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.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betaed by Jen, Little Dorritt and Kaatje.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard
Part Seventy One
When Nikki had received Karen's call on the Wednesday, inviting them over for dinner at George's on the Saturday, she had been pleasantly surprised.
"This a special occasion, is it?" Nikki asked.
"I've got something to tell Helen, and I'm not entirely sure how she's going to take it," Karen admitted.
"That sounds ominous," Nikki replied, not wanting to hear anything that might put any strain on Helen and Karen's friendship again. They had managed to repair the damage that Fenner's interference had caused, but Nikki knew that her part in that was still there in Karen's mind.
"I'm hoping she'll be happy for me, but I'd like to be in friendly surroundings when I tell her."
"Well, I'm working every night this week, so Trisha shouldn't get funny about me taking Saturday off," Nikki said decisively.
"You're really not enjoying working with her, are you?" Karen said sympathetically.
"No, but until I get any bright ideas about what to do next, it's all I've got."
George was looking forward to Saturday. She liked the challenge of cooking for people, showing off one of her skills that wasn't remotely connected to the legal profession. This would also give her ample opportunity to get to know a couple of Karen's friends a lot better than she did. She'd liked Nikki instantly, feeling a certain gratitude at the way Nikki had tried to include her with the rest of them on that first day of Lauren's trial, which now seemed a lifetime ago, and she knew that it would do her good to be in the company of people from whom she wouldn't have to hide her relationship with Karen. On the Saturday afternoon, she put some happy music on, something she could sing to, and began making the pudding, because it required a few hours in the fridge to set. As she washed and de-stalked strawberries, halved grapes and sliced kiwi fruit, she sang to the CD she'd put on in the lounge, feeling lighter of heart than she had done in a while. She knew that at this point in her life, she was happy. She had John, on a leash so to speak, giving her as much or as little attention as she wanted. She had Karen, who was introducing her to a side of her personality that she'd been dying to explore for years. She had Jo, who was becoming the closest friend she'd ever had, helping to keep her on the straight and narrow if she looked in danger of straying off the rails. She hadn't had a row with Charlie in ages, and she was still seeing a lot of and getting on very well with her father. In her eyes, things couldn't possibly be better. The fruit would be placed decoratively in a meringue base, then to be topped with homemade chocolate mousse and cream, and to be further decorated with chocolate leaves. She hadn't made this pudding for ages, but the occasion seemed to demand something special. The only thing Karen had told her to steer clear of was avocado, because Helen loathed it, but otherwise she had a free rein. She knew that Karen was worried about telling Helen about her new job, but George personally didn't think Helen would be anything other than pleased for her. Karen was almost desperate to maintain her friendship with Helen, to avoid doing anything that might send it back into the rocky waters it had been in when Karen lived with Fenner. As she arranged the fruit inside the meringue, her thoughts turned to John. There had been something a little different about him this week, not exactly distant, maybe just preoccupied. He had certainly had something on his mind, though for the life of her she couldn't imagine what it was. It hadn't stopped him from being his usual, amorous self though. She couldn't help but to smirk at the strawberries as she thought of this. She must be the luckiest woman in the world, with a male and a female lover, both satisfying her every sexual need. She wasn't sure how long it would last, this contented equilibrium, but right now that didn't matter. She was happy, Karen was happy, and John and Jo were happy. Retrieving the chocolate mousse she'd made earlier, she began folding it over the fruit, not leaving any gaps, but creating a suggestion of the juicy delicacies underneath. Rather like clothes, she thought. Next came the cream, which she piped around the edges and in little zigzag spirals over the top. Finally, she got out the packet of pre-prepared chocolate leaves. Not even she was going to spend hours creating those. Placing them here and there over the top of the pudding, she stood back to admire her handy work.
"Not bad, even if I do say so myself," She said out loud, thinking that it had been far too long since she'd had reason to make something so erotically sumptuous. When she'd cleared away the debris from the pudding, and put her glorious creation in the fridge, she began to make the apricot and cashew nut stuffing for the chicken. George loved this stuffing, it making an ordinary roast chicken just that little bit special. Once the stuffing was made, she began cramming it inside the plump breast of the chicken, eventually putting a tiny skewer through the skin to keep it in place. Putting the bird in the oven on a low heat to start with, she peeled the potatoes, which would only need to be sautéed at the last minute with some thyme and parsley. Whilst she was in the middle of chopping the parsnips for the parsnip puree, the doorbell rang. Wiping her hands on a dishcloth, she went to answer it. Standing on the doorstep, holding a bag that looked like it contained several bottles of wine, was Karen.
"I thought I'd come and see if you wanted a hand with anything," Karen said as she moved into the hall.
"Not so far," George said as they went into the kitchen. "Though a glass of wine would go down a treat, and then I must have a bath." Whilst George threw the chunks of parsnip into the blender, with cream, lemon juice and black pepper, Karen opened a bottle of chilled Chablis that had been resting in the fridge, and poured them both a glass. They didn't talk whilst the blender did its work, and when George had transferred the contents to a bowl, she dipped in a finger and tasted it.
"Even raw that tastes divine," She said, after licking her finger. Putting this in the fridge until it was needed, she went upstairs for a bath, leaving Karen to set the table. About an hour later, when George reappeared, she looked sensational.
"I don't know which looks more delectable," Karen said with a smile. "You or that pudding."
"Well, as long as that pudding doesn't start to separate, I don't mind," George replied, for once knowing that she looked infinitely more beautiful than the food she had created. A pleasant aroma of roasting chicken was beginning to fill the house, briefly reminding George of the days when she cooked for more than herself on a regular basis.
When Helen and Nikki arrived, Nikki's words as she locked the car made Helen smile.
"Jesus, it certainly looks like she's landed on her feet."
"Nikki, Karen is not a gold digger," Helen said with a laugh, knowing Nikki didn't really mean it.
"Oh, I know, but with Yvonne and now George, she's somehow managed to find the rich ones."
"And look how her relationship with Yvonne ended," Helen reminded her soberly. When George let them in, Helen handed her some wine and some flowers.
"I wasn't sure if you were a chocolate person," Helen said with a smile.
"They're lovely," George replied, thinking that yes, flowers were always more preferable than things she would feel guilty for eating.
"Nice place you have here," Nikki commented, as they moved into the lounge.
"I've lived here for over twenty seven years now."
"Hey, you," Helen said fondly to Karen, as George went to get them drinks. "What's this piece of news you've got to tell me?"
"I'll tell you later," Karen said, and Helen could see that though she appeared to be relaxed on the surface, there was an underlying nervous tension in her, as if she was anticipating an earthquake.
"Something smells good," Nikki said, as George handed her a glass of wine.
"Roast chicken with apricot and cashew nut stuffing," George replied.
"Sounds gorgeous," Nikki said, clearly looking forward to it.
"Was Trisha all right about you having the night off?" Karen asked.
"I expect she whinged about it," Nikki replied nonchalantly. "But to be honest, it goes in one ear and out the other these days. I'm so bored, that I'd even consider applying for a job at Larkhall if there was one going." Karen couldn't prevent a broad smile crossing her face. Jesus, Nikki Wade might be the answer to all her problems. But she'd have to bide her time a little, and do a lot of spade work with area before it could even be considered.
"Tell me I'm being nosy," Nikki said, looking over at the painting above the piano. "But is that a Stubs?" George smiled.
"Yes. Daddy gave it to me for my twenty-first. He knew I was probably going to marry John, and I think he thought that if it didn't work out, I could sell it. But no way was I going to part with it." Nikki heard the depth of fondness in George's voice for her father, and it made her briefly wish she'd had something remotely as close with her own parents.
A little while later when George went into the kitchen to do the last minute cooking of the parsnip puree, the spinach, and the sautéing of the potatoes, both Karen and Nikki asked her if she wanted them to do anything.
"No, really, it's fine," George replied. "I get quite territorial when I'm cooking."
"I would offer," Said Helen with a grin. "But Nikki will tell you, that if it doesn't involve a microwave, I'm absolutely no use in the kitchen." Smiling at Helen over her shoulder, George left them to it.
"You just like having someone to do all the cooking," Nikki said with a fond smile.
"I can't help it if both Sean and Thomas were far better with a bread knife than I was," Helen insisted. When they eventually sat round the mahogany dining table that could comfortably seat eight, and Karen had helped to carry in the dishes, Nikki positively groaned at the sight of the plump-breasted chicken, which was emitting a combination of wonderful aromas.
"After three years of the Julies' cooking," She said with a self-deprecating smile. "You get a bit obsessed with good food."
"They're not that bad," Karen tried to defend the two most reliable cooks and cleaners she'd ever had on G wing.
"How're they getting on?" Helen asked.
"Still five years to do, and that's as long as they don't get into any more trouble," Karen said resignedly. As George began to carve the chicken, they could se just how succulent the meat was, as tender as the best fillet steak, and as juicy as an orange. When Karen had handed round the potatoes, garnished with a scattering of parsley, the parsnip puree and the spinach, both she and George sat down, and George filled up their glasses.
"So, are you going to finally put me out of my misery?" Helen asked, quite unable to wait any longer. After taking a swig of her wine to give her courage, Karen cleared her throat.
"I've been made Governing Governor of Larkhall." Instantly, a broad smile spread over Helen's face.
"Oh, well done," She said, immediately getting to her feet, and walking round the table to give Karen a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "You soft sod," She said affectionately. "Did you think I'd be jealous or something?"
"No, I don't know, I just wasn't sure how you would react."
"Honestly," Helen said as she sat down and picked up her knife and fork. "And you didn't even tell me you had a promotion board."
"She hardly told anyone," George filled in with a soft smile. "Only I and Grayling knew she'd gone for the interview."
"Was it hell?" Helen asked, remembering her various promotion boards whilst she'd been at Larkhall.
"Alison Warner tried to use her size fives on me, but I gave her pretty short shrift."
"Only way to treat that brainless cow," Helen replied, after swallowing a mouthful of chicken. "George, this is beautiful," She said, now thoroughly relaxed by Karen having got what she'd wanted to say out in the open.
"George knows Alison Warner," Karen put in, watching in amusement as Helen's face went scarlet.
"Oh, don't worry," Said George with a laugh. "She's no friend of mine, and brainless cow is probably the best description anyone could come up with for her."
"How do you know her?" Nikki asked around a mouthful of stuffing.
"I managed to get her off paying an enormous fine, for violation of the Data Protection Act some years ago, before she started working for the prison service."
"The only way to deal with her," Helen said decisively. "Which as number one, you will have to from time to time, is to stay as rigidly calm as possible."
"I couldn't agree with you more," George said, taking a swig of her wine. "Remain totally aloof and detached, and she'll always be the one to crack first."
"When she accused me of being responsible for Shell and Denny's escape," Helen continued. "She was the one who got all stressed about it. She was desperate to pin it on me, and when she couldn't, it was as if it was her own personal tragedy." George laughed.
"She was just like that, when I used that particular incident as blackmail on her during the trial."
"During Lauren's trial?" Nikki asked in slight astonishment.
"Well, after what you two told Jo about Di Barker, it seemed the only way to get hold of her personnel file. So, I carefully reminded Mrs. Warner, that I had a staggering amount of evidence to prove that she hadn't done her job after the three escapes, which had come into my hands when Jo and I were putting the case together against Fenner. She wasn't very pleased to say the least."
"What I wouldn't give to have heard that," Helen said, clearly impressed.
"I wondered where Jo had managed to lay her hands on all that stuff," Nikki put in. "Now it makes sense." After they'd finished eating, and all had a cigarette break, George returned with the pudding, now looking glossy, firm, and extremely erotic.
"Did Karen tell you," Helen said slowly. "That I'm a bit of a closet chocoholic?"
"No, she didn't," George said with a broad smile. "In that case, I definitely hope the chocolate mousse is still as good as when I made it earlier." The combination of the crisp meringue base, the juicy tang of the fruit, and the bittersweet mixture of chocolate mousse and cream, made that pudding a thing to remember. As George reached to fill their glasses, Nikki said to Helen,
"Am I driving, or are you?"
"Go on then," Helen said, putting a hand over her glass. "It's your night off, so I'll drive."
"I don't think I'll move for a week now," Nikki said as she put down her spoon. "That was lovely."
"Shall you and me do the washing up?" Helen asked, looking over at Karen, and the other two could see that Helen wanted the excuse to talk to Karen alone.
When they were half way through the washing up, Helen said,
"You're really happy with George, aren't you?"
"Yes," Karen said with a warm smile. "It's hard to explain, but at the moment, she doesn't want anything very committed from me, which is exactly how I like it."
"To be honest," Helen said carefully. "It's probably for the best. I found it hard enough with Sean and with Nikki when I was at Larkhall. They don't tell you, but the prison service doesn't allow for that much of a private life."
"It's odd, but George, she's just so, I don't know, beautiful, sensitive, incredibly complicated, and doesn't mind me cracking up every so often, all in one."
"Sounds pretty bloody perfect to me," Helen replied, thinking that the sheer happiness in Karen's voice was the best thing she'd heard in a long time.
"Yeah, at the moment, it is. I'm not sure quite how long it will last, but for now, I don't care."
"Why?" Helen was curious now.
"I shouldn't really tell you, and it sounds completely mad, but the reason she doesn't want anything heavy from me, is because she's still involved to a certain extent with John."
"With the judge? But I thought he was her ex."
"Oh, he is. He is sleeping with both Jo and George, who are both aware of the situation, and George is sleeping with me as well. I said it was complicated, didn't I."
"Well, as long as it works, each to their own, I suppose."
"Believe it or not, it does work. Before he started sleeping with George again, John had a different woman every week. So, Jo came up with the idea of restricting him to George and only George."
"Good God, talk about a grip of steel," Helen said, sincerely impressed.
"And so far, he hasn't gone back on the arrangement, which means that Jo is a lot happier, and George has back what she never entirely got over."
"Karen, I know you said that you're happy with the way things are, but just be careful," Helen said quietly.
"I'm not going to get hurt, at least not by George," Karen said with utter certainty. After a moment's silence, Helen finally approached what she'd really wanted to say.
"Did you really think I wouldn't be pleased for you?" She asked, as Karen put the plates away in the cupboard.
"I wasn't sure," Karen admitted. "When you were Governing Governor, I was a complete cow, and whilst I know that shouldn't have any bearing on me being Governing Governor, I just didn't want it to bring back any awkward memories."
"Listen," Helen said, feeling a rush of emotion at Karen's words. "I know how strong Fenner's influence was, and whilst I might have been angry and frustrated with you at the time, I know it wasn't your fault. At least you never let him force you out of a job."
"He might not have been able to, if I'd listened to you," Karen found herself saying.
"You don't know that," Helen said quietly. "Just do one thing for me, just make sure you do a better job of it than I did."
As George and Nikki happily left the others to it, sitting down in the lounge and immediately lighting cigarettes, Nikki's eyes again strayed to the paintings, the Stubs above the piano, and the Monet above the fireplace.
"Are you into paintings?" George asked, after taking a grateful drag of her cigarette.
"Sort of," Nikki replied, forcing her attention back to George. "I nearly got involved with someone who was, while I was inside. I learnt a lot from her, one way and another, only then she turned out to be a sex offender."
"Oh, dear," George said in sympathy.
"Yeah, I had it pointed out to me by Maxi bloody Purvis of all people."
"Ouch. What happened?"
"Helen had Caroline transferred. Good thing really, or I might have ended up doing a stretch for GBH alongside the Julies."
"A couple of years ago, I defended a company who, in the name of success at any cost, managed to put child pornography on John's computer, because they knew he wasn't open to bribery and corruption. I had absolutely no idea they would even consider doing such a thing, so I know that finding out something like that can be quite a shock." Nikki was touched at the feeling in George's words, and knew that Karen would be happy with this woman.
"Did Karen really think Helen wouldn't be pleased for her?" Nikki asked, trying to take them away from anything dark.
"Karen still feels incredibly guilty for how she was with Helen, when Helen was Governing Governor. I doubt she'll ever stop feeling guilty about that. I think she just wants to avoid anything that might put her and Helen back to the way they were then. It's totally irrational, because Karen being made Governing Governor, doesn't mean anything of the sort will happen, but who ever said that fears were rational."
"Karen shouldn't still feel guilty about that," Nikki said gently. "Helen knows just how much of an influence Fenner had over her. Jesus, I saw him do exactly the same to Rachel Hicks."
"Was she the young girl who hanged herself in her cell?"
"Yeah, that's the one. I lost count of the times I warned her off Fenner, but once he had his claws in, that was it." George then saw Nikki stare at something by George's feet, and then immediately move her eyes away.
"What?" George asked, seeing Nikki's eyes moving back as if drawn, to whatever she'd seen. Nikki began to laugh quietly. "What?" George persisted, wondering just what was about to embarrass her.
"From here," Nikki said, still laughing. "It looks like a bra strap." Bending down, George retrieved her black bra that had been so unceremoniously shoved under the sofa on Tuesday night.
"Oh," She said, a faint blush staining her cheeks. "I wondered where that had got to."
"I don't know why," Nikki said, clearly talking from experience. "But it's always bras that turn up in the most unexpected places."
"Do you two want coffee?" Karen asked, coming into the lounge. "Where did that spring from?" She asked, glancing at the small black bra in George's hand.
"It was sticking out from under the sofa," George replied, now seeing the funny side.
"Oh, that must have been from Tuesday," Karen replied, thinking that the shy little blush made George look incredibly sweet. Quickly running upstairs to dispose of her wayward underwear, George thought that she'd not had such a relaxing, amusing, and above all, normal evening for quite a long time. She wasn't at all used to an abundance of female company, but she knew she could come to like Helen and Nikki enormously. It made her feel younger somehow, doing something as perfectly ordinary as cooking a meal, and having a few too many with a couple of friends. A good while later, as they stood on the doorstep and watched Helen and Nikki drive away, George felt thoroughly content. When she'd closed and locked the front door, Karen put her arms round her and kissed her.
"Thank you for tonight," She said into George's hair.
"I enjoyed it," George replied, kissing her back, knowing that this new area of her life, this being in love with a woman, and getting to know other women in a way she wouldn't previously have contemplated, was exactly what she wanted. If it was making her happy, which for now it appeared to be, then this was how she wanted it to stay.
Part Seventy Two
It had come to that occasion in the year. The notice had been pinned up on the notice board in the barrister's room in the Old Bailey, conspicuously central in its pristine freshness over the top of the forgotten yellowed parchments. Monty and Vera Everard arrived first, giving a misleading impression of public togetherness but eager for what mutual advantage the meeting might have in store. Sir Ian and Lawrence James followed closely behind in their contrastingly but professional 'joined at the hip' routine. Lastly, thirty paces behind, John casually sauntered into the room and immediately raised the hackles of the other four.
