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 Eighty One

After the rehearsal, George drove her father back to her house, and proceeded to cook him dinner. She didn't often come out and say it, and never to the man himself, but she loved her father more than anyone else in the world, and she loved spending some real, quality time with him and just him. When her mother had died, when George was ten, Joe hadn't really known how to deal with his daughter, his wife having done most of the bringing up of George until then. Almost overnight, Joe had been plunged in to the feeling of freefall, having to attempt to deal with his own feelings on his wife's death, and to keep everything as normal as possible for George. He could remember, the way her large, frightened, blue eyes had stared at him as he'd told her, that her mother had been killed in a car crash. She hadn't cried, but had just kept staring at him, at first unwilling to believe that her mother wouldn't ever be coming back. Joe had done his best to pick up the pieces, and all in all, he supposed he hadn't made a bad job of it. George had sunk deep into herself at the time, saying only the bare minimum, and moving round the house like a ghost. Joe had been very worried about her, not knowing how to give her back the vibrant nature she'd once had. But gradually, she had emerged from it, as he had himself, but she'd been older somehow, far older than her nearly eleven years. So, he'd sent her to boarding school, because he wanted her to have a good education, and because she had wanted to go. He could remember picking her up at the end of the first term. She'd looked happier, the shadow of her mother's death not as prominent behind her eyes as it had been.

When they were eating the meal she'd prepared, Joe thought it was time to say what he hadn't said earlier.

"I was proud of you today," He said, taking a sip of red wine. George put down her fork and looked at him.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I was so scared of not living up to both yours and John's expectation of me."

"Yes, I know, but you had no need to be. It brought back a lot of memories for me."

"Thirty one years ago I sung Eve," George said contemplatively. "God, that makes me feel old."

"I can't believe you'll be fifty next year," He said, clearly teasing her.

"Daddy!" She protested through a mouthful of chicken. Then, once she'd swallowed it added, "I'd rather not think about that. I'm not even forty nine yet."

"Your birthday's only a couple of months away," Joe replied, thoroughly enjoying his daughter's discomfort. "We'll have to do something special next year."

"Don't even think about it," George said firmly. "I intend to stay forty nine for as long as possible." Joe laughed, and then became serious.

"Your mother said that when she was twenty nine."

"You still miss her, don't you," George said gently, knowing just how lonely her father felt sometimes, though he never said so directly.

"Every single day," He said, laying down his own cutlery, his appetite having suddenly diminished. "When you were stood there today, singing your heart out, I kept wishing that your mother had been here to see it, and do you know why? Because you sounded so happy."

"Did I?" George was surprised.

"Yes, very. You've been happier than I've seen you for years, for quite some time now, and it almost shined out of you when you were singing today."

"I am happy," she said, not quite knowing how to explain it to him.

"I'll assume that Deed has something to do with it," Joe said cynically.

"And would it be such a problem if he did?" George asked guardedly.

"Well, just be careful. Admittedly, he must be doing something right to make you look as happy and contented as you have been recently."

"You could say that," George said with a smirk, getting him back for teasing her about her age by slightly embarrassing him.

"I don't want to know," Joe said firmly. "But just remember how he treated you when you were married."

"Daddy, that wasn't just his fault, you know," George said fairly. "We both had a part to play in that little disaster. But it's different now. I can't explain how, it just is."

"You do know that he's probably still having something of an on off affair with Jo Mills? And quite what his relationship is with that prison governor, Karen, I think her name is, I don't want to contemplate."

"Daddy, John definitely isn't sleeping with Karen, I can promise you that," George said with a smile. "And I know about Jo. You don't have to worry about me, really."

"George, I'm your father, and it is therefore my job to worry about you."

"I know," She said, briefly touching his hand. "But I'm happy with what I have with John."

"That's all right then," He said affectionately. "But if he ever dares hurt you again, he'll have to find a job somewhere where I can't find him."

A good while later, when George had driven her father home, she decided on an impulse to drop in and see John. She felt on a bit of a high from the afternoon's rehearsal, and didn't want to go home to an empty house. Karen was spending the evening catching up on paperwork, so she was out of bounds. Anyway, George knew that tonight, hard, vigorous, very male company was what she wanted. Pulling up outside the judges' digs, she didn't notice Jo's car in the carpark, or she might have driven away again. Walking through the front door, she waved to the doorman who was on the phone, receiving a nod and a smile in return. Mr. Johnson knew George Channing, and knew exactly who she was here to see. As she walked up the stairs and down the long, carpeted corridor, her body tensed in anticipation. She desperately wanted to make love to him like mad, as furious with passion as that last song they'd done this afternoon. Feeling her mouth go dry with the thought, she knocked on the door to John's rooms. When he bade her to enter, she opened the door, a sultry, sexy smile on her face in readiness.

When George walked through the door, the first thing she saw was John, sitting on a very new-looking sofa, with his arms round Jo, both looking as though she'd disturbed what was turning into a very passionate scene. John smiled when he saw her.

"Hello," He said, actually sounding pleased to see her. "I wasn't expecting to see you this evening."

"Would you rather I go?" George asked, feeling very uncomfortable at intruding.

"Of course not," He said, holding out a hand to her. "Come and sit down."

"But you..." She stopped, not knowing how to phrase what they'd clearly been in the process of doing.

"George, sit down," Jo said firmly, smiling at her embarrassment. Shutting the door behind her, George moved over to the sofa, sitting down on John's other side.

"Do you want a drink?" John asked, turning her face towards him.

"No thank you," She said, kissing him quickly because of Jo's presence. "I had several glasses of wine with Daddy, and I've got to drive home."

"So, how do you think it went this afternoon?" Jo asked, trying to put her at her ease.

"Neil Grayling was a surprise," George said, looking meaningfully at John. "Quite why you didn't tell me about him, I've no idea. He's very good though."

"Says she," Said Jo with a warm smile. "You certainly opened a few eyes."

"I thought I was going to come unstuck in that last one we did," George replied, blushing slightly at Jo's compliment.

"Yes," John laughed. "You were wound up so tight, I thought you were going to take off."

"That was Daddy's fault for not giving us any warning," George said in disgust.

"He was right, though," John said fairly. "Better to show everyone just how far they'll have to go now, rather than springing it on them later."

"Oh, yes, and one thing he did tell me, was that he won't be able to be there for the rehearsal in two weeks' time. So, he's asked me to conduct." She said this so innocently, that John was immediately on the alert.

"Oh, heaven help us," John said dryly. "You'll make mincemeat of everyone."

"Hmm, well, you'll just have to behave then, won't you," George said with a secretive little smile.

"Now this, I definitely can't wait to see," Jo said with a laugh.

"I'm rather looking forward to having power over so many people at once," George said gleefully.

"I bet you are," John said in resigned acceptance. Then, fixing his penetrating gaze on her, he added, "You always did enjoy being in control." George couldn't prevent a tiny gasp leaving her lips, John's actual meaning all too clear. With his arm around her waist, he gently drew her towards him. When their lips met, this time exploring each other's mouths caressingly and lingeringly, George felt the flame reignite deep inside her. Shifting her gaze slightly, George looked straight into Jo's eyes, taking in her soft admiration of what they were doing. When she eventually moved her face away from his, she glanced over at Jo. Jo was smiling at her softly, showing that she didn't in the least mind seeing them do this. As if to affirm how much he loved both of them, John turned his attention to Jo, kissing her in the soft and gentle way he'd kissed George. It touched her to see how beautiful they looked, so complete that she began to think she oughtn't to stay.

"You look so beautiful together," She said, unable to stop herself.

"No more than you do," Jo said, detaching her lips from John's and giving George her full attention.

"I shouldn't really be here," George said, now really feeling as though she was intruding.

"Just relax," John said, moving his hand up to touch her cheek.

"I have no problem with you being here, George," Jo told her. "And I'm sure John doesn't either."

"Are you sure?" George asked, not wanting to take them away from other things they might prefer to be doing.

"Yes," John and Jo said together, making her smile.

John was in his element, sat on his very comfortable new sofa, with an arm round the waist of each of his favourite women, listening to some soft music and occasionally talking. He was perfectly content to listen to Jo and George deconstructing the rehearsal, their voices floating over him as the music had done that afternoon. He would gently kiss one or the other of them at intermittent intervals, their different tastes intermingling to turn him on immensely. It was almost child's play to move both his hands slightly upwards from where they currently were, to begin very gently teasing at the under sides of Jo's right breast and George's left. He felt both of them inwardly react to his touch, but neither of them gave any outward sign of their response, simply carrying on talking as if nothing had happened. But as he continued touching them, they both fell silent, the soft, sultry music filling the gap with its incredibly erotic charge. He could feel their nipples hardening under his fingers, and knew that George would be the first one to break the silence.

"John, stop it," She said after a while, his touch becoming more than she could stand.

"Oh, he's doing that to you too, is he?" Jo asked, her voice taking on a deeper, huskier quality, which George supposed it always did when Jo was aroused.

"Why?" John asked. "You can't possibly tell me you don't like it."

"It's not that," George said, a blush of sheer embarrassment staining her cheeks. "I like it too much," She added eventually, refusing to look in Jo's direction.

"So," John said, trying to calm her down and failing spectacularly. "If an orgasm is what you want, stay and I'll give you one. More than one, if you're lucky." George was mortified.

"John, we shouldn't even be having this conversation," She said, moving away from him but remaining seated on the sofa.

"Why not?" He persisted. "Jo's in exactly the same position as you are. So, why don't you both stay, and make one of my dreams come true? You know I've always wanted to spend the night with both of you." George recoiled in shock, immediately getting up from the sofa and walking away from him, turning round to stare at him once there was a significant distance between them.

"No," She said, quietly but firmly. They could both see the combination of sincere arousal, guilty embarrassment, and total confusion in her face.

"Oh, George, don't look like that," John said, sounding a little exasperated. "It was only a suggestion."

"And it's one I wish you hadn't made," George said bitterly, feeling the prickling of tears behind her eyelids. "I think I should go." As she turned to the door, pulling it open and closing it quietly though firmly behind her, John made a move to get up and follow her.

"Let her go," Jo said quietly, experiencing an enormous amount of feeling for George.

"What on earth's got into her?" He said, wholly unwilling to examine his own part in George's feelings.

"You mustn't play with her, John, it isn't fair," Jo said reprovingly, though with a certain amount of gentleness in her tone.

"What are you talking about?" John demanded. "She loved the idea just as much as I did. You could see it in her face."

"Yes," Jo clarified. "Which is precisely why you shouldn't dangle something in front of her that isn't going to happen. I could have told you before you suggested it, that she would find the idea somewhat attractive, but that doesn't mean that you can play with her feelings, just because you fancied having two women at your disposal. George deserves better than that. I couldn't care less what you might suggest in that way, because I know I wouldn't even consider it. But it's different for George."

When George got in the car, she roared out of the carpark of the digs, wanting to put as much distance between her and John as possible. Tears of utter humiliation were running down her cheeks. She knew she would have jumped at the chance of sleeping with both John and Jo, and she knew that they had seen that in her too. When she arrived home, she went straight to bed, almost wanting to hide from her total embarrassment. But lying there, in the dark, under the duvet, she couldn't quite escape the thought of what it might have been like. Would Jo's body be similar to Karen's? Would Jo's mouth be as soft and pliable as Karen's? How would she taste? What would she feel like? Thoroughly unable to settle, she slid her hands down over her body, teasing at her already erect nipples, one hand slipping between her slightly spread legs. She had to relieve her frustration somehow, she just had to. As she touched herself so familiarly, she couldn't get away from the mental picture of John and Jo kissing, of John's hand delicately moving over Jo's breast in the way it had on hers. Did Jo's nipples harden as hers had? Did Jo feel the pulse jumping between her legs in anticipation, just as she had? As her hand sped up, she held onto this picture, seeing John and Jo together right to the end, making her feel utterly humiliated, intensely satisfied, and extremely confused all in one go.

Part Eighty-Two

Helen picked up the very bulky file out of her rather overcrowded desk and opened it with a feeling of weariness. The brown manila folder contained a whole sheaf of interview details, the most recent of them hers but others going backwards in time right back to the creased hand-written first pages. Jesus, this was half a life which was stolen away from this woman, step by self inflicted step from when she first dabbled in the drug scene. There was a pile of doctor's reports stretching back fifteen years or more and the usual assortment of medical records stretch going back further to an age of innocence. Unlike the prisoner's files that used to pass through her hands, there was no escape, no release, no freedom outside the prison walls. It was her interviewing the people she dealt with from day to day and writing up the reports and not the prison officers who used to work for her.

One she had conscientiously scoured through the file, it was evident that this woman had built high security fences round herself leaving no exit, all the more secure because of the woman's high intelligence. This last quality was obvious, despite the damage that years of addiction had done to her. If she was that intelligent, she ought to have had the sense not to have landed herself in her present predicament. She knew that such logic had nothing to do with life's chances of a man or woman of this type. Despite all this, she was a survivor despite the naïve vulnerable manner she used to protect herself with. There was a couple of hospital reports due to admissions for overdosing and the one attempted suicide many years back. She teetered on the edge of disaster miraculously without falling off the edge.

Her name was Alison, mother of three children. From the picture she proudly showed her, they all inherited her looks, carefully brushed hair, some air of quality about them and that same thin aquiline nose and slightly arched eyebrows. That was the mark of her hereditary that she had passed down to them along with who knows what personality traits.

