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: Credits to Shed Production for the loan of these characters without which this fic could not have been written also to the quote from the Women in Prison website, http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/. I would also like to thank my fellow writer Kristine who betaed this and that this fic is very likely to have had origins in the Bad Girls Series 1-2 discussions.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Reality of Paradise
The late afternoon sunshine slanted down into the street. The busy cars were propelled onwards in their never-ending journey round London. The party people were doing their usual routines in the club just yards away and the graphically designed sign "Chix" invited the eager, the hungry, the hopeful and the resolutely single to enter its doors. The two women locked in a passionate embrace were oblivious to everything around them. For that glorious moment of freedom meant that both of them had only eyes for each other. Nothing else mattered.
Nikki was incredibly aroused by how much passion was let off the leash in the smaller woman as she pressed herself up against her and her tongue was deep inside her mouth.
She could feel Helen's fingers softly stroking her hair and in turn she held the other woman close to her. They were interlocked for ages, oblivious to everything. Both of them ran their hands sensually over each other's bodies, black cloth next to red leather and denim. Time's minutes and the hour's little hand had fallen off the clock and that need to segment time for future happenings was abolished. All there was in the world was that urgent desire for physical contact, to reassure each other that at last they were as one.
It was reluctantly that they finally moved slightly apart, both of them shiny eyed, and breathless, and hardly being able to believe in the sight of each other.
"Suppose we go somewhere else, darling," Nikki murmured. "We can't stay here all day, can we?"
In answer, Helen slid her arm round the taller woman's waist as they walked back in the direction of the club and paused. Undifferentiated feelings of desire ran through them but neither of them knew for a moment just exactly what to do. The world had shifted violently on its axis in such a short period of time that it took time for both of them to assimilate it all. It was Nikki that started the first tentative plan for both of them. Immense feelings of satisfaction ran through her nervous system that, yes she had the right to do this. She was a free woman, after all.
"I'll fetch my things from the club. Be right back, Helen," Nikki said softly at last. There was a little smile on her face and a light in her eyes.
Helen stood awhile leaning limply against a pillar, watching the world go by. The streets were deserted and gave those London streets that peculiar loneliness. The big city was no friend to those who hadn't got friends or lovers around them or any purpose in life. She was off the frantic revolving wheel of the madness of life at Larkhall. She gazed into the distance and her obvious proposition echoed back to her 'I want a woman. So simple, so final but how much heart searching it had taken to get there let alone the fact that the question needed asking in the first place.
A momentary shiver of worry ran through her. Suppose Nikki had disappeared? Suppose that she would never see her again? A spasm of fear ran through her until she felt those light fingers brush against her shoulders and her heart jumped with relief.
"My mobile library and my clothes, pretty knackered from years of prison washing machines," joked Nikki.
"What are we doing? I suppose we're not going back for a drink after all, but we're going somewhere else, aren't we," Nikki mumbled.
"Back to my flat when we can grab a cab," Helen answered in determined tones.
"Your place rather than mine. That sounds good enough as I haven't got one."
Helen's carrying voice managed to hail down a black cab and both of them collapsed into the back seat. Helen rattled out the directions and, for the second time that day, Nikki was whisked away to her future, this time away from Nikki's ex- girlfriend with whom it had once appeared she would be reunited. While Helen's shapely hands closed around Nikki's, the other woman was pale and quiet.
"What's wrong, Nikki?" that softly spoken concerned voice whispered into her ear as Helen leaned close up to her.
"It's the cab. It was only a few hours ago that Trish took me from court to the club and, here I am, with you by my side. It feels strange being whizzed around in a cab after three years inside," Nikki's tired voice answered as she put her hand to her forehead.
Helen slid her arm round Nikki's shoulders to part comfort, part hold her while the cab driver in his driving shell studiously studied the road ahead. They were oblivious to him as indeed they were to people about them. They were not answerable to them or to any rules they might choose to set. Helen was up high with their freedom to do as they will and Nikki felt the same, sort of when she learned to not look out of the window.
Presently, they turned the corner and an iconic, many times remembered surroundings leapt into view. The only difference was that it was broad daylight. How many times could Nikki remember desperately pacing up the front steps to Helen's front door and, precious hours later, overfull of love and affection, she had slipped out with Helen to her car.
"I can remember this street, this flat ..just as I last saw it. It's there for me, for us."
"We're home, sweetheart." Helen smiled broadly.
Nikki visibly melted. Both words had such a strong, powerful, centring effect on her.
Helen reached forward to the window and paid the driver, then grabbed hold of one of Nikki's plastic bags and steadied Nikki as she stepped uncertainly out of the cab. There was somehow a slightly cleaner, fresher air round here or was it her own senses that were coming alive? As Nikki walked carefully up the steps, Helen slid ahead and, with a slightly shaking hand, turned the key in the lock. The large door opened silently and, mouth open, Nikki could not believe how easy it was to enter. Everything in her life, which she had to strive for, was now suddenly opening up for her so easily. Smiling, Helen gave a ceremonious bow, holding the wide open door.
"Everything is exactly as I've pictured it," breathed Nikki, a look of wonder on her face.
"Excerpt that there's nothing stopping you being here. Not now." Came the gentle reply.
"As if I could ever forget that night, Nikki. Welcome to our home."
Dazed, Nikki shook her head. Helen's words set the deal on the dramatic change around in their fortunes. Helen looked the same as she did when she was here last but in so many ways, so different. She wasn't an employee of the Home Office any more. She was just Helen.
"You're right. I like the word 'our.' It sounds so good," Nikki grinned." You show me the way so I can put my bags down somewhere."
As Nikki passed through the flat, she marvelled that her memories started flooding back. Everything was just so real and the colours so intense. At one time, she would have sworn that they were locked up in a trunk in the deepest portion of her mind.
"This was the window I hammered at .. and this was the sofa where we lay together and this is the bedroom where ." Nikki began to say until she saw Helen's eyes focused intensely on her. Nikki dropped her bags on the floor and with it, her long black coat. As the two women moved towards each other into a soft embrace, the words, that was then but this is now, danced around in Nikki's mind.
With slightly shaking fingers, Nikki gently eased the zip down Helen's red leather jacket while Helen's fingers unbuttoned Nikki's shirt. Her heart was pounding as, so effortlessly, she had revisited territory that, last time around, it had taken mountains to move. They slid each others' clothes off in a trail that led to that very same bed.
Nikki eased herself above Helen and ran a line of kisses down Helen's neck and her skin felt alive to the touch of Helen's fingertips along the contours of her back.
Helen was acutely aware of every move Nikki was making, the tenderness with which her tongue and lips caressed her skin. Helen moaned softly as her own passion gradually built up within her and her body started to move as the other woman delicately explored her hardening nipples. The smoothness of Nikki's skin against her was a sensual joy. A feeling of delight soared in Helen as Nikki's lips slid further down her body. She couldn't wait for the climax of her pleasure to come. At last, Nikki reached the source of all her pleasures and her soaring passion was illuminated by incredible feelings of tenderness as Nikki's lovemaking was so gentle and caring. This wasn't the fast and furious lovemaking of before, both of them driven to the desperation of the one and only night together before they must return to Larkhall and their normal guises. This time, both of them instinctively took their time but all restraints and constraints were off. Nikki knew just how she felt and Helen's fingers ruffled the tousled hair of the other woman and stroked her back and shoulders as she was taken all the way over the top. God, if it weren't for that night they slept with each other, she would never have known that such pleasure existed. So this was why she fell in love with Nikki way back when, she became capable of thought and had got her breath back.
"I want to make love to you all night long," Helen breathed against the skin of Nikki's neck.
"Just you try and stop me."
There was no awkwardness or hesitation as Helen's body moved on top and Nikki lay on her back ready to receive her lover.
"I'm ever so sorry but I have to go to the toilet." Nikki said in an apologetic tone of voice from out of the dim light many hours later.
