing Governor, of taking work home with her and she figured that Karen was far worse a workaholic than she was. Working in prisons didn't do much for relationships with anyone on the outside. She did not want to see Larkhall Prison cited as causing a breakup in Karen's relationship with that very good-looking barrister of hers.

"I'm getting nowhere doing what I'm doing so I might as well be doing something totally different."

Gina nodded. That made sense.

Karen came to Gina's office where Dominic and a very excited Denny stood before Gina.

"It's nice to have your company, Karen, but how are we getting to Ashmore?" Dominic queried on a practical note.

"Simple. We use my car. Can you two squeeze in the back if I push the front seat forward?"


This time, luck was on her side for a change.

Karen pulled the seats as far forward as they would go so Dominic's long legs wouldn't be through the roof of her soft-top. Denny squeezed in beside Dominic and both were tucked into the space, which was as secure as anything was. Karen's sporty looking green MG sports car revved up and she pointed it at the direction of the gates.

"Are you two comfortable in the back?" she asked. God, this seemed a little like her taking kids on holiday. She couldn't help but reflect that she had known Dominic on and off for a few years and had seen him grow from the 'all fingers and thumbs' shy young prison officer into the mature and balanced slightly older young prison officer. If only they all grew up as steady and responsible as him, mused Karen with regret.

"We're fine in the back, me and Denny. All we need are the buckets and spades."

"I wish," came Denny's joking reply.

Karen smiled in satisfaction, glanced at the roadmap on the passenger seat balanced precariously on her briefcase and headed her car out onto the open road. She relaxed into her car seat as much as she could with the reduced legroom for Denny sitting immediately behind her. The steady hum of the car soothed everyone as the journey wore on although the giant juggernauts loomed over them like huge cliffs. It was a nice spring day and the green fields either side of them stretched into the distance. She was away from Larkhall almost as if she were escaping from her own prison, her fancies told her.

Suddenly, her mobile started to ring relentlessly. Oh God, can't I be allowed to be away for one day in my life, she thought first until she switched it to hands free.

"Hello darling."

"This is a nice surprise," Karen told her, thinking that George must be at a loose end to be phoning her in the middle of the morning. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Well, I just wanted to say how nice that was on Monday," George's most alluring tones could be clearly heard in the car. At her end, George was looking out of her office down on the busy streets below on a nice sunny day. She wanted to share her better spirits with the woman who was dearest to her so she had clicked on her mobile and, not getting an answer from Karen's direct line, tried her mobile only to hear muffled background sounds which puzzled her. I can't believe it, Karen thought in turn, as all those rehearsals for George to play her version of Eve throughout her range right up to top C had sharpened up her ability to project her voice. She was only too right as the unmistakable sounds of George Channing could be heard clearly in the cramped space in the back seat of the car.

"Oh, which part of it?" Temporarily, Karen was confused as to where she was, next to George in her dreams or trying to be the responsible Governing Governor in charge of a prisoner and one of her prison officers.

"Darling, don't be coy. You know which part of it," George retorted in a teasing, bantering tone of voice.

"What exactly are you doing right now?" She enquired in a more restrained, lower pitched voice as she was starting to hear more distinct human voices over and above a regular low drone.

"I'm taking my car up to Ashmore to take Denny to see Shell Dockley."

Karen answered in her most inconsequential tones while keeping a sharp eye on the oil tanker she was overtaking.

"Am I ringing at an inconvenient moment, darling?"

"No great problem, George. But I must warn you that every word that you are saying is being taken down and remembered by Denny Blood who I can see in my rear view mirror and is smirking at me. Dominic is trying to turn a deaf ear but is obviously failing."

" Hey posh bitch," Denny sang out from the back. "You come to G Wing and us girls will make you welcome any time you want."

"If you want to cover a night shift any time, you would always be welcome,"

Dominic said in his best well-meaning fashion. All the time, Karen kept her eyes on the road while letting all the bedlam carry on all around her. It definitely felt like one of Ross's birthday parties years ago when he was wide-eyed and innocent and never knew at the time that children could ever grow up.

"Oh well, thank you," George responded and laughed at all the sounds of bedlam that was clearly breaking loose in reply. She knew that if there were anything seriously amiss, Karen would have made that clear.

"I'll phone back later and we'll fix up a time to meet, darling. I can see you're busy."

"I'll come and see you some time," Karen said, her voice not altogether sounding like the dutiful Governing Governor she was half trying to be. The feelings of sexual arousal conjured up by that delicious memory of the feel and the texture of George's soft skin in the dark were definitely coming out on top. Even at a moment like this, she was not in a hurry to draw the conversation to a close.

The eavesdroppers in the back of the car were intrigued to hear Karen's husky voice, which was a long way apart from her very proper official tones. Denny was sure she had heard that line of Karen's before somewhere and made a note to ask Lauren later on as she was clever and sure to know the answer to that one.