She sighed to herself as the very polite, inaudible knock on the door announced her arrival, ten minutes late.

"Come in, Alison," Helen's firm tones greeted her cheerily.

Instantly, she took in her physical presence, slim, five foot six with long blond hair, short black jacket and black trousers and bangles round her wrists. She was carrying her trademark very large handbag, which she knew to be stuffed with an ill-assorted jumble of personal belongings. Her makeup was almost over elaborate to present the appearance she wanted to make on the world and to conceal the many lines on her face. At her age of late thirties, you didn't get that many lines so early in life.

"I'm ever so sorry I'm late, Miss Wade," she started talking in her fairly well educated accent, "I was poorly this morning, you know how I can be some times, and I had a row with my boyfriend and I didn't notice the time till late. I got a lift from a friend of ours………."

Helen listened politely as this woman rattled away. Things had happened to her that diverted her away from what she protested many times over from what she really wanted to do. She had a real problem of looking her in the eye, which was a quirk of hers.

"We were talking last week about the choices that all of us make in our lives. I know that you say that you still find periods when you can't get out of bed in the mornings, as your methadone prescription is set too low."

"……Oh yes, if it isn't too much trouble. I'm really struggling on the amount of medicine that I'm on," Began Alison in a very hesitant fashion, daring Helen to be brutal with her in denying her request. Helen picked up on the choice of word to describe the drug that Alison was dependent on but did not let herself be gently drawn into the obvious trap.

"…….but you have to look at the choices you have to make in your life. You know, Alison, that increasing your prescription will only put you further away from the goal you said that you had been aiming for when I first met you."

Alison's heart sank at the perceived rejection. In her mind, how could she tell this woman that her position started off from an entirely phony basis when she had first talked to her, that she had been buying Phiceptone tablets to boost her prescription? She said nothing but Helen felt that very loud inaudible something that was trying to make her feel guilty in denying her something that would, after all, make her happy. She spoke as softly and as gently as she could even though she knew that these words felt to an addict that they were as blows from a fist. She smilingly and gently brushed aside that hidden but very real request by every addict that she had come across in her professional life. Tough love, even in an entirely and strictly professional form, required her to resist her and all her experience also taught her that all drug addicts pulled that stunt in some shape or form somewhere along the line.

"……you have to look at the choices that you have in your life when you are well. You can do it, Alison. On your file, you've got a stack of O Levels, A levels and one time you were studying for a B Ed teaching degree. You did that, no one else…."

Alison looked disconsolate at the well-meaning words from this woman, somebody whose life chances had favoured her as her own had run against her. She might have been sitting in Helen's chair. What dragged her self esteem down was what everything that she might have been but wasn't. It was her choice in seeking out the more interesting disreputable man around, when she first got pregnant in the middle of studying for her degree. Being led into becoming "queen of the drug scene" was an easier option that she slid into and it was only later when she discovered that while he was "fashionably sensitive" he was also "too cool to care" as the song had it except that, unlike the author, she had somehow stuck with that man despite all the many dramas and temporary separations. She might have written Jewel's song "Foolish games" for her. She might have written a book about her life if she had the chance if she weren't stuck in a council house, the only one in the respectable street, where the few neighbours that were around looked down their noses at her.

"How about your kids, Alison?"

Helen's kind smile and those words conjured up the one thing that Alison could enthuse about and made the deadness in her eyes flicker back into life.

"My youngest daughter Rachel is doing marvellously at school and she's already becoming a good cook at home. She understands when sometimes mummy is poorly…."

Helen let Alison chatter on, missing nothing as to the euphemisms of her lifestyle that she was coming out with. It was not unknown in her experience for children to take over the running of the house and becoming mini adults to the still childish grown ups. The signs were here already in a small way. On the other hand, it was clear that her love for her children was absolutely genuine. Whether that love would be good for them was another matter. She gave her time to talk about the one positive thing in her life that she clung desperately to.

In Helen's mind, she reflected on the fact that if Rachel Hicks and Zandra Plackett had lived and got out of prison and brought up their children, they might well be in the situation that Alison is in now. How easy it had seemed long ago when she had talked passionately to Zandra that she would help her get her baby back when she got out of prison. This part of her job made Helen feel that she worked off every facet of her psychology degree and that being Wing Governor of Larkhall was, in this one respect, comparatively easy.

"So why did the latest drugs test show positive for amphetamine?"

Alison's face hardly moved a muscle in reply to Helen's gentle question before the story came out in a roundabout fashion. Helen had to concentrate hard to glean the essentials of the story as opposed to the rationalisations and frequent shifts in her style of conversation. By some unaccountable chance, a friend of hers called Steve had turned up with his guitar. The children all loved him and his outgoing talkative fashion raised all their spirits.

"Come on, Alison. Let's share this whizz. It's really pure stuff and it will put a smile on your face."

At that one moment, falling off the wagon wasn't a conscious, deliberate act but a reaching out to whatever was automatically was to hand in one blind, compulsive trance-like action.

"So what was going through your mind when he offered you the stuff?" Helen pursued.

Only the fidgeting of her hands revealed her discomfort at such a question. She was deeply ashamed of what she had done the very next day and did not want to revisit that experience.

"………only that if I didn't, I would have felt that I would be imposing my misery on everyone else and that would have been selfish. I'd done that all day with my children after an argument with Greg, my partner, first thing…….."

Her account of what had done had deeply exposed how she had felt, like exposing raw wounds, inviting Helen's sympathy with every syllable. The problem was that, once you accepted the basic premise, which may only be thirty degrees away from reality, everything else followed in a kind of skewed logic. The basic problem was that she felt that she was a prisoner of her situations and perpetuated them in an endless cycle. Yet how different would a serial philanderer have described that moment when he happened to be in the wrong bar at the wrong time, when some nameless woman had appeared offering that same fatal temptation. He, too, needed to find that same dysfunctional way to feed his own inner emptiness.

"How would you sum up what happened now you look back on it?"

The other woman's mouth twisted slightly in self-contempt and then an attempt to push it away, to distance herself from it.

"Just as a tragic set of circumstances that happened to me. If I had felt better that day, it might not have happened."

"Is it the way you really want me to look at it?"

"Just as something I'm really, really sorry for…….I was up all night and lay in bed the next day. I had to tell the children that I couldn't take them to the pictures as I'd promised them. They understood."

I bet they did, thought Helen a little cynically. This woman doesn't see that her eldest children are on the edge of their teens and won't be so understanding forever. She can hear the bomb ticking but, the way she talks about her own feelings of inadequacy, will blank out her own children will be feeling. A part of it was to recoil from what deep down, she knows is the truth. Yet she does love them, in that earth mother way of hers. That was obvious from the one holiday snapshot she had seen of three tiny children wrapped up in her arms on a golden beach and blue water in the background.

"We were talking last week that you were going to sign up for an assertiveness course. You were very enthusiastic about it and spoke a lot about what it could do for you."

"Oh," came the surprised reply as she looked away from Helen and paused for a second.

"I thought you were going to arrange it for me. I got it fixed in my mind that you were going to write to me and I kept wondering why I hadn't heard anything about it."

Helen refrained from comment. She could guess the extraordinary amount of planning what supplementing her drug intake from doing favours for friends that everything else fell by the wayside. She knew from interviewing her friend Steve who was one of those lonely single men who needed to latch onto Alison, to do favours for her in return for which, she would help him out from time to time. That was the common euphemism amongst drug circles for selling some of her prescription.

"The idea was for you to take a positive step for yourself in fixing up the place on the class by yourself. It has to come from you, you must understand."

They fell into a discussion about what the idea of the course meant to her. Last time, she sounded utterly convinced and was very eloquent to follow up the ideas which Helen had floated at her. In fact, her perceptiveness had both surprised and pleased Helen who permitted herself the luxury of thinking that, at long last, she was beginning to turn the corner in her life. This time, Helen felt let down by the not very convincing imitation of what Helen had discussed with her. The words came out fluently enough but she sounded as if on automatic pilot. Helen wasn't sure if it was one of her games to defuse what she had done wrong and to play the game Helen wanted her to play. Either way, it didn't ring true.

"So, you will definitely make the appointment?"

"Yes, definitely," Came the pat reply while her eyes swivelled round in all directions.

The conversation dried up temporarily until Helen took another tack.

"How lucky do you feel in everything that has happened in your life?"

Alison's mouth twitched at the thought.

"Everything bad seems to happen to me. I seem to attract all the bad luck that there is."

Helen turned to the place in her file where she had placed a bookmark.

"What about the time nearly four years ago when you were nearly sent down for dealing amphetamine? If that had happened, would your children have been taken into care if there was no one to look after them? You told me once that your mother would have been willing to look after them if you went into a drugs rehabilitation unit but her second husband, your stepfather, would be totally opposed to it." Helen pursued with a marked edge in her tone of voice.

"I don't know……I had a good solicitor and I had three very young children…."


"I suppose my middle class upbringing went in my favour when I took the stand and I suppose I was lucky."

"Do you know just how lucky?"

"I don't know what you mean?"

"I can assure you that a normal woman's prison is highly unlikely to prescribe you anything like the amount of methadone you are being prescribed right now. You would have found it totally different as it is completely cut off from the outside world. You would need all your strength to survive, as it can be very dangerous…."

"How do you know?"

"I told you, my number one rule is that I don't talk about anything personal in my life. Take it from me, I know what I am talking about. You don't need to know more than accept that what I am saying is the solid, unvarnished truth."

Helen's concentrated gaze fixed the wavering attention of the other woman for the longest amount of time that she had been able to pin her down to but she had that sinking feeling that Helen's own direct and very real experience was completely lost on Alison. After all, her life was hardly a bunch of roses and it was patently clear how she was unable to imagine that life could get a lot worse than it is now. Paradoxically, she had teetered her way along that tightrope without the perception of what it was to fall off it.

"So you'll make the appointment and, next time when I see you in two weeks, you'll tell me how you got on. You really will find it will help you, trust me."

Helen's slightly severe expression melted into an encouraging smile as she made one last plea.

"Yes, Miss Wade, of course I must go ahead and just do it."

She spoke with a little more conviction but whether it was enough was anyone's guess. She politely picked up her huge bag and a book fell out of it. It was a grey coloured book called "Trainspotting". It was very creased already and the pages were folded.

"I like to read by myself when I'm not well."

"Hey, that's something I didn't know. I want us to talk about this next time. I'm interested in what you like reading and what it means for you."

Helen spoke with real surprise. It was most unusual to find addicts capable of that level of concentration but perhaps it was the shattered remnants of her past life showing through and giving some cause for hope.

Helen sighed as she watched her go. The woman exasperated her beyond all reason because, if she devoted a fraction of her sense of will and determination to an ordinary life instead of pursuing her addiction, she would advance by leaps and bounds. She

Mused on her obvious intelligence, which was massively flawed. If she could display the level of perception that she could sometimes display, she could think and will herself out of her situation with that iron determination with which Helen had battled the crises in her life. But if that really were the case, Alison wouldn't have become an addict, would she and not one with such a colossal habit?

The next patient was a young man well into the start of his addiction. He caused her more stress than Alison Gregory as she knew his family and this came closer to home. She reached for a cigarette, her own mild form of addiction, and smoked it before she had to press her buzzer and let him in.

Part Eighty-Three

On the Tuesday evening, Karen had all her windows open, letting the fragrant spring air flow through the flat. She was practicing her viola, the slow, rhythmic sweeps of the bow helping to calm her down after a long day in Larkhall. She found this particular pastime relatively relaxing, sometimes playing with just the score, and sometimes trying to play along with the CD she'd got around to buying the other day. It was taking up a good deal of her spare time, but Karen found herself appreciating the fact that being involved with 'The Creation', did make her take some time out from her job, ensuring that not all her evenings were spent slaving over a hot computer. A brief shiver ran over her every time she thought of how pure George's voice had been on Saturday. Karen had been so proud of her, so enchanted to realise that this beautiful, talented, utterly sensational woman was hers, or at least partly hers.

As John drew his car to a stop in Karen's driveway, he could hear the sound of her viola, the sultry, sensual climb and descent of notes, a sound as rich as melted chocolate carried on the air. He stood listening to her for a while before ringing the doorbell, unwilling to disturb such a blissful accompaniment to the birds singing in the trees. When Karen came downstairs to let him in, she looked happy, peaceful, as if her playing had managed to draw out all the badness a day in Larkhall could leave with her.

"You're certainly in good sound tonight," He said, kissing her cheek.

"I doubt my neighbours will think so," Karen replied, leading the way back upstairs.

"Don't you believe it," He insisted. "Your playing reminded me of a rich, red Burgundy, with so much body, that it needs to be taken gently and lingeringly, just like a beautiful woman." Karen grinned.

"You're obviously in a good mood, what are you after?"

"You're always so suspicious of my motives," John protested, the glint of amusement in his eye. "I wondered if you knew anyone who plays the violin, who might be interested in filling the one remaining slot we have for a second violinist." Pouring them both a glass of white wine, Karen pondered his enquiry. She couldn't immediately think of anyone she knew who could play the violin, apart from John himself. Picking up her address book, she began to flip through its pages, hoping to hit on some inspiration. Halting on the phone number for one, very familiar couple, she smiled.

"I didn't think I could, but I might just be able to meet your demands." John smirked at her attempt at flirtation. He and Karen had always been comfortable with harmlessly flirting with each other, both of them knowing that it would never again go any further. Picking up the phone, Karen dialed Cassie and Roisin's number.

