Breaking Free – Another Breakthrough

After all the angst, it was turning out to be a good weekend.  Tom quite liked sleeping in the small room; he and Sarah got on really well, and all of Millie’s anxieties went out of the window. There was a brief moment when she almost objected because Tom wanted to go and meet up with some friends for lunch on Saturday, but then she stopped herself, remembering that he hadn’t just come home to see her, he had friends of his own too.

“What do you think of him then?” Millie whispered.

“He is lovely; incredibly handsome and very intelligent. He obviously thinks the world of his mother, and I find him to be very easy company. Stop worrying so much. You’ve done a wonderful job of bringing him up to be confident and independent. Well done!  At the same time, he has mislaid his phone three times since we got home yesterday which makes him a fairly normal teenager by all counts.”

After Tom, in unfeasibly tight jeans and a brightly striped tee-shirt, had gone out to meet his friends, Sarah turned on the TV to catch the lunch time news. The main section was full of doom and gloom as usual, but it was the local news that made Sarah sit up and call Millie in from the kitchen. She came running in quickly at the sound of fear in Sarah’s voice. There had been a car accident in the early hours of the morning. Five young people were in the car. No one was killed fortunately, but all five were in hospital, and the front seat passenger was said to have head injuries. It was when the camera showed footage of a large dark green Range Rover stuck in a ditch that Sarah had cried out. It was Natasha’s mother’s car.

Millie flipped through the channels trying to find out more information, whilst Sarah did the same on her laptop.  Details were sketchy but it appeared that all the occupants had been drinking, and the driver had taken a corner too quickly and gone into the ditch.  Millie phoned Jenny, who had only just heard about it herself, but had been able to ascertain from the police that it was Natasha that was driving. Jenny had given the police details of Natasha’s mother’s whereabouts, and was able to provide further information about the other four people in the car based on what the police had given her.  According to Jenny, Natasha had come off worse in the accident; her ankle had also been broken in the impact. The other four had scrapes and bruises but were very lucky. They had all been discharged from hospital except for Daryl, the runner that Sarah had met on her first day at the studio. They didn’t want to let him go as he lived on his own, and he had bumped his head when the air bag went off.

“He can come here.” said Millie impulsively. “I’ll sleep on the sofa and he can have my bed.”

“Are you sure? I thought Sarah was staying with you, and that you had Tom home this weekend?”

“All the better, plenty of us to keep an eye on him.  We’ll come and collect him from the hospital. Will you let them know?”

“Of course. If you really don’t mind?”

“We don’t. We’ll be over for him in about half an hour.”

Millie and Sarah sat in silence for a moment or two after Millie had put the phone down. They looked at each other.

“There was nothing we could do to stop it happening, Sarah. They’re all adults after all and who’s to say that she was drink-driving anyway; she may well have sobered up by the time they’d gone out and had a meal.”

“Do you really think so Millie? I think Natasha is so used to getting her own way that even if we’d got the car locked up somewhere, she’d have gone home and borrowed another one.”

“I didn’t realise her parents were that rich.”

“If her boasts are to be believed, they are.  She generally uses the family Golf to whizz around in, but wanted to impress her mates by using the Rangy because it’s brand new and can seat five.”

“Not any more by the look of that TV footage.  The Rangy is a write-off now.”

“Poor silly little girl. Come on, I’ll drive.”

The hospital wasn’t far away and Sarah managed to squeeze into a parking space not far from the entrance. Daryl was sitting in a wheelchair near the entrance talking to a nurse, and a tall man whose face looked rather familiar.

“Hey!” said Daryl. “Thank you so much for this. I wanted to go back to my flat but they don’t want me to be alone for the next day or so.”

“He may have concussion as well as a sprained wrist and a number of bumps and bruises,” explained the nurse.

Daryl indicated to the man next to him. “This is Natasha’s father, this is Millie and this is Sarah, they are social workers on the show.”

Mr Hart-Heron frowned. He shook Millie’s hand but took a pace backwards. “Sarah? Aren’t you the one who took Natasha’s job?”

Millie shook her head. “The post calls for a registered social worker with extensive experience in a number of fields. Natasha has only studied media to ‘A’ level, there’s no way she would have been considered for the job.”

Mr Hart-Heron’s frown deepened and he turned to Daryl. “Is that right Daryl? Natasha led us to believe that she was being lined up for promotion to the aftercare team.”

Daryl started to shake his head but thought better of it.

“No, Sir. Natasha was only on a temporary contract as a runner; she’s the youngest of all of us, and has the least experience. In fact, she dropped a huge clanger today that could have caused a huge amount of trouble if one of the security guards hadn’t stepped in so quickly.”

Natasha’s father turned back to Sarah. “Then I apologise for my daughter’s behaviour Sarah. Is that why she had been drinking yesterday?”

“It started off badly for her.” said Sarah and went on to explain about the car parking incident, being late for the meeting, getting hauled out of the meeting and then making a mess of the exit strategy. “We saw her with her friends in the restaurant and she’d been drinking then. I thought you were going to sober her up a bit Daryl?”

“We tried, but she had a bottle of vodka in her bag, and after she’d been put on a final warning by Jenny, she went off to the toilets, drank the lot and passed out. We put her in one of the green rooms to sleep it off, and she seemed to be okay when we came back to get her. I’m sorry Sarah, but she blames you for everything. There’s no rhyme nor reason to it – she’s just jealous that you got the job that she wanted.”

Millie shook her head in amazement. “I’m sorry Daryl, but Sarah and I qualified as social workers over twenty years ago. Does she not understand that?”

“Nope.” said Daryl. “She said that her mother thought she would make an ideal social worker, and that she would speak to Oliver about trying her out, but before she could, Millie had introduced you to Oliver and he’d given you the job.”

“I’m afraid my wife and I have widely differing opinions regarding Natasha’s abilities. Don’t worry. I’ll sort this all out when she gets back.”

Sarah looked thoughtful, “Perhaps Oliver might consider putting her into the aftercare team as a runner once she’s better. It might help her to understand that the job is nowhere near as glamorous as it looks. How is she anyway?”

“Whiplash, a broken ankle and some facial injuries from the airbag; she was very lucky really. They think that she probably does have concussion as well. I dread to think of what might have happened to both her and Daryl if it wasn’t for the air bags. Thank you again ladies. I’ll go back up and check on her.”

Millie pushed Daryl’s wheelchair out to the car and took it back whilst Sarah got him settled in the back seat.

“Does she really hate me that much Daryl?”

“She’s jealous. She adores Oliver and doesn’t like the way he asks yours and Millie’s opinions all the time. Her dad is right. Mrs Hart-Heron thinks Natasha is exceptionally talented, but to be honest we have to carry her most of the time because she gets so distracted,”

“Oh well, these things will sort themselves out eventually. Are you hungry?”

“Starving. I could murder a cheeseburger.”

“Fine, we’ll stop off at the drive thru’ on the way home. I could murder one myself and Millie is very easily persuaded where junk food is concerned.”

Millie needed no persuasion at all and the three of them arrived home laden with cheeseburger, fries and thick milkshakes. Once these were dispatched, Millie escorted Daryl to her room and ordered him to bed. He didn’t need much persuasion. Tom returned around six o’clock, in very high spirits, which were dampened slightly by the news of the car crash. Sarah was a little puzzled by his level of concern, and then she realised that Tom had spent a great deal of time on set after school and in the holidays, so he knew most of the crew very well.

They had planned to go out for a meal but in view of Daryl’s situation, they decided on pizza instead. Sarah grinned as she reached for the menu.

“What’s so funny?” asked Tom.

“Andy hated pizza. I tended to order it when he was away, but however hard I tried to get rid of the boxes, he always knew. I always got the same lecture as well. Pizza boxes may be made of cardboard but they contain a substantial amount of animal fat on them which could taint everything in the recycling bin, and make it all worthless.”

“He’s quite right Sarah, you are very nearly as irresponsible as my mother.” said Tom with a wink as he dodged the tea towel his mother threw at him.

The smell of pizza and garlic bread had a reviving effect on Daryl, who limped blearily out of Millie’s bedroom in time to sit down at the table and eat. The bruises on his face were beginning to show now, but his appetite didn’t seem to be affected by the accident. After dinner, Tom and Daryl commandeered the TV and set up Tom’s X-Box. Despite the sprained wrist, Daryl seemed to have no problem competing with Tom, and sometimes even winning. After clearing away and not putting the pizza boxes in the recycling, Millie and Sarah moved into Sarah’s bedroom and sat by the laptop.

“I need your help Sarah. I need to bounce something off you so you can tell me if I’m mad or not.”

“Okay. How mad?”

“Very. When I went down to visit Tom, he kept on asking me questions about his father. Questions that I couldn’t answer.”

“He’s at that age, and a point in his life where a bit of curiosity would be expected.”

“Yes, yes. I know that. Sarah, I’m toying with the idea of taking a leave of absence from the show and going to India to find Tom’s dad.”

There was a part of Sarah that had been expecting this to come ever since she had tracked him down on the Internet, so she had prepared herself.

“Will Oliver let you go? Do you have enough money?”

“Now that we have you on the team, Oliver and Jenny will be fine. I may have to leave it a few weeks until the runners are back, but that’s not a problem. I have plenty of money to finance the trip. I was hoping that you would put off your flat hunting for a while and stay here to look after Tom and the cat. Would you?”

“Of course, I would. “

“Good. Will you come with me to tell Tom?”

“Shouldn’t you tell him on his own?”

“No, I can’t put off telling him any longer. Come one.”

Millie led the way back into the living room where Daryl and Tom had just completed another war game.

“Tom, can you turn that thing off for a moment please?”

Tom looked at Daryl, then at Sarah, and turned the X-Box off.

“What’s up Mum?”

The response came out like a bullet. “I’m going to India to find your father.”

There was a moment’s silence before Tom turned back to the X-Box.

“Yeah, I hoped you would. Will you be gone long?”

“A couple of weeks, a month maybe. Sarah will stay on here to look after the cat – and you if you come home.”

“What’s Oliver going to say?” asked Daryl.

Millie grimaced. “He won’t like it, but I’ve not had a proper holiday for a couple of years, and now that Sarah is on the show, he can probably do without me for a while.”

“One condition Mum.”

“Yes Tom, what’s that?”

“Make sure you come home, and don’t join a religious sect or a harem or something?”

“I promise not to. Daryl, not a word of this at the studio. I need to do this my own way.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Good,” said Tom. “Can we get back to the game now?”

Millie and Sarah went back into Sarah’s room, and spent the next hour or so checking out what vaccinations Millie would need, which flights were the best, and where to stay. It was quite exciting really.

Breaking Free – Nasty Natasha

Tom was coming home for the weekend and Millie was more hyperactive than Sarah had ever seen her before. The flat was cleaned and re-cleaned. Millie stressed over whether Tom would like sleeping in the small room, and Sarah offered to go to Jude’s for the weekend so he could have his old room back. Millie was desperate for the two of them to meet however, and Sarah had to admit, she was just as anxious to make Tom’s acquaintance.  It wasn’t that Millie was being bad-tempered or awkward about anything, but Sarah found herself tiptoeing around and doing her best not to untidy anything.  It was after Millie had wiped the worktop down for the fifth time before they were due to go off to work, that Sarah took her friend by the hands and sat her down on the sofa.

“Millie. Chill. The flat is cleaner that it’s ever been. Tom’s told you a million times that he’s happy sleeping in the little room and can’t wait to meet me. That’s mutual. You are my oldest friend, and I love you to bits, therefore I will love Tom to bits as well. Let’s get to work now. Oliver is filming one of those cases where he crams a dozen people on the stage and security are run off their legs trying to stop everyone killing each other. It promises to be a busy morning, which is just as well because you need something to keep you occupied today. I’m taking you out to lunch, and then Tom is coming to the studio to meet us. He’s been to the studio a million times; he is a street-wise young man who can cope with trams and a rucksack. Put your shoes on, and I’ll drive us in so that Tom can relax on the way home, and you don’t have to swear at the traffic too much. Deal?”

