DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Kate and Kathy, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-7 of Bad Girls and to events in 'Dark Coda'.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL: To Dark Coda
Pat Kerrigan glanced at the printout in her hand, checking the address, and then looked at her watch. Ten minutes early - perfect. Not that she actually cared if she got this job or not, but her probation officer had found it for her, and as someone about to be released on life license, she needed to keep the boy happy. After all, he had the power to send her back to Larkhall on nothing more than a whim. As a long-time survivor of the system, Pat had no intention of giving him an excuse.
She gave her reflection in the plate glass window a quick once over, checking that her boots were reasonably well polished and that her shirt was ironed. Her clothes weren't the latest fashion - she had been inside too long and had never been the kind of woman who thought much about being up to date, even if she'd had the money. Luckily, her jeans and shirt were classic enough that she didn't look too out of place and she knew that she looked attractive in them. One thing about her jobs in the garden, and latterly on the works crew, was that they had helped keep her fit and slim, as well as saving her from developing the prison pallor she'd seen on other lifers. Her tied-back hair was still mostly dark and looked neat. The jacket she'd borrowed dressed the outfit up just enough that she could pass for an interview. All in all, Pat considered that she scrubbed up quite well for a dangerous killer.
Satisfied, she stepped into the gloom and silence of the club, restful after the bright lights and traffic noise of the London street outside, which had almost dazzled her in the late autumn sunshine.
Inwardly, Pat shook her head. She understood she'd have to get used to the pace of life on the out to have a chance of making it. She just wished that things hadn't got so much faster while she was trapped in the grey, unchanging world of Her Majesty's Prison Service. She knew she'd handle it, though. She'd promised herself that; no way was she going to be one of the sad cows who committed another crime to get back to an environment where she felt safe, especially since she'd faced up to worse, inside. It was a long time since the universe had done her any sort of favours and Pat was ready to fight for everything she wanted, as she'd always had to.
The place was practically deserted at this time in the afternoon, a solitary member of staff reading a book at one end of the bar and two older women sitting with their heads together over a mass of paperwork at one of the tables the only sign of life.
Pat sauntered up to the bar, checking out the decor as she went. It was a classy, understated kind of joint, at least in the daylight. Low-key lighting showed off the poster-sized pictures of various classic movie femme fatales and a suite of sensual, evocative paintings in muted colours showing women dancing with each other, kissing and, in one case, vanishing through a bedroom door.
The seats were divided between a scattering of tables near the dance floor, for those who wanted to see and be seen, and a collection of more intimate booths tucked away around the walls.
The overall impression was of relaxed comfort, a safe, friendly place to come and spend time, whatever your sexuality. Of course, as one of London's foremost lesbian nightclubs, Chix did tend to be dominated by a certain type of customer. Pat had heard of it, even locked up in Larkhall. But she got the impression that someone was making an effort to create a space that was welcoming for the straight girls as well.
The bar woman, who looked underage, but probably wasn't in a respectable establishment like this, smiled broadly as she put her reader down.
"What can I get you?"
"Looking for Nikki Wade. I've got a job interview."
"Oh, right. You must be Pat. She's over there."
The bar woman gestured at the two woman at the table. Pat swung round, put her elbows on the bar and studied them. Both were in their fifties, she guessed, one with a mane of blonde hair topping an hourglass figure and a sun bed tan. The other was taller and thinner, more androgynous, her dark brown hair cut into a short cap that showed off her elegant features and deep, attractive eyes. They were both formally dressed in business suits; designer labels, Pat thought. It fitted their style. As Pat watched, the dark-haired woman said something and the other laughed, throwing her head back. Friends as well as business partners, it seemed. Maybe more - they both wore wedding rings, though they were different designs.
The taller woman looked up suddenly and Pat realised she had been caught checking out her possible future employer. She made the best of it, squaring her shoulders and walking over.
"Pat Kerrigan. Here for an interview. You Nikki Wade?"
The blonde seemed slightly disconcerted by her direct approach, but the dark-haired woman took it in her stride, standing to shake her hand. "That's me. Look, I'm nearly finished here. Grab a drink and I'll be with you in five minutes."
"Sure," Pat said, looking up. The woman towered over her. She sauntered back over to the bar, wondering if she'd just lost herself the job and grinned at the barmaid.
"You do coffee?"
"Coming right up."
Back at the table, Trisha frowned. "She doesn't take any prisoners."
"It's all front," Nikki said. "You know that. Remember how I was when I got out?"
They worked their way quickly through the rest of the invoices, hardly needing to discuss most of it. Years of practice had made the process so automatic that they could practically read each other's minds by now. As she closed her laptop, Trisha glanced across at the bar.
"Well, she seems to be getting on all right with Michelle."
"Her probation officer said she's good with people."
"Her probation officer would say she can walk on water if it got her a job," Trisha retorted.
Nikki frowned. "Trish, are you really not OK with this? Because if you're unhappy with the idea, I'll forget it."
Trisha sighed. "No. We've had this argument. So long as you get rid of her if something goes wrong. Who am I to stop you saving the world one prisoner at a time?"
Nikki grinned. "It's the only way I know."
At the bar, Pat was letting the young woman do most of the talking. She'd adjusted enough to life on the outside to hold a normal conversation, but there were still gaps in her experience she struggled to explain. Combined with her natural tendency to act, not speak, she usually found it easier to just nod and listen and let the other person talk about themselves. Besides, she was enjoying her coffee, which was excellent and still felt like a luxury to her after years inside. She nibbled the tiny biscuit that had come with the drink and nodded in the right places as Michelle talked about her plans to go to Rome one day.
She turned quickly, prison reflexes still in place, as she sensed movement behind her and saw that Nikki Wade was standing nearby, well out of her personal space.
"Ready for your interview?"
Pat nodded to the bar woman and thought about that small courtesy as she followed the taller woman into an office upstairs, then shrugged mutely. The nightclub owner must be used to dealing with cons for some reason.
Once in the office, she sat down across a desk from Nikki, folded her hands and prepared to talk herself up. Nikki scanned her CV quickly and smiled at her.
"So when do you finish your sentence?"
"Three weeks, four days, some hours. Assuming nothing goes wrong."
"Do you think something will?"
"No. But it's prison. Never say never. I could get more days."
"Well, let me tell you about the job first, and you can decide if you want to take it."
Pat frowned, then realised that Nikki was serious. She relaxed slightly, intrigued. Nikki picked up on the small movement.
"Just not used to having choices."
"You'll have to be, on the out."
Nikki pushed a couple of sheets of paper across the desk. "Job description."
Pat looked it over. It was about what she'd expected for a general gofer - driving, setting up events, storing and delivering equipment, managing contractors. All stuff she could do. Then she got to the end of the list and frowned.
"Sourcing quotes? Negotiating with suppliers? Planning events? You do know I'm a con, not an MBA, don't you?"
"You'll get training for that part of the job," Nikki said. "This is confidential, but we're thinking of franchising Chix, expanding to Newcastle as well. You'll be helping me with that in-between working for Wade Events Management."
"So, you're going to drive me hard and pay me peanuts," Pat said.
"That's the general idea," Nikki said, smiling.
Pat thought about it. Actually, the salary written on the job description was reasonable. It was probably less than a new graduate would have expected, but since her other options involved stacking shelves or drawing benefits, it wasn't bad at all.
"How long is the probation period?"
"Twelve months. And the job isn't going to be nine to five most of the time," Nikki warned. "You'll get time off in lieu . We'll work it out."
"Not like I got evening classes to go to," Pat said. The long probation period explained why the interview had been this casual. It suited Pat. She preferred to show what she could do rather than talking about it. She was also finding that she liked Nikki Wade's style. The woman wasn't patronising her or talking down to her, and she was amazingly matter-of-fact about Pat's status as a con. Pat wondered if someone in her family had been inside. Nikki didn't seem in the least bit prejudiced.
They were discussing the job in more detail and roughing out Pat's induction programme when the phone rang. Nikki picked it up.
"Yes? What, already? OK, Michelle, I'll be right down."
She smiled as she ended the call. "Sorry, Pat, I have to go. My wife's here."
"Sure," Pat said, preoccupied with thinking about the way the other woman's face had lit up as soon as she had taken the phone call.
"Why don't you sleep on it and let me know if you're interested in the job before the end of the week."
"No need. I'll take it."
"Great. Good to have you aboard."
Nikki got up quickly and Pat took that as her cue to leave. She preceded her new boss down the steps into the main bar, curious to see what her wife was like, and found herself looking at an attractive woman with brown hair and hazel eyes who was dressed in a designer outfit that cost more than Pat would be earning in a month. She was surrounded by several bags from exclusive boutiques, and she looked as though she was holding on to her temper with extreme difficulty. Pat could tell from her appearance that she'd been to a salon that day; her hair was immaculately cut into the latest style and her hands were perfectly manicured. Her skin gave off the glow of someone who'd been treated to a high-end facial and then been professionally made up. She looked like a model at a fashion show.
Nikki went up to her and kissed her, apparently not caring that she might smear her make up. The other woman gave a petulant little jerk of her shoulders, turning her face away. Nikki took her hand.
"I am so angry that I can hardly speak," Helen said, the strong burr of her Scottish accent distorting the words as her temper visibly got the better of her.
"What about?" Nikki asked, though a small, secret smile told Pat that she had some idea.
"You know what about!"
Nikki looked around and held up her hands placatingly. "Let's talk about this somewhere else. Sweetheart ...."
"This is my new employee, Pat Kerrigan. Pat, Helen Stewart."
The Scot seemed to calm down enough to remember her manners and stuck out her hand rather ungraciously. Pat shook it quickly, then stepped away. She had no intention of being there at ground zero when the spoilt cow finally lost it. She looked like she'd had the equivalent of most of the gross domestic product of a small African country spent on her, presumably by her indulgent wife, and it apparently wasn't enough. Pat didn't like trophy wives anyway, and it looked as if this one was seriously high maintenance, not just because of the money it took to keep her happy, but because of her foul disposition. Judging by the way everyone was treading on eggshells around her, a temper tantrum from her was probably a sight worth seeing.
She smiled falsely. "Look, Ms. Wade, I gotta go. I've got another appointment."
"Nikki, please. Get back in touch next week. The number's on the paperwork. And I'll talk to your probation officer, let him know you got the job."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
She left the club, relieved to be away from the developing situation, and spotted her friend Janine across the street waiting for her. Janine was a tall, open-faced woman who'd met Pat when she was part of the campaign to get her sentence reduced. They'd grown to be closer friends later when Pat had started getting involved in activism on her own account, as far as she could from behind bars. Janine was currently running a social enterprise in one of the rougher parts of London, providing a food bank and community kitchen, and she'd offered Pat a room in her large, sprawling house when she got out, either for a nominal rent or for chores. Pat found the idea much more acceptable than a hostel, and she'd gratefully accepted. The sooner she got back to living amongst real people rather than cons the better, as far as she was concerned.
They found a pavement cafe and ordered coffee, and Pat gave Janine back the handheld she'd borrowed from her. One thing that had changed while she was inside was technology, and most people reacted with simple incomprehension to the idea that not everyone carried one of the small computers with them everywhere. Pat had stopped bothering to explain that they weren't allowed in prison (understandable, since they also functioned as mobile phones) because she had found that people simply didn't believe her.
"You didn't need it then?" Janine asked.
"No. She had a printout for me instead of just wanting to send the data over."
"Well, she's our age, isn't she?"
"How'd it go?"
"The bad news is that you don't have a kitchen assistant any more. The good news is that I can pay you rent for the room."
"Bugger. I was hoping to get the hall painted before next spring."
"I'm sure we can come to some arrangement."
"What's she like?"
"Nice. Her wife's a monster, though."
"Yeah. Wade's totally under the thumb, and seems to be happy with it. The missus was preparing to have a major row with her when I left."
"I don't know. Not getting enough toys bought for her, I think."
Janine shrugged philosophically. "Other people's relationships are always weird."
"I bet she has to watch out with that dragon on her case."
"Are you going to have to spend any time with the wife?"
"Not if I can manage it." Pat snorted.
"Then it isn't your problem. When do you have to be back?"
"About three hours."
"Sounds like enough time to visit an art gallery to me."
Pat nodded, then hesitated. "Janine...."
"I wanted to ask you. Is it going to be an issue if I bring women home?"
"Not so long as you don't mind me bringing men home."
"It's your house - you can do what you want."
"And you deserve some kind of life now you're out. No more than one partner at a time, no more than two nights a week, which includes the weekend. No one who's going to bring anything illegal into the house, do anything illegal in the house, steal things or smash the place up. Does that sound fair?"
"I'm not out yet, but that sounds fair."
Janine relaxed and Pat realised with surprise that the other woman had been slightly apprehensive about laying down the law.
"Trust me," she said ironically, "however many rules you come up with, they're less than I'm living with now."
"Let's go to the office," Nikki said, scooping up Helen's assortment of bags. She caught Trisha's eyes and smiled at her expression. Trisha had argued long and hard against the second half of Helen's early Christmas present, concluding her arguments with the observation that if Nikki went ahead with her idea, she was a dead woman and that Trisha washed her hands of the whole matter. Now, she watched as Helen led the way up the stairs, positively vibrating with anger, and gave Nikki a small, ironic wave that might have been sympathy or farewell. Nikki couldn't tell.
Nikki followed Helen through the door into her office, dropped the bags and turned to lock the door. When she turned back, she found herself faced with an enraged Scot.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at?!"
Nikki could have protested that she didn't know what Helen meant, but she sensed that only the truth was going to get her through this in one piece. Instead, she tried deflection.
"Did you like your pamper day?"
"Of course I did! It was wonderful. Far too extravagant, but wonderful. And then, just when I was signing out and filling in the feedback form about how much I'd enjoyed myself, the porter comes up to me and asks me if I'm Helen Stewart. And when I say yes, he presents me with that !"
Helen pointed accusingly at the mass of bags to one side of the door. "Clothes, make up, jewelry, perfume. I half expected to find a fur coat in there somewhere! All expensive, all top of the range. What were you thinking of!? Have you taken leave of your senses?!"
"No," Nikki said, "I just wanted to spoil you for once."
"For once?! Woman, you spoil me every day of my life by waking up in my bed and telling me you love me! What makes you think I need things to understand that? Do you think I'm that cheap, that easily bought? I felt like a kept woman!"
"It was part of your pamper day."
"No, it was not. The subtle clue is that I had no idea it was going to happen! Unlike everyone else in that lobby!"
"Is that what's bothering you so much?" Nikki asked. "That you didn't know, or is it the idea that people might think you're someone's mistress?"
"A little of both," Helen admitted. "And there's the extravagance. How have you afforded all this? Especially now, with our plans for the business?"
"Oh, sold Chix. No big deal."
"Nikki ...." It was nearly a growl. Nikki swallowed slightly and decided that discretion was probably the better part of valour at this stage.
"I can explain. But I need you to calm down and listen."
"I'm listening," Helen said through her teeth. Nikki decided that she'd settle for that, for now. Calm might have to come later.
"You remember when we redecorated the club? Five years ago?"
"Yes," Helen said impatiently.
"And you persuaded Denny to do the paintings for the main area?"
"That wasn't me."
"Actually, it was," Nikki said. She risked reaching out to touch Helen's shoulder. Helen bridled slightly, but permitted it. Nikki began to run a hand down her arm, soothing the tension in her bicep and forearm. "I asked her, but she wouldn't until she suddenly remembered how you'd given her that first commission. The family portrait. Then she said yes."
"Nikki, is there a point to this?"
"Definitely. Last month, when I was trying to pull the finance for the new club together, I got a Belgian woman in. Private venture capital."
"I would have talked to you about it before I committed to anything. It wasn't serious. I just wanted to consider all our options. Anyway, after the meal, she said she wanted to look at their potential investment, so I brought her back here. She walked in and started checking the place out. When she got to Denny's paintings, she commented on what good replicas they were. So I told her they were originals and she nearly fainted."
"Seems Denny Blood is very well thought of in European art circles. I got them valued and let's just say the ones on the walls now are replicas. The originals are in a bank vault. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to insure this place. And we don't have to go to the bank or put up part of the club as collateral for Chix Newcastle. We can use the paintings."
Helen looked at her, dumbfounded, and Nikki took the opportunity to step closer and take her wife in her arms. "So you see, I can afford all that. The accountant agreed that, in the circumstances, we were entitled to a small bonus. And I decided to spend mine on you."
"No," Nikki said, "you're worth it."
"What about Denny?"
"I kept to the agreement you made with her," Nikki said, loving that even in the middle of her shock, her wife's moral compass was still intact. This was the other side of the stubbornness, of the inconveniently simple way Helen sometimes had of thinking about things - her integrity was simply part of who she was. "She took the picture of Shaz. You know, the study of her washing at the sink?"
"Good choice," Helen said, slightly dazed.
Nikki smiled and drew her in for a deep, passionate kiss. "And as to being a kept woman you are."
"What?!" Helen said, pulling back, her hands on Nikki's shoulders.
"Because I'm keeping you close for the rest of our lives. Unless you have a problem with that?"
"No problem at all," Helen said, "but Nikki, if you ever do anything like that again? We're going to have to have words. Seriously."
"Yes, mistress," Nikki said teasingly. Helen cleared her throat.
"You're pushing the boundaries, Wade."
"We can do that later, can't we?"
Helen looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I'll show you why I think you'd be a prize as anyone's mistress. Why I'm lucky to have you as my wife."
"No. Just yours. Always."
"God, I want you," Helen said, her tone wanton with need. Nikki shivered.
"Can you wait?"
"If I have to."
"Wait for me. Please?"
Helen looked at her with burning eyes and pressed a single kiss onto her palm. Nikki found a minute to regret that they weren't at home and free to carry out their desires, then reminded herself that waiting could sometimes make things better. She smiled at Helen.
"I kept all the receipts. If you really don't like any of it, you can take it back and buy a hair shirt with the money, or something."
"Oh, no," Helen said, "that's mine now. I get to decide what happens to it."
Nikki ducked her head. "So, it's OK. You like them?"
"Of course. Your taste is impeccable, as always."
"Just like my taste in women, then. Come on, we'd better go down or Trisha is going to phone the police on us."
"Either that or a relationship counselor."
"Hardly. If it's not broke, don't fix it."
"Home, sweet home," Nikki said, dropping her shoulder bag in the hall and listening to the silence that filled the house. Calum and Zoe were staying with Thomas and his wife for the night to give her and Helen a bit of time alone. It was a reciprocal arrangement - they occasionally took care of his boisterous toddler, Andrew - one of the advantages of being part of the Larkhall mafia, as they all sometimes jokingly referred to themselves. The friendships that had been forged in those stressful times were still going strong. They had been tested in a way that most links never were.
Behind her, Helen kicked off her shoes with a sigh and walked over to check the phone for messages, her stockinged feet silent on the hall carpet. Nikki sat down on the stairs to take off her own boots and put them to one side. She leaned forward, elbows on thighs, appreciating the view as Helen stood, head bent, checking the post on the sideboard.
The sheer grey dress she wore was cut low at front and back, revealing the smooth lines of her tanned back and full breasts. Its straps hardly looked strong enough to hold the material up and did nothing to conceal the toned shoulders and elegant line of her collarbones. The ivory shawl that was now slung casually across the end of the banisters had served to add an extra level of allure earlier that evening, revealing and concealing Helen's arms and sides as she walked to and from the Thai restaurant where they had booked a table. Nikki had found herself aching to touch each new glimpse of skin as it appeared, like treasure being shown to her and then hidden away again.
As it was, she had spent the meal admiring the contours of Helen's jaw line and neck, which had been on show because the Scot had her hair up for once. It had been a pleasantly tormenting experience; on the one hand, she didn't want to stop spending the evening with her wife, chatting lightly as they ate delicious food, their fingers tangling occasionally on the tablecloth as they held hands or touched each other's arms to make a point. On the other, she wanted to hurry Helen away, rip the clothes off her body and make passionate love to her on the nearest available surface.
It hadn't helped that Helen was fully aware of the effect she was having; Nikki knew the small, secret smile that curved her lips on these occasions, as she enjoyed her power over the other woman. Nikki had been half-inclined to up the ante and start taking advantage of Helen's own attraction to her; she hadn't missed the occasional languorous look that the Scot was giving her or the absent way she sometimes shifted in her chair, as though distracted. She had decided against it because they were both enjoying the anticipation and because she knew where that sort of thing could lead. She and Helen had come dangerously close to sex in public before now.
The small gasp Helen gave when she leaned across and kissed her bare shoulder in the car had told Nikki all she needed to know, and she had felt the answering heat between her own legs flare in response, setting up a deep flex of desire in her stomach. She had driven the car home carefully, deliberately avoiding Helen's eyes. Now she waited until her stillness caught Helen's attention, watching as the other woman turned to look at her.
She crooked her finger. "Come here."
Helen pouted. Her tongue came out and traced her lips. "Why should I?"
"Because I want you to."
"Maybe I want you to ask nicely."
"Come here, please?"
"Well ... I'll think about it."
"Come here, miss?"
"Oh, and if I do?"
"I'll show you a good time," Nikki said.
Helen walked slowly across to her. Nikki watched, feeling her mouth grow dry with desire. Helen stopped between her legs and leaned forward to whisper, her breath ghosting across the sensitive skin of Nikki's ear. "Is that a promise?"
"You can take it to the bank," Nikki said and gripped Helen's hips with firm hands. Sitting down like this, her mouth was level with Helen's breasts and she pulled her slightly closer and began to kiss them, searching for the nipples through the cloth, taking advantage of the extra friction it gave her. Helen braced herself against the wall with one hand and moaned. Nikki took that as a sign to carry on and persisted, massaging Helen's buttocks through the thin material of the dress while she caressed her breasts, feeling the textures of her skin and underwear under the layer of sheer cloth. She felt Helen restlessly running her fingers across the back of her head, threading them through her hair, and turned to kiss the inside of her arm.
Helen looked down at her, her face flushed, lips slightly parted. "Is that all you've got?" she asked hoarsely.
"No," Nikki said, grinning. She had realised something while touching Helen. It had taken a while for the information her hands had worked out to transmit itself through the haze of arousal in her brain, but now that she'd realised what sort of underwear Helen was wearing, she intended to take full advantage of it.
"Move up," she instructed. Helen shakily climbed a couple of steps and pressed herself against the wall, her hands coming to rest on Nikki's shoulders
She slid her hands slowly and deliberately down Helen's sides, never breaking eye contact, until she got to the hem of the dress and, taking it in her hands, began to inch it higher and higher up Helen's thighs. She made it last, pausing occasionally to press a light, sucking kiss onto the taut muscles she was gradually revealing. As the grey material moved upwards, she saw more and more of the smooth flesh she knew so well and smelled the familiar scent of her wife, ready and aroused. Waiting for her.
Helen pressed herself back, the dress held up by the contact between her and the wall. Nikki positioned herself at the right level and took a moment to kiss Helen at the top of her suspender stockings, relishing the warmth and slight tang of perspiration under her tongue. Helen moaned again as Nikki turned her face into the crease between thigh and groin, licking the skin, tantalizing her partner with a promise of what was to come.
Slowly, Nikki used one hand to pull down Helen's knickers, using the other one to hold her still, and plunged two fingers into the warm intimacy of her wife's body. Both of them gasped, Helen at the sensation and Nikki at the waiting heat and wetness, telling her how aroused Helen had become by what they had been doing.
Deliberately, she used the knowledge, prolonging the moment by savouring Helen with measured care, touching every point of her center with her mouth except for the sensitive nub near Nikki's thumb. She used her other hand to immobilise the restless thrusting of the smaller woman's hips, keeping her transfixed so that she couldn't move away. Finally, when her groans of pleasure had turned into a near continuous sound of arousal and need, Nikki relented and used her mouth and hands to take Helen over the edge into a prolonged and intense orgasm.
Afterwards, she supported Helen as she slumped down, her legs trembling with exertion and release, and rested her forehead on Nikki's shoulder. They were both breathing heavily and Nikki smiled to herself, happy to enjoy the afterglow with Helen. She was close to the edge herself, the fires of passion stoked by the smell and taste of the woman she loved and by witnessing her pleasure. She felt as if she might catch fire if she didn't find relief, and she was aware that she was trembling for a different reason than Helen, her need still strong and unsated.
Helen chuckled by her ear, a lazy, sensual sound. "We normally make it to the bedroom."
"I've been wanting to do that all evening."
"What? In the restaurant?"
"Yeah. You knew as well."
"Might have done. Hadn't realised you were such an exhibitionist."
"I'm not, usually. It's just you're so beautiful. It's hard to keep my hands off you."
"Like you give me the chance. You were definitely accessing your inner cave woman there."
"Not that I've got any complaints," Helen said. She stood up, snagging the shawl off the end of the banister. "Come to bed. I think you've got a problem I need to take care of."
"Oh? What's that?"
Helen kissed her lingeringly, taking her hand and giving a small tug upwards. "Well, I'm sure you can show me."
In the bedroom, Nikki started to shrug her jacket off, but stilled as Helen put hands on her shoulders, stopping her. "Let me," she said softly.
Nikki tensed as the other woman started to circle her, pulling her clothes slowly off her, folding them carefully and laying them to one side. She knew Helen was deliberately prolonging what she was doing, interspersing her self-assumed duties with lingering touches and kisses, tracing the pattern of her desire on Nikki's skin with her lips and hands. She tried to catch her to kiss her on the lips and deepen their contact, but Helen evaded her, holding her off with little shakes of the head and soft instructions to let go every time she managed to get hold of her wife. By the time she had finished, Nikki was trembling with desire and Helen was still dressed. Finally, as Nikki stood naked and flushed in front of her, her nipples hard and the aching between her legs an insistent pressure, Helen turned and presented the fastening of her dress to her.
"Will you undo me?"
Nikki pulled the zip down with shaking fingers and Helen stepped out of her dress, the material whispering as the grey sheath slid to the floor, revealing firm, tanned curves. Nikki groaned and helped Helen out of her bra, unclasping the clip and taking the opportunity to cup her wife's breasts in her hands, feeling their soft warmth against her palms. Helen looked back over her shoulder and put an arm round Nikki's neck, arching her back. "That feels good. But this isn't about me. Lie down on the bed."
"Helen ...." Nikki warned softly. She gasped as Helen put both hands on her hips and pushed her backwards until the edge of the bed caught her behind her knees and she fell onto it. Helen stepped out of her knickers and, clad only in stockings, picked up the shawl she had brought upstairs with her. She smiled promisingly.
"You know this is silk, right?"
"You want to know how silk feels against your skin?"
She sat next to Nikki, ghosting a hand across the muscles of her stomach, seemingly fascinated by the way they jumped and quivered under her touch. She leant close and whispered, "It feels really good. Let me show you."
Nikki cried out involuntarily as Helen dropped the shawl onto her torso and began to stroke her through it, paying special attention to her breasts and the folds of flesh between her legs, lying by her to kiss the sweat and tears from her face as she skillfully exploited the slight deadening of sensation to prolong her ascent for longer than Nikki would have thought possible. By the time Helen put the shawl to one side and touched her mouth to the heat of her centre, Nikki was so aroused that her orgasm came almost instantly, driving her into incoherence as she rode the waves of sensation to their end.
Afterwards, they lay spooned against each other under the covers, touching and caressing each other's skin, enjoying the feel of the other's naked body. Nikki smiled to herself as she kissed Helen's stretch marks and got a playful slap for her trouble before Helen did the same to her. Both of them had the marks of time and childbirth on their flesh; neither of them was quite as taut or as lean as they had once been, though they were both careful to keep in shape. But it didn't matter, just as the strands of grey in their hair and the laughter lines at the corner of their eyes didn't matter, or the way both of them had to be more careful now about always wearing a bra.
Their bodies held the history of their time together, of their children and the years of happiness they'd had. Lying beside her wife, Nikki stroked her face and thought about how she never seemed to become less beautiful, the familiarity of her taste and scent, of her thoughts and moods a constant reassuring backdrop to the new experiences they shared; every day another gift from an unforgiving universe. A gift she had once never expected to receive.
"What you thinking?" Helen asked softly.
Nikki shifted uncomfortably. "Soppy stuff," she said, trying to keep the embarrassment out of her tone. Helen smiled at her with the calm assurance she always seemed to show at moments like this.
"I feel the same way."
