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 Sixty One

Nikki had been beginning to feel that life at Larkhall was beginning to settle down to a pattern. She had entered G Wing metaphorically speaking, with a triumphant clap of thunder but she had to consolidate on that excellent start. It was similar to when she had first learned to drive a car. Even after passing her test, she still needed an abnormal amount of concentrated effort to work out what she would do in certain situations and this was similar. She felt that she was operating on blind instinct, her experience from the other side of the bars, knowledge that her mind had subconsciously gleaned from reminiscences with Helen and finally her training course. It had carried her so far but she knew she needed to progress from there. The prison service had very prescribed laid down rules of what could and could not be done, all the way from negotiating rights of the Prison Officers Association to the way office stationery was ordered. After a month, she had now developed those invisible feelers for what went on around her, which wasn't a million miles from the way she had run her share of the club. Somehow, she had worked her way through some abstruse situations where she had wondered more than anyone else how she had plucked the rabbit out of the hat. She knew, above all else, that unless she could be true to herself, she could not believe in herself. That had been all important throughout her life, from as early as she could remember.

She knew that both Natalie Buxton and Di Barker hated her in equal measure but they were discreet and devious about it. At least Sylvia Hollamby was honest in her dislike of her, she had to give that obstinate reactionary woman that amount of credit. This was exacerbated by an incident when she had tried to bamboozle her about what 'the General Secretary would and not allow' but she had successfully called her bluff. As for everyone else, she had made her presence felt in that understated fashion that served her very well. As time went on, she sensed that her presence as wing governor was becoming as unremarkable and part of the natural order of events. Amongst other strange twists of fate, she was getting used to handling that bunch of keys to negotiate her way round the labyrinth that was G wing. Finally, on Friday she had plucked up the strength of will to attack the pile of files that she had let accumulate in her 'in tray' while her presence on the wing had been more high profile than she was wise to allow herself. She hadn't let slide that side her job out of a horror of paperwork as such but what the files contained. The dry details of wrecked lives never ceased to pain her but then again, Helen had confided to her in passing that her work as a psychologist brought her into contact with another segment of suffering humanity.

"What do you mean, Helen?" Nikki had asked her one night a few weeks ago when Helen looked more world weary than normal.

"I'm doing my level best to patch up people's wounds, whether self inflicted or not. It isn't all plain sailing."

"I know," Nikki had replied with tender sympathy. "Still, your patients are lucky to have you around to care for them."

Helen's smile in response was rather strained. Nikki had never intruded in Helen's professional business and a month of her new job sharpened her understanding of that kind of professional responsibility.

"Still here, Nikki?" Karen had smiled through the half open door, breaking into her concentration. "I'm off somewhere special."

"That means George," Nikki had grinned back.

She could so vividly remember in retrospect Karen's smirk of self-satisfaction for that second before the door closed and Karen was gone. Nikki had attacked the pile of files with the last of her energy before she could let herself go home.

"I'm off out, Gina," she had called out as she crossed the wing and let herself out into the front yard. It had been a blazing hot summer day and the force of the heat had made her feel glad to set off home. She dropped her keys into the slot and slid into the car seat of her little Ford Fiesta, which was, parked pride of place outside the prison walls. That little touch still reminded her of how times had changed. It would, given time, fade into normality without forgetting her past and not being true to it. When she thought about it, she gained quiet satisfaction that there was hardly anything in her life that she would disown but that was only what she expected of herself.

She was ready to chill out with Helen with a quiet peaceful night in with her version of Karen's pleasures. She felt she had earned it twice over, as she parked her car, grabbed her overfull briefcase and clattered down the short flight of steps to the basement entrance. She heard Helen's voice talking in the living room, entered the room with a broad smile and slung her briefcase into a corner of the room. It was nothing new to her that Helen continued to talk on the phone as she occasionally took emergency calls when she was home. What did slightly surprise her was that Helen didn't turn round to face her. It struck her that she wasn't fully here.

"Do you realise that if just once either you or I had chosen to do what was morally right, rather than what was legally right, this might never have happened?"

Nikki's alarm bells were jangling straightaway as this conversation was utterly out of the ordinary. The brief pause for the unknown caller to reply only made Helen more overwrought than she was already

"Don't you feel any guilt, judge? Don't you think that maybe this time, the law didn't know best? Because I can tell you that I sure as hell do."

That meant John Deed, Nikki swiftly concluded and started to get worried. There could only be one judge. How in hell has he come to be professionally involved in Helen's life in such a way that sounded like trouble? That perplexed her all the more as she considered Helen and the judge to be the two of the most morally upright people Nikki had ever met with a positive passion for doing the right thing.

"She knows that Ross has been coming to see me for four months, and that he'd been an inpatient for the last two. She doesn't know that you knew about it, but we both know that she'll have to some time. This hiding things from her that she needs to know, ends whenever she begins to want answers, and that's not negotiable."

Nikki started to have a horrid suspicion of the truth but didn't want to believe the evidence that her very active mind was starting to put together. Surely, there were more Rosses in the busy bustling outpost of London than the one she knew? She had been in Karen's room and the framed picture of the smiling clean-cut adolescent was pride of place on her desk. She didn't talk much of him but she knew well enough that he lurked somewhere at the back of her mind. Family ties weren't exactly her scene but a long time ago Yvonne had educated her by her personal example as to the power of that tie.

"Nikki's here," Helen finally said, turning round to face her at last, pain clearly etched all over her very expressive face, "…..waiting for me to explain everything to her. It's not just Karen who's been kept in the dark all this time."

Helen looked for the first time directly at Nikki, the expression on her face beseeching her for forgiveness and the earpiece of her cordless phone was directly clamped against her ear as she took in the final words and put the phone down.

"Ross is dead. That's Ross as in Karen's son." Helen blurted out the verbal bombshell, utterly unable to dress up the words any differently.

Nikki's jaw dropped in horror at the news. Whatever surprises she was getting used to at work was as nothing compared to what had dropped on her as she had stepped through her own front door. Her utter failure to make a response seemed to last an eternity.

"How did you……." She said at last.

"He's been a patient of mine, a heroin addict with HIV was recently admitted to inpatient care. He's been getting worse and worse…"

"So what happened?"

"He committed suicide by cutting his wrist an hour or so ago. I've just broken the news to Karen."

Those terse staccato words didn't even begin to deal with either woman's feelings. Both of them were numb with shock, standing like statues and rooted to the spot in what should be their cosy flat. It was only instinct that prompted Nikki to ask herself what on earth had been going on and a hard, questioning expression settled on Nikki's face as she shook her head in confusion.

"I am a psychologist and I would not have been acting professionally if I had told you everything that goes on in my job even if it concerns someone…."

Helen lunged in abruptly with flashing eyes and a rigidity in her manner that Nikki had not seen for a long time. It shocked her but not enough to stop her jumping straight in.

"……..who's my present boss and someone who you were once in charge of."

Her lightning thrust was delivered to counter Helen with a degree of calm and self-assurance, which surprised herself at a moment like this .She was curiously calm. She reasoned instinctively that Helen under pressure would revert to that persona who lectured her across the desk from that very same chair which she now occupied. If Helen had mentally jumped back in time to when they were both in Larkhall, Nikki knew that she would have to drag her back to the here and now. In truth, Nikki's calm assurance was borne of years of responsibility in one form or another.

Helen's eyes flitted nervously round the room and the tip of her tongue flicked across her lower lip but she was silent, undecided.

"Come on, you'd better tell the story from the start as it's out in the open now."

Helen's stood rigidly as if she were frozen inside by the horror and guilt that she had felt from when she had first heard the news and of being persuaded to keep quiet against her better judgement. She moved stiffly to the sofa and let herself drop. She breathed in and out and her eyes remained closed. Nikki reclined at an angle on the other side of the settee and maintained a patient silence. Helen sensed that feeling flow out from Nikki and

started to realise that she wasn't on her own.

"It's as well that you've found out everything," she eventually exhaled the words very faintly.

"Isn't it always?" came the gentle answer with a slight smile on her face.

Helen nodded and her head turned slightly to glance in Nikki's direction.

"It's been going on for months, Nikki. Ross Betts was referred to me from his GP as he had an out of control heroin habit and severe feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, which he concealed behind an aggressive surly manner. Of course, I knew straightaway he was Karen's son. You get to put two and two together in a situation like that, don't you Nikki? You can understand that I did my best to try to contain the situation, to try everything in the book to improve his self-esteem. His addiction bad as it was in itself was only the surface symptom of the trouble. I did my best to contain the situation and try and deal with the root cause of the problem. You can understand where I'm coming from, don't you. "

Helen paused, having gently included Nikki as a fellow professional for the first time in their lives.

"If I were in your shoes, I think I would have done the same," came Nikki's reflective answer.

"I began to see that whatever I did, he was slowly but surely going downhill. Believe you me, false pride and burying your head in the sand have no place in my job or in my life."

"Just backtrack a moment, Helen. I assume that Karen has never had any idea of his drug habit. Did you talk to him about telling her of his problem?"

Helen's lips twisted in bitter memories of the irony of the situation.

"He had never grown up, Nikki. His addiction had got to the point that he had lost all his pride and self respect and would tell any story if it would get him a prescription for heroin substitute. The one scrap of pride left in him was that his mother, I mean Karen, would never know. So I decided that I needed a second opinion."

"So you went to the judge? Why not me? You know how good I can be in a situation like this," Nikki said in a hurt voice. She respected the judge right enough but Helen only knew him slightly. She could have come to her on this one occasion.

"I only went to the judge for one reason and one reason only. I wanted to get the finest legal opinion as to whether or not I could tell Karen myself. Please understand Nikki, it's not like the old days of me treating you just as a well-meaning prisoner. On the matter of the law, he knows more than both I or you know."

It was Nikki's turn to look away from Helen. Her feelings of hurt and rejection were, even now, still able to rise to the surface but a voice at the back of her head repeated a relentless logic of what had to be done. She had always thought and acted from the heart from when she was little but as she had got older, some instinct in her knew how to think with her head. Living with Helen had spurred this way of wrestling with a problem. She still felt uncomfortable but could see why Helen had acted as she had done. She turned back to look at Helen, gave a half smile and reached out a hand to touch Helen. It felt a little safer for both of them to do so.

"So what did you come up with?"
A faint feeling of release began to seep through Helen as some of the tension started to ease. She did not dare to think about Karen and what she must be going through but a little of the advice which she handed out at her clinic came back to her. A step at a time, she thought. That is her only hope at this minute.

"I told him that she was both my friend and his but he insisted that he has a right to patient confidentiality, just as both of us did."

"That's tough advice, Helen."

"He meant it, Nikki. He knows Karen well and he would be sworn to silence as much as I was. He told me that keeping the matter from Karen was going to be one of the hardest things he would ever have to do and would give anything for her not to be hurt."

Nikki reflected long and hard on this. If the judge had taken on the same burden as Helen had, then she could not help but respect him for it.

"The judge is a good guy, Helen, but don't you think that he was too caught up in legal niceties and was mistaken, however good his motives. You know that the shit will hit the fan and who can criticise Karen for blaming anyone who's kept secrets from her. It sounds good in theory but that's half the problem."

"Be careful, Nikki. You're only a month in to your job. You might find yourself in the very same position that I have of having to maintain a confidential secret or some kind of moral dilemma that you can't talk to me about. It could happen to you," Helen warned Nikki in low but emotion drenched tones.

"So that's why you told me once that your job isn't plain sailing. I'd call that the understatement of the century."

For the first time, Nikki smiled at that faint irony, even at such a traumatic moment like this.

"You really hate the idea of me holding all this back from you," Helen asked softly and the other woman nodded.

"It reminded me of the way we were at Larkhall when I felt at times that you had to be the one in charge, to be right all the time. I know that what I'm feeling sounds irrational but…………………."

Helen leaned over and gently brushed Nikki's cheek with her fingertips.

"Believe you me, there were so many times when I wanted so much to tell you, when I woke up in the middle of the night worrying about the situation. Look at it like this. When you seek advice from the finest legal mind whose moral standards in his profession let alone any other are as high as you can get, what do you do when you don't like what you are told? If you get advice that goes against the grain, then you should never have asked for it in the first place. I had committed myself to the legal way of operating and I had, have, faith in him and what he had to say. That's what I had to keep telling myself as there wasn't anything else that held me in there."

There was a pause as Nikki mulled over what Helen had told her. The emotional hurt was healing and she began to realize that she had been reverting to the person she used to be as much as Helen had so briefly. Her heart was beginning to agree with her head as she reflected on the thought that ancient scars take a lot of healing.

"Hey, come here."

Nikki's musical voice curled round seductively inside all of Helen's senses and drew her in to bridge the gap that had run down the middle of the sofa in between them. She leaned over and let Nikki's arms enfold her. It felt like heaven to smell the faint fragrance of her skin and made her feel whole again. She could feel Nikki's delicate fingertips gently running through her hair and the comfort of lying against her breasts. There was absolutely nowhere else she wanted to be right now in this universe. A fierce glow of tenderness and possessiveness welled up in Nikki as she looked down on Helen and she felt that she was home at last. That was what she was looking forward to on the way home all along. She hadn't bargained on walking into the shock and turmoil that had briefly turned their lives upside down.

"Oh Christ, Helen. I only saw Karen an hour or so ago and she looked so radiant, full of the joys of life. What's happening to her right now?"

"I think I can answer that one, Nikki," Helen paused and swallowed .She had to face up to that one at last. "I was talking to the judge just now and he was going over to see Karen. He said that George had told him that she had gone into emotional shock. He didn't know the reason why until I told him."

"I hope he or George looks after her. She'll need it."

"As much as she has the resources to come through the other side of this one," Helen said grimly, looking Nikki straight in the eye. "For all my work in psychology, I can't paint a picture as to what that will be like. All I know is that she'll get help over the weekend and we'd better hang back to see if we're needed."

"It's down to me to help her when she's back at work. She has been the strong one in smoothing my coming back to Larkhall in the first place," Nikki reasoned resolutely.

Both of them stared into space, deep in thought. Totally out of the blue, the long buried emotional scars of their shared past at Larkhall had come to the surface. They had not expected that would happen after all this time. They felt more intensely for what Karen must be going through that very instant, more than they cared to think. Even if their own future was fine, both had a nasty sinking feeling about what Karen's future held for her.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Two

When Karen awoke on the Saturday morning, George was nestled up against her, softly breathing in a deep sleep. Just for a moment, hardly longer than a second, Karen felt normal, happy, the way she always did when she woke with George in her arms. But then she remembered, and the crashing weight of grief and depression fell down on her. Ross was dead, her one and only child was dead. Never again would she hear him laugh, or ask for money, or criticise the latest man she had in her life. Had this been his final act of rebellion, she wondered? Had it really been his intention to hurt her like this by taking his own life? Or had he simply done it because it was what he wanted, giving no thought to anyone he might be leaving behind.

She could hear John moving about in the kitchen, probably making a cup of tea. Sure enough, when he put his head round her bedroom door a few minutes later, he was carrying a mug in each hand.

"Is that for me?" Karen said quietly, not wanting to rouse George from her slumber.

"Yes," He said, putting one of the mugs down on the bedside table and perching on the end of the bed, simply looking at them. This must be a first for him, Karen thought to herself, to see George in bed with someone else. Knowing that the tea would still be too hot to drink, Karen waited a while before disturbing George.

"How did you sleep?" John asked, thinking that they really did look enchanting together, cuddled close in each other's arms.

"Like a log, but only because of a sleeping pill. What time is it?"

"A little after eight." Eventually, Karen gently disentangled herself from George's entwining limbs, and sat up to drink her tea. When George opened her eyes, she was a little confused to see John sitting on Karen's bed with them.

"What are you doing here?" She asked groggily, and then remembered precisely why. Seeing the full force of realisation crossing George's face, Karen said kindly,

"Yes, I did that too." George had absolutely no idea what to say. How did one comfort someone at a time like this, she just didn't know. Also being a little lost for words, John got up from the bed, returning in a moment with a mug of tea for George.

