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
Helen did ring Monday but it was with the discouraging news that Wednesday had turned into Thursday. "Beware the ides of March," Nikki thought bitterly. Helen's appointment with the Governing Governor of Eastwood Park had been pushed back a day. She had a meeting early Thursday morning but thought she could be in London by lunchtime.
The week dragged for Nikki. She had written her final exams the previous weekend and her new courses were not scheduled to begin until the following week. She spent her evenings at Helen's flat, cleaning up the garden and raking up leaves. As a surprise for Helen she decided that she would clean the flat from top to bottom Wednesday and left the Potting Shed at three o'clock to make her way to Maida Vale. The telephone rang at half six just as Nikki was finishing cleaning the main bathroom, up to her elbow in the toilet. She made her way out to the living room just in time to hear the caller's message.
"Hiya, Helen, it's Dominic. Sorry I missed you. I thought you were meant to be home tonight... I just wanted to thank you again for Saturday night. I was hoping maybe we could do it again now you're home. Another curry or a Chinese. Give me a ring. You have my number."
"Oh, I've got your number, all right!" Nikki growled. "I think I've finally got Helen's and all." She dropped her marigolds and the rest of her cleaning apparatus and headed out the door. She made record time home to Crouch End despite the rush hour traffic. She did not even remember the drive home, so occupied was she with her own fury.
Nikki arrived early at the Potting Shed next day in quite a temper. Despite the cool temperature, she locked herself away in the greenhouse all morning. When Helen arrived at the shop at twenty after twelve she had not even been home. Though she had not been expressly instructed not to divulge Nikki's whereabouts to the small Scot, Alex was unsure if she should; she had a feeling that Nikki's foul mood was due in no small part to some trouble brewing between the two women. Alex had not seen Nikki so upset since she and Trisha split up. Alex also knew that she had not seen Nikki as happy as she was with Helen ever and made the decision to direct Helen to the greenhouse. "Hi, Nikki!" Helen said brightly when she saw her.
The tagged prisoner's mood was not nearly as cheerful. Her "Hi," was much less enthusiastic and it was clear to Helen that no snog was on offer.
Undaunted Helen forged ahead, "I talked to Claire last night. She thinks you'll get the go-ahead this week."
Her enthusiasm unimproved Nikki grunted, "Great."
Confused by Nikki's stroppy attitude Helen sniped, "I thought you'd be pleased."
"Yeah, well, I've been a little distracted of late, ever since I found out about your date with Dominic," she proclaimed bitterly.
Helen had never been on the receiving end of Nikki's venom and found, to her discomfiture that it frightened her somewhat. "Date?"
"You went out with him at the weekend, didn't you," the accusation flew as Nikki advanced on Helen.
Helen recoiled from the verbal attack. "So?"
"So, were you hiding it from me? Why didn't you tell me about it?" Nikki charged.
Helen decided it was best to go on the offensive. "Probably because I knew you'd react like this!"
Hurt almost beyond bearing, Nikki laid into her "Oh, great! Just rams it home, dunnit? What a huge part of your life I am!"
Sympathising with Nikki's history, recognising and wanting to pacify her insecurities, Helen explained, "We went out to talk about his future with the Prison Service, if you really must know."
Likely due in no small part to a significant sleep deprivation Nikki had spent the whole of the night before stewing over perceived infidelities she would not be pacified. "'Course you did," she sneered.
Fed up with Nikki's attitude Helen shot back, "Not that I have to explain myself to you."
Finding it difficult to tamp down emotions which had been percolating for the better part of a day, all Nikki could say was, "Fine."
Helen was done. "Do you know what? Sod you, Nikki!" She stormed off. Too late Nikki regretted the childish way she had handled this situation. She hung her head guiltily, kicking herself, knowing she would be begging Helen's forgiveness before day's end. Likely sooner rather than later. She went into the shop to look for Alex, to let her know she'd be leaving early. Soon.
As it turned out, that was not the ideal decision. Nikki assumed that after so long away Helen would be heading directly home. She was mistaken. In case Helen had gone out for lunch, Nikki waited outside her flat for over an hour and a half before giving up. She called Larkhall to discover that, no, Helen was not there and, also no, the officer with whom Nikki spoke did not know if she was expected. Unbeknownst to Nikki, Helen had meetings all afternoon at HMP Holloway in Islington. She did not arrive home until after six. Further, Nikki could not ring Helen's mobile in her efforts to find her because they had run out of minutes Monday night. The prisoner spent the better part of the afternoon driving around the streets of London, smoking furiously and berating herself for her jealous behaviour. By half past six she had wound her way back to Maida Vale and was well pleased to see Helen's little red Peugeot parked outside her flat. Defying the discretion they had previously been showing, Nikki parked her four-by-four directly behind Helen's car and made her way up the stairs to her flat. Sheepishly she rang the bell. Upon seeing Nikki Helen shook her head. "No, Nikki." She made a half-hearted effort to shut the door.
Stopping the door with a hand Nikki insisted, "Helen, wait. I wanna apologise." The fiery Scot continued to fume, her eyes narrowed to small slits. "What I said, I'm sorry," Nikki carried on.
Helen's voice was tight. "Well, I hope you are 'cause I don't expect to be spoken to like that ever again!"
In a desperate bid to explain Nikki quietly said, "I just couldn't help feeling jealous."
Still exasperated Helen challenged, "Why? Did you really think I was trying to get off with Dominic?" This was not the welcome home she had envisioned. At the Potting Shed she had had no idea how Nikki might have learnt about the meeting with Dominic, not that Helen had been deliberately trying to keep it from her, but when she arrived home to discover a clean house and a message from him on her answerphone, the weary traveller put the pieces together.
"He fancies you," Nikki said simply.
"So? There's lots of women who fancy you. Should I be jealous of them?" Helen reasoned.
"It's not the same."
Helen was lost. "Why not?" she cried.
"Because..." Nikki's voice was also raised. Recognising they were still at the threshold of Helen's flat she lowered it and said meekly, "Because you're the only woman I want, but you could decide you want a man as well." And that was the crux of Nikki's problem; after so long she had finally lowered her defences and let someone in, but her previous bad experiences with straight women had left her scarred. And scared.
"Look, to get this initiative up and running, I have to take a lot of business meetings, occasionally wooing officers over dinner. I won't be dictated to when and how I can see my work colleagues, so you'd better stop thinkin' I m so fickle about how I feel about you." Helen was adamant and not prepared to relent. Her stubbornness had hit an all-time high this afternoon the more she thought about Nikki's words and demeanour. It would take some time, but she could throw the other woman a small something: "Thank you, Nikki, for all the work you did on my flat. And the garden." Nikki could just nod. "Not a perfect homecoming, eh? And now you'd better get to yours," she finished, looking at her watch. "You've got a talk at Larkhall tomorrow, don't you?" The prisoner nodded. "Perhaps I'll see you there." They leant in tentatively for an awkward kiss knowing that their relationship, which should have been renewed that day, was, in fact, suffering its first true test. Nikki settled in behind the wheel of her Mitsubishi and left for home as Helen watched her go.
