“So let me get this straight…” Matt Dawson looked from Charlie to Ronnie and, seeing he had their attention, started to tick off the points as he said them on his fingers. “You both grew up in Holby?”
“Yup.” Ronnie was about to open his mouth to clarify but a look from Matt had him grin and shut his mouth again, waiting patiently for the the next point.
“But you went to Boarding School?”
“Yeah.” This time it was Charlie’s turn, carefully propped up in the chair with a couple of pillows behind her back so her chest wasn’t stressed too much, the loose shirt she was wearing keeping her cool, protected from the sun and wasn’t irritating her stitches. That it was Alex’s was by the by but also rather cool, in a comfy sort of way. “Ronnie went when he was 8, I went when I was 7. In Taunton, so we only sort of grew up in Holby.”
“Yeah.” Ronnie squinted as the sun reemerged from behind a cloud, his temporary glasses great in that he could now see the world in focus, but not as good as the ones he’d lost the day of the accident as they didn’t have the vari-tint lenses that reacted to the sun. However, he was picking them up from the opticians this week, so it was only a temporary problem. “Same school from the beginning.”
“I meant were you at the same school,” pointed out Matt, flicking down his wraparound shades so he wasn’t having to squint, “as each other.”
“Oh, yeah. But it didn’t really feel like it much, by the time I got there Ronnie was already in the senior school…” Charlie shot a look at her older brother that Matt recognised all too well.
“Too cool for little sister?” he asked, smirking when he saw Ronnie squirming.
“Was Alex like that to you?” Ronnie didn’t want to admit it, but as an almost-13 year old who’d just come through puberty and was one of the taller boys in his class, he’d not exactly been kind to his little sister when she’d started at the same school as a very ‘little girl’ seven year old.
“Not really…” He leaned back in his chair and just enjoyed the randomness of being in a pub garden on a summer’s Saturday afternoon, hearing some little kids playing on the play equipment in the distance and smelling the mix of barbeque and flowers that always reminded him of summer holidays. No matter how many barbeques he’d had at various Bases around the world, there was something very ‘only at home’ about the smell of the flowers… burned meat was a fairly constant smell, no matter whether it was on a gas barbeque in a pub or a wood fire in Cyprus, but the flowers? That generally meant it was a pub with Alex or their mum, when she’d been around. “She’s 12 years older than me, so before she went to uni I was still cute and little… and she wasn’t really around during my ‘being a shit’ years.” He cleared his throat self-consciously and glanced at Charlie, who was trying not to laugh, if only because it still made her ribs hurt.
“You can swear, I do know the bad words.”
“In multiple languages too,” added Ronnie, grinning.
“That could be an interesting competition later…” Matt pushed his sunglasses back up onto his head when the sun disappeared behind a cloud again, much to Ronnie’s relief. “Never bet against a soldier when it comes to knowing how to swear or order a beer....unless…” Having started to speak he changed his mind again, sparking Charlie’s curiosity.
“Unless?” she prompted, eager to know.
“Unless there’s an officer involved, not a Rupert, but a proper officer. Always bet against a Rupert.” Realising that they’d distracted him from what he was trying to work out, and that there was only going to be so long before the Major came back from the bar with their drinks, he went back to his fact checking. “So you both grew up here but went to boarding school in Taunton… Army help?”
“Do you mean did Mum get grants and stuff to help us go to boarding school because she was overseas all the time?” asked Charlie, not sure if she was explaining it entirely right, having not actually paid that much attention when Ronnie had been asking the questions of the Welfare Officer they’d met at the Open Day, more interested in picking up all the leaflets that looked relevant. Clearly though, she’d explained it well enough because Matt was nodding. “Yeah, though we only found that out a couple of weeks ago…”
“At the Open Day when you were hurt?” He’d known from Alex that they’d been at an Open Day type event on Armed Forces Day, and that they’d been there to try and find out more about what Bernie being in the Army had actually meant in terms of an impact on their childhood, rather than what their Father and Aunt had helped them believe. Seeing her nod, he quickly carried on talking, not wanting her to have to dwell on something that had sounded incredibly horrific. “But you spent the holidays round here, with your Dad and his twin sister?”
