Fresher’s week had been a bit of a blur of meetings, getting lost and trying to avoid eighteen year olds newly let loose from their parents’ clutches. Not for the first time, Bernie wondered why she was putting herself through this. It would have been so easy just to accept the desk job the army had offered her after the accident and try to settle back into family life. But just two weeks of living full time with Marcus and she’d had to admit defeat. She just couldn’t do it anymore. Couldn’t pretend. Not even for the sake of the kids. And so she’s walked out, filed for divorce and done some deep thinking about what it was she wanted out of life. Her mind kept coming back to the same thing, that long forgotten childhood dream of becoming a doctor. It had taken a while to sort out, phone calls to admissions officers, tests, finances to sort out but here she was, at the grand age of 40, beginning a medical degree.
Bernie pushed her hair out of her eyes as she stared at the map in her hands. She had one last appointment to keep, collecting a white coat for lab work, before she could go home. Not that that was a tempting proposition really. The place needed a bit of a tidy, it was her turn to have the kids this weekend after all, but it didn’t really feel like home yet. Too anonymous, too new.
She wandered slowly across the campus, enjoying the early autumn sun on her face, towards what she hoped was the right building. Signs inside directed her to the correct room where she joined yet another queue of bright young things. They made her feel old and dowdy, with their bright colours and boundless energy. She really felt like she didn’t belong here, like the university had made a massive mistake in letting her in after all. She willed the queue to move quickly and it wasn’t long before, white coat in hand, she was heading back towards her bus stop.
The door of her flat slammed shut behind her as she collapsed onto the sofa. There was a list of things she needed to do before she picked the kids up from school tomorrow but she just couldn’t face it. She reached over and grabbed the remote, flicking channels until she found something mindless to watch. She thought again of the other people on her course and what they would be up to that evening. She’d overheard a couple of them discussing the union club nights with ridiculous names like Candy Kisses and Lightning Bolt. Mainly, she was glad that she didn’t have to suffer nights out with strangers, getting drunk on brightly coloured alcohol and snogging the first person you saw, but a small part of her was jealous. Those kids were meeting new people, making friends, having fun, while she was stuck inside watching crap TV without a single friend to call.
“Screw it,” she thought to herself. “If they can go out and have fun, so can I. I’m not past it yet.”
She stood up and went into the kitchen, peering into the fridge to see what she could eat. She flung a Tupperware of leftover curry into the microwave and boiled some rice. Sitting down at the table to eat, she lifted out her phone and googled the place she hadn’t yet dared to go. The place she’d wanted to go since she was 14 and a confused teenager. The gay bar, imaginatively called Queer, was a short bus ride away on the opposite side of town to the uni. Bernie sighed in relief at the realisation. She really didn’t want to be bumping into students tonight.
Once her food was gone, she dumped the plate into the sink and headed into her bedroom. She stared at her open wardrobe trying to pick an outfit suitable. After a few attempts, she decided on jeans and a shirt, left open at the top to reveal her collarbones. She pulled a brush through her hair and applied some light make up. Then she put on her boots and coat, making sure she had money, phone and keys in the pockets, and headed out of the door.
The place was fairly quiet when she arrived. It was early, only a little after 8. Her cheeks burned as she walked in, still worried that people might find out about her and her preferences. But no one seemed to comment so she bought a drink and went to sit in the corner, watching what was going on.
There was a small but rather loud group of fairly young men surrounding the pool table. She watched them for a moment, jealous at how open and relaxed they were at such a young age. She could barely admit it to herself now, let alone fifteen years ago. One of them looked up at her and smiled. She gave a small smile back and turned away, not wanting them to come over and talk to her. An older gay couple sat at the bar, hands clasped as they drank pints of beer and chatted. The domesticity of them almost made Bernie miss Marcus. Even if she could never love him like she wanted to, it had been nice to have someone there to talk to. She turned away again. In another corner, two women were kissing like it was the only thing keeping them alive. It made Bernie’s heart jump and heat coursed through her body. She looked away, looked down at her drink, wished she’d brought a book or something with her. Felt awkward just watching people in a half empty bar.
A group of women entered the bar, mixed in age. One of the women was wearing a tiara and the rest were in pink bunny ears. Bernie guessed it was a hen party.
“Shots all round!” shouted the woman in the tiara and the rest of the group cheered. That was, the rest of the group except a girl younger than the rest and a woman about Bernie’s age. The girl smiled as the woman rolled her eyes. Bernie watched them curiously. What were they doing with the rest of the women? They didn’t look like they fitted in at all. The woman in particular was dressed far more sensibly than the others and didn’t look half as drunk. She had short, brown hair and curves that took Bernie’s breath away. She stepped to the side of the women downing shots and ordered a glass of red wine and a coke from the bartender. She inclined her head to the younger girl and the two of them sat down at a table nearer to Bernie.
Bernie couldn’t take her eyes of this woman, this mysterious, beautiful woman who didn’t fit here and yet didn’t seem to care. She watched her and the girl chat quietly as the rest of the hen party carried on around them. After a while the rest of the hen party came over and swept the girl up with them towards the dance floor. They clearly tried to persuade the woman to join them but she shook them off and continued to sip her wine, watching the dancing from across the room. Bernie watched her still, feeling a longing inside her but too scared to do anything about it.
