DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Helen stared at the baths. None of them looked quite right, except one that had a bit of potential. Nikki was off somewhere, sorting out the stuff she had bought to fix up the kitchen ceiling.
She couldn't help her own smirk at the remembrance of dead spiders, dust and even a defunct wasp's nest showering down on Sean. Less comfortable though was the moment that her eyes had met Nikki's as they both laughed at Sean's discomfiture. Helen had felt guilty at it, but Nikki had no such scruples, and she felt even worse that Nikki knew that she was taking pleasure at Sean's expense; it made her feel disloyal somehow, in that moment of connection.
"So, what have you decided?" Nikki was at her side. Today she had been the most charming that Helen had ever known, almost as if she were trying to make up for having made her boyfriend look like a complete tit yesterday. Even Trisha didn't appear to think that Nikki's actions had been an accident. She had taken Nikki aside after finding out, and had clearly been telling her off. Emily had just laughed out loud.
"Mmm. Only this one looks halfway right. But it's hard to tell."
"Well," Helen paused, not quite sure how to say it. "It's like this. We like to, you know, bath."
"Yes. That's why you're buying a bath." Nikki looked so serious for a second that it took Helen a moment to realise that she was being teased.
"I mean together."
"Ah." Helen slid a sideways glance at Nikki. Was she just mobbing her up?
"And I'm not sure about this one." She stopped by a loft style bath. "I wish Sean were here."
"Why? Is he a bath expert?"
"Don't be daft." She slapped Nikki's arm. "He's tall, and I'm short, and I want to get one that we can both fit in comfortably, if you know what I mean. And that's fine for us separately."
"What do you like to do in the bath?"
Helen just looked at her, while Nikki tried to work out what she had said. Realising, she blushed and became less coherent.
"I, um, er. Look, who uses it separately the most? You or Sean? And when you're in there, what do you do? Soak, read, chill?"
"I suppose I do. I read, have a glass of wine, relax you know."
"Not really. I'm more of a shower person myself."
They stood there contemplating the various baths on display, each lost in their own little world.
"Try this one." Nikki broke away to stand by something quite modern and square. Helen hated it on sight.
"No, it's horrible."
"I agree, but it might be the right size. If we know what you like, size-wise, we can at least try and find the right one after that." That did make sense to Helen.
"What do you think?" She asked Nikki.
"You don't know unless you try it. Here " She put her hand on Helen's shoulder and kicked off her boots.
"Nikki? What the Hell are you " Her voice faded as Nikki got into the bath and stretched out. She couldn't believe that Nikki would do such a thing and looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed.
"Mm. Probably a bit long for you, but just right for me." She looked up at Helen, laughing. "Come on in; the water's lovely."
"Nikki, can you just get out of there?"
"What, don't you want to see if we fit?" For a second, Helen thought that the other woman was flirting with her, then realised that she meant that she was of a similar size to Sean.
"I just don't think that we should be doing this. Please get out."
"Helen, unless you try, you're never gonna know. Come on, no one cares."
"Then how come no one else is sitting in a demo bath in the middle of B&Q on a Saturday morning?"
"Because they're not sensible enough to try before they buy. Come on, what are you afraid of? I don't bite you know."
Looking around furtively, and in an attempt to shut Nikki up before she attracted attention to them, Helen quickly slipped off her trainers and climbed into the bath opposite Nikki. For a moment there was a tangle of arms and mainly legs, and then Helen was facing her, her legs on top of Nikki's longer ones as they both leaned back, testing the angle of the sides of the bath for comfort.
"Not so bad, is it?" Nikki grinned at her, and again she had the feeling that she was being flirted with. Nikki's legs were warm under hers, and she had the odd sensation that they fit perfectly. She was certainly quite comfortable, but then she realised the flaw.
"I've got the tap end. No way. This is your end. Let's swap." Helen manoeuvred her legs to allow Nikki the space to stand up and swivelled round as Nikki stepped over her until they were once again facing each other. "That's much better."
"Right, so you want one this size. Or do you want me to get out so you can try it yourself?" Helen's reply was trapped on her lips as someone came up behind Nikki with a tape measure. Beetroot red, he measured the bath somehow without getting close enough to touch it and backed away without acknowledging the presence of either of them, before turning away. Helen could barely control her laughter, and a snort escaped her before she could turn it into a cough.
She felt giddy and reckless, not helped by Nikki opposite her. She could feel the other woman's laughter coursing through her body, transmitting itself through to hers by the contact between their bodies.
"Can I help you, ladies?" Their laughter was only intensified by an elderly man whose name badge read 'Cyril' over the legend 'I am here to help'. "Looking for a bath suitable for both of you?"
"No, we're fine thanks." They hauled themselves out of the bath, Helen keeping her head down as she realised that the man thought that they were together. Nikki didn't seem to care what he thought, nor the several people watching them clamber out of the bath.
They put their shoes on and Nikki went through a long charade of measuring the bath, keeping Helen laughing all the while, before they made their way elsewhere in the store, practically at a run, still giggling.
"So, you didn't fancy any of those baths, then?" Nikki asked, a little redundantly, Helen thought. "Not that nice scalloped one? We could get you a matching sink and toilet too, if you like. Maybe even a furry toilet seat cover and a lady with a big frock to go over the spare loo rolls?"
"Ugh. Talk about the land that taste forgot. Where else can we go?" She tucked her arm inside Nikki's as they walked towards the exit, unwilling to relinquish contact with Nikki.
"There's the Bathstore, but actually, I think I know a place that will have something perfect for you. Come on." She released Helen's arm and grabbed her hand, half-pulling her across the car park.
Nikki handled the big van, like she did nearly everything, competently. She drove easily in the heavy Saturday morning traffic, not like Helen and Sean, who were heavy on both the accelerator and the brake. Nikki reached out to put on the radio.
"Would you mind if we just talked?" Helen put out her hand to still Nikki's.
"What would you like to talk about?"
"How you learnt to be a builder."
"My dad had a construction company." Nikki shrugged. "I worked on the sites for years as a kid, getting all the guys to teach me their different skills."
"What do you actually do now? Apart from build developments in Croatia?"
"Trish and I do property development. We find places that need work, do them up and sell them on. The house is one of those, but we got sick of moving, so we put down roots in the village some years ago now."
"So who does the work on the properties? Somehow I can't see Trisha getting down and dirty."
"We both do, actually. Trisha is a great plumber's, builder's and spark's mate. All those years of practice. She's also got a pretty good eye for interiors, so once the building work, if any, is over, we do the decoration together."
"How many places have you done up?" Nikki thought for a minute.
"Probably around forty or so over the last fifteen years."
"Forty?" Helen practically yelped. They were obviously all in much better nick than her house was.
"Some have simply been cosmetic makeover jobs. Quick turnarounds in a rising market to make some cash or for rental. Nothing more complicated than a couple of weeks working from 7 am to 10pm. Some have been big much worse than your place. They took us months."
"Several months? How come mine's going to take so long?" Helen barely noticed that she had stopped referring to the house has 'ours'. It had become 'her' project; her home.
"Because you're living there, and it's your home. And because you're doing some of the work yourself."
"I think you mean that I'm getting in your way." Helen admitted what she had thought for a while now: that while her presence was sometimes an extra pair of hands useful to Nikki, essentially she was mostly in the way.
"I wouldn't say that. I kind of like working with you." Nikki spoke shyly, giving Helen a small smile.
"Even though I'm always in your way?" Helen found herself flirting with the other woman.
"I'm used to it now. You're easy to teach."
Helen blinked. Did that have a double meaning, or did Nikki not intend it that way?
"You're a very good teacher. I'm learning a lot from you." Did that sound as much of a double entendre as Nikki's last sentence?
"We'll have to move onto something more advanced soon." Nikki leaned in towards her conspirationally. Helen gulped slightly. Maybe the flirting wasn't as harmless as she thought. "Ceilings."
There was silence while Helen tried to work out what to say next.
"How long have you and Trisha been, um, together?"
"Together as in business partners or as in together?" Her voice gave nothing away, but her smile was not a genuine as her last one. Helen had the feeling that Nikki knew she had wanted to ask the question for some time now.
"You tell me." Two could play it cool.
"It's all kind of wrapped up in itself." Nikki shot her a look. "We're here now; let's go find you a bath, and this afternoon, while you help me put the kitchen ceiling up, I'll tell you all about it. Deal?"
"I'm not really interested " The 'I'm just trying to make conversation' died on her lips at Nikki's knowing smile. Damn. Was she as transparent as all that? Whatever happened to the finesse she normally showed with people, getting them to open up to her? Mind you, she was never as curious about her private clients as she was about Nikki. She intrigued her refused to be compartmentalised and was so far outside the spectrum of people that she usually met, that she wanted to know more about her. In a purely professional sense, of course.
The bath was perfect. An old-fashioned cast-iron roll-top with clawed feet. It would suit their new, enlarged bathroom perfectly. Nikki had insisted that they get in and try it, and they had fitted perfectly. She would have to find the rest of the sanitaryware and the taps elsewhere, but the salvage yard was incredible, and she saw two fireplaces she wouldn't mind having for the lounge and main bedroom.
Somehow, they had even managed to get the heavy bath onto the van, although Helen had reservations about their ability to get it up the stairs back at the house. Nikki had already thought of that too, it seemed, and Trevor, the boiler fitter and his crew were there to help. Between them, the men and Nikki manhandled the bath into the bathroom, and then Nikki laid the pipes for the water and waste while Trevor went back to the boiler. She had no taps, but Trevor provided some really modern ones that didn't match at all, and looked bloody stupid, and by the end of the day, the bath was in situ, dominating the room. She could see furniture in the room, the bare boards and plants, and could imagine that it would become a haven of peace and tranquillity. She sighed; one day, in the distant future - a far cry from the mess it was in right now, with the unplastered walls and bare floorboards.
"Very colonial, especially for a Scot," Nikki had laughed and ruffled her hair familiarly when she had told her of her vision.
She would relax in that bath, listen to music, have candles, a glass of wine and a book. Or, she thought devilishly, she would be sharing it.
"I'd love to try it now."
"Why don't you?"
"What, without you?" Helen laughed. Nikki turned back and looked at her intently, and she felt the laugh dying on her lips. She hadn't meant it to sound quite so suggestive, but after their trying all of the baths together earlier she shook herself mentally, staring into Nikki's eyes.
"When you're done, come over and eat." Nikki left her, not responding to her suggestion in any way.
She turned on the taps, watching with pleasure as hot water gushed out of the faucet. This was going to be a very real pleasure tonight, bathing in her own bath for the first time in almost a month.
She heard Nikki vanish down the stairs, talking to Trevor and his team, saying goodbye. She went into the bedroom, still covered in dust from when she had moved out into Nikki's house, what seemed like an age ago but was just over a week. It had a derelict, unlived in air, with half the wallpaper off the walls the product of whoever had lived here last. Hers and Sean's belongings were strewn across the mattress and floor, covered in the omnipresent dust.
She had had enough of the negative things about the house, she thought, as she undressed. Tonight she was going to think positive. Like the kitchen. She and Nikki had replaced the whole ceiling; or, more accurately, Nikki had, with Helen just holding up sections of plasterboard and holding nails while Nikki hammered, screwed, measured, cut holes and stuff. Nikki had even had the forethought to buy spotlights, and install them, replacing the lights in the previous two separate rooms with modern lighting that would look fantastic once it was finished.
Nikki hadn't started on the plastering yet, promising that treat for tomorrow. Helen was going to strip wallpaper from other rooms. She sank slowly into the bath, feeling the heat surround her. She had missed this so much she was such a water baby. The water held and cocooned her, making her feel comfortable and safe, and her mind turned to what else she had learned that afternoon, not just about how to put up a ceiling, but Nikki herself.
"I've known Trisha since I was a kid. She and her husband were friends of my parents." Nikki had started. Helen refused to let her mind turn back to thoughts of cradle-snatching. "We got on great. Emily was just a baby, and I used to babysit her loads while they went out as I got older."
There was a long pause, and Helen thought that Nikki had decided not to go on with the story.
"My parents found out that I was gay." She looked at Helen and interpreted the question in Helen's glance. "I would love to say my PE teacher, who was rather gorgeous, but that would be such a cliché. It was a girl at school. We got caught performing 'unnatural acts' according to my head, my parents and pretty much everyone else at the school.
She told everyone I'd forced her which I hadn't, and I got expelled and my parents kicked me out. Dad called me a 'fucking dyke' and told me never to darken his door again." She smiled ruefully at the Victorian phrasing, a defence mechanism, Helen suspected, given the fact that she wouldn't look at Helen, and her voice indicated the hurt and betrayal she had felt. She remembered the way Nikki had reacted to Jim called her a dyke, and understood now the reaction that had seemed rather extreme at the time. "Trisha and Harry gave me a home. I didn't bother to find another school I was sixteen and it was after Easter, so I never went back. I got an apprenticeship on a building site so I could at least bring in my own money. My father tried to interfere he's a big developer Wade Homes."
Helen nodded. Wade Homes were almost as familiar to her as Wimpey or McAlpine. Vast developments of soulless shoeboxes miles outside big towns with few facilities.
"But he couldn't stop me from being employed by a smaller guy, someone who'd never worked for him." Nikki smiled. "He was an artisan, specialising in restoring old places. He taught me stuff that you need for Victorian and listed houses, like herringbone brickwork. He really cared about the buildings, and had a real feel for them. He's the one who showed me that salvage yard we got your bath at."
"So that explains how good you are." Helen stuttered as she realised how that sounded. "With your hands, I mean." Oh God, that sounded even worse. Fortunately, Nikki didn't seem to notice.
"I learnt. It's all about doing something that you do a lot, so you get to do it well, and the speed comes with practice. It helps if you love it, and I do."
"So what happened next?" Helen wasn't sure if there was any undercurrent to this conversation, but just in case, she wanted to move on to a safer subject right now.
"When I was around twenty, Harry died. He worked in the City, and I think was just too stressed. He had a heart attack, and that was it. He was older than Trish." Helen watched as Nikki stopped working, her eyes seeming to turn completely inwards.