“Sorry.” said Millie, with a rueful smile. “I am being a pain, aren’t I? I just don’t want Tom to think he’s being pushed out. I love having you in the flat, and I’m in no hurry for you to buy a place of your own. It’s just so important to me that the two of you get on.”

“We will. Just don’t get so tense about it. Come on. Shoes!”

Sarah handled the morning traffic with an ease that Millie envied. She even managed to find a decent parking space under the studio, nipping in quickly ahead of one of the younger runners who had borrowed her mother’s Range Rover and was having difficulties manoeuvring.

“Sorry!” Sarah called cheerily, as she and Millie hurried towards the lift. “Got a meeting to go to.”

“Mean girl. You know that she has to be at that meeting too.” said Millie.

“I know. I also know that she was boasting about her mother’s new Rangy in the green room yesterday, that her mother is away and that little Miss Spoilt is driving said Rangy without insurance or her mother’s knowledge.”


“Quite! I also know that she has been spreading poison about me to anyone who will listen. God knows why because the only qualification the child has is an alleged ‘A’ level in media studies, and a well-placed mother who has had to pull a lot of strings to get her kept on.”

“Natasha will be out by the end of the month. Does she even have a car park pass?”

“Nope. She’s using her mother’s pass, again without permission, and there will be hell to play if she gets caught. Someone mentioned the risk to her yesterday, and she just batted her baby blues, tossed back the blonde locks, and said that she was sure she could blag her way out of it. Apparently, she is taking some of the other runners out for a meal and drinkies tonight, hence borrowing Mummy’s Rangy.”

“It’s one of those times when you know that you should butt out and leave them to it, but the old social work instincts keep nagging at you to do something. But what can you do?”

The lift arrived and took them up to the fifth floor. Al passed them in the corridor and grinned. “Busy one this morning. Get your flak jackets on.”

“I know. I’ll be the one hiding behind you Al.”

“Any time Sarah, Any time.”

Millie nudged Sarah with her elbow.

“You’re blushing! You do like him!”

“How could anyone not like him. He’s a lovely man. Don’t get ideas, I’m just getting comfortable with the idea of being single again.”

“I know, but he really is a nice man.  A lot better than Andy I’ll bet.”

“Andy was nice – is nice – and will undoubtedly be a total hero to whoever it is that he’s fallen in love with. Just not me. Hurry up or we’ll end up sitting in the danger zone.”

Fortune favoured them and they were able to get two seats well out of Oliver’s eye line. They already had their coffee to hand and notepads at the ready when Natasha, red-faced and glowering entered the room, only to be pushed into the hot seat directly in front of Oliver by Jenny as she shut the door.  Sarah got the distinct feeling that someone was looking at her; raising her eyes up from her notebook she caught the hate-filled glare of Natasha, her little lips pursed and her eyes narrowed.  Sarah returned the gaze with a beatific smile, and looked back down to her notebook quickly.  Oliver was on good form this morning. The aftercare team came in for a battering, more to get them ready for the amount of work they would get from the morning’s show than for anything that had gone wrong. Someone in the research team got well and truly told off for some sloppy work, that had it not been picked up by one of the more experienced staff, could have caused a great deal of embarrassment to everyone involved with the show.

Just as the meeting was winding up, there was a knock on the door and one of the car park security guards entered.

“Looking for a Natasha Hart-Heron?”

All eyes turned to Natasha, and Oliver pointed her out. “What’s the problem?” said Oliver. “Only we are in the middle of a meeting you know.”

“Sorry Mr Standish. I’ve just had a complaint that a car belonging to Emma Hart-Heron has taken up two spaces. I went up to see Mrs Hart-Heron but it appears that she been in the Bahamas since Saturday. I came to see if her daughter might know why the car is in the car park when her mother isn’t in work, and why it is taking up two spaces?”

“Off you go Natasha – yet another black mark my dear. Bad enough pinching your mum’s car when she’s away, but to pinch two parking spaces when they are at such a premium …” Oliver’s voice trailed away ominously.

“It wasn’t my fault!” spat Natasha. She pointed at Sarah. “It was hers! She took the space I was going to park in.”

The look that Jenny gave Natasha would have silenced anyone sensible, but not Natasha who embarked up on another rant about the unfairness of it all.

“Just remind me.” Oliver drawled. “Are we in the habit of giving parking spaces to runners who are still on six months trial?”

“Definitely not! Off you go now Natasha and get the car moved. You’ll have to have to move it to the long-stay car park if you can find a space. Report to me when you get back.”

Jenny was definitely cross now and started packing up her laptop. An indication that the meeting was well and truly over. Oliver waited until Sarah and Millie were walking past, and put his hand on Sarah’s arm. “How’s it going Sarah?  Settling in okay?”

“Yes, thank you. I mean I hope so. I should be asking you really. Am I doing okay?”

“Considerably better than that gobby little madam. We only took her on as a runner because Mummy works upstairs in the Chief Execs office.  She doesn’t appear to have taken a shine to you, though does she?”

“Oh well, we can’t be loved by everyone can we.” said Millie brightly. “I think Natasha considers everyone over forty to be too boring for words, and can’t understand why we haven’t all be put out to grass.”

Knowing that Oliver was very tetchy about his approaching fiftieth birthday, Millie had touched exactly the right nerve to make him even more annoyed with Natasha.

“Jenny!” he called. “Just a word please?”

Millie and Sarah made good their escape, and settled down with the other members of the aftercare team to check out the case notes of the people appearing on the show that morning.  As predicted, the huge family group took some handling; the mother and father had been separated for years, and hated each other. The mother said that her husband had cheated on her, so of course she had cheated on him. There were seven children in all, the first three went into care when the couple split. Then they got back together, had four more children who went to live with their grandmother when she gave up work to look after them. Two of the children went back to live with their mother when grandmother died, the other two went into care. Four of the children hated their father, three of them hated their mother. None of them appeared to like each other particularly, and a complicated strategy had been worked out so that each group was kept separate from the other until they actually went on stage.

It would have worked out okay if everyone had followed the strategy. Security worked very hard but because of a moment of inattention, two of the brothers that should have been kept separate managed to find themselves in a corridor and started lashing out. It took a while for Al to get from the corridor on the other side of the stage, to the corridor where all the action was taking place. He split the lads up before any real damage was done, but unfortunately blood was spilled, and a cameraman was already filming. Oliver soldiered on, and through sheer luck, managed to get some of the siblings reunited. The DNA test results were read out and to the surprise of nearly everyone, especially the mother, all the children turned out to have the same father after all. The mother was rather concerned about this as she had been getting the CSA to get money out of two other men who she’d claimed were fathers of her children. The mother and the father still didn’t like each other, and although the children were more kindly disposed to each other now that they knew that they shared the same parents, none of them wanted anything to do with said parents for abandoning them.

The aftercare team swooped in and made counselling appointments for everyone who felt that they needed them. Oliver carried on with the last part of the show, which was rather quiet and understated, in an attempt to patch up a sad relationship between two gay men who were seriously insecure about their relationship. Give Oliver his due, he had no shred of homophobia in him, and he dealt with their situation with an unusual amount of tact and diplomacy. He wrapped up the show with one of his standard homey platitudes to camera about dealing with conflict in a controlled environment. Sarah had heard most of them before but this one rang true, and she had a feeling that things were going to get ugly when Oliver found out who was responsible for letting two of the opposing sides end up together without security.

Word flew around and soon everyone involved with that morning’s show was gathered in the meeting room. Oliver sat on the table with his legs on a chair. He only usually adopted this position when he was delivering a bollocking to someone. Jenny was beside him, clipboard in hand ready to ascertain who it was that had let the side down. The aftercare team were immediately eliminated; their job began after the show. The researchers appeared to have done their job well, which brought it down to the runners, and to security.

“So, Al.” said Jenny. “Thank you for getting there so quickly but why were you on the wrong side of the stage?”

“We’d arranged for the more aggressive lad to be brought off on the left, that’s why I was waiting there. He was escorted off on the right though, and the other aggressive brother was already waiting there.”

“Right.” said Jenny, looking around the room. “Who took the brother off the wrong side of the stage?”

There was a silence as people looked around the room, and checked their clipboards. After looking at his colleagues, the chief runner cleared his throat.

“It was Natasha, she was responsible for the older brother.”

“So, where is she?” asked Jenny.

“She said she had to nip out and get another ticket for the car park. She hasn’t come back yet.”

“Okay, so now you can all see what goes wrong if people aren’t where they should be at the designated time. If you see Natasha, send her to me again. I’ll be my office. Do you want a word with her too Oliver?”

He nodded, thanked the rest of the teams for their hard work, punched Al in the arm and followed Jenny to her office. It was time for lunch in the Italian restaurant across the concourse. Millie and Sarah sat in one of the booths, hidden from sight and munching on garlic bread until their main course came. The distraction of work had taken Millie’s mind off Tom’s arrival, but she was beginning to get anxious again. It was while they were tucking into tagliatelle carbonara, that they heard familiar voices from the booth behind them.

“Natasha! You have to go back. Jenny is waiting for you.”

“Tough.” Natasha’s words were slurred, and she obviously realised what she had done wrong. Her friends ordered strong black coffee and tried to make her drink it. It was while Natasha was being escorted to the toilet, that Millie and Sarah took their opportunity to escape. As they were paying the bill, one of the runners came up to them. “

Please, you won’t tell anyone will you? We’ll try and get her sobered up before we take her back.”

Millie and Sarah looked at each other and shrugged.

“Been there and done that. Of course, we won’t say anything. Just make sure she doesn’t smell of booze or sick when she gets to Jenny’s office.”

“She isn’t that bad really.”

“She has good friends. That makes all the difference.”

As they walked back through security, Al popped his head round the door.

“Someone to see you. I put him in your office.”

“Tom!” squealed Millie as she ran down the corridor to the office.

Sarah made to follow her but was stayed by Al’s hand on her arm.

“Give her a moment with him.” he said quietly.

“Good idea.” said Sarah and sat down at the desk next to Al.

“Nasty business this morning.”

“It was all over before it started. You got there really quickly considering you’d been sent to the wrong side.”

“I move fast for a big guy – or so I’m told.”

Sarah laughed and nodded in agreement, trying very hard not to think about Al moving fast.  He was still smiling when he left the room, and made way for Millie and a very handsome young man.

“Sarah, please allow me to my lovely son Tom.” Said Millie with pride.

“God mum! Do you have to be so embarrassing! Hi Sarah. You don’t look as if Mum has driven you round the bend yet then?”

“No, she hasn’t so far – we seem to rub along quite well together.  Are you two ready to go soon?”

“I forgot to say Tom, Sarah’s got her car here so we don’t need to go on the tram.”

“Thanks Sarah, Will you have room in your car for my stuff?”

“What have you got?” Sarah followed him back in to the office. “That’s not much. We’ll fit that in easily.” 

Tom walked over to her and gave her a hug. “I’m glad Mum has you Sarah. I don’t need to worry about going away so much now.”

Breaking Free – Finding Your Feet

Looking back, Sarah realised how easy people were on her in those first few weeks of working on Oliver’s show. She sat in the audience for many of the shows, getting a feel for the production methods, how the runners and researchers worked, and where she would be fitting in to the bigger scheme of things.  One of the younger researchers seemed a little offhand but Millie soon put them in their place if she caught anyone making snide comments about Sarah. Finding her way round the studio, and all the associated rooms and corridors took quite a while. During filming, if she wasn’t actually sitting in the audience, she would watch on the monitors and be ready to flatten herself against a wall when the camera and sound man came hurtling past with Oliver, in pursuit of someone who had suddenly become camera shy.

It seemed at first to Sarah that the attitude held towards the people who came on the show by those who worked with them was rather callous. Initial applications were filtered and grouped according to the main course of action needed. Some of the people came under more than one heading – ‘cheated on by ex’, ‘DNA’, ‘double DNA’, ‘double lie test’, ‘estranged sisters’. Once they had been grouped into the appropriate category, each case was then given a sexy strapline that would be bound to attract the viewer, and keep their interest during the advertisement break as it was put up on the screen at the beginning and ending of the segment.

