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When the dancing ends

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October 2019

“Raf, do I look presentable? I haven’t got anything in my hair, have I?”

“Serena, you look fine! Why all the fuss?” asked Raf, who was chuckling at his occasional boss’s predicament, long-time friend and partner in crime when it came to Holby’s Artisan Food Producers Association or HAFPA.

“Can’t I want to dress is something other than white overalls and hairnets?” pouted Serena.

“Of course you can, but it is delivery day… And I take it that it isn’t Adrian Fletcher you are interested in, so by deduction is this all for Bernie Wolfe?” gently teased Raf, his eyes sparkling with warmth.

“I’ve gone a bit OTT, haven’t I?” said a panicked Serena. “Oh, Raf. I know it’s silly of me, I’ve no idea if she is even interested in women, let alone me. I can’t help myself when she steps out of her van. I turn into some bumbling teenage girl who has lost the power of speech of all things! I mean, I used to be a CFO for goodness sake, but Bernie makes me forget my name!” rattled off an exasperated Serena.

“No, you haven’t. Clean jeans and blouse, that I’ve seen you wear hundreds of times over the years,” assured Raf. “Your makeup is subtle, and not the war paint levels you’ve worn in the past. Although, if subtlety doesn’t work to can always break out the suited and booted look,” smiled Raf as he rested his palm on Serena’s forearm.

“God! Those heels would kill me now,” remembered Serena. “A lifetime ago…”

--

Raf and Serena had met years ago in their old roles and had initially bonded over their love of cream teas and cheese. Following the financial crash in 2008, they decided they had enough of selling their souls to the corporate world and got the opportunity to escape back to Serena’s childhood home and family farm following her Mum’s death from Alzheimer’s, and the death of Raf’s wife from ovarian cancer. Raf not thinking twice when Serena had made her former executive PA an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

Both at a loss what to do after working fourteen-hour days, not wanting to be on their own, not wanting to deal with the loss of significant people in their lives. They had set about clearing the McKinnie family home of over two hundred years of junk, modernising the home to include a central heating system, decent plumbing and re-lining all five of the chimneys, before making a start on the rooms. May as well put my savings to good use reasoned Serena.

It was the box of old recipe cards that had lit a fire under Serena as they sat in the kitchen one night, three bottles of wine down, following a particularly maudlin conversation about regrets, university lovers, and their dormant bisexuality.

Serena had been brought up in a home where there was always something on the Aga bubbling away as was the norm in any farmhouse kitchen. Raf, the product of a large Italian family from Glasgow, where cooking and eating was a family affair.

Sorting out the recipe cards into pies, jams, chutneys. Raf spotted one for lemon cheese and started reminiscing that his Gran made this all the time and got the recipe from one of the neighbours in their old tenement block. Encouraged by Raf’s childlike enthusiasm, Homildon Preserves was born on a freezing wet night in November 2010.

Now, Raf occasionally helped with admin and deliveries. He had set himself up as a PA to local businesses, sole traders, had charmed the directors of HAFPA and was now the secretary. The bi-monthly meetings ran smoothly with Raf in charge who constantly was searching for new artisans to join and ensuring that it became an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to know about EU legislation, Health and Safety regulations, and food safety standards. It was a role he loved.

--

“You’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

“I’ve got an inappropriate crush on a woman who runs an organic eggs business who might be delivering said eggs today, is what I’ve got!” laughed a very flummoxed Serena.

“You’ll be fine, just don’t offer to show her your wares!” laughed Raf as he clasped a mug of hot coffee in his hands.

“Behave!”

“Right. Showtime,” as Raf had spotted Lyham Farm Eggs van turning into the yard. “It’s Bernie, by the way. Act cool, remember!”

“Sod off!” replied Serena as she tried to school her features and hide her delight at seeing Bernie.

--

“Morning,” said Bernie as she clambered out of her van and walked around to open the doors at the back. “Twenty trays, wasn’t it?"

“Yes,” nervously breathed out Serena. “Are you OK to bring them through or would you like a hand?”

“No, I should be ok, but thank you for offering,” smiled Bernie, who followed Serena though to the small packing table near to the main door of the unit. Gently placing the precious cargo down, before reaching into her pocket for her card payment device and mobile. Serena inserted her card and keyed in her number.

“These things make doing the accounts at the end of the month so much easier, don’t they?” shared Serena, consciously keeping the subject business related.

“God yes!” sighed Bernie, “I was so resistant, but then when I saw the demonstration at an NFU meeting, and the thought of never having to do an invoice ever again won me over! My accountant was delighted. It used to be a mad scramble to get everything done in January for the deadline.”

“Tell me about it. They are wonderful when I go to the monthly farmer’s markets. Speaking of which, why do I never see you at Holby’s? People always ask me where I get my eggs from. Maybe, I could sell a few cartons on your behalf, if you have enough to spare…” rambled Serena. Marveling to herself about the possibility of seeing Bernie again.

“I might have. I’ve got another 400 pullets starting to lay eggs, so maybe in the next couple of weeks or so… I could give you a few dozen cartons for the next farmer’s market and see how it goes…” said Bernie. Not wanting to sound overly eager. Only her daughter knew of her crush on the lady who makes award winning Lemon Cheese according to the South West of England regional food awards.

“I’d like that. It’s good to support other local producers. It’s the least we can do,” added Serena.

“Couldn’t agree more, I wouldn’t be able to survive without the likes of you and the hotels; selling half a dozen eggs to the public doesn’t pay the bills,” sighed Bernie who offered a thin smile in Serena’s direction.

“Indeed. Here, let me give you the dates and venues for the next round of farmer’s markets, and if you think you'd like to give it a try, well you can let me know. You’ve got my number, haven’t you?” Serena rushed out.

“Erm, I can get it from the website if I haven’t,” replied Bernie.

“Nonsense, not that number, it’s just an online answering service. My actual number….” Serena arching her eyebrow, willing Bernie to realise what she was doing.

“Oh, er… No, I don’t think I have,” replied Bernie. Thinking that she would have bloody remembered if Serena Campbell had given her, her personal number.

“Right. Well, here you go,” as Serena wrote her mobile number out on a back of an envelope. Trying to remain calm, she grabbed a jar of lemon cheese from the tray and thrust it into Bernie’s hand with her number, “Enjoy, I’ve been told it goes well on sourdough baguettes from Florita’s Bakery.”

“Right, right, I’ll bear that in mind. You won’t be offended if it’s on a slice of Kingsmill, though?” grinned Bernie.

“I'd be mortally offended,” said Serena as mock seriousness giving way to a beaming smile. Only for Bernie to honk in response, making Serena pause and stare in a shock at the noise that was emanating from Bernie.

“How about I promise to do my best and enjoy it the way you intended?” batted back Bernie.

“Scouts honour?”

“I can raise your Scouts honour and replace it with Major Wolfe – retired Royal Army Medical Corps. Would that be acceptable Ma'am,” Bernie said as flatly as possible, topping it off with a salute.

“I think that should be sufficient, Major Wolfe,” Serena replied. Her head nodding in deference to Bernie’s rank. Internally, Serena was trying her very best not to swoon. She could hear Raf holding in his laughter behind her.

“I should be on my way, and I promise not to commit sacrilege with this,” said Bernie, who waggled the jar in Serena’s direction.

“It would be appreciated, but I should let you crack on. Same delivery next week, if that’s ok?” said Serena, determined to get to some semblance of mundanity between them.