“And Grandma, before she died.” Ronnie knew Charlie didn’t really remember her grandmother much, but he did a bit. “And Grandpa, uh Mum’s Dad, but that was when Charlie was tiny, before Mum went back to work.” It had been one summer, but like most adults, there was one summer that lived long in the memory, full of sunshine and ice-cream and fun, the sort of summer that as an adult you continually tried to nostalgically create. For Ronnie, it was that summer when he’d been allowed to watch planes from the roofs of church towers, sitting on his mother’s shoulders eating ice cream and cheering as the planes roared overhead, his mother and Grandpa knowing what they were called and making up stories about where they were going.
“Your Mum wasn’t always overseas though…” he didn’t like to point out that it wasn’t actually possible for her to have never had a home posting, although he supposed that the Major was old enough to have had some extended Germany postings, which did tend to muddy the waters a bit. “I know Alex’s spent a fair bit of time in Aldershot and Birmingham.”
“We were born in Aldershot, according to our birth certificates...” Ronnie sighed when the sun reemerged from behind the cloud, envying Matt’s shades, but continued anyway. “Mum told me Dad had a job at a hospital in Guilford, but I don’t really remember. We moved to live with Grandma in Holby after Charlie was born.”
That had been another discovery that had not helped improve their relationship with their father - by the time Marcus had returned from his conference in California (which in itself had seen Bernie spend most of a bottle of wine making very rude remarks about her ex-husband’s priorities and specialty), Charlie had been discharged and was staying in Ronnie’s new flat and Ronnie, with the help of Bernie remembering what he should look for, had found all sorts of boxes of photographs and documents, including their birth certificates and tiny baby photos in the house which, if nothing else, had given Alex much amusement at seeing Bernie with ‘80s’ hair. Finding out that their father had effectively forced Bernie to choose between her career in the Army and her family when there were no military bases needing surgeons anywhere near Holby had not helped his case.
Ronnie had been glad that Charlie had been confined to a very strictly supervised ‘couch rest’ and his sister hadn’t witnessed the row he’d had with Marcus when he’d laid out the various ‘half-truths’ they’d unpicked. In part, it was knowing that Charlie was propped up on his couch, eating Chinese and trying to explain the Kardashians or the latest Celebrity Jungle Adventure of the week to Alex and Bernie that had given him the confidence to have it out with Marcus, knowing there wasn’t any chance of her coming by and seeing them arguing.
“So boarding schools for you, barracks quarters for your Mum...have you seen what they’re like?” It was a random question, but it was either go off on the first tangent he could think of, or do something that really would get him on his sister’s bad side, like asking Ronnie where his Dad lived so he could go round and ‘educate’ the bloke.
“No. Mum wouldn’t say much, and when I tried to ask Alex…” Ronnie rubbed his nose, remembering how that conversation hadn’t gone too well.
“Once I’m settled at my new posting, you can come visit and I’ll give you a tour…” The sun disappeared again, but Matt left his sunglasses in place, not wanting Ronnie or Charlie to see how angry he was about what their Dad had forced the Major to put up with. “The Officers Mess is a bit smarter, but…” he didn’t want to say that twenty years ago its niceness would have been of little comfort to the then Captain, being probably one of the few women, even if the Medic Corps had always been a bit more ‘female’ than the rest of the Army. “It will give you an idea.”
“You sure?” Ronnie looked at his sister, who grinned at him, reading his mind and agreeing that it would be nice to see inside a Base, as although Bernie and Alex had given in and told them some stories in the last couple of weeks, they both felt that there was rather more they weren’t being told by the doctors.
“Sure, but let’s wait until those ribs are healed up and you can do a 5k again?” suggested Matt, referencing back to their earlier conversation about what Charlie was finding she was missing most whilst having to focus on getting better again.
