DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETAED: by Jen.
A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard
Part One Hundred and Forty One
The empty church hall was a conventionally rectangular room with varnished parquet flooring and had an infinite capacity to adapt itself to the diverse needs of the parish which it served. One Saturday would see it convert to a children's party complete with the amateur disco and flashing lights only to be cleared away for the tables for the Sunday bring and buy sale. The Friday following next would see the metal framed chairs being set out for the amateur theatrical society. On sporadic occasions in between while, these chairs would be stacked up in piles in the corner to make as much space as a rehearsal room for the amateur orchestra just as the Bar Council had directed a mere three months or so ago.
Joe studied the room, which looked quite ordinary enough as the naked fluorescent strip lights cast its everyday light down on everyone with no sense of the unusual. When the music started, Joe felt the prosaic magically transform itself into the magical. The hall fitted in snugly the massed arrays of music stands and instruments at the ready, all arranged according to the traditional game plan the classical world over to produce the pre technological stereo effect for the audience and, pride of place, the rostrum where Joe Channing felt increasingly accustomed to stand. It felt as natural as his central throne in the carved stone majesty of the Appeal Court, that cathedral like structure as much set in its place in the Strand as Joe Channing felt when he held his prized baton in his hand.
He had arrived early to run his thoughts over the last major rehearsal without the chorus, before the performance. There was an added spring in his step since he had found the courage to detach that fearful woman from her tenacious grasp onto his beloved orchestra. He placed the well-thumbed volume of sheet music on the table and remained deep in thought while he charted the uncertain progress of the orchestra up until this point in time. He had that feeling that they had turned the corner onto the home run. One discreet final push would see the orchestra finally pulling together as one, much though he loathed that modern expression. The last performance had seen sparks flying between Karen and Sir Ian but that damned fool had asked for all the trouble he had got in picking on a woman like her who would be sure to give back as good as she received. On the other hand, somehow, he would have placed a solid bet that John and Sir Ian would never managed to coexist in the same room and voluntary give of their own time much less play in the same orchestra without coming to blows.
Karen's black eye had gone through all the colours of the rainbow but had settled down to normal to her relief. She smiled briefly as she entered the hall early and was halfway towards her place when Lady Rochester intercepted her.
"Your display at the last rehearsal certainly added a bit of spice to the often humdrum lives that we members of the legal profession and various consorts lead. It must come from locking up prisoners for a living."
Karen took instant dislike to this woman who damned her with faint praise in that honeyed voice of hers.
"When you work in a prison, Francesca, you haven't time for playing games and false fronts. I would recommend it to anyone to visit my prison to find that out unless they knew that one already."
John was immediately behind Karen and could see at a glance the mischief that this devious woman was up to and chimed in straightaway.
"I would heartily agree with what Karen is saying from my own experiences of visiting Larkhall. What I find fascinating is that you meet people from all walks of life, from the most lowly to the well to do. You would do well to reflect on what twists and turns our lives can lead and who knows which way the wind blows."
In one split second, John caught sight of Joe Channing looking in his direction and with an effort, he jammed the lid on the anger that was boiling up inside him.
Right now, before the performance is the one time in your life when I won't call you to account for your reprehensible behaviour. Don't think it is out of any latitude, which you can exploit. It's only because you are a musician so I expect you to play like one."
John's curt words were expressed in curiously clipped tones that plainly warned her to not speak so lightly of prison. This was especially telling as they both knew that she had walked out of court with a suspended sentence while her more expendable boyfriend Giles Rowley was sent down for his share in defrauding her aunt Dorothy Lomax. Sir Ian saw what was going on and drew his wife away from the situation in some embarrassment and whispered fiercely in her ear to leave well enough alone and not bring up reminders before company of the most acutely embarrassing incident in his life.
George greeted her with her usual dazzling smile and they immediately helped themselves to a cup of weak tea, the best that the church hall had to offer.
"You know, when I see Sir Ian with that woman, spineless though he is, I almost feel sorry for him."
"Yeah well, if she'd said one more word more, it would have been her turn to have her face decorated."
It was very rare that such an instinctive feeling of repulsion swept over and her and explained the vengeful way that Karen spoke. It was the combination of her smooth as honey voice coming from that oh so innocent lips and knowing that she was as devious and as calculating as they came. The only other woman she knew that was remotely similar to her was Di Barker, sisters under the skin despite outward differences in appearance.
John had circulated quickly over to Joe, after settling accounts with that dangerous woman. He supposed that he wanted to talk to John about it as well as to run over a few details on the rehearsal. When he got there, Joe greeted him with a welcoming smile.
"I know very well how you feel about that damnable woman but I'm glad you restrained yourself and remembered that we have an orchestra to run rather than settle a private score, however justifiable it might be."
"It didn't feel that way," John admitted frankly. He was surprised that he had appeared more restrained than he felt inside. A furious torrent of emotions ran through him, his loathing of himself for being so easily led into her schemes, his detestation of the enormity of what she did and of the pressure he was put under to restrain his emotions for the sake of a higher good. He suspected that she knew exactly he would feel so constrained and that only fuelled his anger.
"I'm frankly a little nervous already at this stage of the run up to the big performance. Knowing what we know about Karen's son doesn't make it any easier when she knows nothing of the matter. However, these are side issues. The main reason why I called you over was entirely musical "
It was evident that Joe needed a lot of moral support after catching sight of a happy and contented Karen. It had been easy for him to hold forth abstractly about what seemed to be something like a matter of law until he saw Karen in the flesh. It wasn't a guilty secret that they shared but it certainly felt like one. They could see Karen laughing in an utterly unconcerned fashion and chatting to George. Somehow, Joe was glad that Karen had his daughter close to her or whatever new fangled way they talked about such things. In the light of the secret that he and John shared, nothing else seemed to matter.
Sir Ian did not linger long in his wife's company. The terms of his parent's will kept her shackled to his destiny but he did not see why that precluded him from circulating round the fellow members of the orchestra when need arose. He finished his whispered row with Francesca interspersed with false smiles for anyone drifting past. His errand was only marginally more agreeable and that was to approach George on Neil Haughton's behalf. There had been a distinct coolness ever since he presumed on his services immediately after he had struck George in an argument to ensure that there were no legal repercussions. A few days ago, he had suddenly turned up and with a display of false charm, tried to inveigle him to get him a ticket for the performance. It was funny how Neil Haughton was the one man who made him feel unaccountable prickles of conscience in revealing a level of cynicism that made him feel positively virtuous in comparison. He remembered bristling up at him and made a condition of it that he would personally ask George about it first.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, George but I have a little private matter to discuss with you."
He felt awkward as his conciliatory smile felt all wrong as if an inept tailor had badly sewn it to his face.
"I haven't any reason to give you any special favours, Ian. I haven't forgiven or forgotten the pathetic adolescent performance the other day, of either you or your little helper who tags after you carrying your briefcase."
"Yes, yes, George, but this is urgent and a matter I am performing out of a reluctant sense of duty rather than pleasure. Just three minutes and I'll be off."
"Go on," George replied in a far less contemptuous tone of voice. He had not tried to verbally retaliate in his usual weak, ineffective fashion. "I'm listening."
"I'll be to the point. I have had a request by your very much of an ex, Neil Haughton, enquiring after a ticket. He wanted me to get him one and rather than suggest that he approach Vera for a ticket, I made it plain with him that I would run it past you. I make no special pleading for the man but he is a potential customer but I thought it more than a little off for you to perform and see him on the front row without prewarning you."
"Why are you doing me this favour, Ian?" George questioned him, her penetrating eye closely examining his manner. The man sounded unusually candid but then again, he had had a lifetime in selling his soul to the nearest bidder.
"No matter how much Francesca may have tried to discredit me, I would never raise my hand to her. Anyway, I leave it up to you to think over. There's no hurry and I have discharged my duty."
Sir Ian gave a quick tight smile and promptly departed to look out for Lawrence James.
The crowded room dissolved away into nothingness in front of George. This unexpectedly touching gesture from Sir Ian came from the obsequious weasel whom she had long despised even when she was on the right side of the establishment. That capacity for embarrassment reached out from the depths of her and choked her. It was because Sir Ian had known of that moment of utter humiliation and frightening feeling of powerlessness. The fact that Sir Ian genuinely pitied her for the plight she had been in didn't make her feelings any clearer. She didn't care to think of that repulsive man coming anywhere near her life again, certainly as he still occasionally haunted her dreams.
"What's wrong, George?" Karen's mellow husky tones broke over her like the gentle surf on the beach and dragged her gently up from underwater.
"I'm all right now,," George's dazzling smile also answered. She would have said 'darling' if they weren't so constrained by an increasing preponderance of brethren coming in through the church hall front doors. Their attitudes to sexual matters were not exactly enlightened as the emblems of their profession suggested.
To George, those two brief words told her everything that Karen was there for her.
John was on the way back to talk to Jo when he spied Grayling enter the room. His sense of gratitude for his intervention made him walk briskly over to him and shake him by the hand.
"I was going to thank you for stepping forward to back up Joe in slaying that fearful dragon of all time, Vera Everard. There's not many men who would have that sort of nerve even with assistance. You have done us all a favour."
"Don't mention it, John," Grayling smiled broadly. "I have been a born again radical, being a thorn in the flesh of my superior, Alison Warner, spreading sedition in the higher echelons of the Home Office. You get used to it after a while, especially after a previous career at various levels in the prison service."
"You sound like a man after my own heart," John said enthusiastically recognising a kindred spirit. What was strange to him was that a man like Grayling whose character ran counter to had that indefinable studied ambiguity demeanour.
"Within limits, John," Grayling observed drily. "I don't share your liking for the fairer sex, for example."
"So I remember hearing," John said in a faint reflective tone of voice. It had seemed months ago that George had flung it in his face when he had had that almighty row a couple of months ago about the nature of her relationship with him and he had later challenged Neil about it in not so many words. The words were there in his retentive memory but they had failed to connect with him. It seemed like as much a midsummer enchantment in the way that Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" had taken command only in reverse. He had read the play at school but had never given it much credence as somewhat improbable. Now he understood as some reversal spell of enchantment fell from his eyes only it was that insecurity which he would never have thought would be a problem, not where women were concerned. Oh well, you live and learn.
"Are you all right, John?" Grayling asked in a concerned tone. He had seen that very astute man's blue eyes turn remote and distant as if he were not really there.
"No, everything's fine By the way, I was going to ask you if you had any dealings with Karen after that unfortunate incident when she was assaulted?"
The expression in John's eyes resumed his sharpness and he smiled. The question had popped into his mind as he was sure that Grayling would know the answer.
"She came to area and the subject was broached. I was supportive of someone who is a very fine officer and told her not to beat herself up about a matter where she took a calculated risk, which misfired, and I sent her home for the afternoon. I'm very fond of Karen and I'll back her to the hilt."
"You are a good man, Neil.I'm glad you are around for her. And now, it's time to take our places, judging by the time."
The last of the orchestra finally filed their way into the hall and the usual round of pleasantries were cut short as if by collective agreement. It was obvious that they were aware of the need not to waste valuable time. In that frame of mind as conductor, Joe felt that a last few well chosen words might well gently remind them that their bounden duty was to answer a greater calling that they originally pursued of their own free will.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I mean fellow musicians," Joe Channing's voice boomed out and like any actor played his pause for just the right split seconds. A feeling of pride rippled through the orchestra from the more sensitive to the more reluctant of them. "I am sure you don't need reminding that this is the last rehearsal but one before the performance. I feel it in my bones that, despite some of the hiccups that have inevitably accompanied the rehearsals, we will prove that we are ready for the big night. Are you all in agreement with me?"
A sound half way between a murmur and a cheer echoed back to Joe in affirmation as the members of the orchestra made themselves ready. Sir Ian on clarinet had exchanged a glance with Lawrence James. Both he and Francesca Rochester on oboe were at last with the others they let themselves be swept along by the collective mood as Joe Channing raised his baton to let the music commence.
Part One Hundred and Forty Two
"Mum, when you're inside, you lose track of days and you don't like to ask when you're due out in case you've built up your hopes and you've got it wrong."
Lauren mumbled sleepily into the mouthpiece of the phone and kept her voice down low as if she had suddenly gone tired after a long chat with mum. In reality, her mind was working as sharp as ever and better than she let on. She knew that she was due out in two months time just in time for her mother's fiftieth birthday but she wanted to keep this a surprise. The one phone was situated in a corner of the ground floor of G Wing tucked under the metal staircase. At all costs, she wanted to avoid Denny overhearing her on the subject.
She had recently witnessed Denny come back on the wing after two weeks of detox looking like death warmed up. There were dark circles under her eyes from catching up on all the lost sleep that amphetamine had kept her away from. It wasn't the easiest of situations from even the most tactful of the prison officers as Denny was still edgy and paranoid. It made her hearing all the more acute even though the demons in her head intercepted and distorted what passed between ears and brain. It was just a matter of time before that passed. It would be just Lauren's luck for Denny's quirky hearing to overhear her at the wrong time, coming down the staircase for instance.
"I'd love to get you something for your birthday and get it to you somehow, I won't have anything much though. You don't get to save much out of personal spends and I don't smoke less than I used to."
Her face broke into a grin as Yvonne told her not to be a soft sod. Yvonne was at pains not to tell her how much she was missing her. Trigger put a paw on Yvonne's knee as if to signify his agreement.
"I won't be able to keep an eye on Denny in future for you. I only hope the Julies keep a proper eye on her. Gotta go now as the pips are going."
Lauren put the phone down just as she sensed coming down the stairs the distinct footfall and the bottom of Denny's unmistakable khaki brown army trousers. She moved like lightning away from the phone and greeted her as Denny came to the bottom of the staircase. Just then, the bell for association rang and the prisoners filtered towards the bars of the prison gate
"You there, Lauren. I thought you'd bleeding disappeared. They do that to you sometimes."
There was an unsettling stare in Lauren's direction that worried the other woman. It had happened to her a number of years ago when Shaz had not come down from her cell on the threes and that cow Bodybag had suggested that she see for herself. She'd gone upstairs and in place of what she expected to see, some tart that she knew later to be Snowball Merriman was in Shaz's place and all her stuff was spread out in Shaz's cell. She never got over that shock, most of all when she was coming down off the speed.
