Cam slips into the café ten minutes late, shoes and hair sopping. His tram had broken down four stops before his and he’d gotten out, decided to risk jogging it. Possibly an error.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he says, when he locates his target in their usual booth, already nursing an enormous cup of coffee.
Charlotte looks him over, eyebrow raised as she takes in his drowned-rat chic. ‘Took the river shortcut, did you?’
‘Hilarious,’ he says. ‘What are you having?’
‘Order me a cherry Danish and I’ll consider forgiving your tardiness.’
He rolls his eyes but does as he’s bidden, returns to the table juggling two plates – her cherry Danish, his caramel tart – and his own industrial strength caffeine hit. He downs half the tart in one bite before slumping back in his chair. She gives him a look and he shrugs. ‘Sugar,’ he says. ‘Can’t live without it, can’t live without it.’
‘Speaking of sugar,’ Charlotte says mildly, taking a sip of coffee, ‘how’s Morven?’
Cam sprays a few crumbs across the table and leans forward, coughing. Charlotte smirks. ‘Well?’
‘Fine,’ he grumbles. He coughs again, drinks a too-large gulp of his too-hot coffee and then regrets it when it throbs on his tongue. ‘Good. Whatever. How should I know? None of your business, anyway.’
Charlotte is enjoying herself far too much, sitting there all prim and annoying with her smug face, and Cam casts about for a topic of conversation, lands upon the reason they’re here in the first place. ‘So, about Mum,’ he says. That at least wipes the smug expression off Charlotte’s face; so quickly, in fact, that Cam feels a bit guilty. He gentles his voice to ask, ‘Have you thought any more about what I said?’
‘Yeah.’ She sighs. ‘Too much.’
He blows on his coffee and watches her do the same, her eyes darting to the animal motifs dotted along the cornice, up and back down again.
‘I’m not ready, Cam,’ she finally says. ‘Not yet. I need … I need more time.’
Cam has been expecting as much, so he just nods.
‘She texted again the other day, but I just … anyway, whatever. How—’ she swallows. ‘How is she?’
‘Good, I think. We only really talk about work, but she seems … happier. Since she got back. I think in a lot of ways that secondment was good for her.’
‘Sure,’ Charlotte mutters, ‘because running away is always the answer.’
He studies her, the way she mechanically folds up and then unfolds her napkin, and considers his words. Charlotte can be prickly, like Mum can, and he doesn’t want to frighten her away. ‘She’s changed,’ he finally says, and then, ‘I mean it,’ when Charlotte looks at him, sceptical. ‘I’ve never seen her this way before. It’s like she’s finally coming into herself, or something.’
Charlotte swallows. ‘That’s … I’m glad to hear that. I mean it,’ she echoes. ‘The women thing was never the problem for me, you know that.’
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Same.’
Cam had been the one to tell Charlotte about the affair, in the end, and he’d only done that after he’d heard it himself from Mum. Because he’d thought it fair that Charlotte know, too, that there had been factors in play that changed the rules, a little. That he believes that Mum likely didn’t even know she was gay herself, until Alex.
‘How’s, um … Serena, wasn’t it? Are they still…?’ She seems to stop short of making an inappropriate hand gesture and just looks at him.
He nods. ‘Going strong, it looks like. It’s all heart eyes all the time up in that joint.’
Charlotte snorts. Now Cam looks down at his own napkin, flips it over and studies the floral design. ‘Mum’s different around her,’ he says quietly. ‘More relaxed. It’s just … it’s so different.’
Charlotte doesn’t say anything, and he looks up, sees the conflicting emotions in her eyes. She still feels so betrayed, he knows; on Dad’s behalf as well as her own.
‘Hey,’ she says, after a moment, ‘some girl friended me on Facebook yesterday. We have some mutual friends, including you, but I…’ Charlotte pulls out her phone, taps at it, and hands it over. ‘Who is she?’
Cameron glances down at the picture, at the girl with long dark hair and a button nose. Zooms in and laughs when he sees the name, the tell-tale dimple in the chin. He looks up. ‘She added you?’
‘Who is she?’ Charlotte asks again.
‘Serena’s daughter,’ Cam says.
He nods. ‘She added me a month ago. Met her in the lift when I was going in to sign the F1 forms before my rotation started. Mum was still in Ukraine.’
‘Hmm,’ Charlotte says. She takes the phone back, studies the picture. ‘Should I add her back?’
Cam shrugs. ‘Why not? You never update anyway except to complain about delays on the Tube. And, well…’
‘We are all sort of in the same position, aren’t we? I’m pretty sure Serena’s new to the … team.’
Charlotte rolls her eyes at his phrasing but nods. ‘Why not, then? I’ll add her back.’
‘Good,’ Cam says. ‘She can come to our next meeting. The Kids of Later-in-Life-Lesbians Support Group.’
Charlotte almost snorts coffee out her nose.
He’d been joking, of course, but the funny thing is that it sort of develops like that. The group, initially a most-fortnightly sibling catch-up, starts, slowly but surely, to grow. The first additional member they get is Jason. Cameron likes Jason. They hang out sometimes at the hospital or at Albie’s, tend to eat lunch together on Tuesdays because their breaks coincide. The F1s can be petty about him, but Cam likes Jason’s practicality and forthrightness, likes that he always knows where he stands and doesn’t have to worry about offending him. He can say what he’s thinking and not be judged, or at least not be judged by typical societal standards. It’s refreshing.
One Tuesday, two days before he’s due to meet Charlotte, Jason has latched onto a topic: the topic of Serena and Bernie. Of their relationship.
