Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard
As the cattle truck rumbled its way along the busy London streets, Barbara clung to any handhold she could find. She had a feeling of deja vu, being noisily hurtled from the magistrates' court to god knows where. The only part of Barbara that was capable of forming any kind of coherent thought, was alternating between wishing she were dead, and praying that she wouldn't end up back at Larkhall. Oh, to be taken away from her current bone-shaking environment, to be transported to wherever Henry was now. He would be at peace now, going through no more heartache, but most of all, feeling no pain. What on earth would he think of her if he could see her now, being carried back to prison with the likes of Michelle Dockley and Tessa Spall? No, no, she mustn't start thinking about that. If she did, if she dwelt too closely on the practical elements of her predicament, she would go mad, just like last time. That was one little bonus, she thought cynically, at least she knew vaguely what to expect this time round.
Nikki and Karen arrived at work, at roughly the same time on the Tuesday morning, Karen catching Nikki up as she was being given her keys. Neither of them had slept particularly well on the Monday night, with Nikki worrying about Barbara, and Karen dreading everything from the way John would be with her the next time she saw him, to the physical punishment that she knew the morning after pill would give her.
"You look a bit rough," Said Nikki in greeting, as Karen took her keys from Ken. "Are you all right?"
"I believe its punishment for my excesses of the weekend," Karen answered bleakly, as Nikki let them through the first set of gates.
"But you didn't drink anywhere near as much as me and Helen did," Nikki replied, looking a little nonplussed. "In fact, you and the judge disappeared quite early on the Sunday night." Nikki stopped, as if only just realising what she'd said.
"Exactly," Karen told her with a lop-sided smile, but Nikki still didn't seem to understand. "As you are entirely gay, Nikki, you will never have to take the morning after pill," Karen tried to explain. "Something for which you should be unendingly grateful."
"Oh, I see," Nikki said in dawning comprehension. "Sorry, the old brain's obviously not quite woken up yet." To change the subject, Karen raised the matter of Barbara.
"As soon as I've had a call from the magistrate's court, I'll let you know what's happening, and if necessary, put the wheels in motion." But on reaching her office, Karen found that she already had an e-mail waiting for her, from the administration officer she knew at the local magistrate's court, to tell her that several inmates were destined for Larkhall that morning, including one Barbara Mills.
Since becoming Governing Governor, Karen had found it useful to forge working relationships with various court officials, to ensure that she was often given prior warning of particularly dangerous or troublesome inmates, who might be on their way to her prison. It meant that officers could be warned in advance, and that arrangements could be made as to where to house such inmates. Others before her, such as Simon Stubberfield, might have used such a position to avoid taking a particularly violent inmate, or a prisoner with any difficult to manage health problems, but Karen liked to think that she used it to the women's advantage, not her own, though she was usually wise enough to admit that it was a bit of both. Feeling that this day had already begun at a speed she could easily do without, she picked up the phone, and wondered just what else could possibly happen before nine o'clock. When Nikki answered, Karen told her simply that yes, Barbara had been placed on remand, and that she would at some point be on her way to them.
"Right, what do we do?" Nikki asked, having a momentary lapse in confidence that she could cope.
"We act as normally as possible," Karen told her gently but firmly. "Yes, Barbara is a friend to both of us, but she is also a prisoner on remand, no matter how much you and I might believe her innocent, and we still don't know whether she is or not, you must remember that."
"Yeah, I know," Nikki said miserably. "But what do I tell the others?"
"You tell her friends nothing at all," Karen said decisively. "They'll find out soon enough. As for the officers, you warn any who know her from her previous incarceration, to play it well and truly by the book. I will not have a prisoner victimised, just because the likes of Sylvia will no doubt bear a pretty significant grudge. You'd left by then, but Sylvia had a bit of a thing for Henry when he was here, so this news is going to affect her most of all."
"Are you sure Barbara should be put on G wing?" Nikki asked, thinking that this situation was going from bad to worse.
"Yes," Karen said without hesitation. "Because you can look after her. As you said yesterday, Barbara didn't deal very well with prison last time, so I shouldn't imagine that this stretch will be any less traumatic for her. She suffers from claustrophobia, so she needs to be handled very carefully. Got any ideas where you're going to put her?"
"Difficult one," Nikki mused, switching on her computer and waiting for it to boot up. "There's no one in at the moment who I could imagine her sharing a cell with, but then I'm not sure that being on her own will be the best thing for her."
"She might prefer it, if we can manage it," Karen said with sincere empathy for Barbara's plight. "Henry only died on Sunday, and if nothing else, Barbara needs the space to grieve."
"There is a spare single cell on the ground floor, next door to Phyl Oswin and Bev Tull," Nikki said, after scrolling through the table that illustrated at a glance where each and every prisoner on her wing was housed. "Or there's a double cell empty on the landing above, next door to the Julies."
"Yeah, put her there," Karen said, making the decision for her. "It might be better for her to be close to people she knows."
"If we get a massive influx of new ones, we might have to think again."
As Nikki walked into the officers' room on G wing, she couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding. Di and Sylvia no doubt would have no end of righteous things to say on Barbara's being put on remand, Dominic would probably have some sympathy for Barbara, and Gina would definitely be cynical. Why, oh why were her subordinates quite so bloody predictable on occasions such as these? Why, just for once, couldn't Sylvia be sympathetic, and Dominic be righteously angry? It would certainly make a very welcome change, which was why it would never happen, not in a million years. To the likes of Selena, Barbara was just another new inmate, no more no less.
"Anything crazy happen while I was away?" She began, after pouring herself a cup of tea and lighting a cigarette.
"Hmm," Sniffed Sylvia. "It's all right for some."
"You should have said, Sylvia," Nikki broke in with a perfectly straight face. "I'd have brought you back an after eight, if I'd known it meant that much to you."
"Whole box more like," Gina put in with a laugh as the others tittered.
"Learn anything useful?" Dominic asked, always eager to further his education, prompting Nikki to think that she might just take him with her next time.
"If it's anything I want to put into practice, I'm sure you'll find out in due course," Nikki replied with a smile.
"Oh, great," Muttered Sylvia darkly. "More namby pamby lefty nonsense, that's all we need."
"Before we get into that particular argument, which I'm sure we can all do without first thing on a Tuesday morning," Nikki broke in, thinking that if she got through this week without wringing Sylvia's neck, it would be a miracle. "There's something you all need to know. One of the new inmates coming to us this morning is known to some of you. Barbara Hunt, or Barbara Mills as she is now known, is being sent here on remand. Her husband, the Reverend Henry Mills, died from lung cancer at the weekend, and the police have charged Barbara with his murder."
"Oh, no," Sylvia said into the silence, sounding truly upset for once. "That lovely man, murdered by that supposedly Christian believing, god fearing bigamist? Well, let's hope she gets what she really deserves this time."
"And that is precisely the kind of thing I will not tolerate on my wing," Nikki said firmly, looking Sylvia straight in the eye. "She is only on remand, which means, Sylvia, that she is innocent until proven guilty, as are all remand prisoners placed in our care."
"Rubbish," Sylvia almost snarled. "That one's as guilty as a Judge seen coming out of one of Virginia O'Kane's knocking shops." Privately concealing a smile at the thought of John Deed patronising such an establishment, Nikki nevertheless strove to be firm.
"I mean it, Sylvia, and this goes for the rest of you. I will not have any single one of you making either an example or a victim, of any prisoner, either because you know her, or because you may bear her a grudge. Any hint of this, and I can promise you that I will put you in strips myself. Is that clear?" They each and every one of them knew she couldn't actually do this, but the threat was evident. "If you all try to remember the saying that a person is innocent until proven guilty, we will all get along just fine."
"And there's another saying we could all do well to remember," Sylvia put in acidly. "That a con is a con is a con, no matter how posh they sound, or how many books they can write."
"Does that apply to me then?" Nikki asked, the lightness of her tone belying the stern glare in her eyes.
"I was only saying..." Sylvia began and then faltered, her face turning an unhealthy tinge of pink.
"Well, try and think, before you speak," Nikki told her quietly.
"Have you got any idea where you're going to put her?" Dominic asked, eager to stop this developing into a row.
"Yes," Nikki said with a sigh of weary acceptance at his calming influence. "The double cell on G2, next to the Julies, just for now anyway."
"Do you reckon she did it?" Gina asked, also living up to Nikki's expectation.
"I haven't got a bloody clue," Nikki told her, her eyes scanning the entire group of officers. "Do you know something," She said, her tone sounding almost bored. "Virtually every single one of you has reacted in precisely the way I thought you would. Do you have any idea how depressing that is?"
"This job is depressing," Sylvia said curtly. "Get used to it."
"I thought when I came in this morning," Nikki continued. "I thought that maybe, just for once, at least one of you might surprise me, that one of you might perhaps behave in an entirely different fashion for a change, but I can see I was barking right up the wrong tree hoping for that one. So, what are you all waiting for?" She finished, now wanting to get on with the rest of her day. "Oh, and Sylvia," She added as they all made for the door. "Can we please try to avoid a case of mistaken identity this time? I don't want Barbara being sent down the block, just because you're stupid enough to think she's Tessa Spall."
When the lorry came to a stop, Barbara almost didn't want to look. She didn't want to see the not so kind, and all too condemning faces of the officers she knew, the kind but possibly stand offish faces of Nikki and Karen, or the drab, familiar surroundings of Larkhall. But when she was led out of the van, she forced herself to open her eyes. It was as bad as it could have been. She was back at Larkhall right enough, and there was Dominic McAllister and Sylvia Hollamby to meet her.
"Well, well, Hunt," Sylvia greeted her curtly. "Back again are we?" Barbara opened her mouth to speak, but unable to find anything to say, she closed it again. "Get inside," Sylvia told her, giving her a forceful shove in the direction of the steps that led into reception. As she passed Dominic, she tried to meet his eyes, receiving a slight smile of sympathy in return. As she sat on the row of plastic chairs, clutching her handbag, the only thing she'd had with her when she'd been charged, she looked anew at the place she couldn't remember from last time. The walls were full of the same dingy posters as the rest of the prison, the ones about drug addiction, self-harm, suicide, and basic prison conduct.
"Hunt," Sylvia called out eventually, but achieving no response. "Hunt, didn't you hear me?" She said, walking up to Barbara and staring her in the face.
"My name, is Mills, as well you know," Barbara told her with a hiss, the tension of her confinement finally beginning to get to her.
"Hmm, a lovely, kind man gives you his name, and you kill him for it," Sylvia said bitterly. "Nice way for a Christian to behave."
"I didn't," Barbara insisted, the tears rising to her eyes, because she knew that this was just the first in a long line of protestations, that she would inevitably be forced to make to the people of this place.
"Innocent until proven guilty?" Sylvia huffed in disgust. "Remand my eye. You're going nowhere, Hunt. When they eventually find you guilty, they'll send you back here for life, and here you'll stay." Sylvia sounded so venomous, so certain of Barbara's fate, that Barbara felt momentarily afraid of her. "Get over there," Sylvia ordered. "And get your clothes off."
"Sylvia, give it a rest, yeah?" Dominic tried to intervene, seeing that Sylvia wasn't about to let up on Barbara at all.
"Oh, don't come the nancy boy act with me, Dominic," Sylvia told him scornfully. "That one deserves everything that's coming to her, justice or no justice."
When Barbara had been searched and photographed, and her permitted possessions returned to her in a prison issue plastic bag, Sylvia yet again addressed her by her former name.
"Hunt, oh, sorry, Mrs. Mills," She added in a sickly sweet tone. "Your wing governor wishes to see you." Then, returning to her former bitterness, she said, "Seems she thinks she can give you special treatment, as you're a friend of hers. Still, all cons together, I suppose." Biting her tongue, because she didn't want to make the situation with Sylvia any worse than it already was, Barbara followed her up through the maize of familiar dingy gray corridors, the clang of every gate seeming to reverberate around her skull. She dreaded seeing Nikki, desperately not wanting to meet that look of either pity or scorn in the eyes of the only person who managed to keep her sane, the last time she was in prison.
"Your old cell mate," Sylvia said almost conversationally as they walked. "Seems to think she's a cut above the likes of you these days, got herself a set of keys, as well as the suit. Wonder what she'll think of you now, landing yourself back here, right under her nose." When Nikki bade them to enter, Sylvia pushed Barbara in ahead of her. "She's had fingerprints, dry bath and photos," She told Nikki without any further explanation. "But you asked to see her before we could grant her the privilege of a reception phone call."
"Fine," Nikki replied, clearly brooking no argument. "I'll sort that out myself, and I'll bring Barbara down to the wing when we're ready." Without further ado, Sylvia turned on her heel and strode out of the office, slamming the door behind her.
Nikki walked slowly over to Barbara, seeing a look of combined fear and uncertainty on her face.
"How are you?" She asked quietly, thinking this a particularly pointless question in the circumstances.
"Oh, Nikki," Barbara said, the tears finally breaking free. "Why am I here?" She asked, as if Nikki could provide all the answers.
"I don't know, sweetheart," Nikki told her, wrapping her friend in a warm embrace. Barbara clung to her, seeing in one glance that Nikki neither scorned nor pitied her. All she could see in Nikki's face was kindness and sympathy, two attributes that hadn't been present in anyone who had spoken to her over the last couple of days.
"I shouldn't be here," Barbara insisted when she calmed down a little. "I'm serious, Nikki, I didn't do it. Not even for Henry would I risk being sent to prison again."
"Are you telling me the truth, Barbara?" Nikki asked, drawing slightly back from her so that she could look Barbara in the face, remembering all too clearly the one occasion on which Barbara had lied to her, lied to them all, over the money she had inherited from Peter.
"I promise you, Nikki, I no more helped Henry to die, than Karen helped her son to die."
"Okay," Nikki replied, seeing and hearing the sincerity in Barbara's words. "Then we'll have to see what we can do about it, won't we." After guiding Barbara into her visitor's chair, Nikki asked her secretary to bring them some tea.
When Barbara had taken a sip of the strong, sweet warmth, usually the perfect antidote to shock, Nikki said,
"Now, seeing as you didn't get your phone call, you can make it from here."
"I need to phone Yvonne," Barbara said, putting the cup down. "I could do with someone picking some clothes and things up for me, and I suppose I'd better ask her to contact a barrister."
"Jo Mills would be the obvious choice," Nikki said quietly.
"And I'm half tempted to ask someone who I've never met before," Barbara replied. "After getting to know Jo and George, not to mention the judge, during Lauren's trial and 'The Creation', I don't know if I could ever look any of them in the face after this."
"Barbara, that's what they do," Nikki told her with a smile. "Defending people who are innocent until proven guilty, that's what Jo and George do. Jesus, if Jo can defend Lauren Atkins, knowing she killed Fenner, then she'll without doubt stand up for you, you know she will."
"I know," Barbara said miserably. "I just feel so, I don't know, so humiliated, so vulnerable. I know I didn't do anything wrong, but no one else does."
"I do," Nikki told her with total certainty. "So will Karen, and so will Jo. For now, that's all that matters."
When Barbara had telephoned Yvonne, asking her if she could possibly bring her in some clothes, as well as contacting Jo, Nikki took her down to the wing.
"I've put you next door to the Julies, because we both know that you need to be around friends if at all possible. You've got a double cell to yourself for now, because I thought you might prefer to be on your own, but I can't promise that'll last."
"Thank you, for doing all that you are, Nikki," Barbara said, her words sounding foreign in the bleak surroundings.
"I'm doing what I would for any prisoner in your situation," Nikki assured her. "I'm going to make Dominic your personal officer for the time being, and if you have any problems, anything you want to talk about, you come to him or to me. If the claustrophobia puts in an appearance, and you want some medication to calm you down, just in the beginning, ask Dominic to get you an appointment with Dr. Waugh."