“Absolutely. See you next week, then,” said Bernie as she walked back to her van.

Serena intently watched Bernie’s retreating arse as she made her way across the yard. “Fuck. What just happened?” as she slumped against the table.

“I’d say that was a masterclass in flirting. And… I would add that it’s definitely reciprocated,” said Raf.

“Do you think so?” asked Serena, quietly hoping Raf was correct in his summation.

“Yes, absolutely. Never realised Bernie was ex-army. That would explain why she was never around much. For someone who was supposed to have grown up around here,” said Raf, determined to find out more from Fletch at The Wheatsheaf’s next pub quiz night. Maybe, Fletch could drag Bernie there.

--

“What’s got you in such a good mood? You look like the cat that’s got the cream?" asked Charlotte.

“Nothing.”

“Bollocks. C'mon, Mum. Spill,” ordered Charlotte.

“Honestly, nothing. And don’t swear!”

“Not buying it. Weren’t you delivering eggs to Homildon Preserves today?” continued Charlotte, sensing blood.

“It was on my route. Why the twenty questions?” countered Bernie.

“Because, you have a crush on her…” stated Charlotte.

“I do not!” replied Bernie, a little bit too forcefully than intended.

“So, what would you call it, then?” said Charlotte, not backing down.

“Ugh, I like her. It’s bad enough that you know that, without trying to set me up!” sighed an embarrassed Bernie.

“See, how hard was that?” joked Charlotte. “And you can stop pouting.”

Childishly or not, Bernie poked her tongue out and headed to loo. Collecting her thoughts as she sat down. She pulled the envelope from her jacket and fished her phone from the back pocket on her jeans. She had Serena Campbell’s number after all these months of trying to move their stilted attempts at conversation to more than business. Bernie realised rather quickly that calling Serena and trying to hold a conversation with Serena was completely out of the question, she tapped in the number and added Serena Campbell to her contacts, then spent the next ten minutes deliberating whether to text her or not. Snapping back to reality when she heard Charlotte shouting if she was OK.

Returning to the kitchen she dutifully informed her daughter that Serena Campbell had given her, her phone number. Only for Charlotte to threaten to unlock Bernie's phone and send a text if she doesn’t do it tonight. Begrudgingly and what she thought was somewhat foolishly she plucked up enough courage and made several attempts to write a message before finally succeeding at five minutes to midnight. 'Sorry for the lateness of my text and I hope I don’t disturb you. Anyway, here’s my number and I’ll update you on the pullets egg laying adventures – Bernie.'

Sleep came fitfully to both Bernie and Serena. Questioning their interpretation of this morning’s conversation. The what ifs, the what it would be like to kiss her, to touch her, to go out on a date, to hold her hand. All far too far ahead of where they truly were.

--

‘I’ll wait with bated breath for your updates. But seriously, it would be lovely for you to send some along. Enjoy your day. Serena.’

Never the most coherent person in the morning, Serena surprised herself by being wide awake at six, after replying to Bernie’s message, smiling at the still fresh memory of yesterday. I’m old enough to know better she thought, as her toast popped up. Grabbing a plate, she slathered on butter and marmite, whilst waiting on her cafetière to settle before pushing the plunger down as she tried to shove the thought of Bernie sitting at her kitchen table having breakfast to the back of her mind.

Tuesdays were her delivery days – the local delis, hotels, and café’s. Wednesdays were spent making batches of lemon cheese in varying sizes depending on the orders. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays were a mix of Farmer’s markets, packing, confirming orders, and website admin. Sundays were her day when she caught up on her life admin. Mondays were her incoming deliveries, sterilising, and prepping.

--

“Bugger it!” exclaimed Serena who had been itching to text Bernie for the last week, grabbing her phone before she could change her mind, she tapped out ‘I’m heading to Stoke Gifford’s farmers market on Friday, and wondering if you could spare a few dozen carton of eggs. Think they would go down well as it’s a very yummy-mummy organic knit-your-own-lentil-soup kind of place. I always do well there. Don’t worry if you can’t. If you can, I could pick the eggs up on the way there… Serena’

--

Bernie’s phone pinged from the depths of her jeans, she was covered in overalls, gloves, and face mask as she was mucking out from underneath the roosting spars in one of the hen houses, before bedding in fresh straw. She figured she would leave it until she was finished. If it was urgent, they would call the office. Where there’s muck there’s brass she thought as she hefted another bag of manure into the back of the link box.

Physical graft was something Bernie was never afraid of. How could she be when she’d spent twenty-odd years in the Army. She knew that she had limits since being medically discharged four years ago after the IED explosion. Returning to the family’s egg business that Charlotte and Bernie’s Uncle Hugh had been running until his retirement at 75 and death in the spring, she had found a peace she hadn’t felt in years. Well, since her divorce some fifteen years ago as she was tired being stuck in a marriage that was suffocating. Active warzones were an infinitely more appealing prospect. And the modern Army was a much more welcoming and diverse place to be once the law was changed in the early 2000s.

Driving the old Massey-Ferguson tractor over to the steading, she shifted the freshly bagged manure to the rest of the stinking pile. A couple of local nurseries collected it once a month for their own compost heaps before selling it on.

Walking over to the boot room, she shuffled out of her paper overalls and kicked off her wellies before heading into the kitchen for a sandwich and mug of tea. Remembering to check her phone before she sat down and cracked the screen (again), she saw that the message was from Serena and hurried to unlock it so she could read it properly. She smiled at Serena’s turn of phrase, ‘Would 12 dozen be OK? I can have them ready half seven if it helps. I’ve no idea what time these things start – Bernie.’

Bernie hardly had time to put her phone on the table before it pinged with a reply from Serena ‘I can be there for half seven, need to load the van up first. Never like doing it the night before in case it gets nicked! I will see you Friday morning – Serena.’

--

Serena woke up to Cilla the ginger cat yowling at her bedroom window begging to be let in. Cursing Raf's bloody cat, she tentatively checked to make sure that Cilla was not bearing gifts of the small harvest mouse variety; she had been known to toss around and dismember, with remnants of their entrails left in the bathroom. Four o’clock, she noticed. I might as well get up, as she found her slippers and headed downstairs towards the kitchen, dealing with hungry Cilla first before she sorted her breakfast out. Lost in a Bernie filled daydream, she hadn’t heard Raf call her name until she jumped out or her skin and yelped in shock.

“Could you wear louder shoes, please!” breathed Serena, holding the rail in front of the Aga from the shock.

“Sorry, but I did try. It’s not like you to be up so early,” said Raf, shrugging his shoulders in recognition.

“Cilla was being very Cilla like,” bemoaned Serena, “could’ve cheerfully strangled her. I finally managed to drop off around two!”

“Aah, say no more. Noisy or quiet coffee?” asked Raf as he headed to the cupboard in anticipation.

“Quiet please,” replied Serena.

“Thought as much,” reaching for the grounds and the percolator, placing it on the Aga waiting for it to gently hiss.

Serena was stealing herself for what she thought would be the inevitable questions, but none came as they quietly ate their breakfast and sipped coffee. Raf breaking the silence, “Go and get ready, I’ll do the dishes and meet you down here in twenty minutes and we’ll get packing.” It was all Serena could do to nod.

--

“Mum! What time is Serena picking up the eggs?” shouted Charlotte from the kitchen.