Then the woman turned around and looked straight at Bernie. Bernie’s eyes widened, her cheeks reddened and she dropped her gaze to the table. The last thing she’d wanted to happen was to be caught staring.
The sound of a chair moving across the floor made her look up again. To her surprise, the woman had pulled up a chair to her table and was sitting down next to her.
“Serena Campbell,” she said, sticking out a hand, “Nice to meet you.”
Bernie’s mouth hung open. She managed to make herself move enough to take Serena’s hand and shake it. Her skin was soft and Bernie wanted to hold on forever.
“Do you have a name?” Serena asked and Bernie realised she hadn’t said a word.
“Berenice, Bernie,” she said, stumbling slightly over her words.
“Well Bernie, what brings you to a place like this?” Serena asked, one eyebrow quirked.
“Well I…” Bernie began, really not sure what to say. She felt her cheeks burning bright red.
“Anything must be better than being your daughter’s chaperone at her new stepmother’s hen party,” Serena said. She took a sip of wine and looked over at the dance floor.
“That was your daughter?” Bernie asked, trying to wrap her head around what Serena had just said. “And the woman in the tiara?”
“Is marrying my ex-husband,” Serena said bluntly.
“Oh. Wow.” Bernie didn’t really know what to say to that.
“Yes. And I couldn’t exactly allow my fifteen year old to attend unaccompanied. I mean would you trust that lot with your underage child?” Serena waved her hands towards the dance floor. “Sorry, possibly moot question if you don’t have kids.”
“I have kids,” Bernie said.
“But you have done the thoroughly sensible thing of leaving them at home when you go out drinking I see.”
Bernie blushed again. Something about this woman made her want to reveal all.
“They live with my ex,” she said simply.
“Oh,” Serena said, her eyes suddenly sad.
“It’s okay,” Bernie said quickly, wanting to put a smile back on Serena’s face. “It’s all fairly amicable. I’ve even got the kids coming over this weekend.”
Serena smiled at her and reached out a hand, squeezing Bernie’s. “Well it’s nice to know that lesbians have got the whole amicable break up thing sussed.”
Bernie jolted backwards, pulling her hand from Serena’s. “Oh no it’s… well I’m not… well I am but he’s not… obviously.”
“Oh I’m so sorry Bernie. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
Bernie took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. “No, no. It’s just. This… this stuff,” she said, waving her arms to indicate the entire bar, “it’s all new to me.”
Serena just nodded, giving Bernie the chance to speak.
“I’m a lesbian,” she whispered. She didn’t question why she was able to come out to this stranger in a bar when even whispering the words to her mirror in an empty flat was impossible.
“And how many people have you ever said that to?” Serena asked, her voice quieter and gentler, kinder than before.
Bernie looked up into Serena’s dark eyes. “You’re the first.”
Serena took her hand again. “Well then Bernie, I’m honoured.”
Bernie gave her a watery smile trying to fight back the tears. She would never have imagined the first time she came out to someone to be so nice.
“Aren’t you brave?” Serena praised, squeezing Bernie’s hand. At this Bernie lost her battle against the tears. She felt Serena shift closer and put an arm carefully around her shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” Bernie said once the tears had calmed, “I’m really not usually like this.”
“Nothing wrong with a good cry,” Serena said with one last squeeze of Bernie’s shoulders. “I prefer to do it in the comfort of my own home rather than in a bar but each to his own.”
Bernie chuckled. “I’ll try that next time.”
“Drink?” Serena offered, “I’m buying.”
“No you’re not. Not after you’ve had to deal with my emotions. It is definitely my turn to buy.”
“Fine,” Serena relented, “Another glass of this rather lovely Shiraz would not go amiss.”
Bernie returned to the table shortly carrying a bottle of Shiraz along with a couple of wine glasses.
“Mind sharing?” she asked as she sat down.
“As long as I get the biggest half.”
Bernie poured the wine, making sure that Serena’s glass was fuller than hers.
“So,” Serena said, “Tell me about your children.”
They chatted about everything and nothing. Bernie told Serena about her children and Serena told her tales about what Elinor had been getting up to. They talked about their childhoods spent only a few miles apart from each other. They discussed tv programmes they had both seen and films that were coming out at the cinema. Bernie even told Serena about the army and how it was there she had made the realisation about her sexuality.
“I mean I always knew something was different. And I’d had crushes on girls before but I hadn’t done anything, said anything about them before.”
“What changed?” Serena asked.
“Alex.” Bernie shut her eyes and thought back to her fellow soldier. “She was so open and proud about her sexuality. She fascinated me. I couldn’t stop watching her. Then one night she kissed me.”
She opened her eyes to see the look on Serena’s face. A kind of sorrowful look. But not judgemental so she continued.
“I pushed her away. I was married and her commanding officer. But I couldn’t get my mind off the kiss. It felt so right. Much more right than anything that had happened between me and Marcus.” She sighed. “I think I might have kissed her again, damn Marcus and the army, if it hadn’t been for the IED. It blew both of us up only a few days later. She got off with a few cuts and bruises and I ended up being flown back to the UK for emergency surgery.”
