DISCLAIMER: Characters are property of Shed (although I'd love Karen all to myself!) and some dialogue has been borrowed from scenes in S4, E10.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Bad Girls Series 4 spoilers
"I'm stuffed." Karen Betts was shouting now, through sheer exasperation at the uphill struggle the last few days had proven to be. "He's won, hasn't he?"
Neil Grayling, the prison's governing governor and Karen's boss, walked round the desk so that he was standing face to face with her in what he hoped was a reassuring pose. "Not if you drop it first, he hasn't."
Karen's brow furrowed in confusion and she fixed Neil with a questioning look, her arms folded defensively in front of her. She'd had just about as much crap as she could take and she wasn't about to be fobbed off by yet another bloody man.
"The CPS won't officially notify the police for a couple of days," Neil continued. "They won't have to notify them at all if you've already withdrawn the allegation." Neil knew he was treading on dangerous ground, and made an effort to keep his voice as level and reasoned as possible.
"But then I look like a liar!" Karen protested, indignation mounting in her voice.
"Or someone who knows she's in the right, but can't beat a system geared toward men." Neil mentally patted himself on the back. The feminist card was a winner with women like Karen Betts and he knew it. Especially when Karen sighed and shook her head in what seemed to him like resignation. He sat down on the edge of the desk, continuing his efforts to appear relaxed and supportive.
"You have a son Karen. All you need to say to Fenner is that you didn't want to put him through all of this," Neil shrugged. Karen was softening visibly.
"This isn't just about me." Karen's voice was rising again. "It's about every woman that bastard has abused. I can't let them down. Not again." Karen's anger was escalating and she knew it was mostly directed at herself. She felt sick when she thought about how she'd ripped up Helen Stewart's sexual assault allegations in front of Jim, how time after time she'd confronted him and let him convince her that he was in the clear, how he'd turned the situation around and made her feel guilty for doubting him. And how every time, she'd heard what she wanted to hear.
"Karen!" Neil was practically shouting now and he quickly checked himself. Losing his cool was not the way to get Karen Betts onside. "There isn't going to be a prosecution," he said firmly, trying hard to keep the frustration out of his voice. "How is it helping the women Jim's abused if you let him believe he's been vindicated?"
A sharp rap on the door brought their conversation to a premature end. As Di Barker, another of G-wing's officers, entered, Karen thanked Neil and, with a fleeting grim look, left the office, shutting the door behind her. She paused for breath outside, running her fingers through her hair, a nervous gesture much overused in recent days. She was fed up of fighting, of justifying herself, of trying to get people to accept her version of events. All she needed was someone to understand. Was that too much to ask?
Karen didn't think she could face anyone else just yet. She needed to give herself time to think and she certainly couldn't do that with Jim Fenner staring her in the face. She made her way to the screws' locker room, and, after a tentative glance round to make sure she had the room to herself, sat down on the hard wooden bench in the middle of the room. It wasn't the most comfortable of places, but at least here she could have a furtive cigarette in peace and work out her next move. So much for trying to quit Karen buried her head in her hands and slowly massaged her temples to try to calm the barrage of thoughts racing round her head.
Some of Helen Stewart's last words to her rang in her ears. When Karen had taken Helen's claims about Jim as a personal slight, Helen had stressed that it hadn't been about her. Well it bloody well was now. She was smack bang in the middle of the whole bloody mess. She'd meant it, when she'd stated to Neil that she owed it to all the other women Jim had abused. Helen, Shell, Rachel, God knew who else, but she was sure there were more Helen had been right. Karen had been too close. And consequently she'd let them all down. But finally she could see things for what they were. See Jim for the bastard he was. Not that the knowledge made it all any easier to deal with. She'd meant what she'd said to Mark too, the G-wing officer she'd been seeing for the past few weeks. She didn't need testosterone. She didn't need knights in shining armour. She just needed to talk. So badly. All she wanted was someone to listen.
She stood up and made her way across the room to her locker. Opening the door, she picked up her mobile phone and turned it on. Impatiently, she waited for the welcome screen to load, convinced it was taking twice as long as usual, just to spite her. When the phone was finally ready, she scrolled down through her contacts list until she found the number she wanted, a number she'd never thought she'd use again, but had kept, just in case. What was that, these little instincts? Seemingly trivial decisions which only made sense months down the line? Was it just another sign that she'd known all along, but just hadn't wanted to admit it to herself? Further proof of the way in which Jim had played her? Helen Stewart's name stared at her from the screen in answer to her questions as her finger hovered over the call button. She couldn't bring herself to press it though. As much as she knew Helen would understand, would be the ear she so badly wanted and needed, Karen felt overwhelmed with guilt at the way she had treated her. Not just guilt, either. She was ashamed and embarrassed. She had a vivid memory of having once accused Helen of thinking her weak and stupid enough to be with the kind of man Helen had thought Jim was, and all along Helen had been right. Karen had been weak. She had been stupid. And facing up to that was the hardest thing of all. With one swift movement she turned off the phone, slammed shut her locker door and marched out of the room.
Karen went about her work that day with a mechanical sense of detachment. The women must have noticed something was wrong, but she didn't particularly care. She just needed to get through it, any way she could. To her relief, she managed to avoid crossing paths with Jim for most of the day, but later, as she approached the landing, bringing the women back from exercise, she spotted him working in the POs' office, the door ajar. Her first instinct was to turn and walk in the opposite direction, but she fought it. She knew she had to confront him some time, so she might as well do it now. It was nearly the end of her shift, and a long shift it had been too. If she dealt with Jim now, got the whole sorry business out of the way, she could go home and reward herself with a stiff drink A few stiff drinks. It would take a whole bloody bottle to block out what she'd been through. Not that her flat was somewhere she particularly wanted to be. There were far too many memories of her and Jim living there together. A surprising amount, given how short-lived the happier parts of their relationship had been. Nevertheless, she would deal with that later. Right now sentimentality was not something she could afford to indulge. She couldn't let Jim know how much he'd got to her. Couldn't let the bastard win.
Karen entered the office and stood by the door, waiting for Jim to look up and notice her. The surprise on his face as she informed him she was dropping the case made her sick, and she felt her skin bristle as he stood up and edged past her to close the door, confining them in the room together. She eyed him warily as he told her how much he cared for her, acknowledged that he had perhaps gone too far, but insisted that what he had done had not amounted to rape. As for when he told her he loved her, that was too much. Did the man never give up? Did he even realise what he had done? She smiled in disbelief. "You think you've got away with it, don't you? You're as happy as a pig in shit. Don't be too happy though Jim." The edge to Karen's voice was getting harder by the second, and Jim's corresponding look of consternation, fear even, was deepening in harmony. "You may be safe from the cops, but you'll never be safe from me. For every woman you've made suffer, I'm going to make you suffer ten times over, and that's a promise. Still love me, do you?" With these last words, Karen looked Jim up and down, a growing expression of disgust evident on her face. Leaving Jim reeling in shock, she turned on her heel and marched out of the room, making sure she was far enough away that Jim couldn't see her before she stopped and slumped against the wall. She had done it, she had kept it together. She had won the first battle. But it had taken every last shred of energy she possessed. So all she needed now was to figure out how to win the war.
