DISCLAIMER: All characters are not ours, we're simply playing with them. Characters are from the following fandoms: Bad Girls, Judge John Deed, Holby City, Silent Witness and the Kay Scarpetta novels.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Credits to Shed specifically in using dialogue from their episode 7, Series 2 Bad Girls as in the dialogue between Barbara and Nikki when she tells the story of her second husband Peter.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETA: by Hunca Munca and Jen.

Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and Sixty One

Nikki had a curious feeling as she made her way to work. She was due to have her own appraisal with Karen. This had not happened to her for a long time, not since she was at school. The nearest that she had come to having her behaviour 'appraised' was when she was an inmate. She stopped herself going down there, as it raised too many dark memories of injustice. It took a real effort of will and a cigarette to mentally haul herself back on track , and remind herself just who she was. The trouble was that the ten months since she had started, as wing governor had been a very intense period in her life, which had whizzed past in no time at all. As the time for her appraisal came nearer, she had felt that she had done a lot, but it had all gone into a generalized blur. Only with a real effort of will, had she scribbled down some rough notes at the last minute. Curiously, it was far easier to write up notes on others than on herself. On the other side of the door on Karen's desk, lay Nikki's appraisal report file with a whole host of notes on Nikki's performance in this first year of hers. To do her full justice would take a long time.

She welcomed Nikki in with a friendly greeting and gestured her to a chair the other side of her desk. She could sense a touch of nervousness in Nikki's manner and she made a special effort to reassure her.

"Well, Nikki, now is the time to put your first year in perspective. You will know by now just how time consuming the whole process is, but I can't think of a better way to take stock over the past year. It will help both of us."

Karen paused to light a cigarette to gather her thoughts and handed another to Nikki before continuing.

"You've done a hell of a lot since you set foot in here ten months ago. My problem in doing your report is in making sure that I've got everything down so tell me if I've missed anything. Shall I continue?"

As Nikki nodded mutely, Karen continued.

"I'll work through everything in chronological order and pull it in to your job description. For a start, you wasted no time in talking one to one with your prison officers and, with two exceptions, won them over in very short order. I remember hearing of some very favourable feedback in my travels, and not only from those who were well enough disposed to you in the first place. What you did right was that they knew exactly where they stood with you. You also got them on side from the word go, and you've kept them there since."

"And the exceptions?"

"Sylvia and Di, of course. You would never have won them over any more than I ever did in my time. You probably haven't appreciated the fact that you severely limited the damage that they could have done. You prevented them gaining allies that they could have manipulated to their own purposes and set them against you. Again, I must thank you for putting up with two particularly difficult officers, and also your contribution to the events where Di Barker was finally sacked."

"That honestly hadn't crossed my mind."

Karen grinned as Nikki shook her head in amazement. It was so like Nikki to be unassuming about herself.

"I remember very clearly the way you stepped into the breach when my son Ross, when Ross died…..When I finally got back to work, I heard how Neil had to restrain you from becoming acting Governing Governor, but you talked with the other wing governors and, thanks to that, you took a huge weight off my mind when I needed it most. Believe you me, Nikki, I'll never forget that, either officially or otherwise."

Nikki was incredibly touched by Karen's uncharacteristic public display of emotion, and the break in her voice as she referred to Ross. That emotional scar hadn't gone away.

"I really don't know where this figures in your appraisal as it isn't in your job description but I have you to thank for getting me not to work myself into the grave, when I came back from work, not to say during and after I went up on the prison roof after Denny. I'll write something up about it somehow."

"I could see how you were suffering. I couldn't do anything but try to help you." Nikki said softly in tones, that came close to making Karen shed tears of gratitude. She couldn't help thinking that Helen was a lucky woman and how uncomplicated their lives were, compared with hers.

"I must give weight to your very fine performance at the Howard League for Penal Reform , where you certainly gave the entire conference hall a lot of food for thought. You really focused people's minds on what the prison service was actually about. Neil and I were so proud of you , even if you were in danger of upstaging me and stealing half my script. I am absolutely certain that your ideas will crop up in the work of a number of the audience, who will have thought long and hard about what you said."

"I have you to thank for having words with DI Sullivan to put him in his place after Shell Dockley broke into my bedroom. Your words were well said, and he won't dare to be the pain in the arse that he has been. I can't give praise enough for the way that you conducted yourself as a witness at Barbara Mills' trial. Your quick wittedness of thinking and clarity of expression gave Brian Cantwell a very good run for his money. You thoroughly deserve the praise that I understand John lavished on you. Following on from that, you did well in spotting a deficiency in prison officer training in your initiative in training prison officers to give evidence in court. It's one of those things that's so obvious that no one notices unless you have fresh eyes to see it with. I'm proposing to introduce this for the entire wing."

"When I turn to the way that you run the wing, you are a natural at handling budgets and in administration in general. Last but not least, when I turn to the prisoners in your care, what can I say? You came to Larkhall with the potential disadvantage of a conflict of interest with the prisoners whom you've known before and you've turned it to your advantage. One reason why the wing is peaceful is because of what you have done to 'give duty of care' to the prisoners, both personally and through your prison officers. My only apology is that your plans for educational projects have been held up by budgetary constraints. Within the limits of the prison system, you have done all that you possibly could."

"I'm lucky to build on the work that you and Helen did before me," murmured Nikki modestly. Karen knew better. Her experience was that the hard work to build up a good wing could be ruined overnight by an incompetent, lazy or bigoted replacement.

"What makes you unique as a wing governor is your background largely outside the prison service. It does tempt you to go for the simplest, most obvious course of action and I know that you get irritated if any red tape stands in your way. I remember you going a little over the top when we discussed Sylvia coming back to you, but I can't hold really hold that against you. You very gracefully came to terms with the situation. To be fair to you, I know that you will look for any underlying meaning in the rules and regulations and you know that they can help as much as appear to hinder…"

"Can be?" questioned Nikki.

"I've worked outside the prison service as well, Nikki." Retorted Karen with a grin. "OK, it is another organization with the sort of hierarchies that you have managed to avoid, but different in some ways. It has given me skills that I have found useful at Larkhall on more occasions than I care to think. Besides, once I learned those skills, I never wanted them to get rusty and out of date, don't ask me why……."

Karen's voice faded as a reflective mood overtook her and her eyes looked far into the distant for a moment. Presently, they sharpened up and she came back to the here and now.

"It does mean that I can see that you inject something fresh and vibrant into this place, that you're not stuck in a rut and indoctrinated to blindly follow orders without question…."

"As if."

"It's just that you have to take care just how far you push boundaries , but don't ever go the other way and get totally intimidated by rules and regulations."

"Is this the Governing Governor talking?" Nikki queried with a grin.

"This is me, Karen Betts, giving you the benefit of my knowledge. This bit is off the record."

Karen paused as she rounded to her conclusion.

"I know that I've done all the talking so stop me if there is anything that you want to mention that I hadn't. No? Well then the most difficult part of this appraisal is what mark to give you. To give you an 'average' mark is to insult you. The highest mark I can give you is 'outstanding' and for that you really have to walk on water. The mark in the middle is 'above average' but you have done so much in this year that even this seems a little stingy."

"You do what you think best, Karen?"

"Can you let me write up my report and as I do it, I'll decide which way to go. You've written reports so you know how difficult it can get." Karen finally decided, with a touch of impatience with her own indecisiveness.

A huge feeling of satisfaction welled up in Nikki. She knew that Karen thought highly of her, but she hadn't expected to be that highly praised. She had only done what she had done, according to her own standards. This demonstration of public esteem seemed to make up for the undramatic way that she had received her degree certificate from the Open University. In the years before that, she worked hard to build her's and Trisha's club off the ground. Going right back to the beginning to her days at school, she had been built up by the good grades on her 'O' level certificates and was swiftly knocked back down again by her public disgrace and expulsion.

"You're very kind and generous, Karen." She said softly. "You don't know how good you have made me feel about myself.."

The two of them fell silent and smoked the last of their cigarettes. Suddenly, Karen began to laugh to herself for no apparent reason.

"Do you remember the first words that you ever said to me?"

"Wasn't it something like 'piss off like I told the other tart?" Nikki said diplomatically. She had said worse than that but was too embarrassed to get the words out.

"Not quite" Karen said with a straight face.

"It was 'Is this an interjection or an enquiry after my health?"

"Oh really? Not as bad as I feared. Mind you, I always did have a big mouth."

Both of them realized at the same time that this had the makings of a standing joke between the two of them.

"See, I always knew that you were a smart arse. I never realized at the time just how smart."

The way that Karen's tone switched from light-hearted levity to real heartfelt sincerity encapsulated the passing of time and where they were both now.

The secretary looked out from under her mask at Neil Haughton as he stormed into the office. Her survival instinct was in suppressing any expression of her own feelings, and avoiding any attention being drawn to her. Her only irritation was that her presence was noticed hardly more than the coat stand in the corner and equally taken for granted. It was preferable to being singled out as convenient target for his rages. As she spotted the director of the prison service walking in the direction of Neil Houghton's private conference room half an hour later, she was glad that she was a lowly functionary in the system. The director was far higher paid than she was and was paid to be shouted at.

"Just look at this," he snapped at the unfortunate man, shoving a newspaper under his eyes." Some wretched bleeding heart liberal has been sounding off about prison overcrowding as if they don't get enough perks. They get three square meals a day and television. They make it sound as if there's a problem when all they have to do is to budge up a bit."

Already, in a very short period of time, the director of the prison service had the look of a whipped dog in his encounters with the Home Secretary. It was no good him quoting the latest Howard League for Penal Reform at him, which made quite well reasoned points.

Sweet reason got him nowhere fast.

"In a desperate attempt to find empty beds, prisoners are being transported all over the country. In 2001, 37,000 prisoners were being held over 50 miles away from home, for 5,000 of these the distance was more than 150 miles. This cost the taxpayer millions of pounds in transportation costs and in delays to the criminal justice system as a result of late arrivals for court appearances."

There were real complexities at work, but Neil Houghton wasn't in the mood to listen to them. He didn't want to know the details as they only clouded the picture in his mind when bold, clear strategy policies were what both the cabinet and the electorate demanded. Whoever heard of a Home Secretary that was soft on crime? He was the last person to break the mould. His predecessor has said all the right catchphrase but his grip on his ministry was rather lax. He determined to be a 'hands on' minister and keep a sharp eye open for trouble.

"Have you seen the latest figures of the prison population, Home Secretary? The latest figures out for March 2006 show 77,035 and the underlying trend is rising?"

"Is that something we should be ashamed of?" Neil Houghton snapped, the look in his blue eyes tending towards the homicidal. It was that mannerism of his that intimidated anyone whose career was in his jealous hands.

"When I took office, it became obvious that we need to lock up more criminals, not less. What's the point of all the tough legislation, outlawing crime if we don't bang them up?"

"That is in the hands of the judges and isn't in our remit," the director of prisons bravely pointed out.

"Don't talk to me about judges." Neil Houghton shouted." I intend to bring them into line along with everyone else. What I am horrified at is that word has reached me that the new female wing governor of one of our most controversial prisons is an ex con. Can you explain that one to me?"

"She will have gone through the usual board in fair and open competition," stammered the unfortunate man," or else she would never have got the job."

"So how did she get the job with a prison record under her belt? Her application ought to have been weeded out at the initial sift."

"I would have to check this out to be certain."

"Do so. It's more than likely that she was assisted by some of the malcontents in area management. I strongly suspect that there are a number of them who are not 'on message' , and are pushing their own sinister agenda. There are far too many of that type who would stab me in the back as soon as look as me. This is their way of discrediting me. They're all out to get me."

"She must have had something in her CV to get her a look in."

"That's not the issue, don't you see?" Neil Houghton uttered in spiteful, contemptuous tones." The problem is that she is definitely not 'one of us.' I want something doing about her."

"That's very difficult, unless she's clearly committed any offence and only if there's an internal investigation."

