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 Forty-One

The second most unsettling experience of Nikki's life – after that night, when she'd killed Gossard, of course – occurred at HMP Larkhall on the last day of May. She had decided to hold her talk outside, under close supervision, naturally, because many prisoners not participating in the talk were also taking advantage of the break in the weather to enjoy the sunshine. As her talk was finishing up a large inmate with unruly dark, curly hair wearing a tent of a dress suddenly ran at the potting shed, kicking it and screaming, "Die! Die! He's in there! I heard him, pretending he's a cat!" The inmate then shrieked a couple more times before running off pursued by officers. Thankful that the talk was done, Nikki packed up quickly, collected her community service form and swore to herself that there would be no more outdoor seminars. She and Helen happened to be on for dinner that night and Nikki was anxious to discuss the day's events with her.

"Mmm. Pam Jolly," Helen informed her upon hearing the tale. "She's a new lifer I'd just moved onto the wing. She's very scared."

"Scary, you mean," Nikki corrected.

Helen looked at Nikki contemptuously, "So, you agree with Jim Fenner?"

"Well, that was uncalled for," Nikki thought.

"Look, Pam's been locked up on the Muppet Wing for over ten years and in all that time I doubt a single person's tried to have an intelligent conversation with her. She'll be eligible for parole in less than a year. She needs proper help if she's ever going to get out of there." Helen was sick to death of trying to justify her actions where Pam was concerned. Nikki reckoned that none of Helen's justifications served to make Pam seem any less terrifying.

The prisoner sighed, "All right, but you can't win them all, y'know."

Still defensive, Helen snapped, "What is that? A principle for action?"

"How did we get here," Nikki thought, "and how do we get back?" Her tone softened in sharp contrast to Helen's as she said, "No, it's just an 'I care about you'."

Helen's demeanour softened as well as she explained Larkhall's upcoming strategy, that they were bringing in an independent psychiatrist to assess Pam and get her the treatment she needed. He would be evaluating all the women from the Muppet Wing as well as their treatment to date. The evening's conversation remained stilted and neither woman was especially disappointed when Nikki had to get home to satisfy her curfew. They spoke on the telephone a few times over the next couple of weeks, but Helen had some travel to do to monitor the Lifers' Units at Drake Hall, Foston Hall and Styal. At Larkhall Fenner was finally able to return to work and the incompetent Senior Medical Officer Malcolm Nicholson was replaced by Dr Thomas Waugh, the psychiatrist Helen had engaged to assess Pam and the others. Nikki had begun a new set of courses towards her executive MBA, Pricing Strategy, Strategies for Growth, Strategic Innovation, and Negotiation and Bargaining.

After over three weeks of not seeing each other, it was with great shock, then, that Nikki received Helen in her office one Sunday morning. "Hey," she said cheerfully. "Missed you. You don't write. You don't phone..." Nikki took one look at Helen's face and knew something was amiss. "Helen?"

Casting her eyes downward and wondering why she had decided to come to Nikki, knowing it was unfair but knowing also that with the tall woman was the only place where Helen felt comfort, felt safe. After much stammering on Helen's part and much pressing on Nikki's, Helen finally admitted, "It's Jim Fenner." She paused to collect herself. "The other night I was in the office and he was havin' a go, as usual. He assaulted me, Nikki." Swallowing down her tears, breath catching in her throat, Helen continued, "Between my legs. He said he knew what I needed to sort me out." It became clear that Dominic had not been the only PO to notice the looks flying between Helen and Nikki.

"I'll kill him!" Nikki swore through clenched teeth, meaning every syllable. Nikki seemed more affronted than Helen who appeared to still be in shock over the incident. Still speaking in quiet tones, Helen pointed out that that really would not be a help. Helen admitted to Nikki that she did not know what to do, other than lock him in a cell with Shell Dockley. "I'll fetch you a broken bottle," Nikki thought.

Taking on a role reversal, Nikki was the level headed one. "Have you told the number one?" she asked.

Ashamed that she had not seen the assault coming and that she could not prevent it, Helen shook her head, "No. I can't."

Never having been placed in such a vulnerable position, Nikki could not understand Helen's reticence, and demanded, "Why not?! Get the bastard sacked; it's time someone did." She was certain that the inmates of G-Wing were at even more risk than Helen had been from this man and could not believe that Helen would not do whatever she could to protect them. Nikki knew she could not force the issue, that the choice had to be Helen's, but that did not stop her wanting to press. That decision was wrested from her, however, as Helen stood and made for the door.

"I'm sorry I came, Nikki. You didn't need this," she sighed as she stepped through the door.

"Helen, wait!" Nikki moved to follow but Helen's pace never faltered as she strode purposefully out the front door. There was nothing Nikki wanted more than to just take Helen in her arms and comfort her, but that course of action was obviously not welcome so she did that which came most naturally: she beat herself up for not having been able to protect Helen before eventually directing that rage towards the individual who had truly earned it and, lighting a cigarette, she dreamt of the ways she might repay him.

Over the course of the next week, Helen avoided all dealings with Fenner and she certainly never allowed herself to be in a situation where she was alone with him. There was no real need to given her position within the prison. If she needed one of her lifer's files she simply requested it of one of the other officers. She did consider laying a charge against Fenner and decided to go to Karen Betts to test those waters. Unfortunately, he and Betts were involved in a personal relationship. Helen knew that the seriousness of that relationship would considerably impact Betts's reaction to Helen's accusation; Karen had blinkers on where Jim Fenner was concerned. When Helen learnt that the two were planning on moving in together, she knew she would not be pursuing a case against him.


Part Forty-Two

The last week in June brought some excitement to Larkhall: a film crew was brought in to shoot a documentary, filming and conducting interviews beginning on G-Wing. Helen had opposed it from the outset, but Stubberfield insisted it would bring the prison some good publicity and convinced Area Management to go ahead with the project. Helen had no choice but to go along with it. She did warn her lifers, however, to be careful of what they said on camera. She further refused the crew access to her lifers' meeting. At the director's continued insistence that they had negotiated an access all areas policy with the prison, Helen stood firm and managed to keep the crew away from the women in her care. Helen found herself spending more time on G-Wing than usual watching out for the women there, protecting them from the yellow journalism of Fiona and her crew. The following week the docudrama team was scheduled to move on to D-Wing.

On the Wednesday, as she did on the last Wednesday of every month, Nikki was offering her 'Sod U' seminar. Helen ran into Di Barker at twenty to five that afternoon and learnt that Jim Fenner had remained behind to escort Nikki out of the prison. Fearing that Nikki would seek retribution against Fenner on her behalf, Helen made haste towards the activity room in which Nikki had been giving her talk. She arrived in time to hear the prisoner threaten to turn Fenner's sneer into a "lovely, big smile" with a pair of gardening shears, while miming slitting her own throat from ear to ear.

Adopting a demeanour of sweetness and light, Nikki finished, "Thanks for listening, Mr Fenner. I feel much better now," and allowed herself to be escorted out the front gate by Helen who walked her to her four-by-four, fuming.

"Are you out of your stupid mind?!"

Still carrying the agony of her own irrational remorse over failing to protect Helen, Nikki was almost shouting, "You didn't really expect me to say nothing? I have got feelings, you know."

"Yeah, but what kind, Nikki? Anger, jealousy, violence? Those aren't the qualities I generally look for in a person! You can't go threatening a prison officer, especially when you're serving a sentence for sticking a bottle in a policeman's neck! There are ways of going about things other than violence, Nikki."

"Yeah? Just haven't thought of one yet?" Nikki needled snidely. "Smooth, Wade!" she thought. This was never going to be the way to convince her to go after Fenner. "Sorry! Sorry..."

Helen shook her head and turned back towards the prison, efficaciously cutting off further discussion which was just as well because Nikki truly could not think of a way out of their conversation. She spent her evening rethinking her behaviour and concluding that Helen was right; she had behaved rashly and without thought of what a charge of threatening a prison officer might do to her, including landing her in a cell and at his mercy. She phoned Helen to apologise, knowing she was at a meeting at HMP Holloway, the reason she had cancelled their dinner that evening, and did not reach her until close to ten o'clock.

"Helen," Nikki started quietly, "you were right... again."

Down the phone the small Scot looked miserable and seemed almost fed up with the way that Nikki's conduct all too frequently required a subsequent apology. "Look, I understand how you feel, but this is my battle. Why don't you concentrate on fighting your own?" Helen rung off, leaving Nikki feeling desperately alone and reaching for her cigarettes.


Part Forty-Three

The real excitement on G-Wing came the following day when three inmates – Shell Dockley, Denny Blood and Shaz Wylie – escaped in the film crew's van. Evidence was found implicating Helen's complicity in the escape, but she was easily able to convince the investigating Area Management inspectors that she had been set up. Because two of the absconders were her lifers, Helen's presence and insights were required and she spent most of the day on the wing. Good fortune was with them next day when Shaz Wylie was returned to G-Wing from hospital. It seemed she had injured her ankle and could not keep up with the other two. At her insistence they had gone on without her. Not the most street-wise of young women, the platinum haired con let it slip to Helen that, "An old friend's gonna be sorry she pissed Shell off." Shaz's use of the feminine pronoun coupled with Sylvia's unexplained absence from work that day allowed Helen to direct police to the Hollamby residence where they discovered Sylvia's husband, Bobby, a funeral director, sealed inside a burning coffin while his wife, sobbing and screaming, was handcuffed to a cabinet six feet away. The officers were able to extinguish the fire, saving Bobby, but the prisoners escaped once again, this time without a trace.

In the aftermath of the escape, Simon Stubberfield was forced to resign his post as Governing Governor, "to fall on his own sword," was how he phrased it. A fortnight later Helen was offered the position, in an interim capacity, and accepted with the provision that she could continue overseeing her Lifer's Initiative. As was still her immediate inclination, she picked up the phone to ring Nikki with her good news. Upon hearing it Nikki did not react with the enthusiasm for which Helen might have hoped. Helen assured the prisoner that, despite the additional responsibilities the position would bring, it would not interfere with the women's Wednesday nights out.