Karen discreetly put a CD on and some quiet chill out music accompanied the journey with fairly unspecific lyrics. It helped to mask the sudden exposure of Karen's private life and also to pass the time while they drove up the motorway and sign after sign announced the distance to far off towns and cities. In the back, Denny and Dominic felt dwarfed by the size of virtually everything on the road in Karen's low slung little sports car. At last, Karen saw the turnoff and her car curved to the left and climbed up to the roundabout and the more ancient roads which linked one community to the next. She had not driven far when she spoke over her shoulder to Denny, her voice thankfully back to normal.

"Denny, we're getting near to Ashmore and I do not need to remind you that we'll be under their jurisdiction especially in relation to internal security. At Larkhall, I'm the boss. At Ashmore, I'm just a visitor on their terms and that goes for the rest of you."

"Have you heard how Shell is? Denny asked eagerly. Now they were off the motorway, the place they were going to wasn't something abstract and the question came uppermost in her mind.

"I asked her psychiatrist and Shell's progress is satisfactory."

Denny's stomach lurched at Karen's careful, considered reply. That was what they told you to palm you off with a load of bullshit.

"I'm sure she's fine," Dominic added helpfully but the grin was wiped off Denny's face.

Karen spotted the entrance on the left and swung past security to their allotted car park spot.

"I'm sorry, Denny, but until and unless the hospital say otherwise, me and Dominic have to be handcuffed to you."

Denny's face was expressionless and no one spotted her train of thought as to the light regime that Karen ran that far off time when she had taken her to Yvonne's, what sort of frigging place was she being taken to?

When they approached the receptionist, they passed into an airless almost claustrophobic atmosphere that was immediately different to the fresh spring air outside.

"Who's that cow giving me the evil eye, Miss Betts?" Denny muttered under her breath.

Karen smiled sweetly as she remembered the neighbourhood dragon whom she had had to slap one of John's court orders on her which could bust loose anyone from Alcatraz let alone Ashmore.

"I can see you remember me from last time I saw you."

"Just sign the register and I'll phone through to say you've all arrived."

The woman's face was blank and expressionless, and her voice was as unfriendly as she dared. She knew better than to use her repertoire of stalling tactics, starting from asking that all the 't's' be crossed and the 'I's' are dotted when these intruders had signed in. She wanted them in and out as soon as possible. For that reason alone, they spied the nurse come through the silently opening door and when they passed through, it silently closed behind them.

"This place is weird," Denny muttered and Dominic silently agreed with her as they walked slightly behind the young nurse.

"The last time I was here, Denny," Karen clarified. "that all time dragon receptionist barred my way to see Shell until I produced a court order signed by the judge who Lauren was up before. She changed her mind but she will hate my guts for the rest of her life."

"You're going up in the world, Karen," Dominic grinned.

"Wicked," Chorused Denny briefly.

After passing the usual miles of aisles, they came to the last security door and handed her over to the ward sister who told them that Shell Dockley was coming to meet them.

"Mr. McAllister, fancy seeing you back as a screw. I thought you'd stay in Greece."

Shell Dockley called out to him in a disturbingly vacant tone and walked up to them.

"Couldn't stand the heat and the ouzo. I came back for good English bitter and the weather," Dominic added in his dry humour.

To Karen, she was no different in her tracksuit and jogging bottoms but Denny reacted differently. To her, Shell was the woman who had all the glamour and smart talk and was inseparable, in her mind, from her gold jewelry, bright red lipstick, short skirt and low cut top. Dressed that way, Shell was her old self that she could remember. When she 'dressed down', Denny got worried about her and thought that she was cracking up. She always used to when she dressed that way. Immediately, Denny was guilty for not thinking more of her and therefore angry with everyone around her. In a weird nut house like this, Denny felt constrained and couldn't say too much.

"You promised you'd get me out of here, Miss Betts," Shell said reproachfully, her blue eyes looking reproachfully at her.

"Did you, Miss." Denny muttered.

Immediately, Karen felt uneasy. There was a world of difference between trying to do something and delivering the goods where long-term psychiatric prisons were concerned. They were a law unto themselves, probably even for Grayling let alone her.

"I said I would try, Shell. I made some enquiries but I was not able to get very far."

"Lauren Atkins sends on her best wishes," Dominic added helpfully.

"And my old mate Denny. I've not seen you for ages."

Shell flung her arms round her and drew her close to her and held her for a long time.

"How are all the others from the old days like the Julies and Bodybag?"

"The Julies send their love, and Bodybag, well you can guess, man," Denny grinned.

Shell's manner was more animated as ancient memories penetrated her rather fogged mind. She couldn't remember stuff from yesterday with all the dope they were feeding her but all her memories of Larkhall started to flood back.

"If you don't mind, miss, I would rather talk on my own to Shell," Denny said curtly, when she had detached herself eventually from Shell's embrace, her feelings of guilt only increased by Dominic's well meaning words and the strange feel of Shell's body next to her.

"I have no problem with that if the hospital don't."

Dominic's expression indicated to Karen that going along with this request might not be the best course of action even though it was in the spirit of the request.

Presently, Denny and Shell were led into a sideroom, which was austere and simple, and there was a glass panel outside which a nurse was on duty to keep an eye on them. Karen and Dominic began to feel like spare parts standing in the middle of the ward where strangers passed by on either side.

