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.
1. Kevin Maguire Wednesday April 14, 2004 The Guardian
2.Daily Mirror Jun 30 2004 EXCLUSIVE: Minister's advice on firing benefit staff By Clinton Manning
3. Public Commercial Services union website news item July 2004 about actual planned cuts to the DTI.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETAED: by Jen.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and Thirty One

On the following Friday, Karen thought it might just be time to let Gina and Dominic in on who Gina's replacement would almost certainly be within a few weeks time. There wasn't any doubt in Karen's mind that Nikki would complete the four-week Prison Officer training course successfully, which would mean that Gina could go back into uniform within a month. She couldn't help breaking into a broad grin whenever she visualised what both Di's and Sylvia's reactions would be to Nikki's appointment. But they wouldn't find out until Nikki was introduced to them as their new Wing Governor. Gina and Dominic would have to be sworn to secrecy, and possibly threatened with instant dismissal if they revealed it before the time was right. Gina was on the phone when Karen knocked on her office door, but she gestured for Karen to come in and sit down. When she replaced the receiver, she said,

"That was the lab with the most recent MDT's," She said, referring to the monthly mandatory drug tests.

"Denny's come out positive for speed."

"I think it's time we had something of a case conference about her, don't you," Karen said regretfully.

"Yeah, something's got to be done about her," Gina agreed. "Or she's going to end up bouncing between the wing and the block for the rest of her sentence, if it ever comes to an end, which at this rate it won't."

"Okay, leave it with me," Karen replied. "Obviously it'll involve you, Dominic, as he's her personal officer, Dr. Waugh, and it probably wouldn't do any harm to get Yvonne involved in this."

"She was in visiting Lauren last weekend, and I heard her asking about you. Have you two had a fight or something?" Very occasionally, Karen could curse Gina's level of intuition and nosiness to hell and back.

"She blames me for Denny's current state, because I took Denny to see Shell."

"This ain't got nothing to do with Dockley," Gina said without a doubt. "This is just Denny going off on one, and trying to get some more attention. As long as we show her who's boss, she'll calm down soon enough."

"I'm not sure it's that simple," Karen said, knowing that this had far too much to do with Shell.

"So, what did you really come down here for?" Gina asked, wanting to change the subject.

"Ah, to give you some good news," Karen said with a widening smile. "I've found your successor, and if all goes to plan, she should be starting on the twentieth of June."

"Jesus, so soon?" Gina said in surprise. "Who is she?"

"You're not going to believe this," Karen said with a sly little smirk. "But it's Nikki Wade."

"Oh, pull the other one," Said Gina disbelievingly.

"I'm serious," Karen told her. "With her second appeal, Nikki's criminal record was wiped clean. So, I put the idea to Area, and after a few fireworks aimed rather successfully at my head, they agreed to give her an interview. Nikki had her interview, and impressed everyone there. Well, except Alison Warner, but that was no surprise. She's already started the prison officer training course, and as long as she passes with flying colours, she'll be joining the ranks in just over three weeks."

"Jesus," Gina said in awe. "Are you looking for your own personal death squad? Because I can assure you that that's what Di and Sylvia will become when they hear this. But yeah, I can sort of see Nikki doing this job. Who'd know more about this place than an ex-con." Gina began to laugh. "You're bloody mental, you are. I knew something was up when you brought Helen Stewart round the other week, but I never thought it was something like this. I can't wait to see Sylvia's face. Can I be the one to tell her, please?"

"We'll see," Karen said with a grin. "But you can't tell anyone yet, except Dominic. This has to be kept as secret as the pope's inside leg measurement for the time being. I don't want to give anyone time to muster up any official opposition to this."

"So, you're not going to announce the identity of my replacement until she actually starts work?" Gina couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"Not if I can help it," Karen clarified. "The shock is just too good to waste, don't you think?" Gina was about to reply, when the phone rang.

"It's Dominic," She said, putting the phone down. "Denny's fighting with Al, and he wants some help."

"And if Denny's on speed, she could do anything," Karen finished Gina's thought as they walked rapidly towards the wing.

They could hear the shouting long before they reached the wing, and as they let themselves through the gate, Karen's muttered "Shit," seemed to sum up the situation. Denny and Al were in the middle of the association area, with fists and feet flying, beating the crap out of each other, whilst surrounding them, were the vast majority of the other inmates, some cheering either one of them on, and others, like the Julies, trying to persuade her to stop.

"What the hell started all this off?" Karen demanded of Sylvia, who didn't appear to be doing anything to stop it.

"Drugs, what else?" Sylvia replied curtly.

"Get this lot banged up, immediately," Karen told her firmly.

"What do you think I am?" Sylvia demanded hotly. "Superwoman?"

"Not by the look of you, no," Gina replied disgustedly.

"You, Dominic, Di, and whoever else you can get off their arse for five minutes, get as many of them banged up as possible," Karen ordered. "I don't want this turning into a riot." Not needing to be told twice, Gina did as she was asked. Karen couldn't get near the two fighting bundles of muscle, until a sizable proportion of the inmates had been moved away. Once a space had been cleared, Karen approached them carefully, remembering the advice she'd once been given about not trying to separate two fighting dogs, but if she didn't try, they would almost certainly beat each other to death. Neither Denny nor Al took any notice of their Governing Governor as she approached, both of them locked into that world of determination to win, no matter what the consequences. Trying to judge when the moment would be right, Karen stepped up to them, doing her best to avoid the still flailing limbs. Suddenly, taking both Al and Denny by surprise, she grabbed them each by an upper arm and hauled them apart. As Al looked like protesting, Karen tightened her grip until she relaxed, but this didn't prevent Denny from acting as if Al were still under her battering hands. Hearing the slightly uneven, shallow breathing that made the presence of cracked ribs almost a certainty, Karen told Selena and Colin to take her straight to the hospital wing. Turning back to Denny, who was still trying to detach herself from Karen's grip, Karen shouted at her.

"If you don't want to spend the rest of your sentence in solitary, stop, this, right, now!"

"I'll kill the bitch," Denny said through gritted teeth, and Karen could see the wild look in her eyes, the pinpoint pupils of someone on some kind of energy enhancing drug.

"You think this type of behaviour is clever, do you?" Karen demanded, reaching to take hold of Denny's other arm. But before she could, and as if in some sort of answer, Denny's right fist whistled through the air towards Karen's face, crashing into her skin with a sickening thud. Barely flinching, as this would give Denny all the advantage, Karen briefly appeared to take over where Al had left off, coming in for a bleeding nose in the process. It didn't take her long to have Denny's arms pinned behind her, but by the time Gina clicked on the handcuffs, Karen could feel the blood running down onto her blouse.

"Get her down the block," She said bitterly, digging in her pocket for a tissue. As Gina and Dominic escorted Denny away, Gina and Denny both shouting threats and obscenities at each other, Karen walked over towards the gate. As she passed Sylvia, she took in the slight smirk on her face.

"Had a good laugh, did you?" She asked, lowering her voice to an angry, almost silky threat. "Because your lack of assistance will be noted on your file, sitting there waiting until the day I can finally sack you for incompetence. Keep acting like you did today, in not providing help when it's most needed, and that day won't be long in coming. Oh, you may think that you'll be able to get off lightly when Gina's replacement arrives, but I can assure you, you won't. She'll be my eyes and ears, keeping her eye on your every move. Is that quite clear?" All the colour had drained from Sylvia's face as Karen said this, both of them knowing that Sylvia certainly ought to have done more, and that to simply stand back and watch was as good as encouraging them to get on with it. Not waiting for an answer, Karen strode out of the wing, vowing to get every ounce of displeasure out of Sylvia, when she found out about Nikki's appointment.

Once back in her office, she began mopping herself up with the box of tissues on her desk. As she did this, she came to a decision. Denny's behaviour had gone beyond a simple case of attention seeking. It was time to bring everyone concerned with her together, and soon, not in a week's or a fortnight's time, but as soon as possible. Picking up the phone with a certain amount of resolve, she dialed Yvonne's number.

"Yvonne, it's Karen," She said, on hearing Yvonne's voice.

"Karen," Yvonne said in surprise, never having thought Karen would make the first move. "How are you?"

"Oh, apart from just having separated a fight, I'm fine. How about you?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Listen, I need to apologise. I shouldn't have said what I did to you, and I'm sorry."

"Apology accepted," Karen said with a small smile. "Though that's not why I rang."

"Sweetheart, are you all right?" Yvonne asked, hearing something wrong with Karen's voice, almost as if she'd been crying.

"I've just been given a black eye and a nose bleed, by your oh so lovely surrogate daughter, and I'm bloody furious. I was going to ring you about her anyway today, because she's tested positive for speed, but that was before I ended up in the middle of a fight between her and Al. I'm sorry, Yvonne, but I had to put her down the block, at least until she cools off."

"Hey, don't apologise," Yvonne reassured her. "I'd have done exactly the same. Either that, or dunked her under a cold shower. Do you think she was fighting with McKenzie over drugs?"

"It's more than likely. We'll have both their cells searched, but something's got to be done. Al McKenzie's almost certainly got a couple of cracked ribs, and I can't turn a blind eye to that kind of behaviour. I think it's time for everyone involved with Denny's case to get together and discuss what we're going to do about her."

"I haven't got any better ideas," Yvonne said ruefully. "So yeah, go for it. Do you want me there?"

"Yes please. You know her better than anyone. I was thinking about Monday morning, because we really can't leave it any later than that. Gina will be there, plus Dominic, myself, and Dr. Waugh."

"I'm willing to try anything for Denny, you know that," Said Yvonne sincerely.

"And we'll do everything we can to help her," Karen replied, briefly wondering if it was too late to make it up to Yvonne for all the mistakes she'd made in the passed year and a half.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Two

Dominic viewed the closing door to the Prison Officer's room with narrowed eyes, which were full of contempt. Di Barker and Sylvia had just scuttled out of the room with grins all over their faces. To his eyes, that meant not the ordinary unselfish happiness with the world around them but malicious glee at someone else's misfortune. It didn't take rocket science to work out what caused the fight during which Karen had been hurt.

It had shocked him the very first day when he had seen Di again to tell how much she had changed for the worse since he was last at Larkhall. He could remember her as a friendly woman, slightly dippy but well meaning who hung round him a lot. The first time he saw her, she directed a very cold look at him, turned her back to him and carried on gassing away to Sylvia, her one time enemy. Her behaviour in the Lauren Atkins trial finally blackened her in his eyes. Never mind, he thought to himself philosophically, his errand was achieved and he could get back out onto the wing till his shift had ended.

He shook his head and grinned to himself as he joined Selena on the wing. She was a good sort, polite and enthusiastic, a bit like he was when he had first started. His mouth made all the right noises and his eyes took in all around him but his mind was elsewhere. It was the bombshell that Gina had dropped on him of his new wing governor being Nikki Wade of all people. One look at Gina's face persuaded him that she wasn't pulling his leg. Once her explanation sank in, he found that he could go with the flow on this one. There must be a very compelling reason why Nikki, of all people, had volunteered to go back to Larkhall and that she must have good reasons to take on the job.

His mind took him back to his early days and when she gradually assumed a very nebulous but very real position of semi official power. There were incredible bittersweet moments around that time that he would never erase from his memories even if he had wanted to. In particular, he remembered Nikki's very light footfall that broke in on his thoughts as he walked round the exercise yard on a perfect sunny spring morning. Inside his mind, there was darkness and conflict as his conscience reproached him for that very gentle kiss he had exchanged with Zandra Plackett. It seemed to him to be the first small footstep on the downward staircase to Jim Fenner's moral standards or lack of them. In any way the inexorable advance of Zandra's illness made it all the more painful to think of what he would come to lose. Either way, he wasn't going to win.

They slid into a naturally companionable conversation as they strolled along and he remembered saying that he was thinking about not carrying on as Zandra's personal officer. Of course, he had not told her in so many words about the place in his heart that Zandra had come to occupy but Nikki knew.

"What's more important though, that someone who's had nothing but shit all her life has a little bit of love at the last minute or that you have the satisfaction of knowing that you haven't broken any rules."

That level gaze, her gentle words told him that she knew everything that was going on in his mind. It pulled everything together and made total sense. Whatever he knew that was coming up ahead was made at least bearable.

"What I'm saying is, don't beat yourself up about it."

He could vividly remember that feeling of release that those words of wisdom and sympathy for him had gently tapped him in the right direction. At that moment, she was his boss and he, the novice in the combined art of dealing with human feelings and to sense out what was right and what was wrong. He awoke from his torments to realise what a lovely day it was outside and that he had somehow never noticed it. That moment of calm lasted far longer than anything a clock measured out in time. Then, in slow motion, she moved on. He stood still, facing into the sunlight and saw Nikki walking away with her arms folded round her breasts as she seemed to sail sedately onwards like some elegant old time clipper ship blown by a gentle wind, at peace with the elements. Yes, she had answered his thoughts and not his words and when he came to think about it, Nikki being wing governor was easily possible……….

In a smoky, ill-lit corner of the social club, Di and Bodybag had that furtive, conspiratorial manner about them. They occupied the smallest table, chosen to shut out any intruders so that they could whisper to each other. It was in keeping with their devious characters that they knew how to whisper that way.

"I saw Madam get a black eye from Denny Blood, one of the Governor's very own favourites," Bodybag started, a malicious smile on her face as she licked her lips after tossing out the dainty morsel as an appetiser.

"Get away," Di appeared to contradict her. "You mean the woman who can do no wrong who Miss Betts smiles at as if she were a life long friend."

"The very same. I remember ages ago how she volunteered herself to take her to Atkins's house for a day's holiday in that gangster's moll's house. Now look how her plans to reform Blood have turned out. As my mother always said, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. A leopard doesn't change her spots, not someone who graduated in how to be a hardened criminal from Shell Dockley, another psychopath that Madam was far too soft on."

"Tell me more, Sylv," Di urged, her eyes unhealthily agleam in anticipation.