"He left her with nothing, you know." Nikki's eyes returned to her, burning with anger. "The mortgage was interest only, he was way underinsured and although he'd told her that they had endowment policies to pay of the mortgage, they had all been cashed in. Although Trish got a lump sum from his death in service benefit, most of it was tied up in trust for Emily. For a financial big-wig, he wasn't very savvy."
Helen continued her silence, not wanting to interrupt what were clearly quite painful memories for Nikki. She wanted to sit beside her, hold her hand while she recounted the memories, but didn't quite have the courage to do so.
"She had to sell the house, and buy something smaller she couldn't pay off enough of the mortgage to reduce it to a manageable level after the cost of the funeral and stuff, not without working, and she had no marketable skills she couldn't type or anything, and was crap on computers not that she's much better on them now, really. She wouldn't let me move out told me that I was keeping her sane. So she bought a smallish wreck that needed loads of work doing to it, because it was cheap enough to buy outright with the equity in their house.
I moved with them, did most of the heavy work, and we decorated it together. It took us the best part of eight months, because we were both working and living in it and I was working full-time. We could only get the money together to do one room at a time. It was hell, and it was great." She grinned, obviously enjoying part of that memory. "It got us started. She sold it for almost double what she'd paid and insisted on giving me a share. I suggested we do it again, so we bought another place, bigger, and in a better area. And we just carried on from there. She owns about eight properties now, and I own six, including next door. We've just sold some to pay for Croatia."
"And you two?"
"When I was twenty-five, we had an affair. It was intense too much so. It lasted for just under a year. We managed to carry on as friends, and the end coincided with buying and restoring my place, next door. We decided that instead of going our separate ways, because both of us had too much money tied up in other properties we would make it so that we could live separately in the same house. It's worked really well." She shrugged, and Helen almost didn't hear the end of the sentence. "Up to now."
Helen felt a small shiver run through her at the final words. What did they mean? Was there someone on the horizon for one of them, or were they just not happy living together any more? Poor Emily, if so.
"Do you love her?"
"Of course." Nikki put down her hammer and stared at Helen in shock. "I wouldn't still be there if I didn't. I'm not in love with her though."
"Why do you let her treat you like that?" It was the one burning question that Helen had to ask.
"She's known me since I was sixteen. She's always been a tad autocratic. I put up with it because it doesn't do me any harm. She's had so much in her life that's out of control, she needs to be in control. It's all about making her think she's in charge."
"It makes you seem a little " Helen sought for a diplomatic way of putting it. "Under the thumb."
"Look, she's just like that. If I don't want to do something, I don't. Or haven't you noticed?" Helen felt the challenge in those eyes, even now, hours after the event. She had let her eyes drop first. Nikki certainly could order Trisha around as much as Trisha ordered her around. "She lives in my house, and it's her way of asserting herself; she's already lost everything once and had to start again as a single mother. The reason she wanted me to help you out was because she felt like you seemed to. Lost and alone. I helped her out back then; she wanted you to have the same chance now. I was just slower at seeing it."
"But you did stuff for us you noticed that we had no kettle or anything." Nikki hadn't answered that. Just shrugged.
"And is there anyone now? Someone you're interested in?" OK, make that two burning questions, although she wasn't sure why she really wanted to know, or even if she wanted to know the answer.
Nikki looked at Helen squarely in the eye.
"Maybe." Helen recoiled from the comment, nearly falling off the ladder, forcing Nikki to grab and steady her.
After they disentangled themselves, and Helen had apologised several times for the incident, they both seemed to have forgotten the subject, and talk turned to more general things. Nikki told her stories about Emily that the girl would have hated to have told, especially by one she despised as much as she seemed to despise Helen. She had a feeling that Nikki would be a bastard to any of Emily's suitors, as she spoke of her so protectively and lovingly.
Helen sighed and sank back down into the bubbles. Nikki's comment about her relationship status had thrown her for six, and she was overanalysing it, wondering if it had referred to her, or to someone else. It surely couldn't have referred to her she had a boyfriend, and they were in a long-term relationship. Besides, as Nikki had been at great pains to remind Emily, she, Helen, was straight, so no, Nikki couldn't have meant her.
She settled down into the bubbles once more, savouring the warmth, feeling her muscles relaxing. She shut her eyes, enjoying the peace and solitude. The house was quiet, and she took pleasure in just being, in her house, her home.
When she opened her eyes, the room was growing dark. She hadn't turned the light on, and suddenly had the feeling that she wasn't alone.
She looked at the door, and Nikki was standing in the open doorway, her face shuttered, and her eyes in shadow, but watching Helen. She was holding a towel.
She stayed there, her eyes on Helen's for what felt like an age, making her feel more exposed than her nakedness under the bubbles should warrant, although not actually uncomfortable in front of her, then threw the towel onto the basin and backed away from the door, her eyes never leaving Helen's.
Suddenly Helen jerked awake, water splashing around her. Her eyes searched the room; she was alone, the water cooling around her body. She must have dreamed that Nikki had been there.
She stretched, debating adding more hot water against the obvious lateness of the hour. She loved baths; it was probably a symptom of desire to regress into the safety of the womb when she became stressed.
Reluctantly, she pulled the plug using her toes, lying there, feeling the draining water pulling against her flesh, enjoying the sensuality of it. She sat up, reaching for a towel, until she realised that she didn't have one the three they had unpacked were all at Nikki's, in the wash.
Reluctantly she stood up, goosebumps rising on her flesh as the cool evening air stroked over her body, and she stepped gingerly onto the bare boards, treading gently to avoid the dust and possible splinters from the fresh floorboards laid down by Nikki earlier in the day.
She had just pulled on her t-shirt over her body, feeling it stick to her wet skin when she noticed the towel, neatly folded and just outside the bathroom door. It wasn't one of theirs it was the wrong colour. She lifted it to her hair, dripping now-cold water onto her t-shirt. It was divinely soft, heavy Egyptian cotton one of Trisha's. It was not quite warm, and smelt of the outdoors. She had last seen it hanging on the line at the back of Nikki's house this morning.
So Nikki had been in the house while she was in the bath; she hadn't dreamed that. But the towel wasn't where Nikki had put it in her imagination; if it was a vision. Nikki really had been present, but what was real, and what was a dream?
The next evening found Helen feeling lost and uncomfortable with Nikki. Trisha and Emily were both out, as was Douggie, who only ever seemed to turn up for meals anyway. The lost feeling was familiar she had had that practically ever since she had moved, but she was unused to feeling it in Nikki's presence, which was usually so calming and reassuring.
She and Nikki had been separate nearly all day, deliberately on Helen's part. She didn't know what had happened last night, and wasn't sure whether to mention it to Nikki or not. Nikki had seemed to accept her wish to work apart, and hadn't questioned it. Nikki had been asleep when she had got in the previous evening, and Trisha had fed Helen and sent her straight to bed before she had had a chance to fall asleep on the sofa.
She had started watching Nikki work on the ceiling this morning, mixing the plaster and start applying it, but had forced herself to leave fairly quickly. She had insisted on having the music virtually too loud to have a conversation anyway, in order to avoid any discussion on the subject.
Helen was increasingly finding herself attracted to Nikki as a person, relishing spending time with her, but put it down to transference: Nikki was helping her out during a very uncomfortable time in her life when she was feeling vulnerable. If she had been a man, she would consider her against Sean, and probably very favourably, especially in light of his recent behaviour. She had a feeling that Nikki was attracted to her, but maybe she was just reading too much into it wanting to feel wanted and desired.
She didn't want to focus on Nikki's possible feelings for her, nor on her feelings towards Nikki. The fact that she made her feel safe, that everything was going to be fine, that it was she Helen turned to for anything to do with the house, was simply a reaction to the fact that she had been 'rescued' by this woman. It felt totally different to the way it was with Sean when he had turned up. When he had been there, Helen was almost anxious to have him gone, so that she could be alone, in accord with Nikki. He didn't make her feel that everything was all right, and she shrugged off the comparison.
She had worked herself hard, stripping wall after wall, a job made more arduous because she needed to strip for the ceilings in some rooms too. Fortunately none had seemed as bad as the kitchen ceiling, although she had been forced to fetch Nikki several times to look at the plasterwork, some of which had just fallen off in chunks when she had held the steamer over the umpteen layers of wallpaper. She had the feeling, as she found yet another layer underneath the rather revolting seventies brown circles that were currently coming back into fashion (according to Trisha), that once all the layers were off, the room would be several feet bigger.
Nikki had worked like a dog, barely stopping for breaks or even to drink, skimming the ceiling and various cracks in the walls with a thin layer of plaster that, to Helen's eyes, looked perfectly smooth. She hadn't seemed to feel like talking either, although every time she looked at Helen, she could feel those eyes burning into her soul. Or was she just imagining things, like last night? But the fact still remained that Nikki had dropped off the towel last night, so how much was real, and how much was hallucination?
They had trailed home late, walking back in silence in the early evening, stopping to watch the play of shadows over the road and listen to birdsong. She and Nikki walked very closely together, occasionally bumping shoulders, much closer physically than simply the chronological length of their relationship would seem to merit, and, Helen noted, as if from outside herself, the way intimate friends or lovers walked.
They had separated at the house, Nikki to shower upstairs and Helen in Nikki's en-suite. Much to her surprise, yesterday evening, now that Sean was gone, she had found herself transferred back to Nikki's bedroom. She wasn't quite sure if it was because it was separate to the rest of the house and offered her privacy, or because it offered more privacy to the long-term occupants of the house. Or whether it was simply because Nikki wanted her there.
When she had arrived in the kitchen after her shower, Nikki was already there, head buried deep in the fridge. She stood back, watching her for a moment. Nikki's hair was damp and tousled, towel-dried and obviously not combed. As always in the evenings, she had bare feet Helen couldn't understand how she could put up with the chill of the cold flagstones in the kitchen. Instead of worn jeans, tonight she was wearing what looked like linen trousers, held up with a drawstring. As Nikki bent over, Helen was disturbed by the fact that she noticed that there was no visible panty line.
She stepped into the room, and Nikki straightened up.
"What do you fancy for dinner tonight?"
"What did Trisha leave us?" Helen was fast becoming used to Trisha's excellent cooking, and was going to miss it when forced to rely on her own limited repertoire again. In some ways, she was hoping that the renovations were going to take some time.
"Tonight, we have leftovers, or there's some fresh bread, smoked salmon, pate, and cheese and ham and stuff. What do you fancy?" She turned to Helen. She was wearing an old granddad-style collarless pullover shirt that was open to the lowest button, exposing the skin of her shoulder and upper chest. She looked gloriously androgynous, and for a second Helen wanted to misunderstand her question.
Recovering from her first real realization of Nikki as a sexual being, and hungry, she had opted for the cold food, hoping that something as normal as eating would halt her disturbing thoughts about Nikki. They carried the food through in batches, along with knives and plates, Nikki bringing up the rear with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
They ate in silence, both starving after their hard day. Nikki flicked though a paper while she ate, leaving Helen alone with her unwelcome thoughts until she found the television remote, and lost herself in a TV programme about property development. Nikki rapidly lost interest in the paper and started talking to and then shouting at the television, much to Helen's amusement. It was the most comfortable she had felt with Nikki all day.
"Fancy ice-cream?" Nikki took the remains of their food at after the programme and returned from checking out the freezer. "We can find a DVD or a film, or something."
"Depends what it is. I'm very fussy about my ice-cream."
"Hmm, well, we have some from the ice-cream firm just up the road that's superb. Or there's Ben and Jerry's."
"Chocolate and vanilla from the local place, Phish Food and Karamel Sutra. Your choice."
They both settled on some of everything, and settled back on different sofas, stretched out, each with a full glass of champagne that Nikki had opened after they had polished off the first bottle, simply because she had 'fancied bubbles' tonight, although Nikki had pointed out it wouldn't compliment the ice-cream. They found an undemanding movie to watch.
As the movie ended, Helen sighed and stretched. The muscles in her back, shoulders and neck weren't used to being stretched to reach ceilings, with the benefit of ladders or not, and lying in one position on the sofa hadn't helped at all. She sat up, uncomfortably aware that Nikki was watching her, not the television.
"Just sore, that's all. You tall people are nearer the ceiling than I am and don't have to reach up so much." She raised her arms, and stopped, wincing, as they just lifted past her shoulders and stopped.
"Here, let me." Nikki had risen and crossed the room to her, and she felt the shifting of cushions as her weight settled beside her. Then Nikki's hands were on her shoulders and the room suddenly felt small and warm.
"Oh, that's nice." Nikki's hands were stroking and then, without warning, holding her shoulders, her fingers kneading at Helen's muscles.
"Ow." They found a knot and worked at it, pressing hard, then moving on, looking for the next one.
Helen found herself leaning back into the touch on her back and shoulders.
"How's that?" Nikki murmured right by her ear, giving her goosebumps.
"That's wonderful. You've got really strong hands." She tried reminding herself that Nikki was likely to be equally sore, and that her hands probably weren't up to this, but it felt wonderful.
"Here, sit on this." Suddenly the hands were gone, and also the warmth and comfort that went with them. She almost whimpered as Nikki threw a cushion to the floor at her feet.
"Sit on this it'll be better, I promise."
She did as she was told as Nikki left the room for a minute, wondering what was going on. She should probably go to bed now, the brief massage having helped her tired muscles. She was tired, and had drunk the best part of a bottle of wine, as Nikki had kept both their glasses topped up during the film.
Nikki came back and sat behind her and turned off the television.
"Right, take your top off."
"What?" She twisted round, wondering what sort of game Nikki was playing with her now.
"And your bra."
"What?" She knew she was repeating herself and sounding stupid, but she was very unsure. Nikki was spraying oil on her hands from a small silver bottle.
"Is something wrong?" Nikki stopped what she was doing and looked at Helen. She looked perfectly normal, almost businesslike, just like a friend about to give another friend a massage. Helen realised that she was being stupid, and slipped off her shirt, undoing her bra and holding them both over her breasts with her arms while she turned her back to Nikki.
The oil wasn't that warm, but the manipulation of Nikki's hands sliding over and on her muscles took away the coolness rapidly, brining forth small noises of pleasure and pain from Helen's throat. She tried to suppress them, feeling them somehow inappropriate, but Nikki's hands were too strong.
