DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions. I am using them for fun, not for profit.You may also notice a couple nods to BTVS; for those I offer props to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This story depicts a loving/sexual relationship between women. It is not suitable for anyone under age 18.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have also taken great liberties with the British Justice System.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nandh4ever[at]gmail.com

The Potting Shed
By Christie


Part One

As Helen turned over gingerly, enshrouded as she was in a muted chintz duvet, she looked at the clock on the bedside table and became aware of two things almost simultaneously: firstly, she noticed a familiar throbbing raging behind her right eye which suggested that she may have got a smidge too friendly with Mr Stoli the previous night and, secondly, that she was late. Really late...

"Darn!" she declared as she bounded out of bed and hurried into the bathroom. Or, more precisely... "Shit! Shit! Shit!" she cursed, a little too loudly, sending fireworks of blinding pain through her skull as she struggled to get her wobbly legs under her so she could stagger to the toilet to rid herself of the last of the offending vodka.

Helen Stewart was Governor of G-Wing at Larkhall Prison in south London. At thirty-one years of age, Helen was the one of the youngest Wing Governors in the history of Her Majesty's Prisons. Unfortunately, Helen was resented by many of the prison officers working under her not only for her age and gender but also for her university education. Education leads to thinking, thinking leads to ideas and ideas always mean more work for skiving screws, she thought, slipping into the prison vernacular. At that moment, though, she was doing her best to not think about Larkhall where a woman had miscarried and nearly died in her cell the previous week, and all right under the noses of Helen's couldn't-be-bothered officers. "Is it any wonder I drink?" she mused aloud in her soft Scottish lilt. Inspecting herself in front of the bathroom mirror she registered with irritation that her large, hazel eyes were noticeably bloodshot and threw her faith behind the good people at Johnson & Johnson as she reached for the Visine.

It was Saturday morning, Remembrance Day weekend, and Helen's partner, Sean Parr, had convinced her that it was time to introduce him to her father, James Stewart, a minister in an evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland, so they were driving up to his estate in Morningside, just outside of Edinburgh. As if the day weren't long enough with that drive, Sean, who owned a small landscaping company, had been roped into giving a seminar that morning at a small garden centre in Finchley in north London. "At least it's on the way," Helen thought before idly wondering to herself, "Who the bleedin' hell goes to a gardening seminar in November anyway?"

After a quick shower, "No reason I have to shave; it's not as though Sean'll be getting a shag off me tonight, not sleeping in Dad's house," Helen rationalised. She was not even sure if, as an unmarried couple, they would be permitted to share a room even though they had been living together over a year. Helen made her way downstairs where she washed down a couple paracetamol with a glass of Fizzy C in a desperate effort just to live through the day.

Helen discovered Sean eating breakfast in the eat-in kitchen. He had been up for a while and was looking fresh as a daisy and ready to face the day. He was an attractive man, tall and dark with sharp features and a voice which would have been perfect for reading the BBC news. "Thirty-six hours," he said, cryptically.

"What?" Helen barely managed with a cracking voice.

He illuminated, "It takes the body thirty-six hours to get rid of the alcohol from one glass of wine."

"Och, you sanctimonious prat!" was the errant thought which sprang immediately to Helen's mind. Out loud she simply offered an ambiguous, "Hmm." Reflecting further, she enquired, "And how long does it take to get rid of the shit from a day at my job?"

While the question was obviously posed rhetorically, Sean nonetheless offered, "Hel, if the job's too much for you, you could find yourself a new one." He bit into a piece of wholemeal toast with raspberry jam.

Helen was frustrated by yet another manifestation of Sean's lack of support for the job which she loved despite the headaches it often presented. She saw comments like that as attempts to undermine her, whether intended or not. Of no mind – and in no condition – to take him on in a row, however, she offered another equivocal, "Hmm," before asking, "Are we away then?"

Sean reached for their jackets which were hanging from an oak coat tree at the front door. Handing Helen's to her he agreed, "Yeah, we'd better head off. I wish I hadn't committed to do this seminar 'cause then we could've headed straight off to Morningside. I hope you're not too bored; it's only an hour, though. Hey, maybe you could even learn something!" He teased, "Bit of a lummox in the garden, aren't you?"

"Oh, Babes, you always know the perfect thing to say," Helen volleyed at him sarcastically. "You drive."


Part Two

They arrived at The Potting Shed at ten to ten. The property was expansive with two greenhouses and a large showroom. The small potting shed for which the shop was named appeared to be original, likely dating back a hundred years. It held pride of place in the middle of the gardens. Sean headed straight away to the office to find out where exactly he would be setting up for his seminar, one in a series billed as the 'Nursery School', and to get his materials organised. Helen, left to her own devices, found herself poking through some outdoor water features and lawn ornaments. "I know I'm a wee bit fragile this morning, but these garden gnomes are givin' me the willies," she thought and went off to browse through the plants. What she was in fact seeking out was a bench. "Sit down before you fall down," was always her mother's sage advice. She found no bench but found herself gazing vacantly across some colourful annuals. From an overhead skylight the sun was streaming down over the plants and giving the sense that they were illuminated from within. Their bright yellows and reds literally hurt Helen's eyes, such was her state.

As Helen stood, frowning slightly, expending what to her seemed to be great effort to use her right hand to shield her eyes from the sun's excruciating rays, a shadow crossed over her face. Risking great personal peril, Helen dropped the protective limb and looked up to see a tall, rather striking woman with short, raven hair standing in front of her, eclipsing the bothersome sun. The woman was completely backlit by its rays, a halo's corona surrounding her head. "My saviour," Helen laughed to herself, amused and giddy in the way only the very hungover can be.

"Everything okay, Miss?" the newcomer asked in a disarmingly deep, rich timbre. Helen tilted her head, looking at the other woman quizzically, saying nothing. "Oh, sorry," continued the tall woman, smiling and holding out her right hand. "Nikki Wade, proud proprietor," she added, waving her left arm to encompass her surroundings.

"Oh, sure. Sorry. Helen Stewart. I'm here with Sean Parr," Helen explained, shaking Nikki's proffered hand, pleased with her firm handshake.

"Oh, well his seminar is just about to start, if you want to..." the garden centre owner began.

"A posh git banging on about plants?" Helen scoffed. "No, thank you. And, since you were asking, I've felt better, actually. Nothing I didn't bring on m'self, I hate to admit," Helen smiled sheepishly.

Nikki found she was smiling as well at the self-conscious, diminutive woman with the charming Scots accent, gorgeous hazel eyes and straight, lustrous, brown hair which was cut just above her collar. "Why don't you come on back to the office? You can have a sit down and I'll whip you up a spot of my very own hangover tea. It tastes like crap, but it works better than a dozen Irn-Bru," she smiled again as she deliberately took a poke at Scotland's favourite fizzy drink.

"Cheeky! It may have its work cut out, though; I could be dying." But Helen was still smiling as she allowed herself to be led away.

Nikki's office was small but well appointed and filled, not surprisingly, with all manner of potted plants. There were orchids, lilies and even a small bonsai. Nikki set the electric kettle to boil and grabbed a jam jar full of what Helen would later say looked like a blend of mouse droppings and pond algae. Nikki added three heaping teaspoonfuls of the jar's mystery contents into a ceramic novelty mug that beseeched, "Where da hoes at?" then filled the mug from the freshly boiled kettle, giving the mixture a good stir. She apologised for the mug, explaining that it was a Christmas gift from one of her younger staff members and wondering if Helen had picked up on its double meaning.

Helen, though grateful to be sitting down, looked nervously upon the concoction Nikki had extended to her and wondered if it was too late to get out of drinking it. She looked up at her hostess's eager face and wondered if Nikki was having her on. The smells coming from the mug were bringing to mind tar, sulphur and something akin to human decomposition. Helen could actually feel the fumes sting the back of her throat.

"Trust me, Helen," Nikki said so sincerely that, as Helen looked up into Nikki's dark amber eyes, she could not stop herself reaching for the mug and drinking a deep draught. "What the f-!" Helen erupted as the foul, hot liquid assaulted her taste buds. "You said it tasted like crap but this is God awful! Crap is just nae strong enough."

The disgusted look on Helen's face was priceless. Even as she chortled with amusement, Nikki could not help but pity the small Scot. "Now, Helen, be a big girl and drink your crap!" Nikki scolded, still laughing, wondering how exactly Helen could make the word crap sound so appealing. And she was thoroughly relishing how Helen's heightened emotional state made her accent more pronounced. Perhaps relishing it a little too much. She also found herself noticing how green the fiery Scot's hazel eyes got when she was worked up. And the pursing of those gorgeous full lips, her heaving chest... "That's enough, Wade!" Nikki admonished, silently, as she collected herself. "Seriously, I've had to take it myself – more times than I'd care to admit – and it hasn't killed me yet. Then fifteen, twenty minutes you're back to your old self," Nikki promised.

"Sure, if I can keep it down," Helen snarled but reached for her mug, quickly drinking the last of the nasty brew. "Nothing that foul should be served in a twee novelty mug; it should have a skull and crossbones on it. Drinker beware! Should I even ask what's in it?" Helen asked cautiously.

Putting on her best sommelier voice Nikki told her, "It's actually a delightful little fusion of evening primrose, peppermint, willow bark, fennel, fever wort, ginger, thyme and wild carrot. Nectar of the gods!" She grinned.

"It should probably taste worse," Helen joked. The way her tongue tucked sweetly behind her teeth, even Helen's teasing smile was probably the sexiest thing Nikki had ever seen. "How on earth did you come up with that ick?"

"It's simple chemistry. Do you know much about plants, Helen?" Nikki was set to launch into instructor mode.

"I've never had much time for plants or gardening. Before Sean moved in I couldn't even be bothered to water my window boxes. Unfortunately, even though my garden is now finished, well... Sean and I don't exactly share the same taste in plants. Pansies and geraniums?" Helen shook her head. "And did you know that junipers smell just like cat urine?" she added conspiratorially. Both women laughed, each feeling a kinship with the other right from the get-go.

"I've a thought: we've got a beginner gardening class starting come February. We're putting on a bit of a push right now, trying to get people to gift it for Christmas. Tuesdays and Saturdays, covers all the basics... You should give it a go," Nikki suggested.

"More in the 'Nursery School' offerings?" Helen teased, enjoying the friendly camaraderie into which the two women had so easily fallen.

"No, the 'Nursery School' is the seminar series, like Sean's today... Are you taking the piss?" A connoisseur of sardonic wit, Nikki could not fail to note its tones imbuing Helen's question.

"No. It's a great name. Really." Helen rolled her eyes for emphasis. "How ever did you come up with it?"

Recognising yet another of Helen's not-so-subtle attempts at sarcasm, Nikki nonetheless took a deep breath and proceeded to explain in clipped, professorial tones, "I'm working on my business degree, taking a marketing course, and what I've learnt is that when you name a product or service, it's got to be something that's going to stick in people's minds. Funny or clever. So, 'Nursery School'." Nikki paused. "It was either that or 'Sod U', but I thought that might send the wrong message," she finished dryly, her own humour in top form. Nikki was rewarded with a genuine laugh from Helen. She went on, "Anyway, the classes - Pottering Around, we're calling them - will be fun, relaxed. So, unless you fancy a lifetime of pansies and geraniums... Take in the first one anyway, on me, yeah?"

"I'll think about it," Helen said sincerely, "even if only to learn how to brew that putrid tea; I'm feeling brilliant, Nikki!"

"I hate to say I told you so..." Nikki fibbed. "Wait 'til the third class where I'll teach you how to make an LSD derivative from morning glory seeds." She paused, smiling. "You're not a copper are you?"

"Actually, no, but I do work for the Prison Service." Helen watched Nikki's face for a reaction and was not surprised by the look of shock which registered there.

"Are you having me on?" Nikki quipped in disbelief.

"Sorry. Wing Governor at HMP Larkhall," Helen explained, enjoying Nikki's discomfiture.