"I saw Blood come out of her cell looking as if she was drugged up. There was that mad glare in her eyes and the way she stomped around. That psycho nearly bumped into me and didn't hear a single word I said to watch where she was going. She marched away to Al McKenzie when she poked her nose out of her cell."

"Next thing, she'll try to reform her as well and blame it all on us if it turns out wrong," Di said vengefully.

"Anyway, Blood started shouting all kinds of gibberish and McKenzie wasn't any better with that accent of hers. Someone like her needs everything she says sub titling before you can understand the slightest thing she's saying."

"That's a good one," Di laughed.

"Anyway, they started knocking the hell out of each other and that do gooder Dominic comes up and phoned Madam on the mobile. They were at it hammer and tongs when she arrived to see the floorshow. The rest of the cons were cheering on each side, making a dickens of a row. She wanted me to get everyone banged up but I stayed out of it. I mean why should I risk getting attacked? I'm not Action Woman even if she thinks she is."

"Quite, Sylv."

"I mean, if I was enjoying what was going on, why should I spoil the prisoner's harmless bit of fun?" Bodybag proclaimed with breathtakingly hypocritical regard for the prisoner's welfare. "Mind you, she never allowed me the chance to explain myself properly that if they wore each other out, they would quieten down. That's not her 'do gooder' style."

"She doesn't listen to good advice apart from a 'select few' of those in her inner circle."

"And we don't belong here with our age and experience."

"Aye, that's right enough."

"So she grabs hold of both of them and Denny turns round and whacks her one right in the eye. That shiner will go all the different colours of the rainbow and take a week or more to settle down. There was mayhem till Blood got hauled off to the block."

"I bet that spoilt her 'I'm so perfect looks'," Di laughed. It gave her great satisfaction to think that there came a time in everybody's life that they couldn't flaunt what nature had given them with no real merit. It was so bloody unfair the rotten deals you got out of life. Betts deserved it and had had something like that coming to her for a long time.

"I remember if a prisoner as much as raised her hand to a prison officer, never mind the Governing Governor and she was ghosted out so quick that her feet didn't touch the ground."

"I can remember it was still that way when I joined up," Di Barker reminisced dreamily. "Everything was simpler in those days."At least Denny Blood will have to cool off for a few weeks."

"Don't count on it, Di," Bodybag's gloomy tones of warning gave her a paradoxical sense of satisfaction. "I wouldn't be surprised if she isn't up on the wing in a matter of days.

"You can't be serious."

Up till then, Di had been content to trade commonplace prejudiced in that intense way that she got worked up about things. At this point, her blue eyes opened wide and an expression of shock and horror spread over her face. She had gradually come to believe that the prison service was gradually going to the dogs. The training schools were slapdash these days and the wrong sort of women were coming into the prison service.

In her turn, Bodybag nursed her glass of orange and sipped from it as her dark imaginings towered like storm clouds into her sky. There was something she had heard and she eventually found it in her memory, which could be tenacious, if her own selfish self-interest was involved.

"There's something going on that Madam is plotting. She said something about Gina's replacement that she'd keep an eye on us."

"You know I was wondering how long Gina was going to act up as Wing Governor. Surely there's something in the rules that, after so many months, they have to get a replacement that's permanent. Otherwise, they could go on for ever and it only means that we are one PO down."

She had not really thought of this one in advance but it didn't do to look totally stupid, even in front of Sylvia.

"You don't suppose that Stewart is coming back. She was swanning around like the Queen of Sheba not so long ago."

"She couldn't come back. Not a third time." Di was outraged at the thought and it showed.

"The POA wouldn't allow it, mark my words. They would be up in arms at the very idea."

"You never know, Sylv. These are strange times and you can't put anything past those in charge. The Prison Service is crying out for good officers and for Wing Governors. That Josh Mitchell got to become a PO after being the handyman."

"It won't happen, Di," Sylvia said kindly. Di was really getting worked up by anything she said. "It would be against everything I know about the prison service and if Jim Fenner were here alive today, God rest his soul, he would say the same."

Di sniffled a bit into her little lace handkerchief and a half smile crept its way round her face. Sylv had been around for a long time. At the end of the day, she trusted her to tell her what was what.

"I don't think it will happen. Mark my words, it will be some young upstart with a psychology degree or something equally useless and impractical. That's the sort of high faluting woman that Karen likes. She'll have a head full of theory and no jail craft. She'll have come across her on one of her many free jaunts to Area, or at some conference. Whoever she is, she'll think of her as the bee's knees. The main thing is that she won't know the difference between the threes and the servery. We can pull all sort of flankers on her and she'll never notice a thing." Sylvia laughed gleefully. She sensed the prospect of her freedom coming as much as any con did when their time was up. The trouble with Gina was that she knew too damned much about the place for her own good and Bodybag's.

"Do you reckon, Sylv? This place isn't what it was. We've got Dominic back for one. God knows what I ever saw in him."

"You and Dominic? Well, I never. You kept it quiet," Bodybag said with heavy-handed coyness.

"It was never serious. It was only one of those fancies that you get over." Di lied twice in quick succession. Then to cover her faint embarrassment at having let something slip even to Sylvia, she hurried onwards. "Then there's that Selena and Colin Hedges, both goody goodies in her club."

"Don't worry so, Di. So long as we stick together, we'll be all right. Another drink?"

"Yeah, twist my arm.The others can wait……"

They laughed together as, after all, they deserved the occasional little perk from time to time and the others could lump it until they were ready to come back.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Three

On the Saturday afternoon, Karen arrived at the rehearsal feeling bruised, apprehensive and thoroughly out of sorts. She wasn't looking forward to facing all the questions, and the curious glances. Denny's fist had really meant business when it had crashed into her face, and Karen had woken up this morning with her left eye barely able to open. She'd contemplated not going to the rehearsal, but they only had one more after this before the performance. She stood outside smoking, trying to work out what she would say to anyone stupid enough to ask her how she'd ended up looking like the archetypal battered wife. When John arrived with George, Karen knew that her endless stream of explanations was about to begin. As soon as they saw Karen, a protective instinct seemed to rise up in both of them.

"Which angelic little darling gave you that then?" George asked without preamble.

"Denny," Karen told them bleakly.

"It looks sore," John said, reaching out to gently touch the bruise just under Karen's eye.

"Don't," She said quietly, unable to stop herself from flinching away from his touch.

"That's not like you," John said in concern.

"Really," Karen said bitterly, knowing he was right, but not wanting to explain her aversion to touch here and now. "Tell me," She demanded acidly. "When was the last time you were on the wrong end of a fist?"

"I can't remember," John answered her blandly.

"Darling, are you all right?" George asked, a worried expression on her face.

"Fine," Karen said tightly. "I'm sorry, it just wound me up a bit, that's all." Clearly seeing that this wasn't all by any means, George strove to lighten the situation.

"Well, that's the last time I give her a cigarette," She said, referring to the one evening she'd spent on G wing, in the middle of Lauren's trial.

"Since when were you in the vicinity of any of Karen's inmates? Unless you're referring to the time I sentenced you to it."

"She isn't," Karen told him.

"Well she, didn't tell me about that," John said sternly.

"It wasn't exactly a big deal," George replied, knowing that he would probably be a little angry about this.

"Yes, it was," Karen said with a mirthless laugh.

"Come on," John insisted. "I want to know about this."

"Well, leave me out of it," Karen said tiredly. "It was George's decision, and I've heard enough arguments in the last week to last me a life time." As John and George left her to go inside, still fondly bickering, Karen slumped back into her despondency. She didn't know why the incident with Denny had got to her so much, except that it had given her a similar feeling to that she'd felt on the night Fenner was stabbed. In trying to kill the man who had then been her lover, Shell was irrevocably breaking her trust, showing her that all the help and support she'd given her didn't matter. Karen knew that wasn't how it had actually been, but that was how it had felt. Now, with Denny, she felt as though the bond of trust had been broken once more. She'd given Denny every opportunity to keep her nose clean, more than she'd probably deserved, and Denny had quite literally thrown it back in her face. When she saw Jo and Roisin walking towards her, she gave them a lopsided smile.

"Oh, dear," Roisin said in sympathy. "I can see what sort of a week you've had."

"This is what it's going to be like all afternoon, isn't it," Karen said ruefully.

"Is that what they call a perk of the job?" Jo asked, thinking that Karen had more stamina and inner strength than she would have.

"That's one way of putting it," Karen said dryly.

"That looks like an Al McKenzie bruise to me," Said Roisin, examining it critically.

"Close," Karen told her. "I broke up a fight between her and Denny, and because Denny was on speed, I'm certain McKenzie came off worse for once."

"Please tell me I didn't ever do that?" Roisin asked, clearly worried as to the answer. Karen gave a small laugh.

"No, not even in your few moments of heightened energy, did you do anything like this." At Jo's slightly stunned expression, Roisin said kindly,

"Oh, don't look so surprised. It's not exactly a secret that I wasn't a model prisoner."

"Hey," Karen reassured her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I've had far worse, believe me." As Jo lit a cigarette and Roisin went inside, Karen thought just how much Roisin had changed since she was in prison, and searching for anything to blot out the pain.

Roisin," Jo said eventually. "She, well, she..."

"Doesn't look the type?" Karen finished for her. "No, I know she doesn't. But at one time, there wasn't anything Roisin wouldn't do, to lay her hands on something that would take her away from where she was."

"Are you alright?" Jo asked in concern.

"No," Karen replied quietly. "I'm up to my limit with stress, I feel utterly humiliated, and I'm going through one of my periodic phases of loathing anyone else's touch, which is thoroughly stupid, because the one thing Fenner never actually did was hit me. I'm dreading going in there, because what I can really do without right now is more questions."

When they did finally enter the hall, every one of Karen's fears were proved right. All eyes turned on her, and she could feel their speculating minds at work. Ignoring the lot of them, and knowing that she was exhibiting nothing less than an utterly vile mood, she put her viola case down, removed her viola from the silken lining, and gave it a quick polish. All she wanted, was to play her part, be allowed to get on with it, and get out of there as quickly as possible, but that wasn't to be. Sir Ian Rochester, had been waiting for this opportunity. Karen Betts was the Governing Governor, who had put the ridiculous shambles of appointing an ex-prisoner as Wing Governor into action, and he'd been wanting an excuse to tell her what he thought of the idea ever since. Remembering what a fiasco Neumann Mason-Alan had made of questioning her, at the Lauren Atkins trial, He thought it might be a good idea to get him on side as well, give him some back up against Deed's latest conquest. Karen felt their intruding presence, long before she saw them, as if a steadily growing tide of treacle were lapping at her ankles.

"Ms Betts, or should I say Governor Betts, might we have a word?" Came Sir Ian Rochester's insipid enquiry.

"As long as it doesn't take more than two minutes," Karen replied curtly, in no mood for these two, today of all days. "I've got to tune up."

"That's a fairly ugly bruise," Sir Ian commented, looking closely at her face.

"Is that an observation," Karen answered him. "Or an enquiry after my health."

"Got it from a prisoner, did you?" Neumann Mason-Alan asked silkily. "Or will we soon be hearing in court, how yet another of your lovers has in some way hurt you."

"I think my love life's my business, don't you," Karen said mildly, inwardly seething at his inferences.

"After the pictures I saw of you, Ms Betts, I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that your favours have been spread far and wide."

"Are you still smarting over that little defeat?" Karen asked, almost in delight. "You really didn't like it, did you," She continued. "You really couldn't stand the fact that I walked out in the middle of your pathetic attempt at browbeating me, and even more so that I got away with it. Now then, what did you actually come over here for?" Karen asked, having already had more than enough from these two irritants.

"What I think Neumann is trying to say," Put in Sir Ian, before Mason-Alan could lose the argument before it had even started. "Is that appointing an ex-prisoner, might not be the way to decreasing the amount of violence within our prison system."

"Oh, is that all this is about," Said Karen dismissively. "All done and dusted, I'm afraid, with no going back. Nikki Wade has been appointed to the job of one of my Wing Governors, and anyone seeking to remove her at this late stage, will be stepping into the proverbial shark's nest, I can assure you."

"You would do well not to threaten those in authority over you," Sir Ian Rochester said icily.

"Is that right," Karen retorted smartly, suddenly realising that the room had gone silent and that she had an audience. "One, the Lord Chancellor's lackies, would do well not to get involved with things that clearly don't concern them, just because their safe haven of the old boys' network appears to be threatened. Two, if you can't even keep your own wife under control, Sir Ian, you might beware of trying to hold authority over those whom you can control even less, and three, if you'll excuse me, I have a viola to play." As she stalked over to her chair, she could feel the whole array of eyes on her. But as she passed between the first desk of cellos and the rostrum, Joe Channing gave her the ghost of a wink. But she was to receive further belief in her own ability to defend herself verbally, when she heard the combined growing laughter from both Neil and John. Neil had been proud of her for standing up for herself so magnificently, as had John, and when Karen had come to the end of her tirade, they had but to exchange one glance for their laughter to erupt.

As Karen sat down next to Michael Nivin, the voices began rising around her again.

"You certainly caused a stir," Michael said with a warm smile.

"It won't be the first time," Karen said dryly.

"I assume you were given that by one of your inmates?" He asked, gesturing to her bruise.

"Yes," Karen said with a sigh. "But I swear, if one more person asks me where I got it, I'll remove my A string and personally garrote them with it."

"Ah, then I'll be sure to look the other way," He told her conspiratorially.

"I'm sorry," Karen said apologetically. "I can really do without this rehearsal, that's all."

"I'm sure nobody would mind if you left," He told her kindly.

"What, and let Ian Rochester and his entourage think they've won? No chance." Just then, Neil came up to her.

"Before you ask," Put in Michael. "I must warn you that you're in grave danger of being forcefully dismembered."

"Oh, dear," Neil said with a smile. "All I wanted to know was who?" He said to Karen.

"Denny," She told him regretfully. "But I'm dealing with it, really."

