DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betaed by Jen.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part Ninety One

On the Saturday lunchtime, George began getting into the right frame of mind for the coming rehearsal that afternoon. She had already selected the pieces she intended them to work on, and was now thumbing through the score, leaving no stone unturned. Changes in key, time signature and tempo, she vowed to learn them all by heart. She wasn't fool enough to think she could conduct without a score, but she didn't want to have to rely on it. She wanted to do her father proud, even though he wouldn't be there to see it. John would though, and Karen, and Jo, and George found herself eager to impress all of them. Giving her baton one last polish, she switched the CD on for one final time, going through the hardest piece she intended to do that day, the one they'd done last Sunday. The trick with this one was anticipating the switch from 4-4 to 6-8, as it took place in the middle of a bar to provide the anacrusis. Halfway through however, Jo arrived to pick her up.

As there was a distinct lack of parking space around the church hall they used for rehearsals, it had been recommended that as many people travel together as possible. Jo's cello was reclining on the backseat, and George rested her baton on her lap.

"Is that yours, or is it your fathers?" Jo asked, as George fastened her seatbelt and they drove away.

"It's daddy's spare one." George caressed the tiger wood lovingly. "I'm rather looking forward to this afternoon," She said with an evil grin.

"Yeah, well, just go easy on us mere mortals," Jo said with a rueful smile.

"Oh, I'll be as gentle as a kitten," George said sweetly, not fooling Jo a bit.

"Yes, and kittens have extremely sharp claws."

"Then certain people will know not to wind me up, won't they."

"Just try not to use this opportunity to settle any old scores," Jo warned seriously.

"What, such as Francesca Rochester?"

"She's just one of several."

"Quite why daddy allowed her to be part of this is beyond me."

"There wasn't much he could do to stop her," Jo said fairly.

"It doesn't mean I have to be nice to her," George insisted.

"I think she's found a fair few of us who have taken that view."

"Serves her bloody well right."

When everyone had arrived, and the chairs and music stands had been set out as before, George stepped up onto the makeshift rostrum, provoking more than a few raised eyebrows.

"My father cannot be here this weekend, so he has asked me to temporarily take his place. Now, whilst I know this will give most of you just cause for concern, both for your sanity, and the roof of this wonderful hall, I am just as capable as any of you at maintaining a professional facade, even though I may not always do so in court. I see that Sir Monty is also not here, though everyone else appears to be accounted for. You will have noticed that we now have the requisite number of second violins, thanks to Roisin Connor. I ask you all to be nice to her." Barbara gave Roisin an encouraging smile from where she sat in the middle of the string section. George then delighted the male members of the orchestra, by turning round to speak to Grayling. She was perfectly aware of the handful of sly smirks, as they admired her divinely sculptured backview, but she simply ignored it.

"I do hope you're up for a lot of singing today," She said to Neil, who privately thought that it wouldn't do the orchestra any harm to come under her cosh.

"As long as you give me a break in the middle, I'll be fine. What did you have planned?"

"Numbers twenty-two, twenty-three, and depending on how this lot behave themselves," She added in a stage whisper. "We might even have a go at the two love duets." Swinging round to catch the men in mid gawp, she waved her baton to encompass every member of her orchestra.

"As you heard, we will be starting with number twenty-two. Now, can anyone tell me what the possible pit fall might be with this?"

"We're not at school, for heaven's sake," Sir Ian complained, none too quietly.

"No, but if you can't tell me where every one of you might stumble with number twenty-two," George said with a winning smile. "Then you certainly should be." A few people laughed, including John.

"The change in time signatures," Clare volunteered.

"Thank you," George replied. Then, turning to Ian she added, "It's called abandoning that pride you're so fond of, Ian, you should try it some time." Leaving him in mid bluster, George continued with her explanation. "In bar eighteen of number twenty-two, the time changes from 4-4 to 6-8. The change in time signature, occurs in the middle of the fourth beat of the bar, leaving one quaver to act as the anacrusis, or up beat. You must be ready for this, because I won't be hanging around for any stragglers." As George turned to the correct page in her score, Michael Nivin said to Karen,

"I think we're being given an inkling as to what she'd be like, if she ever became a judge." Hearing Karen's low, husky laugh, George glanced over at her, receiving nothing but an innocent smile in return.

As she raised her baton for the downbeat, she glanced back to make sure that Neil was ready. The pure strength of the sound that surrounded her momentarily threw George, though she didn't let it show in her beat. Every person watching her was soon very much aware of one thing, George's beat was clipped, firm, and clear, with not a single trace of the slightly wavering quality that Joe's had possessed. It was immediately evident that George would wait for no man, or woman come to that. She could hear Neil's voice resonating behind her, with the occasional crescendo from the trombones in front, and the continuous chords from the strings all around her. They moved fairly smoothly through the time change, George's baton swooping from four beats to two dotted beats without a flicker. When they reached the section of pizzicato strings, accompanying the lyrical flute melody, George raised her left hand and brought them to a halt.

"It is abundantly clear," She said in slightly disgusted tones. "Precisely who has practiced this before, and who hasn't. Clare, you were beautiful, but I cannot say the same for the strings. The whole point about this little section is for the flute to have as little accompaniment as possible. That means that you must, must, must play in time. The plucking needs to happen just before the note is required, for the sound to be heard on the beat itself. Let's try just those few bars again, without Clare, because I want to hear exactly where we have a problem." Raising her baton, she counted in the two bars before the plucking began. Allowing herself to be submerged in their sound, she was able to pick out those who kept to her beat. "Seeing as that was no more successful than before," She said, with a slightly malevolent grin on her face. "Let us try it without John, Roisin, Karen and Jo, as I suspect it is those few who are getting it right." She knew this to be true, as this was the piece they'd practiced on Sunday. Receiving a glower from Brian Cantwell, Jo smirked. That would teach him to think he was better than her, in court or out of it.

George worked, and worked, and worked her string section, until she was thoroughly satisfied.

"Finally!" She exclaimed. "Now, let's try this from the top, and without any offbeat plucking, and as long as everyone is agreeable, we will carry straight onto number twenty-three. You do all need to get used to the length of breaks between pieces, and there isn't anything drastically difficult about number twenty-three for you to worry about, or for me to explain." This time, they managed to sail through the awkward sections, with the bassoon being added to the flute on the repetition of the pizzicato phrase. As they progressed smoothly into number twenty-three, the rest of the orchestra joined in, including Sir James Valentine's timps. When Sir James resumed his drumming after a significantly long rest, George again raised her hand to call a halt.

"More sound, less noise please, Sir James. This is Haydn, not the fab four." John wasn't the only one to break into a roar of laughter at this remark. George would be signing her career suicide warrant if she wasn't careful. When they tried this piece for the second time, George could see Sir James frowning in ill-concealed hatred of her for embarrassing him. Having dragged her orchestra through these two of Neil's solos, George told him to take a break while they concentrated on the accompaniment for number sixteen, 'On Mighty Pens'.

"Oh dear," Drawled Sir James venomously. "Can't Mrs. Channing sing and conduct simultaneously?"

"Not this one, no," George replied curtly, not rising to the bait. "Now, the clarinet is supposed to represent the flapping of the bird's wings, and the flute, the bird's call. Everyone else, apart from providing the accompaniment, is trying to portray the backdrop of the air, through which the bird is flying. This is by far the first flute's greatest challenge of this work, so let's give her something to play for." Giving Clare a smile, she raised her baton, counting in the three silent beats before the up beat crotchet.

They played through this piece relatively smoothly, with George occasionally calling out various instructions or corrections on the hoof, not making the entire orchestra stop for every mistake. But after a succession of irritations from Sir Ian, George thought it was high time he was brought down from off his self-made pedestal.

"Ian, when you play your introduction to the words, 'his welcome bids to morn the merry lark', you are giving the impression of a bird whose wings can barely be bothered to move. The bird is flying to her mate, with all the urgency of a bitch on heat, not with the lack lustre approach of a witless man, who can't think of a better excuse than the proverbial headache. Do I make myself clear?" As George took in the laughter from both Neil and John, together with most of the women, she noticed the blank expression on Lawrence James's face. It would not do after all, for Mr. James to be laughing at the plight of his immediate superior. Once the laughter had subsided, though with no reply from a smouldering Ian, George said, "Let's try again." Ian did put far more vigour into his phrases this time, though George suspected this was more from blind fury at his humiliation, than any attempt to improve. But when they'd moved onto the accompaniment for one of Monty's solos, this also done without the singer because of his absence, George's eye was continually caught by what Sir Ian and Lawrence James were doing. As the piece they were playing was mainly comprised of strings and a few brass, with both clarinet and oboe being given a break, Sir Ian and Lawrence James, appeared to be passing something between them, keeping it for a moment, and then passing it back. George couldn't be certain from where she stood, but she had a feeling that it was a notebook. So, that was what they were up to, was it? Writing notes instead of listening, like two adolescent schoolboys with nothing better to do. George would have left well alone, except for the evilly insipid grin on Sir Ian's face.

When they reached the end of the piece they'd been playing, George stepped down from the rostrum, walked between the first desk of second violins and the harpsichord, and unceremoniously plucked the notebook out of Sir Ian's hand, before he'd even noticed her presence. When he tried to take it back, she stalked away from him, ending up standing back on the rostrum, in full view of everyone. In response to Sir Ian's fruitless mouthing, she said,

"If you are going to persist in doing what I think you were doing, at least have the decency to do it covertly, where I can't see you. Now, seeing as your little foray into adolescence was clearly far more important to you, what you have written must therefore be for public consumption." Then, to Sir Ian and Lawrence James's dismay, she opened the notebook, flicking through its pages, trying to find the choicest remarks to read out loud to all and sundry.

"Well, well," She said, after reading for a few moments. "It appears that most of this drivel is aimed at me, which is all to the good. Let me see. Ah yes, 'I wonder where Mrs. Channing gets her fabulous wrist action from.' Why, thank you," She drawled with false gratitude. "I suggest you ask your old friend, the secretary of state for trade about that. I'm sure he'll be only too delighted to tell you. Oh, and here's an interesting one, 'What do you think it will take to make her snap?' Well, you can find out in a minute, can't you?" Then, after reading for a little while longer, she continued with, "'Have a guess at how many women in this orchestra have been to bed with Mr. Justice Deed.' Well now, your wife could go at the top of the list, couldn't she, Sir Ian. Oh, tut, tut," She said, on reading what came next. "'John Deed must have something going for him if Mrs. Mills keeps going back to him.' Well, you can ask your wife about that too, can't you." But when George read what was on the next page, she became absolutely still. The words she was seeing in front of her eyes were causing a combination of reactions in her, hurt, anger, a little confusion, and a desire to protect Jo, from ever finding out what those two of nature's miscreants had written about her. Every eye was on her as she stood there, holding the notebook in her slightly trembling hand. But when she said,

"We will all be taking ten minutes break, after which we will be doing the two love duets," They all stared at her. Unwilling to give them any explanation, George stepped down from the rostrum, slipped the notebook into her handbag, and stalked purposefully towards the outside, needing a hit of nicotine more than anything else in the world.

Only one person came to disturb her, Karen.

"Are you all right?" She asked, laying a hand on George's shoulder.

"No," George replied quietly. "I'm not."

"What did they say?"

"Trust me," George said acidly. "You really don't want to know."

"Was it about Jo?"

"Yes, and I'll do everything I can to stop her from finding out what it was. God, I could strangle the pair of them."

"You're doing very well today, you know," Karen said kindly, trying to make her feel better.

"Well, I've now got to sing and conduct at the same time," George said with a mirthless laugh. "So let's hope I can pull that off as well."

When George returned inside, she walked up to Neil.

"Are you ready for this?" She asked him.

"It'll be a bit like my marriage," He said ruefully, and at her raised eyebrow added, "Acting in love when I'm clearly not."

"Oh, I see," She said, for some reason wanting to know more about this enigma before her. "I'm going to need you to stand where I can see you." As Neil moved to stand between the back desks of the first and second violins, George mounted the rostrum and flipped the pages of her score. When she'd raised a hand for silence, she said,

"This may be marked 4-4, but it is so slow, that the triplets give the effect of a waltz. Seeing as this is a love duet, this is particularly appropriate." She counted in one bar's rest, to give them an idea of the speed, adding two softer beats to every actual beat, to mark out the triplets and make the time easier to follow. The strings achieved the waltz effect of the music, being joined by Lawrence James and his oboe. But as she and Neil were about to begin singing, George held up a hand.

"Mr. James, would it be too much to ask, for you to play that little phrase all in one breath?"

"Of course, Mrs. Channing," Lawrence replied ingratiatingly, clearly trying to make up for his and Sir Ian's earlier misdemeanour.

"Imagine you're about to go down on a woman, Mr. James," John said into the silence, causing a ripple of laughter and a brief, thoroughly wicked little smirk from George. This time, she let the music flow, joining Neil in their appreciation of the God who had created them. George could clearly see Neil from where she stood, and attempted to persuade her soul to join with his, to combine their love for music, if not each other. But something felt wrong. She should be singing this with John, not with Neil. She had sung this with John, on Easter Sunday, in her lounge at home. It had felt real then, but now it just felt forced. When they reached the end, George felt disappointed. This was supposed to be wonderful, something to take pleasure in, but it simply left her flat and dejected.

"Let's carry straight on," She said, not wishing to dwell on anything to do with that particular piece. "We'll miss out the preceding recit."

"Why, is that so that you don't have to say 'Thy will is law to me'?" John asked stonily.

"I would be committing heresy to my reputation if I did that," George said, turning to face him, and liking neither the tone of his voice nor the look on his face. "John, don't scowl, it really doesn't suit you." Not having time to wonder what his problem was, she lifted her baton, finding that yes, with a relatively easy piece, she really could detach her hand from her voice, from the rest of her body, so that it kept up its work without faltering. She was able to let herself go a little more with this one, but she still felt that something was missing, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.

'Spouse adore'd, at thy side, purest joys o'erflow the heart; life and all I have, all I have is thine; my reward thy love shall be.'

George put everything she had into those lines, but still it wasn't quite enough, and when their lines began to intertwine, creating the most deliciously decorative counterpoint, she tried to feel that she really was enacting this with a lover. But Neil Grayling wasn't her lover, he was just a man, just a gay man whom she would never be attracted to, and who would most certainly never be attracted to her. They managed to keep up the act, Neil clearly putting far more into it than she did, until they were approaching the end.

'With thee, with thee, is every joy enhanced.'

What a joke, George thought grimly to herself, what a sheer mockery of the love that was supposed to exist between a man and his wife. She and John had been like that once, in those early, golden days, the days before Charlie had come along, forever separating her and John in all but name and association. Even now, even though he still slept with her, still said that he loved and wanted her, even now they hadn't managed to recapture that incessant bliss Haydn had spoken of.

When she lowered her baton for the last time, there was a short silence.

"I think we'll leave it there for today," She said, and everyone could hear the dull finality in her tone. As she stepped down from the rostrum and picked up her handbag, Neil approached her.

"That didn't go to well, did it?" He said quietly.

"No," She said regretfully. "Maybe it'll go better next time." Neil was about to say something further to her, but George felt John's hovering, malevolent presence before she saw him.

"I think we need to talk," He said icily. "Now."

"John, is this absolutely necessary?" George asked, the irritation evident in her tone. "I was planning to get a little drunk with Jo this evening, wasn't I, Jo," She said as Jo approached them, begging Jo with her eyes to acquiesce and cover for her.

"Yes," Jo replied, seeing that George clearly needed her intervention.

"Tough," John said abruptly. "Because you and me are going to talk, this evening, tonight, now. Is that clear?" Even George knew not to disobey the rigidity of either his voice or his expression.

"I'm sorry, Jo," She said bitterly. "It appears I have an unavoidable appointment with the master here. Do please excuse me."