"Well..." Nikki looked around, a little uncomfortable. "Just don't go poking around in the shadow of the greenhouses, yeah? I don't want you to find yourself in some sort of ethical dilemma," Nikki laughed hoping Helen wouldn't take her too seriously. "So, Wing Governor... Anything to do with you, erm, overindulging last night?" Nikki enquired.

"Well spotted; overnight Thursday we had a prisoner miscarry in her cell. She's gonna be fine, but we had a near riot on our hands." Helen paused, "I had to conclude that what happened was a tragic set of circumstances." The bitterness in Helen's voice was missed by Nikki.

"You wha'? Surely you've got better systems in place than to allow that to happen! Jesus, Helen, how do you sleep at night if you believe in a system that locks up pregnant women?" Nikki was gobsmacked.

Though used to this sort of reaction from people outside the Prison Service, Helen's defences nonetheless went up. She fired back, "Well, you're just gonna have to trust me; I don't. Damn it, Nikki, you've no idea what it's like inside a women's nick: prisoners always kicking off, old school officers who'd just as soon leave them all banged up, anything so they dinnae interfere with the end of shift, old boys' network at the top..." Helen was indignant. "I happen t'agree with you and, believe you me, I am making changes to procedures, not only to avoid another situation like this one but to improve overall conditions for the inmates." So much for the camaraderie, Helen thought. She knew that the inner workings of prison life were difficult for people outside the system to understand. She would just prefer to not be put on the defensive over them at every turn. She believed that if Nikki came to know her better, she would recognise that Helen was striving to improve conditions within the Prison Service.

The picture of contrition, Nikki apologised, "Helen, I'm sorry. I was bang out of order. 'Course you're doing your bit. I was just so thrown that a woman could almost bleed to death while under watch twenty-four/seven." Trying to lighten the atmosphere she offered, "More tea?"

Tension broken, Helen managed a small but honest laugh. "Don't think so, but thanks. Look, off the record, Nikki, I've asked myself those same questions, just so as you know. Now, I hate to row and run, but I think Sean's probably wrapping things up. We're off to visit my father and then the real battle can begin." Nikki was afforded another of Helen's dazzling smiles.

Nikki smiled, enquiring, "Where's he then?"

"Morningside," Helen answered. Geography not being one of Nikki's fortes, she pulled a confused face. "Edinburgh," Helen enlightened her.

"All right, well, it sounds like you've got a lovely weekend ahead of you," Nikki sarcastically intimated. "I'm glad you came up with Sean today. I've got him in for another 'Sod U' seminar next month. If you're not too busy, I'd love to have a natter again... No tea- unless absolutely necessary." Nikki found herself reluctant to say goodbye to Helen without knowing when or if she would see her again. While Nikki fancied herself a bit of a loner, she did find that she occasionally missed chumming around with friends. Since opening the business and starting at uni, along with some other obligations, Nikki found her spare time quite limited. Further, when she and her ex split up after eight years, their friends reverted to being Trisha's, rarely finding time for Nikki.

"I'd like to. I'll put it in my diary." Helen stood up. "Thanks for taking such good care of me, Nikki. I really do feel much better."

"I was glad to help," Nikki said sincerely. "I'll see you out to where Sean is." Grudgingly, she thought.

Nikki guided Helen through the cavernous shop and out to her partner where he proceeded to regale the women with how well his seminar had gone. He seemed well pleased with himself and reckoned he had made some decent landscaping contacts as well. "Win, win, eh, Nikki?" he offered.

"Yeah, we're well away," Nikki agreed all the while thinking him a bit up himself. Shaking Sean's hand she added, "I'm told you've got a long drive in front of you, so I won't keep you. I'll see you next month, yeah?" Nikki said to Sean though her eyes found Helen's. "Drive carefully."

Helen answered, looking at her watch, "Eleven-ten now. Barring a snarl-up we should be in Morningside in time for cocktails. 'Bye, Nikki, and thanks again."

"'Bye, Helen. Anytime." Lighting a cigarette, Nikki watched the couple out to the car park, paying particular attention to the way Helen filled out her jeans.

As they walked away the tall woman overheard Sean say, "In time for cocktails? Sounds like you're feeling better."

"Aye, much, much better. I'll drive."


Part Three

As they headed up the M1 in Helen's pillar-box red Peugeot 306, Sean continued to harangue his partner with tales of the morning seminar and his plans for the upcoming landscaping season. Almost an hour into their drive and he was still rabbiting on, almost endowing upon himself man of the match honours, much to Helen's bewilderment. "It was a gardening seminar, for God's sake!" she thought inhospitably, her patience with his monologue wearing thin. "You didn't bring about world peace."

"And this 'Nursery School-'"

"'Sod U'," she interrupted.

"'Scuse me?" Sean asked a trifle offended.

"What? Oh, that's Nikki's alternate name for the 'Nursery School'." Helen smiled. "'Sod U'."

"Oh, right. Cute. Anyway, I'm happy to offer her my time once a month in the off-season. I mean, sure, what she pays me for them, well it's barely enough to fold, but if I do my job right, I can make some brilliant contacts. It seems you two girls got on well," He added, glancing at Helen's profile.

"Yeah, we did. And that tea really fixed me up. I thought I was dying this morning, then I thought I'd actually gone to hell when I first tasted it, but I feel fanbloodytastic now. Much better than a dozen Irn-Bru!" Helen agreed with Nikki's earlier promise.

Sean must have grown tired listening to himself speak; he put himself right to sleep in the passenger seat leaving Helen to her own thoughts. She found herself reflecting on her own morning and meeting Nikki Wade. A career professional who joined the Prison Service straight out of university, Helen was fast-tracked into graduate training school. Such a career path does not lend itself to the cultivation of close, interpersonal relationships. Most of Helen's friends were themselves career women so she found most of her associations were within the Prison Service. Even only having met her briefly today, she felt a real connection with Nikki. She found herself hoping she could develop a friendship with her. "Almost impossible for a woman of my age to make a new friend, but..." she thought. Nikki was sympathetic and intelligent, though not one to mince words, which Helen respected. The way she went off about what happened to Carol Byatt, well, that just reinforced Helen's own stifled feelings. Unfortunately, as Wing Governor, she had to toe the company line as it was handed down from above. "Officers going over my head. The old boy's network. Is that what I'll have to go up against every time I make a decision they don't agree with?" Helen mused. "Even Sean thinks I may have mishandled it all in the first place. After only an hour with Nikki I feel like she's an ally, the only one to see things like I do." Finally she decided, "I am going to take her up on her invitation to visit at Sean's next 'Sod U' seminar."

Nikki found herself thinking about Helen also, though her thoughts about the fair Scot were far less cerebral, more visceral. Not that she didn't find Helen intelligent and charming, it was just that she recognised all of Helen's inherent charms: her smile, her accent, her ability to fill out a low-cut tee shirt. Of course, Nikki had been given some fairly obvious indicators that Helen was straight – Sean Parr sprang to mind – and, as taken as she was with everything the sexy Scot had to offer, Nikki found herself just wanting to get to know Helen better. "Nothing wrong with making a new friend who's also easy on the eyes," she concluded. Nikki was really drawn to Helen's passion for the Prison Service. No, that was not quite accurate, she decided; her passion for the prisoners in her charge was what impressed the taller woman. It seemed unlikely to Nikki that Helen would be able to turn the whole Prison Service on its ear, but if she could make some improvements on her own wing, Nikki thought that would be a tremendous feat.

Helen and Sean made great time getting to Morningside. A brief stop for a takeaway near Coventry and a quick loo break outside Carlisle and they still managed to arrive at Helen's childhood home just before six o'clock. The posted speed limit is just a guideline, after all.

"Now, Sean, remember," cautioned Helen, "my father's never approved of a single thing I've done, so I don't want you to get your hopes up. He's superior and judgemental and-"

"Now, isn't it time you put all that behind you?"Sean countered with more than a bit of condescension.

"Nice idea. It doesn't actually work like that, though, does it?" Helen tried to be realistic.

"Hel," Sean started, "you of all people know how utterly charming I can be. He'll love me!" Sean replied with a confidence Helen just could not mirror.

They rounded the final bend through a thicket of silver birch. Sean was rendered speechless as he took in the Stewart estate for the first time; he knew Helen's family was quite well-to-do, but her father's home was imposing in the extreme: a sprawling Victorian villa set upon almost four acres, the splendour of the gardens evident even in November, Sean's confidence in his ability to woo his partner's father waned somewhat. Determined not to lose his bottle, he took a deep breath and allowed the old arrogance to resurge, as strong as ever. Helen sighed, opening the car door, "Okay, let's take you in to meet his nibs."

The massive oak door was opened by a frumpy woman in her early sixties, Sean guessed. She wore a plain, light blue cotton/polyester dress with white piping and a bib apron. "Margaret!" Helen exclaimed, pulling the older woman into a tight embrace. "It's fantastic to see you!"

"Well, if ye'd come 'round to visit more..." the woman called Margaret chided. The comment played like a broken record even to Sean's ears.

"You know I'd be here every week to visit you, if you could just get Himself out the house," Helen laughed. "Margaret, I'd like you to meet my partner, Sean Parr. Sean this beautiful woman is Margaret Jamieson; she keeps the old bugger in line," Helen smiled conspiratorially, garnering a look of disapproval as well as an affectionate swat from the ageing housekeeper. Margaret had been employed by the Stewart family for as long as Helen could remember and was the only remaining of Reverend Stewart's staff. She had been Helen's nanny from the time Helen was a toddler, then, after Helen's mother passed away when Helen was only twelve, Margaret tried as best she could to fit into that role. In Helen's eyes she almost succeeded though she could not completely replace Helen's own mum. Margaret almost made up for Helen's father's distant parenting style, though. "A handshake's as good as a hug, eh, Dad?" Helen had mused more than once.

"He's in his study waitin' for ye. Tea'll be ready at seven thirty, as usual. Can I bring your case up tae your room?" Margaret asked.

Concerned for Margaret's physical health, Helen started, "You're a sixty-"

"Ahem!" Margaret interrupted, taking mock offence.

"Wha' I mean is, I'm sure you've got plenty enough to do preparing dinner. We'll manage, thanks," Helen finished diplomatically.

Sean and Helen made their way up the left side of the divided staircase from the grand entrance hall, finding their way upstairs to the room they were, in fact, being permitted to share and deposited their overnight bag. "Jesus, Hel, who knew working for the Kirk was so flush!" Sean commented as the two quickly dressed for dinner.

"My father never quite understood the whole 'vow of poverty' lark. He expects his gormless parishioners'll feel more comfortable," Helen added inverted commas, "listening to one of their own preach. Are you ready?" Helen's trepidation was palpable.

"Of course," Sean replied, his old confidence back up.

They headed back downstairs and into Helen's father's study. He was waiting for them in the austere, wood-panelled room with its heavy velvet curtains and wall-to-wall bookcases. Helen speculated that no more than ten percent of the books had ever even been opened, but, still, we must keep up appearances. The 'Stewart Estate' was, in fact, Helen's mother's childhood home. Though he himself had not had a privileged upbringing, Rev Stewart had taken to the idea like a duck to water.

"Dad, it's lovely to see you," she began formally.

"Ah, Helen, ye've arrived," Helen's father said making an obvious display of looking at his watch. Neither made a move toward the other. Neither a hug nor kiss was on offer.

Reaching behind her to entice her partner into the fold, she continued, "May I introduce Sean Parr."

"So ye're the gardener," Reverend Stewart muttered contemptuously.

With that Helen turned on her heel, strode the four paces to the antique sideboard and poured herself a generous three fingers of vodka. Neat. "It's going to be a long weekend," she thought.