"I've got to go and identify him," Karen said into the silence.

"You don't have to do that today, surely," George protested.

"Trust me," Karen said decisively. "The longer I leave it, the worse it will be." Leaving them to it, John went to take a shower, continuously reminded of the day when he and George had thought that Charlie was dead.

"Do you want me to come with you?" George asked, not altogether sure she really could go through with this.

"I think I need to do this on my own," Karen told her, though still appreciating her offer. "I've a feeling that Helen's got an awful lot to tell me, an awful lot that I probably don't want anyone else to hear."

"I don't think you ought to do this on your own," George said tentatively.

"I've done everything else to do with Ross on my own," Karen said philosophically. "So I may as well do this." George left this line of attack for now, but she wasn't willing to give up entirely.

An hour or so later, they were all sitting in the lounge, drinking coffee and John eating some toast. George had more firmly introduced the topic of whether Karen should or shouldn't go alone to the clinic, and they were mildly arguing about it. John kept his opinion to himself, because he didn't want Karen to feel that they were ganging up on her, but he did have to agree with George. No mother should be left to see her son's dead body without some sort of support.

"At least let me drive you there," George persisted, as Karen lit a cigarette with a slightly shaking hand. The combination of the after effects of the sleeping pill, and the caffeine from her cup of espresso, making her tremble.

"You're not going to give up, until I say yes, are you," Karen said, a little exasperated, though quietly appreciating George's resilience.

"No, I'm not. I really don't think it would be safe for you to drive."

"Fine," Karen agreed, not having the energy to argue the point any further. Then, looking over at John, she said, "Please would you stay here, till we get back?"

"Of course," He said, after taking a mouthful of coffee. "Is there anyone you would like me to inform?" After thinking for a moment, Karen said,

"If you could tell Yvonne, she can put everyone else in the picture," Taking it for granted that he would also phone Jo.

A little while later, when they were driving across London towards the clinic, Karen reflected that perhaps George had been right. She didn't have the concentration for driving, and would probably have ended up dead in a car crash. Shying away from the thought that perhaps this might not have been such a bad idea, she gave George the directions that Helen had given her over the phone, when Karen had called to let her know when she was coming. Helen had sounded sombre, but professional, exactly how she, Karen, would have sounded, if she'd still been a nurse, and having to give that sort of news to worried relatives. They were silent as they drove, neither of them knowing what to say, but Karen found her thoughts occasionally centring on the day when Yvonne had been in her position. She'd driven Yvonne to see Ritchie's body, just as George was doing now.

"I'm getting a real feeling of deja vu," Karen said eventually. "It's almost two years since I was taking Yvonne to see Ritchie's body. He killed himself on a Friday too." George could remember that weekend. She'd still been with Neil then, and all he'd worried about after reading of the double suicide in the paper, was the bad publicity for his precious government. Instead of saying something that would no doubt sound totally inane and stupid, George reached out to briefly touch Karen's hand.

When they drew up in the car park of the clinic, Karen sat still for a moment, contemplating what was about to happen. Part of her wasn't sure if she could do this, actually go in there and look at her son's body. If she did that, it would all be real. But the rest of her knew that she had to do it, and that she had to get it over with as soon as possible.

"Will you wait here?" Karen asked, knowing that it was either now or never.

"Yes," George said, reaching out to give her a quick hug. "But I'll be right here, if you change your mind." Getting out of the car, Karen walked through the automatic doors, wondering just how many of her questions were about to be answered.

Helen had been watching for a sign of Karen's car, from an upstairs window that looked out onto the car park. She'd talked to Nikki long into the night, and had barely slept for the rest of it, trying to sort out in her mind exactly what she should and shouldn't tell Karen today. She'd asked one of the nurses to pack up Ross's belongings, as well as making sure that the Clinic's very basic mortuary was ready for Karen to see him. When she saw Karen's car arrive, she slowly made her way downstairs, trying to put the moment off as long as possible. She hated the fact that she'd been forced to keep her knowledge of Ross's condition from her, and she had no idea how Karen would react to discovering that John had also known. Helen knew that she had to tell her about this, because they'd all had far too many secrets kept one way and another for far too long. When she first saw Karen, walking through the doors and across the waiting room towards her, Helen wasn't entirely sure how to act. This was Karen, this was her friend, but she knew that for now, she had to remain professional.

"You look a bit like I feel," Karen said when she reached her. Opening her mouth to reply, Helen hesitated a moment, and then abandoned the professional persona just as suddenly as she'd decided to wear it.

"I'm so sorry," She said, flinging her arms round Karen, and feeling the tension in every muscle. Karen held onto her for a moment, sensing that Helen was almost as unsettled as she was. Eventually detaching herself and feeling a little foolish for her outburst, Helen said,

"Did you bring George with you?"

"She insisted on coming," Karen said ruefully.

"That's probably a good idea," Helen replied, leading the way down a carpeted corridor.

When they entered Helen's office, Karen wondered if this was where Ross had come every fortnight for his sessions with her. Ignoring the professional barrier of her desk, Helen sat in one of a couple of functional armchairs under the window.

"I don't know where to start," Helen began, feeling completely out of her depth.

"Try at the beginning," Karen helped her, knowing that this must be one of the most difficult conversations of Helen's career.

"Ross, started coming to see me in the middle of April. It was one hell of a shock when I realised who he was. He looks a bit like you. He found it very difficult to talk to me at first, and I still don't know what led him to seek treatment in the first place, except that he didn't want you to be disappointed with him. I tried so often to get him to tell you, but he wouldn't. He was so angry, with himself, with how he'd ended up..."

"And with me?" Karen suggested.

"Sometimes," Helen told her regretfully.

"That's no surprise," Karen said quietly. "He resented practically every decision I made, whether it was for his own good, or mine. Was he self-harming?" She asked, slipping into the jargon of both their professions.

"I think so. He wouldn't admit to it at first, but he certainly had a couple of injuries that he refused to explain."

"Helen, how could I not have known all this?" Karen asked, though knowing there wasn't any simple answer.

"Because he didn't want you to know," Helen told her gently. "And because I wasn't allowed to tell you. I must have picked up the phone so many times, wanting to tell you, but being legally bound not to say a word. You remember that day I came to Larkhall? When I was in your office, I saw that picture you have of him on your desk, and I almost told you then. I couldn't believe the change in him. He was so bloody adamant that he wanted to do it without you, no matter how much I tried to persuade him that you wouldn't be cross with him, and that you'd do everything you could to help him."

"Where do you think he gets, got, his stubborn streak from," Karen said bleakly, the adjustment to the past tense making her flinch.

"I did try and find a way to tell you," Helen insisted. "I even got some legal advice, just to make sure I knew what I was doing."

"Who from?" Karen asked, getting a horrible sinking feeling inside her, that someone else had known about this, someone close to her. When Helen didn't immediately answer, Karen persisted. "Who, Helen? Who else knew about this and didn't tell me?"

"The Judge did," Helen said eventually, wondering if the atom bomb was about to explode in her face. Karen reeled back slightly, almost as if Helen had struck her, staring back at her with a mixture of anger, betrayal, and the tiniest fragment of understanding spreading through her.

"John, knew about this?" She clarified, wondering just how long he'd known that her son was in serious difficulties.

"Believe me, I know he would have preferred it otherwise," Helen said quietly. "I went to see him, at the time when I persuaded Ross to become an in-patient, at the end of May. Ross wasn't coping on the outside, so I managed to talk him into doing the full rehab course. I went to see the Judge, because I wanted to make absolutely sure that I couldn't tell you what was going on."

"How did he get on when he became an in-patient?" Karen asked, bypassing John's knowledge of the situation until she was better equipped to deal with it.

"He tried his best, but he just didn't have the willpower to keep up with it. He found coming off the drugs very hard, and staying off them even harder. There is something else you need to know, that might explain why he often felt as though there wasn't any point continuing with it. He was HIV positive." Karen sat stunned, not knowing how much more she could take. How long had he been susceptible to any passing infection? Had he been like this, when he'd stayed with her at Christmas?

"Before we go on," Karen said carefully. "Are there any more enormous shocks you need to give me?"

"No," Helen told her honestly, seeing that Karen was coming to the limit of what she could stand. "You know everything, and I don't know much more about how he was really feeling."

"And what you do know, I wouldn't want to, am I right?" Karen asked knowingly.

"You might, one day, but not today," Helen said fairly. "Because I refuse to sit here, and give you any excuse to blame yourself for this."

"Oh? And just who else is there to blame?" Karen demanded, her self-control finally beginning to crack. "I've been so wrapped up in my new job, dealing with everyone else's problems on a daily basis, that I couldn't even see what was going on under my very nose. One thing I can be sure of, is that he told you how much of a career mum I always was, and do you know something, I'm really beginning to think he was right."

"No, Karen, you will not do this," Helen insisted. "He could have asked you for help, but he chose not to. That is his fault, not yours."

"Helen, please," Karen almost begged her, the tears now coursing down her cheeks, in spite of her willing them not to fall. "You mustn't blame Ross for this. I should have seen something, I should have known. That's what being a parent is all about. Somehow, being a parent means keeping your child alive, keeping them safe, and doing your damnedest to make sure they don't end up in a mess like this. For some reason, that at the moment I don't want to contemplate, I didn't do that. Something went wrong, somewhere along the line, so that I didn't hear whatever he was trying to say to me." Reaching for the box of tissues on Helen's desk, Karen scrubbed at her face, not wanting Helen to see any more of her grief. They stayed quiet for some time, Helen giving Karen a few moments to gather her scattered wits.

"Before I see him," Karen said eventually. "Will you show me where he spent the last two months?"

"Of course," Helen replied, getting to her feet, and leading the way out of the office, along the corridor and up some stairs. It was odd, Karen thought as she followed Helen, but every type of medical setting, whether that be a large teaching hospital, or a fairly small clinic such as this, always had the same smell. She could have been led into a place like this blindfold, and could still have told exactly what type of building she was in. The combination of antiseptic and lack of fresh air, seeming to grip the unhealthiness and hold it within its walls.

When they emerged through the double doors, two floors up, Karen was pleasantly surprised. The atmosphere didn't feel like a treatment clinic, or somewhere in which someone could be confined by law, but it bore the slight resemblance to a students' hall of residence, except that it was far more spacious. Following Helen down the corridor, passed a lounge where some of the patients were watching TV, she was slightly comforted by the thought that Ross hadn't spent his last two months in somewhere uncaring. When Helen led her into one of the bedrooms, Karen stood perfectly still, all her senses reacting to her surroundings. It was the smell that had shocked her, the extremely familiar scent of Ross's aftershave, presumably from the bottle she'd bought him for Christmas, combined with the distinctive male aroma that was simply her son.

"It's funny," Karen said into the silence. "But until now, it's all felt unreal, like some horrific dream that I might wake up from, but not any more. I wanted so much, not to have to believe you, but being here, I can't do that. It's this room, I can smell the aftershave he always wore. That proves to me that he was here, and that all this really is happening." Karen walked across the neat but functional room, to look out of the window. At night, Ross would have been able to see all the lights of central London, shining with life, just as he would never again do for her. Turning about, Karen walked out of the room, Helen knowing that the time had finally come for Karen to see her son's body. But as they walked towards the stairs, they were approached by a woman who looked no older than nineteen, and who reminded Karen fleetingly of Denny.

"Are you Ross's mum?" She said, standing in their path, and having obviously seen them emerge from his room.

"Yes," Karen said, wondering what this woman's name was.

"He was a really nice guy," The girl told her with a sad smile. "It might not mean much, but he was a real charmer. I'm sorry he's dead."

"Thank you," Karen said quietly, wondering just how many times she would be saying such ironically grateful words over the coming days.

When they returned to the ground floor, Helen led the way towards the back of the building, to the clinic's tiny mortuary. Both their shoes seemed to sound incredibly loud as they moved from carpet to concrete, the slightly chilled air leaving no one in any doubt as to where they must be. When Helen drew the sheet back from the face of the only corpse currently in residence, she moved back out of the way, to give Karen as much privacy as she might need. Karen stood, looking down at him, seeing the cold, lifeless face of her barely twenty-two-year-old son. She'd never entirely believed it when relatives said that their loved ones looked peaceful, but he did, almost as though he were merely asleep. She put out a hand, to gently touch his cheek, half of her brain telling her to wake him up, and the rest of her feeling the coldness in his skin. She ran a thumb along the line of his cheekbone, feeling the slight stubble that must have been there by the time he killed himself last night. Twitching the sheet back a little further, she reached for his left hand and turned it over, palm upwards.

"No!" Helen said, but she couldn't stop Karen from staring horror-struck, at the long, brutal gash on the inside of his wrist. The wound stretched from radius to ulna, completely severing the radial artery, showing her in no uncertain terms that he'd really meant to do it. She still held his hand in hers, and she couldn't take her eyes away from the place in his arm where there should have been perfectly smooth, healthy skin. She could feel the rushing of blood from her brain, hear the insidious echo in her ears, the persistent replaying of the last argument she'd had with him. All she could see in front of her eyes was blood, his blood, the immense loss of blood that had killed him.

When Karen crumpled to the ground, Helen put her head out of the door to summon some help, before dropping to her knees by Karen's side.

"Come on, sweetheart," She said persuasively. "It's all right." Helen could have cursed, it wasn't all right, nothing was all right, and nothing would be all right for some time to come. Blearily, Karen opened her eyes.

"What happened?" She asked a little groggily.

"You fainted," Helen told her. When one of the nurses appeared, they helped Karen up between them, whilst someone else discretely covered Ross up again so that she couldn't see him. When they reached Helen's office, Helen quietly told the nurse who was with them to go and fetch George. When Karen was again sitting in one of the armchairs, she said,

"I'm sorry about that."

"Don't be," Helen told her with understanding. "You've had a hell of a lot to deal with today." Lighting her a cigarette, Helen asked, "Would you like a cup of tea?" Saying that she would, Karen took a long and grateful drag. When the nurse who had been sent to fetch George reappeared with her, Helen left Karen on her own for a moment, shutting the door behind her. As George took a breath to speak, Helen held up a hand, and led the way down the corridor towards the little kitchen that the staff used for their own purposes.

"Is she all right?" George asked when they were out of earshot, immediately thinking this a particularly stupid question.

"No, not very," Helen said somberly. "When I took her to see him, I couldn't stop her from looking at his wrist."

"Oh, Christ," George said with feeling. "What happened?"

"She fainted." As George watched Helen pouring the tea, she said,

"How do I help her through this?"

"You might ask the same about any of us," Helen told her. "And the answer is, I just don't know. She's had three fairly hefty shocks in the last twenty-four hours, and I don't think she knows where to start."

"How long has, had, he been coming to see you?"

"Since the beginning of April," Helen told her regretfully. "And, because he was over the age of eighteen, I couldn't say a bloody word."

"That isn't your fault," George said sincerely. "That's just the way the system works."

When they returned to Helen's office, George sat down next to Karen and took her hand. Karen looked at her, only half seeing her, still unable to get away from the sight of her son's body. Karen drank the hot, strong tea, though the warmth did nothing to take the chill from her bones. She could see that George wanted to help her, but that she simply didn't know how. Well, that makes two of us, she thought, wondering just how she'd managed to stay so level headed for Yvonne when Ritchie had died. When Karen replaced the empty mug on Helen's desk, George broke in on her contemplation.

"What do you want to do?" She asked.

"I'd like to go home," Karen said quietly, knowing that there was nothing left for her to do here, and that she most of all needed some time alone, time to assimilate all the facts that were whizzing around in her head. When she got to her feet, Helen moved forward to give her a hug.

"You give me a call if you want anything," She said, giving Karen a squeeze. "Any time, and if you don't want to be anywhere near me, I won't blame you."

