“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“Can you spare five minutes?” asked Serena as Bernie placed the last tray down on the table.
“Uh huh,” said Bernie as she caught Serena’s hand and pulled her towards her. Raf having the good sense to disappear whenever Bernie was on deliveries since they had officially stopped dancing around each other and got together at the end of October.
“Question. How would you feel if about going to HAFPA’s Christmas lunch with me?” broached Serena.
“How formal is it, and in what capacity would I be going as?” queried Bernie.
“Smart casual, definitely not business formal. And… As my... Will this do?” Serena huffed, before kissing Bernie.
“…Girlfriend, partner, sweetheart, paramour….” grinned Bernie
“…All of the above,” shrugged Serena, smiling at Bernie.
“When is it?”
“Friday, 20th December. Half past twelve for one o’clock. Royal County Hotel in Holby. It’s part networking event, lunch, drinking too much, and time to do some Christmas shopping. It’s certainly paid dividends for me over the last few years. And yes, I know it’s Raf’s baby, but he does work his socks off to get it right,” said Serena.
“Ok, I’ll check with Charlotte when I get back, but I can’t see it being a problem. Unless it clashes with something NFU related…” trailed off Bernie as she felt Serena’s hands come to rest in the back pockets of her jeans.
“Speaking of Christmas, is there anything you’d like? I’m being honest when I say that I’m enjoying getting to know you, but I don’t quite know you well enough yet,” quietly said Serena.
“Bed socks. You’ve experienced my cold feet enough times over the last few weeks!” laughed Bernie.
“That’s a given! But it’s not the most romantic gift…”
“You’ve already given me that,” said Bernie earnestly.
“Same here, and so much more,” replied Serena, equally serious. “S’pose I’d better let you get on with your deliveries,” she whispered.
“Hmm, wish we could bunk off somewhere for the rest of the day.”
“Very tempting. Now go, shoo, deliver,” laughed Serena as she gently cajoled Bernie to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow for supper. Don’t be late!” stealing a quick kiss in the process.
“I won’t! See you later, Campbell. Love you!”
And with that, Bernie drove out of the yard and on her way. Serena stood in the doorway, frozen to the spot. Her heart pounding, her mind racing. Had Bernie realised what she’d said, was it a throwaway comment, did she mean it? She was still standing in the same place when Bernie’s van pulled to a stop two minutes later, when Bernie jumped out.
“S’rena… You ok? I didn’t realise wha… mmnnf,” said Bernie as she was cut off by a kiss.
“I love you,” Serena breathed out.
“I know…I know. It’s just… I mean… I just… I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that!” said Bernie, running her hands down Serena’s arms.
“I’m glad you did! Although, I’ve known for a while,” said Serena with a watery smile. Her thumb wiping away the tear that was running down Bernie’s cheek. “Oh, Darling, we are a pair!” as she felt Bernie pull her closer into what felt like more than a simple hug. “Will you be ok to drive?”
“Yeah, might need another couple of minutes, though,” mumbled Bernie into Serena’s shoulder. “I could stay like this forever.” Their moment was shattered by a phone ringing from someone’s pocket.
“Go, drive safe, and text me when you get back home. Promise?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bernie as she saluted Serena.
“Mum! Serena’s here. Are you almost ready?” shouted Charlotte from the bottom of the stairs. They’d chatted over the last few weeks, well, talked about the pros and cons of going to events with their respective partners. The farming community somewhat lagging in accepting the diversity of other sectors. If you did your job well, that’s all that mattered, but there was always the undercurrent of entrenched attitudes and language. Baby steps, they agreed. The looks, the consternation, the comments, they would stand their ground against anybody, but Iffe and Serena, it wouldn’t be fair on them. But then, they had yet to ask them.
“Hi,” rushed out Bernie as she opened the back door, ushering Serena in from what was turning out to be a rather dreich December day. “I’ll be five minutes, I was going to wear boots, but I can’t get them over my shin, so plan B,” said Bernie, kissing Serena’s cheek and turning to run upstairs. Serena’s jaw dropping at the sight of Bernie looking every inch the country gentlewoman in grey tweeds and a navy moleskin waistcoat. She was completely bewitched by this woman.
“Erm… Serena,” laughed Charlotte. “Mum had the same reaction when you first came over for Sunday lunch. It's kind of endearing, watching the pair of you.”
“Not a word, Ms. Dunne. Got that, I bear grudges that I will take to the grave,” replied Serena before losing it to a fit of giggles. “Anyway, don’t tell your Mum, but can you pop this under the tree, I’d like it to be a surprise on Christmas day,” she asked, handing Charlotte a small book-sized parcel. “And, some homemade mince pies for later,” smiling conspiratorially.
“Where do you get the time to bake?” laughed Charlotte
“Ha! I’m usually working by half six, and done by half three at the latest, unless I’m delivering or doing the farmer’s markets. So, it’s easy to do things. Raf and I work random hours so whoever is home first, usually cooks. Last weekend of the month is a takeout, couple of bottles of wine, and binge watching whatever. Unless Eli, my daughter is visiting, or I’ve been summoned to London,” explained Serena.
“What does your daughter do?” asked Charlotte.
“Civil servant - works for the Department of Health. Seems to like it and the lifestyle it offers,” replied Serena.
“Wow, wasn’t expecting that!”
“No, me neither, she did Political Science at LSE, and sat the entrance exam on a whim. She’s spending Christmas with her father, so I might see her at New Year… Which means I need to update her…”
“Oh!” said Charlotte.
“Which I will do this weekend,” said a very resolute Serena. “What about you and Iffe, will you get to see each other?”
“Yeah, she’s working and on-call over Christmas then going to see her Mum and Dad at New Year. It does scare me a little bit that when or if she tells them about us, they’ll do something…” said Charlotte, her breath hitching as she replied.
“Have you spoken to her about it?” asked Serena.
“Er… in a roundabout way…” sniffed Charlotte.
“Oh, Love. Talk you her, and your Mum. You care deeply about her, don’t you?” said Serena, Charlotte could only nod. “Come here,” Serena said, putting an arm around Charlotte’s shoulder.
Bernie had watched the scene play out for a few moments, wiping a tear away with the back of her hand, she marvelled at how well her daughter and Serena were getting along. It shouldn’t be this easy, she thought to herself, yet it was, so far anyway.
“Ooh, mince pies. Homemade?” asked Bernie as she walked into the kitchen.
“Yes, for later, so behave,” replied Serena as she swatted away Bernie’s hand.
“Spoilsport,” smiled Bernie. “Will you be OK to close up?” glancing at her daughter.
“Yes, Mum. Go and have fun. Stop fretting, please,” groaned Charlotte.
“I heard what you said to Lottie, thank you,” whispered Bernie as they sat in Serena’s car in the hotel car park. “I’ve had similar thoughts.”
“You’re her Mum, and no matter how old she is, she will always be your little girl. For what it’s worth, Iffe comes across as a very compassionate and determined woman. You don’t get to where she has got without that,” replied Serena.
“C’mere,” said Bernie as she leaned across the centre console to kiss Serena. Onlookers be damned, she thought. “You look wonderful.”
“As do you. Took my breath away, didn’t you? Dressed like that! Anyway, I do believe this is our first official outing Major Wolfe, are you ready?” asked Serena, Bernie nodding in response.
“Is it me or are there an awful lot of members of the LGBTQ community present?” whispered Bernie.
“I’ve never noticed, I’ve only ever had eyes for one person. Although, there’s a handful of people I know or recognise,” smiled Serena. “What would you like to drink?” as Serena signed them in.
“Tea, please. How do these things work?”
“Oh, bit of networking and figuring out what table we’re at; speeches - which is usually Raf acting as MC and the Chair saying a few words, then lunch, nothing overly painful,” finished Serena.
“Serena, can I introduce you to Marta, who’s an exchange student from Columbia and is part way through her year at RAU? I’m having some technical difficulties with the speeches. Should be only be ten minutes,” rushed out Raf before disappearing into the main room.
Bernie watched, enthralled at how quickly Serena transformed from being her flirtatious partner to that of a consummate and engaging professional. Her natural wallflower tendencies had come into play, watching and listening to the hum of chatter and laughter. Making polite conversation when necessary, observing the dynamics between a group of six women.
“Sorry about that. Raf is all sorted now. Are you ok?”
“You look as if you enjoyed that?” questioned Bernie. “And yes.”
“I did, and I don’t. Raf and I used to do this all the time. This is less draining and more genuine than stuffy boardrooms. Surely, you had to go to formal dinners?” asked Serena, curious about Bernie’s former life.
“Yes, but I tried to stay on tour for as long as possible to avoid them! It did use to depend on how much leave I had between tours and if I needed to complete any mandatory re-certification at the QE in Birmingham. Once the divorce was finalised, I moved back to the farm, and Charlotte followed once she got a place at RAU in Cirencester. I was surrounded by colleagues, yet lived a rather solitary existence, but in hindsight it probably wasn’t the healthiest option,” explained Bernie, her voice wavering with emotion.
“Oh, Bernie, would you like to leave. You will tell me if this is too much for you?” asked Serena, concern evident on her face as she squeezed Bernie’s hand for reassurance. Bernie shook her head. Internally, Serena was reeling from her partner’s admission, wanting to protect her, wanting to be the person who supports her to feel included, wanting to make sure how valued she is. “You ready, Darling?”
“Is this the table for middle-aged lesbian couples,” murmured Bernie as they sat down.
“Behave!” said Serena as she glanced around at their table companions. “I’m going to kill Raf,” she growled.
“No, you aren’t,” smiled Bernie. “C'mon, turn on the charm. For both of us. Hmm?” bringing Serena’s hand to her lips only for her sigh at touch.
“Is it always like this?” asked the women sitting to the right of Bernie.
“Not a clue, first time, I’m afraid,” replied Bernie. “My partner is best placed to comment. I’m Bernie by the way.”
“Caroline. This is more my wife’s domain; I much prefer lecturing docile students about chemical use in agriculture at RAU. But it does gives us an excuse to pick up our daughter’s Christmas presents while her grandparents take her to the theatre,” explained Caroline.
“How old is your daughter?”
“Eight, going on fifteen!” laughed Caroline. “Runs rings around her older brothers, she’s definitely the boss in our house. What is it that you do?”
“Oh, er, well… I run an organic egg business with my daughter. What about your wife?” asked Bernie.
“Ah, Kate, she runs Florita’s Bakery,” added Caroline.
“Oh… Oh! I've heard of that. It does rather good sourdough baguette, so I’ve been told,” said Bernie, smiling at the memory.
“She does, but then I’m incredibly biased,” laughed Caroline. “What does you partner do, I’m assuming she’s not your business partner?”
“Ha! No, she, Serena makes lemon cheese. She owns Homildon Preserves, works bloody hard at it too as it’s only her for the most part,” smiled Bernie. “Do you know anyone else at the table?”
“No, but Kate might. This is where my mother’s innate talent for knowing everyone and their business would come in handy,” whispered Caroline.
“Ah, completely understand. Thank goodness our generation is less inclined to pay attention,” honked Bernie, secretly glad of the arrival of their starters.
“How are you doing?” murmured Serena, leaning into Bernie as they waited for Raf to complete his MC role before they could all head off. They’d discovered that they were all couples at their table. Serena would wait a few days before asking Raf how he knew, but they’d spent an enjoyable afternoon in the company of intelligent, witty, and irreverent women. Not to mention exchanging phone numbers and some potential new sales.
“Happy,” replied Bernie.
“Really?” asked Serena. “I wasn’t entirely sure this would be your thing…”
“…Guess it is, if you’re here,” Bernie said with a small smile, her eyes more telling of what she was thinking…
“Didn’t think you were some soppy romantic, Major,” said Serena, her eyebrow arching.
“Never had the right person to be romantic with,” smirked Bernie.
“Home?” mouthed Serena.
“Could we… could we have a look for something for Iffe? I’ve got most of Charlotte’s Christmas present, but I wouldn’t mind topping it up…” shyly asked Bernie.
“Sure, lead the way,” said Serena, offering her arm for Bernie to hook hers through. Smiling at the warmth between them, not wanting to lose this closeness, this intimacy that was developing, emotions never experienced to this depth before. “What are you thinking of?”
“Can you remember when we first met her, she mentioned that her grandmother taught her how to knit and she’d like to get back into it?” said Bernie, Serena nodded. “I thought I’d get her something along those lines, well that and a bottle of something. Too much, too personal? I mean she has been over a few times since… You don’t think it’s a bit…” said Bernie, trailing off as she shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, Darling. I think it’s sweet that you are thinking of her. You aren’t as macho as you make out, are you?” laughed Serena as she turned to face Bernie.
“I still know thirteen ways to kill using my bare hands!” batted back Bernie.
“I know you do, and you’re very good at it too,” smiled Serena, her lecherous look causing Bernie to moan in anticipation.
“Really,” groaned Bernie, her traitorous mind already thinking of ways in which she could kill her somewhat libidinous partner.
“Shall we split up and meet in Florita’s in an hour. There’re things I’m buying that I don’t want you to see. At least not yet,” smirked Serena. “I promise you’ll enjoy it!” And with that Serena was gone.
“Where the hell is Florita’s?” muttered Bernie into the ether. Glancing at her watch she saw it was half past three. Figuring it wouldn’t take that long to get wool and knitting needles, she headed towards Wyvern Books, she was a voracious reader when she was young, missed out during her medical years, as it was all academia, reports, and journal articles. It had taken a few months following her discharge to stop skim-reading and read properly, whilst figuring out that she preferred physical books to that of e-books.
If she was being honest this was the first time in 30-odd years where she had the inclination and time to pick up a book. Not to mention the times she and Serena spent the night at each other’s; the routine of reading for twenty minutes then falling asleep holding each other was calming. It might only be a couple of nights a week. But it allowed Charlotte and Iffe to have some time to themselves, but also Raf who Serena suspected was seeing someone.
Right, books, she thought. She’d discovered Serena’s love of crime fiction with female protagonists. Looking along the shelves, she soon found what she was looking for. Eight books later, she headed for the checkout, and was about to pay before remembering to buy wrapping paper. Twenty minutes, she pondered, enough time to go to the wool shop; checking her phone for directions to meet Serena, Bernie spotted the bakery was virtually next door.
It may be called a bakery, but it looked more like a patisserie. Oh, god! The tarts, gateaux, the baguettes, this is heaven, thought Bernie as she opened the door, spotting Serena immediately, she couldn’t stop the smile that broke out across her face, walking over and flopping down of the sofa. “How did you manage to bagsy the sofa?”
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know…” Serena smirked, tapping the side of her nose conspiratorially. “Sorted?”
“Hope so, I’m less tired when I’ve been mucking out the hen houses! C’mere,” said Bernie, holding her arms to hug Serena. “I’ve enjoyed today,” she muttered into their embrace.
“I’m glad. I was a bit worried earlier on, but you seemed to get into your stride over lunch.”
“I did, definitely out of practice. Just don’t think I will be going to every meeting with you. I might make you come to an NFU meeting. I’m sure you’d set the tail feathers wagging, with some of the divorcees, the only females they see are their ewes,” deadpanned Bernie.
“Stop it, right there. Tail feathers or not, they can look but not touch. That is pleasure is reserved solely for you, Darling. Although, with Brexit looming it might be useful in term of regulations and food safety…”
“Ugh, don’t. Animal welfare, trade, and food chain safety is all we’ve been talking about. Doesn’t help when it’s Thomasina Venables in charge, she doesn’t have a clue, and is not willing to listen to the farming community. Changing the subject, what would you like? It’s my turn,” finished Bernie.
“Tea, and anything with raspberries.”
The groan that emanated from Bernie’s mouth bordered on sinful as she absorbed all the flavours from her honeycomb and chocolate cheesecake. “Need a moment,” laughed Serena.
“God, this is amazing, try some?” said Bernie, bringing her fork to Serena’s mouth.
“Ooh, that is good. You and your sweet tooth,” smiled Serena, her hand reaching over to push Bernie’s fringe out of her eyes. “I want to kiss you, but don’t think I’m quite brave enough to do it in public just yet...”
“I know what you mean, want to talk about it?” asked Bernie.
“Maybe later, if that’s OK with you,” murmured Serena, Bernie nodding in agreement. “Did you get all your shopping?” asked Serena, glancing at the bags at Bernie’s feet.
“Yes, no peeking either, Campbell,” said Bernie with mock seriousness.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” retorted Serena. “Did I tell you that when I told Elinor that I'd met someone, that she was more concerned that you weren't, and I quote 'younger than her and doesn’t compensate for lack of intelligence by repeating something she saw on Question Time!'. I said that you are more than capable of formulating your own opinions after spending the best part of twenty-five years in the RAMC. She sounded rather impressed. Anyway, I sent her that picture we took after you had your stitches out, when we were sitting on the bench.”
“Is she still coming over for New Year?” asked Bernie.
“Yes, she’s off from Christmas Eve. Staying with her Father and coming over sometime on the Monday. I thought, she’d want to see the New Year in with friends, but seemingly she wants to be as uncontactable as possible, squat on my Wi-Fi and be waited on hand and foot!” rattled off Serena. “But it doesn’t mean that we can’t see each other, if that’s what you were thinking.”
