Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard
Part One Hundred and Eleven
On the Monday after Barbara was freed on the Friday, Karen came to work with a sinking feeling. It centred on Sylvia. She had prevailed on Frances Myers, wing governor of D wing, to take on Sylvia until the end of Barbara's trial. She had argued loudly and all too reasonably that why should she take on a total reject from another wing, and especially Sylvia? Frances had solidly hammered her team together with her own drive and determination and was justly proud of the fruits of her hard work. Karen had patiently reasoned with the rather fiery Frances who had finally given way. Now that the trial was over, Karen felt compelled to transfer Sylvia back. The problem was that Nikki, as a new wing governor, had carried Sylvia on her overloaded shoulders and Sylvia had been disgraced herself to all and sundry, including Helen. Nikki hadn't been there at the time, but it was certain that her sharp ears would have heard every detail of what had gone on. After her third cigarette had been stubbed out into her ashtray, her mind was made up. She had to call a meeting of the two wing governors, and thrash the whole matter out. Quite what she was going to say to them both, God only knew.
She decided to move the chairs around, and group them in a circle with a coffee table at the side for drinks. She could do with every prop she could lay her hands on, to take the edge off any confrontation.
"It's not every day we get a chance to meet up." Frances said jovially enough to Nikki.
Nikki's smile was wan and her reply common place enough, as they entered the room together. She knew exactly what was in store for them and, already she was getting tense.
"Come in, both of you and take a seat." Karen offered with what sounded, to her
hypersensitive ears, as forced cheerfulness." Do you want a drink?" she offered.
"A cup of tea please, Karen." Nikki said politely. What seemed like a lifetime of working in clubs paradoxically impelled her to restrict daytime drinking to the minimum. On Frances' following suit, Karen raised her eyebrow, and asked her secretary to assist. Personally, she would have preferred something stronger.
"I thought I'd call you both in to discuss the matter of what's going to happen to Sylvia Hollamby."
"I would have thought that's obvious." Frances replied with lightning speed ahead of the other two." She clears out her locker and moves back to G wing as soon as."
"Hold on a minute, Frances, let's not rush matters. How do you feel about the matter, Nikki?"
Nikki's mouth was dry and she hesitated for the whirling mass of words in her head to assume a coherent shape.
"It's no secret that conflict between Sylvia and I goes back a long way. When I took on this job, I knew very well what I was taking on and just about managed to stomach her. I had her and Di Barker to deal with for my first five months till Di got the push and another month later, last December, Sylvia was taken off my hands. It has been total bliss since then to have that woman out of my hair and a wing full of decent prison officers. I know just how much I've been putting up with the day I saw the back of the pair of them. I really don't know how I'm going to deal with her being back again, especially with the way she messed up at Barbara's trial."
"Nikki, you're sometimes too polite. Sylvia's a bigoted witch who has been allowed to get away with murder for years. She's prejudiced against every minority that you care to name. It's only her stupidity and her cowardice that kept her within limits."
Karen felt impatient with Frances's remarks, and frowned at her. It was obvious to her that Nikki had been making an effort to restrain herself. Frances was stating the obvious very simplistically and it provoked Nikki to speak her mind.
"Of course, the solution is obvious. I inherited her in the first place, so I take her back. She was taken off my wing when it came out that she would be a hostile witness at Barbara's trial. Now that Barbara got her freedom, the necessity of her being off the wing has ended. Therefore sensible Nikki will do the reasonable thing, and take her back on G wing. The only thing is that it doesn't feel right for me. I tell you straight out that I heard about every word that that evil, twisted woman said. I cannot stomach the presence of that woman back on my wing when my instinct is to throttle her. On top of that, I'm expected to be the responsible wing governor and get everyone to leave her alone when Bodybag simply doesn't deserve it. There are limits to what I will take on. I know only too well that I'm backing out on the deal I made. This goes against the grain. I'm making this one big exception because of the way that she mouthed off in court. If I take her back, I swear that I'll swing for her."
"I would expect to hear an ex con talking that way, but not one of my wing governors, Nikki. Just think exactly of what you're saying." Karen cut in sharply with a warning.
The force of Karen's reprimand totally scrambled the other woman's emotions for a minute as she struggled for reflection. Unlike previous scoldings down the years, Nikki's head engaged with the content of it, and she had to admit the justice of the remarks. Feelings of remorse damped down that outbreak of blind anger. Karen deserved to be treated better by her. In those few seconds, she became a wing governor once again.
Frances said nothing, as she didn't know what to say. She had felt Nikki's anger boil over and, for a hard woman, it made her feel uncharacteristically uncomfortable. She had come up against every variation of 'hard man' talk in the met, both the villains she'd nailed and her fellow policemen, and had learnt to discount and despise it as so much cheap talk, but Nikki's outburst was different.
"I'm sorry for the way I spoke, Karen. I was out of order." Nikki murmured, her eyes downcast.
"Thanks, Nikki." Came her heartfelt reaction. The situation was knife-edged and Karen thanked God that no one could see her own vulnerabilities, which she felt prickled up all over her skin.
"Hang on a minute, just how old is Sylvia?" Frances's voice broke out of the silence as she sought to make up for her earlier insensitivity and try and be constructive.
"Her date of birth is July 14th 1946 and her sixtieth birthday is the fourteenth of July this year." Rattled out Karen, without a blink.
"How do you know that one, Karen?" Nikki asked in amazement.
"Because I have been counting down the years as to when she draws her state pension, and prison service pension and can piss off and bully and harass her next door neighbours as a full time occupation." Replied Karen dryly.
"That's the answer to our prayers " began Nikki.
"Hold on a minute, Nikki. She doesn't have to retire at sixty. She could work up to sixty five if she wants to."
"You can't be serious, Karen?"
Nikki's face was a picture of horror, contrasting with her previous expression of dawning inspiration. Not for the first time, she wished that she had the power to simply give her the sack as she had done to barmaids who had incurred her displeasure. She cooled down as she realised that these rules and regulations served equally to protect the innocent victim of bullying from above as much as the crafty malingerer who knew how to 'play the system.' She knew only too well that, if Sylvia had one talent, she had that knack of self-preservation.
"I'm afraid so, Nikki. Of course, she has to keep herself up to scratch. Both of you will, of course, have your round of annual appraisals to do this April and whoever gets to interview her might find that a useful time to sound out her intentions."
Nikki looked at her feet. She could sense the way the conversation was drifting and half of her could see the logic of it but still her obstinate will resisted it.
"Look at this way, Nikki. You remember Helen's time as wing governor better than I did. The picture I get was that Sylvia and Fenner ruled the roost and Fenner had a hotline to Stubberfield who always took his side in any difference with Helen. She was caught between two sides and had a hell of a time. It's a wonder she lasted as long as she did. You have so many advantages over her. You've got my support, the other wing governors, and prisoners and officers alike. All the cards are in your hand if you care to play them."
"I can help you out, Nikki, in nailing any lies that Sylvia may come up about how different and better my wing is. She's bound to do it to use something against you. We can get in there first."
"You know that my door is open at any time, Nikki. You should remember that you don't have to carry all the world on your shoulders "
The voices had been flowing round her, over her head, unseen and something that she felt only halfway part of. It was only when Nikki looked up, she saw the faces of the two women, smiling kindly at her. She started to feel less alone, and that feeling of panic started to subside within her.
"If you feel that you can take her on again, you have every right to tell her to keep a low profile, to pull her weight and to turn over a new leaf. For a start, this is the last time that Sylvia is ever allowed to give evidence in court. Two high court judges have told her never to set foot in court if you need any backing. You would have every reason to tell her that, and that she'd be marked down on that at her appraisal. You would have the unenviable job of keeping everyone off her back but you would be in a position to force a lot of concessions from her. She would have to dance to your tune. At the same time, you would have to hold out something positive to her that if she changed her act, she would eventually get her reward once she got people's trust. I am asking you to take her back on. I ask you to believe me that, difficult though it might be, it is impossible only if you make it so inside your own head."
"I must have a bit of a walk round, Karen, while I get my head round this one."
"Whatever you need to do, Nikki."
The two other women watched with intense sympathy as Nikki reached for her cigarette packet and paced around the room. She moved with fast, almost jerky movements as she smoked. In a few minutes, Karen was delighted to see that Nikki's physical movements started to become more relaxed as she fought for control of the situation. Suddenly, she took a sharp turn and dropped back in her chair.
"OK, you win. When do I take her back?"
"Next week, if you want it."
"Make it now. I'd sooner not sit around stewing. I'd sooner do it now while I'm good and ready for her." Nikki replied abruptly.
"Whatever you say."
"Come in, Sylvia." Nikki said to the other woman who peered round in a suspicious fashion. All she knew was that Madam wanted to have a word with her and was told to report to the woman whom she hated more than any other. She had got more or less used to that jackbooted Frances Myers. At least she wasn't an ex con.
"I'm here to tell you that, as of now, you are transferred back to G wing and will be working under me. As you will remember, you were only transferred off my wing until Barbara's trial was over when you were known to be a hostile witness at the trial. The move was designed to ensure your own safety."
"If it's all the same to you, miss, I would sooner stop where I am. My seniority and experience is more appreciated where I am." Came the sulky reply.
"Sylvia, it is not all the same to me," Nikki answered in a harder tone instead of correct efficiency." You time has come up to return here. You don't have the choice on this one."
"Don't I get any rights? The way you put it, I've just been shunted from pillar to post like in a game of pass the parcel. All this when I was just starting to get used to a new wing. At my age in life, I don't find it easy to deal with constant change."
"No Sylvia, you don't get any rights on this one, not after I've gone through the conditions of service handbook from cover so it's no use complaining to your General Secretary. Right is on my side." Shot back Nikki in steely determined tones before pausing to resume in a gentler, more persuasive manner.
"I won't pretend that it will be easy for you to come back as your conduct at the trial hasn't done much to endear yourself to your fellow officers and prisoners, or come to think of it, me. I'm here to ensure that you return on terms that will work out best for everyone. I shall call a meeting on the wing and I'll insist that you be accepted back onto the wing with good behaviour on all sides. Needless to say, this applies to you. Before I announce this to the wing, I demand assurances from you that you behave yourself in a professional fashion. That way, I don't have a riot on my hands. You stick to your side of the deal and you'll undo some of the damage that you'll have done to your reputation ready for your appraisal with me this April."
Nikki's casually uttered final words brought Sylvia up short. Memories of fractious appraisals with Madam contrasted with the way that Mr Stubberfield treated her so kindly and generously. She was sure that she would have no mercy from the woman whom she remembered only a few years ago, she was accustomed to lock up in a cell at nights. The years seemed to fly by and none of them got any better.
"Is that a deal, Sylvia?" Prompted Nikki with a hard edge in her voice.
"Seems as if I have no choice."
"You're right. You don't."
"There's something going down here, Ju. I could have sworn I saw Old Bodybag sneaking in to the wing but she ran away without so much as glaring at us. She couldn't be coming back here."
"No, Ju. You must have been imagining things. Next thing you're going to say is that you've seen Fenner on the wing."
Julie Johnson visibly shuddered at the very idea and of the very bad memories it conjured up. She carried on at the servery, cooking sausages for the communal breakfast.
"Can I have your attention?" Nikki called out, in her carrying voice from the top of the staircase to the 'two's.' She looked down at a sea of faces below her who looked on expectantly at Nikki and wondering what development was in store.
"I wouldn't normally announce the arrival of an extra Prison Officer to the wing, as I would sooner let that person find their feet in the normal way. I am making an exception here, as the prison officer is Sylvia Hollamby who is no stranger to G Wing. I ought to make it quite clear " Nikki continued raising her voice to carry over the intensity of murmurs of suppressed anger that rippled round the wing. The expression of distorted rage on Denny's face and self-satisfied contempt on Natalie Buxton's face caused Nikki's gaze to flicker and her voice to hesitate before she found her nerve to plunge on.
" ..that my interest is as always, that everyone should be treated fairly on the wing and justly and that there is good order."
"So why was she booted off the wing, Nikki?" Denny interrupted.
"It's no secret that there has been a history of ill feeling between Barbara and Mrs Hollamby. When it came to my ears that Mrs Hollamby was going to appear in court as a hostile witness, I decided to separate them to prevent any trouble "
"What sort of trouble do you mean, miss?" Natalie interrupted with the most misleadingly innocent expression on her face that roused Nikki's anger.
"You work that out, Natalie. Everyone else can join up the dots for themselves." Nikki retorted to a general laugh at Natalie's expense.
"I was above all, concerned that Barbara would be in the best frame of mind to take the stand. I know the strength of feeling over Barbara's case and I went to court to give character evidence in support of her. For this reason I did not want Mrs Hollamby to be at the centre of any trouble, both for her sake and everyone else's ."
"What would you have done if Babs had been sent down, Nikki?"
"I don't even want to think about that one, Julie." Nikki's voice rang out, electric charged with emotion. Her eyes were closed. That was the first time the question had crossed her mind.
"I'm sorry, Nikki." Julie Saunders murmured.
"Now that Barbara Mills, thank God, has got the freedom that a court of law rightly decided upon, that removes the main obstacle to Sylvia coming back on the wing. I expect every officer on my wing to act in a proper, professional manner. Sylvia Hollamby understands that and she returns to G wing to take up her duties today with a clean slate. I want no settling of old scores on anyone's side and I also want Mrs Hollamby to settle in comfortably as just another prison officer on the wing. For these reasons, I am asking for good will on all sides. Are there any questions?"
There was a general murmur of dissatisfaction round the wing but no one could put into words the gutroot opposition to Nikki's persuasive reasoning. Nikki felt the emotion cut through like a knife and, white faced, she turned on her heel and dived back to her office for a much-needed cigarette. Despite her best efforts, she felt that she had failed in her purpose.
Bodybag had stood to one side and slightly behind Nikki and smiled vacuously all around her. She let Nikki do all the speaking with the determination that Nikki would take the heat. At the back of her mind was a secret sly determination that she would do what she wanted if she got half a chance. She thought that Wade was only another version of Madam and also Stewart, prisoner's friend to the last. No one bothered about her feelings about doing her duty and speaking her mind about Mills. She didn't want to come back to G Wing anyway. She might make all sorts of promises to Wade but what she was going to do was something different. The problem was that Wade had infected all the other officers with her attitude. She slunk off to the PO room to have a mug of tea, her only creature comfort besides her chocolate cream cakes.
"Nice try, Nikki but you got to be joking to think that everyone's going to smile at each other and be friends. I ain't forgotten the way she's behaved over the years."
"A tiger doesn't change his spots and old Bodybag don't become Sylvia just because even Nikki calls her that, Ju." Julie Saunders chorused in return.
