Breaking Free – In the Spotlight

There was a level of quiet in the audience; as if they knew something was about to happen. The stage was reset with just two chairs and Oliver dashed off stage to get the shine powdered off his face. When the programme was sent out the televisual audience would see it as an advert break, but it took a good half an hour to get the stage and all the people involved, where they should be.

The lights dimmed again, and Oliver stepped into centre stage.

“My next guest alleges that her ex-partner is accusing her of lying about domestic violence, and she is determined to get her revenge on him. She admits to having lied to the police to get him arrested, and having him thrown out of the house by the police when he came round to collect his belongings. She fled the country with his belongings, including his dog, whilst he was away, and tried to blackmail him.  When that failed, she contacted his employer, and threaten to sell her story to the media. She admits to having done all these things, but says that they are all acceptable because – and get this people – when the banks crashed and this guy lost all his money, and his home, the car that he bought for her had to be repossessed. She’s on my show, her name is Marta, she’s Dutch, and she’s here for more revenge.”

Not surprisingly, the audience set up a resounding boo of disapproval to greet her.

Marta stomped on stage with the demeanour of an angry bull. She threw herself down in the chair, and glared furiously at the floor.

“Good morning, Marta. I am Oliver Standish, and this is my show. You don’t seem to be very happy to be here, despite the fact that we flew you over from Holland on a return ticket, and put you up in a very nice hotel. Would you like to have your say now?”

“I am still very angry with your researchers. What you just read out is not what I say. I am tired, I was up very late with the researcher talking at me. I was not allowed anything from my mini bar, and only given a Continental breakfast instead of a Full English, which is what I like when I am over here.”

Oliver bent his head in mock supplication.

“Please feel free then to tell us all what happened – in your own words – and please avoid using swear words and sexual terms – this show is broadcast on daytime TV, and we have to adhere to certain standards.”

“For three years Peter and I are living together. In his house, or at least the house he lived in. We had three years of happy. He help me get custody of my son from his terrible father, we go to parties and ceremonies because he is a bit famous. Then the banks crash, and the TV work dry up. Is no fun anymore.  No more staying at the Hilton when we go to London, my beautiful mini car is taken away, and we argue like the cat and the dog. He make me angry when he go out walking his dog for hours, or do DIY on the house instead of looking for work. One Sunday morning I am very angry with him – I forget why – he just annoy me. I start to shout and scream, and he taps me on my arm and tells me to be quiet. He leaves the room and I call the police. I say arrest him he has hit me, and my beautiful son, who is only twelve, he has seen it all too.”

Oliver interjected. “Your son witnessed domestic violence between the two of you? An impressionable boy?”

“No! You stupid man! He saw nothing! But he is a good boy, and he does as his mother tells him to.”

Oliver got up from the chair, his face almost incandescent with rage.

“So, you got this man, a man who you had lived with for three years, arrested for tapping you on the arm and telling you to be quiet. I’ve done far worse on this stage. And not content with that, you tell your own son to lie for you. You really are a piece of work, aren’t you?”

Applause from the audience that Marta saw as applause for her.

“What is this piece of work mean?  I am a woman with a child to look after. I get the police to take him away, and he is gone all day and all night. We have nothing, me and my son, I go through the pockets of Peter’s coats, but he has nothing there. No money, so that my son and I can go out to have a treat. Peter comes back early in the morning, but he does not stay, he takes a few things and goes somewhere else. I would have said sorry to him, but he was cold. I invite him to come back to collect things, but every time he turns up, I phone the police in case he become angry.”

“And did he ever become angry and hit you?”

“No, he is not of red blood like I am. I get really cross when he turns up the last time, and I call the police to say he is shouting at me, and threatening me again, my son is witness but when the police come, they bring Peter inside the house, and say that they were with him all time, and I am lying. They wait whilst he packs up stuff. I shout. I scream, but they tell me to shut up or they arrest me and have my son taken into care.”

Sarah could see that Oliver was getting more and more wound up. She also saw the floor manager making frantic hand gestures. Oliver regained himself, and turned to the camera.

“We’ll go to an ad break now before I explode. When we come back, we’ll hear more about this woman’s revenge, and we’ll meet the poor guy who was her target.”

As soon as he could, Oliver stalked offstage. Marta made to follow him, but two of the security guards persuaded her to sit back down again. Millie came out and very gently reminded her that she had signed a contract to appear, and that she really should stay if she wanted to put her case. She sat back down and Oliver, face freshly powdered and temper soothed, came back on stage.

“So, Marta, before we bring Peter on stage and reveal the results of his lie detector test, there’s one last thing I want you to explain. Are you okay with that?”

“Yes, but you tell these stupid people in audience to stop making the boo noise. Is not kind.”

“Neither is having an innocent man arrested, but we won’t go there just yet.  Now tell me if I’ve got this right. Peter had to go to London, and you arranged to meet him at the house when he returned? Yes?”

“I did. But his train is delayed and he take too long. I have already packed up things in house, and had them shipped to Holland while he is away. My son is bored, so we leave the front door unlocked for Peter, and we leave in a taxi.”

“Peter comes home, finds his house unlocked, and most of his and your possessions gone, and no sign of you and your son?”

“Yes, but I am nice. I send him a picture of me, my son and the dog on the ferry so that he know we are all safe. I not want to cause him worry.”

Oliver turned away again, and Sarah could see that his fists were balled and his teeth gritted.

“Right Marta. You and your son – and Peter’s dog ….”

“….dog not Peter’s. He given to Peter’s daughter, but her mother not let her keep him in the house. I good with dog, and my son love him. So we take him. He better off with us.”

