DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of Shed Productions. I am using them solely to explore my creative ability.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This piece is dedicated to the real life character I have known who bears a close resemblance to the darker side of Bodybag whom, thank God, I am no longer working with and showed that real life to me sometimes can be as extreme as drama. I'm not sure how it will take shape.

Office Workers in Hell
By Richard

Part One

Stubberfield's shiny new car was parked in one of the managers places in the car park and he picked up his brief case with his sense of self importance as he made his way to his private office, the symbol of what he had achieved while those below him were out in the open in the large anonymous open plan office. First thing he did was to go and "chat to the staff" and he made his way to Jim Fenner sitting confidently back in his swivel chair and exchanged a chat about the golf match he had played over the weekend. Even at his age, somehow he managed to scrape ahead in the match while Fenner fluffed his opening shots on the last few holes though he had to hand it to Fenner, he was a sporting loser. He couldn't linger long but Sylvia Hollamby grabbed his attention next. It was good to have Sylvia working in the office. Of the half dozen clerical workers, she had elbowed her way as 'top dog', always waylaying him with some problem in the offing that she had spotted while the rest of them just sat back and didn't say anything. She and Fenner made a good team. He said a quick hello to that Wade woman who always looked at him with thinly veiled contempt in her eyes and passing on quickly, he came across Sylvia's best friend Maxi who told him in confidence in a corner that that young guy Dominic seemed a bit uncertain and indecisive and "all the girls are a bit worried about him". She seemed ever so concerned about him so Stubberfield thanked her and congratulated on her showing some of that 'team spirit' that helped to pull the office together. She smiled gratefully at his words and picked up the next set of paperwork to deal with. He came next to Helen Stewart whose friendly Scottish accent and pleasing smile was welcome enough but he had heard from Sylvia that she was very quiet about her private life in contrast to Sylvia whose past distinguished record was available for all to hear. Stubberfield barely nodded at Dominic who was already drinking his second cup of coffee of the day and looked tired.

Everything was shipshape, thought Stubberfield, I can go back to my office and look at the morning's post.

"How did you get onto that one so quickly," Maxi asked Sylvia once Stubberfield was out of the door.

"It comes of me being in military intelligence in my last job," preened Sylvia in full flow. "I used to work in the Army in Germany and it trained you how to think." and Sylvia was in full flow about her past life, how she met Bobby while she was in the Army and how she was living in the lap of luxury till they split up and she got this present job. That was what gave her such a quick mind. Maxi took this all in open mouthed wonder while Nikki who was in a state of terminal boredom at this conversation repeated for the twentieth time wished that that the old bag would piss off back to the Army and give them all a break. Why in hell is she such a maddening self publicist, she groaned to herself?

It was the loud tones that got in the way of her concentration too. In her initial naive belief in justice, she'd had a word with Fenner about it when she'd first moved there. She'd explained as patiently to what instinct told her was an oily creep that couldn't Sylvia turn the volume down when she spoke as she had trouble in sitting down to her work when she was told that snobby types like her were used to getting her own way, she should 'muck in' as part of the team. She might as well have said that Sylvia might be used to acting the sergeant major on the parade ground but she's situated a few feet away from her behind the barricade between them of her computer and not half way across the car park.

She remembered when she first arrived in her new job after being transferred there and her previous boss had pushed the sales pitch at her about 'how her special gifts were ideally suited to the job' She knew she had sod all chance at refusing the job and knew also that she had been a thorn in the flesh of her boss as she had the habit of asking him too many questions. She decided to accept her destiny with as good a grace as she could summon up and settle down in a new environment.

She had come out of her training when a friendly Scottish voice called out to her.

"Coming up to the canteen." Helen had asked her on her first week there and Nikki had gratefully accepted, pleased to have a friendly face.

"You shouldn't let Old Bodybag get to you," Helen had advised her. "And there's no chance of getting that bastard Fenner to act in any way against Her Majesty's whims and desires."

"Bodybag," queried Nikki in a puzzled tone. "Why do you call her that?"

"Because she should be buried in one- preferably alive from all the evil strokes she's pulled on people. Best thing is don't let the cow get inside your head, she's a control freak. And above all, don't let Fenner have a private chat with you in a private interview room with his record of groping the new women." Helen said passionately.

"He'd have a shock if he tried anything on with me, Helen." Nikki grinned to herself . When she went on to say that he wasn't her type, she didn't mention that it was not just because he was such a creep but she thanked Helen for the advice.

Sure enough, it only took a short time when Fenner asked Nikki in an apparently casual aside that he wanted to have a chat about how she was getting on in her training and even more nonplussed that he had fixed up a private interview room. He's got to be kidding, she thought, till she realised that she didn't have 'lesbian' tattooed on her forehead and looked not much different from your ordinary office worker, smartly enough dressed in her usual trousers and shirt and her hair wasn't that short really. She was ready for him.

After the preliminaries he started saying in a particularly oily fashion that "new girls" if they "knew what was good for them" made an effort to get on with the boss and he'd "see her all right", after all, he did her end of year appraisal report. Nikki brightly blanked him by saying that she made an effort to get on with all people, men or women, gay or straight. Fenner completely missed that one and went on to say that if she wanted someone to "look after her" he was her man to which Nikki said brightly with a smile on her face that she was used to looking after herself and, out of work, her girlfriend looked out for her and vice versa. She also asked innocently what feedback did she have as to how she was getting on in her training. Fenner in a stiff unfriendly voice said that it took months before anyone in her job was any use, you had to be around a long time like Sylvia and that she ought to look to her for advice and feedback. Somehow, a chill hung on the air and the interview was cut rather short with an emphasis on over polite formalities. Nikki thanked him graciously and with slightly overdone enthusiasm, said she couldn't wait to get back to her training.

It didn't take more than a few hours for Sylvia to start acting awkward in her period of training. The job she was on was calculating benefit overpayments and she thought that having been on computers paying benefits out and being a dab hand at that, she ought not to need too much training to pick up on this. That was mistake number one as she soon realised that she was entering a world of detection where what was on in front of her computer screen and the paperwork on the face of it didn't make sense and if someone somewhere along the line had slipped up then she need not take the calculation beyond that point. If there were a clear consistent set of guidelines explained to her, that would be fine but she was faced by a "Contrary Mary" who seemed to change the rules as she went along.

"But I distinctly remember the way you explained things the other day" Nikki said patiently, still keeping her end up and Bodybag would go off into a spiel and explain totally the opposite and it all went round in her head finishing with an "Ummm, I don't think that Mr Fenner will be very much impressed with you when you come out of your training" with an accusing look in her eyes. It was all designed to shred Nikki's confidence, bit by bit, and luckily, she could see what was going on. Nikki was acute enough to see Bodybag as the overgrown version of the school bully using psychological tactics by saying, "Oooooh, wait till teacher spots that one, you'll be in deep trouble" and making sure that teacher did get to know.

Catching a look of extreme sympathy from Helen who was stuck behind her computer away from Bodybag as part of the barricade buttressed by assorted codes and folders, Nikki took her courage with both hands.

"Helen, can you come up for early tea break with me."

They both made a fairly rapid dash out of the room and split seconds later, Bodybag was talking to all concerned about her behind her back.

"Guess what I've heard on the grapevine, that Nikki Wade is one of those sort of women, you ought to be careful about getting too friendly with her," not saying anymore so as to build up the dramatic moment. Sure enough Maxi fell for it, hook line and sinker so that Bodybag could go into dramatic mode and go into full flow that things weren't like this when she was growing up, she never knew of such things, it was all these 'do gooders' on television shoving gay rights down people's throats. You can thank your lucky stars, Maxi said, that 'they' don't make it compulsory. Once those two got going, no one else got a look in.

"You are aware," Helen said with a grin "that Bodybag is blackening your character right now, how bad you are at your job, etc., etc."

"Like I'm a lesbian," cut in Nikki "as I told that Fenner creep that one.......oh, didn't you know?"

"That's cool," Helen said, totally unfazed on the surface though that was something she didn't expect. "Come on, Nikki, Bodybag leaves work religiously at 4pm and comes in at 8 on the dot as if she was still in the bloody army, like Fenner and Maxi. You and I are late starters and late finishers so you sit in with me and we'll sort out the crap Bodybag's been telling you. I have a nasty suspicion that you're being 'set up' to fail."

"So long as you don't mind me being all alone with you" Nikki smiled ironically at her.

"Come on, Nikki" grinned Helen. "we're doing bloody work, not whispering sweet nothings to each other from opposite sides of the computer. Not that we shouldn't give a little performance when we come down suspiciously late so that scandalous gossip can be spread around. Come on, we'll have a bit of fun with them."

It was well into the day after next that the way they sashayed down together arm in arm and went back to their desks kept the gossips going in "shock / horror" mode for the next week and a bit and also their late night working together. Nikki smiled ironically to herself that all that really happened was that, an hour at a time, she was learning more from Helen's clear calm explanations than Bodybag's officious army style hectoring has taught in ten times the time.

