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 Eighty One

When Karen and Denny reached G wing, Karen asked Gina to take Denny to the hospital wing, and to stay with her for the time being. When she entered the officers' room, she found Nikki, Sylvia, John and Grayling waiting for her, Dominic having obviously been assigned to return Tina and the Julies to their cells. Walking straight up to Sylvia, Karen waved the bunch of keys in front of her face.

"I'd have thought by now that you would have learnt to properly look after your keys. This after all, wouldn't be the first time you've unwittingly lost them, now would it. The thought occurs, that you haven't learnt a single, bloody lesson in the entire time you've been here. The further thought occurs, that if you can't be trusted with such a responsibility, you should no longer be in your present employment. Now get out of my sight." Taking the keys from her before Karen could change her mind, Sylvia moved out of the office with far more speed and agility than her frame might indicate, leaving a slightly stunned silence in her wake. "As you are no doubt aware," Karen continued, turning to Nikki and not remotely losing her stride. "Disciplining junior officers, is one of the less delightful responsibilities of a wing governor. I am giving you carte blanche to give her whatever punishment you think fit." Finally acknowledging her superior's presence, Karen turned to him. "You look like you're just about ready to implode with fury."

"What the hell, did you think you were doing?" Neil demanded quietly, though with the threat of menace barely below the surface.

"I beg your pardon?" Karen replied, more than a little confused.

"I asked," Neil said slowly and carefully, as if to a five-year-old. "Precisely what did you think you were doing, going up on that roof?"

"Well, forgive me for being thick," Karen retorted flippantly. "But I thought I was trying to prevent someone from decorating the paving slabs out there, or have I missed something?"

"You didn't even take the precaution of wearing a hard hat, for god's sake," Neil told her exasperatedly, his voice inevitably rising. Her face wavering for just a second, Karen realised that this thought hadn't once occurred to her.

"Admittedly, that was something of an oversight," She said dismissively. "But as it happens, it wasn't necessary." Neil stared at her in aghast astonishment.

"I don't believe I'm hearing this," He said a little more quietly. "Karen, this isn't like you."

"Neil, if I'd done this strictly by the book, Daniella Blood would more than likely be dead now. I don't need that on my conscience, and you don't need the publicity."

"You should never have tried to take the blade away from her," Neil said into the silence, neither confirming nor denying her assessment of the situation.

"You weren't up there," Karen said succinctly. "You didn't see what she was doing with it."

"Cutting, I would have thought," Neil said a little tartly. "That's what most inmates keep razor blades for."

"Tell me," Karen said a little wearily. "Have you ever seen anyone in the process of doing it? Because believe me, it's a sight you wouldn't ever forget."

"No, but..."

"No, you haven't," She finished for him. "Like me, you've often found it a part of the job to deal with the after effects of such a pastime, but you've never actually witnessed it. The more she said, the more she kept on doing it. I couldn't just sit there, watching her get closer and closer to that main artery. Neil, if she'd had an arterial bleed up there, there would have been nothing you, or I, or anyone else could have done. I went up there to get Denny down safely and in one piece, and that's what I did. Now, can we please leave it at that?"

"No way," Neil said quietly, still murderously angry with her for taking such a risk. "Karen, I can't have you working in such a stressful environment, when you are liable to make decisions, that are blatantly not based on your usual common courtesy towards your own safety. During the struggle you had with Denny, she could easily have pushed you off that ledge, whilst still keeping herself on a perfectly level footing."

"And your point is?" Karen replied, her tone telling him in no uncertain terms to get on with it.

"That is my point," He said in complete disgust. "You clearly don't give a damn about your own safety. Karen, you've been in this job, more than long enough, to know that you can't simply rush into a situation like this one, without giving due consideration to your own safety, you know that. I am more than a little concerned, that this no longer seems to be something to which you care to accord much thought."

"My ultimate duty of care, is to the inmates," Karen stated firmly.

"And in order to fulfill that duty of care, you have to think about how taking the type of risk that you did today, might put you in an irretrievably dangerous position. Karen, I don't want to have to do this, but you are forcing my hand. From this point on, I must ask you to consider yourself suspended." There was a long, awful pause.

"Why?" Karen asked him, all the anger having dissipated, and her voice now containing only betrayal.

"Karen, I am suspending you for your own good," Neil told her gently. "I need you to take some time out, to emotionally regroup, and to come back to the job, the Karen Betts I can trust. We both know that you came back to work far too soon, and I think that it's only now, that everything is beginning to catch up with you. I would like you to take a month, but I suspect that for you, that would be too much to ask, so I'm asking you to take at least a fortnight, before I see you anywhere near this place again." With a stunned, utterly appalled look on her face, Karen turned without another word, and strode hurriedly out of the office. As he swiftly made to follow her, John briefly stopped by Neil.

"Well done," Was all he said, thinking that Neil had handled the situation admirably.

As John followed Karen back to her office, he could feel that her nerves were still singing with tension. Seeing Denny cut herself had undoubtedly affected her, and all John really wanted to do, was to hold her, soothe her, and persuade her to calm down, but he couldn't. She was giving off that tightly controlled air of don't you dare come anywhere near me. Sweeping into her domain, Karen noticed that her full ashtray of the day before was gone, meaning that the cleaners had obviously been in since the previous evening. She began stacking papers together, leaving her desk far tidier than she usually did, collecting together the various belongings she might want over the next couple of weeks. John stood and watched her, not knowing what he could possibly do to make her feel better. As if feeling his gaze on her, Karen turned to him.

"You entirely agree with what he just did, don't you," She asserted, her tone clearly telling him that she was looking to continue her fight.

"Yes," He told her simply, knowing that anything diplomatic wasn't going to go down well at this point. She didn't immediately respond, but he noticed her eyes flitting occasionally to the place where he suspected she kept her trusty bottle of scotch. Moving over to the wall safe above one of her filing cabinets, she punched in the code, opened the door, and began sorting through its contents.

"It's funny," She said, glancing at him over her shoulder. "But one of the safest places to keep valuable documents, really is one of Her Majesty's prisons."

"This is the last place I would think of keeping something like a passport," John said in astonishment, as she drew forth the little wallet that could take her out of the country if she wanted.

"Prisons have to be constructed of as many flame retardant materials as possible, and it's far easier to get out of one, than it is to get in." Picking something else out of the safe, she handed it to him. "Will you do me a favour?" She asked a little more gently. "Will you take care of that for me? It's something I need to keep, but I'd rather not run across it unsuspectingly."

"What is it?" He asked, thinking that he recognised the writing on the envelope.

"Read it and see," She invited, knowing that John would appreciate its contents just as much as she did.

As John slowly read the letter Karen had received from Joe Channing, he felt an almost overwhelming combination of feelings beginning to swamp him. The sentiments were so delicately expressed, but with every word, feelings were induced in the reader that John wouldn't have expected to hear from his ex-father-in-law. Everything Joe said about his wife, and his raising of George, gave John an invaluable insight into Joe's relationship with his only daughter. He saw, perhaps for the first time, just how hard it must have been for him. But when he came to the part where Joe had mentioned Karen's clearly loving his daughter, John stopped, staring in wonder at the words before him. He had absolutely no idea that Karen felt so much for George, no idea at all, which made him again begin to question what she'd said before going up on the roof. Karen had said that she didn't have a lover to come back too, but surely she did, she had George. Granted, George wasn't entirely hers, but even so, she did have George, didn't she?

As she watched him reading out of the corner of her eye, Karen put her last few personal possessions together, leaving all the unimportant things, but taking the treasured ones with her. She moved to stand in front of her office window, looking down on the empty exercise yard, briefly glancing up at the hospital wing opposite, on whose roof she had so recently stood. She understood fully what had led Denny to go up there, and she understood why Denny hadn't wanted to come down. When John finished reading the letter, he put it back in its envelope, and laid it back on the desk. Walking slowly over to where Karen stood with her back to him, he gently put his arms round her from behind, feeling every muscle in her to be as hard as concrete. He laid his hands on top of hers, which rested on the sun-warmed ledge of the windowsill.

"You were amazing up there," He said into her hair, both of them looking out on to the silent grounds.

"Bloody mental, you mean," She said turning her hands over so that her fingers interlocked with his.

"No," He said with a fond smile. "You acted as though what you were doing was perfectly normal, as if where you were, was as safe as your balcony at home."

"If I'd been afraid, Denny might have picked up on it, which would have wound her up even more."

"What she did, it really disturbed you, didn't it."

"Mmm," She said, trying to relax in his hold. "Not something I'll easily forget in a hurry."

"Is that because of what Ross did?" John asked gently, feeling her tense slightly at her son's name.

"Possibly," She admitted eventually. "Do you know what I see, nearly every time I close my eyes?" She asked into the silence. "I can see his blood, and there's never anything I can do to stop him bleeding. When I went to see him, the day after he died, I made the monumental mistake of looking at his arm, where he cut his wrist. That was probably the most stupid thing I've ever done, but I had to do it. What Denny was doing to herself, it was just a bit too close to that." John had inwardly winced when she'd told him of dreaming of Ross's blood, but when she'd explained why, his arms had reflexively tightened, as if by doing so, he could banish all the pain for good. Gently turning her to face him, he put his arms back round her, wanting to offer her comfort in the only way he knew how. There were tears in her eyes, but she was resolutely refusing to let them fall.

"I wish you'd give into it," He told her softly, his own voice not entirely steady.

"If I allowed everything to overwhelm me, John, I would crack up completely." They stood there for some time, Karen taking immeasurable comfort from simply being held by the strongest, gentlest, and at the same time, most passionate man she knew. He delicately ran his fingers through her hair, gradually feeling a little of the tension seeping from her body.

"You should be available in pill form," She said into his shoulder, causing him to smile. After another long stretch of companionable silence, she said, "Thank you for being here today.""

"I would say it was my pleasure," John said dryly, drawing slightly back from her. "But that wouldn't quite be appropriate." As their eyes met, all the adrenalin and electricity-fuelled feelings seemed to rise once again to the surface, the air positively crackling with the sudden need they had to bridge the distance. They both could feel it, and they both knew what would be the outcome, but neither of them could have stopped. When their lips eventually met, it felt to Karen as if she was coming home. After nearly two years of trying to forget what it had been like to kiss and be kissed by this man, suddenly all the memories were back with a vengeance. God, the things he'd done to her that night, she knew that he could remember it as well as she could. It was long, it was slow, and it was incredibly intense. But when they finally broke apart, John stared at her in astounded shock.

"As unbelievable as it sounds, I really didn't mean to do that," He said, his thoughts reeling. Breaking into the first genuine smile she'd had in the last fortnight, Karen touched his cheek.

I know you didn't, and neither did I, I think."

"I'm sorry," He said seriously, moving slightly away from her.

"Don't be sorry, John," She said gently. "Call it a fairly predictable reaction to an enormous adrenalin rush."

"Well done," He said with a smirk. "You've come up with a much needed new excuse for my repertoire, but yes, you're probably right. Which reminds me," He said, suddenly remembering what she'd said earlier. "What did you mean, when you said that you didn't have a lover, waiting for you to come down safely." The smile was instantly wiped off Karen's face, something for which he internally kicked himself.

"That's something only George can tell you, John, because I'm not entirely sure I'm right, and if I'm not, it wouldn't be fair to give you any false hope."

"You're not making an ounce of sense," He told her gently.

"As I said, I can't be certain. I've just had a couple of lights switched on today, that's all, and if I am right, it's not something I can or should tell you. I haven't even really discussed it with George, so if you want any answers, you'll have to ask her." As Karen picked up her belongings, she glanced at John's face. "Though I wouldn't ask George anything, looking like that," She said with a smirk, taking a tissue from her box, and gently wiping a smudge of lipstick from his lips.

"Are you sure you want me to look after this?" He said, picking up Joe's letter.

"Yes," Karen told him seriously. "It's not something I want to stumble on without warning, but it is something that I might want to look at occasionally." As she locked her office door, and they walked towards the outside, John's hand briefly slipped into hers and gave it a squeeze.

"What are you going to do?" He asked.

"Go away, somewhere, probably somewhere hot. Much as I'm loath to admit it, Neil was right in doing what he did, and I'd have probably done the same in his position. In fact, I did once do the same, or almost did, to Fenner. Believe it or not, he was as much of a workaholic as I am."

"You are nothing remotely akin to Fenner, so don't ever let me hear you say so," John told her firmly, brooking no argument. As they passed through the gate lodge, and Karen handed over her keys, she had a brief impression that she was seeing this place for the very last time. But that was stupid, she reminded herself, because she would be back in two or three weeks, because to be away any longer would take away her purpose, the one thing she could cling too, that she knew without doubt she could do, come rain or shine.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Two

As the situation on the ground returned to as near normality as it could in the circumstances, Grayling found time to turn to Nikki who was totally unsure if she was still required to be on hand.

"I'll deal with anything else that needs dealing with, Karen, G Wing, the lot."

"If that's all right with you."

"You've somehow held the fort till Karen, me and a high court judge could come on the scene. I think that's called acting beyond the call of duty," Grayling spoke firmly.

Nikki smiled in gratitude. She was relieved that someone was allowed to forcibly take responsibility off her. In her club days, she would have been the last to leave after an emergency.

"Were you going anywhere special?"

"Yvonne's fiftieth birthday."

Neil grinned broadly. He had the suspicion that the hospitality would be lavish or she would be in mourning.

"Well, now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party. If you are asked about the events of today, I leave entirely to your discretion what you say to everyone, the one proviso being that nothing gets leaked to the press. As before, this stays entirely within my control."

Nikki reeled out of the gate and made her way to the car. Before setting off, she phoned up Yvonne to say that she was on her way and made a second call to Helen.

"Hi babe, I'm off to Yvonne's. Are you on your way there."

"I'm with Karen. I'll explain later."

Nikki shut off her phone and took her car slowly down the road. She was emotionally drained from watching and waiting for what seemed like hours till help came and more so in watching helplessly from the ground while Karen negotiated desperately with Denny and the one heart stopping instant when they wrestled on the edge. She'd been through that movie before and it brought back a whole confusion of emotions when Helen teetered on the edge, not on top of the roof but in later finally admitting her love to Nikki.