Part Ninety Two

Both John and George maintained a stony silence on the way home, neither wanting the storm to break before they were behind closed doors. They could both feel the tension brewing, the clouds crowding in en masse, ready to burst at the slightest prick. Not one, single word was uttered between them, but George could see his hands gripping the wheel, almost in an attempt not to throttle her. But this was what mystified George. For once in her life, she really didn't know what she'd done. Something had clearly made him blisteringly angry, but she couldn't even begin to wonder what that might be.

As soon as the front door closed behind them, George opened her mouth.

"Don't you ever do that to me again," She said icily.

"What?" John asked, though knowing exactly what she was talking about.

"Summon me to your presence, as if you were still behind the armour of your judge's robes, and could bend and manipulate any recalcitrant barrister to your every whim." If John hadn't been so angry, he might have laughed.

"You're priceless," John said in disgust. "I wasn't the one trying to act the part of the next Jane Glover, whilst simultaneously hiding behind the proverbial fig leaf, not to mention turning a blind eye to Ian Rochester's blatant disregard for human decency. I've no idea what he said, or should I say wrote, to make you walk out like that, but if it was about Jo, which I think it was, I want to know."

"And what my lord desires, he usually gets," George quipped back, the bite in her tone matching the growing fury in her eyes. "You're not the only one who can protect her from being hurt, you know," She added, hitting home with far more accuracy than a sniper's bullet.

Leaving him in mid gape, she stalked towards her office, retrieving the notebook from her handbag as she went. Her intention was to put the entire thing through the shredder bit by bit, so that John couldn't read the immensely insulting suggestion that had been made about Jo. George was extremely well aware, that if John got his hands on it, he would either verbally or professionally, beat Sir Ian Rochester to a pulp, doing himself substantial harm in the process.

"I want to see that," John said from the doorway.

"Well, you can't," George replied curtly. "It'll do neither you, nor Jo any good for you to see it."

"That's a matter of opinion," He said stonily, moving towards her with all the stealth of a cat, fully intent on cornering its prey at any cost. As he made a swift lightning grab for it, she was too quick for him. She had been anticipating something like this, and her determination to keep it from him, giving her the agility of one of Swan Lake's finest. Holding the offending notebook behind her, she danced out of his reach. If she could only get to her paper shredder, which stood in the far corner, she might just manage to halt him in his quest. If he tried to take it from her, she would always dart away from his grasp, her success making him even more furious than he already was, and all the more intent on achieving his goal. When he eventually cornered her, with her back to her desk, he clamped his arms round her, fixing her left arm to her side. George knew by this that she'd lost. Her left arm was unable to break his hold, and her right was behind her, still trying to keep the book out of his reach. She struggled against his superior strength, but she couldn't fight him off.

"Let, me, go," She hissed.

"Not a chance," He replied, moving flush against her as she leant back, even now trying to keep it from him.

When he stood at last in triumph, the notebook held aloft in his hand, a remark rose up out of her, that she would regret for the rest of her life.

"Well, well," She said, almost flatly. "I never would have thought I would see the day, when you would use your superior, male strength, to take something you wanted by force. A bit like Fenner, when you think about it." She bit furiously down on her tongue, thoroughly unable to believe she'd uttered such a profanity. The only feeling John betrayed was in the brief twitching of his hand, the one that wasn't holding the notebook. Just for an instant, he had been itching to slap her. He knew it, and she knew it. George had seen that blind fury only once before in a man, in her old lover, Neil Haughton. He had blacked George's eye, and she slightly quailed at the thought of John doing the same. But he didn't, John had far more control than the secretary of state for trade. He simply stood, staring at her for a moment, and then walked away, moving to stand near the window. He began flipping through the newly acquired notebook, trying not to dwell on what George had said to him. He bypassed the comments and suggestions that had been written about George, and those that concerned him, some of which she'd read out for all to hear. When he stumbled unexpectedly on the insults they'd aimed at Jo, he knew he'd found what he was looking for. George had gripped the notebook so tightly to rein in her anger, that her nails had left faint impressions on the page.

'Why does Deed stay with Mrs. Mills? We both know he lied through his teeth at her PCC hearing. Though quite why, is beyond me.'

'It's not as if she's anything special, is it.'

'Now, if it were Mrs. Channing, that would be understandable. But Mrs. Mills is about as ordinary as you can get.'

'Perhaps it's not her looks that keep him.'

'Well, her cello playing's got to come from somewhere, though she doesn't strike me as being very good mistress material.'

'Deed obviously thinks so.'

'I wonder if she's as good in bed as she is with her bow.'

'Ask Row Colmore. He's certainly had a taste of that particular forbidden fruit.'

Having read quite enough of this drivel, John dropped the notebook disgustedly back on the desk.

"I'll kill him," He said, his voice slightly deeper with the force of his intent.

"Which is precisely why I wanted to keep it from you," George said quietly. "I couldn't give a damn what the likes of Ian Rochester might think of me, but Jo would. Why else did you do your utmost to clear her name with the PCC? Jo can't bear her professional reputation to be tarnished, and we both know that you'll do anything within your power, and a lot that isn't, to keep it that way. In your eyes," she continued bitterly. "I can look after or ruin my own, but having followed and encouraged Jo's career from the outset, you feel it your duty to continue to do so. If you do anything about this, you'll be in serious jeopardy of reopening the issue of your relationship with Jo, and the way you both behaved in front of the PCC. You might not have been having an actual affair with her then, but you certainly are now."

"Is that a threat?" John asked quietly.

"No, you stupid man," George said in sheer exasperation. "I'm just as guilty as Jo is of sleeping with you, more's the pity. I'm just trying to make you realise what a can of worms you would be opening, if you rise to the bait. You saw only the bare minimum of their speculations about you and Jo, and about Jo's skill as a lover, but you don't need to see any more. I didn't want you to see it, because I didn't want it to get you into more trouble than you usually are with those two. But you just wouldn't have it, would you. Why can you never leave well alone?"

"And why do you always have to hide things from me that I need to know?" He retorted vehemently.

"Need to know, or want to know?" George demanded.

"Is there a difference?"

"Not in your case, clearly."

"And something else I want to know," John questioned silkily. "Is the precise nature of your relationship with Neil Grayling." George simply stared at him. Then it hit her, John was jealous! He was seriously, irrationally jealous of how she'd sung those love duets with Grayling, one being the one they'd sung together on Easter Sunday.

"Have you any idea just how ridiculous you sound?" She said, a laugh of utter incredulity in both eyes and voice.

"Why, because this time it's you being unfaithful, instead of the other way round?"

"John, he's gay," George clarified, unable to restrain her mirth at his ludicrous suggestion.

"Oh, how convenient," John said in total disbelief. "It seems to be catching."

"Before we get onto that little time bomb," George said acidly, any previous amusement having left her. "You might be enchanted to hear, that I loathed, hated and despised every, single bar of those duets. I've never felt less in love, nor more wooden than I did this afternoon. You weren't the only one who couldn't forget the way we sang it a few weeks ago. If you'd come down off your very high horse of ludicrous conclusions for five minutes, you'd see that I'm finding it incredibly hard to behave as though I'm in love with anyone but you. However, that isn't really the problem, is it, because we both know that there's something far deeper, and far more soul destroying to discuss. You've been waiting three months to have this out with me, and I think that now, might just be the time. So, go on then, finally come out of that self-imposed shell of yours, and tell me what you really think of my relationship with Karen."

"Okay, fine," John said resignedly. "You're right, this particular row has been waiting to happen, because some of the things I said to Karen back in January, probably ought to have been said to you, not her. The first being that I don't understand why you felt it necessary to go back on our arrangement, when it was me who was pressured into sticking to it."

"This relationship wasn't my idea," George replied. "It was Jo's, or have you conveniently forgotten that? Yes, I was happy to agree to it, because it meant that I could still have the feeling, if not the actuality, of being loved by you. We both know why you agreed to it, because it meant you could go on loving and sleeping with Jo. Yes, I know you get a vast amount of pleasure from sleeping with me, but let's face it, so did old Lover boy himself, which isn't saying much. Jo originally suggested it, because she knew it was the only way to stop you from straying. Have you never considered, that perhaps I need what I have with Karen, because she is in love with me for myself, not for what she might be accorded by agreeing to stray only with me? You make love to me, and occasionally say you love me, because it allows you to do the one thing you've always wanted, to have a vaguely normal relationship with Jo."

"But why Karen? Why a woman?" John persisted, trying not to look too closely at what George had just said to him, for fear that she might actually be right.

"Why not a woman?" George responded. "You'd be even more insane with jealousy if it was a man, and you know it."

"But why Karen? Couldn't you at least have picked someone I don't know?"

"Absolutely not," George said firmly. "The only way to keep you from pursuing her, was to sleep with a woman you'd already been to bed with. Your curiosity streak could rival that of daddy's old Labrador, and I'd have had my work cut out, trying to keep you away from her."

"I'm not that bad," John objected vehemently.

"Yes, you are," George insisted. "If something with the right variety of equipment stands still, or should I say, lies down long enough, you'll fuck it." John winced at her vulgarity, loathing it when she resorted to such phrases in front of him.

"Do you have to talk like that?" He complained.

"Why, you're surely not telling me that all those women came into the category of real, actual lovers? I didn't think you used to hang around long enough."

"When you've finished tearing strips off my character," John threw back. "You might remember that I have kept to our arrangement for the last eighteen months." He found himself conveniently ignoring the Sunday afternoon he'd spent with Yvonne. George didn't need to know about that. "But in spite of my doing that, agreeing to yours and Jo's one main condition, it's you who has insisted on involving someone else. Why, wasn't I enough for you? Is that it?"

"Why, do you think Karen might just be giving me a better time in bed than you do?" George taunted.

"Of course not," John scoffed in total self-assured arrogance. "No one will ever give you a better orgasm than me. I'll accept, with good grace I might add that you like to try something different occasionally. It isn't everyone who would submit to your every sexual whim, of wanting to be tied up, or of being treated like a whore, which does perhaps show the other side of the tempting angel you were trying to play on stage this afternoon. At least Jo likes her men fairly normal, fairly run of the mill."

"My god, you are so arrogant!" George exclaimed, now really losing her patience with him. "That's what you like, isn't it, to be able to impress Jo with your prowess, your sexual skill. Is that why you wanted to spend the night with the two of us a couple of weeks ago? Did you want to use me to give Jo the time of her life, to show her the beautiful little plaything you'd managed to pick up, in said plaything's final year of university? Because believe me, that's exactly what it felt like. I know only too well how much of your commitment to this relationship is because of Jo, but you don't need to rub it in my face. You complain about my being sexually adventurous, when it was you who taught me half of what I know."

"I didn't teach you to fancy women," He said bitterly, finally able to get a word in edgeways.

"You really can't stand it, can you," George thrust home venomously. "You really can't bear the fact that sometimes, Karen can arouse me, just by talking to me, or that she has shown me an avenue of pleasure I didn't know existed. That isn't my fault, John, and I am not going to apologise for it. You are either going to have to learn to get used to it, or this relationship, as far as I'm concerned, ends, now."

"You can't do that to Jo," He said in horror.

"John, I wouldn't do anything in the world to hurt Jo, I never could," George replied, her voice suddenly quiet. "But if you can't learn to accept the person I am, or at least the person I have recently become, then you know where the door is."

"What are you saying?" He asked softly.

"You heard," She said, unwilling to put up with any more. "Just get out. This conversation is closed for the time being, because I've had quite enough." Walking swiftly passed him, she wrenched open the front door, and waited as a slightly bemused John walked through it. The resounding slam that sent him on his way, reverberated around the house, reminding George that at the end of the day, she was utterly, irrevocably, alone.

Part Ninety Three

George stood for a long time after John had left, staring at the front door which she'd just slammed in his face. Then, pulling herself together, she went into the lounge, put on some Tori Amos perpetually borrowed from Karen, and lit a cigarette. The haunting words and melodies, served to take away some of the tension of the passed hours. She hadn't had time to come down from the rehearsal, before she and John had started in on each other. She couldn't believe some of the things they'd said to each other. Angel, or whore, that was how he'd talked about her. Angel, or whore, verbally flogging her with the original literary depictions of the female species. She'd always thought he'd enjoyed her occasional liking for experimentation, but perhaps she'd been wrong. There hadn't been much they hadn't tried at least once, but he'd been as eager for it as she had. Perhaps the only fantasy George hadn't shared with him in those days, was the fact that she wanted to sleep with a woman. Angel, or whore, which one was she? She didn't know, and more to the point, which did John think she was. He was right, she had been acting the part of the tempting angel this afternoon, but it was he who'd asked, even begged her to do it. John had persuaded, cajoled, and definitely manipulated her into playing the part of Eve, yet he clearly couldn't handle her enacting the love duets with Neil. Angel, or whore, angel or whore. Yet, when it came to Karen, he obviously thought her the whore she'd once expressed a wish to play. That had only been a fantasy, something said in a slightly drunken moment, when they'd laughingly opened up as to some of the things they'd like to try. John had admitted to finding the idea of sleeping with two women at the same time very appealing, but this still hadn't encouraged George to be entirely honest with him. John had only discovered her attraction to her own sex, on the night following her imposed visit to Larkhall. Even back then, even when she and Jo were barely being civil to each other, John had found the thought of her and Jo together incredible. Then, two weeks ago, John had suggested, with all the casualness of offering her dinner, that they might spend the night together, all three of them. George had felt enormously turned on by the idea, but at the same time immensely confused. She shouldn't be feeling things like that for Jo, only for Karen. That was why she had left, that and thinking that Jo would be horrified if she suspected the level of George's arousal at the idea. But then Jo had calmly told her a week later, that George's all too evident reaction hadn't bothered her. Then had followed that intensely charged Sunday afternoon, the possibility of a foursome just out of her reach. If Jo and Karen had both been up for it, George knew that she wouldn't have thought twice about it. Angel, or whore, angel, or whore. That was what was confusing her, John had poured a certain amount of scorn on her sexual waywardness, when he would have been just as up for a mini orgy as she would. He really hated the fact that she was in love with Karen, and not Jo, entirely ignoring the fact that Jo would never feel that way about any woman, no matter George's own feelings on the subject. Jo might have been excited by the sight of what George and Karen had been doing last weekend, but George was certain that this was as far as Jo would ever stray in to the world of sapphic pleasures. But all this maddeningly logical introspection wasn't getting her anywhere. After they'd flung so many hurtful words at each other, where did that leave their relationship with Jo? John loved Jo, had loved Jo for years, and would always love Jo, George knew that. She also knew that she, George, couldn't possibly stop being friends with Jo. They'd become so close over the last eighteen months, and George wasn't about to let that go, just because she and John didn't know how to bow down in the face of each other's pride. But she couldn't just kiss and make up with John this time, not unless they both did some very straight talking. She laughed mirthlessly to herself at this, straight being the issue that had brought them here in the first place. Angel, or whore, angel, or whore. Should she give up Karen? Could she give up Karen? Right at this moment, George didn't think she could. Karen was wonderful, gave her as much or as little space as she wanted, not giving a damn about the fact that George couldn't go public about their relationship, and was utterly enchanting in bed. What more could she want? But there came the rub. George did need more, she needed John. Even though he was arrogant, utterly self-assured, ruthlessly manipulative, and a devout believer in his own ability to get what he wanted out of a woman, she needed him. She was being torn, she knew that, one way by John and his insecurities, and the other by Karen, and the fact that George needed what Karen could give her. Reaching out a hand to the phone, she found herself wondering just who she could call. Not Karen, because too much of this argument had been about Karen. Not Jo, because in the grand scheme of relationship ethics, it would be highly unprofessional, to discuss a row with one's man, with said man's other lover. Certainly not daddy because he would just tell her he'd told her so. Who did that leave? No one, or at least no one whom George would feel comfortable discussing this with. Her eyes again strayed to the phone, as she remembered the feeling of united strength that had pervaded the group of supporters at Lauren's trial. They had all welcomed her with ease, making her feel a kind of warmth she'd not felt in a group of women before in her life. The only two who might listen to her out of that little circle of women were Helen and Nikki. But even though George felt a pull, something telling her to lift the phone and talk to someone, to anyone, she simply couldn't do it. Angel, or whore, angel, or whore. If John couldn't make his mind up as to which of these depictions of womanhood she represented, why should anyone else.

