“Have you got everything?” asked Bernie.
“Think so,” as Serena brought the last of the bags of presents out from their now shared dressing room “How are you feeling?”
“I really shouldn’t be nervous about seeing my own daughter, should I?” sighed Bernie.
“Pray tell, what should you be experiencing? Fear, excitement, freedom, not knowing...”
“Freedom, as is cabin fever! ...It’s not like coming back from tour, that was utter relief and exhaustion at making it through another six months. This… this… pandemic has been disorientating and wonderful in equal measure. Remind me, how I have managed to accumulate two suitcases of clothes whilst I been here. I only came with one case, Campbell!” said Bernie, surveying the clothes hanging from the rails.
“I seem to recall you having a birthday in between and discovering the joys of internet shopping, Darling,” smirked Serena. “No going back to your usual monotone palette, Major. I’m rather fond of you in pale pink.”
“Just need an occasion to wear it, wont I?” said Bernie, wrapping her arms around Serena.
“Does there need to be an occasion? Surely, the memory of its effect on me is enough as an incentive?” batted back Serena, “but if the weather holds for tomorrow, I am expecting it to make an appearance,” winks Serena.
The drive over to Lyham Mill was everything Bernie wanted it to be – exhilarating, joyous, and liberating - roof down, hair whipping with the wind, flooring the accelerator out of the corners, looking in her mirror on to see Serena smiling back at her in her Golf with the thought of a car full of belated birthday and Easter presents. It may only be fifteen miles, but after lockdown and shielding seeing her daughter in the flesh was rather overwhelming.
“Mum! It’s so good to see you,” mumbled Charlotte as she felt the full force of Bernie’s hug.
“Uh huh. God! I’ve missed you,” said Bernie, loosening her grip to take a good view of her daughter.
“You look better than when you came back from tour.”
“Bloody hope so. Couldn’t quite escape my CO this time...” said Bernie as she glanced at Serena, “Not that I’d want to.”
“Nice save, Major,” said Serena, who had walked over to Bernie’s side. “It’s good to go further than the garden, isn’t it? Cabin fever was setting in. What about you, Charlotte. How have you been?”
“Alright, I s’pose. I hadn’t realised I’d got used to everyone coming around and the house felt too quiet most of the time.”
“And Ife?” queried Serena.
“Yeah, she’s exhausted. We’ve only seen each other a couple of times. If I ever have to do another video call again it will be too soon,” groaned Charlotte. “I was hoping that the weather will hold and we can all sit in the garden on Saturday. Is Elinor able to come?”
“Yes, confirmed last night. Driving up after work tonight, God knows what time she’ll get here. Anything before midnight will be a bonus,” replied Serena. “I’ll head back after supper, if that’s OK?”
“Serena, come here,” said Raf who had been quietly standing in the background held his arms out to hug his partner in crime, “How’s it been living in sin?” he teased.
“Bloody marvellous, tonight will be weird, though,” said Serena, wanly. “Bubble or no bubble, we probably need to spend time with our daughters. Are you ok coming back with me or do you want to drive back on your own?”
“I’ll come back with you, and then Eli can drive you over tomorrow, and I’ll take your car...” replied Raf, “that way you don’t have worry about having a drink...”
“Spoken like someone who knows me far too well,” laughed Serena.
“Right on cue,” whispered Bernie as everyone turned to the sound of tyres crunching on gravel. Ife’s pick-up stopping in the yard in a cloud of dust, thanks to the heatwave of recent days.
“Surprise!” greeted Ife, beaming at the assembled group in front of her.
“Go on, go say hello!” said Bernie as she pushed her gobsmacked daughter in the general direction of her girlfriend.
“Hey you,” whispered Charlie, not quite believing who was standing in front of her.
“Hey yourself,” said Ife, she could see everyone retreating out of the corner of eye. “C’mere,” she breathed, as Charlie stepped into her embrace, sighing at the relief of seeing her girlfriend for the first time since the beginning of May.
“I’ve missed you,” breathed Charlotte.
“I know, me too!” said ife, “I have two weeks annual leave, so I figured I would come and see you and possibly ask you if you would like to meet my parents in person rather than via a screen?”
“Bloody hell, no pressure then!” exclaimed Charlotte.
“Nope, they do keep asking after you though,” added Ife.
“S’pose I should as you’ve met everyone who’s important to me, and I’m not ready to introduce you to Dad, not just yet!”
“The black thing, the woman thing, or both?” sighed Ife.
“Oh, definitely the woman thing! Let’s say that he didn’t handle it very well when Mum came out from what I can remember. Mum has told me bits about the divorce, pretty acrimonious from Dad’s side, Mum just wanted to move on.”
