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The River Inside

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“OK, so have you got everything you need, Bernie?”

“Er, yes, I think so.” Dr. Berenice Wolfe looked up at her beaming colleague, Dr. Jean-Alexandre (‘call me Jax’) Bouchard as he stood before her preparing to take his leave.

To tell the truth, Bernie was not a little nervous. She had come to the public hospital in this small French town in the Rhône Valley as a locum replacing obs and gynae consultant Jax Bouchard while he went on a charity cycling tour around Europe.  On arrival, however, she had found that he would be a hard act to follow. The jovial Québécois, who had settled in the town five years ago, was extremely popular among his female patients. Bernie was wondering how they would take to having to switch to a female doctor with imperfect French and a bedside manner more at home on the battlefields of the Middle East than a small rural French town. She had raised this with Jax on their first meeting but he had laughed. Being comfortably bilingual himself, he downplayed the language issue.

“Sylvie will be your nurse and she can translate if you have any problems, but from what I’ve heard, you should be fine. And once the patients learn about your amazing experience in the RAMC, I’m sure they’ll be bowled over.”

Bernie smiled politely but she had no intention of bragging about her experience in the RAMC. How tales of delivering babies in war zones and performing Caesareans in tents would help a nervous patient relax when she brandished her speculum in preparation for a pap smear Bernie couldn’t imagine. She had been accompanying and observing Jax all week and had felt progressively less confident as she watched him effortlessly charm the ladies with his easy manner. There were just two obs-gynae specialists in St. Julien, the other an older man in his early seventies who no longer performed surgery. This placed an additional burden on Jax, who had to manage a growing outpatient list and run an obstetrics unit as well as manage the surgeries in his small department. In the operating theatre, Bernie had no fear. This was the one area where she could best him any day of the week, and he knew it. They had worked together well, however, and before he left, he made it clear that there would be a place for her to work alongside him on his return if he could persuade Jean-Claude to retire. Bernie put this notion on the back burner. First she had to survive the three months of his absence.

The next day was Saturday and although she was on call for emergencies, Bernie had no fixed appointments, so she decided to go for a run and then treat herself to one of the delicious-looking pastries in the café near her apartment. As she turned, flushed and sweating, from the counter, clutching her pains aux raisins in a paper bag in one hand and a cardboard coffee cup in the other, she narrowly escaped colliding with a woman who was looking down at her purse and unaware that she was blocking Bernie’s exit.

Oh pardon!” Bernie exclaimed, stopping so quickly that the lid of the cup fell off and hot coffee sloshed out splashing her vest top and the bare skin of her chest and upper arms.

“Ahhhhh!” she cried, turning blindly to put the cup and bag down on a table so that she could pull the now steaming fabric from her body. The other woman saw instantly what had happened and grabbed a handful of napkins from a dispenser on the table, apologising profusely in French and handing her the napkins to stuff down her vest to absorb the hot liquid. Once she had a layer between her skin and the hot liquid, Bernie looked up to thank the woman and found herself suddenly tongue -tied. Her French, though functional and adequate for medical and general everyday use, completely deserted her, and she stood there with her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, feeling extremely foolish.

 “J’espère que ça ne vous a pas trop blessée”, the woman was saying, as Bernie desperately searched for words of reassurance, but all that came out was the word “Sorry?” The woman suddenly smiled, her face lighting up as she said “English?” in an unmistakeable cut-glass English accent. Bernie nodded, “Yes, what a relief, my French is a bit rusty!”

“Don’t worry”, the woman said, “look, why don’t we sit down and let me get you another coffee?” and she gestured to the tables outside. Bernie nodded, feeling it would be uncharitable now to run away, and besides, the woman had the most attractive dimples and deep brown eyes.

Feeling somewhat self-conscious in her skimpy vest top and sports bra and her figure- hugging running tights, Bernie sat in a corner trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. When the woman came back, she had a tray with two coffees and a plate of pastries.

“I’m so clumsy” the woman said, putting down the tray. “It must be related to the menopause, but I find I sometimes get so distracted I can’t see what’s in front of me.”

“That can happen,” Bernie admitted warmly, “but don’t worry, it’s just a bit of coffee, I’ll live.”

“Well that’s good news! I’m Serena by the way.”

“Right. Um. Bernie,” and she extended her hand which Serena took and shook formally.