Finally, Joe Channing huffed and puffed his way into the cluttered room and sank into the one comfortable chair in the austerely furnished room.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have recently come from a meeting of the Bar Council which endorsed an initiative which will affect us all."
Joe's dramatic pause let the thought sink in and eyes to flit around the room, speculating on what he might have up his sleeve.
"It is about time that the brethren felt more of a sense of community. We are living in troubled times when the old certainties of our position are no longer as secure as they once were. It is less possible and even less desirable for any of us to indulge in the sort of petty bickering which, regrettably appears to have crept in, in recent years."
Joe rolled an expressive eye in the direction of John. He was sitting next to Sir Ian but their body language conveyed a sense of mutual aversion, both physical and personal. Two landmark trials had done much to sour relationships between the two of them. That perverse man, drat him, had that confounded expression of innocence on his face and totally and utterly ignored his gentle hint.
"That is why a team building exercise has been decided upon."
"You mean we are to all don battle dress, army boots and rifles and yomp all over Dartmoor while the Bar Council fire at us from behind, friendly fire just to encourage us of course."
His barb was aimed deliberately at the very unmilitary Sir Ian who twitched at the thought of John's very real scenario. He had watched Holby City and chanced upon an episode when an accountancy firm had dressed up as medieval knights in armour and fairy princesses and one of them ended up in hospital, unpleasantly skewered by a very sharp and very real sword.
"No, I am not suggesting risking valuable lives in such a foolish, undignified fashion," Spluttered Joe Channing, reprimanding that reprobate fourth former in the back row.
"My idea is altogether more peaceful, more dignified."
"All of us have been educated at the finest schools and universities which instilled a sound musical background. I propose that we form an orchestra for the purpose of putting on a public performance."
"A brilliant suggestion," gushed Vera Everard, using her overpowering presence to seize control of the meeting. "But is the performance to be only for the instrumentalists amongst us?"
"What did you have in mind, Vera?" Joe answered with an ingratiating expression on his face. He had the sickening feeling that his first instinct to placate this terrible woman meant that he would be relegated to the sidelines and she would browbeat everyone else into what suited her, first and foremost.
"My own very favourite piece of music just has to be Haydn's 'Creation.' It has everything you could wish for, violins, cellos, woodwind, trumpets and singers. I used to perform in it at school. I made a very fetching Eve, so I used to be told."
Both John and Sir Ian made a very curious temporary alliance in exchanging a look of derision at the thought. Evidently. the years since Vera's schooldays had not been kind to her.
"Monty, you would make an absolutely marvellous Adam," Vera pronounced.
From the look of extreme discomfort on his face, this idea had been suddenly landed on him and said a lot about the sort of communication within their household. His evident distaste for playing Adam to Vera's Eve was plain for all to see when in real life, his occupation of his place in the digs conveniently distanced him from Vera's residence elsewhere. A conflicting desire achieved mastery within him by a hairbreadth. This was his intense desire to be in the limelight and make his presence felt in a setting where his talents would surely receive the respect which he felt to be his due. It gave him a good opportunity to curry favour with the Bar Council who would be bound to watch the performance.
The man is so transparent, John reflected, as he weighed in with his contribution.
"I think that we should not be too precipitous in deciding which individuals perform particular roles. Vera's choice of music is an excellent one, which I would endorse for the reasons she sets out. However, we should be certain that we have between us, the ensemble talent to take on such an ambitious work of art. We should go round the table and say what experience we have."
Joe Channing's expression showed his utter gratitude for the adroit way that John's quiet but steely tones had sidelined the Everards. How does the fellow manage it, he wondered.
"We might as well start with Ian and work round the group."
"I play in a woodwind quintet, and have played on and off ever since my schooldays."
"You are a musician?"
John's hushed, respectful reply contrasted with his previous verbal sniping which had made him pick on that wretched fellow and put him on the spot. The memories of the Atkins trial had rankled. This revelation made him see Sir Ian in a new light. Loathsome careerist and sycophant though he might be, it summoned up a new understanding between them. He could no more pass this up any more than he could pass by an attractive woman unregarded nor fight a crusade for justice however unfavourable the odds were stacked against him.
"I play the clarinet, John," Sir Ian replied a little stiffly.
"That is good, Ian. I am pleased."
Sir Ian was unsettled by the total lack of irony or trickery in John's manner and had trouble getting his head round it.
"I play the oboe in the same quintet that Ian plays in," Laurence James intoned in his flat, expressionless voice.
Again, John was taken aback. His sense of irony at the way the Old boy's network would relish the possibility that the Lord Chancellor was a third member of the quintet but it would clash severely with his passionately held beliefs as to the nature of art. The fact that these three despicable men had any trace of an artistic soul had not entered his comprehension. His contempt for them was centred on his unwavering belief that they had long since sold their souls to the devil, or to the Stock Exchange or both at a very handsome profit.
"This is excellent," John exclaimed heartily. His enthusiasm for the project was growing by the minute.
"Can either of you play an instrument?" John politely enquired of the Everards, both fuming, as the spotlight was not on them any more. Both of them frowned and shook their heads.
"I intend to be the conductor if I had not made it clear before. I do not make such a claim because of my position amongst the brethren but upon my long experience in the musical field."
John nodded in appreciation. As his ex-father-in-law, he did not think to question Joe's accomplishments in this area.
"We will, of course, need to throw this open far and wide amongst the brethren but it is highly encouraging that, of the few of us present, all of us can lay claim to musical accomplishments without exception. It is a very encouraging sign."
"By the way, John, you have not declared your own interest," Sir Ian asked, a trace of nastiness in his voice. The fellow had forced everyone else to lay his cards on the table and kept suspiciously quiet about himself.
"Oh, didn't I say before? Lead violinist in an amateur string quintet," John replied with the utmost nonchalance, his eyes meeting Ian's.
Everyone else sat back in their seats in shocked surprise at this exploding bombshell. Deed, the incorrigible womaniser was a matter of endless gossip round the chambers as was that maverick whose legal judgements were perverse and downright Bolshevik. Deed, the amateur musician, was a persona that they were not prepared for.
"Oh, I'm glad to hear that you kept up your music."
Joe Channing's hearty response was entirely genuine. His first instinct was that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn't the headlight of the express train driven by Vera Everard which threatened to drive all over him, blowing her whistle.
Sir Ian's musicianly solidarity had flickered briefly into life before being snuffed out by baser instincts. He knew well enough that Deed was more talented than he made out and that meant that he would seek to take control. Lead violinist, always had a higher status and profile than his journeyman position as clarinettist, especially the enlarged setting in relation to his own woodwind quintet. Those idiots, the Everards, were alternately squabbling amongst themselves or lost in delusions of their own grandeur to recognise the threat that was taking shape.
"This would be a good point for a natural break and the time to take stock of what musical talent we know amongst the rest of the brethren. We must carry on in the spirit of teamwork to welcome others into the musical fold."
From the rapidity with which he trod a dead straight line to the balcony, Joe had practical reasons to adjourn the meeting.
Without delay, Vera launched into her grand plan for self-aggrandisement and to put some backbone into her shilly shallying husband to lay their claim for supremacy once and for all.
"This is our heaven sent opportunity for us to put one over that wretched Deed character. If we have to suffer the presence of the less desirable characters, then it is for us to be on top. I have no more time for you than you have for me but it is quite possible for us to pretend for the sake of a few rehearsals and the performance before the Bar Council. It will help your future career."
Oh the problems of being the power behind the throne, Vera sighed. Only she knew how weak and vacillating the man could be, however much in his public role he acted as the stern unbending judge. She made a mental note to look out some dress patterns to bring out the best in her.
John had casually strolled after Joe who turned round when he quietly shut the door behind him.
"I have to thank you for putting a stop to that fearful woman taking over. I very much doubt that she is anywhere near the standard required of playing the part of Eve. She would dictate to everyone what they would do and everyone would end up smiling and going along with her. Giving that woman control would be catastrophic. I will not involve myself in a total musical fiasco."
Joe Channing had had many experiences when John's conduct had caused him acute political embarrassment but that was one thing. It was quite another thing if what he most loved outside his profession was brought into ridicule. To his own surprise, he found himself unburdening himself to the man whom he had always seen as his chief tormentor.
"Have you thought of George taking the part of Eve?"
Joe suddenly smiled at John's suggestion as if a lightbulb had been turned on in his mind. Why had he never thought of this before? A sudden rush of memories flooded back of him perched on a narrow uncomfortable school chair and entranced by his beloved daughter's crystal clear singing, which soared and described intricate musical loops.
"That is a damned good idea, John. Do you think she would agree to it?"
"I could try and persuade her."
Joe darted a look of suspicion at the look of limpid innocence on John's face.
"That is what I am afraid of."
" ..unless you want to talk to her, yourself?"
Joe shuddered at the fear that George might jump in an unreasonably perverse direction to his eminently reasonable suggestions. Once she set her mind against an idea, she became all the more stubborn and obstinate the more he reasoned with her. To his mind, women could be contrary creatures.
"I will leave that in your capable hands."
While Joe's response to John's idea was reluctant, on a deeper level, he was making some rapid calculations in his mind. The man did talk sense, so his memory told him years ago in happier days when he had first talked to him, man to man. He also remembered John's musical talents, which had instantly become a strong bond between them.
"I have made up my mind, John, I need a leader of the orchestra to help keep it running smoothly. I think you are the man for the job."
Joe Channing's gruff voice understated his gratitude in true old school style. It felt peculiar that he owed his peace of mind to Deed, the invariable grit that jammed the smooth running of the machinery of law.
"So the chief poacher is promoted to the position of gamekeeper?" John enquired in his laziest, yet most searching tones.
"If you want an answer, then it is yes, but only partly so. If you are left to yourself, you will be your usual troublemaking self. If you are given a position of responsibility, then your sense of duty, however peculiar a form it is rooted in you, may make this work. Besides, if you are anything like the musician you used to be, then you deserve the position on sheer merit. I am not indulging in a foolish old man's sentimentality about some sort of golden past."
There was a strange look in Joe's eye as it shifted either side of John's steady gaze.
"All right Joe."
He stretched out his hand, which Joe, to his surprise, shook hard. It gave a sense of reassurance in contrast to that bounder Neil Houghton's very limp handshake. Joe stubbed out the cigarette and led the way back to the main room.
Sir Ian and Monty Everard looked very suspiciously at the two of them as they entered the room. It was obvious that they had been cooking something up together.
"I have a possible idea that George might be agreeable to take the part of Eve. I have heard her singing over the years and her voice is quite extraordinary."
"That is an excellent idea, John. I attended a school performance of her in the creation and she made an utterly enchanting Eve."
"So any daughter would appear to a father or so I am told," Came Vera's sour reply.
"I am not prepared to accept a slur or insult to my daughter, Vera. Nor am I prepared to tolerate an attack on my artistic judgement. You will kindly remember that I am the director of this musical company and I am in charge."
There was a stunned silence. Not only had Joe Channing verbally put Vera Everard in her place for the first time in his life, he was stamping his authority to treat them as his orchestral ensemble.
"Of course, these are preliminary suggestions and where there is more than one volunteer for a role, then I as conductor and leader, shall have the final say."
John sat back with amazement at the way Joe built up his very real forceful and decisive leadership into a crescendo and the way he took the wind out of Vera's sails. Joe was similarly astonished at the consequences of his outburst and only wished he could achieve similar results in his arguments with George.
"We ought to explore possibilities for other parts. All of us have had a hard enough day in court. For instance, I know that Jo Mills plays the cello."
"Didn't Mrs. Mills tell me she was having tuba lessons?"
"I regret that she was being a little facetious, but she was not entirely joking. I can assure you of this point, Mr. James."
John endeavoured to smooth Lawrence James down. Jo's wisecrack to this interfering official had clearly rankled and now was the chance to set the record straight. Joe Channing was secretly amazed by John's unexpected capacity for diplomacy and mentally gave him full marks for this.
"In that case, we have another possible cellist. Brian Cantwell comes to mind from my acquaintance with him."
John raised his eyebrows at yet another surprise. He had Cantwell pegged as an utter philistine as well as a reactionary fool.
"This is starting to take excellent shape. I had no idea that we had so much unexpected talent amongst us," Joe boomed, as he started to relax for the first time since the Bar council had landed the idea of this team building exercise on him. He had come up with the first idea that came off the top of his head, which seemed a good idea at the time. In the cold light of day when he contemplated the idea, he had been worried about the reception the idea he would get at the end of the day from such a warring collection of individualists and prima donnas.
"Well, in that case," snorted Monty Everard, seeing himself increasingly relegated to the sidelines. "I have heard it on the grapevine that Neumann Mason-Alan plays the trumpet. He would blow his own trumpet, of course."
"That starts to fill the gap in the brass section. Do we have any other suggestions?"
Sir Ian had watched the way the conversation taking shape, unable to believe the evidence of his own ears. This was the man who had severely reined in Neumann and repeatedly castigated him and his conduct in the last trial that Neumann appeared before him. Besides what he had seen for himself, he had heard the bitter complaints from Neumann and had supposed that John would have gone along with Monty Everard's
little joke at his expense. Yet he had not uttered a word against Neumann. He resolved to sit back, watch and see how things took shape and play along with this.
"I have heard on the grapevine that there is a new appointee to the Prison Service area management, who has a deep love of classical singing. He may well be amenable to take part."
"That sounds promising, Ian. By the way, doesn't your wife play the oboe?"
Sir Ian flared up straightaway. He had deliberately held back mentioning his wife's name. To his suspicious mind, the casual way which John dropped in this suggestion, showed Deed at his most untrustworthy and betrayed his real reason for his enthusiasm for this project.
"I see, John. This will provide an ideal opportunity and cover for you to resume your squalid little affair with my wife."
"I can assure you, Ian, that I have absolutely none of the intentions you describe. If there is any such danger, it would be completely the other way round. I can assure you that I have not the slightest intention of going nearer your wife than I am professionally required to do. It's the case of once bitten, twice shy."
The room sank into shocked silence at John's description of himself as 'shy' which was precisely the reaction he intended.
"Are there any other expressions of interest that we know of?" Joe at last declared, wanting to move the business on. He gave the meeting two clear minutes for any responses.
"Well, that about concludes the meeting. We have got through the business in far better time than I had thought we would. Hopefully, this will be a sign of the way we shall continue."
"One last point, Joe. Oughtn't the Bar Council to advertise this by e-mail to all members and spread out the net wider."
"Then why couldn't this have been done in the first place instead of spending an hour at this time of night, sitting in uncomfortable chairs and gassing away," Came Vera's petulent outburst. It was surprising that she had shut up for so long but the conversation had unrolled without a break so that she couldn't get a look in.
"Cold calling is not the best way of advertising, Vera. This is only going to look a possibility when it is seen that a number of us are prepared to come forward. Without this discussion, none of us would have had the remotest idea of what each other can do. Let's face it, we are not in a profession noted for artistic creativity. Now we know more of what is possible, we can go on to the next stage."
"My sentiments exactly. I intend to compile a list of all the parts required for the entire ensemble and note expressions of interest based on what we have found out tonight. This will be put on the notice board and the Bar Council will advertise this by e-mail to all members. I must remind you that this performance is intended as a team building exercise so that we are most truly brothers and sisters. Now, I am sure we all have homes to go to."
The room emptied fairly rapidly as each of them went home with their own very mixed feelings. Joe sank back into the driving seat of his sedate Rolls Royce and lit a much needed cigarette. He had the most mixed feelings of all, surprise that somehow, against the odds, the first faltering step had been taken and fear as to exactly what he had unleashed. He felt he thoroughly deserved a nightcap when he got home.
Part Seventy Three
The Julies had been hard at work with stiff white card, scizzors and felt tips in creating a 'leaving card' for Grayling. They had scratched their heads in what to feature on the card as their invariable recipient had been female up till now.
"I ain't sure what sort of card to do for a man," Julie Saunders complained, twirling her favourite pen with the green spiky plastic attachment.
" especially for a " she continued after a long pause.
"Now then, Ju, what about his 'keep fit' stuff. I've got it, what about him riding that bike of his and a slogan - 'On your bike'?"
"For Gawds sake, leave that one out. That's what that there Norman Tebbit used to say to the unemployed. The drawing's fine but we'll have to come up with different words."
"Eh?" asked Julie Johnson in blank incomprehension.
"Can you do me a favour, mate. Can you ask Denny to come along and help me with the artwork? She's dead talented. We haven't much time .."
At another time and place, Grayling came up to the gatehouse for the last time as Governing Governor. His fondest and most intense memories of this place were about to be lived.
"Hi, Ken," Grayling called out to the very same man who had signed him in on his first day at Larkhall.
"Is it really your last day here, Mr. Grayling?" The other man asked with obvious regret. On a day like this, Grayling's sensibilities were abnormally sharpened.
"It is. It all seems strange, unreal," He confided.
"Well, all the lads are going to miss you for a start. You've made a difference to this place."
"Why thank you," Grayling called out cheerily. Inwardly, he was touched by the simple compliment. When he came here, he had been instructed by Area to shake this prison out of its complacency and to force through changes at a blinding speed. He had set out to be tough and had never thought in terms of personal popularity. He had gradually changed over the months to the man he is now but it had never occurred to him that one day, he would be missed. Something held him back in getting all emotional and so he hit upon his own way of expressing how he felt.
"Well, if any strange cyclists come up to the gatehouse, think carefully what you say. They might not be all that they seem."
"I'll never live that down, Mr. Grayling."
Grayling grinned broadly with that hint of mischief he had never been known to display before. It crossed Ken's mind that this was the first time a Governing Governor had taken the time to laugh and joke with him. Grayling shook his hand firmly and went on his way. The first goodbye, he allowed himself to think poignantly.
Curiously enough, there was no one on the wing at that moment and so he threaded his way along the shabby paintwork and endless corridors back to his room. He wanted time for inward reflection before doing his farewell tour.
It was funny, he thought as he helped himself to a glass of spring water, how his sensitivities had shrank from the ugliness of the place which made him feel defiled. That was his surface impression. His feelings became nightmarish as the full twisted nature of the place seemed to cast a jinx on him. Whatever snap decision he made seemed to take some malevolent life form and come back to mock him. A whole series of Wing Governors pirouetted before his eyes in some demonic dance of death with him at the centre of affairs. The phone call from area from time to time had made him squirm in his chair far too often for his liking. As for the prisoners, they seemed to be walk on parts in the general conspiracy against him. All he had ever wanted was for deliverance to the part of area which was the most cutting edge in the radical ideas that the prison service desperately wanted.