Later, after they had had a short nap and made love again, Helen suggested that they go downstairs and watch a late-night film. Nikki would have agreed to almost anything the other woman had suggested at that stage; she was so content that she seriously didn't believe she was going to get upset about anything for a week.
They dressed in comfortable, old pyjamas and went down to the big sofa, where they lay together. Nikki dropped kisses on Helen's neck as she adjusted the throw over both of them and reached for the remote before handing it to Helen and wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. She felt her wife's weight as she leant against her and smiled. Not uncoincidentally, her hands were just in the right place to roam if she wanted to explore, resting on the other woman's stomach. She was brought back to reality by a light tap on the back of her hand.
"I do want to watch this film," Helen warned.
"I mean it, Nikki."
"I promise to be good."
Nikki took the promise seriously, satisfying herself with a few gentle caresses during the commercials, which Helen didn't seem to mind at all. Halfway through, they agreed to share a bottle of wine and after the film finished, they turned the TV off and stayed on the sofa, talking. Finally, Helen paid attention to the clock and sat up.
"We have to go to bed. The kids 'll be back sometime in the morning."
"I told Thomas to make it mid-morning."
"It's the small hours now."
"There's a reason I booked your present for half term. Means we've got more time."
"Well, it's the calm before the storm for you," Helen commented.
"Taking on a new employee as well as your plans for Chix. And with as long as she's been inside ..."
"Yes, but she was a lifer."
Helen frowned, puzzled. "So?"
"So, she's used to dealing with people and her actions having consequences. She's already got the skill set I need."
"How d'you work that out?"
Nikki shrugged. "Well, if she was one of the bed and breakfast crowd, it wouldn't matter who she pissed off. She'd be out of prison before any comeback happened. A lifer has to be more careful. If you upset somebody, staff or inmate, make an enemy, you have to live with them for an awfully long time. Teaches you good negotiation skills. Which is what the job's going to involve."
"I see the sense in getting someone who's only committed one crime, even if it was a serious one," Helen said thoughtfully.
"I've checked her out."
"Got hold of her prison file."
"Nikki! How did you do that?" Helen asked, shocked.
"It wasn't anything illegal. Her probation officer's a bit slack and he left me alone with it one day. I talked to the Julies."
"They were in Larkhall with her?"
"For a while. They gave me some insight into her background, where she's coming from, what her history is. I needed to know."
"Anything to worry about?" Helen asked cautiously, picking up on Nikki's tone of voice.
"No. She doesn't abuse drugs or alcohol, she's not a bully and she's as sane as anyone can be after spending years in that tomb. She's going to be coming into contact with Trisha and our children, Helen, and you. I made damn sure I knew what she's like."
"If she's a lifer, was it violent?"
"Yeah. But I've hardly got room to talk, have I? I was a bit concerned when I heard the story about the nun, but once I understood why it happened, it all made sense."
"Her first day in Larkhall, she pulled a knife on a nun and threatened to cut her throat in front of the whole wing."
"That sounds like the sort of thing that would get you committed."
"Maybe, except it turns out that the nun had abused her when she was a kid in care in a Catholic home. Her and a priest. So all Pat was doing was getting some payback for herself and a friend who'd committed suicide."
"Yeah. Meek and mild. It makes her a bit inflexible on the subject of nonces. She had a long-running feud with another inmate who was in for organising a prostitution racket until the other woman managed to escape."
"I can empathise with somebody who doesn't like child molesters," Helen said thoughtfully.
"That's right. Apart from that, she fights when she has to. But she doesn't start trouble."
"You make her sound like an upstanding citizen."
"I think she is, for a con. And if she doesn't work out? Her feet won't touch the floor."
"Good enough for me. Let's get to bed."
Pat found the address easily. She'd taken the precaution of checking out the route a couple of days ago and timing the journey. She was determined not to mess this chance up. Now, as she walked up the driveway towards the front door, she wondered what she would find when she got there.
The house was a large, elegant Victorian property in a nice part of town, with extensive gardens and a double garage. It was clear that Nikki's various companies were doing well. Pat supposed that she needed the frontage to keep her wife happy. She visualised the expensive dinner parties you could throw in a place like that and grimaced. Not her sort of lifestyle at all. She knocked on the sturdy, black painted front door, wondering if a maid would open it. She imagined that the lady of the house was still in bed.
Hurried footsteps approached from inside and Helen Stewart opened the door, letting out a blast of warmth and the smells of breakfast. Pat frowned. The other woman was dressed in faded work out gear and her hair was still wet. She didn't have any make up on, and she was carrying a butter-smeared knife in one hand. They looked at each other in mutual surprise for a moment and then Helen's face cleared. "Of course. I'm sorry. I forgot you were starting today."
Pat followed her into a carpeted hallway, glancing round at the neutral, welcoming decor. Though tastefully decorated, the place looked like a family home rather than a museum or a showcase. There was a shortage of expensive ornaments and antiques; family photographs decorated most surfaces, showing Nikki and Helen together with two children, a boy and a girl, at various ages. The cloak room, which Pat glimpsed through a half-open doorway as she followed Helen, contained a scatter of shoes and boots together with coats of various sizes and any amount of rackets and balls, testifying to the children's enthusiasm for sport.
Helen stopped at the bottom of the stairs. "Excuse me," she said.
The ex-con shrugged and waited.
"Calum!" Helen shouted up the stairs, "Get in that shower, now! And don't just wet your head. I will check if I have to!"
She turned apologetically back to Pat. "Would you like a coffee? I'm sorry about this. It's always chaos on a Monday. Calum acts like he's never heard of school before."
"Black, no sugar," Pat said.
Helen nodded and led her into a stone-tiled kitchen with a coffee maker bubbling away on the granite worktop. She turned to the slender girl sitting at the large pine kitchen table, calmly spooning porridge into her mouth as she read the TV listings. "I suppose you're ready as usual?"
"Yes," the girl said. She pointed at the bag and flute case sitting ready by the door. "Homework done. Lunch packed. I've got the right books."
Helen smiled at her and dropped a distracted kiss onto her hair before pouring a mug of coffee and handing it to Pat.
"I don't know why I bother to ask. You're more organised than I am."
"It's not hard," the girl said before turning back to the paper. She scraped her bowl clean. "Good porridge, Mam. Thanks."
"I made your favourite sandwiches as well. Be sure to eat your fruit."
"I will. Mam?"
"Who's the lady?"
Pat blinked, realising that the girl was referring to her. She looked at her and was met with a pair of calm blue eyes set in a still, self-contained face.
"Your Mum's new employee. Remember?"
Pat watched, bewildered, as the girl stood up and extended her hand. "I'm Zoe. Are you Pat?"
"Yeah." she said, shaking the small hand since it seemed to be expected.
"Pleased to meet you."
Pat nodded, slightly taken aback. The girl couldn't be more than eleven. Her attention was distracted by a crash from upstairs. Helen's lips tightened and she went to the bottom of the stairs.
"Calum! Don't make me come up there!"
She retreated back to the kitchen and got herself a cup of coffee. Zoe was rinsing her bowl in the the sink. "Mam?"
There was a small silence, then Helen seemed to see the funny side of the question and chuckled. "Because they grow into men, sweetheart, and they have their uses."
"Well, if your father hadn't been around, neither of you would be here. Me and your Mum wouldn't like that." She paused. "Give it a while and you might begin to see my point."
"What if I turn out to be gay?"
"Even lesbians see the point of men. Well, most of them. What about Uncle John? Or Uncle Thomas?"
Zoe considered Helen's words, then nodded. "I suppose so. But they are different from us."
"I know. I find the best way to cope is to assume they're another species. Makes life a lot easier."
"OK," Zoe said. "I'd better clean my teeth."
"Use the downstairs bathroom."
"I'm not going up there. He'll just yell at me."
"His body's changing. We should give him his privacy."
"Like it's any different from the books," Zoe said dismissively. She hugged her mother quickly and vanished into the bowels of the house. Pat looked after her, slightly stunned.
Helen smiled. "I know. Eleven going on two hundred."
Nikki emerged from somewhere in the back, brushing soil from her hands, and nodded a welcome. "You found us, then."
"Yeah," Pat said, slightly awkwardly. Though neither of the women sharing the kitchen with her had said anything, their bodies had shifted as Nikki walked in, orientating them towards each other. It was unconscious, as far as she could tell, but so intimate that it felt like something she shouldn't be watching. Her discomfort increased as Nikki walked over to Helen and kissed her, her arms going comfortably round the other woman's waist. The Scot returned the kiss, one hand going to the nape of her wife's neck, pulling her closer. They broke apart and smiled at each other, their eye contact intense and direct.
Pat concentrated on her coffee. When she looked up again, they had separated and Helen was buttering toast while Nikki watched her, her gaze openly admiring. Helen leant over and said something quietly to the taller woman. They both chuckled, and her boss gave an exaggerated sigh before coming over to the table, sitting down with her back to Helen. She looked at Pat, suddenly business-like.
"I thought we'd do a tour of the various premises the company owns today, so you know where they are. I'm going to go over the annual plan with you and talk about your training programme. Is that all right?"
"Fine. Sounds like a lot to get through."
"Oh, she doesn't hang about," Helen said, settling down to eat her toast.
"We'll be OK," Nikki said firmly. "If you think I'm going too fast, you'll just have to tell me. When's your next probation appointment?"
"Couple of weeks."
"We need to diarise them in. Make sure you can get there."
Pat nodded. "Last thing I want to do is breach my license."
"Not going to happen," Nikki said.
A grumbling teenager dressed in a school uniform shuffled into the kitchen and dropped himself into the seat opposite Nikki. She grinned at the boy and turned to Pat.
"Our son and heir. Calum. He doesn't do mornings."
"Shouldn't have to," the boy muttered. He started slightly as Helen put a bowl of porridge in front of him and began to eat, apparently waking up enough to do so. Helen ruffled his hair affectionately and he moved his head away.
He was a thin boy with striking hazel eyes and clear skin who hadn't come into his growth yet; his wide shoulders showed that he might be a strong man when he did. He had the normal self-absorption of his gender - he didn't seem to have noticed that Pat was in the room, never mind acknowledging her existence. His brown hair curled damply over the collar of his shirt, and his wrists protruded from his slightly frayed cuffs.
"Have you got football practice tonight?" Nikki asked.
"No. Chess club."
"Oh. So you've got a lift home."
"Steve's Mum," Calum confirmed. He finished his porridge and looked around. "Is there any toast?"
"Wash your bowl. I'll make you some," Helen said. "You've got ten minutes, Calum."
"Yeah. Three slices, please."
"Is your stuff ready for school?"
He nodded absently, his attention obviously on his next course.
"Then go and get it, and put it by the door."
Calum dumped the unwashed bowl in the sink and went out. A couple of minutes later, they heard his heavy tread on the stairs. Helen poured a glass of juice and put butter and jam on the toast, wrapping it in some kitchen roll.
"Right, I have to get ready. I've got a breakfast meeting." She turned in the doorway. "Get him to drink the juice when he comes down. He'll have to have his toast in the car, as usual."
"What, you don't think his stuff's ready?" Nikki enquired, with a quirk of her eyebrows.
"If he's ready, then I'm the Queen of Sheba. Do I look like I'm wearing a turban?"
"Maybe we should just let him have coffee in the mornings."
"And stunt his growth? No."
"French children drink coffee."
"He's Scottish," Helen said firmly, apparently ending the argument. Pat sneered inwardly. Typical bloody high maintenance type - determined to have her own way about everything. Pat wondered why she'd risked stretch marks by having a child. Probably to bind Nikki Wade closer to her - she must have known she was onto a good thing. Rich, successful and obviously totally besotted and under the thumb.
"So," Nikki said, "this is the event timeline. What can you tell me about it?"
She slid the laptop across the table to Pat and sat back, waiting. Pat considered the schematic. Once she'd got over her nerves about working on stuff that looked more complicated than anything she'd done in her life before and her wariness about expressing her opinion, born of years inside, she'd found she really enjoyed her new job. It helped that Nikki was a good teacher, patient and willing to explain things as many different ways as she had to until Pat got them.
Her progress had been accelerating lately, as long-dormant brain cells woke up and she started to get a feel for the work. It was about being organised; keeping track of things and making sure you didn't forget anything, while still being ready for unforeseen circumstances. Pat found that she enjoyed pulling all of the different elements of a plan together and making sure that nothing was missed. She was aware that she was taking small steps - Nikki was overseeing the process carefully and introducing her to new elements gradually as she thought Pat was ready; but she was confident that she could master project management if she put her mind to it. She was just grateful that she had been given the chance.
Nikki's handheld rang and she picked it up off the table, glancing at it to work out who was calling. As soon as her face lit up with a smile, Pat knew who it was. Nikki hit the 'call answer' button and got up to go into the main office, out of the small conference room where they were working. She held up five fingers, indicating that she would be a short time, and closed the door behind her. Pat watched her through the glass that formed a wall between them and inwardly shook her head. As usual, when she was speaking to Helen, whether face to face or on the telephone, Nikki's body language had changed, becoming more relaxed and focused, her face animated and smiling. She looked as if she'd forgotten her surroundings, totally intent on her interaction with her wife. As Pat watched, she laughed at something that Helen had said and replied with what looked like a flirtatious comment, lips tightening with amusement as she waited for the riposte.
Pat looked away quickly, apparently concentrating on her work, but actually monitoring the interaction out of the corner of her eye. Ten minutes in, she decided it was going to be one of their long conversations and put her attention back where it was supposed to be. By the time Nikki came back into the conference room, smiling to herself, she had roughed out a timeline for the event arrangements and was concentrating on working out the best way to juggle the resources that would be needed.
She looked up. "Anyone important?"
"Just the wife," Nikki said, apparently unaware of the distracted expression on her own face. She sat down, absently tapping the table with her wedding ring. It was a habit Pat had noticed she had whenever she'd been talking to Helen. Pat doubted that Nikki was even aware of it. Pat slid the laptop silently back across the table. Her boss pulled her mind back to business with a visible effort and looked at the display on the screen in front of her.
"OK. Right. Now that's interesting ...."
"Anything important?" Pat asked. She didn't know why - it was like touching a bruise. For some reason, her employer's contentment in her relationship niggled at her and she couldn't work out why, because she liked Nikki and wished her well. While she didn't think much of Helen, the other woman seemed to make her boss happy and that was fine by Pat. At least she served some useful function, besides being a trophy.
"What? No. Just seeing how I was," Nikki said, glowing quietly. "Anyway, this is your time. Come on. Help me concentrate."
"Sure," Pat said, leaning forward and putting thoughts about emotional matters to the back of her mind for now.
The party was in full swing and Pat was sitting at the side of the room, sipping a glass of red wine while she listened to a dark-haired woman with nice eyes and a ready smile talk about her boring job and her more interesting hobby of salsa dancing. She could feel them inching physically closer together as the conversation meandered and moved around different subjects. Neither of them were in any hurry; they both knew where the evening would end up. Pat had a feeling they'd be good together, maybe good enough to see each other again from time to time. She knew it wouldn't be any more than that; they'd both made comments that established what was on offer very early on before settling into the preliminaries of letting the anticipation build.
She noticed that the other woman's glass was empty and stood up. "Let me get you another drink."
"Mineral water," the woman said, laying her hand on Pat's forearm. "I want to keep a clear head tonight."
Pat handed her the half-empty wine glass she'd been nursing all evening. After years in Larkhall, drinking prison hooch and the odd smuggled miniature, she knew her limits and believed in sticking to them. "Yeah, wouldn't want to get drunk and spoil the fun."
She kissed her date lightly on the lips, and walked into the kitchen. She was pouring the mineral water and looking round for ice cubes when she heard a noise and discovered that Vivienne had followed her there. Pat frowned; Vivienne was a friend of Janine's who'd made it clear that she was interested in Pat. However, it was also clear that she wanted a longer term, committed relationship and Pat had kept her at arm's length. It was a pity. Vivienne was an attractive woman with a nice figure and a quick mind. In other circumstances, Pat wouldn't have hesitated. She stepped past her and opened the fridge.
"What has she got that I haven't got?" Vivienne demanded in a low voice.
"She just wants a quick shag. That's all I need."
"If sex is all you want to commit to, then "
"No," Pat said, pulling out the ice cube tray. She went to the table and started to break the cubes into the glass. "You'd be choosing carpets before the week was out. I don't let people into my life. So, you and me? Not going to happen."
"Who was she, Pat?" Vivienne asked. "Because she did a bloody good job of breaking your heart."
Pat gave her a hard stare. "Why do amateur psychologists always talk like everyone lives in a romance novel? Maybe I just like to sleep around. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go back to enjoying myself."
In the morning she waved the woman off after breakfast before heading back into the house to start tackling the job of clearing up and making the place presentable. She tidied with a smile on her face, reliving the more pleasant parts of the encounter as she picked up bottles and wiped down surfaces. She'd had a good night - her bed partner had turned out to be flexible, enthusiastic and quite inventive. Pat suspected she'd been living out a few private fantasies; her interest had increased noticeably when Pat had casually mentioned that she'd spent some time inside. Pat didn't quite understand the appeal herself; she thought of cons as limited people and mostly not very bright, based on her own experience. For that reason, she avoided telling people where she'd been; she didn't want to be in somebody's bed just because they wanted to fuck an ex-prisoner. On the other hand, once a connection had been established, if her partner found her rough edges intriguing and wanted to show their appreciation for their sense that they were walking on the wild side, who was she to stop them? Especially when it resulted in as many orgasms as she'd had last night.
She stripped the sheets on her bed and loaded the washing machine. She was just getting the Hoover out when Janine came down the stairs, hair still wet from the shower.
"Hi," Janine said, reaching for the kettle. "Did you have a good time?"
"Has she gone?"
"Yeah. Something about a lunch appointment."
"Are you going to see her again?"
"She kept you up late enough."
Pat looked sharply at her. "Did we disturb you?"
"No. There's a reason the study's between your room and mine. I went down for a drink in the small hours and I saw a light under the door."
Pat smiled slowly. Janine shook her head and started measuring out coffee into the cafetiere.
"Vivienne left the party early," she said quietly.
"I didn't notice."
"That's not going to happen, is it?"
"No. And she knows why."
"Yeah," Pat said insincerely.
"Tell me again why you don't do relationships."
"Too much trouble. And I've just been in a place where people are always trying to con you or screw with you or generally mess with your head. Safer not."
"That's why your boss' family pisses you off so much, you know," Janine said.
"She has what you could have if you were willing to take a chance."
"No," Pat said flatly. "Not ever again." She stepped into the hall and grabbed her coat. "Off to get a paper."
Janine watched her go, a thoughtful expression on her face, and turned back to her coffee.
They were coming back from a new venue, discussing whether it would do for some of the product launches they had coming up, when Nikki's phone rang. Nikki grabbed it and glanced at the number. She smiled.
"I have to take this, OK?"
"Sure," Pat said knowingly, and concentrated on her driving.
She was just dealing with a white van that was trying to cut her up when Nikki's tone of voice caught her attention.
"What?! Look, Helen, just calm down, all right. We're not that far away. No, I'll come straight home. Is everyone safe? Hang on, love. I'm on my way."
She terminated the call and put her hand on Pat's arm. "Take me to the house. Fast as you can."
"Sure," Pat said, checked her mirrors, and did a U turn in the road to the sound of multiple drivers leaning on their horns to express their displeasure at her behaviour. Nikki didn't react, which in itself told Pat how serious the situation was. Though a fast driver, her boss was also very safety-conscious and meticulous about observing traffic laws. She'd normally have commented on the maneuver. Instead, she stared out of the window, visibly preoccupied, her fingers drumming on her leg. It started to get on Pat's nerves. She waited for the next red light.
"You want to message our next meeting and tell them we might not make it? The mid-afternoon one?"
"Good idea," Nikki said and lost herself in rearranging their appointments for the rest of the day, which kept her out of trouble. Pat took a second to admire how good the other woman was at fronting up; her voice was totally smooth and professional as she talked to the supplier, reassuring them that the cancellation wasn't because she'd had a better offer and that they still had the business.
It distracted the taller woman for most of the rest of the trip, but by the time they pulled into the drive of the house, she was tense again. The van had barely rolled to a stop when she was unbuckling her seat belt.
"You're with me," she said decisively. "I might need transport."
"Sure," Pat said, getting out more slowly and locking the vehicle. She hesitated in the driveway, wondering what crisis would lead Helen to call her boss in the middle of the day and drag her away from the business. She glanced at the sky, trying to work out when the snow that had been threatening all day was going to start, and followed Nikki into the house.
She caught a glimpse of her boss vanishing into the kitchen and walked in after her, slightly disconcerted by what she found there. Helen was sitting at the table, dressed for work, her briefcase dumped carelessly by her chair. She was staring sightlessly at the wall, her face bleak and drawn. She looked up as they came into the room and Pat's gut tightened at the pain in her face. Nikki crossed to her, immediately concerned, and knelt down by her.
"Calum ...," Helen said thickly. She ducked her head. "He's been caught stealing."
"What do you mean?" Nikki said.
"You heard me."
"Stealing what? Sweets? A magazine?"
"I wish that was all it was. They've been ... there have been thefts happening at the school for a while. Money, handhelds, other things. All valuable, all easy to sell on. They kept it quiet, but they've been trying to catch whoever it was for months. "She took a deep, shuddering breath.
Nikki put her arms round her. "Take your time. Come on. We can do this."
Helen cleared her throat. After a moment, she continued. Her voice was so soft that they both had to lean in to hear her. "Today, two phones went missing. They were pretty sure the thief hadn't had a chance to get rid of them so they called an unannounced assembly and asked the person who'd done it to come forward. When he didn't, they called the numbers. They rang in Calum's bag."
"That's no proof," Pat said immediately. "They could have been planted."
"You don't understand. He's admitted it. To me, in front of the headmaster."
"He's taken responsibility for all of it?" Nikki asked.
Helen nodded wordlessly. Nikki leaned her head momentarily against her wife's shoulder, thinking, then stood up.
"What have the school done?"
""Well, they say he's previously been well-behaved so they've stopped at a suspension for now. Till the new term in January. They knew roughly how much had gone missing - I transferred the money out of the joint account. The headmaster will make sure it's returned to the right people. It'll probably have to go to the board of governors for a final decision."
"I bet," Nikki said. "How much are we talking?"
Helen named a figure. Pat and Nikki both flinched.
"Drugs?" Pat asked quietly. Someone needed to say it.
For some reason the question seemed to almost amuse both women. Helen shook her head with absolute assurance. "No. We'd know the signs."
"What, then?" Nikki asked. "Has he still got the stuff?"
"I've just been through his room. Nothing. No items. No money. No records of any sort of transactions on his computer."
"He could be hiding those."
"Well, he's going to have to give an accounting of himself anyway," Helen said. "He can tell us that, along with the rest."
"Where is he?"
"In the living room."
"I'll get him," Nikki said.
She shouldered her way out of the kitchen while Helen continued to sit numbly at the kitchen table. Pat heard raised voices and then Calum came in, following his mother. He stopped briefly when he saw Pat; he obviously hadn't been expecting a reception committee.
"What's she doing here?" he asked sullenly.
"Less of your lip, young man," Helen said firmly. "You're in no position to dictate anything."
"Doesn't mean you've got the right to make a show of me."
"Sit. Down. Shut up."
Nikki reached past Calum and dragged a chair out. He glanced up at her and then slumped onto it, folding his arms, his face mutinous.
"All right," Helen said. Nikki went to stand by her and Pat moved slightly, out of Calum's line of sight. She didn't want to make the situation worse. It didn't do much good; she could tell by the tense line of his shoulders that he was still aware of her.
"I have a number of questions. I will expect honest answers. Do you understand?"
Silence. Helen's voice strengthened.
"I said 'do you understand?'"
"Guess so," Calum mumbled.
"And speak up when you're spoken to. You know better than that. Why did you steal those things?"
"Don't know. Got bored."
"Bored," Helen repeated flatly.
"Calum, this will go a lot better if you don't bullshit me."
"Aren't I allowed to be bored, then?"
"The usual response to boredom is to take up a new hobby," Helen spat, "not to steal things."
"Yeah? Well, stealing's a rush. Better than climbing or skateboarding," Calum said defiantly. He tried to look Helen in the eye, then looked down again as he saw her expression. Pat didn't blame him. She wouldn't have wanted to face the concentrated fury of that glare.
"Are you seriously expecting me to believe that nonsense?"
"It's only nonsense because it's not what you want to hear," Calum said. "This family's supposed to be perfect, right? Everything wonderful and happy. No problems, no issues. Well, it might be, but it's fucking tedious to live in."
"Why not? Because then I won't be perfect anymore? Won't fit in? Won't be your trophy child. 'He's so good for his age.'"
"Calum, you do not seem to appreciate that what you did was criminal! The headmaster would have been within his rights to call the police! You could have ended up in court! Do you want to risk prison? Are you so stupid?!"
"Well, why not?" Calum said contemptuously. "Wouldn't be the only con in the family, would I? It'd give me and Mum something to talk about. At least I wouldn't be going down for double murder!"
Nikki abruptly went white and turned on her heel, leaving the kitchen at speed. Helen jumped up and ran after her, her chair scraping loudly on the floor. Pat followed, just in time to see the front door slam open and Nikki vanish through it, into the driving snow that had started to fall while the small drama unfolded.
Strangely, Helen didn't chase her. Instead, she grabbed her handbag from the hall table and fumbled inside it, dropping it to the floor as she extracted what she needed. Then, she renewed her pursuit of Nikki, snatching a coat from the rack as she went.
Pat followed them both out, preparing to put her head down and sprint after her boss if that was what it took. There was no way the Scot could catch up with her wife, not with her shorter stride. Pat reckoned that she could probably tackle Nikki to the ground and hold her down for a while if she had to. Her fighting skills were bound to be better; she'd been in prison more recently and she thought that would probably outweigh Nikki's height and reach advantage. Grimly, she prepared herself to take a few blows; she didn't want to hurt the other woman.
To her utter astonishment, Helen stopped and called out.
Even stranger, Nikki stopped her headlong plunge into the distance and stood, facing away, fists clenched, her shoulders heaving. Then, she looked around and turned slowly, coming back to Helen. Pat expected an explosion and watched warily, ready to jump in and intervene if it got out of hand. Instead, Helen held out the coat to Nikki and the dark-haired woman took it and put it on. She accepted the mobile phone and money that her wife put into her hand and looked at them numbly. She was standing still now, and the snowflakes resting in her hair began to melt.
"Have you got your keys?" Helen asked. Nikki nodded. Gently, the Scot tugged at the collar of the taller woman's jacket, twitching it into place across her shoulders.
"Go do what you have to do. But come back safe to me. Please?"
"I love you, Helen Stewart," Nikki said. She kissed her tenderly on the forehead.
"I'll always come back to you," she said into her hair.
With that, she began to walk away and Helen let her, apparently unwilling to interfere any more, though Pat noticed that her arms were clasped tightly round her own body and that she was having hard time maintaining her composure.
"Are you just going to let her go?" Pat demanded.
"Yes," the other woman said. "She needs to walk. It'll help clear her head."
"But, the state she's in ...."
"What should I do?" Helen asked quietly. "Lock her up?"
Pat stared at her, realising that she didn't have an answer. She glanced in the direction Nikki had gone, expecting to see nothing more than the tracks the taller woman had left in the snow. Instead, she was startled to see her boss heading back towards them, her face determined. Helen still had her head down and had not realised what was happening. Pat nudged her and saw her look up; saw the hope bloom on her face.
Nikki stopped in front of them and took one of Helen's hands.
"I made a promise," she said hoarsely, "the same time you did. Remember?"
"For better or for worse." She laughed without humour. "I reckon this is the 'worse' part. Come on, let's go back. Our children need us."
"What are we going to do?"
"We have to tell Zoe the truth about my convictions."
"No, Helen. It's better if she hears it from us."
"We'll work the rest out when we get to it."
"What about me?" Pat asked.
"Come and see me at mid-day tomorrow. Till then, you're off the clock," Nikki said.
Pat nodded. She watched the two women walk back to the house together, hand in hand. She found herself trying to absorb the shattering information about Nikki and work out how she felt about it. Her fingernails bit into her palms, and she realised abruptly that she was clenching her fists. She breathed in deeply, and decided that she needed to go and find a quiet pub and have a think over a pint.
