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 Eleven
When Karen received the call from Dominic, saying that Yvonne wished to see her about Denny, she was surprised.
"Could you bring her up to me?" Karen asked him, thinking that this must be bad, if Yvonne would voluntarily spend another moment in this place than she had too.
"As soon as I've got rid of all the other visitors, yeah," He told her, gesturing to Yvonne to wait till he could escort her. Yvonne must have seen her car in the car park to ask for her directly, Karen thought. It was quite unusual for Karen to be here on a Sunday, but after having taken Denny to Ashmore on Friday, she had some catching up to do. When Dominic knocked, and showed Yvonne in, Karen stood up and went to meet her.
"This is a nice surprise," She said, moving to give Yvonne a hug. "Or not, as the case may be," She said, seeing the look in Yvonne's face. When Dominic had left them to it, Karen said, "Do you want a drink?"
"Yeah," Yvonne said darkly. "And you might need one too." Karen poured them both a scotch, and they sat down on the sofa opposite her desk.
"It feels weird, being up here," Yvonne said as Karen offered her a cigarette. "The last time I was in this office, was when me and Fenner found out who Virginia's killer was."
"Yvonne, what's happened?" Karen asked as she took a long drag.
"You tell me," Yvonne said belligerently. "First you take my Denny to some bloody nut house to see Dockley, and the next thing I see, is the Denny she was when I first met her, which means angry, unpredictable, and with very little that's nice about her. So why not tell me, why you thought taking her to see Dockley was such a good idea." Getting up, Karen began to prowl round her office, whether marking her territory, or as a way of avoiding Yvonne's eyes, Yvonne didn't know. She picked things up, put them down again, and eventually sat down behind her desk, needing the professional barrier for this particular conversation.
"Back in February," Karen began, taking a sip from her scotch. "When Denny was going a bit off the rails again, she was doing it because she didn't feel as though she had anything to get out for. I know you love her, and I know you would do anything for her, but I think Denny sometimes needs reminding of that, as we all do. It was just after Valentine's Day, and that made a lot of memories of Shaz, begin to resurface for her. She knew that Lauren would probably be getting out some time this year..."
"What's this got to do with Dockley?" Yvonne interrupted.
"Let me finish," Karen said patiently. "I think this reminded Denny, that Shell didn't have anyone, at least no one to fight her corner for her."
"I thought you fulfilled that role years ago," Yvonne said dryly, never having quite understood Karen's need to always put herself out for the psycho.
""One thing I have learnt about Denny," Karen continued, ignoring Yvonne's jibe. "Is that punishing her doesn't achieve very much. All it does is to make her come back from the block, far more bitter and angry than she was before I put her there. So, the only other option left open to me, if I didn't want to pursue the usual vicious circle, was to make a deal with her."
"Oh, what, like the deal over Fenner, you mean?" Yvonne demanded.
"Denny did that deal with me, because she wanted Fenner putting behind bars for Shell. It always was for Shell, Yvonne, even back then."
"And whose fault was it that got shot in the foot, albeit indirectly," Yvonne bit back, looking straight into Karen's eyes. Taking a long, slow breath, Karen had to exhibit an enormous effort not to let the pain at that particular insult show. She'd often wondered when this day would come, when Yvonne would finally bestow on her the blame for her daughter's conviction. Yvonne seemed to realise that she'd gone too far, but she didn't know how to put it right.
"You didn't come here for this, Yvonne," Karen said eventually, keeping her voice as quiet and noncommittal as possible, unwilling to reveal the pain this remark had caused. "I took Denny to see Shell, because Denny gave me a catalogue of very valid reasons why she wanted to do it. It was something to aim for in the future back then, something she could focus on, something that would keep her behaviour at an acceptable level. Now, I'm sorry that it didn't quite work out as I'd planned it, and I'm sorry that it appears to have affected Denny far more than I ever thought it would. But I can't turn the clock back. I will talk to Denny, and I will keep a very close eye on her, and do whatever I can to sort this out. You're right, I probably shouldn't have done this, but I did, and all I can do is what I thought I was doing in taking her to see Shell, and that's to keep on doing my job. Yes, I've clearly screwed up, and I will take full responsibility for that. This particular mistake, I can try to put right, but I can't do that with all of them." This last statement, Yvonne knew, was about Ritchie, not Denny.
They were silent as Karen walked Yvonne down to the gate lodge, after locking her office door. When they stood by Yvonne's car, Yvonne put a hand out to her.
"I'm sorry," She said, knowing that what she'd said had really hurt Karen.
"No, you're not," Karen said quietly. "You're sorry that I heard you say it, but you're not sorry for thinking it."
"I shouldn't have said it," Yvonne told her, seeing the brief flicker of pain in Karen's eyes.
"Don't you think that I've regretted getting involved with your son, every day that Lauren's been in here?" Karen told her vehemently. "Don't you think, that every time I go down onto the wing and see her there, it haunts me that I am why she's here? So don't you ever try to tell me where my responsibilities lie, because I am perfectly well aware of them, both the professional and personal ones. I am prepared to try anything new with either Lauren or Denny, and do you know why? Because every time I do something right with either of them, I'm doing it for you. Grayling would have me sacked if he heard me say something quite so unprofessional, but that's how it is. Every time I'm a bit too lenient with a punishment, or sanction something a little out of the ordinary because it seems to be a good idea, I'm doing it because of you. So don't you ever try to tell me how to do my job, not ever. I know I've screwed up with Denny, and I know that if she starts slipping back into her old ways, it'll be entirely my fault. But if it's the last thing I do, I will sort her out." Finally coming to the end of her tirade, Karen turned on her heel and strode back towards the gate lodge, feeling Yvonne's eyes burning into her back. Yvonne just stared after her, knowing that Karen really hadn't deserved some of the things she'd said to her. But where had all that come from? Getting into her car, she drove thoughtfully away, with Denny now not the only one she was worrying about.
When Karen was walking down the corridor to her office, she was accosted by Dominic. Her outpouring of words to Yvonne had brought the tears to her eyes, and once inside, they had begun streaming down her cheeks. With only the bare minimum of staff about on a Sunday, no one had seen her. But now here was Dominic, and he was far too perceptive not to notice.
"Karen, I was looking for you," He said, coming up to her. "Are you all right?" He asked, seeing her face.
"Fine," She said curtly, furiously scrubbing at her face with a tissue.
"You don't look it," Dominic told her.
"Just something me and Yvonne needed to get out in the open, that's all," She told him cryptically. Ignoring the look of surprise on her face, Dominic moved forward to give her a firm hug. He had an enormous respect and feeling of fondness for Karen, she having been just one of them when she'd started. She'd always listened to him, always taken him seriously, not like Di and Sylvia, and even Fenner in his time.
"Yvonne Atkins always did speak before thinking," He said, giving her one, last squeeze before he let her go.
"You'll get yourself a rep for fraternizing with the Governor," Karen said with a watery smile, Dominic's sensitivity having surprised her enormously. But as he followed her into her office, and began talking about the latest problem with Natalie Buxton, as Gina wasn't in today, Karen felt incredibly grateful for his friendship. Dominic was one of those very unobtrusive people, someone who wouldn't be noticed unless you made a special effort to notice him, but he was brilliant with the prisoners, and she knew she couldn't have done without him. He'd been the one to give her the most support when she'd first become G wing's Governor, being pleased that one of them had got the top job. She would have to make sure she always made his job as worthwhile as possible, because she refused to lose him to a rival prison.
Part One Hundred And Twelve
When John arrived at George's on the Sunday afternoon, she was out in the garden. It was really quite hot for early May, the sun seeming to infuse life into everything it touched. John stretched as he got out of the car, the sun kissing his face with the soft yet powerful caress of a loving woman. As he approached the house, he could hear George singing, and knew that she was out in the back garden, probably taking the opportunity to cut the lawn, and generally put in a bit of overtime on the outside of her house. Walking to the little gate at the side of the house, John let himself through it, closing it as quietly as possible. He didn't want to disturb her just yet, because he could hear that she was happy. She wasn't singing anything remotely classical, but the sort of mildly country thing she might have done in the early days of their marriage. He walked stealthily along the wall at the side of the house, passing the open kitchen door, and reaching the garden. Here he stood, just watching her, waiting for her to notice that she wasn't alone. George was filthy, but he still thought she was beautiful. She was clad in an almost indecent pair of shorts and an old T-shirt, obviously taking advantage of the brief heat wave. She had leaves in her hair, smudges of dust in places he wouldn't have thought possible, and was clearly boiling. She was standing on the garden bench in her bare feet, trying to prune the roses that had grown almost to the top of her very high fence. The lawn had already been cut, leaving the fragrant tang of freshly mown grass in the air, and there was a rubbish bag on the patio that clearly contained any amount of weeds, and plants that had outlived their usefulness. The pruning of the roses was obviously the last job she had to do. Standing as she was, stretching up to reach the tops of the roses, she was giving him a delightful display of her extremely pretty legs. The T-shirt had risen up slightly, to show him a glimpse of her elegant back. She had the French windows open, and was singing along to a CD that appeared to be fairly familiar. That was it, he realised, it was one of Karen's.
"I'm so scared that the way that I feel, is written all over my face.
When you walk in to the room, I want to find a hiding place.
We used to laugh, we used to hug, the way that old friends do,
But now a smile and a touch of your hand, just makes me come unglued."
George seemed to be putting such feeling into the words, that John briefly wondered if they really meant something to her, rather than simply being the lyrics of a favourite song.
"I want to hold you close, I want to push you away,
I want to make you go, I want to make you stay."
She sounded so in love as she sang these words, that if he hadn't known better, he might have wondered if she was having feelings for someone else that he didn't know about. But she couldn't be. George had him, and she had Karen. She didn't need anyone else.
"Just when I think I'm under control, I think I've finally got a grip,
Another friend tells me that my name is always on your lips.
They say I'm more than just a friend, they say I must be blind.
Oh, I'll admit that I've seen you watch me from the corner of your eye."
When she'd moved to the end of the bench, trying to lean at a slightly odd angle to reach the roses that weren't quite in line with her, John thought it was time to make his presence known.
"Would you like me to do that?" He said, walking up to her.
"Jesus Christ," She said in shock, wheeling round to face him, the sheers poised for any necessary action. "Where did you spring from?"
"Well, if you had anything resembling awareness," He said, removing the sheers from her hand. "And weren't singing your heart out, you'd know that I've been here for a while."
"Yes, well, I didn't exactly expect to be disturbed in my own back garden, now did I, especially as both my neighbours are away." When she'd stepped down from the bench, he put his arms round her and kissed her cheek, feeling her taut hot body against him.
"Karen not with you today?" He asked, finally letting her go.
"No, she's working. Quite where she gets the dedication from is beyond me. So I thought I'd make use of the weather." Picking up the sheers, John finished pruning the roses for her, the simple task reminding him, of when he'd done this years ago when he'd actually lived here.
"Would you like some lemonade?" She asked him. "It's home made."
"I haven't had your lemonade for years," He said, glancing at her over his shoulder.
When George returned, she was carrying two glasses of the ice cold, still lemonade that she'd made that morning. They sat on the bench, both wondering how to begin a conversation that they instinctively knew would be difficult.
"You look beautiful like that," John found himself saying as he gazed at her.
"No, I don't," George scoffed. "But then, you even managed to tell me that after I'd just given birth to Charlie, so god knows why I ever believe you when you say it."
"You were," He protested, remembering every moment of that day as if it had only happened a week or so ago.
"John, no one is remotely beautiful after giving birth, least of all me."
"You were beautiful to me," He said quietly.
"How could I be?" She asked, without the slightest hint of flippancy in her tone, and he realised that this was one question she'd probably wondered about, ever since Charlie was born.
"You were utterly exhausted, red in the face, and calling me more names than I could have learnt at the local comprehensive," He said with a smile. "But you were still beautiful, because I loved everything about you, and because you were giving me Charlie. No matter what came later, I won't ever forget how much I loved you that day."
"I think I just feel, that I can never quite live up to what you want me to be," She said quietly. "You either want me to be something I can't, such as a normal, loving mother, or you want me to stop being something I am, such as being in love with Karen. I love you more than I could ever love anyone else, but I can't be who you want me to be." As he put out his arms to her, she held up a hand. "No, John, please don't touch me, because if you do, I probably won't say half the things I need to say, and I'll almost certainly give into anything you ask of me. I can't give up Karen, no matter how much you might want me to, because she makes me feel good about myself. She doesn't expect anything of me, and she doesn't ask me to change who I am. She can even accept my not eating as a part of me, just as one of my little quirks. I don't have to fit into any particular category for her, because she doesn't make any direct or indirect demands for me to be something I'm not. Even when I'm not entirely honest with her, telling her I've eaten when I blatantly haven't, she isn't remotely cross with me. I know that sounds a very minor thing to appreciate, but it's really quite a big thing for me."
"I know," He said, thinking that he hadn't heard her be this open about her problem with food for a long time.
"How do you know?" She asked, looking him straight in the eye.
"I had dinner with Karen last night," He told her. "And she gave me a very thought provoking verbal treatise, on the cause and effect of anorexia and addictions in general." George couldn't help smiling.
"Oh, dear," She said, taking a sip of her lemonade to hide her laughter. "I hope it didn't shatter too many of your illusions."
"Enough," He said seriously, bringing her gaze back on him again. "What she said, made me realise that I need to approach the relationship that exists between you and me, in an entirely different way. I know that I love you, but I somehow need to convince you of that, but I don't know how. When it comes to showing you that I love you, I'm used to doing that more by actions than by words, yet that doesn't seem to be good enough any more. I understand why it isn't, at least I think I do, but I'm not sure how to go about it in any other way." George was incredibly touched at his openness, because John hated admitting he didn't know how to do something, especially something as fundamental as telegraphing his feelings to her.
"Darling, it's not that I need you to tell me in some other way," She said, a slight tremor in her voice. "Because sometimes I can't believe it, no matter how much you're saying it to me. Some days, I can't believe anything good about myself, which means that I can't accept anyone else's positive feelings for me. Making love always has, and always will be your primary way of telling anyone you love them, and I wouldn't ask you to change that because I know how difficult that would be. But occasionally, as on Monday for example, I can't get past the fact that you might just love sleeping with me. I can't usually understand that I may have given you a reason to love me, except for Charlie. That's why, when I say things like I did when we had that row, they hurt me more than they do anyone else. When I compared you to Fenner, I saw your urge to slap me."
"I'm no Neil Haughton, George," He said firmly. "I wouldn't have done it."
"No, but you wanted to do it," She said seriously. "And if I'm honest with you, part of me wishes you had."
"Why?" He asked, staring at her in aghast amazement.
"Because I knew I deserved it. I haven't said something quite so despicable since the Diana Hulsey trial. I really wouldn't have blamed you if you had slapped me. I felt so guilty for saying that to you, but like you, I didn't really know how to put it right."
"Is that why you stopped eating again?" He asked, feeling that they were finally getting to the heart of the matter.
"Partly," She admitted, steadily avoiding his gaze. "But it's never that clear cut. I think I stopped eating, because it hit me that I couldn't ever give you what you wanted from me. I loathe having to admit that you are what makes my life worth living, but you are, and after that argument, I thought I'd probably lost you for good."
"Is that why you felt like dying?" He asked gently, making her look at him. Her eyes widening, George stared at him in shock. Her expression was one of pure humiliation. "Did you really expect Jo not to tell me?" He said, seeing that she had hoped exactly that.
"No, not really," She said resignedly. "But I wish she hadn't. I didn't want you to know about that. I feel so stupid, and no doubt Jo thinks I am as well. But at the time, it seemed like the only sensible thing to do."
"Don't ever, ever, see that as a sensible solution to a problem," He said vehemently but hoarsely, pulling her to him, almost as if to keep her safe for the rest of her life. "Even when we were barely speaking, you were a constant part of my life, and no, not just because of Charlie. You would always irritate me to distraction, every time you appeared before me in court, but I would never have had it any other way. Unless your sparring with Jo became particularly bitchy, which you are both quite capable of, it always amused me. My life wouldn't feel complete without you, ever. It crucifies me to think that I could have been the cause of you feeling so desperate. I don't know how I can possibly convince you of how much I love you, but I will do it, no matter what it takes. You probably won't believe you're hearing me say this, but it was extremely wrong of me to expect you to give up Karen, though I'm not sure that's the right way to put it. It just hurt me that I couldn't give you everything you wanted. But I really shouldn't have said the things I did, and I'm sorry, more sorry than you could ever imagine for making you feel like that."