Helen spent her night sat at the coffee table in her living room ostensibly doing paperwork, but her heart was most assuredly not in the task as her thoughts kept drifting to Nikki: her history with her parents, her history with Trisha, her conviction and the sentence she was serving. Helen was coming to terms with the whys surrounding Nikki's jealousy but was having great difficulty with the way it had manifested itself, with the manner in which Nikki had spoken to her. Helen comforted herself that, following their altercation this evening, she would never have to put up with that from Nikki again. Lost in these thoughts Helen started at the sound of the doorbell. "Who on earth-?" she thought as she hoisted herself up, looking at the clock to learn it was five after eight. She opened the door to find Dominic on her doorstep holding a large brown paper bag.
Helen Stewart was a born flirt. She discovered at a young age that flirting was a powerful tool, an effective means of getting what she wanted. She had perfected her technique and, as happens with many human skills, no longer had to put any conscious effort into it, so ingrained into her very being had it become. She used her proficiency with it on most men and many women. She had certainly used it on Nikki to surprising consequences. A young and inexperienced Dominic McAllister would obviously be powerless against it. Unfortunately, he would also be inclined to read too much into it, to interpret it as a manifestation of genuine romantic interest. It was this naïveté which brought him to Helen's door. It was the bottle of Stoli he had in hand which got him across the threshold.
The two prison officials talked amiably for an hour and a half, learning a lot about each other, Helen curious about Dominic's foray into the world of custodial services. The more she learnt about the conscientious young man, the more she knew she knew she wanted him to have a role in her Lifers' Initiative. Dom seemed to think they were on a date.
Near ten o'clock, and fuelled up on vodka, Dominic reached for the telephone which was ringing at his left hand. Lifting it awkwardly he managed to drop the receiver even as he was handing it to Helen. He muttered his apologies as he gathered it up from the living room floor and stood to hand it to his hostess. There was no response to Helen's, "Hello," but she knew without a doubt whom the caller must have been. "Shit!" she thought.
She turned down Dominic's offer to dial one-four-seven-one. "No, no. Anyway, it doesn't matter." They were both still standing. Helen thought it was a perfect opportunity for Dominic to make a move to leave. While he certainly did make a move, it was not towards the front door; he tried to draw Helen in for a kiss. She turned away from him, exhaling forcibly and wondering how she could possibly have missed the signs. "Don't..." She shook her head as the hand with which he had been holding her face lingered a moment longer.
Their discomfiture was great. Helen's heart, which had been in her throat since Nikki's phone call, was threatening to shatter, her blood pressure through the roof. "How did I not see this coming?" she wondered. She forced herself to admit that the signs had been there and blatantly obvious and that she had encouraged it as a tremendous boost to her ego to know she could tempt a younger man.
There is a law of nature which suggests that there must be balance in all things. Just as Helen's ego was buoyed by the evening's display, Dominic's had conversely been dragged down into a deep pool of humiliation. "Look, I better go," he managed.
Helen's body language screamed defeat and she did not want to be left alone. There was so much going on in her life about which she had been unable to speak to anyone. The only one of her friends to whom she felt close enough to discuss the dramatic overhaul of her personal life was Claire, but Helen could not bring herself to put the solicitor in such a compromising position. Claire was, after all, still an officer of the court and would be caught up in an ethical dilemma should she discover the truth about Helen's relationship with Nikki. Perhaps this man with whom she had worked for the better part of a year would make a good sounding board, she thought. "No, don't leave," she insisted. They took up their previous positions on the couch.
Awkwardness still hung heavy in the air, but Dominic tried gallantly to dispel it. He apologised profusely, explaining that he had simply misread the signs, that it would not happen again. His short, choppy sentences argued for his ongoing discomfort.
Steeling herself for a difficult conversation, Helen was glad of the vodka which suffused her bloodstream. "No, it's me. I just should have told you I'm in love with someone else." Dominic took this news hard, sighing and hanging his head. He was most assuredly even less prepared for what was to come next. "It's Nikki Wade." Helen paused to wait for his reaction which was utter disbelief. She begged him not to tell anyone, made him promise that it would go no further.
Dominic had met Nikki on a couple occasions when she had come to Larkhall to give a talk. He could not fail to notice the way she looked at Helen when she believed no one was watching. He could only laugh bitterly at the information with which he had just been furnished and shake his head again, "Sure. I'm sorry. I'm really thrown here. I mean, I knew she liked you... I just never thought..."
"I just want you to know where I'm coming from." Dominic gave a short nod, trying to wrap his brain around what he had just heard. "Look, let's have another drink," Helen insisted. Her emotions were out of control, but the thing which stood out the most to her was not that she had proclaimed her love for Nikki to Dominic but that she had done so before telling the woman herself.
In a distant house in Crouch End another woman's heart was being brutally wrenched from her chest as she replayed the telephone scene from a moment ago. Had she not just had it out with Helen that very afternoon? Had she not just been assured that there was nothing between Helen and Dominic? Then what in hell was he doing in her flat at ten o'clock at night? Nikki wailed, beside herself, smoking one cigarette after another, expecting Helen to ring her back offering penitence. Five minutes passed. Ten. Nikki resolved to wait no longer than thirty minutes, her imagination running wild contemplating what Helen might be getting up to with the young officer, refusing to invoke the prison vernacular 'screw'. When forty minutes had past, she stormed through her house turning off the ringers on her telephones as well as her answerphone, determined that, at that point, she had no interest in hearing anything Helen had to say. She prepared herself to face a second consecutive sleepless night.
Eventually Dominic made his way down the stairs, pausing at the bottom to turn back to look at Helen's shut door where he saw her silhouetted behind the opaque glass. For her part Helen's anxiety had reached an all-time high as she brooded over what she had inflicted upon Nikki tonight. Taking a deep breath she settled onto the couch in the living room and picked up the telephone receiver and dialled Nikki's number. She listened, butterflies multiplying in her stomach, as Nikki's phone rang off the hook. Five rings. Ten. Twenty. The answerphone never picked up either. Ten minutes later, Helen tried again to the same end. If she had not drunk so much vodka, she would have driven to Crouch End. Instead she continued to ring Nikki's number every thirty minutes until well after three when she was forced by her own exhaustion to go to bed.
No one was ever at the Potting Shed earlier than Alex who arrived at half past eight Tuesday through Saturday mornings to be sure to have the doors open for nine o'clock. It was with some concern, then, that she arrived that Friday to discover all lights aglow and the central heating boiler already turned up. She assumed that the new girl, Kate, had simply done a poor job closing the previous night likely itching to get out to the clubs until she heard a commotion coming from Nikki's office. Cautiously Alex approached and heard Nikki's mumbled rantings from within. Unsure whether more or less caution would be needed, she knocked and entered the inner sanctum effectively startling her boss. "Kinnell! Wha'd'you want?" Nikki snapped, turning on her recently promoted manager.
"Who slapped your tits, man?" Alex demanded, reeling from the look on Nikki's face.
Slamming down a pen Nikki shouted, "Who do you think? Helen Bloody Stewart!" she fumed. "I phoned her house last night and guess who was there: surprise sur-bloody-prise, Dominic McAllister." Alex knew the name; Nikki had vented to her about the previous day's events.
"So?" Though Alex could see where this was going.