“Bernie…” Serena breathed.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. They patched me up well and I’m a fast healer. But I couldn’t fix my marriage. Not after what happened with Alex. I mean I basically cheated on him at the same time as realising that I had never been attracted to him at all. Not really. I’m not sure which is worse.”
“That was not cheating,” Serena soothed, “Trust me I know cheating and that was not it.”
“The bastard cannot keep his hands to himself. Particularly around pretty blondes. You should be glad he’s not here. He’d be hitting on you like a shot.”
Bernie laughed, her heart swelling at being called pretty. “Well I’m glad I’ve got you here instead.”
Bernie was about to offer to get them a second bottle of wine when Elinor approached their table.
“Mum? The others are going to a club now. There’s no way I’ll get in since you confiscated my fake id.”
She sat down in one of the empty chairs. “Who’s your friend?” she asked.
“Elinor, this is Bernie. Bernie, this is my delightful daughter Elinor.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bernie said.
“Can we go home now?” Elinor asked.
“Of course darling,” Serena replied. She turned to Bernie. “Fancy coming back to mine? The night is young and I have some excellent wine.”
“Really?” Bernie couldn’t believe that this beautiful, kind, fascinating woman wanted to invite her round to her house.
“Yes really. I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you this evening and I’d like to stay longer but I’ve got to get this one home.”
“Okay,” Bernie agreed. She smiled at Serena who smiled back.
“Ok. Let’s get going then,” Serena said. She attempted to stand up, tripped over her handbag and fell into Bernie’s lap.
There was a moment of silence and then both of them burst out laughing. Bernie wrapped her arms round Serena’s waist as she felt her slipping off her lap, enjoying the feeling of having a striking woman sat on top of her. Elinor just watching them and shook her head.
“How much have you two drunk?”
“Not nearly enough,” Serena retorted. She stood up again, carefully avoiding her handbag, and held out a hand to help Bernie to her feet. Bernie took it and stood up, grabbing her jacket. She followed Serena and Elinor out into the street towards the taxi rank, wondering what she was doing.
The taxi was cramped with three of them in the back. Bernie found herself pressed up against Serena in a way that wasn’t helping her racing heart. She looked out of the window and tried to understand how she had gone from having a drink on her own in the bar to going home with a stunning woman (and her daughter). Not that there was anything in Serena’s offer except friendship, Bernie was certain of that. Serena was clearly straight. She’d only been in Queer because of the hen party. And yet a traitorous part of Bernie’s mind dared to hope.
They pulled up in front of a large Victorian semi in a nice part of the city. Serena paid the driver, pushing Bernie’s offer of money away, and they all climbed out.
The front door opened into a wide and inviting hallway. Bernie, following Serena’s lead, removed her shoes and coat. Elinor announced she was going upstairs to watch a film and Serena took Bernie by the hand and lead her into the kitchen.
“Wow!” was Bernie’s immediate reaction. The room was exquisite, clearly newly renovated, with dark wooden cabinets and spotless marble surfaces. The cooker was huge and an array of pans hung above it. Bernie sunk down onto one of the bar stools by the central island.
“Are you a drug dealer?” she asked.
Serena laughed. She reached into one of the cupboards and drew out a bottle of wine. “Not quite. I’m a doctor.”
“Anyway,” she continued, lifting wine glasses out of a cabinet, “Most of this house is paid for out of the extremely generous divorce settlement I acquired.”
“You must have had better lawyers than me.”
A glass of wine was placed in front of Bernie and she drank from it gratefully.
“What about you?” Serena asked, “Do you have a new job since leaving the army?”
“I’m teaching fitness classes down at the leisure centre,” Bernie said, suddenly embarrassed. She wasn’t sure why she was hiding the fact she was just starting a medical degree from Serena. But Serena was already a doctor, probably a very good one, and Bernie didn’t want to feel inferior in any more ways than she already did. Anyway it wasn’t a lie, she was teaching fitness classes. She just neglected to mention that they were only at evenings and weekends. It was just to help out with the finances a bit. A student loan didn’t go very far when you were trying to run a flat and entertain two kids every other weekend.
“Well that explains the muscles,” Serena said, gently squeezing Bernie’s bicep. Bernie flexed and watched Serena’s face light up. “Wow! I bet you could carry me up the stairs!”
Bernie blushed and shrank away from Serena slightly. This innocent flirtation was becoming a bit much.
“Well maybe after a few more glasses of wine,” Serena said, noticing Bernie’s discomfort. “Come through into the living room anyway. It’s much more comfortable.”
Bernie followed Serena into the living room which was just as well presented as the kitchen. Serena sunk down onto the sofa and Bernie perched on the edge next to her.
“No need to be so formal,” Serena said and Bernie took the hint, sliding back and settling herself against the back of the sofa. It was a lot comfier than the battered old thing she had in her own living room.
The evening wore on and Bernie relaxed in Serena’s company, with the help of rather a lot of wine. Serena seemed to relax too, gradually getting closer and closer to Bernie on the sofa until they were pressed up against each other. Usually Bernie might be concerned about this development but the large quantity of alcohol currently swimming around her veins allowed her just to bask in the closeness.