"Shh," She said, gently touching his cheek. "I know." They both had brief tears in their eyes, not having exchanged such emotional words in far too long.
They sat like this for some time, just holding each other close. No more words were necessary, all their hurt having been torn out and disposed of. He didn't attempt to kiss her, but her nearness was making him want to show her that he loved her. Burying his face in her hair, he breathed in a long, slow breath, his nostrils twitching at the combination of grass, sweat and perfume that was present in her hair.
"John, I'm hardly a bitch on heat," She said with a laugh, detaching herself from him.
"I wish I could make love to you," He said, the words escaping him before he could stop them. "Right here and now."
"Well, you can't," She said as he drew her back into his arms.
"If your neighbours are away, why not?" He said mischievously.
"Because Mother Nature said so," She told him, knowing that even he couldn't argue with this.
"I thought that was last week," He said, inwardly cursing the creator of the female body.
"Well, not eating for a few days, tends to jerk things like that around a bit. So I'm sorry, but you'll have to keep your lust in check for now." Lust or no lust, he thought, he still needed to be close to her. She fitted so snugly against him. When he kissed her, they could both taste the sharpness of the lemonade on each other's lips.
"I know we can't actually..." She began, always unable to find quite the right words to describe their lovemaking. "...But, please will you stay?"
"Yes, of course, He said, feeling an immense feeling of love and protectiveness towards her, for the way she had so tentatively asked him. She still felt unsure of needing his company when she couldn't provide his usual avenue of pleasure for him. It wasn't that she thought him fickle, it was just that she didn't believe enough in herself, to think that he might want to be with her no matter what they did or didn't do. As she went upstairs for a shower a little while later, John put the bag of rubbish in the garage, thinking that spending a normal, Sunday evening together, without the possibility of making love, wouldn't do either of them any harm.
Part One Hundred and Thirteen
That conversation only seemed like yesterday, Karen thought as she stared wide-eyed looking into the far distance through the cigarette smoke, which wafted in front of her. Her mind took her back to that gorgeous meal with George, and Nikki and Helen for company, a very low-key dinner for four.
"Well, I'm working every night this week, so Trisha shouldn't get funny about me taking Saturday off," she remembered Nikki saying almost in a tone of defiance.
"You're really not enjoying working with her, are you," she could hear herself saying.
Nikki sounded pretty pissed off with her job.
"No, but until I get any bright ideas about what to do next, it's all I've got."
Nikki had seemed resigned, philosophical, as if knowing that she was stuck inside a bad relationship. That did not mean that she or any other long suffering partner, would up sticks and move out at the drop of a hat.
Karen inhaled deeply on her cigarette while her hand hesitated as to whether or not to press the buttons on her phone which would link her in to Nikki's place of work. It was one thing to feel dissatisfied with your job but quite another thing to contemplate jacking it in and taking up a line of work which she had seen at the sharp end, especially when that sharp end cut her on many occasions. It was these doubts, which caused her to back off putting her proposition to Nikki, which she had planned, and then continuing to edit and reedit her words, which ran round at the back of her mind.
Time was not on her side in finding a permanent wing governor. Gina, bless her, had held down the job brilliantly but she had made it clear that she was not cut out for long term responsibility in general and she was dreading the idea of the prospect of conducting all the annual reports. That event was creeping up on Karen. Gina had made it clear that she hated the thought of doing the interviews and writing up the reports when she knew that she would eventually end up amongst the very prison officers that she would otherwise sit in judgement over. Telling Sylvia to piss off face to face was one thing, but to put it down in writing that Sylvia was no bloody good and make it stick was another matter altogether.
"Was Trisha all right about you having the night off?" she remembered asking her that night.
"I expect she whinged about it, but to be honest, it goes in one ear and out the other these days. I'm so bored, that I'd even consider applying for a job at Larkhall if there was one going."
It was that magic word 'Larkhall' which had switched the light bulb on in Karen's mind and, by degrees, the plan had evolved so that her pressing vacancy of a permanent Wing Governor, had been sitting right in front of her on the opposite side of George's dining table. It had seemed such a brilliantly inspirational idea at the time, but one which the proverbial morning after, she started to have her doubts as to whether she could pull off. It might have been a throwaway remark of Nikki's that she forgot about the next day.
But then she was talking about Nikki. All the time she had known her, her reputation was for the bold, radical plan of action and as a leader bar none. She had even made her feel uncomfortable when, long ago, she had pointed out that it was not the very fearful Babs who had scrawled graffiti on the walls but Shell Dockley. That memory gave her a brief burst of confidence that, even then, she had that shining quality that lifted her out of the ordinary. Unquestionably, she was beyond the reach of the plodders that were possible rival candidates for the job of wing governor on G Wing.The question was, as she finished the cigarette and stubbed it out in her ashtray, was whether Nikki would see it that way and want to apply for the job. What Helen's reaction to Nikki being willing to take the job on would be, was something that Karen dared not contemplate.
Suddenly, Karen stubbed out her cigarette with as forceful a gesture at the dawning of the moment of decision. What the hell, she had nothing to lose by trying, certainly not Nikki's friendship. Secretly, she knew that she would rise to the occasion when she was plagued by self-doubt. All it took was that length of time to work it through in her mind.
"Is that Nikki?" she heard her own crisp voice with no hesitation in any syllable.
"None other than me," That well modulated voice answered.
"I wanted to put a proposition to you that you might be interested in. Strictly business, not personal."
Karen's voice as she heard it sounded a bit blunt but how else could she put it? Her heart jumped in her mouth as she waited for the reaction.
"I'm intrigued. How do you want to take it further?"
"Can I come and talk about it in person."
"No time like the present. What say you come over to the club."
With perfect aplomb, Nikki rattled out the directions to the club, which Karen scribbled them down, not trusting to her memory in a situation like this. When Karen put the phone down, she was zooming skywards in her spirits on a high. When Nikki put the phone down, her mind was ticking over the possibilities. Karen had given away more than she thought she had. There was an obvious work connection that concerned either her or the club or both faint suspicions lurked at the back of her mind but that was too fantastic and absurd to contemplate, wasn't it?
Karen pulled her car up outside the club, which up till then was an abstraction, the symbol of what had first lifted her out of the ordinary even when she was at Larkhall. She spotted the round purple sign with "Chix" very stylishly inscribed on it. She pushed open the front door and she made her way up the flight of stairs to Nikki's office. The door was wide open as she heard angry voices raised.
"Trish, we've had a deal that you deal with all the promotional work and new ideas, hiring and firing is down to me. That's the way we've always run the club .since before I was inside, in all the years that we were together." A brief spasm of pain contorted Nikki's face as ancient wounds were brought to the surface and unsteadied her voice before she brought it under control. "That's the way it's always been. You're better at your side and I'm better at mine."
"This is a one off, Nik. I don't normally interfere but ."
" .this time you will interfere."
"I have my reasons," Trisha said coldly, her eyes not really looking directly at the other woman.
"Oh yeah? They had better be total blinders," Nikki answered scornfully.
"You're getting emotional and starting to get things out of proportion."
Jesus, this woman is like an emotional iceberg. She's got harder and colder in the last few years than I realised. Perhaps, I've had so little to deal with her that I've never noticed, Nikki thought ruefully.
"Let's look at the facts," Nikki said evenly. "She's worked only for a few weeks but I had a tip off that she was pushing drugs in the club. I left it until I could check over the CCTV camera and sure enough, you can see the money changing hands into her pockets and it wasn't smarties that she was selling. To make it worse, she went sick on Wednesday, guess what, overdose of smarties. I had to persuade Rhiannon to cover for her. She wasn't really ready to do it but she helped pull us out of the shit. I had it out with her on Friday and it was crack cocaine that she had been selling. She was guilty as charged and I gave her the push and now I hear she sneaked behind my back and has told you a sob story "
"She saw me this morning and said that she was really sorry and wouldn't do it again and, all things considered, I thought I'd give her one last chance."
"You cannot be real in wanting to give that tart who was pushing drugs in the club just a slap on the wrist?"
"We've run through far too many barmaids in the past year or so because they don't come up to your exacting standards. It's affecting our profits ."
"Oh, so this isn't a one off?"
"Like I say, times have changed in the club scene. You might not have noticed it while you were away, but 'clean' drugs have become quite normal these days. If you kick out every barmaid and punter who takes a little Charlie every so often ."
"Clean drugs? You've been reading too many magazines. My three years inside told me that drugs are anything but clean and they wreck women's lives "
"You're talking about all that horrible stuff with needles. That's for the down and outs. A little Charlie helps make any party go with a bang. It's a normal and average in clubland, dear."
Nikki saw red at this one. If there was anything that could be calculated to rouse her anger, it was that mind numbingly empty headed prattle about being normal. Jesus, she had fought against that with all the fire in her soul for so many years, right from when her enquiring mind started to take her outside the cosy boxed world of her childhood.
"So, Trisha, are you planning to join the world of the average woman, the one who is married with a man and has two point four children. God knows how it is possible for any woman to have a point four child, that always beats me. Only thing is, you're gay so you don't quite fit."
"I just don't see any need to flaunt my differences. I can get along quite nicely by joining in with the crowd and where the party is, these days. You make your sexuality something to be a martyr about. I just want to let the punters decide what they want ."
"Oh punters, Trish. Is that what you call them. They all used to be our friends, women who could come and be themselves and we provided a place that they could do that .."
" .yes, yes, yes," Trisha butted in, eager to consign the past to the past. "The club has got bigger, that's all and a lot of the old timers have moved on. We're running a business or hadn't you noticed? I simply want to save all the hassle in having to rush around getting a replacement barmaid every so often just because you've got some kind of puritan hang-up about .."
"Drugs. That's what they call it. In case you don't know it, I did time and saw quite enough drugs and what they do to women. I've got a mate whose late husband had half the drugs trade sewn up. She told me a thing or two about what goes down."
"I'm not changing my mind, Nik," Trisha said, her blue eyes looking through that over blond hair that fell in curtains either side of her face.
Nikki had been standing up, facing Trisha while their row echoed its way through the screen of glass windows. The direction she was looking was a little angled away from where Karen was rooted to the floor. Nikki wasn't conscious of her while she fought this ding dong battle and all her anger and contempt spilled out and resounded round the plush office and echoed down the staircase.
At that last comment, something snapped within Nikki and she stormed out of the office and straight into Karen's line of vision. Visible signs of furious anger and huge relief chased each other across Nikki's very expressive features.
"Thank God you're here, Karen. We're going to the back room to talk."
"What are you doing, Nik.We haven't finished getting the club ready for tonight."
"Oh yeah, we've finished all right> I'm going with a friend of mine away to the downstairs room. Don't ever think of coming after me and keep out of the way for the rest of the day."
"Wait till I tell Helen about this one," Trisha said nastily, all her pent up jealousy over the past few years finally boiling up to the surface.
"Don't worry, Nikki will tell her," cut in Karen in her best self-composed fashion. All the time that the row went on, natural reticence held her back from joining in a row that wasn't her business. Once this unpleasant woman had pulled her into the argument then she got what was coming to her.
"Come on," Nikki urged, desperate to put as many feet as she could between her and Trisha. They clattered down the staircase, Nikki pushed open the door wide and they entered the dance floor.
Even in daytime, it suggested enough of a magic world with a high ceiling, overhead spotlights and an opulent bar behind which were recesses surrounded by lines of lights which must transform the club into a magic wonderland, and one which must be tantalisingly different from the run of the mill club. Karen was truly impressed with it.
Nikki hurried on, opened the hatch and let them through to a small cosy room.
"I'm the only one to use this room so I guess it's mine," Nikki said conversationally as she dropped into a chair and gestured for Karen to do the same. "I'm sorry for that drama, Karen. You should get a better welcome to this part of my life. You deserve it."
The simple words were pure Nikki and touched Karen to the core. In all the angularities of her present life, her solid friendship was something that would never change, like Nikki herself. It was something that she was grateful for, as she was far too conscious that she had inadvertantly dropped in at a time when Nikki might make a quick impulsive decision far too easily. If Karen had anything to do with it, Nikki had to take her time to think the whole idea through for both their sakes.
"I'm not sure how to say this, but have you ever thought of changing your career?"
"After what you've seen, very easily. This row has been a long time coming Karen. You happened to drop in at a time when everything was just waiting to explode. I can't see myself running a gay club for the rest of my life. In fact, I can't see myself being involved for very much longer ..."
Nikki's voice was calm and level as she plucked these rock bottom truths out of thin air and fell into a reflective silence as she mulled over the implications. Then her memory retrieved the phone conversation she had with Karen earlier on and her very clear brown eyes focussed in on Karen as she spoke.
"You didn't come round to pass the time of day, Karen. I remember that you had this mysterious proposition to put to me."
Karen's mouth was dry as she felt Nikki's expressive eyes focus in on her. This was make or break time, in some ways worse for the gradual build up than if some medical emergency had broken out on the wing, triggering in her the surge of adrenaline for immediate action. She licked her lips to moisten them.
"Ah well, what I was leading up to Nikki "
" it's the longest intro that I've ever heard," Nikki interjected mischievously.
" is how would you feel about the possibility of being G Wing's next Wing Governor?"
A strange feeling flooded through every sensation feeling part of Nikki's body. So she was on the right lines with that off the wall possibility which had lurked earlier at the back of her mind. She felt as if the foundations of the club had slid slightly askew but no, it was her foundations, which had shifted. Karen looked anxiously at Nikki's wide-open mouth and distant eyes till she found her voice.
"Can I fly to the moon?" Nikki heard her own lips utter the words faintly.
"I mean it, Nikki. There's a vacancy for a Wing Governor for G Wing and I feel certain, no I know that you would be the best person for the job."
Karen was everlastingly grateful for the way her own voice gathered firmness and conviction while her repeated words began to sink in on Nikki's consciousness.
"I can see why you didn't drop that one on me over the phone. I mean it's a huge compliment you're paying me, but ."
" would you want to do the job?" finished Karen for her. "That's the first question."
Nikki said nothing as she breathed deeply and she started to run over the possibilities in her mind while Karen respected her silence and kept her vow not to crowd her.
"Can you tell me why you think I would be up to the job?" Nikki asked quietly as the way opened up in front of her.
"If you don't mind me saying so, you demonstrated better than my words could say just now why you are up to the job. I hope you think that I'm not trying to take advantage of the situation."
"No, go ahead," Nikki reassured her.
"The first thing is that you care about people. You've got principles, which you'll stick by and will go to the wall for, where you have to. You've got that ability to reason with people that's second to none, and you have that infallible grasp of what's around you, of people and business organization. I can see that you've had years of responsibility, and I cringe when I think how badly underrated you were, by people we knew who I don't care to mention .." Karen paused as she collected her thoughts and to wish away unpleasant memories which her words had conjured up. "You've got that spark and drive which I can't put into words, but I know in my own mind that I can just see you doing the job like no other person could."
Karen's words came from the heart with as much intensity of conviction as if she were testifying in court from the witness stand. In turn, Nikki couldn't believe what she had heard as those kind words flowed down her like honey and released so much of the tension within her from the row with that cold mercenary stranger who was a million miles away from her in spirit. She had got on great with Karen ever since the run up to the trial had steered her back into hers and Helen's lives. In her usual self-effacing modesty, she had no idea that Karen thought so highly of her.
"I can see what you're getting at, Karen," Nikki said with a half smile as these words came straight up from her unconscious as she whittled away at her barriers to accepting Karen's offer. "But I can see myself having an odd crisis of conscience or three." It was that brutal honesty with herself that forced buried memories of her past to test this decision to the limit.
"Listen darling, I don't even know how people like you can sleep at night, if you believe in a system which locks up pregnant women." That cold anger with which she had flung these words, yes, into Helen's face echoed in her mind.
"Well, you're just going to have to trust me. I don't." Even she could see that Helen's passionate anger was directed, not at her but at herself. Could Nikki trust herself that another angry rebel would hurl that very same question in her face sometime in the future? How could a future Nikki as Wing Governor ever answer that question and how can Karen answer that question that Nikki now laid before her?