‘I don’t understand people,’ Jason is saying, as he carefully removes his sandwich from a Robot Wars lunchbox that Cam is secretly coveting. ‘Why is a change in one’s sexual or romantic preference worth discussing? I hear the other porters laughing, sometimes, about Auntie Serena. Once, one of them said, “I’d get my experimental phase on too if I worked with such a—”’
‘It’s just unusual, I suppose,’ Cam says, interrupting gently. He doesn’t want to cut Jason off, but he’d also rather not hear locker-room talk about his mother (not that said mother couldn’t take out the perpetrators of such gossip far more quickly and efficiently than could he). He powers on. ‘Some people still aren’t used to the thought of older women having a, a sex life. My sister – I think you’d like her – my sister Charlotte would say it’s because the heteropatriarchy is threatened by the notion of a non-reproductive sexuality in women.’
Jason inclines his head. ‘A logical standpoint. If the female of the species can successfully engage in sexual intercourse with no intent of procreation, the virility and overall usefulness of the male becomes threatened.’
‘Or that,’ Cam agrees. ‘The other thing, of course, is that our society has a very black-and-white view of sexuality. There’s the heterosexual end of the spectrum—’ he gestures to the left, ‘—and the homosexual end, and in between there’s just a whole lot of grey area people don’t know what to do with.’
Jason looks at him disapprovingly. ‘You are mixing your metaphors, Cameron. Is it black and white or is it a spectrum?’
Cam grins. ‘Whichever you like. Do you know what I’m trying to say, though?’
Jason nods slowly. ‘I think so. People are making fun of Auntie Serena and Doctor Bernie because they discovered their sexual preferences at a later stage of life than puberty?’ He takes a bite of egg sandwich, chews and swallows. ‘Discovered, or changed?’
‘That’s a whole other debate, mate,’ Cam says, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Some people say different, but I think you’re born that way.’
‘As Lady Gaga says,’ Jason says sagely, and Cam laughs. Every time he thinks he has him figured out, this dude surprises him in some new way.
They sit in silence for a minute while Jason finishes his lunch, and then Cam asks, ‘How do you feel when you hear them talking about Serena and Mum? I mean Bernie?’
Jason thinks about it, kicks his leg against the wall where they’re sitting. Finally, he says, ‘I don’t like it. It makes Auntie Serena sad, and I don’t like that.’ He shakes his head. ‘I just don’t understand why the sexuality of two middle-aged women constitutes an interesting topic. Do the porters and nurses not know that homosexual behaviour has been documented as occurring naturally in the animal kingdom for centuries? In species as varied as insects, penguins, and spotted hyenas?’
‘They probably don’t,’ Cam says, with a smile. ‘I think … I think people who gossip about this sort of thing aren’t much interested in facts.’
‘Are you interested in facts, Cameron?’
‘Yep,’ Cam says. ‘I’m a science bloke. I love facts.’
Jason peers at him. ‘Is your sister interested in facts?’
He nods. ‘She’s studying humanities at uni, but she likes facts, too. Especially about animals and history. I think you’d get along.’
‘I’d like to meet her.’
It isn’t difficult to take it from there.
Two Thursdays later sees the three of them in the corner of a café – a different one, this time, closer to the hospital, because Cam had figured Jason would rather go somewhere familiar. He’d been right.
‘You look a lot like Bernie,’ is the first thing Jason says to Charlotte, and when the smile falters on her lips, Cam worries this might have been a mistake.
But Charlotte recovers quickly and shakes her head, smile back in place. ‘So I’ve been told,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Jason. I’ve heard a lot about you.’
It starts a little rocky, but Cam has told Charlotte what to expect of Jason, has told her he’s blunt but he has a good heart, and she takes his comments in stride. She’s always been a bit brusque herself, slow to take offence, and the three of them get on just fine.
They’ve been talking about the mating habits of bison when Jason stops abruptly, mid-sentence, and says, ‘Cameron told me you two meet up every second Thursday to talk about Bernie. Do you?’
Charlotte raises an eyebrow at Cam but nods, sips at her truly disgusting-looking green smoothie. (Why? Cam wonders. Why? Vegetables don’t belong in drinks, and that shall forever remain his professional medical opinion.) ‘Well,’ she says, ‘we don’t exactly meet up to … we talk about other things, too, obviously, but … yes. We talk about Mum.’
‘Do you talk about Auntie Serena, too?’
‘A bit,’ Charlotte says. ‘She comes up, sometimes. I haven’t met her, but Cam has told me all about how she’s your aunt and you live with her, and how she runs the ward together with Mum.’
Jason nods. ‘And how she and Bernie are engaged in a romantic and sexual—’
‘—yeah,’ Cam says, trying to spare Charlotte the awkwardness, but when he catches her eye, she just seems faintly amused.
‘So everyone knows, do they?’ Charlotte asks, looking between them. ‘They’re really … out?’
‘More of an open secret, I’d say,’ Cam says, but Jason is nodding.
‘Everyone knows because half of AAU saw them kissing in the office after Bernie got back from Ukraine. They were being stupid, so I locked them in so they would make up, and it worked.’ Jason says this proudly, and Cam has to hide a smile in his cup. ‘I thought I lost the key but I found it again. They didn’t seem in much of a hurry to get out of there, though.’
Now Charlotte laughs, colouring. ‘Well, sometimes people just need a little push in the right direction.’ When Jason looks blank, she amends it to, ‘I think you did the right thing. Helped them do what they wanted to do but maybe weren’t … weren’t brave enough to do on their own.’
Jason eats a large bite of orange and poppy-seed muffin, and the three of them sit in easy silence, listening to the small child wailing at a table nearby. Then Charlotte asks, ‘Do you think your Auntie Serena is happy, Jason? On average, I mean?’