So what had changed so that, instinctively, without any ideological framework, he had come to feel centred and in control? He had not taken the time for reflection. The ideas came off the top of his head in rapid succession, Fenner no longer being here, the transformation in his relationship with Karen, Di Barker being taken off G Wing and that everyone started acting like human beings, himself included.
Grayling looked around his very bare office. It had been stripped of all his personal belongings which had been packed up into a big orange skip and labelled to reach his new place of work, it looked bare and without any personality, most of all, his own. He picked up one of his well-thumbed books on management in a neglected corner of his office, glanced at it and none of it made the sense that it once had. He had read it from cover to cover and though it talked about developing human potential, it was all abstract and unreal. He was about to dump it in the bin until, on second thoughts, he edged it into a corner of the crate and resolved to put it through the shredder at his new place of work.
It came to his mind that he would become the new boy, a small fish in a very large pool in the remote offices of Cleland House. Everything that he had got to know about the practicalities of running a prison would be what he would be taking with him besides pin trays and photographs.
A part of him didn't want to go but he firmly suppressed that thought. It wasn't the soft sentimentality that he once despised but the realisation that his time was passing. It was time to make way for Karen and his final performance would be a duty and a pleasure. It was his last gift to her. He drained his glass of water and strode out to start to say his farewells, subconsciously leaving G wing till last.
A couple of hours later, Grayling returned to his room having shaken endless hands, been wished all the best and stood in front of group after group of prison officers and repeated the standard sentiments expected of such an occasion. His smile had stretched his face muscles for what seemed like hours upon end and it had all gone into one big blur. He ended up with a carrier bag full of very tasteful presents and large, expensive cards with lots of signatures and everything flowed along on a vague flow of bonhomie. He knew the score as he had been to many leaving receptions for other prison officers and governors who had transferred or retired. The scripts unconsciously repeated themselves, not that he didn't feel well disposed to the well wishers.
One jarring moment of reality was like a bucket of water thrown in his face.
"So you finally got what you always wanted," Di's venomous voice caught him in an empty corridor. It took him aback but something in him seemed to rise to the cheap words more worthy of a second rate soap opera.
"You're wrong, Di, as usual. I really did want to climb the ladder of success and I didn't care what happened to those who worked for me. Now I've got that promotion, I'll be able to help them from a distance. Karen Betts is perfectly able to do my job as you will find out."
"Mr. Principle," Sneered Di, angered by Grayling's smirk. "I'm sure you'll tell your latest boyfriend all that high minded rubbish. Only you know and I know what your mucky past is like."
"You say that to all those at the Atkins trial, the jury, the spectators, the defence barrister the judge about the part you took in the trial and most of all, Karen Betts, your Governing Governor from next week. The thing is, I've changed but it's a pity you never will."
Grayling's intense scorn merged into the sort of lofty disdain that he could never manage when they were together. His spirits were curiously lightened by that last ugly scene as he walked away, leaving Di fuming in impotent rage.
As Grayling strode back into G Wing, Lauren, on lookout, gave a short whistle for the group of prisoners to crowd round him.
"What have we here?" he asked jovially, sensing the welcoming atmosphere.
"Only a little leaving card from all the girls. Ain't up to much what with all your other cards and presents," Julie Johnson said diffidently, sensing the contents of grayling's carrier bag.
Grayling looked at the slightly cartoon figure of him riding a bike and the caption,"To our Favourite Gov", all the care put into the colouring and all the little individual touches to the prisoner's inscriptions. He didn't know what to say for the first time in his life. The sheer unexpectedness of the event caused a huge welling up of choked emotion in him. At an earlier time, he might have got angry or hugely embarrassed and covered it up with some clever quip, designed to put as much distance between him and his feelings but not today.
"You shouldn't have," He said gently.
"We're sorry if we've embarrassed you," Julie Saunders answered softly.
With a huge outward breath, Grayling found the answer and a big smile spread across his face as he said,
"This card will stay in pride of place on my new desk in my new office. It will remind me of everything I've learned to hold dear. I can't believe you did this for me," He finished, his voice slightly breaking.
"You got Miss Betts her new job, man," Denny grinned, joining the conversation in her inimitable fashion.
"Hardly that," came the self deprecating reply. "But I might have helped a little."
The women smiled but said nothing as they suspected otherwise.
"You all really think a lot of her don't you," Grayling added in a low, reflective tone.
"Yeah, but don't think we don't know who's backing her up. We can tell the change round here."
"You're Yvonne's daughter all right," Grayling said softly in tones of real respect. The black penetrating eyes of the young woman looked him straight in the eye as Yvonne used to do. The way she spoke was a chip off the old block.
"Talking about my mum, I wanted to pass on a message that she's really sorry about the way she used to take the piss out of you. She understands now what it's all about."
Grayling nodded, not sure what he should say in answer. His eye glanced at the clock and saw Karen approaching the group and he realised he had to move on.
"I'll have to go now and see the prison officers on G wing. Karen's here to collect me."
He smiled, waved and headed in the direction of the PO's room.
"I suppose one good thing with Grayling going is that Madam will be out of the way. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't use the Old Boys network, serve the job up on a platter. Typical," Grumbled Bodybag, as she ignored in one breathtaking jump, the earlier years when the two of them had been daggers drawn and that Karen had been demoted for a while.
"Mr. Grayling, sir," She added a fraction too late to avoid his sharp ears hearing the remarks not intended for his ears. He smiled cynically with a meaning expression on his face.
"Don't get up. I've stood on ceremony the past few hours. Is there a spare chair for the two of us?"
Dominic moved out two chairs from the back, which were then arranged in a circle. It felt friendlier now that they were sitting comfortably.
"I wanted to make quite sure that I dropped in on G wing as it has been the making of me."
Some of the others blinked to hear this normally aloof man speak so frankly without any artifice. Selena, who was sitting the other side of Grayling from Karen, pulled out the large card and one wrapped up present and a second smaller thin square shaped present. He unwrapped the smaller of the presents and a smile lit his face to see that it was a CD of Haydn's 'Creation.' The second present was one, which he insisted he open when he got home.
He studied the card and smiled cynically to read Bodybag's effusive writing of 'good luck in your new job'. Which he read to mean 'good riddance.'
"If I hadn't been duty bound to say a few words beforehand, I certainly am now. I could write a book on how not to be Governing Governor but also, hopefully, I now know how it should be done. There are things I've done which, looking back, I wince in embarrassment but I shall now take what I've learnt and defend my views at Area unflinchingly, whether I am popular or not. This will be repayment to Karen of her commitment to the job and honesty when she disagreed with me. The job I am going to will enable me to indirectly enable Karen, along with all your sterling support, to be unfettered in being the Governing Governer that Larkhall needs."
There was a round of genuine applause at his short, sharp speech and the meeting broke into a general conversation and reminiscence about old times as these sort of meetings do. As time went on, a small part of him felt uncomfortable that the sands of time were running out for him as part of this informal gathering and that he had to move on. He finally got to his feet with the parting words.
"I've got to go, guys, but one last thought. I'm glad I never finally made this place 'no smoking' as I wanted to do."
"There would have been a riot on your hands and not from the prisoners. I'll see you to the gates," Karen said dryly.
It was not lost on Karen how sensitively he felt about leaving Larkhall. A whole swirl of thoughts revolved in his head that never again, would he see the people he had come to feel at home with, even the sort of crises which he knew made him feel rooted to something real. All the prisoners he knew would stay frozen in time from the day that he is last seeing them. He would go on in his life and they would go on with theirs. A real phase in his life was drawing to an end and he would be entering a new world he had longed to be part of.
"You'll miss this place, Neil, even that some crisis has blown up somewhere. You know, that some deranged prisoner has set off a bomb that has blown up the library."
Neil laughed. He knew that where he was going to work, even such a first class disaster would attract its nostalgic sheen.
"If you remember, I was flat out cold with a chunk of metal in my side and didn't wake up till I was in hospital. I have Cassie Tyler and Roisin Connor to thank for that. Even though I made a lousy speech, I did get them a free pardon, didn't I?"
"You did indeed, Neil," She shook his hand firmly.
"Well, as of now, it's your prison. Look after it."
For the last time, Grayling passed through the gates and took several backward glances at it. He glanced up at the prisoners block and could swear that he could see some of the smiling faces of the prisoners and the odd fluttering wave of fingertips. He blinked his eyes to see if it was real and was gratified that it was as real as anything he had now come to realise in his life. He waved back at them and Larkhall in general before turning away to drop in his keys for the very last time and signed his name on the clipboard. He suspected already that it would stay forever part of him, which was not the view he first took of the place as being just a rung on the ladder of his success.
"Well, that's the day over and it's the end of a week. I suppose that Madam will go power crazy and ask us to slave harder than ever with her do gooding ways. We had enough of that with Stewart. Remember that time when she wanted to empty the Muppet Wing and rehabilitate them. She forgot that if Dr. Nicholson put them there, they had a screw loose and needed to be locked up in a padded cell. That fire in the 3s soon proved who was right and who was wrong."
Bodybag shared a drink in the smoky atmosphere of the PO social Club with Di. It was their chance for Di to catch up with the latest gossip and Bodybag's pent up grumbles and grudges to be unloaded in one go. She had been deprived of that valuable person to grumble at since Jim passed away and Di was forced out of G Wing.
"Who's going to be made acting Principal Officer now, Sylv? With your years and seniority, you ought to get it as a matter of course.
"I don't know," She sighed. "All I know is that I'm not exactly favourite with Madam and I can't expect anything from her."
"It would have been the case in Stubberfield's day and before Stewart first came."
"Those were the days," Bodybag sighed. "We had a first rate governor till he retired. He had no truck on all that lily livered business of 'prisoners rights'. Cons were cons and that was the way he wanted it. You didn't get any backchat from them. We all stuck together so that we were supported in whatever happened. You were a prison officer and what you said mattered in any run in with any con. There was none of that 'education' which Wade got herself on through Stewart's do gooding ways.
"At least we've seen the back of her."
"True but as soon as one trouble maker leaves, there's ten more to take their place. It's the upbringing these days. No respect for discipline. It is let down in the home and then they run wild. By the time they come our way, there's not a cat in hell's chance of changing them. I found that out when I tried to be nice to them years ago. They kick you in the teeth."
"And now we've got Miss Betts to rule the roost. Heaven preserve us."
They each commiserated with the other for the way they felt mistreated. After a few drinks and comfortable seats, away from the demands of the prison wing, they both faced the journey home. As they came into the quadrangle, all was quiet and deserted.
"It's safe to go home. All the celebrations have ended. See you on Monday, Di."
"Same to you, Sylv," Di called out.
Di smirked secretly to herself as Bodybag walked off down the road. Fenner had been the only one person who knew her secret, and he was gone. At least her faked miscarriage would never see the light of day.
Part Seventy Four
On Easter Sunday, two days before Karen was to officially take over Larkhall, George cooked lunch for herself, Karen, Jo and John. George thought that she hadn't seen anywhere near enough of Jo recently, and she wanted an opportunity for John to get used to seeing her and Karen together. He hadn't mentioned it, but she knew that he was still very insecure about the situation, and she wanted to reassure him that Karen didn't pose any threat. John and Jo arrived at about twelve, Jo looking very relaxed and utterly sated. There was still a good hour until dinner would be ready, so John said that he would take Mimi for a walk. When he'd gone, George began peeling and chopping some carrots.
"Can I do anything?" Jo asked, following her into the kitchen.
"You could pour me a drink," George replied. When Jo put a glass of very cold, very dry Martini down next to the chopping board, George took a close look at her. "You look like you had a good night," She said with a smirk. Jo smiled broadly.
"Yes, you could say that. What about you?"
"No, not this week. I might not believe in God and the whole seven day burst of inspiration thing, but whoever made it possible for men to have sex every day of the year, definitely was a man."
"Yes," Jo said with a wry smile. "John has absolutely no idea how lucky he is."
"I asked all three of you over, because John needs to get used to seeing me with Karen."
"I don't know if it'll be that easy, George."
"No, neither do I, but I had to start somewhere. We both managed to get used to each other being with John, so John can come down off his high horse and do the same with Karen."
"You're really happy with her, aren't you?" Jo said wonderingly.
"Yes, and though it sounds terribly soppy and adolescent to say it, I haven't been this happy for a long time. I don't think I'll quite get it out of my head, that John agreed to this arrangement because it meant he could go on being with you. I suppose I sometimes wonder if he would have stayed with me, if there wasn't a far stronger motive."
"Don't think like that, George," Jo said, feeling a twinge of sadness that George still had so little confidence in how much John loved her. "John wouldn't give you up for the world."
"He might," George said philosophically. "If you ever asked him to. With Karen, I feel like I've got someone there who is with me because they really want to be, not because it keeps them on a leash and gives them a quiet life."
A while later, when John had returned, and the dinner was approaching that hectic stage of everything coming to boiling point at the same time, Karen arrived.
"Jo, could you let her in for me?" George called, as she opened the oven door to check on the beef. Karen was pleased to see Jo, not having had much contact with her since Lauren's trial.
"How are you?" She said, as Jo closed the door behind her.
"I'm fine. How's Lauren getting on?"
"Okay, trying to help me and Yvonne keep Denny off drugs, generally taking over where her mother left off, you name it." Then, they exchanged a knowing smile as they heard George's slightly harassed voice.
"John, will you please get your wayward animal out from under my feet?"
"Sounds like a recipe for disaster," Karen said, walking passed Jo towards the kitchen. After replacing the beef in the oven, George looked up to see Karen smiling at her.
"Honestly," She said, walking over to give Karen a hug. "Why does everything insist on being ready at the same time?" Karen laughed and then kissed her.
"I'd have come over earlier, but I overslept."
"That's what Sundays are supposed to be for," George said, kissing her back. "I've needed that all week," George added in a low, meaningful drawl, clearly wishing they could abandon dinner in favour of more inviting delicacies.
"Have you been drinking already?" Karen said, after kissing her some more. "You taste of Martini."
"That's what cooking Sunday dinner drives me to," George said, giving Karen one last, hard kiss before disentangling herself. When she looked up, George saw John, standing in the kitchen doorway, staring at them. He cleared his throat a little uncertainly.
"Mimi," He called, bringing her reluctantly out from under the kitchen table.
"John, do you feel like opening the wine?" George asked, trying to find a neutral topic.
"Do you want me to do anything?" Karen asked, also trying to get them back onto safer ground. John just managed to resist the urge to say that it looked like she'd done enough already, and deposited Mimi in the lounge, before returning to open the wine.
"Is John all right?" Jo asked Karen when she went to sit down on the sofa. "He was scowling."
"He's just had his first sight of me kissing one of the lights of his life, so I'm not surprised he was scowling." Karen said this in a slightly lowered voice so that it wouldn't reach either John or George, who were still in the kitchen.
"Ah," Jo said in understanding. "He'll get used to it, in time."
"He'll have to," Karen said succinctly, showing Jo that she definitely wouldn't stand for John giving George anything like the things he'd said to her.
"Have you seen much of Yvonne lately?" Jo asked Karen, when they were working their way through roast beef and all the trimmings.
"I saw her a couple of weeks ago," Karen replied, after taking a swig of wine. "She seemed a lot happier. I think she might at last have got herself someone new." John almost choked on a piece of roast potato. Karen surely didn't know about that glorious Sunday afternoon he'd spent with Yvonne, did she? "She looked like she'd definitely been seeing someone," Karen added, at last feeling that perhaps she could begin to let go of some of the guilt she had over finishing with Yvonne.
"Man or woman?" George asked, clearly intrigued.
"I haven't got a clue," Karen said with a smile. "Probably a man though." John was doing his utmost to keep a thoroughly blank, well and truly uninterested look on his face, but he wasn't entirely sure he was succeeding. He could remember her beautiful body, the way she'd clung to him as she came, the way she'd not wanted him to go, but had done her best to hide it. He knew it would never happen again, but that didn't stop him thinking about it. But he was suddenly brought back to the present, by Jo saying his name.
"John," Jo said, when he looked up at her. "You were miles away."
"I'm sorry," He said, feeling a complete and utter fool, and thinking that he would have to be more on his guard than this, if she wasn't going to find out what he'd done.
"Were you thinking about last night?" George asked, a wicked little smirk on her face, knowing this would embarrass him.
"No, as it happens, I wasn't," He said, predictably rising to the bait. Looking closely at John, Karen could see that he really had been somewhere else entirely. No, she thought in dawning comprehension, surely not. Yvonne's new lover, it couldn't be John, could it? Staring at him intently, her theory was confirmed when he refused to meet her gaze.
"I asked you," Jo repeated. "If you'd told George about the bar counsel's idea of team spirit."
"No, not yet," He replied, extremely relieved at the change of subject.
"What outlandish idea have they come up with now?" George asked, not altogether interested.
"Their idea of a team building exercise," John said slowly to grab her attention. "Endorsed I might add by your father, is for those of us who can, to put on a performance of 'The Creation.' They seem to have the thoroughly misguided notion, that it will persuade us to be nicer to each other."
"Some hope," George said on a laugh. "Trust daddy to get involved with something like that. He always did want to play at being Simon Rattle."
"What John hasn't told you," Jo said, a light dancing in her eyes. "Is that they want you to sing Eve." George, who had been about to take a sip of wine, put her glass back down on the table.
"No chance," She said without any hesitation whatsoever.
"Oh, come on," John cajoled. "You'd enjoy it."
"Enjoy making a complete fool of myself? I don't think so."
"I promised your father I'd try and persuade you," John persisted.
"John, you should know by now, that my father wanting me to do something, has never worked all on its own. The fact that daddy didn't ask me himself says it all. I'd have asked him over today, but he said he was going away this weekend. I know why now."
"Didn't you sing Eve in your last year at school?" John was determined to succeed.
"John, that was thirty years ago," George said in disgust. "You talk as if it was at least in the last decade." John knew exactly what she was doing, putting on her mask of indifference, and flatly refusing to consider it, because the idea terrified her. It was extremely rare that he heard George sing, far less now than in the days when they were married and she was happy. Singing was something George held very dear to her, something she regarded as utterly personal and entirely her own. John wasn't the only one aware of George's defense mechanism. Both Jo and Karen could see it a mile off. Somewhere deep inside her, George longed to do what John was asking of her, but the fear of failure in front of so many people was preventing her.
"I didn't know you could sing," Karen put in, trying to appeal to any ego George had left.
"I can't," George replied tartly. "At least not to the kind of standard something like 'The Creation' demands."