“She said she can get here for half seven. Why?” replied Bernie from the landing.

“Erm, looks like she’s been sitting at the bottom of the lane for at least ten minutes according to the CCTV,” said Charlotte.

“Oh, bugger. I’ll text her to tell her to come up. Can you pop the kettle on? Do I look ok? Bollocks, I need to change my shirt, it stinks from mucking out yesterday,” rushed out Bernie as she turned tail.

‘Come up. The eggs are ready. Charlotte spotted your van on the CCTV – B’

‘Sorry, Raf helped pack the van and we were done quicker than I thought – S’

‘Drive past the outbuildings and you’ll see the farmhouse on your right. Come to the back door – there’s a reddish/green bush next to it 😊’

‘OK, see you in a couple of minutes.’

Bernie raced backed down to the kitchen. Charlotte failing to hold in her laughter as her Mum slid to a stop in her stocking feet. “Really, Mum. Just how old are you?”

“Shush. Right, behave, no silly questions.”

“I’m not Fletch! I get that you are nervous. Heard you talking to the dog through the night. Imagine, if you ever actually ask her out, you’ll need valium to calm down!”

“Ha-bloody-ha!” said a very exasperated Bernie who was trying to shove her feet into her work boots without falling over.

Deep breath they both muttered, Serena from the driver’s seat and Bernie from behind her kitchen door. Bernie opening the door as she heard the car door closing.

“Hi,” rushed out Bernie.

“Morning,” replied Serena, failing in her attempt not to smile like a loon at the sight of Bernie in rumpled work clothes.

“Erm…” said Bernie completely forgetting was she was going to say, ducked her head to hide her blush.

“Mum, kettle’s on!” said Charlotte, who looked on with amusement at her Mum.

“…Huh, oh, right. Sorry. Right. Would you, er… I mean, would you like to come in for a cuppa, if you have time, that is?” spluttered out Bernie. Serena nodded in response, not trusting herself not to blurt out something stupid.

“Mum, can you grab the milk? It’s Serena, isn’t it?” asked Charlotte. Serena nodded. “How do you take your tea?”

“Milk and two sugars please,” replied Serena. “Funny, I take my coffee black with nothing added. Tea always feel more comforting.”

“I know what you mean,” replied Charlotte who was leaning against the range whilst the tea brewed in the pot.

“I’ve done you 18 dozen if that’s ok? The pullets have got the knack now, plus I wasn’t sure how much space you would have?” said Bernie.

“That should be fine, I was going to put them foot well. There’s not much space once I get the canopy and tables in,” said Serena. Relived to be talking about practicalities.

“How long have you been doing the farmers markets?” asked Charlotte, genuinely curious.

“About six years. I over committed in the first couple of years and scaled back to something that was more manageable. It’s just me in the main, Raf helps when he can, and I have couple of students who help me out during their holidays. My daughter is not interested, and still lives in London, persuaded me to buy her a house, says Holby is a tad lacking… My nephew and his wife chip in at the Christmas markets,” shared Serena.

“It’s hard work, isn’t it?” added Bernie.

“Yes, but I’m my own boss, and have a life which is less stressful than my old role,”

“What did you used to do?” asked Charlotte.

“I was Chief Finance Officer for one of the major investment banks. Got out when the crash happened, Raf was my PA. We’ve been friends for the best part of 15 years. I keep my hand in by being on the board of one of the smaller Alzheimer’s charities by doing their management accounts every month, they rope me in to help with budget setting and reforecasting during the winter months.”

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Bernie, “Never had you pegged as an accountant!”

“Never had you pegged as an Army Surgeon…” batted back Serena, her eyebrow arching for effect.

“Touché,” smiled Bernie.

“I’ve just realised that I’ve no idea how much you want to charge for the eggs. I could pay you now, or you could invoice me…” rattled out Serena.

“Oh, I thought about that. I’ve got a £30 float for you. It’s all coins, but is should be enough. I usually charge £3.50 per half dozen. I’ve got a spare phone that Charlotte's set up with a card device, if you want?” added Bernie.

“Perfect, I’ll have to use my charm and get them to use that instead,” said Serena, who winked at Bernie.

“Only if it’s no trouble,” said Bernie.

“Course not, anything to keep your accountant happy,” laughed Serena. “I’d best be off, I’ll let you know how it goes.”

--

“Earth to Mum,” repeated Charlotte.

“Oh, sorry love. Miles away,” replied Bernie.

“Really, never would have guessed that in a million years…” said Charlotte with a smirk. “She likes you. You do realise that?”

“You think so?”

“Mum. A blind person running for their life would notice,” laughed Charlotte. “Ask her over for a Sunday lunch. I’ll ask Fletch to cover the hens, I’ll go to the cinema or something.”

“You’ll have to help me tidy up!”

“I know that, it is a working farm!” stated Charlotte flatly. “No time like the present, is there?” as she made a grab for her Mum’s phone. “Mum, seriously. You’ve been on your own for years, and this is the first person you’ve ever told me that you like. Can’t a daughter want their mum to be happy?”

“I am happy, I have you, this place, and the dog,” countered Bernie.

“But Mum, you could have something more…”

“Will you stop meddling in my love life!”

“Er… stating the obvious, but you haven’t got one – yet…” said Charlotte looking very smug that she had managed to get one up with her Mum. Bernie held her hands up in defeat.

“OK, OK... It would be nice to have someone, but I never go anywhere apart from the NFU ball, and you’re always my guest,” said Bernie.

“Have you thought that I might actually like to go with someone?” said Charlotte, sighing.

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way,” said Bernie, blushing at her lack of awareness over her daughter’s wants as inspiration struck, “Are you seeing someone?”

“Sort of, well… Yes. But they’re on-call most weekends, so it’s difficult. The joys of being a junior vet in a rural practice,” said Charlotte, softly.

“Oh, what’s his name?” asked Bernie.

“Thought you might ask that,” said Charlotte, taking a deep breath before continuing, “It’s Ifeyema, Iffe for short…” said Charlotte, the silence hanging as she watched her Mum absorb that fact that she had just come out, and judging by the wringing of her Mum’s hands it was still computing. “Mum?”

“Oh, Charlie. C’mere,” said Bernie as she wrapped her arms around her daughter in a vain attempt to apologise. “So basically, you want me to have someone so you can have your own life?”

“Kinda,” sniffed Charlotte into her Mum’s shoulder.

“Gotcha! Loud and clear,” Bernie mumbled, internally reeling.

--

Serena slumped into the driver’s seat of her van, moaning at the support offered by the seat after standing for hours on end. Smiling, she pulled her phone from her bag and was about to text Raf to ask him if he would help her empty the van before thinking better of it and deciding to text Bernie instead, ‘You’ll be glad to know that I sold all your eggs by lunchtime, could have sold twice as much! Told you they’d love it! Most of them paid by card, a couple with cash so it will be ready for you whenever. Oh, and I’m going to Chepstow Farmers Market next Thursday, I could do the same again… S x’

The drive home was a short one, but long enough for Serena to go through umpteen scenarios where she could spend more time with the enigmatic Major Wolfe (Retired). Keep it simple, she thought. The yard lights going on automatically as she reversed to the storage unit, Raf walking to unlock it as she turned the engine off.

“Good day?” Raf asked.

“Yeah, that’s all I’ve come back with,” said Serena, pointing to the empty space in the van.