"That's fine then," He said trustingly, knowing that she would ask for his help if she thought she needed it.

They had been joined by the chorus today, and as Vera Everard's droning voice got louder and louder, Karen wasn't the only one to feel the beginnings of a headache. All three soloists sang when they were asked, all trying to shut Vera's noise out from their minds. Sir James Valentine, sitting directly in front of the altos with his timps, was inwardly vowing to personally cut out Vera's vocal cords. When they came to 'The Marvelous Work Behold amazed', not even George was concerned about how she might sound, compared to the positively tuneless din that was somewhere behind her. In fact, it almost encouraged her to sing as loudly as possible, in an attempt to drown Vera out, but to no success. Not even the loudest trumpet or the shrillest flute could cover up the awful racket coming from the alto section of the chorus. They sang and played their way through the two hour rehearsal, giving it their all, in spite of the sheer irritation it seemed one woman could cause. But when they came to the end, George took her father to one side.

"Daddy, do I have to beg you to get rid of her?"

"Who?" Joe Channing asked, knowing perfectly well who his daughter was referring to, but not relishing the prospect in the least.

"Don't give me that," George said scornfully. "I'm talking, about Vera utterly tone deaf Everard. We can't go on like this. She's ruining what was becoming a joy to listen to and you know it."

"And just how do you expect me to have her removed?" Asked Joe Channing tartly. "In case you've forgotten, she is Sir Monty's wife."

"Fine," George said decisively. "Do you want me to do it for you? Because I can assure you, nothing would give me greater pleasure."

"No, I don't," He replied hurriedly, seeing in an instant just how much havoc her attempting such a thing could cause.

"Then for all our sakes, get on with it," George instructed her father, watching in amusement as his face took on the very uncomfortable expression it had held, on the one occasion in her teens, when he'd tried to talk to her about sex. This conversation with Vera Everard had the potential to be far more humiliating.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Four

A shiver of fear ran through Joe Channing at the full implications of the appalling task that his beloved but impetuous daughter was foisting on him. The situation was intolerable and the compulsion gripped him to put some distance between him and the situation as soon as possible.

"I want to think this over, George, and reflect over a cigarette outside. Personally I would prefer a large glass of port in civilised surroundings but the local church hall only runs to weak tea and rich tea biscuits."

"You haven't any thoughts, Daddy, of sneaking off?" George's determined tones had that

steely edge. "You know that I will take complete control of the situation and do it my way if you do. I shall not shrink from expressing my feelings till that ghastly woman is packed off to where she belongs."

George glanced at poor daddy as he looked as if he were about to have a heart attack and added more kindly,

"You know we can't carry on as we are. It's not just me. Even Sir James Valentine, that loathsome specimin of sub humanity is in agreement with me judging by that pained expression on his face."

Joe nodded and smiled gratefully at the way George lightened up.

"Only a few minutes, my dear, for a quick cigarette. Tell John where I am and to deal with anything in my absence till I get back."

Joe promptly beat a hasty exit out of the double swing doors with more agility than was thought possible.

As he lit a cigarette and took the first puff, he reflected upon the way he used to stretch his weary limbs in the autumn years of his life. complete with a glass of the finest malt whisky. That seemed a long time ago and, in truth, he had liked the lifestyle of his alternative calling. It was a far different task to cajole and coax the warring ensemble of barristers into a collective ensemble but it was surely working. As for the extra additions to the gathering, he could not fault them on their quiet professionalism. They just got on with what they were supposed to be doing. This realised one of his dreams of being a conductor and giving rein to the theatrically artistic side of his personality. The mere actorish demonstration of his facility with the law was quite on a different level. All this put fire into his veins and propelled him through the day and late on into the evening. He had fondly believed that everything was coming together and had deceived himself long enough until George dropped this bombshell on him.

Of course, George was right about Vera. That infernal woman had drowned out the beauties of the orchestra and of the soloists who performed nobly, even Monty.He asked himself why his hearing had been distorted so that he had somehow tuned out Vera's voice and had diminished the ugliness of the noise that poured forth from her throat. The occasions when the chorus was not present had only served to remind him of what he had shrunk from facing. So why had he not acted before when the brutal truth had stared him in the face or, more accurately, scratched its way across his hearing. He was afraid of her, pure and simple.

Vera Everard was one of those large, dominant women who had always put the fear of God into him. All they had to do was to fix him with that stare with the precision of a laser beam and freeze his bowels when she spoke in that precise, haughty booming voice. It had always crippled his efforts to assert himself as much as he liked despite his elevated profession in the legal profession. When he was at prep school and later at Marlborough, that eagle eyed woman with a fierce voice was there to police the unruly horde of boys and keep them in order. She, the powerful one, was there to ensure that he washed himself behind his ears, that he had cleaned his teeth properly and would not take no for any skimped efforts. She had taken over the mothering that he had received from more gentle ministrations when he was at home. A succession of nannies, all the same no matter how different their names were, had combined to put the fear of god into him. Such memories had lingered through his liftoff course, it was different when he had mingled with his schoolfellows who had followed him on to Oxford and to bar school. That was something that he was familiar as it graduated into the inward looking languid affected clubbable man's club atmosphere of the brethren. As he found his way in the world, the world found its place in him and impressed him with the standards to which he was expected to conform. In such an atmosphere, his self-confidence was boundless and his application and drive was endless as it varied him to the heights of his profession. All was well till the first time he was introduced to Monty's wife and he was lost.

He pushed this image away from him and the more welcome image of George took its place. He loved his daughter dearly and had done his best to make up for the death of his dear wife. Unfortunately, she had been blessed with a mercurial quicksilver temperament from when she was small. He knew how determined she was and that to procrastinate his way out of the situation was fatal. In his heart of hearts, he knew that if Vera were relegated to the sidelines, his problems would be cut drastically down to size. An inspiration dropped into his mind. Surely, a woman with her talents to browbeat and blow her trumpet could be more usefully channeled into the valuable side of advertising for the performance. He hoped that sweet reason would prevail to make her see the sense of the idea. Unfortunately, he had the sneaking feeling that she would not see it the same way.

There was nothing for it. Memory saved him that he had slipped a slim hip flask into his inside jacket pocket. He reached for it and took a swig. A random memory told him that all the best Parliamentary speeches of old were performed with a generous helping of the blessed elixir of life. As Dutch courage flowed through his veins, he smoked the last of his cigarette, entered the door. Smiling vaguely at George who smiled encouragingly, he headed for the brightly dressed woman who was gassing away to a very bored Neumann Mason-Alan.

"Ah, Vera, I wanted to have a quiet word with you," Joe boomed in his heartiest voice.

As the alcohol flush faded, his heart sank to his boots with a built in feeling of defeat but he hoped that Vera didn't sense that. It was as well that he did not realise that he was deluding himself. She sensed his lack of backbone in precisely half a millisecond. Neumann Mason-Alan grabbed that split second chance offered to him and slid off discreetly.

"I hope you appreciate the work of the chorus line. I can hardly hear some of them but thank heaven I was gifted with a pair of lungs so that I can project my voice. All of us girls were trained that way at school."

The music teacher must have been tone deaf and has much to answer for, George thought as she hung discreetly in the background.

"There is a slight problem that way. Nothing very serious that we can't resolve." Joe was sweating visibly and had that sickening feeling that he was debasing himself as much as he feebly tried to assert himself.

"I have absolutely no idea of what you're babbling about. I've never had any complaints about my singing. My friends say that I have that naturally regal manner."

"Appearance and manner does not necessarily make for a chorus singer," Joe muttered in subdued tones.

Vera hesitated a second as anger gradually filled in her like a hot air balloon gradually inflating and taking to the air. She didn't like what she heard.

"Are you trying to tell me, of all people, that I can't sing? I've been married to Monty for years and he hasn't complained. You obviously don't know a thing about music."

That remark stung Joe to the quick. This pompous bombastic woman was throwing in his teeth his years spent in the cultivation of music, a part of his life which had never been for sale and which he had never compromised. Everything about her was hot air with nothing behind it. He suddenly wondered why he had never noticed this before.

"As conductor of the orchestra, I regret to tell you that you are no longer in the chorus. You may have abilities but not in this capacity. I cannot let the others in the orchestra be held back by you, not with less than a month to go to the performance."

He spoke quietly with the restraint of a gentleman trying not to cause any unpleasantness but all the more boilingly determined to have his way. He was, after all, the conductor and leader of the orchestra and, so thoroughly had they got into their roles, that all the others accepted that assertion of authority, not as an appeal court judge.

Vera stared open mouthed. This quivering jelly of a man was being unexpectedly obstinate. She had not come across this before but didn't back down, being stupid and having got her way through all her life.

"I was one of the driving forces of the orchestra when it was first started .I should have taken the part of Eve only I was maneuvered out of it."

A crowd started to assemble like onlookers round an accident but there was a reluctance for any one of them to intervene for fear of making a bad situation worse. Karen, Roisin and Babs, all used to authority in their different ways, hung back as they sensed that this was an ancient conflict within the judiciary which had at last burst out into the open. John noted dispassionately that the row was for Joe to deal with on his own and that he stood or fell at this moment.

"It's not my place to interfere being a relative outsider but if you had the part of Eve, Vera, you would make it impossible for me to play the part of Adam," Grayling quietly stepped in. "I volunteered for this part for the sheer love of music, the wish to be part of a selfless undertaking. I don't want to be cruel but you simply haven't the talent as a singer even in the chorus. There is a role you could play, like in drumming up attendance and advertising. This comes to my mind from observing your undoubted force of character."

A murmur of approval ran round the crowd as someone had decisively stepped in and said what needed saying.

"Well, it's pretty obvious why your daughter got her part."

That spiteful crack finally got to Joe. He wanted this abominable woman out of the church hall as soon as possible. More than ever, he conveyed the tremendous bottled up force of Mount Vesuvius close to the point of eruption if it weren't that obstinate plug in the crater which let only clouds of smoke to waft round the peak.

"I will thank you not to insult my daughter, Vera. She could have been a professional classical singer if she hadn't been called to the bar. My mind is made up. You are entirely free to take up the role of advertising for which you have a free hand and as much clerical support as the brethren can provide you with. My will on this is inflexible."
"Come on. Vera. I don't want us to make a scene. You ought to withdraw from this performance tonight. I'll talk to you, Joe, on Monday."

Everyone made space for Monty. He was not the most popular of men but everyone felt for the tight embarrassment that his facial muscles displayed and the sting to his self-esteem by connection to Vera. He stiffly escorted his wife through the parted crowd and out of the door.

Silence ruled them all as everyone searched their thoughts and to come to terms with a decisive shift in direction in the rehearsals. There was a sense of enormity in the recent exchanges and the battle for power.

"Well said, Neil," John broke the silence and spontaneously stepped forward and shook his hand warmly. "I congratulate you for handling a tricky situation."

"It was no pleasure to say what I said, John.Someone had to say it. It might as well be me."

George stood limply on her legs, a heartfelt smile on her face for that unlikely looking knight in shining armour that was Daddy. Her face was shining with admiration and that he had summoned up the force of character that she didn't know he possessed. She said a few quiet words to thank Grayling also as he came close to her.

"Never let me hear any talk about you being an outsider, Neil," Joe said in gruff emotional tones. He had proved his manhood and was a stout fellow in nobly standing in the breach and coming up trumps in a sticky situation.

Suddenly, George and Joe were talking while everyone else circulated, talking in an animated fashion as the atmosphere had lightened.

"I never knew you could do it, daddy."

"Yes well, I owe a bit of it to my handy hipflask of finest brandy. I got it as a present from my father. 'Never leave your hipflask behind. You never know when you might need it.' He told me. I always took his advice." Joe had a crooked half smile on his face that was strangely innocent.

"Oh, Daddy," George called out in mock reproach at her very wicked father. This from George who had flouted convention in her untamed way for over forty years.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Five

It was a lazy Bank Holiday Monday morning when John was up early and seated at the long dining table at the digs. The word was a misnomer as his suite of rooms were in the style of a scaled down old fashioned hotel dining room in its quietly elegant style. The morning sunshine shone brightly into the room adding to the flavour of well being. It wasn't the only reason, as he sipped his morning tea, having lazily finished the last of his cooked breakfast. Joe Channing's very unexpected but gratifying and praiseworthy stand in giving Vera Everard her marching orders was one reason for good news. More important was the flying visit by his beloved daughter, Charlie who had zoomed down yesterday before she was due to zoom back to studentland later that day.

Typically, all there was to show of her was a huddled shape under a duvet in the spare room where she was sure to be for the next few hours. It gave him time before she woke, to read the morning copy of the Guardian and to lazily study the papers for the next trial. That was part of what being a student was like, that temporary detachment from the world of having your nose to the grindstone for the next forty years or so. At that age, you never think it would happen to you and he made the most of this pleasantly agreeable gap in his life. She was approaching the end of her time at bar school. While her studies were teaching her the rudiments of what it was to be like; locked horns in a court of law, the world of academia still exerted a strong pull.

A shuffling sound announced the gradual arrival of a slim girl with a mop of frizzy brown hair that sprang out from all sides of a thin face with a prominent nose whose eyes lit up at the sight of her father. His greying, distinguished appearance was turned away from her and was perhaps too strong a definition as to what manhood was all about for her own good.

"I expected you down later, Charlie," John's humourous voice greeted her. He was not one for petty rules as was his public reputation, least of all to his daughter. Unspoken expectations sufficed for her to be aware of what essential expectations that he had of her. As she grew older, it became easier for life to flow effortlessly by that way.

"I'm a carefree student. What else did you expect?" She answered with a spread armed gesture. "Besides I feel comfortable here so that I know that there will be no dawn call, no ring of the gong."

John smiled at the fulsome praise, lapping it up like a cat laps up milk. Being a semi lone parent who had had the major part of bringing up Charlie after he separated from George, he was more than averagely receptive to praise in comparison with conventional fathers.

"Do you want some breakfast? I can easily order you some."