When Roisin answered, Karen made some minor small talk, feeling slightly guilty that she hadn't really been in touch with Cassie and Roisin too much recently, thinking that it was about time she started catching up with all her friends, not just the ones associated with George.

"Roisin, you play the violin, don't you?" Karen asked, finally getting round to the reason she'd rung.

"When I can find five minutes here and there, yes," Roisin answered, wondering what was coming.

"Would you be interested in playing second violin in a performance of 'The Creation'?" Roisin stayed silent for a moment, mulling the possibility over.

"I don't know if I'm good enough," She said, really not thinking that she was quite up to that sort of standard.

"Would you like to find out if you are?" Karen asked persuasively, now really wanting Roisin to take part in this.

"Well, yes, I suppose I would, but how?"

"Are you busy, right now I mean?"

"No, not really. Michael's quite capable of doing his homework without me, And Cassie can do the ironing for a change." Karen smiled.

"Do you want to come over, so that our resident leader can decide if you're up to the job?"

"What aren't you telling me?" Roisin asked suspiciously.

"Nothing bad, I promise," Karen said with a little laugh.

"I don't have my violin though, it's in for a service." Putting her hand over the receiver, Karen looked towards John. "Do you have your violin with you?"

"Yes, it's in the car. I don't go anywhere without it these days."

"Could Roisin borrow it, just to see if she wants to join us?" Then, at John's slight hesitation, she added, "She will be gentle with it, I promise." At John's nod, Karen removed her hand and said, "We have one you can borrow."

"You really want me to do this, don't you?" Roisin asked, praying that she could live up to Karen's faith in her.

"Only if you want to do it," Karen said soberly.

"I haven't played in an orchestra since I was at school," Roisin said wistfully. "Okay, I'll come over, but no promises."

When she arrived, Karen went down to let her in.

"Barbara told me quite a lot about this on Sunday," Roisin said in greeting. "I took Michael and Niamh to church, and we got talking about it afterwards."

"I thought you were Catholic," Karen said in surprise.

"I was, before I met Cassie," Roisin said, following her up the stairs. "But the Catholic Church isn't very welcoming of those who become sexually involved with their own sex. I've been going to Henry's church since Barbara got out and they settled here. Cassie wouldn't be seen dead in one though." When they entered the lounge, Roisin stared at John in surprise. "Now Barbara certainly didn't tell me you held the no doubt coveted position of leader." John moved forward to shake her hand.

"For once, my reputation doesn't precede me," He said with a smile.

"Babs said that Grayling's singing Adam," Roisin said, turning her gaze on Karen.

"Yes, and a very good one he's going to make," Karen replied with a smile. "He was really quite a surprise." Spying John's violin on the table, which he'd fetched from the car before her arrival, Roisin asked,

"So, what do you want me to cut my teeth on?" John picked up Karen's copy of the score that she'd been practicing from, and handed it to her.

"Take your pick," He said, gently lifting his violin from it's case, running his hand lovingly along the strings, and feeling a sense of brief betrayal that he was letting another play his most prized possession. Flipping through the score, Roisin selected something that neither looked too difficult, nor too easy. She wanted to show what she could do, without making a complete fool of herself. Turning to the page she wanted, she propped the score on Karen's music stand. When John carefully handed her his violin, Roisin took it with all the delicate control, of one who knew how to properly cherish a magnificent object.

"That's a beautiful instrument you have there," She said, sliding it under her chin, and fitting her left hand around its neck. When John handed her the stunningly crafted bow, Roisin took a moment or two to warm up, getting herself used to the sound and feel of someone else's treasure. She could smell the lingering aroma of John's aftershave, from where the violin must regularly come into contact with his neck.

John stood by her shoulder, watching as her bow slid confidently over the strings of his instrument, creating, to his amazement, an entirely different sound to that he usually made. It wasn't better, it wasn't substandard, it was just different. It quivered slightly, the hint of vibrato barely perceptible beneath the surface notes. John turned pages for her whenever necessary, leaving her hands completely free to manipulate string and bow. After giving her a moment to settle down, Karen lifted her viola and joined her, providing a slightly disconnected feeling, with the two most understated string parts, suddenly taking all the limelight. After almost half of the aria Roisin had chosen, John held up a hand to stop them.

"Would you like to join us?" He asked, looking Roisin right in the eye.

"Yes, I would," She said, feeling the tingling of anticipation flowing through her body.

"Then we'll be very pleased to have you," John said with a smile, thinking that his day had just got an awful lot better.

"Thank you," Roisin said, handing his violin back to him. "It's a very long time since I got involved with something like this."

A little while later when John left, Karen walked out to his car with him.

"Keep your hands off her, John," She said quietly, as he slid behind the wheel.

"You're talking as though I had intentions of doing the opposite," He said carefully.

"I saw that smile, when you asked her if she wanted to join us," Karen said knowingly. "I'm just asking you not to go there, that's all."

"And you have my word, that I won't," John said deliberately.

"And we both know just how fickle your word can be," Karen reminded him, turning to walk back inside before he could contradict her.

Once back upstairs, she poured Roisin a glass of wine and refilled her own.

"I think I'm going to enjoy this," Roisin said, putting down the score and accepting the glass.

"If the first rehearsal was anything to go by," Karen said, lighting a cigarette. "You definitely will."

"I probably shouldn't say it," Roisin said self-deprecatingly. "But I think it might do me good to do something that doesn't involve Cassie."

"Is everything all right with you two?" Karen asked in concern.

"Oh, everything's fine, couldn't be better. Well, apart from Lauren being in prison for the next few months. But I sometimes think we do too much that involves each other, if that makes any sense."

"They say a change is as good as a rest," Karen said, taking a long drag.

"I love Cass to bits," Roisin insisted, lighting a cigarette of her own. "But I know that doing something apart from her won't do either of us any harm."

"I'm sorry I haven't been in touch a lot lately," Karen said regretfully.

"How is the job?" Roisin asked, knowing how day to day occurrences could take over one's entire life.

"It's great, well, most of it. But sometimes I find that I've barely got time to catch up with the ironing, never mind spend time with friends. Even George has to battle through the paperwork to spend some time with me these days."

"How's it going with her?"

"When I see her, it's wonderful, couldn't possibly be better."

"And what's she like as Eve? Babs did tell me that much."

"She's incredible, sings like an angel."

"Oh, and that wouldn't be a touch of bias in there by any chance, now would it?" Roisin said with a smirk.

"Possibly," Karen admitted. "But she is perfect as Eve."

"We saw Yvonne the other day," Roisin said carefully, knowing she had to introduce this topic at some point.

"How is she?" Karen asked, just as carefully.

"She misses you," Roisin said simply.

"I know," Karen said regretfully. "And you don't know just how much I wish there was something I could do about that."

"Sweetheart, I didn't say it to make you feel guilty," Roisin said gently. "That's just how it is. She's not angry with you for moving on, for getting on with your life and finding someone new, she just misses you, and though she didn't actually say it, I think she'd like to see you."

"Suggestion received and acknowledged," Karen replied, thinking that some time in the next week or two, see Yvonne she must, and see Yvonne she would. She knew she'd neglected everyone but those under her immediate concern over the last few weeks, but that was no excuse. She needed to start reassessing her priorities, putting some of her good intentions into practice, rather than simply using them to pave the proverbial road to hell.

Part Eighty-Four

Roisin couldn't believe what had happened to her. Only that day, she had done her day to day job at the local school which saw her as respectably anonymous as any other woman of her age. She had picked up the phone while she had just finished sewing a button on Niamh's school blouse and had been transported out to Karen's flat as if by magic carpet. Someone looking a lot like her had seen her when she had picked up John's violin and had coaxed sounds out of it that was better than she knew that she could play. There was something in her that could be very nervous of situations and yet when push came to shove, she could rise to the occasion.

She knew that she was going to be part of something new in her life, as new in its way as the way she had first laid eyes on Cassie Tyler in that special way that took her by surprise as much as anything. She knew also that the many demands on her life hadn't smothered that love of music, which had held her in its thrall from way back when. On her way home, the practical side of her had started working out the implications of the commitment that she had made to Karen in a romantic artistic passionate declaration to life itself. Or so it seemed to Roisin as she had inwardly listened to herself.

Of course, it would cut into her spare time and that latent anxiety in her worried if she would be able to do it proper justice along with everything else in her life. Most of all, she would need to talk with Cassie and the children.

By the time she had returned, the children were safely tucked up into bed and Cassie was reading a magazine with the television turned down low.

"So who's this tall dark stranger who's spirited you away?"

Cassie's lighthearted joke was totally relaxed judging from the way she stood up and kissed her.

"Nearly right, Cassie, only she was fair haired and her name is Karen. I've been invited to play second violin in an orchestra in a performance of "The Creation," Roisin answered with a brilliant smile and a breathless rush of words.

This went over Cassie's head.

"You mean, babe, that Karen had a crystal ball, thought to herself, we're a violinist short and figured that you fit the bill and can play this gig with them."

"Something like that, sweetheart."

"So who's the leader of the gang?" Cassie enquired in her best flippant manner. In reality, she was taking a leaf out of the Book of Maturity, which she had done a crash course on since she and Roisin had started living together. She needed to find out more information to get her head round a novel situation and so asking questions in a non-threatening manner seemed the best tack.

"John Deed, the judge you know."

"Sounds right."

"He's first violinist and is in charge of the orchestra. Karen was there and she played viola with me."

Roisin hesitated for a second and Cassie figured that she needed to be sat down and to talk when she was feeling at her most physically relaxed. She ran her hand gently along Roisin's arm.

"You pour us a drink each, we'll cuddle up on the sofa and you talk while I listen."

With a huge feeling of relief, Roisin lay back and cuddled close to Cassie and carried on at a more leisurely pace.

"You really, really want to do this, babes?" She asked gently.

"I really, really want to do this. You've heard me play occasionally on a Sunday when both the children are sleeping at their friends house and we have time to ourselves when we have finally got out of bed."

"Don't I know," Cassie said smugly when she recalled that a house without children made for more passionate lovemaking than usual. It was later on in the day that Roisin felt the desire to transform that feeling of blissful contentment into a different form. The music wasn't Cassie's cup of tea if she had heard it on the radio but, somehow heard in the sanctuary of their house, it was starting to grow on her. It made Roisin happy and that was the main thing.

"So who else is in the band. I mean tell us all the hot gossip," Cassie teased.

"Mr. Grayling is in it. He's going to play the part of Adam."

"Grayling?" chorussed Cassie in utter surprise and incredulity.

"The part of Adam is that of the male bass singer," Explained Roisin. "He is taking one of the three main singing parts and very demanding it is too, from what I remember. Karen spoke very highly of him."

"We knew he had one hidden side to his personality when he was at Larkhall and he seemed heartless, pretty useless and having a strange choice in boyfriends. Ah well, there's no accounting for people," Cassie concluded, coming out with one of her mother's proverbs that she had always despised as totally mindless and typical grown up rubbish.

"It sounds really promising, Cassie. If you want an idea of what it is going to be like, I've always got the CD of the performance if you want to borrow it."

"Maybe, Roisin," Cassie played for time, her insatiable curiosity competing for a type of music which didn't do anything for her. She had her image to live up to, and that was very worrying.

"But I'll go and see you perform. Me and the kids."

Roisin beamed at her. This was a very generous offer from Cassie which she had offered lightly but which Roisin knew was absolutely genuine and could be utterly depended on. She would put her weight into encouraging the children to see them when Michael was at an age when he was starting to get self conscious at being around either one of his parents or both in front of his friends. It was so different when she had to contend with Aiden's pig headed, unreasoning refusal to back her up.

"So what about the judge? You'll be working with him quite a bit, I guess."

"To some extent, Cassie. However, he won't be coaching me one to one on every little detail. Believe you me, I wouldn't have been taken on if they thought I was a beginner. He's got the rest of the orchestra to look after, I imagine. I'll know more when I go to the first proper rehearsal. He was very kind and helpful without suffocating me. I hate anyone crowding me while I'm playing."

"So what does it involve, Roash?" Cassie said, slightly relieved. From her detached viewpoint, the man seemed to be an attractive older guy for those that that liked that kind.

"It will mean some rehearsals, possibly quite a few. I'll have to find out more. It might mean that you will have to do the ironing once in a while."

"You can't mean that, Roash. I hate ironing. I get all the crease marks going all wonky. The kids will only moan at me," Complained Cassie in that wheedling, childlike tone of voice.

Roisin burst into laughter at the expression on her face. While they had always shared the jobs round the house pretty equally, ironing was something Cassie had always balked at, declaring she was hopeless at it.

"Well, now's the time to learn, Cassie Tyler," she declared laughingly. Spotting out of the corner of her eye a pile of freshly washed clothes, which she had picked out to iron that very night and would have done if she hadn't had the phone call. Everything in the house was fine and the children were peacefully in bed. She had managed to clear up, the first time one of the children was sick and now she could manage this one.

Sighing, Cassie followed her destiny, painfully aware that her obcenely domesticated mother was looking over her shoulder. She had grown up in rebellion as the party girl, clothes strewn over the floor and proud of her ignorance at sewing and cooking. There were dry cleaners and eating out places around town in her life as a single woman. She might as well make her own bloody choice and learn to do it right, much as she had learnt a lot these last few years. It was not much to help her girlfriend pursue her dreams and Roisin wasn't going to look elsewhere than her. She was confident that she was the dream lover for a woman not to worry about her. Narcissism wasn't such a deadly sin after all if it kept jealousy at bay.