"Oh yeah, like I got myself stashed inside Bodybag's handbag. I'm not that small and even she would notice."
"Just checking, man. Only I get worried if I can't see you."
The beginning of a foolish grin stole across Denny's face for the first time since she had gone to see Shell in Ashmore. The combination of Lauren's breezy reassuring manner and her bright smile started to disperse some of the dark clouds in her mind.
"The sun's shining, Denny. Today is a good day to be outside."
Denny didn't answer even though the sun shone invitingly from the opening to the association yard and brightened up that part of G Wing. Colin was on the gates, which were swung wide open and was smiling in encouragement, gesturing to Denny to join with the others who were passing through.
"Come on, sis. You've been shut away too long. Follow me. I'll look after you."
Denny clutched at Lauren's hand and tagged on after her after Lauren softly and insistently repeated her suggestion. Immediately the sun zeroed in on her with fierce sunbeams and she felt dizzy as she stood at the top of the stone staircase. She was impossibly high up off the ground. She clutched onto the concrete stone wall that ran alongside the stone staircase, which slanted down to the grass below.
"Hey, Denny, come outside with us and get some fresh air, mate. You look as pale as death." Julie Saunders kindly voice broke in on her sweating fears of what she couldn't put into words.
Denny looked wildly around her and up into the sky. The massive wall of the prison wing seemed to lean dangerously over her head as if it would fall on her. It scared the shit out of her. She clung onto the stone wall, her face sweating.
"Take a seat, Denny." Dominic's gentle voice materialized from behind her. It was as well that he was there and not Bodybag. She would have tried to get her to go bundle her out of the way as she was blocking the way. If she'd frigging done that, she'd end up down the block and in trouble again.
"You move when you're ready. You give it a bit and you'll be all right. If you're not well, I'll call for the doctor.
"I ain't having any more bleeding stuff in me. I want to be real," Denny almost screamed.
Dominic nodded understandingly as a little crowd gathered around her protectively. Eventually, she found the strength to edge her way down the stone staircase, pressing in against the protective stone shelf next to her. With legs like jelly, she found herself in the open yard. She breathed in and out loudly, filling her lungs with clean fresh air. Everything was sharp edged painted in almost unbearably fresh colours. She had not been outside for a lifetime. Lauren took her by the arm for a bit till and they walked along the close-cropped grass in a world, which had returned to normal. She felt a little pleasantly drained and free from that constant pumped up feeling which hammered its way through her veins. All that shit frightened her as she thought about it and this was all the worse as she had felt so great, so unconquerable at the time.
"I want to sit down for a bit," Denny said suddenly when they came to a corner of the yard. A short stone flight of steps no more than about three feet high was convenient to hand. They sat down side-by-side and the whole exercise yard opened out for what seemed like miles. The solid grey stonework of the prison buildings felt comfortably distanced.
"I've been pretty stupid recently Lauren, haven't I," Denny suddenly said. She had to get out the words before she had a chance to think about it.
"We've all messed up from time to time."
Denny shook her head in disbelief. If anything went wrong with her, it was the worst thing in the world to her and no one could feel as inadequate and stupid as Denny did.
Lauren seemed too perfect and strong and that made her feel uncomfortable for a sister. It ran in the family except mums were there to confess everything to and to be made better. There was never any remote idea of comparing herself to her like there was with Lauren. That was what made it so easily tempting to get back with Shell as they could both be bad and negative together.
"Not as much as I do. That's the story of my life."
"Look at me, Denny. The way I set out to kill Fenner messed things up between Mum and Karen, I mean Miss Betts," Lauren hesitated for a moment as the image of the current Governing Governor who was her jailor clashed with the rival for her mother's affections, something and someone who had really churned her up inside. "I went to pieces for a long time when I first came here. You were the strong one then."
A flash of impatience ran through Denny. She wanted to get everything out of her head and Lauren was leading her away from the point, kind hearted though she was.
"Just one day, that's all it took. I went to see Shell at Ashmore and I came out a different woman. How does she do that to me? I really really want to see her out of that place. What do I do?"
Her eyes appealed to Lauren to say and do the right thing. It was a hell of a responsibility for something where the news was going to be bad. She said nothing for a second but slipped her arm round her shoulders protectively. For once, Denny's body wasn't rock hard in rejection of pity or sympathy. She didn't have to be strong and hard like that demon voice in her head was telling her to be.
"I don't know the answer to that one, sis. You can't expect that what you want to happen will happen. She should never be in that place but that's not the same as saying that she'll get out easily especially as if Miss Betts has been on the case. Do you want her to come back here?"
Denny didn't know the answer to this one. She just wanted her to be out of that muppet house. She hadn't thought any further than that.
"There's another thing that's bothering me, Lauren. It's this time of the year since Shaz died in that fire. Do you know, I haven't thought of her this last month. I ain't right in the head if I can be that way."
Denny dissolved into tears when that thought struck home with all the force of an arrow. She was in some bleeding fantasy and off her head. She must be bad to forget her this way. She had promised herself that she would never do a thing like that. What else was the point of that special bush out there in the garden dedicated to her?
"Who do you prefer, Shaz or Shell?" Lauren asked quietly into the curls of her hair.
"I don't know," mumbled Denny. "I love Shaz and everything she meant to me. She made me feel young again. Shell tempts me to be like she is. I can't explain it. I don't get anything right now."
Denny's broken words fizzled to a stop. She was done in and brain dead. Only the warm air, which brushed past, them answered them and the way the Julies had caught up with them and hovered sympathetically nearby as if they were standing guard over them. Denny couldn't see them but sensed that they were there.
By total contrast, Karen was buried deep within the bowels of the prison administration block in her office with her own set of worries. This was Ross's birthday and for once in his life since he had left home, she had heard nothing from him. She didn't even know where he lived, so distant they were from each other and she sensed that if she did visit him, he would be living a life of total squalour. He wasn't exactly domesticated when he lived at home but teenage boys were like that. The only lifeline that she had with him was his mobile even if, more often than not, he would make the few polite nothings before cadging money off her. Whether she refused, he acted like the archetypal teenage spoilt brat. It wasn't fair on her, as she never brought him up to be this way. He never let up making her feel guilty. Despite these mutual resentments, one delicate last winter flower was left of happier times, that he never failed to be in contact on his birthday. There was another curious feature of him that he never failed to be contactable on his mobile. She would have expected to hear the continuous sound of a dead mobile and that he had been disorganised so that he hadn't got money for the 'pay as you go' card. That had never happened to him and she thought fondly that this quirk was the only faint trace of the steadiness that she had tried what felt a lifetime to teach him. She guessed that his finances were a mess. On this time, it didn't happen. Again and again, that last trace of him, his name and mobile number came up and there was no sound, nothing. It felt as if the last umbilical cord were cut and she was worried.
Part One Hundred and Forty Three
On the following Saturday, June the eighteenth, George ran into Helen and Nikki, when she was looking for something new to wear for the performance, only a week away. It was mid morning, and the sun was shining, and she felt incredibly happy. She was walking passed a group of tables outside one of her favourite coffee shops, when she heard her name being called. When Nikki had seen her, George had looked to be in a world of her own, barely aware of the people around her. When George looked in the direction of the voice, she saw Helen and Nikki sitting at one of the tables, both half way through large cappuccinos.
"You look like you've been busy," George said as she reached them, glancing over at the boutique bags that filled one of the chairs at their table.
"New suits to frighten Sylvia into obeying my every order," Nikki said wickedly.
"Would you like a coffee?" Helen asked as George sat down.
"I'd love one," George said appreciatively. "It might give me some inspiration." As Helen went to get her an espresso, Nikki gave her a conspiratorial smile.
"So, how's things? I haven't seen much of you for ages."
"Interesting, might just be the word to describe it," George said ruefully. "Scary but incredible."
"You're looking good on it," Nikki said scrutinizing George. "Well, you look a lot better than when I last saw you."
"I'm sorry about that," George said sheepishly. "Everything was just getting a bit too much."
"Don't apologise," Nikki said kindly. "I meant what I said at the time, I'm always here."
"So, how was prison service training?" George asked, seeing that Helen was on her way back, and wanting to change the subject.
"There were a few bigoted, pigheaded bastards," Nikki said philosophically. "But no more than I really expected. I can't wait for Monday though, to see Sylvia's face if nothing else."
When Helen reappeared with George's coffee, she said,
"So, why are you in this neck of the woods this morning?" George took a grateful sip of the scalding black liquid and smiled.
"I'm looking for something a little different to wear for the performance next week. You are coming to see it, aren't you?"
"You bet we are," Helen said firmly. "I haven't heard Clare play since university, and I can't wait to hear you sing."
"Oh, thanks for the pressure," George said dryly.
"Karen says you sing like an angel," Helen said, making George blush scarlet.
"Well, she shouldn't," She said with a laugh.
"So, what are you planning to wear?" Nikki asked, seeing that George was highly embarrassed. "Apart from the fig leaf."
"I really don't know," George replied, lighting a cigarette. "Sexy doesn't seem quite right for playing Eve, but neither do I want it to be too formal. We are supposed to be having fun whilst doing this after all."
"Definitely something short," Helen said, clearly trying to picture it.
"Without a doubt," Nikki agreed. "You've got the legs for it, so you may as well show them off."
"Eve wore very little, while she was being drawn under Adam's spell, so you've got the perfect excuse," Helen said with a smile.
"You want to show off everything you've got," Put in Nikki. "Without making it too obvious that you know just how gorgeous you are."
"If you insist," George said with a nervous little laugh, flushing slightly at Nikki's compliment.
After finishing their coffee, they adjourned to the clothes shops that surrounded them, eventually settling on a short, black skirt, which stopped a couple of inches above her knees, showing off her extremely pretty legs to perfection. They then found a simple white, silky top that had a design of climbing roses from hem to neckline, ideal for a performance of the beginning of life. When George emerged from the dressing room, clad in what they'd decided upon, Helen's look of awe, and Nikki's exclamation of 'Jesus', told her just how stunning she looked.
"Good job your Adam bats for the other side," Nikki said ruefully. "Or he'd lose himself down your cleavage in that top."
"How do you keep your legs looking so good?" Helen asked, utterly mystified.
"Swimming," George said succinctly, standing before them. "That, and standing all day in court in the highest heels I can handle. You don't think this is a bit too outrageous for Eve? And this is being performed in a church don't forget."
"No, it's fine," Nikki told her seriously. "It's sexy, but right, if that makes any sense. You'll need a strapless bra though," She added, gesturing to the off the shoulder cut of the top. "And if you wear really high heels, your legs will look even longer than they already are."
After dropping her purchases off at home, and grabbing a quick something for lunch, George drove over to the church for the final rehearsal. This was the last chance they had before next week, to iron out any mistakes. They would all be together, the orchestra, the soloists, everyone. She picked Karen up on the way, and they talked about Nikki's impending arrival at Larkhall on the Monday.
"I can't wait to see Sylvia's face," Karen said with a smirk. "She's going to look even more like a fish out of water than she usually does."
"From what I saw this morning," George said, trying to find a parking space. "Nikki's certainly going to look the part." As they walked through the churchyard, walking in the opposite direction to that they usually took, the actual church being at the other end, Karen caught sight of something that made her stop in surprise. It was a tombstone, almost hidden among several others, with a small rose bush planted at its base. But it was the name that halted Karen in her tracks, the name that had featured so prominently in two trials, Ritchie Atkins, followed by his dates. Karen hadn't exactly forgotten that he was buried here, at least not that he had been buried in this very churchyard, but perhaps she had forgotten where.
"You go on without me," Karen said to George, wanting a moment alone with her memories of this event. "I'll catch you up in a minute."
"Are you all right?" George asked in concern, following Karen's gaze to the name on the headstone.
"Fine," Karen told her. "I just want a few minutes."
"I didn't know he was buried here," George said, not immediately moving away.
"I hadn't forgotten, I just don't think I'd expected to be confronted with it, that's all." Giving her hand a quick squeeze, George left her to it, walking the rest of the way to the church.
Karen moved off the path and onto the grass, standing looking at the inscription.
"Stay safe my little angel." Jesus, Karen thought to herself, those words were so Yvonne, signifying everything she had ever wanted for her children, probably speaking for every mother alive.
As Joe Channing walked through the well-kept churchyard, he reflected that having no Vera here today was a godsend. She had refused to attend either this rehearsal or the previous one, proclaiming herself to be in high dudgeon over her dismissal. Monty had offered him a lift today, and Joe had gratefully accepted. Monty had dropped him as close to the church as possible before going to find somewhere to park. Joe had caught sight of his daughter and Karen Betts in the distance, and had seen them stop by one of the headstones. After exchanging a few words, George had briefly touched Karen's hand and left her to it. It had highly confused Joe to see George exhibit such a gesture of affection to another woman, and he found himself thanking god that she hadn't done anything so obvious as kiss her. He might be aware that his daughter did such things in private, but that didn't mean he ever wanted to see public evidence of it. As George walked away towards the church, he watched as Karen moved a little closer to the headstone, clearly reading the inscription, and taking a moment to dwell on memories she would rather forget. When Joe reached her, he stood on the path, just watching her, waiting for her to become aware of his presence. When she eventually turned round, she didn't look overly disturbed to see him there.
"Someone you knew?" Joe asked, though it was obvious the occupier of the grave had been.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking," Karen said with a mirthless laugh. "And Ritchie Atkins was anything but a little angel," She added, gesturing to the inscription.
"Ah, Atkins," Joe said after reading the engraved words. "There wasn't a judge in the country who wasn't aware of that trial." Joe could remember the highly sensational speculation that had been all over the press at the time, most of it details of this particular woman's sex life. If everything he'd read at the time had been true, she had been cruelly used by too many men one way and another, so perhaps it wasn't so difficult to understand why she had started looking at other women instead.
"It's all we ever want for our children, isn't it," Karen said quietly, bringing Joe back out of his thoughts. "To keep them safe."