She felt them move across her neck and shoulders, and creep down her back a little, before coming back up, Nikki occasionally stopping to press on a particular point, bringing further noises from Helen. She entered a strange state where, because her eyes were shut, her other senses were heightened. She could hear Nikki's gentle breathing, and her own. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece relentlessly ticked off the seconds. The smell of the oil was subtle, teasing her senses with half-familiar smells, such as bergamot and sandalwood.
Nikki's hands were in turn caressing and kneading, moving smoothly over her skin, pinching at pressure points, warming her, hypnotising her body into yielding the secrets of its aches to her.
"Lift your arms." Nikki's voice was so quiet that Helen almost missed it, but Nikki ran her hands down her arms, gently grasped Helen's wrists and lifted her arms, stretching the muscles in her shoulder. By now Helen was relaxed that she even forgot she wasn't wearing anything on her top half.
"Ah, that's nice."
Eventually, Nikki was just stroking her shoulders and arms, her hands soft now, almost caressing Helen's skin.
"Ok, I think that's fine. You should put your top back on, keep the muscles warm."
Nikki's voice, at normal volume, brought her to her senses, and she scrambled into her top, feeling it catch slightly on her oily back, until Nikki helped her draw it down. She leaned back against Nikki's legs, tipping her head back against Nikki's thighs to look up at her.
"Thanks. That was great. If you ever change your career, let me know."
Nikki just smiled at her and sat, still rubbing her oily hands together, and they sat there in silence for a few moments before Nikki spoke again.
"Would you mind, I just need to wash my hands." She jumped up quickly as Helen slipped to the side, returning in a few minutes bearing a tray with coffee cups and a cafetiére, and sitting beside Helen.
"How are you feeling?"
Helen stretched voluptuously, putting her whole body into it, and yawning as she did so.
"Pretty relaxed right now. Thanks. You're really good at that. Where did you learn?"
"Oh, here and there." Nikki grinned. "I had some good teachers."
Helen suddenly didn't want to know, made her excuses and went to bed. For some reason, she didn't want to think about Nikki and another woman.
Helen woke up feeling out of sorts mentally. Her body, although it still ached, had clearly been soothed by Nikki's ministrations last night but she wasn't going to think about that today. Her dreams had been disturbed enough by her last night. She had been walking up the aisle, her father tall and proud beside her. He had handed her off to the groom, who had lifted her veil, to reveal Sean's light brown eyes, and then her father had turned into Nikki, shouting for the wedding to not go ahead; sort of a 'The Graduate' moment.
She showered and went down to grab something to eat, even though it was barely seven in the morning. She wanted to get to the house and lose herself in working today.
She had stripped half a wall when she became aware of a presence behind her.
"Morning." Nikki was, as ever, leaning against something, this time a doorway.
"Hi Nikki." She didn't stop what she was doing, just carried on, anything not to have to look at Nikki. She found herself fighting a stubborn piece of paper.
"Are you alright?" Nikki's voice was concerned.
"Fine thanks. Just thought I'd get an early start. You know, the early bird and all that." She felt herself gabbling short, staccato sentences all she could put together with Nikki staring at her like that. Like what? Her inner voice mocked she was just standing there, watching. She reminded the voice that she had watched Nikki work before, and stopped arguing with it because she knew it wasn't just pleasure in watching a job done well, but in watching the poetry of Nikki's movements. She scraped faster, trying not to remind herself of that. She was getting very confused about her feelings for Nikki.
"Pretty early for you, half-past seven. I've made you some coffee." She indicated the cup on the windowsill. Hell, how had she got past Helen to put that there without her knowing? She hated it that Nikki moved around like that.
"Thanks. I'll drink it in a minute." When she put down the steamer a few minutes later, she was shocked to see that Nikki was still there.
"That's what I wanted to know. You're attacking that wallpaper likes it's done you a mortal wrong. Is everything OK?"
"Fine," Helen snapped.
"If you want to talk " They were interrupted by a knock at the door, and Helen was slightly irritated that Nikki turned to answer it, as if it were her house.
"Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in." Nikki's voice was full of suppressed laughter.
Walking out into the hallway, Helen was shocked to come face to face with Jim bloody Fenner, busy ignoring Nikki's words 'you've got a nerve, showing up here like this'.
"Right, missus. Let's get on with it, eh?" He briskly clapped his hands and rubbed them together and his helpers staggered in, carrying a box with a picture of a boiler on the front. "Tea all round, before we start?"
"You've got a brass neck, Jim. It's been eight days since you last bothered to turn up." Helen felt herself shaking with anger. She was just about to open her mouth and Nikki stepped in.
"Too late for the boiler, old chap. We put a better one in three days ago. And if you want those shit plastic pipes, you'd better go and fish them out of the skip. Mind you, it's where you belong. And that lump of crap I take it that's supposed to be a boiler?"
She couldn't decide who she was more angry with, Jim for finally turning up, or Nikki for stepping in, assuming she needed protecting. Jim was about to answer when she cut him short.
"Have you come to return my money Jim? Or did you think you could get more out of us? Don't tell me, another job came up, or your mother got sick?"
Jim looked completely taken aback by such an onslaught; Nikki, after her initial surprise, was laughing openly. Jim's face congested with fury.
"I was waiting for the boiler, if you must know."
"Didn't they have any of these left at B&Q, Jim? You obviously don't go to the right store. I saw five of these on the self just the other day." She tapped the box. Nikki and Trevor had instructed her in boilers the day hers was installed. She knew that this was inferior to the one already installed from the details on the box. "I see you got the boiler with the lowest flow rate you could. Was that because it was cheap, Jim? Because I know you quoted us for a Worcester, which this certainly isn't, with a flow rate of 14 litres a minute. Now doesn't that say 11 litres per minute? That's not very professional of you, is it?"
"And before you start, I'd like to see your CORGI card, please." She'd finally found out from Trevor that CORGI was the qualification that someone had to have before they could work with gas. Nikki had refused outright to touch the boiler or lay the gas pipes because she wasn't qualified.
"Ah, well," he said, patting his pockets. "I don't have it on me right now, but I'll bring it round tomorrow, after we've fitted the boiler."
"I don't think so, Jim. After all, you walked off the job before it was even halfway through, taking twenty thousand pounds of my hard-earned money for bugger all. You may have bought some materials, but they have been as shoddy as your work, so I suggest you take them away and give me my money back. Now." She held out her hand for emphasis, although she didn't believe she'd ever see her money again.
"I didn't walk off, and I'm very sorry that you feel I left you in the lurch." He put his hand on her arm. "Now why don't we go and sit down and have a chat about all this over a nice cup of tea. I'll get one of my boys to make you one." He snapped his fingers at one of the lads, who jumped forward, and using his other hand, Jim grasped Helen's arm and started to lead her out of the room.
"I don't think so, Jim." She shook off his hand, hating the feel of it on her bare skin. "I think you should give me my money back and piss of out of here. And once you've done that, don't ever bother to come back. I've already reported you to Trading Standards, and I'll be reporting you to CORGI."
Jim looked murderous, so much so that Helen was glad to feel Nikki step right up behind her, backing her up in the most physical way possible.
"Right lads, let's get the stuff together and go. We know where we're not wanted." He bent down to start retrieving his tools, but was prevented by Helen's foot on top of the box.
"I don't think so, Jim. There's the matter of my money to consider first, don't you think?"
"I'll bring you your sodding money tomorrow," he spat at her.
"That's not good enough, Jim. I gave you all the money in cash, and so did Sean. I think you can do better than that." She was grateful for Nikki's silence, also that she moved to cut off anyone else from the tools and the box containing the boiler, although she felt the loss from behind her.
"It's all in the bank. I can't get at it at this short notice," Jim replied sullenly. Helen was suddenly at a loss, and her courage deserted her.
"I doubt it somehow. Snakes like you can't put it in the bank, because you're probably not paying tax or VAT on it, even though you've charged Helen VAT." Nikki jumped in as Helen was casting about, looking for something to say. "Helen, don't forget to ring the taxman tomorrow."
"I can get you half now. But what about the work I've already done?"
"Oh, I can price that up for you. Now, why don't I take you to get the money now, and Helen'll keep Teedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee here from running off with the family silver?"
Helen certainly didn't want to go anywhere with Jim, and was happy with Nikki's suggestion; however, she still didn't trust Jim, and wasn't sure she wanted Nikki going anywhere with him.
"Van keys please." Nikki held out her hand before she could stop her, and Jim took them out of his pocket and threw them at her, with a great show of reluctance.
"OK, but no taxman."
"I'll think about it, but Helen wants her money back. So let's go."
He walked off meekly enough behind Nikki, but Helen still wasn't convinced. Cowboys didn't give up this easily, surely?
Two hours later, she was worried because neither Jim nor Nikki had returned, and she had shut Jim's lads in the living room, one of the few rooms with a lock on the door, and to which she had the key.
The sound of wheels on the driveway and the distinctive bum notes of Nikki's Jag brought her to herself, and she was happy to see Nikki get out of the car, a Tesco carrier bag in her hand. She waved it at Helen, who was standing in the front doorway and gave her a thumbs up.
Helen went back in the house and turned the key to the lounge door, letting out Jim's confused lads, who had been sitting watching cartoons. She gave them the van keys, and let them cart the tools and boiler back to the van, watched grimly by Jim.
"Are you alright?" She asked Nikki, looking her over carefully as she came into the house. "What took you so long?".
"Fine. He was a complete knob, took me a million miles out of the way, so I wouldn't remember where it was, and we had a bit of a heated discussion about him going off anywhere on his own, but here's half your money. I doubt you'll ever see the rest." She held out the bag to Helen, who opened it and marvelled at the fact that Jim hadn't put it in the bank. It would be the first thing she would do this afternoon.
"You should take this. You've done most of the work that Jim was supposed to do, and I don't supposed Trevor installed that boiler for free." She resolutely shut the bag and pushed it towards Nikki.
"I don't think so, Helen. Keep it for now; you'll need it for materials. We can talk about it when it's all over." Nikki clasped her hands over Helen's, pushing the bag back towards her.
"When you give me a massive bill I can't pay." Helen smiled, relieved that she still had some working capital. She relished the feeling of Nikki's fingers, warm and strong over hers.
"Oi! When you two lovebirds are done, can you move that shitheap?" Jim intruded on them once again, looming up right in front of them threateningly and waving at Nikki's Jag, parked across the entrance to the drive.
Nikki threw him a dirty look and went to move her car, Jim dogging her footsteps. Helen didn't like the look of this, even more so when Jim familiarly put his hand on Nikki's shoulder. She didn't hear what he said to Nikki, but the effect was immediate.
It barely took him a second to react to Nikki's punch; knocked against Nikki's Jag, he sort of rolled off the bonnet, staggering, before running to the van, looking behind him as all the Furies of Hell were after him. He ran to the van and was gone, tail between his legs, and gravel spraying. Nikki just stood and watched in silence, shaking her hand and wringing it painfully, before sucking her knuckles and walking back to join Helen.
"What was all that about?" Helen walked over to Nikki, who was shaking. She laid a hand on her arm, feeling the tension vibrating through her. What the Hell had happened there?
"He was being an arsehole." Nikki spoke laconically, not looking at Helen. She wore a poker face.
"And you knew that the moment you met him, so why wait until now to hit him for it?"
"Because " She looked down at Helen, her eyes travelling all over Helen's face, as if looking for something. "It doesn't matter." She made as if to move off into the house.
"Of course it matters if you feel you had to hit him. Tell me why." Helen didn't let Nikki go, forcing her to either stay or pull away.
"Do I need an excuse? He's a wanker." She smiled falsely and pulled away. Helen knew she wouldn't talk to her now. She wondered exactly what Fenner had said to Nikki to make her behave like that.
She left it and followed Nikki back into the house. The weather was changing, becoming windy and much cooler, and storms were predicted. Helen shivered as she went into the welcome shelter of her home and back to her wallpaper stripper. Nikki was already moving boxes around, shoving them unnecessarily, treating them as if they weighed nothing. Helen watched her for a moment, then let her get on with it. Whatever her problem was, best let her sort it out herself.
By mid-afternoon, Nikki was relaxed again, and whatever had been bugging her seemed to have been exorcised. Helen was helping her to lay electrical cables under the floorboards, and 'chasing' them into the walls a process that called for chipping away at plaster with a chisel, then running the cable inside the channel.
"So when are you going to get married then?" Helen looked up sharply at Nikki's question, which was apropos of nothing they had been discussing earlier. She and Nikki had seemed to have an unspoken pact about not discussing Sean. Nikki was totally focussed on what she was doing, not even looking at her.
"I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it."
"I thought that was every little girl's dream a big white meringue, Prince Charming coming to rescue them, and living happily ever after."
"I suppose for you it was Princess Charming?" She couldn't help asking. This time Nikki did look up at her, a smile playing around her lips.
"Oh no, I was definitely Princess Charming. That way I got to kiss all the girls and ride the horse. All the girls got to do was sit and sew and keep house. How boring is that?"
Helen had to laugh at this view that was, to her, unconventional to say the least. She knew the theory that other people had a different world view to her, but this was certainly something poles apart. It reminded her briefly of the scene in 'Dead Poet's Society' where Robin Williams made the boys stand on his desk so they could see the world differently. She could see Nikki imagining herself to be the hero in novels. Mr Rochester, perhaps dark and brooding. Or maybe more Mr Darcy she definitely had a sense of humour.
"What's so funny?"
"I just never thought of it like that."
"Until I actually sat down and read 'The Colour Purple' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes' I had no idea just how much Hollywood censored stuff. So I made up my own stories."
"And were they any good?"
"I dunno, but I liked 'em."
"Sounds like you had a very active imagination."
"Have. Present tense, not past."
"And who are you now? In your imagination?" Helen couldn't help asking flirtatiously.
"The Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, tilting at windmills," Nikki replied cryptically, shifting and turning her attention back to the wall.
She concentrated on the wall again, and Helen tried to work out what she meant.
"So, what do you want? You avoided my question." Nikki spoke again, interrupting Helen's thoughts.
"I " Helen stopped, aware that she hadn't even thought about it since Sean had gone away again. "I don't know." She knelt back and watched Nikki concentrating, whilst trying to work out the answer, her eyes intent on the line Nikki was marking out, that she would shortly chop away. She worked swiftly, her hands moving almost in a pre-determined dance as she marked out the area and started chipping away.
"Do you want a go?"
