Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard
Part One Hundred and Seventy One
The workings of the power elite enable a far greater interchange between them in work and social occasions than might be assumed. Unlike the celebrity elite whose comings and goings are breathlessly reported in disposable magazines, they operate in secret. If it is the case that knowledge is power, then that enables them to make their plans unchecked, and work across separate organisations. In contrast, it is the lot of lesser mortals to be chained to their working life, be it office worker or commercial salesman out on the road or factory worker. They assume that their freedom is greater than it actually is, which is a step up from the freedom to be out of work and on the margins of society. The cult of the business meeting, the working lunch and the seminar meant that the uncomplaining drudges in life who hold up institutions on their overworked shoulders, carry on much as before while decisions that may affect their lives are made with a certain assured arrogance and remoteness of power. They operate in an insulated bubble from which nothing can disturb them, except rebellious high court judges and bloody-minded surgeons with ideas that are twenty years behind the times.
It should be no great surprise when Michael Beauchamp chose to frequent his favourite restaurant that he spied his old friend, Neil Haughton.
"Neil. What luck bumping into you in this neck of the woods." Exclaimed Michael.
"I come here now and again to see what turns up. Let's grab a table together."
Neil operated from the certainty where even a social equal would not presume to have any alternative plans. As Michael was on his own, it suited both their purposes and they made their lordly way to a comfortable corner, well suited for confidential discussions. By contrast, the normal prosperous married couple would have taken any table that was center stage and not even think of eavesdroppers.
"So how is married life suiting you with the glamorous Connie? I haven't seen her for months." Neil enquired, discreetly sipping at his glass of mineral water and carefully arranging his napkin.
"We both never stop working, carving out our individual career paths in life, Neil."
"That sounds familiar. I hardly have a private life that I can definitely call my own. There is always the possibility of a late night call, some minor crisis that I have to deal with."
"There are compensations, Neil. Don't you find that somehow the burdens of life at the top with life and death decisions give you that adrenaline drive to succeed, Connie in the operating theatre and me in the boardroom. Neither of us knows the meaning of slowing down in life. That's for those who are worn out, past it or just plain inadequate." Michael pronounced smugly and enthusiastically. Then again, Michael had always been a lucky man.
"Not that we are appreciated for all the hard work we pack in."
"You're right there, Neil. Whatever grand plans that we come up with, we always get the moaners, the negative critics. It is left to us to see things through, the leaders, those with vision, who have the sight of the bigger picture. You might talk till you're blue in the face that, in the long run, that vision will pay handsomely but all these whingers can do is to blether on about the fine details. You know the sort of thing where a few individuals are pushed out of their tidy little corner in life. They never see that, in a few years time, they'll be thanking us for taking all the trouble, all the flack in the press, so long as the long perspective is taken care of. All I can say is that the hard work we do is worth every penny that we're paid."
Neither men knew that their pious words were only their reduction of Rudyard Kipling's poetical "The White Man's Burden" to the level of a party political broadcast on behalf of the Me First Party.
"It sounds as if you have the ideal partnership." Neil continued after a pause in the conversation.
"It doesn't mean that we don't have a little entertainment in our lives. After all, we've worked hard enough to get where we are, " came the reply with a confidential leer.
Neil was intrigued.
"Tell me more, Michael."
"Connie and I have always had what I would call an 'open relationship.' After all, you have seen her and know how attractive she is. We have this unspoken agreement that if in my travels, I spy some attractive piece of skirt in a hotel bar who is in need of my debonair charm, then it's only fair that she enjoys the same rights. We don't ask questions of each other, but we're there for each other's careers."
"So you enjoy all the benefits of playing away from home without being greeted by a shower of broken china."
"Exactly so," pronounced Michael
"So how's your love life?"
"Well, you know how it goes. I'm taking it easy and playing the field. I certainly don't want to go plunging into some kind of demanding relationship." Houghton declared scornfully.
"So you're the eligible bachelor right now."
"Something like that."
There was another thoughtful pause. They were both tiptoeing round the fact that Michael had the big advantage over Neil in having a partner on very attractive terms while Neil didn't. His dedication to government business in hand carried an undertone of desperation, not dedication.
"Do you miss not having George around anymore. I always thought that the pair of you were well suited, that you made a good team. For instance, her legal talents can't be sneezed at in terms of government business."
"She was a tremendous asset to our partnership," came Houghton's instant response. "Of course, you know that the government has to be seen to comply with all the legal rigmarole, which I confess that I have trouble in getting my head round. I feel sometimes that the way forward is clear but I'm being pulled back by all this red tape. George had that talent to negotiate our way through these perils. All the members of the cabinet have said to me on more than one occasion how much they admired her. She was invaluable in that one essential area of work ..She was good in bed as well, I can tell you."
Michael remembered the ultra confident glamorous blonde and nodded in agreement with the lopsided grin that briefly twisted Neil's features.
"Of course, working for the government has that drawback. I can't ever say that when I was in advertising I anticipated that this would be a problem. I thought that, if I became a member of the cabinet, I would have more power, not less .."
"You have my sympathy, Neil."
"Do you have this sort of problem, Michael?"
"God no." Michael Houghton's level droning voice responded. "You do have to watch out for health and safety law and those ambulance chasers threatening us with compensation claims. Regrettably, in this modern enterprise age, it is a growth area."
"Coming back to George. Of course I do miss her charm, her unique ability to handle a social occasion. You must admit that it does tend to centre on couples and sometimes, I feel as if I am the odd one out. The PM does expect the family image of his ministers. It makes for the occasional bit of good publicity, you know."
"I have seen her. She does have that certain quality, a bit like Connie."
"Of course." Houghton replied a little stiffly.
"Would you have her back if she asked?"
"I might." Houghton replied at last in deliberate tones after a long pause. "If I think of it, there are certain advantages. I mean I'm not the one to maintain grudges however much might have come between us. It's just that her presence round the house was so familiar. When she was around, I felt that I knew where I stood. I'd have to think carefully," he added hastily. "It's not as if she went out to buy a packet of cigarettes and forgot to come back for months and then let herself back with her front door key. A man has his pride, you know ."
"It just depends, Michael. Of course, we would have to do a lot of talking over to set the record straight."
"Is she seeing anyone else, Neil?"
"Not to my knowledge." Came the straight-faced answer from Houghton. "If she was, that would be something we might have to talk over."
After that line of conversation petered out, the silence this time was brooding and longer than before.
"Anyway, back to what we were talking about before. Is there any inside information on the stock exchange that you might want to tip me off in advance."
"Not at present but if I come across anything, you'll be the first to know," Neil's teeth flashed in reply, feeling that he was on much more solid ground.
"So how's life going on in the corridors of power, Neil?"
"Surprisingly enough, nothing much except the irritating outcome of a prison inspection. It was one of our crumbling Victorian piles that's as behind the times as you can get."
"Does it have any onsite healthcare?" Michael enquired as he applied his specialty to every corner of life. You never know, there might be scope for a bit of empire building.
"From what I've seen in the report, they dabble in it. There's only a small unit, nothing like these huge modern complexes that you are building these days. Regrettably while these prisons exist, the healthcare has to be kept on site. You can't have any dangerous criminals escaping."
"Just as well." Michael responded in bored tones. It wasn't worth bothering about by the sound of it. "Perhaps they ought to muddle along on their own. It's not as if prisoners deserve the same rights as the general population."
"Hear, hear." Neil echoes from their shared sense of superiority over the general population.
Part One Hundred and Seventy Two
On the Wednesday lunchtime, Connie was taking advantage of the glorious weather on her day off to go shopping. It had been some considerable time since she'd spent an extortionate amount of money on clothes, but having a day off in the middle of the week, plus having been informed by Michael that they would be attending a very high powered dinner party at the weekend had given her the perfect excuse. The Knightsbridge boutique was air-conditioned, the cool wafts of manufactured air making her shiver slightly after the heat of the sun outside. Having paid for the dress, she left the quiet atmosphere of the shop, and began walking lazily down the fashionable street. The numerous expensive boutiques were interspersed with elegant wine bars and coffee shops, nearly all of them having tables and chairs outside, so that their customers could take advantage of the beautiful weather. Connie lifted her face to the sun as she walked, thinking it heavenly to be out in it rather than cooped up in either her office or the sterile environment of the operating theatre. Time was almost standing still for her today, with the very air itself seeming to be lulling her into a state of relaxation.
When George caught sight of Connie from where she sat outside her favourite coffee shop, she smiled. Connie looked to be miles away, wholly submerged in her thoughts and without a care in the world. George hardly liked to disturb her reverie, but she somehow wanted to share in this unexpected side to Connie's nature. When Connie heard George's voice calling to her, she looked round, at first unsure as to where the voice was coming from.
"Over here," George clarified, and Connie realised who it was who had greeted her.
"Hi," She said, walking over to George's table. "This is a nice surprise."
"Sit down," George invited. "Would you like some coffee?" Saying that she would, Connie took a seat and put her boutique bags down on a spare chair.
"Have you like me got the day off?" Connie asked.
"No," George replied with a slight frown. "My office isn't too far from here."
"Very nice," Connie commented dryly. "That must be why you can afford to charge so much for your services."
"No more, I suspect, than you do for the work you do at the Hadlington," George replied with a knowing smile, referring to the private hospital where she had been treated for her breast cancer.
"Touché," Connie agreed with a smile. "So, how are you?"
"Oh, surviving," George replied with a shrug. "The chemo's a bit of a nightmare, but I suppose that's to be expected. What about you?"
"Oh, you know," Connie replied almost dismissively. "Still putting people back together, still shouting at my staff, you name it."
"And how's it going with Ric?" George asked, having seen the possibility of something between them whilst she was in hospital.
"He's just a friend," Connie said seriously. "Nothing more."
When Connie's coffee had arrived and George had been given a refill, she tried to change the subject from something that Connie obviously found a little difficult.
"So, what's the occasion?" She asked, gesturing to the bags from the type of shops that she occasionally frequented. "Or were you simply after some retail therapy?"
"Michael is insisting on taking me to some political function, because the current Home Secretary, who just happens to be one of his cronies, will be the guest of honour."
"Ah," George said with a broad smile. "So you're not particularly enamoured with Neil Haughton?"
"Good god, no," Connie said in total disgust. "He bores me to tears. Quite how any woman manages to put up with him for more than five minutes is beyond me."
"I put up with him for nearly two and a half years," George said to Connie's complete amazement. "And yes, he very often did bore me to tears."
"You had an affair with the Home Secretary?" Connie asked, wanting to get this absolutely straight.
"Yes, for my sins," George replied dryly. "We lived together for quite a while, which wasn't one of the most delightful experiences of my life."
"So why did you do it?" Connie asked, wanting to get to the bottom of this little quandary.
"I think that in the beginning, it was really to annoy John more than anything else," George admitted sheepishly. "I wanted to flaunt something in front of him that he couldn't give me, the status symbol of being attached to a government minister, and it worked. John was bitterly jealous of Neil's presence from the word go. Then, when I failed to win a trial which it would have been politically expedient to win, he gave me a black eye, so I threw him out. I've hardly seen him since."
"You don't exactly lead a quiet life, do you," Connie said with sympathy.
"I don't think I ever have," George told her ruefully.
Then, wanting to get off the subject of her relationship with Neil, George asked,
"So, what did you buy?"
"This," Connie replied with a smirk, retrieving a beautiful, very revealing dark red dress from one of the bags and holding it up. It was fairly long, with a very low neckline and with the short sleeves off the shoulder.
"That's gorgeous," George told her in obvious appreciation.
"Well, it ought to ensure that I have some fun, and it will definitely serve to keep Michael on his toes."
"Why do you stay with him if you despise him so much?" George couldn't help asking.
"I don't really despise him, not completely anyway," Connie said a little tiredly. "We just both seem to have outlived our usefulness to the other, that's all. I no longer need his money that got me through medical school, and he no longer needs a wife to rise through the upper echelons of the Department of Health. We tolerate each other's existence because we can't be bothered to get divorced. He has lovers, I have lovers, and we put up a nicely contented facade whenever necessary."
"It doesn't mean that you're happy," George said quietly.
"No, perhaps it doesn't," Connie admitted, utterly astonished that she was revealing so much to this woman she barely knew. "But for now, I suspect that's how it's going to stay."
"Well, you will certainly turn a few heads at that dinner," George said with a smile. "I seem to have gone off buying clothes ever since I had the mastectomy."
"You don't look any different than you did before, you know," Connie told her quietly.
