Return to Sender
Today, thought Yvonne, must be one of the most bleeding upside down days I've ever had but for once the spirit in her felt that there is hope for the future. She'd now got an assignment from Karen to nobble those bleeding aliens from Lynfords from coming onto her patch, their patch, and fast. She also had the first feelings of tenderness and warmth that was for her as much as she gave out that was making her feel whole and new. Catch Yvonne Atkins going soft, she gently and smilingly chided herself.
It was a few days after she had had a heart to heart talk with Karen but somehow, her life was involved with other prisoners' problems and she had not seen much of Karen except the odd smile in passing while she went on her official duties. When she had time for herself, she had been alone in her cell and had been in one of those 'down' moods that she got for no good reason that she could explain. That was the story of her life. Part of the time, she wanted so much for time to deal with her own problems and when she had that time, she almost wished that she had some sort of distraction away from herself. Opening up to Karen about that night that she had done her best to obliterate from her mind seemed to unearth a lot of ugly memories that part of her wanted to see buried. There seemed to be no way out of this trap.
If she looked back to before she came to Larkhall, she was always the happy go lucky kind of women who had too much going in her own life for things to get her down. She had her job in charge of the bookie's which took up enough of her energies, she had Lauren around at home and Charlie whom she thought she loved. Even now, she feels like a fish out of water, that's the trouble no matter what she tries to fill her life up with. There's too much time alone to brood, even for Yvonne Atkins. She would never tell one of the girls to 'snap out of it' if she same across one of the Julies looking like she felt. That would be the sort of thing Charlie might say but not her as she knows that it doesn't work and, in fact makes things worse.
A train of thought took her to remembering her long conversation with Karen that day and a feeling of tenderness and understanding went out to the woman who was somewhere around on G Wing even though she couldn't see her through these prison walls. It was the first time that she had seen behind the official uniform and the manner which went with it. She had always known that Karen Betts was for real and that there wasn't just a rank addressing her. There was a lot more in common between the two of them than she ever thought and it seemed natural to comfort her, call her 'sweetheart' which she'd never ever called Charlie. He didn't want some woman going soft on him and she had partly adopted the hard exterior from him when she became an Atkins. Something in her told herself that there were other ways of living and being and the touch of Karen's shoulder seemed the natural way of being with her.
It also told her what an out and out bastard Fenner was, not with the rest of the girls, not with Dockley and Rachel Hicks but Karen as well. He'd better not ever try anything of that while she's around or he's going to have to go to hospital for a dick replacement operation. She laughed to herself a bit, going all protective for Karen.
At that moment, her cell door burst open and the woman whom she was most in her thoughts jumped into existence before her eyes. Karen's face was flushed and she sounded out of breath.
"Yvonne, I want you to help me out. it's important."
"Sure, Karen." Yvonne could remember saying automatically. Normally, her cast iron rule was to ask to see the other person's cards first and to not make blind promises. She broke this lifetime habit without even thinking about it.
"There's going to be an official presentation of the dream machine wheelchair for Buki's son Lennox "
"You what," Yvonne cut in, incredulously.
"It's not that in itself that I'm bothered about, Yvonne." Karen explained with a touch of impatience."There is bound to be some sort of handover ceremony. What gets to me is that this circus is designed as a PR job to sell Lynford Securities to the Prison Service so that they can bloody walk in and take over like you've seen them starting to do. You can take it from me that they have done sod all to help in this matter, it's been the hard work of the women on G Wing that have made this wheelchair." Karen explained passionately. Yvonne noted with extreme interest the way Karen referred to them as 'women', not 'prisoners' or 'cons' and that endeared her to Yvonne.
"Anyway, the presentation has been scheduled. It's taking place here in Larkhall. In the gardens. Christopher Biggins, the patron of Kids on Wheels UK will be attending to accept the chair on Lennox's behalf."
"First anyone's known about this." Yvonne asked with a slight edge to her voice.
"You're getting a taste of the new regime of what is to come if we let it. Neither have the Prison Officers known anything of what I'm telling you now. Lynfords, aided and abetted by Grayling plan to treat everyone like mushrooms." Karen added acidly.
"What do you mean?" Yvonne asked, trying to get her head round this puzzle.
"Feed everyone a load of shit and keep them in the dark." Karen replied shortly.
Yvonne smiled broadly as this was a gag she had never heard of before and one coming from Karen's lips showed her as having the same sense of humour.
"So why are you talking now?" Yvonne enquired fully expecting a straight answer.
"Because, like a good Wing Governor, I've been fighting this tooth and nail strictly according to the rules from the inside, by going through proper channels. Only I'm clearly getting marginalised now and will probably be out of a job. I'm being told what is going on with no chance to give my opinions, for or against anything in this dump. So I've decided that if playing according to the rules doesn't work, then it's about time in my life that I learned to break a few rules, and to do it without any guilt, any hang ups but to do it with pleasure." Karen finished with a broad grin.
That's the person I've been looking all my life for, Yvonne thought triumphantly. Someone who thinks the same way, feels the same way and who I was made to be with.
"And where do you want me to come in on this?" Yvonne asked with a poker face.
"It's going to be quite an event. I know Bostock is hoping to attract a lot of publicity for his company. It would be a great shame if anything were to go wrong. Only be careful, Yvonne as I'm still responsible for the Prison Officers and there are limits to what I can do. You know that, Yvonne." Karen finished, looking deep into Yvonne's eyes who took in her depths and expressiveness
"You talk to the rest of the women and tell me what you've come up with." Karen asked Yvonne softly.
"And what other rules do you think we ought to break, Karen." Yvonne asked with a smile while the speed rush of Karen's talking was mysteriously slowed by the look in Yvonne's eyes which held Karen there.
"I've got to be going now but for now "Karen stopped her face only inches away from Yvonne.
Then the bleeding unimaginable happened to her that Karen softly and gently pressed her full lips against Yvonne's . After the first split second shock of surprise, Yvonne gave herself to the taste and feel of the woman next to her with no sense of surprise and the video in her head of her accustomed responses was instantly shut off. For a little while, Karen's relentless need to hurry was suspended in time .This was the first real taste of physical softness and gentleness next to her. Yvonne knew where the hole in her life was that she was struggling to name in her more depressed moods and this moment answered Karen's soul searching which up till now she had only been able to tell her computer about..
It was all bright and sunny on the day that was designed to launch Lynfords Securities as the caring, sharing face of the modernised prison service. The tired old, underfunded public sector obviously needed a fresh injection of private enterprise funding and a more entrepreneurial spirit, so the Home Office minister had decided on a sample selection of the underperforming prisons. Larkhall had attracted his attention with the run of bad publicity that had cropped up over the years so he had been eager to let the local Area management have the go ahead on that one.
The sun smiled down on Yvonne as she filed into the exercise yard. She could do with something to lift her spirits as she was gambling everything on the future of all of them, including Karen Betts and the more principled Prison Officers. A little of Yvonne's past came back to her thoughts when she truly believed in the "us versus then","screws versus the cons." She shook her head thinking how times have changed that all the rigid barriers had melted away bringing together Karen and her as allies, then friends and then that unexpected kiss. She shook away her daydreams and fantasies and focussed her mind on the here and now. Behind her, Denny slouched into place prepared to be bored out of her brains. The psychotic Al McKenzie made an unlikely companion, stood side by side by the very proper Babs. The two Julius smiled ready to pose for any photographers who came their way.The rest of the more compliant prisoners shuffled their way indecisively into place, prepared to passively accept as consumers what was put forward in front of them. The more determined spirits of G wing, well primed by Yvonne what to do were waiting for the nod to spring into action.
The drab grey colourless exercise yard was more festive and colourful in all its centuries of grim service thanks to the display stand for Kids on Wheels and the festive balloons. The logo "Every single chair shows how much we care" proclaimed the heartfelt intentions of the charity. Christopher Biggins had penned these lines himself in a sincere effort to move people to give to charity in the same way as his performances on many a theatrical stage had moved a paying audience. The trouble was these frightful charlatans he was landed with who were like some sleasy second hand car salesmen. He was beginning to wonder what he was letting himself in for not to say the charity.
Grayling had turned out early, safely monopolising the company of Fenner, Eric Bostock and Christopher Biggins but at a noticable standoffish distance away from Karen. Fenner stood around, smugly counting down the days to when the Wing governor job was his and Betts was out of Larkhall for good. The glittering prize was almost within his grasp. It was only a matter of time. Eric Bostock allowed himself a faint smile as everything had gone better than he had expected since he first came here. The names of those who would be surplus to requirements had been written down in his little black book and those left would provide the core structure which he could build on. There were enough lads in other prisons who would jump to it and move down as their lord and master demanded. Grayling's cold opportunist eyes merely saw it as good PR material so that when Lynfords finally took over, his position was safe and secure, the Larkhall to be, his face on the front page and his career well and truly launched.
At a nod from Grayling, Christopher Biggins took the microphone for his lengthy address to the growing throng including the attentive and eager press lenses and notebooks at the ready held by the hardened pressmen.
Karen's conscious mind separated herself away from that minimum necessary to follow what Christopher Biggins was saying and was all eyes on Yvonne and the group around her. She had agreed to Yvonne's plan as simple and effective- indeed it was far better than anything she had come up with on her own. She did not doubt Yvonne's very commanding and resourceful personality but she remembered hearing from Helen Stewart about the riot that had taken place when the combination of all the natural leaders in G wing, including Nikki Wade, had not stopped what was planned as a peaceful non violent protest from going disastrously wrong. She had given the instructions for G wing officers with a straight face and feelings of misgiving.
"We'll show Lynfords how an event like this is properly run," Karen had finished with a straight face, avoiding Mark's eye as he echoed her response which was flung in the face of a studiously bored Fenner.
Get a grip of yourself Karen, she told herself. If things run their course, Sylvia, Di Barker, Ken and above all herself will be out of a job. Only that bastard Fenner with that alien android Eric Bostock will be there, training up a load of men transferred in from Lynford's empire and they will be running the show, oh yes with their precious CCTV cameras. It will be a nasty, cheap brutal operation and the women on the wing will suffer including all those to come. It's not the rightness of the plan you're worried but whether this protest will work.
The slick PR operation ran its course and Karen exchanged a contemptuous glance with Yvonne when Grayling took centre stage between Phyl and Bev for the photo shoot and announces their transfer to an open prisoner . He looks as if he was born to be the other side of a photolens and his spontaneous pose was perfectly planned. The humble assistants in the making of the dream machine were not exactly pleased to be bit part actors, not even paid before being dismissed from the set but, once Yvonne gave the signal, they were going to gatecrash the Lynfords Twentieth Century Fox film conception with their own performance.
Yvonne, loitering near the back of the crowd of G wing prisoners, took up the best position to see everything and be ready for action. In one confused flash of movement, the dream machine was pushed full pelt in the direction of the greenhouse with a wailing sound from Christopher Biggins trailing behind him.
"All right, Mark you get the remaining prisoners banged up." Karen performed her Wing Governor role to perfection, dealing with an emergency routine to perfection to apparently restrict the numbers who could get pulled into the protest whereas in reality she wanted to remove as many of the prisoners from the scene that might be caught up in any mayhem.
"All right, that's enough. The party's over." Grayling called out furiously. He wanted the press to be swiftly removed so that there would be no prisoners 'playing to the gallery.' "I must insist that you leave the premises."
"Neil, is this wise?" Karen called out, white with anger. "You're going to land yourself on the front page of the Sun for no good reason, and not on Page 3 ."
"Don't worry, Neil there's Karen Betts Voice of the People to help us out." Bostock's cold evil voice enraged Karen.
Fenner had leapt to the breach cajoling and persuading a bunch of the press to move out through the two set of gates to the car park at the front. Needless to say, Colin Hedges and others of Fenner's other hangers on helped him out.