“That’d be great Matt, thanks.”
“No problem.” Deciding he’d had enough of serious talk, and that he was a bit clearer about why Alex had taken to sending him long ranting text messages about how she wasn’t mad at him but she needed to rant at someone who wasn’t her girlfriend about how much she wanted to do some vague and nonspecific but implicitly unpleasant thing to this Marcus bloke, he looked over his shoulder in the direction the Major had headed off in to see if there was any sign of her. “Has your Mum had to go to Bristol for the drinks?”
“Would you like to repeat that Sergeant?” asked Bernie, appearing from a slightly different direction to the one she’d set off in, causing Matt to jump in a decidedly not-very-hardcore-Royal-Marine way.
“No Ma’am.” He leapt to his feet, studiously ignoring Ronnie and Charlie’s poor attempts at concealing their amusement at his embarrassment. “Let me take that tray for you Ma’am.”
“Relax Matt…” She let him take the tray from her, watching him put it down carefully on the table and start to hand out the drinks, able to match Charlie to her old-fashioned lemonade and Ronnie to his pint of lager. “The one on the left’s yours…”
“Thanks, what is it?” he asked, studying the bottle with interest, seeing it was an IPA but not recognising it beyond that.
“Something ‘IPA but interesting’ as you requested… American maybe? No, that’s mine.” Bernie put the tray aside and, remembering to pull the food menus out from where she’d shoved them in the back pocket of her jeans, sat down on the picnic table bench between Matt and Charlie, who was sat in a ‘proper chair’ at the head of the table. “Hardknott, that was it.” There was something about her smile that made Matt nervous: although the name sounded alright, he wasn’t entirely sure about the label, which was…a sort of orange.
“Thanks, looks interesting. Hardknott… is that local?”
“Lake District apparently,” said Ronnie helpfully, having googled it while they’d been talking. “Ooo, enjoy the apricot, peach and floral nuances Matt…well done Mum!” Unable to contain his laughter anymore, Ronnie gave in and soon had to take his glasses off to rub his eyes.
“What’s set him off?” asked Alex, arriving at the table having stopped off at home after her night shift at St Austin’s had finished, sliding her sunglasses up onto the top of her head and surveying the group, a little disappointed she wasn’t going to sit next to Bernie.
“I have no idea…” began Matt, trying his beer carefully, only to discover that despite the description Ronnie had read out, it was actually really nice.
“Hardknott…” hiccuped Ronnie, holding up his phone so that Alex could read the beer’s description, “Hard, Not.” There was a long pause before Alex got the joke and, giving back the phone to Ronnie, looked at Bernie who was giving herself away by looking far too innocent.
“Nothing…” Alex eyed up the drinks on the table, spotting that there wasn’t one left for her. “I’ll go get myself a drink… we ready to order food yet?”
“Not yet, I’ll come with you…” Bernie hadn’t yet started her beer and was clearly planning on leaving it behind, but Alex was more alert and grabbed the bottle, guessing that if Ronnie’s pint was barely started then there was probably a fair sized queue at the bar.
“The really sweet thing is they think they’re being subtle…” declared Charlie, once she was confident her mother and her girlfriend were out of earshot. Unfortunately she made this observation just as Ronnie had a mouthful of lager, which he promptly sprayed all over the table, only just missing Matt.
“Why don’t you sit on the chair Ronnie?” suggested Matt, nodding to the chair at the other end of the table, facing Charlie, which had originally been occupied by Bernie.
“Won’t that look a bit obvious?” asked Charlie, catching on to Matt’s thinking quicker than her brother, pleased the Marine didn’t think her comment silly.
“Nah, he can claim the sun was in his eyes…but I bet you a round they don’t notice.”
“No bet,” said Ronnie quickly, standing up and moving around to the chair, realising Matt was right, it was less harsh for him without any sunglasses if he sat at the end of the table.
“My beer not good enough for you?” teased Matt, pleased to see they had got over their earlier nervousness of him after a couple of meals together.