Sharing the flat with Millie was the easiest part of her new life. They didn’t always work the same hours or even the same days, so there was no constant falling over each other in the flat. They laughed and chatted as they had in the old days, but now they had so much more to talk about. Millie encouraged Sarah to cook again, although with the plethora of restaurants surrounding the Quays, there were times when going across for a meal after a hard day was by far the easiest, and most palatable option.

Sarah felt like her horizons were being expanded in every way, and she liked it. The house purchase went through, and Roseanne kept her updated on the progress. She was delighted to hear that the young couple who bought the house intended to rip out all the seventies ghastliness, and turn it into a sleek, modern family home. Abigail had complained about the fact that Sarah had not packed Andy’s things up, but received a quick retort from Roseanne regarding the fact that Abigail would have only unpacked everything to check that nothing was missing anyway.  There had also been a couple of calls from Simon to see how she was, which she thought was rather sweet. His office had also been besieged by Abigail but she refused to talk to Simon, and would only pass messages to him via his secretary. As predicted, she had demanded the return of the box, but Simon had sent her a very formal letter stating that Andy had specifically requested that the box be kept safely until his return. She threatened all kind of legal action, but gave up eventually and concentrated on putting Andy’s belongings into storage, and cleaning every trace of Sarah from the house.

The rest of the aftercare team accepted Sarah, and she found that the time spent in forensic social work was particularly relevant to many of the people who came on the show. It was at a pre-show meeting at the start of the week that Sarah and Millie’s past came back to haunt them. They were seated round the table looking at cases and deciding which case would fit best with the others. Oliver had a tearjerker episode scheduled for the end of the week, where he gently interviewed some particularly tragic but non-confrontational cases in order to show his softer side. Young children were inevitably involved and the bestowing of toys, or an iPad for the older ones, was part and parcel of building up the genial Oliver persona. Sarah found it all a bit saccharine, but decided to keep her opinions to herself. It was media, and media was the part she had to mug up on. The producer was working through the resumes of the cases when a familiar name jumped out at both Sarah and Millie. Amy Loomis! The siren of the Graduation Ball and the seducer of Steven Horgan. They nudged each other and read through the notes quickly. Amy Loomis was going to be on the show!  Would she recognise them? 

Skimming through the notes, it appeared to them both that fate had not been kind to Amy. She had an adult daughter who had three children of her own, and Amy had another four younger children, from three different relationships. She was coming on the show to establish the DNA of the two youngest because her current partner was accusing her of cheating. She was also accusing him of cheating, so it would be a double lie detector test as well. How Oliver relished those! On the plus side Amy had a large council house, and was on every benefit she could get, so there was no need for the aftercare team to get involved. Nowhere was there any mention of Steven Horgan however, and Sarah couldn’t help wondering how long the two of them had lasted after graduation.

Oliver decided that it was quite meaty case, so he’d sandwich it between a father with issues about his ten-year old son’s gambling habit, and a couple who were being harassed by a jealous ex-girlfriend. Oliver was optimistic that the case could be sorted out on the spot, and so they would have a happy ending. At the end of the meeting Sarah and Millie both spoke to Jenny, and made her aware of their previous association with Amy Loomis. She seemed slightly irritated, but having read through the notes again, decided that if there was any aftercare involved another member of the team could deal with it.

“Try and keep out of the corridors that morning if you can. I really don’t want this woman throwing a wobbler because she recognises you both from her dim and distant past. By all means, watch it on the monitor though, and if you see anything that might be useful, let one of the team know.”

Feeling summarily dismissed, they went back to the aftercare office and had a quick meeting with the rest of the team, most of whom were fascinated to know how both Millie and Sarah knew her of old.

The day of the filming arrived and there was a higher level of curiosity than usual about Amy Loomis and her family, because of her previous association with Millie and Sarah. The first section of the show went without a hitch. The father confronted his son about the gambling and money issues. The son broke down in tears. They hugged, and were left off stage to talk to the aftercare team about gambling addiction and counselling. Tucked safely out of the way, Millie and Sarah sat together, glued to a monitor for the first sight of Amy Loomis.

“If she’s still wearing her hair in pigtails I shall scream.” muttered Sarah.

“No.” said Millie. “She must have grown out of them by now.”

Oliver was on stage doing his introductory piece on Amy. Several other people had come into the room since the section had started, almost as curious to see what Amy looked like as Millie and Sarah were.

Amy wasn’t wearing her hair in pigtails. She was wearing it scraped up on top of her head in a pony tail, a style that was only ever flattering to models with high cheek bones and perfect skins. Amy had neither of those. Time had not been kind to her. The dark-haired girl in a red satin blouse was now painfully thin, her brown trousers hung on her and the beige cardigan that she pulled around her was far too large. Her skin was pale and there were huge circles under her eyes. The worst moment was when she managed a nervous smile and revealed several gaps in her teeth.

Haltingly she told a tale of how she had achieved a degree in media studies at university, but fell pregnant to a fellow student who had dumped her shortly after the Graduation Ball. He had never been interested in her daughter, nor contributed any money to her care. Amy and her daughter Stephanie lived in various hostels and sheltered housing, because her parents would have nothing to do with her.  Eventually she met up with and married a kind, gentle man who was happy to take Stephanie on as his own, and they had a son to complete the family. Seven years into the marriage her husband was punched in the face whilst on a stag do. He fell to the ground smashing his head into the concrete and died within a couple of hours.

Amy turned to drink as a way out, and had another baby by a man she could hardly remember.  She had two more children by her current partner, who was also a drinker, and who didn’t get on with Stephanie. Torn between her eldest daughter and her partner, Amy threw Stephanie out because she couldn’t stand the arguments any more. Stephanie’s relationship with an aggressive boor who beat her resulted in twin girls, a baby boy, and numerous visits to hospital for Stephanie with broken fingers, black eyes and bruises that never matched up with the accidents that she said had caused them.

Amy told Oliver that what she wanted most in life was some peace. She knew her current partner was cheating on her, and was just looking for a reason to get out of the relationship, which is why he was accusing her of cheating too. She wanted proof that the two youngest children were his, and that she, too tired and weary to do much more than look after her children and worry about Stephanie, had not cheated on him. Stephanie joined them on stage and Sarah was struck by how much she looked like Steven Horgan. The penny dropped. She felt a shiver down her back. Steven Horgan was the kind of man who got a woman pregnant and then dumped her. What a lucky escape she’d had.

Stephanie was angry. She was angry with her mother; she was angry with her mother’s partner. She was angry with the man who had supported her through two pregnancies, but had then abandoned her for another girl who didn’t have any children in tow.  For once the audience were very supportive of both Amy and her daughter; the boos and catcalls started when Amy’s partner strolled onto the stage looking very full of himself.  He threw himself down in the chair and glared at Oliver as if he was the worst person in the world.  He was not a pretty sight; shaved hair, tattoos that went from his shoulder, up his neck and ended where his hairline would have been, if he’d had any hair. The researchers had managed to persuade him to change his tee-shirt, as it had a particularly obscene phrase on the front.

Oliver went into his summary spiel to bring TV viewers up to date. He did his best to engage with the man, but each question was met with a hostile glare. As a consequence, the results of the lie-detector tests were presented to Oliver sooner than normal.  He opened Amy’s envelope first. Not surprisingly, the test proved that she was not lying on any counts.  It was a shame that the same could not be said for Amy’s partner. He failed. He tried to get up and walk away, but Al and Dave prevented him going until he’d heard the DNA test results. As Amy had predicted, both the younger children were his, and although she was throwing him out of the council house they shared, Amy had the grace to say that he could visit his children when he wanted to.

Both Millie and Sarah were feeling empathic towards Amy. On the day of the Graduation Ball, they had all had high hopes for the future.  Sarah realised now that she could have been in Amy’s position. That it could have been her sitting on Oliver’s stage, warn down and haggard, arguing with yet another worthless man who had left her high and dry. She knew that she and Millie shouldn’t get involved, but she had a compulsion to see Amy before she left. To tell her that things would be alright in the end, but everything that she thought of saying seemed trite and trivial compared to the awfulness of Amy’s situation.  She felt that Millie was having the same thoughts, and as the show cut to an advertisement break, they both sat in the office, silent and rather ashamed.

A runner burst into the room just then, “Oliver wants you two downstairs as soon as possible.”

“What for?” asked Millie.

“Dunno. Just said to come and get you both quick.”

Casting confused glances at each other, Sarah and Millie followed the runner downstairs and through the maze of corridors to another green room. Oliver was sitting on a sofa talking with Amy.

“Ah, come in you two. Amy was asking after you. She’s very eagle-eyed and had seen Millie on the show ages ago, but then she saw a more recent recording and recognised you as well, Sarah.  She asked if she could say hello?”

Oliver moved over so that Sarah and Millie could sit next to Amy. She smiled; a shy ‘I-know-my-teeth-are- bad-but –I-can’t-afford-to-see-a-dentist’ smile.

“I wasn’t sure if it was Millie, but then, when I saw you as well Sarah, I remembered how inseparable you two were at Uni. You both look as if you are doing well. Is it all okay with you?”

Sarah couldn’t find the words at that moment but luckily Millie could.

“Hey Amy, I have a son who’s just started at Uni. Sarah’s just emerged from a long-term relationship. She’s a bit like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. She’s staying with me till she finds a place of her own.”

Amy smiled again and they could all see beyond the wrinkles and the sunken eyes, what a pretty girl she used to be.

“Just like the old days at Uni then. There’s something I’ve always felt guilty about, Sarah.” she said. “This seems to be a day for getting things off my chest. I had a feeling that you had almost arranged to go to the Graduation Ball with Steven, and I stepped in and pinched him. Do you forgive me?”

“There’s absolutely nothing to forgive Amy. It sounds as if you saved me from a fate worse than death.”

Amy nodded. “It was good with Steven at first but once he found out I was pregnant he wouldn’t stay. He went off to some foreign place to find himself.”

“So, did I, and found myself pregnant instead.” said Millie.

“My partner – sorry – ex-partner has just gone off to Thailand to find himself.” said Sarah trying not to sound too bitter.

Just then a runner turned up and announced that the car had come to take Amy and Stephanie back to the train station, so that they could go home and start the process of throwing her partner out of the house and reclaiming it for their own.

“Thank you for today, for getting to the truth for me, and for letting me meet up with my old friends.” Amy said to Oliver as he stood by the doorway doing his compassionate clasping of hands. Impulsively, Sarah came forward and hugged Amy, followed by Millie.

“The aftercare team will be here to support you Amy.” said Oliver in a less oily tone than usual.

“Thank you. I feel like you’ve put me on the way there already.”

“Just out of interest, what happened to Steven in the end?” asked Sarah.

“I’m afraid he died. He joined the army and became an explosives officer.  He was defusing a bomb in Afghanistan. I kept in touch with his mother. He wasn’t a bad man Sarah, just young and unable to handle the consequences. I have Stephanie to remind me anyway.”

Amy turned and followed her daughter and the runner out to the waiting car. Sarah and Millie both sat down on the sofa.

“Come on girls! No blubbing! Amy has left the building and you two have work to do. Chop, chop!”

There were times, thought Sarah, when she could cheerfully strangle Oliver Standish.

Breaking Free – Extending Friendships

There can be few things nicer than waking to the smell of fresh coffee – unless of course you don’t like coffee. Sarah felt confused.  Andy didn’t drink coffee, and grudgingly made her cups of instant coffee. He had frowned at her attempts to persuade him that a cafetiere would be a useful addition to the kitchen.  Pulling on her dressing gown, she stumbled downstairs to the welcoming sight of Millie soft boiling eggs, cutting bread soldiers and pouring coffee from what must be her own cafetiere.

Millie turned round and grinned. “I thought that we should celebrate your last morning here doing things that Andy wouldn’t approve of. I’m having one egg, you can have two so that all the egg cups are being used again, and I hope you appreciate the neatness of my soldiers?”

Sitting down at the breakfast table, Sarah felt a lump in her throat and looked up at Millie.