As John pulled into the carpark, he decided that all winebars should possess adequate parking space, if only to serve those who had been unceremoniously shown the door. He couldn't believe George had done that to him. Walk out on him, was certainly something she'd done in the past, storming out of the digs like a bat out of hell, their combined fury yapping at her heels. But she had never once thrown him out of her house, verbally or otherwise. That was the difference now, he realised. When they were married, she couldn't kick him out, or at least she wouldn't, not wanting to make their all too frequent rows the substance of public gossip. But that hadn't prevented her from doing it tonight. As he strolled into the bar, and ordered a large glass of red wine, he reflected that this was one of the nastiest rows they'd have in a long time, not having hurled insults as vicious as today's choicest words, at each other since the final, bitter days of their marriage. As he sipped at the heady, earthy wine, he couldn't quite believe what she'd said to him about Fenner. Yes, John was very well aware that he had used his physical strength to take that notebook away from her, but there had undoubtedly been a just cause, to get at the truth of what those imbecilic dolts had been suggesting about his Jo. He had to admit though, that he did understand why George had wanted to keep it from him. John knew he hadn't seen the worst of it, and in one way, he was really rather thankful that he hadn't, but he certainly hadn't deserved what George had said. She had likened him to Fenner of all people, Fenner! How could she have put him in the same category as that vile, odious, evil little cretin, who had made so many people's lives a misery? It was George saying this, which had probably sparked off some of the hurtful things he'd thrown at her later. He knew he'd gone too far, just as she had, but he was no more going to apologise for it than she was, or at least no more than she would have in the old days. He'd known he was going too far, when he'd castigated her for being sexually adventurous, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. He had loved every minute of their sexual experimentation, just as much as she had, the early days of their marriage having been the fondly thought of golden age for him as well as for her. But it still rankled with him that she'd never quite trusted him enough, to tell him about her liking for other women. He supposed it was this that had so inflamed his jealousy when he'd found out about Karen. Yes, he'd known about George's little fantasy before then, but the discovery of Karen as George's new lover, had somehow put all his worst fears into practice. Why couldn't she have fallen for Jo, and Jo for her? Why couldn't his life just be that simple for once. As he handed over the money for a second glass of Burgundy, a woman caught his eye. She was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and really looked the spitting image of George, or the George he'd first met, at that new year's eve party in her final year of university, when she was just twenty-years-old. God, she'd been beautiful then, not that she wasn't now, but there had been something so striking, so instantly addictive about the way she'd danced, causing every male eye in the room to follow her. He'd sauntered over to her, claiming the next three dances as his, immediately intrigued by her spiky, provocative, and utterly argumentative nature. He'd watched her as she danced with other men, occasionally flashing a smirk at him across the room, as if showing him that she could have any man she wanted. He'd approached her again as she stood at the bar, sipping from a glass of white wine, and when the DJ had played a song especially for all the couples in the room, her hand had slipped into his, and without a word they had moved back onto the dance floor. They'd stood together as Big Ben had chimed, standing under a bunch of mistletoe, that someone had obviously been leaving up until Twelfth Night for maximum advantage. Once begun, they'd kissed on, and on, and on, only eventually coming up for air out of necessity. They'd gone outside, ostensibly so that she could have a cigarette, but with an underlying wish for privacy. They'd sat on an old wooden bench, his arm going round her shoulders to keep her warm. They'd talked for a long time, and kissed for even longer, the crisp, cold air of the early hour of nineteen seventy-seven, not breaking in on their clear attraction to each other. Much later, when John had driven her home, he'd been entirely happy for the first time in his life, to be content with nothing more than a long goodnight kiss from her. He'd taken her out to dinner, less than a week later, and this time he'd made love to her. George had by no means been a virgin, he'd known that the first time he slept with her, but she'd been different somehow, passionately knowing, and enchantingly innocent all at the same time. Where had all that gone, he wondered, looking over at the woman who had caught his attention. Why had all his happiness with George, been replaced with only scorn, bitterness and a deep feeling of regret on both their parts. As he sauntered over to the replica of what his George had once been, it briefly occurred to him that he shouldn't be doing this, shouldn't be tempting fate, and putting his, or anyone else's, emotional well-being on the wheel like this. But, what the hell. The odds of either Jo or George finding out about this were a hundred to one, so why shouldn't he have just one, little flutter to ease his despair.

Part Ninety Four

Henry had that finely attuned hearing which could pick out the light footsteps of his beloved Barbara as she stepped across the parquet flooring after silently opening the large oak door of the vicarage. He removed his glasses as his tired eyes had had enough of poring over his large family sized Bible for inspiration for future sermons. He felt that it was incumbent upon him to venture beyond the same stale set phrases that he could recite in his sleep.

"Do you want a cup of tea or some such refreshment after your labours?" Henry enquired with his usual brand of gentlemanliness.

Babs accepted the cup of tea gratefully after sinking back into her favourite high-backed armchair.

"And how did you fare with all those high powered barristers?" He asked in enthusiastic tones. The whole event sounded as grand as if he were asked to perform similarly with bishops, bedecked in their red robes.

Babs smiled wanly but didn't answer. Immediately, Henry felt guilty for the bad timing of his question, as she had clearly not had a very good time at the rehearsal. They both fell to talking of lighter inconsequential matters and a nice cup of tea restored both their flagging spirits. Henry switched on Radio 4 but pitched it low. It made for a restful Saturday evening.

Babs reflected on how she had come to be in her present situation. She had played the organ on and off during her marriages for years, as something that gave her spiritual release as her quiet brand of Christianity and uplifting music went hand in hand, both as a solace in bad times and as a celebration in good times. Even during her spell at Larkhall, the tiny electric organ in the shabby chapel had kept her hand in. To take up her duties on the church organ was like driving a stately Rolls Royce in comparison with the functional Mini. The huge spreading size of the church organ summoned up the full stateliness of the music as a full-scale portraiture in depth compared with the sketchpad of the little electric organ. However, having dropped into the comfortable routine of playing the familiar well-worn hymns on the church organ she soon found this part of her duties as a vicar's wife in a rural congregation effortless. Some spark had made her volunteer to play the harpsichord to tackle something more demanding, that she could give herself to. Yet the severe sharp baroque precision of that instrument enthralled her, as did the idea of her taking part in such a grand undertaking. The second rehearsal ought to have been a celebration yet she had mixed emotions, a slightly let down feeling which she couldn't explain easily. Thank heaven, Henry had the good sense to allow her some space.

"A penny for your thoughts?" Henry said at last, hours later, his melodious voice breaking in on her meditations.

"It's about the rehearsals," Babs started and then stopped.

Henry looked with concern at his wife. She was unfailingly polite and courteous unless she was pushed to the point where she could speak her mind. He had found that to his cost early in his first acquaintance with her. He was the very naïve new vicar of Larkhall and she was…..that very remarkable woman who came to fill that empty space in his heart when his first wife had died. He chose to wait for the moment when Barbara was ready to talk. It would be unchristian to exert any kind of pressure on her, even for the best of motives. He had long learned to examine his own heart for the reasons why he acted or failed to act. It was a life long search as a practising Christian that, with God's guidance he could become the human being that he aspired to. In his private moments, he did not think by any stretch of imagination that he held life's answers in his hand, or alternatively, in his knowledge of the scriptures.

"Don't worry, Henry. I felt comfortable. I found that my musicianship was at the level expected of me. It is entirely a new experience to play in a full orchestra."

Babs smiled more freely as she heard again in her mind the power of the orchestra all around her. A part of her was inclined to sit back and listen and applaud the others. Everything was magnificent- until the music stopped.

"It was nice seeing some familiar, reassuring faces. Roisin played the violin of course and Karen the viola and Jo the cello. George was ever so kind to two newcomers to the fold like Roisin and myself…….."

Babs chattered brightly as she emphasised the positive side of the rehearsal, as only her sense of charity would permit her. Henry let her chatter on and only decided to intervene when the way that conversation suddenly ground to a halt signalled more complex feelings.

"There is something wrong, Barbara. I would not normally press you on the matter but I would say that a problem shared is one that is halved."

Babs sighed and removed her glasses, cleaning them automatically on a cloth from her glasses case before she started to talk.

"It goes back a long way, Henry. I can still remember growing up as a little girl in my home town of Sudbury. It looked like a child's picture book, straight out of an Enid Blyton story. I can still see the village policeman walking down the street and he seemed enormous. The headmaster at the village school where I went was this august presence. I felt happy, secure and safe in such an ordered world…….."

"The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker….. And, like me, you looked up to those who were in charge," Murmured Henry as memory took him backwards.

"Nikki once described me as 'Mrs. Middle England.' She was right. The only thing is that deep down, Nikki is a little like that too only she would never admit it," Reflected Babs warmly. "There's something about that style in her that I could see a mile away."

She paused for a sip of tea while Henry waited.

"I never questioned such certainties when I was growing up and my faith in them was every bit as strong as my religious beliefs. I never needed to tell the world about either of them. It was just accepted in the same way as a cooked breakfast and a nice cup of tea was always the only civilised start to the day. I felt that my fate was in safe hands as long as good order ruled. I remember so clearly the school prize day when I won a form prize in English composition and received a book presented by my headmaster. I would do anything to please him. You'll still find that book in pride of place in the bookcase in the study. It was so easy to make your way effortlessly through life then and for some people it still might be…..Until I was sent to Larkhall."

A sixth sense of knowing Barbara so well had taught Henry that her apparently long detours had its point. He believed that patience was an old fashioned virtue which wasn't much respected these days in the wide world but it did had its just reward.

"I bitterly resented that hard hearted judge who sent me to prison. He had not an ounce of Christian charity or understanding and had no right to lecture me the way he did from his throne up on high. Everything I was brought up to believe in left me totally unprepared for what he said. Even to you, Henry, I cannot repeat his words……."

The unexpected force of the long pent up anger overflowed all Babs' emotions in all directions. She had never talked about it to Henry or to anyone else except, not even her diary. It was a hidden wound in her heart, which had suddenly been exposed at that one shocking moment.

"You must have felt betrayed, didn't you? I remember everything that you grew up with to also believe in my life."

Babs nodded, unable to speak at that moment. She dabbed at her eyes with a tiny lace handkerchief. Surprisingly soon, Babs Christian fortitude led her to carry on, initially unsteady in her voice to begin with.

"Not only had Peter been taken away from me - you know how that feels," Babs smiled quickly as she sought to make what she felt totally real to her very patient husband. "….but I lost my freedom when the police came to arrest me one dark evening. If that wasn't bad enough, I ended up locked up inside a mobile cubicle the size of a rabbit hutch and driven away to God knew where. The full horror of the situation combined with my loss of faith in half of what I had grown up believing in. It brought on the worst claustrophobic attack in my life. After that stupid woman Bodybag had mixed me up with a homicidal maniac, I was locked up in what seemed like a dungeon. I was pumped full of drugs, which knocked me for six by a man in a doctor's gown. He was the sort of person I would have placed my life unthinkingly in his hands. I had thought that the worst had happened to me. But oh, no."

Babs had gradually built up her tirade from barely articulate grief to a crescendo of full-fledged anger at a deep-seated personal betrayal. It would have made Henry uncomfortable, he reflected, if he had not seen events with his own eyes which had educated him more of life than his past fifty or so years of effortlessly tranquil assumption of his present position in life of vicar in a rural community. Even life's tragedy of when his first wife had died of cancer had not prepared him for Larkhall.

"The crowning moment, the turning point in my life, was when I was stupidly worried out of my skin of the thought of sharing a cell with a supposedly notorious lesbian. I turned to the one man in charge who seemed to be that embodiment of male authority, which I had grown up to trust and look up to. I spoke to him in strict confidence."

Babs paused to swallow a mouthful of tea as her voice was getting dry. She sensed when she should push forward and talk and when to pause by sheer instinct.

"Yet he immediately broke that trust to exploit a personal grudge in the meanest fashion imaginable. With it, he broke what I thought was my last respect for authority. The woman I shared a cell with was my truest friend and protector. It was Nikki. That prison officer was the late, very unlamented Mr. Fenner."

"This is all very true, Barbara. I don't quite understand how all this relates to the rehearsal?

"I thought I had lost all respect for authority if it weren't for Karen, Karen Betts, you know. As you remember, I was finally released and we settled down in this parish where we have been happy. Yet I have not been able to leave it all behind, not when we both were called to the stand over that dreadful affair. You remember when Snowball Merriman and Yvonne's son conspired to set that bomb off on G Wing and when Fenner was killed. I did see a possible brighter side at that trial when I saw a real judge on the throne and felt, once again, that admiration that I used to feel. I was happy, spending time with all those dear friends from Larkhall from that time which so strangely had resulted from such a personal disaster. Truly, God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. So I went to the rehearsal, my faith restored. George was standing in as the conductor and she was fine. She obviously knew what she was doing and all she was trying to do was to get the best out of the orchestra."

Henry noticed immediately that Barbara had clearly identified with the perspective of George's point of view, of assumption of responsibility, of duty, of commitment to the matter in hand.

"…..Yet two of the most unspeakable members of the orchestra were the very same men who were at the back of the visitor's gallery at the court who were clearly of high authority. Yet they were exposed by George for exchanging notes between each other making the sort of personal remarks that only nasty immature schoolboys are capable of. Not content with that, one of them had clearly not practised enough and had to be publicly and rightfully rebuked."

"There is bound to be the occasional bad apple in any organisation. It is, alas, something which one must expect," Henry replied with far too much a sense of charity and understanding. If they had any differences of opinion, it was on this.

"One bad apple, Henry, not a sense of rottenness from those who, after all, I was taught to believe in. Those most guilty are all without exception people of high authority, who go about their daily duty in judgement over other human beings. That's what worries me, Henry. I wouldn't trust some of them further than I could throw them. There was an underlying unpleasant atmosphere and an atmosphere of backstabbing. The man who played timpani was clearly playing games with George, enticing her to conduct and sing at the same time and set her up for a fall."

"And did she try?"

"She had the sense not to rise to the bait."

"Do you think that there are enough right thinking people so that justice and fair dealing will prevail and above all else, that the rehearsals will bear fruit for the final performance?"

Babs smiled faintly. She had not thought of that.

"I think so. The judge, George. Jo, Karen and Roisin for a start are all on the same side, the right side."

"And will any unpleasantness come your way. That is what I am most concerned about."

Babs shook her head confidently. Her harpsichord parts were most evident in the recitatives when only her harpsichord and the cellos played. The very misleading mildness and unobtrusiveness of her personality left her to blend instinctively into the background and watch. This was a role that came easily to her. Now she came to think about it, it was only when she was alone once when David faced Goliath in the shape of a very spiteful Shell Dockley. Somehow, she summoned up the strength inside herself, to lash out and to throw Dockley across the room and result in her breaking her arm. That was a defining moment in her life when something in her reached out for a quality in her that she never knew that she possessed to take direct physical action. It was so against the grain of her self image of the law abiding citizen but, then again so was procuring cannabis plants from Nikki to alleviate the dying Zandra Plackett's pain and easing Peter out of his earthly hell of pain to a salvation forever more. It was all in a good cause. Everything she had ever done in her life was always in a good cause. It was just that definitions could be legitimately stretched in directions she had never known of before.

It had not taken Yvonne, for one, to take Babs' measure that she was tougher than she thought that she was and would always stand up with the rest of them out of conviction when others would hang back. In both the two major demonstrations at Larkhall, Babs took a surprisingly forceful backup role in the G Wing prisoner's leadership even if her self-deprecating personality did not give her full credit.

"No, I don't think I will be in the firing line. When I think about it, Henry, if the situation ever arose, I know that I will know what to do even if I can't see it at present."

"You don't suppose that it will come out that you were once in prison - and Roisin also?" questioned Henry.

"Karen would never say anything about that - nor would Neil."


This last aside of Babs went totally past Henry's understanding.

