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 Twenty One

Jo wasn't sure exactly where she was at first, just that she was relaxed: safe, warm and happy. As her eyes began to focus on her surroundings, she became aware of a very familiar smell. She hadn't got to know George as well as she had over the last couple of years, without being instantly able to recognise the perfume she always wore. So, George was here too, wherever she was, which was nice. Experimenting with the other senses she usually possessed, Jo began determining as much as possible about her immediate vicinity. She could feel the heat of the sun on her body. This meant that she must be naked, and in the open air of all things. Jo faintly blushed when she came to this abrupt realisation. She could hear the sound of the birds in nearby trees, and the faint rustle of the leaves, disturbed by the gentle summer breeze. She was lying on softly mown grass, its fragrance prompting her to take in a deep, self-satisfied breath. Finally returning to the matter of what she could and couldn't see, she shifted her gaze slightly to the left, and saw George lying next to her, softly smiling at her. She was also completely unclothed, her skin a rich, sumptuous, honey colour, as if she had been sunbathing in the nude. Her small, perfect breasts were pointing up at the clear, blue sky, and the breeze was blowing tendrils of her soft, blonde hair across her face.

As Jo took in every inch of George's beautiful body, she could feel George scrutinizing her just as thoroughly. But she didn't care. She knew that, in this softly serene dream world, she was just as beautiful as George was.

"Are you just going to lie there all day and stare at me?" George asked, fondly teasing. "Because I don't know how long we've got." Smiling at George's obvious impatience, Jo allowed her instincts to take over. Reaching out a long, delicate finger, she ran it caressingly over one of George's breasts. It felt perfectly natural to her to do this, leaving her with no feeling of nervousness, or of treading the path of the unknown.

"You're beautiful," She found herself saying. When George turned her eyes to meet Jo's, Jo was intensely touched by the sheer openness in them. Nothing was hidden from her, nothing in George's soul denied her. When their lips touched, Jo was enchanted at their softness, the total pliability of George's mouth, and the sweetness of another woman doing this to her. The contours of her mouth were just as they had been, on that night back at the end of April, when George had been drunk and Jo had kissed her. But there was no surprise this time, no hint of it being even possibly forbidden. George tasted divinely of wine and strawberries. When she felt George's hand on her breast, she gasped, but not in surprise, for this all felt so right, almost as if they'd been here before.

John had gradually drifted into wakefulness, becoming slowly aware that Jo was in the middle of a dream. At first, he'd thought it was a bad one, her tossing and turning, together with her occasional murmurings, making him assume it was a nightmare. But with the help of the moonlight that was shining in through the gap in the bedroom curtains, he could see a soft, what could only be called sexy, smile on her face. He knew an erotic dream when he saw one. Though he had to admit, he'd never seen Jo have one. His curiosity aroused, he watched her, determined not to go back to sleep until he'd seen how this ended.

"Much as I love you," Jo said, this also not alarming her. "We really shouldn't be doing this."

"And dreams were never made to feel guilty over," George said, her sultry, slightly husky, clearly aroused voice, making Jo inwardly melt. "If anyone should be feeling guilty, it's me. So, if I'm not feeling guilty over Karen, then you certainly shouldn't feel guilty over John." This sounded so like the real George, that Jo briefly wondered if this was as much in her imagination as she thought it was. George's breast fit so snugly into her hand, it's fleshy, round softness, rising to a rock hard nipple. George's breasts were really the only part of her that bore any sign of a healthy covering of flesh. Detaching George's hand from her, Jo pulled George to her, holding her as tightly as possible with George returning the embrace.

"Don't you ever go away from me," Jo entreated. "Not ever. Do you hear me?"

"Don't cry," George said, gently kissing away the few stray tears that were scattering Jo's cheeks. "Dreams are meant to be enjoyed, not cried over. Promise me not to cry when you wake up from this one." When they began kissing each other again, their kisses were far more furious, far more intense. George was half draped over Jo by this time, her leg slipping in between Jo's, to rub teasingly against her centre.

"I want you," Jo said, her deep, husky voice filled with intense arousal. They weren't remotely gentle with each other, their need for the other being too fraught, too desperate. Hands coaxed nipples to a bullet-like hardness, and slid familiarly into the warm, moist places between legs, their mouths never parting except to gasp with pleasure. They rolled in that sweet meadow grass, both crying out in total abandon.

When Jo's eyes snapped open, she realised that not only was her breathing rapid and her pulse racing, but that her right hand was moving of its own accord between her legs, mimicking exactly what George had been doing to her only moments before. Finding that she was in a soft, warm bed, brought her back to earth with a bump. But once such an orgasm is started, hell would freeze over before she could stop it from taking its natural course. She was peripherally aware of John's gaze on her, but even the knowledge that he was witnessing her humiliation couldn't halt her hand in its quest. When her body finally shuddered to completion, tears began raining down her cheeks, the gasps of her orgasm transforming into the wracking sobs of utter humiliation. Immediately seeing that this had been no ordinary erotic dream, John put his arms round her and held her as she wept. He had absolutely no idea what had caused either the dream, or Jo's extreme reaction to it. He hadn't seen her cry like this, not since the night Jason Powell had died, and he'd held her in his arms and let her sleep in his bed, in an attempt to ward off her grief. He gently soothed her, saying anything that might calm her down. When he looked into her face, all he could see was pain, confusion, and even a little fear. Eventually, Jo cried herself back to sleep, leaving John worried, concerned, and utterly mystified.

When Jo awoke on the Sunday morning, John wasn't there. Knowing he would probably have taken Mimi for a walk, Jo stretched. She felt exhausted, more emotionally than physically. She hadn't said one word about her dream to John last night, but she knew she'd have to this morning. Waking up touching herself, and then crying her heart out, weren't things that could be so easily explained away. Groaning futilely and hiding her blushing face under the duvet, she wished with all her might that last night hadn't happened. But, when she eventually dragged herself out of bed, it was all still there, waiting for her. Shrugging into a dressing gown, she went downstairs to make a cup of tea. John had left her a note on the kitchen table, saying that he had taken Mimi for a walk as she'd suspected. Lighting a cigarette with a slightly shaking hand, she realised that John's curiosity would be in overdrive this morning. She wasn't awake or alert enough yet to begin examining her own feelings on the matter. It was far too soon after the event for that.

When John let himself back in, Jo was smoking her second cigarette of the day, and still sat in her dressing gown at the kitchen table.

"Hello," He said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. Looking up at him, she didn't really know what to say. How could she? How could she have dreamt about George, when she was in bed with John? Stubbing her cigarette out, she rose to her feet and went upstairs for a shower.

"Aren't women funny creatures, Mimi?" John said, putting the kettle on for a cup of tea. Mimi just watched him, sensing an air of tension between these two favourite people of hers. John hated it when Jo couldn't talk to him, but he could see that she clearly felt incredibly embarrassed about what had happened last night. He wondered, not for the first time, just who she'd been dreaming about. It didn't bother him that she'd dreamt about someone other than him, because he certainly dreamt about other women on occasions. But that didn't stop him from being curious. Jo had looked sensational, with her rock hard nipples and that wickedly sinful hand of hers working away between her legs. But why had it upset her so much? It wasn't that she'd been caught in the act, at least he didn't think it was. So, it must be because of whom the dream had been about.

When Jo reappeared downstairs, she felt a little more able to deal with the day ahead. But her thoughts kept returning to George. The words, the body, the tone of voice, everything had belonged to George. What did this mean? Did it mean that she did indeed want George, want to make love to George? In a rash moment of immense childishness, she decided that this was all George's fault. That Sunday, when the four of them had been watching a film together, and both she and John, and George and Karen had turned their attention away from the screen and to each other, that was when it had happened. Jo had found their little display incredible, arousing her far more than even John had done in quite a while. Then had come that kiss, that incredibly sinful, yet utterly unforgettable kiss. But that didn't mean she was actually in love with George, did it? She hoped not, for all their sakes.

After putting some washing in the machine, she stood watching Mimi out of the kitchen window. The little dog was chasing flies, either that or her own tail. John had been reading the paper in the lounge, but now he came up behind her and put his arms round her. Craving the comfort of his warm, solid body, even though she didn't think she had any right to it, Jo turned round to face him. He had not pressed her on anything to do with her dream or its effect on her, in fact he hadn't even mentioned it, but she had a feeling that the time had come.

"Are you all right?" He asked, after gently kissing her.

"No," Was her simple reply. But she didn't attempt to qualify her answer. But there was one thing she desperately needed to know. "Did I say anything, before I woke up last night?" He smiled.

"Nothing intelligible, no." Then, because he realised why she'd asked, he added, "Your secret is entirely safe, I promise." She looked relieved, but it didn't appear to make her any happier.

"I feel so stupid," She said, avoiding his gaze.

"You know," He said into her hair. "Dreaming of someone else, and then waking up touching yourself, isn't anything to be ashamed of."

"That depends who you're dreaming about," She said bitterly, flinching at his words.

"Who was it?"

"Trust me, John, you really don't want to know, and more importantly, I don't want to tell you."

"Well, something obviously upset you."

"John," She said firmly, though with a hint of desperation in her tone. "The fact that you witnessed my humiliation is really quite bad enough, so will you please drop it." She'd drawn slightly back from him as she said this, but now he pulled her gently back into his arms.

"Okay, message received and understood," He said quietly, as she briefly laid her head against his chest.

"I'm sorry," She said after a while. "I shouldn't take this out on you."

"Women seem to enjoy shouting at me," He said with a smile. "It's becoming a bit of a habit."

"I've got a lot of work to do this afternoon," She said a little while later, still standing cocooned in his embrace.

"Are you chucking me out?" He asked, with the lost little boy look that never fooled her.

"Yes," She said simply, not quite able to hide the fact that today, John's company really wasn't something she wanted or could handle.

"You know where I am if you change your mind."

Late that night, when she was lying in her large, and thankfully otherwise empty double bed, her thoughts returned to George, not that they'd been far from her all day. What she'd dreamt last night had been incredible. Feelings of guilt and confusion aside, it had been sensational. The combination of the gentle closeness of the woman she thought most of in the world, added to the extreme sexual arousal, was something that, she knew now, she would do anything to experience for real. George's hands had played over her body in exactly the same skilful way they manipulated her piano, inducing feelings in her of such intimacy, such complete unguardedness, that it almost took her breath away just to think about it. Knowing that she was entirely alone, she slipped her hand under the duvet, to caress those parts of her that George had so subtly teased. It surely couldn't be wrong, to do this when there was absolutely no one here to witness it. But as her own hands mapped the patterns on her body that George's had, a new thought crossed her mind. Would George, could George, ever feel anything more than simple, sexual curiosity for her? Jo didn't know the answer to this, and she decided that it was probably better that she didn't. George had Karen, which made her not only out of bounds, but forever wholly unobtainable.

Part One Hundred And Twenty Two

Unaccountably, Helen's internal clock prompted her to wake up before her normal time. She rolled over in bed to find an unexpected empty space. Nikki would be normally sleeping in after a late night at the club but she had the interview for the wing governor job today. She would be expected to be up, bright and early, but not this early. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and Nikki came into view, fully dressed.

"Steady on, Nikki. You've got hours before the interview."

"There'll never be too much time to get ready today," Nikki replied shortly.

Even one sleepily, half-open blink of her eyes told Helen how nervous Nikki was. She hadn't been prepared for this from the way she acted perfectly normally. It was just that the full enormity of what she was doing was starting to hit her and she was noticeably pale and her breath came in and out in short bursts.

"How do you want me to help, Nikki?"

"I wouldn't normally ask you to get up at this hour but, just this one time, I would like you to be with me."

Nikki's faint smile and the courteous way she spoke showed that she had got it right. In another era, she might have been too proud to admit she was scared and would have flared up at Helen in denial. Immediately, she slid out of the bed and stumbled to the shower. While warm invigorating water splashed down her body, she could sense a tense rigid Nikki sitting on their bed, bolt upright and worrying to herself. Helen cut short her "getting ready" routine, slung on her nearest casual clothes to hand and glanced at Nikki with loving concern.

"How can I help you, sweetheart?" floated the soft, gentle Scottish brogue delicately on the air.

Immediately, Nikki spread her arms wide and Helen moved forward into her embrace. The fierceness with which Nikki hugged her showed how much she needed to be comforted and Helen gently caressed the other woman. The utter silence of their basement room gave them all the time in the world especially as the rest of London life outside their window seemed to sleep on. Time floated by in suspended animation while they held each other close.

"I'll spoil your makeup," Helen gently teased.

Nikki laughed shortly. She needed that absurdly inconsequential detail to get things into perspective so that her thoughts could unfold, one by one, and she could face the day ahead.


"Right here next to you."

There was a long pause as Nikki eventually found the words to give voice to the niggling thought that had been buried deep at the bottom of her mind.

"I was going to ask you a difficult question that's been at the back of my mind."

"Ask away." Helen's breezy assurance contrasted with Nikki's halting delivery.

"You wouldn't be in any way jealous that I've been given a job interview for the very position that you held down once. If even a little bit of you feels that way, I'd sooner know."

Nikki's big brown eyes looked into Helen's soul, not for false reassurance but for the truth whatever that might be. Helen laughed in an easy fashion and shook her head, not in any way to diminish Nikki's thoughts whatever they might be, Years of living with her had taught her to simplify and clarify her thinking.

"I'll tell you the truth. I might have felt it if this had happened right after you came out of Larkhall. I was still mentally attached to the prison service more than I cared to admit. Even recently, those ties were still there in a mad sort of way when you first mentioned the job. I freaked out about it only because I did not want to see you go through what I went through when I first started there. I forgot that you'd be going into it knowing a hell of a lot more than I ever did when I started. Thanks to Karen, I've laid the ghosts to rest and I've really moved on to my present job. There's no going back except as a visitor at the very most. You can be sure that nowhere in my thoughts was there or is there, any trace of jealousy. I just wish you make the success of it that you deserve and that I want to do my best to help you get the job."

Nikki lay back in her armchair with a huge contented smile on her face with a feeling of relief at having got that tricky question out of the way. In her general nervousness, she had been unconsciously influenced by that unhappy period of time when Helen had let her increasing run of successes and her temporary promotion to Governing Governor go to her head. Nikki had felt it keenly at the time that she wasn't needed any more to help Helen out and it had all merged into her general negativity.

"Now come now, Helen," She asked the other woman briskly. "Imagine that you are a very critical member of the interview panel and you are out to give me a hard time of it."

"But I couldn't possibly do it," Came the answer as Helen was on the point of dissolving into an attack of the giggles. "I'd only say that, of course, you're the ideal candidate before you'd even had the chance to open your mouth."

"All I'm asking you to do is to role play. You a psychologist as well," Nikki retorted in a mock stern manner.

"But that's me getting others to do it. I can't possibly do it myself. That's not in my contract." and again Helen fell about laughing.

"Helen, you're impossible. You must do this for me. After all, you did promise."