"Do we need to be on hand or have you got sufficient security here?" Karen asked the sister.

"If anything does kick off, there are enough here to restrain them before you can say Jack Robinson," Came the businesslike reply. "You might as well go to the canteen where you can chat as long as you like till you are ready to collect your prisoner. One of my nurses will show you the way."

Karen nodded respectfully at the other woman as one professional to another, especially as she once wore a nurse's uniform.

"Do you think we're doing the right thing?" Karen suddenly posed the question to Dominic as they sat at opposite sides of a cheap Formica table.

"You wouldn't have asked my opinion years ago, it would have been the other way round," Dominic cheerfully reminded her.

"You've changed a lot since the old days," Smiled Karen as memories took her back of the man who was more shy and awkward and, well, younger.

"The trouble is that Denny hasn't changed, or at least not entirely."

Karen raised one eyebrow, inviting him to develop his point.

"I knew Denny Blood before you came to Larkhall. That was when she was right under Shell's influence. Denny still doesn't really know deep down who she is or she wouldn't change so much depending on who she's with. Denny was quite happy doing Shell's dirty work for her and seemed to get a kick out of bullying anyone who was weaker. When you got here, she had come under Yvonne's wing and she was pretty well the Denny Blood you think you know now."

"But that was years ago," Protested Karen. "She's had a long run of behaviour varying from at least half way good to exemplary behaviour. I took her out to Yvonne's house one time and I never thought I could let down my guard as I did nor did I expect her to."

"That's because either Yvonne or Shaz or Lauren were around her. They aren't here right now. Someone like Denny doesn't forget, and she and Shell go back a long way. She feels guilty for having forgotten Shell. You can see it in her face."

"What do you think we ought to do?"

"First of all, we ought to keep our ears to the ground as to what they are saying. Don't forget, she shares a cell with Lauren. She's like her mum, keeps her ear close to the ground and you'll hear soon enough from her if there's any trouble."

"If or when?" interjected Karen.

Dominic reflected for a while. In that moment while he was silent, Karen could not help feeling buttressed by this young man's common sense and insight. He had picked up effortlessly where he had left off and had made steady progress. It wouldn't be long before he would become fitted for promotion if he wanted it. He showed no signs of being overly ambitious but neither was she when she first started off in the prison service. It was the dependability of a man like this that made her job easier. It was a pity that her own son didn't have that sense of grown upness about him.

"I'd say when." He said at last.

Karen took the honest opinion without flinching. She had asked for his opinion. She sought to change the conversation fast, lit another cigarette and began to talk about something more congenial in a more relaxed situation than normal.

"I ain't wanting to put no pressure on you, miss, seeing as I'm grateful for you taking an interest in me," Shell said in her most guileless fashion as they came to collect Denny and make their departure. "Still, you can't have everything and at least you have always taken an interest and someone else could have come instead. It's that seeing everyone from the old days makes me wish I was back at Larkhall, and I'd make sure I'd make Denny smile, as she's my bezzy mate, aren't you, Denny."

"Sure am, Shell," Denny swaggered with that touch of bravado that contact with shell always brought out in her.

"I expect you'd be looking to go now," Shell said in a slightly downcast fashion.

"I'm sorry, shell but we have to go."

Why did her dealings with Shell always make her feel guilty, she wondered? It all went back to that time when shell opened up to her and when she was ghosted out of Larkhall thanks to, wait for it, Jim bloody Fenner.

"At least Fenner's not around at Larkhall. I suppose I ought to thank Atkins's daughter for that," Shell said with a hint of a sneer like the old Shell.

While Shell and Denny embraced one last time, Karen and Dominic said their awkward good-byes and left her gradually starting to diminish as they walked away.

"I'll write to you Shell and I'll keep my promise," Denny's last words to Shell left her more agitated and upset than ever.

They made their reverse journey back through the endless corridors while Denny seemed to pull on the handcuffs. They had not noticed this on the way in to the ward. Presently, they were out in the cold clear spring air, which stung their cheeks and blew away that slightly drowsy hospital air.

"You've got to get Shell out of there. You just have to," Denny urged Karen passionately as they crossed the car park.

"I'd be happy if Shell came back to Larkhall.To get her there isn't as easy as I've explained, Denny."

"I'm telling you, Shell doesn't belong there," Denny repeated in a sombre tone of voice before she was wedged, as before, in the back seat of Karen's car, next to Dominic.

Part One Hundred And Nine

On the Saturday evening, Karen invited John over for dinner. They hadn't spent any quality time together as friends, really since the rehearsals for 'The Creation' had begun. Karen didn't want to lose his friendship, and she knew that as a result of her relationship with George, she was occasionally in danger of doing this. John was pleased to hear from her, because although he would never admit it, he missed Karen's company. He still hadn't spoken to George since Monday's rehearsal, and though he knew he was probably treading on very thin ice, he wanted Karen's advice about her. He couldn't help but appreciate that so far, Karen had refused to get in any way involved in the argument he'd had with George, keeping her distance from it and giving her loyalty to no one in particular. But as he drove over to Karen's on the Saturday evening, he briefly wondered if this was all about to come to an end.