"I'm not sure that I really believe you," George replied uncertainly.
"You should," Connie said simply. "Besides," She added with a smile, trying to put George at her ease. "No woman should ever stop buying clothes. It goes against all the laws of humanity." A little while later as George returned to her office, she couldn't help smiling at the half-hour she'd spent with Connie. It had been entirely unexpected but extremely relaxing. They had talked about normal things and normal feelings, just two women who were gradually finding that they had an awful lot in common.
Part One Hundred and Seventy Three
John's concerns pressed particularly heavily on him as he got home after a particularly wearisome day in court and he lay back while a soothing classical CD played. It crossed his mind that he might have been an emotional cripple all his life and therefore overdue for therapy. Nevertheless, he felt destined to be increasingly supportive of the troubles of those near and dear to him. In a covert way, this had been part of his role in life as a barrister and then a judge, and not just the by-product of his profession. After all, had he not gone out of his way to right injustices, to offer that compassion as filtered through the dry and dusty legal tomes and precedents? It meant that he was uniquely empowered to release the afflicted, and to open up their horizons where the scales of justice could be rightfully tilted that way. The other part of his role was as an avenging force of justice to bring home the consequences of moral transgressions, however rich and powerful the culprits fancied that they might be.
The combination of his learning and his facility with the spoken word was a finely honed skill in a courtroom, but he had been belatedly learning to apply it to his troubled home life. The John Deed that went home to Jo's and George's personal troubles was far less confident and self assured. He felt that he was a novice in the arts of being a carer, and was conscious that he wore L-plates when it came to compassion at home.
He mulled over what George had gone through over the years, first her anorexia and then her breast cancer and how much the chemotherapy treatment had taken it out of her. For all that, she had been unobtrusively there for him with her quietly undemanding and unselfish care for him in the aftermath of that last emotionally shattering therapy session. Tears suddenly sprang to his eyes. When he thought about it, she had always been an extravagant and extrovert dresser but she had worn her virtues in a self-denying fashion. She had always played up to her image of being hard, uncaring and only intent on material self advancement, and a careless observer might have judged her by that mask. Regrettably, George's act had worked far too well where Charlie was concerned. He had always really known different, and had seen that split second when she let down her guard. Now others could see what he had always known about her, even unconsciously when their mutual recriminations had signaled the end of their marriage. He smiled affectionately for her as his mind dissolved away peacefully in a dream.
He couldn't help noticing that something had improved on his immediate concentration on recent events, and had given him some kind of Olympian perspective of their past. He could place all events in their historical perspective, shading back in time. Both the busy life of a judge and his temperament hadn't allowed himself that luxury up till now.
In this mode of contemplation, he was not surprised that Jo's face gradually took shape before his eyes. His perspective shifted straight away to that sensible, level headed woman whom he had always believed her to be. He conceded that although both he and George had gently stretched her self-imposed boundaries, Jo would always be Jo. What he couldn't help thinking about was of the occasions when Jo and alcohol had violently collided with each other. In his present mood, it was easy to recall when once Jo had got drunk at his digs following the Jason Powell trial and another occasion when she was clearly incapable of taking her accustomed role at Barbara Mills trial and George had taken over.
His calm contemplation was jarred by that image that came into his mind. He could see it plainly as if it were yesterday. He had offered Jo a drink in his digs and, after a moment of hesitation, Jo had poured a large measure and had knocked it back in one go, the first of several drinks. His eyes had seen it but the moment had passed him by, unregarded. The visual image it conjured up disturbed him greatly. It was perfectly understandable to overlook it at the time, as he was more preoccupied with her furious rage at his judgment. She was in such a state that his urgent need to calm her down had swept everything away, until now. His eyes had seen and observed at the time even if his conscious mind hadn't drawn conclusions.
"When I was young, I used to accompany my father to AA meetings as a recovering alcoholic." Jo's voice jumped into his consciousness. He could hear the particular intonations in her voice.
That meant that her own father had struggled to bring himself back from the brink of total ruination, loss of self respect and letting down your nearest and dearest. That was a private hell that he could relate to, he reflected to himself ruefully. If Jo had once fought to help her father to escape that hell, it ought to have made her the very last person to be drawn down into that pit and should have made her especially resolute. The words ' ought to' echoed in his head. He sensed a trap. From his experience of therapy, he sensed that life was not so easy, that it did not run in obvious straight lines like that but had an internal logic of its own. He could almost hear Helen's challenging voice ask of him who in the scheme of things is totally invulnerable. Why, even Helen, that most professionally correct of women had let slip personal glimpses of herself, the third person he knew who had lost a mother early in life, George, Helen and himself, John Deed.
It was time to act, time to consult a wiser authority, someone who might have knowledge of such matters where he, John Deed, was an amateur. He needed that input. Casting his mind about the circle of friends that he knew, Karen's face jumped into its frame of just that fount of wisdom. His mind was made up. He reached for his mobile
"John, I haven't heard from you in ages. It's good to hear from you again."
John felt uplifted by the warm tone of Karen's voice. There was not a trace of reproach but the genuine pleasure in him melted his heart.
"To what do I owe you this call?"
"I want to see you for some practical advice, Karen, on a medical matter. Is it all right if I come over and see you?"
The mixture of directness and diffidence struck a new note with Karen. This wasn't the John Deed that she had known.
"Of course. No time like the present."
Karen's simple response made John feel more centred on his purpose. He knew what he had to do and was not afraid to act.
A little while later, John made his way up the flight of steps and into Karen's smart flat. One glance at her told him that she had not changed and neither had her home surroundings. It gave him a sense of reassuring normality. One glance told him that Karen had achieved her own sense of balance, since his hair raising experiences of seeing Karen gamble recklessly on top of the prison roof with her own life as well as Denny's.
"I assume that the demands of the prison service have kept you busy. From my limited experience in the past, I can't imagine that it would have got any easier."
"You're right there. It gets to the point that I feel more married to Larkhall than any man I've lived with. I do my best to fight it but there you are. Want a drink?"
"I'm thirsty but mineral water will be fine, Karen. It's been a warm day."
Karen smiled briefly to herself and pored a couple of drinks, scotch for herself.
"So what do you want my opinion about, John?"
"It's this way. I needed some advice from you on a medical matter, not my own I hasten to add. You have the advantage over a doctor because you are a friend and because you have a mind and opinions which I respect."
This is definitely not one of John's 'chat up' lines, Karen concluded. It was interesting that what John was saying had a new transparency of manner.
"Fire away. I'm all ears."
"Have you had any experience of any kind of an alcoholic, especially in the early stages?"
Karen sipped her drink as an alternative to reaching for a cigarette. The question was very open ended.
"I've seen it in all shapes and sizes down the years, now that I remember. I started my training as a state registered nurse when I was 17 and joined the WRAF and then left to work at St Mary's Hospital. The forces and the medical profession both have a high percentage of alcoholism, the one because of a prevalent macho tradition, the other because of, well I don't know "
Karen's deliberately neutral and technical dissertation faded away, when she focused in on why, amongst the highly talented and highly dedicated intelligent surgeons, there were the walking casualties.
"Everyone has an idea of the obvious alcoholics, hanging round town centers. They include those who periodically end up at Larkhall where they end up temporarily drying out. When they serve their term, they end up back in their own private hell for lack of follow up action despite the best efforts of my officers. If you remember Denny Blood, that was exactly what happened to her mother. These are the obvious examples, who went past the point of no return many years ago. The problem is with those out there who work in occupations who just about cling on with their teeth, despite the odds is that they work unbelievably hard in concealing their addiction, first of all from themselves and then from their colleagues."
"How do they get into that situation in the first place and how on earth do they hold down their jobs?"
"There are many patterns of alcoholic behaviour, John. Some are regular, steady drinkers who don't notice how it takes over their lives. Others binge drink, long periods of sobriety and then periodically falling off the wagon, whether in celebration of being let off the internal leash or just to drown their sorrows when events in life become too much for them. There's "
Karen was about to carry on her discourse when she saw John's eyes widen in shock, however frozen his features were. She fixed John with a penetrating look to pin him down to specifics
"You haven't asked to see me to talk about alcoholism in general but about someone you know. I know you better than that, John Deed."
John let out a long sigh of resignation. He was getting used to being pinned down by sharp eyes, perceptive women who saw through the guard that habit always erected at uncomfortable moments. The difference was that he was learning to stop fighting them off. He might as well bite the bullet and say what he had fully intended to say in the first place if it weren't for the problem in sometimes just coming out and saying it.
"You're right, Karen. It was foolish of me. Why I really wanted to tell you is that I'm worried about Jo."
The words sprang out of John's mouth with the speed of a bullet. It might have seemed indecent if John hadn't concluded that the situation was far better dealt with by getting to the heart of the matter.
"What makes you think that she has a drinking problem, John?"
Karen's carefully deployed words centred John. It both carefully described and avoided stigmatizing her at the same time.
"There are events that I know from seeing with my own eyes."
John was on home territory, in the world of evidence, and he set out the facts as best as he knew them.
"And what is it that you sense and feel without putting your finger on it, John?"
"Is there any merit in it? It could all be in my head."
"It could also be your intuition at work," Karen offered.
John shook his head. He dwelt in the world of verifiable facts and intellectual certainties. Intuition, whether feminine or otherwise, was a quality of mind he had heard of but which lay outside his experience even supposing it ever existed.
"The problem is that you and I know that we have not enough to go on. I can't advise you to do more but watch and wait." Karen finally concluded. She was touched for his unselfish concern for her and wished that she had more comfort to offer him She had to be gently honest about the matter.
"It seems somehow inadequate," John said at last.
"Sometimes, that is all we can do. If you are right, you will find out soon enough if your fears are justified if you can read the signs right."
Part One Hundred and Seventy Four
If all the others on Darwin Ward were treating work as some kind of light-hearted entertainment, Ric for one wasn't in the mood. For some reason that he couldn't explain, the endless banter between Will and Tom set him on edge. In contrast, there was an ominous lowering storm clouded atmosphere between Will and Connie, which set in as soon as Connie came in view. There were times when he felt positive about himself, and was able to handle hospital politics with his mixture of diplomacy and firmness. There were other times when he just didn't want to know, and he longed to isolate himself into a thought balloon where nothing and no one could touch him or reach him.
Unfortunately, he rarely got his wishes granted except for the blessed moments when he could find an isolated part of St Mary's, and have a quiet smoke by himself. Otherwise, his life was perpetually held by the demands on his skills just as much as his surgical skills held his patients in life or death situations. The day to day impersonal co ordinations of skills could only go so far in making him feel that he was held in there in his rightful place. There were times when there weren't the happy endings and he had to break the news to yet another grieving relative. They said that this got easier in time to deal with but not for Ric. He had had a run of them this week, and the demons that slept at the back of surgeon's minds had come out from the shadows and started to haunt him, to make him doubt his abilities. The sort of phrases that he had uttered before sprang to his lips. After the far too familiar red-eyed tears and audible desolation of spirit, he had attempted to offer some form of comfort to them. The words rang hollow most of all to him as he felt that he had failed utterly to comfort himself, let alone others.
If there were anyone else in the universe who felt pressured and worn down with responsibility, he would shake the man by the hand and welcome him into his parlour. However, he felt that the odds of that happening to him in his life were stacked against him right now.
If he thought about it, Connie and Tom were the main sources of emotional nourishment at work. He knew when he was getting this support at work, he felt good about himself. Curiously enough he was inclined to blame himself, not external events when everything and everyone felt distant from him and life took wrong turns despite his best efforts. He was aware of Connie's charms and glowing violet eyes but he felt that somehow they weren't shining in his direction. When he did exchange words, he found himself replying in that same accursed stolid tone of voice, talking shop. He knew that he wanted to cut through the accustomed patterns of behaviour and everyday words, but he did not have the strength to break through that wall.
"Is there something bothering you, Ric?" Connie enquired with real concern. She had known that a number of operations had not gone well with Ric, either
"You know me, Connie. You win some, you lose some." Came the answer with the familiar wide grin on his face. "All right, I have not had my best week but tomorrow is another day."
"I won't quote you one of Lola's grandmother's favourite sayings." Connie murmured.
Ric laughed at that one. He paused as that tantalizingly brief glimpse of comfort opened up. He paused for that second till his pager rang. Cursing his fate, his feet took him elsewhere. There was so much to do, so little time to do it in.