Next day, she went into work and spent the morning preparing some bids, contacting suppliers and pricing them up. She was just getting off the phone when she stopped suddenly, struck by what she was doing and how things had changed since the summer. Then, she'd been locked up at nights and doing low level voluntary work to prepare her for release. Now, she was on the phone to various companies, demanding and getting the best price for their services, figuring out profit margins and overheads. Normally, Nikki kept her too busy for thoughts like these, always giving her new things to do. It was only now that Pat had time to stop, see just what she had learned and appreciate her boss' technique. By constantly challenging her, Nikki had kept her interested and, more importantly, hadn't given her time to get nervous about her ex-lifer status. Pat blinked as she realised how much she owed to the other woman before settling back down to work.
Later, paperwork squared away, she headed for the house. She was curious about what she might find, but she hadn't had a phone call telling her to stay away, so she followed the last instructions she had been given. Strolling up the drive, she pressed the doorbell and turned to look at the wintry sky, wondering if it was going to snow again. The bruised clouds seemed to say that it would.
The door opened behind her. Pat turned to see Helen, dressed in jeans and a shirt, instead of Nikki as she had been expecting.
"Come in," Helen said tiredly, turning to go back into the kitchen. Pat closed the front door and followed her.
"You're not at work today, then?"
"No. I took leave to deal with everything that's happening."
"Sulking in his room," Helen said tersely. "We had another shouting match this morning. He just doesn't seem to understand what he's done. He's refusing to tell me what he did with the money. Tried me with some bullshit about frittering it away."
"Probably just doesn't want to face up to it all."
"You might be right. Well, he can stay there. I've got other things to worry about at the moment."
Pat nodded slowly. "Yeah. How is Zoe? How did she take it?"
"Well enough," Helen said. "Barbara 'll talk to her today. I think that'll help."
"Zoe's godmother. She shared a cell with Nikki. Zoe can ask her all the questions she doesn't want to ask us. It's what we did when we told Calum."
"Yeah. Suppose you have to make sure she knows it all."
Helen looked up sharply as she registered Pat's tone of voice. "Are we going to have a problem about not telling you?"
"No. After all, I'm used to not being given all the facts. Not like you can trust me, is it?"
"Trust doesn't come into it!"
"No? Not how I see it. You know, I thought I was getting somewhere. I really believed that you two respected me enough to be honest with me about things instead of keeping me in the dark because I've done time!"
"That had nothing to do with it!" Helen said.
"So when were you going to tell me that Nikki was an ex-con?" Pat demanded. "Was it some sort of experiment? Wait and see how long it was before I realised? Or were you just taking the piss?"
"Neither of those things," Helen said wearily. Her lips were pursed, her face set in taut, unhappy lines; her skin sallow with tiredness and stress. She gestured at the kitchen table. "Look, sit down, please. I prefer to have this conversation without you standing and glaring at me."
It looked like the only way she was going to get any kind of explanation. Pat dragged a chair out and sat down hard, her arms folded. She pinned Helen in her gaze. The other woman sat opposite her, studied her linked hands and began to speak. "It probably won't make sense to you right now, but there comes a time when the fact someone was a con more than fifteen years ago doesn't matter anymore. Nikki is a successful businesswoman, she's my wife, the parent of our children. Where she was then, the fact she was inside, doesn't define her. We hardly ever think about it or talk about it. It's irrelevant."
"I don't buy that," Pat said fiercely. "She was in for fucking murder, not shoplifting."
"Actually, it was manslaughter, both times," Helen said, "and if you look at the circumstances, it could be argued that she was condemned more for being a dyke and a mouthy, political dyke at that, than for what she did."
"So you want to tell me what you say happened?"
Helen sighed. "The first time she was defending her then partner, Trisha, from a rapist. A policeman. She walked in on him forcing himself on her, and she hit him with the nearest thing to hand. When he wouldn't go down, she buried the bottle in his neck."
Pat nodded slowly, seeing the scenario in her mind's eye. Helen grimaced. "If it had been a man defending his wife, well.... Anyway, she was released on appeal, time served, free to go, when we found new evidence. Then, a month later, a prison officer called Jim Fenner sought her out and attacked her. That time, she couldn't remember what had happened because she'd been concussed while defending herself, the main witness lied about events and the judge allowed her previous record to be known to the jury. She didn't stand a chance; and she did another twenty-two months inside because of it. More than two years if you count the time on remand."
"Christ. Poor cow."
"Yeah. It was a tough time for everyone. Especially Nikki."
"I can see why she'd want to forget about it. Why did you tell Calum?"
"With the Internet these days ... we wanted him to find out from us so we could explain why it happened, what it meant."
Pat nodded, thinking back to the ease with which she'd located the facts when she'd actually bothered to look online, last night. According to which source you believed, Nikki Wade was either a feminist martyr who'd been crucified by a patriarchal justice system or a man-hating lesbian with a grudge against anyone with a penis. She could see why Helen and Nikki didn't want their son exposed to either of those versions of events; especially since the crime scene photographs could be found on the Web, if you looked hard enough.
Pat was conscious of a slight feeling of embarrassment. She had overreacted to not being told something that was, after all, very private to these two women, and Helen had been open and honest with her about it. She braced herself.
"Look, about before .... I was out of line, OK. It's just "
"It's just you're an ex-con and you've spent years being treated like scum and condescended to, only being told as much as they believe you need to know. Which means as little as they think they can get away with."
Pat was taken aback by the brutally frank analysis. Helen smiled at her expression. "And there is the aspect that you like and respect Nikki, which means that, on some level, you feel protective of her. That's the top dog part of you speaking."
Pat felt her hackles rise. "Are you saying you think I'm going to make move on your wife?"
"No. It was obvious that you didn't think much of me at the beginning, but you've always been very respectful of our relationship. Besides, one thing Nikki is is loyal. That particular demon was laid for both of us a long time ago. Would you like a cup of tea?"
Pat nodded numbly. Helen busied herself with the little rituals of warming the pot and measuring out the leaves. She seemed to be listening, and Pat realised that she was seeing if she could hear Calum. As the Scot poured boiling water over the leaves, Pat made conversation, more to distract the other woman than anything else.
"So how did you two meet?"
Helen stilled and then slowly brought the teapot to the table. She went to the cupboard for mugs and the fridge for milk, all without answering the question. Pat frowned. She wondered if she'd put her foot in it. She briefly speculated that Nikki had left Trisha for Helen and then thought back to the contacts she'd seen between the two women. They were being very civilised if that was the case. Pat dismissed the idea.
Helen sat down and picked up the tea pot, hesitating. "You like your tea weak or strong?"
"Strong. Used to diesel, aren't I? Though this stuff is better than that crap."
Helen poured her own tea and added milk, picking up the mug and taking a long swallow.
"Through the campaign, right?" Pat persisted, trying to bridge the silence. "That's how you met Nikki? You said you 'found new evidence.'"
"Not exactly," Helen said uncomfortably.
Pat frowned. "Look, if I'm talking out of turn, if there was something with you and Trish and Nikki .... I'm sorry."
"No, no, it wasn't that. Trisha left Nikki while she was inside. She couldn't bear to wait any longer. She met someone else. Not that it lasted. Trisha still loves Nikki on some level. In a way, I'm very lucky. She gave her up so we could be together. Nikki wouldn't have made the move otherwise. She really is ridiculously loyal."
Pat thought about the way her boss looked at Helen when she didn't know anyone was watching. She wondered if the loyalty to Trisha would actually have held up.
"Maybe not then, but sometime," she said.
Helen sighed. "Look, Pat, I need you to do something for me."
"I need you to listen to what I'm going to tell you and not fly off the handle. You won't like it, but I ask you to hear me out."
"All right," Pat said cautiously.
"I have your word?"
Helen took a deep breath. "I met Nikki in prison."
Pat briefly considered the theory that Helen might be an ex-con as well and then discounted it. Everything in the other woman's behaviour and attitudes spoke against it. Another, horrible, suspicion began to grow in her mind.
"Oh, Christ, you have got to be joking."
"Sadly, I'm not. I was a member of staff. Wing governor, to be precise."
"Her wing gov?"
"You fucking rapist. You pervert!"
"It wasn't like that!" Helen protested.
"I'm sure she thinks not. I bet you've got her well brainwashed. I bet she thinks it was her idea. What did you do? Show her a bit of kindness, then ask for a few 'favours' in return? That must have given you a thrill, having a killer at your beck and call."
"You've got it wrong!"
"Have I?" Pat asked. "Did you go into the prison service to get laid, or did that happen afterwards, when you realised you could?"
Helen stood up, her body rigid with outrage. "Now just one minute. You are comparing me to Jim Fenner. You have no right to do that!"
"The officer Nikki killed. I suspected at the time, and I would have been able to prove, if it hadn't been for the old boy's network, that he was abusing the women in his care."
"So why are you any different to him?"
"I'll tell you. Nikki chased me, not the other way around. I'll admit I was in denial about my feelings. I thought I was straight. I was living with a man; I had plans to get married. I broke it off more than once. I even resigned at one point. But, finally, I couldn't hide from myself and the truth any longer."
"So you're saying you never fucked her, not once, before she got out?"
Helen's gaze took on a laser beam intensity. She spoke, every word bitten off. "No, I did not. I am not saying that we never touched each other, or never kissed, though that was rare and it never intentionally happened when I was in direct authority over her. But we never made love while she was inside prison walls. Happy ?"
Pat swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. "Not really."
She stood. "I'm going to take a look at the garden."
"If that's what you want to do." Helen seemed struck by a sudden thought. "Pat?"
"Please be quiet."
"Nikki's on the sofa in the second living room and the French doors to the garden are open. She needs her sleep. Don't disturb her. OK?"
"Sure," Pat said. "Why isn't she upstairs?"
"She had a bad night," Helen said. "Sometimes sleeping with the doors open helps her."
Pat nodded thoughtfully, caught by the expression of concern on Helen's face. "I'll be quiet."
"And, Pat "
"If you decide you can't continue working for Nikki, don't do anything stupid."
"Like quitting and vanishing. Between us, we have enough contacts to find you something else that you'll enjoy and that will keep probation off your back."
"Why would you do that for me?" Pat asked.
"Because, while I know what happened, you may well not believe me. I don't want your chances ruined because you felt outraged by abuse."
More than anything else, the softly spoken statement put Pat onto the back heel. She studied the other woman, wondering if she could possibly have misjudged the situation, then went out into the garden to think about it.
She was slumped in a chair on the patio, trying to work it all out in her mind, when a low cry of distress drifted out from the open French windows. Pat swore under her breath and crossed over, about to go through the curtains that shielded the interior when she realised that she'd been beaten to it.
"Helen?" A dazed voice she recognised as Nikki's asked. "What ....?"
"You called out. I think you were having another nightmare. Were you?"
"Yes. Not one of the bad ones, though. Just the meat wagon."
"Must have been the cold. Christ!"
"What?" Nikki asked, puzzled and still half-asleep.
"Your top's soaked through. Come on, you need to shower and change your clothes."
"I know, sweetheart. But you'll feel better afterwards."
"OK. What time is it?"
"About one in the afternoon. Pat's here."
"Wanted to report back and get her orders, I think."
There was a pause before Nikki spoke again. "Not sure I can cope with that."
"I can send her away, if you'd prefer."
"No. Just ask her to wait."
"Pat asked about your conviction."
Nikki's tone of voice was carefully neutral as she questioned Helen.
"What did you say?"
"Told her the truth."
"Good. What else?"
"How d'you know there's anything else?"
"I know that frown."
"OK. She also asked how we met."
"And you told her? With her background?"
"I'm not going to lie because of somebody else's hang-ups. If I'd done that, I wouldn't have come out to my father, would I?"
"Right. And you wanted to spare me."
"How did she react?"
"She thinks I'm a female version of Jim Fenner."
There was a short, startled pause. Pat could hear the incredulity in Nikki's tone when she spoke again. "What?! Like I gave you a choice!"
"No! I did all the chasing."
"I'm sure Rachel Hicks would have said the same thing."
"Yeah. And I warned her off Fenner when she was alive. I went after you with my eyes wide open and you fought it all the way, right up to the kiss in my cell. Even then, you tried to pretend it didn't mean anything!"
"Nikki ..., " Helen said helplessly, "you know how confused and frightened I was back then ...."
"Yeah," Nikki said gently, "and you tried everything you could to follow that rigid, ethical code of yours. But you know something? I'm glad you slipped up from time to time. Because what I said in Larkhall? Still true. You weren't just someone I fancied - you were my hope. And there were times when if I hadn't known you were breathing the same air inside the walls, I would have given up. Permanently. You stopped me from making so many mistakes. You took me back after I escaped. You made me continue with my appeal. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."
"Oh, I think you would."
"No. It'd be a version of me. Not a very nice one."
"Sweetheart, why do you always underestimate yourself?"
"I don't. I just understand that no man is an island, entire to himself. I once told Monica that I'd manage on my own, that that was all I had from then on."
"That was just before Rachel's death. Then I went for Dockley in the servery. Remember?"
"How could I not? I had two officers on sick leave after they wrestled you to the ground."
"I'm not surprised. I'd totally lost it. The combination of being dumped by Trisha, Rachel's death, Dockley's poisonous mouth. But the thing is ...."
"You're upsetting yourself. You don't have to do this. We can talk about it another time ...."
"No, listen. Please."
"I remember sitting in the block afterwards and screaming. Just at the end of my tether screaming. Didn't care anymore screaming. And it felt liberating. What is it they say? Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
"If I'd had the usual response when I got off the block, I'd have gone down the mad Tessa Spall route. I know I would. I was on the edge. Instead, you treated me like a human being. You gave me a chance. And it wasn't because you knew you wanted me. Not then." Nikki snorted. "You couldn't talk about lesbian relationships without your voice breaking with embarrassment. Remember?"
"I'd prefer not to."
"Hey, you did the best you could. For a straight bird."
Pat listened to the affectionate teasing in the tone. The next comment startled her even more. She'd never heard Helen Stewart being flirtatious.
"Who are you calling straight, Wade?"
"I'm talking about then, not now."
"Good, because I don't think you can trade me in at this stage."
"Why would I want to?"
"Oh, you might come to your senses one of these days."
"Piss off. I've got too much time invested in house training you to turn you in."
"I think you would have come to your senses sometime over the last fifteen years if you really didn't want to be with me."
"Guess I would. Must mean something."
"It must at that."
There were a couple of moments of quiet. Helen spoke again.
"Do you think you could eat something?"
"I don't know. Telling me to get changed and now offering to feed me. Who are you, my mother?"
"No, I'm your wife. And that means I'm allowed to fuss."
"OK. I'll go and have a shower."
"I'll heat up some soup. And Nikki?"
"What you said about breathing the same air? It was true for me as well."
Pat held her breath, listening, then stepped silently away. By the time Helen came back to the kitchen, she was sitting at the table, swirling the remnants of the stewed tea from the pot around her mug.
Helen frowned. "You're still here."
"Need to talk to Nikki, don't I."
"OK. She'll be down in about twenty minutes. I was going to make a late lunch. Have you eaten?"
"No," Pat said.
"It's not much, just soup from the freezer and bread, but you're welcome to join us."
"What kind of soup?"
Pat nodded silently and watched as Helen moved around the kitchen, foraging for supplies. As well as the soup and bread, she dug out some cheese and crackers and the remnants of a risotto. Pat didn't appreciate why until Helen vanished upstairs and re entered with a sulky Calum at her heels. He bridled when he saw that Pat was there and looked as though he wanted to leave, but one look at Helen's face made him change his mind and he sat at the table, arms folded.
"What's going to happen to me?"
"We'll eat first, and give Pat a chance to get away."
"No. I want to know now."
"Very well," Helen said calmly. "You're suspended from school until after Christmas so you'll be seeing a tutor in the mornings to make sure you don't fall behind with your schoolwork. In the afternoons, you will be doing voluntary work to pay off the money you owe, with the rate for your time calculated at national minimum wage."
"Did you think there would be no consequences? Additionally, you will be writing a letter of apology to every person you stole from. You are grounded until further notice, no visits, no outings, and I will be taking your game console away. You can make do with books for now."
"You can't do that."
"That's not fair!"
Pat had thought that Helen had been angry during their conversation earlier. Now, she realised, she was seeing the real thing. Her eyes darkened with rage and her whole body stiffened. Her accent thickened noticeably as her voice got louder.
"Do not give me 'fair', Calum Wade Stewart! You are lucky that the headmaster did not call the police. He would have been within his rights to do that and to expel you. It was only because he agreed that this was out of character that he decided to be lenient."
"Yes, lenient. AS I AM BEING! Do you hear?!"
"It was only a few handhelds," Calum grumbled. Pat winced. She could have told him that he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut. "People who lost them didn't even miss them most of the time."
"That is not the point! And I think we need to correct your use of language here. They did not 'lose' them. They had them stolen. The fact that you mix with people who are fortunate enough to have expensive things bought for them does not excuse your actions. In fact, it makes it worse because you have also been given everything you need. And your mother and I work very hard to make that so!"
"So I'm supposed to feel guilty?"
"It'd be a start. Because make no mistake, Calum. It's not just about the stealing. It's about refusing to tell us why or what you did with the money and the things you said to your mother yesterday. What you did was cowardly and vicious. You know how sensitive she is about her conviction, and you used your knowledge as a weapon to attack her." She swallowed. "I had thought better of you than that."
Calum looked at Helen, his face working. "I'm not hungry anymore," he choked out.
"Then go to your room. You can start by dismantling your games and music equipment. That should keep you out of trouble."
"If what I did was so bad, why didn't you let the school call the police?"
"Because sometimes people get what they need, not what they deserve."
Calum stormed out, slamming the kitchen door with tooth-rattling force as he left. A moment later, they heard his bedroom door get the same treatment.
Helen drew a deep breath. "I'm sorry you had to witness that."
"No problem. Drama comes with the territory with teenagers." Pat shrugged. "Besides, he's getting off light."
"You think so?"
"Course I do. First couple of times they caught me stealing, the police didn't do anything. They almost expected it with the kids from where I grew up. The nuns made up for it afterwards, though."
Nikki came into the kitchen, her hair still damp, and sat down in the vacated chair. "Was that Calum I heard shaking the house?"
"Yes," Helen said, serving her and Pat with soup before she joined them.
The three women ate their meal in silence. Finally, Nikki put her spoon into her empty bowl.
"All right. Tell me."
"What's the punishment?"
Helen sighed, then tersely repeated what she had told Calum. Nikki listened, frowning. She looked uncertain.
"That's a lot," she ventured finally.
"Not for what he did," Helen said firmly. "Actually, the tutoring isn't part of the punishment. That's just so he won't fall behind at school."
"Have you arranged it?"
"Yes. I don't know where I'm going to find voluntary work for a fourteen year old, though. The insurance problems "
Pat, who had been concentrating on her food and not getting involved, cleared her throat. She wasn't sure why she was adding in her two pennyworth. Maybe it was the way Nikki looked, her air of quiet exhaustion and the way she seemed like a shadow of the confident woman who had interviewed Pat. Maybe it was the tight line of Helen's lips.
"I know somewhere."
"Where?" Helen asked.
"The place I was going to work before I got this job."
Pat realised she'd got their attention and elaborated. "It's a community food project. You know the sort of thing; buy basics wholesale, sell them at cost. They run nutrition classes, and they have a cafe where people can get hot food cheap. There's a big population of asylum seekers, and high rates of benefit claimants round there. Lot of poverty, ill health."
"Where is it?" Helen asked.
Pat named the area and both women frowned.
"Not very safe," Helen commented.
"No. But they need a kitchen assistant. They used to have an industrial dishwasher, but it gave up the ghost two weeks ago, and Janine hasn't managed to find another one. He'd be all right if he stayed on the premises. Janine has a strict no drugs, no weapons, no fighting policy, and it's in no one's interest to get barred, so it's neutral ground."
"But what if he went wandering off?" Helen asked.
"You'd have to tell him not to."
"I don't know if he's really listening to us at the moment. And I don't want him to be streetwise enough to be able to cope in that environment, if you see what I mean."
Pat nodded. Helen wasn't being alarmist. The neighborhood the project was in was rightly notorious. It was close to the local red light district, and there were a lot of street kids, prostitutes of both sexes and drug users hanging around. The only way a kid like Calum would normally visit was if he was there to score. Which made him a natural target if he did walk around on his own.
"OK. Forget I said anything."
"No, wait," Nikki said. "What if he had someone with him?"
"Who? I can't take that much time off, not with the fund raising bid I have to submit and the interdisciplinary conference I'm pulling together. And you're launching another Chix in the New Year. You haven't got time!"
"Not me," Nikki said. "Pat."
Helen and Pat both stared at her, matching puzzled expressions on their faces.
"Hang on a minute," Pat said. "You want me to baby-sit your teenager?"
"No," Nikki said. "Just keep an eye out. Like you would if it was a new fish and someone was leaning on her."
"It's not in my job description," Pat said carefully.
"I know. I'd make it worth your while."
"We could agree a bonus."
"And if I still refuse?"
"No comeback. You've got my word."
"There's still the matter of whether Pat's staying in the first place," Helen said warningly. Nikki rubbed her temple. "I'd forgotten about that."
"I don't suppose Pat has."
"Look, can I talk to Nikki alone?" Pat said.
Helen nodded. "Of course. I have to go and make sure Calum's doing what he's supposed to anyway. I'll be back in a while."
She went out, closing the door behind her. Pat stood, restless and not quite sure how to ask the questions she had to in order to get the answers she needed. Finally, she leaned against one of the kitchen units, hands in her pockets. She realised with a shock that Nikki had changed her posture and was slouched in her chair, shoulders back, arms folded, watching her with level eyes and a slight smile on her face. Pat assessed her, considering the change in her demeanor. This was a con. This was someone she could imagine seeing on G wing. This was someone she'd probably have had to face down for the position of top dog if she had. It shouldn't have reassured her or made the conversation easier, but it did. She knew how this sort of interaction worked better than the ones on the outside.
"So. You and a screw, eh?"
They locked gazes.
"How did that happen?"
"You know how it is. Our eyes met across a crowded wing ...."
"Don't take the piss!"
"I'm not. Did you have a choice about who you fell in love with?" Nikki demanded.
"That's my fucking point!"
"Was it your choice? Or did she 'persuade' you it was a good idea?"
"No, actually, she did everything she could to discourage me."
"Then why did you even keep trying?"
"Didn't you ever meet a decent screw? One who cared?"
"I met one or two who could pass for human on a good day. If they tried hard enough. One of the ways you could tell was they didn't take advantage of the cons!"
"I'll say this once. She never 'took advantage' of me."
Pat looked at her disbelievingly. Nikki's voice became serious. "That was how I knew she cared. I wanted her to. God, I wanted her to. But she wouldn't. Not until I was free and we could relate to each other without the bloody bars between us."
"If I believed that " Pat said slowly.
"Believe what you want. It's the truth. What reason would I have to lie to you?"
"I don't know. You might be embarrassed."
Nikki smiled without humour. "Pat, in the last twelve hours, you've seen me fall apart to the point where I couldn't stay inside because the walls started closing in on me. You've found out I'm a two-time loser with a manslaughter conviction and that I suffer from PTSD. I think you know all my secrets, don't you?"
"It's just ...." Pat said uncomfortably.
"It's just you're prejudiced," Nikki told her bluntly. "I don't blame you for it; it's a prejudice based on a lot of shitty experiences. But make no mistake; Helen is my wife. She's the mother of my children and the woman I love. She's not going anywhere. If you can't deal with what she used to be, then we need to find you another job. I hope that doesn't happen - you're good and getting better. But if you can't work with the set up I've got, it's what I'll do."
"Right, well, at least I know where I stand."
"I'm giving you a choice."
"I understand that," Pat said "First person for years who has."
"So what's your decision?"
"I'm staying. And I'll prove I don't have a problem with Helen."
"I'll watch her boy for you."
"Our boy. I'm not asking you to go easy on him. If he gives you any trouble, deal with it. Just make sure he doesn't come to any harm."
Pat nodded. "I can do that. On one condition."
"It doesn't affect my future with the firm. I'll be spending half my time working for someone else. I don't want it held against me."
"It won't be," Nikki said.
Pat studied her, weighing up if she could trust the other woman about this, then came to a decision.
"Can I use your phone? I need to make the arrangements."
"You're sure Janine 'll say yes?"
"Free labour? Are you joking?"
A few minutes later, she came back into the kitchen. Someone had tidied away the remnants of lunch and Helen and Nikki were standing together, Nikki's arms around Helen from behind as they both watched the clouds through the kitchen window. Helen's own arms were crossed, one palm resting easily on Nikki's forearm, nestling into the taller woman's embrace. It was obviously a comfortable, familiar posture and they didn't break apart as Pat walked in.
"She says yes. Starting tomorrow."
"So if you pick him up at twelve, he can do the afternoons," Nikki said, "and bring him back here in the evening."
"That's the idea. Tell him to wear old clothes. It's dirty work."
"Good," Helen said implacably.
She tugged lightly on Nikki's arm and walked out of her grasp. "I appreciate you doing this for us. I'd better go and tell Calum. Give him time to get used to the idea."
Nikki sighed. "I'll go into the office."
"Are you sure you're up to it?"
"The place won't run itself. Pat can drive me."
"Sure. I'll see you tonight, sweetheart."
They kissed each other quickly and Helen vanished upstairs. Nikki watched her leave, then turned to Pat. "Ready to go."
Pat drew up outside the Wade-Stewart household next day to find Calum sitting on the front garden wall, his shoulders held in an elaborate slouch and his arms crossed. Behind the window, she could see Helen, keeping an eye on him. As soon as the van drew up, the Scotswoman turned and vanished back into the house.
Pat looked Calum up and down. He was wearing a pair of what looked like designer trainers, jeans, and a hooded top over a T-shirt with the name of a games company on the front. It was all obviously expensive and fairly new, the sort of thing Pat had seen teenagers dressed in on trips to the cinema or in shopping malls.
"You wearing that?"
"Yeah. Why?" Calum said insolently.
Pat narrowed her eyes, then dismissed it. Not her problem if the kid wanted to act like an idiot. "OK, get in."
Calum, who'd obviously been expecting a verbal battle of some kind, looked disconcerted, but did as he was told. Pat waited till they'd set off and turned the radio on. They spent the journey not speaking to each other, with Calum staring out of the window as they steadily drove into worse and worse parts of town. By the time they got to the project, his slouch had turned into a tense, upright posture as he watched the scenery change and he was stealing uncertain glances at the side of Pat's face. Pat watched him out of the corner of her eye and in the mirror when he wasn't looking, glad that he at least had enough street smarts to be worried. Maybe she wouldn't have to watch him as closely as she'd feared when she accepted the job.
The project was housed in a semi-derelict old workshop, with battered metal grilles on the outside windows. Plants grew around the base of the cracked downpipes and there were rusty stains around most of the guttering, showing where makeshift repairs had been made. The brickwork was blackened from years of pollution and traffic exhaust, and the peeling paintwork on the doors hardly disguised their semi-rotten condition. Pat drove into the yard through the main gate from the alleyway at the back, glancing at the small cluster of smokers gathered under the makeshift shelter of an old gazebo. The usual scatter of battered plastic chairs sat in one corner of the courtyard, next to the recycling bins and the wormery. Pat could see that a section of the boundary wall was coned off. Obviously, the last lot of rain had worsened the existing damage.
She parked neatly, away from the loading area, and jumped out of the van, sniffing the air as she pulled her holdall from the footwell. Lunch must be over - the smell of food was fading. Calum was still inside, sitting unmoving in the cab as his eyes roamed over his surroundings. He took in the group of men outside, who were openly staring at the new arrivals. Pat could see him assessing their battered, weathered appearance and cheap clothes, and saw the quickly masked flash of apprehension in his face. He was obviously working out that he was massively over-dressed for this environment - he might as well have been wearing a tuxedo. Pat had little sympathy. She had relayed instructions that he should wear practical clothing and had given him the chance to get changed. Now, he was going to have to take some consequences. Part of her was looking forward to seeing the rich kid taken down a peg or two.
"Come on, we've got a shift to do," she said, slamming the van door. Calum shot her a glance, but did as he was told. He jumped as Pat triggered the lock, the high beep piercing the air of the courtyard, and walked stiffly behind her, sticking close. Some of the men made comments to each other, obviously not very good-natured ones, and sniggered behind their hands as he walked past. Only one of them, a gangling, tattooed teenager a couple of years older than Calum said anything aloud.