The shrill sound of the telephone broke rudely into Helen Stewart's thoughts. It was early evening and she was sitting at her dining table, sorting through the bills and paperwork which had been piling up on her sideboard over the past few weeks. At least that's what she was supposed to be doing and she'd be lying if she were to claim that this was the first time she had attempted this particular task. In reality her head had been somewhere else, a long way from the monotony of gas bills and home insurance. She swore under her breath and considered leaving the phone to ring. She wasn't really in the mood to speak to anyone and besides, if it was important, they'd leave a message or call back. She had long since given up rushing to snatch up the phone, hoping to hear Nikki's husky voice at the other end. It had been two weeks now and Nikki still hadn't called. No reason to think that she would break the silence today. And Helen certainly wouldn't be making the first move. It had been Nikki who had ended it, so it was up to Nikki to make things right.
The ringing continued and Helen cursed her inner sense of duty as she pushed back her chair and rose from the table. As she clasped the receiver to her ear, her weary 'hello?' was greeted by a moment of silence before the person on the other end of the phone spoke.
"Helen? It's Karen. Karen Betts."
It was Helen's turn to be struck silent momentarily as she attempted to gather her thoughts. "Karen. It's been a while," she managed finally. Helen was completely taken aback and suspected she had not done a particularly good job of masking the surprise in her voice. There was more to it than just surprise, however. Their parting words to each other, some months previously, had been acrimonious and Helen had instinctively felt that resentment creep back into her tone as soon as she had heard Karen speak.
Not that she had particularly been dwelling on their animosity in the interim. It had been months since Helen had left Larkhall and in all honesty, she had barely given Karen Betts a second thought. Initially, she had spent a lot of time wondering what had become of the sexual assault case against Jim Fenner which she'd left on Karen's desk as her parting shot, becoming angry and agitated at Karen's apparent lack of action. She had been so busy, however, starting her new life with Nikki, and more recently trying to keep them afloat, that she had not followed it up and it had gradually slipped further and further down her list of priorities. Besides, it was a case of never wanting to look back as far as Helen's relationship with Larkhall was concerned. Especially now that what she and Nikki had, or rather had previously had, had all turned to crap. Just like everything else that had come out of that place. The memory of her last few months at Larkhall, the endless arguments and confrontations with Jim Fenner, with Karen, with Nikki and even with Thomas, the senior medical officer whom she had been 'dating' at the time, still left a lingering feeling of dread in the pit of Helen's stomach and consequently she had avoided thinking about it whenever possible, instead throwing herself into her work in true Helen style, to try to numb the pain of Nikki's departure. So for Karen to call her out of the blue, now, when she was finally at a point where she could let it all go well, it was bad timing, to say the least.
There were another few seconds of silence before Karen spoke again on the other end of the line. She had spent a lot of time that day deliberating over whether to pick up the phone and had spent the time engaged in a hypothetical conversation with Helen inside her head, carefully preparing what she would say. The memory of her last words to Helen, of the things she had accused her of and the tone of voice she had used, was burned onto her mind and had been replaying itself over and over, adding to the feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment with which she was overwhelmed. But despite all her preparation, Karen's script had vanished clean from her head as soon as she had heard Helen's dulcet Scottish tones. She was struggling to think straight, to maintain the composure that she'd displayed in her encounters with Neil and Jim that day. She'd even had to be guarded with Mark, after he'd hinted that she'd perhaps been just as much to blame, since she'd willingly got into bed with Jim in the first place. After that, there was no way she could open up to him and tell him how she really felt. But now with Helen, that front was gone and she was struggling even to speak her mind felt as if it were full of cotton wool and suddenly all she could think of was how much she longed for Helen's understanding and forgiveness, how much she just needed to be able to tell her story, without the judgements which seemed to be so forthcoming from everyone else.
"Helen... I know... I'm sorry " Karen's voice cracked. "But I need your help. No-one else " Karen trailed off, a myriad of unfinished sentences hanging in her wake. The relief of finally talking to someone who would understand what she had been through, who knew what Jim was capable of, was too much for her, and she could not hold back the tears which now cascaded down her face. She knew that she was being inarticulate, she knew that poor Helen probably had no clue about what was going on and what she was trying to say. But the last few days of keeping calm, of being 'sensible', of considering the practical aspects of charges and statements and having to keep her emotions under wraps to save face at work, in front of Jim, had all taken its toll. She still felt tremendously guilty about calling Helen; after all, to say that things had been tense between them in the weeks leading up to Helen's departure from Larkhall was a gross understatement. And at the time, Karen had been guilty of the very reaction she was now resenting in people like Neil and Mark. But at the same time she knew that if she wanted to be in with any chance of nailing Jim without involving the legal system, she would certainly need Helen onside. But much more than that, she longed to be able to talk about what had happened, to confide in someone who she knew would not judge her, or question her integrity and who would accept unconditionally what she needed to get off her chest. And she knew enough about Helen Stewart to know that she was kind, compassionate, fair and above all was committed to listening and understanding what people had to say, all qualities which had made her an excellent governor of both G-wing and Larkhall and which Karen had overlooked, blinded as she had been by her involvement with Jim. She and Helen shared a lot of the same principles and had enjoyed what had looked to be a promising friendship when Karen had first come to Larkhall, before the situation with Jim had escalated. Karen clung to the memory of happier times, hoping that Helen would be able to find it in her heart to forgive her for some of the harsh things she had said and for not having believed her when it had mattered the most.
Helen could tell from the irregularity of Karen's breathing that she was struggling to control tears and wondered what could possibly have happened to reduce her, a woman who'd always presented as perfectly controlled and composed, to this state, and, even more surprisingly, what could have prompted her to call. Her initial anger at Karen had melted away as she'd registered Karen's emotional state, and for now, even though she was unsure what was going on, she was responding like any other compassionate human being when faced with someone so clearly in pain. Deep down, Helen had come to the swift realisation that there was only one reason Karen would call her above anyone else and the churning in the pit of her stomach told her that it would perhaps be a mistake to reopen old wounds. But there were still nights when she woke in a cold sweat because of what Fenner had done to her, times when had Nikki moved to touch her and her instant reaction had been to pull away, a situation which had ultimately been instrumental in her and Nikki's break-up. And although she had tried her hardest to bury the memories and feelings about what had happened to her that night, it was still with her, it still affected her in ways that she was powerless either to predict or to control. But in that instant, she knew that, painful as it would be to go back there, she owed it to herself and to all the other women Fenner had hurt, to help Karen in any way she could. She adopted what she hoped was a soothing voice and prayed that she did not sound anywhere near as anxious as she felt.