Part Eighty-Five

On the Wednesday morning, Karen went into work with a feeling of determination and hidden zeal. Reassessing her priorities would be her one resolution for the new financial year. Well, it was only the middle of April, so she wouldn't be too late in starting. The important thing on her list for today, was a meeting with Denny, Gina as her Wing Governor, and Dominic as her personal officer. They would be discussing the possibility of Denny going to visit Shell. Karen would want to know everything that had happened over the last couple of weeks that had included Denny, plus any explanations, excuses, or protests of innocence from Denny herself. If all had gone reasonably well, Karen would be making it abundantly clear to Denny, just how exemplary she expected Denny's behaviour to remain over the next month. Counting on Denny behaving for a longer period of time than this would be completely pointless. Any inmate could really only deal with small increments of time, their days being so long and tedious, that an event more than a few weeks away could seem to be years in the distance. As Karen began planning everything she would say to Denny later that morning, it dawned on her that Denny's impending visit to Shell, might provide Karen with a perfectly innocuous reason for talking to Yvonne. She wanted to see how Yvonne was holding up, and discussing something as plausible as either Denny's or Lauren's progress provided her with the ideal excuse.

At eleven o'clock that morning, Gina appeared in her office, accompanied by Denny and Dominic. One philosophy that Karen was very keen to implement, was the involvement of prisoners in the decisions that were being made about them. This would eventually span from possible transfers, (except when any ghosting might be necessary), to raise in status or promotion to red band, and possibly even as far as reassigning an inmate's security category. So, as the decision to allow Denny to visit Shell would have a direct impact on Denny, it surely meant that Denny herself should be involved in the discussion. It had long been Karen's experience that if an inmate were made to feel in as much control as possible, they were far more likely to co-operate.

"So, Denny, how's things?" Karen began, once she'd arranged for her secretary to bring them some coffee, a luxury that was yet another new thing to be accorded a prisoner in a meeting with her number one.

"Same as usual, Miss," Denny replied, wanting to be as positive as possible, but knowing that Karen wouldn't believe any bullshit.

"So, no lasting effects from April Fools day, then?" Denny couldn't quite meet Karen's eyes.

"No, Miss. What about you?"

"You'd have been down the block, all four of you, if there had been," Karen replied firmly. "And do you realise, that your, admittedly brilliantly thought out escapade, could have resulted in you not being allowed to visit Shell?"

"Shit!" Denny said in heart felt self-recrimination. "I didn't think about that."

"And can you give me a satisfactory reason why I shouldn't now tell you, that your highly unusual request will be given a very firm no?"

"It weren't only me who did that," Denny protested in offended dignity.

"No, I know that," Karen said fairly. "But at the moment, it is only you who is asking for a particularly special privilege."

"So, is that it then?" Denny asked miserably.

"No," Karen told her, finally relenting. "But I wanted you to understand what the possible consequences could have been. I am not the sort of governing governor, who is going to object to a very successful practical joke once in a while, though I would appreciate it if the next one managed to stay on the right side of the law." Denny couldn't help smiling.

"Other than that, and the little mishap in February," Put in Gina. "Denny's pretty much kept her nose clean for quite a long time."

"That is something you should be quite clear on," Dominic elaborated. "I knew Denny in the old days, when fighting, bullying and drug dealing were every day occurrences. The Denny sitting here now, doesn't bear any resemblance to the Denny of a few years ago." Denny blushed under his compliment.

"I'm pleased to hear it," Karen said, still not showing her hand. "But I need some proof that you're not going to ever even think of sliding back into your old ways. I'm putting myself on the line for you here, Denny, and if you screw up, it'll be my head on the block as well as yours. No doubt you can remember the red tape we had to go through, in order for you to have your inter-prison visit with Shaz," She added a lot more gently. "So, you'll appreciate that this is going to take a lot more organising, especially considering the fact that you and Shell aren't even involved."

"I ain't just doing this for me, Miss," Denny said sincerely. "I know Shell, and I know she'll be going mad in that place, if she ain't gone that way already. I've got something to get out for now, when I never thought I would have again, not after Shaz. I guess I just want Shell to have something to get out of there for, even if it is only to come back here." Karen was touched by Denny's little speech, knowing how much it must have cost her to say it.

"I have talked to Shell's psychiatrist, and you'll be pleased to know that he agrees with you," Karen said with a wry smile. "He is all in favour of you going to see her, so it's just area who I have to convince."

"You mean Grayling?" Denny asked succinctly.

"Yes, and if I know Mr. Grayling, he may want to talk to you about this too. Seeing as we're both in relatively new jobs, neither of us are going to take any risks that this might be the wrong thing to do. However, while I am pleading your cause with whoever necessary, I want a few guarantees from you. For the next month, I don't want one, single, bad report about you, not one. That's no fighting, no winding up Mrs. Hollamby, no stealing, and definitely no drugs. You've done well on the frequent testing programme so far, and you're going to stay on it for the time being. Any more dope-laced cookies, for example, and you can forget it."

"I'll do my best, Miss. I promise, I'll be good." Karen could hear the clear intention to attempt to do so in Denny's voice, and simply hoped for both their sakes that Denny could fulfill her side of the bargain.

A little while later, when all business involving Denny had been discussed, Karen rang down to G wing for someone to escort Denny back, so that she could continue talking to Gina and Dominic about other inmates. But when she'd closed the door behind Denny, and was in the process of lighting another cigarette, Dominic regarded her shrewdly.

"You're thinking of bringing Shell back here, aren't you," He said, not sounding all that enthusiastic about it.

"I haven't decided. Why?"

"Because that would be the worst thing you could ever do, for Larkhall, for your career prospects, and definitely for us officers. You know I never side with Sylvia, but I would be in absolute agreement with her on this."

Karen watched him thoughtfully. She liked Dominic, because he was honest, hard-working, and because if he had something to say, he came out and said it, instead of chuntering behind her back as the likes of Di and Sylvia always did.

"Let's get two things straight, shall we?" Karen eventually replied, trying to keep any anger out of her voice, but maintaining an exterior with the texture of diamond. "First, for it to even be considered to allow Shell Dockley to come back here, she would have to make a vast improvement, both in her mental stability and her offending behaviour. Second, area, in particular Grayling, would have my guts for garters if I even suggested something so maverick and unprecedented. I have only been in the job five minutes, Dominic, and any decision I make with regards to the future of any inmate in my care, will be reviewed carefully and thoroughly, and taking into account the thoughts and feelings of every person involved, including any relevant officers. Do I make myself clear?"

"I know you, Karen," Dominic persisted. "And I know how guilty you felt about everything Fenner did to Shell, including getting her sectioned and shipped out, not to mention having her baby taken away from her." Karen couldn't believe she was hearing this.

"Dominic, this conversation is closed," She said firmly, a slight flush staining her cheeks, because she knew he was absolutely right.

"Gina, you've got to back me up on this," Dominic insisted, finally remember that his immediate superior was in the room, and unwilling to let the rat escape from his terrier-like jaws.

"Oy, you fight your own bloody battles," Gina replied, seeing that Dominic had clearly touched a nerve.

"Just be careful, that's all," Dominic finished a little lamely.

"Thank you for the sentiment," Karen said bitterly.

"Dominic, go back to the wing," Gina said, sounding perfectly calm though clearly inviting no argument. Knowing when he was beaten, Dominic got up and left. When he'd gone, Gina watched Karen as she furiously ground her cigarette out in the ashtray.

"Is he right?" She asked. "Is that what you've got on the cards?"

"Would it be such a bad thing if I did?" Karen replied, sending the question back to Gina.

"Depends on your motives, and how successful you think we'd be at containing and rehabilitating someone like her."

"And what would your immediate reaction be if I said I was considering it as a long term goal?"

"I know Dockley more by repute than by experience," Gina said fairly. "I wasn't here long before she and Denny escaped, and I wasn't here when she got caught in Amsterdam. So, I haven't got all that much to go on really."

"You're definitely turning into real Wing Governor material, you know," Karen said with a smile, neatly changing the subject. "You're developing the knack for sincere tact and diplomacy, something I never thought I would come to see in you."

Part Eighty-Six

"Well, daddy, if I'm conducting the orchestra, then they had jolly well better behave themselves," George exclaimed very emphatically. She had a glint in her eye that was not altogether mischievous.

Joe knew this look of old and nearly spluttered a mouthful of tea, which he had just drunk from the fine porcelain china cup. This was a tradition which George observed as he was well known to scorn the ghastly modern habit of drinking out of mugs, and what was worse, coffee instead of a decent cup of tea.

He mumbled under his breath

"That's what I was afraid of."

"What was that you just said, daddy?" Came George's bright reply, etching its climb up and down the musical scale. She chose to simulate temporary deafness to amuse herself at her long-suffering father's expense.

"I've a bill that hasn't been paid," Lied Joe with an ingratiating smile gesturing vaguely in mid air. He wasn't at his home but George's which made his words sound especially lame.

George let that go with a mischievous smile on her face, anticipating that delicious feeling of rightful control. It helped to spice up her day.

"Thinking it over carefully," coughed Joe nervously, "perhaps you ought to ease yourself in gradually with a small scale rehearsal to find your feet, so to speak."

"Excellent," George's cool smile of approval reassured and surprised him. He had anticipated a battle, the attempt of the nearly irresistible force meeting the immovable object head on, and one besides with an unfortunately and expensively acquired education in English. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, er," improvised Joe, thinking fast on his feet, "It would be helpful for you to work with a string section of, let me say, two violins, a viola and a cello. This will reproduce on a small scale what you will find conducting the full orchestra."

"Would that be John, Karen, Jo and Roisin?" pursued George in a leisurely fashion.

"I was thinking something along those lines."

"Hmmm, I think I could whip them into shape," She grinned, her voice drawling meditatively and with relish.

George reached for her tiny cordless phone and pressed a sequence of buttons in a leisurely way to conceal her eagerness to get the show on the road.

John was listening to the CD of Haydn's "Creation" for inspiration and was mentally there in the music in his place as first violinist when the insistent phone call that must have lasted twenty seconds finally broke through his intense concentration. His first stray thought had been that he had had a singularly inept performance foisted on him where some wretched musician had been allowed to play that same horrendous repetitive figure which disturbed the balance and the serene unity of the famous composer's musical genius. Whoever was phoning must be very determined, he had rightly thought and he was to be proved right.

"John darling, I need you to come over and help me out with a little project. Nothing too demanding, as long as you behave yourself."

George couldn't resist that little dig at the end where the tone of her voice arched up and down the scales with her usual articulation. She smiled with satisfaction as she heard the audible wince from the other end of the phone. This was not quite the fairly light hearted verbal sparring which the last year or so had seen develop between them as they had got closer. In turn, John hesitated before inviting George to enlighten him as to her cryptic invitation.

"So what other victims are you intending leading to the slaughter?" he eventually enquired as his idiosyncratic sense of duty was engaged.

"Nonsense, John, I shall radiate charm and expertise. To answer your question, Jo, Karen and Roisin have agreed to come along for the ride."

John didn't pursue the matter further and, after signing off, reached for his beloved Stradivarius and placed it in his grey soft-top convertible and drove to Jo's flat to help manhandle her bulkier instrument into the back seat. In turn, Karen set off in her MG sports car without her very full brief case. For all of them, it was a change for them to be without their usual tools of their trade. Temporarily the instruments of another calling accompanied them and removed them from their day to day existence.

Roisin found herself in George's front hall at the same time as Karen appeared.

"Roisin, my father's here," George's unusually low pitched voice and slightly raised eyebrows greeted her.

Instantly, Roisin got the message. She had spent the last year or more in the company of Cassie and had got to the point that company of women with women had seemed the natural order of existence of what went on all around them. These words were a wake up call to the fact that in other households, other worlds, that this was not so.

"I must say hello to him, George," Roisin answered in her best style of polite, drawing room conversation that she knew how to assume if need be. Joe Channing appeared in the near distance through the open door to the sitting room. He was eager to ensure that everyone had turned up on time and was evidently pleased that everyone was punctual.

"I'll come with you, Roisin," Karen kindly offered.

In the rapid concourse of greetings and of people moving in different directions, John joined the two women and accompanied them to talk to Joe in the sitting room. He had been fussing with the layout of the music stands to arrange them to his satisfaction. He had discreetly stolen back some of his authority which he had let George temporarily usurp.

In the meantime, George flushed with embarrassment as Jo appeared last of all through her front door from behind her bulky cello. She gestured to her to go into the kitchen while the others went into the sitting room, which had been transformed into a music studio. She was determined to talk to Jo and sort out the matter that had been whirling round in her thoughts since she saw her. Her debut performance as conductor was an additional reason for her to want to settle her mind. George's rapid walking pace was a reflection of her agitated frame of mind as she outpaced Jo to the kitchen.

"Calm down, George," came Jo's immensely comforting soothing tones as she shut the door behind them. "You don't have to worry about the immature and adolescent games that John was playing with both of us last time I saw you."

"What do you mean?" came George's defensive reply as she was by no means sure exactly what it was that Jo had guessed about herself, not John. She was afraid that Jo was skating over implications that were obvious to her just to be nice to her and that it wasn't somehow real. The prospect with John had maddeningly teased her with what was all too attractive even though it was impossible. Whatever must Jo really think of her?

Jo immediately saw that she had rather jumped the gun and that what she saw her words outstrip the meanings, which she was trying to get over. She had telescoped her spoken train of thought and she ought to change tack and take matters more slowly.