The rest of the day passed its weary way in an anonymous blur. His hands and that functioning part of his mind did his work for him. Everyone else wore their anonymous green surgical gowns and masks and everyone functioned efficiently enough as part of the machinery of hospital. At the end of his shift, he threw off his garb and, dressed in his smart suit, left St. Mary's Hospital behind in the fading sunlight. Everything was someone else's responsibility right now and not his, certainly when he was off duty. Something urged him to speed off somewhere, anywhere. He needed bright lights, excitement, and a boost to his flagging spirits. There must be something more to his life. As the taxi took him down town, he could see young, carefree teenagers, out on the town. They were dressed in the latest fashion, and bent on pleasures without responsibilities. He envied them. They had some purpose in their lives and, as the night was theirs, their lives opened up for them with such promise. The contrast with his own life depressed him as he gave the driver a series of vague directions, turning right at the traffic lights for the second time.
A flashy red car cut past them, bass speaker booming away. It made him curse, both at the driver, the world and himself. His good mood hadn't come up right for him as the evening hadn't worked out the way it should have done. The thought made him edgy, and ready for radical solutions. He made a sudden decision and asked the driver to drop him off down a side street. He leapt out of the car with only a split-second thought to pay the fare and paced down the streets, seeking anything that might catch his eye, some kind of instant inspiration. His feet had taken over in deciding which way he would walk.
Suddenly, familiar, glittering lights stabbed at his vision and his mind connected with that familiar purpose, one place in the world where he knew that he belonged. It invited him in soundlessly. Once past the threshold, he strolled around the lurid exhortation to take chances in life. At last he was in the mood to enjoy himself and, for the first time that day, he felt at home with himself and his surroundings. The spinning wheel of fortune on the roulette table grabbed his eye. The clicking sound of the ball as it jumped and hopped its way to its place of rest was an irresistible siren sound in his ear. The chance was too good to resist, he told himself. He judiciously studied the form with a practiced eye , and instinct told him where the next ball must fall. Red twenty-one stared up at him while all other possibilities faded into insignificance. The space had his name written on it. He was so certain of it that he felt confident in putting his shirt on it.
Two hours later, Ric staggered out into the street, crazed with despair and bitter self-accusation. That unbelievable folly had happened once again in his life as time and time again, he had lost both his bet and his self-respect. Suddenly, those feelings poured back into him to overflowing point. He realized, too late, that he had opened up a hole in his monthly salary that needed urgent surgery to repair. What was worse was the bitter realization that he had broken the promise made to himself never to gamble again. He had let himself down most of all and he felt lonely and utterly lost. He needed the soft wise words of some all-forgiving female presence to tell him that everything would be all right, the pain would go away and that she would make everything feel better. From out of nowhere, inspiration born of desperation flashed into his mind and told him where to go.
"I'm pleased as always to see you Ric, but this is a turn up for the book to find you on my doorstep .come on in anyway," Karen added hastily, seeing him flinch away from her, as if he were some unclean cast out creature.
Ric nodded dumbly and tottered over the threshold. She had never seen Ric so wild-eyed, so sweaty, so distraught and in such a state of shock. His tie was crooked, sweat was running down his face and the top button undone. Everything about him looked disheveled despite his smart suit. She went to put her arms round him to comfort him but he flinched away. She led him by the hand until he stood in the center of her living room, stock-still.
"What's wrong with you, Ric? You must tell me. I'm really worried about you."
Instinctively, both of them moved forward and Ric buried his head on her shoulder. She patted and smoothed down his back while she held him, making small comforting noises that he longed to hear. There was no comfort that he could give himself.
"The worst thing in my life has happened to me- again. I must talk to you."
"What's happened to you? I've never seen you in such a state."
After what seemed like hours, the tension in his body started to ease, and Ric moved a little back from Karen.
"It doesn't exactly suit me to lose my cool as badly as this. You must be lucky or unlucky to see me like this." Ric answered with a brief twisted smile, failing utterly to be his debonair self.
"You're talking to me about dignity, Ric? I know far too much of your thoroughly disreputable past. You would be sure to go out of your way to break any rules about decorum - except, of course, being a caring, upright conscientious registrar."
It was that mixture of banter, respect and familiarity that started to get through Ric's wall of black despair. Karen knew him way back when and it comforted him.
"Was I that bad?"
"You've never known the stream of lurid rumours that trailed after you amongst us nurses. I'm sure that some of those stories are still doing the rounds, improving with age. Women talk, you know."
More and more of the tension in Ric's body was being released. She knew that Ric needed, more than anything, to lie down.
"You've come here for some kind of rescue. Very well, as your rescuer, I have a comfortable sofa. Just lie across it full length and leave the rest to me."
He obeyed that mellow voice of hers that had always fascinated him. He had to trust something or someone, not counting himself.
"Want a drink?"
"Is it a good idea?"
"Just this once, you need one small scotch inside you, and it should allow you to drive safely, even allowing the breathalyzer. It will settle you down enough."
Ric nodded his head at her words of wisdom and reached out for the glass to be placed in his hands. As he sipped at the glass, he realized that Karen was right again.
"You don't change, Karen. Not really." Ric said softly in gratitude to her. He stared up at the dimly lit ceiling overhead and stretched full length, his ankles resting on one low arm and his head rested on a soft cushion.
"I don't normally make entrances like this, Karen.
"A lot of us sometimes do things from time to time that we're not accustomed to do. There's a first for something out there."
"Not gambling my monthly salary recklessly. I had a bad day at work and went to the very casino I swore I'd never go back to. I'm just repeating the whole sorry story of my life yet again." Ric muttered with incredible bitterness.
Karen's thought flitted back to John's worried face and feeling his fears for Jo.
"If you have an addiction, you shouldn't be surprised if you fall off the wagon. You can make amends by avoiding putting yourself in a situation where you might do just that. When you came off work, where did you go and what were you thinking of."
"I .er I thought I could do with cheering up and that I needed a bit of excitement." Ric lamely heard himself saying. "I just headed off into town."
Karen's meaning look cut through him like a knife. He was suspended on the judgment that he waited for from Karen.
"I'm sure you can see for yourself how easy you made it for yourself to fall victim."
Ric nodded his head with mingled acute embarrassment and a fraction of relief at confessing where he had gone wrong. Karen allowed a decent pause to elapse while she leant over, straightened his tie for him and wiped his forehead with a tissue.
"Can you deal with the practical problems of the money you've spent tonight, Ric?"
"I'm not sure."
"Let's put it another way, do you have any credit card debts or any creditors pressing?"
"I suppose I ought to be grateful that my credit cards were cut up and I only have a loan to pay back. Everything I have to spend is taken out before I get it."
"So you're only going to have one tight month to go through while your salary comes through on time and you know how much you're getting. You made a big time mistake but it could have been a lot worse than it has been tonight."
Karen's gentle, evenly balanced words soothed their way through his soul. Why had he never seen that before?
"This seems to be my week for dealing with addictions," Karen laughed gently. The smile on her face touched him even if he felt that he really didn't deserve such mercy.
"Who was the lucky guy?"
"Oh, just a friend."
"You ought to take this up as a profession. You were always a great nurse."
Karen smiled self deprecatingly. The words 'needs must when the devil drives' floated into her mind when she thought of Ric, John, Jo and herself.
Part One Hundred and Seventy Five
It was the first of June, and Connie had got up that morning feeling that all was right with the world. Yes, she had a difficult job, but it was the job she'd always wanted. Yes, she also had a husband who didn't really seem to care for her any more, but that was just one of life's crosses that she currently had to bear. But she found that appearances can be deceptive. Her day had managed to go from bad to worse. First there was the child who had been involved in a car crash and who she had been unable to save. It always hurt Connie deeply when she failed to save a child's life, the grief of any relatives always being far more poignant than with the death of a fellow adult. Then there had been the young woman to whom she had been forced to break the news that there was nothing more she could do for her. But that was nothing to what happened in the late afternoon. One of Connie's long-timers had been brought in with severe breathing difficulties. This woman had known Connie since she was a registrar, and Connie felt as though she had been trying to perform miracles on her ever since. Connie's absolute last resort was to surgically fit a Left Ventricular Assist Device, whilst the woman who was only in her early thirties waited for a heart and lung transplant. But then the unthinkable had happened, that worst of all horrific circumstances had occurred after the Assist Device had been successfully fitted. No surgeon likes to realise that after all their hard work, the patient has suffered a massive stroke and can no longer lead the fulfilling and active life that they did before. But with a patient whom Connie had known for quite so long, through her rise to consultant and then to Medical director of St. Mary's, it was doubly traumatic. Connie had to break the news to the woman's family that whilst she might still be technically alive, it was very unlikely that she would recover.
As Connie left the side room and closed the door behind her, she wanted nothing more than to slink away somewhere to cry. She could feel the weight of all she had gone through that day pressing on her chest like a heavy bolder of nothing but bitterness and regret.
"I did tell you it would be an enormous risk," Came the voice she'd dreaded. Will walked beside her, obviously determined to make her feel even more of a failure than she already did. Trying to ignore him, she strode purposefully towards her office.
"Connie, are you listening to me?" He persisted as he followed her. Swinging round on him in rising fury, she said,
"Don't you dare say I told you so."
"But I did," Will replied, obviously trying to gode her and taking absolutely no heed of the far too clear warning signs.
"I have had just about enough of the whole entire world and everybody in it, especially you," Connie bit out, the tears rising to her eyes. "So if you want to keep your job, stay away from me for the rest of the day." As she changed direction and strode hurriedly towards the lift, she heard Ric calling to her. He had been approaching the nurses' station from the direction of his office, and had witnessed the entire scene. Turning her furious yet tearful gaze on him, Connie said, "Mr. Curtis seems to have all the answers today, so ask him." Then, as the lift seemed to be taking an eternity to arrive, she pushed open the door to the stairs, taking them two at a time as she fled upwards. Only once she was out on the flat roof of the eighth floor did she feel she could relax. She didn't think that anyone would seek her company up here, which meant that she could finally give way.
"What was all that about?" Ric asked as he walked towards Will.
"You know Connie," will said ruefully. "She always knows best. I told her that using an Assist Device on that patient only had an outside chance of working but would she listen?"
"Sometimes outside chances give the best results," Ric told him seriously.
"Yeah, well, no offence, but I'd expect that from an ex-gambler," Will said dismissively.
"And just why do you think Connie does take every possible opportunity with a patient?"
"Because she loves being right?" Will suggested.
"No," Ric said, trying to keep his anger in check. "Because Connie will always go that extra mile for a patient if she thinks that what she's doing has the slightest possibility of being a success."
"Well, this time it caused the patient to have a massive stroke," Will replied disgustedly. "That's hardly successful."
"The point is," Ric persisted. "That she never gives up, no matter how small the chance of success may be. That's a virtue that someone who hopes to be a consultant one day ought to learn, and fast." Turning on his heel, he walked away, taking the lift up to the eight floor. He had seen Connie running up the stairs, and now thought he knew where she would have gone.
Connie was there where he'd thought she would be, huddled against the side of the building and clearly crying, though still trying to restrain herself even though she was far away from anyone. Walking quietly over to her, he turned Connie to face him and put his arms round her. She didn't have to look up to know who it was, because she would recognise those arms and that comforting presence anywhere. She clung to him as the sobs wracked her body, seeming totally unable to hold back any longer. He rubbed gentle circles on her back, privately thinking that this really was Connie without her usual barriers, revealed to him in all the vulnerability that she nearly always strove to hide.
"I'm sorry," She said, eventually detaching herself from him and retrieving a tissue from her pocket.
"No need," he told her gently.
"I've got mascara on your shirt," She said, briefly laying her hand against his chest.
"It doesn't matter," he said, pushing a strand of hair back from her face.
"I don't suppose you have any cigarettes on you, do you?"
"I don't go anywhere without them at the moment," He said, retrieving them from his trouser pocket and handing them over together with his lighter.
"Something else for Will to hold against me," She said as she lit one. "The list just seems to be growing longer and longer. Did he tell you what happened?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"I suppose I should have known that or something like it would happen one day. But when you've been looking after someone for the best part of ten years, you don't expect everything to suddenly go wrong at a moment's notice."
"You must have got to know her very well in all that time."
"I did," Connie replied on an exhalation of smoke. "When I moved hospitals, so did she." They were quiet for a time as Connie smoked, until she broke the silence with, "Thank you for coming up here."
"You've stolen my hiding place," he said with a smile, trying to put her at her ease, as she looked sincerely uncomfortable at his having seen her in such a vulnerable position.
"Who said it was yours?" she demanded in mock outrage, making him smile.
