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 lumar12[at]telus.net

The Potting Shed
By Christie


Part Eleven

Except one day mid month when London saw frost, the second half of January was mild, though wet, with temperatures mostly above seasonal. February arrived dry and mild, though cold temperatures struck in the second week. There was a centimetre of snow on the ground the morning of the ninth after which temperatures rose again and the sun came out. Nikki was hoping that this more recent weather pattern would prove auspicious for her planting season: firstly, nice weather was better for business and, secondly, she was starting up her first beginner gardening course and thought that the rooftop garden she planned on having her class design would have a greater chance of flourishing if it weren't under water. "Save hydroponic gardening for the intermediate class next year," she thought wryly. She was very excited when she got up on the morning of February 13 and not only because it was the first day for the Pottering Around class; it had been a full month since she had set eyes on Helen. They had, of course, spoken regularly over the phone, but today they actually had plans! After class they were going out for lunch and then off to the wine tasting Nikki had given Helen for Christmas. Nikki had chosen The Cedar in Maida Vale, a Lebanese restaurant which had got great reviews which she hoped were warranted.

Nikki spent the early part of her morning doing last minute preparations for her class. She smoked a last, nerve-calming cigarette and by ten to eleven she had set up the props she needed. Most of her class participants – not surprisingly, all women - had already arrived, eager to get their hands dirty. In fact all were in attendance except Helen. Nikki had no reason to believe that Helen would not be joining them. Indeed, she had spoken to her Thursday night and The petite Scot seemed excited about beginning the course. Nikki could delay no further and began the class at exactly eleven. Apologising profusely, a flustered Helen hurried in at four minutes after. "Not to worry, Helen; I've just been talking crap," Nikki told her. Seeing the smaller woman's strange look Nikki continued, "Today's class is all about preparing your garden with fertiliser." Helen joined the others in a laugh and settled into a spot within the group.

Helen was impressed with Nikki's composure as she addressed the room full of women. She spoke easily, obviously very passionate and knowledgeable, answering questions clearly and thoroughly, injecting humour into her talk, ensuring that everyone was engaged and equally involved in the hands on practice. The hour passed swiftly and a few of the women stayed late to ask Nikki some more questions. Nikki offered the use of her office so Helen could have a quick change out of her gardening clothes and promised to be along directly. In a concerted effort to save time, Nikki had chosen simply to wear overalls to cover and protect her outfit. She caught up with Helen at twelve fifteen. "So, have we still got time to drop my car off at mine before we head to Maida Vale?" Nikki asked.

"So long as we don't have a two hour lunch, I think we'll be fine. Good class today, Nikki, but then I've always said no one can talk crap quite as well as you," Helen joked.

"And I missed you because...?" Nikki quipped. "All right, I know you could probably make your way there, but follow me to be on the safe side."

"Just don't drive like Mario Andretti this time; I'd like to get there in one piece and, honestly, I can't have any more penalty points on my driving licence."

"Learning new things about you again. Got a bit of a heavy foot, yeah?" Nikki was amused.

"It may surprise you to learn, but I sometimes find myself running late for appointments," Helen explained unnecessarily.

"That reminds me, we've pushed up the times of the classes by fifteen minutes: Saturdays' classes will start at quarter to eleven and Tuesdays' at quarter to six," Nikki fibbed.

"Don't hand me that bullshit, Wade! I can see right through you," Helen scolded in clipped tones while delivering a playful slap to Nikki's forearm.

Flustered by the spirited Scot's flirtatious touch, Nikki nonetheless managed a cheeky, "Worth a shot... Miss. See you at the house." With that the women got into their cars and drove off.

Ten minutes later they were in Helen's red Peugeot and heading to Maida Vale. "Seems a bit odd for me to be choosing the restaurant in your neighbourhood. If you'd like to just go to your local..." Nikki offered.

"No, not at all. Where have you chosen?"

"The Cedar on Fernhead Road?" Nikki framed it as a question. "I hope you like Lebanese. You've probably eaten there dozens of times, but-"

"Actually, never. Sean's a pub guy; he doesn't much go in for anything more adventurous than a curry," Helen assured her. "I've been dead keen to try it. You'll have to help me with the menu though."

They pulled up to the restaurant just before one o'clock. Nikki held the door open, inviting Helen to enter in front of her. The only thing for which Nikki was grateful to her parents was her respectful upbringing; she knew how to treat Helen like a lady. "Who says chivalry's dead?" she thought. The women were greeted by the enticing smell of warm spices and an even warmer smile from their hostess as she led them to a small table. A little pressed for time, they quickly opened their menus and ordered a couple sparkling waters. They decided to share some starters - sfeeha baalbakieh, an oven baked pastry stuffed with minced lamb crushed tomatoes & onion with pine kernels, and moudardara, a cold dish of lentils & rice cooked in olive oil & spices with a caramelised onion topping – and an order of shish taouk, marinated chicken fillets on skewers. They chatted amiably enjoying every morsel of their meal. They even had time for a quick mint tea before having to drive Helen's car home. They had decided to walk from her flat to The Winery so they would not have to worry about driving after the tasting. Nikki had already decided to spare no expense and take a cab back to her house in Crouch End. At times like those Nikki found herself bemoaning the fact that her house was, in fact, in the 'back of beyond' as Helen had previously pointed out.

The two companions had a delightful and informative time at the wine tasting. Helen found she enjoyed the French pinot noirs while Nikki favoured the somewhat heavier Argentinean Cabernets. They were both feeling quite sozzled when the two-hour tasting was done. Helen was pleased she had remembered her wine journal and took fairly extensive notes. Both women had ordered themselves a case of wine which Helen was going to collect Monday, seeing as they had no vehicle with them. She assured Nikki she would bring hers to class on Tuesday.

Helen gladly took Nikki's proffered arm, rolling her eyes as Nikki lit a cigarette, and they tottered back to Helen's flat where it was decided that Nikki should come in for coffee. She readily acquiesced admitting to herself that she had been curious to see Helen's home for a good long while. She was not disappointed; it was cosy and inviting with its ochre walls and indirect lighting. Nikki felt almost at home. She then saw some reminders that Sean occupied the same space – a footballer's jersey hanging by the front door along with a pair of trainers obviously too large for Helen – and felt her heart grow heavy. Swallowing her envy, Nikki chose to be high-minded and asked after him.

"He's doing a quotation this afternoon. A pretty big project, if he gets it. He should be home soon, I imagine," Helen answered.

"Perhaps I should be off then," Nikki suggested.

"Och, don't be daft. I'm sure he'll be well pleased to see you. He'll probably head straight for the telly anyway." The women had chosen to enjoy their coffee in the comfort of Helen's warm eat-in kitchen. Conversation flowed freely and eventually talk turned to Larkhall as Nikki asked how the wedding had gone. "It didn't. As the Julies were making Zandra a lovely dress – an impressive feat given the limited materials they had to work with – Monica showed me an engagement announcement. Zandra's fiancé, Robin-"

"Sorry? Robin?" Nikki smirked. "Oh, this is much more interesting then. I had thought Zandra was marrying a man," she went on. "I wouldn't have thought Her Majesty's Prisons would go in for that sort of thing..."

Helen mostly chose to ignore her, "There was an announcement in the paper that he was engaged to someone else, someone his parents found more suitable than Zandra. And Zandra had just found out she was pregnant. Must've happened right before she got to Larkhall. When Robin called off their wedding, she decided to have an abortion. So we booked that and, short staffed already, I had to send two officers to hospital with her only to have her decide not to terminate." Helen rolled her eyes. "A right load of paperwork there."

"Any new interesting prisoners?" Nikki enquired, ever curious, never for a moment forgetting that she could have been one of them; in fact, the Prison Service even refers to someone serving their sentence on an electronic tag as a prisoner.

"Just one, really: Crystal Gordon, a persistent shoplifter sentenced to twelve months. Very religious. I'm hoping to enlist her in my anti-drug campaign. We'll see. And you? How're your courses? Your work with the support group?"

"The IT gets easier the more I practice; thank God I've got so much free time in the evenings, eh? I think I'm getting a grip on the legal twaddle as well. My volunteering went less well this week: an eight year old girl sexually abused by her uncle. I'm sick thinking about it. What's worse is that, even if the bastard goes to prison, he'll be protected, but I guess you know all about that, Helen. How do you live with shit like that?" Nikki was getting worked up.

"Rule 43," Helen sighed.

"You wha'?" Helen's words held no meaning for Nikki.

"It's a comprehensive rule that basically says that an inmate can be sent down the block for his or her own safety or to preserve order on the wing," Helen clarified.

"Even if he should be hung up by his bollocks? He raped a little girl! Let the cons sort it." Nikki was adamant, "No one protected her. How's that justice?"

"Don't be naive, Nikki; prison's not about justice." Helen tried to explain, "Look, here I am working on making things better for the prisoners on G-Wing, but that means all prisoners. If I sacrifice the rights of any single one, it compromises the rights of all."

"Even nonces? Can't you just turn a blind eye, let the other cons at him, or I guess her, at 'playtime?'" Nikki had heard Helen use this designation.

"Don't think I'm not tempted but, no, they're still prisoners in my care and I have a responsibility to them. I can't allow myself to dwell on what any of the inmates are in for. I'm talking 'bout murder, torture, GBH... I wouldn't be able to function. My job's not to judge them; it's to try to help them cope within the system and to prepare them for when they get out, if they get out, to reduce the risk of them reoffending." It was obvious that Helen had given this subject a lot of thought. "We can't do anything to help that wee bairn - I wish we could - but we work towards preventing him hurting any others, so don't go off at me, Nikki. Hopefully someday there'll be a better system but for now I have to work within this one." Helen asserted fiercely.

"Sorry, Helen, I didn't mean to lace into you. It's just such an emotional subject. Working with sexual abuse victims is heartbreaking enough but when they're just kids... Their lives are changed forever." Nikki shook her head. "It seems like we both come to it too late, after the damage is done."