"I can see that I could end up as part of an organisation where sometimes, I'll not only disagree with what I'm supposed to do, but also with what I'm supposed to make those for whom I'm responsible do as well. How do I work my way round that?"
"There's no easy answer," Karen started to say as the highly probing questions forced her to draw upon the full depth and detail of her career in the prison service. "If you have a problem, you can always come to me, and if I can't find an answer, I'd go to Neil Grayling at Area. Besides, you have the idea that you always have to work officially. There are times, very rarely, but they do happen when you have to be prepared to work unofficially where you have to. No book about the prison service will tell you this but it's true. Remember the sit in against that attempt to privatise Larkhall that Yvonne organised with all the old lags on G Wing ..."
At this point, Karen smiled fondly at the memory.
" By that I mean all those with nerve and determination to act rather than let everything roll over them with barely a whimper. Well, I was at the back of that as I gently hinted to Yvonne that she sabotaged the presentation."
"You really did that?" asked Nikki in total wonder, not sure who she imagined herself to be at that point, the rebel prisoner of old or the wing governor she increasingly hoped that she would be.
"Just don't forget, you're not on your own like " Karen started to say but cut off the comparison with her present situation where, at work, she could see that Nikki was on her own no matter how helpful Helen might be at nighttime to talk things over.
Nikki shuddered at the thought as the reality of her present situation came back to her with a wallop. That week or so at Lauren Atkins' trial had been blissful in a bizarre way as she was back with an extraordinary mixed crowd of women but all with a similar sympathy. After the trial, she had lost that sense of community as the workaday trudge through week after week of late nights at the club had taken over. She was sort of her own boss but dealing with Trisha where, as she now saw, a subtle battle for control had crept in and now finally, she was losing that battle. She laughed quietly to herself.
"What's up, Nikki?"
"Just that Larkhall could be my freedom and I have to make a break from being trapped in a job and a situation that I don't believe in any more. It's time to say farewell to that part of my past. Just give me a little while so that I can think this through in my mind."
Karen knew that it was no earthly use than to let Nikki work in her own way on this. She sat back in her chair while a companionable silence descended on the two women in that little room. The club seemed a mile away where, somehow, things were being taken care of. At least nobody disturbed them.
"All right, I think I'm basically convinced," Nikki said at last, to Karen's total incredulity. She never thought that Nikki could move that quick and expected to have to wait a day or so at the least. "There's one question. Haven't you got to sell this idea to this Neil Grayling? Isn't he going to think that you've taken leave of your senses, I mean looking from his point of view?"
"That's my problem, Nikki," Karen said with perfect aplomb. "Where there's a will, there's a way."
"Well," grinned Nikki for the first time for what seemed years. "I'll drink to that. My version of this is in telling Helen and hoping she won't have a heart attack."
"Are you sure that's going to be all right?"
"Absolutely. If I had been only half convinced of this idea, there's no way I could convince her of it. Now that I am convinced, I stand a chance."
An idea started to whizz round Karen's mind about how she might help out in this respect but she couldn't pursue it right then as Nikki had to get her whole attention.
A dawning smile of understanding spread across Nikki's face as her sharp memory picked up on Karen's passing retort to Trisha upstairs.
"That's why you told that tart that I'd be telling Helen all about what we're up to."
Karen nodded her head impishly, a little smirk at the corners of her mouth. She was starting to come down off that frozen peak of sheer nerves and she felt good and relaxed inside as she senses the reality of the way the future might unfold.
"You've heaped a lot of bouquets on me that make me feel that, yes, there's something else that I could be doing with my life. It took me a long while after I left school to at least get this club together. It was an important part of my life but I can see that it has moved on and away from where I started, thanks to Trisha."
"I meant every word I said. There's one thing I forgot to say and it's that I admire the way that you're better at admitting your mistakes than I am," Karen added earnestly.
"Like me saying 'piss off like I told the other tart.' That was me opening my big gob," Nikki grinned.
"I said that you're better than me that way, not that you're perfect," Karen laughed. That first ever dramatic three corner clash of wills down there in the segregation block was transforming through time and friendship into what could be their standing joke. "To be fair to you, you had your reasons as Helen filled me in on eventually. Just as an example,
I've just had a big argument with Yvonne who criticised me in her inimitable way in letting Denny Blood have her way in seeing Shell Dockley at Ashmore. She's afraid that it will set Denny back into being the way she used to be and went on to accuse me of overcompensating towards Shell Dockley."
"And were you?" Nikki asked in her direct fashion.
Jesus, it's like having a spotlight being trained in my eyes, Karen thought. Maybe it might do me some good.
"There might be something in that point of view," Came Karen's elaborate answer.
Suddenly Nikki looked at her watch. Jesus, the afternoon seemed to be ages long but everything had happened in just one hour. Her eyes and ears flickered between Karen and the world on the other side of that door.
Karen sensed Nikki's unease. She had Trisha and the club to deal with however much her world was changing.
"I know that you've got a club to run in the meantime."
"So what happens now?"
"I'll get on to Neil at Area, drop him the news and hopefully you'll have an interview."
"The boot's on the other foot." Smiled Nikki."I normally do the interviews."
"I'll keep you posted," Karen said in her brisk businesslike fashion. Then she added in a more reflective tone. "I remember shaking your hand last time you were at Larkhall saying that you had a lot to offer the world and I hoped you had a chance to prove it. Little did I know."
"And me too."
Nikki showed Karen out into the echoing space of the dance floor and escorted Karen out of the front door. She wished she could join her but she had a job to do till then. First thing to do is to find another place for Rhiannon Dawson to work with any decent friend she could remember from the past. The way drugs were creeping into the club, she might as well be at Larkhall.
"Coming, Trisha," She called back as that voice called after her. She had work to do but her future pointed elsewhere if she could persuade Helen that she was doing the right thing.
Part One Hundred and Fourteen
Nikki's front door key fumbled for the slot in the lock, pushed it in and twisted it to let herself in. She never wanted to disturb Helen who was sometimes asleep by the time she got in. This time, she could here her light footsteps coming to meet her and to bring the blessing of melting into her arms and letting the aches and pains in her body be soothed away. She feared that tonight would be different.
The last few hours had been a sustained grotesque pantomime of hypocrisy that made Nikki want to throw up to make herself feel pure and uncontaminated once again. She had been very nice to Trisha and Trisha had been very nice to her. Nikki conceded that the barmaid would have one last chance and, if she were caught again, Trisha would hand out her marching orders personally. It was the least she could do to show willing and take a little of the responsibility off Nikki.That little disagreement was surely a misunderstanding which could be easily rectified, given good will on both sides. Nikki smiled her tightest smile so much that her facial muscles protested their pain in sympathy. Trisha was definitely moving in on what was left of her pitch. On that one evening, they both worked at the club to help make the party go with a swing one more time.
"Night, Trisha, I'll see you when I see you," Called out Nikki's very carrying voice from the passageway to the front door. Once she would have picked her up to take her home as she did that fateful night.
"We must meet up again, Nik.It was fun for both of us to work together for a change." Trisha's voice could be heard trailing faintly in the distance as Nikki pushed open the front door to let the fresh air in from the outside darkness.
Helen spread her arms wide, dressed in a short nightie as a dog-tired Nikki stumbled into her arms and their lips met in a long deep kiss. It seemed to Helen that she was part holding Nikki up in case she dropped to the floor. She had been looking peaky recently as Helen's experienced eye told her that work pressures were getting to Nikki. Last Sunday, that blissful day in the week was already a day away and it seemed that they lived for that precious amount of quality time. At least, Helen reflected sometimes, they had that assurance they would get it which was a big step up from life at Larkhall.
"Helen, there's something important I want to talk over with you."
The advantage with Nikki's tiredness was that she hadn't even got the energy to devote to worrying what she would say to Helen. She trusted that her words would fall into place at the right time. With a last tender caress of Helen's bare skin on her shoulders, Nikki collapsed into an armchair and let a few moments pass while she collected her thoughts. Helen raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
"I've been thinking over my future some time, I mean what I do for a living and I can't see a future in the club. I want to pack it in."
There it was the words right out there in the open, a more precise formulation of what she had first said to Karen.
"I've got the feeling that it doesn't mean the same to you as it once did." Helen's tactful reply edged closer to the heart of the matter. "but you've got a half share in it and half the right to make of it what you will."
"The problem is that it doesn't feel that way half the time, in fact most of the time, believe me. This has been a long time coming and I had an almighty row with Trisha tonight and that has put the tin lid on things," Nikki said bitterly and paused as the tiredness in every bone in her body swept over her in a huge tidal wave.
"That can't surely be it? There must be more to it than that," Helen pursued. She knew that Nikki would sometimes complain about Trisha from time to time but this seemed to have blown up from nowhere.
"You're right, Hel, it goes deeper than that. Let's put it this way, one reason is that the club has just become an impersonal money making machine when once it was for our friends. The second reason is that I'm fighting a losing battle to stop drugs spreading into the club, aided and abetted, I might say by Trisha. The third reason is that I can't stand to work with that tart any more as she's on a completely different planet professionally and the fourth reason is that I worked hard to get my degree and I could be doing something better in my life than smiling false smiles at someone else's party. I've had enough."
Helen was amazed that even though the words dragged their way wearily out of her mouth, that incisively reasoning mind of Nikki Wade still functioned.
"That sounds like all the reasons in the world, Nikki, but what will you do instead?"
Nikki swallowed and became very nervous. She knew how Helen felt about Larkhall even to the point of ducking out of getting involved with a civil court case to settle scores with that bastard Fenner once and for all.
"What's this leading up to?" Helen asked anxiously.
"I've had a possible job offer if everything pans out right. It is Wing Governor job at a a prison," Nikki stammered.
"You're joking, Nikki." The words escaped from Helen's mouth and her face was frozen with shock as sheer panic made her deny the evidence that her ears were telling her mind.
"Not Larkhall?" Helen added in a whisper, barely articulating the words.
Nikki nodded, unable to speak for a second before she was compelled to add the final words, which had a grotesque precision to this nightmare.
"And it's on G Wing, Helen."
Helen sought refuge from her growing panic by reaching out for facts and figures. It was just as well that she found something to bind herself down to the earth as otherwise she would have wanted to crawl her way through the armchair to some foetal position where nothing could harm her.
"You didn't find this out by browsing round the local Job Centre in your lunch break. Someone came to you to ask you about it. It was ."
"Karen," Nikki finished for her. As she related the bare facts of the story, she began to get a tenuous grip on herself. "She phoned me up at work and said that she had a proposition I might be interested in. Karen came round when I was in the middle of an almighty row with Trisha and explained the situation."
"And how in God's name is she going to sell this one to area personnel. No disrespect to you Nikki but I know how narrow minded people like them are and that they have long memories."
"Karen will put this to Neil Grayling who used to be governing governor and is now at area."
"She must be mad. Wait till I catch up with her. No matter how much she wants a good wing governor, she has no right to lug you into a job at that place. She knows how badly treated you were when you were there last time."
"I'll have to have an interview first and get over that hurdle before I even think of jacking it in at the club. If you think I'm mad for even thinking of taking the job, Karen's equally mad by your logic for trying to fix it for me to have an interview with people who are bound to know every bit of my past. She's got the courage of her convictions to try, and if area blow her idea away, then there's no interview, no job at Larkhall."
Nikki's tired but faultless logic brought Helen up short. Nikki was surely right in all these points but the idea was mad and dangerous.
"I mean it, I'll give Karen a piece of my mind when I see her next," Fumed Helen. "I don't want you to be put through what I went through at Larkhall. I barely got away with my sanity even if it left me free at last to love you."
The full range of emotions ran through Helen's words, anger at Karen, that fierce protectiveness for Nikki at even contemplating this act of folly.
"You can't blame it all on Karen. If I wanted to, I could have told her very nicely that she was wasting her time."
Helen couldn't answer as it was easier to direct her anger at Karen as a very convenient target. Nikki, bless her, was being her very sweet self and standing up for Karen. That made it harder for Helen. Her passionate love for Nikki made her never cease to bless that fortune that set her on the path that joined them together.
"You're thinking of Larkhall the way it used to be and not the way it is now," Gently urged Nikki.
"It will never change. I swear the place is cursed and so is everyone who goes there."
"It brought us together."
"That's true." Helen gave a half smile as it reminded her that she and Nikki hadn't been always together. After these years, it just felt that they had been together all their lives but hadn't known it. It wasn't only Nikki who was an open romantic these days.
"Tell me how hard it was, Helen. We don't often talk about that side of Larkhall, only our love and the laughs."
"I felt a frozen fear in my guts all the time I came up against those backstabbing bastards. I had the whole sodding mafia against me, devious bastards who would gang up against me and go behind my back. I remember looking at the expressions on their faces trying to peer into me for any sign of weakness, anything they could use to twist and turn back on me later on. There was something about them that made me angry even before they spoke. I had to build up an iron wall in front of them rather than show any weakness. The wonder of it all was that I lasted the course as long as I did without cracking. And, yeah, I was naïve when I started. Remember my crusade against drugs."
Nikki pulled a face.
"How could I forget? You actually thought I was taking drugs only because I was that gobby, stroppy bitch determined to give you as hard a time as possible and not give you an inch."
"But that's how it was, Nikki. Strong as you are, the job could break even you," Helen replied allowing herself the brief detour of a faint smile at Nikki's droll description of herself before pressing her intense concern at the foolhardiness of Nikki's idea.
"That was then, Helen. Things have changed since then. I'll have Karen as Governing Governor and not a lazy waste of space like Stubberfield."
An idea was forming in Nikki's mind. Helen ought to see Larkhall for herself and lay some ghosts that had never lain in their unquiet graves, as they should have done. The difference was that these ghosts were of the people as they then were, whether living or dead. She resolved that this idea can only come from Helen. It was not up to her to try to impose it on her and it wouldn't work on someone as stubborn as Helen anyway.
"You're forgetting another thing and that is that Fenner's dead. We went to the trial, remember?"
Helen's eyes went glazed. She had forgotten that very basic fact. Nevertheless, her mind refused to function. She could never see in her mind's eye the PO's room without that presence. Where she had fought such bitter battles, she could picture that brooding figure, sometimes standing at the back, sometimes sitting in a chair next to Sylvia and always plotting. Sometimes his voice was smooth like honey, seemingly compliant and other times cold and contemptuous, trying to cut her down. She couldn't imagine Larkhall without him.
"All right, I'll give you that one. But Fenner did not originate all the evil that took place at Larkhall. Someone must have initiated him into it, so that it stretches back till who knows when. Do you know who you'll have to deal with on G Wing?"
"I'm not sure. Bodybag will be there for sure but I know I can handle her. She's a cow but she's stupid. She needs someone like Fenner to feed off."
A brief gleam of hope dawned in Nikki as Helen was unconsciously talking as if she were in the job and discussing details.
"Don't be too complacent, Nikki. You ought to be very careful what you're letting yourself in for ."
Even at this late hour, the wheels in Helen's mind started turning over as at least temporarily, she was starting to reduce this paralysing living nightmare into a dealable problem, bits of which could be unravelled.
"I tell you what, Nikki. If you ask my opinion ."
" .I'll get it whether I ask or not," smiled Nikki.
"OK, you've got my opinion whether you like it or not," Helen responded playfully touching Nikki on the end of her nose. "I've got the strongest reservations about you taking on this job always supposing that Karen gets area onside and that is a big 'if.' I know that I can't stand in your way in going for this job so I'll put a question to you, which you'll get asked later on in spadefuls. Exactly why do you think that you are suitable for the job of wing governor at Larkhall prison."
Nikki blinked at the challenging smile on Helen's face. Jesus, I might as well explain Einstein's theory of relativity at three in the morning. With her last reserves of strength in her mind,
"I've always been good at helping people, talking to them, understanding them. That goes back to when I was a teenager. I know as no other wing governor does how prisoners think and feel, and I am sure I've got the practical abilities to help them and to help prison officers do their job properly. I've got strict standards of what is right or wrong and I'm perfectly able to impose discipline when I need to on both sides of the wire, only it will be based on reason."
She had to hand it to Nikki that the sheer simplicity and sincerity sounded good. She knew that, unlike anyone else she knew, Nikki was promising less of what she could deliver rather than more.