“…How do you do that?”
“Magic,” smirked Serena.
“You’ve definitely put a spell on me…”
“Same,” replied Serena, squeezing Bernie’s hand. “Shall we make a move?” Bernie nodded. Walking back to the car, hands clasped together. Christmas lights sparkling around, the throngs of people laden with bags, before reaching the quietness of the hotel car park. Serena paused as she fumbled in her pocket for her fob, pressing the button, the boot opened with a small whoosh. She sat on its edge and pulled Bernie close. “I've adored today, and you know I am completely and stupidly in love with you, Bernie. You, you make me want things that I never considered I needed before meeting you. God! I sound like some cheesy rom-com,” laughing nervously. Their emotional intimacy was something Serena craved, where previously she would have kept it arm’s length. It’s freeing, to be this open with someone, she thought.
“You do!” exclaimed Bernie, closing the gap and kissing Serena. “But today has been rather memorable for both of us, so I’ll gloss over it, shall I?
“Please,” whispered Serena. It has, hasn’t it? S'pose we don’t want to do it too often, just in case we lose the sense of occasion… I do love you, Ms. Wolfe. Your carriage awaits, where to?” asked Serena.
“Home. And don’t spare the horses,” honked Bernie.
Bernie’s phone pinged with a message from Charlotte, ‘Wasn't sure of your plans. I’m heading out with a bunch of friends from YF. Everything is done. Don’t wait up. Iffe is picking me up. See you tomorrow lunchtime. Love you Mum!'
“Everything alright?” asked Serena.
“Yeah, I’ve got the house to myself. Don’t suppose you want to stay over?” smiled Bernie over the evening news playing out over the radio.
“Could do, I’ll need to pop home and change first, and pack a few essentials. I can text Raf and let him know,” mused Serena, filtering into the outside lane for the slip road to hers.
“Do you want to raid my wine rack, and take some to yours, whilst I change?”
“No, the only raiding I’ll be doing is this!” husked Bernie, pinning Serena against the door jamb and absolutely snogging the life out of her girlfriend. Hands found hips, wandered over the curve of arses, hems were explored, fingers trailed and teased, gasps were wanton as they broke apart.
“Upstairs?” breathed Serena. Well, once she was able to catch her breath.
“God, yes,” came the speedy reply from Bernie.
“Mmm, don’t want to move,” said Serena as she felt the weight of Bernie against her, “but need to take to you home.”
“Anno,” mumbled Bernie into Serena’s breast.
Serena shuffled up so she was leaning against the headboard, Bernie’s fingers softly running to-and-fro along her hip. Of course, over the years she'd projected an image, knew how to wrap that image in wonderful clothes; her armour. Very few people got to see beyond it or knew how insecure she was from the waist down. Yet, now, here she was admiring the view, with Bernie draped across half her body. Their legs tangled together. Her insecurities seemed insignificant and immature in comparison to Bernie’s scars and how they had come about.
“You’ve stopped thinking, you OK?” quietly asked Bernie.
“Mmm, yeah. Reconciling my old insecurities against where I am now…”
“I’m here, you’re here, and I’m not in that unhealthy emotional place anymore.”
“Good. We really should make a move, shouldn’t we. I don’t fancy leaving here at five o’clock in the morning.”
“Urgh, neither do I. Two glorious lemon cheese free weeks. Bliss,” groaned Serena, “present company excepted.”
“Bloody hell! How on earth did my bra end up there?” as Bernie purposely clambered over Serena to get out of bed and spotted it hanging from the curtain pole.
“Oh shit!” exclaimed Serena, her eyes fixed on Bernie’s neck.
“What now!” exclaimed Bernie.
“Promise not to get cross?” as Serena walked over to where Bernie was standing, reached for her hands and slowly pulled her towards the dressing table. “I think I may have got a tad carried away…” moving to the side as to allow Bernie to see the half dozen or so fresh bruises on her neck.
“Serena! Bloody hell! How on earth am I going to hide those. I can’t exactly wear a scarf for the next week. What the hell will Charlotte think?”
“That her mother is having sex,” shrugged Serena.
“Stating the bloody obvious!”
“Look, she’s your daughter, she does realise that we’re having sex. At least I hope she does. Call it an accidental consequence, and I promise not to do it ever again,” said Serena, her eyes sparkling with mirth. “Bernie, Love. Look at us. We’re standing naked in my bedroom, our breasts jiggling around like no-one’s business because we've got into such a flap about me giving you hickeys!”
“Well, when you put it like that… It does sound ridiculous. You’ve got great breasts, though,” honked Bernie, wrapping her arms around Serena. “Shower?”
“Then we drive back to yours. No argument. Got that, soldier?”
“Love it when you’re bossy!”
“...Lo,” mumbled Bernie into her phone.
“Merry Christmas, Darling,” whispered Serena to a barely awake Bernie.
“What time is it?” croaked Bernie.
“Nearly eight. Go to your kitchen door and look in the letterbox. Call me when you can, hmm?” purred Serena.
“No, no. Stay there. I’m up! Happy Christmas, Love. Thought you’d still be sleeping?”
“Been awake for hours…” said Serena as she heard Bernie padding downstairs and murmuring a quick hello to the dog.
“Right, I’m here. I take it I’m to open it?”
“Well, that’s the usual process when receiving gifts…”
“Funny. Oh! S'rena… It’s… Thank you,” stuttered Bernie as she thumbed the spine of Sophia Jex-Blake's twin theories of women in medicine.
“You mentioned her that first Sunday when I came for lunch, and I couldn’t see a copy on your bookshelves…”
“I lost my copy sometime during the divorce,” quietly said Bernie, holding on to her new book with such reverence. Slightly astounded at the effect both women had and are having on her life.
“Is it OK?” asked Serena, only to be met with silence. “Bernie?”
“It’s wonderful,” said Bernie, her voice hoarse with emotion. “Remind me why we aren’t waking up together.”
“Well, some bright spark suggested that they would do the morning shift and didn’t want any distractions. Me, I personally thought it was a dumb idea as I could have helped. Still can, if you ask nicely,” mockingly said Serena.
“I’ve been an idiot, haven’t I?”
“No, you were trying to be noble,” laughed Serena. “Go and do your thing, I’ll see you at midday.”
Making her way over to the presents under the tree, looking at them with excitement and trepidation. They’d both said that they shouldn’t go overboard as they’d only been together a matter of weeks, but they both knew that they would probably ignore that statement. Gifts with meaning and thoughtfulness, no matter how small. That was Serena’s mantra. However, Bernie was the exception to every single relationship rule Serena had ever made, even her ex-husband in their honeymoon phase. She wanted to spoil Bernie rotten.
All the morning tasks done, Bernie found herself sitting at the kitchen table at half eleven, mug of coffee in one hand, her new book in another, eyes reading the introduction as if it were yesterday, the book providing the inspiration, aged fifteen that spurred her on combine medicine and The Army. The certainty that she had experienced then, is the same now that she’s experiencing with Serena. Yes, it’s early days with Serena, but as far as she’s concerned that’s it. Funny how things are working out. The busiest Christmas in years had also been the calmest. Could she have dreamt it a few short months ago, yes. It becoming a reality, absolutely not. Bernie smiled as everything was better than she could have scarce imagined those few weeks ago.
All very last minute, of course, but having chatted with Charlotte, they decided to invite Serena, Raf, and Iffe for Christmas lunch. Serena making the starter and pudding, Bernie providing the roast, Raf the trimmings, Charlotte and Iffe the drinks, with promises to wash up, Bernie suspected there was more her to her suggestion than her being altruistic. Serena insisting on returning the favour at Hogmanay.
“Mum, have you seen the time?” asked Charlotte, startling Bernie from her daze.
“Time, shower, change, lunch, guests, first Christmas with your girlfriend…” smirked Charlotte.
“Fuck! They’ll be here in five minutes. Can you hold the fort?” as Bernie dashed upstairs.
At least they had the good sense to set the dining table last night. The joys of having a large Aga cooker made days like these easier. Casting an eye over their handiwork, this was what this house was made for, not the pair of them and the dog rattling around in. A home, something that was never high on her agenda, until now. Was this a year of lasts or a year of firsts? Doesn’t really matter, we’re here now, she thought. Right on time, Charlotte heard a car pull up. Walking to the kitchen door only be pulled into a hug by her girlfriend.
“Happy Christmas. I come bearing gifts,” murmured Iffe into Charlotte’s ear, “but let me say it properly,” as she kissed Charlotte.
“What’s brought that on?” smiled Charlotte, “Not that I’m not grateful.”
“Felt like it, been thinking about it ever since you asked me over. Never had anyone to do it with before, let alone on Christmas Day. Will that do?” beamed Iffe.
“S'pose so,” shrugged Charlotte, before breaking out into a huge smile. “C'mon, we’ve got work to do,” tucking a loose loc behind Iffe’s ear.
“I’ll get it. It’ll be Serena!” said Bernie. “Hello, you,” flinging the door open rather too enthusiastically, causing it to bang on the shelf. “Happy Christmas. Need a hand?” placing a gentle kiss on very soft lips.
“Mmm, Happy Christmas, Darling. Can you take that, and show Raf where to put everything, and I’ll lock up?” asked Serena. “We’re a bit late, Raf's gnocchi took longer than planned. Smells glorious, should definitely be worth the wait!”
Serena grabbed the last of the Tupperware containers and presents from the car and walked through to Bernie’s kitchen, so typical of the houses around Holby. Large spaces, with an Aga, long windows, Wainscoting, walk in larder, and utility room off to the side. Similar to her kitchen, Serena assumed that’s why she felt so comfortable here. “What time are we planning eating?”
“Half two… three-ish, Charlotte put the turkey in at half ten. What have you made for pudding?” asked Bernie, her mouth-watering at the mere thought.
“Never mind, you’ll find out later, replied Serena. “Raf, this is Charlotte and Iffe, her….”
“…Girlfriend. Local vet extraordinaire,” chipped in Iffe.
“And you know this one,” smiled Serena, her arm around Bernie’s waist.
“Shall we get cracking,” asked Charlotte. “Raf, tell me what you need, and I’ll get it for you? I suspect those two will want to disappear for a few minutes,” nodding in her Mum’s direction.
“They've got it bad, haven’t they,” grinned Raf.
“We are still here,” pouted Bernie.
“And we shouldn’t be, Darling. See you in ten minutes,” said Serena pulling Bernie away from the kitchen to the hallway. “Shh, Merry Christmas my Love,” as Serena placed a finger on Bernie’s lip, only for her to part bite and kiss it.
“C'mere,” whispered Bernie as came together. “Thank you. I know I said that this morning, but it's better said in person.”
“You are very welcome. I haven’t opened mine yet. I was hoping we could open them together… If that’s OK?” quietly asked Serena.
“Sure. Are you nervous about it?” asked Bernie.
“A bit, I know we said we wouldn’t go overboard, I haven’t. I just hope you like them.”
“I’m sure I will. It’s a big step, isn’t it. Doesn’t feel like a couple of months since we figured things out, does it?”
“Feels like a lifetime ago. But we're here now. Shall we head through, and not give them any more incentive to take the piss?” grinned Serena.
“Can we help?” asked Bernie, secretly hoping the answer was no.
“Nope,” replied Raf, “all under control.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” smiled Serena.
“Yes, it’s been… well, since you know…” Raf trailed off, knowing Serena would know exactly what he meant.
“It has, but as I keep saying to Bernie, we’re here now.”
“Raf, what kind of serving dishes do you want?” shouted Charlotte from the larder.
“What have you got?” said Raf as he walked over to where her voice was coming from.
“Looks like we’re surplus to requirements,” said Bernie. “Sitting room. Iffe, are you joining us?
“Yes, but what would everyone like to drink?” and proceeded to list the options. “I’ll bring them through. Go, disappear and let me work my magic!” finished Iffe, already making her way to the fridge. If they only knew that she had to make a mad dash to Bristol to the specialist African food shops to get her supplies. It will be worth it.
“You know I told Mum about you this morning, she’d guessed that I was trying to impress someone when I went home at the beginning of November and raided her recipe book. Wants to meet you and make sure you meet her standards, suggested that she come up for a weekend. That way you aren’t subjected to the full family interrogation,” said Iffe, as Charlotte stood next to her, passing ingredients when requested.
“Oh… and, she knows I’m not Nigerian, right?”
“Yes, she asked if you had a good family around you, and is your business doing well. It’s all about prospects and careers first, then then it gets personal…” laughed Iffe. “I said you do, and that you and your Mum have made me feel so welcome…”
“Ahh, hence this morning when you arrived…” laughed Charlotte.
“Yeah, needed some reassurance. I know I can be cocky at times but, Mum can make me feel like eleven years old and telling me off for wearing nail varnish to church. Told her you are very good at keeping me grounded and helped put me back together especially after the Brian Logan incident. And she has commanded me to send a photograph later today. Better take these through…”
“Your drinks,” said Iffe, two seconds before going into the sitting room.
“Hmm, they look amazing!” said Serena
“Oh, god, they bloody are,” said Bernie, taking a sip “Chapmans, if my memory serves me right. I helped set up a trauma facility in Abuja about twenty years ago, spent a year there on secondment from RAMC,” Bernie laughing at the looks of sheer consternation from Serena and Iffe.
“Charlotte never said,” breathed Iffe in surprise.
“Probably can’t remember, she would’ve only been eight or nine at the time,” smiled Bernie.
“Major Wolfe, you are full of surprises!” purred Serena, who was kneeling in front of the tree, passing presents to Bernie.
“Go and get the others, and we can open our presents,” Bernie said warmly.
Half an hour later, amidst a pile of discarded wrapping paper and a blazing fire, with the exception of Raf who was stroking a very contented Foss; Serena was holding a ball of yarn as Iffe tried to remember how to cast on; Bernie and Charlotte were sat on the arms of the sofas watching their partners. Catching Raf’s eye, Charlotte motioned to the kitchen, Raf nodding.
“Raf, shall we head through and leave this lot to their knitting?”
“Aye, I’m nae ready to be pensioned off just yet,” nodding to Iffe and Serena as he stood, his Glaswegian accent as thick as it had ever been.
“Was that actually English?” laughed Charlotte.
“Full on, Weeg, pal!” as quick as a flash said Serena, her accent as thick as Raf, laughing as Charlotte glanced at Iffe…
“Don’t you start, I won't have chance if you go full on Yoruba on me, dearest girlfriend,” said Charlotte, bending over and placing a soft kiss on Iffe’s head.
Bernie watched the exchange in amusement and wondered when if ever she could remember Christmas being so… so warm, so welcoming, emotional wasn't the right word and neither was overwhelming, it certainly was different from all she’d experienced in the last fifteen years.
“What’s with the accent?” asked Bernie.
“Aah, yes. Blame my Dad; a Glaswegian civil engineer, married a PhD student from Holby, and had me. I spent my first five years growing up in Edinburgh which allowed Mum to finish her research, then we all moved back to the farm. And, you weren’t really allowed to have any accent at boarding school,” replied Serena.
“True, some of the girls were vicious. Never quite lived up to Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers!” laughed Bernie. “What about you?” looking at Iffe.
“Westminster. God, I hated it at times. But I could come home every night. Dad worked at St Thomas'. Couldn’t understand why I wanted to be a vet when I was surrounded by lawyers, doctors, or social workers. That was the whole point, I said. Makes family events a little bit more interesting when I mention doing caesareans on half-tonne bovines and prolapsed uteruses on ewes. I was always fascinated by anatomy, just not in human form. One good thing about being in that environment is the confidence it gives you, I still had to back it up, and got offers from Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Bristol. And, here I am, twelve years later still in the Holby area, in a really good practice…” shrugged Iffe.
“Would you consider going back to London?” asked Serena.
“No, I can’t see myself doing that anytime soon. I enjoy the large animal side of the work, neutering cats and dogs doesn’t do it for me!” laughed Iffe.
“No, I can’t imagine it would,” said Bernie.
“Do you miss it?” asked Serena, reaching for Bernie’s hand.
“Yes, but I’d rather have this, and I do know I’m incredibly lucky still to be here,” replied Bernie, realising intimate was the word she was looking for earlier. “Annual check-up’s aside. Guess that’s why I was so abrupt with the hospital when I gashed my shin a few weeks ago, I can’t afford to get any type of infection,” squeezing Serena’s hand, knowing full well that a further explanation would be required later.
“Fancy stretching our legs before lunch,” asked Serena, “seeing that we've been banished?”
“Yeah, why not,” replied Bernie. “Iffe…”
“No, you’re good. I’ll stay here.”
“Elephant in the room time. Just how bad were your injuries when you were blown up?” Serena gently asked.
“Unstable C5, C6 neck fracture, a buggered left ventricle, and some nerve damage down my arm. Plus, random bits of shrapnel that need to be removed when they make their way to the surface,” Bernie said matter-of-factly. “Had to shock me twice when I was on the table to bring me back.”
“OK. What do I need to be aware of?”
“Rubbish immune system, so colds, sore throats, flu, mumps, chickenpox that kind of thing, best stay away. And if I think I’m coming down with them, I give my consultant a call at the QE in Birmingham, and he'll fax an emergency industrial strength steroids prescription to my GP.”