"All right, Neil, be it on your head. Not everything gets as controlled as you like it. Hope Area find tomorrow's newspapers interesting reading." Karen retorted with as much assumed nonchalence as she could muster. She felt like a spare part the wrong side of the barricades.
Shit, thought Yvonne, that's part of the plan up the spout as she saw the press and the other prisoners dispersed leaving the Prison Officers grouped outside. There was only one card to play and that was a very scared looking Christopher Biggins.
"You do what you're going to do and get me out of here as soon as you can." He spoke in a cultured voice that outposhed Charlotte Middleton.
He thinks that a load of violent women prisoners are going to slit his throat as soon as look at him, poor guy, Yvonne thought compassionately. We have to win him over..
"Listen, ladies. A bit of respect, yeah and give him a bit of space." Her commanding personality immediately resulted in the tight grip on him being loosened.
"I'm Yvonne Atkins," she said extending her hand forward which Christopher Biggins found himself shaking.
"This presentation is for Buki Lester's son Lennox and we've not nothing against you doing the presenting bit for Kids on Wheels. If this was all the presentation was about, none of us would lay a finger on you but those bastards at the top that were hovering round you are using you and your charity to privatise this prison so half the screws who are decent get shipped out and they bring in some animals to replace them. Shit conditions for us and no hope for the future." Yvonne's voice was hoarse and throaty with all the conviction in her voice that she could muster."
The insightful actor within Christopher Biggins responded immediately to the obvious sincerity of this warm hearted woman whom he couldn't help believing. There was something about her that could be dangerous but he didn't feel threatened by her.
"We can't exactly lobby the local council or have a one to one with our MP. So you're the best way of us getting out."Yvonne reasoned.
"Between you and me, Yvonne, I wouldn't trust any of them that were showing me round this place. What are you going to do next, Yvonne?" Christopher Biggins asked her, taking in the friendly faces of the 2 Julies, the ultra respectable Babs and even Denny was basically just a nice kid underneath the tattoos and combat clothes.
"This is a new one on me, Chris." Yvonne smiled, "The hostage discussing with the desperate criminals how to turn over the screws. Except that we've got to work in with the best of them for what we all want.. They ain't all like Grayling and Fenner and Bostock."
"And who are they, if you don't mind me asking."
"Karen Betts, Wing Governor, for one. She's the best."
"They're going to come to us, Yvonne. And you're going to have to tell them what you want out of them before you set me free."
"Now we've got rid of the press, we can get those troublemakers banged up." Eric Bostock triumphantly exclaimed.
"Hold on a minute, Neil, this man doesn't run the prison .."
"Not yet, Karen." Bostock butted in.
"As of this moment, the Home Office own and run this prison, Neil. And this man," Karen gestured to Bostock, not wanting to dignify him by as much as a name." Is technically and legally a civilian visitor."
"That's right, Karen. So I'm in charge." Grayling glared, his lips pursed and drawn in."And I make the decisions round here."
"And don't forget that we have another civilian visitor, Christopher Biggins, for whose safety we are responsible and there will be hell to pay if he gets hurt not to mention a bad press." Karen jumped in with an angry tone in her voice."Perhaps you had better talk to them and at least find out what their plans are and what they want of us."
"So that we can roll over and let that mob have what they want." Fenner snapped.
"I mean, in a similar way to when Helen Stewart and I got you out of the cell when Shell Dockley stabbed you with a broken bottle and we saved your life though goodness knows I wonder why we ever bothered."
Karen fired back with a lethal dose of pure venom and hatred that made Fenner flinch..
"I agree with you, Karen." Grayling glared. He was clearly not used handling this sort of situation but the force of argument pushed him into it. That alone was something that made him petulent and peevish that his personal space was being crowded. He was right out in the open and was highly conscious of this. All eyes were upon him and his reputation was at stake
"All right, Atkins, we want to hear from you just what this is all about. You have precisely fourteen seconds to talk," Came Grayling's voice loud and clear as he stood at the head of the massed gathering outside.
"As much as that, Ju?" Julie Saunders said with contempt. It was typical of the fussy pedantic 'time is money' approach that he had to spell out the time. Any other human being would have gone for a nice round fifteen or thirty seconds, she thought, as Yvonne opened the window.
"We might be locked up Grayling, but we're not idiots. Privatising Larkhall will make this place a whole lot worse. And we don't want it. And we don't want that pillock here taking over as our Governor," Yelled Yvonne defiantly. "I tell you what we want and it's dead simple. Nobody moves out of here till Lynford Securities drop their bid," Yvonne finished emphatically.
"You'll regret your irresponsible behaviour, every last one of you," yelled Grayling. "We do not give way to blackmail."
Nor do you 'give way' to anything that isn't in your self interest, said both the expression on Karen's face and her innermost thoughts. Of course, if he faces a reasonable demand that doesn't suit his narrow self interest, a self centred man like that doesn't want to know, she reflected bitterly, and then send in the Boot Boys, that is being really original.
"You may end up sitting pretty in some posh head office but I don't reckon much for the chances of the rest of your screws."
Yvonne's shrewd counter stroke made Grayling's gaze waver, Karen grin to herself and her sideways glance at the massed ranks of the prison officers had its effect on them, unhappily not enough. Steeped as they were in the mental straitjacket of the Prison Service, they were only made to feel uncomfortable and angry. There were too many moral cowards amongst them who had given Fenner his power long ago who were angered by the defiant woman dressed in black leather armed with the boldness and courage that they lacked.
Karen's own frustrated impotence was not really caused by the same underlying pull of institutional ties but in a totally different direction. If only she had her way, she would have scattered this pack of vultures to the four winds, but she was stuck in her role as a Wing Governor with all her responsibilities but not with the ultimate power Grayling enjoyed but was misusing for his own ends. Her heart and sympathies were, more than ever, on the other side.
"Why don't you let Karen Betts have a go and keep the mob quiet?" Bostock cynically muttered out of the corner of his inexpressive mouth.
"I have no negotiating position. I'm not about to utter a load of meaningless platitudes that mean nothing and offer nothing even though you've made a career out of it," Came Karen's curt response as she stared at Bostock while her words were half directed at Grayling.
"Can you at least try and keep the peace and ensure order?" Grayling sighed wearily, one of his headaches coming on with full force.
As Karen squared up to talk to the prisoners, Grayling said a few words in Fenner's ear who promptly sidled off discreetly along and led a number of prison officers at the back of the crowd into the prison complex.
"Yvonne, you know that I haven't the authority to negotiate with you about the Lynfords takeover," Karen spoke out with as strong a spirit as she could summon up and discreetly indicating her feelings on the subject. "All I'm asking of you in the meantime is that everything's in order where you are and that Christopher Biggins is unharmed."
"You have the word of an Atkins on this. Haven't you, girls."
"I'm grateful for this. Nice place you've chosen for a sit in. Very botanical," Karen joked.
"Room service isn't all it could be, Karen."
While the banter was lobbed back and forth between the two of them, unknown to both of them, Fenner silently led the way along a little used corridor. With his long experience of every nook and cranny of Larkhall, he came to a solid door, which led into the back of the greenhouse area.
"They should be nearly there, Neil, unless they've messed it up," Bostock muttered to Grayling.
"Got you, Atkins," Fenner yelled triumphantly, as the bolts slid back and the long shut door opened with a crunching sound of wood grating sideways against concrete. Immediately, they swarmed into the confined space.
"What are you playing at, Karen?" Yvonne yelled, her eyes harrowed with hard suspicion.
"Not my doing, Yvonne. I play straight," Karen openly broke ranks at last. There was a brief flash of recognition before she turned to face the enemy.
In the first few minutes, it was clear that the prisoner's will to resist was stronger than Fenner had first thought when Al, Denny and the 2 Julies joined and also he had sprung the trap too soon. They pitched into the prison officers with all the fury of people defending their hard won freedom, of their place they could call their own because of power being temporarily in their hands for a part of Larkhall they would have hardly looked twice at, only a greenhouse after all.
Fenner's contorted triumphant expression lasted only as long as Yvonne dodged his first blow and she grabbed hold at the symbol of all she had hated and despised in all her passionate life in a life and death tussle. In an unguarded moment of his, Yvonne kneed him hard to hit him in the groin and he doubled up groaning on the floor. In the meantime, the other prison officers ran back into the corridor.
"Get that bloody door shut," Yelled Yvonne.
Immediately, Denny and Al pushed the door shut and leaned against it with all their weight as an improvised obstacle.
"I'm going in here on my own, Neil. Might do a better job with diplomacy, only don't play any more games, not with me, not with Christopher Biggins and not the prisoners. People don't like being conned, you know."
After Karen threw her words of accusation in Grayling's face, she strode purposefully to the outside door to the greenhouse just as Babs slid the bolts to let her in.
"Not before bleeding time, Karen," Came Yvonne's welcome in her characteristic tough/tender fashion.
"Fancy talking to the press, Yvonne?" Karen smiled.
"Yeah, and a photo op with OK magazine and a room at the Hilton with room service," Came the caustic reply. Underneath she wondered how the down to earth Karen that she knew was being hopelessly unrealistic.
"Yvonne, here's my mobile and I've got the phone number of the London Evening standard that I put on for some reason I don't remember. You tell it how it is. Go ahead, Yvonne. I'm giving you a direct order as your Wing Governor or is an Atkins doing scared for the first time in her life?" Karen's playful humour was accompanied by occasional groans from Fenner as he lay on the floor and brought a confident grin to Yvonne's face. If she could handle life in Larkhall, then this should be a pushover.
"You tell them, Yvonne," Julie Saunders flush faced from the recent scrap, egged her on.
"Perhaps you ought to go nearer to the window for an outside broadcast," Karen helpfully advised while Babs still more helpfully opened the greenhouse window.
"Yvonne Atkins here. Am I talking to the newsdesk of the London evening Standard?" her stentorian voice carried through to the courtyard to the crowd outside.
"How the devil did Atkins get hold of a mobile?" Bostock's monotone escaped past his expressionless lips as they rushed over close to the greenhouse windows. "Do something to sort this mess out, Neil. Show some muscle."
"Oh you'd be surprised at what goes on here, Mr Bostock," Came Karen's maddeningly bland reply.
"Karen Betts, get that mobile off Atkins," Yelled Grayling with quite unnecessary volume, visibly sweating that the PR machine was being mercilessly ranged against him, This was a situation that Area would be bound to hear of something that he couldn't lie about or cover up.
"Sorry Neil, but I can't see what prison rule Yvonne Atkins is breaking. I'd be exceeding my authority especially that Larkhall Prison is now on the air."
"Yeah, I'm talking from the inside of the greenhouse at Larkhall Prison. That's L A R K H A L L., make sure you spell it right," Proclaimed Yvonne grinning broadly at Grayling and Bostock dying of pure embarrassment, "You're asking what the prisoners demands are? Well, it's quite simple. Nothing really for us like extra spends, that's sort of wages, or extra visits from the women's nearest and dearest. We just want a firm called Lynfords Security off our patch. Once we get this assurance which the Governing Governor and Bostock, the head of Larkhall who are just the other side of the greenhouse windows, then we're only too happy to release Christopher Biggins who's been well treated "
" I have been. The ladies have been just fine ." Christopher Biggins stage voice was projected with ease into the mobile.
" and we'd be happy to go back to our cells," Yvonne concluded in her most convincingly innocent manner."
Yvonne paused while she listened to the next question and every ear was listening closely. Karen sat back smiling, more relaxed than she had ever been since she had come through the door, away from backup and apparent safety.