Oliver continued. “Once you are back in Holland you find that Peter got the job he went for in London, and is going to Australia for five months.”

“Yes. Big bucks! Accommodation all paid for so he don’t need the money, and I do. I ask for money at first, and he say no because I take all his things, and dog. This make me angry, so I threaten to tell the little red-topped newspapers that he is a nasty man who beats his woman in front of a child. Stupid man still say ‘no money’ so I email the producer of his show and say the same. I say that show will be wrecked if public know what a wicked man Peter is.  Producer is very angry, and threatens to set the police on me. Me! A poor woman with a child to support – and the dog.”

“So, wind the clock forward another three years. After threatening to have Peter arrested if he ever contacted you again, you suddenly decide to email him to let him know how you are.”

“Well, I have 40th birthday coming up, which makes me sad. Dog has too many of pills and has to go to vet. I have insurance, but I need more money so I email Peter, and make like I want us to be friends.  A friend tell me that he has been looking after his mother for three years, but that now he is starting to get work again. He has money, and he should give me some. It is only fair.” 

Marta looked to the audience for some kind of approbation, but saw only stares and another chorus of booing.

“Let’s bring on the man at the centre of this – ladies and gentlemen – Peter!”

Sarah was surprised at Peter’s appearance. She’d imagined that he might be a small, perhaps weedy kind of man but in fact he was way over six foot and bear-like. There was something open, and almost innocent in his face as he walked shyly on stage, and sat down in the chair next to Marta, who was smiling and clapping with the audience. Peter seemed to have his eyes elsewhere; Sarah followed him and saw him looking at a couple in the audience at the end of a row. They smiled at Peter, and it seemed to give him strength.

“How do you do Peter? It’s been a couple of rough years for you really, hasn’t it?”

Peter smiled and shook his head. “My mum needed looking after, that’s kept me busy. I get an allowance as her carer; it isn’t much, but I have food, and a roof over my head at least. And friends, I’m lucky to have really good friends.”

Marta interrupted. “I am your friend, Peter. I am here for you!”

Pater turned slowly towards her, and shook his head again.

“No, we used to be friends, we had a very happy three years, but after all that has happened, we can’t be friends again. I’m sorry.”

“You -You! You say you sorry – what about the money you owe me. Money borrowed from my poor sick father. You are making money again, so you pay me back.”

Oliver stepped in front of Marta, who had risen to her feet, the two security guards were also hovering nearby.

“You borrowed the money off your father, Marta, it was spent on paying the bills and buying food for the three of us. Compared to the amounts you ran up on my credit cards, it’s just a drop in the ocean. I don’t owe you anything, and I don’t really want you in my life again.”

“Okay,” said Oliver. “My show. Peter, can you tell us your version of events when you got arrested. Marta, shut up, we’ve all listened to you.”

“Sorry Oliver.” said Peter, visibly screwing himself up to recount what was obviously a very painful memory. “After the banks crashed, cuts affected the field in which I worked. The high life had to stop, and unfortunately the car I bought for Marta was taken back. She seemed to get more and more aggressive after that; throwing things around the house, screaming at me for the slightest little things. She said it was hormones or something. On this particular morning – a Sunday – we were in bed, and she started screaming at me for no reason. I put my hand on her arm, and asked her to calm down – the woman next door was in the last stage of pregnancy, and she didn’t need to hear us rowing. I got out of bed, got dressed and went downstairs.”

“Was Marta’s son in the room?” asked Oliver.

“No. He was still in bed. I was making him some breakfast when the police called, Marta ran downstairs in her nightgown and let them in. She pulled her son to her side and pointed at me. She said ‘That’s the man. That’s him, he struck me, and shouted at me in front of my son – didn’t he?’ I was arrested and taken to the police station. They locked me up all day whilst they went to see Marta and her son. Eventually they came back and interviewed me. I went back into the cell for the rest of the evening. I spoke to a solicitor who said that rather than going to court, it would be better if I accepted a caution, because it was my word against Marta’s, and she didn’t have any marks on her arm where I was supposed to have hit her.”

“This was your house wasn’t it, Peter? Not hers?”

“My wife and I bought it for her parents. When we split up, I moved into the little house because my in-laws had died.

“Not very lucky with women are you mate?” said Oliver, not unsympathetically.

For the first time, Peter smiled. The audience laughed but they were laughing with him, not at him.

“I’m luckier with my friends.  When Marta contacted me, I thought she wanted to be friends but although that’s what she said she wanted, it wasn’t long before she started asking for money; vet’s bills, help with her rent, school fees, the money we borrowed from her father.  She said that she really wanted to see me, encouraged me to fly over to stay with her so that we could sort out what had happened. I was very naive about her motives, and didn’t stop to think about what might happen if I did go over there on my own. When Marta started writing to me, my friends were wary about Marta’s motives. She kept coming up with reasons for me to go and support her; the dog was ill, her dad was in hospital, she was ill, her son was being bullied at school, a male neighbour was pestering her, and she couldn’t say anything because his wife was a good friend, the dog was ill again and then her sister was ill. Everything was just a honey trap designed to get me to Holland, so that Marta could have me arrested on some trumped-up charge if I didn’t give her any money.”

“This friend is an interfering bitch! They have no right to be telling Peter what to do.”

“Ah yes!” said Oliver, turning back towards a seething Marta. “Then we have the police records that Peter was helped to access. What did they say Peter?”

“The records said that I was arrested for battery, because Marta alleged that I had grabbed her arm. When she was interviewed by the police, they could see no marks on her arm, her son’s story didn’t match up with hers, and they saw no point in pursuing it any further. I was given a caution and released without charge.”