“Is that it?” questioned Bernie. “No telling me to take care of myself, that I’m doing too much…” Bernie was steeling herself for an argument.
“Yep, you’re an adult. I’m hoping you'll tell me if something hurts or more likely I’ll guess by the look of pain on you face. I take it as a retired trauma surgeon, you were an appalling patient?”
“Yes, but I’ve recognised that I can’t ignore aches and twinges in the same manner as I used to. But it doesn’t mean I’m made of china, and I don’t need mollycoddling,” replied Bernie.
“Agreed, but you will let me spoil you every so often…?” grinned Serena.
“Might do,” smirked Bernie, her eyes sparkling.
“Good. Now come here!” Serena said sternly, grabbing Bernie’s new scarf whilst walking backwards to the hayshed.
“Serena, I’m not literally having a roll in the hay with you!” groaned Bernie.
“Spoilsport!” as Serena’s hands cupped Bernie’s glorious backside. “Just as well I love you. Isn’t it?”
Moaning as they broke apart, Bernie was first to speak, muttering something about getting back and behaving like teenagers into Serena’s coat. “Don’t care, they aren’t stupid,” came the response.
“You know, I generally run in the opposite direction when it comes to Christmas,” whispered Bernie.
“So, what’s changed,” asked Serena, “as you’ve been bouncing around like an excitable puppy for the last couple of weeks!”
“Have not!” pouted Bernie, Serena’s eyebrow arching. “OK, maybe a little bit. Maybe all I needed was the love of a good woman…” snorted Bernie.
“… A love which could be rescinded at any moment if you keep making comments like that, Berenice,” Serena retorted.
“Using my full name, Wendy…”
“Bugger off, Griselda!” laughed Serena.
The post-Christmas lunch food coma had settled in, Raf dozing in the armchair with a smitten Foss lying at his feet; Serena carding her fingers through Bernie’s hair as she curled into her side; Charlotte drawing circles on her lightly snoring girlfriend's arm. Safe in the knowledge that Iffe’s call out to deal with a first-time mare foaling at midnight had caught up with her.
Charlotte mouthing 'Thank you', her eyes moving to her Mum. Serena nodded in recognition, something that she would ask Charlotte about in more detail later. Although, she suspected it had to do with making her Mum more open with her emotions and generally happier, and not so much to do with the fact that the residents of Lyham Mill Farm were sitting on sofas with their girlfriends.
How very different this was for Serena, and for Raf. Their early Christmases at Homildon when it was only the two of them, involved minimal effort, adjusting to their new lives and living on a building site, their melancholy, grief in its many forms; Raf's late wife, Adrienne, their careers, and Serena’s depression. Something I need to tell Bernie about, she thought.
“Don’t stop,” Bernie muttered, Serena’s fingers pausing for a few seconds.
“Didn’t realise you were awake,”
“I wasn’t for a bit,” replied Bernie, shifting upright. “Thank you for today, it’s been wonderful.”
“I know, Darling. I know,” whispered Serena, mindful of their napping companions. “It beats Netflix and cheese every time!”
“Don’t you mean Netflix and chill?”
“Nope, boxset, my body weight in Stilton, and a good port! Although, I’m open to explore your definition later…” Serena brazenly said.
“Bloody hope so, not really much point in you staying the night otherwise!” smirked Bernie.
“Shut up!” laughed Serena, gently elbowing Bernie in the ribs.
“Fancy a game of something?” asked Bernie.
“What are you thinking?”
“We’ve got Jenga, Cards Against Humanity – complete lifesaver when on tour, cards, monopoly…” replied Bernie.
“How bad a loser are you…?”
“Dunno, never happened!” grinned Bernie.
“Right, monopoly it is. You get set up and I’ll put the kettle on,” Serena said.
“I didn’t cheat, I’m very good at getting high returns on my investments. You do recall where I used to work…” said Serena, as a Charlotte high-fived her.
“Bugger off, you still cheated!” laughed Bernie.
“How could I when Iffe was the banker? Not my fault you kept on landing on Park Lane with a hotel on…”
“Never lost before….” whined Bernie.
“Have you considered it might be you who has been cheating,” challenged a smirking Serena.
“Ooh, good one, Serena,” wheezed Charlotte, who was crying with laughter.
“Who, me? Never!” said a mock-offended Bernie.
“Ssh,” asked Iffe, her on-call phone had started to ring, everyone hushing.
“OK, sure. I'm about 20 minutes away. Do you think she'll be OK until I get there? And you’ve got the ropes…” said Iffe.
“What is it?” asked Charlotte.
“Breach over at Nick Fraser's, and she's carrying twin calves.”
“I could come along…” said Charlotte.
“You could,” smiled Iffe. “Come on then. Can you fill my flask with sweet tea, and I'll get my gear together? Five minutes,” firmly stated Iffe.
“You sound like Mum in Major mode!”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, then,” Iffe said, making her way through to the kitchen, grabbing her overalls and hoicking them over her shoulders, tucking her trouser legs into her wellies before picking up her bag and heading to her SUV.
“Mum, are you OK with me disappearing?” asked Charlotte, tentatively.
“Yes, go. Just don’t wake us up when you get back?”
“Thank you!” said Charlotte as she hugged her Mum and headed out.
“Just the adults left, fancy breaking out the good stuff with Raf?” asked Bernie.
“Just the one. Whiskey gives me an awful hangover,” replied Serena, glancing at the clock as it chimed nine o'clock, “a bit early for bed, don't you think?”
Bernie watched as the banter went back and forth between her guests. Serena never forgetting to include Bernie, who was now thinking about Serena being suited and booted, holding court at board meetings. Wondering if Serena had a similar fantasy about her in fatigues or scrubs. Smiling inwardly at the images that were coursing through her mind.
“Penny for them?” asked Raf, bringing a spluttering Bernie back to the present.
“…Sorry, miles away,” blushed Bernie.
“Care to share…” asked Serena
“Absolutely not!” growled Bernie, mortified at being caught daydreaming about Serena.
“You do know we'll wheedle it out of you eventually!” smiled Raf.
“We can always guess, and we promise that it will be more embarrassing than just telling us,” added Serena.
“You know, I can call up a few ex-colleagues who are very good at making things look like an accident, if you catch my drift…” mocked Bernie.
“Raf, shall we head off, it’s way past Bernie’s bedtime,” Serena stated flatly.
“You wouldn’t dare!” said Bernie, genuinely concerned that they would leave.
“Different tact, then,” smiled Serena. “Truth or dare, but we'll need more supplies for that.”
“No, you don’t, Campbell. I’ll tell you later! Bernie blurted out.
“You’re good for her. You do know that, right?” Raf stated quietly whilst Serena had popped to the bathroom.
Bernie nodded, “I think we’re very good for each other. You’ve probably guessed I’m not the most open person.”
“That is truly a pile of shite, Major. And you know it. You might not say it, but your actions do. That’s nae the whiskey talking, either. I wanted to knock your heads together so many times over the last three and a half years…”
“So did Charlotte!” said Bernie, interrupting Raf. “I never thought we’d get any further than bumbling around each other. Yet we did.”
“…And everyone is happy for you, both of you. At least it I don’t have to listen to Serena bang on about how she doesn’t even know if you like women, and if she’s made a fool of herself when you’ve been on deliveries.”
“You’ve been comparing stories with Charlotte, haven’t you?” smiled Bernie.
“Only, that we’re glad you both stopped dancing around your feelings for each other, but if you do anything…”
“…You’ll make a call to the boys back in Glasgae,” mumbled Bernie.
“Ha, more like Sicily…” laughed Raf “I wonder who would win, the Glaswegian or Sicilian Mafia? Seriously, Serena is my best friend, and we’ve seen each other at our worst, so there’s very little I wouldn’t do for her, and you by extension.”
“Oh, wasn’t expecting that,” breathed out Bernie.
“The offer is always there, OK?” Raf said, watching Bernie subtly nod.
Serena had taken the opportunity to change and get ready for bed, hoping that Bernie wouldn’t mind, but she was exhausted, from what she did not know. Making her way downstairs smiled has the pair were sat in silence. “What have I missed?” eyes darting between Raf and Bernie.
“Not a lot, Raf was telling me when you thought it was a good idea to dye your hair blonde!”
“Ah, yes. Not one of my best ideas. It looked horrific. Couldn’t cope constantly getting my roots done. Chopped it all off at the end of my three-week summer holiday, and never looked back. Mum hated it, thought it was ‘too lesbian’. I replied, ‘Well, I might attract a better calibre of partner than Edward!’ Took a bit longer than first anticipated, but…” Serena’s eyes catching Bernie’s.
“Enough, of the heart-eyes!” joked Raf. “I think I’ll leave you to it, and head up. Who’s on breakfast duty tomorrow?”
“That’ll be me, Bernie needs to do rounds. Depending on when Charlotte and Iffe come back tonight, shall we say half ten?”
“Sounds like a plan, boss,” said Raf, placing a hand on Serena’s arm.
“Raf’s such a good friend, helped put me back together a few times over the years, and is not afraid to call me out on my bullshit. I think I’ve got a much better handle on things now. You know… the triggers,” said Serena. “I thought I was having a classic mid-life crisis; I was on the point of voluntarily admitting myself to The Priory, it was that bad.”
“Burnout?” asked Bernie.
“Yes, depression, burnout, years of running on fumes, the financial crash, Mum’s worsening Alzheimer’s, and my adulterous ex-husband. Take your pick! I spoke to my CEO, and she rushed through a four-month sabbatical, strictly against the rules as I should have been signed off sick. I found a rather good clinical psychotherapist, who got me back to a level that I could function. I was only back a work a few months when Mum died. Deciding to hand my notice in and I came back here. I realised that I wasn’t starting from scratch, I was starting with experience and coping strategies,” explained Serena. “I know you didn’t expect that, well, not today, but I’ve been thinking about telling you for a few weeks. It won’t change us, will it?” fear flashing across Serena’s face.
“Oh, Serena. C’mere. As long as we talk to each other and not bottle it up or I’ll have to ask Raf to do an intervention! I do love you, have done for years. Can you remember when that huge bouquet of flowers was delivered at the same time as I was unloading your eggs? I was so jealous; I nearly crashed the van!” whispered Bernie.
“They were from Elinor; it was my birthday…” softly replied Serena.
“Oh, whoops,” sniffed Bernie.
“Is that why Fletch did the deliveries for the next few weeks…?” assumed Serena.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” Bernie laughed at her foolishness all those months ago. “Bed?”
“Bernie, shh! I think Charlotte and Iffe have just got back,” said Serena from her spot between Bernie’s legs. “You’re going to have to be quiet. Unless…”
“No, don’t stop,” pleaded Bernie. Serena discovering very early on in their relationship that Bernie thoroughly enjoyed the gymnastics that her tongue could do before the finale of her fingers. They’d undressed each other, Bernie grumbling that it wasn’t fare that Serena was already in her pyjama’s as she wanted desperately to remove her bra and kiss her way down her neck to her full and adored breasts. Several hip thrusts and stifled gasps later, Bernie found herself coming, she couldn’t stop herself even if she wanted to. How likely is that, she thought. Turning to bury her face into the nearest pillow, she groaned as she rode out the dying twitches, she smiled as she felt Serena kiss her way up to her torso to eventually meet her lips.
“Merry Christmas, Darling,” whispered Serena.
“Best one ever,” grinned Bernie. “How about I wish you a Merry Christmas,” her thigh moving to make contact with Serena’s very warm and wet mons. “Lift up a bit, please?” Bernie enjoying the weight of Serena across her midriff, “Come towards me. Can you sit up a bit?”
Serena sensing what Bernie was trying to do, moved so she straddled Bernie’s hand, “Is this what you meant?” gasping as she felt fingers rub her swollen and incredibly sensitive clit. Slowly lowering herself on to Bernie’s hand. Thank god for lube she thought as she gently rocked against very elegant and dexterous fingers. Must be quiet, must be quiet, must be quiet. God, this feels good. C'mon old girl, you can be quiet. Bracing herself against the headboard as she came. A guttural groan was the only sound that escaped from her. Hopefully, it could easily be misheard as someone clearing their throat. Finally, collapsing on Bernie and seeking out her lips.
“Happy Christmas, Love,” said a very dopey and sated Bernie. “You OK?”
“Need a minute,” came Serena’s muffled reply. “Can’t believe I’ve just done that! I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Not that I’d have noticed. I was enjoying the view too much to care. Who’d have thought it, eh?” blushed Bernie.
“Once, perhaps. But the reality far exceeds any deluded fantasy on my part,” Serena shared.
“Are you implying that I’m some type of sex goddess…” grinned Bernie, surprised by her own audacity.
“And if I were… Would you be able to maintain your impeccable standards or would I need additional empirical data to compare,” said Serena, her tone challenging.
“Don’t you bloody dare! You know… I’ve never been this open with anyone. Even more so, talking about it…” Bernie whispered.
“Happenstance…” replied Serena, reaching over to pull the duvet cover over them both.
“Best things in life are free…”
“Did you just quote Luther Vandross at me?” laughed Serena, “you’re such an idiot!”
“…But your idiot,” smirked Bernie.
“Always. Now sleep. What time have you set the alarm?” asked Serena.
“Half seven,” Bernie mumbled. “Love you, Campbell.”
“And I very much love you, my big macho retired Army Major. Now sleep,” ordered Serena, switching the bedside lamp off.
Serena had that annoying habit of waking up two minutes before an alarm, no matter what time it was set for. Bernie on the other hand needed a full five minutes of ‘Ride of the Valkyries' before she woke up. Serena watching the rise and fall of Bernie, her eyes flitting between her scars and collarbone. She really is the most beautiful woman. Her fingers itching to touch, caught between reverence and lust she felt towards Bernie at this moment.
“M’ning,” croaked Bernie from somewhere under the duvet cover.
“Hey you,” came Serena’s soft reply. “Hens wait for no woman.”
“Fuck off,” mumbled Bernie, “cosy.”
“Charming, just a well I’m not easily offended.”
“Not you, getting up can fuck off,” groaned Bernie, turning to face Serena. “My wrist hurts.”
“Not surprised,” snorted Serena watching in amusement at the realisation flood over Bernie’s face at the memory. “Come on, let’s get dressed and I can help you with the hens.”
“You sure?” asked Bernie, who was subjected an exaggerated eye roll from Serena.
“I’ve got wellies in the car. If you could get them for me, I’ll make us both a cup of tea,” said Serena.
“You’ve planned this, haven’t you?” grinned Bernie.
“Once a girl guide…”
“What do you need me to do first?” as Serena as she stood in a shed with bags of feed and the tractor.
“Can you lift a couple of bags of feed into the link box, and I’ll grab a couple of bales. You can either stand up here beside me or in the link box. Would you be able to open the gates for me, saves me hopping on and off?” instructed Bernie.
“Of course, do you want me to kick the troughs over and you fill them up with feed?” asked Serena, Bernie looked dumbstruck. “I did grow up on the family farm, I do remember things,” she chuckled. “I wasn’t always suited and booted.
“Point taken,” laughed Bernie, flashes of Serena in high heels commanding all beneath her came to her mind.
It was a ballet, thought Serena as they worked in sync. Bernie had a system, fine-tuned over the years and it made perfect sense. Fill the feeding troughs, change the water reservoirs with clean ones, let the birds out, refill the water tanks attached to the houses, and then collect the eggs. The poor hens had been cooped up all yesterday and were ready to roam. It was a beautifully crisp Boxing Day, the frost had been particularly heavy in the bottom of the valley during the night, giving everything that faded, almost washed out feel. Glancing at her watch she realised that it was nearing half ten and she’d promised to do breakfast, “Are you OK if I head back and start breakfast?”
“Absolutely, I’m starving. See you in a bit,” smiled Bernie, watching Serena’s retreating figure for a good few minutes before her reverie was broken by a rogue hen jumping onto the engine and flapping her wings.
“I’ll see you later, or maybe tomorrow,” smiled Raf, watching in amusement as Serena was torn between staying and coming back to theirs.
“Stay. Please? You can help me tomorrow and Charlotte can do the weekend,” murmured Bernie.
“If you’re sure?” replied Serena, Bernie nodded, Raf laughed.
“Bernie, thank you for everything. I’ve had a lovely time, and I shall enjoy this sometime. Serena, just remember to keep the volume down, OK,” grinned Raf as saw Serena turn crimson at the implication.
“Bugger off! I’ve no idea what you are talking about,” flustered Serena. Bernie having the good grace to hold in her laughter. “I'll see you tomorrow evening, text me if you need anything as I’ll pop into Waitrose on the way home,” hugging Raf as he made his way to his car.
“Ah, I take it Eli has decided what she wants for Hogmanay?” Raf said knowingly. Serena nodding at Raf’s assumption.
“You OK, Love?” asked Serena as she felt Bernie put her arm around her waist.
“Mmm, this feels too easy, doesn’t it?” whispered Bernie.
“Feels right, though. Doesn’t it,” replied Serena, matching the emotion in her partner’s voice.
“More than. Are you sure you’re happy to help out, I mean I’ve got deliveries tomorrow and Saturday?”