"There should be no reprisals, especially as our protest will save the screws, I mean prison officers, half of whom will be given the push by those load of privatising sharks. You know, CCTV cameras all over the place, they're up there already so you can't go to the loo without one of their lot watching us. Stands to reason that they won't need half of them and that's the way they'll scam the taxpayer," Yvonne finished to Karen's strong nod of approval. Yvonne had used her eyes and ears well and had done everyone proud, including her.
"This is a disaster," moaned Eric Bostock as he could see the banner headlines and the profits graph marked by a jagged downward turn with him nailed at the shareholder's annual general meeting as the scapegoat. "You can stick your prison. I'm pulling out."
"Can I quote you on that, Mr Bostock? I have quoted you right that 'Lynfords are dropping their bid.'" Yvonne's sharp ears hadn't missed a word.
"You can hear perfectly well. And now, are you going to end this lawless behaviour?" the peevish side of Grayling came to the fore.
"You only had to say earlier on, Mr Grayling," Yvonne replied in her most irritatingly reasonable manner. "All the girls are looking forward to being locked up tonight by the screws we have, well some of them," she confessed as the vision of Bodybag as a Florence Nightingale figure stretched anyone's imagination to breaking point.
Karen's wide smile and easy relaxed manner was obvious for all to see as after the very bumpy start, events had unrolled their way with immaculate smoothness, thanks to the woman whose nerve and control she came to admire and rely on.
"Thanks for your mobile," Yvonne muttered as she signed off. On the other end, the grateful newsdesk had the scoop they wanted as the rest of the story was delivered miraculously into their hands by the very fluent woman with the gift of the gab whose account wrote itself. The first half of it was written and ready to roll but it needed the most vital parts of it to finish it off.
"Keep it, Yvonne. I'll talk to you after lockup. I've got some work to do late tonight. I'd better help Fenner back, not that he deserves my help or anyone else's," Karen's sarcastic tones made it clear that her assistance was bare duty and anything but pleasure.
Yvonne smiled in satisfaction and she went on ahead and made her leisurely way out of the greenhouse where they had been an eternity. They made their way past the group of prison officers whose faces were expressionless, not communicating their feelings, as enchained as any prisoner that way.
The festive balloons and displays were there but to the prisoners they were celebrating their achievement. A golden feeling of achievement coursed through the veins of all of them fading deliciously to a feeling of calm serenity. Against all the odds, they'd pulled it off although a self centred bastard like Fenner couldn't acknowledge it, as that sort of generosity was not in his nature. Thankfully, not all of them felt that way.
Fenner glowered round the dingy, untidy PO's room the evening after the sit in. He could hear cheery late night calls between the prisoners who sounded as if they had come back from a late night party. Those bitches were enjoying themselves but what it meant for him was that he was condemned for the foreseeable future to wear that, by now, hated prison officer's uniform as opposed to the smooth blue suit which he had worn for brief intervals. Just as much as that symbol of power, he craved the reality of at last being 'top dog' on G Wing, not just by intrigue and manipulation but by direct order and not to have some pushy bitch on his back.
Ken popped his head round the corner, opened the door and looked nonplussed when he saw that the room wasn't as deserted as he had first thought.
"All right, Ken," He called out hospitably to the plump PO as he hovered indecisively. "Why don't you take the weight off your legs."
"Sorry, Jim, but I've got to see a man about a dog," Ken transparently lied in return, his eyes not meeting Fenner's glare and he paced off rapidly across the foyer quicker than he was accustomed to.
"Looks like I missed all the fun, Fenner," Mark's mocking laugh broke in on his vengeful thoughts. Oh boy, the one man whom he didn't want to meet, was sprawling out expansively in the armchair. "Pity you won't be Wing Governor for Bostock's bunch of thugs seeing that the rest of your mates would be otherwise out the door. You'd better cancel the order for your hand made suit, won't you."
"You'd better remember, Waddle, just who's in charge around here. You've crawled your way up higher than you deserve but, then again, the Prison service must like wet 'do gooders' like you."
"Oh sorry, sir, Mr Fenner," And Mark gestured with his right arm in an exaggerated parody of an army parade ground salute. "I ought to treat you with the respect that you deserve, sir."
The two bitter enemies faced each other as they squared up for another bitter quarrel.
"You think you're doing fine for yourself, Waddle," Fenner sneered.
"As a matter of fact, I think I do," Mark retorted, hot headedly in reply not being aware, as he should have been for Fenner's classic 'set up' manoeuvre.
"Well, you're obviously not seeing what's right in front of your eyes, sunshine, Betts and Atkins," Fenner's withering look of contempt and pity started to make mark feel uncomfortable.
"What the hell do you mean?" Mark interjected angrily.
That's got him rattled, thought Fenner smugly. He's not doing quite a good enough job in hiding his suspicions. It's the same when I wound him up about me and Karen. He rises to the bait every time.
"Let me put it this way, waddle. I've seen Betts go in and out of Atkins' cell so often that I wondered if they were shagging but I thought, no, she's the Wing Governor on her rounds. Then I saw her at that sit in when she came through the greenhouse door so quick it was like Superwoman when she saw her lover in trouble. The signs stand out a mile." Fenner laughed triumphantly.
"You've got lesbians on the brain, Fenner. Karen told me only the other day how she found that porn magazine that turned up in her in tray."
Fenner's face darkened as Mark's verbal thrust got home and showed him to be dangerously well informed. Unfortunately, the devil looks after his own and he was never down for long.
"For your information, Waddle, it seems to go with the job description for female Wing Governors to start fancying one of the cons. Take Stewart, for example. She was once engaged to that landscape gardener who used to do jobs round here until she gave him the push and why? Because she took up with Wade."
"Nikki Wade," You're joking?" Mark scoffed.
"Do you go round Larkhall with your eyes closed? I'm trying to stop you making a bloody fool of yourself," Fenner urged, his aggressive instincts bottled down and a superficial air of apparent honesty which any famous politician would have paid good money to pick up a few tips on how to similarly project himself.
"Oh yeah, Principal Officer Fenner looking after the welfare of his troops. Right little unpaid social worker you are."
"You seriously think that Karen isn't all over you after all that .."
"You mean, after you raped her," sneered Mark. "You'd better be careful or I'll carry on from where I left off last time," Mark backed up the menace of his last remark by glancing meaningfully to a point half way down Fenner's body.
"The truth hurts, doesn't it Waddle," jeered Fenner outrageously, not having a reputation of exactly being constrained by the truth. "Face it, Betts is into women, or to be exact, one particular woman and you know it."
"The reason why I'm not arguing any more with a bastard like you, Fenner," Mark replied softly with audibly controlled anger, "is that you're just not worth damaging any further, not if I get into trouble over it. In any way, in case you've forgotten, Karen's done her best to stop our jobs being sold down the river by you and Grayling - and Yvonne Atkins and the rest of them who stuck their necks out so that our jobs are safe. I've worked up north for the brother of that bastard Bostock and I know what I'm talking about. Two of a kind. You would have had him come in, take over, for Karen and half the rest to be given the elbow and let those lot play merry hell. Your turn to wake up, Fenner, and see what's around you."
At that point, Mark stepped forward very close to Fenner. There was an ugly tension in the air and a real possibility that a fight was about to start. Just in time, Mark's eyes looked away from Fenner, and a short sharp laugh came from his lips, much more in anger than in humour but at least it took away from that very dangerous escalation in anger that spiralled up inside Mark. This was mostly fuelled because of the man who he loathed and detested, partly because of the utter contempt of the way that Larkhall's future was so very nearly delivered into the hands of the brother of the worst boss he could ever imagine and partly because there was something in Fenner's words about Karen that he was starting to believe. This was fed by his insecurity after that disastrous encounter with Karen which was starting to make it all too believable and also because Fenner had always been able to get under his skin.
"Notice board needs a tidy up," Mark's choked voice attempted a thin very partial covering of nonchalance. "Like this notice of Lynfords. We don't need this crap about the latest revised terms of conditions, that 'the present staffing levels are due to be reviewed in terms of current needs' and that 'surplus staff will be notified in person in due course' That lot are history now."
And with that, he removed the drawing pin and held the notice in his hands while staring at Fenner's face as it was his turn to go red in the face and give off those dangerous signals of barely suppressed violence. Some instinct in him chanced his luck as if he were a tightrope walker and he casually and very slowly ripped the notice into two and grasped the long fragments of paper and deliberately tore them into quarters.
"There you are, Fenner. Looks a lot tidier now," He smirked, his dangerous anger starting to subside, as he knew that he had needled Fenner in the most wounding way possible. His breath came in and out in short, rapid gasps for air and the adrenaline inside him was still pumping round his body. Some voice within him pulled at him by the arm to tell him that he had pushed his luck and the situation quite far enough and that he ought to back off away and out of it.
"My shift's over today, mate. I'm going for a drink to the Social Club to celebrate. See you tomorrow, unless you fancy a career move," Taunted Mark as he turned to leave.
"I'm staying right here, Waddle," Fenner growled. "I reckon that Betts and Atkins will be celebrating. Just think of that one."
Mark's smile faded as he left the PO's room to join the lads for a beer or two, to where he felt secure. Despite the relationships in his past, night out with the lads was a fixed part of his world from his teens onwards. In his time of social isolation at Bradgate, that was what had hurt him as much as anything and made him feel less of a man than he was used to.
"I don't care what you say, Karen, the perpetrators of that disgraceful exhibition are going to be punished. If we do nothing, then all respect for the prison officers will fly out the window," Grayling yelled in anger at Karen.
I bloody well know why he's got a petulant strop on, fumed Karen. It's because they put a spoke in his wheel to get his longed for job at area so he need not concern himself with such mundane details as locking up prisoners. I simply cannot let Yvonne and the others be severely punished when I put Yvonne up to it in the first place or at the very least, influenced her to do it. This is my responsibility and I have to at the very least minimise the punishment.
"You could say that the sit in was a gesture of support for the prison staying in the prison service, maybe for the prison officers themselves. After all, Christopher Biggins was well looked after. Instead of the shaken up man whom I expected to find, in fear of his life, I was on the scene first and he sang the praises of the prisoners. It is likely as a medium profile actor that he will continue to take an interest in the outcome of the prisoners."
"So what do you suggest? Give them privileges for breaking half the rules in the book?" Grayling shouted at the infuriating woman whose nonchalantly defiant tones tied him up in knots. He was absolutely sure that she was at the bottom of all the mayhem but he couldn't prove it.
"Well, you know how resourceful the prisoners are. There have been letters to the Guardian which have caused acute embarrassment. This will be splashed all over the news," Karen said gravely, suppressing a big grin and making a mental note to buy up all tomorrow's papers and watch the late night news. "It's not beyond the more resourceful of our prisoners to get in touch with the press and the headlines, pillory you as being vindictive and possibly secretly in league with Lynfords. The harder you come down on them, the more certain it will be that you will be named and shamed by the press. I hardly think that Area will thank you for that."
Grayling winced and put his hands to his head as if he were suffering from an acute headache. His love of the press made it all the easier for him to conjure up the press headlines.
"So what do you suggest, Karen? Have you anything positive to offer me in the way out of this PR disaster?" Grayling demanded sarcastically.
"I suggest that you impose punishments as in breach of good order but to make them as light as possible. Say, something like a halving in spends for two weeks and two weeks loss of remission but that if anyone kicks off or misbehaves at this show of clemency, they will be punished to the limit of what the rule book allows. You may as well own up to acknowledging in public exactly why they acted as they did and show that you accept that they have some intelligence," Karen argued forcefully.
Grayling looked glazed eyed for a moment as his devious mind always operated in layering what was said as against what he was scheming to achieve. Total transparency took him totally by surprise.