“You have really nice hair,” Serena said, her words slurring slightly. She raised a hand and twisted a few strands of Bernie’s hair around her fingers. “And it’s so soft.”
“I think it’s time for you to go to bed Serena,” Bernie said, reaching up to release her hair from Serena’s hand. But Serena just grabbed Bernie’s hand and interlaced their fingers.
“No not yet, don’t want this evening to be over yet.”
Bernie didn’t either but she wasn’t prepared to admit it. “Well I need to go soon anyway. Need to get up at a reasonable hour to sort my flat for the kids.”
“No, don’t go yet!” Serena whined. Then a broad smile spread across her face. “You can carry me upstairs!”
The wine had gone to Bernie’s head and this seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea. She stood, bent down and swung Serena into her arms. Serena shrieked and wrapped her arms tightly around Bernie’s neck.
“Oh my,” she said, her mouth close to Bernie’s ear, “You are strong.”
Bernie walked towards the stairs to find Elinor standing at the top of them, pyjamas on and looking annoyed.
“Mum?” she questioned.
Serena giggled. “Look how strong Bernie is! She’s going to carry me to bed!”
“Right. Whatever. Just keep the noise down.” She turned to go back to her room.
“Oh I can’t guarantee that!” Serena shouted behind her. “Put your headphones on darling.”
Elinor’s bedroom door slammed shut behind her and Bernie began to make her way up the stairs. She was distracted by Serena’s hands finding her hair again.
“So soft!” she murmured.
Bernie pulled Serena in closer to her as she climbed the last few steps. She couldn’t tell if Serena was really flirting with her or not. Was it just that gentle flirtation that some straight women seemed to manage or was there something behind it?
“My room is at the end,” Serena said and Bernie carried her down the corridor, trying to avoid the bookcase placed there. She nudged open the end door with her foot and walked straight into Serena’s bedroom. She placed Serena down on deep red, silky sheets and was about to stand upright again when Serena tugged her down with her. Bernie found herself lying next to Serena, faces no more than an inch apart.
“You’re very pretty,” Serena whispered into the tiny gap.
“You’re magnificent,” Bernie said, courage flaring inside her.
“I’ve never done this before,” Serena confessed.
“This,” Serena said, leaning forward to close the gap and press her lips against Bernie’s. Bernie gasped at the contact and pulled back.
And then Serena’s lips were on hers again. And she couldn’t resist. Didn’t know how she’d resisted before. Serena was perfect and amazing and right now was licking into her mouth like she was the best thing she’d ever tasted.
Serena pulled back, looking at Bernie. Bernie began to panic. What were they doing? Did Serena regret it so quickly? Had she taken advantage? The anguish must have shown on Bernie’s face as Serena reached out and squeezed her hand.
“Stay?” she asked, her voice slightly wobbly. Bernie nodded. How could she ever say no to this woman?
Serena slid off the bed and closed the bedroom door. “I hope Elinor put her headphones on,” she commented, a sly grin on her face, “I have no intention of being quiet.”
Bernie groaned as Serena crawled back onto the bed and kissed her again, her intentions evident. She allowed her to remove her shirt and trousers and watched as Serena followed suit. Serena was truly beautiful and Bernie couldn’t resist running her hands up her bare sides and across her stomach. Serena straddled Bernie and pressed a kiss to her lips. She kissed along Bernie’s jawline, causing her to moan in pleasure, and across her chest.
“This needs to come off,” Serena muttered, fiddling with the edge of Bernie’s bra. Bernie nodded as Serena reached round for the clasp. It took a few attempts and then it undid, the straps sliding down Bernie’s shoulders. Serena continued her previous path of kisses down across Bernie’s newly exposed breasts, sucking a nipple into her mouth.
“Serena,” Bernie gasped. She reached round and undid Serena’s bra clasp, finding for herself how different it was to undoing your own. She pulled Serena up to kiss her and their bodies pressed against each other, bare chest against bare chest. The feeling was overwhelming. It was better than Bernie could ever have imagined, and imagine it she had. She wrapped her arms around Serena and pulled her in as close as possible, kissing and kissing her, unable to believe this was really happening.
She let her hands slide down Serena’s back and over her lace covered buttocks. Serena wriggled and groaned into Bernie’s mouth. It was all the encouragement Bernie needed to slide the underwear down Serena’s legs. Serena kicked them off onto the floor before sitting up. Bernie stared at this picture of beauty sat astride her, skin reddening from arousal. She ran her hands over Serena’s breasts and down her stomach towards the patch of dark hair nestling between her thighs. Serena moaned as she ran her hands along her thighs. Bernie summoned her strength and flipped Serena onto her back, straddling her instead. Her mouth traced the path her hands had just taken across Serena’s chest, down her stomach and along her thighs.
“Bernie! Please!” Serena begged, widening her legs to give Bernie better access where she needed it most. Bernie placed one last kiss on Serena’s thigh before using her hands to spread Serena wide open. She breathed over her sex, smelling her arousal. It was different, unlike a man’s, well, unlike Marcus’s.