"And we do what we can from that point; we cannae go backwards in time," Helen added philosophically.

Sean chose that moment to arrive home and Nikki, for her part, never would have imagined that she could be quite so pleased to see him. "Oh, hiya, Nikki. Didn't know you'd be here. How was the wine do?" he asked leaning in to give Helen a quick peck. Nikki had to look away.

Turning back towards him, she nodded enthusiastically. "Very nice. We've signed up for another next month – Champagne, bubbles and sweets," she divulged. "Look, I should probably shoot off, leave you two to your evening. Helen, can you call me a cab?"

"No, don't go yet. Have another coffee then I'll have sobered up enough to drive you. You don't mind, d'you, Sean? We were just having a wee blether. You can take in the end of the match against Newcastle," Helen proposed. "I'll drive Nikki then I can pick us up a Chinese on my way home."

"Sure, yeah. You two have a nice chinwag." A little put out, Sean went off to the front room and turned on the television.

"I suppose I should thank him for stopping me making a total bollocks of our afternoon. You know me, Helen, as long as my gob's open I'm gettin' into trouble," Nikki shrugged.

"Mum used to say, 'A closed mouth gathers no feet'. It never really made a lot o' sense to me – 'til I met you, tha' is," Helen teased. Further arguments averted, the women prattled on civilly until a quarter to seven at which time they reluctantly made their way out to Helen's car. Twenty three minutes later they arrived at Nikki's Crouch End house. As she parked the car Helen thanked Nikki for a "barrie afternoon."

"That means good, yeah?" Nikki asked dryly.

"Blinding!" Helen assured her with the Stewart patented sexy smile, causing Nikki's stomach to flip as it unfailingly did.

"Thanks for driving me home, Helen. Truthfully, I wasn't relishing the cab ride home, well, the thirty quid it was going to set me back," Nikki confessed. The two sat for a long moment. "I suppose I should get in before the blues-and-twos show up to take me away... I had a 'barrie' afternoon as well." Nikki smiled and leant in to give Helen a kiss on the cheek, lingering a little longer than necessary before alighting from the car. "Drive carefully, yeah? I'll see you Tuesday," she finished, closing the car door and climbing the steps to her house. Once inside she thought about her day and her relationship with Helen; she had become aware that the casual flirting between herself and the comely Scot had waned over the previous few weeks and she also knew why: there was no longer anything casual about her feelings for Helen... She was falling head over heels - no matter how hard she fought it.


Part Twelve

The two friends fell into a routine: a few phone calls through the week plus a quick lunch after Saturday classes. On Tuesdays Helen would accompany Nikki to her house where they would have a glass of wine or a vodka and a catch up. They never drank too much and Helen was always able to drive home. Much as Nikki would have delighted in her overnight company, they both had to work early on Wednesdays. On Saturdays Nikki inevitably went back to work after their lunch. Sean continued with his demanding ways, never wanting Helen to stray too far while his work was quiet. She adhered to her decision to be the dutiful partner, though if she were honest with herself, she would have admitted that she was finding it all rather tedious and was looking forward to Sean's business picking up.

After a long winter with fewer than usual afternoon associations being held outdoors, March brought with it its usual challenges. The G-Wing residents started kicking off more than ever when the warmer weather hit, as though they were just waking from a long winter's slumber. Helen was especially concerned for young inmate Rachel Hicks, a young offender with a mousy demeanour whom Helen worried would be viewed as a target by the bullies on the wing; they would see her sentence - thirty months for possession with intent - as an indication that she would be capable of having drugs brought in. She all but had 'Victim' stamped on her brow. Helen noticed that Jim Fenner had taken a special interest in Rachel, recommending that she be given the red band position of office girl and moved up to the threes, a place of privilege and single-prisoner cells with window coverings and duvets for the bunks. Helen questioned Fenner's attentiveness but could not confirm that anything untoward was happening between him and the young inmate.

Helen's fears for Rachel were well founded as it turned out: midway through the month, following a revelation by her mother that Rachel's daughter, Maddie, had been put into care, Rachel was found dead in the four-bed dorm she was sharing with Denny, Crystal and Zandra. She had hanged herself with her own bed sheet. Helen was overwrought; she had disciplined Rachel the previous day by sending her to the dorm after the inmate had smashed up her cell on the threes. Helen never could have foreseen Rachel committing suicide in a cell with three other prisoners, but the guilt ate at her nonetheless. As Helen was driving to work next morning, she was listening to the news where, unfortunately, the Larkhall tragedy was the top story.

"The Prison Service has promised a full investigation following the suicide of another female prisoner, the second this month. Nineteen year old Rachel Hicks, an inmate of Larkhall Prison, south London, appears to have hung herself-"

"Hanged! The word's hanged!" Helen took out her frustrations on the disembodied voice of the radio newsreader. Her disposition unimproved, she continued her commute to the job which was the source of most of her stress, all the while endeavouring to make sense of the system within which she had to work. She arrived at the prison certain that there was more to Rachel's death than met the eye and determined to get to the bottom of it. What her enquiry uncovered was that Rachel was being bullied by Denny who, on orders from Shell most likely, had kicked Rachel the night of her death. Helen sentenced Denny to a fortnight down the block for her actions. Later, after only a weekend in segregation, Denny would claim she had information which could provide insights into the suicide. While recognising this to be a blatant ploy to be moved back into the dorm, Helen nonetheless agreed to meet with her, ultimately discounting Denny's allegations that Jim Fenner had been having a sexual relationship with Rachel whilst internally suspecting there could be some measure of truth to the young prisoner's claims.

Nikki, upon hearing of the suicide, gave Helen a quick call to offer her moral support and to ensure that Helen would still be coming to class that Saturday. She assured the Wing Governor that she had plenty of vodka and that the spare room would always be available should Helen feel the need to overindulge. Cynically Nikki sighed, "So much for the new regime; now you've got dead bodies on the wing." She regretted it as it escaped her mouth, even before Helen's tirade, which was immediate and scathing. Unfairly, Helen laced into Nikki for giving voice to the Wing Governor's own sentiments and exacerbating her self-reproach.

Helen did turn up at class that weekend, much to Nikki's surprise. She was heartened to know that her friendship with Helen was not jeopardised when one challenged the other – usually with Nikki taking on the former role, Helen being the more emotionally restrained of the two. In hopes that Helen would show, however, Nikki had asked Alex to work the afternoon for her and to be available to lock up the shop in case Helen needed a sounding board and/or drinking chum. It was a good decision as the two friends spent the afternoon back at Nikki's curled around a bottle of vodka with Helen finally able to unload some of the emotion that had been pent up within her.

Nikki sensed that the other woman was still holding back and puzzled over what it might take to break through Helen's defences, aching to be the one to accomplish exactly that. By late afternoon the women decided they had had enough to drink and switched their beverage choice over to coffee. Nikki made them a simple meal of chicken cacciatore over egg noodles before declaring Helen sober enough to drive home. Though loath to see her go, Nikki had much work still to do that weekend especially since she had just lost half a day. In addition to the very busy spring season beginning for the shop, Nikki also had mid-term exams coming up and final preparations to make for the end of the tax year. Nikki had already warned Helen that they would not be seeing much of each other over the next few weeks; she did not even foresee them taking lunches on Saturdays or getting together for a drink after Tuesday classes. In fact she almost felt guilty at the thought of the March 20 wine tasting for which they had signed up, but judiciously understood that occasionally a break was required to maintain one's sanity. The wine tasting – but more importantly, the time spent with Helen – did aid in recharging Nikki's batteries and she faced later challenges with renewed vigour.

Helen's batteries were also recharged, having taken a three-week stay-at-home-holiday away from Larkhall. She was dejected that Nikki was unavailable to chum with during that stretch but understood that there was a myriad of responsibilities on her friend's plate. On April 10 Helen actually arrived early for class, so eager was she to see her. She popped her head into Nikki's office and found Nikki bent over, putting something into the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. Not for the first time Helen found herself surreptitiously enjoying the view of her friend's backside. "Hiya," she composed herself. "Need any help setting up?"

"Helen!" Nikki nearly collapsed at seeing Helen nearly a full fifteen minutes before the start of class and twenty minutes ahead of her usual arrival time. "Something wrong with your watch?" she ribbed, approaching for a quick hug.

"Enough of your lip! D'you want help or not?" came Helen's playful reply.

"No need to get arsey, Helen, it's just you caught me off guard. I thought perhaps I'd blacked out, lost time," Nikki smiled. "Sure, give us a hand with this box, yeah? It's a beautiful morning, supposed to reach seventeen degrees today, so I thought we'd hold class outside. Nice holiday?"

"Three weeks struggling with the instructions to flat-pack furniture?" Helen rolled her eyes.

"Sean not around to help you?" Nikki asked hopefully.

"Call yourself a feminist?! Sean's up to his eyes in work at the moment. The longer we're together the less time we seem to spend with each other," Helen muttered, almost to herself, missing Nikki's glad smile. "Mind you, I did catch up on some reading. Have you read Sophie's World" she asked.

"No, no I haven't."

"I brought it in, just in case." Helen reached into her bag and pulled out the book, placing it on Nikki's desk eliciting sincere gratitude from the taller woman. The two continued out to the garden and the class got underway. Nikki had chosen container gardening as a topic that day since containers can be planted early in the season and easily transferred indoors should overnight temperatures threaten frost. The class was well-received and Nikki found herself fielding questions until almost half past twelve. The women all knew that Nikki was unavailable to stay after Tuesday classes – owing to other commitments – thus saved all questions for Saturdays. After a quick stop at reception, Helen went into Nikki's office to change and wait for her.

"It looks like you're well-staffed for the afternoon," Helen observed.

Nikki stalled, lighting a cigarette, sensing an ulterior motive and answered cautiously, "Yeah... though it could be a busy day if it warms up like they've forecast."

