London, June 1987
The noisy chatter of a local bar thrummed between her temples like a wasps’ nest. A bustling hive of laughter, shrieks and thudding background music.
Beads of condensation collected in a cold sweat on the outside of the numerous bottles which littered the table top. Practically every medical student in London was out tonight, celebrating the end of the exam season.
The tall blonde sat in the corner toyed thoughtfully with a ring which sat freshly upon her left hand, still seemingly perplexed by the alien stone which glittered dazzlingly upon her finger.
Marcus had proposed that afternoon. And more terrifyingly, she had said yes.
There was absolutely nothing objectionable about Marcus Dunn. Intelligent, kind, supportive; he even had a friendly family who had immediately taken Bernie close to their hearts and yet there was still a distinct lack of something. Perhaps that's all that love and sex was cracked up to be. They had dated for several months, friends who had gravitated from lab partners to being placed on the same ward to flatmates. It had felt somewhat inevitable when Marcus had finally leant in and kissed her softly after breakfast one morning.
Her newly-minted fiancé was occupying the other side of the table, clearly engrossed in animated conversation with James Carter, a slight young man with a pathetic attempt at a moustache growing upon his upper lip, and Chris (Chris who?! Bernie found herself wracking her brains), another friend of a friend whom Bernie thought she had met fleetingly before. Chris had a shock of curly brown hair and rather severely framed glasses which were sliding down the bridge of his sweaty nose in the humid air of the stifling bar. He gesticulated wildly with the air of someone several pints past his comfortable limit. As if reading her thoughts, the gaze of the studious young man met her eyes briefly, a slightly unnerving smirk playing tauntingly around his thin lips.
She gulped nervously at the memory of another, softer pair of lips against her own. Emboldened as she slid into the warm lap of the delectable stranger; electricity dancing beneath her trembling fingers as she wound them into the other woman’s hair and trailed a series of nips and kisses across the exposed collarbones. Sparks flew as a cool, delicate hand that was not her own had inched slowly and deliberately inside her jeans.
An argument with Marcus the previous week over something predictably minor had led to her storming out of the little flat that they shared and vowing to drink her frustrations away in the nearest club. Inhibitions freed by a flood of alcohol, she had caught the eye of another woman sat at the bar who was also seemingly regretting the rowdy choice of venue for solo drinking. Her flirtatious charm soon proved impossible to resist.
She couldn’t even remember her name. Instead, a raw impulse had overtaken her and she had found her lips upon the other woman’s before she could even register what had happened. The next few hours had passed in an intoxicating whirl of alcohol, bare skin, discarded clothing and a type of raw, almost electric passion that Bernie had previously thought herself incapable of.
The cold light of day had bought nothing except a hangover of regret. Creeping around the dingy bedsit in the early hours, collecting strewn items of her clothing and tiptoeing away without a backward glance.
Her stomach clenched with guilt.
How the hell could she go through with this?
Because you’re afraid…
“You alright?” her friend Kate (a history student and fellow member of the University Officers Training Corps) placed her hand momentarily upon her arm, snapping her abruptly out of her daydream and back into the rowdy present of the thrumming O’Sullivan’s bar.
“Mmm-hmm. Just need some air I think. Back in a mo.”
Berenice Wolfe took a deep swig from the tepid lager bottle that she had been nursing for the last half an hour, pulling a slight face at the best alcohol that her dwindling student allowance could afford before unfolding her lanky frame from behind the cramped group table and heading towards the door.
“’Scuse me,” she muttered impatiently as she attempted to circumnavigate the tightly packed bodies.
“Fine, don’t believe me? Then I’ll bloody well prove it!”
A Home Counties accent polished enough to cut glass rang out clearly through the accompanying catcalls and dares.
A chorus of disbelieving shrieks came from the crowd to her left as a vivacious brunette, clad in a short black dress her rose to her feet from holding court within the midst of the group and defiantly downed the glass in front of her, slamming the empty vessel down amidst its numerous companions.
A pair of liquid dark eyes sparkled with defiant glee.
She pushed past Bernie, so close that she caught a whiff of Chanel as their bare shoulders brushed teasingly.
Bernie felt her throat run dry as the shorter woman hopped up onto the low platform near the door and wound a slender leg tightly around the gleaming metallic pole which had been the source of injury for countless drunken medical students over the years.
It’s her…. Oh god, she’s another medic….
She could feel the heavy beat from the hypnotic background music resonating far beneath her feet, reverberating deep within her chest as she watched the other young woman hitch up her short skirt and reveal a tempting expanse of pale thigh.