"Not after that super meal you took me out to last night. I do have to watch my weight you know."

John supposed that it was a universal rule of female teenagers especially to have a mild neurosis about putting on weight. Charlie inherited the spare build of her mother George and, logically speaking, should have no worries in that direction. However, he was sure that the current range of female magazines did nothing to arrest this tendency, in fact quite the opposite.


"Anything to prop my eyes open," Charlie said eagerly, reaching for the carved silver coffee urn.

"I was wondering if I'd be seeing much of you for the next month or so," John enquired rather too casually.

"I don't know. I've still got some work to do before I break up. I've also got places to see friends to visit. You know how it is," Charlie finished, flashing that carefree smile at him.

"I was only enquiring casually as there is an event coming up which I'm involved with. I was wondering if you would be able to find time for. It's a classical performance."

John edged his way very guardedly into a matter that had caused him some concern for some time. It was his dearest wish to see Charlie to see the performance of "The Creation." A major reason for this was that Charlie could see a side of her mother that she had never known of, something in which he had a real disinterested pride and that was George's superlative talent as a singer. He was content that his own presence in the performance would be as modestly understated as would appear to any casual spectator. Hopefully it would melt the coldness between Charlie and George. For once in his life, he was pursuing a personal matter in which he was as utterly disinterested as any decision as a judge to seek right injustice. It had emerged from the back of his mind when Vera Everard's discordant presence in the chorus was thankfully dispensed with.

"You mean the quintet that you occasionally play with. It's not really my scene but I might be interested. You never know."

Charlie's very casual attitude started to make John nervous as he could never quite gauge if Charlie was not really interested but didn't want to be brutal about it or really was interested but some obscure idea of "cool" made her sound less interested than she really was. He sipped the remaining dregs of his morning cup of tea and, catlike, trod the next step very gingerly.

"It's a bit more than that. I shall be performing in a full orchestra. Violins, cellos, violas, harpsichord, timpanies, woodwind, trumpets, singers, the lot."

"Wow," Charlie exclaimed. "You make it sound like the Last Night of the Proms." Her enthusiasm was fully engaged and John's ringing words captured the majesty of the occasion. It looked good on television when she had occasionally watched it but dad was surely not proposing to hire the Albert Hall, was he? You never knew with him what he might come up with.

"Not quite. The piece is Haydn's "Creation" which, as is fitting for a biblical theme, will be held in a rather large and delightful local church.

"Who's taking part in it. Is there anyone famous?"

"In the realm of classical music, hardly. It is an amateur performance and the musicians are drawn from the brethren, even from the more odious members of the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, I should not be churlish, as Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James have shown more musical talent that I supposed that they ever possessed. Their capacity for spiteful intrigue has, regrettably, not disappeared."

"Who else is appearing at the concert. You know how I feel about classical music, dad, but hey, it's never too late to be interested."

Charlie seemed really interested. There was no attempt to disguise her enthusiasm for the idea. While regrettably she had never taken to playing a musical instrument, the possibility that she might at least sit and watch a performance was starting to become very real. There was one hitch which he thought prudent to leave till last.

"Grandad will be the conductor. He has thrown himself splendidly into the role and it might be that which found him the courage to sack Vera Everard from the chorus line. We had to work hard to prevent her from muscling in on the role of Eve. The theme is about the story of Adam and Eve set to music, you know."

"That is so amazing," Charlie laughed. "I can imagine him being positively caught up in the role. So who is going to be Eve? Is it Jo Mills? I can so see the two of you together."

John swallowed hard and loosened his collar. This was going to be the tricky bit. He placed his cup of tea as delicately in its matching Crown Derby saucer as he framed his words to speak.

"Jo Mills does perform in the orchestra as a cellist. I am first violinist, the leader of the orchestra as you might expect," John said in measured tones, visibly preening himself at the last few words to outward appearance. "The orchestra is honoured to have your mother as an utterly outstanding soprano singer for the part of Eve."

"My mother play Eve? I thought Eve was a virgin. You must be joking."
"Don't talk of your mother in this way, Charlie."

John's face turned red with anger helped by his own inner nervousness.

"I remember hearing you two saying far worse things to each other when I was a child and you were rowing," Charlie shot back contemptuously. The light had gone out of her eyes as if it were a candle, which had been blown out. "There's a lot that I overheard when I was little."

"Any such words were not meant for your tender ears," John retorted coldly. "At all costs, your mother and I have tried our best not to drag you into the situation…."

"Yeah, right."

"Be that as it may, this all happened years ago. You have to let go and not let this be like a ball and chain around your leg as if you were a prisoner," John exclaimed, his voice trembling a little. "I implore you to see the performance."

"You mean, to see my mother in it. That is what all this has been leading up to. My mother is the crux of the issue."

"Partly," John avoided Charlie's eyes, discomforted to hear Charlie lapse into legalese so effectively.

"So who cooked all this up, you or my mother or both?"

"Just me. I take full and sole responsibility."

John has paced round the room while they were arguing but at this point had stood foursquare on and locked eyes with Charlie in a moment of total candour.

"If only you could hear your mother sing, Charlie, you would see another side of her. It is a treat for the senses much as an art enthusiast would feel confronted with the portrait of the Mona Lisa or the Van Gogh museum"

"Just that?"

"I admit it, I would like to see you and your mother build bridges between you both. It upsets me as a father when I hear the way you talk of your mother. I know now that there was a lot that I didn't know as to how your mother felt, when she had you, how badly she felt about herself which I never knew. All the time I couldn't get past how I saw matters and that I was not exactly blameless. I pride myself as being as good a father as I could be in the situation but I could never pretend to myself that I was a model husband."

John could feel the odd tear in his eyes, which he tried to blink away and hope that Charlie would not notice. There was a long silence while Charlie mulled over what John had said. Something in her wanted to believe her father only because he was saying it but her memories of her mother dragged her back. The image burnt into her mind was that the artificiality of that voice, the rigidity of her manner. She wasn't someone who felt that she could cuddle up close to if she wanted comfort. She had denied and rejected her all her life so why should she go soft on her now, the essence of hardness. It was about time that she got a bit of what she had given out all these years. Besides, it was only for short periods of time that she stayed with her and they started out as strangers and when it was time to go home, it wasn't much better. It might have been convenient for the grown ups but was what she wanted really taken into account?

"So what's brought on this crusade for my mother? Is she still living with Neil? Being at Uni. makes me get out of touch as to what man she's with."

"Neil Haughton is thankfully out of the picture. He has been since they split up."

"Thank God for that," Charlie said with deep feeling. "At least she has an ounce of sense."

John was inexpressibly pleased that, for the first time since he mentioned George's name they found something to agree with. He did not like having rows with Charlie on personal matters.

"So who's she with? Have you been seeing much of her?"

"The answer to your first question is that as far as I know, she hasn't got another man in your life who's a stranger that you'll need to be introduced to," John said carefully. What he said was the exact and literal truth. He wasn't going to begin to explain the complex relationships that had grown up while Charlie was at university. He was aware from his own experience at university that home life had the appearance of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. You didn't talk too much of home life as it mattered far more who you and your fellow students were rather than being the appendages of your parents as they came to collect you when you were younger and at public school. You were setting off for that first glorious expression of life, which was what being a student in the late 1960's, was about.

"To answer your second question, yes, I've been seeing much more of your mother and we are on amicable terms."

Charlie's attention faded. If her father was deluded enough to find congenial the presence of the "ice maiden" as she contemptuously thought of her, that was his lookout. She was far removed from it all and would be shortly returning in that curious sensation, to her status as a single student rather than as someone's daughter. She was getting bored but she supposed she ought to make some sort of reply.

"Well, you have a life of your own. It's not cool of me to tell you what to do. Do as you think best."

"So will you come to the performance?"John pursued eagerly. He could not be more passionately persistent if he were defending an accused in the trial of the century. In a way he was as George was on trial.

"I might do. Classical music isn't my scene and I'd like to see Grandad waving his baton and being very dramatic. I'd like to see you and Jo and I'll think about what you say about my mother. But, like I said at the start, I'm not too sure what I'm doing in a month's time."

"I can let you know of the details of the performance."

"Do that. If I can make time for it, I'll phone and let you know."

She was reverting to the slightly bored nonchalance that her generation affected as a uniform. He knew far less than before as to what she really meant with her conflicting loyalties.

"Do I get the chance of a meal before I go? I am a hard up student." Charlie suddenly said, an appealing look in her eyes. All her focus was on him once again having dismissed everything else to the back of her mind.

"Of course, Charlie," John said, the words he had said on so many occasions since she was little.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Six

It was decided that they should hold Denny's case conference on the Tuesday morning, as the Monday was a bank holiday. So, at ten on the Tuesday morning, Karen, Gina, and Dr. Waugh met in Karen's office, and Dominic went down to the gate lodge to escort Yvonne up there too. Karen, Yvonne and Gina lit cigarettes, over which Thomas and Dominic exchanged rueful glances. Yvonne had been shocked to see the mess Denny had made of Karen's face, feeling that inexplicable sense of guilt and embarrassment that comes from one's child doing something terrible.

"Jesus," she said, as soon as she walked into Karen's office. "Did Denny really do that?"

"We wouldn't be here if she hadn't," Karen said dryly.

Once Karen's secretary had brought in some coffee, Karen began.

"We are all here, because as far as I can see, every lenient, non-punitive tactic has been tried with Denny, and none of it has worked. No matter what exchanges of trust I may have achieved with her in the past, she has started using drugs again, as can be seen by the results of her mandatory drug tests."

"We put Denny on the frequent testing programme," Gina explained to Yvonne. "But that hasn't stopped her from taking anything she can get her hands on, even though she knows we'll find out about it."

"She's had an awful lot of contact with Al McKenzie lately," Dominic put in. "Which most of the women only ever do, if they're after drugs. Al took over from Buki as the regular wing dealer a long time ago. We do plenty of random, frequent drug tests, plus cell and strip searches, and sometimes we find the odd stash, but we're not catching most of it."

"Denny's had three days down the block doing cold turkey," Thomas added. "And she's going to be getting very twitchy by now. If no one objects, I'd like to recommend that she has a spell in the psychiatric unit." At Yvonne's aghast look of horror, Karen strove to reassure her.

"It's not the same as it was in your day, Yvonne," She said kindly. "Denny will be looked after while she gets clean, I promise."

"And getting her clean is the most pressing concern," Thomas added.

"If drugs weren't involved," Yvonne asked, looking at Karen. "What would you do with her for assaulting the Governor?"

"I would give her at least a fortnight in solitary," Karen said without apology. "I will not put up with behaviour like that towards any member of prison staff, whether that be myself or someone else. Denny needs to understand that. Once Al McKenzie's ribs aren't in danger of causing her further injury, she'll be getting her own stint of segregation, though for obvious reasons, it wouldn't be as long as Denny's. The extent of her injuries that she received from Denny, is something of a punishment in itself."

"Al McKenzie should be able to be discharged from the hospital wing some time today," Thomas put in.

"What will happen to Denny, if she is put in the psychiatric unit?" Yvonne asked, only just managing to stop herself from calling it the muppet wing.

"She'll be kept in a cell on her own," Thomas told her. "Because people who are either mentally disturbed, or coming off drugs, can pose a significant risk to both prison staff and other inmates, if they are allowed to have association. She'll be given any medication necessary to make her detox easier, and she will be given the opportunity for some cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as daily sessions with a councillor specialising in drug addiction. She will be tested daily, to make sure that she isn't getting any access to any drugs, though this is only a precaution, as she won't be having any contact with any other prisoners while she is there. I would recommend that she stays there for a fortnight, but that the situation is reviewed after a week, just to see how she is getting on."

"When she eventually comes back onto the wing," Gina suggested. "Might it be a good idea, to continue to test her on a daily basis, at least for a couple of months, just to make sure she isn't going right back to square one?"

"I don't see why it can't be arranged," Thomas replied.

"After this little stunt," Karen put in. "I'd like Al McKenzie placed on a daily testing programme as well."

"That's a bit like shutting the door on an empty stable, that is," Dominic said cryptically. "Al might be our dealer, but it's not that often that she actually uses."

"I think we might have approached that point of no return," Gina said gloomily. "We need to do the one thing that is ninety percent sure to cause a riot. We need to do a random, or at least unexpected, thorough cell search of the entire wing, all in one go."

"I don't envy you that one," Yvonne said dryly. "But as long as you don't let one hint of it slip out in advance, it might be the way to clear the wing thoroughly of any drugs. I wouldn't bet on it that it would last, but it might help."

"We'd need to put everyone either in the gym, or the exercise yard while we do it," Dominic contemplated, thinking that this was sounding more and more like a suicide mission.

"The point is," Gina clarified. "Nothing will be achieved by putting Denny through detox, or anyone else for that matter, if they can come back to the wing and get a new supply as soon as they get out."

"If Denny's going to be segregated while she's in detox," Yvonne asked. "Does that count as her punishment, or not?" Karen thought about this.

"Let's see how she gets on with detox first. If she puts some effort into dealing with it, and attempts to take some responsibility for her actions, then yes. But if there's just one positive drugs test after she's completed the detox programme, then she will be back down the block. She will obviously get the forty-two days loss of remission, plus forty-two days loss of personal spends, as will McKenzie. That is all I can really do to either of them. But I have to warn you, Yvonne, that if Denny does anything like this again, I may be forced to consider having her transferred, and not just to another wing, but to another prison. If I don't recognise the severity of her actions, I will be undermining the authority that the officers have over the inmates, and I have a duty to avoid that wherever possible. The only reason that I am not shipping her out immediately, is that because of the speed, I don't think she was entirely in control of her own actions, and because I will not wash my hands of her, until we've tried everything there is."

"You can't say fairer than that," Yvonne told her, knowing that Karen had been put in an impossible position by Denny's hitting her, and that she was trying to do her job, whilst trying to keep Denny somewhere where Yvonne and Lauren might be able to have something of a positive influence on her.

