Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard
Part One Hundred and Twenty One
Well, here she was, George thought as she was wheeled into the anaesthetic room, no going back, no ducking out. She was here to in all likelihood have her breast removed, and there wasn't a single, bloody thing she could do about it.
"Having any last minute misgivings?" Zubin asked as he flushed the cannula in her right hand with saline.
"Wouldn't you be," George demanded bitterly. "If it was one of your testicles?"
"Probably," Zubin answered her mildly.
"Sorry," George said quietly. "I shouldn't take this out on you."
"Oh, feel free," Zubin said with a smile. "It can't be any worse than Connie on a bad day." George momentarily grinned, trying to picture how Zubin would react under Connie's all too predictable onslaught. "You couldn't have a better surgeon than the one you've got, you know," He added kindly.
"Yes, so everyone keeps telling me," George said dryly. After a short, thoughtful silence, Zubin said,
"This operation, it really is your best option, no matter how much you might not want to think so."
"Yes, I know that too," George said dully. "Just make sure that Mr. Griffin doesn't remove my legendary temper at the same time, or the opposition will think I've had a personality bypass the next time I'm in court."
"I don't think that would be possible, do you?" Zubin quipped. Then, giving her a conspiratorial smile, he added, "I'd have given anything to be a fly on the wall that day you ripped into Connie."
"Yes, I'm sure you would," George said with a slight smile. "But I think you would have enjoyed it just a little too much." When he'd attached her to the cardiac monitor and set it going, so that she could hear the rhythmic beeps of her heartbeat, he began to move away in order to sort out the drugs he would need to keep her asleep for the required amount of time. But before he could, George caught at his hand, keeping him in place. "Zubin, please will you do something for me?"
"If it is within my power to achieve it, yes," he said seriously.
"If If I don't wake up "
"You will wake up," Zubin tried to reassure her.
"But if, I don't," George interrupted firmly, putting particular emphasis on the if. "Please will you tell John and Jo that I love them?" Realising just how much this obviously meant to her, Zubin promised her that he would.
"You'll be able to tell them yourself," He said quietly. "Hopefully some time later this afternoon." As Ric and Tash appeared, dressed in scrubs, facemasks and gloves, Zubin told her to count down from ten, and when she was definitely asleep, he announced to all and sundry that she was ready for them to begin.
"Right then," Ric said as he carefully moved aside the drapes and the cotton of George's gown. "We have an invasive lobular carcinoma in the lower left quadrant. So," He added to Tash who was acting as his registrar. "How do we begin?"
"By beginning the incision at the site of the lobular part of the ducts," Tash replied confidently. "And extending it around the tumour, in preparation for removing as much of it as possible, before assessing how much healthy breast tissue may also have to go."
"Good," Ric told her with a smile. "It certainly sounds as though I've taught you something over the years. Scalpel, please." As he delicately began making the incision, Zubin was forced to voice an opinion.
"It seems such a shame, that such a beautiful body has to end up looking less than perfect."
"I'll do my best," Ric assured him, the blade of the scalpel traversing George's skin, curving around the outer surface of the tumour.
"I can't believe she left it so long before coming forward," Tash observed, as she held the edges of the wound open for Ric to inspect the interior.
"She didn't, at least not without some serious prodding," Ric informed them. "It was Kay Scarpetta who told me about her, and then obviously persuaded George to attend the appointment she'd made for her."
"Certainly sounds like something Kay would do," Zubin replied fondly.
"She's really very pretty, your colleague from the States," Tash put in with a knowing smile.
"And entirely untouchable where I or anyone else is concerned," Zubin informed her. "Kay's one of those self-sufficient people who doesn't need anyone to rely on for her own existence."
"Sounds a bit like Diane," Ric commented thoughtfully. Then, on feeling the question hanging in the air, he added, "Oh, she may be married to Owen, but that doesn't mean she's entirely happy with the situation. Besides, Kay might have someone back home that you don't know about."
"She's never mentioned one iota of her personal life," Zubin concluded. "So yes, you could be right."
"Tash, come round here," Ric invited. "And see how much of the tumour you can remove with the current incision." As Tash joined him on the left-hand side of the table, and took the scalpel from him, her thoughts strayed back to her own lump that she'd found almost six years ago now, and which had thankfully turned out to be nothing more catastrophic than a benign cyst. But she too had felt the fear, the terror, the total denial that it could be something more serious. She might have ignored it indefinitely, had Kirstie not forced her into seeking help. Forcing her thoughts back to the job in hand, she said,
"I'll need the diathermy on standby. The tumour's attached to a couple of large blood vessels, and she can hardly afford a major bleed at this stage." As he handed her the hand held instrument for cauterising blood vessels, Ric reflected that here was the serious potential for a consultant, in the not too distant future.
After removing as much of the tumour that she could see through the neat incision into a kidney dish, Tash moved aside to allow Ric to continue.
"There's still plenty of it left in there," She said as she moved aside. "You're going to have to go for a full radical mastectomy." Examining the wound for himself, Ric was forced to agree that she was right.
"Okay," He said, picking up a fresh scalpel. "I'm extending the incision to take in the site for the removal of the axillary lymphnodes, which we will send off for a frozen section and immediate histology." The blade moved swiftly but delicately from the original incision, extending it to under George's left arm. After removing the lymphnodes, he handed them to the theatre nurse and said, "Get that off to the lab straight away," And then began removing the rest of the tumour, very carefully, piece by piece.
When he next glanced up at the clock on the theatre wall, he saw that it was one-thirty, and they'd been going at this for an hour and a half. After removing as much as he could see and feel of the original tumour, he took a sample of what looked like healthy breast tissue, and ordered an immediate biopsy to be done without delay.
"I don't want to go any further, until we know how much of this is healthy, and how much of it isn't," He explained. "I did promise her that I would try to save as much of her healthy breast tissue as possible. So, we wait until we know the results, and if it takes any longer than half an hour," He added to the theatre sister. "Tell the labs that I will want to know why."
"Throwing your weight around for once, Mr. Griffin," Tash lightly teased him as the theatre sister scuttled hurriedly out of the room.
"Well, perhaps I'm doing an old friend a favour," Ric admitted with a shrug.
"Oh, you mean the woman who accompanied Ms Channing to her appointment," Tash filled in for Zubin's benefit. "An old flame of yours, was she?"
"Something like that," Ric admitted a little uncomfortably. "Karen Betts. She nursed on my ward for about six years, nearly fifteen years ago now."
"I met her just before Barbara Mills' trial," Zubin said thoughtfully. "She didn't look like one of your old cast offs."
"You talk as though there have been hundreds of them," Ric said, sounding aggrieved.
"Well, four marriages does count for a fair few," Zubin quipped back. "So, do you plan to pick up where you left off?"
"Who knows," Ric said lightly. "I may at the very least try and do some catching up with her at some point."
"Well, anything's better than you lusting after Connie," Zubin said, sounding relieved.
"Oh, now, come on, Zubin," Tash protested mildly. "You can't blame anyone for lusting after Mrs. Beauchamp."
"You're both as bad as each other," Zubin replied disgustedly, Tash's sexual preferences never having bothered him in the slightest.
A good while later when a phone call came from the histology labs downstairs, Zubin took the call. When he laid the receiver back in its cradle, they all waited for the news.
"The tissue sampled you sent is malignant," He said regretfully.
"So, a full radical mastectomy it is," Ric said just as regretfully, part of him hating the fact that he had to so destroy this beautiful body before him, even though it would mean doing his best to eventually save her life. As Ric worked, removing the rest of the breast tissue, including the nipple and areola, plus a sizeable portion of the pectoral muscle on the chest wall, Tash handed him instruments when he asked for them, and generally tried to be of as much help as possible.
"You do know," She said carefully at one point. "That only one of her partners knows where she is and what is happening to her?"
"Hang on," Zubin put in before Ric could say a word. "I've seen Jo Mills in passing, so it can't be her. Are you seriously telling me," He said in horrified realisation. "That the judge has absolutely no idea what is happening to one of the most precious things in his life?"
"According to Tricia," Tash filled in for him.
"Oh, great," Zubin said disgustedly. "Just you wait till he does find out, and then I can promise you, we'll all be in for the roasting of our lives."
"You sound as though you're talking from experience," Ric said, not looking up from his task.
"Oh, I am," Zubin said with mounting incredulity. "You should have seen him in court. He asked more questions than the defence and prosecution combined. He's going to want to know everything from why she didn't come forward sooner, to why we've taken away so much of her."
"And we'll do our best to answer," Ric said calmly. "Besides," He added with a thought. "How did you know she had two lovers anyway?"
"I met with George and Jo on a number of occasions whilst preparing for that trial," Zubin explained. "And although it was never obvious, there was something between them that signified a depth of feeling I've certainly never seen between you and any of your wives."
"Well, well, Professor Khan, I didn't know you had it in you," Tash responded with a broad smile. Ignoring her jibe, Zubin continued his explanation.
"And the tension that existed between George and the judge in court, sexual or otherwise, can only have come from two people who know far too much about each other's psyches. Anyway, Kay told me that they were once married."
"And Tricia told me that they're all involved in some sort of three-way relationship. It's certainly innovative," Tash added with a smile.
When Ric was in the process of removing as little of the muscle on the chest wall as possible, Zubin drew his attention to something he really didn't need.
"Look at her wave patterns," He said, gesturing to the cardiac monitor. "They're all over the place." George's heartbeat was erratic, irregular, not at all what it should have been. "Find Mrs. Beauchamp and get her in here right now," Zubin ordered the theatre sister. "I'm not taking any risks with this patient." Laying the scalpel down on the tray of already used instruments, Ric minutely examined the interior of the wound he had created, the final incision running in a straight line from breast bone to under George's arm. There was no major bleed, no clot, nothing that could account for the out of time beeps coming from the monitor.
When Connie pushed her way through the heavy swing doors, she said,
"You're lucky, I was just grabbing a coffee." Then, as she moved round to stand next to Tash opposite Ric, she asked, "What have we got?"
"This is " Zubin began.
" George Channing, yes, so I see," Connie finished for him as she stared down into George's unconscious face. "So," She mused quietly. "She finally did come forward after all."
"Excuse me," Ric said, looking sharply at her. "Are you telling me that you know this patient?"
"I should say so," Connie replied with a tight smile. "But that's not important," She added, suddenly regaining her usual professional mask. "Why do you require my assistance?"
"Just look at her ECG," Zubin said, directing her attention to the monitor.
"She has minor arrhythmias," Connie stated after giving the monitor a glance. "Give her some Adenosine which should stabilise her output. Come on, Zubin, an SHO would know to do that."
"I don't want to take any risks with her," Zubin said quietly, feeling more than a little stupid for worrying so much.
"No," Connie agreed with him sombrely. "Nor do I."
Once the Adenosine had been given, and George's heartbeat had begun to stabilise, Connie moved round the table to stand next to Ric.
"Was a full radical mastectomy absolutely necessary?" She asked as she watched his delicate movements.
"Do you think I'd be doing it if it wasn't?" Ric countered back.
"No, of course not," Connie replied, knowing that her question had been unnecessary. "I just know how frightened of it she was, that's all. She said that every minute of every day that wasn't spent thinking about something else, was haunted by what may eventually be done to her."
"Are you seriously telling me," Zubin began, his voice steadily rising. "That you've known about this for some considerable time?"
"Yes," Connie said regretfully. "I found out about it during the trial."
"And didn't you tell her what she was risking by not doing something about it?" Zubin railed at her, always happiest when he could inhabit the moral high ground.
"Oh, grow up, Zubin, of course I did," Connie replied stonily. "What did you expect me to do, have her sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and force her to have treatment then and there?"
"It might have helped her if you had," Zubin replied just as icily, though he knew this hadn't been even a remote possibility.
"Connie, Zubin, the pair of you, drop it," Ric ordered them curtly. "And someone try and find Carlos, please, it's time for him to do his stuff."
"You'll be lucky," Connie commented as she replaced her mask of indifference. "He's been called back to St. Mary's on an emergency."
"Oh, well," Ric said philosophically. "Ms Channing will have to rely on my own skill of needle-work."
"I'm sure it will suffice," Connie replied, trying to give him her own particular brand of reassurance.
Connie was almost mesmerised as she watched Ric deftly stitching together the wound he had created, leaving the left side of George's chest as flat as the day she was born. He implanted a chest drain on the way, as it was known that fluid could accumulate under the skin after such a radical procedure. Glancing up at Connie, he took in her slightly sorrowful gaze as she looked down on what George now had left, just a flat expanse of skin with a scar running from the centre of her chest to under her arm.
"It really was the only thing we could do," He said to her quietly.
"I know," Connie agreed regretfully. "That isn't going to make it any easier for her though, is it."
Part One Hundred and Twenty Two
When Jo came out of court at about three-thirty, she drove straight over to the hospital, all the time wondering if George was all right. She'd had to force herself to keep her mind on the job today, something that she hoped her client hadn't noticed. When she arrived at the hospital, and made her way up to the ward where George was, there seemed to be a feeling of activity that there hadn't been yesterday morning when she'd brought George in. Not seeing anyone at the desk, she followed the corridor to George's room, and found it to be the centre of attention from what was surely too many people. Three doctors plus the nurse of yesterday were clustered around George's bed, adjusting various pieces of equipment. On glancing up and seeing her stood in the doorway watching them, Zubin invited her in.
"Jo," He said, gesturing her over. "You're just in time. We haven't long come out of theatre." As Jo moved over to the bed, the others looked up at her. "This is Ric Griffin," Zubin introduced. "Tricia Williams and," he slightly hesitated. "I believe you know Connie Beauchamp." As Jo's eyes met Connie's, she couldn't help but remember the roasting George had given this woman weeks before.
"Yes," She said quietly, her eyes immediately going back to George. "How did it go?"
"I'm afraid we had to remove her entire left breast," Ric told her regretfully.
"Does she know?" Jo asked, trying to suppress her own feelings for the moment.
"She hasn't fully woken up yet," Zubin explained. "So no, she doesn't, though she did always know that it was a distinct possibility. George has been given some pain relief, though this can be adjusted if necessary when she wakes up." After attaching George to the cardiac monitor and switching it on, so that the regular beeps now permeated the room, Connie moved towards the door.
"Find me when the judge arrives," She said as she left.
"We will," Ric called after her, and Jo realised that by the simple presence of Connie Beauchamp, there was something here that as yet, they weren't telling her. As Zubin connected George to yet another piece of equipment, he asked Jo,
"Will the judge be joining us at some point soon?"
"He's got to drive back from Warwick," Jo told him, realising that George had obviously been fairly frank as regards their relationship. "So he should be here some time after six."
"Then perhaps it would be best to leave all the questions till he arrives."
"Yes," Jo agreed, knowing that John was about to put everyone concerned well and truly through the third degree.
When everyone had gone, Jo moved round to the side of the bed where there was a chair, taking George's right hand in hers as she sat down. It was only now that she took in the quiet though regular beeps of the cardiac monitor, and saw the pads and leads attached to George's chest. She had a blood pressure cuff at the top of her right arm, that automatically inflated every fifteen minutes. She had needles in the back of both hands, one leading from a drip, and the other to a pump of some sort that Jo didn't recognise. George was lying on her back, with the sheets pulled up around her shoulders. But as Jo's gaze couldn't help being drawn downwards, she couldn't miss the mound of dressings and chest drain under the gown, which looked nothing like the normal, healthy breast on the other side. Now that she was alone, with a temporarily sleeping George, she could allow her own tears to surface. She made no sound as she cried, but the grief for what George had already gone through, and what she would undoubtedly go through in the coming months, tore at her insides like a red hot poker. She inwardly raged at the unfairness of it all, just as she had with her husband. All she could do, was to pray that George's disease wouldn't have the same outcome.
As she sat there, with the tears running silently down her cheeks, one of them landed on George's hand that she was gently cradling between her own. George had become gradually aware of Jo's presence, her touch being instantly recognisable. But when she felt the warmth of a tear landing on her skin, she tried to muster up the energy to speak.
"Darling, don't cry," She said, her voice deep and husky from the anaesthetic. Instantly, Jo was roused out of her introspection.
"I didn't know you were awake," She said, digging in her jacket pocket for a tissue to wipe her eyes.
"Getting there," George replied sluggishly.
"How do you feel?" Jo asked, wanting to put off George's inevitable question for as long as possible.
"Sleepy," George replied, her brain gradually creeping towards the question she almost didn't want to ask. "How did it go?" Were the words she eventually came up with. Having pressed the call bell as soon as George had woken up, Jo was heartily relieved to see Tash coming into the room, as this meant that she, Jo, didn't have to answer that particular question.
"I see you're awake," Tash said as she appeared. "How do you feel?"
"As though I'd quite like the answer to my question," George replied, sounding not her usually determined self in her weakened state. "So, perhaps you can tell me how it went, as Jo appears to want to avoid doing that."
"I'm afraid we had to remove your entire breast," Tash told her quietly, hating this part of her job where she was forced to impart very difficult pieces of bad news. George's eyes screwed up in anguish, as she hadn't entirely wanted to believe they would do this.
"No," She said, the tears rising to her eyes, her exclamation pleading with Tash to be wrong.
"I'm sorry," Tash replied, knowing that if the same had ever happened to her, she would be feeling the same sense of disbelief and betrayal.
"Why?" George demanded weakly, unable to prevent the tears from sliding down her cheeks. "Why did you have to take it all?" Trying to sit up, she cried out as the movement pulled at her stitches.
"George, you need to try to calm down," Tash said persuasively, though seeing that this was a pretty futile request. "We honestly didn't have any choice," She continued, gently putting her hands on George's shoulders to make her lie still. "That tumour you had inside you, had invaded your entire breast, which is why we removed it. Now, I need you to lie still, because you have a chest drain in situ to collect any fluid from the site of the wound." As she glanced at the monitor, Tash saw that George's heartbeat was again traversing its former erratic wavy line, almost certainly due to George's distress. Going swiftly to the door, she put her head out and called down the corridor for Zubin. When he came into the room, Tash simply gestured at the monitor, not needing to say anything.