"You know," Barbara said with a slight smile. "You really do sound like a wing governor."
"I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing," Nikki said ruefully. "But Sylvia keeps me in my place by reminding me of my roots."
When they appeared through the gates on G wing, they were approached by the Julies.
"Eh Babs, what're you doing back here?" Julie Saunders said in surprise.
"Barbara's been put on remand for a while," Nikki told them quietly. "I'm putting her in the double cell next to yours, and I want the two of you to look after her."
"Course we will," Julie J responded, taking Barbara's small bag of belongings from her. "What's happened?" Barbara opened her mouth to tell them, but found that she was unable to formulate any kind of an answer.
"Let her settle in first, eh Julies," Nikki said calmly. "And she'll tell you in her own time."
"Yeah, best to sort yourself out first," Julie J agreed as they walked towards the stairs.
"Then we'll get you a cup of tea," Julie S promised. "And you can tell us all about it." As Nikki stood, and watched the Julies escort Barbara upstairs, she blinked a few tears away, thinking that this was the beginning of her longest professional road yet. She was going to find it immensely difficult to remain professionally detached with Barbara's case, to stay on the screws' side of the wire, as if Barbara were nothing more than just another prisoner. Barbara wasn't just another inmate though, was she, she was a friend, a firm, sincere friend who had kept Nikki going through some of her darkest moments in Larkhall, who had kept her focused when it looked as though all with Helen was lost.
"You all right, Nikki?" Dominic asked, coming up to her and laying a brief hand on her shoulder.
"Yeah, fine," Nikki replied, trying to force her professional mask back into place. "I just never thought I'd see her back in here, that's all. I mean, someone like the Julies, or Denny, you get used to seeing them round the place, because the old joint wouldn't quite be the same without them. But Barbara, she knows more about me than I probably know myself, and it just feels wrong that I've now got to lock the door on her, keep the bars between us as if we never shared a cell, as if we never spent many a night whinging about the screws, or talking about some of the darkest times we've ever had."
"I know it's a bit deep for a Tuesday morning," Dominic replied with a sympathetic smile. "But don't you think that that's how Helen felt, every time she banged you up in the old days. Every time she had to pull rank on you, she probably felt something very similar."
"Yeah, I guess she did," Nikki said, smiling back at him. "But I'm not about to resign, just because of divided loyalties. Barbara needs all the help I can give her."
The all seeing eye of all human activity looked down on the courtyard as both Nikki and Karen made their uncertain way across the courtyard through the front gates. Then it soared effortlessly up into the air, taking in the perspective of the high castle walls of G Wing. Soon, the cobbled courtyard diminished into the size of a postage stamp and the eye gained perspective of the whole grim castle like walls and buttresses of Larkhall. Those few prison officers who arrived at work were reduced in perspective to that of ants and disappeared from sight as the eye floated into the air up on high and away into the distance. After a journey of what seemed like an eternity, floating on soft white clouds, the view below drifted downward and sideways, taking in the perspective of another institution, many miles away, and of similar purposeful ant like scurrying of people in motion which gave it a similar purpose and drive as at Larkhall. The eye took in the modernist, slab sided walls and glass windows, which held the inhabitants captive to their own destinies and purposes. To the side of the huge complex was the large car park and, as the eye descended, it disappeared from view and the eye focused in on the front of the complex. The focal point that came into view was the pull in point where two white vans were parked. At this moment, another one arrived, blue light flashing and everyone and everything giving way to the urgency of its errand. The back doors opened and two men carried a vague captive shape in on a stretcher, which was swallowed up in the wide-open mouth of the entrance. Coming down to ground level, the human beings became real and the false distancing perspective of human beings to ants was abolished
and the fresh faced figure Will Curtis, Cardio thoracic Registrar, Darwin Ward walked into work as usual. Such was another day at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington.
"You're only young once," he heard the scatty, bubbly and very persuasive Donna Jackson reason with her slightly severe senior nurse, Lisa Fox. "I was at a party last night. You know me, never one to miss out on a chance of fun."
"Don't I know it," the fair haired woman, not much older than Donna, try to remind her one time flat mate of her responsibilities. "but you're ten minutes late. One of your friends will be waiting to get off their shift."
"I'll work extra hard and make up for lost time as I always do," the irrepressible rubber ball personality spieled back with long practice. "Mr. Curtis, don't you agree with me?"
Will Curtis threw up his hands to resist being dragged into the matter. "Nothing to do with me, I only performs life saving operations."
His manner was the curious mixture of one who was out of his depth in dealing with fast-mouthed adolescent girls and a lordly consciousness of his importance in the affairs of hospital, and that others were mere adjuncts to this process. The fact that he was married with two children made no difference to that uneasiness as, after all, he was a busy man working long shifts to provide for his family.
"How many times have I heard that old chestnut?" a broad scouse voice came from behind him as the laughing face of Staff Nurse Tricia Williams came into view. She worked in Darwin Ward and wasn't Donna's responsibility, thank God. She was a middle aged woman whose happy go lucky manner was younger than her years and whose own daughter Chrissie worked uneasily with her. She had heard them all and had said them all.
Donna smiled sheepishly in response and took one glance out of the corner of her eye at the approaching figure and beat a hasty exit as a sterner, more determined authority figure was on hand.
"Mr. Curtis, nice of you to favour us with your presence," Came the cool commanding tones of his arch enemy, the very dominant Connie Beauchamp, Consultant Cardio thoracic Surgeon, and Medical Director of St. Mary's Hospital, Darwin Ward. She was very much in charge and let Will know of this in particular. There was no love lost between the two of them. If there was anyone Will felt tense to be around it was Connie Beauchamp. She had that knack of making him feel that she was his old schoolteacher, who had ticked him off for his shirt tail hanging out. His modern day insecurity was that her verbal fluency could leave him flat footed and had built up to the point that the slightest word made him flare up.
"I think that I am entitled to some holiday to spend time with my wife and my children but then again, you wouldn't know about such things."
His answer was delivered in that flat, neutral tone born of standing to attention as a one-time army doctor whose career path had inexplicably veered to civilian life. Even at his most boilingly angry inside, rules and regulations never allowed his tone of voice to let itself go and so he resorted to his take on subtle sarcasm if suitably provoked.
"As far as I am concerned, you don't exist outside this hospital. That's only fair, as outside my job I don't exist either," Connie retorted with a slight smile on her face and lowered eyelids that mixed the slightly flirtatious with the totally dismissive. She knew well enough that this was the perception that everyone who worked under her had of her. She had that spring heeled nimbleness in verbal sparring to twist that outrageously to her advantage. before continuing in a slightly harder tone.
"However, you know what I think if your home life ever interferes with your job .but this is not a time for arguments. Have a nice day."
She twirled round and headed off elsewhere as she delivered that last remark so softly that it had the recipients guessing that fraction of a time too long before she was gone. Will was left fuming in her wake. He always made the mistake of trying to beat her in a fair open verbal exchange.
"Back to the chain gang, eh," Came the easy joking tones behind him that calmed Will down a little. "I've gone through that one with my children and I've come through the other side pretty unscathed."
The voice was that of Ric Griffin, Consultant General Surgeon of Keller Ward. Of Jamaican origin, he came from the same school of very English diction as Trevor McDonald. He was an easy-going man who was happy to get along with those around him. They started to stroll down the wide airy central corridor running down the central core of the hospital. It permitted a clear view down as far as the eye could see unlike the crooked, dog legged corridors of Larkhall, which were bound and limited by sets of barred gates.
"You should know as you have had enough of them ..and wives as well," Joked Professor Zubin Khan, Head of Anaesthetics. He was alluding to Ric's four ex wives and nearly a fifth and nine children which always made Zubin's mind boggle at the thought. He prided himself as a restrained man of moderation and he felt that the one late wife and grown up daughter was quite enough to handle on top of himself.
"The first time I asked for my first wife's hand in marriage, I was really nervous. When it got to the fourth, it was a piece of cake. And, as for children, can I be blamed?"
"There's no answer that I can repeat in polite company," Retorted Zubin in that slightly earnest way of speaking that he always adopted. His manner was softened by a tone of easy familiarity with Ric, born of a thirty year friendship at medical school which still made Will feel uneasy as the relative newcomer. "Got to go," He added as his place of work took him in a different direction.
"Talking of polite company, I had an argument with Connie not five seconds after I got here," Will remarked to Ric, clearly seeking sympathy from him. "Doesn't she ever let up?"
"And you lost it, I don't wonder. The secret of a happy life, Will, is not to rise to the bait which Connie dangles so temptingly in front of you," Laughed Ric. He had slipped into the not altogether welcome role of middleman, arbitrating between all sides and somehow avoiding any confrontation with Connie.
"You've not answered my question, Ric. Why does she make a dead set at me?" asked Will and a complaining tone of voice unusually broke through.
"You have to admit that Connie Beauchamp is a total professional," Explained Ric patiently. "She drives herself as hard as she drives others. You must know that from seeing her in action. She feels that anything that could go wrong in her hospital is a potential threat to herself "
"You've put your finger on it. She feels that it is her hospital. Why on earth can't she just lighten up?"
Ric gave up. He had been Medical Director once and all it was to him was a bed of nails, eternally arbitrating between so many squabbling individualists. He would sooner have spent a day with Jess and Leo when they were hell on earth squabbling adolescents. He just didn't have that drive within him and there was a definite limit to his ambitions. He knew that Connie was different and he respected that difference when he knew, what Zubin did not, how onerous was that responsibility. He sighed. He might as well have been reasoning with Zubin who periodically got on his high horse about Connie in a similar way that Will did in his petulant fashion.
"She just wants to knock you into shape. Standard practice for young registrars," Laughed Ric.
Will winced. The words made him feel as uncomfortable as Connie's seductive intonation on those very same words that Connie had directed at Will when, for some reason which he could not explain, he gave up on his intention to go into general surgery under Ric instead of specialist cardio thoracic surgery under Connie. It had seemed a good idea at the time, only Connie's brief good humour had vanished and she was back to hounding him as before.
"Tom, will you have a look at this patient? I need a second opinion," Ric had asked of the slightly built man who quick movements visibly bristled with the authority and the mannerisms of the dominant rooster in the farmyard. It was understood that while Connie was not available with her managerial functions, Tom Campbell-Gore, consultant cardio thoracic surgeon would be on hand.
Tom narrowed his eyes while Ric's deplorable taste in rock music provided a curious accompaniment. The general public's image was of surgeons earnestly at work in total dedicated silence and would have never suspected that they could carry on an impeccably coordinated conversation as to the best course on how to operate, to be undisturbed by the variety of music going on in the background and at the same time, the very adrenaline charged and combative personalities could snipe and counter snipe at each other. Even without the mere minor details of the operation, the cross fire could be deadly, as for example between Zubin and Connie whose respective authorities in the almost military pecking order of the hospital allowed this to go on. This seemed to be similar of all institutions whose evolution owed something to military in its origins, whether hospital or prison service.
"Leave this to me," He smiled in satisfaction as he ruminated on the medical conundrum. "I've seen him before, Ric. I never forget a face. Now who is he? The name will come to me in a second."
After the light switched on in his face, Tom worked with restrained control with the tools of his trade, surrounded by his acolytes, the life saving heart monitors and other expensive machinery and a respectful Ric giving him the respect due to him.
"BP steady," Announced a flat tone, cueing him as he worked away. The tall thin figure of Zubin, the anaesthetist, hovered in the background, unusually silent as he performed his function. He was also silent as Tom's ego bruised his sensitivities as to his place in the world. A cynic about him would consider that, deep down, Zubin gained comfort in extending his long standing area of moral disapproval from Tom through to Connie, whose bold and brash intrusion into the exclusive male world of consultant surgeons, had disturbed his conventional ideas of what was right and proper. Ric could never tell Zubin that he did not know that he was well off in only having Tom to spar with and that, as he got on well enough with the other two, why on earth couldn't he get some peace and quiet in his life. The problem was that there was a tendency to take for granted his easy going tolerant surface personality.
"I don't approve of the way that Tom conducts his operations. I have nothing personal against him. It is my duty to stand up for what is right," Zubin had repeatedly urged him in those actorish tones, which Ric shrugged off. Well, Ric smiled cynically, Zubin could not claim the same about Connie. It was all a shame as, kept off those subjects, Zubin gave him that easy, friendly male company that stretched back far back in time.
Staff nurse Tricia Williams dispensed her cheerful and reassuring care lavishly to the patients on Darwin ward who perked up immediately. She felt especially on top of the world as she was sure as anything she was sure of that she was engaging the abundant Cuban-American charms of Carlos Fishola, the consultant plastic surgeon. If ever a man were an advertisement for his profession, it was he. His suave good looks combined that exotic American drawl in his voice with that Latin American charm, an irresistible combination. From the perspective of her native Liverpool, he was a window on the world and the answer to any woman's dreams, teenage or otherwise. Right now, she could manage anything, even her daughter Chrissie's testiness.
You were never sure how the day was going to go, she reflected, her mind on the job. It all came down to the registrars she came to work with. She could never work out exactly why but there was a tendency for young registrars fresh out of medical school to treat the nurses and sisters as personal slaves, dependent on the passing whim of the moment. Will Curtis should have known better but he had been one of the worst of them until time and circumstances knocked a few of those rough edges off him. He had everything coming to him that way and he seemed to have learnt a few lessons. Today, fortune had smiled on her as behind her Tash Bandara, the General Surgical Registrar strolled along behind her. She was an imperturbable woman in her mid thirties whose wise eyes must have looked out into the world from when she was a little girl. She had that knack of calming the most agitated person with that mere presence of hers. She did not have to speak a single word to achieve that effect. She was an intensely private woman who respected others privacy. So self-contained was she that Ric had spent inordinate efforts to chat her up without suspecting that she was a lesbian. She smiled to herself as she entered the ward when she recalled Ric's puzzled expression as that particular penny, so far from refusing to drop, had been irretrievably positively welded to the slot. They could work a ward between them with hardly an exchange of words but they both knew that they had spent a companionable morning together.
The rest of it was down to what emergency might break out on the wing and that everyone had to jump immediately into action.
It was not often that Jo felt nervous when facing a new client for the first time. Her friendly, professional manner came natural to her and her mind had been honed to precision in assembling the known facts of a case and slotting in the additional facts as they came to hand. Above all else, she had a sure instinct in sensing the questions that needed asking. It was far too easy for a client, half seas over with confusion, worry and guilt, not to be able to be able to se facts of the case that were staring them right in the eyes. She had paid the hard way in her early years in not being that inquisitive enough and had groaned inwardly as her supposedly sure fire case sank right in front of her eyes to the accompaniment of a gleam of triumph from the other council and a pitying look from the judge. She had moved on a long way since those days.
That was all very well if she did not know the client personally. The image remained in her mind was the middle aged, respectable unobtrusive friendly woman whose harpsichord trills she could pick out to one side of her while she bent earnestly over her cello, coaxing the sonorous notes out of her instrument with her large bow. She was one of them, that band of musicians who retained some mystic bond from those months of intensive practice and the soaring ecstasy of that magnificent performance. For this reason, she could not think of recusing herself from the case as she was personally acquainted with her client as virtually the entire Bar Council were also acquainted with her. It might as well be her as anyone else to represent her as anyone and, besides, it was the sort of case that her heart was in. All the same, as she straightened her neat blue workmanlike suit, she wondered what she was letting herself in for.