Dominic was one of those nervous, self effacing guys that Maxi, Fenner and Bodybag had got under their collective thumb. He was officially equal to Fenner but he had that totally fatal willingness to please whom Helen and Nikki felt sorry for but the others took advantage of. He and Fenner were supposed to share the work equally but Fenner had been there ages and "knew the ropes" and Dominic looked to him for guidance.

"Don't worry, son," Fenner smiled crookedly at him. "I'll sort out the organisation and you can churn out the decisions." and Dominic naively believed him. What happened in reality was that Fenner sorted the easy work for himself, left the crap for Dominic and cleared loads of work in comparison with Dominic who conscientiously plugged away under an increasing mountain of work. Fenner popped into Stubberfield's office and, aside from exchanging golf anecdotes, promoted himself as Fenner, the guy that did all the work.

Day after day, Dominic dragged himself into the office early and cut himself off like a trappist monk in his single minded drive to keep on top of his work while Fenner seemed to plough an astonishing volume of work and had plenty of time to chat and gossip. Fenner took care to pick all the work from Bodybag and, give her her due, she could concentrate and, in her bigoted way, the work was shifted out of her desks.

"If it wasn't for me," bragged Bodybag, "this place would collapse. I've looked at the figures and I'm turning out twice as much work as you, Wade" she added poisonously. These barbs came over at regular intervals once Nikki had come out of her training, for that read penal servitude under Bodybag's verbal whiplash. If she couldn't dominate Nikki, she tried to undermine her.

"Sylvia," Helen called out." I know for a fact the short cuts you take from when you were last on holiday. You should be quick, you've been here long enough."

"Why don't you join your little 'lesby' friend," sneered Bodybag, always resorting to that one if all else fails.

"Why don't you buy rent a porno video if you're that interested," sighed Nikki having got to the end of her tether. She was pressured already in the concentration in trying to work quickly and thoroughly at the same time. The sort of things that in normal times she could ride were less tolerable when she reached a pitch of screaming fatigue. The other side of her said to herself, look Nikki, it isn't as if there is a family on the other end of your work with not a penny to your name if you didn't get out the payments fast. There aren't a queue of badly dressed people at the bottom end of society clamouring in a queue to pay back money they shouldn't have had. The absurdity of the situation got to her at times, not least being the self imposed pressures to clear the piles of work coming in. At times like this, Bodybag's snide comments were the last straw and she was already losing her patience.

"That's enough of your comments, Wade" Fenner came down on her. She was too tired to disagree, not even to register the fact that Dominic was taking her work and not a so called experienced checker like Fenner.

"for Christ's sake, Dominic, you're a nice guy but why in hell don't you stand up for me." she muttered to herself and the more charitable side of her felt for Dominic that he couldn't even stand up for himself.

Nikki had finished her formal training period and was formally free from Bodybag's 'tutelage' that made Nikki feel less vulnerable. The iron fetters had been struck off but the downside was emerging from this chrysalis into the dangerous outside world. She now felt the full force of the work pressures on her in holding up her end of the work. Typical Nikki, she was impatient to prove herself and threw herself into the work.

The days seemed to pass in a blur so that at the end of the day, it was as much as Nikki could do to drag one foot in front of another, stagger home, nod off in front of the TV and flop into bed. Nighttime which ought to bring release, didn't as she had half awake dreams of figures and puzzles from the daytime going surrealistically round in her mind. It was almost as if the nighttime Nikki was trying to bolster the efforts of the daytime Nikki and she was burning the candles at both ends not with riotous living but with overwork.

"Nikki, wake up", Helen called in not too loud a voice as a very tired Nikki had slipped from a barely awake state to seeing the same office in a dream state. "Come on, we're going to the smoke room for a ciggy. If that is all right" Helen finished in a steely voice that promised anyone who disagreed a very hard time. Bodybag went red in the face but said nothing, bottling it up for more snide remarks at their expense. Helen knew what would be going on behind their backs but what the hell. Helen steadied a wobbly Nikki in her passage down the bare corridors awash with harsh neon strip light glare.

Nikki flopped gratefully into a chair and with time for both of them to spare, Helen could take in the extent of her sheer exhaustion.

"Nikki you're driving yourself into the ground." Helen said with real concern. when they talked about work, it emerged that Bodybag had been needling her with how she could clear 15 assessments a day minimum and Nikki, stung by this, had driven herself up to 10 a day and was feeling stressed out that with all the drive and concentration, she was starting to drop back.

"The cow." Helen spoke with passion. If those bitches couldn't get you in one way, they would try and get you another. Nikki had let her conscientious nature be unconsciously exposed and Bodybag took full advantage of it.

"Look here, Nikki. You got to understand a few things. We're completely different people from Bodybag and Maxi."

"I know that but......"

"No you don't get it. We're just doing an ordinary job of work calculating what people should pay back, it's just a job. They're different. There's such a lot that they hate in life, anyone different, dangerous radicals, lesbians, those who think the Daily Mail is a load of crap, anyone who they think is out to screw the system when half the time, they've messed up or it's half our fault. We'll never compete with that sort of manic energy and we shouldn't even try. They're in the wrong job, they ought to work for bailiffs and have the legal power to kneecap people. That's what gives them their drive except that........"

Nikki smiled wholeheartedly at Helen's fierce loyalty to her and the word 'we' said totally unselfconsciously. Helen was too bloody right. She'd fallen for it hook line and sinker. She was totally jaded and worn out but anger stirred in her the insidious way Bodybag got under her skin. She'd worked in an office for a few years but this was like entering Jurassic Park. Trouble is, at least the reptiles were obvious reptiles, not like here.

"Besides, you're not long out of your training. you need to get things right before trying to be superwoman. You need a reasonable figure to work at."

Nikki put a cigarette between her lips and nodded, the solution to her recent troubles so blindingly clear. She had been going at it hell for leather that she never thought to question her reality. Helen hadn't seen it properly, or Nikki never said so Bodybag got away with her ploy.

"I'll forgive Dom for not spotting it as he's so snowed under like you but that bastard Fenner should have spotted it or perhaps he has and wants to see you go under. That's what he's paid for. Come on, you're not fit for work, Nikki. I'll take you home."

As they came back to their desks and started to collect their stuff, Bodybag had to stick her oar in.

"Hey, Wade, you've got your numbers to finish off," called out a red faced Bodybag with a nasty glitter in her eyes.

"We're going off early. Mr Fenner," Helen spoke with all the will of iron in her voice she could summon up. "I'm going to take Nikki home. She's not well."

"You're going to tuck her up in bed as well, Stewart"

"It's called 'colleagues caring for staff'. You wouldn't know anything about it unless it was a woman flashing her cleavage at you. Then you keep a 'special eye' on her." fired back Helen with one of his most overused clichés at him. "Night, Dom." Helen added calling out to him behind the pile of work which he replied to in a distracted fashion, surprised that someone actually talked to him.

Bugger what they think, Helen thought. I'm confident in who I am. I'm single and unattached and Nikki's a workmate of mine, it's just incidental that she's gay.

Nikki slumped sideways, head resting on the window as Helen drove her way home. She knew the part of town well that Nikki lived in, in a smartish old type terraced house.

"Nikki, wake up. Don't think I can carry you." Helen's clear Scottish voice woke Nikki out of a dreamless sleep. Nikki took a few moments to get herself together, feeling totally done in. She felt for her front door key in her handbag and seemed to spend aged fitting it into her lock.

"If you don't mind, Helen." Nikki said politely. "I'm going to crash out. I'd make you a coffee but I'm going to be no sort of a host. I need to sleep a week but...thanks. Thanks a lot." Nikki smiled warmly.

Helen seemed almost disappointed that the evening had come to an end but not knowing the reason she suggested meeting up somewhere Saturday lunchtime at a pub. Nikki sleepily agreed and Helen was homewards bound with the feeling of a good deed well done.

The kickback happened the next day and Helen had been wondering, first thing in the morning, if she would run into any trouble the next day. She had never been able to accept the 'office protocol' that forbad real communications between people and to try to thrash out real problems. Instead, life was shackled into a formal language on the surface like a badly fitting rug that didn't properly cover the 'behind the scenes' gossip and 'knife in the back'. Politicking and currying favour were totally anathema and the very first phrase that Fenner used about 'knowing what was good for her' rubbed her up the wrong way. She knew what was just and moral and that was a set of values a million miles removed. Though she hated to admit it, she owed her fundamental values to her Minister father even though she clashed like crazy with him.

Her spirits were lifted by Nikki's friendly greeting and warm grateful smile and that she looked far perkier and fresher than she had in weeks. The answering scowls between Maxi and Bodybag, if anything, amused her as they had no authority over her but Fenner did.

