DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Isobel, Kate and Mary, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Nikki walked into the dining room holding several vases full of flowers and started distributing them round the room. She smiled briefly at Helen but didn't do anything more. Helen glanced across at the family she had mentally dubbed 'the arguing family' as they discussed their plans for the day then slipped out of the room after her. She intercepted her in the lounge as she was placing the last vase of flowers and walked quietly up behind her. She didn't get very close - Nikki whirled round, almost dropping the vase, her other hand clenching into a fist. She relaxed as she realised who it was and smiled, embarrassed.
"Bit tense today?" Helen asked lightly, trying to make a joke of it.
"Old habits. Sorry," Nikki said, turning back to put the vase down.
"Maybe it's because you haven't had your good morning kiss."
"Maybe it is," Nikki said, turning to her. Helen put her arms round Nikki's neck and kissed her slowly and thoroughly, savouring the taste of her mouth. Nikki responded enthusiastically but they broke off, by unspoken agreement, before it could get out of hand.
"You know, that was only nearly perfect," Helen said thoughtfully, "we need to practice that more."
"Can I come and see you later?" she asked. Nikki ran her hand up and down Helen's arm.
"You can come and see me anytime."
"Where are you today?"
"Cleaning out the old pond."
"We can't all be posh academics. I want to see if the liner's still intact under all the pond weed and other crap."
"Will you be there all day?"
"Probably. And filthy by the end of it."
"Ah, that means that you'll be coming back to the house for a bath."
"You, woman, have a one-track mind."
"But you like the direction it runs, don't you?"
"Sure. You can wash my back," Nikki said affectionately.
They kissed each other again and Nikki left with a quick squeeze of Helen's arm. Helen watched her go, a little wistfully; whatever was bothering Nikki still lurked in the shadows at the back of her eyes, then turned away to get to her work. She wanted to be sure to be free when the other woman had finished her self-appointed task.
In the event it was mid afternoon when Nikki came back into the house and changed out of her wet clothes into a dressing gown in the downstairs scullery. She walked slowly into the bathroom where Helen was already running hot water into one of the oversized Victorian tubs, clutching a large towel and a mug of coffee. Helen glanced up at her as she locked the door and sat wearily in one of the cane chairs that Kelly had placed in the large space and frowned.
"You shouldn't have let yourself get chilled."
"Maybe not," Nikki said dryly, "but stuff happens. I didn't realise it was going to start raining."
Helen shook her head. "The water's fine. Get in."
Nikki nodded and shed her dressing gown, before stepping gingerly into the bath and then lowering herself into the water with an appreciative groan. "That's so good."
She sat hunched over herself, warming her hands and feet in the water, before sitting back and relaxing in the bath. Helen dragged over a chair and sat down next to the tub, reaching out to touch Nikki's head.
"How did you get dirt in your hair?"
"Same way I got leaves and pond weed and slime in it. Got them on my hands, then pushed my hair out of the way. It's a very hands on job, gardening."
"It is the way you do it."
"Is that a criticism?" Nikki asked lazily. Helen took the opportunity to appreciate the way her breasts looked, floating gently in the water ....
"Oi," Nikki said, "pay attention, OK?"
Helen saw from the amused expression on her face and her half lidded eyes that Nikki knew exactly what was distracting her and relished the effect she was having.
"No. I just wonder if you were the kind of child who ended up covered in mud from head to foot every day."
"I don't really remember," Nikki said. She shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"No. Except ... one day I'd like to know a lot more about you. All the parts I missed. Your childhood. Your family. That sort of thing."
"Why?" Nikki asked, with genuine curiosity.
"Because it's about you, and I'm interested in anything about you," Helen told her honestly.
Nikki thought about that, then grinned. "You know, talking to you about it might actually make remembering my childhood a worthwhile exercise."
Helen smiled gently at her. "I'll look forward to it."
Nikki reached out and touched Helen's face. "You going to scrub my back, then?"
"Thought you'd never ask," Helen said.
They ended up, a couple of hours later, wandering hand in hand to Helen's room so that she could change into dry clothes. Once there, Nikki sat on the bed and appreciated the sight of a naked Helen Stewart trying to decide what to wear. Turnabout was fair play, after all, she decided.
On the bed side table, Helen's mobile phone rang. With an apologetic look to Nikki, Helen went to take the call and sat down beside her on the bed.
"Helen Stewart ... Thomas!"
Nikki felt her earlier relaxation vanish and sensed the walls beginning to close in on her. She stood up, trying to block out Helen's worried expression, and got to the window. Pushing it open, she took deep breaths. Finally she steadied herself enough to hear some of Helen and Thomas' conversation.
"No, that would be nice. I'd love to. Tonight?"
Nikki wanted to shake her head to indicate that it was most emphatically not OK to meet a man who she still had jealous feelings about. The man who had nearly taken Helen away from her. Unfortunately, she couldn't force words past the constriction in her throat or think past the pounding in her skull. Nikki gripped the window frame and tried to centre herself. She vaguely registered the rest of the conversation and told herself sternly that she was going to be adult about this. Even if it killed her.
She felt a soft hand on her back and turned. Helen had pulled on a dressing gown and was looking at her, concerned.
"Are you OK?"
"Fine," she grated, "just ... tired."
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Thomas is in the area. He wondered if I'd like to go out for dinner."
"Then you should go," Nikki said, immediately regretting the tone of voice. Helen looked at her.
"I said we'd both go."
"There's a pub down the valley with a heated terrace. That'd be OK, wouldn't it?"
Nikki nodded silently, humbled once again by the lengths Helen was prepared to go to to make her feel safe. Helen moved to the wardrobe and picked out an outfit, beginning to pull it on. "They've also got a conservatory, in case it's raining." She paused, in the act of fastening her top. "Can you ...."
"Yeah," Nikki said, "I can manage that. How'd he find you, anyway?"
"She knows you're here?"
"I emailed her with the address. In case anything came up."
"Right," Nikki said.
She sat numbly to one side as Helen finished her preparations for the evening, aware that the other woman was worried about her but unable to summon the strength to reassure her. When Thomas came to pick them up they got into the car in strained silence.
Helen leaned across and kissed Thomas on the cheek. "This is a nice surprise."
Although she genuinely meant the sentiment she was aware that she was being a little over enthusiastic, trying to compensate for Nikki, who was brooding in the back seat, staring out of the window at the scenery. Apart from a perfunctory 'Hi' as she got into the car she didn't utter a word the whole way to the pub. Thomas seemed not to notice and chatted easily to Helen through the journey.
"So what are you doing around here?" Helen asked.
"Multi disciplinary seminar combined with a sabbatical. You know the sort of thing. And since we had to cancel last time it seemed too good an opportunity to miss."
"I am sorry about that, Thomas, but my back was up against it. I had to get that report finished."
"And has it been read yet?"
"Probably not," Helen said, "it was for the Home Office. It'll be sitting on the Minister's desk, or one of his minions'."
"You and your deadlines."
"That report was dropped on me from a great height!" Helen protested. They chuckled together. Helen glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw Nikki watching them. She quickly looked away as they came into the pub car park.
They all got out of the car. The pub had the look of being genuinely old. At some time it had been modernised and the modern plastic and glass of a new conservatory poked incongruously out of one side, contrasting with the thick, white washed walls and low doorways of the old building. A scatter of wooden tables sat between space heaters on the terrace.
"See," Helen said to Nikki, "we can sit outside."
"Are you sure?" Thomas said. "It's a bit cold for that, isn't it?"
Nikki folded her arms and scowled at him. "Well why don't you two eat inside, where it's nice and cosy, and I'll stay out here. Then I won't be in the way."
"Nikki!" Helen said. She turned quietly to Thomas as Nikki walked away, her back stiff with anger. "Could you do me a favour? Get a round in, will you? I'll be inside in a minute."
"Sure," Thomas said.
Helen hurried across the car park to Nikki, gripped her arm and physically spun her around.
"What the hell was that about! For God's sake!"
"It was about the way he was looking at you," Nikki said grimly.
"Well I'm sorry, but I can't control that. Besides, I will not have you speaking to one of my oldest friends in that way! Do you really think that anything like that would happen?"
"No, of course not. I just ...."
"You just what? You just thought you'd be stupid and childish and behave badly. Really, Nikki!" She lowered her voice. "Not three hours ago we were making love. Remember?"
Nikki nodded, her head lowered as she bit her lip. Helen sighed and touched her shoulder. "Look, if you're not going to enjoy this evening, I'll call a taxi and you can go back to the guesthouse. But I would like you to apologise to Thomas first. He gave me a lot of support when you were inside. He was one of the people that helped me make it through at all."
"What and he didn't make a move on you? More fool him," Nikki said. She smiled weakly.
Helen shook her head. "He knew I was spoken for. We're just good friends."
"OK. Well since he's going to be a fixture, I suppose I'd better get used to him."
"Yes, you had. What you ought to remember is that when I had a choice, I didn't choose him, I chose you."
"I'm sorry. I don't know why you put up with me, sometimes."
"Simple," Helen said, giving Nikki the reassurance she needed to hear, "because I love you. And because, until recently, you were in an environment where all your choices were taken away. That's not good for anybody."
"Tell me about it. Look, can you go to the loo, or something?"
"I'll do my apologising in front of you if you want, but I'd feel better if I didn't have an audience."
"OK," Helen said, "see you in five minutes."
Nikki went into the bar and spotted Thomas at a table near the back. She made her way over to him and hooked a chair with her foot, sitting down opposite him. She felt incredibly awkward but he seemed quite relaxed.
"I don't know what you drink so I got you a bottled beer," Thomas said, "and I got the menu. They do a nice steak."
"Look," Nikki interrupted, "I behaved like an arsehole, OK. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I said."
She started picking at the label on the bottle of beer. Not the most gracious statement, but all she could manage at the moment.
"Apology accepted," Thomas said calmly. Surprised, Nikki looked at him. He smiled at her. "I know it must be hard for you. You're probably still adjusting to life on the outside."
"No, it's not that. I've always had the attitude and the gob."
"Maybe. But I imagine you learned to be confrontational in prison. It's an area I'm interested in. Non-violent conflict management."