At Yvonne's party, the drink and good spirits were flowing freely in equal measure and background music was playing softly. Trigger wandered around from one human being to another, basking in the attention of so much company. He was as well away as the others. They were vaguely aware of the passing of time and it was not till Yvonne's phone bleeped and her perceptions were dulled not to notice the flat expressionless tones in which Nikki spoke.

"That was Nikki, girls. Cassie, be sure to offer her a double when she gets in," grinned Yvonne.

"Cassie's idea of a double is my idea of a triple," Blabbed Roisin to all and sundry.

Crystal was lying back, looking zonked out, as the level of hospitality was more than she was used to. She wasn't against the odd tipple but two very young children severely limited her time to let her hair down.

Lauren was finding her feet back in her own house. It wasn't feeling quite so strange now and all the people she used to see regularly were with her now. It would seem strange seeing Nikki who she had seen much of but in an entirely different role.

Soon, there was a quiet knock at the door and Lauren eased herself to her feet and answered the door.

"Hi Nikki," She called out exuberantly and flung her arms slightly drunkenly round her shoulders. "Come and join the party."

Trigger was soon behind Lauren and denoted his approval, wagging his tail. Nikki let herself be led towards where the sounds were loudest. The splash of colour and luxury were a real contrast to her austere surroundings at Larkhall. When she entered the lounge, all her friends were there and it brought tears to her eyes. If it weren't for the bad news she had to relate, she would have felt as if she had come home .

"You nearly missed out on the drink. Thank yourself lucky there's anything left," Cassie greeted her.

Nikki's smile was rather strained and Roisin's sharp eyes detected that Nikki was bringing her own troubles with her but was too polite to inflict them on the rest of the crowd and in fact felt positively embarrassed about it.

"It's great to see you, Nikki. I've not seen you for far too long."

"Well I couldn't have come at a better time than with Lauren. I can't claim the credit for

all that."

Yvonne's eyes were brimming with tears. She knew right enough that Nikki had, in her quiet way, enabled Lauren to come back to her, not someone whom prison had worn down and diminished but someone with a quieter maturity about her. She came towards Nikki and hugged someone who was probably her oldest friend. They went back a good few years now she came to think of it.

"Bollocks, Nikki, I can tell."

"So how's Denny been keeping? You've not let her go back to the way she used to be?" Crystal asked lightly. This was more or less a rhetorical question, a bit of small talk for all she knew.

Nikki promptly sat down with her drink and swallowed a generous mouthful of the spirits. She needed that. The room went suddenly quiet while she framed her words in her mind to speak. She really hated to spoil the party and wanted to join it as much as anyone but saw no way of holding out on Yvonne whose glance in her direction told her that she was gradually sensing the truth.

"I'm sorry but Denny has not been at her best to put it mildly."

"What do you mean, Nikki?"

"I was all set to leave early to come here when I saw Denny up on top of the hospital roof."

The shockwaves from that flat, understated remark radiated round the room. Roisin discreetly switched the CD off so they could hear.

"What the frigging well happened. Nikki?"

"Don't ask me, Yvonne. This one blew up out of nowhere," Nikki snapped back, tired and momentarily stretched beyond breaking point. "I'm sorry, Yvonne. I know how much Denny means to you and Lauren. I can assure you that I've checked with Gina and Dominic and they are as surprised as anyone. You know them, if there was anything slightly wrong, they wouldn't let it pass. I was wondering if you might know, Lauren."

Guilt at wallowing in her own release and apparently forgetting about Denny made Lauren bite back.

"Are you asking me as wing governor, Nikki, for some sort of investigation?"

"For your information, Lauren, once anyone, and I mean anyone gets out of prison, the rules change. That's the same the moment I got out and I got back with Helen, former acting governing governor of Larkhall. That's the way I felt when we were kissing right outside the club for everyone to see. I'm Nikki, you're Lauren and as you see, rank doesn't matter right now. I want you to tell me anything you might know, as believe it or not, I still believe that prisoners hold the key to a lot of what goes on in prison. Whatever I use, I'll use officially where I have to. Now, I'll repeat the question, Lauren, if you have the slightest clue what went on, for god's sake tell me."

Lauren and Yvonne felt a huge wave of guilt wash over them. Nikki deserved better from them. Roisin put her arm round Nikki's shoulders as it pained her to see her emotions breaking loose as her battle to keep up her controlled restrained tones was finally lost.

"I'm really and truly sorry, Nikki. I've been a right cow. You're right, I should have spotted what was going on but didn't."

"We'll leave that for later, girls. What happened next?" Yvonne pronounced softly in those tones, which took them all back to when they were nearly all together in Yvonne's cell, holding some sort of conference.

"Karen was off work so I phoned her at George's. She and John, I mean the judge, came at

the double. It seemed to take a lifetime but I dare say they were quick enough. Karen insisted on going up on the roof, same as Helen did for Zandra."

"You must be joking," Yvonne's flat tones concealed her utter horror and shock. She suspected that Karen was not in her right mind.

"I did all I could to stop her though I admit that if it hadn't been for Karen, Denny might not have come down as she did. At least she's safe now and that's the main thing."

Nikki added the last words with particular emphasis. She could not in all conscience say to Yvonne and Lauren 'by the way, Denny had taken a razor to herself.' No one should bear that amount of guilt, certainly not right then.

"Were we around at the time?" Cassie asked sharply.

"You'd all gone by then. I'd gone back to the wing and did some more work and was just about to come over here when I first noticed Denny up on the hospital roof," began Nikki in a tired flat tone. She hesitated a little as she had the feeling that she was repeating herself and rambling. "Anyway, Karen wouldn't listen. I had to get her at least to take a radio and she climbed up that metal staircase without any care for herself…..I think she did that as, in her words, if anything happened to Denny, Yvonne would never forgive her …."

Tears formed in Yvonne's eyes and not just for Denny. Oh sister, why didn't you believe in me more, or rather believe in yourself, grieved Lauren.

"……she got up there and they shared a cigarette, just as if they were sat in a Starbucks café somewhere, not four floors up on a prison roof. She got Denny to talk and, yes, it was a reaction to you getting out, feeling that she'd be on her own, that everyone she's known had died or got sent to Ashmoor, like Shaz, Shell, her mother. She tried to tell her that ……"

"…she helped me to pack. She seemed fine," Lauren gasped in horror.

"That sounds like Denny," Crystal said in a low voice.

"…..anyway Karen tried to reason with her, she explained that she'd just lost Ross and it was the way she talked about him that made me feel that Karen was not that much better off emotionally than Denny….she really gave me the feeling that she didn't give a damn about her life…"

Nikki's eyelids were drooping down as she sounded very tired and paused momentarily. What came over was an uncertain trickle of human emotions, how it felt, not a dispassionate incident report as she would have to write up when she got back to work. She was with close friends now and they had seen enough of Larkhall to pencil in the gaps.

"The poor woman," Roisin spoke in melting tones. It could have applied to Denny, or Karen or even Nikki.

"I'm losing the plot. In the end, the situation changed suddenly. Denny made a move and Karen went for her and wrestled her down on the edge of the roof. That was the most mad, frightening, dangerous bloody wonderful thing I've seen in my life."

The others could visualise everything and feel everything even with Nikki's sparse description. Crystal had been there the last time around and the others had heard enough to paint a picture in their own minds, which was unbearably vivid. The room sank into gloomy silence while Nikki's eyes closed momentarily and she swam uneasily into confused formless nightmares of her own. The others were torn between intense pity for Denny and Karen in equal measure and, by extension, Yvonne and Lauren for their acute guilt of celebrating Lauren's return. The fact that it was irrational made no difference. A few minutes later, Nikki started mumbling her way through the cloudy nightmare around her, still just functioning.

"Neil was on the scene, Neil Grayling. He was around after I phoned him and he ended up suspending Karen from duty for two weeks."

She knew that she was unnecessarily clarifying Grayling's identity but that was the last thing to matter.

"Bastard," Cassie shouted, her sympathies awash for her friend who had achieved a bloody miracle only for some insensitive clod of a man to kick her in the teeth.

"No, Cassie. He did it for Karen's own good. She's in danger of cracking herself right up in working too hard. She should never have come back to work when she did. Sure, she did brilliantly but she went at it in a totally crazy way and took way too many risks. I was there and I was scared out of my wits for her. I saw everything and so did Grayling and the judge."

Nikki's persuasive tones made for food for thought for all of them. Suddenly, wheels started turning in Yvonne's mind. There was something here that was left unexplained.

"There's something I don't get, Nikki. How the bleeding hell did Denny get on the roof. She didn't fly there like Mary bleeding poppins? Last I was there, that part of Larkhall is bolted and barred."

"Oh, didn't I tell you? Denny nicked Sylvia's keys. Denny dropped her in it." Nikki answered with the first faint smile on her face since she entered Yvonne's house.

"Oh, and is this Sylvia as in Bodybag?" Yvonne enquired, savouring the delicious flavour of what she saw was coming.

"Of course. Who else? I can't call her Bodybag now she works for me though I've come close to slipping," Came the perfectly logical reply.

There was a pause for precisely thirty seconds and the whole room exploded in laughter. This was too rich. This was the perfect release of all that misery and guilt which had grown up as Nikki's tale was told. They laughed so much that it started to hurt their sides. Then, when they had regained their breath, the comments started flying.

"Send her down the block."

"Put her in strips."

"……..and play 'Kumbaya' all the time to her."

"Take all her chocolate fingers away from her."

Nikki laughed along with all the rest of them till they subsided in sheer exhaustion. This moment, at Yvonne's house and seeing everyone happier after telling some of the bad news made her feel better, more relaxed.

"Seriously though. Karen has given me a free hand in deciding what punishment fits the crime. Third time unlucky, eh. I have to stick to the rules, you know how it is but I shall take time to make sure it will cure her or kill her. I am the boss on G wing, after all. She has to answer directly to me," She finished with a self satisfied smirk.

Nikki's glass was refilled and she drank gratefully of the spirits and of the friendship all around her. You didn't get it much better than this. This was a spirit she had chased all her life, always believing in it, no matter how bad life got.

"What about Helen?" Roisin asked anxiously. After making one mistake of overlooking Denny, she wasn't going to do the same with Helen.

"She's spending the night looking after Karen. She needs someone like her around more than anything else in the world I can think of. She'll stay safe at least for the night," Came the fervent and immensely reassuring reply. Karen's future was full of questions but that was another day.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Three

As John drove away from the prison, seeing Karen's car turning in the other direction, he wondered what on earth had just happened. Why, after almost two years, had he kissed her? What in god's name had made him do such a thing? Perhaps she was right, he thought, maybe it had been the sheer adrenalin of the situation that had made them both temporarily abandon their usual restraint. But that didn't answer his question about what was going on between Karen and George. Her answer had been very cryptic, because she clearly only suspected most of it, and didn't want to give him something to worry about, unless it was absolutely necessary. But hang on, Karen hadn't said it would worry him, she'd said that she didn't want to give him any false hope. That just made him feel even more confused than he already did. But one thing she had asked him to do, and that was to let George know that she was perfectly safe. Remembering how George had reacted, on the day they'd briefly thought that Charlie might be dead, he couldn't blame Karen for wanting to avoid George's immediate expression of relief.

When he drew up outside George's house, he briefly wondered if he would be granted the answer he sought. Probably not, he mused to himself, as he waited for her to answer the door. George had been waiting for a call, anything, to let her know that Karen was safe, because she'd realised precisely what Karen was going to do. So, when she saw John standing on her doorstep, a thousand questions seemed to emerge from her at once.

"Hey, calm down," He told her gently, as he moved into the hall, seeing the lines of worry etched across her brow. "She's fine, I promise."

"How could you let her do it, John, how?" She demanded, quite ready to take her relief out on him as Karen wasn't there.

"George, this is Karen we're talking about," John said with a slight smile. "I couldn't have stopped her if I'd tried, you know that."

"Did she do what I thought she would do?" George asked, leading the way into the lounge, and immediately lighting herself a cigarette.

"If you mean, did Karen go up on the roof, to talk Denny down, yes, she did, and except for your occasional phases of self-destruct, I don't think I've ever been more frightened in my life." Finally taking notice of the tension in his entire body, she took his hand, and pulled him down onto the sofa next to her.

"Tell me what happened," She said a lot more quietly, giving his hand a squeeze.

"She was so blasé about it," John began. "She must have been four floors up, with nothing to protect her from falling so far, yet she looked like she was perfectly at home up there. You've met Denny, so you know how volatile she can be, but Karen didn't seem to be bothered by it. She sat down on that ledge next to Denny, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Denny was cutting herself, which I know got to Karen far more than she is prepared to say. At one point, Karen tried to take the razor blade away from her, and they struggled. I don't think I've ever heard such angry words from anyone. Karen was furious, which is probably what kept her from being pushed over the edge. She told Denny that she wasn't going to sit there, and watch her throw away everything Yvonne had ever done for her. That's why she did it, you know, for Yvonne. When Nikki was trying to persuade her not to go up there, Karen said that if she didn't get Denny down in one piece, Yvonne would never forgive her. You know why, don't you?"

"Karen still feels guilty for giving us Lauren's name, doesn't she," George said in realisation.

"It doesn't make any sense," John clarified. "But I think she feels an enormous responsibility for Lauren being behind bars, and I think Denny did this today, because Lauren was released this afternoon. Karen was repaying her debt by doing what she did today, no matter how little sense we might think that makes."

"I'm assuming she did get Denny down in one piece," George said, knowing that John wouldn't have been there with her if Karen had needed him.

"Yes, after a lot of straight talking. But that's not all. She had a pretty intensive row with Neil Grayling."

"Ah," George said in understanding.

"He was incredibly cross with her, because she went against every health and safety policy that exists in a place like that. I used to think I was the only one who held such blatant disregard for their superiors, but Karen really gave him as good as she got."

"But maybe that's the point," George said regretfully. "Under normal circumstances, Karen simply wouldn't behave like that."