Helen grew serious, "If nothing else it means count your days, Jim Fenner." The women rang off and both got back to work each having differing opinions about Helen becoming acting Governing Governor. Helen's follow through on her promise to get back at Fenner got off to a good start as she engaged in some verbal sparring with him when he, nonplussed by the power over him her new position afforded her, approached her to bootlick. The rest of her day was fairly routine as she got to know her way around her new office and went about reacquainting herself with officers on the other wings;. She already knew many of them through her Lifers' Initiative dealings. She enjoyed lunch in her office getting to know the new SMO, Dr Thomas Waugh. She found that, despite the fact that he had the table manners of a wild boar – chewing with his mouth open but only as a necessary consequence of talking with his mouth full – she rather enjoyed his company and sought it out with great regularity and increasing frequency; she found him to be handsome, supportive and intelligent. Further, he seemed to have great integrity and a real desire to do good work within the Prison Service.


Part Forty-Four

A week later, Nikki was scheduled for another 'Sod U' seminar at Larkhall. She had just received good news from Claire: the solicitor had been looking at each of the jurors from Nikki's original court case and learnt that mid-trial the foreman of the jury, while driving on a suspended licence, had been picked up on a drink driving offence, a charge which had somehow been withdrawn. Claire had submitted Nikki's case for appeal based on an allegation of jury tampering and it had been granted. While Claire should not have divulged this information to anyone but Nikki, off the record she let it slip to Helen, knowing how much vested interest the new interim Governing Governor had in this news. Helen made her way to the room where Nikki was just finishing up her talk. She waited until all the inmates were on their way back to their wings before talking to Nikki. "I've got your form," she offered by way of initiating the conversation.

"Ooh, look at me... warranting such service from the number one!" Nikki smiled playfully. "What're you doing here?"

Helen was almost ready to burst, "Claire told me! That you've been granted leave to appeal. God, isn't that the most brilliant news!?"

Nikki was less enthused, "Yeah, still got some work to do, though."

Helen's enthusiasm would not be quashed, "Yeah, but you heard what Claire said. Oh, Nikki, you're almost there!"

The Governor's enthusiasm was still not infecting Nikki who cautiously said, "Yeah."

"Um, no, I'm sorry... no wee iffy yeah - a big bloody YES!!" Helen shouted with joy, grabbing both of Nikki's hands in hers and raising them in the air. The two women looked at each other, the delight in their eyes having little or nothing to do with Claire's news. The moment was broken, however, as the door opened and Thomas poked his head in whereupon Helen abruptly dropped Nikki's hands and jumped up. She introduced the other two to each other, explaining to Thomas that Nikki had just received some tremendous news. Though unaware of the specifics of Nikki's situation, Thomas nonetheless offered her his sincere congratulations.

As Thomas prepared to leave the room, he asked Helen, "We're still on for drinks after work?" She nodded her head in agreement, wishing Nikki had not been forced to hear that question. "You're welcome to join us..." he offered Nikki.

That was not a scenario the prisoner wanted to be anywhere near. "Thanks, no, but have one on me, yeah?" Nikki called to the back of the retreating doctor before narrowing her eyes and looking at Helen with an interesting blend of curiosity and hurt. Wednesdays were meant to be their nights. "Maybe it's a business meeting," she thought unrealistically. Refusing to give in to the temptation to ask Helen about it, Nikki allowed the other woman to escort her out of the prison desperately trying to contain her own emotions. As she watched Helen disappear back into the prison, Nikki was approached by and attractive female prison officer whom she recognised from previous visits to the prison.

"Hi," the other woman started. "How was your talk?"

"Yeah, it went all right, thanks," Nikki responded cautiously, lighting the cigarette she had been craving for half an hour.

Undaunted, the other woman introduced herself, "Sorry. Teatra – T – Kennedy, G-Wing," she offered holding out her hand. "I've seen you around. Ms. Green Fingers, innit? Larkhall's answer to Charlie Dimmock."

Nikki laughed, "But I've been known to wear a bra," and shook the proffered hand. "Nikki Wade," she informed the officer, still smiling. "Nice to meet you, Teatra T," Nikki flirted easily. Eying up the woman in front of her she narrowed her eyes and asked impulsively, "Would you like to get a drink?" Not really knowing what she was doing, Nikki nevertheless escorted Teatra to a nearby pub. If Helen had no qualms about socialising with someone new, then why should she?

After a quick stop at a cashpoint, Nikki nipped to the news-stand for a fresh packet of cigarettes. The women arrived at the Dog House on Kennington, just down the street from Larkhall. It was a decent pub with an enormous patio on which they chose to sit. A harried barmaid with pink hair brought them each a pint of Black Sheep Ale. "A black sheep in the dog house." Nikki snorted with caustic irony, wishing, "that Helen would be upset enough about her black sheep taking another bird for a drink to want to put her in the dog house. Or something like that," she thought. But Nikki had resigned herself to the fact that the woman she loved had moved on. She decided she would make the most of this impromptu rendezvous.

At twenty-nine Teatra was nearly the same age as Nikki, but her life experience was such that she gave the impression of being quite a bit younger; five years into her career as a prison officer, she was sharing a flat in Kilburn with two flatmates. But she was charming, easy company, which was exactly what Nikki needed that day. Nikki held her packet out to Teatra who gratefully took a cigarette. After making small talk for a while, the prisoner could not stop herself from wanting to catch up on the comings and goings on the wing. "So, any new interesting inmates?" she prodded.

"Oh, yeah," she affirmed. "We've just got three girls calling themselves the Peckham Boot Gang."

"Hmm. Rabid footie fans, then?" Nikki asked playfully with a wry grin.

"Peckham," Teatra reiterated, overemphasising the lead off letter, and smiling, enjoying Nikki's sense of humour. "They fancy themselves pretty hard. A couple sisters from South London and a very butch Glaswegian. Looks like Jimmy Krankie's nasty older brother. Can't understand a word she says," she laughed. "I'm sure they nabbed off with a couple watches from the holding cell."

"What? Don't they get checked before going onto the wing?" Nikki was regularly learning more about prison life.

"They're supposed to get a good goin' over before they get sent, but some screws are bone lazy and don't bother," Teatra admitted candidly.

"But not you, eh, T? You're part of the new breed of competent and caring officers? Gonna turn the Service on its ear?" Nikki asked with an affable smile. She called the pink haired barmaid over to order them another drink, looking to Teatra to ensure she was not being presumptuous. She still had time for one more, but they would have to leave by half past six to fulfil her offer to drive Teatra home and still make it home to Crouch End by half past seven. "So, Teatra, is that a family name?"

The prison officer laughed, "No. My parents made it up, thought it was pretty. Mum's name's Tina, Dad's is Travis and I'm a little bit of both of them. Tea – tra. At least they spelt it phonetically so I didn't wind up having 'tit' in my name," she offered with a self-deprecating smile. "I looked it up once when I was at school, has no actual meaning in English but it's Russian for theatre so I started telling people my grandparents were Russian actors who defected to the UK but never wanted the family to forget its roots."

Nikki burst out laughing. Still smiling she told Teatra sincerely, "Well, I think it's beautiful. Your parents were right."

Well before the sun had set the women heard popping and banging noises from overhead. "What the twattin' hell's that?" Nikki asked, surprised.

"Fireworks? Tonight? And at this hour? I wonder what we're celebrating..." Teatra questioned rhetorically.

Nikki raised her glass suggesting, "How about making new friends?" T touched her glass to Nikki's and happily drank to that. A short while later Nikki threw a few notes down on the table to cover their tab and the two women made for the door. Despite the hour the traffic heading north was quite light. Rush hour was always unpredictable in the summer with so many commuters taking their holidays. Nikki made good time getting Teatra home. She walked the young prison officer to her door stepping across the threshold briefly so the two women could exchange phone numbers and vow to get together again soon. Nikki continued on towards Crouch End, arriving home with fifteen minutes to spare. Her reflections on the evening were bittersweet; on the one hand, the very attractive Teatra did prove to be quite pleasant company, but on the other, well, she was not Helen.


Part Forty-Five

Nikki and T spoke several times over the next week or so with Nikki inviting Teatra out for dinner on the Saturday night after class. She opted for something a little more upmarket, choosing the St. James which was in Crouch End so they could linger over dinner without worrying too much about her curfew. For Nikki the fortunate thing about seeing a prison officer employed on G-Wing was not having to explain her curfew; there were enough gossips on the wing that a secret never lasted long. She reckoned that the inmates probably even knew Nikki was also a prisoner. Teatra was quite content to take an early dinner. She had a rare Saturday off and spent the afternoon getting her hair done and shopping for a new outfit for the evening. It was decided that she would pick Nikki up at her house where they would have a preprandial cocktail before heading out to the restaurant. Just as the clock struck five, Nikki welcomed the alluring blonde enthusiastically into her well-appointed house, involuntarily comparing her to the perpetually tardy Helen Stewart.

Teatra looked absolutely gorgeous. Nikki remarked to herself, and not for the first time, how, with her flowing blonde hair, light grey-blue eyes and impossibly long legs, she was much more her physical type than Helen. That night T had chosen to wear a cream coloured skirt cut just above the knee, showing off her legs to perfection, and a steel blue silk shirt which clung to her well-formed torso. In three inch heels she was able to stand eye to eye with Nikki who wore smart charcoal grey trousers with a deep red satin shirt. They made a striking couple. Giving her date a timid peck on the cheek, Nikki insisted, "Come on in. You look fantastic!"

"So do you... I've only seen you in your gardening scruffs before. We've scrubbed up all right, eh?" The prison officer evaluated. The two women made their way into the kitchen, Teatra assessing Nikki's digs. "You've a lovely house," she added sincerely.

"Thanks. It's comfortable. What can I get you to drink? The bar's pretty well stocked..."

"Just a glass of wine. Something white and sassy if you've got it," Teatra asked playfully.

Biting back a flirty reply, Nikki nonetheless gave Teatra a suggestive wiggle of her eyebrows before finally suggesting, "I've got a Chablis?"

"Sounds perfect." After pouring them both a small glass, Nikki escorted her date into the sitting room. She offered Teatra a cigarette. Accepting it the blonde looked around appreciatively taking in the large room with the big bay windows. "This room's a beaut! Have you actually read all those books?" T never read anything more cerebral than Hello!

Nikki laughed at the incredulous look on Teatra's face. "Yeah, all but a couple new ones I've just picked up, but they've got their place in the queue. I like to spend quiet Sunday mornings in here reading and taking my coffee. I can see some brilliant sunrises especially in winter when they're scheduled for a much more reasonable hour." Nikki smiled, adding, "Ever since I stopped working at the bar I've enjoyed seeing sunrises from the right side, though I can't wait to see a summer sunset again..." Nikki's house backed on to a green space allowing for spectacular sunrises, but her vista from the front was marred by a tower block which obstructed her view of the setting sun. A winter's sunset just did not hold quite the same appeal.

