Angela stepped into her office and prepared for her first client. She placed a chair either side of the low coffee table. She opened a fresh box of tissues and placed it on the table. After checking the time, she skimmed through her first client's notes. At 9:00am on the dot, she opened the door to the waiting room and smiled.
"Good morning, Maria. Please come in."
Maria walked confidently across the waiting room and took Angela's outstretched hand. Angela smiled as she remembered the day she first met Maria, a quivering wreck of a woman, unable to speak more than a couple of sentences without bursting into tears. A far cry from the confident business woman she now saw before her.
Maria smiled as she looked down at the tissues, at least she wouldn't need them today. She sat down and waited for Angela to sit opposite
"So how are you, Maria?"
"Good! Very good, the best I've been for years."
"Are you still managing without the anti-depressants?"
"Yes, it's six months now."
"How are you managing at work?"
"Fine, I've even been promoted. Probably because I've taken more interest in my career."
"Are you still having the dreams?"
"Well yes, but they've changed. You remember, I told you I wake up next to a man knowing we've had a night of unbridled passion. Before in my dream I'd always been horrified and become hysterical because it was not my husband."
"So how has the dream changed?"
"The first part of the dream is still the same. The difference is that instead being horrified now I'm happy. I wake up hugging my pillow."
"Is it still the same man?"
"Oh yes, it's the same man."
"The man who killed your husband?"
"Yes, but it was an accident. He didn't mean to kill him."
"The same man you slept with before the trial."
"Well yes, but I didn't know who he was when we went to bed. Do you think it means something?"
"I'm a counsellor, not an interpreter of dreams. The only thing I can suggest is that perhaps you've forgiven yourself for that little mistake."
"Hmm, maybe you're right; I think I've forgiven him. When I was at the trial I hated him. Not just for what he did to Will, but also for taking advantage of my situation the night before. Later I hated him for making me realise what a bastard my husband was. I blamed him for something that wasn't his fault. He didn't take advantage of me if anything it was the other way round. Granted he could have told me who he was, but I all but dragged him into my room."
"It sounds like you have forgiven him. That's good."
The two women talked on for the rest of the hour. As Maria's time came to an end, she got up to leave.
"I don't know about you Angela but I'm not sure I need more counselling. I'm on top of things again now."
"If that's how you feel, you are probably right. Take my card. If you need to talk again, just give me a call."
"Take the next left," said the sat-nav.
"Where?" Maria said to herself as she continued down the narrow lane. A tall hedge lined the road to her left. She noticed a small break in the hedge and as she got closer. It was a narrow road. As she turned into the road the view changed to open parkland. A large board displayed the name H.M.P. Combevale.
"You have reached your destination," the sat-nav told her.
Ahead of her was a large country house with a spur road to her right leading to a building site. She drove on and followed the signs to the car park. She was sure this couldn't be the right place. Families were walking on the grass. One group sat under a tree and got out a picnic. It looked like no prison she'd ever heard of. She parked the car, intending to enquire at the house.
Maria tried to look plain, but without success. Knowing she was going to a prison, she'd opted for jeans and tee shirt. However, all her jeans were tight enough to show off her shapely legs and tight bum. Likewise, the loose fitting tee shirt didn't hide her proud breasts pushing forward, holding the shirt away from her stomach. She'd pulled her long dark hair back into a ponytail.
As she left and locked the car, a voice came from behind her.
"Now then bonny lass, what can we do for you?"
A giant of a man strode across the car park toward her. He stood at least six foot six tall with broad shoulders and a chest that was stretching his tee shirt. His arms were thicker than her legs, with tattoos on his forearms. He would have been an intimidating sight if it weren't for the beaming smile he wore on his face.
"I'm looking for Combevale House prison." She told him.
"You've foond it then pet. Welcome to Combevale. I'm Geordie." He extended a huge hand for her to shake.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Geordie. I take it you work here."
"Aye, in a manner of speakin'. I work for her majesty like."
"Do you mean to say you're a prisoner? But you are walking around free."