Part Four

Forty excruciating hours later and they were back on the road heading home to Helen's quiet little ground floor flat in Maida Vale. "Christ, Hel, I know you warned me, but..." Sean complained. Unbeknownst to Helen, Sean had pushed for this trip with the intention of asking the Reverend Stewart for Helen's hand. He knew that Helen's father would expect at least that level of respect. Sean also knew that Helen herself would have had his guts for garters at the thought of being 'given' from the older man to the younger, but he felt he could have got her past it. It was a moot point, though; Sean could not pluck up courage enough to ask the senior Stewart for Helen's hand. By the end of the weekend, he found himself wanting only to ask the Reverend Stewart to hand him his own bollocks back, "Y'know, if it's not too much trouble."

"Yeah, there's a weekend out my life I'll never get back. Maybe Nikki's got a wonder herb that'll get rid of this stress headache or, better still, block this whole weekend from memory," Helen mused aloud. "I imagine she's got something in the shadow of the greenhouses that could affect memory..." she suspected.

"What are you muttering on about," Sean asked.

"What? Oh, nothing. Fancy taking the wheel for a bit? I could use a wee kip."

Nikki's own weekend was relatively uneventful: she worked a full day Saturday following Helen and Sean's departure for Scotland, Sunday she worked on her marketing plan for her uni course and Monday found her back at the gardening centre implementing Christmas promotions and ordering her spring plants. Because it was Remembrance Day weekend, she did not have her usual Monday night course, so she went directly home after closing down the shop, planning on catching up with some paperwork. She threw a chicken breast in the oven and whipped up a small salad. While the chicken cooked, she decided to telephone Sean Parr to thank him for the great job he had done on Saturday. While it was true that Nikki had received some excellent feedback regarding Sean's seminar, it was equally true that she was not in the habit of going out of her way to thank her contract speakers. Nikki, always brutally honest with herself, was well aware that she really wanted to ring over to Sean's in the hope that Helen would answer. If she had just wanted to give Sean a quick word of thanks, she could have left it on their answerphone knowing the two were away for the weekend. "Well, no point in starting into my paperwork," she thought. "The chicken'll be ready to come out of the oven in fifteen minutes. No sense, really... Do yourself a favour, eh, Wade?" she admonished. "Quit making excuses and just ring her! Them. Their flat." She smoked two cigarettes in quick succession before she was fortified enough to call.

The telephone rang twice before Helen answered. "Hi, Helen? It's Nikki, erm, Nikki Wade," she stammered.

"Hiya, Nikki," Helen paused. When Nikki did not continue Helen said, "I was thinking about you today."

"Oh, yeah," Nikki responded, hopefully.

"Yeah, I was wondering if you had a tea to help me forget the wretched weekend I just spent with my father. Any such luck?"

Nikki could hear the grin in Helen's voice and found herself picturing Helen's smiling face, and not for the first time that day. "That bad, eh? There is one brew that I know of that helps with forgetting; I think they call it whiskey, but that's what brought you to me in the first place, innit?" Helen's joking manner was contagious and Nikki was glad she had decided to call.

"Shows what you know. Vodka's actually my poison, truth be told. You cannae paint us all with the same brush, Nikki," Helen lectured.

"Any chance your father's a whiskey drinker?" Nikki asked rather astutely.

Helen had never even considered that connection, that she had started drinking vodka as a rebellion of sorts against her father, but now that Nikki mentioned it, she knew she would have to. Later. For now she was enjoying this banter with Nikki. It was like they picked up right where they had left off on Saturday.

"So..." Helen led off.

"So? Oh, right, I was calling to thank Sean again for coming up Saturday and for agreeing to do some of these 'Nursery School'-"

"'Sod U'."

"'Sod U' seminars," Nikki smiled, "but since I've got you on the line, I was wondering if maybe you wanted go out for lunch or something sometime. I really enjoyed falling in with you Saturday and thought it might be nice to do it again," Nikki finished nervously.

"Sure, yeah, I'd like that. Or perhaps we could grab a drink some evening after work?" Helen suggested. "What time are you usually at the Potting Shed 'til?"

"Usually six, except Tuesdays and Fridays it's seven, but I am the big cheese, 'course, so I can arrange the timetable to suit. What time do you get off work?" Nikki enquired.

"Normally I work eight to five except in the event of a crisis - thank God we never have any of those," she added, dripping sarcasm, "but this week's a bit strained; there'll be the aftermath of Carol's miscarriage, plus it's a short week and I've got a Board of Visitors do on Thursday in Simon's place," Helen mused, almost to herself. "How about if I come by the Potting Shed on Friday after I get off work and drag you out?" Helen offered.

"You know, that sounds perfect. I'm sure I can get someone to close up for me. Yeah, Alex, the one who gave me that beastly mug, she owes me at least that. Perfect. Until Friday, then," Nikki said, signing off.

"Erm, Nikki?"


"Did you want to speak to Sean?" Helen mocked, having cottoned on to the real reason for Nikki's call; she recognised that thanking Sean was just a ruse.

"Oh, right, nearly forgot," Nikki squirmed. "It's a fair cop," she conceded, delighting in Helen's willingness to call her out. Helen could almost imagine Nikki with her hands in the air in mock surrender. Nikki was somewhat abashed as she waited for Sean to come to the phone.


Part Five

Helen arrived at the Potting Shed at half five Friday evening. "Five thirty... Is that considered evening?" she wondered inanely. "I mean it's so dark already. And has been for almost half an hour," she lamented silently.

At almost the same height as Nikki, though as blonde as Nikki was dark, Alex stood out conspicuously even in the expansive shop. Helen approached her to ask after Nikki when, without preamble, Alex let her know that the boss had left instructions to have Helen go straight through to the office. Helen tapped gently on the office door, not wanting to startle the other woman, and waited for Nikki's invitation to enter.

"Come in," Nikki called hoping it was Helen, stubbing out her cigarette.

"Hiya, Nikki," Helen greeted her new friend. "I'm not too early, I hope?" she questioned.

"Not at all. Timing couldn't be better; you're saving me from an evening of tax preparations." Taking in Helen's trouser suit, Nikki hoped the outfit she was planning on changing into did not seem too casual in comparison. "It's just an evening at the pub," she thought. "Look, just give me two ticks to change out of my scruffs and we can be off. I thought we could head over to the Catcher in the Rye on Regents Park... Unless there's somewhere else you fancy?" Nikki suggested.

"Sounds perfect. I'll meet you out front." Helen prepared to leave the office.

"No need to run off. You can talk to me while I have a quick change," Nikki insisted, trading in her work trousers and cobalt blue hoodie for a pair of well-fitting dark jeans and a light grey v-neck sweater. Helen turned away, looking out the window to give the tall, seemingly immodest brunette some privacy. "Of course, what's she to be modest about?" Helen thought. "If you've got it, flaunt it."

"Ready for a good nosh-up?" Nikki asked rhetorically and they were off.

They took separate cars to the pub, Nikki, more familiar with the area, leading the way in her metallic blue and silver Mitsubishi Shogun, a practical vehicle excellent for hauling things to and from the Potting Shed. They got to the Catcher in the Rye early enough that they both found parking. They even managed appropriate a couple of leather wing-backed chairs by the fireplace. There for the first time, Helen looked around appreciatively. They settled in and ordered a couple pints of bitter. Helen picked up the menu the barmaid had left on the table. "So, do you come here often?" she asked Nikki who looked up at her with a teasing glint in her eye.

"What's your sign?" Nikki asked putting on her best flirty voice. "Is it just me or are you hot in here?" She could not help herself. Both women found themselves laughing at the hackneyed chat-up lines, though Nikki was fairly certain Helen was only in on half the joke. "I'll have to tell her tonight," Nikki thought. "I hope it doesn't affect our friendship." If it were to, well, Helen would not be the first to pull away from Nikki because of her lifestyle, only the most recent. "Though," Nikki thought, "one of the more disappointing."

"The fish and chips are always a good choice, but for my money the Moroccan chicken is a standout," Nikki offered. "Not veggie, are you. I should've asked..."

"Not to worry; I'm an enthusiastic carnivore," Helen smiled. "Moroccan chicken, yeah? I think I'll give i' a bash," she decided. "I'm not of a mind to eat just yet, though. We can finish our pints before we order, unless you're peckish?" Helen proposed.

Nikki, though a little time conscious, agreed that they probably had time to polish off their first pints before ordering food. Helen, enjoying the company, did not want to place their food order too quickly for fear it would bring their evening to an early close.

"This is a cosy spot, Nikki. Good feel to it. 'Catcher in the Rye', though: great book but not a lot of positive associations," Helen ventured. "I mean Mark David Chapman was carrying it when he killed John Lennon," she pointed out.

"And John Hinkley Jr. was carrying it when he shot Ronald Reagan. Remember? Trying to get Jodie Foster's attention? And there was an American actress shot and killed by her stalker who was also carrying it..." Nikki reminded Helen. "Still, the book's a classic."

The two women then talked around a lot of other issues, keeping the conversation light and easy. Nikki complained about the Potting Shed's bookkeeper who had made a complete bollocks of the business' books, forcing Nikki to spend the previous fortnight revisiting the accounts. Helen divulged to Nikki that one of the G-Wing prisoners was actually trying to get married inside.

"You wha'? Married? In prison? Oh, I can just picture the honeymoon now," she said, oozing sarcasm. "Do you get that a lot? Cons wanting to get married?"

"Prisoners, Nikki," Helen corrected gently. "And, no, not often and rarely for the right reasons. A marriage certificate is just not enough to keep someone from playing away from home. Just a piece of paper, after all," Helen pointed out.

The barmaid approached and the women let her know they were ready to order. Following Nikki's suggestion, Helen chose the Moroccan chicken. "I'd better not be disappointed," she warned sternly.

"Trust me... Miss," Nikki joked, as she had already decided she liked to do when Helen put on her authoritarian Governor's voice. Nikki opted for something off the specials board, choosing the pork loin stuffed with apples and pine nuts. They ordered another pint as Nikki lit up a cigarette. Helen had held her tongue regarding Nikki's smoking up until then, but decided it was time to say something, "Nikki, you're too pretty to smoke. Doesn't look right."

No one had ever tried that approach with Nikki before and, coming from Helen, she got a little flustered. Choosing to say nothing in response – and what was there to say? - Nikki asked Helen what else had been happening on G-Wing. Helen told her about her current pet project, endeavouring to control the influx of drugs onto the wing. Nikki was astonished to learn what goes on within prison walls. For her own reasons, Nikki had done a bit of research into the inner workings of a women's prison and found out that drugs are more readily available inside a prison than on London streets and, further, that the punishment for using or distributing drugs in prison amounts to no more than a few weeks' loss of remission. She felt an argument coming on with Helen, but, as their food arrived and they tucked in, she looked at her watch and knew she did not have time for that.

"Mmm. Oh, God, Nikki! You were spot on. This chicken's delicious. Speciality of the house, is it? I hope your pork is as good," Helen expressed sincerely.

"I told you, Helen, the food here is brilliant. Here, taste." She offered up a forkful of her pork.

Not thinking the gesture too familiar, Helen ate from Nikki's fork. "M-hmm. Fantastic! This pub should be in the city, not way out here in the back of beyond."

"Oi, watchit! Some of us live 'round here, you know," Nikki chided. As she said that, Nikki checked her watch.

Helen had noticed Nikki's clock-watchings already a few times that evening and asked tentatively, "Am I... keeping you from something?"

Somewhat chagrined at having been caught checking the time, Nikki admitted to Helen that she actually had to be home for half past seven. It was closing in on seven o'clock. "Look, let's clear off our plates then you can come 'round to mine and we can continue our evening, all right?" Nikki invited.

Curious, speculating that Nikki had someone waiting for her at home or that she was expecting a call, Helen agreed. "Should we stop at an offy?" Helen queried.

"I'm sure I've got some plonk I can offer you back at mine," Nikki replied, not wanting to tell Helen that she had also stocked some vodka in her freezer just in case Helen ever came around.

"'I don't know much about wine but I know what I like'," Helen paraphrased the tired cliché. "It'd make life easier if I could only remember the ones I like," she joked offhandedly as the women put on their jackets and headed for the door. Nikki lit up as soon as she was in her car, her first since Helen's comment.