“Bernie!” Serena cried out and Bernie placed a kiss right over her clit. She felt one of Serena’s hands on the back of her head, urging her on. She circled her tongue around Serena’s clit as Serena moaned above her. The vocal feedback was useful as she figured out what worked for Serena and what didn’t. She traced her fingers back and forth across her opening before pushing two fingers in. Serena was so wet and open. She crooked her fingers and began thrusting them in and out in time with her tongue’s circles. Serena thrashed around on the bed. “God yes Bernie!”
It seemed like only seconds later, although Bernie realised it was probably longer, that Serena was crying out and her walls spasmed and she climaxed. Bernie slowed her movements and gradually withdrew her fingers. She crawled back up the bed to kiss Serena again, letting her taste her juices. Serena slid her hands down Bernie’s body and into her soaked knickers. It was Bernie’s turn to cry out as Serena’s thumb pressed down on her clit. She was so close, hadn’t realised how turned on she had become from going down on Serena, hadn’t realised how turned on sex could make her. It was the difference between sleeping with someone you were actually attracted to and someone you married out of fear she supposed.
Serena slipped two fingers, then three into Bernie as her thumb continued to rub on her clit. Bernie briefly wondered how supposedly straight Serena was so good at this but the sensations soon took away all thoughts from her mind.
She cried out as she came and Serena swallowed the cries with her mouth.
“Okay?” she asked once Bernie’s breathing had returned to normal.
“Better than,” Bernie grinned, “You?”
Serena kissed her once more before sliding off the bed and heading towards the ensuite. Bernie rolled over to watch her go, her mind racing. She had, for the first time, slept with a woman and it had been just as spectacular as she had imagined. But she had no idea what was going to happen now. She was drunk, Serena was drunk, both of them were new to this. Did this mean anything or was it just a drunken mistake? Bernie’s racing thoughts began to take over her brain. What was happening? Was she ready for anything to happen? Would she just hurt Serena like she hurt everyone else in her life? She heard the toilet flush and panicked. She had to escape, had to get out of here before Serena realised what she had done. Her teenage daughter was only a few doors down the hall for goodness sake. She couldn’t do this.
She climbed off the bed and rapidly began dressing, finding her clothes flung around the room. Serena came out of the bathroom just as she was buttoning up her shirt.
“Bernie?” she asked, confused.
“I have to go,” Bernie stated. She pulled on her jeans and left the bedroom, heading down the stairs.
She pulled on her shoes and coats. Serena reached her as she was about to open the door. She’d put on a dressing gown but her feet were bare. Her hair was still ruffled and Bernie longed to run her hands through it.
“Bernie?” Serena said quietly, sadly.
“Sorry,” Bernie said, taking one last look at Serena before opening the door and running out. She glanced back at the house as she rounded the corner. Serena stood there in the doorway looking out at her, tears beginning to gather in her eyes. Bernie turned away and ran around the corner and down the road. She wasn’t even quite sure where she was. She pulled out her phone and attempted to bring up a map, mad at herself for not thinking this through. It took a while, but she managed to figure out where she was. Not wanted to waste money on an expensive, late night taxi, she set off walking towards her flat, trying to remove the image of Serena standing there in her doorway from her mind.
The weekend went fairly smoothly for Bernie. She spent Friday, once she had recovered from her hangover, tidying the flat and grocery shopping. She picked Charlotte up from school before driving over to the secondary school to collect Cameron. He hadn’t even moaned much about how embarrassing it was to be picked up by his mum. He was fourteen now and most things about his parents were deeply embarrassing. Charlotte chatted away from the back seat about her new teacher and how nice it was to sit on the benches in assembly now that she was in year 6.
She threw some pizzas in the oven once they got back and let the kids chose a film to watch. It only took a few minutes of good natured bickering for them to make up their minds and they were soon all sat on the sofa, eating slices of pizza and watching ET. Cameron disappeared off to his room once it had finished and she heard the distinct sounds of his laptop starting up. Charlotte was drooping now from a hard week at school. She nudged her towards the bathroom and into Bernie’s own bed, pulling the covers up around her and kissing her forehead.
“Night sweetheart,” she said as she pulled the door shut. She stuck her head around the other bedroom door and found Cameron sat on the bed with his laptop on his knee.
“Not too late now,” she said, squeezing his shoulder.
“I won’t mum,” he replied.
Tired out herself, she used the bathroom and changed into her pyjamas. She grabbed the spare pillow and duvet from the cupboard and set herself up on the sofa for the night. One day, she promised herself, she would have enough money to get a place with three bedrooms, but until that day she would happily sleep on the sofa if it meant having her kids over. As her eyes flickered shut, she thought of Serena’s house, of all the closed doors off the landing and briefly wondered how many spare bedrooms she had. Then the image of Serena stood in the doorway reappeared in her mind and she had to blink away tears. Had she done the right thing last night? She wasn’t sure but there was nothing she could do about it now.
On Saturday Bernie took Cameron and Charlotte out to a country park. They walked around the grounds enjoying what was possibly the last of the good weather and admiring the plants that were still in flower. They had lunch in the café before heading back to the flat. Cameron got started on his homework at the kitchen table and Bernie and Charlotte played snap with the battered old deck of cards from the bottom drawer. Bernie’s mind drifted towards what Serena might be up to now. Would she be sitting with Elinor? Or would they both be out somewhere? She had no way of finding out. She knew Serena’s name but little else about her. She wasn’t sure she would even be able to find the right house again, she had been rather drunk and it was very dark as she walked home that night.