"Helen, the fact that I didn't know about this isn't your fault," Karen told her a little shakily. "The other person who knew, may well have some explaining to do when I've got the energy, but not you. I know that Ross will have had all the help you could have given him, and that really does mean a lot." As they walked down the corridor, George pulled Karen's arm gently through hers, offering her affection in place of words, still at an all time loss as to what else she could do. It may have been something of a novelty for Georgia Channing to be incapable of forming a coherent sentence, but no words seem to be good enough, no single phrase sufficiently meaningful to convey how deeply she felt for Karen, and how much she wanted to help her.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Three

John always appeared fresh and bright first thing in the morning, not to annoy George or Jo, as they might think as they took their time to face the day. It was simply part of his nature as a morning person. Today was no exception as he had first thought but it was only a quarter of an hour after George and Karen left that he started to feel tired round his eyes. A little while later, a feeling of weakness started to drain the energy out of him and he had to flop down into an armchair. Despite the warm summer day, the air felt chill inside Karen's flat while John felt numb and emotionally unable to collect his thoughts. This was not like him, he thought. It was a part of his life that the spark of thought was instantly translated into words and actions or alternatively, he could plumb the depths of the most abstruse legal labyrinth with that analytical gift that was his gift. Today was different. It was as if his mind had become mysteriously fogged and the thought processes refused to function. It was then that he remembered how desperately tired he felt, having drifted from restless wakefulness into patches of formless, guilt ridden dreams. He had had no rest that night but had assumed that he could work his way through it.

He didn't want to admit it but his mind had started to measure out the timespan during which he had known of the growing crisis in Ross's life while Karen had remained blissfully ignorant of it. He told himself that he had acted as he had done out of the most disinterested motives, as if his own interests were utterly detached from the events of which he had been an unwilling witness. The logic did not work as his feelings were uneasily pulling him in the opposite direction. Most exceptionally, he helped himself to a second cup of coffee, which he sipped carefully while he rested. This was a temporary respite until he felt better placed to take on the uncomfortable responsibility. It was worthwhile doing, if only as a form of atonement.

Jo had driven up to Norwich to attend the Human Rights conference, a subject dear to her heart. She had spent Friday evening, walking round the delightful medieval part of the East Anglian clad northern town and sitting awhile in the pleasant park at the base of the square shaped castle. The scent of flowers wafted by as did all sense of time now that she was temporarily removed from her daily cares. Everywhere was all very civilised including the old-fashioned conference centre, which, like the rest of the town, politely sidestepped the modern trend to the flash and ostentatious. She bumped into Claire Walker in reception and delightedly exchanged conversation. Going to a conference was a very hit and miss affair as it was never clear just who you might be stuck with for the weekend or, preferably, to renew old acquaintance. Claire was the ideal companion, calm and restful and someone whose mere presence rubbed off on her. She naturally asked after Helen and Nikki and the other members of the orchestra. In the bar that night, the conversation in the group that gathered was a thoroughly congenial mixture of discussion amongst the more liberal minded members of the legal profession interspersed with discussion of classical music sparked by the reputation that had spread round the legal profession of that memorable performance of "The Creation." Jo hadn't received a phone call from John or George that night but supposed that it was their tactful way of giving her space to enjoy the conference to the fullest.

She had arrived on the Wednesday, but now it was Saturday, and the conference was finally drawing to a close. The morning session had been led off brilliantly with an international speaker who lectured from the much-maligned European Commission. In his slightly accented German accent, he analysed present trends most precisely and made Jo feel that she had, along with many of her compatriots, been insular in her preoccupations. The session had broken up for the slow moving coffee queue and Jo had just perched her cup and saucer precariously when the mobile rang. There was something insistent in its tone and, smiling tolerantly, she noticed to no particular surprise that it was John's number, which had come up.

"This is an unexpected pleasure, John. To be gone so short a time, it makes a woman feel wanted." Jo's silky tones made Claire smile back at her.

John's heart sank into his expensive black shoes. He had been scarred by the fiercely passionate way in which Helen by her accusation of being a stickler for the law at the expense of not caring. He knew that Jo, for all her years of legal training, was likely to react in a similar fashion.

"I regret that I'm not making a purely social call, Jo. I wish it were otherwise. I have some bad news to pass on."

The noise in the refreshment area had built up so that Jo was compelled to put her half-drunk cup down on the nearby table, put one hand over one ear and jam the earpiece into the other. The vague trace of the shared vocal enthusiasms was on one side. On the other, inside her, a feeling of dread started to spread through Jo to hear his tone of voice.

"There simply isn't an easy way to break the news, Jo. Brace yourself for this one. I have to tell you that Karen's son has committed suicide."

Even while Jo felt herself go cold with total shock and horror, a strange instinct prompted Jo to notice the audible wince in John's voice as that most ugly of words passed his lips.

"Oh God, John. When did this all happen? How?"

"Yesterday afternoon. I've been round with George at Karen's to help look after her," John added hastily. "Karen has been totally broken up in her own way, you know what she is like. This has been the first time I've had a chance to do anything as George has accompanied Karen to the clinic……."

"What clinic?" Jo cried out in horror.

"Regrettably, Karen's son has been suffering from a heroin addiction and was diagnosed

HIV. Helen had no choice but to admit him for inpatient treatment- to no effect."

Jo could not get her head round this as it had all come like a bolt out of the blue. She felt immediately misplaced amongst all the enthusiastic hope for abstract justice. Her silence was torture for John who was hanging on the phone for some sort of reaction, any kind of reaction.

"Please say something, Jo," John's almost pleading voice cut through that gap in Jo's senses between her hearing, her understanding and her voice. Outside, a little way opposite, Claire could tell immediately that there was something wrong but she hadn't a clue what it was. It concerned her that someone as composed as Jo could turn white with shock.

"What about Karen? She needs all her friends to be round her at a moment like this," Jo called out emotionally. Her sense of duty to be with someone who was bound to be hurting overrode everything at this moment.

"Luckily she has George with her at present. Otherwise I don't know what she would do as she has no family as far as I am aware. We ought to take one step at a time, Jo."

Jo paused for a few seconds when a final question popped into her mind, which rushed straight out into words.

"How long have you known about this?"

What could he say at this moment but the truth? He winced as he spoke.

"About two months…..I was given this information in confidence. I had to obey the law against what I felt. Please understand."

Those words rocked Jo to her foundations. She nearly collapsed in shock but some instinct made her thought veer way off track towards the immediately practical.

"Are you telling me to stay on at this conference, John?" Jo demanded of John abruptly.

"I don't feel capable of advising anyone to do anything right now. It makes my own wisdom seem and feel totally inadequate," John said in a low, rueful voice that did not say much for his own self-esteem. He dare not venture an explanation as to how he came to hear of the news. At a moment of tragedy like this, it hardly mattered and Jo wasn't asking.

"I'll phone you later," Jo said abruptly. Instantly she sought out the one unoccupied plastic hardback chair in the hall. Claire raised her eyebrows in concern but held back while Jo tried to recover from the shock leaning her head against the back of the wall. Of course, she had to stumble her way back into the hall and concentrate as best she could. It was just her style. On the other end of the phone, John closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled long deep breaths of air. He needed more than a little time to rest before the next phone call.

Today was a typical warm summer day for Yvonne, the sort of day that she loved. As she had done in a succession of blissful, dreamy days, one after the other, she had risen early, bright eyed, and popped her swimming costume on. After a morning cup of tea on the terrace, she grabbed her towel and headed off down the steps to the swimming pool. The clear blue surface was only slightly broken up into wavelets and reflected back at her, making her feel fresh and whole as she approached it. The line of trees behind the pool conveyed that sense of privacy of a world, which was hers to do as she wished. Every day she was here, she blessed her fortune to be here instead of being stuck inside her house, much though she loved its many creature comforts. A howling winter's wind, outside, grey skies, a muddy garden and the pissing it down all day was really depressing and made her feel walled in. She was unquestionably a creature of the sun with a fiery but warm-hearted temperament, which went with her emotional make up. Her villa in Spain was her source of pleasure in itself as opposed to the status symbol that it represented for Charlie, which he could brag about to his friends.

She slipped into the pool with an expert plunge off the side of the pool and with powerful strokes, she propelled herself through the water, which splashed in her face and soaked her hair. This was the life, she thought, getting her body nicely toned up in a pleasurable way. Not for her, those sad people who plugged themselves into some running machine with some crap dance music pumping in their ears getting them to move like robots on some automatic running track, all lined up on some bleeding production line. She loved the feel of the water against her skin and the freedom that it represented while the blue sky arched overhead.

Once she had pleasantly worn herself out, she emerged from the pool to lie back on the recliner next to the pool. It didn't take too long for the sun to dry her skin and start to heat it up and slipped on her sunglasses and basked in the heat. By this time in summer her skin was always golden bronze and she felt good about herself. At the back of her mind, it wouldn't take long for Lauren to join her. Presently, the sun made her feel sleepy and lazy as she stared up into the perfect blue sky. This was her idea of heaven.

It was a habit of hers to carry her cordless phone around. The time when her Lauren was first held in remand at Larkhall made it a necessity. Her life had been one where she had learned to take bad news on the chin rather than hiding from it, from the shocking moment to when Lauren had announced that she had killed Fenner to her break up with Karen. She had received a lot of funny phone calls from Lauren to begin with until she had settled down. Now, any phone calls she received were at the very least, harmless. In this blessed out frame of mind, she lazily reached over her hand to the insistently beeping cordless and tried to focus her eyes on the name and number of the caller. With some pleasure, she realised that it was Karen. When John had informed her as to who it really was, she said,

"Well, well, judge, this is a pleasant surprise. Didn't think you could keep yourself away from me forever."

"Yvonne, I must apologise for not phoning you sooner," a rather agitated voice burst in abruptly with not a trace of those smooth talking ways she associated him with. "I've been very remiss of late."

This didn't make any bleeding sense, Yvonne wondered to herself.

"Yeah, yeah, judge, I get the message," She replied flippantly

"Yvonne, I really have to come to the point," John warned in blunter tones than he felt comfortable with. "Of course I like talking to you but I fear that I have some bad news that you should prepare yourself for."

John paused for that second while Yvonne jerked herself properly awake and sat up straight with a real feeling of growing anxiety.

"What are you getting at?"

"It's about Karen. I have to tell you that her son was found dead. I'm afraid that he had committed suicide."

"You've got to be joking. People don't just suddenly go and top themselves. It doesn't happen that way." The words shot out of Yvonne's mouth as she instinctively tried to fend off what her heart of hearts told her was inevitable. She hadn't meant to use such an ugly dismissive word that she had used often enough but that was part of her way of covering up. On the other end of the phone, John became even more nervous. He hadn't expected Yvonne to get to the point as quickly as this.

"I'm afraid that, unknown to Karen, her son had become seriously addicted to heroin and in the end, became an inpatient. On top of this, he had contracted HIV and he felt that he had no way out in life. I think he felt at the end that he had let his mother down."

John cursed himself for the clinical stiff way he was talking to Yvonne. Unpleasant feelings started to well up in him of how a small boy had felt let down when his mother had abandoned him and no one was telling him, or explaining anything to him except in these sort of very English inadequate words. It felt like the unpteenth time that he was telling this story and it was getting hard for him to get the words right.

"Don't forget, judge. I've been through this myself. Remember my son Ritchie?"

"I'm really sorry, Yvonne…." He started to tell her with a break in his voice to hear a hard edge in her voice. A bit of him was ashamed, uncomfortable at sounding so undignified and conflicted with his contrary desire to do the right thing, however badly he put it. Mercifully, Yvonne picked up on his feelings in his voice and, momentarily, she pulled herself together.

"Look here, this phone call don't make sense. Where's Karen?"

"I came over with George to look after her last night after she heard the news. She's gone with her to the clinic while I'm making myself feel as useful as I can feel by phoning those closest to Karen. I've just phoned Jo who has suitably cross examined me."

"Look here, judge, what do you want me to do?"

He heaved a sigh of relief that Yvonne was giving him a way out in dealing with a practical matter that he could handle better. He half suspected that she did that for that very reason having picked up his typical understated. You don't shoot the messenger if he brings bad news. Her voice sounded firmer, more reassuring and he felt that he could do with all the support that he could get right now.

"I don't want to put too much on you, but can you phone round Karen's friends. I spoke to Nikki earlier on and she knows already. I'll be here for when George and Karen get back."

"Tell Karen from me that I'll come round this afternoon but if she wants to talk to me, just ring. Good luck."

John felt incredibly touched at the way Yvonne's voice softened at the end. He knew that she could paint a picture so very well in her mind as to how events would unfold. He sank back in his armchair exhausted.

At the other end of the phone, Yvonne nearly dropped the cordless on the ground and finally dropped her coping act. She couldn't bleeding well cry down the phone at a man who was right in the middle of it and obviously struggling. Tears rolled down her face and she sobbed with grief, for Karen, for their shared loss and for herself. She looked up at the sun and despairingly asked why it was shining.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Four

When they arrived back in front of Karen's flat, she got out of the car, and stared at the small holdall of Ross's belongings that was on the back seat before picking it up. It seemed ludicrous to her that all he had left in the world was contained in this incredibly compact repository. Appearing upstairs in the lounge, they found John reading the paper, and drinking his third mug of coffee of the day. He opened his mouth to ask Karen how she was, but shut it again, thinking that to be one of the most inane, pointless questions he could possibly ask. Sparing him only the flicker of a glance, Karen walked straight through the lounge, and put the bag down in her bedroom, leaving it there until she was ready to begin examining its contents.

When she reappeared, John said quietly,

"I phoned Yvonne, and Jo. Yvonne said she would come and see you this afternoon, but that if you wanted to talk to her, just ring."

"Thank you," Karen said bleakly, wondering if he could tell that she knew what he'd done. Sitting down on the other end of the sofa to John, whilst George took an armchair, Karen lit a cigarette, thoughtfully contemplating George's face through the smoke. "How much did Helen tell you?" She eventually asked, breaking the extremely tense silence.

"Not a lot," George replied, wondering what was coming.

"So, she didn't in fact tell you, that the Judge here, knew precisely where my son was, and what was happening to him, for the last two months?" Lifting a hand to her mouth in shock, George just stared in horror at John's profile.

"No, she didn't," George said slowly.

"I think she thought," Karen said, taking a long drag. "That there had been quite enough secrets kept one way and another. Do you think she's right, John?" Finally raising his pained eyes to meet hers, it frightened John immensely that instead of the hurt and anger he was expecting to see, all he found was emptiness. Her eyes looked haunted, dead, as if they had no life behind them at all.

"You know why I couldn't tell you," He said quietly, though fervently, desperately wishing in this moment that he had.

"Yes, I do, which makes this ten times worse," Karen replied bitterly. "I understand perfectly why you kept this from me. If I wasn't in that position, if all I felt was the hurt, the anger and the immense betrayal I should feel, I could let it run its course. I could refuse to speak to you for a few weeks, eventually get around to shouting at you for as long as it took to get it out of my system, and then forgive you, because that's what close friends are supposed to do. But because I completely understand, that Helen couldn't tell me because of the rules surrounding patient confidentiality, and that she sought legal advice from you, prompting you to keep the silence by virtue of the same principle, I can't do any of that." They could both see the struggle in her, the desperate effort it was taking for her to stay in control. She needed to be angry with something or someone, but in a way, her unequivocal understanding of why John had kept quiet, had cheated her out of that particular outlet.

"I'm sorry," John said quietly, trying not to flinch at what might have been the glassy eyes of a corpse, if she hadn't still been breathing, moving and speaking.

"Yes, I know you are," Karen told him. "But at the moment, I don't really want to hear it. Coddling your conscience isn't something I currently possess the mental energy to do." John could feel the barriers being irrevocably raised between them, putting a distance between him and Karen, completely restraining him from helping her.