"So we wait for trouble to happen? I might have expected no better from wishy washy types like you. If I had been home secretary last year, I never would have allowed this situation to happen in the first place."

The pressure was on the man to come up with something more practical, as his own job was on the line. If it meant throwing out ballast to ensure his survival, then so be it. His career depended on political expediency.

"The only thing I can suggest is an inspection of Larkhall. There must be something that we can trip her up over, and give us something to use against her."

Neil Houghton bared his teeth in something like a smile, which would have caused dogs and other psychic creatures to bare their teeth or run a mile. He had that effect on his surroundings.

"Do so, and make it immediate. It must turn up something suitably damning."

The two of them were not to know that such a damning report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons report was going to land on his desk two days later, and also hit the press. It would slate Doncaster private prison of 'yet another prison failing to put people before profit' and that 'the private sector could have made a stand against overcrowding but instead has caved into the pursuit of profit at the expense of decent conditions and rehabilitation." This was not the sort of failure that was politically acceptable and would give the spin doctors a real PR headache.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Two

Grayling had long learnt a whole range of skills and sensitive antenna with which to play the game of office politics. He had that knack of attuning himself to the delicate nuances around him. He was also blessed with particularly sharp hearing, which enabled him to pick up on private conversations, that others fondly imagined were secret. His ability to persuade others with his silver tongue was linked with a very agile mind. Once, these gifts were used for selfish self-advancement, but now he saw himself as the protector of those like-minded idealists who would give him loyalty in return. Ironically, by learning to give unselfishly to others, he had avoided the trap that self-seeking paranoid careerists fell into of being unable to trust others, surrounded as they were by sycophants. From his distant observation of Ministers as they swanned around area on their royal progressions, they were the worst of that breed. He could tell it by their lying eyes.

The evil smile on Alison Warner's face had first told Grayling that there was bad news afoot, and made him more observant than normal. There had been that scurrying sensation of people and events, before they had all been summoned together to a meeting. As a result of this, he had immediately grabbed the phone and told John. Afterwards, he had sat in a darkened room and had put his head in his hands. He couldn't think straight for a while, and so his mind had drifted off in random directions.

He remembered how ages ago, he had watched John stride off in a determined fashion to eject Houghton from the post performance party which had celebrated the performance of "The Creation." He could sense from George's manner how unwelcome the man was, that his offstage presence jarred that sense of unity of feeling amongst both performers and audience. It was on Tuesday morning that had seen this same man, standing in the back row, watching blank faced as he came to give them all a pep talk, and stake his claim to set his foot on their backs as lord and master of them all. Everything that he had heard of him, since the performance of 'The Creation' was proved to the hilt. As he watched the man's mouth open and close meaninglessly, he couldn't help wondering and worrying if he had ever talked and thought like him.

Fortune somehow extracted some use from the ministerial visit. It was a lucky coincidence that saw him walk past the open door of Alison Warner's office and heard Houghton's unmistakable tones.

"Larkhall Prison. Make that urgent. I don't care if your staff are overworked. I want it done now." He snapped, the phone jammed against his ear, while Alison Warner looked on obsequiously. While he waited for the response, Grayling stepped out of sight.

"Staff, what would you do with them? At least if I book up a meal at the Ivey, they'll stay open for me, no matter when I turn up."

"Friday then? OK, but I'm not very pleased. It's up to you inspectors to get the results that I want, if you know what's good for you."

Grayling shot back out of sight as their gaze started to turn in his direction. With practiced ease, he trod silently and smoothly away from them back to his office, his face impassive in self-protection from anyone he might bump into.

It was an ordinary Tuesday when Karen sat back in her office. She had just finished doing Frances Myers' appraisal, and reflected on her military style of running her wing in contrast with Nikki's. She was smoking a cigarette prior to setting to work on her PC. Just then, the phone rang.

"Why, Neil." Her face broke into a smile, as that well-remembered voice sounded in her ear. "It's nice to hear from you."

"I'm afraid it won't be, Karen, when I've told you the news. I'm tipping you off that the prison inspectors are coming to visit you this Friday," hissed Grayling.

"But why haven't I been told of this?" Karen stammered slightly, her wits scattered.

"Officially, this is classed as a follow up inspection of that calamitous occasion four years ago when Sylvia was wing governor, can you believe it?"

"For that reason, no pre warning is necessary." Grayling's bitter tones resounded in her ear." In reality, our new home secretary Neil Houghton has ordered it to stitch your prison up."

"Some follow up. A bit late don't you think?"

"You can say that again."

"But there's absolutely nothing for them to find."

"As far as you know, Karen. You need to make absolutely sure. He has ordered them personally to turn in a bad report on your prison. Think carefully, Karen. Just make sure that you cover your back. I'm relying on you."

The line went dead all of a sudden. Karen guessed that there was danger at hand on the other end of the line. She had to break off what she was doing and call her wing governors together, but couldn't in all conscience burden them with the wider political game. All she could do was to lay it on the line with them that they had to be especially sharp in the way they conducted themselves, and show the Home Office how a well-run prison operated. For the life of her, she couldn't see how they could write a damaging report and it bothered her. There must be something that she was missing. The cigarette smouldered away between her fingers as she sat, deep in thought.

"So what happens? I'm new to this game." Nikki enquired, after Karen retired to her room to write up Frances' appraisal. The wing governors stayed behind, sat round the long rectangular table, mulling over the implications of Karen's words and, in particular, to 'look surprised' when they call. Karen had been far too matter of fact to Nikki in her announcement of the news, as if she was pointedly avoiding sounding alarmist.

"We get this gaff cleaned up from top to bottom for a start." Frances declared tersely, and there was a murmur of assent to the obvious course of action.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but my wing has nothing to fear from any inspectors."

"Yeah, let them come, and go away and report a success story," chimed in another governor.

Nikki started to feel irritated with the drift of conversation, which was starting to turn into a turgid and formless game of one-upmanship and self-congratulation. This wasn't what was needed right now. Alarm bells rang in her mind of the three years that she'd been here the other side of the prison bars, there was not one sign of any inspectors. The nearest thing to that was the fashion-show all those years ago that, in her circuitous way, she had got cancelled for G wing and then later restored. It struck her as a savage irony that especially before Helen's time at Larkhall, this place was riddled with abuses from top to bottom and corruption was systematic. A sharp-eyed inspection team could have exposed the abuses for what they were if they knew what to look out for. Now, after all these years, they were turning up here after all the hard work done to clean the place up, in moral terms. Getting the Julies to slosh water around with mops and buckets struck her as a token effort but she supposed that she would have to go along with this charade. At least it was harmless.

"Just why are they coming?"

"Search me. They come like London busses, either in droves or not at all. Who knows what goes on in the minds of the Home Office?" yawned the man the opposite side of the long table in complete disinterest.

"Hang on a minute, are there any areas that we could be pulled up on?"

"It's a turn up for the book for you to admit that G wing isn't perfect." cut in one of the more cynical wing governors, who was content to see this wash over him.

"Nikki's right. Instead of giving ourselves all pats on the back and telling ourselves that we walk on water, why not trying to work out where our weak points might be? Karen was saying in not so many words that they might be looking for bad news if you'd only bothered to listen."

"I wasn't around the last time the inspectors visited. Someone remind us all what happened."

"There was a total cock-up on G wing. Your friend Sylvia was prancing around trying to confiscate crisps and chocolate, after it turned out that some clever Charlene had fiddled the personal spends computer to add up rather than take away. Oh yes, Maxi Purvis's dead body, all wrapped up in bin liners, rolled out on the chapel floor in full view of the inspectors. After this, things only got better."

The more they talked, the more the stuck record was repeating itself.

"This doesn't add up. Either this is just a routine inspection, in which case we have basically nothing to fear or else this is a set up. We've got a new 'hang them and flog them' Home Secretary, but I can't work out why he should have it in for our prison. I can't see how he could set us up unless there's something we're missing."

The meeting rambled on for a while longer and fizzled out to a halt. They had business to sort out on their wings.

"You look as if you've got a lot on your mind, Nikki."


"And all the prison officers are dead jumpy all of a sudden."


"You ain't listening," came Denny's blunt follow up to Julie Saunders' more polite remark to Nikki as she came to pass the time of day.

"I'm sorry. I've got something on my mind that's bothering me."

"A problem shared is a problem solved, that is, if it is something you can talk to us about." Julie Saunders proclaimed.

Nikki sighed and looked round the atrium. She was starting to get jumpy about everything that moved on the wing and a few things that didn't. She couldn't get away from the feeling that she was in the frame, even though logic and Karen's appraisal of her had told her how well she had done.

"We'll go over to your cell." Nikki murmured to the other three.

"I ain't tarting myself up for those stuck up tossers to make the prison look good, not even for you Nikki," was Denny's reaction. "You know what I'm like. I did it once for Yvonne to stop her getting banged up over O'Kane's death and that was enough.

"I promise you it won't come to that,' Nikki grinned.

"So, while you're wining and dining all the top nobs, showing them round the servery and the cells, don't we get a look in?" Julie Saunders asked with that questioning expression on her face.

"I suppose so," came her vague response. She had not thought of that one.

"Or will they eye up who they might want to give them the old guided tour like in secret. You wouldn't want that evil bitch, Natalie Buxton let loose on them, would you?"

"Why should they pick her out from all the others? It's not as if she's special."

"Excuse me, Nikki but all she's got to do is to wear her lowest top and flash her tits at them. You got to admit it, she's got that sort of glamour and pulling power even though it chokes me to admit it."

"But they are supposed to be professionals."

"You are and so's Miss Betts, Gina, Dominic and the rest except Bodybag but that don't mean to say that they are. Still, you're bound to know more about them than we do. "

New dimensions opened up about the inspection and Nikki started to get worried. She didn't know any more than the others but had just made the false assumption that, just because they were inspectors, they would be no less upright than she was. They were dead right. What she couldn't work out was how she had never spotted that one. She went off straight away in search of Gina.

Ken was on the gate, his manner as impassive as always. Inwardly, he was jumpy, having been tipped off that a couple of staff inspectors were going to call, but with no more details. He was nervous in case his tie wasn't quite straight, but far more at the prospect of putting on an act of appearing to be totally taken by surprise. The thought made him acutely self conscious, not helped by his painful awareness that he was no actor. The minutes ticked by in a way that felt like hours and his ears were trained on the sounds of any approaching cars. He had had three false alarms so far this morning.

Suddenly, while his attention was wandering, two smart suited men casually strolled up to him as if they owned the place and flashed their ID at him. The pictures of Mr. Simpson and Mr. Traynor announced themselves with as much authority as their physical presence.

"You've come to see the Governor, I suppose."

"We've come to do more than this. We're from the Home Office, and we've come to do a snap inspection of everything from the lightning conductor to the basement." The elder of the two men said in steel hard tones.

"You mean you're here to do an inspection on the prison."

"Got it in one. You'll rise high in the prison service with brains like yours," the younger man retorted sarcastically.

"You'd better sign in and I'll phone up the governor. I suppose I'll be seeing you around."

"Don't worry you will. You're first down on the list to check over security as soon as we can get to you."

Ken gulped. He was not ambitious but least of all would he have wanted to be in Miss Betts shoes even if his feet had fitted them.

A/N: Notes

(1) Bad Girls- The Official Site Library - Fact sheet on prison inspections compiled by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

(2) Home Office/ HMI Prisons Homepage -sample prison inspection report

Part One Hundred and Sixty Three

On the other side of the phone from Ken, Karen had been doing some last minute revision on the details of prison inspections. She had had experience over the years at different levels of what the nuts and bolts were, but never in the driving seat. It was Sylvia and Neil who had had that experience which was ironical in terms of where fate had taken both her and them.

Her gut root reaction to Grayling's tip-off was that how on earth could they justify this visit as a 'follow up' to the disastrous inspection four years back, especially as Larkhall had changed out of recognition, both in terms of style and personnel. There was simply nothing to compare it to and the inspectors were in a false position from day one. Nevertheless, she knew enough to suppose cynically enough that they would finagle their way through that one. She had bitten the bullet and had religiously done her research. Looking through their eyes, she would say that in their rough and ready fashion, they should come out pretty well. She tapped in the following notes from the way she conceived of their perceptions of their role.