"Karen? Where are you? I think you'd better come over "
Karen's hands were shaking as she pressed the button to end the call and tucked her phone back in her bag. An unidentifiable wave of feeling washed over her and for a moment she thought that she would be sick. She was still at Larkhall, sat out in her car in the car park; at the end of her shift, free to leave, but reluctant to go home, to be alone with her thoughts in an empty flat. She quickly wound down the window and let the cool air rush over her, calming the melee of emotion which had spontaneously come to the fore. Relief was a large part of it, for sure. Relief that Helen had answered the phone, that she had heard her out, or at least the few syllables which she had managed to utter, and relief that Helen's voice had been warm and caring, when she would have been well within her rights to tell Karen to sod off and to hang up the phone. As she gripped the steering wheel tightly to steady herself, Karen silently chastised herself for her weakness, willing herself to get a grip. She had kept it together so far, for the most part anyway, although rehashing everything in the interview with the police had been both emotionally gruelling and downright humiliating. But in terms of life-threatening situations, Karen had certainly been in more terrifying clinches than this; being held hostage by a prisoner with a grudge and a syringe poised at her face was one such example which stuck out in her gallery of memorable moments. Yet something about this whole situation with Jim had undermined every fibre of her being. She did not feel safe. She did not feel respected. She no longer trusted her own judgement, her own perceptions. It had been bad enough when she'd found out that Jim had shared compromising photos of her with Neil Grayling. Jim had tried to apologise, to worm his way out of it, but she'd stood her ground, had told him to piss off. She'd had some pretty bad relationships in the past, but no-one had ever betrayed her the way Jim had done. She'd not known that it was possible to feel that dirty, that cheap and humiliated. And it had only got worse from there. And who was to say that the worst was over? Jim knew where she lived, for Christ's sake. He knew where she worked. He had travelled in this very car countless times. And she had sat beside him. Kissing him. Touching him. Letting him touch her. And all the time cursing Helen Stewart and her stupid vendetta and letting herself be taken in by Jim's lies. And to think that all that time, he had been laughing. At Helen, at her and at God knows who else Suddenly overcome by anger, Karen rammed her keys into the ignition and brought the car to life, reversing quickly out of her parking spot and pointing her car in the direction of Helen Stewart's flat.
"Shit," muttered Helen under her breath as she replaced the phone in its cradle, "shit, shit, shit." She took a large gulp of the glass of wine she'd poured herself just seconds before the phone had rung and sat down on the sofa, burying her head in her hands. Of course, she could have completely misread the situation. Karen hadn't actually said anything yet to incriminate Jim or to give her much of a clue at all about what was going on. Helen had jumped to conclusions, but she knew that they were the only conclusions that seemed to make sense under the circumstances. And deep down, Helen was sure that whatever had happened to Karen, Jim had been at the bottom of it, just as he had been behind every other messy situation which had arisen at Larkhall.
A part of her was glad that Nikki was out of the picture and highly unlikely to interrupt her and Karen this evening. The mention of Fenner's name had always caused problems between them, a situation which Helen had hoped to be able to leave behind after Nikki's release, but which had proved impracticable for both of them. Nikki had been, and probably was still, angry. Angry at Fenner, at Karen, at the establishment, but, most of all, at herself, for not having been able to protect Helen and for not having been in a position to comfort her afterwards, when Helen had needed her so badly. And Helen understood that, she really did. But the fact remained that there was an edge to Nikki's anger, which, if she was completely honest with herself, scared her. Even more so now that Nikki was free and stood to lose so much more. What had happened to Helen was remarkably similar to what had happened to Trish, Nikki's ex-girlfriend, years previously. It was the reason Nikki had ended up in Larkhall in the first place. And a part of Helen had been wary of letting Nikki too close and unleashing that side of her. The same part of her that had wondered what Nikki would have done, had she been there that night, in the office with her and Fenner. And the thought had chilled her. Because much as she wanted Fenner out of her life, the thought of living without Nikki had been more than she could bear.
In reality, of course, she was surviving without Nikki in her life. But only just. And very much as a matter of necessity rather than choice. She went from day to day, doing what she had to do. And although she'd given up expecting Nikki to call, or to walk through the door, a big part of her still held out hope for a reconciliation. They'd both said a lot of things: Nikki had accused Helen of pushing her away and of playing power games and Helen had accused Nikki of acting on impulse and not listening to her and what she had to say. Of being controlling and over-protective. And at the end of the day it had all become too much. They had lost sight of what had brought them together in the first place, of the positives and priorities in their relationship and it was this which had caused them to split, just a few months after Nikki's release. Still, with Nikki gone, there was nothing left to lose now, was there? She stood up, gathered her papers into a pile, still no further with the task than she had been an hour ago, and, taking another gulp of the wine, settled down to await Karen's arrival.
Half an hour later, Helen answered the door to find Karen standing on the doorstep, her winter coat wrapped around her and a large bottle of vodka in her hand. "Peace offering?" she ventured, holding the bottle out to Helen.
Helen motioned Karen inside. "You didn't have to." She smiled as she took the proffered bottle. "But thank you."
"It's the least I could do," Karen replied. "Turning up on your doorstep out of the blue like this."
Helen indicated to Karen that she should make herself comfortable on the sofa while she disappeared into the kitchen to fetch glasses for the drink. By the time she returned, Karen had removed her coat and was perched on the edge of the seat, looking strangely awkward in the unfamiliar setting. Karen was oddly relieved that Helen's surprise at seeing her back in prison officer's uniform was so clearly evident on her face, as it gave her an easy point from which to start the explanations which she hadn't been sure how to begin.
"It's a long story," she started. "But suffice to say that Jim Fenner is governor of G-wing these days." She nodded in response to the shock and dismay painted across Helen's face. "I know. And I'm sure you've already figured out that he's the reason I'm here."
Although it had been a surprise to Helen to see Karen in uniform, given that Helen had last seen her thriving in her capacity as G-wing governor, the greater shock had been in registering Karen's pale face, dark circled eyes and mildly dishevelled hair, which was roughly tied back in a pony tail. She had clearly made an effort to look smart, as Karen always did, and make-up and her neatly presented uniform masked what Helen suspected was the worst of it. But if the phone call had not been enough warning, Karen's appearance and the way she carried herself, sat upright and tense, her hands playing with each other in her lap or straying to her head to run themselves through her hair, made it clear that something was very wrong. Her mascara was smudged slightly under her eyes, as if she had been crying earlier in the day, and her eyes themselves were dull and lifeless, far from the charismatic and fiery Karen with whom Helen had engaged in many a heated discussion.
"Yeah, I thought he might be." Helen sat down beside Karen and handed her one of the glasses of vodka. "Why don't you tell me what's been going on?"
The kindness and gentle tone of Helen's voice was almost more than Karen could bear after days of defensiveness, of justifying herself to Neil, Jim and the police. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes and she bit down hard on her lip to stop it trembling. Helen seemed to hesitate for a moment, sensing the awkwardness in the space between them, then, setting her vodka glass down on the coffee table, took Karen's free hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "Take your time," she soothed. "I'm not going anywhere. And anyway, we've got one hell of a lot of vodka to keep us going!"
Karen attempted a smile. "Oh Helen, you were so right," she choked out, still fighting back tears. "He is a misogynist bastard." She paused to wipe away the tears which had collected under her eyes and took a deep breath. "The other night he he raped me. I said no, and he raped me."