Finally turning her gaze on George, Karen took note of the extreme difficulty George was feeling, knowing that there was nothing she could say or do that would make it all go away.

"Thank you for coming with me," She said, unable to remember if she'd said so before.

"What do you want to do now?" George asked, not entirely sure how one accepted appreciation for something like this.

"I think I need to be on my own for a while," Karen said quietly, knowing that this was about to be met with a barrage of objections.

"And I think that would be the worst thing you could do," George replied instantly.

"Will the pair of you do something for me?" Karen asked, approaching this from a different angle. "Will the two of you go and see Charlie?" George and John exchanged a glance, both immediately realising what she was up to.

"I really don't think you should be left alone," John said quietly but firmly.

"Please, John," Karen pleaded with him just as quietly. "Please, go with George, spend the day with your daughter, for me. I need both of you to do this." Taking in a deep, slow breath, John realised that she had them both well and truly cornered. She was using every piece of transparent, emotional blackmail in the book, because she needed to be alone to begin the long and tortuous process of grieving, and because she wanted both he and George to spend some time appreciating the fact that they still had a child.

"Okay, if that's what you want," John eventually said, causing George to raise her eyebrows in protest. Seeing George's slightly aghast expression, Karen strove to reassure her.

"Don't worry," She said quite seriously. "I'm perfectly safe."

"Well, forgive me if I'm not remotely certain of that little fact," George told her disbelievingly.

"George, I'm not going to do to either of you, what Ross has done to me, I promise." Still unsure as to whether to believe her or not, George capitulated.

"All right, but I will be checking up on you, and we're both only a phone call away."

Later that afternoon, Yvonne found herself drawing up in front of Karen's flat at the same time as Jo. John had called them both whilst Karen and George were at the clinic, Jo being about to return from the conference she'd been attending for the last three days. Both women felt the pain, the sympathy, and the need to ensure that Karen was just about surviving. They were both mothers, and Yvonne at least knew precisely what Karen was going through. Jo, having not lost a child to suicide, didn't know, but that didn't prevent her from wanting to check up on Karen. Jo had just arrived, and had rung the doorbell, when Yvonne drew up behind her.

"You had the same thought as me," Yvonne said matter-of-factly as she got out of the Ferrari.

"Yes," Jo said, looking up at the windows above her. "But I'm getting no answer. She may not be here." Retrieving a door key from her pocket, Yvonne said,

"I wondered if this might come in handy. The only significant object me and Karen ever exchanged was door keys, and we never quite got around to giving them back. If she really isn't here, then she'll never know we were." Fitting the key in the front door, Yvonne led the way up the stairs, sensing Karen's presence, and knowing that they were right to enter uninvited. Whether this was from her years and years of having to be aware of everyone else's shadow besides her own, Yvonne wasn't sure. But when they reached the lounge, they both became painfully aware of the utterly heartrending sobs that only a mother can cry. It caused an almost physical hurt in both of them to hear such torment. Exchanging incredibly worried glances, they moved towards the bedroom.

When they entered, they found Karen sitting on the bed, the holdall of Ross's belongings open beside her. Karen was cradling one of his sweaters, holding it to her face, the pale blue fabric soaking up her tears. Silently pushing the bag of clothes to one side, Yvonne sat down next to her, Jo moving to Karen's other side. Only when Yvonne tried to remove the blue sweater from her hands, did Karen become aware that she had company. Desperately trying to regain control of herself, Karen looked from one to the other of them.

"How... How did you get in?" She asked hesitantly between gasps. Yvonne held up the door key.

"We just wanted to make sure you were all right," Yvonne clarified, hating and detesting the sheer inanity of the words. Karen gave her a lopsided smile.

"Oh, sure," She said bitterly. "I'm fine. I keep thinking about some of the things I said to you, after Ritchie died, and it's only now dawning on me what complete bollocks it all was."

"You're wrong about that," Yvonne said with utter certainty. "Because most of what you said to me that night was absolutely spot on. There wasn't nothing I could have done to stop Ritchie, just as there's nothing you could have done to prevent Ross from doing this."

"Jesus," Karen said in disgust. "Why is everyone so determined to persuade me to believe that? You two, Helen, George, you name it."

"Because trying to apportion blame to anyone, will do you far more harm than good, and achieve nothing whatsoever," Jo said firmly.

"Don't you get it?" Karen asked her imploringly. "I need to blame someone, even if that someone is myself. It's the only way I can begin to make sense of any of this. How much did John tell the two of you?"

"He said that Ross had been Helen's patient for the last few months, and that he'd been doing drugs rehab for the last two. He didn't say much more, other than that he'd killed himself."

"Ross, cut his wrist," Karen told them, though Jo already knew this, John having been far more frank with her than he'd been with Yvonne. "Of all the ways to die, that has to be one of the worst. But then, in a place like that, I suppose that was all the choice he had." She said this in such a flat, toneless voice, that both Jo and Yvonne instantly grew concerned for her. Putting out a hand, Jo took Karen's between her own, feeling the ice-cold skin that almost felt lifeless in her grasp.

"You're freezing," She observed, trying to rub some warmth back into Karen's hands.

"I think it's called delayed shock," Karen replied, only just realising that she was shivering.

"Come on, I'll make you a cup of tea," Yvonne said, she and Jo helping Karen up from the bed and going back into the lounge. Emerging from the airing cupboard with a blanket, Yvonne handed it to Jo, and moved into the kitchen to make them all some tea. Even though it was the penultimate day of July, and the sun was warm outside, Karen was bitterly cold where she sat on the sofa. After wrapping the blanket round her, Jo sat down next to her, putting her arms round her to try and give Karen some of her body heat.

"Where are John and George?" Jo asked, feeling the extreme residual tension in Karen's muscles.

"I made them both go and see Charlie," Karen said bleakly. "I needed some time on my own. I'm grateful you and Yvonne are here though. I don't trust myself not to get absolutely plastered."

When Yvonne handed her the mug of hot, sweet tea, Karen took an appreciative sip.

"What else did John tell you?" Karen asked, looking straight into Jo's eyes, somehow knowing that he would have said more to Jo than to Yvonne.

"He did tell me," Jo said slowly, seeing that Karen definitely already knew about this. "That he'd known about Ross, since the end of May."

"You what?" Yvonne asked, horror struck that anyone could have kept something like this from a mother.

"Helen sought legal advice from him," Karen explained to her. "Because she wanted to find out if there was any way that she could tell me without Ross's permission. But, as she couldn't, neither could John." Taking a breath to indignantly respond, Yvonne caught the warning look from Jo, telling her that this definitely wasn't the time.

"I'm sorry, that I'm not really keeping it together at the moment," Karen said, feeling a little foolish that she couldn't even deal with a case of emotional and physical shock, refusing to take into account that it was her own.

"Karen, you don't have to be," Jo told her gently. "It would seem extremely unnatural if you were. Grief takes different people in different ways."

"Yeah, I went for hours without talking, remember?" Yvonne said, her thoughts having taken her back to that awful night more than once already today.

"I just... I don't know where to start," Karen admitted regretfully. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm supposed to do, or even what I'm supposed to feel."

"As for what anyone is supposed to do in a situation like this," Jo said quietly. "That isn't something you need to think about today, or tomorrow if needs be."

"And there ain't no one who can tell you what you're supposed to feel," Yvonne said matter-of-factly. "That's something only you can decide in your own time. There aren't any rules, because feelings don't live by them. All you need to know is that we're all of us here for you, and we will be, for as long as you need us."

Part One Hundred and Sixty Five

"Are we doing the right thing in leaving Karen on her own?"

John sighed to himself. He took a pride in doing the right thing in the judge's throne and in his battles with the LCD. Never before was he forced to work out the right thing to do in his private life when the directions were not clear, what appeared to be right was afterwards shown to be not the highest wisdom. Only it wasn't the Court of Appeal pointing out the precise details of the errors of his ways, it was his own conscience that muddled fact and emotions.

"You heard her, George. Quite frankly, the whole idea is against my better judgment but I'm not as inclined as I once was to believe implicitly in it, and certainly not out of court from my most recent track record."

"John," George urged softly. Laying her hand delicately on his knee as he drove them down the street in his grey convertible. The top was down to day and the wind gently blew past them and ruffled George's hair. The sun and the wind outside tried to bolster their spirits but neither of their senses felt responsive. John had latched onto the immediate job in hand of navigating through the busy London streets. George was less fortunate, not having this convenient prop.

Charlie shared a house with two fellow students located just far enough away to deter any working mothers and fathers from just "dropping in." All students eagerly reached out in those few years for an alter ego who is single and free of family connections. This was part of growing up. The presence of nervously fussing mothers with tins of home made scones and bringing presents of totally unhip dresses that they thought was "just the thing for

Summer was enough for any student to cringe in embarrassment. For this reason, Charlie's distancing of herself from her mother was safely concealed from her fellow students and the darker, long established strains in their relationships was Charlie's secret.

George lay back, her thoughts darkened by the prospect of meeting her daughter. She had accepted the traditional view that a death as a powerful reminder for the living to be more caring of each other and to be a reminder of mortality. When it cuts short a life before it had really begun, the shock is more brutal. But what could George say to her?

"Every time I see Charlie these days, it feels as if we are strangers who just happen to share the ….I mean to be related," George suddenly found her voice and stumbled at the end. Of course, Charlie took John's name, not hers and it was her doing to divorce herself from John and revert to the name of Channing. "I mean I ought to love her but………"

"Charlie has all her life laid out in front of her. Time is a great healer if……"


"George, we go in as a united front. We are her parents," John firmly pronounced."

He means well, George thought sadly. Too many memories were too easily recalled of when they were anything but united. She was all too aware that Charlie had grown up with this discord and how deeply it had marked her.

"All very well, John, if we were ever the conventional husband and wife with two point four children," George sadly intervened, the weight of reality burdening on her shoulders. "Right now, I don't feel exactly like a conventional anything and Charlie has long since given up on me."

John smiled reassuringly at George though deep down, he had to admit that George was being realistic and not neurotically beating herself up. He felt duty bound to make the best case that there was as a one time married couple who were still friends.

"Don't worry, we'll manage if we stick together."

George flashed a fleeting smile back at John. He meant well but he had no idea of what it felt like to be the villain of the piece in this domestic situation. No matter how outrageous John had been in his philanderings, past and present, Charlie treated him with that tolerant attitude which suggested that she was older than he was. George had left the family and she felt that she had never given the love to her daughter that was conventionally expected as a mother. Despite her wayward and willful personality, she had been imprisoned as securely in what was conventionally expected of her as anyone of her class and background in this respect. Growing older doesn't necessarily give anyone the freedom to break loose the chains as easily as might be thought. She knew very well that if her presence was acknowledged by Charlie that would be an achievement.

Now that they were temporarily removed from Karen's situation, they were traveling in limbo together, in a strange manner disconnected from their everyday lives. Driving around in the same car gave them a strange sensation of a once familiar feeling, long since removed from their daily experience by time but more sharply recalled to life than at any other time. They were up close to Karen to be part of that emotionally dislocating process called grief, which churns up so many memories of the past, which is layered down deep in forgotten memories due to the immersion in day-to-day activities. These memories are not as the inscriptions in an old diary or scrap book but vivid, felt, relived. While pain and anger had been woven into the fabric of their relationship, so had the good times and their shared happiness, just like the times long ago that they had….driven round in a car together.

At the same time, grief dislocated their automatic grasp on managing the mundane matters of the present so that accidents sneak up on them. It was for this reason that it occurred to neither of them to phone Charlie up in advance to tell her that they were coming. They simply assumed that Charlie would somehow be there when they called.

"You two guys go out and enjoy yourselves," Charlie called out barely five minutes before John's car pulled up outside her house. "I just want to have a day on my own.

Say hi from me to the rest of the gang."

She had one of those days when she simply wanted to slob round the house, curled up in bed with a book and wasn't in a 'going out' mood.

Accordingly, she was puzzled when she heard the sound of a car pulling up, right outside the house. It must surely be for her neighbours, she thought as she lay in bed in her upstairs room, which overlooked the front. She hadn't bothered with a shower or putting on makeup and was dressed in her nightie. Her room was casually informal and required anyone entering her room not to tread on the assorted belongings that she had left strewn around. It must be a Jehovah's Witness, or a door-to-door salesman or someone who had called at the wrong house, she thought, as she heard the front doorbell ring. No one had phoned her up on her mobile, that essential tool of her social life, so it must be a mistake. Sighing in exasperation, she slung on a pair of worn out jeans that she picked up off the floor and a T-shirt, and walked in her bare feet to answer the fourth ring and her eyes squinted through the gap left by the half open door. She felt totally disheveled and peevish with the attitude that any caller had better take her as she was. To her total shock and horror, her version of 'the flying saucer has landed' assaulted her disbelieving eyes.

"Dad. What on earth are you doing here?"

John paused for thought before he spoke. His feelings were mixed between a confused recognition that he had slipped up in not phoning up as he always did and annoyance at her tone of voice. He felt strongly, if irrationally, that he had been through an emotional wringer in this last twenty-four hours give or take a few and that Charlie ought to be more appreciative. George stood back, feeling that she was once again the Invisible Woman. At least Charlie was taking notice of John even when she was clearly trying to pick a quarrel with him.

"You're right, Charlie. We should have phoned. We've just come from the house of a mutual friend of ours who has had a big upset in her life. Might we come in?"

John's measured, controlled tones got through to her. Even in her frame of mind, she could not turn down a simple apology, not from her dad. She flicked her gaze at George, her mother, and that glance accepted her across her threshold.

"If you had only told me you were coming, I would have made myself more presentable. I'm afraid the house looks a bit of a dump."

"Of course, we have to take your present surroundings as they are. There is no question of blame or guilt," John's stout rejoinder tried to reassure her.

Wrong move, John, George thought to herself. You are immediately summoning up the specters of adolescent guilt feelings that you are trying to dispel.

"If you want to freshen yourself up, by all means do so, Charlie. Your father and I will be happy to wait in the living room until you are ready."

"Wait there. I want to tidy it up before you set one foot in it. I've only just got up, as I am sure you have noticed. There's no telling what sort of state it's in."

Charlie belied in one sweep that adolescent 'devil may care' persona she liked to assume when she was with her friends and strictly no grownups in sight. It upset John to see the brief glare Charlie directed at her mother and the sarcastic thrust with which it was accompanied.

"It's your house, Charlie. We are guests in it. You do as you see fit."

Charlie stomped off, irritated at her father's persistent use of the word 'we' and highly conscious in that way she normally denied to herself, how perfectly glamorous her mother always appeared. Isn't there ever a time when she has a lock of hair out of place or her makeup isn't perfect? But then, that is the attribute of the ice maiden. There is never a flaw in her appearance. She whipped round the room briefly, stuffed a few things behind the settee, took the ashtrays, overflowing with dog ends and shoved them into the bin into the kitchen and fluffed up the cushions.

"You can come in now."

Gingerly, John and George entered the room. To their eyes unused to the room, it looked quite tidy and nothing for Charlie to get worked up about. They politely took a seat and smiled at Charlie.

"Well, I did say you have to take the place as it is," Charlie said defensively, conscious of the lingering odour of the chip pan from yesterday's late night cooking.

"I remember my flat at university," John said heartily. "It was none too tidy as I recall."

"Well, you're a man," Came the blunt rejoinder.

Charlie thought carefully, trying to work out the real reason for the extraordinary reason why both her parents had called together. This had not happened before. Out of the mists of memories of the last time she saw dad, the real reason emerged.

"I know why you have both called," She said sharply. "Last time I saw you, dad you were on at me to come to that classical performance of yours. I suppose you are going to have a go at me about that."

John's reaction totally confused Charlie. She had expected her father to snap into full parent denunciation mode, not of course that he would seek to forcibly circumscribe her movements in any way, shape or form but he expected her on this one occasion to put herself out, if not for her mother's sake but for his. She expected him to be so confoundedly reasonable about his point of view, something that Jo had ranted at him from time to time. She was expecting a formulation something along these lines and stated to get angry in advance of him speaking. The reaction she got was utterly different.