It felt strange parking her car outside Larkhall prison once again. Images of her past visits had stuck fast in her mind so that when she confronted the outward reality, she felt hardly surprised. This October day was bright and sunny with the tail end of the good weather before the first cold fierce blast of winter's approach shredded the last of the remaining brown leaves off the trees. There wasn't a breath of wind in the air and the last of summer's warmth made it a good time to be outside before making her way to the gatehouse.
Barbara was sweating and drained as the early morning knock woke her dull senses. It felt as if she had only just drifted uneasily off to sleep. She had woken up in the middle of the night feeling that the walls of her relatively spacious double cell felt they were closing in on her and she had screamed at the window high up in her cell to be let out. By standing on tiptoes, she could only just see the night sky outside. It was lucky that Selena was on the nightshift and her calm relaxing manner had got her to get back to bed. The Julies had called anxiously from next door and had quietened her down but even then, she had spent hours staring anxiously at the walls and her breathing remained rapid and shallow. At the bottom of that core of fear, her world had been turned upside down. She loved the Julies for their unfailing kindness and she knew that she could have been worse off from remembering Larkhall of old but did she expect to see them again this side of the prison bars? She crushed that down as an unchristian thought, especially that they had been out of her thoughts for far too long while she had dutifully played the part of the vicar's wife. She thought of her friend Nikki who hadn't stopped being her friend even if she happened to be wing governor. She knew Nikki was looking after her but even when her terrors momentarily subsided, she felt acutely uncomfortable to be in the situation of being looked after. Even while these feelings of guilt and confusion swirled round her, the only way they could be blotted out was if her terrors returned to hold her in their vice like grip. All she longed for was that sweet feeling of normality. Nothing could possibly comfort her except to be free of this nightmare.
"Hey, Babs, want us to fetch you a cup of tea?" Julie Johnson asked her while she huddled up under her blankets, first thing in the morning. She had relapsed into a vague haze when her fingertips suddenly came into contact with a vaguely cylindrical plastic shape, which wobbled slightly.
"Careful or you'll spill your tea. Tina's made it just the way you like it."
A nice cup of tea, even out of a blue beaker as opposed to her prized tea set was the first vaguely normal experience.
"I've got to go on the servery, but Nikki's just behind me. She'll look after you."
The words of the other woman sounded incredibly tender and kind hearted to Barbara as Julie dropped into the natural mode of thinking and expectation that Nikki, whoever she was and whatever uniform she was wearing, would take care of her like she always used to. At this moment, following Julie's lead seemed to Nikki to be the most natural thing to do.
"Like Julie says, I'll stop here with you till you're ready. I've got time."
Barbara gradually released her fierce clutch onto a corner of the blanket and began to reach a tenuous grip on the world as she sipped the English cure for all manner of troubles.
Later, as Nikki looked at her watch and made plans on what she had to do when Jo came to visit. It was perfectly obvious to her and she received a grateful smile when this was suggested. It was the ideal solution to something that was worrying her of trying to concentrate if she was shivering, edgy and totally drained from last night and doing her best to think clearly and tell Jo everything.
"It's lovely to see you, Jo, we haven't seen you for far too long. It's a pity it has to be in a situation like this."
Nikki's bright smile and light in her eyes welcomed Jo but faded as the purpose of her visit came home to her and that it wasn't a social call.
"I suppose you'll be showing me to the room?" Jo asked lightly
"I've got a better idea. If it is all right with you, I'll have a table and chairs set up in the exercise yard. There's a good reason for this," She went on to say as Jo raised her eyebrows in mild astonishment. "Barbara is under real stress and that brings on her claustrophobia. I know that very well as a long time ago, I was put into a double cell with her because of that which is how we got to become close friends. One of the private rooms would be living hell to her and no use to either of you."
"That sounds a good idea but will there be anyone around?"
"I can guarantee you two, three hours completely on your own as most of the inmates will either be in their cells or at work or education, so that you and Barbara have the exercise yard to yourselves. If you're happy with the idea, perhaps you care to join me in a cup of tea with me in my office while everything's being set up, and I'll take you and Barbara to where your al fresco room will be"
Jo thought over the idea rapidly. It was pleasant enough outside and Nikki's unconventional idea certainly had its merits, especially as Barbara would be at her most relaxed. What was most important was for Barbara to be at her most clear-headed. She liked the idea of being out in the open, one last taste of summer.
"You lead the way, Nikki," Jo smiled. She liked this courteous, thoughtful woman and a short break before the hard work seemed a pleasant way to pass the time. As soon as she entered the room, memories of when she was last here came flooding back to Jo and they came straight out of her mouth.
"The last time I was here in this room, Karen was wing governor and Fenner was still alive."
"He must be turning in his grave to see me of all people behind this desk. Never did quite make it to the top, did he?"
They both laughed at the joke and shared some idle chitchat. As Jo had finished her cup of tea, Nikki's phone rang to say the furniture was set up.
"In my club days, I would have done it myself. It still seems strange to pick up the phone and someone else does it for me." Nikki grinned at her aside to Jo and phoned up for Barbara to be brought to her room. Her voice was not quite the confident administrator as Colin answered the call.
"You're ready to face the music, Barbara?" Nikki asked the other pale faced, sweating woman. The way she walked told Nikki how tense Barbara was. "In your own time."
Barbara smiled wanly, and the three of them threaded their way out of the wing to the top of the steep steps down to the exercise yard to where the table and two chairs were set up. If Jo hadn't been a little anxious about Barbara, she could make believe that the three of them were merely happening to be having a pleasant get together in a suburban patio back garden if she didn't look too hard at the prison buildings at the far side of the short, cropped turf. When the three of them approached the simple table and chairs, she flopped into a waiting seat and inhaled deep lungfuls of air while Jo sat opposite.
"I've got to go but here's my mobile number, Jo. You phone me if you want any tea and biscuits and the Julies will bring them and also when you're done and I'll come myself to fetch you."
As she uttered these words, a memory flash took her back to the time when Claire Walker another very sympathetic and strong female member of the legal profession came to talk to her and Helen once stood in the shoes that she was wearing today. The autumn sun smiled encouragingly down on the two women and Jo allowed a minute or two after Nikki left before she spoke.
"I'm not sure what questions you're going to ask me, Jo," Barbara started to say in an agitated fashion, "but as God is my witness, I had nothing to do with dear Henry's death apart from nursing him right up to the end but I'm certain that some dreadful official will know my name and try all the more to ensnare me."
"Why on earth would anyone act that way?" Jo asked ever so softly. She could detect a mixture of hurt, pain, anger and despair running round her mind.
Barbara coloured deeply. She had given herself away.
"Just how much do you know about my past except that I've been here before?"
"I make it a rule to make up my mind from what any client tells me and not go by what I think I know. It's safer that way," Jo answered evenly.
"Do you find it easy to represent a client who you know personally?" Barbara pursued in a curiously formal fashion.
"I don't find it easy when I know you from playing in the same orchestra and from being a witness in the Atkins/Merriman trial."
"Is that so much of a problem?"
"It's only that it could make it harder to defend anyone who I know and got to like. It's like asking a surgeon to operate on his father and to be clear thinking as he has to be. I'm supposed to put together the facts in a detached, unemotional way so that I can think most clearly and not to overlook any weakness in my case that the other barrister can exploit."
"And do you?"
"Think clearly, yes. Be unemotional, not all the time. That is my failing if you could call it one."
Jo's smile was free and easy and her eyes sparkled in the sunshine.
"Then that's all right."
Jo's candid manner made Barbara become less tense and even smile slightly.
"Are you ready to talk now?" Jo continued very softly, as a very gentle breeze ruffled her hair.
"I have to. I owe it to Henry's memory. He would not want it any other way."
Jo stretched out more comfortably in her chair as the tension flowed out of her body. She had been a little nervous in wondering how she would talk to Barbara.
"Let's start from the beginning. I don't want to pry, but can you explain in your own words, why you were previously in Larkhall?"
Barbara carefully removed her glasses, polished them on a pocket-handkerchief and replaced them carefully on her nose.
"I have been married three times," Barbara said slowly, her face twisting slightly in pain as the grim finality of the past tense hit home. "I was unhappily married to my first husband before I met Peter, my second husband. Peter was a lovely man like Henry was. He was a widower who was as much in need of comfort as I realized that I was in need of. Suddenly, I found a kind sensitive, deeply civilized man took me out of my world and into his world. I found a man whom I could love and who loved me. We traveled on holiday to different countries, to the outer reaches of Tibet in a spiritual journey of exploration for example. It was wonderful, except that .. "
Barbara smiled inwardly at such satisfaction until a shadow flitted across her face and she stopped.
"Please continue," Jo prompted.
"I was going to say that my first husband was a Catholic and did not believe in divorce and prevented us from marrying in the normal course of events. We felt married anyway in the eyes of God as any couple."
"I understand," Jo articulated softly. Now was not the time to pursue the matter, she judged as Barbara's voice lost its smooth flow and became awkward, strained.
"Peter had two children from his first marriage and they resented me from the start. They were Peter's children and for his sake I did everything to try and keep the peace but to no avail. They probably saw me as an obstacle between what they saw as their inheritance, God forgive me."
Jo passed a tissue with her sympathy as a long buried ancient hurt burst to the surface as her face crumpled.
"Everything would have been fine if Peter hadn't become ill," She sighed as recalling the tragedy meant reliving it one more time as she had for Nikki. "The dear man tried to minimize his illness till I forced him to go to the doctor. Even I wasn't prepared for the bad news they called it inoperable lung cancer, too far advanced for more than palliative treatment ..my God. He became worse, in so much pain as the illness consumed him. I felt so helpless to do anything for him, you do understand, Jo. It is most important that you know and feel it, more than you could imagine "
The passionate fear and pain broke through her accustomed stoical manner and her blue eyes looked at this professional woman for kindly judgment. Inside, Jo's feelings lurched sickeningly. She knew only too well. She had been sucked down into the same hell by the illness that killed her own husband years ago. She swallowed down that own knot in her stomach and smiled kindly mouthing to her ears trite words.
"I'm a human being, Barbara though I admit, I can't feel your feelings for you."
It was that look of understanding from the older woman which flashed between them that made Jo feel young and untutored but curiously relieved that, in her untutored way, she had done the right thing.
"He was in such pain towards the end," repeated Barbara in a bleak prayerful manner of a profoundly Christian fearing that the eternal judge who held her soul captive wouldn't forgive her or give her absolution, "that it was almost more than either of us could bear, It wasn't murder but what I did was to kill one of the two men I have ever loved in my life."
Those words tortured Jo beyond belief. There but the grace of god goes Josephine Mills. She could not speak as her own misery that she had held back for so long came flooding back. She did not know what to do or say next and she was supposed to do or say something.
It was at that moment that whatever providence in the world arrived in the form of Julie Saunders whose light footsteps and greeting came at the right time. She had carried a tray with a teapot and two cups and saucers, a milk jug and sugar pot and a plate full of rich tea biscuits.
"Nikki sent me as she thought you'd be thirsty with all that talking. I'm not getting in the way?"
"Bless you. You came out just at the right time," Came Jo's response with heartfelt emotion, a tear in her eye.
Julie Saunders was simultaneously flattered and embarrassed. She didn't think that serving tea and biscuits was all that special. Barbara was delighted that something like Julie's prosaic, common sense self came along at the right time and a wave of gratitude that swept through her and rescued her made her curiously light headed as she asked with that slight knowing smile curving the corners of her lips,
"You're not serving us with some of your special cookies, Julie? I've heard all about them."
"No, they're all legal and above board. Miss Betts said she'd have us shipped out if we did that again."
Julie set up the cups and saucers and poured the tea in her kindly down to earth manner somehow banished the demons that the conversation had summoned up in both Jo and Barbara. She smiled at both of them reassuringly though her conscious mind would have wondered why the bleeding hell she would need to reassure them. After all, she's only one of the red bans, nothing fancy like.
"You just phone Nikki if you want a refill and more biscuits," She finished before making a discreet exit.
"What was that all about, Barbara?" Jo smilingly asked.
"Oh nothing much. It was April fools day and they cooked up some cannabis cookies as a special surprise, and Karen had only been in her first week as governing governor, and Gina Rossi was acting wing governor. I think they both rather enjoyed the experience though they could hardly go around advertising the matter."
Jo shook her head and smiled at the nonchalant way that Barbara, that very respectable woman, delivered her judgment with total aplomb. The words 'dark horse' framed themselves in her mind without any conscious thought process.
"I have to ask you a painful set of questions, Barbara, but only as they are central to the case," Jo carried on, the delivery of her next set of questions being slow and as tentative as she felt inside. "Can you be more exact as to how Peter came to die and what led you to be imprisoned in relation to his death?"
"Peter did not want to die in a hospital bed, far away from me. He wanted to be at home with me. As his illness advanced " and Barbara drew in a long intake of breath, steadying herself and nerving her to push through to the end of this intensely painful part of the story. " he grew weaker, more in need of nursing by me and more in pain. I took special leave from work so I had no shelter, nothing I could lose myself in .."
Jo winced inwardly. She knew exactly what Barbara was getting at.
" ..eventually, the anaesthetist had to instruct me on how to deliver regular morphine injections which were rather more effective than the cannabis plants that I grew in a discreet corner of my back garden. That worked for a while and we both had some temporary peace for a while."
"Did you have any assistance in looking after him?" Jo asked while Barbara paused.
"Towards the end, I had home helps who were very kind. I ought to add that Peter's two children started to come round more often than they used to. I believed that in their cold blooded way, they did indeed love their father. It would be uncharitable and unfair of me to say otherwise but it did not soften their attitude to me. Oh, they said the right words of sympathy but that was skin deep. In the end, the morphine wasn't enough to deaden the pain ..it got worse and worse and in the end, when we were quite alone, Peter begged me to put him out of his misery and I succumbed."
"So how were the police involved at a moment when you were thoroughly and morally deserving of sympathy and understanding of every decent human being?"
Jo's voice trembled as she spoke the words. This was not the action of a cold unemotional brief.
"That was Peter's children's doing. They insisted on an autopsy as to the cause of Peter's death. The unusually high level of morphine in Peter's bloodstream and them telling the police that I stood to inherit Peter's money provided them with a motive to draw the conclusions they wanted to arrive at."
"What evidence do you have of this?"
"They gave evidence at my trial in their high minded and slanted fashion. They had used the opportunity to visit their father to spy on me. I'm sorry, I shouldn't talk that way. Of course, I had no one who could or would have supported my testimony and that went against me .I was technically guilty of shortening Peter's life but I have been brought up as a Christian to value all human life and it went against everything I had been taught to act as I did. I ought to say that the only time Peter's children ever visited me at Larkhall was to tell me that they had hired private investigators who had discovered that I was never divorced from my first husband when I married Peter. I owe it to Sylvia Hollamby in her typical score settling fashion to spread it around the other prisoners that I had inherited three and a half million pounds from Peter."
"What?" Jo exclaimed inadvertently. She had thought that John turned inscrutability into an art form but this quiet, middle-aged woman was in a different league. She saw the look of shock on Barbara's face and hastily qualified her reaction. "I mean, I am glad you have been frank on the matter."
"What you are really asking yourself is did that have any bearing on my actions. I can say in all conscience before God, none whatsoever. His money simply wasn't important to me. I acted purely to release from his sufferings the man I loved when his situation was utterly hopeless. When it came out at Larkhall about the money, I settled half a million pounds to found a half way house for discharged prisoners who had nowhere to go before Peter's children secured the money for themselves. It is run along the same lines as the Monica Lindsay foundation, named after another former prisoner at Larkhall whom Nikki knew very well."