Idly Teatra asked, "How long have you lived here?"

Without having to think about it, Nikki answered, "Almost three years." She had bought the property immediately on the heels of her sentencing.

"And always on your own," Teatra enquired pointedly. "I mean, I bet there's a lot of women looking to, erm, share with you."

A small smile touched Nikki's shapely lips. "I dunno about that..."

"Modest and smart. Not much you haven't got, is there?" T flirted.

Feeling guilty about not being forthcoming regarding her situation with Helen, Nikki cautioned, "Look, I wouldn't get too close. You might be disappointed."

"How close will you let me come?" Teatra asked, leaning in towards Nikki who pulled away, standing up, avoiding the leggy blonde's advances.

"I'm sort of involved with someone," she offered by way of an explanation. After a sigh she added, "I'm sorry. I've not been fair, not mentioning it before."

Confused as this was their second evening out together, Teatra needed clarification. "Sort of involved?"

"I know I've done this all arse about face, inviting you out without telling you. I should have said sometime this past week, but I truly don't know where it stands. It's complicated. I like your company, T, but until this other is resolved, can we just get to know each other? I just want to be fair to you, to... to all of us." Nikki recognised that her impulse to ask Teatra out after her talk on Wednesday was in direct response to Helen's going out with Thomas, but she really had enjoyed spending time with the blonde woman; she found it nice to be out with someone with whom conversations did not need to be difficult.

"I'm a big girl, you know. If this is your way of letting me down gently..."

"No, no. We were supposed to be waiting until my sentence was done, then we were going to be together. It was supposed to be soon," Nikki did her best to explain.

"Soon can be a long time," the prison officer pointed out.

"Look, if you've changed your mind about tonight, I understand, but if you want, if we go now, we can still make our reservation." Nikki looked hopefully at Teatra.

"No more deceptions?" Teatra insisted.

Taking the other woman by the hand and leading her to the front door, Nikki vowed, "Promise."

They made their way to the restaurant on the Topsfield Parade with Teatra driving them in her white 1989 Skoda Favorit hatchback which was in desperate need of a silencer. Further, the passenger side window stood at half mast, a sheet of plastic necessary to keep out the elements. Contrary to Nikki's expectation, the car did not break down on the ride there. In fact they entered the St. James with a minute to spare for their quarter to six reservation, which, because of the early hour, was patently unnecessary; the restaurant was less than one third full. Nikki held out Teatra's chair for her before taking her own, nostalgically remembering a time when the maitre d' of a posh restaurant would do that for all of his female patrons. They settled into the comfortable seats. Teatra had chosen the chair leaving Nikki the banquette. Though modern, the lighting in the St. James created a warm, intimate atmosphere. Because it was early, they had no one seated beside them in a room overcrowded with tables. When their server arrived Nikki ordered a half bottle of champagne which she expected would go well with most of the entrées on the menu. She found herself thinking back on - and thankful for – the sparkling wine tasting that she and Helen had attended the previous spring. They opted to share the filo parcel stuffed with goat cheese, caramelised leeks and roasted peppers to start. Teatra ordered the pot roasted fillet of pork with green and pink peppercorns wrapped in pancetta while Nikki opted for the pavé of salmon with a fennel, artichoke and jalapeño risotto. Nikki chose a light pinot grigio to accompany their meals. She lit a cigarette for each of them.

No surprise registered in Nikki's eyes when Teatra asked after the woman with whom she was 'sort of' involved. "Was she aware of your situation when you got together?"

"Not the sort of thing you can hide, no. 'Oh, by the way, I need lots of sleep, so I'd like to be home by half past seven...' Definitely the way to charm the ladies." Nikki's sarcasm was always in top form.

Teatra pondered this for a brief moment before concluding, "Well, then it's not fair of her to hold you hostage to it now."

Touched to have the other woman rise to her defence, Nikki tried to explain, "Her circumstances changed making a relationship between us... awkward. Or impossible."

"She's married..." Teatra eyes narrowed as she hazarded a guess, "Is she up the duff?"

"No, no," Nikki insisted, looking around urgently seeking out their server, hoping to see their food arriving, needing an escape from this difficult discussion. When none was forthcoming, she was compelled to ask for it, "Look, T, can we not do this. I just can't have this conversation. I'm sorry." Nikki assumed Teatra would think that she found this topic simply too painful to dwell on, but in actuality the prisoner would never be able to divulge the truth about her relationship with Helen, because doing so could land Teatra in an ethical dilemma, Helen in hot water and Nikki in prison. In light of all the potential consequences, saying nothing was deemed to be the wisest course.

As the women sat quietly, each lost in her own thoughts, Nikki became aware of a familiar voice filtering through the restaurant's sound system. It was Harry Connick Jr singing Cole Porter. "Oh, you can't know how happy I am that we met. I'm strangely attracted to you. You see there's somebody I'm trying so hard to forget. Don't you wanna forget somebody, too?" Nikki laughed resignedly to herself thinking, "Well, if it worked for Harry Connick..."

Conversation inevitably turned to G-Wing to which Teatra had just been assigned after working a couple years on E-Wing. Nikki had of course read about the arrest and conviction of the Honourable Charlotte Myddleton, daughter of the Home Affairs Spokesman for the House of Lords, but had not heard that she was at Larkhall, on G-Wing no less. It was just one of those bits of information which, in the past, Helen would have delighted in passing on to Nikki, but which had instead become yet another victim of their estrangement. Teatra, however, was equal to the task and animatedly filled the other woman in on 'the Posh', as Charlotte had come to be known on the wing. It was, in fact, her father who had turned her in for drug possession with intent, presumably in an effort to 'scare her straight'. She was sentenced to one year but would likely serve six months.

"I read in the papers, well, is it true she tried to top herself?" Nikki's curiosity was piqued.

Teatra grew serious. "She did. Yvonne Atkins?" she looked at Nikki to make sure she recognised the name.

Nikki nodded. "The gangster's moll? Sorry, widow?" Nikki amended, having heard about Charlie being gunned down on the courthouse steps just minutes after being acquitted on drugs charge.

"That's her. Well, Yvonne found Charlotte in a bathroom, a placky bag over her head. Yvonne's since taken her under her wing, so the Posh is muckin' in much better. I'm more worried about our newest inmate, Femi. She's from Nigeria, doesn't speak a word of English. She got eight years for being a drugs mule. And doing it at all just to try to support her six kids back home." Teatra could only shake her head.

"Bloody system, eh?" Nikki knew she would have to talk to Helen about this one. "Does she not have access to a translator?" She lit two cigarettes, handing one to Teatra.

"They're working on it but... It's the Prison Service; everything takes longer," Teatra offered by way of explanation.

"Look, enough about that. I want to know more about you, T. What did you do before becoming a PO?" Nikki knew she needed to stop using Teatra as her connection to Larkhall and, by extension, to Helen. Teatra was a beautiful, compassionate woman to whom Nikki was forced to admit she was attracted. If she and Helen were truly over, and by all indications it was certainly looking that way, Nikki wanted to have the chance to explore whatever was going on between herself and the statuesque blonde.

After a pause Teatra revealed, "I was married."

Warning bells resounded in Nikki's head as she thought, "Oh, no. I am not doing this again!"

At the sight of Nikki's face, which had dropped almost to the floor, Teatra went on hurriedly, "Nikki, wait... It was a mistake from the beginning, but when you're raised in a dormitory town, it's like being in a small town with small minds; you do what you have to to fit in. Morden is full of Baptists and Muslims – not very gay-friendly. So at school I dated and somehow ended up married just before I turned eighteen. It was never going to last... I envy you being raised in the city, being free and comfortable with who you are."

The taller woman snorted derisively, "And kicked out of my parents' house at sixteen for it, so, no, save your envy for someone who's had an easier go. But we all have our own journey, I suppose," Nikki added graciously, relieved by what Teatra had eventually told her. "Any kids?"

"No, thank Christ!" Teatra asserted vehemently. "I had just started at HMP Wandsworth when we split up. That's when I was finally able to be myself. Moved north. Found myself," she laughed at that hackneyed cliché. "And now here I am, having a lovely evening with a charming and gorgeous woman; I'm exactly where I want to be." She shyly looked at Nikki hoping she hadn't said too much. Her dinner companion's sincere smile assured her she had not.

Nikki liked the direction the evening had taken and was loath to call it to a close, but her watch told her that she had to make a move towards home. She paid the bill amid protests from Teatra, but the small business owner insisted, knowing how little basic grade prison officers were paid. Teatra decided she needed to make a quick stop to the ladies' before they left. Nikki checked her watch again and saw that they had time. She appreciated the fact that T was not being presumptuous, expecting to be invited back into the Crouch End house. As she stood waiting Nikki did not know herself if that invitation would be extended. She lit a cigarette and waited patiently for Teatra to alight from the lav. Two minutes. Three. After four minutes Nikki was compelled to go in looking for the other woman, worried that something might have befallen her, though what she could not quite fathom, but more worried about her own curfew which was growing critically closer. "T? Teatra? You okay?" she queried to the closed stall doors.

"Yeah, Nikki. I'm fine. Be out in a minute," came Teatra's disembodied voice.

"Look, it's just... I've really gotta be home. Only, it's going on twenty-five past," Nikki insisted. She was at a loss; if Teatra were not out of the toilet within the next minute, Nikki would be compelled to leave her behind. She waited as long as she was able before saying to the maitre d', "Could you please just tell her that I had to go?" Nikki made her way outside to the cab stand she had clocked on their way in. Climbing into the waiting car, she gave her address to the driver telling him, "There's an extra fiver in it if you can get me there in three minutes!" He sped off and earned his tip.

Nikki made it into her terraced house before the witching hour but just. Breathing in a huge sigh of relief, she was bewildered as to what may have happened with Teatra; the blonde was well aware of the curfew under which Nikki had been living for the previous thirty-some months, as well as the ramifications associated with violating it, so what possible reason could she have had for threatening it? Nikki wondered. Two minutes later a knock at the door announced that she might soon be given a cipher with which to solve that puzzle.

"T, bloody hell! What happened?" Nikki's directness gave the other woman a good indication of how shaken she had been by the close call.

Looking flustered, Teatra apologised, "God, Nikki, I'm so sorry! When I was in the loo, I noticed that the zip on my skirt was broken and I was trying to fix it. I made a total bollocks of the whole thing, even popped the button and all. I didn't realise how much time had got away from me until you came in, but by then I was so embarrassed..."