"Of course." Helen laughed. As Nikki slipped out, she revealed her shapeliness to Helen as she reclined against the pillow. Everywhere was quiet and calm and Helen felt at peace with herself as time flowed free. It must have been ages since they went to bed but time was at its most irrelevant. A moonbeam slanted in through the bedroom windows as Nikki returned.
"God, you're gorgeous, Nikki."
"You like what you see," Nikki smiled as she slowly paced her way back towards the bed.
"You look like someone out of a movie. I swear to God that I can't keep my hands off you." came Helen's reply, her voice husky with desire. She pulled Nikki close to her and slid on top of her. Helen's hunger for the taste of her was insatiable, more so than she could ever imagine.
It was later as Helen lay sleepily in the depths of her, no their, bed, their passion finally spent. She gently cuddled Nikki next to her.
"You're incredible, Helen."
"So are you."
"I can't believe that we're finally here at last."
"Our lives begin from here, sweetheart. Everything up till now has just been a rehearsal."
Nikki sleepily caressed Helen's shoulder and sleepily kissed her on her cheek. They were both tired out in a blissful way. They settled down next to each other, shuffled the quilt straight and drifted off into the most profound, undisturbed sleep that neither of them had known before for a long while.
First thing in the morning for Nikki was one where her eyelids peeked open, trying to make sense of a brand new day. This was no exception. This bed was much fluffier, more padded, smelt fresh and clean and it seemed to stretch for miles. All her surroundings were brilliant white and made her feel good. This really didn't feel like Larkhall, Nikki thought for a moment as she lay on her back until she glanced sideways. It was only then that she noticed the smooth sleek back and what looked like a medium length bob cut. It couldn't be, she exclaimed to herself in wonder. She propped herself up on her elbow and glanced down at that well remembered face, that straight nose and expressive mouth. Of course, she smiled to herself, it's Helen. It's where I should be, where I have dreamed of being for so many lonely nights than she cared to think of. She sighed with relief, turned over and snuggled up behind her as the memories of their tender lovemaking flooded back to her waking mind. Everything was all right after all. She could go back to sleep and get up whenever she wanted. For one second, instinct made her think that someone, somewhere would call out to her to say it was time to get dressed and head for the showers. Then she realized that she was free from that demand on her. It brought on that feeling of peace and inner calm that she had not known for an infinity of time and it told her that she had no need to hurry for any external voice she might hear in her head. She could decide for herself. Giving Helen a little squeeze, she floated along in a pure white dream that took her back to sleep.
"Want a cup of tea and toast, Nikki?" that well-remembered voice spoke in her dreams. "What do you say to breakfast in bed?"
Nikki stretched full length in the bed and opened her eyes and gave a broad smile. In the context of her past life, that sounded like the most decadent luxury imaginable. The self-satisfied sounds that emerged from her throat was answer enough.
Helen slipped out of bed and while Nikki lay back contentedly. Nikki lay outside of consciousness of time passing and events moving while Helen took herself into the kitchen. Nikki's sharp ears caught Helen softly humming to herself and the unconscious melody floated in the air. It was a strand that located Helen in space and spoke of sheer contentment and peace of mind. Presently, the smell of toast wafted through the air and Helen drifted back, wearing that white dressing gown in which Nikki had pictured her so often. She placed it on that small bedside table. Nikki had to pinch herself that this was no dream, this was reality that she had no need to awaken from.
"Mmmmm," murmured Nikki as she slid her arms round Helen's neck and planted a long luxurious kiss on her lips.
"Service with a smile," laughed Helen gaily. "I used to temp as a waitress when I was a poverty stricken student. Bet you didn't know that."
"There's so much I don't know, sweetheart."
"We've all the time in the world to get to know each other the way I want us to."
The flashing light of Helen's gaiety changed suddenly to a dreamy gaze into the far off distance out the window. She turned her head and her large eyes looked into Nikki's soul. If she had been standing up, she would have gone weak at the knees.
"Anyway, breakfast time."
"Toast and marmite," mused Nikki, looking at the jar." I used to have that when I was a kid."
Everything felt so civilized, as if they were on a desert island all their own. Nikki's senses were hyper acute. Even an ordinary cup of tea tasted sharp and fresh while the Marmite spiced texture of the home bake bread was a real treat for the senses. This was the ultimate in living life as opposed to enduring it as she had done for so long.
"What do we do, do we have to go anywhere, do anything, Helen?"
"Whatever we feel like. I'm not going anywhere in a hurry."
Nikki lay back in the bed with a big smile on her face. This was the life, she reflected, as she lazed in bed with the woman she loved at her side.
It was only hours later that her native curiosity prompted her to properly explore the flat. Even for November, the weather was bright outside and she caught a glimpse of the back garden. This looked promising.
"Lets go outside, the day is so fresh, so new. It would be a shame not to see it."
"Just as you wish, sweetheart."
This was a familiar sight to her and had seen better days. She would be the first to admit that she was no gardener but it might be interesting seeing her flat through Nikki's eyes.
She grabbed a long woollen scarf, slipped on a thick overcoat and was thankful for them when the cold air hit her.
"Your garden's lovely, Helen, or it will be when I get to work on it," Nikki exclaimed, leading the way through the back door. The overgrown grass and the bedraggled bushes didn't deter her in the slightest. Helen made her way down the steps leading to the back garden. Nikki had shot on ahead and scurried round the neglected evergreen plants and overgrown lawn. She had immediately laid claim to this empire as the successor to her beloved roses in Larkhall Prison. Her expert eye taught her that she could restore this garden to its glory. The bare trees in winter would provide a leafy shade for the bright midsummer sun. She could tell that Helen was only too happy to let Nikki lay claim to this area of ground.
Helen stared fondly into the distance. It was all rather unconventional. Sean wasn't the first man she had lived with but Nikki promised to very definitely break the mould, and this was something that there were definite advantages. She could only sense the path ahead but would trust to her sure footing- and Nikki.
She knew Nikki's proud, fiery, soft-hearted generous nature as she had known no one else before. Her mere presence made her discard the play-acting she had deployed with Thomas, Sean and others before him. There was a soft, glowing knowingness of each other. There was so much that she knew about Nikki and there were areas that she knew nothing about. For instance, she hadn't known how many spoonfuls of sugar she had in her coffee, how she folded her clothes up last thing at night, what music or films that she liked or even her favourite drink. These were the sort of inconsequential superficialities that she had known in other lovers first and any deep, profound personality traits lastly. This relationship had completely overturned the order of events. There was only one occasion long ago that taught Helen what side of the bed Nikki preferred to sleep in. She smiled at herself, shook her head slightly and let the keen wind blow her hair awry. Life was good and she felt it in her bones.
Both of them were chilled through and through when they finally went inside. Bright though the sunlight was, there was only so much cold that they could stand. They drank an early morning cup of coffee to warm them up and relaxed in the living room.
While they did so, Nikki's eye roved across Helen's book and CD collection, especially music. It was the first thing she did at anyone's house. To her mind, the super modern house with expensive fashionable furniture and the latest gadgets held no sway with her. They were soulless places who only confirmed what empty headed modern people their owners were. Helen's slightly cluttered, slightly untidy flat felt comfortable and the abundance of listening and reading material was her idea of home. When her eye roved over the CDs, it reminded her of what she'd been missing over the years. All she had had was the communal TV and the selection of books and her OU work. It had sufficed to keep her mind active but there was so much out there she wanted to experience, to catch up for the missing years. Nikki studied the racks with scholarly interest and made her final choice with loving care.
"I can measure my absence from the world by the Tori Amos albums that I've missed," Nikki mused thoughtfully. "Before I went inside, I'd just heard 'From the Choirgirl Hotel but this one is new to me ..."