Jason cocks his head to the side, considering. ‘Since Bernie returned from the Ukraine and they became a real couple, not just a couple who pretended not to be, I have observed that Auntie Serena smiles up to fifteen times more often each day. She also laughs frequently at her own bad jokes and sings in the car or the kitchen when she is preparing dinner, more often than she ever did before.’ Jason nods. ‘I believe I can conclude, therefore, that she is happy. Because of Bernie.’
Charlotte swallows, nods. Says, after a moment, ‘Thanks, Jason. That’s … that’s good to hear.’ She doesn’t ask if he thinks Bernie’s happy, and neither does Cam. They both already know the answer.
Charlotte’s phone buzzing on the table breaks the silence. She looks down and murmurs, ‘Convenient timing.’
Jason peers over the table to try to see the screen. ‘What is your phone saying, Charlotte?’
‘It’s Elinor,’ she says, looking up. ‘We’ve been chatting on Facebook a bit, and she…’ she breaks off, laughing. ‘Funny.’
‘Who is Elinor?’ Jason asks.
‘Elinor Campbell,’ Cam says. ‘Serena’s Elinor. She and Charlotte are Facebook friends.’
‘Have you both met her?’ Jason asks.
‘I have, once,’ Cam says, ‘but Charlotte hasn’t. Have you?’
‘Twice,’ Jason says, holding up two fingers. ‘The first time, Auntie Serena took me to Cambridge with her to see Elinor perform in a musical. It was boring. She was bad, but Auntie Serena said I should tell her she was good. I said I don’t lie, so Auntie Serena told me to tell her something else nice that was true and not mention the singing.’
‘And?’ Charlotte asks, fingers pausing on her keypad. ‘What happened?’
‘I told Elinor she had on too much makeup but her dress was nice, for an inaccurately depicted historical costume. I don’t think she was very happy.’
Cam grins into his cup again as Charlotte says, ‘Well, she’s studying drama,’ in an effort at comfort that Cam doubts is necessary, but which he still thinks kind. ‘Drama students are always a bit over-the-top. I’m sure she’ll forgive you.’
‘What happened the second time?’ Cam asks.
‘She came over to visit Auntie Serena. She wasn’t very happy that I was still in the house, even though Auntie Serena had told her that I live there now.’
‘She was a bit jealous, I suppose,’ says Charlotte. ‘She grew up an only child, and now she suddenly has a kind of brother who gets to spend more time with her mum than she does.’
‘That isn’t my fault,’ Jason says, guilelessly. ‘She chose to live in Cambridge, and to go somewhere else for Christmas the last few years. So why does she not like me?’
‘Mother-daughter relationships can be hard,’ Charlotte murmurs, eyes faraway. ‘Maybe she’s finding it a challenge to deal with this new side of Serena’s life in general.’
‘I don’t know,’ Jason says. ‘I don’t really care, either, as long as I don’t have to hear her sing again.’
Tuesday morning, Cam is just returning from a stolen rooftop break – Morven is in fine form today, heckling the F1s en masse for their atrocious suture technique and pushing them harder than ever – when he runs into a familiar-looking teenaged girl in the stairwell, loitering a flight and a half above Keller.
‘Hey,’ he says, pausing as he passes to peer at her. ‘Aren’t you—?’
‘Meant to be in school? Yeah,’ she says, sighing. ‘I know. I’m going back. I just … need a minute.’
Cam walks back up the stairs to where she’s standing by the window, looking out. ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I was going to ask if you’re a Fletcher.’
‘And?’ she asks.
He grins. ‘Don’t need to. I already know the answer.’ She cracks a small smile at him and he moves to lean against the railing beside her. ‘So,’ he says, conversationally, ‘why are you hiding in the stairwell? And why this stairwell? This isn’t even the best one. There’s one a few floors up with a much nicer view.’
‘I know,’ she says, ‘but if I go up there I might run into Mr Griffin, and—’
‘—say no more. Your secret’s safe with me.’
‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘I’m Evie.’
‘Cam,’ he says. They shake hands; her grip is strong and confident though she can’t be more than twelve, maybe thirteen.
‘You work on AAU,’ she says, not a question.
He nods. ‘With your dad. Have you seen me there?’
‘Nah.’ She smiles back at him, more honest. ‘I just recognise your scrubs.’
He looks down, rueful. ‘Bit of a neon sign, aren’t they?’
She giggles. ‘A bit.’ When she doesn’t say anything further, he looks at her expectantly (tries, though he’ll never admit it, to simulate a look he’s received ten thousand times from his mother) until she caves. ‘School kind of sucks.’
He nods to show he’s listening but doesn’t speak.
‘I used to get teased sometimes for not having a mum. That sucked.’
‘I believe that,’ Cam says. He’d found kids annoying even when he’d been one, so he isn’t about to argue the fact that they can be bastards.
‘But the last few weeks it’s been…’ she sighs, looks down at her shoes, hooked beneath the lower banister. ‘They tease me for having two dads, but it isn’t even true. Not … not like that, I mean. How dumb is that?’
Cam digests this, feels a pulse of protective sympathy for this girl, vulnerability and bravery both so clear on her face. ‘That’s really, really dumb,’ he says. ‘It’s maybe even dumber than it would be to tease you for actually having two dads.’
She glances up at him and smiles. ‘That’s what I think, too.’
‘Have you talked to someone about it? Any cool teachers?’
‘Nah,’ she says. ‘I’m twelve. I’m old enough to deal with my own problems. It’s just hard sometimes.’
He doesn’t know what to say to that, doesn’t want to push, so he pats her on her blazer-clad shoulder and hopes it’s enough.