"I'll announce this tomorrow, Karen. The ringleaders had better realise, Karen," And Grayling looked hard and accusingly into Karen's eyes and not pretending to be subtle, "that if there is any further misbehaving, I'll come down on them like a ton of bricks and whoever is responsible will be punished ruthlessly."
Karen gave a deep sigh of relief as the good news sank in. She made her exit politely and made her way home, ready to give Yvonne the good news.
Scene Twenty One (Karen)
When Karen reached home, she poured a large glass of scotch, lit a cigarette and reached for the phone. It would be odd talking to Yvonne, illicitly, after hours so to speak. But since Bostock's lot had started wandering round her wing without a by your leave, little insignificant rules like this one didn't mean anything to her any more. She'd gambled with the freedom of some of the inmates, she knew that. But luckily, her gamble had paid off. Would Yvonne still have been so ready to banish the barrier between con and screw if the gamble had failed? She just didn't know. But there it was the whole point of why she was now about to phone Yvonne, on her own mobile of all things. Karen knew enough of the ways of people to be pretty sure what was happening between them, but that didn't mean she didn't have her uncertainties about it. If a relationship, above that of con and screw and even that of friends, was really developing between them, it was going to be an entirely new experience for both of them. If Karen could be utterly certain of one thing, it was that both she and Yvonne had been as straight as you could get until now, neither of them ever having contemplated treading the other road to fulfillment.
After having been locked in her cell, Yvonne removed the tiny mobile from her trouser pocket, briefly lifting it to her nose when she caught the faintest trace of Karen's perfume. That subtle, simple smell made her whole body tingle. Yvonne wasn't stupid, she knew exactly what was happening to her, just what she was beginning to feel for this woman. Karen wasn't just a screw any more, she couldn't even say she was just a friend. Something was happening between them, something frightening, exciting and altogether new. Turning her attention back to the phone, she immediately switched it on to vibro-alert, because she didn't want Fenner or Waddle or even Bodybag coming up here at the sound of a ringing phone. Being the vaguely nosy cow she knew she was, she briefly scrolled through Karen's address book seeing just whose numbers she felt it important to keep. Mark, Fenner, Ross, that must be her son, and Jesus, even Ritchie's number was still there. It had shocked Yvonne to see her son's name there, displayed in all its electronic glory, but he had been a part of Karen's life and she had to face that. Putting the mobile under her pillow, where any self-respecting screw would never try to find it, she simply waited. She knew that Karen would probably be hauled up in front of Grayling for this afternoon's fiasco, so she was quite prepared to pass the time. But her thoughts kept returning to Karen, to the talk they'd had not so long ago when they'd exchanged so many deeply held confidences, and to the day Karen had kissed her. That had been a very innocent, but at the same time exquisitely sensual gesture. It had been like the feather-light touch of pure silk on bare skin, like the gentle caress of the early morning sun on her face. Jesus, she was getting way too poetic in her old age. Is this what her emerging feelings for Karen were doing to her? They were making Yvonne Atkins go soft, and that was almost unthinkable. Yvonne paced her cell for a while, trying to reconcile herself to the realisation that she was in love with another woman. Yvonne Atkins, the straightest woman in the business, was having erotic thoughts about one of her own sex. When she realised that Karen's talk with Grayling, however fraught, must be over by now, she tucked the phone down inside her bra so that she wouldn't miss its alert. This simple action brought back fond memories of the time they'd set up Babes Behind Bars. Even though Julie J had taken it way too far, it had been a laugh for a while. When she eventually felt the "buzz buzz", of the phone against her skin, she knew it was time, time to get everything out in the open.
"Well, well," Said Yvonne in greeting, "this is nice."
"I thought you might like to know in advance what I manage to verbally bash out of Grayling."
"How did it go?"
"No more shouting than I really expected. I was able, with the odd threat about the press, to make him see that throwing the book at the lot of you would only serve to fan the flames. So, you're all getting halved spends for two weeks, and two weeks loss of remission. How does that sound?"
"I'm impressed," Said Yvonne dryly. "Well done."
"Well, I didn't think I'd be very popular if he decided to give you all a week down the block."
"No, probably not," Conceded Yvonne. Then, after a moment's pause, she said, "that isn't really why you left your phone with me, was it. News of my punishment could easily have waited till tomorrow."
"I think we need to talk," Karen said a little awkwardly. "The other day, I shouldn't have kissed you like I did. I'm sorry." Yvonne could hear the mixture of regret and embarrassment in Karen's tone and immediately sought to assuage it.
"Don't be sorry," Yvonne pleaded gently.
"But I thought," Said Karen in amazement.
"That women really weren't my thing?" Filled in Yvonne. "Yeah, so did I. But with you, it's different."
"Why?" Asked Karen, the broad smile all too evident in her voice.
"I don't know," Said Yvonne thoughtfully. "You make me feel good, about myself I mean. This place, it takes away everything you ever liked about yourself, but you've given some of that back to me." Karen was deeply touched by such a level of sentiment coming from someone she'd, up until recently, thought of as hard as nails.
"You did something similar to me too," Karen eventually said. "You reminded me what it was like to feel attractive again, to feel like a normal human being again." Yvonne knew Karen was referring to the talk they'd had in her office.
"When you kissed me," Said Yvonne in wonder, "That was the sexiest thing anyone's done to me for a long time." Karen laughed huskily.
"You and me both," She said in response. "I don't really know where it came from, it just felt right."
"So," Said Yvonne after a moment, "What the hell do we do about this?"
"See where it goes," Replied Karen. "This is as new to me as it is to you."
A while later when they said goodbye, before switching the phone off, Yvonne again scrolled through the phone book, erasing both Fenner's and Ritchie's names and numbers, and adding her own. Sure, it would be a little while yet until Karen could call her on her home number, but maybe giving Karen her number was a sign of what might be to come.
Scene Twenty Two
The spring in Karen's step and her jaunty manner revealed a Karen with much less of the cares of the world resting on her strong but overburdened shoulders. She smiled broadly at Ken on the gate, a newspaper tucked ostentatiously under her arm to show that Larkhall had hit the news, centre stage, and for once for the good.
"You look as if you've been handed some good news, Miss Betts."
"We all have, Ken, apart from one or two people I shouldn't name. The newsagent just sold me a copy of it. Looks like you can forget about any alternative career plans you may have been worrying over."
Ken grinned back at her and he wiped the sleep from his eyes, which opened out onto the very familiar gatehouse, the usual draughty dump, which was now very dear to him.
Karen made her way directly to the PO's room, feeling a little shy to receive the cheery greetings from one prisoner after another. She felt that she didn't deserve it in comparison with what they had done. Far in the distance right up on high, the familiar black leathered shape at her familiar spot right at the top of the 3s looking down at the wing as if she had every right to. It made a dramatic impact on Karen to see her framed by the curved windows behind her, which illuminated even the dim smoky air far down below her. In place of the stern threatening expression on her face, daring the screws to challenge her physical authority, she had a broad relaxed smile on her face. Karen raised her hand to wave briefly at her and Yvonne's casual flip of her hand in return understated, as always, the real feelings inside of her. This would have been a typical brief exchange except for the thumping of Karen's heart, which told her otherwise. Yesterday's conversation opened up the light and the future between them as much as the sudden bright sunshine streaming down from the heavens above.
Mark was busy on his duties but not too busy to overlook this brief exchange. For once in his life, that conniving bastard Fenner may have been telling the truth. His mouth was set in a grim line and an unaccountable feeling of bewildering jealousy swept over him. This wasn't the Karen he knew.
With a pair of sharp scissors, Karen sliced out Page 1 and Page 4 out of the Daily Mirror where an influential paper actually broke ranks and had given them a sympathetic coverage.
'LARKHALL PRISON SAYS NO TO PRIVATISATION'
Karen grinned as that simple statement said it all and would cause Fenner and Grayling acute heartburn and eat your heart out, Sylvia, wherever you are, she added maliciously before eagerly scanning the press report, savouring and rereading every word.
"Prisoners at Larkhall staged a peaceful sit in protest at privatisation plans to hand everything over to Lynfords Security. They held hostage porridge actor, Christopher Biggins who was originally invited by management to present a motorised wheelchair to Lennox Lester, disabled son of one of the protestors, Buki Lester. The spokesman for the protestors, Yvonne Atkins, said. "Lynfords came along for the ride for cheap publicity so their bid comes out on top. They are only interested in locking us prisoners up like animals twenty-four seven and making as much money for themselves as possible. We're sorry for dragging Chris Biggins into this but we had to have something to bargain with to make management listen to us."
"The prisoners treated me like I was one of their family and I absolutely agree with everything they are fighting for," Christopher Biggins was at pains to point out.
The Chairman of Lynfords declined a full interview but confirmed that they had withdrawn their bid. A spokesman for the Prison Service made a written statement.
'It is too early to comment on where Larkhall Prison goes to now but it should undergo the process of modernisation that the rest of the public services are eagerly embracing."
"Like hell, if Lynfords are anything to go by." Karen poured scorn on the faceless apologist for all that was worst in management.
With great pleasure, she drove safety pins into the corners of the two pages in its position of pride of place and once again, cast her eyes on the flawless words that Yvonne had emblazoned on the front page. She deeply admired her nerve and commitment of the boldest spirits in Larkhall. What was it that Helen was fond of saying to her, "You can only run prisons with the Cupertino of the prisoners." This time, they had gone one better and had saved Larkhall for her and all the other prison officers. She vowed to tread hard down on any whinging backstabbing bastards there might be and put them in their place and, as for Grayling, her position was strengthened enormously. She could sense that last night from the fear for his precious position that she could smell on him. Her thoughts drifted tenderly towards the boldest and quickest thinking of them all whom she felt so strange in turning the keys on last thing at night, metaphorically speaking. Of all the men in her life, no one came close to what she represented for her and it now seemed surprising that it took so long to see her for what she was, naked of all misconceptions that she once had about her and vice versa.
"So you've come to gloat, have you. This must make you really feel good." A well remembered ugly voice gouged its way across her sensibilities from behind her. "I know that a devious bitch like you would use the cons for your little schemes. Couldn't bear it, could you, to see the lads sort them out, especially Atkins. I reckon there's a thing going on between the two of you."
"Devious? That's rich coming from you, Fenner. Just for the record, I was quite happy to send in the heavy mob to save your life after Shell stabbed you with a broken bottle. God knows why I bothered apart from professional duty," Karen's cool, scornful tones hit back dismissively, not bothering to get worked up about him."
"Well, we're all right now," Mark's voice cut in from behind. "We can all sleep a lot easier now that Lynford's lot are out of the way." Unlike his usual cheerful smile when in Karen's presence, Mark was stone faced and avoided looking at Karen. The lightning connection was made of the absence of Karen's denial of Fenner's heavy-handed insinuation of who was the keeper of Karen's affections. If there weren't anything in it, she would have confronted the bastard, the thought ran like lightning from the sharp recall of his hearing, the fine details of her appearance down the conduit to the sore resentful core of his jealousy. Even the pleasant news that there would not be a Bostock in his life tasted like ashes in his mouth as his suspicions turned into certainties.
"We've got a lot to thank the prisoners for," Karen's remained unruffled, speaking persuasively in her even tones. "A lot of us would be out on our ear."
"What's going to happen to them, that's what I want to know. Starting a riot "
" ..That was the best behaved demonstration I've seen, Jim."
" kidnapping a distinguished visitor, causing an affray. We ought to throw the book at them and keep them banged up down the block for a month and lose their spends. Even Stewart threw the book at them after the last time they kicked off ."
"That's enough, Jim," Karen's voice, raised several notches cracked like a whiplash, shutting Fenner up for good. "I'm awaiting a phone call from Neil as the final decision is his. Let's move on to normal business and stop wasting any more time."