"Why aye bonnie lass; we all do here. It's what you call an open prison. Now, I know you're not here to see me, more's the pity. Who are you looking for?"
"I'm looking for a man called Paul Robertson; he is a prisoner here."
"Paul Robertson? That's not a name I recognise like, but I can ask for you. Why don't you come into the day room? We can have a cup of coffee and I'll try to find your man."
Maria smiled as he walked ahead of her. How could this giant of a man be so gentle and helpful? She wondered what he'd done, to end up in prison. He led her into a large room with sofas, tables, and chairs.
"Take a seat, pet, and I'll get you a coffee and try to find yer man Paul."
He went off to the tea bar and ordered their drinks. Maria watched him walk across the room to talk to a man on the other side of the room. He walked back to the bar, picked up a tray and brought it back to Maria.
"There we are, pet. I love visitin', me. It's the only time we get decent coffee. Sorry, I canna find yer man yet. I'll ask Mr Mackay when he gets in he knows everyone."
"Tell me Geordie, how long have you been in prison?"
"Me? Well, I spent three years in Durham, two years in Parkhurst. After that, I had a short spell in Belmarsh and then Maidstone aboot two years ago. I spent six months there when they moved me and The Prof to Gartree. We were there for aboot a year when they decided it was safer to send us here. That means I've spent aboot ten years inside now."
"Ten years, what did you do?"
"Murder pet, I killed a man. I got twenty years, but I've been a good boy like, so I should get out soon. That's why I'm here, preparing me for release."
"You? You murdered someone? I can't believe that you don't seem the sort."
"So what is the sort then pet? Anyone can be the sort. All it takes is the right situation and provocation. For me it was finding another man in my bed, with my wife. I grabbed him and threw him oot the French windows."
"You surely don't kill a man by throwing him out of the French windows."
"You do if you're eight floors up, pet."
"It sounds like you got rough justice. I'd have thought it should have been manslaughter at the most."
"Aye well, maybe you're right pet, but I was just a doorman, you know a bouncer at a club like. I had nae money for fancy lawyers"
Maria reached out for his huge rough hand and squeezed it. "Oh Geordie, that's so sad. I hope things get better for you once you get out."
"I'm sure they will pet. Things changed for me aboot two years back when The Prof got put in ma cell. I could barely read and write like, but that man helped me. He foond oot I was dyslexic and got me bits and pieces that helped me read. I foond oot I wasnae thick after all."
"He sounds like a good man."
"The Prof? He's the best. He shouldnae be in here, but I'm glad he is like. –Excuse me pet, that's Mr Mackay. I'll go and ask him aboot your man."
Geordie got up and crossed the room to a smartly dressed man in his fifties who was standing by the door. No sooner had he left Maria than another man came over to her. He was about five foot eight, slim, with curly black hair and a ready smile. Maria thought he was in his late twenties.
"Allo luv. You Geordie's girl are you?"
"No, I'm here to see Paul Robertson. Do you know him?"
"Nah can't say as I do. Are you sure you want to wait for him? Good looking girl like you shouldn't be left waiting around here. My name's Steve and I'm available I'd be glad to give you the grand tour."
A voice boomed out across the room.
"Ho way, Cockney man. She's here for The Prof so leave her alone."
Steve's face took on a worried expression. "I'm sorry miss I didn't mean anything. You won't tell him I tried to get off with you, will you?"
"Is that what you were trying to do?" Maria laughed. "Don't worry Steve, I won't tell him."
Geordie looked embarrassed when he came back and sat down opposite Maria.
"I'm sorry pet, I did nae connect. No one's called him Paul in two years. Even the screws call him Prof. He's not here now, he went in to work this morning. He should be back soon like."
"That's all right, thank you for keeping me entertained. Would you like to tell me more about him? Why did young Steve seem afraid of him?"
"Afraid of the Prof? Nae body's afraid of The Prof. We just respect him. You can have respect without fear, he taught me that."
"So what does he do to make you respect him?"