"What the hell's happened to Nikki?" Denny asked. She felt bitterly let down and resentful.
"What do we do then, Ju?"
"Wait and see and watch." Julie Saunders concluded for all of them.
Part One Hundred and Twelve
Life changes and people change with life, John mused, as he studied the letter in his hand, which had cordially invited him to lecture at the judge's seminar at Warwick. He had utterly immersed himself in Barbara Mills trial and over the weekend and had basked in the pure relief that he and Monty had not had to deal with a guilty verdict. Still feeling good about himself, he had been promptly plunged into the psychological centrifuge of the therapy session. Helen had severely disorientated him by praising the good he had done at the trial and had gone on to awake far too many unpleasant feelings about himself than he could safely deal with. Now, he was going to be taken away from the normal constraints of his life into the sea of possibilities that lecturing away from home offered up. The familiar and habitual feelings of excitement started to well up in him as it had, so many times before.
A swirl of memories floated dreamily past his mind's eye as he held the piece of paper in his hand and he stared into the distance. Conferences and lecturing away from home both held the same illicit pleasures that only those who took part in them knew ever existed. It was the chance of extra curricular activities that provided half the attraction. Inside the conference hall or the lecture theatre, he earnestly dedicated himself to the task in hand at least as much as anyone but outside the allotted hours, all sort of delicious temptations opened up to those gifted with the arts of sexual attractiveness. The beauty of these occasions away from home, he had judicially concluded, was that it satisfied both sides of his personality, the public and the private. Yes, he remembered that charming French judge who Monty Everard was boring to death until one glance from his appealing blue eyes ensnared her so that they sneaked off from the convivial, drinks laden party to her bedroom. That memory and other memories started to make him feel good about himself and his lips curved as his eyes looked inwards.
Suddenly, his senses were assaulted by the dark memory of last October's Howard League for Penal Reform's annual conference. He had acted no differently that time, except that he had slept with Karen who was also his friend and got far more than he bargained for. He shuddered at the memory. If there was any one event in his life that caused him to abandon his pride and seek therapy, finally stripped of all mental reservations and get out clauses, this was it. And yet he was proposing to revisit that area of his existence, which had brought him so much pleasure and yet proved to be his total undoing.
"Why do you keep on sleeping with women who are, let's face it, of absolutely no consequence to you, when you have two beautiful, loving, supportive women, who would give you everything you wanted if you only asked?" Helen's direct words and intense stare jumped into his mind and brought him up short. It served notice on him that he could no longer coast through life on old habits but that intense scrutiny for the truth must needs be turned inwards on himself, both in therapy and outside it. It forced him uncharacteristically to think of those who were closest to him at the point when duty would shortly separate himself from them. Once that thought was planted in his mind, his attention inevitably zeroed in on George. He knew enough to know that he had good reason to worry about George but not enough to know what it was about. Inspiration came to him to seek out Jo and try and find the answer. Uncharacteristically, he threw together the contents of his suitcase in rapid order and set out in his car to find out the truth if he possibly could.
The doorbell rang at Jo's flat and she was surprised to see a slightly disheveled John outside. It was unlike him to not phone her up first but she let John in.
"To what do I owe this pleasure?" Jo queried.
"Part business, part pleasure." John answered shortly in a distracted fashion. "I'm going on my periodic pilgrimage to Warwick to infect the up and coming judges of tomorrow with my hopelessly liberal ideas. I wonder why they let me loose there."
"In the eyes of Sir Ian, it is probably the lesser of two evils. You can't be a standing menace to them in two places at the same time. If he doesn't send you to Warwick, you'll get your hands on a trial he wants a 'safe pair of hands' to handle." Jo commented with a dry smile.
She hesitated for a minute as John made no reply and added, more statement than question with a soft smile on her face.
"You didn't come to see me just about you going to Warwick, did you?"
John sighed, removed his overcoat and slumped into a sofa.
"You're right, I didn't. I wanted to talk to you about George. I'm worried about her."
Jo pricked up her ears at the terseness in his tone.
"What's the problem, John?"
"The worst thing is that I don't know. I went to see her last Friday and she's not her normal self. She seemed tired and worn out and there's something preying on her mind ..."
"I've not noticed anything." Jo interrupted hastily and defensively. Ingrained in her was the expectation that she would pick up on the subtle nuances of speech and mannerism. She might think that this quality was necessary as a barrister, both in dealing with a client who is less than forthcoming and in cross examination in court. The reality was that she subscribed unthinkingly to the particular form of feminine pride that a woman should be especially well versed in picking up on these nuances and knowing details of human life around her. It irked her that the person concerned should be George, of all people whom she was especially close to. John smiled in that open handed way to excuse Jo's ignorance, which only served to wind her up. She knew that look. Eventually, he sorted out the words to say in his mind. It was a severely edited highlight of the conversation but it was as accurate as far as it went.
"My precise words to her were that I just wished that she would talk to me and the answer was and I quote 'I can't, not yet, anyway.' Now I wanted to ask you what on earth it might mean because blessed if I know. I just thought you might be able to shed some light on a matter which is totally beyond me."
"Did she say anything else?"
"Only that she wasn't pregnant. I didn't wish to pursue the matter any further."
Jo's look of intense concentration revealed her attempt to fathom the puzzle. Her starting point was the same as John's but she gave up in despair.
"I can't help you on this, John." She admitted frankly." Quite frankly, George has been the strong one throughout the trial, especially when it has got to me on occasions and I've tended to wind down a bit too much with a drink or three."
John looked sharply at Jo's suspicious euphemism. He remembered the time when Jo had visited him at his digs and Jo had knocked back a succession of large whiskies in between denouncing him furiously over the conduct of the Jason Powell hearing. In contrast, he had never had the need to drink in excess any more than he had followed the teenage lemming tendency to smoke cigarettes to assert his identity.
"Can you keep an eye on George while I'm away, Jo. It would ease my mind to know that both of you, who are most dear to me, will be taken care of."
The words tumbled out of John's mouth as the idea first hit him. It was the first time that it had occurred to him to think of his responsibilities while he was away.
"Of course, John." Jo answered softly, a soft glow in her eyes. She was touched by John's totally disinterested concern for George." I can't promise that I'll get anywhere but if I can get to the bottom of this puzzle, I will."
Hours later, Jo lay on her back with John in the heat of sexual passion in her dimly lit bedroom. Even as John was inside her, gradually taking her up to the climax that she knew would come, there was different feel about the way that he made love with her. If she could see clearly enough, she was sure she could see a real tenderness in his eyes. Of course, he was the most expert male lover she could think of but this was apt to be a camouflage behind which he could hide his feelings for her. Her fingertips ruffled his hair and delicately traced a pattern down his back. She knew that tomorrow, he would be gone but she was surer of his presence around her than she used to be, even with that silver tongue that could lay on the courtly compliments with a trowel. All this evening, he had said nothing about not straying off the straight and narrow as he had done in the past but, by some instinct, she never pressed the point. She didn't need to. Tonight was different and she knew that wherever George was, that she felt the same. Her tongue slid inside John's in a delicious coming together of the two of them. It did not exclude the third or why else would John have been so concerned about her as Jo was also?
Part One Hundred and Thirteen
On the Wednesday night, after John had left for the Judges' seminar in Warwick, George knew that it was time to start facing up to the fact that she had an appointment with a surgeon the next day, an appointment that would put all sorts of things into action. But she couldn't go to the hospital and see Ric Griffin on her own, she knew that. She might be the barrister with the legendary temper, who could cut lower mortals down to size in a matter of seconds, but that didn't mean that her courage was strong enough to face this demon on her own. Ordinarily, she would have told Jo, and asked Jo to go with her, but not for something like this. Going to tell Jo was going to be difficult enough as it was, which wasn't something George felt she could deal with right now. So, a firm, sincere friend was called for. Karen therefore was whom she had chosen to accompany her, if she would, and George didn't think she was likely to say no to such a thing. As she drove over to Karen's flat on the Wednesday evening, she wondered what Karen's reaction would be to her news. George knew that Karen too would probably want to see her lump, as she had almost certainly seen similar things in her time of nursing. George was also aware that if Karen found out about how long she'd had the lump, she would very likely go ballistic. Karen wasn't usually one to restrain her feelings, and with this knowledge they would surely erupt in her face.
When Karen opened her door to see George standing there, she could see in her face that what she was here for was something at the very least worrying.
"Come in," Karen said, wanting to try and put George at her ease. "How are things?" She said as she led the way back to the sitting room, which was long and comfortable.
"That's what I've come to see you about," George said a little hesitantly. Laying a hand on her shoulder and thoroughly scrutinising her, Karen didn't like what she saw. George looked tired, thinner, and exceedingly nervous.
"You look as though you could do with a drink," Karen said instead of voicing any of her observations. George smiled a little tentatively.
"Yes, a large drink might just help." Karen wanted to cuddle her, to hold her as she did for all those months, to try to take away some of the pain that was obviously getting to her. Pouring herself a Scotch and George a large Martini, Karen gestured towards the sofa.
"Sit down," She said, handing George the glass. "And tell me why you look like a rabbit caught in the headlights." Taking a seat at the opposite end of the sofa to Karen, George took a healthy swig of her drink and took and lit one of Karen's cigarettes that were on the coffee table.
"I've got something to tell you, and something to ask you," She began carefully. "I don't especially want to tell anyone, but I know that if I'm forced to go on my own, I probably won't. So, here I am, asking you, because I know you'll make me go if it's the last thing you do."
"Sweetheart, you're rambling," Karen told her affectionately. "Where is it that you need me to go with you?"
"Hospital," George replied, seeing this as the quickest way to an end. The word hung in the air between them, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I, erm," George continued hesitantly, still afraid of actually putting it into words. "I have a lump in my breast." Karen sat absolutely stunned for a moment or two, trying to process this piece of terrifying information. No, not George, not the woman she had come to know so intimately last year, not the woman she still loved. Eventually coming out of her stunned introspection, Karen asked,
"How long have you had it?" Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for the rant she knew was coming, George replied,
"I first found it at Christmas."
"What?" Karen's exclamation was like a gunshot, hitting George with full force. "Do you have any idea just how much of a risk you've taken?" Karen demanded, the scorching anger not yet diminishing. "George, Christmas was two bloody months ago. Don't you know what happens when you leave things like that to fester? They grow, and expand, until they take over your entire body. George, I've seen people die because they left it too late, because they allowed the fear of what might be to overwhelm them, until it becomes an actuality." As her own words caught up with her, Karen stopped, realising that this was perhaps not the best way to go about reassuring George. But George had simply allowed her to get on with it, to let the anger pour out of her because she knew that Karen was absolutely right. She had been stupid, possibly fatally so, and here she was asking for Karen's help.
When Karen finally came to the end of her tirade, George looked over to see that she had tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Karen said a lot more quietly. "It just terrifies me to know that you've had something like that for so long without doing anything about it."
"I know," George said, taking Karen's hand in hers. "And I know just how stupid I've been. I just kept putting it off, finding every excuse in the book for not seeking help before now."
"Boxing Day," Karen suddenly said with a thought of blinding clarity. "When I was on my way home and you phoned me. You almost told me about it then, didn't you."
"Yes," George admitted with a small smile. "I found it that morning, and I phoned you with every intention of telling you, but you might say that my courage completely failed me."
"So, who did actually manage to get through to you?"
"Kay," George astonished Karen by telling her. "On the Saturday morning in the middle of Barbara's trial, Kay found me in the middle of what I'm assuming was almost a hypoglycaemic faint. I've never been forced to drink something disgustingly sweet before, but I was then, and she wanted to know about any underlying health problem I might have. So, one thing she did do for me, was to make me an appointment with a general surgeon, which is why I've got to go to the hospital tomorrow."
"Which hospital?" Karen asked, and when George told her, said, "Well, that's an advantage of private health insurance for you. Who's the surgeon?"
"Someone called Ric Griffin, who Kay assures me really is a genius with a scalpel." Karen was staring at her, utterly gobsmacked.
"Ric Griffin?" She said, as if not quite believing it.
"That's what she said," George replied. "Why?"
"If it's the Ric Griffin who's fifty, black, and with a voice that could turn your insides to jelly, then I know him. I worked with him for nearly six years when I was nursing, and got to know him, well, perhaps a little better than I should have."
"Well, Kay didn't fill me in as to any of those particular details," George said with a smile. "But I wouldn't have thought there would be too many general surgeons with the same name in the London area."
"It sounds unlike him to do private work though," Karen said thoughtfully. "In my day, he was always a martyr to the NHS. If he's still the same man I knew, he's very similar to John, in that his utter dedication to his profession sometimes is his downfall. But you honestly couldn't find anyone better."
"Well, let's hope it is your old flame then," George said with a shrug. "Because a genius with a scalpel is what I think I'm going to need."
They talked for the rest of the evening, both of them consuming a little too much alcohol. It felt as though they hadn't talked like this in far too long, both Barbara's trial and Karen's desperately trying to get over losing her son and losing George as a lover, having put a dampener on their actual friendship. When George eventually asked if she could stay, Karen agreed to it, because she could see that George had drunk far too much to drive, and that she didn't want to be alone tonight. As Karen lent her a nightie and a toothbrush and they both got ready for bed, they were both submerged in their thoughts. But when George eventually joined her under the duvet, they lay there in companionable silence, both remembering earlier, happier times when they'd been this close.
"I'm assuming that you haven't told either John or Jo about this," Karen said into the darkness.
"No, not yet," George said regretfully. "And I'm dreading it." After a moment's thought, Karen asked,
"What frightens you most about all this?" George didn't have to think about her reply to this question at all.
"If If they have to take my breast away, I doubt I'll be sexually attractive enough for John anymore. He positively delights in female beauty, and I'm not exactly going to still be a complete woman after surgery like that, am I." Karen could hear the tears in her voice, and it hurt her with almost a physical pain to hear such doubt of John's love in George's voice. Putting her arms out, Karen drew George towards her, seeing that some form of tender comfort was what she really needed right now.
"John will always love you," She told her quietly, gently running her hand up and down George's back. "No matter how you look or what happens to you. When he does know about it, which at some point he will have to, he will be as worried and as blatantly terrified as I am, and as Jo will be. You are incredibly special to all three of us, as well as your father, and numerous other people who care a great deal for you. We will all be here to help you through it, because not one, single one of us would dream of letting you go through it alone."
"What would I do without you?" George replied, the tears still running down her face.
"You'd probably back out of that appointment tomorrow, and make the problem even worse," Karen told her knowingly. "But I'm not going to let that happen."