"Yes, you can," John insisted.
"I'm not doing it, John, and that's final. You'll be waving your bow, I suppose?"
"And Jo will," John said proudly, letting her digress until he could return to the attack.
"I didn't know you played," George said in surprise.
"The cello, for my sins," Jo said with a fond smile, not for the first time wondering just what she'd got herself into.
When they'd finished eating, and Jo and Karen had cleared away, Karen made some coffee and they sat down in the lounge. When the other three had lit cigarettes, John began again.
"You know," He said, almost as if by accident. "If you don't sing Eve, we're going to be lumbered with Vera Everard."
"You've got to be joking," George said in disgust. "Gilbert and Sullivan's Katisha perhaps," She said, referring to the very unattractive octogenarian, who's lust for a man in his twenties led her to make a very public fool of herself. "But Eve?" Seeing far too many similarities in the comparison, John laughed.
"She's not that bad," He said with a grin.
"Oh, John, she's vile," George said with utter sincerity. "She makes Myra Hindley look attractive and motherly." Jo laughed.
"Actually, that's not a bad description," She said, smiling broadly.
"Who's playing Adam?" George asked, not yet revealing that she was considering saying yes.
"We don't know as yet, though one contender is Monty Everard."
"Play Eve opposite Legover's Adam, no way. He'd be forever trying to rip off my fig leaf."
"Okay, so what if we cast Monty as the tenor."
"Actually, that would suit him," George said with a smile. "He'd have to be in a big, self-righteous sulk at the end. He'd love that."
"Would it help if I said please?" John asked, now almost desperate because he was running out of persuasory tactics.
"Not on this occasion, no," George responded with a smirk. "What do you think about this?" She asked Karen, who so far hadn't offered up an opinion.
"I'm not taking anyone's side," Karen replied, eager to avoid any arguments. "But I know that if you really want to do it, you will." George was incredibly touched by Karen's words of encouragement.
"George," Jo said, suddenly having a burst of inspiration. "Why not try something from the score, something not especially taxing, and see what you think after that."
"I don't know if I've still got a copy of the score," George said contemplatively, forced to admit that Jo had her over a barrel.
"Yes, you have," John said in triumph. "I looked earlier."
"Bloody typical," George replied in irritation. "You'd better go and get it then, if you're so sure you know where it is." Taking her at her word, John got up, and returned in an infuriatingly short time, having seen it earlier on the top shelf in George's office across the hall.
"You had this all planned out, didn't you?" George said, as he handed her the slightly battered score.
"Of course," He said matter-of-factly.
As George began to flip through the score, the margins full of her eighteen-year-old handwriting, the other three watched her. John knew George well enough, to be well aware that she was gradually cracking. All it would take was a little more persuasion and a shove in the right direction, and she would submit as easily as she did to his sexual advances.
"Do you have any idea what you're asking of me?" She said, looking up from the page. "The very first soprano solo goes up to top C. That's sixth octave C, John. There's no way I can get up there."
"Oh, I don't know," He said with a wink. "I'm sure you've hit that pitch at the point of orgasm before now." Karen laughed, Jo smiled, and George blushed. Thumbing the pages until she came across the second soprano solo, George looked suddenly wistful. She could vividly remember her eighteen-year-old self, playing Eve in a performance of 'The Creation' at the end of the spring term. She could remember her father, sat in the audience, taking in every word she sang. John came to look over her shoulder.
"Why not try that one?" He said, seeing what she was looking at.
"No," George replied, dragged back to the present. "'With Verdure Clad', was always my favourite. I'm not about to ruin it just to please you." John was a little disconcerted, to see a broad, thoroughly evil grin spreading over her face as she continued to flick through the pages. When she began to laugh quietly, he knew he was in for it.
"I know," She said, almost gleefully. "If you really want to see if I'm capable, then I'll try one of the love duets."
"But..." He said, and then it dawned on him. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yes," George insisted. "You can sing Adam for me. After all, if you want a thing badly enough, you'll do anything to get it, won't you?" Karen and Jo were quietly impressed at George's methods.
"Play the violin I might," John insisted. "But sing, I definitely don't."
"Have you ever heard him sing?" George asked Jo.
"Only in the shower, when he thinks I can't hear him," Jo said with a smile.
"George, you can't be serious," He protested, seeing his dignity disappearing into thin air.
"You will, if you want me to even consider playing Eve," She said firmly, getting up and moving over to the piano. "Besides, this one has an accompaniment I can probably sight read."
"Are you really sure you want me to do this?" He asked, admiring her tactics but desperate to maintain his dignity all the same.
"Yes," George said firmly. "I'm not going down on my own, John."
"I've never heard you complain," Karen said quietly, provoking a laugh from George and a smile from Jo.
"I didn't need to know that," John said disgustedly, now unable to get the vision of George giving Karen oral out of his head.
As George began playing the very slow waltz-like accompaniment of the first love duet, John moved to stand behind her, so that he could read the music. Vowing not to make a fool of himself, he examined the words and the notes he had to sing, finding to his surprise that it wasn't too difficult. When George opened her mouth, the voice that emerged, wasn't one she'd heard in far too long. It was pure, a little feeble until she found her nerve, and when she eventually began to relax, with a touch of vibrato. John's voice, though a little uncertain to start with, surprised both Karen and Jo. They could tell he was a little rusty, but as his confidence grew, so did the sound that emanated from him.
"By thee with bliss, oh bounteous Lord,
Both heaven and Earth are stored."
When George heard John begin to falter, she added his bass line into the accompaniment she was playing, giving him a much-needed helping hand. As they moved into the words,
"This world, so great, so wonderful," The triplet quavers made the music softly swing, giving the impression of a boat, gently drifting on a tide of love coming from these very first two of God's people. George found that she was able to rise to the G and eventually the A with almost no difficulty at all. The words she was singing seemed to give her courage, her voice pouring out of her, as the sun out of the departing storm clouds onto a rain drenched lawn. George's emerging confidence seemed to give John the extra encouragement he needed, both of them soaring up and down their respective registers, for the moment united in their single endeavour. Both Jo and Karen immediately felt the feeling of togetherness that seemed to surround John and George. Their eyes met, exchanging a brief look of combined pride and wonder, but with a tinge of hurt lurking somewhere in the background. Never had John and George looked so complete, so in their own league of united strength, in so little need of another's interruption. But this moment was only a fleeting one, both Karen and Jo feeling a certain awe at what John and George were doing.
When the piece came to an end, George realised that her eyes were full of tears. But she couldn't help it. A part of her, which she'd thought she'd buried a long time ago, had just resurrected itself, emerging to shine out of her again. She could do this, she really could do this. She could make her father, and John, proud of her again. All three of them could see her emotional reaction to the re-discovery of what had once been one of her most prized assets.
"I never knew you had it in you," Jo said, her own voice a little unsteady.
"Neither did I, until now," George replied, slightly ashamed of her tears. "I knew I could do it once, a very long time ago, but I thought it would have gone, what with all the smoking and shouting I've done over the years." John laughed softly.
"Now do you see why you have to do it?" He said, determined to get a final yes out of her.
"Okay," She said. "But if I screw up, don't say I didn't warn you."
"You're not going to screw up," John said, putting his arms round her as she stood up from the piano. "On the contrary, I think you're going to put all the other singers to shame." It felt right to kiss him, as if to affirm the words they'd just bestowed on each other. George knew she shouldn't, not with both Jo and Karen watching her, but she couldn't help it. What she'd just done with John had touched her soul, made her see just how much she still loved him. To her astonishment, Jo found that seeing George and John kissing each other didn't bother her. They looked beautiful, utterly serene, and not in the least bit wrong.
When they parted, John went to make them all some more coffee, needing a moment to emotionally regroup. Doing something so personal with George had touched him too. He had helped her to release the voice she had forgotten she had, and in doing so had maybe brought her even closer to him.
"That was beautiful," Karen said, taking and squeezing George's hand.
"I wish you could be a part of this," George said, not knowing how to respond to the compliment.
"What do you play?" Jo asked.
"The viola, when I've got the time."
"Do you think there might be a spare viola part going?" Jo asked, as John came into the lounge with their coffee.
"I'm not sure," He said, putting the mugs down on the coffee table. "I don't see why not. If it'll make your viola come out from behind your bedroom door for once in it's life, I'll see what I can do." There was a long, awful pause. Just how was John going to explain, that he knew that this was where Karen kept her viola? Karen gave him a look of pure irritated anger. Couldn't he control his tongue, just for one afternoon? "Don't look at me like that," He said, seeing Karen's glare. "Jo and George both know I once slept with you, so why hide it?"
"A little word called diplomacy, John," Karen said carefully.
"As John says," Jo said to Karen, trying to reassure her. "It's not something I didn't know already." To give her some thinking time, George lit a cigarette, not expecting this to break the ice in the way it did.
"You can give those up for a start," John said, removing the barely smoked cigarette from her hand and stubbing it out in the ashtray.
"Cut down, perhaps, but you will not find me giving up altogether. My secretary would resign." Jo laughed, thinking that even with George cutting down on her nicotine habit, her secretary would have her work cut out as it was.
"Why don't you cut down with me?" George said pleadingly to Karen.
"You want me to get through my first week as Governing Governor, without the highest level of nicotine I feel necessary to keep me sane? You must be joking."
They managed to move away from the subject of John and Karen's one night together, but Karen couldn't entirely relax. When she and Jo eventually left, as John was staying, Karen offered Jo a lift home, they having come in John's car. They'd been driving for a few minutes, when Karen decided that she couldn't leave things as they were any longer.
"I'm sorry, Jo, about John." Jo had wondered how long it would take Karen to do this. She'd felt her guilt and discomfort all afternoon.
"There's really no need to be," Jo said quietly. "I know it happened a long time ago, and I know it happened before John agreed to what he now has with me and George. You forget, that John has been doing this to me for more years than I care to remember."
"That doesn't mean I should have done it," Karen said regretfully.
"It's funny," Jo continued. "But when Fenner's body was found, George accused John of believing you because he wanted to sleep with you." Karen laughed.
"I don't think even John would go that far."
"No, he wouldn't," Jo said seriously. "But you mustn't underestimate his determination to succeed, both in court and out of it. If he wants a woman, there isn't much he won't do to get her."
"I didn't mean to hurt you, Jo."
"I know you didn't. If it happened when I think it did, I suspect you slept with John for very similar reasons as I began sleeping with him all those years ago, to get away from what was happening at the time. There isn't anything wrong in that. I used to think there was, but I've lived long enough to know it doesn't always work like that." After a few moments of companionable silence, Jo said, "Does it sound selfish of me to say that I felt left out when they were singing together?"
"You felt it too?" Karen asked, briefly taking her eyes off the road to glance at Jo.
"Yes, and I know it sounds silly, but I suppose it hammered home to me that John was once married to George, lived day in and day out with her, knew every little detail about her."
"They could never again live together, you know that."
"Yes, I do, I just wish I could be more certain of it."
When Jo and Karen had gone, George made them some more coffee, and they went back into the lounge. They moved by mutual consensus towards the enormous armchair where Jo had been sitting, John sitting down and pulling George down onto his lap. He loved having her in his arms, her small frame fitting easily against his chest. George always felt safe when she was like this with John; the position making her feel that little bit more protected.
"I think we need to talk," George said slowly, finally biting the bullet.
"What about?" He asked carefully.
"About Karen, and about why you looked so frightfully insulted when you saw me kissing her."
"I didn't," He protested, but knowing he had.
"Darling, I'm not blind," George said gently.
"I just didn't expect it, that's all. Being told a thing, and actually witnessing it, are really quite different."
"I know, but it is something you're going to have to get used to. I'm not going to apologise for who I am, or refuse to acknowledge something that's part of me, just because it makes you feel uncomfortable."
"I don't expect you to," He insisted, hating the fact that she could see right through him.
"You might not expect me to," George replied seriously. "But I know that part of you would like me to. It would be far easier for you if you didn't have to acknowledge that I find women sexually attractive as well as men. You think it gives you a type of rival that you can't compete with."
"I suppose that's what it feels like sometimes," He admitted.
"And do you really think I don't occasionally see Jo as something I can't compete with?"
"Why should you?"
"For any number of reasons, John, most of which I'm not going to bother to go into now. The point is, I got used to Jo's presence in your life, and Jo got used to mine. You don't know it, but it was an uphill struggle for both of us. You will begin to accept that Karen is part of my life, because that is the only way we can all be happy. I do love you, and I will always love you. Nothing will ever change that. But with me, for now, comes Karen as well. She's part of the package, and that's how it's going to stay."
Part Seventy Five
On the Tuesday morning, Karen drove into work with a feeling of slight nervousness. This was it. From today, she was entirely responsible for the running of this prison. Driving into the parking space that bore the nameplate of Governing Governor gave her a feeling of importance. She just prayed that she could put all those high-minded principles she'd come out with at her interview into practice. She had to consciously alter her step, and walk up to her new office, rather than to the one she'd had as Governor of G wing. The one thought that she didn't find all that attractive, was the prospect of moving all her accumulated clutter from one office to the next. But when she walked through the door of Neil's, no her, office, she had a pleasant surprise. The room was absolutely spotless, the desk, the wooden bookcase and any other polishable surface had been well and truly denuded of dust, the carpet had been thoroughly hoovered, and all cobwebs removed from the ceiling. In one corner, there were four cardboard boxes, clearly containing all of her belongings from her old office, her books, her stationery, her own personal copies of various items of computer software, and even her bottle of whisky and accompanying glasses. Finding a note on the desk, Karen read Dominic's untidy scrawl.
"I was bored yesterday, so I got the Julies to give your office a good clean, and got Denny and Lauren to help me move your stuff. It's all there, all accounted for, even your bottle of Scotch."
Smiling at Dominic's innovative way to pass the time, Karen was touched to see that someone had unearthed her picture of Ross, and placed it in pride of place on her desk, next to an ashtray and her clean favourite coffee mug. Also on the desk, was a little plant in a pot, accompanied by a note, in Denny's even untidier scribble.
"Miss, just make sure you come back and see us, from Denny and Lauren."
Sitting down and lighting a cigarette, Karen contemplated the computer in front of her. Dominic and the others might have been a great help in moving all her possessions, but nobody but her could configure the computer to accept her e-mails. Having got this slightly laborious task out of the way, she looked up at the clock, to see that the time was approaching for her to hold her first meeting in her new position. She'd notified every member of staff to, if possible, be in the one conference room Larkhall had, at nine on the Tuesday morning. Taking a quick glance at Ross's picture to give herself courage, she made her way to greet her new ranks of employees.
As she approached the conference room, she could hear the rumble of voices. There would probably be some, like Di and Sylvia, who had only turned up to watch her make a fool of herself. Well, she was about to prove that she was up to this job, and that she was going to do this job, no matter how much the likes of Di and Sylvia didn't like it. Holding her head high, she opened the door, and walked up to the top of the long table. She could see them all, the ones who'd only turned up to gawp, the ones who had an open mind as to her future success, and the few friends she had in this place, all smiling at her and clearly wishing her well. As she began talking, her confidence steadily grew. She gave them her mission, spelt out to them exactly what she had planned for the future of Larkhall, surprising some of them with her wish for fair treatment of officers as well as inmates.
"That'll be the day," Sylvia grumbled to Di.
"I don't go back on my promises, Sylvia," Karen said, humiliating Sylvia and making everyone else laugh. Then she carried on. "I meant what I said to Sylvia," She said to the room at large. "Unless there is a satisfactory reason, or unless area pulls the plug on the finance, I don't back out of my agreements. It isn't fair on any one of you, and it gives the inmates false hope, which we all know is a recipe for disaster. I am your ultimate point of contact, and the buffer between the initiatives coming from area, and helping all of you to put them into practice. I am thoroughly open minded with regards to the membership of the Prison Officers' Association, but I would like to think that any minor grievances could be sorted out between us, without their interference. I am always open to suggestion and new ideas, and I will listen to anyone's point of view, as long as it isn't driven by internal politics or backstabbing. I don't like liars, and I don't like skivers. Those of you who have worked with me on G wing for the last few years will already be aware of this. Please don't think that just because I am new to the job, I can be sidelined and ignored, leaving you free to pursue your own agenda. You will find me to be a very 'hands on' Governor, and will probably find yourselves heartily wishing I would get out from under your feet from time to time. I don't pretend to be perfect, and I have no doubt that I will get things wrong, and that I will not always make the right decisions. All I ask is your commitment, your co-operation, and your continuing devotion to duty. Thank you."
As the meeting began to break up, Karen caught Gina's eye.
"Have you got a moment?" She said, working her way through the mass of people towards G wing's new acting Governor.
"All the time you want," Gina said, thinking that this might be the first time in her life she'd come to work in a suit and not her uniform.
"That won't last," Karen said knowingly, leading the way up to her new office, pausing to thank Dominic for his efforts the day before. Asking her secretary to make them some coffee, Karen took a seat behind her new, far larger desk.
"How does it feel?" Gina asked, lighting a cigarette.
"It hasn't quite sunk in yet, and I could ask you the same."
"Well, apart from Sylvia looking astonished to see that I could actually come up with anything resembling a formal suit, yeah, okay so far. I just hope I'm up to the job."
"You and me both," Karen said with a smile. "But don't let Sylvia get under your skin. The only way to deal with her is to ignore all the little jibes. As infuriating as it is, it's just her way of getting through the working day. She likes to have someone to bitch about, and now that I'm not directly in her field of accusation, you'll probably come in for the brunt of it. However, don't fall into the trap of coming down heavy on her, just because you can. You will have the urge to reprimand her constantly at first, but don't give into it." Gina took a grateful drag.
"She's going to make my life hell, isn't she?" Gina said ruefully.
"For the first few weeks, yes," Karen told her. "But you'll handle her. Gina, I'm not in the least worried about how you're going to handle the people side of being a Wing Governor, because I've seen you dealing with officers and inmates for quite a while now. Your first couple of weeks will be the worst, until you get used to what's being expected of you. I also know that if you do have any problems, you'll bring them to me. That's what I'm here for. What you are also going to have to get your head round, is the administrational side of managing a wing. That means getting used to dealing with budgets, allocations, adjudications, and the general day to day management of the officers and inmates under your jurisdiction." Gina took a sip of her coffee, briefly wondering just how successful she was going to be at all this.
"How long do you think it will take to find a replacement?" Karen smiled.
"I'm not trying to put you off," She said reassuringly. "I'm just trying to make you fully aware of what's in store for you. I know you're perfectly capable of it, or I wouldn't have appointed you acting Wing Governor in the first place. The position has been advertised, and will continue to be advertised until we find someone. If, after a few months of doing this, we still haven't found anyone, feel free to apply for the job yourself." Gina looked at Karen, feeling flattered at Karen's confidence in her.
