Jude was intrigued by the flat; she’d only ever lived in family houses before, and this style of living was an entirely new concept. Like Millie and Sarah though, she loved the views of the canal and the other old mill buildings.
“So, will you start looking for your own flat when Millie comes back?” Jude asked as they sat on the sofa watching the lights of the city through the window.
“Probably. I know there isn’t any rush as far as Millie is concerned. She loves me being here, and I feel extremely comfortable. We shared a student house for two out of our three years at Uni, and we were in halls together for the first year. People change a great deal over time but we don’t seem to have. We complement each other I suppose, like an old married couple. At the same time, I feel for poor Tom having to sleep in that tiny room. It’s okay for the odd weekend but I think I should be looking to move before the summer comes. Millie bought this place but there are plenty of others up for rent in this block alone. I might trump her and go for a penthouse suite!”
“Really? This is all so exciting Sarah! Thinking back six months, you’d never have dreamed of all this happening, would you?” said Jude, shaking her head in amazement.
“Nope. Six months ago, the most exciting thing on my agenda was a visit from you, or a visit to you. I still rate those visits very high on the enjoyment tariff, even though I am a high living media woman now! I’ve changed the sheets on Millie’s bed for you, help yourself to towels and stuff for a shower or bath. We need to leave by eight-thirty tomorrow morning so I’ll be up at seven, and give you a call if that’s okay?”
“Seven! That’s a lie-in! I’d normally have been up for hours dozing with the girls in front of Peppa Pig! I hope they miss me.” Jude’s voice lowered and sounded more than a little sad. Sarah squeezed her hand.
“They will, and you and I both know that it’s good for them to miss you. Ooh! A text from Millie!”
“What? What does she say?”
“Her texts are cryptic at the best of times. ‘Hotel gorgeous. Spoilt rotten. Sightseeing at the moment, but starting the hunt tomorrow. I have a nice ex-pat lady who is going to help me. Nervous. Hug Buster and Jude – but Jude first xxx M’. That’s probably one of her better ones.”
“I’m impressed that I get hugged before Buster.”
“Don’t be too impressed. He hates me, and just about tolerates my presence in the house. Added to which I banished him to Tom’s room this morning in case his hair got all over your bed.”
“Poor old boy. Can I go and see him?”
“I’ll have the antiseptic and bandages ready, but by all means. Tom’s room is at the end of the hall.”
Jude very gingerly opened the door to Tom’s room a little wider and turned on the light. Buster was well and truly at home in the middle of the bed. He hissed and flattened his ears back when Jude sat down on the bed next to him. Jude stayed where she was, and waited. Sarah watched them from the hallway. Very slowly Buster got to his feet and walked towards Jude, his tail waving ominously. He sniffed Jude’s leg and then her hand. She remained still. To Sarah’s amazement, Buster began to purr and butt his handsome black and white head against Jude’s leg. Once he had climbed onto her lap, he allowed Jude to stroke his head and the purring became louder. Jude smiled.
“He can come and sleep on Millie’s bed if that’s okay. I think we’re friends now.”
Trying not to glare at Buster too much, Sarah put his dinner down, and cleaned out his cat litter tray. Buster was very much an indoor cat and even wrinkled his nose up at the fresh air when the balcony doors were open. Sarah slept better that night, knowing that Jude was there with her, and when she poked her head round the door of Millie’s room, she could see that Jude and Buster were very happily curled up together. Putting the coffeemaker on, and taking the opportunity to have a quick shower before breakfast, Sarah was surprised to see a very wide-awake Jude and a happy Buster sitting at the kitchen table.
“You were fast asleep when I looked in. I thought I’d leave you for a bit. The bathroom’s all yours now.”
“Thank you. Buster is a very good companion; his purring is quite hypnotic. I just got a text from Dan. He says he hates Peppa Pig.”
“Tough! Toast or cereals for breakfast?”
“Do you have Marmite?”
“We do. I’ll go and get dressed, and put some toast on.”
Buster looked quite bereft when Sarah and Jude left for the studio. As soon as the door had shut, he made his way back into Millie’s bedroom and curled up once again in his customary spot by her pillow.