"George," He said, speaking directly to her. "Do you know where you are?"
"Yes," She answered through her tears. "I'm in hell."
"On some days in this place, I could agree with you," Zubin replied mildly. "Now, I need you to calm down, because your heart is beating a little out of time. Can you do that for me?"
"Why, Zubin, why?" She asked him, wanting a frank and honest answer to this question.
"Because in order to give you the best chance at survival," Zubin told her honestly. "It was the best course of action to be taken under the circumstances. I see that your oxygen saturation is a bit on the low side, so I want you to put on this mask, and just breathe nice and slowly." He had pulled down the oxygen mask and now lowered it over George's face. "Jo's right here," He added, trying to make her feel better. "And I'm going to keep checking up on you. Now, how's the pain?"
"Fine," George mumbled from beneath the mask.
"If it gets any worse, you just press this button," he told her, moving her left hand to show her where the control lay on top of the bedclothes. "And if it becomes unmanageable, just let me know."
As John drove onto the M40 late that afternoon, he felt a sense of relief that he had completed his lectures for the day. He had made his excuses, and they wouldn't be expecting him back for that session of lectures, meaning that he could concentrate on George and court. He knew that his mind had been elsewhere during that last lecture, but he just couldn't help it. Why in god's name hadn't she told him? Why had she kept something so terrifying, so horrific to herself, for god's sake? It hurt him with almost a physical pain that he hadn't investigated further, that he hadn't questioned her in greater detail about what she was keeping from him. But he supposed that all he could do now was to help her through it, and to be as supportive as possible.
When the call came from Jo at around five, he was cruising almost effortlessly down the motorway, his hands resting casually on the wheel.
"Where are you?" Jo asked when he answered, leaving the phone on hands free as he was driving.
"Cruising down the M40," He told her.
"Look out for speed cameras," She told him affectionately, knowing of his tendency to drive far too fast when under stress.
"How is she?" John asked, wanting to put this off no longer.
"She woke up long enough to find out what they'd done, and now she's asleep again, which is probably the best thing in the circumstances. John, they had to take away her entire left breast." John was silent, just trying to process this latest piece of news. He'd known it might be possible, but to hear it spelt out in such stark terms, it almost made his brain freeze for a moment. His George, his beautiful, exquisitely proportioned George, she no longer had two breasts, because one of them had been invaded by the most corrosive of all diseases. "John?" Jo's voice broke in on his thoughts.
"How did she take it?" He asked, trying to regain his equilibrium.
"She was very upset, as you might imagine." John could hear in Jo's voice that she also had been crying.
"Where are you?" He asked.
"Outside, smoking," She said, and he could now hear the occasional sound of her taking a drag.
"Why did she do it, Jo?" He suddenly asked. "Why did she keep something like this from me?"
"Only George can answer that for you, John," Jo told him gently.
"Oh, sure," John said disgustedly. "But you know though, don't you."
"John, whether I do or I don't, really isn't the issue. George's actions aren't something I can fully explain to you, because that is something between the two of you, something that only the two of you should talk about."
"I need to know," He said quietly, and she could no more deny him this than she could anything else at this moment.
"All right," She conceded after a moment. "But you're not going to like it."
"I'm listening," he encouraged, wondering what on earth she was about to tell him.
"George, is terrified of how she is going to look with only one breast, as anyone would be in her situation. She is further terrified, that you will no-longer be able to find her in the least attractive, and that this will by extension have a very detrimental effect on your relationship with her." Jo had spoken in almost formal, legal terms, in an attempt to try and minimise the blow, but John was speechless. Never, not in a million years would he leave George just because her looks might change. If they remained together long enough, all their looks would change with age, not just hers. After a while, Jo asked,
"Are you all right?" John laughed bitterly.
"Oh, I'm fine. I've just discovered that one of the women I love, thinks me fickle enough to abandon her, just at the point when she needs me the most. Really gratifying that is, Jo, I can tell you. But after all, I did ask, so what else did I really expect?"
"John, if I was in her position, I might very well feel the same," Jo threw back at him, her own nerves also at screaming point.
"Oh, well done, Jo," He said as he overtook someone who was travelling at no more than the speed limit. "Shoot me with both barrels, why don't you."
"John, this is neither the time nor the place," Jo said quietly, trying to calm them both down.
"Perhaps not," He conceded. "But this conversation isn't over, not by any means."
When John arrived at the hospital at around six-thirty, he followed the directions Jo had given him up to the ward where George was. He had seen Jo's car in the car park, and it somehow comforted him that she was obviously still here with George. When he introduced himself at the desk, Staff nurse Tricia Williams took him along to George's room, explaining that George would probably still be asleep. As they walked down the corridor, John said,
"Please would you inform Mr. Griffin and Professor Khan that I would like to speak to them at their earliest convenience?"
"Yes, of course," Tricia replied. "They're in theatre at the moment, but they shouldn't be too long." Opening the door of George's room, she showed John in and tactfully left them to it. When John saw the amount of equipment that George was hooked up to, his eyebrows soared.
"It does look a bit daunting, doesn't it," Came Jo's soft acknowledgement, as she rose from the chair beside the bed and walked over to him.
"Is she still asleep?" John asked quietly, unable to take his eyes off the figure in the bed who currently looked very different from the George he knew and loved.
"Yes," Jo said as she put her arms round him. "Though now that you're here, I doubt she'll stay like that for long." John returned her embrace, needing to feel something familiar, something tangibly still his. She kissed him softly, seeing that he needed her gentle comfort, and wanting to make up for the brief argument they'd had earlier. When they finally parted, Jo asked, "Would you like me to go and find you a coffee?"
"A cup of tea might be nice," He said, realising that she wanted to give him some time alone with George.
When Jo had gone, John moved over to sit in the vacated chair. It was only now that he began to examine everything he could immediately identify, the most prominent being the oxygen mask over her face. He listened to the regular beeps of the monitor, wondering just how they'd come to this, and not knowing what on earth he could do to help George through it. Taking her right hand in his, he was careful not to move the needle that was in the back of it, presumably feeding her some sort of fluid or antibiotic. He gently ran his thumb over her knuckles, wanting in some way to reassure her that he was here and that he loved her. When her words finally came, the voice didn't sound like hers, being deprived of all its usual confidence, and being slightly muffled by the oxygen mask.
"What are you doing here?" She asked, with her eyes still shut from what he could see.
"I'm here because I think you need me to be," He answered her quietly. "That and trying to find some answers." After a few moment's silence, when he thought she might have gone back to sleep, he asked, "How did you know it was me?"
"I'd recognise that hand anywhere," She said, her voice sounding deeper, sluggish, and altogether different because of the anaesthetic. George found that she simply didn't know what to say to him. She almost felt as though she'd betrayed him in keeping this from him, but what else could she seriously have done? "I'm sorry," She said after another long pause, and he could hear the threat of tears in her voice.
"Hey," He said quietly, reaching over to gently touch her cheek. "I might be absolutely furious with you tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, but not now."
"I didn't know how to tell you," She tried to explain, the tears leaking out from under the mask.
"Shh, I know," He said, retrieving a handkerchief from his pocket, gently removing the mask and wiping her eyes. "Don't cry, or you'll have me in trouble with the nurses."
"I think they're used to it by now," George replied, giving him a watery smile.
Before Jo could return with a cup of tea for him, Tricia put her head round the door.
"Mr. Justice Deed, Mr. Griffin and Professor Khan can see you now." Then, glancing over at George, she said, "And that mask is supposed to be kept on."
"Please will you give us a minute, Tricia?" George asked, making no comment on the fact that she would put the mask back on just as soon as John had left. Backing out of the room, Tricia waited for him. "I'd quite like you to give me a cuddle," She told him tiredly. "But I think it would hurt too much." Gently cupping her face between his hands, he carefully leaned over and kissed her, their lips gently entwining, and George taking an enormous amount of comfort at having him so close.
"I love you," he told her when their lips finally parted.
"I love you too," She said, not wanting him to ever leave her again.
When he walked out of the room, Tricia led him towards the ward office, where Jo was waiting for him with Professor Khan, whom he recognised, and Ric Griffin whom he didn't. As Ric moved forward to introduce himself, Tricia tactfully left, closing the door behind her. As Jo and John took seats opposite them, both Ric and Zubin could see that the man before them was clearly tired, highly concerned, and not in the mood for pointless platitudes.
"When I examined Ms Channing last Thursday," Ric began. "I found a tumour in a significant state of growth and progression, by giving her a physical examination, along with a mammogram and a fine needle biopsy. She claims to have found this tumour around Christmas time, though I would hazard a guess that she unknowingly had it much longer than this. The only course of action open to me, was to admit her as quickly as possible, and to remove the tumour via a modified radical mastectomy. This not only involved the removal of the tumour itself, but also the entirety of the tissue of her left breast, plus the lymphnodes from under her arm. We sent the tumour and the lymphnodes to the lab for further investigation, which told us that all of the breast tissue was infected. I can honestly say that if I had been able to do anything differently, I would have done, but the removal of her entire breast was unavoidable." As John tried to assimilate all these facts in his mind, the door opened, admitting a third member of the medical profession into their midst. Looking over at her, John was momentarily stunned.
"Mrs. Beauchamp," He eventually said as she moved to sit down near them.
"Mr. Justice Deed," She replied, her eyes meeting his for the first time since they had been caught in post-coital afterglow in his chambers.
"You're timing is impeccable, Connie," Ric told her, trying to defuse the undercurrent of recognition he could feel between her and the judge. "To further help you understand what happened during Ms Channing's surgery," Ric continued. "It might help you to know that Professor Khan here was our anaesthetist this afternoon."
"Whilst Mr. Griffin was removing the remaining breast tissue," Zubin explained. "Ms Channing began suffering from an irregular heartbeat, which is why I asked for the assistance of Mrs. Beauchamp."
"She was suffering from what we call minor arrhythmias," Connie said, taking over. "Which basically means that the heart is beating out of time."
"Why would this happen?" John asked, finding his voice for the first time during this very difficult conversation.
"There could be a number of reasons," Connie said, trying to soften the blow that she knew was coming. "A General anaesthetic can sometimes affect people in this way, and Ms Channing is a smoker, an added factor that certainly wouldn't have helped."
"I sense there's more," John persisted, wanting to get to the truth as quickly as possible.
"How aware are you of her leaning towards Anorexia?" Connie asked quietly, immediately seeing that this was no surprise to either John or Jo.
"I am as aware of that as it is possible to be," John replied darkly. "As is Jo."
"The heart ordinarily requires a regular supply of protein in order to function properly," Connie explained. "And the fact that Ms Channing has not been getting a sufficient supply of any nutrient, but most importantly that of protein, could far too easily account for her arrhythmia both in theatre and after she woke up this afternoon. Had time been an option in her case, I know that both myself and Professor Khan would have recommended a course of re-feeding her before attempting such major surgery, in order to minimise this possibility."
"Where does all this leave her now?" John asked, his worry for George only increasing instead of subsiding in the face of their explanations.
"Ms Channing will stay with us for the next few days," Ric told them. "To allow her to partially recover from the surgery. I estimate that she will be ready to go home some time over the weekend, and I have recommended to her that she take at least the next week off work to regain her strength for the battle ahead. What you both need to understand, is that surgery doesn't mean that the cancer is gone. Ms Channing will require a course of chemotherapy, and depending on how well she responds to it, possibly a course of radiotherapy after that. I want to give her about a fortnight before starting this, as she will need all the strength she can muster to get through it. Chemotherapy is a difficult, stressful, and highly emotional form of post-operative treatment, and she will therefore need all the support she can get." After taking a few minutes' silence to process all this information, John asked,
"What, erm, what do we do to help her now?"
"Tell her that you love her," Ric said perfectly seriously. "Try to ensure that she maintains a healthy diet, which in view of her eating disorder may not be an easy task, and if she feels she wants it, try to accompany her to any future appointments. This is especially important during the chemotherapy, as it will knock her emotionally and hormonally for six. Whether she does want you to be there with her through that, only she can say. Some do and some don't. Other than that, the only thing any of us can suggest, is to try not to take any emotional outbursts that may be aimed at either one of you, too much to heart. She will have a lot of anger and a lot of fear locked up inside her, and that does need to come out."
"What about her pain?" Jo asked, finally able to get a word in.
"I have put her on a pump for Patient controlled Analgesia," Zubin explained. "She cannot accidentally overdose with it, as it will only allow her a certain amount of pain relief every hour. This will be reviewed every few hours, along with everything else."
"I want to monitor her heartbeat for the next day or so," Connie put in. "But after that, and if there is no change in the stable rhythm she has at the moment, that particular piece of equipment can be removed."
When the little meeting dispersed, John said to Jo that he needed some fresh air. Jo said that she would go and sit with George, and he walked down the stairs and out towards the car park. After pacing about for a while, trying to put everything he had just been told into some sort of order, he sat down on one of the benches, wondering just where he was supposed to go from here. As the other two went over other patient files with Tricia, who was due to hand over to the night staff in a couple of hours, Connie walked thoughtfully along to the break room, half planning on making herself a mug of coffee. But as she passed the window, something outside caught her eye. As she stopped and looked, she could see John, sitting on one of the benches, not remotely acknowledging the late February chill. Her mind made up, Connie did make herself a mug of coffee, making a second for the thoughtful man outside as she did so. Hoping that nobody would see her with two mugs of coffee and start asking questions, Connie walked carefully down the stairs and out through a side door. John didn't seem to take any notice of her approach, not looking up until she stood before him.
"I thought you could probably do with something warm out here," She said, handing him the mug of steaming liquid.
"Thank you," he said, taking it from her. Sitting down next to him, Connie took a grateful swig from her own mug, grimacing at the taste of instant coffee, when she usually preferred Espresso. "Do you know something," John said after tasting his own scalding brew. "I only found out about all this today."
"Good god," Connie said in total shock. "She really did keep it quiet, didn't she." Putting her mug down on the bench between them, Connie dug in her jacket pocket for her lighter and cigarettes, receiving a raised eyebrow from John when she lit up. After taking a fortifying drag, Connie took the plunge. "There's something you ought to know," She began. "Though I'll admit that it's probably more to give myself peace of mind than anything else."
"You're not going to tell me that you knew about this too?" He said, it being no more than a throwaway comment. But looking fully into Connie's face, he saw that he'd hit the nail right on the head.
"Yes," She said regretfully. "I found her examining it through her clothes, just before our little tryst in chambers."
"Then why in god's name didn't you tell me?" He forcefully demanded of her.
"John, I didn't even know you were friends with her, never mind that you were sleeping with her," Connie tried to justify herself. "And after being caught in flagrant like the prize whore I obviously was, didn't feel quite like the right time to say, 'oh, by the way, your lover is more than likely incubating breast cancer.'" After a thoughtful silence, John said,
"A prize whore isn't how I would have described you."
"Well, it's how I felt," Connie said disgustedly. "Mainly because I did know what she was hiding from you. I asked her, the next day, after she'd made such fine mincemeat of me in court if you knew, and she said no. I'd already screwed up her self-esteem quite enough already, so I wasn't about to also go and break a professional confidence." As Connie smoked and John drank his coffee, they were both submerged in their thoughts. But when John broke the silence, Connie's gaze again focussed on him.
"How do I help her through this?" he asked, and she could see the pain and bewilderment shining out of his eyes.
"Ric got that one absolutely right," She told him quietly. "The most important thing you can do, is to keep on assuring her that you love her, which I can see without a doubt that you do. Something she did say to me, after cross-examining me in court, was that the thought of what they might eventually have to do to her, was what terrified her most. So, now that the unthinkable has happened to her, she really is going to need both you and Jo, every step of the way. Now, what I suggest you do for tonight, is to go home, get some rest, and come back tomorrow when she will be more awake, and perhaps a little more ready to talk." As Connie flicked away her cigarette end and got to her feet, John saw Jo coming out of the main entrance and walking towards him. Knowing only too well of the conversation he was now going to have to have with her, John knew that rest was the last thing he would get this evening.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Three
While John was away, George had subsided back to the necessary sleep that her body demanded, and her faint grip on Jo's hand relaxed its hold. She gently laid it next to her, and continued to look at that very familiar profile with her head laid gently on the soft white pillow. It struck her how unusual to see her with her eyelids closed, and not to see those brilliant blue eyes. Always, they sparked of mischievousness, anger, humour and life itself. Somehow, Jo's sharp ears had caught the light sounds of John's footfall behind her. Turning round, she took one look at John when he made his way back to the hospital wing.
"You look cold."
"Must be the time of the year. It's cleared my head anyway."
Somehow, John's empty expressionless voice worried her. It was so unlike him. In turn, John became aware that the biting cold February air had cut him through to the bone. Back in the super heated hospital fug, he still felt chilled throughout, or was it an utter desolation of spirit in finding so much, so late being dumped on him emotionally. It was more than he could make real to himself, and the answers he had sought only addressed the surface perceptions. Somehow, the very clearly spoken words like 'needle biopsy' 'mastectomy' and 'mammogram' whirled round his head. He had not realized before the degree to which medical terminology came over as gobbledygook, designed to intimidate the average layman who came across its path. John turned away to stare at the windows opposite them, as a vague feeling of resentment swept through him as his only way to fend off a very disturbing feeling of professional and psychological weakness and vulnerability. He needed that focus of resentment.
"You know that the surgeons will do their very best for George, John." Jo said softly, laying her fingers on his arm. She had seen a cold bleak expression settle on John's face in profile, and did her best to comfort him.
"You're right, I was forgetting myself." Mumbled John. He looked again, and he could see the troubled expressions on the faces of Zubin, Ric and Connie. They were concerned professionals, just like any other.