Nikki alighted from her car and sprinted up the front steps of her Crouch End house, not daring to stop and check her watch until she was safely inside her front door. 7:29. "Cut that a little close, didn't ya, Wade?" she asked herself silently.

"Where's the fire?" Helen demanded. "You nearly lost me when you ran that amber. Better luck next time, eh?" Helen was racing to catch up. "Not a fair race, though; your legs're twice as long as mine," she heaved.

"Yeah, sorry. I'll give you a head start next time," the Potting Shed proprietor promised, joking. "I believe I said I needed to be home by half past seven. Made it, but only just." Nikki tapped her watch. "Come on in. Let me hang up your jacket," she offered, breathing a sigh of relief.

Nikki's house, a bright end of terrace, was charming and eclectic, "Just like the woman herself," Helen thought. It was a good balance of antique and contemporary, but not modern. An open-plan, only a bulkhead separated the kitchen from the sitting room where overflowing floor to ceiling bookcases flanked a stone fireplace. Helen could feel sure that, in direct contrast with her father's, most of Nikki's books had been read. Helen could see by the covers that the genres were as diverse as the authors: George Eliot, Nelson DeMille, Beryl Bainbridge and someone called Sarah Waters shared equally valuable real estate. No trashy romance novels, Helen was pleased to note.

"Fancy yourself a bit of a bibliophile, d'you?" she asked rhetorically. Still puzzled by Nikki's need to be home for half past seven, Helen prised, "So, were you expecting a telephone call? Or..." Helen's question hung in the air.

"Look, let me fix us a drink before we get stuck in. Fancy a glass of red wine? Or a vodka?"

"I don't think so; I'm two pints in already and I have to drive home yet," Helen declined, graciously adding, "but don't feel you have to abstain on my account. It's not like you have to go anywhere."

You don't know the half of it, Nikki thought. "I'm all right," she decided, though she despaired she might need some liquid courage to get through the upcoming conversation. "A cuppa, then? I'll pop the kettle on," Nikki suggested and set about preparing the tea and plating up some biscuits. "Do you take your tea with?" she asked once the brew had steeped.

"Please." The attentive hostess pulled a sugar bowl from the cupboard and the women made their way into the sitting room, Nikki carrying the tea tray. They sat at opposite ends of the couch. Helen settled in, curling her feet under her and waited for Nikki to finally assuage her curiosity.

Nikki decided to take the bull by the horns. She bent over and lifted her right trouser leg to reveal an electronic tagging device. "You see, Helen, not all cons are prisoners," she started. "Well, not in the strictest sense."


Part Six

Helen sat not speaking, not even moving for over a minute as she considered the scenario in front of her. "Y'know, I think I'll take that stiffener after all. Make mine a voddy," she finally managed.

Nikki trotted back to the kitchen, returning with two glasses and a well-chilled bottle of Stolichnaya. Pouring a healthy measure for each of them she topped the glasses up with tonic and lit a cigarette. Helen did not begrudge her that one in the least. Nikki proceeded to tell Helen her story, starting at the end by answering Helen's obvious first question, "Manslaughter," she disclosed. "'Lesbian Cop Killer, Nikki Wade'. Very tabloid-friendly, that," she added bitterly. "I'm sure you heard the story, perhaps even thought my name sounded familiar when we met," she continued caustically. She then made her way back to the beginning.

"I took out the copper who was trying to rape my partner, Trisha... I turned up at our nightclub one night to take her home. It was just her and this shit who used to come in, DC Gossard. You had to butter up the local filth to keep them off your backs. Most of them were okay, but," she shook her head, "Gossard... He had her pressed against the bar and he was saying," Nikki swallowed hard, "'c'mon, rug-muncher, have some of the real thing for a change.' I tried to pull him off her, but he wouldn't... I saw red; I picked up a bottle and I smashed it over his head. He just laughed," tears squeezed from the corners of Nikki's eyes, "so I stuck what was left of it in his neck. That soon took the smirk off his face." Nikki turned away, wiping her tears and composing herself as best she could. "When I saw him lying there, I was totally shocked, but the police wouldn't believe me or Trisha that the guy was trying to rape her, no matter what we said."

She went on, "I was dead lucky to be granted bail – half a million, but thankfully, our nightclub was doing really well - so I was only on remand in the reception dormitory for two nights. The pre-trial investigation seemed to drag on forever, but turned out that was in my favour because eventually a witness came forward. She had been following my case, had a vested interest in it really, and the longer it went on, the guiltier she felt keeping schtum. She had been a colleague of Gossard's and he... he raped her," Nikki stammered emotionally. "After the assault she did press charges but was forced to retract her story, under pressure from Gossard himself and some other cops. They terrorised her, threatened to force her out of the service. They ended up doing that anyway, 'course. At any rate Sally Ann Howe, that was her name, she stood up and told her story and probably saved me from a life sentence. It was almost a full eight months after I'd killed him that I was sentenced to three years' electronic tagging. My barrister fought tooth and nail for that. It was unprecedented then and still remains the only sentence of its kind for a violent crime. Provocation was proved but they couldn't just let me go; I'd killed a copper after all." Nikki was drained, the emotional toll taken by reliving the nightmare almost too much.

Helen, who had sat silently through Nikki's description of events, found herself worrying about Nikki's emotional health. Taking a life, even in defence of another, obviously has acute implications and Helen hoped that Nikki had a strong enough support system in place. "So, where's Trisha tonight?" she asked.

"Trisha?" Nikki repeated with a harsh laugh, "No, we're not together anymore. Right about the time of sentencing... She was gettin' on my tits so I chucked her," Nikki explained cavalierly.

"Was it... was it a long-term thing?" Helen did not know what the right questions were.

"Eight years," Nikki replied, unable to keep the doleful tone from her voice.

"Eight. It's a long time."

"Oh spare me the sympathy, will you. You probably don't think it was for real 'cause we're dykes." Nikki went on the offensive.

"Oh, why don't you just... just shut up?" Helen said, loudly emphasising the last three words. "What a load of old bollocks!" She was amazed at Nikki, who could speak so openly, if not easily, about taking a life, yet pushed back so hard when it came to discussing her private life. Helen calmed her voice but continued to speak strongly, "Nikki, why have you got such a huge chip on your shoulder? Just grow up and stop all this macho crap! Do you honestly think you're the first lesbian I've ever met? I work in the Prison Service, for God's sake. I frankly couldn't give a toss, unless we're on a date." She paused. "Is this a date, Nikki? How do you think it's going so far?" Helen tried to inject a little levity into their exchange. She topped up their glasses.

Nikki broke down and laughed, surprised. "If I took you out on a date, you'd bloody know," she raised her eyebrows flirtatiously, "and we would not be home by half past seven!" She was still hearing Helen's stern voice in her head, the crisp elocution of her hard consonants rang pleasantly in Nikki's ears. "I'm sorry, Helen. It's just – I hate living like this: this damned ankle tag, the curfew, and, well, this wasn't how I'd wanted you to find out any of this, not how I'd wanted to out myself. I don't want any of it to interfere with our friendship," she confided sheepishly, looking anywhere but at Helen.

"Nikki," Helen said softly, "though I hadn't realised it was yours, I had heard your story; Claire Walker is a good friend."

"My solicitor?"

"Yeah. We were at uni together. She told me about your case. She couldn't believe the jury didn't acquit on the basis of provocation." She added, "What's more, I figured out you were a lesbian the day we met; again – Her Majesty's Prisons have given me a pretty keen eye. Then, o' course, there was the mug, 'Where da hoes at'? Honestly! So, yes, I knew when you rang up on Monday. And I came out tonight just the same, so to speak," Helen sniggered at her choice of phrase. "As for the other... Thanks for your trust and know how sorry I am that you were ever in such a situation, that you were forced into... I cannae even imagine what it was like for you, for Trisha..."

"And I pray you never have to," Nikki pronounced softly, looking ahead blindly, gazing into the past. "It's not just the curfew, my sentence; I also have to attend an anger management programme. Twice a week at first, but now I'm going every fortnight. So I'll know better how to react if I'm faced with a similar situation," Nikki laughed harshly. "He was going to rape her! Sure, I say all the right things at anger management, gotta get a good progress report, but I honestly don't know if I'd do anything differently. Not gonna turn me in, are you, Miss?" The anger in Nikki's voice was misplaced.

"Oh, don't be like that, Nikki." Helen was unsure how she felt about this new side of Nikki she was seeing; their previous meeting and dinner tonight had shown a much more carefree side of the taller woman. Smalltalk and herbal remedies make for light conversation, she supposed, but here Helen was seeing a passion in Nikki that had previously been hidden. It unnerved her a little to think how explosive Nikki could be. "The thing is that I will have to talk to the number one about you, y'know, if we're going to be friends," she offered cautiously.

"I hope we are friends, Helen, on our way to being very good friends," Nikki added uncomfortably, feeling like she was eight years old. "But is that absolutely necessary? To talk to your boss? He can't dictate whom you can spend time with, surely?"

"Yes, we're friends, and, yes, I will have to tell Simon; it would be unprofessional not to. We have to face it, you are technically serving a manslaughter sentence and if someone else were to tell him... But, no, he cannae stop us from associating. I'll do it at the next catch-up. If I don't make a big to-do about it, neither will he. I don't need to mention you by name, just that I've become friendly with someone out on an electronic tag. No ethical issues with that," Helen explained.

"So... Have we got all of the awkward conversations out of the way? We could try religion? Politics? Do you have any emotional scars I could poke at or do I need to prise them out of you with more vodka?"

Carefree Nikki – "or maybe it's just that the walls she's put up are artfully disguised," Helen thought – was back. Aloud she argued, "Oh, I've had a skinful already. And I've still got to get m'self home."

"Look, you told me that Sean's off at that garden expo this weekend, so you don't need to get home. You are welcome to stay here unless, well, unless that makes you uncomfortable," Nikki offered, adding, "I do have a second bedroom."

Without missing a beat, "I'll pour!" Helen proposed enthusiastically and proceeded to match action to word. "Here's tae us wha's like us," she offered as a toast. Nikki just shrugged her shoulders looking lost. Helen finished, "Gey few and they're a' deid." Helen shifted the conversation, "So, how do you go from Soho nightclub to Potting Shed owner," enquired a curious Helen. "What's the name of the club, anyway?

"Chix... With an 'X'."

"Your marketing course again?" Helen asked incredulously.

Nikki laughed, "No, that one was all down to Trish. I wanted 'Martini's' from It's a Wonderful Life, thinking we could also bring in the after work crowd with fancy martinis, but... Either that or The Liquor Box," she said dropping her eyes, almost embarrassing herself with that one. She shrugged. "What was the question? From Chix to the Potting Shed, yeah? Another challenger." Nikki had to light up another cigarette. "Well, a lot happened in the months after... after Gossard," Nikki faltered as she always did talking about that night. "That's how I refer to it now. I need to fix his name in my mind, to keep saying it. I tried to just call it 'That Night', but that didn't last. Anyway, the pigs - police – Gossard's friends and colleagues made it their mission to harass Trish and me. They'd come by our flat at six, even five o'clock in the morning some days, knowing we'd only been down a couple hours. They'd hassle our customers going into and coming out of the club, just trying to rattle us, you know? To get me to do something stupid, to make sure I'd go down for murder. And it almost worked except that instead of lashing out, I became self destructive. Angry, cynical, bitter," Nikki went on. "I'd killed a man and I couldn't come to terms with that. I wanted my life back. I became impossible to live with and, well, Trish decided she couldn't – live with me. Irony's ironic that way. If it hadn't been for the support of our friends and customers, who were incredibly loyal, the club would've gone under."