“Nah, but there isn’t an officer around.” It took Matt a second to work out what Ronnie was talking about, but then he remembered what they’d been talking about not long before his sister had arrived.
“Good one…” he raised his glass, taking care to hold it up right in front of Charlie so she didn’t have to stretch and agitate her ribs. “Cheers.”
“How was your shift?”
“Quiet, rounds and one operation.” Alex stopped to let one of the pub staff pass, their arms loaded with plates of food, “and whatever that was, I’m having it.”
“You might want to read the menu first,” suggested Bernie, not disagreeing but speaking from experience, “I thought so when I saw the burgers earlier.” She waited for Alex to catch up with her before they carried on weaving their way through the busy pub garden, “why so quiet? We were non-stop.”
“I would have been, had I been in Trauma, but I was covering the on-call anaesthetist on General Surgery…” Even if Bernie hadn’t been able to immediately work out that Alex had therefore been fortunate enough to have one operation, since most general surgery wards generally didn’t schedule their routine cases overnight so it would only be urgent complications that were operated on, her expression spoke volumes about how bored she’d been. “Still, at least I’ve finished my report and submitted it.”
“Really?” Bernie tried not to get her hopes up - this would be the second time that Alex had thought she’d finished her report that she’d been contracted to produce for the Flying Hospital Charity, but the first time she’d submitted it, they’d refused to accept it unless it had been reviewed by the consultant in the field. Neither Bernie nor Alex had enjoyed Alex’s last minute scramble to organise a trip out to see him, but fortunately, although it had been a long way to go for 48 hours, he had been very happy with the report, so happy he’d finally bought into what Alex was trying to recommend and given her a load of quotes and photographs he wanted added.
“Really. Uploaded it to them just before midnight, got the email as I was driving home. They’re really pleased with it.” Alex took her aviator sunglasses off her head as the sun went behind a cloud, pausing to concentrate on slipping them in the back pocket of her knee length shorts. “Can I?” she asked, holding the bottle of beer up in front of Bernie, who nodded, happy to wait while Alex took a long swig of beer, not being remotely subtle about admiring her whilst she did. “Mmm, good beer,” remarked Alex, offering the bottle to Bernie so she could try some of what was technically her drink. “Oh, and you’re probably going to get a letter from them too.”
“I told them you’d reviewed the report… they were most impressed that, and I quote, the Berenice Wolfe had heard of them, nevermind contributed to their review.” Alex took the bottle back from Bernie when she saw her face scrunch after the first sip, not surprised. It hadn’t tasted like Bernie’s sort of beer.
“You didn’t need to do that,” dismissed Bernie, embarrassed at the praise. Unfortunately, Alex misunderstood her reaction, and thought it was embarrassment at being included by Alex.
“I only said you reviewed it…” began Alex, trying not to sound too hurt at Bernie’s downbeat response, lifting the beer towards her lips, “it’s not like I…”
It only took a split-second for Bernie to realise her mistake.
Acting instinctively (she was a trauma surgeon after all, well trained to act decisively and confidently at a moment’s notice), she snatched at Alex’s shirt front, missing her intended target of the fabric between the third and fourth buttons by a millimetre, but catching hold of the waistband of Alex’s shorts instead. Giving a sharp but gentle tug, she pulled Alex off balance, the anaesthetist’s momentum carrying her forwards, enabling Bernie to steer them out of the path of the serving staff and other pub-goers and into the small gap between the ‘shed’ that was the barbeque station and the main pub building, Bernie fell back against the wall, pulling Alex hard against her. With one hand still caught inside the front of Alex’s shorts, she reached up with her other one and, using her fingers to hold the silky brown hair that was still damp from Alex’s shower out of the way, she pulled Alex’s mouth to hers for a searing kiss, her tongue easily gaining access to Alex’s mouth given she’d been half way through a sentence, tasting a heady cocktail of the beer, toothpaste and the indescribable but wonderful flavours that were uniquely Alex and always had been.