"Hey, rich bastard, you got lost. Harrods is that way."
Pat snorted quietly to herself and ignored him. She led Calum through the back door and into the main kitchen. It was a medium sized unit, with a huge industrial range dominating one wall. The sinks were on the opposite side, the countertops next to them loaded with dirty plates and pots and pans. Trolleys nearby carried more stained crockery and cutlery. Oversized containers of washing up liquid and scrubbing brushes jostled for space on the windowsill. The brushed steel counter tops in the middle of the area were still uncleaned, dotted with food detritus and stains. Pat could see the dining area through the serving hatch and open door and could tell that it hadn't been touched either. She smiled to herself. It seemed Janine was planning to get a lot of work out of Calum.
Calum looked around and obviously came to the same conclusion. He scowled and folded his arms again before slumping down on the kitchen's only chair. Pat left him to it and went find Janine.
She located her in the office, having an animated telephone conversation. Pat grinned as her landlady's voice rose.
"Just give me a date. I'll get the materials. Steal, beg, whatever. Don't worry about that. I need it fixed this week." She listened, then nodded, relief spreading across her face.
"You're a star. If you can't make it, phone me." She paused. "I'll get the materials!"
She terminated the conversation and made a note in the oversized desk diary that was the project's mainstay before coming round to hug Pat.
"The wall?" Pat asked, sitting down.
"Yeah. It's a health and safety hazard now."
"Thought you were supposed to be getting a grant to fix it."
"I was. It's in the three month backlog somewhere."
"So what are you going to do?"
"The usual. Tap into the sisterhood and improvise. I've got a friend of mine coming to do the work, and a scaffolder I know has agreed to set up a safe tower. Now all I have to do is get some reclaimed bricks and mortar from somewhere." She looked thoughtful. "I think I heard about a community center over in Epping ...."
"If I can do anything to help, let me know."
"Sure." Janine visibly came back to the conversation. "Have you got the kid with you?"
"He's in the kitchen, sulking."
"Right. Is he going to be a problem?"
"No. If I can keep cons in line, I can make sure he behaves. Doesn't know he's born anyway. You know the deal with his parents."
"You've told me," Janine said. "Well, he'll certainly see another side to life here."
"That's the idea. Do we still need to sign in and out?"
"Yeah. Otherwise, the office is off limits unless it's staffed."
"Understood. You got somewhere I can change?"
"Toilet down the hall." She frowned. "Hasn't he brought anything?"
"No. Like I said. Doesn't know he's born, that one."
After changing and being given a quick tour to show her where the cleaning materials were, Pat went back to the kitchen. Calum was still slumped in the chair, eyes fixed on a point in the middle distance. He frowned when he saw that Pat was wearing her old prison overalls, but didn't comment. A couple of the men loitering by the open back door reacted to the sight. They obviously recognised where the clothes came from. The teenager who'd ribbed Calum didn't have the sense to keep his mouth shut.
"What'd d'you do, darling?" he asked insolently.
Pat frowned. She was really starting to dislike the mouthy little sod. "Murder," she said tersely. "Stabbed a bloke I didn't like in the groin. Now piss off. I'm busy."
The boy's eyes widened and he vanished, along with the rest of them. Pat forgot about him and started by filling a bowl full of hot, soapy water, preparatory to cleaning down the work surfaces. Calum still hadn't moved. Pat mentally gave him five minutes as she wiped. Then she dropped the cloth she was using into the bowl and went to stand over him.
"I've got a name."
"Are you going to sit there all afternoon?"
"That was pretty much the plan, yes."
"OK," Pat said, and turned away. She let him think about her reaction for a minute, then spoke. "Only, I have to tell your parents what you did today. I won't cover for you. You can sit on your arse for as long as you like, but all you'll have done is wasted the time. Think about it."
Calum looked at her, shock warring with outrage. "You can't do that!"
"Watch me," Pat said. 'Welcome to the real world, kid,' she thought, feeling a certain bitter satisfaction.
"You bitch!" Calum said, standing up.
"You say that like it's an insult," Pat said. "If I'd learned to be a bitch sooner, I'd have done better in my life." She stepped closer to the boy and spoke quietly to him. "You see, kid, this is what you need to appreciate. I'm not your friend. I respect your mother. She gave me a chance. Any slack I'm cutting you is because of her. But if you mess with me, I will fucking bury you. Do you understand?"
Pat went for some more cleaning materials. When she came back into the kitchen she found Calum sitting in the chair again.
"Why aren't you working?"
"I've thought about it. I still say no."
"Christ, you don't learn, do you?"
He smiled smugly, thinking he'd defeated her. It wasn't a nice expression. Pat studied him, then decided it was time to tell him some home truths.
"I grew up in care. I didn't have anybody looking out for me. When I stole stuff, I ended up in the court system and a young offender's institution, not doing voluntary work."
"So? Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?"
"No. But you are supposed to appreciate how lucky you are."
"Why? Because I've been sent to do hard labour?"
"What? They should have sent you for counseling instead?"
"Would have been better than this shit," he muttered.
"There's worse. Take it from me."
"Are you trying to frighten me?" he demanded.
"No, I'm trying to get you to wake up before it's too late. Maybe you're not as clever as your Mum says. Either way, it's not my problem."
She looked him up and down and Calum squirmed. His bravado was close to cracking, but he did his best and kept his chin up. Pat judged that he might even learn to front up properly, if he worked at it. She sneered.
"Way I see it, by tomorrow, I'll be back doing the job I was hired to do, and you'll be on your way to whatever rich boy's sin bin Helen's found for you. You can't hack this. Not even close."
"Says me, based on today's performance."
He was on his feet again. Pat grinned coldly. "You missed something out. I'm not just a bitch. I'm a murdering, dyke bitch. Just like your Mum."
Calum's hand snapped up almost involuntarily, aiming for her face. He gasped as Pat anticipated the move, grabbing his wrist in an inflexible grip. His face twisted as she bore down, applying pressure to the bones.
"Why should I?"
"I'm listening now," Calum grated out. This time, he sounded like he meant it. Pat had to admire the kid's balls. He was obviously in pain, but there was no give in him. He glared furiously into her eyes, even as he went pale. She let his arm go and he stepped back from her.
"What was that about?" he demanded.
"Just letting you know how I feel about what your mouth put your Mum through. You going to work?"
Calum nodded, obviously too angry to speak. Pat handed him one of the aprons hung behind the kitchen door and he silently tied it around himself.
"OK. See that dirty crockery? Scrape leftovers into the bucket. Wash the plates in the water, put them on the draining board to dry. When the draining board gets full, dry them and stack them over there. Same with the glasses. Same with the cutlery. Do the pots and pans last. Put them on that side. When you're finished, come and find me. I'll tell you what to do next. Anything you don't get clean, you do again till it is clean. Any questions?"
Calum shook his head.
Pat worked her way steadily around the kitchen surfaces, cleaning and disinfecting them before starting on the floor. Calum tried to slack off a couple of times, but when he realised that she was watching him, he gave it up, put his head down and started to work steadily. It wasn't the most effort she'd ever seen anyone put in, but in the circumstances, Pat could hardly blame him. She waited him out, scrubbing a couple of cupboards clean until he'd finished the last of the pots and pans. By then, the apron he was wearing was saturated with dirty water and marked with various colourful stains. It was limp and greasy, and he didn't look much better. He'd been sweating in the residual heat of the kitchen and from the exertion of the work; the smell that hung around him as a result was pungent and unpleasant. Pat had seen him grimace a few times and knew he was aware of it. It didn't bother her; she was used to bad smells after years in prison, but she could tell it embarrassed him. Towards the end of the afternoon, when they'd finished cleaning up the dining area, she took pity on him and called a break.
"You want a cup of tea? A sandwich?" she asked, pulling out a couple of slices of bread and checking the fridge for leftovers from lunch. She knew it was one of the unacknowledged privileges of working in the kitchen.
Calum shook his head and went outside, face turned towards the sky, seemingly watching the clouds. Pat noticed how pale he was looking and decided that they'd done enough for their first day. She found some cheese that probably wasn't meant to have that much mould on it, scraped off the green bits, and made herself a sandwich.
She finished her snack, cleared up after herself and had a quick look around before going to the office and signing them both out. Janine smiled up at her.
"How'd it go?"
"OK. You want to check the kitchen before we leave?"
"No. I know what your standards are like. I live with you, remember. Not like you sleep anywhere else."
"Right," Pat said, slightly uncomfortable.
"Are you back tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Same time OK?"
"Sure, it works out. You'll get here in time to clear up after lunch."
"We'll be staying longer tomorrow."
"That's no problem. The chef always needs someone to prepare vegetables for him."
"Peel spuds, you mean."
"I wasn't going to say it."
"No problems, anyway. You in tonight?"
"No. Got a committee meeting."
Pat nodded. "See you tomorrow, then."
She went back into the kitchen and found Calum waiting. "What next?"
"I take you home."
"There's still an hour to go."
"Don't worry, we'll do a full afternoon tomorrow. Right now, you need to pace yourself ."
"Really. Then why do you look ready to fall over? Get in the van. Or walk back. I don't care."
Calum scowled, then obeyed her silently. He sat with his eyes closed for most of the way and Pat left him alone. It had been a tough day for him. She surprised herself by feeling a small amount of respect for the way he'd handled it towards the end, then sneered internally at her own thoughts. It was all adolescent bravado. She'd bet anything he wouldn't be able to keep it up.
When they drew up outside the house, Calum didn't bother to say anything to her. He just got out of the van and went inside. By the time Pat had parked and followed him in, he must have been in his room - she couldn't hear him anywhere else in the house. She walked through into the kitchen, where Nikki and Helen were waiting, Nikki sitting at the table and Helen leaning against a work top . Pat noted their tense, antagonistic body language, and wondered if she'd walked in on a brewing argument. Helen surprised her by speaking first.
"How'd it go?"
Pat glanced at her boss, seeing how the taller woman seemed absorbed in studying the surface of the table. Not quite the united front they liked to pretend, then. She wondered how much longer they'd expose their darling boy to the slums. She shrugged.
"Not bad. We set a few ground rules. He worked for about three hours. He was getting tired, so I brought him home early."
"Did he work properly?" Helen asked. "No slacking?"
Pat looked at the other woman's implacable face and was reminded of Calum as he'd struggled in her grip that afternoon. It was clear who his biological parent was. She nodded. "Yeah. He did all right."
Upstairs, water began to run in the bathroom. All three women involuntarily looked up. Pat cleared her throat, getting Nikki's attention. "What time tomorrow morning, boss?"
"Well, you need to get the quotes for the new lighting rig. I'm drafting a plan for that mini-conference in Reading. And Trish wants us to start getting the Christmas decorations for the club organised."
"Thought we were doing that ourselves?"
"We'll have to see. Depends how busy Wade Enterprises is," Nikki said decisively, her domestic problems put to one side as her business brain kicked in. "The order book's filling up with last minute jobs."
"No rest for the wicked, eh?"
"No. But a bloody good bonus come April."
"Look forward to that. Early, then."
"Yeah," Nikki said. She listened to Pat let herself out and then stood up with forced cheerfulness.
"I suppose I'd better go and see whether he wants any food."
"No, Nikki," Helen said. "Leave him alone."
"I think it would be better, that's all."
"Fine," Nikki said and stalked out of the kitchen. A couple of hours later, she'd finished propagating the seedlings in her potting shed, binned all of her out of date gardening catalogues and cleaned every pane of glass in the greenhouse. She couldn't avoid going inside any longer. She went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea and noticed that the bin seemed to be full. Curious, she took the lid off.
Her throat tightened as she recognised the clothes that Calum had been wearing that day. They had been stuffed carelessly on top of the household rubbish. Nikki pulled them out, her nose wrinkling as she smelt the odour of sweat and stale grease that saturated the material. She put the trainers to one side as possibly beyond saving, and programmed the washing machine for the appropriate wash to try and clear the worst of the stains from the clothes. She made a mental note that she'd have to get up before Calum and put the items to dry well out of the way, possibly in her greenhouse. If she could get them clean, she was pretty sure that she could smuggle them back into his wardrobe without him noticing.
Standing at the counter, she made two mugs of tea and carried them upstairs to the main bedroom. She hesitated and then opened the door with her foot. Helen was sitting in their bed, face set like stone, hugging a pillow, listening to something. Suddenly alerted, Nikki, whose concentration had been focused on getting the drinks upstairs without spilling them, turned her head, listening, and heard muffled sobbing. It couldn't be Zoe - Helen had sent her to Trish's for the night. She put the mugs down on the side and turned to go to Calum. Helen's voice stopped her.
She stepped inside and closed the door, silently furious. "No? Why not?"
"If we give in now, we might as well not have bothered."
"And he'll deal with it. Leave him alone."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. If he's strong enough to lie to us, he's strong enough to deal with the consequences."
Nikki reeled, feeling as if she had been struck. She opened her mouth to say something else. Helen looked at her and then deliberately turned away, closing the conversation down. Nikki cleared her throat and spoke to her wife's unmoving back. "I'm feeling a bit restless tonight. I'm going to sleep in the spare room. Don't want to disturb you."
"OK," Helen said quietly.
"I .... brought you a cup of tea."
Twenty minutes later, Nikki stood and looked at the narrow single bed they kept in the guest room. It was comfortable enough - she'd slept in it before. But it didn't have Helen in it. She wrapped her arms around herself, then frowned. 'Who are you trying to fool?' she asked herself and walked down the landing towards their bedroom. She noted the silence from Calum's room with gratitude. It sounded like he might be asleep.
Helen was sitting up in bed, reading, the soft light of the bedside lamp throwing the unhappy set of her face into sharp relief. She looked up as Nikki came in and stood at the side of the bed, keeping her place in the text with a finger as she waited.
"Sweetheart?" she asked finally.
"I ... wondered if you'd mind if I slept here," Nikki said. "I don't want to be apart from you."
"Neither do I. I need you tonight," Helen said simply. The grief in her tone caught Nikki and she climbed under the duvet, reaching out for the Scot as the other woman dumped her book and moved towards her. She ended up lying on her back as Helen clung to her, stroking her side reassuringly and murmuring endearments into her ear. She waited her partner out as her breathing gradually calmed and stilled, returning to normal. Finally, she shifted to face her.
"OK?" she asked.
"No. But if you're here for me, I can manage."
"No," the Scot said firmly. "I know it's hard. But we have to do it."
Nikki didn't feel able to argue. She hugged Helen, reassuring her about the unaffected parts of their relationship and turned away, trying to relax. It was a long time before either of them got to sleep. Nikki couldn't remember having a disturbed night like that, unless it had been when their children were young and they had both been in the habit of sleeping lightly in case they were needed.
In the morning, Nikki woke up first, as usual, and brought a semi-conscious Helen a cup of coffee. The other woman cracked open an eyelid and mumbled her thanks before going back to sleep. Nikki left her, familiar with Helen's habits. When she'd had her shower, she went back to the bedroom and put a careful hand on Helen's shoulder, shaking her gently.
"Time to get up."
"Do I have to?"
"No. After all, you don't run a well-known NGO. They won't mind if you go into the office in pyjamas. At one o' clock."
Helen suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. "Zoe! Is she up?"
"She's at Trish's today, remember? Not our problem."
"Oh, yes," Helen said. She took advantage of her upright position to sip the coffee Nikki had made earlier and grimaced. "This is cold."
"Come down to the kitchen and I'll make you fresh pot," Nikki enticed. Helen grinned sleepily at her and kissed her. "You spoil me."
"It's in the job description."
"So being married to me is a job?" Helen questioned lazily.
"Something like that." Nikki grinned. Helen smiled back.
Nikki turned to go.
"Give Calum a knock will you?" Helen said. "I don't want him in bed when the tutor comes."
Nikki nodded, then hesitated on the landing. Finally, she compromised by bringing a mug of tea up and knocking lightly on the door. A hoarse voice answered her from inside. Alarmed, she went in to find her son buried under his duvet.
"I'm not very well, Mum. Don't know if I'm up to getting up today. Can I stay in bed?"
Nikki frowned, uncertain. She put her hand on Calum's shoulder, trying to decide how to react. She jumped as a voice came from the door. It was Helen, using what Nikki thought of as her 'wing governor' tones.
"I'll call the doctor."
"What?" Calum said incredulously. He sat up. Similar hazel eyes glared at each other in a battle of wills.
"If you're sick, you need a doctor and medicine. I'll arrange it."
"No, it's all right," Calum said hastily. "I just need a day in bed. I'll be fine. No need to bother anyone."
"If you don't need a doctor, you're well enough to attend lessons and work this afternoon," Helen said implacably. "Make your mind up time, Calum."
Calum's jaw set. "Fine, I'll go and shower," he said, throwing his bedclothes off him and walking past them both, his back stiff with outrage.
"I'll warn the tutor," Helen said. "Can you tell Pat?"
Nikki nodded silently, her throat tightening. She hoped Helen was tough enough for this contest, longer term. She doubted that she was.
Pat sat in the van, absently listening to the news as she waited for Calum. Today was the real test. The boy was twenty minutes late. She'd guessed some of what had gone on last night from Nikki's unhappy expression and distracted behaviour during the morning. It had been lucky her boss had been doing paperwork - she'd have been no good in a meeting. She'd looked thoughtful as she waved Pat off, and the ex-con wondered if she was about to be told that the whole idea was being scrapped.
She looked up as the front door opened and watched as Calum saw his tutor out. He ducked back inside the house and then came out, carrying a shoulder bag. He was dressed differently today, in old tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt with a rip at the hem. Pat glanced at his feet, noting that he was wearing walking boots rather than expensive trainers. She carefully schooled her face to stay impassive as he pulled the door open and climbed in to the cab.
"You took your time."
"The lesson overran. It won't happen again."
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Fit and well," Calum said between his teeth and retreated back into sullen silence.
Nikki stepped out onto the patio and took a deep breath of the morning air. The sun was only just rising, its colours glorious because of the pollution over London. She glanced at her garden, trying to imagine the plants that would bloom in the spring. For once, the image failed her, and all she could see was the dun colour of the soil and the soggy green of her lawn. She shivered, not really cold, just empty, and considered going back to the comfortable bed she'd left Helen in. She dismissed the idea as quickly as she'd had it. Even considering how deeply Helen could sleep when she was tired, and she was exhausted because of her restless nights since the confrontation with Calum last week, Nikki was sure that introducing a chilled body under the covers beside her would wake her up. She wanted Helen to get a lie-in before she took her breakfast in bed.
Nikki squared her shoulders. She could go and get the Sunday paper from the paper shop in the shopping center rather than the one on the corner that she usually patronised. That would burn up at least an hour of hard walking.
It turned out to be only three quarters of an hour, but Nikki still counted the trip as a success. Pushing herself to complete the trip alongside the dog walkers and the clubbers coming the other way had lightened her mood, the endorphins filling her with renewed optimism. She remembered now why she'd been so insistent on her time in the garden in Larkhall.
Flicking the coffee machine on, she discarded the advertising circulars into the bin and turned to the business and finance section. When there was enough coffee in the jug for one mug, she poured it out and wandered into the living room, intending to start in on book reviews before she got to the news. She was not expecting to find anyone there.
Calum looked up as she walked in and scrambled to his feet. "I'll go to my room."
"No, it's OK," Nikki said. "I'll sit over here."
She stretched herself out on one of the sofas and concentrated on the paper. Half an hour later, the frustrated muttering from the other side of the room registered, and she looked up in time to see Calum throw his reader down onto the sofa he was occupying and glare at it. He said something under his breath that she was sure she wasn't supposed to hear. Though she lip read him easily, she didn't let on that she knew what he'd said.
"Problem?" she asked.
"Calum turned his frown on her and Nikki disregarded it. She knew that it wasn't directed at her; he was just frustrated with his difficulties in understanding the material on the reader. She relaxed. This was familiar territory. Calum was at least as intelligent as Zoe, but where Zoe was methodical and worked things through, Calum got angry if he didn't understand straight away. Helping him to access knowledge was often a matter of distracting him until he calmed down enough to listen to what his more reflective side was telling him.
"It's just this extra project the new tutor's given me. I don't get it!"
"What don't you get?"
"We read this play in the week and he told me to finish it this weekend, and on Monday, he's going to ask me questions. I can't figure it out."
"OK," Nikki said calmly, "what's the name of the play?"
"The Crucible, by a man called Arthur Miller."
"And what questions are you going to have to answer?"
Calum scowled and recited in a monotone. "Is John Proctor a Shakespearean tragic hero? What are the differences and similarities between him and this model?"
Nikki frowned. "It's a long time since I did any English Lit. Remind me about Shakespearean tragic heroes."
"One fatal flaw brings them down." Calum said, "Othello, it's jealousy; Macbeth, ambition; Romeo, impetuosity or something...."
"And does John Proctor fit that model?"
"No, he's just a farmer; he's not noble. And " Calum stilled. "If you discount the adultery, it's pride. Pride is his fatal flaw."
He stood and began to pace. "But that doesn't help. It makes it worse!"
"Why?" Nikki asked.
"The last scene. The last scene doesn't make sense."
"What happened before then?"
"Proctor's slept with a servant, Abigail. When his wife finds out, he sends her away, back to her uncle's house. Abigail can't admit what's happened, because she'll be blamed. So when her uncle catches her dancing in the woods, she starts talking about witches and saying they made her do it. More and people get accused until finally, Proctor goes into town to stop it. But his pride won't let him admit what he and Abigail did till too late so he and his wife are condemned as well."
"OK. What then?"
"Well. Proctor's been beating himself all the way through about what a bad man he is. Then in the last scene, they offer him a deal - his life if he'll sign a confession saying he was a witch. He makes a bit of a song and dance about it and then gives in. But he can't carry it through and finally tears up his confession and goes off to be hung."
"So what's confusing?"
"I suppose I don't understand why he doesn't just say no straight away or why he changes his mind back once he has given in."
Nikki picked the reader up and quickly read the last few scenes. Calum waited in silence until she'd finished, then looked at her hopefully. "Well?"
"I can tell you what I think," Nikki said slowly. She felt slightly unsettled. She hadn't expected the play to hit so close to home.
"In the last scene, he's been in prison for at least three months."
Calum frowned. Nikki cleared her throat. "Not just in prison, but in solitary and tortured. So he's spent three months with nothing to do but think and be afraid. Afraid of when they're going to hurt him again, afraid of what's happening to his wife, his sons, his farm with him not there. The jailor says he sat there like a great bird with cobwebs on him. So he hasn't spoken. He's probably been hungry and cold. This is a winter scene, a scene of desolation and loneliness."
"It's all right. When you're on your own like that for a while, it gives you a lot of time to think. About everything in your life. But you stop trusting yourself. And when you come back to where there are people, it's a shock. It takes you at least a couple of hours to get back on your feet. I think John Proctor's had to face himself while he's been locked away. But the things he's realised only come back to him gradually. That's why he changes his mind."
Calum swallowed heavily. "Mum...."
"I'm sorry about what I said."
Nikki didn't try and pretend that she didn't know what he meant. "It was all true. Don't beat yourself up about it."
"Yes. I have killed people. I did do time for it. That's never going to change."
"OK," Calum said. "But I had no right to say what I said. I used it like a weapon. Can you do you still love me?"
Nikki stepped across the room and folded Calum in a fierce hug. "Don't be stupid! I still love you and so does your mother. You're our son! Whatever you do or say, we'll love you."
"But I was so out of line!" Calum said.
"And it was partially our fault."
Nikki sighed. "I should have remembered. We backed you into a corner. We wouldn't leave you alone, and you said the first thing that came into your head to make us shut up."
"How do you know?" Calum asked.
"Believe it or not, I was young once. And I had a very similar conversation with my parents."
"What did you say?"
" I said 'OK, I'll go then. See you around.'" She shrugged. "I was older than you. Sixteen."
"What happened?" Calum asked.
"I never spoke to them again."
Calum turned wounded eyes on her. Nikki put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "It was a long time ago. They're the ones who've missed out, not me."
Calum frowned. "Were you on the streets?" he asked bluntly.
Nikki winced. She really didn't want to get into this, but she didn't want to lie to her son, either. She steeled herself. "No. I sofa surfed for a bit with friends. Then, I got a catering job in a pub with a room attached. That's how I managed. Catering work, and saving up enough money from tips to go traveling. The university of life."
"A lot of the street kids are runaways. They've only got one thing to sell."
"I wouldn't want anything like that to happen to you."
"Why would it?" Calum asked, genuinely puzzled, and Nikki shrugged, feeling an almost unacknowledged fear from her own past lift from her.
She changed the subject hastily. "Look, do you think you've understood that scene, now?"
"Mostly," Calum said.
"OK. Howabout I make pancakes? To celebrate?"
She was rummaging in the cupboard for the flour and he was sitting at the table when he spoke again. "Mum?"
"Are you sleeping OK, now?"
Nikki stilled, one hand on the cupboard door, then told the truth. "Most nights."
"It'll take time, that's all. It's not as bad as it was before."
She never knew what Calum would have said next. Zoe came into the kitchen, still dressed in her pyjamas, and gave her mother a sleepy hug. Nikki dropped a kiss on her head and smiled down at her.
"Do you reckon somebody heard the word 'pancakes' in her sleep?"
"Maybe," Calum said.
"Or maybe somebody just woke up," Zoe said dismissively.
Calum was sitting on his bed, deep in 'The Count of Monte Cristo', one of the free standards on his reader, when there was a rap at his door.
His Mam poked her head in, almost as though she thought she wasn't welcome. Calum rested the pad on his legs and waited, reminding himself that given what had happened recently, she might believe that. She came in and looked around the room; it was pretty bare without his entertainment console and games. Calum saw her flinch slightly and ignored the reaction. She looked at the clothes on the rack by the open window and frowned.
"Why don't you put those in the dryer?"
"I've got a system going," he said.
"What, where you wear damp clothes? I don't think so!"
She stopped. "What?"
"The guys I work with at the project haven't got money for dryers or more than one set of clothes. They already think I'm a spoilt rich boy."
"Are you being bullied?" she demanded fiercely.
"No. Pat looks out for me."
He watched as she thought, one hand on the drying rack. Finally, she turned back. "What about overalls?"
"Overalls. To protect your clothes."
"I suppose that might help."
"I should have thought of this," Helen muttered to herself. " I should have known you needed some sort of work wear."
She turned and vanished, returning with a tape measure and a piece of paper, suddenly all practicality. "Get up."
Calum shrugged and did as he was told. His mother unfurled the tape measure and began to run it across him, stopping to jot down the measurements. Calum waited it out, enjoying the contact despite himself. If he closed his eyes and screened out the business-like look on her face, he could almost imagine that it was like old times, before this disaster had happened. He'd always been physically affectionate with his parents, and though they respected his personal space, especially since his recent growth spurt and the beginning of changes in his body, they never hesitated to return his hugs and touches. These days, he held himself aloof from them. He hadn't realised how much he'd been missing that.
"Arms out," Helen ordered briskly. Calum did as he was told and started a little as she ran a tape measure round his waist and chest from behind. Both movements brought her arms almost completely around him. Calum realised with a shock that he would soon be taller than her. He felt a hand briefly stroke his upper arm.
"There you are, all done. You've grown."
He shrugged. "It happens."
"What are you using for footwear?"
"My old hiking boots."
"Let's have a look at the soles."
"He went to the square of newspaper his boots were on; he'd cleaned and waxed them that evening. Helen took them from him and examined them critically. "You could do with some new laces. I'll add it to the list."
"Where are you going to get this stuff?"
"I know of a cheap stall on one of the street markets in London. I'll pick it up tomorrow. If I get two sets, you can wear one and wash one."
"Thanks," he said awkwardly.
"Don't stay up too late. You've got your tutor in the morning."
Outside the room, Helen paused briefly and closed her eyes, revisiting the feel of holding her son in her arms. Then, she straightened her shoulders and went to join Nikki in their room.
Calum was clearing tables when he spotted the young girl sitting in the corner of the cafe. He frowned; she'd been there the last time he'd done his rounds and she still didn't seem to have anything in front of her. He worked his way closer and studied her when he thought she wasn't looking. He tried to be subtle, but it didn't work; she seemed to sense his gaze and returned it, huddling in the seat as if she was cold.