"I used to be good at that," Nikki said, ruefully, "Trisha always said that I could talk my way out of anything." She took a swallow of beer. "That changed fast. Specially my second time inside."
"Well, if you changed one way, you can change another. Just give it time."
"Was that a really bad pun?" Nikki asked. Thomas thought about it, then shook his head. "No, Just my foot in mouth moment. Quits?"
"She's giving me a clear field to make my apologies. I suppose we'd better go and find her."
"Yes. I've checked. They will serve meals out on the terrace this time of night."
"Good." Nikki couldn't keep the relief out of her voice.
"What Helen didn't tell you was that I have trouble with enclosed spaces," Nikki said. She felt weary, too weary to be embarrassed any more. "The walls start closing in after a while."
"That must be hard."
"Yeah. Luckily, like all the other stuff, it's better when Helen's around." Nikki smiled tiredly. "My own personal security blanket."
Thomas took a long drink of his lime and soda and looked at her assessingly. "Other stuff?"
"Just the usual ex-con crap. Sleep disturbances, nightmares. Irrational anger. You know about that one. The slightest little thing sets me off, sometimes."
"Is it linked to memories?"
"In a way. But they're not like memories." Nikki shook her head, focusing hard on a print on the wall. "It's like ... something reminds me and I'm back there ... I can see it, smell it, taste it. I can even hear the noises." She shuddered. "Can we talk about something else?"
She sensed someone behind her and turned round quickly, half rising out of her seat in the same movement. She stopped abruptly; it was Helen. "Hiya."
Helen frowned at her. "You're pale as a ghost. Was apologising so hard?"
"No, I ...."
"Nikki, have you seen what you've done?" Thomas said. Nikki looked at him, confused. "The bottle?"
Nikki glanced down and realised that her grip on the bottle had changed. Instead of holding it so she could drink from it, she had shifted her hand so that she could use it like a club if she had to. "I have to get out of here," she said and moved blindly towards the terrace, where she stood, hands jammed in her pockets, until Thomas and Helen came out after her. Helen immediately hugged her. Nikki wrapped her arms around the smaller woman, seeking the warmth and safety she needed. Helen touched her forehead gently.
"You've broken out in a cold sweat! What is the matter?"
"Just call the Muppet wing, OK," Nikki said fiercely, "I'm a bloody basket case. We should maybe just acknowledge that."
"What were you two talking about?"
"Nikki's symptoms," Thomas said. He gestured towards the chairs on the terrace. "Come on. Let's sit down out here."
Nikki went over to a bench and sat down, putting an arm around Helen's shoulders when the other woman joined her. She silently accepted the bottle Thomas handed her. Thomas waited till she had calmed down enough to make eye contact with him, then took a deep breath.
"You said something very interesting back there, Nikki."
"You said 'just call the Muppet wing'. Not call a doctor, or a hospital."
"So. I wondered when I first saw you. Now I'm almost sure. You're still in prison, mentally. You've left the place behind but you're carrying it with you, on some level."
"Big deal! I'd worked that out."
Helen put a calming hand on her arm. Nikki nodded and took a deep breath.
"It's not just that," Thomas said, "you're suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
"Get real," Nikki said dismissively, "I'm not a soldier."
"No, anyone who's been through a traumatic experience can develop it. Fire fighters, crime victims ... people who've been tortured often suffer from it."
"I was locked up, not tortured!" Nikki said.
"Really? How much time did you spend in the segregation block as a percentage of your sentence?"
"I don't know. I wasn't fucking counting."
"Too much," Helen said grimly.
"You were shuttled around the country on a regular basis. I imagine the prison officers gave you a pretty hard time."
"I'd killed one of theirs, hadn't I?"
"But you hadn't," Thomas said, "you endured all that knowing you were innocent and believing that you would never be able to prove it and get out again. You had no release date and no expectation of ever getting one. Torture doesn't have to be electrodes and blows. It can be psychological. The symptoms you're describing; irrational anger and fear; sleep disturbances; nightmares; flashbacks ... they're classic signs."
"Those 'memories' you talked about, where it's like you're back there. Those are flashbacks."
Nikki looked at him disbelievingly and Thomas pursed his lips, exasperated. "Think back to this morning."
"What were you doing?"
"Standing up to my waist in freezing water."
"I like that memory. It's probably vivid, right?"
"I'm not that keen on it," Nikki said, relishing the rich, low sound of Helen's chuckle beside her.
"So you can remember what it felt like but it's not like being there, is it?"
"No," Nikki said slowly as understanding dawned, "it isn't."
"That's a memory. What you experience when you think about what happened to you in prison is a flashback."
"Nikki, why didn't you tell me about this?" Helen asked.
"I did, remember," Nikki said, "I just ... didn't really understand myself."
"Well now you do understand, you can start to do something about it," Thomas said, "at the moment, you're in an extremely abnormal psychological state. Your reaction to situations shows that. If Helen had been a man with a knife you'd have been ready for her. You're hyper-aware of your surroundings and you react like someone in combat."
"You say I can do something about this. What?" Nikki asked.
"Some medication to help your anxiety and the underlying feelings. And probably some talking therapy, to help you adjust back to normal life, re-programme yourself."
Nikki looked at Helen. "Make me fit company, you mean?"
"I don't know if we can achieve that," Thomas said, so earnestly that it took Nikki a moment to realise he was joking, "but it'll probably make you happier, calmer. That should help with other things."
"Yeah," Nikki said. She tightened her arm around Helen's shoulder and felt her reassuring hug in return. "Did you bring the menu out?"
"Yes," Thomas said, "hungry?"
"Must be something to do with standing up to your waist in freezing water."
"I guess so." Nikki ducked her head awkwardly. "I owe you, you know."
"Well I'll be sure to collect, one day."
"Deal," Nikki said.
They ordered their meals. Thomas and Helen chatted about work as they ate while Nikki listened, occasionally adding a comment of her own but mostly silent. She only finished half of her food which Helen, used to her, didn't comment on but Thomas did.
"Is the meal OK?"
"Fine. I'm a really cheap date these days. The food inside was so bad, I got out of the habit of eating a lot." She shrugged. "Another one to break."
"You're fine just as you are," Helen told her affectionately.
"You just say that because you want to steal my chips."
"I do not!"
"What, like last week?"
"That was a one-off," Helen protested. Nikki grinned at her. "You keep telling yourself that."
Nikki was crouched over the journal she had started keeping at Thomas' suggestion when he arrived. He'd noticed that she was often at the chalet now, writing. She still did hours of furious work, continuing to wear herself out as she battled the overgrown garden and the elements with a cold, savage determination, but in-between she wrote things down. He hoped that meant she appreciated the book and found using it valuable. He knew that Helen was worried by Nikki's behaviour but, as an outsider to the situation, he could see that the process of confronting her demons would be gradual and take time. Two weeks wasn't long enough to undo the damage of years.
Nikki looked up, put the notebook carefully away, and poured water into the teapot from the kettle already whistling on the stove. She wordlessly accepted the milk he had brought and stood to retrieve the tin mugs that hung in a string bag from a beam. Thomas sat on the only other chair, opened his bag, and dug for the packet of chocolate digestives he'd picked up in the guesthouse.
"You seen Helen today?" Nikki asked, as she poured their tea. Thomas hid a smile. Nikki always managed to ask that question, in one form or another, within five minutes of them meeting.
"She's fine. Working on those statistics, so she's in a very bad temper."
"Poor cow. Don't know how she does it."
"She has worked with the Home Office for years. I expect she's used to paperwork." He took the drink from Nikki. "She said something about maybe taking her lunch break down here."
"Oh. OK," Nikki said, then smiled to herself as she added milk to her own tea. Thomas watched, wondering how it was that a mention of either woman to the other would inevitably create this reaction. They seemed, despite the things they had gone through and Nikki's recent behaviour, to share a connection on a level that other people couldn't touch.
"How'd you know I'd be here?" Nikki asked.
"I looked in the garden. You weren't there. So ..."
"Good guess. What did you want to see me about?"
"I've found a therapist I think you might be able to work with. She's had experience of the prison system ...."
"Been inside, has she?"
"No. She's run a number of therapy groups and counselling services both within the system and with ex-prisoners." Thomas took a swallow of tea before continuing. "She's also done some voluntary work with refugee charities, including work with female asylum seekers."
Nikki moved to stand in the doorway and look out at the orchard. "She should sort me out in no time, then," she said flippantly.
"I doubt anything you might tell her will shock her."
"Well, bring her on." Nikki cleared her throat. "I want my life back. Really back. Back to how it was before all this happened to me."
"That may not be possible. You know that."
"Yeah. I'm not as stupid as I act sometimes. Besides, it gave me Helen. I wouldn't wish her away."
"She's a lucky woman."
Nikki turned to look at him, studying him disbelievingly. "Can I say something?"
"I don't get you, sometimes. If I was you I'd be so angry, so jealous, I wouldn't be able to speak to me, never mind have a civilised conversation."
"We're different people, Nikki. I've had a lot of time to process what happened. The truth is that Helen never stopped loving you, not deep down, even when she was with me."
"Funny way of showing it."
"No, not really. She was tearing herself apart, especially after the riot. She's very career driven and very moral. Her integrity matters to her. She felt guilty and she felt a hypocrite. Not because you were a woman, but because you were a prisoner in her care."
"It's not like we were shagging after lock-up or anything!"
"Too much information, Nikki."
For the first time, the absurdity of the conversation seemed to dawn on Nikki and she shook her head and chuckled. "Can't believe I'm talking to you about this."
"We both care about the same woman," Thomas said, "I think that helps."
"As a friend, in my case. I saw what she went through, Nikki. I know she made the right decision."
"Even with all the grief it brought her?"
"Even then. She could have walked away at any time, but she didn't."
"You know about how it was for her when I was inside, don't you?" Nikki said thoughtfully.
"Not all of it."
"I'd like to talk to you about that, sometime."
"Must have been hard for her."
"You know, I'm beginning to understand what she sees in you," Nikki said.
"I'm glad. I wouldn't want to lose contact with Helen."
"Just because I'm back?" Nikki shook her head. "Won't happen."
"Look, I'll do you a deal. You can come round for dinner once we're back in town. The first month. OK?"