Stunned, Alex was left slack-jawed, her emotional objection to Bernie’s negative reaction about being mentioned in the note she’d attached to the report flying from her mind as suddenly, she couldn’t focus on anything other than the feeling of Bernie’s tongue in her mouth, the light pull on her hair as Bernie tried to deepen the kiss and the warm, almost burning feeling the touch of Bernie’s knuckles was creating on her stomach.
For a long, timeless moment, Alex’s world narrowed to those three points of contact and nothing else - there was no sound, not even the sound of her own heartbeat pounding, no scent in the air other than the faint hints of Bernie’s shampoo and shower gel, no taste other than the taste of Bernie’s kiss.
And then suddenly, on a roaring tidal wave of love and joy, Alex was alive again, kissing Bernie back with as much energy as she could muster, tongues playfully dueling for a moment’s ascendency. Her left hand remained frozen in mid-air, keeping the bottle of beer where it had been when Bernie had reacted, her hand level with her shoulder and slightly out to the side, fingertips clutching the neck of the bottle, ready to tip it so some of the still-cool beer could tumble down her throat. But she had two hands and her right hand sought out Bernie, finding the buckle of her lover’s belt and following it around, blindly seeking the small of her back, knowing there’d be a space between overheated skin and fabric that she could slide between, enabling her to hold on tight and keep Bernie close, so close that nothing could come between them, nothing could force them apart. Soon however, her hand was thwarted, unable to fit between Bernie and the wall. Refusing to be defeated, her hand continued to explore, trailing lightly up Bernie’s side, inside her shirt, tickling bare skin as she rose, seeking out clues as to where she could reach and touch, finally meeting the fabric of her lover’s bra.
Hearing moans, unsure if they were hers or Bernie’s, Alex’s lips transformed into a grin as, landmark found, she followed the line of the bra towards Bernie’s front, arching her back and neck just enough so that she could create sufficient space between them to slide her hand over Bernie’s breast, cupping the sensitive flesh, squeezing gently and feeling a hardening nipple prod insistently against her palm. Head swimming from the heady emotions, Alex felt her legs start to burn, like she’d just finished a sprint, causing her to lean further against Bernie, her weight serving to push their bodies closer, trapping hands between them, intensifying the sensations, making her acutely aware of every wiggle and shift of her lover’s fingers pressed against her stomach, wiggles and shifts she tried to mirror with her own hand trapped against Bernie’s breast.
Eventually, the pitch of the roaring changed, as the rush of the kiss was joined by the less pleasant light-headed buzz that came from not enough oxygen. Gradually, through unspoken agreement, their tongues slowed, the licks and nips softening until finally, Alex reluctantly dragged her lips away from Bernie’s, groaning softly when she felt Bernie continue to kiss and lick a trail down her neck, unable to muster the strength or energy to pull away and stand up properly.
“I love you.” Bernie teased both hands through her lover’s hair, holding it away from her flushed face, looking intently at Alex. “So very, very much. Never doubt that.”
“I know…” Suddenly shy, Alex slid her hand away from Bernie’s breast, her fingers leaving hot trails in their wake as she sought out a belt loop to cling to, not trusting herself with more. “I love you too...I’m sorry, I just…” She let out a heavy sigh before glancing around, taking in their surroundings, wrapped together in a small space, barely a couple of metres away from strangers yet in their own little private space, their happy bubble. “This brings back memories…” she joked, prompting Bernie to have a quick glance around, understanding Alex’s point.
“Mmm, harder to grab when you’re not in full kit though…” Bernie vaguely remembered catching Alex’s stomach as she took hold of her shorts, hoping she hadn’t scratched her.
“Softer though,” pointed out Alex, cheekily wiggling her hips, pressing her body against Bernie’s for a moment, “no body armour for one thing…”
“True.” Bernie shifted slightly, hinting to Alex that she’d like to stand up again, this position not being so comfortable now she didn’t have Alex kissing her to distract her from the weird angle she was leaning at or the dampness of the brick that was starting to seep through her shirt.