Helen chose not to interrupt Nikki's narrative flow, instead subtly prompted the raconteur with the occasional nod or word of encouragement while ensuring that their vodka tonics were topped up. "For a long time I blamed Trisha for leaving; how could she? After what I'd done for her? At the time I thought she couldn't live with what I'd done, but the truth was I couldn't. Every time I looked at her it reminded me... of that night, of his blood on my hands, on the floor. So much blood." Nikki paused. "Anyway, she stuck it out until my sentencing and then we thought it was best to call it quits. I was causing her too much pain. When my sentence included a half seven curfew, we knew my bartending nights were over. It was for the best. I still get the screaming abdabs at the thought of being at the club at night. I took on the daytime work – deliveries, bookkeeping, booking bands – but after a while we both knew it wasn't working, so she bought me out, though now I'm a sleeping partner, kept ten percent – pays me a nice little dividend once a month, especially now she's opened a second club in Islington. I took my share and managed to buy this house and the shop. I'd always loved being in the garden. Peaceful. I picked it up as I went along and I've taken some courses. Management and keeping the books, well, I learnt that at the club." Nikki was starting to feel she'd spoken enough and was keen to turn the tables on Helen, but Helen would not be stopped.

"How do you and Trisha get on now," she asked.

"We've managed to stay friends. I was all of twenty-four when she and I got together. The world's a much different place when you're thirty three. Plus, there's too much history there. She, erm, she turned to someone else when I became, I guess the word's unreachable." Nikki shrugged philosophically. "I'm better off on my own, anyway. I've got my shop, my studies, my anger management course, my volunteer work. Life's pretty full," she concluded.

"You do volunteer work and all?" Helen asked, incredulous, wondering where Nikki found all this time seeing as how she had to be home by half seven.

"Court ordered community service, four hours a week, but I'm sure I'll continue with it once I've served my sentence. I work with a support group for victims of sexual abuse: helping facilitate meetings, setting up appointments with psychologists, sometimes child services. Those are the hardest," Nikki admitted.

"I'm impressed and, if it doesn't sound too patronising, proud of you Nikki." Helen then asked the question she had been pondering earlier, "How on earth do you get it all done by half seven?"

"I have what I call a floating curfew; my night courses go 'til nine o'clock, so, on Mondays and Wednesdays, my curfew is half past nine. Same thing on Thursdays: my volunteer work runs until nine. I schedule my anger management during the day and just skive off from the shop for a couple hours. Bear in mind, they want me to be a productive member of society," she joked. "But, look, that's enough about me. Please. Before the entire night's binned, let's learn about you. The Prison Service?" Nikki finally managed to shift the conversation.

"Not much of a story, I'm afraid. When I was in sixth form I gave a report about how women get along after being released from prison: recidivism, drug addiction, employment. I learnt a lot, most of it negative, and decided I wanted to be part of the solution. I went to boarding school in Perthshire, but when I found out that London has the greatest number of women lifers in all of Europe and the highest reoffending rate in the UK, I decided to do my uni here, well, at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I got my master's in psychology and in criminology. Took a couple years off to travel abroad then joined the Prison Service. Three years now. Been banging my head against a wall ever since." Helen smiled impishly. "The Prison Service motto: itching to get in, scratching to get out!" She shrugged. "Any road, I've just been promoted to Wing Governor and transferred to Larkhall. All caught up," she wrapped up.

"Met some interesting characters, I imagine," Nikki prodded refilling their glasses.

"Aye, you're no' wrong. At the moment I think I like most of the prisoners better than my own officers. Have more respect for them, anyway, but I'm hoping to change that, bring in some enthusiastic new recruits. Two of my senior officers, though," Helen shook her head, sighing with exasperation, "Jim Fenner, for one, I couldnae put my finger on it straight away but knew there was definitely summat off there. He's gone on to prove me right, questioning every decision I make, always going behind my back, golfing with the number one... Then there's Sylvia Hollamby, they call her Bodybag," sexy smile, "face like a bulldog chewing a wasp - reckons 'happiness is door shaped'. A real jobsworth, does nothing but firtle all day."

Helen continued regaling Nikki with tales of inmates and officers, catching her up on the most colourful among them: lifer Shell Dockley, inside for torture and murder, a bully who fancied herself the true Governor of the wing, and her sidekick, Denny Blood, an arsonist and Shell's extremely loyal, though none too bright, little bit on the inside, the two Julies – Julie Saunders and Julie Johnston – prostitutes in for two years for nicking clients' wallets - carrying on like an old married, finishing each other's sentences, and their newest arrivals, Zandra Plackett, a junkie given ten months for credit card fraud, and Monica Lindsay, an older woman indicted for handling £ 400 000 of stolen funds and who had, Helen had just learnt, a thirty year old son with Down's syndrome. Officers about whom Helen had more positive things to say than she did Fenner and Sylvia included Dominic McAllister, a young and keen officer who would show the inmates compassion and caring and whom, Helen believed, would make a fine officer as long as the women didn't totally tear him apart, and, lastly, Lorna Rose, who always did a fair job, but didn't mind throwing her weight around and who had her sights set on the DST, the Dedicated Search Team. Nikki was not sure she would ever be able to keep them all straight in her mind, but Helen's stories gave her a fair sense of each of them.

"Bleedin' Nora!" Helen exclaimed, looking at her watch, "have I been prattling on that long? It's goin' on two! How'd tha' happen? I'm right puggled. Look, point me in the right direction and I'll away to ma pit." Nikki was in the dark as to whether it was the vodka or the late hour that had turned Helen just that much more Scottish, but at that particular moment she was delighting in Helen's accent and turn of phrase.

"I'll just fetch a set of bed sheets from the linen cupboard and we can make up the spare room," Nikki proposed. The two women heaved themselves up off the couch, wobbling slightly from the vodka, and made their way to the guest room, Nikki stopping for linens on the way. As they made up the bed, Nikki informed Helen, "I popped a bath sheet and a flannel in the loo for you. And there's a fresh toothbrush in the medicine cabinet. I can get you a tee shirt to sleep in," Nikki offered.

"That's okay. I sleep starkers," Helen replied, mindless of the effect that information had on Nikki.

"Hmm. Erm, you don't sleepwalk, by any chance?" Nikki flirted hopefully – while genuinely considering sleeping in the hallway. Helen just laughed, enjoying Nikki's attentions. "The good news: we can have a lie-in tomorrow; I don't have to be at the shop until eleven. Anything you fancy for brekkie?" Nikki asked.

"Coffee. That's all I know, though I'm afraid I may be in need of some of that boggin' tea," Helen laughed. "Unless you have a dozen Irn-Bru?"

"Hopefully a good night's sleep and you'll be fine, though now that I think of it, I'm going to fetch us each a glass of water and a couple aspirin to be on the safe side. Anything else you need while I'm in the kitchen?" Nikki asked.

"No, thanks; I think I'm ready to just have a quick wash and head to bed. Coffee cups are...? On the off-chance I'm up first?" Helen asked.

"Cupboard right above the kettle. You'll find tea, coffee and a cafetière there as well. There's some granary bread in the bread bin and some muesli in the pantry. I may have some eggs as well and even some ham in the fridge, so if you fancy serving me brekkie in bed, I like my eggs soft boiled. Three and a half minutes."

"Aye, right. Wha'd yer last servant die of?" Helen joked. "Have I mentioned that my speciality is takeaway? You have eggs in your fridge?!" Helen asked facetiously, "All I keep in there is wine, tomato sauce and bicarbonate of soda," Helen admitted jokingly. "And milk for my coffee, of course."

"So, I'll cook then..." Nikki insisted. "Just make a huge din when you get up. I'm a light sleeper. Or if you want to be sure I'm up, I have found that having a gorgeous woman in my bed tends to do the trick..." Nikki teased.

"Sure, but where will I find one so early on a Saturday morning?" Helen asked coyly. "All right, to bed, then! Goodnight, Nikki. Thank you for a lovely evening," Helen said sincerely.

"'Night, Helen. Sleep well. If you need anything..." Nikki answered open-endedly. "Anything at all," She added silently.

The two women prepared themselves for bed each reflecting on their evening. Nikki lit her last cigarette of the day and found herself worrying that she would never be able to be just friends with Helen; she was finding herself very attracted to the small Scot. "That's just like you, innit Wade, going after the unavailable. 'Cause relationships aren't difficult enough without you setting yourself up, wanting to pursue one with a straight woman. Dozy cow! Just... just enjoy this for what it is," she tried to impress upon herself.

As Helen burrowed between the crisp sheets, she mulled over her evening with the intriguing Nikki Wade. The more time Helen spent with her, the more she found herself wondering why Nikki was on her own. Of course, the curfew - and the events that prompted it - had to be a bit of a challenge, but there she was: a successful businesswoman, intelligent, gorgeous... "If I were that way inclined, I'd be all over her. I've always had a type: tall, dark and handsome. Throw in quick-witted and well-read... Hmm, maybe I should chuck Sean over for her," she quipped to herself before quickly dozing off in a Stoli-induced slumber.

Helen was awoken at half past nine next morning by a gentle knocking on the door. It took a moment for her foggy brain to recognise that she was in Nikki's guest room. Her head was feeling surprisingly all right - not good, exactly, but not lethal. She pulled the sheet up over herself covering her ample breasts. "Come on in," she called.

Nikki entered the bedroom balancing a breakfast tray laden with goodies, looking freshly showered and dressed for the day. "A little something to soak up the last of the toxins!" she offered energetically. "And I've brought you a dressing gown. You can throw it on while I go back to the kitchen and get the other tray, unless you also like to eat your brekkie starkers?" Nikki teased, about to head out to collect her own tray.

"Nikki, just one thing I have to tell you before you go," Helen stopped her, "that - that is the most hideous dressing gown I've ever seen!" she laughed. "And what is that design? Oak leaves and, what, gravel?" She continued to howl heartily as she took in the patterned chartreuse and navy dressing gown on offer.

"Ah, but it's warm. Of course if you'd prefer to do without..." Nikki countered. "Or perhaps I could help you on with it?"

Having calmed down somewhat, Helen replied, "I think I can manage, ta." After Nikki reluctantly left the room, Helen made a move to put on the offending dressing gown. She took a moment to examine the tray Nikki had prepared: orange juice, white coffee, ham and scrambled, granary toast with a pot of marmalade, even some strawberries and purple grapes. The finishing touch was a small crystal vase with a single yellow rose. Helen made a quick dash to the loo before her hostess returned with an identical tray for herself – sans rose – and settled in beside Helen on the bed.

"Everything to your liking, Madam?" she asked assuming her pretentious waiter voice.

"Wha'? Grapes not peeled?" Helen parried.

Never at a loss, Nikki reproached dryly, "Fibre is your friend, Helen! Now tuck in!" Both women proceeded to do exactly that. "Did you sleep all right?" Nikki asked.

"Like the dead. If your guest bed is this luxurious, I'd love to feel what yours is like." Helen realised what she was saying as it was leaving her mouth but could do nothing to avert it.

Ever opportunistic, Nikki looked over at her, leering playfully, arching her eyebrows. "Anytime!" she purred. In the bright light of day, and with a significantly reduced amount of vodka in her bloodstream, Helen was less sure how she felt about Nikki's innuendoes. Nikki sussed this out for herself and decided she should ease off before she made Helen too uncomfortable. "So, what are your plans this afty?" Nikki chose a safe subject.

"I thought I'd pop into Tesco's to go the messages -"

"What? Run out of tomato sauce?"

Ignoring Nikki with a roll of her eyes, Helen went on, "And I thought I would get some Christmas shopping done."

"Hmm, speaking of, when I spoke to Sean last weekend, I suggested that you might like that gardening course I told you about, the one that starts in February. I put it out there as an idea for a Christmas gift from him. He didn't seem keen, told me that the garden wasn't exactly your field, so to speak," she flinched at her unintended pun, "that he liked it being his domain. I guess you'll have to drop some hints if that's still something you'd like, eh?"

"I could drop anvils! Gormless sod," Helen admitted uncharitably.

