“What’s he doing?”
“Who?” Fletch didn’t look up from the screen, not desperately pleased to be interrupted as he was struggling to unravel a bed blocking mix-up that meant it was apparently his fault that Geriatrics was unable to take Mrs Pearson off the ED’s hands.
“Hanssen. He’s stood in their doorway.” Fletch looked up just enough to confirm that Raf had meant the consultant’s office doorway.
“Talking to Ms Wolfe?” he suggested, not quite sure what was particularly interesting about that - as a general rule, he tried to keep well clear of Hanssen when he was in one of his creeping moods.
“That’s just it…” Raf sat on the edge of the desk, jostling the mouse with his hip as he settled into his perch, forcing Fletch to abandon his bed blocking mystery with Mrs Dobson who, as far as he could tell, was the AAU patient that was currently on Keller but he was certain he’d transferred her to Obstetrics.
“What’s just it?”
“Hanssen.” Raf jerked his head in the general direction of the office doorway where they could see Hanssen stood, statue like. “He’s been stood there in silence for seven minutes now.”
“Silence?” Bed blocking forgotten, Fletch was now curious. Hanssen was well known for being a man who appreciated brevity, but he was not renown for remaining in one place for longer than absolutely necessary.
“Silence.” Raf glanced over his shoulder, checking that the CEO was still there - not exactly in AAU, not quite in the consultant’s office.
“Tenner says he breaks first.”
“Hanssen? No way, I mean, he’s Hanssen!” Thinking Fletch had taken leave of his senses, Raf reached out and shook his friend and housemate’s hand.
“And she’s Major Wolfe,” agreed Fletch, equally confident: if anyone was going to ‘break’ the CEO, it would be her…. “Yes! He’s turning away…pay up mate!” Surprised at how quickly the apparent stand-off had resolved itself, Fletch held out his hand as he waited for Raf to hand over the prize.
“I am capable of taking a message…” muttered Bernie, keeping her head down, ostensibly focused on the file she was reviewing, although she’d actually stopped reading it two minutes ago when it was five minutes since she’d been aware of him hovering.
“Excuse me?” Hanssen stopped mid turn and looked back at her.
“A message, for Serena.” Bernie put down her pen and looked up at him. “I assume that’s why you’re going without saying anything, because you wanted Serena?” She watched as he stepped back into the doorway, so he was once again stood square on. “Because I’m sure you didn’t stand there for almost eight minutes waiting for me before giving up.”
“This amuses you Ms Wolfe.” He stepped forwards and to the side, enabling him to close the office door neatly and easily behind him but without ending up stood on top of her desk. This wasn’t usually something that his colleagues found amusing.
“A little,” conceded Bernie, leaning back in her chair, meeting his measured gaze with one of his own, a gaze he noticed was much steadier and far more confident than he’d remembered it from their earliest discussions when she had not settled into Holby Hospital life. “What can I help you with Mr Hanssen?”
“Will you be in the hospital a week on Saturday Ms Wolfe?”
“Saturday week...” Bernie glanced at the desk calendar, confirming the date. “In the hospital,” she repeated his unusual phrasing deliberately, looking back at him, “probably, given Serena’s still on holiday then. But Mr di Lucca is in charge of AAU: if I am in, I will be getting ahead on paperwork.” After years of dealing with COs who favoured the ‘raise your hand, ah, excellent, you’ve volunteered’ approach to task delegation, she had a finely honed sense of when to not volunteer.
“Very good.” Hanssen reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out some folded papers. “I took the liberty of bringing you a copy of the guidance, since Ms Campbell wasn’t at the senior management meeting this morning.”
“Guidance?” Not following his train of thought, Bernie reached for the paper, although she waited for him to finish providing what she might consider to be an adequate explanation as to why a guidance note was required before she moved to look at it.
“Armed Forces Day.” He watched, his face impassive despite his surprise at a lack of reaction from her. “As in previous years, there is guidance provided to colleagues on the Trust’s response, which, it goes without saying, is one of total support to both staff, patients and visitors.”
“Of course.” Bernie’s voice was steady and her expression remained neutral as she waited for the not-yet-delivered punchline.
“Naturally I know you do not require the guidance on recognising rank insignia - the second page is included because I would welcome your comments before it is circulated to all staff tomorrow.”
“Certainly.” Although her face didn’t show it, Bernie was prepared to give him a gold star for that - it was one thing to acknowledge that they might get more patients and visitors in military uniform than they usually did in any given day, quite another to make sure that staff felt moderately confident recognising the ranks, particularly if they were patients. “I’ll make sure your secretary has it within the hour.” If she didn’t tackle it immediately, there was a strong chance she would never get to it before she was required to operate, and then there was no telling when she would get to it.
“Thank you Ms Wolfe.” Nodding, he turned, opening the door, intending to leave the office.
“What else did you want to talk to me about?” asked Bernie, deceptively casually, not remotely convinced that, important as his request was, it had warranted him waiting for as long as he did.
“I…” Only the most expert of observers would notice the extra deep breath he took before speaking, his body still turned predominantly towards the now open door. “...understand from our colleagues in Human Resources that you are the most senior officer on the Staff. They will be in touch.”
“Was that…” Raf looked at Fletch, not quite sure that he’d just seen what he’d just seen.
“A paper cup? Yep. About a seven I think…” he watched Hanssen as he left AAU, “maybe an eight?”
“There’s not much rattling…” Normally, they only gave out eight or higher if Bernie managed to get the blinds on the office glazed partition to rattle for a good ten seconds after the paper cup she’d thrown at them had fallen to the floor.
“Not much back swing. He’s a quick mover is Hanssen.”
“Good point, eight it is.” Raf stood up, knowing that the test results would probably be back on the suspected peritonitis in four by now, not to mention the fact that if she was scoring an eight he didn’t want to be the first she saw, just in case…
“Knock knock…” Bernie looked up and smiled when she saw Alex leaning against the doorframe - with the door wide open and Alex not technically in Bernie’s office, it was a position they’d often found themselves in on Base: no one could speculate about what went on behind closed doors if the door wasn’t closed.
“Hello you…” Bernie put aside her pen and sat back in her chair, very happy to have the distraction that Alex’s unexpected visit brought.
“Hi…” It took Alex a moment to remember that here, in Holby where they were just Ms Wolfe and ‘Dr. D’ (it seemed the nickname had stuck, even when she wasn’t working in the hospital), she didn’t have to stay in the doorway. “You busy?”
“Nothing that won’t keep.” Bernie closed the file that was open in front of her, no longer interested in her paperwork. With only a couple of hours left on her shift, she’d been hoping to get through the remaining minutes with paperwork rather than patients. “Are you here to distract me?”
“Not exactly.” Alex stepped fully into the office and shut the door behind her, her movements unwittingly mirroring those of Hanssen’s earlier in the day.
“Everything ok?” Not that Bernie would ever say ‘no’ to a surprise visit from Alex, especially when she wasn’t being paranoid about what people might think, but now she considered Alex objectively rather than wolfishly…
“Yes, no, wait…” Alex canted her head to the side as she considered the surgeon, “tell me why you just winced?”
“You’ll laugh…” Bernie was keen to know why Alex was surprising her at the hospital: dressed in her running kit and, based on the sheen of sweat that was glistening in the otherwise harsh fluorescent light of her office, mid run, a visit was probably not the original plan, but she trusted Alex.
“You’ll laugh when I tell you mine too,” negotiated Alex, sitting on the edge of Bernie’s desk and automatically picking up the discarded pen and starting to fiddle with it.
“You’re mid run?”
“Y-e-s…” Alex managed to stretch her confirmation into three syllables, wondering what Bernie’s point was as surely it was fairly obvious - it wasn’t like she wore her running gear to clean the kitchen for example.
“I got a little distracted…” Bernie reached forwards and ‘caught’ Alex’s foot at the ankle, stopping her from swinging it. It was an instinctive response, with Alex almost incapable of not swinging her legs if they were hanging down from the various perches she found, be they on land rovers, desks or tanks, although she didn’t let go like she used to. “Only noticed when I was telling myself off for being wolfish.”
“You know you always look sheepish when you confess to that…” mused Alex, amused, as she always was when that particular word-play happened.
“Mmm…” Bernie stuck her tongue out at her, in the traditional retaliatory response. “So, you’re visiting me because?”
“I was keen to tell you I’ve put the bins out?”
“You’re locked out?” Bernie was, like most senior officers, surgeons or consultants, very capable of not laughing when it wasn’t appropriate. She was also reasonably good at hiding the fact that she wanted to laugh from most people.
“You’re laughing.” Alex wasn’t most people.
“Sorry.” Bernie ran her hand up Alex’s shin and tapped her on the knee. “I promise I’m not laughing at you…everything ok?” Bernie definitely wasn’t laughing when she realised she’d already come up with five possible reasons for Alex ending up locked out of the flat, although three of them could be ruled out since she’d been able to run to the hospital.
“I’m fine.” Alex threaded her fingers through Bernie’s and lifted her hand off Alex’s knee and into her lap. “I promise.”
“What happened?” Now that Bernie had Alex’s assurance she was alright, Bernie was intrigued - she’d never had any issue with even the remote chance of being locked out before, with if anything, the front door almost sticking on the hall floor when she opened it wide to juggle with the rubbish.
“Wind.” Alex tried to look at her elbow, which wasn’t the easiest contortion to complete, so gave up fairly quickly. “Out of nowhere, just slammed. You might have mentioned the through draught,” she teased, giving her elbow a tentative bend and stretch whilst she felt for any broken skin or soreness around the joint with her other hand.
“Never done it before… let me see.” Bernie stood up and stepped closer so that she could start a tenderly given but medically crude exam of Alex’s right arm, wanting to check out her lover’s wrist, elbow and shoulder.
“I’m fine Bern…” Alex’s protest was token as she obligingly let her arm go limp and heavy when she felt Bernie’s gentle probing of her shoulder and recognised what she was trying to determine, which was peace of mind about Alex not being injured.
“I know you are…” All her medical training and experience told Bernie that if Alex had done anything serious to her arm she wasn’t going to have been able to run the seven or eight miles it was to the hospital from the flat. “Sorry, instinctive response.” She let go of Alex’s forearm and stopped her gentle probing of the shoulder joint. “I’ve stopped.”
“Felt good…” Alex’s smile went from confident to more nervous, her lower lip trapped between her teeth as she suddenly found her fingers fascinating to watch as she caught hold of Bernie’s hand again.
“Al?” Bernie let Alex play with her fingers, the anaesthetist focussed as she entwined their fingers first one way then another, just watching as their fingers made textured patterns in her lap. “What else happened?”
“It must be because that big hedge has gone?” They’d both been surprised to see the massive conifer hedge that was as tall as the three storey house that it surrounded gone from the bottom of the garden when they had returned home from their respective shifts on Saturday. Clearly their new neighbours over the garden fence (not their fence, since the garden on ‘their’ side was assigned exclusively to the basement flat) had decided they didn’t particularly relish a dark and gloomy house either, and being the ones in a position to do something about it, they had taken action. “Kitchen now has sunlight, hall is now a wind tunnel if the window’s left open,” concluded Alex, deliberately not quite answering Bernie’s question.
“Why didn’t we notice sooner?” There was no accusation in the question, only genuine curiosity as Bernie tried to work out how they’d not discovered their new ventilation ‘feature’ at the same time as their increased natural light.
“I worked that out on my run over - I got back from St Austin’s early afternoon and went into the kitchen but didn’t open the window. We must have never had the window and the front door open until I took the rubbish out this afternoon…”
“I shut the window when I was making coffee,” remembered Bernie, finding the kitchen cold just after 6am.
“And I opened it when I was making lunch.” Alex looked up at Bernie. “Which is why the kitchen door slammed first and I ended up stood on the pavement looking at the locked front door and we’ll find the rubbish in the hall when we get home,” confessed Alex, knowing Bernie would be able to connect those facts and fill in the missing link which was that in the split second between when the kitchen door slammed and she could have caught the closing front door with her body, she’d actually reacted on instinct and dived away from the noise.
“Do you think Raf can lend us a door stop for the kitchen door?”
“I didn’t know Alex was working here today?”
“Dr D?” Fletch swivelled round on his chair so he could look at Raf properly whilst he waited on hold for Charlie Fairhead to finish checking something for him. “She’s not.” Fletch made it a point of knowing what was going on in the hospital that was relevant to AAU, and knowing if Alex was in the hospital was very relevant to AAU, especially if Ms Wolfe started scoring 8s and higher with her paper cup throws.
“She’s in Ms Wolfe’s office…” he leaned forwards, as if concerned about being overheard, “...and the door’s shut.”
“Whose door’s shut?”
“Alex!” Startled, having not heard her approach, Raf jumped in surprise. Looking to Fletch for help, he was left on his own when it was clear that whoever he was on hold with had returned to the call.
“That’s my name,” Alex agreed, smirking slightly when she saw his discomfort at clearly being ‘caught’ at something.
“I didn’t know you were working today.” As he spoke, Raf knew he wasn’t doing a good job at trying to convince her she wasn’t just being talked about.
“New uniform,” she joked, sticking her hands in the pockets of her running shorts and hunching up her shoulders in a slight shrug, “you boys not get the memo?” she teased, knowing she really shouldn’t be enjoying winding up Bernie’s Registrar.
“I’ve nae got the legs for it.”
“Thank you, I’m taking that as a compliment.” Alex’s smirk evolved into an amused grin when she saw his blush deepen as his accent thickened.
“Complimenting my girlfriend Mr di Lucca?” So focused was he on trying not to further embarrass himself with Alex, he’d also failed to notice Bernie’s arrival.
“I, uh…” He looked from Alex to Bernie, wondering if he dared risk looking back at Fletch for assistance.
“She’s teasing Raf.” Alex couldn’t keep him squirming any longer, “I promise.”
“Is she?” He looked at Bernie’s impressively stern expression skeptically, “could you tell her that please?” His attempt at a light-hearted tone came out rather squeakier than he’d anticipated.
“She’s just jealous,” continued Alex, the lingering effect of her earlier instinctive military reaction in a domestically civilian situation almost fully dissipated as she felt the last of her anxiety disappear.
“Jealous?” Bernie’s genuine confusion broke through her stern act as she looked at Alex.
“Jealous that Raf’s quicker with the compliments than you,” came Alex’s teasing response, winking at Raf as she spoke, trying to get him to relax a bit more, “but you can practice in Albie’s later.”
“Albie’s?” Of course, it was at this point that Fletch just ‘happened’ to finish his phone call and feel he was able to join the conversation. “I could do with a drink.”
“So could I…” agreed Raf, thinking he’d also be having a word with Fletch about his timing.
“It would appear that’s a plan then,” decided Bernie, pleased that Alex had recovered her equilibrium through the combination of the run, their time in Bernie’s office and the unknowing help of Raf and Fletch who, for some reason, seemed to have adopted Alex as their occasional third ‘amigo’. “Now, not to be too predictable, but do some of us have some work to do?”
“And that’s my cue…” As Alex stepped out of the conversation, she felt Bernie catch her hand and give it a brief squeeze before letting it slip from her hand as Alex’s momentum carried her out of the little group and towards the lift and Bernie’s locker where, once again, Alex was headed on a raiding mission to find something more suitable and comfortable to wear for a drink with Bernie and their friends.
It was only once she was in the lift, alone and under her own steam rather than which Fletch pushing her in a wheelchair, that it hit her.
Bernie had called her ‘her girlfriend’ in front of Fletch and Raf, and no one had noticed, including her girlfriend, which, realised Alex as she stepped out of the lift, was exactly as it should be…
“Yes Dr D?” Fletch smiled at the patient he was currently doing a wound check on to reassure the sweet kid (and not so sweet mother) that he was still paying attention despite being asked a question.
“Have we got an ‘A to Z’?” His hands stilled for a moment as he concentrated on not making a wisecrack about her still being in the 20th century. It was something he’d noticed Ms Wolfe did on occasion as well, asking a question that was, well, old fashioned, but hers were normally immediately after she’d fired out some military lingo and was tired.
“Probably, in the bottom of a drawer somewhere…” He repositioned the spotlight so he could see the incision that he’d watched Bernie close in theatre yesterday a little more clearly. “Looking really good mate,” he said, winking at the boy who’d been chewing his lip nervously while he waited for Fletch to finish checking him out. “Healing nicely, I’ll let Ms Wolfe know you’re doing a grand job for her.” He straightened up, partly to give his back a break for a moment and also to make it easier to reach for the clean dressing pack he had brought with him. “Won’t Google maps do?” He turned and looked at her for the first time, surprised to see her in jeans (definitely her own), t-shirt (probably Ms Wolfe’s as it looked a bit baggy on her) and shirt (definitely Ms Wolfe’s, he remembered her wearing it last week). “You can use my computer…”
“Thanks Fletch.” Alex shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans as she turned around, not missing his rapid appraisal of her appearance. Despite the fact that she had absolutely no interest in anyone’s opinion of her appearance other than Bernie’s (and if she was strictly honest with herself, she had enough amassed evidence of Bernie’s opinion about her whatever she was or wasn’t wearing to know she had nothing to ever worry about on that front) and her own, it was nice to be noticed, especially when it was after a wearing couple of hours.
“Is she a Doctor?”
“Yes Mrs Smith, Dr Dawson’s one of the best we’ve got,” sighed Fletch, trying not to rise to the sniping tone of the patient’s mother who had, until now, been refreshingly quiet.
“I find that hard to believe,” came the dismissive response as she tracked Alex’s progress over to the nurse’s station where fortunately, Raf was only too happy to log her in so she could use Google Maps. “Who doesn’t know to use Google Maps these days?”
“Ah…” Fletch thought for a moment, about explaining to this woman how some people did actually live more than five minutes away from their hairdresser and espresso machine, did actually manage to go for more than 2 minutes without needing to have their existence confirmed by some form of social media, but realised his efforts would be wasted on this woman. “IT’s a bit slow giving computer access to locums.” It wasn’t a lie as, despite working a few locum shifts in various departments across Holby General, Alex still didn’t have a computer log on. It just wasn’t the truth either, but then if there was one thing he’d learnt over the years, it was that sometimes people aren’t worthy of the truth, and this Mrs Smith? She wasn’t worth it.
Arriving back on AAU after going for a walk to stretch her legs after her earlier run, Alex was surprised to see Raf and Fletch stood at the nurses’ station with their rucksacks, clearly ready for the drink they’d agreed on earlier. There was just one problem. “Where’s Bernie?”
“ED.” At Fletch’s prompt but not particularly helpful answer to her question, her eyebrow twitched in a way that apparently was just as effective when she was know as ‘Dr D’ as ‘Captain Dawson’, because he quickly continued. “They’ve got an RTC with quite a few patients who need patching up. She’s gone to help ED out.”
“That sounds odd…” Raf was frowning as he tried to fathom why Ms Wolfe had been asked to go to ED when, for the last hour or so, he’d just been monitoring patients in AAU.
“It’s uh, non-surgical help,” hedged Fletch, trying to make his friend feel better about not being sent instead.
“But…” Unfortunately, Fletch’s attempt to reassure Raf hadn’t exactly helped matters - if they weren’t surgical patients, why send for a trauma surgeon consultant?
“What sort of RTC Fletch?” asked Alex, intervening before Raf could ask something he’d then be embarrassed about, like why Bernie had been requested when her bedside manner was known by all to be at the more brusque end of the caring spectrum by civilian standards.
“Low speed apparently, no major injuries, just superficial stuff…” Fletch shot a look at Raf that told him to keep his mouth shut for a moment longer, “...ED didn’t think they knew as much as they could do about amputee wound management, so Ms Wolfe’s gone to help - it’s keeping the patients calm too apparently, knowing they’ve got a Major in charge.”
“The casualties are Army?” Raf felt bad that he was relieved to understand why she’d been preferred ahead of him, but there were days when he felt unlucky to have two consultants rather than one in AAU - it did mean they were rather more self sufficient at times and that he missed out on some cases he would otherwise have been able to take the lead on. On the other hand though, he chastised himself quickly for resenting Ms Wolfe’s presence in AAU as she was an excellent teacher and had given him many more opportunities to learn new processes and procedures than he would have otherwise been exposed to.
“Bit of everything I think…” Alex tried not to shudder at Fletch’s imprecision, realising quite how indistinct the Tri-Services could be to civilians, glad for the patients that at least with Bernie in the ED they’d have someone who would ‘speak the language’. “...anyway, Ms Wolfe said she’d meet us in Albie’s once all twelve have been triaged. They’re on patient number eight now.”
“Sounds like we have our orders then,” agreed Alex, knowing she shouldn’t go through to the ED to offer to help - it wasn’t that Bernie’s or her own presence in the ED would alter the triage or treatment for each of the patients - at the end of the day, a wound was a wound and ED staff would do an excellent job no matter what. Where Bernie’s presence would be helping is in how quickly the triage was completed, and the stress it caused the individual patients, as she would be quicker than most at identifying what was combat related and whether it was exacerbated by the RTC. “Where is Albie’s?”
“Haven’t you been?” Raf gestured for her to lead the way out of AAU, waving to his replacement as they passed, happy to hopefully never have to cope with Mrs Smith again as the wee lad should be discharged by the time he was on shift again.
“No. Bernie’s mentioned it a couple of times…”
“It’s alright, convenient.” Raf held open the next door for her, “do you not have a bag or anything?”
“No. Nor money, so until Bernie turns up, it’s your rounds I’m afraid.” It was only after she’d offered her explanation that Alex realised it was possible to form a completely different conclusion to what had actually happened, and judging by how concerned Raf and Fletch were looking, their thoughts had clearly taken a more dramatic turn than she’d meant them to. “Nothing bad boys…” she looked from Raf to Fletch and despite her grin and no visible signs of injury, clearly she wasn’t convincing them so she grabbed each of them by the elbow and pulled them to the side, out of the main flow of the corridor. “I was putting the bins out before I went for a run and locked myself out, so I ran here. My stuff’s on the side at home.”
“Home?” asked Fletch, grinning like a Cheshire Cat when he realised what she’d let slip. “As in…”
“Home as in I’m staying with Bernie in her flat.”
“So that’s why you were in running kit,” concluded Raf, unlike Fletch already having known that Alex had been staying with Bernie since that first night she’d been back, the night he’d helped Serena ensure that they were the only two people who had known the lengths Bernie was prepared to go to in order to help her lover deal with her demons. “How far’d you run?”
“Today? About seven miles I think…” Alex set off walking again, not minding the conversation, but not wanting to linger in a corridor if there could be a gin and tonic in her future. “At least, assuming I gave Google Maps the right route.”
“Seven miles? That’s not bad…” Alex guessed from the way Raf was looking pointedly at Fletch that there was possibly some degree of false bravado in that brag. “What was your time?”
“A bit more than an hour I think, don’t really know.” Alex had a pretty good idea that she had been running at just a little over nine minutes per mile, which was the speed she would have been running at if she’d left with her keys and run the 5 mile circuit she and Bernie had created based on the streets around the flat, but wasn’t entirely certain - it was one thing to manage your pace when you were running a circuit you were reasonably familiar with, quite another to be running from A to B when finding B involved running into the town centre and following the signs. Not that it mattered - the only thing she really ever cared about when it came to running was knowing that she could run 1.5 miles in less than 14 minutes, as that was the Officer’s time for the RAMC PT test. As long as you were beating that time, anything else was a bonus, and she wasn’t much interested in bonuses today. “Saw a bit more of Holby than I’d planned on, that’s for sure,” she joked, wanting to change the subject before the conversation became a competitive discussion about running times, especially as she could now see Albie’s ahead of them.
“It has its good bits,” Raf looked at Fletch for support in defending Holby, “doesn’t it Fletch?”
“What’s that mate?” Fletch hadn’t been paying attention - when he’d said the word ‘time’ he got this real sense that he’d forgotten something, but he was struggling to remember what it was.
“Holby, has its good bits? I’m not a record player, you can’t just expect everything to be repeated y’know,” grumbled the Scotsman good-naturedly, throwing one of Fletch’s favourite responses to his kids every time they’d not been paying attention at him.
“Record!” Clicking his fingers, Fletch stopped at the door to Albie’s. “That was it.”
“What was what?” Raf looked quizzically at Fletch, wondering if he’d been paying any attention whatsoever to him. Alex, presuming that Fletch’s sudden recall was most likely to be about either work or home, had drifted over to read the menu that was stuck up by the door, deciding that if the burgers were as good as they sounded, that was probably dinner sorted for her and Bernie.
“The message, from Bernie, for you Alex.”
“Yeah, I forgot. Made no sense, but I was to remind you about the records review, she’s not forgotten it.”
“That was the message?” Alex stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and concentrated on trying to not grin like a lovesick teenager. “Exactly like that?”
“Yeah. Made me repeat it twice an’ all.” Fletch’s expression suggested he didn’t think much of Bernie’s apparent lack of confidence in his message relaying skills. “What records? You’ve not worked at Holby in weeks.”
“What’s your poison Alex?” Raf pushed Fletch through the door, not prepared to delay his pint any longer than absolutely necessary now they were here, not to mention he was reasonably confident that Alex’s ability to withstand a cross-examination was greater than Fletch’s ability to interrogate.
“Gin & Tonic please. I’ll grab a table…” Not waiting for an answer, Alex made a beeline for a good sized table in the corner of the bar that would comfortably seat the four of them but wasn’t so large they’d have to shout to be heard.
“Good plan, I’ll have a pint thanks Fletch.” And, not giving the tall charge nurse a chance to object, Raf darted after Alex, still rather too conscious that he’d lost a tenner in that bet about Hanssen earlier.
“But…” Realising he had no option but to get the round in, Fletch headed for the bar, consoling himself with the knowledge that he’d be buying most of the round with the money he’d won off Raf earlier, which reminded him to make sure they found out from Bernie what Hanssen had wanted, preferably while Alex was around to ensure he and Raf survived the conversation.
“Ms Effanga…” He glanced back towards the table, where Raf was clearly asking Alex about something, trying to decide if Alex looked like she could cope with a double gin.
“Double dating? He seems quite taken with her…” Mo had followed his gaze and was looking at Alex and Raf, already engrossed in conversation.
“It’s not like that…” began Fletch, only to see how Mo was reacting, and deciding it was best to just let her think what she wanted to think, at least until Bernie got here. Then it would no doubt be up to the two women what the grapevine decided was going on in AAU.
“Course it isn’t mate,” Mo winked at him before grabbing the bottle of white wine she’d ordered and heading back to the table on the far side of the bar where Dom, Zosia and Essie were clearly finishing the first bottle.
“You have no idea…” muttered Fletch, earning him a slightly odd look from the guy behind the bar who’d just arrived to take his order. “Sorry… can I have two pints of usual and a Gin and Tonic please?” He leaned on the bar and took in the various groups of colleagues scattered across the room whilst he waited for the pints. “What’s that?” He turned back to the bar when he heard a question being asked. “She’ll have a double.” She was probably going to need it.
“Another drink Alex?” asked Raf, looking at her empty glass, his own pint empty, with Fletch’s not far behind.
“Umm…” Alex glanced around, trying to catch sight of a clock, not sure how quickly she’d drunk the first one which had evidently been a double. “Do we know where Bernie is?” She hated sounding like a needy girlfriend when she really wasn’t - Raf and Fletch were good company and she’d found it easy to slip back into the sort of bantering discussion she’d discovered she’d been missing during her time with the charity overseas and when she was working as a locum. Instead, she was rather more conscious that by the end of another G&T on an early and light lunch, she’d be heading into goofy girlfriend territory, and it was only fair to either warn Bernie or order something to eat.
“Should be almost here I’d have thought,” pondered Raf, looking around and noticing the first of the ED staff who would have been involved in the same triage starting to arrive, their faces suggesting they’d be getting to their second drink fairly quickly.
“She’s on her way I think.”
“You psychic or something now?” asked Raf, looking in disbelief at Fletch’s sudden confidence.
“Nah, literate.” He held up his phone screen, which showed a short string of numbers and letters.
“Let me see?” asked Alex, reaching for his phone, smiling when she saw the brief message. “Five minutes, and best order her a double.”
“Double what? How do you order double red wine?” Raf craned his neck to read the text message as she passed the phone back to Fletch, only to be none the wiser. based on what he’d read, although he could see that 5/60 would mean five minutes, but the GGT?
“Red wine? Before dinner? No.” Alex looked at them like they’d both taken leave of their senses. “Gin and tonic, double. Same for me please.”
“On your head be it…” muttered Fletch as Raf headed off to the bar, unable to think of a single time he’d seen the surgeon drinking anything other than red wine.
“That sounds like fighting talk,” observed Alex mildly, keeping a close eye on the door for Bernie’s arrival.