Jo was impressed at how open Barbara's manner was and how fair minded she tried to be against the odds. She could easily picture Barbara being up on trial before the more cynical members of the brethren. All the pieces were starting to fall into places in her mind with relatively few questions as Barbara kept the story rolling along nicely.
All the time that Barbara and Jo were intensely locked into the details of the unfolding story, the green grass unrolled itself as far as the grey walls of the administration blocks, which enclosed the exercise area. Inside, Karen glanced down at two distant human figures gathered round a table, complete with tea and biscuits. They might have been enjoying an open-air tea party in civilized surroundings if she didn't look too far around. She smiled approvingly at Nikki's highly unorthodox but successful idea of placing them where there weren't bolts and bars. Even she wouldn't have thought of that one and certainly none of the other wing governors. She smoked a cigarette as she watched and hoped that Jo was getting on well.
Jo paused for a second as she refilled her cup of tea and Barbara's from the last of the teapot and, as her eyes focused away into the distance, she spotted the hospital roof and remembered hearing of Karen's desperate attempt, in all senses of the word, to save Denny's life. Now that she could see how high and precarious that ledge was, she could feel for John being a helpless spectator of events for once in his life.
"Can you tell me about Henry, how you came to meet him and marry him?" Jo asked after she had sipped at the rather tepid liquid.
"I was already the organist at the chapel services at Larkhall when Henry first came to Larkhall. I saw him first as a perfect English gentleman who was ill cast to begin with as the vicar at a women's prison. Very early on, he said to me that he wanted more of a challenge from the parishioners he was used to. Well, he certainly got that all right." Barbara smiled fondly.
"Even from my limited experience of Larkhall, I can imagine."
"You might remember that both of us were witnesses a couple of years ago when Snowball Merriman and Yvonne's son were jointly charged with blowing up the G Wing library. Well, dear Henry was blatantly manipulated by Snowball Merriman into giving her the run of his office, and he couldn't see that coming at the time. I once gave him an earful from me for passing on to the authorities about a matter, which I had told him in strict confidence. His well-intentioned act had unfortunate repercussions in splitting up Denny from her partner, Shaz. Those were certainly challenges ..Oh, and I forgot, with my assistance, he had to fend off the clumsy school girlish advances of Sylvia Hollamby. That just added to the score of resentments she had of me."
Barbara continued to rattle through all the various little incidents of the past, which had served to unite the couple.
"We were both lonely people, Jo," Summarized Barbara. "Henry had been widowed in the same way that I was. We both needed friendship and stability from each other, having lost someone dear to us. It brought us together. When I got out of prison, it was totally natural for us to settle down in the parish of Chipping Ongar and enjoy the autumn of our lives in peace and serenity as we did. I know that Peter would have approved of both Henry and me marrying him."
Jo did not need to ask any questions about how love could flower in such a situation, even between prisoner and prison chaplain. It was a simple tale, simply told and lived and with a very real loyal friendship between them. She wished that her life could have been like that.
" .It wasn't as if Henry was another Peter. I didn't need to compare them ..."
Either the sun shone brightly on them or they both became aware of it as Barbara's thoughts swam comfortably in what she could pretend a little was the present. The distant grey walls were somehow not quite real as she enjoyed polite conversation with this very sympathetic woman. Jo picked up this pleasant, dreamy feeling but schooled herself to go into darker, more treacherous waters.
"Can you tell me what happened when Henry first became ill?"
"It gradually crept up on him," Barbara sighed. "He had been diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer as far back as last June at the time of the Creation. I was watching him like a hawk at the celebrations afterwards and that was the reason why he had to leave early. Even Henry had to have a rest ."
"I'm really sorry, Barbara as I never noticed at the time." Jo coloured as she apologized.
"There was no reason why you should notice, Jo anyway, things slid gradually downhill from then on as he found it harder and harder to keep up his duties for the parish ."
"Just like Peter," Jo prompted.
"As you say, just like Peter," Winced Barbara.
"I only asked that question as this does avoid having to ask you to relive an incredibly distressing experience twice over," Jo answered the silent reproach, receiving a look of gratitude in return.
"Can you tell me of the circumstances the day that he died? I have to ask you this question as a lot of the trial is going to center on this one day."
"I had been trained by the anaesthetist dealing with Henry's pain relief, how to deliver an injection, because, like Peter, Henry wanted to be at home, rather than in hospital. I remember going to the hospital and holding that syringe again and feeling everything that had happened to Peter come back to me in a rush. Of course, he said that I was a quick learner. Little did he know "
Jo closed her eyes in pain at the same time that Barbara did and she paused long enough for unpleasant memories of her own husband's final illness to surface at a time when she didn't need it.
"I'd been trained to always have the next injection prepared ready for when he needed his pain relief topped up. I was particular about this routine. I had to be. . "
"Did you leave the syringe in any particular place, Barbara? I can imagine you would have been under enormous stress and run off your feet and needing to make sure you remembered to administer the exact number of doses," Jo softly interjected.
Barbara nodded, surprised at Jo's ready understanding of the reality of the situation.
"I always left it in a special place in plain sight on the bedside table, so that it would be handy whenever Henry's pain got too bad. I remember reading one of his favourite stories as he lay in bed. He had always loved books and, when he was too weak to read, I read the stories to him. He kept a diary to write his thoughts in though he hadn't written anything for a few days, the nearest he could get to writing the sermon for the next Sunday service. He was always fastidious about the written and spoken word, like the speech he gave at our performance of "the Creation." That was Henry's little contribution .."
Jo remembered Henry's speech very well. She was hardly likely to forget it.
Denny came out into the exercise yard. She spotted Babs and that nice barrister deep in conversation. She guessed that it was Nikki's typical smartarse idea so Babs would get to talk rather than feeling like shit and keeping her mouth shut. Denny knew all about feeling that your birth must have been a mistake, let along anything crap in her life that she wanted to give her a break. Wicked idea that only Nikki could come up with. She carefully edged her way to the top end of the exercise yard and got to work on the plants that Nikki herself had carefully tended a few years ago. It was great out of doors and better to be here than shut up stuffing bleeding envelopes. She was starting to feel a little better but it was a stupid idea coming on like some bible nutter and banging on about being saved. Life didn't work that way, certainly not to Denny.
"We used to have conversations much as we always had. He insisted on that and I remember talking for a little while before he drifted off to sleep as he slept very badly at nights."
Jo grasped straightaway that it meant that Barbara did also and that everything was seen through the grey mists of drowsiness, which she had to force herself to overcome.
"I can remember that it was around lunchtime, when I gave him another injection, that I had prepared the next dose ready, and left it where I normally did. Henry asked me
to make him a cup of tea while he wanted to write in his diary. I agreed as I know from my experience how much it means to write your thoughts down. That's one of Henry's strengths ."
Barbara smiled as his presence still seemed to surround her as if he could never die. Then her smile faded as she grimly took the final plunge.
"When I came back with the cup of tea, I honestly thought that he had fallen asleep again. He looked so peaceful. It took me a little time for me to realize that he wasn't breathing ..I can't remember much after I realized that he had stopped breathing. The last that I can remember was dropping the cup of tea on the floor than that the syringe wasn't where it should be "
Ten minutes later, both Barbara and Jo in their various ways relaxed back in their chairs, drained while the grief that was lived by both of them had eventually drained from them and left them feeling weak. They let the sun and a very faint breeze attempt some slight healing process. They could do with everything like that which came their way. Just as Jo started to put some of the facts into rough order, Nikki's light footsteps could be heard as she approached them.
"I'm sorry to disturb you but we're letting the other prisoners out for association in ten minutes time. Do you want more time and, perhaps I'll find you a room if that is a good idea."
"You're fine, Nikki. We've just finished," Jo answered with a small smile.
As Barbara was led back to the wing into the Julie's kind hearted care, Nikki exchanged a few words with Jo.
"Of course, we're relying on you to spring her out of here," Nikki said lightly and instantly regretted her words from the expression on Jo's face. Jesus wept, she thought, I've got to do my crusading routine and be a champion duelist with my weapons of legal precedent, incisive reasoning and my facility with words and keep my feet on the ground. Some chance.
"Of course, we'll do our bit and look after Barbara. We can't expect you to be Superwoman."
"Leotards never suited me, Nikki," Jo responded in a crazy attempt at humour.
Karen came out of the wing office, took one look at the strained expression on Jo's face and made an instant executive decision. In her job, that was ridiculously easy.
"Want to come back to my office for a chat and a cigarette, Jo?"
Immediately, Jo jumped at the idea. It was what she knew she needed, to have a chance to mentally regroup and light up a very much-needed cigarette. Some irrelevant train of thought made Jo ask herself how on earth a self righteous non smoker managed to deal with his very turbulent life without resorting to nicotine.
"You look as if you've really gone through it," Remarked Karen as Jo lay back in a chair.
Jo nodded. That was the understatement of the century.
"Am I doing the right thing, Karen? She asked abruptly.
"What makes you think that this case will be harder than other cases you've taken on?" counter questioned Karen. "Don't forget, I've built up quite a lot of experience of seeing you, George and John in action, professionally speaking in the same way that you've all seen me in mine."
Jo was silent. Her thoughts were churning around far too much.
"You look as if you could do with a large scotch."
"If it wasn't too early, I would." Jo responded at last with a profound sense of conviction.
After leaving the prison, Jo went back to her office trying to assimilate everything she'd been told. She had taken copious notes during the interview with Barbara and as she nibbled at a sandwich at her desk, she typed them up into some semblance of order. This process would usually have allowed her thoughts to regroup after an interview with a client but not this time. No matter how much Jo tried to occupy herself with other clients, other meetings, and the endless streams of paperwork that the job entailed, her thoughts kept returning to that exercise yard, where she'd listened to one of the most heartrending stories of her career. Barbara was slowly coming apart at the seams, Jo had seen that, and it vaguely frightened her that it was up to her and her alone to make sure that Barbara could be put back together. That couldn't begin to happen until Barbara was free, one way or the other. She stayed at the office far later than usual that day, trying to catch up on the work she'd postponed because of the meeting with Barbara. She had wanted to give the other woman as much time as she needed, without having to worry about what waited for her back at the office, but now she was paying the price.
When at last she switched off her computer and stretched, she was astonished to see that it was after eight, the silence around her stating that virtually everyone else had left for the day. As she collected her things together, she realised that what she needed were the comforting arms and tender caresses of the gentler of her two lovers. What a strange thought, she mused to herself as she locked her office door, to think of oneself as having two lovers. The last month, of getting to know George in a way she never would have thought possible, had been utterly blissful in its own contented fashion, as Jo had gradually begun to abandon any lingering shyness she might have felt. She couldn't have asked for a more patient, more subtly guiding lover as she had found in George and this, combined with John's ever strong and reliable presence, was doing wonders for her. George had been very quiet for the first week or so after she'd returned from Spain, and both Jo and John had seen that all she really needed was space. She hadn't talked about the break up with Karen, in fact she'd barely even mentioned Karen in the subsequent weeks, but they both knew that this didn't mean she wasn't thinking about her. It was plain to see that George felt bitterly guilty for hurting Karen, and that before Karen and George resumed their friendship they needed some time apart, some time to get used to not being with each other in the way they had been before.
George wasn't at all surprised to see Jo late on the Wednesday evening because she knew that Jo had been to visit Barbara some time today. George had been righteously angry when Jo had told her about Barbara having been charged, but she had been forced to remind herself that Barbara had done something similar before. She would go and visit Barbara at some point and that would inevitably bring her into Karen's domain. She hadn't seen or spoken to Karen since they'd returned from Spain which was almost a month ago now. They had needed that time apart, she knew, but now she was beginning to think it was about time to clear the air between them. Well, perhaps a visit to Barbara might provide the perfect opportunity. She did want to see Karen, to make sure she was alright, and to get their friendship back onto a stable footing. She thought far too much of Karen to let their friendship disintegrate simply because they were no longer sleeping together. When she opened the door she could see that Jo looked weary, frazzled, and thoroughly out of sorts.
"You look tired," George said as Jo moved into the hall.
"I've been staring at a computer screen for most of the day," Jo replied, taking a great deal of comfort from George's embrace. "And I've been looking forward to this for hours."
"I'm always eager to please, darling," George said with a smile. They exchanged a deep and lingering kiss. "Would you like a drink?" George asked when they eventually parted.
"I could have done with one at lunchtime," Jo replied as they moved into the lounge.
"How did it go?" George asked, pouring Jo a large scotch and herself a martini.
"Not brilliantly," Jo said dejectedly, sinking down onto the sofa and lighting a cigarette.
Sitting down on the other end of the sofa, George asked, "what exactly has she been charged with?"
"No less than murder, I'm afraid. Mainly, I think, as a result of her previous offence. Last time she was in prison, she did three years for manslaughter because she helped her terminally ill husband to die, and that's basically what she's been accused of this time. George, she reminded me so much of myself."
"Oh, Jo, no," George protested, not wanting to think that Jo could ever have been in this position.
"All the time she was talking to me, telling me everything about both her last two husbands, I kept thinking that such a thing could so easily have happened to me. The way she described what happened the last time, it was almost as if she was telling my story, not hers, with the only differing factor being that I didn't have to make that choice. I can't begin to contemplate what that must have done to her. I think that's why Henry killed himself, so that she wouldn't again be faced with the worst of all decisions." Jo knew she was rambling, but she simply couldn't prevent the words from rushing out, like the rapid flow of spring water, down the cragged rock face of her tortured soul.
"Jo," George asked a little tentatively. "are you absolutely sure that that's what happened?"
"Yes," Jo said without hesitation. "She said that not even for Henry, could she have contemplated going back to prison."
After lighting a cigarette of her own, George took a deep drag and asked,
"so, where do you go from here?"
"I need to talk to the consultant who dealt with Henry's pain relief, and I possibly need to talk to the surgeon who declared his cancer as inoperable. That is, if the prosecution haven't already recruited her for their highly unworthy cause."
"You're starting to sound like me," George said with a lopsided smile. "It's usually me who won't give the prosecuting establishment the time of day, not you."
"The only reason Barbara has been charged is because the police can't accept that just because someone might have made a mistake on a previous occasion, they can't possibly have altered their ways in the meantime."
"Helping someone to die is a little more than a mistake Jo," George commented carefully, seeing that all Jo's emotions were currently on red alert, as volatile as George herself on one of her bad days.
"Maybe that's the point," Jo replied miserably, "in my capacity as an advocate of the law, I'm supposed to say that under no circumstances should anyone help another person to die, no matter how desperate the situation might be. Yet while I was listening to Barbara this morning, I couldn't help but think how brave she was. She put the ending of her husband's suffering above every other possible consideration. I suspect that the only thing that would have prevented her from doing the same thing again, was the absolute terror she has of being behind bars. I'm certain that's why Henry took the decision out of her hands, precisely because he didn't want her to go through it all again."
"Darling, can I make a suggestion?" George said tentatively. "one that I don't think is going to go down very well."
"I'm all ears," Jo said dryly, knowing that if George was even attempting to be tactful, she really wasn't going to like it.
"I'm not really sure how to say this," George said carefully. "Because I have no desire whatsoever to insult you as a professional or as a woman, but I think that a little occasional assistance with this case wouldn't go amiss. As a result of the extreme similarity between this case and your previous situation, I think you are going to find it very difficult to remain as emotionally detached as you need to be." There was a long, very stony silence. "Darling, don't look at me like that," George said cajolingly. "you know that I'm saying it purely for your own good, because already I can see this case getting to you, far more than any case ever should."
"I can't say I agree with you," Jo replied coldly.
"I didn't think you would," George replied with a smile. "I'm just asking you to think about it, that's all."