Calum decided she probably was. Although she had a hoody on, it looked thin and inadequate to protect her from the freezing temperatures outside; and underneath, she wore nothing more than a short miniskirt and a tattered, sequined top that had seen better days and was far too tight for her. Calum looked at her feet and was shocked to see that all she had on were cheap plastic sandals in a garish purple colour, totally inadequate for the weather. Even in the relative warmth of the servery, her legs were still blotchy with the red patches caused by exposure to the biting wind.
He wondered if she was so chilled and exhausted that she couldn't actually manage movement. Some of the street kids got like that sometimes - they pushed themselves to keep going for as long as there were punters around, desperately hoping to score money for their next fix. If they didn't find anyone to buy what they were selling, they could get to a point where as soon as they got into shelter they collapsed. It wasn't like most of them had energy reserves to burn. Calum glanced at his watch. It was late afternoon, which would fit his theory. The main rush of businessmen cruising during their lunch break would be over by now with only the occasional straggler passing through. Most of them would be tucked up in their nice warm offices, doing whatever it was they did to pay for their taste in barely legal young bodies.
He dumped his basin of greasy, scummy water on the side and walked over to the girl. As he got close, she turned her face, revealing the oozing cold sore at the corner of her mouth, inadequately hidden by a thick layer of cheap make up. Calum winced, understanding why she'd had difficulty in getting any takers today. He kept his voice friendly and neutral.
"You here for a meal?"
"If there's any left."
"Sure. I'll find you something."
She turned a warm smile on him and Calum's stomach twisted. She was close to his own age, and he could see the remnants of something he would once have looked twice at in her face. Life on the street had worn it away, and now all she had was the bony thinness of the undernourished, combined with the remnants of puppy fat that rounded her cheeks, giving her a certain doll-like prettiness. Even that was undermined by the whore's knowledge in her eyes. Calum wondered how long she'd been selling herself and then shut that line of speculation down, hard. She was a paying customer and as such, she deserved his respect. He supposed.
He held out his hand. The girl looked at him as though he'd disappointed her and he frowned, not understanding. "Your money, please?"
"Oh." She ducked her head and looked up at him through her eyelashes. She shifted in her seat and, maybe by coincidence, her short skirt rode up, showing the top of the stockings she wore underneath. Calum looked away, embarrassed. To cover the movement, he pointed at the sign on the wall.
"No money, no food. I'm sorry. That's how it is."
"I thought this was supposed to be a charity," she said, pouting.
"Social enterprise. The food's at cost."
"Well, can't you.... you know? Make an exception? Just this once?"
"Sorry, no. House rules."
She stood up, suddenly close to him, and pressed against him. Calum tried to move away, but found that she had hooked the fingers of one hand into the top of the old jeans he was wearing. She leaned in, in a tacky parody of seduction, and whispered to him. He could smell the acrid tang of nicotine on her breath. "I could pay you another way."
"No, no thank you," he said, trying to move away. Her warmth and closeness was producing an automatic reaction and he was horribly embarrassed by his body's response. It was making it difficult to think.
"Sure you're not interested?"
"Sure. Now let go. Please!" he said desperately.
"Oi!" a hard voice said from nearby. Calum took the opportunity to free himself and step away. Pat Kerrigan slid in between him and the girl, standing toe to toe with her. "He's off limits. Understand?"
"What's it to you?" the girl snarled. "Who are you, his mother?"
"None of your business."
"Why not? You're interfering in mine."
"Exactly. Do I need to call the police?"
"Got that right. Now get out. You can come back, but if I see you so much as breathe on him, I'll get you barred and I'll be visiting you later, understand? Maybe with a few friends. By the time we've finished with you, you won't be able to walk for a week."
The girl paled, her courage visibly ebbing away. Pat watched her till she was on the other side of the door and then turned to Calum.
"Get back to work."
Calum nodded and went back to mopping tables. Soon after, when he stopped mid-shift for something to eat, he pushed the portion of stew and mash around his plate, unable to face it. He came to a sudden decision and, checking the coast was clear, rummaged around in the store room till he found one of the insulated foil containers they used for the homeless run. He scraped his meal into it, keeping the stew and mash separate, closed it up, put it into a paper bag and added a sealed cup of the remaining soup for good measure. Moving quickly now, he dropped some of the plastic cutlery he'd also taken into the bag and, masking what he was carrying with his body, headed out. He walked through the yard and out into the streets to the nearest meat rack. It wasn't too far - he didn't think he'd be missed.
As he walked along the pavement, looking for the girl from the cafe, he got some good-natured jeering and teasing from the prostitutes and the rent boys. Most of the locals knew him by now and knew where he worked. It was enough to buy him the protection he needed. He couldn't see the girl anywhere and stopped, worried. He had to get back before Pat realised he'd gone, or he might be the one she turned on next.
He huddled in his sweatshirt as the wind picked up, slicing through the meager protection it offered. He was about to turn back when he heard a muffled sobbing from the alleyway. Carefully, he went into the confined, dim space, smelling the sweet, corrupt odour of rotting food and spilt alcohol. The bins from several local takeaways and pubs lined one wall, and he found her huddled in the lee of their inadequate shelter, sitting on damp cardboard, her head laid on her raised knees as she cried.
She looked up as he came closer and he saw that her makeup was smeared and runnelled with tears.
"What do you want?" she demanded. "You've had a go already. Now piss off!"
"I brought you something to eat."
"Oh, I see .... Got rid of your guard dog, did you?"
As Calum hesitated, she took a deep breath, composing herself and then switched positions, kneeling up to face him and fumbling in the pocket of her hoody. He looked at her, confused, and she gestured impatiently at him. "Come on! I can't do anything if you don't get close enough."
Calum blushed brick red as her meaning became clear. He shook his head helplessly and then knelt in front of her, careful to keep his distance, handing her the bag. It was her turn to look puzzled.
"There's a meal and a cup of soup. Eat it slowly or you might throw up, OK?"
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I thought you said no free food?"
"It isn't. It's my meal. I worked for it. And I can't do this again."
She fixed him with a long, measuring gaze. "So why you doing it now?"
"You need to eat. I'll get fed this evening."
"I'd prefer money."
"No. That'd go in your veins."
He stood up, brushing at the wet patches on the knees of his jeans, and turned to go. The girl's voice stopped him. "What's your name?"
"Calum. What's yours?"
"Cinnamon," she said, her eyes daring him to contradict her. Instead, he nodded and raised his hand in salute.
"See you around, Cinnamon. Eat it slowly, right?"
"Sure," she said, settling back on top of the cardboard and opening the bag carefully. He didn't stop, ducking out of the alley and walking back towards the project.
Cinnamon watched him go and then pulled the cup out of the bag, cracking open the lid and inhaling the scent before reclosing it and raising her voice. "Why don't you show yourself?"
There was a pause and then Pat Kerrigan appeared from out of the shadows at the other end of the alleyway. She walked to stand opposite the girl and stood over her. "So long as you understand he's still off limits."
"Yeah," Cinnamon said. "I'll even spread the word."
Pat nodded and then pulled an unopened pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and dropped it into the girl's lap. Cinnamon looked at her, startled. "What's that for?"
"Don't expect you to do something for nothing. That's not how it works."
She watched as the teenager made the pack vanish and then turned away, picking up her pace. She needed to check that Calum was safe on his way back to the project.
Calum was carrying a bucket full of peelings out to the bins when it happened.
"Oi, rich kid!" a voice hissed. Calum looked around, recognising the mouthy teenager from his first day. Dave, his mind supplied; one of the scavenger crew who went out on pickups and helped to load the donated food onto the van. He was at the project as part of his community service. Calum didn't know what the other teenager was supposed to have done and didn't care; as far as he was concerned, the further they stayed away from each other, the better. Dave thought he was funny and his mates agreed - Calum was sick of his constant jibes.
With that in mind, he ignored him and carried on with what he was doing, tipping the wet, loose peelings into the steel bin and replacing the lid carefully. He didn't like rats enough to encourage them.
"I said 'oi, rich boy'!" Dave insisted.
With a weary sigh, Calum turned around. He didn't want to get into this conversation, but he wasn't worried. Pat would be somewhere nearby, looking out for him. He had to admit that she was a good watchdog, whatever else he thought about her.
"Got something for you," Dave said. Calum frowned. He didn't seem to have his usual crowd of hangers on and he had no reason to be out near the bins. It was as though he'd engineered a chance for them to be alone. With a twinge of unease, Calum realised something else - Pat was in the office, taking a phone call. He was on his own.
"What?" he said warily.
Dave glanced around furtively and pulled out a small plastic bag with white powder in it out of an inner pocket. "Thought you'd been looking tired. This 'll pick you up. I can do you a good deal."
Calum swallowed. One thing he'd never been tempted by was drugs - his parents had told him enough convincing horror stories about what they did to people's lives when he'd been growing up, and he knew he'd never get away with trying them, not with an ex- prison governor and an ex-con in the house. In a way, he'd always been grateful for the situation. It made making the choice and explaining it to other people easy. He had an idea that Dave wouldn't be quite so ready to take 'no' for an answer.
"I haven't got any money."
"S'all right. You can owe me."
"No, I can't. I haven't got any way of getting any money."
"Rich boy like you? Piss off."
"No, you piss off. I've got to get back inside."
Dave hesitated, obviously believing this was a negotiating tactic. "Look, I'll give you a freebie, first time. I'm sure you're going to be a good customer."
"No!" Calum said, not bothering to keep his voice down. "I don't want your rat poison or baby powder or whatever it is. Leave me alone!"
Dave's face darkened. "Now you're being disrespectful."
"I offer to help you out and you insult me. What's the matter? My drugs not good enough for you?"
"I don't do that stuff."
"Why? You into the Colombian marching powder like the rest of the rich gits? Well, speed does the same job a lot quicker, and I got a more reliable supply."
"Which part of 'no' don't you understand?" Calum asked.
Dave tucked the bag of powder away again and stalked towards him. "Suppose you're going to grass me up now? Run to teacher and tell tales."
"Like I care what you do," Calum said dismissively, sick to the back teeth of the conversation. He realised his mistake when a fist materialised out of nowhere, and he found himself flat on his back on the wet concrete with his nose throbbing with pain and his ears ringing.
He shook his head, dazed, and then rolled quickly into the shelter of the bins, moving so that the other teenager couldn't kick him while he was on the ground. He managed to avoid one blow, but Dave punched him in the back as he was getting to his feet. Calum cried out and fell against the skip which held the rubble from the wall repair, hearing the dull boom of the impact. He swung round and tried to control his nausea, slipping a couple more punches and concentrating on keeping his hands up as his head cleared. He retched, drew a deep breath and pretended to be more hurt than he was.
Then, when Dave came in for the kill, he feinted and punched him hard in the stomach, following that up with a clubbing blow to the groin and an elbow in the side of his head as the other boy went down. He stepped back, preparatory to delivering a few good, sound kicks to get his point across and felt his shoulder grabbed from behind. Spinning round with his fists clenched, he relaxed as he saw that it was Pat who had grabbed him, and dropped his hands, signaling that he wasn't going to fight. Pat kept hold of his shoulder and looked past him to where Dave was just staggering to his feet, his face contorted with pain. Calum moved slightly to keep him in sight.
"What brought this on?" Pat asked. Janine appeared behind her, frowning.
"He attacked me," Dave said. "We were arguing and he just lost it."
Pat looked at Calum, who shook his head and said nothing. He flinched slightly as she shifted her grip from his shoulder and touched his hurt face. She looked cynically at Dave. "You want to stick to that story?"
"It's what happened!" Dave protested. "Of course, you'll believe him because he's a rich bastard."
"No. I'll believe him because he's not a drug dealer," Pat said. "Empty your pockets."
"You can't make me do that!"
Pat took a step towards the younger man, her posture exuding menace. Dave's hand inched towards his waist, and Calum wondered suddenly if he was carrying a knife.
"Inside pocket. Right hand side," he said quietly. Pat and Dave both looked at him, startled. Janine's face tightened.
"Get out now. That's you barred."
"But my probation " Dave whined.
"Should have thought of that before you started dealing again. I won't have you back. There's enough people with those sort of issues here without you feeding their habits. Move!"
Dave turned sullenly and started walking slowly away. When he was out of reach, he spun back. "I'll fucking get you for this!"
When nobody replied, he kicked a chair over and vanished out of the main gate. Calum watched him go and realised that he was feeling a bit shaky. He looked down at his hands, which were trembling, and went to pick up the bucket to hide it.
When he was back in the kitchen, Pat reappeared with a first aid box. Calum frowned. "I'm all right."
"Really? How about we clean you up."
It was clear that she wasn't going to take no for an answer, and Calum sat still while she dabbed his cuts and bruises with something that stung and was presumably antiseptic. After about five minutes, Janine reappeared. "The police have just called me. They happened to be passing the end of the street. He was carrying drugs. And a knife."
Pat nodded, then looked at Calum. "Sounds like I owe you. Didn't have getting stabbed on my timetable today. Glad it didn't happen."
Calum scowled. "Do you have to tell my parents about this?"
"Why wouldn't you want them to know? It wasn't like you bought the drugs."
"If they think it's too dangerous here, they'll stop me coming."
"Who knows what else they'll find for me?" Calum said.
Janine folded her arms and grinned. "Did I just hear you admit you don't mind it here?"
"I'm used to it now," Calum said. "I'm not a novelty anymore. People leave me alone. Mostly."
Pat and Janine looked at each other. "We'll have to tell them you got in a fight," Pat said. "They've got eyes."
"OK. Just don't say he had a knife."
Pat shrugged. "No need to worry them. But if they question me, I won't lie."
"I'm not asking you to." He stood, ending the conversation. "I've got things to do. But Pat ...."
"Manners as well? This has been a day, hasn't it."
A couple of hours later, they were working side by side, chopping onions. "Where d'you learn to fight like that?" Pat asked.
Calum frowned and chose another, sharper knife. "I was getting bullied at school because my parents were dykes. Mam got my uncle John to take me down a boxing gym and show me a few moves." He paused. "They don't like me to fight unless I have to."
"I'd say you had to today. You were lucky he stuck to fists."
"I know." Calum swore under his breath and reached for the steel. "Want me to sharpen yours while I'm at it?"
"You do that."
When they got back to the house that evening, he stood with his head down, stoically taking the lecture Helen gave him and then asked if he could go and do his homework. She watched him leave and then called Pat back.
"He was provoked?" she asked.
"Yeah. He was defending himself," Pat said tersely. "Can't let them walk all over you in a place like that. Otherwise, you're dead meat. Janine threw the other kid off the premises and he isn't being let back. What does that tell you?"
Helen sighed and nodded slowly. "Thanks. Every time I think this can't get any harder.... Never mind."
Pat shouted a good bye up the stairs to Calum, hearing his faint response, and went to take the van back to the office. As she stopped at the first set of traffic lights, she blinked as she realised something. It was the first time they'd parted in anything other than stony silence.
"Come on," Pat said impatiently, "it's time to go home!"
Calum looked up from the sandwich production line that was in operation at the central work surface, and frowned. "What, now?"
"Yes, now. It's the end of the day."
"Don't tell me you're bailing on me!" Janine said fervently.
Pat scowled. The cold snap that had been forecast was already on the way - the frosting of ice on the outside of the office windows told its own story. The news had sent Janine into overdrive, and her efforts on the phones that afternoon had produced impressive results; an upscale organic bakery and delicatessen in the City had donated every loaf of bread that was due to go out of date the following day as well as all of their leftover sandwich fillings. Combined with what the staff had been able to make from store cupboard supplies, they had the potential to supply food to the majority of the homeless projects in London that night.
After an early start driving round to collect the ingredients, Pat had spent most of the afternoon ringing up various churches and soup kitchens, using the skills Wade Enterprises had taught her to coordinate who was getting what and when, juggling demand against supply to ensure that nothing was wasted and that everybody would get a fair allocation of what was available. Unfortunately, that had left Janine and Calum doing most of the preparation work, and they simply couldn't finish it all in the time available.
"I'm not bailing," she said, resigning herself to another long day. "I'll come back. But I have to get him home."
Calum stopped smearing hummus onto slices of foccacio and frowned at her. "Can't you just phone my parents and tell them I have to work late tonight?"
Pat and Janine exchanged a glance, confirming that they had both heard the same thing.
"Yeah," Pat said, "I could. But there is the part where your Mum's my boss, not the other way around.
Calum thought about it, still working. He came to a decision and turned to Janine. "Can I use the phone in the office?"
"If it's a local call."
"Just my Mam."
Pat shrugged and stepped up to continue Calum's task, grabbing the nearest roll of labels and starting to write descriptions of what had been prepared. The first collection was due in an hour, and people needed to know what they were getting. Too many allergies out there these days to risk anything else.
Fifteen minutes later, Calum appeared next to her left elbow, glanced around to see how far things had got and picked up seamlessly where he had left off.
"Well?" Pat asked.
"They're collecting me when I phone them," Calum said. "That means I can help with delivery as well."
"If we need you," Janine said warningly. "Nobody's indispensable, Calum."
He looked slightly crestfallen. "I know. But I can help, can't I?"
"Yeah," Janine said, "so long as you do what you're told."
"OK. So tell me."
"Get the greaseproof paper and cut it into lengths the way I showed you. Give them to Pat. Pat, pack and label the sandwiches. When you run out, Calum can go back to preparation and you can wrap and group them for collection."
Calum nodded and moved to do what he had been told. Janine raised her eyebrows at Pat, who shrugged.
Three hours of hard, intensive work later, it was all finally done, except for one baker's tray of stuff that hadn't been picked up. Pat got on the phone as soon as the last collection had taken place and phoned the church that should have come for the food.
She walked into the kitchen, where Janine and Calum were cleaning up after themselves as well as finishing off the tasks that had been neglected earlier in the day because of the sudden call on staff. As Pat watched, Calum dumped another armful of plates into the sink, and began to wash and stack them. She frowned. He seemed to be operating on automatic pilot; his skin was translucent with tiredness.
"What?" he said slowly, turning to her.
She pulled her wallet out of her pocket. "I need you to go and get us all a burger and fries with all the trimmings. You know where to go?"
"Yeah, but ...." He gestured vaguely at the dirty dishes behind him.
"Not my problem. Do as you're told."
"Sure," he said, taking the money from her.
"Be careful. You take too long, I'll come looking for you." The instruction seemed to wake him up and he nodded before slipping out into the night.
"Well?" Janine asked.
"Their transport's broken down. They can't collect or distribute the food."
"It's all right. I'll take the company van and deliver it."
"Your boss 'll let you?"
"I think so. Besides, he's done well tonight. I ought to get him home."
Janine nodded. "Good job it's Friday."
One rushed meal from the takeaway later, she made a quick phone call to Nikki to explain the situation. Afterwards, Pat loaded up the van and persuaded Calum to lie down on the pile of dust sheets in the back. As she had expected, he was asleep when she opened the back doors for the vicar at the other end and had obviously been so for most of the trip. She jumped lightly into the van and wrestled the tray of sandwiches out, unfortunately waking Calum up. He sat bolt upright and looked at her, frowning. When he realised what she was doing, he scowled and moved silently to help. Pat left him to it, trusting him to work out what needed to be done.
As he stepped down with the large flasks of soup, Calum shivered. The temperature was sub zero and his light jacket wasn't really warm enough. He ducked into the lighted doorway that led into the church crypt, delivering the flasks to the pasting table that acted as a focal point at one side of the room, his feet scuffing on the stone flags of the floor. The crowd of homeless people waiting patiently for their ration moved out of his way as he portered the food into the church. They knew that the distribution wouldn't start until it was all inside.
Calum glanced at them as he made his way through. It was the usual mixture of unfortunates and society's casualties, people of most colours and ages, some with the mark of long-term addiction to alcohol and drugs written on their faces, in all stages of dereliction and cleanliness. Here and there, small groups of men stood huddled together, watching each other's backs, their bodies bulky with the multiple layers they were wearing to defend themselves against the cold, their skin red from long-term exposure to the weather, many with tattered blankets or sleeping bags clutched under their arms or in bags at their feet. The younger element tended to hold themselves apart, standing in ones and twos on the fringes of the crowd, arms wrapped around themselves as they shivered. The ground-in dirt looked more incongruous on their smoother, paler faces.
Calum went back to the van, locked it up, and went into the crypt. The vicar, a slim young man with a beard, was already operating the urn, handing out mug after mug of tea to the first comers. They took them gratefully, warming their hands and sipping the hot liquid carefully, trying not to scald themselves. Calum took his place behind the table and started passing out sandwiches.
A couple of hours later, he was tidying up and recovering crockery when the vicar came over to him. "Thank you for helping tonight. I don't think we could have managed without you."
Calum shrugged uncomfortably and concentrated on what he was doing. "No problem."
As he walked around afterwards, doing what needed to be done, something occurred to him. The smell of dirty bodies and unwashed clothes was getting worse in the warmth of the enclosed space, the ancient walls soaking up the heat of the few battered antique radiators and giving it back. Calum had registered it, but it wasn't really bothering him. He thought back to his first week on the project, when he had gone home feeling physically sick every night from the way people smelt. For the first time, he made the connection between that and how he had been about cleanliness lately, insisting on taking a shower at both ends of the day and being much more meticulous about washing his clothes and airing his room out.
He filed the insight away for later thought and bent to pick up a scatter of mugs from beside the small, artificial tree in one corner, its plastic stand clearly visible. He thought of the huge spruce on order for Chix that would be decorated and dropping its needles all over the glittering foyer from now until Christmas and the pile of presents that would sit under the tree at home, hiding its base.
Pat came up beside him.
"Ready to go home?"
"No need. The vicar says you've done enough and your parents'll be calling the police if we stay out much longer."
As if on cue, her mobile rang. She answered it.
"Kerrigan. Yeah, just starting back. OK. See you soon. No traffic this time of night, is there?"
She listened, then signed off the phone call. Calum had taken the opportunity to put his tray of mugs back onto the pasting table and was waiting for her, hands jammed into his pockets. Pat grinned. Looked like she was starting to lick him into some sort of shape. He was learning to do what he was told, anyway.
Neither of them spoke on the trip home. Calum was on the verge of nodding off again, so he glanced at Pat for permission and wound down the window, using the cold air to keep himself awake. When they drew up outside the house, he unclipped his seat belt and grabbed his bag, suppressing a yawn.
"Have a good weekend. See you Monday."
"Yeah. Get some sleep."
"No problem with that," Calum said. He heard the van leave as he trudged up the drive and turned for a brief wave, receiving a quick blast on the horn in response.
He was expecting the house to be quiet and was surprised to find it full of noise and activity. He hung his coat up in the cloakroom, listening to the commotion upstairs before realising that some of the voices were vaguely familiar and the whole chorus was identifiably female. His suspicion about what was going on was confirmed when he was halfway up the stairs and a gaggle of squealing girls flooded past him, giggling and excitedly discussing the competing merits of a couple of pop stars he'd never heard of. He dumped his bag in his room and made his way down to the kitchen, where he found his parents sitting at the table, drinking coffee and holding hands as they chatted about their day. He pulled a carton of juice from the fridge and, conscious of their eyes on him, poured himself a glassful instead of drinking straight from it.
"Sleepover?" he asked.
"Yeah," Nikki confirmed. Calum could see the remnants of a range of snack food on the side, obviously cleared away after an earlier movie-watching session in the TV room, and some leftover takeaway pizza. Somebody didn't like pepperoni - one slice had been half-eaten after having all of the pieces picked off and then discarded.
He finished his juice, then rinsed out the glass and put it on the draining board.
"How was your day?" Helen asked.
Calum shrugged. "OK."
"No. Can I go now?"
"Of course. Night, Calum."
He went upstairs, took a shower with the door safely locked and went to bed, finally falling asleep to the accompaniment of a background awareness of noise elsewhere in the house. It wasn't enough to make him dream.
It was Thursday evening again and Helen was trying to concentrate on the excellent meal that Nikki had cooked and talk to Zoe about her day at school. It was hard. For years, Thursday evenings had been her favourite family occasion, something she and Nikki had started when the children were small and they were both working at building their careers.
Friday and the weekend were out of the question because of the club, but on Thursdays, they all sat down together, had a family conference, and planned any outings or treats they were going to attend over the next few days. It was a small haven away from a hectic life, and Helen had always treasured it. In the last four weeks, though, it had become a trial. Everyone was doing their best. Well, nearly everyone. It was almost impossible to ignore the silent figure at one side of the dining table. Calum sat, eyes on his plate, stoically chewing his way through his food and speaking only when he was spoken to, usually in monosyllables. He was perfectly polite and still affectionate with Zoe, but the rest of the time, he seemed to have retreated inside himself, the only reaction the occasionally flare of anger or resentment at something she said to him. Helen pursed her lips and realised that Nikki had spoken to her. She looked up and smiled.
"Sorry, miles away. What?"
"I said, have you noticed that the 'Earth Avengers' film is out this weekend?" Nikki asked.
"Is that that book you like, sweetheart? I wasn't sure," Helen asked Zoe in mock ignorance.
Zoe rolled her eyes. "No, Mam, I only have them all because you get a prize for collecting the set."
"Hey, wasn't it me that got you a signed copy last year?" Helen said affectionately. Zoe grinned and nodded.
"So, I thought we could go and see it together," Nikki said. "Maybe go to a restaurant, make an afternoon of it."
Zoe's face brightened. "Great. But Calum has to promise not to steal my popcorn."
Zoe looked from Helen's face to Nikki's. She opened her mouth and Calum pre-empted her. "I can't go. I'm grounded, remember?"
He put his knife and fork together in the remnants of his unfinished meal. "May I be excused? I've got homework to do."
"Sure," Helen said. "Just put it in the kitchen."
Calum nodded and took his plate through before walking back into the dining room. He was just in time to see Zoe slamming the door behind her as she stormed out. Helen drew a deep breath. "Looks like none of us get to see the film, then."
Calum frowned. Helen's features set. "Your sister refuses to go without you. You can tell her that's fine by me."
Calum nodded silently and left. Helen got up and began clearing the table, her movements jerky. She was just stacking the plates when she felt Nikki's presence behind her. A moment later, strong arms caught her around the shoulders, stilling her, and a soft kiss was pressed onto her neck. She put the things she was carrying down and reached blindly for the forearms around her chest, leaning back into the support she was being offered.
"I've got you," a familiar voice said reassuringly. Helen looked at a corner of the room and closed her eyes, trying to banish thought altogether. When she was finally ready, she tugged lightly at the arms holding her and they loosened enough so that she could turn inside them and look into Nikki's eyes. She kissed her quickly.
"Thanks. I needed that."
"This is really hard."
"Maybe you should cut him some slack."
"No, I can't."
"Why not, Helen?"
Startled, Helen pulled back, looking at Nikki's face again. When she saw her tight, concerned expression, her heart sank. 'Not you too ' a part of her said . Mentally, she summoned her reserves and prepared for a battle.
"Go on. Say your piece."
"Would it be so bad if you let him come with us? He's doing everything he should. He's putting the hours in at the project, working hard with the tutor. He's making amends. He's paying for what he did. Isn't it time to give him a break? "
"No," Helen said determinedly.
"Why not? He looks so tired...."
"He will be. He's working far harder than he did at school because he's in a one to one situation in class, and the job in the afternoons is physical labour," Helen retorted. "Tired is good. Tired means he's having it brought home to him that this is for real. Something that will not happen if we give up four weeks in or rescind part of his punishment."
"I'm not saying that! I'm saying why does he have to be grounded? He isn't stealing any more."
"No, because we have taken him away from where he has the opportunity to do so. That's not very impressive, is it?"
"So when do we start trusting him again?" Nikki demanded. "When does he get another chance?"
"When he decides to change his behaviour."
"How does he do that?"
"The behaviour had two parts. The stealing and lying to us. He still hasn't told us the truth or what happened to the money. Until he does, he will work every last minute of his time at the project and if he's still holding out after Christmas, we may have to look at sending him to a school near his dad."
"What?!" Nikki said. She let go of Helen. "Send him away?"
"Because of a lifestyle decision, right?" Nikki choked out.