When everyone including Yvonne had gone, Karen asked Dominic to bring Denny to see her. Denny was visibly trembling when she was led into Karen's office, with all the pallor of one who had been buried alive. She looked quite literally like death warmed up, and Karen could see that she was suffering.

"Give me ten minutes," She said to Dominic, who left to wait outside the door, taking the opportunity to mildly flirt with Karen's very pretty secretary. Denny stood in front of the desk, entirely unable to keep still, whether from the incessant shaking, or the twitch of needing a fix, Karen wasn't sure. Karen simply waited, looking Denny over as she stood there, but eventually Denny looked up to meet her gaze, taking in the bruise that was beginning to fade under Karen's eye.

"Shit," She said dully. "Did I do that?"

"Yes," Karen told her quietly. "Not one of the nicest days of my life. How do you feel?"

"Like Fenner, I guess," Denny said bleakly. "When Lauren killed him. Sorry Miss," She said, seeing the look of distaste on Karen's face. "And I'm sorry for giving you the shiner. I don't really remember doing it. I was a bit out of my head that day, innit."

"Yes, on speed," Karen replied, waving the results of the drugs test at her. "Not a very clever way to stay out of trouble, is it. Now, are you going to tell me why you did this, so that we can perhaps think about having a civilised conversation, or am I simply going to tell you what your punishment is."

"Just get it over with," Denny said belligerently, in no mood to co-operate with anyone.

"Fine," Karen said a little bitterly. "For the next fortnight, you will be under the care of the psychiatric unit."

"No way," Denny said in horror. "You ain't putting me on the muppet wing. Don't you remember what they did to Shell when she was down there?"

"Denny," Karen insisted firmly. "You need to go through detox, and you need some help to do that."

"You ain't doing that to me," Denny protested vehemently. "I ain't going down there, not ever, not for no one." Hearing the raised voices, Dominic appeared in the doorway.

"Denny," He said, trying to draw her attention away from Karen. "Yvonne thinks you should." This brought tears to Denny's eyes, tears of sheer, bewildered betrayal.

"No," She said, the tears beginning to coarse down her cheeks. "Yvonne wouldn't do that to me."

"It's for your own good, I promise you," Karen said a little more gently. "Denny, I can't have you doing what you did last week. I'm trying everything possible here, because the only other option I've got left is to ship you out, and I'm sure you don't want that, do you."

"No," Denny replied miserably, seeing that fighting was no use. Karen walked with them as Dominic escorted Denny down to the psychiatric unit, desperately hoping that this time, something would work. Karen knew she would do everything possible not to have Denny transferred, but there was only so much she could do, before her staff began to seriously question her judgment.

Part One Hundred and Thirty Seven

When Helen drew up in the carpark of the Old Bailey on the tuesday afternoon, she wondered if she really was doing the right thing. Her heart was so heavy with the decision she had to make, and she couldn't do that without first seeking some advice, both from the legal point of view, and from that of a friend. She wasn't about to shatter Karen's entire life without going through every avenue of possibility first. But she couldn't possibly leave it like this any longer. Karen needed to know, yet legally, Helen wasn't allowed to tell her. Only the judge could provide her with the answers, only he might be able to point her in the right direction.

Walking through the swing doors into the marble tiled foyer, she felt a certain sense of displacement. The last time she'd been here, it had been a blustery day in mid January. They'd all been here for Lauren's verdict, all sitting or standing united in the public gallery. But now here she was, on her own, and on a mission of mercy. But where did she try and find a high court judge. She'd come after the end of the afternoon's session, knowing that he probably would have been in court before this, but where did she go now.

"Excuse me," Someone said to her. "Can I help you? You look a bit lost." It was Coope, and she'd seen Helen standing in the foyer, looking as if she didn't know where to go next.

"Where might I find Mr. Justice Deed?" Helen asked, relieved that this woman had accosted her.

"I'm Mr. Justice Deed's clerk," Coope told her. "Is it important, only when I left him, he was relaxing over a cup of tea."

"It's very important," Helen replied quietly, thinking that she could have done with a secretary like this when she was working under Simon Stubberfield.

"Then come upstairs with me, and I'll ask him if he'll see you," Coope told her, wondering if this was about to prove the beginning in yet another of John's female fiascoes. Helen followed Coope up the wide, marble staircase, and along the corridor to John's chambers.

"Who shall I say wishes to see him?" Coope asked.

"Helen Stewart," Helen said, accidentally slipping back into the use of her former name. Asking her to wait, Coope put her head round the door, to see John feeding Mimi a discrete biscuit. John was surprised to hear that Helen wanted to see him, and always inspired by a mystery, he asked Coope to show her in.

When Helen walked into his chambers, she was pleasantly surprised at the surroundings. John had been sitting at his desk, drinking a cup of tea and reading the paper, but when he saw her he rose to his feet.

"This is a nice surprise," He said, holding out his hand to shake hers. Helen's smile didn't quite reach her eyes.

"Thank you for seeing me," She replied, not entirely knowing where to start.

"I thought your name was Wade these days," He said, remembering back to when they'd been introduced at the Lauren Atkins trial.

"It is," Helen told him. "But even after three years, I'm still not used to saying it, and most people seem to know me better as Helen Stewart."

"Would you like some tea?" He asked her, after telling a very inquisitive Coope that she could go home. Knowing that she could really do with something far stronger than tea, Helen nevertheless accepted, sitting down on one end of the sofa. Sensing someone new, who might also prove to be a soft touch, Mimi approached Helen, and sat gazing up at her, with the wide, sorrowful eyes that Helen suspected John could also adopt when necessary. After pouring her a cup from the pot on the coffee table and refilling his own, John sat down on the other end of the sofa. He could feel the tension resonating in every fibre of her being. Why she was here, he couldn't possibly imagine, but whatever it was, it was incredibly serious.

"How's Nikki getting on with Prison service training?" John asked, wanting to put her at her ease before she told him why she was really here.

"Oh, she's fine, in her second week of it now."

"I had the pleasure of personally delivering the success of her interview to those it would most annoy," He said, with a relish in his tone that made her smile.

"The prison service won't know what's hit them," Helen said philosophically. "Nikki was responsible for at least two sit-ins while I was there, so she's not afraid of speaking up for anyone." John smiled.

"Ah," He said with a certain amount of self-pride. "I did a fair amount of that during my youth, and I've maintained the reputation of maverick trouble causer ever since." Then, turning serious again, he said, "Helen, why are you really here?"

"It's about Karen," She astonished him by saying. "I need some legal advice, because I know something that I think she badly needs to know, but that I think I am bound by law not to tell her. George is obviously far too close, and because of the nature of the knowledge I have, I don't think Jo would be able to remain detached enough, to keep it to herself if that became necessary. So, I've come to you, because I'm hoping that you can tell me what I should do, whilst staying a little more emotionally detached from the situation."

"Jo would tell you that this is one of my specialities," John said bleakly. "What's happened?"

"Two months ago, Karen's son started coming to see me as a patient. I work part time as a psychologist at an NHS psychotherapy clinic, and part time as a psychologist for an NHS drugs rehab clinic. Ross Betts has been coming to see me, for help with drug addiction." John sat perfectly still, allowing the information he'd just received to filter properly through the recesses of his brain.

"And you're sure she doesn't know?" He asked, knowing that if Karen had known, he would have been the first to hear about it.

"She has absolutely no idea," Helen said regretfully. "I've tried to persuade him to tell her, but he's not having any of it. I've talked to Karen a couple of times recently, and she just thinks he's staying out of her way, doing the must do my own thing, must be independent except when it comes to money thing, that she says he's been doing since he turned fourteen." John couldn't help but smile.

"My daughter's the same, and she's twenty five in a couple of weeks. At nineteen, she started committing minor offences all in the name of animal rights, and even though she's now at Bar school, I suspect she will never quite grow out of it."

"Has she ever been caught?" Helen asked bluntly, intrigued by a girl who could do this, in spite of both her parents being members of the legal fraternity, though Helen suspected that might be why she did it.

"No, but only by luck and ingenuity," He said ruefully. "Ross is twenty one, twenty two, something like that, isn't he."

"He's twenty two some time next week, a Gemini to the core."

"So's George, in some of her more argumentative moments," John said with a smile. "However, as Ross is over eighteen, no, you certainly cannot break the promise of patient confidentiality. He does, as they say, have the right to remain silent, which is altogether unfortunate."

"What the hell do I do, Judge?" She asked, unconsciously slipping into the name Coope had always given him.

"Helen, you must also remain silent," He told her gently. "There is absolutely no choice about this."

"And what if this was your child, Judge? Would you want to be kept in the dark about something like this?" At John's poker faced expression, she added, "And don't give me that old line of, your daughter is too intelligent to get into drugs. I hear that from parents all the time, even when their son or daughter has the most promising career ahead of them. So, I repeat, wouldn't you want to know about something like this?"

"Helen, one thing you must understand about the law, is that there is virtually no room for emotional involvement."

"Is that why you did it?" She asked, her lilting, Scottish accent and her penetrating gaze, nailing him to the spot.

"That might almost have come from Jo," He said with a laugh, thinking that Ross Betts must have some determination in him not to give into her digging. "However much I might agree with you, and think that yes, Karen certainly does need to know about this, you have come to me for legal advice, and that is exactly what I'm giving you. Ross Betts has a right to patient confidentiality, just as you and I do."

"But Karen's my friend," Helen insisted vehemently. "She's your friend."

"I know," John said quietly. "Which is why keeping this from her, is one of the hardest things I will ever have to do. Apart from Jo, Karen is the closest friend I've ever had, and if it were possible, I would do anything I could to prevent her from being hurt. But I can't, not this time, and neither can you. However, that isn't going to stop me from seeking some advice of my own. The brethren of judges might sit in sovereignty over a court of law, but that doesn't mean we know all the answers, though I fear that there can only be one answer in this case. Leave it with me, and I will let you know my decision in a couple of days. You did the right thing in bringing this to me, but in another way, I wish I didn't know. But why come and tell me now?"

"Until this week, Ross has only been an out-patient at the clinic, because he thought he could cope on the outside, but nothing has been remotely successful. So, the last time I saw him, I managed to persuade him that in-patient treatment was the only option he had left, if he ever wanted to get clean. He does want to get better, he just doesn't have the willpower to do it. What isn't helping him to see that he's got something to get better for, is that he's also HIV positive, and I'm certain Karen doesn't know about that either."

"Because of the drugs?" John asked, wondering just how this could get any worse.

"I assume so. He thinks Karen won't want anything to do with him after this, which we both know isn't true. He's so...so angry with her."

"What for?"

"For being a single parent most of his life, for the fact he never knew his father, for the fact that she couldn't always afford to be at home to look after him, but that she could afford for someone else to do it. He thinks that she always put her career first, but then, Nikki used to accuse me of doing exactly the same thing."

"What's it like for you, to know that Nikki will be going back to the place that gave you so much grief?" John asked, inevitably curious on this point.

"I wasn't sure at first," She admitted. "I didn't want her going back there under any circumstances. I think I thought that even though Fenner's dead, his influence would still be there. So, because Nikki obviously wanted to go for this job, I went and laid a few ghosts, good and bad. When I was in Karen's office, I saw a picture of Ross on her desk. He looked so healthy, so alive, that it shocked me. In his face, he looks quite like her, but that's all the resemblance that's left after months of shoving god knows what into his system. I nearly told her then and there when I saw that."

"It's probably better that you didn't," John said quietly, knowing that he would have had exactly the same urge in her position.

"Thank you, for hearing me out," Helen said to him. "It's been something of a relief, just to tell somebody about it."

"Does anyone else know?"

"No, not even Nikki. She hates it whenever I keep anything big from her, because it reminds her of all the problems we had when she was in Larkhall."

"What was that like, working in a prison and having an affair with an inmate?" He asked, desperately wanting to satisfy his curiosity.

"Pretty much like a judge having an affair with a barrister or two," Helen said dryly, not in the least offended.

"Touché," He said with a broad smile, thinking that here was yet another woman in whom the legal profession had sadly lost an opportunity.

After Helen had gone, John sat for a very long time, mulling over everything she'd said. God, what on earth could he do? He'd told Helen that he would be seeking advice of his own, and indeed he would, but he knew it was no use. Only if a mental health patient was sectioned, could the next of kin be informed against the patient's will. He knew that without question. But this was Karen, this was his friend, and not just any friend. There wasn't anything he couldn't tell Karen, nothing he needed to keep from her. He could see her in his mind's eye, the last time she'd been here to see him, not more than a week ago. She'd been tired, harassed, but to all intents and purposes happy. John didn't ask himself how she couldn't know about her son's drug addiction, because he knew that Charlie was just as capable of keeping some things from him. He could remember every curve of Karen's body, as though it had only been yesterday that he'd slept with her, instead of more than eighteen months ago. She'd been so beautiful, so responsive, that even now he found himself lusting after her. He could remember the way he'd hurt her, back in January, when he'd thrown such angry words at her about George. She'd maintained a stony silence after that until he'd apologised. But would he ever be able to apologise for this, he didn't know. This wasn't something said in the heat of the moment which, no matter how hurtful, could be forgiven and forgotten. This was him, withholding information about her son who desperately needed her. When he realised that he'd been sitting, staring into space for the last couple of hours, he pulled himself together, deciding that his chosen confidante must be home by now. Clipping a lead onto a delighted Mimi, John walked out to his car.

When he drew up in the broad gravel drive, in front of the enormous gothic monstrosity where George had spent her childhood, he saw that her father's Roll's was already there. When Sir Joseph Channing came to answer the door, he looked surprised to see John on his doorstep.

"This must be serious, if you're voluntarily seeking my company of an evening," He said in greeting, to which John offered a half smile.

"Can I come in?" He simply asked, not really in the mood for humour.