“Where is he now?” asked Ife.
“UCH – Ortho consultant. Remarried a few years ago, lives in West Hampstead with his wife and twin boys. Holby didn’t really hold much appeal for him after that.”
“Aah, ok. But if you need reinforcements, my Mum will be on standby! No-one messes with her, she might only be 5’1”, but she’s a pocket rocket!” laughed Ife.
“How come you are so bloody tall, then?”
“Dad’s side – they are all over 6’4”!” said Ife as she slid her hands into the back pockets of Charlotte’s jeans. “It’s been far too long,” she murmured into her partner’s neck, moaning as lips met.
“Are you staying tonight?” asked Charlotte.
“No, only because you haven’t seen your Mum in months, otherwise I stay in a heartbeat.”
“But tomorrow night...?” asked Charlotte somewhat tentatively.
“Try and stop me!”
“You weren’t trying to do wheelies, were you!” Raf wheezed.
“No!” replied Bernie, only to see Serena’s look of incredulity before reluctantly mumbling, “Maybe.”
“Oh Mum, you’re not twelve anymore!” howled Charlotte, wiping the tears away with the hem of her t-shirt.
“I don’t know what was funnier, you wearing Eli's old elbow pads and helmet or riding a bike that was built for a child! And the pout when you rode into the old cartwheel!” recounted Serena, her arm firmly around Bernie’s waist.
“Bugger off, the lot of you!” huffed Bernie, her grin belying any malice. That day had been wonderful; Bernie had felt free, the teenager before boarding school, the tomboy with added battle scars and memories, the woman completely in love with Serena who made her want things she scarce imagined.
Both were going stir crazy and couldn’t face another day of working in the garden or walking around the farm, compounded with half of Serena’s time being spent in online meetings handholding those who were struggling to navigate their way through the financial implications of their income dropping of a cliff. They had simply had enough; Serena joking that they needed a bloody holiday! Bernie’s suggestion of dusting off the old bikes was met with enthusiasm; peels of laughter echoed off the walls of the old outbuilding as they huffed and swore as their knuckles connected with rusty chains, punctures repaired as air escaped faster than it went in, seats raised, and unbeknown to Bernie, failing brakes from years of hiding under a dust sheet.
Determined to brighten her partner’s mood, Bernie dusted off Elinor’s purple cycling helmet and matching elbow pads and stood to attention, “Corporal Wolfe, reporting for duty, Ma’am.”
“You daft thing!” said Serena with an undignified snort.
“Will I do?” grinned Bernie.
“You will call me when you get in, won’t you?” asked Bernie, not wanting to let go of Serena’s hand until absolutely the last possible moment.
“Of course. We knew it had to happen at some point, but it doesn’t make it easier, does it?” replied Serena. “See you tomorrow, Love,” and with that Raf slipped the car into gear and drove off.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you look more content or happy,” commented Raf.
“Thank you, and you have seen me at my absolute worst. As awful has this thing has been, it’s been a wonderful luxury to spend so much time with Bernie. I have wondered if we'd met earlier how I would have managed with her being in the Army and buggering off to God knows where! Anyway, what about you? Any progress on the Mathieu front?” asked Serena.
“How do you know about that!” spluttered Raf.
“Raphael, he has been the land agent for the last ten years, and always asks after you. Well, that and he may have indicated he misses not being your unofficial plus one for tasting events...”
“Is Eleanor on her way?” Raf said, smoothly changing the subject. Only for Serena glower at him in dim lights of the dashboard.
“Yes, took her ages to get out of London and had to pull into the Swindon services to fill up. Can’t believe it’s Christmas since I last saw my little girl,” Serena said wistfully.
“Och, she’ll be home soon enough,” as Raf pulled into the courtyard.
“Indeed. I know we butt heads at times but this enforced absence has been tough.... She loves the London life but I think reading between the lines she's close to burnout. The current Secretary of State and I quote ‘needs to be hung up by his balls, that’s if you can find any, and spend the rest of his cretinous life in Barlinnie!’ I see the messages she’s sending me at four in the morning, complaining about the umpteenth re-write of a speech, every one contradicting the last statement. I’m torn between rescuing her and letting her figure it out.”
“A few well-chosen words, less is more you once said. Didn’t you?”
“Ha, probably. That all goes out the window when it’s my daughter.”
“Ok, different tact. What would you do if it was Bernie or me?”
“...Point taken. We do make a good team, don’t we?”
“Agreed. Nightcap?” said Raf softly.
“Non-alcoholic, a clear head might be needed.”
“Have you mentioned this to Bernie?”
“Why ever not!” exclaimed Raf.