“You look as though you could do with a sweet fix,” she said proffering the plate of pastries. Bernie shook her head, then held up her bag containing her own pastries.

“Oh go on,” Serena said, “you can take yours home. These are the best pains au chocolat in the Rhone Valley, you must try one.”

Bernie smiled and gave in, reaching for a pastry. “Wow,” she agreed, chewing, “these are amazing.”

Serena smiled and stirred her coffee. “On holiday?” was her next question. Bernie shook her head through a mouthful of dough and chocolate paste. “You?”

“Oh no, I’m living here at the moment,” Serena said. “Working at the vineyard. A sabbatical of sorts.”

“That must be interesting,” Bernie said. “I’m just here for three months on a work placement,” she explained, taking sips of coffee between mouthfuls of pastry. It really was delicious. As was the woman seated across from her. Bernie hoped she would run into her another time, preferably not when she was all sweaty and covered in coffee.

They chewed and sipped in silence for a few minutes, and Bernie could see Serena trying to formulate another question, but at that moment, Bernie’s phone rang in the belt round her waist.

“Sorry, Serena, I have to take this,” she said, as Serena nodded.  It was Sylvie.

“Bernie,” Sylvie said slowly in French, “I need you to come. It’s Paulette from the toy shop. She’s having a miscarriage. Her husband brought her to the hospital.”

Bon, j’arrive,” Bernie said, hanging up and getting to her feet.

“I have to go, I’m afraid, duty calls,” Bernie said.

“Well, maybe I’ll run into you again,” Serena said with a twinkle in her eye. “Just not literally!”

“Ha, right, well, bye Serena, thanks for the coffee, à la prochaine”, and she sprinted away, clutching her bag of pastries.

2 days later

 Dusk was falling when Serena Campbell left the fields and headed up to the main house hoping to catch Marie-Ange after the working day.

“Serena!” Marie-Ange exclaimed, delighted to think that Serena’s appearance meant she wanted to join the family for dinner.

“Um, I was looking for some local advice,” Serena explained in her very good French. She had made a point of keeping herself to herself in the cottage in the grounds of the vineyard and only joining the family when invited specifically.

 “What I was wondering was whether you could recommend a good gynaecologist. I haven’t had a check up for more than a year so I thought I could do that while I’m here.”

Mais bien sûr, Serena,  I always go to Dr. Jean-Alexandre Bouchard at the local hospital. He’s wonderful- a Québecois, in fact, and so active in the local community. I’ve been going to him for more than five years and I wouldn’t want anyone else now.”

“Right, thank you, Marie-Ange, I’ll see if I can get an appointment.”

“My pleasure, Serena. He speaks English, too, of course, being Canadian, not that there’s anything wrong with your French, but some things can be easier in your own language.”

Ça, c’est vrai,” Serena said with a smile, which faded as she turned around and headed back to her cottage. The fact was, the previous evening, while doing a routine breast examination after her shower, she had discovered what she thought was a lump, so, aside from the fact that she hadn’t seen a gynaecologist in over a year, she also needed this checked out. Urgently.

As a non-permanent resident of St. Julien, Serena had not registered with a GP, so rather than doing battle with some ferocious gatekeeper over the telephone, she thought she would drop into the hospital reception with her documents and try to charm someone into giving her an early appointment. This proved to be a good strategy- the receptionist on the desk turned out to be an old school friend of Marie-Ange and she knew who Serena was.

“But I’m afraid le docteur Bouchard is on leave for three months,” she explained. On seeing Serena’s frown she then added, with a smile, “But we have a very nice English obs and gynae specialist standing in for him. She’s very experienced, I’m sure you’ll be fine with her.’

Given that the alternative was a 70-something French man way past retirement age, Serena decided to go for the British woman. Maybe a woman would be better in this case, anyway. More reassuring.

“Ah, we have a cancellation at 1.30 pm today, if you would like to take that?” Catherine beamed. Serena accepted with alacrity.

Returning for her appointment, Serena had been too nervous to eat lunch, but as she passed the Café de Lyon in the main square she caught a sudden glimpse of blonde hair, and as the woman turned, Serena saw it was the attractive runner she had almost collided with on Saturday. The woman turned to cross the road and saw Serena walking past. She raised a hand and smiled, but Serena was in a hurry so she just replicated the gesture and went on her way.