She looked at Nikki's semi serious expression, realised that time was getting on and readied herself to start thinking of all the sort of traps that Mrs. Warner might set for Nikki. It crossed her mind that Nikki hadn't had a job interview for a very long time, at least since she and Trisha had set up the club. Helen searched her memory as to when she first joined the prison service and cross referenced it with her encounter with Alison Warner when she headed the area hit squad after Shell Dockley's breakout, and the way she and her sidekick tried to use the flimsy so called evidence of Shell's diary to stitch her up. At least the job interview would be that bit easier to negotiate. She did her best to straighten her face and think up the sort of taxing questions that Nikki might face.

A little while later, Nikki followed the directions to Cleland House that the official letter had provided and walked up to the very imposing building that momentarily took her breath away. Shit, I've not seen a place like this before and am a million miles in spirit from Larkhall. Then that resilient spirit which always came to her rescue reminded herself that the place was only a building, that of the panel, Karen she knew, Grayling she had heard Karen speak well of and the only one to watch was this Alison Warner. In her most self-assured fashion, she reported in to the receptionist as if she had every right to belong there. And indeed, she did. Right on the dot, she stood in front of the door to the interview room, took a deep breath, knocked on the door and walked inside.

When Nikki walked into the room, and saw that her interview panel was made up of four people, only one of them whom she knew, she realised that this might be the hardest battle she'd ever fought. She took a seat on one side of the table, with her four inquisitors opposite her. Grayling provided the introductions, informing her that the man sitting at the left hand end of the table facing her was the Operational Director, Sir Charles Reading, that the woman next to him was Alison Warner, the Area Manager for women's prisons, that he was Neil Grayling, Alison Warner's second in command, and that the fourth and final person was Governor Karen Betts who Nikki was already acquainted with, and who would be her immediate boss. Nikki could feel the nagging need for a cigarette, but as not even Karen was showing signs of lighting up, she figured that she must be in a no smoking environment. She could see that all four of them had piles of papers in front of them, showing that they were prepared for any eventuality. Offering her a choice of coffee or water, Neil began.

"Taking it for granted that the establishment is the ultimate decision maker, how would you react to being asked to put a policy into practice, that you might not necessarily agree with?" Jesus, Nikki thought to herself, talk about hitting the ground running.

"I would like to think that the establishment knows more about broad spectrum policy creation than I do," She replied with a disarming smile. "So I would therefore assume that even if I didn't agree with the overall introduction of such a policy, that it was being put into place for the best interests of the people the prison service is there to support. However, if I saw a significant problem with the implementation of any particular policy, I wouldn't hesitate to raise my concerns with the appropriate people." Neil momentarily felt the inexplicable urge to laugh. He knew, just by the answer to this first question, that Nikki Wade was the woman for the job. She wasn't going to stand any nonsense from the likes of his boss, or the people she would hopefully be in charge of later. Glancing at Karen to try and find out if she'd said the right thing, Nikki took in the almost imperceptible twitch of Karen's lips.

"In the grand scheme of things, which do you consider comes first, the needs of your officers, or those of your inmates?" Karen then asked, posing a question that went straight to the core of Nikki's possible responsibility as a Wing Governor.

"I feel that they both carry equal weighting," Nikki said fairly. "I would have a duty to ensure the safety of my officers, at least as far as is humanly possible, but to also maintain a satisfactory level of care, security and rehabilitation for the inmates inhabiting my wing." It was then Alison Warner's turn to put the boot in.

"If it became necessary to discipline an officer who had once had authority over you, do you feel that you would be able to approach such a procedure in a thoroughly professional manner?" Be careful with this one, Nikki reminded herself before answering.

"I would imagine that such a situation would be extremely difficult," She said honestly. "And I can certainly see the possible pitfalls of any ensuing professional conflict of interest. But I also feel that I would be able to approach the situation with all the professional detachment dictated by any disciplinary procedure. During my years of managing my club, I have employed friends on occasions, and subsequently been forced to terminate their employment for a variety of reasons. I feel that this has placed me in good stead for the management of staff who I may have known on an other than professional level." Well done, Neil and Karen thought simultaneously, you trod that tightrope very successfully.

"Continuing with the issue of discipline and people management, do you also consider that you could maintain a satisfactory level of professional distance, when applying the incentives and privileges scheme, to those inmates who you may once have shared accommodation with?" Karen asked, wanting to get this one in before Alison Warner could put an altogether more sinister tone on the question.

"Maintaining fair conditions of approval and discipline, are always necessary, no matter the type of people one is dealing with. Yes, there are people on G wing whom I would class as friends, but that would not allow me to digress from my professional responsibilities in the day to day management of their sentences. I believe in one rule for all, not in the type of cronyism that was rife during my time at Larkhall." Karen cleared her throat in a very meaningful manner, because she sensed that Nikki was about to go off at entirely the wrong tangent. Nikki's reply had been noted by both Alison Warner and the Operational Director, and Nikki realised that this had perhaps been going a little too far.

"Part of a Wing Governor's duty, is to hold adjudications for all minor, and some major offences within the prison environment. If it became necessary to impose a punishment such as a period of segregation, or the removal of various privileges from an inmate who may have been at Larkhall during your time as a prisoner, it is highly possible that they may attempt to appeal to you on a personal level. How would you deal with such a situation?"

"I would make my position clear, and impress on the individual concerned that I could not go easy on them, just because I had once been an inmate alongside them. I'm not so naive, to assume that my doing this job won't earn me some enemies, because I should imagine it would at some point. If the inmate concerned couldn't accept the situation, I would of course consider their transfer to either another wing or another prison, to minimize the possibility of their behaviour getting out of control."

"How do you intend to react, to any disagreement with your employment, by those officers who will be under your management?" Alison Warner asked, making the prospect of any disagreement sound inevitable.

"It wouldn't be the first time that I've had to fight my corner, over something that is beyond my control," Nikki said succinctly. "I would simply take it on the chin and deal with it. Any officer, who has a problem with my being employed in a position of superiority over them, will be politely invited to discuss it with me in a civilised and dignified manner. If they can't bring themselves to do this, then it is up to them to keep their misgivings to themselves."

"Can you elaborate on this?" Neil asked her, hearing a determination in her tone that was born of long practice.

"It's no secret to some of the officers on G wing, that I'm a lesbian. During my time as an inmate of Larkhall, I did encounter a certain amount of hostility from various quarters on this point. I don't envisage that the officers concerned will have changed either their opinions, or how they express them since I last saw them." Immediately Nikki said this, Neil was presented with the face of Sylvia Hollamby, whom he knew would put up the greatest fight for Nikki's dismissal at every possible occasion.

"Do you think that your sexuality may pose a significant problem in your carrying out this particular job?" Alison Warner asked, her disdain at Nikki's way of life all too clear to see.

"Does yours?" Nikki replied mildly, knowing that getting this woman on side would be the most difficult of all of them.

"I hardly think that is an appropriate question," Said the Operational Director smoothly, responding immediately to both Neil's and Karen's look of outrage at the Area Manager's lack of sensitivity. Alison Warner blushed an unhealthy blotchy red under the public rebuke of her immediate superior.

"What do you believe is the key to the prevention of re-offending?" Asked the Operational Director, wanting to move them on as quickly as possible.

"It can be a combination of things," Nikki replied, calming down after Mrs. Warner's blatant attack on her sexuality. "For some it may be drug treatment and psychotherapy, for others it may be the provision of adequate employment on their release from prison. But if I were asked to put my finger on the overall starting point of a satisfactory period of rehabilitation, I would say without doubt that this lies with education. How can an inmate be expected to obtain or hold down a job on release, if they can neither read nor write? Over one in six prison inmates in this country cannot read or write to a satisfactory level, which is three times that of the general population. Many of these inmates have never been given the opportunity to learn such skills, perhaps as a result of not being picked up by their teachers or by educational psychologists whilst at school. A lack of employment, whether stable or otherwise, has often been proved to be the principle reason why many people drift into crimes such as shoplifting, prostitution, all types of theft and drug dealing. If we don't provide them with the means to obtain some sort of stable employment on release, we shouldn't be surprised if they are back under our care within a very short time. Sorry," She said, coming to a halt. "I'm getting a bit on my soap box."

"Don't apologise," Neil told her with a smile. "It's always nice to have someone who actually believes in what they say, rather than simply telling us what they think we want to hear. Whilst you were serving your sentence, you studied for an English degree. Why?"

"I've always had a love of literature, and books were probably what kept me sane while I was inside. Something like Romeo and Juliet, would temporarily take me away from what was going on around me. When it was suggested to me that I might like to take an Open University course, I decided on English, because I wanted it to be something that might lead me onto some sort of career after leaving prison. English has always been one of those universal subjects that can open many different doors. I didn't want to come out of prison in ten years time, with something as pointless and unusable as a general studies degree."

"Why didn't you go to university after leaving school?" Asked Alison Warner.

"My personal circumstances weren't exactly conducive, to either studying or financially supporting myself whilst studying, as I left home at sixteen under a less than amicable atmosphere."

"Thinking about Larkhall in particular, and taking your experiences of its education facilities into account, how would you improve on what is already available?" Karen asked, wanting to get away from Nikki's personal background.

"The first thing I would recommend," Nikki replied, making a concerted effort not to let her tongue run away with her this time. "Is to ensure that the monetary reward for taking part in education classes, is brought up to the same level as that incurred by doing menial tasks such as cooking, cleaning and gardening. By keeping the payment for doing education classes at half that for doing actual jobs around the prison, the service is immediately sending out the message, that we don't think education classes are as important as the tasks that decrease the workload of the prison officers. How can we expect more people to take up the classes on offer, if we fail to convince them that it's a good idea? One thing I did find was that the attitude of some of the officers with regards to education left an awful lot to be desired. Too many of them thought that if the inmates were involved in education classes, they wouldn't be able to take up the jobs that keep a wing running smoothly. I would seek to change these attitudes, though I do accept that it would be an uphill struggle. Larkhall does have particularly good facilities for a variety of education classes, but there is always room for improvement. I have not been to Larkhall since I was released nearly four years ago, so I am unaware of any changes that may have taken place since my time there. Perhaps the one area of education that I feel could certainly do with some improvement, and if this has already happened then I apologise, is that of the education surrounding drug addiction. Many inmates, both young and old, encounter drugs for the first time when they enter prison. If, at the start of any inmate's sentence, we can provide them with some education about drugs and the damage they can cause, I feel that we may be able to prevent some inmates from trying them and becoming addicted. This could be provided as part of the induction package offered to all inmates, and whilst it certainly wouldn't deter everyone, it may be successful with some. If we can prevent just one inmate from becoming addicted to drugs when they might otherwise have done, this would surely be the point of the exercise."

"As you have been part owner in a nightclub for over ten years, how have you dealt with the rising trade in drugs?" Asked Alison Warner, clearly wanting to find something to trip Nikki up.

"If I've ever discovered any drugs on the premises, the individuals concerned, whether they be customers or staff, have been immediately banned. I will not put up with any taking or dealing of drugs under my roof. Where prison inmates are concerned, rigorous observation of the activity between prisoners can often uncover the initial signs of any trade in drugs. Such procedures as cell searching, mandatory drug testing and the searching of suspected prisoners are all part and parcel of the fight against drugs. I would be in favour of the increase in punishments for anyone found to be taking or dealing drugs, as the current forty two days loss of remission seems highly ineffective, when compared to the harsh custodial sentences that a court can impose."

"What is your opinion of the current provision of treatment and rehabilitation for drug addiction?" Asked the Operational Director.

"That it's far too inefficiently funded," Nikki replied succinctly. "Whether or not an inmate can get access to a detox unit, rehabilitation and psychotherapy, very much depends on where they happen to be housed. Funding is not allocated either fairly or evenly, a state of affairs that is frankly pathetic. A quarter of all crime is at least partly drug related, meaning that treatment for drug addiction is an essential stage in the rehabilitation for a vast amount of offenders. How can we expect them to change their ways, if we don't provide them with this initial level of support and treatment."

"If you were required to make a choice, between the increase in funding for either education, or healthcare, which would you consider to be the most satisfactory use of resources?" Alison Warner asked, with an almost gleeful glint in her eye. You bitch, Nikki thought stonily, knowing that this question had been left, until her utter devotion to the cause of education had been declared.

"Well," Nikki responded, masking her feelings impeccably. "As healthcare directly impacts on the life of all inmates, I would obviously have to allocate the funding to improving the care accorded to the prisoners. But this is the main problem I see with regards to the funding of the prison service. The provision of education receives only what is left, after all other funding considerations have been taken into account. This is because the availability of education does not directly affect an inmate's life, even though it may indirectly. Whilst I am always in favour of the improvement of the facilities and personnel made available for the provision of prison healthcare, I don't agree with this only being made possible at the expense of education, which as we have already established, can mean the difference between the going straight or re-offending of many inmates." Karen breathed a sigh of relief when Nikki had completed her answer to this question, knowing that it was one of the trickiest ones she would be asked. But she also knew that this was nothing, compared to the question that Karen was about to throw at her.

"How do you feel, about the locking up of vulnerable members of society, pregnant women and those with mental health problems, for example?" She asked, seeing in an instant that she'd strayed into one of Nikki's particular gripes against the prison system.

"I think that the locking up of such members of society, does require very different handling to those who are neither pregnant nor mentally ill," Nikki said carefully, knowing Karen had to ask, but inwardly cursing her nevertheless. "These two particular categories of people have very specific needs, and require significantly altered care arrangements, which are not currently provided on a universal basis. I would hesitate to suggest, that some officers who were perhaps trained quite a long time ago, are neither aware of, nor willing to understand the very special requirements of caring for pregnant women and those with mental health problems."

"And how would you seek to address this problem?" Neil asked her, seeing that Nikki was trying extremely hard not to allow her own personal feelings into her answer.

"I would recommend a course of retraining wherever necessary," Nikki told him. "If there is always room for improvement where facilities and opportunities are concerned, then this is also applicable with regards to the working practices of any staff."

"What do you consider to be the correct approach, when dealing with a persistent self-harmer?" Neil asked.

"I would offer them a course of psychotherapy, if such provision were available, and involve their personal officer in maintaining regular contact and assessment of their situation. I would have no hesitation in talking to them myself, or in encouraging other officers to do the same."

"How would you attempt to lower the incidence of suicide attempts on your particular wing?" Asked Alison Warner.

"I would suggest rigorous psychiatric assessment of each inmate on admission, to discover whether or not they were at risk from suicidal behaviour. I would also suggest an increase in the provision of training so that more prisoners can become listeners, as a fellow prisoner is often far easier for an inmate to talk to than any officer, no matter how understanding they may be. If any inmate were perceived to be at risk of a suicide attempt, I would strive to keep them under the strictest surveillance, along with taking a detailed look at who they were sharing a cell with. Just because an inmate is sharing a cell, does not mean they will neither attempt nor succeed at killing themselves." Karen knew that Nikki was referring to Rachel Hicks.

"If you are successful, and are offered this job, how may your home life impact on the level of commitment you are able to offer the prison service?" This came from Alison Warner, and was clearly a last ditch attempt to find a loophole.