“...Because... Well, I don’t want to burden her. Don’t look at me like that, please Raf. We’re both adjusting. There’s more to Bernie than meets the eye, she knows about my history, I’d rather leave past relationships out of the equation.”
“Aah, I see.”
“See what?” ask Serena, thoroughly confused.
“Not everyone is Edward or Veronique...”
“No, but Bernie is one the of the most important people in my orbit, and I’d rather have had a discussion about my future than assume…”
“I take it Bernie’s it, for you?” laughed Raf.
“I do believe she is!” said Serena, her face glowing.
“Are you going make it official?”
“But you’d like to...” Raf said knowing Serena better than herself. He knew she craved stability, to be and feel loved unconditionally, something that she never really had with previous partners.
“Do I have to answer that!” said Serena, squeezing Raf’s hand in the darkness of the car. “Christ! That’s Eli,” as headlights illuminated the courtyard.
“Go, I’ll open up and get the kettle on.”
“Mother!” shrieked Eli.
“Daughter,” smiled Serena.
“Oh my god, it’s so good to get out of London,” as Eli clambered out of her car.
“Welcome home, Darling.”
Raf politely excused himself, leaving Serena and Elinor sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, mugs of hot chocolate in hand, Eli recounting events and crises management within the department. Whitehall was a tinderbox of in fighting, spin, lies, and cliques.
“I’m exhausted, the whole department is. I know my role is to analyse and present those findings. I just feel so... overwhelmed. There’s no consistency, we’re not bloody robots. Most of the PPSs are in the same position, and junior ministers have forgotten that we’re people. It’s the cronyism, other departments are the same. We were taught that it’s about what is best of for the country, not for individuals. To be invisible, to be honourable. I’m not sure I want to a part of that anymore. It’s all I’ve known for the last five years. I’m not sure if I could change career’s now...” Eli paused.
“Take some annual leave, put some feelers out in other departments. See if you are you eligible for a sabbatical? Do another masters? I do realise that a few days away might not be enough… Eli, Darling, you do have choices. What’s your Father said?”
“He told me to man up. I told him to fuck off!” said Eli, rolling her eyes.
“And that’s why he’s my ex-husband,” laughed Serena, wiping the tears away at the image of Edward’s spluttering face at being told to fuck off by his daughter. It’s nothing that he hadn’t heard before she mused.
“What’s the plans for tomorrow?” segued Eli.
“Head over to Bernie’s in the afternoon, eat, laugh, forget about things for a while, open our Easter presents, and possibly over-indulge...”
“Oh, speaking of presents, wait there,” said Eli as she disappeared to the hallway for a minute.
“Happy belated birthday, Mum.”
“Oh, Love. Thank you!” Serena said, pulling Eli into a hug.
“I know it’s for two, and just so you know I won’t be put out if you want to go with Bernie instead!”
“Nonsense, it’s something to look forward to. I don’t see you often enough as it is!” emphasized Serena, stifling a yawn as the grandfather’s clock chimed midnight. “Bed?”
“How did it go with Eli?” ask Raf over coffee and toast the following day. Eli had yet to rouse despite it being nearer lunchtime than breakfast.
“Looking for a change, or something. Anyway, she has options, she needs the time and space to work out what she wants. I did suggest she works from here for a couple of weeks as Parliament is still in recess, and Whitehall deserted. According to Eli, her line manager seems to be firm but fair…”
“And Bernie, the pair of you have been living together for the last five months…”
“Yes, I am quite aware of that fact,” smirked Serena. “We’ve become one of those blended families, haven’t we? At least we all get on, that is one small mercy. I did speak with Bernie this morning and said that I will be coming home tonight rather than stay with her. And it’s fine if you would like to ask Mathieu to join us…”
“Aye right, that’s nae happenin’ anytime soon!” grinned Raf.
“When did these arrive?” asked Bernie, taking in several large bean bags and new garden furniture that definitely wasn’t there in March.
“...April. Raf and I spent our evenings out here. And the old ones were sort of falling to bits. Sawed them up for firewood…” added Charlotte.
“Right, right,” said Bernie, drifting off at the thought of missing a trick at Serena’s. Yeah, sure they had the swing, but beanbags and sunbathing suddenly sounded very appealing.
“…Mum, Mum. Earth to Mum. I do not want to know where your mind has just been. I said can you hear the thunder, and do you want to chance it or bring everything inside?”
“Chance it! I’d like to make the most of being outside when we can. I'll do rounds tomorrow morning, see if I can remember what do, and you can spend time with Ife,” smirked Bernie as Charlotte blushed at the implication. That'll teach you, she thought.