"Well, Nikki Wade," She said at last, reaching forwards to slip Nikki's jacket off her shoulders. "In a totally detached mad sort of way, a part of me understands your reasonings but I can't do anything about my gut instinct about this. You have to give me time while I get my head round this. It makes me angry with myself," and here she grinned slightly,"that here I am, a practising psychologist and I can't get my own feelings together when my girlfriend wants to change her job, nothing exactly life threatening."
"I wouldn't expect anything less, darling," Nikki's soft voice caressed her in return.
If there was one thing that they were both sure of, it was for Nikki's clothes to be shed as quickly as possible and for them to make love briefly before Helen had to face the next day. They needed the feel and taste of each other's bodies if only to reassure each other and themselves.As she lay in Nikki's arms, Helen's mind was immediately made up that it was down to her to scout out the ground and at least see what sort of hornet's nest Nikki was intending to walk into and see for herself what the place is like on her own account as she'll never put the nightmare that was G Wing behind her. The visit was half for her benefit as well as half for Nikki's.
Part One Hundred And Fifteen
On the Tuesday morning, after a very interrupted night's sleep following Nikki's revelation, Helen drove to work feeling very out of sorts. Her mood wasn't improved any further, to arrive at work, finding that two of her patients for the morning had either cancelled or changed their appointments, and that the one she was really worried about, simply hadn't shown. She could have done with an extra few hours in bed, and now she was at a loose end until the afternoon. She couldn't quite get her mind off what Nikki had told her the night before. From what Nikki had said, Karen really was serious about this. It wasn't some pie in the sky thing that Karen would dismiss at the first hurdle from area. It was something Karen had clearly thought about for a while now, something she really believed she could put into practice. It would be a marvelous opportunity for Nikki, Helen knew that, but could she really let her do it? Could she really allow Nikki to go back into the place that had given them both so much hell? Not, she realised with sudden clarity, without discussing it with Karen first. Glancing at the clock and seeing that it was just after ten, Helen picked up the phone. When Karen answered, she sounded business-like and professional, just what Helen would want in Nikki's future boss.
"Karen," She said, not really knowing how to ask the question that was uppermost in her mind.
"I thought I'd be hearing from you," Karen replied, after recognising the gentle Scottish burr that she could never mistake.
"Are you busy?" Helen asked.
"Yes, but it's nothing that can't be postponed."
"Can I come and see you?"
"You want to come here?" Karen asked, astounded at Helen's veiled request.
"I think," Helen told her slowly. "That for me to be able to support Nikki in doing what she wants to do, I need to lay a few ghosts."
"Of course," Karen said gently, understanding in an instant Helen's need to lay the past to rest. "Could you come in about half an hour?"
"Sure," Helen said, feeling a little more certain of what she needed to do. "Is this really all right?"
"Yes," Karen told her gently but firmly. "I think it'll do you good."
As Helen drove the familiar route to Larkhall, she wondered if she really was doing the right thing. She hadn't driven this particular route for years, not since she'd left, threatening to take Fenner down with her, but she still knew it like the back of her hand. As she approached the barrier, she remembered the day she'd arrived to the news of Carol Byatt's miscarriage. She'd been applying her mascara whilst sat in a traffic jam, and had arrived at the gatelodge with it smudged in entirely the wrong places. There'd been an interminable delay before they'd let her through, and she knew they'd all been laughing at her. But this time, she gave her name to the officer on duty, and the barrier was raised forthwith. Karen had obviously run down and told them she was coming. Driving into a space marked for visitors, Helen switched off the engine. The old place hadn't really changed, not in all the time since she'd last been here. Her eyes strayed up to the familiar cell window, almost as if she expected to see Nikki's face behind the bars. When she got out of the car, she saw Karen walking towards her, having obviously been alerted by the gatelodge. As Helen stood, her eyes again straying back up to the window that had once held the answers to her dreams, Karen reached her.
"That was Nikki's window, wasn't it," She said quietly.
"I used to look up at that window, every single morning," Helen said almost wistfully, giving herself a mental shake. She was here to bury old memories, not resurrect them.
"It feels strange," Karen told her, as they walked towards the gatelodge. "You being here again, after all this time."
"And it'll feel even stranger if Nikki comes back to be Wing Governor," Helen replied.
They were silent as they traversed the corridors up to Karen's office, and Helen briefly wondered if she would have changed it much since she'd been in residence. But when Karen pushed open the door, Helen could see that very little had changed. The only real differences were the ashtray on the desk, accompanied by a photograph that immediately caught Helen's attention, and a couple of pieces of furniture that were clearly of Karen's personal choice. Saying that she would make them some coffee, as her secretary was away, Karen briefly left Helen to it. When the door had closed, Helen picked up the photograph, examining it in great detail. How like Karen he looked, with the same blue eyes and fair complexion, and with his thick blonde hair flopping over his face. How healthy and alive he looked, nothing like the patient who had refused to show this morning, who was of a similar age to the boy in this picture, but who was a million miles from him in looks and temperament. When Karen returned, she smiled when she saw Helen looking at the photo of Ross.
"Have you heard from him lately?" Helen asked, putting the photo back on the desk.
"No, not for a while," Karen said, handing her a mug of coffee and sitting down on the sofa. "Which means he's obviously not desperate for money." As Helen sat down near her, she wondered how to brooch the subject of what she was doing here, but Karen introduced it for her.
"So, tell me why you're here," Karen invited, reaching for her cigarettes and offering Helen one.
"Last night," Helen began, taking a long drag of the cigarette. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. You, one of my closest friends, were actually suggesting that Nikki come back here, that she come and work in the place that made her life hell for three years. I was so angry at what I thought you were asking of her, of both of us, that I could have wrung your bloody neck when she first told me about it. But gradually, as she very slowly and carefully explained the logic of it to me, I began to see that you were right. Nikki does want to do this job, because she feels she can do it. I can't stand in the way of that, I wouldn't want too. Nikki has a drive to improve the lives of others, that you and I can only dream of. She will put everything she has into this job and more, and I'm not about to stop her doing that, just because the thought of her coming back here scares the living daylights out of me. It doesn't matter that Fenner's dead, because the fear I have of this place is completely irrational."
"It is perfectly understandable that you feel like this," Karen said, gently touching Helen's hand. "You wouldn't be human if you didn't have some reaction to coming back here after everything that happened. But if seeing the crime scene of one of your worst nightmares is what you need to do, then fine, we'll do it. I know you want to support Nikki in doing this, but I also know that if you've still got the threat of Larkhall and its inhabitants hanging over you, you won't be able to support her decision."
"I wouldn't blame you if you thought I'd completely lost it," Helen said with a self-deprecating smile.
"Of course I don't," Karen said fondly. "And I bet there's the odd place that will trigger good memories as well as bad."
"There are a couple," Helen said, not quite meeting Karen's eyes.
"Then we'll visit those as well, and you can fill me in as to their secrets."
The first place they needed to go was to the G wing Governor's office, because it was only polite to inform Gina that Karen was taking a visitor down onto the wing. Gina was surprised to see Helen, and wasted no time in asking if Helen was coming back to work at Larkhall.
"Not as such, Gina," Helen told her evasively, which made Gina instantly curious.
"I think I might have found a replacement," Karen said, to try to assuage some of Gina's insatiable need for information. "But I can't tell you any more at the moment." Saying that it was perfectly all right with her if they went down onto the wing, Gina had to be content with knowing little more than she had before they'd appeared.
When they'd left Gina's office, Karen asked,
"So, where do you want to go first?"
"The art room," Helen said decisively. "Start somewhere good."
"Now I really am intrigued," Karen said with a smile, leading the way through the familiar corridors, locking the gates behind them with the ever resounding clink of metal on metal. As they passed through the library that had been refurbished after Snowball's bomb, Helen felt a brief surge of fury that someone could have so ruthlessly kindled the most culturally diverse part of the prison. But when they stepped into the art room, a slow, gentle, utterly soul deep smile spread over her face. Karen watched as Helen walked meditatively round the room, taking in every inch of its space.
"Not long after I came back," She began. "Me and Nikki came here for a bit of time together. It was on the day Yvonne tried to escape. I remember Nikki saying that we'd be quite safe here. Nikki started kissing me, and I told her we needed to talk. She said that talking was what you did afterwards. That was the first time we really did talk about what we were doing. Apart from when she got out on the night of Sylvia's party, I think here was one of the happiest memories I have of when Nikki was here." When Helen returned to Karen's side, they walked back through the library in silence, Karen realising that she was about to learn the answers to a whole host of unanswered questions.
When Karen let them out of a side door, and they began walking across the prison gardens, Helen said,
"Nikki was always happy when she was out here. She has the same affinity with plants as Sean. I brought him here a couple of times, to give gardening classes to some of the women. He wasn't an unmitigated success with the likes of Shell Dockley." Karen laughed at this. "Nikki always used to retreat out here when everything got a bit too much." As they neared the potting shed, they saw Denny, sweat running down her face from the sun, and clearly weeding one of the flowerbeds. Taking advantage of the short heat wave, Denny had removed her T-shirt, which left her top half clad only in a very grubby bra.
"Denny," Karen called out to her as they approached. "T-shirt back on, if you don't mind."
"I'm just getting some sun, Miss, innit," Denny replied, grabbing her discarded T-shirt from where it hung on the open shed door, and pulling it over her head. When she was again suitably attired, she took note of who was accompanying Karen.
"Miss Stewart," She said in surprise. "Are you coming back to work here?"
"No, Denny, I'm not," Helen told her. "How are you?" She asked, wanting to deflect any further questions.
"I'm still here, innit," Denny told her bleakly.
"Do you like gardening?"
"Yeah, it gets me outside, only it's still inside. Shaz used to do it. So, when she died, Miss Betts let me take over."
A little while later as they walked towards the door that led onto G wing, Karen could feel Helen's nervousness.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" She asked.
"I've got too," Helen said with determination in her voice. "The longer I put it off, the harder it will be." The first people they met on closing the gate of G wing behind them, were the two Julies who, having recognised Helen, had come over to see what was going on.
"You remember Helen, don't you, Julies," Karen said by way of introduction.
"Course we do," Julie S said in reply, giving Helen one of her broad smiles. "You come back then, Miss?"
"No, Julies," Helen said with a fond smile of her own. "I'm afraid not."
"Oh, that's a shame," Julie J put in. "This place wasn't the same after you left."
"How's Nikki these days?" Julie S asked innocently. "We ain't heard from her in a while. Will you tell her to write to us?"
"I will," Helen said with a wry grin. Nothing had ever been sacred from these two.
"Julies, where's Mrs. Hollamby?" Karen asked, wanting to diffuse Helen's slight embarrassment.
"Oh, she's in the office as usual," Julie J replied. "Probably got stuck into the chocolate fingers by now."
"Nothing changes, does it," Helen said in an undertone as they walked towards the officers' room. But before they got there, they were accosted by Dominic.
"Helen," He said in flabbergasted amazement. "What're you doing back here?"
"Nice to see you too, Dominic," Helen told him in mock affrontedness. "I thought I'd come back and pay some of my old friends a visit."
"You're never coming back as Gina's replacement," Dominic said in awe.
"No," Helen told him in a stage whisper. "But I do know someone who might be."
"But for the moment," Karen put in with a mischievous smirk. "Let Di and Sylvia think she is."
"Your secret's perfectly safe with me," Dominic said, in gleeful anticipation of both Di's and Sylvia's reaction.
As they approached the door to the most formidable of Helen's battle grounds, Helen briefly hesitated. Laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder, Karen said,
"He's really not still there, I promise you." When they entered the officer's room, both Di and Sylvia were taking the weight off their feet, and Karen couldn't help but smile. The Julies had been absolutely right, Sylvia was well stuck into her usual dose of chocolate fingers. But when she saw who Karen had with her, Sylvia choked on a mouthful of tea.
"Miss Stewart," She said, wiping her mouth with a tissue.
"The one and only, Sylvia," Helen told her dryly. "How are you?"
"Oh, we're fine, aren't we, Di," She said, forcefully dragging Di into the conversation. "Still too many prisoners and not enough hours in the day, but then you left that all behind, didn't you."
"So I did," Helen said with a certain amount of satisfaction in her voice, having not taken her eyes off the other occupant of the room, who had been mouthing ineffectually since their arrival. "Are you not pleased to see me, Di?" She asked, far too innocently.
"After the stunt you pulled on me at Lauren Atkins' trial, I don't think so," Di responded bitterly. "You just couldn't wait, could you. I've never done anything to you, but you just had to drag up all that rubbish. That do-gooder of a barrister, wouldn't have known where to lay her hands on any of that, if you hadn't told her."
"Well, Di, what ye sew, so shall ye reap, as Crystal would say." There was a stunned, awful silence, with the colour draining from Di's face. Clearly knowing that she'd lost this particular argument, Di got hurriedly to her feet and left the room.
"Can you give us a minute, Sylvia?" Karen asked, jerking her head in the direction of the door.
"Yes, of course," Sylvia stammered, getting up immediately and leaving the room.
"You don't like to leave things unsaid, do you," Karen said ruefully, closing the door after Sylvia had left.
"She was part of the reason I left the service in the first place," Helen told her. "She helped Fenner set me up. So no, I couldn't quite leave that unsaid."
"Oh, it's not a criticism," Karen said lightly. "She's had that coming for a long time. How do you feel, being in here?"
"You know something," Helen said firmly. "It's just a room. Yes, this is where Fenner ruled supreme, and yes, this is where he assaulted me, but it's just a room. I was so scared of coming back here, because I couldn't escape the thought that even though he was dead, his influence would still be here, still tainting everything it touched. But it's not. Fenner might still haunt my nightmares, as I'm sure he does yours, but he doesn't haunt anywhere else. He did everything possible to try to keep Nikki here, and to keep her from me, but he's lost, and she's won. Nikki coming back here in a professional capacity, would be the most fitting type of exorcism I could think of. If you were waiting for my approval before you went to area about this, you've got it. Nikki wants to do this job so badly, that I'll do anything it takes to make sure she gets it."
"That was certainly some speech," Karen said softly, knowing that she and Helen were one and the same when they got onto their respective soapboxes. "I'll pay Grayling a visit this afternoon, and put everything in motion."
Part One Hundred and Sixteen
Karen stubbed her cigarette into her ashtray, which was rapidly filling up with dog ends as testimony of her strenuous efforts to secure Nikki as wing governor. She picked up her phone, which again was going to act as electronic postman for another yet surprise message. This time, it was Neil Grayling's turn.
"Neil, I think I've found the answer to the permanent wing governor vacancy," She announced breezily.
"I didn't know that you had added to your skills such as magically pulling rabbits out of hats. I've scoured the breadth of the country for a possible transfer wing governor to Larkhall and to no avail, yet you find one right under my nose."
"It's nothing," Karen lied through her teeth, doubting that Nikki could be seriously described under that inoffensive metaphorical description. "As I'm popping into area on another errand, I might as well drop in if that is all right and talk about my idea. It is a bit radical."
Grayling pricked up his ears at Karen's over elaborately casual manner. It sounded like a style of delivery he had used in the past when he had a bit of smooth talking to do. There was more than met the eye on this one but he blandly agreed.
Once Karen had gone through the same culture shock that Grayling had experienced when he had set foot in area for the first time, she soon found herself in his starkly decorated yet comfortable office where Grayling courteously offered her a coffee.
"So what mystery are you going to unfold before me? I am sure it will be up to Larkhall's standards. Sometimes I miss the announcements of some crisis in some perverse fashion."
Karen could have done with another cigarette, both as a prop and for the nicotine but, out of deference to Grayling, she resolved to make the best of the situation.
"There's someone who I know who is keen to have the chance to work as wing governor at Larkhall. She is uniquely gifted for the job."
"Her background is that over ten years ago she and her ex partner founded and built up from scratch a lesbian club. Because of that, she has built up considerable business skills and experience of handling staff."
Grayling's initial reaction was a frozen horror and desperate hope that Karen was pulling his leg. Unfortunately, Karen's facial expression and voice were perfectly serious.
"You surely cannot expect the prison service would take someone with no previous experience of the prison system straight in at such a responsible level because, for some reason which you have not yet explained, she wants to do the job? She must have more to offer than this?"
