Serena is curled up by the fire of a moutain lodge when her phone pings. She swipes lazily, then sits up, her stomach knotting. An email, from Bernie. She knows, somehow, that it’s not good news.
“Dear Serena,” she reads, “I’m leaving Holby. I’m sorry. I can’t wait any more. It’s killing me. I have to go. I have to move on. Sorry.”
It’s all over, in a few short lines. (It took Bernie three days to compose, and half an hour of hovering over her keyboard to actually send).
Serena feels it like a punch to the gut, like a steamroller has driven over her and rolled all the breath from her.
There is nothing she can do about it here. She could email back, she supposes, she could beg, could ask Bernie to wait – for how much longer? - but the last time she begged Bernie, the last time she clung to her arm and voiced her desperation it hadn’t helped at all. Perhaps made things worse. She has to let Bernie go.
It’s taken a long time (nearly a year) and a lot of travelling (three continents), but finally Serena is feeling peaceful. Content. She’s back in America, lecturing at Harvard. She had thought she’d like to go back into hospital, into the bustle of a ward, but she tried it, lasted a week and realised that she couldn’t cope. Then she was offered the position at Harvard and it felt right. She’s thought long and hard about this next step. To begin with she’d thought – maybe Bernie could come out here or maybe we could try a long distance relationship.
But she’s been away for nearly a year, and truthfully Bernie doesn’t occupy her thoughts as much as she’d used to. She still loves her, perhaps she always will, but she’s not in love any more.
She’d been in a bar and a woman with long ginger hair had bought her a drink, chatted her up. Serena had liked her. More than liked her. Kissed her quite fervently in the street outside. Hadn’t gone home with her because she wasn’t quite ready for that, not just yet. And it hadn’t occurred to her to feel guilty; only the following day that she’d thought maybe she ought to feel guilty.
She’s moved on. It seems in putting Elinor’s death behind her and creating this new life for herself she’s left Bernie behind too.
They’d emailed each other, periodically. Serena realises now that she hasn’t emailed for a couple of months. And when she looks through her inbox she realises that Bernie hasn’t emailed her either. A short response to her last short offering, then nothing.
She needs to tell her though, just in case Bernie is still waiting. So she types swiftly. Keeps it to the point; she’s got a new job, she’s finally happy in herself. She won’t be coming home. She hopes that Bernie will accept the decision and that she will be happy. Signs off simply ‘Serena’ and sends it before she can think herself into a funk.
Bernie’s response comes the following day. It’s short, but sweet.
“I think I’ve been expecting this for a while,” she writes, “I know you’ve made the right decision for you, and I’m glad you’re happy. Jason’s moved in with me (temporarily) and he sends you his love. He also wants to know your address. He’s planning to propose to Celia! So I hope (we hope) you’ll come back for the wedding, if she says yes. It’ll be good to see you one more time. And don’t you worry about me, Serena Campbell. I’ve been offered a commission, and I think I’m going to accept it. Holby’s been fun but its time for a new challenge.”
She finishes, “Bernie. X”
Serena sits for a moment, thinking about Jason. Of course she’ll go back for his wedding. She’s glad Bernie is still looking out for him. Then she pours herself a glass of wine, thinks of Amy from the pub and digs out the scrap of paper with her number on. There’s a grin on her face as she dials.
Serena is working, temporarily, in a cafe in Spain. A little for the money, a little for the company. She’s a hit with the tourists, who enjoy conversing with a Brit and pepper her with questions about how she came to be working here; she’s not an obvious candidate for a gap year, after all (she never tells them the truth).
She’s just taking her break, well-deserved, with a large mug of strong and hot coffee, and flicking through the news when her phone rings. It’s Hanssen, and she is so surprised she almost drops it, fumbles to answer it.
“Henrik?” she says.
“Serena, there’s some bad news...”
She makes it back to Holby in time for the funeral. Stops in with Jason, who looks at her with an ashen face and asks, why. She can’t give him an answer. Who could?
She’s hesitating outside the church gate when Cameron materialises at her side. He looks smart in his suit, and utterly devastated. “Ms Campbell,” he says, “ Serena .”
She sobs into his shoulder, and she can feel his tears dampening hers. Eventually he pulls back.
“We have to go inside,” he says gently. She clings onto his hand and he twines their fingers together. They lean on each other as they go in and he leads her to the front of the church, pushes her gently into a pew. Jason is there already, with Charlotte. Serena’s only met her a few times before; that Christmas that they had shared before everything fell to pieces. But Charlotte reaches for her and so Serena finds herself with a Wolfe cub on either side as the music starts and the coffin enters the church.
“Oh my god,” she whispers, “oh my god.”
Cameron delivers the eulogy. Talks about Bernie’s love for the army, her love for her family. The love she discovered later in life with Serena. He tells funny stories from the army, even the infamous tap-in-butt episode from Holby. People laugh. Serena laughs. Bernie’s presence seems to be alive in the church. Until the final hymn, the last prayer, the coffin leaving the church.