“So, Marta. When you sent the email to Peter’s employer saying that he had abused you and your son, and that he had been arrested, and locked up by the police for domestic violence, you weren’t being very truthful were you?  We’ve already heard you say that you lied to the police, and told your son to lie to them too. Unfortunately, you claim to be on a considerable cocktail of medication, which means you can’t do a lie detector test. Peter has taken a test to prove that he wasn’t lying about your behaviour, and that he did not hurt you. Are you ready Peter?”

Peter nodded and the atmosphere in the studio was tense, whilst Oliver opened the envelope.

“Peter. We asked you did you at any time during your relationship with Marta, commit any acts of violence against her person. You answered no. Why did you answer no, my friend?”

“Because I was telling the truth.”

“Indeed, you were. We also asked you if at any time during your relationship with Marta, you were ever violent or aggressive to her in front of her son. You answered no. Why did you answer no my friend?”

“Because I was telling the truth.”

Oliver walked over to Peter and handed him the card.

“Full house Peter. Security, can you please escort this woman from the stage, and put her with the runners assigned to take her back to the airport, and on her flight back to Holland. This man owes you nothing Marta. You on the other hand owe him a huge amount. You had him thrown out of his own home, you took his money and belongings, and if that wasn’t enough you tried to wreck his career. Get her out.”

Marta was too stunned to make a fuss, until she was actually off the stage, but then she started to scream and accuse the guards of hurting her.

“Reasonable force sweetheart. Peter, come here.”

Peter stood up and moved to centre stage with Oliver, who turned to the camera.

“We’re going to another break now and we’ll be talking to four young people and their colourful experiences on a park bench. Before we go though, I’d like to say to everyone out there – especially those in the media. This man was not violent to anyone. He did not abuse his partner or her child. He was a victim of circumstances, and the machinations of an evil woman. Employ him, and help him get back on his feet. He is very lucky though. He has good friends.”

The applause was overwhelming and several people, including Sarah, got to their feet as Peter left the stage.. Sarah wondered if the final case study could possibly top this.

Breaking Free – Chins Up

“Shall we go on the tram?” asked Millie, fluffing up her fringe in front of the hall mirror as they got ready to go to the studios.

“Why not? I like the tram. Is it far to walk either end?”

“Nope.  Door to door, that’s why I like it. You look far too smart to be in the audience you know.”

Sarah’s face was panic stricken. “Oh no! Have I got time to go and change? I don’t want to make you late for work.”

“Gotcha! You look fine. It’s merely the fact that you aren’t showing acres of leg, tons of cleavage, have no baggy grey tracky bottoms, no pineapple ponytail, and no tattoos or piercings – apart from your two very discreet and expensive gold sleepers.”

Sarah looked in the mirror. She thought that she looked fine too. One of her go-to-court black suits, and a honey-coloured top with delicate black lace applique. She stuck out her tongue at Millie who was similarly dressed.

“Oliver has said that you can come backstage before the show and come to the mop up afterwards if you want. I think he’s taken a shine to you. I don’t mean in that way silly; he is absolutely devoted to his wife Elena. She’s really nice. You might meet her today too.”

“What have I done to deserve this?” asked Sarah.

“Doh! Have you never been headhunted my dear? No, you haven’t. I forgot. Ten years in the same office for the same local authority. Let’s look at you more closely – qualified social worker with ten-odd years of experience, looking for employment, no children or partner, able to relocate to the big bad city at short notice, with a friend already employed in media in said city. Oliver has already got your CV from Miles. Once he sees the work you did yesterday afternoon, he will be begging you to join us. That is, you do want to join us, don’t you?”

Her legs felt a bit wobbly; Sarah sat down on the sofa in a mild state of shock and panic. Millie sat down next to her and took her hand. 

“I should have said something last night, but we got so caught up in reminiscing that I didn’t want to change the mood. Can’t you see how ideal this job would be for you, Sarah? You were already using your instincts when you were watching the show last week. Oh hell, I haven’t upset you, have I? Do you really hate the idea so much?”

Shaking her head, partly in disbelief, Sarah took a deep breath, trying to marshal her thoughts into some semblance of order.

“I would love to work on the show. I would love to work with you. I just didn’t think it could be possible.  After those awful agencies I went to, I thought that there was no future for me unless I changed completely.  Andy told me that I wasn’t management material so there was no point in looking for promotion. “

“Oh darling, it wasn’t your abilities that were holding you back, it was Andy. Andy feeling too scared of losing you if you got promoted. “

“Do you really think so?” said Sarah trying very hard not to cry.

“I know so. I went through three years of a social work degree with you, remember? Talking to you over lunch, seeing how quickly you sussed out the issues on the show the other day, I was fairly certain, but seeing the work you did yesterday afternoon, convinced me that you’d be ideal for the job. The fact that you ARE footloose and fancy free, and in a position to relocate, is the icing on the cake. I believe in you, Sarah, and that will have to do until you start believing in yourself again. Now, are we going?”


“Right. Chins up!”

Grabbing her arm, Millie propelled Sarah out of the front door and locked up behind her.  A nervous giggle escaped her as she allowed herself to be led into the lift, and out to the tram stop. Millie already had a transport season ticket, but she’d bought a ten-hour pass for Sarah on her way home from the studio. The bulk of the rush hour traffic had passed, but it was exhilarating to watch the commuters rushing through the city. Even at peak times, her own little town was far less hectic – and far less interesting.

Millie nudged her. “Here we go.”

They got up and joined the others getting off the tram, and walking across the concourse to the studios. Several of Millie’s colleagues hailed her as they headed in through the side door, and collected their security passes. At the front of the building the glass frontage revealed a crowd of people lined up in a disorderly queue. Runners in black moved up and down the queue, trying to keep people in order without much success.