"She has a B.A. Honours degree in English."
"No doubt gained from the more cloistered corners of academia."
"Hardly that." Karen's smooth delivery showed signs of cracking as she approached the tricky bit of her proposition.
"She has experience of the prison system in a way that neither you nor I have quite experienced. She spent three years at Larkhall as a ."
" .prisoner?" gasped Grayling. He seemed to rise in his seat and sink back in shock.
Karen let him take time and get over the shock.
"How long have you been Governing Governor at Larkhall, Karen?" He said at last.
"About six weeks."
"And after hardly spending time getting settled in with your feet under the table, you come out with a proposal that is either sheer genius or total madness."
"I must be following your style of leadership as you came out with very radical ideas the moment you came to Larkhall."
"But those ideas were bollocks," Groaned Grayling. "I was talking out of my arse from reading too many management textbooks. I haven't got around to asking them for a refund from the bookshop but I should do. The worrying thing is that there is something I haven't grasped as I have never known you not to come out with considered proposals ."
Suddenly his guardian angel planted the thought in his mind that he had been desperately searching for.
"Do I know the name of this woman, Karen."
"You'll have seen her at the trial. Her name is Nikki Wade."
A whole series of emotions flooded through Grayling's mind, half worry, half relief. He knew very well that Mrs. Warner regarded him as virtually a Bolshevik and if he steered Nikki Wade into the prison service, his reputation as a maverick would be sealed. He could place where he had seen her before on the day that he sat in on the Atkins trial.
"Neil, I might have presented this rather badly. Let's look at the facts. You agree that Nikki through her second court of appeal judgement, has a clean slate, as clean a slate as mine or yours."
"Legally you are right. Such is the Tardis effect of the court of appeal."
"Wouldn't you agree that Nikki has experience of the prison system from the inside without the normally associated criminal act. She knows how prisoners feel, what they talk about and both Helen and I can tell you that she has the real knack of leadership and she gained the respect of some of the prison officers. She had no fancy title or any official position of any description but did it all because of who she is."
"And led a couple of protests, one of which ended up in a full scale riot. Don't expect that that event is not forgotten at area," Warned Grayling grimly.
"I wasn't around on both occasions but Helen filled me in on the details and both events were down to Sylvia Hollamby's initial mishandling of the situation, sloppy and inefficient on the first occasion and putting in the jackboot with a hefty dose of racial prejudice the second time around."
"Which brings me to my first major question and big reservation. How would such an appointment go down with her fellow officers?"
Karen suppressed a smile. Grayling's very understandable fears were battling with an instinct, which was secretly attracted to the idea. The very mention of Sylvia Hollamby's name helped tilt the balance in favour of Nikki.
"Your question is closely connected with the second question which springs to mind and the answer to one may answer the other. Nikki would have to be clear in her own mind as to how she would treat prisoners some of whom she may well know from when she was there last time. Nikki will need to set her stall out where she stands and she sinks or swims on this. What it comes down to is this. Why not give Nikki the chance of an interview, no special favours and let her fully answer for herself these questions. It is not as if there are any suitable candidates or that you have been overwhelmed in the rush. Please, Neil, just give her the chance."
Grayling let the slow, measured tones of Karen's explanation insinuate its way into his thinking and saw the hopeful expression in her eyes. They soothed away the panic and a strange reckless feeling overtook him that was willing to take a gamble. Above all else, he reflected on his past when his so called hunch had placed his faith on the likes of Fenner to tell him what was going on and how bitterly he had regretted. He had made serious blunders when he had disregarded what Karen had to say in the same period. He was not one for succumbing to feminine charms but he placed his trust in Karen one more time. Besides, ideas were being peeled off his unconscious as to how Alison Warner might be prevailed upon to grant the interview.
"You must be mad!" The formidable battleaxe burst out when Grayling and Karen between them had smoothly unreeled the facts of the matter. "What on earth possessed you to present this utterly preposterous idea to me. I shall not hear of it. I wonder why you, Karen Betts, have initiated such a proposal."
"The desire to have a well run wing, Mrs. Warner," Karen responded in dry, flat tones. "Don't forget that if the idea backfires, I shall be the one facing the consequences, both of my own personal position and any trouble on the wing. I shall be painting myself into a corner from which I cannot escape."
Grayling's face remained impassive while secretly admiring the skill with which Karen turned back the argument on itself. She had sharpened up her ability in this respect.
"You will do more than that. You would be straight out the door if ever anything happened in the way you describe. That is however, not the main point. We have a public duty to preserve the good name of the prison service and we are all answerable for our actions ..".
The initial ferocity of Alison Warner's attack softened as she meditated on what was the real arguments were in her mind. A sacrificial victim which had stepped forward announcing her candidature for the post which was normally decided on the "musical chairs" party game principle had much to recommend it, telling both the sharp listeners that this was a predominant argument in Mrs. Warner's mind. A sacrificial victim which had stepped forward announcing her candidature for the post which was normally decided on the "musical chairs" party game principle had much to recommend it.
"It is not just that the prison service is much in the public domain these days but for our own internal discipline which is hidden from public scrutiny."
Bullshit, thought both Karen and Grayling. All she cares about is the Eleventh Commandment,"Thou shalt not be found out." Nevertheless, they chose to humour her.
"We appreciate your concern and I subjected Karen's idea to the most rigorous scrutiny as to its soundness and only then did I dream of putting this before you. I asked Karen to accompany me so that you had full chance to ask her the most searching questions yourself rather than rely on my own direct knowledge of the candidate concerned."
Karen admired Grayling's smooth unctuous tones, which had the same effect of tickling a cat under the ear so that it purred. The tactic, though one which he had used for bad purposes, was now used for the good.
"What's Ms Wade's attitude towards the Home Office policy to reduce the incidence of illicit drugs infiltrating into Her Majesty's prisons?" she shot at the two of them after a pause in the conversation.
"From what I know of her, she has been conducting a one woman crusade against drugs from infiltrating the club which she runs and has not hesitated from sacking staff if they are implicated themselves." Karen slid her contribution in a perfect two-handed operation. Good thinking, Karen, Grayling thought approvingly. Alison Warner's reading paper of choice alternated between the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and any suggestion of total lily livered wet liberalism caused her blood pressure to rise.
"There's one question that was at the back of my mind and that is this one. What possible motive could there be for a candidate who had spent three years at Larkhall to go out of her way not only in applying for a job in the prison service? Either there is a criminal intent and there is nothing in what we know of Ms Wade to suggest this. It has been my experience that no one chooses to pass through the gates of any prison voluntarily unless they choose to do so. From what I understand- and you may choose to disagree- we have every reason to suppose that Ms Wade's application for the job is for perfectly good reasons. It is not as if I have been trampled in the rush of suitable candidates for the job and the use of a temporary cannot be continued indefinitely."
Grayling continued the drip drip effect of gradually wearing Mrs Warner down in the way he played his pauses and Karen watched him in fascination.
"We might as well grant her an interview, no special favours, on a level playing field and see what she has to say for herself."
"All right, Neil You have your way but I promise you that she will be out on her ear if she doesn't come up to standard and it will reflect on your next appraisal interview," Mrs. Warner finished spitefully. "I insist that you, for one, are on the interview board so that if this mad idea goes wrong, you will be right out in the open."
Grayling's smooth words thanking her was in the best spirit of Sir Humphrey Appleby out of "Yes Minister" and he carried on smiling until they were out the door.
"I can't thank you enough, Neil for what you've done," Karen said in heartfelt thanks.
"I must be mad," He sighed to himself as the full implications of what was in store for him sank in. "bloody hell." He murmured to himself as he was in shock and he cast his eyes heavenwards. They walked down the corridor, both of them feeling that their legs were made of rubber. As they neared his office, a thought struck him.
"By the way, what was that other errand you were coming here for? Perhaps I can direct you where to go?"
Karen's hand shot up to her face and she fractionally turned pink. She had forgotten all about that slight fabrication she had told Grayling.
"Perhaps another day," he grinned broadly, seeing her discomfort plainly written on her face. "You are welcome anytime but try to come on a more conventional errand. A cat may have nine lives but I've just used up my eighth."
"I'll keep both promises.I'd enjoy it." Karen smiled as her temporary shock melted away into the start of an enormous high. Against all the odds, she had pulled it off.
Part One Hundred and Seventeen
Helen picked up the thickening file of the next patient with a sinking feeling inside her. All sorts of tributaries floated so many troubled people to her front door but the stream with the deadliest undertow was that of drug addiction. He was the most difficult patient of all but she promised to devote that inexhaustible patience of hers to seek a solution somewhere. The superficial picture was clear enough of a weak father, strong mother and a fatally imperfectly developed glimpse of adulthood, let alone masculinity. It was a glib one liner, which explained nothing or, at most, left vast gaps, which it was up to her to bridge and that was the hard bit.
She was unsure how to motivate him, or, to be more precise, get him to motivate himself, to do what he had to do in life. The trouble was that the inexorable courses of his past actions were leading him down a dangerous blind alley. She could never persuade her other difficult patient to follow her advice for love nor money however politely she behaved but Helen had come to realise that she possessed a crazy sense of self preservation which this man obviously did not.
Helen's bright smile greeted the surly man as he slouched his way into her room, ten minutes late. He was tall and thin and was dressed in a dirty pair of green combat trousers, tee shirt and scuffed boots. He failed to meet her eye.
"Take a seat."
She received a monosyllabic grunt in return and paused before carefully selecting her opening gambit.
"We were talking last time about what makes you take drugs."
"Were we?" he asked vaguely, his eyes flicking across hers very briefly. If she said so, it must be true. A lifetime had passed by since the last time he had called. He has spent morning after morning lying in an unmade bed in his clothes, which he never used to take off the previous night. His mind remained in a dull fog until he leaned over to the cluttered bedside table upon which old broken cigarette lighters, empty cigarette packets and cigarette ends were littered. Somehow, he found the rollup tobacco and the last Rizla to light up his first cigarette of the day. Long ago childhood days of a good breakfast to start the day were a long way behind him. With nothing else to structure his time, it was drugs, which filled the gap and where he would go to for the day. Somehow, he had found the crumpled card on which she had written down the day and time of the appointment and he had trudged his weary, reluctant way to the clinic.
"Can you remember that we were talking about just what leads you to take drugs and what you hope to get out of them."
"That's simple. My life is boring and I need a buzz every so often," Came the sullen reply.
This line of talk wasn't helping anyone, least of all this man. All she got was this sullen, frozen faint feel of aggression, which covered up the despair of his soul.
"Hmm, a dangerous buzz. As dangerous as the injury to your arm judging by what I can see of it with the bandages," Helen said reflectively. The only thing, which puzzled her, was that he had not taken the obvious step of trying to conceal it by wearing a jacket over the top.
"It was just one of those things that happened. I fell over on something sharp while I was in the flat. I was lucky that a friend of mine got me in to the doctor's and patched me up," Came the perfect non-answer from him.
"So what's the difference between what gives you a buzz and what is potentially life threatening?" Helen probed gently. He had that disturbing habit of describing to others events that happen to him, as if he had no control over them and never in terms of what he had chosen to do.
The man shrugged his shoulders, uncaring. He was alive now and that what all there was to it.
"How do you feel about what could so very easily have happened to you?"
"No point asking me as I was too out of it. Next thing I knew, I was at the doctors, being pumped full of morphine. At least I wasn't hanging out." His sullen reply was phrased a little more aggressively than before and made her wince. His idea of purpose in his life was narrowed down to that one craving, not to be suffering from withdrawal symptoms. That said everything about how much he had withdrawn from all the multi faceted forms of self-realisation that walked past his window every day, unrecognised. The patient was only conscious that this woman was really annoying him, nagging at him, asking too many questions like all women he had ever known ended up doing, his mother first and foremost.
"It sounds that you were so out of it that you might never have come back, at least not to this world," Helen intervened, seeking to uncoil the screwed up thinking right in front of his eyes. "Can you really tell me that there is no one who would care about you?"
"Who do you mean? My mother?"
"She's as good a place to start. Perhaps you could tell me about her."
Helen's reply was as cool and calm and very softly spoken as she tried to erase out of her emotions any trace of impatience and anger that she might have felt for this man.
"You really want to hear about her? You're not going to like what I'm going to say."
"If I didn't want to hear what you have to say, I wouldn't be asking you."
He's more worried in trying to explain how he really feels about her, her inner voice told her. He is certainly not thinking about how I might feel about the matter whatever his words.
"My mother was never around for when I wanted her. All she ever cared about was being a career woman," and here he almost spat the words out as if they were a blasphemy. "She wasn't really married to my father and she made him feel small, weak and scared, It's no wonder he got fed up and left home ."
You're talking about yourself, that inner voice told her. Never mind, if he can only handle his feelings in this distorted form, let's leave it at this, at least for the moment. That front he puts on may fool his friends but Helen could see that crude theatrical staging for what it was.
" .she is so hard that she can never see how frightened that men get and if she did get to know, would only despise them. I knew that from when I was little and I could have told how he feels. Anyway, it doesn't matter."
The patient hesitated for a second before cutting short his fantasy, shaking his head.
"Why doesn't it matter?"
"Because he died a long time ago. I never knew my father. When I was growing up, there was my mum's boyfriend, for what good he was."
There was a wealth of bitterness in those last few words that spoke volumes.
"And what was he like?"
"He was one of those creeps who could wrap my mother round her little finger with all sorts of smooth talking words. He conned her blind, time after the time and it took her ages to see through him. I could tell the moment I first saw him. At least she did one thing right in her life when she chucked him out."
This boyfriend made a very safe, very convenient focus for this man's anger. After all, it was easier to direct his anger upon someone who was real than someone he had never known.
"Did your mother talk much about your father? What did she say about him."
"Just that she met him when she was too young and that their marriage was a mistake. She never did talk that much about him."
He clearly resented the fact that his mother knew so little about his father. On the face of it, it was a reasonably considered remark and she didn't put all the blame on him to her patient, this wasn't enough.
"Didn't she look after you and show you some sort of affection for you."
"The childminders did that for me. They were there and my mother wasn't," came the chilling response. "Of course, she had all sorts of ambitions for me. She made that clear. The only thing was whatever I did in school wasn't good enough for her however much I tried. She always thought that I could have done better."
She knew how that felt. Her own father was a past master in the art of running her down, This is where she parted company with this man as her reaction to her father was that determination to prove him wrong and to stand up proudly for herself. It was what had given her that manic determination to get to the top of the ladder. Only when Nikki had turned her world upside down could she see her life for what it was and she achieved that sense of balance without which she could not possibly have set about helping others with their own private hells. Her degree in psychology was the key to that abrupt change in her own career, something that had already dropped into place before she knew that it could be the means to her future. In this case, the trouble with the patient's wallowing in psychology was that he neglected the severe practicalities of what it took for a single working mother to bring up her child and what it took for her to overstretch her life twenty four hours a day to look after him. He wasn't giving up a clear picture as to how his mother was actually like.
"Did she actually say that to you?"
"She never needed to, don't you understand. I could tell it in the tone of her voice, in the look in her eye. It used to make me feel pathetic and stupid."
It was extraordinary, how the dam had suddenly burst and the torrent of feelings had rushed out and she was hearing far more about himself than she had heard for months. From what she knew of his mother, Helen suspected that she demanded the high standards of herself in the same way that she asked of her son. The only thing was that he refused to see that the world demanded such standards as the price of survival and inflicted very much harsher punishments than his mother could ever do.
"Perhaps you might have been reading more into her than she ever intended."
"Don't give me that," Came the scornful reply. "You're taking her side like everyone else does. You wouldn't say that if you knew her like I know her."
"So how did you get to university in the first place. Not everyone goes there or is capable of getting there."
He looked blankly at Helen as if he had been totally caught by surprise by that thought, as if it had never occurred to him before.
"I had mum breathing down my neck all the time I was at home. I thought that if I went to university, I would get her off my back and have a life of my own."
"That's fair enough as long as you are ready to take responsibility for your life," Helen started to say in a mild mannered enough tone of voice until her reflections were cut short.
"You sound just like my mother. You're all the same. Do you know just how patronising you sound?"
