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.
By the time Serena passes through the gate for her flight from Schiphol to Heathrow they have made a plan. Serena’s flight is earlier than Bernie’s. Serena will wait at Heathrow to meet Bernie. They will travel back into London together. Serena will book into a hotel for the night. Bernie will go back to her flat. They will go out to dinner that evening once they’ve had a chance to rest and freshen up. And they will take it from there. One step at a time.
At the door to the gate Bernie scoops Serena up into her arms. Oblivious to the passengers milling around them, they kiss like they have never kissed before, pouring the love they’ve held for each other over the last ten years into each other.
“I’ll see you soon, Serena, soon,” Bernie is breathless as she draws away, as the tannoy call summons the passengers for Serena’s flight. Their hands still touching as Serena walks away, their arms stretched between them, their fingers sliding until the distance is too much and they have to let go. “Soon, my love.”
Without Bernie by her side Serena feels her absence acutely. She replays the last hours in her head, and allows herself to smile at the thought of the promise. Of Bernie. Of her Bernie.
At Heathrow, she collects her case from the carousel, and, in the loos, she combs her hair and reapplies her lipstick. Wants to look her best when she sees Bernie again. How long now ? How many minutes ? Standing by the Arrivals notice board she watches as Bernie’s flight is announced, watches the progress to “baggage in hall” and waits impatiently, her fingers restless, her body swaying, her heart longing. And waits. And waits.
Surely she should be through by now ? The flush of excitement colouring her cheeks fades, paling to a nagging fear. Suppose Bernie has changed her mind ? Suppose she has thought it over and decided not to risk it after all ? Suppose that was goodbye ? Panic gathers in her chest. She fumbles for her phone, calls Bernie’s number. It rings out. No answer. It really is getting late now. All the notifications for Bernie’s flight arrival’s progress have disappeared from the board. She approaches the Information desk. Is it possible she didn’t spot Bernie as she came through ? She’ll ask them to put out a tannoy call. You didn’t misread this, she tries to convince herself. Bernie wanted this too. Didn’t she ? Doubts flood her. Did Bernie decide she couldn’t be trusted ? Is this what she deserves ? How dare she have thought she could have another chance with her ? Bernie’s name is called out by the obliging woman behind the counter. And again she waits.
Another twenty minutes pass. She can feel the pain of despair prickling at the corners of her eyes. She bites at her thumb nail. “Perhaps she missed the flight ?” the kindly woman suggests, “Why don’t you try the airline counter ? Maybe they’ll have more information ?”
Numbed Serena nods and thanks her. The rush in her head is drowning out the busy airport noise. Almost like an automaton now she makes her way across the concourse to the airline counter. Her voice is almost a feeble whisper as she asks the silver studded customer service steward whether Bernie has been on the flight. She hears him say he can’t divulge passenger information, and thinks she may faint. Grabs hold of the counter. Breathe, she tells herself, breathe.
“Is everything alright ?” he asks kindly, softly.
She can’t help herself. It just falls out of her. How she met Bernie on the flight. Fell in love. Arranged to meet her here. Not here. How she’s tried to call her. But….
“Leave me your number. If I hear anything, I’ll give you a call,” he offers, his heart melting, for her, for reasons of his own.
She scribbles it down. Hopes she got it right. Can barely think anymore. And turns and wanders back across the concourse, an old tired woman, dragging her wheelie case behind her.
The Tube signs are ahead. But all energy has left her. She can’t face it. She sinks down on a seat. She closes her eyes. And lets the tears of renewed loss roll down her cheeks, unrestrained.
Bernie spots her bag on the carousel and grabs it as it trundles past, the nondescript black casing distinguished by bits of electrical tape stuck onto it. Blighty. She is finally back in Blighty. And now Serena will be waiting for her. Oh Serena. She knows she said they’d take it slowly, step by step, but she longs to curl up in Serena’s arms. To feel her skin against hers once again. Slowly, slowly, she repeats. This matters. Last chance. Got to get it right.
Lost in her own thoughts she doesn’t see the customs officer approach her, and jumps when she feels his hand on her shoulder.
“Would you come this way madam, please.”
