Serena does end up going to a vineyard in the south of France. It takes a train, another train, and finally a rickety old bus to get her there, her three suitcases rattling around on the luggage rack above her head.
She realizes her French is still good enough to talk animatedly with the couple who owns the land, and they set her up in a spacious, sunny room in their home. They don’t ask many questions about her life, and she’s thankful.
It’s hard work, different than being a surgeon. Instead of mountains of forms and signatures to write, Serena finds herself on her knees in the dirt with a pair of clippers, hacking away at weeds, dead branches, and the occasional swarm of flies that at first send her shrieking and running away. By the second month, she simply swats at them, swears, and continues her work.
She likes this, the dirt and sun. It makes her feel younger, despite the way her knees crack after she’s been crouched over a particularly tough patch of weeds, or when she stands up and her back groans in protest. She wipes her brow and feels the hard crunch of dirt against her skin from where it’s gathered under her nails.
She and Bernie Skype with the spotty wifi that’s strongest in the kitchen. The French couple give Serena space when they see her walk downstairs with her laptop, setting a glass of wine down on the tabletop before making themselves scarce. It’s a great perk of the job, Serena tells Bernie. It’s not Shiraz, but it’s still a fine red wine and it costs her nothing.
Bernie watches Serena on a screen from hundreds of miles away, notices the spattering of freckles across her nose and the way her skin has colored slightly from the sun. They talk about nothing, they talk about everything. Serena lets out a laugh at something Bernie says and Bernie’s voice catches on her words, the sound making tears spring into the corner of her eyes. It’s been so long since she’s heard Serena’s laugh and it makes her heart burst in her chest, with happiness, with an acute longing to pull Serena close to her and never let go.
There are days when the grief hits Serena out of nowhere. The French couple’s grandchildren visit and she has to excuse herself, suddenly struggling for the words in French to explain. She takes a long walk along the river, anger curling in her stomach like tar, sadness washing over her in waves that make her body wrack with sobs. She’s glad she’s alone with no one to see her for miles, to see her break down like this. She ends up at a fork where the river splits off, and spends the afternoon tossing rocks into the water and watching the ripples disappear outward.
She keeps a journal, something Bernie had given her before she’d left, leather-bound and a rich caramel colour. There is a picture inside, glued onto the first page with Bernie’s scrawl underneath. Something to come home to. It’s a photo of the three of them, she, Bernie, and Jason, from the holidays. Bernie looks miffed, wearing one of Serena’s hideous Christmas sweaters with a light-up reindeer on the front. Jason dons an elf hat, something from Cameron or Morven, she can’t remember. Serena is between them, a glass of Shiraz in hand and her eyes closed in laughter, at what she can’t remember now. She can make out various members of AAU in the background, out of focus blurs of color.
Then the first grape harvest arrives and she has no time for any sort of grief. She spends hours in the vineyard, hands cracked and calloused with effort. The air is still warm, but a cool breeze in the evening hints at the fall weather arriving soon. She has learned to love the process, the way the grapes feel under her fingers, knowing they’ll be turned into wine in the coming months. She speaks to the French couple more now, her words clear and concise as she rambles about being a consultant, about Bernie, about Elinor. She tells them about Jason, and Adrienne, laughs and cries with it all. She’s not sure they understand half of what she’s saying, but they listen and make her feel a little less foolish than she expected.
There is something wonderful about watching a plant grow from the ground knowing she was there from the very beginning.
Serena is talking with Bernie one day when she invites her to visit. Bernie doesn’t hesitate before accepting, booking tickets that very night.
She arrives at the bus station with a single backpack and her Holby City Hospital hoodie zipped to her chin. Serena imagined it might be strange, seeing her in person again after so many months. Her stomach twists and turns with nervousness before the bus arrives. And then Bernie steps off, hair wild from the wind, and it feels like coming home.
The French couple doesn’t ask many questions, a knowing smile flashing across both their faces when Bernie steps into the house. Serena introduces them, in French, and Bernie shrugs and smiles, having no idea what anyone is saying. Serena then whisks Bernie away upstairs and locks the bedroom door. They end up doing nothing but kissing the whole night, wrapped up in each other like grape vines, desperate to not let go.
Serena takes Bernie to the river with a picnic basket stuffed with fresh bread from the village bakery, a round of goat cheese, and a bottle of fine red wine. Bernie carries the blanket in one hand, her other hand clasping Serena’s. The walk isn’t long, and soon they’re overlooking the glistening current with red-stained teeth and goat cheese smudged on the corner of their mouths. Bernie leans over and wipes the corner of Serena’s lips with her fingers. Serena does the same, but instead smears the cheese across Bernie’s mouth and leans in to kiss it off. Bernie’s cheeks flush pink, the feeling of Serena’s mouth still a shock after so many months.
They sit like that for hours, wrapped up in each other and their glasses of wine. Bernie runs her hands through Serena’s hair, now cropped and silver. Serena explains she didn’t see the point in colouring it anymore, not out here. Bernie loves it, and places a litany of kisses on the crown of her head. They murmur to each other about the trees, the AAU ward, the way the wine tastes. Their hands stay clasped together on the blanket, one pair rough from the earth, the other rough from hours of surgeries.
The sun begins to set late in the day, lighting the sky up in a fiery show of reds and oranges. The low-hanging clouds around the mountains glow like embers against the peaks. Serena feels a lightness inside her, a comfort, something that’s been growing over the last months she’s been self-exiled here.
She leans into Bernie, breathes in the smell of her shampoo, the lingering antiseptic tang of the hospital that never seems to leave. She squeezes Bernie’s hand, closes her eyes and lets out a deep breath.
“I think I’m ready to go home.”