To be fair, when you are only in your twenties and a young gay man, probably every woman over the age of fifty might be described as old. But she would never have given herself that label, and might have been a bit miffed had she seen his tweet about her later, the one that described her as an older woman, the one that started,
“The cutest thing just happened at work. It’s like a fic. I’m gonna do a thread. Spoiler. It’s a love story.”
She didn’t see it though. For once she had abandoned her phone, put it to one side.
But, to be fair on the guy, it had been a long day. Here she is, her heart pounding anxiously in her chest, standing at the airline counter asking if a Berenice Wolfe had been a passenger on the plane from Schiphol Airport that had landed just over an hour ago. The young man, his ears lined with small sparkling silver studs, a gentle sympathetic smile across his face, is explaining to her that, as much as he’d love to help, he simply isn’t permitted to release passenger details.
He watches as a dejection gathers in the creases around her eyes and mouth, and can’t help ask whether everything is alright. He will hear it, and later tweet it in his thread, as her having sat next to a woman on a flight from Boston to Schiphol, and in the eight hours of that flight having fallen in love with her. He will hear it as their having different flights back to Heathrow. He will hear it as their having promised to meet here. And he will hear it as the other woman not having shown up. And his gay heart will break a little for her. He will ask if she’s tried phoning or having her name called out. But the she will tell him she has tried both. And he will watch the blanket of sadness fold itself over her as she walks away.
But maybe we should go back a bit first. To Boston airport.
Serena is now sixty four. Her hair more silver than streaks, the lines on her face etched deeper. She’s still working, but the lure of a chance to deliver a lecture at her alma mater, Harvard, was too much to resist. The travel, the adrenalin, and quite possibly the plentiful wine shared at the dinner afterwards, have taken their toll. She is tired, and the prospect of the two flights she’ll need to take to get back to England are not filling her with enthusiasm. Boston to Schiphol, a three hour stop over, and then the short hop back to Heathrow. Direct flights were so much easier. But that was when Heathrow was still a hub, before damned Brexit. But alas, no more, like so much else that was good. Carelessly thrown away. Wasted. Carelessly wasted. The lost press of Bernie’s kisses across her skin. A careless waste that haunts her, that seeps into her, in her unguarded moments. Not now. Not now. She closes her eyes and sits back against the uncomfortable low backed seat and awaits the call for her flight.
She is settled into her window seat having obligingly changed places with the tall lanky lad whose limbs were never going to fold into the curve of the aircraft hull. She plans on sleeping, so it makes no difference to her. She half hopes the empty middle seat between them will remain that way. She closes her eyes. She’s not exactly a nervous flier but intends to concentrate on her breathing through take off, until they are safely airborne.
“Excuse me. May I ? ”
A woman’s voice. Low. Claiming that middle seat. The lanky lad rises to let her through. And then time stops.
She must be asleep. Dreaming. That voice. Calling her name. She doesn’t want to let the dream go. Keeps her eyes shut. Hold on to it. Dreams are all she has now. But again.
“Serena ? Is it really you ?”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, she opens them. And there she is. Bernie. There. Right next to her. Easing herself into the seat next to her. To Serena she has barely changed. Her hair still blonde and messy, the fringe falling across her face. The creases at the edge of her mouth maybe deeper, and the lines that gather and spread from the corners of her eyes more in number. But it is still Bernie. Her Bernie. Or not.
“Bernie ?” is all she manages as she finally breathes, and watches as the smile spreads across that oh so familiar face.
“Well, who’d have thought ?” Bernie shakes her head as she settles herself into the narrow seat.
“Of all the gin joints….” Serena reaches for a witty yet light response. But it is half hearted. She is lost. Thrown. Has no idea what to say or do. She has not seen Bernie since that farewell salute at the door of Albies, green scarf tucked into her black coat. The image haunts her. She feels in a daze. “I don’t know what to say….” she confesses.
Bernie smiles again, reassuringly. She seems to be handling this far better than me, Serena thinks.
“We could start with, how are you ?”
And Serena feels the warmth and relaxes, a bit, smiling back.
“Ok,” she takes another breath, “I’m good. Still at Holby, but only part time now. I’ve been giving a lecture at Harvard, hence,” and she gesticulates generally to the plane around her, “and now I’m on my way home.”
As she says this she wonders whether that is the sum total of all she has achieved in the last ten years. It seems so insubstantial. She wonders how it compares with Bernie’s adventures. She lowers her head, momentarily unable to look her in the eye, embarrassed to hold her own prosaic life up against Bernie’s no doubt heroic accomplishments. She watches as Bernie locks her seat belt in place, the long fingers unravelling the twisted strapping, the snap as the belt engages. No ring.
“And you Bernie ? How are you ? And how come you’re here ?”
Bernie sits back in her seat, buckled up.
“I’m okay. Charlotte. I’ve been visiting. She’s married now and living in Boston with her American lawyer husband. I have two grandchildren !”
“You’re a grandmother ?” Serena can hardly reconcile it. Banishes all thoughts of her pushing her grandchildren on a swing. Her throat tightens. Inside her the ghosts are mocking her, taunting her. Change the subject.