"Of course," Joe replied, seeing that something was badly wrong with his ex-son-in-law. As Mimi bounded forward to greet Joe's shaggy, old lurcher, John briefly spared a thought to wish that his life could be as simple as Mimi's. No pandering to the establishment, no pretending to like those he loathed, and no keeping confidences about things he would rather be unaware of.

"Have you eaten?" Joe asked as they walked towards the kitchen. "Because my housekeeper left me a very good casserole." John wasn't sure that he did feel like eating, but he accepted some to be polite, and then realised how hungry he was. They sat at the scrubbed kitchen table, eating the delicious creation and drinking a very fruity Bordeaux with lots of body. Joe didn't attempt to ask John what the problem was for some time, but as their appetites diminished, he eventually raised the question.

"John, you didn't come here, just to partake of my housekeeper's particularly excellent cooking."

"It's about Karen, Karen Betts."

"As in Karen Betts, Larkhall's Governor? As in the woman who has just introduced one of the most radical manoeuvres within the establishment, that I have ever had the misfortune to witness?" John smiled.

"Yes, that Karen, the one who plays the viola next to Michael Nivin."

"What about her? Don't tell me you really are having an affair with her after all, but then why would I be surprised. She's pretty, I'll give you that, but she's got a knack for falling into more trouble than you have. I've never read quite so much tabloid gossip about one woman, except perhaps the Duchess of York."

"No, I'm not having an affair with her," John told him honestly, thinking that this really would have made things complicated between them all.

"I'm glad to hear it," Joe said sonorously. "Because by the look of both you and my daughter a few weeks ago, it is blatantly obvious that you've somehow managed to wriggle your way back into her affections. So, what about Karen Betts?"

"I, er, I came into some information this afternoon that morally, I think ought to be passed onto her, but which I know legally can't be." They'd moved into the sitting-room by this time, and Joe was lighting a cigarette. "I had a visit from someone whom I have come to know through Karen. She is a psychologist for a drugs rehab clinic. She came to tell me, that Karen's twenty-two-year-old son, has been receiving treatment for drug addiction." Joe smoked thoughtfully.

"And Karen knows nothing about this?"

"Nothing," John replied, knowing exactly what he was about to hear.

"You absolutely can't tell her, John," Joe told him earnestly. "No matter how much you may feel you should, you can't. The law will not allow you to do so."

"Then it's about time the law was changed," John said hotly. "How can that be right, Joe? How can it be right for a mother not to be told that her son is in serious need of her? What sort of twisted, ill-conceived logic is that."

"It's the type of logic that allows us all the right to medical confidentiality, you know that," Joe replied quietly. "If he doesn't want her to know, then he has the right to expect that she isn't told, under any circumstances, besides those in which the law does permit a betrayal of such a confidence. You cannot override the law, John, none of us can."

"I know," John said bitterly. "I just wanted to make sure." After a while, he added, "I feel culpable, as if I am increasing the hurt that she must and will feel when this comes out, because come out it eventually will. How do I keep something like that, from someone who is probably my closest friend after Jo Mills?"

"You will keep it from her, John, because you must," Joe insisted quietly.

They sat in silence for a while, Joe smoking, and John occasionally sipping from the red in his glass.

"Talking of Karen Betts," Joe eventually said, breaking in on John's bitter contemplation. "Precisely what is the nature of the relationship she has with my daughter?" John had been about to take a swig from his glass, but he replaced it back on the coffee table. Now here really was something he hadn't been expecting. That was two out of three things today, so what in god's name would be the third?

"What makes you assume that there is any relationship between Karen and George, other than that of fellow musicians?" Joe Channing let out a roar of laughter, making John smile despite his own misgivings.

"I never thought I would see the day," Joe said, lifting his glass as if in a toast. "When John Deed would attempt to be both tactful and delicate."

"I am capable of it very occasionally, Joe," John said almost innocently.

"The Lord Chancellor will be delighted to hear it," Joe said dryly, returning to his previously serious expression. "But I repeat, what is it that exists between my daughter, and the Governor of Larkhall prison?"

"That isn't for me to tell you, Joe," John said regretfully, seeing that Joe had already worked it out for himself, but that he only wanted some sort of corroboration.

"Yes," Joe said contemplatively. "Very good, confirming my suspicion, without betraying a confidence. Hmmm, very clever, I don't doubt."

"George wouldn't want you to know something like that, Joe," John said carefully.

"I am neither blind, nor stupid, John," Joe insisted vehemently. "Nor am I as naive and behind the times, as my daughter might prefer me to be."

"What evidence do you have to validate your suspicion?"

"From where I stand when I conduct, I can see every face in the orchestra, every single one. When George sang, in the first rehearsal we had, Karen Betts' face caught my eye. The only time I've ever seen any woman look quite so blissfully enchanted, was the day George married you. When she heard George begin to sing, Karen stopped playing for almost a page. That look wasn't simply one of musical appreciation, but an expression of something akin to love."

"That can't be the only thing," John said fairly, thinking that Karen needed to be a little more careful.

"Over the last few months, well, except for the last week or so in April, George has been happier than she has been for a long time. She's been as happy as she was during the first couple of years of your marriage. I don't think this is entirely due to you, because I am well aware that you've been back on the scene for a lot longer than a few months. There is very little that my daughter can successfully hide from me, though I know she would rather have this any other way." John remained silent for a while, wondering how he could prevent this from causing a rift between George and her father.

"I knew I should never have sent her to boarding school," Joe said ruefully into the silence.

"This wasn't caused by George going to a single sex school, Joe," John told him with a laugh.

"Really," Joe said unconvincingly.

"She didn't even do anything about it until January this year," John filled in. "It's something she's thought about, probably for most of her life, and all she's really doing now, is exploring that side of her."

"And it doesn't bother you, that she's doing this with, another woman," He said, almost disgustedly. "Whilst she's quite clearly keeping your bed warm on a regular basis."

"It took me a while to get used to it," John said after a moment's pause. "But George is happy, Joe. I will never want to stand in the way of that. Joe, it would only frighten and worry her, to know that you are aware of this."

"Yes, I know," He said regretfully. "So, if she's happy, and not making things professionally difficult for herself, then I will of course leave well alone. I think that one of our finest viola players, is going to need my daughter in the coming months."

Part One Hundred and Thirty Eight

On the Wednesday afternoon, Karen thought that it was about time she filled Grayling in on what had happened. When he'd seen her the previous Saturday, he'd accepted her assurance that she was dealing with the situation, and Karen knew that professionally, she certainly didn't need his help. But perhaps she needed some reassurance of her own, someone to tell her that she hadn't completely screwed up. Letting her secretary know that if anyone needed her, she would be at area, Karen left Larkhall and drove across London to the Millbank district of Westminster. Cursing the lack of parking space round here, she drove in and out of the afternoon's almost stationary traffic until she found somewhere to leave her car. It would have been quicker to get the tube, she reflected ruefully, walking up the steps into Cleland House. As she walked up the richly carpeted stairs, it struck her just how quiet this place was compared to Larkhall. She would get bored if she ever worked here, she knew that. She'd got used to the rattle of keys, the shout of voices from the exercise yards, and the endless clang of metal on metal, which had all become familiar noises of her trade.

When Neil heard the knock on his office door, he wasn't expecting to see Karen.

"Can I come in?" She said, opening the door and putting her head in at his command to enter.

"Karen, yes, of course," He said with a smile, thinking that her visit had broken the otherwise dull monotony of a Wednesday afternoon. The bruise was fading on her cheek, but he could see that she was still looking a little on edge, and he decided that she was probably here to talk about the incident with Daniella Blood. "Would you like some tea?" he asked, gesturing her to a comfortable chair near to his desk. Saying that she would, Karen reached for her cigarettes, only to remember the no smoking policy that was ruthlessly enforced in this building.

"Remind me never to get a job here, won't you," She said, when he'd asked his secretary to bring them some tea. "The lack of nicotine would finish me off altogether."

"That, as opposed to a serious assault from an inmate," He observed calmly. When he'd raised the merest enquiry about her face on Saturday, Neil had seen that Karen was extremely wound up and still quite shaken by the incident, though she would never have admitted it. It was for this reason alone that he hadn't pushed her as to the details of the event.

"It wasn't really serious," She said, though knowing it had been. "I shouldn't have tried to separate a fight, that's all."

"So, why did you?" He asked.

"Because it didn't look like stopping any time soon, and because Sylvia was infuriating me by just standing back and watching, and yes, I have warned her that it will go on her file. It just felt instinctive to try and break it up."

"Karen," Neil said slowly and deliberately. "You must take more care with your own safety. I do not expect a governing governor, to become involved in a brawl with an inmate. I am well aware that you know better, but I also know that you will always be a far more hands on governor, no matter how many policies and procedures may dictate otherwise. Under the majority of circumstances, I would have no problem with this, because you have an ability to care, combined with a thoroughly engrained sense of jail craft, that makes you one of the most effective people I've ever had the opportunity to work with. But very occasionally, you must realise when it is necessary to step back from the situation. G wing's officers should have dealt with Denny Blood, and they certainly shouldn't have required you to step in as you did. I hope, that when Nikki Wade takes over, this sort of intervention in a relatively simple, though obviously violent fight, will no longer be necessary."

"Is this my lecture from the headmaster?" Karen asked dryly.

"You came to see me," Neil pointed out smoothly. "Not the other way round."

"I thought I'd be getting a visit from you, if I didn't do it first," Karen admitted sheepishly.

Neil contemplated her thoughtfully. There was something in her tone, something in her bearing, that was shouting stress at him, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"Are you all right?" He asked a little more gently. Something shifted in her face, belying her curt response.

"Fine," She said, not quite meeting his eyes. The moment was broken slightly as his secretary brought in their tea. But when she'd gone, Neil resolved to get to the bottom of what was bothering her.

"Why has Denny suddenly gone down hill?" He asked, wondering if this was the problem, though not inclined to think so.

"I think it partly stems from her visit to see Shell Dockley a couple of weeks ago," Karen admitted, knowing that Neil had raised a few concerns about it at the time.

"Ah," He said, finally beginning to understand. "And you think that this is your fault, for making that decision."

"Well, isn't it?" She demanded, the awareness of her own failure evident in her voice.

"Karen, you took a calculated risk," Neil said carefully. "That's what half of this job is all about, taking measured risks on a day to day basis. You have tried a number of different tactics with Denny Blood over the last couple of years, and until now, they've pretty much paid off. Yes, perhaps this particular one wasn't quite as successful..."

"That's putting it mildly," Karen interrupted bitterly.

"...But you can't get it right all the time," He finished kindly.

"But that's my job," Karen insisted vehemently. "It's my job to get it right. These are people's lives in my hands, Neil, not some batch of cattle fodder that didn't quite achieve the intended results."

"What are you saying?" He asked quietly. Karen got up and began walking round his office, not quite sure how to phrase her question. When she was standing in front of the window with her back to him, she said,

"Do you really think I'm capable of doing this job?" He knew that she'd stood with her back to him, so that she didn't have to see his face if he didn't think so.

"Yes," He said firmly. "Do you really think, that I would not only have suggested and supported your elevation to Governor three, but openly backed your most recent idea, if I'd for one moment thought that you weren't capable of making that type of decision?"

"I just feel a bit, well, out of my depth," She said quietly, incredibly touched by the obvious faith he had in her.

"And I think that's got far more to do with Denny having invaded your personal space, than why she's ended up back on drugs," Neil said equally quietly, not wanting to make her angry, but knowing that what he said was the truth.

"Maybe," Karen conceded, still with her back to him, not wanting him to see the uncomfortable expression on her face, which he nevertheless knew was there. "I feel so stupid," She said exasperatedly. "I shouldn't let a minor thing like a fist from an inmate get to me like this."

"Karen, listen to me," Neil said persuasively, coming over to her and laying a hand on her shoulder, immediately feeling the slight stiffening of all her defences. "You are extremely good at your job, and I have absolute faith in your judgment. You've reacted to Denny hitting you, in a way that you didn't expect, that's all. Now, go home, relax, and don't even think about work for the rest of today. You are incredibly stressed, and you need to take a break. I'm betting that you spent a good proportion of this weekend, including the bank holiday working, so I'm sure they'll do without you for the extra couple of hours that are left of today. This is not an option," He added firmly.

"Is that the tone of voice you used on George?" Karen asked, a slight twinkle in her eye. Neil smiled.

"She told you about that, did she," He said resignedly.

"There isn't much she doesn't tell me," Karen said fondly. "Let's just say that you made quite an impression on her."

"It served a purpose," Neil said modestly. "But you're avoiding the subject. If I thought it would do you any good whatsoever, I would send you on a time management course, because you need to start setting yourself a few boundaries. You give more of yourself to your job, than any other governor I've ever met, and whilst that is entirely commendable, it isn't going to do you any good in the long run. Larkhall won't go away if you spend an entire weekend away from it, as you are always no more than a phone call away. Very occasionally, you need to learn when to let go."

Part One Hundred and Thirty Nine

On the morning of the seventh of June, George awoke with a feeling of unreality. Today was her forty-ninth birthday. In one year's time, she would reach that all too unmentionable age of fifty. What a truly miserable thought, she mused to herself, waiting for the rest of her brain to gradually emerge into consciousness. When she eventually opened her eyes, she saw that John was also awake, just lying there looking at her. He'd wanted to stay with her last night, because she would be spending the actual evening of her birthday with Karen.

"Good morning," He said, leaning over to kiss her.

"I'm not sure what's good about it," George said in that deeper, huskier early morning voice that he loved so much.

"Is forty-nine so bad?" He asked with a smile.

"I wish it was still twenty-nine," She said between gentle kisses.

"I don't," He said, eventually detaching himself from her. "You weren't very happy at twenty-nine."

"No, I suppose I wasn't," George said with a yawn. Whilst he was downstairs making them both a cup of tea, George glanced over at the bedside clock. It was just before eight, and on a normal day, she would have been out of the house and on her way to work by now, but not this morning. If she couldn't take a day off work on her birthday, then when could she? She was planning to spend some of the day with her father, as he was taking her out for lunch. John didn't have to be in court till ten, so he wasn't in any real rush either. She was in the middle of stretching languorously, when the phone rang.