Sure enough, Fenner wasn't at his desk but he'd left her a curt note to report to the private interview room at 10am. Right to the back of her mind she pushed the possibility of a 'friendly grope between office colleagues' as she'd dealt with that try on years ago and the recent gossip about her and Nikki Wade made that still less likely. She hesitated a fraction before knocking at the door and psyched herself ready for anything.

"I'm reading you the riot act about your unprofessional behaviour last night. That's not the way you speak to your office colleagues, still less your boss." Fenner opened the attack, face scowling but, bastard as he was, keeping within the bounds of official correctness, even though everything in his manner spoke otherwise.

Helen bit her lip. She knew she would have to backtrack and the words were forced out of her mouth to apologise to him.

"But I've got a complaint in turn, Jim Fenner. Nikki Wade has been under the cosh for weeks, anyone can see it and you have said nothing, done nothing or even asked her to come out with the obvious problems that she's under pressure most of all, just out of training." Helen said with controlled forcefulness though inside she was shaking with anger. "There has been obvious problems that me, Dom and Nikki are working our butts off and for some reason you, Sylvia and Maxi are having it easy."

"We can't help it if we can clear the work and your lot can't. See we even come in first thing in the morning and sort through all the work for everyone." said Fenner smoothly.

"There's something that doesn't make sense." Helen said thoughtfully. "Anyway, I'll watch what I say in future, there's better ways of saying things but, in return, people are going to have to stop making stupid remarks about me and Nikki. We're run into the ground and exhausted and remarks like we got at a time like that don't help."

Fenner glared at Helen frustrated that the woman that was the symbol of all that blocked him at every turn had turned the tables on him. Not only that but his and Bodybag's plan to grind Nikki down with overwork was blocked by Helen. The fact that she was an attractive woman and didn't want to be 'one of his girls' maddened him further.

"Will that be all," Helen half smiled "as I've work to catch up"

And with that she made her exit and was psyched up to be ready for Bodybag when she got back.

"I wouldn't have liked to be in your shoes, Helen." Bodybag said in a low tone. "Not getting on with your colleagues can look bad on your report. You don't know what sort of bad reputation you can get." She said this, eyes staring at Helen's for the faintest trace of disquiet or upset that she could capitalise on. She had done this so often to Dom that he was scared of even her slightest disapproval and she knew it.

Deny everything in face and deed, Helen said to herself. No matter how angry you feel, make it appear the most inconsequential thing imaginable. A brick wall will block her off and frustrate her.

"Whatever made you think it was bad news, Sylvia," Helen said with a broad smile." He was having a chat about holidays in Scotland and wanted my advice."

Bodybag went red in the face and her eyes glittered and said she didn't believe a word Helen said to which Helen nonchalantly said she could believe what she liked and she could check it with Jim if she wanted as if that was the last thing in her mind she was worried about.

Nikki had a huge grin on her face not least as she was worried while Helen was away and Bodybag and Maxi were speculating so she could hear how badly Helen was likely to get on. She totally admired the way Helen had cleverly blanked Bodybag and was amused by her obvious snappishness as a result. Both of them attacked their work with a new vigour. Pity Dom was buried in his work and oblivious to everything. Nikki was immediately sorry for him walking like he was a shadow and feeling so bad about himself he dare not speak to anyone.

One of Bodybag's many irritating habits was intercepting all the phone calls that came in. Helen figured out that it was either that she was a compulsive talker or wanted to show off her self importance and how knowledgeable she was. If Helen had one prevailing image of Bodybag, besides her size and bad vibrations emanating from her was her with a phone jammed against her ear. Her dealings with other people in the office reminded her of Del Boy Trotter with some dodgy deal in her negotiations with those who dare face up to her and disagree with her calculations, like her arch enemies who had to deal with appeals against the demands for money to be repaid. On the one hand, they were the convenient oracle who must be followed as if Holy Writ as to how things should be done as if she was on a perpetual hotline to God. Funny that they never committed any of these words of wisdom to paper. On the other hand they were the cowardly lily livered people who 'namby pambied' the lying fraudulent claimants the other side of the barricades. Her attitude was a curious mixture of barely repressed aggression, a salesman unloading a doubtful deal and sheer talking power. Eventually to Helen's great relief, the conversation ground to a halt though not before Helen had gone to take a couple of extra strength Nurofin, the only thing to touch the stinking headaches she kept getting.

"Phew" Mark Waddle said holding his hand to his aching ear, for he was the unfortunate soul who had been browbeaten into surrender by the stream of verbal diarrhoea.

"I take it that was Bodybag on the phone," Karen, the other appeals officer said smiling sympathetically. "I could pick out her voice from where I was sitting. What load of bollocks was she telling you now."

Mark shook his head to clear his thinking, a bad move as it only made his headache worse. Karen could see that he needed a couple of double strength painkillers and fast. What in hell was he to do? He had to write a long legal document to go before a tribunal. He'd studied the lawbooks and the figurework was all wrong when he had to compare it with the lawbook. He'd been so certain that he was right only to be greeted by that damned voice that had started insinuating itself into some of his nastier dreams that made him glad to wake up sweating. Karen had slept on undisturbed and too often, Mark had to potter downstairs to clear his mind before trying to grab some sleep of what was left of the night. With the constant stream of words, his verbal reasoning powers had gone to pieces even though at the back of his mind, he knew she was wrong.

"My idea of hell," Mark groaned "Is to look at a decision and see Bodybag's initials on the calculations and Fenner's on the decision. It means that that lazy arse Fenner who's too busy in and out of Stubberfield's room will pass me on to Bodybag. She's the sort who have never been wrong no matter how wrong she is but she'll just talk and talk till she gets what she want."

"Don't let it get to you." Karen came round to his side of the desk, all warmth and sympathy and stroked the top of his bowed head. "You'll make yourself ill."

"And if that isn't bad enough, the papers I've done based on one of Fenner's dodgy decision I have to present up before Mrs Grenville as Chairman who takes me straight back to junior school, one of those dragon teachers who picks me up on my shirt hanging out, one of those legal savages who make Rowan Atkinson look like an unreconstructed hippie."

Karen's heart went out to him. Though tough enough when need be, these two people managed to hit his blind spot every time and unnerve him. In facing anyone else, he could stand his ground. They needed to call at the local off licence and buy a bottle of spirits on a Friday night and chill out. It was a hard week and often, things look different on a Monday.

Nikki and Helen were acutely conscious when Bodybag, Maxi and Fenner all cleared off on the dot at 4pm, a little instance of the normally accepted obsessive compulsive personality traits of people working there. It was the nature of that type of office work and difficult to keep clear of. They watched the gang as they made their way out of the office and the atmosphere immediately lightened. They didn't have to watch each word they said and could relax properly, especially being Friday afternoon.

Nikki immediately asked Helen how she had gone on with Fenner and she was a mixture of deep sympathy with the apology Helen had been forced to make to Fenner and delight with Helen that she turned the situation to her advantage and admiration that she had been so restrained in front of Bodybag. She was only too aware and grateful for the way Helen had consistently gone out on a limb for her and was genuinely afraid for Helen when she had had the summons for the interview. In her experience of office work, most people kept their distance from anyone headed for trouble, not being their business, but Helen was unique. In contrast to the coldness and bad vibrations from the Fenner gang, call it that, she was always conscious of the warmth and good feeling coming from Helen.

"How do you manage to keep your cool with such an evil cow. She wants to make me want to hit back at her."

"Which is exactly the way she wants you to react. If she thinks she's got under your skin in one way or another, she gets off on that. It took me a lot of time and a lot of pain to figure that out." This pain was mirrored in Helen's face and so forcibly struck her that she felt Helen's pain for her. This was visible in Nikki's face and the expression in her eyes and Helen couldn't help but notice it.

"You mean it about going out for a drink." Nikki asked.

"There's that pub with the tables outside I'd mentioned. 1 o clock all right with you." Helen smiled without a trace of reservation. "Come on, Nikki, what are we doing hanging round here. It's poets day, piss off early, tomorrow's Saturday."

And they left the grey anonymity of the office behind them, if only for a weekend.

Early morning sunshine stole its way through the curtains of Nikki's bedroom to wake her unexpectedly early on a Saturday morning. She woke up with a sudden feeling of excitement and then said to herself, no she is not going on a first date, just to meet Helen outside work. She still had a pleasant feeling inside her in contrast to the "death warmed up" feeling late into the Saturday morning if not early afternoon as a reaction from a hard week's grind and precious little outside it. She still had a sort through her wardrobe for a "casual but smart" outfit instead of slinging on the first thing that came to mind. It was as if she'd been travelling through a sunless colourless tunnel and had suddenly come out into the fresh open air and wide spaces.

She lay back in a comfy armchair, taking in the warm feeling of a "first thing in the morning" cup of coffee, threw open the curtains and let the sunshine in to her life.