Karen's tears were in full flow now and Helen responded by pulling Karen to her, holding her close and stroking her hair as she cried. The awkwardness which had initially hung in the room between the two women quickly disappeared as Karen seemed to melt into Helen's embrace, relishing the comfort which she had so desperately sought in the past few days. Mark had tried his hardest, but as long as she knew he didn't really understand what had happened, she didn't want him close, didn't want him touching her. But with Helen, it was different. With Helen, she relaxed and let the emotion take over.
"That's it sweetheart, let it out," Helen murmured as she continued to stroke Karen's hair and back, all the time making soothing noises and holding Karen close. After a few minutes, Karen's tears subsided and she pulled back, reaching for one of the tissues located in a box on the coffee table.
"I've been so stupid Helen," Karen said bitterly once she'd regained her capacity to speak. "The whole time I was hearing what I wanted to hear. And finally, finally, I've realised what he's really like. And all the while you and Shell and God knows who else, have had to suffer." And Karen told Helen the details of the night, a few days ago, when she had gone to Jim's with the intention of checking up on him, had ended up drinking with him, and then in his bed, kissing him, and how he had finally raped her, holding her down even when she had asked, had begged him to stop. She filled Helen in on what had happened in the months since she had left Larkhall, how no-one had taken Yvonne's claims seriously, how she and Jim had got engaged, then had broken it off just as quickly, how Maxi Purvis' knickers had mysteriously ended up in Jim's locker and how it had taken Jim showing Neil the compromising photos of her to finally tip her over the edge and lose all faith in his credibility.
"Do you remember, you once tried to tell me what Jim was like, and I accused you of thinking me weak and stupid enough to be living with that kind of man?"
Helen opened her mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and merely nodded instead.
"Well you were right. I was stupid. I am weak. I had doubts so many times, but every time I let Jim persuade me otherwise. I let him take me for a ride, Helen. I let him rape me."
Helen's eyes filled with tenderness and this time she did allow herself to speak. "No, Karen," she responded firmly. "You loved him. You can't punish yourself for that."
"Oh believe me, I have," Karen retorted, her voice tainted with bitterness. "And as for the way I treated you It was probably all part of his plan, turning us against each other. And I made it so easy for him. He must have been gloating behind my back the whole time. To think I accused you of harassing him, after what he put you through."
"Karen, let it go," Helen interjected. "None of that matters " But Karen was in full flow and would not let herself be placated.
"I let myself be swept off my feet by holidays and marriage proposals," she continued. "I heard what I wanted to hear, while the truth was right there, all the time, staring me in the face. I'm a hypocrite. I talk to the women about not letting men walk all over them, then I go do the exact same thing and let everyone else get hurt in the process."
She felt sick as she thought about how Jim had pretty much made her beg for his forgiveness after she'd confronted him about Helen and Yvonne's claims, how she'd ripped up Helen's statement in front of him to prove her loyalty, how she'd apologised for believing Helen and Yvonne, when they'd been the ones who had been telling the truth all along. She thought back to when Jim had asked her to marry him. The way he'd been like a bumbling little boy, so keen to get her approval. The way he'd rushed off for the champagne and how genuinely happy she'd been. The way she'd then strolled over to her desk and casually opened the envelope containing Helen's allegations. The sudden feeling of nausea which had washed over her at the way things had suddenly slotted into place, the way Helen's behaviour had all at once made sense to her. And the way she'd quickly shoved the envelope to the bottom of the pile when Jim had come in, mirroring the way in which she'd censored her feelings and ignored the niggling doubt in the pit of her stomach. She'd done the same thing shortly afterwards, when Yvonne had been in her office, accusing Jim of having been in league with Virginia O' Kane. What Yvonne had said had made some kind of sense and Karen had certainly been able to see the logic behind her arguments, but it wasn't a reality Karen had wanted to consider. And then there was the question of why she had even gone to Jim's the night of the rape? After everything he'd done? After the way he'd treated her? After the photos and his angry outburst in the staffroom? It had been because, despite everything, despite all the warning signs and betrayals, a part of her still loved him, and she'd let that part win. And that made her weak as hell.
"No," Helen insisted when Karen voiced her opinion. "Absolutely not."
"The police, Neil, they all make it sound like I let it happen, like I was asking for it, like I had a choice. And I suppose I did. You warned me so many times and I just ignored you. If that's not a choice then I don't know what is."
"That's bullshit and you know it," Helen retorted. "Fenner is the only one responsible for this."
"Not according to Mark," Karen replied sadly. "Of all people, I'd hoped he'd understand."
"Mark?" Helen questioned.
"You remember Mark Waddle? Gina Rossi's boyfriend?"
"Well that ended a while back. And Mark and I have been seeing each other for the last few weeks, despite Jim's best attempts to sabotage everything. But as soon as I told him what had happened, he flared up. Went all alpha male on me. You could practically see the testosterone oozing out of him. I told him I just needed to talk, but he doesn't get it. And that's why I called you, Helen. I know I had no right, not after the way I treated you, but I also knew, out of everyone, you'd understand. I might be surrounded by tanked-up testosterone, yet you're the only one with any real balls."
Helen raised her eyebrows, her amusement at Karen's last comment evident on her face.
"Figuratively speaking of course," Karen smiled apologetically. "But seriously Helen, how did you stay so strong. How on earth did you keep it together, having to face Jim every day after what he did and not talking about it to anyone?"
"I don't think strong is what you'd call it. You were right in a way, Karen. I was obsessed with Jim. I did have a personal vendetta against him, but with bloody good reason. I knew no-one would believe me and the only way I could see out of the whole messed-up situation was to get revenge on Jim by catching him out. But I became fixated. I let him take over my life. And because of it, I probably destroyed everything good that was going on for me," Helen finished quietly, smiling sadly.
"Thomas, you mean?" Karen questioned, referring to the relationship Helen had previously been having with the prison's handsome senior medical officer.
"No, not Thomas." Helen took a deep breath and poured them both another vodka before continuing. "Thomas was sweet, and he was amazingly supportive. But I was I am, in love with someone else." Helen stopped, a faint blush beginning to show on her cheeks, and looked down at her lap.
It was Karen's turn to take Helen's hand in hers. "Nikki Wade?" she said softly, taking care to phrase it as a question rather than an accusation, and her caring tone made Helen look up, surprised at the contrast to the bitterness which had pervaded Karen's voice all evening.
"How did you ?" she began
Karen laughed. "Jim told me about you and Nikki. I hadn't even caught on that you were that way inclined, what with Thomas and everything. At the time, I thought it was one of the least believable things Jim had ever said to me and I told him as much. But turns out it was pretty much the only thing he wasn't feeding me a pack of lies about. Ironic, huh?"
"Well, it was more a case of falling for one woman than making a habit of it," Helen smiled. "And Nikki and I weren't ever properly together until she got out," she continued, still not quite comfortable enough in this new-found alliance with Karen to tell her the full truth about her relationship with the former Larkhall inmate. "But the feelings were there and it was torture not being able to go to Nikki and confide in her about what had happened. And there was no one else."