Nikki held the sharp edges of the CD with great reverence, as if it were some precious work of art that shouldn't be plonked down any old how, left in the player without the case. She stared at the profile picture of the slim woman with flyaway reddish tinted hair, the straight dirt road that stretched endlessly into the distance and the grey white clouds piled up overhead in the clear blue sky. That picture alone was captivating. The picture wasn't an album sleeve but an art object, to Nikki's reverent eyes.
" Scarlett's Walk' .to think of all those plays out there, all those concerts and I got stuck for years with the soaps that everyone else wanted- when I didn't do my Greta Garbo routine and shut myself away with a good book."
"Yeah, this will be a first time I won't have heard any of my special music on my own. It was always something alone for my private thoughts. There were too many evenings when all I had for company was my music and office files."
This was the first time that either of them had referred to their time at Larkhall. Up till then, they had been delicately complicit in never talking about the past unless it was so far away that it was harmless.
"What shall we listen to?"
"You choose, Nikki."
For a fraction of time, there was a dazed confused look on Nikki's face. Then it was erased from her face as, with a definite air of decision, she opted for the first CD that she had picked up. She slipped the disc with great care into the machine and lay the full length of the sofa so that she rested her head on Helen's lap.
The first rolling piano runs and that sweetly singing voice, magically bending notes and syllables were joined by the sympathetic drums. All of it invaded Nikki's senses and grabbed her attention straightaway. Her eyes focused faraway through the high white painted ceiling overhead. The delicious senses of Helen's fingers stroking her hair were feelings of touch just as the music caressed her senses and the dreaminess of the feeling of lying on her back. She looked upwards to see Helen's face, as if cast in stone, caught up in the emotions. There was a delicious undertow to the music that pulled them in to another world. To Nikki, it felt as if someone had switched on all her senses at the time while Helen felt that the hymns to solitary isolation possessed a warmer edge that she had never noticed before. She glanced down and the peaceful smile had smoothed out every line on Nikki's face and the faraway look in her eyes. Out of sheer affection, she slid her hand in Nikki's hand, whose physical presence emotionally coloured her reactions to the songs. One by one, the magic offerings drew them together in a special place of intimacy.
Finally the last sonorous strings and piano chords faded away into space, leaving their strong resonances behind with the two women.
"Whew, Helen. That was a treat for the senses. Music like this takes you to a different and better place. How did you come to hear of her?"
"Good question. I think I went to visit Clare Walker in one of my more stressed out moods and she laid that album on me. The next Saturday morning, I queued up at the record shop at opening time. I simply had to have that music for myself."
"I've heard so much dance music when I was running the club, Helen, when I had to pretend to be the life and soul of the party. I absolutely needed to listen to this music when I was home. Trisha used to hate it and thought it was the typical weird sort of thing that I would like. She really was into all that club stuff."
"Thomas used to think that Tori Amos needed to be psychoanalysed. It used to drive him mad. I had to sneak it out when no one was looking. "
Nikki laughed at their shared memories and nodded approvingly at Helen's total dedication. The musical schism of each of them with their previous partners seemed reassuring to both of them and symbolized the final journey they had travelled.
"Someone said that psychoanalysis it the disease that it pretends to cure." Put in Nikki.
Helen laughed out loud at Nikki's dry witticism.
"I always had a hankering for the experimental- except for my books of course. You know very well the books that I like to read."
That look in Nikki's big brown eyes expressed that shared intimacy between them that they shared, even in that most public of places. Helen leaned over and kissed Nikki softly on the lips, for being there at such a moment. They had shared an expressively intimate experience, quite as much as sleeping together.
Nikki followed Helen into the kitchen and unobtrusively fitted around Helen as they set to work to knock up a snack. This was a novel experience for Helen as they could silently and companionably work together, passing Helen a wooden spoon wordlessly and just at the right time and finding just what was needed in the fridge. Normally, Helen's kitchen was her private place where the spice rack was as she had arranged it, the plates and cereal bowls were in her particular order. Sean had never taken the slightest interest where things were in that domain. She had to patiently explain what the 'crap drawer' contained, only when he needed something. Thomas was more of a modern man but his presence was an intrusion. Nikki passed into her space effortlessly and knew where things were without saying. She passed an eye over the arrangements and just blended in with that sort of unobtrusive tactfulness that Nikki's enemies never knew that she possessed. Helen smiled to herself, as she knew Nikki better than they presumed.
Living in Helen's flat was a delight to them both. It contained their world. There were no barriers and time stretched out with perfect freedom. Neither of them had any great desire to set foot outside the front door. If they wanted to make love they could do so and frequently did in the tranquil days that unrolled seamlessly. In that leisurely way, they explored each other's minds and bodies.
It was just as Helen was about to help herself to a spoonful of Alpen cereal that her mouth opened and she held her spoon in mid air and she was frozen in mid gesture.
"What's up, sweetheart?" Nikki asked gently.
"Your Open University results. Shit. I've totally forgotten about it."
Nikki took a deep breath and answered in a deliberately calming tone of voice to take the edge off Helen's obvious agitation.
"All right, Helen. How do we set about contacting those in charge or does it go through Larkhall?"
Helen squinted slightly at Nikki as she thought automatically that this was something she was in charge of. After all, all the paperwork went through her as Wing Governor and accustomed patterns of thinking took charge for a second. Then she realized, Nikki was a free woman after all, as free as Helen was.
"You mean, you want to sort it out if they'll let you, Nikki. After all, it's your degree, your hard work. The only problem is that all the paperwork has gone through my hands up till now. I don't know if Karen has taken over where I left off."
"You think that anyone's going to bother with it now I'm out of their hair. Betts might but you know who's likely to be calling the shots round there."
"Wait a minute, Nikki. I might still have a lot of old paperwork in the flat. I did leave in rather a hurry. You come with me and I'll try and dig it out. I'm not sure of is how far your degree application can be separated out from that place."
"You don't have to be in prison to go on a OU course."
Helen shot up out of her chair and legged it to her bureau. She whipped open the lid and started rifling through the assorted gas bills and bank statements and found a pigeon hole full of her figure work over budgets which she winced at, as if they were a bad memory and finally found what she was looking for.
"Aha, aha, I knew I'd find it if I looked hard enough," she exclaimed triumphantly. "There's nothing like system for getting what you want."
"Let's have a look at it."
To Helen's pleasure, it gave the OU phone number and address and her name and her old works address. This was nothing that was sacred to her except for the work she had put into persuading Nikki to take up the course. She made a gesture to Nikki to pick up the letter and head for the house phone.
In turn, Nikki was keyed up though she did an excellent job of hiding her feelings. It was more of a novelty than she had thought to take charge of her destiny. Her heart was pounding- at making the sort of simple phone call she used to take in her stride.
"Is that the part of Open University that deals with the degree results and issuing certificates to the lucky ones I'm Nikki Wade and I've recently taken my finals in English and I've got a bit of a problem .. You won't have up to date contact details as I've recently changed my address well, actually, I've been recently an inmate at Larkhall Prison and I've recently been released as a free woman .yes. I'm that Nikki Wade, though I wish to be famous only for the degree that I hope to get well, if you were watching the television, I didn't exactly give the place a glowing reference so I'm wondering if you would send any future correspondence to my new address ..yes, I can guarentee that the address is very permanent .I'd hate it if after all my hard work, the paperwork got mislaid if you know what I mean .when am I likely to get the results in a week, well, that's great news though not exactly as I'll be a bundle of nerves like everyone else ..oh my address is ."added Nikki, talking at speed as she unreeled the address which shot into her mind by inspiration " thank you ever so much, goodbye."
Helen stood back with folded arms, grinning at Nikki's gentle humour and her last minute lapse of concentration. At the same time, she marvelled appreciatively at Nikki's acute ear for official dialects.
"Well, that will be something to celebrate."