"Yes," Joe said with a heavy heart, thinking of just how much he knew of Karen's son that she didn't. "Even when they're forty nine, and think they know everything about life and all its joys and hardships, their safety is always the concern uppermost in one's mind." They were silent as they walked towards the church, each lost in their own quiet contemplation.
"John mentioned that you have a son," Joe said eventually, his curiosity finally begging to be fed.
"Yes," Karen said with a fond smile. "He was twenty-two last week, and he thinks he knows everything too."
"You don't look old enough," Joe replied, seeing the gentle yet slightly exasperated mark of a real parent in her.
"Some might say that Ross is the fruit of my misspent youth. His father died in the Falklands, so it's mostly just been me and my son." She didn't sound resentful of the fact, but almost proud. "George said that her mother died when she was ten," Karen added quietly.
"Yes, she did," Joe replied a little sombrely. "And there isn't a day that goes by, that I don't wish she was here to see all that George has achieved."
"I bet she was a handful as a fourteen-year-old," Karen said with a smile.
"Yes," Joe agreed ruefully. "Though very occasionally, it feels as though the last thirty five years haven't existed," He added conspiratorially, making Karen laugh.
"After watching her in court," She replied. "I can quite imagine that." As they walked into the church, and Karen looked for somewhere to rest her viola case, Joe was forced to admit that he did like this woman, even if she had a tendency to get into trouble that occasionally far outweighed John's.
Part One Hundred and Forty Four
Gina had come in on Sunday for a special reason without advising the other prison Officers who were usually accustomed to work without supervision by whoever was most senior. She saw Bodybag's surprised glance but smiled and hurried on to her office, which from tomorrow would cease to be hers. She looked round at it, glancing at every nook and cranny with which she had become familiar over the three months that she had occupied it. She had grown to like her surroundings but only because she knew from the start that it would be a short-term commitment. On Monday, all her personal effects would be back in her locker as she took a grateful step down the prison officer hierarchy. She knew she had grown in that period of time she had been Wing Governor and would have greater understanding than before and she had her freedom back. It would suit her to be squarely back in the PO's room but she could handle the change, the same way she could handle most things in her rough and ready way. She'd made the place spick and span and all the papers in neat order for when Nikki took over. She could do no more than that. Only one more duty remained for her.
As she strolled across the wing, she caught Dominic's eye and duly avoided Bodybag's. She knew that she would be grumbling under her breath to herself as, very conveniently, Di wasn't around. She would be sure to recite the same litany of woes about being dragged in on a Sunday at her time of life even though she was likely to go off sick at any moment.
"Dominic, what say we get the Julies to give this wing a good spring clean ready for the new gov?"
He said nothing but strolled away down the corridor, which led to where they would be likeliest to be.
"Do we tell them who it's for?" he grinned when they had slid off somewhere quieter.
"So long as they swear blind that they will keep their gobs shut for twenty four hours. I know that their tongues run away with them. Go on, we'll handle them together."
"Nikki Wade, you're joking Miss." Julie Saunders was the first of them to find her tongue after they had stood open mouthed at the bombshell that was so casually lobbed over at them.
"Do we look like a bloody standup comedy act?" Gina retorted, the grin on her face softening the bluntness of her speech.
"We did wonder if there is something you could do in return for what we've told you," Gina
Added in softer tones.
"Aye aye, we thought there would be a catch in this somewhere," Julie Saunders spoke in slightly sharp tones, the very body language of the way she stood expressing incipient mutiny.
"All we're asking for is that you keep schtum about who you're doing the spring cleaning for. We don't want anyone to know about Nikki till she's here. Twenty four hours, that's all we're asking."
Men, they're all the same, the Julies thought scornfully at first as they heard Dominic's oh so reasonable tones. They exchanged glances as the implications of what they were being asked sank home. It was as if they were asked at the drop of a hat to go cold turkey on cigarettes for a day. Their natural instinct was to hare round the wing telling and retelling the news and laughing in Bodybag's face.
"We want the wing prepared in advance to look good, like a courtesy gesture..." started Dominic.
".......but we don't want anyone else to know, not the other prisoners and not the other prison officers. Can't say fairer than that."
Julie Johnson caught the meaning look in Gina's eye. They meant Di Barker and Bodybag for sure.
"OK, Miss Rossi. Me and Ju will have the place spick and span so you could eat a three-course meal off the floor. Right?"
The two women made a beeline back to the servery where they looked sharply at the surroundings with fresh eyes. It could do with a bit of freshening up for sure. They got the mops and buckets and cleaning materials out and went at the job with a will. The corridors were next in line.
"Servery's the first place anyone would look, especially........"
Julie Saunders dug her elbow into the other woman's ribs and the other woman blushed. It was so easy to talk about the matter and so hard to avoid putting her foot into it.
Dominic and Miss Rossi had got them down to a T, they both reflected. They set to work to clean round the hot plates and then to mop the floor very industriously.
Bodybag prowled round the wing looking at everything suspiciously. If she was miserable, she hoped against hope that the opportunity would come that someone else would be equally miserable. What set her off in a bad mood was the complete absence of information about the new wing governor. She had heard that he or she would be due to arrive on the Monday but that was what the combined snooping power of her and Di could find out. It gave her nothing to prepare herself for, what were the weaknesses, which could be exploited. The other prison officers like Selena and Colin were curiously fatalistic and wouldn't be drawn into any speculation. In the old days, they would have found out when their chief fount of information and ideas was around, but he had, as she still hated to say, passed away. As she thought those gloomiest of thoughts, she spied that Atkins woman who was laughing and joking. She was responsible for everything that had gone wrong in her life, she and Madam between them.
"You're being unusually industrious today?" she asked suspiciously of the Julies who were adding extra vim into their work and not that maddeningly lackadaisical manner whenever she was around.
"Well, it's a lovely day today and we feel good. You get those good days same as you get the bad days."
"Well, don't wear yourself out and leave the rest of the wing that doesn't show looking like a pigsty," she said grumpily.
"Can't blame us if we feel happy today, Miss," Julie Johnson said in her most winning manner.
"It's Sunday and I'm here instead of at home. What's there to be happy about?"
"Oh no, miss. You've got to be more positive. After all as Miss Barker says, every cloud has a silver lining."
It was only the next day that Bodybag recalled those words with total fury and indignation and wondered if it was all a put up job. She remembered those words for a long, long time.
Part One Hundred and Forty Five
Nikki presented herself outside the gates of Larkhall Prison for the first time in god knows how many years. She stared up at the huge grey walls, which enclosed her future place of work and wondered what in hell she was doing here. Then she suddenly remembered, she was G wing's newest wing governor presenting herself on her first day that she could now come and go within the limits of her contract. The problem was that she only half believed herself now she was confronted with its reality.
She just stood and stared around at the panorama view until, with a sigh of relief, she spotted Karen's green MG sports car and her friendly reassuring smile as she approached her. She wasn't here to bang her up this time, she realized, now that she glanced at her similar smart suit.
"Ready for your first day."
"As ready as I'll ever be."
"Do you want me to show you the ropes till you find your feet? It's your decision."
Nikki was speechless and nodded her head. All her senses were heightened with a mixture of anticipation, nervousness and adrenaline rush. She was happy for this friendly soul to guide her destiny.
"Ken, allow me to introduce you to G wing's new wing governor, Nikki Wade. You will be seeing a lot of her in future."
"Yes, ma'am," Ken responded to her dry tones and a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips.
"I do want to make it clear to resist the temptation to get on the phone and broadcast the news in advance of the official announcement to everyone. You keep this under your hat. Is that quite clear?"
"Oh, yes, I understand."
Ken knew Karen well enough to realize that she was deadly serious about this in her dry manner and deliberate phrasing.
"Morning, Ken," Nikki weighed in brightly and cheerfully, reaching for the role she would assume as she had done with her suit earlier that morning.
"Morning, Nikki," Ken stammered automatically. That first exchange was the first tiny stamp to establish her legitimacy and they strolled ahead across the courtyard after Nikki picked up her keys and signed in.
"What plans have you got, Nikki? Personally, I would recommend I come to your new office as your guest and have a chat."
"Suits me fine. You lead the way."
The corridors were quiet while the prisoners were locked up and the morning shift was only just arriving. Karen pushed at the door that was very familiar to both of them.
"This will be your home from home," Karen said. "Gina and the Julies between them have made it nice for you."
Nikki walked forward and a total kaleidoscope of visual impressions overwhelmed her and stopped her in her tracks. So much had happened in this room, mostly when she was in that position of power disadvantage.
"It's your office now. You can set it out how you like you know."
Karen's kind voice gradually dissolved the layered feelings of shock. She shook her head and walked up to the bureau behind that desk and she slowly ran her hands over the stacked up files while lessons from her training course played back to her as to what they represented. She turned around slowly and stood with her hands gripping the back of her high chair. There her desk was, laid out before her, neatly arranged, not that dissimilar one to the desk she had gladly handed over along with the bitterness of her lost battle for command of the club. This perspective of the room, her room, altered everything, as this was brand new to her. She shook her head while Karen smiled sympathetically and encouragingly. She could feel the other woman's presence in her intuitive fashion.
"Jesus, the numbers of times I've been in here, being shouted at and the bastard before her ..can I change the pictures, Karen. They're not my style."
Her soft reflective voice reached back to the past a slight incongruous thought about her present.
"You can change them to what you want. It goes with the job."
Nikki exhaled what felt like an entire lungful of air along with so much of the tension in her. She fumbled automatically towards the packet of cigarettes in her handbag, offering one to Karen.
"Let's take a seat over there." Nikki decided.
"Okay, you tell me what you think I ought to know for starters. I'm all ears."
"I thought I'd start off talking about the prisoners who you need to know about. Of course you may form your own different impressions. You remember Al McKenzie for a start."
"Yeah, I remember."
"She's not the hard nut she used to be. Maxi Purvis's suicide seemed to have knocked some of the stuffing out of her but she's still the resident drug dealer and she and Denny Blood once came to blows over that. Al's keeping her head down for now."
"In my well meaning way but mistaken way, I gave way to Denny's repeated requests to see Shell Dockley at Ashmore. One visit undid all the progress over the last four years and she reverted to the aggressive and paranoid prisoner she used to be, you remember? Lucky that Lauren Atkins shares a cell with her, and is having a good effect on her. You know all about Lauren."
"New to you will be Natalie Buxton. A plausible, scheming woman who was sent down for aiding and abetting her boyfriend in smuggling in underage girls for the sex trade. She conned everyone into believing that she was Miss Innocent whose language school had run foul of income tax laws. Guilty of sexual abuse of underage woman herself into the bargain, she's your chief problem."
Karen's deliberately casual voice gradually built up towards a level of suppressed intensity of loathing that struck Nikki like a glassful of water thrown in her face.
"Sounds like Dockley," She involuntarily murmured.
"Even Shell Dockley had genuine feelings for her daughters," Karen shot back, nettled at Nikki's ironic thrust before she thought twice about her words. "I'm sorry .anyway Shell isn't here so she doesn't count any more."
The pause was audible and Nikki put her smoldering cigarette to her lips and inhaled to give Karen a little time and space. To her way of thinking, the two words could mean the same.
"Who else should I watch out for, Karen?" Nikki asked softly and politely. She reached out to steady Karen by reverting to emotionally neutral matters as a loyal subordinate. The tension seemed to evaporate out of Karen's body as she relaxed in her chair.
"You'll remember Buki Lester, if my memory serves me right. She was the hard crack addict and pusher who's gone through her share of changes. In good times, she's compliant enough but in bad times, she'll reach out to herself to blame for everything and self harm. If you've come across that sort of thing in your life, you'll realize that there is no real cure any more than there is for any other addiction. I have vivid memories of reverting to my former occupation as nurse at a particularly dangerous instance of this with only George around to help out."
"I might be putting my big foot in it in stating the blindingly obvious but isn't she a prime candidate for psychotherapy?"
"That all depends on how willing she is. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make her drink it," Karen retorted grimly.
The silence that the two women fell into was more companionable, more reflective before Karen resumed her guided tour at her leisurely pace.
"Then there's Kris Yates. She can be bolshy and uncooperative and keeps a hard façade. She's no real trouble if you're straight upfront with her "
" .. Sounds like I used to be," Put in Nikki with a hint of a smile.
Karen grinned at Nikki's little jest. It showed to her that Nikki was beginning to relax into her role and one that she tailored to her personality.
"And finally, .for a bit of old fashioned style, we have the Costa Cons. Two well to do, middle ages expatriates who made a fortune out of swindling gullible people out of their life savings with the most plausible smooth talking yarns you ever heard. Buried deep, they have a ruthless streak but they can be managed if you appeal to their self-interest. They also are known for laying hold of a supply of their favourite tipple, of gin and tonic, oh yes with a slice of lemon."
"Sounds quite a circus," Nikki summed up as her head assimilated everything Karen was telling her though her head was starting to whirl. "And what about the prison officers."
"Most of them are pretty reasonable. Somehow the more progressive ideas that Helen exemplified has paid off somewhere in the training. If you give them the right lead, they'll follow. There are two notable exceptions. You will need no introduction to Sylvia Hollamby who has not changed in the slightest. You've seen Di Barker in action at Lauren Atkins trial and she is as sly and devious on the wing as she was in court. She's the most dangerous of the lot. Don't trust her an inch."
The grim expression on Karen's face and the gradual way that her feelings bubbled to the surface showed that Karen was righteously incapable of letting her feelings of anger and sheer detestation fade. She knew that she wasn't acting out of turn in blackening her reputation before Nikki. It was simply telling the truth.
"What do we do now? Do I get introduced to the prison officers and set out my stall and talk to the prisoners? I'm not sure what I should do next."
"You turn your questions into statements," Karen grinned reassuringly as Nikki stretched out for tentative ideas that would become certainties. "Follow me."
Now for the moment of truth, Nikki thought. This felt as if she was going up on stage. She imagined the crowd in the PO's room, which she had entered from time to time. Karen grasped the round brass handle firmly and confidently, swung it open and Nikki slid in behind her.