"Anything he can, pet. You've noticed the gymnasium we're building out there? He brought that here. I'm building it and I found oot I'm a good bricklayer. The Prof's teaching me to read site drawings, and I've already got the offer of a job when I get oot. The Prof, he knows people and they listen to him. There is a Scots bloke who owns a chain of gyms. The Prof writes to him and suggested he built one here. When you're inside, keeping fit is about all there is to do. So he tells this bloke he could get cheap staff for his gym. The lads would get to learn a trade that suits them a lot better than hairdressing. Can you imagine someone like me giving your hair a trim?"
"So if you're all allowed out to work, what's stopping you making a run for it?"
"Nothing pet, but if you get caught you go back to a real prison. Nae body wants that."
Maria was so absorbed in her conversation with Geordie that she didn't notice a man enter the room and stand beside them.
"Maria? What are you doing here?"
Maria looked up into the eyes of a man she hadn't seen for two years. Now, seeing him made her nervous. She had butterflies in her stomach as she stood up.
"Hello Paul, you're looking well."
"You look as good as ever, but what brings you here? I thought you'd want to forget all about me."
"Once upon a time I thought that way but now I'd like to talk to you. Can we go somewhere and talk?"
"OK let's take a stroll in the grounds."
Paul turned and walked to the door, holding it open for Maria. He led her out into the grounds of the big house and walked out across the grass.
"So, what can I say that didn't get said at the trial. I hurt you and I guess I hurt you again when you saw his message. I didn't want to, but I'd made a promise. I hope it helped you move on?"
"Well, one thing has changed." She held her left hand up showing no rings on her finger.
"Is that for my benefit, or is it the reason for the sadness in your eyes?"
Maria grinned at him. "I'm surprised you remember. It seems so long ago now."
"There's not much I don't remember. It was the best and the worst night of my life.The best because I was with a beautiful, kind, sympathetic woman who was incredibly sexy. She even seemed to find me attractive, that hadn't happened for a long time. It was the worst night because in the morning it would all be over. As soon as you found out who I was, I knew you'd hate me."
"I did; I hated you for taking advantage of me, I hated you for killing Will, and I hated you for sending me your phone and destroying my illusions about him. Now I find I am the only person who didn't know what sort of man he was."
"So what brings you here today?"
"Something my counsellor said. Oh yes, I was a mess after that message. I spent two years in therapy and it helped. I realised that Will's death really was an accident, and when I look back on it I'm not sure who took advantage of whom. Anyway, my counsellor said I'd forgiven myself for our night together and I realised that I'd also forgiven you. Well not so much forgiven you but realised there was nothing to forgive."
"I wouldn't go that far. If I'd told you who I was, you'd never have invited me into your bed."
"No, I wouldn't. I'd have tried to scratch your eyes out. You tried to be a gentleman. Short of causing a scene and embarrassing us both you couldn't have done much more."
"So you've come to tell me you've forgiven me. Thank you; that means a lot to me. I enjoyed our time together; I even contemplated pleading not guilty and trying to hold on to my freedom. I was very attracted to you and you seemed to like me."
"I did like you; I thought you were a good man."
"All that changed when you found out who I was."
"Yes it did, but I was wrong. You were much a victim as I was. Your world was torn apart just like mine. That's why it affected me so much. I'd spent months hating the man who killed Will. In my mind, I made him into some kind of monster. Then I met you, and you were such a gentleman I even felt sorry for you. Can you imagine my horror when I found out the focus of my hatred had been the man I'd welcomed to my bed?"
Paul didn't answer, even two years later he was still ashamed.
"I put those things behind me, or at least I thought I had. Then I got your phone and saw the message. I loved Will, but I never really understood him. It was like I'd been living a lie for seventeen years."
"That's a feeling I know only too well."
"Yes, I suppose it is."
They walked on away from the house and its manicured lawns. He showed her the farm and told her about the food they produced. On the way back he took her to see the new gymnasium and told her the story of how it came about. Maria looked at the steel frame and half constructed walls. She imagined Geordie in his hard hat and Hi-Vis jacket laying bricks. Paul was explaining the layout of the gym when Maria asked the question that had troubled her for some time.