“Mum!” Charlotte prompted. Bernie looked up and realised she had forgotten to put her card down, her mind caught up on Serena.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said as the game continued.
She cooked up a curry for dinner and they ate around the table. Cameron filled them in on what he was learning in his biology class. He had intentions of being a doctor as well as was intrigued by Bernie’s first week at uni.
“What have they taught you?” he asked, “Have you seen a dead body yet?”
Bernie laughed as Charlotte pulled a face. “No not yet. I haven’t had any proper lectures yet, it’s all be introductory stuff. First proper lecture is on Monday.”
“Will you ring me and tell me what you learnt?”
“Of course,” Bernie promised.
Sunday was a blur of finishing homework, Cameron’s football practise and Charlotte’s dance class. Bernie spent much of the day in the car ferrying her children around. She finally dropped them at Marcus’s mid-afternoon and was persuaded to come in for a cup of tea. She sat at the table opposite Marcus and tried not to feel awkward. Their divorce had been amicable but there was still a layer of awkwardness around them.
“How are you?” Marcus asked, keeping a tight grip on his mug.
“Fine thank you,” Bernie replied. Once upon a time, Marcus had been her closest friend and now they were reduced to pleasantries. She was glad when the kids filled in the silence with their discussion of the weekend and the week ahead. It was strange to be sitting here in the house she once called a home. She would leave but she could see how happy the kids were to have her here, even if only briefly.
She avoided being asked to stay for dinner and headed home late afternoon, Cameron and Charlotte waving her off from the doorstep. In her mind, their enthusiastic waving contrasted with the vision of Serena stood motionless in just a dressing gown.
She heated up the leftover curry when she got in and ate it on the sofa in front of some mindless nature documentary. Then she showered and curled up in bed with a book. Her alarm was set for early the next morning. Her first lecture began at nine and she didn’t want to be late. She had enough to prove, being more than a decade older than most of the other students, without making a bad impression on the first day.
The lecture theatre was almost empty when she arrived, almost half an hour early. She chose herself a seat in the middle of a row near the front and proceeded to set out her things, a notebook, three pens, a bottle of water. She busied her nervous hands by straightening them on the desk in front of her.
Other students drifted in slowly, some clearly regretting having gone out the night before. Bernie could see remains of last night’s make up on their drawn faces. Some, like her, seemed brighter and more prepared for the day ahead. About ten minutes before the lecture was timetabled to begin, the lecturer appeared. He smiled at the waiting students before opening up his laptop and the front and plugging in various leads. It took him a while before his desktop showed up on the large screen at the front. He opened up a PowerPoint presentation, maximised it and sat on the stool waiting for the last few students to arrive. Bernie wrote down the title of the lecture, clearly displayed now, in her notebook along with the date. She had every intention of being organised this year, more organised than she had ever managed in her previous education. She had no idea how long it would last but she would at least start right.
It was now past nine o’clock and yet students continued to enter the theatre. Bernie wondered how they could dare to be late for the first day of medical school. What could be more important?
“I’ll start in two minutes folks,” the lecturer said from the front, “I’ll just give the latecomers a bit more time.”
This struck Bernie as odd. Most things she had read or watched about university life seemed to be unforgiving lecturers who were sticklers for timekeeping. His friendly manner relaxed her slightly though.
“Right,” he said, clapping his hands and standing up, “I’ll begin. I’m Dr Luke Skinner and I’ll be your anatomy lecturer this semester. You’ve got me until ten and then my lovely colleague Dr Campbell will take over for the second hour. Anatomy practicals, yes that means dissections, are on Thursday afternoons and you should have been emailed a time for your tutorials. Any questions, please email me and I’ll try to answer them.”
The name Campbell struck Bernie as being familiar but she couldn’t place it. She didn’t dwell on it, instead concentrating on scribbling down his email address in her notebook. The lecture then began. It wasn’t particularly fast paced, it was only the first one, but there was plenty in it to interest her, starting with the skeletal system. She was aware of some of the material from her prior reading but some of it was new.
The hour seemed to pass in a blur. Her hand ached but she paid it no heed. Soon Dr Skinner, or Luke as he had insisted upon being called, was finishing up an announcing that they had a five-minute break before the next part of the lecture started. Bernie stood up, suddenly realising how much she needed the toilet, and squeezed along her row and out of the door. She didn’t notice the new lecturer arriving.
A few minutes later she was back. There was a new PowerPoint up on the screen as she climbed back into her seat, apologising to the other students in her row. She sat down and wrote the name of the next lecture in her notebook. The new lecturer cleared her throat to begin and Bernie looked up.
Her heart stopped. Standing in front of her was Serena. Serena Campbell. No wonder the name had seemed familiar. But why was she here? She was a doctor at the hospital surely. Or maybe she’d misunderstood. She gasped for air, blinding panicking and wondering how she could escape the lecture theatre without Serena noticing. Serena swung her gaze across the students in front of her and began to speak. Bernie slid down in her seat, hoping to avoid attention. Unfortunately, the movement made Serena look straight at her. Her words quivered and stopped as she locked eyes with Bernie. Bernie was sure that Serena had mouthed her name.