Millie and Sarah left their coats and bags in a very secure locker room.

“The clients have a tendency to run off the stage – as you saw. Some of them take the opportunity to see if there are any mementos that can take home with them – or they used to until we stepped up the security. Right. Take a deep breath and follow me. If Oliver gets snappy, just smile politely and leave us to deal with him. You’ll get your turn later.”

Sarah followed Millie into the meeting room. It was gradually filling up; although the seats near the end of the table were left empty.

“Oliver, the director and producer sit down that end.” whispered Millie. “Do you want some coffee?”

Noticing that everyone else was getting coffee from the trolley near them, Sarah nodded her head, and was grateful to have the warm mug to wrap her shaking hands around, especially when Oliver and the other two important people came into the room and sat down.

Jenny, the producer, spoke first. Order sheets were handed out, and runners were allocated to each of the groups of clients. Mel, the director, concentrated on the focus for each of the three case studies. Millie had brought her own, and Sarah’s notes to the meeting and was gleefully putting ticks next to the points that concurred with the director’s notes. The first case was going to be concentrating on aftercare and support for the young couple, but with the proviso that the lad’s mother should be kept out of it as much as possible. Jenny skipped onto the last case.

“I’ll go back to the middle case in a moment, but I think Oliver may enjoy this one. We have two young couples. The male of one couple is accusing his partner of having sex with the male of the other couple, whose female is also accusing her partner of cheating. We have a double lie detector. I can’t tell you the results in advance, but I would say that it is likely that there has been some cheating going on. Probably the part that is most worthy of note, and presents Oliver with a difficult situation because we are daytime TV, is that both cheating parties have been observed by a third-party, copulating on a park bench on one occasion, and the female gave the male oral sex on the same park bench at a later date.”

A runner put her hand in the air. “How reliable is the third-party?”

Jenny grinned. “The park warden caught them both times. He takes a dim view of people having sex in his park.”

Oliver steepled his fingers. “I take it that we have the first male, then his partner, then the second female, then her partner, then the test results?”

“That seems to be the best order Oliver, I guess you can confront the female with the oral sex bit, and the male with the copulation?”

“Okay. Let’s go back to this odious Dutch woman who insists on deliberately calling me by a different name. How are we going to play it?”

“You’ve seen the interview tapes. She is rude, overbearing, and her story changes by the minute. He seems like a nice guy, but the publicity may not do him any good.  He’s been warned about that, but says that whilst there is any credibility in her allegations, no one will believe him – that’s why he wants to take the test. The researcher who has been minding her says that this woman is quite delusional about her actions. She feels it is okay to tell lies, steal and blackmail this guy, because the car he bought her had to be repossessed when the banks crashed, and he lost all his money.  She isn’t certifiable though, and she will most definitely make for a good show once she gets going.”

Oliver smiled. Sarah wasn’t sure that it was a particularly nice smile. He caught her looking at him and his smile became wider.

“One other thing to mention team. You may have noticed a new face in our midst. Her name is Sarah, she is a long-term friend of Millie’s, she is also a social worker, and once I’ve had more time to check her CV and the notes she has made for this show, she may well be joining us. She’s far too well dressed for our audience, but I would like her to be out there observing, and contributing to the mop up meeting this afternoon. With regard to the mad Dutchwoman; we’ve kept her as far apart from her ex as possible, and we must make sure that she is on a plane home this afternoon. Her ticket cannot be exchanged for a later date, and whoever takes her to the airport had better follow her through as far as you can. Two runners with her if necessary. Yes?”

Jenny looked over at the producer, and there was an almost imperceptible nod of agreement.  The meeting broke up then, with everyone getting to their various stations ready for filming.  Millie took Sarah out to her seat in the audience this time, and gave her a notepad and pen.

“If you think that you can take any useful notes, fire away.” She whispered as the audience began to file in again. “There are quite a lot of students, and a couple of their tutors in today so it shouldn’t look suspicious. Fasten your seatbelt. This is going to be a good one. Either I’ll come and get you at the end or I’ll send a runner. Don’t get cross and shout either. Leave that to the audience.”

And she was gone, leaving Sarah up on the topmost tier, watching the seats fill up, and the eagle-eyed security staff checking that all electronic recording devices were turned off. Sarah recognised one of the men from her previous visit, and he gave her a sly wink as he went past to argue with a student who was taking pictures with his phone.

The lights dimmed and Oliver’s theme music played as he entered stage right this time, instead of coming from the top of the stage as before. Sarah was curious about this change and made a note of it. The young girl with the baby was on first. She was little more than a child herself, and looked thin and tired. She had no family, and was living in a hostel with the baby. She had previously lived with her boyfriend and his family, but had to leave because his mother had been so controlling, and kept criticising the way she looked after the baby. Oliver was patient with her, encouraging her to speak up in a kind, but firm fashion, whilst all the time the boyfriend’s mother was hurling abuse from the pod room next to the stage.

The boyfriend was called out next. He didn’t seem to be a bad lad, but didn’t have much to say. He was obviously a mummy’s boy, but there something in the way he looked at the girl, and then at the picture of his baby son on the screen. Oliver picked up on it, and began to bully the boy into talking for himself. His mother had to be warned several times about shouting, and eventually she was allowed to come on stage and have her say.

She was vitriolic. She didn’t think that that the baby was her son’s, but if the DNA proved that it was, then her son had been trapped, and he was far too young to have such responsibilities, especially when the girl was hopeless as a mother, and useless at helping around the house. Oliver allowed her to rant for a little while, then told her to shut up and listen. The boy and girl had been looking at each other, oblivious to the woman’s allegations. Oliver turned to them, and held his hand up for silence. He crouched down between them

“Tell me, son, do you love her? Do you love your baby?”