"Quite. Anyway, the long and short of it is, that Grayling has suspended her, for a fortnight at the very least, for her own good, to give her some time to sort herself out."

"That's hardly a surprise," George astonished him by saying. "John, Karen hasn't been her usual, highly professional self since Ross died. If an enforced absence makes her take some time out to simply rest, then that's all to the good."

"She looked so betrayed," John told her.

"That's because she thinks that work is all she's good for at the moment. She's coming apart at the seams, John, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do to help her."

"Do you know what really frightened me about her being up there? She didn't give a damn, which way she came down. She wanted to make sure that Denny was safe, but she really didn't care whether or not she stayed in one piece."

"Which is precisely why some time away from everything is absolutely vital," George told him.

"There was something else she said, before taking such a stupid risk," John said carefully, wondering just what sort of reaction he was going to get. "Nikki was trying to persuade her not to do it, and Karen reminded Nikki that Helen had once done something similar. Nikki asked Karen if she knew just how scared she, Nikki, had been for Helen that day. Karen's response, was to say that she didn't have an unrequited lover, or a lover of any kind, waiting for her to come down safely." As he watched, all the colour drained from George's face.

"Did, erm, did you ask her what she meant by that?" George asked a little shakily, not having realised that Karen knew so much. Yes, she knew that Karen had suspicions, but she'd had no idea that Karen knew anything concrete about her defection.

"I asked her afterwards, and she said that she couldn't tell me. She said that a couple of lights had been switched on today, but that as she wasn't certain, it wouldn't be fair on anyone for her to tell me. I was referred unerringly to you."

"John, this is somewhat difficult," George said, getting up from the sofa and beginning to pace.

"I can see that," John said dryly.

"I can't tell you about this, not yet," She said evasively, refusing to meet his eyes.

"Why?" He wanted to know, the look of sheer guilt on her face thoroughly confusing him.

"Because this doesn't just involve me," George told him. "Give me a couple of days, till the weekend at the most, and then I will tell you, but not before." Seeing that he wasn't going to get any more out of her, he agreed. But when he left, a good while later, his thoughts were still centring on the guilty expression that she didn't quite seem able to eradicate from her face.

Karen spent the rest of the afternoon tidying her flat, something she didn't seem to have done in far too long. But at around six, she received a call from Helen.

"Nikki told me what happened," Helen said succinctly. "I've got one more appointment, but after that, I wondered if you felt like some company."

"Yeah, that'd be good," Karen said, surprising herself by agreeing to it.

"Shall I bring a takeaway?" Helen asked.

"Probably a good idea," Karen replied, quickly glancing at the slightly decrepit contents of her fridge. When Helen arrived at about half past seven, bearing a bag from the Chinese and a bottle of wine, Karen found that it really was nice to see her. Helen's company was usually undemanding, as Helen always knew when to try and persuade her to talk, and simply when to back off.

"So, does it still feel as though you're in the middle of nowhere up there?" Helen asked, when they were sitting at the table, digging into the food Helen had brought.

"Up on the roof you mean?" Karen asked, winding some noodles around her fork. "Oh, yeah, and it's far too easy to see why they go up there."

"I think Zandra went up there, because it was the only place she could feel in control of her own and her baby's destiny," Helen said thoughtfully. "Everyone else was trying to take the baby away from her, so she went up there to regain the reins so to speak."

"Denny said she felt free up there, as if it was the only way she could escape the bars. I learnt an awful lot about her mother up on that roof, most of it I wish I didn't know."

"That was before your time, wasn't it, when all that blew up," Helen said, stabbing a deliciously plump king prawn. "The first we knew that Jessie Devlin was Denny's mother, was when Denny tried to attack her with one of those plastic knives."

"It's a terrible thing to say, but after hearing what I heard this afternoon, I can hardly blame Denny for doing something like that."

"What did Grayling say to you, when you brought her down?"

"Didn't Nikki tell you?" Karen asked in surprise.

"She told me that he'd suspended you, but she didn't say much else."

"He was furious. He said that I clearly didn't give a damn about my own safety, and that he couldn't have me around making life threatening decisions, and that he was giving me some time away, so that I could come back the Karen Betts he was used to seeing."

"And was he right?" Helen asked quietly, fixing Karen with her hypnotic gaze.

"Possibly," Karen admitted defeatedly. "It wasn't that I didn't care about my own safety, I just didn't think about it. The only consideration I had, was that of getting Denny down in one piece. I owed it to Yvonne to do that."

"Why do you owe Yvonne, something so enormous?" Helen asked, though with today being what it was, she found some of the pieces beginning to slip into place. Chewing a mouthful of pork in black bean sauce, Karen wondered how to answer this, and finally decided on the truth.

"I don't especially want Nikki to know about this," She said eventually. "Because I don't think she would entirely understand it."

"We don't tell each other everything," Helen said with a soft smile. Putting her fork down and reaching for her glass of wine, Karen took a swig and then told her.

"The day after Fenner's body was found, I was given a pretty ruthless going over by George and Jo, with John there acting as witness. George thought I had killed Fenner, John knew I hadn't, and Jo wasn't sure. If the situation hadn't been so dire, that verbal scrap with George would have been incredibly erotic. They all three of them knew I knew far too much about Fenner's death, even if I hadn't actually been part of it. When John eventually called them off, and Jo escorted me back to my car, I gave her Lauren's name. I made her swear that Yvonne would never know it was me, because at the time, I didn't know how she would react. That's why Jo defended Lauren, because if a total stranger became involved with the case, he or she might have done way too much digging, to find out just how the police had come into the knowledge they did. So, Lauren has spent the last twenty months behind bars, because of me, which is why I had to do what I did today."

Helen had sat in silence as Karen had told her story, slowly chewing on the odd mouthful of food, yet barely recognising its taste.

"You're right in one respect," She said when Karen had finished.

"Nikki wouldn't understand it, not in a million years. But having almost done a similar thing to Nikki, I entirely get why you did it."

"Do you?" Karen asked, utterly gob smacked.

"Sure," Helen told her, taking a sip from her own glass. "The night Nikki got out, and ended up on my doorstep, I thought about phoning the police, afterwards, while she was getting dressed. I even went as far as dialling 999, but when the operator answered, I hung up. If I hadn't slept with Nikki, if I hadn't had the most fantastic night of my life, it would have been much easier to do it. But because I'd exchanged so many feelings, so many promises with her, I couldn't go through with it. But it was different for you. No matter why Lauren says she killed Fenner, no matter how much you think you played a part in her doing that, when it came down to it, you didn't have any choice. Lauren chose to do what she did, Lauren. Not you, not Yvonne, not anyone but her. If you hadn't given Jo Lauren's name, you'd very likely have been investigated along with Yvonne, possibly putting your job at risk, and in the worst case scenario, landing you a stretch in Larkhall, for perverting the course of justice. Karen, you protected your freedom and your livelihood, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that."

"But at what cost?" Karen asked her.

"Any cost Lauren might have found herself paying because of your actions, are because of her own actions. I understand why you feel as you do, but I wish you didn't. You carry far too much guilt around with you, Karen, not just about Lauren, but about Shell Dockley, Shaz Wiley, even me, and you need to let go of every single bit of it."

"You left out Ross," Karen said quietly.

"Because you're not the only one who feels incredibly guilty about that," Helen replied sadly.

"Helen, you tried to help him," Karen insisted. "You of all people shouldn't feel any guilt about my son."

"The night it happened," Helen told her, neither accepting nor denying Karen's assertion. "I asked the Judge if he felt any guilt, because it seemed to me that this time, the law didn't know best. He said that yes, he did feel guilty, because he knew precisely what you were going through."

"He does," Karen told her, knowing it wouldn't go any further. "His mother killed herself when he was ten." Helen's fork clattered to the plate.

"Shit," She said with feeling. Then, at Karen's raised eyebrow, she added, "I'm just remembering some of the things I said to him that night, not one of the most tactful moments I've ever had."

"You couldn't have known," Karen tried to reassure her. "John, is one of the most complicated men I've ever known, because no matter how many layers you think you've peeled away, there are always many more in reserve. He finds it extremely hard to really express how he feels, which is why he usually tries to fall back on actions rather than words."

A little while later when they were clearing up, Helen asked,

"What are you going to do for the next couple of weeks?"

"God knows," Karen said ruefully. "I thought I might go on holiday for some of it though."

"You should," Helen replied, putting the last plate in the drainer. "I went abroad for three weeks, after Sean made a complete fool of me, by setting fire to his wedding suit in the exercise yard."

"Talk about a public disgrace," Karen said in sympathy.

"The point is, that the only people to really give a damn about it by the time I got back, were Fenner and Stubberfield. Everyone else had forgotten. You need the time to sleep by the look of you." Karen opened her mouth to tell Helen of the dreams she'd been having, but something, some instinct of preservation, made her stay silent.

After John had left, George waited until Jo could reasonably be expected to be home from work, and dialled her number.

"Jo, we've got a problem," She said in utter certainty. "We need to tell him."

Part One Hundred and Eighty Four

Karen felt at something of a loose end on the Wednesday morning, not wanted in work, and not required to be anywhere else or to be doing anything else. This wasn't a normal state of being for her, and she wasn't sure she liked it. She was sitting out on her balcony, reading the paper and drinking coffee, when the doorbell rang. Grateful for any intrusion, she went to answer it, only to find Yvonne on the doorstep.

"Can we talk?" Yvonne asked in lieu of a greeting, because Karen didn't seem to know what to say to her.

"Sure," Karen replied, leading the way upstairs, and wondering how Lauren was this morning.

When they re-entered her living room, Yvonne turned Karen to face her, putting her arms round her and holding her as tight as possible.

"You stupid, stupid cow," Yvonne said almost desperately into her hair, which made Karen smile in spite of herself. This was the Yvonne she knew, the Yvonne she had once thought she loved. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

"You're starting to sound like Grayling," Karen told her affectionately.

"And so I bloody should," Yvonne told her sternly. "I can't believe you did that."

"Yvonne, you know why I did what I did," Karen said seriously, gently detaching herself from Yvonne's embrace.

"Yeah," Yvonne agreed. "And it's that we need to talk about." Pouring Yvonne a mug of coffee, Karen led the way out onto her balcony, and they both lit up cigarettes.

"How much did Nikki tell you?" Karen asked, after taking a long drag.

"She told me what Denny did, and what you did to get her down, but she didn't tell me much of why Denny went up there in the first place, but it doesn't exactly take a genius to work it out."

"You're going to have your work cut out over the next few months, between keeping Denny on track and Lauren going through therapy."

"Yeah, I know, but that's the point, isn't it. You've done most of it ever since Lauren got sent down, because all I've really been able to do for either of them is visit. But now, it's down to me, to keep Lauren out of trouble, and to convince Denny that I ain't just going to forget about her."

"The thing is, Yvonne," Karen told her gently. "If Denny keeps pulling stunts like she did yesterday, any hint of parole is going to be one hell of a long time in coming."

"I know," Yvonne said quietly. "So, it looks as though I'll be seeing Bodybag's ugly mug for the foreseeable, doesn't it."

"It was Sylvia's keys she got hold of," Karen filled in. "And I've given Nikki carte blanche to deal with her any way she likes."

"Jesus," Yvonne said with a broad smile. "I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall with that one."

They were quiet for a time, until Yvonne eventually said,

"Sweetheart, whatever debt you think you owed me, you well and truly paid it yesterday." Karen stared at her, with the look of a deer caught in the headlights. Yvonne couldn't know what she'd done, she just couldn't! "Don't look like that," Yvonne told her softly.

"I didn't ever want you to know," Karen said quietly, unable to tear her gaze away from Yvonne's.

"Yeah, he said you wouldn't," Yvonne replied, watching as the pieces began to fit together behind Karen's eyes.

"So, that's the real reason he didn't want me to know he'd slept with you," Karen said in dawning comprehension. "And I thought it was just because both Jo and George would kill him if they found out."

"To give him his due," Yvonne said fairly. "I took complete advantage of his post-orgasmic relaxation, to get my answer to that question."

"Oh, dear, poor John," Karen said with a broad smile, in spite of the fact that she felt as though she were treading on very thin ice.

"Yeah, he looked like you did just now. He's incredibly loyal to you."

"Yvonne, I'm so, so sorry," Karen said, the tears rising to her eyes, feeling a sense of partial relief, that she could finally be honest with Yvonne about this.

"I know," Yvonne said gently, delicately wiping away one of Karen's tears with a finger. "But I don't want you to feel guilty for it any more. I'm serious, you mustn't."

When Karen had finished her coffee, Yvonne asked,

"What are you going to do for the next couple of weeks?"

"I've got absolutely no idea," Karen told her ruefully. "I thought I might go on holiday, but I haven't thought any further than that."

"Good job I did then," Yvonne said with a smile, digging a bunch of keys out of her handbag. "The keys to the villa," She said, handing them over. "And because I thought you wouldn't have got around to making any firm decisions, I've booked you on a flight tomorrow morning, and left the return part of the ticket open, so that you can come back whenever you're ready."

"Thank you," Karen said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. "And you're right, making a vaguely sensible decision, seems to be pretty much beyond me at the moment."

In the middle of Wednesday afternoon, Karen called round to see George. Karen had done an awful lot of thinking in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and she was finally beginning to understand what had happened. She was saddened, more than anything else, to realise why George's affections had strayed elsewhere, because she knew that there was nothing she would be able to do to alter their course. The ultimate destiny of George's feelings wasn't with her, but with another, and Karen knew in her heart of hearts that this had always been somewhat on the cards. When George opened the door, she looked surprised to see her.

"How are you?" George asked, as Karen moved into the hall.

"Erm, surviving," Karen told her, not entirely how to express what she really felt. "Did John tell you what happened?"

"Yes," George said sternly. "And the desire to shake some sense into you, was almost unbearably strong."

"I'm sorry, for worrying you," Karen said quietly, wanting to put her arms round George, but uncertain as to whether her embrace would be welcomed. Seeing the uncertainty in Karen's eyes, George made the decision for her.

"I just wish you'd be careful," She said, giving Karen a hug, and not moving away immediately afterwards.