"I'd sooner wait till I get the post if I get a good result and then we'll celebrate if that's all right with you, Helen. I don't really want to think about it until then."
Nikki's reply made Helen sit up and take notice. Nikki was trying to be nice to her but it was clear that Helen's enthusiasm had touched a raw nerve.
"What's the matter, sweetheart? Was I coming on a bit too strong?"
"It's just that I don't believe in counting chickens before they hatch. We've been incredibly lucky for me to get my freedom and that we're back together. I'm scared to think that we'll get lucky a third time until it happens."
Both women fell into a thoughtful silence. This conversation had subtly shifted the emotional atmosphere. This was the first occasion that they had started talking of the future instead of drifting along in the present while time had stood suspended.
"You know, Helen, that both of us are going to have to get jobs. We're having a lovely honeymoon after all that we've worked for but we have to look to the future."
"Don't say that, Nikki," Helen protested, grimacing at the prospect.
"I want us to be together for the long run. I'm surer of that more than anything in this world and I know that you feel the same. If we're going to make that happen, we have to be realistic and plan for the future. That's the way you always think."
"I just want to live in the present, just to enjoy the here and now and just have a break."
"You know that that can't last forever. It isn't going to spoil things, just that what we have, we'll get to keep."
Reluctantly, Helen nodded her head. Nikki had taken her habitual vocabulary, her way of looking at the world. She could not deny herself. Already, mental cogs were starting to click into gear despite her wish not to.
"That's not all we have to face. You need to be prepared to know what being an out gay woman means in every day life but this is where I can help us. Just trust me Helen. That's what you've always told me when I can't see the future but you can."
Those words made Helen feel highly uncomfortable. Nikki was asking her to surrender her control over the future and place her faith in another human being, to take one hand off the reins. The thought temporarily scared her, even if that other person was as close a friend as she'd ever had and such a loyal lover. Her sense of fairness told her that the justice of Nikki's words couldn't be denied. She would have to deal with that fear, that residual insecurity. This was a step into the unknown but it wasn't one she would take on her own.
"You're pushing me into my planning mode of thinking. I hope you know what you're taking on. You may get more than you bargained for," Helen murmured, a slight smile curving her lips.
That remark made Nikki laugh out loud.
Events started unraveling faster than either of them thought with the morning mail next day. Nikki had started to get used to not getting up at the crack of dawn, but she sensed that there was more space in the bed than she was used to. She sleepily slid sideways out of bed and made her way to the living room where Helen was sitting, intent on rereading a crisp white official looking letter. It obviously wasn't junk mail or a bill. She didn't notice Nikki pace bare footedly towards her until she was right up close. Her bobbed hair flicked back as Helen looked up, with a slightly guilty expression on her face.
"A job interview," Helen said reluctantly. "I'd written a batch of letters straight after I'd resigned from Larkhall and this has come up."
"I know what you're thinking, Helen. You feel guilty that you're jumping ahead in getting a job, and you've got a bloody good track record, while I'm only just starting to think about it. It looks as if you're short listed for the job and so you should be. Someone's got to make a start in sorting out our future and it might as well be you."
"You've got plenty of chances with a degree in the offing no matter what you said last night."
"Sure," Nikki replied, straight-faced. "It'll jog me into getting my act together. That's what I got my freedom for."
"That's the way I hoped you would think of it." Helen said, a sudden bright smile quickly attaching itself to her face.
"Let's do something different today." Nikki replied, abruptly changing the conversation.
"I don't know this part of London very well but what about a walk in the park, if there is one nearby."
"Sounds like a good idea."
Helen was in the mood to just go with the flow as the winter sun angled low into the front window and dazzled the room through the illuminated condensation pattern on the windows.
"I just fancy the idea," Nikki added.
It had seemed ages since they had last set foot outside after days of drifting lazily through the days, set to music, talking intimately and nighttimes of physical tenderness and sexual passion. They blinked as they emerged, well muffled up, into the bright winter sunshine and the sharp winter air and headed for Helen's car.
"Of course, I need to fix up the insurance so that you can drive it," Helen said casually.
"I can drive ..?" Nikki echoed. It was another small fragment of taking her place in the wide-open world but it mattered so much to her. Of course she could drive. She used to pick up Trisha from the club on her late nights before that fatal night when DC Gossard was the visitor from hell. She looked at the way that Helen confidently drove the small, neat orange Peugeot 306 round the city streets. If she put her mind to it, reestablishing this part of normality was only a short step. Perhaps the rest would follow on.
" ..thank you, Helen," she softly murmured as she registered Helen's demonstration of thoughtfulness.
It didn't take them long to turn past a local school and drive through the park gates and onto the small car park. Nikki opened the car and stared round at her surroundings, feeling almost dizzy at all the open space. Three years in prison had got her to adjust to narrow corridors and tiny cells. Helen's flat was more spacious but this was her first sustained experience of the open air. She briefly twirled round in a circle as she took in a three hundred and sixty degree panoramic view of her surroundings. Facing her was a deserted grass football pitch and to one side were swings and slides while rows of houses peeped over the high privet hedges that mapped out the park. This was total space, total freedom and Nikki took large lungfuls of clear bracing air into her lungs.
Helen watched Nikki's cavortings affectionately. To her, this was an ordinary park, which she had occasionally visited in summer. She slipped her arm in Nikki's and they ambled across the frost stiffened grasslands, bound for nowhere in particular.
As they approached the play area, they became aware of the sounds of excited voices. Mothers were pushing their offspring in pushchairs while others trailed after excited toddlers who were just about old enough to be hoisted into the enclosed seats of the smaller set of swings. Nearest them was a cluster of women who were standing around as their older children were able to be left queuing for the slide and whizzing down the short distance, picking themselves up again and heading for the never-ending queue. It was a scene of natural domesticity and the sounds blended nicely into the sense of dreaminess that made everyone feel good. Helen gave Nikki's arm a gentle squeeze, feeling good that they were out and about on a day like this. What she couldn't understand were the stares and deliberately blank looks that were focussed in their direction.
"Who the hell are they looking at?" Helen asked in bewilderment.
"Us" Nikki commented laconically.
"But we're nothing special? We might as well be any couple out and about on a nice day like this."
"There's one thing that makes us different, Helen. Can't you guess?"
"But that's ridiculous, absurd. We're as normal as any couple can be."
"Helen, darling, I know we are, you know we are but you try telling that to the average Sun reading Joe Public. You should know from the likes of Bodybag. Their minds are closed to reason. Let's walk on by. This is what we're going to get from time to time so you might as well get used to it and ignore them. If you get angry at them, it shows that they matter when they don't."
Defiantly, Helen slipped her arm round Nikki's waist. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, she reasoned. They've got a bloody nerve.
They strolled away towards a small gently wooded area where a sense of quiet and stillness descended on them, banishing the sense of irritation. Nikki's right, Helen thought, they weren't worth it. Instead, she leaned her head slightly against the taller woman's neck. They were walking along a path and the sunshine gleamed into their eyes. By sheer chance, but of them looked towards each other and the beauty of the scenery unexpectedly set in an urban park gave both of them that sense of freedom. They slipped into each other's arms and kissed, long and deep, while the chill wind gently ruffled their hair. Neither of them felt the cold while the heat of passion rose within them both. They clung together for what seemed a lifetime, oblivious to everything. After all, what more classically romantic setting was there?
"Nikki, you don't mind me asking a question but, just to set the record straight, exactly how did that prison riot get started?" Helen asked after they had eaten and everything was cleared away. The question was nagging at her ever since they started thinking of the future. Memories of their past had been disturbed in the same way that a sharp wind whirled dead leaves into the air and left them to flutter and freefall to the ground.
"You mean the one that nearly started after Carol Byatt miscarried and I saw you as a well meaning suit who didn't understand the prison officers you were in charge of?" joked Nikki, looking carefully out of the window.