"Well, just for the record, I don't. I could tell you about someone I know who was only sixteen when she was thrown out of boarding school and not allowed to go back home. She had to make her own way in life, doing whatever job she could turn her hand to so that she could make ends meet. It was a hard enough struggle but she's running a club with a friend of hers. Oh yes, along the way, she studied for a degree in English and got it."
"Until she's come your way so that you can go reading her mind for a living like you're trying to read mine."
"Yes, she has come my way but not as a patient."
"So who is this superwoman then. Are you trying to tell me that she is for real."
"Don't worry, she's as real as they get and I can back everything I'm saying up to the hilt. I'm only talking about her as an example of what can be done with your life. She wouldn't think that she is special, just that she's always done what had to be done."
Helen's angry eyes locked with the unsteady weak petulance of her patient who gave way. He was losing the ability to sustain his emotions for any length of time as his perseverance in life in so many ways. His only fixed purpose in life centred on drugs. In turn, Helen was starting to regret that her anger had broken through her professional demeanour and hesitated for a second while she bottled her anger down. It was not easy as she had heard from Nikki so much about her early days and his attitude had touched her on a raw nerve. This man was so full of self-pity and self-centredness and he was not the martyr to life that he thought he was.
"Yes well, it might be easier for your friend but she's straight, not using stuff like I am."
A curious smile played at the corners of Helen's lips as she reflected on the curious multiple meanings of that word he used to describe Nikki of all people, all disconnected from each other. He noticed nothing of this, locked inside his own misery.
"So why did you drop out of university?"
"Same reason I got into drugs. I couldn't be doing with wasting my time on hanging around lectures hearing some idiot drone on when I had other things to do."
He was glossing over a huge amount in one curt sentence. Never mind, she reasoned, another time, she would have only got a bellyful of aggression that meant nothing. It would have to wait till another time.
"It's not too late. You haven't irretrievably blown your future," She urged him, trying to transfer some of her own strength of will to this vacillating young man. She could afford it as she seemed almost driven by her ability to persevere against the odds. "If you are really sincere about at least setting some limits in your life, you could make something of your life."
Instantly, she realised from his very body language that she had made a mistake. She had been too eager and the thought should have come from him, not from her. The sheer thought of changing his life terrified him more than anything else so conditioned as he was to failure. He had given up on life, as if he were an old man, just when it was only starting. She was at least ten years older than him and felt vital, alive in comparison.
"I saw your mother recently," she blurted out as she had temporarily lost track of what new tack she was going to try.
"You can't tell her what I'm doing here. It would make things very difficult for me."
You and me both, thought Helen sardonically as she spotted the unmistakable look of panic in his eye and even the sound of his voice was sharper, more precise as if only this emotion could move him to action. Yet this reaction was fatally flawed. He wasn't talking about the act of being addicted and how much he had gone down in the world, further than his mother knew. She didn't know the half of it and, in the short term, it was a mercy but in the long term, a curse. Despite his own ragged appearance, he was more concerned about how things looked, not about the grim reality. Despite herself, she could not stop the next words coming out of her mind.
"What would your mother think if she knew about what you're doing with your life right now?"
The impact was dramatic. His eyes almost popped out of his skull.
"You mustn't tell her.You just can't tell her."
He kept on repeating this like a little boy who had accidentally hit a cricket ball through his neighbour's greenhouse and was terrified at what she would say to his mother and what his mother would, in turn have said to him. Perhaps that very situation had actually happened to him. At this moment, he reacted like a scared little boy and he hated himself for feeling this way. Through all this, there was a faint glimpse of what he really felt for his mother but if only he would just let himself give in to it.There was a theory that the addict was locked up forever at the physical age as to when their addiction first started but he went beyond that, Helen thought in a detached moment, as she dealt with his pleas. Eventually she gave in and he was ever so grateful, ever so pleased to be let off that he started making all sorts of impossible promises to show how grateful he was. Helen privately despaired as it was quite obvious that he hadn't got a ghost of a chance of sticking to these promises. For all that, he really believed in them at that point in time. This was his undoing.
Helen lay back exhausted when the session was finished and he repeated his promises on the way out. It was no use, she realised. It was all a matter whether it took five paces for him to obliterate his promises from his mind or ten paces. At that moment, Nikki's idea of going for the wing governor job at Larkhall seemed as sensible as anything there was in Helen's world.
Part One Hundred And Eighteen
On the Wednesday evening, George received a surprise in the form of a phone call from Neil.
"George," He said when she answered. "It's Neil Grayling."
"Oh, hello," She said, the smile of pleasure evident in her voice.
"I got your number from Karen," He explained. "It occurred to me, that it probably wouldn't do either of us any harm to do a little practicing before Saturday's rehearsal."
"Because we both know that my father will probably take the opportunity to make us perform the two love duets," She finished for him. "And judging by how unsuccessful they were last time, I happen to agree with you."
"They weren't that bad," He tried to persuade her.
"They were, they were bloody terrible, and mostly because of my clear inability to act."
"So, shall I come to you, or you come to me?"
"Do you want to come here?" George offered, after taking a quick look round to make sure the house was tidy.
"Sure," Neil replied, feeling a sense of curiosity. Other people's houses had always held a certain fascination for him, their intricate details telling so much about a person's habits and lifestyle.
Before he arrived, George decided to do some warming up. She ran through her usual conglomeration of scales and arpeggios, and then sat down at the piano with the score. She turned to 'With Verdure Clad', because it was the only one of her solos she could play as well as sing. This aria had always been her favourite, the words and the melodies seeming to transport her away from wherever she happened to be. The windows were open, but she didn't care who heard her. Her voice soared gloriously through each cadence, blending perfectly with the spring evening air. When Neil drew his car to a stop in her driveway, he briefly reflected that this was clearly how the other half lived. As he walked up the steps to the front door, he became aware of her singing, accompanied by a fabulously tuned piano. It almost seemed a shame to stop her, but he wasn't about to be caught loitering in the street like some opportunistic vagrant.
When George came to the door, she was wearing a loose fitting cotton dress in pale blue, though it wasn't loose fitting enough to disguise her thinness.
"That sounds more like the voice I know," He said when she opened the door.
"Oh," She said with a nervous laugh. "I always forget that one's voice can carry far too far."
"Well, it certainly sounds a lot better than it did the last time I saw you," He said, following her into the kitchen where she poured them each a glass of white wine.
"I haven't smoked since Monday, so it bloody ought to," She said, handing him the glass and leading the way into the lounge. The score was open on the piano, and the breeze that crept in through the open window lightly fluttered the pages.
"How long have you played?" Neil asked, taking note of the paintings and the generally expensive aura of the decor.
"Since I was a child," She replied, sitting down on the sofa, and watching him as he walked to stand in front of the fireplace.
"Is that the genuine article?" He asked, looking up at the Monet.
"Of course it is," George said in offended dignity. "My father wouldn't have been seen dead with a copy anywhere in his possession." Neil laughed as he moved to sit down in the armchair.
"So," George said, after taking a sip of her wine. "Have you given the go ahead to Karen's new idea?"
"She told you about that, has she," He said with a wry smile. "Well, I was a little stunned to say the least, but Karen managed to talk me into putting it before my superiors."
"She does have a way with words," George said fondly.
"Yes," Neil said dryly. "So I'm beginning to realise. Nikki's got an interview on Monday."
"Well, let's hope her interview's a lot more successful than my last rehearsal was."
"What was that all about?" Neil asked, feeling that they were now getting to the root of the problem.
"It's a bit complicated," George said evasively, heartily wishing she could have a cigarette.
"I gathered that much," Neil said wryly.
"John, is my ex-husband," She began, knowing just how insane this arrangement was going to sound.
"Didn't look all that ex a week ago."
"Before I begin to explain the current arrangement to you," She said, now taking a firm hold of the situation. "I need an assurance that you aren't still working behind the scenes for Ian Rochester."
"That's to the point, I suppose," Neil replied, slightly flabbergasted by the turn of the conversation. "And you certainly have a long memory."
"With the game that John, Jo Mills and I appear to be playing, I need to have for things like that."
"We all carry the remnants of associations we would rather forget," He told her sincerely. "Passing information to the LCD being one of mine."
"Good," George said decisively. "John has an ongoing relationship with both me and Jo, and I have an ongoing relationship with both John and Karen. I did tell you it was complicated," She said, seeing his look of astonishment.
"Bloody hell," He said in wonder. "And I thought I knew everything about being unconventional."
"Believe it or not, it does actually work. I needed the reassurance of your allegiances, because it is strictly forbidden for a judge to have an affair with any barrister who may appear before him. Ex-wives and ex-lovers are fine, but current wives and lovers are an absolute no no. With my father being as high up in the legal profession as he is, I probably have a little immunity in that respect, but Jo doesn't."
"You barristers do like to live dangerously, don't you."
"On the odd occasion now and then, yes, I suppose we do. When we sung the love duets, in the rehearsal where I was conducting, I could feel John's jealousy of you as if it was almost tangible. A couple of weeks before, I'd sung one of those duets with John, and it felt extremely wrong of me to be singing it with anyone else. If I am to act a part successfully, I think I need to have a reason for manufacturing the feelings I need to make my role a convincing one. Before this slightly obscure relationship with John and Jo began, I had to defend the pretty despicable CEO of a mobile phone company. Jo was working for the prosecution, and John was on the bench. In those days, Jo and I loathed the very sight and sound of each other, which as you can imagine, made any such case pretty difficult for both of us. I wasn't happy about taking on the One Way case, but that's another story. But the only way I could do it convincingly, was to persistently and continuously get under Jo's skin. That was a pretty easy thing for me to do in those days, I am ashamed to admit, but the sheer force of my envy of her place in John's affections was what carried me through that case. So, when I tried singing the part of the loving wife with you, it didn't work, because I won't ever have those sort of feelings for you." Neil had listened to this in silence, realising that she was telling him far more than she'd really meant too. He pondered everything for a few moments, allowing all the facts that had been presented to him, to sort themselves into their rightful places in his brain.
"So," He said eventually. "Somehow, I need to provoke the vague pretense of such feelings."
"Possibly," She conceded. "But how?" Walking over to the stereo, Neil moved the CD that was already inserted, to the track he wanted.
"Come here," He said, and as George approached him, he held out his arms. "When you sang this with me last time, only your voice was engaged in the part you were trying to play. For you to be able to allow yourself to play a role you would never inhabit in a million years, I think you need to use everything you have, which includes your body. Now, the first love duet, with its ridiculously slow triplet beat, provides the rhythm of a waltz. I think we should try actually dancing to it."
"I'll try anything once," George said dryly, moving into his outstretched arms, placing one hand in his, and one on his shoulder, and allowing his other arm to go around her waist. When he'd seen her open the door earlier that evening, Neil had obviously taken in her thinness, but now, as he became physically aware of just how little spare flesh she had, he found himself wondering as to the cause.
"I never thought I'd be doing this again," He said to break the ice.
"What?" she asked, and he could hear the tension in her voice.
"Dancing with a beautiful woman." As she laughed, he could feel some of the nervousness seeping out of her muscles.
As they began, they both realised that to dance to the three beat waltz, wouldn't be possible as the triplets were played too fast. This meant that they immediately slid into the very slow, gently swaying four beat rhythm of the time signature. When George opened her mouth to sing, Neil stopped her.
"Not yet," He said gently so as not to spoil the mood. "Just allow yourself to relax, to become one with the music. You need to be able to feel it in every pore, in every nerve and muscle. Take the words, and the feeling behind them, right into your soul. When you have hold of them, allow the feelings to wash over every fibre of your being. Adam is everything to his wife. Adam has given himself so completely to her, that Eve will eventually be able to tempt him into seeking the knowledge that will be his destruction. Eve has so much power over her mate, that she can even lead him into obeying the serpent of desire." As he said all this, in that slow, deep, utterly entrancing voice, Neil fixed his eyes on her, not allowing her gaze to wander off to any other point in the room. It was almost as if he was hypnotising her, gradually prising away every last iota of her reluctance, to be drawn into playing the part of the loving, yet powerful force behind the throne. George couldn't help but be aroused by what she knew he was doing to her. The only man, who'd ever been able to arouse her with his voice and voice alone, was John. But here, standing so close to her now, was a man who was doing this, purely for the sake of their art. He would never find her remotely attractive, and she knew that neither would she in any other circumstance. But oh, that voice! She could feel her nipples pushing at the thin fabric of her dress, and Neil could see the unmistakable gleam of excitement in her eyes. Her body moved with far more ease, far more suppleness than it had done when they began, meaning that she was indeed extremely relaxed.
When they reached the end of the first duet, Neil swiftly reached for the dial on the stereo, to change the track to the second duet, whilst still keeping his other arm around George. They moved again in perfect syncopation as the duet began, only this time, Neil began to sing.
"Graceful consort, at thy side, softly fly the golden hours."
George couldn't believe it. She felt as though she was positively floating on euphoria, sailing through the air on the golden wings of either love, or pure sexual arousal. When it was time for her to join him, she opened her mouth, and the words appeared to drift out as if of their own accord.
"Spouse adore'd, at thy side, purest joys o'erflow the heart."
Neil knew as soon as she began to sing that he'd cracked it. Somehow, with all those words of encouragement and sheer enticement, he'd done it. It gave him an enormous feeling of triumph, to know that he'd freed something so delightfully pure. There was so much feeling in what she was singing now, so much that hadn't been there before. They kept on dancing as they sang, his voice eventually returning to join with hers, taking the celebration of their achievement through the many bars of gloriously decorative counterpoint. George soared up as high as was necessary, finding nothing a difficulty. She was putting everything she had into those words, just as he was. God, if only Haydn himself were here to hear them. When they eventually rose to the final cadence, the music seemed almost to lift them off the ground, to carry them through the final act of their union.
As Neil reached to switch off the CD, before it could progress into the final piece, George just stood and stared at him.
"My god," She said in astounded wonder. "What on earth did you do to me?" Neil could think of several far more truthful answers, such as tapping into her sexual core, which he decided not to give her.
"I just made you relax, that's all," He said almost nonchalantly.
"I'll say," She said with a laugh. "That was incredible, possibly the most intoxicating feeling I've had in a long time."
"Don't tell Karen that," He said with a wink. "Or she'll have me shot."
"Not that sort of feeling," She said with a slight blush, which immediately told him otherwise. "But Karen isn't the one I've got to worry about. I think we should dance it like that when we perform it, and that's not going to improve the situation with John. I had a pretty enormous row with him after the rehearsal where I conducted, and I'm not very eager to repeat the experience."
"Leave him to me," Neil said decisively.
"And he won't thank you for getting involved, in what was really quite a personal argument."
"I'm not, because I know nothing of the substance of it, though I can guess. I take it you told him that never in this lifetime will I have those sort of designs on you?"
"Yes, of course I did, but he didn't appear to believe me."
"Right, I'll talk to him at the rehearsal on Saturday. I am not going to allow him to jeopardise what has the potential to be a magnificent performance, just because he can't accept what's staring him in the face."
"Well, I wish you luck," George said quietly, immensely grateful that he was prepared to take on something so unpredictable as John's jealousy.
Part One Hundred And Nineteen
On the Friday evening, Karen drove over to George's. She knew they had a rehearsal the next day, and that she would obviously see George then, but she needed to see her now. She'd had a pretty weird week all in all, and what she really needed was to hold George in her arms, and to feel the soothing caresses that only George could give. She hadn't arranged to see George, but she reflected that if George had company, she would simply leave it till tomorrow. But when she drew up in George's driveway, she was relieved to see that George's car was the only one there. George looked surprised to see her when she opened the door, but no less pleased because of this.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," She said after closing the door. "I didn't think I'd be seeing you till tomorrow."
"I've had a pretty odd week, one way and another," Karen replied, putting her arms round George and briefly laying her cheek on George's. "And I could do with some sense knocking into me."
"Not usually one of my specialities," George said, kissing her. "But I'll try, if that's what you want."
When George had poured them both a large glass of chilled white wine, they went into the garden, the mid evening air being warm enough to sit outside.
"So, what's happened?" George asked, once they'd both lit up cigarettes to keep off the midges.
"I appear to have made a very wrong decision, and I'm not used to having that pointed out to me by someone who used to be both my lover, and one of my inmates, though obviously not at the same time. I don't like arguing with Yvonne, because it's not something I've done to that extent, since the day I told her that I was sleeping with Ritchie. There's, I don't know, there's just something not right about it."
