Major Bernie Wolfe had operated in some of the most war torn parts of the planet, and although she had never got accustomed to working while surrounded by the noise of shells exploding and gunfire, she had always been able to keep her reflexes under control when in the hopital. A skill that seemed to have deserted her now that she was a civilian working for the NHS. She positively jumped up from her seat as the door to the office banged open to admit one Serena Campbell, her co-lead on AAU, sporting a face that looked like thunder. She was so caught up at the sight of the angry woman in front of her that she forgot to ask what was wrong. Until that is, the full force of Serena’s glare was turned in her direction as she slammed down the files she was carrying onto her desk and threw herself into the chair opposite.
“Problem?” Bernie managed to stutter, wondering if it’s something she has done, even as part of her brain is thinking how attractive she looks when in a rage.
Serena rolled her eyes at what she considered to be an inane question, but actually just the sound of Bernie’s voice helped her to bring the room back into focus.
Trying to calm herself she took a deep breath before replying.
“Ric bloody Griffin is the problem if you really want to know!”
Not exactly sure of how best to reply Bernie merely raised her eyebrows with what she hoped was an enquiring look, to persuade Serena to continue.
“As if I don’t have enough on my plate, he’s had to bugger off home because Darla is in some sort of trouble at school, again, and has saddled me with the job of finishing the quarterly figures and report to send to the board. And guess when it’s needed by? Tomorrow!”
Serena slapped her hand on top of the files she had been carrying.
“I mean look at this. Finishing is hardly the word. More like barely started.”
Bernie tipped her head to one side and changed her facial expression to one she hoped showed a degree of sympathy.
“Not to mention the mountain of paperwork I already have here, that I wanted to get done today. So that I could have at least one day before the weekend when I wasn’t stuck in this bloody office!”
Serena put her head in her hands and groaned loudly. Bernie decided that now was as good a time as any to risk a remark.
“Well…” she began tentatively, knowing full well that what she was about to say could generate at least a sarcastic comment if not a full blown tirade.
“I could give a hand with the AAU stuff. See what I could get out of the way..if it would help?”
Serena’s head shot up and for a second, and as their eyes met Bernie seriously considered ducking under cover of her desk, but almost instantly the expression on Serena’s face softened and when she spoke the bite had gone from her voice.
“Are you sure? I mean for once it’s not your mess, but it would give me a small breathing space.”
There was now even a small teasing smile pulling at the corners of Serena’s mouth and Bernie felt her own mouth respond in like.
“Of course I’m sure. You’ve done the same for me on many an occasion,” she risked a quick wink, “and we are equals after all.”
Smiling properly now, but still with a slightly wild look in her eyes, Serena gathered up everything she had just deposited on her desk and stood up.
“In that case I gratefully accept your offer and I’m going to head to Henrik’s office in the hope I can work in relative peace while he’s away. Please don’t hesitate to page me if there’s an emergency down here though.”
She had just reached the door when she turned back and took a couple of steps over to Bernie’s desk to place a hand lightly onto her forearm.
“Thank you,” she said warmly. “On days like these I really don’t know how I ever managed without you.”
Bernie was left gazing at the space in the room she had just occupied and there was a tingling sensation on her arm where Serena’s fingers had gently squeezed before she had left. She shook her head slightly to try and clear it as she reached for the first file.
‘I hope you never have to find out,’ she thought. ‘Because I’m not sure if I’d cope without you.’
The day was progressing quite well Bernie felt. No red phone had interrupted her personal mission to try and clear both her own and Serena’s paperwork. Morven had called her for a couple of consults on two new admissions, but until the tests and scans she had ordered were complete, the ward seemed more than capable of functioning without her presence. She screwed her eyes up to relieve some of the tension that had built up from peering at the discharge sheets and reports as she’d entered them on line, and glanced at her watch. She was surprised to see it was nearly 2pm. No wonder her attention was starting to slip, she needed some food inside her, and another coffee probably wouldn’t hurt either. If she got called into emergency surgery she would need some reserves to draw upon, a lesson she had learnt very early on in her army career. Taking her debit card with her she headed for Pulses, making a small stop at the nurses station to tell Nurse Fletcher where she was going. As she started down the stairs it struck her that it was highly unlikely that Serena had eaten anything either, especially as she remembered seeing her bag, and presumably her purse, still in the corner of their office. She decided to grab a drink and a sweet treat for her friend, as the idea of an already grumpy Serena Campbell deprived of food didn’t bear thinking about. And even if she had eaten Bernie couldn’t imagine that she would refuse her current favourite snack, a pain au chocolat.
Purchases complete Bernie unusually took the lift up to the 6th floor where all of the admin offices were. She reasoned that even a big macho army medic might struggle to run up that many flights of stairs with two coffees and a bag of food without risking spillage. A smile spread over her face as she thought about the occasion when Serena had called her that nearly three months ago, and how could she forget the arm wrestle that had followed. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t even notice that the lift doors had opened, her mind taken completely over with the memory of Serena’s triumphant smile as she had won, and the goosebumps that had run down Bernie’s spine when Serena had leant over to crow about it, her breath blowing gently on the back of Bernie’s neck.