Then the moment broke. Serena turned her head, took a sip of water and continued the lecture as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. Bernie couldn’t help but stare at her. Abandoning her notebook and pen, she leant forward in her seat to watch her more closely. She was just as beautiful as she had remembered. She was wearing less makeup than the other night and her clothes were more work appropriate but it made no difference to her presence. She strolled across the front of the lecture theatre like it was a Broadway stage. Bernie didn’t take in any of the words that she said, too mesmerised by her. It was only when the lecture ended and everyone else began packing their things away, that she realised she’d wasted an entire lecture.
Now that she’d stopped lecturing, Serena seemed smaller somehow. Shutting her laptop and putting it in its case, she looked tired and nervous. She kept glancing up at where Bernie was sitting stock still despite all the chaos around her. She took a few steps towards Bernie and Bernie panicked. She threw her things into her bag and shot out of the door before Serena could reach her. She wasn’t ready for whatever that conversation was going to be.
When Bernie had received the email last week telling her about her tutorial with Dr Campbell, she hadn’t thought anything of it. Now she stood outside the door, wringing her hands with worry. She’d debated emailing someone to get swapped to a different group but they would inevitably ask why she wanted to change and she wasn’t sure she could explain, didn’t really want to explain, to anyone else.
The other students in the group walked into the room and Bernie followed them, eyes to the floor. She took a seat at the back and busied herself with reading over her notes. Serena was already there at the front answering a few questions about the lectures this week.
The tutorial was again a blur. She couldn’t concentrate when Serena was there. Serena was studiously avoiding eye contact with her and Bernie didn’t blame her. Despite having heard little of what Serena had said, she dutifully copied down the information about their first assignment Serena put up at the end. Then she packed up her things and slipped out of the door. Serena was clearly embarrassed about what had happened so she would make things easy on her by avoiding her as much as physically possible.
They maintained the charade for over a month, pretending they didn’t know each other, ignoring each other completely. Bernie still paid little attention to what Serena taught in lectures and tutorials, too transfixed on the woman leading them instead, but by asking the other lecturers pertinent questions and going over the slides after the lectures, she was pretty certain she had a reasonable grasp of the curriculum so far. The problem came when she handed in her first assignment. Their feedback, for the first one, was to be given in a one to one meeting with their tutor. Bernie could see no way of getting out of this one. She had no choice but to write her name down for a time slot to see Serena.
So, later that week, she found herself sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair outside Serena’s office waiting for the previous person to finish. She had the last appointment of the day and the sky was already beginning to darken. She hoped this meeting wouldn’t last long so she could get home in the light. The corridor outside her flat was very dark and she had more than once tripped over something after dark.
The door opened and another student came out.
“Thank you so much Dr Campbell,” he said as he walked out.
Serena stuck her head around the door and looked out.
“Bernie?” she said timidly.
Bernie stood up and followed her into her office. She sat down on the chair in front of the desk and bit her lip, eyes firmly on her feet. Serena slid her assignment across the desk towards her. Bernie looked at the paper, saw the mark of 45, and promptly burst into tears. She wasn’t even quite sure why she was crying. She knew it wasn’t a great mark, but it was at least a pass, and it wasn’t like she was usually this emotional.
She jumped as she felt Serena’s hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t even realised Serena had stood up.
“Bernie it’s okay,” Serena reassured in a quiet voice, “It’s your first try.”
Bernie took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. She wiped her eyes and looked up at Serena. Serena who was looking at her rather than pretending she didn’t exist; Serena whose hand was rubbing up and down Bernie’s arm in a soothing motion.
“I just wanted to show I could do this,” Bernie said.
“And you can, you will.” Serena took her hand off Bernie’s arm and sat down on the edge of the desk. “How long is it since you wrote an essay?”
Bernie thought for a moment. “12 years. Haven’t written one since my A levels.”
“Then you’re just a little out of practise, that’s all.” Serena smiled at Bernie. It was infectious and Bernie smiled back.
“Thank you,” she said, “And sorry for making things difficult recently.”
Serena hummed. “These things happen,” she said, “And I haven’t been treating you the way I should either.”
She stuck out her hand. “Truce?”
Bernie took it, marvelling at the soft skin of Serena’s hand. “Truce.”
Much too soon for Bernie, although probably after longer than a normal handshake, Serena dropped her grip and picked up Bernie’s assignment.
“Now let’s have a look at this and see how I can help you improve.”
It was easier after that. Bernie sat nearer the front in her tutorials and joined in more. She began to ask questions and Serena would answer them, sometimes holding her back at the end to discuss things further. Bernie found it easier to concentrate in lectures as well. Serena was still as beautiful as ever, but Bernie learnt to push those thoughts aside and concentrate on the material being taught.
She got a mark of 60 in her next assignment and had to resist hugging Serena when she found out. She knew she couldn’t have got there without her help. But she wasn’t sure Serena would appreciate the contacts so she settled for a quick thank you at the end of the next lecture.
“Told you you could do it,” Serena countered, her eyes shining.
Bernie celebrated that weekend by taking the kids out for pizza and a movie. They were proud of her as well. It was a lovely evening although a small part of Bernie still wished she could be sharing the evening with Serena.