Nikki blinked at the crowd that had been made ready and caught a flavour of the different reactions. To some of the new prison officers, this smart personable well-dressed woman with a short neat haircut smiled in a friendly enough fashion. To Di Barker and Bodybag, it was a case of the welcoming mat to their worst nightmare and another outrageous act by the powers that be in letting an ex-con into Larkhall without security as a visitor but their eyes refused to believe them when they started thinking what they were seeing..
"I am now in a position to clear the speculation about who is to be G wing's permanent wing governor. Nikki Wade who is here before you was successful in an interview in fair and open competition by Area against other candidates for the job. She is a direct entrant into the service having had experience over a number of years as an independent businesswoman running her own club with her former partner. Some of you will know her before when she was an inmate from which she has gained experience of the realities of the prison system. If those of you who don't know, a second court case has left her with a record which is as spotless as any of us amongst us. Needless to say, If I understand her background rightly, she has qualities in abundance of what it takes to work in the prison system."
Karen paused while she collected her thoughts, her eyes missing nothing of the mixture of reactions ranging from surprise to glowering anger.
"I want to publicly thank Gina Rossi for working so hard and conscientiously in holding down what she knew was going to be a temporary appointment and I can testify that she had handed on a wing which has been well looked after.........I was wondering if you wanted to say a few words to us, Nikki. After all, as from today, it is your wing."
Nikki stepped forward a pace from under Karen's shelter and could do no more than utter the words which most went through her mind.
"Thank you, Karen and everyone here," she smiled, flushing slightly at the sincere words of praise. Jesus, I hope I live up to everything I've said and has been said about me.
"Why should I abandon a good living and the so called glamorous life as a club owner for the supposedly humdrum life of working for the prison service? I can hear you think these words. The truth is, I've fought a long and losing battle with my one time partner and with the customers to stop the infiltration of drugs bigtime into the club that I helped build up from nothing and have sacked my sharer of barmaids who abused my trust. This is part of my belief system, which I won't go soft on. I want to repay the debt of kindness that I received when I was last here and to give hope to human beings in a situation, no disrespect to anyone, where it is far too easy to abandon hope......."
"Another do gooder like Stewart," muttered Bodybag to Di who were in the background but not unnoticed by Nikki for all that. They had been gossiping away through both Karen's and Nikki's speeches, fondly believing that they would never be spotted.
"Excuse me, Di and Sylvia, there's one meeting, not two, if you please."
All the other prison officers turned round and just looked at them. Both of them squirmed with embarrassment at being so publicly outed. First blood to me, Nikki thought, as she
prepared to talk over the heads of that terrible twosome and appeal to the others. If she
handled her cards right, gut instinct told her, she could win them over.
"......as I was going to say, I will need your help and you may be sure that you'll get mine in return. I repay loyalty that is shown to me. If anyone of you have a problem with anything I do or say, I would sooner you say it to my face and if I have a problem, I'll do likewise."
Karen smiled warmly to herself when she heard Nikki lay open so nakedly, what she stood for. John would be proud to hear Nikki if he were here to listen to her.
"Let's face it, I know that I don't have the conventionally acquired background you might look for in a wing governor but I believe that what I know will work for all that. Let's face it, I'm a realist and if I didn't think that I was up to do the job, I would never have applied for it."
There was a pause and Gina and Dominic led the others into a brief round of applause, which the others soon joined in, Di and Bodybag merely tapping their fingers together in a token gesture that was utterly false. Di glanced vengefully at Gina and Dominic who were near Karen and Nikki, obviously pleased as punch. They looked happy with themselves from the word go. This was a put up job if ever they saw one. Everyone should have known of this in advance, like in the old days. Good for you, Nikki, Karen thought delightedly behind her suitably composed expression, you've put them thoroughly in their place.
"I've only got a couple of bits of business. I intend to call a wing meeting and set my stall out, that I'll be just and fair but not soft. I also want to get to know you individually so I'll set up a round of meetings at a time to suit all of us. Other than that, I haven't anything to say. I don't want to hold you up from your duties but this seems a good time to chat amongst ourselves."
In her quiet undemonstrative way, Nikki had slid out from Karen's shadow and softly but firmly asserted her presence. To the newer prison officers, there were allusions to the new boss's past, which didn't make sense, but they liked what they saw and heard. To Di and Bodybag, a con was a con and the world had gone mad. The meeting broke up into a general chitchat and Nikki seized the chance to engage them in conversation. Her sharp mind and memory for faces and names had been developed in all her years of running a club in night after night of the darkly lit more ambiguous party atmosphere. She kept a sharp eye on the time and Karen whispered in her ear that she would volunteer to get the meeting set up. Nikki nodded to her and carried on chatting to Colin awhile.
"It's time for unlock, if I've got it right. Wing meeting in fifteen minutes. Let's get going."
Gina led the way confidently out onto the wing with a broad grin on her face.
The rest of the officers went about their duties, including systematic unlock starting from the 3s working downwards.
"Can't make out the new boss. She's different from anything I've seen before," Collin confided to Selena.
"Maybe that's an advantage."
"We'll all get the chance to talk to Nikki. Let's get the prisoners unlocked," Dominic cut in quietly.
The Julies knew that Nikki would make some sort of personal statement. It wasn't her style to creep in silently. They were prepared for anything and everything and were keyed up. To their delight, they heard the key turning in the lock.
"Morning Mr. McAllister. Breakfast as normal?"
"There's a wing meeting before your servery duties." Bodybag scowled at the brief exchanges as she stomped along behind him. Nikki made her way onto the wing, and climbed the metal staircase to the top of the 2s. It was as good a spot as any and gave her a clear view down the wing. Above her, the prisoners from the 3s, came filing down the staircase, soon followed by the 2s. Some of the younger prisoners had only just come to Larkhall. They stared briefly at this tall, elegant woman, dressed in a suit, and wondered who she was and what she was doing here. Nikki politely gave them space and eventually looked down at the expectant crowd who were staring up at her.
This wasn't the first time she had emotionally been here. Her mind wandered out onto an extremity of its orbit and the angry woman, dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans demanded that "They should all be sacked." She glanced down at her suit and in a moment of panic, wondered what the hell she was doing here, and who she was.
But I'm still Nikki Wade, I'm here for everyone now. I live with the woman into whose shoes I am now stepping. Miss Betts, the wing Governor, is Karen, my friend, my boss. Somehow, everything will make sense when I speak. The Julies are smiling up at me, ready to be carried away by me, as are Dominic and Gina. Somehow, I have to bridge the gap.
Karen saw Nikki's eyes glaze over for just a second before she cleared her throat and was the first to speak.
"I want to introduce you, to Nikki Wade, your new wing governor. Before the rumour mill gets to work, yes, she was once an inmate here. But she managed to get this job against the odds. She cleared her name with two court cases and convinced the prison service that she is the best woman for the job, as indeed we all think she is. I have the utmost confidence in her to deal fairly with prisoners and prison officers alike." Karen's short, sharp intro moved Nikki immensely and set her up perfectly to follow on.
"I'm not going to talk too long, and keep you from your breakfasts. I want to let you know, that I will have great difficulty in following the high standards set by Gina Rossi, Karen Betts, and Helen Stewart. I want to make it clear to you, that everything I do, will be for a good reason. I hope I use my position wisely and sensitively. It is an enormous responsibility. I also think that I know how prisoners feel about things...."
"Will you tuck us up in bed at night, Miss?"
"You're Natalie Buxton, aren't you."
"So what if I am?"
"Well, it's hardly likely you're not. I've had a long chat with Miss Betts about you, very interesting. As for your question, you work it out for yourself." A general laugh rose up from all concerned, as the authentic Nikki Wade lightening fast retort struck home.
"And for my next trick, I just want to say that I'll back up any prison officer if they are as caring and professional as I hope that I will be. As I was once the other side of the wire, that doesn't mean that I am going to be a soft touch. Oh, and one last thing, if you're thinking of brewing up any alcohol, don't stash it in the compost heap, as I'll know where to find it." Karen's heart leapt inside her with delight as Nikki had walked that tightrope with such aplomb, and had realised before her very eyes every dream she had ever had of Nikki as wing Governor.
Part One Hundred and Forty Six
Nikki's quick mind thought carefully about her gameplan. The first day or so would decide one way or another if she could mark her authority on her diverse group of officers while another part of herself stood back amazed at how far she had gone already. She was up high on the possibilities that opened up to her but aware also as a tightrope walker was of what one tiny slip could mean. She would make her bid for willing acceptance of who she was without interference from her past. In games of cards she had played when she was little, she had been a readier student than her older brother that she should lead from her strongest card. So it would be and, on her brand new scrap pad, she listed her officers and, with the help of her secretary, the arrangements were made. This was a little touch of luxury that would take time to get used to as everything up till now had been done by herself unless Trisha did it, for good or bad.
Gina smiled broadly when she picked up the phone in the PO's room.
"Guess I'm first in line."
"Yeah, Gina, we know that you'll still be the blue eyed girl around here, in or out of uniform," Muttered Di.
"Never mind, Wade's put her nose out of joint," Bodybag cut in viciously." I bet Gina thought she was there for life."
"The name's Nikki, Sylv. Better get used to it."
Nikki nervously fumbled through a sheaf of reports which she had tried to reassure herself with but they only had the reverse effect. This altogether more formal way of dealing with staff was a different kettle of fish instead of just a casual natter to barmaids in a slack moment. All she could do was to build upon what she had done in her life, what she had learned and to adapt it to who she was.
She flashed a bright smile at Gina and gestured her to the chair. In that split second, she flashbacked to the many times when she had slouched in a bored contemptuous fashion in the hotseat. She knew how it felt.
"I meant what I said earlier on . I'm really grateful that you've been holding the fort, Gina. Even on a quick glance, everything feels fine."
"Hell, I've been happy to kick Sylvia's arse from time to time but all the paperwork scares me. It makes me nervous," Gina confessed frankly.
"I would never have thought you'd be nervous of anything."
"You must really love the idea of budgets, reports and everything else and all the responsibility that goes with it. I'm happier doing my old job on the wing though the extra money has come in handy."
"And how do you see your present job?"
Gina sat back in her chair turning the question over in her mind. This woman certainly doesn't waffle.
"I like to think that I'm a good listener and I can keep my eyes open to what's around and I can help prisoners. Mind you, I call a spade a bloody shovel but not to be rude, like. I reckon anyone half way decent respects that more than a load of bullshit that sounds good."
Gina stopped short after her words had rushed out in a stream and hears them in mental replay. Where were the usually carefully acquired buzzwords that Sylv was so fond of bending her ear about as rule number one in meeting the new boss? She was always clumsy at that sort of thing and couldn't convince herself let alone anyone else. Last time she tried that, Karen nailed her bang to rights on the real reason she first came to G wing..
"That's the way I feel, Gina. That sounds like we'll get on fine unless we have an honest disagreement. To continue, are there situations that you have trouble in tolerating in dealing with prisoners. There's good and bad as in any walk of life."
"When I suspect that I've been taken for a ride, Nikki. I think carefully before I stick my oar in. There's only so many chances anyone gets. If anyone's honest and straight, I've learnt not to mouth off like I used to and I'll give them the time of day."
Immediately Gina felt comfortable and relaxed as Nikki's sharp, friendly intelligence drew out ideas in herself that she'd not really thought of before. She'd always acted by instinct even though it had sometimes got her into trouble in the past. It was interesting that her boss had derailed past experience of that other woman who looked like her who had been here in the past. There was only one niggling question in the back of her mind that demanded to be asked.
"Tell me one thing, Nikki. There's a question I was going to ask you."
"That's what I'm here for."
"Well, it's a bit awkward but it's like this," She began, half anxious, half relieved to get this off her mind. "What if you find yourself with a group of prisoners who start a demonstration because they thought that one of theirs was done down, a matter of injustice and you arrive in the middle of it. How would you feel about it, and what would you do and get us to do?"
Instinct told Nikki that her credibility was on the line. This was nothing like the theoretical questions that she'd handled at her interview.
"You mean something like that demonstration that I started that the Peckham Boot Gang kicked off into a full scale riot?" Nikki asked directly.
"I've talked that one over with Helen many times and I think she was totally screwed by Sylvia Hollamby." Nikki nearly said Bodybag but corrected herself just in time.
"It could have been pretty easily sorted out at an early stage without everyone being fired up on both sides with me leading one side and Helen on the other. It should never have happened and I would expect any prison officer to handle any situation with a bit of nous rather than going in feet first. If I were in Helen's shoes as the situation ended up, I would seek out anyone who could explain to me any legitimate demands, anything I didn't know about and try and get some sort of agreement so that nobody feels that they've been humiliated and loses face. Where you get a bunch of thugs like the Peckham Boot Gang that just want to kick off with no reason, there's only so much rope that I would give them before ordering in the heavy mob. You do what you have to do but no settling private scores. Force is last resort but I wouldn't hesitate to use it if it seemed right. I believe in being just but not being a soft touch and everyone should know where they stand with me but not afraid to explain to me if they thing I'm wrong and just why."
Gina's face broke into a broad smile. She had got herself a new boss for real. In return. Nikki was hugely relieved that she had passed the test. The conversation drifted away from what Nikki had to talk about and ambled its way on a more relaxed, friendly level. It was with regret that Nikki was compelled to draw the conversation to a close.
Nikki broke into a wide smile as Dominic was next to come in and took a seat.
"If I had any lingering doubts at the back of my mind about you being the next wing gov, Nikki, they're gone for good after this morning."
Nikki's smile widened as this very kindly man treated her with real respect. He had that knack of getting to the heart of the matter, a quality that she warmed to.
"How do you see yourself in the way you do your job, Dominic?" She had to ask though she suspected what the answer might be.
"The way I've always done it from the word go. Mind you, I've learnt a few things along the way and I'll never stop learning," came the simple but far reaching reply. "I made up my mind where I stood and ignored what Sylvia and Jim Fenner banged on about, and since I came back, added Di Barker to the list. If there's any good in a prisoner, I think I can bring it out of them."
Nikki nodded. She remembered.