The fury inside Nikki threatened to break free. "So, she's been goin' around behind my back! She's gettin' off with him."
"Not sure how you got there, mate," Alex questioned evenly.
Nikki could not believe anyone could be so obtuse. Patronisingly she explained, "She knows he fancies her. He was in her house, ten o'clock at night. What the hell else for?" She grew quiet.
"Oi, Nik, don't go off on one." Jumping to conclusions was not one of Alex's flaws. "It don't mean she was gettin' off with him."
"What? You invite a man you know fancies you into your house at night just the two of you if you're really not interested? No, you don't!" The pain and bitterness etched upon Nikki's face was extreme. She did not believe she could have been more hurt if she had been forced to watch Helen have sex with Dominic.
There was very little Alex did not know about the women's relationship. "Hang about! Everythin' she's doin' for you, if you can't trust her not to muck about..."
"Well, I obviously can't!" Nikki griped petulantly and lit another cigarette.
"Nik, don't be a divvy!"Alex had no compunctions about speaking to her boss in this manner. She was fairly certain that the friendship she and Nikki had forged would withstand this skirmish. "Why would she risk puttin' herself in the shit if it wasn't on, you dozy cow?" That question was more likely to land Alex on the dole, but she was beyond caring. She thought Nikki needed a good kick in the backside.
"You don't know what you're bloody talking about. You've never been involved with a straight woman before. They don't know what truth means, they're so used to manipulating men. I don't know why I thought she'd be any different." Again this was what it all boiled down to: Nikki had allowed herself to become vulnerable, to let Helen get into a position where she could hurt her. Nikki was equally cross with herself for allowing herself to be as exposed as she was with Helen. She had sworn she would never let another woman wield such power over her.
"That's pants! It's just all this soddin' separation's made you dead paranoid." And with that, Alex left Nikki alone and went to open the shop's doors.
The day's thunderstorms reflected Nikki's mood and kept people away from the shop. Thankful for a quiet morning not having to talk to customers, Nikki made her way to the greenhouse again, customarily her favourite place for a think. Even feeling the dirt between her fingers would not quell the agony which had taken up residence and dug a gaping hole in her core. She might have been better off enduring the retail side of the business, for the greenhouse gave her too much time to think, to stew. By the time Helen showed up at half ten, Nikki was in a terrible temper.
Believing they could handle their current situation as adults, Helen approached. "Nikki," she began.
Nikki had apparently not got the memo regarding adult behaviour. "Recognition?" she questioned, turning soil with a gardening fork, not looking up.
Helen exhaled a big sigh, realising what sort of conversation this was destined to be. Knowing what the other woman must have been going through the previous night, she let this snarky attitude slide a little bit. "Please, give me a chance to explain," she said softly. "About Dominic, he just turned up at my door. I didn't invite him 'round."
Nikki could not even look at her. "How very familiar." Nikki dug in her pocket and pulled out Helen's house keys which she virtually threw at Helen. "See if you can't get him to look after your flat next time!" she spat.
"Nikki, you're misreading this whole thing." He was a young officer looking for advice, or so Helen thought, and one whom she wanted for her program. Nikki continued her work with the soil. There was an air of resignation surrounding her, a sense that she was defeated by circumstances out of her control and Helen desperately wanted to set the record straight, to put the tortured woman out of her misery. "Look, can I tell you what happened or not?"
As always when Nikki was hurting, she came became belligerent and antagonistic. Irrespective of one's heightened emotional state, there are still some lines which ought never to be crossed. Nikki vaulted over one without so much as a downwards glance as she spat at Helen, "I'm really happy for you, Helen, must be a great relief to know you can still pull the boys. Now piss off, you two-faced tart!" Helen stormed off, sick to the back teeth of the prisoner's combative treatment of her.
Nikki immediately knew she had gone too far but she could not help herself. She was terrified by how close she had let Helen come, of how much pain the woman was able to cause her. Nikki had needed to push her back some and just prayed she had not pushed her away completely. Her anger and frustration unabated, she continued turning the soil with the gardening fork and was punished for her inattention, driving the tines of the sharp fork through the fleshy part of her hand between her thumb and index finger. The excruciating pain still could not touch the emotional turmoil she was suffering.
Shortly after Helen made her way back to Larkhall, Dominic found her in the PO's room. She was torn up about what was happening to her relationship with Nikki. Still feeling the sting of the previous night, he had approached her apologetically, letting her know that he remained keen to talk to her about courses. She seemed unusually distracted.
"You okay?" he asked her, genuinely concerned. She admitted to having a really tough time with Nikki who was convinced Helen had been getting off with the young PO. "Wha'? Even after you explained it to her?" His naïveté clearly shone through as he asked earnestly, "Why would she think you'd lie to her?" Later that afternoon, he sought out an audience with the other party.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time spent at a medical clinic getting her hand tended to, Nikki realised she barely had time to get to Larkhall for her talk. She would almost have preferred to have chopped her hand off entirely or even to have submerged it in a vat of acid rather than to go into the prison, but she respected the commitment she had made. Further, these 'Sod U' seminars counted towards her community service and it would look bad if she were to not show up. She was led through to the same room off the library where she had held her previous talks.
Her talk on spring garden preparation went off without a hitch, though, if asked, Nikki would tell you she could scarcely recall a minute of it. Afterwards it took her only a couple minutes to clean up her props and, once she had, she looked up to see none other than Dominic McAllister arrived to escort the women back to their wings. The women had congregated, talking amongst themselves. Dominic took advantage of that opportunity to approach Nikki, much to her dismay. Equally regretting and getting increasingly wound up by her own choice of phrase, Nikki went on the offensive, "Lookin' knackered, Dom... Night on the tiles, was it?" she parried.
"Look, Nikki, I know it was you that rang." He truly wanted to explain, make things right for Helen.
The animosity was coming off Nikki in waves as she spouted, "Not much she didn't share with you, then, was there?" She continued to ask questions, certain in the knowledge she already knew the answers. Not that she gave Dominic the opportunity to respond. "You little shit!" she hissed venomously.
Despite the hostility and resentment he felt radiating from Nikki, not to mention the vow he had made to Helen the night before, Dominic had made a decision. "Listen to me a minute," he spoke softly, careful not to be overheard by the inmates or that terrible gossip, PO Di Barker. Not interested in the least to know the details of the night he had spent with her girlfriend, Nikki turned her head away from the young officer. Understanding Nikki's jealousy because he had experienced it himself the previous night, he nonetheless informed her, "I'd be a damn sight better for Helen than you, so I'd be just as pleased to see you cock-up whatever's going on between you, but before you do, there's something you need to know: she's in love with you, Nikki." He gave her a dismissive wave of his hand. "Do with that what you'd like..." He turned on his heel and set about corralling the prisoners who were milling about, knowing he had done the best he could, given the situation, though he still believed that he would be a much better match for Helen than this jealous, bitter and stroppy would-be inmate. Nikki was left alone to consider his words. As hurt as she was that Helen had chosen to speak to Dominic about their relationship, there was one piece of information which superseded everything else: Helen was in love with her. Why she could not have told Nikki herself was an issue to be addressed another day. This day was reserved for finding Helen and making up with her for their earlier encounter.
