“The boiler’s broken,” Jason announced as Serena walked wearily into their house. She dumped her laptop on the kitchen table and stared at him in dismay. “I’ve called a plumber but the earliest they could come out is tomorrow.”
“Oh – great,” Serena muttered. “Just what I needed.”
“You’re late,” Jason added, “And why have you brought your laptop home?”
“Ah. The two things are connected.” Serena rubbed her head wearily and then retrieved the emergency cottage pie from the freezer. “I’ve been lumbered with writing the annual report and I couldn’t get it finished today. So there goes my day off tomorrow.” She put the cottage pie in the microwave to defrost and opened a bottle of Shiraz. “I think this is needed.”
Serena was hard at work the next morning when the doorbell rang. Jason answered it and she heard muffled tones before she pushed her office door firmly closed. The fewer distractions the better, if this report was going to get written.
A few minutes later the door opened. “The plumber is called Bernie,” Jason said. “I’m going into work early so I can shower. It’s highly inconvenient, I’ve had to re-do my whole schedule for the day. Bye.” He closed the door again and the front door banged before she even had a chance to formulate a response.
For half an hour, with a large mug of coffee fortifying her, Serena managed to get something done. She heard the front door open and close a few times but otherwise there was quiet in the house. And then – the noise started. A thud startled her out of her train of thought. Drilling made her lose track of her numbers. The day, which hadn’t started out particularly warm, was heating up. Sunlight streamed through her window and there was barely a breeze when she opened the window to try and cool down.
The drilling began again, and more incessantly. Serena struggled on. It seemed like the drilling would never stop. She buried her head in her hands and tried to concentrate, but eventually she reached her limit.
“How can I get anything done in this bloody racket?!” she shouted just as the noise stopped, and her words echoed in the suddenly quiet house.
She sat back, feeling foolish and embarrassed. There was a knock at the door and then it opened. A mop of blonde messy hair peeked around. “Um.”
Serena stared. “Who are you?”
“Bernie.” Serena could just make out a pair of eyes peering shyly at her from under a blonde fringe. “I’m your plumber. Um. I’m sorry about the noise. Shall I leave it for now and come back tomorrow?”
Serena sighed. “Serena. Come in properly, why don’t you?”
Bernie edged around the door and Serena stared at her, this unexpectedly female plumber who was all long legs and toned arms and blonde curls. She was every so pretty. With a start she remembered that they were mid-conversation. “If you go now, will we have any hot water?”
Bernie shook her head. “No.” She leant back against the bookcase and folded her arms. “Fraid not. I can get the water back on for you, but it’ll only be cold.”
Serena tapped her fingers against her desk. Tempting though it was to agree that Bernie could come back tomorrow, there was no way that Jason would stand for another day without hot water and his shower. She sighed again. “Best push on then. Jason – my nephew – doesn’t like his routines being disrupted. He was very put out at having to shower at work today.”
“Okay,” Bernie said softly. “But – before I get back to it. I could do with a break and you look like you need one too. How about a cup of coffee?”
Serena sat up. “Aren’t I supposed to be the one offering you coffee? And I thought the water was off?”
“Jason filled up the kettle before he left,” Bernie said with a smile, “Smart lad, that.”
“Smarter than me, that’s for sure,” Serena muttered. She looked up into Bernie’s smiling eyes. “You know, I could do with a break. Let’s have that coffee. And we can go outside, it’ll be cooler out there in the shade.”
Serena’s normally neat kitchen was in disarray. A large cloth covered most of her surfaces and there were tools and piping scattered everywhere. “Sorry about this,” Bernie said casually, as she stepped over something, “It’s not the neatest of professions. Right,” she clicked on the kettle, “How do you take your coffee?”
“Wait, I should be making it,” Serena protested.
“Out of the two of us, you look like you’ve had a harder morning. What is it that’s causing your problems?”
Serena sank onto a free chair. “White, no sugar. Thank you. It’s the annual report for my hospital. I’m deputy CEO and somehow got landed with it.”
“And you’re not enjoying it much?”
“I’d much rather be on the ward getting stuck in with the patients,” Serena admitted. “It’s all very important and necessary, but the patients come first for me.” She watched Bernie pull out the mugs and measure the coffee. “How did you get into plumbing?”