"Come on, Nikki, don't be thick; I'm kidnapping you for the day. We're going to lunch and then I found East Is East playing at the Prince Charles Cinema at three and it's all my treat since you've been working so hard," Helen declared. Nikki, forced for over a year to rely on no one but herself, never ceased to be amazed by the other woman's thoughtfulness. "I've already talked to Alex," Helen grinned conspiratorially, "told her you were a feeling a wee bit poorly." When Helen smiled at her like that, Nikki was powerless to refuse her anything.

"Throwing a sickie, am I? Well, aren't I naughty? Wha've I got, then? Cold? Bird flu? Syphilis? Just so I know what symptoms to put on," Nikki said dryly.

"Come on. Shift your arse! Let's go enjoy the afternoon! Alex has your mobile number if things go wonky here," Helen was insistent. With that they headed out the door and had themselves a very enjoyable afternoon indeed. In fact, it lasted through until Sunday morning, Helen having been in no fit state to drive herself home Saturday night.


Part Thirteen

Tuesday morning Helen was waiting for Sean to be ready to drive her to Larkhall. He was bringing his truck in for an MOT, taking Helen's Peugeot for the day. "You sure you'll manage without your car today? I'd drive you after work, but I'm doing that quotation for Mrs Warriner at half past five."

"Yeah, no, I told you, Nikki's got to go come to Southbank University this afternoon. She'll collect me and take me to the Potting Shed. You can pick me up later from hers," Helen reminded him. He was not acknowledging that which was really occupying his mind: he was going in to Larkhall that afternoon to offer a gardening seminar to the prisoners. Helen was not unaware of his nervousness. She handed him an orange juice. "So, I bet you're pleased I roped you into this talk." Sean nearly spat out his juice laughing. "They're dead keen; just be gentle with them." The two talked as they finished their juices and got ready to head out. Sean had always found that Helen spoke of the prisoners in her charge almost as a mother might. Though having lost the courage to ask Reverend Stewart for Helen's hand five months previously, Sean had nonetheless continued to deliberate asking Helen to marry him regularly ever since. Though the timing could not have been much worse, he chose that morning, as they were scrambling to get ready for work, to broach the subject.

"I just think it would be nice, y'know, to be a bit... normal. Y'know: kids, wedding, engagement... I mean, whatever all you want, o' course" he stammered.

"Is this a proposal?" Helen asked thinking, if it were, it had to be the most ham fisted attempt ever. He just looked at her, almost sheepishly, his eyes questioning. No answer was her loud reply. "So, shall we shoot off?" she finally said.

"Hang on a minute." Helen sighed, looking like she's steeling herself for a confrontation. "I ask you to marry me and, what, you throw on your coat and want to shoo out the door?" Sean was incredulous.

"Can we talk about this later? We've really got to go!" Helen insisted, effectively shutting down further discussion on the matter. Sighing, Sean collected his coat and his supplies for the prison talk and they were away in Helen's little red Peugeot speaking very little during their commute. As Sean dropped her at the door of Larkhall, Helen gave him a quick kiss and reminded him that he was expected at about a quarter past three to get prepared for his talk. "Remember to just push the panic button by the door if things do go nasty." Sean looked terrorised. "For God's sake! Joke!" Helen alighted from her car and went inside to face the day.

Nikki had run her errand at Southbank University – she needed a copy of her credits for the London Business School to which she would be transferring in the autumn – and arrived at Larkhall at half past four to collect Helen. The prisoner was standing outside her car smoking when, before long, she saw Helen coming out of the front gate, unfortunately with Sean in tow. Nikki made her way from her car and over to greet the two of them. "Hiya!" she opened. "How're my favourite Wing Governor and her partner?" she asked as friendly as could be.

Sean answered, "Well, she won't be calling me that for too much longer." He grabbed onto Helen possessively, looking lovingly down upon her. "She just asked me to marry her, forced me to say 'yes'."

Looking to change the subject Helen quickly asked, "So, how'd it go at the university, Nikki?"

"Well... You learn something new every day..." Nikki's gaze shifted between each half of the newly betrothed pair. Helen looked contrite and rather put out with Sean for his grand announcement, in part because she had never even accepted the 'proposal', such as it was, but mostly out of respect for the feelings of their audience of one. Helen was no one's fool; she was acutely aware that Nikki's affections for her transcended mere friendship. The two women saw Sean off and made their way to Nikki's four-by-four. Nikki took Helen's briefcase and put it in the back of the Mitsubishi then opened Helen's door for her. Both women were lost in their own thoughts as they headed up the A5 towards Finchley, hardly speaking two words to each other during the fifty minute commute.

They arrived at the Potting Shed where Helen headed straight into the loo telling Nikki she would meet her in the structure for which the shop was named when she was done. Nikki headed directly for the potting shed to prepare for the evening's class on sharing plants through cuttings. Helen was along five minutes later. "Well, here comes the blushing bride to be... Kept that quiet, didn't you?"

"Nikki, I was fair taken aback by Sean's announcement; he'd just asked me to marry him this morning... I hadn't even given him an answer."

"Not that it's any of my business, I suppose." Nikki was getting petulant.

"Y'know, for some odd reason, it seems t'upset you, Sean and I getting married," Helen parried, trying to goad into Nikki revealing her feelings while desperately apprehensive that she would do exactly that.

"Odd reason. That's a good one," was all Nikki could manage.

"Nikki, what the hell is this all about?" Helen pressed.

"You really don't know?" asked Nikki, raising her voice.

"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking," Helen lied.

Nikki refused to allow candour to risk either her friendship with Helen or the safeguarding of her own heart. She sighed, shook her head and altered course, "Here, give us a hand with these pots, will you?"

The two women turned to the task at hand, Nikki gathering up gardening shears while Helen collected some small flowerpots. Nikki pivoted to her right to collect some potting soil just as Helen was reaching left for some pots she had not previously noticed. Helen's right hand inadvertently came into direct contact with Nikki's left breast. Though shocked, Helen did not immediately remove her hand as Nikki, reacting without thinking, reached up with her left hand trapping Helen's where it had settled, pressing it fervently to her own ample bosom. Nikki's amber eyes, darkened with desire, locked on Helen's, her breath hitching as she revelled in the sensation of Helen's hand on her breast.

"Jesus Christ!" Helen exclaimed out of sheer shock, retrieving her hand, uncertain how she felt about the whole encounter. She rushed from the potting shed in a tizzy and hastened to Nikki's office where she sat ruminating over what had just transpired and the role she herself may have played in it.

Nikki for her part stayed in the potting shed, shaking her head at her own idiocy and calling upon whatever gods she could think of to preserve her relationship with Helen. She made her way as quickly as she could from the potting shed – a professional, she still had to prepare for the class, after all – and looked for Helen. They still had a quarter of an hour before class when Nikki found Helen in the office. "I'm sorry, Helen; I never meant..." Nikki started.

"I dinnae care what you meant." Helen's statement – delivered more harshly than she intended - was met with a pained stare from Nikki. "You'll understand if I'm blunt: now, I know that you're a lesbian and I'm comfortable and so on with that, but I'm a het'rosexual and I'm going to get married very soon," Helen acknowledged, all the while knowing that she had yet to accept Sean's proposal. "You were out o' line, Nikki. You seem to want to go ou'o' your way to make me uncomfortable." Helen's Scots accent grew stronger as it always did when she grew emotional

"Why would I do that?" Nikki asked plaintively.

Not willing to address Nikki's question, Helen nonetheless softened, "Nikki, you know I like you... Even if I were attracted to you, which I'm not," she added unconvincingly, "there is no way we could have a relationship. I'm engaged to Sean. We're going to be married. I don't want this to come between us, but you need to find another focus for your affections. Get back with Trisha. Anything. But dinnae waste your time on me."

"Well, I'm sorry to have caused you so much trouble," Nikki said harshly, heartbroken. "Come on. Class is about to start."

Despite the friction the two friends had endured earlier in the evening, Helen did opt to join Nikki for a drink back at her house after class. Neither wanted anything to jeopardise their friendship. There was some obvious tension between the two, but they were both striving to get past it, neither willing to discard their blossoming relationship - though both found themselves wondering if what they had eclipsed the bonds of simple friendship. Their conversation was stilted but they moved forward, struggling to find some comfortable, common ground. Each recognising the concerted efforts of the other, the friendship resolidified somewhat. Helen could not condemn Nikki for her crush. For her part, Nikki had to find away to forgive Helen for repressing hers.

Sean rang Helen shortly after nine o'clock to let her know he was on his way collect her. She was fairly quiet and contemplative on the drive home. When they got into their flat, Helen turned to Sean and formally accepted his marriage proposal before taking him by the hand and leading him to their bedroom where she proceeded to rather aggressively push him down onto the bed, undoing his trousers and reaching for him, almost as though she had something to prove.


Part Fourteen

The women did their level best to get past the incident in the potting shed though neither managed to fully tamp down the memory of the feel of Helen's hand on Nikki's full breast or the emotions which that accidental touch had stirred within both of them. Helen lost a lot of sleep to the presumption that her body had somehow betrayed her. A month passed and the women's routines remained relatively unchanged though both were forced to come to terms with the fact that Helen was unexpectedly engaged to be married. Nikki tried very hard to achieve the emotional distancing which Helen had demanded but with little success; she even failed to pick up on the obvious flirtations of a beautiful, leggy blonde who had come into the shop. "'She Wasn't You'," Nikki thought poignantly, remembering the song from the musical she had gone to with Helen. For her part Helen was growing more and more impatient with Sean, sniping at the smallest irritant. On a few occasions at home in her flat she noticed that she was humming to herself; it came as a bit of a shock when she recognised that the song was On a Clear Day's 'He Isn't You'.

