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 Ninety One
John spent all day with Jo, talking, eating dinner, and late in the afternoon, making slow, gentle love. John had needed the reassurance of Jo's soft, warm body, the affirmation that she loved him in every touch, every kiss. But afterwards, as they were lying contentedly in the bath together, John made a tentative suggestion.
"Do you think we ought to go and see George this evening?"
"Yes," Jo said, dropping a kiss on his bear shoulder. "She probably had as little sleep as you did last night."
"I can't believe she was so afraid of telling me," John said, still not able to come to terms with this.
"She didn't want to hurt you, John," Jo told him. "And neither did I. I couldn't tell you at the beginning, because I didn't want to give you any false hope, of something that may never happen."
"That's what Karen said," He replied, suddenly remembering her words of the last time he'd seen her. "I told you what she said, before going up on that roof, but afterwards, when I asked her about it, she said that she didn't want to give me any false hope."
"I do feel bad about Karen," Jo said regretfully.
"So does George. She's going out to see Karen in Spain, the weekend after next, so they can sort things out."
"Probably better to do it on neutral territory," Jo concurred.
"I doubt that even Switzerland would be neutral enough for that conversation," John said with a slightly mirthless laugh.
"John, do you think Karen will cope with this?" Jo asked in concern. "I mean, I wouldn't want this to prove the last straw."
"Well, I suppose that remains to be seen," John replied thoughtfully. "But it is something that we should all be aware of. This couldn't have happened at a worse time for Karen, and that deeply concerns me."
"When she comes back, I think I ought to clear the air with her," Jo said with a certain amount of wary anticipation.
"That's probably not a bad idea," John told her, his way of saying that it was an absolute must. It was odd, he mused to himself that just for once, he wasn't in any way to blame.
George was just getting out of the bath when the doorbell rang at nine thirty that evening, and knowing that it could only be either Jo or John, or both, she slipped on the blue silk robe that Jo had bought her for her birthday. Dragging a brush through her slightly damp hair, she ran lightly down the stairs, and opened the door looking flushed, supple, and incredibly desirable.
"I do wish you wouldn't open your front door looking quite so edible," John said in slight disapproval.
"Well, I knew it would probably be either you or Jo, didn't I," She said as they came in.
"That looks even better on you than I thought it would," Jo observed, taking in the way the robe clung to George's figure, leaving nothing to the imagination.
"So, that's why you wouldn't tell me who it was from," John said in dawning comprehension, as they moved into the lounge.
"Oh, and I'd have loved to have seen your face if I had told you," George quipped back, thinking that this might have been too much of a shock. They sat on the sofa, John between them, consuming by mutual agreement a bottle of Frascati that George had chilling in the fridge. There was a certain amount of awkwardness between them, but if they attempted to stay away from anything too close to home, they could all relax.
"You look tired," George said to John at one point, wondering if she dared ask them what she wanted to ask.
"I didn't sleep very much last night," John said with a slight smile. "And Jo kept me occupied in bed all afternoon."
"Lucky you," George said with a smirk.
"A slight exaggeration, John," Jo told him fondly.
"Do you both want to stay?" George asked, not quite knowing where her courage had come from.
"Do you want us to?" John asked in return, observing her slight hesitation.
"Yes, I do," She said without having to think about it.
"Then we will," Jo answered for them, thinking that although they'd done this once before, now there would be no barriers between them, no holds barred.
A little while later when they were lying in George's bed upstairs, John couldn't quite believe he was here. He was lying between the two women he loved, both of their soft, naked bodies nestled up against him. George was on his right, and Jo was on his left, both with their arms round him, doing everything possible to make him feel loved and secure. When John's face broke into a sudden grin, and a laugh began rumbling in his chest, George lifted her head from his shoulder and looked at him.
"What's so funny?" She asked, loving the sound of his infectious laugh.
"I was just trying to picture Vera Everard's face, if she saw the two of you leaving the digs at the same time. Then she'd really have something to moan about."
"She'd probably get off on it, the frigid old witch," George said in disgust.
"That's the point, she isn't," John said, his laughter almost overcoming him. "The thought alone would probably keep her quiet for days."
"In that case, it's almost a thought worth giving her," Jo said dryly, having always despised Vera Everard, whose tastes really ought to be confined to an archive in the science museum. They lay there quiet for a while, the tranquility of their closeness seeming to soothe any lingering ruffled feathers. Jo was softly drifting, her sexual satisfaction from the afternoon finally beginning to creep up on her. John was perfectly content to simply lie here with the two of them, because he was man enough to realise that he needed a little time to get used to the situation, to allow his brain to regroup. But when George slightly altered her position, and curled one of her legs over his, in the way she usually did before going to sleep, he couldn't help but to become sexually interested.
"Can you not do that?" He said, turning his far too innocent looking eyes on George.
"Drape yourself over me like that. It's far too invigorating."
"Sorry, darling, force of habit," She said with a smirk, doing as he asked. "Anyway, I thought you liked it."
"That's the point," He said, instantly falling for her wind up. "You just enjoy being something of a tease." As they continued fondly bickering, Jo couldn't help but smile.
"Do you two always argue when you're in bed?" She asked, finally breaking in on the conversation.
"Invariably," George said dryly.
"Only because you're always determined to have the last word," John put in. Exchanging a glance, George and Jo burst into laughter.
"That's rich," Jo said, leaning over to kiss him. "Verbally, you always want your own way."
"Can you blame me," He said in mock innocence. "Having been married to this one for nigh on ten years?"
"Bloody cheek," George said, kissing him to shut him up, and taking over where Jo had left off. But as her lips connected with John's, her eyes met Jo's, the two women exchanging a thought, the question flashing between them as if spoken. Gently parting her lips from John's, George turned her face towards Jo, and right before John's very eyes, their lips met, giving him the most overwhelmingly beautiful display he'd ever had the fortune to witness. Their kiss was deep, gentle, and lingering, making him gasp in wonder at the sheer erotic intensity of it. When their lips parted, they both smiled down at him, seeing the stunned, utterly gob smacked expression in his eyes.
"I think," He said a little unsteadily. "That apart from when Charlie was born, that was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." He couldn't believe it, his two favourite women, the two women he had loved for the majority of his life, were bestowing on each other, the types of feelings he had partially taught them both to enjoy. Yes, they had both obviously had lovers before him, (Jo had even had a husband), but John knew that he had been the one to introduce them to such intensity of feeling.
They lay for a good while longer, occasionally talking, sometimes kissing, all three of them aware that something monumental had happened to them this weekend, something that would change how they were with each other for ever more. But George couldn't entirely relax. Unlike Jo and John, she hadn't had the opportunity to achieve any kind of sexual release that afternoon, and the languid kisses she'd exchanged with both Jo and John, plus the newness of the situation, were causing her body to twitch. She could feel her arousal beginning to grow, her body becoming almost painfully aware of every point of her that was in contact with John.
"Are you cold?" John suddenly asked her.
"No," She said, her voice trying not to betray her heightened sensitivity.
"Your nipples are as hard as bullets," He said, realising precisely what her problem was.
"Yes, thank you for that insightful observation," She replied a little tartly.
"Is my proximity getting to you that much?" He silkily mocked her.
"Oh, so speaks the winner of the biggest ego of the year award. You're not the only one other than me in this bed you know."
"I'll consider myself duly flattered," Jo said with a soft smile, wondering if George would permit her and John to alleviate her discomfort. Having his arm round her, it was simple for John to begin stroking the fleshy softness of George's right breast.
"John," George said warningly through gritted teeth. "What you are doing is hardly helping my restraint."
"Why should you be restrained?" John asked her gently, wanting to give her pleasure, wanting in fact to do the thing he did best.
"Well... Because..." George began, and was then unable to formulate an adequate response.
"George, I don't mind," Jo told her, reaching over a hand to touch George's shoulder.
"Don't you?" George asked, not wanting Jo to witness something she wasn't yet ready to see.
"Of course not," Jo said with a smile. "I had quite enough for one day this afternoon."
"I didn't hear you complaining," John observed, his hand continuing to move on George's breast.
"And you never will," Jo told him with utter certainty, slipping out of the bed and walking round to the other side. "Move over," She told them, and when they did, she slid in beside George, meaning that George was now surrounded by two people who wanted her to feel at ease. When Jo put her arms round George and began kissing her, George thought that she really must be in heaven.
"Do you remember when I did this, the night you stayed with me?" Jo reminded her, beginning to move her hand over George's left breast, teasing at her nipple, and making George gasp.
"Are you kidding?" George said between kisses.
"Do tell," John invited, wanting to know every detail about whenever they'd been together.
"It was the night I slapped you," George told him. "And because of the Chlamydia, we couldn't do much more than this, but it was incredible. Not for years, had I had someone give me an orgasm, just from playing with my nipples."
"Really?" John said in total amazement, his pride for Jo lighting up his eyes. "Hidden talents, darling," he said, exchanging a long, slow kiss with Jo. As Jo's hand kept moving on her breast, and John's slipped between her legs, George's breathing quickened. She knew it wouldn't take her long, because the sensation of four hands on and around her was intensifying every feeling she possessed. She exchanged deep, languorous kisses with Jo, and listened as John occasionally talked to her, his silky, masculine tones sliding over her like honey.
"I bet you've often fantasised about this," He gently teased her.
"No more than you have," She quipped back, knowing that the thought had been with him far longer than it had been with her. She tried to remain as quiet as possible, but when John nibbled on her neck, and suggested that this really wasn't necessary, George found that she couldn't restrain herself any longer. As John's hand increased in speed, and her kisses with Jo became more frantic, she clung to both of them, soaring over the edge with a cry of complete abandon.
As the gasps of emotional release racked her body, and the tears coursed down her cheeks, they held onto her, both trying to soothe away her grief.
"Hey, what's brought this on?" John asked her gently, kissing away some of her tears.
"I can't believe that you're both finally here," She said between sobs. "When I think, of every horrible, bad thing I've ever said to both of you, I think I must be dreaming. God, I used to be such a bitch, to both of you. Have I changed so much, that this is really what you want, to be here with me?"
"You've got absolutely no idea, have you," Jo said, seeing instantly that George was completely overwhelmed by the situation. "You and me used to thrive on making each other's life absolute hell, you know we did, and we were both equally to blame for that. I'm not entirely sure how, but you've changed almost beyond all recognition in the last two years, becoming the much softer, much nicer person that I suspect you used to be."
"George," John put in, wanting to offer his own explanation. "Apart from the occasional phases of depression, I feel as though the woman I married, has finally come back to me."
"Do you?" She asked, not able to believe she was hearing this from him.
"Yes," He told her gently but firmly. "You've gone back to being the George I used to know. Yes, admittedly with a few added eccentricities, but whenever I'm with you these days, I'm constantly reminded of the George I fell in love with, the George I first kissed under the mistletoe on New Year's Eve. You were frightened of telling me about this, because you thought it would hurt me in some way, but I love you, and I love Jo, and I couldn't possibly be happier." As they eventually fell asleep in a delicious tangle of arms and legs, they all found themselves reflecting on the events of the last two years, all marveling at how they'd started out, and how they had eventually ended up. They might go through hard times, and having the personalities they did made this a certainty, but never again would they need to feel adrift, never again would any one of them need to feel alone.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Two
"So what do I do on a Bank Holiday Monday?" Lauren asked her mother over early morning coffee, feeling at a loose end and fidgety. "The television is as crap as it is in Larkhall. Same repeats as usual, every year."
"That's freedom for you," Remarked Yvonne ironically. "The bastards would have you either take to the roads and all get stuck on the M25 or else watch this load of mind rot .."
She saw the disappointed look on Lauren's face and regretted what she had said and her mind sprung out a third solution.
" .or better still, why don't you go round and see Cassie and Roisin and the kids. I'm sure they'd love it."
The light was turned on in Lauren's face. It provided the perfect combination of a gentle ride in the car and something utterly different. She loved the idea of being Auntie Lauren again. This was something that she had been reaching out for. For so long, they had been at the sending end of home made cards which she had treasured and kept in a safe place
in the cell. She reached for the mobile and was very surprised to find everyone in.
"Do you want to come as well, mum?"
"I'll leave it for today. If you go on your own, then they'll have more time for you. They'll have a lot to catch up. You know how it is. Trigger will keep me company."
Lauren saw the sense in the remark. Trigger's ears flopped down into their usual position as he sensed that he would be deprived of an outing. He made a sorrowful sound in his throat as he saw Lauren get ready and about to leave. Lauren sensed that the dog was
wary of letting her go out of his sight and made a big fuss of him first before he flopped down onto the rug.
She got into the Mercedes and adjusted the chair position very carefully. It had been a long time since she had driven any car and she was far more conscious of every single move than she was used to. She stalled the high performance car while it was in mid turn before gingerly easing it down the drive. She swung clumsily onto the main road, nearly getting the front offside wheel stuck in a ditch before revving the car off down the road. Fortunately, Cassie's and Roisin's house was away from the major roads so she was able to take it easy. It still felt very fast and highly sensitive and a low performance runabout would have been far more to her taste than the very stylish car she was driving.
She pulled up outside their house and sat back in the driver's seat. At least, she's got there, she reflected, practice makes perfect. At least the outside of the house looks familiar.
"Lauren," Roisin exclaimed, throwing her arms round her. "Come in and make yourself comfortable. Children," she added talking over her shoulder," come and see Lauren who's back with us again."
Lauren's eyes took in the familiar friendly clutter of the house and Cassie coming up just behind her. It was all as she remembered, how she dreamed the house looked like, could it be nearly two years ago when she last set foot in it. Michael and Niamh came in behind Cassie and this took Lauren by surprise. They were both bigger than she remembered, being frozen in time. Michael in particular was starting to grow noticeably and was no longer quite the child that she remembered and was verging on becoming a teenager.
"It's lovely to see you, Auntie Lauren," Niamh piped up and Lauren impulsively hugged her." Did you like our cards we sent you?"
"I kept them in a special place and treasured every last single one of them. They really helped me get through ."
" get through what?" asked Michael.
"You know, when you aren't feeling so good about yourself. It happens to everyone in prison," Lauren explained lightly.
"Why did you go to prison?" he asked with a directness that was not childish naivety but had an edgy quality about it that verged on aggression.
"Michael, there are certain questions that you just don't ask," Niamh corrected her elder brother. She was starting to get worried about him as he was gradually changing and she didn't understand why. As children, they had always been close and played games together. More recently, he had started to become more aloof and had started to hang round with his friends. It was almost as if he were playing a part that she couldn't understand.
"Don't see why," He muttered under his breath too softly for anyone to hear properly.
"Kids, just leave it out," Cassie chimed in. "Give Auntie Lauren a rest and a bit of space."
"Do you want a drink?" Niamh offered.
"I'd love one. A large glass of coke as I'm driving." Lauren's mouth was dry from the drive. She sank back into an armchair and took a big swig from the glass.
"We have missed you," Came the answer, uttered without reproach.
"I'm sorry if you've had to make do with Yvonne as stand in for me. She can still tell jokes better than I can."
"Still, it's nice to see you back. You're not going away again?" The little girl added anxiously.
"There is no chance of that happening, Niamh. Mum took me out to go shopping with her and that was too much for me. I've got a lot of time to make up for, well just everything and everyone."
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Michael hang back awkwardly. It was as if he didn't know how to position himself in comparison with Niamh's child like naturalness of manner.
"How's your cricket going, Michael? You were good at it last time I talked to you."
Instantly, Lauren felt the words coming out all wrong. Then, Michael was the typical enthusiastic boy who would grab her attention as a receptive audience and such words addressed to him would have been natural and would have got an instant response. Now, she felt his chilly awkwardness and self-consciousness of early adolescence and she had pitched her words just two critical years short for him.
"All right, I guess. It's a stupid game. Can't see anything in it."
"I'm sorry about that ." Lauren started to say.
"Don't be sorry," He cut in. "Anyway, I play computer games with my friends. It's much more fun. We play Russians against the Americans and how much each other can kill ."
Michael immediately started launching into a complicated description of what he and his friends did, freezing Niamh out of the conversation, not deliberately but by just not acknowledging that she was there. Niamh sighed to herself as this was becoming typical of her brother and, increasingly, there was a tendency for everyone to adjust round him.
"Michael," cut in Roisin while Cassie was in the kitchen, "give your sister a chance to talk, please."
The boy coloured but shut up while Niamh started to talk about what she was doing at school and quickly led into the one topic that united them both, even if she didn't want to talk about it, as it wasn't very pleasant to recall.
" ..and Michael and I went away to see our father and grandma. We didn't enjoy it. For a start, grandma's cooking was terrible." Niamh pulled a face.
"Nothing beats home cooking," Came Lauren's heartfelt response before adding a little inanely or so she thought. "I'm sure they love you in their own way."
"They would if only they didn't " blurted out Michael in an unguarded moment before chopping off the sentence short.
Roisin was listening intently as this was the first time that the children had properly talked about the visit. She sat back, all ears while Lauren was doing a very good job of getting Niamh to talk.
"What was the problem, kids?" she asked in her most deliberately easy going way.
"I'm sure they both love us but they are both sort of stick in the mud. We had to sit up stiff and straight at the table. The house is lovely and right in the country but we weren't allowed to touch anything in case we broke anything. We weren't allowed near anything that might break, like her ornaments, like everything."
Niamh was rattling away easily enough but Lauren got the sense that she was picking out the easiest topics and steering away from more delicate matters. She went along with what the little girl wanted to say.
"What sort of food did your grandma cook you?" Lauren enquired casually.
"Ooooh," Niamh scoured her memory. "Overcooked bacon and runny eggs." Ykkkkh. And she insisted that we ate up every bit. Dad was no help. He always took Grandma's side .."