As their eyes locked, George could see Karen's love for her shining out of the deep blue orbs, bathing her in its warmth, and reminding her of the months they'd shared last year. She could feel Karen's familiar curves nestling up against her, and she was still cradled within Karen's comforting embrace. Karen wasn't really surprised when George's lips gently covered hers, because she could feel George's intense need to feel something good, something familiar, something she had always been able to rely on. Karen was almost overwhelmed by George's soft, beautiful lips and her warm, delicately probing tongue, and if it hadn't been for the nagging voice of reason reminding her that she had no right to this any more, she would have allowed things to take their natural course. But gently pushing George from her, she said,
"George, don't do something now that you will definitely regret in the morning." As though a cold bucket of water had been thrown over her, George stared at Karen in total shock, and then turned completely from her in utter mortification. What on earth had possessed her to do that? This was Karen, not John, not Jo, but Karen, a woman whom she'd hurt so spectacularly only months before.
"I'm sorry," George muttered into her pillow. Putting out a hand, Karen gently stroked her shoulder.
"George, nothing would give me more pleasure than to make love to you, but it would only serve to make you feel incredibly guilty, which isn't something you need on top of everything else."
"I know," George said miserably. "I just I don't know."
"Turn over," Karen encouraged her, and when George did, she said, "Just because we shouldn't make love, doesn't mean I can't give you a cuddle." As they again snuggled close together, George knew that here was a true friend, someone who would always do their best for her, no matter how she tried to fuck it up in the meantime. As George gently drifted into sleep, Karen couldn't help but admire her own restraint, and to simultaneously wonder just what the next day would bring.
Part One Hundred and Fourteen
As they drove to the hospital on the Thursday morning, neither of them knew what to say. All that could possibly be said had been said the night before. But the extreme quiet inside the car was driving George insane.
"So," She said into the silence, desperately looking for anything to break the monotony of the traffic in central London. "What's this old flame of yours really like?"
"Well, apart from the charm, the gambling habit, and the tendency to end up with more wives and children than he can support, you couldn't find a better surgeon anywhere. Watching him operate," Karen added contemplatively. "It's like giving Brahms or Haydn a scalpel."
"Oh, you knew him well then?" George asked, Karen's slightly potted biography of Ric making her smile.
"I worked with him on and off for nearly six years, so yes, I suppose you could say I know him quite well. He was a registrar when I first met him, but even in those days you could see that he had a gift that would make him stand out from the others on the career ladder around him. He was always devoutly committed to the NHS though. I suppose the wives, the children and the gambling must have forced him into private practice."
"How long is it since you last saw him?" George asked, getting a very brief glimpse into the life Karen had once lived.
"It must be fifteen years," Karen said in slight amazement. "Jesus, I was only twenty-six then. Funny how time passes. His eldest daughter was about the same age as Ross."
"He might know about Ross, from when it was in the press last year," George put in gently.
"I doubt it," Karen said dryly. "The only part of the newspaper Ric ever took any notice of, was the racing pages."
When they pulled into the car park, all George's barriers of tension seemed to go back up. Switching off the engine, Karen gently took George's hand.
"What ever happens," She said slowly. "You will get through it, and you won't be alone." She saw the fleeting moment of blind terror in George's eyes, just for a second betraying how afraid she was.
"Thank you, for being here," George said, giving Karen's hand a quick squeeze. As they walked towards the main hospital building, George reflected dryly that this really was private health insurance for you. The grounds were immaculate and utterly breath taking, obviously in an attempt to make the patients feel welcome and relaxed. The receptionist directed them up to the second floor, where they were asked to wait by a pretty woman of a similar age to George, whose slight Liverpool accent seemed almost out of place in the extremely plush surroundings. The discrete name badge on her uniform, proclaimed her to be Staff Nurse Tricia Williams. As they sat in the softly decorated alcove, not far from the nurse's station, Karen reflected that private hospitals never seemed to have that interminable noise and bustle of the NHS. All was quiet around them, with only the occasional wandering to and fro of either a nurse or a doctor from the corridor that Karen assumed led to where the patients were housed. George was sitting rigidly beside her, the thought of her impending appointment making her more nervous by the second. Karen was about to suggest that she go and find them a coffee, when she heard that voice, that wonderfully deep, impetuous, well remembered voice from fifteen years ago. She heard him before she saw him, clearly in the midst of a slight argument with another consultant. George took in the slight smile of recognition on Karen's face, seeing that whatever memories Karen had of this man were fond ones. When Ric turned the corner from the corridor opposite them and walked towards the nurse's station, Karen examined all the familiar lines of his physique, albeit from a distance. He hadn't changed all that much since Karen had seen him last, though there were a few more grey hairs, and an added scattering of lines around his eyes.
"Alistair, you can't seriously tell me that cutting down on minor surgery is the best way forward," Ric insisted hotly.
"Just passing the word down the line, Ric," Alistair protested. "The way they see it, minor surgery takes up just as much time as the complicated stuff, and brings in a far lower revenue for the hospital."
"Why does this place only ever consider the financial aspects of healthcare?"
"That's private practice, Ric, you know that," Alistair added mildly.
"Ric, your next patient's arrived," Tricia told him as they approached. But as Ric glanced over to where Karen and George were sitting, what he'd been about to say to Alistair froze on his lips. Karen Betts! He couldn't believe it. Not for fifteen years had he clapped eyes on this woman he'd known so well. Not for fifteen years had he heard a word from those enchantingly full and graceful lips of hers. Slowly walking towards her, he gradually took in every inch of her figure, from her soft, blonde hair, to the large, blue eyes, and right down the body to which he'd once paid so much attention.
"Karen," He said as he moved towards her, Alistair and his insipid financial concerns forgotten.
"Ric," She said, getting up to greet him. "Long time no see," She added, kissing his cheek as his arms went round her.
"How are you?" He asked, holding her from him so that he could scrutinize her. "It's not you who's come to see me?" He asked, looking suddenly concerned.
"No," She reassured him. Then, putting a hand out to encompass George, she said, "George, this is Ric Griffin, and Ric, this is George Channing. It's George who may be in need of your services," She added quietly, returning them all to the gravity of the situation. As George rose to her feet and Ric put out a hand to shake hers, she reflected that there must once have been something highly passionate and explosive between Ric and Karen, for them both to be so automatically familiar around the other.
They followed Ric into a nearby consulting room, and as Ric gestured George to a seat in front of the desk, Karen took a chair off to the side. After taking a somewhat detailed medical history from her, Ric steepled his fingers on the blotter in front of him, and asked,
"Are you taking any medication at the moment?"
"Only the pill," George told him.
"And how long have you been taking that?" George thought for a moment.
"Except for about a year when I had my daughter, I've been taking it since I was seventeen." Ric's eyes widened.
"Roughly thirty years, yes, I know," George replied. "Why, is that what you think has caused this?"
"I couldn't possibly say," Ric said seriously. "But there is a school of thought that might agree with such a suggestion. Do you smoke?"
"Yes, though not quite as much as Karen," She said, trying to lighten the situation.
"That doesn't exactly put my mind at ease," Ric said with a slight smile. "Now, what I will need to do, is to first examine you, though Kay Scarpetta wouldn't have sent you to me without just cause. Then, I will send you for a mammogram and a chest X-ray, as well as a fine needle biopsy, which will involve the aspiration of some of the cells from inside the lump, which can then be analysed. So, if you would remove your blouse and bra, and lie down on the couch over there," He said, gesturing to an examination table. "We can get the first part over with."
"Do you want me to go, or do you want me to stay?" Karen asked, thinking that George might not want her there for this.
"Stay," George said lightly. "It's not as if you haven't seen it all before, is it." As George moved over to the table, she caught Ric's wide-eyed smile. Then, taking in Karen's slightly uncomfortable expression, she said, "Oh, god, darling, I'm sorry. Have I dropped you in it?"
"Nothing I didn't know already," Ric astonished Karen by saying.
When George was lying on the examining table, Ric moved to stand beside her, first examining her right breast, the one that didn't have a suspicious lump.
"So," He said, as his long, tapered fingers moved over her skin. "What else can you tell me about what Karen's been up to, since the last time I saw her?"
"Oh, apart from being the Governing Governor of the most successful women's prison in the country?" George replied, trying to keep her mind away from what he was doing.
"When did that happen?" Ric asked in surprise.
"Last year," Karen filled in.
"What happened to that prison officer you were seeing," Ric asked. "The one who lured you away from nursing?"
"Oh, he fell by the wayside a long time ago," Karen said dismissively.
"Yes, so I see," Ric drawled, thinking that if Karen had decided to switch to women, she certainly knew how to pick them.
"I'm not a current incumbent," George told him. "More of an ex, who knows just how well off she is in the friendship department."
"I wish I had such a good relationship with any one of my exes," Ric said ruefully.
"How many of them are there now?" Karen asked dryly.
"I almost got married for the fifth time, nearly four years ago now. But let's just say I decided against it."
"How's Jess?" Karen asked, thinking that this certainly went some way to explaining Ric's need for private work.
"She's one of nine," Ric said almost proudly. "And training to be a nurse, whilst Leo is following in his father's footsteps. What about Ross?" there was a slightly appalled silence, and when Ric glanced at George's face, he saw a brief look of trepidation, telling him that he'd unwittingly stumbled into something difficult. Looking over at Karen, he saw the half concealed pain in her eyes.
"I'll tell you some other time," Karen replied, knowing that it sounded as feeble as it felt. When Ric moved onto George's other breast, gently palpating the flesh, feeling for any inconsistencies in structure or appearance, he very soon discovered what had led George to seek his help.
"Precisely how long have you had this?" He asked quietly, his fingers resting on the outer surface of the lump, which was roughly the size of a two-pound coin.
"A while," George told him evasively, not meeting his eyes.
"Tell him, George," Karen said with an encouraging smile. "He won't shout at you like I did."
"I've had it since Christmas," George said quietly, feeling utterly, unbearably stupid. When she saw the brief expression of exasperated anger on Ric's face, she added, "Yes, Karen looked just like that when I told her. So please, no lectures, because I think I had them all last night."
"So you've had this lump, between two and three months," Ric thought out loud. "Roughly how big was it when you found it?"
"Probably about the size of a nut," George told him.
"And judging by the surface area on the skin," Ric explained. "I would estimate that it's now probably about the size of a small egg, though this will be clarified with a mammogram. Can I ask why you left it so long before coming forward?"
"I don't know," George said bleakly. "Call it a combination of denial, and mid life crisis stupidity, if you like." Gesturing for her to put her clothes back on, Ric sat back down behind the desk and added some notes to her file.
"I'm now going to send you for a mammogram and a chest X-ray, just to make sure we're not dealing with anything else," He said, finally looking up. "After which Tash Bandara, my registrar, will take a fine needle biopsy. Then, when I've had a look at your X-rays, we'll talk about what happens next." As they walked out of the room, Ric turned to Karen.
"While Mrs. Channing is otherwise engaged, have you got time for a coffee?"
"Would you mind?" Karen asked George, not wanting her to feel in any way abandoned.
"No, of course not," George said with a smile. "The pair of you are dying for an excuse to catch up, I can tell. I'll see you later."
When he'd given George directions to the X-ray department, Ric asked Tricia if there was anyone in the rec room where they usually took their breaks.
"No," She said, giving Karen the once over. "Connie, Tom and Zubin, they're all in theatre, and Tash is getting ready for George Channing's biopsy." When Ric had closed the door of the rec room behind them, Karen observed dryly,
"You've certainly gone up in the world." Moving towards the kettle, Ric said,
"I only do private work part time. The rest of my days are spent on Keller ward at St. Mary's. I was Clinical Director there for a while, but I handed that very poisoned chalice over to someone else. So, did you find what you wanted in the prison service?"
"It's sometimes hard to remember what I went looking for," Karen replied quietly. "There have been times when I've thought about throwing down the handcuffs, and returning to the old familiarity of a stethoscope instead, but something always kept me from giving up. Even when it gets so bad, that I wonder if I'll ever do a worthwhile day's work again, I keep on going back. It's like you and operating," She said fondly. "Most of the time it's just my way of life, something I do day in day out because I'm good at it. But then, very occasionally, you get the real thrill of a success, when you know you've achieved something spectacular, even amongst all the pain and suffering that's around you, that can sometimes creep into your every pore. So, when I manage to get through to someone, to show them that committing crime doesn't have to be their raison d'etre, I know it's all been worth it." Ric listened to her as she said this, automatically making her coffee the way she'd always liked it. He knew he'd occasionally given little speeches like this, putting into words the feeling of purity and righteousness that he felt on curing someone from the most horrific injury or disease, so he didn't dismiss what she said as being fanciful, but understood every word of it as if he'd said it himself. When he handed her the mug of coffee, she smiled.
"You've got a long memory," She said, taking it from him.
"I should have," He said ruefully. "The amount of coffees I've made for you in my time. So, are you going to tell me about George?"
"Before I do," Karen said, taking a swig of the coffee. "What's all this, it's nothing I didn't already know?"
"There was very little I didn't get to know about you," Ric said carefully. "When you work day in day out with someone for nearly six years, you learn to interpret the things they feel. I always knew that you had, something of an interest in other women. From, an attraction point of view," He said slowly. "You might say it made you all the more interesting." Karen smiled, Ric was honest if nothing else.
"The first time I really came into contact with George, she was cross-examining me in court. One of the prisoners on the wing where I worked at the time, managed to blow up part of the prison, killing one of the other inmates in the process. There's nothing quite so electric, as fighting with an equal. That's how we got to know each other, through some of the best verbal sparring I think I've ever had in my life. She was like me, had always found other women attractive, but had never done anything about it. She was spreading her wings with me, finding out what it was all about. She wasn't the first woman I'd had an affair with, but no matter how much it might have hurt, discovering that she was in love with someone else, she will always be incredibly special to me."
"And what about Ross?" Ric asked quietly. Karen put her mug down on the coffee table.
"He... He died," She said hesitantly, all the light having gone out of her face. "Last July."
"God, Karen," Ric said, putting out a hand to her, sounding truly sorry for her.
"He was in drugs rehab, and being his typically stubborn, adolescent, twenty-two-year-old self, he refused to let anyone tell me where he was. So, I didn't even know that drugs were a problem, until he'd killed himself."
"It sounds completely inadequate," He said, unable to imagine the pain she'd gone through, and was probably still going through. "But I'm so, so sorry." His thoughts strayed to Leo, and he couldn't help but realise just how lucky he'd been, that Leo had come through drugs rehab, and was now back on track to become a doctor. Before Karen could say any more, Tricia put her head round the door.
"Ric, we've got George Channing's X-rays."