"I'm going away for a while," Karen said into her hair.

"It'll probably do you good," George said sadly, not wanting to in any way be the cause of why Karen was doing this.

"Yvonne has lent me the keys to her villa, and there's something I want to ask you. I'm going out there for a couple of weeks, maybe longer, but at some point, I'd quite like you to come out and stay for a couple of days, so we can talk." At these innocuous words, George stiffened. Drawing her face slightly back from Karen's, she looked deep into her eyes, seeing there a level of understanding that almost frightened her.

"You know, don't you," She said, seeing the answer before Karen gave it to her.

"I think so," Karen told her, also seeing that George didn't want it to be like this.

"Darling, I'm sorry," George said, feeling that she couldn't have picked a worse time to do something like this to Karen.

"I know," Karen told her, thinking that it seemed to be the day for significant pledges of apology.

"Are you sure that you still want me to come and stay?" George asked.

"Yes," Karen replied quietly. "Because I want to understand."

"Why?" George wanted to know. "I've successfully managed to hurt you, at what must be the worst time possible, but you still want to understand why I'm doing it. That doesn't make sense."

"Yes, it does," Karen told her with a soft smile. "George, if something makes you happy, I want to know about it. Whatever happens in your life, I want to know about it. I just want you to do one thing for me, I need you to tell John, because leave it long enough, and he will work it out by himself, and I don't think it would in any way help the situation if he were allowed to do that. Don't make him wait any longer than necessary." When Karen left, and George watched her drive away, they both knew that when they next saw the other, things would have happened, things that would irrevocably change what their future would hold.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Five

During Wednesday afternoon lock up, Nikki rang down to the wing, and asked for Denny to be brought up to her office. Denny had come back from the hospital wing that morning, and had been on fifteen minute watch ever since. When Gina showed her in, Nikki could see that Denny's arm was still bandaged, and that the desolate, haunted look was still present in her eyes.

"Can you come back in about half an hour?" Nikki asked her. "And tell Sylvia to make herself available at the end of her shift."

"Are you going to tell her what we talked about this morning?" Gina asked.

"Yes, I should think so," Nikki replied with a slightly malevolent smile. "So be ready for the fracas that is sure to follow."

When Gina had gone, Nikki sat and regarded Denny across the desk. Denny was standing opposite her, refusing to meet her eyes, and looking sulky and belligerent.

"How do you feel after yesterday?" Nikki finally asked her.

"Shit, how do you think I feel?" Denny replied without looking at her.

"Denny, I'm not about to have this conversation, while you're still looking at the floor," Nikki said firmly. "So sit down in that chair, and stop sulking." As Denny moved to do as she was told, Nikki was forcefully reminded of the numerous occasions she'd been in Denny's place, and Helen had been the one calling the shots. "Why do you think you're here?" Nikki asked her, lighting herself a cigarette, and then lighting one for Denny.

"By the look of you, to get a few days down the block," Denny said, gratefully taking the cigarette.

"And why would I be quite within my rights to do that?" Nikki replied, only just managing to keep her irritation below the surface.

"Don't give me this bullshit, Nikki," Denny said, blowing smoke up at the ceiling.

"Denny, do you have any idea what you did yesterday?" Nikki demanded, still keeping a grip on the reins of her anger. "You almost got your Governing Governor killed."

"I didn't ask her to do what she did," Denny responded sullenly.

"No, you didn't, but she still did it," Nikki told her. "Even though Karen was risking her life, her job, everything she has, she still went up onto that roof to get you down. Everyone tried to persuade her not to, me, Grayling, the Judge, everyone, so don't you dare even think of wasting what she did for you yesterday. I know things have been difficult for you, and I know that it's going to be doubly hard for you now that Lauren isn't here any more, but you can't keep pulling stunts like you did yesterday. Denny, risking someone else's life, not to mention your own, that's serious stuff, and not something that can be ignored. Denny, I have a duty of care to both officers and inmates, which means that whilst trying to keep you safe and secure, I also have to keep my officers safe and secure, which I can't do properly, if you choose to repeat your stunt of yesterday."

"Jesus," Denny said in disgust. "I don't believe this, you're really starting to sound like one of them. Why did you do it, Nikki, why the bloody hell did you of all people turn screw? You had it just as bad as the rest of us when you were in here. Bodybag gave you as much grief as she gives any of us. What made you think you could be better than the rest of us?" Nikki just stared at her. She'd known this moment would one day come, but not from whom it would emerge. Denny was questioning her right to be in the position she was in, questioning her crossing of the wire, perhaps her ultimate betrayal of who she once had been.

"I took this job, Denny, precisely because I do know how bad things are. Is it so bad to want to improve what happens in a place like this, to make things better for you, for the Julies, Jesus, even for Al McKenzie? That's why I'm here, and that's why I'm trying to do the right thing."

"Sorry, man," Denny said with a shrug. "It just sometimes feels like you've forgotten, you know?"

"Denny, I promise you, that I won't ever forget what it was like to be an inmate in here. They were three of the most difficult years of my life, but if I ever for one moment forgot I'd had them, I would be betraying the only truly wonderful thing that's ever happened to me. Okay?"

"What's going to happen to me?" Denny asked, very much unsure as to her future.

"I'm keeping you on fifteen minute watch for the next few days, because I want to keep an eye on you. I also think it might be a good idea, if you move back into the four-bed dorm, so that you're not on your own. You'll be with Buki, Darlene and Tina. I'm not going to stop your visits, because I think that would be doing more harm than good, but I am giving you 42 days loss of spends, and I fully expect a swift improvement in your behaviour. The other thing that is an absolute must, is for you to make a formal apology to Miss Betts when she gets back from holiday. She could have died for you up there, Denny, and I need you to go away and think about that, because I'm hoping that it will stop you doing anything like that in the future. I also think it might be time," Nikki said slowly, knowing just how well this wasn't going to go down. "That you had some sort of counselling."

"No way, man," Denny protested. "I ain't talking to no shrink."

"Dr. Waugh's a nice guy," Nikki tried to persuade her. "Look, at least think about it."

A good while later, when Gina had escorted Denny back to the wing, Sylvia appeared, looking both uncertain and yet defiant. Nikki had Sylvia's personnel file open on her desk, and was flipping through its fairly voluminous contents.

"Doesn't look all that impressive, does it," She said, when Sylvia came in and closed the door.

"Oh, and I suppose yours looks lily white in comparison," Sylvia retorted.

"Yeah, it does, since my second appeal," Nikki told her, only just resisting the urge to break into a smile. "But then that's probably because I haven't had enough verbal and written warnings to repaper the entire wing, with a demotion into the bargain. You've led a colourful life behind bars, Sylvia, I'll give you that."

"At least I've always been behind them for the right reasons," Sylvia spat, her anger now removing any of her previous restraint.

"Oh, what was that then," Nikki demanded. "To belittle anyone who didn't quite come up to your scrutiny, or to take out your grudges against the world on the people supposedly in your care, whilst putting in as little real effort as possible."

"I've given fifteen years to this service," Sylvia stated vehemently.

"God knows how," Nikki responded immediately. "Though I'm guessing that your tenuous connections with your much loved union might have something to do with it. Tell me, Sylvia, when Karen gave me a blank cheque as to your discipline for yesterday's debacle, what do you think she might have had in mind?"

"Daniella Blood stole my keys," Sylvia protested. "What was I supposed to do?"

"Look after them, I would have thought," Nikki replied almost calmly. "Because they are after all your only way out of here. So, again, what do you suppose I should do with you? Because even the threat of demotion, together with your very last written warning, doesn't seem to make you learn your lesson."

"You've been waiting for this, haven't you," Sylvia rounded on her, leaning over the desk, presumably trying to threaten the woman she'd once put in strips.

"Sylvia, I'm just trying to do a very difficult job," Nikki replied, not allowing Sylvia's proximity or venom to get to her. "You know, that old excuse that I've heard you use on more than one occasion. The point is, that yesterday wasn't the first time you've lost your keys to a prisoner. It was in fact the third, which tells me that you have a problem."

"Oh, and I suppose I should be grateful that you can't give me days in segregation like the rest of them?"

"Yes, perhaps you should," Nikki told her, now beginning to lose her patience. "So, what I do have planned for you, will not only keep you working at the pace required of you, but might teach you to pay attention to detail in your work, something that I feel has been distinctly lacking for a very, long, time. You are being put under supervision by a senior officer, and will be given one year's probation. If, at the end of this time, your work has improved, along I might add with your general attitude, the supervision will no longer be necessary, and you will be re-instated at the officer grade you are now at. If, however, you are still displaying your current, highly pathetic attempt at your duties as a prison officer, we will very seriously have to consider letting you go, and please don't think I'm joking."

"Not even Madam's ever done something like this," Sylvia said venomously, unconsciously giving Karen the name she'd always accorded her behind her back.

"Which makes it all the more ingenious then, doesn't it," Nikki replied, nailing Sylvia to the spot. "The only other thing you need to know, is the name of the officer who has been assigned to be your supervisor. Having known Gina Rossi for years, I'm sure you'll have no problems working with her."

"What?" Sylvia demanded in horror.

"You heard me," Nikki replied firmly. "Now get out." As Sylvia almost stumbled from the room, Nikki gave Helen's picture a thumbs up, the face in the frame that she always kept on her desk, almost appearing to give her a sly little wink, to tell her that she'd been right to do what she'd done.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Six

Lauren stretched her legs out sleepily full length in this gorgeously comfortable luxurious space that she was suspended in. Somehow the screws must have had a day off and that suited her just fine, as for once in her life that she could take her time getting up in the morning. Thank God they weren't clomping around the landing, shouting and clanking cell doors open and shut. All the other prisoners were dead quiet as well. This was sheer unexpected bliss. Her blanket felt much softer and thicker padded than usual. She turned over on her back with plenty of space to spare without falling out of her bunk so she could explore its unexpectedly generous diagonal dimensions which was much more congenial to the human body than normal. She wasn't exactly complaining especially as the more she woke up, the rougher she felt, as if she had hit all the nightclubs in a twenty mile vicinity combined with a pub crawl down the high street. It couldn't be the case as she was behind bars, wasn't she.

She blinked one sleepy eye open but, instead of the drab puke coloured painted brickwork, a vision of dazzling white space greeted her. It was as if she had gone to heaven in the most decadently luxurious bedroom known to women, as her bleary eyes first focussed on an enormous dressing table complete with an impossibly wide mirror. Instead of the cramped postage stamp of a wardrobe that she shared with Denny, a wardrobe spanning the entire width of the room came into view. She thought the 3s were the height of luxury but this was ridiculous.

"Thank God Bodybag's not come to wake me up. I'll have to miss breakfast after all,"

mumbled Lauren sleepily.

"You stupid cow you're back home. Home at last," Broke in the one morning greeting that was dearest of any voice that she could possibly hear.

As her senses sharpened, she realised to a sense of huge relief that, in fact, she was in her own bedroom and that she had somehow come home. Lauren could see Yvonne's smiling face hovering somewhere above her and diagonally to the side. The tone of voice was pure Yvonne, loud banter merging into infinitely gentle and warm-hearted mother love.

"So I am? How did I get here? I don't remember. I feel rough," Mumbled Lauren. Last night's memories were like a jigsaw that was hopelessly jumbled up. No fragment was sensibly attached to anything else.

"So you bloody ought to be. You put away enough booze last night so that Cassie and Roisin had to carry you up the stairs. Nothing like making up for lost time."

"I swear never to touch another drop."

"So they always say till the next time. Which was why you've got a cup of black coffee, a tumbler of water to stop you dehydrating and a glass of Alka Seltzer."

Lauren managed to squint at what looked like a tray and gradually eased her way up onto the pile of soft pillows. This definitely is not Larkhall as all she got was a flattened token effort of a head support.

"You don't have to get up yet, Lauren. Take your time."

Yvonne's eyes were filled with tenderness for the house to be filled up with her nearest and dearest. Last night finally ended up as a loving reunion where those still separated from them were still missed but Cassie and Roisin, Nikki and Crystal and Josh were dearer than anything. Her natural instincts drew others to her to share that spirit in her which overflowed from her and which she longed to give to others. Her Lauren was back home and she would realise all her dreams of this moment. It was strange that she had longed for this moment for so long that it wasn't quite real that it had come to pass at last. Lauren looked peaceful, so innocent in a way that she could not express in words.

"That's great. No morning call after all."

Yvonne laughed out loud but remembered her own reactions when she first got out. She had got used to freedom, including the freedom to be on your own when sometimes you don't want it. She discreetly left Lauren to it for when she was ready to face the day. As she sat downstairs, she could sense her presence above and that gap in her house was at last filled. Meanwhile Lauren propped herself up in bed and she sipped her first cup of ground coffee. It tasted delicious to her taste buds, so used to stewed tea, and this told her what the taste of freedom meant. So did lying in bed for as long as she decided and nobody else.

Glancing to one side beside her bed, she had one more treat for the senses and that was to see Trigger sprawled full length, a huge black shape with one ear cocked for when one of his long lost mistresses would surface. He resolved to be as good as gold, at least for the first day, and to watch protectively over her while she goes through the strange process of "getting up." He knew that dogs are much more sensible, one quick stretch and frisk around and he's always up and ready in no time and he had to tolerate these strange human quirks but it was worth it for his mistress to be back and to add to his pack of which he was undisputed leader. He could afford to lie there, be cool and radiate quiet authority, as you need a human around or two to pose for. It did his ego good.

An hour later, Lauren padded downstairs in her nightie and slippers, looking forward to the delicious luxury of being able to slob around for whenever she felt like and settled down in an armchair. She was beginning to feel as if she was attached to the house or it to her and didn't feel quite so transplanted there. Trigger padded downstairs likewise, sometimes brushing against Lauren and criss crossing in front of her and plonked himself down right next to her. An utter feeling of peace and tranquillity and completeness descended on the house, far different from Yvonne's feelings of misery and loneliness last winter.

"Have you thought what you'll do first today?"