Thomas stood to leave, then stopped himself. "I almost forgot." He rummaged in his bag and handed Nikki a slip of paper. "This is the name and contact details for the counsellor. And I got you this. Saw it in a charity shop in town."
He handed Nikki a battered hardback. The dust cover had been clumsily mended with sellotape at sometime in the past. It showed a line drawing of a guillotine, surrounded by an angry mob. Nikki looked at the title. "'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens. Thanks."
"I thought you might like the themes," Thomas said.
"A captive who's released after long years of false imprisonment before rebuilding his life, and redemption through love," Nikki said thoughtfully. She nodded slowly. "I might, at that. Least I wasn't in the Bastille, eh?"
She held out her hand. Thomas hesitated for a second, then shook it.
"Hey," a voice said, "am I interrupting something?"
They both turned and looked at Helen. "I've just invited him for dinner, when we get back to London," Nikki said, "hope you don't mind. It is your place, after all."
"Actually, it's our place," Helen told her affectionately, slipping an arm around Nikki's waist. "And I'm glad. I know just what to feed him, as well."
"Don't you dare!" Thomas said.
"What, don't you want to embrace your childish side all of a sudden?" Helen teased him. Nikki looked at them both and then shrugged helplessly as they shared the joke, obviously deciding just to accept it.
"Tell you later," Helen said, "are you coming in for lunch?"
"Yeah. Just let me tidy up here."
"Actually, I have to go," Thomas said, "I'll leave you to it."
He stood with Helen on the terrace as the other woman vanished inside. She reached up and lightly kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for everything you've done. For Nikki."
"You're not out of the woods yet. You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah. But anything worth having is worth fighting for."
Nikki's voice drifted out from inside the chalet. "Thought it was fighting with?"
Thomas shook his head. "I'll leave you two alone. See you when you get back to London."
Helen watched him. After a moment she felt the familiar warmth as Nikki stepped up and hugged her from behind, arms loosely linked around her shoulders.
"A bloke who isn't a member of the 'all men are bastards' club. Who'd have believed it?"
"I would. Come on. Let's go get something to eat."
"Or you'll get stroppy," Nikki teased.
"Look who's talking. Come on, wifie."
"I like the way that sounds."
"It means 'woman', you sassenach."
"Still like the way it sounds."
Hand in hand, they strolled back towards the house.
The next day dawned overcast and the weather was vicious and unrelenting, giving notice that the brief summer was over. Sleet and freezing rain swept across the valleys in great unending sheets of water, driven by a fierce wind that lowered the temperature still more. Thomas had been intending to go out for a hike but took one look at the outdoors and decided to play Monopoly with his friends' children instead. He was just paying out the last of his money to Ian, who had the instincts of a pool hustler, when his mobile phone rang.
"Saved by the bell!" he said cheerfully and took the call.
The moment he heard Helen's voice he knew it was trouble. Her accent had thickened to the point where she was hard to understand and he could tell she was on the verge of tears.
"Helen, what is it?"
"Wait a moment."
He stepped out into the hall and closed the door into the living room.
"Right. Now tell me. What's happening?"
"She's out in the garden, working. She won't come in."
"What? In this weather?"
"She's been out there for hours. Thomas, she hardly had any breakfast and no lunch. She's so tired she's stumbling around. When I went out to try and reason with her, she wouldn't listen. Told me to get inside and leave her alone." Helen paused and Thomas heard her swallow as she fought back tears. "I don't know what to do."
"Do you think she'll listen to me?"
"I think we have to try something. I'm at my wits' end."
"All right. Give me half an hour. I'll be over."
By the time Thomas had driven to the guesthouse the weather had, if anything, worsened. He parked his car and ran through the driving rain, not wanting to risk an umbrella turning inside out in the gusty wind. Water ran across the tarmac, soaking his trainers in the time it took to cross to the front door. It opened without him having to ring the bell. Thomas was briefly disconcerted until he realised that Kelly had been waiting for him. She slammed the door behind him and immediately handed him a warmed towel. He wiped his face gratefully and started to dry his wet hair.
"Upstairs. Come on."
She led him into a unused bedroom. Helen was standing, forehead pressed against one of the windows. She glanced round as he came in and then returned her attention outside. Thomas walked over to join her and swore softly under his breath as he saw what she was watching. The window gave a panoramic view over the kitchen garden, where a lone figure dressed in overalls was driving a spade into the soil with a grim determination that contrasted with her obvious tiredness. As he watched Nikki Wade threw back her head, trying to get the water out of her eyes, before bending to turn another load of sodden clay. As she did so her knees buckled and she sank to the ground for a moment before standing up and attacking the earth again. The muddy patches on the legs of her overalls told Thomas that this was not the first time this had happened.
"Come on," he said urgently, "she'll put it through her foot if we don't do something soon."
"OK," Helen said tautly, "what do you suggest?"
"You'll have to talk to her."
"Already have. It didn't work."
"Well, you'll have to try again. If it doesn't convince her, we're going to have to get her inside anyway."
"By force?" Helen demanded.
"I'd say she's about an hour away from hypothermia," Thomas told her. He turned to Kelly. "I need a warm bath running. Warm, not hot. And heat some soup up."
"Right," Kelly said.
"Another thing. Helen, are you in a double bed?"
Thomas turned back to Kelly. "Can you get every hot water bottle you've got into it? Unless you have an electric blanket?"
"It'll have to be hot water bottles."
"Fine, just do it. D'you have any spare waterproofs?"
"In the cloak room."
He had to say her name again. She had gone back to staring out of the window, her posture stiff with anxiety. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"Come on. I can't do this on my own."
Helen nodded and followed him down to the cloak room. Thomas found a shabby brown coat and showed it to Helen. "Will this fit her?"
"Right, come on."
They walked out of the house and down the brick path at the side into the teeth of the rainstorm. They were wet before they had walked more than a couple of steps; the rain was horizontal, driving into their faces. When they got out into the more exposed space of the kitchen garden, it was worse.
The weather helped them then, covering the sound of their approach, though afterwards Thomas wondered if Nikki had simply been too far gone to hear them coming. It was Helen's soft "Nikki." that seemed to reach her.
She turned to look at them both and scowled. "What the fuck do you two want?"
"You need to come inside," Helen said firmly.
Looking at Nikki, Thomas couldn't help but agree with Helen's concern. Even if he hadn't watched her behaviour from the window, the fact that her clothes were saturated and clinging to her in heavy folds would have worried him. When he saw how clammy her skin was and how the goose bumps were rising uncontrollably on the triangle of pale flesh at the throat of her overalls and on her bared forearms he was seriously concerned.
Nikki's hair was plastered close to her scalp, her skin beaded with drops of water. The rain ran off her now. There was nothing left to soak it up. Thomas realised that it was probably sheer determination keeping her on her feet at this stage. He held out the coat.
"Put this on."
"I'm fine as I am."
"Jesus, Nikki," Helen said, "do as he asks."
"Why?" Nikki demanded.
"Because you'll fall over otherwise."
"Like it matters."
"It matters to me," Helen said. Suddenly, she was all grim determination. "Put that coat on."
Nikki turned away. Helen didn't move. "I SAID, PUT THE COAT ON!"
Nikki turned back as though she had been struck. Thomas stared at her, equally astonished. This was a side of Helen he had never seen. Helen faced up to Nikki, shoulders rigid, almost on tiptoe as she moved into the taller woman's space.
"I don't know what you think you're punishing yourself for. But I am telling you now. It is over. It is done. Whatever the issue, we will talk about it. After you have gone into that house and gotten warm. After you have eaten. After you have stopped being so bloody selfish and worrying me half to death!"
Nikki's fists clenched on the wooden handle of the spade and she took a step towards Helen. Helen didn't move. Abruptly, Nikki seemed to crumple. She dropped the tool, and began to walk towards the house, footsteps dragging as she struggled through the mud. She got half way to the gate before she folded in a dead faint.
Thomas dropped the coat and sprinted for her, barely conscious of Helen catching up with him. They knelt in the mud together, one on each side of Nikki. She had fallen in a crumpled heap. They didn't bother with the recovery position.
"Chair?" Helen asked. Thomas nodded.
Thomas crouched, bracing himself. Helen helped sling Nikki's arm around his shoulder before taking her place at the other side of the unconscious woman. They linked their arms in the simple manoeuvre they had both learned on the standard first aid course and carried Nikki into the house. Thomas frowned as he felt how light she was, then concentrated on manoeuvring her through the series of doors Kelly held open. Eventually they came into a downstairs bathroom. By then, Nikki was semi-conscious and Thomas was able to stand by while Helen coaxed her into helping remove her boots, socks and overalls.
When Nikki was down to her underwear, Thomas moved carefully away, watching Helen support her partner as she sat on the side of the bath. He checked the temperature of the water quickly with the back of his hand and nodded. "Can you manage from here?"
"I'll need to check her over later. I've got my medical bag in the car."
"I want to listen to her lungs. If she's done this sort of thing before ...."
"All right. Give me an hour. Kelly'll tell you where my room is."
"I'll go check the hot water bottles."
"Thanks," Helen said, her attention already on Nikki. Thomas stepped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him. He waited for ten minutes, until he was sure that Nikki was safely out of her clothes and in the water, then went to find Kelly.
She took one look at him and sat him down, insisting that he have a glass of brandy. Thomas went along with it, too battered to protest, suspecting that Kelly needed to take some sort of control herself. He allowed himself thirty minutes of rest by the clock and then moved, in the way he had learnt to when he had been a junior doctor doing his first rotation on the wards. He went out to the car and picked up his equipment. The rain was still lashing down outside, the wind relentless.
He knocked lightly on the door of Helen's room, waited for an answer and went in. He was unsurprised to find her sitting beside Nikki on the edge of the bed, supporting the other woman as she buttoned her pyjama top. Thomas studiously turned away as Nikki finished getting dressed, covering by getting his stethoscope out.
He was encouraged to see that Nikki was still conscious, though she was moving slowly. He turned back and watched her eyes tracking his movements.
"Follow my finger," he said, holding his hand up.
"Feeling better, obviously. You lost consciousness out there. I need to check a couple of things."
"Just do it, Nikki," Helen said, nudging her gently.