“Yes.” He muttered.

“Are either of you happy being apart?”

The both shook their heads.

“Would you be happy getting back together if you didn’t live with his mum?”

“Yes.” She nodded, with just the slightest hint of a smile.

Oliver was handed the DNA test results. He looked at the three of them, and then at the baby on the screen. “The test results reveal that you ………are the father of this lovely boy.”

The lad left his seat and took his girlfriend in his arms.

“Right.” said Oliver as he stood upright. “Mum, you go that way. You two – go through that door to the left, and the aftercare team will talk to you about housing, and looking after your baby, who looks beautiful to me. You,” he said pointing at the lad, “Need to cut the apron strings and leave Mummy at home. She is not helping and if you two are going to make a go of it, she needs to be out of the picture for a while.”

A gobsmacked mother left the stage escorted by a runner. The young couple went into the next room and the screen showed them sitting down with Millie and a couple of other workers. Sarah felt very proud of Millie at that moment.

Breaking Free – The Flying Dutchwoman

The Flying Dutch Woman

“Hunnee!!! I’m hooooome!!!!!!!”

Sarah woke with a start and wondered where on earth she was.  She sat up and stretched, remembering that she had gone into Tom’s room after an hour of searching for his father on the net. The bed looked so inviting, and though she felt rather like Goldilocks, she kicked off her shoes and lay down – just to close her eyes for half an hour ago.  Looking at her watch it appeared to have been two hours ago and now Millie was home and probably wondering where she was.

“In here.” she called. “I was testing out Tom’s bed.”

Millie appeared at the door, taking off her purple duffle coat and unwinding her long red scarf. “Did you sleep well? I changed the sheets of course and Tom is so fanatically tidy anyway. How did you get on? I wasn’t overburdening you, was I?”

Sarah got up from the bed and joined Millie in the hallway.

“Come and have a look. I went through the Flying Dutchwoman’s papers, then I had a look at the other two cases. I really think Oliver should save the best one till last though.”

“You mean the park bench one?”

“Oh yes. End the show on a laugh, and send the audience away happy.”

“Exactly! The first case is a bit dull. Another DNA daddy situation. Both parents are barely out of nappies themselves, and the boy has a domineering mother who wants custody of the child if we prove that her boy is the daddy. I met her today. Foul woman and stupid son. Mind you – the girl is no better and she is adamant that if he is the father – and there are three prospective daddies – she won’t let him see the child because she doesn’t want his mother getting involved.”

“Did you meet all of them today?

“Aha! I have grabbed your interest! The Flying Dutchwoman is mad as a box of frogs and her ex-boyfriend is a very sweet man, but far too trusting for his own good. We usually put everyone up at the same hotel but we’ve kept him in a different one with a runner babysitting.”

“Why? Is he that vulnerable?”

“No. He’s a nice guy but Mrs Clog is desperate to see him, and we want to keep them apart until they meet on stage. It has more impact then.”

“And the Park Bench Pair?”

“They’ve both bought the new partners with them. Although I’m not sure they’ll all be friends after tomorrow’s revelations. The researchers are trying to keep them all sober so that they can do the lie detector tests this evening. It’s not a job I fancy.”

“Me neither. Where do you come in then?”

“After care. We’ll try and set up contact centre care for the would-be daddy if the DNA comes out in his favour, mop up the tears and arrange counselling for the Park Bench mob, make sure Mrs Clog is on a plane back to Holland before she does any more harm, and do some damage limitation with her ex.”

“I still think he’s a fool for coming on the show.”

“So do I, but he feels that the stories she is spreading around are stopping him from working, and the only way to change that is to expose her as a liar. Real shame she can’t take the lie detector test. I smell a rat on her medical status and so does Oliver. She is a big girl and looks horribly healthy to me. Before you say it – her ailments are not obvious ones, so we have to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

“Will Oliver though?”

“She’s already put his back up. She keeps on referring to him as ‘Ollie’ which everyone knows he hates. She’s been told not to, but she just pouts and tosses her hair back with a sneer – ‘Is okay. I call him whatever I wants. He will not make a fool from me.’”

“Oh, dearie dear – have they actually met yet?”

“No, we tend to keep people away from Oz until the day of filming. It has more impact that way.  We wouldn’t even let him see photographs of the Body Snatchers.”

“The what!”

“Male and female – totally tattooed and pierced. They both had stuff all up their necks, arms and legs, but he had his face tattooed too. They looked plain silly. Oz knew something was up, but he also knew that his reaction to them would make very good TV. His face was a picture.”

“Why were they on the show?”

“She’d just had a baby, and her mother was dead set against having the baby’s ears pierced – and her nose.”

“NO! What happened?”

“We had to get social care involved – apparently ears are okay but the nose isn’t – and I’m with them on that. The last I heard, the couple had left the baby with her mum and done a bunk – before anything could get pierced.”

“Thank goodness for that. Are we eating in or out?”

“Would you mind takeaway? Oz was fairly foul to some of the younger runners this afternoon. The director had to take him out of the meeting at one point. The price of success. We need more people really. The research and aftercare that we provide are quite resource hungry and, despite what the tabloids say, we do have an extensive programme of aftercare. What kind of takeaway shall we have?”

“Any takeaway is a treat for me. Strictly limited to work or visiting Jude, unless Andy was away and even then, I used to have to take the empty cartons to work to get rid of them. He would get terribly disapproving if he found pizza boxes in the recycling!”