“Yes, I know that. Want me to do your admin or help you pack the van?” asked Serena.
“Want you back in bed,” muttered Bernie, earning a swat from Serena.
“Later, Major. C’mon, the sooner we’re done, the sooner we can…,” grinned Serena.
Bank Holiday or not, livestock doesn’t care, so by half four in the afternoon everything was fed and locked up for the night. The small office was the tidiest it had ever been. Serena making an almighty dent in Bernie’s filing, despite tackling it only a few weeks ago and any outstanding e-purchasing invoicing, her accountant’s brain in full effect. Iffe, napping on the sofa in the kitchen after another call-out, Charlotte pottering around making dinner, and Bernie having a shower. The domesticity of it all making Serena shudder in shock. The realisation that she’s never experienced anything close to this moment at any point in her adult life, the imbalance of being career driven, bringing up a small child, and an ex-husband who decided that shagging his way through Chambers was somehow acceptable.
When did I get so soppy, thought Bernie as she sat on her bed, her towel wrapped around her torso, hair combed back, slowly drying into soft curls. Laughing to herself at the thought of texting Serena to ask her to come upstairs. If truth be told, she’d never been this happy. Not even on her wedding day, which could be described as perfunctory in comparison to the last few weeks with Serena. How things were so different at the start of the year and supporting an Uncle who still wanted to do things around the farm but struggled with his arthritis before going to bed one Sunday evening after moaning about the bucolic view that Countryfile took of farming, never to wake.
Aneurysm, suddenly gone. Just like that. The concern, and shock at finding her Uncle Hugh cold in bed had sent Bernie into a tailspin for a few seconds, before remembering that she had encountered death many times. Calling the ambulance and using her full title to stop the inane questions from the call operator about carrying out CPR. Recounting the events to paramedics and the Police, before the undertakers came to lead him out to the waiting private ambulance and to the morgue.
And now, grief has been replaced by love and openness. To say that her relationship with Charlie had improved immeasurably is an understatement, and all because they were speaking about their fears and desires. Everything in-between, ruefully thought Bernie, and suspected that Charlotte was equally as grateful for Serena being around as she was.
You’ve allowed yourself to be happy, Wolfe, and the world hasn't ended she thought to herself as she zipped up her old RAMC hoody and headed downstairs.
Filler. Until I can figure things out.
Early March 2020
“Raf’s got a suggestion,” said Serena as they were eating supper in her kitchen one Thursday evening.
“Go on,” smiled Bernie, her interest piqued.
“If this is going where you think it is with a lockdown. Why don’t you stay here – self-isolate, I can shield, Raf can stay at yours and help Charlotte. I mean, I’m not going to be making my usual levels of orders and the farmer’s markets are being cancelled. And if I’m being honest, I’d miss not spending…” trailed off Serena, anxiously waiting for Bernie to reply.
“It’s a bloody good suggestion, if you ask me!” interrupted Bernie, laughing at Serena breathing out in relief.
“You’ll move in, temporarily?” beamed Serena, Bernie nodding.
“You have loo roll and hand sanitiser; how could I refuse!”
“I also have a spare room…” said Serena, her eyebrow arching, daring Bernie to offer a comeback, who sensibly nodded her head in defeat.
“How do you want to do this, practically speaking. This weekend…?” gently asked Bernie.
“I think so, it will give us both time to sort out things. I’ll let Eli know that if she comes home, she does it now, but I suspect she’ll probably stay in London,” replied Serena.
“Anything you’d like me to bring?” Bernie asked.
“Whatever you need. Maybe Scrabble and some jigsaws…” smiled Serena.
“You make it sound like I’m going to my Grandparents for a week!” laughed Bernie.
“I may want you all to myself, but I’m not stupid, Major Wolfe,” said Serena as she headed towards the sink with their now empty soup bowls. “Eli has her old Nintendo Wii somewhere, that could come in handy, and I’m going to book an online shop, God only knows when we’ll get it, but is there anything you’d like me to add?”
“… chocolate Hobnobs and Crunchies,” grinned Bernie.
“That’s a given, Love,” smiled back Serena.
“Have got everything?” asked Charlotte who was watching her Mum heft her old duffel bag into the front seat of her car, her laptop chucked in the boot with some books, her work boots and overalls. Sensing now that Serena had time on her hands that she would be wanting to tackle her garden.
“Yes. Oh, Lottie this feels rotten, doesn’t it? But it’s probably for the best. Call me, remember,” muttered Bernie.
“I will, promise. You know, this feels harder than when you went off on tour for six months,” sniffed Charlotte.
“It’s only until things improve. And at least we won’t lose the satellite connection if I’m only a few miles away,” said Bernie hugging her daughter close, feeling Charlotte nodding against her shoulder. “Remember to wear your respirators, anytime you go near the hens, there’s plenty of filters in the office. I’ll work on the local shops. I’m not letting this wretched virus send our business to the wall,” grimaced Bernie. “I’ll speak to the accountant and the Bank to see what payments we can defer and where we can cut back. I can’t see this government helping farmers at the best of times let alone something like this. I don’t want to dip Uncle Hugh’s legacy or my compensation from the MoD.”
“I know you will, but we’re pretty savvy and haven’t over-committed. And I promise that I’ll make sure we wear our respirators,” replied Charlotte, having learned the hard way about the damage the IED had done to her Mum’s body and what precautions they had to factor in on the farm. “l will speak to Iffe and let her know what we’re doing, but she is so full-on with lambing and AIs at the moment I won’t be seeing much of her anyway, so there is that,” replied Charlotte, glumly.
“Oh, Love, you’ll both be fine. You know where I’ll be if you want to moan that you’re missing your girlfriend,” said Bernie, patting her daughter’s arm as she turned towards the car door.
“Thanks,” came Charlotte’s sardonic reply. “At least you get to see yours.”
“I do. Even saying ‘my partner’ is still uncharted territory for me. Although, I didn’t think that we would be living together this soon, however temporary is it,” said Bernie.
“Question. Do you think that Serena is it for you?”
“Yes. No doubt in my mind. And Iffe?” gently quizzed Bernie only to be met by Charlotte’s deepening blush. “You are still my baby girl at times,” she laughed. “Remember, call me, but not too early,” winking as she closed her car door.
“In the garden!” shouted Serena as she heard the clink of a teaspoon against mug. Ever since the official lockdown started the weather had been nigh on perfect, even in early April. Meaning everything had sprung into life at the unseasonably warm weather.
“Morning, Love. You’re up to something,” said Bernie as she mumbled into Serena’s shoulder, her arms winding around her partner’s waist.
“I remember the garden in the summer, full of roses and box hedges, it was so formal. My Great-grandmother’s doing, no doubt. I was desperate for a swing but was informed in no uncertain terms that it was beneath us! George the gardener had built swing at the bottom of the orchard for his boys, so I managed to sneak away occasionally. Funny how things stick in your memory, isn’t it?” wistfully said Serena, threading her fingers through Bernie’s.
“Absolutely, we could always build a swing now we have the time…?” hinted Bernie.
“We could. What about your childhood, what stands out?”
“The usual, skinned knees, helping around the farm. I’m surprised I haven’t done more damage to myself considering I was trying to be Evel Kneivel at one point,” Bernie harrumphing at the memory. “Dad always said my devil-may-care attitude skipped him and Uncle Hugh by and that I must have got it from my Grandmother – seemingly she was a suffragette, always fighting the just cause. She gave me her copy of Jex- Blake’s book when I was fourteen. Not sure what I treasured more, the fact she gave it to me or what it meant once I was old enough to understand,” finished Bernie.
“Oh,” gasped Serena who had turned to face Bernie.
“Hey, shush. It is OK. I know what you are thinking. You gave it to me; it doesn’t make it any less treasured. Got that?” said Bernie, Serena nodding in response.
“What about your Mum, I think you’ve only mentioned her once and that was our first Sunday lunch?” smiled Serena.
“Actually don’t know, or would you like me change the subject don’t know?” gently probed Serena.
“Both, in all honesty,” sighed Bernie, breaking from their hold and pulling Serena over to the garden bench.
“It must have been the end of my first year at boarding school, Dad came to pick me up. I was so excited to see him. I hadn’t realised Mum hadn’t come until he said later that Mum had gone to visit her sister, my Aunt Oriel. I didn’t think much of it for a couple of days, but I kept asking when she would be coming back. Poor Dad finally snapped and informed that ‘she'd had her head turned by all those women's libbers and is living on a commune somewhere in Berkshire!'. I thought it was so at odds with how he was brought up. It was years later that I found all the letters she’d written to me locked in his bureau. I was looking for my birth certificate…”
Serena not daring to move, her brow furrowed intently listening to Bernie. Pieces falling into place about how protective her partner had been over her most private thoughts.
“Marcus had asked me to marry him, and I needed it for that. I’d completed my final year’s exams, and rather than go on a bit of a bender with the others I headed over to the Peace Camp at Greenham Common to try and find her. People knew of her, but they said hadn’t seen her in a few months. I left it at that. I received a letter a few weeks later with some photographs of Mum and me, her with another woman, and a funeral service for Hestia Wolfe with a note telling me that ‘Hestia had felt so wracked with guilt for leaving you, she never forgave herself. She kept up with all your achievements via your Uncle Hugh. If you are determined as Hestia made out, you will be a wonderful surgeon. I had fallen in love with your Mum and vice versa. It was 1976 and we did what we thought was for the best at the time – Anke De Vries,'” said Bernie quietly repeating the words on the note verbatim.
“And, I do see the similarities. I did the same, I was nineteen when I realised what my sexuality was. Yet I still married a man, had a child…”
“C’mere,” Serena said, lifting her arm so Bernie could close the distance. “They say it gets easier with the passage of time. Which is absolute bollocks if you ask me!”
“You know, I think the last six generations of women in the Wolfe family have all had relationships with women. Must be in the genes,” said Bernie with a watery smile.
“Definitely in these jeans,” smirked Serena whose hand squeezed Bernie’s thigh. “Well, we are here now, and you are telling me your story.”
“I will tell Charlotte one of these days, she was so close to Uncle Hugh, I can’t imagine he would have said anything, he had too much integrity, especially as he kept in contact with Mum. I did meet Anke a couple of years later, Charlotte was only a few weeks old, she gave her my old teddy. I hadn’t realised Mum had taken it when she left. There are a few photos of that day in the bottom of my wardrobe. My last connection to Mum.”
“What happened to your Mum?” asked Serena.
“Oh, have I not said? Brain tumour, astrocytoma. Fairly common as brain tumours go, but treatments were not as advanced then as they are now. Anke said it was a slow deterioration, then very rapid for the last two months,” shrugged Bernie
“No, I don’t suppose they were. Did you keep in touch with Anke?”
“A bit, Christmas cards and the like. Maarten, her son got in contact and asked if I would come to her funeral, I was due to be deployed as part of NATO’s effort in Kosovo, practically had to beg my CO for 48 hours leave to go and see her, only Uncle Hugh knew why I had flown to Amsterdam at such short notice. I’ve done a lot of talking, haven’t I?” said Bernie wiping away her tears.
“You have. How are you feeling?”
“Shattered, and it’s not even ten o’clock!”
“What would you like to do for the rest of the day, I was planning on clearing all the dead daffodils, but I think the mood has changed, don’t you, Love?”
“Uh huh, can we stay here for a bit. Then maybe later if that’s OK?” said Bernie, her eyelids heavy against the morning sun.
Serena padded downstairs, bemoaning the stiffness in her muscles from another day spent in the garden clearing buddleia from the farthest corner of the walled garden. It was a labour born from necessity than love she thought. The garden and the potting shed were the last in the in the decade long renovation of her family home.
Her Mother and Father making the decision many years ago to take a back seat in the running of the farm and rent out the 450 acres of mixed use meant she had a plan A, B, and C, should things spectacularly backfire with Homildon Preserves. Both her parents preferred their respective careers but saw the benefits of having a regular income and pension. Her accounting nous adding another achievement to her bow, especially as so much of it can be done online these days.
Cilla wound her way around her ankles causing Serena to yelp in surprise. Her mind thinking of what she could bake now that her, their online shopping order arrived with flour. What would Bernie like? No longer cooking for Raf and herself, she had a new person to share her baking with, and in all fairness, Bernie would eat almost anything, cauliflowers and beetroot were the only items on the list so far. Laughing at the memory of Bernie screwing her face up like a child when she had suggested planting seeds in her burgeoning vegetable patch.
Belgian Buns it is, at least I can use up some lemon cheese, she thought to herself. Her body on auto-pilot as Bernie slept soundly upstairs, she pottered around her kitchen getting everything ready to make the dough before leaving it to prove for an hour or so, returning to the warmth of Bernie who was lying starfish like in her bed, “Shove over, Love,” as she lifted the covers to allow herself to slip in.
“Make me,” came the mumbled reply.
“I love you, isn’t that enough,” grinned Serena. Bernie shook her head. “C’mere then.”
Ever since hearing Bernie recount her family’s history a few ago weeks in the garden, Serena had made a mental effort to allay Bernie’s mis-guided fears about her repressed emotions. In Serena’s eyes, Bernie was anything but, always willing to answer her questions, replies which contained astounding levels of insight and honesty. Maybe Bernie had never had the chance and is making up for lost time….
“You smell of baking,” mused Bernie who had become used to Serena’s early morning baking efforts, the underlying smell of fresh bread providing a warmth she’d never experienced. It was unnerving as it was welcoming, a sense of home, an anchor if you will.
“Uh huh, what are you making?
“Belgian Buns,” replied Serena, only to watch as Bernie honked in return. “What?” said Serena, confused by her partner’s reaction.
“I’m not going to tell you what we called them in the Army!” replied Bernie, smiling with mirth.
“Why ever not?” whined Serena.
“No, that’s never going to happen.”
“I will worm it out of you,” huffed Serena, pulling the duvet up to her chin and turning away from Bernie dramatically.
“Oh no you don’t, Campbell!” growled Bernie as she trailed her fingers across Serena's thigh, teasing her, feeling her tense and squirm beneath them.
“Fuck it!” And in one swift movement the duvet was flung to one side, and Serena was sitting atop the midriff of her mildly amused girlfriend. “Now, I do believe I have some time to kill, fancy joining me in the shower, Major Wolfe?” Bernie smiling as she nodded in agreement. “C'mon then, my buns wait for no woman.”
“I hope you realise that I know exactly what your game is?”
“My game, as you so eloquently describe it Major. Is for you to help me clean those hard to reach areas...” replied Serena, her eyebrow arching. “...without breaking a hip. Got that?”
“Loud and clear, Ma'am,” saluted Bernie. “God! I do love you, you daft thing!” as she pulled Serena into a hug. “It’s been six months since you mentioned the elephant in the room,” she whispered.
“I know. It’s flown by, hasn’t it. Although, I didn’t think we’d be doing this so quickly,” said Serena, her eyes indicating towards their surroundings.
“Me too! I had wondered what it would be like...”
“Wonderful,” smiled Bernie, her eyes sparkling. “Shower?”
“Yes, boss!” replied Serena.
“Oi! It’s Major. You are the only boss.”
I’m turning into something from Upstairs Downstairs, thought Serena as she drizzled icing over the now cooled buns.
Reaching for the glacé cherries for the finishing touch. “Perfect,” she whispered to herself. Bernie had taken a break and was now sitting on the low wall, legs stretched out, head tilted back, and eyes closed.
“I can smell coffee!” smiled Bernie, turning to watch Serena place a tray on her outdoor dining table.
“You'd be correct, and fresh Belgian Buns for the labourers,” said Serena her hand trailing across Bernie’s shoulders before coming to rest atop her partner’s hand.
“I know lockdown restrictions might be easing in a few days...” Bernie paused as she took a bite from her bun. “God, these are good,” she moaned.
Serena sat slack-jawed, mesmerised as Bernie's tongue slowly licked away some of the icing before taking a bite, “You know exactly what you are doing, don’t you?” she said almost growling with jealousy.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” replied Bernie, holding her poker face for a few seconds before mirth got the better of her.
“How about putting all that practice to good use later?” Serena purred; her voice laden with innuendo.
“Could show you now if you wanted me to...” whispered Bernie.
“Why don’t you come here and let me have a preview of your intentions...” said Serena, patting her lap.
Without the need for a second invitation, Bernie moved to sit on Serena’s lap. Arms around each other as Serena rocked back and forth on the swing seat they'd put together a few days previous. “You’re thinking, Campbell.”
“I am. I’m thinking that I’ll have to start production again. And that will mean deliveries, which will mean coming into contact with people. And worst of all not seeing you or putting you at risk. I’m not prepared to do either of those things,” said Serena, rather too resolutely.
“Go online only. Get the courier to deliver rather than you. Let them take the risk. Do a minimum order.” replied Bernie as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I can help, you can deal with all the deliveries. Speak to your packing supplier for smaller boxes. Have set pack sizes. Limit your range for the next few months. Pop a statement on the website. I’m sure people will understand.”
“You make it sound so simple in theory!” laughed Serena.
“Well, if it isn’t, you’ll just have to put that charm to good use, won’t you?” smirked Bernie. “Worked on me!”