There was no need to quiz him much further and they drifted off in friendly reminiscences of what they had both done since they had temporarily gone their separate ways from Larkhall. Dominic grasped that the self reliant, independent woman before him had a past that made her grow that way.
Her interviews with Paula, Selena and Colin had a similar thread running through them where she elaborated on her background and what transferable skills she had and casually mentioned that she had noticed them before from the visitor's gallery in the Old Bailey even if they had not noticed her. She talked to them of what authority and freedom meant to her and gradually drew out from them their views on what being a prison officer meant to them. By being open with them, they opened out more than they would have done.
Now for the difficult bit, Nikki sighed as Colin was the last to leave and she lit up a cigarette. It felt strange sitting back comfortably in her chair of office and to wait for prison officers to come to her. Her past experience had been of being part of a procession being taken somewhere to be lead to this very room.
"Morning Sylvia," Nikki greeted the scowling woman who mumbled something back at her and fell silent in that aggressive way of hers.
"I'm getting a few fundamentals straight first. I used to call you Bodybag and you used to call me Wade. That's going to stop on both sides. Times have changed and both of us have to act like professionals to each other. To me, you're Sylvia and to you, I'm Nikki."
"I prefer to call you ma'am, if you don't mind," Bodybag said in choked tones.
"Mmm, that's making me sound like a character out of a Victorian novel. As you please, Sylvia."
Nikki's pleasant reply and chirpy flow of words only angered the other woman. She sensed for the first time the power emanating from the other side of the desk. This discomforted her because of the novelty of the situation. She had always hated change even when she was a teenager.
"Now Sylvia, how would you describe the way you do your job?"
"I see myself as something of a mother to the ladies in my charge." An ingratiating smile spread over her face as she tried to flannel her way through the situation. Even if her lips hurt, anything was worth it at this stage to keep this infernal woman off her back. "My job is more of a vocation than anyone else .ma'am."
"Wrong, Sylvia, You see them as cons to be locked up in their cells for as long as possible and to be punished severely. At best you are the parade ground sergeant major and they are a bunch of raw recruits to be harangued at every turn. You work for the monthly pay check and the pension at the end of it."
Bodybag blushed. She knew that that was the simple truth.
"Now my problem is, how do I change your forty to fifty years of listening to the wrong lessons in life. How do I convince you that I'm not out to humiliate you at every turn, you and all the other prison officers in my charge? Are you going to believe that I'm not going to set you up as the floorshow for the entertainment of the prisoners? Believe me, these are the last things I have on my mind for you or anyone else."
"I know you, ma'am, and you'll never change."
"Wrong again, Sylvia. It's you that won't change and you only make a rod for your own back. You really must have the strength to change your mind. I wish I could help you make that break. This is something I could do, for your benefit and mine."
Nikki's softly spoken words were pitched with the urgency of a straight emotional appeal. Despite her bitter memories of the woman, she meant it. In turn, a prickling, uncomfortable feeling welled up in the other woman. It made her uniform feel too tight on her and her firmly buttoned up shirt was too tight at the neck. She could not speak.
"I'm asking for either of two answers from you, Sylvia," Nikki spoke at length as she tried again to get through that suit of armour of ancient prejudices that corseted her in.
"One is that you are willing to accept changing your ideas but I may be kidding myself that I'll get it. The other is that you will simply do as you are told and no more. What I won't have is your appetite for private vengeance."
"What do you mean?" stammered Bodybag.
"I mean this. You go in for settling scores. For instance, I remembered what happened that night Shell Dockley stabbed Jim Fenner. She was instantly put down the block and Helen Stewart questioned her at length and, when she got answers which were obviously a pack of lies, told her that she would stay there till she came up with the truth. Personalities aside, that was perfectly right. I know that you had to go one better and you and Dr. Nicholson connived together to ship her out to the muppet wing. That was clean against what Helen had ordered. She was in charge of the lifer's unit and it was her call. If she hadn't been in charge, then Karen would and I know that she felt the same. You pull another stroke like that and I won't just demote you like Karen did but I'll run you out of the prison service. Got that clear?"
"Who told you all that load of tommyrot?" Bodybag spluttered.
"Helen and Karen both did," Nikki said shortly. "Now you'd better get back to the wing and think very carefully over what I've told you."
That was a mistake, Nikki reflected as she reached for a cigarette. You can't let someone like her get to you even if you put the fear of God into her.You've got the toughest nut to crack yet. She relaxed back in her comfortably padded swivel chair as she felt more in command of her room. For once, this was her space, somewhere she did not have to share with someone like Trisha. Just then, the phone rang.
"Nikki Wade," She intoned automatically.
"I can see you've taken to it like a duck to water," laughed a dearly loved Scottish brogue into her ear. "Only a quick call but I couldn't resist asking you how you've gone on."
"Well, I've talked to both the prison officers and then the prisoners, had a quick verbal fencing match with the worst of them."
"And you won."
"Naturally. I've talked one to one with all the prison officers, bawled out Body ., I mean Sylvia, telling her that one dirty trick and she's out. All I've got is Di Barker to go. My throat is so dry from too much talking."
"Hardly too much, sweetheart. You do realise that you have no more late nights at the club and, right now, I'm having very delicious thoughts of what I want to do with you when you get home."
The totally seductive way in which Helen talked down the phone to her roused feelings of desire that were a forcible reminder of how much had changed. Conversations with Helen last time around were hardly like this.
"I'll be ready for you, darling, once I'm home."
She had to admit that it was a good act. Di Barker simulated just that slight nervous smile and attentiveness to every word from Nikki. She thought she'd give her quite a long length of rope with which to hang herself with.
"Take a seat, Di.You'll forgive the build up of tobacco smoke in the room."
Di just smiled blandly in reply to Nikki's polite gesture.
"Any reason why you've seen me last, Nikki? I was kind of curious."
"No reason. Everyone will be treated equally in my eyes but someone had to be seen last."
"I was surprised you ever wanted to come back to this place."
"I thought I had explained myself perfectly well earlier on. It's your attitude to being a prison officer that I wanted to discuss."
I wasn't wrong, Nikki thought to herself. This is a battle of wills that has kicked in straightaway in ever so polite tones.
"You know me, Nikki," She smiled in return. "There's good and bad in everyone, that's my motto. I like to think that I've been around long enough to know my way round here."
"Indeed, but you've hardly answered my question. People change. I've been away from here for a few years and I don't take anything for granted. That's my way."
"Well," Di kept smiling, her big brown eyes as limpid as a pool. "I believe in really talking to prisoners, trying to understand their problems and maybe doing something to help them."
Nikki's bright smile felt as if it were frozen on her face and was turning into a grimace. On the surface, she was saying the right words.
"And what's your attitude to authority, Di, in particularly mine which is over you?"
"As I said, I'm surprised to see you back. Last time I saw you was outside the Old Bailey, damning us all to hell before rushing off with your partner, I mean why ever do you need bolts and bars in your life? You've had enough of that in your time, I'm sure, I thought to myself when I first saw you today. It'll take time to get my head round you being back here as I'm set in my ways but I'm sure I'll give you the support that I think you'll deserve."
Nikki gritted her teeth to hear these homely Yorkshire tones and knowing that she was anything but the way she appeared. Only that last disguised snipe at her revealed what she was like. She wasn't being paranoid. That was impossible with Di.
"I'll give you back just as much as you gave Karen that time you slipped those holiday photos to the prosecution barrister at Lauren Atkin's trial." Nikki's smooth tones gently slid in the knife. "Don't forget, I was in the public gallery. I saw and heard everything and I've got a good memory."
"You can't prove it, Nikki," Di suddenly glared back at her as her tone of voice hardened. "What I have said is the solid truth."
"As far as it goes, Di.I'll be frank with you. You're experienced and you certainly have some of the qualities that I would look for in a prison officer. I've studied your reports carefully and it matches my recollections."
"Why thank you, Nikki," Di gushed with false praise, changing back to her earlier manner in a flash.
Nikki temporarily gave up and talked of lighter matters for a while. This woman is as slippery as a snake and quick witted. She had little choice but explain at length what she expected of her.
"Okay, we'd better move on. If you have a problem with anything I do or say, I expect you to tell it to my face. I'm relaxed about it if that is what you do. What I won't stand for is if you go behind my back or set up others to do your dirty work. It's been done before."
"You won't have anything to worry about me, Nikki."
A slow calculating smile spread all over her face as she sensed that Nikki might let her guard down. She paused just long enough before she struck.
"You and Helen? We were right about the pair of you and the real reason why Helen Stewart resigned just when she had got to the top, just like Karen Betts."
"You work that out for yourself, Di. Karen and I were right when we sat in the gallery and heard all about how you'd deliberately switched the drugs test. Crystal came close to starving herself to death to prove she was innocent of taking drugs. Caring for prisoners, I think not. You know that people in glasshouses really shouldn't throw stones. I think we understand each other. The door will open for you, Di. Better get out while the going's good."
Nikki had never before felt so cool, so poised and sure of herself and the situation she was in as she turned the screw on Di. The other woman glared daggers at her, turned as red as a beetroot, got up and stalked out.
Nikki sat back in the sudden calm after the door slammed behind Di. She looked at her watch. Was it that time already?
Part One Hundred and Forty Seven
Nikki poured herself a large tumbler of ice-cold water, as her throat was dry with so much talking and from the adrenaline release. Her mind went blank. She did not know what to do next.
To answer her need, a polite knock on the door preceded Karen who smiled at her.
"I was wondering if you'd settled in, Nikki. I didn't want to disturb your first day and while you were busy."
"I've blasted my way through chatting to all the prison officers. Jesus, am I tired and thirsty."
"Sylvia and Di included?"
Nikki nodded wearily in response.
"You need a break. Want to come with me to the social club to unwind?"
"Lead me to it." Nikki's heartfelt answer was delivered in a husky tone, verging on a croak
The twists and turns in the corridors were new territory to Nikki and Karen eventually pushed open the brass-handled door. A waft of stale tobacco and stale beer greeted her. The wallpaper was garish 70's swirly kitsch, faded and discoloured over the years if that were possible.
"Jesus, the seventies revival. Is there Abba on the jukebox?"
"You find that it has a perverse attraction after a while. I personally loathed it when I first came here. It's the people here who count, same as any dump."
The large room was quiet with one or two solitary prison officers from other wings nursing their pints at discreet tables or propping up the bar. Nikki spotted a couple of vaguely familiar shapes queuing to buy drinks. They turned round and transformed themselves into Gina and Dominic.
"Mind if we join you?" Dominic enquired politely. While Karen took the lead and gestured to a nearly rectangular table, Nikki followed her, marvelling that junior officers were asking if they could join her.
"Well, Nikki, how's your first day been?"
"Gina and Dominic will tell you that I've been chatting to all the prison officers, one to one, even Sylvia and Di."
"Or masochism," replied Nikki to Dominic's compliment. "I could do with a large drink though. They were entirely predictable in their reactions and their dislike of me."
"Sounds like you did right. That was a couple of blinders you pulled off this morning, both for us and the prisoners."
Nikki smiled self deprecatingly at Gina's compliment and the obvious agreement from the others.
"I had to get past being thought of that I'd be on one side and not the other. Well, here's hoping that I cope with everything else this job has to throw at me."
"You're doing fine, Nikki."
She smiled at Dominic's warm friendly encouragement. She tended to seesaw between rushes of self-confidence, which carried her through demanding situations and moments of self-doubt when she was quiet and on her own.
"You're worrying as much as I did when I first became Governing Governor and just look at me now."
"Get her, Nikki, she's power mad," joked Gina in reply to the serene aplomb in Karen's voice.
Dominic spotted two shapes move through the subdued lighting in the club. They gave off bad vibrations and pointedly ignored them.
"More members of your fan club, Nikki," Dominic spoke satirically, jerking a thumb in their direction.
"I feel like handing in my notice. I could do it right now with no encouragement," Bodybag muttered mutinously.
"Better still, why don't you go sick first for as long as you can string it out. That doctor of yours will be only too pleased to give you certificates. That way, they have to pay you and hold your job open," laughed Di gleefully.
Sylvia thought longingly at the prospect of peace and quiet, a morning's leisurely cup of tea, and compared it with the pension she had accumulated over the years. She shook her head regretfully as hard reality kicked in.
"Can't let the side down that way, Di. The others need my experience. It would affect my pension too much to bow out now. I need every penny I can squeeze out of the prison service. That's what's been keeping me going."
"I'd do it, Sylv," Di muttered vindictively. Her heart was black with hatred and her hand shook slightly as she reached for her glass of orange. Bodybag let that pass. Her flat beckoned invitingly to her but, then again, it had done so for many years, every time she set off for work.
"First Stewart, now Wade, an ex-con set up to lord it over us. It gets better and better," Bodybag muttered, unconsciously stealing a line from her late mentor.
Colin, Paula and Selena entered the room and promptly made a beeline for the obvious group to attach themselves to. At moments like these, Karen was "off duty" and they knew her golden rule. However friendly and approachable she was, as certain formality crept back when she was back on the job.
"Can I get you a drink, Nikki?" Selena politely offered. She had warmed to this woman who had that air of arriving from strange lands outside the straight line ploughed furrow of life as a prison officer.
Nikki smiled and accepted an orange as her throat felt less ravaged. She sat back in the high backed pub chair with a couple of drinks lined up in front of her. The attitude of all the prison officers wasn't the obvious sucking up to the new boss from whom favouritism could be wheedled but their own collective unconscious wish to go out of their way to make her feel welcome. With her experience of knocking round the world, she could tell the difference. She chatted away to all of them with that experience from working in her club in holding down several conversations simultaneously. Karen sat back quietly and saw the real Nikki Wade in action.
"First time I've been in a bar and not had the responsibility. I've worked in so many dives in my time, ending up with the club."
"You're forgetting the pub we all went to near the Old Bailey," Karen gently reminded her.
"That was different. We were passing through."
Nikki heard her words and realised that the words came out wrong. That association of friends, new and old, going right across the spectrum could not be so easily dismissed.
"I meant to say that the place was temporary, not the friendships of those dear to me who are somewhere out there."
