“That’s a fine job you did there,” Serena remarked as she examined the makeshift incision on the patient’s side. “Couldn’t have managed much better with the proper equipment.”
Alex smiled at the praise. “Something I picked up working out on the field. It’s been a couple of years now since I assisted in putting in an emergency chest tube but they say it’s like riding a bike, don’t they?”
Serena turned to Alex, eyes widened in interest. “A fellow medic. It was a good thing you were there when the accident happened,” she said, tipping her head in the direction of the patient.
“Just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Alex answered. “Emergency medicine isn’t my usual field of expertise so it’s good to see that I haven’t forgotten my basic training.”
The patient shifted on the gurney and groaned, drawing both their attentions to him. Serena checked the monitor he was hooked up to and frowned. “He’s very fortunate that you did then but I don’t like the look of his stats.” She leaned in for a closer look. “Really don’t like it. Looks like there might be some internal bleeding.”
“He needs surgery?” Alex asked.
“Yes,” Serena said, stripping off her gloves as she did. “As soon as possible. If you’ll excuse me…”
Alex watched as Serena strided quickly across to the nurses’ station and spoke rapidly to a tall man in scrubs. She checked to make sure that the patient’s breathing was steady before glancing around the ward. It was busy but organised and she couldn’t help but compare how refreshing it was to have all the shiny equipment on hand instead of making do with the bare basics when it came to treating trauma. Bernie was right when she said it was very different.
“Admiring the scenery?” Serena’s voice pulled her back into the present.
Alex smiled. “Just thinking about how much the NHS has changed since I last worked in acute admissions.”
“Some things are still the same. I can’t get this patient in for at least another hour,” Serena sighed. “The locum anaesthetist covering the ward hasn’t bothered to turn up today.”
To Serena’s surprise, Alex’s face reddened and she smiled awkwardly, raising her hand. “That would be my fault. I forgot to phone in to say I was caught up in all of this,” she explained, waving a hand at the gurney.
“You’re my locum?”
“Alex Dawson at your service,” Alex replied, carefully watching Serena’s face for a reaction. Bernie knew that she was locumming at Holby and must have told Serena.
A reaction came, but not the one she’d anticipated. “Well, I’ll forgive you since you have the advantage of being up to speed with the patient and that’ll save us time going in. Let’s get scrubbed, Dr Dawson.”
* * *
“So, how long have you been back in Holby, Dr Dawson?” Serena asked as she removed a clamp from the vessel she just completed stitching.
“Alex, please. Only a month or so. Just finished a posting and I’ve got some time to decide if I want to take up another one,” Alex replied, keeping a close watch on the monitors in front of her.
Serena checked the incision and the vessels she had just repaired before laying down her instruments in the tray offered to her. “That should do it. He’ll be off his feet for a few weeks but no reason why this shouldn’t heal up nicely.”
Alex let out a small sigh of relief. This wasn’t a complex surgery by any stretch of the imagination but she had felt strangely nervous right from the start. It was nerves from working in a hospital environment again she had told herself. The feeling of apprehension was compounded by the fact that she was working with Serena who didn’t appear to realise who she was.
“Good job, Alex,” Serena said, signalling to the nurse for sutures to close. “There was hardly any collateral damage to the intercostal artery from your impromptu procedure. We might even make a surgeon out of you.”
Alex chuckled from behind her mask. “No thanks. I know that surgeons like to think of surgery as the pinnacle of the medical profession but it’s not for me.”
Serena raised a perfect eyebrow. “Whoever said that was certainly not short of confidence.”
It was an opportunity to test the waters, Alex thought as she contemplated a response. “It was friendly banter. And it does feel a little godlike when you’re saving lives by the side of the road while dodging artillery fire.”
“Sounds like quite a job you had,” Serena remarked. “But then again, Bernie’s always said that working in the RMAC was a lot more exciting than it sounds. I suspected that was an understatement all along.”
Alex whipped her head round and stared at Serena. “Oh. How did you know?”
Serena’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “It would be quite a coincidence for there to be another Alex Dawson who is an anaesthetist and happens to be back in Holby between assignments from abroad.”
The way Serena framed it made it sound so obvious that Alex couldn’t help but feel a little silly for not just introducing herself in the first place. “You have me at a disadvantage then, Serena.”
