It starts with a fig.
‘What’s that?’ Jason asks, as she’s slicing the soft fruit in half to reveal the blushing pink interior.
‘It’s a fig. Would you like to try a bit?’
‘I don’t know. Will I like it?’
‘You won’t know unless you try.’
Jason frowns, watches as Bernie cuts the halves again and bites into one of the quarters. The flesh is ripe and sweet, and Bernie smiles.
‘I think I would like to try it please.’
Bernie pushes the plate towards him. He picks up a piece and cautiously takes a small bite, chews thoughtfully, and then pops the rest into his mouth.
‘I like it,’ he smiles.
The next week Bernie brings a mango with her. She bought it a few days earlier, has been ripening it on her kitchen counter. She shows Jason how to slice around the stone and then cut the golden flesh into cubes, piling them into a bowl.
Serena comes into the kitchen to find them sharing it, Bernie using her fingers but Jason insisting on a fork to keep himself from getting covered in the sticky juice. She looks between them in amazement but Bernie just smiles and pops a piece into her mouth. Serena can’t resist kissing her sweet, sticky fingertips, tongue just teasing the pad of her thumb.
The following week it’s a persimmon. Then a star fruit. Then a handful of kumquats. Gnarly passion fruit. Physalis in their papery shells. By now Jason expects it, the appearance of a new exotic fruit part of his weekly routine. Bernie takes to handing her offering over for him to research, before bringing it back so they can prepare it together.
Serena never gets involved. She’s content to watch them together: Jason’s excitement and curiosity, Bernie’s gentle encouragement and support. The look on his face when he slices the dragonfruit in half to reveal the white flesh speckled with black seeds hiding underneath the frilly pink skin is something she’ll never forget. Neither is his scolding of Bernie for handling the prickly pear without gloves.
(‘The clue is in the name,’ he says, exasperated. ‘Prickly pear.’
‘Yes, Jason. And I’m sure Bernie will remember that next time,’ Serena says, plucking tiny filaments from Bernie’s fingers and kissing them better.)
Adrienne’s birthday is always hard for Serena. She’s glad to have been working, to have been kept plenty busy, to have had the opportunity to visit her before driving home (smiling as she remembers that drunken evening with Raf, how they had buried her together after polishing off far too much wine before he bundled her into a taxi and off to Paris). She only wishes that Bernie had been on shift too, that a touch from her could have complemented Raf’s soft smile, could have comforted her while they shared memories that hurt and healed in equal measure.
‘I’m back,’ she calls when she gets home.
‘In here, Auntie Serena,’ Jason replies from the kitchen.
She walks in to find the two of them sat at the table, a cheesecake piled with physalis, slices of star fruit and a scattering of jewel bright pomegranate seeds between them.
‘What’s this?’ she frowns.
‘I wanted to make something for your mum’s birthday,’ Jason explains. ‘I don’t know what she liked, but my mum liked cheesecake best so I thought that would be nice, and then Bernie told me that you like cheesecake too.’
‘I do, Jason,’ she smiles, a lump in her throat. ‘Did- did you make it all by yourself?’
Jason nods, and Serena glances at Bernie for confirmation.
‘He did. I tried to help but apparently I’m too messy.’
‘You, messy?’ Serena smirks, quirking an eyebrow, and Bernie scowls playfully.
‘I had a system and Bernie kept doing it wrong and moving things.’
‘He only let me stay in the kitchen if I promised to sit still and not touch anything.’
‘Did you manage?’ she asks doubtfully, and Bernie flushes.
‘I said she could come back to help with the washing up.’
‘Which I can see that you did,’ Serena says dryly, looking pointedly at the still damp patch on Bernie’s shirt.
‘And there was a lot less tidying up to do than if I’d been in here,’ Bernie smiles. ‘Why don’t I put the kettle on, and then we can have a taste?’
It’s delicious. Smooth, rich and creamy, balanced by the sharp-sweet fruits. Serena can’t help the little hum of delight, feels Bernie’s eyes flick to her, knows that if she were to look at her she’d find them hot and lingering.
Instead she looks at Jason. ‘It’s lovely, Jason. Thank you,’ she says, gently, fleetingly touching his hand.
‘Thank you,’ she says to Bernie when Jason has gone up to his room.
‘Encouraging him to try new foods. He would never have done something like this before.’
‘I think we might have found something he can do,’ Bernie smiles. She holds out her arms and Serena buries her shining eyes in her shoulder.
‘I think you might be right.’
The following weekend Jason asks Bernie if she’ll teach him how to make a proper curry. Serena has to sit down before her legs give way.
‘I think I’ve created a monster,’ Bernie jokes later.
‘I think he’ll be getting a cookery book for his birthday.’