Nikki's past was very real to her as it flowed past in its entirety but nostalgically sliding away from her and any hurts and pains being gently healed. This was her present and future now.
"We can't let that woman walk all over us. We have to do something," Di whinged at Sylvia.
"Best keep your head down, Di. Our time may come some day."
She saw the gathering crowd growing round Nikki. It boded no good for them.
"Get those two who I am sure they will be moaning away at and guess who they're moaning at," Gina grinned.
"It's up to them. They have the choice of being outcasts or not. There was a time when I never had the choice. Now they know what it feels like," Nikki replied bitterly.
"You'll have to deal with them somehow," Karen gently reminded her. "They say that time is a healer......though whoever said those profound words didn't reckon on them."
Nikki laughed at that one.
"Jesus, isn't it late." Nikki glanced at her watch. She felt worn out after an interrupted sleep last night as she turned over in her mind nervously what she was going to do today.
"You're free to go anytime, Nikki.Just remember that."
So it's true, Nikki reflected on Karen's gentle words. She could walk out the prison gates anytime she wished. That was the one thing she would find hardest to get used to. Helen was waiting for her. It was time to go.
Part One Hundred and Forty Eight
Saturday June the twenty fifth dawned bright and warm, and every member of the orchestra and chorus approached the performance that afternoon, with a feeling of half dread, half anticipation. They were all, each and every one of them, used to being in the public eye, and well versed in maintaining their public dignity, but this didn't prevent most of them from being a little nervous of putting their talent on display. After running through a good stretch of warming up exercises, George lay in a hot, scented bath, listening to the birds through the open window. Would she sing with as much purity as they were doing now? She hoped so. She wanted nothing more than to make her father, John, Jo and Karen sincerely proud of her today, to show them all, as if they didn't know it already, that if given a challenge, she could rise to it admirably. After emerging from the tub, she massaged skin food into every reachable inch of her body, luxuriating in the feeling of her own delicate fingers. She stood in front of the mirror as she did this, and the sight of such erotically dancing digits, was really quite invigorating. After drying her hair, she again stood in front of the mirror, still naked, about to begin the long toil of applying her make up. She not only had to look fabulous throughout the entire performance, but her face needed to last through the little get together which was planned for afterwards. But just as she began selecting the various accoutrements of visual enhancement, the doorbell rang. Cursing whichever being had come to disturb her, she wrapped herself in a towel and ran lightly down the stairs.
Standing on the doorstep, was Jo, whose presence immediately wiped the glare of interruption from George's face.
"You really shouldn't open your front door dressed like that," Were Jo's words of greeting.
"If I'd known it was you, I'd have worn even less," George said with a smirk, closing the door behind her.
"Oh, I'll give you prior warning next time then," Jo said following her towards the stairs.
"You can come and talk to me while I put my make up on."
"Eve probably shouldn't wear any, needing nothing but the look of youth and all that."
"Which is precisely why I need to wear it," George said ruefully. "Though quite what Daddy will say at the clothes I'll be wearing, is anyone's guess." Once in the bedroom, Jo sat down in the armchair in the corner, and George moved back to the mirror to resume her former occupation. "Actually, there is something you could do for me, if you would be so good," She said, the glint of daring in her eye. "I've been rubbing this into everything I can reach," She said, holding up the bottle of skin food. "I don't suppose you could do my back for me, could you?"
"I shouldn't imagine that would be too much of a chore," Jo said with a broad smile, getting up and moving towards her. As George removed the towel, Jo caught her breath. God, George looked incredible, with her ripe, supple skin just waiting to be caressed.
"You have seen it before, you know, darling," George drawled mockingly.
"That was a month ago," Jo protested with a slightly shame faced smile, taking the bottle of skin food from her. But as George turned and stood with her back to her, and Jo began languorously smoothing the lotion into her skin, George couldn't help but smirk at her reflection. Jo's hands felt wonderful as they moved over her, and George heartily wished she could have asked Jo not to restrict her skilful wandering to such an innocent part of her body. Who was she kidding, there wasn't anything remotely innocent about her today, which considering the role she was about to play, was perhaps a little inappropriate. When she had spun out this ritual for as long as was humanly possible, Jo slid her hands up to George's shoulders, and slowly turned her round. As they gazed into each other's lust-filled eyes, they could both feel the electricity crackling between them.
"Well, if that's what me massaging your back does for you, I can't have too much to learn," Jo said in that sultry, husky tone that turned up George's heat almost to boiling point. Not entirely trusting herself to answer, George reached up, put her arms round Jo's neck, and kissed her, their lips and eventually their tongues intertwined as if never to be parted.
"It's a shame we have to be somewhere this afternoon," George said as they came up for air, their bodies becoming perfectly aligned.
"You'll just have to keep yourself on ice till afterwards then, won't you," Jo said in clear invitation.
"On fire more like," George said ruefully, wondering just how she was supposed to resist her calling to internal combustion before the day was out.
When they arrived at the church, George knew that she was about to make an entrance. Her long, beautifully tanned legs were cast into all their glory by the short black skirt, and her cleavage vaguely reminded Jo of the grand canyon, enhanced by the off the shoulder top with the climbing roses. They were two of the last to arrive, because George didn't want to be hanging around, working herself up into a nervous state of anxiety beforehand. When they walked in, a chorus of wolf whistles from the men, and gasps of awe from more than a few of the women greeted them.
"Bloody hell," Neil Grayling said slowly, having always known that George was particularly attractive, but never having had her beauty thrust in his face quite so spectacularly. John just gaped. All he really wanted to do, was to pick up his enchanting little minx in his arms, and whirl her away to somewhere private, where he could systematically remove every inch of make up and clothing. God, she almost deserved to be put over his knee for turning up dressed like that. As Karen walked towards her, she couldn't prevent a thoroughly predatory smirk of ownership from spreading across her face.
"Quite how you expect me to concentrate on playing, I don't know," She said, leaning forward to kiss her cheek.
"Blame Helen and Nikki," George said with a smile. "They chose it."
"Yeah, I bet they did," Karen said ruefully. "I think every man, apart from Grayling, and every single woman, will have sincere difficulty in keeping their hands off you."
"Even the straight ones?" George asked, playing along with her.
"There won't be a straight one left after this, what do you think, Jo?" Opening her mouth to try and formulate an answer, Jo was saved struggling for a reply by the approach of Joe Channing.
"Am I mistaken," He said with a slightly affectionate frown on his face. "In thinking that Eve attempted to maintain her virginity, until after she was at least wedded to Adam?"
"Of course, Daddy," George said with a winning smile. "But then in the real thing, all Eve actually wore was, in fact, a fig leaf."
"Yes, and I suppose I am expected to count myself lucky, that you do appear to have abandoned that particular tradition."
"Oh, come on, Joe," John put in, appearing at his side. "She looks beautiful."
"Yes, no doubt this was your idea," Joe said a little disgustedly.
"Sorry, but I can take absolutely no responsibility for this," John said blithely, almost wishing he could.
"We ought to go and warm up," Karen said to Jo, as they moved away towards the vestry, where it seemed that everyone was storing their instrument cases. As Joe moved away to say something to Monty, Neil approached.
"Does your Eve come up to expectation?" John asked when he appeared.
"She certainly does," Neil said with sincere enjoyment. "I think I'm going to be the envy of every man in the audience."
"Ah, yes, well, there is one particular nose that I can't wait to put thoroughly out of joint," George said in satisfaction. "I want the current secretary of state for trade, to realise precisely what he's missing."
"Is this a case of a certain dish being served cold?"
"Oh, yes," George said a little evilly. "Almost two years cold."
"I'll remember not to ever get on your bad side," Neil said ruefully.
"Believe me," John said with more than a little malice in his tone. "This is definitely one piece of vengeance I wholeheartedly support. Neil Haughton deserves to feel as humiliated and trodden on as George can make him."
As the audience began to arrive, and the musicians began tuning up and taking their places, George and Grayling slipped outside.
"Are you sure I can do this?" George asked, desperately needing some last minute reassurance.
"Of course you can," Grayling said softly, putting his arms briefly round her. "Besides, you've got what sounds like a pretty disgruntled ex to stamp on, haven't you."
"An eye for an eye," She said meditatively. "Or in this case, a black eye for a black eye. I used to think that having a cabinet minister was something of a status symbol, but being ordered to win the Merriman/Atkins trial at all costs, can alter one's opinion ever so slightly. So, every glimpse he gets of my legs ought to hammer home to him precisely what he lost, in that one little moment of fury."
"That sounds more like the George Channing who first ripped me to shreds in court," Neil said with a smile, thinking that the courtroom clearly wasn't her only well established stage of battle. As they walked in through the vestry, and moved to take their places on either side of Monty, George held her head high, knowing that no matter how many people were crowded into the pews right to the back of the church, she was going to show every single one of them what she was made of.
Part One Hundred and Forty Nine
As the opening bars of Chaos began to unfold, the audience were immediately captivated. In the left hand pew on the front row, Henry sat with Cassie, who had obviously come to see Roisin's moment of glory, Crystal, Helen and Nikki. They could all pick out various people they knew, including George, the Judge, Grayling, Jo, Karen, Barbara and Roisin. Helen and Nikki could just about see Clare through the ranks of first and second violins, and when they heard the sound of her flute delicately spiraling through the air, they felt an enormous sense of pride. This wasn't the usual type of music that any of these four women were known to listen to, but they couldn't help but be entranced by the beauty of it. Joe Channing seemed to coax every note, every alteration in dynamic from the hordes of instruments before him, personally encouraging each and every one of them to play.
When Neil Grayling rose silently to his feet, Cassie only just managed to stop herself from gasping in awe.
"In the beginning, god created the heaven and the earth."
His voice seemed to creep out of the very bowels of the earth, declaiming the very first breath of life. Crystal, being abundantly aware of the biblical text, couldn't fault his delivery of it whatsoever. When the chorus peacefully began working up to the creation of light, their subtle voices appeared to come straight from heaven itself. They were standing in the small choral gallery that was above where the altar would usually have been situated, giving them the feeling of the angels on high they were there to play. When the word "Light," broke upon the air, Cassie leapt in surprise, receiving the tiniest of winks from George. It was so loud, so mighty, in comparison to what had gone before, that every bat that might have inhabited the old building was forever banished, and as Monty rose to his feet, to begin extolling the end of chaos, and the introduction of order into this brand new world, the audience felt that the performance had truly begun.
When Grayling again began singing, Cassie found herself wondering why they'd never learnt of this side of his personality at Larkhall. But as his second standing drew to a close, and George rose to her feet, the audience seemed to collectively hold its breath. When she opened her mouth, a warm smile spread over both Helen's and Nikki's faces. Karen had been right, she really did sing like an angel. But their enjoyment wasn't remotely tinged with bitterness, as could definitely be said of the man sitting a few rows behind them. Neil couldn't believe what he was seeing, or what he was hearing. This was George, his George, the George who had sustained so many rows with him, especially towards the end of their alliance. Yet now, here she was, looking more sensational than he possibly could have imagined, and singing with the purity of any of the numerous songbirds that graced his rarely visited country home. He'd never had the slightest inkling that she possessed such a talent, and it was this realisation that made him all the more determined to get her back. But when she rose with that utter assuredness to the highest note in the score, he wasn't the only one to gasp. Cassie stared at her, round-eyed with amazement. George had looked so serene as she'd grasped that note with her bare hands, holding onto it for all it was worth. Her voice had risen above that of the entire chorus, showing even the most tone deaf in the room that she was eons above them all in what she could do.
Grayling again followed this outpouring of sheer beauty, with his powerful rendition of 'The Rolling, Foaming, Billows'. Cassie was astounded to feel herself shiver at the power behind the words, the sound that instilled the feeling of the roaring waves in all of them. From where she sat at the end of the row, Helen could just about see Karen, staring with utter concentration at her music, her bow sliding deliciously up and down her strings. God, but she'd never thought that classical music could be so sensually played. Those players she knew, well some of them anyway, appeared to be tending their instruments as skillfully as they might a lover, Karen and the Judge being the two most evident to her. The way Jo gripped her cello could be nothing less than sexual, though Helen didn't think Jo would ever admit it, and the Judge, who she could see most easily, was watching the baton with the rapt attention that he usually bestowed on a witness. The throb of Grayling's powerful vibrato gave Helen a tingling feeling throughout her body, that could only be explained as sexual arousal, as his voice gradually quietened, bringing his song eventually to a close.
As George moved into the delicately pretty opening bars of 'With Verdure Clad', Nikki found that there were tears in her eyes. She'd always been aware of her tendency to become over emotional at truly artistic expression, but this was something else. There was a mournful quality in George's voice, which invoked a sadness, as well as an unwavering awe in her listeners. The aria was of the virtues of spring, the true beginnings of nature, and as George rose to the top B flat, both Nikki, and Neil Haughton shivered. George's voice made the senses crackle, making every nerve ending stand on end, demanding that every passing bird halt in its tracks to listen. The orchestra weaved in and out of her melodies, fluctuating between the gentle caress of the clarinet, followed by the intermittent responses from Clare's flute. This aria may have beautifully established the growing life upon the planet, but it also managed to infect the listening audience with a dreamy enchantment that begged their imaginations to unfold.
As the chorus sailed joyously into 'Awake the Harp', the audience were brought out of their enchantment and provoked into joining the celebration of God's third day. The timps thundered, the trumpets sounded bright and clear, and the chorus put everything they had into the angels' exultation at such a wondrous achievement. A broad smile spread across Crystal's face as she took in their words. Only she, and perhaps Henry who was sitting beside her, and Barbara who was in the middle there playing the harpsichord, only they really understood what it was to praise and rejoice the true beginning of their world.
It was then Monty's turn to sing of the awe inspiring birth of the stars, those lights in heaven to guide the creatures of the night, and to keep the world perpetually free from darkness. As the cellos alone accompanied him through the peaceful birth of heaven's lights, and were then joined by the rest of the strings, they all felt a brief return to the dreamy acceptance of the heavens.