There was a long pause as Serena finished closing up the gaping wound, tying off the final suture with a flourish. “Let me know once the patient comes round in recovery,” Serena instructed the theatre nurse before stepping back from the table. Pulling her mask off, she turned towards Alex, smiling. “You do remember that this is Bernie Wolfe we’re talking about.”
* * *
“How long have they been in surgery for?”
Fletch looked up distractedly from the screen he was working on. “Who?”
“Ms Campbell and Dr Dawson,” Bernie groaned in frustration. “The tension pneumothorax in theatre one.”
A quick click of a mouse button and the relevant information appeared on his screen. “Two hours and ten minutes. They should be done soon.”
The look on Bernie’s face remained unchanged. “They should have finished ages ago,” she muttered and continued pacing in front of the desk.
Fletch knitted his brow in confusion. “You’re going to wear the floor out. I’m sure Serena would have paged if she didn’t think she could manage on her own.”
Bernie stopped mid-stride and sighed. “It’s not that. She’s in there with Alex Dawson.”
“Yes, she’s the new locum anaesthetist…” he started saying before the wheels clicked together in his head. “Oh, you mean she’s the Alex?”
Bernie nodded dumbly and resumed her trek across the tiles.
* * *
“This is a lot less awkward than I imagined,” Alex said, once they were the only ones left in the scrub room. “Even if this wasn’t quite the way I expected us to meet.”
“I would have preferred over a bottle of Shiraz at my favourite wine bar myself. But you cancelled at the last minute,” Serena replied, letting the running water wash the soapy suds off her forearm.
“A meeting ran over and I didn’t want to keep you both waiting,” Alex said apologetically. “To be honest, I was a little surprised when Bernie suggested the venue. Now it makes sense.”
Serena laughed lightly. “I’ve been a bad influence.”
“A definite improvement over the cheap blended whisky she used to be so fond of,” Alex countered. The grimace on Serena’s face told Alex that she had an ally. “Mind you, we didn’t exactly have cocktail bars and sommeliers out in the desert. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
The final phrase was spoken lightly but took on a great deal of weight by the time it reached Serena’s ears. They had talked about Bernie’s military past but skimmed across the details when it came to the events around the IED explosion. And that included her relationship with Alex. As much as it would boost her ego to take her literally, Serena knew Bernie well enough to know that she wouldn’t have had a frivolous dalliance. Even if it were in the middle of a war zone.
“I’ve never known Bernie to compromise on anything she truly believed in.”
A moment of silence stretched out as Alex considered her response. In a way, she was glad to have met Serena in this less conventional manner. Something inside had twinged pretty hard when she heard that Bernie got married again and she had been curious to know the woman who managed what she couldn’t and tamed the Wolfe.
“She is a stickler for protocols,” Alex finally said.
“Often only when it suits,” Serena added. “Now, how does she put it again… I’m the one who’s usually right?”
“In her head, anyway,” Alex finished with a wry smile. “Don’t tell her I said this but the arrogance did come in useful on more than one occasion back in the day. I remember the time when she told the CO off in front of the whole squadron.”
Serena perked up with interest. “Go on.”
Alex grinned. “There was an accident in a nearby village and some illegal homemade explosives went off by accident. A few of the men on patrol were injured and one of the villagers, a young boy about sixteen, got caught right in the blast zone. We were first on the scene and triaged the men on site. They were mostly minor scrapes and could be treated back on base so the CO ordered us to pack up and move them back.”
“What about the boy?” Serena asked.
“He wasn’t so lucky. Fractured ribs and massive internal bleeding that needed draining straight away.” Alex paused, pursing her lips. “The order from the top was clear - it was too risky to stay in case another device went off.”
“But you did though, didn’t you?” Serena’s reply was more a statement than a question.
Alex nodded. “Imagine a defiant Bernie Wolfe, scalpel in hand, telling the CO to step back and let her work because there wasn’t a hell’s chance she was going to walk away and let the boy die.” Her face split into a smile as she continued. “And he could try and pry the knife out of her hand but chances were that she would have found some very unfortunate places to stick it before he could. I think the only thing that kept her in the Army after that was the fact that she was not only right but also the only person within a hundred miles he’d trust to save his life if he ever got blown up.”