“A bit. Here and there.”
“Still a wanderer ?”
There is an uncomfortable pause. Serena watches as Bernie bites softly on her bottom lip. Recognises this. Bernie is feeling awkward.
“I’m sorry,” she reaches out and places her hand on Bernie’s, “It’s just that I’m really nervous. I don’t know what to say or do. I wasn’t expecting…. And….it’s been so long.”
What she wanted to say was “And I’ve missed you.” But she holds back. What if Bernie hasn’t.
“It has,” and Bernie looks down at Serena’s hand on hers. Embarrassed, afraid she has overstepped, Serena withdraws it. Bernie feels its absence.
“I’ve missed you Serena,” Bernie whispers, almost inaudibly.
But Serena hears.
“Me too Bernie. I’m, I’m so sorry….”
And she is. It threatens to pour out of her, these years of apology, of regret. Apology for the stupid pointless F1 betrayal, for not trusting Bernie enough to be patient, for some ridiculous failure to be able to see Bernie in slippers, for punishing herself by pushing Bernie away. All these regrets, the ones that mock and haunt her at night.
But Bernie hushes her, brings a finger to Serena’s lips.
“It’s okay. Me too.”
For Bernie too has regrets. Why did she not stay and fight harder for her ? Why did she run away, again, rather than stay and try to mend what was broken ? Why did she give up so easily ?
There is a pause again. Neither knows exactly where to begin. The engines of the plane power up. They each instinctively sit back and grip the arms of their seats. Take off. The roar buys them time. The nose of the aircraft lifts as they begin to climb up through the clouds, until the plane is beyond them, the clouds now a carpet beneath them, the sky above a brilliant endless blue. It is calm.
“It really is good to see you, Bernie. You look…..wonderful.”
“Must be the tan. Before Charlotte it was another six month stint in the Sudan.”
And Bernie smiles, that soft almost shy, yet at the same time self assured, smile from her hooded dark eyes. Serena feels it. Electric. Coursing through her.
“I tell you what,” Bernie seizes the reigns, “Why don’t we just take it in turns to tell each other what we’ve been up to, and see how it goes ?”
And so they do. Editing out bits that maybe they’re not ready to share, not yet. The bits about other lovers. The ones they’ve each had, of varying, but, ultimately, little import.
And soon the awkwardness, the discomfort, melts away. They find themselves laughing, recounting incidents that each knows the other will understand and appreciate, would have found equally as absurd or entertaining. Bernie’s honk threatens to make a delicious appearance, but Serena, drying tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes with the back of her hands and longing to hear it again, manages to shush it back, all too aware of the other passengers trying to get some sleep as the plane travels into night leaving the setting sun to drop below the clouds. Empty miniature bottles line up across their stow trays, and the ease and familiarity they once shared flows through them again.
The hours slip past. The cabin is dark. It is getting late and tiredness begins to creep up on them. Another silence falls. But this time it is different. It is peace. And in this peace their hands somehow find each other’s, and their fingers gently entwine.
It is Bernie who falls asleep first, her head resting against Serena’s sloping shoulders, her mouth slack and slightly open, her breaths soft. Serena sits back, still, not wanting to disturb Bernie, not wanting to break the moment. A sadness overwhelms her. Tears of it spill onto her cheeks. She feels full of love for Bernie, knows that it never left her, this feeling, knows that she has been trying to bury it all this time. But now it flows through her and spills from her. Bernie wriggles slightly. Serena tries to close her eyes to stem the flow, but cannot stop them. They roll down her cheeks and drip onto Bernie’s forehead.
Bernie stirs. Feels them. Damp and warm. She turns her face to Serena’s, and kisses them as they fall.
“I’m sorry Bernie,” Serena sobs quietly.
“Don’t be, my love. Don’t be.”
At the word love, Serena inhales and her breath stops. She thinks she may crack open.
Bernie knows exactly what she has said.
“I never stopped loving you Serena. Never,” she whispers.
And under the cloak of darkness, somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, their lips find each other. And all the wasted years seem to slip away.
The breakfast the crew bring around cruelly reminds Serena that this flight will end. She doesn’t know what she expects, what she hopes for, only that she wants to keep hold of this feeling, of Bernie.
“Bernie, I can’t lose you again.”
“We can’t go back.”
Bernie’s reply stabs at her. What did she expect ? No more than what she deserves.
Despondent, she replies, “I suppose not….” And to hide her pain, she turns her head away.
But Bernie has not finished.
“But we can go forward ?”
It is a question. It is hope.
“I have a small flat I keep in London. I’m headed there now. Means I can see Cameron between overseas trips, or have a base for when I locum in London. It’s not so far from Holby…..maybe we could….meet up…..date….whatever ? ”
Serena no longer has words. Her throat is tight. She nods. And nods. If she tries to speak she thinks she may break open in an avalanche of tears. Of relief. Of want. She is barely holding it together. A future. The chance of a future with the one true love of her life. She squeezes Bernie’s hand.