The voice seemed to come out of nowhere and Bernie had to blink rapidly to bring her surroundings back into focus. Standing in front of her, one hand holding the lift doors open, was Hanssen’s PA , obviously waiting for Bernie to vacate the lift, as there was no higher floor she could be travelling to.
“Oh! Right, sorry I was miles away.”
As they exchanged places Bernie murmured, “Is…um?”
“Ms Campbell is in Mr Hanssen’s office, yes,” came the prompt reply, and Bernie strode off down the corridor as the young woman smiled and shook her head in disbelief. ‘These surgeons might be at the top of their game in the operating theatre,’ she thought as the doors closed, ‘but I doubt that many could find their way out of a paper bag.’
When she heard a knock on the door Serena gave a loud sigh and couldn’t keep the exasperation out of her voice as she shouted “Come in.” Which was hardly justified as she hadn’t had many interruptions at all, but knowing there was still a good three hours work ahead of her the last thing she wanted was someone telling her she was urgently needed elsewhere. So when the first thing that appeared around the door was a hand holding a cup of coffee, followed by a head surrounded by blonde curls she felt a wave of relief wash over her.
“Is it safe to come in?”
Serena laughed out loud at that.
“If you’ve got coffee and it’s strong and hot, then I’ll do my best not to bite your head off.”
“Not just coffee,” Bernie strolled in shaking the bag of food in Serena’s direction. “I was taking a late lunch when I realised you might not have eaten either. I’m afraid I’ve only bought you a pastry, but I’m willing to share my Mexican bean wrap if you’re desperate?”
Serena shook her head emphatically.
“Not that desperate, no. However if that’s a packet of crisps I spy sticking out of your pocket, I’ll happily steal a few of those.”
Bernie perched on the side of the rather large desk and tossed them in front of Serena.
“Have the whole thing, it was more of an afterthought if I’m honest. I’m quite content with this.”
Bernie opened her snack of choice and took a large bite making Serena tut.
“For pity’s sake Bernie, there are chairs right there..”
Bernie made a mumbling protest as she shifted herself onto a more acceptable seat.
“You don’t normally have a problem with my sitting on your desk. Happy now?”
She missed the pinking of Serena’s cheeks as she took another bite.
“Yes,” Serena retorted before relenting.
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t want crumbs or mayonnaise or stuff falling onto my papers.”
Bernie quickly licked at some dressing that was in the corner of her mouth and smiled her understanding. And for the next few minutes they chatted about things down on AAU and speculated on how long Henrik might be away. Ric might have accepted the role of acting CEO, but they both knew that it was always going to be Serena who picked up any slack. Her decision to resign as Hanssen’s deputy when Jason had come into her life, didn’t mean that she stopped caring about the running of the hospital. Bernie finally stood up brushing any crumbs onto the floor.
“Well, I suppose I’d better get back to our ward and leave you in peace.”
“Do you have to?”
Serena always enjoyed having Bernie close by she admitted to herself, she made her feel.…safe and cared for. The pout on her face made Bernie smile.
“Yes, I do. You’ve still got this to finish and I happen to know that Fletcher is very anxious to leave on time today and I promised him, barring emergencies, that it wouldn’t be a problem.”
She had turned towards the door and hadn’t noticed how Serena had frozen at her words.
“If you think you’ll be late finishing let me know. I can always pop Jason home if you need me to, I’ll even stop to pick up his fish and chips.”
When she finally looked at Serena for confirmation she was concerned to see such a stricken look on her face.
“Serena, what’s wrong? I know Jason doesn’t like it when his routine changes but I don’t think he’ll mind that much.”
Serena shook her head.
“No, no, it’s not Jason. He’s already going to Alan’s straight from work today because I …. I promised Fletch I’d look after his kids from 5pm. Raf’s on this facial reconstruction course for another week and I thought Fletcher was looking a bit tired the other day so I offered to give him a couple of hours respite.”
She screwed her eyes up in frustration as she reached for the phone.
“I’ll have to ask him if he can postpone it until the weekend which means I’ll have to juggle Jason’s schedule again. God I’m so stupid! I hope he’s not planned anything special.”
She started to dial AAU’s extension when Bernie darted forward and took the phone from her hands as she ended the call.
“You don’t have to. I’ll go instead of you as long as he’s okay with that. I know they don’t know me as well as you but I’m not a complete stranger to them. Even if my own children aren’t exactly singing my praises right now, I’m sure they would agree that I didn’t suck that much at feeding them and keeping them entertained.”
Serena looked at Bernie her face a mixture of uncertainty and hope.