Of course, she knew what Grayling was going to say but she had dotted the i's and crossed the t's to make it look as if it were his decision which she would defend to the officers as a good loyal Wing Governor.
Right on cue, the phone rang. Karen gave it four rings and, with all the time in the world, reached out to take the call.
"Karen Betts ..you've decided what should happen to those who took part in the demonstration personal spends, halved for two weeks and two weeks loss of remission I have got that quite clear " Karen's calm voice asked him to repeat his words to Grayling's extreme irritation "You're saying that this is an acknowledgement that the demonstration was carried out as a vote of confidence in Larkhall as run by the Prison Service and after personal representations by Christopher Biggins to treat them leniently .I agree with you, Neil, that if he was taken hostage and he feels that way, who are we to disagree with him. Right, Neil, I'll pass on the news and I'll tell the prisoners personally."
Karen turned to the gaping surprised faces and the dangerous glitter in Fenner's red face. Mark in contrast kept a straight face but the wheels in his mind were rapidly whizzing round, starting off from the thought that Grayling, who could be petty and vindictive, was acting totally out of character. There was more to this than meets the eye.
"I think you heard the gist of what Neil has decided. I'm going to tell them myself as a group in my office in half an hour's time. My wing, my problem. Ok that's everything for today."
"Hey, Ju," Julie Johnson asked nervously. "Reckon Miss Betts won't come down on us too hard. It ain't like the screws to see us all in one go unless she's busy."
The group of women shuffled their way nervously along the corridor to Karen's room under the watchful, blank faced eye of three prison officers. This was reminiscent of their past as naughty schoolgirls being called up to see the headmistress.
"What about you, Yvonne?" Julie Saunders asked. She had to ask as her poker faced expression gave no indication of her feelings. "You and Miss Betts get on with each other these days."
Yvonne struggled very hard to repress a broad grin as Julie Saunders gloriously understated the situation between her and Karen. She was duty bound to keep her mouth shut for Karen's sake. Buki took up the rear next to a very nervous Al who expected hard punishment as the natural course of her life while Babs faced the event with something like calm assurance that she was in God's hands and he would decide.
"Come in," Karen's soft voice gave a feeling of reassurance to the rather nervous women. This seemed a good sign.
They shuffled their way into the room while Karen gestured them to face her.
"You've all guessed why I've called you in to my office,if I know anything of you. I've talked over yesterday's demonstration and I have to tell you that you are all technically in breach of Rule 43 .."
Some of the women mentally flinched in preparation of very bad news while Yvonne admired the bloody good act that Karen was putting on. She couldn't have done a better job herself.
"However, I've had reports from Christopher Biggins singing your praises and Neil and I," and at this point, the faintest grin appeared at the corner of Karen's lips. "have decided that the lightest punishment should be imposed in view of the responsible way you have all conducted yourselves and that the point of the demonstration was against Lynfords and for the present prison officers. You will all have your personal spends halved for two weeks and will lose two weeks remission."
"And you ain't going to send us down the block, Miss?" Julie S asked in utter amazement, wondering if she was in the middle of a dream and she was going to wake up in the darkness of their cosy cell.
"Why do you think I've called you all in together?" Karen reasoned persuasively. "It saves me having to repeat myself but I feel that I've got nothing to fear from telling the strongest personalities in G Wing in one gathering. Why should I send you down the block unless you want voluntary segregation for some reason best known to yourselves? Do any of you have anything to say?"
The little grin on Karen's face was becoming more and more obvious and she raised her eyebrows.
"You've been dead fair by us, Miss. We ain't complaining," Julie Saunders spoke for the relaxed smiles on the faces of the women as they began to take it all in.
"There is one thing I'm asking you before you go. Can you please not take advantage of what Neil and I have done for you. I don't need to spell it out. I would come down hard on anyone who abused what I've done for you "
At that slight slip of the tongue of Karen's part, all the women took to heart what Karen had gently urged on them far more than they had ever listened to years of Bodybag's nagging patronising homilies and Karen knew that her words weren't wasted.
"You have our word for this, Miss Betts," Yvonne spoke at last. "There will be no trouble. I think I speak for all the girls."
"In which case you are free to go," Karen graciously dismissed them. "Yvonne, I want to catch up with you later on."
Another time, thought Yvonne, she would have wondered who the bloody hell had dropped her in it and it meant trouble. Now she felt a slight quickening of her pulse as to what Karen would have in store for her.
As the women, some of whom walked on rubber legs with sheer relief, stumbled out of the office, Yvonne gestured them to gather in the corner.
"You heard what Betts said. No shouting our bloody mouths off, no screw baiting. I know bloody well that some of the girls with no bleeding space inside their heads will see that we've been allowed to get away with out demonstration and will try and copy it. They'll do it over something stupid and mess everything up for all of us. We've got what we want and we don't let Betts down. We've been done a favour and an Atkins returns a favour for a favour. Got it?" Yvonne looked sternly, especially in Al's direction who wasn't going to argue the case, not after the almighty reprieve of being shut in the cold and dark and relive one of her childhood nightmares.
"Guess we're going to have to knock off the ciggies for a while," sighed Julie Johnson in resignation. "What's Betts going to see you about, Yvonne?"
Yvonne's slow mysterious smile made her look unusually serene and relaxed. She had more than a suspicion but she wasn't going to say.
Later on while Yvonne was reclining on her bunk and was reading in total boredom a crappy magazine that she had read a dozen times about ten ways to get your man. Her sharp ears detected a soft tap at the door. It could only be one person.
"A brilliant performance back there, Miss Betts," Yvonne greeted her in her most understated irony. "I was definitely almost convinced."
The woman who sat down next to Yvonne smiled the freeest widest smile she had ever seen in comparison with the Wing Governor, pushing against the constraints of her place and her position. The whole feel was one woman casually passing by another woman's place, not Wing Governor on her tour of inspection to one of the cons.
"I wanted to pick up my mobile from you in case Fenner came snooping round, found it and drew the right conclusions for once. I wanted to pop round to your place, anyway," Karen mellow voice delicately shifted its inflections from the official to the personal.
"Anytime, Karen," Yvonne answered in her huskiest tones. She drew the mobile out from underneath her mattress. "I've changed a few phone numbers around."
Karen raised one eyebrow inquisitively and scrolled down at the names and phone numbers. Where she expected to find the ghosts of past associations jump out in the curt rows of letters and numbers, Yvonne had mercifully obliterated and consigned into the cybernetic wastebin the names of Fennner and Ritchie. They didn't matter any more. With curiosity, she worked her way to the end of the numbers and Yvonne's name stood up boldly and the lifeline to her voice wherever the two of them might be in the future, together in space or apart.
"You'll be out in two weeks time, Yvonne. You ought to think of your future, our future, if you want it." The Wing Governor edge in Karen's husky voice melted away to the sensual woman whose body she could feel next to hers.
"Four weeks, Karen. Remember?"
"Oh shit. Did I do that?" Karen replied incredulously as if some officious jobsworth had come between them, sticking her oar in.
Yvonne laughed out loud, the rare lapse in Karen's thinking totally endearing itself to her. She had no patience with dick brained idiots who fouled everything up that they had dealings with. Her sheer affection at this one foible in Karen's razor sharp thinking made her slide her arm round her waist. It was an instinctive gesture that both of them found totally natural.
"Till you get out, we'll have to be careful if you really want a relationship with me," Karen spoke softly so tantalisingly close to her. "I won't sleep easy in my bed till you are finally out of Larkhall and we are free to do as we like."
"Neither will I, Karen," Yvonne's soft voice and eyes like fire melted their way into Karen's awakening soul as Yvonne turned to face her.
This time, both women moved forwards and their soft mouths met in a long deep kiss. This wasn't something that happened to each other as if out of thin air but they both chose. The softness of their arms embracing each other and the feel of each other's tongues made them feel good about each other and for each other being the fulfillment that last night's words had promised. Yvonne ran her fingers gently along the feel of the suit that Karen wore and were temporarily blind and deaf to anything outside their joined worlds.
"Screw." Yvonne hissed, pulling her mouth away from Karen's. Some instinct of self preservation had imprinted into her senses, the hard purposeful tread of a pair of men's heavy shoes. Karen sat on the bed, her wits temporarily paralysed and infinitely grateful to Yvonne's quick wittedness. Yvonne was standing in front of her when the cell door opened and Mark put his head round the door.
"Found you at last, Karen. I wanted a quick word with you," Mark said with very fake casualness.
"A woman's work is never done as my mother used to tell me, especially a Wing Governor's," Karen snapped back into normality.
Scene Twenty Three
Karen took one glance at the smudged lipstick on Yvonne's face and her studiously blank expression and deduced that she was similarly incriminated visually, judging by the expression on Mark's face.
"I'll see you now, Mark, in my office. I don't need you to tell me what it's all about."
"See you later, Yvonne," Mark's superficially friendly air kept up the charade that nobody believed in as he stole the closing words that Karen was going to say.
Karen exchanged one glance with Yvonne and walked quickly along the corridor as Mark legged it with six mile boot strides, conveying his silent anger.
"Well, what do you want to say, Mark?" She said a little more abruptly as the words replaced her intended, more friendly greeting of 'What can I do for you, Mark."
"It's about what you shouldn't be doing."
"You and Yvonne Atkins. You know the rules about staff getting involved in relationships with inmates. After all, you're Wing Governor," Mark instantly fired back.
"Yeah, and as I seem to recall, that Gina Rossi got transferred off D wing as she slapped a prisoner whom you were personal officer for whom she said that you were eyeing up. Don't tell me that she was simply being paranoid."
"Don't play games with me, Karen. Two wrongs don't make a right, especially for a Wing Governor. Anyway, I was different then."
This was an ugly come down for Karen as the day had started so well. The pressures of the last months were lifted from her shoulders and the sunlight that shone into her soul that also caused her feelings to blossom in a way that was fresh and new. She woke up in the morning with an enthusiasm for life and not with that numb, dog tired feeling of another day in Larkhall, like the day before and the day before that. Life had weighed her down for so long and made every day one to be endured and struggled through. So why the hell was Mark spoiling those feelings? A part of her was getting sucked into Mark's world as she could not, in all conscience, countenance it in others. Good intentions weren't enough or so she had told Mark.
It was that enhanced sense of timescale that came to her rescue. Until yesterday, she would never have dared look forward to the future beyond what was strictly necessary to do her job. Her personal life had no future that she could imagine and her professional life wasn't any better, except that despite all her hard struggles, and she was a fighter, the slope was inexorably pointing steadily downwards. Now there was life after four weeks, if she and Yvonne wanted it.
"There's something in what you say, speaking generally, but Yvonne will be out of here in four weeks time, if my memory serves me correctly." Of course she knew the exact date but Mark wasn't going to be told that. "After that, will there still be a problem about my relationship with Yvonne?" Karen sharply demanded.
Mark's mouth remained tight shut as the passing seconds called upon him to testify what he was really about. His silence answered Karen better than he wanted to admit.
"It just isn't you, Karen," He burst out at last.
"At last, we're getting to the truth. In four weeks, it will come down to what Yvonne and I want for each other. and just how you and I get on, or not as the case may be. I've told you before. Mark," and here her tone changed from hard unyielding to a weary persuasiveness. "that I have moved on in my direction and you, you don't seem to have moved on at all. We've been away from each other for months. You are seeing me as I used to be. However compatible we might have been once, we certainly aren't now. There's no going back for either of us. You're quite strong enough to face up to Fenner but not quite strong enough to face up to yourself."
"Don't I get a say in what goes on around here?" came Mark's call of defiance against all the fates which had gone against him. His frustration at Karen closing the door to him obliterated all his good feelings and took away all the sweetness of the moment when he had heard that both Bostocks were history.