"George, that's the whole point about a case like this," Jo said vehemently. "To become as emotionally involved as possible so that I can defend my client to the best of my ability. If I'm going to have any chance of convincing the jury of her innocence, I need to get across to them just how emotionally charged this situation was, and I can't do that whilst remaining as emotionally detached as civil law seems to allow you to be."
"And what possible good would it do your client," George said disgustedly, now beginning to lose her cool in the face of Jo's rigidity, "if you completely crack up in the meantime?"
"Well, I thank you for the vote of confidence," Jo said acidly.
"Darling, I'm just concerned for you," George tried to explain. "I'm not likely to forget just how much the Diana Hulsey case tested your emotional well-being, even though it might have felt as though I didn't notice at the time, and as you said yourself, you are finding it hard to get away from the thought that this could so easily have been you."
"Diana Hulsey was different," Jo replied stonily.
"Yes, she was," George partly agreed with her. "And believe me, if her situation managed to creep under your armour so successfully, this will be ten times worse."
After taking a long swig of her drink, Jo said,
"if, and only if, I decided to contemplate your suggestion, just who did you have in mind?"
"You could do worse," George said carefully, knowing just how much derision this was going to be greeted with. "than to have me take on the role of your junior."
"George," Jo said in astonishment, rather unflatteringly only just managing to prevent herself from laughing out loud. "criminal law is hardly your forte."
"Thank you darling," George replied dryly. "but I'm hardly useless at it either."
"Why?" Jo asked, determined to find any reason for refusing, "why this sudden urge to assist with Barbara's case?"
"First, because I don't want you to have to go through this alone, and second because Barbara is a friend and I want to help her as much as you do."
"George, I need you to understand that I don't want to have to need your help, or anyone's help with this," Jo tried to explain her previous outburst.
"I know you don't," George told her gently. "and you might not need it for all I know, but maybe I want to take some of the burden away from you. That's not such a bad thing, is it?"
"No, I suppose not," Jo replied miserably, feeling a little foolish at her stubbornness, "I get so territorial over a case like this that I don't want to let anyone else near it."
"Would it help if I took on some of the donkey work and left you free to concentrate on Barbara?"
"Yes, it might," Jo agreed grudgingly. "but you must ask Barbara yourself about this because I think she needs to feel in as much control of her destiny as possible, and I'm still not happy about it, but I can see that this is the only way I'm likely to get a quiet life."
"You're learning, darling, you're learning," George said with a smirk, leaning forward to kiss her. Jo badly needed George's warm embrace, the delicious entanglement of their soft and pliable lips. She needed it to take her away from all the horrors of the day, to reaffirm that something good did exist in the midst of this upside-down world, where individuals were now guilty until proven innocent.
On the Thursday morning, Yvonne drove towards Jo's office. The last time she'd been here had been on the day Lauren was remanded in custody, almost two years ago now. It was funny how time flew, she thought to herself, as she moved the Ferrari through the virtually static London traffic. That had been in mid January 2004, and now it was early October 2005 and Lauren had been tried, convicted, and had been released after completing her sentence. Lauren had started her therapy with Meg Richards and was beginning to get back into the work she had been doing with Cassie before Fenner had been killed. She was slowly putting her life back together and Yvonne was proud of her for putting in the effort. Yet now, here they all were, at the beginning of yet another crusade for justice, this time with absolutely no question as to guilt or innocence. There was no way Barbara had killed Henry and anyone who had been in prison with Barbara last time would know this. She had hated every minute of prison, had found it extremely difficult to deal with, therefore she would never have done anything to risk going back there no matter how good the cause might have been.
When she came to a stop in the car park, she sat for a moment and looked up at the office block in front of her. When she'd been here last, that had meant the beginning of a long and extremely drawn out period of anxiety for her, did this time perhaps mean the same for Barbara? She vehemently hoped not, but being well versed in the ways and probabilities of the law she was inclined to believe it would be. She had talked to Jo the day before and said that there was something she wanted to discuss with her regarding Barbara's case and Jo had said she could spare her half an hour, but Yvonne didn't think it would take that long. As she was escorted upstairs by Jo's secretary, Yvonne tried to keep her thoughts away from how Jo was getting on with George. She knew that George and Karen had broken up a few weeks ago, not because Karen had told her but because Nikki had mentioned it. Karen was obviously avoiding discussing it and Yvonne hadn't wanted to push the issue by asking her. But Yvonne had known this would happen from the day she'd caught Jo buying George's birthday present. So, if George and Karen had broken up, that probably meant that Jo and George were together, along with the Judge. Oh well, she thought ruefully, each to their own.
As she walked down the corridor and saw Jo standing in her office doorway waiting for her, Yvonne wasn't the only one to experience a feeling of deja vu. Jo could also remember Yvonne's last visit only too well.
"Yvonne," she said, offering her usual professional smile. "come on in."
"I was just remembering when I was here last," Yvonne found herself admitting.
"Yes," Jo said seriously. "so was I. How's Lauren getting on?"
"She's going to her sessions with Meg Richards and she's staying out of trouble, but I'm not sure how much good it'll do in the end."
"Try to have a little more faith in her, Yvonne. She might have the residue of Charlie's influence very deep down, but she's also got your determination somewhere in there too."
"Let's hope so," Yvonne said dryly. "Now, what I really came to see you about was Barbara."
"Yes, so you said. I saw her yesterday but I'm all ears for anything else you might be able to tell me."
"It's not information I'm here to give you," Yvonne replied, fixing Jo with her penetrating gaze. "I came to let you know, that as long as Barbara agrees, I will be footing the bill for her defence." Jo had been about to take a sip of her coffee but replaced the mug back on the desk.
"Yvonne, are you absolutely sure about this?" She asked carefully, her surprise completely outweighing her usual level of tact.
"Very," Yvonne said firmly, "there's no way Barbara would ever admit it, but she's going to find it very hard to pay your fees. She would manage it somehow but it wouldn't be easy. Money, or at least Charlie's money, isn't something I like to talk about because I'm ashamed of how he came by it. But if I can use some of it to help get Barbara out of Larkhall, then that's all to the good." Jo didn't know what to say. Yvonne had uttered those words with such sincerity, such humility, that it brought home to her just how much of a change had come over Yvonne since she'd first met her in the lead up to Snowball and Ritchie's trial.
"That is extremely generous of you, Yvonne," Jo said eventually. "and I do understand why you want to do it. But before you make your final decision on this, I must make the position as clear as possible to you. To start with, I may not be the only barrister working on this case. When I saw George last night, after seeing Barbara, George drew my attention to just how difficult I am going to find this case. I don't mean professionally but emotionally and, though I am loath to admit it, she does have a point. I don't know how aware you are, of my personal circumstances of a few years ago, but I was once in a similar position to Barbara, in nursing a terminally ill husband. So yes, I am going to find this case far more difficult than most, which is why it has been suggested to me that I take on the equivalent of a junior, to provide me with the necessary support when I should need it."
"No, I didn't know," Yvonne replied gently, admiring Jo's courage in taking on such a case in the first place.
"George is going to visit Barbara tomorrow, to ask her permission to become involved, and to act as my junior. I don't think George intends to ask for payment for doing this but she would be well within her rights to do so. There is also the question of expert witnesses which at the moment is an unknown quantity."
"Jo, it's really not a problem," Yvonne tried to reassure her. "even if Barbara's defence ended up costing two hundred grand, it's hardly going to be a drop in the ocean."
"I see," Jo said, her eyes widening slightly. "and you say that Barbara doesn't know about this yet."
"No, not yet and if I know Barbara, she'll take a bit of convincing. I'll go and see her with George tomorrow and use my endless powers of persuasion on her."
"Once she's come round to the idea it ought to take at least a little bit of the worry away."
"Her friends are all the family Barbara's got left now," Yvonne said with feeling, "so it's up to all of us to do whatever we can for her." When Yvonne left a short time later, Jo marvelled at the true sense of togetherness and support that Larkhall women seemed to feel for each other. She knew that this wasn't confined to ex or current inmates because Karen and Helen had always given off this feeling of strength as well. Had their united influence somehow spread to herself and George over the last couple of years, and if so, did it by extension make them better barristers, better people? She couldn't help but to hope that it had.
Yvonne had been highly impressed by George's very classy office right near prime shopping area in Knightsbridge as she parked her car in a prized car parking space tucked at the back. She was energized into whizzing into town to do her bit for Babs while Lauren pottered around at home with Trigger. She was led upstairs by her secretary and took a seat in a really smart gaffe with plenty of books and a large painting, above the desk.
"You better let me talk to Babs about me fronting the money to get her represented. I know what she is like and she wouldn't like to think she is some sort of charity case."
"But she's been a vicar's wife?" queried George.
"Giving, not taking. There's a difference," Came the laconic reply.
Yvonne was not in her most talkative of moods this morning and George thought she knew why. George turned away to check on the files in her in tray to ensure that she was keeping tabs on the rest of the work that she was handling while Yvonne gazed vacantly out of the large windows.
"Okay, my car or yours or both."
"Mine. I know the route backward from the number of times I've driven to Larkhall over the years."
George assented to the deal and soon, Yvonne's red Ferrari cut its way through the traffic with a determination that George silently approved of. It gave George a change from expending her frustrations with the other drivers who in her more stressed up moods were either ditherers or psychopathic. She could lie back and watch the scenery while the busy city center was left behind as they approached Larkhall. Perhaps Yvonne was one of those silent drivers, reasoned George, although, on second thoughts, Yvonne might have heard about her breakup with Karen.
The sky was an ugly grey with a sharp wind whipping the first spots of what was clearly a downpour on the way. George shivered and huddled into her smart coat, which took most of the cold and the wind. There were attractions in being inside, even in the drabness of Larkhall.
"What's the score, George? How are we going to explain it to Babs that she's not going to get one high class brief but two?"
"Leave that to me, Yvonne."
"It's your call," Yvonne responded with an arm gesture, letting her lead the way.
Ken grinned at the two visitors who passed through the lodge and Yvonne smiled widely when she spotted her old adversary, Bodybag.
"Might have known that you couldn't keep yourself away from here. You would have thought that you would give up and leave us all in peace. I recognize your friend with you," Bodybag added with a suspicious look.
"Aaah, Sylvia. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so Charlie wrote to me when I was here. You don't have to worry about our welfare, we can find our way round here."
"You've come to see our practicing Christian I suppose," Came the grumpy reply.
"You know, if you got put out to pasture, just how many mates of yours would pop round for a cup of tea unless you bribed them?" Yvonne shot back with withering scorn. The muscles on her face were perfectly rigid and she kept the sarcasm in her voice playful to not give the fat cow the pleasure that she had got to her.
George kept quiet, totally enthralled at the cut and thrust between the two of them. She admired how quick witted Yvonne was and it gave her a real insight
Bodybag just glowered in anger at the way that that gangster's moll cheeked her for the thousandth time. She always made the mistake of rising to the bait and had never learnt to change her approach after all these years.
"You wouldn't want us to complain to the management round here?" teased Yvonne allowing just enough of a pause before going in for the kill.
No love lost there, I see
Bodybag stomped away in silence while Yvonne and George made their way to the main block.
"She falls for it every time. The stupid cow never gives up," joked Yvonne. That sparring match with her old enemy had cheered her up no end.
"And I thought that the cut and thrust in court was ruthless enough," Agreed George.
"It wasn't always like this," Yvonne reflected somberly. "I'm on the outside. This place has got Karen and Nikki in charge who really care about the prisoners. I don't ever forget that, not ever."
Barbara was slightly nervous but had started to settle down to Larkhall as much as she could ever do so. The unremitting attention of the Julies and Denny had started to pay off. Perhaps it was that long talk to Jo, which had helped as she had been made very gently and kindly to confront her demons and had brought them to the surface. She had to cling on to the notion that this time was different. That was what had haunted her and dragged her down that, in the eyes of the law, she had repeated her previous offence, a court and jury would infallibly see the matter the same way as the police who arrested her clearly did. Therefore, she might as well be guilty for all the good it did.
"Barbara," Nikki gently asked her when she came over at breakfast time. "Are you feeling up to seeing George in one of the private interview rooms? Yvonne's come along to see you as well. It's going to be chucking down with rain and I don't want anyone to get soaked to the skin outside."
"I'm fine, Nikki," Barbara smiled back. "I'd forgotten how kind people could be."
Nikki grinned and asked Colin to do escort duty.
Yvonne's arms were outstretched and greeted her old friend with a big hug. It had been a long time since they had met or had seemed so. She could put it down to the busy nature of modern life and the tendency to lead self contained lives outside the prison walls. Nevertheless, she was here now and that was all that mattered.
"It seems strange seeing you as a visitor, Yvonne. I get confused as to if I'm not back in time to when I was last here."
"That bastard Fenner's not around, Babs. That has got to be a bigtime change and a step up in the world," Yvonne responded breezily.
That was perfectly true, Barbara thought. Why on earth did I not think of that one before?
Yvonne and Barbara chatted for a bit in a desultory way when, during a lull in the conversation, George talked quietly in Yvonne's ear to catch her attention.
"I was going to pop out in a little while and try and mend a few bridges with Karen so at least we can be friends. Might I have a word with Barbara and slip out in a bit."
As Yvonne nodded in answer, George looked directly at Barbara to engage her in conversation only Barbara got there first.
"It's nice to see you again, George, but I assume this is not just a social call," Barbara eventually said.
"Ah, thereby hangs a story. I wanted to ask your permission if I could help Jo out a bit with your case." George's smooth tones rolled off her tongue like honey. "My reasoning is entirely educational."
"My experience in law has been almost entirely commercial. It has its advantages, such as in brokering deals between large commercial corporations. Between you and me, they are run by childish men with hopelessly overgrown egos. Over the years, I have skinned them for outrageously high commissions that have left me very well provided for in life. Yvonne does not know how much I have lined my pockets over the years. However, the nature of work has changed in recent years and involved much more well paying criminal work. I have often thought to myself that I really must diversify. I am seriously out of touch and the obvious way of gaining experience is with Jo with whom I have become close to over the years. When she was talking quite by chance about your case, the opportunity of a lifetime opened up in front of my eyes. Believe you me, I would not think of accepting a commission for what is, after all, only as junior partner in this case."
George can talk the hind legs off a donkey, Yvonne grinned to herself. She's cracked it if I'm not much mistaken, Yvonne thought. She saw Barbara glance over her spectacles at George's perfectly composed expression and smile slightly.
"Besides," George continued, softening the artificial edge off her voice.
"I have got to like you and it is insufferable how those cretins with their size ten boots have perpetrated such an obvious injustice. I want to help out and I am easily in the position to do so."
Barbara was genuinely touched by George's kindness and could tell that it was real.
And bowed to the inevitable. Yvonne darted one of her sharp glances and could see that underneath all the blarney uttered in the sort of accent of the finest finishing school, George had a large heart. She could see why Karen had fallen for her.
"Well, if you are insisting, I cannot refuse your help," Barbara uttered in a highly emotional tone. She had not looked for, or expected that help like this would be offered so unselfconsciously by these three very strong, very kind women. It restored her faith in God and humanity, which had been under such strain for all those terrible months. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.
At this point, George made a polite exit and arranged to catch up with Yvonne and Barbara smiled gratefully at her.
"Everything going well, George?" Nikki grinned at George.
"So far, so good. Can you tell me if Karen is busy?" George's voice trailed off uncertainly after her confident smile.
"I'll check and take you to her room myself."
Nikki had no idea why George would be seeing Karen but a voice in her head told her to trust her instincts and to pave the way.
"Anyway, I've got some business as well," Grinned Yvonne when she was alone with Barbara. "I've fixed it with Jo that I'm going to front her bill for your defence. You do realize that, don't you?"