"What do you think you've done that is so catastrophic?"
"Last week, when you phoned me, I was taking Denny to Ashmore to see Shell."
"Yes, I know that, and I also know that you wouldn't have done it without first considering every possible consequence."
"Your faith in me is commendable," Karen said dryly. "If a little misguided."
"Don't be stupid," George said firmly. "You might take risks with your own safety and sanity, but you don't with other people's."
"That's one way of putting it," Karen said with a small smile. "But when Yvonne saw Denny on Sunday, she could see the difference in her immediately. I probably wouldn't have done, because I clearly don't know Denny as well as everyone else seems too, including Dominic of all people. Denny has always been very easy to influence, which is why she's been far nicer, and far better behaved over the last few years, because it's Yvonne who's been doing the influencing. Before Yvonne came on the scene, it was Shell who was pulling the strings. Denny got up to all sorts when Shell was giving her the nod, and you could probably even say the same for when Shaz was the guiding force, though the things they did were far less sinister. Yvonne thinks that my taking Denny to see Shell, has made Denny begin to regress into the person she was a few years ago."
"And do you agree with her?"
"Having talked to Denny this week, I agree that it's possible."
"Darling, nobody can get it right all the time," George said quietly. "You are extremely good at your job, and everything you do is always done with the best intentions, you know that."
"Is it?" Karen replied, as if she really wasn't sure.
"Yes, of course it is," George told her sincerely, briefly touching her hand. "But what makes you think otherwise?"
"Yvonne thinks that I've always tried to do too much for Shell, and that this might have swayed my decision to take Denny to see her."
"And was she right?" George asked, sensing that they had reached the heart of the matter.
"I'm not sure," Karen said quietly, after taking a sip of her wine to buy her some thinking time. "Which I suppose says it all."
"Darling, listen to me," George said persuasively, moving along the bench and putting her arms round Karen. "I don't know why you've kept in touch with Shell Dockley over the last couple of years, but what I do know, is that you'll have done it for the best, most transparent of reasons. I suspect one of them is partly because of Fenner. Before Fenner was killed, when you were trying to put that case together against him, I think part of you was doing that for Shell, and for Helen, as well as for you. But, because he was killed, that little piece of justice wasn't ever served. You have a level of guilt in you about Fenner, that occasionally rivals mine about Charlie. It is entirely irrational and unfounded, but that doesn't make it any less real. You think that when Fenner was committing his string of numerous crimes, you didn't do enough to either prevent him from continuing, or to have him thoroughly investigated. You are quite open about how this makes you feel about Helen, so it is only natural that it will cause you to feel some sense of guilt for what happened to Shell. I don't agree with why you still keep in touch with Dockley, but I do understand it."
"So," Karen said eventually. "Tell me precisely what led you to that stunningly accurate piece of deduction."
"Before I do," George said, taking a plunge that she hadn't been planning on. "Why don't you satisfy my curiosity about something. Does Michelle Dockley, also have a tendency to fall for smooth talking bastards?"
Karen reacted immediately, pushing George away from her and moving swiftly to the very end of the bench. George could have kicked herself. What in the world had possessed her to bring that up.
"I wish I'd never started this conversation," Karen said quietly, once she'd got her feelings under control, and back under her outer mask of calm efficiency.
"Why," George replied knowingly. "Is that because I am trying to make you face the entirely innocent fact, that you actually have something in common with Shell Dockley? Not a nice realisation, is it. But it doesn't make any difference to the woman I know you to be. Ignoring the event of Snowball and Ritchie's trial for a moment, I knew the first time I met you, that smooth talking people were a fairly common factor in some of the more life-altering events of your existence. Fenner and Ritchie speak for themselves, as I expect does Ross's father, though you've never said very much about him."
"You could say so," Karen said with a mirthless laugh. "I might have only been seventeen, but it still took him a ridiculously short time to talk me into bed."
"Well, there you are then. The reason I said smooth talking people, instead of men, is that I think Yvonne must also be put into that category. It's not exactly difficult to see where her son got most of his charm from, now is it."
"She wasn't the only smooth talker in that ill fated few weeks," Karen said fairly. "Because I'm just as good as anyone at turning on the charm."
"Oh, don't I know it," George said with a smile. "Your particular kind of charm is very addictive."
"That's what I was like with Mark," Karen said meditatively. "The poor sod didn't stand a chance. I was bored, and he was on the rebound from Gina. He left, because he knew he wasn't strong enough to deal with me after what happened with Fenner."
"Darling, there is one extremely smooth talker, whom we haven't yet touched on," George said carefully, feeling that if she was going to take the plunge, she may as well play her entire hand. "There's John," George added simply, not missing Karen's immediate stiffening at his name. She showed no outward sign of her discomfort with the topic of conversation, but George could feel her tension. Knowing she was about to lull Karen into a false sense of security, George continued. "I might love John more than I will ever love anyone, but that doesn't prevent me from knowing that he still has the potential and capacity to be very much a smooth talking bastard. You know it, and I know it. He usually tries it on either Jo or me when he's done something wrong. His ability to assume a persona, whether that be intentional or otherwise, is John's main defence mechanism, as it usually is yours."
"What does John have to do with my liking for smooth talking bastards?" Karen asked, wanting to escape from the topic of John as quickly as possible, though dropping herself in it in the process.
"Darling, I am perfectly aware of your continuing attraction to John," George said quietly, fixing Karen with her penetrating gaze. Karen's eyes briefly widened, her face then assuming the slightly uncomfortable expression it had possessed, when Helen had wanted to know if she was having a sexual relationship with Jim Fenner.
"I wouldn't ever do anything about it, not now," She said eventually, feeling more humiliated than she had done in quite a while.
"I know you wouldn't," George told her, moving to put her arms round her, to show her that she trusted her implicitly where John was concerned.
When their lips met, Karen poured all her feelings of love, frustration and apology into that kiss.
"So," Karen said, finally detaching her lips from George's, but keeping her arms round her. "You really think that I stay in touch with Shell Dockley, because I see too much of myself in her."
"You said it, darling, not me." Inwardly cursing her far too active tongue, Karen vowed to keep more of a track on what she was about to say, especially when in the company of such a formidable cross-examiner. "But this goes back further than Fenner, doesn't it," George added quietly, her tone belying the fact that she knew she was about to unleash a tidal wave of protest.
"What makes you assume such a thing?" Karen asked guardedly.
"Just a thought," George said blithely. "The little fragment of evidence that does give my theory a modicum of strength," She continued slowly, "Is that not once since I've known you, have you ever spoken about your parents. It's as if they don't exist and never did."
"We don't all have the highly enviable relationship with our parents, that you do with your father, George."
"No, I know, and I know that I couldn't have been luckier with my father. So tell me, why do you go as far as possible to deny their existence?"
"Trust me, George," Karen said very firmly. "You really don't want to go there."
"And the more you strive to convince me of that, the more I think someone should."
"George, can you please take no for the only answer you are going to get?" Karen said with sheer exasperation. "Yes, my father probably was the first smooth talking bastard I ever encountered, and yes, that probably has led to a lot of the things I've done over the years, but that is all you need to know. Is that clear?"
"I'm glad my neighbours are away," George said nonchalantly, glancing towards the boundaries of her garden, knowing that her flippancy would drive Karen right over the edge in a moment, but also knowing that this was the only way to get her to open up. Karen's primary defence mechanism was anger. She couldn't usually allow herself to cry, so she shouted instead.
"You started this line of enquiry, George, so you can put up with the consequences."
"And was that something you learnt from your father," George pursued relentlessly. "Or is it something you've learnt from others, who no doubt would have themselves be described as charm personified?" Karen flinched at these words, recognising them as the description she'd given of Fenner, on the day she'd told Jo her story from beginning to end.
"What do you want from me?" She asked, in the tiniest, most vulnerable voice George had ever heard from her.
"I only want you to start being honest with yourself," George told her gently.
"Jesus, that's rich," Karen replied scathingly.
"Which is precisely why I'm saying it," George said with a smile. "Because I know I'm the last person who should."
"Fine," Karen said flatly, her voice holding all the toneless quality of the sort of throwaway remark that bore no hint of consequence. "My father, in his infinitely militaristic fashion, wanted a boy, and was less than amused when he got me instead. He believed that discipline held a family together, not love, not anything resembling affection. So, if either of his women ever stepped out of line, a few harsh words, plus the occasional bruise or two, usually served to bring them back on track. I thought I could please him, by doing my nurse's training with the WRAF, but that wasn't good enough. Dennis, Ross's father, was really very similar. He was just one in a very long line of men who I thought I could win over by sleeping with them. He wasn't the first by any means, and he certainly wasn't the last. Opening my legs, appeared to be the only way I could keep anyone interested for any length of time, but they never lasted. My father was furious when he found out I was pregnant. In fact I'm surprised that I was still pregnant by the end of that particular row. He threatened to ruin Dennis's professional reputation if he didn't marry me, and believe me, he could have done if he'd wanted too. I thought that might keep him quiet for a while, but not for long. When it became clear that the marriage wasn't working, and that it wouldn't last more than a few months, he disowned me, refusing to have any contact with me, and banning my mother from also having any contact with me. She was so weak, that she let him. I tried to talk to them both, when Ross was born, but dad still didn't want to know. That was the last I heard from either of them. Mum might contact me when he dies, but I won't hold my breath."
George sat and listened to all this, wondering how Karen had managed to hide such bitterness and hurt for all these years.
"Not quite what you wanted to hear, was it," Karen said after a while.
"Is that why you virtually never cry?" George asked, ignoring Karen's jibe.
"He always told me it was a weakness," Karen said quietly. "One of his watch phrases, was that showing any sign of vulnerability, was as good as being on the side of the enemy. So no, I don't cry, except under extremely stressful circumstances. Sometimes, it would be so easy to just let myself go, but that would mean losing control over not just my feelings, but the way I deal with them."
"I'm sorry I made you tell me that," George said after another small silence, feeling that she certainly shouldn't have pressed the point in the way she had.
"I know you are," Karen told her gently. "Though your methods were admirable, I must say," she added with a smirk. "Almost as devious and manipulative as the Deed himself."
"I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment," George said a little nervously. "But I knew that making you angry, was the only way to persuade you to open up."
"As I said, an admirable use of manipulative psychology. Helen would be proud of you."
"Karen, it really isn't a weakness to cry, you know."
"No, I know it's not, and I wholeheartedly support those who can do it whenever they feel it necessary. You do it far more than I ever could, and for you, that's definitely a good thing. I just don't think it would ever be for me, not as a regular coping mechanism." This time when their lips met, they neither of them wanted to stop.
"Darling, I'm so sorry that you had to go through all that," George said between kisses.
"Shh," Karen said softly. "Don't think about it. He'd go grey over night if he could see me now, so please, just forget about it."
"Does John know?"
"No, and I would like it to stay that way." Hands reached to unfasten clothing, their need being of one mind. "Are you sure your neighbours are away?" Karen asked, as they transferred their activities to the soft, springy grass.
"Well, if they're not, they're about to be a little enlightened," George said matter-of-factly. It was after eleven o'clock by this time, and it felt neither wrong, nor strange for either of them to be naked on George's back lawn. Their path towards pleasure's peak was so familiar to both of them now, that their hands moved in perfect harmony, caressing nipples, sliding into moist, warm places, hungrily swallowing each other's murmurs of enjoyment. Karen could feel that she wasn't about to achieve an orgasm, but it didn't matter. Here she was, with George, in George's arms, and being made love to by George. Yes, it would definitely do her good to feel that explosive pull towards her own, personal point of flashover, but she didn't think this was going to happen tonight. Was her father still metaphorically looking over her shoulder, she wasn't sure.
When George had finally shuddered to rest, she briefly laid her head on Karen's shoulder, with her breathing gradually returning to normal.
"You, didn't, come," George said between slowly decreasing gasps.
"It doesn't matter," Karen told her, affectionately stroking her shoulder.
"Yes, it does," George said in offended dignity. "Of course it does. What sort of lover would I be, if I didn't ensure that after a conversation like that one, you were given every opportunity to entirely relax."
"That's incredibly sweet of you," Karen said, gently kissing her. "But I don't know if I'm capable of an orgasm this evening."
"Is it being out here? Would you prefer to go inside?"
"No," Karen reassured her. "Being out here is wonderful."
"So, what might have a chance of making you release all those horribly negative feelings?"
"I don't think a date with six beautiful women could do that," Karen said with a smirk.
"Mmm, I can see you being part of an orgy," George said contemplatively.
"Please will you give me oral?"
"Of course I will," George said lasciviously. She kissed her way down until she was suckling delicately on one of Karen's nipples, whilst still keeping her hand moving in and around Karen's silky depths. After a while, Karen gently detached George's lips from her, and raised her face to meet hers.
"George, please don't be offended if this doesn't work."
"And it doesn't matter how long it takes," George assured her. "You just tell me what you want, and I'll do it, and if that ends up being please stop, I don't want any more, then that's fine." As George continued playing Karen's body as skilfully as she did her piano, Karen experienced a wave of fondness and gratitude for the woman who was prepared to give her so much. Simple sexual gratification might not seem a lot to some, but between her and George, it said so much more. She knew that George regretted trying to manipulate her into sharing such closely guarded confidences, and that her way of making up for this was to grant Karen's sexual wish. When she began to feel these emotions wash over her, she did achieve one thing, her first steps on the path to relaxation. George had kissed her way down her body now, and was lying between her legs, sweeping her tongue languorously around Karen's entrance. When George felt the initial quiver from Karen's body, she thought that her ministrations might just be working. Karen always tasted so gloriously sweet, that she wondered how she could ever have been afraid of trying it. She thrust her tongue into Karen's entrance as far as possible, using her soft button of a nose to rub against Karen's clit.
"Christ almighty, George, you should be made illegal," Karen said, her breath quickening. With her mouth otherwise engaged, George softly laughed. Karen cried out when George's firm, full lips began nibbling on her clit, sending sparks of electricity arcing through her entire body. George didn't attempt to introduce her hands into what she was doing, except to occasionally tease Karen's nipples, because her mouth was all that was needed to finally push Karen over the edge. When George finally moved back up to look into Karen's face, she could see the trace of tears on her cheeks, given away by the slightly smudged mascara.
"I needed that so much," Karen said, her voice betraying the force of her emotions. She could taste herself on George's lips, and she knew that she couldn't have a more sexually satisfying, more affectionate, or more loving woman. If only she could say those words, I love you, but this was the one sentiment that would never be expressed between them. Was this the story of her life, to either only hear those words spoken with false intentions, or never to hear them at all? She didn't know. But she loved George, more than she'd thought she loved Fenner, more than she'd loved Yvonne, if what she'd felt for Yvonne could ever have been called love, more than anyone she'd ever had in her life. She longed to say those three little words, to really tell this woman what she felt for her, but it wasn't to be. It was left to her to show her feelings instead of articulating them, purposefully adopting the course of action that John was always being persuaded to abandon. As they later lay cuddled up in George's bed, they held each other close, as only the most tender of lovers do, exchanging through fond caresses if not by words, how much they cared for each other. No one else was present in that bed, not John, not Yvonne, and not even Jo. This night was for them, and them alone. They still hadn't finished the conversation about Shell and about Denny, and about why Karen felt guilty for her first professional mistake as a Governing Governor, but when they were lying snuggled under the duvet, none of this seemed to matter.
Part One Hundred And Twenty
Karen didn't sleep particularly well on the Friday night, in spite of the intense sexual sensation she'd experienced earlier. She watched as a portion of the moon peeped through the crack in the bedroom curtains, playing over George's exquisite bone structure, the soft light of lovers gently caressing those long, blonde eyelashes as they fluttered in the midst of a dream. Karen hadn't meant to talk about her parents, they having been one of her no go areas for years. It had felt kind of odd to even mention them by the names of mum and dad. But after prodding her in the right direction, George had listened, not interrupted, and had simply accepted the way Karen had said things were. Karen hated revealing her vulnerabilities to anyone, but maybe that was part of being in a serious and meaningful relationship. If so, why the hell had she told George of all people? It wasn't as if they could ever be involved in anything more than simple sexual satisfaction, with the added bonus of occasional bouts of emotional support. She eventually drifted into a deep, restless sleep, when the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon. When George awoke a few hours later, she lay watching Karen sleep. Even in rest Karen didn't seem able to properly relax. Her face was briefly contorted, with her limbs occasionally twitching, making George want to take away all the thoughts that were clearly disturbing her slumber. Returning to bed a little while later, with two cups of tea and the morning's paper, George waited for Karen to emerge from sleep. When she did finally open her eyes, Karen felt sluggish, dull, as if all her energy had been suddenly drained out of her.