"It will happen in families where adults stick together ."Lauren said, thinking of her grandparents but irresistibly driven to consider the times that mum could not never say how she really felt while Charlie was around. That wasn't two people acting freely as
equals but Charlie's tyranny taking over as he took over everything. Sheer honesty drove her to qualify that remark.
" .provided that they really agree with each other."
"Dad's different. He doesn't think for himself because grandma's always around. He's never tried to."
"Yeah, right," Michael joined in. He had been sulking in a corner but Niamh's chatter was the way he thought and it emboldened him to join in.
"There must be a good side, like the country. Didn't they take you out for walks."
"They did." Niamh paused in reflection, a faint smile of pleasure on her face. "But even then they managed to ruin things."
"How did they manage that?" came the softly spoken prompt.
Cassie heard the drift of the conversation and, as the meal was cooking nicely, popped her head round the door and were all ears while keeping one eye on the cooking. It was far more than her natural curiosity, which prompted it. She didn't know what on earth she and Roisin were going to hear but instinct told her that it would be critically important.
"Well, we have to be up at a ridiculous time for a start."
"It might be reasonable if you had a long way to go and could make the most of the day."
"Right, but not when they were both on at us all the time if we were a second late."
"Okay. I hear what you're saying."
"That wasn't the worst of it. As soon as we got going, they started their talking "
At that point, Niamh blushed slightly and shut up. It was as if she had stumbled on something painful and recoiled at the memory. Michael looked closed up inside and his eyes were glued to the floor. An embarrassed silence hung on the air, the sort of silence that had never been known before in their house, which was known, most of all, for a free and easy relaxed atmosphere. It was foreign to all of them, unsettling. Cassie and Roisin were both at a loss as to what next step to take and weren't prepared for this from their children. Lauren was no better and her mind was a total blank. She felt as guilty as hell for intruding on them.
"Kids, this is a hard one to ask either of you. I wouldn't ask it unless I thought it might help .."
Niamh and Michael looked warily around them, prepared for the very worst news that there could possibly be but it surely couldn't be that dreadful day when dads told them that mum was in prison.
" ..I was going to ask you if you love your dad and grandma."
"Do we have to?"
"I guess it's expected of children that they do but there are times when families fall out ."
Niamh was looking for a way out and something told her to ask Lauren the very same question.
"Do you love your mum and dad, Lauren?"
Lauren's face turned white. This was a rerun of her trial jumping out of nowhere. She was due to see Meg Richards and would mentally prepare herself for the session. She wasn't expecting this playing Auntie Lauren.
"You've seen Yvonne, kids. I love her because she acts like a real mother to me, to look after me and protect me and there isn't anything she wouldn't do for me, jump into the water if I were drowning .."
Niamh gave a big smile of satisfaction. This was like mum and Cassie.
"My dad has been dead for a few years but he was a bad man. He had a hold over me for all that and could make me do what he wanted, make me believe that I loved him and he loved me. Perhaps he did love me but not in a way that was good for me. Not all kids are like the way they are made out in children's storybooks. Does that help you?"
Both of them nodded their heads vigorously.
"I don't know your dad and your grandma, kids. They are nothing like as bad as my father but perhaps they just don't understand you, your mum, Cassie and everything."
Niamh and Michael grasped eagerly at the word 'understand.' That meant something and explained why they were angry at their father and grandma and felt guilty about feeling that way.
"Perhaps you care to tell us about what really happened on your holiday?" Cassie asked gently.
The dam finally broke and both children poured out the tale of their constant sniping at Roisin and Cassie in the most narrow minded way. Everything made sense now, the way they were caught in the crossfire. Michael was as voluble as Niamh and he looked fresher, more open, more himself.
"So that's why you didn't want to stay with them"
Again they nodded, immensely pleased to have got the weight off their minds.
"We've got some sorting out to do, Roash." Cassie said quietly.
"And can we play games like we used to?" asked Lauren, her own face lit with child like anticipation.
In answer, both of them dragged Lauren onto the carpet while Cassie leaped into the kitchen to stop everything from starting to burn.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Three
On the Friday evening, George found herself at a loose end. John was away, taking part in the opening of the new series of Judge's seminars, and she wasn't due to go to see Karen in Spain until next week. She couldn't believe it had been less than a week since she'd told John about her and Jo. In fact, part of her still couldn't entirely get to grips with the fact that he knew about it. She knew that there was a lot about what he was feeling, that he certainly wasn't sharing with her, and she was forced to admit that his being away for a week or so wouldn't do any of them any harm. What she really wanted to do, she realised, was to be with Jo. It had now been about four months since their initial kiss, yet they still hadn't crossed that final barrier of really sleeping with each other. Did John's knowledge of the situation now give them permission to do so? She supposed it did in a way, but how on earth did she go about suggesting it? George wanted it to be perfect for Jo, well, as perfect as something so new and possibly bizarre could be. What if Jo loathed every minute of it? What if she couldn't bear to be anywhere near George afterwards? These were all the types of questions that were constantly running through her mind during the evening. She had put some soft music on the stereo, to try and give her mind a reason to settle, and was sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine and reading the paper. Half of her brain was taking in the words of the articles she was reading, and the other half kept returning to the same old problem. So when the doorbell rang, she folded up the paper with a feeling of relief that she now at least had a distraction.
Jo had been having similar thoughts to George. She unquestionably appreciated the fact that George had always prevented them from taking their burgeoning feelings too far, and she definitely understood why. She was incredibly touched at George's slight reticence, but she couldn't help feeling that old, instinctive urge to make love with someone new. But maybe that was the point, precisely why George had held back so far, because this wasn't just a new lover, this was an entirely new way of making love. Jo could remember with fond amusement, her intention to become more sexually adventurous, something she'd expressed both to John and to George, back in January. Well, if making love with a woman, when you've spent most of your life claiming you were heterosexual wasn't widening her sexual experience, then she didn't know what was. With this thought in mind, she'd driven over to see George, not with the expectation that they might end up in bed, but with the possibility firmly in her thoughts.
"Have you taken up mind reading, darling?" George asked, seeing Jo on the doorstep.
"I don't believe it's one of my many accomplishments, no," Jo said with a smile as she moved into the hall. "Why?"
"Does it sound dreadfully adolescent, to say I was thinking about you?" George asked, as Jo put out her arms.
"Oh, well," Jo said ruefully, as George moved into her embrace. "I suppose that makes me fifteen again then." When their lips met, they could both feel the barely suppressed need in the other, the gradually slipping control that might at any moment give way.
"You're incredibly tense," Jo said softly, feeling George's nervousness just below the surface.
"I wish I wasn't," George replied self-deprecatingly.
"So why are you?" Jo asked, as they moved into the lounge and sat down on the sofa.
"I'm not sure," George said, feeling a little foolish.
"You don't need to be anywhere near as on edge as you are," Jo said quietly, taking George's hand and casually playing with her fingers.
"Don't I?" George wanted to know, what Jo was doing with her hand feeling almost unbearably intimate.
"No," Jo told her fondly. "Something John did say to me last weekend, was that you are somewhat apprehensive of sleeping with me." Inwardly cursing John to hell and back, George couldn't prevent the violent blush that spread over her face.
"He didn't have to tell you that," She said disgustedly.
"George," Jo said with a soft smile at George's embarrassment. "The only way this, whatever it is, is going to be successful, is if we are honest with each other. Let's face it, this is far newer to me than it is to you."
"I know," George said miserably. "Which is why I feel so stupid. I am so scared, Jo, of ruining the friendship we have, that part of me would far rather not take that risk. Darling, I would love to take that final step, because I can't think of anything that would delight me more, than to give you some of the most intimately erotic pleasure you've ever had in your life. But what I wouldn't want to do is to attempt to make love to you, only to find that you hated it. I know I've been sleeping with a woman for the last few months, but every woman is different. I have absolutely no idea what you like or how you like it, and I don't want to get it completely wrong." Reaching out a hand to touch George's cheek, and to halt her in her tracks, Jo said,
"Would you like to find out?" The question seemed to catch George by surprise. Placing a hand over Jo's where it still rested against her cheek, she gazed into Jo's eyes, seeing nothing but tentative encouragement, backed to the hilt by an answering level of need.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" She asked, wanting Jo to be absolutely certain.
"Yes," Jo told her unequivocally, her hand sliding up to tuck a strand of hair behind George's ear. It seemed almost fitting that their pursuit of pleasure should begin here, on the very sofa where they'd exchanged their first kiss, almost as if to reaffirm their initial instinctive closeness. Their kisses were hungry, needy, with all their barely controlled feelings of the last few months beginning to boil over. When they rose as of one mind, and moved with clear intension towards the stairs, George asked Jo if she would like a glass of wine, thinking that something to help them both relax certainly wouldn't go amiss. Saying that yes she would, Jo left George to it and went up the stairs, briefly wondering how different she would feel when she came down them again.
When George appeared in the bedroom, carrying two glasses of the chilled Chablis that she always seemed to have some of in her fridge, Jo had switched on the CD-player on George's dressing table, and was lying with only the cotton sheet covering her. The lights were on their dimmest setting, giving the room a warm, rosy glow that was perfect for any seduction. Not that Jo thought she needed much seducing. Silently approving of the music, George walked round to Jo's side of the bed and handed her the glass, wondering if her fingers would slide as caressingly over Jo's skin as the notes of Chopin currently were. Not wanting to spoil the mood, and seeing a glimmer of intent in George's eye, Jo simply lay and watched her. Waiting until she could capture the gently flowing rhythm of the music, George began to dance, gradually removing her clothes as she went. Jo's eyes widened when she realised what George was doing, not having seen something quite so erotically sensual, since George and Neil's dance during 'The Creation.' Not once did her delicate steps ever falter, her beautifully manicured feet moving between the dresser and the bed, her shadow passing across the mirror at every turn. Jo watched in fascination as every inch of skin was revealed, even though she'd seen it all before.
When her clothes were finally discarded, George moved to perch on the side of the bed, looking down at Jo with a soft, inviting fondness that made her instantly break into a smile.
"Did you learn to dance at school?" Jo asked, raising her eyes to George's.
"Yes, I did. It does come in handy sometimes."
"George, only you could make such a production of taking your clothes off."
"Worth it though, wasn't it," She replied with such blatant self-confidence in her own beauty, that Jo wondered if she could come up to such a standard, even though she was a few years younger than George. "Come on," George invited, taking hold of Jo's hand. "I've got something to show you." Wondering what on earth she had in mind, Jo slid out of the bed, and followed George to stand in front of the full-length mirror. "Now," She said, putting an arm round Jo's waist. "That really would be worth posing for." As Jo gazed at their combined image, she had to admit that George was right. They looked incredible, standing there together, the embodiment of everything John desired in a woman. George let her eyes begin to wander over the image of Jo's form, gazing at the reflection, rather than at Jo herself, thinking that a more indirect scrutiny might remove some of Jo's slight apprehension.
"If we ever can't think of what to get John for Christmas, that might just be the thing," Jo said with a smirk, though knowing that she would never have the courage to pose for an artist of any kind.
"Actually, that isn't a bad idea," George frightened her by saying, the words 'Be careful what you wish for', flashing up in her mind. As Jo kept her eyes fixed on the mirror, she saw George's hand gradually trail its way up her torso, until Jo's left breast lay soft and heavy in George's hand. George's fingers were gentle and warm, their delicate tips tracing every inch, until they grazed over the steadily hardening nipple. Jo couldn't take her eyes away from what she was seeing, never having thought something so simple would look or feel so erotic.
"Looks incredible, doesn't it?" George's low, sultry voice broke in on Jo's thoughts.
"What, my body, or what you are doing to me?" Jo replied, trying and failing to keep her voice steady.
"Both, undoubtedly," George told her, turning to face her and reaching up to kiss her. As they'd turned slightly, Jo could still see their actions in the glass, the combination of sights and feelings seeming so foreign to her, and yet so immensely right that it made her never want to stop.
When they moved to the bed, and were lying under the thin cotton sheet, their arms went instinctively around each other, George's smooth, naked skin providing Jo with a whole host of new sensations.
"Do you have any idea how many times I've thought of this?" Jo said between their gentle though no less fervent kisses.
"Tell me," George invited, her fingers wandering over the softer part of Jo's breast, for the moment avoiding the sensitive peak.
"Often before going to sleep, I've thought about being here, what it might be like to actually do this."
"I hope the reality doesn't send you to sleep," George said dryly. "If you tell me what these fantasies of yours consist of, I might just be able to live up to them." When Jo blushed slightly and didn't immediately answer, George smirked. "Do you remember that night, when you told me that if I couldn't talk about it, I shouldn't be contemplating doing it?"
"I knew I'd live to regret that," Jo replied, wondering how on earth she was going to wriggle out of this one. But hitting on John's tactic of actions speak louder than words, she adjusted George's hand slightly, so that her thumb was now grazing back and forth over Jo's nipple, making George laugh huskily when she realised what Jo had done.
"I don't want you to feel as though you need to hide anything from me," George assured her gently. "If I'm not doing something quite right, I want to know, and if there's something I'm not doing that you would like, I want to know that too, no matter how obscure you might think it is."
"You might come to regret that, George," Jo said with a smile, to cover up how touched she was at George's openness.
"I doubt it," George challenged her. "I quite like being surprised on occasions."
"Ah, the mystery and intrigue of the entirely unknown."
"Yes, something like that. Is that what this feels like to you?" George asked a little tentatively.
"Yes, in a way," Jo admitted. "Because whilst what one does to one's self, and what one does to one's lover might be fairly similar in this case, I am hoping they are also somewhat different."
"Definitely," George told her firmly, thinking that what she might do for herself, had never come even close to what Karen had so often done for her.
Bearing this in mind, George trailed her hand down away from Jo's breasts and across her stomach. But as she encountered a particularly sensitive area of Jo's skin, Jo's whole body jerked.
"Don't do that, it tickles," Jo told her, trying not to laugh.
"Ah, I'll have to remember that for future reference," George said a little evilly.
"I could always phone John, and ask him to let me in on a couple of your weak points," Jo teased her in return.
"I wouldn't," George said, playing along with her. "Or he'll want to join in by proxy." Using Jo's obvious relaxation from her laughter, George laid a softly seeking hand on her thigh, tracing the crease where thigh meets hip with a delicate finger. She kept her eyes fixed on Jo's, hoping to interpret every flicker, wanting to be able to anticipate any change in Jo's responses to her. When she slightly parted her legs, and George slipped her right hand between them, Jo couldn't help but feel that she had taken that final leap, and that never again could she go back to that safe, blissful innocence of night-time imaginings. Even if she backed out now, and George withdrew her hand, as Jo knew she instantly would if asked to do so, they couldn't return to the way they had been an hour ago. George's touch was feather-light at first, not venturing remotely near to the point at which all female pleasure is born. Jo's bud remained hidden for the moment, as George's gentle fingers delicately flickered over the outer skin, giving her time to get used to the feeling of another woman doing this to her. As she deftly teased at Jo's entrance with the tip of her finger, a shiver ran the length of Jo's body, accompanied by a gasp that couldn't have been from anything but surprise and excitement. Jo was so warm inside, so deliciously moist and silky, that George inched in a second finger to join the first. Withdrawing them somewhat coated in Jo's essence, she moved them up, and began gently rubbing some life into Jo's clitoris.
Jo didn't think she'd ever felt anything quite so enchanting and yet naughty all in one go. How John made her feel was usually fantastic, but this was so new, so different, that part of her wanted to hide from it, and the rest of her simply lay back and reveled in it. George could gradually feel all the tension seeping out of Jo's muscles, her body relaxing almost bonelessly into the bed. She had her left arm round Jo, with her right hand doing one of the things it did best. She had her cheek resting on Jo's shoulder, with Jo's face turned towards her. They occasionally exchanged deep, lingering kisses, but neither felt it necessary to speak. Jo allowed the music to further relax her, and George allowed it to carry her, to in some ways decide what path her hand would take. She could remember John's telling her that it might take a while for Jo to become fully aroused, and that was absolutely fine with George. They had all the time in the world, and George could last as long as Jo needed her to last. Her hand languorously swept to and fro, Jo's natural lubrication slowly becoming more plentiful. The combination of her wandering hand, the softly swaying music and Jo's endless blue eyes, seemed to be hypnotising George, so that she could have gone on doing this for ever. But when she slipped two fingers back inside Jo's softly yielding warmth, trying to seek out her hidden Grafenberg spot, Jo's kisses suddenly became more insistent. Moving her fingers back and forth, trying to swipe this point with every gentle thrust, George began continually grazing her thumb over Jo's clitoris, provoking a deep, throaty moan that made her smile. When George's hand took on a particular rhythm, Jo's breathing began to quicken, her right arm reflexively tightening where it lay round George's shoulders. George gazed transfixed into Jo's eyes, watching as the pupils dilated at the approach to her orgasm, and then screwed up into pin pricks at the point of completion. Jo was deadly silent as she came, Chopin's music seeming to provide all the sound necessary for such a climactic event. Her whole body stiffened, her chest seeming to expand, with her breath being held for an inordinate amount of time. But as her muscles relaxed, and the waves of her orgasm swept over her, her body quivered, the expression in her eyes appearing to lure George right into their depths, permitting George access to the far reaches of her soul.
As they lay afterwards, Jo drifting in and out of a blissfully contented haze, George privately thought that there was nothing so beautiful, as a woman who had just experienced her first female generated orgasm. Jo was utterly relaxed, more peaceful than George had ever seen her. When Jo's eyes eventually focused back on her, she asked,
"Did that come up to expectation?" Smiling at the self-satisfied smugness in George's voice, Jo simply said,
"Mmm," In response, feeling that a coherent sentence was probably beyond her at the moment. Eventually summoning up the energy, Jo sat up and took a long swig from the glass of wine on the bedside table. When she lay back down, enclosing George again in her arms, she looked far more alert.