The way prisoners are treated

The quality of the regime including opportunities for prisoners to work or receive


How the prison prepares prisoners for release

The morale of prisoners and staff

The quality of health care

How the prison is managed and whether it is good value for money

The physical conditions of the buildings

She had to admit that Larkhall prison was basically a 'souped up' and continually patched up Victorian prison, and it would never get any gold stars for its architecture. Whether it was 'good value for money' was something that she was not greatly concerned with, as she wasn't a bloody chartered accountant, only someone, who had learned on the job to work her way round a balance sheet. Where Larkhall ought to score high was the way it treated both staff and inmates. Nikki's education projects should fit the bill of "purposeful activities." She had to admit that a number of the red band jobs wouldn't exactly lead to formal professional qualifications. She could imagine the look of incredulity on Julie Saunders face if she was told she would become a 'professional bog cleaner and cook' with letters after her name On the other hand, she knew that the Personal Officer system worked fine, not so much because it was formally advertised but because the prison officers had credibility with the prisoners. She knew very well that it hadn't always been that way. The same could be said about primary healthcare, when she compared the very caring and conscientious Dr Waugh with the lazy, incompetent and uncaring Dr Nicholson, or Dr No No as he was rightly known amongst the prisoners. She had to admit that the 'simple induction booklet' could do with updating but she was conscious that the spoken word covered far more grounds than vague mission statements.

If she was pressed on the question, was there an 'anti bullying strategy or coordinator' she would have to frankly admit that there wasn't anything written down on paper. It was just that there was an ingrained readiness on all sides to not let it happen in the first place, and a willingness to intervene quickly should it start.

What made her weary was the language in which the reports were phrased. Her head hurt when she read that "the education department should promote diversity and equal opportunities through visual displays, learning materials and other coursework…..that management information systems should be improved to ensure that individual progress is monitored, and to assist with a needs assessment for education and training across the establishment……." When she struggled hard enough, she could get the drift of what they were on about, but she was sure that the same sense could be put over in simpler language. All in all, she was ready to let them all come when a rather nervous Ken finally phoned through to her.

"Come in," she greeted them pleasantly enough, although one swift glance told them that they were not coming in a spirit of friendship. "Do you want a cup of tea?"

After the polite preliminaries, the older of the two men, Eric Simpson took charge and revealed his hand with his take on brutal honesty.

"As your prison has been lying low for a bit, we thought that we ought to look it over, Karen."

"Well, I have no problem with that although you might find your visit rather dull."

"You don't mind if we explore the prison thoroughly and go through all your records. We've got a lot of work to do in a short space of time."

"I know that my prison officers are flexible enough to deal with any demands on their time," came Karen's smooth as syrup reply with her broadest smile. Instantly, it jumped into her mind that this rush job was rather suspicious. However, she wasn't going to let them think that they had rattled her. "……so long as you have time enough to finish the job. I assume that this is a follow up visit to the main inspection four years ago and you will find that times have changed."

"We'll start with the gatehouse and the security on the gatehouse. You've had a track record of prisoners walking or driving out of the gate, so we might as well start there first," came the stern answer just as Nikki slid into the room. She suppressed a wry smile as she remembered that, once, she was just such a prisoner but only a very select few were aware of the fact.

"Excuse me, Karen, but there's a car parked outside with all the lights left on. It's a silver grey Audi which none of us drive. We weren't sure if some perfect strangers came and dumped it."

The prison inspector inwardly cursed his over-eagerness and stomped out of the room leaving his colleague feeling out of place.

"Might I ask you where you're visiting first?"

"Ask my boss when he's back, came the sheepish answer.

"Nikki, you carry on and do what you're supposed to be doing. When there are any developments, I'll phone you in the PO's room."

Karen had to hand it to Nikki as she made a discreet exit. Her entrance was as quiet, low-key and discreet as any diplomat.

"What do you reckon to them, Nikki?"

"Complete bastards."

Frances grinned at the other woman's frankness but the expression rapidly faded. The next few hours could decide a lot for their future no matter how good you were and how benign the inspectors appeared.

"Where do you think they'll strike first?"

"Am I starting to get paranoid, Frances, when a little voice inside me tells me that I'm first on the list after Karen and that isn't out of favouritism?"

"What the hell have we done to have them down on our necks?"

"Just by being here."

Karen sighed to herself as they moved off, and zeroed in on Ken. She worried for him and hoped that he'd stand up to the questioning. She carried on with her work for a little while, but neither her mind nor her heart was in the job. Idly, she looked for distraction from it, and turned to the blurb about staff inspections. Instantly, the line jumped into Karen's mind that 'prisoners and detainees can speak to inspectors in confidence." The question was, which prisoners? They had said nothing about this but that didn't mean that this wasn't on their agenda. She made her way towards G Wing very fast.

At the same time, precisely the same thought occurred to Nikki as she spotted the inspectors making their way towards her, just as the prisoners were coming down the staircases for breakfast. All of a sudden, the reality behind the Julies suspicions hit Nikki like a ton of bricks. This was their only serious weakness, and it was that sly bitch Natalie Buxton. She was out there on the front table, her blond hair curled at the edges, her complexion somehow tanned and dressed in her low cut top, smiling invitingly at the older inspector. All this time, Nikki had kept her brand of malicious vengefulness contained. This was her chance to get payback on her.

Julie Saunders took one look at the expression on Nikki's face, and came to the rescue.

"Bangers and mash for the gents with fried eggs, sunny side up. You just got to have a taste of home cooking if you're going to inspect this prison proper. Eat like the girls have to eat, mister."

"Yeah, try our cooking.' Echoed Julie Johnson.

"I can definitely assure you that the Julies' cooking is not to be missed. Not as good as the Ivey but it won't make so much of a hole in your pocket. Plain, wholesome food. You can't beat it." Nikki chimed in cheerily, noticing out of the corner of her eye, the flash of irritation on Natalie's face. Karen smiled at Nikki's hard sell, and sensed that whatever Nikki was up to, was something she should leave in her capable hands.

"Well, we hadn't quite planned on this."

"Oh, but you must." Julie Saunders urged at her most childlike.

They could not gainsay the background sounds of urging voices and the Julies winning ways. They found themselves sat at a table, complete with freshly washed serviette and the Julies presented the meal with as much ceremonial flourishes as they could summon up. The inspectors looked dubiously at the meal set out in front of them, and wondered at the cholesterol level but gingerly started to pick at the meal. It turned out to be surprisingly tasty in a basic, exotic working-class fashion.

"Cup of tea, sir. Two sugars." Julie Saunders commented rather than asked.

"No, no. No sugar for me."

"You ain't slimming, are you?" Julie Johnson asked in a motherly fashion.

There was a general explosion of light-hearted laugh at Julie's rather misplaced maternal instinct coming out in this setting. The prison officers and especially Karen and Nikki had to work hard to suppress their natural inclination to let a huge grin split their faces from ear to ear, especially because of the build up of tension.

"We have much enjoyed this excellent meal," Mr. Simpson proclaimed, "and as a reward, we would like to interview one of you to give in confidence, her honest views of the running of this prison. Can we have one volunteer to put up her hand?"

Denny sat on the side and she could see how tense Nikki was becoming as the inspector was speaking. Wing governor though she might be, she looked more imprisoned by the system than when she was a con. They exchanged glances.

"Can we make that two, sir?" Denny called out as she raised her arm just after Natalie Buxton.

"And us, sir. Oh go on." The Julies called out as a split second later, they followed suit.

"I'm glad that there are women here that are not backward at coming forward."

Nikki found her voice at last. With her best appearance of nonchalance that she could summon up, she started to thread her way through the very delicate situation.

"I welcome it as, after all, what have we to fear?"

Julie Saunders looked with narrowed eyes in Nikki's direction. She knew Nikki of old, and she was doing a fine job of controlling her feelings.

"Perhaps it would make the best use of your time to see them together as a group." Karen intervened from the back, "……..and it would give you a reasonable cross section of views. I could provide a prison officer as security if you have any fears, unless you feel that it would breach confidentiality."

Both women could sense a flash of irritation in the man's eyes. He was being delicately railroaded into his least favourite option, yet he could not find a reason why he could publicly refuse. Eventually he gave in with bad grace.

"OK, we'll run with that but I think we can dispense with your prison officer. It might inhibit proper expression of the prisoner's views. I'll phone you when we've finished, Miss Betts."

"Just as you say. Nikki, can you escort everyone to the largest interview room." Karen suavely replied. before pitching up her voice to address the wing." Everyone else is on normal activities in ten minutes time, after you've finished your breakfast. I might remind you that the inspectors may be popping in from time to time, depending on their schedule."

Nikki could not remember afterwards how she managed to lead them all to the right room in the rabbit warren, even though she had walked that way plenty of times. She mumbles appropriate civilities at them all before moving off down the corridor. Their future lay in the hands of Denny and the Julies.

"Well, I won't beat about the bush. We want to hear from the bottom up, what makes G Wing tick from you, the prisoners. Just to give some structure to the meeting, I'll write up some key words on the very convenient white board and give you a chance to focus your thoughts….."

"It's like being back at school, Ju."

"When I was there, Ju."

They had developed to a fine art, the knack of whispering out of the corners of their mouth unheard by the average screw, much less than some inspector with his back to them. Even Natalie was oblivious to them. They all watched the man write in bold capitals the words.






Natalie was the first to jump in with both feet, determined to make the most of her chances.

"Well, if there's one thing about this prison, it ain't fair. Not only are us prisoners discriminated against but even some of the prison officers. It all depends on if your face fits. If it does, you're in. If it doesn't, there is nothing you can say to defend yourself."

"You what?" Denny intervened, her forehead corrugated with incredulity. The problem was that she had trouble getting her head round this pack of lies.

"Can there be a demonstration of respect between us, so that no one is interrupted. I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name. Please continue."

"Natalie Buxton. Well, I've been definitely frozen out by our Miss Wade and I have a pretty good idea why. I get the feeling that she fancies me even when I've made it clear that I'm not interested. Well, after that, I've not been given a chance to go for classes in book keeping. It's something that I always wanted to do but I get fobbed off by excuses."

"What about the other prison officers, Natalie?" Mr. Simpson asked, his eyes fixed on the cleavage much to the other women's disgust.

"Well, they just follow Miss Wade. They know what's good for them except Miss Barker who didn't fit in. She was given the sack only no one knows exactly why. It's all one big conspiracy."

"You're just a lying nonce, Buxton." Julie Johnson burst out in anger at last, unable to hold down her anger at the twisted lies coming out from such falsely painted lips.

"That's not true. It's just a vicious rumour got up by some of the prisoners who have got it in for me. It just goes to show how bigoted some people can get." Natalie Buxton retorted with a sweet smile.

Julie Saunders' mind was thinking furiously. Best not to rise to the bitch. Her bit of legal training told her to not let her wind her, but just watch out for when to nail her.

"Carry on Natalie."

"Well, all I've ever done here is to stuff envelopes while her favourites get to go on education classes. I've got something to give society and that's all I get………"

While the Julies and Denny fumed silently, Mr. Simpson continued to let Natalie Buxton spew her carefully sugared poison in a calculated fashion.

"Excuse me, but don't we get a look in." Julie Saunders eventually enquired. It was the simple choice of speaking or bursting in frustration.

"All in good time."

"Not while she's been telling you a pack of lies, and you've got other places to go. We just want equal time to set the record straight." Julie Saunders retorted in firmer tones.

"When we've finished with Natalie, we'll talk to you." the man glared.

The confrontation was building to the point when Julie Saunders did not know if she could push her luck further. Suddenly, there came salvation from a polite knock on the door and Gina Rossi poked her head round the door. She gave the crowd her dazzling smile, while she took in at a glance just what was going on. It crossed both Karen and Nikki to offer them hospitalities, and to check for whatever was going on behind closed doors.