"No," Helen said urgently. "This isn't something in him. It's a chosen behaviour. He chose to steal." Desperately, she stretched out her hands to the other woman. "Nikki, do you think I enjoy being a jailor to my own son? Especially since it's upsetting Zoe so much? But we're not his friends; we're his parents. We're the adults in this situation. And we have to lay down boundaries and be consistent. Otherwise, we're letting him down. I know he's a decent boy underneath it all. We have to give him a chance to find that side of him again."
Nikki turned away. Helen waited. When the taller woman spoke, her voice was muffled. "What if he won't open up to us?"
"I don't know," Helen admitted wearily. "We can think about that when it's unavoidable."
"He's our son. We make those decisions together." Helen hesitated. "You know that. Don't you?"
Nikki turned back to her. "Yeah," she sighed. "I think I owe you an apology."
"Why?" Helen asked, slipping her arms around Nikki's waist.
"I've been letting you do all the hard stuff. Not supporting you." Nikki took a deep breath, brushing Helen's hair away from her forehead. "That's going to change."
"Then you agree I'm doing the right thing?"
"Yeah. He has to learn. He had no reason to steal."
"That we know," Helen reminded her.
Nikki nodded and then paused, thoughtful. "Helen, one thing?"
"How much homework is this tutor giving him?"
"Just the normal amount."
"Are you sure? Every time he vanishes these days, it's 'I've got homework to do.' I'm sure I didn't do that much when I was finishing my bloody degree!"
Helen chuckled. "Oh, that."
"'I've got homework' sometimes means he's got homework to do. Sometimes it means 'I don't want to be here anymore and if I use the magic word, you'll let me go without asking what I'm up to'. It's Calum code."
Nikki brightened, comprehension dawning. "You mean like when he was a kid and 'the toys are being naughty' meant 'I'm overtired and I need a nap'?"
They smiled at each other, caught in memories.
Outside the door, Calum moved quietly away, trusting in his parents' absorption in each other to cover his retreat. Halfway up the stairs, he bumped into something and stopped as he realised it was Zoe, sitting in the dark. Without saying anything, he backed away and sat on the step below her, bringing their heads level. After a moment, he felt her arm snake round his back, and moved closer, picking up the end of her braid and beginning to twine his fingers in it. As expected, that got him an exasperated slap with her free hand and he grinned and enfolded his sister in a one-armed hug.
"Hiya, sis. Sitting in the dark like a mushroom?"
"Shut up, moron."
"Hey, I'm a big-time crim, me."
"They think so," Zoe said miserably.
"Yeah. But they've got a point."
He felt rather than saw her twist round to look at his face. He kept his gaze carefully forward, watching out for possible interruptions. "I did take the money. I am a thief."
"So?" Zoe said fiercely. "Who cares?"
"The people I stole from."
"Like those spoilt gits even missed it!"
"That's not the point. Listen, Zoe ...."
"I need you to be grown up now."
"What d'you mean?"
"Mum and Mam are both hurting. I need you not to take sides."
"I worked out how many hours I have to do to pay off the debt. If I want to finish before Christmas, I have to do some Saturdays."
"How are you going to manage that?"
"The project opens most weekends. Aunty Trish said she could find me some jobs at the club. If I'm not even here, there's no point hanging around the house being miserable, is there?"
He leant across and rested his chin on her shoulder. "I can fight my own battles. They need one kid that's not being weird."
"And that's me?" Zoe said. "How about you give it a try?"
"I can't," Calum said. "I can't tell Mam what she wants to know. End program. OK?"
"Did you spend the money on anything illegal?"
"Drugs, you mean, or prostitutes."
"I don't know."
"No. I didn't." Carefully, Calum tightened his grip on Zoe's shoulders. "I promise, Zoe. Nothing illegal."
Zoe relaxed slightly. "Calum, why can't you just talk to them?"
"Got my reasons."
"Then tell me."
Calum shook his head. "No. It's like being a spy. You have to keep to your cover story, even if they wake you up at three in the morning and shine lights in your eyes."
"Moron," Zoe said dismissively.
Calum grinned. Below them, a door opened, the light spilling out into the hall. Calum looked at Zoe and quickly moved his arm off her shoulders. "I can do this on my own, sis. Don't get involved. Please?"
Zoe nodded silently, her face set. Calum ran his hand across her back, then left before anyone could tell they had been plotting.
As Helen maneuvered the car into the tiny car park behind Chix, the bright clear light of a Saturday morning in winter made her squint. She turned the engine off and looked at Calum, who was sitting in the back with his arms folded, the ever-present clothes bag between his feet.
She'd been surprised to find him up when she had made it down to the kitchen that morning, ahead of Nikki and Zoe for once, and even more surprised to find him efficiently making pizza dough out of one of their simpler recipe books. When he'd caught her look, he'd shrugged and mumbled something about a treat for Zoe before finishing his self-imposed task and vanishing off to his room to get ready.
She'd looked around the kitchen after he'd gone and realised that there was no mess, that he'd cleaned up after himself as he'd worked. She'd shaken her head at the change and, for the first time, begun to fully believe that her decision to punish Calum in the way she had could be justified. She hadn't realised how much the fear that she'd simply been harsh for the sake of it and that it would backfire had haunted her until this incident brought it out into the open. His newly responsible behavior reassured her, at last, that she had done the right thing. He'd done things for other people before, especially his sister, but tidying up after himself was a new departure.
Now, as she watched, he got himself out of the car with swift, economical movements and started towards the club without saying anything. Helen wound down her window.
"Calum!" she called. He stopped and listened without turning round. "We're going to be about four hours with the restaurant included. We'll call you if we're going to be later than that."
He nodded and walked off. Zoe, who had been watching the exchange, suddenly unbuckled her seat belt. "I'm going to go and say hello to Aunty Trish."
"OK," Helen said. "Don't be long."
She slipped her hand into Nikki's. They both watched as Zoe caught up with Calum and their children mirrored their action.
"I wish you were going, too," Zoe said softly.
Calum smiled down at her. "You'll just have to steal somebody else's popcorn and grab somebody else's arm when the film gets scary. You'll be fine."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah. How about you tell me about it when we all get home?"
"It'll be late."
"Yeah. But I'm working at the project tomorrow."
"What are you doing?"
Calum gave a deep, theatrical groan. "The kitchen's closed, so the ovens are cold. Ancient grease ...."
"Will that take you all day?"
"Most of it."
"Will you be home for dinner?"
"Because somebody's made me pizzas "
"Just the dough," Calum said dismissively, but he ducked his head and Zoe could tell that he was pleased.
"So you've got to finish the job," she said, pretending to whine, "make the toppings as well."
"I'll do the tomato sauce tonight."
They let go of each other's hands as they walked into the club, mutually embarrassed to be affectionate in front of a possible audience. They needn't have worried; Trish was nowhere to be seen. Michelle, the bar keep, greeted them cheerfully.
"Hi! You want a soft drink?"
"She's leaving," Calum said, indicating Zoe. "I'll get one later, when I'm thirsty. Where's the boss?"
"Upstairs," Michelle said, "but I've got your instructions."
"I'll go get changed," Calum said, and turned to Zoe. "Go on. Don't think about me sweating and suffering while you're enjoying yourself."
"I won't," Zoe said, in her best 'princess' tones. Calum grinned at her.
By the time Calum came out of the toilets, Trish was back downstairs, laughing affectionately as Anne teased her about something. Calum cast a quick glance their way as he went over to Michelle, enjoying the familiar interaction. He couldn't remember a time when his aunt Trish and his aunt Anne hadn't been together. On the surface, it shouldn't have worked - a hard-headed, capitalistic club owner and a distracted, left-wing academic. Somehow, it did, and the two women completed each other in a way that had transcended their differences in politics and the worlds they came from. They were childless, but seemed quite content to regard Calum and Zoe as their surrogate offspring.
"Hey, aren't you talking to me?" Trish asked. She held out her arms and Calum went to her reluctantly, trying not to stiffen as she hugged him. Trish picked up on it anyway and held him at arm's length as she studied his face. Quietly, she let go of him.
"OK," she said softly.
She glanced across at Anne, and Calum braced himself. He was uneasily aware that he didn't know what or how much his parents had told them about his situation. His negotiation with Trish had been on his own account, and he'd only involved his parents after the event. He hoped that the offer to work in the club wasn't going to backfire on him. He didn't want to talk about why he was here, and even though he hated the punishment he was working, he was aware that he was not ready to hear any criticism of Helen or her parenting methods. Calum bit his lip. Being responsible sucked.
Trish looked at him. "Calum...."
"If you need to talk, we're here. OK?"
"Thanks," Calum said sincerely. "Now can I get to work?"
Trish led him to a storeroom and opened it, turning the lights on to reveal a dingy space filled with steel shelving piled high with catering supplies. The corners were filled with dust and cobwebs. It was obvious that the room, while well used, hadn't been cleaned in a very long time. Calum looked round. 'Well, at least it isn't make work,' he thought.
Trish gestured at the mess. "I need everything pulled out, cleaned and put back. I'd like you to wash the floor, wipe down the shelves, put anything broken or damaged to one side, and when you get to the Christmas decorations, bring them out so I can put them in the other store room. Any questions?"
"If I make a list of what's in here, can you tell me what you use most often?"
"Yes," Trish said, puzzled. "Why?"
"I can put it near the door. Unless you want it in categories. We did it at the project last week. Makes preparing lunch much easier."
"OK," Trish said, surprised. "I'll get you a pen and paper."
"Thanks," Calum said. By the time she came back, he had already begun pulling things off the nearest shelves, stacking them neatly to one side. He took the pen and pad from her. "This is going to take more than one session with the drying time and everything," he commented.
"You can keep coming back till it's finished," Trish said.
"That suits me. This is closer to home and travel time doesn't count."
"She isn't cutting you much slack, is she?" Trish said sympathetically.
Calum shrugged. "You do the crime, you have to do the time. I'll manage."
Trish looked at him, troubled by the comment, then turned away. "Christ!" a voice said. "You want to learn about fighting back, boy."
Calum turned towards the speaker, unsure how to react. He got more confused when the slim, middle-aged woman who'd made the comment looked intently at him and said, "Stewart, right?"
He studied her, trying to place her. She was a stranger to him, a prosperous looking woman dressed in casual, bohemian clothes, whose tones complemented her pale brown skin. She wasn't one of the businesswomen who sometimes came into Chix during the day; the barbed wire tattoo on her throat and the heavy silver jewelry argued against it, as well as a certain attitude she had. She stood and behaved like somebody who was totally confident in her own skin, and didn't give a damn about what anybody else thought. Politely, he answered her question.
"Yeah, Calum. How d'you know?"
"I painted you, didn't I. You were a little git. Wouldn't sit still." She stuck out a hand, grinning. "Denny Blood."
"The picture in the study," Calum said, realisation dawning.
"That's right. One of my first commissions."
Calum could believe her. The family portrait had been there for as long as he could remember. It showed them all: Zoe still a baby, cradled in his Mam's arms as she sat on the sofa, her legs tucked under her, while he lay with his toys on the floor, absorbed in racing his cars. His Mum was leaning on the back of the sofa, her arms folded, looking down at them all, caught in her familiar, protective stance. Calum liked the painting; it accurately represented the closeness between his parents and their love for their children. It was only after he'd found out the truth about his Mum that another thing had struck him about the composition. The sunlight, streaming through the window to bathe them all in light, was painted with very subtle variations so that it suggested bars, separating and defining his parents. He was still unsure as to whether it was his imagination or not. He ducked his head and shook her hand, then gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "I have to get on."
"Nice to meet you. Mind you, I feel old now. Oi, Trish, gonna buy me a drink and show me these copies of my paintings?"
She sauntered off. Later, when Calum had stopped for the promised lemonade, she sat down next to him and chatted to him, telling him about her studio in Paris and her recent African tour. He found himself relaxing around her, drawn in by her infectious vitality. She was easy to talk to, despite their age difference. Indeed, she seemed younger than a lot of the people her age he knew, though she had obviously experienced as much of life as she could grab hold of. Calum found himself drawn in by her stories until he glanced at the clock behind the bar and tensed.
"Damn! Sorry, Denny. The club 'll be opening soon. I have to get tidied away."
"All right," she said, unbothered. "I got an appointment anyway. See you around, kid. Thanks. Not many people your age'd put up with my stories."
"No, I enjoyed them. They were interesting."
"Ooh, you've been brought up right. Not that I'd expect anything less from Helen Stewart's kid. She was a fair screw, but she didn't take any crap. You give her my love."
"I didn't know ...."
"I'd been inside? You ain't been paying attention. It's great for the street cred. Know what I mean?"
Denny sobered. "It's shit as well. I made it out. Some people didn't. Shaz is dead. Shell Dockley's a zombie in a rehabilitation center somewhere, last I heard. Like they can ever give her what she had taken away back." She looked thoughtful. "But your mother made it OK for me. She helped Shaz as well. She's good people. Don't you forget that."
Calum nodded. "I won't."
"See you around. You ever get to Paris, look me up. I mean it."
Calum smiled, embarrassed. "Maybe when I'm legal."
"Citizen," Denny said affectionately. She punched him lightly on the shoulder.
"Oi!" a voice said angrily.
Calum recognised the tone and hurried to get between Pat and Denny before his self-appointed protector made it over from beside the door, where she'd only half seen the encounter. He was only partially successful; by the time he'd managed to interpose himself, they were already glaring at each other, fists clenched.
"Did she hurt you?" Pat asked, never breaking eye contact with the other woman.
"No! Pat, it was this hard," Calum said, illustrating his point with a tap on Pat's arm.
Pat looked at him, then returned her level stare to Denny and stepped back, shoulders relaxing. It was, in its way, as formal as a duelist putting up his pistol. Denny mirrored her gesture and then went one further, sticking out her hand. "Denny Blood."
Pat shook it. "Pat Kerrigan."
"You a friend of Calum's?"
"She's my bodyguard," Calum said resignedly. That got him a raised eyebrow from Pat and a curious look from Denny. When he didn't respond, Pat filled in the gaps. "He's doing some voluntary work. I look out for him."
"And you don't mess around, do you?" Denny said. "I like a stand up woman."
"No, I overreacted. Watching his back is getting to be a habit."
"So why did you come in here in the first place?" Denny asked.
"Thought I might get a drink, see if anything was happening."
"Saturday night. Fancied a dance, bit of company. Thought I'd start early."
They looked each other up and down. Calum recognised the signals and cleared his throat, getting their attention. "I need to get back to work. Can you two take it from here?"
"I think so." Pat said, "Denny?"
"I've got an appointment with an art dealer. Boring bastard keeps trying to get into my knickers."
"What, is he blind or just stupid?"
"I don't know. He buys me some good meals while he's trying, though. Fancy tagging along?"
"So long as he doesn't expect a free show."
Denny grinned. "When you turn up, he won't know what to expect."
The two women strolled out of the club. Calum watched them go, then turned back to the work of sorting out the storeroom.
Later that evening, when the sweat had dried on her skin, Pat rolled over in bed and looked across at Denny, who was standing naked in front of the floor-length windows that dominated one side of the room, surveying the view of London. She stretched and moved, crossing the floor to stand behind the other woman, running her hands down her sides as she kissed her shoulder.
"Fancy a replay?"
"In a minute. I just like enjoying the afterglow, you know."
"So you're a closet romantic?"
Denny turned and looked her in the eye. Pat admired the way her hair fell like a loose waterfall over her shoulders and suppressed the urge to run her fingers through it again. Instead, she traced a thumb across Denny's lower lip, silently acknowledging its fullness and bruised quality.
"You're beautiful, you know that?"
"A few people have told me." The other woman shrugged, dismissing it.
"You ought to listen to them."
Instead of replying directly, Denny studied her face. "You grew up in care, right?"
"Thought so. Me, too. Hard to believe you're beautiful after going through that crap. Specially considering what the people who tell you you're beautiful want you to do for it."
She shivered and Pat hugged her, sharing comfort and warmth the only way she knew how. Denny touched her shoulder. "You want to go back to bed?"
Pat rolled her eyes. "Stupid question."
"Well, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I know that."
"Doing pretty good for a thicko."
In response, Denny took her hand, drawing her back to the nest of sheets they'd left behind. Once there she lay close, silent while Pat stroked her hair, dropping light kisses on her face and neck. When the other woman spoke, it startled Pat and she almost jumped with surprise.
"I know I'm not clever with writing. But what I've learnt is - I can see things with these eyes that other people don't. I can see into things. I can show them to other people. In my paintings."
"OK," Pat said.
Denny smiled lazily. "You don't give a shit. Do you?"
"I think you have other skills I'm more interested in," Pat said. "This isn't exactly a meeting of the minds, is it?"
To make a point, she splayed her hand across Denny's breast and squeezed, running her thumb across the nipple. Denny groaned and reached up to put an arm around Pat's neck.
"Bodies 'll do for me," she said.
When Pat woke up, she could tell from the light that it was nearly dawn. She stretched, enjoying the pleasant ache in certain muscles, then wondered where Denny was. A glance across the open-plan room gave her the answer. Denny was standing in front of an easel, not painting, but sketching furiously, picking up pencils and sticks of charcoal from a jar on a low table, tearing across the spaces of a blank piece of drawing paper and filling it with shapes before impatiently discarding it and moving on to the next field of white. Images bled out of nothing, summoned by her skillful hands. The drift of sheets on the floor around her feet reflected her earlier work.
Pat was startled to recognise her own face, taut with emotion, and a sketched study of her upper torso, shoulders tensed and fists clenched. It was vaguely disturbing to see herself deconstructed in that way, and she watched Denny work for a while, trying to understand what she was doing. Finally, she got out of bed, not bothering to make a noise - she guessed that Denny would be oblivious to it. Indeed, the other woman didn't look at her properly until she made coffee and brought her a mug of it, holding it under her nose until she stopped sketching. Then, she dropped the pencil she was holding on the floor and accepted the drink, mumbling abstracted thanks.
"What you doing?" Pat asked.
"Don't know yet."
"Want to paint you."
"I bet you say that to all the girls."
"No," Denny said, "you're different. Maybe because you're from the same place I am."
She leant in and Pat accepted the lingering kiss before asking the question.
"Some of the things you said last night at dinner. I realised. You were on G wing."
Pat tensed. "Problem?"
"No. Can't have been too bad, though."
"You're taking care of Stewart's kid."
"She was OK. For a screw."
Denny looked sharply at Pat. "You don't think that?"
"She was before my time."
"You don't like her. Why?"
"I don't really know her. What I know, I don't like."
"What you saying, man?"
"I'm saying she lives with an ex-con who seems to think the sun shines out of her arse." Pat shrugged. "Makes me suspicious."
Denny took a swallow of coffee, then looked out of the window. "OK. You gonna help me get relaxed enough to go out later?"
"Think I can manage that."
"Good., Then you and me are going to meet my mother."
"Denny, I'm not sure ...."
"Chill. She was on G wing, too. I think you need to hear what we've both got to say about Helen Stewart."
"I'll listen," Pat said neutrally.
"Yvonne 'll convince you," Denny said confidently. "And after that I want to paint you."
Helen looked up as the doorbell rang and wondered who it was. They weren't expecting any visitors. Nikki was buried in the latest Booker Prize winner and Calum and Zoe were playing Scrabble, which probably meant that none of them would respond to the doorbell, Nikki because she was absorbed, and the kids because they didn't trust their opponent not to take a swift look at their remaining tiles while they were away from the board.
Helen waited a moment or two and, when she didn't hear any other movement, got up from the computer and went to the front door. She had a vague idea that it might be Barbara dropping by - she and Henry often came visiting on Sunday to see their 'surrogate grandchildren', but they usually phoned first. The last person she expected to see was Pat Kerrigan, standing stiff-shouldered and awkward in the cold, her face set in a defensive scowl.
"Pat? Is there a problem at the business?"
"No. Needed to talk to you, that's all."
"Well, come in. Can I offer you anything?"
"No, thanks. I just had lunch."
"I'll get Nikki."
"No. Not Nikki. You."
"OK," Helen said slowly. "Do you want to come into the kitchen?"
Pat nodded and followed her though. Helen frowned; Pat's air of suppressed tension was starting to worry her. Once in the kitchen, they stood on opposite sides of the table, neither of them sitting down. Finally, Pat looked her in the face.
"Prison. It's like school."
"I'm sorry. I don't follow you."
"There's the whole thing. 'I've got authority over you, and if you don't like what I do, then fuck you anyway. Learn to live with it.'"
"Is that why you came here? To talk about your time inside?"
"In a way. Look, I'm probably never going to be totally OK with the fact you were a screw. Too many bad memories."
"I never asked you to be," Helen pointed out quietly. "It hasn't stopped you helping Calum. I'm grateful for that."
"Well, I never believed in all that sins of the fathers crap."
"I went to lunch with Denny Blood and Yvonne Atkins," Pat said abruptly. "They told me a few stories. About how you tried to get rid of Fenner. What he was like. About how you got nobbled."
"Oh, they don't know the half of it," Helen said softly.
"Denny told me about Rachel Hicks. About you getting Fenner suspended over what he did to Shell Dockley."
"That's all old history."
"Maybe. But it means I was wrong. About you. About you taking advantage."
"That's a big assumption. What if they just didn't know what I was up to?"
"No. Leopard doesn't change its spots. I know. I've known some bent bastards in my time."
"So I came to apologise for what I said and what I thought. I jumped to conclusions I shouldn't have. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," Helen said.
"Yeah, like you care about the opinion of an ex-con."
"Oh, there are some ex-cons whose opinions are extremely important to me."
"Anyway. Are we cool?"
"Yes, we're fine."
Pat nodded, her air of contained self-possession back in place. "Good. I'll be off, then. Said what I came to say."
Helen showed her out and then stood, hand on the door, watching her walk down the street. Finally, she closed the door and went to tell Nikki what had happened.
Pat was putting the receipts for the fuel she'd bought into her wallet when Calum glanced over and saw the photograph she kept there.
"Who's that?" he asked. Pat looked at the image and smiled a little, despite herself.
"My ex-partner, Sheena."
"Is the boy your son?"
"Dylan? In a way. We had a civil partnership, so he was mine for a while."
"What happened?" Calum asked softly.
"She met someone else, asked me to let her go, so I did."
"Are you still in touch?"
"No. They're still out there somewhere."
"Do you know where?"
"No. I was a lifer. What did I have to offer them? But they're all right. I'd know if anything happened."
"Haven't you tried to get in touch? Since you got out?"
Pat shook her head and started the engine. "Didn't you hear what I just said? They're better off without me."
"But you're his mum," Calum protested. "I bet Dylan misses you."
"What do you know about it?"
"I'm a son."
"And that makes you an expert?"
Calum folded his arms and fell silent. Pat checked the mirrors, indicated and pulled out into the traffic. After a while, Calum opened his mouth, but he seemed to have decided it made more sense to change the subject.
"Pat, do you think Mam 'd let me help at the project on my own? Then you could go back to working for Mum full time."
"What's the matter? Sick of my company?"
"No. It's just you've got better things to do than baby-sit a fourteen year old. Janine says...."
"You've asked Janine?"
"Yeah. I had to make sure it was OK with her before I talked to you or my parents. She says that now Alistair's there to supervise me, you could just drop me off and pick me up at the end of the day."
Pat thought about it. Alistair was the new volunteer, a recovering alcoholic and ex-soldier who was living in a halfway house while he readjusted to life without a bottle in his hand. He'd been in the catering corps, and while he had a fearsome temper, he got on well with Calum, treating the boy like a cross between a slightly slow recruit and an apprentice chef. Calum seemed to be enjoying the chance to learn something new, so Pat had been letting them get on with it. She nodded.
"I'll talk to your parents about it," she confirmed.
Calum smiled. "Thanks."
The boy caught Pat's attention because he was about Calum's age and because he looked furtive. She was returning from one of the supply runs in the project's battered van, bringing back a load of nearly out-of-date tinned goods and end-of-line vegetables from a restaurant that had unexpectedly had a closure because the owner had suffered a family bereavement, when she saw him. She might not have noticed another teenager on the street, but when he recognised the logo on the side of the vehicle, he turned and almost ran the other way.
Pat parked in the yard and helped unload the supplies before sticking her head round the kitchen door and telling Calum that she was running another errand. Calum, who was pulling trays of pasta bake out of the oven, waved in casual acknowledgment.
"I'll save you a piece."
"Why do you act as if I like your cooking?" Pat enquired, mock fiercely.
Calum grinned. "Because you eat it?"
"I've eaten prison food for years. That's not actually a compliment."
"Well, I haven't poisoned you yet."
"Why d'you think I always give you the first helping?"
"Citizen, you standing there isn't washing the salad I needed five minutes ago!" Alistair roared.
"Sir!" Calum said smartly and moved over to the fridge.
Pat walked out and began to patrol the surrounding streets. After awhile, she saw Cinnamon on her usual corner and went over to talk to her. The wind chill was vicious, especially after the warmth of the project kitchen, and the prostitute's skimpy outfit of a short plastic skirt and low-cut top wasn't protecting her from the cold. She shivered the whole time she was talking to Pat, her nose red under the pancake layer of makeup she wore. Pat surveyed the cars driving slowly past with their well-fed, prosperous cargos and found herself hating a certain type of man just a little bit more than she'd ever thought possible.
"You seen a new kid around?"
"What sort of kid?"
"Boy. About Calum's age. Not trade or a punter. Afraid of his own shadow. Dark hair, dressed in hoody and jeans."
Pat shook her head. "Too young. He's not used to being around an area like this. Can you spread the word, see if anyone knows what he's doing here?"
"Sure," Cinnamon said.
Pat left her leaning into a car, negotiating with the man behind the wheel, and went back to the project to help serve up lunch.
Three days later, she was waiting for Calum to finish work and get out into the yard when the girl came up to her and showed her a picture on her cheap, battered mobile phone. "That him?"
She listened as Cinnamon talked, then pulled out her wallet and gave her a note. The streetwalker frowned. "What's this for?"
"Your time. You don't tell Calum about this. And I want to know if you see the boy around again. Don't go out of your way. Just send me word."
"How do you know he's going to come back?" Cinnamon asked.
"He's looking for Calum. Course he will."
"I'll take care of it."
Cinnamon nodded and turned to go. Pat put her hand on the younger woman's arm.
"Try and spend some of it on food, OK?"
She was silent and preoccupied on the drive home. Calum left her alone - he had learned the con's trick of respecting other people's space during his time with her. He waited until she had drawn up outside his parents' house before saying anything.
"Everything all right?" he asked as he got out.
"Pretty much. See you tomorrow."
"Back on the chain gang. Too right."
He turned to go and Pat watched him thoughtfully. She could see that she would have to keep a closer eye on him from now on. That would be hard, now that she was only dropping him off and picking him up. She wasn't willing to change her mind about going back to work full time with Nikki. Calum might have to take his chances. Whatever this boy really wanted.
Zoe knocked on the door of Calum's room and waited until he told her she could come in. It seemed to take longer than usual and she frowned, puzzled. When she walked in, he was sitting at the desk, reading. As soon as he saw she was alone, his face cleared and he relaxed.
"What's the matter?" Zoe asked.
"I thought it was Mum or Mam."
"I was doing their presents. Close the door."
He waited until she'd done as he asked, then burrowed under his bed, producing two oddly-shaped parcels wrapped in newspaper. When he saw her look, he raised his eyebrows. "I haven't got any money for wrapping paper, have I?"
"Or presents," Zoe said. "What have you got them?"
"We made some jam from a donation of fruit last week. Mam's getting a jar of that." He hefted the bottle shaped parcel. "This is from the wormery. Liquid fertilizer for Mum's garden."
"What about me?"
"Oh, you don't get a present," Calum said dismissively. Zoe pretended to scowl at him and stuck out her tongue. Calum grinned. In fact, he had persuaded some of the African visitors who used the lunch room to record Zoe some traditional music onto a disc. He was sure she'd be pleased with it. She might even be able to work out the language; she was clever enough. There were times when he was very proud of his younger sister.
Pat frowned as Calum carefully carried two large paper sacks out of the house and placed them in the back of the van before going back for his shoulder bag and climbing into the cab with her.
"What's in there?"
"One of them's holly from the common and other stuff, pine branches, berries, evergreen leaves. Fake snow. String. The other's toys and games."
"All new," Calum assured her, "all with the original packaging."
"How did you organise that?"
"I asked Zoe to get her mates on it. The princess mafia. Most of them have got stuff in their rooms that they've never touched and don't want any more. When I explained about the kids with no presents, Zoe passed it on. I thought Janine could use it for her appeal."