"Will you do something for me?" George asked, getting a sudden flash of inspiration.
"I'll try," Jo told her, wondering what was about to be asked of her.
"Will you tell me about when you and John left that Sunday, the Sunday I fondly think of as foursome Sunday."
"It almost was, wasn't it," Jo said with a laugh.
"I was rather inclined to the idea of a mini-orgy," George said contemplatively.
"And why doesn't that surprise me," Jo countered back. "Though I'm not sure that much would surprise me about you, after the last few months."
"It sounds as though John has been telling you a few too many of my wicked fantasies."
"Some," Jo said teasingly. "Like being tied up, for example, and I seem to remember thinking typical."
"I haven't done that for years," George said with a smirk. "Something that I feel really ought to be put right in the not too distant future. John used to quite like having me at his mercy."
"Why do you want to know about that Sunday?" Jo asked, bringing them back to the topic in hand.
"You once told me that you'd thought about me, whilst reaching orgasm. I'm just curious, that's all."
"So you should be," Jo told her with a kiss. "How John didn't get done for speeding on the way home, I'll never know. I hadn't felt that lit up in quite a while, and he knew it. He was touching me, because he knew I was pretty close, and he asked me what I would feel, if it were you doing that to me."
"And what did you tell him?" George asked, her hand filling in the actions of the story, returning to its former pursuit.
"I said that it was too weird, even for him," Jo replied, her voice losing its cool with her rising pleasure, wondering just how far George would try to mimic John's actions of that afternoon.
"Famous last words, darling," George said with a laugh.
"Then, later on," Jo continued, desperately trying to concentrate, though this was being made persistently harder by George's wandering hand. "He asked me what I thought the two of you were doing right then. So, I challenged him, and asked him what he thought you were up to, and he said he'd rather show me than tell me. George, how you expect me to tell you a story, when I am barely capable of forming a coherent thought, never mind an entire sentence, is beyond me." Deciding to take pity on her obvious shyness, George kissed her way down over Jo's shoulder, and over her right breast.
"Did he do this?" She asked, gently enclosing Jo's nipple in her warm, supple lips, soothing the hardening tip with her agile tongue. Jo didn't answer, at least not in any language George recognised, but the corresponding increase of wetness surrounding her fingers, told her all she needed to know. She spent some considerable time mercilessly teasing Jo's right nipple, before moving across to her left, whilst Jo simply lay and basked in the pleasure being heaped upon her. But as George eventually began kissing her way down Jo's body, over the ticklish spot at her waist, Jo laid a hand on her shoulder, stopping her in her tracks.
"George, no," She said, making George raise her head to look up at her.
"Why?" She asked, clearly mystified. "You're surely not telling me you don't like it?"
"No, of course not," Jo said with a sheepish smile. "I... I don't know that I would ever want to do that to you, and it's certainly not something I want to try any time soon."
"So?" George queried, still not getting the point. Then, as she saw the flickering expression of uncertainty in Jo's face, she understood. "Darling," She said, moving back up so that she could look Jo in the face. "That really doesn't matter. Whether you do or don't want to try anything with me, really isn't the issue. If you like it, which I know you do because you've said so before, and you want me to do that for you, then that's all that matters."
"Are you sure?" Jo asked, feeling incredibly humbled by George's generosity.
"Darling, it's one of my favourite pastimes, so yes, I'm perfectly sure."
"Every woman is different, George," Jo said matter-of-factly. "You might not like it with me."
"Whilst I know Karen's name might not be all that welcome in present circumstances," George said carefully. "Would it make you relax more, if I did with you what I did with her, the first time I tried this?"
"George, you can't completely cut Karen out of the situation, no matter what the circumstances," Jo told her gently. "She still means an awful lot to you, and I'm not so naive, as to expect you to forget about all the similar times you had with her."
"I'm sorry, it's just that John always hates it, if I accidentally talk about a previous lover when I'm with him, which is admittedly very rare."
"And that's probably because he's very insecure, which at the moment, I really don't feel. So, what was it you did with Karen?" Deciding that the verbal description of such an act would probably frighten Jo off, George removed her hand from where it still rested between Jo's legs, and under her widening eyes, decorously sucked the end of her index finger, smiling at the taste she encountered.
"Trust me, darling," George said with a predatory gleam in her eye. "I'm going to love every minute of this."
"Then far be it from me, to prevent you from continuing," Jo replied a little hoarsely, slightly unable to believe she'd just seen George do that. Returning to her former endeavour, George eventually reached her goal, the tip of her tongue at first just grazing the outer surface of Jo's labia. George was lying between her legs now, and Jo thought that John would give anything to see this, to bear witness to such an erotic delicacy. When George's tongue teased at her entrance, savouring the sweet, heady muskiness of her flavour, Jo couldn't help but to let out a groan of enjoyment. She wasn't used to being quite so vocal, but George seemed to draw out every ounce of her reactions, to almost give her the freedom to fully express herself. George's tongue was sweeping over her clitoris now, and Jo was forced to concede the true advantages of having such smooth facial skin in contact with her most sensitive flesh, instead of the faintest stubble that perpetually existed on any man's face. She was deftly nibbling on her bud now, taking it so delicately between those lips that knew how to smile or sneer with so much power. Then, as Jo's breathing began quickening in earnest, she got the shock of her life. George, suddenly becoming aware of the music's climactic crescendo around them, began humming along to it, clearly knowing the piece well enough to do so. It wasn't something she'd purposefully thought of doing, but an action which appeared to come naturally to her. As Jo felt the combined sensations of the vibrations from George's lips, together with the languorous encouragement of her tongue, she soared up and over the crest of her peak, Chopin's chords and George's lips, carrying her out of the previous confines of her sexual repression, and forever removing the chains that had for so many years kept her desires in check.
Moving back up to lie beside her, George saw that there were tears cascading down Jo's cheeks. That hadn't just been any ordinary orgasm for Jo, George knew that. Something had happened that time, something that had left Jo reeling from the aftershock. Putting her arms round her, George just lay quiet, running a hand up and down Jo's arm, trying to offer comfort when she really didn't know the source of her tears.
"I'm sorry," Jo said, trying to regather her scattered wits.
"It's all right," George told her softly. "I did exactly the same, the first time I slept with Karen."
"You don't understand," Jo tried to tell her.
"Yes, I do," George replied, remembering how emotionally overwhelmed she'd felt with Karen.
"No, you don't," Jo assured her. "For more years than I care to remember, I've felt stifled, restrained, as if real, fulfilling sexual enjoyment, was something I shouldn't feel. When I first met John, making love with him was wrong, because cheating on my husband when he was ill was one of the worst things I have ever done. But in spite of that, or maybe because of it, making love with John was incredible, and though I'm loath to admit it, I couldn't get enough of it. But those few months of satisfying my own pleasure, eventually led to my having to destroy the life of my baby. I think, that ever since then, I have subconsciously forbidden myself to enjoy making love as much as I would like to, probably because with John, there is always the possibility of having to do the same thing again, no matter how careful we may be. But with you, I am obviously in no danger of ever repeating that disaster, and that makes me feel so free." George lay there stunned, as Jo's words seemed to pour out of her, painting a picture of years of subconscious emotional punishment. Guilt could affect people in many different ways, she knew that only too well from her own years of self-inflicted torture, but she had never suspected that Jo's ran so deep, and she supposed that neither had John.
"Do you think this realisation will have any effect on how you are with John?" George couldn't help asking, feeling that although it was fabulous for Jo to feel the loosening of her subconscious restraints, it wouldn't help any of them if it made it harder for her to sleep with John.
"At least now I know why I've always kept so much of myself in reserve. I think I needed to be shown just how incredible it was possible to feel again. I came close to it that Sunday, and he knew it. He thought it was simply because I'd discovered something else that worked for me, but I don't think it was. I've a feeling that part of me realised what being with a woman might just do for me. It's stupid, because I know that I'm as careful as I can be with John, and that the older I get, the less likely it is to happen again, but no matter how loved he always makes me feel, I'm never quite as overwhelmed as perhaps I think I should be."
"Sexual pleasure isn't an exact science, Jo."
"I know it's not, but maybe being with you, has given me something of a breakthrough." They lay there talking for an inestimable amount of time, finishing their wine and occasionally kissing. Jo hadn't made any move to satisfy George, but George didn't care. Tonight was all about Jo, and nothing was going to move her on that. When they eventually settled down to sleep, Jo quietly laughed into the darkness.
"What?" George asked her, their faces very close together.
"I'm just wondering how this is going to work, the three of us, I mean."
"Yes, the mind does somewhat boggle, doesn't it," George answered dryly, thinking that John would be in his element when that day eventually arrived.
When Jo awoke on the Saturday morning, she just lay there for a time, listening to the birds through the open window, and thinking about the night before. She had been emotionally exhausted, and had gone to sleep feeling more contented than she had done in a long while. Her body stiffened, and a blush crept over her skin, as she realised that it hadn't occurred to her to attempt to return the favour. But George hadn't said a word, and the only feelings she'd given off were ones of happiness and pleasure at Jo's own enjoyment. George was sleeping soundly next to her, all the curves and angles of her body soft and warm, inviting her touch as strongly as a magnet. There was a peaceful smile on George's face, showing that she was in the middle of some sort of happy dream. Putting out a tentative hand, Jo began softly stroking one of George's breasts, enchanted at their pert, rich ripeness. Carefully pushing back the bedclothes, so as not to wake George with a jolt, she left a trail of gentle kisses over George's shoulder, arcing over the curve of her cleavage, until she was delicately teasing a nipple with her lips.
The first thing that told George she was no longer just dreaming, was the sensation of a slightly inexperienced mouth firmly tugging at her flesh, yet trying to be gentle at the same time. She didn't care that Jo's movements were a little overzealous, it felt incredible! Letting out a thoroughly contented groan, George began running her fingers through Jo's sleep tousled hair, thinking that what Jo was doing to her was utterly delicious. Realising that George was now awake, Jo moved over to the other nipple, her ministrations gradually becoming more accurate and less heavy-handed. When George gently detached Jo from her, and encouraged her back up to face level, they exchanged a deep, hungry, languorous kiss.
"Mmm," George said a little huskily. "What a way to wake up." Jo was lying half draped over her now, which George found delightful.
"Ah, well, it occurred to me when I woke up, that I somehow managed to forget to return the favour last night," Jo said, her left leg slipping in between George's.
"That was my intention," George replied, lifting a hand to cover a yawn. "I wanted last night to be all about you."
"Why?" Jo asked her, extremely touched by this statement.
"I just did," George told her, not having the energy to explain. But as she wrapped her arms round Jo, bringing them even closer, Jo's thigh rubbed up against George's moist, warm centre. Laughing throatily at the expression on Jo's face, George said,
"You see, that's what you do to me, by being in my bed in such a debauched and disheveled state."
"I don't look debauched," Jo protested with a smile, laying a tentative left hand on George's hip.
"Yes, you do, darling, believe me," George said approvingly. "I'll bear that look in mind, every time I'm opposite you in court."
"If I keep your tongue in mind, every time I'm opposite you in court, you'll always win, and we couldn't possibly have that, now could we," Jo quipped back, at the same time trailing her hand between George's legs. George was so warm, so soft and inviting, that Jo found that any lingering apprehension she might have had about doing this instantly disappeared.
"Why are string players, so fabulous with both hands?" George asked, her voice clearly having lost some of its sultry sleepiness, in favour of the unstable lilt of rising passion.
"Because bowing and plucking, require equal amounts of dexterity," Jo told her, her soft, husky voice wrapping itself around George's senses. George wasn't anywhere near as quiet as Jo had been the night before, the little indecipherable whimpers of ecstasy, telling Jo just how much she was enjoying this.
"Sorry, darling," She said as her pleasure mounted and her breathing quickened. "But I haven't a hope in hell of being as quiet as you are."
"I wouldn't expect anything else from you, George," Jo told her with a laugh, her hand increasing in speed, finally tipping George over the edge, and provoking a cry of joy from her that Jo would cherish the memory of for ever. This was the signal that she had finally achieved her goal. After months, or even years of feeling sexually unequal to George, and thinking that John perhaps saw her as the unadventurous woman to whom he had taught everything she knew, both in bed and in court, she had done it. Not only had she discovered the key to the releasing of her true sexual being, but she had widened her experience in the process. She knew that she wasn't entirely there yet, but she had taken that enormous step forward, and would never again feel quite as inferior to John as she always had done.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Four
Denny leaned disconsolately against the wall of the 'ones," thinking of her changed surroundings. She was back in the same 'four bed' dorm that she had once shared with Crystal, Zandra and what was the name of that kid who hung herself, Rachel that's her name. That memory gave her a headache of another bad memory in her life. Here she was, back there in the same cell, just different inmates. Of course Tina was nice and friendly enough but a bit slow on the uptake. Buki was all right but she didn't like the thought of that razor blade of hers being somewhere around the dorm. Blades just got her nerves on edge. Darlene got on her tits from time to time with her bloody music of hers and she really had to strain her ears to pick out half of what she was frigging well saying. It wasn't the same as just her and Lauren sharing a cell as she remembered that Lauren was dead considerate, knew how she felt and could make her laugh. It got her down that her life with Lauren was becoming a memory. It could have been worse after she went off the rails but everything around her was a depressing flat anti climax. She wondered vaguely how Lauren was going on and into her waking dreams, appeared the fairytale palace in which she must be living, swimming pool, country garden, house full of gadgets, plush carpets. Why should she think of prison, some shitty cell, in which she could have been banged up for life? Why should she ever bother to ever come back if she were in Lauren's shoes?
"So Yvonne's coming in this afternoon," Nikki's soft, very kindly voice insinuated itself into her dreams out of nowhere. She had been rushed off her feet all morning and wanted to pop in and make sure that Denny was in the right frame of mind to face Yvonne.
"She says she is. Doesn't mean that she'll come," Denny muttered cynically. Somehow it felt easier to stay hard and tough so it keeps all the crap out of your life. Don't expect much out of life so you won't get let down.
"You've known Yvonne as long as I have. Don't you know that one casual promise from her is worth its weight in gold? Do you really believe she's not turning up?"
"Suppose so," Denny muttered as the memory of Nikki's voice echoed round in her mind when she was up for adjudication.
"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."
"You scared a lot of us half to death, me included, when you were up on the roof so I'm not taking any chances on anything going wrong. I've double checked and I've just phoned Yvonne to make dead sure."
Nikki's intense brown eyes looked directly at her while Denny's eyes glazed over. Nikki chatted away to Denny in her friendly fashion but soon had the curious fashion that Denny wasn't listening.
" ..so how have you been getting on in the four bed dorm, Denny."
"Eh?" Denny mouthed almost silently. She had seen Nikki's mouth open and close and heard sounds come out of her mouth but they sounded more like what Nikki had gone on to tell her at her adjudication.
"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?"
She'd been up before one authority figure after another, either in the children's home onwards and right through into Larkhall prison. She had got to get hard to survive either place and it was easier to be a bully and hit anyone weaker than herself to cover up her own hurt so she couldn't feel anything. They'd all sat behind their official desks and said the same load of crap, even Stewart. She was Shell's mate so Stewart had a down on her. It was simple as that, wasn't it? Only Nikki was different right now. She has to do everything her own way, the way Nikki had always done things, when she's stood up to Fenner and Bodybag all those years ago. She had always seen her at a distance and she really wished she'd known her better at the time. She was still the same though different and her words went round and round in her head. She was bloody right ..about everything and at least there was someone stronger and wiser than she was who had been one of them and was now looking after her. Behind her stood Miss Betts who'd been the first decent wing governor and hadn't ever forgotten her, had she. She hadn't been around Larkhall for a week or so and Denny hoped she was looking after herself. She half suspected that it had been down to her, the way she was chancing her arm up there on the roof. They could have both fallen over the edge. Why couldn't she be like any of them, or like Lauren? They had that kind of gloss that she never had. She wasn't jealous of any of them, it was just that she felt inadequate next to them.
"You haven't heard a word of what I've been saying, Denny," Nikki cut through Denny's deep thoughts with slightly strained patience.
"You're dead wrong, Nikki. I've heard everything you told me at adjudication. It's been going on round and round in my head."
"And does it make sense to you and it's not another load of well meaning crap?"
Like lightning, Nikki mentally shifted gear and put herself in Denny's mind. That was worth far more than the mild inconvenience of a second take of what she'd been saying.
Denny nodded her head vigorously.
"That's worth much more than anything. You have to have hope, haven't you?"
They looked into each other's eyes and that exchange of shared memories said everything. From anyone else, Nikki's words would have been a load of bollocks that meant sod all. Nikki was different. She'd been there.
Now are you listening, Denny .."
Denny grinned at Nikki's gentle, joking manner.
" ..then I'll begin again."
"Is Lauren coming?" Denny asked eagerly, starting to jump up and down in excitement. The day was getting better and surely it had to happen. Nikki's face fell and Denny knew the bitter truth before her words said so. The words were as gentle as could be but the truth was brutal.
"It ain't worth going to the visitor's room in that case."
"Don't be so bloody stupid," Came the smart retort. It could have been Yvonne talking to her. "I didn't press Yvonne for the reason why as she sounded uncomfortable so you go in and find out from her, do you hear."
Denny got the message and filed down after all the others. Her feelings were mixed but at least she felt better than this morning. She had to do as she was told. Everything was set up perfectly for the visit. Her loose fitting top was just about long enough in the sleeve so that the surgical bandage on her arm didn't really show. Besides, she could as easily have hurt her arm in some kind of accident.