"Look," She said carefully. "I might have jumped at the opportunity to see what I'm made of, but I know it's not something I'd want to do on a permanent basis. I like being on the ground too much, actually getting involved with the women, rather than managing their lives from a distance."
"Say something like that at any interview, and you'd get the job straight away," Karen said with a smile.
"Now, I don't need to go through G wing's current inmates with you, because you're perfectly well aware of the ones to watch, and the ones who can, to some extent, be left to get on with it. Whilst you're finding your feet, I would far rather you came to me with too many queries, than not inform me about an emerging crisis. I will be keeping an extra eye on G wing, partly because your position is hopefully temporary, and because I suspect I'm not going to find it that easy to let go." Gina grinned.
"Don't feel like you're treading on any toes," She said fondly. "I'm going to need all the help I can get with this job, so feel free to interfere whenever you like. Besides, you wouldn't want to let Sylvia get too comfortable, now would you?" Karen laughed.
"She doesn't know what's coming to her, does she?"
"No, she doesn't," Gina said firmly. "I'm well aware that I can't just sack her, or demote her without probable cause, but it won't stop me from showing her just who is boss, if only for the moment." As Gina left her office a little while later, Karen grinned to herself. Sylvia was going to have her work cut out, if she didn't accept the situation fairly quickly and learn to get on with it.
Part Seventy Six
Grayling stepped into another world, into the imposing foyer of Cleland House. It was the antiseptic calm and utter quiet of it that hit him. An automatic pilot still running half expected the chorus of voices that he was used to and the still frozen blasts of air and cold feel of metal barred gates. Here, the efficient heating system of the old building wrapped him up in a womb-like warmth, leaving the cold outside. A row of rich red mahogany benches and high backs ran along the wall and in the corner the foliage of a large potted plant added a civilised touch. Such indeed was the symbolic core of the headquarters and the engine room of the prison service. Grayling's attention was fixed upon the man at the wide waist height reception desk, which ran the length of an angle of the room. The man had the untroubled air of an office where the greatest danger to life and limb was if the cleaners hadn't done their job properly. With a sudden shock, Grayling realised that the receptionist wasn't Ken.
"You go to the fourth floor, turn right along the corridor, go through two sets of double doors and your office is the first one you come to. The box with all your personal effects is on your desk."
It seemed that he was symbolically re-enacting his spiralling career climb to the dizzy heights that he had now ascended to when he had got to the fourth floor. He trod sedately along the grey carpets along the tastefully off white painted corridors while neon strip lights illuminated his journey. Not a soul stirred and this was a million miles away from the prison officers passing along the drearily painted bare brick narrow twisting tunnels that he was used to.
He found his large office in a style that made his old office seem like a shabby imitation of it. He had done his best to make the creature comforts of his old position to personalise the place. Here, he was starting off with a blank sheet against the sort of furniture that symbolised what the workshops had fitted out a Victorian era of empire builders with. This wasn't elitism in its modern, aggressively plastic form but the continuum of rule despite the necessary grafting on of modern methods. As such a modern concession, he took in the flat wide screen computer at the corner of his desk and studied it approvingly.
Right in the middle of everything was the crate of his personal belongings which he had last seen at Larkhall, his link to his past and his own identity. His first job was to make himself at home. He sorted his stuff out into his desk drawers and, in pride of place, he put the card that the Julies had made. This was the symbol of his own continuity of his own past and a warning 'lest he forget.' He had made his promises and was determined to make good on it for the long term. He knew, well enough, that he would be the subject of much secret evaluation, how he 'fitted in' to the new culture and resolved that he would need to get the measure of the new relationships, not least his new boss, Alison Warner.
As he sat back in his comfortable chair, he noticed an empty secretary's desk and that he had an utterly cuckooned feeling. This place spoke of an utterly relaxed mode of operations in this atmosphere of mild spring. His old office was either hot and sweltering in summer or cold and draughty in winter. The utter silence of it was deafening compared to the background shouts of the women on the wings, the metallic clang of metal doors, the thud of cell doors closed. It had all merged into a background chorus while life went on all around him. Right now, he felt for a moment that he had bunked off school and had absconded in a building that he didn't belong to and someone would find him out. Yet his increased salary would be paid into the bank account from the Prison Service Pay Section indicating this new location.
"Mr. Grayling, sir," Called out the cheerful fresh voiced woman who interrupted his musings. "I'm your secretary. I've kept out of your way, and I've been working elsewhere till you've settled yourself in. I thought you wouldn't want anyone poking their nose in till you were done."
"Since you know my name already, perhaps I ought to know yours."
"Tricia. Tricia Edwards. I was wondering if you wanted a cup of tea. I can brew up if you want."
"Milk with no sugar. And thanks," Grayling smiled briefly.
Tricia's glance had taken in the layout of his desk straight away. There was no framed happy snapshot of wife and/or children that was common for this type of boss. The look of it was very neat, everything laid out very precisely in its geometrical and fastidious precision. It was bare, uncluttered and innexpressive except the oddly crudely coloured card in the middle of his desk. It was inscribed "To our Favourite Gov" and was clearly a leaving card from his last job. It was odd enough for a card to be on public display. Such cards were normally kept in the depths of some bureau to be studied in private moments of contemplation. They were not to be put on public display and were certainly not these strangely styled offerings. It spoke of the one inconsistency and was enigmatic.
Otherwise, he was neater, more fastidious than other men of his age, no wedding ring but pleasant and courteous enough.
"You look as if you're at your first day at school, if I might say so."
It was a bold move that might have spelt disaster for her if she had spoken that way to her average sort of boss. If there were anything in it, that type of inexpressive man would have translated it into furious anger at her. There had been something a little lost looking in Grayling's body language that prompted her to be more forward than she normally was on first acquaintance.
"I feel like a new boy on my first day, Trisha."
Grayling's face and whole body movement relaxed into a broad grin as he frankly admitted his unease. This woman was neatly dressed and immaculately groomed in the approved look that the head office required, even a typist required. She had that particular look but her manner reminded him of, dare he say it, the two Julies? He found that as they started to chat away to each other, he became more animated in his manner and opened up.
"It's nice having a real gent as a boss. My last one expected me to rush around in my lunch break to buy all his family's birthday cards so that he could pretend to his wife how thoughtful he was."
"That won't be much of a problem as I haven't got much family. I could do with you watering the plants from time to time."
"Oh that's all right. I like that sort of thing."
Unconsciously, he was making his first presence felt quietly and unassumingly, learning his way around gradually, the utter opposite from the way he zoomed into Larkhall on his bike and carrying a sackful of grandiose plans. Just then, the phone rang.
"Grayling," He spoke automatically.
"Is that Performance Development?"
"You're through to the Governing Governor at ."
"Sorry, I've dialled the wrong number." The toneless voice at the other end paralleled Grayling's conversation but did not meet it, having realised his mistake.
"Well, it comes of being new around here. I'll learn."
Trisha grinned at Grayling's wry smile and shrug of his shoulders as he nonchalantly passed off his mistake.
"I suppose I need to get password access to my computer and browse round what is there. Who normally sorts out that sort of thing?"
"I'll phone ."
The second jangled phone ring cut Trisha short and this time, it was Alison Warner's voice.
"Ah Neil. I trust you have settled in comfortably."
Her first words triggered Grayling's sense of caution. He would have to manage the first delicate power play to decide the balance of relations. He had run two prisons and had enjoyed years of relative autonomy from Area, buttressed by the fact of the miles of physical space between Larkhall and Cleland House. Now he was to become that more accessible. He had to learn to box clever, especially in this temporary period when he was new to the job.
"Couldn't be better, Mrs. Warner," Grayling responded cheerily. "All I have to do is to get my access set up to my computer."
"You can leave that till later as I thought it would be a good idea to have an introductory chat over coffee. It's by way of getting to know each other better."
Grayling wasn't fooled by the over elaborate casual tone in her voice. In the past, he had pulled this sort of stroke on staff working for him.
Mrs. Warner put her cup of espresso coffee down after the preliminaries which defined more exactly where he fitted in and the day to day processes of his work and the relevant people he would need to be aware of.
"Well, I hope I've made it clearer exactly what your duties are and where you fit into the scheme of things, Neil. I would be interested in your views of how you see yourself in your new role, bearing in mind the delicacy of balancing between the dictates of the Home Office on the one hand and your responsibility for a group of prisons on the other."
Neil sipped slowly from the cup of coffee in order to finalise his thoughts.
"My approach is to learn the job from the bottom up, use what I have learned as Governing Governor and integrate it in the wider picture in which we operate. I would never want to gloss over the reality of those who do the day to day jobs in the prisons. After that, I constantly re-evaluate my perspective and that I pay particular attention to the lines of communication, that whoever I deal with understands where I am coming from and vice versa."
"Your views are surprisingly unadventurous and pedestrian for your proven reputation. I quote from a speech at a conference where you delivered a paper on the part privatisation model and I quote. 'My vision of the future of the prison service as one of part privatisation. It marries up what is best preserved of the traditions of the public service, its maintenance of standards, its conscientious spirit, with the thrusting dynamic entrepreneurial , go getting spirit of private initiative which will dare conceive of new ideas."
Grayling was taken aback by the smug, triumphant tone in Alison Warner's voice which tried to trap him in the prison of his past. Did he really come out with that load of bollocks and do it, speaking into a microphone and standing before a crowded conference hall?
"My direct experience of Lynfords Security showed that the reality was less satisfying than the promise. It is a firm you may remember," Grayling started, speaking slowly, watching Mrs. Warner wince at the name that was best forgotten. "The trouble with many marriages these days is that they end up in too many broken homes for children to grow up in, which I did."
She reacted sharply to this heresy in slightly hostile tones. It felt right to start drawing the line with him and get things clear right from the start. However, her big weakness was in working from Grayling's reputation and not from the reality of him.
"It's ironical that your speech went down well here and in other quarters. The sort of sentiments which you seem to disown and turn your back on. You ought to sound out the views of your colleagues before you make free with your present sentiments and the rather blunt way you express them. You don't want to get a reputation as a maverick, as a bad team player if you know what's good for you."
"Times change people, me included. I have learned to become careful in being over eager in building castles upon sand foundations. My approach is entirely pragmatic, Mrs. Warner. I have no fixed political ideology. I am simply concerned to find out what works and what doesn't. I'm quite sure that you value success as much as I do."
Grayling's silky tones and hint of a smile disarmed Mrs. Warner's frosty and vaguely threatening manner. It attracted her with the one sure argument, that most addictive temptation of the desire for success. However, she could not let matters go without one last parting shot.
"It was you that sold area on the idea of Karen Betts as the new Governing Governor of Larkhall. It has had a chequered past, hasn't it. Of course you know that if its reputation doesn't change, eyes will turn to you as the person who recommended her for the job, won't they?"
"Time will tell either way, Mrs. Warner," Came Grayling's unconcerned reply before he made his unhurried exit.
Neil was finally enabled to unlock the secrets of the computer which were stored within it. He navigated his way round the structure of the Word directories and the chain of sub sub directories and the E mail database and felt easier in his mind.
"Mr. Grayling, you have a visitor," Trisha's voice disturbed his thoughts. "Sir Ian Rochester."
"Show him in."
Inwardly, Grayling was startled. It was the first time he had spoken up close to the man for a long time. Their normal occasions for communications was the long distance phone call. Both of their careers needed far reaching contacts that would be useful. He remembered with a twinge of bad conscience the time when his desires for Jim Fenner made him prepared to sacrifice Karen to the demands of expediency. He didn't like to think back to that part of his life. Otherwise, he and Laurence James were two brooding background physical presences at the back of the visitor's gallery at the time of the Atkins trial. He gestured him to comfortable seats and Sir Ian failed to spot the card on his office desk.
"Sir Ian, it's a long time since we have properly talked. What brings you here?"
Sir Ian smiled affably. He wasn't sure how to play his cards in this delicate manoeuvre. It wasn't every day that his skills of persuasion were called upon to recruit members for an amateur orchestra. Nevertheless he supposed that his normal gambits would be enough to secure compliance so long as the man was as good a singer as the grapevine told him that he was.
"I thought I'd look you up while I'm on my rounds. I was expecting to have to go through the bolts and bars at Larkhall till I was told you'd got your promotion. It must be quite a change after years at the coal face as it were."
"Early days, Ian. I'm sure that there isn't anything that I won't get to grips with sooner or later."
Sir Ian smiled faintly. A Neil Grayling harassed and run off his feet was hardly likely to devote slabs of leisure time playing amateur classical singer on the side.
"I am involved in an interesting project that involves the united forces of the London based legal profession. It isn't by any means exclusive and I heard on the grapevine that this might be your cup of tea."
"And what project is that?"
Sir Ian took a deep breath and came to the point.
"We are getting together an amateur company to put on a performance of Haydn's "Creation."
"That's quite a substantial enterprise, but well worth it if it is performed well," Grayling's considered judgement delivered his verdict as his mind's ear conjured up the piece. "You need to be sure that you have the people of the right calibre and the will to work together."
"That's the point. A surprisingly large number of volunteers have come forward according to the latest that Joe Channing told me in passing. We understand that you might be interested in taking the part of Adam."
A huge triumphant feeling of joy ran through his veins as if the Last Night of the Proms had invaded his spirits. If he had free rein to choose the ideal part, both the rich textures of the music and that particular part made it his first choice.
He had always known that a side of him felt born to be up there on the stage and was not afraid of the limelight. He had heard one of the Costa Cons describe him as a "media tart"
When he wasn't supposed to be hearing. Secretly, he wouldn't disagree with this so long as his desire to hog centre stage of any photograph was as much as that side of him got a look in and that this was a surface symptom. Far deeper in him ran that deep love of classical music, which he had felt, forced to conceal deep inside him. Football and page 3 pinups formed the staple diet of the traditional PO Room and so this desire, along with the sexual side of him was suppressed and remained private. However his new job panned out, his tidy mind resolved to parcel out spare time spent in rehearsals, both personal and in a group. That decision was made in a flash.
"I would be proud and honoured to take up your offer, Ian, and play my part in the company."
"If you had any thoughts of eventually working for us in the Lord Chancellor's Department, a sideways move across departments could be easily arranged. You are at the level where your management skills are easily transferable."
Grayling hardly heard him. In the grand scheme of things, looking backward through time, this was remarkable of Grayling, the man whose hearing had always been finely attuned and responsive to whoever could advance his career.
"I'll bear what you say in mind, Ian. This is something for us to get our teeth into."
"I ought to warn you that this company won't be immune to the sorts of internal politics and rivalries that any organisation is subject to."
Sir Ian felt duty bound to point out the pitfalls and warn this man whose enthusiasm was in danger of running away with him.
"After a working life in the prison service?" Grayling tactfully reminded him. "Don't worry, I'm used to finding my feet right now and I'll pull my weight. I give you my word on this."
Grayling's assurance appeared lightly offered, almost throwaway in the eyes of the man who used to inhabit his skin a number of years ago. It was all the more real, despite that.
Part Seventy Seven
On the Wednesday evening, Karen was relaxing in her flat, a large scotch and her cigarettes to hand, and with some soft music playing on the stereo. The last two days had been a whirlwind, spent trying to get to grips with the complex juggling of ten different accommodation wings, plus the hospital wing, education wing and administrative offices. She'd visited them all, introduced herself to everyone, and now couldn't remember half their names. Some of them she'd obviously known before, but not all. She decided that it was really quite nice to have an evening to herself, not to have to make polite conversation, something she felt she'd been doing almost constantly since yesterday morning. Taking a swig of the scotch, she rolled the liquid round her mouth, luxuriating in its fiery tingle as it slid down her throat. She hadn't come home till after eight last night, though that wasn't really anything new, and had slumped on the sofa with no energy for anything. Fully intent on doing the same tonight, even though she'd come home earlier, Karen briefly wondered if this was what her life would consist of from now on. She had to fit George in somewhere, though for the life of her she couldn't quite see where at the moment.
She was just reaching for a cigarette, when the phone rang.
"How's your bowing hand these days?" Were John's opening words to her.
"None of your business," Karen replied with a laugh. "And that has to be the worst chat up line I've ever heard."
"Are you busy?" John asked, getting to the point.
"Yes, working my way through an enormous scotch and doing absolutely nothing. Why?"
"Do you feel like coming over?"
"What's it worth?"
"Bring your viola with you, and it might get you a part in 'The Creation.'"
"Well, I'm not entirely sure I'd have the time for it anyway. Quite how Simon managed to fit in so many rounds of golf is beyond me."
"Come on, you know you want to," He cajoled. "Besides, we need an experienced violist."
"Flattery will get you nowhere this time, John, I'm exhausted."
"You're not going to do a George on me, are you?"
"Meaning, I do hope you're not going to back out on me, just because you don't think you're up to it."
"You bastard," Karen said slowly, knowing she couldn't wriggle out of this, and knowing that he knew it too.
"I will excuse your pitiful vocabulary on this occasion," He said, his grin audible because he'd got what he wanted.
"Where are you?" Karen asked in resigned acceptance.
"At the digs. Oh, and you'll get to meet George's father."
"John, are you seriously telling me that you want me to do an utterly impromptu audition, when I haven't practiced in weeks?"
"More like months," John admonished. "Yes, I am."
"Give me half an hour to make myself vaguely presentable."
"I'll have a scotch on ice for you."
"I'll bloody need it." Slamming down the phone, and kissing a wistful goodbye to her restful evening, Karen splashed her face with cold water, redid her make up and picked up her viola.
She had been to see John at the digs before, but this time was different. If she did take a part in 'The Creation', then she would be really entering into his world, into George's world. Still, if she did, at least she now had a job that could begin to match the level of a barrister. She didn't just work for the prison service any more, she was a prison governor, and she knew this gave her the sort of professional standing that would demand an approximate, if not similar, level of respect. Locking the car, she hoisted her viola under her arm, and followed the doorman up to John's rooms. As they approached, she smiled as she heard the incredibly pretty sound of his violin, tinkling its way through a cheerful run of notes that immediately lifted her spirits. When John came to the door, he looked happier than Karen had seen him in a long time.
"You look like you're enjoying yourself," She said, kissing him on the cheek.
"I am, and will be even more if you agree to play."
"I'm not promising anything, John," Karen insisted, knowing he would probably win in the end, but determined to give him a good run for his money. It was as she said this that Karen took notice of the other occupant of the room. He was tall, with hair graying to almost white, and who looked to be in his late seventies.