Trying to figure out how to explain to her date that her embarrassment paled in consequence to the possibility of Nikki spending the next two months in prison proved a futile endeavour. Instead Nikki chose the charitable route, saying only, "First off, a buggered zip's nothing to be embarrassed about; they just don't make things like they used to... I certainly would have lent you my jacket to cover it to get you to the car. And then, well, I made it home in time so no harm done, but I'm sorry I had to leave you there," she added. "Anyway, a massive adrenaline rush occasionally is good for the heart, innit?" She smiled broadly at Teatra. "Would you like a coffee or tea?" Nikki offered, opening wide her front door to invite her in.

Grateful for Nikki's benevolence Teatra accepted the offer of coffee. "I can't stay too long, though; I'm first on in the morning. Don't suppose you've got a safety pin I could use?" she asked sheepishly.

Nikki smiled, "Sure. I'll go find one if you want to pop the kettle on." Teatra made her way to the kitchen and filled the kettle. While the water heated up she took in her surroundings. Nikki's kitchen was efficiently laid out with plenty of counter space including a small island. A small herb pot sat by the large window waiting for the morning sun to rise. Having easily found the coffee, cafetière and cups, Teatra went to the refrigerator to look for some milk and spotted a tube ticket from Moorgate station attached to the side of the fridge by a small magnet in the shape of a garden hoe. She noticed it was dated March 18 and time stamped 8:19 PM.

"Strange thing to post on your fridge," she thought absently as Nikki finally reappeared.

"Sorry for the delay, bit of a challenge finding these," Nikki acknowledged handing Teatra three pins. "That should do you until you get home," she added, scooping coffee into the cafetière before adding water from the steaming kettle. "Do you take sugar?" Nikki asked when Teatra returned from the bathroom where she had gone to effect repairs on her skirt.

"Please." Still somewhat self-conscious of the state of her zip, Teatra sought out Nikki's opinion. Turning her back to her hostess, she lifted the tail of her shirt and asked, "Well? What d'you think?"

Paying very little mind to the fastener in question, Nikki nonetheless took a good long look. "Very nice!" she conceded, a smile touching her lips and a leer in her eyes. Teatra shook her head at the part she had played in setting Nikki up. Coffees doctored, the women moved into Nikki's sitting room where the filtering light from the bay window offered a reminder of the ever-shortening days. Nikki turned on some table lamps and put a CD in her HiFi. The buttery smooth voice of Harry Connick Jr seemed like a good choice, she thought.

The two new companions chatted amiably, getting to know each other better. Nikki learnt that Teatra had two brothers – one older, one younger – who had never moved from Morden. "A rose between two thorns, Dad always said," T laughed wistfully. "Ronnie, the older one, is an actuarial analyst at Lloyd's and Jamie's a video game designer at Square Enix."

"Gave them normal names, didn't they?" Nikki's smile served to soften her mockery. "How long's the commute into the city?"

"Forty, forty-five minutes depending on the quality of the day. Not far but worlds apart," Teatra pointed out. "It can be tough on Ron with the kids."

"Oh, yeah. How many? What flavour?" Nikki asked.

Enjoying the way Nikki had phrased her question, Teatra smiled, "Two. One of each. Lori's seven and Davey's almost five. Gorgeous, brilliant, the both of them," she boasted.

"Not that you're biased..." jibed the taller woman.

With a gleam in her grey eyes, Teatra agreed, "'Course not! How 'bout you? Are you an auntie?"

Raising her shoulders noncommittally, Nikki uttered, "Dunno. Martin's eight years older than me, conservative as hell. He was already out of the house and married, sided with my parents when they chucked me out. Haven't talked to him since."

"Have you tried, Nik?" Teatra probed.

Nikki decided she liked the way T had already abbreviated her name in spite of the fact that they had not known each other all that long. It marked another clear distinction between the blonde and Helen. Nikki answered bitterly, "Oh, yeah. He's a solicitor. I phoned him when I was first arrested, never heard from him. Still, he could find me now if he wanted to. Directory enquiries. I'm the only Nikki C. Wade in Greater London." The way this was said left Teatra no doubt that Nikki had checked, likely to reassure herself that her brother would be able to find her if he so chose; most women living on their own choose to be listed by initials only.

"That must've been hard on you, but what if there were circumstances you didn't know about? You owe it to both of you to find out," Teatra reasoned. "Sorry if I'm overstepping..."

An awkward silence descended over the two as Nikki considered Teatra's advice. "I'll think about it. It's just, well, I haven't seen him in almost twenty years. Blood's blood, but we're still strangers." Nikki needed to steer the conversation towards something more neutral. "Family's one of those taboo topics for me, up there with religion and politics. You and yours sound pretty tight, though. D'you get home often?"

"Every month or so. I find it easier to take the tube than to drive. Only an extra ten minutes and no traffic stress. Speaking of... Why've you got a tube ticket on your fridge?" a curious Teatra could not help asking.

"Could we talk about my family again?" Nikki suggested dryly before admitting, "It's a bittersweet memento of a perfect evening. Can we just leave it at that?" Nikki looked at Teatra hopefully.

"Sure. Didn't mean to nose in... Your 'Sort Of'?" she asked, eliciting a quick nod from Nikki which Teatra knowingly returned. Looking at her watch she added, "Well, I should be off. I've an early day tomorrow." They both got up from the couch and made their way to the front door.

They reached the door just as Harry Connick Jr crooned, "They're not her lips, but they're such tempting lips, that it's all right with me." Nikki decided to test this theory, leaning in towards Teatra for an exploratory first kiss. It was soft and gentle as Nikki took in the taste, smell and feel of another woman, a woman who was not Helen. Despite the ambiguity in her relationship, for want of a better word, with the gorgeous Scot, Nikki's guilt forced her to drag herself away from her engaging pursuit. As the women pulled themselves apart, however, Teatra would have sworn she saw something akin to a promise in the taller woman's eyes. She was certain that there was something developing between the two of them.

"Thanks for a lovely evening, Nik. And again, I'm sorry about nearly making you late for your curfew." Nikki shook her off. "I will make it up to you; next time dinner's on me. Might just have to go to the chip shop down the street, but..." she smiled.

"It's a date," Nikki agreed readily, "but I'm driving!" Gazing at the alluring blonde in front of her, Nikki added sincerely, "I had a nice time as well and look forward to doing it again. I'll ring you this week." She leant in for an almost chaste kiss before seeing Teatra out the front door. "Drive carefully, T," she admonished, watching her into her car.

While Nikki and Tetra were getting to know each other better, Helen was spending a fair amount of time in the company of Dr Thomas Waugh, as per Nikki's speculation. They were taking lunches together at Larkhall and they went out for dinner that same Saturday night. Helen could not fail to register that their dinner reservation was booked for the same time as Nikki's curfew, half seven. She could not refrain from thinking about how wonderful it was going to be for Nikki to finally be able to live a normal life free of the legal constraints imposed upon her and optimistic that a full exoneration was in her future.

Thomas had chosen Savvas, a Greek restaurant in Notting Hill, where they sat outside in the impressive courtyard, taking advantage of the warm September evening. The atmosphere was delightful, the decor typical white and blue and there was an abundance of – unfortunately artificial – potted trees. Thomas pushed Helen's chair in for her and they settled in, opting to dive straight into the wine rather than have a cocktail. Thomas ordered a carafe of the house red, a simple Greek wine reminiscent of kerosene, Helen thought, hoping she would remember the name so she could write it down in her journal. "Cheers!" offered Thomas, taking a sip from his wine glass. "Mmm, not bad," he observed, drawing a slight frown from Helen.

The frown was undiminished as her mind drifted back to her first dinner with Nikki. Why couldn't she make herself stop thinking about her? "So, do you come here often?" she asked Thomas, her thoughts cemented in that long-ago evening, remembering the flirtatious banter that question had previously provoked.

"Actually, I'm more of a pub guy, but..." He shrugged his shoulders. Helen assumed that, as this was their first date, he preferred to bring her somewhere a tad more upscale. "But Man U's not playing Newcastle 'til tomorrow, so I thought we could try something different." Thomas paused. "Helen, I'm joking. I mean, I do favour pubs, but not for our first date. By the same token I didn't want to set the bar too high, so here we are. I hope it's all right."

Helen laughed, her relief apparent, "It's perfect." As she smiled at him endearingly, his heart skipped a beat. "Wha've you heard about the food?" she asked, opening her menu.

Taking a moment to glance through his own menu Thomas answered, "It's all Greek to me!" Helen rewarded him with a hearty laugh, not for his obvious joke, but for the self-reproach with which he delivered it.

"You did not just say that!" She gave him a playful slap on the wrist.

The two opted to share a pikilia platter of entrées which included spanakopita, dolmades, calamari, tzatziki, and keftedes with pita and olives, followed by the moussaka accompanied by a second half-litre of awful wine. A small, shared baklava and coffee rounded out their meal. After dinner they opted to work off some of their meal with a walk through Holland Park, a five minute jaunt from the restaurant. During their stroll along the footpath Thomas endeavoured to take Helen's hand, but she was not ready for that level of intimacy. She did not know where she stood with Nikki though, like the other woman, she suspected that too much water may have gone under that bridge. Nikki's words kept running through Helen's head: "You're a coward...you don't need me. All you want is an easy life." Helen was in a situation where she had to decide if perhaps Nikki was right. Things were easier with Thomas. She knew she was attracted to him and wondered if that would be the case if she were truly in love with Nikki. Further, her mother's homophobic words were never far from her mind. Would it not be easier to fall into a heterosexual relationship?

After thirty minutes walking through the park the pair decided to head back towards Thomas's car so he could drive Helen home. Thomas opened the passenger door to allow Helen entry into his metallic green 7-Series BMW saloon before driving them to Maida Vale. When they arrived at her flat, he escorted the gorgeous Scot to her red door hoping he would be invited in. "Thank you for a lovely evening, Thomas," she started. "Would you like to come in for a coffee?" Helen offered this tentatively, not wanting to give the psychiatrist the wrong idea. Still not knowing where things stood with Nikki, she was not ready to begin anything too serious with him. He took her up on her offer and entered her flat admiring what Helen had done with the space. They brewed some coffee and talked, learning more about each other. Thomas shared with her the fact that he had been a chubby child, likely what drove him into the field of psychiatry; it had taken him well into his twenties to realise the effects emotional eating could have and the imperative of getting to its roots in order to resist its relentless pull. Helen found herself talking about losing her mother and the void that had created within her while she was growing up.