“Maybe it is…” agreed Fletch, his success in betting on Bernie against Hanssen earlier bolstering his confidence and making him forget who he was making the bet with. “Next round of drinks says she goes looking for a glass of wine when I tell her we’ve got her drink already.”
“Drinks and food,” countered Alex, knowing there was no way she was drinking a third drink without eating something, and having just seen some burgers delivered to the table Dom Copeland was sitting at, they were vastly superior to anything she or Bernie would cook at home later. “Deal?”
“Deal… Raf and I were going to get burgers here anyway.”
“No children then Fletch?” Bernie appeared just behind him, clearly having arrived through a door Alex hadn’t spotted. “Hey you…” she continued, putting her satchel style bag that served as her briefcase and handbag on the seat Raf had been using so she could take off her hospital pass and scarf, both of which she shoved in the bag, her expression and tone of voice making it obvious that she definitely wasn’t addressing herself to the Charge Nurse. “Drink?”
“Raf’s at the bar…” Alex shifted along the bench seat so that there was a clear space on her left, hoping it was obvious to Bernie where she’d like her to sit. “You have children Fletch?”
“Four, and it’s half term, so they’re at their Nan’s, which means beer and burgers for me and Raf.”
“Ah.” Alex was only half listening to what he was saying, being rather more preoccupied with not being too obvious in watching as Bernie, taking care not to knock the table, slipped between the end of the table and the wall so that she could sit down on the seat next to Alex.
“What?” Amused, Bernie looked at Alex as she sat down, wondering why she was being looked at like a three course dinner after a week on rations.
“Nothing.” Embarrassed at how bad she’d been at ‘playing it cool’, Alex started to fiddle with a bar mat as she tried to hide behind her hair.
“Oh…” Slightly disappointed, Bernie sat back on the seat, shuffling until she’d worked out to what degree she needed to slump in order to feel like she wasn’t sat on an upholstered shelf. If in her shuffling she ended up with her right side agonisingly close (but not quite touching) to Alex’s left side, that was most definitely not an accident.
“Oh?” Picking up on her tone, and being very aware of how close Bernie was sitting to her (not indecently close - they were sat closer and tighter in troop transports, but nicely close, and far closer than necessity given how much space there was on Bernie’s left for her satchel), Alex cautiously looked at her girlfriend, wondering what she was thinking.
“Don’t I get a hello?” Bernie asked quietly, noticing that Fletch had discreetly slipped away to presumably help Raf bring the drinks over from the bar.
“Hello…” Looking at Bernie, despite her unexpected nervousness, Alex couldn’t stop her lips quirking into a smile, their sudden dryness prompting her to instinctively moisten them with the tip of her tongue.
“Hi.” Automatically, Bernie reached out to tuck the silky brown strands of hair behind Alex’s ear, only to pause when the background noise level increased as someone at one of the other tables told a joke that evidently had a very funny punchline, reminding her that they weren’t quite as alone as their quiet corner felt.
“It’s ok…” promised Alex, her nervousness gone, replaced by confidence now she knew she wasn’t the only one experiencing some confusion as to how they conducted themselves in this civilian world where there were no restrictions on who they loved. “If you’re ready I’m ready,” she encouraged, certain Bernie would be able to hear the pounding of her heart over the pulse of the background music as, with a surgeon’s steady, confident hand, Bernie tucked Alex’s hair behind her ear and then leaned forwards and kissed Alex’s cheek, just past the edge of her mouth.
“Hello you..” Bernie murmured, her breath warm and teasing on Alex’s cheek, their heads only millimetres apart, her chest pressed against Alex’s upper arm.
Alex returned the kiss with one of her own to Bernie’s cheek, tantalisingly close to lips but not meeting them; it was one thing to know they could show affection for each other in public, quite another to be naturally inclined to public displays of extended kisses, and that still hadn’t changed. “How was the ED?”
“Not too bad…” Bernie leaned back so she was once more sat back on the seat, her neck and shoulders no longer twisted towards Alex, although her whole body was angled towards Alex, who was also now turned towards Bernie, rather than sitting square on to the table. “The bigger problem was shock…”
“Staff or patients?”
“Both a bit. I arrived in time to meet the second ambulance…” Bernie looked in the direction of the bar, but Alex knew she wasn’t seeing Fletch and Raf. “He thought he’d been brought in by MERT.” She swallowed thickly and, blinking a couple of times as she tried to shake free of her own memories, Bernie looked at Alex, her eyes clouded with the memories of meeting countless MERT arrivals over the course of her military career and ultimately, being a MERT patient herself.
“Flashback?” Alex could all too easily picture the scene of the adapted Chinook helicopter touching down at Camp Bastion, the tail opening up and being almost blinded by the sudden brightness as they clambered out of the helicopter with their patient, glad to be off her knees, glad to be back inside the wire. She’d been on both sides of the landing, as the anaesthetist on the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) and as part of the team, stood by Bernie, waiting to continue the work the MERT had started en route to the Base.
“At the RTC maybe,” Bernie tucked her hair behind her ear, fed up of it tickling her jaw, “but by the time they’d arrived it was mainly situational confusion - most of them were showing signs of concussion.” It hadn’t been a surprise therefore, given the apparent chaos at what should have been a fairly straightforward low speed minibus and car RTC, that some of the passengers on the minibus who were all relatively recently wounded servicemen and women were exhibiting some disorientation.
“Here we go…”
“Thanks Raf.” Smiling at the registrar, Bernie immediately reached for the second gin and tonic and, pausing only to briefly ‘clink’ her glass against Alex’s and raise it generally in the direction of Raf and Fletch, who’d been following up behind Raf with a pint and the food menus, took a healthy gulp of the drink. “I needed that.”
“ED that tough?” asked Raf, keen to hear from Bernie what had happened, “I was talking to some of the guys at the bar just now…” As he and Bernie fell into easy conversation about how the Holby ED was set up compared to both AAU and Bernie’s other experiences, Alex watched as Fletch sat down and waited for him to say something.
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
“She’s always drunk red wine before.” He scratched the side of his neck as he tried to work out how he’d got this so wrong and was now going to be paying for their dinner and next drinks. “Her and Serena, they share a bottle usually.”
“There’s your answer then,” observed Alex, taking a sip of her drink that became a longer slurp when she suddenly felt Bernie’s right hand rest on her thigh, a wordless reminder that Bernie was there, could hear what they were talking about, was ready to join in if she needed or wanted support.
“Oh.” Fletch downed the top third of his pint whilst he considered this new piece of information - certainly Serena’s love of red wine, Shiraz in particular, was well known, and he distinctly remembered that one of the first compliments he’d heard his boss give about Bernie was her taste in wine, way back before everything had become a bit messy and tangled for a while. “How’d you feel about pineapple?”
“On a pizza?”
“Nah, that’s just wrong. On your burger.”
“I don’t think I know, why?” Returning her drink to the table, Alex let her left hand drop into her lap and find Bernie’s, their fingers tangling instinctively.
“You have got to try the Everything Burger then…” began Fletch, passing her a menu and beginning an animated discussion about the relative merits of the various burgers, a discussion that quickly saw Raf break off from his conversation with Bernie in order to correct what he considered to be Fletch’s ‘worryingly wrong’ views on what constituted the perfect burger. It was a debate that would clearly take more than one evening…
“You’ve got…” Alex waved her hand vaguely in the general direction of her cheek, trying to get Bernie to work out she’d somehow managed to miss her mouth at some point.
“Ah, thanks.” Instinctively wiping her cheek with one of the paper napkins that were sitting on the table untouched, Bernie managed to methodically wipe the entirety of her cheek except the bit that needed attention.
“Nice aim Bern.” Alex tried to hide her amusement behind her pint, having decided two G&Ts were quite enough, and they didn’t exactly go with the burger.
“This is where you tell me there wasn’t anything there, isn’t it?” challenged Bernie, feeling nicely full of good food enjoyed with friends.
“Nah, it’s definitely there,” confirmed Fletch, joining in the discussion, “I could take a photograph if you like?”
“No thank you Fletch,” replied Bernie almost primly, thinking she’d probably have to give in and go to the ladies to wash her face, although if it was bad as they seemed to be claiming it was, she wasn’t sure she necessarily wanted to walk through the now much busier Albie’s with this as yet unidentified food. “I’ll….”
“Mustard.” Alex licked her lips, “and pineapple.” She looked at Bernie in disgust, “you put mustard on your pineapple?”
“Not deliberately.” Bernie rubbed her cheek where she could now feel the wetness lingering from Alex’s rapid and sloppy kiss. “Is it gone?” she asked, looking at Alex in amusement.
“Not sure…” Alex leaned forwards again, this time making sure that Bernie knew what she was doing, “better check…”
“She seems nice.”
“Who?” Raf wasn’t entirely paying attention to Mo Effanga when she started talking to him at the bar, being more focussed on trying to work out what sort of beer it was that Bernie and Alex were drinking.
“Your new girlfriend…” Mo gave him a nudge with her elbow, “...she seemed into you earlier?”
“My new girlf…” Completely baffled, and certain that it needed more than three pints to get him to this point of befuddlement, Raf gave Mo his full attention. “I haven’t got a girlfriend. Who are you talking about?”
“The brunette? At your table all evening?” Mo gave him a playful nudge again, thinking he was playing deliberately coy. “She seemed really into you….”
“Alex?” Raf glanced back towards their table, as if needing to double check that Alex was indeed the brunette he’d been sitting with all evening, looking just in time to see what looked like Alex kiss Bernie fleetingly, although evidently Mo hadn’t noticed. “Nah, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, right…” began Mo, turning around to look at this ‘Alex’, intending to try to convince Raf that she wasn’t buying his denials. “Wow.”
“Yeah, right,” agreed Raf, trying not to laugh when he saw the look of surprise on Mo’s face. “She’s not my girlfriend, she’s Bernie’s.”
“Awesome.” There really wasn’t anything else to say.
“Just seen Mo Effanga at the bar…”
“Oh?” Fletch helped Raf out by rescuing one of the pints that was balanced on his hand. “Good skills mate,” he added as an afterthought when he realised that Raf had managed to bring all four pints over to the table in one trip.
“Thanks.” Raf made sure the beers were distributed in the right order. “She’d decided you were my new girlfriend Alex.”
“Really?” Alex looked incredibly skeptical at this suggestion, not least because she was reasonably certain that the kiss she’d just had with Bernie made it fairly clear where her interest actually lay.
“She said that to me too.”
“She did? When?”
“Before Bernie got here, when I was getting the first round in.”
“Do they do relationships differently on Darwin?” asked Alex, wondering what it was that Mo had thought she’d seen when Raf was suggesting running routes to her that had helped her form that conclusion.
“Nah.” Fletch took gulp from his pint, thinking about all the drama and gossip that the Darwin ward seemed to generate at any given time, “just don’t appreciate the rest of us do.”
“She gets it now though,” added Raf, wondering if Alex and Bernie were aware of the audience they’d had for that kiss.
“In the words of Ms Effanga,” he raised his glass in preparation for a toast which the other three duly prepared to follow, “awesome.”
“Speaking of awesome…”
“Yes Fletch?” Bernie had a reasonably good idea what he was going to ask, having sensed him have a couple of abortive attempts while they were eating.
“What did you do to Hanssen?”
“Do?” Bernie leaned back from the table, trying to look somewhere between innocent and nonchalant. “I didn’t do anything to the esteemed Mr Hanssen.” Alex’s snort suggested she disagreed, prompting Bernie to continue to explain her statement. “I didn’t do anything except demonstrate I had more patience than he did.” Turning to address Alex specifically, she added, “he’s like the Ghost, only an amateur.”
“And outranks you,” reminded Alex gently, knowing that Bernie could out-stubborn a mule when she wanted to, which wasn’t necessarily at the same time as when she ought to. “How long before he caved?”
“Seven minutes I think, give or take some paperwork.”
“Amateur,” agreed Alex, although she did continue to explain for the benefit of Raf and Fletch, “the Ghost once stood just behind me in theatre for an entire, what was it?”
“Splenectomy…” Bernie could see 'the boys’ mentally deciding how long that procedure should take her, “and a fair bit of the patient’s intestines to check over, given the extent of the shrapnel wounds.” She could tell when they decided to double or even treble their original estimates.
“What did this ‘Ghost’ want?”
“My undivided attention on some paperwork that was not as high up my to-do list as it was on his. To his credit, he did at least realise that trying to get that soldier’s insides back, well, inside him, probably required some attention on my part.”
“She was humming the Ghostbusters theme tune for most of the surgery. The rest of us were trying not to laugh.”
“I was not!”
“You were.” Alex levelled a distinctively challenging look at her girlfriend. “Ghostbusters, humming it quite clearly.”
“I agree that I was humming the Ghostbusters theme tune…” Bernie met Alex’s gaze with one of her own, as she defended her statement, “but not for most of the surgery.”
“Yes, you were. It took weeks for the rest of us to get it out of our heads. I remember, most vividly.”
“It was only for half of the surgery, once I’d done the splenectomy - before that it was Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Goes well with Ghostbusters,” muttered Fletch, glancing at Raf to check that this really was happening, and he wasn’t imagining it as they both took drank some more beer.
“On Christmas Eve it does,” came the quick retort from Bernie as she lifted her glass to her lips and drank some of her beer, enjoying herself.
“What did Hanssen want?” asked Raf finally, when he was reasonably confident that Fletch had recovered from the discomfort of snorting some of his beer and would therefore hear Bernie’s answer, assuming she was prepared to tell them. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
“You know I’m not entirely sure, now I think about it,” decided Bernie thoughtfully, after a long pause whilst she remembered the odd, even by Henrik Hanssen’s standards, conversation.
“Not unusual with that one.” Fletch rubbed his still tingling nose, wondering how it was that beer could be quite flat-tasting when you drank it but still feel painfully bubbly if it got in your nose.
“Raf, you’ve worked Saturday afternoon shifts in charge of AAU before, haven’t you?”
“Aye…” Raf made an effort to keep calm, counting to three before he continued, knowing that Bernie didn’t usually ask a question without a very good reason and it was better if he held his temper until he knew why she was asking. “a fair few.”
“Thought so…” Bernie chewed her lower lip thoughtfully, replaying her conversation with Hanssen over in her head. “Damn it, it can’t be that.”
“Sorry Raf, didn’t mean....” Bernie rubbed her neck in what all present recognised as a sign of weariness and mounting frustration.
“Start at the beginning Bern,” nudged Alex quietly, "before you lose us.”
“Hanssen wanted to know if I was going to be in the hospital next Saturday, when you’re down to lead the afternoon shift Raf.”
“In the hospital?” Fletch looked from Bernie to Raf to see if he’d also picked up on the unusual phrasing that didn’t sound very ‘Holby-like’. “He said that?” he asked Bernie, not wanting to doubt her word, but not really believing it.
“Those very words. It’s nothing to do with your skills Raf.” She was quick to reassure the Scotsman, “it’s Armed Forces Day.”
“Of course…” Fletch immediately understood why Hanssen was interested in whether she was working or not. “Every year the local paper does a bit on it, with photographs and stuff. One of Mikey’s teachers is a…” Fletch tapped his finger on the table as he tried to remember what the teacher’s military credentials were, “...pilot of some sort I think, no, not that…”
“Did he go to Afghanistan?” asked Alex, partly because she was curious, and partly because it was clear it was going to bug him until he’d remembered.
“Yeah, RAF, but not flying… from what he told the kids, it sounded like…” He looked at Raf, wondering if he could remember anything from what Mikey had talked about after the day last year. “Could he have had a dog?”
“Yeah… I’m sure he was RAF though, had a propeller thingy on his uniform?” Fletch looked at Alex uncertainly, knowing he’d probably got some of it wrong but hopeful she and Bernie could make some sort of sense of his memory.
“He could have been a dog handler in the RAF Regiment,” considered Alex, looking thoughtfully at Bernie who nodded her agreement, “they’re the police and security force for Air Bases…and some of the enlisted have propellers as their rank insignia.”
“So I’m not talking bollocks?”
“You’re not talking bollocks Fletch,” agreed Alex, returning his grin.
“Ta. So Hanssen wants you in for the photo op?”
“I’m not sure… anyway, I said I’d probably be in doing paperwork, since Serena’s still on holiday then.”
“But you’re not on shift…” Raf was clear on that at least - if she was, he wouldn’t be leading. “So why come in?”
“To do the paperwork before Serena gets cross with me for not doing it?” suggested Bernie, thinking that was a perfectly reasonable justification for wanting to spend a Saturday in her office.
“So Hanssen wanted to make sure you’re in and wearing uniform? Congratulations Ms Wolfe, looks like you’re going to make the local paper!” Fletch raised his glass in a wry tribute, knowing that the idea of being in the local paper was probably somewhere in the top ten of her ‘prefer not to happen’ list.
“Maybe,” agreed Bernie cautiously, looking at Fletch and Raf thoughtfully. “Can you remember what was organised last year? HR seems to think I’m the senior officer and they’re going to be in touch…”
“Is that a threat or a promise?” asked Alex, recalling her own interesting interactions with the Holby HR department on the couple of occasions she’d been a locum so far. Fortunately (for Holby) and unfortunately (for Alex), they didn’t seem to be much better or worse than any of the other hospitals she’d worked a locum shift in, although in Holby’s defence, they did at least get her paid correctly and promptly.
“Both, I think.” Bernie felt a yawn starting to build. “Home?”
“Home,” agreed Alex, liking how that word sounded, especially when it included the presumption that it was a place that included her lover.
“You’re in charge tomorrow Raf,” said Bernie, reaching for her satchel and finding her wallet.
“I’ll keep him in line,” volunteered Fletch cheekily, “and I’ll try to remember what happened last year, for the Forces Day.”
“Thanks…” Bernie opened her wallet to check she had money for a taxi, and some to cover the round or two of drinks she should have bought. “I owe you both some drinks…”
“No you don’t,” said Fletch quickly, unwilling to admit to Bernie that he’d bought the drinks and burgers because he’d lost a bet he shouldn’t have made, “you were ahead before we started.”
“If you insist…” Bernie pocketed some cash for the taxi and put her wallet away, not believing him but recognising it was politer to agree than to argue or worse, force some cash onto them.
“Aye, we do,” agreed Raf, standing up so he could pull the table back a bit, making it easier for the two ladies to stand up and leave. “Doing anything nice for your day off?” It was an innocent sounding question, but they all heard the unspoken double-checking that she wouldn’t be haunting AAU in the name of paperwork.
“I don’t know…” Bernie looked at Alex, wondering what she was doing tomorrow, unwilling to admit that she still hadn’t really adjusted to having ‘days off’ after too long on tours where your days off came at the end of the tour, and that out in the field if you weren’t operating or doing paperwork you were trying to sleep. “But I will be by at some point…” she watched with well concealed amusement at Raf’s poor attempt to hide his disappointment, “...I left my car keys in my desk drawer - will need to pick them up. But I can text you to meet me outside with them, if you think I can’t be trusted?”
“Aye, I mean…” Raf blushed as he stuttered to a halt, “That is, I’ll see you tomorrow…”
“I think that means he trusts you,” stage whispered Alex, giving Bernie a dig in the ribs to encourage her to start walking towards the door, the efforts of her unplanned longer run starting to take their toll despite the shower, stretches and food.
“Aye, it does. Good night ladies.”
“Night Raf, Fletch…”
“Would it help if I told you I’m not working tomorrow?” asked Alex casually as they ambled towards the taxi rank on the other side of the hospital, enjoying the unexpectedly mild and pleasant evening until she remembered it was June and she shouldn’t be quite so surprised it was mild enough to walk without a coat.
“Help what?” Distractedly, Bernie looked at Alex, who immediately noticed despite the shadowy light that something was troubling Bernie, and she had a feeling it wasn’t Hanssen and his photo op.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Alex slipped her arm around her lover’s waist, ostensibly to steer Bernie back towards the relative safety of the pavement rather than the albeit deserted cycle lane, before she remembered that she didn’t need a complex reasoning or justification for putting her arm around her lover’s waist anymore.
“Mmm?” Feeling Alex’s fingers warm against her skin, exploiting a sliver of an opening between her shirt and trousers, Bernie moved closer to Alex and wrapped her arm around her lover’s shoulders, pulling her close as they continued to dawdle towards the taxi rank. “The kids…” Predictably, the minute she mentioned her children, Bernie clammed up again. It had taken Alex several attempts in the last few weeks, on the handful of days she’d been ‘home’ with Bernie in between completing her charity contract commitments, catching up on her Reservist duties and relocating what remained of her life after those two duties to Bernie’s flat, but she’d finally got Bernie to explain why she was reluctant to talk about Cameron and Charlotte with her, and managed to persuade Bernie that she didn’t need to not talk about them for Alex’s benefit.
“Was there a patient?” asked Alex carefully, knowing that the last time Bernie had been particularly reminded of being ignored and effectively abandoned by her children was when she had operated on a brother and sister who had been involved in an RTC - the parallels couldn’t have been starker for Bernie, especially when the siblings’ bedsides had apparently been the ideal location for a tearful family reunion and burying of grudges.
“No…” Bernie slowed their dawdling even more and hugged Alex more tightly, “...this evening… seeing the F1s… it’s Friday night and I don’t know what my children do for fun.” Predictably, as soon as she’d spoken, Bernie looked even more distressed as she realised she was ‘burdening’ Alex with her ‘baggage’ and began to apologise, “I’m sorry, you don’t need…”
“I do need,” corrected Alex immediately, stopping and turning so she was stood facing Bernie, both arms wrapped around her waist. “I do need to hear what you’re thinking about, what’s worrying you…” She reached up and tucked already tidy hair behind Bernie’s ear, an excuse to move her hand up to be able to touch her lover’s cheek, subtly feel for any hints of moisture that she wouldn’t be able to see in the half light. “I love you, remember?”
“I remember…” Bernie smiled weakly, her eyes darting left and right as she intently studied Alex’s face, taking in the familiar smile, the slightly angled head and her lover’s wise, warm eyes that saw everything, always had seen more of Bernie than anyone else. “I love you too…”
“But?” It wasn’t a challenging question, but proof that Alex did know Bernie, knew that there was still something lingering in the shadowy corner of Bernie’s thoughts, a thought that needed a gentle nudge to be lifted from weighing on her lover’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry I ruined a happy evening.” The big sigh that followed the short statement was classic Bernie - resisting sharing what was weighing on her, but feel a bubble of relief once she had shared: if it wasn’t invariably associated with things that were distressing for the surgeon, Alex would have found it cute and sweet, the way that big sigh was always followed with a shy half smile and a small wiggle of her shoulders.
“Next time you meet up with Matt, I’ll let him explain what happened at Aunt Julia’s the Christmas he and I were both home on leave,” she joked, moving her feet slightly so she could stand more comfortably with Bernie’s arms around her shoulders. “That will give you a better understanding of a ruined evening.” It was a gentle tease, kindly meant and had the desired effect, in that it distracted Bernie from her own pessimism by sparking her curiosity.
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“He tells it better.”
“Ok.” Bernie thought for a moment, completely oblivious to the fact they were stood on the pavement by the entrance to the staff car park, just focussed on feeling calm and loved as she and Alex held each other. “You want to text him and invite him over for his next leave? Would give us an excuse to try that pub down the road...”
“With the hanging baskets?” Alex wasn’t sure that a twee looking pub that was rather obsessive about its hanging baskets was necessarily the best place to take her rather exuberant Royal Marine little brother.
“And the microbrewery and garden barbeque…” finished Bernie, having had more opportunity to get to know the area around her flat than Alex had.
“Okay, that sounds like Matt’s kind of place!” Laughing, Alex once more traced her lover’s jaw, this time actually catching an errant strand of hair that needed tidying away.
“Do you think it would be Cameron’s?” Bernie caught her lip between her teeth as, properly believing and understanding that she had permission to wonder aloud, that Alex wanted to be there to share in her worries about how little she now knew about her children. “Or Charlotte’s? Maybe she’s vegetarian, or doesn’t drink…”
“I’m sure it would be somewhere both Cameron and Charlotte would like to go,” promised Alex, wanting to just pull Bernie into as tight and close a hug as was possible and just kiss her until she really believed that not only was she loved, but that despite all of Marcus’ manipulations and distortions, both of the truth (as far as she could tell) and the memories of Bernie’s two children, Bernie was loving too, both as a lover and a best friend, but also as a mother. “And if they’re vegetarian, they’ll enjoy the veggie options, just like you do sometimes,” reminded Alex, knowing that for all the effort put into what, latterly at least, was truly excellent food considering their location in the middle of a warzone, both she and Bernie often returned from tours craving fresh fruit and vegetables, instinctively eating vegetarian and even vegan meals for the first couple of weeks back. “Not to mention fruit juices and soft drinks like we do when on call….”
“I’m being silly.”
“No, you’re being an adult. Unlike the rest of your family.” Alex hadn’t been around when Bernie was going through the hell of her divorce, but based on what little Bernie had told her, combined which what Alex had learned when Bernie had given her all the settlement papers to read and the odd comment from Raf, Fletch and Dom, she had a pretty good understanding of how vindictive and childish Marcus had become, wanting to extract every last drop of pride and possession he could from Bernie. She could understand the children, given how their father had dictated the terms of the separation and divorce, behaving as they had done. Although they were both old enough to be treated as adults rather than children (so no access and custody discussions or maintenance), it was clear they still had the some of the naivety of children and, for whatever reason, most probably a mix of habit and fear was her guess, they’d accepted their father’s word and instruction without question. Bernie was therefore the baddie, the selfish soldier who’d run away from the family to go off to war, abandoning her family to the worn out but devoted husband. He’d somehow managed to get away with creating the image of, in the court’s eyes, the worst kind of feminist and women’s lib - the woman who took her emancipation and abandoned her duties as a mother and a woman.
“It was difficult for them, for Marcus…”
“Why didn’t you fight?” Alex had asked the question before she’d realised it was something she wanted to know, and didn’t really appreciate she’d asked it aloud until she saw Bernie’s surprised expression.
“Fight? Fight who? And when?”
“Sorry, it’s none of my business…”
“Of course it’s your business!” Bernie kept a firm hold of Alex’s shoulders, so she couldn’t turn away whilst with her other hand, she stroked her girlfriend’s chin until she had coaxed Alex to look back up at her. “I just don’t know what you’re talking about… the divorce?”
“Yes...I…” Alex rocked on her feet for a moment, reviving her heavy legs and ordering her thoughts, knowing that if she didn’t follow through with the question now, not only would Bernie let her off, she wouldn’t bring it up again unless Alex did. And since she never wanted Bernie to be reminded of her divorce and her ex-husband any more than she absolutely had to be, that was going to be unlikely. Therefore, drawing on a courage and a confidence she didn’t think she had, Alex continued with her question. “In all the divorce stuff, he made you out to be this cold and calculating emotionless career-focused zombie…” Alex saw Bernie smirk and start to say something, so she gently silenced her by placing a finger on Bernie’s parted lips. “Shh, let me finish?” At Bernie’s nod and cheeky lick of her fingertip, Alex couldn’t help but smile as she continued, “but you didn’t fight back… from what you’ve showed me, you didn’t tell them that it was your commission that got the discounted school places, and your salary that paid for the reduced fees. You just let him talk about how he paid for their food and hobbies in the holidays…”
“And where was the lecture about we treat the wounded and the sick because our duty is to heal not to fight? Where was the list of lives you’ve saved? Why did you let them get away with only emphasising the warzones you’ve been to?”
“Can I talk now?” teased Bernie, when it was reasonably clear that Alex was done with her question.
“What? Yes, sorry…” Alex blushed when she realised how bossy she’d been, “of course.”
“I didn’t do any of that because it would have just made it longer and it wouldn’t have helped me get what I wanted.”
“But your children…”
“It became clear my children wouldn’t have their opinions changed as long as Marcus was in control, and as long as they are living in his house he is in control.” Bernie cleared her throat, trying to shift enough of the lump that was forming there in order to continue with what she wanted to say. “And they may never like me, not everyone’s mother is likable, that’s not what family is…”
“I miss the fact that I can’t even find out if they would like me, even now the divorce is done. But I don’t regret not fighting. It wasn’t going to change what Marcus thought, wasn’t going to change what I was going to get from the divorce… I didn’t want Marcus, I didn’t want his money even though I probably could have got some, I didn’t want anything that he could give.”
“What did you want that was worth not fighting for?”
“I never said it wasn’t worth fighting for,” corrected Bernie softly, tracing Alex’s jaw with her fingers, confirming her memory was correct as she felt the subtle textures of muscle and tendon laid over fine, strong bone, “just that it wasn’t something a fight with him could give. I fought just hard enough to keep my stethoscope around my neck and my right to retire rather than be discharged. That was all I needed from him.”
“Need isn’t the same as want.”