Sarah was pleased with the friendliness with which Jude was greeted when they arrived. Al sorted out the security passes, and Daryl promised to make sure that Jude had a seat with a view, but away from any potential drama that might occur in the audience. The filming started later than it should have due to some minor temper tantrums on the part of Oliver, who felt that the couple should just bury the past, and get on with life with their new partners. He didn’t agree with the lie detector tests, and was feeling very tetchy. He rarely got to meet the participants beforehand, and Sarah felt that on this occasion it would have been a good idea if he had at least read through the case papers. The woman came on first and Oliver was initially sympathetic to her story of a cheating partner. When her ex-partner came on stage though, he gave an equally convincing story of being cheated on that confused everyone – including Oliver. He asked the couple what they would do if the tests proved one or the other – or both had been cheating. They shrugged. Shrugs always annoyed Oliver. He read out the man’s test results first. All three questions were answered with lies and the man responded by gluing his eyes to the floor. Sarah could see that Oliver was seething now.
He ripped open the envelope containing the woman’s results. Same again. All lies. the pair sat there, sullen and uncommunicative. Oliver threw the results envelopes to the floor; said he was going for a lie down, and advised them to do one as he couldn’t be bothered with them. The pair were ushered off stage by two of the researchers, and Sarah went off to make sure Oliver was calming down. He wasn’t. In fact, he was pacing up and down the room like a caged lion. He turned round when Sarah came into the room, and was about to hold forth when something in her expression changed his mind.
“I suppose you are going to tell me that I came over too strong with them?”
Sarah shook her head.
“No. I agree with you that it is a waste of valuable resources, but we have to have cases like that don’t we? Just to add a bit of boring normality to all the drama. I just came up to make sure you were okay. The next one is easier. Just a pair of kids who had a bad start and might get back on the rails if we help them.”
“Hmmm. Kids having kids. You know how I feel about that!”
“I do, but I think these two are fragile, and could get things back together given our support.”
“Thank you, but I’ll be the judge of that. I may not be a social worker Sarah but I’ve been doing this for ten years and I know my stuff.”
“Okay, I’ll leave you to it then.”
Sarah left the room feeling more than a little annoyed with Oliver. If he was going to continue in this frame of mind it did not bode well for the next couple, and the final case had so many elements that could set him off on another temper tantrum that Sarah wondered how many takes they’d have to go for before they got some good footage.
Jenny was coming down the corridor; her face displaying her annoyance with Oliver.
“How is he?” she said.
“Grumpy,” Sarah replied, “and we have a delicate one on next. Something’s got up his nose this morning.”
“Make sure your team are ready to pick up the pieces then. I’ll deal with Oliver from now on.”
The rest of the aftercare team were ready and waiting, Sarah also warned the rest of the staff. Oliver in a bad mood was liable to lash out at anyone that he felt was not doing their job properly. It was a tense atmosphere therefore that greeted both Oliver, and the young couple as they waited in separate pods. Oliver stalked on stage and did his preamble about young kids having kids, and the importance of using contraception if you weren’t prepared to deal with the consequences. The young lad came on first; he was quiet and clearly hurt regarding the prospect that he might not be the father of the baby. Oliver was a little brusque with him and this resulted in monosyllabic answers that annoyed Oliver even more. When the girl came on stage to join them, she cried. And cried. And cried.
There was a real possibility that the lad might not be the father of the baby. They were on a break around the time that the baby was conceived, and in between sobs, the girl confessed that she was drunk at a party and had sex with two complete strangers. Oliver was getting very angry. Al brought the DNA results out and handed them to him. Not surprisingly the baby was the product of one of the strange men at the party. The lad burst into tears; so did the girl. The tissue box was passed between them whilst Oliver paced angrily around the stage. Sarah heard Jenny calling Oliver through his ear piece to go to a break. It wasn’t scheduled but the case was going nowhere and she needed to get the aftercare team in to mend a few bridges. Oliver grudgingly announced the break and that the aftercare team would be waiting to sort out this ‘mess’. By the time the runners had the couple in the safety of one of the pods, Sarah was there to meet them. Jenny was hovering outside, and going on a curt nod from Sarah, she made sure that Oliver didn’t join the young couple.
It was salvaged. It wasn’t easy but it transpired that the young girl had no idea who the potential fathers of her child were. She had never seen them before or since, and didn’t want to either. She was devastated that her boyfriend wasn’t the father – and so was he. Having been there at all the scans and the birth, he truly believed that the baby was his. Slowly and calmly, Sarah listened to them both, and talked to them about the options. They truly did want to stay with each other, and although it would have been the best thing in the world if the baby had been his, the boy wanted to carry on being a father. Sarah set up some counselling sessions with them, gave them a contact number for emergencies, and told them that above all, they had to talk to each other about problems rather than bottling it all up as they had before. They seemed to be taking it all in and eventually, holding hands, they went off to the creche to see their baby. Sarah breathed a deep sigh as she watched them go and felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Daryl.