"What I mean is, that it was perfectly obvious how you felt about the prospect that we should spend the night with John. I wanted to let you know that what you felt about the idea didn't worry me."

"You mean it?" came George's near identical question, decisively rearranged.

"Why should it?" Came the utterly calm matterof-fact reply. "It's sweet of you to be worried for me, George. My problem with John was that he couldn't see how everyone felt about his idea or else chose not to think about it. Sometimes, John isn't good at understanding and responding to delicacy of feeling.

"Oh, that's John all right."

"What I really meant to say was that I perfectly understood why you walked out of the situation. It was the wisest thing you could have done in the circumstances. Am I right?"

George was speechless as her mind was racing to come up to speed with those incredibly vital sentences. It was immeasurably comforting to hear Jo validate her own feelings. "We're good friends now. A long time ago, we've got past the point of playing games with each other."

"To tell you the truth, I felt utterly pathetic and stupid," George confessed frankly as Jo's alternative reality of that event started to become real to her.

"There's no need to feel bad about it. Everyone has choices. That's something that I learned years ago and has always stayed with me."

George was amazed to hear Jo talk so freely and openly about herself with no sense of embarrassment. However she knew that Jo envied her in being supposedly a better lover than she thought she was, there was something in Jo's style that she had never put her finger on till today which caused her to admire her in turn.

"Is there time to sneak a quick cigarette on the terrace before we start? This is my one relapse before I have to go back on the waggon." George questioned, even though it was her house. The laughably solitary manifestation of John's puritan side of his personality imposed itself everywhere even if he wasn't in the room.

"If it will help you, George, then yes," Jo grinned.

George gave Jo a quick affectionate hug and they strolled out onto the patio.

"Come on, George. We must make a start," boomed Joe, looking at his watch, and he opened the way to what was now the music room. George and Jo had sneaked back unobtrusively while conversation was in full flow. Roisin felt a little shy and had hung back reticently in the general conversation which had relaxed them into the right frame of mind. Despite recent practice and her own desire to play, she could not help worrying now the time came to performing in a larger, more formal setting than before. Next step, the Albert Hall, her fears told her.

"You don't need to worry, Roisin," John murmured kindly, sensing her visible nerves. "It's my card that has been marked."

"George will be very kind to you. She'll be keeping a stern eye on John." added Jo, smiling as she sensed that discreet backup support would help.

"Just what I want," John sighed in response.

"Everyone comfortable?" George enquired as a formality, picking up her baton. "We'll take it from number 22."

Jo's loose fitting trouser suit enabled her to cradle the cello comfortably, and use the spike to position it comfortably. In turn, Karen was equally at home with her smaller viola. Even fairly casually dressed in trousers and open white shirt, John conveyed that ostentatious air of showmanship while Roisin nervously wedged her violin against her chin, anxious to be ready yet to follow and hide behind John's lead. In front of them, George stood poised as she assumed her position, her arm outstretched and her baton in her hand. She hesitated for a second as she drew into herself all the powers of concentration and the decisive downstroke of her baton cued in her orchestra.

Suddenly out of nowhere, the preliminary sketch of the full orchestral feel of smooth banks of the string section filled the air. Roisin admired it as a miraculous ensemble even as much as the smooth sweep of her bow described added to the flowing tones. With one eye on the sheet music, she surely tuned herself in to the music and all her remaining doubts were dissolved away by the power of the music. This was, after all, the ultimate promise fulfilled of all those years ago when she had spent so many Wednesday afternoons dutifully mastering the ability to translate all the crotchets and quavers from the written page and coax the sounds from her left fingers pressed down on the fretboard and the bow that her right hand coaxed lightly from those four nylon strings. It made up for the sneaking envy she had felt of all her friends who were out there playing. This was the payoff from all the hours she had seemingly sacrificed. To one side of her, the sonorous, flexible sound of Jo's cello provided that rock solid steadiness, that necessary foundation to the quartet that she and the other members of the orchestra knew from that other life they all led. Midway between them, Karen's viola discreetly stayed in the background and securely held the space safe in that distance between high and low.

George's sure ear picked every detail out in stereo sound as her baton described the music, which she was surely in the middle of. Her ear picked out the assemblage of sounds and how they interacted against each other. Even at a moment of utter concentration, she could not help notice John's studiously earnest manner and the unobtrusive way that he subtly led the intertwining lead in their musical journey. Together, they found their way triumphantly home as they came to a rest in that breathing space which all of them knew would be in that charted spot in that marked place in that orchestral score.

"Can we have another try at that piece. There was something in there that was not quite right. Besides." She smiled disarmingly, "It would do me good to thoroughly rehearse being your stand in conductor in rehearsals while daddy is away and the critics would be out to snipe at me."

With a good grace, the members of the orchestra turned the pages back to the beginning and launched into the piece, more certain this time of the twists and turns that the music demanded of them. They all felt more confident in their playing, in the musical understanding between them that they rode the piece triumphantly to its conclusion. Somehow they had all recharged themselves which a lazy Sunday would normally have done the same by taking it easy.

"That was splendid," Joe's voice boomed out as the piece drew to a close. "I do believe that everyone is making more of an effort than I dreamed was possible."

"You mean, Joe, that when you see us in our everyday clothes, it's hard to conceive that we are all capable of another identity," John dryly cut in.

"Something like that, John," Joe smiled that rare smile at him. Even in that way, something was starting to change.

The spirits between them were flowing over of good fellowship and Roisin now found that she was drawn out of herself and her natural sociability to the fore.

"Surely George's house looks just quite like Yvonne's, don't you think?"

John had been laughing away to some witticism tossed out by Karen, feeling at his most relaxed when this attractive dark haired Irishwoman lobbed this very dangerous googly right when he was least expecting it. It gave him that feeling of being at a school cricket match when one split second thought of action lay between him and, metaphorically, his stumps splayed out in all direction as his defences lay wide open. Ever since that period, he had known how to cover up and his instincts remained sure and certain over time.

"I think you must be mistaken, Roisin. If I remember rightly, I have never been to Yvonne's house or had cause to go there, thoroughly admirable woman though she is."

John's blue eyes looked at Roisin in a fixed stare while his voice was low pitched.

"My apologies, John. I must have made a mistake….."

Roisin felt immediately uncomfortable and was immensely grateful that the chatter of conversation around her covered up for her. She grasped urgently for a swift change of conversation, a ploy which she had found useful on more than one occasion with her children.

"This has been the first time that I have played in anything like an orchestra and certainly with another violin player who is so obviously talented."

Immediately John smiled, almost visibly purring like a cat that has been tickled under his ear.

"A well played violin, is a treat from the gods," She elaborated.

Despite the lateness of the day, John dug deep into the ancient recesses of his memory as the connection with his childhood hero, Sherlock Holmes, came to him out of nowhere. Despite the way that his memory had been taxed over the years by the necessity of his calling, those stories had been irrevocably laid down in his childhood memories forever and could be recalled at any minute.

"I could swear that you know where those words come from," He exclaimed. He was genuinely surprised as he had always supposed that Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts were invariably male. It was extraordinary that Roisin obviously knew this line.

"Sherlock Holmes, "A study in Scarlett," Explained Roisin. "My son Michael is reading "A Study in Scarlet" in school and both Cassie and I make it our practice to keep up with whatever our children are reading. I like the story for its own sake and I can still remember the way that Sherlock Holmes explained what had led him to identify Jefferson Hope, though my heart went out to him for why he had killed the man for what had happened to his poor dear departed fiancee……but I like it for the detection work of Sherlock Holmes himself."

Roisin had struck the right note. While there was obviously a strong romantic streak in her, she had read the stories for entirely the right reasons. He was a purist in such matters. It enabled Roisin and John to get into a spirited discussion on parenting on which they had a lot in common.

"John, can we have a moment?" George politely asked. She felt utterly relaxed and centred after the performance and felt that she could handle anything, which Jo's kindly intervention had helped immeasurably.

"He's all yours," Roisin said with a gracious smile. The whole day was a real novelty for her, what with the realisation of her musical dreams and a conversation with an attractive man who was a real charmer.

"Is this something I should be afraid of?" he enquired in a rather too elaborate manner as he took in the smiles on both Jo's and George's faces. There were, he reflected, certain disadvantages personal to him now that Jo and George got on so well.

"George and I were having a little heart to heart," began Jo in her silkiest tones. "And we really ought to be all friends and behave like friends."

"Quite," Came his guarded reply.

"And you really didn't behave like one when George came round last week, as she had the perfect right to expect of you. It isn't a good idea to make a proposition of us all spending the night together, when you should have known that would have made George feel uncomfortable, not that it was any problem for me, being fairly broad minded."

"Well, that's frank," John temporised.

"John, darling, you know that I know you of old, even older than Jo does, and that is your first gambit in dodging any issue. You have, I recall, ten more strategies I can think of off the top of my head," George's amused tones broke in. In reality, her humour was skin deep.

"Look here, whatever I may have done wrong, this is hardly the place for debating it, not with your father around," John said in a slightly agitated fashion, seeing that his cover was blown.

"Poor darling," George's casual drawl turned this gambit back on itself. "Are you worried that daddy will come out and horsewhip you for your caddish behaviour?"

"Yes I am as a matter of fact. All right, I promise to behave myself better in future. Will that satisfy you?"

A silence hung on the air as John's plea hung in the balance.

"All right, I really am sorry. Now can we please be friends?"

"You looked really worried. If we are to share your affections, John, then please make it easy for us as well," Jo asked softly, ever the diplomat.

John looked at the two women. If only his life were as simple in settling down with the one woman who would satisfy him. He had both a fear and a liking for the fact that this would never be. He was forced to listen to the justice of the case put before him and he had to admit that he had made an error of judgement. In turn, both Jo and George realised that this was as much of an apology as they were ever going to extract out of this impossible man and that they really couldn't resist John's plea.

"I think we should go through and relax after all we've achieved between us," Jo's soft measured tones diplomatically eased the situation in the same way that her cello playing had been rock bottom reliable. In this, they were all agreed to savour the leisure moments of a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Part Eighty-Seven

When both Roisin and Joe Channing had gone, the four of them settled themselves down in the lounge to watch a film on TV, the sudden spring rain making anything else impossible.

"I like Roisin," John said as he and Jo lay comfortably back on the sofa. "She's fun."

"And happily ensconced with a woman and two children," George replied knowingly, her and Karen snuggling up in the enormous armchair that had secretly always been George's favourite piece of furniture.

"You're so suspicious of my motives," John quipped back, tucking his arm under Jo as they lay along the sofa facing the TV.

"And do you blame me?" George asked, ever the one to have the last word. As the film began, and as they all began to relax, George thought that she couldn't possibly be happier. Here she was, leaning comfortably up against Karen, each with an arm around the other, spending an afternoon with three of the most special people in her life, and feeling wholly at ease with who she was. In the company of John and Jo, it didn't matter that she was sexually involved with one of her own sex. If either of them saw her show any sign of affection for Karen, that didn't matter either. With John, Jo and Karen around her, she could allow herself to be the woman she wanted to be, and could abandon the half-false persona it was necessary for her to maintain, both with her contemporaries and with her father. But having been in Karen's company all afternoon, and not having been able to touch or to kiss her because of the presence of her father, George was already visibly frustrated. Karen could feel the tension in George's body, the need to express herself clearly humming along her nerves.

"You look like you could come at the merest provocation," Karen said into George's ear, about three quarters of an hour into the film.

"And you saying things like that is making it worse," She said through almost gritted teeth.

"Why so aroused?"

"Because I haven't been able to be this close to you for hours." Having her right arm round George, Karen realised that if she moved her hand slightly upwards, she could drive George even more insane than she already was. When George felt Karen's hand moving on her right breast, she just managed to stifle a gasp.

"You are so naughty," George said in a deep, sotto voce drawl. Karen laughed huskily, which was the first thing to draw John's attention to them.

"You like it though, don't you?" She said, grazing a thumb over George's hard and erect nipple.

"What about?" George said, dropping her arm down over Karen's wandering hand and gesturing to John and Jo.

"Oh, they're perfectly happy," Karen said knowingly, still keeping her voice quiet enough not to reach either Jo's or John's ears. Looking over at them, George saw that John and Jo were taking as much notice of the film on TV as she and Karen were. They were kissing, gently and lingeringly, looking more beautiful than anything George thought she had ever seen.

"Don't they look enchanting?" She said softly, turning her lips to Karen's. Had her mouth not been otherwise engaged, Karen would have responded that yes, they did.

It hadn't taken Jo and John long to turn their attention from the film to each other, their physical closeness making any other consideration unimportant. But when John heard Karen's low, husky laugh, he glanced over at them to see that they were also not paying attention to what was happening on the screen. With one eye on Karen and George, he kept kissing Jo, the soft familiarity of her lips making him fully relax. It had intrigued him at first to see Karen and George together. He could remember the first time he saw them kiss. He'd held a sort of fascination for what they did together, coupled with a desire not to know too much, in case George ended up preferring women to men. He'd been a little uncomfortable with seeing them show affection for each other in the beginning, and he'd had to force himself to get used to it. George was naturally a very loving person when she was happy, he could remember that all too well from the days when they were married. So it shouldn't really have surprised him that she would be like this with Karen. But that hadn't prevented his territorial hackles from rising the first few times he witnessed such a display of affection. He knew he was being ridiculous, because George was clearly happy with what she was doing. He'd at first thought he'd hidden his feelings quite well, but George had seen right through him, as no doubt had Jo and Karen. She'd been lovely about it when she'd eventually raised the subject, wanting to know why it upset him so much. He hadn't known what to tell her, except that it was taking him a while to get used to the situation. George had been sat snugly on his lap at the time, as if to further enhance the fact that she did still want him and that she always would. All she'd really said on the subject was that she loved him, and for him never to forget that.