Nikki finished tidying up and gathered her things. She asked Jim Fenner, the officer who was escorting her out, if she could briefly speak to Helen in her office but learnt that she was in a meeting with one of her lifers and would be unavailable for the rest of the day. This was not the first time Nikki had met Fenner. This most recent encounter simply reinforced her initial impressions: he was a sleazy misogynist who enjoyed the power being a prison officer gave him over the inmates. Knowing Nikki's history he seemed to want to go out of his way to torment her as well. These seminars were part of her community service and, as such, required a form be filled out by the prison for her to be able to present to the courts. Fenner suggested there might be something Nikki could do for him if she wanted the form so badly. "Then again," he started, "I don't really want your dykey bits anywhere near me. But I'll be sure to let your little girlfriend know you were looking for her," he concluded, not knowing how he had hit the mark. He made a point of slightly crumpling the form in question before dropping it on the floor for her to pick up. Nikki felt his eyes on her backside as she did so and bit back a scathing retort, thankful as always that she was serving her sentence on the outside.
A repentant Nikki decided that she would wait for Helen in the car park and took up a position beside the small red Peugeot, smoking as she waited. It was already a quarter past five and Nikki did not anticipate a long wait, but she would have stayed straight through until morning her curfew be damned - to have this conversation. True to Nikki's prediction Helen arrived at her car twenty minutes later. Nikki's heart melted at the sight of her in her short, black leather jacket over a low-cut lime green tee shirt and black trousers. She could tell immediately that Helen was not feeling nearly as warm towards her. The lifers' liaison could still barely look at Nikki and greeted her with an aggressive, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Already things were not going as Nikki had rehearsed them. She grew sedate, "Dominic told me what you said to him." Hesitating, Nikki looked for a reaction from Helen but got none but a subtle raise of her eyebrows, a 'go on' gesture, so she did. "I've been a total arsehole. I love you, Helen. I know you love me-"
It seemed Helen could not interrupt quickly enough. "No! No, Nikki," she said harshly. "You're too late. You said things I cannae forget. I don't know wha' I feel about you anymore." The look of bitter fury had not ebbed from her face, a look which created the impression that Nikki was not the only one who had been marinating in the emotions generated by their earlier confrontation. Helen sneered, "Go and fall for someone else!" With that last recommendation she threw herself into her car and tried to speed away, a gesture made much less dramatic as she had to wait for the gate guard to raise the barrier arm. "Shit!" she said under her breath as she ticked off those long drawn out seconds.
Nikki's world was crumbling, the future she had envisioned with Helen gone. She was standing in the car park, tears in her eyes as she watched the woman she loved drive off. "The woman you drove off, you mean," she snorted caustically at the irony. All Nikki could do was make her way north again, brave the traffic and bring the props she had used in her talk that day back to the Potting Shed. She was in shock, walking or more accurately driving around in a fog. She did not even remember the thirty-five minute commute to Finchley. After dropping off her supplies, she made her way back to her office. Alex's work day would normally have been done at five o'clock, but she was worried about her boss and had awaited her return. She noticed Nikki's arrival with disquiet. A ranting Nikki she could handle; she had seen it before and assuredly would again. The Nikki who walked into the shop that evening looked like a beaten woman her head was hanging and her gait was measured. Alex waited a half hour then joined her in the office.
"Nik, man, are you comin' out onto the floor at all tonight?"
She rolled her eyes in a defeated manner and, in a voice barely more than a whisper, Nikki offered a throaty, "No." Lighting one cigarette from the last, she stared blankly out the window at the potting shed where Helen had, quite accidently, first touched her, reliving all the events of the past sixteen months with perfect clarity: the day they met over hangover tea, their first dinner together and the sleepover that ensued, their first Christmas, their wine tastings, their first kiss, the first time Helen touched her, rather deliberately... And now it was all over. She was devastated.
Not known for her diplomacy, likely why Nikki kept her around, Alex pointed out, "You look like shite. Sure, things've gone pear shaped, but givin' up now would be a prize cock up, so pull your finger out, get yourself home and ring her before you make a complete bollocks of your life! Now!" Nikki gave a quick nod. She did not know what she was going to do about Helen, but she knew she had to get home anyway to satisfy her curfew. She decided that Alex was right: her life might have been on hold for over two years, but she did not have to let it get totally away from her. Not without a fight, that is.
She went directly to the phone when she got home, grabbing the receiver without hesitation though her heart was sitting in the pit of her stomach. Tears welled up again but she would not give herself the chance to wait them out, to change her mind about ringing. She managed to blink them back as she listened to the answerphone message. "Hi. Sorry I'm not here to answer your call. Please leave your message after the tone. Thanks for calling," Helen's canned voice said.
Nikki, looking as though she might vomit, pressed on, her deep voice full of emotion. "Hi. It's me. Please pick up the phone if you're there." She waited, desperate to hear Helen's familiar Scottish lilt. Disappointed, Nikki expelled an audible breath and continued, "I'm not going to give up on you, Helen. I can't. Just give me another chance. I can't believe this has happened to us. I know it's all my fault, but... I've got to talk to you." Her voice cracked in anguish and she abruptly put down the receiver, tears allowed to run unchecked down her face.
Helen had been home when the phone call came in. She stood by steadfast upon hearing Nikki's rich voice thick with emotion, but when she heard the tortured plea, the aggrieved Scot picked up the receiver only to discover that the other woman had rung off. As upset as she was over Nikki's manner earlier in the day, Helen could not help but be moved by the message which Nikki had left. This was the woman Helen loved and she was in torment. They both were, truth be told. Helen tried to ring her back but Nikki's line was engaged. She rang her several more times through the night, always with the same result. She was tempted to drive to Crouch End, but knew that emotions were still to raw to brook a face-to-face meeting so instead she tortured herself listening the Nikki's message again and again.
The only reason that Nikki got any sleep at all that Friday night was because she had hardly slept the previous two nights and her body was revolting against the abuse. Each time she did awaken, however, she felt a gaping hole inside. "And I'm the stupid cow who gouged it out," she thought. She arrived at the Potting Shed at nine o'clock aware of the concern on Alex's face. Nikki tried hide herself away in the office, but no sooner had she sat down than she learnt that she was wanted on the telephone. Her stomach flipped at the thought that it might be Helen. Nikki had spent much of the morning in her house kicking herself once she realised that in her haste to hang up the previous evening, she had not properly cradled the phone's receiver, had left the phone off the hook overnight. She had even convinced herself that Helen had probably sat home all night ringing, unable to get through. "Do yourself a favour, eh, Wade?" she thought shaking her head at the unlikelihood of that. She had rung Helen as soon as she realised, but it went straight to the answerphone. Nikki remembered that Helen had been driving to Canterbury for a University of Kent alumni luncheon.
She answered the phone in her office. "Nikki Wade."
"Nikki? Hi it's Tony. Where're you?" Nikki had not spoken to him since the night she and Helen first kissed.
The tagged prisoner was in no mood for games. "Erm, Tony, you're the one monitoring me. Shouldn't you actually know?" Nikki lit a cigarette.
If anyone were to ask, he would deny it, but the woman with the whiskey voice and the eyes to match on the other end of the line was one of his favourites. He smiled. "Humour me."