"I'm so sorry Helen," Karen said softly. "To think I did to you what Neil and the rest of them have done to me. When you've been so kind." Her voice wobbled. "Jim just doesn't see that he's done anything wrong. And all he needed to do was listen to me and stop when I asked him to. I didn't ever imagine it was possible to feel as cheap and dirty as he's made me feel."
Helen drew Karen to her as Karen was again overcome by tears. Seeing Karen like this had awakened a multitude of feelings in her. Anger, at Jim mainly, but at everyone who had disbelieved Karen and had somehow been complicit in the situation. And anger at herself, for not having tried harder. She had essentially given up. Her last words to Karen had been cold, spiteful even. She had been frustrated, beyond frustrated, at the whole sorry situation with Jim and she had basically told Karen she'd had enough of her. That she was welcome to Jim. And now this had happened. Helen couldn't help feeling that she was somehow responsible. The number of times she'd wished Karen would open her eyes and see what Jim was really like. But she would never have wished this on her. Not on Karen, not on anyone. But alongside the anger, there was grief. Grief for her and Nikki, grief for Karen, grief for the way in which this had affected all of them. She thought of the way she'd been after the attack: jumpy, nervous, looking over her shoulder at every turn, not wanting to let anyone close. And she felt for Karen. Karen who had been through the same thing. Karen who had been abused and violated by Jim Fenner, just as Helen had herself. But this was worse. So much worse. Karen had loved the man, had trusted him. Karen had not only been assaulted, she had been betrayed. And to think what that must have done to her. Helen felt sick. She might have been younger than Karen, smaller, less experienced in life, but in that moment, all she wanted to do was hold her, protect her, and somehow convince her that everything could and would be ok again.
This time Karen didn't pull away when her tears subsided. She remained with her head on Helen's shoulder, enclosed in Helen's arms, relishing the protection they afforded. Finally, she was somewhere she could just be. She could relax. She no longer had to be on her guard every second of the day. It had been so tiring, so wearing, the constant defence which she'd had to put up against everyone else. Karen thought again of Helen. Even tonight, months down the line, she had seen the pain that had flickered across Helen's face every time she had mentioned Jim's name, and she felt responsible for that. She felt that in reading Helen's allegations, then dismissing them, she had taken some part in violating Helen. Almost as if she had been the one to push her roughly against the cabinet, to hold her there, to touch her she felt Helen's arms close tighter around her as she shuddered and wondered what Helen's reaction would be if she knew where Karen's mind had been. Even reading the report, into which Helen must have poured every last vestige of emotional energy which she had possessed at that time, had felt like a violation. Reading and re-reading as she tried to assuage the constant niggling doubt in her mind that it was actually Jim, not Helen, who had been lying. Helen had never talked to her about the assault, had never confided in her the way Karen was doing now, yet she could recall every last detail of how Jim had touched Helen, what he had said and how she had reacted, how she had felt, what she had done when she had run out of that room, scared, frantic and humiliated, just as Karen had been a few nights ago, when she had fled Jim's bed and breakfast in the middle of the night, after what had seemed like the longest few minutes in her life, spent lying stiffly, shivering, waiting for him to fall asleep and release his grip on her.
She had lain there that night, silent tears soaking into the pillow, with Helen's words, the voice of doubt which had been niggling at her over the past months, ringing firmly in her ears. "You're too close Karen. You can't see it." And she had known in that moment, in that first moment when Jim had held her down as she had told him no, when he had turned a deaf ear to her protestations, her pleading, that Helen had been right. That she herself had been right, all the times she had doubted him. Yet she had let herself be convinced otherwise and she wasn't sure whom she blamed most for that: Jim and his scheming lies, or herself for believing them in the face of all the evidence. She felt appalled now when she thought of Jim's reaction when she had confronted him, the way he had manipulated her, the way she'd been so ready to believe what she wanted to hear, and the way she had calmly ripped up Helen's report. The way she had strolled into Jim's room that night and casually accepted the offer of a drink, with no idea of the danger she was putting herself in.
She remembered the day Helen had come to the staff office, had dragged her out of a meeting with the officers, all to question her about her relationship with Jim. Karen had been so angry, had almost shouted at Helen, had told her very firmly to keep her nose out of hers and Jim's business She had failed to see what had really been wrong, to recognise that Helen had been trying to warn her, to see that Helen had badly wanted to tell Karen the truth, but had not been able to bring herself to admit to what had happened to her. Karen was no better than Neil, or Mark, or any of the other cretins who had doubted her. And the guilt that this realisation brought with it was almost too much to bear. She had pushed Helen away, when what Helen had needed most was someone to be there. Someone to believe her. Exactly what Karen needed right now.
Karen drew herself out of her thoughts for long enough to realise that her tears had stopped, but that her head was still on Helen's shoulder, Helen's hand still stroking hers. And she did not want it to end. She found the physical proximity reassuring. She felt safe. Finally, she felt safe.
While Karen toyed with her guilt and agonised over memories of Jim, Helen found herself inexplicably drawn back to thinking about the first time Nikki had kissed her. When Nikki had taken advantage. Or at least that's how Helen had rationalised it to herself at the time. Her justification for hauling Nikki into her office for yet another bollocking and blocking all emotional correspondence on the subject. Closing off her feelings and preventing herself from thinking too deeply about what had happened. About how profoundly it had affected her About how she so badly wanted it to happen again... But even then, deep down Helen had known that she had gone to Nikki's cell that night because she had wanted that intimacy with her. It wasn't just that Nikki had been the only person in the prison in whom Helen had felt she could confide, the only person who understood where she was coming from and what she was trying to do. It had been more than that. She had known how deeply Nikki felt for her. The memory of the day in the potting shed, when Nikki had clasped Helen's hand to her own breast and had held it there, as a demonstration of her feelings, was still firmly imprinted on Helen's memory. That day had changed something for her. Had forced her to acknowledge her growing feelings and had further awakened her longing to know what it would really be like to be close to Nikki Wade. Every time she had seen Nikki after that, her eyes had inexplicably been drawn to the place where she had touched her, had fixed themselves firmly on Nikki's breast, while her hand burned with the memory, causing Helen's stomach to perform somersaults which would have won it prizes in any gymnastics competition and a blush to rise on her cheeks. Yes, she had been upset and vulnerable the day she had gone to Nikki's cell. But she had gone there in the full knowledge of what kind of comfort Nikki was likely to offer and she had wanted it.
Thinking about Nikki, Helen had become painfully aware of Karen's hand in hers, Karen's head on her shoulder, Karen's lips just millimetres away from her neck, and there was a part of her, a very deep part of her, that instinctively wanted to reach out further to Karen, to hold her tighter, to deepen the embrace, to kiss her, and to tell her everything would be ok. But Helen knew it would be wrong. It would be taking advantage and under the circumstances, that would be about the worst thing she could do. Mentally reprimanding herself, she brought herself sharply back to the present, forcing herself to focus on what Karen had been through and to push thoughts of anything else firmly to the back of her mind.
They must have stayed that way for a good ten minutes, each woman lost in her own thoughts, both finding comfort and reassurance in their proximity to the other and neither wanting to be the first to move away. Finally, Karen stirred and the slight movement drew them both out of their reveries. Karen was still focussed on her own guilt, on the way she had treated Helen and she knew that it was something she needed to acknowledge, to put right any way she could. She squeezed Helen's hand, which still gripped hers, and murmured again quietly how sorry she was.