“Bloody hell. S’pose we’ll need to do the banking tomorrow. D’ya reckon it’s the Bake-Off effect from last week?"

“Definitely!” laughed Serena.

“How was Bernie?” asked Raf, the smirk in his voice was unmistakable.

“Fine.”

“Is that it?” laughed Raf.

“Met her daughter, who is a younger version of Bernie. Both looked amazing for half seven in the morning. I felt such a frump,” huffed Serena. “Had a chat about my former life, don’t think she expected that.”

“You know you’re talking rubbish; you got enough Chanel and Max Mara in your wardrobe to disprove that statement, Ms. Campbell,” teased Raf. “On a more sensible note, why don’t you invite them over for a Sunday lunch, might speed things up from the maddeningly slow pace. Let Operation Wolfe Hunt begin,” he chuckled.

“Fuck off! Operation Wolfe Hunt!? Really?” laughed Serena.

“Well, it the best I can come up with at short notice.”

--

Over the last few days their text messages had increased, never quite brave enough to call each other. They found out they we both the same age – a couple of months between their birthdays. Both divorced several years ago, both had one child, no remaining parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles, and both returning to their childhood homes after years away. Could they consider each as more than business acquaintances? Yes. Friends? Early days, but they had fallen into an easy rhythm of texting throughout the day when work would allow, much to the amusement of Charlotte and Raf.

“Any chance of a cuppa, Campbell?” said Bernie with more bravado than she felt as she placed the last tray down.

“Sure. Builders OK with you?” asked Serena.

“You do know how to show a girl a good time,” said Bernie, immediately regretting it. “Sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it,” panicked Bernie, whose face was scarlet with embarrassment.

Two can play that game, thought Serena, “I do, and it’s been quite a while since I’ve had any complaints…” said Serena. If only Bernie knew just how long it had been since that one-night stand in Stepney Green mid-financial crash.

Mugs in hand, the sound of the sterilizer swooshing in the background Bernie was the first to break the silence. “Erm… would you? Would you like to come over one Sunday for lunch?” Bernie rushed out.

“Oh, are you sure?” asked Serena, unexpectedly taken aback. Bernie nodding is response. “I’d like that,” beamed Serena. So much for acting cool she thought.

“What about this Sunday, if you’d like?” continued Bernie.

“I could do,” beamed Serena. “What time?”

“…One-ish,” replied Bernie. “You aren’t vegetarian or anything like that?” Serena shook her head.

“How about I bring pudding? Share the effort?” said Serena.

“That sounds like a plan,” said Bernie, mirroring Serena’s smile.

--

“Charlie! Can you spare a minute, I’m in my room?” shouted Bernie.

“Oh, bloody hell!” said Charlotte, surveying the mess of clothes on the bed. “How come you weren’t this messy in the Army?”

“Didn’t have a choice,” grumbled Bernie.

“Right, do you have any colours that aren’t black or khaki?” said Charlotte looking at the pile on monotone clothes strewn over every surface.

“I’ve got my pink coat,” huffed Bernie.

“Ooh, this is nice,” asked Charlotte who picked up a dark green shirt with contrasting palm trees printed across it. “Black jeans, and your Vans and you’ll be good to go.”

“Really? It’s not too teenage boy?”

“Mum, you are 54 years old, with a great figure. You wear jeans all the time, you will be cooking Sunday lunch for someone who you’ve liked for the best part of three years, you need to be comfortable. Or you could always wear your dress uniform…”

“When did you get so wise?”

“When I figured out that I was gay and realised what you had gone through, I didn’t want that for me. And I don’t want that for you now or in the future. I want you to be happy.” said Charlotte, letting a tear fall down her cheek.

“You make me sound like an appalling Mum,” whispered Bernie. “I felt like a was when I was on tour, but you made it worth coming home.”

“You were there when it mattered. You always told me what you were up to. You never lied, not like Dad. You just weren’t very good at telling people how you felt, but we’re both getting better at that," said Charlotte, her voice cracking with emotion.

“How old were you when you realised? I was nineteen,” asked Bernie.

“Seventeen, for definite. Not sure from about twelve. I wanted to be way more than friends with Pip Landale, we sort of were the summer before we went to Uni. Never really liked anyone enough until I met Iffe two years ago, we danced around our feelings for far too long before she properly asked me out at New Year. So, I do get it, Mum.”

“Oh.”

“Be brave, you like Serena, and based on what I’ve seen, and what you’ve told me, she likes you,” continued Charlotte.

Bloody more than like her, thought Bernie, feeling the need to change the subject. She knew she would have to have more conversations with her daughter – baby steps. Tonight was enough.

“Have you added what you want to the shopping list. I’ll head into town and get a leg of lamb. You have got Sainsbury’s delivering on Saturday morning?”

“Yes, do you want a hand to prep anything before I…er.. head out, … and meet Iffe for lunch? God! This is weird, never thought we’d be talking about this any time soon. Oh, and we’re not double dating, either!” finished Charlotte, before laughter took over.

“Perish the thought. Though as your Mother, I am expecting to be introduced soon,” grinned Bernie.

“I will, but don’t go all Major Wolfe on her or I’ll do exactly the same to Serena. I have picked up some things over the years,” said Charlotte as she headed back kitchen, laughing at the state of her Mum who was trying to pick an outfit three days prior.

--

“Serena, it’s Sunday lunch, not a meeting with the shareholders,” said Raf who was being subjected to the ball of nervous energy that was his dearest friend since she'd accepted Bernie’s invitation. “What would you wear if we were going out for a pub lunch?”

“Point taken. Oh god, Raf! What if I’ve been mis-reading everything?” whined Serena.

“And what makes you say that?” reasoned Raf. “You both get equally flustered when you see each other. You look lighter, you are smiling more. You give as good as you get when you flirt with each other. Pretty conclusive, if you ask me…” smiled Raf. “How many times have we woken up with stinking hangovers bemoaning the fact that we are both single; sometimes out of choice, and most definitely because we are out of practice. You’ve potentially got an opportunity to change that,” he reassured.

“Thank you,” said Serena as she gave Raf a steadying hug.

--

“Wow! You look gorgeous,” Raf said, as Serena finally came down stairs in grey slacks, and a cornflower blue blouse, her pale grey tennis shoes and poncho completing the outfit.

“Ha! It’s nice to make the effort, I must say. Right, pavlova and wine, and I think I’m ready for the off,” smiled Serena.

“Enjoy, and bloody relax,” said Raf as he hugged Serena. “I want details, Campbell. Remember!”

“Yes, boss!” shouted Serena as she closed the door on her car.

--

Arriving on the dot of one, Serena saw Bernie open the back door as she pulled up the handbrake. “Fuck!” was all that Serena could say. “Right, Pull yourself together, Campbell. You can do this.”

“Hi,” said Bernie, nervously tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Hey yourself,” replied Serena, who before she realised what she was doing greeted Bernie by kissing each cheek. This was the Serena of old; turn on the charm. It felt good to know that she still was able to. “… I’ve brought pudding as promised. I hope you like pavlova?”

“It’s food, isn’t it?” grinned Bernie.

“Oh god, you’re one of those annoying people that can eat anything and not put on any weight, aren’t you?”

“Pretty much!”