"Not the first occasion when I publicly defended that crowd of back stabbing bastards against my better instincts - but the second." Helen offered gently in return.
"I suppose we have to lay the ghosts of the past," sighed Nikki.
"That and we never found the time to talk properly about the past. That's not the way that lovers should be." came her soft reply.
The cloud that had drifted across Nikki's expressive features began to drift away and she slotted into the mode of thinking to see this as a piece of historical analysis.
"Even though I was pissed off with your' I can rule the world routine' .."stumbled Nikki, feeling her way.
" I had become seduced by a run of successes that went to my head and ruined my judgment," put in Helen.
Nikki smiled wanly, paused and as her thoughts collected herself and, as she could picture the scene, jumped right in.
" I really didn't know what the hell to do. I could see that the real problem was that I couldn't talk to Femi about what the hell had gone on and you had promised to look into it. I didn't want to jump in with both feet. The trouble was that all the others wanted something done about it and quickly, the Julies, Barbara and, most of all, Crystal at her most self-righteous. The worst thing about it was that Yvonne either wasn't around or later on, didn't really give a shit."
Helen nodded. She could picture the scene so easily.
"You know that I'd got the reputation that, if any hard truths need laying down, I was the woman for the job. It was almost as if it was in my job description."
Helen smiled appreciatively. Nikki had put it so succinctly.
"Very reluctantly, I went for a non violent protest and asked that those prison officers who had assaulted Femi should be disciplined."
" ..which I should have done and would have done if I hadn't been hung up about being acting Governing Governor. It does strange things to your head."
" That was the best compromise I could come up with, the trouble was that it made no one happy."
"I've been there, Nikki. Remember what I said first time around about Carol Byatt when I tried to defend the prison officers and also express my sympathy with Carol and all the prisoners. I fell right through the crack in the middle."
"The rest, you know," Continued Nikki with an appreciative nod. "The Peckham Boot Gang took things right out of my hands and they trashed everything."
Nikki's face was set and hard as granite as she recalled her feelings that confusion of helplessness at events spinning out of control, that conflict of loyalties. The words were pouring out from both of them that had been bottled up for so long. None of them knew where the conversation was leading to as it had taken charge of both of them. There was so much that they didn't know.
"Pity neither of us didn't know what the other was up to."
"Well, there's prison for you," commented Nikki dryly.
There was a pause as the conversation fizzled out. They were both aware that they had started to unlock a whole load of unspoken thoughts, of past hurt feelings and confusion.
"It could have been a lot worse if I hadn't persuaded a bunch of them to leave the kitchen knives alone that they'd got from the servery ." Nikki said at last, trying to be positive. Helen opened her mouth in shock and horror. She put her hands to her lips as she was not aware of that. The written words jumped into her mind of the report that she wrote, concluding that a load of knives were scattered on the ground for no particular reason.
"At that time, I was holding off Sylvia from sending in the heavy mob so that there could be a negotiated settlement. I wanted to be sure of who I was dealing with, who exactly called the shots."
"No one would go down with me against those head cases who were waving knives around, only Caroline and you know just why she did it .When you pissed me off that night, well, that set up everything else that followed with Caroline especially as I took what you said literally "
Helen's face twisted with pain and sympathy. Since living with Nikki, she was more driven to verbalise unpleasant facts. Words sped out of her mouth in spurts and pauses in no particular order. She stared straight in front of her, her eyes out of focus.
"There's my own part in the breakup. Just remember that for months I was Billy No Mates and I had no one to go home to like I have now. All the friends that I thought were Sean's and mine dropped me flat. I was supposed to be the guilty party, the one who jilted him virtually at the altar. Don't forget that I never expected to fall in love with another woman that happened to others at Larkhall, never me. I don't know what was in my head but I got scared along with all the crap that went down in the riot. I was used to men, it was what I was familiar with. When Thomas started asking me to go out for a drink after work, it gave me the company I needed. I really don't know. That woman who I used to be was a complete mystery, certainly to myself."
A familiar hand could be felt on her shoulder. It was just what she needed. It soothed all the tensions in her body. Her hand reached out for Nikki's hand and folded her fingers in hers.
"Helen darling, it wasn't as if we could sit down somewhere that night privately and talk things over," Nikki urged in her most melting tones. "It wasn't as if we had that many chances since we were on both sides of the prison bars no matter how much we tried to wish them away."
"We both tried so hard "
" and now we're free. The future is what we can make of it," Nikki concluded brightly.
Helen smiled briefly. What Nikki said was true enough but a feeling at the back of her mind told her that life wasn't going to be as easy as much as Nikki pretended. Her mindset couldn't help but think that Nikki's reduced conviction for manslaughter was going to hold her back from the sort of job that Nikki deserved to get. She saw that she would have to be very supportive and that there was no end in sight for how long that was going to be.
Letters started to arrive thick and fast. First was a distinctive letter from the Open University. Nikki was the first to pick up the post and her nerves started jangling as soon as she picked up the letter. She touched it gingerly and brought the obvious junk mail along with her.
"Helen, I've just got a letter." Nikki called out with a sharp, nervous edge to her voice. As the other woman briefly ran a brush through her rumpled hair, she looked in puzzlement. Why didn't Nikki open it and say what it was about? Then an electric shock ran through her and she ran light footedly through to the hall. There stood Nikki holding the letter gingerly as if it might blow up in her hand.
"I'm scared to open it. What if it is bad news?" she said in an uncharacteristically waif like fashion.
"Do you want me to?"
Nikki nodded. After all, Helen had been the confident one. When it came to it, Nikki's nervousness was contagious. Summoning up her willpower, Helen ripped open the envelope. Her eyes glittered like stars and a huge grin spread across her face. The official wording faded into the background and the words " ..Ms Nicola Wade , Batchelor of arts, Second Class Honours, Division One .." were illuminated in neon in front of her eyes and her lips mouthed the words.
"Did I pass, Helen?" Nikki meekly asked.
"Did you pass?" Helen exclaimed, lobbing a cushion in her direction. "You only got a two one. You did better than I did."
"Jesus." Nikki exclaimed.
"All that crap about being careful, being cautious. I might have known."
"I did do pretty well in that case."
"Anyone I've known gets your average two two, and is thankful for it. I might have known you'd hit the jackpot. If you'd scored a first, life would be insufferable. I would feel mortified for life."
"We ought to do something to celebrate." Nikki said vaguely.
"One thing I can think of is to get back to bed," Helen said in her best sultry tone.
There came the inevitable occasion when Helen had confirmation that she had got the job she had been short listed for, and that changed everything. Nikki was torn two ways about the news while her lips said the right words to a jubilant Helen. Of course, they needed the money and of course, Helen couldn't hang around till similar chances came her way. On the other hand, Helen would be out of the flat for large chunks of the day and she could see herself getting lonely. The time they had spent together had showed her how much the other woman had got under her skin. She shivered inside that in some way, Helen's presence would be withdrawn from her. That was how things had been when they had been in Larkhall and Nikki hated the thought of that ever returning to haunt them.
"Do I look all right?" Helen asked nervously, wearing the same sort of formal blue suit and white blouse as when Nikki first knew her. It brought back bittersweet memories of when Nikki first knew her.
"You look fine, Helen. The first day in any job is always a bit nerve wracking, as you don't know for certain what you're letting yourself in for. Have faith in yourself." Nikki replied with as much confidence as she could muster up. She kissed Helen, who hovered on the doorstep, a part of her not really wanting to leave Nikki on her own.
"Go out there and show them."
Helen turned, fluttering her fingers and reached in her handbag for her car keys and made for the car. Helen was still casting fleeting glances until she faded into the distance. Nikki slowly made her way inside the flat, which seemed far too empty and quiet. It was as if Helen's spirit had deserted her and she felt sick and cold inside. She sat on the sofa for a long time without moving. It was the taste of things to come.