Charlotte has to cancel their next Thursday meeting, but asks if they can reschedule for the following week instead, two Thursdays before Christmas, and Cam says yes. He then asks Jason, who says no; it’s outside the fortnightly schedule, so he doesn’t want to come. ‘Please tell Charlotte that I will come when the schedule returns to normal,’ he says. Cam doesn’t try to persuade him otherwise, knows the city will be even more crowded and hectic than usual, just says, ‘Will do, mate,’ and heads back upstairs.
They go to their usual café again, out of habit. Cam is early, this time, so he is surprised to find his sister waiting for him outside, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. Nervous, he realises. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘what—’
‘Don’t kill me,’ she says over him.
‘Why would I? Apart from the usual?’
She doesn’t even roll her eyes. That’s the part that really makes him wonder. ‘I invited someone.’
Cam frowns. ‘You want me to proof your boyfriend?’
‘Ugh, no, does this look like 1820? I brought a girl.’
Cam smirks at her. ‘Well, isn’t this just the year of Wolfe-Dunn family revelations?’*
Now she does roll her eyes; Cam can relax. ‘I invited Elinor.’
‘You … what? Doesn’t she live in Cambridge?’
‘Yeah, but she’s been in the area to see her dad, and she suggested we meet up.’
‘So you asked her here?’
Charlotte shrugs. ‘Seemed like a good opportunity.’
That he can understand. ‘Well, I’m game if you are. As long as she doesn’t sing.’
Elinor arrives fifteen minutes late, a little haggard and laden with shopping bags. She seems to know exactly where to find their table – Charlotte must have told her – and there are a few moments of awkwardness during the introductions (Charlotte isn’t a big hugger, Elinor looks more like the kiss-on-the-cheek type, and Cam has no idea how to behave towards the glamorous daughter of his boss/mentor/mother’s girlfriend), but they figure it out. Get Elinor seated. Look at each other.
Cam’s the one to break the silence, with the one question he hadn’t been planning to ask. ‘So,’ he says, ‘Charlotte says you’re studying drama?’
He hadn’t wanted to ask it, but it’s a start. It helps when they’ve got coffee and pastries in front of them – gives them all something to do with their hands – but Elinor, once she gets talking, is lively and engaging, generally better at small talk than he and Charlotte, and that enables both of them to relax a bit. Uni stories keep them going until their cups are empty and their plates full of crumbs, but then, Elinor clears her throat. ‘Thanks for inviting me,’ she says. ‘I’m glad to have the chance to meet you both, after … since …’ she trails off, awkward, and Cam takes pity on her.
‘Our mums,’ he says.
She makes a face that makes Cam frown. ‘Yeah,’ she says.
He leans forward. ‘Are you … not okay with it?’
Charlotte looks sharply at him but he shrugs. They’ve a right to ask.
‘In theory I am,’ Elinor says, after a moment. She readjusts her scarf. ‘In practice I’m finding it a bit more … look, I’m not homophobic.’
Always a good start, Cam thinks sarcastically.
‘I mean it. I’m just surprised, that’s all. And a bit hurt that I found out about it from Charlotte, and not from Mum.’
‘Oh,’ Cam says, feeling a spark of sympathy where there had been none. ‘Ouch.’
Charlotte drops the teaspoon she’s been playing with and it clatters to the ground. ‘Oh my God, Elinor, you never said! I’m so sorry, I just … just assumed you already ... shit.’ She claps a hand over her mouth, but Elinor shrugs.
‘I’m not mad at you. How could I be? You were really just a kind stranger reaching out, weren’t you?’
Charlotte still looks horrified, and Elinor pats her on the hand. ‘So that’s why I’m a bit out of sorts. Been waiting for Mum to say something, since you told me, and she just … doesn’t.’
‘She’s probably waiting for the right time,’ Cam offers. ‘It can’t be easy to tell your kids you’re…’ he coughs. ‘That things have changed.’
‘I suppose not.’ Elinor sighs, sits back in her chair. ‘When did Bernie tell you two she was…?’
She trails off and Charlotte snorts. Cam laughs. ‘She, ah, she didn’t,’ he says. ‘We guessed.’
‘Cam guessed,’ Charlotte says (generously). ‘I’d likely not have seen it even if Mum had snogged a woman in front of us.’
‘It’s just not what you expect, is it?’ Elinor asks, shaking her head. ‘Mum’s never shown any interest in women before now. As far as I know, anyway. She was married for years and then as good as shacked up with this other bloke, and … I don’t know.’
‘Maybe it’s not even about the fact that she’s with a woman,’ Cam ventures, after a moment. They both look at him. ‘Maybe she’s just waiting until it’s solid, y’know? They had a bit of a rocky time of it at the start, and—’
‘But how should I know that?’ Elinor exclaims, looking around guiltily when heads turn in their direction. ‘She hasn’t told me anything! I didn’t even know Bernie was in the picture! Mum said, “my co-lead this,” or “my friend Bernie that,” on the phone and now suddenly she’s changed teams?’
Charlotte shrugs, flicks a crumb on her plate. ‘I wouldn’t tell my parents I was dating someone until I knew it would last, and that’s if it were a guy. I can sort of see where she’s coming from in waiting.’
Elinor glares at her for a moment and then sighs. ‘Oh, so can I. It just feels like she doesn’t tell me anything.’
Cam and Charlotte exchange an uncomfortable glance. Neither of them are especially well-versed in comfort if it doesn’t involve buying someone a Twix.
‘Sorry,’ Elinor says, half-laughing, smoothing her hair. ‘Baring my soul to two people I hardly know. Awkward much?’
Cam smiles a little. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know. No expectations.’