"Why did you plead guilty?"
"I felt guilty about what I had done to you, what I'd done with you. I'd taken a man's life, I should be punished."
"So it wasn't only because you slept with me."
"That was part of it, but the more I thought about our conversation, the more I hated myself. It was the right thing to do and I've kept my nose clean, I won't serve five years."
"That gives me some comfort at least."
She turned and took his hand in hers.
"You're a good man, Paul. It was true in Maidstone and, from what Geordie tells me, it's still true now."
"Ah well, Geordie is chairman of my fan club. He sings my praises to anyone who can understand a word he says."
"His accent is a bit thick, but I understood him enough to learn that you put yourself out for people; even those that have done nothing to deserve it."
Paul felt the attraction again, just as he had in Maidstone. It occurred to him that maybe she was here to torture him; to let him see what he could never have. He quickly rejected the idea but still he resisted the temptation to put his arm around her. Instead, he let his hands fall down to his sides. As they walked back to the house their hands brushed together and occasionally Maria squeezed his fingers and smiled up at him.
Geordie winked as they came back into the day room. Paul led her over to a Sofa and they sat down.
"So how are things for you and your family?" He asked.
"We are fine. Alan, my eldest, is seventeen now and takes his 'A' levels next summer. Andrea is sixteen, becoming a young woman. They've been wonderful. They really helped when I was falling apart. Even now, Alan will sometimes sit with me and chat about our plans for the future."
Paul shook his head. "Sixteen and seventeen? Unbelievable, you must have been a child bride."
She laughed and playfully slapped his arm. "I'm thirty-eight; if that's what you're trying to find out?"
"No, I'm thinking aloud.—Seriously though, you are OK? Financially I mean. I've got a few bob put aside from selling the truck. If you need a bit of help, you only have to say."
Maria reached out and squeezed his hand. "That's very sweet of you, but we really are fine. I still work because I want to. William may have been a cheating lecherous bastard, but he was a good provider. His personal life insurance coupled with his company policy made sure we are comfortable. The mortgage is paid off, and the compensation from the accident means I don't need to work. My friend Sally says you did me a favour."
"You don't see things that way though?"
"No, I don't, I really did love him. That's why finding out about him hurt me so much. What about you? Any chance of reconciliation with your wife? Don't your children need your little nest egg?"
"Reconciliation? No chance, and as for my children, it's now a question of whose children they are? I'd been in Maidstone for about three months when the money in my bank account dried up and they stopped paying the child support. Josie went to the child support agency. They found out I was inside they told her there was no way I could pay so she'd need to go on benefits. She wrote me a letter accusing me of getting put away to avoid paying her. I don't know if it was her anger speaking, but she finished the letter with a nasty swipe. She said the joke's on you; they're probably not even yours."
"Do you believe that?"
"I don't know, but one thing is certain. Before she gets any more money from me, she'll need to prove they're mine. The stupid thing is, if she'd contacted me, I would have had money moved into the account to continue the payments."
"Oh dear, it sounds like your life keeps getting worse."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. It certainly got better when they sent me here."
Paul ran his hands through his hair, revealing a scar on the left side of his head. Maria reached up and ran her finger down the scar. "What happened here?" she asked.
"Oh, it's nothing. I slipped in the shower in Gartree."
The look on his face told her it was something much more serious. She began to understand what Geordie had told her. This prison was like a rest home compared to the places he and Paul had been in. She remembered Geordies words: no one wants to go back to such places.
She looked across the room and saw a clock on the wall and then checked her watch.
"I've got to go; it's a three-hour drive back to Kent."
As she stood, Paul also got up.
"I'll walk you to your car."
Neither one seemed to be in any hurry to get to the car. Maria was deep in thought. As they reached the car she turned to face him.
"Geordie said you can go out if you like, is that true? Can you go out for the day?"
"Yes as long as I'm back for roll call at 6.00pm."