"It might be best to let Ms Channing rest." Tricia's voice softly spoke out of nowhere to John and Jo. Though she was no stranger to grieving patients, there was something in the badly self-controlled manner that struck a chord with her. John looked at his watch, and was startled to see that the time was past eight o clock. He didn't think that it was so late and realized that the nurses and doctors carried on while he had long since finished his working day.
"I'm sorry if we're detaining you." John replied with his natural courtesy while Jo smiled formally at her. As they turned for the exit, both of them stole a final glance at George, strapped up to a mass of hospital machinery.
Somehow, they found their way back at the hospital car park and their will to further action temporarily deserted them.
"What do we do now?"
"Your place or mine?"
John was relieved. He was glad someone could make a decision. All that he knew was that he did not want to be alone. Presently, both cars were on the road, Jo tailing John's red and very certain rear headlights as his car drove by automatic habit. He was grateful for this, as his mind was starting to grapple with questions unasked and only the automatic pilot of driving home kept these at bay.
With customary politeness, John hung Jo's coat on the hook and they found themselves emotionally stranded inside his flat.
"It's late. Do you want something to eat?" John offered tentatively, and Jo barely nodded in reply. While Jo sank back in the sofa, John busied himself with a 'throw it in the same pan' risotto, which managed to be economical with effort. It busied his hands to give him something to occupy his mind, and also looked presentable. It was later that they nibbled in a desultory fashion at the meal in silence, while barely touched glasses of white wine marked milestones upon the day. Automatically, Jo volunteered to wash the pots while John attempted to wash the tiredness of the day out of his body along with memories of the agonizingly slow drive home from Warwick and his pent up fear for George's life. Just as Jo dried a large saucepan and placed it on the side, a tired looking John appeared in the doorway.
"There's something I must explain to you, Jo that I want to get off my mind."
The way the words were wearily dragged out of John gave her a precarious yet tentative sense of confidence, and she briefly smiled. John headed to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a large measure of spirits.
"I had better not, John. It is doing me good to have a break."
"I'm sorry, Jo. I wasn't thinking straight."
John lowered himself into an armchair, and stretched himself full length while he gazed into space. He helped himself to a fair measure of spirits before straightening himself up, and suddenly spoke out of nowhere.
"I've been thinking things over and I think I've worked out why George acted the way that she did."
As John paused, Jo looked quizzically at him. John appeared to be stating the obvious and the kindest thing she felt that she could do was to let him continue at his own pace. For more puzzling moments than reality finally explained to her, John remained silent, his face immovable while he searched frantically for the words to frame his thoughts.
"I can see now why George was terrified to tell me about the cancer. I suppose when I think about it, I have a not undeserved reputation for prizing a woman's beauty perhaps to a disproportionate degree. I had always considered that it was my way of showing some sort of appreciation for a woman."
"You have said nothing that I or George couldn't have told you in two seconds flat, not to mention the evidence of all the nameless women down the years."
John visibly winced at the sharp reminder of his past misdeeds. It came closer to home than Jo knew but she was to find out very soon. The prospect of telling her that terrified him.
"Yes, but I had not considered that George could have felt so threatened. I took too much for granted. Now I can see why she was terrified to tell anyone. I pity her for being so scared to talk to anyone especially to us, who are closest to her."
A feeling was growing within Jo that there was something that she was not grasping. Otherwise, what John was saying was only too self-evident.
"Well, I'm glad you have seen the light at last."
There was a peculiarly strained pause as the conversation petered out. John battled with that age-old inclination not to confess to his indiscretions unless he was forced to. Finally, he swallowed down his fears and gave voice.
"That's not quite all, Jo. There's something you don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"I have a confession to make."
"Is it your usual sort of confession?"
"It's something I'm not particularly proud of." John started to say.
"John, what is going on? Why are you talking in riddles?"
"Jo, I slept with Connie Beauchamp."
"Connie Beauchamp, as in the Connie Beauchamp who appeared before you as a witness in the Barbara Mills trial?" Jo asked on automatic pilot to confirm that she had got her facts right, before an intense wave of shock and cold anger abruptly silenced her. She had winced at John's inept attempt to gild the lily.
"What happened, John? I don't want to know the full sordid details but just enough so that I know what the hell went on?"
"It was when she first took the stand. I had this irresistible attraction for her and I gave way to temptation in I summoning her to my chambers. I'm not going to lie to myself or to you in denying what I was doing and, as I found out, she felt the same. What made it worse for both of us was that George walked in at the end of it."
This is the same John, Jo's fury told her. Does he ever learn? Just how many chances can George and I keep giving him? Those phrases hammered their way round and round in her head but her anger was too intense for words. Instead, she glared at him, making John
feel more wretched and unworthy of being included in the human race than ever before.
"Why did you decide to tell me now, John?
"I couldn't go on living a lie especially after I found out what was wrong with George. Now you can see how it hit me so hard when you told me the news. These days, I simply have to confess what I'd done rather than cover everything up until it has to come out."
John's mixture of humble penitent confession and his pathetic attempt to cover himself with the rags and tatters of the moral high ground only made Jo's anger switch to white heat and boil over. John's vague allusion to his therapy went right past her.
"What do you feel guilty most about, screwing that woman or knowing now that George was seriously ill when you did it?"
"Both." John said promptly. "I felt terrible at the time the way I hurt George and you but when you phone me up to tell me I could have died if that weren't so selfish."
A tiny voice at the back of Jo's mind was starting to sift the data that John presented to her. At one time, John might have commented on her choice of language but, curiously enough, he didn't and made her aware that this scene was not the same scenes they had enacted in the past. A memory floated past her of George's acid words hanging in the air and the sheer venom with which she set about tying Connie up in knots.' Are you trying to suggest, that the higher echelons of a profession don't have highly suspect relationships with either their colleagues or members of the public, and that they don't in fact make a total mockery of the rules and regulations that govern such practices?' Now she knew what George was getting at.
"Fine words, John," she almost sneered," but how did George take to your performance?"
"Incredibly badly and rightly so. She told me to stay away from her if I valued my life, was angry at my stupidity at a time when you were struggling with your own problems, and my foolishness when Sir Ian could have walked in instead of George, at letting everyone down who relied on me running the trial. She said everything but her own feelings and that she had cancer. I find that the hardest of all to deal with right now."
"Are you not aware of the sheer potential career suicide of sleeping with a witness before she has finished giving her evidence, John? I have seen you act recklessly in standing up for justice against the establishment which has some kind of logic but it is an entirely different matter to risk throwing away every good thing you have in your life, including your career."
John smiled limply at Jo. He could have got away with curtailing his confession at that point and sunk into Jo's forgiving arms but a twinge of conscience prodded him on to carry on to the very end whatever it cost him personally. He was used to taking very high risks in court out of his sense of justice and an adrenaline thrill of standing on the edge of the precipice. This situation was different, as he had nothing to sustain him except the feeling that he ought to act for the best.
"Wait, there is more, Jo. George came over to talk to me. She wanted to know just why I had acted as I did. I must have felt more guilty than I knew at the time and I told her the truth, far too graphically than I should ever have done and I hurt her badly."
"What exactly did you tell her, John?" Jo asked sharply.
"I don't want to go into the details of it, Jo. Suffice it to say that I was needlessly cruel to her. I never intended to make comparisons with her and Connie.. It just came out that way."
Instinctively, Jo let it go and continued to the next phase of her cross-examination. She had heard enough.
"And then what?"
"I apologized and told her how much I love her and tried to tell her how much she means to me. I told her that I was worried about her but she wouldn't have it. The most she said was that she wasn't pregnant. I can now see that it was because she thought it was the last time she would be able to sleep with me as we did later that night. Anyway, before she left the next morning, she left a message on my computer. I can remember one part of it. It said 'But this time is different. I am finding it hard to forgive, and even harder to forget seeing you looking quite so good with Connie. 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.' If only I'd known what was behind it all. I put it down to some needless sense of inferiority in relation to Connie, admittedly not helped by my badly chosen words."
Jo had to pace round the room as it hurt her brain to assimilate such a catalogue of horrors while John lay back, feeling horrendously guilty. Eventually, she wheeled round and posed one final question.
"Is that everything, John?"
For the first time, John was able to look Jo in the eye. Previous to then, he had looked in every direction except straight at her and had fidgeted in an agitated fashion that was so unlike him. He was least like the suave, debonair man that he had always thought he was.
There was a dreadfully long silence as Jo weighed everything up and eventually delivered judgment.
"You will not throw yourself on your sword in guilt, John. I forbid you to and so would George if she were here. You will have to struggle your way through this night until I have time to calm down in the morning and then you might get my sympathy and I only said might, John. Sorry as I feel for you, I also feel sorry for George and, yes, for myself. Don't ever get the idea that either George or I will endlessly forgive you. There has to be a limit. That's the way it goes."
John lay back limply in his armchair, totally emotionally annihilated by the contrast between the serene way his day had started and the emotional roller coaster that he had been subjected to. Just before she turned to go, her tall slim figure towered over him. Somehow he knew that Jo's anger was working its way through her system and, while she would not forget what had happened, she would ultimately forgive him on strict conditions and not just for George's sake.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Four
Jo and John weren't the only friends of George, who were deeply preoccupied about her. In her more private moments, Karen had mulled over a lot of what she and George had said to each other at her first visit to hospital a week ago.
She had plunged back into the day-to-day demands of her own job, and one day after another had filled up her time with the latest of the interminable circulars of the Home Office. She sighed at the contents of them. They had the knack of being able to waffle on at length, without saying anything in concrete terms. One real problem for which she bore ultimately responsibility, was that Larkhall was filled up to capacity and that her wing governors were forced to become more and more resourceful in prison allocation. There were requirements in placing prisoners on basic, the 2s and the 3s and the dormitory wing but, within that structure, Karen knew that her wing governors were smart enough to separate and distance prisoners, who were known up have personality clashes and to try to accommodate the differing needs of the prisoners. This wasn't what Sylvia considered as 'prisoner's friend' behaviour but solid pragmatism. She could think of two instances of wing governors of widely differing backgrounds, Nikki and Frances, who saw eye to eye on this matter. At the end of the day, prison administration banged up against the obstinate and unyielding limitations of the blueprint of a long dead Victorian architect who first created Larkhall. Karen knew to her sorrow the reality that lay behind the public pronouncements about 'law and order.' When it came to the day-to-day drudge of spending money wisely, the Home Office as a whole had a suspicious, penny pinching, authoritarian view of what it thought Her Majesty's Prisons should and should not have. Not even Neil's guile in fighting her corner could save her from being under the cosh of financial restrictions, and the worst of it was that she had to divide up an inadequate budget to each wing governor to pass on the misery in turn.
At one time, it had not mattered a jot as to who was the Home Office minister, but there were several reasons why she had become more watchful. One reason was taking on the job as Governing Governor. It had exposed her to the bigger picture that Neil had previously shielded her from. Another factor that had changed her point of view was attending various conferences of which the ill-starred Howard League for Penal Reform was just one. Another was her exposure to the world of the judiciary, as exemplified by John, Jo and George, which gave her a separate strand in her education of the world about her. It all made her look closer at the present Home Secretary who was a pretty faceless, averagely ambitious minister. What irritated her was the way he demanded immediate action in a childish, unreasonable fashion. Accompanying this was a stream of propaganda that emanated from his office, complete with a small photograph. It might be thought that this was an attempt to personalize his touch but in reality, it was designed to set his stamp on every aspect of his empire and that everyone had to think like him. She shuddered at the prospect. The world was not like this, she groaned, at least not her part of the world.
She smoked an early morning cigarette as she meditated on her situation, and watched the smoke waft upwards to the ceiling. The sun was shining outside, and helped her natural optimism to come to her rescue. It was not like Karen to preoccupy herself with the negatives in her concerns with the world about her, but to take heart in the control that she did exercise in her working life. She knew that she had two contrasting abilities. On the one hand, she was a thorough administrator and, on the other hand, she got pleasure from working with other people. Another thing was that, except for a few exceptions, she could not have wished for better prison officers and wing governors. Given the mental fragility of some of the inmates, the prison was as peaceful as it was ever likely to get. When she reflected upon the matter, there was an enforced communal life, which was dependent upon the mix of strong personalities and those who tended to follow their lead.
When she thought about it, she had seen this leadership work for good or bad, and she counted her blessings that she was well served right now. She had long vowed to herself that under no circumstances should she take that for granted.
As her mind wandered, it crossed her mind that there were various ways of taking a lead. Her thoughts began to stray into free association mode of operating as she sensed those two very warm, motherly sympathetic women who now held sway on G Wing, the two Julies. Without any overt display about it, they quietly influenced the others, knowing that they should draw on their long experience and sharp eyes, Denny first and foremost. It was very difficult to imagine the Julies as distinct from each other never mind separate but somehow, she focused in on Julie Saunders who was the stronger personality of the two of them. She needed that strength, Karen considered reflectively, when she had been diagnosed as suffering from breast cancer and had to come under the knife, just like just like George. Instantly, a light bulb illuminated itself in her mind. There was part of the answer to George's problems right under her nose. She stubbed out her cigarette and reached for her phone to make arrangements to have her brought to her office. Abruptly, she changed her mind. If she wanted Julie Saunders' help, she had to take herself to the other woman's home ground.
Julie Saunders was busying herself, writing a letter to her David. At times like this, it almost felt that they were pen pals rather than mother and son. In her mind's eye, he was still the bright, enthusiastic teenager that he used to be, who did so well at school. He was beyond that now, if she had counted the years on her fingers correctly and must be out there working for a living. She wasn't sure that she had kept up with who he was these days. She dared not take any credit for how well he had turned out. In moments of sadness, it almost felt as if he had brought himself up, and that she had had very little to do with it. The fact that she had meant well for him didn't make up for what she had lost and made it far too easy to understand how Julie's children had become. It didn't pay to think too closely about things.
"Can I have a quiet word with you, Julie?" came Karen's mellow tones from behind her and made her jump.
"Yeah, sure miss."
"Do you mind if I take a seat on your bed?"
Instantly, Julie banished her own cares and concerns to the back of her mind and was all ears. She dismissed her first instinct in supposing that she had got into trouble over something, as she'd have been given the old summons. To make the place look spick and span, Julie hastily smoothed out the blankets with hands, that had practiced ease in making the material lie flat in an instant. She started making guesses as to why the other woman had really come to visit her.
"There's something that I want your advice on." Karen asked reflectively. "I don't want to be intrusive but I just wanted to know how you managed to come to terms with your breast cancer. I'm only asking as I have very good personal reasons for asking you."
"You mean ?" Julie Saunders asked, mouth agape.
"Not me, but someone close to me." Karen started to say and then stopped.
"Anyone that I know?" Julie Johnson asked warily. She could see how hesitant and nervous Karen was in spilling the beans. She needed a little help to get there.
"As it happens, you have seen her and you know about her. George Channing."
"Oh my God. How bad is she." Julie gasped. A vivid memory came back of that very immaculate, dead classy woman with the ultimate posh accent. It must be a couple of years ago when she was first introduced to her. She remembered the shock on her face when she told George that David and the other woman's father went to the same school. She was dead decent and understanding of her own breast cancer and really kind about the way she spoke about David. In a strange way, she had met all sorts in prison and she had clicked with George straightaway. After that, she had heard from Babs how hard she had worked getting her off the charge. In a split second, she was all ears and attention.
"Well, it's difficult to say. A part of it doesn't want to know. It's stupid but you think that if you push it away, it will go away but all the time, you can feel that lump. You try and block it out of your thoughts, and pretend you're normal for as long as you can get away with it. When I had no choice, I just remember feeling that if I went under the knife, I would come out the other side and feel like a freak. You have two boobs when you grow up, not one. It's not just that you've thought that, ever since you were young, you're a woman at last and you can pull all the blokes. It's like looking in a mirror at a part of you, which you never ever think you'll ever lose. Breast cancer is something that's on the news that happens to other women. The word cancer sounds dead horrible. You know people die from it, and you get to realize that it could happen to you but you try not to think about it."
"How did you get to have the operation?"
"You need your nearest and dearest to give you a bloody good push, and give you no choice if you're not too late. It takes time, mate." Julie Saunders reflected, speaking totally unselfconsciously as her memories spoke for her.
"You get to think while you're in your hospital bed that, if you're lucky, you'll live. You then start asking, 'how long' and you get told of that word 'remission.' You might live five years but then again, it could be two or it could be twenty. That's the sort of thing that gets to scare you. You wonder what you've done to deserve all this shit."
"So how do you start to come to terms with it?" Karen pursued gently,
"No one can do it for you. You have to work it out in your head for yourself. Course, those around you do help, eventually."
"I was wondering if you could do me a favour?" Karen asked anxiously. She had been impressed by Julie's insight and sympathy and the way she had spoken had clinched the matter. "If George came here, would you talk to her about your experience, what it means,
, that sort of thing. All you need is to be yourself."
"Do you think she'll listen to me? I mean she's dead brainy, and what could I tell her that she wouldn't know." Julie Saunders asked doubtfully. There was an ingrained inferiority complex, which was apt to hold her back even at her age in life,
"Brainy or not, she left it dangerously late in telling anyone. She's as scared as any other woman in the same situation. Only you can tell it how it is."
The sincerity in Karen's tones finally won Julie round.
'If you think, I can help. I'll try. Anyway, it ain't as if my social diary is booked up solid for weeks ahead."