They'd eaten a pleasant meal, and were sitting on the sofa with a bottle of wine John had brought.

"John, are you up for hearing a novel idea?" Karen asked carefully, wondering what his reaction would be.

"Aren't I always?" He said with a smile.

"Earlier this week, I came up with a slightly radical solution to my staffing crisis. I'm trying it out on you first, because I know that you won't dismiss it without considering it."

"What makes you think anyone else would dismiss it?"

"Because it's never been done before, at least not to my knowledge."

"And as George was so fond of telling me when we were married, that's the best reason for trying anything." Karen laughed.

"I've been looking out for a new Wing Governor, to take over G wing, and so far, there's no sign of anyone on the horizon who wants to take up the job. Gina is pretty good at it, but she doesn't want to stay in the job full time. She's like you in a way, wants to keep her hand in at the front line. The thing is, I was trying to work out exactly what I wanted in a new wing governor."

"Well, I'd have thought experience with prisoners might be a start," John said dryly.

"Precisely," Karen said, as if she'd been waiting for him to say this. "Experience of dealing with prisoners, experience of dealing with both the system and its officers. Some kind of management experience is essential for a job like that, which means that previous career choices can be taken into consideration. But the most important thing, is a drive to make the prison service a successful, secure, and sympathetic working environment, both for those who work within it, and for those it supports."

"What are you working up to?" He asked carefully, seeing the light in her eyes that always appeared when she got on her soapbox, and especially when she had a captive audience, not unlike himself when he came to think about it.

"Let me ask you," She continued. "Who do you think has the most in-depth experience of both the prison system and of dealing with its inmates?"

"Other than someone like yourself, I couldn't say."

"Think about it, John," She cajoled. "It's actually staring you in the face, if you consider it long enough."

"That's because you've been thinking about it for days on end," He told her with a smile. She watched him, his knitted brows telegraphing the mental acrobatics that were going on inside his head. When his eyes widened, she realised he'd worked it out. "Not an ex-prisoner?" He said in shock.

"Of course," She said, as if the idea was obvious. "Who else knows exactly what it's like to be behind bars? Who else can truly empathise with the whole series of shocks and indignities that all prisoners have to suffer, even in this country? I can't, not entirely, because I've never been there. The same goes for every other officer and governor, I've ever had the pleasure or misfortune to encounter. Only someone who has been through those exact procedures, can understand what every prisoner goes through on being taken into custody."

"You'll never get that passed area management," John told her glibly.

"Ah, but that's because you haven't yet heard the rest of it," Karen said without ranker, knowing that everyone she told about this would take an awful lot of convincing. "The particular ex-prisoner I'm thinking of, no longer has a criminal record, at least not in the official sense, because it was eradicated on her second appeal."

"Nikki," He clarified. "Nikki Wade."

"Her conviction was overturned, which even I know means that her official slate has been wiped clean."

"The Lord Chancellor's department would have a fit," John said with a broad smile, thinking that if Karen really managed to pull this off, he would be the one to personally inform Sir Ian Rochester and his associates, just for the sheer delight of rubbing their noses in something so novel, yet so obvious.

"So," He said, taking a sip of the chilled white wine. "Tell me how Nikki fits into your plan."

"Well, her experience of the criminal justice system speaks for itself," Karen replied, lighting herself a cigarette. "She spent three years behind bars, a lifetime compared to living on the outside. I dug her prison file out of the archives yesterday, just to make sure I knew everything. It's funny, but no one ever seemed to notice that one of Nikki's requisite photographs is missing. I might be wrong, but I think Helen might have taken it the first time she resigned."

"It's funny the things that go on under your nose," John said philosophically.

"I remember, when all my officers went on strike, when Shell Dockley was put back on the wing after stabbing Fenner, it was Nikki and Yvonne who kept the rest of them in order. There was something going on, something I couldn't put my finger on at the time, but whatever it was, Nikki and Yvonne sorted it out between them. Then, when I was on holiday, with Fenner, there was a riot. Helen had been made Governing Governor by this time. It resulted from a sit in that got out of control. Nikki organised the sit in, because a Nigerian woman with absolutely no grasp of the English language, had been put on G wing, without any possibility of anything resembling an interpreter. From what I could gather when I returned, the officers took advantage of this, to be a bit rougher with her than was really necessary. Nikki and the others were protesting against the way this woman had been treated, and were demanding fair conditions for her." When a broad, satisfied smile spread over John's face, Karen added, "I thought you'd like that. Anyway, Maxi Purvis and her sidekicks took the situation out of Nikki's hands, using it to their own advantage, which is why everything spiraled out of control."

"How did it end?"

"Nikki and Yvonne locked the Purvis sisters in their cell. The point is, she managed to deal with the problem, in a far more successful way than the officers would have dealt with it. They were all ready to go in with batons and riot shields, which could have resulted in an awful lot of damage to officers and inmates alike."

"What management experience does she have?" John asked, thinking that maybe, just maybe Karen had something here, as outlandish as it sounded.

"Before she ended up in Larkhall, she jointly ran a club with her partner for several years."

"What sort of club?" John questioned guardedly.