"I'd like to come again, if that's alright."
"It's more than alright. I'd like that very much."
"Can I call you here?"
"No. we can call out but we can't receive calls. Mobiles aren't allowed."
"That's a shame; I'll just have to take pot luck."
"Well one thing is certain, I'm not going anywhere."
Maria smiled at him and suddenly had an overwhelming urge to kiss him. She held both his arms, went up onto tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
"I will be back as soon as I can. Look after yourself and Geordie."
"That's a good joke. It's Geordie who looks after me."
She got in the car and started the engine. Reluctantly she closed the door and moved off. With tears in her eyes as she drove away.
"Now have I got this right? On Saturday, you drove up to Cambridge, to see the man who killed William? You are supposed to be putting all that behind you." Sally looked surprised.
Maria looked at her friend and struggled to find the words to explain.
"I am, Sally, that's why I went to see him. I had to find closure. For two years, I've been blaming him for everything. I wanted to tell him I didn't blame him anymore. I've forgiven him."
"Well, you know my thoughts on that man. He did you a big favour. Once you found out about Will, and you would have found out eventually, you would have divorced him. I've done that twice, and it's no party. They say the only people to profit from a divorce are the lawyers. It was certainly true for me. We shouldn't consider anyone's death a good thing, but in Will's case I'm sure we'll be forgiven."
"You really didn't like him did you?"
"I hated him! He made my skin crawl whenever he touched me. You thought the sun shone out of his backside, so I couldn't tell you. I had no proof, only what the other girls told me."
"Relax, Sally. I forgave you before I forgave him. Now do you want to hear about Saturday or not?"
The two women chatted as they had lunch. Maria told Sally all about the prison and the people she'd met. Sally said the prison sounded like a holiday camp. Soon the conversation got round to Paul.
"So what's this Paul like."
"He's a good man, and I guarantee he wouldn't make your skin crawl. He is hot."
"It sounds like you wanted to jump into bed with him."
"I've already done that."
Sally dropped her fork and sat with a shocked expression on her face. "You're joking, right? I mean you didn't jump him right there in the prison?"
"No, of course I didn't.—We slept together on the night before the trial."
"Wow! You are full of surprises today. Whatever happened to little Mrs Prim and Proper?"
"I was drunk."
"Ah, so he took advantage of you, and you said he was a good man?"
Maria blushed. "Erm, well I remember it the other way around. I all but dragged him into my room. Look, I was drunk and lonely, all right?"
"So what's he like?"
"Well, I can't say I remember a great deal. Like I said I was drunk."
"So what happens now? Are you going to put it all behind you and move on?" Sally watched as her friend fidgeted uncomfortably.
"What is it you're not telling me, Maria? Oh my God, you're sweet on him, aren't you? He's the man who killed your husband, for god's sake."
"And you're the one who said he did me a favour. Anyway, I'm going back to see him again."
The two women finished their lunch and went back to work. Maria found it difficult to concentrate. Her mind kept wandering back to Combevale, Paul and Geordie. Sally's reaction had given her something to think about. She was one of the more open-minded people, yet she considered a relationship ridiculous. Perhaps she should stop it now before she got in too deep. Paul would understand; she could write him a letter and explain.
Anger rose from deep inside her. No! She'd be damned if she'd call it off. Didn't she deserve a little pleasure? Why shouldn't she enjoy a little male company? Nobody said it was going anywhere. Why shouldn't they both have a little fun? Two years bringing up a family on her own had brought about a change in Maria. Now there was steel in her character. She'd developed a determination never knew she had. It was the reason she'd been given a managerial position. Maria got things done and had become self-reliant.
It's difficult to avoid someone in prison, even an open one like Combevale. Paul did his best to avoid Geordie. Not that he didn't enjoy his company; it was just that Geordie would ask questions about Maria and he didn't have the answers. It was Sunday evening before Geordie pinned him down. He was reading in his room when there was a tap on the door and it opened.
"Studying again there, Prof?"