Nikki looked mutinous but did as she was told, allowing Thomas to take her temperature and listen to her lungs afterwards. He took the opportunity to quickly check her over for injuries; in her current state he suspected that she might not be taking proper care of herself. He found a lot of bruising but only one, half healed, cut on her leg.
"Is your tetanus up to date?" he asked, wondering if he should just leave the cut alone.
"Yeah. I cut my hand on a gate a couple of years ago and they gave me a booster then."
"What about other stuff?"
"Hepatitis, that kind of thing."
That got him a patented Nikki Wade glare. "No. Dyke, remember. I'm not a drug user, either."
"Just checking. You are very underweight and probably malnourished. You know that, don't you?"
"Guess so," Nikki said dismissively.
"I'm finished. Your lungs are clear, though I don't know how in the circumstances. Do you still smoke?"
"When did you stop smoking?"
"While back. One less thing they could take away."
Thomas looked an unspoken question at Helen and she nodded.
"I'll go and get the soup," he said.
By the time he was back in the room Nikki was in bed, propped up on a pile of pillows. Predictably, she was objecting.
"I'm not an invalid."
"Just humour me," Helen said.
"And eat my nice soup like a good little girl?"
"The last thing you are is a good little girl. Lucky I like stroppy, moody women, eh?"
"Any stroppy, moody woman?"
"Just the one," Helen reassured her, "now eat your soup."
Nikki looked dubiously at the tray on her lap. "I had breakfast!"
"You had half a slice of toast. I was watching you."
"All right," Nikki said and started eating. She did it mechanically; it was obvious she was only trying to please Helen. Half way through she seemed to run out of steam, her eyelids drooping, and Helen took the tray from her and handed it to Thomas.
She lifted the covers and pulled them up to Nikki's chin. "Go to sleep."
The other woman made a restless movement and Helen sat down on the bed, stroking her cheek. "Shh, sweetheart, I'm here. Get some rest."
Nikki quieted, obviously soothed by the touch and Helen's voice. She turned and shifted into a more comfortable position. Helen watched her for a while, then leant over to speak to her. "I'm going downstairs now. But I'll be within earshot. I'll come and check on you later, OK?"
Helen kissed Nikki lightly on the forehead, adjusted the covers again. Thomas went outside and waited. Helen came out and quietly closed the door behind her.
"Is she asleep?" Thomas asked.
"Getting there. Come on."
They walked down the stairs together and, by mutual unspoken consent, ended up in the smaller parlour which, as usual, was deserted because it didn't have a TV. Helen collapsed into one of the overstuffed armchairs and crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself. Thomas sat nearby.
"How did this happen?" he asked.
"We got in last night, after going out for a meal. Neither of us wanted to go to bed. So we sat in here, on the sofa, talking."
"Sounds harmless enough."
"It was. Anyway ... Nikki dozed off."
Helen paused, thinking back. "I waited for her to wake up. Then I drifted off as well."
"OK. So what happened next?"
"I woke up ... Nikki was on her feet shouting at me."
"Yes. She was beside herself. I've never seen her like that. She was furious. Venomous. She kept saying 'I told you not to fall asleep. It isn't safe. It isn't safe.'"
"She repeated those words?"
"Yes. And then she stormed out. When I tried to go after her, she slammed a door in my face."
"Is that all?"
"No." Helen frowned unhappily. "I followed her out of the house. She turned round and ... she put her hand on my chest and pushed me away. 'Don't you dare check up on me, you ...' I don't know what she was going to call me."
"I see," Thomas said, though he didn't, really.
"She went out to the chalet. I think."
"I waited till first light, then I went down to the kitchen for a cup of tea."
"When she hadn't come back?"
Helen closed her eyes and shuddered. "She was in there. Standing on her feet, eating a piece of toast. Tearing at it like an animal. Forcing it down. As if ... she was too angry to sit and eat."
"What happened then?"
"I went to her," Helen said. Her whole face was crumpled with the memory, dark with misery. "She said, 'Get away from me. Just stay away.' Then she ... she threw the bread down and she stormed out." Helen swallowed. "The rest you know."
"Has anything like this happened before?"
"No. But I haven't talked to her properly since she left the house to come here, after her conviction was quashed."
"How long afterwards was that?" Thomas asked thoughtfully.
"About a month. While I was away at a conference."
"And what were her sleep patterns like in London?"
"Fine," Helen said quietly, "I mean, she was still following the prison routine, in a lot of ways ..."
"But, we slept together no problem. Shared a bed. She occasionally had nightmares, but we managed." She frowned. "It doesn't make sense."
"Well, maybe it's something that's developed here in Wales. Maybe the flashbacks have been getting worse away from you. She described you as 'her own personal security blanket' at the restaurant the other night."
"Really?" Helen said, smiling fondly.
Thomas looked out of the window, thinking. "This could well be another symptom."
"Yeah. This kind of irrational behaviour is quite common. As well as low self-esteem. If I had to make a guess, I'd say she's hitting out at the person she feels most safe with."
"Great. Just what we need."
"I think she should start treatment sooner rather than later. If not she might start blaming herself for the behaviour she's showing now. Then she'll get into a downward spiral it might be hard for her to pull out of. I think you should persuade her to go back to London."
"D'you think she'll listen to me?"
"I think you've got a better chance than anyone else."
"OK. I'll give it a try."
"Good luck. Look, I should get back. Call me tomorrow?"
"Sure. Thanks for everything, Thomas."
"Don't mention it. Just doing my job, ma'am."
Helen saw Thomas out and then went to fill Kelly in on what had been happening. She found the other woman unloading the dishwasher in the big kitchen. Dave was helping one of the children with their French homework on the end of the big deal table. He grinned at Helen as she came in and nudged his eldest daughter.
"Grown up talk now, Marie. Come on, love."
After they had gone Kelly sat down at the table with Helen.
"How is she?"
"Fine now. Oh! I hadn't thought. There are probably some tools getting wet in the garden."
"Don't worry. Dave sorted it," Kelly said.
"I'm sorry about that. Our first priority was getting Nikki out of the rain."
"That's OK. You'll have had your hands full."
"You can say that again. Anyway, I'm taking her back to London tomorrow."
"What happens then?"
"We get her some professional help. This can't go on."
"Good," Kelly said, "I don't like to see her like this."
"She's not herself," Helen agreed.
""First time I saw Nikki Wade, she was standing in a meal queue reciting rules," Kelly said, smiling.
"We'd been processed into Broomhill. They split us up soon after. Conspiracy to cause an explosion, or something. All bullshit. All we did was distribute a few leaflets outside the local abattoir. Anyway this screw comes down hard on me cause they hadn't prepared for us and there wasn't nothing vegetarian. Well, there was eggs, but he couldn't tell me if they were free-range or not."
She shook her head. "He was a big bloke and he was standing over me. I was so scared I was on the edge of giving in and taking his poxy eggs. Suddenly this voice pipes up with, 'Sir, rule such and such says ....' And he whips round so fast I thought he was going to hit me with his elbow."
Helen chuckled. She could imagine the scene unfolding.
"So there's Nikki, standing there in her leather shoes, quoting the rules about suitable special diets. So he's like 'Are you being insolent, Wade?' And she's 'No, Sir, of course not. I just thought I'd remind you about the rules. You know them anyway, don't you, Sir?' Gave me just enough time to step back, make a fuss. He knew he was beat then, so he backed down, got us something else."
"That's Nikki. No fear at all."
"I don't think she's scared," Kelly said sombrely, "I think she's hurt."
Helen felt her smile fade as she thought about Nikki.
"Anyway, I'd like to settle up with you for both of us."
"Forget it. She did a few things for me inside, till I found my feet. We're quits."
"Thank you," Helen said, wondering again how many people's lives Nikki had touched in her journey through the prison system.
"I'll make you some sandwiches and a flask in the morning," Kelly said, "anyway, better get started on the bread making."
Helen went upstairs to her bedroom and stepped quietly inside. The lamp she had left on was illuminating the room, showing Nikki's unmoving shape under the covers. Helen walked over and studied her partner, pleased to see that her face had smoothed out to some approximation of peace in her sleep. It had been so long since she had seen her simply resting, not battling whatever internal demons she was fighting. Her relief didn't last long. Nikki jerked awake and twisted quickly upright, half awake but still ready to move.
"Shh, it's me," Helen told her, putting a hand on her shoulder, "can I come to bed?"
"Course." She reached under the covers and pulled out one of the water bottles. "D'you mind if I get rid of these? I'm too hot."
"Sure. I'll keep you warm instead."
Nikki grinned. "Much better."
She dumped the rest of the water bottles on the floor then lay back and watched Helen undress, her face absent. Helen glanced at her and frowned. "OK, now I'm insulted."
"Why?" Nikki asked.
Helen moved over to the bed, naked, and slipped under the covers. "Here I am without any clothes on and you're not seized with the desire to immediately have your wicked way with me."
"Oh, I'm seized. It's just ... I'm knackered."
"You meaning driving yourself into exhaustion in sub-zero temperatures took it out of you. I'm amazed," Helen said, a bit more tartly than she had intended.
"I was an idiot. I know that," Nikki said. Gently, she stroked Helen's side.
"I just don't understand what's happening with you," Helen told her honestly, "you were always passionate, easily roused."
"Are you sure that's my temper you're talking about?"
"But now ... it's as though ... you can't control it any more. As though it's taking you over."
"I don't understand either," Nikki said. She turned away from Helen, burrowing deeper under the duvet. Her next comment was so muffled that Helen had to strain to catch it. "Don't really know why you're still here."
"You know why," Helen said.
"Don't go to sleep."
"If I do, wake me up."
Nikki shifted uneasily, then sat up. She was about to get out of bed when Helen reached out and caught her arm. "Where are you going?"
"Don't be stupid."
"I mean this, Helen. It's not a game!"
"I'd worked that out! Look, Nikki, we're going back to London in the morning. You need your sleep!"
"And when were you going to tell me about that? Over breakfast?" Nikki demanded. "I'm not a child."
"No, you're not. But right now, you're not thinking straight, as you demonstrated today. I need you to trust me, Nikki. I need you to do as I ask. Just this once. Otherwise I'm really frightened that you might harm yourself. And I couldn't bear that. You've been hurt enough. It's time for it to end."