"I don't know," Lauren answered, her mind fogged. She was used to looking watchfully around her, what might come round the corner, what scheme that evil cow Natalie Buxton might have in mind or what pathetic remark Bodybag might come out with. It would take her time to adjust to the reality of being able to drop her guard and be able to do anything she wanted……. "I think I might go for a swim in the pool if that is OK."

"What's stopping you, Lauren?"

"Nothing….I guess," Came her confused reply. "……..I think I'll take it easy and hang around a bit. Nothing too drastic, first day."

"Sounds fine."

Yvonne was conscious that Lauren seemed very tentative, very uncertain in her movements with none of that edge and precision that she was used to from more prison visits than she cared to remember. Instead of that splurge of conversation that poured out from both of them in that short, precious period of visiting time, their conversation was sporadic and dealt with commonplace matters like the weather today. She looked closely at Lauren with infinite understanding. It started to dawn on Yvonne that Lauren was here in her house with no threat or fear of the police suddenly descending on them for that period of madness in Lauren's life. She blinked as it didn't seem quite real.

"Have a read of the magazines."

Yvonne offered her the range of what she had in the magazine rack. Lauren approached it very tentative, surprised at the range of them, instead of some dog eared fifty times read last week's edition of all the gossip. She couldn't make up her mind which one to pick for a full five minutes.

"I think I'll have a swim in the pool," Lauren said at length. That felt a little stranger to her to be able to say it, even more as this was something that she would not have thought of as being a decision.

"I'll sit out on the terrace."

Trigger's sharp ears picked up the indication of a decision. Thank God someone had made up their minds or else he would have to indulge himself in a spot of animal type hinting. He didn't want his long lost mistress out of his sight for one second in case those nasty humans come back and drag her away again. He wouldn't put it past them.

Lauren took in the full view of the back garden for the first time and the sheer space took her breath away. The swimming pool and the steps down to them looked like a picture she had seen in some celebrity magazine at Larkhall, impossibly remote and glamorous except that she was now living the dream. But this was the home she had grown up in, she reasoned to herself. In her confusion, a distant memory floated to the surface of how Denny looked when she came here for the day. The poor kid must have felt as if she were the poor relation being overwhelmed by luxury beyond her dreams. She didn't think she showed it but she must have been a moody stuck up cow who picked a fight with mum and all for falling in love with Karen or Miss Betts or whoever she's supposed to call her now. It all happened in that very same back garden until she dragged mum away somewhere. How absurd she must have seemed as mum had the good taste to fall for someone who isn't a complete egotistical bastard. Now she knew how Denny felt.

"She is going to be all right, Denny I mean," Lauren appealed to her mother.

"She's in good hands. Remember, she's got Karen and Nikki to keep an eye on her. I know that you feel guilty at being in the lap of luxury while Denny's stuck inside."

Lauren nodded assent. She could not put it into words.

"I seriously wonder if that was part of the reason why Nikki went back there. I understand her perfectly if she did. I still think of the Julies stuck there year after year……" Yvonne said in a reflective mood, staring at the far horizons.

"…….now you have a good swim and enjoy yourself. I'll sunbathe on the terrace."

She added as she had spoken many times before, taking Lauren's towel off her.

Lauren stepped forward to the edge of the pool and plunged into the pool with one elegant forward movement. Christ, it was fresh and bracing. She laughed as she emerged and rapidly struck out to swim the length of the pool while Trigger looked onwards. She hadn't swum in ages but it felt so good. The water flowed past her in some kind of cleansing process and her arms and legs pulled her through the water in the best-known exercise that really tones up her muscles. The blue sky shone overhead and she had fragmentary glimpses of her mother, Trigger, the house in the background and the splendid greenery of her back garden. The sharp bracing water dispelled the last foggy traces of too much booze last night. She was young and alive and, thank god, she had a future. She owed it to the others to make the most of it.

Meanwhile Yvonne made her way back to the recliner and stared at Lauren while she splashed around in the pool. Trigger, torn between which human to watch over, eventually lay on his side, his legs splayed out in different directions keeping one eye on the pool and mopping up the heat. Yvonne stretched herself along the length of her recliner and popped her sunglasses on and read odd bits out of the magazine but her eyes kept darting occasionally to the pool much as Trigger did. It felt like a normal day to her or the sort of normality that she had striven for.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Seven

Karen was waiting in a bar in the departure lounge of the huge complex of Heathrow Airport, feeling transplanted from her natural environment. It all felt unreal from the moment that she stepped into that vast echoing space with the expensive refreshment areas, the cheap plastic chairs, anchored down where stranded tourists could slouch and fidget impatiently at the interminable delay. Overhead hung the vast overhead screens advertising a bewildering number of incoming and outgoing flights. It was like a huge railway terminal blown up many sizes. In the distance beyond the glass door of the bar, she had previously checked in with her luggage and had seen the duly labelled shapes slide away from her to be taken on board the aircraft. All it left her was her hand luggage consisting of an assortment of items including suntan lotion, the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy which she had seen displayed conveniently in the W H Smiths bookstall and likewise, a selection of magazines. Her sunglass case was perched on the top.

While she was waiting, she found it incredibly hard to switch off her busy mental timetable and deadlines and where that didn't crowd out her thoughts the twin images of Yvonne's generosity of heart and George's sad understanding floated through her mind.

To help her relax, she knocked back the generous measure of vodka and lemon in her glass to be ready for the flight and who knows what lay before her. In the bar, soft music played to relax the nervous traveller and because it was obligatory in any public place anyway. For once in her life, she started to listen to the music instead of shoving it in the background as she normally did on the pretext that she had more important things to do. This time, she had no excuse but to let the world flow past her eyes and ears and absorb everything her fast paced lifestyle had denied to her.

The lilting keyboards and the gentle rhythmic percussion broke in on her waking ears and that tender lullaby tone beguiled her thoughts away into the vision of faraway lands, the narrator's real generosity of spirit of imagining sights and scenes not seen. It could have been George in her mind's eye, who was playing the piano and singing the song to her from her office right in the heart of Knightsbridge. She would soon be flying into the sky, if not over her head but within spotting distance of the distant blur of London from way up in the sky.

"Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

They say Spain is pretty though I've never been
Well Daniel says it's the best place that he's ever seen
Oh and he should know, he's been there enough
Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much."

A tear prickled her eye at the gentle selfless narration. She would be coming back to earth on her return but she needed this break. No one was objecting, not even herself.

Once inside the massive tube shaped area, she found the row of seats that pleased her and happened to be next to the window. It was a very long time since she had been up on an aircraft and she felt pale already compared to the sun bronzed self assured travelers hell bent on pleasure on their 18 to 30 travel package plan, complete with sun, sea and sex in abundance. Oh yes, she had forgotten the endless line of nightclubs with their attractions. Quite by chance, she had slid into an 'observing mode' of other passengers, what their clothes, mannerisms, and conversations told of themselves. She had not done this for a long time, to travel completely without ties. The last time she had flown was as part of a couple, with………….. A sudden nightmare thought hit her and Karen screwed up her eyes and her mind at the dangerous direction she had let her thoughts slide. She was pushing it away as desperately as once she was struggling to push him away. She was on the verge of hyperventilating while being painfully aware that the rest of the happy holidaymakers would be totally oblivious to her. There was one other person who she knew whose voice was now silenced and should stay forever silenced. He should not come back ever to haunt her and this man was not Ross.

"Good morning, passengers, you are flying with Captain Smith as your captain in the flight from Heathrow to Alicante. We shall be taking off in about fifteen minutes time."

Karen opened her eyes to look all around her at the anonymous line of passengers sitting next to her and the shuffling queues of late passengers looking for a seat. For once in her life, Karen blessed this bright empty voice, which interrupted her just in time to steer her away from such a dangerous train of thought by its sheer banality. It broke the spell in which she was in danger of being caught up. This was precisely what she was traveling to escape from. She drew several enormous breaths of sheer relief at the impeccable timing of the interruption. After all, she reasoned, as she started to calm down, she had not been factually correct. The very last time she flew was when she traveled on her own after her relationship with Mark fell apart and so did the idea for a holiday together. That was a tenser period in her life but was more dealable with. She was on her own then and she was on her own now. That gave her great cause for satisfaction, she thought, nodding to herself. She was a million miles away from that time in her life, so she reassured herself and she had her future to look forward to, not her past.

As she felt herself returning to normal, she allowed herself to be eagerly caught up in the here and now, in that heightened sense of anticipation of waiting for take off. Finally that rising pitch in whining jet engines and that sudden lurch told her that they were bumping along the runway. Suddenly her stomach lurched as the power of the engines finally blasted the passenger aircraft up off the ground and the cabin inclined upwards, climbing for height. She saw the ground gradually fall away from her and the rooftops and postage stamp gardens gradually diminish in size. She was away and there was no turning back from her destiny.

A couple of hours later, the plane descended at the other end of its trajectory and Karen sat back and indulged herself in the pleasures of the flight. It was strange to sit back while an attractive girl pushed the trolley of in flight catering and to reflect that, for once, she could surrender herself to someone else's responsibility. Looking at her from behind her sunglasses, she was able to eye up the girl without being noticed. It was a totally new experience to taste the excellently cooked meal, eaten off the fold down tray. A suddenly renewed curiosity about life made her look out of the round window at the intense blue sky and fluffy clouds. Looking down from the aircraft, they were pure white and floated gently past her at different layers except for the high thin tracery pattern at a dizzying height way over her head. She felt on top of the world. In intervals from this dazzling exposure to light, she rested her eyes , glanced at the magazines and made casual bland pointless polite conversation with the couple sat next to her who had seemingly traveled to every part of the globe. At least no life or death matters resulted from what she said or did.

The process passed in a blur by which she gathered her belongings and passed through the less grand and much used, slightly battered looking Alicante airport. What she remembered most was the sheer blast of hot air as soon as she stepped out of the departure lounge and the flurry of people milling about. This was definitely a foreign country where cars displayed different number plates and the traditional British religion of polite queuing went straight out of the window. Clumps of people were waiting to find their courier guides and the coach. Karen was lucky as Yvonne had sorted out Karen's transport in the same way that Atkins business was always arranged. Soon, she was traveling along the crazily narrow hairpin bends through parched, rocky mountainous scenery and past innumerable little stone cottages, bleached white by the eternal sun. The car swayed and lurched and the driver sounded his horn as an early warning device to the car coming round the blind corner from the opposite direction, oblivious of oncoming danger. Once Karen got over the initial bout of nervousness, she let it all flow over her as she did anything else. She was beginning to see that there were virtues in not striving for control.

At last, the car pulled up with a slight grating sound on the pebbly coastal road and a perfectly formed Spanish villa appeared before her eyes. This just had to be Yvonne's villa. The white painted bungalow was set off by green painted wooden shutters, designed to blank out the intense glare of the full summer heat rather than the way the large English windows were designed to beg the uncertain English sunshine to bless them. It is only this variable weather that creates the archetypal English conversation opener about the weather. What took her breath away was the sudden sight of the blue Mediterranean sea, stretching its gold glinted way into the distance with barely a ripple of wind on the water. To the side, a jagged headland descended its way dramatically down from the high cliff top to plunge into the sea. Open mouthed at the beauty, Karen stepped out in her loose sandals forward to where there was a clearer view and a delightful old fashioned village nestled in the shelter of the headland, utterly unspoiled by a rash of high rise hotels which civilization immediately clustered and overran any picturesque village as soon as it was discovered. The choice of villa was testimony to Yvonne's immaculate taste and that, in letting her borrow the villa, Yvonne knew what she was doing.

In broken English, the driver offered to help Karen with her belongings and his wife emerged from the villa. Karen stepped forward to be effusively greeted and treated as the honoured guest who was a friend of Yvonne and, as such, was treated to a guided tour of the villa. The villa combined what was best in the bare but functional and all the more attractive for it. The decorations were all the more beautiful in being set against the white paintwork and the exquisite tiled floors. The kitchen was a little home from home, which Karen took in at a glance and her bedroom commanded a perfect view of the bay that was therapy in itself. Out from a side door, lay the terrace and, stepped down the slope down the cliff lay the swimming pool at the back.

"But how do I get out and about? I can surely not ask your husband to drive me around. That would not be fair," Karen protested at the one flaw in the paradise that was being offered to her.

Smiling, the woman pointed out the little white Fiat runabout at the side of the house. Left hand drive though it was, if Yvonne can get herself around, then she can too. That offered her freedom to go where she wanted to go.

While she had steeped herself in the present for the first time in her life, she noticed that she was on her own. There was utter peace around her as she sat out on the terrace and basked in the heat. As time went on, she felt her skin start to feel warm and she realized that this was the first sign of incipient sunburn. She made her way inside to the deliciously cool interior and slipped off her shoes. Instantly, her feet felt deliciously cool to the touch and the still latent industrious side of her set to work to unpack her case, hang her clothes up in the built in wardrobe with slatted doors. She slipped her mobile into a desk drawer and clicked it off. She noticed with only faint surprise that this was the first time since she had bought a mobile that she felt safe in disconnecting herself from the world. A faint memory made her smile of Nikki's stern face telling her on no account to worry about what was happening to her prison or she would play hell with her. She smiled affectionately as only Nikki could talk to her that way. Pride of place on her little bedside table, she placed her book, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, ready for some night time reading. She applied sun tan lotion to her face and her bare arms so that she would not become the archetypal English tourist to burn up red on the second day.

Karen strolled casually down the open staircase to the kitchen and helped herself to a bottle of wine from the well-stocked fridge. She inserted the corkscrew and levered off the cork. She poured herself a large glass of wine and she sat out on the terrace in the glorious sunshine and silently drank a toast to absent friends. She felt at peace with herself as everyone who mattered knew where she was and she was under long distance Atkins protection. That was good enough for her.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Eight

In Yvonne's eyes, Lauren looked fresher, sharper and more certain of herself than the very first day when she was back home. This was the life, she thought, back to the good old days. This was a curiously labelled part of her life, one, which was wedged between the aftermath of Ritchie's suicide, and the nightmare that started with Fenner's death. Fortunately, time was a healer and was softening the sharp edges of both events. As these were the good old days that she should have had, then Yvonne was all the more determined to enjoy the present and at last had Lauren to enjoy it with. What better way could there be but a spot of retail therapy?