It was near midnight when Thomas got up to leave. Helen walked him to her front door certain that he would have preferred an invitation to stay but unable to offer it. Not yet. She did not balk, however, when he leant down to kiss her. Indeed, she opened her mouth willingly to accept his probing tongue. She was vaguely surprised by the feel of stubble on his chin, having grown used to the softness of a woman's kiss. She pulled herself away not willing to let things progress any further until her heart and mind had figured out what she wanted or what would be best for her, knowing full well that those two concepts might be incompatible. She said goodnight to Thomas letting him know that she was looking forward to having lunch with him again on Monday.


Part Forty-Six

Nikki went into the Potting Shed on Sunday. Since the winter schedule would begin October first, she would only have to face the seven day work week until the end of the month. At least Sundays were short days so she could usually be home by half past four. She made a quick stop at Tesco's to pick up some groceries for the week ahead and arrived home at a quarter past five. After putting her shopping away she lit a cigarette, picked up the phone and rang Teatra. The phone was picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"

"Hiya, T," Nikki began.

Teatra would have recognised that rich-timbered voice anywhere. "Nik, hi! How was the shop today?" she enquired. "A gorgeous day for gardeners." The temperature had hit twenty-seven degrees, almost unheard of for mid-September.

"Yeah, was. Busy morning. Musta been tough for you stuck in that brick box," Nikki speculated, "like being a curry in a clay oven."

Teatra laughed at the imagery. "I got to get outside for exercise. That was a nice break. The inmates are always so much better behaved on a nice day. They got an extra fifteen minutes."

Nikki could understand that. "Gotta reward good behaviour, yeah?"

Heaving a big sigh, Teatra agreed, "Well, we're so quick to punish the bad..."

"How's Femi getting on?" Nikki hated to think what that poor woman was going through: separated from her home and her kids, imprisoned and unable to make herself understood. Nikki knew she must be terrified.

"Oh... Not much better, I'm afraid. Some of the girls rallied around her, did a whip 'round collecting phone cards so she could ring home, but she seemed even more upset after," Teatra recounted. "And, with it being the weekend, there's none of the higher ups around to do anything for her. I tried to get Sylvia to ring the number one, just to see if there was anything we could do today, but she wouldn't, racist cow, so I rang her myself," she admitted.

"You rang Helen?" Nikki was stunned. "Well, what did she say?"

"Nothing we can do today. She'll look into it tomorrow but she can't extend special privileges. You know, the party line." Teatra felt some remorse at misleading Nikki like this, but she had heard about Nikki and Helen's close friendship and could not help but feel threatened by it. If she could drive a wedge between the two, well, then perhaps Nikki would be able to move on. With her. "And even with all that going on, we still have to put up with the Peckham Boot Gang, shit stirrers the three of them, trying to mix it up with Yvonne Atkins, a pissing contest to establish Maxi Purvis as top dog."

"Never a dull moment, eh?" Nikki pointed out.

"Wouldn't that be nice," Teatra said wistfully. "Maybe I should transfer to an open. Those inmates are a lot easier to handle... Oh, who'm I kidding? I'd choose the aggro of a closed prison every time," she admitted.

"Like to be in the centre of the action, eh, T? A simple business owner with a half seven curfew, well, my life's a little more sedate. Very light on the action packed... I've actually had enough drama in my life, thank you very much," Nikki acknowledged. "I was just ringing to let you know that I had a really nice time last night... But, listen, next time if you'd rather, we could go base jumping or swimming with sharks?" she laughed.

Teatra smiled along with her, "No, I'm good; I get enough excitement at work." Growing serious she concurred, "I had a nice time and all. Perhaps we could do something this week? How's Wednesday?" she asked, having learnt that Nikki often had dinner with Helen on Wednesdays.

A quandary engulfed the comely, raven-haired woman: while she and Helen had not had a Wednesday evening together for almost a month, and despite the growing attraction she was feeling for the tall blonde who had recently entered her life, Nikki could not bring herself to be the one to cancel; she had not given up on her future with Helen. "Can you make it Tuesday?" she asked.

Disappointed, knowing she was being brushed aside for Helen, Teatra was, nonetheless, somewhat gratified to know where she stood. It would make an easier task knowing how aggressively she would have to pursue the alluring prisoner. She conceded this round, "Sure. Tuesday's all right. Only I'm working 'til six. I could pick up a takeaway on my way to yours?"

Nervous that T was looking for more than Nikki would be able to offer, she nevertheless agreed, "Perfect. I'll expect you around a quarter to seven?"

"Sounds right. Any requests?"

"Whatever you choose. I trust you... your judgement," Nikki amended.

"No pressure on me then," Teatra joked. "Have a good evening, Nik."

"I'll look forward to Tuesday." The two women rang off. The receiver had barely been returned to its cradle when Nikki lifted it again, dialling a number which was indelibly etched in her brain.

"Hello?" came the familiar Scottish lilt which still caused Nikki's stomach to flip.

"Hi, Helen. It's me," Nikki began with an uneasy familiarity.

Surprised, Helen began, "Hiya, Nikki. I'm not gonna be able to make Wednesday, I'm afraid."

"That's too bad, but it's not why I'm ringing; I heard about your new Nigerian prisoner on G-Wing, Femi. I'm worried about her," Nikki, champion of the defenceless, explained.

Helen had only learnt of Femi's existence herself two days previously and had had no time to look into her case. Fridays were always hectic as she caught up on all the incident reports from the week. The previous week had been even busier than usual as Karen Betts, Governor of G-Wing, had been off on holidays leaving Helen to oversee the running of her wing. The only blessing was that she had taken Jim Fenner with her so Helen would be free from him for a fortnight. She was beginning to pity Karen for the blind spot she had where "that misogynist bastard," as Helen thought of him, was concerned. She was certain that it would come back to haunt Karen one day. Wondering who had been feeding Nikki information and, more to the point, what concern any of this was to her, Helen asked, "Why? What's the problem?"

"The problem is she doesn't understand a bloody word anyone says to her." Whether it was a result of the strain between herself and Helen or a sincere protectiveness for a woman she had never even met, Nikki was feeling tetchy towards Helen and it was reflected in her tone.

Instinctively adopting a 'best defence is a good offence' strategy, Helen countered, "If she's got a specific problem, she has got access to the language line."

Incredulous and wondering if there were anyone on G-Wing equipped to explain that to Femi, Nikki demanded, "But does she know that? She needs a translator on hand, at least until she gets some routines sorted." The acting Governing Governor said nothing. "Come on, Helen; I thought you were meant to be all-powerful these days," Nikki goaded.

"I'll look into it," Helen offered noncommittally.

Helen's ambivalent attitude was grating on the other woman. "Is it right she got eight years?"

Quietly, with a voice that said she agreed with her, Helen explained, "The judge said he wanted to set an example."

"So some bastard drugs trafficker pays her a pittance to swallow smack and she gets hung out to dry?" Nikki knew how fortunate she was for the way her case had been resolved and it made her want to fight harder for the Nigerian stranger.

"I don't make the bloody law, Nikki!" Helen exclaimed, exasperated. "Look, I've gotta go. Goodnight," she said effectively ending further discussion.

"Yeah. 'Night." She almost slammed the phone down mumbling something about Helen Bloody Stewart and more determined than ever to do something for Femi, since clearly Helen had no intention of going out on a limb for her. Nikki resolved to find out what she could about the rights of foreign prisoners and to enlist Teatra's help to get fair treatment for the frightened inmate.

Forgetting that it was Nikki's compassion and willingness to take a stand against injustice which had attracted her to the prisoner in the first place, Helen was upset by Nikki's disregard for her authority over Larkhall. What right did she have to question how Helen was running her prison? Helen allowed for the possibility that she had previously shared too much with Nikki, particularly her thoughts about the failings within the Prison Service, but somehow she expected Nikki to not to have been affected by them. Helen should have known that Nikki, emotionally hypersensitive to the needs of others, would have absorbed every disdainful word that Helen had said. It should have come as no surprise, then, when Nikki felt duty-bound to do whatever she could to help Femi. Helen failed to acknowledge either the weak excuses she had been making to distance herself from the tagged prisoner or the fact that Nikki may have been right, that she was, in fact, a coward looking for an easy life.

Instead of talking to Nikki, who had been her sounding board over the previous almost two years, on Monday Helen found herself seeking the sage advice of Dr Thomas Waugh who at least had some standing at Larkhall. He caught up to her just outside the prison. "Helen," he said, almost breathless.

"Don't tell me: your office is too small, you want Friday afternoon off and you're not happy with your annual leave," she flirted while taking in his appearance; he looked like a professor in his corduroy jacket with the elbow patches, open collar shirt and dark, unkempt hair. She could not help but compare him to Nikki whose hair, while unruly, was deliberately so. The bird's nest of Thomas's just made her want to buy him a comb.

He laughed with her. "No, but I was wondering if you'd heard about the Adshead/Hawes conference: drug abuse and the links to mental illness."

"Oh, God! Another dry academics? I haven't worked in the field for decades," she exaggerated. "No thanks!" She gave him a grimacing smile.

Undaunted, Thomas informed her that he would be presenting a paper. The acting Governing Governor laughed at herself and, placing a placating hand on his forearm, she apologised sincerely for so quickly dismissing the significance of conference. In a desperate bid to convince her to go to it with him, he sounded like he was reading from the brochure: Great place, swimming pool, lake bar... He assured her immodestly that the conference line up was also pretty good. Helen deferred answering instead choosing to pick his brain about Femi, explaining that she was a foreign drugs courier, first time out of Nigeria, sentenced to eight years even though it was her first offence. She was concerned not only because she spoke no English, but also about her religious and dietary issues. Thomas assured her wryly that, while his Yoruba may be a little rusty, there were some things he could try.

"Och, you'd be doing me such a favour." She looked at him squarely, taking hold of his forearm.

A gleam came into his eyes. "Which you could always return," he paused, "by going to the conference."

Helen was forced to admit that she had walked straight into that one. The two parted ways. Helen made her way to her office and Thomas, she hoped, was off in search of that ever-elusive comb.