"But I couldn't possibly let you do that, Yvonne. It will cost a fortune on top of what it must have cost you for Lauren," Protested Barbara.
"Just relax, Babs. You've never really known just how much money I've got put away, down to the last thousand pounds give or take a few thousand."
Barbara shook her head. She had heard on the 'old girls network' about Yvonne's house and her villa in Spain but very little more. It was not talked about in that great leveling experience of prison and, outside prison, Yvonne didn't boast about her wealth. It was just there, to be ploughed into whatever was best.
"I was married to Charlie for twenty years and can you imagine the money that poured in with him as middleman for the East end drugs trade. Add in all his dodgy deals, the legit car hire trade that I still run which kept the taxman sweet, while he got away with fiddles left right and center. Even with the way that we lived, the money has been pouring in for years. You can take it from me that Jo's bill would make a bit of a dent in the bank balance but no more. I ain't the type to brag and I've never told you this before but only to convince you that I'll be all right. In any case, Lauren's earning good money these days so Jo's last bill was a sort of investment if you think of it this way."
Barbara sat back in admiration. She had thought that she had known Yvonne but she was relating specifics of her life that were vaguely there but had not been brought up into quite such hard, sharp focus. She did not know what to think.
"It's not just that, Babs. So much of the money has come from the human misery from the drugs trade. I never saw what it really meant. I was protected from all that till I came to Larkhall. I used to go on about junkies and smackheads but that was my way of covering up for the way that Charlie and I were responsible for all that. I can't get away from it. So if I see a mate of mine who needs a helping hand, I can plough in some of the money which came from human misery into something worthwhile."
There was a profound silence after Yvonne's throaty, emotional outpouring of guilt. She could see that Barbara was slowly turning what Yvonne had said over in her mind.
"It seems that I have no choice," Barbara said slowly with the faintest of smiles. In a very paradoxical way these two most unusual explanations of the sort of hard life that were not according to her upbringing contained the most golden hearted selfless propositions to help her that she had ever heard in her life. A beam of sunshine started to break through that black mist that had closed her in, something that was not lost on Yvonne.
As Nikki led the way up to Karen's office, George couldn't help feeling a little apprehensive. She knew that she had to see Karen and clear the air sometime, but that didn't make it a very encouraging prospect. She badly wanted to remain friends with Karen, so she knew that she would do whatever it took.
"Are you sure Karen will want to see me?" She asked Nikki, suddenly needing to verbalise her uncertainty.
"Of course she will," Nikki told her with an encouraging smile. "She might not admit it," She added, putting out a hand to halt George in her tracks. "But she needs her friends, probably more than she ever did."
"I've treated her so badly," George said quietly, finally putting the regret she'd been feeling for weeks into words.
"No, you haven't," Nikki assured her. "Not really. George, these things happen, and she will get over it."
Karen was sitting at her computer, trying to keep on top of the endless requests for statistics from area. Anyone would think she had been trained as a mathematician, not a prison officer. She'd kept popping down to G wing throughout the week, trying to keep an eye on Barbara, though she knew that Nikki had everything perfectly in hand. She had recovered from the effects of the morning after pill, which she couldn't help but think had been her punishment. She never should have slept with John, and she certainly shouldn't have done what she had done with him. That had been wrong on so many levels that it made her feel an enormous sense of shame every time she thought about it. When she'd seen Jo on Wednesday, Karen could already see just how much Barbara's case was getting to her, and it worried her more than a little that Jo might not be able to emotionally last out the course. When the knock came on her door, she bade whoever it was to enter, without a clue as to who it might be. It could have been any one of her officers or wing governors, but it was Nikki.
"Someone to see you," she said, opening the door wide and gesturing the person behind her into the room. As Karen turned to face them, her eyes widened in shock.
"George," was all she appeared to be able to say, stating the bloody obvious.
"I thought it was about time I dropped into see you," George said, seeing the distinct uncertainty in Karen's face.
"I'll leave you to it," Nikki put in, backing out of the room, all too eager to escape from the tension that could be cut with a knife.
"You look tired," George observed, taking a seat in front of the desk.
"No, not really," Karen told her, though this was blatantly a lie. "Just busy, that's all. How are you?"
"Oh, all right," George said evasively, not entirely sure that Karen would want to hear just how happy she was with Jo. "I'm here with Yvonne," She continued. "Visiting Barbara. Jo isn't the only QC Barbara will have on her case."
"She couldn't ask for anything better in the circumstances," Karen told her quietly, meaning every word. "And I'm glad you'll be taking some of the strain off Jo, because when I saw her on Wednesday, she looked as though the first hurdle had been just a little too high for comfort."
"Yes," agreed George, more than a little relieved that they'd move onto a neutral topic. "I don't think emotional detachment is going to be very easy for her this time."
"What about you?" Karen asked, finally meeting George's eyes.
"Oh, you know me," George replied lightly. "The commitment I give to one case is the same as any other, though the fact that I already know Barbara may make this a little different. But at least it isn't going to resurrect the kind of memories for me that it will with Jo."
"How are things with Jo?" Karen asked, hitting on the precise thing that George really didn't want to talk about.
"Fine," she said, seeing nothing but kind interest in Karen's eyes.
"Good," Karen said sincerely. "I do want it to work out for you two, you know, or should I say you three," she added with a smile.
"I know you do," George replied with a smile in return. "And it is, so far."
As Karen looked into George's soft, blue eyes, the guilt at what she had done with John at the conference suddenly rose up in her, giving her the insane urge to confess all to George, to tell her again and again that she was sorry. But passing a hand in front of her face, she managed to dispel the impulse, because she knew deep down that this really wouldn't solve anything, and might in fact create far more problems than they already had. George saw the brief flash of something she didn't understand in Karen's face, but no sooner did she open her mouth to question it, than it was gone.
"What have you been up to besides work?" George asked, wondering just how Karen had been filling her spare time.
"Not a lot," Karen said evasively. "After taking three weeks off, I had an enormous amount to catch up on. That, and preparing for last week's conference, at which Nikki managed to prove that taking her on was possibly the one thing I've got right in the last few months."
"Darling, I know that you often use work as something to hide behind," George said tentatively, unconsciously slipping into the familiarity she'd once been so used to with Karen. "But try not to make it the only thing you live for."
"George, I know what you're trying to do," Karen said gently but firmly. "But work is about the only thing that keeps me going at the moment, and I think that for a while, that's how it needs to stay."
A little while later as Karen escorted George back down to the visiting area, George felt a deep seated regret that she could no longer hold Karen, that she could no longer try to take away some of the pain that was clearly still eating away at her. Karen was giving out the strongest vibe George had ever felt in her to keep off, to stay away, at least physically if nothing else. George wasn't so self-obsessed to think this was purely for her benefit, because she suspected this was Karen's way of keeping everyone she knew at a distance. But just before they reached the last set of gates, when they were still alone in the dingy corridor, George put out a hand to halt Karen in her tracks, wanting to say something more to her before they parted.
"It sounds dreadfully inadequate," she said, knowing this was going to come out all wrong. "But I am really very concerned about you."
"There's no need," Karen told her gently, giving her a soft smile of reassurance. "I'll survive." Impulsively putting her arms out, George gave Karen a firm embrace.
"Please don't hide away from me," She said, her voice filled with all the regret she'd kept bottled up over the last few weeks. Karen had frozen at the initial contact, the physical connection with George almost being too much for her to bear, her arms bringing back so many memories that she was trying to forget. But very slowly, she raised her own arms to go around George's smaller frame, holding her almost delicately for fear of what such contact with her might achieve.
"It's still very hard for me to see you," Karen said softly into George's hair. "That doesn't mean that I want you to stay away, because I don't, but you need to understand, that I am still trying not to remember everything we ever did together. It will get easier, because it has to, it just might take a while."
"I'm sorry," George replied, feeling bitterly guilty that she could have hurt Karen so much.
"George," Karen replied firmly, holding George slightly away from her by the shoulders. "Trust me, if there's anyone who needs to be sorry at the moment, it really isn't you." Again that rush of feelings rose up in her, because she hadn't only done John a grave injustice by sleeping with him, but both Jo and George as well. As she watched George walk through the visiting room to where Yvonne was waiting for her, Karen couldn't help but wonder whether, if George did find out about the conference, she would ever forgive her.
In the car, Yvonne could feel the silence weighing heavy on George. She had obviously talked to Karen, and it looked like things had been left as tense as they had been before. In truth, Yvonne really couldn't blame George for what had happened with Karen, because these things happened, and the course of true love, or love of any kind, never did run smooth. Seeming to realise what Yvonne was thinking, George broke the silence.
"I didn't mean to hurt her, you know, Yvonne."
"No, I know you didn't," Yvonne replied gently. "These things happen. Jo probably didn't tell you, but I caught her in the act of buying your birthday present." George couldn't help but laugh.
"Yeah." Yvonne said, joining her in a smile. "She nearly had a heart attack when I crept up on her, it was hilarious."
"Oh, poor Jo," George said in sympathy. Then, turning serious again, she said, "I just wish Karen wasn't hurting so much."
"She'll get over it," Yvonne said with quiet certainty. "Because she hasn't really got any choice. It's funny, but if Lauren hadn't killed Fenner, you and Karen might never have happened, and if the three of you hadn't made her grass up my daughter, we might still have been together." George just stared at Yvonne, utterly aghast. How on earth did Yvonne know this? "Don't look like that," Yvonne said almost fondly. "I've known about that for quite a long time."
"How?" George asked, her brain seeming to freeze with the effort of trying to work out this puzzle.
"Ah, now, that would mean breaking my word of honour, which isn't something I'm about to do," Yvonne said firmly, realising that she would need to tell George that she'd slept with John if she were to go any further.
"Does Karen know you know?" George asked, wondering just where Yvonne had stumbled on such sensitive information.
"Yeah, she knows," Yvonne told her. "And it's something that's dead and buried now, if that isn't a particularly tasteless pun." After a moment's silence, she said, sounding kinder than George had ever heard her, "Jo told me the real reason why you're working on Barbara's case, though I have to admire the alternative reason you gave her."
"If Jo ever wants Barbara to know something like that," George replied seriously. "That's for her to decide, certainly not you or me. So, I had to come up with something that sounded at least vaguely plausible."
"You can talk the bleedin' hind legs off a donkey," Yvonne said with a broad smile.
"Am I suppose to take that as a compliment?" George said with a laugh.
"Oh, yeah," Yvonne assured her. "Always a nice little skill to find in one's lawyer."
"Yvonne," George said tentatively as they arrived back in the car park of her office. "Whilst I realise that you may hold a certain amount of resentment for the way I have treated Karen, I don't want it to prevent us from working together to help Barbara." Sensing this to be the olive branch it was, Yvonne gave George a smile.
"Getting Barbara out of Larkhall, is the only thing that matters," She said firmly. "Besides," She added with a raised eyebrow. "It won't be the first time Atkins money has paid your fees, now will it."
"No, I suppose not," George agreed, wondering how she could ever have defended Yvonne's son and his tart, and yet now she was working on the same side as his mother. How times changed, she thought as she crossed the car park to her office, wondering just how much they would have changed again in another two years time.
It hadn't taken Barbara too long to get the measure of Larkhall as it now was.
As the first few days crawled their way at an interminably slow pace, the dormant patterns in her mind intruded themselves from unlock first thing in the morning to the slamming shut of her cell door at night. Part of her rebelled into accepting her lot but realism told her that bashing her head, time and time again, against her fate was as useful as a goldfish trying to head butt his way through the glass shell of a goldfish bowl. That gentle voice of the other side of her that uneasily coexisted inside her, the Christian stoic, began to be heard. The more she accepted her fate, the more that her panic reaction died down inside her and her claustrophobia diminished, day by day. She had no choice but to accept her lot in life and she started to sleep like a log through the night to make up for that frantic drive within her to see her through the barred windows somehow, anyhow. In fact, she started to wake up, feeling bleary eyed in her own way to make up for lost sleep.
Her visitors, first Jo, then George and Yvonne provided that comfort blanket that she had not been utterly deserted and dissolved away that nightmarish feeling of being abandoned. She dare not move beyond the fear that her cosy nest where she had been happy was frozen in time, from when she had last seen it before the police took her away in a white car and sirens blaring as if she were a desperate criminal. In its place, Larkhall imposed its dreary uniformity on her. After all, she had been here before when the prison regime was much nastier, more casually unjust, where the screws were someone to avoid and, at best tolerate.
Out of sheer habit, she kept looking out of the corner of her eye to see if that sinister black shape and that hated voice would jump into her consciousness. He had been the personification of all that had repelled her about Larkhall, him and Shell Dockley. She had to convince herself that he had really gone. After all, she had only been at Lauren's trial for his murder. As for Shell Dockley, she had been spirited out of Larkhall never to return. Larkhall wasn't so bad, it was well just prison.
The only real problem she had was Bodybag. They had never got on from the start. It might have been that thanks to the stupid woman's incompetence, she had received a slating from Karen due to her mix up with Tessa Spall but, as Nikki confided to her later on, her problem was in being who she was. Anyone who was clearly middle class and intelligent roused Bodybag's sense of inferiority so that it came out in that malignant manner of hers. Nikki being a lesbian and able to run rings round her was only the icing on the cake, so to speak. But Nikki was G wing's wing governor now. Barbara smiled fondly at the idea. She wondered if one minor reason for Nikki's choice of profession was out of mischievous humour. She wouldn't put it past her.
"OK, Hunt, stop dawdling. I haven't got all day," Came that hated voice.
"The name's Mills now, if you please," Came her frosty reply.
"Hunt you were, and Hunt you will always be. A leopard never changes its spots. Might have known you would end up here."
"You really ought to get my name right, Mrs. Hollamby. You should know that accidents can happen."
Barbara's voice on the outside seemed superficially in her normal mild tone of voice but inwardly, she was raging and a slight tremor in her voice showed her feelings. She had hit a nerve in Bodybag as she hadn't forgotten that blazing tone and those angry blue eyes, which had raged at her. Her memory was retentive in one direction only, in recalling all the slights to her authority and being hauled over the coals by authority figures. Most of all, Bodybag remembered the handsome father figure of a vicar who would have warmed her autumn years. No one knew the depression of spirit of being widowed and lonely and the way that Hunt woman had not only ended up with one husband but three. It was disgusting.
"I'm making no mistake about you. You should never have been allowed to get your claws into poor Henry. He didn't know what he was letting himself in for but he was naïve. Vicars are other worldly and don't know how life really is."
Barbara could not bear to hear any more from that abominable woman and turned away to stalk off in the other direction. She didn't want to end up striking her and end up down the block in her first week. Fortunately, fate in the kindly form of Colin Hedges came to her aid.
"I'd get in the queue for the canteen or the tea and breakfast will get cold," He suggested the ideal getaway clause to Barbara. "Nothing like it, a nice cup of tea to set you up right for the day."
A very slight smile at the corner of his lips betrayed his real reason for strolling over. Bodybag tut tutted in exasperated anger and stomped off to the prison reception to hopefully hector and bully the new prisoners in their induction, all in the name of good order and discipline.
Barbara automatically placed her hands either side of the regulation blue tray and trudged her way forward to where the Julies were smiling kindly at her.
To their practiced eyes, even though they were dishing up the bangers and fried eggs to one prisoner after another, one glance from either of them took in the expression on Babs's face. She hadn't got those shadows under her eyes and her skin had a bit of colour in it, not that dreadful grey colour and her skin sort of sweaty. She was a bit more, like, upright and awake.
"We've got eggs, sunny side up, just the way you like it," Julie Johnson greeted her.