Helen likewise was up early and a bit of her wondered what to wear till she told herself what on earth she was on about and her good old "standby" outfit selected itself. She had had a recent spell of staying in and not as much company as she liked or what she was used to. She wasn't thinking too much on what the day would bring forth. She would 'go with the flow' and figured out that an 'off work' Nikki wouldn't be a great deal different from an 'at work' Nikki seeing that she was one of these women, no people, who was their own person. Others in the office she imagined 'put on' their work persona in the same way that they 'put on' their work clothes and were unimaginable without them, still more, say an 'off work' Fenner, filled her with horror and repulsion.

She was at the cafe she suggested when, horror of horrors, her very much ex boyfriend Sean Parr loomed up and, oh shit, he'd spotted her.

"Broken any more engagements recently," Sean said glaring daggers at her. "It must be all of a couple of months since you dumped me. Plenty of time to ditch some other guy"

Helen's heart sank. he'd been the one to 'take over' as soon as the relationship was anyway serious and after he had proposed, he'd be the one to say every so often, she could back out if she wasn't ready for commitment. And when she had done just that, he'd been the one to turn nasty and trash their / her flat as his final parting gift.

"You know it wasn't like that." Helen sighed. "You are just a bad listener and we are just not on the same wavelength, we never were."

"So why did you agree to get engaged in the first place," he asked bitterly. Helen didn't answer. Why indeed? Because it was expected of her that she would have to 'settle down' and on appearances sake, he seemed to be an eligible bachelor and have everything going for him in her eyes.

"So who've you got a date with? " Sean asked sarcastically.

"Its not a date, a workmate, not that it is any of your business." Helen snapped angrily.

Nikki was coming up the road and she saw this guy giving Helen a lot of hassle and seemed to be the sort of patronising public school guy that raised her hackles straight away. At the time, she was conscious that, after all Helen had done for her, she ought to repay the compliment and, being outside work, she could say what the hell she liked, a very satisfying feeling that righteous anger was made for moments like this.

"I don't know your name, but if you are going to act like a spoiled brat, could you do it quieter and away from Helen. Just move it along as you're crowding my space." Nikki was blazing angry and this was for only starters and a very discomforted Sean finding himself caught between two fires beat a hasty if sulky retreat.

Helen was speechless with admiration that Nikki had seemed to come from nowhere and that the first verbal punch had sent Sean on the run. A new Nikki was before her eyes, who was much more sure of herself with the light of battle in her eyes. She looked glowing, alive with a half smile on her face.

Starting with Nikki's insistence that 'they talk about nothing related to work, there's time enough for this Monday to Friday', Helen emphatically agreed. Over a couple of drinks, Nikki was the perfect host and conversationalist. It was very paradoxical that since their little performance awhile back, Helen thought of Nikki as just another straight woman despite the tag that Bodybag was trying to hang round her head as 'Nikki's girlfriend'. It was just the simple fact that only when Nikki came did she have any kind of ally against the rest of the gang that gave her a hard time. She was freely willing to admit that Nikki was one of the few people around that she could have a straight uncomplicated relationship, know where she was and that here was, at last, intelligent company.

"In case you wondered, that, Nikki was my very much ex, Sean Parr who is as manipulative and control freak as....as...as Bodybag." Helen finished making the instant, illuminating, till then unsuspected mind jumps.

"They come in all shapes and sizes, Helen." Nikki nodded sympathetically. "You have to stay away from them, they're bad for your head."

And at that point Helen knew they were both feeling the same thought.

"Come on Helen, my round. Another lager?" and Nikki disappeared off to the bar while Helen relaxed in the sunshine, noticing the flickering shapes of people passing by and feeling all's right with the world.

They started talking about themselves and Nikki chattered away, saying that she came from a military background which, she smiled at this point, made her totally the opposite but she had had the chance to go to university but her father said over his dead body would he help finance her through university. At that point, she had stumbled into the local Job centre about to sign on when some bitch of a woman behind the desk said, why not do a temporary clerical assistant job as they're setting on, they need some people fast so I thought I'd do it while I'm looking for something else and, a few years later, here I am, Nikki finished smilingly.

"Hey Nikki, I thought we weren't going to talk about work." grinned Helen.

Nikki graciously admitted breaking her own rule but went on to say that having financial independence meant she could leave home as 'they didn't like my lifestyle either, if you can see what I mean'.

Helen took a second before the significance of what Nikki said sank in. then they were back to laughing and chattering away. Helen went to get in another round of drinks and it seemed ages before she caught the eye of the barman and got served. As she was on her way back, she couldn't believe her eyes as a full scale drama had broken out. Helen stood rooted to the spot.

"I've been trying to get my life back together and you have to turn up now." Nikki said bitterly though tears were running down her face. "So what happened to the Trish and Lucy are forever, oh yeah, except Nikki's stuffed?"

"Don't be like that, Nikki," was the distraught reply from the fair haired woman . " I thought we could still be friends after......"

"You mean after I come down to the club after work and find you snogging Lucy. You know Miss Innocent, who's been hanging round, wouldn't think she'd go behind anyone's back and then........" and Nikki stopped at this point her mind refusing to let her relive that moment she'd walked into the club and seen what she'd seen. She'd tried to bury all that by flinging herself into her work but a year or so of that hadn't worked in that one split second when finishing off the last of her drink, she heard her name called out by THAT voice.

Helen was rooted to the spot, unsure what to do or say as it was a 'private' matter between Trish and Nikki, or as private as it ever could be out in an outside cafe. She did not know what to think as it was only now that she realised Nikki was gay, totally ridiculous though it seemed on the face of it and couldn't work out what to feel on that one. The practical matter was that it was not in her nature to say nothing, do nothing for ever though she let the argument run for awhile.

"Trish, you're not being fair........" started Helen, not feeling very confident as she was sticking her oar in on a matter she knew nothing about except that she couldn't conceive of Nikki being unfair.

"I see, you go on back to your new girlfriend." Trish turned on Helen and ran on down the road.

Again it was not the most private place imaginable and they were getting curious looks from the other people in the cafe but instinctively, Helen threw her arms round Nikki and held her while Nikki finished crying. All Nikki knew was that she needed to be held just to be comforted more than anything else in the world.

It seemed like ages that Helen was holding on to Nikki, her heart going out to her. Nikki had always struck her as so strong, even when she was driven down by overwork that to see her upset got to Helen. She had to make her better and that was all she knew.

"This is bizarre, Nikki." Helen spoke presently." First half the office think that we're having a relationship, now half the cafe as well when it's all the best of friends you could get."

Nikki's sense of life's little ironies was deep rooted in her and despite the tears which were beginning to subside, she couldn't help laughing at this. She knew there was no shred of disapproval in Helen's speech or thoughts but calm acceptance of what was around her and real loyalty. The strength of Helen's "stand by you" feelings was more than she had had for a long time, certainly more than some of the more fickle girlfriends she'd had in the past. Any woman who had the bottle to do what she did right in the middle of the cafe for all to see was something rare and true and to hold on to.

Nikki straightened herself up and thanked her from the bottom of her heart for being there. "God I must look a sight with my makeup all running. You hold onto the drinks and tell any more exs that come around here to go to hell while I go to the loo and straighten my face." and Nikki managed a tentative smile at her shaky attempt at a joke.

In the moments that Nikki was in the loo, Helen was reflecting that, earlier traumas aside, she was in the middle of a day she wanted not to end and that soon Nikki would be coming out and the hurt of the last two unwelcome guests would be mended. She saw the stares of onlookers who were still looking in wonderment but she had one over them, they were bystanders divorced from life. They held no terrors for who she was and the thought crossed her mind, that for someone who really was a lesbian, you would have to contend with this or travel through life in disguise.

"I'm so sorry for my not so welcome ex partner spoiling what I really wanted to be a good day for us both." Nikki said politely but Helen waved that away with a reminder of the disturbance kicked by her even less welcome ex fiancee.

"To friendship" Helen had raised her glass in a toast glancing round at the audience and smiling as Nikki with a warm smile lifted hers to clink glasses together.

"Do you fancy somewhere to eat somewhere next Nikki. I'm starving."

"Couldn't be better, Helen, so long as there aren't any other bloody ex partners around. If we see either of them making the place untidy, do you want to throw them out into the street or do you want to leave it to me? "finished Nikki with a broad grin. She was going to have a bloody good rest of the day with Helen and to hell with Trisha....and Sean Parr.

Helen was laying flat on her back on the living room carpet back at her flat with the ceiling and light suspended down towards her revolving gently round in circles. Next to her was a half filled glass of wine. Nikki was sprawled out on the sofa with her glass in easy reach while the world was now dark outside but inside was a feeling of delicious relaxation.

After a meal at the Pizzahut, both of them had been giggling at their indecision as to what they were going to eat, it was the case of 'take us to the next bar' where the wine flowed freely. In reaction to the sudden upsets earlier in the day, the conversation had travelled down a long sunny country lane of sparkling wit broken up by 'who's going to order the next bottle.'