“Stop it Sarah, don’t you go getting all sentimental on me now! Today marks the ending of one life and the beginning of another. We’ll take the storage boxes down after breakfast, I get to meet the lovely Jude and her family, and then we hightail it off to the big bad city and the overwhelming whims of Oliver Standish! Ta Da!”

“It almost feels as if we were back at Uni again. Promise me something Millie?”

Millie sat down at the table next to her. “What’s up?”

“Promise me that you’ll be honest with me, and tell me if I behave like a prat?”

“As if!”

“No, I realise now how poor the communication was between me and Andy; how little I knew about him really. There were things I should have said and so should he, but both of us were too scared to say them. Promise me that you’ll tell me if I do anything to annoy you, or you need more space, or you regret having me to stay – and work with you?”

“Listen, I know an awful lot of things have happened to both of us since Uni days, but I knew as soon as we sat down to lunch that day, that beneath it all, we were still the same two silly sods as we used to be. I was dreading Tom going off to Uni. I miss him so much. You know what it’s like coming home from a traumatic day with no one to offload to.”

“I know, I used to stop off at Jude’s sometimes because I knew that Andy wouldn’t want to listen.”

“And Jude will still be there. We’ll have each other to grumble to when Oliver gets up our noses, or we have a really sad story that doesn’t look as if it will work out.  You’ve been living in limbo land for a long time, and now it’s time to take the real world on. I promise not to make you eat boiled eggs every day though. I like the egg cups for their decorative use as well as practical. Now taste this coffee, it is rather gorgeous but needs to be drunk fresh.”

The storage boxes took up all the room in both their cars and Sarah was glad of Millie’s previous experience of storing goods as the whole system was totally alien to her. When she moved out of her parents’ house Andy had hired a house clearance firm to take everything but Sarah’s clothes, and her most personal belongings. She had been so shell-shocked by the death of her father that she had just let Andy take charge of everything, signing papers when bidden but unable to deal with anything that reminded her of the loss of both her parents. To be fair to Andy, he had done an excellent job. He told her that most of the money from the house sale had been invested in shares for her, and the rest put into a savings account that he set up in her name. He really had been her rock in those early days and she was grateful for his kindness, which she now knew she had mistaken for love.

Sarah was fascinated by the storage facility. The manager had looked at the number of boxes they had, sold them a stout padlock with a couple of keys, and helped them load the boxes onto a trolley.  He led the way down a dark corridor where movement activated lights sprang into life as they passed. The little windowless room that would house Sarah’s belongings for the time being was half-filled by the time the trolley was unloaded, and as she padlocked the door and pushed the empty trolley back to the entrance Sarah felt like another door in her life had closed.

“This is the key code to get into the building, and the same code opens the gates if you decide that you desperately need something when the office is shut. We have ten-four-hour CCTV, so although you may feel you are alone if you come in out of hours, I can assure you that we’ll be watching. It gets a bit spooky here after dark though, so I wouldn’t advise it.”

The manager was quite matter of fact but Sarah had a feeling that she wouldn’t be venturing down the corridors if there was no one with her. A simple pub lunch rounded off the morning and left them both in a better frame of mind for the final packing up. Sarah phoned Jude when they got back to see how she was. It was a good day.

“Are you sure Millie doesn’t mind stopping off here on the way back?” said Jude.

“Of course not, she’s really looking forward to meeting you – all of you – she understands just how important you are to me. Oh, and we have to tell you about Andy’s solicitor Simon.”


“Oh, more than, he went to school with Andy and – get this – Abigail used to stalk him and fantasise about him.”

“Oh my god! What else?”

“No, I’ll tell you when we get there. I’ve got three bags of charity stuff but I thought the girls might like a rummage for dressing up clothes first.”

“Brilliant. Millie will like us, won’t she?”

“She’s just as worried that you won’t like her, and desperate for you to know that she won’t take me away, or try to take your place. I love you both, and I know that you’ll be able to see in each other what I see in you.”

“Okay, we’ll see you soon. Have you eaten?”

“Pub lunch after the storage place. All fed and watered and very anxious to close the door on this place for the last time”

“Hurry up then.”

With renewed vigour, Sarah and Millie packed away the last of Sarah’s belongings and put them into her car. Sarah left most of the house keys in an envelope on the kitchen table, and after a long look around each room in the house to say goodbye, she locked the front door and posted the keys back through the letter box. No turning back. Millie waited patiently in her car, watching Sarah methodically saying goodbye to the house she had seen as a home for the past ten years, then followed her on the drive to Jude and Dan’s house.

The girls greeted Sarah with enthusiasm, but the potential dressing up clothes met with absolute joy. Dan took them off into the front room to supervise, and indicated with his head that Jude was in the kitchen. Sitting at the table, with coffee and biscuits ready, Jude looked very nervous, but one look at Millie’s face made her realise how nervous she was as well. Sarah made the formal introductions and once they were sitting down, began to tell Jude all about Simon, Abigail and the revelations of the day before, with the occasional back up from Millie. Within a few moments all three of them were laughing, and both Millie and Jude realised that no one had anything to fear in regard to losing Sarah’s friendship.

Dan sent the girls in to display their creative use of Sarah’s old clothes; the combinations were hilarious but Sarah wondered why she ever wasted money on some of them.  Dan followed the girls.

“I’ve packed the other stuff away and I’ll take it to the charity shop on my way to work tomorrow. I have to say Sarah, there are some really bad taupe things in there that even the girls wouldn’t entertain.”

“Don’t blame me. They were presents from Andy in his effort to make me look more like his sainted mother. I fell very short of the mark, I’m afraid. Most of them I wore only once, just to please him, the others stayed hidden in the wardrobe. Andy was a kind man, but he had no taste whatsoever.”

“I’ll say!” said Millie. “I couldn’t believe it when I first walked into the house. Those kitchen tiles!”

“Yes!” said Jude. “And the pine cladding. I’ve never seen so much pine cladding before in my life!”

“Okay you two. No ganging up on me. I know that I should have persuaded Andy to do something about the décor years ago, but it’s too late now. That house is someone else’s problem. I need never set foot in it again. Although I’d give money to be a fly on the wall when Abigail goes in there, and finds that the box of papers has disappeared. Simon says that he will write to her saying that the box is in his safekeeping till Andy’s return. For some reason he didn’t seem too keen on giving her a call!”

United by a common dislike of Abigail, the rest of the afternoon sped by and soon it was time for Sarah and Millie to make the last leg of their journey back to Millie’s flat. Jude hugged them both goodbye and whispered into Sarah’s ear, “You’re right, she’s lovely and I do like her, and I’m not worried anymore.”

With that reassurance ringing in her ears, the drive back gave Sarah a little more time to take stock of all that had happened in such a short space of time. Before she realised it, she was following Millie’s car into the car park and parking beside her in what was now her designated space. It took three trips to get everything upstairs and the flat looked a little cramped once Sarah’s belongings cases and boxes were placed inside.

“Come and look.” said Millie, leading Sarah towards the box room. It was completely transformed. Millie had managed to get rid of most of the clutter and with the addition of a new single bed and wardrobe, it now looked like a place that Tom would be willing to sleep in when he came home.

“This makes me feel so much better Millie. I was worried that Tom would feel resentful about me coming here and taking over his space.”

“He’s fine. I sent him pictures and even he was quite impressed with what I’d done to the junk room. Now come and look at your room.”

It too was transformed. Millie hadn’t gone mad but she’d had toned down Tom’s masculine approach and made the room a softer and more feminine place by a fresh coat of lilac paint, some pretty curtains and duvet cover.

“How on earth did you manage all this in two days – and work?” said Sarah.

“I can’t take all the credit. Our good friend Al came over after work and did all the heavy stuff as well as the painting. He wanted you to have a warm welcome too.”

It was all a bit too much and Sarah sat down on the bed, feeling that the emotions she had been trying so hard to keep at bay for weeks were about to break through the well of self-defence. Millie handed her a box of tissues and left the room so that Sarah could have the time to herself. She cried like she had never cried before; big sobbing gasps that eventually subsided into snivels that could be safely mopped up by the tissues. Sarah was just beginning to pull herself together when Millie knocked on the door and came in bearing two large glasses of red wine. Her timing, as always, was impeccable.

“Sorry Millie.”

“What for? It was bound to catch up with you sooner or later. Come on Ms Professional Social Worker. You should know as much if not more than me, about the process of separation and grieving.  Drink up that wine and when you are ready, come and join me in the kitchen where I am cooking up my signature dish.”

“Which is?”

“You’ve forgotten already? Cheesy pasta topped with griddled spicy tomatoes – except the spices are a bit more sophisticated than they used to be.”

“Ah but one can work wonders with a tub of curry powder!”

“You do remember! The pasta’s just gone in the oven but I need to stand over the tomatoes in case the grill incinerates them. Warning – it can get a bit fierce. I’ll see you in a bit?”

“How can anyone resist the lure of your cheesy pasta and griddled spicy tomatoes? Do you mind if I do a bit of unpacking?”

“Course not. It’ll save me from tripping over the cases when I use the bathroom.”

“Sorry!  Oh, you were taking the mickey. I must get out of this habit of over apologising.”

“You must! I’ll call you when it’s ready. Drink up!”

Sarah pulled her suitcases and boxes out of the hallway and into her room. She had done her best to be organised and written a resume of the contents on each of the boxes. On closer examination of the room, she was pleased to find that she had a double wardrobe, two chests of drawers and a floor to ceiling bookcase.

With an unusual self-control, Sarah unpacked all her clothes and hung them up, or folded them away. The suitcases went one inside the other and Sarah managed to put them up on top of the wardrobe. That left her books, DVDs and CDs, and the little box containing her most precious items, including the egg cups. She decided to leave these, till later, and having deposited her make-up, perfumes and pitifully small amount of jewellery on the desk cum dressing table, she took another sip of her wine, threw her shoulders back, and followed the enticing smell of cheesy pasta into the kitchen – her new kitchen for the time being.

Breaking Free: Andy’s Solicitor

Millie wasn’t due to arrive until eleven o’clock but something made Sarah wake up early and connect the printer to her laptop. She dug out the box containing Andy and Abigail’s mementos and scanned some of the documents; not the photographs, she didn’t feel that she wanted anything that would remind her of the two of them as children. Abigail as a child, looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Andy’s mother had made a point of dressing her adopted daughter in frills and flounces. The early colour photographs made the pink dresses look particularly sickly.

By nine o’clock everything necessary had been scanned and the box was packed up and sealed.  The devil in Sarah was still active, so taking a chance that some solicitors might work on Saturdays, she called Andy’s solicitor. He was in and seemed quite nice on the phone. Sarah explained about the box of papers and photographs and asked if she could drop them off at his office for safekeeping.

“I’m moving out this weekend you see, and I don’t like the idea of them being left in an empty house. I’ve only had a quick look but there are things in the box that must be important to Andy….”

“….and to Abigail I would imagine.”

“Ah, you know about Abigail then?”

“I’ve known the family for many years; Andy and I went to school together. I think you’re right, they should be here really till Andy comes back. Rather than you come in here, would it be easier if I popped round later? We close the office at one o’clock.”

“That would be fine, my friend and I are packing up my things today – I’d be grateful to have a third-party present otherwise Abigail will accuse me of stealing the potato peeler or something!”

“She hasn’t changed then. She had a ridiculous crush on me when Andy and I used to hang around together. I tried to dissuade her as gently as I could but she took to stalking me. Every time I left the house she would be hiding badly behind a bush. I told Andy eventually and I don’t know what he said to her but the stalking stopped. I also stopped going round to Andy’s after that. His parents took Abigail’s side – she’d told them that we were going out and I dumped her of course – it was a shame because Andy was always a good friend, although I don’t suppose you want to hear that right now do you?”

Sarah couldn’t help but smile.

“Strangely enough I’m feeling rather grateful to Andy right now. He gave me the jolt that I needed. I know that you are his solicitor, but can I tell you something in confidence?”

“You mean that you don’t want Abigail know. My lips are most definitely sealed!”