“I hate you already,” laughed Serena. “C’mon, you can give me a hand! I’ve no idea if you like wine, but there’s one of each in there,” thrusting a cotton shopper in Bernie’s direction, placing the cake carrier on the roof whilst she locked her car. “Ready,” said Serena as she followed Bernie into her kitchen.

“Where can I put this?” said Serena, indicating to the pavlova.

“Over here will do. Can I have a look?” asked Bernie. Serena lifting the lid. “Wow! Can we go straight to pudding?” Serena snorting at Bernie’s childlike response.

--

“Oh, god! I’m stuffed,” groaned Serena. “That was lovely, can’t remember the last time I had a home cooked Sunday roast.”

“Me neither, never see the point if it’s just the two of us,” replied Bernie.

“There’s only two of us today, what’s the difference?” questioned Serena, attempting to address the elephant in the room.

“Huh,” murmured Bernie, her chair scraping as she moved to stand. “Dunno. Coffee?” lifting the lid on the Aga and sliding the kettle over. “Why don’t we head into the sitting room. Charlotte filled the log basket up before she went out.”

“OK.”

Serena could see Bernie’s cogs turning, almost visualising the conversation before speaking. Desperate to break the silence, but knowing it wasn’t hers to break. She watched Bernie look through her fringe and take a sip of coffee.

“You asked why today was different. I had to listen to my daughter come out, and explain that she doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes I did. Bit of a reality check, and I’ve had a few of those over the years. The thing is…” trailed off Bernie, silence once again filling the space.

“…The thing is… are we on the same page?” asked Serena hopefully.

“Bloody hope so! Don’t think I could deal with the Sapphic angst fest any longer,” honked Bernie.

“Good, then you can come over for supper through the week,” beamed Serena.

“Deal!” replied Bernie as she held our her hand for Serena to shake, only for her to pull her into a rather awkward hug given their positions on the sofa. The rest of the afternoon was spent discussing their exes, the trials and tribulations of their careers, lessons learned the hard way. Deep in conversation, they hadn’t heard Charlotte come in.

“Mum! How’d it go?” shouted Charlotte from the porch.

“I’d say pretty well,” whispered Serena, snapping back to reality.

“In here, love,” said Bernie.

“So…” said Charlotte as she stepped into the warmth, stopping in her tracks as she saw her Mum and Serena sitting facing each other on the sofa. “Whoops! Sorry! I’ll...just. Yep…” Causing both woman to snort.

“Charlie, it’s fine. Stay if you want?” said Bernie softly.

“You’re OK, I think I’ll just be in the kitchen,” spluttered out Charlotte.

--

“I think I’d better head off,” said Serena. “It’s been a wonderful afternoon. Thank you,” said Serena as she pushed herself up from the sofa.

“And thank you for addressing the elephant in the room, someone needed to,” said Bernie.

“I don’t think I could have gone on any longer without knowing, I know I can be forward at times…” said Serena.

“And, I’m not exactly renowned for having conversations about feelings. I do rather tend to avoid them.”

“Noted. I’ll see you Tuesday for delivery, or will it be Fletch?”

“For safety’s sake, I’ll send Fletch, especially if I’m coming over for supper on Wednesday.”

“I can live with that,” smirked Serena, pulling Bernie into a hug before making her way back to her car.

--

“Right, Major Wolfe. You are going to tell me everything,” ordered Charlotte once Bernie had seen Serena off.

“What if I say that we are both on the same page, and that she has asked me over for supper,” informed Bernie.

“Really!” squeaked Charlotte. Bernie nodding in confirmation. “Mum, that’s brilliant!”

“It is, isn’t it. Anyway, how was your afternoon?” asked Bernie, unable to keep the smile of her face.

“We headed over to Cirencester and wandered around my old Uni haunts, found a lovely café with homemade ginger loaf. Oh, god it was amazing. Iffe told me off for moaning, it was that good. Speaking of food. Is there any leftovers? I’m starving.”

“Yeah, there’s plenty, and Serena brought pudding.”

--

“Hi,” said Serena as she opened her front door to find Bernie standing there, head ducked and looking through her fringe. She looked bashful and very beautiful, Serena thought.

“Bit of a mad rush, spotted a hole in the wire fence. Last thing we need is a fox getting in,” said Bernie.

“Aah, that would explain this,” as Serena reached around to the back of Bernie’s jumper and pulled the label.

“Bugger, I did ask Charlotte if I looked OK?”

“You look lovely,” said Serena blushing profusely.

“So do you, but I’ve never known you look anything else,” Bernie batted back, shocking herself at flirting so openly.

“Charmer! Anyway, I’m guessing you’re hungry?” asked Serena who had hooked her arm into Bernie’s elbow and led her through into the large kitchen diner.

“Famished!” laughed Bernie.

“Wonderful, you aren’t allergic to anything are you?”

“Nope, survived on Army food for years! That would have given anyone a run for their money.”

“Well, I’m very glad you survived to tell the tales.”

“Me too,” said Bernie, looking at Serena through her fringe.

The air between them had changed, becoming more charged in the space of a few seconds. Charlotte’s words running around her head ‘Be brave, Mum’. A yowl from Cilla breaking the silence and causing Serena to jump.

“Meet Cilla, technically Raf’s cat, but prefers me… Cilla because she yowls like the singer,” explained Serena as the cat brushed up against their legs. “Would you let me feed her, and then we can eat? She’ll be such a nuisance if I don’t."

“Anything I can do to help?” asked Bernie.

“Not make any pussy jokes…Sorry, that was out of order!” backtracked Serena, blushing at her brazenness.

“Probably heard most of them before!” honked Bernie.

--

Supper was a simple affair, homemade soup, warm salad, and apple crumble with custard. Bernie helping Serena to clear the table and load the dishwasher. They continued from where they had left off on Sunday and talked about their late parents, the complete consternation that they had never bumped into each other despite growing up fifteen miles apart, and the same age until fairly recently. Discovering that they had been packed off to prep school, followed by boarding school, before returning permanently to the wider Holby area at a crossroads in their lives.

“I should probably head home,” yawned Bernie, the old grandfather’s clock in the hallway chiming ten o’clock.

“I know, I wish you didn’t have to,” said Serena, her hand covering Bernie’s only for Bernie to turn her hand over to intertwine their fingers, and for Serena to squeeze hers in return, relishing the warmth they both felt. Small steps thought Serena. “I have a very rare free Saturday, next week. We could… I was thinking…”

“Yes,” blurted out Bernie, her heart pounding.

“I’ve not suggested anything, yet,” smiled Serena, playing with Bernie’s fingers. “We could head over to Bath for the afternoon..?”

“I’d like that,” whispered Bernie, reaching for Serena's free hand. “I could ask Charlotte to cover for me.”

“I could pick you up about eleven or you could drive…” rushed Serena, panicking that she’s being too forward again.

“S'rena, it's fine. We'll sort it out during the week,” Bernie smiled. What she was learning was that Serena would suggest something then internally berate herself for being bold. Someone has to be brave thought Bernie. “Walk me to my car?”

“Try and stop me,” laughed Serena.

“I don’t think I’d want to,” Bernie said.

--

Lying in bed, Bernie thought about how much she is drawn to Serena. The winks, the arching eyebrows, the warmth that radiates from her as she speaks, the gentleness of her touch, how she disarms situations with an effortless charm.

--

Raf was listening to Serena recount her evening, describing the aloofness combined with kindness, Bernie’s ridiculously infectious laugh, the reassurance she offered when Serena had panicked. Raf joking that Serena was almost gushing about Bernie earned a cushion being thrown in his direction.