"Christ, I'm pissed, Helen," Nikki said as she swerved back to the table with another bottle of wine. "How in hell can you sound pretty sober even though you've put away more than I have."

"Comes of plenty of practice." Helen grinned broadly.

Nikki had thought, how in hell could a Minister's daughter manage that from a background that hardly encouraged that sort of thing.

The conversation rambled along when Helen suggested they go back to her place. Why not, said Nikki though she suggested they get a taxi as working out directions and looking at road signs that don't make sense doesn't seem to be a good deal.

Still clutching a half empty bottle, Helen led the way into the sudden sharp sunlight and by sheer luck got to the taxi rank. As they hailed the taxi that pulled up, from the corner of Nikki's eye, she saw the scowling face of Maxi staring at them and she sort of fell into the taxi with Helen lying half on top of her. Helen had the presence of mind to remember her address. When they got to the front door, Helen found the front door key seemed to be all the wrong shape till the door suddenly flew open . A welcoming floor and sofa provided a handy place from which they couldn't fall and they could let the world revolve slowly away from them with no disturbance

"Christ it can't be this late." Nikki said when she suddenly woke up with a crick in her neck from the way she'd been lying on the sofa. "I ought to be going, I can't impose on you." Nikki said thinking along straight lines that she had planned on going out for the day with Helen and now it was the end of the day so she should go home.

"Why not crash out for the night here? " Helen's sleepy voice replied.

Nikki asked if she was sure. From her experience, it was novel for a straight woman to ask to go out on the piss with her, still more to ask her to stop over at her place and she was starting to wonder what she was letting herself in for, or Helen for that matter.

"I mean, it's dark, you're still half drunk.....more than that, this has been the best day of my life today and I don't want it to end. If you've gotta be elsewhere for any reason, OK but this has been the first proper human contact for so long and I'd like you to stay."

Helen went on to explain that when she went out with Sean, she thought they'd had other couples like Ted and Alice and Bob and Sue, etc etc but when they split up, he stole their friends from her as well. To the crowd, he painted her as the bitch and he was the wronged nice guy even though that was a total distortion of the facts. He was that kind of guy, Helen finished bitterly.

"That's a lousy deal, Helen." Nikki said sympathetically. "I'm glad I had a good go at him when I had the chance."

Helen grinned at that one, as she remembered Sean for the first time slink away with all the stuffing knocked out of him. She always had had problems coping with him when he was patronising or aggressive. It took her a little later on to remember the real look of tenderness in Nikki's eye in her sympathy for her.

Later on Helen was settled to bed and the flat seemed more human than it had for ages. It was quiet with little traffic noise outside but not the quiet of loneliness that she had known. It was the quiet of a perfect end of the day feeling. Nikki didn't have to say anything, or even be visible in the front room. Helen was acutely aware of her presence and the knowledge that she was there in the flat.

Walking through the door to the office felt, to Helen, like a bucketful of cold water being thrown over her when the concentrated malevolence of the looks from Fenner, Bodybag and Maxi were directed at her. After the warm feelings of the total openness from Nikki and a magic weekend of her company, it was being thrown back in the snake pit. She wondered why Bodybag and Fenner glared daggers at her so much and she realised, oh yes, she had had a run in with Fenner over Nikki and spoiled Bodybag's best ploys to get at her. That seems such a long time ago, was it the end of last week when so much had happened to her.

"Enjoyed yourself with your girlfriend, Helen." sneered Maxi. Of course she and Nikki had drunkenly jumped the queue and swiped her taxi. Jesus Christ, they keep rubbing the whole thing in day after day and being so stupid with it. What are they asking us to do, to really be girlfriends. Best not rise to it, that's what they're expecting.

"Did you have a good ride home in your taxi, Maxi" Helen replied with a mocking half smile.

"Yeah, I did, Stewart. And I suppose you'll give us a blow by blow account of what you did next." Maxi was in full glare mode.

"What's the point, you'll all obviously have had a good gossip, you know already, why should you ask me for the truth. And if you'll excuse me, I'm busy." And with that, Helen made a fast run for cover behind her computer with sounds of muttering behind her.

Why do I have to put up the mental barricades at a place like this, thought Helen to herself. I've got to keep one jump ahead of these bastards and it's such an energy drain and so unnecessary. And at that moment, she recalled only on Sunday, getting up and seeing Nikki still asleep on the sofa and thinking how peaceful and beautiful she looked. Those big brown eyes she remembered looking into the other day as they chattered to each other as they drank was something she could see before her eyes. Ah well, here's the latest work and it all looks pretty complicated, total mind blowers every one.

Helen's attention was on her work so she heard half the conversation when, on the rare moment Dominic came from behind his wall of work to approach Maxi with query about a piece of her work. Everything in his body language had expressed nervousness and fear and not wanting to upset anyone. He had a few words with her but Maxi, with a killer look, sent him away with a cock and bull yarn that was designed to bluster and intimidate.

"Maxi's right," chimed in Bodybag so predictably, it was someone else's business so she had to get involved. "We were talking about it only the other week and the way overpayments assess it out is the way Maxi explained. You need to be a bit more awake. Just sign it off and send it on its way. Why shouldn't that fraudster pay the money back anyway?"

Beaten, Dominic went back behind his wall of work, his one attempt to stand up for himself beaten back.

Helen was filled with anger inside but couldn't say anything. Those bastards are going to drive him down forever the way they are going. I might have said something if I was sure of my facts but I couldn't.

Presently Nikki came through the door and she sensed immediately the bad vibrations coming at her from one side and the sympathy and good feeling from the other.

"How's your girlfriend, Wade" snarled Maxi.

"What's the matter, Maxi. Are you jealous?" Nikki coolly replied. As Maxi spluttered in reaction Nikki said as if to no one in particular that it is a scientific fact that the worst homophobes are the ones who are secretly gay and won't admit it. She hung up her coat on the hook and exchanged a grin with Helen in passing.

There was a visible stir round the office as they struggled to come to terms with a new Nikki who was better able to fight back than she had been. Who was, of course, no surprise to Helen, who was far more aware of the depth to her than the surface impression she had given off till then.

A bit later when Bodybag was busy slagging off the payment sections that provided them with the work, Nikki used her knowledge to explain the whys and wherefores and to dare break ranks with the 'accepted wisdom' of Bodybag who knew everything.

"Look, it's no use just droning on forever. I know you want the last word but there is nothing in what you are saying that is going to make me agree with you. And no way are you going to wind me up and get at me that way."

"That's enough, Wade" Fenner at last chipped in.

Just then, Stubberfield came round on his tour of inspection.

Nikki looked at the guy with contempt. It wasn't often he came out of his room, it being far more often that Fenner disappeared to chat to him in his office. Everything about him spelt vanity, complacency, narrow mindedness and, worst of all having his favourites and a total lack of justice. He didn't want to hear unwelcome news, only what he wanted to hear. Early on, he had graced her with his favour and asked if she was happy in her work. Her reply was 'only if I were cloned' in a moment of rebellion at a time when she was under pressure and Bodybag was getting to her. He looked bemused, not understanding or wanting to understand and not seeing the pile of uncleared work which any idiot could see. She wasn't Miss Popular in his eyes though she was perfectly able to get on with an average bunch of people, male or female. Her contempt deepened when she saw the way Bodybag was gushing away to him when she had now been around there long enough to realise what bollocks she was talking and specifically designed to ram home the unsubtle message that without her, the office would collapse and the many times she had, in her time as an 'old stager' saved the Department time and time again. She saw that Helen's smile which would make anyone feel welcome and at ease didn't get the reaction it should. When Maxi spoke in such a phoney way how 'concerned she was about Dominic' as if she really cared about him, she was roused to fury. Total lying hypocrisy and creeping got to her that way. Does that fat pillock over there in his opinionated suit really know what is going on around him? Is he on the right planet, she asked herself. And as for Fenner, the 'cosy cosy' relationship that she overheard between the two of them spelt blatant arse licking. At that point she abruptly went to go to the loo, the one place no bastard could watch her. Going for a short walk made her feel better anyway.

As she came back into the room, Helen's appealing look of concern for her levelled her off and took the edge off her anger. Helen knew instinctively how she felt and understood everything and the look said that bottled up anger wouldn't solve anything and do her any good. Needless to say, the Fenner gang were deep into some mindless conversation about Coronation Street, what would they do if they won the National Lottery and never noticed a thing.

Back at her desk, she wondered with her violent antipathy to Fenner and Stubberfield whether there was anything in the 'man hater' tag that more vicious enemies had tried to hang round her neck in her life. No, she rejected it because she hated Bodybag's and Maxi's guts as much as anything and she thought she would like Dominic well enough if she could see more of the person that was stuck deep down at the bottom of a hole. Then again, Trisha wasn't exactly her favourite company right now. No her sympathies, likes and dislikes ran right across the spectrum as did her principles. When she fell in love, it happened to be with a woman, not a man, that's all.