"I've been coming up here for years, any time that it's all become a bit too much."
"Are you willing to share?" She asked, the flirtatious enquiry seeming to hold far more depth than it warranted.
"Of course," He said, hearing a thousand other questions in her voice and wanting to answer them all. Ditching her cigarette end over the edge of the roof, Connie said,
"God, I could do with a joint."
"Not while you still feel so miserable," he told her seriously, putting out his arms to again enclose her in a hug.
"Yes, I know," She said almost wearily. "It's a nice thought though."
When she kissed him, he could taste the cigarette she'd just smoked, it somehow making her more human. Their kiss was soft, gentle and lingering, with the passion always there just below the surface, but which was currently in abeyance.
"Are you all right now?" Ric asked when they came up for air.
"Not really," Connie replied with a shrug. "But I will be."
"Is Michael in residence this evening?" Ric asked, an idea forming in his head.
"No, thank god," Connie said in obvious relief. "If there's one person I can really do without tonight, it's Michael."
"Then would you like me to cook you dinner?" Connie spent a moment or two mulling this one over.
"That would be wonderful," She said a little guardedly.
"What's stopping you from saying yes?" He asked, not sure where her problem lay. Looking slightly away from him, she said,
"I can't sleep with you, not this week anyway."
"Connie," He said in slight exasperation. "That isn't the only reason why I like spending time with you."
"Why else would you want to spend time with me?" She asked with such open and honest eyes, that he knew this was no fishing for a compliment.
"You really have no idea, do you," he said in utter astonishment.
"No," She replied a little caustically. "That's why I asked."
"Connie," He said with his face entirely devoid of humour. "I enjoy spending time with you, because you are incredibly beautiful, because you fascinate me on an intellectual level, and because you make me laugh." Staring at him wide-eyed, Connie tried to take in what he was saying. Ric was utterly genuine in the things he'd just told her, when he knew that tonight at least he wasn't going to get any pleasure in return.
"Thank you," she said, a little stunned by his words. "In that case, I accept your offer to cook me dinner, as I am intrigued to observe one of your talents that I haven't yet encountered." As they walked down from the roof back to the ward so that Connie could collect her handbag, Ric's words kept resonating in her mind, making her wonder at his total honesty. Did he really mean what he'd said, or was he just hoping for a continuation of their sexual exploration of each other, even though she had told him that for at least the next few days it definitely wouldn't be on the cards? She didn't entirely understand genuine compliments, as they weren't something she'd very often had. Being married to someone like Michael did tend to shatter any belief one had in oneself, right from the word go. Michael was the one who had to be held up by false words and platitudes, half the time to keep him in a good temper. But Ric was different. He appeared to genuinely care about her, something Connie had neither expected nor gone looking for from anyone since she'd married Michael. Perhaps it was time for her to begin acknowledging that someone did have real, sincere feelings for her. But where did that leave her own feelings, both for Ric and for her failed marriage?
Part One Hundred and Seventy Six
A week later, however, Connie was heartily wishing for a lot more of Ric's out of work company, and wishing with the same level of suppressed ardour that Will Curtis had never been born. But at least the devil incarnate had a day off today, meaning that she and her other registrar, Sam Strachan, could get on with their work in peace. Connie had spent most of the day in her office, catching up on e-mails, financial projections for the hospital's next quarter, and the general day to day tedium of being the Medical Director. This did at least mean that Sam could play the part of the dashing consultant, something that often seemed to make him produce far better work, much to her amusement. She liked Sam, even though he was a little foolhardy at times. Her spine cracked as she stretched, having spent most of the day sat at her computer. God, what she wouldn't give for a long soak in the bath and a stiff drink really wasn't worth contemplating.
But just as she was circling her arms to get some of the stiffness out of her shoulders, Ric tapped on the door. She called to him to come in, but didn't stop her circling.
"What are you doing?" Ric asked as he came in and closed the door.
"Trying to make my shoulders feel a little less like re-inforced concrete."
"Have you been sat there all day?" He asked as he moved over to her, the sight of her breasts rising as her arms rose, disturbing him greatly. As she lowered her arms back to their rightful position, he came and stood behind her, his hands going immediately to her shoulders.
"I've been catching up on the latest batch of red tape," She said, trying to resist the urge to groan with ecstasy as his hands moved on her shoulders.
"Definitely still re-inforced concrete," he said in that gravelly tone that always turned her to jelly. Then, as his arms slid round her, he said, "I'm told I do a good massage if you're interested."
"Very much so," She drawled, leaning back so that her head rested against his chest. As he looked down into her upturned face, he couldn't miss the flirtatious, slightly predatory gleam in her violet eyes. Taking his hands that were resting at her waist, she moved them up to her magnificent breasts. "I wouldn't mind some of that as well if it's on offer."
"And can you honestly imagine a situation when it wouldn't be?" He asked, gently cupping her breasts, his forefingers grazing her steadily hardening nipples.
"Well, you didn't exactly look in the mood for it after your particularly bad week a while ago." Instantly, his hands abandoned their heavenly occupation and he moved away from her.
"Ah," He said, turning to face the window. "Well, it probably would have done me a lot more good than what I actually did do." Swivelling her chair to face him, she caught hold of his hand.
"What did you do?" She asked, though she thought she could probably hazard a guess.
"I spent two hours at the casino."
"I see," She said quietly, not entirely knowing what she could say to make him feel better.
"Yeah," He said bitterly. "Stupid, pointless, and entirely pathetic."
"Did I say that?" Connie asked with rising exasperation. "In fact, did I even think it?"
"You should," he replied dismally.
"Well, I don't," Connie insisted vehemently, getting up from her chair. "Do not try and put words into my mouth that I can promise you are not there." Turning to face her, he saw the half-stern, half-understanding expression on her face. Putting her arms up around his neck, she said, "We all come off the wagon occasionally. It's something we all try to avoid, but which does sometimes happen. What you need to do is to try to forgive yourself for doing it, though I've certainly never managed to achieve that particularly difficult piece of introspection."
"I'll take your word for it," He said, his arms going round her. Their kiss was tender and gentle, both of them wanting to forget the harsh realities of life for a while, and to do nothing more taxing than give the other pleasure. When they broke apart and Connie switched off the computer and picked up her handbag, Ric said,
"So, what's your particularly well-hidden vice, because I've never seen any sign of one?"
"If we're still speaking in a year's time," Connie said as they moved to the door. "I'll tell you, but not before."
"I'll hold you to it," he replied as she locked the door behind them and began walking towards the nurses' station.
When they arrived outside Ric's flat, he suddenly began to feel self-conscious about the meagre surroundings in which he lived. Connie hadn't seen it before, and he couldn't help but wonder what she would think.
"Welcome to my extremely humble abode," He said as he led her inside. His flat was two floors up, with one large room containing a sofa, a double bed, a table with a couple of chairs and the few possessions he had managed to keep away from his creditors. It had a small kitchen and an even smaller bathroom leading off it, and much to her surprise a small balcony.
"It's nice," She said, sinking gratefully down onto the comfortable sofa.
"Says she with a place that could probably house at least ten medical students," Ric said as he went into the kitchen to pour them some wine.
"You should see where I grew up," She told him ruefully.
"Oh?" he said, opening a bottle of chilled white wine that he'd been saving for a special occasion. "Do tell," he said, returning and handing her a glass. After taking a sip, she said hesitantly,
"Erm, Peckham." Ric's eyes widened in astonishment.
"Are you serious?"
"Perfectly," She said as she dug in her handbag for cigarettes and a lighter, having spied a clean ashtray on the coffee table.
"Well, you learn something new everyday," Ric said as he sat down beside her.
"And it's something I like to try and forget," She told him seriously.
"Do you never go back there?" he asked, now really curious about her beginnings.
"No," She replied with a shudder. "And I never will."
"That Oxford accent must have taken some cultivating."
"Yes, it did," She said with a smile. "As did the looks. I wasn't very attractive before I left that hell hole at eighteen."
"Now that I don't believe," Said Ric as he lit himself a cigarette.
"Believe what you like," She said dismissively. "It's entirely true."
"You couldn't possibly say that about yourself now," he told her quietly, trying to put her at her ease.
"No, I couldn't," She said, beginning to relax again much to his relief. Ric had noticed her distinct fear of discussing her early life, and it left him with a growing list of unanswered questions. But he didn't need to go into any of them tonight. Resting his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, he got up to put on some music. Connie smiled as the dulcet tones of Katie Melua permeated the air. The soft, sensual music allowed her brain to relax, leaving behind those unwelcome memories that were often far too close to the surface. Sitting back down, Ric put an arm around her, resting his face against her curly black hair as she leaned against him.
"I don't really like talking about my childhood," she said quietly.
"So I gathered," he said a little regretfully. "I'll know to avoid that subject in future."
"We all have skeletons, Ric," She tried to explain. "I just happen to have an entire cupboard full."
"You don't need to explain," he told her, wanting to take away any hint of sadness from her thoughts. Immensely touched that he was making such an effort to cheer her up, she kissed him, wanting to get back onto their former footing.
They sat there for a while doing nothing more than contentedly kissing, Connie allowing the music to wash over her and to lull her into a drowsy, relaxed frame of mind that she so badly needed.
"I do believe I promised you a massage," Ric said eventually.
"Mmm, I believe you did," Connie said in the low, seductive drawl that made all his senses tingle.
"Then, est-ce que vous voudrez se déshabiller?" Connie smirked.
"I would indeed," She said, getting to her feet. As Ric moved into the bathroom to find the massage oil, she began removing her clothes and laying them over a chair. "Who told you I could speak French?"
"I think it was the subject of one of Zubin's many diatribes about you," Ric said, returning with the massage oil and finding Connie completely naked. "Good god," he said, staring at her in total amazement.
"You have seen it before, you know," Connie said with a laugh. "Though the utterly gob smacked look is good on you."
"You've been sunbathing on the quiet," He said, moving towards her, his eyes sweeping the entire length of her body. Not one single bikini line marred her perfect skin, her firm breasts looking like heavy, ripened peaches.
"I always sunbathe in complete privacy," She told him seriously. "That's what tall hedges around one's garden are for."
"Are you sure you still want the massage?" he asked, now standing directly in front of her.
"Yes, I do," She said with a smirk. "So I'm afraid that you'll have to wait for the rest." Flashing him a very cheeky smile, she flipped back the duvet and lay on the bed on her stomach, proving that her tan really was all over. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he removed his own clothes, all the way down to his boxer's, which he clearly left on to restrain his almost primeval urge.
She writhed under his touch as his hands slid silkily over her shoulders, skilfully untangling the knotted muscles to make her as supple and flexible as rubber. God but his hands were fantastic, she thought as she lay there, delighting in every touch of his fingers on her beautiful skin. Neither of them spoke as he worked, allowing touch and touch alone to exchange thoughts and feelings, with the music providing a gently soporific atmosphere. Ric vowed to get to know every single inch of tanned flesh that he could see, wanting to know every little quirk of her body, to be able to interpret precisely what would give her pleasure. When his hands slid over her tanned, toned thighs, she could feel the moisture gradually building at her core, setting fire to the cauldron of lust that was bubbling away inside her. When he had even massaged her long and delicate feet, he slid his hands back up her legs and over her firm buttocks, eventually trailing them around her waist and up to her breasts.
Connie turned over as he did this, wanting what was to come even more than she had the massage. Making love with Ric was so different to the soulless couplings she used to engage in on a regular basis. He interpreted every nuance, every slight alteration of either her position or facial expression, showing that he took considerable notice of her reaction to whatever he did for her. She hadn't often encountered such a level of consideration, not in fact for an incredibly long time before Ric had come on the scene. Though that wasn't quite right, she reminded herself. John had been just as thoughtful, just as considerate, even though they had only been engaging in a most enjoyable quickie after a day in court. Well, enjoyable until George had walked in on them. But that wasn't something she needed to be thinking about right now. When she turned towards him, Ric began softly kissing her, one of his arms going round her and the other hand teasing at her nipples, using the remains of the massage oil on his hands to stimulate them further.
"Do you have any idea just how wet you make me?" She asked, badly wanting his touch to progress downwards.
"Oh, I'm that good, am I?" He asked with a smirk.
"Oh, yes," She said between kisses. "And you really are wearing far too much," she added, gently tugging at the waistband of his boxer's. After he had removed them, and as he dipped his head to enclose a pert, pink nipple between his incredible lips, she said, "I wouldn't, I don't think the massage oil will taste nice."