As they had both finished their breakfasts, Nikki clapped her hands together, "All right, time's getting on. You'll have to shift yourself if you want a shower before I send you on your merry way. Or we could have another coffee if you'd like to wait and have a wash at home. Up to you." Nikki looked at her watch.

"Och, no, I look like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards. I'd best shower here, if you don't mind?" Helen's observations did not miss the mark; her mahogany chin-length hair, usually perfectly sleek with a slight flip off her dramatic widow's peak, was going off in all directions. Nikki, for her part, found this dishevelled look of Helen's rather enchanting.

Resisting the urge to offer to wash Helen's back, Nikki reminded her that there was a fresh towel laid out for her. As Helen went into the bathroom to shower, Nikki headed to the kitchen to wash up the breakfast dishes. Those tasks accomplished, the two women reunited in Nikki's sitting room and each prepared to meet the world outside. "I really enjoyed all this, Nikki. And thanks again for the brekkie in bed. I have a confession: that was a first for me," Helen disclosed.

"Well, that's a disgrace. You need to date a better class of bloke. I'll give Sean a stern bollocking next time I see him." Nikki hesitated, "Thank you, Helen, for everything. I wasn't sure you'd be so, erm, open-minded about my situation, so, thanks. It meant, it means a lot," she added sincerely. Nikki, generally not very good at accepting that sort of generosity, was desperate to change the timbre of the conversation and commanded, "Now get out of here before I'm late for work! I'll call you this week, yeah?"

"Sounds good. Don't work too hard," Helen admonished in a slight singsong and with that each woman got into her vehicle and set about her day.


Part Seven

The next few weeks flew by for Nikki; she had two final exams to take, one in marketing and one in accounting, as well as a very busy Christmas rush at the shop. She and Helen managed to ring each other up two or three times a week thereby continuing to nurture their fledgling friendship. Sean's second 'Sod U' seminar was scheduled for the upcoming Saturday and Nikki found she was fiercely looking forward to seeing Helen, who had promised she would drive up with him, again. On the day Nikki was abashed at how much effort she put into getting ready to go to work, paying very close attention to her attire – a pair of low-rise black trousers with a clingy, lightweight red v-neck sweater layered over a black tee - and ironically spending twenty minutes to give her hair that 'just rolled out of bed' look.

Nikki had moved the monthly 'Nursery School' seminars to eleven o'clock to establish some continuity with her upcoming Pottering Around classes. Helen and Sean left their Maida Vale flat at half past ten. Helen was looking equally forward to getting together with Nikki again. While she did not spend as much time deliberating over her wardrobe as Nikki did, Helen did choose her outfit with Nikki in mind. She opted for a pair of dark jeans - which she knew flattered her backside - and a low-cut cobalt blue cashmere sweater – which flattered a couple of her other assets. Not that she was trying to wind Nikki up, but Helen could not deny that the other woman's attentions were good for her self-esteem. "Would it kill Sean to tell me I look nice now and again?" she wondered, "When he's no' after a shag, tha' is," she qualified, even her internal accent strengthening apace when she was irritated.

They arrived at The Potting Shed at ten to eleven and Helen headed directly to Nikki's office, Sean to his spot inside the shop where a crowd of eighteen or twenty had already assembled in anticipation of his talk on container gardening.

Nikki stubbed out her cigarette guiltily and came out from behind her desk when Helen arrived, moving to give her a warm hug. "Nice to see you, Helen. How've you been?"

Helen for her part was feeling like this was the awkward reunion she had dreaded. "I've been very well. You?" she turned it back on Nikki. "Oh, yeah, this is going well. Smashingly, even," she thought, dripping sarcasm. "Where's our easy rapport?"

"I've been well too. Very well," Nikki responded equally stiffly. "Erm, come on in. Take a seat." Never one to deceive herself – or others, if she could avoid it – Nikki broke the ice, "Well, this is bloody awkward... Fancy a snog, gorgeous?"

Helen, though oblivious to how Nikki always managed it, was nevertheless put right at ease and laughed openly. "No tongue!" she insisted.

"Well, never mind, then. What would be the point? Instead, you can entertain me with the 'Tales of Larkhall!'" Nikki added the inverted commas. "What news of Shell, Denny, the two Julies et al.? But first, you fancy a cuppa?" she offered.

"Coffee if you've got it. And, please, may I have the 'Where da hoes at?' mug?" Helen countered. "Tales of Larkhall... Well, I'm pleased to report no one's escaped this week, so we're calling it a success. My ongoing campaign is still on controlling drug use among the prisoners. Unfortunately, some shit stirrer sent the DST after a non-user. She was forced to submit to a strip search. Huge cock-up. New for the hindsight column: anything addressed to the DST has to go through my office. I knew she didn't use drugs and I am sorry I couldn't spare her that humiliation." Helen admitted. For her part Nikki was certain that if she had been serving her sentence on the inside, she could easily have been that humiliated prisoner. "Wha've you got?"

"Oh, well, my life's a whirlwind of adventure, innit? Out until all hours – either half seven or, on a good night, half nine – beaten into the ground by final exams and a Christmas run on all things for the garden." Nikki spoke quickly. "I've got a sale on garden gnomes, if you're interested..."

"Creepy wee things," Helen cut in.

"Yeah, they are, especially that one that Alex claims looks like me." Nikki herself failed to see the resemblance. "I'm happy to say that the Pottering Around class has been a good draw; it's almost full," she boasted.

"I heard. I signed up for it m'self, figuring if Sean wasn't going to get it for me... I bought it through Alex last week," Helen admitted proudly. "Sean's not the only one who'll have a say in what goes in my garden."

"Oh, Helen," Nikki pulled a face, "I wish you'd told me sooner; I was going to invite you to that class myself. On me."

"For God's sake, Nikki, you never tell a Scot that they could have had something free after they've already paid for it!" Helen rebuked, deliberately playing on her nation's stereotype.

"OK, then, I'll make you a deal: I'll pick up the tab for the first session and take the money you've already paid out and we'll put it toward the summer session, the one that starts in June. That way you're stuck in until at least autumn," Nikki reasoned.

"Agreed! And speaking of gifts, I picked you up a little prezzie for Christmas. I hope that's not odd..." Helen started cautiously. "Are we up to gifts?"

"I bloody hope so; I've got you a little something and all." The women each pulled out their gifts. As Nikki bent over to get Helen's gift out of a bag on the floor, Helen found herself inadvertently admiring the taller woman's backside. Standing back up Nikki suggested, "You first," not having noticed Helen's appreciative gaze.

"Sure," Helen agreed, composing herself and preparing to open her gift. "It's perfect; a wine journal!" Helen opened the cover and discovered a pair of tickets for an introductory 'Wines of the World' tasting seminar at The Winery in Maida Vale on Saturday, February 13. "Oh, Nikki, thank you," she enthused sincerely.

"So you can actually keep track of the wines you like," Nikki smiled.

"How thoughtful." Helen was astonished and touched that Nikki had remembered that short conversation. Inside the front cover of the journal Nikki had written, "So you never have to drink plonk again. N." Helen urged, "The second ticket is for you, of course."

"No, I – I wouldn't presume..." Nikki faltered, "Sean...?"

"Sean? Are you off your nut? Wine tasting's not really his thing, no," Helen admitted.

"Great! Well, what I thought was, if, if you had wanted me to use the second ticket, I thought, well, it's the first day of Pottering Around, so, I thought after class we could get lunch, y'know, so we'd have something in our stomachs before loading up on wine..." Nikki was stammering. "My, God, why can't I complete a thought?" she admonished to herself. "It's not like I'm asking her out on a date... Even if I were, I'm usually dead smooth... Jesus, Wade! Get a grip!" she went on silently. She took a deep breath to steady herself, deciding to shift focus of the conversation, "All right, gimme!" she implored jovially, holding out her right hand for her gift from Helen.

"Shall we add impatient to the list of things I'm learning about you?" Helen laughed, handing Nikki an envelope. Nikki's eyes lit up. "Is it a pony?" she asked ripping the envelope open. She read the card: "Christmas is a weird time of year. When else would you sit on your living room floor in front of a dead tree and eat candy out of your socks?" Nikki grinned. "Brilliant!" Inside the card she found a ticket to the matinee performance of 'On a Clear Day You Can See Forever' at the Bridewell Theatre on Wednesday, January 13. "Oh, Helen, this is fantastic. Thank you."

"I won't even pretend that I'm not going with you; I kept the second ticket. So, what I thought is, it's a Wednesday, we could both take a halfie, have lunch – on me - then get to the show. You'll still have plenty of time to get to get to your night class. I thought, well, I thought, because of your curfew, you didn't often, y'know... I thought it would be nice for you to actually get out. A meal and a play. Like a girls' night out, only by day..." Helen was stammering as much as Nikki had earlier. She had been concerned that Nikki would find her gift a tad presumptuous. She needn't have worried.

Nikki felt the prick of tears behind her eyes; she had lived under the shadow of her curfew for over a year and this was the very first time anyone had ever shown the slightest inclination to try to give her some sense of normality. That was the thing she missed more than anything: a night out on the town, drinks with the girls, even a simple film. She was deeply moved by Helen's gift. "I can't," she found that she had stammered more in the few weeks since she'd met Helen than in her entire life previously. "I can't tell you how much this means to me. I can hardly wait."

"Did you see the film with Barbara Streisand? Do you know anything about the show?" Helen asked.

"Not really, no," Nikki replied honestly, still incredibly touched by Helen's thoughtful gift.

"Well, it's a musical, was originally titled 'I picked a Daisy'. It's the story of a woman called Daisy, a gardener," she looked at Nikki pointedly, "who goes to a psychiatrist to help her quit smoking," she looked at Nikki even more pointedly. "Through hypnosis he regresses her to a past life, in the eighteenth century where she was called Melinda. Over the course of the hypnosis sessions the psychiatrist falls for Melinda, while, in turn, Daisy falls for him. Classic love triangle, eh?" she added wryly. "Fun venue as well, the Bridewell, Fleet Street. It was a Victorian bathhouse." Helen informed Nikki. "Did you know?"

"No, no, I didn't. I've never been. Actually, it's been a long while since I've been to the theatre at all. Sounds brilliant. And, really, thanks. It's perfect," she said almost shyly.

"Hang on, it's purely selfish, I assure you; I've been mad keen on getting to a show at the Bridewell for ages." Helen recognised that Nikki was overwhelmed and wanted to ease her discomfort. "So, what are you doing for Christmas?" she probed.

"Oh, very exciting plans - year end for the shop. I'm going to be backing up the entire year's accounts onto disc. Revenue, expenses, payroll..." she pronounced matter-of-factly.

"Ooh, very traditional," Helen retorted affably.

"What about you, then? Four generations of Stewarts standing around the fire singing carols and eating Christmas pudding? Bleedin' Norman Rockwell painting?" Nikki needled.

"So close, except it's the Parr family and it's less standing and singing and more drinking and rowing. It'll turn into a real slanging match, if last year's anything to go by. I'd just as soon be preparing my income tax! Truth be told, I'd just as soon shave my head with a cheese grater while chewing on tin foil... But we do what we must to keep the peace," she rationalised philosophically adding quietly, "I really can't stand Christmas."

"Why's that then? Too commercial? Father Christmas not bring you that Sindy doll you'd asked for when you were eight?" Nikki bantered.

"Something like that, yeah," Helen answered noncommittally. Knowing how open Nikki had been with her, it was with a sense of guilt that Helen held back, but the new friends were having such a good morning that Helen preferred to try to keep things light. Plus, she rationalised, she was having an excellent makeup day and was loath to spoil her face with tears. Nikki, always sensitive, and already especially so where Helen was concerned, obviously knew that there was something the small Scot was keeping from her. She was cut up - Helen knew almost everything about her, after all - and got a bit stroppy, "Mighta known... Kinnell! Friendship's a two-way street, innit? But I s'pose you've got Sean to talk to, so, yeah, what d'ya need me for?" Helen had noticed that when Nikki got cross, her speech tended to speed up and take on a tough, street-wise edge.