But now here he was, lying on the sofa with Jo in his arms, gently kissing her, and with his wandering eye fixed on Karen and George. When she shifted her position slightly, John could see that George was clearly aroused, but trying to hide it because of his and Jo's presence. If he swiveled his gaze slightly, he could just make out Karen's hand, which was definitely moving on George's right breast.

"What are you looking at?" Asked Jo with a smirk. "As if I didn't know."

"Nothing," John said, forcing himself to stop watching Karen and George. When he began giving Jo what Karen had moments earlier been doing to George, she made an incredibly erotic little noise, deep in her throat so as to remain as quiet as possible. But John couldn't quite prevent his attention returning to Karen and George, his hands attempting to mimic what they were doing. But Karen had taken note of John's appraisal of their position. Detaching her lips from George's, she said quietly,

"I think we've got an audience." Taking a swift, discreet glance at the two on the sofa, George smirked.

"Well then," She said seductively. "Perhaps it's time we really gave them something to look at."

"You're quite a little exhibitionist at heart, aren't you?" Karen said grinning wickedly.

"I'll put on a show for anyone," George drawled in an undertone. "If they ask nicely, that is."

Jo was well aware that John's attention kept straying back to what Karen and George were doing, and was surprised to find that it faintly excited her. She had occasionally wondered about what they did together, and she'd decided that this was perfectly natural. But to actually be a witness to it was an entirely different matter. She knew that John had often wondered about Karen and George, about what they did together, and she couldn't really blame him for that. He knew George's body better than anyone, and having once slept with Karen, knew a good deal about hers as well. Putting these facts together, Jo could quite understand John's curiosity about them. But what of her own? She could remember that night back in early March, when she'd been on the phone to George, unknowingly interrupting what they'd been doing before she rang. George had maintained a masterly act of hiding her reactions to what Karen was doing to her, but had eventually been forced to make some utterly feeble excuse to get rid of Jo. When Jo had realised, a little while later, just why George had sounded quite so distracted and inattentive, she'd blushed and laughed both in the same moment. But now here she was, lying on the sofa, being kissed and fondled by John, in the same room as Karen and George, who were clearly doing the same. If she squinted slightly, she could just see George, with the lasciviousness she usually associated with John, sliding her hand up underneath the simple black top Karen was wearing. When the outline of George's hand moving on Karen's breast became clearly visible, in spite of the supposed concealment of Karen's top, Jo gasped. Taking a quick glance at John, Jo saw that he'd seen this too, which was perhaps why he was now doing the same to her, unbuttoning her blouse, and sliding his hand under the lace of her bra, to trace the curve of her finest assets. But when John momentarily removed his gaze from Karen and George to focus on Jo, he saw with a shock, that she was just as intent on watching the other two as he was.

"I didn't know you went in for voyeurism," He said very quietly between kisses.

"Neither did I," Jo said dryly, not caring for the moment what he might think of her. What she was seeing in front of her was far too fascinating.

When George's keen ears picked up the sound of Jo's gasp of sheer arousal, she smirked.

"I think someone might be enjoying the show a little more than she thinks she should," She said softly into Karen's ear. "I think we should test the waters, don't you?"

"Oh, don't tease," Karen replied quietly, with only a hint of admonishment in her tone.

"Why not, it's fun," George persisted.

"I suppose you might inadvertently introduce her to an avenue of pleasure she hasn't so far explored," Karen said contemplatively. Fixing her eyes on Jo's wide open, totally enthralled ones, George took Karen's hand, and led it to the buttons of her cream silk blouse. Jo's eyes widened fractionally more as Karen began undoing the buttons, gradually exposing George's small, pointed breasts encased in a cream lace bra. Jo could see George's pupils dilating with lust, as Karen's skilful hand coaxed her nipple to full hardness, but George still held her gaze. Her look was almost challenging, testing Jo, as if wanting to see just how far Jo wanted her to go. Being the first to lower her eyes, Jo switched her gaze to George's open blouse, to Karen's still wandering hand, and to George's clearly erect nipple, just visible between Karen's long, slender fingers.

"John," Jo said after a while. "Let's go home."

"Why?" He asked between kisses, thinking he already knew.

"Because I'm not an exhibitionist," Jo said with a smile. "And I need to take this further."

"Then your wish," John said silkily, "Is undoubtedly my command." As they untangled themselves and rose from the sofa, Jo hurriedly tried to do up the buttons on her blouse.

"You two off somewhere?" George asked in a drowsy, self-satisfied voice.

"Yes," John said as they passed the armchair where Karen and George were ensconced.

"Jo," George said, the laughter dancing in her eyes. "Your blouse is fastened crooked."

"At least mine is done up," Jo responded with a smirk, glancing down at George's cleavage, still on display for all to see.

When they'd gone, Karen and George began furthering their pursuit of passion in earnest.

"You really enjoyed that, didn't you?" Karen said, as they moved of one mind towards the stairs, undoing buttons, and casting clothes aside as they went.

"I found the prospect of a mini orgy, really rather tempting," George replied, in a low, husky drawl that turned Karen's arousal up to maximum.

"John might have been up for it," Karen said with a knowing smile. "But I'm not sure about Jo."

"Oh, trust me, all Jo needs is a push in the right direction, and a lot of encouragement. She was as turned on by our little display as John was."

"You do like showing off, don't you?" Karen said, swiftly unhooking George's bra and dropping it on the landing.

"If you've got it, flaunt it," George replied succinctly.

"Absolutely right," Karen drawled, as their hands moved over each other's skin. With a practiced flick, the duvet was thrown aside as they fell on the bed.

"Do you have any idea how much I've wanted you all afternoon?" George asked between kisses.

"Judging by just how gloriously wet you are," Karen responded, slipping a hand between George's legs. "I'm surprised you haven't resorted to internal combustion."

"It's all your fault," George said with a delightfully wicked little laugh.

"Oh, really," Karen said knowingly. "I think it's just your insatiable greed for sexual satisfaction."

"And is there anything wrong in that?"

"Nothing at all," Karen assured her, as George moved out of Karen's arms, fully intent on kissing her way luxuriously down Karen's body.

"Turn round," Karen said with sudden inspiration, and when George realised what she was suggesting, she did so with alacrity. Lying on their sides, lips and tongues engaged in silkily manipulating each other's clits, one might have thought that any vocal expression would have been impossible. But when Karen gently hummed, providing George with an incredible feeling of vibration, George let out a cry of abandon and almost lost her concentration. When hands were also introduced to increase and prolong their climb towards pleasure's peak, their breathing quickened, George thinking that she might just burst from all the feelings flooding her mind. Karen was always quieter than George when she came, but George's slightly strangled sound of appreciation seemed to be enough for both of them. Karen had previously wondered on occasions if this was because George was a singer, and so used to opening her throat and exercising her vocal cords, that it was second nature to her to do it at the point of orgasm. When they lay afterwards, close together with their faces only slightly apart, George waited for her breathing to return to normal.

"I haven't done that since I was married," She said eventually, the post-coital grin stretching from ear to ear.

"Mmm," Karen said, stretching luxuriously. "It's not something I've done for quite some time, and never with a woman." This pleased George immensely, and made her feel a lot less like an extremely gauche schoolgirl, doing everything for the first time.

"You're beautiful," Karen found herself saying, the afterglow always making her say exactly what was in her mind. George put her arms round her and kissed her, both of them tasting herself on the other's lips.

"You're not so bad yourself, you know," George said fondly. "I haven't been this happy for a long time."

"Not even with John?" Karen persisted, giving voice to her one main insecurity where George was concerned.

"That's different," George replied, touched that Karen was revealing one of her innermost worries to her. "I will always love John, because he's utterly complex, sexually my equal, and most of all, because he understands me. But being with you, it's incredible. You've unleashed a part of me I'd forgotten I had, bringing out in me a part of my soul I banished after Charlie was born. I know that sounds unbearably soppy, but that's how it is." Karen was stunned. Never, in her entire life, not in all the relationships, brief or otherwise, that she'd had with anyone, had she heard something so beautiful. Touched by Karen's total speechlessness, George strove to qualify what she'd said.

"I don't think you've been appreciated anywhere near enough throughout your life," She said, kissing her gently. "So maybe it's about time you were."

When John pulled hurriedly to a stop in Jo's driveway, they were out of the car and inside the house in a matter of seconds.

"You're certainly a surprise," John said, as they moved of one mind down the hall to Jo's bedroom.

"Don't make fun of me, John," Jo said almost desperately, as they began furiously removing each other's clothes.

"I'm not," He said between kisses. "I haven't seen you this fired up for a long time, that's all." Hands wandered at will when they met under the duvet, John discovering that her nipples were already as hard as bullets. Jo badly wanted him deep inside her, but she wasn't sure she could last long enough to make it worth his while. But John made the decision for her. He knew Jo was close, and he could easily wait. Making love with Jo was always wonderful, and he knew he could never get enough of it, but he was always a little aware of her holding something back from him. It was as if a part of her was telling her she shouldn't be doing it, as if a part of her was remaining slightly distant from her body's sexual gratification. But not so today. She had obviously found the sight and maybe the thought of George and Karen together extremely erotic, something neither he nor her had expected. When he slipped his hand between her legs, the tantalising combination of heat and wetness that greeted him, told him just how exciting she'd found the idea of Karen and George together. Her breathing quickened as he slid three fingers inside her, and moved his thumb back and forth over her clit.

"You wouldn't have minded staying to see more of that, would you?" He said, briefly detaching his lips from hers.

"That's not such a bad thing, is it?" She asked between gasps, knowing she would regret this admission later.

"Oh, it's extremely bad," He said, his voice turning her on even more. "But not in the way you mean." She'd never admit it, especially not to him, but she occasionally loved it when he talked to her like this. It somehow made him abandon the moral high ground he inhabited in the rest of his life. John knew she liked him doing this. Jo had always found it difficult to tell him what she liked and what she wanted, but that didn't usually prevent him from working it out.

"How would you feel," He said slowly, not quite sure how she would react to this. "If it were George doing this to you?" He said this as he continued moving his hand between her legs.

"Too weird, even for you, John," She said, almost laughing at his question. "Besides," She clarified, "It'll never happen." As his hand increased its speed, her breathing quickened, her gasps becoming more and more frantic.

"John, please," She begged, her desire for orgasm almost consuming her. She squeezed his fingers hard as she came, the force of her internal grip almost crushing them.

As she lay in his arms afterwards, her breathing gradually returning to normal, Jo knew that there had been something different about that time. Just for once, she had really let herself go, allowed herself to give in totally to her sexual desires. John knew this too, and was determined, while she was letting her guard down, to give her as much enjoyment from it as possible.

"What do you think they're doing right now?" He asked, once he realised that he had her attention again.

"If we'd stayed, you could have found out," She said with a smile.

"Hey, what's all this I could have found out? You were just as curious as I was, if not more so." Jo began to laugh softly.

"I know I'm going to regret every word I'm saying when I look back on it tomorrow, so I may as well enjoy it while it lasts."

"Why should you, regret it later?"

"Because that's usually how it works with things said or done in the heat of the moment."

"It's really very rare that you are so open with me," He said seriously. "I wish you were like this more often."

"Oh, no," She said with a theatrical shudder. "You'd discover far too much about me if I did that."

"I like what I've discovered so far," He said, his eyes meeting hers in an utterly lovestruck gaze, that just for once revealed his true level of feeling for her. "Besides," he added, his eyes narrowing slightly. "You're not about to tell me that you like being tied up as well, are you?" Jo laughed.

"No, I'm not. Why, who does?"

"George, sometimes." Jo's fond exclamation of,

"Typical," Made John smile. "Returning to your earlier question," She said, gazing at him challengingly. "Why don't you tell me what you think they're up to?" He was forced to admit that she had him over a barrel there.

"Showing you would be far better for both of us," He replied, kissing her, and therefore cutting off any comment on his avoidance of actually saying it. As he kissed his way down her body, she knew exactly what was coming, and began wondering if Karen and George really did that to each other. As his tongue probed her entrance, and then swept over and around her clit, Jo remembered Karen's remark of two weeks ago. George, with her charming inability to think before she spoke, had said to John that she wasn't going down on her own, and Karen had remarked that she'd never heard George complain. As John continued giving her this delightfully sumptuous delicacy, she couldn't quite escape the vision of George doing that to Karen. What did it taste like, she wondered, and was it really possible for a woman to enjoy doing that to another? Her second orgasm, when it came, was even more powerful than the first, the picture of George and Karen accompanying her to the end. She cried out as she came, the feelings John was inducing in her, coupled with the image behind her eyes, serving to break down any barrier she had left. John didn't know what she was thinking about; at least she hoped he didn't, so it wasn't as if she was hurting anyone. If that was the case, then getting some pleasure out of the thought couldn't possibly be wrong, could it?

When he moved back to lie beside her, John could see that she was utterly relaxed. Her gaze was momentarily far away from him, dwelling on some inner fantasy. When she eventually focused her eyes on him, he was smiling softly at her.