“Chinese? Tom is mad on curry – for obvious reasons – so the only time I get Chinese is when I’m here on my own. Talking of which, have you met Buster yet?”

“The cat? No. Is he hiding from me?”

“Probably still fast asleep on my bed. I’ll turf him out.”

Millie left the room, and was preceded on her return by a very large and fluffy black and white cat, who looked at her with some suspicion before strolling into the middle of the room and starting to wash itself.

Sarah looked from the cat to Millie. “Is that a good sign or bad?”

“Good. He hisses at anyone he doesn’t like. Oliver came here once. Buster hissed, spat and dashed from the room. He’s washing to show you that this is his flat, but that he’s cool about you being here. He’ll approach you when he’s ready.”

“I can’t wait.” said Sarah. “Do you want to know about this other stuff regarding Tom’s father?  I think I’ve found him.”

“Really! Good grief! Any pictures?”

“Yes. He would appear to have aged rather well, and you were right about him being a bit important.”

“Not a Maharajah or something?”

“Not that important but as far as the caste system is concerned, and no, don’t ask me about it, that was what sent me to lie down in the first place, he is something of a dignitary.”

“I thought so. Whenever I asked him about it, he just shushed me and told me not to worry about it, and that a Western woman could never understand. I guess he was right. What else did you find out?”

“One marriage, three children and get this, they are all girls so Tom will be considered his heir. That’s if you take away the fact that his mother is a white Western woman and that he was born out of wedlock. Heavily involved in local politics.  His two oldest daughters are married.  The trail goes cold about eighteen months ago though. How’s that for research.

“A social worker with exceptional research skills – how on earth have you stayed unemployed?”

“I’ve only just started making an effort. Talking of which – can you put a word in for me with your friend Miles?”

“Most certainly. Let’s get some food organised first though. Rowing with Oliver always makes me hungry.”

“I thought you said he was disagreeing with the director.”

“Well, I might have stuck up for her a bit. Trying to find decent committed workers isn’t easy. Oliver thinks we can employ just anyone off the street but we’d be in a right old state if we did. He would be the first to complain if people aren’t where they should be, or the runners and researchers have let people meet up before they go on stage. Okay, food. What do you like?”

“I don’t know. Andy wouldn’t have takeaways, Jude chooses when I eat at theirs, and on the rare occasion, we had takeaway for lunch at work, I just paid my share and dived in.”

“Good. Carte blanche. I shall go and order up a storm.”

Sarah packed up her laptop and the papers, and moved it into Tom’s room. It looked rather small on his huge desk and as she set it up again, she wondered how Tom would take the news about his father and half-sisters. What worried her more was how Tom’s father would take to the revelation that his eighteen-year-old son was curious about him, and wanted to be a part of his life. Walking back into the lounge she picked up one of the more recent framed pictures of Millie and Tom. He certainly was a very handsome boy.

“Aha! Looking at my favourite pin up boy eh?  He is rather gorgeous. His father’s eyes of course and hair, but I like to think that he’s inherited some part of me.”

“His face is the same shape as yours, and his skin is quite pale really. You wouldn’t look at him and immediately think he was Anglo-Indian – not that that would be a bad thing …”

“…I know Sarah, there have been times in my life that I’ve counted my blessings that Ram’s skin was so pale. Tom’s still encountered racism however, and usually from other Indians that were bothered about this caste thing. I don’t know whether to write to Ram again. It didn’t work eighteen years ago after all.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Take some time off. Fly out there. Find him and tell him what a wonderful son he has? What would you do?”

“You are talking to a woman who has spent the past ten years playing it extremely safe. I have never been abroad, let alone anywhere as far as India. That’s what surprised me about Andy going to Thailand. The word ‘staycation’ could have been invented for him. He thought going into Scotland or Wales was daring, Ireland was totally out of the question – and no, we didn’t go to the Isle of Wight either. He was averse to boats.”

“And he’s gone to Thailand! He’ll freak! It’s all boats out there. Why has he gone again?”

“To find himself apparently. It seems that living with me for ten years has repressed him. I thought it was the other way round. After what I found out about his sister Abigail, I’m not surprised that he feels a bit out of place.”

“What! What did you find out about Abigail? You haven’t told me about this.”

They sat down together at the table and Sarah told Millie about her prowler and the box of family records and photographs. The excitement of driving up to Millie’s, looking at the case studies and hunting for Ram, had pushed it to the back of her mind.

“Do you think that Abigail knows she’s adopted?”

“No doubt about that. Looking at all the reports of the previous fostering and adoption breakdowns due to her behaviour issues, she was well aware of it. I guess that’s why she is so defensive about Andy. I’m surprised she’s actually let him sell the house and run away really.  It makes me feel a little less like it was me that drove him away.”

Millie put her hand over Sarah’s and squeezed it.

“I know we’ve been apart for ten-odd years but I know that it wasn’t you that he was running from. He’s kept you like a caged bird all this time!”

“Totally over the top, you daft woman! I’ve held down a job in all that time, had my own friends, and if I was unadventurous then it was just as much my fault as Andy’s. I felt safe; protected. I saw no reason to argue with Andy about where to go and what to do – apart from the TV in the bedroom. He never approved of that. I think those were the most abiding emotions in our relationship – Andy’s disapproval and my avoidance.”

“And now? Do you still feel the need to avoid issues?”

“Nope! Bring it on. I don’t deny that all this freedom scares the hell out of me, but in a way, I feel like I’m just out of Uni again and starting over. Finding you has just reinforced that feeling, and well, I like it.”

Millie was beginning to look a bit misty eyed, and the ringing of the door buzzer came as a welcome interruption. She answered the call, and said that she would come down for the takeaway.  Sarah set about finding plates and cutlery, and set the table ready for Millie’s return.