“No.” Bernie’s expression changed to the grin that Alex privately always thought of as ‘wolfish’ when it was directed at her, and it did interesting and wonderful things to her insides. “I’m very, very lucky…”
“Oh?” Their heads were millimetres apart, they were moving towards each other as if caught in some private gravitational force that was inescapable from, not that escape was on their minds.
“I was able to get what I wanted…”
It didn’t matter that Bernie didn’t have the words to explain any further, didn’t matter that Alex didn’t have the words to explain that she understood, that she wanted to be wanted by Bernie, that she wanted Bernie as much as Bernie wanted her. It didn’t matter because in that moment, when their foreheads touched, their noses brushed together before in perfectly harmonious synchronicity Alex tilted her head one way and Bernie the other, their foreheads parting just enough to permit their lips to touch, to taste and to tease before finally, as if responding to the shouted command only they could issue, only they could hear, they kissed.
It didn’t matter that they didn’t have the words, because they didn’t need words, they had each other, and each other’s love.
Looking out of the window at the car park below, Henrik Hanssen could take advantage of his high vantage point to quietly observe the comings and the goings at his hospital. Down and away to his right, beyond the entrance to the Wyvern Wing were the no doubt noisy and busy ambulance bays as the start of the Friday night rush began for the ED. Just out of view, the only hint of their existence was the occasional strobe of blue light reflecting off the parked cars, briefly illuminating the sparse planting and more frequent ‘no smoking’ signs as the next ambulance roared up the ramp, lights aglow. Nearer was the entrance to the Wyvern Wing, quiet now that visiting hours were done for all but the most acute of cases, with few staff passing through the doors as it was too late for the bulk of the day shift to be leaving, too early for the night shift to have reached their first breaks. With no planned night-time admissions or transfers either, no ambulance stood idling by the door, no clinical team was hovering expectantly.
Feeling the quiet hum of a hospital working well, he completed his visual inspection with a sweeping gaze across the car park, initially surprised by how many empty spaces he could see before remembering that it was, despite the temperatures of late, approaching mid June and all day he’d been picking up stray comments about the nice weather encouraging people to walk or cycle or run to their shift. It was logical to also presume that with it being a Friday night, perhaps more people had their car borrowed by other family members for weekends away or nights out. This apparent mystery solved, he was left with one final consideration - did he take the walk across the car park to Albie’s to have a drink with his colleagues? It wasn’t unheard of for him to socialise with them on occasion, and it was a pleasant evening to walk home in.
A shouted remark and responding laughter, muffled and indistinct as a result of his vantage point, far away from the entrance to Albie’s, reminded him that maybe it was a little late to try to join in, especially with Serena being on holiday… Decision made, he picked up his briefcase and set off down the stairs - he wouldn’t have a drink, not tonight, but the walk home would be pleasant.
Fingers tangled in hair, tongues duelling in mouths, Bernie and Alex were oblivious to the sounds of the F1s leaving Albie’s attempting to remember the words to Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ at the top of their voices. On another night, they would have noticed the young medics’ exuberance, perhaps commented with feelings of nostalgia about their own recollections at celebrating their first ‘big’ placement reports and next specialism rotations. But not tonight, not during this kiss, this first kiss of sorts.
It wasn’t their first time holding each other - that had been in the shadow of a Viking armoured patrol vehicle when they instinctively wanted to check that the other was still there, still alive despite the noise and dust generated by the surprise attack on their overnight camp by insurgents somewhere in the middle of a desert sorely lacking in love and peace. Nor was it their first kiss - that had been a cautious, tentative and fleeting brushing of dry lips in the shadow of a tent that offered only the illusion of privacy as every sound and noise was heard in the tents on either side, but at least it shielded them from any observing eyes and kept the sand away at the end of a long day of lives saved but shattered.
What made it a first was that there was nothing that wasn’t a part of their kiss - no ear was left listening for the sound of an approaching soldier who might round a corner and disturb their moment, no eye was watching for a turn of a doorknob that would herald the arrival of someone who must not see them; they didn’t need to worry about their sighs and moans carrying in the still of the night air, attracting the attention of a patrol, giving them away. This was a kiss between two people who had no reason to hide their love, had no cause to worry about being discovered, had no guilt or nerves… this was a kiss that came easily to young lovers who had the confidence and bravery of youth, that was too often thought of as recklessness or foolishness by the time the responsibilities and caution of adulthood had settled like a mantle about shoulders.
This was not the sort of kiss Henrik Hanssen was expecting to happen upon when he decided to walk home.
“Interesting choice of location...” His quiet words on approaching the couple clearly registered with them, as their kissing appeared to lessen in intensity as if, by mutual understanding, they redirected some of their senses to assessing their surroundings, “...I believe a locker room or storage cupboard is more traditional.” He’d intended to continue on his journey home, not wishing to interrupt the happy couple’s evening anymore than he already had, hoping only that they remembered where they were before they went any further.
“Tame compared to an armoured troop carrier.” Her voice carried in the evening air, richer and huskier than he was accustomed to hearing, but the hint of humour that was increasingly present of late was still there, and it was her tone not her words that stopped him.
“Ms Wolfe…” He turned slowly, his momentum having carried him on past them by a handful of paces, wondering whether he’d see them stood together still or stiffly separated.
“Bernie’s best, don’t you think?” Stood, with her arm around the shoulders of the woman she’d been kissing, her expression relaxed and amused, not remotely self conscious or intimidated by him, Henrik Hanssen realised he was looking at the woman her Commanding Officers had described - the talented, brilliant surgeon who knew what her role was, had confidence in her abilities, had belief in herself...and who respected the chain of command when it needed respecting but mostly just was herself, complete with a wry smile and sharp wit. This was the ‘Ms Wolfe’ who calmly performed the atriocaval shunt, who rearranged the AAU to something that managed to meet the challenges of a train crash, who’d got Self and Valentine to simultaneously operate. “Don’t worry, I won’t call you Henrik in the middle of AAU.”
“Very well, Bernie.” Alex watched silently, realising that this was the ‘amateur Ghost’ they’d been telling her about earlier, the infamous ‘Mr Hanssen’. “You must be Alex Dawson?” On seeing her nod, he switched his briefcase to his left hand and stepped forward, holding out his right to shake hands, which she instinctively took, her left arm not letting go of Bernie’s waist. “I’m... Henrik.”
“Alex, but ah, your staff seem to call me ‘Dr D’.”
“So I understand.” He decided not to mention that he’d met her previously, when she was transferred from ED to AAU, nor how relieved he and the bulk of the staff that knew Bernie were when she woke up, with apparently no long term side effects from her ordeal. “Will we be seeing you in Holby again Alex?”
“Depends on your anaesthetists…” Alex glanced at Bernie, checking that she was finding this as weirdly surreal as she was, discussing her future working patterns with Bernie’s boss a mere moment after a kiss that could only be described as ‘wow’. “If you don’t need any locums…”
“I’m certain we will always need locums, especially when they’re of your calibre Dr Dawson.”
“Thanks…” She didn’t really know what to say to that, so just smiled in what she hoped was a suitably professional but grateful way, glad that neither she nor Bernie were lipstick wearers based on how her face felt when she smiled....
“Will we be seeing you on your day off tomorrow, Bernie?”
“Only to collect my car…” She wasn’t surprised that he’d noticed she wasn’t very good at not coming in on her days off - she didn’t always come in, but unless she’d had a particular errand or task to complete, she’d invariably find her way back to Holby General at some point during her day off, not to operate, but to do a bit more of her inevitable backlog of paperwork (she wasn’t slow, it just was all new and different to what she was used to from the Army and she really did not take kindly to Serena’s overly patient explanations and corrections). As her paperwork backlog lessened she’d come in and read up on what her colleagues’ research and specialisms were here in Holby, even watch their operations, if they let her.
“Very good.” He stepped back and switched his briefcase back to his right hand once more. “Goodnight, Alex,” he nodded his head in what could almost be described as a courtly bow thought Alex as she nodded in acknowledgment and return. “Bernie.” The nod he directed at her was sharper, crisper, as if with a hint of a commander’s dismissal mixed in with the good manners and courtesy.
“Goodnight, Henrik,” acknowledged Bernie, with a smirk, speaking for both of them. “Have a good weekend.”
They both watched as he walked away from them, past Albie’s and evidently in the direction of his home or evening plans until, when both were confident he was definitely out of earshot, Bernie looked at Alex and said simply, “home?”
“Home,” agreed Alex, turning in step with Bernie and resuming their dawdle towards the taxi rank. “So if you’re not going to work tomorrow…”
“Does that mean you have plans to do something?” asked Alex, knowing that Bernie wasn’t great at just ‘being off’ and from what Alex remembered from pottering about the flat this morning, there wasn’t much to be done in terms of laundry, housework or DIY.
“I thought you might teach me about lie ins?” The question was asked casually, in much the same offhand way that she might have asked a Rupert if they thought they were excused parade (the answer was always no), so casually in fact, that Alex almost missed the significance of the question.
“Can you slow down please?”
“Drink?” Blinking slightly at the bright sunlight after the gloomier inside of the tent, Ronnie took advantage of his height and scanned the crowd, looking for refreshment options.
“Cha-ar…” Ever since she could remember, he’d managed to stretch her name like that when he was almost cross with her but not yet properly mad or fed up with her invariably deliberate naughtiness or teasing.
“Sorry… but you’d murder a pint if there was one…”
“Coffee?” He didn’t comment aloud, but his weary smile and bob of his head told her that she was spot on with her assessment. “There’s a place over there I think…” He gestured in the direction they needed to head in, managing to dodge through the queues of people wanting to have a go in the various simulators or climb on the heavy equipment that was on display. If they weren’t here with a deliberate plan, he’d have been joining the queues for all of them.
“Do they do iced coffees?” She’d long ago given up trying to see through crowds if he was around - it wasn’t that she was short, more a case of him always being much taller than her.
“What am I looking for?” He only read coffee menus when he was with her - everywhere that served coffee did a ‘boring black’ coffee, even if it was sometimes called something daft they usually understood his order.
“Frapp something…” His withering look made her change tack, “I’ll look when we get nearer.”
“‘Kay…” Ronnie stepped forwards to keep up with the queue, noticing his sister awkwardly juggling the leaflets she’d collected as they moved. “You want to put them in here?” he offered, taking off his rucksack and holding it in front of him for her to open. “What are they?”
“Leaflets…” She didn’t need to look up to see his ‘well d’uh’ look. “I picked them up when you were talking to that officer about schools…” There was a pause as she concentrated on making sure that the leaflets went into the bag and didn’t fall all over the floor. “They’re about housing I think…”
“We’d not thought about that, had we?” They shuffled along with the queue, Ronnie patiently holding his rucksack up for his sister to continue to rummage in.
“No. What are these?” Intrigued, she pulled out a plastic folder that contained print-outs of some brightly coloured squares in lines on various coloured backgrounds. Seeing she’d lost interest in fastening his rucksack, Ronnie concentrated on making sure everything else was put away properly before he answered.
“Ribbons, from the photographs I could find…” He shouldered his rucksack as they got to being only a handful of people away from the front of the queue. “I thought someone here might know what they mean.”
“Oh, like places and heroic stuff?”
“Like places and heroic stuff,” agreed Ronnie, laughing in spite of the seriousness of the topic - for all her maturity and intelligence in her studies, there were moments like this when her wide eyed innocence reminded him she really was his little sister. “Now, what sort of caffeinated horror do you want?”
“Can you remember how to salute?”
“Sorry…” Alex’s attempt at sounding contrite and sincere was atrocious, and she knew that Bernie had seen right through it.
“Remind me why I’m the only one in uniform Captain?”
“Al?” Bernie was reasonably confident that Alex wasn’t answering her question when she swore, and fortunately it coincided with her driving the car into a parking space, so she was able to look at her, although years of driving and being driven in some of the world’s less peaceful spots meant she didn’t automatically turn off the engine.
“Creepy Calamity’s here.”
“Where?” Bernie saw Alex nod her head in the direction of the main entrance to Holby General (as opposed to the entrance to the Wyvern Wing which was the door she always used) and saw the uniformed figure that Alex had spotted. “So he is.”
“What’s he doing here?” Alex’s frown had a hint of anger in it, prompting Bernie to reach across and wrap her hand around her lover’s tightly clenched fist.
“Not sure, but nothing on a ward…” Bernie tried to gently shake Alex’s hand into relaxing and opening out of the fist - she managed the former slightly, but not the latter. “Al?” Blindly, Bernie reached out with her right hand and turned off the ignition, then unfastened her seatbelt, enabling her to shift around in the driver’s seat so that she was able to look at Alex properly. “It’s going to be alright…”
“But…” Alex turned her head and looked at Bernie, her expression haunted with the memories of the last time she’d seen Captain Charles ‘Calamity’ Jeynes (pronounced ‘Jane’), her body tense with the anger she still felt towards him.
“Where are you today? Did I forget?” The call had come just after they’d finished eating dinner last night, and Bernie blushed slightly as she remembered how they’d ‘celebrated’ the fact that the locum request had been from Holby…
“AAU. And we stopped talking about work before I got round to it…” Alex’s frown shifted to a shy smile as her own memories of last night came to the fore. “Actually, I think we just stopped talking.”
“Marie’s off?” Despite the work focus of her question, as Bernie tried to understand why AAU was getting Alex’s services as a locum when she’d not heard from her team about any staffing issues, the light in Bernie’s eyes and the smile on her lips told Alex she too was remembering their lack of spoken conversation after a certain point last night...
“No idea. Not being your Registrar or Charge Nurse…”
“Good point. And speaking of…” It was Bernie’s turn to draw Alex’s attention to people outside, this time Raf and Fletch who were ambling across the car park in their general direction, their speed increasing when they saw Alex in Bernie’s car. “He’s not going to get to you Al...” Bernie’s gaze returned to focus on Alex inside the car, totally oblivious to everyone and everything outside of it. “I promise.”
“I know.” Not wanting to dwell on the mundane practicalities and potential impossibilities associated with Bernie’s declaration, Alex instead focussed on the intent and reached across the car and, slipping her fingers between collar and neatly pinned bun, she steered Bernie towards her for a brief but heartfelt kiss. “Thank you.”
“Always.” Bernie’s caught sight of the clock in the dashboard. “It’s time…”
“Mustn’t be late,” agreed Alex, taking off her seatbelt and preparing to get out of the car, knowing that her shift would be starting in a few minutes.
“No.” Bernie opened the driver’s door, seeing Fletch and Raf approaching the car having spotted them. “I hear the consultant’s a bear,” she teased, right before getting out of the car, forcing Alex to reply once she too had got out of the car, making it inevitable that she’d enter the hospital with Raf and Fletch which would, Bernie hoped, enable her to enter via the main entrance alone and hopefully keep Calamity from ever knowing Captain Dawson was in the hospital.
“A bear?” Amused at Bernie’s attempt to redirect her with what was a very old joke as far as the surgeon was concerned, Alex got out of the car and waved at ‘the boys’. Turning and looking at Bernie across the roof of the car, taking a moment to openly admire her lover as she put her beret on and generally made sure her uniform was as it should be, she continued. “I heard she was more of a wolf…”
“Aye,” agreed Raf, coming up behind Alex in time to hear her, “but a wolf with a day off.” He risked a cheeky grin in Bernie’s direction before looking at Alex with an even bigger grin, “does this mean you’re my locum?”
“Have ether will travel, or something like that.” Alex fell into step with Raf and Fletch as Bernie came around to join them and collect her briefcase from Alex, who was currently holding both their bags.
“Nice to see you standing up Major.” It took Bernie a moment to work out why Raf was saying that.
“Of course.” She took her briefcase off Alex and continued for both Alex and Fletch’s benefit, “Raf was one of the doctors who met me on the stretcher, but let me go straight to Darwin.” Seeing Alex’s look of understanding, Bernie quickly moved the conversation on, not wanting to dwell on less than rosy memories for any longer than absolutely necessary, “and believe me, it’s nice to be standing up.” By unspoken agreement, the four of them started walking towards the hospital building so that Alex, Raf and Fletch arrived in good time for the start of their shift. Bernie was just content to get to her desk when she got there, more concerned about making sure Alex got to start her shift without having to face ‘Calamity’ again, although at least this time, if she punched him when he failed to understand what ‘no’ really meant, she wouldn’t have to deal with the regimental investigation and gossip. Here, in Holby, Alex was ‘one of theirs’, and Captain Jeynes was the odd man out.
“Yes Dr D?”
“You might want to move…”
“You want to hold hands?” he teased, emphasising his position between her and Bernie by putting an arm around each of their shoulders, not daring to be this cheeky to Bernie without the confidence boosting presence of Alex nearby.
“Not when she’s about to salute…” remarked Alex dryly, giving him a friendly but surprisingly firm yank so that he stepped a bit to his right, giving Bernie some room.
“Oi! Watch it…” Fletch’s instinctive response to being thrown off balance by Alex was to resist, and try to keep his hold on Bernie, but he was thwarted by the combination of Bernie shrugging him off and Alex pulling again, more firmly. “What was that for?” he asked, all humour gone from his mood as he planted his feet and came to a standstill.
Obediently, Raf and Fletch watched as Bernie, who had carried on walking apparently untroubled by the minor skirmish, instinctively returned the salute of a Lance Corporal who she then stopped to talk to, having not previously known that one of the porters was a Reservist.
“Am I supposed to be admiring her arse?”
“As long as it’s only admiring…” Alex’s ‘grumble’ was decidedly good humoured as she knew there was neither disrespect nor malice behind the remark, nor did it have any effect on his opinion and respect for Bernie professionally.
“”Watch her elbow…” Alex looked back at Bernie, her experienced eye spotting the moment when the Lance Corporal’s body posture started to stiffen, indicating the conversation was concluding, “her right elbow.”
This time, with a clear hint as to what they were supposed to be watching, both Raf and Fletch quickly spotted what it was that Alex had been trying to save him from.
“Oooff…” was Raf’s only comment when he saw the extent to which Bernie’s elbow stuck out as she brought her hand up to be almost level with her beret and her elbow consequently pointed quite sharply out to the side at about shoulder height.
“If she’s wearing her beret, stick to her left side or give her some room,” advised Alex helpfully, resuming their amble across the car park to the hospital entrance.
“I believe that’s my line…” joked Bernie, amused to see Fletch blush although not quite understanding why, though she saw enough in Alex’s smirk to presume that it was worth asking her about later. “Now, not to sound too predictable but…” she turned slightly so she could raise an eyebrow in Raf’s direction, subtly suggesting to him he was perhaps in danger of cutting it a bit fine in terms of arriving given he was leading the department this shift.
“Aye, some of us do have work to do…c’mon Fletch.”
“See you later?” asked Alex, turning to follow Raf and Fletch, not wanting to get any nearer to Captain Jeynes than the current 40 yards or so that separated them as, at that distance and in civilian dress, it was highly unlikely that he would recognise her, especially given he had no reason to either know she was at Holby or expect to see her.
“I plan to spend your whole shift in my office doing paperwork.”
“I’ll come find you then.” Feeling bold, Alex stepped forwards and decorously kissed Bernie’s cheek before jogging to catch up with Raf and Fletch: it wouldn’t do to be late!
“Yes?” Hearing his name being called by Fletch, Raf changed course and headed for the nurse’s station to see what he wanted, rather than continuing to call out to each other across the relatively calm AAU ward - his third cup of coffee could wait for a few minutes.
“ED’s just called - there’s been an incident up at St. Anne’s.”
“The school? On a Saturday?”
“The sports grounds are being used for some Armed Forces Day stuff apparently.” Fletch shot Raf a look that clearly suggested he should concentrate on the important bit.
“What sort of incident?” Raf started looking around AAU, reminding himself who was where and at what stage of recovery and treatment, in case they had to start finding beds.
“Some sort of tent collapse - ED’s already received the three serious but would like to shift ‘em onto us so they can clear the decks for the walking wounded.”
“Okay…” Three patients wasn’t difficult to accommodate, especially as if all else failed he knew he could disturb Ms Wolfe and ask her to help, but that didn’t explain Fletch’s manner. “What’s the catch?”
“That ortho consultant, the one at St James’...” began Fletch, leaning over the desk so he could talk more quietly to Raf. “He locumed here the day all hell broke loose, about…” he jerked his head meaningfully in the direction of Bernie’s closed office door, all the while keeping a watchful eye out for Alex in case she re-appeared.
“You mean Marcus Dunn? Ms Wolfe’s ex?” Eyes wide, Raf realised that if he was one of the ‘serious’ then maybe they did have a problem. “Surely they’d have taken him to St James’? It’s not that much further…” It was an understood courtesy that, whenever it was possible, if the ambulance staff knew you were from a particular hospital, they’d try to take you there rather than one of the others.
“Dunn. Any idea what her kids are called?”
“No, but Alex…” Raf trailed off when he saw Alex returning to AAU from supervising the transfer of one of their patients up to Keller. “Dr Dawson?”
“That’s my name…” agreed Alex cheerfully, pivoting and approaching her two friends, content to postpone popping in to say hi to her lover if there was work she should be doing. “What’s up?”
“Yes…” Alex’s good humour started to fade, knowing that the topic of Bernie’s children was not one the surgeon easily discussed with Alex, nevermind her colleagues on AAU. “What about them?”
“What are they called?” Raf’s insistence caught her attention and made her answer his question directly, rather than probe further to determine why he wanted to know.
“Cameron and Charlotte…” she saw Raf look to Fletch who nodded. “What’s going on?”
“Charlotte Dunn, 21?” Fletch had the admit record on the computer screen and was scanning the sparse details they’d currently got, which didn’t amount to much.
“That’s her. What’s going on Fletch? Tell me, now.” It had only taken a moment, but the transformation was immediate and effective - gone was the relaxed and confident ‘Dr D’ whose reputation was already established as being impossible to fluster or panic, who seemed to manage to maintain an easy-going good humour no matter what was happening in theatre. Instead, Raf and Fletch realised they were seeing ‘Captain Dawson’ - still calm and unflustered, with no sign of panic but the laid back good humour was gone, replaced instead with a firm precision and general expectation that questions would be answered and action would be taken.
“Tent collapsed at the big Forces Day event up at St Anne's School. 3 serious are already in the ED, but they want to transfer them to us so they can focus on the walking wounded. I don’t know anything more ‘cept their names, and one of them is a Charlotte Dunn, age 21.” Fletch looked at her, unable to read her expression as she absorbed the update. “It might not be her…” he added, not really believing that he was pinning his hope on ‘Charlotte Dunn’ being a common name.
“What about the other two?” Setting aside Charlotte for a moment, Alex focussed on the other two patients that ED were wanting to transfer.
“Zoe Gregson, 24 with fractured collarbone and a collapsed lung that ED got back up…” Raf was scanning what he could see coming up on the screen, a phone trapped against his ear that Alex presumed was someone in ED. “And Fred Cotman, 45 with open tib fib...possible complications as he’s diabetic on dialysis.” Raf listened intently to whoever it was on the phone for a further update about something or someone, conscious Alex and Fletch were waiting his update expectantly. “But he’s one of ours, so we’ve got his notes,” he relayed, before wrapping up the phone call and returning the phone to the desk. “Those two are on their way.” He scratched his neck absently as he tried to work out what might be a sensible way forwards. “Do you know what Bernie’s daughter looks like?”
“I’ve seen photos, never met her.” Alex wasn’t seeing what Raf was planning, nor was she feeling particularly happy that she didn’t yet know what Charlotte Dunn’s status was, whether she was Bernie’s Charlotte or not.
“Right. So… here’s what we do. I’ll stay here and start on the first two… Fletch, whether Ms Dunn is Bernie’s daughter or not is irrelevant, she can’t be transferred across to us without a transfer assessment…” Alex’s heart wasn’t sure whether to sink or leap when she heard that. It was bad for the patient, as that meant she had some sort of unstable injury like an internal bleed or open head or chest trauma that not only required urgent treatment, but also made moving her through the hospital more risky than they were generally comfortable with. However, as bad as it was for the patient, she knew selfishly that it would give her an opportunity to find out before the patient arrived in AAU whether this was Bernie’s Charlotte or not.
“You want me to go check?”
“Aye. Then we know what we’re dealing with.” Both Alex and Fletch knew that he didn’t just mean the patient’s medical situation - as an anaesthetist, a major part of Alex’s job was determining whether a patient was stable enough to be moved from A to B and then managing that movement, be it making sure they stayed sedated or making sure they had enough analgesic to not slip into unconsciousness due to pain or stress during their transfer. It meant she’d very quickly learned her way around all the various operating theatres and diagnostic suites in Holby, but she hadn’t yet had to go do an assessment in the ED.
“Fletch can you take me?” Seeing his look of surprise, she continued, “never been to ED - I don’t know them, they don’t know me.”
“Gotcha. You going to be ok Raf?”
“Fine.” He tried to reassure them with a smile, although judging from their reactions, it clearly made their confidence in him dip not rise, “if it gets really bad, I’ll get Ms Wolfe…”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, yeah?” suggested Fletch, giving his friend and ‘housemate’ a supportive pat on the back before falling into step with Alex and leaving AAU.
“It might not be, you haven’t seen her yet.” They’d only taken one step into the ED before Alex had come to a sudden halt and declared with total certainty that they were going to find the patient was Bernie’s daughter. Whilst privately agreeing with Alex that this was the most probable outcome, Fletch was somewhat surprised by Alex’s sudden assertion, unable to work out why she’d suddenly become so determined when the hadn’t learnt anything further about their patient in the last minute or so since they’d left AAU.
“That’s her brother…” Alex indicated a man slumped in the chairs outside Resus, recognising him instantly despite never having met him.
“You sure?” Fletch looked at the bloke she was indicating, surprised at how confident she was sounding when all Fletch could see was a tall almost lanky looking bloke slumped with his elbows resting on his knees and his head bowed, his right hand rubbing the back of his neck and his left hand dangling between his knees. But then, as if maybe sensing he was the subject to scrutiny, he looked up and stared with dazed, unseeing eyes, straight at them. “Christ, he looks…”
“Just like her? Yeah…” Alex looked at Fletch now she knew he was trusting her instinct on Charlotte Dunn being Bernie’s Charlotte, “...that’s Cameron.”
“So what do we do?” She may have been the ‘locum’, but as far as Fletch was concerned, there was no one better qualified, as either a doctor or Bernie Wolfe expert, to decide how they coped with this conundrum as quickly as they needed to in order to come up with a solution.
“Umm…” Realising he was looking to her for the answers, Alex tried to marshal her thoughts and consider possibilities when all she could really ‘see’ in her mind was ‘get Bernie’ flashing in massive glowing bright lights with synchronized klaxons and sirens. After what felt like hours of wading through thick treacle but was actually only a couple of seconds, she felt her mind calm and thoughts clear as she grasped the solution. “Get someone to get the boss…” she pictured the CEO she’d met last Friday night easily, but his name wasn’t coming as quickly.
“Get someone who is not you to get Hanssen here fast. I’ll go do the assessment, you go get Bernie. At the double Fletch.”
“You got it.”
“Oh and Fletch?” Alex took one step towards Resus then turned and leaned back towards him, speaking in a quiet undertone.
“Both kids are over 18… they decide to call their father, not us.” She waited long enough to see him nod before turning and with long, easy strides that covered the distance to Resus in no time at all, was gone, leaving Fletch to do his part.
Pushing through the doors, she weighed up what she saw, knowing no one by name but immediately knowing who they all were as experience took over. Civilian or military, it didn’t make much difference to anything - nurses still nursed, monitors still monitored and beeped, patients still lived or died based on the split second decisions taken by doctors and surgeons of all specialisms and professional rank. All that really altered was the paperwork…
Sprinting back to AAU, having left Charlie Fairhead with the problem of finding Hanssen and getting him down to the ED, Fletch ran to the open doorway of Bernie’s office, focussed solely on getting the surgeon back to Resus as fast as possible. He hadn’t got a ‘plan B’ for when her office was empty.
“Where’s the fire Fletch?” Spinning round, he was relieved to see her stood at the nurse’s station, clearly totally unaware of what was happening given how relaxed she was as she put aside the crossword she’d just picked up for a moment’s distraction from her paperwork marathon.
“ED. You need to go to the ED…”
“ED?” Automatically, Bernie put aside the paper and slipped her pen back into her pocket as she patted her shoulder for the stethoscope that wasn’t there because she wasn’t working. “But I’m not working. Raf should…” She looked around the ward, trying to see where Raf was whilst also assessing how busy AAU was, wondering what it could be that meant she was requested despite Raf being the AAU lead this shift.
“Alex is doing a transfer assessment, come on!” Later he’d realise it was the fact that he’d called Alex by her first name, not ‘Dr D’ that had probably alerted Bernie to this being something other than a straightforward ED transfer, which would explain why she suddenly went from relaxed and ‘off-duty’ to very, very focussed and ‘on’ duty, both medically and militarily.