The rest of the semester continued in much the same fashion. Bernie worked hard and her marks began to rise further. She found herself enjoying the course more and even making a few friends amongst the other students. It was these friends that persuaded her to attend the department Christmas party against her better judgement. They dragged her over to their accommodation and proceeded to give her a mini-make over ready for it.
“You never know who you are going to meet,” Jessica said, wiggling her eyebrows.
“All the other students are a decade younger than me!” Bernie protested as make-up was applied to her face.
“The lecturers aren’t though,” Jessica said causing Bernie to blush bright red as Serena immediately popped into her mind.
“No, no,” she said firmly, “Not going to happen.”
They walked over to the party together. It was being held in a local hotel. A meal, some drinks and a disco to keep everyone entertained. Bernie had on one of Lucy’s tops over her jeans and had allowed her hair to be brushed and styled.
The ballroom was all decorated for Christmas with tinsel and baubles hanging everywhere. Her friends were quickly swallowed up in the crowd as they went off to greet other students. Bernie didn’t mind. She found her seat at one of the tables and people watched.
“Bernie?” a voice said drawing her out of her daydreams. She spun round to find Serena stood next to her. Bernie’s mouth dropped open as she took in the low cut, figure hugging dress that she was wearing.
“Serena,” she breathed.
“You’ve done something to your hair,” Serena said, reaching out a hand towards her before realising what she was doing and dropping it back to her side.
“My friends did it. Said I had to make an effort.”
Serena took a deep breath. “You look nice,” she said.
“You look beautiful.” The words came out of Bernie’s mouth before she knew what she was saying. “Sorry.”
Serena looked at her with a peculiar look in her eyes. “Have a nice evening,” she said before spinning on her heels and disappearing back into the crowd.
Bernie released a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. “You too,” she said to Serena’s retreating figure.
The meal was good, just traditional Christmas fare but cooked well and in large quantities. Bernie ate her fill and drank a couple of glasses of wine with the meal. Since that night in September, she’d avoided drinking any more than this, embarrassed about what had happened the last time she got drunk. With Serena in the room, even if out of sight, she wasn’t going to risk anything tonight.
She let her friends drag her onto the dance floor when the disco started. She didn’t know any of the songs they were singing along to but she swayed obligingly alongside them. The dance floor was full, medical students and lecturers letting their hair down at the end of a busy semester.
After a few songs she slunk away outside for a smoke. The air outside was close to freezing and she shivered in only a blouse and thin cardigan.
“Got a spare?”
Bernie turned to find Serena by the open door. She dug in her bag and produced another cigarette plus a lighter. She handed them over and Serena took them gratefully, their finger’s brushing slightly. Bernie felt a warmth fill her body.
Serena lit the cigarette and handed back the lighter. She sat herself down on a low wall nearby, patting the space next to her as an invitation. Bernie sat down, leaving a good foot between them.
“That won’t keep us warm,” Serena said, wriggling along the wall until her right side was pressed up against Bernie’s left, knee to shoulder. They sat there in silence, smoking, for a few minutes before Serena broke the silence.
“Bernie can I ask you something?”
Bernie nodded, worried about what Serena might say. She wasn’t sure if she could answer a question about why she ran out on her all those months ago.
“Why did you tell me you were a fitness instructor?”
Bernie laughed. “I am!”
Serena looked at her sceptically.
“Evenings and weekends anyway,” she added.
Serena nodded. “Ok.”
“Why did you tell me you were a doctor? You let me assume you worked at the hospital.”
Serena smiled. “I do. Three days a week. This lecturing lark is just a part time thing for me.”
Silence fell again as they both took on long drag on the cigarettes.
“I meant what I said, you know,” Serena whispered into the night after a few minutes had past.
Bernie turned to look at her. Serena turned her head and looked into her eyes. “You do look really nice tonight.”
Bernie took a deep breath and Serena stood up suddenly, dropping her cigarette and crushing it under the toe of her stiletto. “You don’t need to say anything Bernie, I know you don’t think of me like that, that that night was a mistake, but I just wanted you to know.”
She turned and made to go back inside before Bernie stood and caught her arm. Serena looked back at her curiously.
Bernie opened her mouth and shut it a couple of times, her brain trying to come to terms with what Serena had just said.
She shut her eyes and spoke. “You look so beautiful Serena, not just tonight but always. I want you so much that I can’t bear it sometimes.”
Serena turned round fully and grasped Bernie’s free hand. “But that night?”
“The only mistake I made was walking out on you,” Bernie whispered. She opened her eyes to look at Serena. “I’m so sorry.” She loosened her grip on Serena’s arm.
“Well then,” Serena said, a glint in her eyes, “I think you are going to need a new tutor.”
Bernie looked at her confused.
“The university frowns on me kissing my tutorial students,” she said as she cupped Bernie’s face in her hands. “And I’ve no intention of stopping anytime soon.”
And then Serena kissed her, gently at first and then more firmly as she felt Bernie respond, arms wrapping around each other as the kiss deepened.
“Come home with me,” Serena gasped between kisses, “And this time stay the whole night.”
Bernie smiled into the kiss. “I can’t think of anything better.”