"What?" Helen realised that she had been caught staring.
"I said would you like a go?" Relieved that Nikki hadn't noticed that she was staring at her rather than the work, Helen agreed.
"So how long have you known that you were lesbian?" Helen asked as she and Nikki swapped places.
"Always." At Helen's disbelieving look she expanded her answer. "Since I was young. I told you, I got caught at 16."
"What's it like?"
"Being with a woman?"
"I don't know. I've never had anything else to compare it to. Why do you want to know?" Nikki turned her head to look at her and Helen looked down at her hands, holding the tools.
"I just wondered, that's all." No need to explain that she was wondering right now what it would be like to be with Nikki. She hoped it didn't show on her face. "Have you never slept with a man?"
"That's a bit personal, isn't it? But no. Only in a very strictly platonic sense, and that was Douggie, so he doesn't count." Nikki leaned in right behind her, holding her hands over the tools.
"Sorry. How do you know, if you've never slept with one?"
"The same way as you do, if you've never slept with a woman."
"I'm not interested in women."
"Shame, it's a terrible waste. But you've wondered." Nikki had hit on a very pertinent point and Helen decided the best course of action was silence. The talking stopped, and Helen became fully aware of Nikki's body wrapped around hers, their heads next to each other, the sound of Nikki's breathing at her ear, the smell of her shower gel. Helen felt herself get hot, and couldn't help enjoying the position they were in.
"Would I what?" Helen was confused, Nikki's physical presence and touch draining comprehension from her.
"Sleep with a woman?" The voice was soft in her ear, and for a second, Helen heard her pulse thudding in her ears.
"I " She jerked away from Nikki, twisting to face her.
"I'm engaged to be married."
"Mmm. Sounds like you can't wait. But that's no answer; that's just an excuse for not trying." Nikki sat back on her heels, regarding Helen with something that looked suspiciously like amusement. "If you are interested in women, you should tell him".
"But it's not true!" Helen started to lose her temper, as surely as she had lost control of the conversation.
"It's not true that you're interested in women, or that you haven't told him?"
"Don't twist my words, Nikki."
"I'm not twisting anything." Nikki held her hands up.
"Are you playing some sort of sick game with me? Because if so, I don't find it very amusing."
"No games Helen. But you seem to be playing some with me." Before she had a chance to respond, Nikki leaned in and kissed her. She felt Nikki's hands that had been on her back the night before, stroking and soothing, now pressing their bodies together hard. Shocked, for few seconds she enjoyed the sensations spiralling through her brain: Nikki's strength, the softness of her lips, the feel of her body pressing hard up against Helen's body. She kissed her back, the feelings incredible; this, then, was what novel writers meant when they said a kiss could make you weak at the knees.
"Shit!" At Nikki's exclamation, spoken against her mouth, Helen opened her eyes. Nikki looked completely spaced out by the experience, staring at Helen as if she had only just seen her for the first time, before jumping to her feet and running away. Helen heard the front door bang before she had even levered herself to her feet, her knees still feeling like mercury.
She idly tidied up tools, whilst she worked out why Nikki had gone. Was it just some sort of game to her? If so, why would she kiss her and run? She felt rejected in a way, as if, now that Nikki had kissed her, she didn't want her. She furiously reminded herself about Sean, but every time she started to put his face together in her mind's eye, it turned into Nikki's.
She didn't know what else to do, so she locked up and went into town, to deposit the money she had got back from Jim. It was odd, having free time, although she really ought to be back at the house, doing things. Somehow it didn't have the appeal without Nikki.
She stopped in the middle of the High Street, shoppers bumping into her and glaring at her, like she was mad. What she needed to do was talk to Nikki, make her see that this was impossible, that there was nothing between them, that there could be nothing between them. She was engaged to be married.
She wanted to find her, sort out whatever this thing was between them, and go back to the way they were. She didn't want things to change. She needed Nikki to be a friend, not to add complications like this to her life.
Resolute, she went back to the car and back to her house. She let herself in quietly, just in case Nikki had come back, but knew the second the door closed behind her that she was alone. There was no sense of another presence there for the first time, the emptiness and the silence felt oppressive to her.
She couldn't stay here any longer, and walked along the lane to Trisha's. She didn't know what she would tell her, or if Nikki had seen her, what she would tell her.
"Hi." Trisha looked up and smiled brightly, pausing in yet another piece of culinary creation. The room smelt deliciously of baking, reminding her of her mother, now long dead. She had baked for Helen when she was a child, and she had helped, getting flour everywhere with her over-enthusiastic mixing. For a moment, she deliberately sought the memories of that simple, uncomplicated time in her life.
"Have you seen Nikki?"
"Isn't she with you?"
"No. She managed to get some money back from Fenner for me, so I took it into town and banked it."
"That's great news." She came around the kitchen table and hugged Helen, being careful to keep her floury hands away from Helen's clothes, something that made Helen laugh, given how filthy they were.
"Mmm." Helen wasn't sure what to do next.
"Oh, by the way, Sean called."
"Yes, he said your mobile was switched off. He asked you to call him back." Helen really didn't want to speak to Sean right now, not until she'd talked to Nikki, at least.
"I'll call him later. What are you doing?"
"Oh, I got called in to make the teas for the tea tent at the village fete." It didn't surprise Helen in the slightest, especially when Trisha pulled a batch of perfectly risen browned scones from the over. She felt her mouth watering and they both heard her stomach rumbling.
"I didn't have any lunch." She looked at the kitchen clock and realised that it was already nearly four o'clock. "I think I'll jack it in for today, though."
"Go and have a shower and them come back and quality control these."
Twenty minutes later, she returned to the kitchen, only to find Nikki sitting there, her mouth wrapped around a scone covered in jam. When she saw Helen, her eyes widened and she started to cough. Trisha leaped to the rescue, banging Nikki heartily on the back until she had dislodged the crumbs. Unnervingly, Nikki didn't take her eyes off Helen at all.
"Are you alright?" Trisha was fussing around Nikki like a mother hen.
"Fine." Nikki's reply was surly.
"Twit. I've told you before that big as your mouth is, you can't get a whole one in at once." She laughed. "Helen, if you promise not to try and scoff it all in one go, here are some for you." She waved at a plate at the other end of the table, surrounded by butter, jam and clotted cream. Helen obediently sat down, uncomfortably aware that Nikki was still watching her.
"Sean called again while you were in the shower."
"Thanks." She took a bite of the scone, not really tasting it as she watched Nikki's reaction to Trisha's statement.
"I'm going out. Don't know when I'll be back." Nikki suddenly stood up and walked to the door and picked up her jacket. "Don't forget to call your fiancé." The door banged, and she was gone. Helen was both relieved and annoyed. She needed to talk to Nikki, about what she, what they, had done, but the other woman was still not in the mood to have the talk she was also happy to postpone.
"She's in a funny mood tonight. Did anything happen today?"
What, like her kissing me and me kissing her back? Helen thought, trying to avoid Trisha's searching eyes.
"Just the Fenner thing." Helen didn't know what else to say. "Although she did punch him."
"I don't know. They were talking, and then Nikki just punched him on the nose. She nearly knocked him down."
"Yes. I have no idea what it was about though."
"Don't you?" Trisha considered her, and Helen looked down.
"Lovely scones." She tried to change the subject, and Trisha allowed her to, although she kept shooting sidelong looks at Helen for the rest of the evening, as Emily joined them, they ate and then collapsed in front of the television.
"It's getting late," Trisha said at ten o'clock. "I wonder where Nikki's got to."
Helen had been wondering the same thing for a few hours now. Nikki normally was half asleep by now, and she was starting to get worried.
"Did she say anything else today?" Trisha questioned her. Helen thought hard, looking for something innocuous to tell the older woman.
"She said something about tilting."
"Tilting?" Trisha's voice was incredulous.
"Mmm. And windmills." Helen said, trying to remember the odd words Nikki had used to describe herself.
"Tilting at windmills? Is that what she said?" Trisha's voice was suddenly harsh, as she gripped Helen's arm, almost surprising her into dropping her coffee.
"Are you sure?" Emily asked her, looking intently at her.
"Yes. Why? Do you know what she meant?" Trisha looked away and sat down heavily on a chair. Emily and she shared a glance that seemed laden with meaning.
"Poor Nik." Trisha sighed.
"Stupid bloody cow," Emily said, giving Helen a look filled with loathing.
"Why? What's wrong?" Helen was starting to get worried now. What were these people on, always talking in some kind of bizarre code?
"Don Quixote," Trisha said, as if that explained it all. There was a silence. Both of them obviously understood what Nikki had been talking about, but Helen didn't have the faintest idea.
"Erm, what's donkey hotay?"
"Don Quixote. It's a novel." Emily looked at Helen as if she were mad.
"You don't know? Oh shit." Trisha ran her hand through her, as ever, immaculately coiffed hair.
"What has this got to do with Nikki?"
"It means she's been an idiot. And it's your fault." Emily jumped to her feet and came to stand in front of Helen.
"Mine? What have I done?" Helen stood to face the girl.
"If you hadn't come along, none of this would have happened." Helen wanted to step back, but the sofa was right behind her. Had Trisha and Emily found out about her and Nikki kissing? Was this what it was all about?
"Don Quixote is a seventeenth century Spanish novel written by Cervantes. The eponymous hero thinks he's a knight errant, and wanders La Mancha in order to do great deeds and to seek adventures." Nikki's distinctive voice slurred slowly over the words.
"And that's how you see your self now, is it?" Helen asked Nikki.
"Not quite, no. Right now, I'd say I'm pretty bladdered." She looked at Trisha. "Have we got any drink in the house, or has your daughter purloined it all?"
"I think you've had enough, don't you?" Trisha pressed her lips together in disapproval.
"Not nearly enough, but Bill sent me home. Something about it being illegal to serve a drunk. Never stopped him before, I must say." She staggered out of the room, in the direction of the kitchen, cannoning into the doorframe, and turning completely round before setting off in the wrong direction, walking back into the lounge.
The look on her face when she saw them would have been comical, had she not clearly been about to fall down.
"Nikki, I think you should go to bed now." Trisha's voice had assumed the familiar commanding tone.
"Piss off. Just wanna 'nother drink."
"Nikki, let's go and have a drink in the kitchen." Surprisingly Emily took Nikki's arm and guided her away from them. Nikki followed her lead obediently.
"OK." She squinted at the young woman. "You're a good girl, you know. Have I ever told you that before? A ver' good girl."
"Every time you're drunk." Emily's voice was matter of fact. Their voices drifted away, leaving Helen with Trisha.
"Sorry about this. Nikki doesn't often drink heavily, I'm afraid. I guess she's had a hard day."
"She does this every time she hits a cowboy?"
"No, only when she's very unhappy. She doesn't normally have more than a couple of beers. I'd better go and check on her. Please excuse me." Helen couldn't help admiring Trisha's urge to comply with the normal social graces, and juxtapositioned it with the way she lived her life. It was a complete contrast.
She sat and watched the television for a few minutes still trying to work out how an old Spanish novel was really relevant to Nikki when she heard a crash from the hallway.
Nikki was sprawled across the stairs, unconscious, and Trisha and Emily were sat either side of her, grinning ruefully at each other over her body.
"Is she OK?" Nikki looked strange like that, all slack. Normally she displayed so much energy that Helen thought of her as the Duracell bunny on speed, the way she worked.
"Passed out. We'll have to put her back in her own bed tonight." Emily was quick to emphasise that she thought that Nikki had been ousted from her own room.
"I never asked her to move out," Helen said defensively before she could stop herself. Emily gave her a look that said 'like hell' before Trisha stepped in.
"She gave Helen her room to give her some privacy, Emily." She turned to Helen. "We'll never get her upstairs, I'm afraid. Can we put her to bed in your room for tonight?"
"Sure. Do you want me to change the linen?"
"I don't think she'll care somehow. Can you open the doors for us, though?"
The two women manhandled Nikki into a semi-standing position. Because she was taller than either of them, her feet dragged along the floor as they took her into the room, dumping her unceremoniously on the bed. Emily started to take off her shoes, but her hands were slapped away by Trisha. She had started on Nikki's shirt before she looked up to see Helen and Emily standing there watching her. She stopped what she was doing and stood up straight.
"This isn't a peep show."
Taking the hint, Helen almost bolted from the room, but Emily was slower, and was chased out by Trisha's warning 'Emily Jane', drawn out as only a mother can.
They stood in the kitchen, looking at each other. Once more, Helen couldn't believe the hatred emanating from the other woman. What the hell had she done to deserve this? Unless she knew about the kiss, of course, and was unhappy on Nikki's behalf?
"Still want to know about Don Quixote, Helen? Still want to know why Nikki's drunk?" She whispered viciously.
"Actually, I think I'll go to bed, if it's all the same to you." She turned her back on Emily and made for the stairs, although she wasn't sure where she was supposed to be sleeping.
"No, I think you should hear this." Emily grabbed her arm and spun Helen to face her, so that they were standing eye to eye. "Don Quixote, like all good knights, had a 'lady love', his neighbour. She has no idea how he feels about her, probably barely even knows of his existence. Ain't that a joke?"
"And that's of relevance to me, how, exactly?" She had no idea that Nikki actually felt like that about her. She felt her face drain of colour, while she tried to maintain her bland front for Emily.
"Don't be so bloody thick. Nikki's in love with you, and you can't even see it. You just want to have your normal, staid, boring 2.4 life. Well, you've hurt my friend, and I think it's best if you fuck off back to where you came from."
"Emily! That's enough! I will not have you talking to my friends or guests like that." They both whirled to face Trisha. "Nikki is old enough to know her own mind, and I'm sure that Helen had nothing to do with it." Helen felt the guilty flush spread over her body. She knew that her interest in Nikki wasn't entirely platonic at the moment, and that she had been comparing Sean to her unfavourably for some time now. She hoped that neither woman had noticed.
"But Mum "
"No buts, young lady. You'll show respect. Helen, I'll have to put you in the room that Nikki is using. Is that OK? Do you want the sheets changed?"
"No, I'll be fine thanks, but I would like to go to bed now. Where is it?"
Trisha took her upstairs in silence, followed by dark mutterings from Emily, below.
"I'm sorry about Emily. She's very protective of Nikki. I'm sure she's wrong."