"Miss Betts was wondering if you would like a cup of tea." Gina started to say, when Julie Saunders interrupted with a flow of pent up emotion.

"Thank Gawd you're here. Buxton, I dare you to say before a straight up honest witness, the lies you've been telling about Nikki. According to her, Nikki's had it in for you because she'd given her the brush off."

Gina laughed long and loud at the rage twisted features beneath her. They may be important persons with power but she couldn't take them seriously for being such suckers.

"Nikki wouldn't touch you with a bargepole not when she's got her Helen. Are there any more porkies that I should hear?"

"There's been loads of them, Gina. You should hear them." Denny put in at last.

"The inspection demands prisoner confidentiality. Without it, the results will be tainted."

"By the bleeding truth. Confidentiality be blowed. If we want Gina here, who's complaining, except Buxton? It's obvious she's been taking you for a ride."

"It looks as if I'm not allowed to leave. Mind if I draw up a chair?"

"Our pleasure," beamed the Julies in unison.

"Skimpiest top I've seen you wear for ages, Buxton. I wonder why." Gina grinned scornfully. "….and all dolled up, just ready for the visitors."

After Gina fixed up a pot of tea, Natalie refused point blank while Gina shrugged her shoulders. The bitch had gone into a sulk as things hadn't gone her way.

"All the screws, I mean prison officers are straight up, fair and dead honest."

"It sounds like a five star hotel with all the trimmings." Mr. Simpson retorted scornfully. "I find that rather far fetched."

"Prison's prison." Julie Saunders retorted. "I'd sooner be with my son David and Ju here could find her kids but if we have to be here…….."

Gina sat back while Julie Saunders dominated the room with her force of personality. It was a sight to watch.

"……..If you have to be in prison and be locked up every night and not be able to come and go as you please, then this is as good as it gets. That's because nearly all the girls are nice enough and we look out for each other, with a few exceptions…..." and here, she glared at Natalie. "……and Nikki most of all is as fair and as kind hearted as you can get."

"Especially when……." Denny started to say, when Julie Johnson frowned at her to stop. The kid meant well but surely she could see how they'd steered away talking about when Nikki was here last time. That was an obvious bleeding trap and Denny's just walked into it.

"When what?"

"Surely you know that Nikki did time for taking out that rapist of a policeman who was all set to rape her girlfriend. It was a miscarriage of justice and the courts finally said so.

After all, you should know because you're inspectors from the Home Office, ain't you?"

There was no holding Julie Saunders back, and the other women made good back up for her. Natalie Buxton was clearly sidelined. The two men were quite frankly out of their depth. They were used to deferential prisoners who were overawed by their position and status or alternatively, were polite to their face. They were not used to bold as brass women who called a spade a spade or alternatively a bloody shovel.

"Prisoner diversity forum?" Kristin repeated with incredulity when Mr. Simpson came to inspect her cell. "Well, I suppose we're diverse enough. It's just that we get along."

"At one time, we had Crystal who's a bible basher and black, Monica who's dead posh but all right, just like Babs, Denny and her partner Shaz, that spiky haired punk, Yvonne who's a mum with kids who's into fellas, while Roison's got kids with her partner Cassie…….prisoner diversity?" Julie Saunders followed on in a reminiscent mood. "The only thing we can't stand is anyone who tries to take us for a ride and bullies anyone weaker. That answer you?"

The Julie's cell was definitely like home from home within the claustrophobic constraints of the tiny, whitewashed cell. They made their way to the next port of call, their luck and time running out fast.

Finally, they were relieved at the end to get out and peer round the visitor's room, noting the odd lick of paint that had been overlooked, a sample of the claustrophobic cells, the state of the library and the internal records. They found the minor faults and imperfections as Karen had anticipated but nothing much to get their teeth into. Just what they were going to write up when they got back to the ranch, they did not know what to think as Larkhall was ticking along far too comfortably for Neil Haughton's liking.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Four

It was as if Yvonne had discovered a missing part of herself that she hadn't realized that she had lost. The sudden arrival of Bell into her house lent purpose to her life.

Lauren's face had brightened immediately the first moment she laid eyes on Bell. She might have been expected to react unfavourably to a dog that was taking Trigger's place, the faithful Alsatian that she had grown up with but she hadn't. Without saying it in so many words, she had let herself grieve for Trigger's passing, and allowed let fresh sunlight into her life. She enthusiastically set to work with Yvonne to train the very playful, puppyish Bell into their ways of living, free from their past.

Yvonne noted this quietly, and was grateful for the serenity of the months that had passed since Lauren's discharge from prison last August. She had conscientiously attended the regular sessions with the psychiatrist, who had worked with her to ensure that all the choices that she could make in her life would stay open for her. She had come to feel to the bottom of her soul how those tenacious were those primeval Atkins instincts that had been laid down. This wasn't an intellectual exercise like going to a lesson at school. She was part of the lesson , and gave her that breadth of perspective. She found out that she had to live and feel and breathe the changes that she was going through. She accepted that there might be moments in her life when she might feel threatened or vulnerable that she might revert to type. She learnt that her immediate off the cuff remarks said more about her than she realized. Whatever the future faced for her, she was open to facing it fair and square. All this was something that Yvonne gathered from brief snatches of conversations and little indications in the way that she behaved. Her reaction to Bell was one of them.

She looked out of her living room window as, each passing day, spring was making its uncertain progress. The days of fine blue clear skies were brushed aside by sudden squalls of biting wind and grey clouds but all the time, the buds were beginning to appear on the bare twigs and branches of the trees at the bottom of their garden. For so many months, they had etched a bleak tracery pattern in the grey sky at a time when the seasons were in hiding, in retreat. Soon, the full force of the sun would come out to play, and the trees would be covered with leaves. The sun would dazzle her eyes as reflected off the waters of her swimming pool.

Yvonne and Lauren chose Sunday morning to take a long stroll round the garden. It only took the magical word 'walk' for Bell to bound to her feet pirouetting in circles round and round in circles. Bright eyed, she led the way for Yvonne and Lauren to laughingly follow them. She sat down on the front door mat, looking expectantly at them. Once outside the door, she and the two humans felt free.

A clear cool breeze ruffled their hair, but the sun was brighter than they had thought. They blinked their eyes as the sun leaned down on them. Nothing was said but the three of them headed out onto the lawn, as it was the obvious place to go. The grass felt solid under their feet, as solid as the foundations beneath their lives and the large certainty of their house. Bell scampered ahead of them without a care in the world.

While Lauren ran ahead of her on the lawn to catch up and laugh and play with Bell, Yvonne slipped into a dreamily reminiscent mood. Her free floating thoughts wended their way to John who had been instrumental, via his free spirited if sometimes tactless daughter, in bringing this simple happiness to her. What they had in common was the bringing up of a daughter and their incredibly strong ties to their offspring. It didn't surprise Yvonne in the least that John's passion for justice and his waywardness would have taken the form in Charlie that it did. John seemed happy enough, if a little embarrassed to admit how come Bell came into his possession in the first place but he had that ability to tolerate and understand that Charlie would never have learnt in a lifetime. That quality had certainly done wonders to put her own family on its feet. Her memory for words said and deeds done was very extensive but she had treasured his words to her at the end of Lauren's trial.

"You are perhaps, one of the most loyal, caring, utterly devoted mothers I have ever had the pleasure to meet, so I know you can do that. Now, go home, gather all your friends around you, and get on with your life."

Well, she could lay claim to having managed that, all right. She had made her break from the past, smoothly and effortlessly enough. That was easy enough as she had control over her life but it was quite another matter for her daughter to have done the same. In the old days, Charlie had bent everyone to his will by that deadly mixture of charm and ruthless force so that everyone did what he wanted. If she was to root that out of her own family, she could hardly revert to type if persuasion did not work. She couldn't manage other people's lives and thoughts by remote control and so it took much more patience.

It was curious the way that John would periodically crop up in her life, in particular the way that he had appeared out of the blue once when they were walking in the park and they had slept with each other. She lived with the certainty that, sometimes her friends were out of reach, doing other things, but time and chance would bring them together. She wondered idly what he was doing with his life and hoped that the sort of good fortune that he had bestowed on her family would remain with him.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Five

It was the evening of Wednesday the Third of May, with the sun beaming down on the city of London, accompanied by a soft, gentle breeze. But as John crossed the car park and entered the doors of the clinic where he went to see Helen, he could feel that his entire soul was weighing him down, crushing any contentment he might have felt, and making him wonder just why his psyche persisted in doing this to him. He had felt like this all day, intermittently craving his meeting with Helen as it might provide him with something of an outlet, and alternatively dreading it for precisely the same reason. Why did he keep coming here, he continuously asked himself? But the answer seemed forever to be allusive, hiding from him, until perhaps Helen would drag it to the fore, to be examined and questioned under the spotlight.

"You look a bit preoccupied today, Judge," Helen said when he'd sat down in his usual chair opposite to her. John's reaction was immediate.

"Why do you always have to see straight through any facade I might attempt to cultivate?"

"Because it's my job to do that," Helen replied calmly, seeing that she'd definitely struck a chord with her skill of observation. "Part of what I need to do with anyone I see in a professional context," She continued. "Is to try to get to the truth behind what a patient may be feeling." John remained quiet, clearly trying to subdue his swiftly rising anger towards her, if not towards the entire world. "Why're you so angry?" She asked quietly.

"I'm sorry," He replied. "It's just been one of those days."

"Did you have a bad time in court?" Helen asked, wanting to get to the bottom of his unusual display of fury.

"No, not especially," He said, wishing that he had the power to lie a little more convincingly, which might have helped him to avoid telling her the truth.

"So, what's made you so furious with the rest of humanity? Or am I just a privileged exception?"

"Something I've discovered over the months I've been coming to see you," he began carefully, not as yet attempting to answer her question. "Is that part of me has come to dread these sessions, because revealing my innermost thoughts to anyone, no matter someone who has been trained to analyse every word, is something that I would usually avoid at all costs. Yet I am forced to remind myself that it was my choice to come here in the first place, which was possibly one of the most stupid decisions I have ever made. But sometimes, this room feels like a haven, somewhere I don't have to be afraid of expressing what I feel."

"And which is it today?" Helen asked, never having heard such an articulate description of a session with herself.

"I'm not sure," He was forced to admit. "Because I am itching to do something really stupid, something so reckless that it might just get me impeached, and yet I am also terrified of being here, because if you persist in your ambition to completely obliterate any emotional armour I might possess, today you may just achieve your goal." Helen stared at him for a moment. The realisation had hit her right between the eyes, that if he thought she had him worked out, he had certainly done a number on her psyche and above all her intentions towards him as a patient.

"Okay," She said after a moment's thought. "Let's take this one at a time. Tell me what is so terrifying to you, if you take your assessment of my overall ambition for you to be correct." When he didn't answer, she said, "Just what are you scared of?"

"I think," He replied with a heavy sigh. "That I am afraid of admitting to possessing feelings that I know I shouldn't have."

"And why has this all come to a head today?"

"Today is the forty-sixth anniversary of my mother's death." Suddenly, everything became clear to Helen. Well, he might just be right, she thought to herself, today might just be the day she would manage to penetrate his emotional armour.

"You know, Judge," She said, looking him straight in the eye. "I might understand what you're currently feeling better than you think I do." Regarding her thoughtfully, John understood what she was telling him.

"I didn't know," he said quietly. "How old were you?"

"Not much older than you were," She told him regretfully. "When my mum died, all the love in that house seemed to disappear overnight."

"Do you still see your father?"

"Not often. He thinks I'm doing a pretty pointless job for even more pointless people, and he certainly doesn't approve of Nikki. But we're supposed to be talking about you, not me. I sometimes get the impression that your unresolved feelings about your mother's death, are what govern the way you deal with feelings of any kind. Am I right?"