Barbara was just about ready to make the necessary compromises of her stomach with prison food though it was tough going. Barbara smiled slightly though she looked warily at the rather overblown looking sausages.
"You need to get a decent breakfast down you or you'll fade away to a shadow," Julie Saunders followed up the message in her motherly way. How could Barbara resist though? Her blue plastic mug filled with hot tea was more promising.
"Talk to you later, love," Julie Johnson added with a winning smile, which made Barbara reproach herself. How could she be removed and distant from their warm hearted and sunny natures?
Barbara found herself sitting opposite Kris Yates whose manner reminded her of someone who she couldn't place. In turn, Kris glanced at Barbara and decided she was harmless. To the woman's suspicious and wary nature, that word was a real compliment.
"Mind if I sit here."
"No skin off my nose," Came the reply from Kris, as she shrugged her shoulders in total indifference. "You're new here?" she added after a chill silence was punctuated by them eating and drinking. It was more an expectation of agreement than a question.
"As a matter of fact, I'm not."
Kris raised her eyebrows in surprise. To her way of thinking, the mild mannered well-spoken woman looked more at home at a church fete than locked behind bars.
"By the way, my name is Barbara Mills though I was known as Barbara Hunt and still am known by that by Bodybag, that stupid woman who thank God has gone elsewhere."
"Kris Yates." An outstretched hand and something of a welcoming smile greeted Barbara at the acid tone in Barbara's voice. "So how did you land back here?"
"The vicar here, Reverend Mills, I mean my husband unhappily died of lung cancer." There you are, the words were out. Lame and inadequate though they were, she had said them for the first time in normal conversation.
"So what's that got to do with you?" Kris asked incredulously in her terse, sceptical fashion.
"They think that because I assisted my second husband when he was in total agony to end his life quicker than the cancer was killing him, I did the same this time."
"They must be joking," Kris exclaimed in her own rough and ready sympathy. There was the thought she was searching for. Sharing a cell with Nikki had shown her that behind Nikki's occasional hard edge, was a woman with a large heart. This woman was just a younger, less polished version of her, more guarded
"I would never risk coming back to prison, not even for poor Henry's sake. If I'm convicted, I might never get out of prison this time."
Kris didn't know how to respond to the tremor in Barbara's voice but unknown to her, the look of sympathy on her face was answer enough. All Barbara's hard won skills in orienting herself fast to new situations were being rapidly dusted down now she was back in Larkhall. In turn, Kris could never tell this woman a load of shit, like everything would come out all right in the end, as she mistrusted life in all its forms.
Presently, she found a way out of the brooding silence between the two of them as she started to thread two and two together. She could have sworn she'd seen Yvonne pass across her line of vision in a flash of movement.
"Did you know Yvonne Atkins seeing as you were here before?"
"Oh yes, we were great friends and we still are. She was here the other day to visit me as a matter of fact."
A broad smile spread across Kris's face. Yvonne had told her a few stories about the old days. This woman was all right.
Bodybag was daydreaming about her retirement cottage by the sea while keeping half an eye on the job. Chance would be a fine thing with Wade and Betts on her back all the time. You're best off where you are, Jim, she sighed. At least you are in the great prison officer retirement home in the sky and you can be in the company of all who have gone before us. You can catch up with all the gossip, drink as much as you want and never have to worry about do gooder types and all the cons who've abused and slandered you all down the years. If only
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"Yeah, you ought."
"Now then, now then. What's this all about?" blustered Bodybag in her unnecessarily rhetorical fashion as two voices burst into her scrambled consciousness.
Barbara had readily poured her heart out to the Julies. They were so good, so reassuring and they had been around when she and Henry's paths had become intertwined by slow stages. They were hopeless romantics and she and the vicar were made for each other. They were horrified to hear what happened to him had happened to her Peter. Some women had all the bad luck and she was dead good. She didn't deserve it and when they had heard what that evil cow was spouting about, they flew out of the cell and were down on the wing in seconds. There she was, just gawping into space. They resolved to give her a piece of their minds.
"As if you don't know. You've been horrible to Babs when she's been pining for her poor husband .."
"A load of sentimental poppycock. She's as guilty as sin. It's in her nature, no matter how Christian she pretends she is."
The lofty tone with which Bodybag tried to crush the other two women and the heavy- duty sarcasm with which she emphasised 'Christian' only infuriated the Julies more than ever.
"You evil old witch " stormed Julie Johnson.
"You'll be down the block if you don't watch your step."
"And who's going to do my adjudication? Provocation, that's what I would plead, mate. I'd walk it and you know it."
Julie Johnson silently nudged the other woman. They had an unspoken agreement not to put their old mate Nikki on the spot but her blood pressure was roused to boiling point and the words just came from her mouth.
"Can you imagine, your nearest and dearest just wasting away, nothing you can do about it "
"That's what happened last time, and she got three and a half million pounds."
"Babs ain't got three and a half million pounds now. That was grabbed back that she didn't give to set up that half way house. The vicar talked posh, no doubt about it but they ain't rich, not going by one I had as a punter. You could see the mothballs coming out of his trouser pockets, and all."
"You're living in cloud cuckoo land about that woman."
Julie Saunders looked sharply at Bodybag. There was a slight wobble in her voice that was new and suddenly, a flood of memories came back about the amorous Bodybag making a very blatant play for the vicar and think she wasn't noticed. A very satisfied smile spread over her face.
"You're jealous, that's what it's all about. I remember. Me and Ju have been here for simply ages and we don't forget, just like Yvonne."
The words from Julie Saunders were a real crusher. On the one hand, the name of Bodybag's worst enemy made her blood pressure rise and on the other, she felt awkward and school girlish when she remembered what she had felt for Henry.
"Why, she's blushing," They chorused as a red faced Bodybag beat a hasty retreat.
So intent were the three of them on the ding-dong row that they had not observed Nikki
move quietly closer to them. A smile spread across her face as she let matters resolve themselves.
"Is there anything going on here that I need to know, Julies."
"No, everything's going just fine," They chorused together for a change.
"Good. That's what I like to hear," Retorted Nikki as she strolled nonchalantly away.
On the Saturday evening, John thought it was about time he went over to see George. He had positively avoided both George and Jo all week, ever since he had returned from the conference, and he knew that he had to see at least one of them. He had been persistently swamped with feelings of guilt and confusion all week, feelings that kept him from sleep, and which intruded in on him during the daylight hours. It was very late on the Saturday night when he finally decided to drive over to see George, but he just couldn't go another night without a soft, warm, beautiful woman in his arms. He needed to feel her silky soft skin, to smell the oh so familiar fragrance of her hair, and to take comfort in simply having her with him. He wasn't sure why he'd picked on George rather than Jo, except that he knew that being with Jo would make him feel even more guilty than he already did.
George was already in bed when he arrived, it being just after eleven, but she wasn't asleep. She recognised the sound of his approaching car through the slightly open window, and smiled when he let himself quietly in through the front door. She was nice and warm under the duvet, and found it a distinct advantage that she didn't have to get out of bed to let him in. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of John all week, and as far as she knew, neither had Jo. George wasn't stupid, however, because she thought that she just might know why. George had all but resigned herself to John's infidelities years ago, seeing it as something she simply had to put up with, if she wanted him to stay with her. That had obviously changed with the appearance of Jo, but it didn't make George any less realistic about how he might have behaved at the conference. There would have been far too many temptations, far too many opportunities to allow his ever roving eye to wander.
When John appeared in the bedroom, George smiled up at him.
"I wondered when I might be seeing you," She said, as he leant down to kiss her.
"You weren't asleep?" He asked, delighting in the familiarity of her.
"No," She replied with a contented yawn. "Not yet, and I could easily be persuaded to fully wake up again," she added, smirking at him lasciviously, as he began removing his clothes.
"I don't doubt," He said, laying his clothes on a chair and turning back the duvet. When they met under the goose-feather quilt, he wrapped himself round her, holding her soft, warm body to him, and burying his face in her hair.
"You're nice and warm," he said, gently kissing her.
"And you're freezing," she almost complained. "It's supposed to be the other way round. It's men who are there to provide warmth, not usually women."
"Too true," he agreed with her, remembering the numerous occasions on which her cold feet would, as if of their own accord, find any vaguely warm part of his legs to which to attach themselves.
"You've been hiding this week," she told him gently, immediately feeling the slight stiffening in his muscles.
"I've just been very busy," he said evasively.
"How was the conference?" She asked, wondering just how far he would go to avoid telling her the truth.
"Good," he said without hesitation. "Nikki will go far if she keeps making speeches like she did last weekend." As though to prevent her from asking any more questions, he began kissing her again, their mouths deeply entwining and exploring, exchanging their old familiar tastes as they did their love.
"I've missed you," she said between kisses, not having been this close to him for well over a week.
"Are you sure you haven't just missed a good orgasm?" He asked her with a fond smile.
"Oh, no," She said confidently. "I had one of those on Wednesday." John laughed softly.
"I can't wait until Jo is ready for us all to be together."
"It'll happen," George promised him. "Just give her time."
"Can I help it if I want to overdose on pleasure?" He asked, his left hand softly stroking her breast, teasing at the steadily rising nipple. "Which reminds me, I think it's about time I went flat hunting. We've taken far too many risks with my being at the digs, and if I have my own place, we'll all be on something of an equal footing."
"Well, as long as it's got room for a truly enormous bed," George said matter-of-factly.
"That would of course be my primary consideration," John said silkily, his hand creeping between her legs, making her groan with pleasure as he sought out her hidden depths.
But as her arousal grew, she wanted to have him join her, not to take what he was giving her alone. She wanted them to reach their orgasm together, to achieve their peak in the age old way. But as her hand reached for him, wanting to guide his corresponding arousal towards her, she received the surprise of her life. John wasn't remotely erect, as soft and unresponsive as the day he was born. As soon as she touched him, John went perfectly still, every hint of a smile completely draining from his face. Swiftly detaching himself from her, he turned away and lay on his back, refusing to meet her eyes. He couldn't believe this had happened to him. After all these years, of being so confident, so sure of himself when it came to women, he had now reached that age of being unable to satisfy one. George wasn't entirely sure what to say. This was the first time this had happened to John with her, and she could feel his utter self-loathing raising higher and higher walls between them. Gently turning John's face towards her, she said,
"It really doesn't matter, you know."
"And that has to be the most fatuous thing I've ever heard you say," John replied bitterly, still refusing to look at her.
"John, I've lost count of the times I haven't felt like it."
"That's different," he muttered disgustedly.
"Don't be ridiculous," she told him fondly.
"I... I... I'm sorry," he said, his voice extremely unsteady, and when she again turned his face towards her, she could see the tears shining in his eyes.
"Darling, you don't need to be sorry," she told him, feeling an enormous wave of sympathy for his plight.
"Promise me you won't tell Jo about this," he begged her, feeling more pathetic than he ever had done in his life.
"No, of course I won't," she said, for now content to reassure him if that was what he wanted.
"I really don't know what's brought this on," he said, trying to regain his composure.
"You're probably just tired," she said, looking for the most obvious of reasons.
"That's supposed to be your excuse," he replied almost petulantly.
"You could of course," George said carefully. "Tell me what happened at that conference last weekend."
"How do you know anything did?" He asked, seeing nothing in her eyes to reassure him.
"John, I always know," George told him not unkindly. "Or at least, I always know when you feel guilty about it. I didn't know, the time you caught the Chlamydia, because you didn't feel guilty, but I think you do this time, and I think that might be your problem."
Realising that he was well and truly caught, he took her hand in his, gently chafing it as he tried to formulate some kind of an answer.
"I slept with someone," he said eventually, wincing at the sheer uselessness of his reply.
"Yes, darling, that much is obvious."
"I slept with Karen," he clarified, George's eyes widening at his words.
"Ah," She said in understanding. "The puzzle begins to unravel. I should have known that sending you two off to a conference without a chaperone was a bad idea. So, was there a reason for it, or did the forbidden lust simply overwhelm the pair of you."
"To give Karen her due, I did all the running."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" George asked disgustedly.
"You wanted answers," John insisted. "So I'm giving them to you. She was on the hunt for someone to sleep with all weekend. She didn't go out of her way to advertise it, but it was pretty obvious to anyone who knew her. I think she wanted the release, far more than the company itself."
"That's hardly a surprise," George put in, seeing partly where this was going, though wishing John could have left well alone.
"When I finally cornered her on the Sunday night, she pointed out that I had far more to lose than she did." Here John stopped, not knowing if George would really want to hear the next bit.
"And what was your response?" She asked, sensing his hesitation.
"I told her, that you, and Jo, and her self-respect would all be there tomorrow."
"Well, that is nice," George said a little acidly. "Go on, I'm truly fascinated now."
"Do you remember what she did, the first time she slept with Ritchie Atkins?"
"As if I'll ever forget," George said dryly.
"That was what she wanted from me."
"Again, that's not exactly surprising," George amazed him by saying. "If the release was really what she wanted, then asking you to be rough with her would probably be her chosen course of action."
"She said that what I did with her last time just wouldn't work. She didn't want any time to think, because if she were allowed to think, she wouldn't enjoy it whatsoever. George, she gave me every possible opportunity to say no, but I, somewhat arrogantly, thought I knew what I was doing."
"And did you find to your cost, that you didn't have a clue?" George asked, now seeing precisely what must have happened.
"That's never happened to me before," he said quietly, as if not quite able to believe it. "Not with a woman. Even up to the last possible minute, she asked if I was sure this was what I wanted, because she knew exactly what I was about to do to her. The feeling of doing that, actually holding her down, was incredible, but it frightened the living daylights out of me. George, I couldn't have stopped if I'd tried, not even if she'd begged me to stop. It was as though my body completely took over, which I suppose in a way it did. Afterwards, I couldn't believe what I'd done. Her arms and shoulders were covered in bruises, and I had given them to her. She felt so guilty, and probably still does, because she could see what it had done to me. I got my punishment for that night, by feeling more like Fenner than I ever thought possible. That feeling goes far and above anything either you or Jo could say to me. I really did feel as though I'd raped her. She kept assuring me that what I'd done wasn't remotely similar, and having had the last few days to think about it, I know she's right, but that doesn't make me feel any better. I'm sorry I slept with her, and I know I shouldn't have done it, but this was about far more than just picking someone up. This was about giving a friend what she needed, because achieving the kind of emotional release it gave her, could so easily have been catastrophic with a perfect stranger. I'm not trying to excuse it, but I am trying to explain it, there is a difference."
"In your world of reality, darling, I've no doubt," George said dryly, though she could see that he was giving her the absolute truth.
"You mustn't be cross with her for this, George, please. Karen gave me plenty of time to say no, and she feels even more guilty about it than I do."
"What I ought to do," George said a little exasperatedly, "is to shake some sense into the pair of you. What you did was incredibly stupid. For you, because you assumed you knew what you were doing and blatantly didn't, and for Karen, because that really isn't the way to start living again. She's beginning to use sex in almost the same way as you do, to regain just a little hint of normality. I ought to be furious with both of you, but I'm not, because in an odd kind of way I understand it. When I saw Karen yesterday, she kept opening her mouth to tell me something, and changing her mind at the last minute. I'm guessing that this was it. Yes, John, part of me is bitterly hurt that you could put your promise on hold so easily, but then sometimes I wonder why I expect you to be any different. The rest of me thoroughly understands why you did that for her, because you hold friendship in far higher esteem than you do anything else, you always have done. Karen is still grieving, still hurting, and desperately trying to find anything to stop her dwelling on all the unanswered questions. Yesterday was the first time I'd seen her or spoken to her, since we returned from Spain, but I could see it immediately. I know that you did that for her, because she is a friend, nothing more. I also think, though I'm willing to bet I could be wrong, that you couldn't get in the mood tonight, because you are subconsciously afraid of doing to me what you did to Karen." John flinched when she referred to his inability to perform, the muscles of his hand tensing in protest. "And don't flinch like that," she added a lot more gently. "It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of."