Helen rather had the feeling that Trisha didn't believe a word she was saying, and neither did Helen, but she let it go.
"Nikki will be fine in the morning. She's probably just stressed at the moment. I must say, I've known her to be close to hitting people before she's got a shocking temper but I've not know her to actually do it, not for many years, anyway."
"She's hit people before?" This wasn't a side of Nikki Helen thought she wanted to get to know.
"Only twice. She hit a chap coming on to me at a wedding, while we were together. His attentions were somewhat undesirable, and he was pretty grabby. She's very jealous. And then she hit someone I was with later on, after we'd split up, someone who tried to hurt me." Trisha's voice was soft, and Helen realised that she was still at least half in love with Nikki. It explained the tender looks that she gave Nikki when she wasn't looking, and the gentle touches and strokes when she was asleep, and also how protective she had been of Nikki just now, ensuring her privacy. "Right, I'm off to get Nikki her midnight glass of water and some aspirin. If she wakes up during the night, she'll probably need them. Night."
Poor Trisha, Helen thought as she undressed. She realised that all of her things, he nightclothes, book and everything were downstairs. She didn't want to run into Emily again this evening, and decided that she would just go to bed in her t-shirt and ah, no. It would just have to be her t-shirt, as when she had got dressed, she had decided that she couldn't be bothered to put on any knickers. Still, it wasn't like anyone would know.
She lay in the bed that smelled of Nikki, breathing in the scent that always made her feel safe, and wondered if it would continue to do so. She was reminded of a story she had once heard about Hell:
Two women, one old and ugly, one young and beautiful, and one man. The man lusts after the younger woman, but she is lesbian, and fancies the older woman, who, in her turn, is in love with the man. A pretty triangle, not exactly mirroring her position, but not so far off that she could see any easy solution, one in which somebody wouldn't get hurt. She selfishly hoped it wouldn't be her, just before sleep claimed her, when she realised that there were already casualties.
The next morning, while she, a bright, breezy Trisha and a sulking Emily were eating a late breakfast, the back door opened without anyone knocking and Sean came rushing in, bearing a huge bunch of red roses.
"Darling, are you alright?" He rushed over to her and hugged her as if he would never let her go.
"I'm fine. What are you doing here?" She disentangled herself, all too aware of Emily's disapproving scrutiny.
"You didn't call me back, so I flew down this morning. I was so worried about you." Helen knew she hadn't spoken to Sean for several days, except for a brief call each evening, when she feigned interest in his work and he feigned interest in what she and Nikki had done on the house. This sudden about-turn was somewhat of a shock.
"I forgot. Sorry." She deliberately hadn't called him back, still wanting to talk to Nikki first.
"Where's Nikki?" His voice was a little too casual to be genuine, and she wondered what was going on.
"I think she's over at yours." Trisha piped up, bustling round, setting another place at the table.
"Already? Is she OK?" Helen couldn't help herself, finding it unbelievable that after all that had happened yesterday, Nikki was in a fit state to work this morning. She felt like she had Nikki's hangover her head was thick and woolly. It was even more inconceivable that Nikki would want to work on her house after yesterday.
"Yes, she went over about half an hour ago. Now Sean, would you like some eggs and bacon?"
In the bustle of getting Sean fed, Helen allowed herself to think of Nikki, and how amazingly she was behaving. Until she caught Emily's eye and saw her mouth something that might be 'Don Quixote'.
"Right, I'm done, and I should get over there too." Helen stood up, leaving half of her food on her plate.
"I think she'll be fine there on her own for a bit, why don't you stay here and keep Sean company while he eats. Em and I are on our way out to go shopping. Aren't we Em?"
Emily, clearly having no plans of the sort, was showing classic symptoms of hanging around. Helen hoped that she wasn't expecting fireworks. She eventually moved, prodded by her mother.
"So how long are you back for this time," Helen asked disinterestedly as she refilled her coffee cup and stood in Nikki's normal place at the kitchen counter. Damn, she had to stop thinking about the woman! Especially when she was with her fiancé.
"I'm here until the renovations are complete. I've been thinking, we need to spend some time on our house together." He grinned at her as if he had just thought of this master plan himself, instead of her telling him that right from the start.
"I " she didn't know what to say. She didn't want him there it wasn't his house. It was hers. He would ruin everything with Nikki. "What does Jerry say about this?"
"Oh, I told him about it, and he said that they could cope with the plans I've drawn up, and I could just go back for a two-day site visit once a week for the next few weeks. Isn't this great? You and I, working on our nest?" His eyes shone with an enthusiasm that Helen wished had been there weeks ago. She still wasn't sure about this change of heart.
"Sean, we still need building work done we can't do it all ourselves. We still need Nikki."
His eyes hardened and his smile faded.
"I don't think so. I think we should let her go, find someone we are paying. That way, if we want to take a few days off to do other things, we can."
"We could just pay Nikki "
"I said no. Which bit of that don't you understand? Anyway, I've got Jim back on the job." His voice was decisive, final.
"Jim Fenner? The crook who tried to rip us off for thousands and did shite work? Why?"
"I've had a chat with him, and he admits that he was in the wrong, and that he'll be straight with us from now on."
"Straight? The man's as bent as a nine-bob note, and his work was substandard." Helen couldn't believe her ears. Just after she had managed to get everything sorted with Jim, with Nikki's help, here was Sean, who had shown no interest thus far, stepping in and throwing his weight around. "No. I won't have him working on my house again."
"Don't you mean 'our' house, Helen?" Sean stood up and stepped towards her.
"The house you've shown no interest in since the day Jerry first phoned you? That you'd let Jim Fenner maul around? What makes it yours, Sean?"
"I pay half the mortgage on it, and it's my name on the title deeds. Need I say any more?" He stepped back and held his hands wide and tried a more conciliatory tone. "Helen, darling, it's not that I wasn't interested, but I just got carried away over this job. Because it means so much for our future, together."
"Why are you really here, Sean?" She didn't want to listen to his excuses.
"Because I love you, and I want to be with you."
"It's a bit late in the day for that, isn't it? You've left me in the lurch, only to fend for myself, and now you want to come in and play it all high and mighty, upsetting everything I've already done."
"Hardly in the lurch. You've had that bloody dyke drooling over you like a dog on heat for the past few weeks. Everything is 'Nikki this' and 'Nikki that'. All you've bloody talked about for weeks is Nikki."
"Don't call her that, and I've only been talking about her because of the work she's been doing on the house the house we were supposed to renovate together, remember?"
"She's only doing the work for free 'cause she thinks she'll get a shag out of it! Is that what you've promised her lieu of payment?"
"Don't be so bloody disgusting. That's not the way it is. She's not like that." She briefly had a vision of Nikki, drunk as a skunk the night before. Light dawned in Helen's brain. "Did Jim ring you, by any chance?"
"Yes, and I didn't like what I heard. You've been spending all your time with them. It's not healthy."
"Healthy? What's that supposed to mean?" She stared at him in surprise.
"You know what I mean. I don't want you hanging around with them any more."
"Why?" She was completely bemused.
"It's not good for you." Comprehension dawned, along with disbelief.
"Lesbianism is not a disease, Sean. I won't catch it if I 'hang out' with them. Have you thought that Jim's not exactly disinterested in this? That if he feeds you a pack of lies, you'll be so grateful that you'll reinstate him?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing, and didn't want to think about whether or not she was turning into one of 'them', and whether it was because she had spent so much time with Nikki.
"That's not the way it was," he muttered, and dropped his eyes from hers.
"That's exactly the way it was. So you've come rushing all the way down here because I asked Nikki for some help in dealing with him? She helped me get back ten thousand pounds, Sean. That's ten grand he ripped us off for."
"He came back, didn't he? He wasn't going to bail on us!" They were screaming at each other now.
"Is this a bad time?" Nikki's voice cut through their shouting, and Helen felt the tension in Sean ratchet up another notch.
"No. Your timing is perfect. I've come to take Helen home, and tell you that we won't be needing your services anymore. We've employed another builder."
"Oh no we haven't Sean, and we are very grateful to Nikki for all of her help, and we want her to keep helping us." Nikki looked bemused as she looked from one of them to the other.
"Uh, I think I'll come back again later. Sorry to have interrupted." She started backing out of the door.
"No, just a minute, please come back." Sean stepped towards Nikki, and Helen towards him. "We do need to talk to you." His voice was more normal now, but she still didn't trust him, and certainly not where Nikki was concerned after what he had just said.
"What can I do for you?" Nikki sounded wary, and Helen hoped desperately that she hadn't heard any of Sean's wild accusations.
"I'd like to know why you've been doing so much work for us for free."
"Trisha and I decided to help you guys out. We felt sorry for you." Nikki shrugged, and her words only seemed to enrage Sean once more.
"I don't need your bloody pity. Isn't it because you fancy my wife?"
"She's not your wife, she's your fiancée, and I have no interest in her whatsoever." Nikki's voice was wooden, and she didn't look at Helen at all.
"Don't split hairs with me, you stupid bitch. I'm telling you right now that it's over, OK?"
"Sean " Helen ineffectually protested.
"There's nothing to be over. If you don't want our help, I've other things I could be doing. I'll pick up my tools later." She turned to go.
"No, please don't go Nikki, I need you!" Helen couldn't help herself.
"Nothing going on? My arse!" Sean said, and before Helen could do anything about it, he had taken a swing at Nikki. Helen wasn't sure that Nikki even saw it, because she was staring at her, and the next thing, Nikki was lying on the floor, Sean standing triumphantly over her prone body in an aggressively macho stance, like a prize-fighter, while blood dripped from her nose. "Stay away from my woman."
"Get off her you twat!" Helen pushed him away and leaned over Nikki, looking into her dazed eyes. "Are you OK?"
"Helen?" Her voice whispered.
"Leave her alone; she got what she deserves." Sean tried to pull her away, but she resisted him.
"I think you'd better go now, don't you, Sean?" Helen asked him coldly, not caring for his primitive posturing. This was a side of him she'd never seen, and if she had her way, she'd never see again.
"I'm not going anywhere unless you come with me."
"You think I'm going anywhere with you after this display? You have got to be kidding!" She stood up to him, the two of them arguing over Nikki, still lying on the kitchen floor.
"Helen, I am telling you to come with me. I'm not leaving you here in this den of " Words deserted him as he gestured feebly.
"Sean, I am not going with you, and if you don't get your arse out of here in ten seconds, I'm going to call the police, so I suggest you fuck off back up to Scotland right now."
"Helen, don't do this, please come with me," he pleaded. "We can sort this out."
"Sean, there's no excuse for what you did." Her conscience pricked uneasily at the fact that she had been very happy to see Nikki do the same to Fenner yesterday.
"Go. Now." She walked away from him, to go and get some ice and a cloth for Nikki."
"Fuck." Nikki shouted, and she turned around to find Nikki curled up on her side, and Sean walking towards her, a look of malicious pleasure on his face as he half looked back at Nikki.
"What have you done to her now?" She returned to Nikki's side. "If you've hurt her "
"You'll do what? Helen, can't you see that they've got you under some kind of spell? You've got to get out of here."
"I've told you Sean, I'm not going anywhere with you." She held the ice pack she had made gingerly to Nikki's nose.
"Helen We're getting married, I've booked a date."
"You think I'll marry you after this? Get real. Wake up and smell the roses. Just go, and shut the door after you."
She didn't look up again, but he stepped over Nikki and then the door shut. As soon as she heard the latch click, she was on her feet, locking it to make sure he couldn't come back in. She rested her head against the cool glass, unable and unwilling to think about what was happening to her relationship right now.
"Are you OK?" She straightened up. Nikki was injured and needed help.
"I think I should be asking you that, Nikki." She stooped down and lifted the hand holding the compress to have a quick look at Nikki's nose. "The bleeding seems to be slowing down a bit, I think, but you should have it looked at."
"I can't move right now. The bugger stuck a boot in my ribs too."
"Oh shit. I'm so sorry. Here, let me have a look." She gently lifted Nikki's vest, until she could see a red mark across her side. She touched her fingers to it gently and felt rather than heard Nikki wince.
"Nikki, you have to get this looked at. If you can get to the car, I'll take you, or I can call an ambulance." She stood up to get the phone, her car keys, anything to help Nikki.
"Please don't leave me." Nikki half held out a hand to her, probably as high as she could lift it, and gently tugged on Helen's hand until she sat down beside her.
"Nikki, I have to get you help."
"I'll be OK in a bit, just let me be."
Helen sat beside her, almost touching, not knowing what to do. Sean appeared to have broken her nose, and possibly even her ribs. He must have put the boot in when she wasn't looking. She couldn't believe his behaviour, especially as nothing was actually going on. Or nearly nothing. Her conscience wasn't entirely clear here.
"Can I do anything for you?" She asked. Nikki gave her a sideways glance out of an eye that was rapidly beginning to blacken.
"Like call off the rottweiler?"
"I take it the wedding's off?"
"I can't see any meringues in my future." She sighed. This was such a shitty mess. She hadn't meant for any of this to happen, especially for anyone to end up physically hurt well, except for Jim. Sean had turned into some kind of nutter here today. She hadn't thought he was the jealous type, and now she realised that he was, and that this was how he reacted, she wasn't as upset as perhaps she should be; still, she hadn't meant to hurt him either, and hoped that he wouldn't wrap his car around a tree or anything just get out of her life for good. Nikki was her main concern right now.
"Do you want to go after him?" Nikki was too adept by far at reading her mind.
"No, I want to make sure that you are OK." She shifted, her bottom becoming sore from the hard flagstones. "I don't think I can sit here much longer. I can't feel my bum."
"Right now, it's the only bit of me I can't feel, and I'm no sure that that's a good thing."
"How's the hangover?"
"Well, on a scale of one to ten it's probably a fifteen right now. This doesn't exactly help."
"Nikki, I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over him."
"Wounded pride, machismo, fear of losing you. I know how I'd react if we were together and you chucked me over, let alone for a man." Nikki put her hand over Helen's. It felt cold and clammy from the compress. As always, Nikki's presence was calming and reassuring, even though she was in the middle of a personal crisis, her marriage and home falling down around her ears even before it had begun, and despite the kiss they had shared. Helen was touched that Nikki was trying to sooth her, but knew it should be the other way around.