The next letter was the reply to the first job application that Nikki had completed with infinite care. This was to be the first of many rejections over the weeks and Nikki took them to heart.
" ..I'm sorry to say that you were unsuccessful in your application. We thought long and hard about the choice of candidate before we made our final choice .
We wish you the best of luck for your future."
"Which means, we're not prepared to chance our arm with a graduate ex-con," exclaimed Nikki bitterly, crumpling up the letter and hurling it across the room." It also means that I've got to sign on next Thursday."
"Please don't give up, Nikki. There are plenty of other chances out there." Helen pleaded.
Nikki hated the same sterile routine. She had to admit that the Jobcentre wasn't the grim, dehumanized barrack like structure of her imagination. Then again, she had been in a prison for three years and anywhere else must be a step up in her life. It was open plan, decked out in green and purple colour scheme, and the staff had clearly been through the customer service school of Handling Customers that had become international. The girl behind the desk meant well in her professionally caring way, but she felt as if she was the thirty ninth in a line of similar customers, who were recipients of such automatic positivism. It didn't mean anything except to shred her self-esteem that little bit more each time she went. The only thing it did was to get her out of the flat. Being stuck at home all day gave her far too much time to brood and no structure, not even one imposed on her, to give her purpose. Only when Helen came home did her world start to lighten and, even then, she was painfully conscious that Helen was being artificially nice and encouraging. That only made her feel worse about herself.
In the morning, while Helen whizzed around getting ready for work, Nikki lay in bed and only emerged when she was gone. She laughed ironically to herself that it was only three years of enforced regime which got Nikki to get her arse out of neutral and do something with her time. There was only so much she could do to occupy herself in looking for jobs on Helen's computer and trotting down to private employment agencies.
"Of course, if it weren't for your spell in prison, you would have a highly impressive work record," the clerk chirped away for yet another time while Nikki ground her teeth in exasperation, thinking, of course, I know that only too bloody well, talk about stating the obvious.
For her part, Helen was kept busy enough in her job but a part of her wondered how Nikki was going on and began to worry for her. This wasn't the life together that she had dreamed of. Life wasn't like this in the movies where all ended happily ever after. Nikki never said anything but her silences were almost as bad. All the drive and determination was seeping out of her and Helen was hard put to conjure up the right encouraging words.
It all came to a head when Nikki decided that she needed to spill out her worries. It was first thing in the morning but Nikki couldn't stand keeping her mouth shut anymore. She had thought that their relationship would be bound by the sort of caring honesty that she had always dreamed of. The more she bottled things up, she would only end up taking out her frustrations on Helen. She had mentally vowed that she had left this behind at Larkhall and she was determined not to break that promise.
"I'm in a hole, Helen. I can't work this one out. I worked like hell to get my degree. Why did I do it? Well, I love the books I read and did essays about them for the pleasure of it but that wasn't all there was to it. I wanted to get out there, back in the world and prove myself, to show the Fenners and Bodybags of the world that I mean something, that I can do something in the world, both for myself and for others. I built up the club with Trisha not just to make money but for lesbians to go somewhere where they feel comfortable just being themselves. It sounds the easy answer to go back working the club but there are three good reasons why that would be a disaster. For one, I'd be working with my ex and that spells trouble straight off. For another, all our evenings together would go down the pan and the only times I'd be around the same time as you would be when I'd be knackered from the evening before and no use to you. Just to wrap it all up, Trisha has had three years of running the club on her own and I'd end up as some kind of employee
and my pride and ego couldn't stand that. I could go for a decent nine to five job but as soon as I fill in an application form, I bang up against the same problem of how to account for what I've done the past three years. A prison record is a turn off for the sort of employer that I want. Again, I could pick up an ordinary waitress job or bar job where they're not too fussy but why the hell have I worked to get my degree, just to be a well read barmaid, same crappy hours as before. My other choice is to keep on signing on every fortnight and carry on feeling more useless than ever and a burden on you. I want to pay my way and not be some kind of 'kept woman.'"
"You're not, Nikki," Helen denied hotly.
"You know what I mean," Nikki replied slowly and Helen couldn't deny Nikki's feelings, to herself and to Nikki.
Helen looked around for inspiration and, in sheer desperation, flicked through the Guardian jobs section and, unbelievably, an advert jumped out. "Wanted research worker for Women in Prison."
"Nikki, have you seen this?" Helen called out excitedly.
"What" Nikki called out in a bored tone of voice.
"This is a job you were made for."
"Surprise me," came the sardonic reply.
"Will you listen and just have faith." Helen insisted in a determined fashion. She had seen Nikki slide downhill day after day and had watched on, feeling helpless to do anything about this. A sudden resolution and a touch of her old wing governor persona brought out the natural bossiness in her. Nikki was not going to worm herself out of this one and, reluctantly, Nikki agreed and made yet another forlorn phone call for an application form. So long as she wasn't expected to place any hope in this well-meaning crusade of Helen's.
It was the next day or so that the literature arrived. Nikki opened up the bulky envelope and the following paragraph stuck out at her.
"Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her" Chris Tchaikovsky, former prisoner and founder/director of Women in Prison.
Nikki's interest was attracted to this insightfulness. This wasn't like the usual mission statement bullshit that most firms offered. For Christ sake these wankers could make Larkhall seem like the Garden of Eden, she cynically considered. She stretched herself on the double bed and read it from cover to cover. She even got as far as filling in the standard details on the form and stopped short, pushing the application form away in despair. Why should this organization want her while others didn't?
Helen felt the electric atmosphere as soon as she entered the flat. She had started to worry about what she would face when she got home from work. This upset her, considering all they had gone through to get to where they were now.
"I'm not filling in the form, Helen. I've changed my mind." Nikki said shortly.
Helen paused and took a deep breath before speaking. It gave her chance to collect her thoughts.
"This is the best chance you'll have, Nikki. You have to believe in yourself."
"The trouble is, I don't," came the mulish response.
"It's unemployment, Nikki. It does things to people. It attacks your self-esteem."
"If the job is as great as you say it is, why don't you go for it?" Nikki countered obstinately.
"No no, Nikki. As an ex wing governor, ex home office employee, I am barred from it. I signed the Official Secrets act when I very first started work for the prison service and I can't use information I picked up in the prison service in another job that is at odds with it. With my name and reputation, Home Office would spot me in a second and I am wide open to criminal prosecution. This always supposes that Women in Prison would ever think of employing me. For all of my liberal politics, in their eyes I'm still the ex wing governor. In any case, there's every reason under the sun why you're the obvious choice for the job."
Nikki thought carefully over what Helen had said and had to see the justice of Helen's words.
"The job sounds very nice except that I can't believe it is as good as it is cracked up to be."
"You'll never know unless you try."
"I can't be doing with this."
"You have to believe in yourself the way you did even when you were down the block and in strips. What would the Julies say, or Yvonne if they could see you talking this way? You know that they would only wish that they had your chances. You're on the outside. Does that mean nothing to you?" Helen urged desperately and passionately, fearful that she'd thrown every argument there was at Nikki and if she still didn't move her, she'd lost the argument for good.
Nikki's face turned still and frozen until, suddenly, she broke down and tears ran down her face. In a flash, images of Larkhall prison, the friends she had known flooded back into her imagination. Snatches of voices, those dear to her, those she had hated, all became a formless clamour, echoing round inside her head. Everything sounded and looked unbearably vivid. Her heart told her that in her rush to seek out her life with Helen, she had blocked out her past. True, she had talked over the riot with Helen but had left out everyone else and then moved on once again to the future. She ought to have known that life wasn't that easy, so clear cut. Memories reminded her that Larkhall had taught her to be, a leader of women and tougher and more resolute than she knew that she could be. It had given her close friendships and they were still out there.