“Sit rep?” Even as she barked the order, Major Wolfe was moving towards the ED at a speed that seemed impossible given how controlled and steady she walked, long paces eating up the distance as people saw her coming and elected to get out of her way, recognising she had somewhere to get to, fast.
“It’s your daughter.”
“Charlotte?” As fast as ‘Major Wolfe’ took control she was banished as Bernie came to an abrupt halt and looked searchingly at Fletch, willing this to be some horrific misunderstanding, some hideous not funny joke. “How do you know? I mean it can’t be, she’d never…”
“Charlotte Dunn, age 21…” He watched as her crumble in front of him as she went from disbelief to fear and horror, seeing the moment when disbelief and shock started making her refuse to accept it, forcing him to keep going. “Alex is in Resus, assessing her for transfer…” Fletch reached out to comfort her, only to stop his hand just before it landed on her forearm, the hollowness of her gaze stopping him when it locked on his.
“Charlotte… Resus, with Alex…” Bernie blinked and in that moment was filled with a new energy, a wild, raw energy that Fletch recognised from his own experience - it was the energy of a parent whose child was in danger.
Not seeing her son, Bernie ran into Resus and abruptly stopped, brought to a halt by the familiar sight of Alex methodically working her way through the routine of assessing the stability of a trauma patient. She was oblivious to the reaction of the ED team who had not been expecting to see a uniformed soldier run full tilt into the Resus suite - in fact, it was only the rapid appearance of Fletch behind her that stopped anyone from shouting for Security.
“Report!” Bernie’s insides were in knots as rival instincts fought within her for supremacy - the mother in her wanted to elbow everyone aside and get to Charlotte; the surgeon in her wanted to get in and fix something, make the patient, her daughter, make her better; the military soldier, trained to be calm and controlled in a crisis was trying to establish focus and purpose, formulate a plan.
“Not yet.” Alex didn’t look away from Charlotte as she concentrated on her patient, focussed on the task at hand - getting her stable, although she had registered Bernie’s arrival and her distress - she’d not heard that much panic in Bernie’s bark before, not even in those horrific seconds moments after that IED had gone off.
“Captain…” Bernie’s world was narrowed to Charlotte and Alex - she wasn’t seeing the half a dozen ED staff who were continuing to treat Charlotte around Alex as she completed her checks and assessment, wasn’t conscious that she couldn’t move forwards because Fletch was physically holding her back. Instincts feeding on adrenalin she’d only ever previously felt in the aftermath of the bloodiest battles when she was receiving the casualties of war were taking over, coming to the fore. This might have been Holby ED not Helmand, but this was a situation that needed Major Wolfe, it was the only way she could cope.
“Tube’s in, where are those meds?” Alex ignored Bernie’s order, electing to not recognise Major Wolfe’s authority and remained focussed on the immediate task at hand of getting Charlotte to a point where she could be moved to the theatre in AAU for better monitoring, monitoring which would give them the magic few minutes they needed to get everyone’s nerves back under control and a plan formulated.
“CAPTAIN!” Frustrated at not getting an answer, Bernie had finally realised she was unable to move forwards because of strong arms holding her back, arms that she now started to try and free herself from, forcing Fletch to hold her more firmly, although for how much longer he could last, he wasn’t certain.
“Thanks…” Seeing the ED doctor show her the meds she’d requested before injecting them into the IV, Alex took her stethoscope from around her neck and used it to check the sounds of Charlotte’s lungs which, with the intubation tube now helping along with the work the ED had already done to alleviate some of the pressure from the rib injuries, were starting to sound a bit better. “I think we’re ready to take her.”
“But…” Alex didn’t know who the person was that was starting to object, but she didn’t care - with Charlotte temporarily good ‘enough’, Alex switched her focus to Bernie who was no longer fighting Fletch, but he still held her, uncertain as to what might happen if he let her go.
“Bernie...” Alex approached Bernie, automatically stripping off her gloves and tossing them aside as she went. She knew that they didn’t have long, but was confident enough from what she’d seen during her assessment that Charlotte would be fine, as long as Bernie had her head in the game and could do the operation - what she needed was familiar and straightforward surgery if you were Bernie, but new, complex and still being learnt if you were Raf. “Bern, look at me?” Alex carefully stepped into Bernie’s eyeline, forcing her to change her focus from Charlotte to her lover, the refocusing giving Major Wolfe an opportunity to stand down, to give Bernie an opportunity to come to the fore.
“How is she?” Bernie’s voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper, the adrenalin crash taking most of her energy and fight with her. “Al?” As she reached out to clasp Alex’s hand, her face imploring her lover to tell her that her daughter was fine, that it was going to be ok, she felt the tight band across her chest ease as the roaring and pounding in her ears quietened too, a signal that her initial panic was fading, that the shock was passing enough for her to think. Since she’d never noticed that Fletch was holding her tightly with his forearms braced across her chest, keeping her from charging to the bedside, she hadn’t noticed that some of this easing was because he had let her go.
“She’s going to need surgery, but she’s strong…” Alex pulled Bernie forwards, getting her walking towards the bed, knowing that she needed to see Charlotte, to see the monitors and the injuries for herself. “See? She’s doing brilliantly so far…” Letting Bernie hold onto her arm, Alex used her free right hand to take the chart from the person hovering at her side and review it, pleased to see they’d updated the notes with everything that she’d done during her review, knowing that Bernie would start asking questions if she was left to work out a diagnosis from what she could see if she was through the initial shock of seeing the patient was Charlotte.
“Collapsed right lung… crush injuries?”
“Ribs. No indication on X-ray of any damage to the left side.”
“Internal bleed?” Bernie didn’t think so - she couldn’t see any indication on the monitors that there was a bleed, with pulse and pressure within acceptable limits given the severity of the trauma, nor could she see any evidence of any procedures to address a bleed, all of which gave her hope.
“Nothing conclusive yet…” Alex handed the chart back to whoever it was that had given it to her and watched Bernie as she completed her assessment, knowing that what Bernie said next would either confirm that she was in enough control to operate or that they had a bigger problem.
“We can do a thorough check when I’m fixing her ribs…” Bernie looked from Charlotte’s face, partially hidden from her view by the intubation tube and oxygen mask, her memories filling in the missing pieces of information like the colour of her eyes and the shape of her mouth, to the as familiar face of her lover. “I’m doing the operation.”
“I’m operating Al,” repeated Bernie, her voice strengthening and steadying as the shock and surprise of seeing Charlotte here was fully replaced with a mother’s determination to do her best for her child. “With you and Raf and whoever else there needs to be, but this is something I have to do…”
“Let’s get her transferred first,” suggested Alex, not disagreeing with Bernie’s plan in the slightest, but starting to be conscious of them being surrounded by people she didn’t know, who didn’t know them. It was, she would realise later, a funny way to discover she was starting to feel like she ‘belonged’ in AAU. “You want to go talk to her? Tell her what’s happening?” Instinct was telling Alex she was about to have a fight on her hands in terms of whether or not they moved Charlotte which was a fight she wasn’t prepared to have with the ED team, not if she was also going to be involved in a fight to get Bernie cleared to operate on her own daughter. She was therefore hoping that if she encouraged Bernie to take a moment talking to Charlotte, she’d find that Fletch was with the person who could take the decisions, someone who she was reasonably confident she wouldn’t have to fight with.
“I…” Bernie was about to say she didn’t know what to say, before she remembered arriving at Alex’s unconscious form and the words just being there… they had been instinctive, tumbling from a part of her that she’d found without effort… Despite everything that had happened in her marriage, her divorce and now, no matter what else she might be, she was Charlotte’s mother, had been there from the very start. Emboldened with courage, she smiled weakly at Alex and squeezed her hand that she was still holding before letting go and walking up to the head of the bed, carefully stroking her daughter’s forehead and brushing aside the dark strands of hair that had tangled there. “Charlotte? It’s Mum… I know this wasn’t the way you wanted to see me… I promise as soon as you wake up you can throw stuff at me, like you seem to like doing…”
After a moment of just watching Bernie start to talk to her daughter, making light of their somewhat turbulent relationship and promising she’d be looked after, Alex turned away from them and sought out Fletch again who was still standing on the edge of the treatment area - near enough to know what was happening but far enough to be out of the way. And stood just next to him, looking about as out of place in his suit and tie as Bernie looked in her fatigues, stood the very man she wanted to talk to.
“Dr Dawson, Nurse Fletcher here was filling me in on why you require me.”
“And?” She levelled a steady gaze at Hanssen, prepared to stand her ground, unwilling to be intimidated.
“Yes or no: the patient is Ms Wolfe’s daughter?”
“In your opinion, she is stable enough to transfer to AAU?”
“But that is not a view shared by the ED team, is it?” There was a pause before Alex answered, making Fletch worry she was going to change her mind, but when she answered, it became clear the delay was for a different reason.
“Correct - yes or no doesn’t work Sir.” In spite of the severity of the situation, a fleeting twitch of a smile passed over Hanssen’s features, appreciating the precision and the acknowledgment that she was unable to follow the rules he’d set because of how he’d framed his request.
“You believe Ms Wolfe should operate? On her daughter?”
“Very well. We will discuss that when Ms Dunn is in AAU. Make the transfer when you are ready, I believe Mr di Lucca has Theatre Three waiting for you.”
“Thank you Sir.”
As Fletch watched Alex return to the bed and, with just a light touch to Bernie’s shoulder, get her to step aside so that she could start ordering the equipment to be loaded onto the bed so they could start the journey to AAU, he considered what he’d just seen.
“Yes Nurse Fletcher?”
“Are you going to let her operate?”
“It’s not up to me.”
“It is up to Mr di Lucca and Ms Wolfe - if Ms Dunn’s procedure is one that Mr di Lucca feels unable to execute, then Ms Wolfe will be Ms Dunn’s only option.” He waited a moment, watching the Charge Nurse whilst also keeping a close eye on how Bernie was behaving, impressed that as Alex had touched her shoulder, the surgeon had clearly concluded her conversation with her daughter and was now once again behaving in a manner he had become increasingly familiar with in the last few months that she’d been working at Holby, the chart in her hand, the patient’s surgical treatment being planned and prognosis determined. “My only decision is whether this is an emergency.” He looked pointedly at Fletch, as if daring him to disagree with him, which only further served to confirm that Fletch would be agreeing with him no matter how sensible or unexpected he might be sounding, “and I think that’s pretty clear, don’t you Mr Fletcher?”
“Emergency? Yeah, definitely an emergency…” It had taken a moment for Fletch to put the puzzle together, to understand what he was and wasn’t saying, but he got it - Bernie couldn’t operate on her daughter as long as there was time for an alternative surgeon to be found who could perform the same operation with the same degree of confidence and skill. But if there wasn’t such a surgeon available, and it was an emergency, then Ms Wolfe could perform the procedures and elements of the operation for which they had no alternative. And crushed ribs was one such procedure - following the train crash, Bernie had started to teach them all various different ways of treating particular types of traumas, with the ‘nuts and bolts’ solution she’d used on the young man being one of the methods. Currently though, Fletch knew that Serena had managed to complete one reconstruction with Bernie relegated to just observing, but Raf was still only learning how to plan the operation. The choice was therefore fairly clear cut - Charlotte had either a long recovery the way they ‘used to do it’ or an easier recovery with the reconstruction, the reconstruction that only her mother could do.
“Indeed. You joining us?” asked Hanssen, indicating that he was going to join in the clutch of staff who, under Alex’s supervision, were about to leave the ED Resus Suite and navigate the short distance through the hospital to AAU.
“The brother, Ms Wolfe’s son… he’s around here somewhere, waiting for news.”
“I’ll find him and talk to him… imagine the lad’s a bit destroyed…”
“A good idea. Carry on.”
“Yeah…” Fletch found himself left in an empty Resus, scratching the back of his head. A good idea… but what was he going to say?
“Yes mate…” Fletch turned around and only just about managed to stop himself from reacting in surprise when he saw quite how much like his mother Cameron Dunn looked. “Cameron?”
“Yeah… my sister…” The tall, almost lanky guy reached up and rubbed the back of his neck in a gesture that was virtually identical to his mother’s as he looked slightly past Fletch in the general direction of the Resus suite. “Uh, Charlie, ah, Charlotte Dunn? She…” he gestured vaguely, not really knowing what he was asking, or whether this person was the right person to be asking.
“She’s been transferred…” As he said it, he saw the lad’s face start to morph into a look of horror, prompting Fletch to reconsider what he’d said, “wait, I just meant to another ward here.”
“Not another hospital?”
“What? No…” Cameron looked relieved, momentarily confusing Fletch even further, “wait.” He put down the phone that he’d been holding, deciding that if Raf hadn’t answered the ward phone by now, it was going to be too late to give him the message that everyone was on their way through with Charlotte Dunn as they would have already arrived in AAU. “Is that blood?” Fletch had been planning on suggesting that they went to AAU and he’d explain what was happening, but was distracted when he saw the stains on the t-shirt.
“What?” Cameron followed the nurse’s gaze to his middle and looked at his shirt, pulling it away from his skin so he could see it better, “no…” He lifted the hem up to his face, revealing a reassuringly wound-free stomach as he first sniffed, then sucked at the fabric. “Skinny frappuccino with an extra shot.”
“You can tell that from your shirt?”
“I can tell it’s coffee flavoured, I was holding my sister’s skinny frappuccino with an extra shot when the tent came down…”
“Ah, right.” Fletch was about to make a comment about him having a strange taste in coffees when he remembered that this guy, Bernie’s son, was still worried about his sister and therefore it probably wasn’t the time for smart comments. “So you’re ok? Have you been checked out?”
“A few bruises I think, but what about Charlie?”
“She’s been transferred to the Acute Assessment Unit, AAU and is going to be looked after by the best team we’ve got in the hospital…” he decided this probably wasn’t the right moment to tell him his mother and her partner were that team, “she’s about to have some surgery, to repair the damage to her ribs and that will give the docs a chance to check there’s nothing else that can surprise us.”
“So she’s going to be ok? Not ok,” Cameron’s self-correction prevented Fletch from answering, “I mean, both my parents are consultants, surgeons… I know you can’t say she’s going to be ok until she’s ok…” he ran his hand through his hair and again rubbed his neck. “But what I mean is…”
“At this stage, there doesn’t seem be any reason to think she won’t be anything other than ok.”
“Cool…” Now the immediate fear that came from knowing nothing other than he’d watched his unconscious sister be loaded into an ambulance before he was taken to a police car and driven at speed to the hospital, where he’d been asked to wait until they had news, Cameron found he could breathe a little more easily and felt his jaw could relax just enough to stop grinding. “Thanks, Mr…” He looked apologetically at Fletch, realising he didn’t know who the man was and that, with his spectacles still somewhere up at the school grounds, having lost both the coffees and his glasses when the tent collapsed, he couldn’t make out what his name badge said either.
“Call me Fletch, everyone does.” He held out his hand for a handshake of greeting, “I work in AAU, where your sister’s been just been transferred to.”
“Ronnie…” His eyesight wasn’t good enough to confidently read the small print on Fletch’s name badge, but it was good enough to tell that Fletch was surprised to hear him introduce himself by something other than his formal given name. “Only my mother calls me Cameron.”
“When you’re in trouble I guess?” Fletch probed gently, deciding that at this point he nothing to lose by being curious.
“She doesn’t like nicknames…” He was continuing to shake Fletch’s hand in a distracted manner, clearly trying to remember something and so therefore completely missed Fletch’s immediate slack jawed moment. That didn’t sound like the ‘Bernie’ who worked with Fletch, Raf, Dr D... “she’s always called me Cameron.” He shook himself back to the present and let go of Fletch’s hand, “what happens now?”
“Now?” Fletch eyed him critically for a moment, before coming to a decision. “Now we get you a clean shirt, a fresh coffee and we wait for good news from the surgeons about your sister.”
“I don’t think the surgeons really care about my shirt…” dismissed Ronnie, looking down at the large coffee stain that was covering most of his front.
“You’d be surprised what they care about Ronnie…c’mon mate, you can borrow one of mine…”
“Oh no, thank you but…” Protesting at what felt like special treatment, confirming in the process to Fletch that he really had genuinely no idea his mother was in the hospital, let alone working on AAU today, Ronnie was nevertheless allowing himself to be guided through the hospital by Fletch, telling himself that if nothing else, he’d presumably be guided in the general direction of AAU and his sister.
“No bother… tell you what…” Fletch pushed open the door and waited for Ronnie to catch him up on the other side.
“Borrow the shirt and give it back to me before you leave if you decide I’m an idiot.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to get it back to me washed…” Fletch remembered seeing the crisply pressed uniform that Bernie had been wearing earlier and, now he really thought about it, he didn’t recall seeing Alex ever look particularly crumpled, “...and ironed. Deal?”
“Deal…” Ronnie had no idea why Fletch seemed so confident, unless… he stopped and tried to remember what the name of the ward was that he’d visited his mother on when she’d been a patient here, but the only thing he could remember was that the doctors had worn navy blue scrubs. “Do you know my mother?”
“Yes.” Seeing there were some empty chairs just ahead, Fletch continued on to them and sat down, gesturing for Ronnie to join him, recognising he wasn’t going to be able to avoid this discussion for any longer.
“Oh…” Ronnie slumped down in the chair next to Fletch and lapsed into silence, his face showing his confusion.
“What exactly do you know about your mother’s life, since the divorce I mean?”
“We’re not starting until you’re ready.”
“Mmm?” Distracted by the sound of Alex speaking, but completely missing what she’d said, Bernie looked up from her daughter’s face to look at her lover.
“She’s stable Bern.” Alex walked around the bed so she was able to reach up and gently run her fingertips down the back of her lover’s neck, not surprised at how much tension she could feel, experience ensuring her fingers managed to avoid disturbing the collar of Bernie’s shirt or her neatly secured bun that kept her hair suitably regimental and beret compatible. “Stable enough that we’re going to take five minutes.”
“But…” It was a token protest from the surgeon, recognising the truth in Alex’s suggestion, remembering all the times when, faced with an overwhelming list of patients to operate on in quick succession, Captain Dawson would occasionally have murmured when no one else was in range of hearing them that now was the moment for a five minute pause. “Ok..” Bernie looked at her daughter as both a mother and a surgeon, satisfying herself that Alex was absolutely correct - five minutes wouldn’t do any harm and, now she thought about it, would do them all a lot of good. “I need to change.”
“Locker room’s waiting,” was Alex’s simple solution, nodding to Raf who had been stood a couple of steps back from the foot of the bed, near enough to continue monitoring Charlotte but far enough away to not be noticed by Bernie if she was focussed in on her daughter.
“Oh, ah, no problem.” Surprised, he took a couple of steps forwards, so he was up alongside the other side of Charlotte - he hadn’t thought she’d known he was there. “I didn’t want to intrude…”
“Thank you, but I’m fine.” She smiled at him, her expression once again familiar to him, her equilibrium returning after the shock of the last half hour. ‘Fine’ was perhaps an over-statement, but that was the thing about Ms Wolfe - her ‘fine’ was a level of steadiness and skill that he still felt was permanently beyond his reach. He’d take ‘almost fine’ any day, for any surgery and still probably feel a bit inadequate if he was honest with himself.
“Aye. Take your time, we’re in the hands of the anaesthetist as it is…” He spoke lightly and carefully, trying to tell both of them that he wasn’t going to worry about how long they took, or try to start in their absence - as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t starting until he had everyone and everything in place, starting with Alex. And if she said they had five minutes whilst one of the anaesthetists from ICU monitored Charlotte, they had five minutes.
“Five minutes,” declared Bernie, resolute.
“Ten.” Raf couldn’t resist smirking when he saw the look Bernie shot Alex at her gentle but firm overrule. He wasn’t able to see their expressions clearly as they looked at each other, but evidently there was a battle of wills before an agreement was reached and Bernie took a step back from Charlotte, letting go of her hand in the process.
“Ten minutes Raf, and then you can start.” And with that, she was gone, leaving a slightly shell shocked Raf looking at Alex for an explanation.
“She follows the rules.”
“But I thought…” He looked at Alex in confusion, thinking back to the intense but brief conversation they’d had with Mr Hanssen in the consultant’s office a few minutes earlier.
“That she was going to do the whole operation? No.” Alex looked at the monitors, satisfying herself one final time that everything was in order, before sharing a look with her temporary cover, an anaesthetist she’d taken over from at the end of a night shift a couple of weeks earlier, a look that told her all was well in their opinion too. “You’re a good surgeon Raf…” she looked one final time at Charlotte who, unlike her brother looked nothing like her mother, “she’s going to need you to do as much of it as you can.”
“And when I can’t?” The rib cage reconstruction was weighing heavily on his mind.
“Then she will.” Alex looked back up at him and gave him a reassuring smile despite how draining she was finding this whole situation, “we’re all a team, right?”
“Aye.” Confidence appropriately boosted, Raf smile showed the fledgling confidence that Alex’s pep talk had given him, confidence that would only build and build as now, with mind clearer and thoughts less jumbled, he started to think through all the aspects of the operation that Charlotte needed that he could do, and would do, starting with the first incision…
“Can I ask a question mate?” Fletch looked sideways at Ronnie, wondering whether he was the sort of lad who, if he took exception to a question, expressed his displeasure with words or whether he launched with fists.
“Sure.” Ronnie leaned back in the hard chair and surveyed the surprisingly deserted corridor, not surprised the nurse had questions for him given their last few minutes of conversation.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-five.” Ronnie rubbed his eyes briskly, trying to shift the feeling of grittiness that was building in them, not realising that it reminded Fletch of his kids when they were tired and served to further highlight how ‘young’ he was. “But I must sound about twelve…”
“You’re never too old to stop listening to your old man,” advised Fletch, not judging him but unable to let what he’d just discovered go uncommented on, “but maybe you’re also old enough to have your own opinions? Especially about your mother?”
“I…” Ronnie rubbed his face, catching his hair in the process and making it stand on end, although he didn’t notice. “I never noticed…” He frowned, working out that what he wanted to say was going to take a bit of time, and that maybe this nurse had something else he should be doing. “Wait, don’t you need to be somewhere?”
“I can leave you alone mate, sorry…” Fletch began to get to his feet, thinking Ronnie had got fed up of his questions and wanted to be on his own.
“No, that’s not what I meant…” The younger man put his hand out and caught Fletch’s elbow, stopping him from leaving. “If you can stay, that would be good…” He let his hand drop away from Fletch’s arm and stared blindly at the floor between his feet, “...helps me not think about Charlie…” Fletch sat back down again.
“I can stay…the big boss gave me permission,” he muttered conspiratorily, earning a flicker of a grin from Ronnie.
“You mean my mother?” he asked, looking at Fletch to make sure he’d got it right, “she’s the consultant in charge of your ward, AAU, right?”
“Yes…” Fletch had decided, when it became clear that Ronnie and his sister had no idea that Bernie had remained in Holby after the divorce proceedings had become acrimonious, that since Serena was currently on holiday and wouldn’t be back for another 3 days, it wasn’t worth complicating the young man’s ‘world-view’ of who was actually in charge in AAU, especially as some days even he and Raf weren’t entirely clear. “But the big boss is Mr Hanssen, he’s the CEO of the hospital.”
“He knows about me?” Ronnie shrank a little on hearing this, like a younger child might when they were anticipating a telling off.
“Yeah, and your sister…” Fletch found that every time he said something, not only did he discover something else that Ronnie didn’t know, but he also found he had a load more questions he wanted to ask. “Umm… can I ask a question? About when you were little?”
“Sure…” Ronnie shifted, trying to get a little more comfortable on a seat that wasn’t really designed for long term lounging, “and you don’t have to keep asking… I don’t mind.” And he didn’t, not once he’d discovered that Fletch not only knew his mother, but worked with her and considered her a friend. In fact, he probably had more questions that he wanted to ask Fletch, about his mother.
“Was your mother away a lot?”
“She went away, on tour after my sister was born… I was just starting school and Charlie was a few months old.”
“Iraq?” Fletch wasn’t an expert on military history, but a quick bit of mental arithmetic had him trying to work out where and when that might have been.
“Bosnia.” Ronnie closed his eyes as he tried to remember the sequence of his mother’s tours and postings, ticking them off on his fingers as he worked through the list, making sure he had remembered everything correctly before he started and made a mess of it. “I remember she wasn’t home for Christmas, we went to Aunt Caroline’s…”
“Your mother’s sister?”
“No, she’s an only child. My dad’s twin sister, lives around here.” Ronnie remembered how it had been a confusing Christmas - he missed his mother and his new school friends, and he’d been a bit scared of his Aunt, but his Dad wasn’t angry and he would play with him, so it hadn’t been all bad for a five year old.
“Your Dad’s a twin?”
“Yeah.” Not wanting to be distracted thinking about his father and aunt, Ronnie continued with his trip down memory lane. “I remember Mum came back and surprised me by coming to Sports Day… Dad was at work so Aunt Caroline had come to cheer me on, but couldn’t run in the Mother’s Race. Mum won.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” agreed Fletch, all too aware of how fast Bernie could be when she put her mind to it, and that was through a busy hospital. A straightforward dash across a school sports field was not going to pose much of a challenge now for the surgeon, never mind when she was twenty years younger.
“We moved down here a week or so later, at the start of the school holidays.”
“Yeah. Dad got a job at St James’ and we went to live with my grandmother.” Ronnie tried to read the writing on a poster on the opposite wall before giving up when he remembered he’d lost his glasses at some point in the chaos of getting to Charlie and getting to Holby General. “I don’t think Mum was given much say… at least, thinking about it now, I don’t think it was something she’d have picked.” And, not that he was prepared to tell Fletch this yet, but from what he and Charlie had learned from the Welfare Officers on the Information Stands before the tent collapse, he was beginning to think there had been more options available to his father than he’d led them to believe during their teenage years and the divorce.
“Not many volunteer to live with their mother-in-law,” observed Fletch, trying to sound impartial but he already wanted to give Bernie’s ex a piece of his mind if that was how he was behaving twenty years ago.
“No. My grandmother was quite unkind to my mother I think… that summer was great though, Mum took Charlie and me to visit Grandpa, uh, her father. We spent the whole summer visiting the places she’d grown up…” Ronnie lapsed into silence and Fletch, seeing he looked a bit more relaxed than he’d been earlier, decided that he probably considered that summer to be a good memory of his Mum. “Anyway…” Ronnie cleared his throat self-consciously, “it was a long time ago. Could I borrow that shirt after all please Fletch?”
“These are for you,” declared Alex, shutting the locker room door behind her, relieved to discover that they had the room to themselves for a minute or two. Confused, Bernie pocketed her security pass and turned to look at the anaesthetist, instinctively closing her locker in the process.
“Paper cups…” Despite everything that she was having to deal with right now, Bernie couldn’t stop the weak smile and brief laugh that bubbled out of her as she reached out and took the little stack of paper cups that Alex was offering her.
“I’ll go and find Creepy Calamity if you’d like a target to aim at,” joked Alex, deliberately leaning against a locker that was just beyond her lover’s reach, her position mirrored by Bernie. It was a position they’d found themselves in on countless occasions when on tour - near enough to be able to look at each other with uncensored expressions but far enough apart to attract no scrutiny or interest.
“That’s going above and beyond…” Bernie’s smile momentarily faded as she remembered how ‘Calamity’ had become known as ‘Creepy’, “...but thank you…” her smile returned as her eyes told Alex everything she always felt unable to find the words for, starting with her love and friendship, and now support as she coped with this unexpected reunion with her virtually estranged children under the most harrowing and challenging of circumstances. “For everything…” Bernie looked down at the paper cups she was holding as carefully as she’d held Ronnie and Charlotte when they were only minutes old, “...not just the cups…I…” she looked back up at Alex, her eyes moistening as she tried to find the words she needed, stuttering into silence when she was unable to find the words she wanted.
“I know.” Alex bit her lip to stop her own tears forming as she was suddenly reminded of another moment, in another locker room, thousands of miles from Holby.
“That was my line…” teased Bernie quietly, knowing what Alex was thinking of, remembering the day when Alex had gone outside the wire on a MERT call and come back with her brother as one of the patients.
“Only borrow from the best.”
“I’m not sure I know how to do this…”
“Be her mother.”
“Then don’t be…” Alex saw Bernie look at her in confusion, knowing that if she’d been anyone else, she’d probably already angry. “Right now, she needs you to be a surgeon.”
“I’m good at that…”
“Better than good, the best,” declared Alex with total conviction, although she was aware that she was perhaps a little bit biased. “Anyway, mothers aren’t allowed in theatre or recovery…” she pointed out pragmatically, trying to coax Bernie back into her comfort zone which was where she was at her strongest, and where she was right now the most use to Charlotte.