Serena couldn’t help but let her imagination wander a little at the image of a no-nonsense Bernie, windswept and sweat-drenched, in her military fatigues, stubbornly standing her ground. “That sounds like quite a sight. Wish I could have been there to see it,” Serena murmured, storing a reminder in her head to ask Bernie for the details later. Or better yet, a reenactment.
Alex caught the look on Serena’s face. “Oh yes, it was an impressive sight,” she sighed, “in many more ways than one.”
Serena’s eyes narrowed instantly. “Steady on. That’s my wife you’re talking about.”
Alex held up a hand defensively, with a sheepish smile. “Just reminiscing. Talking about it now, that all seems like a lifetime away.”
“Did you leave the Army after…” Serena paused to choose her words, “after the accident as well?”
Alex shook her head. “I came out of it with barely a scratch. After they brought Bernie home, I threw myself back into work hoping to distract myself from thinking of the worst possible outcomes.”
“Did it work?”
“Not for long,” Alex replied. “It was hard to concentrate on the job when everything and everyone around me reminded me of her. That was one of the reasons I came back to Holby for the first time. I was tired of grieving alone.”
Serena’s mind flew back to the conversation she’d shared with Bernie days earlier and the scene she witnessed all those years ago. “I can’t imagine that you were. Some of us just prefer to grieve in solitude on the inside.”
Alex sighed and nodded. “I know what you mean, Still. it’s good to know that some things haven’t changed.”
“Change is often overrated and Bernie’s had more than a lifetime’s worth of being told she wasn’t good enough or wrong,” Serena said plainly but firmly. “No offence intended.”
Alex met Serena’s eyes and was almost taken aback by the steel and fierce love staring back at her. “None taken.”
The sound of the next surgical team rattling through the door signalled that it was time to vacate the space. Serena led the way through the swinging door, Alex following closely behind. They neared the double doors leading back into the ward when Serena stopped, a sight catching her eye though the small glass window.
“Speak of the devil…” she remarked, nudging Alex with her elbow. “How long do you think she’s been standing waiting for us?”
Alex peered in the direction Serena was indicating. Even from a distance, it was clear that Bernie was practically on edge with nervous energy, her steps bouncing along as she paced in front of the double doors. “It’d be a couple of hours at most,” Alex said, checking her watch. “The surgery didn’t take that long.”
Serena answered with a deep chuckle. “Two hours and fifteen minutes but I dare say it must seem like an eternity to a certain someone.”
Alex caught the glint in Serena’s eye and smiled “I think you might be right. Shall we go and put her out of her misery?”
“I don’t know, Dr Dawson. It might be more fun to let her stew a little but I’m sure she’s looking forward to introducing us,” Serena said, continuing towards the door. “Coming?”
Alex couldn’t help but shake her head in amusement as she followed closely behind. Serena had barely pushed the doors open when Bernie was by their side, the expression on her face an odd mixture of apprehension and relief.
“Ah, Ms Wolfe. It looks like you’ve been waiting a while. Did you need me for something?” Serena asked breezily.
“No...I mean, yes,” Bernie stuttered. “How, uhm..” She glanced at Alex, who was doing a sterling job keeping a straight face as she looked on. “How did the surgery go?”
“The patient should be out of recovery soon. I could have done with your trauma eyes on this but luckily for the patient, I got the next best thing.” Serena nodded graciously at Alex.
Bernie managed a smile as she looked between the two women. “I see you’ve met.”
Alex stepped forward and grinned. “Late for the party as usual, Bern. You haven’t changed one bit.”
“Party?” Bernie’s voice raised half an octave.
Serena’s eyes gleamed as she caught the look on Alex’s face. “Well yes, of course, darling. You missed Alex’s impromptu chest tube, my fine vascular repair and not least of all those interesting stories from your Army days.”
Bernie’s eyes flicked towards Alex immediately, widening in question. “Alex?”
Alex raised her hands in mock surrender. “I tried to resist but your wife is a very charming and persuasive woman.”
Serena would have given anything to capture the look on Bernie’s face but she would just have to settle for a visual memory of it. Which reminded her…
“I’ll tell you all about it over dinner,” Serena said, taking Bernie’s hand, threading their fingers together and squeezing gently. Bernie tightened her grasp in response and the familiar pressure of the metal band around her ring finger digging into Serena’s palm made her smile. Serena leaned in and murmured in Bernie’s ear. “And oh, you might want to get your old Army fatigues out of storage when we get home tonight.”