"I do have a partner," Nikki replied. "But we do not as yet have any children. I don't see any problem in my being able to offer the highest level of commitment necessary to fulfill the requirements of the job."

"And finally," Said the Operational Director. "Apart from the initial suggestion made to you by Governor Betts, what prompted you to apply for the post of Wing Governor?" Nikki had to think about this one before she answered, knowing that this was make or break time.

"Whilst I was an inmate in Larkhall, the one thing I continually tried to achieve, was fair conditions for my fellow inmates. I loathed the fashion in which certain inmates could achieve a more comfortable style of living, simply because they offered sexual favours to particular officers. I hated the way that some officers found it all too easy to take advantage of extremely vulnerable inmates. My most pressing concern, if I were to take up this job, would be to stamp out any hint of such behaviour among my particular staff. If my officers did not treat the prisoners in their care in a professional and sensitive manner, I would require an explanation as to why, followed by an immediate improvement in their attitude to their job. Caring for violent, mentally disturbed criminals, is undoubtedly the least rewarding job imaginable, and I would strive unstintingly to support my staff in carrying out their duties. I applied for this job, because I feel that I can do this, and that I can combine this role with that of improving the lives and opportunities that are currently on offer for the inmates. I feel that I possess the necessary drive and commitment to make the prison service a more fulfilling and positive environment for its workers, and a more secure, supportive, and sensitive process for the people who come under its jurisdiction."

When she grew silent, Karen openly smiled at her, somehow knowing that Nikki had made it.

"Thank you," The Operational Director said kindly. "Please will you give us some time to discuss the results of your interview?" As Nikki waited outside, she ran over everything she had said. She knew she'd been trying her luck by mentioning the total lack of professional behaviour that had gone on during her own time at Larkhall, but she just hoped she'd got away with it. Back in the conference room, Grayling was saying,

"Well, I don't think there's any doubt, is there?"

"Do you have any idea of the industrial action we could spark off by employing such as her?" Alison Warner demanded scornfully.

"If all you're worried about is the reactions of the likes of Sylvia Hollamby," Karen replied scathingly. "Then it's a poor look out for the future of the prison service."

"You might remember who you are talking to, Governor Betts," Alison Warner said icily.

"Let's try and keep this amicable," Neil said calmly, not wanting a Karen style rant on his hands.

"Nikki Wade has demonstrated everything we want to see in a Wing Governor," Said the Operational Director. "In fact, she'll be the best Wing Governor I've interviewed in years. She has the drive to put her all into the job, and she has the type of fresh, progressive approach that will take the prison service into a new era of success. I have no idea what led you to suggest her, Governor Betts, but it was definitely a moment of sheer genius."

"She will live up to my expectation, you can be sure of that," Karen told him with a smile.

"Let's hope so," Alison Warner said threateningly. "Because if she fails, or if the POA refuse to support this piece of extremely radical action, it'll be on your head."

"Would you like to ask her to come back in?" The Operational Director invited Karen. Nikki had barely started nibbling on a thumbnail, when Karen opened the door and invited her back in, giving her a thumbs up.

"Ms Wade," The Operational Director began with a broad smile. "Under certain conditions, it gives us great pleasure to offer you the post of grade five Governor of G wing."

"Thank you," Nikki said almost breathlessly.

"The conditions that your appointment will depend on," The Operational Director continued. "Are that you successfully complete the four week prison officers' training course. This is an essential for you to be able to carry out your job satisfactorily. Your employment will commence with a probationary period of one year. This may seem a little excessive, but you must realise that your appointment is a first for the prison service. You will be under strict supervision both from Governor Betts your immediate boss, and by Area Management. I wish you every success in completing your prison officer's training, and in your future career with the prison service."

Nikki found herself outside Cleland house, not really knowing how she'd got there. She seemed to have drifted down the stairs, almost in a dream.

"Well done," Karen said, giving her an impulsive hug.

"Jesus," Nikki said incredulously. "I can't believe I did it."

"You did, I promise," Karen said with pleasure. "I nearly died a couple of times, especially when you started talking about the cronyism that was rife at Larkhall, but you made it."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that," Nikki said sheepishly. "It just sort of came out."

"It's funny," Karen told her as they walked towards their cars. "But I kept wondering if it was really John who was answering all those questions. You have a drive and a turn of phrase that he would be proud of."

"I just hope I can live up to it all."

"You will," Karen assured her. "You'll live up to every word of it. Now, I'm going to take you out for lunch, because I think we could both do with a stiff drink after that battle of wills."

Part One Hundred and Twenty Three

The insistent atonal jangling ring from John's mobile broke into his thoughts just in time and Karen's name and number flashed upon the screen. Intrigued, he clicked the button and, as the voice spoke into his ear, a broad grin spread across his face. This piece of news was really rich and was to be savoured like a glass of vintage wine.

"Well, Karen, I must take my hat off to her. I've only known her slightly but she confirms my opinion as someone with considerable force of character. You have no lingering reservations about what you've helped bring about, I trust?"

"None whatsoever, John. There were times in there, when I could have sworn it was you answering all those questions, not her. You'd have been proud of her."

"I can think of certain individuals whose acquaintance I am unable to shake off who ought to hear from me personally of the good news."

Karen had spoken to John still gliding down from the total high from the good news. A flicker of concern crept into her voice as John was clearly bent on adolescent mischief.

"I know you, John, and that's the only thing I'm worried about. You may be accused of many things but discretion, never."

"I shall be my usual smooth, debonair self and I will behave myself impeccably in the way that I was brought up at my parent's knee."

Karen groaned to herself as she heard John's overdone flowery promises. Like others before her, she bit the bullet and hoped for the best.

Coope dressed John in his robes of office but his mind was only halfway devoted to the trial. Once a compulsive thought popped itself so deliciously into his mind, he could not help worrying over it like a dog at a bone. A part of his mind heard Neumann Mason-Alan and Brian Cantwell wrangling interminably over some legal technicality. Both were surprised that John let them get on without upstaging both of them as was his habit. Both of them edged their way into infringing on his powers and, like naughty schoolboys, took what liberties that they dared. Tomorrow might be a different day, not to mention the next time when they were just ordinary members of the orchestra and John was first violinist.

"My next witness is D C Winters who was both present at the scene of the crime and later when the defendant was arrested. It might be a good idea for him to be called to the stand."

"I think not, Mr. Cantwell.I consider that the next day should be set aside as his testimony is likely to be lengthy and the cross examination, likewise. Tomorrow morning might be more suitable to give due and proper attention to it. I take it that he will be available?" John said imperturbably with raised eyebrows.

At the nod from both barristers, John hid the mischievous glee inside him when he intoned the usual formula,

"Court is adjourned till tomorrow."

John exited from his throne with noticeable alacrity to his chambers when a surprised Coope helped him out of his robes. She noted the telltale gleam in his eye straightaway.

"I am going to pay a friendly courtesy call to Sir Ian and Lawrence James. I may be some time."

"You're not in any trouble, are you. Judge?"

"Today couldn't be better for me. A pity I couldn't say the same to them though they don't know it."

He beamed as he straightened his tie and zoomed out of the door. An anxious Coope shook her head, feeling as if she were the mother to an adolescent son borrowing the family car and going out on the tiles with too much adrenaline inside him.

A smart rap on the door preceded John's entrance by two seconds and he saw with malicious pleasure, that not only were the 'joined at the hips' duo of Sir Ian and Lawrence James scowling at him but, to one side, was the intense stony glare of Neil Houghton. Ah well, the more the merrier, John's thoughts bubbled up inside him like in the finest champagne.

"Don't you normally consider making an appointment with my secretary before descending on me. You never know, I might be busy."

"Not normally."

John's reply was delivered with perfect aplomb, which brushed aside Sir Ian's elaborate sarcasm like chaff. He casually appropriated a comfortably padded swivel chair and beamed round at the three others in turn, occupying centre stage, but said nothing to both provoke and worry them. A jubilant John Deed spelt impending trouble.

"Well, are you going to tell us what you've come to tell us and have done with us…and the chair," Came the curt, unfriendly tones.

"I thought I'd drop in as I have a bit of news which may intrigue you. I should imagine that your day to day routine must be dull and repetitive and so I thought this might liven things up……… I've just heard it on the grapevine that the prison service has appointed a new wing governor at Larkhall Prison…...and that they made a bold, progressive and, I might say, far sighted and humanitarian choice."

All three listeners visibly twitched at the mention of the prison, which was destined to haunt them. John's teasing tone of voice did not help as he was deliberately dragging out the news, and finally, each adjective as he described the successful candidate sent chills down their spines.

"……Her name is Nikki Wade, someone who you may recall."

"But they can't," chorused Sir Ian and Lawrence James in total horror.

"They just have."

"But they mustn't."

"There I beg to disagree with you."

"How can you, a High Court judge, even consider approving of a former criminal to run a wing in Her Majesty's Prison?" Sir Ian burst out, in a poor attempt to thunder in the sort of voice that John could assume easily when the need arose.

"There I disagree with your statement. I have familiarised myself with the details of a case which I would have rather fancied being involved with…."

Meaning sideways glances exchanged out of the corners of Sir Ian's and Lawrence James's eyes betrayed their recall of an informal discussion on the case. Even then, they vowed that this case should be steered firmly away from Deed even having sight of the case. Neil Haughton was less aware of the details but he could grasp the essentials that, even in the lower reaches of the prison hierarchy, the future of prisons on the shop floor was handed over to someone who was definitely not 'one of them.' As a member of a Cabinet, increasingly devoted to the authoritative control of society, the acquisition of knowledge however trivial, was a prized possession. It made them feel doubly insecure that both their patronage to secure the appointment of the right kind of functionary in the system and prior knowledge of this appointment was stolen away from their control. To make it worse, Deed of all people knew of it before they did.

"…….the point is that the second court of appeal hearing has wiped the slate clean and Nikki has emerged without a stain on her character, not like some people that I could mention."

"I don't know what on earth you're talking about, John," Sir Ian blustered.

John slightly swivelled his chair round to fix Neil Haughton with his gaze. While his lips formed the faint impression of a smile, his eyes definitely weren't. Suddenly all his deeply held values became sharp focussed when he looked at this man with his criminal mind and what he knew of Nikki Wade.

"My Lord, have you some special purpose in taking up our valuable time that the three of us intended to spend on our own. I would not intrude on your space at the Old Bailey on trivial matters."

"Trivial matters, eh? No, you and Sir Ian intrude upon my personal space when a trial comes up where you want a political fix. Seems only right to repay the visits when you have both interminably lectured me. As for you……"

At that point, John abruptly got to his feet, turned abruptly and made his way to the door. Sir Ian and Lawrence James were, after all, only the pathetic underlings of the likes of Neil Haughton however pompously they puffed themselves up to appear to be the opposite. He started to feel unclean in the presence of the worst criminal of all and what he knew of him but was unable to bring him to book for. When the archives on his present actions were thrown open for inspection in thirty years time when no one would be around to care, he was sure that official records would be well sanitized.The sharp slam of the door was succeeded by his rapidly fading footsteps.

The room was filled to the brim by the sort of bottled up anger of those who could not properly say it to the object of their anger. Talking behind the backs of others came easy to them.

"How the devil did this Ms Wade worm her way into the prison service in the first place?" Sir Ian's spiteful tones were the first to give vent to his feelings. He emphasised the word 'Ms' like an angry buzzing bee, the symbol of what was modern and dangerous.

"Well, don't ask me, it's not my department," came the politician's response. "I'm kept busy enough doing my damdedness to secure vital export deals and keeping the wealth creators happy, not in the goings on of some nameless con."

"But it was one of your cabinet colleagues who first let the case to go to the Court of Appeal in the first place. We in the judiciary can only arrange the trial and let justice be done."

"Huh, and your record of discreetly arranging for a safe pair of hands to field the hearing. I don't think so."

"The court of appeal judge and the two other members have a sound reputation."

"Had.You might as well have gone the whole hog and let Deed sit on the bench as a winger." Neil Houghton virtually spat as he glared at Sir Ian. Already John's presence was forgotten as the game of 'pass the parcel' got going in earnest.

The prematurely middle aged secretary with that careful expression on her face walked sedately in the dignified surroundings and started tapping away on her computer. She had her son's birthday party to organise which would involve a bunch of hyperactive boys yelling at each other at full volume, constantly demanding her attention and falling out with each other when they got too excited, arguing over whose turn it was to work the controls of the computer game. Rather like her masters, she thought, as she heard the heated voices rise and fall whom she was paid to act as maid cum nanny for. She knew better than to enter, offering the afternoon cup of coffee. She would be no more welcome here than offering glasses of coke to argumentative schoolboys at the party. She carried on typing away, imperturbably.

John stepped outside into the clean fresh air of the London streets. Well, at least, it was morally cleaner for all the lingering petrol fumes than what was trapped forever inside the edifices of government power. It was only then that the full significance of the earlier conversation with Karen hit him with its full force. Nikki had knocked openly at the door of the establishment and walked right in, with that sheer brazen cheek that he loved without recourse to servile subterfuge or base surrender of integrity. A feeling of pure delight poured through him, symphonic in its depth and elemental power. Part of his joy was that it was so utterly detached from his own self, from his own appetites whether sensual or spiritual. At the same time, it brought tears to his eyes that tremendous good fortune had been visited on a woman whose past legal battles had set a landmark in legal history of which he was proud to be a humble spectator. By all accounts, she had had to fight her way for everything she believed for in her life and also for others whose lives she had touched with her generosity. He had only met her on a handful of occasions and he may never see her again for all he knew but it was good that he had met her. He sincerely hoped that she would think well of him in turn. In a healthy society, the Nikki Wades of the world would lay their rightful claim to such places in the world and the grubby nonentities now lording it over others in their arrogance would be relegated to the basement of society where they belonged. A fresh breeze ruffled his hair and smartly stung his cheeks as he strode through the streets. It was not often these days that he had that dizzying optimism for the future.

"So why did that cretin of a Home Secretary, your friend, allow a second appeal after the first had gone pear shaped."

"Why should I know the inns and outs of another Department. I only sit next to him at Cabinet meetings." Neil's voice rose to an ugly screech of frustration at the pressure being put on him. He suspected that Sir Ian was only getting at him in payback for the time that he had asked him as a personal favour to settle an inconvenient personal matter over George Channing. That man did have the habit of never letting personal grudges go away, damn him.

"You know him. Don't pretend that you only talk cabinet business when you see him or you wouldn't be a minister."

"That was a civil service recommendation, if I remember rightly." Neil Haughton discreetly changed tack, trying to crush him with lofty disdain. "I seem to remember that it was felt that the first hearing had given that wretched woman everything she could possibly get and more than she deserved that she would fall flat on her face. The very first hearing was basically sound and there was not a cat in hell's chance that the second appeal could possibly succeed. That's what we have civil servants there, to make recommendations while ministers make the grand decisions."

"Yes, and create their alibis so they don't come to grief."