“We worry about it then.” Alex lapsed into silence, a silence that didn’t feel awkward or strained, but was instead peaceful and calming, her thoughts starting to expand from being concentrated solely on Bernie to include her patient and the surgery that was about to commence, her mind cycling through the equations and medications and all manner of minutiae that at the start of her career took effort and concentration to recall but now was as instinctive and immediate to her as talking and breathing.
“Yes?” Hearing Bernie’s voice, Alex refocused her attention exclusively on her lover who was looking much more centred and ready.
“I don’t need the paper cups…”
“Didn’t think you did.” Alex pushed up into a standing position, no longer leaning against the locker. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Bernie straightened up and, shoulders square and chin up, she winked at Alex before, with steady steps, she headed for the locker room door, leaving the paper cups on the counter by the door as she left.
It was time to be a surgeon, time to be what she was best at.
“Blue or green?” offered Fletch, holding up the two clean t-shirts he’d found in his locker.
“Whatever…” Ronnie realised he was going to have to admit to his blurry vision, as he couldn’t actually see any difference between the two, “I, uh can’t see them clearly.” He realised the mistake he’d made almost as soon as he said it as, whilst he couldn’t see the t-shirts, he could see Fletch toss them aside and grab his penlight from his scrub shirt pocket and turn it on. “Not like that!” Ronnie held his hands up as if trying to pacify his new friend.
“What do you mean then?”
“Short-sighted, very short-sighted… I, uh, well…” he shrugged as he looked down at his coffee-stained shirt, “lost my glasses when I lost my coffee. And I’m red-green colourblind.”
“Ah. Right.” Satisfied with his explanation, especially as Fletch didn’t like to think he could have been able to chat to someone for almost an hour and miss a concussion, Fletch put his penlight away and reached down to pick up his discarded shirts. “Probably best you wear the blue one,” he decided after looking at them both for a moment - the green one had a multi-coloured design on it but the blue one was plain, apart from the brand name in white. “There’s a hospital shop in the main entrance, they sell those ready-made specs… probably not your style but if you know your prescription…”
“Nah, I’m not that much of a danger to myself,” promised Ronnie, grinning properly for the first time since the tent he and his sister had been about to go into had collapsed.
“Your words mate.” Fletch handed over the blue shirt and put the green one back in his locker, before wandering over to the door to give Ronnie a bit of space to change. Idly, he picked up the small stack of paper cups that had been left there by someone and started stacking and unstacking them.
“What do you think?” asked Ronnie finally, turning around to look at Fletch, unwilling to wear the man’s shirt without giving him a final opportunity to rescind his generous offer.
“You’ll do,” agreed Fletch, putting the coffee cups aside as he heard an impressively loud noise. “You want me to guide you to the decent coffee shop so you can get something to eat?”
“That would be great…” Ronnie stuffed his coffee stained shirt into his rucksack and prepared to follow Fletch out of the locker room. “It took me years to stop getting lost at St James’...” he stopped talking suddenly, frozen in place, a look of bemusement on his face.
“Ronnie?” Fletch let the locker room door close again and moved nearer to him. “Everything ok?” It was a stupid question, but served to startle Ronnie back into the present.
“What? Oh, yes, well, apart from the obvious I guess… sorry. Coffee shop would be great Fletch, thanks.” Giving his head a shake, as if trying to clear water from his ears, Ronnie headed for Fletch and the door, a plan forming as to how he would spend the time waiting for his sister to come out of surgery.
“If you’re sure…” Not entirely convinced, Fletch opened the door and let Ronnie back into the corridor, not quite confident enough to outright ask what he was thinking.
“Once I’ve got something to eat…” It was bizarre that he was hungry, given his sister was about to have an emergency operation, but he wasn’t going to dwell on that just now, not given everything else that he’d learned about his Mother’s career path, opportunities and her as Fletch’s friend and consultant. It was probably the knowledge that it was his mother operating that made it easier to just ‘know’ his sister would be alright. “...I’ve got a bit of thinking to do before I see Mum I guess…” his shoulders hunched slightly as he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
“Try not to worry about it…” encouraged Fletch, thinking that weirdly, today was probably about the best time he could see his mother again, here in AAU, with Alex nearby but not necessarily being met at the same time. Although he was quick to mentally chastise himself that it wasn’t at all good that this unexpected family reunion was being brought about by his sister needing emergency surgery. “Do you want me to ask her to call you Ronnie?” Well, if he was honest, he’d ask Alex to talk to her about that...
“Thanks, but it’s ok… I think I need to talk to her about that… I think my father’s got something to do with it actually…”
“Oh?” Fletch didn’t disagree, but as he held open a door for Ronnie to pass through, he decided it wasn’t a good time to share his views on what an out and out jerk he thought Bernie’s ex was.
“Remember I told you about that summer holiday? When I was little and it was just Mum and me with Charlie?”
“Visiting the places she grew up, yeah.” Fletch had almost forgotten about the reason why he was talking to Ronnie when he’d been telling Fletch about visiting the villages his mother had grown up in and recalling with all the wonder of a little boy, watching the planes taking off from a nearby RAF base and flying low over their heads while he ate ice cream at the top of a church tower.
“I’ve just realised… when I spilt the ice cream down myself?”
“Yeah?” Fletch had remembered thinking that he’d had a similar experience with his kids, spilling ice cream that was, not watching planes from a church tower...
“She called me Ronnie…”
“Everyone happy?” Raf looked up from their patient, having just tied off the last suture. “Ms Wolfe?” He studied Bernie intently, searching what little he could see of her face between scrub cap and face mask for any indication as to what she was feeling.
“Excellent work Mr di Lucca.” Her eyes moved from where they had stayed focussed intently on her daughter since she’d stepped back from the operating table to look him in the eye. “Thank you.” Bernie’s voice was steady and clear, sounding no different to him than every other time she’d felt his work was of sufficient calibre in surgery to warrant complementing.
“Ah, aye…” Nerves reappearing for the first time since the start of the surgery, Raf bobbed his head in acknowledgment before continuing the routine of checking with the nurses that their checks were complete and that he had their agreement the surgery was completed, before looking to Alex. “Dr Dawson?”
“Just say the word Mr di Lucca…” encouraged Alex, her usual smile of confirmation at a surgery well done was visibly tinged with relief and visible to all since, being behind the ether screen, she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“Thank you everyone, a good surgery. Can we let Recovery know?” he asked, looking in the direction of one of the nurses to start alerting their colleagues, first in Recovery that they were going to start the process of bringing Charlotte Dunn around from the anaesthetic, and ultimately Fletch on AAU that they’d be returning in due course with their patient. “Over to you Dr Dawson.”
As Alex started the process of administering the correct drugs to start reversing the effects of the anaesthetic, Bernie and Raf stepped back from the operating table and began to strip off their gloves, theatre gown and mask. The routine was familiar, completed instinctively with little conscious effort and usually served to help them clear their minds of that case and, especially for busy trauma surgeons, often helped them get ready to launch immediately into their next case. But not today, not this case.
“I’m going to…” Bernie usually stayed with the anaesthetist and her patient until they were transferred to recovery, leaving the patient earlier in only the most frantic of major incidents when every moment mattered to her next patient’s chance of survival. However this was different, this wasn’t a diligent surgeon wanting to make sure their patient was safely on the road to recovery, this was… something she couldn’t articulate with anything other than a stiff jerk of her head in the direction of the theatre doors.
“Of course.” Raf hadn’t expected her do want to do anything other than accompany her daughter through into Recovery. “You’re not on shift Ms Wolfe,” he reminded her gently, cautiously reaching out to place a hand on her shoulder, hoping it conveyed his support and concern for her, only to pause awkwardly when he’d not yet put his hand on her - it wasn’t that he didn’t want to offer the support, but she was Ms Wolfe, she was somehow the invincible one that he couldn’t ever really remember anyone touching… other than Alex that was.
“Yes, of course.” Stiffly, Bernie turned to look at her daughter, before turning back to him and, noticing his hand hovering, reached across and patted it as if he’d touched her shoulder, which he then did, giving her shoulder a slight squeeze in encouragement and reassurance as she continued to pat his hand. “Thank you Raf…” This time her voice sounded warmer, with a hoarseness that spoke of how hard the last couple of hours had been for her, less ‘Ms Wolfe’ and more ‘Bernie’, with ‘Major Wolfe’ nowhere to be found.
Bernie’s gaze returned to focus on her daughter, looking past the breathing tube and the steady hands of her lover as she concentrated on bringing Charlotte out of her anaesthetic, seeing the small baby who had arrived screaming and kicking after a painfully rapid labour and who, these last few years at least, seemed to have never stopped screaming and kicking against her mother. Her hand dropping back to her side, Bernie forgot about Raf as she became absorbed in willing her daughter to wake up and to be ‘better’, even if all she received was screams and kicks once more.
“I’ll see you on AAU…” mumbled Raf when he sensed his presence was neither needed nor noticed, although Alex did look up and nod once in acknowledgement that she’d heard him, not remotely surprised or concerned that Bernie didn’t notice him leaving.
“Can I…” Bernie didn’t want to disturb Alex’s concentration or do anything that might disrupt her lover’s concentration as she continued to complete what, to many outside the field of anaesthesiology, was almost considered to be a ‘dark art’ - anaesthetics and their reversal were an area of medicine that was vital for all surgery but which few surgeons understood beyond knowing when their anaesthetist said it was fine for them to start operating. “Can I hold her hand?”
“Course…” Alex looked up from what she was doing long enough to smile in encouragement at her unusually tentative lover, tilting her head in the direction of a wheeled stool that was just past her left shoulder. “Pull up a chair?” she suggested, seeing no reason why Bernie shouldn’t be comfortable.
In the minute or so it took for Bernie to go and get the stool and return with it to the operating table where her daughter still lay, Alex managed to get to the point where there was now nothing much else to do except pay attention to her patient’s vitals and wait for the drugs to take effect. Therefore, by the time Bernie was sitting down on Alex’s left, well away from Charlotte’s surgical incision, Alex was able to pay her lover a bit more attention.
“No I’m not.” Dismissing Alex’s compliment, Bernie carefully held Charlotte’s hand between hers, studying it, comparing it to her memories of a little hand reaching out to hold her hand when they were crossing the road, of cooling and soothing burned fingers that had wanted to ‘help Mummy’ just like she did with her toy kitchen. But it wasn’t that little hand any more, it was a hand almost as big as her own, the hand of a young woman who last time they’d met had been so full of righteous anger and simmering hate.
“Why?” As much as it pained Alex to acknowledge, she was now rather more experienced with debating Bernie with Bernie than she had been six months ago. Some of it was simply by no longer being constantly aware of their ranks and responsibilities - it was funny, in retrospect, to recall how easy it had been to find a hidden corner for a kiss or a hug or a more intimate caress, but how difficult it was to find the time and space to really talk, the sort of talk that invariably meant an exchange of home truths, a harsh word or two, raised voices and tempers… There wasn’t much time or space in a war-zone to have the sort of heart-to-heart that blossoming love needed in order to fully take root and develop into that almost tangible bond that connected two people who were ‘in love’ and meant to be.
In the couple of months since she’d returned to Bernie, Alex had discovered how much more there was to Bernie when she felt free enough to show her, free from the confines of the military and her marriage, but also been the time when they’d both started to see the flaws and the imperfections that, if this was to work and last, had to be prodded and poked and understood. They’d both cried and shouted and stormed off, finding the frustration caused by the other too much to bear in that moment, but it had always been only a moment, with cooler heads and pained hearts bringing them back together, their rebuilt bridges stronger than ever.
“Why?” Bernie looked at Alex, her troubles and distress close to the surface. “She hates me.”
“I don’t think so…” began Alex, reaching out and putting her fingertips on Bernie’s knee, the only part of her in reach, until Bernie scooted her stool a little closer and held her hand, her left holding her daughter’s, her right being held by her lover.
“I’m the ‘terrorist aiding’ scrupleless ‘puppet of the state’ remember?” Bernie’s voice had a hollowness to it that Alex had come to associate with the particularly brutal rejection her daughter had flung at her during the divorce, recognising the words from one of her statements which Bernie had shown her.
“I think those might be her Aunt’s words…” and her Father’s, thought Alex, but she tried to stick to her own private rule of not negatively speculating about Marcus. Reminding Bernie of proven facts about her latterly very nasty and vindictive ex-husband? Absolutely, but she never speculated - for one thing, there was just so much ‘evidence’ it wasn’t necessary to speculate, but more than that, Alex just didn’t want to stoop to his level.
“What do you mean?” Bernie looked sharply at Alex when there wasn’t an immediate answer to her question, but seeing the anaesthetist was suddenly paying close attention to Charlotte, Bernie didn’t challenge her again, able to contain her urge for an explanation until Alex was able to divide her attention between mother and daughter again. Seeing Alex pass the file she’d made her notes on to the nurse to check and complete, Bernie forgot about her earlier question and instead asked how Charlotte was doing.
“She’s doing well,” Alex accepted the file back from the nurse and, after checking it thoroughly, signed it and nodded to the theatre nurse who headed off to check Recovery were ready for them. “She’s breathing on her own, so we’re now just waiting for Recovery to say they’re ready…” Alex put the file down on her lap and looked directly at Bernie, though she was also keeping an alert ear out in case the rhythm of the beats and bleeps of the monitors changed in any way. “Do you know how she’s here?” asked Alex carefully, knowing that Fletch might not have had much of a chance to tell Bernie what little they knew when Charlotte was still being assessed in the ED.
“Something about a tent?” asked Bernie finally, having tried to dredge her memory for any hints she could remember from earlier, “I sort of charged into ED and didn’t give anyone a chance to tell me…” she admitted, blushing slightly at the memory. She should probably apologise to someone… “I shouted at you…” she looked horrified as she recalled yelling at Alex, no, at Captain Dawson like she was a disobedient cadet.
“I forgive you.” Alex confirmed the forgiveness was seriously meant by putting her hand back on Bernie’s nearby knee and giving it an affectionate squeeze.
“You seem to be doing that a lot…” pondered Bernie, distracted from her daughter for a moment whilst she considered what it said about her that Alex was constantly forgiving her for things.
“Not constantly,” corrected Alex, knowing what Bernie was thinking, “just when it’s deserved.”
“But…” Bernie wanted to argue, but there was something in Alex’s expression that made her decide to abandon trying to debate that particular point until some other occasion. “What did happen? To Charlotte?”
“I’m not the best person to ask…” began Alex cautiously, realising that if Bernie didn’t really know anything, she probably didn’t know her son was in a waiting room somewhere. “She was up at St Anne’s…” Seeing Bernie’s blank expression, which served as yet another reminder about how ‘not local’ she was despite Marcus’ repeated assertions to the contrary, Alex tried to remember what Raf had told her hours earlier. “It’s a school locally - they were having a big event for Armed Forces Day.”
“Charlotte wouldn’t have been at that,” insisted Bernie, not seeing how the event was connected to her daughter’s injuries.
“She was, with her brother. He’s fine.” Alex was quick to reassure Bernie that her son was not injured or worse. “I saw him, for a second, he was sitting outside Resus when I went in…he looks just like you Bern...”
“Waiting for news I expect. I think Raf said Fletch was keeping an eye on him… but he’s fine.”
“What happened? You said something about a tent?” Setting aside the mystery of why her children were at what could probably be described as a ‘celebration’ of everything they supposedly hated about their mother, Bernie returned to the specific cause of the trauma.
“Apparently one of the tents fell down, not sure why,” added Alex quickly, preempting the inevitable question, “as far as ED can tell from the casualties that have come in, most were minor injuries from inside the tent that collapsed without warning at one end, but there were a handful of people just outside the tent that were injured more severely…” Alex glanced back at her file suddenly, remembering seeing there had been a piece of paper tucked in it that she’d been passed as a non-urgent note from the nurse earlier in the operation. Reaching for it, she saw it was a little bit more detail about the incident. “Seems some of the guy ropes gave way and the more serious injuries came from the weights and ropes rather than the tent itself. From what ED have worked out, Charlotte was just unlucky… a foot in any direction, like her brother, and she’d have been fine.” Or walking wounded at worst, thought Alex silently, stuffing the note in her scrub pocket when she heard the theatre doors open, signalling that the Recovery nurse had arrived with the bed to transfer Charlotte onto.
Pondering this new information, Bernie instinctively stood up and got out of the way when she saw the bed arriving for Charlotte to be transferred onto. She remained thoughtfully silent as the nurses and Alex went through the careful process of transferring Charlotte from the operating table to the bed, their movements neat and efficient as they disconnected all the monitoring equipment that was no longer necessary now that Charlotte’s surgery was complete.
“Bern?” prompted Alex eventually, when she was about to leave with Charlotte and get her settled in Recovery.
“Mmm?” Startled out of her thoughts, Bernie looked up and took a second to focus on Alex. “Oh, yes. Thanks.” Bernie’s smile was polite but distracted, although only Alex really noticed.
Bernie trailed behind the bed as they headed into Recovery, a large room with half a dozen or so beds in it, although by some miraculous quirk of good fortune, Charlotte was currently the only patient just then. Uncertain what to do with herself, Bernie stopped just inside the doors, once again deep in thought, as she tried to work out what might have been at the Armed Forces Day event at this school that could have attracted the attention of her children when less than a year ago they were both so quick to castigate and condemn the Army and her.
“Yes?” Alex didn't look up when she heard her name being called by one of the nurses who was on duty in Recovery, presuming it was a straightforward orders question or a message to call someone.
“Mr Hanssen is waiting to see you.”
“Hanssen?” Alex looked up at the nurse in surprise at hearing that he was waiting to see her, trying to work out what he could want with her.
“He’s the Chief Executive…” began the nurse with something of an unpleasant superior air about her, clearly deciding this locum didn’t know who he was, and probably wasn’t worth bothering too much with if they’d come to the attention of the CEO.
“I know who he is, thank you.” Unfortunately for the nurse, Alex was the wrong doctor and the wrong locum to decide to be dismissive of, with the whip of command and confidence quickly returning to her voice as her shoulders straightened and her assessment of Charlotte’s vitals continued now she was hooked up to the Recovery monitoring equipment. “Can you let him know I’ll be with him as soon as I’ve extubated Ms Wolfe’s daughter please, although he’s welcome to come in if he’d prefer not to wait.” Nurse dismissed, Alex looked up at the other nurse who’d come through to Theatre from Recovery, who she seemed to remember from a previous shift and raised a questioning eyebrow to see if there was any explanation for the nurse’s attitude.
“Anti-locum…” came the amused explanation once the coast was clear, “might also have a thing for your, umm…” the nurse blushed and stuttered, awkwardly nodding in the general direction of where Alex knew Bernie was standing.
“Bern?” Alex risked a glance over her shoulder back towards the less than pleasant nurse, mentally ticking herself off for being rude about someone on a fleeting first impression. “She can’t be all bad then,” joked Alex easily, looking back at Charlotte’s monitors, wanting to put this friendlier nurse at ease, “she’s clearly got some taste!”
Seeing that everything was in order, and there was nothing stopping her extubating Charlotte, Alex moved up to the head of the bed, the nurse anticipating her requirements and pulling across the necessary equipment for the anaesthetist. “Thanks.” Smiling, Alex prepared to pull on a fresh set of gloves and get ready to extubate, pausing when she remembered Bernie was still stuck just inside the door. “Bern?” she called more loudly, this time wanting to attract her lover’s attention.
“Hmm? What’s wrong?” It took a second for Bernie to quell the bubble of panic when she’d first heard her name being called.
“Nothing, sorry…” Alex glanced at the nurse, checking she was happy for Alex to step away from the patient for a moment in order to not have to shout across Recovery at the trauma consultant, before taking a couple of steps towards Bernie - near enough to not feel like she was shouting at her, but not so far she was away from Charlotte either. “I’m going to extubate..do you want to come closer now or…?” She left the question hanging, belatedly realising she was presuming that Bernie would want to stay with her daughter in recovery and then go with her when she was transferred back to AAU (not exactly textbook, but there wasn’t anything in the rules that prevented the AAU consultant surgeon from being with an AAU patient at any point in their hospital stay).
“After.” Chewing on her lip, Bernie folded her arms across her chest, making it possible for even the most inexperienced ‘Bernie-watcher’ to understand that she really didn’t want to see her daughter be extubated. “I can’t watch…” she added quietly, knowing Alex would understand, “but I can’t…”
“No problem, give me one minute.” And with what she hoped was a smile conveying a bit of reassurance and understanding and a massive amount of love, Alex turned back to Charlotte and with neat efficiency and the assistance of the nurse, had Charlotte extubated and lying back down again, barely waking from her post-anaesthesia sleep, helped by the post-operative analgesics Alex had already given her.
“Bern?” This time, Alex knew she could call out quietly, convinced she could feel Bernie’s eyes glued to her back, waiting for the moment when Alex was ready.
“How is she?” asked Bernie quietly, approaching the bed and cautiously reaching out to take her daughter’s hand once more, oblivious to the nurse as she tidied away the various bits and pieces they no longer needed.
“Doing well… she’s no longer under the anaesthetic, but I’ve given her plenty of pain relief…” Alex dropped the hand rail at the side of the bed and gestured to the space by Charlotte’s hip, “keep her company? I’ve just got to go see…” she might have said a ‘ghost about a scare’ which was how they used to occasionally refer to their excessively patient Sergeant-Major, but she decided that now was probably not the time, so she stuck to vague, “...to something.”
In moving around to the correct side of the bed, Bernie elected to step between Alex and the bed. Surprised, but in an unexpectedly welcome way, Alex curbed her first instinct to step back from the bed when she saw what Bernie intended to do, and remained in place. Judging there was enough space, Alex nevertheless reached forwards and steadied Bernie as she brushed by her, placing a discreet hand on Bernie’s hips, ready to hold her if she over-balanced in Charlotte’s direction. Instead, on feeling Alex’s hand, Bernie stopped and turned, leaning into Alex who immediately responded by putting both hands on her lover’s hips, not caring if Hanssen and the Head of the GMC were stood behind her. As Bernie’s hands drifted to rest on Alex’s hips in instinctive symmetry, their foreheads touched and, for one split second, one lightning fast moment that felt a thousand times longer for the lovers, Recovery and all the adrenalin and emotion that was associated with the events of the last couple of hours disappeared. For that one timeless split second, their world was just the two of them, finding energy in the beating pulse and steady breathing of their partner, giving strength to their lover to face whatever was to come in the minutes and hours before they could come together to rest again.
“You’re amazing…” said Alex, repeating her words from theatre a few minutes earlier.
“That’s my line…” joked Bernie, echoing their earlier conversation in the locker room, “I couldn’t do this without you.”
“I wish you hadn’t had to…” Alex reached up and ran her thumb down Bernie’s jaw, “I need to go see someone…” she dropped her hand back to Bernie’s hip and with both hands gave a gentle squeeze before she carefully stepped back, giving Bernie the space she needed to turn and sit on the bed next to the still sleeping Charlotte. “But I’ll come find you, as soon as I can, unless you’d rather I…” Suddenly, Alex remembered that while it might be a while before Charlotte woke up sufficiently to stay awake and engage with people around her for more than a brief moment or two, Cameron was waiting for them on AAU and a mother/son reunion of some sort was looking probable, a reunion that she would probably only make harder not happier.
“Come find us?” requested Bernie hopefully, stepping back so she could turn and look at Charlotte without letting go of Alex, determined to not let go of her children without a fight, without some answers to questions she now knew she needed to ask. “When you’re able?” she qualified, remembering that Alex, unlike Bernie, was only partway through her shift.
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” she said before pressing a lingering kiss to Bernie’s cheek and turned, pausing long enough to satisfy herself one final time that everything on Charlotte’s monitors looked in order. “Promise.”
“I’ll be waiting…” The whispered words sounded loud in the quiet of the deserted Recovery ward, Bernie’s fingers resting on Alex’s hip until the anaesthetist was too far to touch any more. When Alex broke into a light jog, evidently literally meaning her promise to be quick, Bernie sat down on the edge of her daughter’s bed and took hold of the limp hand once more. “It’s the least I can do…”
“Is my father,” replied the young man instinctively, standing up to greet Raf, “Ronnie…” Raf shook the offered hand, trying not to let the shock he had at realising quite how like Bernie her son looked show in his expression. It really was quite incredible how little resemblance there was between brother and sister. “How’s my sister?”
“The surgery went well,” Raf gestured to the chairs which Ronnie had clearly been sitting in for quite some time, judging by the scattered papers, coffee cups and food wrappers, reminding Raf of the AAU consultant’s office during Serena’s suspension. It was clear Ronnie hadn’t only inherited his mother’s looks. “She’s in Recovery now. I’d expect her to be brought onto the ward in an hour or so.” When he’d first started talking to family members after operations, Raf had found himself talking too much, overloading them with details and next steps that he had to explain again later, when they were better able to cope and comprehend. Experience had taught him to slow down.
“Good, that’s good.” For a moment or two, Ronnie didn’t quite know what to say or do - he’d been so calm, just accepting from the outset that his sister would be fine, that whatever her injuries were the hospital would know what to do, would ‘fix’ her.. “I, uh...”
“It’s okay,” Raf reached behind him and grabbed the box of tissues, wordlessly putting them on the floor by Ronnie’s foot - in his reach and eye line if he wanted them, ignorable if he didn’t. “She’s going to need a few days to recover from the surgery in hospital, then time to get her strength back…” Raf paused for a second, in case Ronnie had any immediate questions or comments before asking carefully, “does she live at home still?”
“What?” Startled by the question, Ronnie looked up, rubbing his eyes to try and clear his blurry vision, the combination of his absent glasses and the moisture from his relief- fuelled tears making it extra hard to focus. “Oh, umm...that’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” Raf’s natural curiosity had seen him ask the question before working out whether it was actually his business to know, belatedly reminding himself that although Ronnie and Charlotte were Bernie’s children, Charlotte was his patient, and her home environment was an important factor in to her recovery. “Oh,” he remembered her age from the patient summary, “is she still at Uni?”
“Yeah...she’s at Bristol, but she came to visit me today so we could go to the thing…up at the school. Dad doesn’t know she’s in Holby today.”
Raf scratched his neck absently: Ronnie was right, that did make it ‘complicated’, however before he could work out what to say next, there was a quiet knock at the door and then Fletch’s head appeared.
“Sorry to interrupt…” Raf’s head whipped round to look at Fletch, never so grateful for an interruption during a ‘tell-the-family’ discussion after an operation that had been a success. “Mr Cotman’s notes have finally come through…” Fletch left the end of his statement open, not sure if Raf wanted to just give him an instruction about what to do with one of the other serious casualties from the tent collapse.
“Thanks Fletch, be right with you. Ronnie, will you be…”
“Go, I’m fine. Actually…” Ronnie looked about him, noticing the mess he’d made, “I better get this tidied up before Charlie gets back.”
“Dr Dawson.” Both remained silent as they stepped to the side to let a patient be wheeled past on their way to an operating theatre. It was only once the corridor was deserted again, and Alex still hadn’t spoken, that Hanssen concluded she was waiting for him to continue talking to her. “Ms Wolfe once mentioned something about a Sergeant-Major… who loomed?” He looked at her thoughtfully, thinking he had perhaps seen a flicker of recognition in her face that was otherwise, giving nothing away and waiting for him to keep talking. “I believe the nickname this individual acquired was ‘Ghost’?”
“Was that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Mmm? No.” There was another brief interruption whilst they let another patient go past. “I had the opportunity to meet a Captain Jeynes earlier…” He was reasonably confident that he was now spotting some of her unconscious micro-gestures that enabled him to read her reactions a bit better, with the slight tensing of the jaw suggesting he wasn’t going to get a verbal response until he’d explained further. “I understand from Ms Wolfe that the three of you have a pre-existing working relationship?”
“I’m certain that’s not how the Major described it.” If he noticed she’d switched to using Bernie’s rank, he didn’t comment.
“Fair point, I believe her exact words were ‘misfortune to be on the same side.’ Does that sound more familiar?”
“Yes.” Alex thought that sounded exactly like Bernie trying to remember that she wasn’t supposed to be rude about a fellow officer, nevermind the complications that being a doctor also brought.
“Did Ms Wolfe mention that we’d spoken?”
“No.” Alex wasn’t often deliberately taciturn, but the double experience of the Army and Medical School had taught her to be as brief as possible whenever someone more senior or experienced was asking her questions for reasons she had no bloody clue about.
“I see.” He cleared his throat, stretching the silence between them long enough to confirm that she wasn’t going to speculate. “Captain Jeynes had been here this morning as part of the Armed Forces Day programme, overseeing the photographers from the local newspaper ahead of the local news and other media teams recording some interviews with members of the Board and so forth later this afternoon. Ms Wolfe made it quite clear, when she discovered the Captain was involved, that she would not be participating, and that if I didn’t permit Security to ban him from AAU… well, let’s just say her argument was most compelling.”