"Unfortunately for you, you don't," Karen's eyes closed in pain at the hardness of her own voice which told her to do and say what she must do. There was no easy way apart from honesty to him which seemed brutal but had none of the pointless cruelty of raising false hopes. Mark was a good man and would be a good man for another woman, not her, and on both counts, he deserved the best she could do for him. Unfortunately, he was a proud man and wouldn't let her see the justice of her remarks. On any other matter, with any prisoner she could name he had the capacity to understand.
"You are a bloody good Senior Officer and, don't forget, Fenner and Grayling haven't gone away. They are down but not out. Outside of work, we can be good friends if you let us, but no more."
"Fine, Karen," Mark snapped sarcastically. "That means a lot to me."
"It should, Mark," Karen's voice was steady and sure and showed real sympathy. "You're popular round here, you've got a lot of friends round here. Just don't underestimate friendship. You've built yourself up from the knockbacks you had at Bradgate."
A picture in Mark's mind took shape of the warmth and cameraderie and the clustered pints of beer on the table at the PO's social club and the acceptance that he found which had caused his belief in himself to flower and his willingness to run up against Fenner, the most dangerous man that he had ever known. He could see himself laughing and joking and exchanging the banter which he had always felt safe with, from any group of 'lad's night out' that he had ever known. There was a smooth feeling of continuity which was wholly different from some of the jagged edges of his relationships with women, sometimes gloriously nurturing of the feeling of soft arms and a tender voice, sometimes at sixes and sevens as with Gina when anything he did and said caused endless arguments. He was somehow able to make a complete idiot of himself with women, something that too much beer and a libido which loosely obeyed the immediate impulses of the moment without thinking. When he was with the lads, he occasionally had to be steered in the direction of his home and bed but that was the worst that had happened to him. There was a duality in his life where there was no crossing over from one side to the other. That was what he couldn't understand, couldn't take in about Karen.
"Except when I was at Bradgate, yeah sure. I stopped believing in myself. When I got back here, it felt like I'd come home. And you were part of that home, Karen."
Karen was hugely relieved that Mark's voice, for the first time wasn't hostile and accusatory or hurt and accusing. Both were the same sides of the same coin. She needed to move on with Yvonne and Mark needed to move on and stop being a martyr to the past. He had to discover his future only he had to work that out for himself at the end of the day.
"Bostock is out of the way and Fenner is like a bear with a sore head. All his dreams of the big time have gone, at least for the time being," Karen's soft voice spoke with an easy contempt that for the first time from a feeling of security.
Mark grinned at the description of Fenner. He had to admit to himself that the newspaper article on the wall had done them all a power of good. Logically thinking, he owed Yvonne a debt of gratitude but his feelings of gratitude to her lagged behind him.
"We'd better watch Fenner and Grayling for the future and make sure that the prisoners get a good deal and there's a future for the prison officers. Don't forget, I used to be good friends with Helen until Fenner drove us apart. It was his doing to set me against her. The man's not stupid. He's the one person that knows the history of what went on between us and he knows damn well what is going on. We dare not let him drive a wedge between us. That is why you must accept that I go my own way with Yvonne and you must discover your own future for yourself. I can't help you with that but I can help how I get on with you as Senior Officer and me as Wing Governor and me as a friend of yours in the same way as your mates. That's why I tell you not to underrate friendship, Mark. You can't afford to."
"I'll have to go away and think about this, Karen."
"Take as long as you like. You must do as you can't go on hurting yourself the way you are."
Mark smiled briefly and left, the first genuine smile over personal matters Karen had seen on his face since he had come back to Larkhall.
She relaxed back into her chair, feeling that she was having to battle every inch of the way from being pulled backwards to a past that wasn't hers any more. She reached for a cigarette and breathed in the nicotine greedily. She felt she deserved it.
Scene Twenty Four
Mark woke up to find himself in a strange bar in an unfamiliar part of town. He didn't even know the name of the pub. His feet, which he had stared at as he paced through the streets, had taken him to wherever they wanted to walk without him thinking about it and, now, his legs felt stiff and tired. Nevertheless, it had done him so good as he had walked his way as far as intellectually accepting everything that Karen had told him and he had traversed half the way into his emotions following suit. That was, by far, the more difficult part of the climb. He had stopped at his Camp David, his throat was parched and he needed a drink.
The relative quiet in the pub as he focussed his eyes only showed up the distant sight of figures, shoulders turned away from him towards their own concerns and shared drinks. He was on the point of making his way to the bar when a loud, well-educated friendly voice from out of the past called out to him from behind.
"Mark? Mark Waddle. I'd know you anywhere."
Mark spun round and a tall slim woman with short-cropped dark hair dressed in a smart jacket and wearing jeans walked over in his direction.
"Nikki Wade. After all these years," He went to meet her with outstretched hand and her firm handshake clasped his hand with an effusive bond of friendship. She had changed, as there was an outward charm about her that was new in place of that sometimes edgy defensiveness. Otherwise, she hadn't changed and that reassured him
"I'm flattered that you remember one of the old lags from the dump we were both at,"
Grinned Nikki with that verbal sleight of hand which recreated them as equals, in the past as well as the present.
"What are you doing in these parts, Nikki?"
"Killing a lot of time before Helen gets in from one of her Conferences," laughed Nikki
As she caught the waitress's eye. "I was going to prop up the bar on my own but now you're here, I hope we can keep each other company. What are you having?"
"A pint of bitter," Mark said automatically, allowing himself to be drawn with the flow of unexpected good company as Nikki led the way to a table for three. Nikki's vivacious company buoyed up Mark's spirits and the vastness of the pub faded away into the close conviviality of welcome company.
"Who's Helen?" Mark enquired a mouthful of ice cold beer satisfied the thirst he had been only halfway aware that he had.
"Helen Stewart. My girlfriend," Nikki informed Mark at once. "You didn't know we are an item?"
Mark smiled and shook his head. For his ex girlfriend to be crossing over the road was one thing, to know that that feisty, attractive woman with that attractive Scottish accent, whom he had vaguely admired from afar, had already crossed was another eye opener. Somehow, there was only so much he could take in, in one day.
"Something's bothering you, Mark? I can tell that a mile away."
Mark looked into those big brown penetrating eyes which looked sympathetically into Mark's thoughts but that didn't faze him. He found it reassuring right now being forced to talk and nothing to be frightened of. Once bitten, twice surrender gently to the inevitable, his thoughts wavered in time with that first soothing trace of alcohol in his bloodstream.
"It's nothing to do with you, Nikki," Mark reassured her with all the earnestness in his nature, which Nikki trusted to. "It's just that I'm getting over Karen Betts making a new life with another woman. I don't resent her for it, not after talking over everything with her today, it's just that "
"Exactly how much was she yours to lose, Mark? Remember, I've had affairs with straight women in the past and I can see it from the other side of the fence. Matters like these aren't as simple as you make out."
A flood of memories was unleashed by Nikki's words but, for the first time, these memories didn't hurt as much as they had. He had talked things over with Karen as much as he was ever going to make any sense of anything. He drank deeply from his pint before answering.
"She was, up until Fenner raped her and that messed up our relationship. I was offered a promotion up north where everyone kicked the crap out of me. After months of living hell, I got out even if it meant going back to Larkhall. You can tell how desperate I was," Mark paused with a bitter laugh. "I went back to what I thought was home, such as it was and .."
" ..You thought you could pick up with Karen where you and Karen left off and mend the bridges. You thought that she would stay in a state of suspended animation till you got back," Interposed Nikki, gently placing her hand on his arm. Privately, she was torn between instinctive sympathy for any woman suffering at Fenner's hands and hostility to the woman who was no friend of Helen and by extension, of herself either. She thought it prudent not to make any judgements till she had heard the full story.
"Got it in one, Nikki," Mark breathed. The thought had never crossed his mind of the unreality of his perception. He was enormously glad that someone had placed this revelation gently into his thoughts. It was the first time that he was starting to see his situation with him divorced from his own perspective. It let loose a kaleidoscopic rush of thoughts of what he had said, what he had done that he was starting to regret. The sweat started to bead his forehead and he closed his eyes.
"Are you all right, Mark?" Nikki said with genuine concern.
"I've just realised that I may have acted like a total pillock to Karen," Mark said shakily.
"And you think no one but yourself has?" Nikki said in gentle tones. "Who was the jealous woman who called her girlfriend a two faced tart and stabbed a gardening fork into her hand? Not exactly my proudest moment. Helen will tell you that one as that was the name I called her. I've made up for that one a thousand times," Nikki ended with a wry smile on her face.
"You really said that? I thought I was the sort of guy who screwed up worse than anyone. Getting pissed and shagging Di Barker in the gent's toilet wasn't exactly the thinking of Einstein," Mark confessed. Somehow unburdening to this friendly woman felt safe as especially as she was promised to another woman and was somehow untouchable. That made him feel safe where all the boundaries were defined.
"Jesus, Mark. How come a good-looking guy like you have such lousy taste in women? Any other woman but Di Barker, I ask you."
At that moment, Helen swept over to the group dressed in her favourite black trousers and black leather jacket and kissed Nikki on her cheek. This was a pub off their beaten track and both were finely attuned to the atmosphere of public places in terms of displays of affection.
"Hi Mark. This is a bit of a reunion. Still slaving away at Larkhall?"
"Been away and come back, Helen. That's a long story though. The place has changed since your time. For a start, they tried to privatise it."
"Privatisation?" chorused the two women in horror.
"Just when you think that dump couldn't possibly get any worse, it only proves you wrong." Nikki's flat tones belied the repulsiveness that she felt of the very idea. A grotesque horror vision arose in their mind of Bodybag actually charging the prisoners out of their personal spends to act like a petty jobsworth. The walls of Larkhall hung around with sponsorship advertising rose from their horrified imaginations into words.
"Not quite as bad as that. Only an outfit called Lynford Securities using a presentation of a motorised vehicle for Buki Lester's kid to get press publicity to show what a caring, sharing outfit they are when they are complete bastards."
"As bad as that, Mark?" Helen asked in horrified outrage.
"Yeah. Jim Fenner was trying to weasel his way in as Wing Governor and shaft Karen Betts. She's still here, thank God and they've packed their bags and gone."
"Fenner was after Karen Betts's job? She gets no sympathy from me after the shit I took from her, threatening me with accusations of harassment just because I dared to tell the stupid woman that the sun didn't shine out of his backside ."Helen launched into a diatribe against Karen before Nikki stopped her mid flow.
"Hold it, Helen, I think things have moved on at Larkhall since our time. It sounds to me like Fenner was using her against you first before moving on to nobble Karen. Divide and rule. One of the oldest tricks in the trade, yeah?" Nikki turned to Helen and fixed her with her gaze and the other woman nodded reluctantly.
"How was it that someone managed to put a spoke in their wheel, Mark. Only someone who's resourceful and crafty could have pulled that off. Someone like "
" .Yvonne Atkins." Nikki's nostalgic smile for old time's sake got in before Helen could come out with the words.
An excited three-way babble of conversation transformed the pub into an animated area as the barmaid looked on enviously at the good lucking guy with not one but two attractive women. Some guys have all the luck, she thought bitterly as she was stuck here in this dead and alive hole, working all sort of unsocial hours.
As Helen went to buy the next round, Nikki could tell that there was something that the much livelier Mark wasn't telling her. There was an atmosphere of loneliness that she could sense from when she first came up to him and a gratitude for her company, any company.
"You've not told me of all that's bothering you," Nikki pursued gently.
"It's the typical thing of where does a guy in his thirties who's knocking on a bit, too old for clubs, just how does he get to meet a good woman." Mark's long pent up feelings that felt too strong for words at last poured out of him when the barriers were down.