“Eventually! And you were worth all the sapphic angst, my Darling!” smiled Serena, pulling Bernie closer towards her, their foreheads touching.
“Took us bloody long enough! How about we call Charlie and Raf tonight and get their thoughts. Hmm?”
“When did you become the pragmatic one?” joked Serena.
“Since I knew I could make you squirm by eating Belgian Bazookas!” honked Bernie.
Previously posted to BerenaTBC 2020 challenge. A little bit of housekeeping later and it's where it should be with some minor punctuation and grammar changes.
“Have you got everything?” asked Bernie.
“Think so,” as Serena brought the last of the bags of presents out from their now shared dressing room “How are you feeling?”
“I really shouldn’t be nervous about seeing my own daughter, should I?” sighed Bernie.
“Pray tell, what should you be experiencing? Fear, excitement, freedom, not knowing...”
“Freedom, as is cabin fever! ...It’s not like coming back from tour, that was utter relief and exhaustion at making it through another six months. This… this… pandemic has been disorientating and wonderful in equal measure. Remind me, how I have managed to accumulate two suitcases of clothes whilst I been here. I only came with one case, Campbell!” said Bernie, surveying the clothes hanging from the rails.
“I seem to recall you having a birthday in between and discovering the joys of internet shopping, Darling,” smirked Serena. “No going back to your usual monotone palette, Major. I’m rather fond of you in pale pink.”
“Just need an occasion to wear it, wont I?” said Bernie, wrapping her arms around Serena.
“Does there need to be an occasion? Surely, the memory of its effect on me is enough as an incentive?” batted back Serena, “but if the weather holds for tomorrow, I am expecting it to make an appearance,” winks Serena.
The drive over to Lyham Mill was everything Bernie wanted it to be – exhilarating, joyous, and liberating - roof down, hair whipping with the wind, flooring the accelerator out of the corners, looking in her mirror on to see Serena smiling back at her in her Golf with the thought of a car full of belated birthday and Easter presents. It may only be fifteen miles, but after lockdown and shielding seeing her daughter in the flesh was rather overwhelming.
“Mum! It’s so good to see you,” mumbled Charlotte as she felt the full force of Bernie’s hug.
“Uh huh. God! I’ve missed you,” said Bernie, loosening her grip to take a good view of her daughter.
“You look better than when you came back from tour.”
“Bloody hope so. Couldn’t quite escape my CO this time...” said Bernie as she glanced at Serena, “Not that I’d want to.”
“Nice save, Major,” said Serena, who had walked over to Bernie’s side. “It’s good to go further than the garden, isn’t it? Cabin fever was setting in. What about you, Charlotte. How have you been?”
“Alright, I s’pose. I hadn’t realised I’d got used to everyone coming around and the house felt too quiet most of the time.”
“And Ife?” queried Serena.
“Yeah, she’s exhausted. We’ve only seen each other a couple of times. If I ever have to do another video call again it will be too soon,” groaned Charlotte. “I was hoping that the weather will hold and we can all sit in the garden on Saturday. Is Elinor able to come?”
“Yes, confirmed last night. Driving up after work tonight, God knows what time she’ll get here. Anything before midnight will be a bonus,” replied Serena. “I’ll head back after supper, if that’s OK?”
“Serena, come here,” said Raf who had been quietly standing in the background held his arms out to hug his partner in crime, “How’s it been living in sin?” he teased.
“Bloody marvellous, tonight will be weird, though,” said Serena, wanly. “Bubble or no bubble, we probably need to spend time with our daughters. Are you ok coming back with me or do you want to drive back on your own?”
“I’ll come back with you, and then Eli can drive you over tomorrow, and I’ll take your car...” replied Raf, “that way you don’t have worry about having a drink...”
“Spoken like someone who knows me far too well,” laughed Serena.
“Right on cue,” whispered Bernie as everyone turned to the sound of tyres crunching on gravel. Ife’s pick-up stopping in the yard in a cloud of dust, thanks to the heatwave of recent days.
“Surprise!” greeted Ife, beaming at the assembled group in front of her.
“Go on, go say hello!” said Bernie as she pushed her gobsmacked daughter in the general direction of her girlfriend.
“Hey, you,” whispered Charlie, not quite believing who was standing in front of her.
“Hey yourself,” said Ife, she could see everyone retreating out of the corner of eye. “C’mere,” she breathed, as Charlie stepped into her embrace, sighing at the relief of seeing her girlfriend for the first time since the beginning of May.
“I’ve missed you,” breathed Charlotte.
“I know, me too!” said ife, “I have two weeks annual leave, so I figured I would come and see you and possibly ask you if you would like to meet my parents in person rather than via a screen?”
“Bloody hell, no pressure then!” exclaimed Charlotte.
“Nope, they do keep asking after you though,” added Ife.
“S’pose I should as you’ve met everyone who’s important to me, and I’m not ready to introduce you to Dad, not just yet!”
“The black thing, the woman thing, or both?” sighed Ife.
“Oh, definitely the woman thing! Let’s just say that he didn’t handle it very well when Mum came out from what I can remember. Mum has told me bits about the divorce, pretty acrimonious from Dad’s side, Mum just wanted to move on.”
“Where is he now?” asked Ife.
“UCH – Ortho consultant. Remarried a few years ago, lives in West Hampstead with his wife and twin boys. Holby didn’t really hold much appeal for him after that.”
“Aah, ok. But if you need reinforcements, my Mum will be on standby! No-one messes with her, she might only be 5’1”, but she’s a pocket rocket!” laughed Ife.
“How come you are so bloody tall, then?”
“Dad’s side – they are all over 6’4”!” said Ife as she slid her hands into the back pockets of Charlotte’s jeans. “It’s been far too long,” she murmured into her partner’s neck, moaning as lips met.
“Are you staying tonight?” asked Charlotte.
“No, only because you haven’t seen your Mum in months, otherwise I stay in a heartbeat.”
“But tomorrow night...?” asked Charlotte somewhat tentatively.
“Try and stop me!”
“You weren’t trying to do wheelies, were you!” Raf wheezed.
“No!” replied Bernie, only to see Serena’s look of incredulity before reluctantly mumbling, “Maybe.”
“Oh Mum, you’re not twelve anymore!” howled Charlotte, wiping the tears away with the hem of her t-shirt.
“I don’t know what was funnier, wearing Eli's old elbow pads and helmet or riding a bike that was built for a child! And the pout when you rode into the old cartwheel!” recounted Serena, her arm firmly around Bernie’s waist.
“Bugger off, the lot of you!” huffed Bernie, her grin belying any malice. That day had been wonderful; Bernie had felt free, the teenager before boarding school, the tomboy with added battle scars and memories, the woman completely in love with Serena who made her want things she scarce imagined.
Both were going stir crazy and couldn’t face another day of working in the garden or walking around the farm, compounded with half of Serena’s time being spent in online meetings handholding those who were struggling to navigate their way through the financial implications of their income dropping of a cliff. They had simply had enough; Serena joking that they needed a bloody holiday! Bernie’s suggestion of dusting off the old bikes was met with enthusiasm; peals of laughter echoed off the walls of the old outbuilding as they huffed and swore as their knuckles connected with rusty chains, punctures repaired as air escaped faster than it went in, seats raised, and unbeknown to Bernie, failing brakes from years of hiding under a dust sheet.
Determined to brighten her partner’s mood, Bernie dusted off Elinor’s purple cycling helmet and matching elbow pads and stood to attention, “Corporal Wolfe, reporting for duty, Ma’am.”
“You daft thing!” said Serena with an undignified snort.
“Will I do?” grinned Bernie.
“You will call me when you get in, won’t you?” asked Bernie, not wanting to let go of Serena’s hand until absolutely the last possible moment.
“Of course. We knew it had to happen at some point, but it doesn’t make it easier, does it?” replied Serena. “See you tomorrow, Love,” and with that Raf slipped the car into gear and drove off.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you look more content or happy,” commented Raf.
“Thank you, and you have seen me at my absolute worst. As awful has this thing has been, it’s been a wonderful luxury to spend so much time with Bernie. I have wondered if we'd met earlier how I would have managed with her being in the Army and buggering off to God knows where! Anyway, what about you? Any progress on the Mathieu front?” asked Serena.
“How do you know about that!” spluttered Raf.
“Raphael, he has been the land agent for the last ten years, and always asks after you. Well, that and he may have indicated he misses not being your unofficial plus one for tasting events...”
“Is Eleanor on her way?” Raf said, smoothly changing the subject. Only for Serena glower at him in dim lights of the dashboard.
“Yes, took her ages to get out of London and had to pull into the Swindon services to fill up. Can’t believe it’s Christmas since I last saw my little girl,” Serena said wistfully.
“Och, she’ll be home soon enough,” as Raf pulled into the courtyard.
“Indeed. I know we butt heads at times, but this enforced absence has been tough.... She loves the London life, but I think reading between the lines she's close to burnout. The current Secretary of State and I quote ‘needs to be hung up by his balls, that’s if you can find any, and spend the rest of his cretinous life in Barlinnie!’ I see the messages she’s sending me at four in the morning, complaining about the umpteenth re-write of a speech, every one contradicting the previous statement. I’m torn between rescuing her and letting her figure it out.”
“A few well-chosen words, less is more you once said. Didn’t you?”
“Ha, probably. That all goes out the window when it’s my daughter.”
“Ok, different tact. What would you do if it were Bernie or me?”
“...Point taken. We do make a good team, don’t we?”
“Agreed. Nightcap?” said Raf softly.
“Non-alcoholic, a clear head might be needed.”
“Have you mentioned this to Bernie?”
“Why ever not!” exclaimed Raf.
“Because... Well, I don’t want to burden her and don’t look at me like that, please Raf. We’re both adjusting. There’s more to Bernie than meets the eye, she knows about my history, I’d rather leave past relationships out of the equation.”
“Aah, I see.”
“See what?” ask Serena, thoroughly confused.
“Not everyone is Edward or Veronique...”
“No, but Bernie is one the of the most important people in my orbit, and I’d rather have had a discussion about my future than assume…”
“I take it Bernie’s it, for you?” laughed Raf.
“I do believe she is!” said Serena, her face glowing.
“Are you going make it official?”
“But you’d like to...” Raf said knowing Serena better than herself. He knew she craved stability, to be and feel loved unconditionally, something that she never really had with previous partners.
“Do I have to answer that!” said Serena, squeezing Raf’s hand in the darkness of the car. “Christ! That’s Eli,” as car headlights illuminated the courtyard.
“Go, I’ll open up and get the kettle on.”
“Mother!” shrieked Eli.
“Daughter,” smiled Serena.
“Oh my god, it’s so good to get out of London,” as Eli clambered out of her car.
“Welcome home, Darling.”
Raf politely excused himself, leaving Serena and Elinor sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, mugs of hot chocolate in hand, Eli recounting events and crises management within the department. Whitehall was a tinderbox of in fighting, spin, lies, and cliques.
“I’m exhausted, the whole department is. I know my role is to analyse and present those findings. I just feel so... overwhelmed. There’s no consistency, we’re not bloody robots.
Most of the PPSs are in the same position, and junior ministers have forgotten that we are people. It’s the cronyism, other departments are the same. We were taught that it’s about what is best of for the country, not for individuals. To be invisible, to be honourable. I’m not sure I want to a part of that anymore. It’s all I’ve known for the last five years. I’m not sure if I could change career’s now...” Eli paused.
“Take some annual leave, put some feelers out in other departments. See if you are you eligible for a sabbatical? Do another masters? I do realise that a few days away might not be enough… Eli, Darling, you do have choices. What’s your Father said?”
“He told me to man up. I told him to fuck off!” said Eli, rolling her eyes.
“And that’s why he’s my ex-husband,” laughed Serena, wiping the tears away at the image of Edward’s spluttering face at being told to fuck off by his daughter. It’s nothing that he hadn’t heard before she mused.
“What’s the plans for tomorrow?” segued Eli.
“Head over to Bernie’s in the afternoon, eat, laugh, forget about things for a while, open our Easter presents, and possibly over-indulge...”
“Oh, speaking of presents, wait there,” said Eli as she disappeared to the hallway for a minute.
“Happy belated birthday, Mum.”
“Oh, Love. Thank you!” Serena said, pulling Eli into a hug.
“I know it’s for two, and just so you know I won’t be put out if you want to go with Bernie instead!”
“Nonsense, it’s something to look forward to. I don’t see you often enough as it is!” emphasized Serena, stifling a yawn as the grandfather’s clock chimed midnight. “Bed?”
“How did it go with Eli?” ask Raf over coffee and toast the following day. Eli had yet to rouse despite it being nearer lunchtime than breakfast.
“Looking for a change, or something. Anyway, she has options, she needs the time and space to work out what she wants. I did suggest she works from here for a couple of weeks as Parliament is still in recess, and Whitehall deserted. According to Eli, her line manager seems to be firm but fair…”
“And Bernie, the pair of you have been living together for the last five months…”
“Yes, I am quite aware of that fact,” smirked Serena. “We’ve become one of those blended families, haven’t we? At least we all get on, that is one small mercy. I did speak with Bernie this morning and said that I will be coming home tonight rather than stay with her. And it’s fine if you would like to ask Mathieu to join us…”
“Aye right, that’s nae happenin’ anytime soon!” grinned Raf.
“When did these arrive?” asked Bernie, taking in several large bean bags and new garden furniture that definitely wasn’t there in March.
“...April. Raf and I spent our evenings out here. And the old ones were sort of falling to bits. Sawed them up for firewood…” added Charlotte.
“Right, right,” said Bernie, drifting off at the thought of missing a trick at Serena’s. Yeah, sure they had the swing, but beanbags and sunbathing suddenly sounded very appealing.
“…Mum, Mum. Earth to Mum. I do not want to know where your mind has just been. I said can you hear the thunder, and do you want to chance it or bring everything inside?”
“Chance it! I’d like to make the most of being outside when we can. I'll do rounds tomorrow morning, see if I can remember what do, and you can spend time with Ife,” smirked Bernie as Charlotte blushed at the implication. That'll teach you, she thought.
Those who know of 'Talking Heads - Alan Bennett' my inspiration is from that. This is dialogue heavy between Eli and Serena.
“You know it would be much easier and infinitely less stressful if I mothballed Homildon Preserves and focussed on doing people’s books!” groaned Serena who had been sat staring at her accounts for the last hour. “It’s not as if I don’t know how to do, it just need someone else to sign off on it.”
“I thought you loved it?” queried Eli.
“I do, well… I did when I had a routine... I can always start up again when things are less pandemic-y.”
“Pandemic-y. Is that even a word?” laughed Eli.
“It is now,” smiled Serena. “At least I have the income from the farm and book-keeping. Never thought I’d have to rely on it, though. What about you, Love, have you given anymore thought to what you’d like to do?” asked Serena.
“You mean, apart from leaking everything to the media!” joked Eli before pausing to collect her thoughts. “About that… There’s a secondment opportunity within the NHS for two years, and my interview is next week. There’s two roles, one in Newcastle and the other is in Holby…” said Eli, waiting patiently for that titbit of information to register with her Mum.
“And that would mean?” asked Serena, her mind already thinking about renting out the flat in London.
“It would mean that if I’m successful for the Holby position, I could come back and live here,” shrugged Eli.
“Oh, Darling. Yes. Absolutely. And the flat...?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was worried about. I wouldn’t want you to sell it. Rent it out. Hire a van, re-decorate my room, bring all my stuff here and store it in the factory unit especially if you are mothballing it.”
“How come us Campbell women can take the big decisions in our stride, but get ourselves in such a flap over the small ones, hmm?”
“So, does that mean you would be OK with it?”
“Darling, yes,” said Serena, who stood up and walked over to hug her daughter who was perched on the arm of the sofa.
“Please don’t say anything to anyone just yet, Mum. I know what you are like! And I’m not telling Dad. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for telling where to go at Christmas,” smiled Eli.
“He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but then I’m slightly embittered and twisted where my ex-husband is concerned,” winked Serena.
“With good reason. He was an absolute swine, wasn’t he? I mean, I have heard the rumours, and found out that by accident that he was incredibly close to being disbarred after the divorce. What happened? Mum?” probed Eli. She wouldn’t deny how curious she was, Mum had always been a closed book regarding her marriage but may be this was an opportunity for her to open up.
Glancing at the clock, “It’s five o’clock somewhere, isn’t it? Go and break out the good stuff, I’ll light the fire. I think we’ll both need it.” Thirty minutes later, they are sitting in their breakfast room, Eli instinctively clutching a cushion across her mid-rift, and Serena resting a half-full glass of red on her knee.
“We met as postgrads. I was finishing off my MSc at SOAS, and your Father was in his pupillage in Chambers, near Holborn Viaduct as I recall. One of his flatmates was on my course, and we were spending time together studying, and occasionally went to the student union bar. She had a mass of red curls and always wore baggy jeans, but her name has completely escaped me!”
“Anyway, one night after the library closed, we walked home together. She invited me in, a Friday thing, group of friends, not much of a party. Pizza, alcohol, some weed, bloody awful wailing indie music playing in the background, and a philosophy student smoking a pipe! I ended up having a one-night stand or so I thought,” blushed Serena. “Turned out, we had a lot more,” said Serena as she caught Eli’s expression. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’ve never purported to be anything remotely angelic.”