The end of May was hectic for Nikki. Wet weather had pushed back her customers' gardening plans, a scenario for which she was almost grateful since she had much to do in preparation for her final exams. The timetable she had devised for the Pottering Around class also had to be shifted in deference to the weather. She had planned to start planting their rooftop garden immediately following the Victoria Day weekend, but decided to leave the seedlings in the greenhouse an extra fortnight. The alternate classes were decidedly more academic than Nikki would have liked – she was partial to more practical, hands-on gardening – but the more mundane aspects of maintaining a garden – pests, disease, drainage - needed to be examined and this rainy period provided the ideal opportunity. The end of the month saw a welcome drying trend which, except for the first two days when twenty-nine millimetres – over an inch - of rain fell, extended into June.

Helen's frame of mind through this period could easily be described as 'disordered', she decided. Sean was turning into Bridezilla, an Americanism upon which Helen had recently stumbled referencing a difficult, unpleasant, perfectionist bride. Helen had never heard of the masculine counterpart, Groomzilla, but she knew that such a beast existed: she was living with it. Sean would not stop talking about guests, flowers, seating arrangements - all things wedding - to the exclusion of all other topics. He arrived home one evening to find Helen lying on the couch dressed in her gym leggings and sports bra under a hooded sweatshirt, obviously just coming off a vigorous workout. He grew sulky, "Hey, I thought we were supposed to be going out tonight?"

"Shit!" she sighed heavily. "D'you mind if we leave it for another time. I really don't feel like eating." Sean, who would never understand the idea that one could occasionally not feel like eating, argued that once they got to the restaurant, she would be fine. "No, I won't!" Helen was adamant. "I'd rather stay in, if that's all right with you," she softened somewhat. She seemed to be finding it difficult to meet his eyes, fearing that he might see through to her thoughts.

Sean heaved a big sigh, "You're not regretting it already?" Helen looked at him puzzled, not understanding the question. "Y'know, about getting married?"

"Oh, don't be stupid!" she said, though not in a playful way, more in an exasperated, 'not everything revolves around getting married' way.

"We could always put it off for a while, y'know, if you're not ready for it," he went on.

"Sean!" she sat up. "It's only dinner that I'm not keen on. Look, I love ya and I want to get married as soon as we can." The only word that had been uttered with any conviction in her entire proclamation was 'Sean'. "Okay?"

He seemed to breathe out a sigh which may have been either relief or a small laugh. Sean leant in for a quick kiss. Helen responded boldly, deepening the kiss in a desperate effort to dispel the thoughts that had actually been plaguing her when Sean arrived home.

Helen had been having a struggle at work, just the typical day-to-day concerns of running a wing of a women's prison, but the following week catastrophe struck. Spencer, Monica Lindsay's son with Down's syndrome, died suddenly in his sleep following a chest infection. Monica was one inmate of whom Helen was especially fond; she had been actively pushing the prisoner to begin appeal proceedings and was devastated at the thought of Monica having to cope with this tragedy. Helen put the screws to her officers, insisting that they grant the inmate any reasonable request and keep a close watch on her, fearing she might be a suicide risk.

Being a Wednesday, Helen was pleased that Nikki's university courses were done for the summer and hoped that her friend would not have already made plans. "Nikki, can you do me a favour?" Helen asked when she rang her up.

"'Course. What is it? Are you okay?" Nikki was concerned.

"No, I mean, yeah, I'm fine. Hard day at the office. Really hard. Can we go for a drink?" Helen had no interest in getting into it over the phone.

Nikki had been using these extra curfew hours to keep the shop open later, but the night was quiet and she had no qualms about slipping out early. Even if it had been the middle of the Christmas rush, Nikki would have found a way. "Where can I meet you?"

"Can I come to yours? I can be there by half six?" Helen prompted.

"Look, it's half five now. Why don't I come and collect you and we can go out to your local. You sound like you need to get good and bevvied. I won't need to head home until nine," Nikki offered. She hoped she sounded generous and not like she was nervous about being alone – and drinking – with Helen. She was unclear herself of her motivations. Helen agreed and it was decided: Nikki would pick Helen up at her flat and drive them both to The Robert Browning in Maida Vale.

The two friends somehow managed to secure a cosy table in the already bustling pub. Dark stained wood and a low-lit atmosphere added to the ambience. They ordered a couple Sam Smith bitters – Nikki also asked for a glass of water – and settled in. Nikki was eager to hear what had Helen in such a state. Helen filled Nikki in on the scenario at Larkhall explaining what a state of despair Monica was in and how they'd had to sedate her. She neglected to mention how she herself had rocked the older woman to sleep, stroking her hair. Helen was expecting an earful from Nikki who was always quick to decry the Prison Service. Perhaps that was what she was hoping for, felt she deserved. Guilt was eating at her.

"They'd never been apart, not once in thirty years?" Nikki repeated what Helen had just told her.

"I know, I know! I know everything that you're gonna say. And I agree. You're gonna tell me that Spencer was serving a life sentence as well now he's dead because of it. I know that. I do," Helen, the picture of contrition, spoke quickly, unable to look Nikki in the eye.

"How can you do it?" the prisoner questioned softly. "How can you go home at night knowing that that woman is banged up in a little brick box miles from her son's body? I mean, what the shit kind of torture do you think she's going through?" Nikki asked sincerely, with none of the venom Helen would have expected. Nikki could not fathom how Helen was able to do her job under the constraints imposed by such a cruel system. "It's not your fault, Helen; I know that. I blame the pricks in wigs who sentenced her in the first place, taking her away from Spencer. All you can do is make sure she gets through this."

"I've got her on suicide watch, I've told my officers to grant her any reasonable request and she's got her appeal to look forward to..." Helen wished there were more she could do. "Right now she reckons she may as well just stay in Larkhall and rot."

"You're doing your bit. Just watch her and don't give up – on anything. You're fighting to improve the system, but it's a slow process." Helen was overwhelmed by Nikki's unanticipated support; it managed to shave the keenest edges off her guilt. The two women were ultimately able to move on to different topics of discussion, time flying until they noticed with regret that it was ten to nine. Nikki had to get Helen home apace if she wanted to make it home to Crouch End in time to satisfy her curfew. When they arrived at Helen's flat, Nikki got out of the car to walk Helen to her door where she tried to lean in to give the smaller woman a quick peck on the cheek. Helen shied away, prompting a sulky attitude from Nikki. "I thought we were past all that," Nikki protested knowing Helen would understand what she was referencing.

"No, it's not that." All of Helen's recent inner turmoil was etched on her face.

"So, what's the problem? You want us to be friends, but you don't want to be too familiar?" Selfishly disinclined to look past her own churning emotions, Nikki failed to recognise Helen's.

"No..." Helen responded, exasperated.

"You can't have it both ways," the agitated prisoner informed her.

"This is difficult for me, as I think you know," Helen said emotionally, finally looking squarely at Nikki.

Nikki leant toward Helen demanding, "What do you want?" Helen shifted on her feet, her eyes flickering to Nikki's full and shapely lips. "Sorry. Am I making you uncomfortable?" Nikki asked directly.

"Don't you have to get home, Nikki?" Helen pointed out coldly, elated to find a means off the hot seat.

Nikki sighed, nodded and was off mumbling a brusque, "Sure, see you later, yeah?" and wondering how the evening could have gone so pear-shaped while antithetically considering that maybe she was getting through to the gorgeous Scot.


Part Fifteen

The following day Helen learnt that Spencer's funeral was set for Saturday and promised the grieving mother that she would personally escort her. After yet another difficult day at Larkhall, the G-Wing Governor found herself home for an entire evening with Sean who was, as had become his habit, talking wedding, specifically wondering how his parents were going to react to the announcement of their upcoming nuptials. "Now, I know what Dad'll say, he'll say, long pause, 'Oh, marriage? Uh, very good'," Sean did his best impression of his father's gruff voice. "And then he'll ask Mum what we're having for tea. And then Mum, well, she'll probably pounce on you and start talking about cakes and dresses and God knows what. And we're gonna tell her to get stuffed. Agreed?"

"Shit... I can't come." Helen had completely forgotten about the planned visit to his parents' home. Sean was incredulous. Helen explained that she had to accompany a prisoner to a funeral. Sean could not bring himself to understand why Helen personally had to go when there was a full contingent of qualified prison officers who could escort her, who were actually paid to work Saturdays. When she explained that the prisoner was someone she felt she had let down very badly, Sean petulantly pointed out that she seemed to have no qualms about letting him down.

"I'm sorry Sean!" Helen shot back. "Look, just say that I'm useless, I'm badly organised and I've got shit for brains." Helen felt like she was being torn apart.

He heaved a heavy sigh, "Well, I better go give them a ring." Sean was fiercely begrudging the amount of Helen's time Larkhall expropriated from him.

Helen realised that she would have to beg off lunch with Nikki on Saturday as well. As soon as Sean rang off with his parents, she set about disappointing someone else. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for that conversation, hoping Nikki would take it better than Sean had.

"Hiya, Nikki. How was your evening volunteering?" she started.

"Good and quiet, just the way I like it. How's Monica?" Nikki asked genuinely.

"Early days... That's the reason I'm phoning; I promised Monica I'd escort her to Spencer's funeral Saturday, so I won't be at class and you'll be on your own for lunch, I'm afraid... Nikki, I'm really sorry-"

Nikki cut her off, "Don't give it another thought. Is there anything I can do? Give you a lift if you're not up to driving..."

Helen was relieved and touched by Nikki's reaction, the diametrical opposite of Sean's. "Of course, my plans with Sean were somewhat more life impacting, but still, he might have shown a bit more selflessness," she thought. Aloud she suggested, "Maybe we could do something when you get off work? A piss up and dinner at yours? I could make my famous phone call to the Chinese take away... We could even cook; I'll stop at Tesco's on my way."

"Sounds good. We could have the first barbecue of the season. I'll make sure the voddy's chilled," Nikki assured her. "I'm only a phone call away if you need me in the meantime, yeah?"

"I know. Thank you, Nikki." Helen's appreciativeness was genuine. "I'll see you Saturday. Six thirty all right?"

"I have to close the shop, so can we make it quarter to seven to be safe? Unless you really need it to be earlier..." Nikki would have bent over backwards if Helen had truly needed, but she hated to impose on Alex again.