Hearing Bodybag drone on about being in military intelligence for the umpteenth time made Nikki go into terminal boredom mode after the sparkling conversations she had had with Helen. Waking up on the Sunday morning on Helen's settee, she felt so at home in the flat and with herself and had seen Helen watching almost protectively over her first thing when she opened her eyes. They chatted more soberly in the morning, Helen saying that the flat felt too big for her while Nikki bemoaned her poky dump of a place whose advantage was that it was cheap. It was at the back of Nikki's thoughts to suggest why didn't they share a flat, for practical reasons of course but she was held back thinking they were going to have such contrasting lifestyles, Helen bring back boyfriends as opposed to Nikki bringing back girlfriends even though she was on her own at present. Presently, they got talking about themselves and Nikki spoke passionately about having people around her that she can trust, Helen right now being top of the list at which Helen smiled graciously. They teetered their way in avoiding contrasting it with the human snakepit they worked in as why should they even talk about those people on a quiet relaxed Sunday. Nikki's values were pretty close to Helen's except that Helen had learnt to grow a thicker protective skin between herself and the world at its worst. Presently, Nikki made her exit thinking she ought to give Helen a bit of space for the rest of the day and, on getting back to her own place, it suddenly seemed far too empty and quiet for her liking.

She had to cut loose from that chain of thought to slog her way through the fiendishly hard work and totter home, brain dead, to flop down in a chair and stick the TV on to watch some mindless crap.

Fenner took himself the familiar route to Stubberfield's office. He had 'signed blind' a load of decisions in the morning. They had all come from Bodybag and he knew that they would be bound to be right. That plonker Dominic was checking every crossed 't' and dotted eye. He was good for taking Wade's work which suited him fine and it was piling up on his desk. Stupid mug that he was for taking on work from inexperienced staff. The set up suited him just fine and he Maxi and Bodybag had the place sewn up tight. He couldn't be not aware that that Wade and Stewart were becoming thick as thieves and becoming a cosy twosome. Maxi was spreading it about that they were both bloody gay. OK Wade has made no secret of that from the word go when he first saw the cheeky bitch and he was just giving her a bit of friendly advice. Stewart used to have a boyfriend and she's a tasty piece even if she gave him the brush off. Said she had a jealous boyfriend who's into muscle building and is apt to pull the head off anyone who's messing around with his bird. That made me think twice. Didn't want to come into work with fist marks all over him as that would take some explaining away.

"Ah Jim." and Stubberfield waved him into an empty chair and they discussed the state of work. He's got the statistics of the work which were 'seasonally adjusted' by him specially to cover his back. On paper, everything in the garden looked rosy. In the Department, statistics are everything and inform everything that goes on even if they were as castles built on sand.

"Everything all right on the section," Stubberfield asked.

"Couldn't be smoother. Just the way I like it. Everybody's happy with the way the work is and everyone's fitting nicely into the team except that........" Fenner, like the actor he was, played the 'pause' for what it was worth.

Stubberfield rose to the bait as he predicted.

"It's just that Nikki Wade is getting to have a bit of an attitude problem. Nothing I can't handle," he said self deprecatingly.

"What's the problem, Jim." Stubberfield asked.

"Well, it's just that she started to be off hand when Sylvia was giving her all in helping her train her up. It's just as if she can't take helpful constructive criticism and gets all defensive. Not that it's a major problem but I thought you ought to hear it as you like being kept in touch with things."

"I'll leave it in your capable hands to handle. Miss Wade ought to know that there are things like annual reports to consider. Now what time do you want to meet up for a sporting game of golf.....with a spell at the nineteenth hole of course." Stubberfield smiled.

"That will do fine," Fenner smiled, secure and smug in his position and status.

"Nikki." asked Helen. "Can you give me a hand with this one. I can't see what was paid on this one. I can't make sense of the computer."

"You do it the way I always do it, you always go by system 503. That's the way we always work here." shot out Bodybag without waiting for Nikki to reply. She sensed that Nikki was setting out to challenge her rivalry as to who was going to be 'top dog' around here as she had been recently on systems payments while Bodybag's experience was years old and Nikki was starting to come out stronger. Bodybag's appetite for power and control pushed her all the time to need to be centre stage.

Nikki for her part was aware of Bodybag out of the corner of her eye but studiously set out to keep control over her thoughts. She always got pissed off at instant experts and if there was a problem, her thought was to take herself over to the problem. She went over to Helen's desk and ran through the dialogues for Helen, only too pleased to return the favours from the past and, sure enough, identified where the discrepancy was. Bodybag was an annoying distraction and any idea of a power trip was alien to Nikki.

"She's only been here a few months and wants to take over the place," grumbled Maxi to Bodybag. Of course, they blithely ignored the fact that Nikki was only wanting to be treated as equals with them. Vain and hypersensitive as they were to slights as to their self esteem, they were totally insensitive to other people's feelings.

"You can't keep those two lesby pals apart," Bodybag venomously replied. "Next thing they'll be cuddling up behind the computer."

Maxi was talking away to Bodybag and she was saying that she couldn't pop over to see her in the morning as she had to go to Sunday service, Harvest Festival, you know what I mean and Bodybag said she understood, she'll come later on that day. They were oblivious to the looks of stunned amazement followed by choking sounds coming from Nikki and Helen as this astonishing insight into Maxi's character dawned on them.

"Excuse me, Dom, I've got to go to the toilet" was the nearest lame excuse Helen could think of as she shot off still choking and lamer still was Nikki's addition that she had to help Helen as she went after her. The fact that they had to run somewhere fast to collapse in hysterical laughter was too simple an explanation for the others and instead, they tut tutted behind their back for leaving the phones and, you never know what they were getting up to in the women's loos.

Instead Helen was sat on the toilet seat, collapsed in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of Maxi being religious. Nikki, squashed down into the narrow space left, was trying to put "Maxi" "religious" and "vicious" together in her mind and, totally failing to connect, broke up in similar hysterics. Perhaps this was a release from all the pressures they'd both been under for months. Whatever the reason, instinctively they knew they needed this moment to preserve their sanity.

"Maybe, Maxi's shagging the vicar........"

"Or Stubberfield's got a bit of religion on the side and she's creeping up to him." and the conversation got madder and more surrealistic between bursts of laughter . Nikki replied that she didn't pay too much attention to the scriptures in school what with the bit where God says where man and women are put together, etc, etc, she really lost interest.

"Nikki," Helen playfully pushed her. "Come on we'd better get back for Dom's sake, or he'll be in trouble. Think you can manage it with a straight face, Nik?"

"No more than you can but we gotta go."

And the smirks on their faces when Helen and Nikki returned after a suspiciously long time in the loo, betrayed to the right thinking Maxi and Bodybag, there was nothing those two notorious lesbians wouldn't get up to, whenever or wherever. That added much to the early morning gossiping sessions for the next few weeks with which they always started the day when they really enjoyed indulging in their feelings of moral outrage.

"There's something I don't understand." Karen spoke thoughtfully after stubbing the 'first thing in the morning' cigarette out in her ashtray. By evening time that would be full to overflowing depending on what sort of a day she had. She was talking, as if half to herself, across the paper strewn desk to Mark the other side. "I've been looking at the overpayment appeals I've turned over in the last few months. Beside the usual there's some pattern...."

"Yes, I know it," Mark's contemptuous grin said it expressively. "It's that deadly combination of Fenner and Bodybag. Face me with that and I think, where's the screw up and if I can't find it, I've not looked hard enough."

Karen's wince as if she'd bitten into something painful answered to say that was true but passing on, she said.

"It goes right across the board, Mark. Maxi turns out crap, and her stuff like Bodybag is easy stuff. I have a lot of time for Helen's work, it's calculated very accurately but now and again, there's some basic flaw that comes out as if no one has really explained the basics of the law properly. The strange thing is that all the calculations tend to be the harder ones. I've seen Nikki's work and the same pattern starting to emerge. Don't know what to make of it." Karen's voice trailed off as she was lost in thought.

"What are we going to do about it, Karen." Mark said, getting to the point, reaching for his form of addiction, the regular caffeine fix. "All right, don't have to look at me accusingly. You won't have to drag me off the ceiling. Real men can take their coffee," he said grinning at his own joke........"but you, Karen Betts are going to end up with an artificial lung or two.....ouch", he finished as Karen kicked him from under the table.

Karen was grinning at their usual cross the table banter but on a more serious note replied thoughtfully.

"If I quote the lawbook, it will sound double dutch to them with the best will in the world. I'll quote this chunk from the Decision Maker's Guide, a bit more friendly, point them in the right direction and address it to Helen and put my extension number on it. She can phone me or come upstairs if she wants to know more."

And Karen tapped away on the computer, packaged up all the papers to wend their way three floors down.

"Nikki" whispered Helen while Fenner, Maxi and Bodybag were busy gossiping. " I've had this minute from appeals where she is talking about a Decision Maker's Guide .What in hell is one?"