"I haven't done that," Helen said, irritably snatching her hand away from Nikki's. She didn't want comfort from Nikki right now, or to hear such words from her lips, however distorted they were by her swelling nose. "And we're not together."
"I know. I never said we were." Nikki sighed. "I think I'd like to go to the hospital now, please."
"What are you going to say?" The words slipped out before Helen was really conscious of them.
"Afraid I'll say your precious fiancé beat me up and he'll get into trouble?" Nikki sneered. "I was going to tell them I fell off a ladder or something."
"I didn't mean that " Helen protested weakly, knowing full well she did. She didn't want any more trouble for Sean, despite his behaviour this morning. He was angry, and had just lashed out at what he felt was the cause of the problem. It wasn't the root cause that had been his behaviour recently, making her see that he wasn't right for her. That, and her unconfessed attraction to Nikki. Without that, nothing would have happened at all, because then her denials about Nikki to Sean might have had a ring of truth about them.
"Of course you did." Nikki levered herself to her feet slowly, rejecting all offers of help from Helen. It took several painful minutes, and Helen could hardly bear to watch. "I'll drive myself."
"You are hardly in a fit state to drive," Helen pointed out. "You're probably still over the limit from last night."
"I'll get Trish or Em to take me."
"They've gone out. Please let me help you."
"So you can sooth your guilty conscience?" Nikki looked at her with steady, sad, swollen and blackening eyes.
"Because I care about you." She lowered her eyes, unwilling to let Nikki see her feelings right now.
"You've got a funny way of showing it."
"Not in that way Nikki." She felt even worse as she turned the knife in Nikki's back and rubbed salt into the wound for good measure. She did care, desperately. That was why she was still here, not rushing after Sean, but she didn't know what she wanted right now.
"I thought It doesn't matter. Sod off back to your fiancé and go play happy families." Nikki turned away, and before Helen knew what she was doing, had called someone on the phone. "I've had a bit of an accident No, not badly, but I think I need some help. Can I come over? OK, ten minutes."
"Where are you going?"
"What do you care?" There was no easy answer to that, and she watched Nikki grab her keys and stagger over to the door, her arm wrapped protectively around her body, unlocking it and slipping out before she could pluck up the courage to say anything else. She was relieved not to hear Nikki's car start up.
"I care," she whispered to the door a minute after it had shut.
She walked round to her house, carrying a holdall stuffed with her belongings. She hadn't felt comfortable about staying in Nikki's house after all that had happened, and thought it best to remove herself completely. 'From temptation?' her inner voice mocked. From causing more grief to Nikki, she had told herself.
It would be so easy to go to Nikki, to have her wrap her arms around her, keep her safe and sheltered. She was everything she liked in a person partner: she had integrity, strength both physical and mental, kindness, empathy, she was well read, had a great sense of humour the list went on and on. But she was a woman.
Sean had shown her a part of himself that she wouldn't be comfortable living with again his carelessness of what was important to her, his disregard of her wishes and his blindness when it came to Nikki, who was helping out basically because she was a good person. He would never do anything that didn't have something in it for him somehow. And as for hitting Nikki although Trisha had said that Nikki had done the same thing once, and she had also hit Jim yesterday. How did that fit in with what she knew of Nikki?
She sighed; she didn't know how to make all this right, or even if she could. She looked up at the house looming above her. She had loved it, and thought that she would be happy here. Now, she probably wouldn't have it for much longer. She couldn't afford the mortgage on her own, and Sean certainly wouldn't be wanting to keep paying, even if she offered him rent if she could afford that. The best thing would probably be to do it up as they originally planned and then sell it on. She could probably put down a deposit on a flat in town with her share of the equity. It would break her heart, but it was probably for the best.
Still, if he had got Fenner to come back, and he could be kept in check, she wouldn't care what he did to the house she wouldn't be living in it after all.
As she let herself in, she heard banging. Dumping her bag and running into the lounge, she saw a scene of devastation. Paint dripped from the walls, and an open tin was spilled across the floor. Great holes had been gouged in Nikki's plasterwork in the kitchen and everything that had been piled neatly, electric cabling, tools and stuff like that were covered in paint and scattered across the floor.
The banging came again, and Helen raced up the stairs. In the master bedroom she saw, not Nikki, as she had hoped against hope for, even if she had caused the destruction, but Sean. He had knocked holes in the walls, chucked all of Nikki's tools out of the box and thrown paint over everything her belongings, the mattress and even the new window.
He was attacking the walls with a hammer and chisel, gouging out chunks of plaster in an act of wanton vandalism that appalled her. Paint covered all of Nikki's power tools, stacked neatly in one corner.
"What the fuc " She didn't finish her sentence before he had seen her and marched over to her, oblivious to the footprints he was leaving all across the carpet.
"What's wrong? Seeing your precious Nikki's work fucked up hurting you, is it? I bet you slept with her in our bed, didn't you?"
"Sean," she said with a calmness she didn't feel.
"Oh belt up. You and miss goody two shoes can start all over again when I'm through. Give you more to put in her account so you can pay her in kind."
"There is nothing going on between me and her. I haven't slept with her, and no one has slept in this bed since the last time you and I slept in it together."
"Nothing? I know, Helen. I know. I know what you've been up to, and I hope you enjoyed it, because you'd better not come crawling to beg me to take you back, because there's no way on Earth I would after you've let that disgusting rug-muncher touch you."
"Go on then, what's been going on? If you know so much from being in fucking Scotland, you tell me." She crossed her arms and stood square in front of him. At least while he was shouting at her he wasn't despoiling the house any further.
He stopped at that, looking taken aback. Maybe had hadn't thought she would call his bluff. Then the look in his eye changed, and his face became spiteful. Oh God, what if someone had told him about that kiss with Nikki? Maybe there was some evidence somewhere maybe Trisha or Emily had told him, but how could they possibly know? Would Nikki have told them? From what she knew of the woman, she doubted it she was very private and somehow Helen didn't think she would go bleating about it to all and sundry. Was her guilt showing on her face?
"She fancies you. She practically admitted it to me that day I came back from Scotland."
"Sean, all she said was that I was beautiful inside as well as out," she remembered the compliment word for word, and how it made her feel, and she felt a warm echo of it now. "And, if I remember rightly, she only said that because you forced her into it. That's not evidence of an affair."
"Did you know she hit Jim yesterday because he made a comment about you? If she wasn't shagging you, why do that, eh?" He leered triumphantly.
"Sean, just like you hit her today because you were, quite spuriously, defending my honour, then that's what she must have done. Wouldn't you have done that? It was very nice of her, but it still doesn't mean we are having an affair. Anyway, if she did that for the same reason as you hit her, how does that make you better than her? Tell me that?" Secretly she was rather pleased and flattered that Nikki had jumped to her defence.
"Because I'm your bloody fiancé and she's just some cheap shag you picked up to get the house done."
"Sean, in words of one syllable, I. Am. Not. Having. Sex. With. Her. Got it?"
"Ha, there was a two-syllable word in there!"
"That's a tad petty from someone claiming that I am sleeping with her to get work done. I am not sleeping with her, and I would never do that to anyone to get work done for free. Just because you probably would doesn't make me an unfeeling monster like you." She buffed her nails against her top and examined them in a gesture of boredom that she knew would annoy him. "And you still haven't produced one iota of evidence that I am having an affair with Nikki, which, by the way, just in case you didn't understand me the first time, I am not."
"If that's the best you can come up with, I think this conversation and our engagement are finished. And this time, if you don't go and leave me your keys, I really will call the police."
"You're not dumping me, I'm dumping you."
"Whatever. It's all semantics. We both know the truth."
"When we stayed at Trisha's last time, you didn't know where the bedroom was. That means you haven't been sleeping in there."
"That's right. I normally sleep in Nikki's bedroom and " She didn't see the harm in admitting to that it was the truth, and she had nothing to hide. Or nearly nothing, anyway.
"If you would just let me finish! And Nikki sleeps somewhere else. And no, before you ask, I don't know where."
"Just admit it, Helen. Admit it, say it's all over and come back to me. Let her stay with her girlfriend."
"There is nothing to admit, and didn't you just say you'd never touch me again? Besides, Nikki and Trisha aren't together."
"Split them up, did you? What was wrong? You just fancied the young one? Trisha too old for you, is she? Or just not interested in fresh blood? I bet she watched you two together though!"
"That's not quite my cup of tea, Sean. And Helen's right, Nikki and I aren't together. Helen did not split us up, and Nikki and Helen are not, as you so crudely put it, 'shagging'." They both pulled back when they realised they were no longer alone. Trisha stood in the doorway, Nikki and Emily flanking her.
Sean's only reply was to chuck an open paint can at Helen, covering her in the stuff, push past the others and storm down the stairs. Helen stood for a moment, paint dripping off her, before she could react. Trisha, Emily and Nikki all dived for cover as she rushed past them, hurtling herself down the stairs. She heard them rushing down after her as she erupted onto the drive. Sean was busy scoring the paint on her car with his keys when she rushed him, bowling him over.
They tussled for a minute, her scratching and biting and him slapping her hands away before they were pulled apart. They both looked up into Nikki's twin black eyes, over a strip of tape across the bridge of her nose. Sean jumped up, ready to fight, Helen saw from his stance.
"Stop!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. Everything ceased to move, as in a rather macabre game of musical statues.
"If you were a bloke, I'd take you outside," Sean spat at Nikki.
"If you were a bloke, I'd go with you. Oh, and look where we are," she replied, facing him down.
"Please don't fight," Helen started sobbing, at the end of her tether. She didn't think she could bear any more today. The church clock struck the hour, one o'clock. Bloody hell, it was barely even lunchtime and her life was a mess, her engagement over, she'd lost a great friend, and her house and car had been trashed.
Nikki and Sean ignored her, both stepping forward at the same time. They started to circle, each slightly crouched forward. She tried to step in between them, but was pulled away by Trisha.
Sean dived in to try and hit Nikki's vulnerable nose, and Helen heard herself gasp, but Nikki avoided it.
"If you want to pick on someone Sean, why don't you pick on someone your own size?" Nikki taunted him, and Helen saw him getting angrier, if that was at all possible.
"I hope you're good, because otherwise all she'll have to look forward to tonight is you, unconscious next to her." He swung at Nikki again, and again she leaned back, out of the way.
"Oh, I'm good all right. Ask your fiancée." With that, Sean launched at her and she ducked out of the way, letting him rush past her.
"Afraid to fight, dyke?"
"I don't really want to hurt you." This time he just swung, and Nikki sidestepped him, before landing a blow on the side of his jaw that made them all wince, knocking him down. "But I am prepared to make an exception as you're such a wanker," she said, shaking her hand and blowing on her knuckles.
She turned her back on him and walked away, towards them, not seeing him scramble to his feet behind her.
"Nikki, look out," Helen heard herself scream, before they were thrashing around together on the grass. Sean had got on top of Nikki, and was trying to hold her head still and aim a punch at her face. Nikki was kicking, trying to get leverage to get him off. Helen couldn't help herself, and dashed in and kicked him.
"Enough, both of you. Enough. Get off her." She hauled him to his feet, and as Nikki clambered back to hers, obviously seeking to land another punch, she wriggled between them. "I've had enough of this. If you want to just fucking kill each other, do it. But not over me. I don't want either of you around me."
"You claim you're not fucking her, but you come to her rescue again." Sean screamed at her. "Make your choice, me or her."
She answered that ultimatum by walking away, back into the house and slamming the door behind her, knowing that each of them would see it as her preferring the other. She wasn't ready to choose Nikki, and wasn't sure she really wanted to, even. Leaning back against it, she heard crying, and realised it was her, as big fat tears rolled down her face.
There was some muffled shouting, and a car revved up and she heard the spray of gravel. Then there was silence. Pure, blissful silence. That and paint everywhere, dragged across all the carpets, with footprints, and the wreckage of her home. She slid to her knees before finding the strength somewhere inside to go and survey the damage and look for some clothes not covered in paint to change into.
Sean had mostly attacked the downstairs and their bedroom. The other bedrooms were fine, and so was her bath, sitting in the middle of the room, in all its pristine white glory. At least there was something he hadn't fucked up.
She heard the front door open and stepped behind the bathroom door. She didn't want to see anyone right now.
Footsteps stepped cautiously around the downstairs, and then she heard the third stair creak, the noise distinctive from the others. She heard a gasp as someone took in the full extent of the demolition job Sean had done in the bedroom, and then there was silence.
She waited for what seemed like forever, trying not to fidget or shift her weight on the floorboards.
"Helen?" It was Emily. Just about the last person she wanted to see right now.
Through the crack between the door and jamb, she saw Emily come forward to stand in the doorway.
"Are you OK?"
"I said, 'Piss off'."
"I can't do that. Mum sent me in here to find you, and I'm not allowed home until you come with me." Helen nearly laughed. Trisha being her normal self again.
"I don't want to. Just leave me alone."
"Let me rephrase that, Helen. I can't go home until I've got you. So please make my life a little easier."
"No. Why should I?"
"Well, have you at least got any booze here?"
"Emily, just go away."
"What, when there's free booze in the offing?"
Helen moved out from behind the door. The girl knew she was there anyway.
"Why would your mother send you? She knows you hate me."
"She's busy looking after Nikki. Apparently she fell off a ladder and then had a fight with your fiancé." Emily's tone made it perfectly clear that she didn't believe the ladder story for a second.
"My ex-fiancé." Helen said it almost automatically, the words and all its consequences running through her head. "I never asked her to fight Sean."
"I don't s'pose you did. Exciting though, isn't it, watching her fight for you?"
"The reality is a lot more horrible and messy than it sounds in books."
"Very Don Quixote."
"If you mention that book in my hearing ever again, I'll shove it up your arse. Sideways."
"So, are you coming, or do you have any booze?" Emily sat down on the top step of the stairs.
"No, and no."
"I'll bet you do."
"What?" This woman was infuriating her now, with her blithe self-assurance.
"Have booze in the house. There must be a bottle of wine, or some spirits. You look like a vodka girl to me."
"Read my lips: piss off out of my house now."
"I'm worse than Nikki."
"And she's stubborn, is she?"