“So, date number three…” Raf wiggled his eyebrows to emphasise his point.

“What about it?”

“You know…” said Raf as Serena continued to stare blankly at him. “…Kiss, snog, lock lips,” huffed Raf.

“Oh!” said Serena.

--

They managed a quick coffee when Bernie dropped the weekly delivery off at Homildon Preserves. Firmed up their arrangements for Saturday with shy smiles. Serena conscious that Raf was hovering in the office eavesdropping for anything that he could tease Serena with later.

They’d fallen into a routine of exchanging numerous messages at night, only Serena picking up the phone and call Bernie to check that she was OK after revealing she’d walked into the linkage system on the back of the tractor and needed 10 stitches in a gash on her shin and had spent the afternoon is hospital. “Charlotte's confined me to the office for the next week, I’m going crazy already,” groused Bernie.

“How much admin have you got to do?” asked Serena, imagining the pout Bernie would be sporting.

“Not the point!”

“How about I give you a hand tomorrow afternoon? Might as well put my MBA to good use…”

“Would you? That would be wonderful. We’ve got our organic self assessment to submit. I hate doing them,” said Bernie, attempting not to whinge.

“Oh God! What have I let myself in for,” muttered Serena.

“Pain, misery, swearing, and me hobbling around on crutches. I may have ruined our day out,” groaned Bernie.

“Probably, but I will get to see you a day earlier than planned,” said Serena, “So, there is a silver lining. Anyway, I’m seeing my solicitor at 11.30 a.m. to exchange contracts on Elinor's new flat. I could be there for half two. Would you like me to pick up anything for you..?”

“Nope, got enough painkillers to sink the Titanic! Actually, could you get me a couple of Crunchie bars and some chocolate Hobnobs?”

“You’re wish is my command, Major Wolfe,” Serena was almost purring as she spoke. Given the almost guttural groan coming from her phone, it had the desired effect. “Good-night, and I’ll see you tomorrow."

“Uh huh,” said Bernie, who had lost any ability to form coherent communication as the line went dead.

--

“How’s the wounded soldier?” asked Serena as Bernie opened the door.

“Frustrated, but less so now,” said Bernie, her smile mirroring Serena’s.

“Hobnobs and Crunchie's as requested,” said Serena who followed a hobbling Bernie through to her kitchen. Only to take in the scene of devastation covering the kitchen table. “I see you’ve started without me.”

“Sorry, I was trying to find an invoice,” Bernie said weakly.

“And did you succeed?”

“Not bloody likely!” retorted Bernie.

They spent the afternoon filing, scanning and organising the evidence for Lyham Farm's submission. Serena offering to help finish it off tomorrow, with Bernie agreeing instantly.

“I have confession to make…” stated Serena, pausing to collect her thoughts.

“OK.” replied Bernie, her interest piqued.

“… Would it be wrong to say that I’d rather spend time with you here than wandering around Bath tomorrow? Unless, you really still want to go.”

“I would but maybe when I’m not on crutches,” said Bernie. “Although, I do appreciate your help and I’ve been putting it off for the last month, I really can’t avoid it any longer,” pointing at her laptop. “Maybe there’s something else I don’t want avoid…” whispered Bernie, hoping Serena would catch on as their eyes met. “It’s just that… I’m… Erm…”

“Are you able to stand?” asked Serena. Bernie stood as Serena made her way over to the kitchen table to stand in front of her, “I think we’ve both avoided it for far too long, but we’re here now.”

“We are,” said Bernie as she felt Serena take her hands. Bernie’s eyes flitting between Serena’s mouth and back to her eyes. Too much thinking, be brave and… “Mmnnf,” as Serena's lips found hers.

“Sorry,” breathed Serena.

“Don’t be, I’ve been wanting to do that for months,” whispered Bernie.

“Same here,” said Serena, resting their foreheads together. “We’ve been idiots, haven’t we?”

“Yep, but we’re here now,” Bernie mirroring Serena’s words of a few minutes ago.

“Can I kiss you again?” quietly asked Serena.

“On one condition… never ask again and don’t stop!” laughed Bernie.

“That’s two!” protested Serena.

“Campbell!” groaned Bernie. “Don’t be so pedantic!” before lunging to close the gap to kiss Serena again.

--

“Foss! Good boy, you hungry? Hmm?” said Charlotte who made her way into the kitchen only to stop dead in her tracks and drop the dog's feeding bowl on the floor as she saw her Mum and Serena spring apart. “I see you’ve been working hard.”

“We have!” blurted out Bernie.

“And…this is your reward…?” said Charlotte, her innuendo laden smirk causing her Mum to blush again.

“Yes, and I’d say it’s a reward well-earned for organising your evidence for organic accreditation,” Serena said as saccharinely as possible as she exchanged glances with Bernie who was doing a rather good impression of a goldfish. “Now, why don’t you give us a couple of minutes to tidy up, and I’ll be out of your way. Hmm?”

--

“What just happened?...Well, I know, but jeez, Serena, you’d give my old RSM a run for his money!” exclaimed Bernie.

“Sorry, I’m so sorry… Are you OK? I just wanted to give us a moment. We’ve just been caught snogging by your daughter,” said a very flustered Serena.

“Ssh, I’m good. You?” asked Bernie who watched Serena nod in response. “So how about we say hello to Charlotte, you head home, and I’ll chat with my darling daughter?”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, c'mon,” said Bernie as she grabbed her crutches.

--

“Charlie? Have you got a moment?” asked Bernie.

“Mum, it's OK,” replied Charlotte. “But I don’t want to make a habit of walking in on you!”

“Neither do I,” laughed. “Seriously, I do want you to know that it wasn’t planned, and we had just stopped working. Plus, she’s offered to come over tomorrow afternoon and finish this off,” pointing at the submission documents.

“Given how much you hate admin, I actually believe you. Serena oozes charm but underneath she’s comes across as really driven,” surmised Charlotte.

“Based on what I’ve seen, you don’t get to be a CFO without it! I can imagine she’d be quite formidable at times,” mused Bernie.

“As can you, Major!” said Charlotte, laughing. “Changing the subject, how are you feeling?”

Bernie couldn’t stop the grin that spread over her face if she tried, years of pining over Serena Campbell, the last three weeks had been a heady mix of relief and excitement that they’d both finally put their awkwardness behind them and done something about it.

“So that dopey looking grin is all you’re capable of right now. One snog from Serena has rendered the most intelligent woman I know mute,” continued Charlotte.

“Sod off!”

“What time is Serena coming over tomorrow? I was going to meet Iffe if she’s not out on a call…” said Charlotte.

“I was going to ask if you could stay and help finish off the submission with us. And…well… I’d like for you to get to know Serena…”

“Mum, you’re just getting to know Serena yourself, so I really don’t want to play gooseberry with you two making heart eyes at each other over organic hen feed suppliers.”

“Ha, fair point I s'pose. But you will say hello when she comes over at lunchtime rather than run out the door?” Bernie asked tentatively.

“Yeah sure. You really do like her don’t you. And yes, I know you’ll want to meet Iffe sooner rather than later, now that you have got yourself a girlfriend…” smirked Charlotte.

“Steady on! I wouldn’t go that far just yet. It’s early days. I’m scared that I’ve been on my own for so long that I’ve forgotten what it takes,” Bernie trailed off.