“Oh…” Alex hoped the relief she could feel as several knots she hadn’t known were tied in her stomach unwound wasn’t too visible, nor the ideas she immediately started having about how she was going to thank Bernie later, very much later when neither of them were on call. Throwing a mental bucket of cold water over said thoughts, she blinked and tried to refocus on the here and now, and the very present CEO. “I’m not sure what’s brought this up now…”
“Captain Jeynes is no longer at the hospital - he was requested at St Anne’s, the school hosting the event which Ms Dunn was at, shortly after the incident. Nor will he be returning in any professional capacity.”
“I wanted to let you know, personally.”
“Thank you.” Alex wasn’t quite sure if that was the end of the conversation or not, so stuck her hands in her pockets, unable to decide if she was expected to say something else.
“No thanks necessary. I…” He stuttered to a halt, clearly caught between wanting to ask or say something else,which was presumably the real reason why he’d come to find her, and leaving. “That is…can I ask, what was it that did we not know when we agreed to Captain Jeynes’ participation? The Board would...
“Nothing.” Alex very much doubted the Board would either wish to know or care, so, since she liked the man and got the sense that Bernie did too, she cut across him before he could say something he’d later either regret or feel obliged to justify with unnecessary action. “It is ancient history.”
“On the contrary, it seemed rather current when I spoke with… Bernie.”
“It…” Alex chewed on her lip for a moment, trying to decide if he was fishing for gossip or something that could be used against Bernie or whether it was asked because of genuine concern. “It probably is current for him…” acknowledged Alex finally, persuaded by his careful use of Bernie’s first name, reminding her of when they’d met him in the car park last week. “His nickname was, is ‘Calamity’.”
“So I gathered from the man himself. He seemed rather fond of it.”
“He is. ‘Calamity Jane’ the army scout renowned for kindness and compassion.” It was clear from Alex’s tone that this was not the reasoning others subscribed to.
“Court Calamity might be more apt, given today’s events…am I right?”
“Captain Calamity Jane’ is what he believes he’s called… thinks he’s a hero because of all the ‘epic moments’ he’s been at…”
“I believe the legal profession have the phrase ‘ambulance chasers’.”
“Sounds about right… and it sounds like he’s not changed then?”
“Apparently not. Is there anything I should be aware of? That we could perhaps…” he chose his words very carefully, speaking even more quietly and precisely than he usually did, knowing that he only had one chance to say this and she had to understand it without him either repeating himself or clarifying, “...observe when we tender our thanks to his commanding officer since the Board are outside the chain of command?”
“I think he’s learnt what no means now, but thank you.”
“Very good…” He turned, ready to take his leave and return to his office, only for another thought to occur to him, something that he didn’t want to think, didn’t really believe and certainly didn’t want to ask, but now he’d thought about it, couldn’t cope with the ambiguity. “When you say he’s learnt what ‘no’ means…” His raised eyebrow was eloquent in a way he would never be with words.
“Not like that.” His relief was tangible and genuine and, despite everything she might have been earlier feeling about not wanting to volunteer information to him, made her want to explain. “I was part way through a MERT duty, that’s uh…” she could see the acronym wasn’t meaning much to him, prompting her to detour briefly, “...a 24 hour on-call duty as part of the Medical Emergency Response Team. We had 5 minutes to scramble to helicopter or ground ambulance and head ‘outside the wire’ to rescue the casualties.” His nod indicated her explanation was good enough for her to continue with the original story. “We were returning to Bastion with multiple casualties, only to find the next call already in…” she distracted herself with the memory, instinctively flexing her legs as she did so, earning her another questioning eyebrow twitch, “...Because of the shape of the Chinnock helicopter and the risk of being fired on, the patients were always treated on the floor of the aircraft and we knelt...in the dark most of the time. Calamity was there, wanting a ‘ride along’.”
“Sounds unwise. He was insistent I presume?”
“Extremely. Until he wasn’t.”
“I take it the measures you used to help Captain Jeynes understand the ill-advised nature of his suggestion live rather long in his memory?”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Alex could tell he wanted to know what she’d done, was trying to fathom how it could be something that still, thousands of miles away and more than a year later, be something that was remembered. “I imagine the scar is quite a mood killer.”
“He did mention something that led me to conclude he’d benefited from Ms Wolfe’s surgical talents. Not that I’d presume to ask her to break patient confidentiality.”
“Of course not.” Alex knew this was a conversation she would never be able to retell and do total justice to, as even her limited knowledge of this hospital and its staff told her that she’d struggle to get many to believe her if she ever told them that she had first hand experience of Henrik Hanssen being amused, or had seen him smirk. “That would be unethical, as would asking me to be the anaesthetist for a surgery that my actions inadvertently precipitated.”
“So he was never your patient?”
“He was never my patient. Speaking of...” Mischievously, Alex turned to head back into Recovery, seemingly leaving him none the wiser as to what she’d done unless he was prepared to ‘break’ first. Which he was, something else that she knew few would believe if she ever tried to tell them.
“What did you do? To this man who was never your patient?”
“Something that might have required a surgeon of our mutual acquaintance to complete emergency testicular torsion repair before he underwent an eight week recuperation back in Blighty.” She paused a moment, waiting until she saw he had understood the significance of her words.
“Unfortunate, but not undeserved.” And with a final nod, he turned and set off back to his office, his careful tread perhaps a touch more precise than usual, for the first few steps at least....
“Fletch!” Surprised to see him, Bernie stood up and tried not to look like she’d sat slumped on her daughter’s bed, lost in thought. “What are you doing here?”
“Ward transfer.” He pointed in the direction of Charlotte, “got a nice room for her, view of the car park, maid service laid on…” he trailed off, wondering if he’d misjudged her and made one more joke than he could get away with.
“Thanks…” Uncertain what to do, Bernie took another step back and put her hands in her scrub pockets, and tried to keep out of the way, however that didn’t stop her looking around intently, noting the three other patients that were now in Recovery and one absent anaesthetist.
“Dr D’s in theatre with Mr di Lucca.” Fletch had always prided himself on being quite a good guesser, and that was before he had gained extra skills from coping with his kids, so it wasn’t difficult to guess what or rather who she was looking for.
“Oh?” Bernie watched intently as the Recovery Nurse prepared Charlotte for her short trip through the hospital, trying to work out what she did next.
“RTC, liver laceration and splenectomy. Should be done in an hour or so. Theatre 2 if you’re interested.”
“I’m fine…” She wasn’t, but observing a splenectomy wasn’t going to help.
“She thought you’d say that…” agreed Fletch, scanning Charlotte’s file to check there was everything they needed, “oh, and I’m to remind you about the records review? She said it was still on no matter what.” Satisfied Charlotte’s notes were complete, he put the file on the bed between Charlotte’s ankles, enabling him to have both hands free to push and steer the trolley when they were ready to leave.
“Yeah…” Fletch looked at her thoughtfully, wondering if he was imagining her shoulders relaxing and her jaw unclenching, only for the small smile to convince him that no, he wasn’t imagining it. “What is it with you two and admin?”
“Pardon?” Bernie’s jaw tensed again and her smile disappeared, replaced instead with a totally blank expression that clearly suggested he needed to explain himself further.
“Records reviews… it’s just, you gave me a message about it for Dr D, last week?” He waited a beat until she’d remembered what he was talking about. “Just wondering if it was an Army thing or something, ‘cos you don’t mention records with any of us…” He was fairly confident he heard her mutter ‘perish the thought’ under her breath, but couldn’t be absolutely certain as it didn’t seem to match her body language, which was definitely relaxing… it was as if… “What’s so funny?” Confused, he tried to work out what the joke was, not spotting anything immediately obvious like a pun or a double entendre…
“Nothing…” His look of disbelief only made her smirk even more before she managed to marshall herself enough to explain. “You’re right, in a way, about it being an army thing...but it’s not about admin, and I would hope to never mention ‘records reviews’ with anyone other than Alex.”
“Go on…” Fletch folded his arms over his chest, beginning to have a slight idea what she might be talking about, but not prepared to guess in case he was wrong.
“It’s a code we used, still use I guess out of habit more than anything else… I was her commanding officer you see, that was the bigger issue… well, that and my marriage.” Bernie shrugged as she looked at him, then looked at Charlotte, still deeply asleep thanks to the drugs that Alex had given her to help manage the pain once the anaesthetic wore off. “I’d never been very good at telling people who I loved, love, how much they mean to me…”
Stepping forwards, she reached down and tucked some strands of hair back off her daughter’s face so they wouldn’t tickle her as she became less ‘dopey’. “Some of it was who I was, how I was brought up… some of it was not knowing the words to say... “ She stepped back and occupied herself with putting the rail back up on the side of the bed, ready for the transfer. “And some of it was not having met the person who made me wanted to say it often…” She looked up, but Fletch was fairly confident she wasn’t looking at him, but was lost in thoughts and memories of things he couldn’t imagine. “And when I did…” She shrugged again, bringing her focus back to him, her thoughts back to the present. “We had to find different words to use.”
Before Fletch could say anything in response to her rather unexpected explanation, movement behind him caught her eye - it was the porter arriving to help Fletch wheel Charlotte back to AAU/
“Ma’am.” Surprised at the rather formal greeting, Fletch spun round, seeing it was the porter wearing army fatigues he’d seen Bernie salute and talk to out in the car park before shift.
“Carry on Corporal…” The military protocols as instinctive to Bernie as medicine and surgery, she nodded at the Porter and, before Fletch had realised it, she was gone…
“Dr D?” Hearing her name, Alex stopped walking and, with a deliberate slowness whilst she counted backwards from 10, she turned round to face the way she’d just come.
“Have you got a sec?”
“Umm…” She wanted to say no, wanted to point out she’d been in back to back surgeries and wanted five minutes, ten ideally, of not not being ‘Dr D’. But no one who worked trauma ever really expected to get what they wanted during a shift, so pushing aside any thoughts she might have had about what she wanted, she forced a smile. “Sure, what’s up?”
“In here…” Fletch pushed open the door to a treatment room that was supposed to be empty and, seeing no one was where they shouldn’t be, gestured with his head for Alex to step in.
“Okay…” Bemused, but trying to keep her nerves from getting to her, she tried to keep it light by joking, “...flattering, but you know you’re not my type, right?” she asked as she jumped up and sat on the high treatment bed, her feet hanging in mid air.
“What?” Fletch closed the door and turned round to look at her, amused to see her feet swinging like his kids did. “Oh, yeah, I mean no…” Frustrated at his inability to answer her question sensibly, frustration that intensified when he saw she was amused by his struggles. “It’s nothing like that.”
“On second thoughts…” Seeing she was about to jump back down from her perch on the bed and leave, clearly thinking, with some good reason based on his reputation for the occasional joke, that he was on a wind-up, he started talking quickly. “It’s about Ms Wolfe… have you seen her?”
“Not since we moved Charlotte into Recovery, which was before I saw you last…” Alex’s expression hardened as her thoughts turned to worse case scenarios, her heart rate staying steady only because she reminded herself there weren’t any IEDs in Holby. “Why?”
“Nothing bad’s happened, at least…she’s in her office, wearing her uniform again.”
“Go on…” Alex didn’t see much wrong with that, in fact, that had been Bernie’s declared plan for the duration of Alex’s shift, to do paperwork in her office. And it wasn’t unusual for her to have a shower when she changed out of scrubs for the final time at the end of surgical duty.
“She’s not seen her daughter since Recovery. We were talking, and the porter came, the one in uniform like hers, from before?” Alex nodded, recalling the moment in the car park just before their shift started. “He called her Ma’am when he saw her, and she went off like a shot. She’s not seen her son either.”
“Oh.” Alex absently chewed on her lip whilst she considered what Bernie’s behaviour might mean, and, more critically at this precise second, what Fletch thought he was going to achieve by telling her this.
“I get that she thinks it better if he doesn’t see her…” He interpreted her raised eyebrow as a non-negotiable request to get to the point, quickly. “But he really wants to. He’s been remembering stuff from when he was a lad and stuff, that’s why they were at the School in the first place.”
“What do you mean?” Alex was trying to remember what he’d told her as they wheeled Charlotte into theatre, but all she could remember was his explanation for the tent collapse and something about not believing everything their Aunt said.
“Their Dad lied to him, to both of them, about the Army and stuff.” Fletch could see he wasn’t making much sense to Alex, but he wasn’t quite sure how to explain himself better, or that it was actually his story to explain. “You know he’s a twin?”
“Who, Ronnie?” Alex was totally confused now, being fairly confident that Bernie would have mentioned giving birth to twins, but prepared to hear Fletch out before she potentially over-reacted.
“No, their father. Marcus. A sister?”
“Caroline…” Alex did remember Bernie mentioning never quite realising that in marrying Marcus she was also effectively marrying his twin sister Caroline, so much of a presence was she in her brother’s life. “Not a fan of Bernie’s from what I understand.”
“Right. So it seems she was always going on, getting in their heads like, about Bernie being a bad mother and making them feel sorry for their Dad…”
“He certainly spoiled them..” recalled Alex, thinking of the snippets Bernie had shared when they were on Tour together, and subsequently, in the last few weeks as they mended bridges and refounded their relationship and, as part of that, Bernie had given Alex the divorce papers and testimonies to read, Bernie’s theory being Alex needed to know what she was getting involved with. “But what’s your point Fletch?”
“There were lies… big lies, that they’d been feeding the kids since they were tots. But a few weeks ago the kids, they caught their father out.”
“What sort of lies?”
“I can’t tell you.” Her glare was impressive, and a lesser man might have crumbled under it, but Fletch wasn’t that man. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know what it was, but that’s why they were at the event today… they wanted some questions answered.”
“But the chance of anyone knowing Bernie…” began Alex, ignoring the fact that they had already met one soldier they did know today, not to mention that Holby’s ‘local’ infantry regiment was the Rifles, who, as a result of their numerous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, had numbered some of their patients.
“Nah, they weren’t looking for their Mum, they had questions about school fees and housing and things like that.” Fletch didn’t like to say that he’d had very little idea what Ronnie had been going on about whenever he’d stopped to check he was alright, but it was clearly making sense to the lad. “And the answers they got…he needs to talk to his Mum...but she’s…”
“Hiding in her office?”
“Your words Dr D, but yeah. Something like that.” Relieved that on some level she now understood, he looked at her hopefully. “Can you do something?”
“I’ll talk to her…” Alex jumped down from the bed, landing lightly on her feet. “No promises, but I’ll talk to her.” She patted him on the shoulder as she stepped around him, heading for the door. “Thanks Fletch.”
“Don’t mention it…” he spoke lightly, so his words could be taken in jest, but as the door closed behind her, he let out a heavy sigh of relief, glad that the ‘secret’ he’d been keeping ever since Ronnie had told him why they’d been up at the school was finally out, shared with the one person who could help make it right between Bernie and her kids.
“Knock knock?” Startled, Bernie turned round, smiling when she saw that her intruder was Alex who, having ‘knocked’ when she was stood in the open doorway, had continued in and closed the office door behind her.
“Hey you…” Turning back to her paperwork, Bernie concentrated on closing the file without messing up the order of the pages and put it back in the filing cabinet drawer exactly where she’d found it, which wasn’t where she’d have filed it, but she’d learnt the hard way to not disagree with Serena’s logic.
Alex hadn’t really thought about what she’d say to Bernie, but seeing her lover stood in front of the filing cabinets on the far side of the room, her back to Alex, the anaesthetist decided that she’d worry about that later.
“Hi.” As she spoke, having crossed the room in a couple of long, light strides, Alex slipped her hands around Bernie’s waist and lightly rested her chin on her lover’s right shoulder before tilting her head and kissing her jaw.
“Hello…” Bernie leaned back until her body met Alex’s and her hands forgot about the unfiled file as instead she blindly reached down to find Alex’s hands while arching her neck to make it easier for Alex to kiss her again in the hope she’d take the hint. “Don’t you have patients?” she asked, in a vague attempt to at least hang on to some decorum.
“Rounds in a bit,” confirmed Alex, taking Bernie’s hint and kissing her neck again, smiling when she heard her lover’s gentle hum of happiness, a hum that turned into a startled almost squeak when, avoiding Bernie’s searching hands, she instead dived into the surgeon’s pockets and found what felt like a decent handful of change. “Come on.”
“Where?” Bemused, and missing Alex’s presence when she stepped back, Bernie turned around and put her own hands in the pockets of her camouflage patterned trousers that were neatly gathered into the tops of her boots, which, when matched with the similarly patterned shirt tucked neatly into her stable belt (RAMC colours, dark cherry not blood red at the top) that made up the current version of ‘battle dress’ uniform. Her shirt sleeves were rolled up to just above the elbow and the patches on her sleeves and front indicated (to those who could ‘read’ these details) her rank of Major, her Corps (Royal Army Medical Corps, same colours as her belt) and that she was British Army.
“Ice cream!” Alex grabbed Bernie’s beret, deciding that there had to be somewhere outside that they could find some peace and quiet in for a few minutes before she had to attend ICU ward rounds, and headed towards the door.
“And the interest in my pockets?” asked Bernie, tossing her pen on her desk, preparing to follow Alex to the coffee shop, not entirely convinced they would have ice cream but prepared to try, if only for the distraction from everything else that was going on. “Oh, wait.” She stopped and patted her pockets, looking quizzically at Alex before recognition dawned. “That was your way of telling me I’m paying?”
“Maybe…” Alex opened the door and, using Bernie’s beret in the same way an aircraft dispatcher uses the ‘ping pong bats’ to direct a plane, gestured that Bernie should leave her office first.
“Eyes up Captain…” muttered Bernie, knowing exactly what Alex was up to.
“Only when I’m on duty,” came the quick retort, Alex emphasising her point with a discrete (by romantic standards) but hugely insubordinate (by military standards) and affectionate pat to her lover’s rear. “And in uniform,” she added, pulling the office door closed behind her and falling easily into step with Bernie. “Speaking of…” She paused whilst they navigated the double doors, in the process giving Bernie her beret.
“Mmm? Oh uniform. Why aren’t you wearing yours?” she asked, recalling now that Alex hadn’t answered her earlier when she’d asked.
“Because the Agency didn’t do the paperwork, unlike the hospital…” Alex stepped behind Bernie so that they could let a cleaning cart exit the lift, enabling her to admire Bernie’s rear again.
“Eyes up Doctor ,” teased Bernie, swiftly turning so her back was to the wall, depriving Alex of what she was looking at.
“Can’t blame a Doc for looking,” shrugged Alex, sticking her hands in her pockets and heading into the amazingly empty lift. “Why aren’t you in number 2s? Not that I’m complaining…”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been leered at.” Bernie’s poker face was ridiculously good, with it convincing everyone except Alex, although Bernie had never managed to get her to explain how she knew.
“I’m admiring,” corrected Alex as the lift doors opened, making a beeline for the small coffee shop’s ice cream freezer, Bernie ambling along more slowly, taking her own opportunity to do a bit of admiring. “And you didn’t answer my question,” pointed out Alex once Bernie was stood next to her.
“This is uniform of the day according to Headquarters, not that I’m complaining.” Bernie looked down at her uniform, straightening the front of her shirt a fraction, “less polishing for one thing.”
“Definitely not complaining,” agreed Alex, spotting what she wanted with a quiet ‘ah ha!’ and reaching down into the freezer to get it.
“No,” agreed Bernie, watching with a smirk on her face that was definitely not remotely befitting an Officer, “no complaints here.”
“Ms Wolfe?” Not expecting to hear her name, she turned around, seeing Sacha Levy, the Registrar from Keller and alongside him, a smirking Dominic Copeland.
“Mr Levy…” She threaded her way through the mostly empty tables and went and joined the queue behind them, knowing that Alex would need to pay for whatever it was she was still rummaging for in the freezer. “And Dr Copeland.”
Emerging from her freezer rummage, two small ‘one scoop’ tubs of ice cream in her hand, Alex looked around for Bernie, easily spotting her in the queue at the counter. Although Alex recognised the maroon-scrub wearing younger man as Dom Copeland, she didn’t know who the older man was, but based on how he was speaking to Bernie and Dom was trying to look interested in their conversation whilst eying up the guy behind the counter, Alex presumed he had to be a registrar at least, if not a consultant. Weaving between the tables to join Bernie in the queue, Alex continued to watch the trio, deciding that the third man could only be a surgeon who had asked Bernie’s opinion about something, something that required Bernie to use her beret as a prop while she answered his question.
“...but it’s up to the two of you…” concluded Bernie, her eyes following Alex through the tables and bringing her answer to a close, not particularly interested in discussing the alternative approaches he and Dom had come up with for their patient now Alex was back. “It’s your patient.” She stepped forwards with the queue, forcing Dom to step backwards to keep up with the queue, unwilling to turn away from her when he still wanted to develop his alternative solution, all interest in the guy serving the coffee apparently forgotten.
“Yes, but…” Tuning out what they were saying as stepped between Bernie and the display counter, Alex was amused to see Dom start up the conversation again, complete with animated prodding of Bernie’s beret, presumably because Bernie had favoured something that had been suggested by the other surgeon. Knowing that Bernie was an excellent teacher, and that she had a well concealed soft spot for the confident Dom, Alex wasn’t surprised when she listened carefully to what Dom was saying, clearly preparing to deconstruct his thoughts so that he understood whatever risk or factor she’d spotted that had made her favour the other proposal.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to ruin your break.”
“Hmm? Oh, don’t worry,” Alex glanced sideways at Bernie, watching her take Dom through something that he clearly was preparing to disagree with before looking at Dom’s senior surgeon who was stood in front of her, “you’ve just taken her mind off queuing…” she trailed off, failing to see any sort of readable security pass or name tag on him, so none the wiser who she was talking to.
“Sacha Levy, surgical registrar on Keller.”
“Alex Dawson. Anaesthetist, locum on AAU.” She juggled her ice cream tubs into her left hand so she could shake his offered right.
“Of course…” Unsure quite what to say next, both Sacha and Alex were relieved that the queue shuffled forwards at that point, with Sacha now next to be served, prompting him to glance at the now silent Dom, surprised when he saw he was concentrating intently on what Bernie was explaining to him. “I won’t interrupt…” he mumbled, deciding that Dom would in the long run benefit more from Bernie’s explanation and Sacha’s choice of coffee for him than the ‘perfect’ coffee and an interruption. “She’s good with him,” he remarked conversationally, feeling a bit awkward not saying anything to Alex
“Mmm?” Alex glanced at Dom, seeing him focussed on the beret which had presumably been standing in for some organ or other. “She’s had quite a bit of practice.”
“Getting headstrong young men to pay attention.”
“Oh.” Wrong footed, not quite following Alex’s train of thought, he placed his order for his and Dom’s coffees and paid, taking the opportunity to get his thoughts in order.
“Soldiers,” volunteered Alex when it became apparent that order placed, he still didn’t quite know what to say. “They generally thought they knew best and didn’t take kindly to a lady MO telling them to shut up and listen, even when she could make it an order.”
“Did who what?” asked Dom, joining their conversation, Bernie having finished her conversation with him, partly because he had understood enough of her point to understand why his proposed solution wasn’t the right one, but mainly because she’d seen Sacha ordering the coffees, suggesting it would be Alex’s turn in a moment.
“Soldiers listen to Major Wolfe, and yes,” summarised Alex, putting her ice cream tubs down on the counter so the guy currently making the coffee could scan them when it was her turn.
“Soldiers…” Cheekily, Dom canted his head to the side as he considered the prospect of fit men in uniform.
“Focus Dom,” teased Sacha, handing over the fiver that would pay for the two coffees with disappointingly little change and elbowing Dom to pick up their drinks. “Good to meet you Alex,” he added, accepting the small amount of change and putting it in his pocket, waiting for Dom to finish fussing with his coffee by adding so much cinnamon and chocolate that it basically became a caffeinated hot chocolate as far as Sacha was concerned.
“Likewise…” As she spoke, Alex slid her hand into Bernie’s trouser pocket, seeing that Bernie had apparently forgotten she was paying, and extracted a handful of change, oblivious to the look of surprise that flashed across Sacha’s face for a second, closely followed by dawning understanding as the dots connected and he suddenly realised who Alex was aside from being a locum anaesthetist. Bernie however, wasn’t so distracted although she was perhaps as surprised as Sacha when Alex’s hand shot into her trouser pocket, until she remembered that she’d been supposed to pay.
“Yes.” Bernie looked levelly at Sacha, waiting for him to meet her gaze, knowing exactly what he was thinking, very aware that despite her careful display of concentration as she sorted amongst Bernie’s accumulation of change to find the exact amount, Alex was also paying close attention to his response.
“Congratulations.” Picking up his coffee, Dom having forgotten to pick it up, Sacha raised the paper cup as if to toast them. “Got to go,” he added, before hurrying off to talk to Dom about their forthcoming surgery whilst Dom still remembered Bernie’s points.
“Outside?” asked Alex, her ice cream paid for.
“This way,” decided Bernie, leading them towards the nearby entrance, remembering the peace garden… and that Alex had just pocketed all her change…
“Want some?” Alex held out the little plastic shovel that had come in the lid of her ice cream, a heap of ice cream resting precariously on top. In response to the question, Bernie leaned forwards and opening her mouth, clearly expecting Alex to feed her. “I’ll take that as a yes then…” Amused, she obediently stuck the spoon in Bernie’s mouth, resting the ‘spoon’ lightly on the surgeon’s tongue so she knew she could close her mouth.
“Mmm…” Bernie’s eyes widened when she tasted the flavour of the ice cream, remembering to swallow it just before she started talking. “Gosh...”
“Want some more?” Alex shifted slightly so that she was sitting at more of an angle on the top of the bench seatback, her feet on the slatted seat base, her elbows still lightly resting on her knees, making it easier for her to share her ice cream with Bernie who was stood at the end of the bench. Laughing when she saw Bernie’s best goldfish impression, Alex scooped out a little bit more of her ice cream and again fed her lover.
“I am being spoiled…” Bernie licked her lips, not wanting to head back inside with a sticky streak of ice cream on her face, “two bites of your ice cream…” She reached out and felt Alex’s forehead and and lymph glands at the top of her neck, “...no temperature or signs of swelling…” she muttered, keeping her voice serious and her ‘poker face’ expression firmly in place.
“Have you finished?”
“Not sure…” Bernie reached for Alex’s stethoscope which was draped around the anaesthetist's neck, forgotten about until Bernie made to grab it, “...out-of-character behaviour can be a symptom of a variety of illnesses and conditions…”
“Are you suggesting I’m not a good sharer?” asked Alex, pointedly offering Bernie a third little scoop of ice cream, an offer Bernie promptly accepted. “I rest my case.”
“You’re a very good sharer of everything except your raspberry ripple ice cream.” Bernie looked at Alex suspiciously, “usually…” She reached across Alex’s legs, trying to find where she’d put her second ice cream tub. “Ah ha!” Victorious, Bernie caught hold of the second tub of ice cream despite Alex’s best attempts to distract her with any means at her disposal which seemed to include kisses and tickling. “Two tubs of raspberry ripple?” she asked, straightening up, holding the tub just out of Alex’s reach.
“2009 was a bad year…” sniffed Alex in mock distress, thoroughly enjoying the fact that they could still tease and joke like they had been able to from virtually the first time they met.
“Horrific,” agreed Bernie, opening the tub and arming herself with her own little spoon which she stabbed firmly into the still very frozen middle of the ice cream. “Almost as bad as the chocolate chip mutiny in 2002.”
“Oh?” Deliberately taking another large mouthful of ice cream, Alex waited to see what new silliness her lover was going to invent.
“Vote of no confidence, mint was forced to go it alone…wasn’t the same after that.”
“I can imagine.” Alex went to scoop out some more of her ice cream, only to discover that the last bit had melted and all she was getting was sticky fingers. Disappointed, she put the empty tub down by her foot.
“Ice cream?” Bernie had managed to spear the ice cream in the second tub with her little spoon and pull it out of the paper carton, so she now effectively had a large ice cream lollipop.
“Don’t mind if I do…” Alex deliberately leaned forwards and, keeping her eyes locked on her lover’s, bit into the ice cream, eating a large mouthful, before sitting back up again, Bernie’s arm hovering in mid air between them. “Thank you.”
“You've, uh…” With her other hand, Bernie rubbed her own nose, “got ice cream…” Alex stuck her tongue out and demonstrated that she was not one of the ten percent of the population who were positive for the Gorlin sign, in that she couldn’t get her tongue to reach the tip of her nose. “No…” Bernie ducked her head forwards and, before she’d really thought through what she was doing, she kissed Alex’s nose, swiping the hint of ice cream with her tongue in the process. “But it’s gone now…” she began, pulling back, intending to stand up straight again, only to be held in place by Alex who had caught hold of the rank insignia on the front of her uniform shirt. The pressure of her shirt collar on the back of her neck was firm and, although not painful, was not entirely comfortable. “Al?” Confused, she started to reach for Alex’s hand, wanting to loosen her grip, not understanding what Alex was doing.