"Oh, shame," he said, choosing instead to forego her nipples in favour of moving down her body. At the first tentative thrust of his tongue into her entrance, Connie gasped, thinking that she would happily die like this, cocooned forever in such blissful tenderness. Ric knew that he could quite happily drown in the taste and smell of her, the richness of her skin and the sweetness of her flavour almost overwhelming him. When he deftly nibbled on the bud of her clitoris, Connie almost cried out, swiftly covering her mouth with her hand.
"I want to hear every sound you make," Ric told her earnestly, gently removing her hand from her mouth.
"I'm not sure your neighbours do," She said a little breathlessly.
"Oh, don't worry about them," Ric told her, returning to his ministrations. When he relaxed into a highly erotic rhythm of swirling his tongue around her entrance and using his nose to massage her clitoris, Connie's breathing quickened as she tried to curtail the noise she knew she was about to make. When she came, Connie made a sound somewhere between a shout and a sob, Ric taking in as much of the surge of her sexual secretion as he could reach.
Connie lay gasping as he moved back to lie beside her, and it made him smile to see her face so utterly devoid of hardness. There were so many emotions swimming in the depths of those beautiful violet eyes, far too many for him to accurately decipher.
"Don't ever lose the knack of doing that, will you," She said in that deep, husky, definitely post-orgasm voice that he found so sexy.
"I will try," He replied, softly stroking the side of her right breast.
"Just give me a moment to recover," she told him. "And I might just return the favour."
"You take as long as you like," he said, content for the moment to lie here and watch her face.
When she eventually found the strength to move, she slid down his body like an eel, taking the head of his engorged shaft between her gloriously pouting lips. Ric groaned, closing his eyes to savour every touch of her wonderfully sensual mouth. Connie found that his size was far too substantial to take him all the way back into her throat, so she settled for using her hand on him as well.
"I haven't had this for far too long," He said in total ecstasy.
"I'd better make up for lost time then, hadn't I," She murmured around his flesh, using her other hand to gently fondle his testicles. But when he realised that if she continued much further, he would be entirely incapable of preventing himself from reaching orgasm, he gently detached her from him. Looking up in surprise, she said, "I don't mind taking you all the way like that, really."
"Whilst that thought is almost unbearably tempting," He said, thinking that all his Christmases had come at once. "I want to be inside you."
"Then your wish is my command," She replied silkily, swinging one leg over him and sinking down onto him, enclosing him in her silky depths. Immediately, he pulled her down to lie on his chest, kissing her long and hard. As they began to move in perfect synchrony, he clung to Connie, as though he was afraid that she would one day leave him. Then, keeping one arm around her, he inched his other hand between them, seeking out her hypersensitive clitoris, and stroking it to take Connie to a climax at the same time as him. When they simultaneously came, they clung ever closer, Connie internally squeezing him as he spilt his seed inside her.
As they lay afterward, loosely entwined and occasionally kissing, there was no need for either of them to speak. They were utterly relaxed and entirely content. As they gradually drifted off to sleep, Connie couldn't help but wonder if this was what real happiness was. Ric was undoubtedly her sexual equal, he took the trouble to notice every reaction to the things he did for her, and he honestly appeared to care a great deal for her. Yes, he had his faults, but so did she, so did they all. Give and take, wasn't that what it was all about? In the beginning, she had given Michael her body and her intellectual prowess, at the same time taking his money. But that wasn't the type of give and take that seemed to be emerging between her and Ric. In fact, it was wholly devoid of anything resembling money, connections or her skill in the operating theatre. Her growing relationship with Ric was made up of all the things that really mattered: mutual understanding, real sincere feelings, and the wish and ability to make the other happy. Was this what she'd been missing out on all these years?
Part One Hundred and Seventy Seven
John's voice echoed round in his mind at undisturbed parts of the day when the demands of reading the latest set of trial papers allowed his mind to devote his attention to it. He was hearing different takes of what he might say to Jo to get her to talk about her drinking and rejected every single one outright.
"I have known you for years, Jo as a very dear friend and lover. From what I've noticed, you may be having problems with your drinking "
He discarded that approach as a minor variation of all the other rejects. As he thought closer about the matter, he was only too keenly aware how stubborn she might be, and just dig in her heels on the matter. He put his head in his hands as his head hurt.
As he lay back in the wide, comfortable sofa, Karen's advice came back into his mind. The picture was clear enough to John all right. An image came back into his mind of Jo down the years. She had always been studious, caring, dedicated and possessed that easy calm that attracted her to him when the tensions between him and George had become too much for him. He had thought of Jo as his security who would always be there. Everything had changed between the three of them and he had happily gone with the flow, making all past antagonisms redundant. What hadn't changed was his perception that Jo was the steady one, until the evidence before his eyes had finally claimed his attention.
When he thought about it, Jo would have periods when she would drink perfectly normally. It was only in moments of extreme crisis, when she would hit the bottle. At that time, he had always put it down as a perfectly natural reaction. Now he looked back on the past, these occasional blips had become more pronounced and more frequent. He had to grasp the nettle on this occasion even if he risked being stung. He loved her too much to hold back, to blind his eyes and pretend that a problem didn't exist.
To be fair to Jo, he examined the nature of his own reaction to stress. Instantly, he realized that he bottled it up and that it may have escaped in the form of righteous fury, which he would visit on his natural enemy. It had threatened to land him in hot water on more than one occasion although some good had come from it. It had taken some tricky footwork to extricate himself from trouble, even if it were for a good cause. He had to concede that it was a form of living dangerously, but he had good reason to consider that it wasn't in the same league as alcohol.
"John, you have the makings of a real puritan when it comes to healthy living. You are a fanatical anti-smoker, you fence regularly, you go through vegetarian phases and I have never seen you drunk in my life. How do you account for it?" Jo commented with an amused smile as they sat back on the sofa. She had strolled into his chambers after close of court on Friday and the atmosphere was nice and peaceful.
"I claim no special virtue about smoking as I have a simple aversion to it," John answered smoothly with a studiously blank expression on his face. Inside his mind, the light bulb has been turned on, as he sensed his chance and seized it with both hands. "I have seen much to fear of what alcohol can do from when I was a young man, just starting out in the profession. In those days, it was a much more male dominated profession. In particular, I studied the behaviour of the more elderly barristers very closely and their lifestyle always worried me. They were oblivious to it themselves but I could see it. I vowed to myself that I would never end up like them any more than I would end up as a dried up old cynic as some of them did."
"Tell me more, John." Jo asked, her abstract interest aroused in John's early career.
"There was one man whose florid eloquence was the talk of chambers, someone who I very much admired. He was my mentor in my early days and I learned a lot from him. It took a little while before I realized how often he took himself down to Pomeroy's wine bar, and used to get thoroughly plastered every evening. I was a young junior barrister just learning my trade and got to realize how much of a close run thing it was that he would be in shape for the next day. When he did get going, he was magnificently eloquent. It was a shame and a tragedy that his drinking gradually destroyed his talents, bit by bit."
"So you chose sex instead as your form of indulgence, John."
John winced slightly at Jo's all too accurate verbal thrust, delivered with a smile. At one time, he would have gone into denial, wrapped up in eloquent verbiage but not now.
"In another era, I would have said that it does less damage than alcohol but now I'm not so sure. I recognize it for what it is and I own up to the consequences of my self centred behaviour."
"Where is this conversation leading to, John?" Jo enquired, a troubled expression in her eyes.
"It's just that he declared over and over that he never had a drinking problem. It was very likely that when he was younger he could live with it. It was accepted behaviour, much like the House of Commons in every respect."
"Why are you now coming out with all these reminiscences?" Jo asked much more sharply.
"Because ..because ..I am much afraid that you could follow in my mentor's footsteps. It isn't just him who I remember, but others too."
"I don't have a problem, John." Jo declared flatly, trying to conceal that she was working up to hyperventilating. "Am I reaching out for the bottle right now? Am I watching out for you to turn your back to sneak a top up out of your supply of the finest spirits? Do I look like an ..alcoholic?" Jo stormed.
"Your word, not mine." John added recklessly and bitterly regretted it.
"I am not an alcoholic, John. I know much more about the matter than you will ever know from my father, from going to AA meetings with him to try and get him to get better. I could not possibly hold my own in such a demanding profession if I was as you describe."
Jo's body movements suggested a pent up anger, almost a violence in her movements that greatly disturbed John. He sought to smooth matters down with a little diplomacy.
"I am really sorry for my lack of tact. I should have been more considerate of your feelings."
"You aren't, John. It's just that you have been caught out. You can't back away as easily as this."
"I am not regretting talking to you about my concerns for you, only the way that I put it." John answered in steady precise tones, looking her straight in the eye. A little inkling at the back of Jo's mind registered the sharp contrast between his first attempt to smooth talk his way out of an awkward situation and his later stark simplicity. However, she wasn't in a listening mood, least of all to herself.
"Look John. I appreciate your concern but I do not have a problem. I really don't. OK, there have been a couple of times when I've had a bit too much to drink but I've pulled through the next day. I really don't want to discuss this further so can we please change the subject and talk about something more pleasant. It's been a long week and I'm tired."
Jo's sweet smile as she finished disarmed John, making him feel utterly powerless to change the course of events. He was accustomed to his power as a judge in his official capacity and his silver tongue as a lover in his private life, but both sources of strength had signally failed him utterly. He had tried and failed to get anywhere and he concluded that he was hitting his head against a brick wall. He could have harked back to Barbara Mills' trial but he felt that it would be foolhardy in her present mood. As he sank back in his chair and sipped at his wine, he could not think of how tenacious Helen was when she was trying to breach his labyrinthine defences. He had to admire her and wonder how she had the drive and determination to make a living out of what he was attempting as a amateur.
Part One Hundred and Seventy Eight
On Sunday the eleventh of June, Karen went over to see Yvonne. Karen privately thought that she didn't get enough time to spend with her friends, she and her job being irrevocably joined at the hip, at least this was how it sometimes felt. It saddened Karen to think that her relationship with Yvonne had come to such an abrupt end, but she supposed that that was just one of those things. She and Yvonne sat out by the pool as the weather was fine, watching Bell as she sniffed her way around the garden.
After taking a swig of the ice cold gin and tonic that Yvonne had poured for her, Karen said,
"Have you seen anything of Jo lately?"
"No," Yvonne replied as she lit a cigarette. "I've seen the judge though, about a month ago, and looking like everyone he loved had died in some hideous car accident."
"John? Are you sure?" Karen asked in surprise.
"Oh, yeah," Yvonne clarified. "He must have been staying with George, because I came across him walking Mimi in the park, when he should definitely have been at work."
"That really doesn't sound like John," Karen said sounding utterly mystified. "I mean, I can understand his having gone through some catastrophe that he for some reason chose not to tell me about. But the skiving off work just isn't like him."
"He was sat on the bench, not taking a blind bit of notice of his dog, and I walked up to him without him even seeing me. It was a bit weird really."
"Not so long ago, he came to see me, because he thinks that Jo has a drink problem."
"Oh, shit," Yvonne said with obvious sympathy. "Is he sure?"
"Yes, I think so. The point is, that if Jo does have a problem with alcohol, she's the very last person who would seek help for it. She'll hide away from it and us until it's really too late."
"Yeah, and do you remember what happened during Barbara's trial? Jo cried off the second day because she came to court with the mother of all hangovers. It must have been bad for her to go home in the middle of the day."
"I'd forgotten about that," Said Karen with dismay.
"George covered up for her that time, but neither her nor the judge will be able to do that for ever. The thing with a profession like theirs, or yours, is that it's constant pressure from morning till night with absolutely no peace in the middle of it."
"That certainly sounds just like Larkhall," Karen said with a rueful smile. "But you're right. The question is, what do we do about it?"
"What can we do?" Yvonne replied with a shrug. "They know where we are, all three of them do. What we absolutely can't do is to try and offer help when at the moment, it clearly isn't wanted, not by Jo anyway. I'd be mortified if I was going through something like that and a few well-meaning friends tried to take away the one crutch I thought I had. Jo isn't stupid, so she'll eventually come to the realisation that what she's doing really isn't good for her. What she then decides to do about it has to be her decision, or it hasn't got a cat in hell's chance of working."
"Did you ever think of becoming a nurse?" Karen asked with a smile at Yvonne's vehemence.
"Not really," Yvonne said with a smile. "I think all the red tape and lack of progress would drive me insane."
"Yet you just about managed to keep G wing on an even keel often enough, without most of the screws noticing a thing."