Pat nodded slowly. "And the greenery?"
"Wel, Mum always makes wreaths for the house and for friends. It's sort of traditional. I thought it would be a bit much to put Christmas decorations up for the project. A lot of people who come in aren't Christian. But I thought we could do a few place settings, maybe some stuff for the wall? Just to cheer it up, you know?"
Pat looked at his worried expression and smiled, pulling neatly out of the driveway. "When did you grow a brain? Must be hanging around with me that's done it."
His smile warmed her all the way to the project.
"Where's the grit?" Calum asked, dumping his empty bucket by the door.
Pat looked up from the pans she was stirring. "Why d'you need it?"
"It's like an ice rink out there."
"Get one of the scavenger crew to do it."
"They're out on a collection."
"In the shed," Pat directed. Calum nodded and went out to find the grit. Pat suspected that his sudden enthusiasm for health and safety had more to do with a desire to get a change from chopping vegetables than anything else, but after last night's hard frost on top of a day of sleet, the yard did need treating. She'd nearly gone over a couple of times herself. She turned back to the soup and was wondering if they had enough leftover bread to make croutons when she heard the yell from outside. She was moving before she had the time to consciously register that it was Calum's voice.
She skidded out into the yard, nearly went over again, and felt a brief flash of gratitude that none of the usual crew were around so she wouldn't have to live it down. Calum was standing in the open doorway of the rickety, wooden lean-to that was used as storage for all of the yard stuff, looking at something inside. Whatever it was had shocked him; he wouldn't have called out otherwise.
Pat crossed to join him and rolled her eyes when she saw the body slumped on the floor next to the yard brushes and shovels, his head pillowed on a bag of sand. She recognised Joe, one of the regulars, at once. He was a street drinker who occasionally got together enough money to come in and buy a meal. Usually, he managed to keep it in his stomach long enough for it to do him some good. Most of the time, though, they met him on the soup runs, slumped near one of the places where he hid his booze, semi-conscious and reeking of alcohol. Pat had a theory that they'd find him dead one of these nights. He was very close to the end of the line. The police didn't bother to arrest him any more; they just moved him on, and without the spell in prison that might help him to detox, his liver was bound to give out sooner or later.
She reached out with her boot and nudged him under the stained coat he was wearing. "Come on. Rise and shine. You can't sleep here."
"You think he's sick? He's shivering."
"More likely to be going through withdrawal," Pat said. "The yard was locked up last night. He must have got in here after the gates opened this morning. Come on, Joe! I haven't got time for this!"
Joe mumbled something and hunched away from her foot. Something clinked under his hand and Pat frowned as she saw the empty bottle. She didn't want to touch him, he was almost certainly crawling with insect life; but he might need more encouragement to wake up than the odd command. She came to a sudden decision and nudged Calum.
"Go and get him a mug of sweet tea. I'll get him on his feet."
"I can help."
She waited till Calum was out of sight and picked up one of the yard brushes, using it to roll Joe over. He came over limply, unresisting, and Pat frowned at the sight of his pale and clammy skin. Maybe he was sickening for something. She risked a quick touch to the filthy pullover he was wearing and pulled her hand away, shocked, as she realised his clothes were soaked. He must have fallen into water at some point last night. Judging by the state of his clothes, he'd lain in it for some time. Pat frowned as understanding dawned. She walked quickly into the project and headed for the office, firing an instruction to stay inside at Calum.
He spread his hands. "Make your mind up!"
Janine looked up, startled, as Pat came into the office and picked the phone up without asking her, dialing the emergency services and asking tersely for an ambulance. She gave the address, then confirmed the number she was phoning from.
"We've got a case of what looks like hypothermia. Oh, and he's had too much to drink as well. Yeah, a down and out. No, I don't know. No, no fixed abode, no next of kin that I know of. OK. Thanks."
"Who is it?" Janine asked.
"I thought he had a place in a hostel."
"He did," Alistair said from the door, "but it was a dry hostel and he tried to take a bottle in a week ago. He's been back on the streets ever since."
"So where's he been sleeping?" Pat demanded. "The river? He's soaking wet."
"There's a new game some of the teenagers are playing," Alistair said impassively. "Find a street sleeper and dump a bucket of water over them."
"They don't do it in the encampments. But someone like Joe, on his own, drunk.... He must have been an easy target."
"Bastards," Calum said feelingly from beside him.
"If this cold snap carries on, it won't just be Joe that'll be in trouble," Janine said. "Can you get some grit down before the ambulance turns up?"
Afterwards, as they watched Joe being taken away, Calum brooded silently. He had begun to frown when he had asked the paramedic what sort of chance the street sleeper had and the man had simply shaken his head, not responding.
Pat put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "He wouldn't have had any chance if you hadn't found him."
"I just don't understand how anyone can do something like that to another human being."
"Easy. They don't think of people like Joe as being human. And they do that because otherwise, they might have to think about how he got the way he is."
Calum's shoulders tightened. Pat could see his knuckles whiten where he held the shovel. "I'll brush down the yard, OK?"
"Sure, but don't forget there's work to do in the kitchen."
"I'll be back in about half an hour."
Alistair looked up as she stepped into the warmth of his domain. "Is the kid OK?"
"He'll be all right."
"He's too soft for this place."
"I'll have a word."
"Steady. Anyone might think you liked him."
"Piss off," Pat said dismissively.
Calum was silent on the way home, brooding on the other side of the cab. Pat let him mull things over, then spotted a cafe and pulled over. Calum looked up.
"What are you doing?"
Calum looked puzzled, but did as he was told. Once they had found a table amongst the overpowering smell of cheap grease, Pat tipped sugar into her milky coffee while Calum looked around at the sparse crowd, mostly harassed Christmas shoppers and office workers grabbing a quick meal on the way to somewhere else.
"All right, spit it out, " Pat said.
"Whatever you're thinking about the thing with Joe."
"I'm thinking some people are bastards."
"Old news. What else?"
"I'm wondering why."
"Wish I knew."
Calum looked at her, puzzled. Pat shrugged. "I think it's fair to say I've met a few over the last fifteen years."
"Considering where you were...."
"Right. And I'd say, based on that, that some people are born that way, but most are driven to it and some..." She paused. "Some do it because they like it. They get off on it."
"But it doesn't answer the question of why they decide to carry on being bastards," Calum insisted, "why they don't realise one day that it's other human beings they' re hurting."
"Maybe they will. The people who did that to Joe were just teenagers, according to Alistair. They'll probably grow out of it."
"So where does that leave the rest of us?" Calum demanded. "Standing by till they come to their senses? Mopping up after them?"
"Or doing something about it," Pat said.
"What can we do? Hurt them first?"
"No," Pat said. "Then you end up inside counting the days till you get out. And they've won."
"So what does that leave?"
Pat thought about it, sipping her coffee. "Doing the right thing yourself," she said finally. "Knowing why you're doing it. And not doing anything to make their lives easier."
Calum frowned. "I don't understand."
"When my boyfriend was beating me up, I used to turn up at work black and blue. Nobody ever said a word. Because they didn't want to hear the answer to the question. And they were scared of him."
"You got beaten up?" Calum said, shocked.
"Why do you think I learned to take care of myself? I know what happens if you don't."
She brushed sugar off the table, watching Calum think about it. "But if one of them had asked the question or offered to help, I might not have ended up stabbing him. I might not have gone inside."
"I never knew," Calum said slowly. "I never knew about that."
"Don't worry. It was a long time ago. I was a different person. If that sad excuse for a wanker tried it now, his feet wouldn't touch the floor."
"You sound very sure."
"I am. You want to know why?.
"Because I know something now I didn't then. They can't touch you if you're not afraid. They can hurt you. They can make you wish you hadn't ever been born. But they can't touch you. Not where it matters. Not where you live."
She slid her chair back and stood up, leaving the rest of the coffee and grabbing her coat. "Here endeth the lesson. Come on. You should have been home half an hour ago."
"I thought he was grounded?" Nikki asked, glancing through the doorway into the conservatory where Calum was facing a pale, nervous boy she recognised as Steve, one of the regular crowd, over a chessboard. They were speaking quietly to each other, heads together as they conferred, disregarding their half-finished game. She could tell they were arguing about something; their voices were furtive and private.
"I decided that I'd better cut him a bit of slack," Helen said.
"What, before he loses all his social skills?"
"It's always a risk with a teenager."
"Why Steve? I didn't know they were friends."
"He's been loyal. He's the only one who's been keeping in touch since Calum was suspended. He came round the first day and he kept calling me for updates."
"Pretty impressive for a fourteen year old," Nikki agreed. She studied the body language again. They were even closer now, fists clenched on the edges of the card table between them. As she watched, Calum made a point, his finger jabbing into the other boy's face. Steve recoiled, his face flushing a blotchy pink.
Helen brushed past her, taking in glasses of lemonade. Calum and Steve literally sprang apart, smiling falsely at Helen as they accepted the refreshments. Helen came out of the conservatory and closed the door behind her.
"Helen?" Nikki said slowly.
"Did you see how they were with each other?"
"D'you think ....?"
"Judging by the magazines I found in his room, no. But if he is, we hardly have grounds to object, now do we?"
"I suppose not."
"I thought we'd have a bit longer before he got into dating as well," Helen reassured her. "Come on, let's give them some privacy."
Steve stayed for tea, mostly, Nikki suspected, because he couldn't think of an excuse not to. Whatever he and Calum had quarreled about was obviously not settled. Both of the boys kept their heads down, concentrating on their food and avoiding each other's eyes. Nikki wouldn't have thought twice about it, except that they were both picking at Helen's excellent sausage and mushroom casserole, so she knew they weren't really tasting it. Given their age, they should have been on their third helping by now; Calum especially was like a starving wolf since he'd started at the project. Now he barely cleared his plate and refused dessert. Even Zoe noticed that.
"Are you feeling all right?"
"Just not very hungry. Had a snack after I'd finished my shift."
"How long are you at that place, anyway?" Steve asked. "You're back in school after Christmas, right?"
"Don't know," Calum said. "Depends what my parents decide."
Helen frowned. "This is neither the time nor the place. Besides, the headmaster will have an opinion as well."
Steve looked at her in what looked like dawning horror. "Where would he go?"
"Another school," Calum said. "Probably a boarding school."
"Calum," Helen said meaningfully. Silence fell. Shortly afterwards, everyone finished their meal and Steve, obviously well trained, volunteered to clear the table. Zoe had some English homework she wanted Nikki's help with, so Helen supervised in the kitchen. Calum and Steve didn't bother to try and pretend they were having a conversation; they worked side by side in sullen silence, Calum doing most of it and maneuvering around Steve, who kept stopping and staring at nothing, lost in thought.
When they had finished, Helen glanced at her watch. "I'll drive you home, Steven."
"There's no need. I can call my Dad."
"No, he'll have settled down for the evening by now. It's no trouble."
She went to pick up her car keys and got called in to arbitrate on a disagreement about the meaning of a word. As she walked back to the kitchen, she could hear angry voices from the other side of the door and stopped, frowning.
"I told you," Calum said. "Did you think I was lying?"
"Your parents are being fascist about this!"
"I'm a thief, remember? Which part of 'that's not OK' do you not understand?"
"No. This is done, Steveo. This is finished. You asked for a month and I gave it to you. Sort it out before the end of the week or I'm going to tell them the truth."
Steven's voice was almost a whine, with tears threatening. Calum merely sounded bone weary, as though he was sick of the whole conversation. Helen's heart twisted - she had never thought she would hear that tone of voice coming from her teenage son. Deliberately, she made a lot of noise going into the kitchen and found Calum and Steven on opposite sides of the room. Calum had his arms folded and was still, head bowed, looking at the floor. The other boy, by contrast, was a jitter of nervous fidgeting, almost dancing from foot to foot as he tried to reignite the conversation. Helen spoke across him.
"Calum, are you coming with us?"
Calum smiled wearily and shook his head. "I've got ...."
"Homework to do," Helen finished. Calum nodded and headed for his room. As he passed Helen, she reached out and gave him a hug. He looked at her, surprised, but he didn't twist away from the gesture as she thought he might. Instead, he planted a quick kiss on her cheek and hugged her back before vanishing upstairs.
Nikki was deep in dreamless sleep when the light tapping on their bedroom door woke her. She untangled herself from her wife and managed to get the bedside light on at the first try. Then she sat up, raked her hand through her hair, and glanced down at herself to check that she was dressed. Luckily, neither she nor Helen had taken her pyjamas off in the night - she was still respectable.
She frowned as the door opened slowly and Calum walked in, still wearing the clothes he had been wearing earlier that evening. She glanced at the clock. Last night.
His voice was painfully hesitant.
"I need to tell you something. You and Mam."
Nikki could tell from the stirring by her hip that Helen was awake and fully alert. Glancing down, she reached out a comforting hand and put it on her wife's shoulder, soothing her.
"Why don't you go and make some coffee? We'll see you in the kitchen in five minutes."
"Living room," Calum suggested. "It's warmer."
"All right. Go on."
He went, closing the door quietly behind him. Nikki slid under the covers and pressed a kiss onto Helen's forehead. "I think our son's decided to talk to us."
"Whatever it is, it must be serious if he's waking us up at this time of night," Helen said worriedly. She sat up and swung her legs out of the bed, then stilled, her head bowed. Nikki put a reassuring hand on her back.
"We'll deal with it."
Helen nodded and got up, reaching for her dressing gown. Her hazel eyes were troubled in the lamplight, but she smiled at Nikki. "We can deal with anything, really, can't we?"
"Yeah," Nikki confirmed. She reached out and took Helen's hand, giving it a quick squeeze. "Come on. Let's go and find out what he's got to say."
When they got down to the living room, Calum was sitting on the big armchair, leaving them their usual seat. Helen sat down and then pulled her feet up under her, obviously feeling the cold. Calum waited as Nikki took the throw from the back of the sofa and swathed Helen in it. The Scot smiled her thanks. Nikki threw her arm around her wife's shoulder, feeling the familiar shape at her side, and noticed with a pang that Calum was biting his nails - something he only did when he was very troubled. She knew Helen would have noticed that detail, too.
"Well?" she asked quietly.
"Mum. Mam ...." Calum folded his arms. He took a deep breath. "It wasn't me doing the stealing."
"Then who was?" Helen asked.
"OK. So why did you lie for him?"
"I knew what his dad'd do to him when he found out."
Helen fell silent, obviously trying to process what she had heard. Nikki felt her temper flare. She glared at their son, who looked into her face and flinched. He shrank back into his seat as Nikki sprang to her feet.
"You covered for Steve? In case his dad got upset?"
"Yes." The answer was almost a whisper.
"Sweetheart. He was being loyal to a friend."
"No, Helen, it's not good enough! I could accept that explanation if we'd had a couple of days of this, or a week; but we've had six weeks of this! Six weeks of everyone's life being disrupted, you too upset to sleep properly most nights, Zoe thinking she has to take sides, the whole family miserable. All because our son . "
"Decided to do something reckless to protect someone and then took the consequences on himself," Helen said. "Where have we heard that before?"
"It's not the same!" Nikki said furiously. "What would have happened to Steve? He'd have been grounded or had to transfer schools. Probably not even that. I know about Steve's bloody father. He's got more connections into the establishment than a pissing board of visitors! He's the chairman of the golf club and a councillor!"
Calum stood up slowly. His voice carried clearly in the nighttime quiet of the house.
"Steve has scars on his back from the belt buckle. He can't close one of his hands properly. His mum wears long-sleeved clothes, even in summer." He swallowed. "Steve says it's worse when his dad's had a drink. That's when it happens. He's been drinking a lot more lately."
Nikki blinked, totally wrong-footed. She still recovered her voice before Helen. "How ... how long have you known?"
"I caught him stealing out of my bag about five weeks before I got suspended. When I grabbed his shoulder there was blood on his shirt."
"So what did you do?" Helen asked.
Calum shrugged. "Cleaned him up. Gave him my PE kit. Found out what was going on."
"And he begged you not to tell anyone," Helen said knowingly. Calum nodded. Nikki could tell that he was close to tears; he looked ready to faint with combined relief and exhaustion. Gently, she took his shoulder and urged him onto the sofa next to Helen. Helen reached out for their son, enfolding them both in the throw. Calum gave a soft hiccup and then settled down with Nikki on the other side of him. She smoothed his hair back from his forehead and he smiled up at her. His expression turned serious as she watched.
"He said if I gave him a few weeks, he could persuade his mum to leave. And then, when he knew he was going to be caught, he asked me to cover for him. Give him another month. But I realised last night, he never will. And he won't go on his own. That's when I didn't know what to do."
"Shhh," Helen said, "it's all right. It's going to be all right."
Her eyes met Nikki's across the top of Calum's head. After a minute or so, he picked up on the silent communication and twisted round to study their faces.
"You have to be brave now, Calum. You have to front up."
"What d'you mean?"
"You remember I told you that Steve's dad was a councillor, well-respected, all that?"
"So if we tell the police what you've told us, he might get away with it, especially if his wife and son deny it's happening."
"He's an abuser. That means he's plausible," Helen said, "and if it's been going on for as long as you say it has, it's more than that. People don't want to see."
"But if somebody who was an eye witness went and made a statement, it'd be a lot harder to ignore. A lot harder for Steve to avoid admitting the truth," Nikki said quietly
"No," Calum said, "no."
"A lot easier for them to make sure Steven and his mother are both safe from now on," Helen added.
"But no pressure," Calum said bitterly.
"Not from us," Nikki said. "Whatever you decide, we'll support."
She touched Calum's back, not wanting to crowd him. Helen reached across and linked her fingers with Nikki's other hand, making a loose circle of both their arms around their son, who sat between them, staring at nothing. After a while, she nudged him gently.
"Come on, you need to be in your bed. I'm canceling your tutor and the project for tomorrow."
"So I can go to the police station."
"So you've got time to think. But you're starting with a lie-in. You're exhausted."
Nikki got up and helped Calum to his feet. "Your Mam's right. Do you want a milky drink or a hot water bottle?"
"No," Calum said, "but will one of you sit with me for a while?"
"How about both of us?" Helen asked. Calum nodded silently.
In the end, Helen stood in the doorway while Nikki spoke softly to Calum, soothing him with a modified version of the speech Helen sometimes used on her when she was too tense and frightened to close her eyes after some of her worst nightmares. When Calum's breathing finally smoothed out into the regular patterns of sleep, Helen walked softly into the room and adjusted the covers over him as Nikki crossed to check the window, opening it so that the room was ventilated, but not cold. They left together, closing the door behind them.
As they walked down the corridor to their room, Helen took Nikki's hand. "I never knew you remembered what I say to you when you're not well."
Nikki ran her thumb across the center of Helen's palm. "I listen to everything you tell me. Old habit."
Helen smiled, glancing at her wife, then sobered. "He's nearly a man."
"I think he's going to be a good one."
"Will you hold me tonight?"
"Tonight, and any night you want me to."
"Oh, I'll always want you to."
Later, when Nikki was still lying awake, Helen turned to her and put a hand on her stomach.
"What is it?" she asked the taller woman.
"He has to go into a police station. Give a statement."
"I'm scared, Helen."
"It'll be fine. I'm going to call Claire before we decide what to do."
"I wish I wasn't such a coward."
"You've just had bad experiences."
"Yeah. Tell me about it."
"Come here, you."
They embraced and Nikki kissed her. Helen reciprocated, carefully not reacting to the tears that were leaking from her wife's eyes. Finally, Nikki broke off and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, you're going to have to make the decision. I can't be rational about this. I try and think about it and my brain just ... seizes."
"I can do that."
"Wish you didn't have to on your own. I feel so useless!"
"It's OK. You do the spider thing for me."
"Like that's as hard ...."
"Nikki Wade, don't give me this crap," Helen said warningly. "You got yourself off some of the strongest prescription drugs out there to make yourself a fit mother to our children. You didn't have to do that. You did it because you believed it was right. You've never let anything take priority over our needs and our welfare, not the consequences of what was done to you, not anything. I know that whatever happens, I can rely on you. If I wasn't here, you'd make the right decision for Calum, however much it cost you. But, I've said it before. One of the reasons we're in a partnership is so we can take care of each other. Please. Let me. This time, let me."
Slowly, Nikki nodded. "I hope you're not keeping score."
"Why would I?" Helen asked. "That's not what it's about."
Zoe stood and stretched out her shoulders before cleaning her flute and putting it back in its case. It was still mid-morning, but she had already been practicing for a couple of hours. She had woken before her alarm and had been unable to get back to sleep. After lying and staring at the ceiling for a while, she had given in to the inevitable and decided to use the time to catch up on her music. She hoped that she hadn't disturbed anyone, but it wasn't actually that early, just unusually quiet in the house.
Once, that would have been a cause for concern, but since Calum's suspension from school all of their routines had become disrupted. Zoe tried not to mind too much. She knew that both of her parents were trying hard to shield her from the fallout from his behaviour. She also knew that now she'd been told about her mother's conviction, things would never be the same again. She didn't blame them, either for the past or for keeping it from her, and she had accepted the reasons for her Mum's imprisonment. The long talks she had had with Barbara and Trisha had helped her to do that. It was just that she had had to come to terms with the fact that her parents were human and had a past that didn't involve her far earlier than most of her friends.
She was coming back from the bathroom when Calum's door opened and he shambled out, half-awake as usual in the morning.
"Heard you practicing," he said in a sleep thickened voice. "It was nice."
"What, while you were snoring?"
"Sort of. It woke me up."
"Sorry," Zoe said, genuinely contrite. Calum smiled at her and gave her a quick hug.
"Good way to wake up."
Zoe squirmed away. "Get off, morning breath! Go and have a wash."
"I have a bath once a month whether I need it or not," Calum said.
"You're rank!" Zoe said half-heartedly. Actually, his hygiene had improved recently. Some of her friends had commented on it. Especially Tamsin, now she thought about it .... Zoe headed for the kitchen, wondering if she should warn Calum or sit back and see how events developed.
She was just investigating the fridge when he came in, washed and dressed. He reached past her and plucked a package of eggs out of the door.
"You want an omelet?"
"When did you learn how to make that?"
"Alistair showed me last week."
"OK. What sort of omelet?"
"One with eggs in it?"
Calum grinned. "So you don't want one with mushrooms, cheese, ham or tomato in it?"
"I don't know . All of that?"
"Anything for my little sister."
He pulled an apron from the hook on the kitchen door and set the ingredients out before pulling a knife off the magnetic rack, testing it with his thumb and frowning. He got the steel from further along and sharpened the blade with a few practiced strokes before rinsing the tomatoes and starting to chop them into pieces. Zoe sat at the kitchen table and watched him work. He moved quickly and efficiently, totally at home with what he was doing, hardly pausing to think. About five minutes in, he turned to smile at her.
"Set the table, yeah?"
Zoe put the cutlery and salt and pepper out, and started to brew a pot of tea. By the time she had finished, the omelets were ready, and Calum had made toast and set it in the middle of the table. He sat down with her and grabbed a slice, frowning when Zoe didn't.
"Don't you want any?"
"We're not all pigs like you," she said dismissively. He made a grunting noise, then sobered.
"Last hearty meal of the condemned man, brat."
"What d'you mean?"
"Got to do something tough today. I don't want to do it on an empty stomach."
"Oh?" Zoe asked carefully. The delicious omelet suddenly lost all flavour. Calum looked at her and pointed at her plate.
"Come on, finish it. Or I'll have a proper chef tantrum."
"Will you tell me what's going on, then?"
"Yeah. Owe you an apology, Zoe."
She nodded silently, trying to work out what he meant and cleared her plate. After they had finished their meal, Calum tidied the table and then, standing facing her with his hands clenched on the edge of the sink, told her what had really been going on for the last six weeks. By the end of it, his breathing was hitching with suppressed emotion, and his jaw was set as he choked out the last of the story. Zoe stood facing him and listened, resisting the sinking in her stomach as she understood the burden he'd been carrying, uncomplaining, all this time. When he finished, she went to him and hugged him, feeling his arms go around her, warm and comforting even as his chest heaved.
"Do they know?" she asked.
"Told them last night."
"They gave me the choice. Go to the police or don't."
"You can't not."
"Surprised you worked that out without a diagram. Moron."
"You'd have got it straight away, of course. Brat."
"Do you want me to go with you?"
"No. Mum and Mam 'll take me. They'll make sure I'm all right."
They both looked across at the door as they heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Calum reached for the pile of newspapers by the door and crossed to the coffee maker. "Better wash the plates. Round two."
"The omelet was good."
"Let's see what they want."
It wasn't both their parents; just Mum, with her hair sticking up after sleep in the way Zoe suspected hers might if she cut it that short.
"Coffee?" Calum asked.
"Put some on. Your Mam'll want it when she's up."
Calum did as he was told and then sat across the table from his mum.
"Oh oh," Nikki said quietly.
"Mum, I want you to do something for me."
"I want you not to go to the police station with me."
"Mam can take me. I'll be all right. And if you're there, I'll worry about you."
"I have gone into police stations without being arrested, you know."
"Yeah. But you don't like it, do you?"
"If you think that'll stop me supporting you ...."
"You can support me before and afterwards. I'll need you then. But, please, don't go with me ...."
Nikki sighed, bowing her head. Finally, she nodded. "All right. Whatever makes it easier for you."
"But, listen. Understand that they're going to be tough with you."
"They'll question what you say, not take it at face value. Don't worry. Your Mam won't let it go too far. You're a witness and underage. Just be prepared for a hard interview."
Calum nodded. Nikki spoke emphatically. "What you do is this. You don't lose your temper. You don't let them put words into your mouth. You take your time over the answers. Stick to the facts and keep it short and simple. Don't exaggerate. Don't shade the truth. If you're uncomfortable, you insist that the interview is terminated. If they challenge you, don't get rattled. Just stick to what you know."
"I can do that."
"Then you'll be all right."
As they drew up outside the police station, Helen looked across at where Calum sat, pale and apprehensive, in the seat next to her. He had not even pretended to make conversation during the drive, and she could sense the fear coming off him in waves.
She still wasn't really happy about sending him in there without legal representation, but Claire had assured her that it was normal practice for witnesses. She had added that it might be counterproductive if they did insist on a solicitor; it might look as though Calum had something to hide and discredit his allegation, making the whole exercise pointless. After an afternoon's agonising, she and Nikki had finally decided to follow Claire's advice. That they had done so was a reflection of the part the solicitor had played in Nikki's release; they had good reason to trust her judgment.
"Last chance. Are you sure?"
"OK. I'm proud of you."
He flashed her a quick, distracted, smile and followed her into the reception area. Once there, he waited with her on the hard wooden bench in front of the desk, managing not to fidget. Helen studied the crime prevention posters, wondering who thought that bribery was a good way of tackling the underlying causes of crime.
Someone had made an effort to try and dress the grim space up; there was tinsel on the edges of the notice boards and a hand-drawn poster of Santa admonishing that 'Santa says be careful of your valuables while Christmas shopping', but it did little to brighten up the grubby, tattered feel of the room. Helen supposed that the police had very little Christmas cheer in their job, and thought back to dismal times in Larkhall with a shudder.
They both looked up as a compact Asian woman in uniform came into reception. She held out her hand and smiled at Helen, indicating the blonde woman with her. "I'm Sergeant Patel. This is Constable Kachzinsky. We're on the domestic violence team. Thank you for coming in on a Sunday."
Helen shook hands with both women. "Calum didn't want to leave it any longer than he had to."
"OK," the Sergeant said neutrally. "Is this Calum?"
Calum nodded and shook hands in his turn. He cleared his throat. "Yes, officers."
He caught the glance between the two policewomen and realised that he was being judged. Almost unconsciously, he straightened his back and looked them in the eye, fronting up as if he was facing the volunteers at the project. He felt his Mam's hand on his arm and smiled, relaxing as he felt her silent reassurance. Soon afterwards, they asked him and his Mam to follow them and led them away from the reception area and into the station, down long, institutional corridors to an interview room.
He followed their uniformed backs, swallowing as the door closed and he felt the pressure of the hermetically sealed space impact on his eardrums. His Mam sat close to him, but away to one side, out of sight. Calum appreciated her consideration. He knew he had to do this on his own for it to mean anything.
"All right," Sergeant Patel said, "I'm going to explain some things to you before we start."