"Fifteen minutes? I think I can cope with the delay," Helen said sardonically before ringing off.

If Saturday was difficult for Helen, it was excruciating for Monica who threw herself onto Spencer's coffin after the graveside service. Helen did what she could but felt helpless as she escorted the agonised mother back to Larkhall, ensuring that Monica was settled, sedated and asleep before exiting her cell. Afterwards Helen simply marked time until she could meet up with Nikki. She arrived at the Tesco on The Broadway in Crouch End at a quarter past six needing only a few groceries. She also stopped in at Nicolas wine shop and bought a couple carafes of wine – identical bottles of Nikki's favourite Argentinean cabernet - before heading to the terraced house.

Nikki was home when Helen arrived, but instead of bringing Helen into the sitting room or kitchen, she dragged her straight up to the roof. "What's going on?" Helen urged.

"You missed class today." Nikki wagged a finger. "You need to see what we did," Nikki explained waving her arm to take in the rooftop garden. "The class chose your garden design - even in your absence - if you don't recognise it: plants on this side, vegetable patch over there... The annuals still need to be planted, 'course, but this is a great start. I thought it might improve your day to see it is all."

Touched by this thoughtful gesture – Helen was certain that Nikki had guided the class towards choosing her design – she acknowledged, "Thanks, Nikki. And, yeah, I've felt bloody useless today, so this helps, but let's head back inside; I'm gaspin' for a drink."

The women went back downstairs, fixed themselves a strong drink and set about preparing dinner. Helen had picked up some ribeyes, onions and mushrooms for sautéing, and asparagus along with some salad fixings and a baguette. They settled into cooking together very easily with Helen taking care of cooking the vegetables and Nikki preparing the barbecue and salad. Helen opened the wine.

They sat down to a lovely repast and Helen found the stresses of the past few weeks finally dissolving. "So, you up for talking about it?" Nikki eventually broached.

"Och, Nikki, today was awful. Monica jumped into Spencer's grave as they were about to lower it into the ground. She cried that she wanted to stay with him, saying 'I shan't leave you. I shan't go away,' but we finally had to drag her away, back to her cell... I felt like such a shit," Helen's remorse was palpable as she spoke in those crisp tones which characterised her heightened emotional state and which Nikki had come to know so well.

Trying to assuage the other woman's guilt, Nikki reminded her, "There was nothing you could do, Helen. You couldn't just let her go, but you can ensure she goes through with her appeal."

"I don't know if she even wants to go through with it; I can almost understand her not wanting to, strangely enough," Helen seemed resigned.

"Helen, now is not the time to get complacent." Nikki grew adamant. "I've been working with victims for a while now and their grieving process isn't much different. You need to be aware that the worst may be yet to come. You've got to keep an eye on her."

"I'll do my best, but we've got almost a hundred women on the wing and I have a responsibility to all of them. I cannae allocate precious resources to one who assures me she's fine. It's not my job to coddle the prisoners." Helen delivered the party line.

"You're right. A human being in pain has nothing to do with your job!" Nikki returned snidely. More softly she added, "Watch her, Helen. I'm just not certain she'll survive 'til her appeal if she thinks she's nothing to live for." Helen relented and decided then and there to maintain Monica's suicide watch. She called it in.


Part Sixteen

Monday morning as Helen was heading out the front door she gave Sean a flat, "See ya." In his typical manner, and in spite of Helen's need to get herself to Larkhall, Sean wanted to take a moment to discuss some wedding details, specifically the guest list. When it became clear to Helen that he had already answered his own question, she grew irritable. "Why did you even bother bringing it up?" she demanded, a little put out.

"'Cause bizarrely enough you'll be there that day and you might want to have a say in the matter," Sean said testily, assiduously wondering if Helen were ever going to demonstrate any enthusiasm for their upcoming nuptials.

"Sorry," she muttered, suitably chastened.

"I did offer you the choice of getting out; you should fess up if you don't want to go through with it."

"I do. I've just got a lot on my mind at the moment. If you make up a list, we'll go through it tonight. Look, I gotta go. See ya." Helen gave Sean a quick kiss and was out the door.

Too late Helen recognised that she had made a huge mistake when she pulled into her parking stall at the prison and tempted the gods with, "At least things can't get any worse." Her first indication that something was amiss should have been Shell Dockley, a known drug user and likely dealer, though that had yet to be proved, proclaiming to be "changing her ways, getting off the sweeties and going to chapel." Helen heard that she had even forged a new friendship with Crystal Gordon, the resident Bible-basher, and cynically wondered what could possibly be in that for Shell.

Helen walked into the PO's room to discover that a letter written by Crystal had made it into The Guardian newspaper. "Drugs are available on G-Wing like it was Piccadilly Circus and the temptation is too much. Even if you don't touch the stuff, you get no reward – you still have strip searches and the rest just like the junkies. Governor Helen Stewart doesn't seem to be able to do anything about it." As Helen was reading the letter the telephone rang: she had been summoned to the office of the Governing Governor, Simon Stubberfield.

Helen did her best to appeal to Simon's common sense, entreating him to examine the source; this was, after all, the Guardian, a newspaper with a leftist readership. Did he truly believe that its readers would take up the cause of making things more difficult for prisoners, especially if that meant depriving them of their rights? To inject some humour, Helen reminded him of some recent Guardian headlines which included Kids Make Delicious Snacks, Stolen Painting Found by Tree and Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Supermarket Queue. Though a highly respected newspaper, those were hardly what one might describe as shining examples of discriminating journalism. "I expect Crystal's letter'll be dismissed as easily," she concluded. "This situation should blow over quickly enough," she added only half believing it herself. Helen went so far as to suggest that if Crystal's letter were to spark a debate about drugs in prison, perhaps it could actually be used to do some good.

Stubberfield, however, remained unconvinced, reminding Helen that the Prison System was better off out of the public eye, that this situation was going to turn into a PR disaster for Larkhall. It finally dawned on Helen that Stubberfield was far more concerned with the political ramifications involved in this scenario than with the well-being of the inmates in his charge. Helen was outraged – and not for the first time - that he could not find a way to mesh those two imperatives.

The only definitive way to keep drugs from falling into inmates' hands would be the implementation of closed visits. Helen reminded Stubberfield that they would have a riot on their hands were even a whisper of that to reach the prisoners. Helen's frustration lay in the fact that her own goals had always been the same as Crystal's, a drug-free wing. She fervently wished that the inmate had striven to work with her instead of going behind her back to the Guardian. Helen explained to the Governing Governor that she had twice previously spoken to Crystal about the prevalence of drugs in the prison, that she had done her best to reassure the inmate that measures were being developed to stem the tide of drugs coming into Larkhall.

The Number One acerbically suggested, "You've not made much of an impact, though, have you?"

"I'll talk to her again," Helen sighed flatly. She felt like she was caving in, ostensibly because she was, but Stubberfield had given her no choice.

"Yes, you will and while you're doing that, I'll spend the rest of the week getting the Home Office off our back and sorting out this bloody mess you've got us into." Helen was dismissed. She went back to her office, asking PO Dominic McAllister to send Crystal up to her office straight away.

The fallout from Crystal's letter was swift: inmates were angry with and threatening the well-meaning inmate; it was suggested that she might get her reward in heaven sooner than she expected. Many were upset because their drug supply would be cut off but most because they were expecting the prison to be put on closed visits. This assumption proved well-founded as Helen did reluctantly consider that order before again dismissing it as a powder keg.

For a third time Helen spoke with Crystal Gordon, the final conversation taking place in the Wing Governor's office. All the antagonism Helen had suffered in Stubberfield's office she redirected at the prisoner. She barked, "I told you if you had any evidence at all-"

"But you never do nothing," Crystal groused, cutting Helen off.

"How can I when nobody tells me anything?" Helen asked legitimately. She had been trying to work with Crystal in this matter, after all. Helen found herself arguing with the self-righteous inmate for almost twenty minutes, endeavouring to convince the young prisoner that nothing would be gained unless they worked together, that going behind her back write the letter was counterproductive and would simply turn up the heat in their particular prison. "It's not gonna solve anything. Life'll get harder for a couple of days 'til it blows over then it'll just go back to normal," Helen said slowly, drawing out each of the last words.

"With the law not protecting the ordinary person so the ordinary person got to do what they got to do, which is why I wrote the letter, innit?"

Exasperated, Helen dismissed Crystal and called upon Dominic to escort the prisoner back to the wing to face more resentment. Alone once again in her office, Helen picked up the phone and rang the one person to whom she could always turn for support.

"Good morning, Potting Shed."

The next couple of days were very difficult for Helen; the green ink brigade had latched onto Crystal's letter and was inundating Larkhall with correspondence of their own. Stubberfield, desperate to appease Area Management, had hung Helen out to dry. The inmates were kicking off, creating more work for the officers, even without the implementation of closed visits. The most tumultuous moments were yet to come, however. Thursday afternoon Crystal was back in Helen's office with Shell in tow. Both were looking smug. "Well..." Helen herself looked none too pleased.

Crystal insisted that Shell had something to relate regarding the drug problem on G-Wing. After much coercion, Shell confided to a very sceptical Helen that it was Lorna Rose, the prison officer, who was bringing drugs onto the wing.

Crystal insisted, "She can prove it, Miss."

"She's gonna hafta," Helen assured them.

Shell, mostly quiet up until that moment, affected her most sincere voice, "I know you're suspicious, Miss, and I don't blame ya, but I want to make up for what I done, all the mess I caused dealing in drugs and everything. I was well out of order and I've found God now." Helen offered a disbelieving snort. "I 'ave!" Shell insisted.

"'Cause only God can bring people off drugs for good and, if you don't mind me sayin', it's only God can sort the mess you've got yourself into." Crystal banged her tambourine.