Karen grinned back at her and breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least she had one problem sorted out, never mind how skewed her own personal life was.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Five
John had slept very fitfully on the Tuesday night, constantly thinking about George, and about Jo, and wanting them both to be sleeping safely and soundly beside him. But George was in hospital, attached to god knows what, and Jo was in her own house, in her own bed, likely still fuming about what he'd told her that evening. He'd had to tell her about Connie, because so much of that was tied up in why George had been so scared of losing a breast, but that hadn't made his confession to Jo any easier. She had been rightly angry with him, and she would probably have even more questions for him once she cooled down enough to think logically about it. So, when he finally rose on the Wednesday morning, it was not with a feeling of brightness and wellbeing. He felt as though he had been spread very thinly, like not enough butter on a slice of bread, and he knew that it was only going to get worse. From what Ric Griffin had said last night, George's battle had only just begun. She would have to go through the emotional trauma of a course of chemotherapy, and that was probably nothing compared to seeing what she now looked like for the first time. But what his mind kept coming back to was the question of how he was supposed to help her through it. He knew almost by instinct that she would try to push him away, not wanting him to see what she looked like, not wanting to see the revulsion that she was currently sure would appear in his eyes. Never, he vowed to himself, never would she see such a reaction from him. He loved George, and nothing, absolutely nothing was going to change that. He had managed to still love her after the fiasco with Charlie, and that was a thousand times harder to deal with than a change in her sexual attributes.
Coope was more than a little surprised to see him when he appeared before her, as she had thought he would be closeted at Warwick University for at least another week.
"Judge," She said, looking up in surprise. "What're you doing here?"
"Warwick is being deprived of my legendary wit and sense of humour," He told her bleakly. "Now, please could you find me the papers of the most boring trial you can lay your hands on, and bring them to my chambers?"
"Of course, judge. But "
"Thank you," He said, cutting off what he knew to be a further enquiry as to his presence in London instead of Warwick. As he traversed the corridor to his chambers, he reflected that whilst a very boring and predictable trial wasn't exactly going to lighten his mood, it would give him ample thinking time, something he badly needed right now if he was going to get all three of them through the coming months.
George had slid sluggishly into consciousness on the Wednesday morning, feeling sore, tired and miserable. She didn't want to see or speak to anybody, feeling the need to slink into a hole and hide, possibly forever. She barely acknowledged Tricia's presence when she came in to check the monitors and she certainly hadn't spoken. Tricia had seemed to feel her need to be incommunicative and had simply decided that it was easier to leave her be than to try and persuade her to talk. But at around ten that morning, Ric had appeared, accompanied by Tash and Zubin. George turned her face away from them, not wanting them to see how unhappy she was.
"George, how are you feeling this morning?" Ric asked, having noticed the removal of her gaze as soon as they'd entered the room. She didn't answer, she couldn't answer. If she did, the anger, tears and wracking sobs would all be torn from her without any restraint, not something she wanted any of them to witness. Seeming to take her lack of response in his stride, Ric moved towards the bed, him and Tash standing on one side, and Zubin on the other. "Do you have any objection if we take a look at the wound?" Ric asked, still getting no hint that George had even heard him. No, she thought violently, she didn't want him to touch her, let alone remove those dressings and reveal her ugliness to their penetrating eyes.
"Are you not talking to us this morning?" Zubin asked her directly, but still receiving no response.
"It's quite all right, Zubin," Ric intervened for her. "George will start talking again just as soon as she is ready." As Ric and Tash gently lowered the top of her gown and began removing the dressings, being especially careful not to move the chest drain, George maintained an unwavering gaze on the vase of flowers on the windowsill. But once her skin was entirely uncovered, she visibly flinched, and they were all convinced that had she been able to do so, she would have curled into the tightest ball possible, and pushed them all away with every ounce of energy she currently possessed. She gasped and tried to turn away as Ric's delicate fingers came into contact with the scar he had created yesterday. Observing her distress, Zubin took hold of her right hand, gently chafing it between the two of his. It hurt him beyond measure to see this woman, who had been so professional, so pragmatic during the Barbara Mills trial, now flinching away from their touch, and clearly unable to voice the feelings that were raging about inside her head. When Tash had put a clean dressing over the wound, and they'd covered her up, Zubin put her hand under the covers. He tried to exchange a look with George, to tell her that they were all there for her when she wanted them, but her eyes were so full of fear and emotional lifelessness that he wondered if she'd taken any notice of him at all.
When the three of them had emerged from George's room, and Ric was standing at the desk writing in her file, Tricia asked,
"Did she give you lot the silent treatment as well?"
"Yes," Zubin said bleakly. "Something I never would have expected to see from Mrs. Channing, but there you are."
"She's just had a pretty huge emotional shock," Ric said as he wrote. "So it's hardly surprising that she wants to hide, whether that be from any one of us, or the reality of her situation. However she chooses to start dealing with it, is absolutely her decision. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Tricia replied. "But she can't stay silent for ever."
"Who can't?" Came a familiar voice as Connie approached their little group.
"George Channing," Zubin told her. "She's refusing to speak to any of us."
"As might I if I were in her position," Said Connie smoothly, though she did have a thoughtful look on her face. "Just give her time."
"However," Ric put in, taking the conversation back within his control. "In view of her little addictive quirk, I want her to be kept an eye on. I'm not taking any chances."
"Only another addict would call Anorexia a little quirk," Said Zubin in disgust.
"You think she might try to harm herself?" Connie asked, her look becoming extremely serious.
"In this game, Connie, nothing surprises me any longer," Ric told her sombrely. "And in her case, I suspect I shall be surprised if she doesn't. So, Tricia, fifteen minute obs until I tell you otherwise."
"That'll keep me busy," Tricia said ruefully. "But you're the master."
At around eleven o'clock, when Coope laid a cup of tea down on his desk, she saw that although John's gaze was focused on a page of the trial papers she had found for him, he wasn't reading a single word. His eyes were full of something she very rarely saw in him, worry, concern, and maybe even a little fear.
"Are you going to tell me what's happened?" She asked without preamble. John looked up at her, as though surprised at her sudden appearance.
"Sorry, Coope," He said, automatically reaching for the mug of tea. "Did you say something?"
"Judge, this isn't like you," She told him gently. "You're not taking in a word of what you're reading, though with that trial I'm hardly surprised. What's happened?" John just stared back at her, not having the faintest idea of how to put this catastrophe into words. How could he tell her that one of the women he loved was currently fighting for her life? No, he mustn't start thinking like that, not yet anyway.
"It's George," He told her in a slightly hoarse voice, all his emotion rising unbidden to the surface. "She's in hospital, with breast cancer." Instantly, Coope's face saddened.
"Oh, Judge, I'm sorry," She said quietly. "Is that why you came back from Warwick?"
"Yeah," He said a little bitterly. "Because no one thought to tell me until yesterday, or should I say that I purposefully wasn't informed until yesterday, the day of her operation."
"How much did they take away?" Coope asked, seeing the all-consuming pain lurking in his eyes.
"The whole of her left breast," John replied sadly. "Which isn't exactly going to help the severe lack of confidence she has in me, is it?"
"How does Mrs. Mills feel about this?" Coope asked, immediately taking note of the closed expression that appeared on his face.
"What's Jo got to do with anything?" He replied, knowing that he had to be careful here.
"Do you think I'm stupid, Judge?" Coope asked with half a smile.
"Not usually, no," He replied, still trying to mask his expression.
"Then did you really expect me not to work it out?"
"Work what out?" John asked, not having wanted the details of his relationship with Jo and George to be discovered by anyone he worked with.
"You, Mrs. Channing, and Mrs. Mills," Coope said confidently. Then, when he didn't immediately respond, she added, "Come on, Judge, I usually know more about your women than you do." John laughed, perhaps having needed this slight emotional release all morning. Coope just smiled.
"I can't keep anything from you, can I," He said ruefully.
"Not often, no, you can't," She agreed with him. "I know you too well, Judge." Then, turning serious again, she said, "You're not getting anywhere with those papers, are you?"
"I don't think I've taken in a single word," he admitted sheepishly. "Being here, it feels somehow wrong."
"If spending time with Mrs. Channing is what you feel you should do, then do it," Coope told him matter-of-factly. "It's not as if you were expected to be here this week anyway." Knocking back the tea and getting to his feet, John said,
"You're right, I shouldn't be here, I should be with George."
As he drove to the hospital, John tried to formulate what he might say to George. He wanted some answers, that was for sure, but he didn't know if this would be the right time to go seeking them. George would still be weak, still feel very vulnerable, and probably not be in the right frame of mind for his particular brand of cross-examination. Jo was in court being overseen by Monty today, or John would have sought her out to come with him. But then, if he was going to have a difficult conversation with George, he knew that Jo really shouldn't be there. When he arrived, he walked up to the ward where George was, and encountered the nurse he'd seen yesterday.
"I've come to see George," He said when he approached the desk. Tricia looked up in mild concern. "How is she?" John asked, perhaps seeing something in Tricia's face to put him on the alert.
"She's a bit, quiet this morning," Tricia replied, hesitating over a tactful way to describe George's complete lack of communication with any of them.
"What does quiet mean?" John asked a little suspiciously.
"George is refusing to speak to anyone," Tricia told him honestly. "Me, Mr. Griffin, Professor Khan, we've all tried, but she just won't talk. It's as though she's hiding from what's happened to her," She added sadly.
"Can I see her?" John asked, wondering if he could help.
"If anyone can get her to talk," Tricia said thoughtfully. "It'll be someone she loves. But try not to be too concerned if she doesn't. She'll come out of it when she's ready.""
As John traversed the corridor to George's room, he reflected that his questions on why she'd done what she had done would have to wait until another time. George was obviously hurting, and it was his job to try and get her through it. When he quietly pushed open the door and went into George's room, he took in the fact that the oxygen mask was gone, showing that she didn't at least need this any more. Well, any improvement was a good one, he thought as he sat down in the chair by her bed.
"I'm told that you're not speaking to anyone," He said quietly, gently brushing some hair back from her face. "Care to tell me why?" When she didn't answer, but simply lay there looking at him, he realised that she wasn't about to talk to him either. He softly stroked her cheek, noticing that she definitely leaned into his touch. She craved his touch, his embrace, his reassurance, but she felt entirely unable to tell him this. "It's not a crime to be utterly terrified of this, you know," He told her. "I have been, ever since Jo told me yesterday. I can't bear the thought that I might lose you, and neither can Jo. I love you, and nothing, no matter what happens, is going to change that."" He sounded so sincere, so true in what he was saying to her, that George desperately wanted to believe him. But she couldn't, because he didn't yet know what he was really agreeing to. Turning her face away from his gentle gaze, she struggled not to cry, her throat feeling constricted from the emotions that would bury her if they were ever let loose. "Hey, don't stop looking at me," He said, gently turning her face back to meet his. "I know that you don't believe me, and that you think I won't be able to still find you attractive when I see what you look like, but until I do, I don't really know how to assure you that I will. You and Jo make my life whole, both of you make it worth living. Somehow you both manage to stop me from going completely off the rails. Well, most of the time anyway, and if I ever lost either of you, I would totally disintegrate." When her soft, warm hand reached out for his, he held it, gently running his thumb over her knuckles. This was the first sign she had exhibited that she wanted him to stay, and he took it as a good one. They sat there in companionable silence, George slightly happier to have him here with her, and John content to provide her with this type of quiet support. But she so badly wanted to be in his arms that it almost hurt to be maintaining this level of distance from him. Seeming to sense her need for him, John leaned over and rested his head on the pillow beside hers. Their noses were almost touching, and they could see deeply into each other's eyes. John wasn't at all happy with what he saw there, the lifelessness scaring him immeasurably. All George saw in his was the worry and concern he felt for her, coupled with the love and sincere and lasting affection that he had so eloquently expressed. She brought her hand up and gently ran a finger along his cheek, feeling the smooth, clean-shaven skin that she knew so well. "I feel terrible that you couldn't talk to me," He admitted to her quietly. "I've known you for nearly thirty years, George, and I know everything there is to know about you, from your occasional need to starve yourself, to what you like in bed. Despite all odds, we've successfully managed to raise a child together, no matter how hard that might have been in the beginning. You've been a part of my life since I was twenty-seven, and if there was one thing I wish you hadn't kept from me, it was this. Part of me is incredibly angry with you for leaving it so long before doing something about it, but the rest of me is saddened by the fact that after everything we've been through, you couldn't tell me about it." He knew that his words were having the desired effect, when she tried to turn her face away from him, the tears flowing silently down her cheeks. But laying a gentle hand on her cheek, he forced her to look at him. "I know that what happened with Connie hurt you immeasurably," He continued. "And I am more sorry about that than I can say." When her voice finally came, it was in a hoarse, slightly strangled whisper.
"I love you," She said, not ever wanting to be parted from this man again. Her self-imposed exile from him over the last few weeks had weighed heavily upon her, because she knew that in the last couple of years, as their relationship had begun to rebuild itself, she had grown to need him in her life more and more as time went by.
"I know," He said, softly kissing her. "And I love you too." When her tears had dried and she was lying quiet again, he asked, "Would you like a cup of tea?" And at her nod of acquiescence, he rose from the bed, stretched the crick in his neck and walked towards the door.
As Tricia had been bound by Ric to look in on George every quarter of an hour, she had intermittently observed this conversation, just popping her head round the door and retreating when she saw that any disturbance from her would ruin the magic the Judge was obviously working on her. But when said man appeared, and asked her where he could lay his hands on a cup of tea, she looked up at him speculatively. When she herself had gone through the trauma of losing a breast, Carlos had been frightened, both for her and himself, and had retreated from her with possibly the worst timing imaginable. But here this man was, bestowing such love and affection on the woman he loved, well, one of the women he loved, and meaning every single word of it.
"She's lucky to have you," Tricia told John thoughtfully. "Very lucky indeed."
"I don't always live up to her expectation," John said a little gloomily, though he appreciated the sentiment.
"You try, and that's what's most important," Tricia assured him. "Is she talking yet?"
"A little," John informed her. "But I wouldn't bank on getting any real response out of her at the moment. She's still extremely fragile, and that's going to take its own time to heal."
Part One Hundred and Twenty Six
On the Wednesday afternoon, George lay in her bed, perfectly still and absolutely silent. To say that she was hiding would have been an understatement. She was thankful that both John and Jo were at court, that Karen was at work, and that neither Charlie nor her father had yet been told. These were the only people from whom she might have expected an unwelcome visit. It had been lovely to see John in the morning, and he had stayed for a good couple of hours, but on observing that she was clearly tired, he had left, promising to come back later. She could hear the spring shower pattering against the window, the late afternoon light having almost gone in the sudden early March storm. If she stayed perfectly still as she was now, she could almost forget that she had a drain in her chest and a drip in her arm, not to mention the leads fixed to her chest, keeping track of her every breath and heartbeat. It was only when she moved, or attempted to get out of bed to go to the bathroom that everything seemed to hurt, tearing at the stitches in the place where her left breast had been. She looked terrible, she knew that even without looking in a mirror. She hadn't worn make up for two days, and because of the drain and the bandages, she hadn't been allowed near a shower since the previous morning. She kept drifting in and out of a doze, day seeming to merge with night, in one long, endless hollow of pain and despair. She didn't have the energy to cry, or to shout, simply wanting to forget she existed. She hadn't eaten since Monday, and that had been almost under duress from Tricia, which was why they'd been drip feeding her ever since her admission. Her brain felt so numb, that she couldn't even be bothered to lie there counting the quiet beeps of the monitor that told them all whether she was dead or alive.
When the door quietly opened, George kept her eyes tightly shut, hoping her visitor would assume she was asleep. But Connie Beauchamp hadn't dealt with human beings on a daily basis for nearly thirty years, without being instantly able to tell whether one was or wasn't asleep. It was the perfume that George recognised at first, that subtle, very expensive scent that had been in John's chambers, on the day she'd caught him in afterglow with Connie. Opening her eyes in shock, George simply stared as Connie approached her.
"So, you remember me then?" Connie asked, inwardly kicking herself for the inanity of her opening comment.
"I'd be hard put not to recognise that perfume," George said dully. "Though it's far nicer without the added overtones of John's aftershave and sex."
"I'm sure it is," Connie replied, not letting George's jibe halt her in her tracks, though it had forcefully reminded her that she was dealing with no amateur here, but a true expert in the ways and means of verbal cut and thrust.
"Do you know why we've had you so closely monitored for the past twenty four hours?"
"Professor Kahn said something about me beating out of time when I was under the knife yesterday."
"You had some minor arrhythmias. It means that your heart was beating unevenly. But don't worry, it's quite a common side effect of a general anaesthetic. Though in your case," Connie added slowly, "there is an added factor that could have accounted for this."
"What, the fact that I smoke too much?"
"No, though that wouldn't have helped," Connie said with a half smile. "In order to keep functioning properly, the heart requires a satisfactory level of protein. This is what keeps the arteries flexible and strong. I think it's fair to say that your body hasn't been receiving enough nourishment of any kind recently. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Tell you that as well, did they?" George demanded acidly, her building inner fury in complete contrast to Connie's state of calm, self-assured professionalism.
"The fact that you are seriously underweight, and worryingly undernourished, is in your notes, yes," Connie replied, moving over to look at the monitor screen. After watching it for a while and examining the wave patterns for the previous few hours, she added, "I think the leads can come off now." George did her best to remain absolutely still whilst Connie gently removed the latex pads from her chest, but Connie felt every inward flinch, whenever her hands came into contact with George's skin.
When she'd removed the leads and switched off the monitor, Connie sat down in the chair on the other side of George's bed.
"How do you feel?" She asked gently.
"Like I want to be left alone," George said bitterly. "Is that too much to ask?"
"No," Connie said mildly. "But I don't think it's doing you any good."
"Really," George said derisively. "And even if company might be the best thing for me, what in the world makes you think I'd want it to be you?" Connie concealed a smile. It was working. She'd known her presence would wind George up, make her begin to express her anger, and she'd been absolutely right. But she thought that the real place to start prodding, was that day just over three weeks ago now. It had been in the middle of that bloody trial. It had been at the end of the afternoon, and she'd been testifying for the prosecution, the drip of a CPS barrister having laboriously taken her through her evidence, with the cross-examination from the defence to follow in the morning. Connie had been accosted by the Judge's clerk, and asked to pay him a visit in chambers. Ever one to keep a man waiting, Connie had gone into the ladies' to touch up her make up. George had been the only other woman in there, standing in front of the mirror, with her hand inside her jacket, clearly in the middle of touching her breast through her clothes. Connie had immediately seen this for what it was, a woman who had discovered something that worried her, and who was examining it at every possible opportunity. George had looked incredibly guilty at being caught doing something so private in a public place. Not being able to deny what she'd been doing, George had briefly opened up to her about it. But then Connie's attempts to get George to do something about her fears had been ruined, by George catching Connie with John little more than an hour later.