"That's different," Yvonne said with a slight grin, hearing a lot of fond pride in Karen's words. "In somewhere like Larkhall, the order or disorder of any particular wing, can mean the difference between a full on riot and a quiet life, and if you're really unlucky, it can mean the difference between life and death."
"And you suppose that the NHS isn't like that too?" Karen replied, lighting herself a cigarette. "When you're short-staffed because the pay is crap, and you've got a full ward of very sick people, and far too many relatives demanding answers that you just can't give them, plus god-like consultants and even more arrogant registrars, it really can be on a par with Larkhall, I promise you."
"Have you ever thought of going back?" Yvonne asked into the resulting silence.
"Not recently I haven't. I remember, just after Maxi Pervis killed herself, I told Mark that I'd left the NHS because I was sick and tired of people needlessly dying on me. Yet I was working in a prison where precisely the same thing was happening. I have thought about it sometimes, when I've been doing my refresher courses to keep on top of things, but never seriously. I like what I'm doing at the moment. In a few years, well, who knows what the future will bring. As one patient once said to me when I was preparing him for surgery, we could all be dead tomorrow and it could all have been for nothing."
Part One Hundred and Seventy Nine
The following week was a nightmare to John. Right from the following day in court, Jo struck the note with him that he had most dreaded. She had performed correctly enough in court, and had gone through the appropriate motions but that vital spark in her had gone. Her submissions were well drafted without that normal burning sense of passion that she felt for the cause. He had even tried his favourite ploy of butting in and taking over the questioning from her. Ordinarily, it had always made her fume and she had always radiated waves of irritation and exasperation but not this time. She merely carried on standing like a statue, and let him get on with it for a few minutes. It was as if she couldn't be bothered to fight with him anymore. At each break in the court session, she promptly turned on her heel and beat a retreat.
In the lunchtime break, he bumped into Brian Cantwell, the opposing counsel. Ordinarily, the man was not his most congenial company but he drew John aside.
"I was looking forward to the usual fireworks that I normally get from Jo or George not to mention your inevitable intervention on both sides of the case, John."
"You don't get the same sense of excitement and danger from the other judges and barristers, Brian? You make it sound as if you're missing us." John retorted dryly.
"You don't ever change but Jo has. She's letting me get away with far too much and that's new for her."
That confirmed John's worst fears. Utter reactionary though Cantwell was, he wasn't stupid. If he didn't know him any better, he might have thought that there was an element of disinterested concern for her underneath his professed unscrupulous dedication as a hired gun for the fattest fees.
"I'd noticed," Came John's short reply.
"I'm not especially close to Jo as you know so I'm not likely to know what's going on in her life. Still, she's one of the club and I suppose that this still counts for something these days."
"Thanks, Brian." John murmured with feeling, touching his sleeve as he passed on to head back to his chambers. He was not deceived by the man's lightness of tone.
The week crawled by as the trial progressed to its conclusion. Brian Cantwell was defending counsel and, when it came for the jury to pronounce the verdict, they acquitted the man in the dock. Ordinarily, Cantwell would have visibly gloated at his victory and Jo would have glared furiously at him. This time, he remained standing, eyes downcast and blank faced. In turn, Jo merely shrugged her shoulders and slumped down on her bench, eyes unseeing. As John headed back to his chambers, it hit him hard that she had never popped into his chambers, as she had always done. His eyes stared out of the window, eyes unseeing while Coope worked quietly in the background.
"Do you want any papers looking out for the Human Rights seminar, judge?" Coope asked brightly. This was her tactful way of trying to spark some life into the deeply troubled man who she could feel radiate his worries.
"Pick the usual collection of papers I used last time. I'll check later if there is anything new that I need," John responded unenthusiastically.
In the past, John had headed off to such seminars with a spring in his step and a wicked gleam in his eye. He had benefitted immensely from the principles of equal opportunities
, which had seen attractive lady judges and barristers demonstrate their slightly mixed devotion to the cause. Now that his domestic circumstances had changed, it focussed him to the job in hand. This time around, he was getting uncomfortably aware that he must be absent at a time when he could ill afford it. He was drumming his fingers on a side table when his phone rang. It took him a few seconds to pick it up and answer.
"Hi John. I haven't seen that much of you recently. All work and no play makes John a dull boy."
John's spirits leapt when he heard George's familiar drawl. He would love nothing more than her company right now.
"I would love to come over more than anything else in the world," he said with deep feeling." I hope you won't find me poor company, as I've got a lot on my mind right now."
"John darling, you should know better than to stay away. I'll cook dinner for you."
The world outside became illuminated by fresh light and hope for John. He badly needed to share his burden. He couldn't wait to get out of the court building and into his car while the imperturbable Coope volunteered to look after Mimi. Her main feeling was sheer relief that the judge had suddenly cheered up a lot.
As they lay back, peaceful and content after the meal, John snuggled up to George and laid his head on her shoulder while her fingers gently stroked his hair. She could tell that John needed simple affection and comfort from her tonight.
"Looking forward to tasting Italian pizza and setting the world to rights, John?"
"As far as it goes but I am not entirely happy at the thought of going away."
George's lips curved in a smile at John's frank admission of being away from the two women in his life as opposed to his previous unabashed relish in tasting all the delights that conference life offered. She turned her head, took one glance at the troubled look on his face and enlightenment dawned.
"What's holding you back then, John?"
"I will enjoy speaking my mind and creating a few waves. I don't mind admitting that I'll miss you not being around. What's really troubling me is that I'm really worried about Jo. I'm just very uncomfortable at the thought of being away right now."
George took it as read that John's feelings were equally balanced between her and Jo. It was just that Jo gave great cause for concern and she agreed that he certainly had every good reason to feel that way.
"Is that a gut feeling or is there something more to it than that?"
"I'm a bit shy of admitting that I haven't much evidence to go on. I just have a bad feeling about going away. I seem to be in the habit of getting phone calls with bad news when I'm not physically around to deal with a crisis."
"Don't be shy, John. You're just not used to trusting to intuition. It flies in the face of all your learning, all your habits of a lifetime. There is a time and place for it, John ,I assure you of that."
George's tone of voice was utterly serious and reassured John. He didn't really like being overrun by vague fantasies, which appeared to have no basis in either fact or logic. He gave no answer to George but gently hugged her and he lay against her in the calm silence. George let a few moments pass before continuing her questions.
"So what makes you worried especially now?"
"I'm sure that Jo has a drinking problem. The worst of it is that she's normally fine until she has some major upset in her life and then she drinks to excess. I can still remember the way she was knocking them back that evening when she came to my digs which gave rise to that PCC investigation."
That vivid mental image conjured up by John set the cogs revolving in George's mind. She recalled a brief exchange in the Barbara Mills trial just before Jo was due to interview Professor Ryan. She had seen how hungover Jo had been and had come straight to the point.
"Jo, getting drunk in the middle of a trial, that just isn't like you," she could remember saying to her and had overlooked Jo's throwaway line of "That's all you know." She had dismissed the words for so many reasons, because she had found Jo a formidable opponent in a court of law and because sensible Jo would not do anything as reckless as this. The truth was that she hadn't wanted to believe it.
"Have you talked about the matter to Jo?"
George knew the answer instantly from the painfully long time it took for John to answer.
"I did try to get her to open up about the matter and failed spectacularly. She got very defensive about the whole matter and generally bit my ear off. She said that she knew far more about alcoholism than I did from when she had helped out her father who was a recovering alcoholic. I suppose that if she has had experience of the troubles that alcoholism brings, then logically speaking, she should know enough to steer clear from going the same way."
"Since when does logic come into the situation, John? Since when have my anorexic tendencies had anything to do with the 'logic' that you describe?"
There was a deadly logic in George's slowly articulated words that caused panic feelings to rise up in John. He clung all the more to George for need of comfort. The irony was not lost on him that, only a few months ago, he was the strong one, helping her come to terms with the operation for her breast cancer. He raised his head at last and looked into her eyes. There was a burning question that was uppermost in his mind. He had to ask George, there and then, as he knew that George would tell him the truth.
"So should I go to this conference, George? I feel really uncomfortable about going," John asked in an uncertain tone of voice.
"You go, John. You need a break. If anything happens that you should know of, literally anything, I'll be the first to tell you. Besides, I'm not alone as there is Karen who would help out if needs be."
"So you'll keep an eye on Jo and make sure that she's all right, George?" John persisted.
George knew well enough that this wasn't the high court judge asking questions which had been already answered, either directly or by inference. This was the worried human being, in need of reassurance that everything will be guaranteed to be all right.
"I promise, John. You go out there and give them hell. It's what you're best at."
It was a mixture of George's humour and the certainty that she would keep her word that finally made John decide to go. There was no choice.
Part One Hundred and Eighty
George had been worried about Jo all week. She knew Jo was drinking too much and that she was also doing her best to hide it. The stress of the Barbara Hunt trial, which had brought back so many difficult memories for Jo, plus her, George's own battle with breast cancer. It had obviously all been getting on top of Jo for some time, and Jo being Jo, had concerned herself with everyone else and not told anyone how she was feeling. It was in the middle of Friday evening, and John was away at the annual European Human Rights conference, this year in Milan. Jo had been quieter than usual this week, and John hadn't wanted to leave her. He'd even gone as far as to ask George to keep an eye on Jo, both of them discussing the possible reason behind Jo's obvious depression. Picking up the phone, George dialed Jo's number, but got no answer. It's a curious phenomenon that with people we know and love, we can always tell whether they really are not at home, or whether they're simply allowing the answering machine to take their calls.
"Jo, pick up, it's George," She said, but with no response. But somehow she knew, she knew that Jo was there and simply not answering, and this frightened her. She couldn't explain it, but some feeling, some instinct told her that Jo was in trouble. Without a second thought, she left the house and drove as swiftly as possible across London to where Jo lived. When she arrived, she knew she'd been right. Jo's car was still in the drive where it belonged, and there was a light on in the front room. When Jo came to the door, she looked relatively normal, but George couldn't get rid of the feeling that something was wrong. They sat, one at each end of the sofa, talking for a while, but Jo's responses were barely more than monosyllabic. She also looked tired, which though at the end of a working week wasn't abnormal, it was somehow different. When Jo's eyes looked on the point of closing, George felt a chill of suspicion run the length of her spine. Wanting to choose her words carefully though failing spectacularly, she said,
"Jo, are you on something?" A ghost of a smile crossed Jo's face.
"Not in the way you think," She replied slightly drowsily, "No."
You're lying to me," Said George, a look of horrified realisation crossing her face. "Tell me what you've taken," She said firmly, a note of fear creeping in to her voice. Doing her utmost to focus her blurred gaze on George's face, Jo said,
"I'm sorry, George."
"No," Replied George, angry tears now streaming down her face, "This isn't going to happen. Are you listening to me? I don't know what the hell you've done to yourself, but it isn't going any further. Do I make myself clear?"
"There's absolutely nothing you can do about it," Said Jo quietly.
"Oh, we'll see, shall we," Said George, getting up from the sofa and making for the phone.
Karen was sat in her office with Thomas, arguing over the fact that he needed more money for Larkhall's medical wing, and Karen was doing her best to explain that she couldn't allocate him any more in the budget.
"But in spite of the insistence that we come up to NHS standards," Thomas was saying, "We just can't put that in to practice because of a lack of resources. It's pathetic. These women are human beings, not animals to be allowed to die when they've outlived their usefulness."
"I know, I know," Said Karen, "I totally agree with you, but my hands are tied." She was about to follow up her response, when the phone rang. "Karen Betts?" She said, not expecting anything out of the ordinary. But this call was as far from the norm as any call could have been.
"Karen, it's George. I need help."
"George, what's happened?" Asked Karen, knowing instinctively that this was bad.
"I'm with Jo, and I'm pretty sure she's taken an overdose."
"What?" Said Karen in shock. "When?"
"I don't know."
"You need to get her to a hospital," Said Karen without a second thought.
"I can't," Said George. "That's the last thing I should do."
"George, I've got Thomas Waugh here. I'm going to put you on speaker phone so you can talk to both of us." Thomas stood up and moved round the desk to stand next to Karen's chair.
"George, this is Thomas Waugh, tell me what's happened." As George filled him in on the bare essentials of what she knew, Thomas grabbed a pen and paper from Karen's desk and began writing quickly. "Do you have any idea what she's taken?" He asked.
"No," Replied George, "But it's almost certainly been combined with alcohol."
"Does Jo have a problem with alcohol?"