“Oh, Mum. She’s not Alex, you aren’t in a war zone, nor is she your subordinate. You’ve got time. Enjoy getting to know each other without the pressures.”

“That’s true. Thank you,” said Bernie as she pulled her daughter into an awkward hug.

--

Punctual as ever, Serena knocked on the door and was greeted by Charlotte, she instinctively pulled her into a hug. “I come bearing gifts; homemade flapjacks and rock buns.”

“Wow! Mum will be impressed, she’s got such a sweet tooth. Come on through,” said Charlotte.

“How’s your Mum’s leg? I suspect she’s not told me the whole story,” said Serena.

“It looks worse than it is. She ended up telling the F2 what to do when he treated her. Told him she was ex RAMC and retired trauma consultant of twenty years standing. Poor chap called plastics to make sure the stitches would leave minimal scarring. It’s pretty swollen and bruised, I keep telling her to keep it raised, but…” trailed off Charlotte.

“Want me to have a go…?”

“Would you, she’s trying to impress you, so you might have more success than me? She can be stubborn as a mule at times,” explained Charlotte.

“Noted.”

“I can hear you talking, you know!” shouted Bernie from the kitchen. Serena and Charlotte shared a look and smiled.

--

“Lunch first, then we can get cracking on that,” said Serena, pointing at laptop. “Are you staying to help, Charlotte?” asked Serena.

“Yeah, Iffe… er… my girlfriend was called out to a breached calf at Ilderton Mill Farm, a couple of hours ago.”

“Sounds painful. Caesarian?” asked Serena.

“Probably,” Charlotte said glumly.

--

“See what I mean,” whispered Bernie when Serena had popped off to use the loo. “Taskmaster that would put any Sergeant Major to shame.”

“Completely. We’ve got more done in an afternoon than in three weeks.”

“Put the kettle on, and I’ll break out the flapjacks. We deserve a break,” said Bernie as she stretched out, groaning as her back cracked. Someone’s phone had started to vibrated under the pile of paperwork on the desk. Bernie was the first to find it; Charlotte’s. “Looks like it’s Iffe for you.”

--

“Mum, would it be OK if Iffe came over to get cleaned up and changed. She’s only a few minutes away?” asked Charlotte.

“Yes. Only if you are sure. I don’t want to pressure you into anything,” said Bernie, mindful that this was a big step for both of them.”

“I am.”

“It’s not me that thinks that is slightly weird,” said Bernie.

“God, no. It is,” laughed Charlotte. “That sounds like her.”

“Go and get her, there’s plenty of hot water if she want’s a shower,” added Bernie.

Charlotte took one look at her girlfriend hugged her for more than appropriate, especially as her Mum was trying to peer over Serena’s head. “What happened?”

“You’d think I’d be used to this by now. Lost the calf. Almost lost the cow. Brian Logan wasn’t very happy about it threatened to complain to Euan, said that if I’d got there earlier it wouldn’t have happened. Blatantly asked if there were any vacancies for veterinary nurses in Nigeria, and then for proof that I was trained to carry out c-sections. I was furious. I wasn’t going to let him see me cry,” stuttered Iffe into Charlotte’s shoulder.

“What a complete wanker. The likes of him will never change. Have you told Euan?”

“Yeah, pinged him an email once I was out of sight of the farm. It was the overt racism that got to me. I’ve worked harder than everyone to get to this point. I get that I grew up in South London, I get that I am one of the few Black female vets anywhere, let alone in a rural practice, but for him to be so… so. It’s just that it’s been a while since someone has made me feel this inferior.

“Oh, Iff, I’m sorry. Mum might know some friends, if you know what I mean… And you smell awful by the way!” said Charlotte, pushing away as she caught another whiff.

“Thank you dearest girlfriend,” sniffed Iffe.

“Ha! How about I introduce you to Mum and her… officially friend but heading towards girlfriend territory?” said Charlotte.

“She won’t go all Major on me, will she? I might burst into tears,” said Iffe.

“Nope, she’s too busy trying to impress Serena!”

--

“Mum, this is Iffe Ogunmoken,” said Charlotte.

“Iffe, lovely to finally meet you. Charlotte said you were on call out nearby. How did it go?” asked Bernie.

“Pretty rubbish, Brian Logan wasn’t very happy. I hope you don’t mind me dropping in?” said Iffe.

“Of course not. Erm, this is my friend Serena, who’s helping us with this lot. Admin is not exactly my strong suit,” explained Bernie.

“You can say that again,” snorted Serena.

“Oi, less of the cheek, Campbell. I distinctly remember that you offered,” smiled Bernie.

“Right, I’ll show Iffe upstairs,” said Charlotte. Turning to mouth ‘behave’ to her Mum.

“Brian Logan is a complete prick. I’ve had a few run-ins with him over his lack of husbandry. I’m guessing I can add racist to the ever growing list. Called me frigid dyke when I refused to go out with him. Might have a word with our NFU branch chair,” said Bernie.

“Is he really that bad? I’ve heard Raf mention him a couple of times,” said Serena.

“Yes,” said Bernie as she pulled Serena towards her. Both moaning into the kiss. They were becoming braver as hands started to wander over shoulders, down backs and rest at hips. Gasping as they broke apart. “Is it too soon to ask if you’d stay the night.”

“Keep kissing me like that and any resolve will quickly disappear into the ether,” groaned Serena. “You could always come over to mine…”

“Don’t tempt me. I’m thinking that Iffe maybe slightly fragile and may end up spending the night, if she doesn’t get called out,” stated Bernie.

“Why don’t you speak with Charlotte and find out what she would like… And then we can take it from there,” suggested Serena.

“What are you thinking?” asked Bernie.

“Supper. Friendly faces. Pep talk, bit of a whinge, let her feel she’s not alone,” suggested Serena. “Pizza?”

“Sounds like a plan, Fraulein,” said Bernie. “Can you help, if I show you where things are?”

“Fraulein? Really. Major Wolfe. Just as well I lo- like you,” said Serena. Mentally kicking herself at almost blurting out that she was stupidly and completely in love with Bernie.

Bernie watched Serena like she’d been there for years, not weeks, days really. She had picked up on Serena’s almost confession, the feeling was mutual. Bernie was nowhere near ready to verbalise it, let alone share with Serena. Not yet.

“Oh, hi love,” as her daughter and Iffe walked into the kitchen. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah, will probably incinerate my overalls, though!” Iffe smiled weakly.

“Completely understandable given the circumstances. There’s pizza, garlic bread, and rhubarb crumble with custard if you are interested,” added Bernie.

“Am I ever,” said Iffe with huge smile. “I spoke with Euan, and he's removed me from on-call for the rest of the week. Might even get the chance to go Christmas shopping tomorrow. I really need to visit Mum and Dad when I’m off next Thursday.”

Supper was exactly what was needed. Stories were shared, laughs were had, and jaws dropped. Serena had sworn them all to secrecy as a former intern was now an MP. Bottles of wine were drunk, wrongs were corrected and arseholes were ignored.

Charlotte and Serena were clearing away as the others had decamped to the sitting room.

“Is this where you tell me not to hurt your mother as I’ll have to answer to you?” asked Serena.

“Ha, it’s more like if my Mum is an idiot, she’ll have to answer me. Honestly, I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like she’s a different person but in such a positive way,” said Charlotte. “The Wolfe's, what’s left of them, are a pretty emotionally repressed bunch, stoic, yet incredibly loyal.”