"All right," Ric told her. "We'll be out in a minute." As they moved towards the door, and Karen tried to replace her mask of professional detachment, Ric laid a hand on her shoulder, turning her to face him and putting his arms round her. God, it felt briefly comforting to be in his arms again, his broad, muscular chest providing the occasional hint of stability that she'd sometimes needed.
"I missed you," He said, softly kissing her cheek and resting his face against her hair, taking in that long remembered smell of her perfume and cigarette smoke.
"You know why I didn't stay in touch," She told him gently. "It wasn't just because of Steve. You and I weren't exactly doing your second marriage a lot of good, now were we."
"Nothing did that marriage much good," Ric said ruefully.
"If it helps," She said, knowing what a can of worms she may be opening in doing so. "I missed you too."
She followed Ric down the corridor to the nurse's station, and when he took the file of X-rays from Tricia, they moved back into the consulting room. Clipping the film of the mammogram under the light source, Ric brought it gradually into focus.
"What do you make of that?" he asked Karen, almost as if the last fifteen years hadn't happened, and she was still working at his side. As Karen looked at the picture displayed on the screen, Ric outlined a mass in the lower left quadrant of George's left breast.
"It looks like a spider," She said in horror. "It's enormous."
"No matter what she told you," Ric said seriously. "I think Christmas is a very conservative estimate of when she first found this. I'm going to have to take away all the affected tissue, not just the tumour itself."
"But that's... That's virtually her whole breast," Karen clarified.
"Until I get in there," Ric explained. "I won't know how far the cancer has spread."
"You'll frighten her to death, if you tell her she's going to lose a breast."
"You know that I have to at the very least discuss it as a possibility," He said gently but firmly.
"Just, just try and be gentle with her," Karen asked him, receiving one of his penetrating stares in return.
"What's the story behind her distinct lack of spare flesh?" he asked, wondering if this might shed some light on Karen's wanting to minimise her stress.
"She's a fairly successful anorexic," Karen said quietly. "But don't you dare tell her I told you. Only note it on her file if she tells you herself. The point is, that it's very easy for George to suddenly crash to rock bottom, and picturing what she might look like afterwards, isn't going to make it any easier."
"All right," he said fairly. "Warning received and understood, but you know I have to give her all the possible outcomes." After a further moment's thought, he said, "Just how much support does she have, other than you I mean?"
"Oh, her love life's even more complicated than yours used to be," Karen said with a wry smile. "She's got a man, and a woman, all involved in what you might call a three-way relationship. It's the most bizarre set up I've ever come across, but it works. She won't go short of anything, I can promise you that."
"I will do everything I can for her," Ric assured Karen, his total honesty bolstering her defences.
Just then, Tricia put her head round the door, to ask if he was ready to have George back.
"Yes, bring her in," Ric replied, not moving from where they stood in front of the X-ray viewer. When George appeared, she moved to stand between them, closely scrutinizing Karen's face, to try and decipher anything that might be revealed in her expression.
"Now I know it's bad," She said dryly. "You're wearing the professional face that you usually save either for appearing in court, or for breaking particularly difficult pieces of bad news."
"I think it's one of the tricks of the trade," Ric said quietly.
"Oh, I don't doubt it," George replied, almost as if she was putting off the moment of truth for as long as possible. "Karen managed to look just like that, on both occasions that I've seen her make mince meat of the opposition."
"You were the opposition the first time," Karen said almost fondly.
"So, what am I supposed to be looking at?" George asked, finally taking the bull by the horns. When Ric pointed out the spider-shaped mass on the image of her left breast, George looked horrified.
"Good god," She said in astonishment. "That's disgusting! And unless that's normal behaviour for the inside of one's breast, it looks as if... As if it's pretty much invaded all of it." Her speech slowed and became hesitant as she gradually put the pieces together, realising just how much of her Ric would probably have to take away. As they watched, the colour drained from George's face, but she still couldn't take her eyes away from the tumour that she'd been carrying around inside her for months. As Ric switched off the viewer, Karen gently guided George into the chair in front of the desk.
"The only sensible course open to us," He began slowly, making sure that she was actually listening to him. "Is to remove the tumour, and as much of the infected tissue as possible. I would recommend, that we do this without delay. I will do my utmost, to retain as much of your healthy breast tissue as I possibly can, but..."
"You're making no promises," George finished for him.
"I don't do promises," Ric told her earnestly. "It wouldn't do either you, or any of my other patients any good if I did. I won't know precisely how far this has spread, until I open you up."
"Mr. Griffin," George said, fixing him with her piercing gaze. "Please give me due credit, for being in the business of detecting evasive answers. You think that you will be forced to remove my entire breast, don't you."
"I think it is, more than likely, yes," He replied honestly. "And I do think it is something that you should try to prepare yourself for." George went quiet for a moment.
"When do you want to do this?" She asked eventually.
"In the next few days, if that can be arranged."
"Fine," George said bleakly. "Precisely what is involved?"
"This would obviously be done under a general anaesthetic, and would probably be followed by two or three days in hospital. Depending on what I find, I may then recommend either chemotherapy or radiotherapy. There are some further tests that I would like you to have, just to make sure that this is the only tumour we are dealing with." Turning to the dormant computer in the corner of the desk, Ric deactivated the screen saver, and moved to the hospital's appointments diary for the next few days. "I do have a private list on Tuesday," He said contemplatively. "And I do have a vacant slot at the beginning of the afternoon." When he glanced over at her, he could see the look of bewildered fear in her eyes. "I do realise that this has all come as an enormous shock," He said gently. "And that it probably feels as though everything is moving far too fast. But the sooner I can remove that tumour, the better off you will be."
"If you have to remove my whole breast," George asked him. "And I stress if, what, erm, what will I look like?"
"With a modified radical mastectomy, which is what I may have to perform, all of the breast tissue is removed, including the nipple and areola, plus the lymph nodes from under your arm. This can all be done via one incision, which, if this does need to be done, can be extended from the site of the removal of the tumour itself. I will perform the breast surgery, and our resident plastics expert, Carlos Fishola, will be responsible for the neatness of the scar. Again, the necessity for his involvement will only arise, if a full mastectomy is necessary."
"Okay," George said quietly, though feeling that this was all anything but okay.
"We will need you to be admitted on Monday," Ric told her. "So that various preoperative checks can be done."
"Just how long am I going to be off work with this?"
"I couldn't possibly say, though it would be advisable for you to arrange to be away from work, for at least the whole of the next couple of weeks. After that, well, let's see how things go."
"What do you seriously suggest I do now?" She asked, not really expecting him to give her an answer.
"You want my honest opinion?" Ric replied, his face entirely devoid of a smile. "I suggest that you go home, persuade either one or both partners away from the office, and spend the entire weekend in bed with them." Karen would have smiled at his blunt reply, but she knew that he was being deadly serious.
"Because of how I am going to look afterwards?" George asked, not remotely embarrassed by his unequivocal response.
"No," He said earnestly. "Because of how you may look, and because of how you will, feel. No matter how successful I may be in preserving as much of you as I can, you are going to look different, but you will feel even more so. Not to put too fine a point on it, you should enjoy that beautiful body of yours, whilst it still looks the way it does."
Part One Hundred and Fifteen
They were quiet as they drove away from the hospital, neither of them quite knowing what to say.
"What do you want to do?" Karen asked as they waited at the traffic lights. It was just after one o'clock but neither of them felt remotely like having lunch.
"I suppose I ought to go and tell Jo," George said miserably. "I've probably kept it quiet enough already, haven't I."
"I'm not going to disagree with you," Karen said quietly. "What about John?"
"No," George said almost fearfully. "He can't know, not yet anyway."
"George " Karen tried to protest.
"Karen, if I have any contact with John whatsoever, before I have this done, I know I won't go through with it."
"All right," Karen acquiesced, though the urge rose up in her to inform John herself. But no, that did have to be George's decision, even though Karen privately thought that she was making the wrong one. "Do you want me to drop you off at Jo's office?" She said as they neared that part of the city.
"Yes please," George replied, not for the first time wondering how on earth she was about to break this piece of news to anyone, never mind the woman she knew she loved. As George's appointment hadn't been until eleven that morning, she had driven home for a fresh set of clothes, whilst Karen had dropped into the prison, to inform her secretary that she was unexpectedly going to be out for the morning, and possibly the afternoon. Her secretary had raised an eyebrow but failed to comment. It wasn't Karen's usual habit to disappear unexpectedly and without any real explanation, but as she had always been a pleasant boss to work for, she made no complaint.
When Karen had driven away, George stood outside for a moment in the freezing February wind, trying to gather her scattered thoughts into some sense of order. She had to persuade Jo to come home with her, that was for certain, because neither Jo's reaction nor what would probably be their own heated discussion, should ever take place in anything resembling a professional environment. As she walked up the stairs towards Jo's office, she was forcefully reminded of the time she had come here to tell Jo about the Chlamydia. She had been embarrassed, angry and mortally humiliated on that occasion, but this time, all she felt was numbness, a feeling that her very existence was hanging in limbo, never mind the next few minutes.
When Jo received the tap on her door, she bade whomever it was to enter. On looking up and seeing George, she instantly knew that something was wrong.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," She said, getting up from her cluttered desk and walking over to where George was standing with her back to the closed door.
"No, darling," George said regretfully. "It's not." Suddenly knowing what she needed, she moved into Jo's outstretched arms and simply held onto her, taking the comfort that emanated from Jo like warmth. Jo just held her, seeing that George obviously needed a little time to regroup, to muster up the courage to tell her something terrible.
"What's happened?" Jo eventually asked, all sorts of possibilities running through her head.
"Can you leave all this, and take the rest of the day off?" George asked into her shoulder. "I know it's an awful imposition, but we shouldn't do this here."
"Erm, yes, I suppose so," Jo said whilst mentally running through the appointments she had that afternoon. "Just let me rearrange a few people, and then I'm all yours."
"I'm sorry," George said, moving slightly back from her. "But it is important."
"And you wouldn't be here, asking me to do this in the middle of the working day, if it wasn't," Jo said soberly. "So sit down, have a cup of tea and a cigarette, and give me ten minutes to do some sweet talking to a couple of clients."
"I wouldn't mind something stronger if you've got it," George said as she sat down and dug out her cigarettes.
"And I think we both know that a bottle of Scotch anywhere in my office, would be far too much of a temptation," Jo said without any hint of a smile.
When they left a little while later, and Jo saw that George's car wasn't in the car park, she asked,
"How did you get here?"
"Karen dropped me off," George told her as they moved towards Jo's car. Jo looked at her warily.
"You're not about to tell me that you're back with her, are you?"
"No," George said perfectly seriously. "It's nothing like that, I promise." Trying to bury her growing curiosity and worry for the moment, Jo drove them to George's house, neither of them speaking. When they arrived in George's driveway, George led the way into the house, immediately making her way towards the lounge and the bottle of Martini that stood on the sideboard. It was perhaps this action more than any other, George drinking in the middle of the day, which worried Jo most. Something must be very wrong for her to do that. When George lifted the whisky bottle in Jo's direction, Jo nodded absent-mindedly, and joined George as she sat down on the sofa. The silence between them was tense, charged with what George knew was coming, and with what Jo didn't. After taking a swig of her drink and putting it down on the coffee table, George reached for Jo's hand, softly running her thumb over the knuckles, and trying to formulate the news she had to impart.
"There's no easy way of telling you this," She began eventually, Jo giving her all the time she needed. "And if I didn't have to, then believe me I wouldn't, but I'm afraid that it's pretty much unavoidable."
"George, stop rambling," Jo told her gently. "And just tell me."
"I've got breast cancer," George said, still keeping hold of Jo's hand, as though this was the only thing that was keeping her afloat in a drowning tide of fear and uncertainty. Jo just stared at her, all the blood draining from her face, making her feel utterly cold inside. No, this couldn't possibly be happening, not to George, not to the vibrant, loving, argumentative woman she knew so well. George could see the reaction in Jo's eyes, the sheer terror shining out of them as the light of passion so often did.
Eventually summoning up the energy to do something sensible, Jo got up from the sofa, picked up her as yet untouched whisky glass and walked into the kitchen, tipping its contents down the sink. When she returned and put the empty glass back down on the coffee table, George thought that she looked slightly more calm and collected, a little more like the Jo she was used to seeing. When she sat down again, she asked,
"How long have you had it?" As though she'd known that George had done something completely irrational.
"I first found it at Christmas," George said quietly, ready for the tirade that would no doubt be very similar to Karen's of the night before.
"Oh, George!" Jo exclaimed, sounding hurt, angry and a little bewildered.
"Yes, yes, I know," George interrupted before Jo could go any further. "Karen said everything that I suspect you're about to say to me last night, so I really don't need to hear it all again."
"All right," Jo said, calming down a little. "But what made you finally do something about it?"
"That's quite a long story," George said evasively, remembering that she had to keep any talk of Connie Beauchamp out of it.
"I've got all day, George," Jo said succinctly. "So start talking." As George filled in the details of Kay's finding out about her lump, and making her the appointment with Ric Griffin, Jo just listened. "So," She said when George had finished. "You went to see Ric Griffin today?"
"Yes," George confirmed. "I asked Karen to go with me, because that wasn't something I wanted to do on my own, and I wanted to know precisely what I was dealing with before I told you."
"So," Jo asked a little shakily. "What happens now?"
"I go into hospital on Monday, and they remove the tumour on Tuesday, and judging by what I saw on the X-ray this morning, there isn't going to be much of my breast left when they've finished."
"I'm sorry," Jo said, the tears finally rising to her eyes as she reached for George, their arms going round each other to try and offer comfort that neither of them knew how to give.
"I know," George replied, brief tears rising to her own eyes.
"Which one?" Jo asked, her face nestled in George's soft hair. Taking Jo's hand in hers, George led it to her left breast. As Jo encountered the soft mound of flesh she knew so well, she could feel the hard, foreign lump, even through George's blouse and bra. "But that's huge," She said in horror.
"It's grown," George said dully. "It was tiny when I first found it on Boxing Day."
"Boxing Day?" Jo queried, clearly thinking. "But that was the day after that incredible night we had, when "
" When you tied me up," George said with a smile of remembrance. "Yes, I know. I woke up in the early morning, and you two were still asleep. I remember looking out of the window, and thinking just how beautiful everything was, both outside and inside. I found the lump when I was in the shower."
"And you didn't tell either of us," Jo said sadly.
"I didn't know how to tell either of you," George tried to explain. "And the longer I put it off, the harder it became. Then we were all involved with Barbara's trial, which really didn't feel like the right time to bring up something like that."
"I can't believe that neither John nor I ever found it," Jo said sounding slightly mystified.