Yvonne's welcome was warm and expansive as it could possibly be. On the bright side, it meant that she would get Yvonne's undivided attention. On the other hand, she wondered if it would exactly be a bonus, as she would be bound to know all about her little escapade up on the roof. It never crossed her mind that she would not know about it. As a result, Denny greeted Yvonne a little sheepishly.
"I suppose you're going to ask me what I was frigging well doing on the roof. I ain't sure myself how I got there."
"Denny, I can understand that you want to top up your suntan as Larkhall hasn't exactly got the latest in getting that tanned celebrity look, not with the Julies bangers and mash and a bit of sunshine in recreation if you're lucky. It's that Bodybag would be bound to notice you up on the roof. Even she's not that stupid."
Denny grinned slightly at Yvonne's totally affectionate piss take. It did its best to take away anything heavy from that day as much as words ever could.
"The main thing is that you're safe. I've been worrying over you and I wanted to make sure you're all right."
Even Denny's wavering and uncertain self-esteem couldn't prevent her being gently pulled into that emotionally comforting deep end of the pool. She had spent so much of her life avoiding getting her feet wet. A part of her still felt down and depressed. This was something that Yvonne picked up on straightaway and, rather than pussyfoot around the subject, opted for the direct approach.
"Come on, spit it out. There's something on your mind, Denny."
The younger woman sighed in despair. She was far worse than any screw in keeping secrets from. Even though Yvonne was on the outside, she seemed to know everything that went on on the inside. She shuffled uncomfortably in her chair and, as she was unconscious of the clock ticking, got to the point.
"It's just that I would have thought that Lauren would have come. I was looking forward to seeing her."
"You're really fond of her."
Denny nodded, unable to speak for a moment until she finally found words to express her feelings.
"Me and Lauren got to be real close. We would look after each other. When she was down, she would look after me like after I saw Shell in Ashmoor. It was the same when she first came here, I was the strong one. It made me feel dead important and somehow useful."
Yvonne immediately understood the weight of feeling behind those stumbling words.
"It's going to take Lauren a while before she can come back to Larkhall, Denny."
Yvonne explained patiently. "She's been finding it weird getting out. If you're on the inside, you've got a routine to keep your head straight, yeah, even the sort of pain in the arse like Bodybag.On the outside, you're trying to catch up with the person that you used to be but you find that you've changed. Prison changes you. I found that out when I got out of Larkhall. Lauren's finding that out and one day, you'll go through the same thing."
"Chance will be a fine thing," Denny muttered cynically.
"It will happen. You've got everything going for you. Yourself for a start, your mates and you've Nikki and Karen on your side as well. You haven't got that bastard Fenner to screw things up for you."
Denny looked thoughtfully at her. It was only her fear that just when something that she really wanted was going to happen, something would snatch it away from her.
"Lauren will come in her own time. She's like you. No use in pushing the pair of you. I should know."
Again, that incredible tenderness in Yvonne's voice performed that frigging miracle inside Denny's head.
"She's thinking of you all the time."
An impulse shot into Denny's mind, the way it always did. It was now or never.
"Can I talk to her? I mean now. Straight after visiting."
"I don't see why not but it ain't my nick. I only visit the place. I don't run it."
Behind Yvonne's inimitable grin, her mind was working overtime. She was highly conscious not to bring her friendship with Nikki into her job. Yvonne could see her out of the corner of her eye and wondered how she was taking that one. The old saying about not mixing business with pleasure always made sense to her. On the other hand, it had the makings of a good idea and Nikki was Nikki.
"I need a light."
For some reason, Denny raised her left hand to reach for Yvonne's Silk Cut cigarette, which was offered to her. As she did, her sleeve fell away and the surgical dressing came into view.
"How in hell did you do that?" Her voice was choked and throaty with emotion and utter shock. The moment the first word left her lips, she knew. It could only spell one thing. All her dormant instincts and memories of Larkhall fitted the pieces of the puzzle together in a sickeningly easy way.
The expression on Denny's face was of total bemusement at the situation and of Yvonne's reaction. Time had moved on for Denny and that mad stuff with the razor blade was something she didn't want to think of, something she had pushed into the past as quickly as the passing days had let her. Life moved on in prison. It had also never crossed her mind that Nikki wouldn't have told Yvonne and that, alternatively, she wouldn't have known from any other source. She knew everything. It had always been that way.
"I've been stupid. I cut myself with a razor blade," She said shamefacedly.
Nikki had been watching the conversation from some distance away but her sharp ears had caught the drift of the conversation. Her hand covered her mouth in horror and she blushed in shame. She had only talked to Yvonne earlier that morning and a parallel instinct to Denny's had made her unconsciously push out of her mind the horrors of Denny cutting up. It meant that an outraged Yvonne was glaring in her direction with devastating eye contact.
"Selena, get the keys to the private interview room and fast. I'm going to need it."
Her feet took her reluctantly and stiffly in Yvonne's direction.
"I know what you're thinking, Yvonne," She started apologetically and hesitantly.
"Don't you just."
Nikki winced before the suppressed ferocity of Yvonne's opening verbal blast before an instinct in her prompted her to take over. She had always acted that way, whether as wing governor, dealing with drunken women in the club or haranguing Helen in a matter of blatant injustice.
"The three of us need a private room. Let's move it."
"Are you saying that as head screw?"
Yvonne was secretly aghast at the way the words shot out of her mind. She didn't really mean to say that but they came to Nikki's rescue as controlled anger took over. In the very few arguments she had had with Yvonne, she was the one fellow prisoner who was her match.
"No, as Nikki Wade, same as I've always been. We need to be able to talk in private and get this sorted out, as long as it takes. Now move it, I said."
That whiplash crack of authority in Nikki's voice got the other two women to their feet and they followed Nikki's determined forceful stride. Secretly, she hadn't a clue what she was going to say but she put her trust in instinct. It couldn't be worse than when she had single handedly confronted the Peckham Boot Gang and their friends when they were getting the knives out in the middle of the prison riot.
"Denny, I bet you've guessed a bit of what's going on .I never mentioned anything about you cutting up not to Cassie, Roisin, Josh Crystal or Lauren or anyone when I went round to Yvonne's the night that Lauren got out "
An instinct in Yvonne could see the way that Nikki shook inwardly at the mention of the name of every friend of theirs who she'd kept in the dark. Nikki didn't mean to do it but that didn't help her at that moment.
"So why didn't you say, Nikki. Just one word would have helped. You've got a phone. You could have told me anytime even if you were too busy to see me."
Nikki flinched at the perfect truth of the remarks. She didn't know what made her feel worse, the other woman's blazing anger or her hurt sorrow.
"I could never have told you, not when you were so happy that night with Lauren getting out, sorry Denny .."
"That's all right, Nikki," Denny said eagerly. It was down to her to stop both women hurting so much, especially as it was over her.
" ..as for later on, well, I could have told you but I didn't want to think about it. I messed up, Yvonne."
Nikki ground to a halt. She felt that she should say more but did not know how. Unknown to her at that moment, it was the best thing she could have done. Yvonne had slipped back into seeing the smart suit of the wing governor but when she blinked, it was only Nikki after all.
"Don't mind admitting it's been a hell of a shock. I thought you were doing so well."
"That's because Lauren was getting out. I thought you didn't need me," Blurted out Denny.
"You soft cow, Denny. You know better now? Once you're in the firm, I mean the family, you don't get out so easily. You hear that?"
Yvonne gathered up Denny in her arms and gave her a big hug as the room went very quiet, in fact surprisingly so. The usual background sound of a room full of visitors and prisoners rapidly talking appeared to have faded into the distance and time was passing. At first Nikki thought that the cut and thrust of the very fraught argument had taken it out of all of them until she realized that the visitor's room really had gone quiet.
"Can Denny make a call to Lauren from your office, Nikki. I know you wouldn't do that sort of thing and I wouldn't be asking if I didn't think that if Denny had some contact with Lauren it would help her."
What she really meant to say was that it might stop Denny doing anything stupid again but Nikki got the drift straightaway. There was a polite knock at the door and Selena popped her head round the door.
"Sorry to disturb, miss, but I thought I'd check to make sure everything was all right."
"You did right, Selena. I take it that the visiting room is clear now?"
"Very exceptionally, I'm proposing to escort Yvonne Atkins and Denny Blood to my office and I'll be responsible for their whereabouts afterwards when I'll show my face on the wing. If anyone wants me, I'm not to be disturbed for the next half hour unless it's an emergency. Got that?"
It intrigued Yvonne to hear her old friend assume the official tones so perfectly but Nikki always had been smart that way.
The three of them trooped along to Nikki's office, past a gaping Bodybag who muttered 'typical' under her breath and into Nikki's room.
"I shouldn't have taken it out of you earlier on, Nikki. I'm sorry," Yvonne said promptly. As they had been walking, she had been turning matters over in her mind. It needed to be said.
"Forget it. I'd have done the same if I were in your shoes. I used to have a really bad temper as you remember"
Yvonne grinned back and Nikki promptly made everyone welcome and turned her attention to Denny with a question that was niggling away at the back of her mind.
"Help yourself to the phone, Denny but, one thing. Are you going to let Lauren know what happened or should I do it?"
The expression on Denny's face was scared. She daren't tell Lauren, as she would be too ashamed.
"Leave it to me, Nikki till when I get home. Don't you do it, you've taken on quite enough."
Yvonne's face was set like iron as she spoke in hard, determined, authoritative tones. Nikki was glad to give way to her.
"Hi Lauren yes, I've been a pillock in not talking sooner not too bad, I'm sharing with Buki, Tina and Darlene in the four bed dorm yeah, Darlene gets on my tits but I'm getting used to her crap music ..well, it's your turn to get out, I'd be a twat if I thought you sort of have to hang around Larkhall waiting for me to get out .I'm phoning from Nikki's office instead of the phone box well, she's being dead kind and thinks I need cheering up as well how's the swimming pool and the house bet you're having the time of your life you come when you feel ready ..mum's been filling me in about how you've been feeling and I understand .. Love you loads and I can't wait to see you "
The two other women smiled fondly at Denny and were glad to hear Denny at her best chattering excitedly about nothing in particular. It was the best for all concerned.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Five
As Karen drove to the airport to meet George's plane late on the Friday afternoon, she couldn't help feeling a certain level of excitement at the prospect of seeing her again. She was well aware that things would probably have changed a great deal with George, but that didn't mean that Karen wasn't looking forward to seeing her again. Karen had done nothing but sunbathe, swim and sleep for the past two weeks, and she knew it had done her good. She'd barely spoken to anyone, except occasionally to Yvonne when she'd phoned, or to George when they'd arranged when she would come out here. She'd shopped for food in the local market, the beautifully ripened fruit and the freshly caught fish having provided her diet for the last fortnight. She'd gotten used to driving on the right side of the road, moving Yvonne's air-conditioned car through the nearby towns and tiny fishing villages. She'd walked along endless sandy beaches, swum far enough out to sea to make her almost lose her sense of direction, and she'd enjoyed every minute of it. The time to herself did occasionally give her too much time to think, but this had also allowed her to begin trying to make some sense of the last couple of months. She hadn't in any way completed the grieving process she must go through over Ross, but she reflected that she was now perhaps more able to deal with it. She hadn't progressed in any way through many of her feelings of hurt or anger over his death, and she knew that it would all be waiting for her just as soon as she returned to England. But these last two weeks had permitted her to put most of it aside for a time, to regather her strength for the toil ahead.
As she stood beyond the barrier, and watched George walk towards her, carrying a simple holdall as she was only staying for a couple of days, Karen couldn't help but think that she looked happy. Gone was the worry and concern that had lingered in George's eyes, every time she'd looked at her, though there was a slight wariness about her, telling Karen that George was a little unsure of what this meeting might entail. When she finally stood in front of Karen, George gaped. Karen looked rested, healthy, and incredibly tanned.
"Good god," She said in amazement. "You're so brown you could almost be reclassified."
"You're not looking so bad yourself," Karen told her, giving her a hug and kissing her cheek. As they walked out to the car and drove to the villa, they didn't talk about anything deep and meaningful, both aware that this would happen only too soon.
"You look as though you feel at home here," George observed, as they drove up the long coastal road to the villa.
"Yes, it's funny, but I suppose I do," Karen replied. "I kept drifting over to the wrong side of the road for the first couple of days, but you get used to it pretty quickly." When they pulled up in the driveway, and Karen led the way inside, George couldn't help but be impressed.
"Well, next time I have a client who needs to do some pretty swift money laundering, I'll tell them to take Yvonne's advice," Was her dry observation, as she took in the beautifully decorated interior, the tiled floors that would be cold on the feet, and the terrace and swimming-pool that lay at the back. After Karen had poured them both a glass of chilled white wine, they sat out on the terrace, the late afternoon sun having moved round a bit, so as to afford them some shade.
"So, how are you really?" George asked, taking a swig of her wine and then lighting a cigarette.
"Oh, I'm all right," Karen said a little evasively. "I've done sod all apart from sleep, so at least I might have some energy when I go back on Sunday."
"You're coming back with me?" George asked, not having been aware of this till now.
"Yes," Karen told her simply. "That's why I asked you to come this weekend, to make me come back. I might have had the longest rest imaginable, which has definitely done me all the good in the world, but everything will still be there waiting for me when I get back. It would be far too easy just to stay out here for ever, to live in a sort of contented limbo, far enough away so that everything can just go on without me."
"Darling, that doesn't sound like you," George said in concern, for the first time wondering if two week's solitude had been the best idea after all.
"No, I know it doesn't," Karen replied, lighting her own cigarette. "So, I thought that if I have to go back when you do, I won't be able to find an excuse to stay. I haven't dealt with a single, bloody thing while I've been out here, but perhaps now I'll have the energy to do that when I get back." Laying a hand over the one of Karen's that wasn't holding her cigarette, George gave it a squeeze, understanding everything Karen had said.
"Everyone sends their love," She said, trying to lighten the conversation a little. "I talked to Nikki just yesterday, and she said that everything's ticking over just fine."
"I had to resist the urge to phone her for the first couple of days," Karen admitted sheepishly. "I'm more than a little intrigued as to what Nikki came up with, as punishment for Sylvia."
"Ah," George said with a broad smile. "Then I think you will be highly amused by that particular turn of events. Nikki told me to tell you, that Sylvia has been put on a year's probation, and is being supervised by Gina." Only just managing to swallow her mouthful of wine in time, Karen laughed, a sound that George hadn't heard out of her in far too long.
"That is truly inspired," Karen said approvingly. "She'll make a Governing Governor in the next five years with an attitude like that. God, I bet Sylvia's been cursing herself to hell and back in the last fortnight."
"She thought that might cheer you up."
"George, tell me what's been happening with you?" George had been about to take another sip from her glass, but put it back down on the table in favour of trying to get her brain into some semblance of order.
"I'm not sure how much you want to know," She said evasively, not entirely meeting Karen's gaze. Reaching forward, Karen gently tilted George's face up to hers, so that they were looking straight into each other's eyes.
"I want to know everything," She said, without an ounce of hurt or anger anywhere in her tone. Gazing back into Karen's soft, hypnotising blue eyes, George found a few tears rising to her own eyes, but tried not to let them fall.
"I'm sorry," She said, feeling such a complete cow for doing this to Karen.
"George..." Karen tried to say, not wanting her to feel like this.
"No, please just let me say it," George interrupted. "I couldn't have done this to you at a worse time, and I wish with all my heart that I hadn't had to do it, I really do. You mean an awful lot to me, and you always will do. I won't ever forget what we've had together, not ever, no matter who else I might be with. If you still want to know everything, then I'll tell you, because it probably wouldn't do me any harm to talk about it, but I don't want to do that if it will hurt you."
"George, look at me," Karen said gently, taking George's hands in hers. "That's the last time I want to hear any hint of an apology from you. I've barely spoken to anyone over the last couple of weeks, which has been fantastic, but it's given me time to think. Not about Ross, because I haven't yet summoned up the courage to do that in anything resembling a pointful fashion, but I have thought about you, and about why you ended up feeling the way you did. So please, enough of the sorries, because they're not necessary."
"All right," George acquiesced quietly. "We did tell John, or at least I did. God, I swear that was one of the most nerve-racking evenings of my life. He was a little confused, a little hurt that we'd taken so long to tell him, and I think he's still getting used to the idea."
"Have you slept with her?" Karen asked with a soft smile, thinking that George's level of neuroticism must have been going through the roof.
"You know, that was virtually the first thing John wanted to know."
"Hey, I'm simply curious to know whether or not you've passed on my expertise," Karen said with a perfectly straight face. When George realised that Karen was playing with her, she laughed.
"That's one way of putting it, I suppose. John couldn't at first get his head round the fact, that how we felt about each other wasn't exactly a recent occurrence, and yet we hadn't got around to sleeping with each other." Karen was incredibly curious to know just how long this had been going on, but she didn't want to plunge them both back into the territory of hurt feelings by asking such a question. "I slept with her last weekend," George told her eventually.
"And, it was fabulous. The first time you slept with me, did you find it utterly mind blowing, to initiate someone like that?"
"Yes, I did," Karen told her fondly. "It gave me a sense of achievement that I hadn't felt in a long time."
"I felt so special, that she'd trusted me to do that for her."
"That's pretty much what I felt like with you," Karen agreed, remembering just how on top of the world she'd felt after making love to George.
Back in London, John had returned from the opening of the new session of judge's seminars, and had driven straight over to Jo's, knowing that she was cooking him a meal. George was in Spain by now, and John was looking forward to a weekend alone with Jo. She'd seemed happier this week whenever he'd spoken to her on the phone, and he had a sneaking suspicion as to why. It wasn't impossible that as their relationship was now out in the open, George and Jo had finally got around to sleeping with each other. Last weekend would have been the perfect time, because he was away and couldn't possibly have disturbed them. When Jo let him in, there was a new light in her eyes, something shining out of her that without a doubt confirmed his suspicion.