"Come on Lauren. Put your glad rags on. We're going shopping." Yvonne's carrying voice met Lauren as she was half way down the stairs and rang out from another room.

Lauren felt dazed as the full meaning of her mother's words sank home. She meant here, at this minute, right now? Her mouth opened but refused to speak.

"Hey, give your mum a chance to spend some money on herself as well as you. We'll enjoy it together."

"Oh, very well," Lauren intoned vaguely. Once again, she was following orders even if it was for her pleasure, a little voice inside herself told her.

"Is there any post for me?"

"Don't worry, the Inland Revenue ain't coming after you as you've dropped off the map as far as they know." Yvonne's cheery answer was delivered with a wicked grin as she came in sight of Lauren.

"I mean, the appointment with the psychiatrist like the judge said."

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with you. Nothing that a few days of good living won't put right and that includes Harvey Nichols. He's the best shrink in town that I've ever known," Yvonne joked.

"I mean it, mum. I've only just got back into the outside world. I don't think I'm out of the woods. Just remember what they said at the trial."

Yvonne mentally pushed that away from her as something that would be faced whenever. She was ready down to her immaculate makeup and soon Lauren bustled herself and was ready in short order. Prison had at least sharpened up her ability in that respect. Yvonne glanced at her daughter and noted that she looked a little washed out but there was nothing that couldn't be fixed.

"You drive, mum," Lauren answered firmly. "I want to take my time to get back into the swing of things. I don't want to wrap your Ferrari round a lamp post."

Lauren started feeling a little strange, as they got further towards the big city. Her mother was smiling as she drove, threading her way confidently through the busy lanes and built up traffic. Lauren's eyes were fixated in horror as the lorry moved ahead of her in the inside lane and the huge cliff like shape of it towered over her and came dangerously close to her and in danger of grazing the side of the car. What was worse, the relative movements weren't smooth and flowing but jerky, as if seen at an old fashioned cinema with a badly running film.

"You all right, Lauren." Yvonne asked out of the side of her mouth.

"I'm fine. Really," Said Lauren, her glassy smile convincing no close scrutiny, least of all hers. She hunched herself down in the passenger seat and inclined her vision to look at Yvonne's side of the road. She ought to be enjoying herself, she reasoned to herself, she had gone into town with her mother many times before.

When they turned into a multi storey car park, Lauren was plunged into this dark cavernous space, lined with dirty grey concrete. The sharp turns up the ramp three floors up from where they entered made her dizzy. At last, to her relief, they came to a halt.

"You lead the way, mum," Lauren said faintly. She desperately sought to keep up with Yvonne's rapid strides as she made their way to the gaping opening that seemed set to swallow up streams of shoppers. They all moved forward with an almost manic confidence in contrast to her faltering mood. She was caught up in the rush of strangers all around them and sucked up into the narrow channel. Yvonne was majestically confident and edged them across the stream of people to what her sharp eyes had spotted. Suddenly, they were swept into the glossy vastness of Miss Selfridge, which spread opulence in a stream before her, rack after rack on display offering a bewildering range of clothes of all colours and styles. Was she supposed to make a single choice from this impossibly vast range of options? The prospect was terrifying.

"What do you want, Lauren. It's on me."

"I wouldn't mind some perfume and make up. Let me take it easy."

"Take it easy? That's what you do after you spend."

To Lauren's ears, her mother's enthusiasm seemed to be strident and pressed down on her with unnatural force even if it was for her benefit.

"Just till I get used to things. This is a far cry from the Julie's sewing room," Pleaded Lauren. Her nerve ends felt as if they were standing off her skin on stalks and a feeling of sheer indescribable panic was welling up inside of her. She desperately needed to make her mother understand what she was feeling without screaming it out loud. She could start to feel sweaty all over.

"What on earth's happening to you Lauren?"

"Just too much, too soon," Mumbled Lauren and she could feel the room swim round her with the incessant sound of voices, the glittering lights and the people pushing past her, oblivious to everyone. A feeling of weakness rose up inside her and suddenly the world switched off and disappeared into oblivion.

It felt like ages later that she was vaguely aware of the faintest sensations of being limply laid out in a nearly flat comfortable position, unable to move. She had been on a long journey somewhere. Out of the haze of sound and vision, her mother's anxious voice and that of a man starting to become clear.

"She's coming round. Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Atkins. She just had a funny turn. I've checked her over but there's nothing wrong that I can see."

"You're sure. My Lauren is as strong as they come. She's never done anything like this in her life."

Lauren's eyes looked over and a paramedic in his yellow uniform was talking to her mother as if she were little again. Her eyesight became clearer as she took in her surroundings.

"Try sitting up a bit and sipping a glass of water, Lauren."

She spat out a little of the water back into the beaker but she could gradually feel her spirits reviving.

"Let her rest for a bit and she may feel like moving but she ought to take it easy."

"You've got some colour in your cheeks. When you came in here, you looked as white as a sheet." Added a third concerned voice.

She took in the shape connected with the voice who had spoken these last words, a middle aged woman in the usual assistant outfit who was obviously concerned and had helped Yvonne carry her through to the back of the shop. Her instinctive kindness made Lauren feel that there was generosity all around her. It was just that her upbringing of Charlie's grand egotistical schemes had not made her feel receptive to the idea of it being a normal part of life. It was not just confined to prison or her real friends but casual strangers would step in and help.

"I'm really sorry about rushing you around like this. I should have known better."

Yvonne's eyes were clouded with real regret. She could kick herself for letting her enthusiasm run away with her. Lauren could sense those feelings.

"Let's take it easy, mum. Give me ten minutes and I'll be ready to move if the doctor says I can."

Her time in Larkhall had chipped away at any sense of embarrassment she might have felt at making an apparent exhibition of herself in public. It had taught her that life's events will happen and to respond to what was really important and to disregard the rest.

She left off trying to move until she was sure that she was strong enough and then climbed a little shakily to her feet.

"You look after her", the shop assistant urged her.

"Mum, I don't want to sound like an ungrateful cow but all I really feel like getting today is a pair of jeans, a top and some makeup and getting the hell out of here. I'm not really up to 'shopping till I drop.' Maybe in time but not now."

They were sitting in a corner in a nearby McDonalds, which was noisy enough but was at least comparatively small and had that banal quality which wasn't overwhelming. Queuing up for a Big Mac meal with diet coke with the teenagers was on a whole other level than choosing designer clothes at Harvey Nicholls.The choices were simpler, more circumscribed and that was what appealed to Lauren right now.

"I'm happy with whatever you want, Lauren," Came Yvonne's incredibly tender reply.

"I'm glad that I've only got you to pay for today. Ritchie used to be a greedy little sod when he was little when I used to take you here. Even then, he could charm a second helping out of me and never put on any weight."

"No justice is there, mum."

Lauren joined in Yvonne's throwaway humour. The words brought back memories all right. It was like both of them to remember the light hearted, more trivial moments and to steer away from the more recent fraught memories of him. They both let the time drift on and the noisy background clatter stayed where it was, in the background. The shops weren't exactly going to disappear in front of their eyes.

"I'm ready mum but let's take our time."

They both strolled out of that archetypal American monument to bad taste eating that had colonised the world. Lauren freely admitted that it was cheap and plastic but the taste of the food was something that went back to her childhood. It was a basic insecurity in Lauren that made her crave any apparently insignificant good memory in her past. She certainly understood that craving in her and if it meant ignoring the Atkins sense of style, then so be it.

The rest of the day progressed more smoothly. Yvonne's eye kept darting to one side just as she used to years ago to check that Lauren and Ritchie weren't lost in the crowds only this time, to make sure that Lauren wasn't emotionally lost. Her active sense of guilt reproached her for overlooking that possibility earlier on. If it meant that she had to treat Lauren as if she were walking on eggshells, then that was what a mother had to do. In the shop, Lauren admired herself as the pair of jeans fitted herself to perfection. She had lighted on the first pair of jeans, which caught her eye, and Yvonne bit back the suggestion that she try a few more shops before finally selecting her choice. In a low-key way, they wandered round a few of the shops, Yvonne selecting a top, which caught her eye.

"You ready to go home?" Yvonne asked to which Lauren nodded. She had managed better than she had feared and the mere periodic edginess was a million miles reduced from that overwhelming feeling of mental and physical collapse of before. She felt footsore but was satisfied to have achieved what she had done. She was ready for home and the walk back to the car was easier as the crowds seemed to have thinned out. She slumped in the car and was happy being driven home like she always used to be way back when.

Trigger greeted them enthusiastically when they returned and when they had dumped their bags, Lauren went to pick up the rectangular buff envelope off the floor. It smacked of officialdom except for the personal manner of address on the front.

"Well, mum, looks like I'm going to be kept busy. The psychiatrist I'm seeing is Meg Richards who saw me before the trial….and got to see right through me… At least I had the sense to open up to her….."

Lauren looked thoughtful as she remembered the softly spoken, sympathetic woman who tapped into the very defensive, uptight and very afraid woman that she used to be. The other guy just didn't get it and was that bit too earnest for her liking.

"……..I couldn't wish for anyone better…she's also attached to the local hospital and that's where I'll be seeing her. This is what the doctor or rather what the judge ordered like I said earlier on."

"Well, it had to come," Yvonne said philosophically and then fell silent as the mention of her name prompted her to start searching her capacious memory. It was a name or a face or some distant memory that enabled her to get to the truth.

"…….I think I've seen her before the trial come to think of it."

"When did you know her before, mum?"

"She was the shrink who took on some of Larkhall's most screwed up prisoners in one go, like Dockley for one. That's when Dockley went all funny."

"I suppose she can't win them all."

Lauren looked a little downcast at the woman whose sympathy had helped stop her being sent down for life being placed in authority over her. It made her feel a little uneasy and Yvonne picked up on it.

"Just remember, don't think of it as something that if you fail on, they're going to run you straight back to Larkhall, but think of it of something you need for your sake. You're my daughter and I know you'll get through somehow."

The husky emotion choked tone in Yvonne's voice was reassurance enough for Lauren fore the moment. The future was just another day.

Part One Hundred and Eighty Nine

All day Saturday, George couldn't sit still. She flitted about the house, tidying things that were already in their usual place, removing dust that didn't exist, and generally finding anything to keep herself busy. John was coming to see her that evening, which meant that her time limit was up. She'd known that this day would eventually come, but did it really have to be now? Yes, of course it did, she told herself sternly, because Karen knew about it, and had asked her to put John fully in the picture. That was as good a reason as any, she supposed. The only problem with keeping one's hands thoroughly occupied with any number of menial tasks, is that one's brain has the time to ramble all over the place. George had rehearsed again and again what she should say to John, how she should phrase her involvement with Jo, but nothing sounded quite right.

"John, me and Jo have become closer than you ever suspected." Well, that was bloody obvious, wasn't it, and it didn't make anything any plainer than it was right now. They had all grown closer over the last couple of years, closer than any clairvoyant could have predicted, judging by their previous encounters.

"John, Jo and I have become lovers." This was a lie for a start, because she and Jo hadn't even slept together, well, not really, not in John's sense of the word. She didn't even know what Jo looked like without her clothes on.

"John, you know the feelings I confessed having for Jo, well, it seems they are reciprocated." Oh god, that sounded far too much like something Daddy would say. This was stupid, she thought in despair. She was a barrister, for god's sake, someone who was used to the cut and thrust of legal argument. Not, therefore, someone who ought to be stuck for words, in a situation such as this. But Bar school was hardly the place for preparing to utterly shock your lover, now was it. Finally realising that there was nothing more she could do, she went upstairs and took a long, cool shower, hoping that the steadily flowing water might calm her down. But when she emerged, she felt just as on edge as she had before. This could go so badly, she knew that, because John's reaction to her news was as unpredictable as Daddy's reaction had been to the relationship between her and Karen. What if he were angry with her? What if he really did feel that she was trying to take Jo away from him? Well, she would have to deal with whatever arose, when it happened.

When John arrived in the middle of Saturday evening, he couldn't help but be immensely curious. George obviously had something enormously difficult to tell him, and the fact that she'd needed someone else's permission to tell him only served to confuse him more. As he walked up the steps to the front door, he became aware of the sound of her piano. God, he hadn't heard her play in so many years. Apart from the time she'd sight-read the accompaniment to the love duet and made him sing, she'd always played when he wasn't in the vicinity. She was playing the Appassionata Sonata if he knew anything, and putting every ounce of stress out through her fingers. Removing the key that she'd never asked him to return from his pocket, he silently let himself in, using the cover of a particularly loud section of music to close the front door behind him. He could almost feel how tense she was through the music, the frantic bars of full-bodied chords, telegraphing just how anxious she was of the coming meeting. Standing perfectly still in the lounge doorway, he watched her, the mid-evening sunlight playing over her face, her gaze buried in the music before her, with her profile giving away her utter determination to get every note absolutely right. Her back was rigid with tension, but her arms and hands flowed with the music, showing him that she was trying to use the music as an outlet.

George was perfectly aware of John's presence, the prickling of her senses telling her that she was no longer alone in her house, and the faint aroma of his aftershave letting her know for certain just who was behind her. But she kept on playing, knowing that she hadn't played for John in far too long, and if the following conversation went as badly as was possible, this might be the last chance she had. As she approached the final climactic bars of the piece, it was as if everything she had was crying out to him not to go, not to leave her when he'd heard what she had to say. There was a desperation in her playing, not something John could possibly miss. She feared what she had to tell him, he could hear that through her playing, and he could feel every throb of the nervous tension that was itching to escape. The last few bars, almost depicted the image of an approaching execution, that of the blade, ready to swing down and end what was between them, once and for all.

When she finally stopped, her hands resting in her lap, she glanced over to where he was standing.

"You haven't heard me play for quite a while, have you?"

"No, not in far too long," He said, moving over to stand beside her. "You look a bit frazzled," He added, leaning down to kiss her.

"Which is precisely why I played what I did," She said, resisting the urge to simply wrap her arms around him and refuse to let go.

"Is what you've got to tell me quite so frightening?"