“Phew. I must admit that I felt quite distraught when Andy left, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. Having to think about my own future instead of trailing along in Andy’s wake for another ten years was just what I needed. I took voluntary redundancy and went off to the big city looking for work. Purely by chance I met up with one of my oldest friends in a coffee shop. Thanks to her, I start my new job on Monday and I’ll be staying in her spare room till I find a place of my own. “

“Wow! Things have moved fast. Is this the friend who is helping you pack?”

“Yes, Millie. We were at Uni together and lost touch when we graduated.”

“I look forward to meeting you both later this afternoon then.”

Sarah hung up the phone and grinned. She phoned Roseanne next and let her know that she would be moving out that weekend, and that the solicitor was popping round that afternoon to collect some of Andy’s papers. Roseanne laughed.

“I bet those are the papers that she’s been nagging me about. I’ve told her that no one can remove anything from the house until you have handed the keys over and moved out. She got very agitated and was rather rude.”

“Sorry about that. I think I may have wound her up a bit. Can I give you my forwarding address? I’ve arranged to have my post redirected but it won’t kick in for another week. “

“I promise not to give it to Abigail.”

“Please no! I really don’t want her stalking me in town as well. I sometimes wonder why there isn’t anything more interesting in her life than bothering me, but she’s a little obsessive so that probably accounts for it.”

“When are you actually moving out?”

“Tomorrow. We’ll be taking my boxes out to the storage centre in the morning and then taking my clothes and stuff back to Millie’s in the afternoon. I can leave the keys in an envelope here for you. There is one key that neither you, nor Abigail has, it’s for Andy’s chest in the garage. It’s full of fairly expensive climbing gear so we always kept it locked. If Abigail is going to be responsible for packing up the rest of the things in the house then I suppose it makes sense for her to have it.”

“Just leave her a note explaining about the extra key then. That way she won’t be ringing me non-stop asking what happened to it.”

“Will do. Thank you for everything Roseanne. You’ve made it all quite painless.”

“It’s been nice knowing you. Shame I can’t say the same for Abigail. Bye.”

Thinking about how modern and individual Millie’s flat was, Sarah couldn’t help but wonder what she would make of Andy’s monument to seventies bad taste. Strange how she was able to look at the house through different eyes now, and realise how dreadful her surroundings were. Moving from the lounge to the kitchen, her eyes were assaulted by the cladding and those horrible brown and white tiles. She looked at her watch. Nearly eleven and Millie would be here very soon.

Although Sarah had been looking out of the window like an impatient child, she actually missed Millie’s arrival due to a telephone call from Abigail, who was demanding to come round again. Sarah told her, quite curtly, that it wasn’t convenient as she had visitors and didn’t want Abigail there making a nuisance of herself. Abigail took great offence at this and was about to come over anyway and have a showdown, when Sarah dropped her bombshell and mock-reluctantly stated that it was Andy’s solicitor that was visiting, and she was quite prepared to complain to him about Abigail’s behaviour if she did turn up. This seemed to silence her temporarily at least.

Sarah managed to let Millie in through the front door whilst still on the phone to Abigail. She took advantage of Sarah’s being busy, and prowled around every room downstairs, coming back to Sarah in the hallway with her eyes opening wider and wider, as she wondered how on earth Sarah had managed to live in a place like this for so long. When she finally got rid of Abigail, Sarah joined Millie in the kitchen where she was unpacking a number of mysterious looking tubs and packages.

“Abigail?” said Millie.

“The very same. What’s all this?”

“Lunch. I hit the deli on the way over. I have a variety of cheeses and meats, some olives, anchovies, tiny red bell peppers stuffed with cream cheese, and some fresh granary bread. I thought I’d lay it out on the table to warm up a bit.”

“There’s an awful lot for just two of us.”

“I know. I always over cater. Still, what we don’t eat today we can have for lunch tomorrow.”

“Actually, we have a guest so extra is good.”

“Who’s coming? Not Abigail surely?”

“Good God no! Would I waste food like this on her? No, Andy’s solicitor is coming round after one o’clock to collect that box of photos and papers I told you about. He doesn’t think they should be left in the house.  He knows all about Abigail’s past, in fact, she stalked him when he was at school with Andy.”

“No! Poor guy. What’s he like?”

“Nice enough on the phone. Never met him in person before. Andy didn’t mention that he had a solicitor, let alone one that he went to school with and who Abigail had a huge crush on.  I felt that the box should be in safekeeping because if I left it here Abigail would get her mitts on it and probably destroy the paperwork. If it’s in a safe place then Andy can decide what to do with it if he ever comes back – with his true love.”

“What true love?”

Sarah poked around in her handbag for Andy’s latest postcard. She handed it to Millie who read it and whistled. “Are we still taking bets on whether he comes back with a he, a she or a ladyboy?

“Please don’t. Whoever he or she is, I hope they’ll benefit from Andy getting rid of this mausoleum.”

Millie looked around her and sniggered.

“How the hell did you live in this place without going off your trolley. It hasn’t been decorated since the seventies. I didn’t know that Formica existed anymore.”

“It probably came back into fashion but nobody told me. Come on let’s get some packing done. Sitting here looking at all that food makes me feel hungry, and I don’t think we’ve done anything to earn it yet.”

The next two hours passed quickly as Millie helped Sarah sort through her clothes and the other personal belongings that would be coming with Sarah when she moved in. Sarah was stunned to find how much of what she owned had sat at the back of a drawer or in a wardrobe for years without being touched. There were outfits that hadn’t been worn since she graduated; together with several items of clothing that were obviously presents from Andy, and an attempt to turn her into a taupe ghost of his mother. It was these items that Sarah took the greatest of pleasures in designating to the growing charity shop pile.

It was while the two of them were giggling over a particularly loathsome polyester blouse in orange, black and green, that Sarah heard the knock at the door. She looked out of the window and after establishing that Abigail’s car wasn’t outside, they went downstairs hoping that the caller would be Andy’s solicitor. It was, tall, dark and rather handsome, he introduced himself as Simon Forder, as he followed the two women into the kitchen. He looked around and laughed.

“Nothing changes. This is exactly the way I remember it. Andy’s mum was so pleased when they had the cladding put in here. She said that it added ‘chick’ to the room. I always thought that it made it look like a run-down sauna.”

“That’s exactly it!” said Sarah. “I wish that I could say that Andy left the house the way it is because of his childhood memories and as a tribute to his parents, but I rather think that he saw no reason to change, and that doing anything with the house wasn’t very stimulating compared with gardens, trains and mountain climbing.”

“Didn’t you try and get him to change? To decorate and make something of your home?” asked Millie as she opened up the cheese and hams ready for lunch.

Sarah shrugged. “Getting Andy to do something that he really didn’t feel comfortable doing, was almost impossible. I’d get sulks, and if that didn’t work, there would be the ‘stomping around the house’, and as a last gasp attempt, he would invite Abigail and her family round for dinner. He always cooked it though. He didn’t trust me after the time when I let a pan of potatoes boil dry because I was watching the news on the TV.”

Millie pulled a face and started cutting the bread into suitably thick slices whilst Sarah laid the old mismatched plates round the table. Simon watched them both, partly amused by their interplay but also wearing the face of someone who really needs to say something.

“Can I ask you a really personal question Sarah?”

Sarah sat down at the table. “Fire away. It seems that you knew Andy far better than I did though.”

“Possibly. We’ve got to know each other a lot better in the past couple of months whilst he was planning his trip.”

“His escape you mean?”

“Don’t be bitter Sarah. He felt very guilty doing it the way he did, but he didn’t think he had any choice other than to make a clean break. He wanted you to be angry with him, he felt that it would hurt less.”

“You’re certainly right about the being angry bit.” said Sarah, tearing a lump of bread off the slice that Millie had just put on her plate. “I was furious with him. It passed after a day or two though. It’s so much easier to be furious with Abigail.”

“I suppose Andy explained why he had to leave to you, didn’t he Simon?”  asked Millie, cutting chunks of cheese and putting them on a plate with the slices of ham and salami.

“He did, and I’m assuming that I can say what I like in front of Millie, can I Sarah?”

“Of course, you can. It all sounds very mysterious though. Has he got some serious condition? A brain tumour or cancer or something like that?”

“No Sarah, although it would probably be easier if he had.”

“Is he gay?” asked Millie.

“Possibly, although I think confused would be a better description.”

“Right. That would explain a few things. Umm. Was he experimenting before he went away Simon? I mean, should I go and have any blood tests or anything?”

“Unfair Sarah. He wouldn’t do a thing like that to you. He had a full health check before he went, and his physical health is fine.”

“I’m sorry Simon, it’s just that spending ten years with someone, and then finding out that you didn’t really know them at all, it’s a bit much to take in at once. I don’t feel angry with him anymore. He made the best decision for both of us, and I really am grateful to him for being brave enough to make it.”

“He told me that you’d come round sooner rather than later. He said that you deserved so much better, and that he’d been holding you back all these years because he was so frightened of change.”

“I’d noticed.” said Millie as she looked around the room.

“That’s why you have to admire his decision to put the house up for sale. He knew it would force your hand about moving out, and when he eventually comes back, he can start from scratch.”

Sarah stared at the food on her plate, not really feeling very hungry now.

“I wish we’d talked more. Ten years is such a long time to be wishing you were somewhere else.”

“No, he only began feeling like this about six months ago. He mentioned you’d been on a secondment some years ago?”

“Yes, forensic social work.”

“Right, and he said that you did very well and they wanted you to apply for a job there.”

“It would have meant longer hours, travelling. It felt like a huge step. Andy wasn’t happy about it; in fact, he was so stressed that I didn’t feel I could take up the job.”

“And this post you are about to take up?”

“Bloody hell!” said Millie. “An even huger step if you ask me!”

Sarah looked a Simon a little ruefully. “Okay. You win. I just hope that things work out well for Andy too.”

“He’d be very happy to hear you say that.”

 Simon’s mobile rang and he looked at the display. “I’ll just take this out in the hall if that’s okay?”

“Of course.”

As Simon closed the door behind him, Millie reached over and squeezed Sarah’s hand.  “He’s a nice guy. How are you feeling?”

“Fine. A little shell-shocked but I’m glad that Andy has got someone like Simon that he can talk to. That was one of the things that I worried about. Not that Andy and I did talk – or confide in each other for that matter but, to be honest Millie, I’m even more anxious to get out of this house and all its memories as soon as possible.”

Simon came back in.

“Got to go. Something urgent has cropped up. You have my number Sarah, if you have any problems, don’t hesitate to call. Now where is this highly confidential box?”

“Here, I’ll carry it out to the car.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you, Millie.”

Sarah walked out to the car with Simon, and he locked the box securely in his boot. “I meant what I said Sarah, call me – here’s my mobile number as well – if you have any issues. I’ve got your numbers, and Millie’s address. Do you want to know when Andy comes back?”

The question took her aback but when she stopped to think about it, yes, she did want to know. Sarah nodded, feeling a bit choked. Surprisingly, Simon hugged her and got into the car. He grinned and waved as he drove away and Sarah couldn’t help wishing that she had met him sooner; he might have helped her to understand Andy and Abigail.

Millie was in the kitchen examining Andy’s list and comparing it to the items on show. She turned to Sarah with a quizzical look on her face. “You don’t seem to own much in the way of kitchen equipment my dear? I can see a garlic press, one small aluminium saucepan, and a set of ‘comic’ egg cups on this list but not a lot else.”

“I bought the garlic press; the saucepan is a hangover from Uni days,and the set of egg cups is one of the few things I bought from my parents’ home.  A chicken, a duck and a rooster. Andy hated them. I used them to annoy him. I also cut my bread into soldiers and dipped. Very cross face. In fact, he wouldn’t sit across the table from me if I was having a boiled egg. “

After rummaging in the kitchen cupboard, Millie found the egg cups and pulled them out triumphantly. “Oh, these are so cute. If you don’t mind Sarah, until you find your own place, these will have pride of place on the dresser. One can never have too many small saucepans and Tom broke my last garlic press. You are coming to our flat with a considerable dowry already!”