"You're looking pleased with yourself," He said when she'd kissed him long and hard.
"Hmm, I suppose I am," She said, wholly unable to keep the smirk off her face.
"Actually, you look like the cat who got the cream," john said, piercing her with his unflinching gaze.
"Ah, well," She said with satisfaction. "When the male cat's away, the females will play." John laughed.
"Is that right," He said, holding her from him and scrutinizing her. "Well, it seems to have done you good."
"I do realise that you've just driven back from Warwick," She said speculatively. "But I've just put dinner in the oven, and it will take over an hour to cook."
"Sounds perfect," He said, immediately understanding her meaning. But when they were lying in bed, their hands following their old familiar paths, John could sense something different in her. "Can I make an observation?" He said into her hair, his hands roaming her silky soft skin.
"As long as it's complementary," Jo replied, though thinking that it wouldn't be in John's nature to be otherwise at the moment.
"You're different tonight, I can't explain it. It's almost as if you're the Jo I used to make love to, before you became pregnant." Stopping in her insistent caresses of his skin, Jo touched his cheek, making him look at her.
"I think that's because I am," She said quietly. "John, sleeping with George, it did something to me, something I really didn't expect." As she began explaining the way she'd felt on reaching her second orgasm with George, a whole host of feelings rose up in John. He had often wondered over the years, if Jo's termination had led to her putting a subconscious restraint on her sexual urges, but he'd never discussed his thoughts with her, because he hadn't wanted to bring up what was for both of them, a very difficult subject. He had got used to the more reserved Jo, and would never have loved or fancied her any less because of it. The way Jo had always kept some of herself from him, had possibly made him be more cautious with her, as though he were trying to respect the woman she now was, compared to the one he'd once known. But who would have thought it? Who would have thought that after all these years of Jo not being willing to really let herself go, George had been the one to achieve something he'd been trying for half his life.
"I think she's performed a miracle, if she did but know it," John said, the surge of emotions almost swamping him.
"I did tell her, when it happened," Jo replied. "I think it made her feel quite overawed."
"I'm not surprised," John said ruefully. "But I'm so happy, Jo. I always thought that it might be something like that. I didn't ever consider saying so, because I knew that it was partly my fault that you ended up feeling like that, and I didn't know how to put it right."
"John, as unbelievable as it sounds," Jo tried to soothe his scattered wits. "I don't think any man would have been able to do it. I think it needed a woman, because sleeping with a woman is so different."
"I do hope that I don't become entirely surplus to requirements," He said with a smile, though Jo could hear the seriousness of his fear in his tone.
"Of course you won't," She said, beginning to kiss him again, and getting him back onto familiar ground. Their lovemaking was furious, rapturous, every feeling being laid bare for maximum consumption. No barrier remained between them, and no words were left unsaid.
"I do hope George isn't better than me at this," John couldn't help saying, as he swiped his tongue over Jo's clitoris.
"Different, not better," Jo told him between gasps, immediately halting John in his tracks.
"She really did this to you?" He asked, wishing he'd been there to see it.
"You don't need to look quite so surprised," She said with a smirk at his expression.
"I'd give anything to see that," He said in awe.
"I'm sure you will, one day," She tried to placate him. "Though probably not any time soon. I want to improve my skill a bit on both of you first."
On the Saturday morning, George woke to find that Karen was no longer lying beside her. They'd found it easy enough to share the same bed on the Friday night, knowing that it would have felt unnaturally distant to be separate from each other, even though they were no longer lovers. Pulling herself out of bed, George wrapped a towel round her, and walked outside to see where Karen might be. Finding her in the swimming pool, she stood and watched, as Karen's toned body moved swiftly from one end to the other. She looked as though she'd been doing an awful lot of swimming over the last couple of weeks, and George would bet anything that not all of it had been in the safety of the pool. When Karen turned for her last length, she saw George watching her. When she at last got out, she looked a little breathless but happy.
"Try it," Karen invited, picking up a towel and wrapping it round herself. "It's the perfect way to wake up."
"Yes, well, even though I knew I was coming over here for two days in the sun, I forgot to bring a bikini," George admitted disgustedly.
"That doesn't matter," Karen replied, briefly touching George's bare shoulder. "No one can see you. Well, no one except me, and I've seen it all before." Leaving George in a slightly stunned silence, Karen went inside to take a shower. Thinking that the water looked far too cool and inviting, George took Karen at her word, slipped off the towel and put it on the sun lounger, and approaching the edge of the pool, slid into the beautifully refreshing water with a groan of content. She lost all track of time as she moved through the water, her shoulder length hair streaming out behind her. She often went swimming at home, because other than sex, it was the most pleasurable exercise she had found. But the confines of the far too warm pool at the leisure centre, was nothing in comparison to being outdoors, and having the pleasantly cool water sliding over her entirely naked body.
When Karen emerged from her shower, putting on a clean bikini ready for sunbathing, she went back outside to find George still in the water, looking more beautiful with every moment that Karen stood and watched her. When she swam to the side and looked up at Karen staring down at her, Karen grinned.
"You look like a mermaid," She said, pointing to George's hopelessly tangled hair.
"Except that I have two legs rather than a tail," George said dryly.
"Would you like some breakfast?" Karen asked her.
"You know, for the first time in my life, I'm actually hungry at the thought of breakfast."
"Swimming always does that," Karen said as George pulled herself out of the pool and reached for her towel, giving Karen a brief but unforgettable display of her naked body. When George sat down at the table on the terrace, Karen brought out some melon and strawberries that needed eating up before she left tomorrow. They'd eaten fresh salmon the night before, that Karen had picked up from the market, along with a succulent salad and followed by the strawberries, of which half were left over this morning. They drank fresh orange juice and iced coffee, and afterwards George went inside for a shower, emerging some time later to find Karen lying on a sun bed and reading a book. Slipping off the towel she was wearing, George perched on the edge of a sun bed and picked up Karen's bottle of sun cream. When she'd plastered some on her fair skinned arms, Karen looked up and said,
"Do you want me to oil you?" Thinking that this was probably playing with fire, George agreed, and lay down on her back as Karen approached. Karen also knew that she shouldn't be doing this, but George lying there in all her naked, unselfconscious glory was simply too good an opportunity to miss. After applying a good coating to George's legs, Karen moved onto her thighs, massaging the cream in as she went, instantly making George realise that she never should have said yes to this. Karen's touch was so skilful, so arousing, that George had to bite furiously down on her lip, to prevent herself from gasping at the feel of Karen's hands on her. Glancing up at her, Karen smiled when she saw George's reaction to her ministrations.
"You'll have no lip left if you keep doing that," She said silkily, her tone of voice making George almost shiver with the intensity of the rush of remembered feelings.
"Do you have any idea what you're doing to me?" George asked, her voice not completely steady.
"Do you want me to stop?" Karen asked her, entirely prepared to if this really wasn't what George wanted, though Karen thought that if it hadn't been, George wouldn't have allowed Karen to touch her in the first place.
"I, er, I'd rather you didn't stop," George told her, a little shame facedly, as Karen began working the sun cream into her torso, her fingers sliding languidly over George's prominent ribs. But as they slid silkily over her breasts, George laid her hands over Karen's, just for a moment holding them in place, her eyes begging Karen to continue. Karen was sitting on the edge of the sun lounger by this time, her hands gently smothering the cream into George's soft breasts, using the softness of her fingers to graze the painfully erect nipples. Adjusting her position, Karen was now lying next to George on the thoroughly accommodating sun bed, her left hand continuing to caress George's breasts, while her right arm went round George to hold her close. Keeping her eyes fixed on George's, to make sure that everything she did was wanted as much as George said it was, Karen trailed her oily hand down, until her slickly covered fingers where seeking out George's even slicker centre. George couldn't believe how incredible this felt, to have Karen's sun cream covered hands moving on and inside her like this, and being out in the sunshine into the bargain. They didn't exchange so much as a word as Karen did this, and neither did they exchange a kiss. Kisses were for lovers, whereas touching could occasionally be something between friends, at least this was how George was reconciling what she was doing, with what lay back home waiting for her. She cried out as she came, knowing that nothing she'd ever done had ever felt so wickedly decadent, or so utterly sinful. Karen lay with her for a short time, softly watching George's face, and only when George's eyes drifted closed did she gently disentangle herself. As she slid quietly into the cool, still water, she reflected that this was just as good as a cold shower. Karen was utterly overwhelmed by what she'd just done, as it certainly wasn't something she'd planned to happen this weekend. She just hoped that George wouldn't regret it, because they had more than enough obstacles to encounter some time today, without making the morning's activities one of them.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Six
Outside the bedroom window of the vicarage, the trees waved their branches as heavy winds and squalls of rain showers blasted through them. The leaves of the trees were starting to curl brown at the edges from the onset of autumn. It suited Babs' mood, which was bleak inside, however much she wore her smile for her dear Henry's sake. The thought that his health had slid alarmingly downhill so soon tore at her heart. She did not want to know just yet that she had been through this situation before.
She ought to have been warned by Henry's increasing pallor but then again, he had never looked the healthy open-air kind of man. That tendency to a racking cough last summer had made her worry slightly but the dear, foolish man would never have let himself be dragged along to the doctor for a check up. He had always been the pack mule in life, able to carry any burden uncomplainingly, never to give way and bemoan his lot. He had looked after his first wife so devotedly throughout her illness that it had made him self sufficient to a fault, to the point that he, the vicar, should listen to advice himself.
She could remember at last that feeling of jubilation when she had finally got Henry to go to his local doctor. He was of the old fashioned school, not dissimilar from Henry, which was what finally led him to tear himself away from his duties. He was immensely reassuring in his manner and had unhurriedly written out a referral to the specialist at St. Mary's hospital in Paddington. He spoke confidently of the enormous advances the medical profession had made in the last few years, since Peter's untimely death while delicately not spelling it out in words. She really did think that there was hope for him, because she had wanted to believe it. She had watched the post dropping through the letterbox with an eagle eye while trying to keep up the act to herself and to Henry that everything was in hand. It was a Middle England tradition to believe in the wisdom of the captain and that everyone would be rescued. Her previous experience of Larkhall had taught her the savage lesson that, in that particular establishment, the sergeants and lieutenants were either fools or villains or both but in this area of precious life itself, she had wanted to believe.
All the more paralysing was the shock was Henry had been taken in immediately for an operation and the bad news was broached to her in private.
"I'm Connie Beauchamp, consultant cardio thoracic surgeon .." She started in confidently enough before the hesitation in her voice gave away what she was going to say.
" ..I'm really sorry to tell you, Barbara, that your husband is suffering from a highly advanced malignant form of cancer of the lung. I started the operation but I found that it was too far advanced to do anything about it. To tell you the truth, I wonder that he has not come for treatment earlier than this. He must have been in pain from the illness and the repeated coughing which must have made him feel weak and drained. He must be a very strong willed man."
This was the part of her job that the consultant had found distasteful, just how to break the bad news. It went against her instincts to fight hard for other people's lives with that dedication and perfectionism that was embedded deep within her. Anything less than success was a personal failure, which she successfully hid behind that professional mask.
Babs might even have smiled politely in her usual restrained Middle England way. The gesture was automatic. It took a little while for her to recover from the shock of the announcement and her first crazy inconsequential thought was how young the consultant was.
"That's Henry all right. I am afraid that his deeply held vocation as a vicar makes him the world's worst patient."
The other woman smiled politely back at her in her usual way but something in the expression in her eye and the faint lines in her face visibly recognised a kindred soul.
"I'm afraid that palliative treatment is all that can be offered."
"How long has he got? I have gone through this before with my previous husband and I know what to expect. I would prefer to face the truth."
"A matter of some months, I'm afraid."
As the final death sentence was pronounced in as caring gentle fashion as possible, Babs immediately reproached herself for not insisting more forcibly that he go to the doctor but dear Henry would never have gone before. I went against my secret better judgement as I knew deep down that I would have done the same if I were him.
From then on, Babs tried to take one or two of the more onerous duties off him and a locum used to stand in for Henry when even he admitted that his strength was beyond him to stand in the pulpit and to project his voice to the entire congregation in the church. It happened occasionally at first and then more often as time and his illness progressed.
It explained why the memory of one of her proudest moments in her life, the performance of the "Creation" was so mixed. On the one hand, it did her good to lose herself in rehearsals in the religious severity of her harpsichord part. It gave her something she could concentrate on and to lose herself in.
The performance was an utterly overwhelming experience when she was at one in the swelling cascade of instrumental devotion in all its shapes and sounds and tones. The magnificent harmonising of George, Neil and Monty was something out of the world. She could still remember the words sung as the piece approached its triumphant finale.
"Spouse adored, at thy side, purest joys o'erflow the heart.
With thee, with thee, with thee."
That was true and truly inspiring if it weren't for human mortality. At a time like this when one partner might be fated to be outlasted by the other, it tried her Christian faith to the utmost.
She was so proud of her dear Henry that day as she reminisced, determinedly thinking of happier times. His thanks for the magnificent performance were in his typically generous, genuine fashion. She might even have persuaded herself that he looked hale and hearty except for his whispered aside to her in the celebrations in the church hall as to how much the day had taken it out of him. It was then that she put up her façade to Karen of all people that she had faith for Henry's future when that was slipping away from her like sand trickling through an egg timer. Right now, she dared not even think of the future, only the day-to-day present.
"It's all right, dearest," She reassured Henry on that Saturday in September. "The locum has been arranged for tomorrow. He has no trouble in attending."
"That is good news, Barbara. I fear I have been imposing on his good nature. I must offer my thanks, you know, when I am fit enough to take over."
A single tear hovered in Babs eye. He still thinks that he will fight his illness. I wish I had his faith, she thought ruefully.
"That's all right, Henry. He is only too glad to help. You might not know it but you are held up as an example to the younger vicars."
"He does me too much credit. I have only done what I should have done ."Henry's weakened self deprecating reply was interrupted by a coughing bout. Babs immediately came to him and did what she could do for him, which she felt, was precious little.
"You, on the other hand, have offered me so much comfort over the last couple of years, Barbara. I have had such a happy life with you."
"Have, Henry dear?" Babs questioned with a brave smile. "You make it sound as you're talking about the past."
"The past, the present and the fut ." Henry started to say when a coughing bout racked his far too thin body.
It was a little while later that Henry lay back on the long settee, which was covered by a large duvet. He would not hear of taking to his bed. That seemed symbolic of lying back and accepting his fate meekly. Appearances were misleading where Henry was concerned. He was quite prepared to run up against his brother who had made a pretense of being willing to help at the wedding only to turn vociferously against her. Though Henry was the younger of the two brothers, he stood up fearlessly to fight to defend the woman that he loved, more deeply than his fragile health would permit him to say at length.
"You could have ended up with Bodybag once. She made a very determined play for you once."
"Heaven forbid," Henry smiled faintly. "I still remember being embarrassed by that pushy woman. Thank goodness you came to the rescue ."
Henry's eyelids drooped over and the fingers relaxed and let the pen he had been holding drop gently onto the quilt while the little notebook he had been writing in lay where he had dropped it. He was still painfully making notes for further church services in the future and tasks that he intended to do when he was better. He was conscious of time and duties slipping away from him. That was not like him, he sleepily reflected.
Suddenly, he twitched in his sleep and cracks in his eyelids started to open up.
"We were talking about us, Barbara. I think I remember rightly though my memory is not what it used to be."
"It happens to us all as we get older."
"I've always been conscious of you in the vicarage wherever I am. You don't have to say anything or do anything. I just know that you're around. So restful, so peaceful and so caring. Before you came into my life, I had given up on my future. When I saw you distinctly for the first time at Larkhall, I knew that you were meant to be part of my life. I am a somewhat shy man and I took my time in talking properly to you "
"Everything happened for the best, Henry. Even the time when I thought you were far too trusting and naïve in letting that fearful woman, Snowball Merriman manipulate you."
"You were always right, Barbara .."
The wind continued to howl round the vicarage, besieging it in the foretaste of winter to come. It always has to happen this time of the year that nature starts to decay until the first buds of spring the following year. Nature is so much better ordered than human lives.
"You ought to get to see your friends more, Barbara. You cannot wear yourself out day after day looking after me ."
So who would look after Henry, Babs asked God in her misery? She was becoming very afraid for what might happen to Henry. She had another appointment to check up on Henry's health and having to fight down an instinct to not want to know. She was getting more and more tired and looking after Henry was becoming harder work. The idea seemed lovely but somewhat unrealistic.
"I will some time. Rest assured of that."
There was no conviction behind her tones. She rarely went out of the vicarage these days unless she had to. That was her life these days.
They chatted awhile about the past, as if in hanging onto the past, the present would be more secure.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Seven
Neither Karen nor George chose to raise the subject of what they'd done that morning, because neither could find a satisfactory way of discussing it. George had fallen asleep afterwards and Karen had immediately taken a dip in the pool. When George had woken, Karen was again stretched out on the sunbed, for the moment hidden behind the barrier of her book. George's body had begun turning a deliciously sun rich gold, making her feel lazily contented in the sultry heat of the mid September sun. On the Saturday evening, Karen drove them to a beautiful little fish restaurant in a nearby town that she'd discovered the week before. It was just above the beach, with fishing nets and other assorted paraphernalia hanging round the door. They sat at a table outside, with the gently lapping waves only a couple of hundred yards or so away from them. As the stunningly tanned waiter came to take their order for drinks, he smiled in recognition when he saw Karen, causing George to smirk when he'd left.
"Darling, precisely how often have you been here?" She asked knowingly.
"Only twice," Karen told her, seeing exactly where the conversation was heading. "I think I made a bit of an impression on him."
"I bet you did," George said dryly.