"Oh, that," John said vaguely, a distant look in his eye. He was struggling to recall that event. He could observe it as a hugely satisfying period in his life, which brought that dimension of himself out, the amateur musician, for a cause, which was noble. It felt that it belonged to some other dimension where it enjoyed a towering importance in his life but was not where he was right now. "I suppose you were a little remiss in not coming to see it but it can't be helped right now."

"Your father performed brilliantly," Added George in spontaneous generosity.

Charlie shook her head in bewilderment. Their reactions could not be pigeon holed in the adolescent folklore, which knew how to deal with homelife. The more she thought about it, the way they were didn't add up.

"I don't understand you. You are both acting completely weird. I thought you had conspired together in some parent type of game playing to make me feel guilty….."

"I never do that, Charlie," protested John, words, which made George, smile to herself for the first time. Her excellently established exchange and mart of perceptions of John she had established with Jo had taught her better. Charlie was right of course.

"Do you want tea or coffee? I'm afraid it will have to be in a mug."

Both John and George winced inwardly at student primitivism but graciously accepted two teas. It was a small price to pay if it meant that their daughter was becoming more human. They sat around patiently while Charlie busied herself round behind closed doors in the kitchen. For the first time, they were achieving at least a surface feeling of normality.

Charlie emerged with two steaming hot mugs and sat opposite them.

"Why did you come?" Charlie pursued again but without her aggression but more in a real spirit of enquiry.

"I suppose I ought to have explained more clearly. Karen, a friend of ours who also played in the classical performance you mentioned had had a sudden bereavement. Her son who is of a similar age to you committed suicide in unpleasant and upsetting circumstances. He had dropped out of university and was alienated from his mother. We were over her flat trying to comfort her as best as we could which isn't much in these circumstances." John's mouth twisted in pain as he uttered these words and with the consciousness as he took in the surroundings that those events must seem a million miles away from her. "Karen wanted some time on her own which threw your mother and me together. We could not help but think that we had not seen you recently and just wanted to pop in and have a chat about nothing in particular."

"Gosh, I'm so sorry, dad."

Charlie's manner was totally transformed. She understood better than her parents knew as she knew of other students who had cracked up. They weren't to know of this, not her father who still thought in terms of the sixties, which sounded so cool with free love, smoking pot, sit ins and no student loans. Life at university affected some people in different and peculiar ways, in being removed from that emotional support, close supervision or straightjacket, depending on your point of view. They were away from that ambiguous comfort zone of home life and some went off the rails, drank too much or suffered a mental breakdown. It was all down to the temptations of adolescence, which the older generation should not theoretically know about.

"I can understand why you're here. Sorry I was cross earlier on. I had planned to have a day on my own but, hey, you can do better than what you expected out of life."

Charlie's smile lit her face and her eyes were on him alone. It gratified a gaping need for approval, which he kept, scrupulously hidden from the functionaries of the LCD and with his droll affectations in his conversations. For long periods he was a single parent but George still belonged to Charlie and, increasingly, to him in their own fashion.

"As long as we are all friends. That's what matters," John hinted.

Charlie flashed her mother a token glacial smile without any real feeling and started to chatter away to her father, which upset George. When her daughter's attention was distracted, her smile at John was, by contrast, one of real gratitude to John in sticking up for her as best as he could. He could be infuriating in his indirectness of manner but her sympathies went wholeheartedly out to him that he was doing a tricky balancing act in not provoking an argument with Charlie. She made a mental note to tell him later of this. In her present state of emotional nakedness, it seemed only the natural thing to do.

"Are you planning to visit us over the holidays, Charlie?" John ventured at last.

"It depends," Came the non-committal reply. That depends on if I'm around, a very depressed George reflected however rock like and dependable John tried to be. That casual question finally triggered the question she did not want to really ask. The physical proximity and body language of her parents continually nagged away at her and broke down the barrier.

"Are you too sleeping together?"

"So what if we are. After all, we are your parents"

Charlie promptly shut up with a sulky expression on her face. George was silent but was hugely proud of John's loyalty and courage in openly sticking up for her and facing her out. John pretended to ignore her obvious silence and took his courage into his hands in pursuing the point.

"You know, you ought to be closer to your mother, Charlie," John urged ever so gently.

"Easier said than done, dad. Don't forget, you brought me up from the age of six, not my mother apart from the token visit," Charlie said coolly and dismissively.

"Life is too short to maintain hostilities, Charlie, whatever the respective rights and wrongs. Someday you'll know that."

"Whatever, dad."

He gave up in despair. She didn't really see what he, Karen, George, Yvonne and so many others knew, whether parents or otherwise. All it takes is a little maturity and experience and above all time. Both John and George had every reason in the world to know that, regrettably, there is no control over what time is allotted to you or those you hold dear and should not be taken for granted.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Six

That weekend, there were many worried souls like Helen and Nikki even if they were on the edges of the emotional vortex in the centre of which Karen was being dragged down.

Helen felt as guilty as hell at the disastrous consequences of the role that she had been forced to play for months, as she had known both Karen and Ross. After a month at Larkhall, Nikki was fast becoming closer to Karen in her own right and she was consumed with worry as to whether or not to phone Karen over the weekend or to give her space. On the Sunday, she seemed lost in a world of her own.

"You're wondering whether or not to phone Karen, aren't you?"

Nikki nodded in answer, glad that someone close to her had broken in on her thoughts.

"Well, Nikki, you're wing governor and of all those you work with, only you know that Karen will be off work for who knows how long. You're at the least the equal of all the other wing governors if I remember them rightly, no matter how junior they may think of you in the pecking order…….."

Nikki smiled for the first time for days and latched onto Helen's brisk matter of fact approach. It offered more prospects than getting wrapped up in her emotions. The dark fog that clouded her thoughts started to lift.

"….Let's look at the situation logically. If you don't phone Karen and at the very least ask her what she wants you to do, work wise, then some well meaning person will blunder his or her way into a situation where you have all the advantages of knowing what's what. So you ensure that Karen's back is covered so that she can grieve in peace."

The intonation in Helen's last words softened and showed how sensitively she was feeling for Karen behind her business like façade.

To Nikki's great surprise and relief, it was Yvonne who answered the phone and, as Nikki talked, she periodically called out to Karen who stayed in the background.

"Karen says to you to phone Grayling as soon as you get to work and explain what's happened. She can't say how long she's likely to be off but I'd be surprised if she goes to work next week at all. Then you pass word to the other wing governors and take it from there."

Nikki nodded her head doubtfully, wondering what to do with an absent Governing Governor.

"Anything that comes up, just use your bloody common sense, Nikki. This one's from me." Yvonne's domineering tones squashed Nikki's self doubts into the ground and put her in her place. Fine, fine, she shrugged her shoulders in acceptance, one ex prisoner is telling another how to keep one of Her Majesty's Prisons ticking over. I might as well go with the flow.

"And Karen says to give you and Helen all her love," Yvonne added on a more tender note.

"Tell her to stay safe and Helen and I will be thinking of her every step of the way."

Nikki put the phone down with a thoughtful expression on her face and held it in her hand.

"It seems that I have been told what to do," She said, turning to Helen with a wry smile on her face. "That was Yvonne I was speaking to in case you hadn't guessed. Karen was in the background and she sends us her love."

"After all that I did……….." Helen said with feeling, feeling completely bowled over at Karen's understanding and paused awhile in thought. "Well, when she wants to talk, I guess she'll call us."

"I'd better get my suit ready for the morning."

The next day, Nikki was at work half an hour earlier than normal and, on an adrenaline high, virtually flew into her office. She grabbed the phone and dialled the main Area switchboard in a blinding hurry and drummed her fingers on the table as she was shunted around from pillar to post. One lazy buffoon after another assured her that Grayling did not work at that extension, and made vague and erroneous guesses as to what his extension was. Eventually, to her relief, his pleasant tones answered the call.

"Grayling. What can I do for you?"

"It's Nikki, Nikki Wade of Larkhall Prison….I've got some bad news about Karen….I got a call that her son committed suicide over the weekend and she's totally distraught about it…I'd be very surprised if she's going to come in this week, only guesswork you know but I have a prison on my hands with no governing governor…."

"Hold it, hold it, take it easy, Nikki." Grayling's smooth reassuring tones cut in on Nikki's stream of words in an attempt to reassure her and slow her down. "Take it from the top but a little slower."

Nikki flushed slightly with embarrassment but her thoughts shot past that as she tried to calm down, breathing in and out.

"Now then, first things first. Most important, has Karen got either friends or family or both to help her through the immediate crisis."

"The judge, John Deed and George as well. I don't know about her family."

"That's a huge relief." On the other end of the phone, Grayling concealed very cleverly an immediate feeling of alarm and fear for Karen's well being. He asked Nikki what ideas she had to deal with the situation at work and privately gave her full marks for initiative.

"I trust it won't happen but I thought it best to advise you that if you or anyone in authority receive any communications from any press hacks, you are to give my name and phone number as official spokesman and under no circumstances make any comment whatever. It's down to me to field any calls as Karen's superior. You do understand?" Grayling said gently.

"Jesus, I never thought of that," Nikki confessed to this curiously fatherly reassuring male figure, something utterly unique in her experience.

"I'll phone Karen myself and see how she is going on. Regarding work, if need be, I'll pop over and take a look at anything that's urgent. She will, of course, be entitled to special leave for the next few days and for the funeral and should not dream of coming back till she is good and ready. I know what she's like."

"Whew, thank you so much for talking me through this one."

" I would not expect a new wing governor, even of your calibre to suddenly become acting governing governor. Remember that and that I'm only a phone call away,"

Grayling replied almost tenderly to Nikki's huge and audible relief. "You take it from here and keep me posted."

Nikki had subconsciously thought from her club days that a group of individuals would knock up a game plan on how to run the prison in Karen's absence and get cracking. Her input of helpful suggestions were phrased in a deliberately low-key fashion and avoiding being pushy. Without Karen's control, what rose to the surface in one or two of the older more reactionary wing governors was there hitherto secret resentment of this young upstart of dubious origins who in their eyes was Karen's 'blue eyed girl' but in reality was more able than they were. This manifested itself in procrastination and a needless repetition of what Nikki had said five minutes earlier as apparently their original idea. It was all egos, Nikki concluded, when she felt the clock ticking of events outside the committee room. Eventually, she forced the issue.

"Look, no offence but I feel we ought to move on from here. It isn't impossible that, as we speak, the press could be queuing up outside while we're off the wing and pestering one or two of our inexperienced staff."

"I think that we can't let that scum come sniffing round our turf. Come on, let's give the troops their marching orders so that I can have a cup of tea in peace."

Nikki smiled sweetly at the older man and walked along with a couple of more amenable, friendlier colleagues and made her way rapidly back to the PO's room.

"Can I have your attention?" Nikki called out in sharper tones than was usual for her as she was conscious that some of the prison officers were fidgeting, as she was late.

"I have only one item for the meeting as anything else can be held over to the next time. I have to let you know the very sad news that Karen's son tragically committed suicide over the weekend…."

A gasp of wonder turning into shock could be heard round the room while Di composed her face suitably for the occasion.

"…..I'm sorry I'm late but I've been getting together with the other wing governors to break the news first to them and, as it's a safe bet that Karen will be off work for a week if not longer, how to deal with things in the meantime….."

Nikki paused for a second as the emphasis that she had to place on a human tragedy being portrayed as an administrative problem flooded her full of emotions at what she had known from Helen. She could not begin to describe what had happened even assuming that it was right to do so.

"I gave her a call over the weekend and I had to check it out that she has friends around who are helping her get through a very difficult time. Just how bad, I couldn't even begin to imagine how it feels. I don't want to say any more about it except that I'll be the first to tell you of any developments and keep you posted. I know that she'll be in my thoughts and I am sure that this is the same for all of you……"

Nikki paused as she lost track of her thoughts and couldn't work out what to say next.

"Poor Karen, I feel so sorry for her," Gina chimed in.

"We ought to have some sort of whip round for her for some flowers or something," Colin added kind-heartedly, in his cockney accent. Don't expect me to go choosing flowers thought Di sat at the very back of the room and glared with hatred while attention was off her while Bodybag was thoughtful.

"I'll take care of the flowers. I like that sort of thing if someone else could collect the money."

"That's a lovely idea, everyone. I'm sure that Karen will appreciate the gesture."

"If Karen is likely to be off for a bit, won't that put more work onto you?" Gina asked. She could tell that Nikki was under pressure despite the way that she tried to conceal it.

Nikki was incredibly moved by the spontaneous kindness and generosity of feeling for Karen .She was proud of them…well nearly all of them if she could trust her instinct from what a sidelong glance at Di told her. A few moments passed as it hit her suddenly how protective they all were of her which she hadn't known before.

"Neil Grayling has considered pitching in and sorting out anything that's beyond me and the other wing governors but thanks for thinking of me, Gina……….one last thing," she added while a last vestige of a working memory pulled the thought from out of oblivion. "Have any of you seen or heard of any press outside."

Everyone shook their head.

"Neil Grayling has strongly advised us that on no account should any of us engage in conversation to the press, not me not anyone. He absolutely insists that he deals with all press enquiries personally."

"That's a relief," Bodybag said with a relieved smile on her face and everyone nodded in agreement.

"Excuse me, Nikki, what do we tell the prisoners and when?"

"I'm glad you reminded me of that. I feel we ought to go out of our way to tell the prisoners rather than let any rumours start up. I am sure Karen would want us to give them the facts just as I've told it to you."

Nikki felt incredibly foolish that she had forgotten the prisoners of all people. That was really wrong of her. Gina glanced sympathetically at Nikki, who looked really tired and the strain was telling on her. She suspected that she had made light of the extent of her involvement over the weekend.

"Anything anyone wants to bring up….no…OK, same duties as before.

The prison officers started to file out of the room and Gina caught up with Nikki.

"If you want anything taken off your back this week, just say the word. You're as bad as Karen, always working too bloody hard. You're not the best in having the sense to let some other bugger take the weight." Gina scolded Nikki affectionately. "You just go back to your room and have a nice long hot cup of tea and let the rest of us sort everything out. Go on, beat it."

Only Gina could talk to Nikki that way. Her smile was one of pure affection. Gina was right. She really needed a rest.

"I might take you up on that one. I'm behind on my paperwork," Nikki retorted with a cheeky grin. The expression on Gina's face and the way she stuck out her tongue was reply enough.

Some distance behind Nikki, Di exchanged words with Bodybag, being the last two in the room.

"Now Madam knows what it's like to lose someone she loves. She wasn't all hearts and flowers when poor Jim Fenner was murdered by that evil Atkins woman."

Bodybag blinked. It shook her that Di had no sense of feeling of what it was like for a mother to lose her son. What if she had a phone call that her little Bobby Darin was found dead in the flat that he shared with his pal? She always thought he was safe but you never know these days about anything? It horrified her that Di seemed to be talking out of her own mouth.

"Madam is not exactly in my good books but losing a child like that. You don't ever get over a heartache like that and you can't say the words you just said."

"But Sylv….."

"I'm sorry, Di, but I can't agree with you. I don't want to argue with you but I'll put in money for the flowers and sign the card with the rest."

Sylvia turned and made her way out of the room, walking stiffly and uncomfortably. She made a mental note to phone her children, starting with Connie, this very night. Di glowered alone but before she left, a thought struck her about what Nikki had said.

"That's really terrible what's happened to Miss Betts. She must be feeling out of her mind. Worse than losing your fella."

The two Julies and Denny found a spare corner to gossip in after they had been taken on one side by Gina. Julie Johnson's naturally warm- hearted nature came immediately to the surface, her soft voice laden with sympathy.