"I haven't any easy answers, Mark, but that's the problem for everyone growing up in this big city. I came here when I was sixteen and was thrown out of home and boarding school for quote 'lesbian activities." Nikki pulled a face to hear her first love so coldly disparaged even after all these years.
"In a way, it was easier on me than for other women that I've talked to over the years. For instance, it took Helen and a lot of women like her, a lot of pain and soul searching for her to finally realised that what she wanted was a woman. I was spared all that. But it was still hard going into a pub or club and trying to work out if the girl you were talking to felt the same about you the same way you felt about her. I'm in my thirties now, about the same age as you are and there's gay clubs these days which makes it easier, like the one I run with Trish. The reason for that as they didn't have places like that when I was young."
"You didn't do that just for the money, Nikki," Mark cut in approvingly.
" though I got to admit, it helped. Plus making my way in the world as I never got any help from my parents," Nikki added, her face darkening at the memory before leading off in a more even fashion.
"I know that I've found my soulmate in Helen that you're still looking for .I know it's easier for the women who come to my club and others to meet but, then again, there are places for a straight guy like you, as easy as it gets for anyone in this world whoever they are."
Nikki's calm, reasoned tones held Mark's attention while the quiet pub sounds faded into the background. He didn't monopolise all the problems in the world in the way that his down at heel feelings of utter dejection had made him believe.
"So, it sounds that the likes of Yvonne and the others did a favour for you, Karen and every decent prison officer in that dump," Nikki said quietly as Helen started to make her way back to the table with a trayful of drinks. Mark nodded assent, influenced by the persuasive way that he and Karen were neatly bracketed together made Mark think of what they had in common in their work as opposed to what emotionally drove them apart. In all good conscience, he had to agree, in fact he readily agreed with Nikki as dark nightmares of Bostock drifted before his eyes. For the first time, he felt kindly disposed towards Yvonne.
"If you don't mind me asking, Mark," Nikki asked politely, "who is Karen seeing?"
"Yvonne Atkins," Mark stated briefly.
"You don't mean, the super straight Yvonne who once told me she'd sooner shag Fenner than turn lezzie? You're talking about the woman who I gave the name of an old mate of mine who runs an escort agency and sneaked the guy right under Bodybag's nose by posing as a brief."
"What's that I'm hearing." Spoke a Scottish accent on the point of bursting into laughter, at the same moment that the tray clattered on the table before it was dropped.
Nikki fell about in helpless laughter at the sheer hilarity overcome her before Helen's joined in, at full volume. The irresistable tide of laughter swept Mark along with them and it had them in stitches so much that their sides started to ache. It did Mark good to laugh with them as, for so long, he had nothing to laugh about.
In the middle of an animated conversation, they were suddenly dazzled by a single spotlight slanting down at a corner of the pub where a single microphone was set up.
A woman with longish blond hair swept gracefully on stage, carrying a shiny twelve string guitar and she attracted the interest of the three of them.
"One, two, one two." Her mellow voice echoed round the pub with a slight distortion and she rapidly introduced herself a little too quickly before anyone could catch her name, which betrayed a touch of nerves.
Needle sharp circling flurries of notes suddenly curled their way into Nikki's mind which sobered her up from the drunken hilarity of earlier on. Her rich singing tones immediately wrapped their way round her senses.
"Hey, you guys, just listen to her," she said softly, reverently, entranced by the delicacy of the imagery.
"Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play.
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you.
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes.
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies.
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence, won't you open up your eyes?"
Tired out though Helen was by a busy conference and lots of travelling, it immediately struck her that this was not the cheaply rhyming birthday card lyrics of popsongs that she heard on the radio. It was the sort of magical happening which called out to Nikki to emerge stardust and smiling from her dark moods. It told of the protectiveness that Nikki had always felt for Helen from before they were lovers.
"Look around round
Look around round round
Look around "
It took longer for the enchanted words to take possession of Mark's soul but the feel of the music made time stand still till the chorus hypnotized him as if it were an Indian mantra for him to meditate on. He was transfixed by the repetition of the singer's demands on him to loosen himself up. He never realised until then how tense he had been, tied down and bound down by his earthly workaday cares. He studied the long fair hair of the woman flick back as she moved rhythmically as she played. She's like Karen, and the thought like a falling leaf drifted past him to gently embrace the soil. Karen's not here, Mark, he gently chided himself. She belongs to another and you can safely let her go and you shall achieve deliverance.
"She's beautiful," Nikki breathed but these were no words of awakening desire for the woman. This was the rightful and respectful secular worship of all that was spiritual, as if this was her favourite book, turned into sound and vision.
"I've never heard anything like this before." Mark's peaceful words moved in slow motion as he struggled to describe what lay too deep for words.
"We know what you mean, you don't need words." Helen's soft words meandered their
way past his senses
"Dear Prudence, let me see you smile.
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
Dear Prudence, won't you let me see you smile?"
"That was a John Lennon song." An educated voice, a little like Nikki's paid due reverence from the stage to the creator of the song.
The three of them were the most attentive devotees of the unknown singer who reached out to span the decades of all that was best before the age of popstars and celebrity worship did its best to bury what had gone on before with the cheap profanity of modernity. The rest of them talked about their favourite Eastenders episode and football results, unheeding as they drank their way to the oblivion that the rest of their lives had not pushed them into already.
The singer of their awakened dreams gently led them by their hands through the rest of the songs that had most inspired her, many years ago, when she had shut herself away in her bedroom with her cherished songs and her guitar.
Nikki led a fervent round of applause at the end of the short set, her eyes glowing. The singer smiled in response, moved out of the spotlight to become the unassuming person who she really was in her daytime role.
"Hi, I'm Judy Collins, in case you didn't get it first time around." She smiled, warmed by the feelings coming off in waves from the darkness outside the spotlight. "It's nice to get the feelings of people who can relate to these songs."
"You were fantastic," Mark exclaimed while Nikki picked up on Judy's modesty in not laying claim of ownership of songs which she was as much a fan as they were. To his star struck eyes, her immediate friendliness drew him into a better world than his daytime job promised.
Judy chattered awhile to these friendly strangers. She had sung her heart out but the reaction wasn't too encouraging. The landlord tolerated her for bringing in a bit more custom on a quiet night and she had no dreams of sudden TV fame and fortune beyond her daytime job where few people around her knew her for who she was. It was these rare encounters with people like these, which validated what she was doing and gave her the heart to carry on.
"You don't happen to have any of your songs on records." Helen enquired out of sudden inspiration.
Shyly, the other woman reached for her holdall and fished out a batch of CD's made on an independent label.
"We'll have one each for ourselves of course, "Nikki proposed to the general nod of approval "and I'll buy nine others for some friends of mine who I know will love this kind of music."
The other woman's heart jumped a mile as it was common for her to sell the odd CD or two if she was lucky and she smiled warmly at them as did the woman in the song that she had sung with such conviction.
Presently, the three women talked lightly to each other while Mark lay back, a happy contented smile on his face and clear untroubled eyes. He was in familiar good company and the room swam in front of his eyes as he was happily drunk and at home with the world about him.
"You're tired," Nikki said gently, more a statement than a question, seeing the way that the other woman's eyelids drooped down as she tried to be polite and give of herself.
"I need to get home and crash out," she sleepily mumbled as the adrenaline kick back overwhelmed her in a wave of exhaustion.
"Wait a minute, do you want a lift back. You too, Mark?"
Both nodded and smiled in gratitude as the insurmountable problems in how to drag themselves back to their respective homes were tenderly and thoughtfully cared for.
Presently, Mark was sprawled in the back seat of a car, Judy's black guitar case across his knees and, like previous good nights out singing untunefully
"Show me the way to go home
I'm tired and I want to go to bed "
The steady intake of alcohol and good vibrations had reduced him to a state of blissful serenity where he felt he could cope with anything and everyone in his life. This was no drunken optimism to fade as the cruel daylight in the morning turned the fuzzy certainties of the evening out to the cut and dried defeats of another day even before they had happened.
"He's got no future as a backup singer if you ever wanted one," joked Helen to Judy.
"Which way, Mark? Helen's crystal ball has gone on the blink." Nikki's firm voice called him to order.
"Oh errr. Second right and stop at the next junction." Mark mumbled to the grins on the faces of the three women.
"You're sure you'll be all right," Judy called out in a concerned voice as he reeled out of the passenger door.
"I will survive," Mark called out with exaggerated confidence as his finger pointed his uncertain way to his front door which they saw him open as they set off down the road.
They dropped Judy off outside her place amongst the endless terraced streets like cliff walls with their shut in people and Nikki helped her carry her guitar, that instrument of spirituality that had taken themselves out of themselves.
After that, the road home for them zigzagged with certainty down the darkened streets to a home that was assuredly theirs.
Scene Twenty Five
To Karen, the four weeks until Yvonne's release felt like the final stages of a rollercoaster ride. She had come through the vertiginous upside / downside changes in her life, which she had been prisoner to since who knows when. It was getting time to unclip the safety straps and take her first uncertain steps to who knows where. Yvonne had always been around in her journey but she was only getting to realise that.
The first of the gentler aftershocks in her life arrived in the presence of Mark. She was conditioned to dealing with that proud man who pretended to himself that noone else could see his feelings that he kept hidden to himself. He had always been at the side of her vision, or facing her with his set of demands on her head yet at the same time was a solid support from this side of the prison bars. Her last parting words to him the night before had been addressed to herself as much as him.
She looked with incredulity at the somewhat hungover man, wearing a broad, happy smile at everyone who came into the PO's room. He even smiled faintly at Fenner who looked suspiciously at him, wondering in his paranoid way, if Waddle knew something that he didn't and making a mental note to be extra careful. Since his dreams of being Wing Governor went out the door with Bostock, he vowed to watch out for waddle and Betts ganging up on him.
Karen ran through the morning's business rapidly without any petty wrangling these days. Fenner just glowered and said nothing. They filed out of the room, Mark being the last to leave.
"Have you found Miss Right, or something?"
Instantly, Karen regretted the way she had blurted it out and feared that the way she had said it was a little sarcastic when all she intended was mild interest. She braced herself for Mark to fly off the handle with a full on sarcastic rejoinder which would set off the hostilities again.
"As a matter of fact, Karen, I've been out on the town with two Miss Rights," grinned Mark broadly.
"Pardon?" Karen answered in a totally bemused tone of voice.
"I bumped into Nikki and Helen last night in some strange pub which I'd never been to before and had a night on the town."
"Nikki as in Nikki Wade and Helen as in Helen Stewart,"
"You got it now, Karen," Mark's words rolled off his tongue. "And they are an item."
Karen stared with total incredulity at the riddles Mark was spinning for her followed by a bolt from out of the blue. It seemed to be ages before she could stumble across the words to answer him.
"Fenner told me that one ages ago but I was sure that that was a load of bollocks. The one time in his life he tells me the truth and I didn't believe him."
"Well, don't get hung up about it, Fenner of all people," grinned Mark broadly, "Anyway, we talked all night and had quite a bit to drink between us, well, me mostly. We watched this fantastic folk singer and got chatting to her as well, very interesting she was. They dropped me off and very kindly pointed me in the direction of my front door, as I was a bit legless by then. Anyway, we'll keep in contact and that is stage one to get more of a positive attitude. I've been making big plans, you know."
"You have?" Karen echoed Mark's cheerily determined brand of positivism.
"Oh yes, you were right about a lot of things you've said in the past. I wasn't all wrong but I have behaved like a total prat on occasion."
"Oh, splendid. I'm really glad the way you have found a direction in life. It's rather sudden, that's all," Came the odd tentative interspersed comment to Mark's determination to monopolise the conversation. Jesus, she never thought that he could talk so much and not let her get a word in edgeways.