The rest of the day sped by; having Millie there took all the pain and strain out of the packing. They decided not to pack up any of Andy’s things as Abigail was bound to unpack and check everything anyway. By nine o’clock all the storage boxes were packed, the charity boxes were ready to be dropped off at Jude’s as there were no shops open, and Sarah thought that it would give Millie and Jude a chance to meet finally. Sarah’s own belongings were mostly packed with just a few things that would be needed overnight and in the morning.

Sarah ordered pizza for them both and opened a bottle of wine. They watched an old comedy programme on the TV and laughed. It was a good end to the day.

Breaking Free – Sticky Labels

Andy was finding true love apparently.

At least that was the impression Sarah got from the latest missive that was lying on the doormat when she came home. The postcard was less crammed with writing than usual. Andy hoped she was well, that the house sale was progressing, and that she had found somewhere else to live. He advised her about redirecting her mail and ensuring that the estate agent knew where she was although he didn’t think that it was necessary to give too much information to Abigail. The last sentence read. ‘I hope you are putting your life together in the same way that as I am. I believe that I have found true love at last, and hope that the same will come to you eventually’.

Sarah threw the card down on the kitchen table in disgust, then, thinking better of it, stowed it away from Abigail’s eyes in the deepest recesses of her handbag. Whilst she was there, she found the list that Andy had so kindly put together, and armed with some sticky labels and a marker pen that she had bought on the way home, Sarah began to work her way round the house methodically labelling ever article that was hers – according to Andy. She had to admit, some of the things that Andy had allotted to her, could have been considered a joint purchase, but she had no need for kitchen chairs and a table at the moment. Andy had completely avoided itemising her CD, DVD and book collections. He didn’t have many books, had only wildlife DVDs, and only listened to her classical music CDs, but never bought his own. Trying to decide what she could put into storage and what she wanted with her at Millie’s, was less difficult than she had imagined, and using another set of coloured stickers, she then went round the house putting these on everything that had to go into storage. When that was finished, she was left with a handful of books, DVDs and CDs that she couldn’t live without, all her clothes and accessories, her TV, laptop and printer – all of which – once it was properly packed, would fit quite easily into her car and Millie’s.

The next thing on the agenda was to tell Jude all her news. Sarah had deliberately postponed doing this because she knew that she would be on the phone for ages. She could tell by the tone of Jude’s voice that she was not having a good day; as such Sarah decided to play down her news at first rather than gabble it all out excitedly. She started with the sad Marta and Peter saga; Jude began to perk up and agreed with her that Marta did indeed show a more than healthy number of the psychopathic tendencies. It was whilst Jude’s foggy brain was remembering her own stint in forensic social work that Sarah dropped the bomb.

“Jude, I’ve got a job!”

“Wow! – not at the studio?”

“Yes – working alongside Millie. I’m packing up my stuff and moving into Millie’s son’s bedroom until I can find somewhere of my own.”

There was a tense silence at the other end of the phone. Then a very small, tight-sounding voice said “I’m really pleased for you Jude, I’m sure you know what you are doing and it sounds like the right thing.”

“I do Jude. I can’t wait to introduce you to Millie, I’m sure you will love her too.”

“Oh, I expect you’ll be too busy for us once you start work.”

“I was never too busy for you guys before when I was at work. Why should I be now? Talking of which, can I come over and see you tomorrow? I need to go out and get some boxes and tape today, but I can’t do any more till Millie gets here on Saturday.”

“Are you sure?” Jude’s voice sounded a little more enthusiastic.

“Of course, I’m sure you idiot! Finding Millie again after all these years doesn’t mean that I can’t keep you and Dan as my best friends. Technically speaking, it will be easier to get to you from Millie’s as well. If you’re still keen on coming to see the show, then I’ve got twice as much chance of sneaking you in now that I’m working there.”

Jude’s voice began to take on a whole new tone, and she asked Sarah to tell her about Peter and Marta again. They chatted for a few more minutes and Sarah confirmed her arrival time the following day – after lunch so she could natter to Jude and Dan, see the girls when they came home from school and stay for a bit of dinner. Relieved that things were sorted with Jude, Sarah called Roseanne to say that she would be moving out over the weekend and would put her keys in an envelope, and drop them off when she and Millie left. Roseanne also proved to be a useful source for where Sarah could buy packing materials and who had the best storage facilities.

Armed with this information, Sarah went out and loaded her little car with flat pack boxes, packing tape, bubble wrap and a decent pair of scissors – as Andy had decided the kitchen scissors belonged to him. She also called in at the storage facility Roseanne had recommended, was gratified to find that the mention of Roseanne’s name gave her a 10% reduction, worked out how big a space she would need and arranged to bring her belongings along on Sunday afternoon.

It was dark when she came back, but she could see the unmistakeable shape of Abigail’s car parked a little way down the road. Sarah opened up the garage, and with a little bit of manoeuvring, managed to get her car inside and lock the door so that Abigail couldn’t pry.

Bed that night was very inviting and knowing that she would be seeing Jude and her family the next day, and then Millie was coming down to help her go through things and pack on Saturday made Sarah sleep as sound as a bell.

Breaking Free – Remembering Schooldays

The Chinese takeaway tasted almost as good second time around.  The bottle of Riesling they picked up on the way home vanished very quickly, and it was only the thought that Millie had to go to work the next day that stopped them from opening up a bottle of mulled wine that Millie found lurking in the back of the cupboard from last Christmas.

Sarah had signed the contract before they left the studio. She had agreed to start on Monday morning, on a very respectable salary according to Millie. The hours seemed rather strange compared to her social work hours of nine to five, but having seen a little of the way the aftercare team worked, Sarah understood why there had to be this flexibility.

Slightly tipsy and full of takeaway, Sarah and Millie sat on the sofa, both of them wearing silly smiles, and still a little shell-shocked from the events of the day. When they had returned from getting coffee, Al stopped them in the corridor to confirm that according to airport security Marta was safely on the plane and barking orders at anyone who’d listen.

“They promised me that they wouldn’t offload her unless she actually hit anyone, and all the staff have been briefed to be mega tolerant and get her arrested at Schiphol when they arrive if she plays up too much.” said Al.

“Well, we have some more good news Al.” said Millie. “Sarah is signing the contract and joins the team on next Monday!”

“Brilliant!” said Al, blushing slightly. “I mean, welcome Sarah, it’s really good to have you on board – although I hope we don’t have any more Martas for you to deal with. See you later.”

Millie waited until Al had disappeared round the end of the corridor. “I think you’ve made something of a hit there my dear!  He is one of the nicest men I know, and gorgeous to boot.”

He does have rather gorgeous blue eyes, Sarah thought, and lovely dark hair.  A total opposite to Andy with his pale green eyes, ginger hair held back in a manbun, and silly goatee beard.

She gave Millie a very old-fashioned look. “The last thing I need right now is a man in my life.”

Three hours later, warm, fed and mellow, Sarah had unwelcome thoughts intruding about Marta, and whether she would come back to haunt them all when the programme aired.  Thinking of Marta made her think of Al, and she was stunned to find that those thoughts made her feel rather warm inside. She sat up straight and put the thoughts down to wine and silliness. Millie was looking at her in a peculiar way.

“You were thinking about Al, weren’t you?”


“I may not have seen it since you developed a crush on Steve Horgan leading up to the Graduation Ball, but I’d recognise that little smile anywhere. Now you’re blushing.”

“No, I was just thinking about how glad I was that Dave – and Al – were there to make sure that Marta went home. I wonder if she kicked off when she got off the plane?”

“I doubt it. Peter was telling me that the Dutch police are far stricter than ours are – and Marta knows that. She won’t want to run the risk of getting locked up in her own country. The penalties for what she’s done are fairly hefty.”

“It’s a shame that we couldn’t find out more about her childhood and youth. I know she came over here and married a builder when she was in her late teens, but all she would tell Peter was that her ex-husband was a bad man who beat her.  After all she said, he might just have been a really nice man who wasn’t prepared to put up with her lying and fantasies. Anyway, enough of Marta. I need to start packing up my stuff. Are you sure I can stay here for a while Millie?”

“Of course. You go home tomorrow and start sorting out the stuff you need on a day-to-day basis, and box up the rest. I’ve been meaning to clear out that boxroom for years. Once it’s done, I can move Tom’s stuff in there so that he has a room to come home to. He’ll have to have a single bed again, but a double bed is a luxury for a teenager anyway. I’ll drive over on Saturday, between us we can take the boxed-up stuff to a storage unit, and then on Sunday we can bring the rest of your staff back here and get you settled in.”

“Abigail will go bonkers. I don’t think I’ll tell her where I’m staying.”

“What about your post?”

“I don’t get much. I’ll get it redirected to here in the meantime if that’s okay? I’m sure Roseanne can deal with any post that turns up before the redirection starts. To be honest, the only post I’ve had since I left work have been Andy’s postcards. I’d imagine that Abigail gets identical postcards and reads them over and over.”

“And you don’t?”

“Good Lord no! Andy is a sweet man but he writes the most boring postcards ever. Oh, did you just hear what I said? For the first time in seven weeks; I actually referred to Andy as a ‘sweet man’ I must have stopped disliking him then.”

“And that means?”

“I’m over him – after ten years. It’s funny though – you mentioning Steven Horgan – I never felt about Andy the way I felt about Steven Horgan. All through my final year I dreamed about being in his arms at the Graduation Ball. I should hate him if I hated any man. He copped-off with Amy Loomis and I never saw him again.”

“Amy Loomis! She was such a floozy. She’d worked her way through most of the people we knew by the time we got to the ball. I wonder why she left Steven till last?”

Sarah pulled a face. “Because she knew that I was after him. Every time I let it be known that I liked someone – Amy was in there – sitting on their laps, big hugs and kisses. ‘Oh, please teach me how to play the guitar/poker/backgammon – you are so clever and I am so silly’.”

“Oh God – that was such a good impression. Amy with her little girl pigtails and big wide eyes.”

“And those satin blouses!”

“And the fake fur coat.”

Sarah leaned over conspiratorially. “I have a confession to make. Do you remember Derek Draper?”

“Class dweeb. I do.”

“He had a bit of an unrequited love thing for me. Followed me everywhere.”

“Then he stopped suddenly – and didn’t he drop out?”

“No, he went to another Uni nearer home. I let slip that I really fancied him, and of course Amy made a play for him. Rumour has it that she actually got him into bed.  It lasted a week – until a mutual friend told her that I’d been lying. Oh my God – that’s a psychopathic tendency!”

Millie roared with laughter. “That was a wonderful moment when you got the researcher checking out the Hare list. I overheard a couple of the runners using it to analyse Oliver.”

“No, Oliver is a pain but he isn’t a psychopath. I wonder what happened to her.”


“Mm. I wonder who she ended up with.”

“Google her.”


“Go on – if you don’t then I will!”

Sarah slowly made her way out to Tom’s room.

“Come on Millie! I’m not doing this on my own!”

“Just a minute, I need to get something first.”

By the time the laptop was up and running, Millie had appeared in the doorway proudly waving their graduation programme. There was no sign of Amy Loomis on Google. Sarah tried Amy Horgan and Amy Draper but the lack of hits made her more relieved than anything.

“Time for bed now, I think. You have to go to work tomorrow and I need to drive home, acquire some large boxes and find out the best rates for storage. Jude will be gobsmacked when I tell her.”

“She’ll be pleased for you though?”

“Oh yes, all the time we were working together she kept telling me to leave Andy and get a better job. She’s always been polite to him, but she didn’t like the way he stopped me from doing things.”

“That’s the thing that I’m most confused about. You are an incredibly intelligent woman, you have remarkable insight into other people’s issues, so why did you let yourself get stuck in such a rut?”

It was a question that Sarah had been asking herself over and over since Andy left.

“I lost all my confidence when Dad died. Andy was there and he picked up the pieces, he supported me and as I began to feel better in myself, I also felt that I couldn’t manage without him. That’s the way it started in the beginning anyway and we grew apart over time until it was a strange kind of companionship. Before you ask – yes, we did do it, to start off with anyway – then it became mechanical and after that non-existent. A peck on the cheek, a little hug; I got tired of my overtures being snubbed. I often wondered if he was gay – or at least bisexual. Or maybe it was me – I just didn’t turn him on. I hope he sorts that side of himself out in Thailand.