Duly chastised for withholding, Helen still could not bring herself to talk about her aversion to Christmas with Nikki. Not that day. "Look, it's not like I'm trying to keep anything from you, Nikki. It's just, it's family, it's complicated-"

"It's none of my business..." Nikki groused.

"Would you just shut up and let me finish! It's family, it's complicated and it will require a longer chat than we have time for now. Plus I've a touch of PMT so there'd likely be tears and, frankly, I'm having far too nice a time to want to put us through that right now, if you don't mind!" What Helen did not want Nikki to know was that she had not cried in front of anyone since she was twelve years old; the very thought terrified her.

"Fine. I'll be sure to hold you to it." Nikki was still petulant, then relented with a sigh, "No, I won't. You'll tell me if and when you want to. No more emotional blackmail, I swear. Or I'll try. Okay, I swear I'll try," Nikki smiled impishly.

Helen laughed and shook her head. "Stubborn mare."

"I know you are, but what am I?" Nikki sang out.

"Stubborn, sad, childish mare..." Helen amended shaking her head playfully. She took a quick glance at her watch and cursed, "Shit! Is that noon already? I almost wish I'd brought my own car so we could chat longer, but..."

"Probably for the best. Any other time I'd be happy to have you," Nikki wiggled her eyebrows seductively at her slip of the tongue, "I mean, I'd be happy to take you," Fine, that one was intentional, "I mean, I'd be happy to drive you home later, but it's two weeks 'til Christmas and, I know you'll be shocked to hear, those garden gnomes aren't going to sell themselves. I have to stick around the shop, pretty much until Christmas. Come on, though, I'll - reluctantly - hand you back to Sean. You can have yourselves some quality 'we' time," she finished, envying the hell out of Sean.

"No such luck - Arsenal's playing Chelsea this afternoon; he's meeting up with the lads at the pub. I suppose I could get some Christmas decorations and fairy lights up. Not really something I fancy, though. I do it for him - the least he could do is muck in. If it were up to me the decorations would stay in their box, but..." Helen shook her head, "Right, more on that later. I should go."

"Right, off with you! And, Helen, thank you again for the gift. It was very thoughtful."

"I guess we have a couple of dates over the next little while. We'd better be careful; people'll start to talk."

Helen smiled flirtatiously and Nikki's heart flipped. She also felt something stirring a just little lower. Trying not to think about that she walked Helen out to the car park where they met up with Sean (the Yawn, as Nikki was now ungraciously referring to him – "dull as dishwater, that one"). The women gave each other a quick kiss on the cheek with yet more thanks for their presents and a promise to talk soon, though they knew they likely would not see each other until the new year. Sean climbed into the driver's seat while Nikki opened the passenger door to allow Helen in. The partners drove off leaving Nikki resenting Sean just a little bit more. "Jammy git. Fine, she can have him and their straight life, but I'll show her what it's like to be treated like a lady, if he won't. What's gonna be wrong with that?" she thought as she inhaled deeply from her cigarette.


Part Eight

The last two weeks before Christmas flew by for Nikki. She thought both of her exams had gone quite well and she spent every moment she could – when she was not under curfew, that is – at the Potting Shed driving up the sale of garden gnomes. When she opened the shop the previous year she was surprised by how brisk the Christmas sales were and was left having to top up her inventory dramatically in order to make it through the spring. Not only had she been forced to pay almost double for her product - because it was getting so close to planting season - she was harried, feeling like she was playing catch up almost through the autumn. She was much better prepared this time around, though she may have ordered a few too many gnomes.

She spent her evenings as she had planned, preparing her taxes. She even found some time to read for pleasure, a treat that had been in short supply since her business courses had begun. At about six o'clock Christmas night she climbed into the tub for a soak, a read and a glass of red wine, not climbing out until her book was done. At a quarter past seven she was out and dry and deciding on a new book title when there was a knock at her front door. Popping her book selection on the coffee table Nikki went to answer the door wondering who on earth would be calling on her Christmas night.

"Helen! What are you doing here? I thought you were at Sean's parents?" She swung the door wide open to invite Helen in, offering to relieve her of her jacket and the foil container she was carrying.

"Hiya, happy Christmas. What happened was: well, we ate early, then they got into the brandy and the rows started. It was a right hoo-ha. And all that aggro made me think of you," Helen teased. She added, "I realised I missed you, Nikki, and hated to think of you on all your own so I made some excuses and here I am. But, mostly, I'd had my fingers crossed that I would get to see that sexy dressing gown again," eying Nikki's hideous cover-up.

Nikki had forgotten she was even wearing it and laughed along with Helen. "I think I'll go and slip into something a little less comfortable. Make yourself to home. There's wine open in the kitchen, vodka in the freezer. Help yourself. I'll just be a mo." Nikki headed off to her bedroom, Helen to the kitchen, placing the foil pack she had brought with her on the countertop and pouring a glass of wine.

Nikki hurried to get dressed, cursing as she ran a hand through her still wet hair thinking she looked a right mess. She threw on a pair of jeans and a white, crushed cotton, button-front shirt, added a slash of colour to her shapely lips and checked her hair yet again before heading back to her sitting room, meeting up with Helen on the way.

Helen did not fail to take in Nikki's appearance, noticing that she had even applied some lipstick. She smiled to herself, touched that the other woman thought it was necessary to go to the trouble. "Did you eat? I had Sean's mum fix you up with some dinner: turkey, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and swede, gravy, cranberry, stuffing, even some pudding... Probably get you through 'til, dunno, Thursday?" Helen offered. "Should still be warm."

"Well, I had a tin of soup," Nikki admitted sheepishly.

"Soup? Hmph, I'll dish you up a plate," Helen got up and went back to the kitchen. "How's your wine?"

"Fine, thanks," Nikki called back.

"Do you want to eat at the table?" Helen asked carrying a loaded plate, "Or do you eat in the sitting room?"

"I'm a single woman; I eat where I bloody please," Nikki smirked. "The coffee table's fine, thanks. Unless you want to serve it to me in bed? Turnabout's fair play... Are you having anything?"

"A sassy Spanish rioja. Wish I had my journal. Tuck in. I'll just stare at you while you're eating." Helen flashed her sexy smile. "I hope you don't have any performance anxiety."

"Oh, I can perform; don't you worry," Nikki leered. Helen decided to poke through the bookshelves while Nikki finished her dinner – about a third of what was on her plate. The tall woman cleared her dish away, bringing the wine bottle out from the kitchen. Helen had found the book Nikki had decided to read next laying on the coffee table.

"Romeo and Juliet, I'm impressed."

"Juliet and Juliet would be more my cup of tea..." the taller woman mused thoughtfully.

"Have you never been interested in men?" Helen prised, thinking the time had come to ask.

Undaunted by Helen's enquiry, Nikki responded easily, "Not my flavour, no."

"Well, I just thought..." Helen faltered.

Nikki almost laughed at Helen's discomfiture. "What? That I just hadn't found the right one? No, they do nothing for me," she insisted.

"Well then, how can you be sure?" Despite her own confusion, Helen envied how comfortable Nikki always was in her own skin.

"Same way as you are," Nikki looked at Helen pointedly, "if you are..."

Helen laughed, avoiding looking at Nikki. "I've never been interested in women, not in that way."

"You ought to give it a go sometime; you don't know what you're missing," Nikki raised her eyebrows flirtatiously handing Helen a well-thumbed copy of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Helen turned away again, unwilling to acknowledge the effect Nikki's come-on had had on her, even to herself. Especially to herself. She reshelved the book.

"Isn't Sean going to be upset that you left?" Nikki wanted to know.

"Sean's fine. He didn't need me there and I certainly didn't need to be there. It's funny how you can feel lonely in a room full of people... So, I came here. I'm using you to ease that loneliness, so as you know. You're doing me a huge favour," Helen admitted honestly.

"You're more than welcome anytime, I hope you know that. Though if I'm, erm, entertaining, I'll just tie a scarf to the front door handle, yeah?" Helen felt a twinge of – could it have been - jealousy? Nikki then explained with faux condescension, "There is more than one way to stave off loneliness, Helen... A little more wine?"

"I could murder a voddy!" Helen seemed to be steeling herself for something.

"'Course. I'll be right back." She returned with a couple glasses and a chilled bottle of Stoli. "Happy Christmas, Helen," Nikki toasted.

"Enough of the third degree! I give up!" Helen held up her hands in mock surrender, trying to make light of a very difficult topic. "I'm ready to open up all the old scars and tell you why I hate Christmas, if you want to hear."

"If you want to tell me, that's great, but, Helen, I don't want you to feel you have to. I know I pressed the other day, but I was wrong," Nikki insisted.

Essentially ignoring Nikki's protests, Helen started, "Some of my greatest childhood memories are from Christmastime: my mother making cranberry sauce - from scratch - the sound of the cranberries exploding, the smell of turkey roasting, trimming the tree with kitsch homemade ornaments, my mother's face when she opened my gift, no matter how ridiculous... When I was eleven, my mother fell ill - breast cancer - and the next year she passed away. And I've never got back that, that joy of Christmas. Don't think I ever could." She paused, looking backwards through time. "Lavender vanilla bath salts. That's what I got her for Christmas that year, because she liked to have a soak. Her treatments took so much out of her, but the tub, I don't know, made her happy. I... I never got to give her her gift." Helen who had managed to get through most of her monologue dry-eyed, stood up abruptly to go to the loo to get a tissue before Nikki could see her cry. She stayed there about four minutes, but just as Nikki was starting to grow concerned, came out, fresh-faced and continued her story, "My father's a minister with the Kirk. After Mum died, Christmas lost its wonder. We wouldn't decorate the house except with nativity scenes. He packed away all our secular decorations. No Father Christmas, no snowmen... Reverend James Stewart was no George Bailey," she added bitterly, referencing the actor James Stewart's most famous role.

"God, I am so sorry, to lose your mum at such a young age, but, Helen, it sounds like she loved Christmas. Wouldn't she want you to keep celebrating it, like you did when she was alive?" Nikki asked gently. "Her legacy to you?"

"But I can't! Don't you see? It's still too difficult. And then I have to go to the Parr Family Christmas, and pretend that I'm okay, that 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!'" she sang bitterly. "I feel safe here, like I don't have to pretend."

"'Course you don't. Ever. Just be nicer if it weren't pretend, if we could get you that joy back," Nikki persisted.

"Says the woman sitting home alone Christmas night eating soup. Very convincing," Helen scoffed.

"Sarcasm accomplishes nothing, Helen," Nikki pointed out, a wry smile touching her lips.

"Sort of an end in itself, actually," the small Scot answered dryly. "What about your family, Nikki?"

"Can't we ever just have an easy chat? Talk about basic bollocks? The weather or films?" Stalling Nikki rambled on, "'Course I'm not that au fait with current films. I am looking forward to East Is East coming to video, though... What was the question? Family, right. Quick story: I've an older brother, parents kicked me out when I was sixteen, didn't approve of my lifestyle, if you know what I mean. Haven't spoken with them since. I get enough prejudice from ignorant tossers without having to put up with it at home," Nikki finished dispassionately.

"So you haven't spoken to your parents in, what, eighteen years?" Helen was dismayed. "My relationship with my father is strained, but I don't know how I'd feel if I thought I'd never see him again. And if Mum were around..." She let that thought trail off.

"Family, eh? Speaking of, is Sean's family expecting you back tonight or are we making up the spare room?" Nikki enquired hopefully.

"Go back to that argie bargie? I hardly think so. You're stuck with me, that is, if you'll have me."

"If I'll have you? In my dreams, love!" Nikki raised her eyebrows suggestively.

Shaking her head Helen responded, "I thought tomorrow we could brave the crowds and check out the Boxing Day sales, if you're up for it? You're not opening the shop, are you?"