What ? Why on earth ? In all her years of travelling no one has ever pulled her aside. She knows better though than to object. It won’t take long. Surely.
Time seems to slow down as she opens her case and bags, and watches as the officers laboriously take out each and every item and examine them. Not a time to be embarrassed by the contents of her baggage, though there are clearly items that bring a blush to her cheeks as they pick them out and lay them across the counter. Surely they’ve come across vibrators before ? To be fair they are more interested in the basic medical equipment she carries, and the sterile disposable gloves. She reassures them she’s a surgeon, just back from Sudan, via Boston, but they merely glance at her as they continue their methodical search.
“May I make call ?” she asks, twitching with anxiety at the delay. She needs to tell Serena she is here. Suppose, suppose Serena thinks she’s not coming ?
“We’ll be finished shortly madam. Assuming all is well, you can make your call then.”
It seems an age but eventually she hears the words, “Thank you for your patience. You are free to repack and go on your way.”
That’s it she thinks ? Just a random check ? She grabs at her phone and switches it from flight mode. It is dead. No battery. She meant to recharge it at Schiphol but in all the excitement she forgot. Fuck ! She grabs everything and crams it into the case in a complete jumble, and rams it shut, and practically hurls herself into the arrivals line. She scans the faces of those who are waiting. She wants to yell out Serena’s name. It comes out as a whispering desperate mantra instead. Serena, Serena, Serena. But she’s nowhere to be seen.
Think. Think. Calm. What would Serena do ? She’d call me. But no fucking phone…… What next ? She’d enquire at the information desk. Ok. Where is it ?
There is a man ahead of her. He has a map of London spread out on the counter and the woman is patiently explaining something to him. Bernie is coiled like a spring. Jesus. Please hurry up. By the time she speaks to the woman her story is all garbled, but the woman manages to make some sense of it, and puts two and two together. The airline desk. Where ? Like a woman possessed Bernie weaves her way through the crowds, issuing words of apology to all and sundry, her battered case balancing on its wheels precariously behind her.
“Excuse me,” she pants, “did a woman come here asking after me ?” Later she will realise what a daft question that was. How would anyone know who “me” is supposed to refer to ? But our silver studded steward is made of better stuff.
“Yes !” he hisses with joy. Calmer, and recovering some degree of professionalism, he enquires, “An older lady ?”
“Yes, I suppose so…..” Bernie has never thought of Serena as old, but he is only a boy…..”How long ago ? I can’t get through to her. My phone is dead…. “
“She left her number. Would you like me to call her ?” he is almost as excited as Bernie now, “ or you could use my phone ?”
“Please.” And Bernie takes it, praying that Serena has switched hers on, that she’s not on the Tube, that she hasn’t given up on her. And she dials.
Serena feels the phone vibrating and pulls it out. A number she doesn’t recognise. She hesitates. Probably trying to sell her something. Swipe green to accept or hit the red to reject ? Suddenly a rage fills her. She wants to shout at someone. It might as well be some hapless salesman on the other end of the phone. She swipes the green. And snaps, “Yes ? Who is this ?”
Bernie’s voice ?
“Oh thank god.”
And then Serena doesn’t hear anymore. She is aware words are being spoken to her. Something about no battery, a customs inspection, but all she can hear is the roar of blood rushing through her head, and the voice inside clamouring, “it’s Bernie, Bernie, Bernie”. Maybe she is even saying this out loud. She has no idea.
Eventually she calms a little and hears Bernie say, “Where are you Serena ? Exactly ?”
She looks around. There is a W H Smith’s opposite her. To her left the escalators down to the underground. She relays this information.
“Stay exactly where you are Serena. Don’t move.”
And the phone goes dead.
“Thank you. Thank you ! Smiths ?” Bernie thrusts the phone back into the hands of the now beaming silver studded steward. He’s heard every word. Needs no further explanation. He points the direction and watches as Bernie spins round and races off back across the concourse, weaving her way once again through the crowds like someone possessed. Which is of course exactly what she is.
She spots Serena easily. She is standing, anxiously scanning all around her.