"Describe her symptoms to me."
"Drowsy, monosyllabic answers, glazed eyes. But I can't take her to hospital."
"I quite agree," Said Thomas. "As a doctor, I ought to be urging you otherwise, but a section wouldn't do much for a QC's reputation, and if you take her anywhere near a hospital, a section is exactly what she'll get. Now," He continued, ignoring George's aghast silence. "I'm on call here tonight, so I can't directly help you, but Karen hasn't kept up her nurse's training for nothing. I'll give her everything she needs, but you're going to need some help. Jo is going to either have to be persuaded to move, or to be forced to move. You're quite small if I remember rightly, and even with Karen's help you're not going to manage it."
"I'll bring Yvonne," Said Karen, hoping she could live up to Thomas' faith in her.
"How long will you be?" Asked George. "She's still fairly conscious, but I'm not sure how long it'll last."
"Twenty minutes at the most," Said Karen. "And don't worry, we'll do our best, I promise."
After quickly phoning Yvonne to put her in the picture and to tell her to pick her up outside the prison, Karen ran down to the medical wing where she found Thomas rifling through the contents of the drugs cupboard. Looking over his shoulder just to make sure it was her, he said,
"You know what to do for an overdose?"
"If she was in hospital, she'd get her stomach pumped," Replied Karen.
"And as that's not an option?" He said, testing the extent of her knowledge.
"Make her vomit," Said Karen succinctly.
"And you'd use what to make someone vomit?"
"No, not quick enough, and it's useless if she's insisting on being unco-operative." He waved a labeled, prepacked syringe under her nose before putting it in the empty first aid box he was filling for her. "This little wonder, is a drug called Apomorphine. Given intravenously, it jerks the vomit centre of the brain in to action, and be warned, it's effect is almost instantaneous."
"But what if too much of whatever she's taken has already gone passed the stomach?"
"Well done," Said Thomas approvingly. "But that all depends on exactly what she's taken. I've included a prepacked syringe of Naloxone, just in case we're dealing with anything opiate-based such as Heroin, though I think if we were, she'd be already dead. If, as I suspect, this is a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills, then I've put in an absolute last resort." He picked another labelled and packaged syringe out of the box. "This is Fruazenil, which is an antiagent to some Benzodiazepines, but works best on Temazepam. Don't, I repeat don't, use this without talking to me first. It's got some fairly nasty possible side effects and needs careful monitoring. Lastly, for when you think you've got everything out of her system, I've put in a couple of syringes of Cyclozine, which you'll remember from your days of nursing is an antisickness drug. If she's got an alcohol problem, you don't want a ruptured ulcer on your hands. However, if you've given her all the emetic, and you still think there's still some residual effects of the drug in her system, you've got a bag of saline to boost her fluids and wash it out that way. Also in there," He tapped the box, "Is a stethoscope, because you need to keep an eye on her heart rate and a look out for arrhythmias, which might mean we're in trouble. There's also plenty of needles, syringes, a penlight for assessing her Glasgow Coma Score, which you must do every fifteen minutes, and some other bits and pieces. We don't yet know if there are any cuts to deal with. Lastly, to cover both our backs, it is absolutely vital..."
"To keep a record of everything I do," Answered Karen, "Plus one of her fifteen minute obs, including GCS, heart rate and other vital signs."
"I'm sorry," Said Thomas, "I don't need to tell you that, do I."
"Are you sure I can do this?" Asked Karen, in a sudden moment of nervousness.
"Of course you can," He said firmly. "Besides, you're all she's got who can do this."
When Karen let herself out of the main gate, Yvonne was waiting for her in the Ferrari. As Karen dropped in to the passenger seat clutching the first aid box, Yvonne said,
"You'll need more than that by the sounds of it."
"You haven't seen what's in it yet," Replied Karen. "Half the hospital wing's drugs cupboard with too many things I haven't used since my last refresher course."
"What the bleedin' hell made her do it?" Asked Yvonne, swiftly moving the car through the blessedly quiet streets.
"I don't know," Said Karen regretfully. "John came to see me a while ago, and told me about her drinking problem, which I would never have suspected. He said he thought it was getting worse, which I suppose is why he told me in the first place. But I told you that last Sunday." Karen suddenly realised she was rambling. The terror at what she was about to attempt was getting to her, and she hadn't even started yet.
"It's going to take us at least five minutes to get there, if not longer," Said Yvonne gently. "So have a fag, calm down and get your head round this. God knows how, but somehow, we've got to save someone's life. Not quite what I had planned for a Friday night, but there you are." Taking Yvonne at her word, Karen lit a cigarette and said,
"I'm impressed. You're being matter-of-fact about this, and I'm the one who's supposed to be calm in a crisis." Taking one hand off the wheel, Yvonne gently rubbed Karen's knee.
"Being inside, sometimes means that you have to deal with people either feeling like offing themselves, or with people actually doing it. I don't guess you ever knew Monica Lindsay, I didn't know her for long, but the night before her appeal, she ODed on a load of barbiturates she'd managed to buy with phone cards. Nikki figured out what was going on and her and the Julies made Monica throw up by feeding her cold coffee."
"Well, I've hopefully got something a little more sophisticated than cold coffee in here."
"We will get through this," Said Yvonne gently but firmly.
"I hope so," Said Karen darkly, "Because if we don't, neither John nor George will ever forgive me."
When they drew up outside Jo's house, George opened the door and said,
"I'm glad you're here. Jo's given up talking to me." Karen could feel the nervous tension coming off George in waves. Laying a hand briefly against George's cheek, Karen said,
"For a start, calm down. We'll sort her out."
"I'm not going to ask what's in there," Said George, eyeing the first aid box warily.
"You'll find out soon enough," Replied Yvonne as they walked in to the lounge. Jo was slumped in a corner of the sofa, with her eyes closed, for all the world looking as if she were simply asleep. Putting the first aid box down on the coffee table, Karen sat down next to Jo and gently took her hand.
"Jo, it's Karen," She said, sounding calm, assured and above all in control. When Jo made no response, Karen said, "Jo, I need you to look at me. Can you do that for me?" Slowly, Jo opened her eyes, and swivelled her gaze in Karen's general direction. A brief look of recognition had passed across her face, but she hadn't said anything. Retrieving the penlight from the box, and constantly talking to Jo, telling her what she was about to do, Karen shone the light in to Jo's eyes, and afterwards wrote the words, "Pupils enlarged and dilated", in the notebook Thomas had put on top of the other contents of the box. She also noted the time, and wrote: GCS 10, E3, V1 though possibly due to emotional shock, and after asking Jo to squeeze her hand, she wrote M6. These three categories indicated Jo's eye, verbal and motor responses. Rifling through the box, Karen drew out the stethoscope.
"Jo, I really need to know what you've taken. Can you tell me?" Jo didn't verbally respond, she didn't even shake her head, but the look she gave Karen compelled her not to ask again. "Can you at least tell me if it's legal or illegal?"
"Legal, I hope," Said George hurriedly. Karen turned to Yvonne.
"I need the packet of whatever Jo's taken to be found, now. Will you see what you can do?"
"I know Jo and this flat better than you do," Said George, trying to find something she could do.
"You ever done a cell spin?" Asked Yvonne conversationally. At George's wide-eyed stare, Karen said,
"If it's still here to be found, Yvonne will find it." Then, turning back to Jo, she said, "I need to listen to your heart, because whatever you've taken could make your heart either slow down or speed up too much." Warming the diaphragm of the stethoscope between her hands before she moved slightly closer to Jo, Karen really began to wonder if she could pull this off. Gently undoing the top button of Jo's blouse, she held the end of the stethoscope against Jo's skin. Keeping one eye on her watch, and one eye on Jo, Karen waited the recommended fifteen seconds to take Jo's pulse. She wouldn't normally have used a stethoscope simply to take someone's pulse, but as she had been asked to listen to Jo's heart, this way was as good as any. Doing some rapid calculation, Karen thought she couldn't possibly be right. She waited another full minute before concluding that yes, she had been right, and that Jo's pulse really was as slow as forty eight beats per minute. Removing the stethoscope and doing Jo's button back up, Karen said,
"George, can you pass me the phone?" George had been watching Karen with a sort of sick fascination. But Karen's request seemed to bring her out of her thoughts.
"Why? What is it? What's wrong with her?"
"If you pass me the phone," Karen said evenly. "I can get some advice, and hopefully sort it out."
"I'm sorry," Said George, handing over the cordless.
"Don't be," Said Karen with a small smile. When she got through to Thomas, she didn't beat around the bush. "Thomas, it's Karen. Jo's initial GCS is ten, e3v1m6, and I think the lack of verbal response is down to emotional shock more than anything else. But that's not the problem. Jo is seriously bradycardic, pulse 48 and I think I can hear some slight arrhythmias."
"Do you know what she's taken yet?" Thomas asked.
"No," Said Karen, and then looked up as Yvonne returned and handed her an empty tablet bottle and a prescription. "I spoke too soon," Said Karen. "Definitely Temazepam, and definitely mixed with alcohol. The bottle contained thirty tablets and the prescription is dated the day before yesterday. So, we can assume Jo's taken all of them." Karen put the bottle and the prescription down on the table.
"At least that's relatively simple to deal with," Said Thomas. "But you need to get the bradycardia under control first. It can't be allowed to get much lower. Any less than forty beats per minute and you're courting full heart block. In the box, you'll find a couple of syringes of Atropine, which is what we use to transport Adrenalin these days. You need to put an Intra-venous line in, and get either George or Yvonne to depress the syringe plunger whilst you listen to Jo's heart. Get whoever does it to do it extremely slowly, and when her pulse rate is up to something between seventy or eighty, stop. Remember that too much Adrenalin can be as harmful as too little." After ending the call, Karen again began rifling through the first aid box, searching for the Atropine, plus alcohol wipes and a 14G canula.
"What are you doing?" Asked George, feeling utterly useless.
"Jo," Karen replied, instead of to George directly. "I need to put a needle in your arm, but I need you to be somewhere where you can lie down. Is that okay?" Jo simply looked at her, she hadn't taken her eyes off Karen since they'd arrived. "George, can you bring the box and lead the way?" Asked Karen, and she and Yvonne gently helped Jo to her feet, and supported her as they walked to her bedroom.
Once there, George put the box down on the dressing-table and said,
"Should she be undressed for this?"
"Yes," Replied Karen, as she and Yvonne helped Jo sit down on the edge of the bed. "See if you can find something warm and comfortable, and that can easily go in the wash afterwards." Then, turning to Jo she said, "Jo, can you get undressed for me? Or do you want Yvonne to help you." There was absolutely no reaction from Jo, she didn't even appear to be looking in Karen's direction any more.
"Why isn't she reacting to you?" Asked George, her voice higher with unsuppressed fear.
"It's all right," Said Karen, still in the calm, reassuring tone that hadn't left her since she'd arrived. "Jo doesn't like what we're doing to her, so she's hiding. But you're still very much with us, aren't you, Jo," she added, though still not getting any response. Then, looking over at George she said, "And please remember that Jo can still hear every word you're saying. So, if you don't want Jo to hear it, then please don't say it." Feeling more useless by the minute, George handed Yvonne a soft, blue, long-sleeved nightdress. Karen and Yvonne between them quickly and deftly removed Jo's clothes, and drew the nightie down over her head. They helped Jo in to bed, and Karen drew the duvet over most of her to keep her warm, but leaving her chest and one arm exposed. Then, picking up one of the alcohol wipes, she removed it from its packet and took Jo's left hand.
"Jo, can you make a fist for me?" Still without speaking or looking at her, Jo obliged and, after briefly sterilising the skin on the back of Jo's hand, Karen reached for a pair of surgical gloves. "Any blood nasties I should know about?" She asked.
"No, not that I'm aware of," Replied George, knowing Karen had to ask though hating it all the same. Karen began palpating the skin on the back of Jo's hand, searching for the vein situated where the hand joins on to the wrist. On finding it, she reached for the canula and unwrapped it. She didn't warn Jo of the sharp scratch that was coming, because she wanted to observe Jo's response to pain. Jo's eyes briefly opened at the sensation of the needle piercing her skin, but then immediately closed again. After asking Jo to squeeze her hand again, Karen said,
"George, I need you to scribe for me. Find the notebook in the box, and write down the time, followed by GCS9, E2V1M6." George did as she was asked. Karen listened to Jo's heart again, asking George to write down the pulse rate which was thankfully still 48, and hadn't yet sunk any lower. Karen put a piece of surgical tape over the needle to keep it in place, leaving the capped end still closed, but ready for use. Walking over to the dressing-table, Karen began digging through the box.