"A gay club, nothing either illegal or out of the ordinary. She still does run it, but I know she's on the look out for something new."

"So, you think she might be ripe for the picking?"

"Anything's possible. You think it's completely mental, don't you," She said, suddenly feeling unsure of her reasons.

"Of course not," He said fondly. "But I think you need to be much clearer about your argument when you take it to area management. You need to tell them everything they need to know, leaving out anything that isn't necessary, and also leaving them no gaps to raise questions. They will have questions, lots of them, but if you get in first, you can refer them back to things you've already said."

"Okay, but if I do that, really plan out what I'm going to say, will you look it over for me, because I'm beginning to think that a few months of your bar school tuition could come in handy."

"It would be a pleasure," He said seriously. "I would have sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to teach you a thing or two." As he said this, their eyes met, the one powerful gaze sparking off the other. Karen could feel the electricity in the air between them, the tingle of anticipation that had so often called her to the bed of too many men of his kind. She took a sip of her wine to break the tension, but the action of her running her tongue along her top lip only fuelled his desire further. John didn't know why he suddenly wanted to make love to Karen, but he supposed it was because he wanted something beautiful, uncomplicated, and yet something that he knew. But Karen wasn't uncomplicated, not by any means, not where his sex life was concerned. Karen had put some soft music on earlier in the evening, and in the silence that ensued between them, they listened to the soft, crooning words of the singer. He found himself playing with a tendril of her hair, gently winding the strands around his finger, as he had so many women, Karen thought to herself. Karen could feel her body reacting to his sensual touch, but she knew she mustn't give into it. Yes, she did want him, right here, right now, but she knew it would only cause a whole host of problems. When his finger softly grazed her cheek, she had to rein in all her instincts, which were telling her to take advantage of what he was clearly offering her.

"Don't," She said softly, taking his wandering hand and imprisoning it in her own.

"Why?" He asked, just as softly, entwining his fingers with hers.

"I have just as good a memory as you, John," Karen said with a nervous laugh. "And considering that I haven't been to bed with a man since you, I can't say that your utterly transparent offer isn't extremely tempting. But I would end up regretting it, and so would you." John looked unconvinced. "I can't do that to George, or to Jo, not again," She clarified. "Not now, not as things stand."

"I'm sorry," He said, the mention of Jo and George's names having brought him back down to earth.

"You've no need to be," Karen told him, not wanting to hurt his feelings in the slightest. "Your occasional attraction will always be incredibly flattering to me, John, but with things being the way they are, close friendship is all there can ever be. However, you have, in a way, reminded me of the other thing I wanted to discuss with you tonight."

"Oh, let me guess," He said defensively. "George."

"Yes," Karen agreed. "Though not in the way you're expecting."

"Now this I have to hear," He said dryly.

"John, the argument you had with her, is absolutely none of my business," Karen told him clearly. "I think too much of both of you to even consider getting involved in that."

"You've got no idea just how much I appreciate that," He said, a look of relief passing over his face. "I know some of the things I said were wrong, but that's what you do when you row with someone, that's what happens."

"Yes, I know," She said fondly, feeling the pain emanating from his every pore.

"And Jo seems to expect me to put it right, in a different way to that which has always proved successful on previous occasions."

"John, what I need to talk to you about," Karen said carefully, wanting to get him off the subject of any recriminations. "Is why George does what she does."

"You know why," He told her impatiently. "Because of what happened with Charlie, at least that's where it started."

"That's only a recurring trigger, it's not the actual cause. John, do you have any idea what Anorexia actually is? I mean, do you know why it isn't George's fault that she does what she does, and why she feels as low as she did last weekend?"

"I probably don't know as much as I should do after all these years," He admitted. "So, enlighten me."

"As I try and explain this to you," Karen said carefully. "It might be better if you try not to think of it in relation to George. I will try to establish what it means with respect to George, but I think you need to understand it clinically and impersonally, before you try to fit her into any particular category." John took this seriously, because Karen spoke as though she knew what she was talking about.

"Did you deal with this when you were nursing?" He asked, guessing that this was where her knowledge had sprung from.

"Yes. The first thing to realise with any addiction is that there needs to be a genetic predisposition to it. It doesn't mean that the same addiction would run in a family, though that obviously does happen. There then needs to be a trigger, some traumatic event that sends the addict's world spinning out of control. This can be anything from bereavement to the loss of employment. The third and final contributory factor, is for the person to discover what works for them, to stumble on the one thing that keeps them feeling vaguely sane. With some it's alcohol, others it's drugs, and with others, it can be starving themselves. Now, if you think about Anorexia specifically, it's usually about control. If a person's emotional state is out of control, or they are going through various life altering circumstances that are beyond their control, the one thing that does remain within their own personal jurisdiction, is their eating. Nobody can force them to eat, so they don't, purely and simply because it appears to be the one thing they can control. They become adept at concealing their little bouts of not eating, coming up with never-ending excuses, all of which could actually be true."

"George used to tell me she'd eaten with Charlie, before I got home from work."