"That would be because I kept both of you away from that breast, and neither of you ever noticed."
"And that might also explain why making love hasn't really been your chosen pastime of late," Jo said, putting the pieces together.
"Partly," George admitted sheepishly. "I was terrified of either of you finding it, and I simply haven't often felt like it."
"On Tuesday night when I saw John, before he went to the judges' seminar, he said he was worried about you. He said that there was something you weren't telling him, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. This was it, wasn't it."
"Yes, though at first he thought I was pregnant. He doesn't know about this yet, Jo, and he mustn't, not until there's no going back. I am utterly terrified of having my breast removed, but if I see or speak to John before I do, it'll make it a hell of a lot harder to contemplate."
Part One Hundred and Sixteen
Once ensconced in one of the more comfortable rooms at Warwick University, John was able to turn his attention to the here and now. On the whole, the environment into which he was settling was congenial, even without seen through the rose tinted vision of sexual desire. It crossed his mind that this was the very first occasion he had viewed his surroundings in this way. He had an obvious nostalgic fondness for the university environment. It was true that the Oxford College was an infinitely more cloistered, stylish environment, before young upstarts like him to kick over the traces but Warwick University had its attractions. It was a campus university and sprawled over many acres of countryside and was constructed in the 1960's concrete brutalist style. To John's eye, had its perverse attractions. While he was here to lecture to the up and coming judges, it gave him a chance to dip a toe into the ambience of student life of which he was very fond.
Unlike before, a part of his mind was conscious and accepting of his home commitments. He could fondly picture both Jo and George going about their daily routines as normal. He looked out of his window at the spreading grass acres outside, and could envisage and contrast it to the confining restrictions of the court. Though distanced by space, he felt relieved that whatever problems there were in George's life, Jo would be there for her. He knew that Jo's word to look after George could be utterly relied upon and he was thankful for it. When he came to think of it, there were less people around than he liked to think of that he could depend upon for that level of trust. This was paradoxical when he considered how woven into the very fabric of the legal profession was a certain alcohol fuelled bonhomie. It was ironical that for someone who had devoted a lifetime in his calling that Larkhall women's support group was amongst the most faithful friends whom he could count upon. For someone who had grown up in what was once a male dominated profession and whose sexual appetite for women was both legendary and excessive, he realized that his closest and truest friends were women. A feeling of contented tenderness welled up within him for all concerned, wherever they might be as he stared out into the bright winter sunshine on a Thursday morning from within his warm and snug bedroom.
In a cheerful frame of mind, he selected his favourite dark suit and contrasting white shirt, and strolled down the staircase into the biting cold outside. He had been deceived by the very effective central heating of the accommodation block as he shivered inside. However, a bracing walk along the square concrete paving slabs took him to the brand new Conference Centre. He smiled pleasantly at the man on the door and made his way to the forty-seat capacity Lecture Room 2. The cream coloured carpets merged with the neutral colours and the geometrically drawn lines. He pushed open the swing door and made his way to the amphitheatre shaped room, which stacked up the rows of seats to the top of the room, and assisted his voice to project to the back of the hall. Years of speaking in courts had trained him to project his voice to perfection. He studied his notes carefully while the lecture room gradually filled up with an attentive audience. John's reputation had preceded him and, while other lecturers were of varying qualities, at least John's lectures were never boring. He smiled maliciously to himself as he reflected on the fact that this lecture might be easily titled 'Subversion in Contemporary Society' and that one day, he might write a book on the topic.
"You will have either read or have been brought up, as I have been, on the conventional assumption of the separation of powers of the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. The theory behind this assumption is a perfectly sound one. Each of them has its due and proper place. The creation of new laws is the prerogative of a democratic society, based on the elected members of parliament, which is given due scrutiny in the Houses of Parliament. Whether or not it creates bad law is another matter and one that can be rectified by amending legislation in the same way that a judge's decision can be appealed to the court of appeal. While it is personally uncomfortable for anyone to admit that they have erred, it is important, not only as a judge but as a human being to admit your fallibility as a human being learn the lesson and, if need be, to apologise. The real concern is that the executive is constructed and peopled who are beyond any awareness of human fallibility or of inner reflection. Honest criticism is seen as subversion to be so easily answered by their suppression of unwelcome truths, to compensate by the simple and easy use of power in place of honest questioning, soul searching and self-doubt. Believe you me, you cannot be an effective judge, or for that matter, a human being without these instructive qualities.
The executive powers of the government is a similarly time honoured institution. The trouble is that the relationship between these three organizations has never been fully spelt out. Whereas the Americans framed a constitution to define the relationship between the state and the people, it has been complacently considered that it has not been necessary to do so in this country. The reasons for this are that possibly because this country is the oldest democracy in the world or the perception that English people are essentially freedom loving and will defend ancient liberties. For all that, Edmund Burke expressed the vulnerability of all societies to the threat of tyranny and put it succinctly when he said that "For evil to flourish, all it is necessary is that good men remain silent."
The judiciary has a critical role in interpreting the law, placed in the context of case law to maintain consistency of principle across the spectrum of activity and in the evolution of time. It must be borne in mind that change in case law arose from an individual judge who asked questions, who did not accept that the accumulated wisdoms fitted the particular circumstances. He invented a new approach in dealing with a particular case and went on to propound a general principle to serve future generations only as long as it remains the highest wisdom.
What is most worrying is the growing supine attitude of the legislature to the increasingly over mighty executive. In turn, it arrogantly considers, in its increasingly isolated environment, to be the fount of all wisdom and to inflict it on the rest of society. The Human Rights Act was created to remedy the lack of a formal constitution and, however defective you might think it or limited in its application, its creation must be applauded. However, you will recall the public statements of the government six months ago that it intended to create legislation in order to instruct judges on how to interpret that act in relation to terrorist offences. Legitimate concern for public safety is one matter. The deliberate and insidious encroachment of the powers of the executive is quite another and is part of a trend that must be resisted.
What forms of resistance must be taken up is the next question that springs to mind. There is no easy answer to this. There is nothing in the law books and textbooks upon the
subject. From my experience, I would draw out certain key points. The first point is in constructing your own set of values. You need to publicly set your stall out as to what you will permit, what you will be amenable to and what you will not compromise on. It is important to separate out the essential from the incidental. From then on, you must determine that what you have, you must hold onto. Secondly, you must learn the correct mix of persuasion and force of position. Thirdly, you must develop your knowledge through people of all levels and walks of life as to what really goes on in society. To that extent, there is some merit in the criticism leveled at our profession that we are somewhat insular and rooted in the past. That being said, it is the height of folly to ditch both good and bad in our traditions and follow the cursed siren sounds of modernism and to sell your soul. Believe me, if you do that, it is almost impossible to redeem it. From my observations, the more compliant you are when you should not be, means that you pick up a particularly poisoned chalice of a reputation. This is the ill luck of being regarded as a 'safe pair of hands' which I urge you to distinguish from earning a professional reputation in being as good as a practitioner as you can possibly be. The real problem of being thought of being as 'politically dependable' is that it is infinitely harder to break out of that trap than if you are thought of as something as a rebel. You may be feared by the growing band of apparatchiks in this country but at least they will respect you."
John strolled around the confined area as he delivered his lecture in an easy paced manner. Normally, his glance would have taken in the more attractive female students, as he knew full well that there is nothing as seductive as a display of intelligence so long as it is couched in the correct manner, down to the certain cadences of sounds and words. He had consciously taken advantage of this on a number of occasions in the past. This time, it was different. The students were hastily scribbling down their notes but he wondered just how far they would inwardly digest his observations, assimilate them and apply them in their future conduct. He could sense the careerists in the making who he could see had switched off as he made them uncomfortable and were on automatic writing mode. He could see the more thoughtful students who were taking in his words. Normally, he could pick out the more attractive women who listened to the man as well as the messages but this time, resolved to be utterly disinterested in his efforts to communicate his feelings. He could never deny his attractiveness and disfigure himself but at least, he knew that he had choices in life.
He strolled around on his favourite stretch of ground in the lunch break. This was the large square grassy area, which sloped up sharply to the back entrance of the conference centre. There was a pleasing symmetry in the shape and it felt that it put him in touch with nature. It was the ideal place for contemplation, and he was aware that there were certain parts of his lecture, which he owed a debt of gratitude. That very remarkable woman, Helen Wade had questioned the very nature of his existence as never before. The end of the last session had upset him unbelievably, but he knew enough to realize that he should never be too proud to fight what hard truths she cared to lay on him. He should reserve his capacity for defiant opposition for where it was appropriate. What was happening in his life had some kind of purpose. What warmed him up inside despite the bitter cold, was to cling to the perception that she was utterly sincere and giving of herself to his reclamation. All he needed was certain courage to face himself, a quality that was far more demanding than he had ever imagined, especially as a self-confessed truth seeker. He felt contented with himself, as he was starting to feel whole and secure in himself. He had never felt this way before. He was vigorous and alert as he had always been and age may have brought on a few more grey hairs but life's experiences had also given him the wisdom that he had more to learn. Only the young and callow think that they know it all. Life was good to him.
Part One Hundred and Seventeen
On the Monday morning, Jo telephoned the office to ask her secretary to rearrange her first appointment, so that she could go to the hospital with George.
"What on earth does one take, to prevent one from going completely insane?" George asked, as she tried to pack a bag with everything she might need. "The last time I spent any time in hospital, was when Charlie was born, and all I seem to remember was wanting to go to sleep and never wake up again."
"You probably won't feel like doing very much," Jo told her reasonably, George's alluding to wanting to die worrying her. "When do you want me to tell John?" She asked, the prospect of having to do this weighing heavily on her.
"I'm sorry that I'm asking you to do this," George said sincerely. "But I'm only just managing to deal with my own reactions as well as some of yours. I think that John's as well would be too much."
"Is that why you decided to do something about it now?" Jo asked, the possibility only just occurring to her. "Because you knew what would probably happen, and because you knew he would be away, meaning therefore that you almost certainly wouldn't have to be the one to tell him?"
"That's dreadfully insightful for this early in the day," George commented dryly, not entirely meeting Jo's gaze. "And I can assure you that I didn't consider all the salient facts quite so clinically, but yes, there is probably some truth in it. I think I knew, that the longer I tried to ignore it, the crosser John, you, and anyone else might be." Taking the underwear from George's hands and putting it in the bag they were packing, Jo put her arms round her.
"Yes, I am furious with you for taking such a stupid, pointless risk," She said quietly but with no less feeling. "But that's only because it frightens the hell out of me that I might lose you. I certainly don't agree with what you did, but I do understand it, and so will John, once he calms down from the initial shock." As their lips met gently and lingeringly, George thought, not for the first time, just how lucky she was.
"Will you tell him tomorrow?" She said into Jo's hair. "Tell him when there's no going back, because I know that if I see or speak to him before I go through with this, I more than likely won't do it."
"You might not lose the entire breast, you know," Jo tried to persuade her.
"Jo, I'm not stupid," George said wearily. "And neither are you. I think we both know just how different I'm going to be after this."
After throwing a couple of her more trashy novels into the bag, they got into Jo's car and drove to the hospital.
"You said that Karen knows your surgeon," Jo said, wanting to find anything to break the tense silence that had risen between them.
"Yes, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't just a professional relationship. She says he taught her everything she knows, and he is very nice."
"Something you might have to explain," Jo said carefully, as they waited at the traffic lights. "Is precisely why you are as thin as you are at the moment."
"I'm not that bad," George said unconvincingly.
"George, have you looked in a mirror lately?" Jo said a little exasperatedly. "You are almost painfully thin, and definitely well below the weight you ought to be."
"How can my weight have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not I lose my breast?" George demanded a little defensively.
"They will want to weigh you, in order to decide how much anaesthetic to give you," Jo told her calmly.
"Oh," George said resignedly. "I'd forgotten about that." They were silent for a little while longer, until George briefly rested a hand on Jo's as it lay on the gear stick. "I'm sorry," She said quietly. "I just feel as though everything's happening a bit too quickly, that's all."
"I know," Jo said gently. Then she asked, "Are you sure you don't want me to tell John today? He'd come back from Warwick like a shot if he knew, and I think you could do with all the support you can get."
"No, Jo, you mustn't," George insisted, the terrified vehemence in her voice stilling any further suggestion. "It frightens me quite enough already to consider just how unattractive I'm going to be after this, and just what effect that is going to have on John and my relationship with him. If I even speak to him before I have the operation, I know I won't go through with it, no matter what that might mean. So please, don't even think of telling him until there's no going back."
"I do think you might give him a little more credit than that," Jo said a little stonily.
"Oh, come on, darling," George said in slight disgust. "We both know just how fickle John can be with regards to female beauty or a distinct lack of it, so I don't want to hear how John would far rather me alive and ugly than dead and beautiful."
"Just try listening to yourself for one minute," Jo said her anger rising. "And you'll realise how ridiculous you sound. John loves you, and he always will love you, no matter how you look."
"You perhaps," George threw back bitterly. "But I don't think he'll be able to find much use for me after this."
Turning into the car park of the hospital, Jo scattered gravel as she pulled into a space, switching off the engine and taking hold of George's shoulders.
"I don't ever want to hear such defeatist talk from you again. Is that clear?" She said, slightly shaking George's shoulders. "John wouldn't listen to it, and neither will I. Whatever it takes, and no matter how much heartache all three of us have to go through to achieve it, we will get you through this. Apart from John and my children, you are the most precious, beautiful thing in my life, and that isn't going to change, no matter how you look."
"I'm sorry," George said a little timidly, the tears having risen to her eyes.
"I don't want to argue with you, not today," Jo told her, pulling her tightly against her. "But keep talking like that and I will." They kissed gently and lingeringly, both of them wanting to put aside the harsh words they'd uttered only moments before. "Come on," Jo said eventually, detaching herself from George's soft embrace. "We'd better go in."
They walked through the plush reception area up to the department where George had been yesterday, though now she was here to stay for a few days, unable to leave as she had done before. George could feel her pulse racing, her breath quickening as the fear rose in her.
"You'll be all right," Jo told her, giving her hand a squeeze.
"Let's hope so," George said dully, as they approached the desk. Tricia showed them to George's room, which apart from the hospital bed, looked far more comfortable than anything the NHS could provide. George found herself thanking every god possible that she'd taken out private medical insurance, as she knew that privacy was something she would desperately need over the coming days. Tricia gave her a plain hospital gown to change into, whilst Jo unpacked the few belongings she'd brought with her.
"Why Jilly Cooper?" Jo asked, holding up one of George's favourite novels.
"I thought I might need something that would make me smile," George told her, removing her clothes and slipping into the white cover-all she'd been given. "Not very flattering, is it," She said in disgust, taking a look in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door.