“That was brilliant Sarah. You did such a good job with them.”
“I hope so. One more segment to go, and I can’t see it going smoothly somehow. Is Jenny around?”
“Outside soothing Oliver; he says that he hadn’t finished with those two. She just told him that he was.”
“Oh hell, there’s only one way out of this room isn’t there? Is my friend Jude, okay?”
“I’ll go and check now before we start the last segment. Perhaps you can sneak out behind me?”
Sarah drew herself up to her full five foot four.
“I am not sneaking anywhere Daryl. If Oliver doesn’t like me, he can sack me but I’ll be a huge pain in the arse to him for my month notice!”
Oliver was still outside with Jenny and looked as if he was about to say something but Jenny’s hand on his arm stopped him. She smiled at Sarah.
“Ready for the last section Sarah?”
“We are.” said Sarah trying to keep her voice as even as possible, and walk sedately down the corridor to where one of the two families were waiting.
When Oliver stalked onto the stage, there could have been few people in the audience and none on the crew, that were oblivious to the brewing storm. The young girl that came on stage was not an example of all that was good in the world. She was chewing gum, loudly. Her hair was pulled up on top of her head and her pink sparkling tee shirt and matching leggings would have still looked tacky on a girl three sizes smaller. As it was, every time she raised her hands to gesticulate wildly, several inches of pasty white muffin top were exposed. There was no way to deny it, she was one of the most unlovely females that had ever been on the show. She swore so much that the bleep boy was kept on his guard every time she opened her mouth. Oliver made no attempt to hide his disdain, and when her parents joined her on stage, his sneer went into overdrive. Mother was a larger, much larger, version of her daughter and had even more pasty flesh on show. Father was a tall, skinny, bedraggled creature in stained joggers and a tee shirt meant for someone much broader. He limped on with a crutch but used it more to emphasise his points than as a support for walking.
It appeared that the girl had originally moved in with her boyfriend in his parents’ house when she found that she was pregnant. The standard of living there was considerably higher than she was used to, and whilst her boyfriend and his father were out working during the day, she lazed around and invited her friends in to enjoy, and trash the house. Her behaviour was tolerated until the baby was born, at which time she took to her bed, and expected everyone to look after her and the baby. Not surprisingly, the boy fell out of love, and his ex-girlfriend moved back to her parents, and took the baby with her. She had come on the show to expose him as a liar and a cheat who was stalking her, and constantly harassing her family. There seemed to be only one other thing she and her family wanted – apart from humiliating her ex, and that was money. Her requests were far in excess of anything that the CSA would order the boy to pay for his child, and Jude, sat out in the audience, could feel the seething dislike for the charmless trio increasing as they painted themselves the victims.
Eventually, Oliver brought on the boy and his father. They were both quiet and well dressed. Unusually there had been no raised voices from their pod, despite the obvious insults and lies that were being hurled at them. The boy answered Oliver’s questions calmly, ignoring the cat calls from his ex-girlfriend and her parents. He had tried very hard to get her to look after the baby, to help out with the washing, and to tidy up after herself but she refused, and what had been love and affection rapidly turned to loathing. According to his father, she had caused thousands of pounds of damage to the house when she and her friends were partying during the day, and had even tried to set up a cannabis farm in one of the outhouses. She denied all this. She claimed that she had been kept a prisoner in the house and had to do all the family washing up until the week she gave birth. Her story was full of inaccuracies and when pictures of the trashed rooms were shown, she just grinned at her parents, and waved her hands about in a mocking fashion.
Sarah and the rest of the audience were waiting for Oliver to put his foot down. He didn’t. In fact, he launched both barrels at the boy and his father for their middle-class values and taking advantage of the girl. A DNA test had been requested and Oliver seemed to relish telling the boy that he was indeed the child’s father and that he ought to face up to his obligations. Oliver offered contact sessions and arranging for money to be paid into an account for the child. The boy was agreeable to this, although there was some discussion about the amount of money requested. The girl however, said that she would have the money, but that the boy would never see his daughter again. She had already had the boy arrested twice for harassment – and released without charge on both occasions. When the subject of contact was mooted again, the girl got up from her seat, stuck two fingers up at her boyfriend and stalked off stage, followed by her parents, the father forgetting that he should be limping. Shrugging his shoulders, Oliver indicated that the lad and his father should leave from the other side of the stage, and suggested that he should use contraception in the future, and be a bit selective about who he had sex with.