"No, before you ask," Karen told her. "Though the thought did cross my mind."
"So why not?" George said with a laugh.
"Three reasons really," Karen replied, ticking them off on her fingers. "He doesn't speak enough English, I don't speak enough if any Spanish, and because he is far too young. I'm trying to stay away from men young enough to be my... Well, from men younger than Ritchie Atkins anyway." It hadn't gone unnoticed by either of them that she'd almost said young enough to be my son, but neither of them drew attention to it.
"I once picked up someone only just out of university," George astounded Karen by telling her. "I was fast approaching my fortieth birthday, and was feeling very old, very unattractive, and completely dried up. So, I made myself look as young as possible, which in those days wasn't all that difficult, and haunted the kind of place where absolutely no one I knew would have thought to seek my company. I was thirty-nine, and he was twenty-one, and it was possibly the naughtiest thing I've ever done in my life. Talk about a rerun of The Graduate." Karen laughed.
"I can just see you playing Mrs. Robinson," She said, making George blush scarlet. "Giving someone orders would be your idea of heaven." This time, it was George's turn to laugh.
"You're absolutely right," George said in tones of remembered ecstasy. "There really is something to be said for getting one's chance to play tutor. It was so utterly, unquestionably wrong, that it worked, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. He was very sweet, but then he got a job abroad, at around the time I was considering ending it anyway, so you could say it worked out for all concerned. I used to see him occasionally in the public gallery when I was in court, but he thankfully knew better than to even think of approaching me."
"You're outrageous," Karen said fondly, as the waiter returned to take their order for food. When he'd gone, Karen said, "I couldn't have taught Ritchie anything if I'd tried. You never saw him when he was looking incredible, with the charm turned up to maximum, and the lines dropping off him as if from a script. Put John's suave, self-assured confidence, with Fenner's manipulative insincerity, and that was Ritchie for you."
"Is, erm, is rough sex as good as it sounds?" George asked, not sure if Karen would really want to tell her.
"I suppose it depends on why you want it like that," Karen said contemplatively. "But yes, it certainly was for me. I took a pretty big risk, doing that with someone I knew absolutely nothing about, but I think taking risks was part of my raison d'etre in those days. I wouldn't recommend trying it, unless you're completely sure that you know what you're getting into, but if it works, it's fabulous."
"I asked John to try it once, but he wouldn't. He said that he'd never been violent towards a woman in his life, and that he wasn't about to start now."
"That sounds like John," Karen said with a smile, thinking that George probably would have liked it if she'd been able to try it.
"I think there's a part of me that thrives on taking risks," Karen said when their starters came.
"Like going up on roofs for example," George said a little sternly.
"That at least had a good reason behind it," Karen said, though knowing that George did mean well. "It was so seductive up there, George, that I instantly understood why Denny had gone up there. She said that it made her feel free, untouchable, as if she could just fly away and leave everything behind."
"And you understanding that wish doesn't bother you?" George asked in disgusted amazement.
"Yes, it did, when I got around to thinking about it, but that was the point. Denny went up there because not coming down, or at least not coming down safely, was always a possibility for her, but it wasn't with me."
"Try and convince John of that," George told her disbelievingly. "Afterwards, when he came to see me, to tell me you were safe, his exact words were, that you didn't give a damn which way you came down."
"I'm not sure I'd go that far," Karen replied, though seeing why John had thought such a thing.
"He was so frightened for you," George said, briefly laying a hand over one of Karen's. "So was I, and so were Neil and Nikki."
"Neil was furious with me afterwards," Karen put in, enormously touched at the feeling in George's voice. "And I probably deserved it." They talked through the rest of the meal, but without either of them touching on precisely why George was there in the first place. They wanted to leave that until the last moment possible, because its only result would be to raise feelings of hurt and betrayal that neither of them were in any hurry to face.
When at last they'd finished eating and had paid the bill, they stepped down onto the sand and began walking towards the sea. They carried their shoes in their hands, the soft sand creeping between their toes.
"Tell me when it began," Karen eventually invited, taking that final step away from their safe, calm shore of surface tranquility.
"April," George told her quietly, immediately wincing at the shock she saw on Karen's face.
"I figured that it had probably been going on for a while," Karen said, clearly thrown by this information. "But I had no idea it was that long."
"The weekend I got drunk," George filled in for her. "Jo was so angry with me, more angry than I think I've ever seen her. I think she kissed me, because she was so relieved that I hadn't got round to taking those pills."
"When I saw her the next day, she looked more than a little frazzled. Maybe now I know why. Just tell me one thing, George, why on earth did you keep it going with me for so long?"
"Darling, I had absolutely no idea where it was going with Jo, not for at least the next month. I couldn't have given you up, no matter how hard I tried. But as the feelings I had for Jo grew, I knew that it wasn't fair to either of you to keep up the pretense."
"That's a roundabout way of saying that you were keeping your options open," Karen said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice, and not entirely succeeding.
"I didn't think about it like that," George told her, though knowing that this was how it must seem.
"You see, this wasn't ever supposed to happen," Karen said, desperately trying to maintain her iron grip on her unpredictable emotions. "In the beginning, you and me was just supposed to be something light, something fun, something with absolutely no strings, only it never quite turns out like that, does it."
"No," George agreed regretfully, as they turned to walk along the edge of the sea, and Karen dug out her cigarettes, automatically lighting one for George.
"That's what I thought I wanted," Karen continued. "Nothing heavy, nothing that would ask too much of a part of me that had nothing left to give. I'm loathed to admit it, but over the last few months, you've completely got under my skin. It's not anyone's fault, it just happened."
"And do you really think that the same thing didn't happen to me?" George asked, wanting to get this absolutely clear. "It didn't matter that I was back with John," She continued. "Because being with you was so new, so different, and because you made me feel alive. You showed me that who I was didn't matter, and being with someone who simply accepted me warts and all, wasn't something I'd ever had before. Even John, even in his slightly misguided wisdom, he thinks he can change me, whether it's the anorexia or the enjoying being with a woman, he thinks, or at least thought, he could cure it. I didn't intend to fall in love with Jo, I promise you I didn't."
"I know," Karen said quietly, slipping a hand into George's, as they walked with the sea lapping around their feet. "And if I'm honest, I think you were always destined to fall in love with her."
"I'm not sure I believe in destiny," George replied, wondering just how much thinking Karen had done over the last couple of weeks.
"You should this time," Karen said simply, and then tried to explain. "George, you've had something in common with Jo for the last twenty years, or almost that long. You've both loved John, and whilst that has for most of that time only given you two a reason to verbally scrap at every given opportunity, it's not something you should immediately dismiss. That has meant, whether or not you care to admit it, that both you and Jo have been quietly interested in the other's life for far longer than the last two years. Then there's the relationship the pair of you entered into with John. That made it almost unavoidable for you to become far closer than you otherwise might have done. As a result of what you share with each other, in other words John, you've had to get to know each other pretty thoroughly in order to make it work. When you found your way into my bed, because let's face it, that's how it was in the beginning, that's pretty much all we both thought you were there for. You were spreading your wings a bit, exploring a side of you that you'd never before sought to discover, a situation I was entirely happy with. George, as you learnt what being with a woman was like, I think it was only natural for your closeness with Jo to spill over into what you were doing with me. Sweetheart, I might feel incredibly hurt at having to let you go, but I do understand it."
"How can you rationalise it so, well, so calmly?" George asked after a few moment's silence, almost wishing that Karen would shout at her, say something to try and equal the balance.
"I've had two weeks to work it out," Karen said matter-of-factly. "Dwelling on something that I know I can at least begin to deal with, is far easier than thinking about things that I know I definitely can't."
"What first made you wonder?" George asked, badly wanting her curiosity satisfied on this point.
"The night you slapped John, I phoned you after he'd left me, because I wanted to make sure you were all right. You weren't there, and I started trying to work out why."
"That was the only night I spent with Jo, before last weekend, and it hammered home to me that I had to tell you soon, and Daddy liking you so much only made it worse."
"You know he wrote to me, after Ross died."
"Did he? He didn't say so."
"He told me a lot about when your mother died, but he mainly wrote to tell me that he'd also known about Ross. John asked his advice, when he first found out about him."
"I should have known," George said, yet another piece of the jigsaw fitting into place. "John always did go to Daddy when he had a problem he couldn't solve, even after we got divorced."
They walked in silence for a while, beginning to make their way back to the car, but still taking their time.
"George, I shouldn't have done what I did this morning, I'm sorry," Karen said after a while, knowing that this subject did have to be broached.
"Darling," George said, half laughing. "I wanted what happened this morning, just as much as I think you did. You're right, it probably shouldn't have happened, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, and neither should you. I'm also not so naive, as to think that either of us will get through tonight, without wanting a far more satisfactory repeat." When Karen burst into a fit of laughter, George smirked in agreement.
"Don't ever change, will you?" Karen said, taking George's hand as they neared the car, and taking in the dark clouds that seemed to have crept in above them. The air was electric, the crickets buzzing in the trees around the carpark, the atmospheric anticipation of the coming storm almost dense enough to touch. They only just made it to the car in time, before the large, heavy droplets began pattering down on the windscreen.
"There was a storm last week," Karen told her as they drove towards the villa. "I could have sworn it was going to carry the villa off into the sea it was that powerful."
"I don't think this one's going to be any different," George said, as the rain began falling in torrents, drumming on the roof of the car.
When they pulled up in the driveway, they made a dash to the front door, both getting utterly soaked in the process. Karen had reflexively flung an arm round George's waist as they'd run towards the shelter of the front porch, and she didn't bother to remove it as they went inside. Every inch of skin that was in contact with Karen, burned from her touch, sending sparks of fiery recognition up and down George's spine. When Karen had banged the door behind them, and they stood dripping on the tiled floor of the hall, Karen reached up to brush George's slightly bedraggled hair out of her face.
"I like the thoroughly drenched look," She said, as their eyes met with that old intensity, that familiar fire that had once burned between them so brightly.
"I... I think we ought to get rid of these wet clothes," George said, her voice slightly hoarse from the feelings that were almost swamping her. Neither of them moved, as time seemed to stand still around them, measured solely by the rain on the windows and the rumble of the approaching thunder. Neither could have said who it was who moved first, but they were suddenly held fast in each other's arms, lips seeking out the other's mouth, and hands wandering over well-known territory. They didn't speak as they rapidly cast their clothes aside, somehow managing to move in the direction of the bedroom. They needed each other desperately, their hands and mouths hungry to sample everything the other had to offer once and for all. The raging storm around them seemed to encourage the almost ferocious quality in their lovemaking, sounds being torn from them as if ripped asunder by the lightning itself. Having neglected to close the curtains, they both gasped as the flash of fork lightning shone in through the windows, bathing them briefly in all its revealing glory. As the waves pounded on the rocks lower down the cliff, and the thunder broke regularly overhead, they brought each other to the edge again and again, doing almost everything they'd ever done together in their few short months of happiness. But eventually, as the storm began to drift away, and their energy began to die down, they found themselves crying tears of true regret for what they could no longer have. They were lying in a tangle of limbs and sheets, their bodies glistening with sweat from their exertion, cradling the other as the tears coursed down their cheeks.
"I'm sorry," George said between sobs, the guilt at what she had done causing her an almost physical pain.
"I'm sorry too," Karen told her, part of her never wanting to let this beautiful woman go from her. Then, as she now had nothing left to lose, Karen allowed herself to say the words she'd wanted to say for so long now. "I love you," She said, feeling as though her soul had been cracked wide open, leaving its entire contents bare for all to see. George just stared at her, having had no idea that Karen's feelings for her ran quite so deep. "I'm sorry," Karen continued, trying to qualify her statement. "I know you didn't want to hear it, but I had to say it, just once." George didn't say a word as they gradually calmed down and drifted towards sleep, more from exhaustion than anything else. She simply lay there and held Karen tighter if possible, trying to soothe the fractured soul she could see was in tatters before her.
Sunday was spent tidying the villa and preparing to go home again. They could both feel the weight of the approaching departure, knowing that this would finally mean the end of them as lovers. There had been no doubt that they had needed what had happened last night, but neither of them wanted to face the far too daunting reality, that last night had been the last time anything of the sort would ever happen between them. They spoke fairly little during the day, both women lost in their thoughts, and when they eventually took a cab to the airport, Karen couldn't help but to dread the return to her even emptier life. They sat next to each other on the plane home, and walked through the arrivals hall at Heathrow, feeling the chill of the mid September evening, in stark comparison to the heat they had left. As George had only been going away for a couple of days, she had left her car in the overnight carpark, and now offered Karen a lift home which she accepted. They were silent on the drive to Karen's flat, both never wanting the journey to end. But end it eventually did, with the car coming to rest in Karen's driveway. Neither of them knew what to say, because everything that needed to be said had been said the night before.
"George," Karen said quietly. "I don't want you to feel guilty about this."
"It's a bit late for that, Darling," George replied cynically.
"I mean it," Karen said firmly but gently. "I know what guilt does to you, and I refuse to let you go through that because of me."
"I'm not making any promises," George told her evasively. "But I'll try." Reaching out to the other simultaneously, they held each other close.
"Whatever happens, I'm always here," Karen said into her hair. "So don't you dare stay away."
"And I'm hardly going anywhere either," George replied a little unsteadily. As Karen eventually disentangled herself and opened the door, George said, "I'll call you soon."
"Promise?" Karen said, feeling childish but needing to say it.
"Yes, that's one promise I can make," George said with a watery smile, as Karen got out of the car, retrieved her bags from the boot and went inside. Waiting until she saw the light come on upstairs, George switched on the engine, backed out of the drive, and slid quietly away, knowing that there would always be a place in her heart for Karen, because no one, no matter how experienced they may one day be, can ever forget their first.
When she arrived home, she wanted nothing more than to go to bed, and to try and sleep away some of the despair that seemed to be swamping her, but this wasn't to be. John's car was already in her driveway, and George found herself cursing his having a key to her house for the first time since she'd allowed him to keep it. She really didn't want company tonight, and she just knew that everything she was feeling was about to burst out of her, and would probably crash down all over him. John had heard her car arrive, and couldn't help but be curious about her weekend. He'd come over this evening, because he wanted to make sure she was all right, after what must have been a pretty emotional couple of days. He hadn't known exactly when George would get back, so had decided to wait for her. Letting herself in, George dumped her bag in the hall and called John's name.
"In here," He said from the lounge, and when she appeared, got up to kiss her.
"You're looking good," He said, surveying the progress she'd managed to make on her tan in such a short time.
"No, I don't," She said belligerently. "I look tired, and stressed, and could really have done without the welcoming committee." Seeing that he was probably going to be in for a rough ride, John offered to pour her a glass of wine. Relenting slightly, George acquiesced and sank down onto the sofa. When he handed her the glass, she took a grateful swig and put the glass down on the coffee table.
"Will I get my head bitten off, if I ask how it went?" He asked, knowing the answer before he'd finished the word will.
"What do you think?" She retorted immediately. "I don't think I've ever felt as much of a complete and utter bitch as I do tonight. How did I do this to her, John? How did I manage to hurt her quite so thoroughly? Do you have any idea what I've done to her?"
"Yes," John replied, sitting down in the armchair. "You did it to me once, remember?"
"Yes, well, there's a tiny little bit of a difference here, isn't there," She replied acidly. "Because Karen hasn't done anything to deserve it." Then, realising precisely what she'd said, she lost her bite immediately. "I'm sorry," She said, putting her hands to her tired face. "That was a bit below the belt." John could see how wound up she was, and didn't take any offense at her thoughtless remark.
"Come here," He said, realising that only a cuddle might calm her down, and when she hesitated, said, "come on." When she crossed the carpet to him, he pulled her down onto his knee, always having loved the fact that she was small enough to be enclosed in his arms in this way.
"Do you know what the worst thing was about this weekend?" She began when he'd kissed her. "She wasn't in the least angry with me. If this had been you, you'd at least have shouted at me, made it abundantly clear how hurt you were, and then gone out and picked up some random tart, just to achieve some sort of revenge. But Karen's obviously spent the last fortnight working this out, which meant that she'd got rid of all the anger and most of the hurt, long before I turned up. She said she understood why it had happened, and then, last night, John, she said she loved me. Not once has she ever said that before."
"I think," John said slowly and carefully. "That she thought you didn't want to hear it. Karen never would have wanted to put any pressure on you, no matter how strong her feelings are for you."
"I know, which makes what I've done to her so much worse."
"You know, for quite a long time, I thought it would be the other way round. I thought that it would be Karen to find her affections straying off somewhere else, not you."
"We're really going to have to keep an eye on her, John," George said seriously. "She really didn't want to come back, which is why she chose to return home with me. She knows that everything is still waiting here for her to deal with, and I honestly don't know how she's going to get through the next few months. Karen may not be my lover any more, but she is my friend, and I refuse to let her go under, purely for lack of a friend."
"Jo was right about you," John said with gentle pride in his voice. "Because you'd never have said something like that a few years ago and actually meant it. Karen won't have to get through any of this alone, because it's safe to say that she means far too much to all of us to let her do that."
Part One Hundred and Ninety Eight
At the appointed time, the bedside alarm clock peeped out its urgent message and the half conscious dreaming Karen would sorely have wanted to push it away. She had had weeks of getting up when she wanted, sipping a morning cup of coffee and lingering over the first cigarette of the day. She had been used to the brilliant sunshine finding its way through the cracks of the shuttered windows as a precursor to the blasting heat of the Spanish sun. She was back in England now and everything seemed pale and washed out in contrast to her tanned skin. No more strolling round the local market and basking by the swimming pool. A flat in the middle of the East End docklands hardly allowed for such an indulgence. The bloody clock was in full nag mode and she lazily switched the alarm off with an exasperated flick of her hand.