Elinor smiles back at him now, warmer. ‘So,’ she says, after a moment, ‘why don’t you tell me about this Bernie who’s stolen my mum’s hetero heart? What’s she like?’
‘She’s like Cameron,’ Charlotte says, at the same time Cam says, ‘She’s like Charlotte.’
Elinor laughs. ‘An enigma,’ she muses, ‘that already sounds like a welcome change from Mum’s usual.’
The next time, Cam is leaving the hospital with Jason in tow when he spies Evie sitting outside the Wyvern entrance in her school uniform, kicking the ground.
‘Hang on a sec, mate,’ he says to Jason, then calls out, ‘Evie!’
She looks up, looks around, smiles when she spots him. Gives him a little wave. ‘Hey,’ she calls back. She picks up her bag and walks over to them. Cam meets her halfway.
‘How’s it going?’ he asks.
‘Okay, I guess.’
‘Are you waiting for your dad?’
‘Yeah,’ she sighs. ‘I think he’s gonna be a while, though. AAU’s super busy today.’
Cam knows; he’s just come from there. He’d even stayed an hour longer than his shift had called for before Morven had shooed him off; she knows about his semi-regular dates with Charlotte and is weirdly insistent that he keep them. ‘Hey,’ he says to Evie, now, as inspiration strikes. ‘Do you think your dad would let you come to the café with us? If you want to, that is?’
Evie glances between them. ‘With you guys?’
‘The two of us,’ Jason says, ‘and Charlotte and Elinor.’
Evie looks blank.
‘My sister and Serena’s daughter,’ Cam offers. ‘Have you met her?’
‘Yeah,’ Evie says, forehead scrunched. ‘She was there at Christmas sometimes, and I saw her once on the ward. It was ages ago, though.’
‘Are you interested?’ Cam asks.
‘Yeah, if it’s okay.’
‘How about if we run up and check with your dad?’
Evie nods enthusiastically and they go up, all three of them, to ask Fletch’s permission. Once he’s established that no one has any intention of taking his twelve-year-old daughter into a pub, he agrees. ‘But you be home before six-thirty or there’ll be strife, you hear me?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Evie sighs, but leans in to kiss him on the cheek anyway. ‘Thanks, Dad.’
When they arrive, Elinor and Charlotte are already sitting at a table for four, heads bent together, laughing at something on Charlotte’s phone. Elinor is the first to look up and see them; she smiles at Cam, raises a slight eyebrow at Jason (though she mostly smiles at him, too), and then raises the eyebrow even higher at the sight of Evie, trailing behind.
The three of them move over to the table, and Cam secures a fifth chair, which he slides into himself, leaving Evie the one between him and Charlotte. ‘Hey,’ he says. ‘This is Evie. Her dad and uncle work on AAU, too.’
‘Hi,’ Evie says. She pulls off her blazer and hangs it over the back of the chair, sets her hat in her lap. That motion is the only outward indication that she’s nervous; she’s a tough cookie, this one.
Charlotte smiles at her immediately. ‘I’m Charlotte,’ she says. ‘I love your hair. Who did it?’
‘I did,’ Evie says, a note of pride in her voice.
Charlotte shifts to inspect the braid. ‘Nice,’ she says. ‘Where did you learn?’
‘YouTube tutorial,’ Evie says, grinning. ‘And my sister’s dolls. And Serena helped a bit, too. Bernie let me try it on her, once, but she didn’t have enough hair, and … oops, I just realised I wasn’t meant to tell you that.’
Cam laughs. ‘No, of course not, wouldn’t do to ruin the image of the tough army major, would it?’
‘It was Serena’s idea. She wanted to give me a few tips and we needed a model.’
Elinor smiles a little. ‘Mum always was good at that sort of thing. Hair and makeup. She taught me a lot.’ She glances at Evie. ‘I could probably show you some things, too, if you’d like. Our hair is very similar.’
While the others are talking, Cam leans over to Evie and asks, ‘How are things going at school?’
She sighs, shrugs.
‘Not great, then.’
‘Yeah, not great.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Cam murmurs. ‘Still the same stuff?’
‘Yeah. I really wish they’d get a new topic, but…’
The others have stopped talking to tune in to Evie’s words, and she glances up at them briefly, seems to think about whether she wants to keep going and then decide it’s safe. ‘But Uncle Raf picked me up the other day in Dad’s car and they all saw. That didn’t help.’
‘Who are they?’ Charlotte asks softly. ‘The ones giving you grief?’
‘Stupid girls in my form,’ Evie says. ‘I know their opinions aren’t important, but they’re kind of the … “popular girls,”’ – complete with air-quotes that make Cam smile – ‘and it makes the others be idiots about it too, just to fit in. I hate that it’s not even me they’re teasing, y’know? It’s my dad. He almost died, and they … whatever. I just need to get over it.’
All of them are quiet at that, marvelling, Cam supposes, that she’s thinking this is somehow happening because of her own weakness. Cam feels anger flare in his chest and says, ‘This isn’t your fault, Evie.’
‘I know,’ she says.
‘I mean it.’
She looks up.
‘He’s right,’ Charlotte says. ‘You’ve probably heard a million times that bullies are just weak, scared people looking to feel powerful, but it’s actually true. And bullies who target girls or gay people or whatever are sometimes just doing it because they like them.’
Evie’s eyes shoot up. ‘You mean … you think …’
Charlotte shrugs. ‘Who knows? But maybe the girl who’s leading this band is really interested in the idea of gay people and that scares her, so she takes it out on your dad and uncle.’