"This might be a stupid question," She said drowsily. "But precisely why do you enjoy doing that so much?" John laughed softly, remembering the occasion when he'd shown George why he did. Falling back on his philosophy of actions speak louder than words, he leant forward and kissed her, knowing that the taste of her was definitely still on his lips.

"Different," Was her immediate response.

"Ask George," John said succinctly. "She seems to like it."

"Oh, she told you that, did she?" Jo asked knowingly.

"She might have done."

"John," Jo said slowly, not quite meeting his eyes. "Do you think it's terrible of me, to have found the sight and thought of them so, exciting?" She had to search for the right word.

"No, of course not," John said softly. "You found the sight of George and Karen kissing and touching erotic, because it's something you'd never witnessed before. So you've found something else that you find sexy. Why should that be terrible?"

"I don't know. I suppose I just feel a bit stupid, that's all."

"Don't," He insisted, kissing her long and hard. "I love you, exactly the way you are, and I always will. You had absolutely no idea that you would find what they were doing such a turn on. I thought I probably would, but I didn't know you would. I'm glad you did, because it showed you how to really let your guard down with me. Do you remember when you once told me that all you'd ever wanted was to be overwhelmed, even though that was the one thing you feared?"

"Yes, I think so."

"So, today, in a sense, you have been overwhelmed. If not by love, then by sexual arousal, which I'm told is the next best thing."

"I love you," She said, kissing him again, and this time, wanting to make him lower his guard, to make him lose control. As he fondled her breasts, she began stroking his cock, wanting to at last be one with him. When he slid inside her, she wrapped her arms and legs around him, as if desperate to keep him with her, never to let him go from her life. As he thrust himself deep into her, he buried his face in her neck, breathing in the smell of her perfume, combined with a slight aroma of cigarette smoke from her hair. He loved his Jo, every fibre of her being, every nuance of her voice, and every little quirk of her soul. It didn't matter to him that she appeared to find the idea of two women together attractive, because this was his Jo, and she couldn't ever do anything that would stop him from loving her. He held her to him, feeling the softness of her breasts against his well-muscled chest, and the slimness of her back and shoulders under his hands. When they simultaneously soared over the edge to completion, Jo briefly thought that she would like to die like this, held safe in John's arms, and being taken to heaven and back in a moment. But as they lay afterwards, their breathing returning to normal and the sweat glistening on their skin, Jo reflected that she wanted to stay very much alive. For all his faults, John loved her, needed her, and in some instances worshipped her. She didn't need to fantasise about other women, she had him. What more could a woman want?

A/N: This is Richard's. "No fear, no hate, no pain, no broken hearts" by the Eurythmics

Part Eighty-Eight

Sometimes, Shell felt as if she were floating in the blank whiteness of the huge room that she was in. Of course, the eight neon strip lights geometrically lined up along the length of the ceiling shone down from their fixed places overhead in the white sky above her head. There was no rain, no wind, no seasons and clocks in her head……….

"Well, in the morning when my day begins

It feels like cold, cold steel

And when the sun comes up, it's like a new commotion

You say, nobody told you it would feel like this

No fear, no hate, no pain, no broken hearts

No fear, no hate, no pain, no broken hearts…

No fear, no hate, no pain, no………

She turned the music off in her head that the batty woman was singing on the radio that someone was playing. Annie something from the Eurythmics it was, that mad woman told her when she complained about the row. She could passively watch the world move past her open eyelids and look at her as she shuffled along with a blank expression on her stupid face. At that moment, Shell had no past that she could remember clearly. Her future was going to be the same as the present, which was flat, featureless and held her in a vice-like grip with that cotton wool feeling. At least, that was just after they had fed her the drugs, which kept her placid and stopped her getting worked up about things.

That was what the doctor had ordered, a few days after she first came here. He could see from the admission notes that when Michelle Dockley was admitted she was in a highly disturbed yet virtually catatonic state from the moment when a prison officer on either side of her helped her to move like a puppet into the enclosed world of Ashmore. Her reactions of dissociation from the world were obvious from what the referral notes described in flat tones the enormity of her actions in trying to kill her own baby. Guilt affected people that way, to varying degrees, he reflected.

Miss Taylor was one of the nice ones even if she was a screw. She must be as she pressed those buttons that silently opened that door and locked it after her. She found that out in the early days when she had made a rush for the door to pull it open and escape for a reason she couldn't properly remember. The frigging nurse stood there without moving while she made a fool of herself, yelling and screeching away and the door was bloody stuck and didn't move an inch. That was when she figured out that this dump was different. Where she was at her last place, they used to slam the doors shut and she could hear the bolts shut tight on her. She knew then when she was being banged up.

"You're all right, Shell."

"Yes, thank you, miss," Shell's best little girl voice answered with that blank smile. It was what they expected of her. That was what patients were expected to say but the only thing the frigging nurse never told you was when she was going to get out. This was a hospital like nothing she had seen before. She thought she could remember having one, two children, poor little mites and that hospital was different. She couldn't work out how she ever came to lose them…..

Her limbs were free and she knew she could walk if she could get off her bed and she could walk anywhere she wanted to go but she didn't feel quite like it, not right now. All but a small knotted thought deep in the bottom of her mind, so far down that she couldn't work out how deep it was in her confused mind and sometimes she forgot that it was ever there in the first place.

"Well, you keep going on that way. You need to keep up your spirits."

Miss Taylor meant well.

Most of the other women were all right, once she made allowances and she got to know them. Sometimes, she spoke to them and got an answer that didn't quite make sense though she, too, had her off days. She supposed that this was why they were there. If they were all right, and then they wouldn't be here, would they?

One day drifted past just like another, in the endless brightness till they put her to bed and turned the lights out. It was good that someone was in control round here….

Then, in the afternoon, she got the chance to watch the telly, just the way she had always seen it with a crowd of other girls around her. She could never remember a time when she had her own telly and could watch what she wanted though she could vaguely remember frightening the other girls into giving her what she wanted.

A few newspapers came into her world from out there. One gave her the biggest shock of

Her life that she was capable of feeling. It was a man's face in a prison officer's uniform right across the front page of "The Sun." 'Prison Officer Found Dead in Epping Forest.' It said. She knew that face. It belonged to that vague time before she came here but he was not vague, nor were the feelings of rage and anger and something else. It was hard edged, like his eyes, like the shape of his nose and just like his fists. She could remember that…..

"You surely felt some feelings for this man when you first read the headlines?" That soft voice of the shrink insinuated that day.

"Yeah, mostly hatred," Shell sneered. "And I'm glad he is dead."

"You speak of him as if he wasn't human, capable of feeling emotions, either good or bad but just as some kind of object. Surely he must have been very scared just before he was killed," The voice reasoned at her.

"Sure he was scared. He must have thought to himself, what am I doing lost in Epping Forest. I must be a right spazza. I mean that's a stupid place to go."

The woman flinched at the brutal inhuman force of this remark and brought the counselling session to a fairly quick conclusion and later lit a cigarette before writing up her report in the voluminous file…

'Michelle Dockley is becoming superficially socialised as to the regime at Ashmore and has learnt to accept the reality of her situation. She has underlying dysfunctional personality traits, which need long term cognitive therapy.

On the one hand, she can assume the appearance of remorse for the consequences of her past actions when they arise in discussion. Whenever I have pursued the matter further, it is only a matter of time before a real distance opens up between the supposed object of her feelings and her emotional reaction to it. A cold, inexpressive reaction emerges where there is a disturbing lack of conscience. This was conspicuously present when I engaged

her in discussion about the fate of a former prison officer, the late James Fenner. Apparently, her relationship, within the natural confines of the appropriate behaviour between prisoner and prison officer, lasted over a number of years and was stable.

Miss Dockley's current medication suppresses and masks this schism in her personality which is, at root, born of a negative attitude to men whom she regards as self seeking and rejecting and her only version of a relationship is based, to her thinking, of exploiting to save herself from being exploited.

The cognitive therapy up till now has, at best contained the situation. ……"

Most of all, she wondered as her cigarette smouldered away between her forefinger and second finger, just why a woman like her who had just given birth to a baby had chosen to attempt to smother it. The case notes made mention over a number of months of her unusually positive feelings of anticipation of becoming a mother again and yet this sudden reversal in attitude was unexplained by the facts. She could not help but feel grateful for the prompt intervention of Mr Fenner and Mr Hedges.

That silly bitch asked too many questions for her good, she scowled. It was all the fault of that bastard Fenner and Hedges who had dragged her away from her baby and had killed something inside of her, as if someone had stuck a knife into her. It wasn't her fault this time, wasn't her fault as she remembered.. Like she said, do the crime and do the time. She always used to be dead straight up about things like that. As if she wanted to talk about Jim bloody Fenner.

She had to laugh when she looked at the front page of the Sun with all the trial details. Funny the way things had turned out that that spazzified daughter of Atkins had done him in. She remembered glaring at the smaller headline photo of Fenner and that it ought to sort of dissolve its way out of her mind now that he was dead and buried. He was gone after all, wasn't he, and all the other bastard men in her life should be well away. They were no longer there to haunt her dreams anymore like they used to.

Her anger came back from her past to haunt her present when she came to think of Atkins. She had hated her for the way that she muscled her way in on her patch. She was top dog up till then and got all the attention like the way that she had come back from Amsterdam and the first time in her life without asking for it, all eyes were on her. That was the way she liked it, being on stage like she used to in that club in Amsterdam. She remembered them now. She liked it when she was dressed up in that leather costume and cracked her whip. All the sad punters who liked that sort of thing fawned in front of her almost waiting to be whipped. That was what she liked best. It made for a change in her life.

"Stupid cow," she muttered under her breath. "She doesn't know what the frigging hell went on."

She lay down for a while and let her thoughts drift away into nothingness into bleak, bitter dreams as she brooded. It was icy cold where she lived and she let noone into her world.

"There's a letter for you, Shell," Miss Taylor's voice came out of nowhere. "It came in the second post."

Shell took in the clean white envelope and the neat handwriting, which looked like Miss Bett's script. Funny that she came back to her mind as if she were a long time underwater and had suddenly come up to the surface to the real world. She used to do that for real in that time that someone else lived when she and Denny were on the run. The sea beat down on her bare skin and she could hear the gentle lapping of tiny waves along the yacht.

"………..You might find it amusing that your old friend Denny played a couple of practical jokes at Larkhall that certainly livened up the place. She substituted some Monopoly money in Mrs Hollamby's purse and I understand that the first time that she discovered it was when she went to buy a drink at the prison Social Club. Not content with that, she and accomplices who you might guess, made up some cookies that were spiced with cannabis. Miss Rossi and I foolishly accepted their free gift and it took us a little while for us to discover why we felt very relaxed all of a sudden. I hope that where you are for one day in the year that those in charge go a little bit easy on you and that you are being looked after properly…"

She could hear the words spoken in that tone of voice that even she couldn't forget, however doped up she felt. She tried to remember what Miss Betts looked like but her mind started to go cloudy again.

While she read the rest of her letter, her last words to Miss Betts came back to her.

"You have got to get me out of this place, miss. I shouldn't be here….and I'm sorry for some of the things I done," she remembered herself saying.

"If I ever can, I will, Shell. But it won't be easy." That melodious voice answered flatly with no false promises. She hated big promises only to be let down.

"So there's hope, yeah?"

"That's the best I can do, Shell,"

So she resolved to herself, there and then that somehow that was what she should do. She should hope. Why the hell hadn't she thought of that before? Up till then, she had let life take her where it wanted to take her.

Suddenly, there came another voice that came from a past life. It was Denny's voice this time. Everything in her mind which was replayed to her seemed like some film that she was watching on telly. She could see the two of them, all got up in false wigs and smart clothes headed out to Spain.They had had a riot out in Spain, living out on that yacht, all blue shy, sunbathing and living the life of millionaires. That was really living. They lay out on the deck, a glass of Sangria within reach from which they could drink whenever they wanted. Making porno films with Denny was easy money for those sad bastards and, besides, it wasn't acting. It all passed in a riotous blur like one big party and she wished she could remember it. That was like the best bits of her life. The other Shell Dockley did it and she had trouble remembering the next day.

Something happened to take her back to Larkhall, she wasn't sure what. Her memory wasn't very good these days for facts and figures, only feelings. She could remember and she was back with Denny again and it was like the old days for a bit. She remembered most clearly her tiny baby she cradled in her arms and all her love with her went out to that little mite. Tears started running down her face for the first time since she had been banged up there. It wasn't right that a mother should be separated from her baby, all the good books said that but right was getting her nowhere.

Part Eighty-Nine

On the Thursday, after the Sunday afternoon that had almost turned into a foursome, Karen met Yvonne for lunch, in one of the winebars not frequented by Larkhall's officers. Yvonne was coming in to visit Denny that afternoon, so she'd been pleased to receive Karen's phone call, suggesting they have lunch beforehand. Karen had said that she wanted to talk to Yvonne about Denny, but Yvonne saw this for the excuse it was, it pleasing her that Karen clearly wanted her company for other than professional reasons.

When Karen arrived, Yvonne was sitting at a corner table, and had already bought them both a scotch. Getting up, she gave Karen a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"How are you?" Yvonne asked, as they sat down.

"Incredibly busy," Karen replied with feeling. "So, taking an hour out of the day is more welcome than you might imagine."

"No ill effects from my daughter's dodgy cookies the other week?"

"Oh, she told you about that, did she," Karen said with a broad smile.