"Joe," John said, seeing Karen's appraising glance. "This is Karen Betts, and Karen, this is Sir Joseph Channing, George's father."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Karen said, holding out her hand, which he shook. Joe's piercing gaze wavered assessingly between John and Karen.
"Don't look like that, Joe," John said, interpreting his stare. "Karen's just a friend."
"Hmm," Joe said in his deep, gravelly voice. "That's what you keep saying about Mrs. Mills."
"Would you like a drink?" John said to Karen, ignoring Joe's jibe. Saying that she would, Karen sat down in one of the armchairs and laid her viola case on the floor beside her.
"Karen's just been made Governor of Larkhall prison," John said, handing Karen a scotch and refilling Joe's glass.
"Yes, so I've heard," Joe said dryly. "It's been doing the rounds of the Lord Chancellor's department."
"I wouldn't have thought it was such a ground breaking story," Karen said, wanting to provoke this man into a discussion with her.
"Ah, well," Joe said, lighting a cigarette. "Larkhall has been in the news rather too much in the past couple of years. So, whilst a young, attractive female governor might not be such a novel idea, one who has been well and truly submerged in the unfortunate events surrounding the prison she is now governing, is ground breaking." John looked a little uncomfortable.
"That's hardly fair, Joe," He said, not wanting him to frighten Karen off altogether. But he had completely underestimated Karen's ability to deal with unwanted comments.
"I wouldn't exactly say I was young," She said with a smile. "Though the rest is true. I take it you don't approve of such a voyage into the unknown? Perhaps a straight, white, upper class male, without such a colourful past would have been better?" John couldn't help but grin. He knew Karen was purposefully goading Joe, and he wanted to see how Joe would react.
"There are worse things than a touch of tradition at the top end of one's profession."
"Oh, I'm sure," Karen said dryly. "Though we do have to move with the times."
"Yes, so my daughter and my granddaughter are always telling me. The more you say, the more you sound like George." Karen smiled, this indirect compliment touching her deeper than Joe Channing could ever have suspected.
After John had given Karen a while to sink her scotch and to relax, he broached the subject of her taking a part in 'The Creation.'
"What do you think we should get Karen to play?" He asked Joe, picking up the score.
"The viola might be a start," Karen quipped back, knowing that John was about to really push her to the limits of her ability. But it was Joe who, after thumbing through the score, allowed a slightly malevolent, very George-like grin to spread over his face.
"Why don't you play with her?" He said to John, as if Karen wasn't there. "Give her some moral support."
"She'll need it," John said, looking over Joe's shoulder at the piece he had selected.
"Precisely what do you have in store for me?" Karen asked, knowing that if John thought she needed some moral support, it really must be difficult.
"Oh, only this," John said, holding out the score to Karen. Glancing at the music she was about to attempt to play, Karen nearly fled. 'Rolling in Foaming Billows', the aria was called, and the violas were clearly supposed to represent the waves breaking on a rocky shore. But these weren't any calm, gentle waves that you might find on a beach in Cornwall, but more like the forceful current swept back and forth by the driving rain, slapping against the side of a ship. John saw the brief flash of trepidation in Karen's face, soon to be replaced with her usual calm and focused exterior. Getting her viola out of its case, she stood, running her hand almost lovingly along its curved neck of maple, softly plucking the open strings. Handing her the bow, John watched as she swiftly warmed up, giving her time to regain the feel of gracefully sliding bow over string. Picking up his violin from where it had been resting in an armchair, John stood next to her, the open score propped on his rickety music stand. Raising his slightly gnarled hand to keep the time for them, Joe said,
"Try the first twenty seven bars." Then, fixing his piercing gaze on Karen, he added, "Let's see what you're made of." Fervently praying that she could live up to the expectations being placed on her, Karen raised her bow.
The suggested estimation of speed for this aria was allegro, and Joe Channing was taking this recommendation to the letter. As his hand moved to and fro and up and down, Karen struggled to keep up with him. Flatly ignoring whatever John and his violin were doing, she strove to climb and descend the chromatic runs in the manner in which they'd been written, not simply in a random conglomeration of tangled notes. There were twelve bars of frantic semiquavers to get through, before she would reach anything even vaguely in tune with her own ability. As her bow slid swiftly up and down the approximation of a tempestuous storm, the fingers of her left hand moving rapidly on the strings, Joe Channing could see that her body, apart from her moving hands, was as tense as a statue. He reflected that perhaps he had been a little too hard in suggesting this particular piece, though she was living up to the challenge admirably. The sultry, smoky sound that resonated from her instrument, reminded him of a bird, an eagle maybe, who has witnessed many tragedies, and whom life has given many scars. With everything that had been said about this woman in the papers over the last couple of years, Joe supposed that this is what she was. When Karen reached the point at which the bass singer should have entered, she could relax. The second violins would have taken over the waves if they were there, the violas being given a brief respite with a few bars of far simpler work, though returning to the beating storm to introduce the bass solo's second subject. The twenty-seven bars assigned to them might have only taken a matter of minutes to play, but to Karen they had felt like an endless climb up a treacherously icy mountain. When they stopped, Karen realised that she had been gripping her bow so tightly that her fingers were now stiff. Slipping her bow into the hand that held the viola, she began flexing them. When she looked up, John was smiling at her.
"How long is it since you last played?" He asked, the pride dancing in his eyes.
"Believe me, you really don't want to know," Karen replied, because no way was she about to confess that it had been several months since she had last exercised her strings.
"You rose to the challenge," Joe Channing said with a smile. "Which is almost more important than your actual skill." When he said this, Karen was hit with the realisation that he hadn't just been assessing whether or not she would be a suitable participant in any musical endeavour, but whether or not she would make a successful governing governor.
"Did I pass?" She asked him, for an unfathomable reason, desperately wanting to make a good impression with George's father.
"With flying colours," Joe replied, holding out a hand to shake hers. "Welcome aboard. I will add your name to the list forthwith."
A while later, when Joe Channing had left, John refilled Karen's glass.
"Are you trying to get me drunk?" Karen asked fondly.
"No," John replied, sitting down in a chair near her. Karen lit a cigarette. "So, apart from being tiring, how's the job?"
"I love it," Karen said firmly. "I'm not sure how long the novelty will last, but I'm happy, exhausted, but happy."
"Good," He said with a smile. "It's about time you got some payback from the prison service. Oh, and talking of your recent rise in status, guess who we've picked up to play Adam?"
"No-one I know, surely," Karen replied, unable to think of anyone who might fit the bill.
"Neil Grayling." Karen almost choked on her scotch.
"Grayling? We are talking about the same man, here?"
"Oh, yes. The circuit administrator, possibly the biggest irritation I have, discovered via the grapevine, that Neil Grayling disclosed a devout interest in classical music at his interview. So, Ian Rochester paid him a visit yesterday, and the word is, that he is delighted to join us."
"This is going to be more fun than I first thought," Karen said with a smile, wondering just what George would say to playing Eve opposite Grayling's Adam.
"Yes, it certainly looks that way, but don't tell George. I want this to be a surprise for her."
"John, even for you that's a little cruel," Karen said with a laugh.
"Oh, I don't know," John said almost evilly. "Singing opposite someone she's previously crucified in court, it might be good for her. By the way, what did you think of George's father?" Karen smiled.
"He's very like her, in some ways, isn't he?"
"Just as stubborn and just as determined to succeed," John said succinctly. "There's no doubt that George gets her argumentative streak from him."
"I bet he makes a good appeal judge," Karen said, taking a long drag.
"Oh, he does, when he's not being pressured by the establishment," John agreed. "The rows I used to have with him about politics and the judiciary, when I was married to George were sensational."
"Poor George," Karen commiserated. "Being stuck in the middle." Then, looking at him closely, she added, "You miss the father-in-law figure, don't you?"
"Perhaps," John admitted. "Though it wasn't always enjoyable. Joe thought I wasn't good enough for his daughter."
"He probably would have thought that about anyone," Karen replied.
"He didn't think that a liaison with a baker's boy was quite the right image for an up and coming legal star."
"Well, you've hardly failed on that score."
"I suppose so, and who knows, maybe doing this will bring back some of the friendship we once had."
Part Seventy Eight
It all started the Thursday night before lockup when the Julies, Lauren and Denny were sat on the bunks in the Julies' cell and hatching plans.
"So we're agreed who are to be on the hit list," Summarised Lauren.
"Eh?" Julie Johnson queried. "We're not risking doing any more time than we're already doing."
"You ain't got to worry, mate. We'll keep it light, no problems except for Bodybag, the evil old cow," Julie Saunders reassured her, muttering venomously about the only pain in the neck on G wing these days.
They discussed various options and finally settled on what was going to happen. They all grinned at the thought and were sure everything would go off like clockwork if they handled it right.
The Julies were up, bright and early, and got cracking on their kitchen duties straightaway. Dominic thanked their fortunes that G wing was lucky in having redbans who were hardworking and wouldn't abuse their position of trust as Shell Dockley used to do.
"Morning Mr. McAllister," They smiled brightly and respectfully at him.
Julie Saunders spotted what she was looking for at the back of the pantry, the large bag of plain flour and the other magic ingredient that she needed.
"Sausages it will have to be," Julie Johnson muttered to herself. "There ain't much in the pantry and they always go down well at breakfast. Everyone's off pancakes right now."
"Will you be OK while I prepare the specials, Ju. I'll be a little while till I can give you a hand."
"Yeah, no probs, Ju."
A strong odour of frying fat and cooking sausages announced that the mass production of sausages was well in hand and wafted out from the servery into the canteen area. The Julies blinked their eyes as. Even for them, the cooking fumes were strong.
"And now, Ju's special ingredient. This is a step up from Noreen Biggs cheese straws recipe. home made cookies."
She popped them on a metal tray and into the oven. She kept a special lookout for them to make sure they didn't get burnt and, sure enough, when they were laid out to cool on a mesh tray.
In the meantime, those first out of the cells and the hungriest, were starting to form an orderly queue, Denny near the front.
"For you, Denny mate, a couple of extra sausages and your eggs, sunny side up as you like them."
"Wicked," Grinned Denny. She was always ready to tuck into a hearty breakfast first thing in the morning. "And the other?"
"Sorted," Grinned Julie Saunders.
At that moment, Karen and Gina took the opportunity to stroll down to the wing. On a day like this, all the women were friendly and good-natured without the periodic atmosphere between a few of them that could cut like a knife. Karen deliberately held back behind Gina as, after all, it was her wing at least temporarily. That way, the day to day queries from the women went to Gina and not her. She was glad to get a breath of fresh air from the solid grind of paperwork and could understand now why Grayling used to come onto the wing from time to time. Today, the air was not as fresh as it might be.
With a bright smile, Julie Saunders came up to her from behind the servery, flourishing a plate with a handful of home made cookies.
"A special present to our favourite governors. Here's to Miss Betts and Miss Rossi, what deserve this little treat."
"These look lovely," Karen smiled appreciatively. "I haven't had home made biscuits for years."
"Don't mind if I do. A little of what you fancy does you good, eh."
"That's exactly what I say to myself," Julie Johnson answered with a grin on her face.
They both bit into the cookies which positively melted in their mouths. They had a nice texture about them.
"Here, take another," She offered generously.
"Why, thank you, Julies," Karen replied warmly and Gina followed suit in taking another tempting morsel.
Lauren had taken her place in the queue and her sharp eyes noted that, while Karen delicately nibbled her cookie, Gina took several large bites into hers and devoured it with relish.
"Morning, Miss Betts," She said, drawing Karen into a little polite and friendly conversation and, in true Atkins style, made suitable replies while taking in the Julies broad wink. So far, so good.
Karen and Gina eventually drifted off to what was now Gina's office. She was glad to get away from the flood of paperwork emanating from Area adding to the wearisome list of 'must be dones' which could get her down. She nibbled at the cookie as she walked and savoured the taste as she finished it off.
Meanwhile, the Julies smiled winningly at Dominic and drifted over to him with an unconvincing air of nonchalance.
"Mr. McAllister, Sir. We was wondering about a little scheme to brighten up the day, so to speak."
"Go on Julies," Dominic answered with a half smile.
"It's kind of a totally harmless April fool thing that would cheer up the girls no end, but we was wondering if it might get us into trouble, like," Julie Saunders started the delicate negotiations.
"You're our favourite screw and we've known you for simply ages, ever since you first started here. We've never done nothing to harm you all these years," Joined in Julie Johnson, laying her hand on his arm and turning on the charm.
"Tell me the worst."
"It's Mrs. Hollamby. We was thinking of changing the notes in her purse for monopoly money, only we didn't want to be accused of robbing her, that would be bang out of order. In any case, you might send us down the block," Julie Saunders protested stoutly and hedging her bets.
"But seeing as it's April fool's day, we was wondering if you would look after her money for us and we pop the kiddies money in her purse instead to spend at the bar. You'd keep an eye on us while we do the business. Please."
To their wonder, Dominic put his hand over his mouth and leant back against the wall, his shoulders shaking. They thought he might have had a funny turn or was going to get funny with them. Men could get that way in their experience.
"It's a great idea, Julies," Dominic spoke at length in a voice half smothered with laughter and a big grin all over his face. "Tell you what, you two come up to the PO's room at 12 and we'll work it between us. I'll arrange afterwards for some of the prison officers to take her for a drink at the social club."
"It's a shame we couldn't come and watch the fun but I don't suppose it could be done."
"I'm sorry, Julies but you said it."
"But you've got to tell us all the details afterwards, blow by blow. We know what men are like, they miss out on the details."
"I promise, Julies," Dominic said hastily, bowing to the inevitable and nervous whether or not his idea of detail matched theirs.
Once in Gina's office, Karen and Gina felt the formal chairs unusually irksome and uncomfortable and longed to sprawl back in comfort. They talked lightly of trivial matters and soon finished off the second cookie. All of a sudden, Gina spoke out of nowhere.
"You do know what day it is today, Karen?"
"Friday isn't it."
"I mean what month and day of the month?" Gina pursued in answer to Karen's vague reply.
"April the first. Yes, I'm quite sure of that."
"And what happens on that special day?"
After a distinct pause, Karen's reply was a little sharper.
"Oh no, Gina. G Wing has its share of practical jokers. Goodness knows what some of them might be cooking up."
"I think it's already happened, Karen. Why do you sound more relaxed than you normally do?"
Gina was right, Karen thought a few distinct seconds later. She ought to go into full adrenaline mode, clicking straight into action, working out several lines of action but she chose not to. It didn't worry her for some reason.
"I don't know. Perhaps I'm in a good mood. Everyone has their ups and downs. Perhaps it's because it's a nice sunny spring day outside."
"Or perhaps," countered Gina in a more forceful manner. "It's because we've just eaten Julie's special cannabis cookies, and not the chocolate chip cookies you buy at Tesco's. I've smoked the stuff years ago and it's the same bloody feeling."
There was a pause of precisely ten seconds while they reflected deeply upon the situation.
"Sylvia!" Both of them chorussed with better timing than the two Julies.
"She's a natural target for a spectacular April fool stunt."
"Should we worry, Karen?"
"Well," Karen continued thoughtfully, "if it's the Julies, Denny and last but not least, the chief mastermind, Lauren Atkins at work, they know just how far they can go - I think."
"Should we warn her?"
"It may never happen," came Karen's very nonchalant reply. "I mean, we can't be everywhere and turn over G Wing on a mere hunch. What are we to ask the prison officers to look out for and to tell the prisoners? After all, they're all peaceful if those cookies are doing the rounds. It would be a shame to spoil the good mood."
The sun shining through the window was bright and friendly and the world was at peace with itself. At length, Gina regretfully informed Karen that she ought to keep her eyes open on the wing.
"Have a nice day."
"Don't worry, I will," Gina grinned at Karen's vague wave as she disappeared out of the door. Life right now was intensely peaceful as time passed. Presently, she could think of nothing else to do but phone George. Perhaps she could cast a light on the situation.
"George, I'm stoned."
"Well, well, well. A bit early in the morning for me, darling. Personally, I'm an evening drinker," George drawled in her best royal tones at a Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
"Not drunk, I mean stoned. As in the non liquid narcotic type of stoned."
George laughed heartily at Karen's slight discomfiture at having to be more explicit than she liked.
"Well, you Governing Governors certainly know how to live it up."
Karen sighed with exasperation. How could she persuade anyone that she was a perfectly innocent victim of circumstance if her lover concluded that she was indulging in illicit pleasures?
"I assure you that this situation is not of my making. I was offered a hash cookie .."
" Sounds interesting. I haven't had one of those since I was a student ."
"Without me knowing what on earth it was," protested Karen. Why couldn't George of all people understand? "You surely don't think I did it deliberately?"
"I'm sorry, darling. If you want to be perfectly serious, is there anything in your present situation that you should be worrying about? I mean, do you want me to give you a lift home to be on the safe side?"
"I'll be fine later."
"Are you going to take disciplinary action against those concerned? I mean it is April Fool's day. Is there any real harm done?"
George's cajoling tone of voice and her own secret amusement at the situation dissolved away her official sense of unease. It would be my luck, falling in love with a gorgeous high-powered barrister who is becoming a born again liberal with a ready appreciation for the mischievous? What could she say to her never mind the prisoners? She finally managed to get her reluctant brain to resolve that she would have a quiet word with the jokers concerned only after she was sure that no other practical jokes had come to light, which did overstep the mark. She wanted to be careful if and how to declare any amnesties.
"If nothing goes seriously wrong, George, perhaps I'll go gentle with them. After all, I'm only a brand new Governing Governor with a reputation to establish," Sighed Karen eventually.
"Yes, but what type of reputation?" came the very amused voice down the phone.
Karen stuck her tongue out at the mouthpiece of the phone even if it was a fruitless token gesture.
"Let's all go down to the club for a quick drink, Sylvia," Dominic spoke heartily.
Surprisingly Colin and Selena agreed to accompany them having been let into the secret. Paula and a few of the newer prison officers offered to cover for them with surprising readiness as they trooped off to the Social Club. Bodybag preened herself as she fancied herself leader of the crowd, forgetting that the others were not exactly known to be her friends. The club decorated in all its awful smoke grimed swirly seventies wallpaper beckoned them in.
"We'll all get our own drinks as we've got to be back and cover the others soon enough. Besides, I have to be careful with money being on my own."
"You lead the way to the bar, Sylv and get served first as you deserve what's coming to you," Dominic proclaimed heartily while Selena smiled inwardly to herself.
Bodybag reached inside her purse by feel and pulled out a note. Unfortunately it was coloured bright red and had the doubtful inscription of '£500' on it in a style that hadn't fallen off the Bank of England printing press. She clutched it in her hand in full sight of everyone.