Nikki looked at her, then looked away. Finally she shook her head. "Never could say no to you, could I?"
"You'll do it?"
"Yeah. I'll even sleep in the same bed as you tonight."
Helen saw the quickly masked fear on Nikki's face and frowned. She took the other woman in her arms. "Tell you what, how about I wear you out properly. Then you're sure to sleep more deeply than me."
"I told you ..."
"Shh. There are ways and means." She smiled broadly at Nikki. "You taught me most of them, remember? How about I show you what a good pupil I am?"
Nikki walked up the path to the front door, then stopped abruptly. Helen looked at her.
"It ... just feels weird," Nikki said, her face reflecting her confusion. Helen bumped her shoulder against the taller woman's ribs.
"I hope you're not expecting to be carried over the threshold, or anything like that."
Nikki grinned and slung an arm around Helen's shoulders. "No. That might put your back out."
"So that would spoil the passionate 'welcome home' sex."
"Passionate? I'll have you know that I've been driving for most of the day. And that included a stint on the M25."
"So you need to relax," Nikki said cheerfully. Helen groaned and wondered how she could be so flippant when, to Helen's certain knowledge, she had had two bad nightmares after falling asleep. Nightmares she had woken out of with tears on her face and had refused to tell Helen the content of. It made Helen wonder uneasily how much Nikki was hiding and how long she had been doing it for.
"Get the bags, Wade."
Helen dug out her keys and let herself in, bending over to pick up the drift of post behind the front door. She was sorting through it in the living room when she heard Nikki bring in her bag and the rather grungy army surplus rucksack she kept her own stuff in and take them upstairs.
Shortly afterwards she heard the clatter of Nikki's boots as she came down the stairs and went into the kitchen. "Cup of tea?"
Helen listened to the sounds of Nikki moving around the kitchen, enjoying the quiet domesticity of it. She heard water running and frowned, going into the kitchen to see what Nikki was doing. She stopped as she came face to face with her abandoned lunch from the day she had left, which was now growing its share of mould.
"Leave in a hurry, did we?" Nikki asked, quirking her eyebrows. She picked up the plate and started scraping it into the bin before dumping it into the sink to soak.
"Yeah. I found out where you were and just went."
"You were worried, weren't you?"
"Yes. Let's talk about it another time."
"Your wish is my command," Nikki confirmed. She stepped forward and laid a possessive hand on Helen's breast. "So what are we going to do instead of talk?"
"Woman, you are insatiable!"
"Shouldn't be so good in bed," Nikki told her, before kissing her soundly. Helen groaned, feeling her arousal flare.
"I could stop," Nikki said casually.
"You could. I wouldn't speak to you for the rest of the day. But you could."
"So that's all I am. Just a great shag. You're not interested in my mind at all."
"Shut up and come to bed. We can discuss philosophy afterwards."
"What, not quantum mechanics?" Nikki laughed, allowing herself to be towed towards the stairs.
Helen grinned back at her, her tongue appearing briefly behind her teeth. "Anything you want."
"Ooh. Promises, promises."
After they made it down from the bedroom, they had a takeaway and spent the early evening sitting together, reading. About an hour after the meal, Helen looked up from one of her reports as Nikki put 'A Tale of Two Cities' down.
"How is it?" she asked.
"Good. The prisoner's just been found by his dutiful daughter. It blows my mind that he wrote this stuff as a serial. The man really was a genius."
"So read some more."
"It's all getting a bit Victorian."
"Is that a technical term?"
"Do you want to watch TV instead? Or a film?"
"Maybe later. I still can't get my head round those disc things."
"They took off while were you doing your first sentence."
"I know. But they're so cheap, now."
"Well since it enables me to watch my favourite TV series again, I like them," Helen said.
She didn't mention that she had actually watched very little TV growing up, as her father had been unsure about its educational value and that in many cases she was seeing things she had missed out on the first time. As an adult, she was unsure whether liking 'Bagpuss' so much was entirely dignified or appropriate.
Nikki was moving again. "Can I get some paper off the desk? And a pen?"
"Sure. What's mine is yours. You know that."
Twenty minutes later, Helen wandered off to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea and stopped to ask Nikki if she wanted one. Glancing over her shoulder she realised that the other woman was making lists.
"What's all that about?" she asked, dropping a kiss on Nikki's head.
"I just decided I need to do a bit of planning. Hence, lists."
"What's to plan?"
"Getting my life set up again. Registering with a GP, a dentist, getting in touch with that woman Thomas recommended, organising my shifts with Trisha ... everything really."
"I'll go with you," Helen said, "if you want me to." She had heard the slight tremor in Nikki's voice when she had mentioned getting in touch with the therapist.
"Christ, I'm supposed to be an adult," Nikki protested, but there was no heat in it.
"Even grown-ups are allowed to be a little bit scared sometimes," Helen told her, "especially when they've had negative messages."
"What d'you mean?" Nikki demanded.
"I'll always remember you calling Pam a 'nutter'. You normally don't judge people. I wondered then what sort of information you'd had from your family about mental health issues."
Nikki thought about it. "The same ones as I got about being gay, I suppose. That it wasn't all right."
She hunched her shoulders. "It was OK for my Mum to be permanently zoned out on valium and gin and for us to be sent away to boarding school because she couldn't cope, but it wasn't OK for her to get any help." She shook her head. "I swore I'd never be like her."
"You're not. You're admitting there's a problem and you're doing something about it. That seems pretty brave to me."
"Well, I've got my own personal incentive scheme, haven't I?" Nikki said. She hesitated. "You don't have to come with me. But ... it might be nice if you met me afterwards."
"Deal," Helen said cheerfully, "cup of tea?"
The session started conventionally enough. Nikki turned up precisely on time, treating it as though it was a business appointment, as she usually did. She was tense, but Joan had expected that. They were getting into some difficult areas now, looking at the things that Nikki found harder to deal with.
Joan had realised that though Nikki was filled with anger at the system that had stolen years of her life, she had externalised much of it at the time, purging it so it hadn't festered. The things she really struggled with were the emotions that were corrosive for her; grief and a deep, abiding bitterness at the time she had lost; shame at things she had done and the way she had been forced to treat people; doubt about what that said about her as a person. Though she had come to a balanced appreciation of her own capacity for violence and had, almost despite her time inside, come to terms with what she had done to Gossard, the memory of her treatment of Helen after her second conviction filled her with an aching despair that sometimes threatened to consume her. At times like that she would set her teeth and endure. It was why Joan believed that she would be well, eventually. Nikki had learned to be patient in the hardest school there was and her courage had never been in question. More to the point, Helen never left her in doubt about the strength of her feelings and that was the greatest healing factor.
She watched as Nikki settled herself on the armchair opposite her and glanced at her notes. "We agreed last time that we should look at the incident that got you transferred to Southwold."
"Do we have to?" Nikki said, mock reluctantly.
"No. It's your session, But you seem to attach a lot of importance to it."
"Yeah," Nikki said. "I need to ... I need to understand why I did it. And ...."
"Take your time."
Agitated now, Nikki stood up and began to pace backwards and forwards. Joan watched her, noticing again how she automatically limited the number of steps to a distance that would fit inside a cell. She'd never pointed it out to Nikki; she doubted that she was even aware of the habit.
"I've done things, OK?"
"And we've talked about most of them. Why is this so hard?"
"Because the other stuff I did was either self-defence or because I just lost it. This was deliberate. I got angry, I saw an opportunity to hurt the guy and I took it. Poured coffee all over his hands." Nikki tensed, folding her arms and hunching her shoulders. "I behaved like the animal they said I was."
"And how does that make you feel?"
"Like I should be in a cage," Nikki said bleakly.
Joan looked at her notes, thinking. "I'm not sure I understand why this bothers you so much. There were other incidents, both before and after this one, that seem worse. After you got to Colton, for example. You were caught with a knife."
"Yeah. Because I took it off a girl who was going to slash someone with it," Nikki retorted.
"But you said it was your knife during the adjudication."
"It was me or her. I was a lifer. Didn't matter if I lost remission," Nikki said calmly, "she was due a parole hearing and if that had been on the report she wouldn't have got it. She had kids waiting on the outside." She shrugged. "Simple, really."
"But that doesn't bother you?"
"So tell me about the coffee. Why did you do it?"
"I told you. I got angry."
"Why were you angry? Something must have set you off."
"Christ, I could do with a fag." Nikki paused and took a deep breath. "I was angry because he wouldn't listen to me."
"Stokes. The Governor. I told him the drugs had been planted in my cell and he wouldn't even pretend to consider it. Because I was a con and I was accusing one of his precious screws of something."
"Were you surprised by that?"
"I shouldn't have been. But it just ... got to me."
"So an officer planted the drugs in your cell. Why?"
"He was showing me who was boss. He was showing me that whatever he did, he'd get away with it."
"That sounds like you'd already had a run in with him."
"What sort of run in, Nikki?"
"He threatened me."
Nikki tensed. "Let's just say he was a member of the 'all a dyke needs to convert her is a real man' club."
Joan made a note, to buy herself time, while she considered the implications of that. She was careful to keep her voice even during her next question.
"When did that happen?"
"Couple of weeks earlier."
"Did you report it?"
"No, it was his word against mine." Nikki smiled grimly. "I did tell him that if he ... I told him I'd cut his balls off and feed them to him. He knew I meant it, too."
"So we're not just talking about a situation where you felt angry. You were afraid as well."
"I suppose so."
"Christ, you sound like you're excusing what I did!"
"I'm not, Nikki. I would be worried if it didn't bother you. I'm trying to help you understand the context of your behaviour. Then you can avoid the triggers that might make it happen again."
"All right. So talk."
"Before I say anything ...." Joan took a deep breath. "Did he carry out his threat?"
Nikki looked at her, frowning, then grinned dangerously. "In con talk you mean, 'Did he fuck me?'"
"If you want to put it that way."
"Yeah," Nikki said, "I do."
"Does it make it easier to talk about? If you use that kind of language?"
Nikki blinked and nodded slowly. "Yeah."