But as the chorus "Announced the fourth day in song divine," George and Neil rose to join Monty, all three soloists standing together for the first time. They had but a few intermittent bars throughout the mainly choral piece, but in their chords they were for now united, the one goal common to all.
As Joe led the orchestra through the beginning of 'On Mighty Pens', Helen smiled at how pretty it was, with Clare's flute delicately dancing over the top of the rest of them. But as George moved into the actual words of the aria, they could all sense the different birds on God's earth, soaring as if on wings of sound into the sky. George's voice painted the picture of the dove, the lark, and every other bird that had been brought into being on the fifth day. As her words wove in and out of Clare's flute, the intertwining counterpoint seeming to carry the rest of the orchestra through the piece, George gazed out over the audience, knowing that Neil Haughton was out there somewhere, and briefly wondering if the purity of their collective sound would make the remotest impression on his soul of granite.
As Neil Grayling began to sing of the creation of all other living things, accompanied solely by the strings and Barbara's harpsichord, Henry could barely suppress the pride he felt in his wife. She had practiced so hard for this day, and he knew that apart from the occasional arguments within the orchestra, she had thoroughly enjoyed working up to this point. He realised that this was part of Barbara's way of thanking God for the time they'd had together, however short that might now be.
When George and Monty rose to join Neil for the trio, they moved into a somewhat more cheerful stance. This was to be a celebration of the beautiful planet that had been created, and which was now being steadily populated by all manner of animals and birds. No living creature could do any harm, this being left in store for any future humans. The three voices rose separately at first, decorated in turn by the flute and the oboe, and eventually to join in harmony to give thanks for their fabulous gift.
When Joe's baton came swiftly down for 'The Lord Is Great', those who were not familiar with Haydn's music were treated to yet another surprise. The sheer speed and complexity of this piece astounded those on the left hand of the front row. Everyone appeared to be doing something different, and each and every one of them competing to be heard. From the soloists, to the violins, to the trumpets, to the chorus, all of them were straining at the bit, their talents bursting free from their confines. George looked as though she really might take off into the air, her voice soaring above that of everyone else, rising effortlessly to the top B flat, and as their combined eruption of sound carried the piece to its fortissimo climax, Nikki gasped at the sheer force of their power.
Neil then began to sing of the birth of the earth's many beasts, making the roar of lion and tiger come to life in their very midst. But as he moved onto the description of grazing cattle, the music took on a peaceful serenity, the inhabitants of God's new planet being granted the happiness and good will to fulfill their duty. As his telling of the tale of beasts continued into the second aria, the music took on a far more cheerful tone. When he sank confidently to the second octave F, Cassie grinned. His voice was so deep, so rich, that it might almost have been made of melted gold.
When Monty rose, to move them through the creation of Adam and Eve, George began to feel a growing sense of anticipation. The moment was fast approaching when she would be dancing with Neil Grayling, and showing Neil Haughton just how much she had never needed him.
"And God created man, in his own image, in the image of God created he him. Male and female created he them. He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."
As Monty progressed through his aria, Cassie spared a thought to reflect on what a chauvinistic wanker God must have been, though she guessed this must have been a sign of the times. Crystal also speculated on this point, though with a far more lenient attitude. It wasn't Adam's fault that God had given him so much self-importance, he'd simply made an error of judgment that was all. She was just as necessary to her children's creation and upbringing as Josh was, she knew that. So why had the creator of all things, the power behind everything she believed in, made such a monumental mistake. Perhaps it was right that Adam and Eve had left the Garden of Eden, giving Eve the eventual opportunity to prove herself.
"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good, and the heavenly choir in song divine, thus closed the sixth day."
As Neil introduced the celebration of the end of the sixth day, the chorus again rose to their feet. The rejoicing both by chorus and soloists that followed, made it clear to all concerned that God's achievement of the birth of man was his cleverest yet. There was a gentler trio from the soloists in between the two louder, far more joyful expressions of praise by the chorus, allowing the appreciation from Adam and Eve to steadily grow. It was made abundantly clear by this that Adam and Eve would soon take up their vows and pledge their lives to each other, just as God had intended. As the chorus gave their thanks for the creation of Adam and Eve, it felt as though they were laying a pure smile of sincere praise and thanks giving over the entire audience.
Following the joyful exultation of the chorus, came a purely instrumental interlude, allowing the illustration of the tranquility of the garden of Eden to be painted, drawing the audience into the gentility of the feelings that were about to be expressed. Monty joined in with this after a while, adding a few necessary words to make the picture complete. But when George and Neil moved a little way in front of him, moving into their accustomed position for their dance, the audience gazed in awe at the sheer beauty of their togetherness.
"By thee, with bliss, oh, bounteous Lord.
Both heaven and earth are stored.
This world, so great, so wonderful.
Thy mighty hand has framed."
As they began to dance, and yet still to sing, the graceful way they moved captured every wandering eye. He held her in his arms, her hand entwined with his, giving the impression of utter devotion to the cause. Neil Haughton stared. Christ, he'd known she was beautiful, he'd known she possessed the grace and agility of a cat, especially in bed, but this was something else altogether. How could she dance like that, and sing at the same time? How could she possess such ability to entrance every soul who watched and listened to her? And who was this man, this man who was holding her as possessively and tenderly as he, Neil was forced to admit, had never done. Their voices were as skillfully moulded together as their steps were, moving with total assurance in each other's space. It wasn't lost on either Cassie or Helen, when John occasionally removed his eyes from the music, just long enough to glance George's way, clearly bursting with pride at what she was doing.
George and Neil didn't dance through the next piece, which also contained the chorus, but they did stand together, giving praise for their love, and congratulating God for his cleverness. George's voice danced in and out of the chorus, just as her delicate feet had done only moments earlier. She sounded truly happy with her lot, thoroughly unquestioning of the duty of continuing the human race, which had been bestowed on her and her mate.
When they again took up their dancing hold, they gazed into each other's eyes, their words, just for this moment, briefly engendering the feelings of love and commitment that God had intended. His words asked her to come with him, to allow him to guide her through the rest of their lives, to guard her, to protect her, to cherish her. George in her turn, pledged her obedience, and asked for his guidance, and begged him to be her all, to be her shield.
But as they moved into the duet proper, and Neil described her as his graceful consort, Neil Haughton couldn't help but think that this was all that he'd ever wanted her to be to him. Haughton supposed it was the man's acting ability, but he really sounded as though he meant every single word he was saying to her. He sincerely meant that he would lull every care of hers to rest. Funny, Haughton thought to himself, but he'd always thought that this was for a woman to do, not a man. A man needed looking after, his woman being there to smooth the way for him. But this man, he was promising George, Eve, everything, from his undying fidelity, to his everlasting devotion.
"Spouse adored, at thy side, purest joys o'erflow the heart."
God, how she sounded as though she felt every sentiment. This feeling was indigenous to the entire audience, all of them feeling that tingle of the sparks of love being set alight in their midst. But when their voices joined, the first and second subjects weaving in and out of each other, Nikki gripped Helen's hand. This was incredible! The union between the two dancers was so beautiful, so enchanting, that Nikki could, for this short space of time, forget that this wasn't any ordinary couple. They were expressing the feelings that she knew she and Helen felt for each other, justifying their very existence as one.
"With thee, with thee, with thee."
As they rose to this reiterated promise, Nikki shivered, briefly wondering if the panes of the stained glass windows would hold under the throbbing, soul piercing onslaught.
"With thee, with thee, is every joy enhanced.
"With thee, with thee, is life incessant bliss."
Neil Haughton felt a stab of envy as they sang this, knowing that never in his wildest dreams would she ever say anything of the sort to him. John on the other hand, was feeling every vibration of her words, knowing that some of them at least were meant for him. Even through all the fights and all the tears, somewhere along the line he and George had been destined to be together as, in a different and more lasting way, were he and Jo. When George had married him, she had truly vowed to give herself to him forever. He bitterly regretted the ways in which he'd hurt both George and Jo over the years, and perhaps it was this expression of pure, sincere feeling that was making him convinced that he would never hurt either of them again. As they soared up to the final exultation of,
"Thine it all shall be," The audience seemed to hold its breath, as if wanting to preserve this true moment of glory forever.
As George and Neil moved back to stand on either side of Monty, and he began proclaiming the coming doom for God's errant charges, everyone knew that the end was near. As the chorus moved into the final expression of rejoice, accompanied by the entire orchestra and joined in turn by the three soloists, every ounce of effort that they'd all put into this seemed to come together. They'd made it, they'd succeeded, what better reason to celebrate and give thanks than that. Joe Channing's hands carried every one of them through this joyful finale, in a way expressing his own pleasure and slight astonishment that they'd actually managed to reach this point. But as they sailed into the few final chords, they all felt that the stress and the arguments had been worth it, the eventual product of their labours having been a triumph to behold.
Part One Hundred and Fifty
The pause, as the final chords of the ensemble performance faded into the high domed church, was emotionally charged as with one exception, both audience and orchestra were as one. In that second, that driving tension was released from Joe Channing's elastic taut concentration. The showman in him flamboyantly turned round to face the audience with arms outstretched. Till then, the audience had been an invisible presence behind him. His smile of satisfaction was as expansive as his pride.
The end of the row on which Henry sat, was the first to break into applause, which was amplified and enfolded by the rest of the audience, which had not expected anything like the performance they had enjoyed. By not really knowing individual members of the orchestra as Henry's row did, they had been distanced and had only been cajoled to attend by Vera Everard's gimlet eye and forceful personality. In a concert setting, the unexpected purity of form and intensity of expression hit home. The sole exception was Neil Haughton. As the music ended, the whole elaborate performance faded. It had seemed designed to celebrate George's distance from him, however artfully the orchestra performance was contrived. He was held prisoner in his possession by convention and politeness. Henry, at a nod from Joe Channing, got up from his unaccustomed position in the pew, and walked to the pulpit.
"On behalf of Chipping Ongar church, I want to extend to the Bar council an inexpressible debt of gratitude, for magnificent performance. I confess that I never realised until this afternoon, what an overflowing wealth of talent there is amongst members of the judiciary and their friends. It is truly a demonstration of God's will that he intended such abilities by which you earn your living, to be matched by entirely different talents for the glory of music and of God. On behalf of the church, I invite George, to step forward to accept this bouquet of roses for you all." George smiled wholeheartedly, yet nervously walked her way up to the pulpit, where Henry smiled kindly down on her. She felt incredibly whole, bathed by the light and love that was bestowed on her. Yet some instinct told her, that this was not some selfish emotion but one, which radiated between her and the rest of the magic company. She picked out the spirituality of expression on even Sir Ian's and Lady Rochester's faces, and reflected that even they had their rightful place here.
With legs like jelly, she reached her arms up, and smelt the softly perfumed roses. On her high heels, she teetered her way to the podium, on which her father stood. As she reached up to offer Joe the first rose, the difference in height carried her memory back to when she was little, and had sung for her father. The light in her eyes, and smile across her face, showed her that she could safely wallow in male approval. Daddy was different of course. Turning next to Monty, she generously offered him the second rose. She looked at him, the stiff-necked man in a new light, as a fellow artist. When she approached Grayling, an intense glance of gratitude shone from her eyes. If it had not been for him, she would never had performed here today. She deliberately took her time to saunter up to John, and the spark of understanding crossed between them. She passed her way through the section leaders of the rest of the orchestra, bestowing roses on them, as if it were an ancient courtly ritual. Each group of musicians had played to perfection.
"I'm inviting the orchestra, and members of the audience, to stay behind..." In the middle of his invitation, a coughing fit overtook Henry. With some embarrassment, he struggled to finish off his words. "...At the church hall for drinks." Helen, Nikki, Cassie and Crystal, followed in behind the members of the orchestra and rapidly filled up the hall. To their surprise, it was empty of all the instruments and music stands, with which they had laboured so diligently after work and on weekends. With a table laid out with drinks, it was just the church hall.
There was a heightened sense of animation in all the orchestra, as old rivalries remained suspended. Sir Ian even smiled at Francesca and was happy to chat with her and the ever-present Lawrence James while Neumann Mason-Alan promptly attached himself to the group. The four musicians slid smoothly on a cushion of good feeling that nothing could break. Sir Ian looked on fondly at everyone. Even Deed had performed impeccably. People seemed to move sedately in and out of his vision like a slow moving kaleidoscope in an ever-shifting pattern. First Clare Walker, then Barbara, then Karen, then Roisin moved into view and were irretrievably linked to their individual threads in that wonderful aural tapestry they had woven. Suddenly, there appeared a short, blonde haired woman, hair cut in a short bob. He instantly registered the boldness of her manner and a jagged memory impulse shot into his brain like an electric shock. He cursed his work mode of thinking, something that he heartily wished could be switched off for just one afternoon in his life.
"That woman, entering the room, is Cassie Tyler. I remember crossing swords with her at the Lauren Atkins trial," Said Neumann quietly. So Roisin must be her partner and both her and Barbara had served a term of imprisonment, Sir Ian concluded. This revelation upset his secure foundations, and what passed for his morality. Put simply, he was there to lend protective colouration for members of the establishment and fearlessly expose those on the other side of the fence. It ought to have shocked him that two women who he had welcomed into their exclusive company were not as they appeared to be. But they were fellow musicians, dammit, he didn't want to know.
"How very interesting, Neumann. Small world, isn't it. Let's not talk shop today, there's a good fellow." He hoped he sounded far more debonair than he felt, as he turned his gaze to attract Brian Cantwell's attention.
"I must admit, George," Joe loudly proclaimed. "That you and Neil, made a splendid couple. I mean the superb bass singer, and not that other unspeakable man, who I trust will fall on his sword having seen what he has lost."
"Hardly, Daddy," George muttered, flushing slightly. While Daddy is here to stay in blissful ignorance of what ever she is doing, there are occasional drawbacks.
"Nonsense, George," He boomed, and stopped a moment to think. "Are you talking about your singing partner, or that ex of yours?"
"Neil Grayling, of course. He's a wonderful singing partner, a good man and a dear friend, but Daddy, he's gay." George kept her voice down low and looked furtively around, to check in case anyone she knew was nearby.