"There's no need," Helen responded, momentarily flustered by the feel of Karen's breath on her neck as she had whispered the words and again reminding herself sternly that now was not the time to be entertaining such thoughts.
"No, Helen, let me say this. Please." Karen's voice was more insistent now, she seemed to have regained some of her fire in the time spent contemplating. She turned, so that their eyes met, and Helen observed that while her tears might have stopped, Karen's blue eyes were still full of pain. "You needed me and I wasn't there," Karen continued. "You needed someone to listen, to believe you, and I was so wrapped up in Jim and his lies " Karen trailed off, and her eyes turned from Helen to the floor.
Instinctively Helen reached out a hand to brush the hair out of Karen's eyes and turn her face back to meet her own. "I'm just sorry you had to go through this," she said, softly, her voice and eyes full of genuine warmth and concern, again awakening the emotional side which Karen had shut off since the attack. The women's eyes met and they held each other's gaze, each seeming to shudder involuntarily at the memory of what the same man had done to them.
"I feel so dirty," Karen confided. "Like I can't get him off me "
"None of this is your fault Karen. Please tell me you believe that?" Helen was almost pleading with her now, so desperate was she to bring Karen some relief from the all-consuming guilt she seemed to feel. She continued to hold Karen's gaze, acutely aware of their proximity on the sofa, feeling every place where Karen's body touched hers twice as keenly as before. Karen's answering nod was barely perceptible as she focussed on Helen's eyes and slowly felt her head being drawn closer to Helen's by some invisible pull, stopping as their faces were barely a few centimetres apart. She wasn't sure what she was doing, where this was going to end. But she knew what she wanted. She was in the moment and in that moment, all she wanted was to be close to Helen. To feel Helen close to her.
Neither of them spoke, as if the feeling that hung in the air between them was still too fragile for words. Still holding Karen's gaze, Helen reached out again and raised her hand to Karen's face, lightly stroking her fingertips through Karen's hair, brushing a few errant strands behind her ear. Karen's lips parted slightly and her breathing deepened audibly as Helen allowed her fingers to linger for a while behind Karen's ear, then gently traced the curves and contours of her jaw, the back of her palm finally coming to rest again on Karen's cheek, the tip of her little finger just tantalising millimetres away from the corner of the other woman's mouth. Helen's eyes seemed to close involuntarily as Karen put her own hand up to cover Helen's, then twisted her head slightly to the side, pushing her cheek further into the back of Helen's hand and reaching for the tip of Helen's smallest finger with her still parted lips. She both sensed and heard Helen's sharp intake of breath as she planted a gentle, yet definite kiss on Helen's fingertip, turning her head to allow her access to Helen's remaining digits. She welcomed these with a series of slow tender kisses, each marginally deeper than the previous one. As Karen reached Helen's thumb, she covered its tip with her mouth, kissing it softly, tasting salt and the vague hint of soap. Helen's eyelids opened once more and the longing and tenderness in her gaze as her eyes met Karen's caused small shockwaves to run through Karen's body, collecting at the base of her spine and in the pit of her stomach, slowly stirring awake the feelings of desire which had evaded her for the last few days, feelings which, however hard she had tried to create them by artificial means, or mask their absence with drink, had caused her to pull away from Mark whenever he had tried to come close. She had seen his approaches as territorial, as wanting to reclaim what Jim had taken from him, and Karen didn't need that. She didn't need to be anyone's. She just needed to be. But here she was in Helen's arms and suddenly she wanted more. She wanted to be close to Helen, to feel Helen's skin on hers, to make tonight about her and Helen and no-one else. She continued to kiss Helen's fingertips, then her knuckles, all the while stroking the palm of Helen's hand with her thumb. Helen's breathing deepened again, she felt herself leaning into Karen, her body taking over, but quickly checked herself, forcing herself to remember what Karen had recently been through. She pulled away slightly and the older woman sensed her resistance, opening her eyes and searching Helen's face for an explanation.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" breathed Helen, almost inaudibly, so scared was she of hearing the wrong answer in response. Worse still, she wasn't sure what the wrong answer would have been. A part of her longed to be close to Karen and had been doing so ever since she had walked through the door, her pain etched so clearly across her face. Her free hand, the one which wasn't already holding Karen's, hung in mid-air, desperately wanting to touch Karen, to pull her closer, but simultaneously afraid of making things worse. And this was the other part of Helen, the side that usually won out, the 'sensible' part that knew that now was her last chance to move away from Karen, to the other end of the sofa, the next room perhaps The part that had agonised for months over Nikki, over whether to acknowledge her growing feelings, the part that had so meticulously weighed up what it meant to do the 'right thing', had placed her professional convictions in such strong opposition to her tangled knot of personal emotions and desires.
What little resistance Helen possessed was however soon silenced, as Karen reached towards her and cupped Helen's face in her hands, planting a gentle, yet lingering kiss on Helen's lips. Helen moaned softly as their lips met again and felt her reservations melt away as Karen's lips parted against hers. She answered Karen's kiss, giving into the longing and feeling its liberating pleasure wash over her. With that first kiss, Karen had made it clear that this was what she wanted and Helen allowed her residual guilt to evaporate into the air. She relaxed and reached out for Karen, pulling her closer, running both hands through Karen's hair and bringing them to rest at the base of her neck. They kissed again, a series of gentle kisses, which began chastely, then grew deeper and deeper, until Karen parted Helen's lips with her own and pushed her tongue inside Helen's mouth. Helen moaned as Karen's tongue caressed hers and ran her hands down Karen's back, causing friction against the soft cotton of her shirt. Karen let out a deep breath, a sharp release of air, as Helen tugged her shirt free from the waistband of her skirt, and slipped her hands underneath, stroking her hands across the cool skin of Karen's back, which goose-pimpled under her touch.
This was all new to Karen; she'd never been with a woman before and what's more, she'd never have thought that it was something she would have wanted. But there was something about being with Helen which was reassuring, comforting and safe. Karen was a little nervous, just a little, she admitted to herself, of course she was. But that was natural. It was always a gamble, being with someone new. But she trusted Helen, which was more than she could say for most of the people she'd been with recently. Funny, that she should trust a woman with whom she'd had a largely acrimonious relationship, then to whom she'd not spoken for months, more than she trusted the man who'd shared her bed for a significant proportion of the last year. She cursed herself inwardly and forced the thoughts of Jim out of her mind. This was not about him. This was about her. About her having a choice. About her choosing Helen. Helen. Karen murmured Helen's name softly as she nuzzled into her neck, tracing the outline of her collarbone with small, lingering kisses which made Helen's hands grip more tightly on Karen's back and pull her even more tightly to her, as if the contact could ground her and diffuse the current running through Helen's body.