"That's all you know," He told her bitterly.
"Oh, and what has always been your response on the numerous occasions I have failed to become remotely aroused? You've always said that it doesn't matter. So, start taking a leaf out of your own book for a change. It happens, John, and I'm not even slightly insulted, or hurt, or bewildered that it has."
"If you're about to put me into the same category as Haughton, stop right there," John said firmly.
"Well, no, I wasn't," she replied, resisting the urge to shake him. "Because it used to happen to him on a fairly regular basis."
"Really?" John asked, a slight smirk playing over his face.
"Yes, I thought that might cheer you up," she said wryly. "John, just like the rest of us mere mortals, you are not infallible, and your body will not always do precisely what you tell it to do. I realise that this may come as a shock, but I can promise you that it is a plain and simple fact of life."
Putting his arms round her, John held her to him, gently kissing her.
"I'm sorry for sleeping with Karen," he said, truly meaning it.
"I know," George replied quietly. "Anyone else, and I'd have been tempted to wring your neck, but I can at least understand why with Karen."
"And I'm sorry I couldn't..." he stopped, not entirely sure how to phrase it.
"Don't be," She told him firmly. "And John, I don't want you to feel any pressure to make love to me. You obviously need some time to come to terms with what happened with Karen, so take it."
"I really don't want Jo to know about any of this," he said earnestly.
"And I'm not about to tell her, I promise."
"I don't just mean about Karen."
"I know," she said, softly touching his cheek. "It wouldn't put her off, you know."
"I don't care," John insisted vehemently. "I'd die of humiliation if Jo knew about this."
"Why?" George asked with a slight laugh.
"It's different with you," John tried to explain. "You're used to my imperfections."
"Oh, and you think Jo isn't? John, Jo loves you, just as I love you, and we are both entirely aware of each and every one of your imperfections, and, amazing as it might be, we are both still here."
"You've always been far more realistic about my playing away," John said quietly. "Something I often regret, because I wish you didn't have to be like that."
"Yes, well, I've had to put up with it in a very different way to Jo, haven't I. When we were married, I got used to it, because I realised that it was the only way to keep you with me. I could ignore it most of the time, well, until Jo, but Jo has never had to even attempt to do that. Even when she wouldn't sleep with you for all those years, part of Jo still expected you to be faithful to her, and she couldn't deal with it when you weren't. That's the only reason I take a slightly different stance with regard to your flings, which I am well aware are very few and far between these days. There is absolutely no reason for Jo to know about this, because she wouldn't understand it. So no, I'm not going to tell her."
As they slowly drifted off to sleep, John sent up a brief prayer of thanks for this beautiful woman he had cradled against him, for the love she unerringly bestowed on him, and for the forgiveness and understanding she was continuously prepared to accord him. He would try and do something normal with her tomorrow, perhaps they might go looking for the flat he intended to acquire. She'd told him that he needed time, before even thinking of making love to her again, and much as he was loathed to admit it, she was right. He inwardly cursed his body for betraying him, for deserting him when he needed it most, but she hadn't scorned him, and she hadn't even been all that angry with him for sleeping with Karen. What had he ever done to deserve someone so beautiful, so understanding and with such a generous heart? These were questions that he simply couldn't answer. All that seemed to matter right now was that he was here, with George, and that out there somewhere was Jo. But just as his eyes began to close, an idea popped into his head, an almost frightening possibility that he knew on the morrow he must consider. Was it time, could it actually be time, to put his pride to one side, and try again to understand himself, to seek another's help in untangling the patterns and pathways that made up his mind? Therapy with Rachel Crawchek had been a disaster, because he had been determined to go into it with the provision of a get-out clause. But what if he didn't, what if this time, he went into it blind, with no possible way out, and with a promise at least to himself that he would see it through?
"It's time for bed. Auntie Lauren is coming over tomorrow," Roisin called out in her carrying voice up the staircase as she received a phone call late on Saturday night.
"Oh, brilliant," Michael grunted with a scowl on his face as he shambled off upstairs to bed. Niamh shook her head in wonder at him as she reached for her library book and looked down the staircase. She couldn't make him out at all these days. One moment, he was this moody stranger who flew off the handle for no reason at all and other times, he was the happy go lucky kid that he used to be. A distant memory came back when mum was in prison and they were living with Aiden and grandma. She couldn't understand what was going on and she was acting like a spoilt brat over nothing in particular, Michael was pleading with her not to make so much noise. While she was grizzling away in the corner of the room, she could hear Michael on the phone to mum and pleading with her to come back home. Now Michael was becoming the childish one while she was the sensible one. If this was growing older, she wanted nothing to do with it but to stay as she was.
In the morning, she was up early while Michael was still in bed and she looked forward to the reassuring normality of family breakfast at the table.
"We'd love to see Lauren. We've not seen her for simply ages." Niamh started to chatter away while Michael pulled a face. Cassie pretended not to notice and poured out a cup of tea for herself and Roisin who was still in the kitchen.
"She's sorry that she's not come over earlier but she's been busy, Niamh."
"She's always busy like all grownups are."
"I wish I had the time for all my friends, Niamh. It's easier when you're a kid, living at home, everything looked after, long school holidays, no responsibilities "
"Except for exams and homework." Put in Niamh.
Cassie looked around, slightly discomforted. She had been one of those infuriating children who had blithely taken advantages of her many natural advantages. Unlike her sister, she could pig out on all the least nutritious foods without putting an ounce onto that slender frame of hers and had the infuriating knack of passing all her exams with the minimum amount of work and the maximum amount of partying. She had had to slightly refurbish her own past as relayed to the kids, emphasise her occasional spurts of hard work and draw a discreet veil over the rest. She had become a 'born again' advocate of diligence and application and had deftly concealed her history up to her rebirth.
"Yeah, well, I was forgetting all that," Came her glib rejoinder.
"I don't want to see her," Muttered Michael under his breath.
"You've not seen her for months?" protested Roisin whose sharp ears had just about picked out the words.
"So what's the problem, Michael?" Cassie asked in an easygoing fashion.
Just then, Roisin came through from the kitchen, and Michael clammed up and picked at his food in a desultory fashion. After a few minutes, he pushed the half eaten meal away from him.
"I'm not hungry," He muttered.
"It's your favourite breakfast. You always like it," Came Roisin's prompt intervention while Cassie studied the boy closely. His behaviour struck a long forgotten chord with her own past. This looked like an opening gambit in how to be a terrible teenager.
"You're not coming down with a stomach bug, Michael. If you are, I'll have to get the surefire medicine out of the first aid box. The nastier tasting the better it is, kill or cure, that's how my mother always described it," Cassie chipped in with a challenging grin.
Niamh hid her grin behind the nearby jumbo-sized Corn Flakes packet and looked away from the discomforted Michael.
"I'll try a little more, Cassie. I think I feel a bit better," He muttered sheepishly
"Just so long that you don't make yourself sick," Came the genial reply.
Breakfast continued as normal as Michael decided to keep a low profile. As they got down from the table, Michael went to grab his coat from the hook in the hall.
"Mum, I'm going out."
"Where to?" Roisin called.
"Oh no you don't, Michael." Roisin's determined voice intervened and she made a dive for the door. An ugly flashpoint situation was just about to develop when Cassie came in from behind her
"Oh, so this is what everything is about, Michael?"
"Don't know what you mean," Came the sulky reply.
"Come on, Michael. When you're horrible to everyone, it's always when you're pressured by your friends. You love seeing Lauren like you always have but you've promised your friends you'll hang around with them so you make up some kind of a story," Roisin finished on a note of triumph.
"Come on, Michael. You don't have to be with them today," Pleaded Niamh.
Wrong move, kid, an inward voice told Cassie. That is only going to make Michael feel even more guilty, drive him in on himself and make him rattier.
"How long is Lauren stopping till? Perhaps if we know that, perhaps Michael could spend time with his friends and come back in time to see her later," Cassie quietly suggested.
Michael froze like a statue while his coat was half on, half off. There might be a way out of the hole he was landed in.
"I'll go and find out." Roisin volunteered very quickly." Michael, you stay right here until I find out how long she's staying till."
Inwardly, Michael was seething with tension. How long would he know the answer, which might let him off the hook? Grownups had a frustrating habit in talking all sorts of rubbish to each other on the phone with no idea of urgency. He had to run over to the other side of the park and not get ridiculed by the others about 'your mum not letting you out to play.' All his friends could come and go as they pleased so why were mum and Cassie so old fashioned and behind the times?
"We'll do a deal with you, Michael," Cassie's small frame with folded arms confronted Michael. "You go off now but mind you're back by three and no excuses. Lauren's coming at any minute and, for once, she's got plenty of time on her hands."
"I need to finish off my homework now," Niamh added helpfully. "I didn't think she was staying that late or I would have said so earlier."
The sulky look on Michael's face was wiped off his face in an instant. The dilemma that had plagued him from late evening up till now was suddenly solved in a flash. He felt so awkward and self conscious so easily, these days.
"I'm sorry I've been so horrible. I'll be back on time, promise. I really want to see Auntie Lauren."
"But you " Roisin started to say when Cassie nudged her in the ribs.
A quick peck on two cheeks and a small whirlwind shot out of the door and was gone in a flurry of wind. Niamh reached for her homework books and went upstairs.
"I don't see why Michael has to be so difficult these days and can't talk not like Niamh. It's so obvious what he had to do," Roisin exclaimed in exasperation.
"Don't ever think that Niamh will never go exactly the same way in a few years time except that she'll have the gift of the gab as well. Girls always do."
"You're only talking that way because you were a right tearaway," Laughed Roisin. "I was always a model child."
"You made up for lost time since you first met me," Teased Cassie, her arm gently drawing Roisin to her in a brief embrace just before the doorbell rang.
A glowing Lauren appeared, center stage with outstretched arms, in the center frame of the open door. She looked so much healthier than when they had last seen the slightly strained, pale skinned woman who had had to make an effort to drop back into her old role. This health freak had taken full advantage of sunbathing in Yvonne's back garden and had slid eagerly back into her old regime as soon as possible. It was as if she couldn't wait to put that two black years of her life as far behind her as possible.
"No children today?" enquired Lauren.
"Niamh is upstairs doing her homework but she'll be down later. We've given Michael temporary licence to be out with his friends but he'll be back at three," joked Roisin, with a slight inner qualm at the prison reference.
"Teenagers, eh," laughed Lauren. "well, you were bound to hit it at some time or other."
Roisin gave a nervous smile. Some of the other mums who congregated outside school were vociferous on the subject and Roisin had inwardly hoped that it wouldn't happen to them. On the plus side, was the very loving and firm mothering they had been given but Roisin was naturally anxious even the support that she had got from Cassie that she had never had from Aiden. She had always secretly feared that those nightmare months she and Cassie had spent in prison would come back to haunt them.
"Look, I know what's bothering you. I came from a so-called normal family and I'm doing therapy right now, trying to undo the damage that my so called screwed up father did to me," Came Lauren's very bold and intense reply. The words came straight out of her unconscious without any filtering out as she was apt to do these days. "I've been thinking of the last time I was round here and it helps me to be around here with you and the kids."
"In what way?" Roisin asked with interest.
"Well, being round here makes me feel kind of normal "
Cassie and Roisin smiled gratefully at the beautiful simplicity of Lauren's statement and listened as she plunged ahead
" .., you're among the closest, dearest friends I could have and I love your kids but there's something more. If I'm going to make sense of my own mixed up family, then it helps observing what a healthy family is like. I did a lot of thinking things over when I was here last time and talked about you all to Meg Richards, she's my therapist .."
Lauren was still chattering away as Roisin led them into the comfortable sitting room and Lauren sank back with satisfaction into her favourite armchair. The house sounded curiously quiet to her though it meant that, instead of having to have four eyes, two minds and three arms to deal with the friendly onslaught of two lively children, she could sit back and take it easy.
"There's something else I wanted to talk about and that's about Babs," Continued Lauren, hardly stopping for breath.
A chill ran through them that wasn't the autumn weather. Even if Yvonne hadn't phoned them direct, that sort of terrible news would have reached them as quick as lightning. They really hadn't expected that one.
"Mum has been up to Larkhall to see her with George and she told me how she's getting on. On the bad side, she feels terrible at being separated from all she's known on the outside, her claustrophobia has come back and she's scared that she'll do time for this. The good thing is that she's got both Jo and George as briefs to defend her."
"Whew, the two of them will put the fear of god into any jumped up barrister who thinks he's special."
"I'd forgotten your time spent mixing with all the legal top nobs," teased Lauren.
"My couple of months of rehearsals in an orchestra made up almost entirely of solicitors, barristers, judges, opened my eyes. You get to see what they are really like. Some of them are like spoilt children who need some right minded individual to hurl a music score right in their face." Roisin spoke passionately. One of the interesting side effects of her part in "The Creation" was to finally kill stone dead any deference to authority no matter what august form it took. If the Prime Minister spoke out of turn in a conversation on a street corner, she wouldn't hesitate to give him a piece of her mind.
"Meaning George?" smiled Lauren. There could be no other.
"Exactly but we're getting off the point."
Cassie had smiled at her fantasy of seeing two very strong women wipe the floor with the opposition but the more businesslike side of her forced her to get back to essentials.
"Her main problem is Bodybag." As Lauren resumed her story, the other women grimaced. They didn't need a picture drawn to imagine what satisfaction Sylvia would gain from rubbing Barbara's face in her troubles. "Mum has had a run in with her already the first time she's gone to visit after Barbara was taken in."
"The stupid cow always thinks that she can get the better of your mum. She's even more stupid to do it with Nikki and Karen around."
"True, but they're not round all the time. They can't run protection twenty four seven. Let's face it. You know what Larkhall can be like "
As her voice trailed off, the words came back to haunt Lauren in their resonance. It was ironical when she was appealing to their past memories of the place when her memories of Larkhall were the most recent of all of them and she was trying to forget them. This discussion, which she had chosen to launch into, was proof that the recent past couldn't be brushed aside any more than the distant past.
"She's going to need a lot of support," Lauren said flatly.
"Surely there's no reason to think that way?" queried Roisin.
"You can convict yourself in your own mind much worse than any brief can do to you. Take my word for it," Came Lauren's grim response.
"Isn't Barbara's defence going to cost a fortune?" Cassie's reflective voice dwelled on the practicalities.
"Mum's stumping up for Jo's bill. George has offered to help her out for nothing to get experience in criminal law. According to what mum told me, she's pretty well loaded from well paying civil cases .."
"I'd say that she's doing it out of the goodness of her heart from when I remember her joining us at the pub during the trial and at the rehearsals." Roisin's slowly articulated meditative words sensed that strange mixture of shyness and theatrical expressiveness in her.
Half an hour later as her precipitate articulation of words as they fell out of her mouth, a dull headache set in at the back of her neck. It was a thought demanding admission to be heard, which she had dreaded coming but she knew in advance what the outcome would be. She felt as if she were suspended on the wheel of fate as it swung her in that inevitable curved progression of flight.
"It looks as if I'm going to have to visit Larkhall again, to see Denny or Barbara or both. I guess I have to."
This sounded really lame, Lauren scolded herself to hear her speak in the weariest most reluctant of tones, but the rest of them treated her as seriously as did Michael and Niamh when they finally put in an appearance.
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