"Neil Grayling, the Governing Governor of Larkhall in our time. He is taking the part of Adam and a very fine singer as well. Not only that but he was thoroughly amenable and unassuming. The cellos and I back him on his solo parts. I'm confident that I can hold my own with any one of them."

"So fight the good fight then, Barbara?"

Babs grinned for the first time that day. That did sum her up very well.

"I'm truly sorry, Henry. I did not wish to impose on you. It's just that there was a lot in my mind that I wanted to get clear now I don't write a diary these days. I thought that I never needed to."

"We are all God's creatures, Barbara. You know that those who are placed in authority are not necessarily better human beings than those less fortunate are. I have to restrain my feelings when I hear some of the sentiments expressed by some of the less charitable members of the congregation that they should thank Heaven for what they have in life and not to elevate into a major catastrophe, what is clearly nothing of the sort. When I remember my lime of vicar of Larkhall prison……" he started to say.

Henry suddenly went red in the face as a coughing bout deprived him of the power of speech. Anxiously, Babs rushed to fetch a glass of water and to pat his back until he recovered. It was so like him to get angry and protective on her behalf, never on his own account.

As Babs relaxed back in her armchair, she smiled fondly at that supremely understanding man who sat so close to her and with whom she was destined to share their autumn years together. What would she do without him, without his wise council?

Part Ninety Five

On the Tuesday evening, Karen was trying to wade her way through some overdue paperwork. She'd been in her new job exactly four weeks now, but it felt as though she'd been doing it forever. As well as the inevitable budgets, she had the recruiting of new officers, allocating of inmates, and the serious adjudication's to deal with. On top of all this fairly run of the mill stuff, were the endless circulars from area, containing either promises or refusals of funding, outlines of new policies, or simply requests for information that she really didn't have the time to provide. Juggling G wing's finances had been enough of a struggle, but she now had the joyful task of distributing the money to wherever she considered it might be most profitably used, which would no doubt incur the wrath of whoever didn't receive it. It hadn't been any coincidence that she had been put into the job at the beginning of the new financial year, she reflected grimly to herself. Neil hadn't wanted to go through the endless arguments with wing governors, about why their funding had been cut, in order for the adjacent wing to make desperately needed improvements. She had the accounts for the previous year for every wing spread over the table, the floor between it and the computer, gradually becoming strewn with screwed up pieces of paper holding frantically scrawled calculations. It was interesting, she thought cynically, seeing the monthly financial battle from the other side. PMT might be irritating, but it had nothing on the feeling of having to spread the funding far too thinly, like a scraping of butter over an entire loaf of bread.

A little after nine, the phone rang. It was George.

"Darling, are you busy?" George asked, once they'd got the usual pleasantries out of the way.

"Nothing that can't wait," Karen replied, hearing the clear need for company in George's voice. "Do you want to come over?"

"Is that all right?" George asked, not wanting to intrude if Karen would rather be doing something else.

"Yes, of course. Are you okay?"

"Not really," George said, desperately trying to hide the threat of tears.

As George drove across London to Karen's flat, she wondered if she should really be doing this. She felt incredibly miserable, and wasn't sure if she would be able to maintain even a vague pretense of normality. Her argument with John on the Saturday had knocked her for six, but would Karen really want to hear about it. Maybe all she needed was a cuddle and someone to listen, and let's face it, she thought, anything was worth a try. George had to smile when Karen came to the door. She was wearing jeans and a casual black top that clung to her high, full breasts. Her hair was ruffled and standing on end, as if she'd been running her fingers through it.

"I look like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards, don't I," Karen said, seeing George's appraisal.

"Actually, it suits you," George said, moving into Karen's arms once they were upstairs. "I quite like the casual and relaxed look."

"Casual maybe, but definitely not relaxed. Let's just say, that the funding area sees fit to keep Larkhall on an even keel, leaves a lot to be desired." After they'd kissed each other long and hard, Karen held George at arm's length and scrutinized her. "You look worn out," She said gently.

"And you've got ink on your face," George replied, neatly diverting Karen's all too accurate assessment of her.

"My pen started leaking all over my latest begging letter to area," Karen replied, glancing down at the ink still on the fingers of her right hand. "Would you like a drink?" She asked, moving towards the kitchen. "Because I think I've definitely earned a large scotch."

"Not for me," George said, moving to sit on the sofa, and observing Karen's paper trail that led from dining table to computer.

"Why, are you not up to drinking on an empty stomach?" Karen asked, sitting next to George with a very welcome glass in her hand.

"Is it that obvious?"

"Not to the unaccustomed it wouldn't be," Karen said fairly. "When did you last eat?"

"Yesterday, I think." Taking a swig of her scotch, Karen put an arm round George, feeling the tension in her body.

"What's happened?" She asked gently. George took a breath to reply, but realised that she didn't know how to go about explaining, that John had all but demanded that she choose between him and Karen.

"I had a pretty enormous row with John," She said eventually. "It just got to me more than I thought it would, that's all."

"It must have been some row, to make you stop eating again."

"It was. We haven't shouted at each other like that since we were married. I feel stupid, because I shouldn't have let it get to me like this, but he always knows which buttons to press to make me feel guilty. You know John, he doesn't do something like that openly. He does it so covertly that you end up feeling that his problem with something is your fault."

"Sweetheart, as far as I'm aware," Karen said with a rush of feeling. "You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about."

"I don't think that's quite how John sees it," George said miserably.

"Is this about me?" George tried to avoid Karen's all too penetrating gaze, but Karen wouldn't let her.

"It didn't start off about you," George admitted finally. "But that's how it ended, with me telling him that if he didn't like the person I am, he knew where the front door was." Karen fought to suppress her anger, knowing that George didn't need to see it.

"I thought I had all this out with him back in January," Karen said, clearly exasperated with him.

"It wasn't ever going to go away that easily, Karen, you know that."

"Yes, I do, but he had absolutely no right to take it out on you."

"Why not?" George asked bitterly. "It's me who's done this to him, not you, and not anyone else."

"George, you haven't done anything to him. I know he's felt very threatened by you and me, but that is his problem, not yours. John is always trying to prove that he's a fully fledged adult, and thoroughly capable of making his own decisions, so it's about bloody time he started acting like one." George half smiled in spite of herself.

"You'd make a very good defense barrister," She said, putting her arms round Karen.

"He can't do this to you, George," Karen insisted vehemently.

"Yes, he can," George said resignedly. "I know it, and he knows it too. As pathetic as it sounds, he knows I will never be able to live without him. I loathe myself for having to admit it, but it's true, and he knows it's true. The only real problem with it is, that he is perfectly able to take advantage of it from time to time." Karen hated to hear George talking like this.

"Do you want to stop seeing me?" Karen asked quietly, slightly astounded at the fear that rose in her at the thought.

"No, of course I don't," George protested. "That's the last thing I want. You've got no idea just how much you mean to me, have you. When it began, I thought it was just because I was discovering a new part of me, finding out just how sensational sleeping with a woman really was, but it's not. You've just accepted me for who I am, and you've never tried to change me. You don't know just how special that is to me. I know I'm incredibly complicated, and I know I'm difficult to be with sometimes, but you don't let it get in the way." After gently kissing her, Karen said,

"So, what are you going to do about John?"

"There's nothing I can do," George said grimly. "Only he can decide what's really important to him. If he ever wants to apologise, that's up to him to do in his own time. I'm not going to push him into it, and I would far rather that nobody else did either," She added knowingly.

"Oh, don't worry," Karen replied, having interpreted George's plea. "I'm leaving this in your hands. Any interference from me would only make the situation worse. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to verbally kick him into the middle of next week."

They sat close together, George feeling more depressed than she had done in a long time, but wholly unable to tell Karen about it. She was so afraid of losing this woman who meant so much to her, that she didn't want to frighten her off. George found her insecurities and inadequacies difficult enough to deal with herself, so anyone else would surely run away screaming. She knew it was stupid, but she couldn't escape the fact that Karen might not want to keep putting up with all the hassle John was currently providing. She wasn't sure she would if she were in Karen's position. But Karen wasn't blind, she knew there was an awful lot George wasn't telling her. She could feel an inner tension, an inner fear, something inside George that was preventing her from really talking about what she was feeling. Karen didn't attempt to get George to eat anything, because she thought this might push George away altogether, but it still worried her. Someone as slightly built as George couldn't afford to lose much weight at the best of times, and Karen privately thought that George remained below an average weight for a woman of her size, even when she was eating normally. All George seemed to want this evening was to be close to someone, for just another's presence to stop her from dwelling too closely on her own thoughts. They didn't talk very much, there not being a need for it. Karen and George could be close together without requiring a constant source of conversation. The soft music Karen had put on the stereo made George gradually begin to relax, making her feel that the warm, safe haven of Karen's arms was where she wanted to stay for the foreseeable future. But at about a quarter past ten, Karen broke into her contemplation.

"Come on," She said, briefly touching George's face where it rested against her shoulder. "We've both got to work in the morning."

"Can I stay?" George asked with a yawn.

"I naturally assumed you would be," Karen said, gently kissing her. Whilst Karen took a shower to remove any last traces of ink, some of which had even managed to get into her hair, George cleaned her teeth and slipped under the thick feather duvet. She listened to the now very familiar sounds of Karen preparing for bed, drifting in and out of a doze as her exhaustion began catching up with her.

But when Karen's soft, warm body slid in beside her, George woke up to the one thing that might help her feel human again. She wasn't sure if it would work, but she didn't want to go straight to sleep. When Karen held out her arms and George moved into them, their legs entwined, bringing them as close together as was humanly possible. As Karen gently kissed her, an immense need to protect George rose up in her, combined with an urge to utter those three fatally dangerous words, I love you. That would be the biggest mistake she could make. If John was putting pressure on George, then by saying such a thing she would be doing exactly the same. Taking Karen's hand, George led it to her breast, stating more clearly than a thousand words that she wanted Karen to make love to her. As Karen moved her hand over George's soft, silky skin, she realised that George might want this as a form of brief escapism. But even as her nipples began to inevitably react to Karen's skilful touch, George realised that the rest of her wasn't about to follow suit. Karen thought something was a little different about George this time, but she couldn't place exactly what it was. The answer reached her, however, when she gently slipped a hand between George's legs, to discover that she wasn't remotely aroused. At the point when Karen realised that George was as dry as a bone, tears of utter humiliation rose to George's eyes.

"I'm sorry," George said, finally beginning to lose control of her emotions. Swiftly removing her hand from between George's legs, Karen put her arms round her.

"Hey," She said, gently running her hand up and down George's back. "You don't need to be sorry."

"I needed this, so much," George said, her frantic gasps almost choking her.

"I know," Karen said softly.

"I just wanted to feel vaguely human again."

"And believe me, George, this isn't the way," Karen said gently.

"Then what is?" George demanded desperately, feeling every ounce of restraint slipping through her fingers. Having no answer to this, Karen simply held her, trying to soothe away the painful sobs that were wracking George's body.

"Sweetheart, talk to me," Karen said, when George began to calm down.

"I'm sorry," George said, reaching for some tissues from the box on the bedside table. "I didn't want you to see me like this."

"George, listen to me," Karen cajoled. "You don't have to hide anything from me."

"Yes, I do," George insisted, her tears showing no sign of decreasing.

"Why do you?"

"Because you have absolutely no idea just how unstable I can be sometimes, and I don't want you to know. I scare the hell out of myself with the kind of thoughts I have when I get like this, so god knows what anyone else would think of them."

"I might know more about it than you think I do," Karen said quietly. "I think that it's incredibly easy for you to get very depressed, and that the not eating, is sometimes a part of it and that it sometimes isn't." George's whole body jerked at Karen's utterance of the word depressed. "You flinch at the word depressed, just like I do with the word rape."

"I hate it," George said vehemently.

"I know you do, and I know that you don't want anyone, especially someone as close to you as I'm becoming, to know what you think or how you feel. You really aren't going to frighten me off, you know."

"It's just, when it gets really bad, I feel so ashamed of some of the things I end up thinking."

"And now you're talking in riddles," Karen said, gently kissing her cheek. "But I know what you mean. I just have no idea how to help you."

"I don't expect you to," George said, not wanting Karen to have to feel anything of the sort.

"George, wanting to find the best way to help someone through a rough time, that's what people do when they care about each other."

"I think I've forgotten what that's like," George said miserably. "John's attitude is that if you can't actually see evidence of a problem, then it doesn't exist. He doesn't understand why I stop eating, so he tries to avoid discussing it. Yet if he ever finds out I'm doing it, all he can think about is making me eat again." George sounded so despondent, that Karen fervently wished she could miraculously take all the pain away. "It's so, so easy to slide back into it again, and so hard to get out. John won't accept that it really is an addiction, but it is. My immediate reaction to anything incredibly stressful is just to stop eating. It's not even a conscious decision half the time, but it's so hard to start eating again. The longer I leave it, the harder it is."

"Sweetheart, how long is it really since you last ate?"

"Sunday," George replied, refusing to meet Karen's gaze.

"Okay," Karen said quietly. "That's not too catastrophic, but as you said, the sooner you start eating again, the easier it will be."

"Not tonight, please," George begged.

"No, tomorrow will do. But George, please don't lie to me, not even little white ones. I'm not going to be cross with you, not if you tell me the truth."

"I'm sorry," George said, for what felt like the hundredth time.

"I know, but don't be sorry, just be honest with me. I want to help you, but I can't if you don't talk to me."

"You are, by not demanding answers I can't give you." Then, after a moment's silence, she added, "And I loathe trying to make love and not enjoying it." Karen kissed her lingeringly.

"It happens," She said. "It really doesn't matter. Yvonne used to say it made her feel like a defective bloke." George laughed.

"Yes, it does. I long for the day when John can't do it. That'll be poetic justice, that will."

"It happens to everyone occasionally," Karen said matter-of-factly. "Even reprobates like John."

"Darling," George said carefully. "I haven't completely frightened you off, have I?"

"No," Karen said, bringing them if possible closer together. "And you're never likely to." But as they gradually fell asleep, George couldn't escape the fact that whilst she might be slowly beginning to open up with Karen, it hadn't gone any further to sorting things out with John. If John were ever gone from her life, it would leave a hole far too big to avoid falling into.

Karen woke several times in the night, her thoughts always resuming their former endeavour, to endlessly tread her fruitless attempts to come up with a satisfactory way for her to help George. Dealing with anorexia and depression, as well as all their associated problems, would have been relatively straightforward had she been approaching it in the guise of nurse or prison officer. But this was George, someone she cared deeply about, someone she thought she might even be growing to love, and any thought of professionalism had gone straight out of the window. George slept restlessly beside her, occasionally murmuring an indecipherable plea, at which time Karen would hold George safe in her arms. When the alarm woke her at six thirty, Karen was dragged from sleep by the realisation that she may just have stumbled on, if not an answer, a possible way forward. Seeing that George was still asleep, Karen slipped out of bed, put on a dressing-gown and went to make herself a cup of tea.

When George began to surface, Karen was sitting on the side of the bed, gently shaking her shoulder.

"What time is it?" George said groggily, turning over to face Karen.

"Time to get up," Karen said with a yawn. "Sit up and drink this," She added, holding out a glass.

"What is it?" George asked suspiciously, struggling into a sitting position, her tousled hair making her look utterly adorable in Karen's eyes.

"Pineapple juice. It's the sweetest thing I had in the fridge. Your blood sugar's probably a bit low after two days of not eating."

"Oh, so that's why I feel like staying right here for the rest of my life," George said dully, accepting the glass from Karen and taking an experimental sip. "Oh, god, that really is sweet," She said, screwing up her face in distaste.

"Drink all of it," Karen said firmly. "You need the glucose. I'd rather you were getting it in a far more concentrated form, but natural sugar will have to do." Under Karen's steady gaze, George slowly emptied the glass, finally placing it on the bedside table. "There's something I need to ask you," Karen said, taking hold of George's hands. "I'd like your permission to talk to Jo, because I am well aware that there's an awful lot you aren't telling me, that I suspect she does know. I also think that you might find it easier to talk to me, if I already know just how bad it gets. You are incredibly frightened of admitting to what's really going on in here," She said, gently touching George's face. "And I think it would help you enormously not to have that barrier in the first place."