A sting operation was put in place for lock-up that same day and it was discovered that Lorna had, in fact, smuggled in drugs sealed within the cardboard packaging of a perfume bottle. She was apprehended in Shell's cell, handing the scent to the inmate. Helen was confident that Lorna had not known about the heroin encased within the box, but reminded the young officer that it was still an offence to bring a prisoner perfume, especially in a glass bottle. Helen could not fathom what Lorna had been thinking but was certain that she had been set up from the beginning by a very devious Shell. It was with regret that Helen watched Lorna empty out her locker. Helen herself escorted her from the prison amid protests that she had been duped by the blonde lifer. Helen assured the disgraced officer that there would be a full investigation but knew that Lorna was finished in the Prison Service, her dreams of becoming a member of the DST shattered.

Helen arrived at Larkhall early next morning in an uphill effort to get on top of the situation. She was cornered by Stubberfield who insisted that there would have to be some changes implemented, closed visits for a start. Helen voiced her concerns over this decision anew, reminding the Number One that her officers were stretched enough as it was. Stubberfield suggested that they were doing a botched job, silently letting Helen know whose shoulders he laid that burden on. Helen also heard grumbling among those same officers that the business of overseeing the inmates on G-Wing had never been as gruelling as it was that week.

Thankful to have got through the long day with her employment intact, Helen arrived home and poured herself a vodka. She curled up with Sean's arm around her on the couch. "Well, there's one bit of good news: we got the date we wanted at the registrar's office," Sean announced. "Old Shufflebottom can't override you on that."

"Stubberfield," Helen corrected unnecessarily, mindful of the fact that their upcoming nuptials had not crossed her mind in two days, thinking that did not bode well for their future. Helen was distracted and rankled by the week she'd endured, and it was only Thursday. "I don't know that I can take another day in that place," she finally conceded weakly.

"Oh, come on, Hel, you've got to press on through this," Sean assured her.

"Yeah?" Helen seemed to have lost her fighting spirit.

"Otherwise, what, you'd let Jim Fenner have your job?" Sean was dumbfounded. "You hang in there, hmm?" he added distractedly and went back to thinking about wedding plans.

Friday showed no improvement as Helen arrived at work, forced to implement Stubberfield's closed visit policy. A riot was threatening amongst the inmates and some of her own officers had made it very clear that they would be content to see the back of her. Day's end did not roll in early enough for her and when the whistle finally blew, she decided to take young PO Dominic McAllister up on his offer to buy her a drink in the Officer's Club. They threw back a couple pints with little positive effect on Helen's state of mind. She begged off on a third owing to having to drive and made her way out to her Peugeot. She registered no surprise when, instead of pointing it in the direction of home, she made her way north on the A23 toward Crouch End.


Part Seventeen

Helen arrived at Nikki's just before eight. She apologised for showing up unannounced as she had - once again - caught Nikki in her hideous dressing gown; the raven-haired woman was fresh out of the shower. "Don't ever apologise, Helen. I told you you're always welcome. Come on in. Help yourself to something to drink while I dress. You know where everything is."

Nikki headed into her bedroom to change, choosing a tight pink, short-sleeved shirt and jeans. She quickly ran her fingers through her wet hair, giving herself a quick once-over in the mirror. Satisfied that she did not have mascara all down her face, she headed to the sitting room where Helen had made herself comfortable with a healthy slug of vodka. Nikki had poured herself a glass of red wine just prior to Helen's arrival. The two women settled in on the couch as Helen embarked upon giving Nikki a thorough account of her week.

Almost an hour and a half - and several ounces of vodka - later, Helen found herself apologising again, this time for all her venting and for taking so much of Nikki's time. Nikki assured her that, as a virtual shut-in she really had nothing but time. "But I'm sure you had better plans than this for your Friday night." Helen's tone was conciliatory.

"Sadly, no, I was just going to settle in with my book," Nikki assured her.

"Wha're you reading?" Helen asked, trying to keep the mood light.

"Little Dorrit. It's the story of a terrible prison," Nikki baited Helen.

"Thank God we got rid of all of those," Helen tried her hand at bantering, but was still too worked up.

"You're doing what you can, Helen. I'm sure most of the women on your wing know that deep down," Nikki reassured her.

"Wha'? By puttin' them on closed visits? By having one of my officers trafficking drugs onto the wing?" the Wing Governor scoffed, disgusted. She could feel tears threatening and was surprised to realise that she would not be bothered if they fell; she felt safe enough with Nikki to not be afraid of crying in front of her.

The tall woman slid closer. "Helen, none of that's your fault. Come here." Nikki put a reassuring arm around Helen, offering the smaller woman comfort physically just as she had been endeavouring to do verbally.

"I'm just getting it from all sides, Nikki," Helen was losing the battle over her emotions, "from above and be-" overwhelming despair choked off the end of the word. "Sometimes I think it would be easier just to give in." The tears finally broke through Helen's stalwart veneer. She looked away.

Nikki took hold of Helen's chin, forcing the smaller woman to meet her eyes. Their faces were inches from each other. "Hey, you mustn't think like that." Helen could feel Nikki's breath warm against her lips.

Nikki's right hand ran itself down the side of Helen's face. "No?" murmured Helen. Time seemed to stop. Nikki closed the gap between the two women, her lips finding Helen's in a tender kiss. Helen's mouth opened in invitation, deepening the kiss, allowing Nikki's tongue to slide inside, caressing her own. Helen leant further into the embrace, unable to suppress a visceral moan before finally pulling away.

"Oh, uh, sorry." Nikki threw herself forcefully into the couch back, a hand in front of her mouth. "I shouldn't have done that," Nikki was finally able to stammer, her contrition marginally overshadowed by the quivering sensations spreading through her depths.

"No, you shouldn't!" Helen cried, rushing for the front door which she slammed behind her, leaning against it with her hand over her mouth and deliberating over the sensations she was experiencing in her own lower regions. She hurried to her car, got in and threw it in gear, endeavouring to squeal off not realising that the tyres were not facing straight ahead; she jumped the kerb and smashed the passenger side of her car into a light standard.

Nikki who was following just moments behind - she had had to stop to don a pair of shoes - bore witness to the whole thing, as though it were happening in slow motion. "Helen!" she cried. "Helen!" She ran out to the other woman's car, mindless of her curfew.

Nikki arrived at the Peugeot breathless, discovering Helen with a gash over her right eye. She reached into the car, bodily dragging the diminutive Scot from it just as a police car, which had coincidentally been in the area, pulled up behind them. "Everything all right here, ladies?" asked the female police officer, putting on her hat.

"Yeah, fine, Officer," Nikki answered, anxiously. "Just a small prang," she opined taking in the sight of the car with its dented side panel and crumpled wing mirror.

"Who was driving?" challenged the officer.

Not letting Helen answer Nikki responded, "I was. The passenger door's a bit smashed in; we couldn't get it open, that's why she's clambering out the driver's side."

Looking closely at Nikki the officer enquired "You been drinking, madam?"

"No, there was a cat. That's why I swerved, to avoid the cat. Stupid, really. I live just here," Nikki tilted her head to gesture to her house. "I'm happy to take a breath test."

Eyeing up Helen - and recognising Nikki as a member of her sisterhood - the officer let them off the hook, "You'd better get off to your bed, then, girls. Go careful," the officer winked.

"Cheers," Nikki replied, hurrying herself and Helen back into her house. The telephone was ringing when the women burst in. "Shit!" Nikki exclaimed, rushing to answer it. "Hello... Yeah, Tony, it's me... I was just outside the house; my guest was in a traffic accident just out front, so I had to run out, yeah? It's not like I'm breaking curfew. I was here... A one-off, I know. Thanks, Tony. 'Night." Nikki rang off, desperately relieved. "Are you all right, Helen?" she asked turning to her friend. "How's your head?"

"Who was that on the phone?" Helen wanted to know, thinking it was a strange phone call.

"What? Oh, that was Tony, the Supervising Officer who monitors my tag. Touch and go, but he's not going to report it," Nikki explained.

"Shit, Nikki, your curfew." Helen could only shake her head in confusion. "If that officer had taken down your information... I don't understand you; how could you have been so reckless?" Helen was at a loss.

"Oh, Jesus." Nikki could just roll her eyes.

"And are you sure you'd've even passed a breath test? God, what the hell were you thinking of?" Helen was incredulous.

"You," Nikki answered simply.

"What?" Helen still did not understand.

Speaking slowly, Nikki clarified, "I did it to protect you." She paused. "Look, Helen, we both know that you'd had a drink before you'd got here tonight plus the vodka you had here – your BAC would have been well over eighty. How would the Prison Service react to a conviction for drink driving? Think," Nikki stated matter-of-factly. "Can't say I'm sorry you smashed your car just out front, though; causing death by dangerous driving would land you in Larkhall,"

Helen never ceased to be amazed by Nikki's selflessness. She found herself comparing Sean to Nikki, not for the first time, and fully apprehending that Sean fell short; Nikki had just proved that she would have been willing to give up her own freedom to protect Helen. The small Scot found herself wondering what Sean would be willing to give up for her. And correspondingly what she might give up for him. "Is this what love looks like?" she wondered to herself.

Nikki sat Helen down and fetched the TCP to tend to the cut over her eye. It looked decidedly worse than it actually was. Nikki cleaned it up and covered it with a small plaster. What the women did not say spoke volumes. Glimpsing the still smouldering look in Nikki's eyes, Helen finally broke down, admonishing, "You had no right taking advantage of me."

"D'you want to call Tony back? Let him know what I've been up to. Bring me up on a charge: causing grievous bodily harm to a Larkhall Wing Governor – by kissing her. Or d'you expect me to apologise?" Nikki went on the offensive. "Can you be honest with yourself, Helen, or are you just going to avoid acknowledging why you came here in the first place?"

"You know what I'm avoiding," Helen stressed candidly, looking directly into Nikki's dark amber eyes.

"Why can't you just tell me?" Nikki goaded. "Or just give in... and kiss me?" she said more softly, imploring the other woman to acknowledge the depth of her feelings.