“Are you sure? I mean Evie’s fine to look after herself and Ella shouldn’t be much of a problem, just a bit clingy at times. But Mikey and Theo combined can be quite a handful if I’m honest.” She faltered. “No, no it’s too much to ask. I’ll explain and.. and he might even have another babysitter he could ask if it’s not too short notice.”
Bernie moved backwards so that Serena couldn’t take the phone from her hands.
“You’re not asking..I’m offering. As long as Fletch is okay with it then it’s fine by me. It will be good to test if I have any of the skills I once had, when trying to reconnect with two children who often looked at me as if I was a complete stranger after a 6 month posting away from home.”
Her voice had taken on a wistful tone that made Serena’s heart ache. Bernie didn’t talk that much about her relationship with her children, but Serena had seen first hand how devastated she had been at Marcus’s attempt to drive a wedge between her and them over the divorce. She walked around the desk and put a hand on her shoulder.
“If you really mean it, then I would be extremely grateful…again. I promise to join you as soon as I can.”
Without really thinking she rested her head against Bernie’s and pressed a small kiss to her cheek, as she whispered “thank you.”
Hand still on her shoulder Serena moved her head away and got caught up in Bernie’s soft gaze. They seemed to be frozen in time, seconds that were as long as minutes. Then Bernie cleared her throat noisily as she managed to find the will to move, handing Serena the phone back.
“You’re very welcome,” she said softly and nodded as she headed out of the office.
Serena held onto the desk as she returned to her seat, her heart beating inexplicably fast, making her feel quite lightheaded.
‘What happened there…was that..a moment we just shared?’
She knew that she had glanced down at Bernie’s lips as they had stood there and she was certain that Bernie’s eyes had flickered down to hers.
‘Did I nearly kiss her?’ she thought incredulously.
Almost angrily she shook her head hard to dispel such distracting thoughts, and turned her attention once again to the pages of figures spread in front of her and groaned.
When Bernie returned to AAU she called Fletcher into the office and explained the situation and how, with his approval, she was happy to step into the breach. That way Serena didn’t have to feel guilty, and he could still have his few hours of freedom. Predictably he protested, saying that he would rearrange his plans for another time, and Bernie felt herself getting just a teeny bit annoyed.
“I know it’s all a bit short notice, but between you and Serena I’m beginning to think that neither of you feel that I’m capable of doing this. If you really don’t trust me then I know it’s unlikely I’ll change your mind, but at least tell me that straight.”
Fletcher sighed as he sat down on the spare chair.
“I’m sure you’re capable of barking out instructions to a whole platoon of squaddies marching around a parade ground or clambering over an assault course, but my four are….” His voice petered out as he struggled to find an adequate adjective. “Let’s just say they can test your patience. Evie’s not normally too much trouble but she was very much looking forward to spending some time with Serena, so she’ll probably go into full-blown sulky teenager mode. And don’t get me started on Mikey, I doubt the devil himself could handle him without getting his fingers burnt. Ella and Theo are still at the stage of using their cuteness to get what they want, but often have tantrums if they think that the other one is getting more attention.”
Bernie waited for a moment to see if he had anything further to add, but he seemed to have run out of steam.
“Which is exactly why you need some time for yourself.”
Bernie sat down in Serena’s chair opposite to him.
“I get why you’re hesitating, I really do. But just because I wasn’t around all the time my two were growing up doesn’t mean I didn’t ever see them sulking or screaming the place down or just being plain naughty, to see if they could break me. Whatever you’ve heard or imagined, I wasn’t absent for years on end when I was posted abroad, I do have relevant experience.”
“And did they?”
Bernie looked puzzled.
“Did they ever break you?”
“God yes. Cam in particular. But at least with him, once you’d meted out the punishment he would shrug his shoulders, accept and move on with no recriminations. Whereas Charlotte, she could sulk and hold a grudge for England.” She sighed softly. “Still can.”
He seemed to have run out of arguments but still didn’t look entirely convinced.
“Look Fletch, I know that at least one of them will be disappointed that I’m not Serena, but she’s still going to come as soon as she’s finished. I’m happy to take them to the local park to let them burn off some energy and push them on swings or roundabouts. We’ll order pizza for tea if you’ve no objections and I promise I’ll play any game they have at home to keep them entertained. I’m not promising there won’t be any tears, but if I’m genuinely worried I’ll ring you.”
Bernie decided that if he was still unhappy about it there was nothing more to be said. She’d tried her best but she wasn’t going to beg. She was suddenly struck by the thought that if it wasn’t for the fact that she wanted to help Serena, she probably wouldn’t have argued her case for quite so long.
Fletcher slapped his hands on his knees stood up and smiled.
“I’m sorry for doubting you, think I was just feeling guilty about wanting some time for myself. So..thank you.”
As he opened the door to go back to work he turned around looking a little embarrassed.
“I think perhaps I should warn you, Mikey has a habit of referring to you as, um.…‘the blonde job’. Not sure where he got that from, sorry.”
Bernie’s unmistakable laugh followed him out of the office and onto the ward.