"I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to my David but you never know these days. You just never know what people are thinking, specially those what put a happy smile on their faces."

They looked uneasily to their children who seemed suddenly more vulnerable and penned forever on the outside on the other side of the prison bars. They seemed ages away, now they came to think about it.

"Miss Rossi told us that Nikki heard about it over the weekend and she looked dead shaken up."

"Isn't that just like her to care," Julie S fondly replied, her mind going far back in time. "We ought to do something for her, like a card. It's only right."

"I'll do the picture if you tell me how you want it done. Just don't ask me to do the words as I ain't never done a card before."

"We'll write the words Denny but mind you don't make it look sort of too gloomy and weird. Miss Betts will want something to cheer her up, to look back on the happy times she had with him."

Denny looked doubtfully at the artistic direction laid upon her. She was used to letting her mind run free and paint what came out of it. She would be no bloody good writing some sort of naff Valentine card.

"No promises, man but I'll try. Miss Betts deserves the best."

The two women looked fondly at her. They would have to somehow scrounge some stiff cardboard and some paints from the art room and get thinking.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Seven

On the Monday afternoon, Karen drove over to the vicarage to see Barbara. She'd spent the last two days barely speaking, barely communicating with anyone, but now she knew the time had come to start deciding what she wanted to do. Yvonne and Jo had stayed with her long into Saturday evening, but Karen had eventually persuaded them to go home. She had needed to be alone, and the long hours of Saturday night had given her the opportunity to do far too much thinking. George had called her on Sunday, as had John, and they had thankfully both taken the hint that she still needed some space. She'd received a call from Nikki, and Roisin had popped over to see her. It was so nice to have friends, she mused to herself, so good to know that if she needed them, they would be there for her. But Karen knew absolutely nothing about how one began arranging a funeral. So, here she was, asking the only person who wasn't at work, and who might be able to help her understand what would be the best thing to do for her son.

The vicarage where Barbara and Henry lived, wasn't far from the church where they'd performed 'The Creation.' As Karen pulled up in the gravel drive, she wondered how Henry was doing. She didn't want to disturb them, but she did need to talk to certainly Barbara, and possibly Henry as well. Birds were singing in the trees in the front garden, providing a tranquility that Karen simply couldn't feel inside. When Barbara answered the door, she looked surprised to see Karen on her doorstep.

"Karen," She said, trying to offer her a warm smile. "Come in."

"Is this a good time?" Karen asked, moving into the hall. "I don't want to disturb you."

"Don't be silly," Barbara told her, leading the way into the airy living room. "Henry's out in the garden, supposedly writing his sermon for a christening on Saturday, but the last time I looked, he was sound asleep."

"How is he?" Karen asked, taking a seat on the sofa.

"He's, well, seriously ill but comfortable, I think is how they put it. But that's not what we're here to talk about, is it."

"No," Karen said bleakly.

"Karen, I am so, so sorry," Barbara said, wishing she could offer some kind of comfort for the torment Karen was clearly going through.

"Barbara, I really don't know what I'm supposed to do, and I thought you might be the best person to ask."

"Would you like a cup of tea?" Barbara asked, knowing that this was going to take a while. Smiling slightly at the old British answer to a crisis, Karen said that she would, and listened as Barbara moved about in the stone flagged kitchen at the back of the house.

When Barbara returned, and put the tea down on the coffee table, Karen resisted her usual urge to reach for a cigarette, knowing that Barbara would prefer it if she didn't smoke.

"I have never arranged a funeral in my life," Karen began. "And I haven't any idea where to start."

"That all depends on what you want," Barbara told her. "And what you might consider the right thing to do, also depends on what you believe in."

"I don't believe in God, Barbara, I don't think I ever have done."

"Why, just out of interest?"

"Too many bad things have happened in my life, to convince me that nothing remotely resembling a god, can really exist. I know it sounds pretty simplistic, but that's how it is. I've never had any proof that a god exists. So, I suppose that means that I don't want a church service, and that I don't want him buried in a churchyard."

"If, you had him cremated," Barbara said slowly. "That doesn't exclude you from having a perfectly suitable service."

"Doesn't it?" Karen asked, clearly a little mystified.

"No, of course not," Barbara reassured her. "I'm sure Henry would be perfectly happy to do it for you, if you wanted him to, and as you don't want religion to be a significant part of it, the simpler the service the better."

"Are you sure he'd be up to it?" Karen asked, not wanting to put Henry under any extra strain.

"Yes, I should think so."

"I always thought that, if someone died, from suicide, that there was no way a vicar would even consider giving them a funeral."

"That may be true of the Catholic Church, but the Church of England is a little less stern about such things. Karen, this form of saying goodbye, is really for those who are left behind. You need to begin the process of closure, and a funeral is the only way you can do that. This time is for you, and if all you want is a simple reading, and some time to reflect, then that's all there needs to be."

"Do you remember when Roisin sang at Ritchie's funeral?" Karen said after a short silence. "I might ask her to do the same for Ross."

"That would provide you with some time for reflection," Barbara agreed. Just before Karen could continue trying to work out what she should do, Henry appeared in the doorway, looking thoroughly rested.

"Karen," He said, entering the room and sitting down in his usual chair. "How are you?" Opening her mouth to respond, Karen realised that she simply didn't have an answer for that particular question. "Not an easy reply to give, I see," Henry observed, as Barbara moved to pour him a cup of tea.

"No, not really," Karen said quietly. "I was talking to Barbara about what I should do for Ross's funeral," She added, wanting to get back to the matter in hand. "And I have something of a problem, because religion has never really been my thing."

"That doesn't have to be as great a problem as you might think," Henry told her, taking the cup from Barbara with a smile of thanks.

"So Barbara was telling me."

"You know something," Henry said fondly though with an added touch of pride. "The first time I met Barbara, I knew that she would have made a fabulous vicar herself. She more often than not writes my sermons for me these days."

"Oh, I can believe it," Karen replied conspiratorially.

"Karen, if you would like me to give Ross a funeral, that does not focus on religious belief, I am perfectly willing to do that."

"Yes, I would, if that would be possible," Karen told him gratefully. "Would you be willing to do it at the crematorium?"

"Of course." Then, after a moment's silence, Henry fixed her with his gentle gaze and said, "God will forgive him, Karen."

"But I'm not sure that I can," Karen replied quietly, finally voicing the thing that had been haunting her for the last two days. Ross had succeeded in hurting her, in the worst way possible. He had ended his life, taken himself away from her, just because he was too proud to ask for help from the one person who would have given it.

"You will do, in time," Henry said gently. "Because it is something you must do, in order to recover from this. This will undoubtedly be the hardest journey you have ever traveled, but with the help and guidance of your numerous friends, you will eventually get through it."

"I wish I could have faith in that," Karen said dejectedly.

"Hope is all any of us have," Henry said matter-of-factly. "Even at a time like this. You cannot continue to hope for Ross's survival, but you can and must continue to have hope of your own."

Part One Hundred and Sixty Eight

On the Friday morning, the day of the funeral, Karen stood in front of her wardrobe, utterly uncertain as to what to wear. This wasn't right, she kept thinking to herself, mothers weren't supposed to outlive their children, it just shouldn't happen! She felt as though she'd been living in an alternate reality ever since Ross had died, moving through the familiar rituals of her daily life, yet barely acknowledging those around her. On the surface she was just about managing to maintain her equilibrium, but she knew that she wasn't really communicating with anyone. George, Yvonne, Nikki and Roisin, they'd all made attempts to get through to her, to try and convince her to talk, but she couldn't. Polite detachment appeared to be all she could manage. Eventually settling on a simple black two-piece, she hung it on the outside of the wardrobe door until she was ready for it. She wondered just how she was going to get through today. It wasn't even a whole week since she'd been told of Ross's death, yet here she was, about to condemn her son's body to ashes.

She spent the morning tidying her flat, making sure it was presentable enough for the people who might come back after the funeral. She had plenty of alcohol in, but she hadn't really given any thought to any sort of refreshment. That would have spoken too much of her usual level of organisation, something she didn't think she was entirely capable of at the moment. She hadn't been near work all week, but she knew that after today, after saying goodbye to the son who had continuously resented her very existence, she would have to start putting her life back together. When she took a long, hot shower, and slipped into the clothes she'd picked out, she stood in front of the mirror doing her make up. She looked thinner, she thought, the clothes definitely looking looser than they really ought to on her. Jesus, she thought sardonically, I'll be getting as bad as George if I'm not careful. When the woman in question arrived to collect her, Karen reflected that she had definitely made the right choice, in deciding to have the simplest send off possible. She hadn't wanted any funeral cars, because being alone in the first one would have made her feel even more isolated than she already did.

"Are you ready for this?" George asked, giving her a gentle hug.

"I have to be, don't I," Karen replied quietly.

"I know it might not mean a lot," George said as they moved towards her car. "But we will all be there for you."

"It does mean a lot, really," Karen assured her, giving her hand a quick squeeze.

The crematorium was quiet, unimposing, and situated in a very pretty looking garden. This was obviously intended as a place for some quiet and much needed reflection. When they arrived, Karen was slightly astounded to see so many of her friends there waiting for her. John, Jo, Helen, Nikki, Cassie and Roisin, Crystal and Josh, Barbara and Henry of course, as Henry would be doing the fairly short service, and as she moved towards them, Karen also saw three others whom she certainly hadn't expected to see there. Neil Grayling, Gina, and Dominic were standing there, waiting to support her in any way they could.

"I didn't expect to see you two here," She said as she approached Gina and Dominic, the twenty-five-year-old man reminding her far too painfully of Ross.

"Believe it or not," Gina said quietly, "Sylvia offered to come in on her day off to cover for us."

"I'll have to give her a pay rise," Karen said in astonishment. As she moved down the line, greeting everyone who was there, she took note of the guitar that Roisin had under her arm. She had asked Roisin to sing, and it appeared that Roisin had obviously managed to come up with something in the last few days.

"You do know why Yvonne isn't here?" Roisin asked when Karen reached her.

"Yes," Karen replied, "I spoke to her yesterday." Yvonne had phoned Karen, and tried to explain that she just couldn't attend a funeral, especially not one that was for the exact same reason as Ritchie's had been. She'd been a little apprehensive of Karen's reaction, but Karen had totally understood. No mother wanted to be reminded of the torment they had gone through, and she thought she may well behave very similarly after Ross's funeral. Yvonne had therefore elected to take care of everyone's children, needing to surround herself with the needs of four other people to stop her from thinking too much.

When they went inside the crematorium, Karen moved to sit on her own in the very front row, these seats always being reserved for blood relatives. She could sense everyone else taking seats around and behind her, but she was barely aware of their existence. She couldn't take her eyes off the long, polished coffin, the innocuous looking box that held her son's lifeless body. She barely took any notice as Henry moved through the bible reading and couple of simple prayers he had chosen, because the words meant very little to her. Even when he assured his small congregation that God would forgive all his children, on their entrance into the afterlife, Karen couldn't bring herself to acknowledge the sincerely felt meaning of his words. She hadn't forgiven Ross, and she didn't know if she ever would. She'd been in a state of limbo since he'd died, unable to dwell too closely on the feelings she had, for fear they would burst from her, to eventually drag her down into that interminable world of despair. She hadn't cried, not since last Saturday, when Jo and Yvonne had come to see her. That was the last time she'd allowed herself to give into the grief, the anger and the pain.

George, John and Jo, were sitting a couple of rows behind Karen, all three wishing they could be closer to her, to offer her some sort of comfort in this hour of grief. John was sitting between the two of them, feeling guilt in a way he'd never felt it before. Would Karen have still been going through this if he'd told her sooner? Would she still be facing the prospect of watching her son's body disappear through those ominous looking curtains? He couldn't be sure, and it was this uncertainty that wasn't allowing him to go easy on himself. As if sensing his thoughts, George's gentle hand slid into his, giving it a tentative squeeze, telling him far more succinctly in actions rather than words, that this wasn't the time for dwelling on questions that simply couldn't be answered. When Henry had come to the end of his part in this particularly painful show, he invited anyone who wanted to say a few words, to come up and do so now. Karen wasn't expecting anyone to come forward, because none of her friends had known Ross, apart from Helen. But when Nikki rose to her feet and moved to the front, Karen forced herself to begin paying attention to what was going on around her.

"I wanted to find something appropriate to read," Nikki began a little hesitantly. "But I couldn't at first find anything that remotely expressed the pain that I know Karen must be feeling, or the sincere wish that us, as her friends, have to comfort and be there for her. However, I did find a poem that I think expresses what Ross was looking for when he died, and what we all now want for his mother who is left behind." Taking a moment to allow a softer expression to cross her face, Nikki began to speak, having obviously learnt the poem by heart, so as not to require such a mundane item as a piece of paper.

"Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? I humbly crave,

Let me once know.

I sought thee in a secret cave,

And ask'd, if Peace were there,

A hollow wind did seem to answer, No:

Go seek elsewhere.

I did; and going did a rainbow note:

Surely, thought I,

This is the lace of Peace's coat:

I will search out the matter.

But while I looked the clouds immediately

Did break and scatter.

Then went I to a garden and did spy

A gallant flower,

The crown-imperial: Sure, said I,

Peace at the root must dwell.

But when I digged, I saw a worm devour

What showed so well.

At length I met a rev'rend good old man;

Whom when for Peace

I did demand, he thus began:

There was a Prince of old

At Salem dwelt, who lived with good increase

Of flock and fold.

He sweetly lived; yet sweetness did not save

His life from foes.

But after death out of his grave

There sprang twelve stalks of wheat;

Which many wond'ring at, got some of those

To plant and set.

It prospered strangely, and did soon disperse

Through all the earth:

For they that taste it do rehearse

That virtue lies therein;

A secret virtue, bringing peace and mirth

By flight of sin.

Take of this grain, which in my garden grows,

And grows for you;

Make bread of it: and that repose

And peace, which ev'rywhere

With so much earnestness you do pursue,

Is only there."

As Nikki moved to sit down, Karen smiled gratefully at her, thinking that the beautifully descriptive words had only too well established what she wanted to feel. But did she have any right to ask for it? Did she, a mother who hadn't even known of the torment her son was going through, deserve the luxury of peace? She wasn't sure. Karen badly craved that tranquility, but had little faith that she would ever experience it again.

The next person to get up from her place was Roisin, moving forward with her guitar, and sitting down in a chair that Josh placed for her.

"I hope that the song I've chosen," Roisin began hesitantly. "Seems as appropriate today, as it did when I chose it earlier in the week. Karen asked me to sing something, to provide a little time for some quiet reflection." John watched her with interest, having wanted to see the exhibition of Roisin's other form of musical talent, though having never suspected that it would be in such a setting as this. When her gentle, delicate fingers began moving over the strings of her guitar, all eyes except Karen's fixed on her.

"They gave you a corner room on the fifth floor.

The city lights were like candy to a kid in a store.

Like a king you'd lay in your bed so statefully.

So thankful they gave you a room with scenery."

As soon as Roisin began to sing, George's eyes widened. She knew that song, from the very first CD she'd ever borrowed from Karen. The majority of the people there had heard Roisin sing before, but some of them hadn't. Her voice was beautiful, pure, with a clarity of tone that was undemanding to listen to, and which bore the sweetness and lack of pretentiousness that only the truly talented have the pleasure to exhibit.

"You always were so healthy, so full of life,

So seeing you so helpless just didn't seem right.

And how you kept your head so high I'll never know.

I guess you knew you had a better place to go."

This last line of the first verse brought tears to the eyes of many of those there to listen. There were four mothers there besides Karen, and two fathers, each and every one of them feeling the poignancy of the words.

"You've got a room with a view,

A window to the world,

You always had your sights set high.

And now that you're gone,

Your memory lives on,

And I see you smiling in my mind,

With angels as visitors dropping by,

Your room with a view."