“I managed to get on the graduate trainee scheme with one the large auditing and accounting firms. It was just after the ‘Big Bang’ in 1986. There was plenty of money and glass ceilings. We’d moved into together in the autumn of 1987. All very modern and very much frowned upon by your Grandma who took it upon herself to remind us about living in sin at every opportunity she got. And was even more horrified when we bought our first house in Islington of all places. I do wonder what it would be worth now,” wistfully said Serena.
“Your Father was charming, devastatingly handsome, and wonderful fun to be around. We got married in August 1988, we’d just bought our first house and I really didn’t care for a big wedding, so Islington Town Hall it was. Your Father had booked a private dining room at Gray’s Inn for our wedding breakfast. It was the only time Daddy was impressed by Edward... If only I knew then what I know now…”
“Our careers were progressing, Edward had been called to the Bar, and I had completed my exams to become a chartered accountant. In hindsight, I’m so glad we kept our finances separate, your Father would have pissed the lot down the drain! By this time, I had had my own team and reporting into the National Director when I found out I was pregnant with you, my Darling. Maternity leave in 1992 wasn’t the same as it is now,” shrugged Serena, pausing to take a sip as she knew what was coming next.
“I was diagnosed with post-natal depression, Edward was useless. I don’t think there was a day when he came home before 11.00 pm from work. He assumed I did nothing except feed you all day. Christ! All his clothes were pressed, the house was spotless, food was always available, the garden was immaculate. Yes, we had a cleaner and a gardener, but I still managed to cook and shop,” Serena paused as Eli waited on her to continue.
“Mum? Where did you drift off to?”
“I don’t think I have even mentioned this to Bernie, but I had developed a rather large crush on the gardener,” Serena laughed weakly.
“Nothing unusual about that, biceps to die for, lovely pert arse, broad shoulders… fantasy of being dragged into the shed for a pruning lesson!” joked Eli. “Oh, shit! Mum, she was a woman, wasn’t she?” said Eli in mock shock.
“Well, let’s just say that I realised there was more to life than the male of the species,” replied Serena, her eyebrow rising in acknowledgement.
“So, not only were you were dealing with a new baby, post-natal depression, a non-existent husband and father, a crush on the devastatingly gorgeous gardener, you were also realising you weren’t as straight as you first thought!” summarised Eli.
“Well, yes, it was a difficult 12 months! There was a fug, a miasma that would come in waves and blindside me for days at a time. I’d stopped enjoying life and had completely lost interest in rest of the world outside my front door. I was hoping that the routine of going back to work and remembering what I used to would help. It did to an extent. Although, I think your Father wanted me at home, barefoot and pregnant. I was certainly never going to be that!”
“We both wanted to have a live-in nanny as it was so practical. The rows that followed that revelation between us and both sets of grandparents made me want to run away to the circus! I’d gained some perks of reporting into the National Director and didn’t have to be in the office all the time. Your Grandma’s would stay from a Tuesday afternoon to a Friday morning, they’d take it in turns when they could. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“I can’t remember much about Grandma Jean other than her twinsets! Didn’t I find a purple crayon once and decide to colour in the flowers on the wallpaper in the dining room?” Eli said, shaking her head at the memory.
“Oh, God! Yes. Your father was so cross at Grandma Jean she didn’t come back to stay after that. That was the start of the end, I suppose. You had started nursery school, and I was doing longer and longer hours because of all the new processes that had to be operational by the regulatory and conduct authorities.”
“So that’s where I get my love of policy from!”
“Sounds very much like it, Darling,” smile Serena. “I was beginning to make a name for myself, but always promised that I’d stay with the same firm until you started school. Edward thought I was stupid. All he could see was the money, better holidays, nicer cars, new TVs. It was about stability and commitment for me, even then. I had a role that worked, and I could see the changes that were coming because of technology, what better credentials than ensuring the firm was in the best position to deal with those changes and allow myself to be headhunted with a proven track record and command a salary based on evidence and experience not a penis and a member of the old boys’ club…”
“Bloody hell, Mum. Remind me my we’ve never had talked about this before,” interjected Eli.
“Fear, timing, not trusting myself... I knew I always wanted you to find your way and make your own choices. I had strong opinions and I didn’t want you resenting me if they clashed with yours. We are both headstrong people.”
“And this was 1997, right?”
“Yes, Labour had come in power and they had promised us sweeping reforms of financial regulations which the city had been crying out for. I was a Finance Director working with the CFO - Henrik Hanssen. He was an enigmatic and efficient Swede, I was his preferred choice as his successor, sadly the board had other ideas. Put the feelers out and six months later I was with a new firm.”
The clock on the mantlepiece chimed six o’clock, the heat from the logs had died down. Cilla had stirred from her basket and was stretching and looking around. Food, no doubt, thought Serena.
“Why don’t we have dinner?” segued Eli. “Is Raf around or…?”
“Or… Spending the weekend with Mathieu?” implied Serena.
“So, it’s finally official, then?”
“Yes, as of last month. And I get to tease him mercilessly,” said a very gleeful Serena.
Dinner was a muted affair, Eli processing and Serena ruminating. The sound of BBC Radio 4 playing in the background seeped into the silence. The dishwasher stacked and switched on, it’s initial gurgling bringing Serena back to the present. “Coffee or hot chocolate with all the trimmings?” she asked. Eli’s reaction telling her all she needed to know.
“He missed your fifth birthday. That’s when those nagging doubts and suspicions became very much a reality…” stated Serena flatly, the fire cracking and spitting in the background as the logs caught hold. “…It wasn’t just one affair, it was several. It turned out he’d been shagging his way through half the chambers in London. In the end I confronted him. You know what made me feel so small and insignificant, was that he didn’t even attempt to lie, he stood there and stated he ‘can change’. I said yes, you can change your fucking address for a start, now get out! I took a week off work, threw all his belongs in binbags and told him to collect them before the binmen came in the morning.”
“You didn’t cut the crotch out of all his suits!” laughed Eli.
“Bloody wish I had!” snorted Serena.
“I knew Dad liked a drink. Is that the reason you never let me stay overnight at his until I was older?”
“Yes, he’d be over the limit to drive and I couldn’t trust him not to. Even when we were married, I always made sure I had the car on a Saturday morning to go to the supermarket just in case he was ever tempted to drive you to swimming!”
“I thought as much. I can’t remember missing him though. He was hardly ever there from what I can remember. He is definitely a better father now then he was when I child.”
“How did you find out about him nearly being disbarred?” queried Serena after a pause in the conversation to place more logs on the fire.
“I was at Uni and stayed at Dad’s one weekend. He’d gone to the off license to get a bottle of wine. His bureau was open, I may have had a look and saw some very strongly worded letters and an official warning from The Bar Council dated around the time of the divorce.”
“Does Bernie know?”
“Some, but not all. I don’t think even Raf knows all the gory details. And to be honest, I’ve moved on. I have baggage but name me a 56-year-old menopausal woman who doesn’t” sighed Serena.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it in a bonding, trusting way.”
“Eli, Darling it’s taken me over 20 years to tell you, countless hours of therapy, and topped off with a stint in The Priory, I will get there. Promise.” Serena smiled and reached over to hold Eli’s hand in reassurance.
“Didn’t Dad move on to someone else relatively quickly?”
“Yes, I really liked her, but she soon saw through him. And I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did eventually move on, took a few years longer than anticipated. Even the concept of dating terrified me, it didn’t matter if it the person was male or female. And yes, I do realise I flirt and charm my way out of situation but that’s only when I know it’s never going anywhere. Some how we kept bumping into each other at networking events. A few dates turned into a few months turned into nearly five years…” shrugged Serena, as Eli was attempting to work out the timeline of events.
“Where was I when this was all going on? I mean, I know I was at boarding school, but still Mum, there was never any indication that you were seeing anyone. Talk about in the closet!” chided Eli. “Sorry, but... You were, weren’t you?
“Those who mattered knew, but professionally yes. Now that’s a conversation I never want to have again with your Grandma! I was always going to tell you after you’d finished your GCSEs, but we’d ended before I could. We’d drifted apart, work was all consuming for both of us, snatching weekends every couple of months, it didn’t feeI like a relationship. I felt like I was feasting on crumbs as that’s all we had left, which is utterly morose when I think about it now. In some respects, it was a blessing as Grandma had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
“What was her name?” probed Eli.
“Veronique, she was originally from Belgium, and worked at one of the Dutch investment banks at the time.”
“What did she look like?”
“Very corporate!” laughed Serena.
“So were you, in case you had forgotten,” batted back Eli as Serena picked up her phone and started typing Veronique Maes, turning her screen to show her daughter her former partner.
“She looks imposing,” commented Eli.
“She was. We both were. We had to be, but it never was the case when it was just us.”
“Was she your first...?” paused Eli, unsure as how to ask without sounding rude.
“We were each other’s. I think that helped.”
“So that would mean you broke up in 2008 if I was doing my GCSEs, and at the same time as the financial crash, and Granny...”
“Yeah, little wonder I took myself off to The Priory for a month whilst I had my sabbatical.”
“I’m much better at recognising the triggers, I have a recurring appointment every two months with a therapist. Raf and now Bernie will intervene if needed, and I’m guessing that I can add you to the list as well,” Serena softly said.
“Naturally. Although, it will mean that if I’m successful, it will be the first time we’ve lived together on a regular basis as adults!”
“Just as well you’re not a moody and stroppy teenager, then! In all seriousness, maybe we should have some ground rules!”
“Yes, no sex is definite. Especially if I’m the only single person between everyone!”
“We can always have a rota! Or better still set up regular appointments in our shared calendar!”
“If you do then I’m telling Bernie about that time we went to Italy and you didn’t put enough sun cream on when you went topless and ended up with sunburnt nipples for a week!” replied Eli, wiping away the tears of laughter at the memory.
“I’d forgotten about that,” laughed Serena.
“I haven’t, obviously. I was mortified that you were going topless at your age, but it was the sight of you attempting to cool the sunburn with two cans of diet coke taped across them that finally made me lose it. It took me a month to look you in the face!”
“I am sorry Darling, for everything,” Serena sniffed.
“Mum, you are being silly. I’m a reasonably well-adjusted adult, with occasional entitled brat thrown in. I have a job I’ve fallen out of love with, but that’s fixable. I have a flat in London. I have an OK to excellent relationship with both my parents. One of whom I hope to be seeing an awful lot more of, except your boobs. Only Bernie can see those!”
“Mmm, she is rather fond of them,” mused Serena out loud, her mind already drifting off to this morning and waking up to a hand on her left breast.
“Mother! I’m going to bed. And you need to call your girlfriend!”
Heaving a sigh, Serena could hear her daughter’s chuckling as she made her way upstairs. Knowing Bernie would be sleeping she tapped out a message 'Had a very honest and slightly revelatory conversation with Eli, rather exhausted, wide awake and content at the same time. Some fond memories to tell you about later. All rather positive and unexpected. Glad we’re in each other’s lives. I’m completely and utterly in love with you, my darling Major Wolfe (Ret’d). Speak to you in the morning – Campbell’.
Set in and around Spring 2021 when the UK was yet again in lockdown.
“That looks interesting,” said Bernie, who had wandered over from the Aga and was now standing behind Serena looking over her shoulder at a mass of scaled drawings of the farmhouse, garden, and outbuildings. “These aren’t new, are they?”
“No, copies of the old plans from 1860s, I think. I haven’t looked at them for years, not since I started modernising this place. There’s the old potting shed that I need to do something about before it collapses, now I’m not making lemon cheese for the foreseeable future. I thought I’d have a look. I’m thinking that if both Eli and I are working in the same house it would be useful to have an office close by rather than traipsing across to the yard to the unit.”
“The lockdown version of a granny annexe?” laughed Bernie.
“Or our own private space…” purred Serena, “Away from our kids, friends, and their partners.”
“Soundproof? Blackout blinds?”
“Could do. But let’s not go full-on shag pad in the description, eh? Annexe/office will look better on the planning application,” grinned Serena. “I’ll have a chat with Eli and Raf, but I really don’t think there will be too much opposition. We could always do B&B, or a holiday let in the future.”
“But I’d miss delivering your eggs...” pouted Bernie.
“I’m sure you could still deliver something else. Anyway, mind out of the gutter, Major. I will need to get the council’s historic buildings conservationist out to have a look. All I’m thinking is sorting the roof out, new windows, utilities, and insulating. Although, given their overly zealous nature, they probably thinking I’m renovating Versailles, and not a glorified shed!” huffed Serena.
“Are you still serious about mothballing the business?”
“Yes, I can’t sell enough to justify the running costs, and I’m not prepared to put my savings at risk trying to make it work. How long will it take hotels and cafes to recover as they’re my main customers? And, I can’t see farmers markets happening until mid-2022. You’ve seen how busy I’ve been doing everyone else’s taxes and invoicing. I’m comfortable, we’re comfortable, I don’t want to be in a situation where we become financially vulnerable,” said Serena.
“That’s a lot of we.”
“Is that OK?” queried Serena, panic starting to form in the pit of her stomach.
“Yes. It’s been a while since I’ve been a ‘we’, I know we’re an ‘us’, but ‘we’ feels more… lasting and considered,” softly replied Bernie.
“I’m glad,” sighed Serena, who was now leaning into Bernie. “I wasn’t putting pressure on you. I hope you don’t think that.”
“I know and you aren’t. We’re both adjusting to not being as self-sufficient as we once were.”
“That’s very true, Darling. Who would do your invoicing!” grinned Serena. Bernie harrumphing in response.
“Hate to say it, but that is one of many perks of this relationship. So, Ms Campbell, what’s the plan for our last night in a child-free house?” said Bernie, her voice low and drawling.
“Move all the furniture back into Eli’s room and dinner.”
“Slave-driver,” smiled Bernie, who had stepped out of their hold and padded back to the Aga to check on dinner. “What time is Eli due?”
“She said and I quote ‘I want to be packed up before the parking permit runs out at seven-thirty and on the M4 by eight thirty’,” laughed Serena.
“I’ve seen her time-keeping!”
“I know, so God only knows! She’s cajoled one of her colleagues to drive the van, seemingly he’s originally from around here and is using it as a legitimate excuse to see his parents, covid-police notwithstanding.”
“Fair enough. When was Eli’s last test?”
“Last night, and negative. Lord knows what tailspin would have happened if it was positive. That’s one good thing, I suppose. Says she’s got used to the twice-weekly testing regime, but still can’t be pleasant. But I am guessing you can relate, hmm?”
“A bit, more so before each tour and when we came back. I’m not talking about when I was hit by the IED. It was the mundanity of regular health checks, the looming fear of something not being quite right and not be able to be deployed. I did enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in theatre. It was light relief in comparison to the suffocation I felt trying to be a wife to Marcus during the last couple of years of our marriage,” replied Bernie.
“How bad did it get, or would you prefer to gloss over it for now?” gently asked Serena, knowing Bernie always needed preparation time to get her thoughts in order before opening the emotional floodgates.
“No, no, it’s ok. It’s probably as good as time as any,” replied Bernie only to continue when she saw the confused look from Serena. “I mean in a safe and secure way.” Bernie remembering the conversation with Charlotte nearly two years ago.
“I was 19 when things finally made sense, and firmly set on going in the RAMC. I absolutely had to compartmentalise my thoughts and my life. I was rather bookish in my teens, the carefreeness of living on the farm had disappeared, especially after Mum had left. I defaulted to my adult position of conforming and emotionally detached. I was never emotionless as Marcus always claimed. I became rather adept at hiding them. Was my career more valuable than my marriage? Probably in the sense it provided that necessary escape… Charlotte was the one beacon of hope. It may have taken a few more years, but I’m enjoying the bond I have with my daughter. I know she always claims that I was there when it mattered, there’s always a nagging doubt that she is trying to paper over the cracks.”
“Oh, Love. You have a wonderful relationship with her in my eyes. You’re both open and honest, with a genuine understanding of how each other tick,” Serena lovingly replied.
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes,” earnestly replied Serena. She adored hearing Bernie talk about her life, and in their 18 months of being together it was something to be treasured. The emotional connection that had developed instantly over their very first Sunday lunch, Bernie’s often flirtatious and innuendo laden comments when they were alone, the looks of fondness they would exchange. Elinor had called it ‘eye-sex’ when she had met Bernie at their first new year together, but to Serena it was love, as simple and as complicated as that. And without wanting to get overly soppy, she was truly in love and loved by someone for the first time in her life.
“Where did you drift off to?”
“Just remembering how quickly we clicked,” smiled Serena who had pulled Bernie towards her.
“We did rather. I’ve never told you… I was terrified that I wasn’t good enough for you and you’d see through me in those first few weeks.”
“We’re equals. Isn’t that what you said,” smirked Bernie, clasping Serena’s hand in hers.
“Yes, and don’t you forget it!” beamed Serena, the music in the background suddenly segueing to Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus from the usual chill-out music that Serena always played – less distracting and no chorus she reasoned, much to Bernie’s eternal amusement. “Right. C’mon, let’s get Eli’s room finished and then we can have an early night!”