Part Forty-Seven

Nikki spent much of her day Monday researching prisoners' rights, especially as they pertained to foreign nationals. Nikki's concern for Femi increased apace at the alarming possibility that the G-Wing inmate could be sent back home to serve out her sentence. She discovered that Nigerian prisons had no toilets and no in cell water, that medical facilities were inadequate, food was limited and, consequently, malnutrition and disease were rampant. Further, mistreatment of inmates was commonplace, abuse frequent and torture not unheard of. As frightful as the notion of Femi spending up to eight years at Larkhall was, there existed worse alternatives. Nonetheless, Nikki wanted to do what she could to improve the conditions the Nigerian prisoner would face at one of Her Majesty's Prisons. She even rang the Prisons Minister's office in Westminster for more information. She took the enquiry into prison racism that he had initiated earlier that year as a fair indication of his character and his genuine desire to effect repairs on a profoundly broken system. He did not return her call.

Tuesday amounted to more of the same and by the time Teatra arrived bearing steaming containers of Sichuan fare, Nikki was in a state. "How the hell do you people work in that bastard service?!" she demanded of her guest almost before she was in the door.

"Something wrong, Nik?" the blonde asked wryly removing the takeaway containers from their paper bag.

Taking a deep breath to settle herself, Nikki's face softened. "Don't wanna kill the messenger, eh? Sorry, T; it's just I've spent the past two days looking into what it's like for foreign nationals in UK prisons. It's bollocks the way they're treated." Noticing that Teatra had brought Sichuan, Nikki opted for a Riesling. She opened the wine as the prison officer pulled some plates down from the cupboard.

"Then you're really not gonna want to hear the latest: Femi tried to barge her way into the PO's office. I think she just wanted to use the phone, but she pushed Sylvia who started screaming. It took three or four guards to drag her down the block and they were none too gentle. She took a few good kicks." Teatra shook her head in disgust. "I tried to stop them, but..."

"Did you report it? Those officers need to be disciplined!" Nikki was adamant.

Teatra hung her head, refusing to make eye contact. "Nik, you don't know what it's like. I can't grass on my fellow officers, not if I want them to watch my back."

"Jesus, it just gets better and better," Nikki remarked sarcastically.

The prison officer got angry, raising her voice, "Look, I'm sorry I can't be as noble as you want me to be, but it's a damn sight easier for you on the outside. I have to be practical. I can't do those women any good if I get chased out of Larkhall."

Deep down Nikki knew Teatra was right but still wished that integrity did not always have to be sacrificed at the altar of reality. Not wanting to ruin their evening, Nikki bottled her frustrations and opted to comment, "Food smells good. I hope wine's all right?"

The two women sat down to a leisurely dinner of Kung Po chicken, crispy chilli beef, and king dragon prawns with steamed rice. Teatra hoped Nikki liked spicy food. "Mmm. It's good, not quite as hot as Sichuan-Folk on Hanbury Street, but close. The Riesling was a great choice," Teatra complimented.

Nikki nodded, not trusting her voice not to betray her; she was not entirely sure she could have handled much more spice. It had escaped Teatra's notice that Nikki was on her second glass of water – and her third of wine. Not having eaten very much of the fiery takeaway, the wine served the additional purpose of relaxing the defences of the typically reticent Nikki. The conversation drifted to past relationships. "As I told you, my parents chucked me out of the house at sixteen after I was expelled from boarding school for 'lesbian activities.' I was caught snogging a classmate in the locker room. That was the end of it for me and her. Actually, I was fifteen when I was found out, but they couldn't chuck me out until I was sixteen. Happy birthday to me. Honestly, it was better once I'd left; those last couple of months with them judging me, telling me I was going to burn in hell were almost more than I could bear," she explained.

Teatra was astounded. "How ever did you manage?" she finally asked.

After lighting a cigarette for both of them, Nikki shrugged modestly, "You do what you've got to do. I found a bedsit in the city. I always knew I'd leave home right after school, so I'd been putting money into a deposit account for a few years. I had almost two grand in it which was enough to get started. I found a job in a flower shop – thus began my love of plants - worked evenings, weekends. I transferred schools..."

"Were you born middle aged?" Teatra could not believe the sense of responsibility Nikki had had at such a young age.

Nikki laughed. "I never really thought about it, just went about the business of living, yeah? After a few months, I met someone, an older woman who'd come into the shop. Told her I was eighteen. She took care of me for a while, let me move in with her so I could cut back my hours at the shop, concentrate on my studies. She thought I'd lost a year when I moved out of my parents'." Nikki looked at Teatra, abashed. "You probably think I was a bit of a slag, but I really loved her. Or thought I did, the way teenagers do. Caught her in bed with her ex, didn't I?" Nikki shook her head. "Idiot! So I left, a year older, a little more cynical but much less naive than before. Should thank her for that, I suppose." Sensing Nikki was in the mood to talk, Teatra chose not to interrupt, just filled the other woman's wine glass when needed, though Nikki had slowed down her consumption of it. "After that I did turn into a bit of a tart," she smiled shamefully. "I was young and free, living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world... I'd moved to Soho and was presented with a smorgasbord of beautiful women, discovered I had some pulling power." She shrugged philosophically. "Oh, sure, I had some brief affairs – a month, maybe two - and then, when I was twenty-four, I met Trisha. And I knew right away that I'd never need anyone else, that I wanted to settle down. And everything was great. We began a life together, literally grew up alongside each other, started a business and then, well, after almost eight years together Gossard happened, the cop who tried to rape her, the one that I... It took a lot out of us, the enquiry, the trial, and," she laughed bitterly, "the fact that I'd killed a man. She went off with someone else after having put up with me – I'd gone a little wonky – for almost six months. And there you go. Your turn!" she finished enthusiastically. "Shall I open another bottle?"

Proceeding to do exactly that, Nikki was alarmed when Teatra accused, "I don't think you're done. What about Sort Of? Doesn't she get a mention?"

Taking a good draught of her wine, Nikki reluctantly continued, thinking she would have to use caution when speaking about Helen. "I told you it's complicated." Teatra nodded. Nikki had, however, given the matter a lot of thought and realised that as long as she and Helen were not seeing each other, there was not as much risk to either Helen's ethical integrity or to Nikki's freedom. The less she and Helen saw of each other, the less it all seemed to matter. Nikki was, therefore, not as concerned about sharing information with Teatra, except for the gossip it could generate at Larkhall. There was still the matter of the curfew which Nikki had broken for their one glorious night. "All right... We met at the Potting Shed. She had come in with her partner when he," Nikki looked at Teatra for understanding, "yeah, 'he' was contracted into giving a seminar for my patrons one Saturday morning." Teatra suddenly understood Nikki's reaction to her news that she had once been married. "Sort Of was feeling a little under the weather so I invited her in to the office for an infusion that I make for just such occasions. We got to talking and started spending time together, as friends. She was incredibly good to me, started taking me out to matinees at the theatre or just accompanying me out for lunch, recognising that I couldn't really go out in the evenings. I dunno... She seemed to really understand the bind I was in, living under this damned curfew. I admit I was desperately attracted to her, made some inappropriate advances, or, well, I thought they were inappropriate until she left her fiancé." Teatra's face registered shock. "Yeah, in the middle of all this," Nikki explained, "they got engaged. I was finally able to get her to admit her feelings for me and we got closer, physically, but she was loath to be together with me, y'know, intimately. She was nervous. I pushed that envelope one night – one fantastic night," Nikki smiled wistfully, "but afterwards she backed off completely. Broke it off. She decided that we couldn't be together as long as I was serving my sentence. And that's pretty much where we are..." Nikki opted to maintain the ambiguity with which she had previously been presenting the relationship.

"Yeah, Nik, but why not? I just don't get it," Teatra pressed.

Asked a direct question, Nikki felt compelled to answer, which she did slowly, drawing out every word. "Because she's in the Prison Service; it wouldn't be ethical."

"But what about what we're doing? I've got 'permission', for want of a better word, to associate with you." Teatra was forcing Nikki's hand.

"Let's just say that her pay grade is a little higher than yours," Nikki felt that was as much as she was willing to divulge. "Now, can we talk about you?"

Realising this was inevitable, Teatra confessed, "There's really not much to tell. I was married until I was twenty-four and no significant relationships since, I'm sad to say. Oh, sure, I've dated, but..." She shook her head in what could only be described as embarrassment; she did not want Nikki to perceive the extent of her inexperience. "I know it seems like I'm not being fair and, believe me, I wish I had more to talk about," she smiled, "but honestly, I don't. I could tell you about the mistake which was my marriage, but it almost feels like that was a different lifetime or like it happened to someone else. I wish it had." She took a long drink from her water glass. Revisiting her concerns about pursuing anything with the tall blonde, Nikki wondered if Teatra had truly 'found herself' five years ago as she had claimed or if she was simply running from a rotten marriage.

"That bad, was it?" she pressed.

"You don't even want to know... He was involved in some shady stuff, illegal, and just as I'm getting started with the Service!" Teatra sighed. "Obviously I didn't know. Thank God the Prison Service believed me when he got sent down," she avowed.

"Wha'? He's in the nick?" Nikki had not expected this.

"Wandsworth. That's why I had to be transferred. Should be out soon, I expect. He was sentenced to eight years."

"Hmm. Same as Femi. Drugs mule?" Nikki asked cynically.

Teatra snorted, "Hardly. Can we, erm, can we not, Nik? I'm still kicking myself for not knowing what he was up to. As a PO it's kinda humiliating."

Remembering the gracious way Teatra had let her off the hook on Saturday regarding the tube ticket on her fridge, Nikki returned the favour, "Sure. 'Course. Look, T, you're not responsible for anything he did, no matter what it was. You know that, right?" she assured her, moving to put a comforting arm around her.

"Thanks, Nik. I appreciate that." Teatra lingered in the embrace before turning to face her gorgeous hostess. Trailing a thumb down Nikki's cheek and gazing into her deep amber eyes, Teatra leant in, capturing Nikki's shapely lips with her own. Inhibitions lowered Nikki could not help but respond, pressing their bodies closer as her tongue sought out Teatra's, probing, teasing. Drawing back, opening her eyes, Nikki saw her own lust reflected in Teatra's grey ones and, without thinking, gave her hands free rein. While her right arm insinuated itself around Teatra, her hand settling on the small of the other woman's back and pulling the smouldering blonde closer to resume what they had begun, her left wound its way under Teatra's tee shirt, encountering the smooth skin at her waist before boldly venturing higher, meeting up with the lace of her bra. Nikki's left thumb ran itself over a lace enshrouded nipple as she revelled in the feel of the other woman's breast which, while not overly large, possessed good heft and firmness. Teatra's breath caught. Regaining her senses, Nikki pulled away. Both women were breathing hard.