"That's no surprise. It becomes second nature to them, when you ask when they last ate, to give you the wrong answer. George did that to me last week, and only later on did I get the truth out of her. It's very common for someone with Anorexia to become an expert in food, rigorously counting every calorie they eat, which is usually followed by the mental distortion of assuming they aren't as thin as they actually are. Thankfully, George doesn't appear to have gone that far. The point is, once they've discovered that it works as a coping mechanism, it becomes a way of life. One of the best surgeons I ever worked with, once described it to me as the intrinsic desire to destroy oneself. This is primarily because the pain inside them hasn't ever been resolved. Yes, they've found a way to control it, but they haven't found a way of banishing it. John, you mustn't ever be cross with her for doing what she does, because to some extent, she can't help it. I think that George's first life changing trauma, was when her mother died."

"And have you noticed that that's the only thing she never ever talks about?"

"Yes, which means that it's the most unresolved issue she has. Unless she is persistently forced, which would likely cause far more harm than good, I don't think she ever will deal with it. I can't really comment on the whys and wherefores of when she occasionally did it at school, because I don't know enough about that, but with Charlie, I think she did subconsciously want to destroy herself. She couldn't forgive herself for not loving her own daughter, so slowly starving herself to death appeared to be her only option. Your forgiveness and understanding wouldn't have made all that much difference. Then, when your marriage went through its various phases of not going to plan, she kept returning to the one thing that made her feel human again. So, whenever anything greatly upsets or confuses her, she will take it up again. It's not a conscious decision on her part, she doesn't simply wake up one morning and decide to starve herself. It's a far more engrained reaction than that. Just as I automatically reach for a cigarette, or you automatically pick up a woman, George will automatically avoid food. The row she had with you did upset her enormously, as I'm sure it did you, which meant that her old prop came out of hiding. I'm not sure what sent her down hill quite so quickly, but then I know very little of what was said between you. All I do know is that she loves you more than anyone, and she always will. I might be wrong, but I think she thought that if she couldn't live up to what you wanted, there wasn't much point in existing. I know that probably hurts you a great deal to know that she felt like that, but I think you need to know why. I'm not going to tell you to put it right, because most of it, you can't, and as for the rest, only you can decide how you deal with that. But I suppose I just wanted to explain to you, exactly what she almost certainly goes through on a daily basis. Yes, most of the time, she does remain within a barely acceptable weight, but that takes effort on her part, I know it does. George might appear as though she is eating lunch, or dinner, or whatever with you in a perfectly normal, amicable fashion, but she isn't. Every single day, she will go through the internal battle of whether she will eat, or whether she won't. The most important thing you can do is not to blame her for it. On the whole, George does extremely well to stay as healthy as she does. I know that you've found it extremely difficult to stay faithful to Jo and George over the last eighteen months. They may not say so very often, but it hasn't gone unnoticed. What you need to understand, is that George has just as hard a fight on her hands as you do. Yours is to stay out of other women's beds, including mine, and George's is to stop herself from giving up altogether. You need help in staying on the wagon, which is why you have both Jo and George to keep you occupied, and partly why you have me to talk to when you want someone a little more removed from the situation. In her turn, George has the kind of support Jo gave her last weekend, and whatever she wants from me and from you at other times. Just occasionally, we all need someone who isn't as close as George is to you, or as you are to Jo, because they can usually offer a different perspective on things. Last weekend, George needed someone she didn't need to be quite so afraid of hurting. Even you've done that before, such as on the day of Lauren's verdict when you told me exactly what you thought of my involvement with George. Yes, you went a little too far and yes, it did hurt me, but it was far safer and much easier for you to risk hurting me, than to even think of doing the same to George."

John was quiet for a long, long time after Karen finished speaking, taking in every word she'd said. Eventually, he ran his hands through his hair, and said,

"How do I put this right?"

"Other than telling her how much you love her, and actually meaning it instead of its being the precursor to making love, I don't know. I can't tell you how to convince George of your love for her, because we all have our different ways of doing that."

"I can't believe she nearly left me last weekend," He said, again revealing the true depth of his pain at the thought. Moving closer to him, Karen put her arms round him, recognising the need for comfort from an uncomplicated source.

"She nearly left me too, John," She told him, her face very close to his. "And I don't suppose I dealt with it any better than anyone else might have done. On Monday evening when she came back here, I asked her if she knew exactly what might have happened to her if she really had taken those pills."

"And did she?"

"No, so I told her, hopefully in enough detail to stop her from considering it again, but I doubt it. This isn't going to go away, John. Yes, she can deal with it, and she can live with it, but sometimes she will feel as bad as she did last weekend. You need to get used to that."

"Thank you," He said, "for explaining it to me. As painful as it is, I think I needed to hear that." They were back to being just friends again, Karen realised with sincere relief, back to normal, at least for the time being.

Part One Hundred and Ten

"What's up with Denny?" Julie J asked Lauren in passing. She had just seen Denny mooch past on her own, her face grim and avoiding any communication.

"Search me," came the laconic reply. "No reason why I should know what goes on in her brain."

Julie J's eyebrows rose at Lauren's response. That was a non-answer if ever she heard one and she wasn't much better than Denny right now.