“But I’ve made dinner…” pouted Bernie before the proverbial penny dropped.
“M’ning. What time is it?” mumbled Serena from the depths of the duvet.
“Six. I need to head off to do rounds,” replied Bernie, followed by an undetermined noise from the general direction of her partner. “So, if you want to join me for our last shower together for the foreseeable future, I would change your attitude, and sharpish, Ms Campbell,” said Bernie bluntly as she made her way to the en-suite. “You’ve got one minute,” she chuckled to herself as she could hear the swoosh of the duvet being thrown aside.
A toot of the horn brought Serena back to the present from thinking about the adjustments she would have to make if dynamics between Eli and her took a turn for the worse, Bernie’s reassurance still fresh in her mind. “Welcome home, Darling,” hugging her daughter as soon as she could. “How was the drive?”
“Actually, really good, hardly anyone on the roads and we only got stopped once. Just as well I’d printed all the new job letters off before I left the office on Monday. Tan said the Police were a bit more sceptical about his reasons, than mine,” replied Eli.
“Yes, Tan. Technically Aston, but prefers Tan. And, no Mother, we are friends so please don’t start with the eyebrow thing,” smiled Eli.
“Promise, Scout’s honour. C’mon let’s get the introductions over with and I take it you’re both starving?”
“God, yes! What have you done for lunch?”
“There’s butternut squash and lentil soup, roast lamb and all the trimmings, and either leftover pavlova or apple crumble for pudding. Will that do?”
“I’ll need to start running again if you’re going to have three course meals every day!”
“You can dream on – weekends and special occasions only, got that, oh daughter dearest?”
“Tan, Eli said your parents are local to Holby?”
“Yeah, they run the family business – Lark Hall Nurseries, it’s off the Holby - Cirencester Road. I am hoping to get over there once the van is unloaded. I’ve not seen them in person since September. We’ve all agreed that we’re completely sick of video calls and resorted to phone calls and postcards!”
“Postcards,” quizzed Serena.
“I know, right,” laughed Tan. ‘Mum’s idea, I upload the image I want and send the postcard. According to Ma, Mum has been getting rather emotional at not experiencing a deserted London. Although, at their age, I’d prefer they stayed in Holby, but don’t tell them I ever said that!” laughed Tan.
“I completely understand, London has its draws, but sometimes you need to leave to appreciate it. So, what is it that you do?” probed Serena.
“Programme Lead for New Projects, basically working with partner agencies and internal departments, project mapping and methodology evaluation. Give me a Gantt chart and I’m in my element, whereas Elinor is far better at extrapolating and translating the findings into current policy and future practice,” replied Tan.
“Sounds like you enjoy it,” smiled Serena who was passing the roast potatoes around.
“It has its moments like any job, but on the whole, absolutely. I’m not ready to leave London and return to the family business just yet. Mum would be delighted, but Ma would probably be chasing me back to London recommending more things that in her eyes need fixing!”
“So that’s why you’ve kept your idealistic streak going more than everyone else in the team!” joked Elinor.
“You’ve not met my Ma!” laughed Tan, “Twenty-five years in the Prisons Service will do that to you!”
“Good Lord! Your Ma sounds a bit like my partner! Twenty-odd years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, compassionate and tough in equal measure,” exclaimed Serena.
“Totally, sounds as if we leave a bottle of whiskey out, they would drink themselves sober by sunrise!” grinned Tan.
“Now that sounds like a rather good plan when we can finally see people. Good food, good company, and good weather,” beamed Serena.
“It does, doesn’t it,” as Tan clinked his glass with Serena’s.
“Is this when you tell me I have too much stuff?” laughed Eli as they surveyed the mound of boxes, suitcases, and sets of drawers in hallway.
“Probably, after you’ve spent five hours trying to find a place for it! It won’t seem as bad once you start doing it. Bernie and I have converted the box room into an office for you, and I’ve ordered a Wi-Fi nest to boost the signal and I’ve increased the bandwidth. Goodness knows how you’ll survive in the sticks without streaming,” smiled Serena.
“Oi, that’s not entirely fair, Mother. I did have a social life before the pandemic!”
“Can’t say I’ve missed having one, but it’s more about having Bernie around,” mused Serena. “Right, where do you want to start? I want this out of sight before I phone Bernie this evening!”
“Still as loved-up as ever, I see! No, seriously Mum, I’ve never seen you happy or this relaxed, you’ve always had this air of remoteness. I mean... Well, what I’m trying to say is that I like this version of you. I know we’ll butt heads...”
“If its any consolation, I like this version of me too,” Serena replied softly.
What started out as a Secret Santa fic in 2019, has ended up being a pandemic fic, and the final chapter is set around early September to late October 2021 as the UK is still in the midst of spiralling infection rates and vaccination passes are required for entry into events.
“You do know there’s no going back now that the date is on the website?” grinned Raf.
“Yes, I do know that!” emphasised Serena.
“HAFPAs first official Pride in at your house, who’d have thought it?”
“Not me. Well, not until the last couple of years, anyway. But we have the space and facilities for the caterers, might be a new venture if it works out,” Serena trailed off.
“Always the opportunist!”
“Hardly, a well-trained eye to ensure financial stability and regular income to keep us in the manner we have all become accustomed to! Think of it as my pension pot… Oh, and one condition the house is out of bounds to all but family and partners, everyone can use the loo in the unit.”
“Gotcha. Loud and clear.”
“And you will need a designated car parking area, I’m not having people parking willy-nilly, Raphael.”
“And if their names not on the list, they are not allowed in. Vaccine certificates. Full and up to date contact details. I know, I know!”
“Mum, I know Tan isn’t officially a member of HAFPA, but would he be able to come as my guest?” asked Eli with a level of trepidation in her voice.
“I was assuming he would be, now he’s officially moved back to Holby,” Serena stated flatly, wondering how to pose the question she had been dying to ask for the last month or so, but understanding more than most of making the jump from friends to something more intimate. “Are his parents coming?”
“I think so.”
“Well, you can introduce them to us, then.”
“I thought that you would have met them or at least know who they are, especially if they run a nursery and market garden?”
“Can’t say our paths have ever crossed, even at farmers markets. I must say, I am looking forward to the whole thing.”
“Raf!” Serena shouted as another delivery van pulled to a stop into the courtyard, sighing in relief that she had had the forethought to move their cars to the outbuildings. “That’s the unit all sterilised for the caterers this afternoon. Anything else you need me to do?”
“No, running like a well-oiled machine,” smiled Raf in response.
“Good, then you won’t mind if I head over to Bernie’s for the rest of the day, will you?”
“I think that that going seven days without seeing her is a record for you, isn’t it?” cheekily grinned Raf.
“A record that I never want to repeat ever again!” groused Serena. “I’ve bloody missed her. Not sure how I went years without anyone. Anyway, I am looking forward to having a week away by the coast after this. All the fresh air, perfect fish and chips, walks along the beach during the day, and….”
“…Early nights!” finished Raf with a wink.
“Quite possibly,” replied Serena, her eyebrow arching at the innuendo.
“I didn’t think that there would be so many people here,” whispered Bernie.
“It is impressive, isn’t it? I know Raf was so keen to make a safe space. He had to have a word with a couple of the committee members about their language being somewhat dated and told them to refer to people by their names and not how they looked or who they loved. I do believe there was some strong words and Raf threatened to resign if they didn’t sort their attitudes out!”
“Doesn’t sound like Raf, he is usually very calm and measured. Especially when trying to bring people around to his way of thinking. A bit like his old boss…” smirked Bernie.
“Oh, shush you,” whispered Serena as she nudged shoulders at the compliment.
Serena breathed out at the relief of having spotted Bernie leaning against the potting shed, recognising Kate’s locs at they chatted. Knowing this was idea Bernie’s idea of hell, she appeared to have found a kindred wallflower in Kate. This, this, she mused, this is what it means. That intuitive ability to know where the person who means the most to you is, the sensing, the familiarity, the security, and the trust. Realising that over the time they had been together, they had rarely said a cross word to each other, probably more cross words were aimed in Cilla’s direction at her inappropriate jumping on the bed with a half dead mouse a couple of months ago than at her partner.
Serena cast her gaze over towards the group Eli and Tan were with, gasping as her hand automatically covered her mouth, her mind going blank and feeling overwhelmed in the space of a second. It couldn’t be, surely not. Oh, Christ! It bloody well is, Serena instinctively reached for her pendant, the sensation of panic coursing through her veins as pins and needles followed in their wake, her breathing ragged.
“You ok, love?” asked Bernie. Serena shook her head. “Inside?” said Bernie, as she felt for her partner’s hand and led them inside to the safety and quietness of the breakfast room. Her arms wrapping around Serena, absorbing the throbbing of her racing heartbeat against her, feeling it slow, she took a small breath before continuing. “Want to tell me what happened or...?” whispered Bernie, their roles swapped for the first time in a while, feeling Serena’s head shake against her shoulders.
“Mum! Have you got a minute? I’d like to intro…” called out Eli before noticing the tension in the air from her position in the doorway.
“Eli, would you give us a few minutes?” Bernie implored, Eli nodding as she backed out of the room.
“Thank you,” mumbled Serena into the crook of Bernie’s neck. “Sorry.”
“Whatever for!” exclaimed Bernie who had stepped back out of their hold to get a better look at Serena whose mascara was threatening to run.
“My mini meltdown,” sniffed Serena.
“Care to tell me what happened?” Bernie prompted again.
“The woman… the women Eli was talking to… Oh god, it’s years ago, but… and well… never mind...”
“Right… so I’m assuming that you know this woman?”
“I think it’s her. Bloody good doppelganger if she’s not!” Serena replied as she gave a wet laugh.
“And her being...?” quizzed Bernie who had started to grin at how discombobulated her partner had become.
“I think it’s our old gardener when we used to live in London,” breathed Serena.
“Aah,” paused Bernie, “…the cause of your sapphic awakening.”
“So… if it is her, what drew you to her all those years ago?” asked Bernie, curiosity piqued, with a hint of jealousy, that she intended to deny if she was ever asked.
“She was polite, considerate. She would always check with me before starting the lawnmower as she didn’t want to wake Elinor. Throw in post-natal depression, hormones, adulterous ex-husband, yearning for my career, resentment at not being further up the career ladder than male colleagues into the mix…” huffed Serena.
“No, that’s what you were going through,” Bernie flatly stated.
“Oh!” as Bernie’s implication registered. “She looked great in jeans, but you look better,” Serena hastily added.
“Okay,” Bernie drawled, holding her partner close. “Ready to return to the fray, or would you prefer to stay here a bit longer? But I should warn you that we will be talking this through, Campbell.”
“Wouldn’t have expected anything less, Major,” smiled Serena, humming as she softly kissed Bernie, the sensations of panic ebbing away.
“Mum, I saw you with Bernie earlier, are you alright?” asked Eli.
“I am now.”
Bracing herself, “Can you remember when I told you when I realised, I had a rather large crush on our old gardener? Well, I think that she is here or someone who looks incredibly like her is. Hence the slight wobble when I saw you and Tan talking to her a few minutes ago.”
“Oh my god, Mum. They were Tan’s Mums, which one?” Eli asked enthusiastically, nudging her Mum’s shoulder with hers.
“The taller one, I think...”
“Go and get Bernie, and I’ll introduce you!”
“Elinor, stop right there!” sighed Serena, her hand reaching for her pendant. The pendant of panic as Bernie had nicknamed it, such was it intrinsically linked to Serena’s emotional state.
“What are Tan’s Mums called?”
“Nikki and Helen...” replied Elinor, seeing her Mums facial expression change. “It’s her, right?”
“Yes. Nikki Wade. Wade’s Gardening and Landscaping as I knew her then. What about you and Tan? Are you introducing Bernie and I as potential parents-in-law or something less complicated,” Serena said, gaining her equilibrium, and taking great pleasure in watching her daughter blush, pout, and flounce in the space of a few seconds. “So, which one is it?”
“It’s only been a couple of months, but...”
“Eli, it is fine. I like Tan. Bernie and I did suspect something changed a few weeks ago. Do his Mums know?”
“Err... we were going to introduce you to each other today and mention something later. God, this is cringeworthy! It’s like whatever unicorn fairy dust you and Bernie leave in your wake makes everyone get together,” said Eli, snorting at the ridiculousness of the situation.
“It is quite amusing, I suppose. How do you want to play this? Do Tan’s parents have any inclination that we may know each other?”
“I don’t know. She knows your first name, but that’s it.”
“Good to know, I can take the lead. Now, let me find Bernie and get this over with.”
“Mum, Bernie, have you got a minute. Can I introduce you to Tan’s Mums? Mum, this is Nikki and Helen Stewart-Wade,” said Eli, standing to one side to allow a shaking of hands and the exchange of pleasantries.
“Nikki, forgive me, but did you ever have gardening business in London in the early 90s?” asked Serena.
“I did. Why?”
“I think you may have been our gardener when we lived in Islington. Your name sounded so familiar when Eli was chatting to me earlier.”
“Bloody hell, you lived on Calabria Road, didn’t you?” Nikki uttered in disbelief. “You worked in the city?” As the memories came flooding back of a heavily pregnant woman who certainly was not pregnant now and nearly 30 years older. “Your husband was a bit of a knob, as I recall," she blurted out in surprise. Helen's look admonishing her outburst.
“Nikki, you can’t say that!” scolded Helen.
“It’s OK, he was, and probably still is, but he is very much an ex-husband,” Serena laughed, feeling Bernie’s hand tighten around hers. “And don’t look at me like that, Elinor.”
“When did you move back to Holby?” Asked Nikki.
“The summer of 2008. It felt as good as time as any to get out and start enjoying my life. How about you?”
“We came back permanently in 2001. We had just adopted Aston, and both wanted him to grow up without the stress of living in London. Helen still has to be in London a couple of
days a week, but it’s not as important as it once was to be in and around Whitehall... What about you?”
“Ah.... I set up Homildon Preserves after I finished renovating this place, and Bernie runs Lyham Mill organic eggs. We did the usual thing of growing up around here, leaving for the best
part of 40 years before coming back.”
“Small world isn’t it,” said Helen, her brogue more pronounced than usual.
“That’s not a local accent?” Bernie queried.
“No, Stirling. Still quite proud I’ve managed to keep it. Can come in quite useful when talking with people who really do not have a clue!”
“Ha! I can imagine! My old CO was from Glasgow. He kept his accent well-hidden until he decided to tear you a new one!”
“CO...?” asked Nikki.
“Commanding Officer. I was a medic in the Army for 25 years,” explained Bernie.
“What this one is not mentioning is that she was Major in the Royal Army Medical Corp, not to mention a trauma consultant when not on tour,” beamed Serena as Bernie attempted to hide her blushes behind her fringe.
“Impressive stuff, Major. What made you leave?” Helen asked.
“... Got blown up,” shrugged Bernie, Helen recoiling at her insensitivity. “But I’m here now. Didn’t expect my team to use the techniques I had developed in theatre on me. At least I know they work!”
Bernie caught the look from Serena and knew instinctively that there would a conversation about that revelation. She had always been honest about her injuries, the treatment, the subsequent and never-ending recovery with Serena. They both had, once they had gotten over their initial awkwardness and had grown into being together. Their blended family, it worked. It takes a village more pertinent now than it had ever been in her once compartmentalised and solitary existence. Christ, it’s a bloody gay village, she thought.
“...I’m so sorry,” said Helen, holding her hands up to apologise.
“Its fine. Honestly. Shall we change the subject to something more pedestrian?” said Bernie, smiling at the incredibly relieved look Helen gave her.
“What about you, Helen?” asked Serena.
“Nice segue! I work for the Ministry of Justice – implementation director for HMPs special projects, which is Whitehall speak for overseeing any research and pilot projects. I am looking forward to taking early retirement next year and dealing with actual manure not the Whitehall kind. Not sure how this one will cope as we have probably spent more time apart than together in the last 25 years,” laughed Helen, as she elbowed Nikki. “But you probably will understand that more than most, especially if Bernie was in the Army.”
“Oh, we’ve only been together for a couple of years,” blurted out Serena.
“... Oh god! I am going to stop talking as that the second time in as many minutes I’ve put my foot in it,” groaned Helen.
“Honestly, it is fine. It’s rather nice that you think that,” replied Serena, feeling Bernie’s fingers slip from her hand; the warm sensation of her hand coming to rest on her hip finally registering.
“Let’s go and find our son before you make it a hat trick, hmm?” suggested Nikki, laughing at the sheepish smile on her wife’s face.
“What do you think of them?” asked Eli, sneaking up behind her Mum before anyone else could jump in.
“They seem genuine enough. I did get the impression that they were quite nervous...”
“According to Tan they rarely go out together as a couple. I think that this is a bit of a big deal for them,” replied Eli.
“Oh love, have you mentioned it to Raf? That is exactly why he wanted to do something like this. He would be delighted to hear that. Why don’t you ask Tan if they would be interested in coming over for a Sunday lunch, have them test their wings with the us?”
“Oh no, no, no mother. I at least want Charlie and Iffe there. I am not being the only offspring present!”