"I don't think it's supposed to be," Jo replied, thinking that the shapeless, white gown made George look even thinner than normal. Glancing at her watch, Jo saw that the time was approaching for her first appointment.
"You need to go, don't you," George said, observing the glance.
"Yes, I'm afraid so," Jo said regretfully. "I don't want to leave you, though."
"I'll be all right," George assured her. "They're just going to be doing lots of weird and wonderful tests on me for most of the day." Moving forward, Jo took George in her arms, holding her almost skeletal frame as close to her as possible. "I'll come and see you later," She promised, gently kissing her.
"I'll look forward to it," George told her gently, kissing her back. They were standing like this when Tricia reappeared, carrying a tray of various scary-looking implements.
"Shall I come back?" She asked, popping her head round the door.
"No, I was just leaving," Jo said, gently detaching herself from George and looking a little flustered. George smirked at her.
"Please don't blush, darling, it makes you look utterly enchanting."
"Really," Jo said disbelievingly. "Now, promise me to behave, and do everything they ask of you without protest."
"Jo, this is me you're talking to, not John, you know."
"Yes, which is precisely why I'm saying it."
When Jo had gone, Tricia said,
"Right, I need to take a few vital statistics, and fill in a few forms." After filling in no end of admissions forms, Tricia took her blood pressure, temperature and pulse, and told her that Ric would be doing his rounds very shortly. "He'll probably find plenty of other things for me to do, but that's all for now."
When she'd gone, George couldn't help but think how quiet it was, which she supposed was a welcome realisation when it came down to it. But when Ric appeared along with Tash and someone George didn't recognise, she definitely appreciated the distraction.
"Mrs. Channing," Ric began. "This is Tash Bandara, my registrar whom you met on Thursday, and Carlos Fishola, our resident plastic surgeon."
"Please, call me George," She replied with a smile. "I hear Mrs. Channing all day in court."
"George then," Ric continued. "We need to examine you. Is that all right?" As she lay on the bed, and the three of them clustered around her, she fixed her eyes on the ceiling, trying to think of anything but what they were doing to her.
"Have you considered having reconstruction?" Carlos asked her, his rich, American drawl sliding over her skin.
"I only found out last week that I'd probably be having my breast removed," She explained to him. "So no, it's not something I've really thought about."
"It's not a decision you need to make now by any means," Carlos assured her. "And because we don't yet know how extensive your tumour is, I wouldn't recommend trying to reconstruct at the point of tomorrow's surgery. What I would like to do some time today, however, is to take some photographs of you, that can be used if you do decide to have reconstruction at a later date."
"Be my guest," George said dryly, thinking that John would have liked to do this for him. Calling Tricia into the room, Ric began giving her a list of the various tests he wanted George to have.
"Let's start with a full CT and MRI scan, to rule out any further tumours of any description. Take blood and urine for kidney function, U's and E's, Glucose levels, Protein levels, and full blood count." Then, looking back at George, he asked, "Any possibility that you could have any type of infection?"
"I doubt it," She said a little unsure of what he wanted. "Though it depends what you mean."
"I mean anything from a minor cold to a sexually transmitted disease." At the mention of the latter, George couldn't help but blush. Then, as she remembered John's infidelity of a few weeks before, she knew that she had to be honest with him.
"John, my lover, did manage to give me Chlamydia last year, so yes, I suppose anything's possible."
"Then can you add a cervical swab to the list," Ric told Tricia. "Because we need to eliminate any possibility of an infection before surgery. Now, right on time, is our anaesthetist," He added, glancing up as the door opened.
"Professor Khan," George said in total shock, staring at him from where she still lay under the sheets.
"Ms Channing," He replied, equally astounded to see her.
"Do you two know each other?" Ric asked in surprise.
"I should say so," Zubin said with a slight smile. "Ms Channing rather successfully defended my honour in court not so long ago."
"I see," Ric said resignedly. "This is a complication I hadn't foreseen. Would you like me to try and find someone else?" He asked George.
"Certainly not," She told him firmly. "I trust Professor Khan's judgment implicitly, and it would be nice to be dealing with someone I already know."
"In that case, I'll leave you to it," Ric said, relieved that he wasn't going to have this extra hassle.
When everyone but Tricia had gone, Zubin laid his own stack of forms down on the table.
"I was more than a little surprised to find you here," He said, wanting to put her at her ease but not really knowing how.
"A case of denial and stupidity," George told him bleakly. Glancing at her file, Zubin took in the details of why she was there, as well as the length of time it was estimated that she had known of her lump.
"Did you know about this during the trial?" He asked, finally looking back at her.
"Yes," She admitted sheepishly.
"Then why for god's sake didn't you ever say anything?" He demanded exasperatedly. "Even before then you could have done. Me, Tom, even Kay, we would all have given you whatever help and advice we could."
"Zubin, please don't do this," George almost begged him.
"I'm sorry," He said, realising that he'd probably been going a bit too far. As he read through the questions on the anaesthetic form, he wondered just why she had left it so long before coming forward. When he got to, "Do you take the pill?" She answered him in the affirmative. "I'd like you to stop taking it, right now, though in view of the tumour you already have, I suspect Ric would be telling you the same at some point. The contraceptive pill can lead to a higher risk of blood clots, which is something we want to avoid when performing major surgery. This may put you out of sync for a while, but that can't be helped. Now, do you smoke?"
"You know I do," George said with a slightly sardonic smile.
"Roughly how many a day?"
"Five?" She suggested hopefully.
"And after lunch?" Zubin replied, sounding thoroughly unconvinced.
"Oh, all right, probably the same again."
"Now for the part most people hate. I need to weigh you." Keeping her face as blank as possible, though Zubin noticed that her eyes kept flitting between him, Tricia, and the scales Tricia had brought in with her, George got out of bed, and moved to stand on them. "Gown off, please," Zubin told her. "I need your exact body weight." At her slight hesitation, he added, "You won't have anything I haven't seen before." Nonchalantly removing the gown, as though stripping off in front of an audience was something she did every day, George stood on the scales and held her breath. The scales stood at six stone two. "Ms Channing, do you have a problem with food?"
"If you're going to ask me questions like that, you may as well go back to calling me George," She told him evasively, as she stepped off the scales and Tricia handed her the gown.
"Tricia, can you leave us for a moment, please?" Without a word, Tricia left the room, taking the scales with her to put them away. "I would like you to answer my question," Zubin encouraged her quietly, sitting in the chair beside her bed as she got under the covers again.
"Yes, I do have what you might call a problem with food," She told him reluctantly. "And no, it's not a recent issue. I've been doing it on and off since I was fifteen. The more stress I'm under, the less I eat."
"Are John and Jo aware of this?" He asked, having become aware of their relationship at some point during the trial.
"Of course they are," She told him with a smile. "I'm not that successful an actor."
"You're not going to like it," He told her regretfully. "But I want to feed you up a bit before you have surgery tomorrow. I'm going to put you on a nutritive drip, but you must try to eat something today. I will be telling Tricia that I want you to get some food inside you, and I'll warn you now, she won't be taking no for an answer. You are seriously undernourished, and if it wasn't so urgent, I would be recommending that we wait at least a month before operating to allow you to get your strength up, but that isn't an option."
"You think me even more stupid than ever now, don't you?" She said, feeling almost unbearably small.
"I'm not going to pour scorn on any addiction, George, because I know that it's never as simple as that. Have you ever talked to anyone about it?"
"Not to anyone professional, no, and I have absolutely no intention of doing so," She replied firmly. Zubin began to look thoughtful.
"We'll see," He said, having an idea though he wasn't sure how much she would agree to it. When he left the room a little while later, he said to Tricia,
"Ms Channing needs to be on a nutritive drip until tomorrow, and you need to try to persuade her to eat something. She is a periodic anorexic, so you won't find it an easy task. In view of her decreased size, I would also like her to have an ECG some time today, just to make sure her heart really is up to having surgery."
"I wonder what started her with the not eating?" Tricia said speculatively.
"She says she's been doing it since the age of fifteen, so it could be anything. Try and talk to her, you never know what you might find out. Don't tell her this, but I'm going to speak to Tom, and see if he'll talk to her about it. He knows her as well as I do, so she might talk to him, and let's face it, Tom knows far more about addictions than you or I do."
When Tricia returned to George's room to take the necessary samples and swabs, she found George staring out of the window at the dreary day outside.
"So, by the sounds of it, you've got two partners on the go," Tricia said, immediately grabbing George's attention, which had been what she'd wanted.
"Yes, I suppose I have in a manner of speaking," she said with a broad smile. "Though it's not quite as forbidden as you might think."
"That's what my daughter always says," Tricia replied ruefully.
"No, really," George insisted, as Tricia prepared to take some blood from her arm. "Jo, John and I are involved in what you might call a three-way relationship. It's highly bizarre, but it honestly does work."
"Oh, well, each to their own," Tricia said philosophically. "And the more support you can have at a time like this, the better."
"John doesn't know yet."
"Why?" Tricia asked in surprise, having thought that anyone would tell their nearest and dearest something like this as soon as possible.
"He's away, teaching at a judge's seminar in Warwick," George explained. "He's going to be furious with me when he finds out how long I left it before doing something about it, and let's face it, he's hardly still going to find me remotely desirable after it's done, is he."
"You don't know that," Tricia told her gently, briefly laying a hand on her shoulder. "But I do understand where you're coming from."
"Do you?" George asked, a little surprised that Tricia hadn't tried to convince her otherwise.
"I've been involved, on and off, with Carlos for the last couple of years. You know, the plastic surgeon you met this morning. When I had to have my breast removed, not long after I'd started seeing him, I didn't think he'd want to be anywhere near me afterwards, him being in a job where making people look as perfect as possible was his bread and butter. But he did. It took him a while to convince me, but he managed it in the end."
"You've had this too?" George asked, incredibly grateful for Tricia's words of experience.
"Yes, which is why I think Ric asked me to look after you. Now, I'm under very strict orders to get you to eat something today. Professor Khan thinks you are very undernourished, and he wants to feed you up a bit before the operation. So, I'm going to put you on a drip, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to allow you to get away with not eating."
"I did eat yesterday," George tried to tell her, hoping this might make a difference.
"And am I supposed to believe that?" Tricia asked, clearly unconvinced.
"Ask Jo, she cooked it," George insisted.
"Well, that was yesterday, and I am not going to ignore the wishes of a consultant."
"You're not going to give up, are you," George said resignedly.
"No," Tricia told her gently but firmly, making George realise that she'd finally met someone who could match her in determination.
Later that morning, Zubin strolled into the break room to find Tom reading the paper and drinking a hasty cup of coffee.
"Guess who's become a patient of this place as of this morning?" He said without preamble.
"Judging by your tone, I'll assume it's someone I know," Tom replied amiably.
"Someone we both know," Zubin told him. "George Channing."
"What's she in for?" Tom asked in astonishment.
"Breast cancer," Zubin said regretfully.
"Oh no, poor girl," Tom replied in genuine sympathy.
"That isn't her only problem," Zubin filled in. "She is seriously underweight, and is being fairly open about her periodic anorexia."
"And because I know more about addictions than you do from personal experience, you want me to talk to her," Tom finished for him.
"Would you?" Zubin asked. "You might just be able to get somewhere with her."
"Sure, leave it with me," Tom replied, folding up the paper in preparation for returning to theatre. "I'll go and see her this afternoon."
At about three o'clock, George was sitting up in bed, attached to a drip and trying to make some notes for a case that she would now have to pass onto somebody else. She hadn't slept particularly well the night before, and now felt tired, in need of nicotine and thoroughly out of sorts. When the door opened, however, she was heartily grateful for the distraction.
"Can I come in?" Tom said, popping his head round the door.
"Tom, yes of course," George said with a smile. ""I would kill for a cigarette, so talking to you might help me think of something else." Tom laughed as he came into the room and closed the door.
"You don't change, do you," He said, sitting down in the chair beside her bed.
"Not yet, no," George replied a little bleakly. "But I suppose there's time."
"Zubin told me you were here," He said, thinking this as good a place as any to start.
"Yes, I wondered how long it would take the grapevine to spring into action," George told him dryly. "He wasn't very pleased with me."
"Zubin is rarely pleased with anyone," Tom said without a flicker. "He's never so happy as when he's criticising something or someone. May I?" He asked, gesturing to the file of notes that was on the table at the end of her bed.
"Be my guest," George replied ruefully. "Everyone else has." Quickly flicking through the notes in the file, Tom took in just how long she had known of the lump in her breast.
"It says here that you've known about this since Christmas," He said in astonishment.
"Tom, please," George said a little tightly. "I've had lectures from just about everyone, so I really don't need another one from you. I am very well aware of just how stupid it was, and that I only have myself to blame."
""That isn't what I was going to say," Tom told her firmly. "But yes, I do wish you'd said something."
"I, we, needed to concentrate on Barbara and getting her free," George said quietly. "It wasn't the right time to start thinking about something like this."
"Tumours rarely appear at the most convenient times. Ric once operated on me, you know."
"Did he?" George asked, briefly thinking that having colleagues who could save one's life was definitely an added bonus of working in the medical profession.
"Yes, for a ruptured ulcer. That was the day my cover was well and truly blown. Judging by the state of my liver, Ric used process of elimination to work out that I'd been drinking on duty. I don't think I've ever seen him so angry before or since. He could have reported me for it, but he didn't. Instead, he chose to do a deal with me, to make me sort myself out, or my career would have been over. The point is, you couldn't find a better surgeon for something like this than Ric Griffin. He really is the best in his field, but don't tell him I said that."
"That's nice to know," George said, feeling all her insecurities rising inexorably to the surface. "Tom, is it slightly ridiculous to be so, terrified?" She asked, hesitating over the correct adjective.
"No, of course not," He assured her. "It's perfectly natural, though what certainly won't help you, is your little habit of not eating."
"Oh, so that's why Zubin told you I was here," George said dejectedly. "He wanted you to try and convince me that the only way to deal with an addiction is to confront it head on. Well, I've got news for Professor Kahn," She added a little acidly. "I confronted that little gem of my personality a very long time ago. It's not something I do on a regular basis, therefore I refuse to believe that it is doing me any serious harm. If John and Jo
can cope with me occasionally doing it, then why can't anybody else?"
"George, you're preaching to the converted," Tom told her quietly, hearing the rising note of hysteria in her voice.
"I'm sorry," She said, feeling thoroughly stupid and incredibly small. "I'm just sick and tired of having to constantly justify myself, that's all."
"That really winds you up, doesn't it," Tom said in complete sympathy.