Helen rushed forward and held Nikki's face to her chest while Nikki cried the pent up tears out of her system. She had bottled up her feelings for weeks and she needed this emotional release. So Helen thought as she cradled her and stroked her cheek gently.
"I've been a selfish cow, all wrapped up in my own problems. I've not even noticed how you've been feeling. What's worse, I've blocked out the memories of all my friends I've left back in Larkhall. I've just felt like shit every day."
"You think I haven't noticed?"
Nikki nodded, unable to speak. She really hadn't been looking outside her own miseries. In trying not to be a burden to Helen, she had ended up being a burden. The least she should do, she figured, was to both face up this job opportunity fairly and squarely and, with it, her past. Her whole point of view had shifted on its axis. She owed it to what was left of her self-esteem.
"There's another thing, Helen, the thing that bothers me the most." Nikki said in a more even tone of voice, "If I do get lucky, I'll be going back into all the shit that was at Larkhall as well as all my friends. I swore that I'd never go back there, after everything that happened to both of us."
"It brought us together, Nikki. Think of it, would we ever have met? Would I have ever gone into a gay club on my own to seek you out? Think about it."
"That's true," Nikki admitted, "but the thought of going into a prison just freaks me out."
"Look here, Nikki. You're talking as if you're going back to Larkhall as a prisoner. You're not. You're going to visit any of the women's prisons in London, Holloway for instance. You're made to do this job like no one else is. You have that caring nature, all the practical experience that's needed to do some good in the world. Besides, you'll be a pain in the arse to the more reactionary prison officers and a help to the decent ones. There are big differences that you're overlooking."
"That I can go home after coming across all the shit that there is there like you used to do?"
"No, Nikki," argued Helen passionately." You'll get to use your degree by doing research work. You'll have all the access to the sort of research papers like when I was a home office professional but you won't be answerable to the Home Office, or Prison Service but only to an organization that was set up in the first place by an ex prisoner, a rebel like you. Women in Prison has got recognition on the backs of others just like you who set it up in the first place. I'd heard of it when I was at Larkhall and wondered why the hell they never came my way. You'll have the best of all worlds as you'll also have official clout, and it will pay you to do what you've always been best at, force of personality and sympathy. More than that, the Nikki Wade appeal must mean everything in the world to them. Your background is a positive advantage. The job is made for you."
Nikki's eyes were focussed on Helen and her passionate words sank home. The possibilities were opening up in her mind. She fell silent as she digested what Helen had said.
"You really think that I have a chance?"
"You underrate yourself and the power you could have. Official clout does matter, Nikki. You know very well the unofficial influence that you had round Larkhall."
"Did I really?"
"Don't be so modest. If there were two women whom the prisoners looked to for leadership, it was you and Yvonne. It's not only them but you also gained influences over me even when I wasn't supposed to be attracted to you "
"You never told me."
"You'd be surprised," grinned Helen."It wasn't just that but what you said made sense. Dominic was the same also. I know that you don't set store by fancy uniforms but you add the force of personality which you have in spadefuls with official position and that means so much, Nikki. More than you imagine. You think it over."
"Anyone would think I'm famous," Nikki said shaking her head in disbelief.
"You are, Nikki, in the right quarters, " answered Helen with infinite fondness. It was so like Nikki to be modest, unassuming and not to see the impact of what she did. That very appealing trait had been in danger of dragging Nikki right down.
"All right, Helen. After all, I've nothing to lose except another bit of my pride if I fail."
"And everything to gain if you win, don't forget," pursued Helen firmly.
Nikki fell silent, her face taut and strained. Helen could tell how much sheer resolution it took to put herself on the line again. She sensed that Nikki really wanted this job deep down but was simply scared of rejection. There was only so much that she could give of herself and keep plugging away despite the knock backs.
She took the half completed application form and in businesslike fashion, Nikki took herself to the kitchen to be somewhere on her own in deep silence. She popped back only to ask about getting a character reference and Helen suggested Claire Walker who would gladly do it for her. Helen knew that Nikki was finishing off the application form and should not be disturbed. The front door clicked as Nikki strode out straightaway to the postbox round the corner. She slipped in to the living room and popped on the Tori Amos CD, which wafted her tense emotions away into the distance on some endless melodic river.
The next few days were tense as Nikki waited with jangled nerves for the letter to arrive. Finally, it came.
"I've got the job interview," Nikki said in flat tones, "Day after tomorrow. Do you mind if I borrow the car. I might as well make a good impression."
"Of course, Nikki. I'll be able to bus it for work." Helen said but not too eagerly. There is no sense in letting her natural enthusiasm wash all over the flat. She knew enough of Nikki that she was holding her enthusiasm down in case her hopes were dashed again.
A flashback crossed her mind of when she was with Claire and Nikki was brought in to see her. She had spotted that very same tendency to bottle down her hopes and prepare for failure and how Nikki's emotions welled over in tears of inexpressible gratitude. Just keep things quiet and natural, Helen resolved. It had felt a long time since Nikki had started the long, mentally draining haul to get a job.
"I'm off to work, Nikki," Helen called out in a deliberately casual tone of voice after giving her a brief hug and a kiss. "Best of luck."
That day at work was a complete write off as far as Helen was concerned. She did her best to lose herself in her work but her anxieties kept coming back to haunt her. She knew that Nikki would give of her best to get the job but was that sufficient? The whole thing was out of her control twice over, once, that only Nikki could do it, not Helen and twice, that the job interview was in the lap of the Gods, or Goddesses as the case may be. In the end, Helen resorted to confining herself to routine housekeeping work, which didn't demand anything exacting for her. She could always catch up with what she was supposed to do the next day. At lunchtime, she paced around restlessly outside, even though spots of rain spattered down on her and the wind blew her hair awry. These little matters were totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things, she reasoned. The day crawled its way onwards relentlessly at the slowest funeral march imaginable. She had never had such a burning desire to be away from work, while suppressing the fear that bad news might await her when she crossed the threshold.
To her surprise, there was no sign of Nikki when she got home. In her restless frame of mind, she wiped and dusted the already clean surfaces until she got fed up of it. Finally, she slumped down on the sofa with a more generous measure of vodka than was her habit.
Helen jumped out of her skin as she heard the key in the lock, Her senses were highly attuned to the minute Nikki walked through the door. A swift glance told her that Nikki seemed slightly dazed and had a wry smile on her face. She was very quiet as she took off her favourite black coat, which caused Helen's inquisitiveness to go on mental overload.
"How did it go, Nikki," Helen asked at a machine gun pace of verbal delivery.
"It's strange, Helen ." Nikki said at last and lit up a cigarette. "I thought that I was looking for a job with an employer. I got the immediate feeling that they had been searching for me and found their answer as soon as I walked through that door. The more questions I answered, the more it seemed that I was already there. They kept me for a long time and showed me every detail of the job. They really wanted to sell me the job. We were talking for ages about my experiences at Larkhall, about what I did to stand up for other prisoner's rights, the sort of problems I had, how I got on with prison officers "
At this moment, Nikki paused in her account and her grin spread across her face, causing Helen's spirits to soar.
"Don't worry, I kept our secret safe though I couldn't help mentioning our present situation. It didn't do any harm. They wanted to know every last bit of detail and we had a personal chat for ages afterwards. They're really nice and I felt that I was among friends. They wanted me to not commit myself to anything else from next Monday onwards and promised to write to me very soon. The signs were good, really good ..".
"So it means that ." Helen broke in excitedly.
" .that I guess that I'll get the job. If I'm right, I'll be starting on Monday, part time research, part time troubleshooter with a number of prisons on my patch, Holloway but mostly, wait for it, Larkhall. They'll send me my credentials, visiting passes and contract of employment to sign and return."
"The prison service won't know what's hit it," grinned Helen
"Won't it just. They'd better shape up or they'll find out just what I can do." Said Nikki in a firmer tone of voice with an undertone of definite satisfaction. Recounting the interview to Helen made everything seem all the more real. Her thoughts started clicking into gear as to what she should set to work to do.