They all think about that a moment, Elinor looking down, picking at her nails. It is Jason who eventually speaks. ‘Did you tell a teacher? When I was in school, I used to get teased a lot, and they always said I should tell a teacher about it. Did you?’
‘Nah,’ Evie says. ‘If you tell a teacher, the teacher talks to them, and then you just get teased for telling. I think that’s worse.’
Charlotte frowns. ‘But you have a right to be happy at school, Evie. They shouldn’t be allowed to win.’
Evie looks a bit helpless, then puts on a brave face and says, ‘It’s just the way it is. It won’t last forever.’
Cam taps her on the forearm and she looks up. ‘You haven’t told your dad, have you? Or Raf?’
Evie shakes her head. ‘You think I should?’
He takes the time to think about it, though he already knows the answer. ‘Yeah. I do.’
Evie’s phone starts ringing, and they all stop to stare at it (rather comically, Cam thinks later). She answers it. ‘Hey, Uncle Raf … yeah. Yeah. I’m still with them. Okay, I’ll tell him. Yeah. Bye.’ She hangs up and giggles at them, all watching her. ‘Uncle Raf says they all have to work late because of an accident on the high street. He says I can go to Mrs Baker’s or back to the hospital with you, Jason. Serena’s still there, too.’
‘I will return to the hospital,’ Jason says. ‘I have magazines there for the times when Auntie Serena changes our schedule. You may accompany me if you promise not to talk too much.’
Evie holds up her earphones, unoffended. ‘No problem.’
Cam and Charlotte look at each other, a moment of sibling telepathy passing between them. ‘We’ll come too,’ they say in unison.
Evie looks up, surprised. ‘What? Why?’
‘See if they need help,’ Cam says. ‘If the others all have to work late, I may as well lend a hand.’
Evie looks at Charlotte and she shrugs. ‘Today’s as good a day as any to see Mum, right?’
‘Ditto,’ Elinor mutters. ‘I’ll join you.’
‘Sure,’ Cam says, easy as he can make it. He is conscious of how hard he’s trying not to react to Charlotte’s decision. ‘And if you like,’ he says, turning back to Evie, ‘we could come with you. To tell Fletch and Raf what’s going on.’
‘Bit of moral support,’ Charlotte says. ‘How does that sound?’
They make it all the way to the lobby before Charlotte panics. She does it quietly – always has – but Cam sees the colour drain from her face, sees her breath start to quicken, feels the way she grips his arm with her totally-unreasonable-for-a-skinny-person strength, and says, ‘We’ll catch you guys up, okay?’
Elinor gets it immediately, gives them both a brief smile before ushering Evie and Jason into the lift.
‘Why aren’t they coming?’ he hears Jason ask, and has enough time to hope he’ll be satisfied with the answer before he turns to Charlotte and grips her shoulders.
‘Breathe with me,’ he murmurs, and Charlotte nods, but her gaze is bouncing wildly around; they’re too public. He leads her into the stairwell, the staff-only one, and counts with her, waits while she breathes. They take the stairs together, afterwards, two at a time, because it’s always been more helpful for her to stay moving than still. She was born with restless legs, Dad used to say. Like her mother. He never says it, anymore, but it doesn’t stop them all from thinking it. From knowing.
They reach AAU. Charlotte is calmer, has slid her fighting face back on; he doesn’t really need to ask if she’s ready, but he does it anyway. ‘Now or never,’ she says, and they push through the doors.
It’s less of a commotion than he’d feared, after the phone call, but the level of activity is definitely high for this time of day. He can’t see Mum anywhere – probably a blessing – but Evie is standing with Elinor by the nurses’ station, looking nervous. She glances up and catches sight of them, smiles, and then everything happens at once.
Serena, still clad in scrubs and her leopard-print cap, walks out of theatre, exhaustion written all over her face. Her eyes scan the room automatically and land on Elinor, back to her, in conversation with Evie. She does a double-take and then, ‘Elinor? What are you doing here? And … Evie?’ she stops, frowning, taking them all in. ‘What’s going on here?’
Fletch comes out behind her and spies Evie. ‘Heya, sweetpea, sorry about the wait. Thanks for looking after her, Cameron, mate … you all right?’ This to Charlotte, who is standing stock-still beside Cam, eyes wide.
Serena, gaze flicking between them, rises to peacock-levels of authority and demands, ‘Will someone tell me what is going on here?’
‘Is Raf here?’ Evie asks. ‘I need to talk to you both.’
‘Well done,’ Elinor murmurs, patting her on the arm.
Serena is still staring at her. ‘Elinor, darling, what—’
Elinor turns and walks over to her, kisses Serena’s cheek but doesn’t hug her. ‘You … Mum, you didn’t have to hide her from me. I would have understood.’
Serena blinks rapidly several times. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Bernie,’ Elinor says.
‘Yes?’ Bernie calls from somewhere across the ward – so her bloody bat hearing hasn’t faded, then – and strides over. ‘Hello, have we…’ but she trails off, eyes bugging, when she spots Cam and Charlotte standing there, just inside the doors. ‘Charlotte.’
Charlotte opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. Cam squeezes her hand. She still doesn’t speak, and then Elinor calls out, ‘Remember that video I sent you? With the head-banging cockatoos?’
And after a moment of confusion, Charlotte laughs, the question breaking her out of her trance enough to make eye-contact with Elinor, to smile back at her.
‘Wait a moment,’ Serena says – not a problem, since nobody is speaking anyway – ‘how on Earth do you two know each other?’
‘The internet,’ Evie supplies, helpfully, and Serena looks incredulous. Shuts her mouth.
Bernie is still standing there, motionless and shocked, and then Jason appears with a bag of peanuts from the vending machine and says, ‘Oh, everybody’s here.’