"I'm not here to say I told you so," Connie said, getting to the heart of the matter.
"You could have fooled me," George said dryly. "And let's face it, you were right."
"Even if you'd done something about this earlier, you might still have ended up with the same result."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" George asked scathingly. "Because it's doing a pretty poor job of it. What was it you said to me three weeks ago? Oh, yes that you knew exactly what you were talking about, because you'd seen what untreated tumours could do. Well, believe me, you don't."
"Why?" The question was perfectly innocuous, but George seemed to use it as an opportunity to really get into her stride.
"Do me a favour," George said curtly. "Go and look in that mirror over there, or shall I save you the trouble. You are extremely attractive, incredibly sexy to the point of erotic fantasy, and you have everything that men, or women for that matter, would find desirable. After all, it's not as if John had any complaints, did he, and I can promise you, he's a connoisseur of such things."
"That's what's really bothering you about this, isn't it," Connie said gently, momentarily stunned by George's unequivocal description of her.
"Well, after seeing what the likes of you have to offer, do you blame me?" George said caustically, forcefully reminding Connie that George had quite literally seen everything Connie had to offer a man, when she'd caught her with John in his chambers.
"I think you might give both John and Jo credit for more than a little sensitivity."
"Oh, you think you know him that well, do you," George said disdainfully. "Because believe me, after all the years of being subjected to John's constant inability to keep his hands off other women, I know just how easy he'll find it to pick up someone infinitely more desirable than I'm likely to be, and leave Jo out of this," She added, the issue of Jo's possible reaction to her appearance far too hurtful to contemplate.
"If they love you, it won't make any difference," Connie replied, almost despising herself for giving George such a standard, pathetically professional response.
"Well, I'll find out when this lot's finally taken away," George said dismissively, gesturing to the cluster of drain and dressings. "Besides," She added bitterly. "I used to think that John loved me enough, not to screw some random surgeon, who just happened to catch his eye from the witness box." I deserved that, Connie was astonished to find herself thinking.
"His doing that with me really hurt you, didn't it," She said quietly.
"More than you will ever know," George said, the tightness in her chest and the lump in her throat, giving her voice a slightly strangled edge. "I love John, for all his faults, but I won't even be able to hold him with his usual antidote to stress any more."
"I'm sorry," Connie said into the silence, before she could think better of it.
"I know, for what it's worth," George said dully. "And I also know that it's the first time you've ever felt the need to apologise for doing such a thing."
"If I'd known it was going to cause this much hurt, I never would have done it."
"Yes, you would," George said matter-of-factly. "I suspect it might even have given you an extra thrill, to know that you had the power to temporarily take someone like John away from not just one, but two women." Connie was momentarily thrown. Without being aware of it, George had well and truly hit the nail on the head. Connie did use sex to get her what she wanted, she always had done.
"Tell me," Connie asked, trying to change the subject a little. "If this had been Jo, not you having a breast removed, how would you react?"
"In theory, I wouldn't give a damn what she looked like, as long as she was alive. But I can't pretend that I wouldn't be incredibly nervous at showing my immediate reaction to how she looked."
"And don't you think that that's how Jo might be with you?"
"I don't know," George said miserably. "It took her long enough to get used to the idea of being sexually involved with a woman. This might be the thing to really frighten her off. As for John, well, I know only too well how fickle he can be with regards to female flesh."
"I know you don't want to hear this," Connie said carefully. "But you're not going to make the situation any better by not eating."
"You're quite right there," George said tartly. "I don't want to hear it." Connie realised that with the reference to her anorexia, the barriers had gone right back up.
"But as your surgeon," Connie continued valiantly. "It is my duty to point this out. I don't want to give you more scars than you've already got, but keep on going the way you are, and you will be back under the knife, only this time it'll be mine."
"Tell me," George said cuttingly. "Precisely how do you deal with the parts of your life that you don't much like? Though I suspect I can already come up with an answer. I expect you sleep with more men than you've ever cut up, in order to cover up an enormous great gap somewhere in your life, in the same way that I stop eating, because physical discomfort and deprivation are far easier to deal with than the acknowledgement of my many and varied failures. Am I right?" Connie sat stunned, simply staring at this woman, a woman whom she'd come in here to help, who had just told her more home truths than she'd heard in a long time. "You don't like it when the shoe's on the other foot, do you?" George almost taunted. "Yes, admittedly what I do is bad for me, I know that. But at least it doesn't routinely hurt anyone but me." This seemed to snap Connie out of her speechlessness.
"And just what do you suppose both John and Jo would do if you died?" She demanded.
"I don't know," George said quietly. "They managed relatively satisfactorily without me before, so I'm sure they would again, in time."
"You really have no idea, do you?" Connie said in astonishment. "You wouldn't know this, because you were still out from the anaesthetic for most of last night, but Jo didn't leave your side from the time you came back from theatre yesterday, and when John arrived in the early evening, they stayed here with you, until Tricia virtually had to throw them out. When Jo saw you, when we brought you back, I briefly thought I was going to have to admit her alongside you. When John arrived, he asked Ric and Zubin more questions than I suspect he usually does in court, his most difficult one being why had you left it so long before seeking treatment. So, don't you dare try and tell me that they won't stand by you in this, because anyone with any common sense can see they will. You would too, if you had half an ounce of self-esteem in you. If you want to get through this, you've got to start fighting, because believe me, your battle has only just begun."
"I can't lose either of them," George said in a tiny, strangled voice, the tears now pouring down her cheeks. "I love them both, so much." Getting up to perch on the edge of the bed, Connie helped George sit up, put her arms round the far too thin body, trying not to put any pressure on George's wound. George clung to her, needing someone, anyone, to prevent her from sliding altogether off her crumbling ledge of sanity. She gently held George, just letting her cry, allowing her to begin the grieving process for a part of her body that had made her the woman she was. George's hurt was almost violent, but it needed to come out. If she'd allowed it to remain inside, it would corrode her just as skilfully as the cancer itself.
"I shouldn't be doing this," George said, eventually beginning to calm down.
"Yes, you should," Connie said gently. "You need to."
"Why are you doing this?" George asked, as Connie leaned over to reach the box of tissues on the bedside table.
"Because having had first hand experience of your anger via cross-examination, I knew you would need someone to shout at, and having already established something for you to niggle at with John, it only made it easier for you to start letting it out."
"I really don't know what I'd do without John and Jo. I know it's a pretty bizarre set up, but it works for us. Well, most of the time anyway."
"If it works, then it doesn't matter how bizarre the set up," Connie said matter-of-factly. She could see that George had worn herself out with both the sniping and the crying. As George lay back down, and Connie adjusted the bedclothes around the drain, George could feel the energy seeping out of her.
"I never knew that arguing could be so exhausting," She said drowsily.
"You're still very weak," Connie replied. Then, taking George's hand, she said, "Promise me something, try to start looking after yourself, because you're not going to make it through the next few months if you don't." George gave her a tired smile.
"I'll do you a deal," She said, the tiredness gradually taking her over. "I start looking after myself, and you stop hiding behind the front of part time man eater."
"We'll see," Connie said with a small smile, making no promises. She waited until George drifted into a restless sleep, wondering if, by chance, she may finally have come across the knot in her so far smooth skein of sexual power.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Seven
A little while later, when Ric, Carlos and Zubin emerged from a long afternoon in theatre, they converged around the nurse's station, to check up on their other patients.
"How's George Channing doing?" Ric asked, when he reached her name on the ward list. "She didn't seem so good when I looked in on her at lunchtime."
"Oh, she's better than she was," Tricia said matter-of-factly. "She took a bit of persuading to start talking though."
"Oh, who by?" Carlos asked, wondering if his beautiful Tricia had achieved this result.
"Connie did it," Tricia said proudly. "She did what all you men have been afraid to do, she gave George someone to shout at."
"Really?" Ric said in astonishment, breaking into a smile.
"By the sound of it, I think it was quite successful. George Channing is the only person I've ever heard giving Mrs. Beauchamp a real run for her money."
"What I wouldn't have given to be a fly on the wall," Zubin commented wistfully.
"Well, god bless Connie," Carlos said wonderingly, lifting the vase of flowers on the desk in a toast.
"And all who sail in her," Ric added dryly, thinking that for Connie to have met her match, George Channing really must be a first class sniper, having had years and years of target practice.
"Ah, don't be mean," Tricia protested. "She looked really done in when she came out of there." Ric suddenly looked concerned.
"Where is she?" He asked, thinking that as George was primarily his patient, he should be the one to thank Connie, for bringing her out of her refusal to talk or communicate with anyone. He had been seriously worried about George, knowing that her prior emotional instability wouldn't help the situation in any way. George had been taking absolutely no notice of anyone's presence from the first time he'd gone to see her that morning. He'd kept her on fifteen-minute obs, more to make sure that she didn't attempt to harm herself than from any particular medical perspective. But if Connie had managed to break into George's hiding place then all credit to Connie.
"She's in the rec room," Tricia informed him. "Looks like she could do with some TLC to me."
"And we all know that Mr. Griffin would be perfectly happy to provide it," Zubin drawled cynically, receiving a glare from Ric as he walked in the direction of the rec room, where they all occasionally took the chance for a coffee and a sit down.
When he quietly pushed open the door, he saw that Connie was the only other occupant, standing in front of one of the long windows that looked out onto the hospital grounds. Something about the slight hunch of her shoulders seemed to give off a clear signal forbidding anyone to approach her. Closing the door softly behind him, Ric slowly walked over to her.
"Connie?" He said, breaking in on her thoughts.
"That's the trouble with working in this place," Connie replied bitterly. "Because we don't hold actual, permanent positions here, we don't have anything like an office to afford us that very occasional, though necessary bit of peace. At least working for the NHS does mean that I have access to such a luxury." Ric had to agree with her on this. Zubin, Carlos, Connie and himself, not to mention the likes of Tom and Alistair, spent approximately two thirds of their time working for the NHS, and the rest of their time doing private work, which in his case brought in some extremely welcome extra revenue. But it was only those devotees of the private system, those philistines in the name of human equality, who were provided with permanent offices. Back on Keller ward, where he ruled supreme, he did have his own office. After all, wasn't it there where he'd had such a wonderful half an hour with Connie, at the end of her first day?
"I hear we have you to thank, for getting George Channing to start communicating again," He said, for the moment ignoring her clear demand to be left alone.
"Well, I think I got a bit more than I bargained for," Connie said dully, and Ric suddenly became aware of the slight tremor in her voice. Connie was still looking out of the window, still standing with her back to him. Walking right up to her, he stood to her left, seeing in an instant that she had her face turned from him for a reason. Silent tears were running down her cheeks, making her look more lost and desolate than he'd ever seen her.
"What happened?" He said, putting a gentle arm around her shoulders.
"Have you ever done anything so stupid?" She asked, the tenderness in his gesture persuading her to open up. "Something you did on the spur of the moment because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Only afterwards, when you discover precisely what you've done, you regret it so strongly that it hurts." Ric took in a deep breath. As a compulsive gambler, yes, there had been many such occasions in his life, more than he cared to remember.
"The time Diane lent me her credit card, to buy some champagne for the staff on New Year's Eve, and I immediately used it to gamble in an online casino. I'd say that was pretty bad. Why?" This was Connie after all, and he did have a pretty good idea, but he let her tell it in her own time.
"Just how aware are you," She asked slowly. "Of the precise nature of the relationship George has with the judge, and with that other barrister, Jo Mills I think her name is?"
"It might have taken me six months of working with Tash to discover her persuasion," Ric said with a certain amount of amusement in his tone. "But I'm not blind." Connie managed a watery smile.
"You know that trial Zubin and I had to testify in at the end of February? Well, that trial was presided over by none other than Mr. Justice Deed. Let's just say that the Deed himself provided a delightfully unexpected distraction."
"Yes, I did wonder," Ric said quietly.
"What do you mean, you did wonder?" Connie demanded, finally turning fully to face him.
"The way you looked at him when he arrived last night. You used to look at me like that, as if you could swallow a man whole." Connie laughed despite her tears.
"You never know your luck," She said dryly.
"Does George know about this?" Ric asked seriously, thinking he could see what this might have done, to a woman who would now be extremely self-conscious of her looks.
"She walked in on us, which is why she tried to crucify me so magnificently in court. Believe me, I wouldn't recommend being caught in post-coital afterglow. It's the most undignified position to find yourself in."
"That's a matter of opinion," Ric said, a soft smile spreading over his face at the memory of how beautiful Connie had looked, lying in his arms, on the sofa in his office, her hair tousled and her face flushed from orgasm.
"Don't look like that," Connie said abruptly, correctly interpreting his expression. "The point is, that down the corridor, lies a woman who has just had a breast removed. She is already going to be deeply concerned about the way she looks, and all I've done by sleeping with her lover, is to make that situation a thousand times worse."
"When you slept with the Judge," Ric asked tentatively. "You didn't know he was involved with her, did you?"
"No, but I did know about her lump," Connie said miserably. "I'm not sure which is worse."
"Connie," Ric said insistently, realising where her thoughts were taking her. "For whatever reason, George told you about what she'd found. Just because she then found you in the arms of her lover, does not mean that she purposefully ignored the advice I'm sure you gave her."
"Really," Connie said icily. "Because from here, that's pretty much how it looks."
"Connie, listen to me," Ric continued. "Even if she'd never found out about you and the Judge, there's no way she would have come forward as early as that. Yes, she might have subsequently despised every word you said, in or out of court, but if that was a reason for not coming forward for treatment, it was only an excuse. She's had that lump a lot longer than February, I promise you."
"I just wish I hadn't done it, that's all." Putting out his arms, Ric drew her to him.
"Now you listen to me," He said gently but firmly. "You, are one of the most talented surgeons I have ever worked with, you give your all to your profession, and you save people's lives virtually every day. Yes, you don't always know where to draw the line between business and pleasure, but then, neither do most of us. George Channing's having lost a breast, and therefore an enormous amount of what little self-esteem and self-respect she had in the first place, is not your fault. You've been far more on the fringes than the rest of us this week, but it has probably still registered with you, just how close both the Judge and Jo are to George. You may use your body to give you power, Connie, but it hasn't allowed you to take the Judge away from his priorities, at least not for more than the odd half hour in chambers." Connie stood perfectly still, her head leaned against his chest. She didn't know why, but it didn't feel wrong to be doing this with him. With anyone else, it might have made her feel far less in control, but with Ric that didn't seem to matter.
"Thank you," She said eventually, detaching herself from him and swiftly kissing his cheek. "For talking some sense into me." Ric smiled at her.
"I think you've just had a hard day, and that you need to relax."
"Oh, and how would you suggest I relax, Mr. Griffin?" She asked, slipping so easily back into her usual flirtatious drawl.
"I would go home, put on some music, and smoke a joint, if I could lay my hands on the necessary ingredients."
"Oh, yes, I've heard about your little line in police cautions for possession of cannabis," She tutted in mock disgust.
"Don't knock it till you've tried it," Ric said firmly. "It's far more successful than alcohol any day."
"I have, but not since I was sixteen, and behaving particularly badly. So, Mr. Griffin, how would you feel, about assisting this relaxation you appear to have prescribed?" Seeing the tell tale glimmer of lust in her eye, Ric breathed in through his nose, taking in the enchanting waft of her perfume, as erotic and distinctive as her meaning.
"I would be delighted," He replied, running a lazy finger down her cheek. "After all, it's about time I taught you something about how to really behave badly."
"Oh, I'll hold you to that," She said, walking towards the door. "My place, at nine."
"Hey, but I don't know where you live," Ric protested, walking after her.
"Then go and find out," Connie said with a grin, thinking that her day was fast beginning to get better.
After discretely asking Tricia to get Connie's address for him from the computer, he went home, to his depressingly tiny bedsit, took a shower, and made himself look as stylishly casual as he would allow. He didn't want to go over the top, but he did want to look good for her. That unexpected, incredibly exciting quickie with Connie on the sofa in his office had been sensational, but Ric knew it had only really been a taster of what Connie had to offer. He'd paid a quick visit to his supplier on the way home, the package of dope now nestling in one of his trouser pockets, the other rudiments of a joint in the other. Not having a car any more, thanks to his inability to stop putting vast amounts of money that he didn't have on the roulette wheel, he took a cab to Connie's address. As he walked towards her house, his eyebrows soared. Whoever Connie was married to, he must have money. The house looked like an upside down T from where he was standing, branching out on either side, one side being softly lit and the other in darkness. When Connie came to the door, she was wearing a very simple, little black dress, that clung lightly to her high, full breasts, and which was cinched in at the waist with a wide, leather belt. Ric's eyes travelled from her subtly made up face, down her shapely torso, to where the dress flared out slightly over her curvaceous hips, descending to midthigh, showing off her long, beautiful legs to perfection.
"I'm not sure whether it's my house, or my figure that has your eyes out on stalks," Connie said mockingly, observing his scrutiny.
"I'm sorry," Ric said, looking a little abashed as he moved into the hall.
"Oh, please don't be," Connie drawled, leading him towards the lounge. "It's really rather flattering."
"You look good enough to eat," He said, briefly touching her shoulder.
"Let's hope so," She replied softly, locking her gaze with his, waiting until he dropped his eyes first. So, that's how she wants to play it, he thought, she wants to be the one in control. But then he thought that this was how she always played it. They sat on the sofa, drinking red wine and listening to some soft, sensual rock music that only seemed to intensify the charged atmosphere of expectancy.
"So," Connie said, as Ric began to roll a joint. "Why this sudden urge to get me stoned? It can't be as a precursor to seducing me." Ric grinned at her.