"Happy birthday," Jo said when she answered.

"Thank you," George drawled seductively, thinking that Jo really shouldn't call her this early in the day, because it gave her the most delightful fantasies.

"I just wanted to ensure that you didn't open my present until John has left for court."

"Why?" George said with a light laugh. "Is it something terribly naughty?"

"In the wrong company, it certainly could be seen as such," Jo told her evasively. "Coming from me anyway."

"Aha, hidden depths," George teased. "I didn't know you had it in you."

"I appear to be doing a lot of extremely wicked things lately," Jo quipped back. "And it's definitely all your fault."

"You wouldn't have it any other way though, would you?" George asked seriously, for some reason needing that little bit of extra reassurance.

"No, of course not," Jo told her softly.

"I wish you were here," George said, feeling stupid for saying it.

"Yes, well, unlike you, I am not only fully dressed and looking remarkably professional, but I am not on the skive."

"Do you have any idea of just what I would do to you, if you were here, instead of going to the office like a dutiful barrister?"

"Oh, I don't know," Jo teased her with a smirk. "You're all talk and no action, Georgina Channing."

"That name is banned from this house, especially on my birthday," George insisted, giving John a smile as he appeared in the doorway, carrying two mugs of tea and her birthday presents under his arm. Putting everything down on the dressing table, he slipped out of the boxer shorts he'd put on to go downstairs, and slid back under the duvet. "His Lordship's just appeared," George told Jo, thinking that she might be able to wind Jo up even further. "And he's obviously expecting a repeat of last night."

"Lucky John," Jo said dryly.

"Mmm, I should imagine he will be, if he plays his cards right." Assuming that she was talking to Karen, John thought he may as well take the opportunity to drive her just a little bit insane. As George continued talking to her early morning caller, John traced a delicate pattern, first over her breasts and steadily hardening nipples, and then along her thighs. George knew that he thought she was talking to Karen, or he wouldn't have done what he was doing now, so she made a great effort to keep any hint of who it actually was out of the conversation.

"He really is dreadfully wicked, you know," George said in total satisfaction, as John began kissing his way down over her hip and along her thigh. "He knows I'm talking to you, yet he is quite obviously intent on driving me wild."

"Except that he probably thinks you're talking to Karen, and not me," Jo said, content for the moment to enjoy this by proxy.

"I think so," George said a little regretfully and then gasped as John inched his tongue between her legs. "It's incredibly naughty of me to say it," She added, her voice losing some of its control. "But it's my birthday, so I'm allowed to be outrageous, but I wish you were here too." John laughed on hearing this, as did Jo.

"You really do like to have your cake and eat it, don't you," Jo said philosophically.

"And precisely what is the point," George demanded silkily. "Of having one's cake, and not being permitted to eat it?"

"I'm sure John will remind you of that, the next time he strays," Jo told her.

"Well, right now," George said, trying to suppress any vocal evidence of her mounting pleasure. "He can ask for absolutely anything and he'll almost certainly get it."

"Tell me what he's doing to you?" Jo asked, thinking that this couldn't possibly be her who was saying such a thing. Opening her mouth to reply, George only just managed to prevent herself from saying Jo's name in time.

"I don't believe you just said that," She said in awe. "I am not, having phone sex with you at this time of the morning," She insisted, her gasps of pleasure becoming almost impossible to hide. "Besides, I'm sure you can work it out for yourself."

"You going shy on me, George?" Jo persisted, the light of half laughter, half arousal dancing in her eyes.

"Yes," George said unequivocally. "Now, before I disgrace myself entirely, I'm going, and I shall talk to you, after I've opened your particularly sin-inspiring present."

"Aha," Jo said mockingly. "Would this be another case of your having to turn the oven down?" George broke into a peal of laughter that rapidly turned into a cry of ecstasy, as John began very gently nibbling on her clitoris.

"I really do have to go now," She said, knowing that there would be absolutely nothing left of her self-respect after this. Not giving Jo a chance to argue, George switched the phone off and put it back on the bedside table. Touching John's shoulder, she encouraged him back up to lie beside her, even though she hadn't yet reached her peak.

"Hey," He said, kissing her. "I was enjoying that."

"What, the thing you were doing to me, or the fact that we had an audience?"

"Both," He said between kisses.

"I always knew you had a taste for exhibitionism," George said knowingly, running a hand caressingly along his arousal that was clearly ready for her. Pushing him onto his back, she sank down onto him, making him groan at the feel of her boiling heat enclosing him.

"So, you want to be in control this morning, do you?" He teased, his voice creeping over her like honey.

"I can't hear you complaining," She said, her internal muscles gripping him and making him pull her down to lie on his chest.

"Nothing to complain about," He said, arching his back up into her with every thrust.

"It turned you on to hear me talking to someone else like that, didn't it."

"And is that a bad thing?"

"No, not in the slightest. But then I've always known you were bad at heart," She said, giving him a particularly vigorous squeeze.

"And I thought you liked bad once in a while," He said, having known for years that doing something that perhaps she shouldn't, had always been the way to get George going.

"You know I do," She replied, sitting up, and leading one of his hands to her clit. As their mutual orgasm approached, George found herself wondering what it would be like to have Jo there with them, to perhaps have Jo touching her as John was now. She longed to tell him of her fantasy, but until Jo was ready for it, she must keep it to herself.

When Jo put the phone down and as she drove to work, she couldn't believe she'd actually said some of those things. This wasn't her, this wasn't the slightly straight-laced Jo Mills she knew. This was the Jo that had developed an attraction, a liking, a lust-driven infatuation for another woman. This was the Jo who wanted to actually go to bed with another woman, to have another woman's hands on her, doing the things that John often did. She had been able to tell that George was aroused, because she hadn't hidden her gasps of pleasure as well as she'd thought she had. But when Jo had made her laugh, and that laugh had turned into the most erotic sound Jo had ever heard, Jo had been sorely tempted to call in sick, and take George up on her promise.

Whilst John was in the shower, George opened her present from him and from Karen, but she waited until he'd left for court before contemplating Jo's. From the feel of it, she decided that it was clothing of some sort. Deciding that she would open it when she could try it on, she had a long, hot shower, unable to take her thoughts away from Jo, and what she'd been tempted to do with her on the phone this morning. Jesus, she hadn't had phone sex since she was married to John, yet Jo had all but tried to persuade her to do it this morning. When she got out of the shower, all soft and supple, she perched on the edge of the unmade bed, and unwrapped the parcel. As she gradually pulled the duck-egg blue robe from the paper, she groaned in wonder. The gloriously silky material spilled over her hands, and as she stood in front of the full-length mirror to put it on, it drifted over her body, settling just above her knees. It caressed her skin as though a thousand delicate fingers were tantalising her senses, making her nipples harden and poke at the front of the robe. Going downstairs, George reclined in a corner of the sofa, and picked up the phone.

"That certainly is one utterly, incredible birthday present. Thank you, darling," She said seductively, when she got through to Jo.

"You like it then?" Jo said with a smile, having been a little apprehensive as to George's reaction.

"Oh, don't I just. In fact, I'm wearing it right now, and even though I do say so myself, it looks fantastic."

"And how do you expect me to work for the rest of the day, thinking of you wearing it?"

"With an enormous amount of willpower, undoubtedly."

"Oh, you're so understanding," Jo said drolly. "George," She added slowly. "I'm sorry, about earlier."

"What on earth for?" George asked, utterly mystified.

"I shouldn't have embarrassed you like I did."

"Jo," George told her breaking into a broad smile. "Do you have any idea just how much of a turn on it was? And not just for me, I might add, though John didn't actually know it was you. I do know that if he had, he would have enjoyed it even more."

"I don't know what came over me," Jo said, the blush evident in her voice.

"I do," George said kindly. "The thought of you being with me and John together, aroused you just as much as it did me."

"I might like the idea, George," Jo said seriously. "But I think it'll be quite a long time before I can contemplate actually doing it."

"You're not the only one," George said ruefully, thinking that even though she may be a confident lover with both men and women, putting the two levels of experience together, would be extremely odd, but utterly mind blowing to say the least.

Part One Hundred and Forty

His life was all so different a year ago, Neil Houghton moaned as he glugged back a stiff shot of whisky in some anonymous bar. The words how have the mighty fallen swam round in his alcohol befuddled mind. He desperately wanted the neat spirit to push everything out of focus except that his disobedient memory forced him to replay the past in cruel sharp focus. This was a bad movie he couldn't escape or switch off.

He remembered how as Minister for Trade, he had closely studied the first two sets of papers presented by his Permanent Secretary on how to slim down bureaucracy. The papers, in turn, were prepared by the head of Human Resources and, to his way of thinking, had hit the nail on the head about the underlings who worked for him.

"Restricted - management",

"A majority of staff are not considered to be career civil servants.

Some 70% were women, many with caring responsibilities, and although the work was relatively low-paid they were attracted by the decent, local, family-friendly employment the department offered and had no incentive to leave or progress. Persuading them to accept reforms, including performance-linked wage increases, he added, was made harder by the resistance of middle-ranking staff. Our biggest concern was how to motivate the substantial cadre of long-serving middle managers within the organisation who acted as a block to cultural change."

It had been plain to him that what had gone wrong was that a historic mistake had been made. The penpushers who did the menial clerical work should never have been lumped together with the central core of high flying ideas men who comprised the real historic civil service. It was some sort of woolly-minded old-fashioned paternalism, which had confused matters. You might as well call the valet who serviced his ministerial limousine a civil servant when he was patently not the case. As a result of this it had led the present crisis of overmanning to creep up and was threatening to drown the country with bureaucrats. It was time that hard decisions needed to be made to curb this uncontrolled growth and the second paper presented him with the means to cut them down to size.

He had lounged nonchalantly back in his chair looking at the conclusions in the second paper, which followed on nicely from the first. It had suggested a method of damage limitation by issuing managers with very robust solutions on how to sell the policy to the troops on the ground. Immediately, it engaged his interest. It offered a parallel strategy to this other perennial problem, as a Minister in the House of Commons was how to present the actions of the Department in the best possible light. Appearance was everything these days and the soundbite, the arresting headline, the appearance of sincerity on the TV screen was the surefire way of keeping New Labour up in the ratings. Thank heavens the remnants of the 'died in the wool' clothcap wearing Old Labour MPs are being put out to grass and would cease to be the irritating nuisances that drone on and on interminably. Practically, he had no need to worry as New Labour was holding the reins very tightly onto the political machine.

"Best practice in communicating difficult messages"

Modern research has concluded that "the way a message is delivered is as important as the message itself, the memo urges bosses to sweeten the brutal pill by smiling, making eye contact, speaking slowly and not mumbling words. It is admitted that for 98 per cent of people change at work is "unsettling". The message is that only 30 per cent of people's reaction are to the words of what they are told. The rest is down to "what you look like when you're saying it (body language) and how you say it (tone of voice)". For this reason, managers are urged to "speak clearly and slightly slower than usual", not to "mumble or gabble excitedly" and not to look bored when delivering the bleak message. Eye contact, occasional nods of acknowledgement and smiling are encouraged. So are phrases designed to soothe tempers such as "That's a very important point" or "I can see why you feel like this". The memo also warns against lying and "negative body language" such as finger pointing.

He had signed off the necessary papers before coming to the technical paper giving the numbers of civil servants to be cut. After all, the mainstream press like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph would lap it up and only protests would come from Trotskyite rags. The administrative decisions had been made and the paperwork would proceed to its destination. Later in the day, he had cast his eye over the press release that was to go to his employees. It wasn't too alarmist and conveyed the right image of hard necessity tempered with sincerity coupled with some hope for the future.

"As you know, from my earlier messages, we had identified scope to reduce the number of people working for the DTI in London by 36% (19% relocations and 17% job cuts). We have held to that position in our discussions with Treasury, but it is clear that we are going to be asked for more job cuts, as indeed are all Departments.That will probably mean that we have to review the scale and timing of the relocations we had proposed.

This is going to mean further change, and some tough choices, right across the Department and in all our agencies. I believe that we are well placed to meet the challenge. We have a clear vision for the direction of the DTI providing high quality services to our customers and stakeholders- a Department that has the flexibility to respond to changing requirements. That continues to be our shared vision, and I and my senior colleagues will continue to consult you openly and transparently as we take the decisions needed in the light of the settlement."

That had told them all they needed to know for the moment, he had smiled smugly to himself. The dissemination of information in a controlled, structured fashion was a science that only the skilled and initiated had the right to make claim to. Similarly, sixty years previously, there had taken place an important conference at a remote country house by the side of a lake. It was near Wansee, just outside Berlin, that a Dr Eichmann, a civil service planner set out his strategic vision for a better future. From the soles of his expensive hand made black polished shoes to his briefcase containing the neatly set out paper, he formulated the systematic 'evacuation' of the problem part of the population of Greater Germany. It planned everything right down to railway timetables and the geometric concentration of populations. It was a masterpiece of planning in its own way. All it had taken was the detached scientific outlook and the ability to plan.

A few months later, it was all bedlam. It all blew up out of nowhere, he remembered. At that time, he had been deeply immersed for months in the promotion of overseas arms deals with wealthy Arab states. It helped his career no end that the sheiks were ready to dig deep into their deep pockets or whatever they use to carry wads of notes, to buy the latest hardware and it helped the export drive nicely. The fact that they might use them to take pot shots at each other troubled his conscience not at all. Boys will be boys and toys will be toys, he reasoned to himself. It was all in a day's work for which he was rightly rewarded very handsomely.

He remembered the day when his ministerial limousine came to collect him on time as usual for another day's work. It was Bonfire Night or so the television reminded him although the event was of no significance to him.

"What in hell's happened to the limo. It looks as if it has been driven five times round the M25 in heavy rain," He exclaimed.