Her breath caught tightly in her throat. She was suffocating beneath the jostling weight and noise of the sweaty hell. A nervous squirm from her stomach as she desperately attempted to avert her hungry eyes. No matter how hard she schooled herself, no matter how heavily the diamond engagement ring sat on her bony finger, she was unable to look away from the captivating sight in front of her.
“How about this then?” a devilish wink over her unwitting assailant’s shoulder as she pushed off gracefully and twirled balletically around the silver pole to a chorus of whoops and screams from her adoring subjects.
“Five years of dance lessons were good for something at least!” a filthy cackle as the brunette–thriving on the attention of the entire bar– clenched her knees tightly and leant backwards, hanging off the pole and exposing a pale throat and the soft swell of her breasts which threatened to escape from beneath the low confines of her dress.
A bead of sweat trickled languidly across milky décolletage.
Transfixed, Bernie felt a familiar throb of desire ache between her thighs.
She closed her eyes and gulped tightly as her hands shook faintly.
“McKinnie, you dark horse!” an admiring whoop from the curvaceous blonde stood directly behind her jolted Bernie out of her trancelike state and she made a bolt for the door.
She staggered up the steps from the basement, cool air hitting her starkly in the face as she ascended to street level. Leaning back against the cool brickwork, she closed her eyes, desperately trying to calm the panicked breaths which were spiralling through her chest.
Trembling fingers rifled through her pockets and extracted a crumpled packet of cigarettes, anchoring one tightly between her lips and fumbling with a lighter.
A shaky drag, and she felt the familiar steadying warmth fill her lungs.
It meant nothing. You’re not gay… She schooled herself firmly in a well-practised move. Years and years of denial, cemented in place by her father’s homophobic comments filtering into the background of her consciousness. However, this time it was as if she was trying to wrestle shut the lid of Pandora’s box.
“Bernie?” a voice to her right made her eyes snap open immediately.
A familiar mop of brown curls swam into view.
She chose to nod by means of reply and managed to steadfastly ignore the intruder upon her personal brooding.
“Congratulations, by the way.” A quiet voice broke into Bernie’s whirling thoughts. Chris’s smile didn’t reach his eyes as he took a deep draught from his bottle. “Engaged eh? Big step.”
“Yep.” Bernie sniffed briskly as she dropped the smouldering butt of her cigarette to the floor and crushed it in a shower of amber sparks. Her rigid body language defied him to utter another word.
“Didn’t see that coming after the other night…” a snide remark caught her completely off guard.
“I beg your pardon?” her stomach rolled nervously as she snapped her head around to face him.
“Little bit careless to be snogging the face off another woman in a local nightclub. Oh I saw you two in Zita last week… Marcus must be a lot more open-minded than I’d given him credit for. Unless….” He let his words trail away into the night air.
“What the hell are you playing at?” Bernie whispered hoarsely, feeling all the colour drain from her face. Her shoulders sagged limply. “I’m not a–”
“He doesn’t know, does he?” a leer accompanied a slightly drunken stumble towards her. “Doesn’t know that his fiancée is a fucking dyke!” he spat the last word into her face with vicious relish. “Don’t think the Army would be too keen to know that either…”
His hot breath caressed her cheek in a fog of lager and cheap, stale tobacco. A single hand fell onto the brickwork behind her shoulder.
“Get off me! I’m warning you…” Bernie snarled suddenly as the other clammy hand closed around her bicep and attempted to steer her backward into the wall.
“Come on then… why don’t you show me if you’re not…” his ruddy face was millimetres away from her own.
White hot rage boiled within her as her insistent denials gave way in the light of cold hard truth.
“…nothing but a fucking queer…”
Something finally snapped inside her.
Slurred invitations of an increasingly sexual nature were suddenly scythed through by a yelp of pain and her assailant fell to the floor, howling through a mess of blood and loosened teeth as a trained pair of fists and elbows set about reducing his facial features to a bloody pulp.
A pair of glasses clattered to the floor.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Bernie heard a ragged scream which she only realised was her own voice until several moments later. It took considerable effort to still the momentum of her wildly swinging fists as she slumped beside the immobile body on the street, her chest heaving.
“Oh thank god…” she moaned faintly as she instinctively felt for a pulse. Never had she been so relieved to feel the insistent flutter beneath skin.
What sort of monster are you if you can do this to someone?