"Yes," She replied glibly. "It's so stupid," She went on, refusing to look at him. "Because I knew that I would one day have to do this, I just don't think I'd planned on it being so soon, which again is stupid, because if Ross hadn't died, it would probably have come out even sooner."

"George, you're rambling," He said, taking a seat in the armchair, directly opposite her so that she couldn't avoid his eyes from where she was sitting sideways on the piano stool.

"I know," She said miserably. "But I need you to understand why this is so difficult for me to tell you. I have absolutely no idea how you're going to react, not something I'm used to with you. It's always possible that you could be overjoyed, but on the other hand, it could completely destroy everything that you, me, and Jo, have between us."

"Are you pregnant, is that it?" He suggested, thinking that this certainly would have put her in to this sort of state, if she'd decided to tell him at all.

"Good god, no," She said in relief. "It's not that, I promise. John, I don't want to lose you, but if this isn't what you want, then I can't help thinking that I might. Part of me wishes that I didn't have to tell you, that I could just let things go on as they have been, and if I were the only one this concerned, then I probably would, but it's not quite that simple."

"George, whatever it is, I'm not going to be cross with you, I promise."

"You don't know that, John," She said, with such certainty that he longed to reach out his arms and hold her.

"Okay, but wouldn't it be easier to get it over with, and then to give me all the explanations you feel are necessary, if they really are?"

"Yes, it probably would," She conceded. "But that's what so stupid about this, because I really don't know how to say this to you. I spend every day of my working life arguing for a living, yet I just can't find the right words to say something so simple."

"And that really isn't like you," He said dryly, trying to put her at her ease.

"No, it's not," She ruefully agreed. Getting up from the piano stool, she went into the kitchen and poured them both a glass of wine, knowing that she was finding yet another excuse to put off the inevitable.

When she returned to the lounge and handed John his glass, it occurred to her that she probably oughtn't to be drinking on an empty stomach. She began walking round the lounge, picking things up and putting them down, quite obviously working up to dropping her bombshell. As she neared his chair, he caught hold of her hand, and drew her towards him. She didn't protest when he gently pulled her down onto his lap, or when he put his arms round her and kissed her. She loved being in his arms, because he had such a capacity for gentleness, not something one might have suspected from the way he usually treated women.

"Just tell me," He said, softly stroking her cheek, seeing all too clearly that the strain was really getting to her.

"Both Jo, and I, have feelings for each other, that neither of us ever expected." Now that it had finally been said, and even though this was only the tip of the iceberg, she knew that there was no going back. Her body stiffened, as if preparing for sudden flight, her whole existence suspended while she waited for his reaction.

John just stared at her.

"Both of you?" He asked in astonishment, having been aware of George's growing feelings for Jo, but not of Jo's for George.

"Yes," She said a little uncertainly. As she tried to extricate herself from his arms, he tightened his hold on her.

"Don't go," He said, holding her close to him.

"I'm so sorry," She said, her eyes filling with tears.

"Why?" He said, now thoroughly mystified.

"I don't want you to feel, as though I'm trying to take Jo away from you."

"Oh, George," He said gently, wiping a tear away with a finger.

"I couldn't help it, and neither could Jo."

"I knew you felt a lot more for Jo, than you really wanted to tell me, but I had no idea about her."

"John, we didn't want to keep it from you, but it was the only way we could find out where it was going."

"George, am I really so overbearing, that you had to keep something as important as this from me?"

"No, of course not," She said firmly, now getting up from his knee before he could stop her. "This was forbidden territory for both of us, something Jo certainly isn't used to inhabiting. This was, is, so new for her, John, that it had to move at her pace, not mine, not yours, but Jo's. You must understand that."

"Have you slept with her?"

"No, not yet, at least not really," George told him, a slight blush tingeing her cheeks at the memory of the one night she had slept in Jo's bed.

"So I'm assuming this issue has arisen fairly recently."

"No, not as such," She said carefully, taking a seat on the sofa and lighting a cigarette.

"Just start from the beginning," John said quietly, wanting, yet at the same time not wanting to know the details.

"When I got very drunk, back at the end of April, me and Jo did an awful lot of talking. She told me a lot about when she first met you, which is something I think I've needed to hear for a considerable amount of time. John, you know how low I was that weekend, and when Jo figured out what I was up to, she was so angry with me, that I half expected her to slap me. I think she kissed me, because she was so relieved that she was there, and that I couldn't go through with what I had planned."

"Jo, kissed you?" He asked, utterly astounded by this particular revelation.

"Yes, and even though I was plastered, it was incredible. We talked about it, the day after, which was when we decided to simply leave things as they were, and see what happened. We didn't know if it was just a spur of the moment thing, or whether it would turn into something deeper."

"The day of 'The Creation'," He said, clearly remembering something. "After I'd made you pass out, you said that this wasn't ever supposed to happen. You were talking about you and Jo, weren't you?"

"Yes, I was. I knew I couldn't stop the progression of my feelings for Jo, and yet I also knew that I was in serious danger of hurting Karen, not to mention what you might feel. I almost told you that day, and if I'd thought Jo was remotely ready for you to know, I would have done."

"Some time in May," He went on, the memories now beginning to resurface. "Jo had an intensely erotic dream that she wouldn't tell me about. I think that might have been about you."

"Yes, it was," George told him. "She told me about it. It thoroughly confused her, because she knew that anything between the two of us would only make things even more complicated than they already were. But every time we saw each other, it just got worse. John, we couldn't have prevented this, no matter how hard we might have tried. You remember that phone call I had, on the morning of my birthday, when we were still in bed? You thought it was Karen, but it wasn't, it was Jo."

"You don't do things by halves, do you," He said, a smirk just touching the corners of his mouth. He could remember that occasion only too well. He'd been touching George, teasing her to the point of screaming, because she was on the phone to someone else, and wasn't giving him her undivided attention. By the way she'd been talking, he had naturally assumed it was Karen, but it hadn't been Karen at all, it had been Jo. But as something else seemed to click into place, his eyes widened.

"That's why you were so angry over the Chlamydia, wasn't it, not just because I'd caught it from someone young enough to be my daughter, but because I'd given it to Jo."

"Yes, that did have an awful lot to do with it," She admitted. "John, that night, the night I slapped you, I spent that night with Jo."

"I thought you said you hadn't slept with her," He put in, clearly a little confused.

"Two people can spend the night in the same bed without having sex, John, even you know that."

"The evening you came to see me at the digs after that, when we all spent the night together, all this would go some way to explain why Jo didn't bat an eyelid at finding you somewhat undressed," He said, neither confirming nor denying her assertion. "It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder about it, but I should have done. So many things, that I should have questioned when they happened, or more often than not didn't happen, and I didn't. It all makes sense now. I don't like being kept in the dark, George."

"I know you don't," She said regretfully. "But there really was no other way. John, you mustn't blame Jo for any of this."

"Why not?" He asked, his voice exuding hurt. "You've been itching to tell me for weeks, but Jo has completely kept me out of the loop on this one."

"You mustn't be cross with her, because you love her," George said simply. "That's why I was incredibly worried about telling you. You have loved Jo absolutely without question, for near enough the last twenty years. I don't want anything to cast a shadow on what you feel for Jo, because even now, even after all this time, it's so thoroughly untainted that it makes anything else look pretty pointless. I need you to understand, that what you have with Jo, isn't in any way threatened by what I might feel for her."

"Is that really how you see me and Jo?" He asked, never having heard his relationship described in such beautiful terms.

"Yes," George said fondly. "Jo won't ever do anything that could either hurt or disappoint you, whereas I seem to manage that on a fairly regular basis. That's why I wanted to tell you without her here, because it would be easier in the long run for both of us, if any hurt or anger you felt about this, was taken out on me, not Jo."

"To tell you the truth," John said carefully. "I'm not really sure what to think. I'm not angry with either of you. Yes, I am a little hurt that you waited until now to tell me, and I'm incredibly confused, but they are things that will probably be sorted out after a lot of thinking and a lot of straight talking, if that isn't a terrible pun. Most of the feelings I have about this are positive, because if this works out as I hope it will, I can't think of anything that would make me happier. However, I do have two negative responses to this, the first being Karen."

"Yes, I know," George said quietly. "And it's because of Karen that I'm telling you now. I'm not sure how she managed to work it out, but she did, and I bitterly regret having to do this to her now. I know that I couldn't possibly have picked a worse time for it, and if she had still been ignorant of the matter, then I probably would have left it longer."

"She's not stupid, George," John told her, thinking that this used to apply to him.

"I know. We haven't really discussed it, but she wants me to go out to Spain for a couple of days, so that we can. Before she left, she asked me to tell you, because I think she wanted everything to finally be out in the open."

"That's no surprise," John said gloomily. "George, there really wasn't any need for you to be so nervous of telling me."

"John, I wouldn't do anything that might risk your going away from me," She said, with a depth of feeling in her voice that she rarely allowed him to hear. Getting up from his chair, he moved to sit beside her on the sofa, putting his arms round her and kissing her.

"Who would have thought," He said with a broad grin. "That there would come a day, when Georgia Channing would have difficulty, in telling me something that let's face it, does originate from a sexual desire."

"Oh, very funny," She said drolly. "And I suppose you'll be eagerly waiting for the day when you can entertain the two of us at once."

"I can be patient," He said unconvincingly.

"Well, you might have to be," She told him seriously.

"Not wanting to cast aspersions on your sexual skill," He said between kisses. "Why haven't you slept with Jo?"

"I would have done, the night I slapped you, but we couldn't because of the Chlamydia. Since then, well, with everything else that's happened recently, it hasn't really been what you might call a pressing concern. I want to get this absolutely right, and I'm terrified of not being good enough for her."

"You were for Karen, weren't you?" He asked, touched that she wanted it to be as perfect as possible for Jo.

"That's different," George said dismissively. "Karen taught me everything I know. Jo might love the idea, but end up loathing the reality."

"Don't you believe it," John said with utter certainty. "The most explosive orgasm I've ever seen her have, was after that Sunday when she saw you and Karen together. I'm pretty sure she was thinking about you, the whole time I was making love to her. There's only one thing you need to keep in mind with Jo, and that's that it can sometimes take quite a while to get her going. As long as you've got all the time in the world, you'll be fine."

"It's not often that I wish I was as confident, or should I say arrogant as you are," She said with a laugh. "But I think this might just be one of them."

When John left to return to the digs a good while later, they both knew that there were still an awful lot of questions that hadn't been answered. John was still trying to take it in, and George was trying to piece together her shattered nerves. On the surface John seemed happy, or at the very least accepting of what she'd told him, but George knew that a long and sleepless night would likely be in store for him, crammed with fears, realisations, and even more questions. He'd said that he would leave talking to Jo until tomorrow, because he needed some time to allow the dust to settle. George was also aware that he had only told her of his one negative reaction to her news, even though he'd said there were two. Well, he'd obviously avoided telling her about it for a reason, but she would remind him of it tomorrow, as she was determined that no feeling of hurt, or rejection, or whatever it was he hadn't been able to tell her, would get in the way for lack of talking about it.

Part One Hundred and Ninety

Bedtime for John, when it was a solitary occupation, was to him, a place of rest and contemplation. It took him peacefully into the void so that he emerged, recharged the next day. Tonight would prove an unpleasant and unexpected exception.

He had buried himself for a while in reading the case notes for a forthcoming trial and digested the essential points, which he committed to the one place that was safe and sure, his memory. He had taken a break from too much close concentration by taking Mimi for a walk much to her delight. When he got back home, he had turned to his watch and clicked on his TV, which featured an old black and white cowboy film of the sort he enjoyed. He lay back in his chair and watched the hero wearing the white hat gallop furiously past the bluff outcrop of rock that towered into the sky and hell bent in pursuit of the villain of the piece, his black hat slanted over his eye who occasionally turning round and his gun cracked a shot past the hero's ears in a way that John could feel. He could relate to the film and lose himself in that sense of urgency. Finally, the last thing at night, which he turned to, was the majestic and sweeping strings and faint harpsichord of Vivaldi's "The four seasons."

So why was he later lying in bed, his mind as sharp and alert as if he were in court, his eyes wide awake and the bed, for once damned uncomfortable and feeling out of sorts with his body? This was highly unusual, so he reasoned to himself, and totally unwelcome for a Saturday night when he needed to recharge his batteries ready for the next week in court. He lay on his back, staring at the straight geometric lines of the ceiling as it slanted away from him but that didn't work. He had never slid off to sleep lying on his back anyway.

After a while, he concluded that this situation was absurd and ridiculous and had never happened to him before. There must be a rational explanation for it. He should be able to switch off his mind and just glide away but the more he got annoyed with a perverse situation, the more his mind remained unsettled. The more he tried to will himself to sleep, the less he was able to do so. His body started to twist and turn around as he wrestled with his recalcitrant mind, which would not let him be. He tried this for perhaps twenty minutes before he realised that his iron will had, for once, met his match. There had to be another way.

As he rested and stared at the amorphous blackness out there, cool reason started coming to his aid. For a start, the pillows might be uncomfortable or his sleeping position might not be as it should be or he had not taken as much exercise as he might have done, for example fencing. He could hardly do press ups this time of night so he tried his hand at practical analysis of the situation. In the end, he got out of bed and considered how inadequate it may be as an aid to rest and relaxation. For a start, the pillows were all twisted and flattened and for another, the quilt was disarranged. He set to work to straighten that out until everything was smooth and symmetrical. At last, he swept aside the corner of the quilt and with a sigh of satisfaction, stretched back on the cool surface and waited for sleep to take him over. It was in this more restful physical state that odd snippets of conversations started to float their way into his reduced level of consciousnessHe .

"Both of you?" The words popped into his mind, his astonishment at this time as sharp edged as when he had first heard the words from an incoherent George. This was a reference to the evening before which he had thought he had satisfactorily blotted out….blotted out….in the press of business.

At once, he cursed himself for using those words. They made him sound as if he had something to hide from himself, that needed investigating by his own sure mind, seeking out the truth. He was just tired and had worked himself too hard, even in the evening, which was not his habit.