Joan watched her closely. This was the first time that she had seen Nikki emerge completely from behind her defences when talking about her time in prison. She tried to make space for the breakthrough she felt might be coming. She found the ex-inmate one of her most interesting clients, not just because of her experiences and the way she had dealt with them, but because of the masks her life had taught her to wear. She sometimes wondered if Nikki's adjustment to the fact of being a lesbian in a largely hostile society, her negotiation through that maze, had helped or damaged her ability to adjust to the grim realities of prison life.
"So. Did he?"
"No." Nikki shuddered.
"Did he come close?"
"Groped me a couple of times, touched me up once."
"You're describing an ongoing sexual harassment situation."
"Didn't you complain?"
"My word against his? Don't think so."
"So what happened? You must have done something or he wouldn't have planted the drugs in your cell."
Nikki stilled. "This is really hard."
"Take your time."
Nikki cleared her throat. "I let him think I was enjoying it. When he touched me .... Behaved like I'd seen the light." She made a grimace of disgust. "Even though he turned my stomach."
"What then?" Joan asked neutrally.
"He let me take his hand. Silly bastard thought all his Christmases had come at once."
Nikki put the back of her wrist to her face, stifling her emotions, then spoke in a rush. "Slammed it in a cell door."
Joan winced involuntarily.
"Yeah. They're heavy. I'll always remember the sound of his fingers breaking ...."
"Nikki, you need to sit down. You've gone white."
"No," Nikki said through gritted teeth, "I can handle this."
"Look, humour me, OK? Sit down before you fall down."
Joan waited until Nikki was sitting tensely on a chair, gaze fixed firmly on the abstract picture over the mantelpiece.
"Why isn't it on your file?"
"It went down as an accident. Otherwise he'd have had to explain what he was doing there, after lock-up."
"Which meant that you were safe as well."
"Yeah. Never knew I was so cunning, did you?"
"I think you were protecting yourself."
"It didn't help me much. When he planted the drugs. That was the stupid thing. They weren't street drugs. They were the fucking pain killers the doctor had given him for his hand. It was so obvious. He did everything but leave the bottle with his name on in there."
"But the Governor wouldn't listen to you."
"No. Because you don't get believed in there."
"When did your parents kick you out, Nikki?"
Joan held up a hand. "Bear with me, please."
Nikki studied the other woman, jaw set as she considered her question, then visibly decided to play along. "Sixteen. Didn't like my lifestyle. You know that."
"So you've been managing on your own since then?"
"With no help from anyone?"
"Course I got help," Nikki said dismissively
"But you've been calling the shots. Running your own life?"
"Yeah. Till Larkhall."
"And taking care of yourself."
"Where is this going?"
"I'm just making the point that you're used to sorting things out, not necessarily asking for help. Unfortunately when your back's really up against it, that can mean that you do inappropriate things."
"That's a new way of describing it."
"I don't just mean the incident with the coffee, Nikki. I mean the fact that when you went into the prison the second time you cut yourself off from a lot of your sources of support. You sent Helen away. You fought against what you perceived as the system so hard that they kept shuttling you round different prisons, which isolated you further."
"I had no choice. I wasn't going to wreck the rest of Helen's life."
"She'd have waited for you."
"Maybe. For five, ten years, even. But twenty five? I couldn't expect that of her."
"I think that might have been her choice to make," Joan said quietly.
"No. Don't buy that. Sorry," Nikki said decisively.
Joan glanced out of the window and watched the way the winter sun was dappling the leaves in the garden for a second. "Are you familiar with the concept of the alpha male, Nikki?"
"I've never paid much attention to that sort of sexist bullshit," Nikki said dismissively.
"Maybe not. The idea is interesting, though. A protector, someone who makes things right for the people they care about. I suppose the female version would be a caregiver."
"I don't see where you're going with this."
"I just wonder why someone like you would run away from the woman who loves her. I think we ought to talk about that next time."
Nikki shrugged uncomfortably, then covered it by standing up. "Whatever you say. You're the shrink."
"This is a voluntary process."
"Yeah, I know. I'll be here."
"Oh, and Nikki, about the incident with the coffee ...."
"You could have thrown it in his face. You didn't."
Nikki looked at Joan, startled, then shook her head and turned away. "I'll see you next week. Same time? OK?"
Nikki left, then, instead of taking the bus, started to walk. She usually came to her sessions with Joan on public transport, partially because the ex-con part of her loved the freedom of being able to travel without an escort, to change routes at a whim and to watch the routines of a normal day unfolding during the journey.
Partially it was because many of the sessions ended with this unsettled feeling, the one that made her want to walk for hours; driving her body forward until the exhaustion and the clarity it brought gave her enough peace to trust herself back in the house she shared with Helen. As she walked she fingered the mobile phone in her pocket then, finally, turned it on.
It was one of the compromises they had come to, early on, when she had returned from one of her long walks and found Helen huddled on the sofa in the living room, tearful and exhausted after ringing round every person she could think of who might know where Nikki was. Nikki never wanted to see that expression of pain on Helen's face again.
She stopped in the middle of a London street as it occurred to her that Helen would be back home right now, if she'd got away from her meeting on schedule. Nikki glanced at her watch and realised that it was already half an hour since she'd left Joan's. She pulled the mobile phone out of her pocket and dialed the house.
Helen picked the phone up after a couple of rings. "Hiya, darling."
"One of these days it's going to be your boss calling," Nikki said reprovingly.
"Oh, had I not told you ..."
"About caller ID. Knew already, love," Nikki said and enjoyed the chuckle she got in return. The one that said Helen wasn't worrying about anything, now that she knew that Nikki was safe.
"How long before you get home?"
"Might take a while. I'm ... somewhere."
"Nearby? I could come and pick you up."
"No. I need to walk."
"All right," Helen said, "but don't get over tired."
"Why? Got plans for me?"
"One or two. Nikki, what is the thing in the kitchen?"
"The thing next to the kettle?"
Nikki grinned, watching a London bus rumble past and quickly working out roughly where she was from the route number. Now that she knew Helen was home she wanted to be there. Luckily, the short cut she had planned involved a fast walk across some allotments and through at least three of the dodgier areas between where she was and the house. Enough to burn off plenty of spare energy, what with the need to keep out of trouble. She started walking and talking at the same time.
"It's a slow cooker."
"Does what it says on the tin. You put the ingredients in, plug it in, leave it. About eight hours later, you get a hot meal."
"What's the point of that?"
"You've obviously never worked shifts. It saved my life when me and Trisha were setting up the club. Course, there were a few disasters on the way."
"Really," Helen said, "so where did you find it?"
"It was in the right hand cupboard next to the food processor. At the back."
"What were you doing in there?"
"After you left I couldn't sleep. I thought I might as well make myself useful. So I did a bit of cleaning."
"Oh," Helen said. Nikki frowned, suddenly aware of what she had given away. Helen had left for an early meeting in Birmingham at six that morning because she didn't want to spend a night away from Nikki. She had woken when Helen got up and managed to successfully fake sleep until she had heard the Peugot pulling away from the parking space outside the house.
Without Helen she had been unable to stay in bed and had turned her energy to sorting out the kitchen cupboards. Well actually, pulling out the contents of every one, cleaning them and putting the stuff back in categories. She had also thrown away all of the out of date tins and packets, sorted out the fridge and freezer, and washed down the kitchen surfaces before preparing a meal from store cupboard ingredients. She'd hoped Helen wouldn't notice. Given her partner's lack of domesticity, Nikki might have got away with it if she hadn't prepared the meal. As she strode through the short cut across the allotments, Nikki made a mental note to be more careful in future.
"You still there?" she asked, frowning at a badly weeded patch of soil.
"I'm fine. So it's brown sludge for tea, then?"
"What?" Nikki asked, totally mystified.
"You do remember my father's a minister?" Helen asked.
"The year after my mother died, he decided that the slow cooker was the answer to the days when he had to lead three services and still feed us both."
"Yes?" Nikki said, puzzled.
"So I spent my childhood eating brown sludge. Sometimes, it was red sludge."
Understanding dawned. "You didn't buy the slow cooker."
"No. Sean did. Soon after he moved in."
"And he expected you to cook with it."
"He didn't like it when I refused."
"Bet he didn't," Nikki said, "but listen. Did your dad ever cook risotto?"
"Do me a favour. Wait till I get home. Then, if you don't like supper, we'll get a takeaway and bin the slow cooker together."
"Is that a promise?"
"Of course. Wait and see."
"Good job I trust you," Helen said lightly, "bye."
Helen put the phone down and went to look at the calendar where Nikki kept a note of her shifts at Chix. She flipped back over the last couple of weeks and rapidly worked out Nikki's hours, finally turning to her own diary to compare her schedule to her partner's. The pattern she saw made her shake her head with dismay.
She'd realised that Nikki was spending more time at the club, not just working in the bar but clearing paperwork during the day and doing other tasks that gave Trisha a break. She'd even managed to put up with not seeing her in the evenings, reasoning that Nikki needed some time on her own. What she hadn't put it together with was the way that the house had suddenly been running more smoothly. She wasn't very keen on housework anyway, so when she had noticed that the place seemed much cleaner, or realised that half-finished repair jobs had apparently done themselves, she hadn't paid much attention, except to assume that Nikki had been at a loose end and become bored. It hadn't helped that she had been busy working on a new project at work.
Helen swore under her breath as she realised what had been happening - Nikki had been using the time when Helen wasn't at home to keep busy, instead of resting or catching up on her sleep. She felt a pang of guilt. She had noticed that the other woman had seemed tired recently but had not said anything; she'd not wanted to look as though she was checking up on her partner. Now she realised that it was time for a serious talk.
She crossed over to the window and looked at the garden, which had stopped being a jungle within the first two weeks of Nikki coming home, trying to work out how to approach the conversation. Nikki reacted badly to being told what to do. It was one of the legacies from her time inside. Helen resolved to pick her moment carefully. She glanced at her watch and decided to do it tomorrow, when they were both better rested. Or she was, at any rate.