"Well, I have enough ego," He said, handing her the joint and fishing in his pocket for a lighter. "To think that I wouldn't need to get you stoned, in order to seduce you." As Ric flicked the lighter, the flame lit up Connie's face, showing him in the soft light that she was really beginning to relax. She coughed with the first hit, causing Ric to smile.
"Take it gently," He said, putting out a hand to relieve her of the joint. Taking another, slightly less enthusiastic drag, Connie handed it back to him.
"Whatever that is," She said, "It's strong stuff, nice though."
"It comes from a very reputable supplier," He said, taking a long, practiced drag of his own.
"Only you could describe a drug dealer as reputable," Connie said with a laugh.
"I used to grow it myself, before I lost the house." They passed the joint between them, both feeling the gradual effects of it.
"Why did you lose your house?" Connie asked, though after listening to grapevine gossip she had a good idea.
"I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours," He said with a wink, handing the joint back to her.
"Oh, so that's why you wanted to lower my defences," She said knowingly. "All so that you could find out everything you've been dying to ask since my first day."
"In a manner of speaking," He said, taking the last drag from the joint before stubbing it out in the ashtray. "I can be summed up in three, no four, words. I'm addicted to gambling."
"Hence Diane's credit card?" Connie asked, her theory having been confirmed.
"Yes, definitely one of the more shameful moments of my career."
"That can't be the only thing that defines you," Connie said gently, the dope taking the usual, abrasive edge away from her voice.
"I'd like to think it wasn't," Ric said, as she refilled their glasses. "But add on to that four failed marriages, almost a fifth, nine children and owing various people over a hundred and fifty grand, and that'll tell you that I do everything in excesses."
"Nine children? You don't hang about, do you," Connie said in astonishment. "What happened to the almost fifth marriage?" Taking a sip of the full-bodied red in his glass, Ric said,
"Sam Kennedy was an SHO on Darwin. She gave me twenty grand to put a hole in my debts, and the night before we were due to get married, I put the entire cheque on a roulette wheel. You can guess the outcome." Connie winced.
"My god," She said in awe. "You like to live dangerously, don't you."
"It's far more under control than it used to be."
"That wasn't a criticism," Connie said, briefly touching his hand. "The fact that you can actually refer to yourself as an addict is good. If, as you say, it's far more under control than it used to be, that's good too. You just need to try to keep it that way."
"Enough about me," Ric said, preparing to roll another joint, and feeling more than a little self-conscious. "Tell me about you, and why you remain married, when you clearly aren't happy."
"Well, well, Mr. Griffin, that is perceptive of you," She drawled to cover up her shock at his accuracy. "I was twenty two, and was struggling to finance my way through medical school. I met Michael when I was at a particularly low ebb, and was in the process of getting very drunk in a bar, because I knew that I either had to drop out of med school and get a job, or start opening my legs for a living until I achieved my registration." Ric just stared at her.
"That is an extremely desperate path to have to follow," He said carefully.
"Oh, believe me," Connie said bitterly. "It wasn't a decision I was taking lightly. So, he offered to finance the rest of my medical training, if I would marry him, and provide the necessary accessory of a wife. Michael was a cardiothoracic surgeon, and still does do the odd bit of operating very occasionally, but his main accomplishment is politics. He works for the Department of Health, and sleeps with virtually every secretary to pass through his domain. We've always had an open marriage, because he wasn't prepared to drop the women, and he knew that I would find out about them if he said he would and didn't. So, he goes to work every day in the city, with the type of false respectability demanded of such a position, and I got to realise my dream. It's not quite as crazy as it sounds," She added, as he handed her the smouldering joint. "It's been pretty successful for both of us, really. He has lovers, I have lovers, and we both commiserate about people who fail to live up to expectation." After taking a deep draw on the cigarette, she handed it back to him.
"Have you never wanted to break the arrangement?" Ric asked, trying to get his head round this, though he could see just how much sense it must have made at the time.
"No," Connie answered without hesitation. "I don't go looking for emotional interference, so it's not an issue." Ric's brain began trying to put the pieces together. Something clearly prevented her from allowing anyone to get remotely close to her, something that had happened before her marriage.
"Why don't you go looking for, emotional interference as you call it?"
"Not even under the influence of cannabis, will you persuade me to tell you the answer to that very interesting little quandary," Connie replied, her tone a lot sharper than she'd really meant it to be. Ric knew he'd crossed a line, and inwardly kicked himself for his stupidity.
"I'm sorry," He said, handing the joint back to her.
"Just don't push it, Ric," She said a lot more gently. "Some things really are best left hidden."
Getting up to change the CD, Connie put on some Dido, the drifting, sensual tones sliding over her skin as skilfully as she hoped Ric's hands would later. Returning to the sofa, she sat closer to him, leaning up against him as his arm went round her shoulders. Ric knew that with the lowering of her barriers, he was getting to see the softer, far more gentle side to Connie's nature. He could see that she was itching to really let someone in, but that she was terrified of doing so.
"Tricia said that George really gave you a run for your money this afternoon," Ric said quietly, incredibly curious to know just what had been said between them.
"I bet she did," Connie said cynically. "That was the best and the worst row I've had in a long time. But then, I suppose I should have known better than to tangle with a barrister who'd already made mincemeat of me in court."
"What on earth did she say?" Ric asked, his curiosity now really peaked.
"A lot of things that were a bit too close to home. It was my own fault, because I brought up the subject of her anorexia."
"You need to be very careful with that kind of discussion, you know that, Connie."
"Yes, I know, I know," She insisted. "But it needed to be done. If she keeps on going the way she is, the anorexia will kill her quicker than the cancer."
"I do hope you didn't tell her that," Ric said with a feeling of foreboding.
"Not quite," Connie said, not entirely meeting his eyes. "I just pointed out that if she didn't start looking after herself, she would be back under the knife, only this time it would be mine, not yours."
"And what was her response?" He asked carefully.
"To ask me how I dealt with the areas of my life I wasn't happy with, to which she all too readily supplied an answer." When she didn't immediately continue, he prompted her. "She suggested," Connie said slowly, feeling slightly foolish that someone she should have regarded as a perfect stranger had got it so right. "That I sleep with more men than I cut up, her words not mine, because it fills a pretty enormous gap in my life."
"And do you?" Ric asked gently, already knowing the answer.
"Possibly," Connie conceded. "I'm not sure I would have put it like that, though."
"So, how would you describe the way you live?" Ric asked, thinking that George Channing had pretty successfully hit the nail on the head.
"I pick up men like..."
"...Like Mubbs Hussein," Ric put in with a smirk.
"How do you know about him?" Connie asked, momentarily thrown off guard.
"You really should try to avoid sleeping with the one man who really does go out of his way to advertise his sexual conquests."
"It must be a myth that women keep the gossip columns in business," Connie said, vowing to pay Mubbs back for this at the earliest opportunity. "All right, so I pick up men like Mr. Hussein, as a distraction. Is that such a bad thing?"
"No," Ric said carefully. "But if you are honest with yourself, you might consider, that you do it for an entirely different reason." He felt her barriers go back up in an instant.
"Don't even think of going there," She said firmly. "Why I do what I do, is not up for discussion. Is that clear?" Gently turning her face towards him, he caught the brief flash of fear in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," He said, looking straight into her eyes to show his sincerity.
"Forget it," She said bitterly. "Just don't try to find out things that I have no intention of sharing with you." Gently playing with a lock of her hair, he kept his gaze fixed softly on hers, watching as she gradually began to relax again.
"Why was this afternoon the best and the worst row you've had for a while?" Ric asked, wanting to know more of this enlightening conversation. Connie appeared to have been miles away, Ric's question dragging her back to the present.
"It was fantastic, because I'm not used to really finding my match when it comes to arguing, but George Channing really can fight. Even though she was barely twenty-four hours out of major surgery, she fought back with all the anger she threw at me in court. She'd have lasted a good deal longer, if she hadn't been so weak. I think the fact that she already had a reason to be furious with me might have helped. But there's a very basic fact that you're missing with George. Neither you nor Zubin, nor even Carlos would ever have persuaded her to start opening up."
"Why so certain?" He asked, wondering what they'd all missed.
"It's obvious," Connie said almost scornfully. "She couldn't bear seeing a whole, entirely complete woman."
"Oh, I see," Ric said, the realisation beginning to dawn. It had been Connie's figure, as much as her actual self that had wound George Channing up to the point of snapping.
"That was a pretty big risk to take," He said quietly, because Connie had been gambling with both George's sanity and her own career, in so blatantly forcing the issue.
"Yes," She agreed. "But I felt it was a calculated one. Come on, Ric, you know this job is made up of just as many calculated risks as it is certainties."
"And am I a risk or a certainty?" He asked, fixing his gaze on hers.
"Well, now," Connie drawled seductively, "Whilst it would be terribly presumptuous of me to say that you are a certainty, I feel that doing so would be a calculated risk."
"Is that so," Ric said softly, the deep, gravelly tones making her senses tingle.
When their lips finally met, it seemed to light a spark deep in both of them. They could both taste the spicy flavour of the cannabis, combined with the red wine they'd been drinking since Ric's arrival. It struck Connie that just for once, it was nice to be able to take things slowly, to allow the lust to begin to build, rather than attempting to achieve instant gratification. Seeming to sense this in her, Ric was perfectly happy to take this at her speed, thinking that a long, slow build up would probably increase her enjoyment of it a thousand fold. They remained like this for a while, soft and gentle words mingling with their kisses, the languid tones of Dido taking away the need for conversation. When Connie led his hand to her breast, Ric smiled, allowing her to take the lead for the moment, but vowing to really make her let go with him later on. It surprised him to feel that she wasn't wearing a bra, the soft material of her dress causing a point of friction, as he grazed a thumb over her nipple. She emitted a quiet gasp as he did this, her pupils dilating with lust. After some more of this, Connie said,
"Let's go to bed," In a voice that he'd never heard before, a tone that bore no trace of the need to maintain her control. When she'd got what she wanted from him, on the sofa in his office, she had been in control almost to the end, only giving way when her orgasm had swept over her.
"What the lady wants, the lady usually gets," Ric said, trying to coax his voice into a vague resemblance of a South American drawl. Connie laughed.
"If that's suppose to be an imitation of Carlos, it's terrible." As she took his hand and they moved out of the lounge and up the stairs, Ric found himself wondering if Connie had ever slept with Carlos.
"Never, before you ask," She said, astounding him with the level of her intuition. "He enjoys hitting on me, but that's as far as it goes."
Connie's bedroom was enormous, a king-sized bed on one wall, with a dressing table in the most elegant rosewood opposite, the bed having a fantastic view of the mirror.
"That's very good planning," He said, glancing over at the positioning of the mirror, as he put his arms round her and began undoing the three buttons at the back of her dress.
"Oh, isn't it just," She replied, one hand starting on the buttons of his shirt, and the other moving to his belt. Always count on a surgeon to do at least two things at once, he thought, his eyes widening as her dress slid silently to the floor. Connie wasn't wearing a stitch under her dress, her beautifully smooth skin just waiting to be kissed. He could never entirely remember how he got out of the rest of his clothes, but as soon as they met under the duvet, his hands began mapping every inch of her body.
"Are you determined to learn every bit of me by heart, Mr. Griffin?" She teased, his hands setting fire to every nerve ending she had.
"Every inch," He said, trailing a hand down over her hip and along her thigh. But as her hand moved to span the considerable circumference of him, he stopped her.
"All I want you to do," He said, taking her hand and briefly holding it down to the bed. "Is to lie back and enjoy."
"If you insist," She replied, wondering just what he had in store for her. As his hand slipped between her long, slim legs, she reached out a hand to the bedside table, picked up the remote control and flicked on the little stereo on her chest of drawers. As a soft, sexy singer's voice filled the room, Connie resolved to give herself up entirely to whatever Ric might do to her. Ric was immensely gratified to discover just how wet she already was, affirming more than any words ever could, that she really wanted this, wanted him. As he detached his lips from her wickedly sinful mouth, and began kissing his way down her body, mercilessly sucking and soothing her nipples in passing, she realised what was coming. This was yet another of the things that usually got left out of any random quickie she managed to obtain at work, because an office, no matter how comfortably furnished it may be, wasn't conducive to long, languorous pleasure giving, which in this case was only usually intended for one person at a time. It had been quite a while since she'd been accorded this particular delicacy, but as his tongue gently probed the soft, satiny place between her legs, she couldn't help letting out a moan of delight. But Connie wasn't the only one enjoying this. Ric hadn't done this since he'd been engaged to Sam, the quickie with Connie having been the first sexual company he'd had since Sam, not counting the near miss he'd had with Kelly York, who'd turned out to be the resident serial killer. Connie was responding with such alacrity, that Ric knew he couldn't possibly be happier. She cried out, as he gently took the bud of her clitoris between his soft, full lips.
"God, you're incredible," She said, her voice not entirely steady. Ric softly laughed, his mouth being too full of her to say anything. As his tongue briefly dipped inside her, she knew she wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. As he sensed her need to finish this, he returned his tongue to her clit, carefully inching three fingers inside her, feeling the gloriously silky walls that surrounded him. Her gasps increased, her muscles tensed, and her body slightly shook as she came, a strangled cry being dragged from her lips.
As she lay, utterly spent and with her breathing gradually returning to normal, he moved back to lie beside her. When she leaned over to kiss him, clearly taking in every bit of her own taste that he had to offer, he couldn't help but smirk.
"That has to be the ultimate in sexual ego," He said as she lay back on the pillows.
"What is?" She asked, her voice slightly deeper than normal from her extreme arousal.
"Wanting to taste yourself." Connie laughed.
"Well, you seemed to enjoy it fairly substantially," She said, laying a well-practiced hand on his rock hard shaft. He didn't try to dissuade her this time, wanting nothing more than to sink himself deep inside her, and to achieve his own release.
"I didn't hear you complaining," He said, turning on his side to face her.
"Not on your life," She drawled, beginning to kiss him again and still moving her hand on him. "It's been far too long, since I had that particular speciality."
"Then in that case, I do hope I lived up to expectation," He replied, knowing that he had.
"Oh, but you did," She said, easing a leg under his, to encourage him to move between hers. As he slid his substantial length inside her, she knew exactly why it was, that she'd propositioned him for a second time. He made her feel full to overflowing, her internal walls gripping him easily. He tilted his hips slightly to graze her G spot with every thrust, slipping a hand in between them to stimulate her clit. Ric knew he could last for ages if he wanted to, but as soon as he felt her internal muscles begin to twitch, a sure sign that her orgasm was approaching, he sped up his thrusts, locking his lips with hers as they crashed over the cliff edge of pleasure.
A good while later, they were reclining in the enormous marble bath in Connie's en suite, Ric having been persuaded to go downstairs and fetch the wine. Connie was sitting between his legs, with her back to him as he skilfully massaged shower gel into her shoulders. For tonight at least, she was simply going to let whatever happened to happen, enjoying every sensation Ric was creating in her. It wouldn't do either of them any harm to spend one night in true decadent style, indulging every minor whim. She writhed occasionally under his hands, as he came into contact with a knot of muscle, digging in his long, surgeon's fingers to untangle every tendon.
"Is there anything you can't do with your hands?" She asked, taking a sip from her glass of wine on the edge of the bath.
"I'm not very good at playing the guitar," He replied, loving the way her skin slid under his touch.
"Well, you've been playing me like a pro," she said, leaning back into his chest so that his arms slid round her. He shifted her slightly so that her head was resting on his left shoulder. As both his hands began caressing her nipples, she turned her lips to meet his, both of them tasting of the fruity, earthy red in their glasses. When they came up for air, Connie suddenly thought of something.
"You know something else George Channing said to me today?"
"I'm all ears," Ric said dryly, seeing that her conversation with George had affected Connie in several different ways.
"She said that I was incredibly sexy to the point of erotic fantasy, and that I have everything any man or woman could desire. That was certainly enlightening." Ric laughed.
"Well, it seems that Ms Channing and I, actually do have something in common. Though that can't have been the first time you've attracted the interest of another woman."
"No, but I've never had my assets pointed out to me so unequivocally by one."
"Your assets, are many and varied," Ric said softly, his voice caressing her as gently, though with just as much promise as his hands were doing, one of them leaving her breast to slip down below the water. She gasped as his finger touched her already sensitive clitoris, her body reacting immediately, even though she'd had two very explosive orgasms already tonight.
"You really are very naughty, you know," She said, as his long middle finger slid inside her.
"I promised you I'd teach you something about behaving badly, didn't I."
"Mmm, so you did, and I am delighted to see that you are one of the few men who really can take the pace." As she said this, she began running her left hand up and down his cock, as it rose out of the water like the predatory animal it was.
"Well, it would be unforgivable of me, to disappoint you," He said, trying to keep his voice under control. When she turned fully round to face him, wrapping her legs around his hips, with him gently guiding her into place, he said,
"You've done this before in here, haven't you."
"Oh, many times," She said with such nonchalance that it made him smile. When her boiling heat enclosed him, he realised that she was already very close to orgasm. In this position, it was far easier to keep on touching her clit, perhaps making it the Holy Grail of female sex, the combination of intercourse with clitoral stimulation. They rocked gently back and forth because of the water, meaning that this time, Ric knew he really would last forever. But Connie couldn't, that hand of his was just far too good. She knew she could never go back to the likes of Mubbs up himself Hussein after this.
"I'm sorry, I can't wait," She said as her breathing quickened. Increasing the speed in his fingers, Ric moved his other hand to tease her nipples as she clung to him, Connie burying her face in his neck, because she felt ever so slightly ashamed of her inability to last under his hands. He kept sliding in and out of her as her orgasm approached, pressing his lips to her cheek, in a little gesture of generosity, to tell her that her not being able to wait for him didn't matter. As a result of his continual movement inside her, during and after her orgasm, Connie felt another one building almost straight away. This time, Ric joined her in the gradual ascent, holding her to him as they came for his second, and Connie's fourth time. As they gently disentangled themselves, Connie slumping back into her previous position lying against his shoulder, she half laughed.