"Probably," He replied with a slight smile. "Any feelings I had at the time had to be forcefully buried. Feelings weren't really permitted in that house after she died, because it was easier for my father to cut them out of our lives than to deal with them."

"This will undoubtedly be very difficult for you," Helen suggested carefully. "But I would like you to try and tell me what you did feel when you found out how she'd died." Before he embarked on what felt like his final journey on Earth, John took a moment to examine the truth about what he had felt, and to some extent still felt, attempting as he did so to put them into a clinically straightforward context, and to surround the emotions associated with his feelings with the strongest most formidable barrier he could swiftly construct.

"When my sister and I returned from school, my father was sitting in the lounge waiting for us. I think I knew that something bad had happened, because the house somehow felt very different, as though a presence was missing. When he tried to explain to us that mum had died, I didn't believe him, or didn't want to believe him. I asked him how, and he couldn't at first answer me, but even at the age of ten I was somewhat persistent. I wouldn't leave the question alone because I had to know. When he said that she'd killed herself, my sister cried, but I was just stunned. I don't think I quite understood why someone would seriously consider doing that. I kept trying to work it out, asking myself questions again and again, but finding that I was totally unable to come up with the answers. We all knew that she'd been depressed for some time, but I think I still naively thought that if she loved us, she wouldn't do anything that would take her away from us."

"Were you angry with her for leaving you?" Helen asked softly, seeing that her attempt to break away his barriers was gradually beginning to work.

"It wasn't her fault," John insisted, his expression showing the pain that he still obviously felt. "When people are depressed, for whatever reason, they make decisions that are as clear as day to them, but which don't make the slightest bit of sense to the rest of us."

"That's not what I asked," Helen persisted quietly. "I asked how you felt about what your mother did, not what you think you should have felt. Nothing you might have felt towards your mother after something like that could possibly be in any way wrong, because you, your sister and your father, had just received the biggest shock that any relative can receive. She wasn't there to tell you why, or to reassure you that it wasn't because of anything that either of you had done. If you were angry with her for leaving you, she wouldn't have held it against you, nobody would." John's whole body stiffened, his hands gripping the arms of the chair, because he could feel the tide of emotions rising up in him, trying their damnedest to get out after all this time of being concealed and subdued. He forcefully bit down on his lip to stop himself from saying any more, from actually putting voice to the corrosive torture that had lived inside him for the past forty-six years.

"You need to let it out, John," Helen cajoled him quietly. "If you want to be able to find any reprieve from the torment you're going through right now, you need to put in to words, all the thoughts that are currently whizzing round behind your eyes. I can see some of them from here, but you need to tell me what they are.

"I can't," John replied eventually, the tightness in his throat almost cutting off his speech.

"Why?" Helen asked, seeing the battle going on inside him.

"Because what I did feel, what I still do feel is wrong," John told her, feeling his resistance against her probing beginning to slip, beginning to tear any hint of emotional restraint away from him.

"If I loved her as much as I think I did," He tried to explain, though every instinct was telling him to get up and run as fast as possible away from here, away from this woman who was trying to break him into a dozen pieces. "I would be able to accept that she wasn't in her right mind when she made that decision, and I would be able to reassure myself that if she hadn't been as depressed as she was, she would never have been able to leave her husband and children in the way that she did."

"The process of grieving and the feelings associated with it are never rational, you know," Helen tried to reassure him, though she could see that it was a pretty futile attempt. When the words finally burst out of him, they were no surprise to Helen, though she could see why he had tried to bury them all these years.

"I couldn't forgive her for doing what she did," He said, his voice not remotely steady. "Before I grew up enough to understand what the word depression actually meant, I was furious with her for leaving us, for making that final decision to leave our family incomplete. Part of me couldn't bear being in that house a moment longer than necessary, and part of me didn't ever want to leave it, for fear that I might forget all the things that had made her my mother. I couldn't take my eyes off the empty chair at the table, or the empty armchair in the lounge, or the empty hook in the hall where she used to hang her coat. I sometimes raged at her because I thought that the way my father cut himself off from us was all her fault."

"How did this manifest itself?" Helen asked, almost not wanting to break in on his undoing, because she didn't want to distract him from journeying the rockiest road he had ever travelled.

"Fights at school usually," He admitted without any hesitation. "It was far too easy to retaliate when those at Eaton chose to mock my working class accent. I think I wanted her to explain to me why killing herself had been the right thing to do, which she obviously couldn't."

"And why was that so wrong?"

"Because she didn't deserve my anger," John insisted, the tears now running unchecked down his face. "Whilst she was alive, she was the most loving mother any child could have wanted. Her family was her entire life, nothing mattered to her as much as we did. But ever since her death, I haven't been able to get passed the fact that she actually chose to die."

"And how do you think this might have affected your relationships with women for the whole of your adult life?"

"I think that I tend to leave women before they leave me," He replied, digging for a handkerchief to wipe his face. "Because I couldn't bear being left in the same way again. I've almost forbidden myself to get to the stage where I might fall in love with so many women, as a way of protecting myself from being hurt quite so thoroughly again, though both Jo and George seemed to have successfully bypassed that rule. On the few occasions that George has been in danger of killing herself, it has terrified me beyond measure. I don't want to contemplate what it would do to me if Jo ever followed that instinct." At the voicing of this utterly terrible thought, John's eyes clouded over, the fear of this one-day happening penetrating his every pore. Helen observed the shock as this fear took hold, the prospect that his beautiful, loving Jo might one day leave him causing his entire brain to seize up under the onslaught.

Helen watched him for a while, seeing the torment battling for supremacy behind his eyes. Eventually, she decided that something had to be done, if she was going to ensure that he was taken care of once he left her consulting room.

"John," she said, breaking in on his contemplation of what would be the greatest horror of his life, but he didn't respond. Getting up from her chair, she sat down in one next to him, and gently rested a hand on his shoulder, waiting until his eyes came to rest on her. "John, I need to tell someone that you're here, because I would be failing in my duty if I allowed you to go home to an empty flat, feeling the way you do."

"Is that absolutely necessary?" He asked, his voice feeling overused and far too brittle for his liking.

"Yes," Helen told him simply. "Who would you prefer it to be?" After a moment's thought, he said,


"Okay," Helen said, getting to her feet. "I won't be long." As she went into the outer office, where the receptionist had quite clearly gone home for the day, she sat down behind the desk and picked up the phone, having retrieved her address book before she left.

When George answered the ringing of her mobile, Helen briefly wondered precisely how she would explain the situation.

"George, it's Helen," She said, trying not to sound quite as bleak as she felt.

"Helen," George said in surprise. "What can I do for you?"

"Where are you?" Helen asked, trying to buy herself a modicum of time.

"Sat in a traffic jam on my way home," George told her. "And getting a distinct feeling of deja vu. You sound just like you did when you phoned Karen to tell her about Ross."

"I'm sorry," Helen said with feeling. "I don't mean to, but I need you to come to the clinic in Paddington where I work."

"Why?" George asked, her fear inexorably rising, as she turned off and started making her way towards Paddington.

"Were you aware," Helen asked her slowly. "That John had been coming to see me as a psychology patient for the last few months?"

"No, I wasn't," Replied George in gob smacked incredulity.

"First of all, don't worry, he is physically absolutely fine. However, he had quite a difficult session this afternoon, and I don't want him going home alone."

"All right," George said after trying to take all this in. "Tell me where you are and I'll be there as soon as possible."

After giving George directions, Helen made John a cup of tea and went back to the consulting room. He was sitting precisely where she'd left him, just staring into space. Putting the tea down on the coffee table in front of him, she said,

"I've phoned George and she's on her way."

"Thank you," He said, briefly looking up at her but not really taking in what she'd said. When George arrived sometime later, a buzzer on the wall behind her desk let Helen know that someone had entered through the main doors of the clinic. Going out of the room and down the corridor, Helen found George waiting for her in reception.

"Hi," She said quietly, going up to her.

"I'm still trying to take this in," George told her in greeting. "And I could do with a few answers."

"That's no surprise," Helen said, leading the way to a row of seats where the patients usually waited.

"Just how long has he been coming to see you?"

"Since the middle of October," Helen informed her. Then, seeing the look of shock on George's face, she asked, "Why, is that date in any way significant?"

"Oh, god," George said in realisation. "It's significant all right. But if he hasn't told you why, then it certainly isn't my place to do so. So, what brought on today's 'difficult Session'?" She asked, using Helen's own words.

"I finally persuaded him to talk about his mum," Helen explained.

"Then I'm hardly surprised that he's in a state of shock," George said disgustedly. "Helen, precisely why do you think it has taken me years to persuade him to talk about that particular subject?" She demanded, feeling her anger rising at this woman who had mentally beaten away all of John's emotional armour.

"George, he had to do it," Helen insisted vehemently. "Eventually, he had to talk about her."

"Well, I hope he agrees with you," George replied a little caustically. "Tell me, was Nikki aware that you were seeing John as a patient?"

"No," Helen replied instantly, though she could feel her expression betraying her. Examining her closely, George's anger rose even further.

"Might I suggest that you learn to lie a little better if you really want to conceal the truth, because you currently wouldn't fool a ten-year-old, never mind someone who has been ferreting out the truth for the whole of her working life. Do you have any idea just how professional it is for someone in your position to see a friend as a patient? It's almost as unprofessional as having an affair with an inmate in your charge, but let's not forget that you've done that too, haven't you."

"What do you want me to say?" Helen asked her bitterly, because she couldn't help admitting to herself that every word George had so far uttered was one hundred percent correct.

"Nothing," George replied angrily. "You've so far said and done quite enough for the time being."

When Helen led the way into the consulting room, George took in John's anguished face, his eyes red from crying, something that shocked her to her core. John never cried, at least not in front of anyone if he could possibly help it. As she walked over to him, his eyes rose to meet hers. All the life in them appeared to be gone, temporarily replaced with the pain that he'd obviously been discussing. When she stood before him, he found his voice, though it didn't bear any ounce of the confidence of his usual tone.

"What are you doing here?" He asked, though he had been vaguely aware of Helen saying that she'd phoned George.

"I've come to take you home," George told him simply, and when he stood up, she tucked his arm through hers. "Is that all right?" He nodded, not feeling the need for words with one of the women who understood him better than he understood himself. When they reached the car park, George unlocked her car and John got into the passenger seat. Retrieving a delighted Mimi from the back of John's car, George drove them silently home, taking little glances at John every now and then, just to make sure he was really all right.

When they reached her house, both John and Mimi followed her inside and Mimi watched expectantly as George opened a tin of dog food for her. Going into the lounge, George found John slumped at one end of the sofa, staring into space as though his very existence hardly mattered.

"Would you like a drink?" She asked, thinking that his thoughts were far away from where he actually was.

"I wouldn't mind a large Scotch," he said, briefly looking up at her. After pouring them both a drink, and opening the French windows so that Mimi could wander in and out at her leisure, George put on some soft music, eventually sitting down next to John and putting her arms round him because she could see that this was what he needed. As he felt her familiar embrace, a slight smile of recognition crossed his face. His right arm went around her, and he rested his face in her hair, taking in the much-loved aroma of perfume and cigarette smoke that seemed to permeate her entire being. They sat there for a considerably long time, neither of them speaking because words were not necessary for the moment. George didn't feel the need to ask questions of him, because she knew that if he wanted to tell her anything about what he'd been doing over the last few months, he would, and that was good enough for her. She was immensely proud of him for starting therapy again, and even more so for his having stuck to it. She knew that she certainly wouldn't have had the courage to do anything of the kind. Her gentle embrace seemed to gradually soothe his shattered nerves, and to return to him some of the contentment he usually felt when he was so close to either her or Jo. She had asked him at one point if he was hungry, but he had answered in the negative. Not feeling the need for food herself, she hadn't moved.

When they had remained in this position for some three hours or so, he asked,

"Will you play for me?"