"Do you need anything? Drink of water? Trip to the toilet?"
"Are you feeling well and able to do this interview?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Good," the Asian woman said. She looked at Calum, and he was suddenly very glad he'd had the conversation with his Mum. Her expression was deadly earnest. "Right. This interview will be recorded because of the seriousness of the accusation you're making and your age. Do you understand?"
Calum nodded. Sergeant Patel sighed. "You can nod now, Calum, but when the recorder's on, you need to speak up. Yes or no. Do you understand?"
"I'm going to turn the recorder on now. Is that all right? Are you ready?"
"Good." She reached across and turned the machine at one side of the desk on. "Right. This is an interview with Calum Stewart, regarding an allegation of domestic violence, in the presence of his appropriate adult, at .... " She looked at her watch and read off the time and date, then spoke again. "Would all persons present please confirm their identity and that there is no one else present. Ms. Stewart, please especially confirm that you are Calum's appropriate adult, why this is so and that you agree to the interview taking place."
After they had gone through the slightly surreal ritual of confirming their identities, Sergeant Patel fixed Calum with a challenging stare. "Calum, I need to explain a few things to you on the record. Are you OK with that ?"
"Yes," Calum said tensely.
"Right. First of all, this interview is being taped because it may need to be circulated across different agencies, because of the seriousness of the allegation and because of your age. Do you understand?"
"Did I tell you anything different before we started recording?"
"Do either you or your appropriate adult feel that you need legal representation present?"
"This is not an interview under caution, you are not a suspect and you are not under arrest. You are free to go at any time, and have the right to terminate the interview at any time. Do you understand?"
Calum nodded, then remembered and spoke up. "Yes, I understand."
"Good. The way the interview will work is that I will ask you questions and PC Kachzinsky will take notes. If I miss anything, she may remind me or interrupt the interview."
"Do you understand that you can ask me to repeat or rephrase any questions you're not clear on?"
"Anything else you want to say?"
"Ms. Stewart, do you have any questions at this stage?"
"Right. Then we can begin."
Calum folded his hands on the table and paid attention. He told his story, gaining confidence as the process went along, hearing his voice strengthen as his nerves subsided. When he'd finished, Sergeant Patel glanced at her notes and frowned.
"OK, Calum, that's a very clear account. Thank you. I've got a few questions, just to clarify things in my own mind."
"You say that you found out that your friend Steve was being hit about three months ago. Is that right?"
"And you found out about him stealing six weeks or so ago."
"But you covered for him."
"So I suppose what I'm really wondering is, why didn't you tell anyone? Teachers, parents, Childline?"
"I told you. I promised Steve I wouldn't."
"You knew he was being physically assaulted, badly enough to cause bruises, break his skin. And you didn't tell anyone?"
"No," Calum said miserably. "It seems stupid now, but back then, I thought it was the right thing to do."
"Stand back and allow your friend to be hurt? He is your friend, right?"
"Because you promised."
Sergeant Patel let the silence grow. Calum wiped his sweating palms on his sleeves and waited her out. Finally, she gave a small nod as if he'd passed, or failed, some test.
"And then, six weeks ago, he asked you to take the blame for something he'd done. Something serious. And you said yes again."
"I told you. Because I knew what his dad might do to him."
"And in the face of being suspended from school, being labeled a thief, being punished by your parents, you just sat back and took it. All to protect Steve."
"Makes you sound like a bit of a hero."
"Not really. Just I didn't have time to think."
"Not for six weeks?"
"I don't understand."
"You haven't just lied for him once, have you? You've made the choice to keep doing it. Every letter of apology you wrote. Every day you didn't tell your parents the truth. That's a lot of lying."
The sergeant pursed her lips and seemed to change tack. Calum shifted in his chair, concentrating.
"When do you go back to school?"
"What? I'm not sure. After Christmas, I think."
"That's when your suspension ends. I'd have thought you'd have it marked on your calendar. After all, it's going to be tough."
Calum frowned, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Well, that's when you have to face all of the people you stole from."
"I didn't! That was Steve!"
"Do you think they'll believe that? After all, they have letters from you admitting what you did."
"So you say now. They won't know what to think, will they?"
"I don't know. I haven't thought about it."
"So you say."
"What?!" Calum said. His fists clenched involuntarily. He met the dark-eyed gaze head on. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that you're asking me to believe that you stood by and let a friend be hurt for six weeks after you found out his father was in the habit of beating him when you could have stopped it with a single phone call, even if you didn't want to involve your parents or your teachers. You're also asking me to accept that you took the blame for that same friend when he was about to be caught stealing and exposed as a thief."
"So, it doesn't add up. You put him at risk by condoning "
"Don't interrupt, please. Condoning the abuse, then you protected him by taking the blame for something he did. Do you want to explain why you took those two decisions and how they go together?"
Calum took a deep breath. The sergeant leant forward and spoke into the silence.
"Because there's another version of events that fits the available facts. That's the one where you're the thief and you were quite prepared to take your punishment when you got caught. After all, it hasn't been too bad, has it? Bit of voluntary work, home tutoring. Almost a holiday."
Calum flattened his palms on the table and glared at her, refusing to break eye contact.
"But now, suddenly, you're faced with going back to school, meeting up with all the people whose stuff you stole. People who used to be your friends. Except you're not going to be very popular now, are you? It's not like anyone's ever going to trust you again. Or speak to you, probably."
She shrugged. "So a thief might realise he needed to come up with a candidate, a scapegoat, someone he could put the blame on. And, if he was clever, he'd realise he would have to give a reason for why he simply hadn't told the truth in the first place. Hence the whole story. It's my friend Steve and he's been stealing because he's unhappy at home. Why's he unhappy at home? Oh, yes, his father hits him and that's why I couldn't tell the truth. I was protecting him."
Calum bit his lip. The sergeant leant forward. "But that doesn't explain why you didn't protect him before. By telling someone."
Calum bowed his head. Helen, who had been glaring at Patel in appalled fascination, controlling herself with difficulty, moved forward, ready to say something. The sergeant held up her hand.
"No, Ms. Stewart. Let him answer. Don't put words into his mouth."
"Do you have an answer, Calum? One that makes sense?"
Calum sat up straight. He looked at Helen, and she recognized the set line of his jaw, the misery in his face. Her heart clenched inside her.
"That's it, "she said. "I'm ending this interview."
She stopped as Calum held up his hand, mirroring the policewoman's movement. He cleared his throat. Helen could see him forcing himself to look his questioner in the eye, and speak up for the record.
"I didn't tell anyone because I'm not a hero. I was scared. I was young and stupid and I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing. I let it happen, and I tried to tell myself that it'd sort itself out. And agreeing to take the blame? That was the same thing. Pretend everything was OK. Normal. Ignore the fact that Steve was so desperate, he was doing stuff like that. That way, I didn't have to face it. I didn't have to make a decision about what to do."
He looked at Sergeant Patel. "Satisfied? Can I go now?"
"Yes." the policewoman said. "I have what I need. Constable?"
"No more questions from me, guv," Kachzinsky said.
"Fine. The interview is terminated at...." She read off the time and clicked off the recorder. Helen went to Calum, who was slouched in his chair, hunched over on himself. She touched his shoulder. He looked at the sergeant.
"What happens now?"
"We go and visit your friend. Today, I think. I'll have to liaise with social services."
"What? But I thought...."
"I know. Just because I have to test the evidence doesn't mean I haven't got eyes. Or a brain."
Calum nodded slowly. "Won't his dad go mad?"
"He won't get the chance. We'll be taking him out of there. Standard procedure."
Constable Kachzinsky grinned. "Your friend 'll be safe."
For the first time since he had met them, Calum smiled, his relief obvious. "I'm glad."
The sergeant escorted them out. In the reception area, she put her hand out to Calum. He shook it carefully.
"Everyone gets scared, Calum. Not everyone does the right thing anyway. You did well."
"Thank you," he said quietly.
"Come on," Helen said. "Let's go home."
When they got back to the house, Zoe was waiting for them, glancing up the road as she sat in the window, fiddling with her reader. She met them in the hallway and took Calum's coat from him. Helen looked at the kitchen doorway, where Nikki was hovering with a tea towel over one shoulder, and went to her wife.
"OK?" Nikki asked, hugging her tightly.
"Yeah," Helen said, "we've done it. It's over."
"Not for Steve," Calum said.
"Never mind that now," Nikki said. "Come on. I need a sous chef. I've invited Barbara and Henry for tea, and I promised to make my famous vegetarian lasagna."
"I'm never going to be able to avoid helping the kitchen again, am I?" Calum grumbled.
"Nope," Nikki said cheerfully. Calum made a mock disgusted face and slouched over to grab an apron. Helen leaned against the doorjamb, her arm around Zoe, and watched him as he rummaged through the vegetable bin, expertly choosing ingredients.
After a while, Zoe nudged her and took her hand, towing her into the living room for their weekly ritual, the omnibus edition of the soap they watched. They sat on the sofa together, commenting on the melodramatic plot line, and Helen listened to the sounds of movement in the kitchen and felt deeply content. The tight ball of tension that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in her stomach since she had been told about Calum's stealing had faded. It felt like their family was finally at peace again
Zoe was setting the table when the doorbell rang, putting out the best plates while her parents discussed what wine would be right in the kitchen. The meal had turned into a kind of unofficial celebration, and they seemed to be amicably arguing about whether to open the good wine or the really good wine. Zoe expected that they'd come to a decision eventually when they got tired of pretending to bicker and both gave the other final say.
There had been a good deal of that kind of silliness during the afternoon, with her parents spending a lot of time flirting, taking the opportunity to touch or steal kisses or moments with each other, acting like teenagers as their relief and happiness expressed itself. She and Calum had rolled their eyes fairly early on, and had adopted their default coping strategy of ignoring the adults. They were, after all, impossible when they got like this. Zoe hoped they'd calm down when Barbara and Henry arrived.
She heard Calum thundering down the stairs from his room and his cheerful "I'll get it!" Then, instead of the babble of greetings she'd expected, an ominous silence. Quickly, she put the knives down on the table and went out into the hall. At first, she didn't understand what she was seeing. Calum was standing braced against the inside of the front door, pushing it closed.
"Calum?" she asked and he glanced at her, distracted. That gave the person on the other side their chance, and the door flew open, crashing against the wall. Calum pulled his hand away just in time to prevent it being trapped between the handle and the coat rack, stepping back as an enraged woman stormed into the hall. Zoe couldn't work out who she was until she saw Steve trailing behind her, his face pale with apprehension. The woman looked like any of the well-dressed, respectable mothers she was used to seeing at the school gates and at her friend's houses. There was nothing unusual about her, from the casual designer trainers and jeans to the carefully made up face and the car keys she clutched in one hand.
The woman looked straight at Calum and seem to expand with rage. "You fucking little bastard," she hissed. She took a step forward. "You cunt!"
"Zoe, go into the living room," Calum said.
"I want to know why my husband, my husband was taken away in a police car today! I want to know why I had a police car outside my house, in front of all the neighbours, for three quarters of an hour! I want you to take back your lies. Now!"
"They're not lies," Calum said.
The woman flew forward and slapped him, hard. Calum went down with a crash, then pulled himself up, holding onto the banisters. There was a vivid red mark on his cheek, and his nose had started to bleed. He touched it carefully.
Zoe dived for the phone and started to dial the number for the emergency services, vaguely aware of her parents coming out of the kitchen. When she got the operator, she tried to speak clearly, but could hear her voice shaking with stress and fear as she told the calm, reassuring man on the other end of the phone what was happening, watching as her Mum and Mam simultaneously moved to stand between Calum and the woman who had attacked him. She watched as her Mam put a hand on her Mum's arm.
"I know." Nikki turned her attention to the woman and spoke calmly. "I want you to leave our house now. You do not have our permission to be here."
"Our house. What do you mean ?" Steve's mother's face turned ugly as she understood. "I see. Well, that explains a lot. Any child brought up in an evil, deviant house like this will be a thief and a liar." She turned on Steve. "You never told me they were perverts! Has he touched you? Has he suggested things?"
Steve looked trapped and desperate all at once. He blushed and shook his head vehemently. "No! He's a mate!"
"It's all right. You can tell me. I know he made you...."
Zoe was uneasily aware that her Mum had begun to make a low growling sound, her temper igniting. Calum picked up on the same thing. He stepped forward quickly, in front of his parents, his voice clogged because of his nosebleed, but still clear enough to be understood. "Mrs. East."
"Don't talk to me, you little pervert!"
"Even if I was gay, that doesn't mean I'd make anyone do anything they didn't want to do, or sleep with a mate. But " He cleared his throat. "I'm pretty sure I'm not. Anyway. That doesn't matter. I told the truth. We both know it. All you're doing here is making the situation worse. You ought to go."
"Not until you admit you're lying!"
Calum's voice was suddenly sad. "If you do one thing for me?"
"I don't have to do anything!"
"No, but it's an easy thing." He snorted back blood and retched slightly. Nikki moved forward and Helen put her hand on her wife's arm, restraining her.
"What?" Mrs. East said impatiently.
"Roll up your sleeves and tell me how you got the bruises."
Steve's mother stared at him and then, abruptly, turned on her heel and left. Steve followed her, more slowly.
"Steve!" Calum said.
"You don't have to go with her. You can stay here till the police arrive."
"No," the other boy said. "She's my mum. I have to take care of her." He sounded close to tears. Suddenly, he turned back and gave Calum a quick, clumsy hug. Calum slung one arm around his friend's shoulders, his face working, and punched him lightly on the shoulder with his fist.
"Stay safe, Steveo. Be well," he forced out. "Mates?"
"Right. Piss off, then, and take care of her."
They stepped apart and Steve walked out to where his mother was waiting by the car, his back straight and his face set in grim, adult lines. Distantly, Zoe could hear the sound of police sirens coming closer.
It was Christmas Eve and the traditional Stewart-Wade open house was in full swing. Yvonne was holding court together with Denny in one corner of the living room while Barbara and Henry chatted to Trisha and Anne over a glass of wine in another. Zoe had installed herself on the sofa next to Thomas and his wife, and was fussing over their toddler while Nikki circulated, dispensing wine and nibbles. Soft music played in the background, the sweet voices of the choristers high and ethereal, and Helen had vanished into the kitchen to check on the garlic bread.
Every room in the house was festooned with decorations, the paper chains, bows, tinsel and baubles a testament to what could be fitted into one attic. A huge artificial tree, topped by a fairy and garlanded with lights and ornaments, dominated the corner of the second living room, its base piled with presents. Calum's newspaper-wrapped offerings took pride of place, incongruous against the rich foil paper and ribbons of the other gifts. A carved wooden crib and Nativity scene that Barbara and Henry had brought back from their honeymoon in Venice sat in the fireplace, its wooden figures supplemented with the plastic animals that Calum and Zoe had always insisted on adding as children, and which were now part of the tradition. As Nikki always said, laughing, why wouldn't Jesus have had a lion and a giraffe in attendance as well as sheep and cows? The three kings came from afar, didn't they?
Claire and Philip were just coming into the hallway when Calum's phone rang.
"Sorry," he said and took the call, hanging their coats up as he did so.
"Is she there?" a male voice asked him.
Calum didn't have to check; he'd been unobtrusively monitoring Pat for most of the party, and he knew she was in the conservatory, chatting to Janine as she sipped a bottled beer.
"Yeah. What about you?"
"We're parked down the street. I'll keep the engine running for a quick getaway, shall I?"
"No need. Just bring her in."
"Hope this works out."
"So do I," Calum said, allowing himself to appreciate, for the first time, the magnitude of the risk he was taking. He cleared his throat and wiped his sweating palms against each other. This could very easily backfire ....
"Well, I've been grounded before," he said quietly to himself and headed for the front door as the bell rang. Unfortunately, his Mum got there first and opened it, revealing John Harvey and an unknown woman and teenager. Nikki frowned slightly as she tried to place them, then obviously decided not to leave them standing in the cold.
"Come in, please."
The woman, who was tall and slender with striking red hair, smiled and offered Nikki the bottle of wine in her hand. "I hope you don't mind us turning up like this."
"No, of course not. It's open house," Nikki said, confused. The woman glanced at Calum.
"Actually, your son invited us."
"Oh, I see. Is he a friend of ...."
"Dylan. His name's Dylan. And I'm Sheena."
She handed Calum her coat and looked around. Nikki indicated the door to the living room. "The party's through here. Let me get you a drink. John, you know where everything is."
"I could do with a drink," Sheena said. "I'm a bit nervous, actually."
"Yes, I'm hoping to meet an old friend here. Someone I haven't seen for years."
"Really?" Nikki said politely. Calum hung up the coat and looked over the teenager with her. He was a gangling, red-headed boy who Calum guessed must be about his own age. He looked apprehensive and tense. Calum wondered again if he'd done the right thing.
He followed them into the living room. Sheena looked around quickly and then spotted Pat, who was standing framed in the doorway of the conservatory, throwing a remark over her shoulder as she came into the main room. Sheena made an inarticulate sound, her eyes fixed on the ex-con. She put her hand to her face, fighting back emotion.
"Pat...." she breathed.
Pat turned at the sound of her name. Her eyes narrowed and incredulity flooded her face as she recognised the other woman. Then she scowled, looking past her to where Calum and John stood behind the red-head. She slammed her beer bottle down on the nearest surface, narrowly missing the advent candle in its nest of holly, and strode furiously across the room towards them. She walked past Sheena without a second glance and caught Calum's arm in a tight, unforgiving grip. He winced, but walked with her as she towed him into the study and slammed the door closed.
"You want to tell me what this is about?"
"You and her seeing each other again. I know you miss her. It's in your face when you talk about her ...."
"You stupid young bastard!" Pat hissed. "You don't get to organise my life for me!"
Calum stood his ground, trying to control his fear and refusing to back down. "You helped me. I wanted to help you."
"If she wanted to have anything to do with me, she'd have got in touch herself. And she didn't! You've fucked up properly this time."
The confrontation was interrupted by a quiet comment. "Maybe she didn't get in touch because she realised she'd made the worst mistake of her life when she walked away from you, and she was ashamed of how she'd treated you. Maybe it got harder the longer she left it."
"Right," Pat said bitterly, "and I'm supposed to accept that and fall into your arms, am I?"
"Sure," Pat said, "just the same as before."
"No, different," Sheena said.
"What's different? You say jump and I say how high! Feels the same to me!"
Sheena stepped inside the room, closing the door behind her. Calum started to inch away. Pat turned on him and pointed an accusing forefinger. "Later. I've got things to say to you. Out!"
When the door had closed, she moved away from Sheena and looked out of the window, arms tightly folded. The taller woman walked carefully up behind her and put her hands on Pat's shoulders.
"You're so tense...."
"Damn right! You left me for a man, Sheena. You asked me to let you go and I did. It fucking nearly broke me, but I did it. And now, you waltz in, more than ten years later and you expect just to be able to pick up where you left off. You're good, darling, but you're not that good."
"Not where we left off," Sheena said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. There's a reason I came here, Pat. I had to talk to you. I had to see if you'd give me another chance."
"You were always the tough one, the brave one. I need you to be brave now, and tell me if there's any hope for me and you. If you'll let me try and make it up to you? I wondered.... I wondered if we could date."
Pat turned to look incredulously at Sheena, her face a picture of confusion and pain, and studied her. "What?!"
"You heard me. I've never forgotten you, Pat, or that first night. The time we had in Larkhall. It being good, even in there."
"So what you're saying is you want a shag. Well, that's OK. I can do that. I'm good at one night stands. It's relationships I don't do."
"That's not enough," Sheena said firmly. "I want more. I want you in my life, not just my bed."
"I told you ...."
"Then why do you carry a picture of me and Dylan in your wallet?"
Pat stared at her, unable to come up with an answer. Finally, she shook her head.
"This isn't happening," she said disbelievingly.
"Yes, it is," Sheena said, reaching out to touch her arm. "I told you, that time in the cell, that I'd never known anything like that. It's still true. You're still, really, the only one. You always were."
"And what if I say no?"
"I'll understand," Sheena said. Tears gleamed in her eyes. "I'd like you to keep in touch with Dylan, if you can. But, you don't owe me anything. It's not like I've exactly behaved very well."
"Don't cry," Pat said tenderly. She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped away the tears before they had a chance to spill. "Beautiful woman like you shouldn't be crying about anything."
"Except how stupid I've been," Sheena said bitterly.
"What sort of life would it have been for you and Dylan? Us seeing each other twice a month, you tied to a murderer. You did the right thing."
"See, now you're being noble again, pretending you don't care!"
"I care," Pat said. "I'm just being practical. I didn't have any right to hold you. You were the best thing that ever happened to me in there. I knew it was too good to last."
"It would have done, if I hadn't ended it," Sheena said bitterly.
"You don't know that," Pat said. "Shit happens. It happens to everyone. Nothing lasts. Specially not ...."
"Why do you hate yourself so much?" Sheena demanded.
"Why do you believe you're not good enough to be worth loving? Is it what they did to you when you were still a kid?"
"Try and psychoanalyse me."
"I'm not," Sheena said. "I'm trying to understand you, so I can find a way we can hold on to each other."
She reached out and touched Pat's still, impassive face. "Be together. Live together. Love each other again," she said softly.
Pat stepped back. "You can start off by not trying to manipulate me," she said, her jaw set.
Sheena clenched her fists and then grabbed Pat by the shoulders. "This isn't manipulation. This is me telling you how I feel! Don't you get that?" she said vehemently. She rested her forehead against the other woman's. "Because you never will. Not if they tortured you."
Silence stretched between them. Pat put her hands in her pockets and hunched her shoulders. "I've missed you," she admitted quietly.
"Enough to try again?"
"I don't think that'd be a good idea. We don't really know each other."
"Pat, we shared a cell for months!"
"It's not the same. It's been a long time. We're both different now."
"I understand why you don't trust me. I haven't exactly earned it. But if you gave me a chance, I think I could show you that I mean what I say."
"I don't do relationships."
Sheena smiled affectionately and linked her arms around Pat's waist. "That's what you said before, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," Pat said. She tilted her head back to look at the other woman and studied her, brushing a strand of hair away from her forehead. "You didn't take no for an answer last time, either."
"I can be very persistent when I'm going after something I want," Sheena told her firmly. "Come on, I want you to talk to Dylan. And tomorrow, you're coming to ours for Christmas dinner."
"Oh, I am, am I?"
"Yeah. No arguments. If you behave, I won't play too many carols."
"Who put you in charge all of a sudden?"
"We've got years to catch up on. I'm sick of waiting."
"So you want us to try again?"
"Weren't you listening before?"
She bent her head and kissed Pat. The two women broke apart briefly and then kissed again, more deeply this time.
They heard a noise at the door and turned to see John Harvey standing there, scowling. "Christ! Where do you keep the whisky round here? I need a drink after seeing that."
Pat grinned insolently at him. "Thought it was supposed to be every red-blooded male's top fantasy. Besides, dyke household, remember?"
"I'll show you where the whisky is," Calum said from behind him. He had obviously been trying to stop the older man from coming in. He mouthed an apology as he turned to go.
Pat called after him as he left the room. "Calum!"
"Close the door behind you."
John slung an arm round his shoulder as they walked down the corridor together. Calum tried not to brush the wall. He didn't want to knock the Christmas cards off their ribbons.
"Reckon you got away with that one. You didn't deserve to."
"I know," Calum said.
Calum reached for the good whisky his Mam kept tucked away for special occasions, and looked through into the living room, where she was dancing with his Mum, their arms round each other as they swayed, bodies close. On the other side of the room, Zoe was chatting to Dylan, her face animated as they shared a joke. He felt a wave of love for his family fill him.
"Sometimes we get what we need, not what we deserve."
John snorted and poured himself an unhealthy shot of whisky. His eyes lighted on Yvonne and he brightened up. "Is that Yvonne Atkins?"
"I knew her Charlie. Professionally, you might say."
Calum recognised the gleam in his eye. "She came with a young bloke," he cautioned.
"Well, never send a boy to do a man's job," John said. "Is there any mistletoe anywhere?"
Calum pointed silently at the archway in the middle of the living room. The cluster of leaves and white berries hung down, stark against the rest of the decorations. John grinned and adjusted his coat, handing him the glass. "You might want to take notes, kid."
Calum winced as John crossed the room and stopped in front of Yvonne.
"Hello, darling. Long time no see."
Yvonne sat back in her chair and looked him up and down with undisguised contempt. "Hello, copper. Not long enough."
"Ex-copper. Don't give me that, Yvonne. Last time we met, you made me a bacon sandwich."
"You mean you ate Charlie's breakfast from off his plate while your knuckle draggers turned the house upside down looking for stuff that you knew was in a lock up somewhere. Not in my bloody living room. And you asked for bleeding brown sauce!"
She frowned, pretending to try and think. "I don't remember. Was that a kosher warrant or one of your dodgy fishing expeditions?"
John shrugged. "Come on, Yvonne, it was all part of the game. You know that. Someone like Charlie, he accepted it as an occupational hazard. The odd police raid early in the morning. He liked it. Kept him on his toes."
"My Lauren didn't think much of it. She had nightmares for weeks."
"Maybe so. You think I enjoyed that part of my job? The fallout for the kids? Course I didn't. I am human, you know."
"I'll believe that when you prove it," Yvonne said. She stood up. "I think it's time for me to move before I do something I regret and upset my hosts. There's a bad smell around here and I don't like it much."
"Can't we let bygones be bygones? Kiss and make up? I always thought you were a very attractive woman. Not like some of these young birds. All front. You always had a bit more about you."
"Don't think so," Yvonne said. "I haven't had my rabies shots updated lately."
She moved away from him, placing herself squarely under the mistletoe. John stepped in, smiling, and put his hands on her waist. "Christmas tradition. Got to be done."
Afterwards, Calum worked out that he had probably got away with it because Yvonne had been too startled to react in time. He planted a lingering kiss on her lips. Calum saw Yvonne's eyes widen and then winced as she slapped John so hard that it resounded through the room, bringing a momentary stop to the conversation.
Denny's exuberant comment of "Go for it, Mum!" echoed in the pause, then everyone did the British thing of pretending that the incident hadn't happened, and the murmur of talk resumed. Calum watched as Yvonne stood, challenge in every line of her body, hands on her hips, and shook his head as John touched the rapidly reddening patch on his cheek and shrugged, smiling at Yvonne.
"Still worth it," he said. Calum wondered resignedly if being that stupid was your fate if you had a Y chromosome. John wandered over and took the glass out of his hand, draining it before pouring himself another generous slug of spirit.
"Have to wear her down, that's all. Still, anything worth having is worth working for."
Pat hit the key code combination that let her into the building, and walked straight through to Nikki's office, cheerfully greeting the staff as she passed through the main area. Once she got to the glass-walled room, she rapped on the door, which was closed for once. Nikki, who was sitting at her desk watching something on her computer, waved her in. Pat moved behind her to see what it was, catching the end of the message.
On screen, Calum's laughing features grew serious as he looked into the webcam. "So give my love to everyone, and tell Mam I'm being careful. It's not like they tell it on the news, and Steveo sticks to me closer than glue. Now, he is fucking scary. Broke up a fight in the food line single-handed last week. They call him 'asesino en la sombra' round here. He looks out for all of us. I'll get home for my wedding, Mum. I promise."
"He's OK, then," Pat said softly.
"Yeah," Nikki said. "He'll have to get a proper job when he settles down, though. Tamsin won't have it any other way."
"He should be able to write his own ticket with all the voluntary projects he's run," Pat said.
"I hope so," Nikki said. "Anyway, how did Dylan's graduation go?"
Pat grinned, unable to hide her delight. "He looked good in the robes. Who'd have thought it, a son of mine getting a degree?"
"They surprise you," Nikki said indulgently. "Did you and Sheena have a good time afterwards?"
"Yeah. Five years. It's worth celebrating." She looked thoughtful. "Aren't you two coming up to your twentieth?"
"Depends how you measure it."
Pat snorted. "Which means you're planning to celebrate all of them. You do like living dangerously."
Nikki smiled back. "She's getting used to it. Besides, the make up sex is great."
"OK," Nikki said. "Wade Enterprises has missed your input. I've got maybe fifteen new projects since you left for your holiday, and I'm meeting Helen for lunch. You up for some brainstorming?"
Pat Kerrigan grinned. "Anytime," she said.
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