She couldn't believe it that she was back in her flat and everything was normal, or as normal as it could be after the bittersweet way that her relationship with George had ended. That brought her back to full circle of being on her own, of truly being on her own now that .. She promptly slid away from that one. She really didn't want to go there but for once, she didn't want to click into action as she normally did. She stared into the mirror to look at herself. A much more suntanned face surprised her from the mental image she expected and she sensed that she had looked worn and washed out before she had gone away. Her gaze focussed on her work suit, which was hung up on the rail, but it didn't fit with that suntan. She really had to make an effort to pull herself together.
Once in the car, she was shocked to encounter the hordes of cars manically jockeying for position and dominance in the London rush hour traffic. Normally, she hardly noticed it but today, it offended her inclination to lazily make her round in a car, like in Yvonne's runabout. It felt strange getting used to the traffic being on the different side of the road and to watch out for right hand turns across the stream of traffic instead of the left turn. For one second, she felt that she was sitting in the wrong seat to drive until instincts took over. Eventually, she found her way to the familiar side street for Larkhall. For a second, she felt anxious in throwing herself back into the maelstrom of her work.
"You only run the bloody place," She chided herself out loud. In the times she had spent on her own except when George had come to stay, she had got used to occasionally speaking her thoughts allowed. 'First sign of madness' was the playground saying years ago but when she came to think of it, was it any madder than some of the situations she had faced in the prison service. In her mellow mood, she couldn't see the harm in it, not in comparison with the reckless way she had gone up on the roof to save Denny. Now that she sat in the car and the prison walls had prompted her first thoughts of her actions that day, that word did jump out of her unconscious.
Wearily, she gathered her brief case and locked up the car, straightened her face to what a governing governor looked like and went through the sturdy wooden door to pass by the gate lodge.
"Morning, Karen. You look really well."
"Do I?" Karen answered vaguely, her eyes clouding over slightly.
"Course you do. You've obviously been mopping up the sun or else been at one of those health centres," Came Ken's confident reassuring tones.
"It doesn't last forever. Sooner or later, you have to catch the flight home and struggle through all the rigmarole," Sighed Karen.
Ken was genuinely glad that his boss looked a hundred times better though a little bit of his mind would have liked the sun and the sea. That 'fishing expedition' with the lads in Amsterdam which was plastered across the front page of the Sun was the last real break he'd had, if you could call it a break.
"I nearly forgot, two messages for you. One from Mr. Grayling that he's coming down at eleven o clock to see you and another from Nikki to hope everything's all right when you get in."
Karen wondered if Grayling was going to carry on the row from where he had left off when he had suspended her from duty. She really wasn't in the mood for an argument. In fact she wasn't in the mood for much except for crawling into her office and doing something pretty mundane, dull and repetitive. The message from Nikki was obviously her carefully coded professional enquiry under which was her very real personal concern for Karen. It touched her in an abstract way.
"Can you pass the general message that I'm back but I'll need a little time to settle back in. I'll be around the wings again when I'm ready."
Ken smiled briefly at her in acknowledgement of the wish and she picked up her keys as normal. She was soon swallowed up by the none too bright artificial lights of the prison. She felt that it was fortunate that the prisoners were still locked up and there weren't any well-wishers. Somehow she didn't feel that she could cope with it.
It was with a feeling of relief that she entered her office. She ran her eye over it and, while the in tray was piled up with papers, it wasn't nearly as much as she feared. There were a few scrawled noted paper clipped to some of the papers, most of it in Nikki's handwriting as to the generalised stab that had been made to deal with the matter. She clicked on her computer and heartily hoped that Neil had ploughed his way through the torrent of E mails that would have poured in. there were moments like this that she thought that electronic advances in communication were a mixed blessing. In the end, she let a moderate stream of them emerge from the cyberspace and lie there where they lay. It was, after all, her first day back and she reasoned to herself that there was no sense in breaking her back first day in. The chances were, she admitted grimly to herself, that she would be doing that in short order because what else did she have in her life right then?
She glanced sideways while she lit her first works cigarette of the day and her eyes fell upon a silver framed photograph which had mysteriously appeared, propped up to the right hand side of her desk. Immediately, her feelings of panic and desperation went into overdrive. Life was too cruel to transform the clean cut adolescent into the cold, lifeless colourless face of her son who had deserted this world and the horrific flashback of that sideways gash on the inside of his wrist. Helen had been right to shout at her not to look.
There were things in life that no human being should look at. Courage didn't come into the matter and, with that resolve, she took the photograph frame and slid it into her top drawer. It would come out when she was ready for it.
With that resolve, she summoned up the energy to attack the pile of E-mails waiting for her. No matter how taxing or tedious they were, this was something in her life that she could deal with right now.
"No news of how Karen is?" enquired Colin of Nikki in passing. She was the first person everyone thought of asking for information.
"Give her a break," Nikki told him firmly before softening her approach. "Look, I know you're genuinely concerned about her like we all are. Just give her a little time as she's been through a lot recently. She'll talk when she's ready."
Gina approached the two of them and was not so sure of this. She had worked closely with Karen when she was acting wing governor and she knew that Karen could certainly put up the professional mask when she wanted to. She spotted the flicker in Nikki's eye and the hesitancy in her speech.
"Reckon you'd get a bloody medal, Colin, if you asked her straight out. That is, if you lived to tell the tale."
There was a general laugh as Gina expertly lightened the atmosphere to Nikki's immense relief.
Karen picked up her phone for the first time that morning to be told that Grayling was on the scene.
"Oh help," She responded just after she put the phone down. There were papers all over the place as Karen had an unexpectedly unwelcome phase of indecisiveness. She grabbed at some files and looked for a place to tidy them away so that her room was ready for inspection but Grayling didn't give her enough time.
"Three out of ten for tidiness," came his carrying voice from behind her. "Never mind, I'm not some anally retentive staff inspector and I thoroughly recommend your use of the floor as the one temporary filing place so you can decide what to do with things. Unlimited space to work in. Mind you, I've had to give that up now Alison Warner is the neighbourhood spy and won't give me a moment's peace."
There was a broad grin on his face and this was his accompaniment to his indirect way of showing Karen that all was forgiven after their verbal set to.
"So what's been going on while I've been away?"
"You're asking me?"
"Well," answered Karen dryly to Grayling's exaggerated look of innocence. "Either you or Nikki are most likely to know. You've always known everything there is to know. I learnt that one years ago and later on, that if there was anyone I'd go to with a problem at work, I'd go to you."
"Well, as it happens, Nikki had got practice as your part time stand in. I really ought to give you a direct order to be well as you possibly can as I can see that there is another highly talented workaholic in the making. She really ought to learn to stick to just the one job."
Karen was touched to see that, behind that joking exterior, a real sense of warm affection for both of them flowed out from him. He could sense the incredible talent that both of them possessed and he could not find it in himself to be jealous of either of them. In turn, at a time when her sense of self worth in her home life left something to be desired, she was gratified to be told that in one area of her life, she was getting it right.
"I must talk to her some time," Came her straight faced reply before she softened her tone." I'd like to thank her for what she's done."
"Anyway, it's been the same routine as before. You'll find my 'Adam' E-mail folder significantly enlarged. I'm sorry for the mess that was left but I could not be spared last week from Area as Alison Warner had pinned me down to some urgent deadlines. The main reason I came to see you was to ask you how you are, I mean personally."
Karen was happy to chatter on about work related matters but the shutters came up when Grayling asked about her home life. She had trouble trying to work that out in her own head far less to talk to even a close and loyal friend.
"As well as can be expected," Karen answered with a blank face.
"That's not saying much. That's what they say in hospitals when ."
"I know, Neil. I used to work in one."
A silence fell on the room after Karen had edgily cut in on Grayling with less than her usual politeness. One part of his mind was racing instinctively at lightning speed to manoeuvre his way behind Karen's 'stonewalling' tactics but acute inhibitions held him back. A long time ago, when he was another person, he could appeal to greed and self-interest and know what strings to pull but this was totally different. He really cared about people these days and he was hyper conscious that he should do and say the right thing. He could so easily be indirect and camouflaged in the way he operated but at moments like these he always questioned himself. He finally resolved this inner tension by telling himself that it really wasn't doing her any good to behave the way she did and that he could not in all conscience just leave his visit with a few commonplace pleasantries, go back to area and worry on the other end of the phone.
"What sort of break have you had? I hope you've not been thinking about work? That was not the object of the exercise." He laughed lightly.
"Oh, as you can see, I've spent time in a villa in Spain. Yvonne lent it to me. I've just been sunbathing, driving around and taking it easy. It did me some good."
"Have you seen much of George recently?"
Instantly, Grayling knew that he had blundered. One look at her face and he saw a scared look in her eye before the shutter slammed down shut. What have I done, he groaned inwardly? What in hell have I said wrong? I have to know.
"What happened? I'd really would like to know as I got to like her a lot."
"Well, what can I say? I saw her recently."
"I trust she was well."
"Not exactly," Came Karen's hesitant answer to his bland question. Her eyes were flitting all over the place but she could not entirely remove herself from his intent gaze. "You really have to know, Neil," She finally said with exasperation.
"Look here, Karen. I really don't like to pry if I don't need to. I'm not like I used to be "
It was Grayling's turn to sound unsettled, totally unlike the super smooth character he used to be once.
" ..but if there is something really troubling you, it would be better to confide in someone who I would like to think of as not only your boss but as a good friend. If you really didn't know which way to turn and you wanted to talk to someone, I'd like to think you could pick up the phone and talk to me. Or if you thought I was that formidable "
and at this point, he laughed self deprecatingly, " I'd be happy if you talked to Nikki or anyone close to you. It needn't be me, but I'm as good a candidate as anyone."
It was his mixture of his hypnotic voice and utter humility that took her back in a weird sense of role reversal back to when she came to make her claim as Governing Governor. It was the one thing that finally got through.
"You're as persistent as John. You'll never give up so I might as well tell you. I think that George and I finished while we were in Spain. That's all."
An incredible wave of mixed emotion broke over him, of relief that he knew and infinite pity for Karen at those flat, understated words. He closed his eyes. He was lucky he was living with Marcus and dreaded the thought of returning to his so called carefree single days. Add to that the pain of losing her son and Karen's nerve endings were so obviously red raw and exposed.
"Oh God. I never knew. I'm so sorry."
Instantly, he felt awkward to hear what he thought were very trite words but the faintest flicker of a smile soothed the lines on her face. It wasn't until you were really down that you see the good that there is around. They were facing each other, close up almost like lovers wanting to comfort each other except that they both knew that it could never be like that.
Part One Hundred and Ninety Nine
On the Friday evening, Karen was sitting out on her balcony, the mid September sun providing a warmth she did not feel inside. She was sitting in one of the two comfortably cushioned, wicker chairs, that stayed in the garage downstairs in the winter and which she always brought up here for the summer. There was an ashtray on the wall that ran round the edge of the balcony, with her cigarettes and faithful Zippo beside it. On the floor next to her chair, was a bottle of scotch, an ice bucket and a half-filled glass. Those two weeks doing nothing but sleep and sunbathe at Yvonne's villa in Spain, had done her the world of good, or so she'd thought. All she had done was sleep. Sleep, swim in the pool and soak up the sun. That's what she'd done with her days until George had arrived. At first, they'd simply taken advantage of the weather and the time they had, to do nothing but enjoy each other's company again, something they'd not really done since Ross had died. Karen found herself making the most of the two days she had with George, because she knew that sooner or later, they must talk. She'd known George was drifting away from her, possibly even before Ross's death, but she became certain of it afterwards. It wasn't all George's fault, because she, Karen, had been pushing George away ever since that most horrific night of all her nightmares. She'd pushed everyone away after that, or at least she'd subconsciously tried to. But too many of her friends, John, Jo, Yvonne, Nikki, and the rest, none of them had let her. She'd put on one of Ross's CD's, one of the few possessions he hadn't sold to supply his habit. Some of it was a little too heavy for her liking, but some of it was soft and haunting, making her wonder if it might have been what he was listening to when he died. It struck her as odd that both Ross and Ritchie had liked some of the same music. Not much, but the occasional CD being owned by both of them. But then, Ritchie had only been eight years older than Ross. God, what a whore she must have been, to sleep with someone almost as young as her son. As she lit another cigarette, there came a most unwelcome intrusion by the ringing of the doorbell. Karen really wasn't in the mood for seeing anyone tonight. She needed to spend some time with her memories of Ross, whether they be good or bad, and she didn't want anyone else around while she did that. So, she simply ignored it, leaving whoever it was on her doorstep to go away and leave her alone. But she had reckoned without John's determination to gain entrance.
Ever since George had returned from Spain, John had wondered how Karen was doing. Was she coping, or wasn't she? Was she as sorted out about the break up with George, as George seemed to think she was, or was she doing a very good job of hiding her true feelings, he couldn't be sure. But what he did know and know with absolute clarity, was that even before this, Karen hadn't needed any more emotional hurts on her shoulders. Until she had been forcibly persuaded to take a holiday, Karen had been steadily disintegrating. She had been doing her best to maintain her outer professional persona, but they had all seen the persistent crumbling of her exterior, the cracking of her spirit, that might have taken her away from them for good, if she'd been allowed to go on as she was. Quite how she would have taken this latest mental slug to the jaw, he needed to find out. He didn't really blame George for what had happened between her and Karen, because nobody can help the feelings they have, or so he was always telling her, and himself. But he wished she could have chosen a better time for it. After giving Karen the whole of her first week back at work to become reacquainted with her daily life, he had made his mind up to impose his company on Karen, if only to provide a preventative measure against her following in her son's footsteps.
John hadn't been all that surprised when Karen didn't answer the door. He knew by now that her way of dealing with things was to hide away while she fell apart, and to come back to the land of the living when she thought it was all over. But this was one time in her life when she was going to let him witness her undoing. He couldn't let her go through this alone. He knew that most of it wouldn't be about George, because Karen's grief for her son hadn't yet made much of an appearance. But the break up with George would almost certainly have been the last straw. Still getting no reply, and knowing she was definitely in by the presence of her car in the drive, he walked round to the back of the building where her flat was situated. It was as he'd thought, Karen was sitting out on her balcony. The mid evening sun was casting a soft glow on her blonde hair, and glinting off the silver Zippo on the balcony wall. Karen had heard the approach of footsteps along the street that her balcony looked out on to, and had immediately recognised them as John's. This presented her with something of a dilemma. Any of her other friends would have been far harder to stomach this evening, but John would be the most determined about staying. When he called up to her, she smiled slightly at his tenacity.
"Are you going to let me in?" He asked, as he stood in the quiet back street.
"No," She replied unperturbed.
"Well, I'm not leaving till you do," He said, unwilling to be deterred. Knowing she wasn't going to win, Karen reached round and removed her bunch of keys from the lock in the sliding door.
"If you're so determined, you can let yourself in," She said, throwing the keys down to him. "Because I'm not moving for anyone."
John caught the keys before they landed at his feet, and walked back round to the front door. When he let himself in, he immediately took in the small pile of CD's on the table, and the fact that Karen was listening to the kind of music Charlie often did.
"There's a bottle of wine in the fridge if you want some," Karen called, having heard his entrance. When he joined her on the balcony, carrying the offered glass of wine, he took in the bottle of scotch at her side, and the dark eyes with hidden depths, that were struggling to hide her pain.
"Are you planning to drink all that?" He asked quietly, gesturing to the whisky bottle.
"I don't know," Karen replied, slightly belligerently. "Why, would it matter?"
"I'd really rather you didn't," John said, immediately seeing that this was the wrong thing to have said.
"John, I didn't ask you to come here and insist to be let in, and in truth I really don't want the company of anyone. So, if you don't like what I'm doing, you know where the door is." Suitably mollified, John tried to change the subject.
"What are you listening to? It sounds like what Charlie was listening too last time I saw her."
"I'm steadily working my way through the few CD's Ross either didn't consider worth selling, or that he just couldn't part with. There's far too much I obviously didn't know about my son, and though it's clearly too late for me to start finding out about him now, it's something I need to do."
"Charlie seems to be into something different every time I see her," John said ruefully. "Some of it's not bad, but I can't help detesting the majority of it."
"All except Black Sabbath," Karen said with a slight smile, having once seen the CD in John's car.
"It seemed to appeal to the rebel in me."
"Do you know what's really odd about all this? It seems Ritchie and Ross liked some of the same music."
"And why does that strike you as odd?"
"I don't know. It shouldn't really, because Ritchie was only eight years older than Ross. Jesus," She said in disgust. "That sounds terrible, doesn't it."
"It's no different from my once sleeping with a waitress friend of Charlie's."
"It's just a little too surreal, that's all."
"Apart from the obvious, why did you sleep with Ritchie?"
"Now you're asking," Karen replied with a mirthless laugh. She refilled her glass and lit another cigarette. "How much have I told you about Mark?"
"Only that you were involved with him."
"After Fenner," She stopped, changing what she'd been going to say. "After that night, I didn't want to be anywhere near Mark, never mind sleep with him."
"That's understandable," Said John, also having some sympathy for Mark, who most likely wouldn't have known the first thing about how to act with Karen. He certainly wouldn't have done if he'd been in Mark's position.
"The poor sod didn't know how to deal with it," She continued. "Half of him couldn't decide whether or not it was my fault, and the rest of him felt guilty for not initially believing me."
"He didn't believe you?" John asked in momentary outrage.
"No," Karen said bitterly. "He looked at me as though I was the most aptly named slag he'd ever met." John winced.
"Do you have to talk like one of your inmates?"
"I'm at the end of a working week, having spent a considerable amount of time with my inmates, as you put it. The vocabulary rubs off after a while."
"So I noticed," John said dryly.