"Of course," She said, disentangling herself from him and moving over to the piano, switching the stereo off on the way. She began playing some Chopin, thinking this music the most likely to penetrate his wounded soul, its soft, gentle sadness always having soothed her own fractured psyche in the past. They were called Nocturnes, she supposed, because their persistent caress was the essence of dreams, because it's purity and temptation towards that half life that dreams usually engendered could call any soul back from the depths of despair. John lay along the length of the sofa, allowing her beautiful playing of Chopin's creations to wash over him, gradually smoothing away some of the roughened edges of his thoughts, each note appearing to contain all the love she had for him.

When she had played for him for almost an hour, she stopped, thinking that he had perhaps fallen asleep. But as she quietly lowered the lid of the piano, he spoke.

"Do you know the lines of the thirty-second psalm?"

"Not for purposes of immediate recall, no," She replied, a little surprised by his question but willing to see where he was going with this.

"Thou art my hiding place," he began quietly. "Thou preserve me from trouble, thou dost encompass me with deliverance." George sat stunned in the resulting silence, his words having moved her beyond belief. "That's what you've been for me tonight," He clarified for her. "Something I badly needed." Moving over to the sofa, she perched on its edge, gazing down at him as he lay there looking up at her. Gently stroking his cheek, she said, her voice slightly hoarse,

"And do you have any idea just how often you've been precisely that for me? You have kept me going, and tried your damnedest to keep me sane when I've been almost fully submerged in a pool of guilt and regret and all the other feelings that have pulled me far too close to the edge over the years. If I can possibly do the same for you after all this time, then I would gladly do it as often as you might require it." He could hear the total sincerity in every word she uttered, and he couldn't help but wonder what he'd done to deserve it.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Six

It had been two weeks since the prison inspection and, like the rest of the prison, Nikki was still slightly on edge. The only release from that state of mind would be when the inspector's report was finally released. Even Grayling's finely attuned ears had been unable to pick up any advance indications as to how the report would be drafted and its conclusions. On the face of it, they had nothing to fear and Karen's upbeat messages to her wing governors were devised so that they should just sit tight on the matter. It was in this vein of cautious optimism that Nikki came home from a normal day's work to find Helen home already. One look at her woebegone face rang instant alarm bells. Nikki's concerns over the outcome of the inspection report were instantly scattered to the four winds.

"Well, I guess I shouldn't need to ask you what sort of day you've had."

Helen was unable to speak and just nodded her head. She stood in the middle of the room like a stone statue. Tension and intense guilt were running all through her body like electricity.

"Tell me about it, darling."

Nikki's soothing voice and her arms wrapped around her, gently coaxed Helen's rigid muscles to take her to the comfort of the sofa. Nikki deliberately held back from talking until Helen was ready, while her slim fingers gently stroked her hair. Helen clung to her for a long time, not wanting to let go.

"All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again."

Nikki was disturbed by the almost child like voice with which Helen finally articulated the words while her face lay on Nikki's shoulder. She waited for a careful instance before replying in careful tones.

"Who is he? I mean Humpty."

"I suppose you've guessed, Nikki." Helen gave in with a long sigh. "John came to my therapy session. I finally got him to talk about his dead mother and I think I pushed him too far…..in fact, so far out that I don't think that he'll ever come back again…."

It was Helen's deliberate yet faltering attempt to control her emotions that scared Nikki. She knew Helen well enough to understand how much she had left out.

"Is that what you've been trying to get at?"

"John's mother committed suicide when he was little, I think I told you that one….." replied Helen vaguely. Her professional capacity for remembering conversations had gone temporarily awry. After a pause, she carried on with growing intensity of expression in her voice. "……………He's never got over it. He's eaten up with a constant fear of being abandoned, of trusting to and loving someone who will leave him and he has the most incredible tight knit set of defences that I've ever come across. I simply had to get him to face the reality of it to get him to adopt a different way of coping. I fear that I went too far. Certainly when George came to pick him up, that's what she told me……and that I was unprofessional in ever taking him on as a patient in the first place………."

Helen's voice stopped as tears edged her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. Nikki continued to comfort her till she had cried it out of her system.

"So that's the other half of what's upset you?" Nikki gently probed.

"Her precise words were 'You've so far said and done quite enough for the time being.' She gave me to understand that she knew John far better than I did and that I had blundered into the situation. That hurt."

"Because you want to do some good in this world as you have always done?"

"Exactly. That's all I ever wanted to do, both now, when I was at Larkhall and even before that. It has been my guiding light."

"So the worst that you could be accused of was that you have made a mistake with the best of intentions."

That remark brought Helen up short. It was exactly what George had said in not so many words but put in a much more sympathetic light. It gave her the sense of release and was far more generous than she had been disposed to treat herself.

"How much do you identify with John, Helen? I mean in terms of both of you losing your mothers and the way you both reacted to it."

"Good question, Nikki." Helen responded immediately and firmly. "We both grew up in households where there was little display of love and affection and suffered the loss of a mother except……that my mother died naturally, if such a thing can be called natural whereas John's mother committed suicide from completely out of the blue. In my case, I had nothing to blame myself for, only that I had lost a feeling of being loved and secure. I really have problems in imagining John's situation from the inside…."

"……and judging by what you've been saying, so does John. That's the difference."

The tension in Helen's body was easing and waves of tiredness were sweeping over her. She realized that she felt done in by her day at work and just wanted to lie on the sofa with Nikki close to her. That intense feeling of strangulating guilt had started to release its grip on her.

"You lie there and I'll fetch you a cup of tea," offered Nikki with the archetypal English solution, while Helen draped herself full length sideways on the sofa. The position felt very therapeutic. Even practicing psychologists needed these occasional chill out devices.

Nikki threw her briefcase into the corner of the room. Her day-to-day cares could take a back seat. She hung her coat on a coat hook, which she had totally forgotten about in the crisis, only now becoming aware that it was constricting her. She went into the kitchen and busily prepared a cup of tea for two. By the time she had returned, Helen was half asleep. Her fingers fumbled for the cup and saucer, and sipped at the comforting liquid. Much though she might have gently mocked the idea of the 'nice hot cup of tea', she had to admit it worked in some mysterious way.

"There's one thing I'm not quite clear about. Did George know that John was seeing you professionally?"

"When I come to think of it, she didn't."

"You know that George and John are pretty close. It must have been hard for her to suddenly take in the fact that he was seeing a psychologist. You must admit, those kind of matters are conversation killers in polite society."

A small smile formed on Helen's lips at Nikki's touch of humour while the sense of George's perspective became more apparent.

"I expect that George was reacting out of a sense of fear for John and was just being protective of him."

Helen nodded her head. It made sense.

"So what's the answer, Nikki? Where do I go from now?"

"It's hard for me to say, Helen." Nikki ventured cautiously. She had had a lifetime in dealing with other people's problems, but she knew that she was a willing amateur in comparison with Helen's professional experience. "I think that you've given him more than enough to think about, to come to terms with before he can piece his life back together again. The next time you see him will depend on how you find where his head is at."

Helen lay back on the sofa. Her normal instinct was to mull over her game plan ready for the next appointment and write it up. Tonight, she wanted nothing more than to put up her feet, take it easy and recover from today's sense of defeat.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Seven

Life was all so different a month ago. She had traveled up to York for the weekend to visit her two sons who were at university there. The place was ideal as they were on the self- contained modern concrete university campus in a 200-acre landscaped park. All the colleges and academic buildings were on a flat level site within comfortable walking distance of each other, with all the facilities on site. She had been put up in a sparse shaped spare room with a wonderful panoramic view over the lake. She enjoyed strolling round the cloistered world of academia and being given the guided tour by Tom and Mark as the archetypal proud parent. It made her feel young as a throwback to her youth. She had time apart from that to stroll round the city walls of York and visit the famous Viking center. The wine she sipped in the evening was that of celebration of the brightness of her mood.

That weekend was a month ago, and it was an eternity in space away from her. Despite the sunny day, Jo could not help but feel that, this Wednesday that it wasn't shining on her. These moods came from somewhere out of the blue and there was nothing she could do about it. Not that it was easy for others to see the outward manifestation of this beneath the public perception of the level-headed, sensible Jo whose career option was to care deeply about the victims of society. It crossed her mind that sometimes, that victim, told a story which was far too close to home which happened where Barbara Mills' second and third husbands had died a lingering and painful death from cancer, just as her husband had. She had had too much to drink so that George had had to temporarily take over the running of the case. Given time, she had learnt to dismiss that was just a 'one off' incident, a few months ago.

Instinct told Jo to help herself to a stiff shot of whisky as soon as she got home to get over the rigours of the day. To anyone outside the brethren, it appeared that they were all consummate professionals without a trace of stage nerves, just like any actor. Their role in court was to convey that totally assured sense of knowledge and no one but a fellow brethren realized that there were times that all of them had 'winged it' at some time or other. Afterwards, that was all business that was done and disposed of, prior to the next day. Whichever way the court case went that day, there was the normal matter of winding down after a hard day and different barristers handled it in different ways.

As she settled down in the evening, on a Wednesday evening, that dull feeling of deflation came over her, so that home and hearth did not have that attraction, quite the reverse. She couldn't put finger on it as she refilled her glass but it dawned upon her that this was one of her occasions when she would have welcomed company, only that it wasn't there when she needed it. It had been a pattern throughout Jo's life that there were times when she wanted her own company, and other times when she needed company and it wasn't around. The times when she wanted her freedom most was when she feared being sucked in by John's dangerous attractions. Theoretically, since she, John and George shared each other she ought to be having the best of all worlds but there were sometimes when for some reason that she could not name, life didn't feel that way.

What was totally arbitrary, so Jo reflected in a contemplative haze was the way that she, George and John came together in various combinations, in ways unplanned, unthought out and how often, the ring on her mobile or her phone call to others was the precursor. In such a situation, she could hardly wait to drive over to John's flat or George's house or else she would wait in keen anticipation for either or both of the others to come to her. The only curse of the modern age was the disembodied replacement of the real person, leaving their prerecorded message that they weren't available and please can a message be left and the call would be returned. That sense of being let down, of bitter disappointment had happened to her before and at one time, what was worse was that John would be out there in the wide world chasing some anonymous woman who 'meant nothing to her.' It was then that she knew what the blues were about. She, Jo Mills, was its author of that song far too many times than she wanted to remember.

Once again, she picked up her mobile and dialed George's number. She could do with a chat, not about anything in particular, but just in general. The familiar dial tone sounded and yet again, George's voice which was not really a voice drawled her message to' leave a message for her and she would return the call.' Some absurd instinct in her almost wanted her to believe that George had really heard her voice but when her voice faded away, she knew that she was only deceiving herself.

A temporary feeling of positivism welled up inside her to be positive, and she clicked into the next course of action, to phone John. After all, midweek wasn't his likeliest time to be out and about. Impatiently, she waited for John to pick up the phone with that lazily indolent mannerism that she always remembered when she was there with him.

"Hi, John…" she started to say when she was greeted by the same mechanically empty tones, a hateful electronic impersonation of the human being, only that he had said the words in the first place to set up the ring tone. It died away into nothingness, leaving her to clutch the phone in vague impotent fury at the world around her. To assuage her wounded feelings, she reached out for the bottle again.

It was when she knocked back another glass of neat spirits after the last one that she realized that the alcohol was starting to go to her head. She was starting to lose count. It was as well that she didn't need to walk anywhere in a hurry, as she realized that she was far too rooted in her chair. Never mind, her hazy dreamy thoughts reassured herself, she had everything she needed, herself, a comfortable armchair, a glass and a bottle of whisky. She didn't need anyone else, or so the alcohol running through her veins was trying to tell her.

As the room was suddenly moved into closer focus, she tried to look at the whisky bottle. The label wavered in front of her. It hazily occurred to her that perhaps the real reason why she couldn't get her eyes to focus properly was that she needed glasses. It happened to everyone sooner or later. This was the reason why she had trouble in focusing on the dividing line, that separated the amber spirit from the clear air. The colours weren't that different or else she might be worried at how much she had drunk.