Serena wants to scream, don’t go without me, how could you leave before I came back, how could you go when I loved you so much . How could Bernie survive the army, survive being blown up, just to die of a heart attack in a boring, safe hospital. How can Serena live now she has two graves to visit, two lives to mourn, two futures vanquished.
She can’t move. The church is emptying as people head to the pub, to Albies, of course, where the wake will be.
“Aunty Serena?” Jason says, and she looks up at him. “You’ve… you’ve still got me,” he says uncertainly.
“And you’ve got us,” Cameron adds, with a watery smile, “If you’ll have us.” He and Charlotte are holding hands now, anchors for each other.
“You?” says Serena faintly.
Cam glances at Charlotte as if for support and she smiles at him, nods. “Mum told me, before… She told me that when you came back, she was going to ask you to marry her,” he shoves his free hand into his pocket and pulls out a box. “I had to go through her papers,” he blinks rapidly, sniffs, “And I found this.” He hands it to her.
She was going to ask, thinks Serena, and I would have said yes. Oh how I would have said yes. She reaches out, trembling, grasps the box. Stares at it for a second, then flips it open. The ring is delicate, silver, a small garnet stone set with tiny crystals around it. It’s beautiful. She cries.
It’s Charlotte who takes it out of the box, who holds Serena’s hand so gently, and slips it on her finger. It fits perfectly.
Serena doesn’t know what to do now, she barely knows how to breathe. She sits, with silent tears pouring down her face and the children stand next to her. Waiting.
In the end it’s Jason who snaps them back into the present, who says quietly, “I’m hungry, Aunty Serena. Can we go now?”
There’s a car waiting for them and Serena slips into the back seat, stares alternately out of the window and at the ring on her finger. Cam is in charge, and she’s grateful because she’s still processing really. It’s been three days, only three days, since Henrik’s call destroyed her world.
There’s a crowd at the pub. So many people have turned out to remember Bernie. Her old army friends, in uniform. The hospital crew, some in scrubs who have clearly slipped out in the middle of their shift. A few people that Serena can’t place, but she supposes that Bernie must have done something aside from her army and hospital work. She spots Marcus and doesn’t have the energy to summon up an emotion. He’s got a woman with him; must be a new girlfriend.
“Ms Campbell,” she turns to face the voice. It’s Morven and she’s holding two glasses of wine.
“I got you a shiraz,” Morven says, and Serena manages a half smile. Morven slips onto the bench next to her and touches her hand gently. “Will you let us help you?” Morven says quietly.
Serena hears what she’s really saying; let us in, don’t let this destroy you, don’t go down the route you did with Elinor. She nods, because she was angry then. So, so angry. She isn’t angry now. She doesn’t know what she is, really. Just...not right.
“That’s a beautiful ring,” Morven says.
“Bernie was going to propose,” says Serena. It’s the first sentence she’s said all day. It makes her cry. Morven sweeps her into a hug, pulls her tight and lets Serena bury her head into her shoulder.
“I know it hurts,” Morven whispers, “It hurts more than anything. But it will get better,” she says, “In time. You just have to keep going until then.”
Serena knows, because Bernie did email her now and then, that Morven and Cameron have got together. If Morven could find the strength to keep going and eventually find happiness again then maybe she could. A thought occurs to her.
“I could have been your step mother in law,” she mumbles, and it sounds so ridiculous that she almost giggles.
Morven pulls back and smiles at her. “If Cam and I make it that far, then as far as I am concerned, you will be. Okay?”
Morven disappears then and Serena sits alone for a little bit. Watching the crowd. There’s food, but she’s not hungry.
She’s more than surprised when Jac comes to join her. The last time they had seen each other was when Jac confronted her in her office, with Bernie and Jasmine. She had been furious with Serena. Serena supposes it’s a measure of how dire she must look that there is only sympathy on Jac’s face now.
“I’m sorry,” says Jac. Then she does something even more unthinkable, and hugs Serena. “We tried so hard.”
This is new to Serena. “You were there?”
A shadow crosses Jac’s face. “They brought her up to Darwin. We couldn’t do anything.” She pauses, then continues, “She was quite a woman. We’ll miss her.” She squeezes Serena’s shoulder and leaves.
Next up are Raf and Fletch, who’ve brought Evie with them. Evie throws herself into Serena’s arms and Serena allows herself to enjoy the contact. “Tell me,” she says hoarsely, looking at the two men over Evie’s head.
They exchange a look and Raf speaks, voice unsteady. “It was just an ordinary day. She’d been muttering about being tired but...”
“She wasn’t sleeping well,” says Fletch apologetically, “Hadn’t been since you left.” That twists like a knife in Serena’s gut. “She was only doing some obs when she collapsed.” He coughs and clears his throat.
“We did CPR,” Raf says, “Rushed her up to Darwin. But she was gone.” He dashes away a stray tear.
S erena sits. People continue to come and give her their condolences. Sometimes she manages to reply, sometimes she just smiles. Everybody is sympathetic. Everybody says how much they will miss Bernie.
Then a tall, slim woman with dark hair approaches. She doesn’t recognise her, but the woman sits down beside her.