Half an hour later she saw Nikki stride up the front path and give her a cheery wave before vanishing into the back garden. That meant that she was heading for the garden shed, which, as at Larkhall, was a place of refuge for her. She could potter happily in there for hours, even though in November there was nothing to do in the garden. Helen smiled indulgently and turned her attention back to her emails. She'd give Nikki her time alone and then take their coffee out to the shed. An hour later she closed her computer down and took the drinks out, nudging the door open with her shoulder.
Nikki was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn't seem to hear Helen's approach. Helen stood well back.
"What the ...! Oh, it's you."
"Who else should it be? I can go away if you're not pleased to see me," Helen said equably. She wasn't upset. She knew Nikki's moods well enough to tell that the other woman wasn't indifferent to her being there, just working through something. "Though I have got our coffee. Thought you might like some before this meal you've made."
Nikki shook her head and a smile broke out on her face. "How can I resist an offer like that? You want to eat it in the conservatory?"
"That was the general idea," Helen said, smiling back. Doing things outside was one of her partner's favourite pastimes. Helen indulged it whenever she could. Luckily the conservatory counted as 'outside' when the weather got cold. Otherwise she would have had to invest in thermal underwear by now.
They walked back to the house after drinking their coffee, hands linked. Nikki set the small table while Helen served up the food. Coming back in with the wine, Helen stopped. Nikki had lit candles, their glow softly illuminating the gloom of the evening, and had drawn the blinds mostly across, turning the room into a haven of warmth and light.
"Damm right," Nikki said, sitting down. She looked up at Helen. "What're you waiting for? An engraved invitation?"
"Behave, or you won't get any supper," Helen told her, mock sternly. In truth she had been admiring the view. Time had removed the last of Nikki's prison pallor and her hair had grown longer, curling softly on her neck. She'd filled out a little from the near gauntness that had been a legacy of the food inside. Constant manual labour had toned the resulting curves into admirable shape. Helen cleared her throat and banished her more errant thoughts, which were heading inexorably towards the bedroom. Nikki tilted her head and Helen suspected that she was reading her mind.
"Come and join me, then," Nikki said comfortably, "or aren't you going to feed me after all?"
Helen brought the food through. "Now eat it, before it goes cold."
"Risotto? Ooh, posh. You must have a good chef," Nikki said, and started on her supper.
Helen poked dubiously at the dish in front of her and had to admit that it looked nothing like the meals she remembered from her childhood. The risotto was warm and fragrant on the plate, giving off appetising odours. It had peas and mushrooms in it and ... Helen took a cautious forkful, tasting basil and other, more subtle flavours. The rice was done to perfection, not too soggy, not too hard and the whole mixture was very satisfying after a long drive home and an afternoon clearing her emails. She decided that she ought to make sure she really liked it and took another forkful, missing Nikki's amused look. Half a plateful later, Nikki nudged her playfully.
"So you hate it, then."
"No. No, it's good."
"You're not just saying that to keep me quiet? We can still bin the slow cooker ...."
"Don't even say that," Helen told her, "how did you make this?"
Helen raised an eyebrow.
"No, seriously. You had some frozen peas in the freezer, some dried mushrooms in the cupboard and half a jar of pesto in the fridge. The rest was rice, stock and herbs. Honestly, that's it."
"So, on top of everything else, you're a domestic goddess?"
"I'm a woman of many talents."
"That I knew."
They ate in silence, enjoying the meal. Finally Nikki swallowed the last forkful, put her plate down and took the bunch of grapes Helen had added to the table.
"Nice of you to cook dessert," she commented, crossing to the sofa at one side of the conservatory and lying down on it, stretching her arms behind her head. In that position she looked like nothing so much as an artist's model preparing to pose for a painting. Helen crossed to sit beside her. She felt a surge of love as the other woman reached out and rested a hand on her leg. Helen looked down at her partner, her eyes warm, and reached out to snag a grape. Nikki gave her the bunch.
"What were you doing in the potting shed?" Helen said, feeding Nikki a grape.
"You didn't peel it. Some girlfriend you are," Nikki said, then sobered, "just ... thinking."
"You feeling better now?"
"Yeah. I was thinking about things I'd told Joan ... it all got ...."
"Doesn't matter," Helen reassured her.
Nikki rolled over onto her stomach and buried her face in her crossed arms. Helen could hardly hear her next words. "You can ask, you know. You've got the most right, of anybody."
"I won't pry," Helen said, "you'll tell me when you're ready."
"Some of it ..." Nikki lifted her head and turned to look at Helen. "I'm ashamed."
"Don't be," Helen said, then paused, weighing what she was going to say next, "Nikki, I've seen your prison file, up to when you got to Southwold anyway."
"What!?" Nikki shot upright, her hand going out to seize Helen's bicep in a bruisingly strong grip.
"Nikki!" Helen protested, pulling away.
"Sorry, sorry. But how? When?"
"Adam Gates insisted that I look over it before he brought me down to see you in segregation, that time. He believed that it would persuade me that you were a hardened con. A lost cause."
Nikki dropped her hold on Helen's arm and moved away from her. She looked at Helen, visibly struggling to control herself. "And did it?"
"It sickened me. It made me angry."
Nikki blinked, fighting back tears. "Then what am I doing here? Why the hell are you spending time around me, if you think I'm a psycho? What am I, a bloody charity case?"
"No! No, Nikki, you don't understand!" Helen reached out and took hold of the other woman, gently turning her face so that they were looking into each other's eyes. "I was sickened and angry at what they'd done to you. I knew you went back in there an innocent woman, but even if you hadn't ...." She shook her head. "The records showed clear evidence of victimisation in your treatment. Nobody took your side. Not the officers who were supposed to be working with you, not the administration, not anyone. It amounted to a conspiracy to destroy you. Everyone was playing the same game; provoke you till you reacted and they had an excuse to beat you down again."
"God!" Nikki said. "You read the whole file, the adjudications, everything, and that was what you saw?"
"Yes," Helen said gently.
She watched as Nikki finally and totally lost it, tears trickling down her face as all the stress of what had been a physically and emotionally tiring day came home to roost at once. Helen found herself blinking back her own tears as she drew Nikki into her arms and held her comfortingly, providing the warm safe place her lover needed to let it all go. She waited out the initial weeping as it dwindled into hiccupping sobs and then into long choking breaths as the other woman regained her self-control. Finally Nikki pulled a rather grubby handkerchief out of a pocket, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose before turning back to her.
"I don't deserve you, Helen Stewart."
"That's a pity, because you're stuck with me," Helen said lightly.
Nikki sighed and leaned against her. The sigh turned into a yawn. Helen nudged her gently. "Come on, sleepy head. Time for bed."
"Yeah, well, I was up early this morning."
"Couldn't sleep. Dreams." Nikki shook her head. "I know I need to do this stuff with Joan, but it raises a lot of ghosts."
"I'll sit with you till you go to sleep."
"So long as ..."
"I'm joining you later," Helen said firmly. She put a hand on Nikki's shoulder. "I trust you. We've proved it's safe. What does it take to convince you?"
Suddenly uncomfortable, Nikki swung her legs down so that she was sitting next to Helen, her head bowed. "Joan talked about alpha males, being the protector. Said that's what I do."
"Well, you do, Nikki," Helen pointed out, "it just seems to me that we can take care of each other. That's what being in a relationship is about."
"So is telling the truth," Nikki said. She took a deep breath. "Hold me, will you?"
"Of course," Helen said, puzzled.
She was disconcerted when the other woman shifted so that she was sitting against Helen, facing away from her. Helen moved along the sofa to make room. Deliberately, Nikki slid down. Helen moved so that she was sitting behind her, put her arms around Nikki and frowned as she felt the tension in her. She hugged her carefully. "Shh, dearest, it's all right."
Nikki folded her hands on her own stomach and spoke into the middle distance. Her voice was surprisingly clear. "That day I ran away ...."
"You didn't ...."
"That's what I was doing," Nikki interrupted, "it was a shitty thing to do to you. I know that."
"Can we not do the blame thing?" Helen interrupted firmly.
"All right." Nikki reached up without looking and rested her hand briefly on the back of Helen's neck, then began to speak again. "You remember you'd been away for a couple of days? A couple of nights?"
"I didn't tell you when you called, but I was having flashbacks. To the attack. To things that had happened in prison. I kept waking up in a cold sweat."
"You told me you'd be all right if I went away!" Helen protested.
"I thought I would be. I was wrong. Anyway .... The second night I had a nightmare. I was fighting Fenner and he was winning. I could taste the blood in my mouth. I could see him smirking. I was terrified, just like .... Only this time, I suddenly had a knife in my hand."
Helen could see the white skin on Nikki's knuckles as she braced her fingers against each other. "I pushed it into his chest. Up to the hilt. Then I woke up. I was standing in your kitchen with a broken knife in my hand and a bloody great hole in the wall. At chest level."
Helen held Nikki a little tighter, absorbing the information. Nikki's voice was hitching and catching now, as she forced the words out. "And all I could think was what if I hurt you? What if you'd been there, tried to stop me? I couldn't ...."
"So you went away to protect me. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I was ashamed!" Nikki grated out. "I didn't want to admit I was ready for the fucking Muppet wing, but I didn't dare take the risk. Not with your safety."
"We could have worked through it," Helen protested, "we are working through it."
"Are we?" Nikki demanded harshly.
"You know we are."
Nikki didn't reply. She bent her head and kissed Helen's arm, before leaning back and closing her eyes. Helen watched the familiar profile relax and sat, thinking, for a while.
"I can hear your heart beating," Nikki murmured after a while.
"Don't know how. I'm holding it in my arms."
She saw Nikki smile. "That's sweet."
"Yeah. But, Nikki, we have to agree some things."
"Next time you're that frightened you have to at least let me try to help. You ran because you assumed that I'd just turn away in disgust."
Nikki tried to sit up then subsided as Helen tightened her grip.
"Please, listen to me," she breathed the words into her partner's ear, "that wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all. We've both suffered because of it. I don't want that to happen again. Next time, at least give me the chance to deal with it."
Nikki swallowed. After a long pause, she nodded. Helen kissed her hair. "Good. Now do you want to talk about the amount of work you're doing? Instead of getting the sleep you need?"
"But I will. Because I promised."
"So what's going on?"
"Well the stuff at the club is because I thought it was time to give Trisha a bit of a break. It's my business as well and I wanted to get back into it."