"That was certainly unexpected," She said, taking a hefty slug of her glass of wine.
"Hmm," Ric said, briefly feeling the pulse in her neck, which was galloping, just like one of the horses he used to back. "Definitely tachycardic, resulting from extreme sexual excitement."
"You don't say," Connie replied dryly. "You'll have to cardiovert me if you do that again."
Half an hour later, they were lying again in her enormous king-sized bed, though this time with the duvet over them. Ric had found a spare toothbrush in her bathroom cabinet, and it had briefly occurred to him that she probably kept a few in stock for whichever man happened to stay over. She was lying in his arms now, her arms around him and her head on his chest.
"It's funny," She said drowsily. "But it's really very rare that anyone actually spends the entire night in this bed apart from me." He gently ran his fingers through her hair, thinking that she might be about to drift into the melancholy stage of being a little drunk and a little stoned.
"Yet you have possibly the largest bed I've ever seen," He replied, thinking that this must only serve to accentuate how alone she really was. Then it occurred to him that she might not want him to stay. "Do you want me to go?" He asked.
"No," She said immediately, slightly tightening her arms around him for a second. "Stay. It's nice having someone here, and I will definitely regret saying that in the morning."
"I'd rather you didn't regret any of this in the morning," He said gently, also enjoying the luxury of having a soft, warm female body nestling up against him.
"We'll see," She said, always the one to have the last word. As he listened to her breathing becoming slow and steady, he wondered if tomorrow, after the effects of the dope, the alcohol and the sex had worn off, she would go back to her old, closed off self. He didn't want her to, he realised, he wanted to get to know Connie Beauchamp, to begin to undo the web of tightly woven defences that she kept round her, keeping anyone from getting remotely close to the woman she really was.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Eight
When Ric awoke on the Thursday morning, Connie's soft, warm body was still nestling up against him, though she had turned over in her sleep and was now lying with her back to him. His arm rested over her waist, with his hand gently cupping her right breast. He could hear her deep, regular breathing, and as he glanced over at the bedside clock, he saw that they had at least an hour before the alarm was due to interrupt their slumber. As his hand softly stroked Connie's breast, she drifted languidly into consciousness.
"Good morning," She said, in a much deeper, slightly husky voice that was partially due to sleep, and the dope of the evening before.
"I didn't mean to wake you," Ric said apologetically, making to remove his hand from her breast.
"Oh, be my guest," Connie said with a smile in her voice, covering his hand with hers and imprisoning it against her skin. As he continued caressing her softness, Connie stretched languorously, turning over to face him in the process. "This really is a most agreeable way to be woken up," She said before kissing him. Their kisses were gentle and lingering, not the almost feverish exploration of the night before. Ric privately agreed with her assessment of the situation, it having been years since he'd woken up with a beautiful woman in his arms. As their touching took its inevitable path, Connie discovered his quite obvious reaction to her proximity. "Nice to find a man to be quite so responsive," She commented, whilst tenderly massaging his erection.
"Connie, you far too often give me that reaction, even when you're shouting," He told her between kisses.
"I do not, shout, Mr. Griffin," Connie said firmly. "I merely instruct."
"Tell that to Will Curtis," Ric said dryly.
"Mr. Curtis just needs to learn a little professional respect, that's all, and discussion of the many and varied annoyances of said Mr. Curtis, is hardly conducive to sexual satisfaction, now is it."
"Oh, and I thought that power was your interminable aphrodisiac," He said, his hand slipping between her slightly spread legs, discovering to his delight just how aroused she already was.
"It has been known," She said with a smile, but then abandoned all coherent thought as his fingers moved on and inside her. "Now I know where all that surgical skill comes from," She said a little breathlessly, gently cupping his testicles in her hand. When their bodies eventually joined, their male and female parts fitting in perfect synchrony, they rocked gently to and fro, their arms around each other as they lay on their sides. Early mornings were meant for this long, slow, incredibly gentle form of lovemaking, designed to reawaken the senses, in preparation for the new day ahead.
After their conjoined climax, Connie had drifted back to sleep, as Ric lay and simply revelled in the soft warmth emanating from her. He could get used to this, he realised with a start, used to waking up with a beautiful woman, and used to going to sleep with her too. But becoming emotionally attached to Connie wouldn't do him or her any good whatsoever. However, he wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to at the very least begin to build some sort of friendship with her. Slipping quietly out of bed, he pulled on his boxer shorts, and made his way downstairs to make them both a cup of tea. He hadn't seen the kitchen the night before, but he was pleasantly surprised at the warm, natural look of it, as though Connie did on occasions really enjoy working in it, creating food with the same level of skill as she exhibited with everything else she did with her hands. Having brewed two steaming mugs of tea, he went back upstairs, to see that Connie was half-awake, her eyes staring blearily up at him.
"Keep doing things like that," She said, sitting up and taking one of the mugs from him. "And you can stay as often as you like."
"Thank you for the compliment," Ric said dryly, sliding back under the duvet and taking a swig from his own mug. Laying a hand briefly on his thigh, she said,
"Thank you," Which surprised him.
"What for?" He couldn't help but ask. Connie shrugged.
"The tea, last night, making me feel more alive than I have in a long time, I'm not sure."
"My pleasure," He said sincerely, resting a hand over hers. As Ric took a long, hot shower, Connie relaxed, the extra few minutes in bed providing her with a rarely attained luxury. But when he emerged and began to dress, she dragged herself reluctantly from beneath the goose-feather duvet.
"I take it that mornings are not your preferred time of the day," Ric observed dryly, taking in her deliciously proportioned form as she stretched with all the grace and agility of a cat.
"No," She said with a yawn. "Though this morning did prove to be the exception," She added, planting a quick kiss on his cheek as she passed. "If you're hungry," She said as she went into the bathroom. "Help yourself to whatever you can find." Taking her at her word, Ric went downstairs and made himself some toast and coffee, listening to the sounds she made as she went through her usual morning routine. The sun rose as he sat eating at the kitchen table, and he looked out of the window to find a long and spacious garden, complete with a swimming-pool, which no doubt accounted for Connie's exquisitely toned body. When she appeared, she was again clad in her usual professional garb, with make up applied and hair washed and brushed. As he handed her a mug of coffee, he caught the waft of her usual perfume, combined with the fresh aromas of soap and shampoo. Her teeth were gleaming, and she looked perfect in every respect. As she peeled and ate a banana, she leaned against the kitchen unit, smirking at the way his eyes widened at the blatantly sexual way she consumed the fruit.
"What do you have planned for this morning?" She asked, dropping the banana skin into the kitchen bin.
"Check in on my patients at the Hadlington," He said, referring to the private hospital where George was currently housed. "And then I have a full afternoon's list at St. Mary's."
"Then would you like a lift to work?" She asked. "As I have an outpatient clinic at the Hadlington this morning, and I wouldn't mind being with you when you check in on George Channing." Agreeing that he would like a lift to work, Ric asked if they could make a detour to his flat on the way, so that he could exchange his clothes for fresh ones.
When they arrived at the hospital, it was nearing nine o'clock, and the new professional day was beginning with full force. Making their way towards George's room, both Ric and Connie were wondering how she was about to react to her presence. Yesterday, George had ignored Ric and shouted at Connie, so anything was possible. But when they pushed open the door to her room, George looked up with a smile.
"You're looking happier this morning," Ric commented as he moved towards the bed, knowing that he was about to shatter this in pretty short order.
"I owe you an apology for yesterday, both of you," She said, looking between them as she spoke.
"No, you don't," Ric and Connie said simultaneously, both slightly smiling at how they'd spoken in tandem.
"George, everyone deals with this type of disaster in very different ways," Connie tried to explain to her, moving to the other side of the bed. "Mr. Griffin is, I'm sure, very used to the silent treatment by now, and I did after all come looking for the verbal dressing down I received from you. So, no apologies are necessary."
"What I do need to do, however," Ric told her, knowing that all her barriers were about to go right back up. "Is to look at your wound again. Do you have any objections?"
"Would it make the slightest difference if I said yes, I have all the objections you could possibly think of?" George replied bitterly.
"No, I'm afraid it wouldn't," Ric told her regretfully, knowing that this was something he had to do today.
"Well then, why ask?" George demanded acidly. "Its not as though pointless civility is going to get either of us very far, is it." Taking George's right hand gently between her own, Connie said,
"Try to calm down, because the higher your blood pressure goes, the longer you will be staying here." As Ric carefully drew back the bedclothes, and moved aside the edge of George's hospital gown, George visibly cringed, turning her face away from him, only to meet Connie's gentle gaze. But as Ric removed the dressing and padding covering the place where George's left breast had once been, George reflexively moved her left arm to cover the part of her body she now loathed.
"I don't want you to see it," She said, looking straight at Connie. They could both see the tears in George's eyes, and Ric now all too clearly understood what Connie had said last night. She had told him that George had reacted to her because she was an entirely whole, very complete woman, and George's fear of Connie's seeing how ugly she now may look was proof enough that Connie had been right.
"Sweetheart," Connie said, sounding gentler and more remorseful than Ric had ever heard her. "I already have seen it, when you were in theatre."
"I don't care," George replied helplessly, the tears now running down her face. "You're so beautiful, and I " She stopped, as yet unable to put how she felt into words. Sitting down in the chair beside George's bed and still holding her hand, Connie strove to reassure her.
"George, look at me," She commanded her gently. When George's fear filled eyes raised to meet hers, Connie continued. "See, I'm not looking at you, at least not at the bit of you that you would rather I avoid. Mr. Griffin is quite capable of seeing to his own handiwork. So, why don't you tell me what you're most afraid of? Mr. Griffin has always claimed not to be an expert in matters of the heart, but between you and me, he's had enough marriages to be given the title of Professor in the subject."
"Oh, thanks," Ric commented dryly which brought a slight watery smile to George's face.
"I just can't help thinking how, ugly, John will find me after this," George admitted, reaching for a tissue to dry her eyes.
"You don't know that he will," Ric told her reasonably, as he cleaned and began to redress the wound, and realising that they were clearly talking about the Judge.
"Connie, that day I caught you with John, I got to see precisely what John finds desirable these days, in every minute detail. Let's face it, Ric," She said, turning her gaze up to his. "Knowing Mrs. Beauchamp as intimately as you do, you can't exactly disagree with the fact that her body is far more appealing than mine is ever likely to be after this, now can you." Stopping in his tracks, momentarily stunned by her question, Ric's eyes strayed to Connie.
"How on earth do you know about that?" He said, his eyes moving back to George's face.
"Mr. Griffin, information that I may receive that allows me to ruthlessly browbeat any witness who did without doubt incur my extreme displeasure, comes from a source that must of course remain entirely confidential."
"Ah, that reminds me," Connie said a little evilly. "I haven't yet suitably punished Mr. Curtis for that little indiscretion."
"Will Curtis," Ric said thoughtfully. "Well, that's the last time I defend his professional honour. But to answer your question," He continued, his gaze softening as it met George's troubled one. "I'm not going to give you any false reassurances, because I am not in a position to do so. But what I will suggest, is that you do at least give the Judge a chance. You have no idea how he is going to react, never mind how you yourself will react the first time you look in a mirror. So the best advice I can give you, is not to worry about crossing a bridge before you come to it."
As Ric moved her gown and the bedclothes back into place, the door opened to reveal Tricia.
"Ric," She said without preamble. "Diane needs you back at St. Mary's. She's got an emergency that requires your attention."
"Oh, great," Ric muttered darkly, and then looked over at Connie with a thoughtful look on his face. "You have an outpatient clinic here this morning, don't you," He said, and she thought she could see what was coming.
"You know I do,." She replied with a suspicious look at him.
"Please can I borrow your car?" He asked, proving her suspicion absolutely right. "I wouldn't ask if it wasn't an emergency," He continued under her steely gaze. "Because I know that you wouldn't usually lend me your car in a million years." The expression on his face was beseeching her to give in, his eyes reminding her of how good he had been to her last night and this morning.
"Oh, all right," She said, capitulating with a hardly graceful acceptance of the situation. Digging in her jacket pocket, she handed over her keys with a dire warning. "Crash it, sell it, or damage it in any way, and your testicles will be removed without an anaesthetic and donated for medical research. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," Ric said with a slight shudder, taking the keys and walking towards the door. "I'll leave the keys in your office."
"You do that," She called as he exited the room. When he had gone, George asked with a smirk,
"Do you always follow up on your threats?"
"Every time," Connie told her firmly. "Though that particular threat hasn't ever had to be fulfilled, but I suppose there's time."
"Maybe that was where I went wrong," George said speculatively, and at Connie's raised eyebrow she continued. "When I was married to John, something else you didn't know, I never once threatened to leave him when I found out about his flings. I put up with them time and time again, well, until Jo. Maybe if I had threatened to leave him, he would have stopped, but I doubt it. If I wasn't enough for him in the first place, then my threatening to leave him would hardly have curbed his wandering."
"I didn't know you two had been married," Connie said thoughtfully.
"Yes, for nine not so happy years. The first two were wonderful, but after our daughter arrived, everything changed, and I couldn't keep him happy any more."
"Why?" Connie asked, but her question seemed to bring George to her senses.
"I've already told you far too much about that," She replied, removing her hand from Connie's and attempting to put some distance between them.
"All right," Connie said, trying to calm George's shattered nerves. "But you have given me a puzzle to solve."
"Don't try and work it out," George told her seriously. "Because you might not like what you find."
About an hour after Connie had left to begin her outpatient clinic, John appeared.
"You're looking a bit better," He said, bending to kiss her.
"Sorry I was so uncommunicative yesterday," She said, kissing him back.
"Oh, that's all right," John said as he sat down. "I was worried about you, that's all."
"John," George said carefully. "There's something I need you to do for me. I hate to have to ask you to do it, but I think that Charlie will take the news far better coming from you than she would from me."
"Yes," John said a little heavily. "I was wondering when I should tell her."
"Please could you try and do it some time before I come home?"
"No time like the present," John replied, gathering all his inner strength for the task ahead. "I'll do it today. What about your father?"
"John, I can ask you to inform Charlie, but I can't ask you to tell Daddy as well."
"And you're in no fit state to do it yourself," John told her, gently stroking her cheek as he did so. "There's very little I can really do to make all this easier for you, but telling your father is something I can do and will do. It is something I will find extremely difficult, but you would currently find it harder still."
"I'm sorry," George said in a slightly hoarse voice, inwardly cursing the tears that threatened to yet again spill over.
"What for?" John asked in slight astonishment.
"For everything," She replied, her voice full of self-loathing. "For this, for keeping it from you, for giving you the highly disagreeable task of telling my father and Charlie, for being wholly unable to do anything but cry, for " But John had gently laid a finger across her lips, cutting off her protestations.
"George, none of this is your fault," He tried to convince her. "Yes, I wish that you had told me, and that you had done something about this sooner, but that's a conversation we will have when you are somewhat stronger. As for the rest of it, no one can help getting cancer, and if putting Charlie and your father in the picture is the one thing I can do to help you through it, then that is what I will do. As for your not being able to stop crying, that is a perfectly natural reaction to everything that's happened this week. You've been keeping this to yourself for such a long time, that the stress had built up and up, and only now are you beginning to release it."
"I know," She said miserably. "I just hate the uselessness of it, that's all."
"George, you were depressed before you found that lump, and that has only intensified how low you already were, so don't continue to beat yourself up about it."
At around twelve thirty when Connie had finished her outpatient clinic, she stood at the desk, updating various patient files, whilst Tricia tried in vain to summon a cab for her.
"God knows what's got everyone so busy on a Thursday lunchtime," Tricia said as she put the phone down for what felt like the hundredth time.
"They're probably all trying to get somewhere like me," Connie replied disgustedly. As he left George's room, on his way to find Charlie, John heard this exchange, and as he approached Connie from behind, her stance reminded him fleetingly of both an irritated George and an obstinate Charlie. Walking up to her, he laid a hand on her shoulder and said,
"Before you stamp your foot in outrage, just as my daughter used to do when she was five, would you like a lift?" Turning her fiery eyes on him, Connie couldn't help but smile at the picture he had just painted.
"Yes, thank you, I would, if it isn't too much out of your way."
"Are you trying to get to St. Mary's?"
"Yes," Connie said, the stress gradually leaving her. "I have a triple bypass booked for one o'clock, and this particular patient won't be very amused if I'm late."
"Then allow me," John said, his usual suave sophistication slipping back into place.
"That is the last time I lend Ric Griffin my car," She said as they walked down the stairs and towards the outside.
"Did you owe him a favour?" John asked as they moved out into the car park and towards his car.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking," Connie replied, smirking at the relaxation Ric had provided the night before, and thinking that she probably owed him the loan of her car ten times over for that particular favour.
Part One Hundred and Twenty Nine
John fished out his mobile, and pressed the button to bring up Charlie's real voice rather than the artificial callback voice and standardized greeting. To his mixed relief and fear, the real Charlie answered the phone.
"Are you particularly busy right now?"
"I've been working at home on a case and I've got as far as I can. I've got time."
John had mixed feelings about his daughter's bright, relaxed tones, that warmed especially to him, but cooled fast whenever George came to be around. Charlie's dysfunctional attitude to her mother had always made him feel guilty. It wasn't normal for a daughter to be so glassily estranged from a mother. When he thought about it, he had made himself over to travel far away from his Birmingham roots, by his public school education, the accent that went with it, his successful career, his restless rebellious questioning mind but he would not and could not abandon his sense of what defined a family. He could not help but wonder if he and George had stayed together, Charlie would not be so chillingly dismissive of George. The cruel chain of logic could not help but condemn his serial philandering as the main reason why his marriage had broken down in the first place. His therapy sessions with Helen Wade had made that all too plain. He remembered that, as the events of his separation and divorce unreeled, it left emotional fallout of shock and trauma on both sides. It seemed that his and George's best achievement at this time, was that they had maintained the decencies and had came to an understanding on Charlie's upbringing. When John took over Charlie's upbringing, it had fallen smoothly into place and made sense. He had no conception of how a bright, lively uncomplicated seven-year-old little girl could develop, as she got older as those were innocent days.