The shrill expression of pure feeling in these words, made every spine amongst them tingle. Jo could feel her own eyes filling with tears, and she could see that they were already running down George's face. As if he'd known precisely what to expect from his two women, John dug a handkerchief out of each of his trouser pockets, and handed one to each of them. He envied them the freedom to express their feelings in this way, as it was so much healthier than his incessant brooding.

"I'll always miss you,

I'll always feel the loss.

I have to remind myself that you're better off.

I gotta believe even through these tears of mine,

Wherever you are there's a sun that always shines."

Jesus, Karen thought bleakly, how on earth did she even begin to start thinking that. Yes, Ross might have been aware that he had a far better place to go, but had his life really been so bad? Had she really been such a terrible mother that he didn't want to be around her any more? She knew that these would, for a long time, remain some of her unanswered questions, but that didn't prevent her from continuously asking them.

"You've got a room with a view,

A window to the world,

You always had your sights set high.

And now that you're gone,

Your memory lives on,

And I see you smiling in my mind,

With angels as visitors dropping by,

Your room with a view.

With angels as visitors dropping by,

Your room with a view."

When the music finally came to an end, Roisin silently got up and made her way back to her seat. It was now or never, Karen thought to herself, as she too rose from her seat, and made her way to stand next to her son's coffin.

"I wasn't sure what I was supposed to say at this point," She began hesitantly, her usual self-assured assertiveness notable by its absence. "But now that I'm here, the only thing I can say, is thank you, to each and every one of you for being here. You've all tried to get through to me this week in your different ways, and I know that I haven't been very receptive to your efforts. It doesn't mean that I don't appreciate it, because I do, more than you will ever know. I want to thank Henry, for giving me the simple, undemanding service that has proved most suitable in the circumstances, and I want to thank Nikki and Roisin for giving us all some important things to think about. But most of all, I want to thank my son, for giving me twenty-two years of fulfillment, that I wouldn't have otherwise achieved." Laying a hand gently on the lid of his coffin, she continued. "Ross came into my life, when I was really too young to have him, but babies rarely give us the option of choice about when they arrive. When everything became so hard, that I didn't always know which bit of me was doing what, he was the one thing that kept me going. Yes, my life may have been a great deal easier without him, but I wouldn't be the woman I like to think I am today. I'm only sorry, that at the one time when he really needed me, he couldn't tell me what was going on. I will never forgive myself for that, and I suspect that neither will he. All I can hope is that some day, somewhere, Ross can forgive me for not being the mother he wanted me to be."

Not long after as they all moved outside, Karen felt bone weary. She didn't think she'd ever encountered exhaustion such as this, not even with all the sleepless nights she'd gone through when Ross was a baby. God, no, don't start thinking about that, she told herself sternly, it really won't help. They stood outside the crematorium for a while, as Karen moved round her group of friends.

"Don't you come back to work until you're ready," Gina told her firmly, giving her a hug.

"We'll see," Karen said noncommittally.

"The Julies send their best," Dominic put in. "And the last time I saw Denny, she was pruning her best plant ready to put on your desk when you come back."

"As long as it's legal," Karen said with a small smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"Just take it easy," Gina said, really not knowing what else she could say.

"Are you coming back for a drink?" Karen invited them.

"No, we can't really," Gina replied. "But you go and have several, you look like you need it." That's Gina for you, Karen reflected fondly, always blunt and to the point. Everyone else who was there did agree to come back for a drink, even Grayling. While she was stood talking to him and Nikki, she felt a familiar hand slip its way into hers.

"I was proud of you today," George said gently, when everyone began moving towards their cars.

"I'm not sure I was," Karen said a little dismissively. "I haven't got a clue as to what I'm supposed to be doing, but then Yvonne did tell me that there weren't any rules."

"And she's absolutely right," George said firmly. "You're getting through this in the only way you know how, and that's the only thing you should be doing."

They stood together on the pavement outside the crematorium and witnessed Gina and Dominic walk a long way down the road, which was lined with cars and set off in a car. Karen felt her mind go blank. She ought to explain to everyone who was left to come back to her flat. Normally, automatic mode of thinking would have prompted her to act as quickly as thinking. Today, something blocked the thought process. She was not to know that she did not want to let go of the moment and of Ross's existence. As a result, those left at the end were standing around in groups being bit parts in Waiting for Godot.

Grayling, for one, stood at a little distance away from George and Karen feeling awkward. He heard Gina and then George say the words that came closest to his own feelings and regretted his silence. This was not the silence of his former self which let the worst spirits abroad in life around before enthusiastically embraced them as he found his place in the world. This was different as traces of that inexpressiveness held him back from speaking his feelings.

"It's difficult at moments like these, Neil," John's cultured voice broke in on his brooding thoughts. "I know what I feel but somehow anything I want to say in my mind to Karen comes over as something like a ham actor might say."

"I know," Neil intoned the reply, which sounded trite.

"I attended the funeral of a young boy called Jason Powell, even younger than Ross is, was. He was utterly committed to his beliefs that even though he was slowly dying of a chronic heart condition, he should not undergo a heart transplant operation that would have saved his life because it had only become possible due to experiments on animals. Foolishly, I engaged in a debate on the respective ethics. He won."

While John narrated the story, he fought off the welling emotions that rose up in him and threatened to choke the casual tones in which he attempted to dispassionately hold forth on relative ethics. Eventually, he ground to a halt and he put his hand over his lower face for a little while. In that pause, Grayling's heart taught him to make that first jump to feel for the man who was just like him

"I meant to say that I offered to read a poem at his funeral as no one accepted the vicar's invitation to say a few words. I ended up on my feet and reciting a poem whose title I forget, something like 'Do not stand at my grave and weep.' I won't recite it now, I can't remember the exact words. The point is that I might have said or done something for the good that day but I couldn't feel it."

"You sound just like me."

"Don't worry, Neil," Nikki's soft voice appeared in the still air behind him. "You were here for Karen. She knows. Nothing else matters."

"So this is your turn to be the supportive one, Nikki," Grayling turned round with a smile. Damn himself, he meant to thank her and that blessed moment when she had said words which touched his own soul which was hurting for Karen. Nikki's own eyes were moist with her own raw emotions, which the poem she had said talked back to her.

"That's what I'm here for," came her simple reply which gently pulled together the tangled webs of his philosophizing. "Are you coming back with the rest of us? You both ought to, you know."

"Why…" he hesitated. utterly uncertain where he should be.

"I'm sure Alison Warner and your work will wait till Monday," Nikki urged gently, pulling away at both of their temptations to run away and bury themselves in their work.

"Since you've put it this way…" replied Grayling, his voice strengthening in tone and becoming more confident. "I'll follow you assuming you know the way which I don't."

Nikki's own mind felt fogged in the same way as the others were in different degrees. Each of them looked to the one who seemed to know what she or he was doing.

"I'll check with Karen, just to make sure."

"Roash and I will be heading that way, Neil," Broke in Cassie's brash, self-confident tones, as bold as brass to Roisin's slight shock. She pretended to be preoccupied with manhandling her large guitar case.

Grayling smiled broadly and manoeuvred his car in the crocodile of cars, which formed up and snaked its ramshackle way back to her flat.

Finally, she led the way to her front door as her feet did a good job putting one foot after another even if the key seemed to get jammed in her lock. Finally, the outside world was shut away as Karen, George, John, Jo, Nikki, Helen, Grayling, Cassie, Roisin, Josh and Crystal made themselves comfortable. Since Karen had not really planned for such numbers, a number of them were squashed into her settee or perched on dining room chairs and Nikki and Helen sat on the carpet with their backs to the wall.

A profound silence descended on the room as brief spurts of everyday words petered out, leaving them with their thoughts. Roisin managed to prop her guitar case in a corner of the room.

"Well, here we are, all friends together," John said with false heartiness and instantly regretted his words.

"I'm sorry that I haven't got anything more hospitable than my drinks cabinet," Karen offered nervously, vague traces of ancient family rituals dropping into her thoughts and not exactly welcome.

"Don't worry, we'll manage," Jo reassured her politely though to her ears that didn't sound much better than John but at least they were trying. Sometimes it is all that there is in life.

"We need some more space, Karen. Is it all right if some of us sit out on the balcony?"

"Yeah, make yourself feel at home," Karen offered lightly. Might as well not try to be in charge for once, she reflected, but let it be They were all close to her in their different ways. George followed them and Nikki and Helen got up off the floor as they sought somewhere more comfortable. ."……..come to think of that, I'll join you," she added, neatly reversing her earlier intention to stay where she was.

This is no good, Karen thought as she stood up and prompted a sudden decisive shift in her thinking took over, a last gasp of inspiration took over.

"I don't want to be pushy but what about one of you musicians singing us a song? Something spiritual to make us feel better as no one is really in a talking mood. I'd hate to pressurise anyone to make polite conversation, especially for me."

Roisin unclipped her case and brought out her gleaming new guitar and held it out.

"It's your turn, Crystal. I'd love to hear you sing."

"Well, this time it ain't going to be Kumbaya," She smiled. John, Jo and George smiled politely as the others laughed. Instantly there jumped into Crystal's mind that phrase which the thought of her children prompted, with their childlike, uncluttered fashion and the eternal questions, especially late at night when she was most tired out ……imagine …..imagine….imagine….. The word seemed like a one word prayer at a time when grief froze up everyone inside whatever superficial face they each wore. It had to be. Carefully, she gently and delicately plucked at the steel strings. Instantly her strong soul inflected voice grabbed at the lyrics, which were familiar to all of them, but twisting the melody lines into something new.

"……..No hell below us,
Above us only sky……"

If only that can be true, Karen thought to herself, that I can see the blue sky again.

Imagine all the people
living for today...

Helen meditated on the mantra that ran round her mind that if all her patients could be like that then their souls would be saved. Meanwhile Crystal sat on the settee in the lounge, her guitar braced against her body singing away in more gentle tones than others remembered her for. She knew that those who were sitting out on the balcony were listening to her. She was happy as the song rescued her as much as those she was singing for.

" I remember when Crystal sang Amazing Grace out the window of her cell," Nikki's voice floated freely. "We were all locked up after Rachel Hicks had been found dead…….."

Instantly, she chopped short the reminiscence. Karen would hardly appreciate the description that she had only heard second hand that she had been found hanging by the noose that she created being driven to suicide. Even if Dockley was at the back of it, Karen would hardly appreciate it. "…….Anyway, I have never heard Crystal sound so pure that night, when all of us needed that most. It was a change from Bodybag, moaning about Kumbaya."

George quietly turned away from Karen and smiled in a puzzled fashion as this freeform muse gently poured out of Nikki. This was not the wing governor talking.

"You really haven't forgotten what it was like when you were there as a prisoner?"

"Not in a million years. If I did, I'd be selling myself out. Whatever I do in my nine to five job, I have to be accountable to her, ultimately."

George realised that Nikki was referring to the prisoner she used to be. In the meantime, Karen lay back, lost in the music.

"You have to give me some explanatory notes about Kumbaya and Bodybag," pursued George. "It sounds like a secret language

"Oh," smiled Nikki. "Crystal used to sing it over and over again to piss off Bodybag, I mean Sylvia Hollamby. I'm sometimes in danger of calling her the name I used to call her. Can't do that these days."

"…….Imagine all the people
living life in peace.………."

Yes, Nikki thought, that's what she ever wanted in this world.

"That's something I really miss from the past as there don't appear to be any real singers in Larkhall at the moment," Karen said in a slightly slurred voice as she roused herself from her extreme tiredness. "You've heard Roisin and you can hear Crystal right now. Shaz Wiley could sing really beautifully and sensitively, when she wasn't behaving like some naughty schoolkid who pulled stunts like locking Sylvia in her own cell so that she and Denny could cause havoc. Even Shell could sing, though it was usually for some ulterior purpose."

John and George fell silent and listened as Nikki and Karen exchanged these nostalgic reminiscences. It seemed highly ironical that it was the legal profession which had the reputation of having its own restricted code of expressions that is impervious to those not on the inside.

"………..Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.…………"

The song gently wound its way to its conclusion and like an infinitely tender nurse, soothed away all their hurts and even made some impact on Karen's sense of emptiness. The evening settled down into tranquil form as Josh and Crystal left first as their children were younger of any of them and that umbilical chord was wound its tightest. The others politely made their exit while Karen was half dreaming as the night drew in.

Eventually, the only person who is eventually left with Karen was George who suddenly swam into view. So there she was, Karen reflected, a good friend who she felt had always been somewhere around. George gently moved to her and kissed her on her cheek.

"You look tired, darling."

"I feel it but I don't think I'll ever sleep tonight. I've gone past tiredness."

"That's how I felt when Daddy tucked me up in bed that night when I was little……after my mother was killed. I can still remember that particular place in that church where I sat, right at the front and the sight of…….right in the middle of the church. I didn't want to look at it….The strange thing, there's a gap right after that as if the memory were taken right out of me . What I can remember, won't ever leave me. I can still think of it even after these years."

Karen held onto the smaller woman who needed comforting as those ancient memory tracks were being replayed. It was strange that Karen felt a little better when she was nursing someone else who, just for that minute, needed her help and not the other way round.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Nine

On the Saturday morning, Karen kissed George goodbye, and got in her car. Today was a day she was dreading far more than the funeral itself. She was going to collect Ross's ashes from the crematorium, and drive to the place where she'd often taken him on holiday when he was a child. She wanted to scatter them in a place that held only fond memories for her, somewhere she and Ross had been happy. George had tentatively asked if Karen wanted her company to do this, but Karen had gently refused, saying that this was something she definitely needed to be alone to do. This was becoming something of a typical answer for her these days, something that didn't go unnoticed by George.

As she drove out of London and towards the M3, she tried not to think about the burden she was carrying in the boot of her car. It cut deep into her soul to think that she was bearing away the remains of her son's body, to be cast over the cliff edge into the rocky depths of the sea. But this was what she had to do, take her son back to the place where they'd been happy. She could remember all the times she'd driven this way with Ross as a child, the boot of the car full of the necessary provisions for an inexpensive summer holiday, plenty of beach clothes for the two of them, plus the inevitable football and bucket and spade. He'd been only four when she'd first taken him to the little seaside village near Bournemouth, and they'd gone back every year until he was thirteen, when he'd announced that he was now too old to do something as childish as spend all day on the beach. She smiled as she tried to remember the deals she'd had to do with him, so that she didn't have to spend the entire journey listening to his definition of music. He knew how to argue, just as well as she did. But he had been a happy child, well, until he'd reached adolescence, and then he'd grown into the sullen, often belligerent teenager who had put the final nail in the coffin of her relationship with Steve. The car felt empty somehow, as if she'd left someone behind, as if she really shouldn't be traveling this old, familiar route alone.

As she turned onto the M27 at Southampton, she began to wonder what Ross would think of her bringing his ashes to this particular place. Yes, she knew he'd been angry with her, and that she certainly hadn't lived up to the expectations he'd obviously had of her as a mother, but she hoped he could also remember the good times they'd had. She hadn't been all bad, had she? After all, she'd only been doing what she thought was best for both of them. It had at times been extremely hard to balance the demands of professional and parental responsibilities, but it was the same for parents the world over. She'd had to work, in order to find the money to support Ross and herself, and sometimes that had meant him being looked after by someone else. She couldn't always afford to be at home to read him a bedtime story herself, but she could afford for someone else to do it. What sort of twisted logic was that, she thought cynically, for a mother to have to work to pay someone else to look after her child. But when she had been at home, she'd always thought that she was doing as much as she could for him. She'd read him stories, taught him to swim, played football with him, helped him with his homework, but it had obviously never quite been enough.