As she lay in her chair, that evening, she couldn't shift that core emotion within her of that total depression of spirit. No matter how much she had drunk, somehow, she couldn't escape from herself and her emotions sank down into feelings of defeat.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Eight

John slept very fitfully on the Wednesday night, tossing and turning as the dreams almost overcame him. When his unsettled sleep woke her, George would put her arms round him, holding him to her until he calmed down again. It broke her heart when he unknowingly called for his mother, something that she had never heard him do before. John was entirely unaware of his unconscious disturbance, and George knew that it would have mortified him to have known that he had lowered his defences so spectacularly. It wasn't until the early morning that he finally slipped into a much deeper sleep, his mental and emotional exhaustion banishing the dreams for at least a few hours.

When John eventually awoke at around ten on the Thursday morning, George was sitting fully dressed on the side of the bed, having just placed a mug of tea on the bedside table.

"How do you feel?" she asked when he opened his eyes.

"Erm, exhausted," John replied, lifting his hand to cover a yawn. "What time is it?"

"Nearly ten," George told him. Then, at John's aghast expression, she added, "Don't worry, I've phoned both our secretaries, and we're both officially off work with food poisoning. It won't do you any harm to tell a little white lie just this once."

"No, I suppose not," He acknowledged, heartily relieved that George had removed the issue of his having to go into court feeling the way he did. As he looked up at her, he could see the slight shadows beneath her eyes. "Did I keep you awake last night?"

"You were somewhat restless," She told him, running a gentle hand along his cheek and through his tousled hair.

"I'm sorry," He said, wondering just what form his restlessness had taken.

"It doesn't matter," She assured him. "Now, I'm going to take the opportunity to catch up on some paperwork, so you go back to sleep. You look as though you need it." Pulling her down to lie on his chest, John kissed her.

"I love you," He said, not knowing how else to acknowledge his appreciation of what she was doing for him.

"I love you too," She said, leaning her smooth cheek against his slightly stubbly one.

When she returned downstairs, leaving John to go back to sleep, she stood in the kitchen, watching Mimi's antics out in the back garden. The little dog was chasing flies, running round and round in circles in the sunshine. Smiling at the absurdity of canine pleasure, she poured herself a mug of coffee and went into her office, opening all the windows to let in the warm, fresh summer air. Lighting a cigarette, she picked up the phone, no longer prepared to put off the rather difficult phone call that she had promised herself she would make.

"Helen, it's George," She said when Helen answered her mobile, sounding as calm and professional as she ever had.

"George," Helen said in surprise. "I was going to phone you a bit later. How's he doing?"

"He's asleep," George told her. "After a pretty restless night."

"It'll probably do him good," Helen replied.

"Helen," George began a little sheepishly. "I owe you an apology."

"No, you don't," Helen told her gently, grateful that George was speaking to her again.

"Yes, I do," George insisted. "I should never have said some of the things I did yesterday. They really weren't called for."

"You were trying to protect him," Helen explained. "Which is entirely understandable. John's lucky to have someone to fight his corner as well as you do."

"Well, I don't mean to be quite so vicious about it," George said with a slight smile. "I think it just came as a bit of a shock, that's all."

"Something like that does," Helen told her succinctly. "Especially if you had absolutely no idea."

"I didn't," George confessed. "None whatsoever. But if I'm honest, I'm glad that he's doing it. Something I will tell you, however, is that I don't think he will ever tell you the real reason behind his decision to start therapy again. If the catalyst was what I think it was, then not even you have a hope in hell of getting it out of him. You just might like to bear that in mind."

"I will," Helen assured her. "Now, the reason I was going to phone you in a while, is that I need you to bring him back to see me late this afternoon. After such a harrowing session yesterday, it would be wrong of me to leave it a week before seeing him again."

"Okay," George replied. "He can pick up his car."

When John came downstairs a couple of hours later, George was still sitting at the computer, writing a report for one of her richest clients. Going into the kitchen, John made some fresh coffee, taking her a cup when he'd poured it.

"Thank you," She said when he put it down on the desk. Putting his arms round her from behind, John leaned his cheek against hers, reading what she'd written so far.

"Are you still working for that particularly corrupt individual?" He asked in disgust, recognising the name at the top of the report.

"Yes," George replied with absolutely no contrition. "Because he pays generously and on time, and because one of the things I insist on when I work for him, is that I get a cut of whatever he can screw out of either huge insurance companies or more recently the DTI."

"You're outrageous," John told her affectionately.

"I've never been anything else," She acknowledged with a smile. "It's something you should be used to by now."

"There's something I want to say," John said after a moment's silence, his face still very close to hers.

"I'm listening," She said, wondering what on earth was coming.

"Thank you, for not asking questions," He said, appreciating this from her more than he could possibly imagine.

"John," She said, taking his hands in hers where they rested at her waist. "If you want to tell me about it, if you want to tell me just what you've been doing for the last few months, then I'll listen. But if you don't, then that's fine. I don't need to know, and I certainly don't want to put you under any more emotional pressure than you are already."

"I think that's why I asked Helen to contact you instead of Jo," He said, incredibly touched by her explanation. "When I was seeing Rachel Crawchek," He continued. "Jo constantly wanted to know how it was going, and how successful it was. It's often difficult enough already without the added pressure of needing to make it succeed."

"John, I would never have the courage to allow someone to attempt to untangle my psyche, and I am incredibly proud of you for sticking to it as long as you have. So, I'm not about to make it even harder for you to keep going. There's only one thing that I'm a little curious about, and that's why you chose Helen, considering that she isn't a purely professional stranger, but a friend, someone we all know outside of her professional field."

"It's quite obvious if you think about it," He said with a slight smile. "With Helen in particular, I could never fall back on using the way out that I did with Rachel, even if I wanted to." George's eyes widened. He was right, it did make an awful lot of sense. So, he had gone into this without his usual escape mechanism, making her even prouder of him than she already was.

After making them something to eat, John decided to take Mimi for a walk, thinking that the simple action of doing something normal would probably do him the world of good. He walked in the direction of the park, where he had occasionally met Yvonne walking Trigger. Mimi was delighted to be let loose in the huge open space that was full of the scent of other dogs. He sat down on a convenient bench and closed his eyes, knowing that Mimi wouldn't stray very far from him, and feeling the soft caress of the sun on his face.

As Yvonne walked through the park, having removed Bell's lead, she caught sight of John, and her eyes widened at the thought that he was quite obviously skiving off work. But so what, she thought to herself, everyone needed some time out now and then. But as she approached, she saw that he looked lost, vulnerable, as though something had happened that had rocked his entire world temporarily off its axis. He didn't seem to take any notice of her as she sat down at the other end of the bench, so she just sat there, waiting for him to come back to the present.

When he opened his eyes and saw her, he smiled.

"I must be losing my grip," He said in greeting. "I had no idea that I had company."

"You looked as though you didn't want to be disturbed," Yvonne replied quietly. "Are you all right?"

"I would be lying if I said yes," He acknowledged grimly. "But it'll pass."

"We all have days like that," Yvonne told him honestly. "They usually get better in the end." Looking over at where Mimi was bounding up to Bell, seeing someone who might play with her, John said,

"I sometimes envy her, without a care in the world other than where her next meal is coming from."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Yvonne replied with a shrug. "Nothing ever seems to weigh them down."

They sat there contentedly enjoying the sunshine, and John couldn't help but admit that Yvonne's company was enormously relaxing. She didn't ask him anything about why he was there in the middle of a weekday when he should really be at court, and she didn't enquire as to what was bothering him. The thought of having to answer a stream of penetrating questions was really what currently terrified him the most. He couldn't begin to explain to anyone all the feelings that were buzzing around in his head, and he certainly wasn't prepared to justify why he was talking to Helen about his innermost thoughts, and not to either of the women he loved. This was why, he realised with dawning clarity, he certainly shouldn't even think of telling Jo. With all the best intentions in the world, Jo would inevitably put pressure on him to make the therapy work, whereas George probably wouldn't even want to know when he had his sessions. When the two dogs thought to seek out their owners again, the two humans rose from the bench, clipped leads onto the collars of their canine bosses, and left the park behind.

"She looks happy," John said, scratching the head of the lively Labrador.

"Yeah, I think she likes her new home," Yvonne said with a smile. "Your daughter really knew what she was doing in rescuing this one."

"I wish that she would give it up," John said with a slight frown.

"Yeah, I bet you do," Yvonne said with a laugh. When they reached George's house, Yvonne briefly laid a hand on his arm. "Take care of yourself," She told him quietly. "Whatever it is will sort itself out in time, that's what happens."

"I've no doubt that you're right," He said, inwardly praying that her prediction would be fulfilled.

Part One Hundred and Sixty Nine

"I know I don't exactly run Larkhall strictly according to ultra politically correct guidelines but I think that we showed them that Larkhall works where it matters." Karen had summarized as soon as the inspectors were out of the door.

"Was there a computer scam to fleece the personal spends accounts under Sylvia's nose? Was a dead body carted round the wing and did it finally pop up in the chapel right in the middle of the service? Did your prison come over as something like 'Carry on, Larkhall' and do you really think that your reputation will be ripped to shreds as mine was?" countered Grayling cheerily.

"Well, no." admitted Karen.

"Then don't worry, Karen. I'll keep my ear to the ground. My judgment is that everything will go very quiet while they try and work out what to write. That is their problem and it certainly won't be yours. If I hear of anything, I'll let you know."

As soon as Grayling had put the phone down, his face split into a broad grin. Everyone had acted with considerable finesse and had worked together splendidly. He knew Karen of old that she would, if anything understate the situation. He was not afraid or inhibited to let softer emotions of generous pride flow through him. Not for one second did he become jealous of Karen's success. He would be the first to state that the previous disastrous prison inspection was down to the way that a whole load of trendy management theories had taken over his head to make his grip on the prison completely shambolic.

Grayling strolled down the length of the office, annoying Alison Warner by his manner in ways that she could not put her finger on. What most infuriated her about the man were her suspicions that he knew far too much for his own good and he kept his secrets very tightly secure. It struck at her desire for control of all around her.

Mr. Simpson wearily sat back and looked at the report. He had written and rewritten it many times and had talked endlessly to his junior. He had had a few sleepless nights where expediency wrestled endlessly with his engrained training in accurate observation. He had ended up doing his best to downplay the positive side and to highlight the blemishes but to little avail. It had all hinged on the evidence of the prisoners. Everything had fallen apart when the evidence of that blond haired prisoner was utterly discredited. He could not let her brand of insinuation even enter his report when malicious malcontents at other prisons were similarly disregarded if there was enough first hand evidence to rebut it.

He had wondered if everything was a put up job, as if he had arrested Al Capone on a traffic violation charge while all the bootleg whisky was sneaked out of the back door. He had to admit that, if that were the case, then their conspiracy was a masterpiece of slick organization including the collusion of enough inmates to pull this off. He had to reject this brand of conspiracy theory as swaying over into pure paranoia. He couldn't get away from the fact that, in its rough and ready way, Larkhall worked. Finally, he gave up in despair, signed off the final draft and let the messenger take the ticking bomb away to wend its way to the notoriously irascible Minister.

Neil Houghton looked warily at the neat folder that landed on his desk. It had crossed his mind that he had not heard a whisper about the report and that aroused his suspicions. He picked it up and started leafing firstly through the neatly typed up set of conclusions at the end. He always found it more useful to look at summaries of reports, as they didn't confuse things with the mass of conflicting and sometimes ambiguous details. He liked his certainties in his life that he could cling to. It was those that roused his rage immediately. Much against his will, he started to look at the details and certain phrases were branded on his mind in letter of fire. This was utterly outrageous.

"…….in its own way, however loosely run the information infrastructure, the prison officers do get to know the prisoners…….there is mutual respect between prison officers and inmates even if the tone is sometimes over familiar…..one failing is that there is no prison diversity forum and that there is an over reliance on informal arrangements amongst relationships between the prisoners……the danger with this is that while the prison population changes over time, the social cohesion amongst the prisoners could easily break down without robust control mechanisms in place…….the prison diet is somewhat basic although it is up to an acceptable standard…….although useful education projects are in hand, other purposeful activity is oriented towards filling in ancillary functions of the prison….the general ethos is homely though hardly radical…….."