"South of France," she answered glibly. "Where do you think? I'm at work. Why're you asking?" Curiosity was her initial reaction, but in the back of her mind a plan was brewing.
"There's summink wrong with your tag. It's sayin' you're at yours and haven't left in, like, four days," Tony confided sheepishly, forced to admit that there was a glitch.
"And, what, you thought I'd topped myself?" she laughed. "And it took you four days to check. I'm touched how much you care," she said dripping sarcasm.
"Actually, I do care, innit? I could be in schtuk for sayin' anything, but... There'll be someone by your flat Monday to give it the once over, yeah? So don't go gettin' no ideas. Somebody might be checkin' on you, right?" Nikki reckoned she was pretty low-priority and was not convinced that officers from Home Detention would be overly bothered with her on a Saturday night.
"Yeah, right. 'Course. Like I'd even think about legging it with only eight months to go. I don't think so, mate." Nikki sounded very convincing. "But thanks for checking on me, yeah?" She rung off and went to find Alex who was to play a pivotal role in her blossoming plan.
Nikki was in and out of the shop all day refining and implementing her plan, her last chance at happiness with Helen. She and Alex closed the shop doors at seven o'clock and tackled their customary closing duties, finally shutting the lights off at ten after. Ensuring that Alex was wearing her Potting Shed donkey jacket, Nikki led her young employee out to her Mitsi Shogun and drove them both to her Crouch End house. Thirty minutes later a tall blonde in a donkey jacket left the house and climbed into a waiting cab, letting the driver know that she was headed into the city, to the Arbitrage Irish pub on Thorgmorton Street. It was St. Patrick's Day weekend, after all. Alighting from the cab, the woman took a minute to let the cabbie drive off before walking west towards Moorgate tube station. She climbed aboard a train bound for Hammersmith, getting off on Warwick Avenue. Eight minutes later she was standing in front of a familiar red door in Maida Vale, her finger on the doorbell.
Dressed in her house cosies yoga trousers and a thin light blue zip hoodie, a stunned Helen, almost paralysed by the impact of finding the woman she loved on her doorstep, and outside her curfew, could only ask, "Nikki? What the f-"
"I've gotta talk to you-" Helen shut the door on her. She could not believe Nikki was at her flat. The potential repercussions were too great to consider. "Helen!" Nikki banged loudly on the door. "Helen, please! For Christ's sake, let me in!" she hollered. "Look, it's okay; no one knows I'm here," she said, as though that were enough to dispel Helen's ethical and legal - dilemma. "It's only for tonight!" she continued screaming through the shut door. Helen stood hiding behind it in a quandary, looking quite ill and taking deep breaths. She considered ringing 999. Nikki's attempts to get her attention grew more aggressive as she rattled the door almost off its hinges, yelling, "If you don't let me in, I'm gonna smash your bloody window!" She continued her assault on the door, insistently ringing the bell and shouting, "I've got to see you!" Helen finally relented, knowing that this disturbance was as likely to bring the police as any 999 call would be. She opened the door letting Nikki in.
"Nikki, you are completely mad! I am an employee of the Home Office. Do you have any idea?" she blustered after shutting the door.
Approaching Helen, taking both her arms, Nikki pulled her in tight until they were face to face, inches apart. "I love you." The three words were infused with all the emotion of the previous three days. "When I thought I'd driven you away for good, I didn't know how I could live. Then I found out my tag was on the blink and I knew I had to take a chance." Helen continued to shake her head in disbelief. "I just want to make the most of it. We've got a whole night together."
Her professional ethics affronted, Helen tried to pull away from her. "No, Nikki, this is not the way."
Nikki's hold was fast, however, and, steeling herself, she spun the smaller woman back to face her. Looking deeply into Helen's eyes, with all the love in her heart revealed on her own face, Nikki demanded gently, "Tell me... you love me."
Helen let out a breath she had not even been aware she was holding as her stoic veneer cracked. For what seemed like an eternity all she could do is try to catch her breath at the enormity of the moment. "Oh, God," she uttered almost imperceptibly. She then looked up into Nikki's gorgeous, love-suffused face and knew she would not tell her, she would show her how much she loved her. At long last. She reached up, grabbing hold of the back of Nikki's head, determinedly drawing the taller woman's mouth down onto her own. Helen's hands fumbled with the buttons on Nikki's jacket, pushing it off her shoulders. Covering Nikki's face with frenzied kisses, Helen's 'over the clothes only' rule flew out the window as she desperately worked to undo the buttons of Nikki's shirt. Finally she achieved her goal as the two sides parted allowing Helen to behold Nikki's almost bare breasts for the first time. "Oh...Nicola," she sighed sensually, slipping a hand inside the black lace bra and running her thumb over an already distended nipple.
Nikki was almost too terrified to breathe, worried that one false move would scare Helen off. For a short time she revelled in the sensations Helen's mouth and hands were creating, but she intensely needed to touch Helen, to feel her quiver under Nikki's own hands. Ultimately she decided that this was real, that it was not yet another of her salacious fantasies. She accepted Helen's flurry of kisses with a bliss that warmed her depths. Nikki traced her own kisses from Helen's forehead, down along her jaw line, to her neck feeling the hammering of the sultry Scot's pulse, then nipping gently across her collarbone while her unbandaged right hand slid the zipper of Helen's hoodie down, exposing an equally impressive set of breasts, unceremoniously housed inside a plain beige bra. If Helen had known what her evening had had in store... Unsurprisingly, Nikki did not give it a thought as she marvelled at Helen's perfect figure and pulled them both down onto the couch, Helen kneeling, straddling her. Then, in an act which came full circle from the incident in the potting shed, it was a forward Helen who drew Nikki's hand up, pressing it onto Helen's breast. "Oh, God," the worked up Scot invoked, "I want you." She moved to lie on top of Nikki, capturing the taller woman's shapely lips in a core-contracting kiss - absently wondering how Nikki had managed to unfasten her bra with one hand - while feasting on a superabundance of sensation.
Somehow Nikki had managed to relocate them from the living room to Helen's bedroom; there was no way that she and Helen were going to make love for the first time on her couch. An hour and a half later as Nikki lay wrapped protectively in Helen's arms, she felt the prick of tears in her eyes. Their lovemaking was better than Nikki could ever have envisioned - and she had envisioned it a lot. The way they fit together, Helen's adventurous nature, the way she never held back, exploring Nikki's every contour with her hands, her tongue...Nikki could scarcely believe that it was her first time making love to a woman. And her second, Nikki thought, smiling shamelessly to herself. Her emotions threatening to overwhelm her, Nikki guessed that Helen had frittered away some time imagining this moment as well. "Shhh. It's all right, Swee'heart. I'm here." Helen whispered tenderly.
Shining with a brilliant afterglow, the new lovers looked at each other. "I'm so happy," Nikki asserted unnecessarily, gazing deeply into Helen' eyes.