George's face swam before his eyes, unbidden. She was openly afraid of him and terrified of upsetting his feelings. That accounted for the roundabout way she had broached the matter. She had said,

"You have loved Jo absolutely without question, for near enough the last twenty years. I don't want anything to cast a shadow on what you feel for Jo, because even now, even after all this time, it's so thoroughly untainted that it makes anything else look pretty pointless. I need you to understand, that what you have with Jo, isn't in any way threatened by what I might feel for her."

Yes, he had been touched by the delicate way George had spoken of his feelings for Jo. It had touched him at the time. He had been steadfast for Jo in his own fashion and she had been the unacknowledged rock of security in his existence for so many years. It had never crossed his mind before, not even when the last couple of years had brought him so much closer to George than he had been for many years.

"I'm not really sure what to think. I'm not angry with either of you. Most of the feelings I have about this are positive, because if this works out as I hope it will, I can't think of anything that would make me happier."

He had spoken those measured words to reassure George and himself. Surely the portrait of him as some unapproachable monster was not as he would have portrayed himself. He was a rational being and always had been. The problem was that, left alone at night, he did not always manage to fool, or rather reassure himself. In the daylight hours, he could pretend to be the suave, sophisticated man and let the mirrored image of himself reflect back that impression. The trouble was that at nighttime, the truth will out.

He carried on wrestling with his anxieties, of being alone, of those who he held dear being suddenly snatched from him in circumstances that were beyond his control, both as a man and as a judge. He tried his best to sleep until, worn out with his anxieties, he drifted off into vague unpleasant reveries which he could not frame or shape in his mind or remember when he woke far too late for his liking.

John did not have much recollections of the Sunday morning except that it passed in a tired out blur and it was not till the afternoon that he resolved, in his impulsive fashion, that he needed to talk to Jo. Exactly what he was going to say, what questions he was going to ask, escaped him as he drove round to her flat. He was totally unprepared and some instinct prompted him to decide that whatever came out of his mouth was what he was going to say. He couldn't face another night with only himself to ask questions.

"John, well this is a surprise," Were Jo's first words when he phoned from his mobile just outside her flat. "When are you coming over?"

"Very soon," Came John's dry response.

He lay back in his car seat and opened both front windows so that a gentle breeze could blow across him. He needed that short period of time to seek refreshment of his tired senses for about five minutes before he resolved to face whatever he had to face.

"John. How nice it is to see you."

That familiar smile was the same as ever, the same as she had ever greeted him with over the years. John said nothing but smiled briefly and followed her into her comfortable living room. With a sigh of satisfaction, he reclined in a chair.

"You look tired. Want a coffee?" Jo asked in concern. There was something different about him, something troubled which she could not put her finger on. Of course, he

was impeccably behaved and no one who didn't know him closely would have spotted it.


Jo said no more but turned round and pottered about in the kitchen area of the flat while John sat back and watched her from behind busying herself.

"You have the air of someone about to make an important announcement and not knowing quite how," Jo probed in her best low-key cross-examination mode.

"Hardly." John backed away from the direct question, earlier than he would have liked. After taking a sip, he got up and walked about her flat in a random pattern, sometimes facing away from her.

"Not so much a statement but I would appreciate your help in trying to get some answers to a riddle I've been puzzling over."

Jo stopped herself in time from asking the obvious question, personal or professional, as that would have pinned John down far too early. Something was really bothering him.

"I'm more than happy to help with whatever you want. That is, if I can help you. I'm certainly willing to try."

A shadow flitted across John's face as Jo expressed her doubts but he smiled in temporary reassurance when Jo's warm tones reassured him just when he needed it.

"I don't know where to start. It all stems from a chat I had with George last night."

That means personal for certain despite his elaborately casual tone. Jo started to get a faint suspicion as to where this was leading.

"Go on."

"I've never seen George less able to get to the point. After all the years of marriage and verbal sparring matches, both in and out of court, if there is one faculty in her that will never desert her, it is her capacity and fluency in speaking."

There's another one, Jo smiled as John rambled his way into tiptoeing into emotional hot water, an inch at a time.

"To put it in George's own words, she finally said and here I quote. 'Both Jo, and I, have feelings for each other, that neither of us ever expected.'"

John stopped abruptly, his hands deep in his trouser pockets, with a faint smile on his face and a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders.

"Ah. So George finally did tell you."

"After a tension ridden and superb rendition of the 'Appassionata Sonata', which she clearly delivered to use the music as an outlet."

Jo sighed and sat back in her chair. She wished that John would stop pacing around but this was clearly his version of struggling with very uncomfortable feelings that his upbringing had taught him to deny in himself. All the men in her professional circle came from that upper class public school background where a languid, mannered sophisticated exterior ran like a gene deep into their fundamental nature. It gave them that air of confidence, of effortless superiority. It was decreed in not so many words that all must conform to that mould. John had done an excellent job in conforming to tribal expectations but his emotions ran closer to the surface. It was what made him care about injustice more than any man she had ever known and what she had admired from when she had first laid eyes on him.

"Is there anything that you wish to know about George and me…..and you?"

John's eyes opened wide incredulously at those two last words. Jo surely couldn't mean him.

"Am I in the frame?"

"Most definitely so. It is very rare when I have talked to George that either one of the other of us won't talk about you."

Jo's clear blue eyes intermittently held John's own wavering glances whenever he was facing her. He was highly aware of it and couldn't make up his mind to be afraid of it or feel protected by it. Probably both, he sneakingly admitted to himself.

"What I really wanted to know was why you never told me of your feelings for George?"

The words came out of his mouth clumsily, which embarrassed him. He had done better than he knew at the time in censoring the very pompous words 'saw fit to' which would have made him appear more superior and patronising but in reality be less honest with himself and Jo.

"You've known me nearly half of my life. I've been married, brought up two children on my own, more conventional than I would probably have liked, feeling inferior to George precisely because of it as a lover. I ask you that, in my forties, is it something that I would find easy in owning up to myself, let alone anyone else, in finding another woman attractive. I always thought that is something that happens to….I mean that if feelings of desire grow in you in another woman, they are going to happen in your teens. I'm starting pretty late in life, you must admit, John."

"Since you put it that way, there is a lot of justice in your point of view, but why was I the last to know? That was what hurt me."

"John, do you have to know everything?"

"Yes, if it is important and personal."

"Why?" Was Jo's blunt question

"Doesn't everyone want to know what goes on around them in their lives?"

"Not like you, John. You are like a dog with a bone. Both George and I know you of old. Once your insatiable curiosity is roused, you never give up. You will try every trick in the book to wheedle and cajole the truth out of anyone by fair means or foul. It's the same when you are up there on your throne in court. You can never resist asking a question once it crosses your mind even if it means bending the rules of court etiquette and absolutely infuriating every barrister that crosses your path. You know very well what your public reputation is like in that respect."

John smiled to himself with a certain smug satisfaction. He was like that in court and it was his incisive and penetrating ability to ask the right questions which had led to his professional success.

"But you are just as bad out of court where such a quality is not laudable and can be and often is, intrusive. Just once in my life, I wanted something of my own to share with George especially when I was trying to work out in my head just exactly where I was going. How could I possibly explain something to you when I was struggling to explain it to myself?"

The smile on John's face faded instantly. He felt as if he was being shut out and it hurt, not just George but Jo as well.

"Why do you have to know everything, John? I really think that you need it to feel more secure."

Jo's soft gentle words felt like a burning hot light being trained right into his eyes at close quarters. They hit straight at his vulnerabilities, something you didn't own up to, not in his circle of acquaintances.

"I can tell that you think I'm being intrusive in my turn…."

John's mute nod agreed with her

" ………so I'll back off that one so long as now you know how it feels."

The atmosphere in the room fell into a brooding silence. Jo felt that John was getting more and more defensive as time went on and that wasn't helping. He would really hate to be told this but he was wearing his feelings on his sleeve and he felt as uncomfortable and as naked as he had ever been. Jo sipped her cup of lukewarm coffee as the only prop she had to hand to come to the aid of her own uncertainties as to how to handle the situation.

"I've known that George has had feelings for you, Jo," John said at last out of nowhere. "I never expected that you would feel the same way."

Jo resisted the temptation to ask John why it was fine for George and not for her. That was a very valid question but would not achieve anything at this point. Instead she opted for keeping it light.

"Neither did I, John. It wasn't so many years ago that we strained your patience inside and outside the court, in seeking to scratch each other's eyes out," Joked Jo.

John laughed more easily at one of life's little ironies. Without knowing why, this was something that was easier to deal with, presented this way.

"So how did this all come about? I'm merely asking so I can understand."

Jo was touched that there was real humility in John's tone of voice. It rang true that he was in the position of knowing that he did not know what lay before his eyes and asking for enlightenment, being prepared for whatever it might mean.

"How can I describe it? I was dreaming of lying out in the open, with George next to me, and there she was utterly enchanting and later on, this became real……..John, what's wrong?" Jo added as the nostalgic smile on her face turned to one of real concern. This was too much, too soon as the expression of her spontaneous feelings outmatched her sense of discretion.

"I know what's troubling you. I think that I have a duty to say it."

Jo's soft voice even managed to take the hard edge off the word 'duty' which, on another level, justified to John why she must speak.

"You have long since fantasised about the possibilities of the three of us making love, admit it John. I will not forget in a hurry that domestic little foursome, George and Karen together and the two of us. It's not really just George and I. It's the feeling that if George and I took the relationship beyond a certain point, neither George or I will need you any longer. Believe you me, you couldn't be more wrong about both of us."

The words silkily caressed John's feelings but he had turned to stone inside at that fear of being left. It had happened once before by his mother who died on him. She cannot have cared for him, not really, or she would never have abandoned the ten year old John who lived in his Alice in Wonderland shrunken world, the enormities of a bafflingly huge grown up world where no one explained anything, no one could see how hurt he was inside. He dared not risk that ever happening to him again. It cannot be he who is left on his own. He carried on pacing the room, utterly unable to settle down.

"John, we both know how infuriating you can be, but you are too deep in our lives to remove you even if we wanted to. Why else do we end up talking about you? George desperately needs you as one of the very few people she could ever turn to in crisis and, in your own way, someone who knows her behind that façade. She's been changing over the last couple of years. She's stopped trying to put on that act that she's hard and uncaring and only values what a fat fee will buy her. In her way, she's being influenced to think that there are higher values that matter in life and she's stopped being scared of showing it. Where has she got all that from if not from you? Or if she is being influenced by me then where did I get that from if not from you. You have got the idea that the only way of feeling good about yourself is through sex, as if what you do in court has no value. Sex isn't everything in life no matter how much you use that as a solution to everything."

With all the eloquence within her to speak from the heart, Jo urged John to open up his eyes and look around with all the force of her passionately caring nature. John's eyes looked briefly out to the distant horizons out of the window instead of at his feet, mentally dazed as the products of his labours were reflected back at him. Somehow, he had done what he had done as he had gone through life with a total reticence to be too self regarding and Jo's clear exposition was the first demonstration in his life of what he was worth with him not being aware of it or being around to see it for what it was. He risked turning back to Jo and, at last, took a seat that faced her directly.

"We both need you more than any one night stand could possibly do for us, much more than your temporary affairs in the past could ever mean. That hasn't changed from when we drew up the agreement ages ago to stop you from picking up some nameless woman. Just because I have growing feelings for George, that will never take away from what both of us feel for you."

John shook his head in wonderment. That paralysing fear inside him needed almost continual emotional stroking from Jo. He found it impossible to put his mind in the place of the other person, either Jo or George. That was what the undertow of the emotions did, to drag him down to a bottomless pit where nothing had meaning, nothing was certain and nothing could be defined or circumscribed.

"I really thought it was I that you were dreaming of that night."

"Just goes to show you how wrong you can be," Jo teased. "Mind you, I have often had dreams of you when I have been on my own and you are somewhere else and I dare say I'll have them again."

"You never told me that," John said in wonder.

"You didn't ask," Jo teased back.

"I really thought I knew everything about you," John mused. He felt more vaguely centred than he had been having made that discovery and better about himself. For the first time, he leant back in his chair rather than sat up, tense and rigid.

"And you think that if there is nothing that is not unknown to you, you will feel safe."

"I suppose there is something in what you say," John conceded in measured tones.

"You have to learn to trust that what you don't know won't harm or threaten you," Jo urged tenderly, placing an arm round his shoulders. "You have to learn to trust to life at times, to intuition and faith where you do not directly know. Our profession, with its emphasis on irrefutable evidence, on solid certainties does not exactly encourage this alternative mode of thinking and it spills over into our private lives."

John nodded, unable to speak. The thought of it was all very well in theory but harder to achieve in practice. He wanted to get past this part of the conversation.

"From George's account, you have taken your time in your ……relationship."

Jo was pleased by John's response. At least he had given it a name, in tones, which were approximately sympathetic as opposed to cold and clinical.

"That is all down to George. For a start, she feels guilty about it because of Karen even if she has always known that Karen has never wanted a heavy relationship. With what has happened to Karen's son has only made matters more complicated. You are very important in George's eyes, as I've explained. Also important is that she is very careful that I might inadvertently be rushed into something that I was not ready for. She wants to get it absolutely right for me. You do know that George once refused me when I kissed her? Believe it or not, I made the first move not George."

John smiled faintly at seeing the expression of incredulity on Jo's face as she recalled the moment.

"That sounds very unexpected."

"I know that this runs totally counter to your lifetime's experience," Laughed Jo. "…but believe it or not, we both want to take our time and see where it goes or where it doesn't. George refused me as she thought that I was not ready and she's probably right."

"She told me that she's terrified of not being good enough for you," John said right from out of the blue.

"Could you ever imagine George to take pains over other people's feelings, whether yours or mine. That's the measure of how much she's changed."

The sheer undeniability of Jo's soothing words finally started to get through to John at last. They lapsed into a more companionable silence, both of them tired out. John was not used to this amount of soul baring which wasn't his cup of tea but he felt that somehow he had scraped through the situation by the skin of his teeth.

Part 191

Return to Bad Girls Fiction

Return to Main Page