He had done his best to bring up Charlie as best as he could. He was true to her as a father could be in his fashion and she had been the light in his life. It wasn't necessarily easy as he recalled her favourite expression "It's not fair" as she tried to break down his parental resolve with liberal guilt trip. Somehow, he had walked the uncertain tightrope wire that modern parents have to tread. The old formulas seemed like ancient history, and somehow repellently oppressive. He had greeted the modern enlightened age with pleasure, and had embraced the freedom to work out his own principles in a world that had no guidelines, no manuals and no precedents. He had done well that the worst that Charlie had done was to get into and out of a scrape in her animal rights activism even if it had subjected his liberal values to the most severe test imaginable.
"I wanted just to pop round and see you. I woke up this morning, and suddenly realized that I hadn't seen you for a bit."
"Dad, you know that I'm a single independent woman and I've left home. You know what that means. You live your life and I live my life and once in a while, we bump into each other when we have the time."
Charlie's laughing reply only made him feel more uncomfortable and contrived. It did not make him feel better that she never mentioned George.
"I'll be round in half an hour or so."
John slid his mobile into his pocket, and strode after Connie who ran one sharp glance over his face. She resolved to keep things light, as George's last words were ringing in John's ears. Stone faced, he walked to his car. It was a sleek grey bullet of power, a convertible which was covered up to face the bitter winter weather.
"I ought to have known, John." Connie laughed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your choice of car. It is exactly what I would expect of you."
"Oh? I like to feel the fresh air round my head on a hot summer's day after a day spent in the stale atmosphere of court."
"That is not the reason for your choice of car. It would be hardly your style to drive a nice conventional, safe saloon car or a Rolls Royce to demonstrate your respectability. No, you choose to drive a convertible, the one car that symbolic of a mistress."
"Well, since you put it that way," began John with a wry smile." There may be something in that."
He relaxed back into his seat and turned the ignition on. He dabbed his foot down sharply on the accelerator, supposedly to clean out the engine's pipelines with a quick burst of power.
"There's nothing like the feeling of raw power, is there?"
"Isn't there just?" John retorted as he put the car into gear and swung his car out onto the open road, promptly speeding past the first family saloon with its nodding dog in the rear window. As Connie chatted away to him, she flirted fairly discreetly. It came natural to her when she was in the presence of an attractive man but this time, she kept that side of her loosely but definitely reined in. She knew better than to let things get out of hand as she had done, the last time she was alone with him.Moreover, she could sense that tension in him under his suave exterior. All she sought, was to lift his spirits until he came to his eventual destination. As John swung into the car park of St Mary's hospital, Connie turned to him and fixed him with her violet eyes.
"I really don't know anything about children apart from being one a very long time ago. I just hope you find the right words for Charlie, John. Anyway, thanks for the lift."
Her well-modulated voice temporarily lost that tone of cool control and betrayed a flicker of anxiety for him before her more nonchalant ending. She smiled briefly at him, stepped neatly from the car, waved briefly at him and was gone.
As John drove on, he felt that he had lost that feeling of protection. Connie was an independent woman, fully formed, with her own destiny. Charlie was different as she had not got that far, and he could not for the life of him work out what he was going to say. On automatic pilot, he drove that short distance to Charlie's Paddington flat and pulled up outside. What was he going to say, he asked himself once again? As no answer was forthcoming, very nervously and very gingerly, he eased himself out of his car and paced his way to Charlie's front door and knocked lightly on the door.
"Dad, it's good to see you, whatever the reason you called."
Charlie's simple expression of pleasure in his company touched John. This was as it had ever been.
"I'm glad you didn't drive over too quickly. It gave me a chance to give the flat a quick tidy up."
John grinned at that delicious understatement. He could imagine Charlie had stuffed discarded clothing into the convenient laundry basket, and washed a few days of accumulated plates and saucepans, leaving them to dry as a precarious structure on the rack.
"Do you want a cup of tea or something stronger?" Charlie offered.
"I'll stick with tea, please, Charlie."
"Of course, dad, your one concession to caution and prudence."
John sat back in the comparatively neat living room while Charlie disappeared into the kitchen, and shortly appeared with a tray, complete with what John judged to be the best and only cups and saucers. Charlie took pride of place as hostess with evident pleasure , and poured out two cups of tea. John sank back into the armchair, and sipped his cup of tea as his only prop with which he could protect himself.
"I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry we had that argument the other day. When I eventually calmed down, I did that research like you told me to and found out you were right."
John dismissed that with a gesture. He had had his periodic blowups with Charlie and they both dismissed it the next day. This was the way that their relationship had always been between them. There was a sudden storm cloud, which soon blew itself out, leaving blue skies over both of them.
"So how are you getting on, these days?"
"Not so bad, these days." John temporized. It was strictly true that whatever was going on in his life wasn't going to the bad due to his own actions.
"No woman trouble then?"
"If you mean, am I occupied in seeking perfection in women, except from the one whom I'm supposed to be involved with?"
"You normally are."
"Not this time, Charlie. I am trying to get some kind of sense of identity, and I think I may be getting better at it."
As he spoke, his memory of sleeping with Connie Beauchamp belonged in the past. It was curious these days, John mused. At one time this sort of questioning would have run in the opposite direction when, after all, Charlie was his daughter. Nowadays, it was he that was going through some 'born again' identity search, that was supposed to have come and gone in the late teens and early twenties at most. In contrast Charlie appeared as the stable one.
"I run across him from time to time and he has been considerably invigorated ever since the performance of 'The Creation.' Between you and me, I suspect that he would love to be involved in another such enterprise." John found himself speaking with warmth and affection for him.
"I'm so glad that you and granddad are getting on better than you used to."
"Well, Charlie, no matter how much the two of us are getting older, he still thinks of me as that young upstart liberal barrister who unaccountably won his daughter's hand in marriage despite the competition of all the Hooray Henrys. The irony is that he is becoming something of an old upstart now that we are starting to see eye to eye about the establishment."
Charlie laughed at John's droll description.
"So what are you doing with your life, these days?"
"Well, I haven't much news for you, dad. I'm still forever balancing the demands of my job with the demands of my flat mate to go out on the town, clubbing. Sometimes, I get out to see some real life but I end up regretting it the next morning. There's nothing you need worry about that I can't handle."
The conversation ground to a halt while Charlie's eyes focused on John's face. Though he liked to pretend to himself that he was inscrutable when he wanted to, it never worked with Charlie. She knew that there was something on his mind that he wanted to say but was struggling to come out with it. It perturbed her.
"Have you seen your mother recently, Charlie?" he eventually asked far too casually to be convincing.
To John's distress, Charlie's face fell and all the light went out of her expression.
"I went round to see her a month ago to see her briefly. I guess she was OK. She had some American pathologist staying with her, a glamorous professional type."
"That would have been Kay Scarpetta. She appeared before me in court and George was kindly putting her up at her house. She's a very impressive, formidable woman, who earned a lot of respect from all of us. Still, I'm glad you went to keep in touch with your mother."
"Not quite, dad. I went to borrow money off her."
"I got the usual lecture from the Ice Maiden about being careful about my career as if you ever were." Charlie said with understated disgust.
Normally, Charlie's cruel expression for her mother would have hurt John, but he saw that opening into what he had to say. He had to seize that chance or it would be gone forever.
"You ought to be very careful how you talk about your mother .."
"Don't you start your misplaced loyalty routine." Charlie started to snap before John interrupted her in grim, very precisely articulated tones.
" .because that expression assumes a certain indestructibility about her. She normally gives that impression, but appearances can be deceptive as I have learned to my cost."
"What on earth are you saying, dad? You're speaking in riddles."
John took a deep breath and the words he was seeking came out of his unconsciousness, untypically neither preprepared nor polished.
"Because I have to tell you that your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer."
Charlie's mouth hung open and her face turned white with shock and disbelief.
"This can't be real, dad."
"I only wish it weren't, Charlie."
"So what's been going on? I don't understand?"
"Charlie, if I tell you the simple unvarnished truth, then I am going to take you up on your many protestations that you're over eighteen and you are free to lead your own life. Well, this is what freedom means to deal with matters like this." John said in grim tones as his way to somehow protect the two of them, but it came over to Charlie as intolerably accusing. All her father's past reproaches about her treatment of her mother came echoing their way out of her memory.
"You're not being fair, dad."
"Neither is cancer."
Charlie got out of her chair and started to walk round the living room in a fevered, uncoordinated way. Instinct told John to give her as much time as she needed. It seemed hours later on, that Charlie dropped herself back in her chair and asked the first question that she could come up with.
"All right, dad, I promise to behave .so how long has this been going on and what's happening now."
"I have to tell you that the hospital says that your mother's condition goes back to last Christmas. She had kept this quiet from everyone until recently. When it finally came to light, she was rushed into a private hospital and they had to operate. They did their very best but it was too late to save her breast."
It cut John to the quick to talk about George in such clinical terms but it was the only way he could get over the sense of what had happened.
"How long have you known about this, dad?"
"Two days ago. Jo phoned me while I was lecturing at Warwick University. By then, she was already in hospital."
"So where does Jo come into the picture?"
"George told Jo about it, and Jo ran her to the hospital and stayed with her."
This was a facer for Charlie. Her mother's worst enemy, or so she had been led to believe, had acted like Florence Nightingale.
"Why didn't I know about this earlier?"
"How would you have reacted if I had told you, Charlie?"
This was getting worse and worse for Charlie. She fell silent at that incisive question. She could not pretend to herself that she would definitely come over all sympathy. There was yet another painful pause until John reluctantly took the initiative.
"You have to see your mother to give her your support. She'll need it."
"I need time to think this one through." Exclaimed Charlie, putting her hands to her head.
"Take your time, but never assume that time is infinite."
"What do you mean?"
"Because I wasted too much time locked in bitter enmity with your mother until times changed so that we could become friends again. Your mother knows it too. We have grown to realize how much we see in each other, how precious human life is and that all human life is shorter than we think it is, especially where parents are concerned."
"Well, thanks for the fatherly advice. I may listen to it." Charlie said at last with a shaky laugh and her attempt at cool.
"This is not your father talking, it's only John."
Charlie looked wide eyed at the middle aged handsome man sitting across the way from her, his words so controlled yet naked for all to see and his pent up emotions of intense grief, only bottled up so that he could persuade Charlie to do what she had to do without breaking down in tears.
Part One Hundred and Thirty
On the Thursday afternoon, Karen had a meeting at area, with all the other prison governors within the London catchment zone. She might have been the only female governor among them, but that didn't mean she felt in any way inferior to them. Karen Betts could hold her own with these slightly old fashioned, and at times set in their ways group of male masters of destiny, and Neil always found himself feeling extremely proud of the way she dealt with them. Karen didn't take any of their attempts to disregard her as an irritating inconvenience, and they usually went away feeling more than a little ruffled by her determination and way of cutting straight to the chase. The prison hierarchy was still very much dominated by masculine tendencies to try and remove any female from their conversations. But when all the others had left, and Alison Warner had retreated back to her own office, Karen was left with Neil and was almost ready to scream.
"Am I really as bloody insignificant as they make me feel?" She demanded virtually as soon as the door of his office had closed.
"Of course you're not," Neil told her placatingly. "You just frighten them, that's all. They're not used to a woman holding the same authority as they do. Don't forget, most of the people in that meeting this afternoon, have been in their jobs longer than Simon Stubberfield was ever likely to remain in his."
"I bet some of them still play golf with him," Karen said bitterly.
"Karen, you are extremely good at your job," He tried to persuade her. "Because if you weren't, we both know that I'd have you out of it without your feet even touching the ground."
"Oh, thanks for the warning," Karen said dryly.
"Would you like some coffee?" Neil asked. "In lieu of a cigarette?" Karen smiled.
"Yes, though any more nervous stimulation probably isn't the answer." Asking his secretary to bring them some coffee, Neil relaxed back in the chair behind his desk.
"So, how have you been since Tuesday?" Instantly, Karen's face seemed to close off from him, as though she was fervently trying to bury all her feelings under her usual professional mask.
"I'm not really sleeping, and I'm taking it out on everyone in sight," She said, much to her surprise, as she hadn't planned to tell him anything resembling the truth. "But I'd far rather be where I am than where George is now."
"How is she?" Neil asked, seeing that Karen was beginning to crack at the seams, though he knew she would never admit it to him.
"Well, after having lost her entire left breast, she's hardly jumping for joy," Karen replied bitterly. "And the worst thing, at least from my point of view, is that I have no idea how to help her."
"As your staff won't know what time to expect you back," Neil said thoughtfully. "Why don't you go and see her, now I mean."
"That, Mr. Grayling," Karen said with a tired wink. "Is what they call taking advantage of the situation to go on the skive. But I'm hardly about to say no." Digging a note out of his wallet, Neil handed it to her.
"Get her some flowers or something from me on the way, and tell her I'll be in touch when she's a bit more up to it." Giving him a smile, Karen put the note in her pocket, thinking that here was another good friend that George wasn't really aware she had.
After picking up some flowers from Neil and a CD from herself, Karen drove over to the hospital, hoping that George was in the mood for a visitor. She hadn't actually seen George since the previous Thursday, when she'd accompanied her to the appointment with Ric. God, so much seemed to have happened since then, that it felt like years ago instead of merely one week. When she arrived, Karen walked up to where she'd come last week with George, finding the same nurse behind the desk.
"I've come to see George Channing," She said by way of a greeting.
"She's just down there," Tricia gestured in the direction of the corridor. "Number six. Would you like me to find a vase for those?" She asked, looking in appreciation at the bouquet of beautiful lilies that Karen held in one hand.
"Yes please," Karen replied with a smile. "I'm hoping they might cheer her up."
When Karen quietly pushed open the door of George's room, she found her listlessly trying to stay interested in one of the books she'd brought with her. But when she looked up to see Karen moving towards her, her face broke into a warm smile.
"This is a nice surprise," She said, as Karen bent to kiss her cheek.
"I thought it was about time I came to see you," Karen said a little sheepishly. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore, bored and miserable," George told her emphatically. "Those lilies are beautiful."
"Ah well, I had a meeting with area management this afternoon, so they're from Neil. He said he'd be in touch when you were out of hospital and feeling a little more up to it."
"That was nice of him," George said as Karen laid the flowers on the table in readiness for the vase she hoped Tricia would find.
"I didn't mean to tell him," Karen confessed as she sat down in the chair by George's bed. "But I was possibly less than attentive during our meeting on Tuesday, and he does have this way of worming things out of me."
"It's all right," George assured her. "One thing I am gradually coming to terms with is that everyone I know, will eventually become aware of this in one way or another."
"Seeing as I knew you would probably be incredibly bored by now," Karen said with an affectionate smile. "I bought you this," She said, digging the CD out of her handbag and laying it on the table with the flowers.
"Thank you, darling," George said, thinking that some new music might not be such a bad idea.
Karen stayed for a good couple of hours, listening as George poured out all the bitterness and frustration that she didn't feel able to load onto either Jo or John. But Karen was happy to do this, feeling that if this was all she could do, then it was definitely better than nothing.
"When do you think they'll let you out?" She asked, it crossing her mind that the terminology for leaving hospital and leaving prison weren't all that dissimilar.
"Hopefully Saturday," George said darkly. "But you know what it's like, they try not to make you any promises they might not be able to keep. Then I've got to come back next Wednesday to have the stitches out, which is probably when I'll find out just what sort of a state they've left me in, and the week after I'll be starting a course of chemotherapy. Lovely, isn't it."
"If you ever want me to come with you, you only have to say," Karen promised her quietly.
"Darling, much as that offer is appreciated, you have to work as much as Jo and John do."
"And all three of us can afford to make the effort to be flexible," Karen told her firmly. "So just keep it in mind."
"There is something you could do for me, if you would," George said tentatively. "Please could you put any of our friends who ought to know in the picture? I've given John the less than enjoyable task of informing Charlie and my father, but if you could tell Nikki and Helen etc, that would certainly help."
"Of course I will," Karen said, thinking this a very small favour to ask, and thinking that with a little planning this could probably be accomplished this evening.
When Karen had finally left, assuring George that she knew where to find her if she wanted anything, George picked up the CD Karen had bought her. She had been introduced to Katie Melua's music by Jo, and had found it both soothing and thought provoking. Karen had bought her the new album, and George immediately retrieved her CD player, the headphones shutting out the world and taking her mind somewhere else entirely. The first two songs were relaxing enough, allowing George's thoughts to drift, but when she heard the words of the third, she couldn't help but realise that they all too clearly summed up what she would inevitably have to do to John and maybe Jo, push them away to prevent all three of them from being hurt more than was absolutely necessary. It wasn't something she even wanted to contemplate, but being unable to believe that they would want her when they saw what she now consisted of, her mind wouldn't allow her to think her proposed course of action anything less than vital to both her own and their eventual survival.
"First of all must go, your scent upon my pillow,
And then I'll say goodbye to your whispers in my dreams.
And then our lips will part, in my mind and in my heart,
'Cause your kiss went deeper than my skin."
"Piece by piece, is how I'll let go of you.
Kiss by kiss, will leave my mind one at a time, one at a time.
First of all must fly, my dreams of you and I,
There's no point in holding onto those.
And then our ties will break, for your and my own sake,
Just remember this is what you chose."
It was this last line that hurt her the most, because pushing those who loved her away was her choice, not theirs, not anyone's but hers. It had been her choice all along now that she came to think about it, her choice to hide from the cancer that had invaded her body, her choice to hide it from them, and it was now her choice to try and protect the two people she loved from what was yet to come.
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