"Wasn't it your recommendation in the James Brooklyns case to appoint Deed as a winger for the Court of Appeal hearing?" Neil Haughton asked sharply.

"I would have never thought of that plan," Sir Ian said primly. "There's different levels of formulating recommendations."

Lawrence James had looked on as the other two men verbally slugged it out, his eyes firstly on one man and then on the other. He could suddenly see that he was the most junior and was going to be the chief whipping boy if he wasn't careful. For once, his pride burst to the surface in outrage and his sense of discretion totally left him.

"It is monstrous to blame me for what happened over the james Brooklyns case. You were there, Sir Ian, and were right there with me in that strategy……."

And so the debate wrangled on, the original purpose of the meeting entirely forgotten and the outpouring of words got them nowhere.

"Jesus, Denny," Lauren pleaded to the other woman in the bare brick humble surroundings of their cell. "I know how you feel responsible for Shell but you can't shut me out. You don't talk to me these days like you used to."

"What happens between me and Shell matters shit to you. I can do what I like and feel what I like without you nagging at me." Denny's angry voice spoke to the wall next to her.

"Look me in the eye and tell me that," Lauren urged her patiently but the other woman wouldn't move. What in hell had got into her from one visit, she thought? She had never seen Denny like this before as if she were a different woman. She had seen her in passing pop into Al's cell and that was worrying.

"You can't do nothing for me so you might as well give up trying."

Reluctantly, Lauren had to agree for the moment. That didn't mean that she was going to give up on the kid. Atkins women had their responsibilities. They were made that way.

Part One Hundred and Twenty Four

"Well at least I've got this evening off for tonight. It's Trisha's turn to deal with the Friday night drunks."

Nikki would have been in a dark mood if it weren't for a blessed moment that she was unexpectedly out of all that. The daily grind went on day by day regardless of the interview or so it seemed.

"It almost feels as if you're skiving off school," Helen joked. "It's strange as the club's half yours."

Nikki looked around in a dazed fashion. She was talking as if the club was another entity, separate from herself and receding rapidly into the distance.

"It feels weird, Helen." Nikki said softly, leaning her head on Helen's shoulder."I don't know what to do, where to go or who to be right now."

Helen hesitated before she spoke. Nikki was normally so definite, so grounded and assured. At that moment, she was neither of these things. It came down to Helen, in her infinite mercy, to tip Nikki in the right direction.

"Why don't we go round and see Crystal and Josh?" Helen prompted.

"Yeah?" Nikki asked vaguely. "OK, we haven't seen them for quite a while but I don't get it apart from that."

"It might be a good idea to talk to Josh as he became a prison officer after already being at Larkhall as the handyman. It's not the same as your position but it's the nearest there is. He had to go on a course which is the sort of thing you're likely to go on," Helen explained.

Nikki looked round nervously as the true impact of the future with some of it unknown was starting to sink in. She nodded her head after running her mind over the idea. She knew that all the glossy brochures in the world were like so much waste paper compared with ten minutes of practical experience from someone she could ask questions of. She had always worked that way.

They drove through the tightly packed in grid layout of terraced streets, which looked the same before they found themselves at the plain front door of Josh and Crystal's house. They hesitated on the doorstep.

"I know Josh said that it was fine to go round but I know how busy they are with two young children," Nikki said nervously.

"A promise is a promise," Helen grinned broadly. "but we can always make a polite exit if needs be." She turned to knock smartly at the door. After a significant gap in time, Josh's harassed looking face appeared through the crack in the door.

"Come in but please be quick as Zandra can move dead quick and Daniel's just learning to walk."

Both of them scrambled through the front door and found themselves in the front room and a tiny figure wobbled his way straight towards them. Crystal came into view from the

Door from the hallway and grinned broadly at them. It had seemed like a long time since they had last met as all of them had had busy lives. Daniel made a beeline straight for Helen and she gripped him automatically with surprising confidence and swung him up in the air. A huge satisfied smile split her face from ear to ear as she played with the baby.

Zandra, by contrast, held an outsize feltwriter in her tiny hand and was intent on her drawing. She was colouring in a patch of green underneath four indeterminate shapes with round noses and huge round eyes The two largest shapes were on each end, one of whom had the longest, most squiggly hair and the other one had no hair at all. The two small creatures had hair shooting outwards and upwards from the tops of their heads. Nikki's attention was caught in total fascination that it was Zandra's portrayal of her family and that Josh and Crystal were standing lumpily yet protectively beside them. So this is what a child's view of the world looked like, she thought, and somewhere in some forgotten shelf, there might be old paintings of hers stored away. A growing sense of wonder grew in her at this childlike determination to focus in on this drawing and nothing existed outside of it and wonder if her own sense of determination sprang from such deep roots.

"Hey, Zandra, watch out for the pens," She called out lightly as the sleeve of her pullover snagged the clutter of feltwriters on her table. She crouched down and picked them up as they fell on the carpet.

"A mother's work is never done," Crystal smiled. She had fastened the stairgate so that Zandra couldn't suddenly dart out and fall down the staircase. She had taken in yet another load of washing off the line, carefully folding them and stacking them for when she went upstairs later on.

"It looks good on you," Came Helen's reply. She stepped to one side as Daniel suddenly tired and flopped in her arms. As she did so, her foot stepped on something hard, some piece of leggo, but recovered her balance and slid sideways and down onto the armchair.

"You didn't come just to see the children. I thought you're both busy and all " Josh enquired.

"No but it sure helps."A brilliant smile lit up Helen's face with pure joy as this time, she was bolder, more confident. She glanced sideways and was intrigued to see Nikki starting to chat to Zandra, doing a little drawing of her own which Zandra promptly coloured in. "We did want to see you, not only for the company but Nikki wanted to ask your advice.

"It's tea time in a bit, you two," Crystal announced while her eyes took in what Helen had said. The ability to do two if not three things at a time and to be physically inexhaustible seemed to be a positive necessity. As they looked around, it wasn't the sort of house where everything is arranged just so, that precious ornaments were placed on low coffee tables which a boisterous child could smash in minutes. There was a vague clutter of toys and the odd trailing scarf and a single glove lurking in the corner of the room. The hectic yet homely family routine had gently drawn both Nikki and Helen in and they both felt how such a life might be full-time as the day drew on. They hadn't much chance to talk properly to Josh and Crystal but they both knew that this time would come to them. Unlike a childless house, it was children that gave rhythm and rhyme as to what happened and when.

Helen couldn't believe what she saw around her and it took her completely away from the cares of her job. This was something that she was becoming sure that she wanted to be a part of.

"It ain't true that you have to be born a mother to be one Helen. It's all hard work, and learning to love a part of God's creation that is so tiny. I ain't good at words. You can probably say it better than me. You're dead clever."

"For once in my life, I can't," Helen frankly admitted.

A little while later, Josh and Crystal took the children upstairs and settled them down to bed. Helen almost suggested that they come up as well but held back as they felt that they would be surplus bodies in the way. She stayed downstairs and they said little to each other. They drank in the atmosphere of calm and of being taken away from their normal surroundings, which begged them to do jobs round the house.

"So how can we help you, Nikki?" Josh enquired after the house subsided into peace and calm.

"You don't want help in fighting the Devil and all them heathens as you don't believe?" Crystal asked tactfully. She had gradually learnt tact in not using hellfire and damnation language in labelling her friends as unbelievers. She had concluded that Nikki was doing God's work even if Nikki couldn't see that it was the Holy Spirit who guided her actions.

"Well, it could get that way," Nikki answered straight facedly. "But I hope not."

Josh's expression was a picture in bewilderment as his forehead was more furrowed than a freshly ploughed field. Nikki's enigmatics had lost him altogether and Crystal wasn't much better placed.

"I'm going to be the new wing governor of G Wing at Larkhall." Nikki spelled it out.

Now it was Crystal's turn to do a double take and wonder if she imagined what her ears were telling her first time around.

"Please don't ask me to explain why I wanted the job. I've explained it once to Helen and I've just faced an interrogation squad who went through me with a fine tooth comb so I had to burn my brains out doing something like an exam paper, only spoken. Just take it that I really want the job, period, and I'm going to do it my way without getting the sack."

Both Crystal and Josh picked up on how tired Nikki looked and how hard she was trying to be nice. Her sensitivity to criticism of the job she was taking on was painfully obvious in view of her past reputation. Her own defence was thanks to the way her alert ear had picked up off John the word 'cronyism' which she had plucked out of her memory during her interview. This had summed up so beautifully what she had hated about the prison service as it was and it told her how things might be different. The trouble is that she could so easily understand Crystal if she didn't understand because at one time in her life, neither would she.

"Well, sister, I ain't about to argue with you. Just tell us how we can help, right."

Nikki breathed a huge sigh of relief at Crystal's kindness and it freed her up to ask what she urgently wanted to know.

"Josh, you have been on a prison officer's training course?"

"That was a long time ago. I don't remember things so good."

"Please Josh. Was there anything you had to do on the course that stuck out as opposed to what the lecturers said."

Helen noted Nikki's very adroit bit of practical psychology in getting Josh to recall what he will most be able to remember. Long speeches given by instructors would have long since gone into oblivion. His face gradually cleared and he spoke at last.

"I can remember all that self defence stuff they taught me and how to hold someone without hurting them. One of them instructors landed me flat on the ground when I first tried it," Josh said ruefully accompanied by a row of sympathetic grins. He had trouble in remembering that period of his life because of too many unpleasant memories at the time and he felt that he wasn't really cut out for the job. It was Di Barker who had got him into it and he didn't want to remember more of her than he could possibly help.

"They had this cell made up and we all had to practice searching this cell and finding objects the instructors had stashed away…….the only thing I can remember that they told us was all those funny colour code things for whatever kicks off in prison……….."

Josh's words trailed off into silence as his memory failed him. Crystal stayed silent as he had only talked about the course as a one-line comment at the time and that wasn't much use.

"I can remember is that it was pretty easy. I'd worked there already so that helped. I was never too bright at learning things but you'll be loads better than me even if your course is harder."

"You'll have a nice smart suit I suppose," Crystal eventually found her voice on a fashion note.

"Hmmm, you'll look good in it, Nikki. I can see that one now I think of it," Helen joked, an attractive fantasy starting to weave itself through her senses. It was the little incidentals, which were starting to fall into place now that the good news today allowed them to dare to imagine.

"What about the screws, I mean prison officers on G Wing?"

"Well, Sylvia will be there till she's buried and she'll never change," Cut in Helen.

"You won't be able to call her Old Bodybag any more. You've got to treat her with respect."

Nikki's face was a picture of disgust especially as she recalled all the fine words she had said only a few hours ago at the interview.

"You mean I've got to give up the habit of a lifetime and call her 'Sylvia'?" came Nikki's incredulous response. Her tongue nearly stuck to the roof of her mouth in physical disgust at the thought and went on to mime the word to herself to see if it felt any better with repetition. Unfortunately, it didn't.

"Either that or Mrs. Hollamby," Grinned Helen. At that point, Nikki choked and ran to the kitchen for a glass of water.

"No way," Crystal pronounced sternly. "The sisters will never forgive you for that."

"I won't either," Came the muttered response.

"What about Di Barker, Nikki. If she's on your wing, you want to watch her."

Nikki's face turned serious at Josh's advice. In comparison, Sylvia Hollamby and how she called her was a trivial matter. After all first Helen and then Karen before her had called her that and had given her hell.

"Exactly what sort of a problem will she be?" Nikki had a pretty fair idea what sort of mischief she could create having seen her in action but she wanted to hear other people's ideas. This was the way she would have to operate more rather than the 'one woman band' who she had been when she was running the club.

"If I know her, she'll come on all friendly, all sweetness and light so that you're not thinking what she might be doing behind your back," Crystal answered from bitter experience."

"The minute you're out of the PO room and she's there, she'll be stirring it. People like her play head games with you so that you get paranoid what she might be doing and try and drive you down. They try to have you either way."

"Just like Fenner used to do with you," Nikki answered Helen's contribution. Helen was silent in contemplation. That was indeed what Fenner had done and had made her suffer.

"At least I knew that Fenner hated my guts and I hated his."

"I know you, Nikki. You're dead kind and you'll want to watch out that you don't fall for some sob story of hers and get twisted round her little finger. She knows how to turn on the tears when it suits her. It could happen."

"Sounds as if she'll want to take Fenner's place."

"She is, sister."

A bit of a gloomy silence fell on the group of friends. They ought not to be feeling this way, as it was nice to meet up with old friends.

"Poor babies," Helen said softly at last. "I never thought what it meant to bring up children in such a bad world outside."

"You mean Daniel and Zandra?" Josh answered. "It wasn't something we thought about first time when Crystal was pregnant but we just got to do the best for our children. Give them something for when they're growing up."

"I can see that," Helen said dreamily. "I can see why mothers in prison feel so much for their children. I knew it but not the same way I know it now."

"You and me both." Nikki's soft voice answered while the four of them sat downstairs in the room where the feltwriters, pictures, fluffy toys and pieces of leggo told even the most casual visitor what this home was about.

At last Nikki and Helen had to say their farewells and as they drove off into the distance, Crystal smiled to herself and josh asked what she was thinking.

"I know something. Helen wants to have a baby."

Josh just calmly accepted it without question. After understanding and accepting that Nikki was choosing to go back to Larkhall as boss of G Wing, Helen wanting to have a baby was no big deal.

Part One Hundred And Twenty Five

On the Saturday a week after the rehearsal, George and Neil had agreed to have another practice together, because George would be able to play the accompaniment to any of Neil's solos, and because George thought that he might be able to help her get a couple of her own into shape. They'd decided to meet at George's again, because she had a piano and Neil didn't. It was about a month until they would be performing 'The Creation', and George still wasn't happy with her solo that went up to top C. Every time she tried to practice it, her throat would tighten, her vocal cords constricting, because they were anticipating the sort of debacle that had occurred on the one occasion that she'd sung it in front of the rest of them. Neil had witnessed her failure on that occasion, which made it a little less frightening for her to ask his advice. Only a fellow singer could understand the feeling she had whenever she tried to sing this particular piece. She had no idea what he might suggest, but anything was better than nothing. She had a month to sort herself out, five weeks to be precise, which wasn't all that long for someone with a hectic busy life like her.

They'd gone through a couple of Neil's solos with George playing for him, and suggesting the odd minor alteration. The way his deep, throbbing voice reverberated around her lounge occasionally made her shiver. They were right, she thought to herself as she played, having something so powerful within touching distance, definitely was sexually exhilarating, whether it was intended to be or not. When he came to the end of one particularly resonant piece, George opened her mouth and spoke before she could banish the thought, which was uppermost in her mind.

"Sing to all your lovers like that, and you'll succeed every time." As she put her hand to her mouth in mortification, Neil laughed.

"It has been known," He said with a broad smile.

"My tongue really will get me into trouble one of these days," She said, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

"Yes, I don't doubt," Neil mocked her with a smirk.

"Touché," She replied, admitting the success of his counter-offensive.

"Would you like me to play for you?" He asked.

"I didn't know you did," George said in surprise.