It was a proper Chinese banquet; aromatic crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken, special fried rice, and a host of other dishes that Sarah hadn’t come across but felt very adventurous for trying. Lemongrass was not a success however, and Millie advised that she might want to avoid Thai food in that case. This caused a fit of hysterics as Sarah visualised a bronzed and hugely bearded Andy returning from Thailand reeking of lemongrass. She eventually managed to explain her laughter to Millie and that set them both off.

It felt good to be laughing with an old friend.

Breaking Free – Moving to Millie’s

The sat nav on Sarah’s mobile phone was programmed with Millie’s address, and her overnight bag was packed and stowed in the boot together with her laptop.  Out of deference to Roseanne – but not Abigail the night stalker – Sarah washed up and tidied round so that the house would be respectable enough for visitors. She managed to fit her briefcase into the trunk in the garage where the printer was stowed. She locked it and piled some old magazines and boxes on top of it, and decided that it should be enough of a deterrent should Abigail decide to root around in the garage whilst she was gone. Sarah rang Roseanne and advised her about her visit to Millie, and when she would be back. Roseanne was of the opinion that letting Abigail know when the proposed buyers were visiting would be a very bad idea, as she had spent most of the time singing Andy’s praises and running Sarah down – not things that were liable to ensure a safe sale. Sarah assured Roseanne that she would move out as soon as required; her belongings could go into storage temporarily and she could stay in a hotel if necessary. They parted on very good terms.

Millie had taken the morning off so that she could be there to welcome and soothe Sarah after her drive through the city. As it was, the journey went without too many hitches. Driving was one of those things that Sarah felt comfortable and confident about; she saw the trip to the big city as a challenge, and one that she had to overcome. Parked in one of Millie’s designated parking spaces, Sarah opened the boot of her car and turned as Millie hailed her from a third-floor balcony of a block of flats with a marvellous view over the canal.

“Come round to the front of the building and I’ll buzz you in, the lift is just in front of you. Flat 36, third floor. I’ll be waiting!”

Bag in hand, laptop over her shoulder, Sarah made her way round to the imposing entrance and pressed the door button. Millie buzzed her in and after casting a quick glance round the rather stark but elegant entrance hall, Sarah called for the lift, and was happy to see a smiling Millie waiting for her when the lift doors opened on the third floor. Millie hugged her warmly and took the overnight bag from her, almost skipping down the corridor to her flat. Once inside, Sarah took stock of her surroundings. It was a lovely flat, a bit busy compared to the environment she had lived in over the past ten years, but the wall hangings and ornaments were all to Millie’s taste and they looked perfectly in place.  Millie took Sarah’s bag into one of the bedrooms and Sarah followed her. It was undoubtedly Tom’s room, three walls of light blue, and the other in a darker blue, a couple of music posters and shelves of books. The desk was bare but had obviously been the home of Tom’s PC before he left for Cambridge.

“And this is my bedroom – even more cluttered than the living room I’m afraid – this is the bathroom next door, and that’s the third bedroom, which is a junk store at the moment.  Kitchen and dining room lead off the lounge, and the balcony is a wonderful place for breakfast – well lunch and dinner as well – weather permitting. what do you think?”

Sarah looked around her and smiled. “It’s wonderful. The views are incredible.  I love it. As regards the clutter – just because I’ve lived in a sterile environment for so long doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate other people’s tastes. Andy would go mad in here, but this is more like Jude and Dan’s house, and I always feel very comfortable and happy there.”

Millie hugged her again. “I have two big favours to ask though.”

“Anything.” said Sarah.

“Number one is work related.  We’ve got an ex-couple on the show tomorrow afternoon. She alleges that she was a victim of domestic violence, that she fled the country (with all of his belongings) because she was in fear of her life.  She has custody of her fourteen-year-old son from her marriage, and has made contact with her current ex-partner threatening to expose him to the papers as being abusive to her and son. He, on the other hand, works in children’s TV, was assessed by social workers as being the perfect father-figure to this woman’s son, and says that all he ever did was put his hand on her arm and ask her to stop screaming. She had him arrested, but the police report states that there was no evidence of injury, it was her word against his, and she had a history of making false reports against her ex-husband.

The guy says he moved out of his own house to prevent any further arguments, but whenever he arranged to go round and collect anything, the woman phoned the police and alleged that he was bashing the door down and threatening her. Finally, the police went with him and waited round the corner whilst he knocked at the door. She phoned the police and made the same allegations, but was rather stunned when the police arrived within seconds and threatened to arrest her for wasting police time. The guy went up to London for an audition, and she arranged to hand over the keys to the house when he came back. When he got there the house was left open, and most of his stuff had gone. She sent him a text from the ferry saying that she sold his stuff, and taken his daughter’s dog.”

“Bloody Hell!” said Sarah.

“Oh, there’s more!” Millie said as she wafted the papers in the air. “The woman sent a blackmail email to her ex-boyfriend and when he failed to play ball, she emailed the producer of the show he was working on, and threatened to wreck the show by exposing the star as having been arrested for domestic violence. Luckily, the producer was made of sterner stuff and told her to back off, or he would tell the police. That was enough to screw up the guy’s career for the time being though. He went back to live with his mother and spent three years keeping his head down. A friend persuaded him to request his police records, and it turned out that he had received a caution for battery – almost as minimal as ABH – and certainly nothing that marked him down as an abuser, and not fit to work with children and young people.  He started to build his life up again, was getting work and enjoying life with his old friends. Then three years after she’d run off, the woman – who had told him that if he ever contacted her again, she would contact the police – emailed him asking for money towards the dog’s vet fees.”