"What are you looking for?" Asked George.
"Atropine," Replied Karen. "We need to get Jo's heart beating a little bit faster." This was an enormous understatement, but Karen wasn't about to frighten George any more than she already was. Her own fears she could deal with, but right now, anyone else's were the last thing she needed. Finally coming across the syringe labelled Atropine, she turned and faced the other two women who were watching her, half in respect, half in fear, though Yvonne was far better at hiding this than George.
"Have either of you ever given an injection before?" George immediately shook her head.
"Yeah, a very long time ago," Yvonne eventually replied. Giving her a very sharp look, Karen said,
"Good, because I need this to be administered incredibly slowly and carefully while I listen to Jo's chest, and I can't do both at the same time." Removing the syringe from its sterile packet, Karen moved back to Jo's side. She said,
"Jo, we're going to give you some Atropine, to try and speed your heart up a bit. The tablets you've taken have slowed it down a bit too much." After fitting the syringe to the canula in Jo's arm, she gestured Yvonne to come closer. "When I tell you," Karen began, "I need you to depress the plunger very, very slowly, a bit at a time while I listen to Jo's chest." Yvonne was as good as her word. As Karen stood with the stethoscope against Jo's chest, Yvonne very gradually allowed the lifesaving force of adrenalin to flow in to Jo's bloodstream. When Karen was satisfied that the arrhythmias had stopped, and that she was hearing a strong, steady beat, she gestured to Yvonne to stop and listened for a further fifteen seconds. "Good," She finally announced, removing the stethoscope and detaching the syringe. "George, write down pulse 78 after 2MG's of Atropine." When George looked up after writing this down, she caught a brief second of sheer, unguarded relief on Karen's face, and realised just how close they'd been to losing Jo altogether.
"Right," Said Karen, perching on the edge of the bed so that she could have Jo's full attention. "The only way to get this out of your system is to make you throw up. It isn't going to be nice, and you're probably going to hate me for doing it, but that's what I've got to do. All it will take is a simple injection. So, first we'll get you comfortable and then I'll give it to you." Gently, Karen helped Jo out of bed, and both she and Yvonne supported her as they walked over to the bathroom. Once they'd persuaded Jo in to sitting comfortably on the floor, with Yvonne kneeling behind and with her arms round her for support, Karen went back in to the bedroom and once again began digging around in the first aid box. Both she and George could hear Yvonne talking to Jo, about what, neither of them could have said, but it sounded calm and reassuring. As Karen retrieved a prepacked syringe, George asked,
"What are you giving her?"
"It's called Apomorphine," Said Karen, rapidly reading the instructions on the packet. "And it can go in via the needle that's already in her arm." Looking up, she could see that George looked almost as done in as Jo did. Briefly resting a hand on George's shoulder, she said, "I hope you're ready for this, because it's going to look far worse than it actually is."
"I just wish I knew why she'd done this," Said George, the despair clear in her tone.
"Now really isn't the time for that," Karen admonished gently. "Questions come tomorrow, because believe me, you won't be the only one asking them."
As Karen walked in to the bathroom, Jo's gaze turned to focus on her.
"That adrenaline's woken you up a bit, hasn't it," Said Karen almost cheerfully. Kneeling down next to Jo, Karen swiftly fitted the syringe to the canula and injected the emetic. It only took a minute or so for it to work. When Jo gulped, Yvonne reacted like lightening and moved her head in the direction of the toilet. Thomas had been right, thought Karen ruefully, the effect of the drug was almost instantaneous. Yvonne held on to Jo as she threw up and up and up, constantly reassuring her, and intermittently wiping her face with a cool, damp cloth.
"It's all right, it's perfectly normal," Karen said to George, taking in the look of horror on her face. They were both stood in the bathroom doorway, Karen for the moment having been usurped by Yvonne's equally calming presence. But George was experiencing a flash of memory, right back to that time, nearly three years ago now, when Jo had forced her to eat and then had to watch her reject it. Karen kept a strict eye on her watch, and assessed Jo's vital signs every fifteen minutes without fail. About three-quarters of an hour later, when Karen thought there couldn't possibly be anything left in Jo's stomach, Jo finally spoke.
"Why won't you just let me die?" She said, the tears now streaming down her face at her utter humiliation.
"Because too many people love you, you silly cow," Said Yvonne fondly. Relieved that Jo was finally beginning to come out of hiding, Karen immediately noted the change in Jo's verbal response from one, which meant none at all, to five, which meant alert. This was a vast improvement on her previous count. She looked up at George, who could hardly believe what she'd just heard from Jo.
"I couldn't have put that better myself," Said Karen dryly. Going back in to the bathroom, and seeing that Jo was still spasmodically retching, though with no obvious result, meaning that her stomach was now empty, Karen called to George over her shoulder.
"George, can you find me a syringe labelled Cyclozine?" When George appeared holding the requested item, she said,
"It says IM. What does that mean?"
"Intra-muscular," Said Karen, taking it from her and opening the packet. "I'm sorry, Jo, but this has to go in the top of your thigh." Jo looked like she really couldn't give a damn, as long as she could stop trying to throw up. Once the antisickness drug had taken over, Jo leaned exhaustedly against Yvonne. As they gently helped her to get to her feet, and Yvonne supported her as she splashed cold water on her face, Karen began thinking that she really didn't like the look of Jo's skin. She knew she was right, because Jo stumbled as they were helping her back to bed. Quickly, both Karen's and Yvonne's arms were round her, and they managed to get her to lie down. As Karen put a hand to Jo's face, she could feel that her skin was cold and clammy, and that her pulse, far from being too slow, was now racing.
"Jo, can you hear me?" Karen asked, seeing that her eyes were closed again. Jo mumbled, but she was clearly not as alert as she had been minutes ago. Grabbing a fresh needle from the box, she furiously unwrapped it and gently pricked Jo's finger. This brought reactions from eyes, voice and hands, which Karen was heartily grateful for. But she still wasn't happy. Something was wrong.
"George, get me the phone, now," Said Karen, in a voice not to be messed with and that Yvonne knew only too well. It must have had a similar effect on George, because in a moment, she was back with the cordless phone.
"Thomas, it's Karen," She said when she got through to him. She switched the phone on to hands free in case he needed her to do anything whilst she was talking to him.
"How's it going?" Thomas asked.
"Not brilliantly," Karen replied succinctly. "I gave her the Apomorphine, and that's worked fine. We even got a verbal response out of her without asking for it. But something's wrong. Her skin's cold and clammy, she's got a GCS of 8, E2, V2 and M4, and pulse 130. She can't have had a reaction to the Apomorphine, or I would have seen it before now, so it must be the Cyclozine. What should I do? Should I give her the Fruazenil? Is it because there's still too much Temazepam in her system?"
"Karen, calm down," Thomas said firmly. "I take it you haven't used the Naloxone?"
"I might be pushing my luck," Said Karen indignantly. "But I'm not completely reckless. Even I know that giving Naloxone to an alcoholic who's also a non-opiate user is playing with fire."
"Just asking," Said Thomas mildly. "Karen, you're missing the obvious. After an extreme bout of vomiting, on top of a load of alcohol, Jo is simply dehydrated."
"Of course," Said Karen dully. "I suppose that's why you're a Doctor."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Said Thomas with a smile. "Usually, there'd be at least four people who knew what they were doing with something like this, not just one." His words had registered clearly with both Yvonne and George, making them see just how much Karen had achieved this night. "How much saline did I give you?" Thomas asked.
"Two half litre bags," Replied Karen, looking in the first aid box.
"Good. Give her both, fifteen minutes apart. You don't want to overload her kidneys. If that doesn't work, come back to me and we'll think again, but there's no reason why it shouldn't. When you've got her stable, I need you to take a blood sample for me. We need it for LFT's and Creatinine levels."
When Thomas had gone, George said,
"I'm assuming LFT means liver function test, but what is Creatinine?"
"It's the chemical that tells us how well the kidneys are working," replied Karen, removing one of the bags of saline from the box, also finding that Thomas had put in the makings of a drip. Walking round to the other side of the bed, Karen reached over for Jo's left arm, the one with the needle still safely in place, and attached the drip and the bag of clear fluid.
"Yvonne, come and hold this for me, and steadily squeeze it through." Yvonne did as she was asked, holding the bag up in the air to allow gravity to do some of the work. In a very short time, Jo did begin to look a lot healthier.
"That's what you get for thinking you can do someone else's job," Said Karen in an undertone to herself. George could see that Karen felt a complete idiot for having overlooked the possibility of simple shock resulting from dehydration, but she knew that Thomas had been right. Karen had been doing the job of at least three if not four people that evening, and for that, she would be eternally grateful. Checking on Jo's pulse, Karen was relieved to see that it had dropped to 90, returning to the normal range for a healthy adult. After fifteen minutes, Karen replaced the empty saline bag with a full one, which Yvonne again squeezed through.
"Are you back with us, Jo?" Karen asked, when she could see that Jo's eyes were open.
"It looks like it," Jo replied dully, and it struck Karen that Jo really wouldn't be pleased with her for having done this. Once the second bag of fluid was empty, Karen detached the drip, but left the needle in place just in case of any unforeseen complications.
"Jo, I need to take a sample from your other arm, to check on your kidney and liver function." Jo remained quiet as Karen did this, simply accepting that her plan hadn't been allowed to run its course.
"Why not the arm that already has a needle in it?" Asked George, ever the one to find something to say.
"Because we've been pumping drugs through that arm all night," Replied Karen, "And it would make the results unreliable." When Jo made a move to get out of bed, George tried to stop her. "It's okay," Said Karen. "I'm assuming the saline has kicked your kidneys back in to action." Jo gave her a ghost of a smile as she walked towards the bathroom. George picked up Karen's notebook and began flicking through what had been written, some of it in her own handwriting. She hadn't taken particular notice of it at the time, but now that the crisis was almost over, she had time to wonder. Karen began tidying up the debris of their activities.
"You wrote down every little thing you did to her," Said George almost accusingly.
"Yes," Said Karen, thinking she knew what was coming.
"Why, if you weren't going to go official about it?" There came a sound of disgust from Yvonne.
"You're a lawyer, George," She said, "You work it out."
"You were covering your back," Said George, putting the pieces together.
"Yes, I was," Said Karen without a hint of contrition. "Wouldn't you? What I've done tonight could have landed me behind bars, if we hadn't been successful, and even though we have, it could still get Thomas struck off for supplying me with the wherewith all to carry it out."
"So you thought that Jo really might..." Yvonne gave George a glare that would have sent even Charlie Atkins looking for cover.
"It was always a possibility, George, you know that. We've been extremely lucky."
When Jo came back in to the room, she looked like she'd tried to freshen herself up a bit. As she got back in to bed, Karen spoke to her.
"You should be safe enough to go to sleep now," She said gently.
"Can I have a cigarette?" Jo asked quietly, which made Yvonne smile.
"I'd rather you didn't, just for tonight," Replied Karen. "I don't want you jerking your heart rate about any more than it already has been. Wait till tomorrow." Yvonne picked up the first aid box, and Karen got up from where she'd been sitting on the edge of the bed. Jo put out a hand and caught hold of Karen's.
"Thank you," Was all she said.
"I'd be an awful lot happier," Said Karen, fixing Jo with a relentlessly probing stare. "If I thought for one moment that you meant it. I'll come and see you tomorrow." When they'd all three left the room, Jo lay back on the pillows and wondered just what was happening to her.
In the lounge, Karen was collecting her things together, and George simply stood watching her.
"We'll stay at mine tonight," Karen said, "It's closer. Any problems, just give me a ring."
"I don't really know what to say," Said George in an unsteady voice. Karen walked over and hugged her. "I'm sorry," She added, the tears finally breaking free. "I had absolutely no idea what you were risking by doing this."
"Call yourself a lawyer?" Said Karen with a gentle smile. After giving George a peck on the cheek, Karen added, "Keep an eye on her, every couple of hours or so and I'll come and check on her tomorrow." George now turned to Yvonne.
"Thank you for being here," She said, "We couldn't have done this without you."
"She'll be fine," Said Yvonne, trying to cover up how touched she was at George's gratitude. As George let them out of the front door and watched them drive away, she couldn't help but wonder just how John would take this. He'd likely be furious with all three of them. But they owed Jo's life to Karen, not something either of them should ever forget.
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