"Fine. And the stuff at home?"
"Just keeping myself busy."
"Keeps the memories at bay."
"All of them!"
"I thought that was the counselling was for," Helen said carefully.
She felt Nikki grow still in her arms.
"It's not enough."
"What d'you mean?"
"It helps me process the memories. I'm getting my head round the things I did. The things that happened to me. But the feelings I get ...." Nikki shuddered. "Sometimes I want to scream, or smash things."
"I get that after a day at work sometimes."
"But you don't get flashbacks. That's why I can only spend so much time at the club. I can hold it together for a while but when I get tired, especially .... People don't tend to like it when the hostess is sitting behind the bar losing it instead of serving their drinks."
"It's how it is, that's all," Nikki said, her old stroppy manner re-asserting itself. 'She'd be marching off to her cell if she was still in Larkhall' Helen thought, amused. She ran a soothing hand along Nikki's upper arm.
"So what you're saying is that you'd like to do more stuff outside the house, but you can't trust yourself at the club."
"I suppose so."
"How about voluntary work?"
"Hang on a minute. I thought you wanted me to do less, not more?" Nikki said.
"You earn a reasonable amount of money from the club, right?"
"I may work for an non governmental organisation, but I'm on an OK wage."
"Where is this going?"
"I suggest that we employ a cleaner, which takes away any excuse you may have for hoovering at three in the morning and you find some voluntary work that uses your skills."
Helen watched Nikki thinking about it as she absently started to return Helen's caresses. Finally, the taller woman spoke.
"And how will that be different?"
"It will be different because you will promise that that's all you'll do."
"As well as the club?"
"OK," Nikki said slowly.
"And since it's voluntary work you can find something where you can pace yourself and if you need to go and sit in the storeroom for an hour, there won't be a problem."
"I'm not going to work in a charity shop!"
"I wasn't thinking of that. Monica should be able to help you find something."
"I suppose so," Nikki said thoughtfully. Helen hid a smile as she watched the other woman's mind begin to work.
Nikki sat up again. This time, Helen let her go. They sat, knees touching, facing each other. Nikki raked her hands through her hair.
"I'm still waiting."
"The rest of the answer. How do we deal with it in the mean time? The nightmares? The risk?"
Helen reached out to draw the back of her fingers down Nikki's cheek. "There isn't any real risk ... but we can work it out. Separate bedrooms, if that's what it takes. Doesn't mean we can't spend at least part of the night together." She grinned. "Especially if I manage to keep you awake."
"What about the other thing? The claustrophobia?"
"I've been looking into houseboats. There are moorings in London. Or, maybe, converted warehouses. You know? Floor to ceiling windows? Open plan?" Helen shrugged. "We can always rent until we find something that suits."
"You've really thought about this, haven't you?" Nikki said, astonished
"I'm not just a pretty face, you know."
"You got that right."
"Besides, this matters," Helen said, "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live, remember." She became aware that Nikki was staring at her, astonished, and blushed. "What? Had I not mentioned that part?"
Nikki's face softened. "No, darlin', you hadn't. Is that what you want?" she asked, awed, "for the rest of our lives?"
"Of course!" Nikki said explosively. "I never want to be in a place you're not in again. For as long as I can. I just thought ..."
"That when it got difficult, I'd leave you."
"No! Never that! I thought you might decide that I wasn't worth the trouble. Christ, that would be understandable. I'm an ex-con who's practically a basket case. I'm bad tempered, unreasonable. I know I'm hard work, OK!"
"Yes," Helen said, "and we're going to have plenty more run ins before .... Well, actually, probably for the rest of our time together. But that doesn't change the fact that you're the woman I love. That means I'm not giving up on you."
She grinned at Nikki's expression, her tongue showing briefly between her teeth.
"However much you might want me to."
When Helen came down to breakfast the next morning Nikki was already up, whistling cheerfully as she prepared scrambled eggs on toast. Helen sat down at the kitchen table and accepted a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. "You're in a good mood."
"Spoken to Monica, haven't I? Eggs?"
"Yes, please. When?"
"I sent her an e mail last night and she rang me this morning."
Helen thought back. She vaguely remembered hearing the phone and turning over and going back to sleep when it had stopped. She had assumed that the answer machine had kicked in but now she thought about it, there was an associated memory of the bed suddenly becoming colder and then gradually warming up again. Helen had been too deep in her dream about wandering through a forest to really care.
"So what did she say?"
Nikki grinned and put a plate of food in front of her. "Seems there's this place down the East End that needs a general helper. Drop in centre for refugee and asylum seeker women and children. Mostly Somalians and Ugandans. Monica thinks it'll be ideal."
"That's fast work!"
"You know me. Don't let the grass grow under my feet when I want something."
Nikki dropped Helen's cutlery onto the table and fetched the teapot and seasonings. Helen laughed out loud and stood up to hug her. Nikki hugged her back and stood looking down into her face. "Hey! What brought that on?"
"It's just so good to see you like this."
"Instead of stamping around with a face like thunder, looking like I'm planning to kill somebody? I think I prefer it as well," Nikki said cheerfully, "besides, it's the weekend, I've got a beautiful woman sharing breakfast with me and because I worked while you were away, I've actually got both days off."
"I didn't know that."
"It's on the calendar. You'll just have to cancel your romantic evening with the other woman and spend it with me instead."
"I've changed my mind."
"I prefer you with the face like thunder."
Nikki chuckled and tucked into her eggs. After she had showered and dressed, Helen ambushed her in the potting shed and suggested that they go and look at the centre. Nikki agreed, more to reassure Helen that she really meant to go through with it than anything. Another part of her was curious about the place where she might be spending her time.
They drove through the grimy streets, following the automated voice of the sat nav and eventually, after a few detours, found the centre. It was a decaying, one story brick building that looked as though it might have been an old school, with wire mesh over the windows and signs next to the drain pipes pointing out that they were painted with anti climb paint.
The surrounding streets were filled with run-down terraced housing with tiny, neglected front gardens; the only shopping street was filled with take-aways, newsagents that doubled as off-licences, household goods stores with their wares displayed in cardboard boxes on the pavements outside and run down grocery stores that sold exotic foods and spices. Gangs of youths of various ethnicities hung around on the corners, watching passers by.
They parked the car in the street, next to the rusting railing that surrounded the concrete playground. "Better put the sat nav in the boot," Helen commented.
"Yeah, or take it with us."
As Nikki watched the doors of the centre opened and a flood of children poured out, followed by some women whom Nikki assumed were their mothers. The children were without a care in the world, running and playing with each other. They communicated in a babble of varied languages, including English. Their mothers were more serious, chatting together, mostly in their own ethnic groups, though some mixing seemed to be going on. The Somalis were the most striking, tall and slender in their long colourful robes. The Ugandans were shorter and darker and mostly dressed in Western clothes.
Helen nudged Nikki. "I think we've got an audience."
Nikki looked down and saw that a small group of older children were standing on the other side of the railings, faces serious, watching them. She glanced at her partner's expression as Helen crouched down to talk to the children, her infectious smile breaking out as she tucked her hair behind one ear.
"I'm searching your bag for passengers before we leave," she warned jokingly and started to study their surroundings, something she couldn't put her finger on bothering her.
Then she saw it; a group of white youths gathering on the other side of the street, their faces angry and sullen as they stared at the refugees. They were all dressed identically, in stone washed jeans and braces, with their hair shorn into non-existence. Some of them wore union jack T-shirts; others were less subtle and had racist slogans or the names of bands that Nikki vaguely recognised as skinhead groups on their chests. The slightly older boy who seemed to be the leader actually had swastika patches on his bomber jacket.
"Helen, get up," Nikki said. Her fists clenched involuntarily and she was glad that she had then in her pockets.
"What?" Helen asked, straightening up. She saw the skinheads and her face sobered. "Nikki!"
"Make trouble. Please. There are children here."
"That's why I need to make trouble."
"Nikki, this is not your fight!"
"No? Never heard of the pink triangle?"
Some of the youths saw Nikki's reaction and began to cat call and jeer, their words blending into each other, the strong London accents masking the worst of the abuse. Nikki watched them for a little longer then, to Helen's relief, visibly dismissed them, cold contempt crossing her face as she turned away.
"Thank you, darling," Helen said. Nikki put her arm round her, which caused another round of jeering before the youths drifted off. Helen was grateful that they didn't have anything to throw; she noticed that the playground had emptied sometime during the standoff.
"It's all right. Pick your battles. That's the trick. Standing in the bloody street isn't actually illegal, even if it is blatant intimidation. It explains the paint, though."
Nikki nodded at some of the seemingly random rectangles of white paint that disfigured the walls of the centre. "What would you like to bet that those cover racist graffiti?"
"I'm not sure that this voluntary work is a good idea," Helen said.
"Why? Cause they have to put up with it and I can opt out? That's shit."
"That isn't what I meant and you know it!"
"What did you mean, then?"
"I mean that you rush in where angels fear to tread. I mean that I'm frightened that you might get in over your head with this."
"You can't wrap me in cotton wool!"
"I know that. But there is such a thing as being careful!"
Nikki thought about it. "If I promise to be careful, will you let me do it?"
"You don't need my permission to do anything. Don't turn this into that!"
"I'm not," Nikki said, putting her hand on Helen's arm, "I just don't want you worrying when I come here."
"So long as you promise," Helen said, "please?"
"All right," Nikki said, "my fierce wifie. I'm well under the thumb, aren't I?"
"You're the one who says you love it when I'm bossy," Helen retorted.
"Ooh, I knew that was going to come back to haunt me."
Nikki grinned and shook her head. She looked at Helen, her eyebrows quirking, then sobered.
"Look, I did do two stretches inside and I did learn to keep out of trouble. You put those little morons in Larkhall, never mind a men's prison, and they'd be crying to be let out inside half an hour. They're not that tough."
"No. But if you get a group of them it could be dangerous."
"So, I'll be careful. No wearing the 'queer to the core' T-shirt on my first day."
"Yeah, leave that at least a week. The women might not like it, anyway."
"Come on," Nikki said, "I'm going to take you out for lunch. Somewhere nice."
"We'll do something meaningless, like shopping."
Helen grinned. "Good plan."
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