"I might not possess a piano, but yes, I do, when I get the chance. My current partner has an ancient upright that I've been practicing on. So having the opportunity to play something so exquisite, would be wonderful."

"Ah, then far be it from me to deny you the pleasure," She said, getting to her feet. George didn't usually like anyone touching her piano, the musician's immense protectiveness for their instrument, always kicking in if someone so much as put something down on it that didn't belong there. But as Neil Grayling moved the stool slightly further away to accommodate his longer legs, and ran his hands almost reverently over the keys, she knew that he held the utmost respect for something so precious.

As he began manipulating the beautifully carved keys, a look of sheer, unguarded pleasure spread over Neil's face. George watched him as she sang, first through 'With Verdure Clad', and then through 'On Mighty Pens', seeing his utter delight at the quality of her instrument. Neil couldn't quite believe his luck. For the last few weeks, he'd been playing through parts of this score, and had been thoroughly unmoved by the sound he managed to get out of Marcus's slightly battered upright piano. But here, now, he was running his hands over a beautifully kept baby grand, the subtle weight of the ivory keys really making his hands do some work. Their utter sensitivity was a power to behold, and made this particular piano a being in its own right. As her eyes followed the progress of his long fingers over the black and white keys, George reflected that this must be how he played the bodies of his lovers, skillfully coaxing every ounce of satisfaction out into the open.

When they reached the end of George's two solos, Neil said almost wonderingly,

"That really is an utterly incredible instrument. I don't know how long you've had it, but you've looked after it beautifully."

"Thank you," George said with pride. "Daddy gave it to me for a wedding present, so I've had it for more years than I care to remember."

"Does your daughter play?" He asked, glancing at a picture of Charlie on top of the television.

"No," George said ruefully. "Anything her mother might like her to do, has always been greeted with a firm no as a matter of course. John tried to teach her the violin once, and because it was John, she was perfectly open to the idea. But it wasn't very successful. Any musical ability that either John or I might possess, seems to have completely passed Charlie by."

"You sound bitter," Neil observed.

"It's entirely my own fault that my daughter barely gives me the time of day, well, except when she wants something that John isn't prepared to give her." George went quiet after saying this, and Neil realised that he'd accidentally stumbled into an area of George's complicated life, where he clearly did not belong.

"There is one of your solos that we haven't yet covered," He said, breaking in on her less than pleasant thoughts, and trying to get her back on track.

"Yes," She said, focussing her gaze back on him and away from the past. "No matter what I try to do with this piece, I just can't get it right. It's as if all my muscles are expecting me to get it wrong."

"Okay," He said, flipping through the score until he came to the right page. "Just try it now, and let's see how far we get."

"It'll probably sound terrible," She said nervously.

"So, it's not your body that thinks you're going to fail," Neil told her seriously. "It's you yourself. Keep on thinking like that, and you'll never get it right. In order for your body to have the remotest chance of fulfilling the requirements of a piece like this, you need to start out by believing that you can do it."

"But that's just it," George said tightly. "I don't." Neil pondered this one for a moment.

"When did you last smoke?" He asked, trying to single out anything that may cause a problem.

"Yesterday," She told him honestly.

"And when did you last have sex?" He asked, knowing this wouldn't be answered quite so easily.

"Precisely why is that important?" She asked with a smile.

"That's what you get when you tangle with a lawyer," Neil said dryly. "I'm simply trying to work out how relaxed you ought to be."

"Last night," She told him, not quite meeting his eyes.

"Then it obviously doesn't have anything resembling a lasting effect on you," Neil observed.

"That's one way of putting it," George replied fairly. "But what makes you say that?"

"You look very nervous, extremely tense, and though it really isn't my place to say it, far too thin for your own good." George opened her mouth a couple of times, but unable to come up with anything remotely intelligible to say, she shut it again. "Have you eaten today?" He continued. "Because low blood sugar certainly won't help your energy levels, which are absolutely vital if you want to put everything you've got into a song, and this song requires exactly that."

"No, not yet," She said, refusing to meet his penetrating gaze. Glancing meaningfully at the clock on the mantelpiece, that said it was nearly four in the afternoon, Neil said,

"Then please go and eat a slice of bread and jam, and have a cup of tea." Without a word, George did as he asked, making a cup for him as well so that she didn't feel quite as conspicuous. When she returned, handing him his cup, and sitting on the sofa to do his bidding, he could see that there wasn't a hint of butter underneath the jam. Thinking that she probably wouldn't want him to watch her eating, he flipped through some of the other music she had scattered over the top of the piano. Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, even some Debussy, showing him that here was one very skilful pianist, who didn't go out of her way to show off her talent. When she'd finished eating, and had put her plate back in the kitchen, she finished her mug of tea, and moved to stand once again near to the piano.

"How do you feel now?" He asked her.

"Extremely full," She replied, unable to be other than honest with this man who didn't judge her.

"Well, let's give it a go now, and if it doesn't work," He told her gently. "Then we'll find a way to make it work. We did with the duets, so we can with this."

"I think I need the security blanket of the chorus behind me for this one," She said, still trying to avoid singing this in front of him.

"It'll be a bit threadbare in places with our chorus," He said, making her smile. But taking her at her word, he moved over to the CD player, and slotted in the first disk of 'the Creation', moving it to the right track for 'The Marvelous Work Behold Amazed.'

As the sound of the oboes and strings began to fill the room, Neil came to stand behind her, turning her to face the stereo across the room, so that she couldn't possibly see the score on top of the piano. He thought she would almost certainly know this by heart, but he wanted to make sure. He placed his hands on her shoulders, slightly altering her posture, making her spine as straight as a pencil. But as she took in a breath to begin singing, he could feel her shoulders slightly rising under his hands. So as to make sure he was right about how she was breathing, he placed a gentle hand across the stretch of ribs above her breasts, just under her collarbones. As she moved through the words of the first verse, he felt every intake of breath high in her chest. Reaching for the remote control on the coffee table, he paused the CD.

"You're not breathing properly," He told her succinctly. "You're breathing through your chest, rather than through your diaphragm, which means that you're not taking in as much air as you can."

"That's probably because I'm not very relaxed," She said, knowing he was right.

"Okay, so this time, instead of actually singing, just breathe very slowly, but in time to the music, breathing in once every two bars, but try doing it with your diaphragm." He started the same track again, and whilst keeping one hand in its original position, he placed his other one below her breasts, where he would normally have expected to find a little spare flesh covering the ribs, but not in George. "If you don't like me touching you like this," He said to her. "Just say so." But it didn't bother her, not in the slightest. His touch was sensual, yet clinical, giving her the slightly naughty feeling of becoming excited by the touch of one's physician. She did as he asked, and felt the increased pressure of his upper hand, every time she failed to breathe in the correct manner. Once he felt that she'd relaxed enough to master the breathing properly, he began the song again, and this time told her to sing. The slow, regular breathing she'd done had relaxed her, put her muscles into the right frame of mind for opening up her throat as wide as it would go. Neil gradually removed his hands from her torso, not wanting to startle her, but laid them again on her shoulders, gently encouraging her to lean against him, as he eased some of the muscles in the back of her neck. He was extremely careful not to allow his fingers to come into contact with her larynx, as the merest of touches can alter the pitch by as much as a whole tone. When she began the approach to her Waterloo, he felt her slight hesitation, and began running his thumbs over the rising goosebumps on her arms. George didn't know if he knew that what he was doing was incredibly sexy, but it was. The pads of his thumbs were so soft, the flesh so warm and firm, that it didn't take much of her imagination to place them somewhere else. Focussing on the thought of his thumbs caressing her nipples, instead of the thoroughly unexciting skin of her forearms, she almost forgot about what was coming. The words and the notes came to her from long practice, rising from her relaxed and open throat, to soar into the air as birds that were destined for the heavens. She had no difficulty singing the word 'Vaults', rising to the top, sixth octave C, as if she'd been doing it every day of her life. Neil felt the note resonate through her entire body, and had it not been for his hands on her, he briefly wondered if it may have lifted her off her feet. The note was pure, bright, and perfect.

When the piece came to an end, Neil flicked it off with the remote control. As he turned George to face him, he was shocked to see the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Hey, that was the best thing I've ever heard out of you," He told her, meaning every word of it.

"I know," She said, feeling stupid at her weakness. "I really didn't think I would ever do it."

"Well, you've proved that you can do it," He said gently, enfolding her in his arms. "And on matters of one's art, rather than one's heart, I am never wrong." George laughed through her tears. She couldn't believe it. This man, this man whom she'd only recently got to know, had just released her from a temporary psychological block. He'd made it possible for her not just to sing those pieces she liked, but to really put her all into the thing she'd once failed at. He'd made it possible for her to make her father, and John, proud of her.

"Thank you," She said, detaching herself from his arms and reaching for the box of tissues on the coffee table, knowing that even with Vera Everard driving her to distraction at the next rehearsal, she would sing her heart out and prove every one of the Ian Rochester's well and truly wrong.

Part One Hundred and Twenty Six

The elaborate jangle of the mobile phone and flashing screen of Trisha's mobile made the elegantly dressed woman reach over onto her dressing table. Surprisingly, it was Nikki.Unless it was business or a dire emergency, Nikki never went out of her way to contact her these days. To her mind, that last row with Nikki was her being stupidly nostalgic about the old times and had only increased the tension between the two of them. Her best course of action was to let Nikki stew on it before she bowed to the inevitable and joined the twenty first century. Nikki had always been pig headed and belonged to the era when women metaphorically chained themselves to the railings for gay rights. There was no point in confronting her as it would only antagonise her further. Her point of view was so passé, these days, she sighed as she reached for the phone.

"Trisha, it's Nikki," She clarified unnecessarily. "I thought I'd come in tonight."

"Well, this is a surprise. It isn't your night in case you are forgetting." Her cool tone of voice verged on the patronising. Lately, it seemed to her that in her laid back ladylike fashion, she was providing most of the input into running the club.

"This is special. I've got one or two things I wanted to talk over with you."

A warning note sounded in Trisha's mind at Nikki's deliberately flat, expressionless voice. She knew Nikki of old and there was more in this than met the eye. Presumably, this was going to end up as another ding-dong row. She only hoped that it wasn't going to detract from her work tonight in running the club and that the bar staff weren't going to find more to gossip about. She liked soap operas so long as they did not actually enter her life.

She agreed and hung up. Then she reached for her nail varnish and ran her eye over her extensive wardrobe to choose her outfit for the night. It was important to make a proper appearance.

Nikki walked down the sidestreet in exactly the same path she had trodden for years, broken of course by her life changing three years in Larkhall. It was funny to think but a whisper in her mind was beginning to add the three words "first time around." She walked through the doors of the club and hesitated in the foyer and looked upwards at the way the staircase swept upwards to the office where she and Trisha worked. This was, after all, what she had slaved to set up working all days and nights for a period in her life to put together some of the capital to buy the club. Some of the furnishings were according to what she and Trisha had lovingly decided between them. She shivered. That was another person in another time that did all that, not Nikki as she was now. She was saying her final mental farewells with no time or reason for regrets for what she must do.

"Ah, Nikki, did you have any luck in finding a replacement for Rhiannon. I can't think why she decided to leave overnight. You didn't say anything to her to put her off so that she left. You can come down a bit harsh on some of the new girls."

Nikki knew. An old friend of hers had secured a job for her in the local "Starbucks" several hundred yards down the main street. It meant seeing the hours of daylight even if the pay wasn't much. At least serving at tables and pouring their many brands of coffee meant that the strongest drug around was caffeine. She shrugged her shoulders in mute answer to Trisha's grand dame manner. This was the last time she would be able to behave that way as she took a seat in her favourite chair, sitting opposite Trisha.

"Still looking," Nikki said laconically. "I phoned round all the employment agencies the other day but no luck."

"This isn't like you, Nikki not to find a new barmaid by now. This is, after all, London, where there are loads of hard up students who need some extra money."

Nikki tensed up inside. Trisha's form of aversion therapy was making it more and more easy for her to say her goodbyes.

"Must be the National Union of Students to blame."

Trisha started to get on edge from the cold tone that was creeping more and more into Nikki's voice.

"I don't understand."

"You know. I've told you that this place is becoming a Mecca for drugs. Perhaps word has got about and they're passing word round for none of them to touch this place with a bargepole. You start to wonder when, as you said, I could get hold of a new barmaid easily enough."

Nikki's lips were firmly compressed together and Trisha, in her cool way, was starting to get annoyed.

"Still, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about, Trisha. Remember?"

The other woman's eyes started to glaze over in incomprehension and only Nikki's acid prompt made her remember the earlier conversation. She had so much to do these days that it was easy to forget odd conversations, so she reasoned to herself. That flicker in her eyes told Nikki everything, how she rated in Trisha's scale of importance. They had long since ceased to be lovers but Nikki thought resentfully that Trisha ought to have a better memory than this. She was owed that much. Just before she spoke again, she had the uncanny feeling as if she were finally pressing hard on the plunger that set off the explosion.

"I wanted to tell you, Trisha, that I'm not going to carry on working the club with you anymore. I've come to the end of the line and I'm moving on."

The quiet words seemed to paralyse Trisha and made her feel that a jolt of electricity had just run through her. It all seemed unreal to her that Nikki had said this. It was only a minute or two later that she at last found her voice."

"So you want your P45, Nikki?"

"That just about says everything. You're the boss and I'm just the hired hand except for old times sake and my share in the club."

"Why didn't you say this before, Nikki? We could have talked."

"Christ, don't you remember? I yelled at you for long enough but there's more to it than that."

"What do you mean?"

Nikki closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Now she had an alternative job, all the resentments that she had bottled up threatened to splurge out on one stream but what would that achieve? What could she say to this stranger with who she had once shared her life and love and for whom she had killed a policeman who was on the point of raping her? This woman was more elegant, closed in and with whom she had nothing in common except a shared past.

"You're looking at the new wing governor of g Wing at Larkhall Prison. I start my training course this Monday."

Trisha burst out laughing. This was the woman who she remembered had badmouthed all the screws and had been public enemy number one. She remembered when Nikki had reeled out of the dock and she had flung her arms round her. She couldn't wait to get out of the court and say good riddance to two of the screws. What on earth had she taken it into her head to volunteer to go back there, on the wrong side of the fence as well? She couldn't see Nikki carrying a bunch of keys, doing a ridiculous nine to five job, answerable to bosses when she had spent a lifetime being her own woman, living alongside women who liked only women. Why bother leaving the party just when it was really getting going and earning them real money. Business was getting better than ever.

"I mean it, Trisha. I've had the interview when they've known exactly everything there is to know about me and they've accepted me. Tonight is my last night and that's why I've come to work here one last time."

"So you plan to walk out of here and sit back, claiming your 50% of everything I earn while I work my butt off every night?" Trisha spat out spitefully. It was dawning on her that Nikki really had got the job that she said. She didn't need the club and, inexorably, the argument was shifting to arguing on her severance package. "If I do all the work, you don't get the money, darling."