Neil Houghton went red in the face and his eyes glared menacingly. Surely, Larkhall had an evil reputation as the graveyard of reputations in the Home Office. He had picked up its reputation of a history of prison escapes, suicides, prison riots, letters from inmates to the 'Guardian." He had counted on the certainly that either the inspectors would dig up the dirt or else the prison would malfunction spectacularly. Either way, he was guaranteed to win. He might have known that its twisted nature would have made it pose as a model establishment. The report's negative sides were nitpicking, hardly the stuff of Select Committee. In fact, if every prison in the country were working in a similar fashion, at least the press would be off his back. The hateful fact of his existence was that it was Larkhall, of all places, that was so sickeningly angelic. He picked up the phone. He needed answers, and fast.

"I don't want some ex-con running a wing in one of my prisons. Your report left that out. I want that part of the report rewritten for a start." Houghton snapped at the two sheepish inspectors and slung the report across the desk virtually in their laps.

Mr. Traynor looked sideways at his senior. He did not dare to say anything off his own bat but looked to him to take the lead. In turn, the other man coughed and straightened his tie and began to speak very hesitantly.

"It isn't as easy as that."

"I don't see that. It seems quite simple to me. It was a complete mistake that she was taken on in the first place. She should go."

"We spent the majority of our time on G wing. We thought that it would be the weak link and that it would drag down Larkhall as a whole. We were wrong. We interviewed a number of the prisoners and they were happy……"

"…no doubt being tucked up in bed at night by a load of wet liberals……" snorted Houghton derisively. If prisoners weren't in prison to suffer, then what on earth were they in prison for? The Sun might nose this one out. He was horrified that he might get pilloried by the very same press, that he looked to for political friendship and support of his 'hard man' image.

"It doesn't work out that way. The prison officers obviously respect her and the wing works efficiently in its own way. There are some procedural imperfections but nothing to write home about. We've been through the records with a fine toothcomb for any trouble. The one incident of the prison officer who was sacked for tampering with the prisoner's mail was fully investigated."

"I know all about it." Snapped Houghton. "I wanted you to find evidence of sloppy supervision of staff, and bending the rules for prisoners far enough so that we can use that to hang her with."

Mr. Simpson kept his thoughts to himself and his face straight concerning the minister's sense of ethics. The other man's tone of voice and visual mannerisms alternated between synthetic moral outrage and the self satisfied, confidential expression of a political fixer. After all, he was a politician so he should not be so surprised.

"There was nothing on record. Surprisingly enough, her system is impeccable and her budget hangs together to the last penny. There is absolutely nothing on paper, which she can be criticized for, certainly not the matter of the letter. After all, most organizations work on at least a fifty fifty chance that there is no internal corruption."

Neil Houghton snorted with anger and disgust. The trouble was that the man was clearly not 'on message' despite all the subtle hints he was giving. The man's insufferable rectitude and 'stick in the mud' attitude was beginning to irritate him intensely. The man was clearly a plodder with no sense of creativity, of thinking and working 'outside the box' in which he was indoctrinated many years ago.

"We have to admit that whatever Karen Betts is doing with Larkhall, it is working. Let's face it, I can't rewrite this report without falsifying our records of observations."

"I am not asking you to do that. I'm merely suggesting that you put a different gloss on it, to be truthful without being over sympathetic." Came Neil Houghton's reply through his tight smile.

Mr. Simpson sank back in his chair in dismay. The politicians lived in such an Alice in Wonderland world where words meant exactly according to what they wished them to mean. After all, he was just an old fashioned inspector. He had tried to do a hatchet job and failed and it seemed the logical course of events to cut their losses, mark it up for another follow up review and to work through prisons far more deserving of his attention. Besides, the latest prison based legislation put more work on them for the same staffing. Surely this was the most sensible, logical course of action?

"There's another thing, the fact that there was no prior notice so that the prison could be caught off guard. It fitted in any case as a follow up report. If you take a look at the previous report, you can see that any report must be an improvement on the one before. We can't have it both ways."

The lowering scowl on Neil Houghton's face indicated very precisely that he did want to have it both ways. It was in his very nature, which his cosseted position indulged to the limit. Mr. Simpson would not have known the elegant old-fashioned expression 'hoist with our own petard' but if he had, it wouldn't have done him any good to say it.

Neil Houghton brooded on his own after the inspector had left. He signed it off and dumped it in his out tray. There was a fix somewhere. He didn't know who did it and why but he vowed to someday get to the bottom of the matter.

Part One Hundred and Seventy

Later that afternoon as they drove towards the clinic where Helen worked, George could feel the tension rising in him, the slight air of nervousness which she certainly wasn't used to seeing in him.

"Is this how you often feel before a session?" George asked him as she waited for a traffic light to turn green.

"Sometimes," He admitted, not having been aware that his feelings were quite so visible to her. But as they sat in the waiting room as Helen finished with her previous patient, George took his hand in hers, trying to give him the silent support that wouldn't actually intrude on his thoughts. In truth, she really wasn't sure how to help him with what he'd been going through over the last day or so, and she had to do this purely by instinct. She didn't want to make him feel in any way crowded, but she did want him to know that she was there for him if he wanted her. John definitely appreciated her gentle presence, because it put no pressure on him to discuss his feelings whatsoever, something that he knew he couldn't have coped with today.

When Helen appeared and asked John to follow her, George rose with him, putting her arms round him and softly kissing him.

"You don't need to stay," he told her, feeling more than a little self-conscious at her presence.

"Do you want me to go?" She asked, perfectly happy to do whatever he wanted. After a moment's thought, he said,

"No," Suddenly wanting the silent support that her presence down the corridor would inevitably provide. As George watched him walk with Helen into the consulting room, she picked up an out of date copy of Cosmopolitan, and tried to lose herself in its pages, but all the time wondering how John was getting on behind the closed door.

When they were seated opposite each other, Helen asked,

"So, how are you feeling today?"

"As though I'm on a different planet," He replied, thinking this the simplest way of explaining his sense of unreality. "Part of me feels numb, empty, as though I don't have anything left inside me, yet the rest of me feels overwhelmed."

"That's not unusual," Helen told him matter-of-factly. "You had an enormous emotional shock yesterday, because a lot of those feelings had remained hidden and dormant for years. It will in the long run be a good thing that you faced some of your demons, but it might not feel like it for quite a while."

"So what do I do now?" John asked. "How do I return to my job and the rest of my life without completely disintegrating?"

"You do that by constantly reminding yourself that you're not the only person who knows how you feel," Helen told him succinctly. "If it hadn't been necessary for me to contact George yesterday, I would have suggested that you tell somebody about what you were going through, because you will occasionally need someone to lean on."

"I think that's what I don't like about all this," John said a little bitterly. "The fact that I do need such a level of emotional support. Certainly where George and Jo are concerned, I'm used to giving it to them, not having it the other way round."

"And how did George live up to that?" Helen asked with some curiosity.

"She was wonderful," John was forced to admit. "She's barely asked me anything about why I've been coming to see you, or what we've talked about, something I am certain Jo would have done. When I had therapy last time and made such a disaster of it, I think the fact that Jo knew about it, and was expecting me to make a success of it put an enormous amount of pressure on me. Failing wasn't really an option, because it had been Jo's idea in the first place. She was so angry with me when I told her that I'd slept with Rachel, which I suppose was hardly surprising. Jo made me feel as though I'd failed her more than I'd failed myself. I don't blame her for it, but that's almost certainly why I asked you to contact George rather than Jo. I don't want Jo to know that I'm having therapy again, at least not yet, because I don't want to be under the same pressure to make it succeed as I was before."

"Is it really so different with George?" Helen asked, marvelling at how two people could see something like this quite so differently.

"Yes," John said with absolute certainty. "George sees it as something that I've chosen to do for whatever reason, and a part of my life that she will probably know very little about. The difference is that she doesn't feel threatened by my having an area of my life that she doesn't have any part in, whereas Jo probably would."

"And why do you think that is?" It hurt John that he didn't have to think before immediately coming up with an answer to this.

"When I was married to George, she was forced to become used to my straying, because the more she ignored it, the more she thought I was likely to stay with her. I don't admit something like that lightly, because I do feel incredibly guilty for the way I often treated her. No matter how hurt I might have been over her inability to feel any real love for Charlie, George didn't deserve such a lacklustre approach to fidelity. The fact that George entirely went off making love for a while, was not an excuse for me to pick up someone else."

"So why did you do it?" Helen asked, striving to remove any hint of censure from her tone.

"I thought that she no longer loved me," John said quietly. "I now know that it was because she thought that she didn't deserve my love, but at the time I lighted on the most probable explanation. I thought I'd managed to keep my infidelity from her, but she found out somehow, and began sleeping with me again because she didn't want to lose me."

"Doesn't that tell you how much she loved you, and still does love you?" Helen persisted quietly.

"Yes," John said with a heavy sigh of regret. "But it didn't prevent me from straying again and again over subsequent years. I sometimes think that if my mother had been alive, she would have been utterly ashamed of me."

"Whilst some parents can criticise and belittle every single thing that their children either achieve or don't achieve," Helen said thoughtfully. "There are other parents who have an enormous capacity for forgiveness, no matter what their children do. I sometimes like to think that my mother would have been one of those, and that no matter how bad some of the things I've done may have been, she would have been able to understand the reasons behind what I'd done. I might be deluding myself, but I'll never know and neither will you."

John was quiet for a time, trying to put his thoughts into some sort of order.

"Where do I go from here?" he asked eventually, wanting an answer to this above everything else.

"I think you need some time out," Helen replied gently. "You need some time to begin putting yourself back together. It isn't going to be easy, and I will be here any time you want to talk about it, but it is something that only you can decide how to do. You need to start rebuilding your self-confidence and to start telling yourself that you are worth an awful lot more than you think you are. Try not to think that I'm dropping you just when I've managed to get through your emotional armour because I'm not, but there's only so much I can do for you from now on. I haven't done what you wanted me to do, I haven't given you an answer as to how you can avoid using sex with random women as a fallback, but that particular question didn't ever have a simple answer. You didn't know it when you came to me, but you needed to face your innermost fears, and to admit to the things you would rather avoid discussing. Somehow, we've got there. It hasn't been easy, and just because you've achieved that doesn't mean it will necessarily be easier from hereon in. What I hope, is that you will be more likely to think about what you're doing before you do it, though that isn't a guarantee."

"I hope I can live up to your expectations," John said with a slight smile.

"They have to be your expectations, John, not mine," Helen told him seriously.

"You need to decide what you want to expect for yourself. This isn't about what others may want of you, but what you want out of yourself. George might now be aware that you've been having therapy, but I don't think she'll hold it against you if it doesn't automatically make you faithful to her and Jo. She loves you too much for the occasional lapse to be a real issue. That isn't to say that you shouldn't try your hardest not to stray in the future however."

"Are you sure that it's okay for me to come back if I feel the need?" He asked, wanting some sort of lifeline to cling onto.

"Of course," Helen replied as she got to her feet. "That's what I'm here for."

As John followed George home, having picked up his car which had thankfully remained in one piece after spending a night in the clinic's car park, he wondered if he really could continue on his own from here. He appreciated what Helen had said, but would his few months of therapy really stand him in good stead for the future? He honestly couldn't tell. He wasn't arrogant enough to think that he could ignore or bypass all forms of female beauty except for those of Jo and George, because he knew himself of old. If Jo knew about the therapy, she would probably expect him to succeed at his endeavour to be faithful to them. George on the other hand would be unfailingly realistic, and possibly even expect him to stray, knowing him as well as she did after all these years. The question he kept asking himself was, what on earth was the fine line between these two extremes, and did he have the willpower and self-control to maintain it?

Part 171

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