“Sorry…” Picking up on the hint, and knowing that Bernie couldn’t move until she’d stood up properly, Alex let go of her waist and pushed off from the wall behind Bernie, taking a step back to give her some room. Steady on her own two feet, she offered a hand to Bernie, gently tugging her onto her feet, before stepping to the side so she could brush any dust or marks off Bernie’s back.
“Thanks.” Her mouth feeling dry, Bernie took the bottle of beer from Alex and had a gulp, forgiving the slightly too hoppy flavour and instead concentrating on drink’s cool wetness, before handing it back to Alex who finished it.
“We should…” Alex jerked her head in the direction of the pub, suddenly feeling as awkward as she remembered feeling after the first time she’d kissed Bernie, in a rare patch of shade between a tent and a shipping container that served as an office.
“We should,” agreed Bernie, slipping her hand into Alex’s, not wanting to not be in contact with her. “Before Charlie needs rescuing from the boys…”
“I think it’s more likely to be the boys needing rescuing from Charlie,” countered Alex, foregoing her sunglasses when they stepped back out into the sunlight having first given the other a final ‘once over’ to check they didn’t look like they’d been kissed senseless seconds before.
“You might be right,” laughed Bernie, leaning into Alex so that a server could pass with a tray of burgers, prompting a ‘yum’ from Alex. “See? I told you the burgers look good…”
“Do you remember eating burgers? In the Mess, after…” After the bright sunshine outside, it took them a minute for their eyes to adjust to the relatively dark interior of the pub.
“After the first time you kissed me? Of course!” Seeing more clearly now, Bernie started to lead Alex through the empty tables towards the surprisingly deserted bar, the earlier queues cleared, save for one elderly lady, trying to order six pots of different sorts of tea. “I kept wanting to find a mirror to check my face, sure everyone would be able to see my cheeks were burning red.”
“They were…” Alex slipped up onto a bar stool and parted her legs, enabling Bernie to step between them, content to wait their turn. “But everyone was sunburned so no one noticed…”
“I think I’m going to have the burger… for lunch I mean,” clarified Bernie, seeing Alex start scanning the bar, looking for a beer called ‘Burger’.
“Nostalgia?” asked Alex, looking at the woman she was in love with.
“A little,” admitted Bernie truthfully, fiddling with the hem of Alex’s shorts. “That was a good burger.”
“It was a horrible burger,” corrected Alex, remembering the spongy bun and vinegary gherkins that dominated the meal.
“I wasn’t talking about the food… although it was a good thing there was so much vinegar in it.”
“There was?” Alex couldn’t see the positive.
“Mmm, only thing that stopped me kissing you again, right there in the Mess…” Bernie leaned forwards and lightly dropped an almost chaste kiss on Alex’s lips. “Vinegar breath.”
“Ah.” Alex wrapped her arms loosely around Bernie’s waist, too happy to stop to notice that Bernie was completely at ease with her despite them being in a pub, surrounded by people they didn’t know, having lunch with Matt and the kids. “I hate to tell you this Major,” she sighed contentedly when Bernie put her arms around her shoulders as she waited for the punch line, “but it’s going to take more than vinegar breath to put me off now.”
“I hate to disappoint you Captain,” teased Bernie, matching Alex’s tone and relaxing into her hug, using her thigh to lean against, “but I’d managed to work that out for myself… you’re stuck we me for as long as you’ll give me, vinegar breath and all…”
“Good thing I love you then,” Alex rested her head on Bernie’s shoulder, the tedium of her night shift catching up on her and making her as sleepy as if she’d just finished a double trauma.
“That makes two of us,” agreed Bernie quietly, knowing Alex’s sleepiness would pass when they got back out into the sunshine and she got some food inside her. But until then, she could have a little snooze if she wanted, while they waited to be served. That was the wonderful thing about being in their happy bubble, it didn’t matter what they did, what mattered was that they tried, together, to be happy.
Which they were, very happy, together.