“Serena,” she calls out as she approaches. Serena turns to face her, the biggest smile breaking out across her face. Bernie lets go of the handle of her wheelie and rushes towards her. And their arms are around each other and their mouths upon each other’s, drinking each other in. If other people have stopped and stared at the embrace of two more mature women, or have ushered away children tugging at their sleeves in awe, they don’t notice and they don’t care.
Eventually they break for air, Bernie’s arms still holding Serena around her waist, pulling her close, Serena’s hands lost in the mane of Bernie’s somehow still golden hair, her fingers playing with the soft locks, rediscovering the sensation.
“I thought you’d changed your mind.”
“And I’d thought you’d left, thinking I wasn’t coming.”
“I so nearly did, Bernie. The thought that I’d lost you again….” she tails off….can’t find the words to express how the thought of life without Bernie in it again seemed so utterly pointless that she couldn’t even bring herself to put one foot in front of the other anymore. And now the terror of that thought creeps through her, and her legs feel weak. “Can we sit down somewhere ? My legs….”
“God. Yes.” Bernie feels suddenly exhausted. The rush of adrenalin now ebbing from her, draining from her, draining her.
They find a Starbucks. Order coffee. And sink into curved solid armchairs. Their fingers toy with the other’s, never losing contact, as first Bernie, then Serena relay their stories. They toast the hero, their silver studded guardian angel.
“We should get him something. To say thank you.”
They find a Lindt shop and purchase the biggest chocolate bunny it sells. It is nearly Easter after all. Hand in hand, they return to the airline desk. Their saviour is nowhere to be seen. Serena enquires after the young man. He is just on a tea break. But his colleagues have already heard the story and fetch him to the counter.
“For you,” Bernie proffers the golden wrapped rabbit.
“Thank you,” a now glowing and revitalised Serena echoes, and holds out her arms. He gladly steps out and receives her hug, and a vigorous hand shake from Bernie. Then he watches as they turn, catches the smile they share, watches them seek out and find the other’s hand, before he returns to his cooling tea and reaches for his phone to begin his tweet, “The cutest thing just happened at work……”
It is 4.00pm by the time they reach the hotel they’ve booked for Serena. Bernie calculates she has been awake, bar those brief moments of sleep on the plane, for the best part of 36 hours. She is tired. They both are. With reluctance they part after Serena has checked in. Bernie’s flat is not far away. They will each grab a few hours shut eye and Bernie will meet Serena in the hotel bar at 8.00pm. Then they will go out on their date. Bernie promises Serena she will put her phone on charge the minute she gets in. She notes Serena’s room number, the hotel phone number. They have communication contingency plans. This date will happen.
Serena watches as Bernie retreats through the revolving doors, watches her give a little salute. A shiver runs up her spine. The image of a green scarfed Bernie saluting farewell all those years ago. It never leaves her. She takes a deep breath and follows the young attendant pulling her suitcase up to her room. It’s a large room, with en suite bathroom, and a generous bed. She sinks down on it, kicks off her shoes and lays back. The pillow is soft. She is tired. So tired. Her phone. Better charge it too. And set the alarm. She tries to calculate backwards…..time to shower, time to iron the only dress she has with her, and till then….sleep. And she does. So tired she doesn’t even dream. She manages three hours.
Bernie fares less well….manages only two. But does remember to turn the boiler on before she drops off. A long hot shower. A fresh shirt, olive in colour, hangs in her wardrobe, alongside black trousers. Peering in the steam swept bathroom mirror she concedes concealer is required. Is glad she had her roots done recently. She is jittery with excitement. Slow down, slow down.
Arriving at the hotel she enquires at the hotel desk about local restaurants. They suggest a small French restaurant just down the road, nothing formal but a favourite of their regular clients. Bernie asks them to book a table for two and walks through to the hotel bar. It’s not 8 yet. Slow down, slow down. She mounts a stool at the counter, and orders a whiskey. To steady her nerves. She really hasn’t felt this nervous for years. She uncharacteristically cracks her knuckles, then flecks her hands out again. Madness. It’s only Serena. Only Serena ?