"Well, let's look at the evidence, shall we? Falls in love with next-door neighbour who she barely knows, and who is straight. Helps out on house for weeks for no remuneration," she ticked off each point on her fingers. "Gets involved in two fights over her, one of which while she has a broken nose, yet still comes running over to help for no incentive or reward. There, I think that sums up the evidence for the prosecution."
"I am not responsible for how Nikki feels about me." Helen replied mechanically.
"No, that's true," conceded Emily. "But you are responsible if you've been encouraging her."
"I have not been encouraging her." Her words didn't ring entirely true, even to her own ears.
"Really?" The younger woman seemed amused. "You're certainly interested in her and want to spend lots of time with her. Your face every time you see or speak to Sean " The thought seemed to amuse her because she broke off to laugh.
"Nikki and I merely have a business relationship."
"She's working for you for nothing! Do you think she'd do that for just anyone? Per-lease." She looked at Helen sideways, mischief in her eyes. "I've seen straight women around Nikki before, you know. They always get curious. They look at her body in a certain way, watch everything she does, try and get her interested in them "
"Like you, you mean?" Helen, her face burning, decided on attack as the best form of defence.
"Touché. You're not just a pretty face, are you?" She took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one, grinning like the cat with the cream. She considered the burning end of her cigarette for a moment. "But you see, the difference between us is that I don't actually want Nikki I just don't want anyone else to have her, whereas you " She left the sentence hanging.
"No smoking in my house." Helen said automatically, theatrically waving at the smoke swirling around her.
"Reformed or non?"
"What?" Helen asked irritably. This girl's mind was all over the place, jumping from subject to subject like a grasshopper.
"Reformed, I guess. You look like a rebel convent school, perhaps?"
"Hardly. My father was a Presbyterian minister." She cursed herself internally for being drawn into the conversation.
"Want one?" She waved the packet temptingly under Helen's nose. She was right, Helen was a reformed smoker, and had only given up a year or so ago. She hated this girl.
"I think you do really. Just like you want Nikki. Why don't we go downstairs and have a drink and a fag, and then you can tell me all about it. These stairs are terribly uncomfortable. Are you going to put carpet down again?"
"All about what?" Helen said dully, unable to follow Emily's thoughts.
"What you're going to do now, of course." She looked at Helen as if she were stupid. "I'd also call the garage about your car. It looks like it'll need a respray, on the driver's door at least." She stood up and went downstairs, leaving Helen wondering what to do.
As soon as she heard kitchen cupboards opening and shutting, she followed her. There wasn't much booze in the house, and what there was, was going to be drunk by her, not this this interloper in her life.
"Told you, I knew you were a voddy girl." Emily triumphantly waved a half-empty bottle at her. "Now, where are the glasses?"
"Put that down and get out of my house." Helen tried to keep her voice steady. She had had enough. This woman was driving her mad.
"I told you, only if you come with me." She had found the glasses now and poured two inches of neat vodka into each before going over to the ice-maker in the fridge door. "Looks like Sean was pretty upset with you." She indicated the fridge door.
Helen moved closer to look. The words 'slut' and 'whore' were scored deeply into the pristine stainless steel. The sight almost brought Helen to tears again, as she remembered Nikki taking the doors off the frames and the fridge itself to get it into the house, positioning it and setting it all up for her, so that they had cold water and ice on tap as they worked.
She grabbed both glasses off Emily and necked first one, then the other, in one.
"Bastard," she hissed.
"'Enter Rumour, painted fill of tongues.'"
"Shakespeare. I'm reading lit. at uni."
"Smart arse." She could feel the burning of the alcohol in her system now.
"Got it in one. Are you coming home with me?"
"Is that a proposition?" She giggled.
"I think you're in shock." Emily pronounced, turning away to look at the kettle. "You need coffee and food." She opened the fridge to find it empty. "Neither of which you will get here. Come on."
She grabbed Helen's arm and started to lead her away.
"I am not going to your house."
"Nikki's there. How can I face her?"
"Oh, Helen." Emily wrapped her in her arms, ignoring the fact that, despite changing her clothes, Helen was still covered in paint, and Helen cried.
"Are you going to report him to the police?"
"Why ever not? He's trashed your house, your car, twatted Nikki "
"I can't. Look what I've taken from him."
"You can't take what he never had, Helen." Trisha leaned forward to raise Helen's head so she could look into her eyes.
"The house is half his."
"And it's also half yours."
"Is Nikki going to report him?" She couldn't decide who she was most concerned for.
"Not if you don't want her to." Trisha sighed.
"She's bloody stupid." Trisha's voice was harsh.
"If she wants to, she can report him to the police. See if I give a shit." Helen shouted back at her.
"Sit down and stop being so melodramatic."
"Where's Nikki?" She had been brought back and installed in Nikki's bed by the surprisingly sympathetic Emily. She had brought her food and coffee as promised, and then she had slept, not seeing anyone else until this morning.
"Where do you think?" Trisha's eyes narrowed.
"Checking over her tools and working out the damage to them, I expect. Good thing I got that money back from Jim. I'll give it to her later. It probably won't be enough, though." She paused. "Is she OK?"
Trisha didn't answer her.
"She's at your bloody house sorting out the shit your arsehole of a boyfriend left behind. He poured gloss paint over everything. He's caused thousands worth of damage."
"I'm sorry." She knew the words were inadequate. She hadn't imagined that anyone else's world would be so turned upside down by the simple act of buying a house, let alone hers.
"It's not me you need to apologise to." Helen got to her feet again. "Be gentle with her, she's very vulnerable right now." Trisha's words, though spoken softly were firm. Helen couldn't imagine Nikki vulnerable.
Sure enough, Nikki, still holding an arm tenderly across her body, and looking very much the worse for wear, was standing in the lounge. She was directing Douggie to roll up the carpet, contents and all. Emily was standing beside her, looking concerned.
"Hey." She didn't know what else to say.
"C'mon Douggie, let's go and get that mattress out." Emily was quick off the mark, practically dragging him out of the room with her, leaving Helen and Nikki alone. Helen had no idea the young woman even possessed any tact, let alone that much.
"Nikki, I " She walked up to Nikki, unable to prevent her hand from rising towards the other woman.
"What do you want?" Nikki asked brusquely, flinching away from her touch.
Horrified, Helen couldn't think of anything to say.
"Well? We're busy here, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Nikki, I came to say I'm sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. There's no need for you to do all this " She gestured at the room behind her.
"It doesn't matter what you meant, does it? It's happened anyway." Nikki wouldn't look at her, and it cut her to the quick.
"Please, Nikki, look at me." She stepped forward, right into Nikki's personal space and lifted her chin, forcing their eyes to meet briefly before Nikki looked away. The hurt she saw there was awesome in its depth.
"I can't change any of this. In some bizarre way, I'm not even sure I want to, except for this." She took her hand from Nikki's chin and gently touched the plaster across her nose with one finger.
"I'm glad you'd change something." Nikki brushed her hand away and stepped away from Helen.
"Stop this bloody macho posturing for one moment, can't you?" Nikki glared at her, sticking out her chin stubbornly. "Nikki, I didn't mean to hurt you. Or for you to get hurt. Why did you run away the other day, after we kissed?"
Nikki considered her for a long moment, her face inscrutable. Despite the panda eyes, she radiated dignity and truculence in equal measures, and Helen wasn't sure she was going to crack that façade.
"I didn't think it was what you wanted. You'd been at such pains to make your preference clear to me, but I couldn't resist." She didn't look away, and Helen knew she'd been given an honest answer.
"But that doesn't explain why you ran away."
"Helen, I've been with enough bi-curious straight women to know that the minute they realise what they are doing, they panic." She looked down, kicked something on the floor that Helen couldn't see. "I I like you. I didn't mean to kiss you. It just happened, and after it was over, I didn't want to see that. I couldn't face seeing that, so I legged it." She really was vulnerable, Helen realised. Refreshingly honest, too, even if such an honest assessment hurt. She didn't think she was bi-curious as such, rather interested solely in Nikki. She'd never had any leanings at all in that direction not until recently, anyway.
"Nikki, I think it's clear that you like me. And I like you too, but not in that way." She wasn't being entirely honest with herself or Nikki, but she didn't think either of them needed any more complications in their lives right now. And that would definitely be a complication. She'd just lost everything her life was based on; she wasn't going to get involved with anyone else for a very long time to come, however they made her feel, and however highly they scored on her list of desirable qualities. Even Nikki. Especially not Nikki. She was too dangerous to Helen's emotional balance by far.
She regretted it immediately as Nikki backed away further. She ached for Nikki to make her feel calm and safe, make it all right again, but she couldn't keep depending on her.
"I think that you shouldn't work on the house any more," she started.
"Why? Got a problem with my work?" Nikki's aggressive posture was back, the gentleness and vulnerability gone like a flash of sunlight on a cloudy day.
"No. I want to engage you on a professional basis just to get the job done now. It'll have to be sold, and if it's in good nick when it is, I may just get something out of it for a flat deposit. I'm going away for a bit." She paused. "It's not right for you not to be paid."
"I'll send you a quote if you let me know where you're going." Nikki turned and stomped out of the room. "I'm not sure you could afford me."
"No, Nikki. I don't think I can," she whispered to the empty room, not entirely meaning it in the same way as Nikki.
She returned a month later. She had gone to stay with a friend, and had returned to work. The restoration of a rigid timetable of working, eating and sleeping had done her good, and she felt refreshed in body.
Her mind was a completely different matter. She and Sean had agreed to sell Lane End Cottage and split the proceeds. He had flatly refused to let Nikki work on the house, instead naming some associate of Jerry's who would 'do it quick and do it cheap', even though Nikki had tendered the cheapest quote for reparation of Sean's damage and completion of the work by far. Helen knew it was underpriced by a long way, but Nikki had refused to change it when Helen had called her. Once more, she knew she owed a huge debt to the enigmatic woman.
Eventually, she had persuaded a bank to give her a bridging loan so she could buy Sean out and pay Nikki for the work, but it was crippling her and she would have to get rid of the house quickly. Helen had started dreading ringing friends, because as soon as they realised it was her, they had started asking how long she needed to stay there for.
The outside of the house looked great. The walls had been painted again, and the hideous harsh pink had been replaced with a much softer shade. There was fresh thatching, standing out golden against the grey of the old stuff. Even the drive had been treated the gravel no longer choked with weeds.
She was here to meet the estate agent, and the front door was open, so she went in, taking off her sunglasses against the shadow and feeling the coolness created by the thick walls. It had been a mistake to come; the house now was even more desirable to her. She set her shoulders and walked through the hallway, noticing that there wasn't a trace of paint on the flagstones any more, and examined each of the downstairs rooms in turn.
They were dressed to sell the place, and Helen recognised odd pieces of furniture from Nikki's house a table, a lamp. It looked a very desirable place to live, and Helen wished for a moment for the might-have-been, before pushing the feeling down inside her. She and Sean, however hard they tried, would never have been able to make this house look this good. She and Nikki, perhaps, but she cut that thought off before it could take root.
The kitchen was a revelation Nikki had obviously pulled out all the stops here a range cooker, stainless steel glinting in the sun, stood along one wall, flanked by cupboards and surmounted by a gleaming hood. It was huge. She resisted the temptation to run her fingers over the smooth surface in case she left fingerprints on its pristine surface, but caved in on the black granite worktop. It was deliciously cool to the touch. It was a masterpiece of design, and Helen had been right Nikki's ideas did work best in here. She almost regretted not being able to cook.
She walked to the French windows that had been installed, giving a view across a sweeping lawn that had been a jungle the first time she had ever seen it. There was a smart patio, with a table and chairs, a bar-b-que that Helen recognised as Trisha's and an amazing abundance of greenery and colours. Nikki had once mentioned a herb garden, and she could recognise scents that she could usually smell from cooking pots coming from somewhere nearby. Not that she'd recognise them her green fingers were locked away in the same place that her culinary skills were.
She heard footsteps upstairs somewhere, and tore herself away from the garden. It would certainly have never looked like that in a million years if Sean had had anything to do with it. Time to face the music.
She made her way up the no longer creaking staircase and onto the landing. She quickly peeked into the bedrooms and stopped to regain her breath in the master bedroom. Nikki had done it amazingly a huge metal bed, perfectly in keeping with the room. No built in cupboards, just a huge old wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a dressing table. This had been the room that she and Nikki had discussed a long time back, brought to reality. The view over the back garden was stunning, and Helen bitterly regretted the whole of the summer for a fierce moment. To have been able to have had all this
She shook herself out of this. Even if everything had progressed according to plan, and this had been hers and Sean's home, she could never have lived in a bedroom that was so utterly Nikki, not knowing her as she had come to know her. It would have been pain every day to wake up with Sean in a room like this. As for with Nikki, well, that would have been another matter entirely. She instructed herself to ignore thoughts like that.
There was a tall figure standing in the bathroom doorway, facing away from her, presumably looking out of the window, which shared the same view as the bedroom. He was broad-shouldered, expensively suited and booted.
"Dr Livingstone, I presume?" she flirted mildly.
"I can't see you as Stanley," Nikki turned around and faced her. Helen gasped. She'd never seen Nikki dressed like this. It was sexy, the single-breasted dark grey suit, with a deep red shirt beneath, a world away from her normal clothes.
"What are you doing here?"
"I have an appointment to meet an estate agent."
"It's not on the market yet."
"Give or take a couple of hours. How much do you want for it?"
"You want to buy it?" Helen was amazed. But on reflection, why should she be? Nikki had done a stunning job. Nikki probably didn't connect the house with her at all in the same way she connected it with Nikki, and always would.
"No," Nikki replied curtly, and suddenly Helen could see that she wasn't comfortable about being here, in the bathroom, decorated in exactly the colonial style that Helen had envisaged, complete with bamboo furniture and small ivy plants trailing around the upper reaches of the room, standing next to the bath they had chosen together, that had been such fun to choose together. Helen suddenly had a vision of the two of them sharing it, not dressed as they had been when choosing it, but using it for its proper purpose. "Trisha."
"She's going to live in it? What about your place?"
"She'll stay where she is. I suppose she'll rent this out," Nikki said vaguely, following Helen's stare down to the bath. She roused herself. "How much?"
"I haven't had it valued yet." She wasn't sure she wanted to sell it to Trisha. Nikki, maybe, but not to Trisha.
"If you get it valued and sell it to us, you could save the fee."