“My thoughts exactly. She spun him a long story about her own poor health and gradually it would seem, tried to reel him back in.”

“You sound a little biased here.” said Sarah with a grin.

“I know and I mustn’t. I have to be fair. This guy’s friends warned him off – a leopard doesn’t change its spots and all that, but he seems to be extremely naive. The friends who have been supporting him state that he has a misguided tendency to forgive the people who shaft him. The woman wanted him to visit her in Holland where she now lives. His friends advised him against it, because she is still convinced that he owes her money and that he was abusive to her.  It was suggested that she is so devious, that she might use the visit to allege harassment and have him arrested.  He was persuaded not to go in the end. Anyhow, she has requested that he go on the show because she says he is lying about not abusing her, and she wants him to take a lie detector test. She however, cannot take a test to prove that her allegations are false because of the medication she is on.”

“Does he have to appear?  It could do more harm than good surely?” asked Sarah, her mind assembling the facts and sorting them logically

“That’s what I told him. We are paying for him to take the test. We are flying her over here, and paying for the hotel. Oz thinks it will make for good TV – her English is not that good and that will give him plenty of opportunity to take the piss out of her. He thinks the guy has got all he deserves for not listening to his friend’s advice, and for encouraging contact with the woman again. What about your opinion, oh social worker friend? From a non-TV point of view?”

“Can I look at the paperwork? I got the impression last week that Oliver knew more about the cases than was actually revealed on the show.  I felt he was overly harsh at times, and I wondered whether this was because he knew things that we didn’t.”

“I have to pop into work for a couple of hours this afternoon, can I leave you with the files? Loads of food in the fridge, coffee maker and pods, booze in the cupboard and I’ll make us dinner tonight unless ….”

“…unless what?”

“Unless Oz is really bloody-minded and I feel soul-destroyed.”

“In which case we either go out to dinner or we order up a takeaway.”

Millie raised her hands in salute.

“Nothing has really changed over the years, have they?”

“Only a little – we have matured Millie, and we have a bit more money nowadays. What was the other favour?”

“Oh God, yes. It’s about Tom. I suppose I knew this would happen one day and I really should have brought up the subject before but I was waiting for Tom ….”

“Let me guess, Tom wants to know more about his father.”

“I knew you were the best person to ask.”

“What DO you know about his father?”

Millie poured them both some orange juice and sat down beside Sarah on the sofa.

“I met Tom’s father on the rebound. I’d been living with an Australian guy who was running a bar. He got busted for selling dodgy booze, and I only got out of it because Ram interceded. He used to come to the bar a lot and I think he was some kind of local dignitary. Anyway, he whisked me away to his house – I had my own room I hasten to add. It was all very platonic at first but a girl can only cope with being wined, dined and spoiled by a handsome man for so long before she gives in. He was so very handsome. Educated in England and extremely intelligent. I confess. I fell.”

“But you came home.”

“Yes, I found out that he already had a wife and three children in Delhi. He said that he would be happy to have me and my child in the country, and flit between us. I wanted more than he could give me. So, I came home – if you can call it that.”

“Have you been in contact with him since? Does he know about Tom?”

“His name is on the birth certificate. I sent him a copy but he never replied. Probably gone back to Delhi. But hey, we have the Internet now and it’s a lot easier to track people down.”

“Leave me his details. With my new laptop skills, I can track anyone down. What time will you be back?”

“Subject to Oz’s mood but he likes to get home to his kids – so by five o’clock I guess.”

“No probs. I’ll go through these papers and make some notes first, then I shall turn into an Internet sleuth.”

Millie jumped to her feet and showed Sarah where she could plug in her laptop and connect through their broadband. Whilst Millie got ready, Sarah set up the laptop and got out some paper and a pen from the bag. 

“Can I write on these papers or should I make separate notes?”

“That’s a spare set. I have my own as well – we can compare notes later!”

Picking up her bag, Millie gave Sarah another hug and was gone. Sarah looked around the flat and wondered if she would ever be able to afford a place like this. The view over the canal was wonderful. She loved being up this high; the old red brick mill buildings and further away, the white stone turrets of the inner-city offices.

Enough gazing.

She sat down at the table and began reading through the research reports on the warring couple. The researcher had written the woman’s story in her own words, and the Pidgin English made some of what she had to say very amusing. The whole story was full of inconsistencies however, and she could already picture Oliver listening with mock interest, just waiting to pick her up on some of the more obvious falsehoods. It was a shame that the woman couldn’t take the lie detector test – very convenient.

The man’s story was more believable, if rather pathetic. She could see that the audience would be sympathetic towards him. If he was in children’s entertainment, he was less likely to be tattooed and pierced than most of Oliver’s customers. Even if he was telling the truth though, the mere fact of being on Oliver’s show would get round very quickly, and that could be almost as damaging to his career as being branded violent and abusive.

The researcher had also contributed a report on the man’s friends. They seemed to have done their best to give him good advice, and he had done his best to ignore it, believing rather foolishly that his ex-partner wasn’t really after revenge. Sarah made notes in the margins of the reports. It could be car crash TV. The woman was so convinced that she had been a victim, despite shedloads of research that contradicted her story, that she would probably argue that the lie detector test was false, the police reports had been fabricated and that she was far too ill after her long journey from Holland to sit on the stage once Oliver started picking at her. Sarah made some suggestions for damage limitation. She doubted that Oliver would take any notice though.

Millie had left her some cheese and crackers in the fridge, and the instructions on how to use the coffee maker and its pods. With food and drink on the table, and Ram’s details to hand, Sarah set to work with a very big smile on her face.