Helen had never been more content; being with Nikki made her feel more whole than she ever had in her entire life. Nikki was without a doubt the best lover Helen had ever had, but it was not just that she was very skilled, though she certainly was that. With Helen's previous partners she always sensed that, even while they were pleasuring her, their end goal was only ever their own orgasm. The way Nikki's own body responded made it obvious that gratifying Helen was her main objective, gave her more satisfaction than even her own release. In fact, the first time Nikki made love to Helen, as the waves of her orgasm crested with Nikki's fingers deep inside her, Helen became aware of Nikki's body shuddering alongside her own. Reflecting on this a small smile touched Helen's soft lips as she reached out to stroke Nikki's cheek. "You're amazing."
Almost shyly and still with a sense of wonder Nikki returned in kind, "So're you," thinking back on the enthusiasm Helen had brought to their lovemaking. The absence of inhibition she demonstrated coupled with her brazen approach were beyond anything Nikki could have dreamed of, and when Helen's tongue sought out Nikki's most intimate folds, the taller woman's release was almost as immediate as it was all-consuming. If possible, Nikki gazed at Helen with even more love than before telling her, "I've imagined this so many times." Affectionately stroking Helen's hair she went on, "I can't believe I've really got you. Anything's possible now, a whole future."
"Nikki," always forced to be the voice of reason, Helen threw a bucket of ice water on Nikki's fantasy, "tonight... tonight was incredible, but it doesn't change anything."
"What?" Nikki could not believe what she was hearing.
"If anything, it makes a greater possibility that we'll be found out, that you'll wind up serving the rest of your sentence in prison... I have to get you home. Now, before anyone knows that you're gone."
"Don't be stupid; I can't just show up in the middle of the night if they're watching my house. Think about it," Nikki explained reasonably.
"And, Nikki, what if they try to knock you up?" Helen could also do reasonable.
Smoothing Helen's lustrous hair Nikki assured the ever prudent Scot, "It's sorted, Darling." The satiated unimprisoned prisoner had never been so content. She would happily have lain this way with Helen for hours. Pensively she acknowledged, "If I believed that after tonight that you and I couldn't be together, I'd want to leg it. I could use Trish's passport, get out of the country, go to San Francisco. After everything we've been through this week, another eight months of that? I know I'd go totally mad."
As Helen rolled over to look at the clock on the bedside table, her eyes were drawn to a piece of correspondence she had left there. While the lifers' liaison was turned, Nikki placed an affectionate kiss between her shoulder blades. "Come here," she insisted, loathing the disconnection. Helen's attempt to conceal the letter had its opposite effect and drew Nikki's attention. She partially sat up, looking over Helen's shoulder asking, "What's that?"
Helen let out a big sigh and resigned herself to the conversation to come. "It's a letter from Claire. I'm sorry, Sweetheart, it's bad news." Helen looked at Nikki and, as serious as the situation was, could not help but be taken in by her lover's appearance; Nikki's hair, usually perfect in an intentionally unkempt way, was definitely exhibiting that, "'Just been shagged' look," Helen thought tenderly. Nikki, troubled by Helen's assertion, grew quiet and nestled onto a comforting shoulder. They lay together for a few moments before Helen got up and pulled a couple satin dressing gowns from her cupboard. The two women made their way to the living room for a drink and a chat.
Downing some neat Stoli they settled in for a heavy conversation. "It's not the end of the world, Nikki. It's not, but it is serious: Claire knows about us, about my feelings for you. I didn't tell her, but she's one of my closest friends and she clocked it. She's an officer of the court, ethically bound to report us. What she told me is that, so long as we're not in a physical relationship, her conscience is clean, she can still argue that you weren't corrupting me."
Arguing against this assessment Nikki stammered, "I never... I didn't..." There was a question in her eyes.
"'Course not!" Helen insisted. "And you're not giving up on your appeal? Even if Claire decides she can't represent you?" While Helen considered this unlikely, she would not use her friendship with the lawyer to force her into something with which she was professionally and ethically uncomfortable.
"You're kidding? No way," Nikki was adamant. She had seen her future and was not going to miss out on it. Without the appeal her freedom would always to be compromised because she would have to jump through hoops to be allowed to travel, to get insurance for her shop; whatever she did, wherever she went she would always be viewed as an ex-con.
Helen let out another dramatic sigh, "Well, good! 'Cause neither am I." After all these months Helen was finally able to look deeply into her girlfriend's eyes and say, "I love you, Nikki," making Nikki's heart soar despite this latest test of their commitment.
"Enough to give everything up for me?" Nikki enquired.
"Yeah, you know how much," Helen affirmed earnestly.
"Then let's leave for San Francisco," Nikki suggested playfully. "We'll run away together, the city by the bay, a world away from all this bollocks here."
Despite recognising Nikki's mischievous tone, Helen offered sarcastically, "Yeah, if that's not the most brilliant idea. Spend the rest of our lives on the run because we cannae wait out eight months." She was not seeing the humour because it was overshadowed by what she was seeing, a vision of what was to come, what Nikki refused to see. They had some hard truths to accept.
Nikki's face was still aglow with her fantasy. "But we could start our new life tomorrow," she dreamt.
Helen remained steadfast in her stoicism. She asked a pressing question. "Nikki, why did you come here tonight? Why not just ask me to come to yours, where you wouldn't be in breach of your curfew?"
Her response gave substance to Helen's most deep-seated fears. "To prove how much I love you," she stated simply. Helen knew that it was taking chances like this which would land Nikki in prison.
"And to prove how much I love you, I'm taking you home. It's just too risky for you to be away from your house at this hour," Helen insisted.
Nikki hated the idea of moving and entreated, "But you'll stay the night with me?"
"Nowhere I'd rather be." While this did not answer the question, it did spare Helen the discomfiture of lying. "So, come on! Shift your arse. Up and dressed. I said now, Wade!" Helen insisted playfully.
"Mmm. Love it when you're bossy!" Nikki affirmed provocatively.
The two women climbed into Helen's red Peugeot and began their trek to Crouch End. As Nikki put on her blonde wig, Helen knew she definitely preferred the taller woman's natural hair colour. As they headed north on Fitzjohn's Avenue, Nikki laughed, "I must look a total prat. Dusty Springfield's ugly sister, eh?" In spite of all the charm that Nikki was exuding, as well as Helen's own guilty conscience, the diminutive Scot managed to stay true to her decision not to tell Nikki that she would not be spending the night until they reached their destination. Helen did walk the disguised prisoner into the terraced house. When Helen saw Alex fast asleep on Nikki's couch, she was overcome with anxiety. Dragging Nikki into the kitchen, she asked, "Wha've you told Alex about us?"
"Well, she knows it was going arse up." Alex was, Nikki was loath to admit, the nearest thing she had to a close friend. "And I have to pay her," she thought morosely. Comprehending Helen's concerns over the legal implications surrounding her young employee, Nikki assured her, "Look, I needed to talk to someone. It was doing my head in! But she's not gonna dob you in it. I'll tell her that you tried to ring 999 but that I wouldn't let you, that you forced me to come back home." She paused before explaining, "I told her it was all over between us. I don't have to say any different."
Helen took a minute before turning to look straight at Nikki, informing her, "It is all over."
"Wha'?" This could not be happening, Nikki told herself.
Quietly Helen explained, "It's got to be. Here am I judging Jim Fenner for having an unprofessional relationship with Shell Dockley and look at me...."