"Mark assumed that I'd got drunk, though he didn't put it so politely, got randy, and regretted it in the morning. He said that I couldn't ask him to believe it, when I didn't believe it myself. So, once I'd reported it to the police, and then retracted my statement, there wasn't much left of our relationship. We were supposed to be going on holiday together, and before we went, I thought I'd better sleep with him just to see if I still could. But, I loathed every minute of it, and unfortunately he knew I had. I thought that the only way was to make a clean break. It wouldn't have worked, no matter how hard either of us may have tried, and I think at the time I really couldn't be bothered."
"It sounds as though you had enough to deal with in your own head, never mind anyone else's."
"Probably. But then Ritchie turned up at visiting time to see Yvonne, and I was ripe for the picking where he was concerned," She said bitterly. "Suddenly, this man, who had to be at least ten years younger than me, was giving me some of the old lines I hadn't heard since leaving nursing. Some of the registrars I knew in those days were just as good at talking women into bed. I needed to know if it was just Mark, or if men were going to be out of the picture for me for good. I needed to sleep with a total stranger, so that if it became necessary to fake it, they wouldn't know."
"And was it?" John asked gently, seeing how uncomfortable she felt.
"No," Karen replied which surprised him. "I felt like I was a different person, as though the real me was in some way detached from what I was doing. It gave me such a high to know that even if I didn't enjoy it, he did, and because he didn't know about Fenner, he wasn't remotely cautious with me. That was the problem with Mark. He was so worried about me not wanting whatever he did, that I was constantly reminded of why he was being so cautious. Once Ritchie realised I was deadly serious about wanting him to be rough with me, it was the best I'd had in a long time. He might have used me for his own ends, but in a way, I did exactly the same to him. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still enjoy being with a man. But then he went and screwed it up." Her face suddenly became darker. "It feels like all the men in my life are jinxed. My son and my one time lover killed themselves, and Fenner ended up at the wrong end of a pistol. I'm surprised you even want to talk to me."
"I'm not going anywhere," John said firmly but quietly.
"Did you know that you were the first man I'd slept with since Ritchie Atkins?"
"I did wonder," He replied with a soft smile as he remembered that night.
"What on earth do I do to them?" Karen asked in a slightly strangled voice. "That bloody prosecutor at Lauren's trial got it absolutely right. What is it about me that makes someone supposedly love me and then hurt me as much as possible? You seem to be about the only odd one in the pack. But then you've never loved me so maybe that's why. Though if keeping quiet about my son being in drugs rehab isn't a pretty sure-fire way of hurting me, then I don't know what is. Why did you have to do that, John? Why?"
"You know why," He said regretfully. "Helen came to me, because she needed some advice on her legal position. She couldn't tell you that your son was in her care, because he was over the age of eighteen and therefore a legal adult. If I'd simply told you, it would have been just as catastrophic as if she'd told you herself." Karen could feel her anger steadily rising, coming inexorably closer to boiling point.
"You just don't get it, do you," She said, the volcano finally becoming active. "If I'd known he was in drugs rehab, I might have been able to help him."
"Karen," John said slowly, trying to calm her down. "There wasn't anything you could have done. Ross got himself into that situation, and even if you'd been there for him every step of the way, that's no guarantee that you could have prevented him from doing what he did."
"And if this was Charlie we were talking about, would you still be saying all this?"
"My daughter is far too intelligent to become involved with hard drugs," John said without thinking, his immediate reaction being to defend Charlie's reputation.
"Oh, really," Karen said icily. "Well, you know something? That's exactly what I used to think about Ross. I was so proud of him when he went off to university, because I thought that in spite of everything, in spite of his not having anyone around who resembled a father, in spite of my having to work all the hours God sent when he was a child, he had become the son I'd always wanted him to be. Don't assume, that just because you couldn't have been a better father to Charlie, that she will automatically behave in the way you'd like her too."
"I didn't mean it like that," He said placatingly. "I just meant that..." He stopped, not entirely sure how to say what he wanted to say, and also debating whether or not he should say it.
"Oh, I know," Karen said, not giving him chance to finish. "You like to assume that Charlie will follow in your footsteps, because you think that you couldn't possibly have done any more for her than you have. You're not perfect, John, neither as a father, nor as a man. So don't presume that Charlie will be too. I did that to a point, I trusted that Ross knew better than to start injecting himself with whatever he could lay his hands on, but I was wrong. I couldn't have been more wrong about what I expected from Ross. If he'd just once told me what he was getting into. But he was so bloody stubborn, and so much like his stupid, reckless mother, that he just had to prove he could do it all by himself."
"Even if you had been aware of what was happening, you don't know how much you could have helped him," John insisted, feeling scorched by her anger, but knowing that she had to get it all out somehow.
"And thanks to you and Helen between you, I won't ever know that now, will I."
There was a stunned, awful pause after these words had been uttered. The colour drained from Karen's face as she realised what she'd said.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry," She said quietly, the anger having dissipated, and tears rising to her eyes in its place. "I should never have said that." John made a move to rise from his chair and go to her, but she lifted a hand to stop him. Turning her face away from him, she fought to stop her tears from spilling over. How could she? How could she have said something so unforgivable to him? This was John sitting a few feet away from her, John. She had sat here, and without taking a moment to consider what she was saying, she'd accused him, no blamed him, for her not having been aware of her son's drug problem, and therefore for her not having been able to stop him from killing himself.
"Karen, you need to cry," He said gently but firmly, hating it when she insisted on closing herself off like this, refusing to let him see the depth of her pain, and therefore making it impossible for him to help her. "Somehow, you need to let it out. Taking out your anger on me is absolutely fine, but it'll only help you so far."
"Oh and you always let out your feelings in an adequate fashion, don't you," She said scornfully, finding it all too easy to be angry with him, instead of letting him see her cry.
"We're not talking about me," He said mildly.
"No, we never bloody are, are we. On the day that you feel perfectly happy with someone else witnessing your version of disintegration, by all means feel free to tell me what I should and shouldn't do. Until then, I will deal with this in my own way, and if that means struggling to keep it together and somehow not giving in to the pull of letting go completely, then that is exactly what I'll do."
To give them some breathing space, John went into the kitchen to refill his glass.
"As you're here," Karen said when he returned. "I'm assuming you know about me and George, though I suppose now it would be more accurate to say Jo and George."
"Yes," John replied, seeing that the couple of minutes down time had allowed her emotions to temporarily regroup. "I came because I thought it might have been the last straw."
"Yes, it probably was what gave me the reason to get drunk and do a little reminiscing, but it was only an excuse. What I've done tonight has been creeping up on me for a while. How do you feel about it?"
"I'm not sure," John admitted. "I discovered a while ago that Jo has a certain curiosity about being with a woman, something which I think was prodded out into the open by you and George."
"So, it didn't surprise you to discover that Jo ended up feeling far more than a passing curiosity?"
"One thing I've learnt over the last few months is that anything's possible."
"I'd have thought that Jo and George feeling that way about each other would be your idea of heaven," Karen suggested, seeing that all was not well from John's perspective.
"On the surface, yes, I suppose it may be," John replied. "But I think part of me wonders if, after any initial stage of awkwardness, they will in fact need me at all."
"Oh, John, of course they will," Karen said without a moment's hesitation, at once seeing just how insecure this had made him feel. "If there's one thing I know for certain in all this, it's that both Jo and George love you. You might occasionally exasperate them to distraction, but that won't ever stop either of them from loving you the way they do. What happened with George and me, that was just waiting to happen. She might have been happy with what she had with me, but I think I knew from the beginning that it wouldn't be for long. George was spreading her wings with me, finding out about that side of her character. I don't blame her for that, it's only natural in some ways. With this three-way thing you've had going with her and Jo, it was almost a foregone conclusion that George would one day discover she felt more for Jo than perhaps she thought she should."
"You really do love her, don't you," John said in sudden realisation.
"I didn't intend to at the start," Karen replied. "Because she was dividing her time between both of us, and I didn't want anything heavy. But yes, I do. There's something about George that I just couldn't help loving," She said in wonderment. "No matter how fiercely we might have argued, which we really only did very occasionally, and no matter how much I might worry about her when she periodically stops eating, I suspect a part of me will always love George."
"She does have that effect on people," John said fondly.
"Their growing feelings for each other might not have been forced out into the open as soon as they were, but after Ross died, I began emotionally pushing everyone away, including George, and I think in one way, that made it easier for her. I didn't mean too, but I didn't want anyone to see what I was going through. It hurts like hell that I won't ever wake up with her in my arms again, but it had to happen some time."
A couple of hours later, Karen had consumed a good deal more scotch, and John had finished the bottle of wine.
"I'm assuming you're staying," Karen said, raising an eyebrow at the empty bottle.
"Do you mind?"
"No. Much as I was insane with irritation at your interruption of my fairly miserable evening, it's probably a good thing you came, even if your motive was utterly transparent."
"You mean too much to me to simply allow you to go through this on your own, and if I'm honest, part of me didn't entirely trust you."
"So I noticed," Karen said dryly. "I might be lower than I've been in a long time tonight, but I'm not about to follow in my son's footsteps."
"I'm glad to hear it," He said firmly. "I'd have no-one to knock sense into me once in a while for a start."
A while later, they were lying in Karen's large bed. They had been friends long enough to know that sharing the same bed signified nothing more than sleep, even in spite of their unplanned kiss before Karen went on holiday. They had their arms round each other, because John could see in her face that tonight, she needed to be close to someone. All that prevented skin to skin contact was her cotton nightie and his boxer shorts. But after the evening's tortuous discussions, neither of them, not even John, would have had the energy for anything more than sleep. He could feel her tense, taut body nestling against his, the tension still singing along her nerves. He ran a hand gently up and down her back, occasionally running his fingers through her hair in an attempt to make her relax.
"Does it make me seem feeble?" She asked in to his chest.
"What?" He murmured into her hair.
"Needing a cuddle."
"Of course not," He said softly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "Why do you think I used to sleep with so many women? Apart from the obvious," He added when she didn't immediately answer. "It was because just for an hour, or a night, I could be close to someone without having to make my need for it obvious. Feeling loved, or at least the momentary pretence of being loved that sleeping with someone can provide, is something we all need from time to time. Some more than most." They lay quiet for a time, with Karen still unable to relax. The burning force that had been building in her all week, from the catalyst of her break up with George, had partially gone by way of her earlier anger. But John had been right, damn him. He'd said that being angry wasn't enough, and that she must cry in order to let the rest of it out. But she didn't want too. She didn't want him to see how weak and vulnerable she was. But she wasn't sure how much longer she could hold it in. The constriction in her throat was becoming agonising. Whether because of the alcohol she'd consumed, or the conversation she'd had with John, she did want to cry, to cling to something or someone, and to let out the grief for Ross that was steadily eating away at her insides.
When he felt the first sensation of a tear on his skin, he held her if possible closer to him. John had waited for this, staying awake and holding her long enough for her to do it. He'd known that at some point she must. If not, she would internally combust.
"I'm sorry," She said, feeling the last vestiges of control ebbing away from her. "I didn't want to do this." He just lay there, trying to soothe her. "I'm so sorry I said what I did to you," She said after a while.
"I know," He said gently. "And I'm sorry too."
"I don't know how I'm supposed to get through this," She said, the shuddering in her body only getting worse.
"The only way you can get through it, is to let people in, and to let all of this out, just like you're doing now. I know it's not your preferred medium for emotional cleansing, but keep it all locked away inside, and you'll go slowly mad, and I am not letting you do that," He finished fervently.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," She said between sobs.
"Oh, you'd soon find someone else to tell home truths too," He said fondly. She clung to him as she wept, needing something to stop her from slipping beneath the tidal wave of her grief. Now she'd started, it felt like she couldn't stop. But he held her through all of it, not for a second letting her think she was alone. When she finally began to calm down, he helped her sit up, and reached over for the box of tissues on the bedside table.
"I'm sorry," She said as she wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
"Why, do you and George always apologise for crying?" He asked.
"Because crying means showing someone how weak and vulnerable you feel."
"You know," He said, changing the subject. "Jo did this once, got herself pretty drunk, took her anger and grief out on me, and ended up spending the night with me. She got caught leaving the digs, which led to her hearing with the Professional Conduct Committee."
"Well, at least that isn't going to happen with me," Karen said as she lay back down. As he once again enclosed her in his arms, Karen knew that this was what she would miss most about her break up with George, the feeling of simply being close to someone, of having a pair of arms round her. As if hearing her thought, John said,
"Don't ever be afraid to need someone, will you." She wasn't entirely sure what to make of his words, so saying nothing, she laid her head back on his chest, allowing the comfort of his arms and her emotional exhaustion to gradually pull her towards sleep.
Part Two Hundred
On the Sunday morning, when she finally plucked up the courage to go and see Karen, Jo wondered just how Karen would be towards her. They hadn't seen each other for a few weeks, not since the day after Karen had gone to scatter Ross's ashes. Jo had fully understood Karen's need to keep her distance from people, because she'd done exactly the same after her husband had died, but Jo didn't want to lose Karen's friendship, and she couldn't help but think this might now be an unavoidable possibility. She didn't want Karen to cut herself off from any of them, because she needed as much support as she could get, now more than ever.
"Jo," Karen said in surprise, when she answered Jo's ring at the doorbell.
"Can I come in?" Jo asked quietly, thinking that Karen looked tired and pale.
"Yes, of course," Karen replied, leading the way back up the stairs. Ever since she'd woken yesterday morning to find that John had left, Karen had felt unutterably guilty. She knew she'd apologised for what she'd said to John, but that didn't make her feel any better. She'd shouted at him, accused him of being the reason why she hadn't been able to save her son's life, and all he'd done was to listen to her, to comfort her, and to eventually hold her through the duration of Friday night. There had been nothing remotely sexual in his gesture, just the giving of simple comfort from one friend to another. He'd left a note for her on the table in the lounge, saying that he'd wanted to let her sleep, and for her to come and see him when she was ready. Why did he always have to be so understanding? Karen simply didn't know. But Jo was here now, presumably to clear the air about George, though that really wasn't necessary.
"Would you like a coffee?" Karen asked when they reached the lounge. Agreeing that this would go down a treat, Jo wondered how to broach the subject of why she was here.
"You look tired," She said, as an opening for the conversation.
"I got extremely drunk on Friday night," Karen told her. "And am only just recovering from the hang over. John's probably regretting his insistence on talking to me."
"He did say that he was worried about you," Jo said gently, thinking that John ought to have realised that he might be about to bear the brunt of whatever had been eating Karen.
"Why do I always do it, Jo?" Karen asked in utter self-disgust. "Why do I always say the most unforgivable things when I'm plastered?"
"I think it's part of the process," Jo said with a half smile. "You won't be the first, and probably not the last, to say an awful lot to John when you were drunk, that you wouldn't have dreamt of saying if you were sober. I've certainly done it, George definitely has, and now you have. He won't take it to heart, I promise you."
"Well, I wouldn't blame him if he did," Karen said dejectedly. "I did apologise to him, but I haven't said something quite so despicable ever since I split up with Yvonne." Lighting a cigarette with a slightly trembling hand, Karen took a long drag, and finally approached the subject of why Jo was here. "How's George?" She asked, not having seen or spoken to George since their return from Spain the previous Sunday. Putting her mug of coffee down on the table, Jo took a good look at Karen, seeing nothing but gentle concern. No anger, no reproach, just sincere enquiry.
"She's all right," Jo told her. "I think she's missing you."
"I'm hardly that far away," Karen said with a soft smile, thinking George a little silly for staying away if she didn't want to.
"I think it might be fair to say," Jo said tentatively. "That you've been far away from everyone for quite some time now."
"I know," Karen said regretfully, knowing that Jo meant in spirit if not in body. "I think I needed to do that, to have some time away from everyone."
"It might not feel like it," Jo said gently. "But we do all still care a great deal, and nothing will ever change that."
"I know you do," Karen replied, feeling Jo's desperate need to assuage her own guilt for taking George away from Karen, when she perhaps most needed her. "And Jo, you don't need to feel quite so guilty, you know," She added with a little smile, telling Jo that her efforts at concealing it were failing miserably.
"Who says I do?" Jo asked, seeing a slight hint of the old twinkle in Karen's eye.
"Jo, it's coming off you in waves," Karen told her, not wanting Jo to feel anything akin to guilt for what she had done, because their friendship was far too important for that.
"She didn't want to hurt you, and neither did I," Jo said, the words she had come here to say, now finally leaving her mouth. "And believe me when I say, that I wholeheartedly wish this could have come out into the open at any other time."
"Jo, please don't do this," Karen pleaded with her. "Yes, I was hurt by the fact that the two of you had kept it from me for quite so long, but that's all. Anything else I feel isn't something that is anybody's fault, and is only something that I will get over in time. If George is happy with you and John, I wouldn't ever want to stand in the way of that. She is far too important to me to want to do that. John has been a very good friend to me, and so have you, and I wouldn't want to lose either of you. George will always be incredibly special to me, and nothing will ever change that. I don't want you, or George, or anyone to feel guilty because of this, okay?"
"All right," Jo agreed quietly, seeing that Karen really did mean what she was saying, and that they weren't merely words to make her feel better.
"Just do one thing for me," Karen asked her, feeling a little silly but knowing she had to do it. "Look after her for me. George is an incredibly complicated woman, but then you know that already. I suppose I just want someone to keep as close an eye on her as I used to."
"Karen, that sounds worryingly as though you're not planning on sticking around," Jo said suspiciously, thinking that it sounded as though Karen was the one who needed keeping an eye on, not George.
"No, it's not, believe me," Karen told her, realising precisely how her words must have sounded. "I just want to know she's being taken care of, that's all." When she left after a good deal more talking, Jo couldn't help but hope that Karen's affirmation was true.
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