Helen was nonplussed. "Oh, for God's sake, Nikki! Be serious."

Nikki stated thickly, "I want to make love to you all night long; is that serious enough for you?"

"That's enough! Look, Nikki, you were right; I'm in no state to drive, but I also cannae deal with wha's happened here tonight. No' right now. And my car's buggered. I'll likely be able to drive it home later, so can I just have a coffee and maybe we can sit and not talk, watch the telly or something until I'm fit to drive? Could you do that for me?" Desperation flavoured her words.

"'Course, Helen. I won't pressure you except," she lapsed into a pause, "don't deny that both of us wanted this tonight." Nikki looked deeply into Helen's hazel eyes. Helen had often remarked on the expressive quality of Nikki's face, especially her eyes, but what she saw reflected there that night disarmed her.

Lighting a cigarette Nikki changed tacks, "D'you want me to call the auto club?"

"No, I'll try to take it in to the mechanic's tomorrow. Can we turn on the telly? Is Have I Got News for You still on Friday nights?" Helen was looking for something, anything to distract her from the breathtaking kiss she had just shared with Nikki. She soon came to discover that there was nothing in this world engaging enough to accomplish that ambitious feat.

"Sure. BBC. I'll put the coffee on," Nikki offered, handing Helen the remote control. The two women, whose friendship was irrevocably changed following that night, sat uncomfortably watching the television and contemplating their evening, wondering where they would go from there, until it was decided that Helen was sober enough to make her way home.


Part Eighteen

Knowing Nikki would not be pleased by her decision, Helen nonetheless failed to show up at class next day. She used the flimsy excuse that she had to bring her car into the mechanic's though her appointment was not until half past one. She knew she would have to face Nikki eventually, and, truth be told, she wanted to; she was just unsure what exactly she wanted to say to her. She could not stop thinking about kissing Nikki, about her visceral reaction to kissing Nikki. She felt she needed to wrap her own head around that before seeing her again.

After a small row with Sean Monday morning – he had offered friends the use of Helen's flat for a few days while she and Sean were on their honeymoon – Helen made her way to Larkhall. The drama that invariably unfolded at Larkhall brought Helen some welcome distraction that morning. The aftermath of Crystal's letter continued to include closed visits – which, as Helen had predicted, incited the prisoners to kick off - more scathing letters from the green ink brigade and further enquiries from Area Management. In addition they were dealing with the arrival of a new inmate on G-Wing. While there is a constant flow of inmates being processed into and released from prison, this one, Helen knew, would prove more interesting than most. Her name was Yvonne Atkins, wife of gangster Charlie Atkins, and she had been sentenced to four years for hiring a hit man to kill someone who had tried to muscle in on her Charlie. While the murder attempt had fallen short, the hit man grassed on Yvonne. He died tragically in protective custody.

Raised in London's east end, the forty-one year old Yvonne was quite a character. On remand she was discovered to have twenty-two pairs of shoes and a shelf-load of Chanel. The concern was that, even though Yvonne would be on a basic regime, receiving only two pounds fifty a week in personal spends, she would nevertheless be able to use her money and influence to her advantage on the wing. She seemed to have read her prisoner's handbook quite thoroughly, Helen noted during Yvonne's induction, having a fascination with in-cell hobbies, specifically the idea that every prisoner was entitled to a guitar in her cell. While Helen found that she rather liked Yvonne, was amused when the prisoner asked if she could "have that Mr McAllister, then, please?" as her personal officer, she knew that she would have to be even more stern with her than with most to keep her in line. Much as she may have liked Yvonne, Helen knew the inmate was quite hard and, with her 'Us and Them' mentality, would prove to be a force to be reckoned with on the wing.

It was in the midst of this induction that Sean chose to ring Helen, who was beyond displeased with her secretary for having allowed the call through; Sean had insisted to her that it was an urgent matter.

"Helen Stewart," she declared as she picked up the handset. Sean had called to continue the row they had begun that morning, to try to wheedle some sort of explanation from Helen. The Wing Governor covered the phone's mouthpiece, dismissing Yvonne, telling her to wait outside the office door for an officer to take her back to the wing.

"Okay, love, whatever you say," Yvonne said, rising from her chair and retreating from the office.

Trying to maintain her professional demeanour, Helen tried to defer her conversation with Sean until they were at home. Explaining that he would not feel compelled to ring her at work if she would only talk to him at home, he pressed for answers.

"Look, I'm just bloody stressed out, Sean. Now I've got you hassling me..." Helen was in no mood for any of this.

"Talking to your fiancé should not be a hassle," he pointed out petulantly.

Trying to control her temper she growled through clenched teeth, "I was in the middle of a meeting!"

"We need to talk this through, Hel." Helen had always been somewhat withdrawn emotionally, but Sean felt this characteristic becoming more pronounced within her. She was pulling away and he needed to find a way to remedy that.

"We'll talk tonight, I promise, but for now just leave it, will you please? This is not the time or place to be talking about this. I'll ring you back when I have a moment." She assured him.


"I said I would, didn't I? And we'll talk tonight, okay?" Helen was desperate to ring off.

"Sure, fine. Tonight." He punched the 'End' button. Helen, for her part, opted against slamming the receiver down in its cradle, though she was powerfully tempted. She had managed to put Sean off until that night but could not envisage how that conversation might go. She owed Sean the truth but had no insights into how she could possibly admit to him that which she almost refused to admit to herself, namely that she did not want to marry him.

Later that day, owing to Helen's insistence upon carrying on with the suicide watch, a cache of sedatives was discovered in Monica Lindsay's cell, hidden in the end of a toothpaste tube. Monica was subsequently provided access to grief counselling which, in time, showed her that being back together with Spencer could wait, that she had too much to offer to give up. It was through these sessions that she decided to carry forward with her appeal and to turn her home into a halfway house – named for her son - when she was eventually released.

For the first time Helen faced some trepidation at the thought of phoning Nikki but felt the other woman deserved to know about Monica. Helen lifted and replaced the telephone receiver several times before finally submitting to her own stubborn nature and ringing the Potting Shed.

"Good afternoon, Potting Shed," came a friendly voice down the wire.

"Hiya, Alex, is Nikki around?" Helen fought the butterflies in her stomach.

"Hi, Helen. Erm, I'll see if she's here," Alex replied vaguely, putting Helen on hold and making her wonder whether Nikki were screening her calls, disinclined to talk to her.

"Nikki Wade," the Potting Shed owner said brusquely.

"Not going to make this easy for me, are ya?" Helen tried the flirty approach. She was rebuffed.

"Missed you at class on Saturday," came the snide remark.

"I had an appointment at the mechanic's," Helen explained, "but I'll be there tomorrow night."

"Lucky me." Nikki' sarcasm was always in fine form.

"Don't get sarky with me, Nikki. I'm trying," Helen insisted.

"What, by not showing up for class Saturday? D'you think you're the only one affected here, Helen? That it was a piece o' piss for me to walk into that class? That I didn't want to ask Alex to take it over? But I didn't! I chose to be an adult, to face it directly so we could get past it, but you didn't even care enough to do that!" Nikki barely took a breath as she offered this rapid-fire admonition. "You couldn't even be bothered to ring me up, just left me to simmer in my own juices." Her hurt was palpable.

"Nikki, I'm sorry-"

"I don't give a toss, darling," she spat.

"Yes, you do or you wouldnae be throwin' such a wobbly!" Helen argued loudly. She softened, "I needed time, I admit; I couldn't face you Saturday. I was a coward, but I've called you now so if you're not going to talk to me well, you're not puttin' that one on me."

Nikki hesitated. "You're right. You've rung – finally – and I need to stop getting stroppy... But it's all I've been thinking about for three days! Last year I'd got so used to handling everything on my own, then you come into my life and I've got someone I want to share everything with, and then I... I couldn't turn to you." Emotion almost choked her words, "I'd ruined the best thing in my life and I had no one to talk to!" Her naturally deep voice went up an octave as her tears began to flow freely.

Helen had never fully appreciated how difficult it was for Nikki to endure her curfew, what it cost her in terms of personal contact, how lonely she must have been, until that very moment. Helen's vision blurred as tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Nikki, I never knew... I never thought... But nothing's ruined, you have to know that," she promised, her own voice cracking with emotion. "We will get through this," she vowed.

"God, how'd we get here?" Nikki questioned, almost to herself. She knew that Helen was shedding tears of her own softly down the phone and insisted, trying to elevate the mood, "Stop crying; you'll spoil your face."

"Don't want to frighten the cons, eh?" Helen wiped at her eyes.

"Prisoners, Helen. The correct term is prisoners," Nikki smiled, taken back to the first day they met. "How are they all, anyway?" Nikki was looking for a safe subject.

"Part of why I called, actually: Monica Lindsay was found to have a stash of sedatives in her cell, the ones we'd been giving her to treat her grief, ironically. She had been planning on harming herself, Nikki. You saved her life," Helen did not overstate the matter.

"Don't give me the credit, Helen. You were the one who put her on watch," Nikki deflected.

"At your insistence. I'd love to introduce you one day. Her appeal's set to start this week, so she could be out as early as Friday. Speaking of - I wanted to remind you about your talk at the prison Friday. Half three."

"Can we call that a 'Sod U' seminar?" Nikki joked.

"Absolutely!" Both women were quiet for a minute. "Are we okay?" Helen tentatively asked.

"Absolutely," Nikki repeated gently. "I'll see you in class tomorrow, yeah?"

"Yeah. 'Bye, Nikki."

"'Bye, Helen."

Helen was pleased that the awkwardness between herself and Nikki seemed to be fixable, but the emotional rollercoaster she had been riding recently had not yet pulled into the station; she still had to face Sean later that day. The tense atmosphere within the prison did not improve and Helen was late leaving, not arriving home until almost seven. She anticipated another row with Sean, but instead arrived home to discover that he was working late as well; he left a message on their answerphone telling her not to expect him until after dark, which would be well after nine o'clock. She met this news with mixed emotions: on the one hand it granted her a brief reprieve, but on the other it left her with another couple of hours to dwell on what she was going to say.