When she sees Serena walk in her breath catches. She’d forgotten just how beautiful the woman is. The cut of her dress is perfect, dipping at her cleavage, cinching at the waist and spreading out flatteringly across her hips. Serena walks towards her, smiling. There is warmth, but also a hint of anxiety. Will she do ? Bernie’s stands to greet her.
“You look beautiful Serena,” she husks softly. Serena’s smile relaxes a little. It seems she will.
And Bernie beams. It is only Serena after all. The Serena she knows and loves.
Dinner is lovely. The food is good. Full of taste. And probably butter. The night air as they walk back is cool against their skin. Serena links her arm through Bernie’s, pulling her body close in beside her. Bernie closes her eyes for a moment. Savours the feeling of Serena on her arm.
At the door to the hotel Bernie hesitates. They’d only got as far as a date in their planning.
Bernie shuffles uncomfortably. She nods her head towards the hotel lobby and shrugs.
“Should I say goodnight to you here ?” Bernie asks.
“Ah.” The penny drops. “Do you want to ?”
Bernie sighs, “Serena….” and she reaches out to trace her fingers along Serena’s cheek, “I’m not sure what happens next….”
Serena feels it. Through her body. The charge. The want. She presses Bernie’s hand firm against her cheek.
“Yes you are,” she whispers, and wordlessly they turn and walk across the lobby to the lifts.
The door to Serena’s room shuts behind them. For a moment Bernie hesitates again, but Serena is standing in front of her and she cannot wait a moment longer. Sod ‘take it slowly’. It’s been ten years ! Her hands reach out and pull Serena in, as their mouths lock together. She pushes Serena’s coat from her shoulders, and Serena shrugs it to the floor. Bernie’s hands are on her neck, her shoulders, her back, her breast. Serena feels the fire between her legs as Bernie drags her thumb across her breast, her nipple hardening in response, cups it and gently squeezes. She spins Serena to unzip her dress. Serena feels the buzz of the zip as it descends.
Bernie stops. Too fast ?
“I, I ….bathroom….” is all Serena can manage by way of explanation.
“OK. Sure.” Bernie watches as Serena almost sprints into the en suite.
Inside the relative sanctuary of the bathroom, Serena presses her back against the door. The light of the bathroom is brash and bright. Unforgiving. She peels the dress from her frame and moves to stand in front of the mirror. Tries to see what Bernie will see. Her aging body. Flesh puckered and creased. What was she thinking ? The mirror is laughing at her. Will Bernie ? No. She’s not cruel. But will she be disappointed ? She thinks of Bernie politely masking her disappointment, going through the motions so as not to offend. And suppose her body doesn’t respond to Bernie’s touch. She closes her eyes as she grips at the sink edge.
“Serena ?” Bernie’s voice calls through the door, “Is everything alright ?”
What to say ? How to answer ?
The door starts to open.
“Don’t”, Serena yelps, “Please, no.”
Bernie pulls the door shut again. She hears the panic in Serena’s voice. She slides down the bedroom side of the door till she is seated at its foot, her back pressed against it.
“Talk to me Serena. It’s ok. Whatever it is, it’s ok.”
Serena sinks down onto the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. For a while she says nothing.
“I got old Bernie.”
“And ? So did I.”
“But you don’t look it….”
“Is that what you’re worried about ? Serena, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Truly.”
There is a sob.
“When I saw you walk into the bar tonight, you took my breath away.”
“But underneath the wrapping……”
Bernie’s shirt is undone. She has been waiting for Serena to come out, to press her skin against her own. Now she runs her fingers down the scar that bisects her chest, still razed and ragged after all these years.
“Did you ever mind my scars ?”
“Of course not. They were you. They were the badge of your survival, your resilience. I loved them, just as I loved you.”
“Are the creases and dimples of age so very different ? Aren’t they the signs of our survival ? Aren’t they the story of our lives. Mightn’t I love them as I love you ?”
There is a pause. Neither speaks. Then Bernie hears movement. She stands and moves back from the door, as it slowly opens. Serena is standing there in just her underwear. Bernie opens her arms and pulls her close, skin on skin. She leans in to kiss the curve of Serena’s neck, and smiles into its warmth.
“Come to bed.”