Helen reached for the top button of Karen's blouse and sought out her eyes in silent assent before unbuttoning it and slipping her fingers underneath to trace the lacy edge of Karen's silky bra. She stroked upwards, towards Karen's shoulders and back down again, making Karen gasp out loud as she slipped one hand down into the space between her breasts. Karen responded by leaning back on the soft sofa, pulling Helen down on top of her, and, her fingers entwined in Helen's hair, drew her into another kiss, this time more forceful, her tongue explorative and inquisitive, finding a rhythm with Helen's. Karen moaned again as Helen undid the remaining buttons on her shirt and slipped it off her shoulders, kissing a line down Karen's chest and stomach. Helen's touch was soft, gentle and caring, unlike so many of the men she'd been with throughout her life. They were taking their time, there was no rush, no expectation and she liked that. The old cliché about the journey being more important than the destination popped into her head of its own accord and almost caused her to laugh out loud. What was she, Karen Betts, the great pragmatist, doing, coming up with such sappy nonsense? She sat up slightly and drew Helen back up to her, reaching down to pull Helen's shirt off over her head. Both women laughed as the material caught, masking Helen's face and Karen tugged it free, revealing Helen's pronounced collarbone and plain black bra. This was a Helen she'd never seen before and she was softer, less severe than the woman who'd stood before her many a time in her smart business suits, guarded and professional. Defensive even. They'd both been defensive once the differences between them had become evident. But tonight they were equal again. Tonight neither of them had anything to prove. Karen held Helen close, her hands roaming freely over the top half of Helen's body, enjoying the feel of Helen's skin against hers, Helen's hair brushing her face.
Helen reciprocated, running her hands softly over the contours of Karen's body, exploring the curves of her arms, the ridges of her chest and stomach. She found herself comparing Karen's body to Nikki's and mentally chastised herself. She and Nikki were over. It was time to move on. And this was as good a way as any. She wondered if Karen sensed how new this was to her, too. Sure, it wasn't the first time she had been with a woman, but it was the first time she'd been with a woman who wasn't Nikki. And that said something. Confirmed what she already knew. Nikki had taken her by surprise. It was almost as if she had fallen in love with Nikki without registering her gender, if that made any sense at all. But with Karen well, it cemented what Thomas had already made clear to her. It wasn't just that she'd been in love with Nikki at the time It was that she wanted a woman, not a man.... Even now, now that things with Nikki were so definitely over, she couldn't unlearn what she'd learnt. Couldn't go back to the way things had been. Couldn't go back to pretending to herself that she was happy, like she had with Sean, her ex-fiancé, whom she had been with when she had first started working at Larkhall, had first met Nikki. This was the way forward.
Her resolve renewed, Helen reached down and kissed Karen again, harder this time, her tongue pushing against Karen's. She tasted cigarettes, a taste not unfamiliar to her, but somehow still subtly unique, distinct to Karen, to tonight. She shifted gently, repositioning herself so that her left leg was between Karen's, their hips touching, their bodies more closely intertwined. She felt Karen's body tense with the touch, felt Karen exhale deeply against her cheek, felt the low groan in the back of Karen's throat, felt Karen's legs close around hers and felt Karen's kiss deepen in harmony. She moved her thigh against Karen, gently at first, gradual and cautious, mindful of not taking things further than Karen wanted them to go. If anything, however, Karen was pushing Helen to go faster, harder, her hips thrusting in perfect synchronicity with the rhythmic movement of Helen's thigh. Both women let their hands roam freely, exploring arms, chests, stomachs, hips and legs, while Helen kept Karen's lips captivated in a series of long, deep kisses. Karen was oblivious to everything in the room, everything except Helen's hands moving across her stomach, down across her hips, then stroking up the inside of her thigh and trailing off teasingly at the top of her legs, causing desire to build in her until she felt ready to explode.
"Touch me Helen. Please. Just touch me," Karen whispered almost pleadingly into the other woman's ear as the intensity of her need to feel Helen inside her peaked. Uncertainty flickered briefly across Helen's face before desire took over and in one swift co-ordinated movement she unzipped Karen's skirt and slid it smoothly down her hips, casually discarding it on the floor beside them. Karen's tights were the next target, and Helen peeled them down carefully, her fingernails tantalisingly soft against the skin of Karen's legs She stroked her hands back up the inside of Karen's thighs and slipped two fingers inside Karen's underwear, pushing the flimsy silky material aside. Karen moaned softly as she felt Helen's fingers brush across her, then more deeply as the fingers slipped inside her and began to circle rhythmically, moving easily in the moist warmth between Karen's legs. Helen felt Karen's breathing growing deeper, her skin becoming warmer under her fingers, her hips thrusting harder against Helen's hand. This wasn't about love, but neither was it purely about desire or devoid of all emotion. It was about caring, protecting, healing. It was about holding Karen close, keeping her safe, letting her feel again.
It was about attraction, not in a purely sexual sense, but in terms of beauty and mutual respect. With Jim, Karen had always needed saucy underwear, silky nightdresses, drink even, to make her feel sexy. God knew there were the photos to prove it. But tonight, although Helen's body was younger than hers, had not been subjected to years of heavy smoking and drinking, to giving birth to a child, then bringing him up amidst the pressures of holding down a demanding job, she didn't feel self-conscious, exposed as she was to the other woman. If anything it was the opposite. Helen's soft touch made her feel valued, beautiful even restored some of the confidence that had been undermined by Jim's betrayal. The spontaneity of the encounter helped, too. Helen wanted her for what she was in that moment, not because she was part of some plan, some schemed and meditated attempt at control, and, under the circumstances, that meant everything to Karen.
Helen moved down to meet Karen's lips in a deep kiss as she felt her back arch, her body go taut, held Karen close, containing her as she clung tightly to the Scot, her hands gripping Helen's back as if her life depended on it. Afterwards they had lain in each others arms for a long time, neither speaking, nor feeling oppressed by the silence, simply enjoying the closeness of their bodies, the knowledge of what they had shared.
After a long while, Karen spoke, softly, carefully, as if surprised to hear her own voice. "Can I stay here tonight, with you? Only my flat Jim " She trailed off as Helen traced a finger across her lips to silence the superfluous explanations.
"Of course you can, sweetheart. Whatever you need " she soothed, her accent thicker than usual, a combined result of the emotion of the night, tiredness and the half empty bottle of vodka.
They had gone to bed soon after that, although it was still relatively early, and, under the protection of Helen's soft, thick duvet, they had made love again, Karen taking the lead this time, kissing Helen softly in all the places Fenner had touched her, had grabbed her so roughly, as if her tenderness could kiss away the bad memories. Helen had cried as her climax had spread through her and Karen had held her tightly, relieved at last to be in a position to provide some comfort, however belatedly, to the woman she felt she had wronged so badly. They had stayed awake for a long time, long enough to finish the bottle of drink they had brought in with them, talking mostly, crying a little, holding each other close for comfort and occasionally kissing through the tears. Karen had told Helen the full extent of her betrayal by Fenner, had told her about the marriage proposal, the photos, the anger and the violence. They had talked about Larkhall, about the pressure it had exerted on both of them, about how Karen dreaded returning to face all the people who had disbelieved her and about how much Helen had struggled to move on. And finally, finally, Helen had talked about Nikki. Had confided in Karen everything that had been eating away at her over the months, about how she'd been unable to let Thomas close, about how, after they'd broken up she'd convinced herself it was because of her feelings for Nikki. About how the same thing had happened again, how Helen had eventually realised that it was more to do with her own inability to lay herself bare to anyone, than to do with Nikki per se. About how Helen had pushed away the person she loved most in the world and how much that realisation ripped her apart. About how hard it had been to go about her job with Nikki the other side of the bars. And Karen finally saw Helen the woman in place of Helen the Wing Governor and reassured her, comforted her, tried her hardest to convince her that it wasn't necessarily all over with Nikki, that she could make Nikki understand if she was willing to put herself on the line. Eventually, thoroughly exhausted from the rollercoaster of emotion the night had turned out to be, they fell asleep, curled into each other's arms, each feeling safer and considerably more relaxed than they had in recent days and weeks.