When Sean did arrive home, his attitude seemed improved and he was not as quick to demand answers of Helen. He had done much soul-searching earlier in the day and forced himself to remember that Helen was an independent woman who would not stand for being smothered in the way he knew he was doing. He decided to put his own control issues aside and let Helen talk to him when she was ready. He remained confident that she loved him and wanted to marry him. It was with relief that Helen heard him tell her as much. Relief tempered with guilt, for she was no longer certain that she shared his confidence.


Part Nineteen

The next few days showed marked improvement insofar as the ramifications of Crystal's letter went. The correspondence from the green ink brigade had all but stopped, thereby turning down the heat G-Wing had been getting from Area Management. A dozen guitars had been delivered to the chapel to support a new initiative called the Larkhall Tabernacle Choir. Because guitars qualified as in-cell hobbies, inmates had taken to practising as much as they were able – Kumbaya was the first and only song they knew - and they played it badly but extremely enthusiastically. It was suggested to the officers that the singing was the only thing that would take the edge off the women's frustrations over the closed visits. Their open visits were restored in very good time, due in large part to a petition signed by almost all prisoners - and many officers as well.

Thursday night Sean was home owing to rather frigid temperatures for the month of July. He told Helen not to bother taking her coat off as they had plans for a "cheap and cheerful" with Jamie and Luce. "You should talk to Luce about your hen night," he suggested. Helen assured him that she had no interest in having a hen night. Ever excited, Sean reminded her that he was having a stag night before informing her that he was also buying a suit. Helen, who had never seen Sean in a suit reluctantly agreed to meet him at the tailor's the following day to help pick one out.

The next morning Helen herself escorted Monica to court for her appeal and was delighted when the older woman was set free. Helen stood behind the newly-released woman who spoke candidly into the cameras. "I'd like to make a brief statement. Before I went to prison I imagined that female prisoners were monsters or lunatics." She paused dramatically. "I was wrong. Most of the women I met, and without whom I could never have survived, are warm, intelligent, funny. Many will have been separated from their children. Some, like me, will lose them forever. Many are drug addicts who need rehabilitation. Many women are the victims of abusive men; they need love and support, not strip searching and bullying. In my opinion prison, as punishment, only makes a bad situation worse. Thank you." Helen was very proud of her and took immense pleasure in watching her walk away a free woman.

Following Monica's release Helen hesitantly made her way to the tailor's to look for Sean. "There she is, just in time for the verdict," Sean proclaimed as Helen entered the shop. She made her way to him, accepting a chaste peck on the cheek.

Seeming distracted, Helen asked Sean if they might be able to step out of the shop and go for a drink. Sean, however, was too excited about buying a suit and posed like a model in front of his fiancée, asking her whether she thought he would need to wear a tie even as he eyed himself up in the mirror. Eventually he came to realise that Helen had barely made eye contact with him since entering the shop. When he asked what was wrong, she endeavoured valiantly to remove him from the shop, again suggesting that they go for a drink, not wanting to do what she knew she had to in that particular public venue. He, however, would not be relocated. "Helen, stop mucking about and tell me what's the matter."

Reluctantly, Helen finally told him, "Sean, I've made a horrible mistake... I cannae marry you."

"What d'you mean you can't marry me? Why not?" he had to know.

"'Cause I don't love you," Helen was almost crying. "I'm really sorry," she offered emotionally, recognising how weak her words were, before turning around and heading out the door where she wept openly on the pavement as she strode away.

Following her excruciating conversation with Sean, Helen still had to return to Larkhall. She did her best to hide in her office for the rest of the day, only emerging at twenty past three to help Nikki get set up for her 'Sod U' seminar. Once the Potting Shed owner was set up in the activity room, Helen went directly back to her office where she suffered no interruptions until half past four when she received a call from the gate. "Gate here, Ma'am. Mr Parr's just arrived."

"What?!" Helen did not need this.

"He's gone straight through to the gardens," the guard informed her.

Helen quickly cradled the receiver and bolted for the door. "Shit!"

Finishing up her talk, Nikki and the inmates who had attended it noticed a commotion in the gardens. They congregated around the window to determine what the clamour was all about. What they saw was a man, Miss Stewart's partner, it was pointed out by someone, driving what appeared to be a two metre high cross into the ground. He draped a suit – replete with a white carnation boutonniere - over the stake and proceeded to douse the suit in white spirit. As Helen arrived in the gardens, they watched Sean pull out a Zippo lighter and set fire to the suit. He then reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out his house keys, tossing them unceremoniously at Helen's feet before bending over to pick his jacket up off the ground and calmly walking back towards his truck, leaving a humiliated Helen behind to watch the suit burn.


Part Twenty

Helen disappeared for a full fortnight following that episode; she needed to sort her life. Sean moved out quickly, though certainly not painlessly. Helen had never fully appreciated the extent of the resentment he felt towards Larkhall and the prisoners in her charge until that defining moment, the afternoon he chose to ignite his effigy on prison grounds. She knew he held the prison responsible for her decision not to marry him, believing that she was already married to her career, but he could not have been more wrong. She was loath to try to explain that while she loved him, she was not in love with him, never had been and never could be. She was only beginning to realise that she had never been in love with any of her previous partners, It was only in comparison that she could know how those emotional attachments had fallen short.

She was in love with Nikki Wade.

Helen was a woman in crisis: She was straight. She was in love with a woman. But she was straight. But she was in love with a woman. Around and around the dichotomy whirled in her head. Helen was not homophobic, but neither could she accept lesbian tendencies in herself. Her fundamentalist father was very strict and convincing in his doctrine, but there was more to Helen's dilemma than her religious upbringing; when she was eleven or twelve years old she and her dying mother had watched a chat show from America. The topic was homosexuality, a highly controversial subject especially given that Scotland had only decriminalised it earlier that year. Mid-show Helen's mother had turned to her and said weakly, "If ever I found out you were gay, ma bird, I'd go aff ma heid." That was the only time she had ever discussed homosexuality with her mother. Twenty three years later Helen still felt that, if she were to pursue a relationship with a woman, it would disrespect her mother's memory, so deeply ingrained were those comments.

Very controlling and linear, Helen had always had a plan for her life: establish her career, find and marry a nice, handsome man, have two kids – one boy, one girl. Simple. Then along comes Nikki Wade to bugger it all up. Well, Helen refused to allow it. Yes, she definitely wanted to keep the charming, passionate, intelligent beauty in her life - "Leave it, Stewart!" she would admonish whenever she thought of Nikki in those terms - but they could never be more than friends.

That Tuesday Helen was finally set to see Nikki again. She arrived at the Potting Shed at half past five asking Alex if it was all right to go straight through to Nikki's office, knowing the tall, dark, gorgeous... "Enough, Stewart!" would be there preparing for the upcoming class. She knocked and entered. "Hiya, Nikki."

Nikki's face lit up as she heard Helen's lilting voice. "Helen!" she cried, standing to give her friend a hug.

"I thought we'd better have a talk. Have you got a mo?" Helen began in flat tones.

Nikki knew that good things rarely followed that lead-in, but forged ahead optimistically, "I can't believe you're finally back here. I was beginning to think you'd done a bunk. You must have been through hell." She paused, looking thoughtfully at Helen. "Couldn't believe Sean showing up at the prison like that. Had to mean you'd chucked him, though," Nikki left that intentionally open-ended.

"Nikki, I don't want to talk about Sean," Helen stated forcefully.

Nikki acquiesced, "Sure. No Sean." She hesitated, "But I think we both know why you couldn't marry him, don't we?" Nikki looked quizzically at Helen, trying to hold her gaze.

"Look, Sean and I were never gonna work out." Nikki looked defeated; she could not believe they were going to continue playing that game. "I knew that as soon as he moved in with me." Helen was grateful that she could be open about that, at least.

"So, when you agreed to marry him, that was just you trying to hide from what you were feeling for me?" Nikki suggested adroitly. She sighed. "Why can't you admit that I mean something to you?" Nikki pressed.

Helen could not meet Nikki's expressive eyes, for then she would have seen the pain reflected there. "Of course you mean something." She maintained her evasive posturing.

"Say that again!" Nikki insisted, looking for forthrightness.

Helen spoke softly, "Look, it doesn't matter what I feel, Nikki. I'm straight. I am not interested in getting involved in a romantic..." She sighed. "I just want us to be friends. I cannae handle anything more and need you to respect that." She added, "I don't want either of us to get hurt."

"That's always a risk, Helen," Nikki submitted. "God, why do you always have to be in control? You have to give way sometimes. I'm not saying it's gonna be easy, but it's not impossible, not if we both want to try," she reasoned.

Helen finally looked at her squarely. "But that's what I'm trying to say to you: I don't want to try. That is not what I want for my life," Helen lied. "There's no way."

Nikki lashed out, "Well, you obviously care more about appearances than you do about me. Of course, I'm not good enough to bring home to Daddy or to introduce to your friends. Not when you can nip down to Tesco's and pick up another boyfriend, 'cause that's what you'd rather have, isn't it, Helen? Then you wouldn't have to take any chances." Nikki was ranting at a feverish pace.

Helen dropped her shoulders. "I nearly didn't come back to this... But our friendship is too important to me. You have to decide, Nikki. Is it important enough to you?" With that Helen left the office and made her way out to the front of the shop where the other women were standing about waiting for class to start.

Nikki furiously smoked a cigarette, joining them a couple minutes later to begin her class on climbing plants, specifically ivy and hops. She managed to remain upbeat and engaging despite the inner turmoil which threatened to overwhelm her. After class she sought Helen out and offered her a most sultry, "So, d'you wanna come back to my place?" Helen nodded and smiled her patented smile. "As sexy as ever," Nikki thought. "All right, I'm trying... But I'm only human!"

Part 21

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