“I’d say that counts as assault?” her assailant lifted his head to reveal a split lip and a rapidly swelling black eye as he spat blood onto the cobbles. “And an end to a promising military career…”
“Funny- all I saw was a more than justified attempt to avoid an attempted sexual assault.” A cool voice rang out from above them. “Don’t worry, I’m sure there are plenty of others within the bar who will corroborate my version of events.”
The brunette would-be-dancer from inside the bar stood with her hands planted upon her hips and wearing an expression of what could only be described as loathing.
“Get up.” she snarled, edging Chris with the side of her shoe. “And go home. Or I’ll put in a little call to the boys in blue and book you a night in a cell. Leave her alone.”
The sprawled lump climbed unsteadily to its feet.
“I said leave!”
“Serena McKinnie,” offered the brunette as she slid down the wall and sat next to the motionless Bernie. She rubbed Bernie’s shoulder comfortingly as they watched the retreating figure disappear into the shadows. “I don’t think I caught your name the other night…” she added lightly.
“Bernie. Bernie Wolfe.” Bernie heard herself mutter. Her head was still reeling as she looked down at her hands.
The sparkling diamond was caked in drying blood.
“Ah.” There was the faintest hint of a pause before she continued. “So it’s your engagement party downstairs then?” Serena remarked baldly.
“Yes.” Bernie’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“I see.” An unreadable expression passed across Serena’s face as she withdrew her hand from Bernie’s shoulder.
“Look.” Bernie began awkwardly, “I’m so sorry about–”
“Forget it.” Serena attempted a smile and a casual wave of her hand. “It was just a bit of drunken fun, wasn’t it? No big deal. You’d probably be best off getting back inside,” she added briskly. “I’m sure your fiancé will be missing you.”
“No, wait!” Bernie caught Serena’s arm as she made to stand up. “I–”
She gulped frantically as stinging tears threatened to slide down her face. “I’m so sorry…”
Serena paused momentarily. “Whatever for?” she attempted to feign brazen indifference, but the act fell well short. “Why did you go?” she added quietly.
“I was scared…” Bernie whispered. “I didn’t know what else to do…”
“And there was also the small issue of a boyfriend waiting at home for you?” Serena added gently. “As well as a massive on-going personal crisis of sexuality?”
“Something like that….” Bernie muttered, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a trembling hand.
Serena stretched out and and helped Bernie to her feet. “Listen,” she began, looking Bernie directly in the eye, “just because there’s an engagement ring on that finger, doesn’t mean you have to do anything you don’t want to do. He seems like a really nice man–” she broke off and looked over her shoulder towards the steps down to the bar, “but there’s no shame in being honest with yourself. Life's just too short to only be trying to live up to other people's expectations of you.”
“Thanks, but I–”
“Oi, Serena Ballerina! Stop skulking and get back in here!” A blonde head poked out of the door and bellowed up the stairs.
"One minute, Sian!" Serena patted Bernie on the arm apologetically as she turned to leave. “Bad timing, as ever.” She leant over and placed a gentle kiss upon Bernie’s cheek.
“Come on, let’s go and get you cleaned up and then you can get back to your engagement party.”
A wall of noise collided with Bernie’s ears as the two women returned to the heaving basement room having scrubbed Bernie’s hands clean.
“Bern! There you are!” Marcus waved impatiently through the crowd. “You’ve been gone for ages!”
“Good luck.” Serena murmured and gave Bernie’s hand a quick squeeze before vanishing into the crowd of dancing bodies without a backward glance.
Her empty hand immediately felt bereft. Hand ghosting up to her cheek where Serena's kiss still lingered, Bernie hitched a facsimile of a smile onto her lips and allowed her guilt to make her choice for her.
Try as she might, it was thoughts of soft lips and glistening dark eyes that filled Bernie’s thoughts as she slipped into bed beside her husband to be that night.
It was Serena that was on Bernie’s mind four months later as she stepped down the aisle of St. Stephen’s church on the arm of her proud father, clad in his military best. The scar was still present on Chris’s ever-so-slightly wonky nose as he turned to glower at her as she walked past towards Marcus.
For a while, it almost seemed as if she could even convince herself that it could work.
It was the thoughts of what could have been that consumed her and ate her from the inside out when her marriage inevitably began to crumble and she found herself enlisting in the army. Too broken, too fucked-up in her opinion to make anything work anymore; several Middle Eastern tours managed to fill the void for the next decade or so.
Twenty-nine years later, a single glance across a hospital carpark towards a very familiar woman who was stood in front of a smouldering Saab whilst arguing with a mechanic on the phone was enough to set her heart fluttering once more.
Some things were evidently just meant to be.