"Daddy, do keep your voice down. Does what I have told you really matter? If Neil hadn't been here, there would have been no performance, think about that."
"How long have you known about this?" Joe asked incredulously after a distinct pause.
"Since the beginning, of course," George replied in wide-eyed innocence.
"What is the world coming to?" Joe rumbled rhetorically and not for the first time in his life as he tottered off to chat to Henry. He had that air of reassuring normality, as well as a wife at his side.
"So, Nikki, how did you enjoy the performance?" Grayling's friendly manner broke in unexpectedly on Nikki as she was chatting to Clare Walker.
"More than I could possibly say in words," Nikki exclaimed fervently, her eyes shining. "I have never been so moved in all my life. When do you and the rest of the orchestra plan to take this on tour?" Grayling made a self-deprecating gesture, though the thought of it did take his fancy. A new dimension in his life had been allowed to flower within him.
"Mrs. Warner would have the perfect excuse to lecture me that my mind isn't properly on the job. I do need to be around to ensure that none of my enemies move in on my pitch, to try and undermine both you and Karen, not that the idea isn't tempting."
"You really must have faith in us."
"If you've got through the first week without anything untoward coming to my ears, you must be doing fine." Grayling's broad grin was infectious.
"You can tell so soon, Neil?" Nikki queried.
"That's the way it goes," Grayling replied cheerfully. "If you don't mind, I'd sooner not talk shop, Nikki, not on a day like this." Grayling seemed totally alive and utterly centred.
"I'm sorry, Neil."
"Not to worry, Nikki. Let's enjoy today. We all deserve it."
Brian Cantwell circulated round the hall. That often acid tongued egotistical man fuelled inside by bittier prejudices, wore a pleased expression on his face, but this was no selfish sentiment.
"Have you enjoyed playing with Jo Mills?" Clare greeted Brian cheerfully. She had seen from her place in court how the two of them had regular verbal sparring matches.
"Surprisingly well, Clare," Brian retorted, his mind still alert after the intense concentration of the afternoon performance. "We might even get on next time we appear in court." There was a spiky edge to his voice, and a lurking affection he knew very well not to expose too much to general view.
Karen and Michael Nivin were comparing notes on their musical contributions when she caught a glimpse of Henry. The lighting in the church hall was bright enough so that Henry could be seen clearly. Her memory of him was that he always had a pale complexion but she couldn't remember his cheeks being as drawn as they appeared today. Babs was smiling and talking in her usual sociable manner, but her eyes never left him. This isn't just the very real love she feels for him, surely. She resolved to quietly talk to her in the lobby now that everyone who was coming to the party was present.
"I was rather hoping that no one would notice," Barbara said, looking a little flustered and uncomfortable. "I suppose having once been a nurse, you would be bound to be the first to spot it." Karen started to get really worried for her friend. She hadn't formed any definite conclusions, but Barbara supposed that their plight was more visible than it actually was.
"You see, Henry has lung cancer. He's been under the hospital who urge him to rest, but you know Henry. He won't do that while his flock is there and they need him." Karen cut short her immediate reaction, that for once Henry could give way to a moment of selfishness in his life. In contrast, she remembered Ross when he was at home, always childishly demanding, never thinking beyond his own needs.
"We must have faith as to the future. If you don't mind, Henry is rather tired, and I need to persuade him that he needs to rest." It upset Karen to see how Barbara's smile was rather strained and forced. She suspected the prognosis was worse than Barbara was letting on.
"You may be sure, that everything here will be looked after. Don't worry."
George was standing with Helen, Nikki, Cassie and Roisin, and feeling happier than she had in years. She had performed to the best of her ability, they all had, and she had enjoyed every minute of it.
"I nearly jumped out of my skin on that huge crash of light," Cassie was saying.
"Yes, I saw you," George said with a laugh.
"And I never thought Grayling could sing like that."
"I didn't think it would be at first," George said fairly. "But it's been fun working with him."
"I think every member of the audience was staring at your legs during that dance," Nikki said with a smirk. "Just goes to show what fabulous taste me and Helen have."
"Oh, so the not so innocent looking Eve was your idea?" Roisin asked, having been slightly astounded when she'd first seen what George was wearing.
"Our fault entirely," Helen agreed. "The Judge kept taking his eyes off his music to look at you."
"As if he doesn't get more than his fair share as it is," George replied dryly.
"It's weird," Cassie put in. "I've listened to Roash practicing her part for weeks, but I'd never heard it all together before today." As she leaned forward to kiss Roisin proudly, George laid a warning hand on her shoulder.
"I wouldn't do that here," She said quietly.
"You aren't serious?" Cassie said in total disgust.
"Very," George explained, not remotely put off by her tone of voice. "I doubt it will surprise you to know, that the vast majority of the legal profession are still living in the nineteenth century."
"She's right, Cass," Roisin agreed, gently detaching Cassie from her.
"And does that include you and Karen?" Cassie demanded of George, her anger at not being permitted to show her affection all too evident.
"In a setting such as this, yes, it most certainly does," George told her.
"I'm sorry," Cassie said, feeling a little foolish at her outburst. "Discretion isn't something I've ever really appreciated the need for."
"George," Said Nikki, finding the perfect excuse to move away from this far too sensitive topic. "There's a weasly looking bloke heading over here, looking as though he wants to talk to you." As George glanced in the direction Nikki was gesturing, she saw Neil Haughton approaching.
"I wondered how long it would take him," She said to no one in particular.
"George," He said as he reached them. "Can I drag you away for five minutes?" Giving him the type of in-depth scrutiny, that told everyone around her that she was definitely lowering her standards in talking to this individual, she said,
"Five minutes is all you'll get," In that curt, dismissive tone he knew so well. Then, seeing the look of blatant discomfort on his face, she added, "Go and wait for me outside, and I'll join you in a minute, unless you wish to conduct this particularly pointless conversation in public?" At the slight shudder that meant he would rather dip his feet in undiluted acid than have anyone witness his humiliation, she said, "No, I thought not." When he'd gone, Cassie grinned.
"Nice one, babe, that's the most accurately delivered dismissal I've seen in years."
"Who was that?" Nikki asked, hoping that she would never have cause to get on George's bad side.
"Do you remember me telling you about my cabinet minister? Well, that was him, the secretary of state for trade himself."
"Jesus," Said Cassie in disgust. "No wonder the DTI's approaching a serious melt down, if an oily git like him is in charge."
"Nikki, can you do something for me?" George asked, filing Cassie's comment away as something to use if she ever ran out of tactical put downs. "Can you ask John to come and rescue me in about five minutes?"
"Sure," Nikki replied, seeing John talking to Joe Channing on the other side of the hall.
"George, what did he do to incur such deep seated disgust?"
"You may well ask," George replied, walking away from them and heading towards the outside.
When she appeared through the doors of the church hall, she saw Neil waiting for her.
"Well, well," She said, moving to stand beside him. "This is nice, isn't it." The steely-edged tone in which she delivered these words, belied their actual content. Knowing that it would utterly infuriate him, she lit up a cigarette.
"I'm surprised you've taken that up again," Neil said, his mouth working before his brain. "One would have thought, that you would want to keep such an incredible voice in peak condition."
"Ah, well, as it happens, I can do both," She said icily. Then, when he didn't appear to be very forthcoming, she asked, "What are you really here for, Neil? What do you want?"
"I wanted to see you," He said quietly, and she could see that this at least was the truth.
"Well, granted I look an awful lot better than the last time you saw me," She put in before he could continue. "But perhaps that's because I'm happy."
"You certainly look it," He couldn't help agreeing.
"I am," She confirmed. "I don't think I've ever been as happy with every part of my life as I am now."
"George," He said a little hesitantly, after taking a moment or two to work up the courage. "What I did to you, I'm sorry."
"For what it's worth," She said quietly. "I know, though whether you are actually sorry for hitting me, or sorry that by doing that you lost me, is anyone's guess."
As soon as George had gone outside, Helen and Nikki made their way over to where John was standing talking to George's father.
"Can we butt in for a moment?" Helen began, seeing as she knew John somewhat better than Nikki did.
"Of course," John said amiably, and then introduced them. "This is Sir Joseph Channing, George's father, and Joe, this is Nikki Wade and Helen Stewart."
"Nikki, Wade," Joe said contemplatively. "I had wondered if today might be my opportunity to meet the most recent recruit to the prison service. I must congratulate you, on being the first person whose appointment has rocked the establishment, even more than that of the Deed here." Smiling broadly, Nikki shook his hand.
"I'm not sure whether to take that as a complement," She said, seeing the smile of encouragement on John's face.
"How was your first week?" John asked, before Joe could drop himself in it.
"Knackering, but fantastic," Nikki summarised. "And before I forget, George would like you to go and rescue her from the secretary of state for trade, in about five minutes. I think she was hoping to give him a bit of a roasting first."
"About bloody time," Joe Channing growled. "I was not best pleased to see that waster as a member of our audience."
"I would have thought he would have had more sense," John agreed. "But if George is putting him in his place, that is something I would quite like to see," He added a little evilly. But as Nikki and Joe got into a discussion of the merits of custodial punishment, John contrived to move Helen a little away from them.
"How is our mutual concern progressing?" He asked when they were well out of earshot.
"Not brilliantly," Helen said unhappily. "He's not doing well at all. He needs her, Judge, if he's going to have any chance whatsoever of getting out of this."
"And you know that neither of us can tell her," John persuaded gently but firmly.
"Did you seek that higher advice you were after?"
"Yes, from the very man Nikki is talking to."
"What did he say?"
"Precisely what I thought he would say. You cannot tell her, Helen, neither of us can, no matter how much we might want to."
Outside, Neil was saying,
"George, as much as it might surprise you to know, you meant everything to me. I thought that... Well... Maybe..." George laughed in the face of his struggle to find the right words.
"Neil," She said, her tone dripping with scorn. "What could possibly, give you the idea that I still need you as my status symbol? Because I can assure you, I don't. I've never needed anything less. Do you know something, for the first time in my life, I have friends. Not the kind of friends who demand political support and legal performance in return, but friends who actually care about the person behind the career. I used to think you could be useful to me, just as I was to you, but since then, I've learnt that mere professional advancement just isn't important. You don't know the meaning of the phrase sincere loyalty, do you, but in the last year or so, it's something I've learnt to cherish."
"Tell me," Neil replied, with more than a little scorn in his own voice. "When you speak of friends, I assume you're talking about the group of ex-cons I saw you with earlier. Keep on maintaining friendships like that, and you'll soon discover what supposed loyalty can drag you into."
"Oh, really," She said scathingly. "Well, I'll tell you this much, I certainly won't be cajoled into defending rotten to the core cases, all in the name of political expediency." When she saw John appear on the periphery of her field of vision, she tried to ignore his presence and keep on going. "My career was heading straight for disintegration, with all the corrupt cases you kept insisting I had to win. I crawled out from under that particularly loathsome rock, Neil, but you're still there, still clinging onto your not so sturdy hand hold in the government's pocket. Everything I was, everything I stood for when I was with you, disgusts me, so why you think I would ever want to go back to that, I'll never know." Neil took a breath to deliver some resounding retort, when he also became aware of John's presence.
On walking quietly out through the doors of the church hall, John had seen Neil and George facing each other not far away, and he had heard George's last little speech, making him fill with pride that she of all people could come out with such words of sincerity. When he finally reached them, he solicitously put an arm round George's shoulders, just to further enhance her last point.
"Oh, don't tell me," Haughton said in resigned disgust. "Don't tell me you've stooped so low, as to go crawling back to him?"
"The only time I have ever stooped lower than I deserve," She said mockingly. "Was when I deigned to sleep with you, because believe me, when one adjusts their course of action from sleeping with you to sleeping with John, they are definitely raising their standards. Wouldn't you say so, darling?" She added, smiling lasciviously up into John's face, her expression asking him to play along with her.
"You have to admit, she does have a point, Haughton," John replied, the beginnings of a laugh just at the back of his voice. Neil's lip curled, but in the face of her obvious satisfaction, his expression wavered.
"You don't like me threatening your overblown sense of masculinity, do you," She said silkily, her voice almost reminding him of how fabulous she'd always been in bed. "But you see, John here, gives me everything I could ever want in a lover. He doesn't concern himself solely with the pursuit of his own pleasure, he doesn't tell me I'm depraved, when what I want is perfectly normal, and most of all, he gives me an orgasm, every time I sleep with him, something you certainly never did." John could feel the slight tremble in her as she let forth this stream of resentment and anger, something which had obviously been begging for release for quite some time now. Neil looked shocked, probably as a result of all her accusations. George couldn't quite believe she'd said all that. Yes, she knew it wasn't strictly true that John always managed to give her an orgasm, and she was quite aware that he knew it too, but the assertion had served its purpose. Never again would Neil think she would lower herself to his level, not after this. When it appeared that George's tirade had come to an end, John said,
"I think it might be time for you to leave, Haughton." His words carried such protectiveness, such authority, that Neil would have been testing what courage he had to disobey them. Turning about, he walked to his car, got in and drove away.
When the smoke from Neil's exhaust had dissipated, John turned George into his embrace, enfolding her in the arms that were most familiar to her.
"Are you all right?" He asked softly into her hair.
"Fine," She said a little unsteadily. "I wasn't quite expecting to say everything I did, though."
"I'm sure he'll get over it." When George drew her face slightly back from him, he could see the sheer need in her eyes. When she reached up to kiss him, he could feel her extreme desire to forget Neil and to banish all thought of his existence from her mind. She'd given him his long overdue dismissal from anything to do with her, and now she simply wanted to move on. Her kisses were fierce, passionate, demanding in the extreme, and at the moment, just the way he wanted them. He had been suppressing his desire for her all afternoon, but now he allowed it to take hold of him. When his hand moved round to begin caressing her left breast, she didn't falter, even though they were stood in the middle of the carpark in front of the church hall. He felt her nipple harden under his fingers, just as she clung even closer to him, aligning their centres, and finding his own hardness begging for attention.
"Let's go home, now," She said almost urgently, detaching herself from him and taking his hand in hers, dragging him unprotesting over to his car.
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