"What the flaming hell is this?" shouted Bodybag, red faced and shouting, drawing attention to the others in the club who were locked into their own conversations.
"Enough to buy the Old Kent Road as well as a round for your friends."
"Always said that you are the last of the big spenders, Sylvia. That should be enough for Tequila sunrise all round."
The barman fell about laughing as Selena's wisecrack followed his own in quick succession.
"What's it to be for the number forty eight bus home, Sylv? A pink fifty pound note and keep the change?" Laughed Colin.
"What the hell is going on here?" Di yelled, her attention drawn to the uproar. "Is this the way you treat your mates? If that is, then God help Larkhall."
"It's an April Fool's joke," Dominic explained in reasonable tones. "Don't worry, I've kept your money safe in my pocket."
"You're flaming irresponsible, no better than when you first came to Larkhall. You were wet behind the ears and you're no better now."
There was a brief ugly silence. Selena and Colin looked up to Dominic for his quiet understanding of what went around him as opposed to Sylvia's and Fenner's noisy outpourings. Both of them hesitated those few seconds as they saw Dominic's anger rise inside him until at last he found his voice.
"Irresponsible, yeah. You tell everyone how you let a woman called Carol Byatt miscarry instead of calling for the doctor when you should have done. What about when you were on reception, you mixed up the records between Barbara Hunt and a dangerous woman called Tessa Spall, so she came close to kidnapping the Governor with a hypodermic needle held to her throat. What's a bit of Monopoly money in comparison? If I were you, Sylv, I'd leave it out."
Bodybag blushed with embarrassment at the memories but it was difficult to decide if it was real guilt or that her past actions had found her out. She had thought that those events were safely buried in the past. She took her drink of orange and sidled off with Di.
"This round's on me. What are you all having?"
Dominic's cheery voice banished the bad atmosphere and his smile was contagious as was the memory of the best April fool they had seen for a long time. They collected their drinks and laughed and chatted away the lunchbreak, spirits very much raised.
The Julies, Denny and Lauren were laughing together after Dominic had duly reported back to them when the cell door suddenly opened to admit Karen and Gina. At once they straightened their faces, sat up straight and gave the room a quick twirl as a token effort. They looked at the expressions of the two women to gauge what might be coming their way. On the one hand, their mouths were pursed and Karen's eyebrow was raised but on the other, there was a suspicion of a twinkle in her eye.
"I suppose that you won't attempt to deny that those cookies had an extra cannabis spicing in them, and that you were involved with it. I mean it's not anyone else's style to pull off a stunt like that, is it?"
"Good," Karen's voice drawled with satisfaction that they had cut out the bullshit. "I am wondering just exactly what sort of line we ought to take over this and we were wondering if you could help us out."
"You're asking us, Miss. you're normally telling us at adjudication and throwing the book at us," Julie Saunders asked with raised eyebrows. It's a pity she couldn't clear her head after having an attack of the munchies earlier on.
"On the one hand, no harm was done to us "
" So you both had a good trip, Miss .." interjected Denny with a slight grin on her face. Leave it out, Denny, you'll get us banged up for sure, all the others thought.
" ..But on the other hand, someone will hear of your amusing prank, it's bound to happen and that person will take it that bit further and next time, we definitely won't be laughing."
Karen paused and propped herself against the washstand and the faintest grin spread over her face as she saw the astonishment of the four prisoners as they tried to grapple with this enigmatic situation.
"You see our problem," Gina weighed in with her part of the double act and she was definitely grinning. "Of course we can see the funny side of it, we're not like one prison officer I could name but I'd hate to be out for a drink and some right bastard spiked it. Not much difference is there in principle except that that cannabis was a bloody sight safer."
The four prisoners noticed the very obvious wink but their confusion was getting to the desperation stage. Why the bleeding hell couldn't they put them out of their misery.
"What about a cut in next week's spends just to say you've punished us just enough to make the point," Lauren suggested, the idea flashing into her head. Somehow this crazy situation needed resolving.
"What a brilliant idea," Karen and Gina said to each other with exaggerated praise. "That sorts everything out. We can go with this one."
"Why didn't you tell us that in the first place," groaned Julie Saunders as she sank back on the bunk in utter relief.
"Why indeed?" Karen asked openly grinning. "And you had nothing to do with the other prank where Sylvia Hollamby tried to used Monopoly money to buy a drink at the social club?"
"No Miss. We ain't never heard of that in our lives," Julie Saunders exclaimed, her heart in her mouth. For one frightening moment, she thought Miss Betts was dropping them in it at the last minute.
"Right, that's everything settled. We understand each other," Karen finished, her tones switching to precision from that maddenly teasing manner.
"And there will be a cell spin tomorrow so there'd better not be anything left to find."
"No miss," they chorused.
"Sweet dreams, everyone."
Part Seventy Nine
Yvonne smiled faintly when she looked at her calendar, to see that it was April 1st. It didn't hurt her any that this day was one where happy families would play harmless tricks on each other. The day had not meant a great deal in her past when Charlie was around. It would simply never have occurred to her, or anyone else, to play even a mild harmless trick on him. That would have threatened his sense of dignity and self-importance and on the rare occasions when that happened for any unrelated reason, he could and did hit back in a very dangerous and uncontrolled fashion. Humour to Charlie Atkins was always directed at someone else, invariably someone weaker, in a form where there was an underlying element of cruelty.
What was more cheering today was a walk round the garden now that the snowdrops were pushing their delicate white flowers through the rain blasted lawn. The buds on the trees and the pink apple blossom told her of the cyclical renewal of life which, who knows, she might be a part of. Her own life was picking up a little, or at least that large part that Lauren and Denny occupied in her heart. At least she didn't have to face the darkness in her room each bedtime worrying what either of her two or both of them might be doing. At least, there isn't any bastard screw who might be making their lives a misery. It meant that she had the mental time and space to consider her own life, just where she stood.
In that accepting frame of mind, she picked up the phone at about the eighth ring just when the consciousness of it fought through her meditations. The call was from Lauren.
"Hi Mum, it's me," Came Lauren's totally unnecessary slurred introduction pitched deliberately softly, obviously intending not to be overheard. The sounds of laughter in the background could only have come from Denny who was acting as lookout of sorts.
"And are you quite sure that Karen has only cut your weekly spends for the one week. I hope you weren't as stoned when you talked to her as you are right now? I can almost smell the stuff down the bleeding phone," Yvonne finally finished cross-examining her daughter, extracting what she needed to know from the rambling story that followed her first greeting.
"Dead sure," Denny's voice cut in from behind Lauren. "She was cool about the whole thing."
"Gina was cool, too. We're the good girls around here and today doesn't count as its April fool's day. It was the screws who planted Monopoly money on Bodybag with a little help from the Julies."
Yvonne shook her head in incomprehension at the meandering story that was coming at her from down the phone.
"In any case, we were told to not leave any traces of any stuff for tomorrow so we've been getting rid of the cookies in one go. It's not my fault that these are going straight to my head."
When Lauren had rapidly run through that story, Yvonne laughed heartily until she could hear the rapid sound of the pips.
"Gotta go, mum. Give my love to Cassie, Roisin and the kids. Love you, mum."
"Yeah love you, mum," echoed Denny till silence shut off the conversation. Lauren and Denny could sneak back to their cell while Yvonne grinned and searched for her house keys and car keys to set off for Cassie and Roisin's thinking affectionately of what she thought of as two naughty schoolgirls.
To Cassie's and Roisin's children, she was the warm hearted, incredibly maternal woman who spent all her undivided attention on them and with an inexhaustible supply of new jokes that they knew nobody else at school knew. They felt particularly safe with her while she was around and went to bed, happy and content.
The woman who crept down the staircase changed into that other woman who had recently slept with John, and had been in love with Karen. She shook her head to dismiss these thoughts and slumped back in the armchair, put her feet up and gratefully accepted the drink that was poured out for her.
"You two are lucky to have each other," Yvonne said in an admiring tone. "You look so good together." This remark came out of nowhere in the middle of a general chit chat.
Cassie was nestling against Roisin with that inner smile of satisfaction and content which wasn't just that of the end of a hard day. Roisin's arm was wrapped round her shoulders and that glowing look on her face told of someone who was loved. Yvonne's generous side wished them well from what she remembered of what they had gone through in Larkhall, as their lives were anything but idyllic. They deserved their good fortune but a tiny voice inside her could not help but be aware of what was missing in her own life.
"How is life treating you these days?" Roisin asked in an apparently casual tone of voice while Cassie flicked a lock of hair out of her face with that habitual gesture of hers.
"Not so bad. Denny was going through a rough patch recently but I saw her in Larkhall and Lauren and me between us straightened her out. There's nothing at Larkhall that I have to worry about, what with "
Yvonne stopped dead at that point as she knew that she was on the verge of talking of the new governing Governor of Larkhall.
"What's the matter, Yvonne?" Roisin asked gently. She knew enough that there was something troubling her but it would be another matter to get her to talk.
"Nothing, really. Things in my life are looking up now I know that Lauren will be out in less than a year if she plays her cards right. Even at my age, a mum's job never ceases, eh? I've got you two as good mates and all the rest of the gang that was in court out there somewhere."
Yvonne tacked a smile in place on her face as she made a conscious effort to revive her spirits while Roisin looked on a little dubiously but maintained a tactful silence.
"I was going to tell you about something that my Lauren just told me on the phone. She, Denny and the Julies cooked up some cannabis cookies and as an April fool's joke, slipped a couple each to Karen and Gina Rossi, you remember her from the trial.
"Hey, Cassie's face broke into a wide grin. "That's a good one. Why didn't we think of it?"
"And you think, Cassie Tyler, that Fenner, Grayling and Bodybag would have seen the funny side of that one? Things must be getting better at Larkhall as there was a lot that went on then that wasn't a joke."
Cassie mentally sat bolt upright at Roisin's perceptive remark. That said it all.
"So I take it that they weren't banged up for that?" Roisin pursued.
The expected reply from Yvonne's gift for storytelling did not materialise. She was staring into the distance as her attention was grabbed by something inside her that was bothering her.
"Eh, what were you saying?"
As Roisin repeated her question, Yvonne was taken back to the here and now and finished the story and went on to raise general laughter about the story of the monopoly money. A small part of her was mulling over the sweetness of the night that she spent with John and that, day by day, it was rapidly receding into the past, all but the memory of it.
"You haven't said more about Karen than you can possibly avoid," She gently interposed.
"There's nothing much to tell," Came the short answer.
"Meaning that you haven't seen much of her?"
"That's about it. She's bound to be even busier in her life than she used to be. She's got her life and I've got mine."
"And that answers everything. You've only been half here all evening. Just trust us to say what's bothering you. You'll have to spit it out. You know how persistent I can be. That's quite bad enough for you without Roisin here as well."
With a sigh, Yvonne gave way to the inevitable as she took in the grin on Cassie's face which softened the pill. For the first time this evening, she looked properly into their eyes and saw their expression of real concern for her.
"I'm a silly cow about Karen, I know. I can't argue or fight anything that went down with us that split us up after Fenner was killed. I know that I'll stay friends with Karen whatever. If anything happened to me, she'd be there for me somehow and I'd be the same for her .."
Roisin and Cassie studied Yvonne as she pushed out the words from inside her. Automatically, she fumbled for a cigarette and blew the smoke out as she gained time to think. They kept a supportive silence as she paused, knowing very well that the slightest suggestion of crowding her would not help her.
"I slept with the judge, John, John Deed. He's a good man." Yvonne abruptly lunged into what she had to say, clumsily fumbling for the name of the man who she knew as the best male lover that she had known but the others had only seen as the august, if wise and kindly presence on his judgement throne in court. They did not ask any more questions of Yvonne about the judge, hearing him being given this very rare compliment.
"Will that come between you and Karen?" Roisin said softly, gently coming to the point.
"It's more complicated than that. She slept with John once, at a time when he was having a relationship with Jo Mills, the same Jo Mills who moved heaven and earth to get Lauren's stretch in prison knocked down from life to a year. I'm scared to mess up something that's already bloody complicated when I owe Jo bigtime for what she did for Lauren."
"Was anything holding him back that night?"
"Nor more than there was for me," Yvonne answered with brutal honesty.
"Jesus, I didn't think that a judge's love life could be so complicated," Cassie said slightly in jest, shaking her head. Her mind went back to the man who had sent her down, who was a dried up old man with nothing to sustain him but his robes of office. She added hurriedly in case she had put her foot in it in the classic way that only she could do.
"I mean, everything is out of your hands between all of them. You're not close enough to them where it matters. In the last resort, whatever happens between then, will happen no matter what you say or do. Nobody need know, not Karen, not George and not Jo if you don't say anything."
Yvonne let out a huge cloud of smoke mixed with relief. That was what she had last said to John but it was nice to hear someone else say it. She didn't say anything but the way she nodded her head forcibly and the visible way that she relaxed into the armchair told her how tense she had been without her fully knowing it.
"So if you happen to see Karen around sometime as a friend, there are no problems are there," Roisin said gently.
"No, there ain't," Yvonne reflected as she gained her freedom.
"So have you any more April Fool's jokes you've heard from Lauren. She doesn't do things by halves, does she," Cassie prompted.
A wicked smile split her face as the full humour of the stunt that was pulled on Bodybag flowed over her. This one was rich.
"The Julies got some of the screws to play a joke on Bodybag. This one is rich, I'm telling you .."
Cassie and Roisin were all attention as they listened to the woman who told the most priceless funny stories and was at last in the mood to find it funny as well.
On the morning of Saturday April the ninth, George couldn't settle to doing anything. They were having the first rehearsal for 'The Creation' that afternoon, which meant that she was about to discover whether or not she really could sing in front of that many people. In search of a venue, a member of the bar counsel, who clearly had nothing better to do with his time, had approached several vicars, with the possibility of using their churches. The only one to be remotely positive about the idea of lending a group of barristers the use of his church hall to rehearse in, plus his actual church for the eventual performance, had been the Reverend Henry Mills. George had been delighted when her father informed her of this, telling him that she already knew his wife, Barbara. Her father had wanted to know just how she knew this particular vicar's wife, but George hadn't been very forthcoming. She knew that her father wouldn't be exactly enthusiastic about her having made the acquaintance of an ex-con. George was looking forward to seeing Barbara again, Barbara being one of those people who could fit in anywhere and with anyone. Her father had told her that in the absence of anyone volunteering to play the harpsichord, Barbara had agreed to play for them. There were still a few gaps here and there, but all the significant parts had either been filled or partially filled. So, now here they were, about to see if they all had the makings of vaguely decent players and singers. George still didn't know who was playing Adam, and both her father and John were staying extremely quiet on the matter. But George didn't let this concern her. George's biggest fear, was sharing one of her most personal assets, with the people she usually only came into contact with on a professional basis. But she couldn't back out of it now. She fretted away the time, until she was due to pick up her father, by tidying up an already spotless house, by warming her voice up with any music other than classical, and by doing anything that would stop her wanting a cigarette. She had been trying, and in fact she had cut down considerably since John had persuaded her to play Eve, but that didn't mean her craving for Nicotine was any less insistent.
As Joe Channing got into his daughter's car, he could see that George was incredibly tense.
"Would you like me to drive?" He asked, thinking that a nervous George wasn't something that should really be behind the wheel of a car.
"No," She said curtly. "At least if I'm driving, I won't be tempted to smoke."
"I don't know what you're so worried about," Joe said, as they drove away. "You're going to put everyone to shame."
"I'm not the person I was thirty years ago, Daddy, and that means that I'm certainly not the singer I was thirty years ago. So please will you remember that. You might be wishing that you'd never had this ridiculous idea in the first place."
"I'll be proud of you, whatever happens," Joe said quietly. George drove in silence, lost in her own thoughts of what was turning into sheer terror. Joe watched her with concern, knowing that as soon as she did sing, George would forget all this nonsense and simply get on with it. When they reached a long stretch of traffic waiting for the light to change, Joe reached for George's handbag, which was on the floor by his feet. Retrieving her packet of cigarettes and a lighter, he lit her one. As she took a hand off the wheel and gratefully reached for it, she said with a smile,
"John will kill you."
"Deed doesn't have to know," Joe said gruffly, knowing how strong the craving for Nicotine could be at times of stress. As George took a long, satisfying drag, blowing the smoke and flicking the ash out of the window, she gently inched the car forward, until the lights finally turned green.
When they arrived, George's exclamation of, "Oh, how pretty," perfectly described the setting. This church might only have been half an hour from the centre of the city, but everywhere was fresh with the emerging flowers of spring, the trees in the enormous wood opposite the church hall, thick with blossom. There was the church itself, with the church hall, where they were to practice, at the opposite end of the churchyard. Several cars were already assembled around the hall, and George had difficulty finding somewhere to park. When they went inside, they found that about half the people they were expecting had already arrived. Seeing Barbara standing with the man whom she'd questioned so ruthlessly in the Merriman/Atkins trial, who must be Barbara's husband, she walked over to them.
"Barbara, good to see you. I bet you're wondering what you've let yourself in for."
"I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what you make of Eve," Barbara said with a smile. "Have you been told who your Adam is yet?"
"No, and both John and my ever loving father here, are insisting on keeping me in the dark."
"Well, all I'll tell you is that we both know him." George's eyebrows rose. Not for the life of her could she come up with anyone whom both she and Barbara knew. "This is my husband, Henry, though I do believe you've met on a previous occasion." As George held out a hand to shake Henry's, she briefly wondered just how many times that blasted Merriman/Atkins trial was set to embarrass her.
"I think that trial is going to haunt me for ever more," She said, not entirely knowing how to deal with someone she'd previously cross-examined for such an unworthy cause.
"Please, let it be forgotten," Henry replied, giving her a gentle smile.
"And this is my father, Sir Joseph Channing, who will be conducting us, for his sins." As Joe and Henry shook hands, George moved away to mingle with some of the others she knew, using any amount of small talk, to keep her mind off the approaching time when she would have to show them what she was supposedly made of. When she saw John arrive, she kept a slightly predatory eye on him, having also seen the arrival of Sir Ian and, to her astonishment, Lady Francesca Rochester, one of John's old and far more dangerous concubines. But when she saw Grayling appear through the door, she stared in shock. Walking straight over to her, Neil held out a hand.
"Allow me to introduce myself as your leading man."
"You're playing Adam?" George asked, her eyes widening in half surprise and half disbelief.
"I certainly am. It's going to be interesting, working together, don't you think?"