"But you two have been so close since you first came here, like me and Julie," She persisted.

"Well, that's the way it goes."

Lauren's shrug of her shoulders accompanied the deadpan words. As Lauren paused for a second, her words hung in the air and made her feel uncomfortable at how cold and unfeeling she sounded. This is the typical Atkins way of talking, she thought, as she shook her head to clear her mind and reached out for the Lauren Atkins she wanted to be.

"Look here, Julie, I just can't get close to her these days to even talk about the weather outside, much less ask her about her feelings. I've tried but it's not working. In fact, I'm getting really worried about her especially as mum is due to visit this afternoon."

Her voice had become more animated as she opened up to this very kind hearted woman who was patiently waiting for her to become herself. Mum was dead right to say of the Julies that they were the salt of the earth.

"Well, there you are. Problem solved once Yvonne gets to see her. She knows Denny inside out and she'll get Denny to talk."

Lauren's expression failed to respond at Julie Saunders' big beaming confident smile. She saw herself cast in the big sister role if not nagging mother versus truculent aggressive daughter and it made her nervous to even start trying to get through.

"You might lead a horse to water but you can't make her drink it. That's the problem. Denny can easily cop out and probably will."

"Is that what's getting you down in the dumps?"

Lauren nodded. Despite all the restrictions of prison, the daily regime of life that she could not call her own, the same day in day out monotony, she warmed to the feeling that there were women only a cell door or so away she could turn to. All it took was to reach out beyond herself.

"Well, if there is anything we can do, just ask."

"Just ask," Came the delayed echo response as Julie Saunders, who had just come up, plugged herself into the gist of the conversation and offered her words of comfort.

Lauren smiled for the first time in days at the unselfconscious generosity, which these two golden hearted women offered.

"Can I come back with you to your cell?" Lauren asked. She realised that there were too many prying eyes and generalised eavesdroppers around. She had talked deliberately in a low-pitched voice so she couldn't be overheard and this was another reason why she had felt uncomfortable. She needed someplace else where she could talk properly but wanted the Julies to be around her.

"It was Dockley wasn't it," Julie Johnson's sensitivities worked that one out. She had been racking her brains as she saw that Denny had changed. This was no easy matter when one day went past like another in a generalised bored haze. Automatically, she flipped open a cheap pack of Lambert and Butlers and offered a cigarette to the other two. Immediately Lauren's memories fell into place and she recalled the way that Denny stalked ahead of her and disappeared to some other part of G Wing. Improbable though it might seem with a brief one off visit, the events were far too perfectly tied up to provide any other explanation. It was just that she didn't want to admit to herself that Shell Dockley had such a powerful hold over Denny after the long period of time they had been separated.

"That's about the size of it. But how could Denny change so quickly from the nice kid that she is to….."

"……the way she used to be before Yvonne ever came here. We saw her then and remember what she was like. That's why we've got worried and asked you. You see much more of her these days than we do."

True, thought Lauren, but it still didn't mean that she sees more. Something can be right under your nose but if you don't want to see it, you won't notice it. At last she could see a way out of the problem that had been bothering her.

"What was Denny like years ago? There's a lot that you've seen of her that I don't know."

She was all ears as the Julies filled her in on everything, going way back in time, even before the time when Helen Stewart first came to Larkhall as Wing Governor, burning with her ambition to turn the prison system around.

"You know that if you don't see mum, then she'll be on your case. She doesn't give up as you know very well."

From closely looking at the expression on Denny's face, Lauren sighed with relief as she had seen that she had found the knack to turn the key in the lock of Denny's mind after a bitter resistance. It was a very tense battle of wills and Lauren had been as nervous as hell before she summoned up the courage to ever so casually suggested that they had a quiet chat. It was as well that Lauren had the Atkins knack of covering up her feelings as if her face were painted over with the most immaculate makeup.

"All right Lauren, but I swear if you mention one frigging word about it, I'll never speak to you again," Denny glared at her.

Denny, you have a very eloquent way of not speaking to anyone else for the rest of your life, Lauren thought to herself with a touch of humour. It was as well that she could see the joke and Denny couldn't.

"It's a deal. I'll talk to mum about the weather, what a cow Bodybag is and how lousy the food is and let you talk," Lauren said lightly.

Despite Denny's extreme tension and her frustration at being gently manoeuvred into this deal by this smart talking woman, a tiny part of her smiled inside for the first time since this black cloud had descended on her and blotted everything out. She kept that resolve tight hard inside herself that Shell needed to get out of that nut house or she'd crack up completely. She could see it coming a mile away so why didn't even that know all, Miss Betts see it?

Yvonne's eyes were lined by her mascara to perfection as always but they flitted around the crowded waiting room as always, wondering what she would find. She had happened to talk to Lauren a few days before and Lauren had been a bit cryptic about Denny in particular and that had tipped off the Atkins early warning system that there was impending trouble.

She took in at a glance Lauren's big smile and wave, which assured her that there was nothing, wrong with her. The expression on Denny's face told her a completely different story. She gave each woman a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and the different physical feel of each of them reinforced her belief in her instincts.