"The governing governor being stoned in her first week on the job, I don't know," Yvonne added sternly, though with a distinct twinkle in her eye.

"Who else was involved, apart from Lauren, Denny and the Julies, I couldn't possibly tell you, and I wasn't the only one to be inflicted with a certain amount of drug-induced relaxation. Gina came in for her fair share of it as well. I'm amazed they didn't manage to get Sylvia to try one. I suppose if it had been a chocolate finger, they might have had more success." Yvonne laughed.

"You heard about what they did with her money?"

"Yes, with Dominic's help no less."

"I'm sorry, if the dope caused you any hassle," Yvonne said seriously.

"Your daughter is quite old enough to apologise for her own misdeeds," Karen said with a fond smile. "And though I wouldn't want her to know this, it was the best practical joke I've seen in a long time."

When they'd ordered lunch, Yvonne lit a cigarette.

"So, how's the job really going?"

"It's great. I don't have a second to call my own, I've got paperwork coming out of my ears, and area constantly on my back to cut costs. But I love it. I wouldn't alter what I'm doing for the world."

"You look and sound happier than I've seen you in a long time," Yvonne said quietly.

"I am," Karen said, with as much meaning as Yvonne's observation had held.

"And how's it going with George?"

"I wasn't sure you'd want to know," Karen said quietly, not meeting Yvonne's gaze.

"Hey, of course I do," Yvonne said with feeling, gently turning Karen's face back towards her. "Whether you're happy, or unhappy, and whoever that's with, I want to know." Karen was incredibly touched to hear this.

"George, is wonderful," Karen said slowly, almost as if she were testing the waters of Yvonne's wish to know everything. "She's beautiful, she makes me happy, and she doesn't want anything committed or heavy from me, which considering my distinct lack of spare time, is probably a good thing."

"I'm glad you're happy, really I am," Yvonne said sincerely.

"That means a lot to me," Karen said, briefly touching Yvonne's hand.

When their food had arrived, Karen decided that now might be the time to confirm her suspicion.

"So, how was it with John, then?" Yvonne had been about to take a second mouthful of pasta, but she now put her fork down very carefully.

"Did he tell you?" She asked, immediately telling Karen what she wanted to know.

"No," Karen said, a broad grin spreading over her face. "He didn't need to. You're not the only one adept at interpreting human nature, you know." Yvonne couldn't help smiling. "He refused to look at me a few weeks ago, when George, Jo and I were talking about you. I said that you looked like you'd been seeing, or at least sleeping with someone. The only time that John refuses to meet someone's gaze, is when he's got something to hide." Yvonne suddenly looked worried.

"Jo doesn't know, does she?"

"No, only me. So, was it worth it?"

"About as worth it as it was for you, yeah."

"Oh," Karen said, feeling very uncomfortable and not knowing what to say.

"Oh, come on," Yvonne said, trying to put Karen at her ease. "It wasn't anything I didn't already highly suspect. Look at it this way, we can compare notes on him now." The expression on Yvonne's face was so cheeky, that Karen laughed.

"Which would infuriate him intensely," She finished, wishing John could see them now.

"He was the first bloke I'd slept with, since being inside," Yvonne said contemplatively.

"And mine since Ritchie," Karen told her, thinking that John had probably had the same effect of brief escapism for them both.

"He was incredible," Yvonne said almost wistfully.

"Oh, I know," Karen agreed with her. "The kind of bloke you could never get quite enough of, if given the opportunity."

"What exactly," Yvonne asked slowly, pausing to take another mouthful of pasta. "Is his relationship with George?"

"Ah, I was wondering when you would ask," Karen replied, wondering just what Yvonne's reaction would be to the situation. "John, in his infinitely bloody minded male arrogance, is sleeping with both Jo and George, with both their knowledge and their agreement and, where George is concerned, with mine as well. I do know just how weird it sounds, but it really does work."

"So, that's why nothing heavy between you and her suits both of you."

"Yes. I haven't got the time or the emotional energy for a committed relationship, and though John and George have been divorced for over fifteen years, they've neither of them stopped loving the other."

"He's a very lucky man," Yvonne said ruefully. "Doesn't know he's born if you ask me."

When they'd finished eating, Yvonne brought up the subject of just one of her errant daughters.

"Denny tells me you're fixing it for her to go and see Dockley. When I last spoke to you about it, you said it was only a possibility."

"Any more cannabis cookies, and it'll stay a possibility," Karen said firmly, lighting a cigarette. "But yes, I am putting it into place, or at least trying to. I've given Denny specific instruction to exhibit impeccable behaviour for the next month. That was last week, so she's doing well so far. What do you think about her going to see Shell?"

"I'm not sure I entirely agree with it," Yvonne said carefully. "But she's an inmate in your care, so I'll assume you know best."

"I'm open to persuasion, on any side of the argument, Yvonne. You probably know Denny better than any of us."

"I just don't want Denny slipping back into her old ways, that's all."

"And you think that Shell might have that effect on her?"

"I think it's a possibility. Just, when you're making the final decision, please try to take that into consideration."

"I will," Karen said seriously. "I'll do everything in my power to look after Lauren and Denny. I owe you that much, at least."

Part Ninety

Once again, Yvonne found herself walking through the gates of Larkhall Prison. The number of times she had visited on either Denny's behalf or Lauren's behalf felt as if she were becoming a prison visitor with semi official status. The prison bars that had resolutely held her in captivity were now there waiting for a prison officer to let her through as a matter of course either coming or going. With one notable exception, every screw that she saw had that relaxed attitude with no trace of that inner watchfulness that used to make them tense, with pent up aggressiveness ready to snap the handcuffs on her should anything kick off without warning. Of course, the sole exception was Bodybag who would never leave it out. She had that slow witted dogged persistence like a brain dead English bulldog with one fixed idea in her mind that would never change. She made more work for herself and that fixed scowl she gave her was as much as she dare do with Karen around.

Denny greeted her with a big hug and that huge grin from ear to ear which was her basically affectionate nature shining through now it was safe to be that way. They chatted inconsequentially for a brief minute while Yvonne edged her way into the topic that was uppermost on her mind.

"So you've pinched my idea of slipping Bodybag an 'E' or so I heard from Karen," Yvonne grinned.

"She was dead good about that one. We would never have seen any harm come to her or Gina. It was all done in good fun, not like the Monopoly money for Bodybag. Honest, mum."

Denny's cheeky grin and raised eyebrows only confirmed what Yvonne had known in a second anyway. Nevertheless, at the risk of repetition, she thought she would say her piece.

"I know that it was only a harmless joke, Denny. Nevertheless, you've got to know that an awful lot of trust is being placed on you if you get your chance. I know Karen and I know that she's sticking her neck out for you."

Immediately, Yvonne regretted what she had said. She had a gut feeling that this idea might be more dodgy than Karen was either making out or thinking. The whole thing had that well meaning feel about it that could blow up in everyone's face. She couldn't put her finger on it and she could hear herself sounding like a nagging anxious mother."

"Leave it out. Miss Betts has given me an ear bending before you got to me, only she had more time to do it. You know me, mum. I've slipped a bit at times but I'm a grown up now. I'm not the kid that you had to look after when you were here."

True, sighed Yvonne. She walked right into that one.

"It's gut instinct talking to me, Denny. I've learnt to listen to it and trust it over the years."

"Is it because it's Shell. I know that you two never got on," Denny pursued, looking straight into Yvonne's eyes. "You give it to me straight up."

"Straight up," Yvonne repeated automatically as her mind whizzed back to the past.

She had always despised that two-faced tart that would sell out her mates for favours from Fenner if she had the chance. She had talked to Nikki who had told her of the days when nobody had believed her in any rows and she got slapped down while Shell walked away Scot-free. Yvonne was a woman with a very simple litmus test where anyone was concerned. She either trusted them or she didn't. She could smell double-dealing and a bent anyone, not just a screw. And yet, she had loathed to the bottom of her soul what had happened to Shell as an abomination against nature that a mother could have been separated from her baby. For ages, Hedges fawned his way up to her for no good reason, promising the earth when what that meant was that he was guilty as sin. Despite the worst she thought of Shell, she gave him the brush off time after time till he got the message. Eventually, in those thirty seconds while her eyes were wide open, she grasped for that inspiration that she needed..

"I disliked and distrusted her for the way she behaved. You know that she was way too close to Fenner and she was always out for her own interest."

"Your Miss Betts lived with Fenner, remember?" came Denny's razor sharp reply.

"Yeah," Yvonne was forced to admit. "She used to be another one like me that went for the bastards. I got married to Charlie, remember, but you don't have to stay the same way as when you started out in life. Growing up ain't the sort of thing you stop doing when you're twenty one and have the key to the door."

Yvonne's slow deliberate reply shook Denny in turn. She had let it go right out of her mind how resolutely straight that Yvonne used to be, in fact married for a number of years. She started to feel confused, uneasy.

"Key to the door? What's that."

"An old wives' tale. The sort of crap Bodybag's always coming out with."

Denny wore that classically puzzled expression on her face that always made Yvonne smile affectionately. Gradually the corrugated frown of baffled concentration cleared as the penny dropped.

"So what about shell?"

Yvonne had cleared her thoughts and she could see a clear passage through the obstacle course.

"I would not have wished it on my worst enemy to get shipped out to Ashmore, the way it happened to Shell. I've got to be honest, she's pulled enough strokes in her time but that was way, way worse than anything she's ever done. You know what I feel about mothers and children, Denny, and that baby should have lived with Shell. I'll give her that much that from what you told me, she would have been a good mother."

"So what's with all this slagging off Shell a minute or two ago."

"Just that Dockley is not all bad. I'm being fair to her."

Denny paused for a few seconds while she let it sink in. She was confused as in listening to Yvonne, everything was black or white. Yvonne either loved or hated and there wasn't a middle course of greys. She had absorbed this as naturally as mother's milk and it was this, which had sorted out the collection of jumbled ideas and fucked up experiences, which had played havoc with her feelings. She had spent so many years drifting, rudderless, while pretending to be hard and tough. She had taken out her own bad experiences on weaker women around her and the pain that she had inflicted on them happened to block out her own. She had always been searching for someone smarter, quicker thinking, more attractive to tell her what to do and that one woman for ages had been Shell. There was that devil may care manner about her that had first attracted her and Shell had been the woman whom she had first slept with on the occasions that Shell wasn't sneaking off with that wanker Fenner.

"I know that the two of you were close and I wouldn't stop you even if I wanted to," Yvonne continued, her voice husky with choked emotions. "But you've got to keep your feet on the ground."

"What do you mean?" Denny asked in a more composed tone of voice. Yvonne had grabbed her attention and was listening. It was always that when Yvonne reasoned with her that what had been confusing her made sense. It was what had first drawn her to Yvonne as well as her great sense of humour.

"It's just that if or when you see Dockley, you'd better prepare yourself for anything. You've not seen her for two years if my memory's right. You don't know and I don't know what that place is like and the woman you knew may have changed."

"You're trying to put me off her but you're just being sneaky about it," Denny shouted in a voice that echoed round the visiting room. There was mingled fear and anger in her voice and her facial expression.

"Anything wrong, Yvonne?" Dominic enquired politely.

"It's all right, Mr. McAllister Any problem and I'll give you a shout," Yvonne answered in as calm and as level a tone of voice as she could summon up. He nodded back at her, trusting her judgement.

"All right, Denny. Maybe I'm talking bollocks and maybe things are all right but I'd be a bad mother if I let you go into something, telling you that everything's all sweetness and light when maybe it isn't. You think it over and maybe if Karen does get you the OK, she'll tell you how things are. All I'm telling you, is that you cannot think that the Shell Dockley that those bastards shipped out will be the woman you'll maybe see. Just think on it and be realistic."

The words that Yvonne had been urging on Denny finally sank home. It helped Yvonne to talk as she needed to thread her own thoughts together properly and drag out her own thoughts and fears out into the open and give them shape.

"Go on."

"I know that you care for Dockley…….."

"Why do you call her Dockley and not Shell?" Denny flared with the last little outburst.

"'Cos that's what I've always called her," Yvonne promptly retorted.

Denny shut up and let Yvonne continue in her own time.

"I know that you want to see her and you want to make sure she's being looked after, and you're feeling guilty that you've put her out of your mind for a long time. You're feeling better now and you feel that you're up to seeing her."

"I know I am."

"You will be if you stick to Karen's agreement. She'll be less soft on you in holding you to your agreement to keep your nose clean and that's saying something."

For the first time for what seemed ages, Denny grinned slightly at Yvonne's touch of humour. She had that sureness of touch in knowing when and how to lightening things up.

"You're really telling me all this stuff for my sake?"

"Don't I always?"

Yvonne's incredibly tender voice soothed Denny in those few syllables which was the most solid rock hard guarantee that she could ever get out of life.

"I'm afraid, time's up everyone," Dominic said in his considerate way as he explained to everyone that visiting time was over. Bodybag's stentorian tones made no such apology as she hectored everyone as to every little detail as to what the visitors should do as she enjoyed bossing about those whom she regarded as an inferior species.

Impulsively, Denny reached forward to hug Yvonne closely to herself as if she would never let her go. That warmth between them would never die and Denny knew it.

Yvonne seemed to float back to her car. That was one good deed for the day and, however tense it was, confirmed to her a feeling of self worth. Whatever her doubts as to what lay in store for her in her life, there was one gift she could point out to herself which thank God had not deserted her.

Part 91

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