Serena starts laughing first, an undignified sort of snort that Cam has never heard from her, and it doesn’t take long for Elinor and Cam to follow. Serena recovers first, too, and her eyes catch on Bernie, paler than Cam has ever seen her; she presses a hand to Bernie’s arm, murmurs something in her ear that seems to snap Bernie out of it. She only looks at Serena briefly, gives her a warm half-smile, but when he glances at Charlotte, Cam sees that that one moment has proven more than if they’d caught them mid-snog. (Less traumatising, too.)
‘Elinor,’ Serena starts, turning to her helplessly, ‘how did you—’
‘Charlotte told me,’ Elinor says, ‘but don’t get mad. She didn’t know I didn’t know. We added each other on Facebook and it came out.’
‘You’re … you two are friends?’ This from Bernie, who has finally recovered the capacity to speak, at least monosyllabically. ‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘First rule of KCWSG,’ Jason says. ‘Don’t talk about KCWSG.’
Cam, Charlotte and Elinor start laughing, and Bernie and Serena look at each other. ‘What?’
‘KCWSG is an acronym,’ Evie tells them. ‘It stands for the Kids of CampWolfe Support Group.’
Cam does the good old British thing and ignores it when his mother chokes on air, when Serena’s eyes narrow dangerously.
‘Technically,’ Jason says, ‘it isn’t an acronym because an acronym has to be—’
Serena cuts him off with a mostly-gentle word and he wanders off, interest lost.
Everyone is looking at Cam, so he speaks. ‘When we manage it, Charlotte and I meet up every couple of weeks to chat. Jason had some questions so I invited him along. Charlotte invited Elinor when she heard she’d be in town and … to get to know each other,’ he trails off, lamely, as he takes in the horrified looks on the faces of his mum and his – oh, God, his boss. ‘We never meant for it to—’
‘It just sort of happened,’ Elinor says. She steps forward and reaches out, rests a hand on Serena’s arm. ‘I was feeling a bit betrayed that you hadn’t told me about your new … about Bernie,’ she says, gaze flicking over to her and then back to Serena. ‘Cameron and Charlotte have been … helping me come to terms with it, I suppose.’
Bernie makes a strangled sound. Cam can see the irony.
‘Turns out Charlotte and I have a bit in common, and I was around to see Dad and Libby anyway, so I thought I’d … sorry, Mum.’
Serena is still speechless, but she grasps Elinor’s hand and squeezes, manages a smile.
Charlotte is looking at her shoes, and Cam nudges her; reassuringly, he hopes. He knows she won’t speak, not with all these people around; maybe neither she nor Mum will speak at all, ever again, but their being in the same room together for longer than five minutes is a good start. It’s a step forward, he thinks.
Bernie’s eyes are still locked on Charlotte, studying, disbelieving, but her unguarded examination is interrupted by the appearance of Raf, by Evie marching over to him and demanding that he and Fletch follow her somewhere quieter. Cam watches with undeserved pride and not a little amusement as they look at each other and then do as she asks.
They are left standing there, the ward around them: Bernie, Serena, Elinor, Charlotte, and Cam.
‘So,’ Serena says, eventually, eyes moving from each to the next, ‘who have I to blame for “CampWolfe?”’
‘That’ll be Cam,’ Mum says, looking right at him. She’s hardly spoken throughout this whole ridiculous scene and it’s just typical that she’d be right about this. Serena arches an eyebrow at him and he sighs.
‘Guilty,’ he says. ‘But in my defence, I never meant for it to leave this circle.’ He gestures to Elinor and Charlotte. ‘Charlotte liked “Berena” better, but I think it’s too hard to say.’
‘Cam!’ Charlotte hisses. He sees Mum crack a smile out the corner of his eye and smiles too.
‘I still can’t believe the two of you are friends,’ Bernie says, still bewildered as she turns to Elinor. ‘How did that happen, again?’
‘Facebook,’ they all say together, and Bernie sighs.
‘Thank you, very helpful.’
‘Aren’t you glad?’ Charlotte asks, tentative.
‘Of course we are,’ Serena says, and smiles at her. It’s genuine. ‘It’s lovely to finally meet you, Charlotte.’
‘You, ah, you too,’ Charlotte manages, ducking behind her fringe. ‘Sorry it’s under such weird circumstances.’
‘Oh, never mind that, there’s no such thing as a non-weird day on AAU.’
This vague impression of a normal conversation is interrupted by Evie storming out of the locker room and past them, face furious. Raf and Fletch follow a moment later, speaking hurriedly to one another in low voices.
‘Something the matter?’ Bernie asks lightly. Of course, Cam thinks; she’s a stuttering mess the moment she catches sight of her daughter, and the calm in the storm the moment someone else even hints at being in crisis. It’s annoying, but he has to admit, reluctantly, that it’s also not a half bad quality to have if you’re a trauma surgeon.
‘We had to give Evie some news and she didn’t…’ Raf shrugs helplessly, and Fletch finishes his sentence for him.
‘She didn’t take it too well.’
‘Is it something bad?’ Bernie asks. ‘You’re both well?’
‘Yes, we’re fine,’ Raf sighs, scratching his head.
‘Can I do something to help?’ Serena asks. ‘Go and talk to her, perhaps?’
‘Best leave it for the mo,’ Fletch says. ‘It’s all a bit, ah … delicate.’
Serena narrows her eyes. ‘Fletch,’ she says, in that voice that makes Cam reflexively stand up straighter, even though she isn’t even talking to him.
Fletch looks around at them and says, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Serena, but I’d rather not have this conversation right now.’ He turns to Raf, who shakes his head. ‘Right.’