The usually noisy audience was silent when Oliver wrapped up the show, and only a few people clapped him as he left the stage. Sarah left the obnoxious girl and her parents to other members of the aftercare team, and went straight round to the boy and his father, who were sitting in the green room, stunned and silent. The boy looked up as she came in and she was struck by the terrible sadness in his eyes.
“She wasn’t always like that you know. When I first met her, she was in care, we had two years of happiness. She had really nice foster parents. Her own parents didn’t want her. When she left care, she came to live with us and we got engaged. She said it would be okay to have sex because she had an implant. She got pregnant and I found out that she lied about the implant. She went off the rails after that, and once the baby was born her parents told her to come home – so that they could get benefits for her and the baby. She isn’t a bad girl really, it’s just her parents.”
Nodding in agreement, Sarah took his hand in hers.
“The most important thing is that you don’t get caught up in the illegal side. She can and will accuse you of anything in order to blacken your name, but you need to stay calm. We’ll give you some guidance about the legal side, and we will try to work with her – and her parents – but you may have to face up to going for custody in order for your daughter to have the life she deserves.”
She left them with one of the aftercare team, who gathered more information and gave them the dates for counselling. Sarah walked along the corridor; she had no need to ask where the other family were. She could hear them and so could the audience, slowly filing out of the studio. When she entered the room, she found Oliver in a slanging match with the mother. Hands on hips, he was giving far better than he got but Sarah had visions of the whole sorry story ending up in the news. Beckoning to the girl, Sarah led her out of the room and into another pod. She threw herself down on the sofa and glared at Sarah.
“What? He ain’t seeing my kid and that’s the end of it.”
“Why? Is he such a bad father?”
“No, he did more of the looking after than I did when we brought her home. My mum says it ain’t natural a bloke looking after the baby so I left.”
“Who looks after the baby now?”
“My sister does. She’s only fifteen but she loves babies. I’d be happy to give her to my ex but my mum and dad said we could make enough money for me to have a nanny. Then I could get back to my modelling career.”
Modelling for what? Sarah wondered but supressed the thought quickly. she handed the girl the packet of counselling leaflets, and some telephone numbers, but suggested that she stop making false allegations because she would probably be the one getting arrested for wasting police time if she did it again. For some strange reason, this seemed to sink in and the girl became silent, sullen but mercifully silent. Sarah arranged for Daryl to escort the family off the premises, making sure they went in the opposite direction to the lad and his father. Jude was waiting in Sarah’s office. she was rather white-faced and didn’t look well.
“Oh, darling Jude. I’m so sorry you had to witness all that. They seemed like such easy cases yesterday. Was it really awful out there?”
Jude nodded. “I feel so disillusioned about Oliver. I know he can be a bit snippy at times but that was horrible. People in the audience were whispering about it, and booing him.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve managed to sort out the second couple, and I’ve given the lad some advice. Are you okay here for now? I think I need to see Jenny – and Oliver – before we go.”
Sarah made them both a cup of coffee first, then making sure Jude really was okay, she picked up her cup and went in search of Jenny. The sound of raised voices made it easy to track them down to a green room far from the stage. Jenny saw Sarah coming through the half-open door and beckoned her over.
“Are they alright?”
“Yes, we held onto the lad and his dad until the girl and her family had left the building but it’s all clear now.”
” I suppose you waved your magic social work wand and sorted all their problems out then Sarah.”
Oliver’s words were spat out with venom. She did her best to stay calm.
“Is it okay if I go now? My friend is in the office waiting for me.”
Jenny nodded. “We’ll look at this on Monday, okay?”
“If Sarah still has a job by then.” muttered Oliver, stalking over to the sofa. Sarah chose to ignore him and went back to Jude.
“Come on lovely. Let’s go home to normality.”
Al caught up with them as they walked to the car park.
“Are you alright? It got a bit hairy out there. I’ve never seen Oliver lose it like that before.”
“It’s probably because Millie isn’t here. She’s so much better at dealing with his tantrums than I am. “
“He’ll have calmed down by Monday.”
“I know. This is my friend Jude, she used to be a fan of Oliver’s. Jude this is Al, who is a very good friend of mine.”
Jude shook Al’s hand, noting that Sarah’s words had made him blush. He smiled at them both.
“Take care of yourselves and have a good weekend.”
The drive home was very quiet, and Sarah felt angry with Oliver for spoiling what was supposed to be a treat for Jude. When they got home, Dan invited Sarah to stay for dinner but looking at Jude, they both knew that she needed to go to bed. Making her excuses Sarah got back into the car and waved everyone goodbye. She was so distracted by what had happened that she didn’t notice the car driving behind her as she left Jude’s house.
She just wanted to get home.