The menopause has not been kind to Serena. For Bernie there were some uncomfortable but entirely manageable hot flushes; a short, mercifully brief, period of fading libido; and then she felt fine once again. For Serena it has been a harder and more prolonged journey. The hot flushes were violent and persistent, but it was the anxiety which caught her unawares. She managed to mask it at work, setting her mind and her jaw to professional mode, but outside of work she withdrew into the relative safety of her own home. For someone who had always been the centre of the banter with her colleagues after work over a bottle or two, who loved to flirt and toy with both new and old acquaintances, this was a shock to her system. It has taken years to work through it and re-discover her mojo. But it has taken its toll. She knows she cannot rely on the brash confidence of former years for there will be days when, even now, it will abandon her.
And maybe today is one of those ?
“Come to bed,” she hears whispered into her ear, Bernie’s warm breath ghosting the skin of her neck.
Bernie takes Serena’s hand and draws her towards the bed. Bernie sits down on it, the sheet pulled back, and Serena follows her. The moment Bernie presses her lips and sucks against the swell of breast rising from Serena’s bra, all doubt vanishes. The fire returns. It is as if Bernie holds the key and Serena is suddenly unlocked. She pushes Bernie back onto the pillow. Her open shirt splayed across the sheets, Serena’s lips seek her out, tracing their way down her body, re familiarising with everything that is Bernie, devouring her. If Bernie is surprised by this burst of assertiveness, she doesn’t say. Instead she raises her hips to allow Serena to drag her trousers down and away. She feels, rather than hears, her own body moan into Serena’s touch. The silent plea as Serena pauses, momentarily, and then lowers her head between Bernie’s legs, pressing her mouth, hot and eager, against Bernie’s dampening knickers.
And all is new. And all is the same. They sink into each other. Wrestling for supremacy, they claim each other’s bodies. They crash and burn, and rise again. Until naked, skin sticky with sweat and each other, the air thick with the unmistakable heady scent of sex, they both concede defeat and fall back exhausted.
“Fuck Serena,” Bernie manages to hiss out as she recovers her breath, “I had forgotten just how good it feels with you.”
Serena beams and pulls Bernie close into her chest, burying her nose into the mess of curls that is Bernie’s hair.
The darkness grows softer now. Their skin cools and they nestle closer into each other. Flesh on flesh, legs intertwined, Bernie’s cheek against Serena’s breast, they drift into sleep.
When Serena awakes she rolls onto her side. The bed is empty beside her, but the sheets are still warm, the smell of Bernie still rising from them. She stretches and props herself up. And smiles. Bernie is standing in a towelling robe, looking out from the now parted curtains, her back to Serena. Serena waits a moment before speaking, drinking in the sight of Bernie, standing there, framed by the morning light, a sight she’d never thought to see again.
“Good morning,” she purrs.
Bernie turns. A brief smile flickers on her face and then fades away.
Serena feels an anxiety begin to rise inside her.
Bernie moves towards the bed and sits on its edge beside her. Serena shuffles to make room, the colour draining from her cheeks as she hears, “I can’t do this Serena, this…. dating thing.”
Serena is ghostly pale.
Bernie doesn’t look at her, but continues, “I’m too old.”
She turns now, her face earnest.
“I can’t do this again…..always saying good bye, trying to work out how and when we might snatch another moment together. It’s been too long.”
She pauses again, “I need to do something I should have done years ago.”
She turns. Serena watches as she gathers her breath, and seeks out Serena’s now clammy hands.
“I love you. I want to wake up beside you every morning. I want to put out your bins, and, if I wore the damn things, I’d want you to warm my slippers by the fire. I want to stop running from the only woman who makes me want to stay. I want to watch the sun disappear and then rise again, with you at my side. I want the world to know that you are mine, and I am yours. I don’t want to waste another day of my life without you in it. Serena Wendy Campbell, will you marry me ?”
Serena nods. She can’t say anything. And this time she no longer tries to hold the tears back. Lets them fall freely down her face. Tears of joy. Of loss. Of redemption.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” she finally manages.
There will be practical matters to consider. But neither is concerned about them. Not now. Whatever obstacle lies across their path they will overcome it. Because they both want to. Together. It is as easy as that.