Bernie shrugged. “I tried it once and I liked it and was good at it, so why not?”
“What made you try it?” Serena asked curiously. She couldn’t envisage ever being interested in trying it.
Bernie grinned a little. “A pretty girl,” she said with a wink. “And now I own my business, so I work the hours I want and take the jobs I want. It’s worked out very nicely for me.” Bernie poured the kettle, added milk and handed a mug to Serena. “There you go.”
“Outside?” Serena suggested and Bernie nodded and followed her.
“Oh, this is lovely,” Bernie said as she gazed around Serena’s garden. The comfy wooden chairs were in the shade of a tree, and around the small lawn the flowerbeds were a riot of colour.
“Yes, very much not my own work,” Serena admitted. “I have a gardener, and Jason enjoys doing some too. Weeding, mostly. He’s very efficient.”
“Lack of time or inclination?”
“A bit of both.” Serena sipped her coffee and felt herself relax. The fresh air, the lack of noise and report, and the way that Bernie was sitting quietly beside her, were making her feel much better. “I’d love to be a good gardener but I just don’t have the time to put in.” She stared into her cup. “Being deputy CEO and now having Jason to look after. He only came to live with me recently,” she said, to Bernie’s questioning glance. “And while I’m very happy about it, it’s definitely changed things for me.”
Bernie shifted a little on her seat, tapped her fingers on her mug. “If you don’t mind a bit of advice from a plumber, it sounds to me like you ought to prioritise what’s important to you.”
Serena stared at her. “Oh. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Thank you.”
Bernie ducked her face but Serena caught her smile. “I’m happy I could help.”
They talked for a little longer, about plumbing and hospitals and the foibles of people before Bernie stood up and stretched. “Better get back to it, or Jason will be without a shower tonight too. I’ll – try and keep it down,” she said, looking down at Serena.
Serena’s head was much clearer now, felt much clearer than it had been for weeks. “Oh, no need to worry. I’m not going to do the report.”
Serena smiled lazily. “I’m going to email the board and tell them I’m resigning.”
Bernie threw her head back and laughed. “You’re my sort of girl.”
Serena started to stand and Bernie offered her hand. Their hands slid together and Serena felt a shock of electricity run through her as Bernie pulled her gently up. “Oh,” she murmured, as they stood, hands clasped, staring at each other. She was suddenly breathless, and for the life of her she couldn’t let go of Bernie.
“Serena,” Bernie murmured. Her thumb briefly stroked over Serena’s. “I – I’d better get back to it.” She let go of Serena’s hand gently, picked up her mug, and hastened to the kitchen.
Serena stared after her, then, with a heart lighter than it had been for a while she made her way to her laptop to compose her resignation letter.
The noises from the kitchen began again before she finished but now it barely bothered her. She clicked send, and sat back with infinite satisfaction. She’d resigned, the report was no longer her responsibility, and there was a highly attractive woman in her kitchen…
“I find myself with some free time,” she said as Bernie looked up at her. “Can I help?”
Bernie sat back on her heels and laughed. “Plumbers apprentice is a bit of a change of career for you, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” Serena said, “I fix pipes in humans all the time, how different can it be?”
Bernie grinned. “Well, if you want to stand there and hand me tools, then I’m not stopping you.”
In the end Serena mostly watched, fascinated, as Bernie carried on her work. Bernie asked her to hand a few things to her, told her the names of the tools and what she was doing. As she worked, Serena wondered that such a slight woman could be so strong, found herself licking her lips surreptitiously as she watched Bernie wield her tools.
It seemed like no time at all before Bernie was clearing up the mess and bundling her tools in her van.
Serena watched as she did one final sweep of the kitchen, checking that everything was in order. Serena desperately wanted to think of a reason for her to stay longer, but she couldn’t.
“My card,” Bernie said, proffering it. “In case you want me again.” She finished with a wink.
Serena took the card, deliberately letting her fingers brush against Bernie’s as she did so. And then Bernie walked down the path, hopped into her van and set the engine going. Serena allowed herself one last, lingering look as Bernie waved, then sighed as the van set off down the road.
She turned Bernie’s card over in her hand and her heart skipped.
“If you fancy another coffee – or something stronger – call me x” was scrawled under the telephone number.
Serena grinned. She saved Bernie’s number in her phone, and texted her. Free tonight?