"That's right Geordie. I've got to keep up with latest developments."
"Maybe you do, but bricklayin' doesn't change much like."
Paul just smiled at him and returned to his book.
"Is that what you were up to yesterday then, keeping up with developments? That lass your missus then? I know you said she was a bonny lass like, but she's lovely man."
"No, Geordie, that wasn't Josie. She's a very different kettle of fish."
"I did nae think she could be like; I mean she did nae seem to know much about you for a start. If you're nae interested you can pass her on to me."
"She's not mine to pass around Geordie."
"You fooled me like. You two was like a pair of love birds. Now you tell me she's nae your lass. If she is nae, you're a bigger fool than I thought."
Paul sighed and put the book down realising he wouldn't get rid of Geordie.
"OK, Geordie you win. What do you want to know about?"
"Her, man, yer visitor. I mean I'm in love me. Not only is she gorgeous like, but she talked tae me like I was a real human being, not just a prisoner."
"What can I say? You're right; she is lovely and a good woman. One who deserved a better hand than the one she was dealt. I like her but that's as far as it can go."
"Why, man? You like her and I can see she's sweet on you. What's stopping you, man? You'll be oot of here in six months or so; why shouldn't you get together like?"
"She was married to the man I killed Geordie, that's the problem."
Geordie fell silent for a while not knowing how to deal with the new information. He wiped his hand across his brow.
"You don't believe in a simple life, do you Prof? Are you sure you can't make it work like?"
"She's got children, Geordie. How are they going to take her hooking up with the man who killed their dad? What about her in-laws? I killed their son."
"But it was an accident man. Surely they know that."
"An accident that I caused. How would you feel if it was your mum?"
"I'd like tae think I'd be glad she'd found someone who makes her happy."
"I'd like to do that, make her happy. I'd certainly be better than the arsehole she had. --She says she's coming back, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm sure once she's had time to think, she'll change her mind."
"I hope not, man. It's a joy for me just looking at her like."
"We'll see, Geordie lad. Now I've got to get my head around this theory."
Geordie got up to leave and put a big hand on Paul's shoulder.
"Take it easy Prof Man. Surround yourself with good people, and good things will happen."
"Philosophy from you, Geordie? I'm impressed. I don't suppose you know who said it."
"Of course I do, man. It were Brian Clough."
"I can't believe I'm taking advice from a football manager? So where am I going to find all these good people?"
"Well there's me, man, and there's her, that's a start."
Geordie left and Paul returned to his book. He managed a couple of pages before he realised that he hadn't taken in anything. He'd been trying to get Maria out of his head since he'd watched her drive away. His mind drifted back to the night in the Maidstone hotel. He could almost feel her presence, smell her perfume. Tears formed in his eyes as the memories came back. He tried to snap himself out of it. He decided to turn in but even lying in bed she was still with him. He thought about what Geordie had said. Could there really be a chance for him with Maria? After all he'd done to her, could she really be interested in him? As he lay in bed thinking, sleep slowly came over him.
The week dragged by for Maria. She found herself thinking of Paul whenever she had a free moment. Sally didn't seem to understand at all. They often had lunch together and Sally would remind her. "This is the man who killed your Husband." It didn't seem to matter how many times Maria told her it was an accident.
On Saturday morning as she checked her makeup in the mirror she had butterflies in the stomach from the excitement. The warm feeling in her chest had been growing all week. Now her excitement had reached its peak. Her mother had agreed to look after the children for her. At seventeen and sixteen they were more than capable of looking after themselves, but she felt better knowing her mum was there.
The Dartford crossing marked half way for her and the excitement built again. The time on the motorway to Cambridge seemed like the longest hour of her life. She left the motorway and followed the instructions from the sat-nav. At 11:45am, she pulled into the drive of Combevale House. As soon as got out of the car a familiar voice welcomed her.
"Now then, bonnie lass; are you a sight for sore eyes?"
She turned and ran to the hulking figure of Geordie walking across the car park. She threw her arms around him and hugged him.