“Stay…” requested Alex, relaxing her hold enough to no longer be pulling Bernie down and demonstrating why she wanted Bernie to stay put by leaning forwards and kissing her nose, demonstrating to Bernie that one of the key benefits of this otherwise slightly awkward position for both of them was that it meant they were in kissing range of each other.
“Oh…” Understanding, Bernie tried to initiate a kiss of her own, only for Alex to take the lead. As Alex’s lips pressed against her own, Bernie felt the pressure from her shirt collar lessen even more as Alex let go of the shirt completely, having found another way of keeping Bernie’s attention. Lips parting, Bernie was so absorbed in the taste and feel of her lover’s lips and tongue she almost didn’t register when Alex, her hands free to explore, reached up to play with the fine strands of silky hair that weren’t long enough to stay tucked up in the bun at the nape of Bernie’s neck, but were short enough to not land on her collar. Feeling Alex start stroking her neck, lazily teasing her way towards the spot that made Bernie purr and hum in barely restrained delight, Bernie regained enough of her senses to remember to toss aside the ice cream she’d still been holding before she reached up and threaded her fingers through Alex’s hair, not having to worry about avoiding a beret.
As wonderful as their languid kissing was, despite their best efforts to ignore the grumbles and aches trying to attract their attention, it wasn’t long before they eased back from their kiss - the Peace Garden at dusk was generally not that popular even on a warm June day, but it was still a public place and Alex was still at work, with her shift not finishing until Midnight. Without needing to ask, Alex slipped down from her perch on the bench seat back and sat ‘properly’, leaving enough space for Bernie to sit down next to her, glad she had a minute or two to recover from the pins and needles that had set in before she needed to head back to AAU. A little more slowly, Bernie stood up straight and stretched, oblivious to Alex’s unabashed gaze as she concentrated on feeling like she’d shaken off the stiffness and kinks that had crept into her back and neck as a result of her rather awkward position leaning over the end of the bench.
“You’re untucked…” pointed out Alex helpfully, drawing attention to the small opening that had appeared between the final button of Bernie’s shirt and her belt by reaching out and poking Bernie in the tummy, through the gap.
“I’ll write myself up later,” concluded Bernie, looking down at her somewhat awry uniform, not seeing anything that couldn’t be tidied away when they set off back to AAU. Sitting down next to Alex, she started to trace the edges of the various colour blocks that made up the camouflage pattern of her uniform.
“Hey…” Alex tangled her fingers with Bernie’s, stopping the repetitive tracing. For a few seconds, they just sat, still and quiet before finally, Bernie started talking, her eyes looking at something just beyond their joined hands.
“I’ve not seen them.”
“Who?” Alex squeezed Bernie’s hand, trying to reassure her that she wasn’t going anywhere, that there was nothing she’d run from unless Bernie was running with her, knowing who ‘them’ were but wanting to give Bernie the chance to talk if that was what she wanted.
“My children.” Bernie fell silent again, although Alex, looking at her, could see that she wasn’t quite finished, as she chewed on her lip in a way that Alex knew meant she was working up to asking her something. “Charlotte… after you left Recovery to do something...everything ok?” Bernie could very easily distract herself from something if she wanted to be, and Alex’s departure from Recovery was, now she remembered it, a puzzle she wanted to solve.
“Fine, actually, I was going to ask you about that at some point.” Alex took a moment to order her thoughts, not surprised that they’d already hit their first tangent but not prepared for that particular one. “It was Hanssen, he’d wanted me to know that ‘Creepy Calamity’ had left, gone to the accident...seems a certain someone…” she nudged Bernie playfully, trying to keep the tone light and their thoughts in the present not the past, “...had made it clear he was neither a valued colleague or old acquaintance I’d care to get reacquainted with.” Alex smirked when she remembered the extra careful steps the CEO had appeared to take when he walked away at the end of their conversation. “He walked away extra carefully…”
“I’ll bet,” agreed Bernie, smiling as tried to picture what an extra careful Henrik Hanssen walk would look like, knowing that she’d managed to say enough to prompt his curiosity yet also respect her not breaching a patient confidence..
“Before I could come tell you I was paged to ICU for a second opinion…by the time I was back…”
“I told Fletch…” Bernie turned her hand over so she was holding Alex’s more comfortably, letting her arm slide across her leg to rest in Alex’s lap, “...what records review meant. He’d spotted it was...”
“Not very AAU?” guessed Alex, knowing she’d only just about avoided being asked about it by Fletch last week. “What did he say?”
“Nothing.” Alex heard Bernie sniff, like she was trying to pull her emotions back from the surface, forcing them to stay contained within her. “The porter arrived to transfer her to the Ward and I left.”
“So you’ve not seen her in AAU?” asked Alex carefully, already knowing the answer from Fletch’s brief chat with her, but wanting Bernie to have the chance to say as much.
“No...and I’ve not seen her brother either.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Ronnie?” Bernie looked up and watched one of the yellow roses on the plant in front of them dance in the warm evening breeze, “the day he was at the hearing...and I must remember he likes to be called Cameron.”
“His last year boarding at junior school…not my choice, well, I didn’t mind it, but I’d have been happy with anywhere he was happy. Marcus liked the idea of his son at ‘prep school’ so…” Bernie sighed, pushing away the ancient history to get to her point. “Ronnie wrote a bluey telling me he was going to be ‘Cameron’ now… I forgot, a couple of months later, it was… Iraq, no, Bosnia maybe?” Bernie rubbed her neck as she tried to remember whether she’d been freezing or baking, wearing green or beige but couldn’t remember anything other than his reply. “Anyway, I’d got it wrong, in a bluey back… the anger in his reply….” Alex let go of Bernie’s hand long enough to regrasp it with her right hand, her left arm pulling Bernie into a hug, the rawness in her voice clearly showing the pain from that wound was, even 12 or so years later, still sharp and crippling. “I’ve tried ever since to always remember to call him ‘Cameron’...” Bernie shuffled so that she was curled in against Alex’s body, resting her head against Alex’s shoulder, faintly able to hear the muted thump of her heartbeat.
“He’s been talking to Fletch…” Alex was confused when she felt Bernie tense, before realising she was bracing for bad news. “Hey, relax…” Alex ran her hand up and down Bernie’s back, trying to encourage her to release some of the tension, “Fletch was alright with you in Recovery…” she pointed out reasonably, deciding that Bernie needed to first be reminded that whatever Ronnie had said to Fletch, it hadn’t altered how the Charge Nurse had interacted with her.
“Same old Fletch…” mumbled Bernie in agreement, nodding against Alex, reminding the anaesthetist that the surgeon was still wearing her beret when the wool rubbed against the bare skin that the v-neck of her scrub shirt exposed. Not liking the idea of getting a rash from the wool, Alex untangled her fingers from Bernie’s loose grip so that she could reach up and, whilst Bernie was still lost in her thoughts, ease her beret off and drop it in her lap before taking hold of Bernie’s hand again.
“He wants to talk to you.”
“Who, Fletch?” Confused, Bernie sat up a bit straighter so she could look at Alex, becoming conscious that she was no longer wearing her beret, which made her frown and look on the ground, not having seen it in Alex’s lap.
“Beret.” Alex smiled as she let go of Bernie’s hand again in order to pick up the beret and hand it to Bernie. “I took it off when you started nodding….” she rubbed the bottom of her throat, trying to shift the reflex tickle she was feeling now she thought about the wool, seeing Bernie’s face clear as some of her confusion was dealt with. “And I meant your son,” finished Alex carefully, not sure she was the best person to tell Bernie he preferred Ronnie, not least because she didn’t understand what was the source of the confusion.
“Oh.” Bernie settled back against Alex again, her body slightly less tense this time, making Alex breathe a quiet sigh of relief that she’d not caused Bernie even more stress. However, her relief was short-lived when Bernie suddenly tensed and pushed away from Alex abruptly, elbowing her sharply in the diaphragm in the process.
“HEY!” Doubled over, winded by the jab, Alex’s first reaction was instinctive and unhappy. “What was that for?” she asked, when, breath a little steadier, she felt able to sit up again, becoming conscious as she moved that her phone was buzzing away in her pocket.
“You…” Bernie watched as Alex slipped her hand in her scrub trouser pocket and extracted her phone. “I’m sorry…”
“Tell me?” asked Alex, ‘silencing’ the alarm and putting it back in her other pocket this time, so it wasn’t between her and Bernie, practically recovered from the shock of Bernie’s elbow, making no effort to leave.
“Your phone…” Bernie’s cheeks coloured at the admission, made quietly, her embarrassment clear, although she tried to cover it by asking, “everything ok?”
“My phone?” It took Alex a moment to put the puzzle together, only to grin when she realised that her phone vibrating would have been a decidedly strange sensation for Bernie to suddenly feel given how their bodies had been pressed together. “It’s a reminder, I’ve got to go to ICU rounds in an hour.”
“Ah.” At the mention of rounds, Bernie glanced at her watch, noticing the time and knowing that she really should let Alex go back to work. “I should let you go back…” she began, thinking that she could stay out here, on this bench, until it was the end of Alex’s shift.
“We’ll both go back,” decided Alex, knowing Bernie well enough to know that, if given the opportunity to stay in the quiet of the Peace Garden, safely out of the way of her colleagues and children, she’d probably take it in an effort to avoid ‘making a fuss’. “But I’ve got a couple of minutes…” She raised her left arm, enabling Bernie to curl back against her if she wanted to, “if you want to try again?” she asked, not wanting to force Bernie into the hug if she didn’t want it.
There was little doubt that the offer was welcome as Alex had barely finished speaking before Bernie was settling back against her. Taking advantage of the small gap that was now between Alex’s hips and the seat back because Alex had, in putting her phone in her pocket, stretched her legs out in front of her and slouched a bit, Bernie was able to wrap her arm around her lover’s hips, a single fingertip working its way between scrub shirt and trousers to tease the warm, soft skin there. Unable to duck her head under Alex’s chin, Bernie found herself looking directly at Alex, their noses almost touching.
“I love you.” Although she spoke softly, the confidence and certainty in her voice made Bernie feel like she’d just deafened the whole of Holby with her declaration, something she was delighted to realise she really didn’t care about. “I love you,” she repeated, reaching up and catching some strands of Alex’s hair between her fingertips and guiding them back so they tucked tidily behind Alex’s ear. “So much…”
Heads tilting just enough to avoid a clash of noses, Alex encouraged Bernie to learn against her as their lips touched and, mouths opening, their tongues began to dance a series of delicate movements made in time to the musical rhythms that only they could feel and follow, the rhythms and patterns of their love for each other…
“Rounds?” guessed Bernie when, as they walked back towards the hospital a few minutes later, she heard the surprisingly loud buzz of Alex’s phone vibrating in ‘silent’ announcement that something was happening.
“Hope not…” muttered Alex, slowing to a stop as she pulled her phone out of her pocket, thinking that if it was her reminder going off for ICU Rounds then she was going to be not only late for them, but not have any chance to check how the patient she’d had to give a second opinion on earlier (and the reason she was therefore wanted at Rounds) was doing. She sighed in relief when she saw the time on her phone’s lock screen. “Nope, got three quarters of an hour before them…” She continued to unlock her phone and see what the source of the alert was, expecting it to be another advertising email trying to sell her something she didn’t want. “It’s a text from Matt.”
“Your brother?” Bernie remembered meeting Alex’s ‘little’ brother in Afghanistan a couple of times when he and his fellow Commandos were being checked out by the Medics before and after they’d completed their postings to various Forward Operating Bases, including one occasion when he’d ridden back in the MERT helicopter with Alex, although he’d been only a minor casualty alongside the much more serious one the MERT had been requested for. Twelve years younger and eight inches taller than his sister, Matt Dawson was a classic ‘gentle giant’ - away from his duties as a Royal Marine Commando that was. In the field, he was everything that the green beret expected and more, and he had the commendations in his military to prove it. “How is he?”
“Promoted…” Alex finished reading the long text from him and looked up, grinning. “He’s now Sergeant Dawson, and is wondering if he can come visit us…”
“Of course! When?”
“About three weeks… he’s got a few days leave due he says… I’ll ask him.”
“He can stay at the flat, if he doesn’t mind the floor…” Bernie chewed her lip nervously when she heard how awkward her suggestion sounded, so she tried again. “What I mean is...it’s not much, but it’s your place too…” She frowned, partly because that wasn’t sounding right either, but mainly because Alex was now looking at her and making no attempt to conceal her amusement.
“I know what you mean,” said Alex, saving Bernie from having a third attempt at explaining what Alex already knew from the morning after her first night staying with Bernie, the night they’d come to AAU so Bernie could help Alex start to conquer her nightmares. “And I’ll ask him.” She fired off a short message, before putting her phone away and resuming their walk back to the Wyvern Wing entrance, Bernie in step with her, uniform neat and in order once more.
“We could go to that pub…” pondered Bernie as they waited for an ambulance to pull away before stepping out into the roadway, remembering their conversation about it after their drinks with Raf and Fletch at Albie’s last week.
“With the hanging baskets...” agreed Alex, recalling the conversation, and the kisses that followed…
“You feeling ok?” teased Bernie as they stepped into the Wyvern Wing and Alex pressed the button to call the lift.
“Y...es….” Suspicious, Alex was distracted by her phone going off - it was a reply from her brother. “He’s going to let me know the exact dates, and he’s wondering if he could sleep on our floor…”
“Excellent.” They both stepped to the side to let some people out of the lift before getting in. “AAU or ICU?” asked Bernie, ending up nearest the lift buttons, prompting Alex to grab Bernie’s wrist to check the time, since her own watch was in her locker.
“AAU, still got some time before ICU Rounds, thanks.” Alex leaned back against the lift wall and waited for the lift doors to close, amazed when they ended up in the lift on their own. “And what did you mean?”
“Mmm? What did I mean about what?” asked Bernie, not doing a particularly good impression of looking innocent, enjoying these final moments in Alex’s company without needing to think about being anything more than ‘Bernie’. “And why are you over there?”
“Because you’re a consultant not an F1… and asking if I’m feeling ok…”
“It’s not like you to rate hanging baskets before beer… and what’s not being an F1 got to do with it?” asked Bernie, absently noting the lift doors closing.
“The hanging baskets are distinctive,” pointed out Alex, stepping nimbly out of Bernie’s reach when she moved towards her, “and I’ve only your word about the beer so far…” another side step and she was by the doors, which surely had to be about to open soon.
“And not being an F1?” asked Bernie again, managing to finally stand next to Alex.
“You’re probably not supposed to be spotted kissing locums in the lift if you’re a consultant…” teased Alex, dodging through the doors as they opened, turning back and sticking her tongue out at Bernie who, momentarily flat-footed, followed more steadily. “...not when you have an office!”
Of all the places that a mother and son reunion could have happened, the corridor between the lift and entrance to AAU was not one that either Alex or Fletch, who had happened on them a second later, had considered.
“I..uh...Ro...Ca….Cameron.” Frozen, Bernie stood looking at her son, waiting tensely, braced for the inevitable explosion that she’d been anticipating ever since she’d last seen him when, stood next to his father, their arms around each other's shoulders, she’d listened to Marcus’ final ranting rage of hatred, prepared to give him one final shot at her before she walked away, finally free of him. Although her son had never said anything during that exchange, his silent support of his father had hurt Bernie more than any words could have.
Exchanging a look with Fletch, Alex saw he’d reached the same conclusion she had, that mother and son were unlikely to get their conversation going without help, and that the hallway was not the place to try.
“Alex Dawson.” She stuck out her hand, startling Ronnie into movement again as he automatically reciprocated, although he hadn’t managed to find his voice. “Consultant’s office?” she suggested, looking at Fletch with a pointed tilt of her head towards Ronnie which she hoped he understood to mean that she’d manoeuvre the still shocked Bernie there if he took on Ronnie.
“Good idea Dr D. C’mon mate, this way…” Fletch steered Ronnie back the way he’d come, his intended visit to ED to see if they’d got Mrs Gromez’s test results postponed.
“He’s….” Bernie looked at Alex, her expression still shell-shocked. “He didn’t look angry…”
“No, he didn’t,” agreed Alex, trying not to let her fury at Marcus show, knowing that wasn’t what Bernie needed from her now. “Come on?” she encouraged, gently coaxing Bernie into walking by giving her elbow an affectionate squeeze.
“I…” Walking automatically, Bernie looked at Alex, her worries and fears clear to see in her face, “I can’t do this…”
“Yes you can,” said Alex, steering her bewildered lover through the doors and into AAU, seeing Fletch hovering with Ronnie outside Bernie’s office until he saw they’d made it into AAU. “Compared to what you’ve done already today, this is the easy part…” encouraged Alex, trying to boost her lover’s confidence without specifically referencing her having to operate on her daughter.
“Come with me?”
“It’s not me he wants to talk to, it’s his Mum…”
“I’m not hiding you from him.” The sudden injection of steel and determination in Bernie’s voice caught Alex unawares, a lump forming in her throat when she was reminded of what Bernie had told her last week, about not fighting Marcus during the very bitter end of the divorce process because it wasn’t a fight that would bring her what she wanted. “I’m never hiding you.”
“I know, and I love you for it,” said Alex, suddenly not caring that they were stood just outside Bernie’s office surrounded by AAU patients and staff, her son just inside and probably watching them. “I love you so much,” she whispered, touching her forehead to Bernie’s, “but you need to talk to him, let him talk to you first…” She squeezed Bernie’s fingers in reassurance, “but I’ll come back, in a bit…” She took a deep breath, trying to focus on the world beyond Bernie, beyond their ‘happy bubble’ that seemed to continually being prodded and poked but, since they’d restarted their relationship, had withstood the prodding and the poking and not burst.
“After ICU Rounds…” The unspoken ‘unless I’m called to theatre’ was heard by both of them and understood without begrudging it: medical or military, they both respected their dedication to duty.
“Ok.” Bernie closed her eyes and took a breath, composing herself before lifting her head up and stepping back a fraction. “Thank you.”
“Nothing to thank me for…” Alex smiled at Bernie, relieved to see she was looking less bewildered and more in control. “Hear him out?”
“Will do,” agreed Bernie, smiling, her confidence growing under Alex’s gentle nurturing. “Go do Rounds Dr D…we’ll be here when you’re done.”
“Sounds like a plan.” And, with a final wink of encouragement, Alex turned away from Bernie and headed for the lift to go up to ICU, stopping on her way to answer a nurse’s questions about another patient. The delay was timely as it enabled her to watch Bernie take a final breath and, much like she would when about to go see their CO, glance down at her uniform, tugging the shirt and belt back into perfect position. Satisfied that everything was in good order, her shoulders back, standing up straight, Bernie headed into her office… By the time Alex looked up from reviewing the orders the nurse had wanted her to check, she could no longer see Bernie, but instead saw Fletch closing the office door behind him. When he saw her looking, he gave her a discreet thumbs up and pointed to the nurse’s station. Relieved that he understood, that he was going to keep an eye on the reunion just ‘in case’, Alex nodded in acknowledgment and headed off to ICU, knowing that for the next half an hour or so, there was nothing she could do… except hope.
“Where are your glasses?” It really wasn’t what Bernie had intended to ask first; in fact, she’d planned on not saying anything until he spoke, but after they’d both sat in nervous silence for a couple of minutes, she’d identified what was unexpected about his appearance.
“Somewhere at the school I guess.” Ronnie rubbed the bridge of his nose, as if needing confirmation that his glasses were definitely not with him. “When the tent came down, I think they got knocked off...don’t really know...only really noticed when I got here.” Exactly how he’d got to his sister’s side and then with her to an ambulance and then the hospital was something of a blur of adrenaline-soaked memory - he had no idea if he’d noticed his view of the world was genuinely blurry or not. “I’ve got some spares at my place.”
“Oh.” Bernie wanted to ask him if he was ok, if he’d been checked out and was alright apart from missing his glasses, but she couldn’t get the words out of her throat. “Your place?” That sounded like an odd way of describing the house he’d grown up in.
“I got a new place, a flat, not far from the airport…” Nervous, he fiddled with his watch, unfastening and fastening the metal clasp. “I moved out, last month...we, I mean…” Frustrated at not knowing how to explain without going off in all directions at once, he looked up at her and suddenly she felt like she was looking at her little boy, stood next to her watching the planes roar overhead, holding her hand and asking her if he could be a pilot when he grew up. “Can I just talk?” he asked, scrubbing his hair with his left hand, “just talk until it makes sense? No questions?”
“Course…” Selfishly, Bernie was glad he’d lost his glasses as it meant he hopefully couldn’t see the tears she could feel forming in her eyes as she kept seeing little hints and traces of mannerisms and expressions she’d remembered him having when he was a little boy.
“So it was Dad’s birthday last month, his fiftieth…” Ronnie winced, realising after he’d spoken that he probably should have tried to start with something else, but apart from crossing her legs it seemed she was sticking to her promise to let him talk. “There was going to be, well, Aunt Caroline had decided they were having a big party...Charlie decided we should try and find some photos, like baby photos or something of them, for the party…” Mouth dry, he reached down for the drink he’d just bought from the coffee shop when he’d seen her. Just before he cracked the can open, he remembered they were in her office, “umm, are you ok with me opening this?” he asked suddenly, holding it up in front of him.
“Sure… there’s a mug or something if you want…” Bernie looked across her desk, wondering if she still had a clean mug before she saw the small stack of paper cups that were her ‘ammo supply’. “Or a cup?”
“Thanks, but I’m ok with the can….” he opened the can and quickly slurped up the small amount of foam that bubbled up. “So she was home from uni for a weekend visit and went up into the attic, looking for photos…” He slurped the can again, the cold fizzy drink helping to combat his nerves-induced dry mouth. “She found this album, it had the sorts of pictures she wanted, so she brought it down and we looked at it, together.” He leaned back in his chair, looking at his mother but not really seeing her, partly because of his eyesight but mainly because he was remembering the photographs he and his sister had looked at. “The first few were baby photos, classic little knitted caps and tiny fists...some with Grandma, school uniforms… you, uh, get the idea.”
“Yes.” In fact, she had a pretty good idea she knew which photo album they’d been looking at. “Did it have a blue cover? The album?”
“Yes. With, uh, silver lines…” He took another sip of his drink, wondering why it hadn’t occurred to them that she’d have known about the album, before realising it wasn’t all that surprising given how little else they’d discovered they’d got not exactly right about her. “The baby photos were what Charlie wanted to use, but we kept going through the album, saw pictures of Dad at university things, wedding photos…”
“Ah.” Bernie was tempted to ask if Marcus had come home and burned those, but remembered her promise. Instead she winced, remembering the hairstyles Marcus and his best man had favoured.
“It was the pictures of him at university that confused us…” Ronnie stopped talking and there was a long silence while Bernie waited for him to start talking again, trying to keep her promise of not interrupting, but when he started to fidget, she decided to risk his irritation at her if it helped him carry on talking.
“Did you see the rugby club ones with the policemen’s helmets?” It had always baffled her as to why the rugby club had felt the need to turn up to a fancy dress party as ‘policemen’, although she supposed the plastic helmets and blow-up truncheons had been an easy and cheap way of turning their black rugby tracksuits into fancy dress, which would have left more money for beer.
“Where they really starkers?” His cheeky grin told her the gamble had paid off, and her question had helped him regain some momentum.
“I wasn’t there…” she distracted herself for a moment, trying to remember where she had been that weekend, “...probably on exercise somewhere…” it was a safe bet - that’s what she’d spent most of her weekends at university doing. “But I think they probably were…” she saw his eyes go wide at the suggestion, which she knew was not something he’d have expected from his father. “He was a boxers man…” And, whilst it would have been possible for a jockstrap to be hidden behind forearms holding the policeman’s helmet in place, no forearm was ever going to completely conceal boxer shorts.
“Anyway…” Giving a mock shudder at the thought of the photograph in light of this new information, he took another sip of his drink before sobering and continuing with what he wanted to tell her. “There were some other pictures, of Dad and you, some looked like snaps at parties or days out, but some were of Dad in suits and you…” he swallowed and fidgeted, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees before sitting back up in the chair again.
“I was in uniform.”
“Yeah.” He put the can on the floor between his feet and rubbed his face with both hands, like he was trying to rub away a memory so he could ‘see’ the next one. “And that, we… Charlie and I, we didn’t know what to think.” He leaned forwards again, looking between his fingers and her. “We thought they were after you’d got married…” Bernie frowned, not sure where they would have got that idea from but remembered her promise to not ask questions just in time. “But the photos were all in date order...and the hairstyles made more sense if they were when you’d been at uni…” He sniffed and clasped and unclasped his hands together, unwittingly testing her patience but, unusually for a surgeon, she had a lot of patience when she put her mind to it, so she waited for him to continue, keeping her confusion to herself, for the moment. “We kept looking through the album and saw your graduation photos…”
“I was in uniform in those too.”
“Yeah. That’s when we realised, that we’d got confused…”
“Confused about what? When I joined the army?” Bernie spoke quietly, unconsciously talking in the same voice she’d found was the most effective on terrified trauma patients whose grasp of their surroundings was often vague and chaotic.
“Yeah. See, we’d always thought you joined the army after you’d married Dad and had us, well, me certainly…” He heard her make a noise like she was about to try to speak but kept going, suddenly finding he couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out. “So that night, at dinner, Charlie asked Dad about it. We didn’t tell him we’d found the album, but just asked him what you’d been like before you joined the Army…”
“He didn’t know me before I’d signed up,” mumbled Bernie, unaware that she was clenching her fists until she felt the burn in her knuckles.
“He tried to tell us stuff, I wanted to let him talk, to see what he said but Charlie? She lost her temper with him and told him he was lying about you not joining the Army until after you were married.”
“He’d told you I’d not joined until after we were married?” Bernie was shocked and amazed. “But how? I mean, I didn’t meet your father properly until my second year…”
“He’d told us, when we were younger, that you met at Fresher’s Fair… was that a lie too?”
“What? No.” Bernie smiled sadly at her son, not understanding how they’d managed to get such a tangled up and wrong understanding of hers and Marcus’ life together, but starting to understand how it had been so easy for them to be turned against her in the divorce proceedings. “We did meet at Fresher’s Fair, at the Territorial Army Officers’ Training Corps stand. I’d been picked as ‘the girl’ by the CO, so was handing out leaflets...he’d seen me in lectures in first year but didn’t really know who I was.” She cleared her throat, wishing she had a drink as well, before forcing herself to continue. “The next day I wasn’t on leaflet duty so went to the Fair and saw him on the rugby club stand.”
“He said that was the first time he met you properly, but he recognised you from lectures….”
“He recognised me from lectures alright, tried to ignore me.”
“But…” Bernie saw his confusion and decided that he was probably able to cope with the truth.
“Your father thought I was a boring, swotty vicar’s daughter from Lincolnshire until he discovered he liked a girl in uniform.” Which, an ‘evil little voice’ in her head reminded her, was perhaps the one thing she now had in common with the little shit after all, but she wasn’t going to mention that without more alcohol than she was comfortable consuming in her son’s presence.
“Oh.” Not really thirsty, but knowing it gave him something to do while he thought about what she’d just told him, he picked up his can and, surprised at how light it now felt, concentrated on finishing it, squeezing the empty can between his fingers when he’d done so, and putting it down on the floor next to his foot. “Anyway, long story short, there was a big row that night and Charlie went back to uni on the bus the next day having not spoken to Dad. I tried to talk to him a bit, but then Aunt Caroline turned up and…”
“And no one could get a word in edgeways I bet.” Bernie’s sarcastic assessment of her former sister-in-law slipped out before she could stop herself. “Sorry...she’s your Aunt, I shouldn’t be so rude…”
“Why not? She hates you, doesn’t she?”
“Mum, she hates you, and you know it.” He grinned sheepishly, causing Bernie to shift sharply in her seat, her foot landing loudly on the floor in her surprise. “Don’t worry, we didn’t know, you were really patient…” he rambled to a stop, thinking her reaction was because of what he’d said.
“It’s not that.” She sat back in her chair and willed herself to relax. “Have you seen any photographs of your grandfather? My father?”
“Not lately… I remember him, that summer? You took us to visit him and we watched the planes? I was telling Fletch..” He cleared his throat and scratched his jaw self-consciously, his nail making a faint rasping noise as it caught in his stubble. “Why’d you ask?”
“I’ve got a photograph somewhere... you,” Bernie pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to regain her composure before she lost it, “you looked like him just then, surprised me…your Aunt Caroline hating my guts is old news.”