“...Raf and Mathieu. Caroline, Kate, and Flora?” replied Serena with a flourish. “I’ll speak with Bernie; I can’t see there being a problem.”
“... What’s not being a problem,” asked Bernie.
“Inviting Tan’s parents over for a Sunday lunch with everyone. And, maybe Kate, Caroline, and Flora. They are in a similar situation, especially with what Kate has said about her mother-in-law,” grinned Serena. “We can have it here, if that helps, love?”
“Ok. When were you thinking of?”
“A weekend when Iffe isn’t on-call, and we can take it from there?” replied Serena.
“Right, right.” Bernie knowing full well that there would be no stopping her partner once the idea had formed. “Well, tell me when you need me to do anything. Although, I am drawing the line at folding any napkins, Campbell,” deadpanned Bernie.
Eli watching at the exchange between her Mum and Bernie, saw the glint in Bernie’s eyes and the deepening red of her Mum’s face. “Oh god! Stop it, please! You can’t help yourself, can you?”
“Sorry,” muttered Bernie.
“Eli, one other thing. Do not feel that you and Tan have to make it official if you aren’t ready. I know the others will suspect...”
“Mum, it’s OK, we have gone out a couple of times with Charlie and Iffe, so it’s fine. But thank you,” replied Eli.
“Ah. Noted. I promise not to interfere.”
“Good, or I’ll ask Bernie to do an intervention!” laughed Eli. Bernie stifling her laugh at the bemused look on her partner’s face.
“It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” commented Bernie, once Eli was out of earshot.
“Just a bit,” replied Serena, pulling Bernie closer. “Did you feel like this when Charlotte told you she was seeing someone?”
Bernie sighed before replying, “She came out at the same time. The whole thing rather threw me. I felt so guilty that I had missed any cues, such was I wrapped up in my own world. But I am much better now, and that is largely down to being more comfortable in my own skin. I won’t mention the confidence of being with you gives me, though.”
“No, please don’t, I may remind you at inopportune moments and make you blush. Afterall, we are equals!” smiled Serena.
Hearing her phone pinging, Serena found it under her diary, surprised that it was Charlotte asking if it would it be OK if Iffe spent the afternoon with her Mum as she has decided to visit rather than coming over for Sunday lunch. Deciding that a two-minute phone call would be quicker and easier than message ping-pong Serena pressed call. “Hi Charlotte, I hope you don’t mind me calling? I was thinking that it if you and Iffe are ok with it or it’s not going to interfere with any plans, invite Lola over for Sunday lunch. One more person isn’t going to make much difference.”
“Would that be, ok? I mean I can suggest it to Iffe and take it from there. And yes, I have spoken to Mum, who told me to text you. If I’m being honest, I think she will love it,” replied Charlotte. “I have met her a few times now, she’s met Mum and you, and she enjoys the noise and laughter when it comes to a Sunday lunch. And this way, Iffe won’t be dragged to church. So, you are probably doing her a huge favour,” laughed Charlotte.
“Well, go and work your magic, let me know and find out if there is anything she doesn’t like. Just one thing, she does know that most of us aren’t straight? I wouldn’t want anyone to feel uneasy.”
“It is fine, Serena. Iffe’s said that she has been awesome, even to the point that she challenged the pastor at her church over one of his sermon’s and told him that if he didn’t change his attitude, then she and her family would find another church. Given that the whole family go every Sunday, there would have been a huge gap in the church’s finances. And you have met Lola, you don’t argue with her!”
“True. Oh, to see grown men whither. She would have been a wonderful addition to any executive team, but the corporate world’s loss is social services gain. Keep me updated, Ms Dunne,” replied Serena, her tone clipped and imperious.
“Yes, Ma’am. And thank you.”
“Ma’am is your Mum. Serena is fine. Now go and deliver those eggs. Don’t break any!”
“Charlie told me what you said, thank you,” said a very grateful Bernie as they were lying in bed.
“Darling, it’s fine. I rather like Lola,” Serena replied. “What are you chuckling about?”
“Thinking about if Lola ever met Marcus!” harrumphed Bernie. “He wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“That is evil, Major, and utter genius. Can I set her on Edward, as an honorary member of the embittered ex-wives club? She would eviscerate them both, and they wouldn’t know a thing until she went in for the kill.” wheezed Serena, tears of laughter streaming down her face.
“C’mere, Campbell,” said Bernie, dragging Serena away from the Aga to stand in front of the full height window overlooking the garden. “Happy anniversary. I know you thought I would have forgotten, but I would never forgive myself if I did. Stay there.” Serena watched intently as Bernie reached down behind a cushion pulling out a badly wrapped present. “Open it, please.”
Serena tried carefully to slip her fingers under the tape in an attempt not to rip the paper, as recognition dawned of what it was. “I thought I had lost it when we moved back up here. Raf and I searched everywhere for it.”
“Eli? How?” Serena was completely flummoxed as to how it had ended up in Eli’s possession.
“She found it in one the boxes when she moved back. I asked her what it was, and she said it was the bracelet that your father gave you for your 21st, that you had let her borrow it for her graduation and she forgot to return it. I thought I would get it cleaned for you, but then…”
“…. Then what?” replied Serena, far more sharply than intended.
“I…I…I’ve got this all wrong.”
“No, no you haven’t. I’m just a bit shocked to see it,” trailed off Serena.
“Are you sure…?” quietly asked Bernie, Serena nodding. “I thought I could get it cleaned, then realised that it was our anniversary and thought it would be a lovely surprise.”
“It is, I was taken aback by seeing it again. I had such a visceral reaction all those years ago, that the memories came flooding back. I am sorry I snapped. I was just shocked, that is all. And given that you have got me something, close your eyes,” requested Serena, taking the few steps to the larder, and returning with her gift wrapped in silver and green ribbons.
“Happy anniversary, my darling Major.”
“Oh,” gasped Bernie, pulling what appeared to be a metal sheet from the protective paper to see a group photograph of their blended family. “This is stunning,” Bernie said, running her fingers over the image in front of her. Her mind returning to one of their many midnight conversations she has had with Serena under the cover of darkness, this one in particular about families and her uneasiness with posing for photographs with Marcus and his family.
The mother/daughter-in-law dynamics had never been smooth sailing. Bernie was certainly not good enough for Simon and Jocelyn’s precious son. No amount of professional recognition, medals, and injuries would improve her standing with them. The coldness she felt during the early years of their marriage stayed with her until after the divorce. The warmth she had had with her family before her mother left has slowly been creeping back since being with Serena. The recognition that she wasn’t the only one at fault, the rebuilding of her relationship with her daughter, being more comfortable in her skin, and generally being at peace with her mind. The odd wobble aside.
“You aren’t saying anything,” said Serena, breaking the silence.
“Sorry, I’m just taking everything in.”
“Taking everything in – good or bad?”
“Definitely good,” breathed Bernie, pulling Serena close to sway in time to whatever was playing in the background. The ding-dong of the doorbell bringing them back to the present.
“Action stations,” grinned Serena.
“It’s good to see you,” smiled Serena hugging Caroline and Kate in turn, before turning her attention to Flora. “Now, how about you head out to the garden with Bernie, she might have something for you.” Serena having the sense to check with Kate what nine-year olds are into these days. Kate having persuaded Serena to come into Florita’s kitchen and make small batches of her lemon cheese once she had found out that Homildon Preserves was being mothballed. They had struck up such a friendship during her weekly visit, it was a natural progression for both couples to catch up, much to Caroline’s mother’s annoyance at not being at her beck and call.
“You spoil her, you know that?” joked Caroline.
“Shush, just be grateful it’s not anything loud or full of sugar!” laughed Serena. “Kettle’s on for whoever is driving, and there’s plenty to choose from for those who aren’t, so head through.”
“Anything I can do?” asked Kate. “I’ve brought dessert as requested. Is there space in your fridge?”
“Of course, there’s not, the larder should be ok,” sighed Serena.
“You are loving this, aren’t you?” Kate said in her quiet tone.
“Sadly yes, the house is made for this. It has never felt this alive in forty years. I would have turned into Miss Haversham if it weren’t for Bernie,” replied Serena, laughing at the mental image of herself covered in cobwebs in a rocking chair.
“Who else have you invited?” Kate asked.
“Raf and his partner Mathieu, our collective offspring, their partners, and parents. We can do the introductions later.”
“Ooh, potential in-laws!” laughed Kate conspiratorially.
“Who knows, but it’s good to test the water, right? If you feel that I am turning into your mother-in-law, please stop me!” joked Serena.
“Mum!” screamed an excited Flora. “Look what Auntie Bernie gave me?”
“Auntie Bernie, eh?”
“Uh huh,” said a surprisingly shy Flora, thrusting a fidget toy in the general direction of her Mum.
“Have you said thank you?” asked Kate, Flora nodding enthusiastically, before running in the general direction of the garden. “Auntie Bernie, that’s a new one.”
“It is, isn’t it? I should check in on her. Can you keep an eye on the soup, I will only be a few minutes?” replied Serena, her eyebrow rising in recognition.
“Are you ok, Auntie Bernie?”
“I am now, Auntie Serena,” laughed Bernie. “Funny how two words can stop you in your tracks. Changing the subject, I’ve never seen Eli this nervous.”
“Yes,” drawled Serena. “I am letting her lead on this. She is normally so blasé, but this is most definitely out her comfort zone. This is first time I’ve seen myself in her. It is reassuring that she’s not full of Edward’s self-importance for once.”
“She does have some of your more positive traits…”
“Charm, quick-witted, a strong work ethic, makes a mean cocktail.... has mastered art of a great put-down…!” smiled Bernie.
“Charmer,” as Serena kissed Bernie. “Let me sort lunch out, and you can keep the drinks flowing.”
“Eli, can you get the door? It’s Iffe and her Mum!” shouted Serena from the kitchen, she was trying to distract Eli as much as possible. She could hear pleasantries being exchanged as Tan’s voice filtered through. Here we go, she thought to herself, grabbing a tea towel, and wiping her hands as she made her way to the front door. “Tan, good to see you. Nikki, Helen, welcome. Eli, can you take their coats and show them through to the sitting room. If you will excuse me for a couple of minutes.”
“Anything we can help with?” asked Nikki.
“No, all under control. Honestly, go and relax. I’ll be through in a couple of minutes,” Serena smiled as see saw their tension drain away.
Making her way through to the sitting room Serena paused to lean against the door frame absorbing the scene in front of her. Bernie and Iffe taking the lead in introducing everyone, Cilla the cat having found a new friend in Flora. Smiling as Helen called Tan by his full name, making him blush. Lola proudly stating that Aston is easier to say than Olawatomilola and Ifeyema, Kate joining in with her middle name of Ibeike and Flora’s Ooreofe! Exchanging looks with Bernie she sensed what was coming next. “What about Griselda…” announced Bernie, bracing herself for the guffaws and snorts that followed.
“You definitely win!” laughed Caroline, “Please tell me it’s not hereditary,” glancing at Charlotte as she spoke.
“Definitely not,” responded Charlotte. “Tan, you’re very quiet, care to share?” she probed.
“Nothing to share, Aston Stewart-Wade is enough for me. I got off rather lightly, compared to some of you. Thanks Mums,” as he raised his glass in their direction, both nodding in response.
Small talk, pleasantries and laughter followed. The hum ebbed and flowed between their guests as Bernie and Serena carried lunch through to the dining room. “I may have done too much,” signed Serena looking glancing at mountain of food on the table.
“Just as well I love your roast dinners, plenty for the rest of the week. I hated doing this when I was married to Marcus, but you make it palatable bordering on enjoyable. I can never work out whether it is because it’s you or something else.”
“That’s an easy one for me to answer, I want to do things with you, and to you, but that’s for much later” purred Serena. “I have a life now, rather than existing. Well, that’s what it felt like. Contentment overrules happiness in my book, that and fancying the pants off you for the best part of five years, Major!” replied Serena, her hands resting in the back pockets of Bernie’s trousers.
“Shall I tell everyone to make their way through?” ask Bernie.
The quiet swoosh of the dishwasher played in the background as Eli busied herself with filling cafetieres and plating the cheeseboards. The Eli of old would have never left the dining table and have held court as if her life depended upon it, and yet there she was in her Mum’s kitchen playing happy families with her boyfriend’s parents, her Mum’s girlfriend, and everyone else.
“Can I help?” asked Nikki, who had spotted Elinor alone on her way back from the bathroom.
“Err, yes. Would you take these through, and I can bring the rest.”
“I don’t think I’ve room for anything else,” replied Nikki.
“I know how you feel,” smile Eli, “I forgot how much Mum loves doing this.”
“Does she do it often?” queried Nikki.
“Usually New Year and Easter, but it is more since her and Bernie have been together. So much has changed in the last two years, even without the shadow of Covid. It’s good changes, though.”
“And what about you?” asked Nikki.
“Same,” replied Eli, hoping that Tan hadn’t mentioned her previously overly dramatic and bratty history to his Mum.
“Don’t worry, Aston hasn’t mentioned anything too embarrassing if that’s what you are worried about,” implied Nikki. “We all have been there.”
“I know, but you are still his Mum, and I am his girlfriend. I am allowed to be nervous,” laughed Eli.
“True. I’ve never lost that feeling around Helen’s Dad, after all these years.”
“Uh huh, even in his 90s! He was a cattleman all his life, spent more time with his Aberdeen Angus heifer’s than his family. Come to think of it, they were more his family than his wife and daughter. Donald Stewart is a man of few words, but when we told him we had got permission to adopt Aston, he said that ‘Now, Nancy and me have been talkin’, we’d like you to bring Aston up to see his Gran and Granddad’. I do get that this is a big deal, but you are fine. And you are more than welcome to come over to ours, now it is official,” winked Nikki.
“Thank you,” sighed Eli, sensing that Nikki had never told Aston this.
“Mum, you didn’t, did you?” wheezed Iffe, laughing at her Mum recounting her latest tales from work. “Ok, you did,” when she saw the look on her Mum’s face.
“He needed to learn the hard way. You never sit down in someone’s home, no matter what state. It was my immense pleasure to make him walk home. There was no way he was getting in my car when I could see fleas landing on the kitchen counter!” recounted Lola. Helen nodding in agreement.
“I remember my early days as a Prison Officer in reception, especially those that had come straight from the magistrates court, virtually everything had to be incinerated, it was practically crawling. And the state of the showers afterwards,” added Helen, shuddering at the memory.
“I’m so glad I work with animals,” replied Iffe. “You must have some tales to tell, Bernie.”
“I do, but that requires single malt. It was more the young officers being schooled by seasoned squaddies,” Bernie said.
As afternoon flowed into evening, Caroline, Kate and Flora were the first to make the move home, a docile child worn out by the attention and excitement being carried to the car, her Mums exhausted by the laughter and food; in Kate’s case a couple of glasses of wine and large slice of espresso martini cheesecake which was going to feature in the café as part of their Christmas menu having been a resounding success today. “Thank you for everything. We have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Flora loved being the centre of attention and not to mention having her hair braided. You do know that Celia would never do that,” whispered Kate.
“We know, which is why we thought it would be nice for her to meet Iffe and Lola,” replied Serena.
“You do realise that she will be asking when Iffe can do her hair again,” continued Kate, Serena smiling at the observation. “It’s nice to spend time in adult company that isn’t my mother-in-law randomly dropping by. Caroline thinks the same. Although Celia would be sputtering over her tea if she knew just how many women of a certain persuasion were in the same room and corrupting her grand-daughter’s young, impressionable mind, but when they show such kindness, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“No, I don’t suppose it does. I often think what Adrienne would make of Bernie, but then it doesn’t matter,” mirroring Kate’s words. “Go, enjoy your few days away, you both deserve it.”
“We should probably make a move as well,” interjected Helen. “I have a head of department meeting tomorrow in London, so an early start. It has been lovely, I cannot remember a time we have laughed like drains for hours on end, my cheeks are aching.”
“It would be nice if we can return the favour, sometime,” added Nikki.
“It would,” replied Bernie. “I’ll leave the dates for Serena to sort out,” catching the glare from her partner, “but you’re really good at it,” she added with a smirk.
“Have we all got each other’s numbers?” asked Caroline. Her mind already thinking of her mother’s face when she’d be asked to babysit Flora, and the accusatory tone that would follow when Celia would be informed they are having friends over for dinner, that they are all women and partners, even wives. Cruel, yes. Funny even more so, given the warped dynamics of their relationship. Maybe Gillian would be a better option, but that would mean not inviting her, and that would never happen – they had too much of a bond! She knew well enough that Kate, wonderful, loyal Kate would get the brunt of her mother’s ill-placed indignation and righteousness, and that Alan would be playing peacemaker.
Bernie could hear the silence settling into what she now thinks of as their bedroom after the constant hum of the afternoon and early evening. Utterly absorbed by the rise and fall of her partner’s chest, the rhythm slowing as her sleep deepened. “I love you,” she whispered into the warmth of Serena’s shoulder. Smiling at how much she is better she is with gestures rather than words. Her mind wandering to the thoughts and practicalities of sharing their lives if they ever married. Once you take their respective businesses and family farms out of the equation, you’ve got pensions, savings, and investments.