It’s that glance at Raf that sparks the realisation. Cam looks between them and then over at his mother, who is standing there, mouth slightly open; so she’s figured it out too, then. He has to smile. He should have known.
‘Fine,’ Serena says brusquely. ‘Then I suggest you go and find your daughter before she does this hospital any damage. She has quite the temper, if I recall. As for the rest of you,’ she says, turning and eyeing the three of them. ‘Elinor, where are you staying?’
‘At Lucy’s,’ Elinor says.
The hurt flashes across Serena’s face for just a moment before she shuts it down.
‘Charlotte?’ Bernie asks, cautiously. She clears her throat. ‘What about you?’
‘With, uh, with Dad,’ she says. ‘I’m heading back on Saturday, though.’
‘Right,’ Bernie says. ‘Fine. Now that that’s sorted, I think what Serena wanted to say was that if you all head down to Albie’s, we’ll join you when we finish up here and maybe, possibly, if you answer all our questions, buy you a round.’
‘Seriously?’ Elinor asks.
Serena quirks a lip up at Bernie. ‘Took the words right out my mouth,’ she murmurs.
‘All right,’ Elinor says. ‘But only if you also answer our questions.’ She glances at Charlotte. ‘Or at least mine.’
‘Elinor—’ Serena starts, but Bernie shrugs.
‘I speak only for myself, but fair’s fair,’ she says.
That seems to have won her a few points with Elinor; her gaze softens slightly as she nods. She would probably be quite intimidating, Cam thinks, if she were trying to intimidate anyone but his mum.
Albie’s is awkward – Charlotte says no more than six words to Bernie the whole night, and four of them are ‘thank you’ twice – but they get through it. Elinor puts Bernie through a rigorous series of questions about Serena that even Cam finds a bit much, and he’d inherited his mother’s protective streak. He has to admit it’s kind of cool to watch, though; Elinor tries harder and harder to fluster her or to catch her out, but the more she pushes, the calmer Bernie seems to get. At one point, when Elinor is demanding that Bernie describe Serena’s ideal holiday (‘A vat of Shiraz,’ she answers, and Serena pats her on the thigh, gives her a look that makes Cam feel slightly uncomfortable), she looks over and catches his eye, and he thinks: my mum is so cool. Not that he’d admit it on pain of death.
At some point, Elinor stops with the questions as abruptly as she had begun; Bernie has passed the test, it seems, and Elinor returns to conversing with something closer to the ease Cam has come to expect in the short time he’s known her.
When Bernie leaves to go to the bar and Serena follows her, soon after, Elinor leans in to Cam and says, ‘I’m sorry about all that. I just wanted to check that she can hold her own, you know. Mum has made some terrible relationship choices in the past, and I … I hope it wasn’t too awkward.’
Cam just shrugs and drains his beer. ‘Didn’t bother me,’ he says. And grins. ‘I thought she held her own pretty bloody well.’
Elinor twirls her own glass in her hand, looks over to the bar to where they’re standing: arms brushing, heads tilted, Serena’s smile echoed on Bernie’s face as she talks. The warmth is palpable. Cam has never seen a look like that on his mother’s face before. It’s a look that frankly doesn’t belong in public.
‘I kind of thought it was desperation,’ Elinor admits, quietly. ‘Going for a woman? I admit I wondered if this wasn’t just the beginning of some bizarre mid-life crisis.’
‘But?’ Charlotte asks. She’s started speaking more, now that Elinor has turned the majority of her attention on them, and Cam finds himself grateful for her presence, if only for that.
‘But I was wrong,’ Elinor says. ‘Just look at them.’
As if on cue, Serena laughs and Bernie leans over to whisper something right in her ear. She laughs again, shaking her head; catches Bernie’s hand, briefly, and lingers before she lets go. They’re trying to be subtle, Cam thinks, but they’re failing spectacularly. The affection between them fills up the room like a scream.
‘I think,’ Elinor says, ‘I think they’re really … the real deal.’
It’s never felt realer than when he hears it said like that, a sort of wonder in Elinor’s voice that he thinks must be somewhere on the way to approval, or at least true acceptance. Bernie turns around, then – Spidey senses tingling, Cam thinks – and arches an eyebrow when she sees them all watching her. They turn back in a hurry and pretend it didn’t happen, and Cam lets Elinor’s voice wash over him as she talks about musical theatre. Lets himself be content.
‘The first 2017 meeting of the KASG is now called to order.’
‘Wait, what?’ Cam asks. ‘Why has our name changed?’
‘I changed it,’ Jason announces, and Cam raises an eyebrow. ‘To the "Kids of AAU Support Group." I felt it was only fair that our group be given a more inclusive designation, given that Evie Fletcher is now an official member but does not rightly belong in the category of “Kids of CampWolfe.”’
‘That was nice, Jason,’ Evie says, smiling up at him. ‘Thanks.’
‘It was a necessary correction in the interest of accuracy,’ he says. ‘But you are still welcome.’
‘So,’ Cam says, turning back to Jason. ‘What’s on the agenda?’
‘Apologies from Charlotte and Elinor, who have both returned to their respective university towns of residence, but have informed me that they telephone regularly with one another in an effort to make up for their missed meetings.’
Cam nods, suppressing a smile.
‘First point on the agenda is Evie,’ Jason continues. ‘Evie, do you have any comments or concerns you would like to raise?’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘I wanted to say thanks for letting me be in the club.’
‘Support group,’ Jason corrects.
‘Sorry, support group. I know when I first came it was just because I was getting teased and Cam was being nice, so I never expected to be here because it turned out Dad and Uncle Raf were secretly together...’
Cam takes a sip of his coffee and leans back to listen.