"T, I...I'm sorry. I'm not being fair to you," Nikki apologised, conspicuously aware that it had been almost six months since she and Helen had been together. "I told myself that we couldn't... Not until everything's sorted. I just don't do this. But, God, don't think I don't want to..." she insisted.

"It's all right. I'm glad to know you don't do this, but could you figure things out once and for all. Please. I know I should probably play this cool, but I like you, Nik, and I'd like to take this further. I reckon that's obvious, but I thought I should say," Teatra admitted freely. "Look, I better go."

Nikki admired the blonde woman, looking deeply into her eyes and told her, "I'd like to as well. I just don't know what that means right now. If you want me not to ring you, I understand. I want to be fair by you." She paused. "As for you leaving, maybe we should have a coffee first; we've gone through a fair amount of wine."

Teatra smiled, "I haven't had a drop in over an hour. I'm fine to drive, but I'm glad to know you're responsible even when you've had a few. But maybe you're right. Maybe we should slow down 'til you know where you stand, though I don't know if I can keep my hands off you." The women made their way to the front door surprised that it was nearing half past ten. "And on a school night," Teatra teased, looking at her watch.

"You're working tomorrow?" Nikki asked.

"Eight to five. I have to oversee the Posh's transfer to an open." Teatra looked deeply into Nikki's expressive eyes and sighed, "Kinnell, Nik, who'm I kidding? Can I ring you tomorrow?"

"No promises, yeah?" The last thing Nikki wanted to do was to hurt this sweet, almost innocent woman.

"I told you: I'm a big girl. Up to me to decide what I want." She took a second. "And I want you," she said decisively, grabbing hold of the back of Nikki's head and drawing the taller woman's mouth down to her own. Deliberately controlling her hands, Nikki nonetheless delighted in the kiss. Teatra had taken the initiative again, driving her tongue into Nikki's eager mouth, compelling the dark woman to imagine how other, more sensitive parts of her body might respond to the attentions of Teatra's tongue. A small moan escaped Nikki's throat at the thought. The women reluctantly drew apart and said their goodnights. A very aroused Nikki watched Teatra out to her banger almost hoping it would not start. It did, however, and the equally worked up blonde woman set off in the direction of Kilburn.


Part Forty-Eight

The next morning Nikki was busy on the floor of the Potting Shed, having to open the shop because Alex was at a medical appointment. It was nearing ten o'clock before she could repair into her office. She lit a cigarette and immediately picked up the phone to dial Larkhall's number, hoping Helen would be in and not too busy to take her call. Helen's secretary put her straight through.

"Helen Stewart," she answered professionally.

"Hi, it's me. Have you got a mo?" Nikki asked sweetly, knowing that the ensuing conversation would be difficult. She drew on her cigarette.

Curious, Helen replied, "Sure. What's up?"

"It's about Femi," Nikki introduced the subject cautiously.

As it turned out, Helen had just returned from talking to Femi down the block. The acting Governing Governor was less than pleased with her prison officers' injurious conduct towards her the previous evening; the Nigerian prisoner had clearly suffered maltreatment which Helen vowed to investigate. Unbeknownst to Nikki, Helen had spent much of the previous day speaking with the Home Secretary, endeavouring to get Femi moved to a prison where her needs could be better met. Unmoved by the inmate's plight, however, he informed Helen in no uncertain terms that it was a decision of parliament – to whom he was directly responsible – to come down hard on drug smugglers. As such, they could not be seen to be lenient towards Femi. All the same Helen could not see how any of it was Nikki's concern. "Nikki..."

Nonetheless, Nikki was concerned, very concerned. "Look, what the hell's happening with her?" she snapped.

Calmly, in a voice which meant she would brook no interference, Helen informed her, "It's being dealt with."

Undeterred, Nikki offered sarcastically, "Yeah? Like it was dealt with yesterday?"

"What in hell could you possibly know about yesterday?" Helen questioned.

The prisoner ignored the question, "From what I understand your officers kicked the shit out of her. I just want to know exactly how badly hurt she is, what sort of medical treatment she's getting and when she's getting off the segregation block," she demanded.

Exasperated, Helen pointed out caustically, "It may come as a huge surprise to you, but I'm the one running a prison, not you." Despite the engaging quality of their disagreement, Helen continued find the time to wonder where Nikki had been getting her information.

Nikki could not believe Helen's attitude. The one constant in their relationship had always been their ability to have reasonable – if combative - discourse, especially where prisoners' welfare was concerned. Helen had never before been loath to share information with her. Nikki softened her tone, "Look, I'm worried about that woman. I've a right to know how she is, haven't I?"

"Actually, Nikki, no, you haven't." Without so much as a pause, Helen replaced the phone's receiver in its cradle. Helen was forced to admit that she was equally surprised by her own unwillingness to discuss Femi's situation with Nikki when in times past she would have run to the other woman to use her as a sounding board or simply to garner support. Indeed, it was the animosity with which she received Nikki's queries which confounded her most of all. A more self-aware woman might have realised that she was pushing Nikki out of her life to make room in it for the handsome doctor, for the simplicity that an affair with him would bring; a relationship in limbo fostered too much guilt in the face of this new attraction. Even as she was wondering how Thomas had got along in his interview of Femi, the prisoner was escorted into her office where, with the help of a telephone translator, Helen set about discovering what, or rather who, had caused Femi's extensive bruising. Contrary to what Nikki may have been led to believe, Helen's integrity had not been compromised with her promotion to Governing Governor.

Following being hung up on by Helen, Nikki was seething and more determined than ever to seek fair treatment for Femi. She fired up her computer and started writing. An hour and a half later Nikki had emailed her letter to the Guardian newspaper, confident in its tone and content, and relatively sure she would soon see it in print.

Nikki was not the only one to see her letter in print the following morning. Somehow a copy of the paper went missing from G-Wing's PO's office after Barbara Hunt, the fifty year old 'office girl', learnt of the letter about Femi. It did the rounds of the wing, inciting anger within the more sympathetic inmates.

"The article's entitled, 'Nigerian Inmate Victim of Racism and Violence at Hands of Prison Officers,'" said Barbara. "It starts off talking about Femi's sentence and the fact that she's separated from her family and doesn't speak any English. Just a bit of background, I suppose," she began, perusing the letter.

Julie Saunders, who had decided she could not abandon Julie Johnston in Larkhall and had, therefore, chosen to return to finish her sentence inside, shook her head. "Bad enough bein' separated by that bloody wall, never mind a whole bloody ocean."

"Bloody ocean, yeah," Julie J. finished along with her.

"For all we know, one of her children could have died," Barbara suggested.

"Oh, don't, Babs. Makes me suicidal just thinkin' about it," Julie J. said strongly.

Shaz had joined the group. "What else does it say, Babs? Anything about me?" the perky inmate asked.

"Oh, my. Well, it has this right: 'Three or four officers were enlisted, if not required, to transfer Femi to the segregation block. The beating the terrified inmate received from the restraining officers was brutal and unnecessary; she was hit about the face then, once she was helplessly lying on the cold cement floor, she was kicked repeatedly. Efforts to determine her current condition have been obstructed. Attempts to reach the Prisons Minister were equally unsuccessful.' Looks like we're not the only ones looking for answers," Barbara commented.

Crystal added, "We only want to know she's all right, innit?"

Barbara continued to read, "It goes on to talk about foreign prisoners in general. 'Since this government has been in power, the number of foreign prisoners in British prisons has increased almost one hundred percent. Further, foreign inmates often lack basic information about prison rules and the legal system, struggle to gain accurate legal and immigration advice and many are held well beyond their prison discharge date. It is estimated that around three-quarters of foreign national women in prison are young mothers separated from their children. Separation from family and isolation can damage mental health, and make an already long sentence feel yet longer. Racist treatment is also a recurrent concern of prisoners.' All right, it comes back to Femi," Barbara told the women. "'So a frightened foreign prisoner, a mum, gets terrorised and thrown into solitary because she's depressed and lonely and makes herself understood the only way she can. Meanwhile, Charlotte "Middle Class" Myddleton got transferred from the same wing to an open prison this week. I am sure we would all acknowledge that, while breaking the law is not acceptable, the law must be fair in how it punishes someone who breaks the law. Sentencing must be consistent and not discriminatory.' It concludes, 'I am disgusted at the state of our prisons if this is what is permissible within them. On behalf of all compassionate Britons, I demand evidence that Femi is all right and, further, that there be an investigation into the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Prison Service.' It's signed Jo Bloggs." Barbara shrugged. "As good a name as any, I suppose." There was whooping all around; somehow it felt different to be getting that level of support from someone on the outside.

The letter continued its migration through the wing, stirring the prisoners into a frenzy. By the time it made its way back to the Julies, the wing was in an uproar. Crystal casually said," I think we should do a protest or summink, make 'em tell us what's happenin' with Femi."

"Like your hunger strike," Julie S. agreed, remembering Crystal's desperate bid to convince the prison officers – especially her fiancé, Josh - that she had not taken drugs.

"Your hunger strike," Julie Johnston repeated.

Crystal pointed out, "Worked for me..."

The Julies, Crystal, Barbara and several other inmates decided to sit-out. Linking arms they began loudly singing, "We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved," over and over until their numbers started to swell. Even Maxi Purvis and the rest of the Peckham Boot Gang joined in.

Sylvia, who was acting Principle Officer in Fenner's absence, did her best to stop the crescendo. "Stop this nonsense. Get up!"

"We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved." The women refused to give in.

Josh tried to banter with them, "C'mon, girls, I get off in a half hour." Even Crystal would not be swayed.

"We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved."

Sylvia was forced to call it in. "Zulu to Bravo," she said into her walkie-talkie. "Zulu to Bravo, we've got a situation."

When the inmates next looked up, it was to see a cadre of prison officers, many from other wings, standing at the bars anxious to get in. "Bloody 'ell!" newer inmate Buki summed it up.

The Julies took up a position crouched behind the pool table. "So much for keepin' our noses clean, eh, Ju?" Julie S. offered.

Crystal added, "Yeah, well, what they're doin' to Femi's plain wrong, so we're protected by the sword of Jesus, innit?"

The women decided that because theirs was a peaceful protest, as long as they kept still, the officers would have no reason to attack. They were mistaken. "Now, I suggest you all move before there's some real trouble," warned Sylvia. The gates opened and women were confronted by some very unfriendly looking officers.