“Oh no! We’re back to ladyboys again.”

“Goodnight Millie! Do you want the bathroom first or shall I?”

“I’ll dive in first then you can take your time. Do you want me to wake you up before I go?”

“No, I’ll be awake. See you in the morning.”

Millie hugged her and was gone.

Sarah sat back down at her laptop and did a few more searches until Millie yelled that she was finished in the bathroom.

Curling up in Tom’s bed, still a little happy from the food, the wine and the success of the day, Sarah smiled to herself as she pulled the duvet up round her ears and wondered what Andy was doing.

It was thinking of Al that banished Andy from her mind however

Breaking Free – Gainfully Employed

It was with a great surge of relief that Sarah followed the two security guards back to the car.

“Umm. Do you mind if I sit in the back Sarah?” said Dave. “I’m used to driving and Al’s driving makes me feel sick.”

“Not a problem.” said Sarah, “I prefer to sit in the front if I’m not driving anyway.”

Dave made himself comfortable and Sarah got in next to Al. He smiled, a little shyly for such a large and imposing man. He did drive a bit fast but she didn’t mind that, and it was nice to sit back and relax after all the rushing around.

“Do you think that she’ll come back?” asked Al.

“I’m afraid so.” said Sarah. “She as good as told me that she would. I have a bad feeling about that woman; she seems to have little remorse for what she’s done, and although she expresses concern for her son, she is the only person in her life that she cares about.”

“Airport security said that they would confirm once she was on board the plane.”

“Oh, I’m sure she’ll go home today but I think she’ll come back again. She’s looking for another source of easy money, and now that she can’t blackmail Peter, she may target someone from the show.”

“We’ve been careful. There have been at least two people with her all the time except for between eleven last night and eight this morning. There was a CCTV camera outside her room though, and she didn’t know where Peter and his friends were staying.”

Sarah grinned. “Hopefully she’ll content herself with suing Security at the airport for manhandling her and disregarding her human rights.”

“Phew, I got between her and Oz at one stage, but never put a finger on her – and it was all on camera anyway.”

“I think she may try and blackmail the producer by alleging that we have told lies about her, and the final edit has made her look bad. That’s not going to happen until she gets to see the episode though. Do they have it in Holland?”

“Probably, but we do send out a DVD of their episode sometimes.  Depends on their contract. Talking of which, are the rumours true that you’re coming to work with us?”

Al was smiling as he drove and cast a sidelong glance at her, she smiled back taking in a deep breath.

“I think I might accept the offer – if the terms are agreeable. I need to find somewhere to live as well. I can’t keep crashing at Millie’s on a permanent basis.”

“You don’t live up here then?”

“No, I’m about 17 miles away, but my partner and I broke up about seven weeks ago and the house is being sold, so it makes sense to move to the city if I’m going to be working here. I love Millie’s flat. It has incredible views. That’s what I’d like because it is so different to what I’ve been looking at for the past ten years. I saw some lovely old mill buildings that have been converted to flats.”

“I’m sorry about – you know – you and your partner.” Al looked a little embarrassed.

“Don’t be. We’ve been drifting along aimlessly for years. The past seven weeks have been the most exciting since I graduated from Uni with Millie.”

There was a comfortable silence whilst Al negotiated the busy city streets and drove into the underground car park at the rear of the studios.  Sarah couldn’t help but cast a few sidelong glances at her companion.  Very tall, dark hair kept short, clean shaven, and she had a feeling that his eyes were blue. Very blue.  She must remember to look more closely when she had the chance.

“Wake up Dave, we’re home.” said Al.

“What! Has she come back? Where are we?”

A very drowsy Dave came back to the world of the wide awake. “Oh, we’re back. Do you think Oz needs both of us to go to the mop up session? I’m liable to fall asleep again and I could do with something to eat.”

“I have to take Sarah along anyway, so I’ll go. You owe me one though.”

“Cheers, mate. Welcome aboard Sarah.”

Dave headed off to the cafeteria, and Al led Sarah upstairs to another meeting room. He knocked first then opened the door for her. The room was smaller than the meeting room she had been in that morning. All heads turned to the door as she and Al walked in. Oliver grinned.

“Tell me that she’s no longer our problem? Please?”

Al and Sarah looked at each other and grimaced. With a nod of her head, Sarah indicated that she felt Al should report back first.

“We saw her go through to security and the guards there picked her up. They said they would phone in once she was safely on the plane. The plane is due to depart in about an hour’s time.”

“Do you think she’ll get on the plane, or will she escape security?”

“I told them that although she wasn’t a terrorist, they should use her to practice their high security techniques on. Sarah has a theory about what she might try to do next.”

“Come on Sarah, I have a contract ready and waiting for you to read and sign.” said Oliver with a wink to Millie.

“Thank you. I think she will go back to Holland on the plane. They’ve reserved a nice seat with plenty of legroom for her, and she knows she’ll get free food and drink on the trip. At the moment she has more to gain by returning home than she does by absconding. “

Oliver beamed. “Excellent!’

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not so sure. She hugged me goodbye, and said that she would be back, that she never gave in. I need to check it out but I’ve a feeling that she may be a borderline psychopath.”

“Flippin’ heck!” said one of the runners who had spent most of the day with Marta having met her at the airport when she flew in the day before.

“Tell me more, Sarah?” said Oliver.

“I’d need the Hare twenty-point check list to be sure. I don’t carry it with me.”

Without needing to be asked, one of the researchers was already checking for the list on the Internet.

“Got it!” he cried triumphantly and passed the tablet over to Sarah. She read through the list a couple of times before saying anything.

“Bear in mind that all of us may have two or three of these tendencies but a true psychopath will have them all. A couple of them are linked to a past history of offending and I can’t check that out, but looking at some of the others ……”

“Come on Sarah!” said Oliver, craning over to see what was on the list.

“Right, if I read out the tendencies that I’ve spotted from the research notes, and from meeting her, let me know at the end if you agree? She appears charming, has a very good opinion of herself, gets bored easily, and is attention-seeking. She tells lies and believes that they are the truth, is cunning and manipulative, shows no remorse for her actions, doesn’t appear to have a typical reaction to usual emotions, has a complete lack of empathy with others, is parasitic, has no control over her behaviour, and can be promiscuous with a variety of different partners, is impulsive, irresponsible, can’t accept responsibility for her own actions, and lives in a fantasy land.”

“You said there were twenty.” said the researcher.

“I did, but the others relate to early behaviour difficulties, juvenile delinquency, and any prison history.  Hey, seventeen out of twenty is scary enough. We could contact Peter and check if she ever told him about her childhood, but given her ability to fabricate and believe her own lies, I wouldn’t think she would have told him the truth anyway. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think she is liable to kill anyone, but she is fully able to wreck lives and careers. I think there will be repercussions once the show goes out. In her fantasy, she is attractive, intelligent, charming, and totally in the right. From what I saw this morning, that is not the image that the public is going to get of her.”

Jenny leaned forward. “Should we scrap the show? It would be a shame to. It really was good.”

“You have a moral obligation to Peter to let him clear his name but I really won’t be surprised if you get bombarded with threats – does she have anyone’s email address?”

Several of the researchers nodded and began to look very worried. Sarah tried to be reassuring.

“Check the content of any correspondence you’ve had with her. Al tells me that no one was left alone with her, so there is no chance of allegations about anything untoward happening. Believe me though, if there is a chink in the armour, she’ll find it.”

“How come you know so much about psychopaths Sarah?” asked Oliver. “I thought you were a social worker?”

“I am, but I spent six months attached to the forensic social work department and got to know quite a few clients with psychopathic tendencies. No one with quite as many as Marta though.”

“I think we need to get legal to go through everything connected to this woman.” said Jenny. “All correspondence is to be brought to me, no matter how trivial, and if anyone remembers any incidents that might be vaguely troublesome, let me know. Thank you, Sarah, your input has been invaluable. If you can stay behind when the meeting ends, I’d like to discuss the possibility of you joining our team permanently.”

Sarah blushed as a rousing cheer went round the table. The cynic in her wondered if the accolade was more for the end of the meeting than for her employment. The other staff filed out of the room, some of the younger runners were already checking out the psychopath tendencies to see how many of their mates would also fit the profile; Millie stayed behind and moved up the table to sit beside Sarah.

“Was she totally horrendous when you left?” asked Millie.

“Not really. I gave her some advice on the way to the airport – pointed out the possible repercussions of refusing to go, the impact on her son and the rest of the family. You know the stuff. I thought she had accepted it until she hugged me goodbye. I really felt chills when she looked me in the eye and said that she would be back.”

“Oh well,” said Jenny “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now for more pressing matters. We’d like to offer you a job on the show in the aftercare team with Millie. I have to say that we were very impressed with your CV. Miles handed it over very reluctantly; said he could have found employment for you a dozen times over – but those would have been temporary whereas this is a permanent contract – subject to performance of course – but that is put in everyone’s contract. You’ll find that the pay scale is quite generous, certainly above par with your previous post and there are various perks, but I’ll let Millie explain those to you. “

Sarah sat in a daze. Things were happening so fast. She looked at Millie with an expression of barely disguised terror.

“Jenny, would you mind if Sarah and out went out to have a coffee and look through the contract – just to give her a bit of time out.”

“Of course, Millie, take all the time you need but I’d be grateful if you could get back to me before the end of the day.”

Jenny left the room, and Sarah felt her hand shaking as she sat there trying to focus on the contract.

“Come on mate, we’ll go and hit the coffee shop where I first spotted you. You look like you need some sustenance, and our cafeteria will be full of researchers and runners trying to work out whether they are psychopaths or not.”

Sarah allowed herself to be led back to Millie’s office, where she picked up her coat and handbag. The wind was quite bitter as they walked across the concourse to the half-empty coffee shop. A very sweet and strong latte restored Sarah’s equilibrium but Millie was careful not to start in too quickly.

“First things first – what is worrying you.” she said.

“Umm – can I do the job? Where will I live? When will I start? Can I cope with Abigail’s glee when she finds out that I’m moving out? That sort of thing really.”

“Number one – of course you can do the job. There will be things that you need to learn about working in media, but you’ll soon pick those up. Number two – you can stay with me as long as you like. I can clear out the boxroom, put Tom’s stuff in there for now, and you can make his room your own for as long as you need it. Number three – they were asking if you could start next week, but that has to be negotiable considering that you have things to wrap up with Andy’s house. Number four – leave telling Abigail until the last minute. You can rely on Roseanne not to tell her. If you have too much stuff to bring here, I can come over at the weekend and we can put your non-essentials into storage. There! Have I banished your problems?”

“Looks like it.”

“Come on then, drink up your coffee, and we’ll go and put Jenny out of her misery. You did so well today Sarah. You may not realise it but you’ve probably saved the company a huge amount of hassle, not to mention the money. Fancy coming home with me again tonight – we can finish off the takeaway?”


Walking back to the studios, Sarah felt very proud of her accomplishment, terrified but proud.

Breaking Free – Off to the Airport

Millie came running up the steps during the break and crouched down by Sarah’s side. “I need you to do me the hugest favour.” she whispered.

“What? ” She whispered back.

“At the end of the show we need someone to accompany Marta and security to the airport. She refuses to have any of the runners or researchers accompany her. She wants someone important.”

“Millie! I’m not even employed, let alone important.” Sarah hissed.

“You look important. She spotted you taking notes during her segment. She asked who you were, and I said that you were a senior social worker who was considering coming to work with us. To her, that’s good because she feels that you are still impartial, and will protect her from the security guards.”

“I’m not sure that I am impartial. That woman is horrendous!”

“Please Sarah? You’ll have the lovely Dave, and the even lovelier Al with you for protection. More to the point, you will have guaranteed yourself a job on the team and everyone’s undying respect.”

Sarah sighed. “What do I have to do?”