"You?" George asked again, unsure of just who was having a joke at her expense. Then Barbara's words came back to her. Yes, both she and Barbara did know Grayling. "But I thought you were..." Realising in an instant what she was about to say, Neil held up a hand to stop her in her tracks. Then, out of the side of his mouth so that no one would see, he said very quietly,
"In company such as this, I'm just as straight as they think you are. Is that clear?" Feeling a blush spread to her cheeks at the enormous indiscretion she'd almost made, she said,
"Yes, of course, I apologise. It was just a shock, that's all."
"Didn't anyone tell you?" He asked with a smile.
"No, neither John, nor my father, who will be conducting us by the way, felt the need to put me in the picture. I think it was their idea of a surprise."
"Pleasant, or unpleasant?" He teased, looking forward to working with her immensely.
"That remains to be seen," She quipped back. "I think it's going to be far more fun than I previously thought, though. The Judge who's singing the tenor, he's a frightful bore, and his wife, the terribly fierce old hag standing over there," She gestured to where Vera Everard was standing with Monty, "Had designs on playing Eve herself."
"You barristers really do know how to bitch, don't you," Neil said with a grin.
"How else do you think we climb the professional ladder?" George responded. "If not by pushing others off each rung as we pass."
When John arrived, and after speaking to Barbara and Henry, he observed as Neil Grayling arrived and brought George up to speed on who was to play Adam. Even from where he stood, he could clearly see that George had said something she shouldn't, and that Neil's reply had embarrassed her. He would have made a move to intervene, but they seemed to immediately return to polite conversation verging on friendly banter. As he withdrew his gaze from George, he caught sight of Francesca Rochester, purposefully making her way over to him. The last time he'd seen her, she'd been protesting her innocence in the soft porn empire she'd been running with her cousin. She'd turned on the tears, trying to convince him that she was only doing it because she was scared of her cousin. She was the type of woman, who could look like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth one minute, and nail a man to the spot with her predatory, hypnotising smirk the next. If John had been in the habit of blushing, then his face might have taken on a reddish tint at the memory of how he'd screwed her in chambers. He didn't usually like such vulgarities in his vocabulary, but that's exactly what it had been. He could remember it as if it were yesterday. The way he'd used one arm to scatter papers, pens and all other possessions from the top of his desk, and with the other, pushed her down on it, removing her underwear and undoing his flies in an instant. The fact that he'd been caught doing this on the security camera had only increased any embarrassment he might have felt.
"John, this is a nice surprise." Her voice was just the same as it had been then, the soft, though not overly cultured tones, sliding over his senses just as her hands had once done.
"For you, or for me?" He asked, not willing to give her even the slightest hint of any reconciliation.
"For both of us, I hope."
"I doubt your husband would see it like that," John replied, keeping his tone even, though nevertheless cutting.
"That was all a very long time ago, John," She said gently. "I had hoped we could all be friends."
"After the stunt you pulled on me, you must be joking," John said icily, his words immediately killing any hopes she'd had of a bit of fun from him. "I want absolutely nothing to do with you. Is that clear? I wonder at Ian's common sense in bringing you here."
"Ian has learnt the art of forgiveness," She said petulantly.
"Only because he doesn't want to forfeit a large inheritance," John replied cruelly. "That's the only reason he's stayed with you, and you know it." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Karen approaching him. "Now if you'll excuse me, there's someone far more beautiful and far more genuine in her intentions for me to see." Francesca watched him as he strolled purposefully away, regretting the loss of this man who'd just for a while, made her feel so alive.
When he came up to Karen, he immediately put his arms round her and kissed her cheek.
"Not that I wouldn't have done this anyway," He said in response to her look of surprise. "But I need to convince someone I'm otherwise involved." Karen laughed.
"I might have known that something like this would drag too many of your old conquests out of the woodwork. Who is she?"
"Do you remember me telling you about Francesca Rochester?" He said, gesturing to where Francesca had returned to Ian's side.
"Oh, is she the woman who had a liking for a cousin and soft porn?"
"That's her, one of the most evil little minxes I've ever had the displeasure of knowing." They were then approached by Neil and George.
"Did you know about this?" George said to Karen as a form of greeting, to which Karen couldn't help smiling.
"Of course I did, but the Deed here asked me not to tell you."
"Typical," George replied, giving John a looked that combined a glare with the hint of a smile, showing him that she didn't mind in the least.
"I didn't expect to see you here, Karen," Neil put in, glancing down at the viola leaning against her leg.
"I was persuaded to join in, as I'm sure were you. Have you seen Barbara?"
"Yes, and I take it that most people here aren't aware of her previous association with us."
"No, and I think she would appreciate it staying that way." Then, looking closely at George, she added, "You're not nervous, are you?"
"Of course I bloody am," George said tartly.
"From what I heard two weeks ago, you will be absolutely fine."
"And you're no use, you're biased." As John and Neil were currently screening both her and George from the rest of the room, Karen took the opportunity to briefly lay a hand against George's cheek. It didn't go unnoticed by either John or Neil, that George leaned ever so slightly into Karen's touch, showing that she needed that reassurance. At this point, various people began setting out chairs and music stands, and getting out their instruments.
"I'm just going to get some fresh air," George said, wanting a moment of down time before they began. As she made a quick exit through a side door, John said,
"I'll see if she's all right." When he'd gone, Neil said,
"Is she good?" Karen smiled softly.
"She's brilliant, but terrified of failing." They were then approached by someone who Karen thought she knew, but couldn't place.
"Nikki told me you'd just been made Governing Governor," She said. "Congratulations." It was the soft, slightly northern accented voice that reminded Karen of who she was.
"Thank you," She said, and turning to Neil added, "This is Clare Walker. What do you play?" She asked, looking back at Claire's face.
"The flute, and you?"
"The viola. Neil here's singing Adam."
"Neil Grayling," He said, holding out a hand to shake hers. "Pleased to meet you."
As George stood outside, stubbornly trying to resist the urge to have a cigarette, John joined her.
"You don't need to be quite so frightened of this, you know," He said gently, putting his arms round her.
"I'm not," She insisted unconvincingly. "I'm just not looking forward to it, that's all."
"You don't have to do it, if you really don't want to," He said, knowing that this would have the desired effect.
"Daddy would kill me," She said. "Besides, as ridiculous as it sounds, I suppose I want to prove myself wrong."
"That's more like it," He said, leaning forward to kiss her. "You've been smoking," He said, detaching his lips from hers and staring at her accusingly.
"Blame Daddy," She said succinctly. "He lit one for me on the way here, and I couldn't exactly say no, now could I."
"You Channings are as bad as each other," He grumbled, and then saw Jo walking towards them.
"I couldn't find anywhere to park," She said when she reached them. Still keeping one arm round George, John leant forward to kiss Jo.
"Now you've got two kinds of lipstick on you," George said with a laugh.
"Oh, well, at least it might keep Lady Rochester at bay," John said philosophically.
"Oh, is she here?" Jo asked, not relishing meeting this woman any more than John had.
"Oh, yes, and I can see that she's going to cause trouble if she possibly can." As they heard people beginning to tune up, they walked back in. But as John moved to pick up his violin, and Jo and George went to find their places, John was accosted by Sir Ian.
"Do you have a moment?" He asked, quickly drawing John aside. "I saw you talking to my wife earlier."
"Her doing, not mine," John assured him. "And I would appreciate it if you would attempt to keep her under control whilst she's here."
"And I would appreciate you not having anything to do with her, after last time," Sir Ian replied, not immediately taking any notice of John's words.
"Believe me, Ian, having any contact with your wife is the last thing I want to do. After what she nearly did to me, I wouldn't touch your wife with a barge pole." Then, leaving Sir Ian mouthing fruitlessly to himself, John stalked away.
In his infinite wisdom, Joe Channing had taken it upon himself to assign players to particular pairings, in order to avoid any petty, adolescent squabbling on the day itself. He knew only too well that if any group of people were likely to argue about everything, it was a group of barristers. After all, hadn't he raised one of his own, and therefore had experience of such ridiculous behaviour? This did, however, only really apply to the string section, the woodwind and brass being few enough that they could sort themselves out. The simplest way to achieve this, had been to write everyone's names on detachable post it notes, which could be removed from the scores, leaving no lasting damage. Once the chairs and music stands had been set out, he went round, putting the scores out, one to a stand. When Jo realised that she would be sitting in the second desk of cellos, next to Brian Cantwell of all people, she inwardly groaned. Was this Joe Channing's idea of a joke? As she sat down with her cello, and Brian took his seat on her right, they exchanged assessing glances.
"I see you've assumed that I will be turning the pages," Was his opening comment.
"Well, as I am infinitely better looking than you," Jo replied confidently. "I naturally assumed that I would be sitting nearer to the audience."
"You tell him, Jo," Came an approving response from Michael Nivin, who was sitting on Karen's right, in the corresponding desk of violas. Then, turning to Karen, he said, "Forgive me, but you don't look like a barrister." Karen smiled.
"No, I'm a prison Governor. I got roped into this by John, John Deed."
"Ah, yes, he always has had a level of persuasion that far outweighs the rest of us put together." Karen laughed. "I used to have the often fruitless task of trying to keep him in line, when I was the senior Judge in chambers."
"Not a job I'd recommend to anyone," Karen said with a grin, thinking that this man must have had his hands full.
"Being the resider, or keeping John from disgracing himself and the judiciary?"
"Oh, the second, without a doubt."
So that everyone would be able to see the conductor, the woodwind, brass and timps had been arranged on the raised blocks that the local school used, whenever they held concerts here. Joe Channing was also raised, looking down on what he would almost come to regard as his flock, the group of recalcitrant Prima donnas he would eventually come to be proud of. All he had to do to get their attention was to raise his baton, at which they all fell silent. The three soloists, George, Legover and Grayling, were sitting on chairs in a row, with their backs to the orchestra, for the moment all hoping that Joe wouldn't require them immediately.
"Now, I have absolutely no idea of the musical skill of most of you," He began, "So, we'll start at the very beginning, and see what happens. Chaos, is what the introductory piece is called, and chaos is what I suspect it will turn out to be."
As he raised his baton for the down beat, bows were lifted and breaths taken. The first chord definitely wasn't entirely together, but as they gradually became used to Joe's slightly wavering movements, they all began to relax. George was enchanted as she listened, smiling when she picked out a wrong note from one instrument or another, following the score to keep her mind off the ever approaching moment, when she would have to join them. She listened with pride as John's violin rose and fell just behind her, bringing back some brief, happy memories of when they'd been married, and she would often hear him practice on a regular basis. She also found herself picking out the cellos, of which Jo was one, and the violas, to which Karen belonged. Sir Ian's clarinet, Neumann Mason-Alan's trumpet, and the flutes, one of which belonged to the very pretty barrister who Karen had said had defended Nikki. When they eventually drew to the end of the final chord of Chaos, there was a slightly stunned silence. They really did have a chance of pulling this off! The three on the front row broke into applause, finally beginning to see that this mad idea really was possible.
"Not bad, for a first attempt," Was Joe Channing's critical assessment. "Though the ensemble effect left a lot to be desired. Still, I suppose that will come with practice. All I intend to do today, is to give you all a taste of what we need to accomplish, and to allow each and every one of you, to discover what is required of you, with regards to improvement and practice. Now, I suggest we give one of our soloists something to do. Would one of you like to volunteer?" Both George and Monty stayed absolutely quiet. After a moment's silence, Neil stood up.
"In the absence of any other response, I may as well take the first plunge." There was a slight titter from the orchestra, most of them not knowing this stranger in their midst. Joe turned to face him.
"Well done," Joe said approvingly. "A soloist with some spirit, that's a very good attitude to have. Do you have a particular piece you would like to attempt?"
"How about number seven?" Neil suggested, number seven being the one that Karen had played part of when she'd auditioned.
"Oh, thank you very much," Several of the violists grumbled, Karen included. A broad smile spread over Joe's face.
"Yes, good idea, give all these string players something to think about, separate the wheat from the chaff." As Neil stood, and opened his score, George gave him a smile of encouragement, forever grateful to him for not having made her take the first jump.
As the cellos thundered, the violas swirled, and the first and second violins swept back and forth, the feeling of 'Rolling In Foaming Billows' was brought right into their midst. The flutes provided the illusion of the wild seabirds, and the other wind instruments the steady roar of the waves. But when Neil began to sing, both Karen and Barbara almost stopped playing. They had both known Grayling for some time, though Karen substantially better, and neither would ever have suspected that he had such a talent.
"Rolling in foaming billows, uplifted, roars the boisterous sea."
His voice seemed to swing with the cellos and battle in counterpoint with the violins, his deep, strong vibrato, captivating everyone. When the gale began to pass, and the tide begin to calm down, his roar decreased, the lyrical washing to and fro of the flutes, interspersed with his softer, finishing lines. As he sang the words,
"Through silent vales, the limpid brook," the orchestra provided the feeling of the storm finally spent, leaving nothing but the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.
There was a short silence when the piece came to an end, followed by an all mighty applause. Neil was incredibly touched by the faith they all clearly had in him. Joe turned to face him.
"You were an unknown quantity before today, but I am pleased to say that you are shaping up to the challenge admirably. Now, I think it's about time that my lovely daughter showed you all what she's made of." George could have died, the colour suffusing her cheeks in humiliation. As she got to her feet, John only had to lean slightly to his right, in order to give her hand a quick squeeze. George was immensely grateful to him, his automatic show of affection giving her the courage she needed.
"Are you all up to 'With Verdure Clad'?" She asked, sounding far more confident than she really felt. Joe smiled in fond remembrance.
"I remember when you sang that at school," He said, turning to the correct page in the score and raising his baton. As George listened to the few introductory bars, the strings and Sir Ian's clarinet beginning the very slow 6-8 that gave the impression of a waltz, she took a deep breath, and opened her mouth.
"With verdure clad, the fields appear, delightful to the ravish'd sense,
By flowers sweet and gay, enhanced is the charming sight, enhanced is the charming sight."
As George began, everyone who wasn't playing, immediately put down their scores and listened, her voice capturing every ear. Karen momentarily stopped bowing, the purity in George's voice making her utterly incapable of doing anything but listen. Michael Nivin, becoming aware that she wasn't playing, quickly glanced at her, seeing a look of such pride and wonder on her face that it made him smile. Joe Channing's baton had faltered, the exquisite quality of his daughter's voice, taking him back to that school concert when she was eighteen, when as far as he knew, she was entirely happy. He picked up the beat again soon enough, but nobody missed the succession of emotions that played across his face as she sang. As her voice rose and fell, the cellos, violas and second violins kept the beat gently swinging, with the first violins and the clarinet providing a contrasting counterpoint melody that delicately enhanced the words. When George reached the words,
"With copious fruit, th'expanded boughs are hung," Her voice seemed to open up even more, her lungs and throat expanding with the words. But it was with the words,
"In leafy arches, twine the shady groves," That Jo felt a shiver run down her spine. It was almost a physical feeling, causing her to gasp at the realisation that she had tears in her eyes. But as the strings moved into several bars of quavers, temporarily taking the six quaver rhythm that actually denoted the time signature, Jo recovered herself and prayed that Brian, in his infinite lack of tact, wouldn't have noticed her little moment of feeling. As George ran daintily through the various repetitions of,
"Here fragrant herbs their odours shed; here shoots the healing plant," Clare's flute and Ian's clarinet, took it in turns to accompany her, their own little melodies appearing to hold a conversation. But as she lingered on the penultimate, "Healing plant," the orchestra briefly rested, allowing the pure echo of her voice to hover over the room, making every one of them wonder if her voice might just crack one of the windows.
As she eventually sat down to a second outbreak of applause, John leaned over to kiss her cheek.
"Well done," he said into her ear, feeling the blush of pride on her face. Joe didn't know what to say. He was so proud of his daughter, briefly wishing that her mother could have been here to see this. Wholly unable to express his feelings on the matter, he felt it better to carry straight on.
"Right, to finish off, I would like to attempt the trio, 'Most Beautiful Appear', because we haven't yet heard anything from you, Monty, and as your wife was so insistent of your talent, I am sure we are all looking forward to seeing proof of it. Now, whilst I know this is not going to be a very welcome suggestion, I think it would be beneficial to all, to carry straight on, and attempt 'The Lord is great' as well."
"Daddy, no, you can't," Protested George, knowing only too well just how difficult this particular one was for all concerned.
"And why not?" Joe demanded, looking down at his daughter.
"Well, it's... It's..."
"It's the hardest thing any of you will ever be required to perform," Joe finished for her. "Which is why, without much warning, I am pushing you to the very limits of your capability. If we are going to make a success of this, and after all this organisation I absolutely refuse to fail, you must be made aware of precisely what will be demanded of you in the coming weeks. So, we will begin with the trio, and carry straight onto the celebration of the fourth day."
As George listened to the introductory bars, she became aware, perhaps for the first time, of Lawrence James and Francesca Rochester's oboes, making her wonder at the justice of two such spineless individuals, being given anything resembling a creative talent. After what she'd just sung, George's own phrases came easily to her, leaving her slightly gob smacked when Monty began. She'd never heard him sing, and, though he was trying a little too hard, she could find no fault with his voice. But it was when they all began competing with each other that the fun really began. If they weren't weaving in and out of each other, they were forming complete chords, their voices soaring and dying, gently bringing in the celebration that was to follow.
In the slight pause between the trio and the piece that came next, George, along with both Monty and Neil, prayed that she could attempt to carry this off. They had no chorus with them today, which meant that a significant part of this piece would be missing, leaving the three soloists right out in the open, every wrong note available for all to hear.
As soon as she began, George felt as though she was on a collision course, the words and the notes almost running away with her, Neil and Monty doing their own thing, and with the first violins carrying away a melody of their own. The lack of a chorus was noticeable, though not entirely unwelcome, meaning that at least volume wasn't a problem for any of the soloists. As George rose to the top B flat, she felt that at any moment, she would be flying. All three of them had moments where they almost came unstuck, but all of them just about managed to keep it together till the end. All the way through, John had been aware of George's tension, her body almost like a coiled spring, ready at the merest provocation to spiral entirely out of control. He had been pleasantly surprised at the voice that emitted from Legover, not having previously thought the man had it in him. With all three soloists yelling their guts out, wind players blowing till they thought their lungs would burst, and string players plucking for their lives, the piece finally reached it's close, the timps and the strings providing the final two resonating chords. Yes, there had been fluffed notes from all concerned, and there had been areas of severe strain, both on instruments and their players' ears, but this was the most difficult piece they would ever have to play, and albeit flounderingly, they had done it, proving once and for all that they were all, each and every one of them, well and truly up to the job.
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