Nikki could not follow Helen's logic; the relationship the women shared was based on mutual love and respect. It was nothing like Fenner's exploitation of his power. "Don't be mad," was all she could think to say. "Fenner's an abusive bastard!"
"I am being a total hypocrite." Helen's emotions were getting the better of her as she berated herself for her perceived sins. On the verge of tears born of self-awareness Helen pointed out, "I can't hold it together anymore, Nikki. Neither can you. It's too strong, what we feel and what we need. It's impossible. We've gotta let go. We have no choice."
Nikki's anger arose from her sense of helplessness. How dare Helen make such a monumental decision for the both of them? "Not me. No way! We make our choices." Misinterpreting the look on Helen's face, Nikki accused, "You're a coward. You don't need me. All you want is an easy life."
Holding back her tears Helen chose to accept the blame Nikki was laying at her feet. "Fine, if that's the way you want to see it, then hate me for it." And with that she walked out of Nikki's house.
Once outside Helen hugged herself for comfort and allowed the tears to flow. She was barely cognizant of her drive south and had almost reached her exit at Grove End Road off the A41 when she received a desperate call from Karen Betts, G-Wing's new governor, informing her of an incident developing on the wing: Jim Fenner had been stabbed and was being held hostage by Shell Dockley. "Just what I bloody need tonight!" Helen thought, abashedly recognising her own self-centredness and continuing down the A41 to make her way southeast towards the A202 and the prison. Prison officer Sylvia Hollamby, Bodybag, had been celebrating her wedding anniversary at the prison social club with several of the inmates serving as bar staff. "No reason to expect that to have ended badly," Helen observed sardonically as she arrived at Larkhall. She was needed on site since Dockley was one of her lifers and, especially in a volatile situation such as this, Helen would have to play intermediary to ensure that everyone made it through this night alive.
Back in Crouch End there was another woman unsure if she would live through the night and part of her did not know if she even wanted to. After their brilliant evening in bed, Nikki wondered how Helen could possibly have chosen that night to split up with her. They had been so good together that, to Nikki, it had felt like coming home. She knew that Helen was right there with her, feeling the same, but now the heartbroken prisoner found herself alone, abandoned. Storming through her house, chain smoking and ranting to herself, she succeeded in waking Alex who had not stirred since Helen had brought Nikki home. Curious and always willing to be a good friend and sounding board to her boss, Alex asked what had happened, not how it went since Nikki's mood, she felt, was a good enough indication of that. "N and H, RIP," Nikki told her succinctly.
Sensing that there was much more to the story to which Alex might never be privy, the young Potting Shed manager simply offered an open-ended, "If you ever want to talk about it..." and suggested, "Look, maybe I ought to piss off, yeah?"
As tormented and self-destructive as Nikki was feeling, and while she appreciated Alex's attempt at discretion, she preferred to have the younger woman stay. This she blamed on Helen as well. A year previously Nikki would have chosen to handle this painful situation on her own; now she was forced to see herself as weak, relying on support from others. "I know you're gutted, but it ain't no good dwellin' on it, Nik," Alex offered in an attempt at support. "Not like you don't got enough goin' on in your life that needs your attention. I ain't sayin' you been slaggin' off at the shop, mostly 'cause you sign me paycheque, but..." she tried to lighten to mood.
There was nothing on earth that would have eased Nikki's burden that night. As she sought out sheets for the spare bed, she tried fiercely not to think about the last time she had had an overnight guest before saying goodnight to Alex. Nikki retired into her own bedroom, trying to get ready to sleep, knowing that this would be another sleep-deprived night as the scent of her lover, her ex-lover, she thought bitterly, still lingered upon her.
Helen managed to help resolve the incident on G-Wing though not quite as peacefully as she would have liked. Shell was forcibly removed from her cell, thereby saving Fenner's life, but Karen had usurped Helen's authority in deploying such an aggressive course. Helen, who had promised Shell that she would do her best to see that the lifer was well treated as long as she let Fenner get medical attention, wound up with egg on her chin. Shell was initially put down the block and subsequently transferred to the 'Muppet Wing' - where mentally unstable prisoners were held in custody - without any adjudication and where she was assigned a cell with one of their most violently aggressive inmates, given a thorough beating by another.
Mentally and physically exhausted Helen did not arrive home until after four AM. When she ambled into the kitchen she discovered a note quickly scrawled by Nikki on a sheet of paper torn from a notepad advertising a local estate agent. Another piece of paper, this one on the floor, also caught Helen's eye; this second was Nikki's cab receipt. Helen guessed, correctly, that Nikki had been searching her pockets looking for something on which to write before discovering the notepad tucked beside the phone. Helen idly smoothed out the receipt as tangible proof of just how far Nikki would go to prove her love before settling in to read the note.
My darling Helen,
This was the most perfect night of my life. In you I have found love, hope and a future more full of promise than I probably deserve. I know you don't understand why I took the risk I did, but just know that having this night with you was well worth any chance I took and, if I had it all to do over, I wouldn't change a thing.
I love you more than I can say.
Emotions already at fever pitch, Helen read and reread the note, tears streaming down her face.
Helen spent the next couple of days investigating the attack on Fenner and being forced to conclude that there were no grounds for disciplinary action against him for being in the inmate's cell at that hour, that Shell's allegations that he was there to have sex with her were unfounded. Helen dropped in to The Potting Shed after work on Tuesday only to learn that Nikki had not been in at all that week. Alex, concerned about her boss, and knowing where she hid a spare key to her house, told Helen where to find it in the hopes that she could bring Nikki around. After several unsuccessful attempts with the doorbell, Helen reluctantly used the key to let herself in to Nikki's, taking in the mess that had been left in the sitting room and kitchen, the overflowing ashtrays, before venturing upstairs to find Nikki curled up foetally in bed. "Nikki, you cannae give up. Come on, for us."
"Don't. There isn't any 'us'," Nikki stated bitterly. "I thought we had a future, but now, once my sentence is done, I've nothing left to look forward to," she explained.
Unwilling to make promises that time might not allow her to keep, Helen intellectualised, "Nikki, we don't know what's going to happen in the next eight months, but no one ever does. There can still be a future for us." Helen needed Nikki not to give up, but at the same time had to break some bad news. "I talked to Claire. She told me you weren't answering your phone and had turned your answerphone off. She's not going to be able to see you this week."
"Warned her off, did you?" Nikki asked antagonistically.
Gently Helen chided, "Oh, just shut up and listen, would you? Claire's said she's going to get to you as soon as she can. She wants to go through your case for the review." Helen was not surprised by Nikki's animosity; the prisoner failed to appreciate the sacrifice that Helen had forced herself to make to ensure Nikki's continuing freedom. That they could not have an intimate relationship in no way lessened the intensity of feeling that Helen had for her. She just knew that they would not be able to be at all physical, which meant no kissing, no groping, because neither of them would have the strength to stop. What they felt was much too strong. Helen thought that they would have to behave as barely more than acquaintances, for even the earlier flirty friendship they had enjoyed might prove too intense.
Nikki looked at Helen confused. "But, I thought..."