"I wouldn't expect to drain you for the rest of your life, Trisha," Nikki urged patiently. "I simply want you to buy my share off me and everything you earn is yours. I'm not about to take you for a ride. I simply want what's mine."

"Huh. That won't come cheap," Trisha glared.

"It won't matter in the long run. In the end, you'll have all the profits to yourself instead of splitting them with me. You'll be all right."

Trisha fell silent as the implications of this started to whizz through her mind. A little voice started to tell her that her position wasn't as impossible as she first thought. She started to ask herself how and why Nikki had made this totally mad decision. In a flash, she thought she had the answer.

"It's Helen, isn't it. I could swear blind that she's never been keen on you working here with me and this is her way to finally detach us from anything in common."

"Don't be stupid, Trish," Came the contemptuous reply. "I have been asked to go for this job and when I told Helen, she freaked out at the idea. I had to talk her into the idea, as she was scared for my sake and hers. You can forget your adolescent ideas."

"I still can't see you, of all people, locking up women for a living," Trisha snapped with equal contempt.

"You know, I'll probably lock up women who've got into drugs from going to this place. They'll get themselves a nice big habit and a nice little record to go with it."

There was real anger and contempt looking out of Nikki's eyes and it started to make Trisha feel uncomfortable.

"Well, I'll have to think this over and you'll do what you have to do. You know I can't agree to buying you out just like that."

"Those have been the first sensible words I've heard you say tonight."

" I suppose this really is the parting of the ways."

"I guess it is," Nikki answered, as Trisha seemed curiously enough to be ahead of her emotionally.She glanced round this room, her eyes picking out the things that were definitely hers. She would have to come in on Sunday and take the emblems of her past life with her. "I'm not going to kid myself that this place won't fall apart with me gone. When I was inside, you ran the business without my help. What you did once, you'll manage to do again. As you say, times have changed and it isn't special to me anymore, only for what it once meant to me."

"Even I remember them when I have the time to think about them." For the first time, Trisha's voice was unsteady. It crossed her mind that Trisha had been secretly holding onto the thought that eventually Nikki would come back to her.

"You know, the one unselfish act in your life was when we were in the club that night I was released and Helen came over to talk to me and lost her nerve. I'll be forever grateful to you that you pushed me away in her direction. Without that, I might never have ended up with her despite everything."

Nikki looked at this woman who was a little more lost in her lifestyle than she ever cared to admit. At last, she felt a little sorry for her. She had chosen what she would do with her life while Trisha floated along, rudderless, giving herself over to the tides of commercialism and the insidious infiltration of the drug barons into her club.

"Do you know how many times I wish I hadn't. Come on, we've got a club to run. It's your last night and we must make it a party to remember."

Suddenly, the booming, thumping bass notes started up of the dance music that Nikki would never get out of her head. It was like her heartbeat. The lights clicked on and pervaded the club with that aura for everyone that tonight would be the night of excitement and endless possibilities. It seemed that way to Nikki when she was so much younger and she went to her very first gay club and was tantalised by the sight of all the women on the dance floor. Now she was older and the party was done, she thought to herself as her steps took her down the wide staircase. She might as well pretend to herself and to others just one more time.

Part One Hundred And Twenty Seven

On the Sunday afternoon, the sun returned to the temperature of a couple of weeks before, and George decided to make the most of it. With her garden being enclosed by tall hedges and high fences, not to mention being extremely detached from its neighbour's houses, George thought that a little all over sunbathing wouldn't go amiss. She lay on the softly cushioned sunbed, with a cold, refreshing drink to hand, idly reading her way through a fairly lighthearted novel. Her skin glistened with sun lotion, with the light breeze occasionally blowing strands of hair into her eyes. The French windows to the lounge were wide open, so that she could hear the soft music coming from inside. The heavy velvet curtains were shut across the open doors, because sunlight and exquisite paintings should never be mixed. A sky blue cotton wrap, the only thing covering her when she'd come outside, was draped over the back of the bench. The feel of the sun on her body was almost intoxicating, gradually making her eyes grow heavy, and causing every muscle to relax. She barely noticed when the book fell from her hand onto the paving slabs, her hand coming to rest by her side as she slept.

Finding herself at something of a loose end on the Sunday afternoon, Jo thought she may as well drop in on George. They hadn't had a decent chat for ages, though Jo was honest enough to admit that this wasn't her only reason. It had been a week since the dream she'd had of George, since she'd woken up with such a random collection of feelings whirling round in her head. It had greatly disturbed her to dream of actually sleeping with, no, making love with George, and in truth, she hadn't known how she was supposed to react. Yes, she knew she was attracted to George, and she knew that she'd been the one to initiate their kiss, but that was a whole league away from what she'd dreamt about last Saturday night. She knew her emotional outburst had been ridiculous, but the feelings George had created in her were so new, so intense, that it had felt as though the breath had been knocked out of her. But it was the incident that had precipitated the dream that Jo knew they needed to talk about. The way George had looked at her in that rehearsal last week, the way she'd gazed at her whilst singing of such words of love and commitment, that had told Jo in no uncertain terms, that George still felt the attraction too. So, when she arrived at George's, and saw that only her car was in the drive, she was relieved. But when she rang the doorbell, she got no answer. Thinking that George must be out in the back garden, Jo made her way towards the little gate at the side of the house. When she rounded the corner and took in the sight before her, she stood stock still, her eyes widening with shock, and her mouth going instantly dry. George was lying, stark naked on a sunbed, her small, perfect breasts pointing up at the clear, blue sky, and not a single stitch concealing an inch of gloriously bare skin. George was obviously asleep, because Jo could see a few strands of her soft, blonde hair drifting over her face in the light, summer breeze. George had never looked so angelic, with her long, pretty legs, and the tiniest of narrow waists, and with those breasts that just begged to be caressed. It was this thought that brought another revelation to Jo's mind. This was roughly what George had looked like in her dream, though in that grassy meadow, George's tan had been considerably more advanced than it was now. As Jo carefully and quietly approached her, two things caught her eye, the second of which made her blush. She saw the book that had fallen from George's hand as she slept, and she also took in the fact that George was as smooth skinned and hairless as the day she was born. God almighty, Jo thought as she drew nearer, George's body was utterly delectable, the thing of fantasy. No wonder John hadn't ever really been able to move on from her. As she put a hand out to gently shake George's shoulder, she couldn't help but catch sight of the reaction that George's body appeared to be having to some inner thought. Her breathing wasn't entirely steady, and her nipples were as hard as bullets. Jo didn't think the breeze would have caused this to happen, so it must be from whatever George was dreaming about.

When George felt the touch on her shoulder, and became aware of the voice saying her name, she opened her eyes and gazed up blissfully into Jo's face.

"Mmm," She groaned luxuriously. "Am I still dreaming?"

"No," Jo told her with a smile. "You're burning." This seemed to wake George up fully, and her eyes widened as she realised that this wasn't the Jo she'd been dreaming about standing next to her, but the real one, the one who definitely wasn't acquainted with the skills necessary for making love to a woman.

"Oh, god," George said, sitting up suddenly with the realisation that she wasn't wearing anything whatsoever. "What are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you too," Jo said with a laugh, handing George's wrap to her from off the back of the bench. "George, only you would do something as decadent as sunbathe naked, in a back garden that anyone can walk into."

"Well, I wasn't exactly expecting company this afternoon," She said, tugging the wrap around her body, taking away entirely too much of the view Jo had been enjoying. The blue cotton material tied just above her breasts, leaving her arms and shoulders bare, and stopping just above her knees.

"I need a cold drink," George said, picking up the book and her empty glass. "would you like one?" Saying that she definitely would, Jo followed George into the kitchen.

After pouring Jo a glass of orange juice on the rocks, which would fast melt into pebbles, George filled her own glass with ice cold water from the fridge. She had her back to Jo, and was using the time taken up with pouring drinks, to battle her senses back into their proper order. She'd been dreaming about Jo, she wasn't sure what, but it was certainly something delicious, and then she'd woken up, to find Jo looking down at her. Had Jo been able to see how aroused she was, George didn't know. George could feel the rising tension in her body, all because Jo was here, in her house, and because they were alone. Nothing, except her own and perhaps Jo's self-control, would stop them from following the course of their feelings. As if sensing her thoughts, Jo stepped up to her, put her arms round George from behind, and removed the bottle of Evian from her hand, putting it down on the worktop. When George turned within the circle of her arms to face her, they just stared at each other, both wanting to say so much, but neither quite able to find the right words. When Jo lowered her lips to George's, it felt to both of them as if the earth wire had been removed, causing electricity to spark between them without a stopping point. George was leaning against the kitchen unit, but she wrapped her arms around Jo's waist for support, feeling that she might just fly away if she didn't. Jo's arms went round George's shoulders, her fingers running through her slightly tousled hair. There wasn't an inch of space between them, making Jo become suddenly aware of George's hardened nipples.

"I take it you're pleased to see me," Jo said with a smile. Realising what she must be referring to, George laughed softly.

"I've never had a dream come true before," George said, inwardly cursing herself for sounding so soppy.

"You look beautiful," Jo told her between kisses.

"Is that referring to how I look now," George asked lasciviously. "Or to how I looked when you found me?"

"Both," Jo said in that deep, slightly husky voice that was setting all George's nerve endings on fire. "Though you do now look a bit overdressed." George knew that she could have stayed where she was for all eternity, with Jo closer to her than she'd ever been, but eventually detaching her lips from Jo's, she said,

"I think we need to talk, don't you?"

"Yes," Jo replied, also reluctant to end this moment of sheer bliss. Picking up her glass of water, George slipped her hand into Jo's, and led her into the lounge.

They sat close together on the sofa, Jo's arm going around George as if of its own accord. Taking a long swig of her drink, George put it down on the coffee table. Neither of them seemed to know where to start, both of them knowing that once begun, this conversation might open up more secret feelings than either could ever have thought possible.

"I dreamt about you last weekend," Jo eventually began, thinking that this was as good a place as any.

"Did you?" George asked, a soft smile turning up the corners of her mouth.

"Yes, after last week's rehearsal. George, no one has ever looked at me in the way you did then, not even John. It was incredible. You looked pretty much as you did today, all sun tanned, and presenting the most erotic display I think I've ever seen. But when I woke up from it, I was so confused. I haven't had a dream as intense as that for a long time, and certainly not about a woman."

"Did you wake up to an orgasm?" George asked knowingly, turning Jo's face towards her, so as not to miss anything that might be betrayed by those endless blue eyes.

"Yes," Jo told her simply. "And the fact that John was there didn't help. I couldn't stop crying because I didn't know how to feel." Reaching across for Jo's other hand, George held it gently in her own, occasionally running her thumb over the knuckles. "Part of me was cross with you, for giving me the idea in the first place, on that Sunday afternoon when I saw you and Karen together. But then the rest of me wanted to experience everything we'd done in my dream for real. When I kissed you, that first time, that was the most reckless, unplanned thing I've ever done. Well, apart from initially sleeping with John when I was his student. But it felt right, and it does now. George, you make me do exactly what I feel, rather than what I think I should do, and I'm not used to that. I thought that if I didn't see much of you, what I felt might go away. I thought the same would happen to you too, that we'd both discover it was something we'd both felt when you were drunk, and I should have known better. But it hasn't, and now I don't want it to."

"Do you know just how many times I've thought about you, thought about how sensational that kiss was? Jo, I couldn't go back to not finding you incredibly attractive, if I tried. I can't explain what I feel for you. I wish I could, but I can't. You might not want to hear it," She continued a little nervously. "But whenever you're with me, I feel whole, complete, as if there's no longer anything missing. I have absolutely no idea where this is going, and in one way, that frightens me, because I don't want to do or say anything that might send you away from me." As if to qualify her words, George leant slightly forward to ever so softly graze her lips over Jo's, almost as if to show Jo how precious she was to her. But their kisses didn't stay gentle for long, they both needing to fulfill that primeval urge that exists in all of us. Jo didn't know what led her to do what she did next, it may have been because she wanted it herself, it may have been because she'd done this in her dream. But when George felt Jo running a delicate finger over her breast, just under her nipple, the cotton fabric of the wrap providing an exquisite feeling of friction, she took Jo's hand in hers, and moved her face slightly away from her.

"No," She said almost breathlessly. "No." Thinking she must have done something unforgivable, Jo looked horrified for a moment. But her look turned to one of understanding, when she observed George's inner battle with her feelings. George gripped Jo's hand, a shudder running the entire length of her body, as she gathered the remnants of her self-control, and fought down the urge to make love to Jo, right here on the sofa. When George thought she could speak without shattering all her efforts completely, she said,

"Darling, there is nothing I would like more, than to show you every delicious thing I've dreamt of doing to you for weeks now, but you're not ready for it." Jo watched her, seeing the immense effort it had taken for George to prevent herself from doing exactly what she wanted to do. It touched her enormously that George was quite obviously prepared to put Jo's feelings a long way before her own, not something John would have done in a million years. He would never have forced or cajoled anyone into sleeping with him, but neither would he have stopped himself once begun, if he'd been given the type of encouragement she had just given George.

"I'm sorry," Jo said, feeling like an immature teenager embarking on her first sexual experience.

"Don't be," George told her with a reassuring smile. "If and when I do eventually make love to you, I want you to enjoy every second of it. You've got no idea, just how much I want to make you let go with me, because making love with a woman is like nothing you've ever felt in your life before. What I don't want it to be, is a five minute fumble, because I'm more on heat than I was at seventeen." Jo couldn't help laughing, putting both herself and George at ease.

"You really do have a way with words," She said with a broad smile.

"So I've been told," George said with a smirk. "But I'm serious, I want this to happen when we're both good and ready for it. We have all the time in the world, and because John doesn't know about it, that means that nothing, and I mean nothing, needs to be rushed. Just take it one day at a time," She finished, laying a gentle hand against Jo's cheek, vowing to take this as slowly as possible, because Jo was far too precious to her to take it at anything other than her pace. John, Karen, the entire world could wait until they were good and ready to bring it out into the open, if they ever were, which was by no means a certainty.

Part One Hundred and Twenty Eight

As was her usual habit, Yvonne stole a sideways glance at Karen's trim, green MG sports car, which was parked outside the prison gates in its usual place before passing through into the courtyard. On a hot sunny day, the sun beat down into the confined space of the courtyard reflecting off all the stonework and cobblestones. Yvonne looked high up into the blue sky overhead, noticing the way the top of the mottled grey high prison cell block cut a serrated line that separated it from the sky. The hot sun overhead almost blinded her with its light and made her feel hotter than she was. It was funny that all the time she was here, she never went in for any bleeding poetics like this. When you were inside, you didn't want to look higher than the walls that crowded you in even on association or else it would have reminded you how much you were missing on the outside. Now that she was very securely on the outside, it came easier to notice things like this without thinking. It was strange, Yvonne reflected, that every time she came here, it didn't open up old wounds but gave her more of a feeling of invulnerability. She was living on the straight and narrow and had been for months now that Charlie's old so called friends had pissed off to find some other Mr Big to lick his arse. Perhaps it was all those creeps around him who helped him become a bigger bastard than nature made him.