"You will, even if I say no, won't you," George said bitterly.

"No, not if you don't want me to."

"Then I would really rather you didn't," George said a little icily. "I will deal with this in my own time and in my own way, just like I always do." Biting back the assertion that George's way clearly wasn't working, Karen simply said,

"Okay, I won't," And getting up from the bed, she went into the bathroom, a long hot shower being the only thing that might properly wake her up.

As George listened to the shower running, she felt ridiculous. Karen was only trying to help her in the way she knew best, and if George was forced to admit it, she knew Karen's suggestion had been a good one. But it made her cringe to think of Karen and Jo discussing her as though she were some slightly obscure endangered species. But that wasn't really fair, she thought. Karen and Jo both cared a great deal for her, she knew that. If Karen did talk to Jo, then Jo might fill her in as to just how bad it had got last time. At least she, George, wouldn't have to see Karen's immediate reaction to that, which was after all her greatest fear when it came to talking to Karen about all of this. She couldn't tell Karen that when it got really bad, she would often feel like ending it all. That was just unthinkable. It didn't matter that she hadn't ever tried it, or that she probably never would. The fact that she contemplated it on far too much of a regular basis was bad enough.

When George emerged from her own hot shower, yesterday's clothes making her look far less professional than usual, she found Karen sitting at the table, last night's paper hurricane having miraculously migrated to her briefcase. She was reading the morning's copy of The Guardian, and eating a bowl of cornflakes. Retrieving a yoghurt from the fridge, George sat down opposite her.

"I don't mind," She said slowly. "If you talk to Jo." Karen looked up surprised.

"Are you sure?" She asked, putting her spoon down and putting a hand over one of George's.

"I'm not going to like it," George admitted, entwining her fingers with Karen's. "But you've given me a get out clause that I can't quite ignore. At least this way, I don't have to witness your immediate reaction to finding out just how screwed up I am."

"I wish you wouldn't think like that about yourself," Karen said quietly.

"You might change your mind after talking to Jo." George's reply might have borne the flippant edge of black humour, but Karen didn't miss the strength of meaning behind it. As they both left a while later, Karen to drive to Larkhall and George to go home for some different clothes before going to work, Karen put out her arms, pulling George close to her.

"Promise me to take care of yourself," She said into George's hair.

"One thing Jo will tell you," George said with a half smile. "Is that I don't do promises, especially not promises like that."

"Well, at least try," Karen said quietly. "And I'm always here, any time."

"I know," George replied, the threat of tears evident in her voice. As Karen watched her drive away, she couldn't help but to wonder if she really would see George again, and if she should have let her drive away, as if everything was as perfectly all right as she wished it was.

Part Ninety Six

Roisin had had a continual rush at school from one thing to another while the back of her mind was meditating on the crotchets and quavers of her evening's calling. In all the hurly burly of the day, her mouth smiled at the right times and her lips said the right words. She had rushed off home with the children and she and Cassie had made the evening meal and all the plates and knives were washed and dried. She had done her duty for every conceivable person under the sun and now the rest of the evening was hers.

Roisin carefully took her sheaf of sheet music and selected the particular piece, which she intended to practice. She pinned it to the front of the large fridge freezer, which was the handiest improvised music stand she could find. Strong magnetic counters on each corner tacked it into position for easy sight-reading. The only fly in the ointment was Cassie's limitations in helping out with the children's homework. Cassie had gallantly volunteered to stay with the children so that Roisin could practice undisturbed. This was the theory and, well meaning as the other woman was, there was an obvious weakness in this plan which Roisin could spot a mile away.

Dismissing her fears, she trusted to luck, took up her violin and braced it against her chin. She took up her bow and was precisely poised to coax out of her instrument, those precise flowing tones of the opening bars when…….

"Mum, I'm stuck with my algebra. Can you help?" came Michael's desolate wail.

How did Nigel Kennedy ever become the most talented violinist of the modern age, Roisin groaned inwardly. Well, first he was a man. That made a big difference. Either he was a bachelor, married only to his artistic muse, or alternatively, his wife was wonderwoman or else they had an excellent battalion of servants on hand. Cassie, bless her, had suffered from a misspent youth. All the consequences of those years of erotic daydreams of her PE teacher when she should have been knuckling down to her school work were coming back to haunt her and, by extension, Roisin. For someone whose mathematical ingenuity had nearly enabled her to get away with scamming the firm that they had both worked for, she had barely scraped her way through Maths 'O' level and had imagined that she had promptly turned her back on quadratic equations the moment when she left school. Now that she was called upon to help with the education of two intelligent children whose virtuous application and thirst for knowledge was limitless, she was aware of her limitations. It was all Roisin's fault for encouraging them to have questioning, inquisitive minds, she said to herself with rueful self-mockery. She wished she had concentrated more on her studies instead of lusting after the girl next door but try telling that to the adolescent headstrong of the Cassie Tyler at the time.

"Roash, I've been trying my best to cover for you but you know that algebra isn't my best subject," Cassie said apologetically.

Laying down her violin and bow with a sigh, she mentally switched like lightning from the sheet music in her head to the algebraic equations which had been dinned into her memory and which she recalled surprisingly well. Roisin smiled when she popped her head round the living room door and saw Cassie's apologetic expression and that very unusual look of helplessness and that she had tried her very best and it was now Roisin to the rescue. Thank heaven Roisin had been a dutiful schoolgirl and had always done her homework on time or they would be really struggling.

She sat herself down with the poor boy and saw at once the point on which he was stuck. She conjured up the correct words with an incredible mental jump to his level of thinking.

"Will you be all right to carry on from there, Michael?" she asked with a winning smile.

Niamh watched with amusement from underneath her fringe of dark hair that fell over her eyes while her gaze was fixed on her homework. She was sure that Michael knew more than he let on. After all, if he was bright enough to start reading Sherlock Holmes stories, she could not understand how the relatively simple matter that he asked Mum to help with would perplex him so much. From Michael's point of view, the schoolwork was beginning to be tougher and homework was taking up more of his spare time. It was easier when he was younger.

With a ticking clock in her mind, she managed by a superhuman effort to ease Michael past his particular problem and stayed with him until she was sure that he had understood what she had told him. Cassie could sense the unease in Roisin's manner and chimed in at the right time.

"I think that you can let mum go back to the kitchen and carry on with her practising. Are you all right, Niamh?" Cassie enquired of the little girl who had plugged on industriously at her homework. She had the knack of totally switching herself from the world once her concentration was engaged.

Niamh nodded, pleased that her quiet presence in the background had been noticed.

"I really must get on with my violin practice or I shall be hopeless at the next rehearsal."

Roisin's guilt at shutting herself off from the rest of the family and falling behind in her self-imposed task was painfully obvious to Cassie.

"You take yourself away, babe. I'll pass you a cup of tea later if you want one."

Roisin gave Cassie that brilliant loving smile that had made Cassie go weak at the knees when Roisin climbed out of her unassuming background photographic frame and she saw her for who she was.

"Why are you so busy, mum? It's like you've got homework. Grown ups don't have homework," Michael asked.

"It's a choice that I made after talking it over with you all," Came Roisin's defensive reply. "It's something I need to do to express myself. Any musician will tell you that."

"That sounds fine to me, kids," Cassie intervened. "I'm not into the music that Roisin plays but if it makes her happy, it's something she needs to do. You don't stop learning when you leave school."

The sheer solid weight of maturity said so plainly and simply had the desired effect. Cassie's total seriousness made the children sit up and take notice.

"And you are playing with judges and lawyers?" Michael enquired.

"About right. Most of the barristers from law firms in London, John and another judge, a couple of civil servants, oh yes Babs who used to be at Larkall and Karen who's still there….."

Cassie smiled inwardly at Roisin's most interesting description at this point.

"……..And Neil, who also used to be at Larkhall and Jo, the barrister who defended Lauren in court so brilliantly. It's quite a gathering."

"And they really think that our mum is good enough to play with them?" pursued Michael.

"I sure am," Roisin grinned confidently.

"Right, kids, you've got homework to finish off and mum has her violin to practice," Cassie broke in as the voice of authority. Jesus, if my mum had talked to me that way, I would have flown off the handle. Correction, came the afterthought, she did try to speak that way and I was a complete rebellious brat. "Are you really sure you don't need any more help and can manage by yourselves, or at a push, with me if you're absolutely stuck."

Michael looked at Cassie and decided that he could manage after all. Roisin looked round nervously and saw Cassie's raised eyebrows, silently asking her what are you waiting for.

"I'll see you later on when I'm finished."

"You're only going to the kitchen, mum," Michael said loudly. Stupid me, that's perfectly true. Why did I not think of that earlier on?

Roisin took the stage in her mind, or rather went to the fairly tidy kitchen, straightening a tea towel on the way and tidying the salt and pepper pots into their accustomed places. She took up her violin and bow once again and forced her mind to detach itself from 'must do'lists and mathematical equations that were threatening to crowd her mind. Now, she straightened the sheet music, which had slipped a bit and took up her violin and bow and took it from the top.

Delicately, she coaxed the soft flowing tranquil stream of notes from her violin and Roisin was immediately lost in her world. This time, on her own, she could explore the music for herself even if it described the merest suggestion of a line drawing without all the width and depth of musical expression to properly colour in all the musical tones. To her mind, she faithfully followed the gentle sweep of the music.

"Mum is good, isn't she," Niamh spoke to Cassie from the other room while peace prevailed. Michael and Niamh could shut themselves off into their homework but the gentle melodies from the kitchen was a gentle backdrop to the serenity of the evening.

"She is, Niamh." A commonplace remark like that totally understated her admiration for the woman with which she had chosen to share her life. She had heard Roisin play the violin before but her total confidence of purpose was something she had not heard before. Maybe she will enjoy the performance when it takes place. Chances are, none of her old friends will see her head off for Babs' church. After all, she couldn't think of any of those outrageously out and proud dykes to be Bible bashers as well.

Roisin could see that she was getting near to the bottom of the right hand sheet and there were a few trickier places where she needed to go over them. The only problem was that she didn't want to stop. She didn't quite know what to do when……

Suddenly, the hideously atonal repetitive sound of the telephone rang. By some oversight, the cordless phone had been left in the kitchen.

"I'll get it," Yelled Roisin.

The hideously enthusiastic voice began to read off the script at her and

"Good evening, I am calling from Staybrite windows. You have been selected for the chance in the lifetime of having double glazing fitted as part of a special offer for the chance of having your name put into a prize draw being held in your area. First prize is the complete costs of this..."

"If you don't mind. I play for the London Symphony Orchestra. I have an important performance tomorrow night at the Royal Albert Hall and I can't be interrupted. If I want your services, I'll look in the phone book and contact you. Now goodnight."

Cassie and the children burst into laughter at the unexpectedly ingenious way that she had sent packing, the increasing profusion of cold calling. Roisin had been increasingly irritated by the way that they had presumed to call her by her Christian name by people who she had not met in her life and then gone on to compound their ignorance of her by asking after Mr. Connor. That feeling building up and this mindless interruption was the last straw.

"Hey, babe. I've never thought of that one. I'll try that one next time we get a call."

"I thought we were supposed to tell the truth," Niamh asked inconveniently.

"I'll go to church next week and ask the father for forgiveness for my sins. I'm sure he'll understand," Roisin answered a little sheepishly at her slight stretching of the facts. It was emotionally true however and in a good cause.

"You'll be forgiven anything Roash. I know you so well by now."

The warmth in Cassie's voice and the look in her eye told Roisin that while her rehearsal wasn't going that great, she had everything else in her life that she could have wished for.

Part Ninety Seven

On the Thursday morning, Karen decided it was time to see if she could talk to Jo. She would have done something about it on the Wednesday, but a steadily growing crisis on H wing had accosted her as soon as she'd gone into work. She'd phoned George on the Wednesday evening, just to see if she was all right. But now it was Thursday, and Karen didn't think things were getting any better. Dialing the number for Jo's office, Karen tried to formulate what she was about to say. If put in the wrong way, this would make her sound either utterly pathetic or completely insane.

"Jo, it's Karen," She said, on being greeted by the confident, familiar voice.

"This is a nice surprise," Jo said, sounding pleased to hear from her.

"I'm not sure you'll think so," Karen said carefully. "It's about George."

"I'm listening," Jo replied, not altogether sure of what was coming. Karen didn't strike her as the type who would actively go seeking relationship advice.

"She's stopped eating again, and I think I need filling in on a few details in order to help her."

"I see," Jo said quietly. "I have a client due in about five minutes," She said, glancing at her watch. "And this is definitely going to take longer than that. How about meeting somewhere for lunch?"

"Yes, good idea," Karen said, sounding incredibly relieved that Jo had agreed to help her. After arranging to meet in a small winebar not far from Jo's office, Jo said,

"Don't worry, we'll sort her out," And as Karen replaced the receiver, she sent up a prayer to whoever was listening that they could.

At one o'clock, Karen walked through the door of the bar Jo had suggested, to be greeted by the delicious aroma of garlic and herbs, combined with espresso coffee and cigarette smoke. Jo waved at her from a corner table.

"This is nice," Karen said as she sat down opposite Jo.

"This is the nearest place to my office where I can smoke, eat, and get a decent scotch if I need one."

"If I didn't have to work this afternoon, that would be a wonderful idea." Ordering a pot of coffee and lighting cigarettes, they both searched for a way to begin what was most likely going to be a very difficult conversation.

"Tell me what's happened," Jo invited gently, observing Karen's difficulty.

"Before I do, you should know that George knows I'm talking to you. I didn't want to do this without her permission. She's had a fairly huge row with John, mostly about me, though I'm told it didn't start like that."

"So, that's why he's been avoiding me this week," Jo said in comprehension.

"Probably," Karen agreed. "I know very little of what he said to her, but I do know that George has ended up feeling guilty, for not being able to be who he wants her to be. She came to see me on Tuesday night, and that's when some of this came out."

"How long have you known about her problem with food?" Jo asked, taking a long drag of her cigarette.

"Since the first time we had dinner together." Jo's eyes widened.

"Well, that's progress," She said with pride in her voice.

"I might be wrong, but I've a feeling she wanted to redress the balance of how many skeletons she knew about of mine. It's funny, but she'll talk about the anorexia, but not about the depression that goes with it."

"I'm not really surprised," Jo said quietly. "Having been there intermittently myself over the years, I know how difficult that is."

"Just how bad does it get for her, Jo?" Taking a sip of her coffee, Jo attempted to organise her thoughts.

"I take it you know why George starves herself, whether intentionally or otherwise?"

"I know about Charlie, and I know that it's usually guilt of some form or another that makes her stop eating, though I suspect it's all mixed up with a hefty dose of self-loathing."

"That's about the size of it, though pretty much anything can spark it off, if she's depressed to start with. Just after the Merriman/Atkins trial, she seduced John, and yes, believe it or not, he did need persuading. But it wasn't quite the success she thought it would be. I think she wanted it too much, or should I say needed it too much. Not long before this, she'd been given a black eye by her previous lover."

"The current secretary of state for trade," Karen filled in. "Yes, I know about him."

"Well, I greatly surprised George by letting her shout at me, the morning after that happened. Before then, the thought of me and George even being vaguely civil to each other was almost unheard of."

"So, she felt guilty for sleeping with John, because of you," Karen said, beginning to put the pieces together. "Which would have knocked her for six in itself."

"Quite. I knew she was losing it, the day we questioned you about Fenner, but I didn't know the full extent of it."

"She told me about the day she fainted in court."

"Not a very easy day for either of us," Jo replied, remembering the tortuous words she'd coaxed out of George that day. "George does talk, at least an awful lot more than she used to, but it's still not enough. I remember," Jo stopped, the pain evident in her face. "That day she fainted in court, I took her home and she got into bed, having just enough energy to talk, but not enough to do anything else. All she was wearing was a cotton nightie, and she looked so thin. I've never seen anyone so painfully underweight as George was. Her arms were like sticks, and John carried her out of court as if she weighed no more than a child, which I suppose she didn't."