“And, yet we’re here now having a conversation about emotions. I appreciate that it is early days between your Mum and I, but I do care deeply for her. Although, I suspect she prefers deeds over words,” replied Serena.

“True! You know I won’t mind if you stay tonight,” smirked Charlotte.

“I’ll bear that in mind,” nodded Serena. “Shall we head through?”

--

It was nearing midnight, the embers of the fire were glowing. Bernie had her leg resting on the pouffe, Serena at the other end of the sofa facing her. The others had headed up to bed.

“Does this mean you'll be staying?” asked Bernie, watching Serena take another sip of wine.

“I suppose it does,” said Serena, eyes sparkling.

“In that case, come here,” said Bernie as she lifted her arm for Serena to snuggle under.

Serena was the first to break the silence, “I can hear the cogs turning.”

“Ah, sorry. I’ll be quieter in future,” replied Bernie.

“Or you can tell me….”

“And break the habit of a lifetime, not on your life!” laughed Bernie.

“You do realise I’m not planning on going anywhere, unless you want me to. Even then, you’ll have a fight on your hands, Major!” whispered Serena with a determination Bernie had never experienced before.

“That’s rather a big statement to make,” said Bernie with more certainty than she felt.

“So, tell me what’s going through your mind?” said Serena.

“Do I have to?”

“Yup.”

“God! Give me a minute,” Bernie paused and blew her fringe out of her eyes. “Panic, and trying not to, as I’ve liked you for far too long than is acceptable. Disbelief. Relief. Fear, that I will muck it up when I get overwhelmed with emotions and struggle to tell you and you’ll get cross at me…”

“What about what you need or want from me. I’m guessing this is your idea of hell. Hmm?”

“A bit. Everything you’ve said is pretty much on point. But I know I need time to work through things, I’m more tactile than I ever thought I was since I’ve met you. You need to know that I’m better at actions than words most of the time. I know I have to change for Charlotte and now you, I was rather selfish. I had to be to survive…” shrugged Bernie.

“But we’re here now. You know what I see? A warm, loyal, beautiful, and confident woman,” stated Serena, who felt Bernie pull her closer and kiss her temple.

“Are you sure you’re OK with staying? I can sort the spare bed out…”

“What do you really want?”

Several huffs later Bernie managed to mumble “Fall asleep with me holding you.”

“How about leading the way, soldier.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, more than. Can I borrow some pj’s?”

“Sure. I’ll dig some out.”

Serena dutifully followed Bernie upstairs, her eyes level with her jean-clad arse and into her room that was immaculate.

“Don’t look in the wardrobe, that’s all I’m saying,” laughed Bernie. “The bathroom is through there,” as she pointed. “I think I’ve got an unopened toothb… Mmnnf,” as Serena kissed her.

“Anyone would think that you might have planned this?” Serena’s eyebrow arching imperiously.

“Hoped,” shrugged Bernie. “Although Charlotte helped last night. Bit of a mad dash to make sure everything was presentable.”

“I’m here to spend time with you not critique your housekeeping skills, or your admin skills, come to that,” laughed Serena. “Do you need to change your dressing or something?” The nervousness was back in Serena’s voice.

“The dressing is fine, back on Monday to outpatients. And the something would be…?” asked Bernie.

“Not quite figured that bit out yet,” whispered Serena.

“Well, I tend to sleep diagonally,” added Bernie, Serena huffed in response.

“I tend to radiate heat. Bloody hormones. I’ve been on HRT for a couple of months and everything is settling down,” Serena explained.

“Poor you, I’m was definitely one of the lucky ones, the odd flush and murderous rant, but that was usually at the tractor when it decided not to fire up! I’m sure Charlotte took photos when that happened. Go get changed,” said Bernie, tilting her head towards her bathroom.

They were not at the stage where they could undress in the presence of each other. Bernie’s scars; no-one outside her clinical team and herself has ever seen them – caesarian, open heart, appendectomy, shrapnel pockmarks peppering her right side and back, and C4 and C5; a map of her life. And, now a new scar, one that would be a permanent reminder of how she was daydreaming about their planned day trip to Bath and the thought of dragging Serena into a hug whilst sitting on a park bench, holding her hand, and the possibility of sharing a kiss by walking into a linkage system and landing on the PTO shaft on the back of a tractor.

Tossing her bra in the laundry basket, she slipped on an old T shirt, and shuffled into shorts, leggings were too tight given the state of her leg. Finally, sitting down on the edge of her bed as Serena returned make-up free and in a pair of her best pyjamas, previously reserved for hospital and hotels. The arms and legs rolled up several times.

“I feel ridiculous, I’m not that short!” said Serena as she flapped her arms to emphasise her point.

“You look….” Beautiful, Bernie wanted to say. “You look beautiful.” Serena walked over to Bernie and stood between her thighs holding each other.

“I can remember when I first saw you. I was expecting Fletch, not you. Bit of a shock when you stepped out the van. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears, the world stood still, I was mid-sentence and couldn’t finish it. I thought you were the most magnificent woman I’d ever seen. And now… I am standing in your bedroom…” uttered Serena.

“You are. I never thought that you would be,” whispered Bernie.

“But I am, and I hope you’ll be in mine when you are ready,” said Serena as Bernie’s head rested against her stomach.

“You can count on that,” whispered Bernie.

“Sleep?” asked Serena.

“Mmm.”

“Do you need to prop your leg up?” said Serena, she could feel Bernie nodding against her. “OK, in you get.”

“Bossy much?” joked Bernie.

“Only if you ask nicely,” flirted Serena.

--

Morning came around soon enough, Bernie woke to find Serena’s arm and leg flung across her body. The dog lying down at the side of the bed twitching as he chased imaginary rabbits. Bernie smiled at her situation. “I can hear you smiling, you know that?” muttered Serena into her shoulder.

“Fuck!” squeaked Bernie in shock. “Didn’t think you were awake.”

“Only just,” croaked Serena, her voice still thick with sleep.

There it was again, that voice. A voice shouldn’t have that much effect on me, Bernie thought. “C’mere,” she mumbled, their lips meeting, tongues exploring, hands palming breasts before they broke apart, gasping.

“Well, hello you,” purred Serena, mindful that her hand was resting on Bernie’s breast, she attempted to move it.”

“Don’t you dare,” growled Bernie, covering Serena’s hand with her own.

“Are you sure?”

“More than!”

That was all Serena needed as she brought her knee to Bernie’s mons, watching her hips twitch at the contact. “Off!” ordered Bernie as her hands found the hem of Serena’s top.

--

“You OK?” asked Serena. “I didn’t catch your leg, did I?”

“I’m perfect, my leg’s good,” replied Bernie. “You?”

“Perfect,” breathed Serena, who was practically glowing. “Stay there, I’ll be back,” as she made her way to the bathroom, knowing Bernie would be watching, she added an extra sway to her hips.

“You aren’t regretting it, are you?” asked Bernie once Serena had returned to her bed.

“Only that we danced around each other for the best part of three years,” said Serena as she pulled Bernie closer.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“But we’re here now, and that’s what counts.”

“Too bloody right it does. S’pose we should get up. Thought I heard the stairs creak a few minutes ago. Bacon roll?” asked Bernie.

“Absolutely. Lead the way, Major.”