Instead of the immaculate shiny vehicle, there was a disgusting thin layer of splash marks on the sides of the car and on the windscreen. It all looked second rate and shabby to him when he had been accustomed to years of nothing but the best. His fastidious nature dressed in his sharpest Saville Row suit revolted against the possibility of being soiled by contact with the car.

"There's a strike on, sir. It's all over the early morning news. Thought that you would have known all about it, begging your pardon."

"Strikes? What's the world coming to?" His voice screeched in a high pitched tone of rage and frustration.

That was only the beginning of the worst day in his life to date As the spacious limousine drove sedately along the familiar landmarks around Trafalgar Square, turning into…………., he looked out for the familiar impregnable Georgian stone fortress of the Department of Trade and Industry. Unbelievably he spotted a line of policemen wrapped around the front entrance.

"What on earth are all those policemen doing there? Surely there isn't a terrorist threat? I've not heard anything about it."

"It's the civil service strike that I told you about. The union chief was on GMTV saying that his lot weren't going to stand for all the cuts. Someone must have stirred him up good and proper and by the looks of it, he's not the only one."

"Trotskyist trouble makers," Neil spat into the air in impotent anger.

"You're lucky that the private company I work for don't recognise unions. If they did, I'd be called to come out and join them. I wouldn't have any choice. Come to think of it, I could do with some time off to help organise the local church hall bonfire night. Do you like bonfire night?"

The middle-aged man was used to driving all the top nobs around London. Funny but if anything went wrong, they really got the hump. They acted like children, most of them leastwise and the best thing to do was to sort of distract them like you do with children. Sometimes his little ploys worked and then again, sometimes they didn't.

"I loathe and detest bonfire night. It's an excuse for louts to create mayhem with them.

Put me down, driver. I'll call for you when I need you."

"He still doesn't know my name," The driver muttered resentfully after Neil Haughton had slammed the door vengefully behind him. "Now then, temper temper."

Instantly, Neil Haughton was projected into a nightmare scene reminiscent of images of the 1979 "Winter of Discontent." As his limousine faded into the distance, those who weren't policemen were scruffily dressed in jeans and coats and a woman whom he took to be the leader wearing a yellow fluorescent jerkin moved towards him. Her face framed by medium length blonde hair, parted in the middle, lit up at the sight of him and she pushed a leaflet at him.

"I'm asking you not to cross the picket line." She said in a distinctly northern accent.

"Do you know who I am? I am going about my lawful business. I am Neil Haughton, the Trade and Industry Minister. Kindly step out of my way."

"I know exactly who you are," She answered. "I want you to explain to my members why you think we will be able to carry on with the scale of cuts that your government has imposed on us when we know we can't."

"Your union was consulted about the matter."

"Oh yeah, first we heard about it was on the six o'clock news, and we saw all the front bench cheering the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Tell me, with a general election in six months time, you explain to my members." And at this point, the woman's edge took on a harder edge and her arm swept sideways in a dramatic gesture. It drew together and gathered in all the picket line outside and those that they represented. "Why should we vote Labour? You give us three good reasons why we should."

Neil Houghton turned white at the sharp jab to the one thing importance in his existence. The loss of his position as MP and minister was the one thing, which frightened him and the consequent loss of his sense of overblown self-importance. In automatic mode, his memory retrieved without interruption from his mind the words he desperately needed and his mouth spewed them out in profusion.

"My government have reduced unemployment to the lowest level since the nineteen sixties, More schools and hospitals are being built than ever before. Hospital waiting times are being reduced. Inflation is being kept down. We are putting more money and effort into being tough on crime so that your members can walk the streets safely…."

"Read the leaflet, Mr Haughton. This tells you the truth about the cuts and not your party political broadcast."

"I hear what you say. I shall read it at my leisure. Meanwhile, you cannot stop me from entering or you will be in breach of the law." Neil Haughton's temper and pitch in his voice rose as he finished and pushed past the crowd of pickets who had gathered round on both sides.

"Will your government repeal the Tory anti trade union laws?" She fired as a parting shot. at the pompous, arrogant man as he disappeared into the bowels of the building.

Even though there was hardly a breath of wind and the weather was warmer than he had thought possible, the cold had cut through her clothes. She had worked non-stop in preparing for this day and had burnt the candle at both ends. Her eyes felt raw and her head ached when she had lain her head to rest on the pillow and the alarm had woken her at six in the morning. Her eyes were overloaded with fast moving images before her eyes, of being hemmed in by the police, of those comrades with her whom she had got to know on a more intimate level in these few hours than in years of working. She had been floating down from a high after feverishly planning what she had wanted to say to the "Evening Standard" and the local radio and getting them out in two concise minutes what the strike was about. The arrival of the most hated minister than even she could recall was a godsend and her tiredness vanished in a second. It was good to encounter one of the hated cabal of arrogant and incompetent New Labour ministers, engage him in verbal battle and beat him soundly. After all, he was no more than a stuffed shirt who mouthed out platitudes. He was nothing special except in his ability to crawl up the greasy ladder of success.

They would all soon be making their way to Central Hall opposite Westminster Abbey, a grand theatre where the General secretary whom she admired and a number of principled leaders from other unions would set them ablaze with oratory, warm their spirits as much as being out of their cold and give them hope for a long hard battle for the future. For the moment, they could afford a bit of enjoyment at that bastard Haughton's expense with a bit of chanting.

"Let's give Neil Haughton the message he didn't want to stay around to hear," She yelled into the megaphone she was holding. "Come on, everyone, after me. What do we want?"

"No cuts."

"When do we want it."


What do we want?"

"No cuts."

Again and again, she repeated this verbal riff with hypnotic power and the others on the picket line built up the two note refrain as they picked up on the rhythm with a refrain with that gutroot satisfaction in a double thump rhythm like an African chant or a twelve bar blues.

Neil Houghton furiously crushed the leaflet between his fingers as if he were crushing any enemy who got in his path. He threw it away into the nearest wastebin and stomped off upstairs. It was a savage irony that he had lately moved to a spanking new first floor office overlooking the grand sweep of the street outside. It enabled the positively indecent demonstration of the mob let loose, the pressure cooker blowing off the lid of civilised rule. He as one of the leaders of the country had made it his life's business, after he had made his pile of money in advertising, to use his position for the greater good. As such, the lid of the pressure cooker must be kept firmly shut so that good order would prevail and everyone would be in their rightful position in society. He wished the rabble outside would go away so that he could be left in peace. That was all he was asking as his head was in his hands.

"It's terrible, Minister," The middle-aged woman who was his faithful secretary entered the room and her voice interrupted his thoughts. "I don't know what's the world coming to these days. Never mind, the rest of us are all one hundred per cent behind you."

He didn't answer. He was uncomfortably aware that this malign contagion of union militancy had infected large numbers inside the office and had swept them away. He couldn't understand it. He had been assured by the head of his department that everyone was rock solid behind him. He had gone round the offices every so often and talked to his underlings, Grade 7 managers and the like, who assured him that everything was running smoothly. To all intents and purposes, the response was favourable to the usual blurb that was put out every Christmas, which had recognised all their hard work and had given vague reassurances as to their future. Life was so unfair, he remembered complaining for the first time in his life. It wouldn't be the first time.

Then there was that dratted General Election. If he had his way, the number of years between elections would be doubled from five years to ten so that he could work more on a long term basis rather than being compelled to save up all the good news in his Department to the six months before the General Election. The idea of postal elections also seemed like a sound one also and get away from hanging round the polling booths and smiling at perfect strangers whom he only needed as voting fodder. Still, given a third term, the legislation would go through to go entirely over to the American model after they had tested the water in a few council elections.

It meant that he had to take his eye off the Department and spend more time taking his turn on going on the political discussion programmes with the likes of David Frost. The man was getting long in the tooth but he still needed watching. In this way, the media fuelled electoral machine slid in its uncertain way into gear and gathered momentum.

It was a curious feature of political life that the onset of general elections suspended the jealousies, bickering and internal rivalries that simultaneously threatened to rend asunder each political party yet somehow constrained it as well. These conflicts lurked like a layer of sludge at the bottom of a polluted river, unseen from the surface but known to those who navigated its depths. In this way, the man whose job Neil Haughton cast covetous eyes upon was now suddenly a sound fellow whom he slapped on the back in the House of Commons bar and almost convinced himself that he nearly liked. The running of each Department went into freewheel as all ministers were closeted together in one breathless cabinet meeting after another. Taken together, they cranked up the fever pitch of excitement which intense scrutiny of the seesaw progress of opinion polls, focus group replies with the percentage answers to one liner questions of burning political importance.

They were on a roll together with that adrenaline rush that fuelled all addicts of all persuasions, that frantic need for that particular fix, that determination to sell their own grandmother if only, if only…. Gone was the languid talk of the greater good. That spoke of the assured unchallenged control of the political machine. When the danger of this was slipping through their hands, that power fix screamed out within them not to be denied the satisfaction of that need. This was a far more potent drug than anything that was sold on the black market and was totally and utterly respectable. After all, tame biographers had glorified the deeds of those who went before them and rewrote history as they saw fit. As Voltaire once said, history is the lie that is commonly agreed upon and in the present cabinet, desperation and ruthlessness knew no bounds.

Less agreeable were his meetings with his local constituency party. True to form, there was a predictable four-year cycle when he patronised them with his company for the number of necessary months. He was duty bound too, to tread the high streets of his constituency and shake hands and smile for the umpteenth time and make vague stirring promises for what New Labour would do for the third term. After a very short time, the novelty wore thin but he had woken up to realise uneasily that the administration had stored up trouble. After all, look what had happened to the previous government, he reasoned to himself.

On the final day, he found himself wound up like a spring and being driven round, complete with the obligatory red rosette pinned to his lapel, shaking hands one last time and talking to the local press hacks whom ordinarily, he would never let near him. Finally, as evening fell, he was whisked away to the town hall where, in the hive, nameless faceless drone workers laboured counting ballot papers for the benefit of which queen bee would rule. He remembered sipping a revolting cup of weak tea with his deadly rivals, the young Conservative smart Alec and the nondescript Liberal Democrat who actually lived in the constituency. He had become anxious when by some conspiracy the UK Independent Party neglected to field a candidate and let all the opposition votes be concentrated on that young upstart. He fidgeted and kept his fears to himself until the word came to stand on the platform and await his destiny.

It must have been either his memory or his hearing, which finally packed up on him. He could only pick out certain key words in the flat tuneless drone, which announced the results.

"…………..are duly cast"

Donaldson Andrew, Conservative, 14,212 votes.

Houghton Neil, Labour, 14,397 votes

Springfield Tom, Liberal Democrat 6,500 votes.

I duly declare Neil Houghton elected as the MP for………….."

One hundred and eighty five votes, the fingers hammered into his brain as a catcall of jeers went up from the crowd. He could see amongst them the dangerous smile of that fair-haired Trotskyite woman who had accosted him outside his own office. She was his nemesis, like other dangerous subversives out to get him. In her turn, revenge was sweet but she knew that tomorrow was another day and a dangerous level of ignorance among far too many MPs. Some whom unions had sponsored and had helped put them into power had only turned their backs and joined in with the rest for their share in the pig trough, only out for their own interests. That left people like her and so many others to fight a war where there was no discernable end for the future of ordinary people.

Immediately, the reporter and his accomplices wielding a TV camera and sound gear descended on him.

"How do you feel about nearly being the third minister in history to be unseated by the electorate. First John Redwood and Michael Portillo and nearly you to join them. Could your personal unpopularity have anything to do with it?"

"Politics are about majorities," He retorted in as even a tone as he could manage bottling down his frustration at the impertinent finger pointing question. "If fifty one percent of the electorate vote for me, I'm still the elected member for this constituency and still the Minister for Trade and Industry."

"Will you still be a minister? The way the returns are coming in means that the Labour Majority has been drastically reduced and the Prime Minister is known to only value success."

"That is the prerogative of the Prime Minister," Neil Houghton uttered smoothly, not wanting the footage being filmed to be rerun on prime time television.

He made his way outside as quickly as he could decently manage. He was not intending to go to the Labour Club. Both he and the local constituency party activists knew very well that they would not see him for dust for the next four years.

"Oh bad luck, Neil," An amused old Etonian voice broke in on his fury. "You're still a government minister for me to cross swords with, one whose power and reputation will have become crippled and impotent."

John had taken a discreet backseat position throughout the proceedings and had nimbly chased after him and , seizing the ideal opportunity to waylay him, set about exacting his moment of sweet revenge. It had been a long time coming..

"Were you behind all this?" Neil raged at John. All his frustrations boiled to the surface. "Wish I had been," John retorted dryly. "You came close to being the latest to joining the dole queue. You can find the local Jobcentre if you turn left at the traffic lights, and take the second right turn. It's got a green and yellow sign outside. You can't miss it."

Neil Haughton glared speechlessly and stomped off to head for the nearest bar. John let him go as he had other places to go, in particular homeward bound to meditate on the future. It was already occurring to him that those who had arrogantly run the LCD might become more nervous as to their future. The drastic narrowing of the majority meant that the countervailing power of the electorate to give an arrogant, out of touch regime a bloody nose would make them think twice.

As Neil Haughton drank on his own in some nameless bar, he reflected that he had had a narrow squeak. He came that close to being cast adrift on the job market at his time of life. Unemployed ex advertising executives even with ministerial connections faced tough competition with all the up and coming tycoons. What hurt him most was the feeling of not being wanted. There was so many ways, he told himself, in which he could serve his country. As he tried to put the whole wretched experience behind him, a memory flashed upon him. If George had been with him as his consort, this whole sorry mess would not have happened. It was a long time since he had cast eyes upon her and the events of the last few months had driven everything out of his mind. It was time for a change of direction in his life. He looked at his calendar and realised that it was George's birthday this week. He had vaguely heard a rumour of some concert that she was involved with and decided that it would be a good opportunity to see it and perhaps clear up some unfortunate misunderstandings. She couldn't refuse him, could she?

Part 141

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