"Whoa, pet I've nae had a greetin' like that for many a year like. I've got a feelin' that it's meant for someone else though."
"Well maybe, Geordie, but it's good to see you too. Is he here?"
"No, pet, he's workin', but he'll be back by 12:30. I reckon we've got time for a coffee and a chat like."
They walked into the day room, with Maria holding on to Geordie's huge arm. Maria sat down at a table while Geordie fetched the coffees. No sooner had he sat down than she started asking questions.
"How is he Geordie?"
"He's fine, pet, just grand. He'll be a lot better for seein' you though."
They sat drinking coffee before Maria, somewhat hesitantly, asked about something that had troubled her most of the week.
"Geordie ... I noticed Paul has a scar down one side of his head. He said he slipped in the shower. That's a euphemism isn't it? It means something else in prison?"
"Aye, it does that, pet. The showers are the only place inside that there are never any screws; that's prison officers to you. It's a place where scores get settled. No one will grass inside like, so when you get injured in a fight in the showers you tell the screws you slipped."
"And that's what happened to Paul, he got into a fight."
Geordie looked down at the floor then brought his hands up to his face. As he rubbed his hands over his face, Maria noticed him wiping his eyes.
"I let him down, pet, I'll never forgive ma sen for that."
Maria reached out and took hold of the big man's
"It wasn't your fault, Geordie; you weren't involved were you?"
"I shoulda been there, shoulda known it would happen like."
"I don't understand; how could you know he would get in a fight?"
"Nae so much a fight lass, more like a punishment beatin'. He never stood a chance, man.Three of the bastards set about him, I saw them coming out. Two broken ribs and concussion; he was two weeks in the hospital wing."
"I don't understand Geordie, this is England; we don't allow the officers to beat people as punishment."
"It was nae the screws, lass, they were other prisoners, Ray Embury's thugs. The governor and the screws think they run the prison, but in reality it's people like Big Ray Embury that run the place. Nothing gets in or out of the prison without they know about it. They are big time villains with plenty of money and influence. They bribe the screws and intimidate the prisoners."
"So what did Paul do to deserve such a punishment?"
"You don't have to do much, pet. The Prof just said no and Big Ray doesn't like that."
"I can't believe all this Geordie. You're telling me that a man gets beaten to a pulp for not doing as he was told?"
"OK, I'll explain. It was just after his mam died. They let him go to the funeral handcuffed to a screw like; as if the Prof would to try to escape. He was upset; not thinking straight. When Big Ray sent one of his heavies down inviting the Prof to visit, he went. Ray's firm were planning a job on a warehouse. The place where they gather up all the old bank notes and send them to be burned. They had a problem with the CCTV and someone told Embury that the Prof used to teach electronics at the university. So he asks if it's possible to jam the system. "Of course," says the Prof. So Embury asks him to design a jammer for him. The Prof tells him he's got better things to do with his time.–If he'd been in his right mind he'd have told him he couldn't do it."
"So for that they beat him half to death."
"Aye, pet. I'm sorry like, I never thought Embury would cross the line, break the rules like, but he did."
"I don't understand, you just said there were no rules for Embury. He could more or less do as he pleased."
"Aye well there's prison rules, they don't apply to Embury, and there are prisoners' rules, they apply to everyone. That's things like what you can do to what type of people. If they're old or funny in the head you're supposed to leave 'em alone. If they're child molesters you can do what you like and nobody sees a thing. Anyway, the Prof kept to himself like, but he also held unofficial classes in writing and maths. He helped a lot of blokes and got a lot of respect. Prisoners' rules said you don't touch the Prof. Embury broke the rules."
"What happened afterwards? Did he get away with it?"
"Nobody gets away with breaking prisoners rules. The Prof drifted in and out of consciousness for ten days. By the time he was back with us he had the company of three more prisoners, none of them will ever need a vasectomy."
"What about Embury?"
"He fell from the landing outside his cell. Broke one leg in three places, smashed his elbow and broke his pelvis. Had to be sent out to a proper hospital."