"She's not looking all that healthy at the moment," Karen said, beginning to realise just how serious the situation could get if not curtailed.

"How is she apart from not eating?"

"Not good," Karen said regretfully. "But she'll only tell me so much."

"Like John," Jo said gently. "You're that bit too close to her. If I know George, she'll be so scared of frightening you off, that the last thing she'll want to do is to be entirely honest with you. It's no reflection on you, I promise. George is simply terrified of losing the people she cares about. I might be wrong, but I think it stems from losing her mother when she was a child. She and John are really very similar, when it comes to the one thing they will only discuss under duress."

"Just how low did she get last time?" Karen asked, thinking that it was time she knew the full extent of how George could be feeling.

"Very," Jo said somberly. "But it was like trying to get blood out of a stone, persuading her to admit it. George is a great one for euphemisms, and even when I dragged it out of her, she couldn't quite say how she felt, without trying to diminish the true extent of it."

"Was she suicidal?" Karen had been working up to this, and in truth, she didn't know how to phrase it. But when the words simply left her mouth without prior consideration, she knew that the bare, blunt approach had been for the best.

"Yes," Jo replied, it hurting her immeasurably, to have to remember George's pitiful description of how she'd felt, on that Sunday in late October.

"Has she ever done anything about it?"

"Not to my knowledge, no, though that doesn't mean she never would." Lighting another cigarette, Karen tried to buy herself some thinking time. "There is actually a very simple reason why I don't think she ever could go through with it," Jo continued. "You know John almost better than I do these days, so I expect you know how his mother died."

"Yes, he did tell me."

"The last time George got this bad, she said that she could never do that to John, because of how his mother had died. She said that he'd never forgive her." Karen blew smoke up at the ceiling where countless people had done the same before her.

"How do I help her, Jo?" She finally asked. "How do I stop her from sliding back into that downward spiral, that's if she isn't there already."

"All you can do," Jo said, putting a gentle hand over the one of Karen's that wasn't holding a cigarette. "Is what you're doing now. George knows she has you, and if she wants to talk to you, she will. But I can't promise that she will. Even though she's aware of your talking to me about this, it won't make it any easier for her. I'll try and talk to her over the weekend. The worst thing you can do is to crowd her, because the more she feels pressured into talking, the less she'll do it. Tell her you're still there for her, but let her come to you. Even if George thinks you know all there is to know, she still won't want to talk about most of what she's feeling. She may be able to with me, because it ultimately doesn't matter what I think of anything she does or says."

"I feel useless," Karen said regretfully.

"You're not," Jo said gently. "You're doing everything you can for her, and she knows that. John, however, is a very different matter."

"Jo, George asked me not to get involved with the row she had with John, and I suspect she would feel the same about you too. She said that if he's going to apologise, he's got to do it when he feels it's right, not when anyone else tells him he should."

"She could be in for a long wait," Jo said bitterly. "But okay, for now I'll leave him to his own devices. But whatever happens, I am not letting George get as thin or as depressed as she did eighteen months ago, just because John can't learn to control his pretty pathetic streak of possessive jealousy!" As Karen drove back to Larkhall, Jo's words echoed in her mind. There were clearly so many things both she and Jo would say to John if they could, but for now, George was their immediate concern, not some overgrown adolescent who didn't want to share his most prized possession.

Part Ninety Eight

"So, Larkhall prison is apparently turning over a new leaf. No escapes, no suicides, no explosions. It cannot last, of course?" Alison Warner's cynical words were delivered with a smile that wasn't really a smile.

"You know, the more I examine the goings on of the group of prisons in my charge, the more that I see that the problems I had were not unique to Larkhall. It is interesting talking directly to a range of Governing Governors as I get the feeling very strongly that their prisons are functioning only as while they keep the hatches well battened down on trouble."

Grayling smiled that smile back at her while he capably lobbed her brand of sneaky remark right back at her without being outright confrontational.

Alison Warner pursed her lips in a disapproving fashion. She should have been warned that the Neil Grayling that was working for her combined the truculent Bolshevik politics of the worst sort of trade union activist like Arthur Scargill with the smoothness of the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby out of "Yes Minister." The worst of it was that he had such a reputation as a radical innovating moderniser. He had turned out to be a sheep in wolf's clothing.

"I have examined your paper on how to reduce sick absence in the prison service."

At that point, Alison Warner paused to let the full effect of her disapproval sink in but Grayling declined to comment which irritated her.

"Rather controversial, is it not?"

"You found it interesting, I trust?" Grayling asked calmly.

"The impression that it and you leave is that you've 'gone native,'" Alison Warner explained dismissively.

"I don't understand. Can you explain what you're getting at."

"I mean," snapped Alison Warner. "That you appear to have adopted the point of view of a malcontent barrack room lawyer in the trenches as in the First World War with their petty minded negative criticisms of the grand design of the generals. It was they who had the strategic thinking of understanding that a temporary local reverse was the process of the grand overall design of the blueprint to victory."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Warner, but exactly which First World War battle had you in mind?" Came the answer in Grayling's most innocent tones.

Alison Warner's face reddened and she contemptuously flipped open the report and read a section from it.

"…….my research has found that personnel departments both in the private and public sector, have this fixed unalterable belief that they should seek to divine in statistics a supposed pattern of days of sickness taken on the Friday and the Monday following, and to draw misleading conclusions from this that an element of this sickness is either self induced or fictitious (i.e. bingeing over the weekend or deliberately 'pulling a sickie'). My conclusions are that caution has to be exercised in drawing such conclusions and that it is for the line manager to exercise discretion in handling the situation in being open to all possibilities and, above all, not to prejudge any situation. My definite conclusion is that figures for long term, unavoidable sick absence should be identified separately leaving the raw material of what is left as potential scope for improvement. This is not to deny that there is, inevitably, bound to be a minority of prison officers who do abuse the system," read the report in calm measured tones while the author remembered vividly the frequent absences of Mrs. Hollamby due to 'backache"This minority they can only operate where others are willing to collude to the point of covering up for them. Whether or not it is so is down to the specific 'work culture' at the particular prison or wing. It is for local management to be proactive in handling these issues with proper backup and, if need be, training of the prison governor's concerned.

It cannot be denied that there is a worrying trend in overcrowding in prisons and this will inevitably be bound to increase the overall trend of sickness. An especial 'red warning light' and one trend to be closely watched is stress-related sickness. In focussing on these issues, it is of course entirely possible that a self certificate or even doctor's medical certificate will be couched in terms of a more 'socially acceptable' less stigmatised form of illness which may be only a symptom of the underlying cause. It is incumbent upon the Home Office and judiciary to review its sentencing policies in not creating an environment whereby the positive policies on paper for rehabilitating the prisoner is undermined by an inadequacy of staffing in the prison service to give practical effect to these policies.

I have examined practices in other establishments of setting targets of "acceptable sickness" levels. A figure of 8 days in a year does seem to be a common figure where the prison governor (or line manager as the case may be). This is used as the starting point for initiating dismissal of staff on grounds for inefficiency according to a procedure of successive verbal and written warnings with the ultimate option of eventual dismissal. Even though this has been adopted by a number of organisations, this does not make a case for this to be introduced in the prison service. On the contrary, I reject this out of hand. My reasons for this is that management should not be, or be seen to be, punishing the guilty along with the innocent, being inflexible and unresponsive to the individual situation. Such a policy is inevitably counter productive in masking the symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause."

"This is an entirely negative paper with no real solutions," Snapped Alison Warner.

"This is a realistic and practical paper," Counter argued Grayling.

"I expected a report which recommended the fixed days marker of unacceptable sick absence per year, let us say, eight days in one year. Your reasons for rejecting this are cavalier. Sometimes I wonder whose side you are on."

Grayling smiled grimly. This woman had this in mind from the very beginning from her first discussion of the project with him.

"…….at which point, the prison governor should consider a verbal warning in a purely informal fashion….."

"Excuse me, Mrs. Warner, I should draw your attention to the last paragraph but one of my report."

Grayling turned over to the next page and indicated the final paragraph.

"It is, of course, an increasingly recent tendency for solicitors to engage in "no win, no fee" work of what is loosely called "compensation culture." It is my opinion that the Home Office could lay itself open to lawsuits of this kind, especially where the prison governor has a multitude of duties to perform and where borderline personnel work is not documented as well as it might be. This defect is not uncommon and could be easily exploited in claims for personal damages by the less scrupulous solicitors coming into the field."

"Yes, yes, yes, Neil. I see where you are coming from but your point of view is somewhat alarmist…."

"Not at all, Mrs. Warner," Grayling answered with velvet smoothness. "Prevention is better than cure, so they say. I have only the best interests of the prison service at heart."

Grayling grinned broadly, his mind ice cold and his thinking at his most acute. This worked better for him than getting angry and letting it cloud his thinking.

The man was infuriating, fumed Alison Warner. He has this India rubber quality which bounces back out of nowhere. She paced round in a circle until her temper could cool down, not the sort of hot-blooded temper of the natural woman but that suppressed authoritative temper that could not find an outlet.

"You can't run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, Neil. I'm sure that your old friends won't have found you to be the man of the people."

Alison Warner's thin malignant smile was that of someone who thought she had found a weak spot in her opponent and was determined to exploit it to the full.

"An unfortunate metaphor these days, Mrs. Warner," Grayling struck back. Then with lightning speed he sought to cover up where he was most vulnerable. "But yes, to a degree, you're right. Part of my role is to deliver some unpalatable messages, which is normally to refuse part or all of the funding bids, which I know that Larkhall, along with other prisons is desperately in need of. I'll not shrink from my duty and deal with phone calls from Karen Betts and other governors and explain personally the reasons behind the decisions. I know that she and others like her won't shrink from passing on the bad news to their wing governors. That's the way it goes. It is something that I can't do anything about. I'll be equally honest and if I'm asked to prepare a report on a sick absence policy as I see it from my research and from personal experience. I'll start with a blank sheet of paper with no preconceptions and you'll get the truth. Or is this not what you really wanted?"

Alison Warner cut the conversation short and beat a retreat. It wasn't her day but this infuriating man knew just how far to push and was always that wily one step ahead of her. There was something devious, underhand about him, which she should have spotted immediately.

A few hours later, Grayling glided out of the foyer of Cleland House and into the streets where his mind shook itself free of the number of projects that he was handling. He was homeward bound and bent on listening again to Haydn's "Creation" for yet another time. This was the life, he felt. On many occasions, he had watched concerts from afar and, yes, the first time he went out with Di Barker was watching a string quartet. He wasn't sure if the memory of those two events, one holy, the other profane, made him want to laugh or throw up. He had to sit down in an armchair and try and contemplate happier things and the soothing feelings gradually came to him.

He would have loved to be a professional classical singer and had thrown caution to the winds and not let that careful calculation of the steady monthly salary lure him away from that dream. As a singer, honest sweat brought forward his sense of oneness with the orchestra and that thrill of being out there before an audience. It was only from that first performance that he was aware of his divided self, which had consumed him. It was that lifelong compulsion in him to drive forward in his career onwards and upwards, whatever it took to advance him and whatever handy catch phrases which were the buzz words of the moment. Oh yes, he knew how to change, where to move on and what friends to cultivate. It had blinded him to everything else around him. He had to be ruthless, to play on the susceptibilities of those he came into contact with, yes, as if he were playing a violin so that he came out on top. He delighted in these desires but had never thought to ask himself where they came from in the same way as his wavering sexuality. Why else did he decide to marry, not once but twice. Yet he was haunted by rare unaccountable impulses for the good which broke through the surface. It was now that he could place himself, in his past and in his present. When his father had walked out the door and nobody explained why to him, he was consumed with anger. This was the only way that anger could be expressed and his career was his way of feeling better about himself, to prove himself to himself. All this enormous sweep of self-revelation and rebirth spanned the length of time that the birth of the world was played out in music.

In the quiet of his stark, functional living room, he recalled the sheer beauty of the moment when his voice had resonated powerfully against the swelling power of the orchestra. It was not that he felt that the musicians were merely his accompaniment, as that seemed quite improper. The separate but equal colouring of the disparate sounds was utterly entrancing. It was as if the hours of listening to the music from afar since his youth prepared him for the moment that he could sit at the same table as the gods without needing to be at the head of the table. It was the most perfect expression of himself, yet equal to those around him, modestly, without straining, and with that positive blessing from Joe Channing, that positive grandee and the rightful head of the heavenly orchestra For the first time in his life, he could play his part modestly yet of substance. Those words flowed down like honey on him and gave back to him what his broken home had cut short.

He smiled fondly when he thought of George. Her voice was utterly admirable, so perfect and playing Adam against George's Eve, was a sheer physical pleasure of their contrasting voices. He could appreciate the abstract purity of it all and her beauty like a Mona Lisa. Of course, it did not mean that he would ever want to live with such feminine beauty. It was meant to be admired, from a distance. What he did find intriguing was that totally authentic upper class woman with a strength of mind to go with it. He gave her full marks to her ability to stop herself short just before she was about to let slip their secrets. There was nothing likely to come between them, as they had no illusions about each other and their needs. There was understanding between them as to why George had not been at their best during the love duet and he thought there was a possible reason exactly why this should be the case.

It is funny, Grayling reflected, that while male beauty had long inhabited his dreams, one of his closest friendships lay with an extremely strong and sympathetic woman and that was Karen and not either of his ex-wives. George could easily turn out to be another. He propped his music on his own music stand, which was a prized possession of his and started to run over some of his lines. He was who he wanted to be right now.

Crash went the door to Sir Ian's inner sanctum making the man behind the desk jump out of his skin. All the more of a shock was that something or someone had slipped his way past the layers of minders, secretaries and such like that were there to cushion him further from reality than any old time rock star. His first thought was this was part of a plot of Al Quaeeda terrorists to launch a systematic raid on the seat of government but turning round, he saw the thoroughly respectable and besuited form of John Deed. He was not sure which scared him the more as they were equals in degrees of fanatical devotion to the cause.

"A word with you, Rochester," Came the softly spoken words but with an incredibly determined edge to them. His blue eyes were burning with white hot anger and pinned his wavering vision with sheer force of personality. What was more alarming was the choice of address, which, alone, meant trouble.

"I have a score to settle with you, one way or another, you and your contemptible lackey Lawrence James."

"I can't think what you're about, John," Stammered Sir Ian, knowing very well what had brought this hellhound in human form to track him down.

"Don't play games with me," Roared John, making the attractive chandelier above him vibrate and jangle. "You know very well that you and your fellow pathetic whimp have been found out. I know exactly what despicable words you and that other wretch wrote in that notepad. I've a good mind to sue you for liable and drag you both personally through the court."

"You wouldn't dare," Sir Ian sneered back in an unusually reckless mood. "You pretend to all and sundry that you are the knight in shining armour, standing up for injustice but you are very sure for all that, not to become the real martyr for the cause. You know very well which side your bread is buttered as you enjoy the luxury of your lifestyle and scorn only to be further elevated to the appellate Bench. As for your defence of helpless maidens, your act of chivalry is absurd. At least I am honest about who I am."

For several seconds, Sir Ian's physical welfare hung in the balance as John grasped Sir Ian by the tie, constricting his airwaves considerably and choking off his laugh with a gurgle. Murder looked out of John's eyes. It was a long time that John had voluntarily engaged in fisticuffs apart from one exchange of blows in court. It was that unsavoury hit man who the eldest brother of three siblings had hired who had killed their father. In one frightening flash, Sir Ian recalled that very same incident. Forces battled for supremacy in john's superheated emotions before, by a hairbreadth, that very secret sense of judgement held him back. So often, that had dared him steer closer to the edge of the precipice than his adversary of the moment and, at odd occasions, had stopped him from falling off it.

"You're not worth while having the satisfaction of doing what I intended to," John uttered in a very choked voice, his nerves and heartbeat hammering through his system. "Why indulge myself in one moment of selfish pleasure at my expense when I could spend the rest of my professional career haunting you."