"Wha'? You thought I was just going to leave you here in the back of beyond to rot? Look, Claire and I are going to do everything in our power to get you that appeal... whether you like it or not." Nikki's confusion was not diminished. How could Helen be telling her one day that they were through then three days later be promising her a future? "Now, get up, get showered and get ready to face the world again," Helen ordered before marching back down the stairs and out of the house.
The two women developed new routines. They seemed to be in a holding pattern, except without the holding. The two of them would catch upon the telephone every two or three days and go out for an early dinner never back to one of their homes most every Wednesday. Helen loved these times when she could share her goings-on with Nikki, but missed speaking to her every day and hated the feeling that they were losing some of their connection, that their spurious detachment was transforming into actual dispassion. Despite her earlier reservations, she did her best to reintroduce the flirting which had come to define their early relationship; she preferred to run the risk of discovery over the risk of losing what she and Nikki shared.
Spring had arrived and Nikki decided to take Larkhall up on its invitation to offer monthly 'Sod U' seminars, though, because of her new position within the service, this was no longer within Helen's remit so any contact they had at the prison was incidental. Nikki looked forward to her evenings with Helen as well, yet it seemed to her that their relationship, for want of a better term, was starting to show all the earmarks of an old married couple: comfortable if polite conversation and no sex, she thought sadly. Nikki also missed the passion which fired their early rapport: the arguments, the zeal with which she had pursued the reluctant Helen, the consuming need when they were physically close. She found herself almost wanting to pick a fight just to reignite some of the fire.
Helen herself had volunteered to ring Nikki up to let her know that her seminar, scheduled for three o'clock that late April day, would have to be pushed back a week. In response Shell Dockley being allowed back onto the wing - despite having almost killed Jim Fenner - all G-Wing officers had thrown a sickie on the same day. "I don't know how long it's gonna last, Nikki, but I don't imagine it'll be more than a couple of days," she assured her. "I'll see you tonight, though. Winters Freehouse, five thirty?"
The two women arrived at Winters at almost the same time. Disposing of her cigarette, Nikki rushed to catch up with Helen, opening the heavy red door for her, allowing them to walk in together. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom they spotted an open table near the old wooden bar, away from the draughty entrance. "Och, it's a wet one out there today. Probably why the inmates didn't much care if they got to go outside. They were happy enough just to be allowed out of their cells," Helen started.
A sour-looking barmaid in a short black, low-cut dress made her way over to their table. "All right, ladies?"
The two patrons looked up at her with Nikki responding in kind, "All right?"
The barmaid, a woman in her late thirties who had clearly once had designs on a different career path, offered a very dry, "Livin' the dream... Wha're we havin'?"
"Helen?" Nikki invited her to order first. Without hesitation the thirsty Scot asked for a bitter. "Twice. Cheers," Nikki declared before asking Helen how they had got on without officers on the wing.
"Surprisingly well," she admitted. "I think the older ones are keeping the younger from acting out. They know they'll all get banged up again if they start kicking off. I'm just glad that Stubberfield listened to me when I suggested they be let out."
Incredulous, Nikki asked for confirmation, "Your idea? Pretty brave, wannit? Leaving the inmates in charge of the asylum?"
Helen's brows knitted. "How is it that I've worked in the Prison Service all these years, yet you're more cynical than I am? It's about trust, Nikki. If you show a person you trust them, most'll be trustworthy," came the irritated response.
"Except the ones who won't. I just don't want this to backfire on you, Helen," Nikki reminded her patiently.
After taking a long swallow of beer, Helen insisted, "And that's fine, but I trust the rest to be able to have an influence over that element."
"And that's one of the things I love most about you, Helen: your boundless optimism." Nikki, whose history with interpersonal relationships was much more fraught with disappointment than Helen's, could only sit back in awe and envy at Helen's ongoing faith in people.
"Nikki..." Helen warned in soft, admonishing tones. The women had decided that even declarations of love were to be avoided. That is, Helen had decided and Nikki had quietly capitulated.
"Right... No verbal snogging. Forgot. Sorry." Nikki smiled coyly not appearing the least bit sorry. "Can I tell you, Helen, y'know, as a friend, that you look" she paused, wanting to say 'gorgeous, good enough to eat,' but restrained herself, though her eyes said it all, "great today?"
Knowing Nikki was simply trying to wind her up, Helen changed direction, "We had an inmate today let out on an electronic tag, one of the Julies."
"All the cool kids are out on a tag, Helen. But, wait. Just one Julie? I thought those two were inseparable." Nikki could not mask her surprise.
Helen laughed and shook her head, knowing how Nikki was going to react to the story she was about to hear. "They would both have been eligible, but Julie Johnston was caught giving a bloke a hand," Helen looked at Nikki, frowning, "under the table during visiting a couple months ago."
"You wha'?" Part of Nikki wished she could go back in time and unhear this bit of information while the other part could not help but burst out laughing. "You get that a lot? Must be the most popular prison visiting room Britain. Where does one sign up?"
There were tears in both women's eyes. "Oh, I know. The things that happened while I was spending so much time on the road... You wouldna believe. I'm only now getting caught up."
Her curiosity getting the better of her, Nikki asked, "Like what?"
"An escape attempt-"
Nikki could not help interrupting. "What? Who?"
"The gangster's moll?"
Helen affirmed, "The one and only... There were also a couple of deaths." Nikki said nothing allowing Helen to elaborate. "A new prisoner, Renee Williams, died of a peanut allergy, though one of my lifers stupidly tried to claim she'd poisoned her. And Zandra Plackett died of a brain tumour." With all that had been going on in March, Helen had not told Nikki about the tragic death of the young inmate.
A grimace crossing her face, Nikki said softly, "Oh, Helen I'm so sorry. I know you liked Zandra."
"Yeah. And I hated missing her memorial service, but I heard Dominic brought the baby in." Nikki grimaced again at hearing that name.
Helen gave her a small smile, adding, "And Dominic met someone in Greece on his holidays and has packed up and moved there."
"Bastard!" Nikki blurted.
Helen was at a loss. "What?"
"Chucking you over for some Greek tart." They both laughed and ordered a second bitter when the barmaid paid them another visit. Guiltily, Nikki lit a cigarette, her first since they had sat down.
It was a more comfortable evening than they had been having since the split and one which both women felt ended too early. But instead of an avenue back to their previous deep connection, the evening felt more like a final glimpse into the rear view mirror, one last look at what they had lost. Phone calls started to become fewer and more Wednesday evening dinners were missed. Both women sensed that something truly rare had been irrevocably sacrificed, leaving a vast emptiness in its wake. But life moved on, as it inevitably will, and each sought fulfilment through new directions. Nikki, historically the more cynical of the two, did her best not to sink into abject bitterness at yet another failed relationship - no easy task in view of the fact that Helen had all but promised her a future - and threw herself into her education and her work, thankful that spring had arrived and with it the seven day work week and the new incarnation of the Pottering Around class. She could not help but yearn for Helen's presence in class, however, a throwback to the previous year. Helen was no less broken hearted as she felt that something extraordinary had been ripped from her or, on her worst days she acknowledged, discarded by her. She knew that she still had some issues surrounding falling in love with a woman and could not help but wonder if she had, unintentionally of course, sabotaged the relationship.
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