"Hi Yvonne," Gina grinned, her loud voice breaking in on her thoughts. "Nice to see you again, these days. You've come to see Lauren and Denny, I suppose."

"Hope they're up bright and early as I am."

"Yeah, well, I've not gone round that part of the wing today," Gina said more quietly.

Yvonne gave Gina the quick once over. Either she'd got other fish to fry or else she was being deliberately tactful, something which was unusual for this woman's blunt manner.

"How are they both keeping, these days?" Yvonne asked more abruptly than she intended. It was a sudden attack of nerves which pitched her voice in this way. She nearly asked Gina about Karen but she had managed to shut her mouth just in time. She'd let her tongue run away with her once and had said things in the heat of the moment in that row over Shell that was unusual for her. It was the case of let her gob open and everything had poured out. This time, she stopped herself in time.

"Lauren's fine these days but I don't know about Denny. She's not been her usual self."

"What's wrong?"

Gina thought at length as they walked towards the entrance for visitors before she answered.

"Can't reckon it out for sure. She's down in the dumps and won't talk. She's edgier than she used to be, you can tell it in her. She and your Lauren used to be inseparable and now she's a loner, like she doesn't need anyone else. Perhaps Lauren will tell you more when you see her if you get a chance to see her on your own."

"Thanks, Gina." Behind Gina's apparently casual manner, Yvonne sensed a depth of meaning and that she was worried about Denny. The two women had always had an affinity based on their similar personalities, both blunt and tough on the surface. It was down to not wanting to come out with polite insincerities or any false sentimentality.

Yvonne was a mother and was older than Gina and over the years she found it less possible to keep up any sort of act. Gina was all right, Yvonne thought affectionately. She always had been.

"Tell you what," Gina said over her shoulder, turning on her heel. "I've got this feeling in my bones that Denny won't show up. If you're only seeing Lauren, I'll fix you up with a private room so that you can talk better."

Yvonne smiled warmly. That would help immensely. She wouldn't ever waltz in demanding special privileges over all the other woman. She liked money and the comforts, which it bought but her friends were always invited to the party. Nikki had reminisced bitterly to her once about the way Dockley had loved flaunting it over all the other women ,to get one up on the others and show that she had friends in high places. Hearing this from Nikki who she had always liked and respected and what she had seen with her own eyes meant that she never had any time for Dockley. She had heard the reasons why Karen had acted the way that she had over Dockley. For all the apparent good reasons, she still thought that Karen was skating on thin ice and risking her neck for someone who didn't deserve it.

"You won't have Bodybag outside with her ear trumpet against the keyhole, will you Gina?"

Gina grinned broadly. That had been one of her most priceless memories of when she was on G Wing. Sylvia had always had that dog in the manger attitude that, as she wasn't getting any sex from her Bobby, everyone was expected to act as if they lived in a bloody nunnery.

"I'll be in the visitor's room and Selena's there as well. I'll put her on door duty. She's professional and straight up that way. I know Sylvia and that will put Sylvia off hanging around and trying to earwig on the conversation."

Both of them laughed heartily at the idea and it loosened Yvonne up a bit.

"Have you heard how Karen is getting on these days?" she asked at last, not being able to stop the words coming out of her mouth.

Gina looked curiously at her. Yvonne wasn't asking how well she was doing at her job. It was about something personal , about something that had come between them. She didn't want to ask any questions as it wasn't her business.

"She's fine. I don't mind admitting she's been a great boss to work for. She's a good friend in need to go to when I get worried about what to do."

"That's Karen for you," Yvonne murmured affectionately.

Lauren looked hopelessly at Denny, who was sprawled out on her side, totally conked out. Even her normal determination shrank back from trying to wake her. She was bound to be dead to the world and even if she did rouse her, she'd be twice as nasty first thing than she normally was these days. She was more than ever certain that Denny was using speed. There were occasions when they did talk and Lauren was sure that she spoke louder and quicker than she normally did and she was a worse listener than she used to be. There were times when Denny would babble on about something that was nothing to do about anything. It worried her that Denny talked at her rather than to her and that they weren't so close anymore. Denny would suddenly slip off and the next thing she knew when she looked around G wing, Denny was coming out of Al's cell. There had been the occasional 'one off' visit but this was becoming more frequent. It was no skin off her nose as far as it went. Al McKenzie was all right but no great shakes as good company. The one thing Al had which Lauren didn't have was ready access to drugs and it was this that worried her about the situation.

While she was touching up her makeup, she realised that it was almost that the more Denny saw of her, the more Denny felt guilty and ashamed of herself It was logical in a cracked kind of a way to avoid seeing her so that she felt better about herself. Denny had forgotten in her plunge in self-esteem that Lauren wasn't going to get on her high horse about this. Wasn't it true that she had been the one whose mind misfunctioned so spectacularly to land her in Larkhall in the first place ? She had only got real hope for the future because of all the help from so many people. Denny was one of them but in a mad way, she had forgotten all about it.

Selena appeared at her cell door which was slightly open and smiled kindly at her.

"You're ready to meet your mum? Is Denny ready?"

"She's not well, miss. I've done my best to rouse her but it's no good. She's had a really bad night and she's best off resting. It's a shame but there you are."

Lauren smiled too quickly, too nervously for Selena's liking. She suspected that Lauren was gently covering up for Denny. She made a mental note to pass this on to Gina. Of course Sylvia, with her right wing bollocks approach would have ignored Lauren, roughly shaken Denny by the shoulder and received a mouthful which would have helped nothing except in her perpetual petty game of 'putting one over a con.'

"I'm on visiting duty today, Lauren. I'll come with you."

Lauren smiled more gently and easily this time. It was remarkable how Lauren had turned around since she had been laid out psychologically naked for all to see in court. On top of what she had seen of the trial, Gina had briefed her as Lauren's and Denny's personal officer about that particular day.

"You've settled down here fine, Lauren."

"The girls are great around here, Miss Geeson, apart from a few of them. I keep out of Natalie Buxton's way, as she's trouble. There's something about her that sets me on edge. Anyway, you're all right and so are most of the other prison officers and so are Miss Rossi and Miss Betts."

"Have you thought how you'll get on when you get out?"

"I'll wait till I'm out before I'll believe it," Lauren said shortly. It was a female Atkins trait to never count your chickens till they've hatched. The outside world seemed unreal after the time she had been inside.

It struck Selena that Lauren's position in such an enclosed institution gave her less of the negatives and more of the positives than most prisoners who she knew . Being smarter, brighter and dominant put her in a commanding position on G Wing and steadied her nicely.It was as well that she would come under a psychiatrist when she got out rather than being left to flounder. Even with Yvonne to hand, the world could be remote, impersonal place and had no more time to deal with human frailties than the hordes of commuters who passed the street beggars by with barely a backward glance.

Yvonne walked to where she hoped to see both her daughters but only Lauren smiled at her. Her face dropped a little but not enough to let Lauren think that the good old dependable Lauren could do without the emotional stroking that everyone needs and that only Denny was there to be fussed over. Gina came into the visitor's room and glanced at Yvonne. She walked over to Selena ,whispered into her ear and nipped out to get Dominic to cover for Selena. Bodybag was there as well but Gina did not feel that she exactly deserved to be taken into her confidence.

"It's great to see you Lauren and you look so well."

"No problems with me , mum but the pie and chips get boring and you put on weight if you don't watch it."

"Don't I know it…..What's happened to Denny?"

Lauren looked awkward and constrained with Bodybag walking over in far too a casual manner.

"Morning, Sylvia," Yvonne grinned at her to receive a glare in return. That trick never failed to needle her.

"Mrs. Atkins," Selena pronounced in her crisp formal manner. "You've been allocated a private room to talk. Governor's orders. I'm coming to ensure security."

Gina had to suppress a grin when she saw Sylvia's mouth to open in protest about how short staffed they were and the immaculate timing with which Dominic appeared. He's a good bloke, she thought fondly.

"How in hell did you get this fixed up. You must have friends in high places." Lauren smiled with wholehearted appreciation of how immaculately timed it was and sensing her mother's hand in the proceedings.

"Not that high, Lauren. Gina did that for us, not Karen. I've had a bit of an argument with her. Nothing personal, not that sort of personal like it used to be."

A trace of regret flashed across Yvonne's face like a passing sunbeam till she returned to the here and now.

"What's up with Denny? I know from talking to Karen that her visit to Dockley has screwed her up bigtime. I don't like the sound of what I hear and what I feel."

"I've been talking to the Julies," Lauren answered rapidly as her ideas had finally come together." She sounds more and more like the way she used to be, since before you were here…."

"…….and she was with Dockley," Finished Yvonne.

Lauren smiled. It helped enormously to have her sharp brain to help to fit the jigsaw together. She had that knack of pressing the pieces with that delicacy of touch and all the pieces fitted together.

"Why hasn't she come. She sent me the VO?"

"That was just a stall. She's been getting worse and she pulled a stunt so that she wouldn't see you. It was hard enough to get her to come last time. I'm sure she's been using speed. She probably got it last night when she slipped out just before lock up. She was probably awake all right so that she'd be conked out come visiting time.

"Why's she using the stuff?" Yvonne asked incredulously. She could understand how the girls got depressed, all the sort of troubles that could happen to you as she'd heard it all and given all the sympathy that there was in her.

"Probably to give her some of the confidence in herself that she's always lacked. You know that, mum. I went through the trial and I saw myself on the wide screen clearer than I ever wanted to hear or see. She needs real help, mum, probably worse than I will when I get out."

Lauren's last few words crystallized everything in her mind while both of them fell silent for a while in contemplation. Yvonne was the first to try and break them out of that line of conversation. With a limited amount of time, Denny really had been present with them even if she didn't know it. It was now Lauren's turn for attention and they talked of more lighthearted matters. They laughed at all the old jokes, that banter that had always come easy to both of them.

Suddenly, they heard a polite knock on the door and Selena entered.

"I'm sorry but visiting time has finished. You must both come back to the room."

"Sure, Miss Geeson," Lauren responded respectfully. They both couldn't repress a grin as Bodybag's stern censorious glare greeted them. In the good old days, cons would have been locked up twenty-four seven with no namby pamby talk of visitors. If they hadn't committed the crime, they wouldn't be there, Bodybag thought vengefully. Both Lauren and Yvonne knew that life wasn't that straight forward.

"Give my love to Denny. Promise," Yvonne urged Lauren unnecessarily. Lauren nodded and made her way to the exit. Yvonne knew that the job as good as done, smirked irritatingly at Bodybag while passing the time of day with Dominic and shuffling her way through the security system.

As Yvonne emerged out of the cool air of the prison, the heat in the prison yard hit her with real force. It was summer now and a time for a feeling of renewal. That made her thoughts so easy to drift along to what she wanted to do with her time.Suddenly, the vision of summer clothes and London shops came into her mind. A spot of retail therapy would do her some good.

Part One Hundred And Twenty Nine

On the Tuesday lunchtime, both Jo and Yvonne found themselves wandering casually through the shops in Knightsbridge, Yvonne killing time before a meeting with her accountant, and Jo doing the same before an appeal hearing in The Strand. Jo was trying to convince herself that she wasn't on the lookout for something incredibly sexy for George's birthday present, but after going into the third glamorous lingerie boutique, she was forced to admit that she was. George's birthday would be two weeks today, and Jo had been assaulted with the possibility of what George would look like in something highly transparent and silky, ever since she'd caught her sunbathing on Sunday. Jo had been mortified by her own attempt to take things a little too far, but this was all so new to her, nothing like pulling a man in the least. So, something that she figured could also be part of the clandestine progress of their affair, was the buying of George's birthday present. As Jo stood, admiring the incredibly delicate texture of the negligees on the rack in front of her, she felt an enormous sense of daring and excitement rise within her. Jo knew that never would she have considered buying anything like this for herself, never mind anyone else, so the opportunity to do so was wonderful. Deciding that buying George anything in the provocative underwear line was far too cliché, and far too John, she'd lighted on the beautifully crafted negligees, that had not so beautifully crafted prices to go with them. But that didn't matter on this occasion, because Jo was getting just as much pleasure out of buying it, as she hoped she would by one day seeing George wear it. Rifling through the hangers until one particular one caught her eye, she fervently hoped that George wouldn't think her silly for buying her something like this. Jo was, to a certain extent, doing it on a whim, doing what she felt like doing, which was what George seemed to make her do so easily. Then, Jo saw the perfect thing. It was made of a soft, silky material that would slide effortlessly over the skin, and was in a beautifully translucent duck-egg blue, and by the looks of it, would stop just above George's knees. A blue silk belt would tie in front, allowing instant access to the woman inside it as a matter of course. Jo held up the hanger, trying to picture the negligee on George, and wondering if the colour would be right for her, when she got the fright of her life.

Yvonne had been strolling casually along the Knightsbridge street, occasionally glancing in the shop windows, when she'd caught sight of Jo, with a furtive look about her, that told Yvonne that Jo was doing something secret. Jo didn't so much as glance her way when she walked into the shop, and as Yvonne approached her, she could see that Jo was looking at a beautiful, silk negligee. Stepping stealthily up behind her, Yvonne leaned over her shoulder, and broke in on Jo's contemplation of the garment in her hand.

"My, my," She said, in a low, sultry tone that she might once have used on an enemy. "The Judge is going to be a lucky man." Whirling round with the offending article in her hand, Jo breathed a little sigh of relief when she saw who it was.

"Jesus Christ, Yvonne," She said in shock. "Don't do that!"

"Sorry," Yvonne said with a laugh. "But you looked so furtive, and as if you were committing an extremely serious crime, that I just couldn't resist."

"And I suppose that's how you've always surprised those you've felt it necessary to disturb," Jo said dryly, beginning to relax a little more.

"You never quite lose the knack," Yvonne said with a smile. "So, what has the Judge done to deserve seeing you in something quite so sexy?" Jo couldn't help it, she blushed a crimson that would have done a sunset proud. "Ah, not for the Judge then," Yvonne deduced at Jo's embarrassment. "Go on," She invited. "I love a mystery."

"It's a birthday present for someone," Jo brought out eventually.

"Well, well, how delightfully sinful of you, Mrs. Mills," Yvonne mocked affectionately. "The only time I would ever have thought of buying something like that for someone's birthday present, would have been for Karen, which leads me to suggest that there's a very lucky lady somewhere who is being kept very much under wraps."

"You could say that," Jo replied uncomfortably.

"Don't look like that," Yvonne said, feeling a little remorse for badgering Jo for information like that. "She must be worth it if you're shopping in somewhere like this."

"She is," Jo said with a soft smile.

"So, come on then, why not pay for that, before you change your mind, and we'll go for a coffee." Jo glanced at her watch.

"I do have an hour before I need to be in court."

"Well, there you are then." Without further ado, they moved to the counter, and Jo dug out her visa card.

When they'd left the shop behind, Jo carrying a discretely coloured bag, they found a nearby coffee shop, and sat at a table outside, with a waitress bringing them two espressos.