Nikki shrugged her shoulders at Helen's perplexed face thinking, this is surreal, it's the wrong way round, I should be asking her the questions even now.

"I don't get it. With all the time you've been here............no don't get me the wrong way," seeing Helen's brief flash of anger. "You know that even after this time, I'd go to you for help. The point is, why now after all the time you've been around are we told about something we should know about but don't. Think about it, Helen. Who's holding out on us?"

Nikki's questioning expression floored Helen. How do you get to know about something we should have been told but haven't.

"Don't ask Fenner or any of that crowd," Nikki said in a low voice. "Wait for them to clear off for the night and perhaps we ought to do some nosing around."

The clock seemed to go on a go slow till the magic hour of 4 arrived and they trooped off, naturally without a 'good night' in their direction as befitting the state of undeclared war.

Immediately, Helen and Nikki started to comb their way through the office, through all the bookcases, cupboards full of work to be done and through all the more obscure hidey holes but not a trace.

"Do we go through their drawers" Nikki asked, the meaning of 'their' being abundantly clear. They felt like espionage agents on a secret mission but instead of some far fetched unreal James Bond movie, this was their little adventure. In any case, Nikki had always switched off when James Bond came up on TV unable to stomach the unreality of it all, even in spite of some of the female cast.

"Got it," Helen said with satisfaction pulling it discreetly from the depths of Bodybag's drawer. "Jesus Christ, it's as old as the hills. Look at the front, there's a years worth of amendments still wrapped up in polythene. The stupid bitch has sat on this all the time and we could have learnt from this. Bet you, she's kept it back so she can make up the rules as she goes along, oh yes she's got a hotline to God."

Helen was shaking with anger and red in the face at finding this, Because the fat vicious conniving bitch didn't understand it, no one else should know about it and be 'one up on her'. She had a sneaking suspicion that while she was confident in what she was doing, she was wrong in her approach and the question is, how wrong was she?. There was every possibility that she had to relearn parts of her job to do it right and that Nikki was in the same boat. The next thought was, if only a handful of her calculations were found to be wrong and the rest passed through, how often was the Department asking for the wrong amount to be paid back? Her mind was whizzing at what she may have to do the next day to put it right but no one was around so that she can take it further even if she could find someone to trust.

Nikki was looking at Helen with real concern. She hadn't seen Helen wound up so much and she was starting to make the same mental connections. I don't want to think of the fact that Bodybag was persecuting me for ages and the bitch might be wrong. Leave that to tomorrow.

"Do you want to come back to my place tonight, Helen? You look really shaken up. Only don't talk about work, leave it to the morning."

Helen nodded at that, That was the only logical thing to do. Even at that moment, Helen was conscious of the look of concern in Nikki's eyes and the touch of her hand on her arm.

They got out of the office as soon as they could. There were better places to be.

Helen was shaky in her driving, just scraping past a car when turning right across its path ignoring the hooting horn. Helen was making a fearful sounds with the gears as she slowed down or accelerated. Nikki was scared as she'd not seen Helen as shaken up as she was but she kept quiet. With great relief to both, Helen pulled up to a halt in the terraced street that some part of her mind remembered when the roles were reversed and she was taking a grossly overworked Nikki home. Helen slumped back in her seat, her head against the backseat. Nikki waited patiently for Helen to pull herself together.

"Welcome to my dump. The sort of place 'Changing Rooms' would give up as a bad job." Nikki said jokingly.

Pushing through the solid Victorian front door, they came into the front room with a small two seater settee which Helen flopped into and lay flat out on. Nikki disappeared into the kitchen returning with two coffee mugs one of which Helen gratefully accepted while Nikki took the narrow armchair.

"I don't know what came over me like that, Nikki. I just seemed to freak out when you told me that..........I just flashed back to when I started this job and had Bodybag sending me round in circles till I found out what she was like....Now I know what she'd been keeping back I just saw red....."

Nikki waited patiently for Helen to get it out of her system. It seemed to her that Helen had appeared to be the strong one but had been under pressure for a long time till it only took something like this to blow a fuse.

"You'd better take it easy, darling. You lie right there while I knock up a meal for the two of us."

Helen could see the look of concern on Nikki's face and the tone of her soft cultured voice wrapped itself around her. She could take it easy and she slipped into a half awake half dream state looking up into the soft light coming down on her.

Presently, Nikki emerged with a slap up meal and a bottle of wine which filled the gap for both of them and gave them more of a feeling of contentment with themselves and the world. They stuck the TV on and there was a series featuring a women's prison that they felt they could both relate to and seemed to speak for their lives. The anger of the female inmates with the bullying middle aged female warder was their anger, it went past mere identification. They admired the heroism of the female lead characters who spoke for their lives and dreams.

Right at the end, Helen was yawning her head off. "I'll have to get some sleep, Nikki. where do I sleep?"

Nikki betrayed some embarrassment as the flat was designed for one. The front room was squashed in with a wardrobe, chest of drawers. The settee and chair were too uncomfortable as Nikki pointed out stumbling for words. The door to the bedroom was open and so Helen said casually.

"Guess I'll have to share your bed, won't I?" This pulled Nikki out of the dilemma that she had wanted to suggest without suggesting. She started to stammer that Helen would be safe sharing a bed with her when Helen with a reassuring smile said the magic words 'I know, Nikki'.

The glow from the bedside light in Nikki's room cast a gentle glow over the scene and to Helen, Nikki looked different with her ruffled hair and to Nikki, Helen's relaxed manner in the last place she ever expected her to be made her wonder if she was in a golden dream that she might wake up from except this seemed as real as she ever expected anything to be. This was a million miles away from their official exteriors and was a letting down of the barriers. Last time when they were at Helen's flat, they had separate rooms and it seemed a whole different deal to them.

"Hey, I thought you wanted to sleep." Nikki joked as she lay on her back while the stressed out Helen seemed to come back to life.

"While I was lying on the settee crashed out on the sofa, I was thinking back of everything that had happened since I first met you and I've never had more fun with you than anyone else, Nikki . Whatever's happened in my life recently, there you've been around me, there are so many images in front of my eyes. " Helen smiled a whole souled smile of someone totally dreamily relaxed as she propped herself on her elbow and looked down on Nikki. "And there's no one that's so caring and has such a tender look in your eyes when you've been there for me."

"Well, if you hadn't been there I would have had a major breakdown, Helen. I really don't like to think what could have happened. " Nikki felt a chill inside her at the thought of that one. "This is so new to me as I've always been the strong one in any relationship. There's so much I've shared with you that I've never had with anyone before." Helen felt the full tenderness in Nikki's voice when a thought popped into Helen's mind and she laughed.

"It's a new experience for me that according to well informed sources I've ended up being part of the hottest couple since Sappho and whoever."

A look of concern came over Nikki's face and she swore that she would never do anything that would cause her any trouble in Helen's life if she was in any way upset about this one. Nikki least expected Helen to reach over and kiss her full on the lips which was triggered by Helen's sudden rush of feelings for typical Nik protectiveness for her.

Nikki did not know what to think. When she first got to know Helen, what was fixed in her mind was that she was relating to a straight woman for a change in a simple uncomplicated friendship after the recent disastrous relationship with Trisha. Others before that weren't much better. She had grown to utterly trust in Helen as a rock in contrast to the shifting sands she'd been in amongst past girlfriends, not to mention the vicious whirlpools and riptides of life at work. She knew that they grew to need each other to keep their heads above water but Nikki knew that they'd be that close anyway. She hadn't questioned things even with the feeling at the back of her mind that Helen was the one who was forcing the pace in their relationship. It had seemed ironic that for once in her life, she was being publicly cast as the notorious lesbian when there had been nothing in it or so she had thought.

"You do know what you are doing Helen?" she whispered her fingers lightly resting on Helen. "I'm not exactly been luring you into my bed. I've been nervous about starting a relationship with a straight woman."

"I promise you'll have nothing to worry about me....ever. I've known what I'm doing and it's simple to me. I love you, Nikki, so you'd better unstraighten me and give those bastards something to really gossip about. Only thing is I really haven't got a clue what to do next."

The mixture of Helen's humour that they shared, utter sincerity and straightforwardness as she looked Nikki straight in the eye dispersed Nikki's last flickering reservations as she let nature take over as she reached over to the bedside light to click it off as she felt Helen move next to her.

Many hours later Nikki was curled up next to Helen playing with a lock of her hair. She looked up at the shape and angles of Helen's face caught in the lamplight which cast deep shadows in the corners of the bedroom that seemed the centre of their universe.

"I can't believe it, Helen. I'd been going out to the same couple of gay bars in town week after week looking for a lover, that's where I first met Trish, and for one time in my life I make an effort just to have a friend, I find you and what I'd been really looking for all along. Unbelievable."

"We can still be friends, Nikki." Helen said with that slight smile and a joke that was also as serious as can be.