“I’m Alex Dawson,” the stranger says.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Serena manages, because it is. To meet this woman whom Bernie loved, who had shown Bernie the truth of herself. Serena owes her, she thinks, because she knows that it was Alex who proved the catalyst for Bernie extricating herself from her marriage.
Alex eyes her and then smiles, “I can see why she didn’t come after me.”
Serena doesn’t know what to say to that, so she says nothing.
“I’m glad she was happy,” says Alex, “I was jealous of you for a long while. But I think she was right, in the end. It wouldn’t have worked, me and her. And I’m glad she found you. I’m glad you had each other.”
“Not for long enough,” says Serena harshly.
“No,” Alex agrees, “Not long enough.”
They sit in silence for a time. Then Alex pushes a card across to Serena. “My number,” she says. “If you ever want to talk. We… we both loved her.”
The pub empties, gradually. Finally, Cameron, Charlotte and Jason come, help her up, help her into a taxi. They all get out at Serena’s house. Cameron makes tea, and they all cuddle on the sofa. Jason puts on an episode of Countdown and they watch in silence. It gets late. Charlotte is already asleep, curled up at the end of the sofa, so Serena fetches a load of blankets. Cam tucks Charlotte up. Jason claims the armchair. Cam holds out his arms to Serena and she snuggles into him, grateful for the affection he is offering. He pulls a blanket over them. Eventually, the room is silent.
They’ll wake up early; stiff from sleeping in awkward positions, but together. And that’s how they’ll get through it, as a family. An odd, mismatched family, but a family nonetheless.
Serena is in a vineyard, in France. She’s sipping Shiraz, enjoying the late autumn sun on her face. She stretches, smiles to herself. The hole in heart is healing, and she can be happy now without guilt instantly racking through her.
Her phone buzzes. It’s from Bernie, a selfie. Bernie is standing in the middle of AAU with a ridiculous pouty expression on her face. “I miss you!” follows immediately.
Serena chuckles. Bernie wouldn’t have sent it six months ago. She knows Bernie has missed her almost unbearably because she’s missed her too. But Bernie hasn’t ever mentioned it in her texts or emails. Kept her tone light and chatty, filled Serena in on hospital gossip and Jason and Celia’s slowly progressing relationship. In the last few weeks, however, sensing that Serena is recovering, she’s allowed some of her emotions to show.
Serena flicks back through her phone photos, studying Bernie’s face. She likes best the ones that she’s taken on the sly, where Bernie doesn’t know, where she’s simply reading, or chatting, or frowning at something on her computer. They’re the ones that show the real Bernie. She wants to take more.
It doesn’t take long too make up her mind, and she books a flight from her phone for two days time. Plenty of time to sample more of the vineyard’s wine. She’ll come home a year to the day since Bernie returned from Kiev.
She thinks of texting Bernie and letting her know, then thinks surprising her will be so much sweeter. So she texts Jason instead, because he definitely will not appreciate a surprise. Warns him to say nothing to Bernie. But he surprises her; offers to arrange a taxi to pick her up from the airport. He’s grown since she’s been away, this nephew of hers.
It’s a busy day on AAU. Bernie finally gets round all the patients then grabs herself a coffee and shuts herself in her office. Busy but successful. The little AAU family has reformed itself. Still misses Serena, will always miss Jasmine. But Donna and Fletch and Ollie fill the ward with fun. Morven, quieter, but not weighed down with sorrow anymore. And on the odd days Raf comes down from Keller it almost feels like old times.
She flicks through some notes as she sips. Engrossed, she doesn’t notice a sudden exclamation from the ward.
Five minutes later she regretfully throws her empty coffee cup in the bin (she really has been trying to be more tidy) and heads out.
“Could you check bed six?” Fletch asks and she nods.
The curtains are drawn around the bay. She tugs them open and finds herself staring into familiar brown eyes. Stands stock still in shock.
Serena smiles. “Surprise?”
“Serena,” Bernie whispers and throws herself at her girlfriend. Wraps herself around her, buries her face into her shoulder. Tangles a hand into her short grey hair. “You’re back, you’re back.” To her shame, tears pour down her face, soaking Serena’s blouse. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Serena pushes her back slightly, wipes tears from her cheek and studies her fondly. “I’ve missed you too,” kisses Bernie’s damp lips. “I love you.”
Bernie pulls her back into a bone crushing hug. “Never again,” she vows, “We’re never being parted again.”
“Suits me,” Serena replies.
Bernie leaves her shift early, is almost forced to by the rest of the team. She and Serena head home, head straight to bed. To kiss and touch and wonder. To relearn each other’s bodies all over again. To make up for months of longing and unfulfilled desire.
Later they eat Indian takeaway, sitting in their pyjamas at their kitchen table. Not speaking; there’s no need for words. Their eyes say it all as they gaze at each other.
They climb the stairs back to bed again. Bernie curls herself protectively around Serena and Serena sighs contentedly.
“It’s good to be home.”
“I’ve tried to keep it nice and tidy for you,” Bernie murmurs sleepily.
“Not the house, Bernie,” Serena kisses Bernie’s closed eyes, “With you.”