"Ever the pragmatic, Nikki."
"I was only thinking of " The words died on Nikki's lips. During all the dealings they had had since Helen had moved, setting the budget, sorting out the stage payments, everything, Nikki had been so businesslike, as if thoughts of Helen in any other way as an employer had never crossed her mind, and here they were, back to square one.
"Surely it's time you started thinking of you," she said, stepping closer to Nikki.
"Don't." The pain in that one word stopped Helen in her tracks. "Please don't be nice to me Helen. I couldn't bear that."
"Nikki " She couldn't think of anything else to say. Nikki practically ran out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Helen followed her.
"How have you been?"
"The house looks amazing. Better than I could ever have imagined."
"Thank you." In the stronger light of the kitchen, she could see that Nikki's nose hadn't healed quite straight. There were shadows under her eyes, as if she hadn't been sleeping. Or were those the remains of the marks that Sean had left on her? How long did black eyes take to heal?
"How's your nose and" she indicated her ribs.
"Douggie didn't set my nose straight, but I didn't even crack a rib. I was lucky." She called damage like that lucky?
"You went to Douggie to sort out your nose?"
"Well I wasn't exactly going to hospital, was I?" The sarcasm hung in the air.
"No, sorry. You're right." They were silent again, Nikki pacing restlessly up and down, the click of her heels on the flagstones hypnotisingly rhythmic.
"Nikki " her voice deserted her as Nikki turned towards her. She took in a great gulp of air. "I know what's happened and everything, and I'm so sorry, and I would turn the clock back if I could, but can we at least be friends again?"
"That's not a relationship I am interested in. You want something I can't give you, and I want something you can't give me. It's best to keep this on a business footing." Nikki gave her a mirthless smile and returned to her relentless ticking off of the distance between the cooker and the fridge.
"Yes, I suppose you're right." Helen stood by the French windows, wishing she could run away. She glanced irritably at her watch. The estate agent was due any minute now, and she'd give anything to be saved by the bell.
"How far back would you turn back the clock?" Nikki had stopped pacing, and Helen could feel her just behind her, although they weren't touching. She shivered as the breath from the quietly spoken words just disturbed the hair by her ear. She turned round to face Nikki, the distance between them minute.
"I don't know."
"To the start? To buying this place? To buying the bath? To me kissing you? To Jim turning up again? To me hitting him? To Sean hitting me? How far, Helen?" Nikki's breath was on her face, and Helen shut her eyes.
"Nikki, I can't. You know I can't. It's all intertwined."
"'Oh, what a tangled web we weave '"
"What is it with you lot and quotes? Shakespeare."
"Walter Scott, actually. We like to read." Nikki shrugged, a glint in her eye that looked like amusement.
"To you hitting Jim." Nikki looked shocked.
"Because that started off the endgame." She couldn't think of a better word. "That was the only bit I regretted about this whole thing."
"Why not me kissing you?"
"Because I kissed you back." She held Nikki's eyes, which grew wide.
"Then you must have felt something?"
I felt everything Nikki didn't you notice? She kept silent, but looked away.
"I guess not then."
Helen opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. I'm scared of you Nikki, of what you mean for me, and my world. Since meeting Nikki, her world had turned upside down, and she was only just finding equilibrium again, and she wasn't sure she wanted to risk it all. Was she worth it?
"When you work out your asking price, let Trisha know." Not let me know, but let Trisha know. Nikki started to leave. Helen felt something leave with her, and was about to call out when a male voice intruded on them.
"Hello? Anybody there?"
"Nikki!" She looked back once, and then was gone.
"She's in there."
Another six weeks, and she had signed the paperwork. The sale was progressing smoothly, and she had taken Nikki's advice, not to put it on the market with an estate agent, but to sell it directly to Trisha. She had offered a fair price, but had driven a hard bargain. Today was Friday night, and on Monday the sale would complete, the contracts having been exchanged today. It was much faster than normal, but there was nothing to slow this sale down, no chain, she didn't need to move out. She owned nothing in the house.
It was time to lay some ghosts, and say goodbye.
She let herself into the house and, without turning any lights on, wandered silently through the ground floor in the gathering dusk she was later in getting away tonight than she had planned, and the traffic getting out of town had been murder. She realised how comfortable Nikki had made it, like it was a real home that was lived in, not an empty shell that had no soul. Nikki had done everything that they had ever talked about doing to it - there were even shelves either side of the chimney breast, complete with a selection of Nikki's books. She ran her fingers over the spines, happy to be touching something that Nikki had touched, even though that was true of anything she touched in the house although these were more personal items. She wondered why, when she hadn't put the place on the market at all, they hadn't removed the dressings. Just in case it all fell through, she supposed. She wouldn't have reneged on this deal she wanted it sold, and Trisha had been a good friend to her as well, before her mind shied away from that bit. She would still have rather sold it to Nikki. Somehow this had become Nikki's house.
She went back to the car and brought out the supplies she had bought for the weekend. Nothing much, just some clothes and a bag of food, including that ever-present component of her diet, ready meals for one. Although she had eaten very well when she had been staying with Trisha and Nikki, the food had been healthy, and what with the exercise of working on the house all the time, she had lost weight. Now it was creeping back on, and she resolved to try and be a bit healthier again.
She put the perishables, a bottle of vodka and one of wine into the empty fridge. She would only be staying for two nights, and didn't think anyone would ever know. She poured a glass of the wine and walked into the lounge.
The whole house was redolent of Nikki; her decoration, her suggestions. Helen realised that even if it had come to it, with or without Sean, Nikki's presence would always have been with them. Right now, she felt particularly close to her, a feeling that unnerved her, and yet one that she welcomed. As she moved around the house, it felt lived in; she put her bag in the bedroom, and a book was on the bedside table: 'Oranges are Not the Only Fruit'. She had read it herself, fairly recently. It was bookmarked.
She wandered around each room, holding both the bottle and glass now, topping up her drink as she went, admiring the quality of the finish; the house truly did look amazing, and she experienced a pang of regret that this wasn't her house anymore; not from Monday, when they completed, anyway. Technically it wasn't her house now that contracts had already been exchanged; they were legally bound to go ahead.
"I'm sorry," she said out loud to the house, which, in its watchful silence, seemed to be expecting something. This wasn't a house designed to stand around empty; it was meant to be filled, with a couple, perhaps a family. There should be people here, life. She felt unselfconscious for once, even though she was standing here, talking to an inanimate object.
She opened all the cupboard doors, examined everything, as if she were buying the house herself. She had been given a very fair price by Trisha, and had never put it on the market at all, even though the various estate agents she had met to quote had all told her that she was mad, that it was a 'des res' and that there would be a bidding war. She couldn't bear the thought of strangers benefiting from all of Nikki's hard work.
She finished her tour of inspection in the bathroom, determined to take a bath in the room she had planned, one which she most connected to Nikki, as a way of saying goodbye, to the house and her memories of Nikki, still incredibly vivid, even though she had barely seen her for months. Memories that had haunted her, imbued with overtones that were now nowhere near platonic. Ever since she had agreed the final split with Sean, her dreams had been filled with two things: the house and Nikki, generally as a pair.
"Nikki, you are quite a woman."
"Mmm, she is, rather." She whirled in surprise, having felt no hint of the fact that she wasn't alone. Trisha was standing in the doorway, watching her.
"What are you doing here?" She almost felt like she was trespassing, and reminded herself that she had every right to be here.
"I saw movement and I thought " She didn't complete her sentence, and even ignored Helen's prompting 'yes?'.
"What are you doing here?" She seemed amused rather than annoyed, but Helen still felt on the defensive.
"I still own it, until Monday."
"Yes." Her agreement was maddening.
"I just wanted, for one or two nights, to know," she ended weakly.
"Yes." They were both silent. Helen felt exposed, as if she had just bared her body to Trisha, not her just her soul, and she felt that Trisha did understand after all, she clearly still loved Nikki, very much. She was unnerved by the short response, though, and couldn't think of anything else to say.
"What are you going to do with it?" She asked eventually, unable to stand the silence, uncomfortable under Trisha's unnerving gaze.
"Me? Nothing. I'm not buying it."
"But I thought you were buying it to let it?"
"Not me. Who told you that?"
"Nikki. And your name was on all the paperwork."
"I'm a nominee owner, Helen."
"I'm a nominal owner in name only. It's a bare trust. The property will be transferred out on Monday afternoon, after completion."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means that I'm buying on behalf of someone else." She was watching Helen like a parent watches a child struggling with a problem, willing them to come up with the right solution.
"So who's buying it?"
"Who do you think?" The question was gentle, and as the answer dawned on her, Helen felt herself sinking to sit onto the side of the bath. "She's been living here ever since you left. She only ever went into her bedroom to take things out to move them into here."
"Yes. She's going to live here, well, already is. Emily's terribly upset." And so are you, Helen thought to herself, looking at the sadness in Trisha's eyes.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for any of this to happen."
"It was inevitable. I knew she'd move on one day." Trisha shifted slightly. "I didn't expect it to be you, when I first met you."
"Me? I've done nothing!"
"You've changed all our lives forever. I didn't know you were seeing each other though. Nikki kept that very quiet."
"We're not. I didn't know that Nikki was living here I thought you were buying the place."
"You mean you're not..?"
"Certainly not." Helen hoped that didn't sound as prim and proper as it sounded. It was not that she objected to anything with Nikki, but that she didn't think Nikki would want to be involved with her.
"Then maybe you were just the catalyst for her to move on. I knew she would. It can't have been easy for her, staying with us; I thought she was happy." She seemed to be talking more to herself now than to Helen. "I think that since she's met you, she's been unhappy."
"I don't think Helen needs to hear your pop psychology." Nikki's voice was curt. "I just needed to be by myself. You've been a good family, but I can't hide behind you forever."
Trisha spun round and they both gawped at Nikki, dressed familiarly in her work clothes.
"I didn't hear you come in."
"Obviously, or you wouldn't be talking about me to her." She was talking about Helen like she wasn't there. This was about the worst thing that could have happened, and she wished she'd never come. She'd hoped to slip in and out unobtrusively, say her goodbyes and go, and now they all knew she was here; Emily would be arriving any second now, with her luck.
"Don't worry. I'm off. I didn't expect anyone to be living in my house." She placed sarcastic emphasis on 'my' as she stood.
"It's your house; we should go." Nikki addressed her for the first time. "I didn't know you'd want to come back here again."
"I just wanted to see it for one last time."
"We'll leave you to it." Trisha turned and walked to the stairs, passing Nikki. Helen saw Trisha reach out to touch the younger woman's hand, clasping it for a brief moment before letting go and going downstairs, pausing halfway down, as if waiting for Nikki. "There's dinner and a room if you want it, Nikki," she said, as Nikki made no move to follow her, the click of the front door locking behind her.
The noise seemed to rouse Nikki, who had just been looking at Helen and she took a half-step towards the stairs, before turning back.
"If you want rent since it's been finished, just let me know, and I'll sort you out."
"No. It's not been mine for a long time. You've done such a beautiful job - just look after it, won't you?"
"It's always been yours. It always will be." Nikki moved forward from the shadows of the landing to stand in the doorway. "That's why I did it this way; it's what you wanted isn't it?" She seemed eager to hear what Helen thought, stepping forward into the room.
"It's perfect, Nikki. I think you'll suit it perfectly." She didn't want to think about how Nikki would bring it to life, fill it with people.
"No. It needs people, and at the moment, it's just a refuge, but I didn't want anyone else to have it. It's your house. I just occupy it. For the moment."
"I can't have it, Nikki. It's too big, too expensive." Too empty without you. "I won't be coming back to it again, after this."
"Never?" Nikki seemed surprised.
"I don't think so. There's nothing for me here now."
"Nothing?" Nikki seemed downcast.
"It's yours. I can't come back here again."
"Why not?" Nikki demanded, coming yet still closer, was almost on top of her now. She seemed upset.
"I just can't, Nikki." She swigged the last of her wine, and trying to top it up, discovered that the bottle was empty. She stared at it blankly for a second, trying to remember drinking it all.
"Why?" Nikki's voice was rough. "Did I do something wrong?"
"It's perfect, but it's yours." She turned her back on the other woman, looking out of the window.
"Then why? You could live in it rent free. I could go back next door."
"I could never live here, Nikki. It's too full of you, of your personality. It would kill me to live here." She barely stopped herself from saying the 'without you' that hovered on her lips.
"I can change it for you. I thought you wanted it to look like this." Nikki sounded like she was about to cry.
"I couldn't ask you to move out."
"If you ever need it, it's yours." Nikki was right behind her now, the promise about far more than the house. There was a long pause.
By the time she turned around, Nikki was almost at the door.
"Do you ever give up?" Nikki froze.
"Not when something's worth it, no." She steadily looked Helen in the eye.
Helen wanted to drop her eyes, but they were transfixed by Nikki's, almost black in the gloom of the bathroom. She knew she had had too much booze, that this was a stupid conversation to be having with a woman to whom she had caused great damage, both physical and emotional, and that Nikki couldn't possibly really want her now, but she couldn't help herself.
"Someone." Nikki came close again, so close that Helen could feel her body heat. Helen had to tilt her head up to keep looking at her eyes.
"Nikki, I don't think "
"Shush, don't think. Just feel." She leaned into Helen, their eyes still fixed on each other. Helen finally broke eye contact to look at the lips inching closer to hers. Finally they made contact, and she heard herself moan as she felt them, warm on her own.
Nikki's arms crept achingly slowly around her body, and all five of her senses were engulfed by her as she forced open her eyes for a second. She felt herself relax into Nikki's grip, her arms holding them both up as her eyes fluttered shut.
Once more Nikki broke the kiss, only this time, her hold on Helen didn't slacken.
"Nikki, are you sure "
"That I want this? Oh yes." Nikki jerked her head back and Helen felt her grip begin to loosen. "What about you?"
She held Nikki's hands on her body and leaned in for another kiss instead of saying anything. This time, when the kiss broke, it was Helen who spoke.
"I want this as much as you."
"You did. You happened to me." She smiled, Nikki smiling back at her. She didn't think that she had ever felt this liberated, and shivered slightly in anticipation of where this would take them.
Nikki finally seemed to realise where they were and looked down at the bath mischievously.
"If I ask you to join me this time, will you take so long to get in?"
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