"Yes," George said sounding utterly exasperated, inwardly cursing the tears that rose unbidden to her eyes.
"How long have you been doing it?"
"On and off since I was fifteen. John was less than amused when he found out, though that wasn't until after our daughter was born."
"Did you have postnatal depression?"
"Postnatal disinterest more like," George said disgustedly. "But that's not a story you need to hear."
When Tom left her a little while later, promising that he would come and see her again whilst she was there, George turned over, buried her face in the pillow and cried. She knew now that Jo had been right, and that John should have been told. She badly wanted him here, to put his arms round her, and tell her that everything was going to be all right. But he wasn't here, he was in Warwick, blissfully unaware of where she was or what was happening to her. He was going to be so cross with her, she knew that, not just for keeping quiet this long, but for not telling him when she could have done. As she silently cried herself into an exhausted sleep, she wondered if she would ever again feel the sincere comfort of his embrace.
Part One Hundred and Eighteen
Jo was perusing the new trial papers that had come her way. It was a pretty cut and dried bank robbery case, which she ought to have been able to take the measure of straightaway. However, despite the second cup of coffee, her mind simply wasn't working properly. She had long experience in being able to winnow out the incidental from the essential, to follow the trail of evidence through to its conclusion , but the jigsaw just wasn't coming together. All the pieces were jumbled up against each other, and nothing made sense. She tried all her normal strategies to get a grip on the case but, unaccountably, they all failed. It was only when she gave up when the thoughts that had demanded her attention, finally forced their way through to centre stage. She surrendered to the inevitable, and with a groan of irritation, picked up the file and threw it on the floor.
The voice inside her head shrieked at her, demanding what in hell she should do about telling John or not as the case might be. She tried to adopt a balanced approach, to load the scales fairly on both sides of the argument, but her feelings seized command of her thought processes. All her instincts cried out to tell John. She had felt cold with shock, angry at George, and fearful for her all at the same time. She narrowly resisted reaching for a huge slug of whisky, and downing it in one go, anything to block off her feelings. As George had gone on to explain the reasoning for her actions, she had to admit that they made sense in a cockeyed sort of way. She could understand George's total fear of telling John. At once, all her sympathies rallied round John.
Her frantic mind leapt onwards at breakneck speed, and pictured John at Warwick University in total blissful ignorance of what was going so drastically wrong with George's life. He had been happy, serene, as Jo saw him off in his car as he set off to Warwick. The expression on John's face was of a man at peace with himself, sure of himself and his bearings in the world. In particular, he was content that she could look after George and, by implication, whatever was worrying her. The hideous irony of the situation was that she was hard pressed to come to terms with her own reaction to the situation, let alone look after anyone else, either physically or spiritually. She could vividly remember her own feelings of fear and helplessness when her own husband had been first diagnosed with cancer. It felt that a lynchpin which had held together her own world had been knocked out with one cruel blow leaving everything in her own life to fall apart. The next moment, everything seemed like a bad dream, that she would wake up and that married life would carry on with her two small children, much though it had done so for years. It was all a bad mistake, and that the hospital, the doctor, the summons to a private room, the sympathetic tones would just go away. Of course, she was a lot younger then but at that age, she thought that she was pretty grown up and mature.
Was it only recently that John's puzzled voice articulated a conundrum that he could not make sense of? "My precise words to her were that I just wished that she would talk to me and the answer was and I quote 'I can't, not yet, anyway.'" The bitter irony of the situation as seen from both sides was not lost on Jo. At face value, all it appeared was that George had a problem in communicating something but that, given time, all would be clear. In reality, time had been trickling dangerously away towards the point of no return. Only by sheer chance, was that moment seized and at least, George would live. That was the best that could be said of the situation, Jo reflected as waves of emotions flooded through her. The worst of the situation was too overwhelming to sit down, and calmly list as items in a balance sheet.
A lightning bolt of command struck her. She needed someone she could talk to. But who could she talk to? At that moment, she was intensely envious of the Larkhall womens support group. She had seen them at a distance, the way they were there for each other of one of them had their troubles. She was always just out of reach, destined to spend lonely hours complete with law books and files. She, along with George now, was their saviour but that didn't bring her any closer. She felt that she couldn't just pick up the phone to call on Yvonne, or Cassie or Nikki but she could call on Karen.
A smile of satisfaction spread across her face as the options opened up and she listed them one by one. For a start, she knew the situation and for another, she had been a nurse, which gave her that professional tie in. For good measure, she had been George's lover and was closer than any of them to John. A golden glow of contentment spread through her, better than any whisky. She might not see how she could tell John, but she had laid hold of a possible opportunity. She picked up the phone and dialed the number.
"I've got a problem, Karen, and I wanted to ask your opinion. It's about George's breast cancer." Jo started in abruptly, just as Karen poured her a cup of coffee, and before either of them had a chance to light a cigarette. Karen glanced over at Jo with more concern than was obvious. Jo had that coiled up, tensed energy about her that was ready to spring loose at any moment.
"You got the right word, Jo." Karen answered with dry understatement to conceal her own tension running through her. Now that she was dealing with someone else's problems, curiously enough she became calmer.
"Well, what do I do about telling John? I can't even begin to deal with this."
Karen said nothing, as Jo pressed her hands to her head. She would have to take the initiative. Her mind took her, uninvited, back to the faded memories of her nursing days and her eyes gazed out of the window. A lot of her recollections were of a generalized tired blur, punctuated by good memories of the patients whom her nursing skills helped to heal, and the bad memories of those who died on her. Her mind's eye saw the scenery as she looked on while the registrar or the surgeon told the patient the bad news. A younger Ric Griffin peeked his face out of the memory kaleidoscope and, no matter, how caring his bedside manner, there was only so far that he could protect the patient. Funnily enough, a surprisingly large number of them either suspected or knew how much their bodies were failing them. What Karen had found infinitely painful to deal with was maintaining her professional manner in front of patient's relatives. They were shocked, dazed or plain hurting inside when the worst of all possible news was broken to them. There was no magic formula, nothing you could plan for except that each person situation was unique.
"So what on earth do I say to John?" Jo repeated to the other woman who looked as if she were half here.
"I'm sorry, Jo." Karen excused herself as her eyes became sharp and alert again. "What were you saying?"
"About John. How do I tell him? I've tried everything but everything I think of sounds either heartless or totally false."
This dragged Karen back to the present. Of course, John was no ordinary patient but a dear friend of all of them. It was this that made it so hard for all of them.
"Sometimes, conversations like this aren't planned or they shouldn't be. Sometimes the words find themselves when it came to the crunch." Started Karen, slowly and reflectively. Instantly, she realized the false step she had taken, as she could see that she had only pushed Jo into a greater panic than before. Karen was suggesting that Jo should go into the most dangerous arena of the emotions totally naked when, more than any other occasion, she needed protection and certainty, both for herself as well as John.
"I can't possibly do that. For a start, John is away lecturing at Warwick University and I'll have to phone him. I can't see myself telling John anyway but it's far worse to phone him. It feels so disembodied and impersonal."
"I can understand that, Jo but you have the choice of phoning now, or sitting on the whole thing until he comes back. It will be hard enough to explain George's delay in seeking medical help without you adding to the delay." Karen answered, with a trace of firmness in her voice.
Jo turned white. Though well meant, these calm measured words had laid a huge guilt trip on Jo.
"You have to tell John that you'll be there for John, especially when he gets back."
"That's obvious but that'll be no comfort to him." Came Jo's snappy comeback.
"Just how strong is John, both personally and in the public arena?" Karen pursued.
This brought up Jo short. It was clever of Karen to bracket both sides of John so neatly together.
"I don't know, Karen." She confessed. "I've taken for granted how bold, so resolute he is in standing up to the establishment. But this is George you're talking about, Karen. You know how close they have become, after being at odds with each other. This couldn't have come at a worse time. Just when John has found some stability in his life, along this comes like some cruel trick of fate to taunt him."
"Sometimes people surprise you, Jo. At least that has been my experience as a nurse. I got out of the profession because the bad experiences just built up in my mind and became harder and harder to live with. At least that's the way I thought when I was younger."
Jo kept quiet as she watched Karen edge her way forward, as if she had been blindfolded. Only feel and intuition seemed to be directing her feet forward.
"Don't underestimate John. He is stronger than you think and sometimes than even he thinks. You must have seen it for yourself." Karen said softly in slow mellow tones.
"Sometimes, Karen." Jo answered at last in stiff grudging tones.
"Then what is it that you're afraid of?"
There was another long silence as the conflict of emotion played all over Jo's face
"I'm afraid that he'll do something reckless and self destructive while he's away."
"So when he's back, he'll be safer as he's on home territory and that is something you can deal with."
"Something like that."
"It is a risk but you have to take. Don't forget, George is having her operation tomorrow."
"There's another problem." Jo finally revealed." George has been telling me not to tell John. She's terrified that she'll lose her attractiveness to John. You know John's attitude to female beauty."
This brought Karen up short. She reached for her cigarette and before she was halfway through, saw her way through that argument.
"I can understand how George is feeling, and I do not doubt for one minute what you say about John but surely George is repeating her mistake in another form in not seeking medical attention. John cannot be kept in the dark about something so vital to him when, at the very least, both of us know. I strongly advise you that this has run quite long enough. It simply cannot be left any longer. The clock is ticking. No matter how hard it is, you must go for it, Jo and phone John."
"It sounds easy enough for you to say it. It's quite another matter for you to do it." Jo eventually found her voice rather ruefully and resentfully. Her head was starting to rule over her heart, but that made her feel uncomfortable. She couldn't help but think that Karen was giving her advice from the sidelines. It was she who would have to face up to it.
"Let's face it, Jo. I can very easily see how the roles could be so easily reversed, and I would be arguing the other way."
"You're right, Karen." Jo responded stiffly with a brief half smile of encouragement. She reached for another cigarette, half smoked it, and stubbed it out in Karen's ashtray.
'If you don't mind, I'll go home and sleep on it and phone John in the morning."
She let a visibly tired Jo make her way out the door, poured herself a large glass of spirits and took the weight off her feet. She lay back in her chair exhausted by the intensity of the experience and in dealing so expertly with an incredibly delicate dilemma. If only dealing with her own life was as easy.
Part One Hundred and Nineteen
George hardly slept on the Monday night, slipping in and out of consciousness, drifting in and out of dreams that only served to frighten her further. What on earth was she doing here, she half wondered to herself? What had brought her to this? This hospital, this invading influence they called cancer? Her thoughts inevitably strayed to her father and to Charlie, knowing that neither of them knew yet. How would Daddy react to such a piece of news? She simply didn't know. She was all Daddy had left, and she knew enough to be aware that finding out that his only daughter had cancer would terrify him. She tried to keep her mind away from John, because she knew that she had been right not to tell him before the operation, but that didn't stop her wanting and needing his comforting arms and words of reassurance. What she wouldn't give to be held in his strong embrace right now wasn't worth contemplating. But John was far away, cloistered somewhere in Warwick University, entirely unaware of anything that was going on back home.
At around eight on the Tuesday morning, George phoned Jo, wanting to speak to her one last time before the operation. This was just one of the advantages of private medicine, she thought to herself as she waited for Jo to answer, having a phone in one's room.
"It's George," She said when Jo answered.
"How did you sleep?" Jo asked, knowing how much hospital often didn't allow for such a luxury.
"Not brilliantly," George said with a yawn.
"I had a drink with Karen last night," Jo told her. "We were both agonising over whether or not we should tell John."
"As he's not here, I'll assume you didn't," George said ruefully.
"Much as we both might disagree with you," Jo said seriously. "That particular bombshell is your decision, and you are well within your rights to make the wrong one."
"I wanted him here all day yesterday," George admitted miserably. "But I still think leaving it until there's no going back is the right thing to do."
"I know," Jo said quietly, having felt George's need for John's presence, no matter how much she had pressed Jo into not telling him. "What time do you go under?" Jo asked, wanting to change the subject a little.
"Twelve," George told her. "Though how long it'll take, I really have no idea."
"I'll come and see you after court," Jo promised her. "You should be out by then."
"I might not be all that with it though."
When George realised that Jo was about to say goodbye a little while later, she did something that she had been vaguely thinking about all night, but which she hadn't entirely decided to do. This might be her last chance, her brain was telling her, her very last chance to tell Jo how she really felt about her.
"Jo, before you go," She said, taking the plunge off the dock into the treacherously swirling water. "There's, erm, something I want to say."
"I'm listening," Jo replied, not having the faintest idea of what was coming.
"Just in case I don't come out of this," George said a little hesitantly. "I wanted you to know that I love you." Jo sat there at the other end of the phone absolutely stunned. She was swamped with feelings of extreme happiness, violent worry and every other feeling in between. But then one feeling rose up in her above everything else, anger.
"No," She said almost hoarsely. "No way, George, that isn't something I want to hear from you, because it sounds far too much like goodbye, and that isn't something I want to even contemplate."
"And I know that if I hadn't said it," George said with total calm. "I would be sincerely regretting it along with everything else."
After she'd come off the phone to Jo, George took a very long shower, scrubbing every inch of her, till now, beautiful body. As she stood under the wonderfully hot spray, she didn't ever want to emerge. She was temporarily in limbo as the hot water ran down over her skin and through her hair, and staying right there seemed like the perfect solution to all her problems. But eventually realising that she would turn into a prune if she didn't switch off the shower, she got out, dried off, and stood in front of the full-length mirror on the outside of the wardrobe door in her room. This was the body she'd known for the last almost fifty years. She ran her hands over her waist and hips, feeling just how prominent the bones were, and how small her waist really was. She ran her hand over the flat plain of her abdomen, remembering how Charlie's growing existence had expanded it into the rounded globe of pregnancy. John had loved to rest his hand on her bump, feeling Charlie's tiny kicks, the light of pride for what they'd both created shining out of his eyes. Why did she have to fuck all that up quite so spectacularly, she thought to herself? Why couldn't she simply have been happy with making John happy, even though she herself had been dying inside? Giving herself a mental shake, she told herself that this was no time to be going back over too much of the past that she really couldn't alter. Then her attention turned to her small but still beautiful breasts. They weren't perfect by any means, but neither were anyone's after they'd breast fed a baby for several months, and when said person was approaching their fiftieth birthday. But they were still pretty, and relatively firm, with the darker skinned areolas rising to pert, pink nipples. John had always loved her nipples, the way he could make them harden so delightfully when he touched her, sucking them into diamond-cutting peaks being part of their usual lovemaking ritual. As she cupped a breast in each hand, she vividly remembered the time when Charlie was about two months old, and her breasts had become engorged and extremely sore from feeding her. George had tried expressing some milk, but she had been far too sore and frustrated for it to work. In his usual, innovative fashion, John had suggested suckling from her himself, and when he'd finally persuaded her that there was nothing wrong with it, she had groaned at the relief of pressure it had provided.