"Well then," Yvonne prompted, once they'd both lit up cigarettes. "Tell all."

"I can't," Jo said, taking a long and grateful drag.

"Why, do I know her?" Yvonne asked.

"Yvonne, I mean it," Jo insisted. "This is absolutely not for public consumption."

"Calm down," Yvonne reassured her. "I'm just curious, that's all. We all thought you were straight."

"So did I," Jo said ruefully. "But then, didn't you, before you found yourself with Karen?"

"Yeah, I did," Yvonne said, remembering. "And if it'd lasted longer, it would have been perfect. I've never felt quite as mad, or as free, or as young and stupidly naive as I did with Karen." Jo smiled.

"That's how it feels for me sometimes. It's almost as if I'm sixteen again."

"It sounds like you're hooked, good and proper," Yvonne observed seriously.

"When I'm with her, I can't seem to keep my hands off her," Jo admitted, blushing scarlet at her confession.

"Oh, you really have got it bad," Yvonne said with a smile.

"So, what are you doing round here this afternoon?" Jo asked, thinking that they'd talked for quite long enough about her.

"I'm supposed to be meeting my accountant, and I had a bit of time to kill. Jo, have you seen Karen recently?"

"Last weekend. Why?"

"We had a bit of a row, a couple of weeks ago, and I said something to her that I really shouldn't have done. I virtually accused her of being the reason why Lauren was where she is."

"Oh, Yvonne!" Jo protested vehemently.

"Yeah, I know, I know," Yvonne said regretfully. "It was just something that was said in the heat of the moment."

"I don't care what it takes, Yvonne, but you must apologise to her for that," Jo insisted.

"Ain't that easy though, is it," Yvonne said ruefully.

"No, it's not," Jo said kindly, thinking that if the day ever came when George gave Karen up for her, she, Jo, would be in a similar boat. "But you really must try."

"Is she happy, with George I mean?" Yvonne asked, wanting yet not wanting to know.

"Yes, I think so," Jo said a little guardedly, willing herself to go on meeting Yvonne's gaze. Yvonne watched as Jo's eyes faintly flickered at the mention of George's name, staring at Jo as the pieces of the jigsaw began slipping into place. Jo was a little unnerved by Yvonne's penetrating gaze, and she strove to keep her eyes open and honest, but she could feel Yvonne as if she were methodically rifling through the contents of her mind. Before Jo could stop her, Yvonne reached for the boutique bag, glancing inside to take a look at the label on the negligee.

"Hmm," She said almost meditatively. "The only person I know who would fit a size eight is George. Am I right?"

"What makes you say that?" Jo asked evasively, knowing she was skating on thin ice.

"I may not be in the actual business of the law, Jo," Yvonne said with a wry smile. "But I didn't learn Charlie Atkins' methods of prosecution for nothing. It's no skin off my nose if it is George, because I barely know her." But Jo could see that it was. Yvonne was concerned purely for Karen, though she wasn't willing to say as much.

"Now do you see why I didn't want to tell you?" Jo said quietly.

"Jo, if she makes you happy, then that's all that matters, where anyone's concerned," Yvonne told her, forcing a genuine smile onto her face. They stayed silent for a little while, both finishing their coffee. "Karen's going to get hurt, isn't she," Yvonne said eventually, putting her one misgiving into words.

"Yes, I think so," Jo said regretfully. "As for when, I couldn't possibly tell you, and believe me, that is the last thing I want to do."

"I know," Yvonne told her honestly. "If there's one thing I know about you, Jo, it's that you don't do something that might hurt someone else's feelings, unless you absolutely have to. I've always known that." Jo was incredibly touched at this bluntly stated piece of sentiment, and a little while later, when they parted, Yvonne giving her a quick, impulsive hug, Jo walked towards her car, wondering just why her relationships always managed to cause people harm. Her relationship with John had done that, and here she was, heading down the same road of guilt and dishonesty with George.

Part One Hundred And Thirty

The nightmare of Helen's day started to be lived at this point.

"My life is just such a mess…I've got nothing to do, nothing to live for. It's over before it ever started…."

To Helen, the patient was frightening in his negativity. His voice was very soft, very slow and cracked. It sounded like a wind up clock that had run down almost to nothing. The merest layman could tell that he had actually come to the session, stoned out of his skull, oblivious of the paraphernalia of drugs testing and, worse, her disapproval. He was in the depths of depression and had slid downhill since the last session two weeks ago. At least his surly aggression of last time showed some spark of life and was reassuring in retrospect.

"But what about your friends?" Helen gently interposed.

"Them?" he almost whispered in faint contempt. "they just want to keep me strung out on the stuff. That's all they ever wanted. They're no friends of mine…"

His words petered out and came to a stop as his eyelids drooped down over his eyes. He was in danger of slumping forward over her desk as his back bowed forward in the slowest of slow motions. His left hand, which had lain on the desk, started to move sideways and dropped down limply. Helen said nothing but, in her mind was seriously alarmed at his behaviour. She might have to phone 999 and get the ambulance to screech its way, alarm ringing. Just at that point, he jerked himself upright and his eyes half opened.

"I'm sorry, what was I saying just now?"

"You were saying that the friends you keep are no friends of yours," Helen spoke in very precise tones. Jesus, every time she had seen him, he had kept up some sort of appearance to look drug free no matter how disordered his life was in between whiles.

"I said that? Must have been dreaming. They spend time with me or else I'd be alone. They need me and I need them….."

A thought spiked its way into Helen's thoughts. This was a million miles away from the way there was real friendship at Larkhall. She was part of it when she had spent as many days as she could with Yvonne, Karen, Roisin, Cassie and George. Any one of them would have helped her out unselfishly without any thought of self. This young man's idea of friendship was a million miles away from this.

"I could give it all up if I wanted to, knock everything on the head and clean up so that I don't have to suffer any more."

Helen had heard this sort of talk before as sheer fantasy without an ounce of will behind it. She knew what strength of will was. There was not that determination such as Nikki had shown. She could remember those feelings of admiration for the spirit Nikki had shown in fighting for what she believed when she was way down in the pecking order. That was sheer courage of a high order. It was a shame that she couldn't paint this in pictures for him and even halfway inspire him. It was all a different world for him.

Nevertheless, it was the first time that he had ever uttered those words of his own volition, without being prompted. She had to put it to the test.

"Would you really want to live so that you won't have to worry about being ill if you don't take drugs? You would get your freedom."

"Yeah, that sounds good. I'd get some peace. I won't have to worry anymore……"

A faint smile spread over his slightly stubbly features and for the first time since he was her patient, she noticed his eyes looking at her. His eyes were blue, like his mother's.

"If you really want to give up, you wouldn't find it that easy but you would feel better about yourself, that you had done something yourself and for the good."

Helen's voice was soft but with a concealed intensity of expression but not enough to frighten him away and make him feel pathetically inadequate before this small, very powerful woman who had all the qualities that he lacked.

"Yeah, I know it sounds so tough but what you say sounds so good……"

His voice trailed away dreamily and worried Helen. His words sounded dangerously like those spoken in some drug fantasy. It was so easy of him to pretend to be the person who he wanted to be until it was put to the test and for him to shrink back into his cocoon of apathetic misery. At least it was a form of hell that he was familiar with.

"Your problem is that you are in some nameless street where the neighbours don't know and if anything bad ever happened to you, there is the danger that no one would know. Whereas if you decided to have inpatient care, everything would be taken care of for you. You would be in a specialist hospital ward where there would be nurses on hand, doctors on hand and I would be able to come in and monitor the help you needed on a regular basis."

"You mean to go in for detox?" For the first time, the patient's voice rose in tone, almost shouting. He was going into a blind panic. He had heard about places like this where he'd be shivering in his hospital bed and he'd be trapped. None of his friends would come anywhere near the place. It wouldn't be safe. That was what they'd always told him and they had all frightened each other with what it meant. It was as deeply engrained in that primal fear area as other people's fear of snakes or spiders. He couldn't do that, he just couldn't.

"I know what that means. I'd be in agony and throwing up and none of the nurses would help me out. They would never give me what I want……."

"Like your mother?" Helen interjected. She had heard him talk very negatively about his mother and if she wasn't able to stop him backing away from inpatient treatment, then he would be forced to deal with what his mother was really like and face himself. She had the nasty sinking feeling that she was running out of options with this man.

"Leave my mother out of it," He said in his former surly manner.

"For the moment." She deliberately paused to let her words sink in to tell him she wouldn't let him off the hook any more than his mother did.

"I wanted to say that hospital would be able to patch up your arm, Again I'm no medical doctor but even I can see that you're in serious danger of contracting an infection. If you don't care, then as a professional I do."

"Like my mother?" He sneered.

Jesus, only anger seems to be the only thing going but at least half of it is directed at himself or he wouldn't self-harm.

"No way, I'm not going into one of those places. I'm …I'm not ready for it. Perhaps in a month's time, I'll be more up for it. You have to give me time……."

Helen mentally gave up on the idea. With a sickening feeling, she concluded that three months meant never. He was going to stall and twist and back away every time she mentioned it. It was like a mother gently coaxing a child to swallow a nasty cough syrup on the promise that it would do him good. She grasped for her second strand of conversation.

"Perhaps you'd better spit it out properly about your mother. We've been going in circles round this a number of sessions."

"You won't like it. You'll only interrupt."

"I'll make a deal with you," Helen started to say before cringing at her unfortunate choice of words. However, she looked into his eyes and she was relieved that, on the surface, there was nothing amiss.

"You talk for as long as you wish and I'll shut up until you tell me you're done."

"I'll tell you what it was like," He started. He was visibly encouraged that this psychologist had agreed so easily to his refusal. Getting his own way in ducking cheered him up no end. It was tragic that he could summon up the most determination and force of will in ducking out of life's challenges rather than facing up to them, like leaving home for university but he could never see it. He embarked on a long rambling diatribe until,

"She was never around for me. I might get a phone call from work asking if I was happy. I said yeah."

"Couldn't you have told her the truth?" Helen probed gently.

The man fell silent. It was as if the thought had never occurred to him.

"Don't you think that, when she was on her own looking after you, she needed to go to work to feed you? I get the idea that you didn't go without materially."

"I got nice presents at Christmas. That wasn't real love," He muttered.

"I've talked to you about choices from the moment you first walked through this door," Helen said in a firm determined voice.

"Yeah, you've nagged me about them like…."

"Your mother?" Helen brightly asked and the patient's best adolescent sullen look answered her.

"I was going to talk about choices your mother had to make in life. Try to look at it like a book you will have read, that you'd got to the middle of it and which your mother had to write….."

Helen could see that her slowly delivered words had grabbed his interest, however insecurely, and the he felt less threatened. She drew a faint breath of relief that she might start to get somewhere.

"….She was alone with a child to bring up. She had a very young baby to bring up. She had a line of work which was the only thing that gave her security, that and her love for you. What should she do?"

"It doesn't matter. She did what she did."

"She could have given up her job and looked after you full-time. She could have claimed social security like a lot of mothers. Only she would he as short of money as you are, seeing bills not paid, not feeding you properly, looking at an empty pantry and a purse with nothing in it, only wishing that she could give you the things in life which she wanted to give, to take you out, not on fancy foreign holidays, but for a day at the zoo, out in the country , the sort of little things that need a car to take you there. She did all these things for you, for your future…"

"She did it for a career."

"And she wanted more than anything else for you to be strong, happy and for you to have a comfortable future. Is that such a crime?"

Helen's voice became more impassioned to try and put some sort of spirit into this man. This was not something she had read out of a women's magazine. This was something that she could see through the very loving eyes of Crystal and josh and their two adorable children. Their house was not posh and like something out of "Changing Rooms" but a home and, yes, something she wanted for her own life and Nikki's.

"It didn't stop her from pissing off to work at a drop of a hat when someone told her to. She didn't seem sorry to go."

"Perhaps you and your mother have one thing in common," Helen said softly. "You're not so good at expressing your feelings."

That brought the man up short. That had never occurred to him, so focussed in was he on his own feelings. It was hard to think how his mother felt. It made his headache.

"So can you consider the possibility that every time your mother stepped out the door, there was an ache in her heart that she was leaving you, that she blamed herself for being a 'part time mother' as if fathers should not have the same hang up? What's the difference, after all?"

The man shook his head. This determined woman was upsetting one of the few foundations he felt he had in his life, his resentment of his mother. He closed his eyes as if his head hurt. Helen, on the other hand, felt satisfaction that at least she had blown a fierce bracing blast of air through that drugged up catatonic state of mind. Getting him to half way listen was a hell of an achievement.

"Only if we talk about your self harming. It is that, isn't it, and not you falling down a flight of stairs."

"All right, so I took a knife and cut my arm. It was blunt or I'd have been in hospital.Typical me, can't even top myself properly."

"So why do you do it?" Helen asked very softly, the man's absolute self-hatred naked in its ugliness before her. She had to go easy on him

"Same reason I mess up in my life. At least cutting my arm is my decision, not something happening to me, something that's going bad on me."

"So you do it to give you self control?"

Again, those blue eyes opened wide as those astonishing words crept into his hearing mind. He just thought he did it because he was depressed and couldn't take it any more.

"It might be something like that. So what do I do about it?"

His eyes, for the first time, looked beseechingly at her. What could she do about it? She was subtly being asked to be his minder and that was breaking her fundamental rule. Only he could do it for himself and he needed the right setting. Detox could do that for him and, with inpatient care, everything would fall so beautifully into place, like a child's building blocks. She ran her tongue across her lips and glanced down to look at her desk for the first time this session. Then she looked up and the man read the answer in her mind before she spoke.

"It would fit in so well….if you had inpatient treatment. Everything would fit in so well. I promise I would give you all the help I can."

Instantly the shutters went up in his mind. In his mind, he ran away from this with all the agility of an antelope on the plains of Africa when a lion pounced on the herd. She could see the blind panic in his eyes however much he tried to hide it. She even knew that he was all the more angry as he knew that she could see into this mind, even this little snippet of knowledge.

"You're trying to trick me. You're just like my mother. I want to go now." He spat out the words.

Politely, she ran through the available dates in her book for the next appointment and let him leave. She had lost this battle.

A little while after seeing the next patient who was coming on well, she could not help thinking of his mother. She was getting seriously alarmed enough to wonder if she should break her professional confidence and tell her. The immense satisfaction that she got as a psychologist was that the "do's" and "don't" of this job was founded on well thought out psychological truths where the consequences of transgressing the rules would rebound so obviously on her. Life as a wing governor sometimes felt like observing the ancient rituals of a Masonic order when the old style reactionary ideas were barely being challenged. Any progress to subvert this was thanks to the hard slog of pioneers like herself, which had gone on to benefit Karen and, in its turn, Nikki. She could see so clearly the other side of the argument, of mixing her professional and personal life and clouding her judgement. She hadn't had a crisis of conscience up till now but this was definitely one. She needed to get advice on this one. At least life had taught her over the years not to be too proud to do this.

Part 131

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