Karen awoke as the sunlight was beginning to filter through the thin curtains in Helen's bedroom. For a moment she was disoriented, not least by the fact that the knot in the pit of her stomach, a constant feature over the past few days, seemed to have untied itself somehow and consequently, although she had woken up feeling utterly drained, the tension which had been building inside of her for so long seemed finally to have gone. She slipped out of bed, taking care not to disturb Helen, who appeared to all intents and purposes still to be slumbering peacefully, wrapped in the duvet on the other side of the bed, and padded noiselessly across the thickly carpeted floor. Crossing the hallway, she retrieved her shirt from the living room floor, where it had been so casually discarded the night before and wrapped her coat around herself. Cautiously, worried that her unfamiliarity with the surroundings would lead to her making too much noise and consequently waking Helen, she released the latch on the back door and slipped out into the garden. She sat down on the back step and, drawing her coat around her knees to keep them warm, she fumbled in the pocket for the pack of cigarettes which she never found herself without.
Karen had lost track of how long she had been sitting out there, mulling over everything that had happened in the last few days and enjoying the early morning sunshine, the crispness of the air and the pleasant relaxation which had spread through her limbs, but when she came back inside, Helen was awake and bustling around the kitchen, making coffee. Helen turned to her, and the sight of them each with their hair still dishevelled from sleep, Helen in her silky dressing gown and Karen wearing a winter coat with just her underwear and her white work shirt from the day before wrapped around her underneath, was so different from anything that they had ever encountered at Larkhall, that Karen had to grin. Their professional personas had been well and truly discarded the night before and while Karen was in no rush to resurrect the barricades, she felt the need for clarification, now that the cloak of vodka and emotion from the previous evening had worn off.
"Helen," she began, once the urge to giggle had subsided somewhat. "Last night was amazing, but I don't I'm not " She blushed slightly and trailed off. She wasn't even sure what she was trying to say, if she were completely honest with herself, so it was hardly a surprise that all that had emerged was a jumbled pile of monosyllables.
It was Helen's turn to smile. "The way I see it, last night was about endings, not beginnings," she ventured cautiously, anxious not to inadvertently upset or offend Karen. "We've both been pushing people away, trying to make sense of what happened to us. And last night we laid that to rest. Allowed ourselves to move on."
Karen nodded. "You're right. I didn't realise it until now, but you're absolutely right." She sighed, relieved that even sober and by the light of day, the awkwardness between Helen and herself seemed to have evaporated.
Helen relaxed. She too was glad that she and Karen seemed to be on the same page as far as their encounter of the night before was concerned. After all, significant as her connection with Karen had been, one thing that it had made crystal clear was that Nikki Wade was not nearly as much a feature of Helen's past as she had been forcing herself to think. There was definitely some work to be done there. But that could wait. At least until after she'd had something to eat anyway. No good getting all philosophical about things on an empty stomach. She turned to Karen, a mischievous glint in her eye. "Now I don't know about you, but all this soul searching has given me quite an appetite. Breakfast?"
"Sounds perfect." Karen laughed and rolled her eyes slightly. This was the Helen she'd known when they first met, before Jim had got in the way, and it was a Helen she was very glad to have back.
Karen had her phone to her ear when Helen walked into the lounge a few minutes later with two steaming cups of coffee. "Yes, sorry Neil, I'm just really not feeling good today perhaps you're right yes, I'll let you know later "
"Did I just hear you pulling a sickie, Miss Betts?" Helen grinned at Karen and winked mischievously as she handed over one of the cups.
Karen thanked her and smiled back. "You might have done. I've got better things to do today than clean up Larkhall's crap." She hadn't quite intended the last few words to come out as vehemently as they had sounded.
"Is that so?" Helen intoned, raising her eyebrows and giving Karen a coy glance from over her cup of coffee.
"Yeah," Karen replied, taking a gulp of her own drink. "I figured I'd make a start on cleaning up my own." She paused, as if renewing her resolve about something, then stated firmly, "I'll need all the charm I've got to persuade the police to un-withdraw my statement. You were absolutely right last night. Grayling's just trying to save face and he and Fenner are both going to get what they deserve."
Helen grinned in a way which made it clear to Karen that she thought she was doing the right thing, and put a reassuring hand on Helen's arm. "You need any help nailing the bastard, you just let me know."
After Karen had left, hugging Helen and thanking her profusely for the night before, promising to keep in touch, Helen took a long, hot shower, taking the time to think about how she would say what she needed to say. She knew she had hurt Nikki badly by pushing her away and she couldn't afford any more cock-ups. If she wanted Nikki back, she needed to make her understand. Which meant Helen needed to understand herself, if she wanted to be in with half a hope of explaining it all clearly. And that included coming clean about Karen After all, now that she and Karen had finally put the past behind them, she hoped Karen would be a permanent feature in her future. As a friend of course there would be no repeats of the previous night, but that was something she knew she and Karen were agreed about. She just needed to make sure Nikki could see it that way too, see it for what it was, what it had been, because she knew that that from that point on, honesty was the only was that they could have a future together. She knew she could do it: she had proven that to herself in the conversations she'd had with Karen the previous night. But she also knew it wouldn't be easy Baring her soul wasn't usually one of her fortes. She was going to have to actively seek out the thing she was most scared of, to make herself vulnerable. But it was worth it a thousand times over if it meant a future with Nikki.
The phone had been ringing for so long that Helen had almost given up on getting an answer and was consequently slightly startled to hear Nikki's husky voice on the other end of the line. From her slight breathlessness, Helen guessed she had been gardening and had sprinted inside to grab the phone and she smiled, picturing Nikki in her gardening overalls, her hair dishevelled and windswept and most probably completely oblivious to the cheeky smudges of earth streaked across her face.
"Nikki, sweetheart, it's me " Without realising it, Helen held her breath in anticipation of Nikki's response.
No clues there, Helen thought. Nikki's voice had been perfectly level. She had sounded surprised, but that was to be expected, after all it had been over a fortnight since they'd spoken and their parting words hadn't exactly been friendly. But Nikki hadn't slammed the phone down yet. That was positive, wasn't it?
"Nikki, can I come over? There's something I need to say." Helen held her breath again as she waited for the verdict. But she needn't have worried as two minutes later, she was buttoning her coat, picking up her keys and letting the front door slam behind her.
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