"Don't you want me to agree with you, Karen?"
"Oh yes, of course, of course I do, Mark. It's great that you are so
different," Karen hastened to add.
"Oh yes, before I forget. Helen wasn't terribly pleased when your name came up in conversation ." At that point, Karen groaned inwardly at Mark's heavy handed obvious attempt to minimise the situation and be terribly kind to her. " .but Nikki stuck up for you," Mark added earnestly, the conversation further bewildering Karen with Mark's rapid shift from topic to topic,
"It's nice to know that I've got friends."
"Well, of course you have. It stands to reason." Mark's best 'selling fridges to Eskimos'
Was as irresistible as a juggernaut hurtling past at full speed."What I was leading up to though I seem to have gone round the houses, is can the two of us be friends. Straight down the line with any idea of me hassling you in any shape or form right out the window."
One last flicker of reservation came to the surface when Karen had the brief compulsion to turn and run at the very thought of defining what lay between the two of them in terms of putting it into words.
"I know you, Mark Waddle. You might think you're not pressurising me and I'm sure you're perfectly sincere in what you're saying, it's just that .."
"Let's put it this way. I owe Yvonne a lot for having the guts, and the others too, to stand up against Bostock and his mob. I should know, working for his brother. You know, I really respect her when I see the other PO's skulking on the sidelines, only peeping their heads out when they can see who's winning." Mark laughed bitterly. "Coming here and having you in this place has been a picnic in comparison. I hope that I've been an improvement on Sylvia as Senior Officer."
Karen's mind blanked out at Mark's commercial advert for Yvonne's integrity and latched onto the comparison between Mark and Sylvia. There was no competition. She suddenly grinned at Mark as a sudden wash of that eternally moaning bigoted backstabbing woman who Karen had to drag along like a ball and chain through her career at Larkhall.
"You really mean everything that you're saying?" This was half a question, half a statement.
"You have my word on it, Karen," Mark spoke out clearly and confidently.
Karen stretched out her hand and shook it warmly as an affirmation of friendship and of a deal between them.
"Gotta go, Karen." Mark smiled one last time and strode out onto the wing with all the confidence in the world and cheerily returning the greetings of the prisoners. Karen looked after him, still confused but with a pleasant feeling inside her of peace.
She was still smiling to herself when a thought popped into her mind and started to nag at her. It took her off track away from her office and instead to climb the metal staircases on her way to the 3s. She had to find out the answer and who better than the exchange and mart and Bank of England vault of the accumulated memories of Larkhall, Yvonne Atkins.
"You're a woman on a mission," Yvonne observed, taking in Karen's slightly flustered demeanour with a quick visual once over.
"Tell me, Yvonne. I've just found out a piece of news that is really a turnup for the book," Karen waded in without a polite preamble. "Did you know that Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade are an item?"
Yvonne smiled tolerantly at Karen. Feelings were growing inside her that Karen was right for her and that she was right for Karen. The other woman had all the combined intelligence and strength that she had never found elsewhere but she did have her endearing little foibles, which made her human.
"Oh, that's old news. I could have told you that one ages ago if you'd asked me. They had been together even before they left Larkhall. The way Stewart left the place so fast her feet didn't touch the floor made it bleeding obvious. I have turned up the book for you, I can tell by the expression on your face, Wing Governor, ma'am." She gently teased the other woman who could only think, first Yvonne knows before I did and then Mark of all people got to know first, everyone but me.
"And what's that, Yvonne." She heard herself automatically ask.
"Juliet and Juliet. Nikki told me that joke an' all."
Karen flopped down on Yvonne's bunk. It was better there than on the floor. For all Karen's exhalted status in the wing, she did wonder more than ever if there was a Goddess who was an incurable practical joker. She asked herself why she had been singled out, not out of divine punishment but just out of amusement. She thought she had lived a tolerably good life, working hard to improve the lot of both prisoners and prison officers under her care so why was she the fall guy? Get a grip, Karen, the tough minded part of herself told herself off, this is not the time or place to speculate about Divine Justice and it is definitely not your style.
Yvonne grinned mischievously. It was very rarely that she had seen Karen as other than than the cool, self-controlled very strong woman. There was more to come, she could tell.
"I've just had another strange experience. I've had a run in or two with Mark Waddle over the very same thing, why can't things be the same between him and me as when
he was last at Larkhall. You've heard me talk of our history and read what I wrote on my computer .." Karen's voice trailed off as the memory of how much she had told her, in words and writing, she had revealed of the Karen Betts that she kept under wraps that the ordinary everyday public would never see. The way Yvonne reached out and took her hand was enough answer for her.
"Anyway, he was doing his moody injured pride routine when I was arguing with him
last night and today, he couldn't be more enthusiastically in agreement with everything I was trying to get through to him."
"And you're worrying about it?"
"Well, wouldn't you?"
"You are joking of course, Karen." Yvonne shook her head in wonder, a very rare gesture for a woman who had trained herself to minimise her outwards displays of her inner feelings, but, there you are, there's a first time for everything. "Is Mark Waddle the devious underhand paid up member of the 'all men are bastards' club. There ain't many men around that I'd believe straight off what they are telling me but he is one of them."
This is getting really weird, Karen's dazed mind was telling her. First I hear Mark sturdily speaking up for Yvonne and now I see Yvonne doing the same for Mark. They ought to act normally and be scratching each other's eyes out.
"Well, no as you put it this way," Karen was forced to concede.
"Well, you stupid cow, we've got a clear run to do what we want to do so long as we're careful. Haven't we?"
Karen nodded to herself as Yvonne slid her arms round her and their lips met in a deep kiss which both of them savoured the sweetness of as the taste of things to come if they let themselves. The choice was theirs and theirs alone.
The last few weeks before the day of release passed in a slow blissful haze and the days were mentally counted down, one after another. On the morning of her release, a broad, fairly thick manila file appeared in her in tray and Karen knew exactly which prisoner that file referred to. She grinned at the thickness of it which spoke of Yvonne's very colourful career at Larkhall. Even in the tiny 'mug shot', Yvonne's challenging smile made the rest of the surroundings seem drab. She signed off the file with a flourish for it to be consigned to the depths of the files.
Yvonne was pacing about as she had not heard from Lauren and this made her nervous. She had nursed this fantasy a long time ago of the moment when she was released of taking the chance to publicly mouth off to all the screws and sweep out of the gates and be picked up by Lauren in her flashiest car. At one time, the driver in mind had been Charlie but she had obliterated that mental celluloid film when he did the dirty on her. And now, she couldn't have a go at the screws as there were some of them she had some respect for and as for Karen .. In the end, she resolved to have one dig at Fenner and leave it at that. As for Lauren, it was an understood thing that she would give her a lift home but that cut across what, deep down, what she wanted. That seemed pie in the sky dreams as Karen had a wing to run.
She had seen the tears and the hugs as women who were released passed down the line of the wing to be honoured and missed and for some of everyone's heart to go with that woman in an utterly unselfish way. Each woman was getting released and getting free for the rest, first Nikki, then Crystal and now it was her turn.
"I'll be glad to see the back of you, Atkins," snarled Fenner. "None of the other cons can be gangland boss without you to lead them astray. I'll get some peace and quiet."
"Don't worry, Mr Fenner, sir, the Julies will step into my shoes where I leave off. If I'm not around there will be plenty of others to cause you grief and not let you rest. It was a number of us that took over the greenhouse and ruined it for you and Bostock. Match made in heaven, not quite," Yvonne cut back with her most provoking smile and was gone down the aisle to massed chants of "Yvonne, Yvonne" and the rattling of the coffee mugs. She twisted her body and right up into the 3's prisoners lined the rails and smiled and chanted at her.
"You keep an eye open for Fenner, Julies and stay safe." Her huskiest most choked tones revealed Yvonne at her softest.
"We'll be fine, Yvonne.We've learnt a lot from you. We'll miss you loads though but you've got a future for yourself out there, hasn't she, Ju."
"A future, yeah." Julie J echoed.
Every most precious intimate thought and feeling was exchanged in that least intimate of environments as Yvonne reached the end of the line and saw the massed faces of all the prisoners, and was it the tears in her eyes but did she see Nikki's and Crystal's smiling faces willing her on and to say that, you too have made it Yvonne.
Karen had been rehearsing and rehearsing the words she was going to say as she would have to say some choice words that suited the occasion, that she had started out being the brains behind every crafty scheme that went down at Larkhall, that her memory had more in it than the files in her drawer, that she had gone on to be a mother to every prisoner who came here and wanted help and that she was sure that Yvonne would be missed on the wing. It was all very true but didn't say it in words that felt right for her.
Instead, she took a last minute call and came running up to Yvonne faster than she normally moved. Some compulsive force made her move like lightning and she drew her into a side room.
"I'm sorry, Yvonne, but I've taken a call from your daughter Lauren to say that she's got a problem and she's stuck. She's given her apologies. I said I'd pass the message on and you could phone her back on your mobile."
Instantly, Yvonne became aware that, in the plastic bags full of her possessions, her mobile phone was in the midst of it whose number was safely lodged on Karen's."
"Hi Lauren. Don't worry yourself. I'm getting a lift with a friend of mine. I'll phone you later. Sorted." Yvonne grinned to Karen's huge satisfaction.
"Do you know of anyone who could give me a lift." Yvonne's low pitched voice asked invitingly.
"I suppose I could." Karen shrugged her shoulders in an exaggerated fashion while her eyes were locked with Yvonne's. "The paperwork can wait. This place won't fall apart if I'm away for a while."
"Well, so long as you have plenty of time on your hands."
Karen smiled broadly, showing her white even teeth as the event upon which she had pinned her hopes and fears seemed to be going her, no, their way.
"Mark, I'm disappearing out for a bit as Yvonne's lift hasn't turned up. Can you tell Fenner the news."
"It will give me pleasure to see his face. Even better than kneeing him in the groin," Mark grinned.
Right at the end, Karen publicly shook hands with Yvonne to the cheering crowds and led her out into the courtyard. Yvonne blinked as the sunlight hit her and she told herself, yes, she was allowed out this far without anyone questioning her as to her whereabouts.
"I'll give you a hand." Karen offered and took one of the plastic bags off Yvonne, opened the boot of the green sports car and helped carry them. Yvonne glanced up at the high grey walls of Larkhall, the very same walls, which she had tried to shin over with a rope ladder that, many many months ago Karen and Fenner had stopped her from getting over. It was perhaps for the best, the way her life was turning out.
They walked easily through the open gates of Larkhall with ridiculous ease, put them inside. It was a gradually understood matter that Yvonne would not need to perch them on her lap for a short hop.
Yvonne sat in the passenger seat of the car and felt very much at home in it already. The whole reality of what was opening up to her made her feel dizzy and excited at the same time.
Karen smiled the relaxed smile as the vestiges of her Wing Governor persona fell from her like her clothes onto the floor.
In the rear view mirror, Fenner could be seen emerging through the prison gates, red faced and shouting. Yvonne resisted the urge to raise one finger up to him and smiled and waved at him instead.
The smooth sounds of the sports car reassured them that its power would take them away forever. Both of them felt like they were naughty schoolgirls bunking off school and, indeed, a little of them felt that life was as new and opening like a flower to them as life had done many years ago.
"Where do you want me to drop you off." Karen's husky voice asked of her. She felt keyed up with excitement and anticipation
"Wherever you want to take me," Yvonne's voice reassured both of them to their rising desires that Karen's everyday journey back and forth between her place of work and her flat would not be on her own this time.
The grey front gates of Larkhall which had seen so many prisoners and prison officers come and go through the ancient gates through the centuries, saw the daylight shine down on them all and the rectangular green shape of Karen's car gradually diminish in size until it was lost in the distance and speed far away into the horizon.
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