" I never got round to getting a present for Shaz Wiley or write to Barbara. Guess I'd better make up for lost time ..."
Helen gave a squeal of delight and virtually jumped on Nikki who lay sprawled on the sofa, lying on her back, coat awry and hair disheveled. Tears of joy were coursing down her cheeks. This was more like her Nikki. Their lips met in a long kiss. Their future was about to begin for real.
Many hours later, they lay in bed, Helen's arm gently supporting Nikki's head and gently stroking her hair. The other woman lay there in a total blessed-out state.
"You really have been here for me, Helen, just being around when I needed it."
"I wasn't sure if I was doing any good, sweetheart. I just hung around hoping for the best."
"It was enough."
"It's what lovers are for, sweetheart." Helen said softly, totally unselfconsciously. "You've done the same for me when I was wing governor. If it hadn't been for you, I would have definitely gone under."
They lay there as a dim light cast a gentle glow around them. It was paradise.
Nikki proudly stepped into the friendly local pub, the Saturday after her first payday after starting work for Women in Prison. Helen followed and let her buy them a round of drinks. She knew what an important day this was for Nikki, the tangible fruits of her hard work and her first proper step into the working world. She put her foot on the bar rail, ordered two vodkas and lemons and took the drinks back to Helen.
"This is what I dreamed of, Helen. I can look anyone in the eye."
"You always did, Nikki." Helen grinned which made Nikki laugh.
They were closeted round a rich red mahogany table in a corner of the pub, content for the world to go on round them. Nikki felt complete and at peace with the world, having all the confidence in the world. She had got stuck into her research with ravenous enthusiasm with a few pointers from Helen. She had asserted her authority immediately by her first visit to Larkhall, which had worked out just as Helen said that it would. She had felt like a Hollywood star as all her dear friends greeted her with rapturous jubilation It gave her immense satisfaction to brush aside scowling but chastened Fenner in a brief battle of words, which she had won with ridiculous ease and had headed off to open negotiations over his head. She had gone on to drive a hard bargain with the new Governing Governor with 'call me Neil ' Neil Grayling. He struck her as not a patch on Helen, as slippery a customer as she had ever encountered, with cold blue eyes, an addict of the latest management 'buzz words' and an unchanging, insincere smile. Karen Betts had accompanied him and kept a grave expression on her face. Nikki had managed to set out her stall and negotiated improvements in facilities for visiting. Friendly but firm did the trick.
They were sitting in a dreamy haze when there were loud voices from the door of the pub. Helen glanced that second too long as her presence was immediately spotted. She was immediately angry and flustered about the oncoming intrusion.
"Oh God, you remember Sean, my ex. I see a couple of his friends coming over, Mark and Geoff," Helen whispered.
"Hey, Helen. Long time no see," drawled the man, leaning languidly on the table. "I've meant to look you up for so long but you know what it's like. You get sidetracked. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."
Helen avoided reproaching him for the way that she'd been dropped by all Sean's friends after she split up with him. It would give him all the wrong ideas.
"How's Sarah these days?" Helen asked tersely. Her eyes noticed an absence of a wedding ring on his finger and the same for his friend Mark. It was funny how they and Sean had that same confidence and self-assurance, as they made their way through life with effortless ease. They didn't come to the world, the world came to them. Once she might have envied them. Now she could see that it was because they had never been tested in life, like she and Nikki had. She was further disgusted by his excuses for his absence, which were transparent lies. At least Larkhall had taught her to pick out a liar and manipulator at twenty paces.
"It didn't last, unfortunately. If things had been different, we might have stuck together. You get to the point of no return and you kind of drift apart. We were essentially incompatible though I never saw that at the time. Still, it gave both of us the chance to find out what we wanted out of life."
"A bit like Sean." Helen said dryly, irritated by the man's shallow philosophizing .." though I don't really want to talk about him."
"I understand .." Geoff offered confidingly." though it's a shame about what happened between you and Sean. Great guy. One of the best."
"So how's your love life going, Helen? I wouldn't think that you'd be unattached for long or do you just want the single life for a bit," came Mark's unsubtle intervention.
"Helen's moved on since then. She's got a partner who like her, wants a committed relationship, someone that can be relied on." Nikki interrupted with forcible politeness.
Helen stole a sideways glance at Nikki and deduced that she wanted to offer these two Prince Charmings a little more rope with which to hang themselves. She was playing a two-handed game with Nikki and who better than her as accomplice?
For the first time, the two men opened up the space instead of crowding round her. Nikki could tell that it was only politeness that inhibited Helen from telling these public school smoothies to piss off. They were appraising her and made the inevitable false assumptions.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shut you out," Geoff said insincerely." What do you do for a living?"
"I work for Women in Prison," Nikki said shortly. Though it irritated her to define herself in terms of what she did rather than who she was, it did give her a kick to say it. It gave her self-confidence a boost.
"You mean, Myra Hindley and all that?"
"Sort of, though there are a lot of women prisoners. They're not all mass murderers, you know."
It was on the tip of her tongue to say the word 'we' but restrained herself. She could tell from his eye contact that his attention was drifting in any case.
"So who is your partner, Helen?"
"Nikki. Nikki Wade."
"What does he do, this Nikki. I've never met him before among the crowd we used to hang about with," Geoff remarked, visibly ransacking his memory for faces and names.
"Short for Nicola." Nikki said dryly and with immaculate timing, Helen made a hand gesture to introduce her.
Nikki and Helen both marvelled at the two men's expressions. They could see the cogs in their minds slowly clicking as they tried to grapple with this unexpected reality. Their smiles turned slowly to puzzlement, as both of them looked at Helen, the woman they had known. Their gaze swivelled round to take in Nikki, at her shortish cropped hair and her smart suit and daylight dawned on them.
"Helen, you can't be "Geoff said, his voice tailing off.
"You'd be surprised to see how the other half live. I used to run a lesbian club and it was packed out on Saturday night. I used to make a mint. Women came there in all shapes and sizes, even straight women."
The man flinched at Nikki's force of personality and smooth certainty of matters outside their experience, which they found intimidating. They couldn't pigeonhole her while Helen had thrown them by jumping out of her frame. By contrast, Helen delighted in the force of personality that was emanating from Nikki. It was pure pleasure for them to play a two handed game against their opponents with no barriers between them. This was the spirit of the woman, which she had sensed from the very beginning. Helen was content to take matters easy, ready to provide backup.
"I think it's the case of two's company, four's a crowd," Nikki concluded with a steely bright smile on her face.
"Good heavens, is this the time?" Geoff exclaimed, contriving an exaggerated look at his Rolex wristwatch and ignoring Nikki. Helen had to hand it to him the way that he duplicated the appearance of surprise so effortlessly but, then again, Sean had had that same smooth assurance.
"We'd love to stop but we've both got clients to chat up."
"I'll bet," murmured Nikki.
"We have to be going, Helen. I'll ring you sometime. Keep in touch."
"Oh yeah," Helen said listlessly. She didn't engage his eye contact or bother to summon up a false smile. Why should she?
The atmosphere smoothed out the instant the pub door closed.
"I used to go around with Sean with TedandAlice and MarkandSue and GeoffandSarah," Helen articulated deliberately which made Nikki grin." Well, everyone makes mistakes in life. Needless to say when I split up with Sean, they dropped me like a hot brick. I was depicted as the cold bitch, who led him on only to jilt him."
"I get the picture. Is there anything you need to say about either of them?"
"Nothing whatsoever. They're history."
"But we're not." Exclaimed Nikki. "Our lives are just beginning." If it weren't for them being in a straight pub, she would have kissed Helen full on her lips. She contented herself with sliding her hand into Helen's and compromise with the petty social restriction. Both of them could live through that after all that they'd gone through.
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