That nightmare vision that John conjured up was a more extreme form of torture than receiving the full impact of John's fists. He laughed when he saw Sir Ian's reactions.

"Whether you like it or not, I am the leader of the orchestra and I will not have you, Ian, indulging in any petty spiteful behaviour that causes any friction in the running of the orchestra. You will play your part, yes and that toady, Lawrence James and I shall play mine. Do I make myself quite clear?"

Sir Ian's anger rose when he realised that his foolish actions had placed them in the utterly humiliating position of John being able to pull rank on them. He knew that they would get no sympathy from their normal court of appeal, Joe Channing as the performance and the run up to it cut across everything, including traditional loyalties.

"Yes John. Will you now leave as you are making me feel uncomfortable."

Sir Ian pulled at his tie to loosen it and his voice was very husky.

For the first time, John laughed, turned round and shut the door, leaving a swirl of air behind him.

As he calmed down, he made a mental note that arrangements should be made for that wretched firm of incompetents, Group 4 to step up their security. It was never the same since the faithful old retainers who once worked for him had been retired. They knew by instinct who should be admitted and who should be refused admittance, even someone as dangerously convincing as Deed.

Part Ninety Nine

On the Saturday evening, Jo thought that it was about time she checked up on George. She'd heard nothing from her all this week, which was a bad sign in itself. They usually talked every few days, if not more often, but Jo hadn't seen hide nor hair of George since the previous Saturday's rehearsal. She was also extremely curious about the subject matter of the row George and John had had last Saturday. John had clearly been intent on having something out with George, when he'd demanded her company at the end of the rehearsal, but what on earth had made it spiral into something that might stop George from eating again?

George on the other hand, was drinking. She didn't think she'd ever felt so alone in her life, not even after John and Charlie had left. She knew that this was stupid, but it didn't make her feel any better. She knew she should talk to Jo, or to Karen, before she went completely mad, but she couldn't do it. She'd said some terrible things to John, so why would anyone want to listen to her? But this was the problem, she knew she'd hurt John badly, and she didn't think he'd ever want to speak to her again, never mind anything else. If she couldn't sort things out with John, where did that leave her? Her life meant nothing without him, even though she was a little ashamed to admit it. She'd fucked up with Charlie, and the only way she'd ever managed to keep John for the last few months, was because his sleeping with her gave him licence to love Jo. That really was a pretty pathetic achievement, she thought to herself. She couldn't even get herself someone of her own, someone who loved her for herself, and who wanted a real relationship from her. Not even Karen wanted that, though George couldn't really blame her. Karen didn't have the time for a committed relationship, her inmates always being far more important to her than anything else. Putting some soft, melancholy music on the stereo, she slumped in a corner of the sofa, with the martini bottle standing in an ice bucket on the coffee table, and with a glass and the paraphernalia of smoking to hand. Lying next to the vase of flowers in the centre of the table, was perhaps, her one salvation. If, with the assistance of the alcohol, she could find the courage she needed, then tonight might just be her last. She was tired, tired of fighting, tired of existing, tired of all the pain and irritation that she seemed only too capable of causing. Continuing to go round and round in circles with John seemed pointless to her, especially as he didn't love her, and couldn't accept the person she knew she was.

When the doorbell rang, George was surprised. She supposed it might be Karen checking up on her, though she'd spoken to her earlier in the day. In that case, it must be Jo. Shit, she suddenly thought, what could she do with her last resort, sitting in the middle of the coffee table for all to see. Hurriedly shoving it under a newspaper, George went to answer the door. Glancing in the hall mirror on the way there, George realised that she probably looked as rough as she felt. As Jo moved into the hall, she couldn't help giving George the visual once over. She looked gaunt, belligerent and exhausted, all signs that nothing had been resolved.

"How are you?" Jo asked, though feeling that the enquiry hardly needed an answer.

"How do I look?" George replied, knowing only too well how she looked.

"Drunk," Jo said, after a moment's thought.

"Not quite, but I'm getting there."

"Add tired, depressed and barely nourished, and that might just describe it," Jo added as they walked into the lounge.

"You're getting to know me far too well," George replied, her sheer moroseness telling Jo that she was in for a rough ride. Agreeing to a glass of wine, Jo nevertheless vowed to herself to stay as sober as possible. George was clearly in no state to be left alone tonight, and Jo had a sneaking suspicion that she would need all her wits about her to deal with this particular emotional outburst. When they were sitting one each end of the sofa, Jo lit a cigarette, almost to give herself courage for the conversation she could feel brewing below the surface.

"I had lunch with Karen on Thursday," She said, taking a thoughtful drag.

"Jesus, that didn't take her long," George said bitterly. "I suppose she wanted to find out what she'd let herself in for."

"Yes, though I wouldn't have put it like that. Karen is very worried about you, and doesn't know how to help you."

"And what makes you think you do?" George asked, knowing she was being horrible to Jo, but the need for a fight, a fight that would on all levels be fair, was what she now realised she wanted. The fight with John hadn't been fair, not one, little bit.

"Because at the moment, you're angry," Jo told her. "Whether actually with me, or just with John, or with the world in general, I'm not sure. You are clearly looking for a fight, and you think I might give you one, and you know that if you fight with me, you're not quite as likely to feel guilty for anything you say, as you might with Karen." George's eyes widened. She hadn't actually thought of this, though she could see that it made sense. But could she fight with Jo as they had done in the old days, she didn't know any more.

"So, if you know that's what I'm after, why won't you give me one?"

"Because you're drunk, or at least trying to get drunk," Jo responded calmly. "I'll fight with you tomorrow, when you're sober, though at the rate you're going, you probably won't feel like it."

"You always used to enjoy a good shout with me," George said almost sulkily. "You know you did." Jo smiled. Yes, she had once enjoyed some of the rows she'd had with George, though she would never have admitted it.

"If I wanted an excuse for a fight," Jo conceded. "You always managed to provide it."

"What's happened, Jo? Where's everything I used to be, and everything I used to know?"

"What do you mean?" Jo asked quietly, seeing that George's anger had evaporated as quickly as it had grown. "You wouldn't want to go back to the way things were, would you?" She added, feeling an inexplicable prayer that George's answer would be no.

"No, of course not, at least not with you. But maybe I do with John. At least back then he didn't expect me to shut out part of who I am."

"Is this about Karen?"

"Partly, but I think it goes deeper than that. As you're here, I'm assuming Karen told you that John and I had a fairly monumental row last Saturday."

"Yes, she did, but I could have worked that out for myself. John looked in the mood for a row at the end of the rehearsal last week, and he's done everything to avoid me since."

"You see, that's what I didn't want to happen," George said exasperatedly.

"George, with this type of relationship, anything that affects one or two of us, will undoubtedly affect all three of us, that's how it works."

"I said just as many unforgivable things as he did, so don't feel too sorry for me."

"George, something has got to you this week, something pretty serious has made you stop eating again. So tell me." Lighting a cigarette of her own, George thought about how to explain it.

"You know John's felt very insecure about Karen, and that he's never really had that out with me. He has with her, back in January, but not with me. He can't understand why I need her, when he's the one being kept on a leash and only permitted to sleep with two women. He thinks that if he can be faithful to this relationship, so should I."

"So, tell me why you need her."

"I think we both know, that the only reason John sleeps with me and tells me he loves me, is because this arrangement gives him what he wants, and has always wanted with you. I've known that ever since it began, and until now it hasn't really bothered me. I do love John, and the pretense of his love is sometimes enough for me. But with Karen, I get someone who is with me for myself, who, even though she doesn't want anything heavy, doesn't have anything making her feel the way she does for me. I know that doesn't make an awful lot of sense, but Karen is with me because she chooses to be, not because it gives her the permission to be with someone else."

"Is that how you really see it?" Jo asked quietly, astounded that George still thought like this after all these months.

"Yes," George said without a flicker of hesitation. "John doesn't love me. Yes, he enjoys making love with me, but he doesn't actually love me. But then, that was the original point of the exercise, wasn't it."

"No, of course it wasn't," Jo said, feeling an immense sadness that George had so little belief in herself and John's love for her.

"Oh, get a grip, Jo, you know it was," George insisted angrily. "I'd have thought you would have known better by now, than to believe him when he agrees to something so easily. John started screwing me when he felt like picking up some random tart, because on my particularly good days, I don't make bad tart material. But that's all it's ever been, and no doubt it would have stayed like that, if I hadn't threatened his masculinity by sleeping with Karen."

"George," Jo said, holding up a hand to stop her. "I wish you wouldn't refer to yourself as a tart, or a whore, or any other of the numerous derogatory titles you insist on giving yourself."

"Why?" George demanded belligerently. "That's what John came back to me for. He gets all the love he could ever want from you, and because he's a sex junky, he gets his extra supply from me. He can't seem to make up his mind, though, because the way he was talking last Saturday, you'd think I was the one who couldn't keep it to myself if I tried, yet look at how he was when we were married."

"What did he say to you?"

"It was my own fault really, because I goaded him into talking about how he felt about Karen. He wanted to know why Karen, why a woman, and I stupidly asked him if he was jealous, because it might just be possible that Karen was giving me a far better time in bed than he was." Jo winced. "That wasn't the worst thing I said, believe me. John said that no one could possibly give me a better orgasm than he could." In spite of her total exasperation with John, Jo laughed, provoking a slight smile in George. "What you need to understand," She continued, looking a little uncomfortable. "Is that when we were married, and before Charlie came along, there wasn't much me and John didn't try. Probably the only fantasy I didn't tell him about was that of wanting to sleep with a woman. He once told me that he wouldn't mind sleeping with two women, but even then I didn't tell him. I'm not sure why, it just didn't feel the right time to tell him something like that. But last week, some of the things he said, made me wonder just how much he really had been up for all the things we did back then. I know you don't like to hear me say it, Jo, but he really did make me feel like a whore. He said that at least you like your men to be fairly normal."

"George, listen to me," Jo said vehemently. "You're not normal, you're not abnormal, you're just you. Just because you find women sexually attractive, and enjoy what you have with Karen, never mind anyone else who might come along in the future, does not make you abnormal. It certainly doesn't make you a whore."

"I just wish John thought so," George said miserably.

"George, John does love you, you must believe that."

"If he really loves me so much," George replied bitterly. "Why does he expect me to ignore a newly discovered part of my personality, when he has never, not once, asked you to change anything about who you are?"

"Do you really think he has never asked anything of me, that I either found it impossible to give, or shouldn't have given him? The very first time I slept with John, I went home feeling about as guilty as you did when you realised you didn't love Charlie in the way you thought you should. My husband was terminally ill, and when I got home, I realised just what I'd done. But I couldn't stop going back for more. John would never pressure anyone into sleeping with him, but that doesn't stop him using every manipulative skill he possesses. I knew he had worked his magic on me, but that didn't make it any easier to say no. A few months later, when I discovered I was pregnant, my husband didn't have very long to live. I knew that the baby was John's, it could only have been John's. I suggested that I have a termination, because I think in my heart, I knew that was what he wanted. I already had two very young children, Mark was one, and Tom was three, and I had a dying husband to care for. So yes, having another baby, especially one whose father wasn't very enthusiastic about its creation, would certainly have been difficult. But I would have kept it, if John had put up any kind of fight for its survival. George, he asked me to have a termination, by not asking me to keep it. That is by far, the hardest, most terrible thing I will ever have to do for anyone."

"Oh, god, Jo, I'm sorry," George said, the heart felt contrition evident in her voice, and with tears in her eyes.

"It's all right," Jo said, holding out her arms. "I didn't say it to make you feel guilty."

"I know, but the choice he's putting on me, is nothing compared to that."

"It still doesn't give him any right to do it," Jo said seriously, as their arms went around each other. "You can't help finding women attractive, just as he can't. You haven't asked him to give them up, or at least not all of them," She added with a smile. "So he shouldn't ask the same of you. He doesn't know how lucky he is sometimes."

"Tell me what he was like in those days?" George asked. "I wasn't giving him much happiness at home at that time, so it would be nice to know he had some with you." Jo looked into George's face, which was only inches from her own. She knew that at the time, George had been bitterly hurt by John's relationship with her, but she also knew that George had thought of John's playing away, as being mostly her own fault. Yet here they were, sitting close together, feeling entirely at ease to have their arms around each other, and exchanging confidences about the one thing that had once made them the greatest of enemies.

"Well, you know he was my pupil master at Bar school. Whenever he looked at me, every nerve ending I had seemed to become hypersensitive. He's always had a way of looking at you, that makes you certain he's thinking about what your clothes are covering."

"I think he was born with that look," George said with a smile.

"Another thing he seems to have been doing all his life, is summoning women to his presence. Whether in the guise of judge or tutor, it's how he's always achieved what he wanted. You know how he does that slow, methodical pace round his chambers? Well, he even managed that within the cramped space of his office. The first time he kissed me, I knew I was lost. I told him I couldn't do it, and I told him why. But, in his typically arrogant fashion, he left the choice up to me, all the time knowing that after sampling the Hors D'Oeuvres, I would require super human strength, not to come back for the rest. That's what made me determined to stay out of his bed for all those years, after my husband died, the fact that he'd plucked me off the tree with no more effort than the proverbial apple. So, the next time I saw him, a week later, I did sleep with him. I think that hotel got to know him quite well."

"That's one thing I always resisted the urge to do, go through his credit card statements. I knew I would find far more hotel, flower, lingerie and restaurant bills than I really wanted to know about."

"What I'm getting round to telling you," Jo continued. "Is that you must never think that John doesn't thoroughly enjoy initiating someone into new sexual pastimes. He likes playing the tutor in all walks of life, but especially in bed. He might not have introduced me to anything particularly out of the ordinary, but he did initiate me into the delights of receiving oral." George laughed knowingly.

"He's always loved doing that," She said with a smile. "I didn't know what he saw in it, until I did that to Karen."

"Is it really as good as he makes out it is?" Jo asked, totally unable to believe they were talking about this.

"Oh, yes," George said with utter certainty. "Though I suppose it's slightly different with everyone. The first time you do it, it's the weirdest, scariest thing you'll ever do."

"Why?" After refilling her glass and taking a swig, George said,

"I didn't want to try it, only to find I didn't like doing it. But once I discovered I did like it, it was wonderful." Jo stayed quiet for a moment, the memory of that Sunday afternoon again clear in her mind. When they'd gone home and John had given her the most explosive bit of oral she'd had in a long time, Jo had been continuously thinking about George and Karen. George also remained quiet, seeing that Jo had a whole host of thoughts whizzing around in her brain.

"To change the subject entirely," Jo eventually said, needing to drag her mind away from where she could feel it pulling her. "You wanted to know about the beginning of my affair with John, but I think I need to know about what was happening with you and he around that time. He never told me very much, just that he was in the process of splitting up with you, though he obviously didn't say that in the beginning." Moving slightly away from her, George reached for another cigarette.

"You know about the day I found out about you," She began. "I remember telling you about that, just before I fainted in court. I came to court with Charlie, to see if John had finished for the day, and saw you kissing him on the front steps. That was the only time I have ever purposefully broken a priceless vase. John had no idea I'd seen you, because I acted completely normally with him until Charlie had been put to bed. I think I was trying to let all the hurt turn into anger before I started. I poured us both a large glass of red wine, knowing we were both going to need it. I asked him your name, and he made me explain exactly who I was talking about. Then, obviously realising that he wasn't going to wriggle out of this one, he told me about you, how long it had been going on, and that you were one of his students. I asked him what you had that I didn't, and to this day I sincerely wish I hadn't asked. He told me that you had feelings, that you had a heart." Jo winced. How could he? How could he have said something so despicable, after everything George had gone through with Charlie? Though perhaps that was why he'd said it. "That's what really got me going, not because I was angry with him for saying it, but because I knew he was right."

"George, no," Jo said in clear distress.