“Brilliant! You go with her and the guards to the airport. Because she is rather unpredictable, the airport has agreed to fast track her, provided she is supervised through to airside security. They will take it from there and get her onto the plane. The guys will bring you back here and you will receive a hero’s welcome at the mop up meeting.”

A runner came up the stairs behind Millie and beckoned to her.

“Right, ready to go. At least this bit will be fairly funny.”

Millie and the runner returned to the backstage area and the lights dimmed again as Oliver stepped out onto the stage. His composure had returned and Sarah noticed that there was a slight smile on his face that had been missing in the previous segment.

“Welcome back my friends. I hope we’ve all recovered and are ready for the last section which, if nothing else might raise a smile or two. First on the stage today is Ben. Ben is in a relationship with Sukie. They have no children – for which we should all be grateful. Ben has found out that Sukie has been cheating on him with a mutual friend Will. Will is in a relationship with Teena Marie, who is far too young to know who she is named after. According to the park warden, Sukie and Will have been indulging in sexual contact on a park bench. He has reported them to the police, and they are under investigation. They have come here to take lie detector tests to prove to their respective partners that they have not been cheating, and that the whole thing is a figment of the imagination of the park warden – who has a grudge against young people allegedly. So put your hands together for Ben!”

The audience laughed and clapped, relieved that the last case would be a bit of a giggle anyway.  Ben, a stripling in black skin tight jeans and tee shirt, tattoos and piercings, came onto the stage with a sheepish grin on his face. He touched knuckles with Oliver and threw himself down in the chair, legs stretched out in front of him.

“Hello Ben. So, you have been in a relationship with Sukie for how long?”

“Hi Oz. We’ve been together for – uh – around a couple of months. I’ve known her for a couple of years though.”

“Right, and you know Will and Teena Marie too.”

“Yeah, we kind of hang together. Will’s my best mate – well he was anyway.”

“Okay, let’s get Sukie out. She’s on the show, give her some applause – if you want too.”

Sukie stomped out on the stage, her platform Doc Martens making any kind of secretive approach impossible. Like Ben, she was dressed in black from head to toe; leggings, net tutu, crop top, and small leather jacket. Her long hair was an improbable shade of black, put to shame by her vivid purple lips. She sat on Ben’s lap, legs crossed and swinging in an attitude of complete disregard for her situation.

“We are on daytime TV Sukie. In your own chair please?” said Oliver. With the sulkiest pout, Sukie got up and flung herself into the chair. Oliver nodded his thanks curtly.

“Sukie, tell me about the park bench. According to the park warden, you did WHAT on a park bench with Will?”

“Nothing. We wuz just sittin’ and talkin’. We had a few cans like and we wuz gigglin’. That old parkie, he’s just a perv. You not even allowed to breeve in that park he’s so strick.”

“I think I understand although I’m not sure why a white girl like you has to adopt a Jamaican patois? You did a lie detector test but before we read out the results, let’s meet Will, who was also apparently doing something naughty on a park bench, and Will’s girlfriend Teena Marie. Welcome them both onto the stage please?”

Teena Marie dragged Will onto the stage. In appearance, Will was almost a twin to Ben but Teena Marie was a vision in girly pink and frills. Her blonde hair was teased and backcombed into a bouffant that sported several candy-pink bows. Her pink spotted leggings formed a bridge between sparkling red stilettos and layers of pink sequinned net that formed her skirt. She wore a tiny white tee shirt that exposed her belly ring and topped the outfit off with a luminous pink fake fur bomber jacket. Sarah wondered if Teena Marie had put this outfit together in an effort to show that Will preferred girly blondes to sulky Goths, or whether this was her usual style of dress. Teena Marie gave a curt nod of acknowledgement to Ben but blanked Sukie completely. She kept a very firm hand on Will; Sarah could tell that Oliver was watching their body language closely too. He was standing to one side of the stage looking from one couple to the other and very obviously comparing them.

“Welcome Teena Marie and Will. Will has also done a lie detector test regarding the alleged incidents on the park bench. How do you feel about this Teena Marie? It can’t be nice to hear that your boyfriend might have been canoodling with someone else on a park bench can it?”

Teena Marie pursed up her glossy pink lips.

“It’s a load of rubbish. Will’s not into that Goth stuff as far as girls are concerned. Why would he want to go with her when he has me?”

“Why indeed?” Oliver’s eyebrows were raised so far up his forehead that they had almost disappeared into his hairline. “I take it that Will denies that anything out of order has taken place between himself and Sukie?”

“Yeah. “

Will grunted and winced slightly, as Teena Marie squeezed his hand just a little too tight. Oliver shook his head but decided that they had enough decent material filmed already and that there was no more mileage to get out of these four sulky teenagers.  The runner handed Oliver the two envelopes.

“Well, who shall we do first? Sukie? Or Will? Will first, let’s put Teena Marie out of her misery. Will, we asked you if at any time since you’ve have been in a relationship with Teena Marie have you ever engaged in sexual intercourse or any other sexual acts with anyone else. What is your answer Will?”


“A man of few words. you answered no to this test and guess what it says on this card? Will said no and he was telling the truth!”

Teena Marie flung her arms around Will’s neck and kissed him. Oliver smiled benevolently and opened the second envelope.

“Sukie, we asked you, if you had been engaged in any kind of sexual activity with anyone else since you have been in a relationship with Ben. What is your answer Sukie?”

“I said no of course. Get on with it an’ stop your chattin’ man.”

“Your answer was no, Sukie, and why did you say no?”

“‘Cos I was tellin’ the troof.”

The lie detector test says you were lying. The second question was about kissing other people and you failed that one too.”

“Ah – it’s a load of rubbish. I was gettin’ bored with Ben anyway, and Will ain’t much more use than him.”

Sukie got to her feet and stomped off the stage.

“I’m not running after that one. Ben and Will – stay mates and ignore the rumours. You might see if Teena Marie has a friend, Ben, then you can make up a foursome. Off that way you three. That’s all for tonight folks. I don’t think I dare lie down in a dark room in case I get attacked by a mad foreign lady.”

The audience roared as Oliver walked off the stage after the trio of teens. A runner came up the steps double time and motioned for Sarah to follow him. Millie was waiting in the first backstage pod, and with her was Peter, Ali and her husband.

“Sarah. Hi. I wanted you to meet Peter and his friends properly. We used your notes as guidelines for Oliver for that section, and as you can see, it worked extremely well. Word is beginning to get round in the business, and we haven’t even edited yet. We have Marta on tape showing her true colours, and our legal representative has advised her that she had better go straight back to Holland, because she has incriminated herself and admitted to persuading her son to lie on her behalf.”

Peter stepped forward and held out a hand shyly.

“Thank you, Sarah. I only hope you manage to get Marta on that plane without any incidents.”

“Me too. What are your plans now?”

Ali stepped in and shook Sarah’s hand as well. “We are taking him off for a celebration meal with lots of cocktails. He’s earned it.”

“I know the value of good friends myself. We don’t always like what they tell us, but it’s because they care that they don’t mince their words. Talking of which, my very good friend Millie is waving at me frantically. Have a lovely meal and I hope the work picks up again now. No trips to Holland though!”

Peter turned to go then stopped.

“The way to Marta’s heart is through her stomach, and her pride, so if you feed her up and make her feel really important, she’ll give you less trouble. Bye”

Sarah watched the three of them go, hoping that the media circus would let Peter back in again. She followed Millie down the corridor to another room.

“Here she is.” Millie grinned. “We put a load of food and drink in there so you should be fine.”

“You misheard him – he didn’t say NO trouble, he said LESS trouble. Let’s get the introductions over with then.”

Millie rapped on the door and entered. Marta was holding court with a glass of red wine in one hand, and a ham salad baguette in the other.

“Aha!” she said. “So, this is the important senior social worker.  You are called Sarah?”

Sarah held out her hand. “Yes, I’m pleased to meet you.”

Marta looked at Sarah as if she were speaking a different language.

“Why? All these other peoples are rude to me. They tell me that I have to leave the country now, but I want stay, maybe see Peter?”

Sarah sat down next to her and looked at very directly.

“I’ve been advised that if we don’t get you out of here and on the plane back to Holland straight away, the police will come and arrest you for perverting the course of justice – and a few other charges. You have your son to think of Marta. How would he feel if you didn’t come home?”

“Aargh, he is with my father, is okay. So is dog.”

“If you get arrested, you may be refused bail because you would be considered a flight risk. Work it out for yourself. You have an escort to the airport, and you are being fast tracked through to airside where they will provide you with a free meal and drinks. Then you have a free flight home, and when you get there you can put all this behind you and move on.”

“But if stay I could sell my story to tabloids and make much money, and maybe get more money from Peter if he goes back to work.”

Shaking her head, Sarah began to wonder what she had got herself into.

“That’s not going to happen, Marta. Once this programme is broadcast your credibility is shot, and no tabloid will touch you. Peter’s friends from the business will have heard the outcome already. They won’t take any notice of you either.”

“I have to go home then. I am so poor and I have so many expenses.”

Millie stood up, “We paid you well Marta, there isn’t any more in the budget. Can you gather up your things now and use the toilet if you have to. You won’t get a chance until you are airside.”

“I go at airport. Sarah – she can take me.”

It was looking into a piece of machinery. Sarah could see the cogs whirring as Marta started planning her escape route.

“No chance Marta. That’s well beyond my brief.”

Marta reluctantly drained her glass and walked into the toilets adjoining the room. A sigh of relief went around the room.

“I so hope that you have a decent car for her.” said Sarah.

“We’re using the Merc that we use for the rehab people.” explained Mel. “It looks posh but there are child locks on the back doors so people can’t do a runner. We’ll be fine, especially if she doesn’t need the toilet.”

“Mm.” said Sarah. “I’m expecting a desperate need to go once we get there. We’ll have to use distraction until we get her through.”

Millie laughed. “I knew you’d be up for this Sarah. “

“I spent some time working in a young people’s secure unit. This is bringing it all back. I have a feeling my maladjusted adolescents were easier to deal with though”

“Here I am!” said Marta, breezing back into the room. “Ready to be escorted to the airport like a dog with a tail between its little legs. Are my jailers ready now?”

“Catch you later. “Millie whispered and disappeared down the long corridor. The car was waiting at the back of the studio. Marta and Sarah sat in the back seat whilst Al drove, and Dave sat in the front with him.

Once they were on the road, Marta turned to Sarah, her head cocked to one side. “So, Sarah. How do you fit in with this bunch?”

“I don’t.” Sarah replied, measuring her words carefully. “Oliver would like me to work for the team, but I haven’t said yes yet. At the moment I work for myself, and am therefore completely impartial.  As such I can advise you that it would be foolish to cause a scene here or try to get out of going home.”

“A scene? What kind of scene would I do?”

“Urgent need to go to the toilet, fake illness, hysterics. These security guys from the studio have seen it all. You are going through a major airport that is set up to screen for terrorism. If you throw a wobbler once you are airside, you’ll be considered a flight risk and locked up immediately. The studio is giving you a good deal. They could just have handed you over to the police and have done with it.”

“Do you think I am the bad woman too?”

Knowing that her reply could make a huge difference to the outcome, Sarah chose her words very carefully.

“I feel that you genuinely believe that you have been wronged, and that you deserve some kind of revenge on Peter. You both said how happy you were in the first three years when Peter was working and there was plenty of money. The emails you sent stopped the work for Peter, and put him in a bad place. I think that now, you have to show what a good person you can be by letting things go, and moving on yourself. You are still young; you say that you have a nice flat for you and your son, you have family nearby and support. Why stay in a foreign country where people don’t understand you, and want to lock you up? “

“Okay, what would you do if you was me?”

I never could be, thought Sarah.

“I’d take the money and run home. Be graceful and prove those who are expecting you to cause trouble, wrong. Rise above all this, and give your son something else to be proud of.”

Marta fell silent then, and Sarah sent up a silent prayer that she had said the right things. Airport security had allowed them to park temporarily near the entrance. Marta seemed very proud to be escorted through check in, and then up to security. Sarah handed her over with an immense sense of relief which was halted when Marta hugged her goodbye and whispered

“I will be back. I never give in.”

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.