"No, our hours are our hours. Post holiday clearance can wait until Monday. Boxing Day sales, eh? Like a rugby match without the manners. I might be able to pick up a new video machine for when East is East does come out. All right, I'm in! Maybe we should pack it in now so we can try to get an early start. D'you reckon?" Nikki proposed. Helen agreed and the two women prepared themselves for bed. Nikki went to the kitchen to fill up a couple glasses with water. She delivered one to Helen asking her if there was anything else she needed before bed.

"No, I don't think so. Though if I'm going to be a frequent visitor, you'll have to stop waiting on me like this, Nikki," Helen chided.

Nikki just shrugged noncommittally; it was simply in her nature to be gallant. "I'm not treating you like a guest, just... tending to your needs," Nikki retorted matter-of-factly. "All right, then. Goodnight, Helen. And thank you so much for coming by tonight."

"Even you need to be tended to now and again. Goodnight."

"Well, if you have any other needs that need tending to..." she could not resist.

At the unconcealed leer on Nikki's face, Helen shot quickly, "Leave it! Happy Christmas, Nikki."

"Happy Christmas."

Almost to herself Helen continued, "Yeah, actually it was."

Boxing Day was a success: Nikki found herself a new combination video machine and DVD player and Helen picked up a new answerphone. The cassette on the old one had been giving her trouble and, with the reduced Boxing Day prices, she found it almost as inexpensive to pick up a new digital machine with a microchip. They had a late lunch after which Nikki unenthusiastically drove Helen back to Sean's parents' house to collect her car. They parted company promising to talk later in the week.

As per Nikki's prediction, the post-holiday clearance at the Potting Shed was busy, gnomes flying off the shelves. Because there were no Uni courses being offered that week, she had more time to spend at the shop and did so, not leaving until after nine o'clock Monday and Wednesday nights. She was bogged down in the creation of a budget for the following year, having got a good jump on her 1998 year end paperwork before Christmas. New Year's Eve arrived and with it all the promise for a new beginning; Nikki found herself more optimistic than she'd been in well over a year. Since Gossard there had been the worry that she would always have to live under the stigma 'killer', that, when people found out, they would reject her out of hand. She had already suffered enough rejection in her life and was loath to be set up for more. When she met Helen things changed: here was a woman who not only did not reject her, but with whom Nikki connected almost immediately, a woman who honestly seemed to care about her - as a friend, of course, a fact that simultaneously overjoyed and disappointed Nikki. She mused over these insights intermittently throughout the evening as she sat at home, alone, trying to concentrate on finishing Romeo and Juliet. She fell asleep reading in front of the fire and was awakened rather unceremoniously by the shrill ringing of the telephone. "Hello," she answered, trying to disguise her sleepy voice.

"Happy New Year!" enthused Helen's voice from down the wire.

"Is it midnight already? The party's barely in full swing over here," she joked. "Happy New Year! Tell me you're on your way to give me my New Year's kiss!"

"No' tonight, I'm afraid. Bu' I'll take ya up on it next time," Helen flirted easily.

Nikki recognised that Helen was "full of the spirits of the season," she smirked at her own obvious pun, and so took the Scot's playfulness for what it was. More than happy to play along, Nikki countered, "I'll hold you to it – with interest: one hundred percent per day."

"Did you say that you had some interest in kissing me?" Helen quipped.

"Some, yeah," she said to herself. Aloud she bantered, "Now, I don't know if I'll be seeing you before the thirteenth. That'll accrue a lot of interest, so, if you want to pay it back in one lump sum, y'know, one long snog instead of a lot of little kisses... Whatever's easier for you..."

"I'll let you know. All right, Nikki, I just wanted to wish you Happy New Year. I hope you get everything you wish for in '99." Helen was fading. "Sleep well. I'll talk to you soon."

"Happy New Year, Helen. Look, I'm not very good at this sort of thing, but thanks for thinking to ring me. Thanks a lot." As Nikki hung up she lit a cigarette, mulling over the implications of getting everything she wished for in 1999.


Part Nine

January started out very busy for Helen as she redoubled her efforts to implement her anti-drug campaign on the wing, much to the dismay of inmates and officers alike. Jim Fenner insisted that drugs were an effective way to, "Keep 'em calm; keep 'em quiet," and continued to fight Helen's attempts at every turn. Helen knew that while Hollamby's suggestion of closed visits to keep drugs from getting inside might prove efficacious, it would ultimately be determined to be impractical, causing the prisoners to kick off and plausibly start a riot.

Nikki took advantage of her ongoing Christmas hiatus from classes at the university and spent her evenings finishing her year-end accounting and trying to get a head start on her upcoming IT for Business and Intro to Business Law courses. She found herself wishing she had opted to take something a little less ambitious, possibly another accounting or a finance course. She was, however, pleased with how smoothly things were running at the Potting Shed; she was confident she finally had the right staff in place. She continued to talk to Helen regularly and found herself eagerly awaiting their upcoming afternoon at the theatre. She decided not to go in to the shop at all that day – for the first time since she had opened it. She had a bit of a lie in (until half seven!), went for a good jog, took a long, leisurely shower and ate a light breakfast. She did do a little Potting Shed work - the staff still needed to be paid, after all - and deliberated what she should wear to the show.

A two minute walk from the Bridewell, Helen had chosen Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street for lunch. She knew it was one of the few pubs in London that could justify the 'Ye Olde' in its name. It was well known as far back as the 17th century. She had done a bit of research into the neighbourhood the previous week trying to decide where Nikki might like to eat. She understood that sometimes it can be nice to play tourist in your own city. Entering the Cheshire Cheese she immediately thought, "It's like walking into a Dickens novel. She'll love it." Helen had enquired at work as well to see if anyone had any menu critiques and had heard nothing but positive reviews. The two women decided to meet at the pub at one o'clock. Helen, as was her way, was running a couple of minutes late and arrived to find Nikki smoking, propping up the wood panelled front bar and looking extremely smart in a fitted black Armani trouser suit with a grey silk shirt. Nikki could not fail to notice Helen as she walked in wearing a tailored black skirt, cut just above the knee, highlighting her perfect legs and a collarless black leather jacket over a low-cut red tee shirt. The tall woman could not help but enjoy the view. Helen made her way over to Nikki who stubbed out her cigarette guiltily. The two exchanged a quick kiss on the cheek and then headed into the Chop Room across the corridor. They took their seats and each ordered a Sam Smith Bitter as they opened their menus. The server arrived with their pints and Nikki ordered 'Ye Famous Pudding (steak, kidney, mushrooms and game)' while Helen set herself up for disappointment, she was sure, opting for the 'Scottish Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding'. Neither woman was especially disappointed, either with their meal or with the company. Gone was the initial awkwardness which had historically plagued their previous encounters; they fell in as though they had known each other all their lives, catching up on each other's news with the amiable banter which had come to symbolise their friendship. They almost lost track of time and found themselves running to the theatre at ten to three, rushing to reach their seats just before the curtain went up.

Following the performance at about half past five, the two women made their way back to Fleet Street, where they had left their cars, chatting amicably about the play. "I wasn't sure how they'd manage a musical based on psychiatry, but I've gotta say I was impressed. And I thought Jenna Russell was brilliant in the two roles," Nikki started.

"And I thought the songs were first-rate," Helen added.

"Yeah, I really liked 'On the S.S. Bernard Cohn' and 'She Wasn't You'," Nikki agreed.

"And 'He Isn't You'. I liked the love triangle theme, but No Exit it wasn't. Not nearly cruel enough. Do you fancy popping back into the pub for one before your class?" Helen suggested.

"And she knows Sartre," Nikki thought. "You may just be the perfect woman..." she accidently said aloud.

"I've often thought so," Helen teased.

Laughing, Nikki answered, "Sure, one quick drink, yeah? My class doesn't start until a quarter to seven. They ducked back into Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and managed to get a seat by the coal fire in the lounge bar. They ordered another bitter and nattered while they drank. At twenty past six they had finished their pints. "Well, I should get a wriggle on if I'm going to make it to class. I can't thank you enough for this afternoon. I wish I didn't have to go, but it's probably best not to miss the first lecture of the term." Nikki made to get up and Helen followed suit, collecting her leather jacket from where she had hung it on her chair back when she had grown too warm by the stove. The women headed for the door and parted company pledging to talk to each other soon.


Part Ten

The friends did manage to speak on the telephone at least two or three times a week but the business of life inevitably seemed to find a way to interfere with their meeting up in person. Nikki realised that she had an uphill battle in front of her if she wanted to maintain her first class honours status at the university. While she was by no means an illiterate with the computer, the IT course introduced her to many programmes with which she was unfamiliar, and, if her computer language skills were somewhat lacking, her familiarity with legal jargon was entirely absent. It took her the first month of classes to get into the rhythms of her new courses, but once she had cottoned on to the key concepts within each, her keen mind prevailed. The Potting Shed was requiring more of Nikki's attentions as well. Because Nikki forbade any holidays at Christmas, much of her staff chose the months of January and February to go abroad, leaving Nikki to cover their absences. Though extremely busy, Nikki always seemed to find the time to think about and miss her contact with Helen. Weekends tended to be the worst especially Sundays when, during the winter, the shop was closed.

Helen, for her part, was fortunate not to have to bring her work home with her - not physically, that is. Emotionally was another matter and on that count she was lumbered with responsibilities. Her campaign for a drug-free G-Wing, while still in its relative infancy, was a slow trudge. About half of all women arriving in prison have been dependent on drugs in the previous twelve months. Helen was quick to recognise that they would do just about anything to get their fix. Of greater concern were the non-users who suddenly found themselves awash in a sea of drugs and at a time when they were at their most vulnerable. Prisoners, especially women in prison for the first time, separated from their children, looked for something – anything – to make their time inside bearable, some type of escape. Sean proved to be no help to Helen's state of mind. She came to understand that men do not seem to understand a woman's need to vent, so at such times he could not help but try to rescue his damsel in distress, "Hel, if you can't hack it, there are other less stressful jobs: bomb squad, air traffic controller... You don't need to work for the damn Prison Service." Helen for her part was astounded that - three years into their relationship - Sean still seemed quite unaware just how stubborn she could be. He also had no idea how important her job was to her; it was her chance to implement changes that could one day overhaul the entire system. "Look, I know the prisoners are important to you, Helen -" The ringing telephone interrupted him. "Hello?" Pause. "Just a minute." He covered the mouthpiece, "And because you just don't have enough contact with cons at work..." he said sarcastically, handing the phone to Helen. "That one's becoming an obsession," he finished almost under his breath. Helen overheard his comment, pulled a puzzled face and took the phone to speak with Nikki.

The women spoke for nearly three quarters of an hour and by the end of their conversation Helen found herself feeling much better about everything she had already achieved at Larkhall. Sean spent that time pacing through the flat getting quite stroppy, ready to go off on one. When Helen rang off he started, "Jesus, Hel! I thought we were supposed to be having a quiet evening just the two of us. Now half the night's gone: first with you going off about work and now almost an hour with that Nikki Wade. I mean, I'm just coming into my slow season with the business. Is it too much to ask that we try to spend some extra time together now it's here?" He eventually softened, "I'd almost be jealous, but I know you; you prefer your gardeners to wear y-fronts. Hmm?" He decided he might as well try to use Helen's guilt to his advantage, "Fancy a shag?" Apparently Helen was not feeling all that guilty and shook her head "no" before stepping to the kitchen to pour herself a small measure of vodka.

Helen had noticed that Sean had been whinging since his slowdown started: his chief complaints were that Helen was spending too much time at the prison and that, when she was home, she was too bog tired to want to do anything. Helen was growing tired of his interminable complaining. "He's really acting like a big girl's blouse. I dunno how I'm meant to put up with this wet, needy grizzler – and for the next two months! 'You never take me anywhere. We never spend time together'," she put on a whiny, though inaccurate, approximation of Sean's voice in her head. "I'll have to put a stop to it before he hauls me off to bed to cuddle! Maybe I'm not being fair. I suppose I could give it a laldy, spend more time trying to be the dutiful partner, anyway," she decided.

Part 11

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