"On the surface, that's precisely how I would have appeared in those days," George clarified. "I knew he was playing away fairly regularly, because we were making love less and less. I wasn't familiar with the art of faking it when I was married to John. We threw every bitter insult we could think of at each other, and let's face it, he had a far worse thing over me than I ever could over him. I couldn't blame him for throwing how I'd always felt, or not felt, about Charlie at me, but I think it was what finally broke me. Up until then, we'd always had a rule that each and every argument must be over before we went to bed, because disagreements of any kind had to be left outside. We didn't exactly continue arguing when we went to bed that night, because we didn't have anything left to say to each other, but neither of us slept very much. He wasn't due in court until ten, so I took Charlie to school on the way to work. I remember making her promise to be good for daddy when I left her, because I knew I wasn't going to see her for a little while. When I knew that John would have left for court, I went home, after arranging to take a week off work. I threw a few things into a case, and drove to court to see John during the adjournment. We sat in the car to talk, and I told him that I was going away for a few days, perhaps as long as a week. I told him that I needed some time to think. He said he was sorry, for what he'd said the night before, though he funnily enough didn't apologise for his affair with you. He wanted to know where I was going, and asked me to keep in touch, probably because he didn't want my suicide on his conscience. So, I went abroad, to France, and made all my self-inflicted wounds far deeper, by visiting all the parts of Paris we'd seen on our honeymoon. Oddly enough, it was our wedding anniversary while I was out there. I was haunted by the memories of how happy we'd been in those days, of all the things we'd said and done that were supposed to mean something more than instant gratification. John has always maintained that he loves me for having given him Charlie, and I don't doubt that he does. But Charlie is the only thing he does love me for. He changed after he found out why I'd stopped eating, I know he did. Quite naturally, he didn't understand how I couldn't love my own daughter, as if he thought I understood it any better than he did. A year or so later, when I discovered that you had two children and were raising them on your own, I knew that this was one of the things John loved about you. It was also perhaps the biggest way in which I couldn't compete with you. Anyway, when I came back from my pointless week of contemplation and emotional self-harm, I told him I wanted a divorce. He decided to move out, and find somewhere new to live with Charlie. He didn't have to do that, but I think he wanted to. It's funny, but even though we knew we were splitting up, we still slept in the same bed until he moved out. The night before he was due to leave, we made love, one last time, both of us putting everything we had into it, and both crying our eyes out afterwards. So, you could say that's what made me the bitter and twisted old cow I am today." Only then, did George realise she was crying, the corrosive tears of self-reproach coursing down her cheeks. Putting out her arms, Jo drew George against her, George having maintained a small distance between them, during the telling of her story.

"You're not bitter, and you're definitely not twisted," Jo said, softly rubbing George's shoulders.

"But I've hurt him so much by being with Karen," George insisted.

"George, you've done absolutely nothing wrong."

"As pathetic as I know it sounds, I can't live without him, Jo."

"And you think I could?"

"Some of the things I said to him last week, they were unforgivable."

"And from what you've said, I'd say the mud slinging was fairly equally weighted," Jo tried to persuade her.

"And I didn't want to screw this up for you either."

"George," Jo said with a wry smile. "I am perfectly capable of doing my own fighting where John is concerned, in fact especially where John is concerned. I've had almost as many years practice of it as you have."

"You know what I felt this evening, before you arrived? I felt as though I had nothing left. That's what he does to me, and I loathe myself for it." Jo's eyes suddenly fixed on her.

"What do you mean, you felt as though you had nothing left?" She asked carefully. George looked very uncomfortable, realising that she'd been caught out. She would curse that Martini bottle to hell and back, though not before she'd finished it first. "George, answer the question," Jo persisted, not willing to be content with anything less than the truth.

"I wasn't feeling particularly brilliant earlier this evening," She said evasively.

"George," Jo said in dawning horror. "Please don't tell me that the alcohol was quite literally to give you some Dutch courage?"

"I'm not going to lie to you," George said carefully, refusing to meet Jo's gaze. Holding her at arm's length, Jo forced George to look at her.

"Don't you ever, ever, contemplate doing that again!" She said sternly. "I don't care how bad things get, and I don't care how much of a shit John is capable of being. He might not show it at times, but he does love you, and he always will love you, and it's not just him you need to think about. You have your father, who would go insane if you died, you have Karen who feels far more for you than you think she does, because she doesn't want to put any pressure on you, and if that isn't enough, you also have me."

"I'm sorry," George said, the tears now coming thick and fast.

"Don't be sorry," Jo said, her own voice a little unsteady, and now sounding much gentler. "Just please, don't ever think of doing that."

As her eyes locked with George's, they both became unbearably aware of how close they were, of just which bits of them were touching. As if compelled by George's hypnotic gaze, Jo leaned slightly nearer, and kissed her. It wasn't something she had intended to do, but it had somehow felt right to her. After her initial feeling of shock, George reacted automatically, kissing her back, softly and lingeringly. George's lips were a source of enlightenment for Jo, their soft, smooth, total pliability enchanting her.

"Well, that was certainly unexpected," George said quietly, when they eventually came up for air.

"You're telling me," Jo said, gently touching her cheek. "I didn't expect it either." They sat there in silence for a time, neither of them knowing what to say, though both of them feeling entirely comfortable in the other's embrace. But eventually, it was Jo who made the decision.

"I think you should go to bed," She said to George, thinking that this conversation could only be had when George was sober again.

"Mmm, perhaps you're right," George said with a yawn. But as she rose from the sofa, she realised just how much of the alcohol had taken residence in her legs. Standing quickly, Jo caught her as she stumbled, bringing them skin to skin but for their clothes.

"Do forgive me," George said with a smirk. "If I take complete advantage of the situation." Reaching up from her slightly smaller height, it was her who initiated the kiss. When the thought occurred to Jo that she would happily remain here forever, she gently detached her lips from George's.

"Come on," She said with a smile. "Or we won't make it to tomorrow morning, without having far more than an overdue conversation." George couldn't help emitting a low giggle. Jo kept an arm round her as they walked upstairs, George's sense of direction having been seriously impaired. When they reached her bedroom, Jo closed the curtains, and George stood in front of the full-length mirror, trying to undo the buttons of her blouse. This was made enormously difficult, by the fact that she was seeing at least two different sets of buttons in the mirror. But eventually achieving her goal, she removed it and dropped it onto a chair. Removing her skirt seemed to require even more physical dexterity. George then realised that she'd forgotten to remove the sandals she'd been wearing. Drawing back the duvet, she sat down on the side of the bed to undo them. Once they had been cast aside, she reached the mammoth task of navigating the clasp of her bra. These things really didn't make sense, especially when only a tenth of one's usual mental capacity was in full, working order. Taking pity on her, Jo put her arms round her and undid it herself. But before George could even think of removing the rest of her underwear, she slumped sideways onto the pillow, passed out cold. Laughing softly, and thinking that George would have an almighty hang over in the morning, Jo lifted her feet up under the duvet and drew it over her. As she walked out of the bedroom, switching the light off and leaving the door open, she spared a thought to wonder if George would remember what they'd done. As she slid under the duvet of the spare bed, not long after, she prayed to every existing deity that this wouldn't just be put down to a drunken mistake. Jo hadn't even begun to untangle her own feelings on the matter, but she knew one thing, nothing about either of those kisses worried her in the slightest. Come what may, she would treasure the memory for the rest of her life.

Part One Hundred

Nikki always had that sinking feeling when she came to that time of the month to meet Trisha at the club for business. There was always a strained edgy undertone to these meetings no matter how hard they tried. Paradoxically, it was Nikki who had first suggested this arrangement. To her practical way of thinking, they could not properly run the club together totally in isolation from each other. Besides, Trisha held the accounts as one of them had to hold them and they had agreed that it would be best to check the accounts together and to talk over future plans for events at the club. She knew that Trisha, if left to herself, would never abuse her position to fiddle Nikki out of her share of the business. It's just that went against the grain to feel dependent or beholden to an ex-girlfriend like some helpless female.She had struck out on her own when she was sixteen to become that sort of grotesque offence against all that she held dear. The practical common sense of the arrangement by routine didn't make it any more comfortable when the time came to leave the atmosphere of warmth and affection of the flat she shared with Helen on Saturday. Sundays and that fraction of a Saturday were utterly precious to her and Helen as for so much of their time, they were physically apart from each other. It was very easy and tempting to spend that precious time with Helen but it would have handed everything over to Trisha. Both Helen and her knew that it would be utterly wrong for Nikki to throw away control over that side of her life.

For all these conflicting reasons, she found herself sitting at a bar table in the cold atmosphere of the club, the smell of last night's stale cigarettes still hanging in the air.

"Let's have a look at the accounts, Trisha and see how we're doing," Nikki said without preamble.

"Nice to see you showing an interest," Trisha found herself saying despite her best resolutions.

"If you're bringing up the matter of those couple of weeks I had out with my friends while Yvonne's daughter who killed that bastard Fenner was up on trial, you should know better, Trish. He wasn't a million miles different from that bastard DC Gossard who I did time for."

Trish promptly shut up as Nikki was perfectly right about that. It was only blind chance that placed him in the club that night when Trisha had been alone that led to Nikki being in prison in the first place. Neither of them had ever felt easy at this man who had given off bad vibrations, the first time he had ever come into the club. Nikki had felt that same instant hatred for Fenner the very first time she had met him at Larkhall.

"I'm sorry, Nikki. I shouldn't have said that," Trisha said feeling genuinely apologetic.

"Yeah, I care enough to make sure with my own eyes that this place isn't going down the pan. We have a professional relationship to maintain and I agreed to put in my fifty percent. You won't ever get less than that out of me," Nikki's curt voice corrected her.

Trisha wearily slid the folders and receipts over from her side of the table to Nikki's. Trisha sat back and stared over Nikki's shoulders as she pored her way industriously over the accounts. She had mixed feelings about this as she had been in total command when Nikki was in Larkhall. When Nikki came back to the club, Trish had agreed readily that Nikki was reclaiming half of what was hers. It was only later that she realised that it wasn't as easy as that. Handing over half of the burden and responsibility was very welcome but she didn't like losing half of the control over what went on. However, both of them reasoned that it was only fair to handle the club on a strict fifty fifty basis once again. Nine years of living with Nikki had made that sense of fair play rub off on her. Nikki was more thorough and efficient than she ever used to be because studying for her degree in Larkhall had sharpened her eye for detail. At least that was a bonus that Trisha had never expected and it had helped the business flourish.

"Okay, everything's fine. Business seems to be doing well."

Trisha had that irritated feeling of being up before her supervisor in her days when she worked in a market research firm but glad at the same time that their club was doing fine. It was the only thing that they could call 'theirs' these days, she felt with a touch of resentment.

"We don't do badly even in the weektime whether you are around or me."

"On present form, we're not exactly headed for the bankruptcy courts."

Nikki spoke with a modicum of enthusiasm trying to sound more positive than she felt. She ought not to take it for granted, she told herself as she would feel terrible living with Helen with debts coming out of her ears.

"That's what made me think of an idea to push up business a bit. What about theme nights? I've checked what the other clubs do and it's becoming quite a trend."

"Straight or gay clubs?" Nikki interjected.

"Gay, naturally," Trisha shot back, offended that her judgement was being questioned.

"Just checking."

"What sort of things have you got in mind? Is it going to cost us a fortune to tart up the club?"

Trisha launched into her ideas. It was what she was good at as she had that commercial sense to sense what the average eighteen to thirty, twenty first-century lesbians wanted by way of club entertainment. She had a background in market research, which was invaluable, when they threw in their lot together to first set up their club. Enough of Nikki's mind was taking in the ideas and she had to admit that they made commercial sense. Nikki could tell in her detached way that it would pull in the punters. Trisha was always right that way.

"Okay babe, you've got me convinced," Nikki cut in while Trisha was still talking enthusiastically away.

Trisha was put out rather than thankful for Nikki's ready agreement. When they were lovers and when either one of them came up with a good idea, the other would have savoured every moment of it and repeated ecstatically what a brilliant idea it was. It was almost as if Nikki's mind was only half engaged with the matter, which, to her, was her lifeblood. They had worked so hard to set up the club at a time when there were hardly any such clubs around and had put their heart and soul into making a success of it. Nikki had had so much boundless enthusiasm for the club, which was their labour of love. When they had a good night at the club, when the music was at its most all enveloping and the lovers were on the dance floor to be free to be with each other, it had seemed a prelude for the two of them to stagger back home to their flat, dead beat to topple into bed and make passionate love. Every part of their lives seemed to flow into each other then.

This remote stranger whose eyes looked out on the world with too many bad experiences of what had gone on in those three years wasn't the same woman. Her Nik had gone for good. This strained woman had had experiences, which she had not shared. These experiences were ones which Nikki had shared with another woman and not her. She was in love with her and they were living together. No matter how gracious she had been in pushing Nikki to run out of the club that fateful day, she had known that deep down, she had done it to save herself the hurt that she would have otherwise gone through. She knew that she had lost Nikki for certain when Nikki had stood on the steps of the Court of Appeal and broke down in emotion on the three o'clock national television for the woman who she had to thank above all else. She knew it wasn't her.

"You've agreed pretty quickly to that.

"You know that you're better at this sort of thing. I trust your judgement."

Nikki's voice sounded warmer and more reassuring. She felt guilty as she knew that she was sounding disinterested in what she ought to devote her entire concentration to. Trish had made a real effort to do all the background research and she ought to make an effort.

"It's almost that now that we've made a success with the club, you lose interest," complained Trisha. "You have almost this need to be a martyr in struggling to make a living and somehow enjoying that struggle. I hated being always short of money. When you get to where you want to go in life, somehow you don't want it anymore. It's almost as if you feel guilty in having any money."

That remark brought Nikki up short. It was only yesterday that she sat on a chair in Helen's office, belligerent, angry, and daring Helen to punish her and confirm her worst opinion of her. 'Oooh, you really love playing the martyr, don't you, Nikki' Helen had said and, in that situation, she was right. Could Trisha be right as well?

"As for me, I want to enjoy the luxuries in life, wear expensive designer clothes, drink champagne and be stinking rich. If I can do it through running a cutting edge lesbian club, then what's wrong with that?"

Everything is wrong with that, the words rang in Nikki's mind, unspoken like a tuning fork being precisely hit. But what does Nikki Wade want out of life besides living with the love of her life, the first words started to peel off from her tangle of thoughts. There has to be more than that and Helen knows that well enough.

"I don't know, Trish. Perhaps I'm starting to get old. I see young kids these days and all they want to do is get totally legless. It's happening to all the clubs these days, straight or gay. I somehow don't want that."

"You don't have any trouble with managing that, Nikki. From what I hear, you are better than anyone in handling the drunks, either aggressive or just paralytic. Are you saying that you were a perfect little angel when you were young? Somehow, I can't believe that, darling," laughed Trisha.

Trisha was right to say she could handle trouble. Those years in Larkhall when she was only a prisoner taught her to depend on her own toughness, verbally and physically and to be able to psych anyone out. Nikki's thoughts went further back in time to when she and Trisha had first started the club and smiled at the memories. It was in the days when it was very hard for a single woman to go somewhere and find a partner that was not of the opposite sex. The whole thing was underground and starting the club was her crusade, to create a place where lesbians could meet openly with that most honest, fundamental declaration of who they are. That was the great motivating force and Helen, bless her, understood that sentiment completely and instantly, feeling it for Nikki to the bottom of her soul. That motivation was so very close to a major driving force in Helen. But could she have lived with Trisha for all those years and Trisha not to know that and, worse, to be operating from an entirely different agenda? She looked at Trisha and blinked her eyes. The chorus of a maudlin country and western song, complete with violin skidding up and down the scales, hit her with incredible force.

"There's a stranger in the house nobody's seen his face

And everyone says , he's taken my place

There's a stranger in the house nobody one will ever see

And everybody says, he looks like me."

That's the answer, Nikki thought. What is she doing here holding on to a way of life that she clung onto, only because it was the first fruits? In an inverted way, Trisha was right. If she could no longer believe in what she was doing, it was time to get out of the situation. She needed a new job and fast. That was the key to her future.

"Yeah well, Trisha, you go ahead with your plans. I'm sure they'll work out fine."

The irony of it all was that Trisha was encouraged by Nikki's general attitude.

Part 101

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