Nikki nodded stuck for words as it hit her that she'd found both. Then she smiled as she recalled

"For someone who says she hadn't a clue what to do in bed, Miss Stewart you're a fast learner. I can't keep up with you."

"I remember seeing you as the Sleeping Beauty fast asleep on my front room sofa. You looked so beautiful and peaceful...." Helen reminisced, then with a smile. "Well, sweetheart, you've got some catching up to do with me."

Nikki was dreaming. She was back at hers and Trisha's flat and sitting on the sofa just before going to work and she was aware of Trisha coming up behind her to give her a delicate kiss on the cheek. She remembered then the feeling of being loved and that while she had her office job to do and Trisha had the club to run, they were going somewhere in life together. Then her feelings became confused and angry when she relived that moment of shock and horror in walking through the door and seeing Trisha all over Lucy. She didn't want to remember any more of that horrible night when she'd had a stand up row in front of everyone in the club and she jerked herself away from the horrible scene and....and....and...she was safe in her own double bed with the quilt all askew all over her with a smiling Helen handing her a hot cup of coffee.

"Sorry sweetheart. Didn't know how else to wake you. Hey, you look as if you've had a bad dream." Helen said with some concern seeing Nikki's feverish movements in her sleep and look of confusion on her face after her good morning kiss on Nikki's cheek.

"The worst." Nikki shivered at the thought." Thanks for being you and being here." As Nikki came back into the brightness of her present life and future to be and bad memories of her past banished away into the dark crevices of her mind.

"We've got work to go to. We've gotta go." Helen called out.

"Oh no," moaned Nikki "not after the best night of my life. I just want to have the day off in bed with you."

"We've got this weekend and the rest of our lives together." Helen said, the impact of the remark hitting Nikki when they were in the car to work. "Come on. Remember, we've got our role for Bodybag and Maxi as the notorious lesbian couple so we might as well put on a little performance. Just think, if they'd not gone on so much about it, we might not have ended up together."

The wicked smile on Helen's face and the way it appealed to Nikki's irony loving soul and for the first time in ages gave Nikki something to look forward to at work. Up till then she'd dismissed the continual verbal jabs just out of earshot with a resigned sigh and can't they not be so childish and let the whole matter drop especially when they'd been so wide of the mark as she'd thought. The grin on her face became wider when she contemplated the viciously homophobic Bodybag, with her physical bulk in the unlikely role of sprouting Cupid's wings, complete with bow and arrow and bringing her and Helen together. Yes, they had to make the most of it as she grabbed her handbag and made her way to the passenger seat of Helen's car.

Helen was chattering away to Nikki as she drove the car towards work.

"First chance we get when we go in, we go up to see Karen Betts about this Decision Maker's Guide and see just where we've been going wrong. I've a few thoughts in my mind."

"Oh my Gooooddd," exclaimed Nikki "how do you do it? To switch around from having the best shag in ages last night to talking work....even before we've got there? I need my first coffee of the day before I can even start to think that way. Talk about Action Woman."

Helen grinned at the friendly banter but reminded Nikki that this was the last chance they could talk openly before they go into a world where all eyes are on them. She reminded Nikki that they would have their little moment of fun first.

Helen saw the square sided building with rows of glass windows, turned round into the car park finding the one space not taken. Once in the building, they made their dramatic entrance into the room, knowing very well all eyes would be upon them, walking in arm in arm and, at the precise moment Helen kissed Nikki on the cheek just before making their way to their desks. The theatrical timing was perfect.

"Dominic," called Nikki to the overworked figure behind a pile of work, "Helen and I are on the way up to Appeals. We'll be back before the switchboard opens."

Helen grabbed the papers she'd left out only that vast time previously last Friday and they were away upstairs highly conscious of the mounting wave of shock horror behind them. And Bodybag was speechless as they were coolly and calmly breaking her monopoly of her Hotline to God.

Once out the door, they clattered down the corridor, up the lift and up to the remote reached to the appeals room where Karen and Mark were at their desks which were covered with papers.

"Sorry to come bursting in on you, Karen but we really wanted to talk to you about that case you put to me." said an out of breath Helen.

"Hey, take a couple of seats," said a relaxed hospitable Karen, automatically offering a waiting cup of coffee to them." We don't find anyone from overpayments is friendly enough and actually come and talk to us."

"But I thought that Body.....,I mean Sylvia Hollamby, is always in touch with you. She's always going on about what Appeals say about things."

Mark's face twitched as if someone had jabbed a sharp needle into it and when he found his voice he spoke decisively and with passion.

"Oh yeah, she's always in constant touch, like David Attenborough having a stroll through the jungle and has a python wrap its coils round him before choking him to death. I get that bloody woman come on the phone and try and verbally batter me into submission. You take it from me that if she's spouting on about us, it is NOT what Karen and I think."

"Now now, Mark, you shouldn't get yourself worked up. Not unless you can make Justifiable Homicide stick with the police and with the Department in accidentally on purpose pushing her down a very long hard flight of stairs." Karen's equally edgy voice tried to make a joke out of things to Mark as one mention of Bodybag's name gets the poor bastard worked up and she had had to comfort him more than once when he woke up shouting in the middle of the night from a Bodybag nightmare.

"You're telling me that the Guide which could be the answer to a lot of your problems is stuck in Bodybag's draw. You have got to be kidding." Karen's raised eyebrow was noticed by Nikki and, Nikki smiled that they had the same nickname for Bodybag.

Just then, the phone rang which Karen reached for.

"Yes, Jim Fenner. We have Nikki and Helen up her and, no they are not coming down straight away as we have business to discuss with them. Switchboard's not opened yet and, in any case, for God's sake you can spare your two galley slaves just for once in your life. Yes, I'll phone you when they're on their way back." Karen slammed the phone down in anger to match the cutting way she spoke on the phone.

"Look here, time isn't on our side but I'll take Helen through the guide briefly and photocopy the bit you need. Mark, you were going to show Nikki the sort of problems we've been having.

Presently, Mark drew Nikki aside to the stack of appeals they had which was causing them to work long hours. Mark very kindly separated out the overpayment calculations from a host of appeals and Nikki felt that, for once, she was having a 'behind the scenes' look at what was really going on in their job as opposed to their corner of it. With mounting anger, she saw what to her were easy peasy calculations that were done by Maxi and Bodybag that had never come her way or Helen's. A further edge was added to the way that Fenner had clearly overlooked one elementary mistake after another. Vicious bullying had always got Nikki's back up ever since she was at school but incompetence with it roused her to blind anger. Her easy going cooperative exterior was the surface under which her strong emotions and loyalties to people and values lay in the depths of her personality .

They did see some of their mistakes and Mark was briefly trying to explain where they had gone wrong, not, as Mark was hasty to point out, that they were remotely in the same league as Maxi and Bodybag but that time spent through the Guide would have avoided.

"Looks like you two have had all the crap to go through while Maxi and Bodybag have been dumping on you."

"I'll kill them." Nikki answered Mark, her anger boiling over.

"No way Nikki unless you make it look a convincing accident. And in any case, Mark and I will be at the front of the queue before you." Karen's voice rang out as she'd got the drift of the conversation while showing the Guide to an equally incensed Helen who had seen as clear as daylight where she'd gone wrong when her training had been loused up in this important area.

Both Nikki and Helen's minds were in a daze. Helen's mind had blown a fuse when she'd found out about the Guide though something at the back of Nikki's mind was aware that if that hadn't have happened, she and Helen might not have got together. Both of them wanted to get at Fenner and co in the quickest possible way.

"Look here, if it is of any help, Mark and I have been working our butts off as we've too much bloody work. Before you came up, we'd agreed to say, sod the targets for the day, we'll do a report for our boss about all this. You can take it that we'll point the bloody finger where it needs pointing and that lazy arse Stubberfield is in for a shock. We'll put a bomb under him, Maxi, Fenner and Bodybag. You stick around and see the fireworks and then it will be your turn. If you go in too early, Fenner will only slap you down. Think on it. And if you ever want to pop out for a lunchtime drink, you know where to find us." Karen finished with a friendly smile.

Just then the phone rang again and Karen picked it up.

"What do you mean about 'the two lovebirds' and yes, we've nearly finished. You want to watch the way you're talking to me, Jim Fenner."

Karen asked politely what Fenner was banging on about and the tone of that remark encouraged Helen to volunteer the fact that they were an item. If getting together with Nikki was a new experience for her, then dealing with how others saw them was equally new even though they'd had continual sniping about something that, up till then, hadn't been the case. The whole thing of appearance and reality made Helen's head spin at that point.

"You mean like Karen and I," Mark chipped in, the best thing he could have said from the grateful looks they received. Jesus Christ, someone somewhere actually approves of them, Nikki thought, which was a new experience for her.

"I'll phone up that idiot Fenner to say you're on the way down. And don't let those bastards get to you in any way." Karen said, her soft tone giving out all the sympathy that she could. "You two had better get going."

Part 2

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