Tears were running down Maria's cheeks taking with them much of the carefully applied eyeliner. At the same time, she was having doubts about Geordie; was he a violent man after all?
"Did you do all that because they hurt Paul."
"Me? It was nae me pet. I wanted to help like. I'd not been that angry in years, but the other lads said no. "You've not got long to go," they said. So I kept out of it. When Embury had a go at flyin' like, I was visitin' the Prof in the hospital wing. After that the governor decided the prison would be a safer place if he moved us. I was due for an open prison like, so he transferred both of us here."
Paul had spent the week hoping to see Maria again yet it still came as a surprise to find her sitting in the day room with black lines running down her cheeks. He was even more surprised when she jumped up and ran to meet him. She threw her arms around him pushing her head against his chest.
"I'm so, so sorry," she sobbed.
He hugged her to his chest and waited for her crying to stop. It took several minutes before she got herself back in control.
"Is there a ladies room here?"
Paul led her out to the toilets and went back to talk to Geordie.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?"
"I've no idea man. She just asked me aboot you slippin' in the shower like."
"And you told her? Geordie, Geordie, what am I going to do with you? You don't talk to people like her about life inside. They don't understand."
"I'm sorry, Prof man. She asked like. I mean she already guessed it was more than just slipping over, man."
It was twenty minutes before Maria returned. Apart from a little redness in her eyes she looked normal. Paul stood up to greet her, and she smiled at him.
"I came to take you to lunch; if we hurry we can still make it."
Paul looked at Geordie.
"Ho way, man. Go, go get some decent food and make the lady happy."
With Paul acting as navigator, they drove back to Cambridge and found a nice little pub close to the river. They talked as they ate and then Paul took her for a walk along The Backs, a road alongside the river which offered an excellent view of the major colleges.
Maria tried to talk about his life in prison, but every time Paul turned the conversation around. Instead, he told her about his early life. He talked about his childhood, and made it sound happy despite their meagre finances. As they talked, Maria could hear in his voice the affection he had for his mother. He told her how proud she'd been when he graduated from University. Maria asked about his father but Paul just side stepped the question. He went on to tell her how overjoyed his mother had been when, five years later, he'd got his first lecturing Job.
"You mean you were teaching at the University?" Maria asked with more than a hint of surprise.
"Yes, of course. Why do you think the boy's call me Prof?"
"When you said you worked at the university, I thought you worked in their labs. You said you were doing research."
"That's the way it is. You spend less than half your time on teaching. The rest is spent running research projects."
"And you were still better off driving a lorry than teaching, that doesn't make any sense."
"Maybe not, but it's a reality."
"William always said there was more money in selling a product than in making it."
"He was probably right, but the salesman doesn't get the buzz you get when you see something you made or designed, being used."
"Now you sound like my son, Alan. When his dad died he changed his 'A' level choices. He's doing English, Maths and Physics. He says he wants to be an engineer."
They stopped for a coffee at one of the city centre cafes. Paul reached across the table and took Maria's hand and squeezed it gently.
"I really enjoy being with you," he told her."
Maria squeezed his hand back but said nothing. How could she? She wasn't sure how she felt. She did know she didn't want it to end. It had been a long time since a man had made her feel this special. She tried to remember the night in Maidstone, but the more she tried the less certain she was of what was fact and what was fantasy.
Paul checked his watch.
"Maria, I'm really enjoying this, but I've got to get back to the prison for roll call."
They got up and walked, hand in hand, back to the car. In the prison car park Paul leaned across to kiss Maria's cheek. She turned and offered her lips. After several minutes of kissing, Paul asked the question that had been going through his head all the way back to Combevale.
"Will I see you again?"
"I've taken a room at the village pub so I can come over in the morning."
Paul's smile spread from ear to ear. "There is nothing I'd like better."
"That's settled then. I'll come by and pick you up at ten,"
She kissed him once more. He got out of the car and walked back into the prison building. Maria watched him every inch of the way. She chastised herself for enjoying the sight of his bum as he walked away.