"Taking one last look?" Came Tricia's voice as she tentatively put her head round the door.
"Yes, and living in far too many memories for my own good."
"I've brought you a clean gown," Tricia said as she moved into the room, holding up yet another white, shapeless article of clothing for George to put on. "And I've come to give you your premed."
"I think I'm going to need it," George said as she fastened the gown at the back and slid back into her freshly made bed, and thinking that the relaxing drug that Tricia was about to give her, might just prove to be her mind's salvation.
On the other side of London, Karen was sitting in her office, trying to get through the morning's e-mails, and not making much headway whatsoever. She was highly aware that the time of George's operation was fast approaching, and she couldn't help but think that she was doing John a grave injustice in not telling him where George was. But hadn't he done the same thing over her own son? Hadn't he kept knowledge of Ross's condition and location from her for months, until he was in fact dead? But that was no reason to do the same to him now. George had asked, no begged her not to tell John, which was the one and only reason why she was adhering to George's request. It wasn't her decision to make, and it wasn't for her to say what was the right thing to do in this situation because only George could know that for herself.
At ten o'clock that morning, Neil arrived for their monthly meeting, where he would inform her about any new policies coming her way from area, and she would talk to him about any problems with either prisoners or staff. They were usually very amicable meetings, both of them floating ideas to make the running of Larkhall prison as smooth as possible. But as he sat opposite her, drinking his coffee as they went through the monthly accounts, Neil could see that Karen's mind really wasn't on the job this morning. She kept glancing at the clock, staring off into space, and then desperately trying to pick up the conversation again.
"Karen, what's happened?" He asked without any preamble, watching as her eyes clouded with darkness yet again.
"Sorry," She said sheepishly. "I'm not really with it this morning, am I?"
"No," Neil agreed with her. "Which really isn't like you. So, I'll ask again, what's happened?"
"It's nothing to do with work," She told him evasively, but he wasn't to be so easily deflected.
"I can see that," He said, glancing at the pile of papers they were going through. "Or you'd have brought it up the minute I arrived."
"Neil, much as I would love to tell you, I can't," She said regretfully. "Because I've got no idea who else knows."
"And keeping it all locked up in here," Neil said gently, gesturing to her forehead. "Obviously isn't doing you any good. So, start talking." Lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag, even though she knew that he hated her smoking in what used to be his office, she put the source of all her current worry and frustration into words.
"It's George. She has breast cancer." The words seemed to hang in the air between them, stopping time, shocking them both into a temporary silence. Neil just stared at her, not entirely sure what to say. George had been so happy and vibrant when he'd sung with her last summer, and she'd been so supportive of Karen, even though they'd then broken up and all the way through Barbara's trial, she had been the epitome of inner strength.
"How, erm, just how ill is she?" Neil eventually asked, feeling that he had to say something, even if it did come out in less than his usually articulate fashion.
"Well, she's having surgery for it today," Karen told him. "But how much of her they'll have to take away, we just don't know." After another moment's pause, she added, "I feel so useless," In a half-strangled voice that told him she was barely managing to keep a lid on her emotions. "I went to the hospital with her last week, which was when they decided she needed surgery, and I'll be there for her any time she needs me, but how much difference does that really make?"
"It makes all the difference in the world," Neil told her emphatically. "Having a friend that you can rely on, in whatever circumstances, is possibly the most precious thing anyone can have, and don't you forget it. George might have John, and Jo, but that isn't going to stop her needing you, and any number of people who are special to her in the coming months." Taking another long drag of her cigarette, Karen desperately tried to rein in her feelings, to force them once again beneath their marble headstone of restraint. After giving her a moment or two to compose herself, Neil asked, "Have you done your rounds of this place yet today?"
"No," Karen said with a slight shrug. "I was going to do them when you'd gone."
"Come on," He said, getting to his feet, and thinking that Karen desperately needed some form of a distraction. "I'll do them with you, if you've no objection?"
"None at all," Karen said, giving him a slightly shaky smile, and thinking that where once she had despised this man, with all his ideas for privatisation and so-called modernisation of the most outdated service in the public sector, she now valued him not only as a trusted colleague, but a friend, a true, sincere friend who was prepared to do what he could to make her life that little bit easier.
Part One Hundred and Twenty
Jo had woken up, not at her sharpest after she had had a 'one off' lapse into drinking alone last night. Her rather bleary eyes focused on the whisky bottle whose level had dropped overnight more than she had cared to think. She had needed it to get through the evening and that night to block off the fear of phoning John. That was the last time she would fall off the wagon, she vowed. Karen had convinced her that she hadn't any alternative and that time was running out fast but that didn't make it easier to face phoning John when she awoke.
As Jo held her phone in her hand as George's final words hung on the air, she was both fearful for George's prospects, and felt incredible tenderness for her. The words were absolutely from her heart and she could feel the utter calm certainty that she was loved by her. The experience of her husband's death taught her not to have false confidence that all would turn out right but it made her vow to herself that come what may, she would remain there for her. It reminded her how precious life was. In a curious way, George's phone call had psyched her up to do what she had to do.
She looked at her watch and phoned Warwick University administration block. When she was told that John's first lecture wasn't till ten o'clock, she was faintly relieved that her first move had worked out fine but it put her on the spot that she would have to act now or never. What tipped the balance was that she couldn't face sweating it out through another day. There was no chance in hell that she would phone him up right in the middle of delivering a lecture. Besides, she had promised Karen that she would not further delay her call. Accordingly, with shaking hand, she picked up her mobile and, with nervous fingers, dialed up that very familiar number. She waited impatiently for the second to come for John to pick up the call. as much as she dreaded it.
"Hello, Jo, to what do I owe a very pleasant call especially first thing in the morning? It is fortunate that my first lecture is late so that I can have a leisurely lie in."
The poor man sounds so chirpy and happy, gulped Jo, her mouth dry with nerves. She hated to spoil his mood but it had to be done.
"First of all, John, I must ask you if you have a comfortable chair and that you sit in it. You're going to need it."
The sun smiled at John out of the window but Jo's last words made the air go chill. He obeyed Jo's words without question.
"What do you mean, Jo? You make it sound as is you have something very serious on your mind."
"You could say that."Jo replied, dipping her toe into the freezing cold water. She took a deep breath and plunged right in. "There's no easy way to say it, John. I have to tell you that George has been diagnosed as suffering from breast cancer."
There was a dreadful silence on Jo's end of the phone conversation. It seemed to last an eternity. She was thankful she had taken her own advice and was sitting in an armchair herself.
"Please say something John." She said at last. The words were the most stupid that she had ever said in her life but they were the best that she could come up with.
"This must be some kind of mistake." A very faint voice sounded in Jo's ear, sounding disembodied, stripped of all the normal full body in John's voice.
"I'm really, really sorry, John, but, believe me, there is no mistake. I would not dream of telling you something like this if there was the slightest chance of a mistake. I would love to tell you that I've got it wrong but I can't."
"I don't understand ."
"Me neither, John but it has happened."
"Why didn't I know about this before?"
"Because George kept this to herself and didn't tell anyone about this until recently."
There was another long pause, which scared the wits out of her. At least thank God, John was still holding the phone call and hadn't cut the call off. At the other end of the phone call, John's blasted wits began to assimilate what Jo was saying and that he was starting to pull some threads of further question out of this total bombshell of an announcement.
"How long has George been suffering from this from this ."
"I hate to tell you, John but she has had it since Christmas. The hospital has confirmed it."
"But this is absolutely appalling. I know enough to realize how dangerous the situation is."
"John, take it easy. She's now in the care of the hospital. It's just that .."
As Jo's voice faded away, John immediately grasped the implications. He didn't dwell on that, he dared not do so, but he wanted more information. By some miracle, his voice had firmed up enough to start to deal with the situation. He wanted answers and fast.
"How long have you known this, Jo?"
"Since last Thursday, John."
"Why did you not tell me before?"
"Because I didn't know how to, for the similar reason that George couldn't bring herself to tell you, not because she is afraid of you but because she loves you too much and because she couldn't admit it to herself much less anyone else. It's crazy but what George has done makes sense in some kind of fashion."
The sudden passion and sheer honesty of Jo's words were like a bucket of cold water thrown in his face. The impact of it stung his immediate senses, but it did have a curiously stabilizing effect on him. He could faintly sense the logic behind it but it was all too much, too soon to take in.
"So how did you finally come to tell me? It couldn't have been easy for you."
John heard himself saying. Some curiously dissociated part of his mind was beginning to see things through Jo's eyes. He felt as if he was part of the madness only that he would wake up as normal and find out that it was all a bad dream.
"I went to get advice from Karen and she urged me to tell you straight away."
"Because she's a nurse. I wanted her opinion partly because she's a friend and to hand and partly because this is the sort of thing she's had to deal with professionally in her time."
John saw the sense of this. He dared not ask any more questions.
"You mentioned the hospital, Jo. Is George having any treatment?"
Jo hesitated before she spoke and john was attuned enough to realize that this foreshadowed news that was not going to be good.
"Karen took George to the hospital last Thursday, and stayed with her the whole time as moral support. She had a thorough examination. I took her to hospital yesterday to have the operation today."
"That quick?" It was not lost on John how quickly she was whipped into hospital though he took a crumb of comfort that Karen was with her. "The choice was wisely made."
"I'll phone George then and offer her my love and support." John promptly added with his usual decisiveness of manner.
Jo went white as she thought over the implications and instantly rejected the idea.
"John, I don't think that would be the wisest course of action."
"By my calculations, George won't have gone into the operating theatre. I just know that she won't be able to pluck up the courage to go through the operation if you contact her beforehand. I know above all else how worried George is about how she will look after the operation."
There was a pause while John reflected upon the matter. Eventually he gave in but not without a precondition.
"Hmm, perhaps you're right. In this case, you must promise to phone me as soon as you know the result of the operation, whatever the news might be. You must promise that."
Jo had to agree reluctantly to John's wishes. She mentally squared the circle by considering that, after all, the surgeons were not anonymous faceless professionals in white coats. They were living breathing people whom she had met before and she put her faith in the hospital. It was like setting out to walk on water because you have been reassured that such a thing is possible.
"I agree John, but in return, you must wait until you've finished your lectures for the day and then come home. I'll be there for you and we can properly talk. Promise me that."
"Lectures ..?" John intoned in a far off voice. Since the start of the phone call, time had been suspended and with it that faculty for planning ahead. He could no more structure events in time than he could fly.
"Yes, your lectures. This was another reason why I didn't phone you straightaway." Jo urged him in stronger tones. Her last point wasn't exactly an accurate description of her motives but it was undoubtedly true that John could not have stuck out staying at Warwick if he had known earlier.
"All right, I'll manage somehow." John replied reluctantly. It was as well that he had been provident enough to write out the lecture the night and not improvised at the last minute. He might deliver it like an automaton but somehow he would pull through.
"And promise, John, to look after yourself. George and I want to see you back home in one piece."
"All right, Jo. I'd better get ready for my lecture. I'll see you later, Jo." John concluded in formal tones. As Jo put her mobile phone down, she realized that her wrist muscles hurt. She had been clenching the mobile in her hand. She lay back in sheer exhaustion.
Likewise, John lay back in his chair that Jo had thoughtfully advised him to sit in, a whole host of forgotten scenes poured themselves into his memory. By some unaccountable quirk, they appeared ready sorted into order. Even at a traumatic moment like this, some part of his faculties was in functioning order. He heard echoes of past voices, which took on a whole other meaning.
"Yes, I had noticed that making love didn't appear to be on your agenda at the moment, and I really couldn't say why. But that has absolutely nothing to do with why I slept with Connie Beauchamp."
John shivered at the memory of his very measured, considered pronouncement. It was just as well that he had not repeated them to Helen's large brown, all seeing eyes and her razor sharp mind. Of course, it had everything to do with it, as he later half admitted under pressure of George's cross-examination.
"I can't seem to keep you happy in bed any more, and no, that isn't your fault, it's mine."
That memory scourged John with the mental pain that it inflicted. He held his head in his hands. Of course, his tolerance and understanding of women who went off sex once in a while was very meritorious in its way. It had happened before in his experience and he wasn't some randy self-centred teenager who took it as a personal affront. But this time, his tolerance amounted to a fatal lack of curiosity. He should have started asking questions. He should have taken steps to get to know. After all, wasn't his public persona so renowned for this, that particular quality that had placed him at the front of the pack in the legal profession despite the powers of the establishment?
Images came back to his mind of the night he and George had slept together. It had given him some kind of absolution at the time for his previous unpardonable behaviour towards her. What he couldn't work out was how his fingers had failed to detect the lump on George's breast. Surely he would have spotted it? In every way, his intelligence and perceptiveness had let him down badly.
The final memory that played itself back to him was the next day and the message on the computer screen that George had left him.
"But now I need some time, time to sort myself out, and to deal with that thing I can't discuss with you, which I promise you isn't a pregnancy. I need you to allow me this time apart from you, because having your reaction to cope with as well as my own would be far too difficult "
What conclusions had he drawn from this, he wondered. He had supposed that the problem was in some way psychological, somehow in the same area as her earlier inability to feel love for their daughter. Once again, he had been wide of the mark and had continued to compound his mistakes.
" You've got no idea just how beautiful the two of you were, and that reminded me with all the finesse of a punch to the jaw, that I am ten years older than her, and not nearly so attractive."
He should know of old, George's elliptical way of speaking that there was more to it than the plain words. In the back of her mind, George had foreseen what would happen and the secondary meaning of George's words finally became clear. Tears came to John's eyes as the full impact of George's generosity of spirit hit home to him. Granted, she was tragically mistaken in covering up such a life threatening illness for so long but, given that, she so clearly wanted to protect John from her illness.
A further wave of tenderness extended itself towards Jo who had plucked up the courage to tell John the most dreadful news that could be conceived of and how sympathetically honest she had been in telling him. He couldn't be selfish in considering that he had the monopoly of emotional suffering. This was the curious consequence of the coming into being of their three-way relationship. Ordinarily, he might have been tempted into some recklessly self-destructive behaviour. He could not do that now. He had too many responsibilities now.
He grasped at one crumb of comfort. He had known enough to realize that George's behaviour hadn't made sense. At least everything was now made terrifyingly clear, and he supposed that he was grateful for it. After all, he had always preferred enlightenment over happy ignorance. He did not know how he could get through the day until he got home. All he knew was that he had to try his best.
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