Maxi Purvis, sensing an opportunity, exclaimed, "She's right; stay here and we're gonna get stamped on. Well, I say we take the threes, we get above them and we gain the advantage." Many of the women wanted to maintain their peaceful protest, but Maxi convinced many saying, "Yeah, well, it's up to you, ladies. You either stay here and get twatted or you come with me!" She headed up the metal steps. A large, vocal group followed her lead.

"Sit down, you stupid girls!" Barbara insisted. The Julies in their fear made a move for their cell. A melee ensued with the officers coming in hard. Punches were thrown on both sides. The women who had run up to the threes were untouched enticing those who had tried to stick it out to climb as well. Eventually the officers retreated and Sylvia made a difficult call to Helen.

As quickly as she could, Helen made her way to the wing, moving to address the women from the atrium. As she looked upwards at the threes, she shouted, "Can somebody explain to me what the problem is?" Unfortunately, as it was being explained to her that theirs was a peaceful protest, that they were simply endeavouring to get some information about Femi, Maxi Purvis poured a cup of water onto Helen. Chaos ensued with women throwing everything they could find onto the green wire safety netting at the second floor landing. They threw more cups, food, loo paper even a sink from one of the cells. "Okay, this is a Governor's order! Get back to your cells now!" Helen screamed to the riotous mob. As a small wardrobe was hurled down the stairs, Helen decided the reasonable course of action was to retreat and regroup to formulate a workable plan.

Nikki was relaxing, actually enjoying a quiet evening at home, less bothered by her curfew than she usually was, likely because she could finally see its end approaching. She turned on the television to watch the news at eight o'clock. A reporter was animatedly describing a scene at Larkhall prison where a riot was taking place on one of the wings. Camera footage showed the exterior of the prison where all manner of items were being thrown from windows and what appeared to be bed sheets were on fire and swinging from windows. "Anonymous sources within Her Majesty's Prison Service have told the BBC that the women are rampaging as a show of solidarity for a Nigerian prisoner who, the inmates believe, is being unfairly treated," the newsreader informed his viewing public.

Nikki exhaled softly, "Oh, shit."


Part Forty-Nine

Helen had gathered all Larkhall prison officers and reminded them that they were professionals doing a professional job. They were not given leave to storm the wing or to strong arm the inmates. The plan was to allow the prisoners to exhaust themselves overnight and then, come morning, when they were growing hungry and more conscious of the punishment they would undoubtedly suffer for their actions, they would likely be more reasonable. Helen's main priority was to contain the riot to G-Wing, to not have it spread to the rest of the prison. In this she was successful. "A small victory," she thought, knowing that morning would bring some hard decisions. First thing the following day she rang allocations where she arranged to have another Nigerian inmate with a background similar to Femi's, a woman who spoke English and who was already familiar with the routines of prison life, moved to Larkhall. The two Nigerians were to share a cell on E-Wing. Once this had been accomplished, Helen used the Tannoy to call all prisoners to the G-Wing atrium where she explained how Femi's situation had been resolved. She expected the protest to be called off. Met with initial assurances that it was, Helen was irritated when Maxi Purvis stepped in extending new demands.

Seeing this as her chance to establish her position as top dog, Maxi had no intention of backing down. She continued to inflame the women on the wing and threatened to take their protest to the roof if necessary. She demanded better food, better living conditions and better treatment from the PO's. Her followers trailed behind as she turned her back on Helen and the other officers.

Helen made her way back to the offices forced to rethink her softly-softly approach. A couple of hours later, and with approval from Area Management, Helen's officers were suited up in riot gear and ready to go in hard. Just as they were preparing to take back the wing, "By the book: no brutality or score settling," Helen insisted, Gina interrupted to let her know that the prisoners wished to see her. Helen and her body armour bedecked crew made their way to the wing.

A murmur born of intimidation went up through the prisoners at the sight of the helmeted, shield-wielding officers. A loud "Jesus!" was heard. The women informed Helen that their protest was off, that the Purvis sisters were banged up in their cell. The arrival of the new day had seen a small faction of inmates continuing to stand against the protest and, when Yvonne came up with a plan to slam-lock the Peckham Boot Gang in their cell, the idea had been seized upon; the protest died quickly once its head had been lopped off.

Without a word of thanks, Helen insisted that all prisoners return to their own cells. At their hesitation she insisted, "Now!" Slowly the inmates worked their way towards their cells, concern over what the implications of their protest could be weighing heavily upon their gait. They did not have long to agonise over it; once the officers were firmly ensconced in the clean-up of the wing, Helen made use of the Tannoy again. Her strict voice rang out across the wing, "Attention G-Wing. You will be locked in your cells until further notice. There will be no classes, no work, no visits, no association. You will all lose a week's personal spends. There'll be no visits to the canteen all week." Withdrawing from the public-address system's microphone, Helen asked Bodybag, "Was that tough enough for you, Sylvia?"

There remained much to do to get G-Wing back to its usual standards, but Helen, who was planning on going in the next morning – a Saturday – felt no guilt at leaving shortly after six o'clock. As she approached her Peugeot, she noticed a nervous Nikki stood beside it, an umbrella protecting her from the torrential rains. Nikki threw her cigarette onto the ground when she caught sight of Helen. The acting Governing Governor had immediately recognised Nikki's hand in the letter to the Guardian and held her responsible for instigating the riot. "Jo Bloggs! What in hell are you doing here?"

Nikki had been wondering how to best approach Helen since hearing about the riot. "This was never about you," she started.

"I don't want to hear it!" Helen growled.

Undaunted, Nikki continued, "It was about the system."

Shaking her head in disbelief, Helen explained, "I am the bloody system while I'm in charge." Softly, the hurt evident in her words, Helen posited, "You knew how I felt when Crystal went behind my back to write her letter and you betray me by doing the same, Nikki?"

Not knowing when to leave well enough alone, Nikki chided, "I thought you were meant to be changing things in there."

"What, by ridiculing the Prison Service and inciting the inmates to violence?!" Well, when you put it that way...

"You know I never meant for that to happen. I was just worried about Femi," Nikki said sincerely.

Helen looked Nikki square in the eye and told her, "It's over, Nikki."

"What?" Automatically, Nikki's eyes dropped to the ring finger of Helen's right hand; for the first time since Nikki had given it to her, Helen was not wearing her ring.

Her face free of emotion, Helen elaborated, "You and me. You've scunnered me and I don't want anythin' more to do with you. I don't even care if I never see you again." With that Helen climbed into her car and headed for the gate, leaving Nikki with a pained look on her face and a desperate feeling in the pit of her stomach. What had she done?


Part Fifty

Nikki drove home through the torrential rains without seeing the road. Somehow she arrived at her house safely and let herself in the front door. As if by rote she hung up her jacket, placed her umbrella in its stand and padded into the kitchen. She was numb but knew that at any moment the magnitude of what had just happened was going to hit her full force. Absently she depressed the play button on the answerphone. "Hi, Nik," began Teatra's disembodied voice. "I dunno what you've heard, but we've got a situation here on G-Wing and we've all been volunteered for overtime. Sorry to have to cancel last minute, but I'll give you a ring tomorrow." As soon as Teatra said "situation" Nikki's veneer cracked. A bitter laugh escaped her as she repeated the word. What a simple little term to describe the precise moment her world had fallen apart. Part of her had always known that this split was inevitable, but she had continued to hold fast to her continuing hope that she and Helen would make it through these last two months of her sentence.

"Two months! How is this possible? She couldn't stick it for two more months?" Nikki was beside herself. She threw herself onto the couch and cried, the pain of everything she had lost overwhelming her. She barely made it to class Saturday, and did not go into the shop afterwards, as was her custom, instead choosing to sit home thinking about her relationship with Helen. Expecting Nikki would be at the shop, Teatra did not ring her house until half past five. In no state to go out, Nikki put Teatra off, promising to ring her the following week and making tentative plans for Friday night. Nikki hoped she would be interested in rejoining the world of the living by then.

Over the course of the following week, Nikki began to see things philosophically. She knew that her relationship with Helen had not been the same since they had made love six months previously; Helen had been pulling away slowly but surely and Nikki had felt every inch of it. The letter to the Guardian and ensuing riot were simply the last in a long line of excuses Helen had for distancing herself from the tagged prisoner. That night in March Nikki had called her a coward, a description she was revisiting as she considered how the Governing Governor had given up fighting for them, for their future. Nikki even found herself questioning her own feelings, certain that too much had transpired for them to ever get back what they once had. Maybe she was a coward as well, she thought, unwilling to keep fighting. "Or maybe I'm just done bashing my head against a wall, begging for her love. A year and a half now... Maybe I'm just done," she suggested to herself aloud, shaking her head. The two women had been drifting apart for six months, each finding refuge in the arms of another, so when the end finally came, it appeared that they both came to terms with it – and moved on - much more quickly than might ever have been thought possible.

Nikki and Teatra had made plans for Friday evening after Teatra got off work, but Nikki had made a bold decision and chose to meet the young prison officer at Larkhall instead. As she stood smoking in the car park waiting for Teatra to emerge, Nikki saw Helen silhouetted in her office window, obviously curious as to what Nikki might be doing there. In fact Helen was watching her with great concern, ever conscious of the scene that Sean had made after their split and worried that Nikki had come to do the same. The Number One was almost more shocked to learn the actual motivation for Nikki's presence; as Helen watched, one of her newer G-Wing officers, Teatra Kennedy, walked deliberately up to Nikki and pulled the prisoner in for a very deep kiss. If asked, Helen would not have been able to describe her feelings in that particular moment but she almost doubled over as though in physical pain at the sight before her. She had to remind herself that it was she who had broken it off. Nikki was free to see whomever she liked. It had simply not occurred to Helen that, while she was spending time getting to know Thomas, Nikki might also have been finding someone with whom to spend time. While Helen appreciated all of this intellectually, she could not help but be hurt that Nikki was not sitting home pining away for her. "Take ma grave as quick?" she silently asked the young PO with a resentful – if unreasonable – jealousy.

Drawing away from the gorgeous dark woman in front of her, Teatra asked, "What're you doing here, Nik? I thought I was coming to yours?"

Unable to resist a look towards Helen's office window, Nikki caught sight of the Governing Governor leaning heavily against the window sill, almost as though she were using it to prop herself up, before responding, "I had an idea I'm hoping you'll like..." Dolefully but with a gleam in her eye she asked, "Have you ever had breakfast in bed?"

Part 51

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