"You had a fairly restless night," George said, feeling Karen's gaze on her.
"Discussing demons can do that to a person," Karen said dryly, her voice very deep with early morning drowsiness. Refolding the newspaper and dropping it on the floor, George slid back down beside Karen.
"How do you feel?" She asked, putting her arms round her.
"As though I could sleep for a week," Karen said, gently kissing her. "And I could really do without this rehearsal this afternoon. I'm not really in the mood for being polite to anyone."
"Oh, I shouldn't worry," George told her with a wry smile. "It'll be John who will be struggling to maintain his dignity, not you. I've a feeling Daddy will ask Neil and I to perform the two love duets today, and since the little practice we had on Wednesday, I know we can do it, which isn't going to make John very happy."
"So that's why Neil wanted your phone number. How did it go?"
"Let's just say, that we discovered a means to success," George said with a smirk.
"Oh, do tell," Karen invited. "I'm intrigued."
"We danced it, really acting it rather than just singing it. We didn't sing during the first one, because he just kept talking to me, almost hypnotising me into the part. It was incredible. That voice of his just sort of slides over you," She added with a self-satisfied yawn.
"Are you actually telling me, that Neil Grayling, turned you on, just by talking to you?" Karen asked in astounded amazement.
"I know, terrible, isn't it," George said self-deprecatingly.
"No, not really," Karen said with a grin. "It's just a little bizarre, that's all. Did he know?"
"I'm not certain, but I think so, and I think he might have done it on purpose. But to be honest, I don't care, because it worked. When I finally began to sing, I felt as though I was floating, as if the words were taking over my entire being. You don't think me stupid?"
"No, of course not," Karen said, kissing her lingeringly. After a few moment's silence, she added, "So, I suppose this means that you'll be pretty insatiable after the rehearsal this afternoon."
"That's not a problem, is it?" George asked silkily, her hands beginning to move tantalisingly over Karen's body.
"Are you joking," Karen said with a laugh. "Of course it's not. I like you when you can't get enough of me."
When Neil arrived for the rehearsal on the Saturday afternoon, he had to admit to not really looking forward to the conversation he knew he had to have with John. Other people's relationship problems weren't something he usually concerned himself with, because he'd had more than enough of his own one way and another, but this was different. The Judge had persuaded George to play Eve, no doubt using every manipulative tactic in the book, so he could damn well support her in actually fulfilling it. When he saw John arrive, Neil mustered all his tactical reserves, and strolled casually over to him.
"Might I have a word?" He asked quietly, not wanting to draw any attention to them.
"Yes, of course," John replied, utterly mystified as to what this man should want with him. When they had adjourned to a quiet corner, Neil took a deep breath and began.
"I have become aware, that you have something of a problem, with regards to George acting her role in anything resembling a convincing manner." Neil had said this in his very quiet, very professional voice that usually achieved results, but he could see immediately that he'd crossed a line in doing so.
"And precisely what makes you assume such a thing?" John enquired guardedly.
"George told me," Neil replied, feeling as though Mount Vesuvius was about to erupt.
"Well, she shouldn't have done," John said icily. "That argument was between me and George, and no one else."
"Look," Neil continued uncomfortably. "I don't know any of the details, and I don't want to know. George also has a certain difficulty with enacting a role that she neither feels, nor wants to feel. However, we went over those two particular pieces together this week, and I think we may have conquered George's difficulty, but you're not going to like it."
"Why?" John demanded ominously.
"In order for her to be able to fulfill the part convincingly," Neil said carefully. "We found it necessary to act, rather than just sing. George is perfectly happy with this, but believe it or not, she doesn't want to hurt you. She needs your blessing, before she can completely relax."
"That's as maybe," John said curtly, still unwilling to acknowledge that Neil was offering him an olive branch. "But what exactly do you get out of this?"
"I am getting no more out of playing the part of Adam, than anyone else is of being part of the orchestra, plain and simple. George isn't, nor ever will be my type, I promise you."
"Oh, and why's that then?"
"Because she is a woman. George is beautiful, incredibly talented and deserves to be allowed to do one of the things she loves. That is all I will ever see in her."
"So, what is your type?" John demanded acidly, almost insulted that Neil didn't find George sexually attractive, even though he knew this was ridiculous.
"I think that's my business, don't you," Neil replied, using every ounce of self-control he possessed not to lose his rag.
"You lay so much as a fingernail on her, Grayling," John said in his most threatening, most earnestly embittered tones. "You touch her an inch more than is absolutely necessary to carry this off, and I'll have you in court, quicker than you can say justice. Is that clear?"
"It was you who persuaded her to play the part of Eve, Sir John," Neil replied stonily. "So don't you think, that instead of leveling me with unnecessary threats, it's about time you started allowing her to do what you asked her to do?" As John stood there, slightly aghast that his usual threat to any encroaching male had gone virtually unacknowledged, Neil threw in one last persuasive jibe. "If you were so concerned about who would be playing opposite George, you should have taken the part yourself." Nailing John to the spot with one, last penetrating stare, Neil stalked away.
John stood, staring after Neil, with an utterly flabbergasted look on his face. It wasn't very often that he was so skillfully ordered to alter his behaviour, and he didn't like the feeling it created in him. He felt small, humiliated, as though he was an errant schoolboy again, and had been reprimanded for some adolescent misdemeanour. He couldn't believe that someone had possessed the audacity to speak to him in such a manner. But this was the folly of Judges the world over, he supposed, to assume that no one would dare ignore their level of authority. As other people began to arrive, John started tuning up his violin, only half of his mind on the job. He was loath to admit it, but he knew that Grayling was right. He had been jealous of George's performing those two love duets with anyone else, and he had allowed it to cloud his professional judgement as a musician. So, give her his blessing, by actions if not by words, he must. When Karen and George arrived, George went to speak to her father, and Karen came over to John, seeing in an instant that something was wrong.
"What's happened?" She asked without preamble, stopping beside his chair and resting her viola case on the floor.
"Nothing," John told her, not wanting her to know what Neil had said to him.
"Ross used to look at me like that, whenever he knew I was about to receive a bad school report about him," Karen replied, John being completely unable to hide anything from her.
"I think I've just been rather smartly put in my place," He said, always feeling the need to confess his sins to Karen, no matter how harsh the rebuke might be.
"Who by?" Karen asked, her lips faintly twitching into a smile.
"Don't you dare laugh," John told her firmly. "This isn't funny."
"No, of course not," Karen said, trying to straighten her face, and give him her full attention.
"Your boss, in his infinite wisdom, has virtually ordered me to keep my jealousy under wraps for the duration of this endeavour."
"Ah," Karen said knowingly, wholly unable to prevent a broad grin from spreading over her face. Then, turning serious again, she said quietly, "He does have a point, you know."
"I don't care if he has a point," John retorted hotly. "I don't require my inefficiencies to be pointed out by him of all people."
"Oh," Karen said dryly. "So it's Neil's threatening of your masculine pride that's bothering you."
"Masculine pride?" John snorted in utter disgust. "He wouldn't know the meaning of the word."
"I would have thought," Karen said quietly, though with enough ice in her tone to freeze the sun. "That such a comment was beneath you, John. I also would have thought, that certain aspects of the last few months, might have broadened your horizons. I don't like being disappointed in you." As Karen made to turn away, John caught at her hand.
"Karen, wait," He cajoled. "I'm sorry. That was completely out of order."
"I don't want to have to tell you to grow up, John," Karen replied, giving his hand a small squeeze. "But you make another smart comment about a sexuality that you clearly still have no time for, and I will." As she walked away from him and took her seat next to Michael Nivin, John felt far worse than he had done after Grayling's shove in the right direction. With Grayling, he had simply felt exposed and humiliated, but with Karen, he felt hurt, hurt that he had caused her to say something so cutting to him. He knew he shouldn't have made that dig at Grayling's sexuality, and in truth, he didn't really mean it, but he still couldn't escape that feeling of jealousy, that another man would have his arms round the woman who, even when they hadn't been together, John had always regarded as his.
The rehearsal began to come together at this point, meaning that he didn't have a chance to speak to Karen again before they started playing. When George sat down near him, John reached over and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his version of a publicly acceptable fond greeting. Turning round to look at him, George gave him a warm smile. She briefly held his hand against her cheek, her way of asking him not to be too cross with her for what was coming. First of all, they began with George's solo, 'On Mighty Pens', which provided her with a thoroughly satisfactory warm up for the duets that she knew would be sprung on them soon. Her father was impressed at the volume she put into her tone, and with the accuracy and clarity of the playing, particularly from Clare's flute. This was one of the pieces they'd practiced the accompaniment to, on the day when George had been conducting. They then moved through one of Monty's solos, and one of Neil's, both men convincing Joe Channing that the eventual performance would undoubtedly be a success. When Joe turned to face them, George knew that their time had come.
"I think it's about time," Joe said slowly. "That we run through the two duets for Adam and Eve. I believe you have done this before, but not under my surveillance."
"The thing is, Daddy," George said carefully, looking up at him. "The most successful way we've found of performing them, isn't perhaps the way in which Haydn intended them to be performed."
"Why?" Joe asked ominously, knowing that his daughter was vastly understating the issue.
"Perhaps if you simply observe, you'll understand what I mean."
"That's what I'm worried about," Joe said dryly, stepping stiffly down from the rostrum. "If you will conduct, Monty, I can see what my daughter has been getting up to." There was a murmur of laughter from the orchestra, as Monty took Joe's place. As Joe went and sat down, a little way from the sprawling group of musicians, George and Neil approached each other. At a whispered suggestion from him, George moved to stand side on to the cellos, so that in dancing with her, Neil would have his back to John, making it impossible for John to see anything, except the occasional glimpse of George's face. Neil had decided to do this, so that John would at least be spared the view of his arm around George's tiny waist.
As they began slowly dancing to the swaying, four beat rhythm of the first duet, several people stilled their bows, to gape at the sheer beauty of what they were seeing. George could feel Neil's arm around her, his hand resting casually on her lower back, his other hand entwined with hers. As they began to sing in perfect tandem, all ears homed in on the utter perfection of their combined sound. It pained John to hear her sounding so in love, so besotted with her mate, and the fact that he knew she was only acting, didn't serve to make him feel any better about the situation. But the sound she was making was incredible, so pure and delicate, yet so filled with power, that it almost overwhelmed him. Who was he to cast doubt on her exhibiting such a talent, who was he to prevent her from showing the entire world how beautiful she was? It highly confused him to feel this combination of hurt and wonder, this utterly devastating urge to snatch her away from Grayling and to protect her from every other man for the rest of her life, and yet to put her on the pedestal that befitted such beauty and clarity of tone. Joe Channing on the other hand, simply stared at his daughter, seeing in an instant that he was witnessing a transformation before his very eyes. He'd always known that his one and only child was incredibly talented, that she could perform as well in court as she had done on the stage at school, but he'd never suspected that it went so deep. From what he could see of the look on George's face, she was utterly wrapped up in what she was doing, with a soft, almost swooning expression in her eyes. When the first duet came to an end, Joe Channing looked contemplatively at the couple before him.
"Hmm, yes," He said dryly. "As you said, not as Haydn intended. However, I will reserve judgment until I've seen your enactment of the second duet." Knowing this was as good as she was likely to get, George rolled her eyes in affectionate acceptance of her father's methods.
As the second duet began, George tried to recapture the feelings she'd had when they'd sung this on Wednesday, but being in the presence of her father, never mind so many other people, meant that although she sang with far more feeling than she had done when she'd been conducting, she couldn't entirely let go in the way she had on Wednesday. Neil could feel this slight reticence in her, the faint holding back of her emotions, and he wasn't entirely sure how to alleviate it. He began, by gently caressing her hand as it lay in his, running his index finger over her knuckles, and alternating this by sweeping his thumb across her palm. He hadn't entirely meant his actions to be given a sexual interpretation, but he didn't miss the slight tensing of her muscles in response. As they were in the midst of a passage that consisted of nothing but her voice, he took the opportunity to murmur something to her out of the side of his mouth, so that no one else would see.
"Picture yourself saying these words to a particular person." She didn't miss a beat as she took in his suggestion, knowing that he was trying to help her really fulfill her potential. As her own words washed over her, George allowed her mind to wander, not to the evening before and her frolics with Karen in the back garden, but to the weekend two weeks previously, when she and Jo had finally crossed that line between close friendship, and sexual attraction. Neil watched as George's eyes left his, beginning to stray towards the object of her thoughts. He assumed her inner gaze was focussed on Karen, as she wouldn't be able to see John without craning passed him, but when George's eyes lighted on Jo Mills, sitting with her cello not five feet from where they were slowly dancing, he couldn't believe his eyes. The expression on George's face was so soft, so enchantingly gentle, that he knew this was no mistake. She had meant to end up gazing at Jo, to bestow on her the words that were issuing forth from her with such power of feeling.
'Life and all I have, all I have is thine. My reward thy love shall be.'
As George sang these fondest of words, she gazed at Jo, beseeching her to glance up, to see the clear sentiments in her eyes. George wasn't entirely sure why she'd picked on Jo, but perhaps it was simply that this expression of her feelings, no matter how contrived, had given her the opportunity to tell Jo how she felt about her, how she wanted to be allowed to feel about her.
'With thee, with thee, delight is ever new. With thee, with thee, is life incessant bliss.'
Jo did look up at this point, hearing a timbres of sincerity in George's voice that simply demanded her attention. She had been covertly watching George, admiring how gracefully she danced, but it was the first exultation of these words that caused her to lift her eyes from the music. Her playing didn't falter, because she knew this particular piece by heart. As her eyes met George's, seeing in them such a wave of blissful entreaty to be heard, she shivered. She wasn't certain that the actual words were meant for her, but the feelings engendered by them definitely were. So, it wasn't only her who hadn't been able to forget that kiss, it wasn't only her who secretly thought about being in love with someone she shouldn't be. George clearly felt it too, felt that irresistible pull that was urging them even closer together. They hadn't seen all that much of each other since the last rehearsal, but that hadn't helped their mutual attraction to dissipate. A bolt of electricity seemed to flash between them, to rekindle the flame that hadn't entirely died.
When all was quiet, Joe Channing cleared his throat.
"I was more than a little skeptical when you told me that you would be doing things differently, but I am forced to admit that the pair of you have got it absolutely right. Haydn might not have intended his lovers to be quite so full of feeling, but I imagine that he would nevertheless have been proud to witness such an interpretation of the biblical text." George smiled broadly, seeing this as her father's slightly cryptic way of saying that he also was proud of them. The rehearsal broke up soon after this, and George found herself feeling a little apprehensive of the reaction she was about to receive from John. But when he finally approached her, she was pleasantly surprised. Putting a slightly possessive, though nonetheless loving arm around her shoulders, he said,
"Well done," in that quiet, understated tone that always said so much.
"I'm sorry, if you didn't like it," George replied, not wanting to have hurt him in the process.
"It was beautiful," He told her sincerely. "It reminded me of when I first met you."
"So you're not cross with me?" She asked a little uncertainly.
"No," He said a little hoarsely. "I shouldn't have been so stupid." As he said these last few words, he saw Karen walking up to them. "It seems to be my day for putting right my misdeeds," He said dryly.
"Oh, you haven't been arguing again?" George asked regretfully.
"Nothing that can't be fixed," John assured her. "Wasn't she beautiful?" He said when Karen reached them.
"Incredible," Karen agreed with a smile. "Every inch the perfect seducer."
"No wonder they always put the blame for all man's misdeeds on Eve," George said dryly, to cover up her pleasure at their approval.
"Am I forgiven?" John asked Karen, his eyes pleading with hers to absolve him.
"I should imagine so," She said a little coolly. "But just remember what I said."
"As if I'll ever forget it," John said in an undertone, forever determined to have the last word.
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