"Hi mum. It's great to see you," Lauren started chattering at breakneck speed. "The sun's shining outside and all the girls are getting on with each other, well all except Natalie Buxton who scowls at me every so often."

"That evil tart," Yvonne snorted scornfully. "You want to watch her."

"Well, I'd sooner that two faced bitch is scowling at me rather than smiling at me. Conniving tart though she may be, I can always keep one step ahead of her and I get to hear of everything that's going down on G Wing.So long as she can't get anyone else to do her dirty work for her, she's history. You've only got to watch out if she makes use of someone else that starts all the trouble and you can't see who's pulling the strings."

Yvonne smiled fondly at her daughter, seeing in her a younger version of the woman she had been on G Wing. A sidelong glance at Denny told her that Denny's anger was boiling up as Lauren's spontaneous outpourings were quite easily taken the wrong way, especially by a poor kid like Denny who has always been paranoid and insecure.

"And how's my other daughter?" Yvonne asked very gently and softly, her voice caressing Denny's jangled nerves to reassure her not to worry as mum's here.

"I went to see Shell the other day," blurted out Denny, almost aggressively as if daring anyone to criticise her. "Not that I suppose you're interested as you never liked her."

"I'll be straight with you, I didn't. But you know as well as I that nothing that Dockley did in her life….."

"Her name's Shell," Denny interrupted aggressively.

"……..As I was saying, nothing Dockley has done in her life deserved what happened to her. When she came back from sunny Amsterdam, she was a pain in the arse sometimes but nothing more. I could have lived with her if she had stayed at Larkhall. The real evil bastard mentioning no names was the one who had her ghosted out to Ashmore and separated her from her baby. Whenever I think of him I hope that he is rotting in hell. You know me, that in my book, that is the worst crime ever, maybe worse than anything even Charlie has done."

Yvonne's voice rose in intensity to a climax and she knew she had pulled out all the stops. She could only tell it the way it was and that no fancy verbal footwork would work with Denny.

"Well, anyway, Miss Betts and Mr. McAllister drove me up to Ashmore. The place is weird, as if you were stepping into something out of Star Trek. I got to talk to Shell for a bit on my own."

"And how was she?" Yvonne asked.

Denny shrugged her shoulders.

"'Satisfactory' they called her. Well, I suppose to someone who didn't know the old Shell, she might have looked that way. I mean they've got all the shrinks there with long words and fancy titles, who am I to say different?"

The suppressed anger in Denny had only halfway come out in her. Both Lauren and Yvonne did not like the feel of the way Denny was talking. It was as if she were still in shock from some terrible accident.

"Do you really want us to shut up and talk about something different?"

"You're all right," came the more subdued, more depressive response. "She sounds as if they're doping her up and she only sounded half here. She's dressed up in that tracksuit get up that she used to wear here when she was feeling down."

"That doesn't sound good," Lauren said, feeling her response to be lame and hollow and not as sympathetic as she felt.

"She'll be getting three meals a day, same as anywhere. The place is dead weird, man. Everything looks flash and looks like a posh hotel, or as much as I know what one looks like and it makes this place seem a dump. Larkhall has got bolts and bars everywhere but Ashmore has doors which shut dead quietly but you know that you're locked in. Anyway, I'm glad I'm not there, at least in one way. Never thought Larkhall would feel like home from home…….."

Denny started chatting away on more impersonal matters, which Lauren started to join in with. Yvonne's sharp ears picked up on the fact that Denny never referred to Lauren in her conversation and certainly not as her sister as she used to do. Yvonne was grateful to the way that Lauren gracefully slid unobtrusively into the background but it disturbed her that the more attention that she gave Denny somehow wasn't coming back to her in any real way. At least it was better than hostility but there was something deeply wrong.

"I'm afraid visiting time's up," Dominic's polite tones cut into the hubbub. Instinctively, all the prisoners and visitors exchanged hurried hugs and last words with each other.

"You look after yourself, Denny," Yvonne urged with all the tenderness within her.

"And you, Lauren, watch out for that snake in the grass, Natalie Buxton."

"Don't worry, I'll be on the case and I'll look after Denny too," Lauren grinned.

Denny grimaced slightly at the thought of being 'looked after.' She had quite forgotten that she had done precisely this for Lauren right up to the final verdict in the trial. When she was in this sort of mood, nothing good that she might have done in her life would cheer her up. All she could think of was Shell being shut up in that place and anything else was a distraction.

As Yvonne headed for the exit, the crowds built up and a thought crossed her mind. She had to act on it right now while she had the chance.

"Hey Dominic?" She asked. "Could you do me a favour?"

There was something in the way Yvonne spoke that grabbed his attention, even while his eyes followed the rest of the departing visitors.

"I'm listening"

"Can you pass word to Karen that I want to speak to her about something that's bothering me."

Dominic gestured with his head to Lauren and Denny whose backs were turned to them, as they stood in single file ready to go back to the wing.

"You mean?"

"You've got it."

"I'll see to it personally."

Yvonne smiled warmly at this response. His few quiet words meant far more than some of the men in her life had promised her with all their flannel and smooth talking.

Part 111

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