It took her near enough three hours to travel from London to Bournemouth, and when she left the A338, and began wending her way through the numerous villages along the coast, she just hoped that with it being a Saturday, there wouldn't be too many tourists in the place she was heading for. As she drew up in the car park at the bottom of the steady incline of cliffs, she realised that it was probably too late in the day, and therefore too hot for any but the most determined of walkers to be heading up here. They would all be lounging on the nearby beaches, soaking up the hot August sun. But Karen didn't really feel the heat, in fact she didn't seem to have been properly warm since Ross had died. Tentatively picking up her slightly ominous parcel from the back of the car, Karen began walking, following the long, familiar path, the one she'd often persuaded Ross to walk with her on slightly cooler days. They'd regularly come up here when it had been too windy to enjoy the sandy beaches, Ross running ahead of her, more often than not attaching himself to other groups of children of a similar age. It wasn't a steep climb towards the top of the cliffs, but as the ground gradually rose, Karen could feel the breeze on her cheeks, and smell the tang of the salt in her nostrils. She must have been walking for at least an hour, before she reached the plateau, the place where the cliff began to level out, the short, wiry grass covering the outcropping of rocks. She passed the place where there was a small bench under an overhang of rock, because this was where many walkers often stopped to rest. She walked on, until she left the few straggling tourists behind, until she reached the part of the cliff top where the rocks eventually tapered out into thin air. She sat down on the low wall, that had been put there as a warning, as a barrier, to prevent unknowing sols from needlessly wandering off the edge. The steep, endless drop was only three feet in front of her, and she felt a curious detachment in being quite so close to such a catastrophic descent. She could look right out to sea from here, the hot haze of the sun currently masking the vague impression of the Isle of Wight in the distance. She sat perfectly still for a while, trying to summon up the courage to do what she'd come here to do. But when she eventually lifted up the package of ashes between her two hands, and stood on the very edge of the cliff, she had an insane, momentary desire, to follow her son's remains into the water. But as the very essence of her son drifted away from her on the breeze, she knew she had to stay. She couldn't follow him, no matter how much she might want to, because she knew that she couldn't put George, John, or any of her friends through the same torment. The few particles that were left of her son, floated gently down to where the jagged rocks speared up through the foamy waves, and Karen knew that this had been the right thing to do, to send what remained of him back to the sea he'd loved so much as a child. She could remember those endless, sunny days, when she hadn't been able to keep him out of the water for longer than five minutes, no matter how cold it might have seemed to her adult flesh. So, here he was, going back to that once adored childhood playground, to hopefully one day forgive her for not being able to keep him alive.

She sat there for a long time after casting his ashes into the sea, just allowing her memories to envelop her. She didn't cry, somehow feeling passed crying, almost passed feeling, but she didn't entirely feel alone. It was as if there was someone nearby, somehow keeping watch of her, making sure she didn't do anything stupid. But that was ridiculous, she thought to herself, because there wasn't anyone on this cliff top but her. Eventually getting to her feet, Karen began making her way back to the car, wondering if she would ever come back here again.

On the drive home, she felt empty, as if all the feelings she'd ever had, had somehow been extinguished, leaving her nothing more than a hollow shell of bitter regret. She didn't want to go home like this, knowing that the silence and emptiness of her flat would probably drive her mad. She needed company, someone to take the focus away from herself. She barely noticed how long it took her to retrace her steps of the morning, hardly paying any real attention to the steadily flowing traffic around her. It was only when she left the M3, and began moving through the early evening of central London, that she wondered where on earth she could go. She didn't want to see George, and she didn't want to see John, or Yvonne, or anyone else who would demand too many explanations from her. By process of elimination, she settled on Jo, because Jo's company would be gentle, unintrusive, and because Jo would simply accept how she was feeling, without any insistent probing.

Jo was a little surprised to see Karen on her doorstep that evening, knowing just where Karen had been today.

"I'm sorry," Karen said by way of explanation as Jo let her in. "But I really didn't feel like going home."

"That's all right," Jo said, leading the way into the lounge. "You look exhausted," She observed, as Karen sank gratefully down onto the sofa.

"Well, I guess driving to Bournemouth and back will do that to a person."

"Is that where you went?"

"Yes, and walked right to the top of a particular stretch of cliff."

"Would you like a drink?" Jo asked, getting the feeling that this might be quite a difficult conversation.

"I'd love a cup of tea," Karen said ruefully. "I'm trying to avoid alcohol at all costs." Thinking that this was just one of several unanswered questions, Jo went to make them both some tea, wondering if Karen might at last be ready to start talking.

When she returned and put two mugs down on the coffee table, moving a pile of legal journals out of the way, she placed an ashtray between them.

"Why the intense desire not to drink?" She began, this being the question uppermost in her mind.

"Because it would be far too easy not to stop," Karen told her honestly. "And I can do without having to go down that road, on top of everything else."

"Ah," Jo said understandingly, realising that Karen possibly had a similar relationship with alcohol as she did. "I sometimes have to be careful," She admitted, lighting herself a cigarette. "Something I inherited from my father."

"Me too," Karen replied, also lighting a cigarette. "Though he would never have admitted it."

"The last time I allowed myself to get stupidly drunk, I was up before the Professional Conduct Committee."

"For drinking?" Karen asked, a little astounded.

"No," Jo said with a smile. "For being caught leaving the Judge's digs, clearly wearing the previous day's clothes, and looking pretty rough."

"I do hope he attempted to defend your honour," Karen said dryly.

"Oh, yes," Jo agreed neutrally. "But he had to make my being drunk common knowledge, in order to do so." Karen was quiet for a few moments, wondering what had led Jo to do something so possibly career crippling. Jo watched her, seeing a maelstrom of thoughts whizzing round behind her eyes.

"Will you satisfy my curiosity on something?" Jo asked, eventually breaking in on Karen's contemplation. When Karen raised her eyes to Jo's, she added, "Why did you come here, instead of going to see George?" Karen almost laughed.

"You don't ask anything simple, do you, and what I'm about to say, is going to sound unduly heartless. The thing is, I don't think I could bear to be anywhere near George at the moment, and if I were entirely in my right mind, I certainly wouldn't be thinking what I am."

"You resent the fact that she's still got Charlie, even though she doesn't love her, don't you," Jo tentatively took a stab in the dark.

"I said it would sound terrible," Karen said, the tears rising to her eyes, because she shouldn't be resenting anyone for still having their child, she just shouldn't be feeling like this.

"I can't say for certain," Jo told her gently. "But I suspect that if I were in your position, I might feel the same, if only briefly. For years, before I got to know George, I bitterly resented the fact that she had been the one to have John's child, and not me. I think that used to form the foundations on which mine and George's continual bickering were based. I couldn't accept that she had borne his child, whilst not really wanting it, and she couldn't accept that I was the one he openly loved. So no, it isn't heartless to feel the way you do, it's perfectly understandable."

"I just..." Karen started to say, clearly struggling with the effort it was taking her to maintain a grip on her emotions. "I feel... My womb feels so empty. I know it sounds stupid, but it does."

"No, it doesn't sound stupid," Jo said hoarsely, feeling the tears of sympathy rising to her own eyes. "Karen, you've lost your child, so it's perfectly natural for you to feel like this." Jo's thoughts strayed back to the time when she'd had her termination. She knew only too well to feel as though her womb was unnaturally empty. Yes, that may have been her choice, but it hadn't been any less soul destroying to feel it. But this was one experience that she certainly couldn't share with Karen, not now, because to Karen, in her currently emotionally unbalanced state, it would be someone else's rejection of a child, not something she would know how to deal with right now. They talked for hours, Karen taking those first jagged and treacherous steps along the path of emotional cleansing. Karen hadn't expected she would cry, but she did, finally feeling that it was providing her with the release it was supposed to cause. They exchanged fond memories of the solo raising of young children, both of them being far too familiar with the endless struggle it had so often been. Much later, when Karen sank gratefully between the sheets of Jo's spare bed, she reflected that though she may no longer have a child to call her own, she did have friends, and without such friends she would have no chance whatsoever of surviving the coming weeks and months.

Part One Hundred and Seventy

John was always a creature of moods and impulses, almost because of rather than in spite of the professional demands as reflected in the severe mathematical constraints on his thinking. From time to time, an impulse out of nowhere would direct him where he was going, often in a direction that he did not know.

So was it today when he woke up on a Sunday morning with that need for the open spaces and the need for no one's human company but his own and to take Mimi for a walk as a sometimes undemanding canine companion. He looked outside his window and the weather was sunny but mild. Mimi pricked up her ears as John looked around in a restless fashion for what she suspected was her lead and realised her luck was in.

"Walkies, Mimi," John said in a low voice. This time, she would not dream of pretending to a foolish human being that she couldn't hear or understand. In no time at all, he was driving along the open road where some instinct beyond his awareness took him to the very same park, which was the prelude to the crossing of the paths.

John smiled to himself when that familiar prospect opened in front of him but that was no concern of his. Lightning never strikes twice, so he reasoned, as he sat in the car deliberating for a little while and the park was very pleasant, conveying just that sense of space, of a flat green field in front of him gradually ascending to a hill at the top. Mimi kept very quiet, of course as she had that lingering suspicion that her owner was going to drive on elsewhere. Her owner was very attentive to her needs and was very good to her but he did have that annoying puppy-like tendency not to make up his mind, as if he perpetually chased his tail. To her point of view, there was plenty of space to roam free, whether her owner liked it or not, and a particular bouquet of smells which instantly decided the matter for her. Naturally she knew that, as a human being, he had a pitifully deficient sense of smell but she knew that she would have to accept that lacking in one area of his sensibilities. She would have to make allowances and understand him as best as she could.

She jumped out and frisked around when her door was opened and, after the second or third word of command, suffered the clip of her lead to be fastened to the back of her collar and she weaved her slightly erratic path out of the car park, pulling John by her lead and came onto the fresh green grass. Her luck was in today.

John felt a faint breath of wind on his collar and he trod his way along the grass and began to feel more human. The field seemed to stretch forever and both the pull on the lead and the sight of the wide-open spaces felt good to his senses. The day of the funeral was a harrowing experience. He felt deep sympathy, no there were words better and expressive than that, to express the depths of his feelings for Karen. It had confronted, judged him and found him wanting in how he had kept the secret from Karen for so long. He had to get out and blow a few cobwebs out of his mind.

Presently, Mimi got her wish and was let off the leash. Joyfully she bounded away and her erratic zigzag path took them further and further across the field. Fortunately, the amateur football season had finished and he did not need to stop Mimi from seeking out more human company to play with nor who did not exactly appreciate the finer aspects of dog behaviour. Nor did he have to tread over patches of bare earth, as he had to do in the past thanks to her. Both of them were happy and content to wander as they saw fit.

All good things had to come to an end and Mimi was eventually restored to her role of pack leader after she had worn off some of her energy. They had taken a diagonal path far into the park by then and had gradually come up the hill to where the general landscape changed. Well to the right and in the mid distance, the park keeper's green hut adjoined the football changing rooms. Immediately before them, they converged at right angles towards a path that ran across from left to right before them. Immediately behind that was a high privet hedge. Mimi promptly decided for John that a hedge was worth exploring and John tolerantly let her have her way.

As she padded along her path, Mimi immediately sensed the presence of another dog. She had met him before and her tail wagged in excitement as she quickened her pace.

John figured that Mimi wanted another short run. She seemed to have boundless energy, not surprising for a dog that was very quiet when he was busy working on his papers in the digs. He was curious to see that she was bounding round and round in circles round him and seemed to be edging him along the path to where the hedge seemed to come to an end. Very well, he might as well let her have her way. After all, it was a lazy Sunday morning.

Not so far away, Yvonne had taken Trigger for a walk and he plodded fairly slowly along the path. He was getting old in dog terms but still liked his walks. It was a mercy on her as well as, left to herself, she would stop in doors and think too bleeding much. It surprised her that, suddenly Trigger quickened his pace and started walking quicker than normal. She increased her walking speed and approached the end of the hedge. Yvonne suddenly swore that she could hear another dog barking the other side of the hedge. In John's quiet reverie he had the feeling that he could hear another dog barking the other side of the hedge. Suddenly, Mimi bounded away as he could see that she had rounded up

Her master but every so often turned her head to check that the human was following. As Yvonne came to the end of the hedge, she could tell that Trigger had turned the corner sharp right and followed her.

To her great surprise, the Judge jumped into her sight only ten feet away. John suddenly blinked and was utterly surprised to see not just another person in that empty park, but Yvonne. John was taken aback but into Yvonne's mind jumped the memory of Jo telling her that he'd known about Ross, since the end of May. She could recall that feeling of total shock of that bombshell. She remembered Karen trying to explain it away but it went right over her head, that it was all very fine but didn't relate in any way to Atkins values, as they now were and always had been in that part of her life which hadn't changed.

"I have got a bone to pick with you, judge."

"Ah," Came his impassive reply. The source of guilt had preyed so much on his mind that it didn't take a great logical leap to make the deduction, however relaxed he left on a lazy Sunday.

"Perhaps I don't exactly get the legal niceties, but explain to me, Mr. Judge John Deed if you can, that you were told that Karen's son Ross was slowly dying, you kept schtum about, not so much a whisper to warn her of what you knew was going to hit her hard."

"Excuse me, Yvonne, but I was merely taking my dog for a walk. I reserve to Monday to Fridays in wrestling with the moral dilemmas of the world."

Inside, he was a maelstrom of cross cutting emotions. He was hot with anger at Yvonne's denunciation, his sense of guilt flamed up anew and that weary feeling pervaded that he didn't need all this. What came over was John brushing Yvonne off in a slightly superior, sardonic and dismissive manner.

"You don't get away with it that lightly, judge."

At that moment, hurt anger and shame battled their way to the surface.

"I haven't got away with anything at all. You ought to know that I've had the most unpleasant……no I'll say more, utterly upsetting…..duty in all my life to break the news of the tragedy to you and Jo Mills, to talk to Helen. What did she say but and I quote. 'Don't you feel any guilt, Judge? Don't you think that maybe this time, the law didn't know best? Because I can tell you that I sure as hell do…….'"

"You have a good memory, judge," Yvonne sneered.

"Don't you understand better than that, Yvonne? There are moments in your life that are burnt into your mind that you don't forget in a hurry. You talk as if I am utterly unfeeling, as if I sat on a secret for week after week, month after month, hoping against hope that somehow a situation which I had no control over whatsoever would right itself. I'll never forget the moment when I was first told of a matter which I was told in confidence, when I heard the tragedy and having to do my inadequate best to give what comfort that I could in a situation where I know from personal experience that there is none to give……"

Jesus, Yvonne thought to herself. The man is totally cut up, not knowing or caring that he was shouting at her in a middle of an empty park and not caring. She had never heard him talk like this. She noted what Helen had hurled at him and realized that all of them had thrown at him what she was going on to say.

"I'm sorry, John. I shouldn't have opened my big mouth. I do it too often for my own good."

John had to pause to calm down from that explosion of emotion. He had got really worked up and he wondered if he had made an ounce of sense. That stream of words came out in one splurge, totally different from blowing a fuse in court.

"It takes one to recognise another, Yvonne," John said with a wry smile. A surge of affection rose up in him for this woman who spoke her mind because she cared so much. It was a rare and precious quality these days. Besides, since when had he always been so careful with his choice of words?

"I owe you a proper explanation, Yvonne. You of all people."

John suddenly looked round as he calmed down and saw that Mimi and Trigger were pursuing their own dog conversation and had let the humans do their own thing as long as neither of their owners were threatened. All species had their forms of arguments.

After they put Mimi and Trigger back on the leash, he slipped his arm in Yvonne's in a companionable fashion.

"Let's walk back across the park, Yvonne. I'll try and explain matters to you as I saw them. I'll leave nothing out, whether or not it goes against me. I'm taking the chance that you'll still blame me and still think that I did wrong."

"I'll give you a fair hearing, John," Yvonne said softly. He deserved that of her at the least as he was putting himself on the line. At the back of her mind was the memory of what he'd done for her Lauren. In turn John was incredibly moved by Yvonne's generosity and her patent sincerity as she added, "That's what everyone in life deserves, a bit of justice when they need it."

Part 171

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