“Why does she hate you?” He was getting distracted from what he needed to tell her, but he knew Charlie would want to know the answer to this question and he felt he had to ask, now, while he had a chance, in case they never got another.
“I wish I could tell you a reason… I’ve never really known, I always assumed it was a twin thing. I know their mother hated me for the Army, so that probably didn’t help…” Bernie shrugged, which helped to force some of the tension that had knotted in her shoulders.
“Guess not.” He knew Charlie had been hoping for some dramatic moment, like their mother setting fire to their Aunt’s favourite tablecloth or something, but he was actually relieved, in a weird way, that it was just something that was and, as far as his mother was concerned, had always been. “Anyway, not long after, I found this flat and moved out… I still talk to Dad, but don’t really know what to say to him, not after the lies…” He sighed heavily, puffing out his cheeks and looking in her general direction, frustrated that without his glasses he couldn’t properly see her expression. “Charlie still won’t talk to him.”
“You say lies… what else did he lie about?”
“We’re still working it out, that’s why, uh, that’s why we were up at the school…” he shifted in his seat, the chair not exactly comfortable for extended periods of sitting on. “Dad’s away at a conference, in America somewhere, and Charlie got the bus home from Uni. We wanted to find out whether we remembered him telling us was true and what was…” A part of him hoped she’d guess what he needed to say next, but it was clear when it got so quiet and still in the office he could hear his watch ticking, that she was prepared to wait him out. “What was not exactly true, usually told to us by Grandma and Aunt Caroline. Dad’s only lie was to Charlie, about the photographs.” He swallowed, frowning as he thought about what he’d just said. “We think. But we’ve not exactly asked any more questions - Charlie’s not talking to him or Aunt Caroline, and I’m... not bothered?” He scratched his jaw again in what Bernie was remembering was one of his little habits when he had been nervous or scared as a little boy. “Between them they let us believe you didn’t care about us..” He gulped, trying to stop the tears coming, at least not until he’d said his final bit. “That you’d abandoned Dad and us and ran away to the Army after Charlie...that’s why we were so mean and angry to you…”
“Why’d you always call me Cameron?”
“Sorry, Cameron…” Embarrassed that she’d got it wrong, she looked down at her boots, trying to compose herself, trying to not ask herself what sort of mother doesn’t remember to call their child their preferred name…
“Ronnie’s fine, it’s what everyone calls me… apart from you.” He saw her look up from the floor to look at him but couldn’t read her expression.
“They do? But you wrote to me, the bluey…”
“I was ten Mum, and it only lasted a term. Didn’t Dad tell you?”
“No...why didn’t you ask?”
“Someone, not Dad, Grandma maybe? Someone told me you hated nicknames, that was the reason you called me ‘Cameron’...”
“Oh Ronnie…” Unable to stop the tears falling, Bernie started to see how easily it had been for their father and his family to create the impression that she was this remote, heartless bitch who’d virtually abandoned her husband and children on a selfish whim to go overseas with the Army.
“Fletch?” Hearing his name called, he spun round in his chair, keeping the phone pressed to his ear.
“Oh, sorry…” Alex hadn’t seen he was on the phone until he turned around.
“Nah, you’re alright. Hold for X-Ray.”
“Oh.” She picked up a biro from the desk and started spinning it through her fingers, her initial burst of confidence when she’d returned to AAU gone.
“All quiet, they’re still in the office.” Although he liked a good tease and wind-up, Fletch wasn’t cruel and didn’t delay in telling her what she’d missed while she’d been up with ICU. “The daughter’s obs are looking good… and can you review her meds?” He looked around on his desk for the post-it he’d left himself with the reminder. “You’d put a note in the file to review her meds when she was 4-6 hours post op….” The tone of the ‘on hold’ noise changed, so he shifted the phone so it was actually by his ear while he listened. “Great, I’m up to number 12 in the queue… how can there be 11 other people in this hospital wanting X-Ray at this time?” Alex opened her mouth to say something non-committal before closing again, deciding from his body language that he’d probably meant it to be rhetorical and wouldn’t appreciate her listing the possibilities. “Uh, so, Charlotte Dunn, she’s five hours post op, give or take a few.”
“Right. I’ll go have a look now…” She looked one more time in the direction of Bernie’s office, unable to see very much through the half drawn blinds. “Thanks Fletch…”
“No problem, I’ll catch you up when I’m off…” He gestured to the phone before suddenly paying close attention. “Hello? X-ray? Yeah, Fletch…”
Taking a last glance at Bernie’s office, not sure whether to be relieved or concerned, Alex shook herself into action and headed for the side room that was going to be Charlotte’s home for the next few days. Inside, with the ever-present bustle of AAU muted, she took a moment to just take in the room, noticing how Ronnie had clearly made himself messily comfortable in a chair at his sister’s side before they’d bumped into him. Grinning, she couldn’t help muttering ‘like mother like son’ as she stepped around the detritus that had accumulated during his occupation, knowing the room would have looked exactly the same if it had been Bernie sat, waiting for the moment when Charlotte started to wake.
Extracting Charlotte’s notes from the holder on the end of the bed, Alex started to familiarise herself with exactly what analgesics she’d already ordered and working out why she’d therefore left herself a note to do a review now. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary that would immediately explain why she’d done it, she looked up from the file and studied the monitors that were dutifully recording vital signs, wondering if there was anything there that would trigger her memory. Mid ponder, she was surprised by a yawn, her jaw cracking in the process, leaving her momentarily light-headed. As a result, she didn’t notice the door opening and Fletch joining her until he spoke.
“Not shy about making himself at home is Ronnie…” He looked around, taking in the coffee cups on the floor, next to the scrunched up paper bags that the nurse knew meant he’d had sandwiches and cake from the coffee shop as well as a fizzy drink or three.
“He’s a good big brother…” remarked Alex automatically, flicking back to her operation notes to see whether that gave her a clue as to why she’d wanted to check in now.
“Yeah, seems so.” Knowing her well enough to recognise that she wasn’t in the mood for banter, Fletch left her to read the file in peace and set about tidying up Ronnie’s mess. Once all the rubbish was in the bin, he looked at the leaflets and papers that were spread out across the bottom of Charlotte’s bed, trying to work out whether there was some sort of order to them or if they could just be shoved into a heap. Before he could decide however, he heard Alex let out another massive yawn. “You ok Dr D?”
“Fine…” Alex swallowed a couple of times, checking that her jaw was settled, “just really tired for some reason.” She gave herself a shake, as if attempting to throw off the tiredness like a dog shakes off excess water when it’s got wet.
“Possibly because it’s almost midnight and your shift’s over in half an hour?”
“Is it?” She pulled out her phone and saw the time. “That would explain it then.” One mystery solved, Alex looked at Charlotte’s monitors again, seeking inspiration.
“Everything ok?” Fletch had decided that shoved into a heap was an acceptable solution, and was holding the stack of leaflets and stuff that they’d clearly picked up at the Armed Forces Day Event before the accident.
“Fine. He’s got a rucksack in the corner,” pointed out Alex helpfully, nodding to the corner behind Fletch, thinking he could stick Ronnie’s stuff by it.
“Cheers. Why the others let him get away with this mess…” grumbled Fletch quietly as he headed for the bag, not remotely bothered that Ronnie had made the mess, but rather put out that none of his colleagues had felt inclined to tidy up a bit during any of Charlotte’s obs checks.
“Mess! That’s it.” Jigsaw puzzle complete, Alex flicked back through the file until she found where she’d left the note. Grinning in relief, she stepped up to the bed and, resting the file on the mattress next to Charlotte’s hip, took her stethoscope from around her neck and started on a few routine checks that would help her decide what to order in terms of meds for Charlotte. Pleased everything was as it should be, she picked up the file again and, grabbing the pen from the pocket on the sleeve of her scrub shirt, wrote in the order before passing the file to Fletch.
“Ok?” she asked, after allowing him a few seconds to read her note.
“Sure, I’ll get that set up for her now.” He re-read the note, making sure he had the details correct before he went to get the drugs, noticing the second note she’d made. “Did we miss an allergy alert?” he asked, reasonably confident that they hadn’t found anything on her when she’d been transferred over from ED, and the paramedics hadn’t said anything to them when they’d arrived with her..
“No, just call it a hunch.” Alex saw his confusion and decided she’d probably get away with sharing the reasoning for this particular hunch. “Having dealt with her mother on codeine, I’m erring on the side of caution and steering clear of it for her daughter.” Fletch started to open his mouth, clearly about to ask another question which she quickly shut down. “And no, I’m not telling you what happened.”
“Spoilsport.” Checking her drugs request one more time, Fletch put the file back in the holder on the end of Charlotte’s bed. “I’ll just go...er Dr D? She’s waking up.”
“Hmm?” Registering what he’d said, Alex turned back to the bed and saw that he was right, and Charlotte was finally waking up from her postoperative sleep. “Go get her brother and Bernie…” she instructed, instinctively starting another round of checks as Charlotte mumbled and turned her head. “Shh, it’s ok Charlotte, you’re at the hospital…”
“Ms Wolfe!” Forgetting himself, Fletch had dashed across AAU and burst into Bernie’s office without knocking.
“What is it Fletch?”
“She’s awake.” Both Fletch and Bernie looked at Ronnie, who was sitting slack-jawed, not quite registering what Fletch’s message meant.
“Go on Ronnie,” encouraged Bernie, standing up and taking the two steps needed to stand in front of him. “Go see your sister…” she encouraged, hauling him to his feet and propelling him in Fletch’s direction, knowing that he’d get going in a second.
“She’s awake?” Dazed, Ronnie looked between them, not quite believing the news - he’d been so totally certain that she would be fine but, now it happened, it was all a bit of blur again.
“Dopey but yeah… come on.”
“Go…” repeated Bernie, pushing him gently out of her office. When Fletch turned back, expecting to see her following, he saw that she was leaning on the doorframe, her hands in her pockets, clearly not intending to follow. For a brief moment he thought about doubling back and dragging her along, but quickly elected not to. There was something about the way she stood that told him he wouldn’t succeed, and would probably make her cross in the process. Instead, he carried on to Charlotte’s room, arriving just in time to see Ronnie arrive at her bedside.
“He’s a good brother,” observed Alex quietly, stood just inside the door, Raf having arrived seconds after Fletch had left and taken over, not doing a very good job of trying to be subtle when she looked past Fletch.
“She wouldn’t come.”
“Just stopped in the doorway and watched him rush here…I didn’t know what to do.”
“Hey…” Seeing how exhausted Bernie looked, Alex, stepped into the office and shut the door behind her, before sitting down on the edge of Bernie’s desk, her calf lightly touching her lover’s thigh. “Do you ever sit on something properly?” asked Bernie randomly, trying to remember an occasion when Alex had sat on something that was actually intended to be a seat.
“Not often.” Alex let her hand and arm relax when Bernie picked it up, content to let Bernie fidget until she felt able to talk.
“How is she?”
“Doing well. Raf’s really pleased.”
“And the pain?”
“Managed…” Alex squeezed Bernie’s fingers, trying to transmit some confidence or energy or better still, both, to her lover. “She’s doing really well, and I’m keeping her away from codeine.”
“You still don’t remember, do you?”
“I remember failing to miss the punch…” She had managed to see the funny side rather quickly after it had happened, the patient not to blame in her view, since the lad had been barely aware of his actions as he lashed out in confused self defense when they’d been trying to assess his injuries. “And I remember the black eyes…” She looked pointedly at Alex, “and you enjoying my ‘cute panda face’ far more than you should have.”
“You did look very cute though…” remembered Alex, tapping Bernie on the nose fondly.
“But I still don’t remember what happened that was so bad you decided I had a codeine allergy. I just remember falling asleep with a cool pack on my face and waking up with it still there.”
“You’ve never wondered why you woke up in my rack despite going to sleep in your tent?” asked Alex, stroking aimless circles with her thumb onto Bernie’s hand.
“Did I? I don’t remem...ber… Wait. That happened?”
“What happened?” asked Alex, trying not to look too amused.
“It made me throw up…” The little random pieces of half remembered memory, that Bernie had previously always ignored as being fragments of a particularly bizarre dream started migrating together, forming something more tangible. “Did I really try to teach you to foxtrot?”
“The steps were more of a waltz…” Alex gave up any hope of trying not to look too amused at the memory.
“Why did no one ever say anything?” Bernie was sure she was blushing, more little fragments revealing themselves now the connection was made, not feeling the need to ask Alex to confirm the authenticity of every one.
“Because only four of us knew, and we liked you. A lot actually…” It was Alex’s turn to blush now, remembering how that had been the moment when she’d started to believe that maybe there was something a bit more than friendship between them.
“That was how you knew?” Bernie stood up, wanting to be able to get closer to Alex than the chair would permit. “That I liked you more than I should?”
“Not the dance lesson, or the vomit…” Alex wrinkled her nose briefly at that particular aspect of the experience, “but when you got to sleep again, in my rack, you mumbled in your sleep…” Alex leaned forward and kissed Bernie gently on the lips. “You need to go see her Bern…” With their foreheads touching, Alex didn’t need to speak any louder than a whisper. “They both need you to go see her…”
“I…” Bernie gripped Alex’s hips tightly, clinging on to her like a drowning man clings to a life buoy. “I don’t want to disappoint them…” She felt Alex’s arms wrap around her, the simple action breaking down her last wall that had kept the tears bottled up so that only one or two had broken through. Relaxing her grip on Alex’s hips, she slid her arms around Alex’s waist and, as the first torrent of tears hit her cheeks, she buried her face in Alex’s neck and just let go.
Silently, her hands rubbing comforting circles on her back, Alex held Bernie as she cried, reasonably confident that this was the first time she’d properly let go and allowed herself to give in to the waves of emotion caused by the stress of the divorce and the hate that Marcus had thrown in her direction, that he’d managed to get Ronnie and Charlie to throw in Bernie’s direction. Soon though, the tears slowed and changed, from the tears of bottled up anger to tears of relief and hope, relief that she’d been able to have an opportunity with Ronnie to start to understand how it had all got so very mixed up, and hope that it would work out in the end, that maybe one day, they’d be a family again, a family that didn’t require her to co-exist with the children’s father, but worked for them.
Feeling that she’d run out of tears, Bernie lifted her head, sniffing as she tried to compose herself, dreading to think what the state of Alex’s top was.
“Don’t apologise.” Alex’s instruction preempted Bernie’s attempt to do exactly that, earning the anaesthetist a sheepish grin. “I mean it,” continued Alex, pleased to see in Bernie’s reaction the confirmation that she was right. “You never need to apologise for needing a hug and a cry…it’s part of the job description.”
“There’s a job description?” Despite the situation and the emotional rollercoaster she felt she was still riding, Bernie couldn’t help herself from joining in with Alex’s silliness - it was one of the things that had first attracted her to Alex all those years ago. “What else does it say?”
“The usual sort of things…” Alex kissed Bernie’s lips fleetingly, reminding them both that yes, there was that little fizz of something when they kissed, “backrubs and doing the rubbish…” she risked another little peck, not wanting Bernie to become distracted with what happened last week, when Alex had been locked out doing the rubbish and ended up in this office having run to the hospital. “Braving your cooking…”
“Yours is just as bad!”
“I know…” This time it was Bernie that took the lead and initiated the brief kiss before Alex could continue with the ‘terms’, “Sharing ice creams and the duvet…”
“Or not in your case…” teased Bernie, starting to feel more relaxed again. “Lie ins…”
“You’re getting the hang of those,” agreed Alex, thinking back to last weekend when she’d actually persuaded Bernie that they didn’t need to get up the moment the alarm went off.
“Good teacher…” Bernie caught her lip, distracted with something.
“Tell me?” coaxed Alex kindly, prepared to start guessing if she had to. “Problem sharing is part of the deal too…”
“I don’t know how to be a mother. What if I do it wrong?”
“I think the only wrong way is not having a go.” Alex took the sting out of her words by trailing her finger lightly down Bernie’s cheek, lifting the odd stray hair back from her face, “so just keep going, let them set the pace.”
“Come with me? Please?”
“Always.” Alex tried to turn to the door, clearly thinking Bernie meant right that second, only to be pulled back by her lover. “Bern?”
“In a minute.” Bernie reached up and traced the familiar contours of Alex’s face, studying her, memorising her lover all over again. “Thank you…”
“Everything.” Bernie leaned forwards and was met by Alex in a kiss that was lazy and languid, full of love.
“Ready?” asked Alex finally, when the kiss drifted to an end, their breathing steady and easy, their hearts thumping strong and slow.
By some miracle, they managed to leave Bernie’s office and cross AAU to Charlotte’s side room without either of them being needed by someone. Taking hold of Alex’s hand and giving it a firm squeeze, Bernie opened the door, pulling Alex in with her before letting go when she saw Charlie turn and look towards them.
“Mum?” Her daughter’s voice was hoarse and weak, unsurprising considering the trauma and surgery. “Ronnie’d told me you were here…” she slurred, clearly tired.
“I’m here Charlie…” Bernie moved up to the side of the bed, the side she’d operated on, the opposite site to the one Ronnie was stood on and picked up her daughter’s hand. “It’s ok… Mum’s here…”
“Who’s dat?” came the sleepy reply, as Charlie saw Alex hovering just inside the room.
“That’s Alex…” said Ronnie, earning him a sharp look from Bernie who wasn’t sure how he could know without wearing his glasses. “Alex Dawson.” He looked past Bernie and, with the hand not being held by Charlie, waved her over.
“Alex?” Charlie frowned, fighting sleep as she tried to work out who Alex was.
“Mum’s girlfriend…” Ronnie was pleased when he saw Alex step up behind Bernie, missing the look Bernie shot Alex, wondering how he knew, although he did see Alex’s shrugged response. “Mum’s forgotten she’s got a picture of her on her desk…” explained Ronnie, deciding it probably was mean to tease his mother.
“He’o Al..ex,” slurred Charlie, a smile appearing fleetingly as she finally lost her battle against the drugs and went back to sleep.
“Charlie?” Bernie squeezed her daughter’s hand, all her training gone from her mind as she started to panic, which in turn started to agitate Ronnie.
“Shh…” soothed Alex, rubbing her hand in comforting circles on Bernie’s back while she glanced at the monitors and squinted at the IV. “She’s just gone back to sleep, the painkillers are working…” she explained for Ronnie’s benefit, although it helped Bernie to gather up her thoughts again. “She’s going to be asleep for a while,” she continued, hearing the door open and, looking over her shoulder, seeing Raf hovering, holding up a file, clearly needing her for something. “You both want to stay for a few minutes?” she asked, turning back to mother and son, Ronnie sat in a chair on the far side of the bed, Bernie perched on the edge of the bed, her uniform barely rumpled despite it being after midnight.
“Can we?” It was Ronnie who asked aloud, although Alex could see the plea in Bernie’s face all too clearly.
“Course…” She gave Bernie’s shoulder a final pat. “I’ll go finish my shift and get changed, then we make a plan from there?” she suggested, not sure where Ronnie lived or what else they needed to worry about, but deciding it could all be solved in the morning, after coffee, hot showers and, if necessary, a magnifying glass or something for Ronnie, given how badly he was squinting.
“Thanks…” Ronnie smiled at her, nodding his agreement as Bernie craned her head back to look up at Alex.
“Perfect, thank you.”
“No problem…” Without thinking, she leaned down and kissed Bernie lightly before turning and heading out of the room to see what Raf wanted, leaving Bernie and Ronnie watching Charlie sleep.
“Had you wanted kids?” asked Raf, wincing when he realised he’d spoken out loud.
“Never really thought about it,” said Alex, scanning the file he’d given her, reminding herself about the splenectomy patient they’d had after Charlotte’s operation. “Why’d you ask?” she handed the file back to him, waiting for his question.
“You’ve ended up with a grand pair there I’d say…” he looked over her shoulder, back through the glass window, drawing her attention to Ronnie who was evidently starting to tell his mother more about what they’d been finding out about at the event before the accident, as he was already sorting out leaflets and spreading them over his sister’s blanket again. “Once they get the truth mind,” he added, not sure if she was listening but feeling like he needed to explain himself. “Ah, Fletch filled me in, Ronnie a bit too… that Aunt sounds like a piece of work, and when they were so little too. But they’re turning out alright I see.”
“I suppose I have…” agreed Alex thoughtfully, watching Ronnie pass something across to Bernie, clearly keen for her to read it, not really noticing his explanation, more interested in what was happening in Charlie’s room. Evidently Bernie had said something that had amused her son, because he’d started to giggle, trying to muffle his laughter so he didn’t disturb his sister. Somehow, Bernie must have sensed they had an audience, because she turned around and looked at the door, seeing Alex and Raf looking at them. Not letting go of Charlie’s hand, she said something to Ronnie that only made him laugh harder before she looked straight at Alex and, without moving anything more than her right arm and shoulders, snapped off a perfect salute...well, perfect until she stuck her tongue out and winked.
Ignoring the fact that she wasn’t in uniform, that they weren’t on duty, that there was absolutely nothing ‘right or proper’ about their situation, Alex saluted back, complete with stuck out tongue and wink of her own, delighted when she saw Bernie’s face crease with amusement followed by her biting her knuckle, trying not to laugh. Evidently Ronnie had asked her what was funny, because with a little wave and a moved ‘love you’, Bernie turned back to talk to him.
“Alex?” Raf had remembered her warning about watching out for elbows if you were stood next to someone saluting from that morning and had prudently ducked out of the way, but was now stepping back to his original place, next to her. “Everything ok?”
“Mmm? Oh yes, everything’s fine.” She turned away from the door and forced herself to concentrate on the registrar. “How can I help?”
“You can’t actually, shift’s over…” began Raf, “or will be when you sign off your notes on this patient,” he added, passing the file back to Alex for her to complete. Walking towards the nurses’ station as she read the file, she signed and initialed where she needed to when they got to Fletch’s desk, handing the now complete file to him when he held out his hand. “Go get changed and take your family home…” encouraged Raf, taking his pen back from her before she could pocket it. “I’ve done rounds for everyone except Charlotte, and I’ll wait until you’ve taken Bernie and Ronnie home.”
“No buts Dr Dawson…” He reached out and patted her on the arm, gently turning her in the direction of the locker room as he did so. “Shift’s done.”
“Thanks Raf.” Giving him and Fletch an awkward half wave, she headed to the locker room, his words only properly sinking in when she was pulling on her jeans and buttoning her shirt.
“Family…” She looked at the pictures, stuck up inside the door of Bernie’s locker, more than there had been originally, since Alex had found some on her phone for Bernie, snaps of the two of them taken in random quiet moments in Afghanistan and others, more recently taken of the two of them in civies. Shutting the locker door, she grabbed her rucksack and headed back to AAU, a plan of sorts in place. If she wasn’t so tired, she might even have whistled, but instead made do with a smile.
“Knock knock?” she called out softly, stepping inside the quiet room, interrupting Bernie and Ronnie’s whispered conversation.
“Hey you…” Bernie stood up and stretched, waving Alex over to the bed as she did so, “you done?”
“You mind sleeping on the floor?”
“Uh, don’t think so… why?”
“Cos I have no clue where you live so you’re coming home with us, if that’s ok?”
“You sure? Thanks…” The mention of sleep finally did for him, and he yawned, triggering a similarly huge yawn from his mother.
“You two are such a pair,” chuckled Alex, amazed at how alike they were, before looking down at Charlie who, peacefully sleeping, showed no resemblance whatsoever to her mother. “Good night Charlie…” she murmured, feeling rude leaving without saying anything to the sleeping young woman whose next few weeks would be something of a challenge for her, but a less sizeable challenge than if her mother hadn’t found the wherewithal within her to perform some of the operation.
“Night sis.” Ronnie stuffed most of the papers they’d been looking at in his rucksack, missing one which Alex picked up for him, “Thanks Alex.” He shoved the blurry photograph of what she was sure were Bernie’s medal ribbons in his pocket, taking the hint not to ask a question just then.
“Good night Charlie…” Bernie leaned over and kissed her daughter’s forehead, memories crashing back of doing so when she’d been barely old enough to walk. “Sweet dreams.”
Silently, they left the room, all pausing to blink as their eyes adjusted to the bright lights of AAU after the dimmed lights in Charlie’s room.
“Home?” asked Alex, looking pointedly at Bernie.
“What?” Alex raised an eyebrow and continued to look pointedly at Bernie’s head. Confused, Bernie raised her hand, intending to tuck a strand of hair back behind her ear as that was the only thing she could think of that would explain Alex’s reaction. That was, until she saw her uniform. “Beret.” Of course, she couldn’t leave without going via her office. “Meet you at the car? It’s in my office.”
“See you in a bit Mum… oh, can we go via the chippy? I’m starving.”
“Chippy?” Alex didn't need to look at Bernie to know her stomach was growling in support of the plan. “There’s a chippy open this late?”
“On Dunbarton Road, don’t you know it? Does everything, well, everything except vegetables… til 3am.”
“Can you navigate?” asked Alex, slinging her arm around his shoulder and steering him in the direction of the lifts, knowing Bernie would catch them up, and in double quick time now there was food in her future.
“Sure...actually, if Mum goes in we might get it free.”
“Oh?” Alex followed him through the doors to the corridor where the lifts were. “Why’s that?”
“Armed Forces Day… they were going to give free chips to anyone in uniform. I know it’s after midnight, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it? Will she do it?”
“Only one way to find out Ronnie,” laughed Alex, pushing the button for the lift and leaning against the wall to wait.
“We’ll just have to ask her.”
“Will you do it?”
“Why me? It’s your idea!” Inside the lift, she hit the button for the ground floor, pleased that they weren’t having to cram into an already full lift.
“Yeah, but she’ll say yes if you ask her…”
“I’m sure she’ll say yes if you ask her Ronnie.” Alex steered him out of the hospital and across the car park to where Bernie had parked earlier in the day, when they’d seen ‘Creepy Calamity’ and Fletch had almost learned the hard way to give someone saluting some room. It had been just over twelve hours ago, and yet it felt so much longer than that.
“Ask me what?” asked Bernie, surprising them both. “And you didn’t hold the lift doors for me,” she added, answering the unspoken question about where she’d sprung from. “So I came down the stairs at the double.”
“Will you go in and get the fish and chips… apparently there was a Forces Day discount for anyone in uniform,” summarised Alex, knowing the Holby lifts were slow but still rather impressed with Bernie’s speed.
“I could lend you my beret…” teased Bernie, passing the car key to Alex, preparing to sit in the passenger seat so she could get out to go and get their very late dinner.
“Mu-um…” He’d probably doubled if not almost tripled in height and aged twenty years, but Ronnie was still her Ronnie, right down to the foot stomp, although it was rather cuter when he’d been in shoes smaller than her hand. “Stop being silly,” he teased, sticking his tongue out.
“You did that exact thing when we were watching the planes from Grandpa’s church tower Ronnie, do you remember?” she asked suddenly, letting the memories of that summer resurface without fighting them for the first time in months.
“Yeah...I was telling Fletch about it earlier.” He put his arm around his mother’s shoulders, tall enough to do so easily, very much the grown up in his mid-twenties rather than the little boy he’d once been. “I’m sorry it went wrong for us Mum.” He pressed a scratchy kiss to her cheek, his stubble catching her off-guard.
“Not your fault Ronnie, and it doesn’t matter, not any more.” She rubbed her cheek thoughtfully as they waited for Alex to unlock the car. “None of the past matters now…” she watched Alex move round to the driver’s side and tip the seat forward, so Ronnie could climb into the back, thinking how lucky she was - with the woman she loved, a job she was good at, her place in the Army still available to her if that was what she and Alex wanted, and, in the biggest surprise of all, a chance with her children. “Not as long as we keep turning up and having a go now.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Ronnie passed his rucksack to her so he could concentrate on climbing into the back seat of the little sports car. “Who’s is it?” He’d meant the question cheekily, to try and make her laugh and smile again, something he was starting to notice she’d done more of today, with Alex despite the stress of Charlie’s injury, than in the four months or so she’d been living with his father after her unexpected return from Afghanistan.
“The most amazing person I know…” She passed him his rucksack around Alex’s body, not caring if she sounded silly.
“Get in the car Bern..” encouraged Alex, before snatching a kiss, although she resisted the gentle probing of Bernie’s tongue against her lips, knowing that she’d have next to no resistance if she did. When Bernie pulled back in disappointment, Alex tapped her on the nose. “Later, when we’re home,” she whispered, not sure she was entirely comfortable with the idea of getting ‘caught’ in the car park a second shift in the row, never mind what Ronnie might think.
“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.
The beer that Matt drinks and enjoys really does exist - Hardknott Azimuth [http://www.hardknott.com/our-beers/azimuth/] and is, I'm reliably informed, extremely drinkable.