“The first step to loving yourself begins with the words, ‘I matter.’ You deserve to occupy space. You deserve to stand up for yourself and claim your right to happiness. You deserve to be here, just as much as anyone else.”
Bernie froze the first time a woman smiled flirtatiously in her direction at Keen. She was lovely and fair, red-haired with curls, petite and somehow rakish despite the fact Bernie had a head and a half on her easily. She sent Bernie a drink with her compliments and raised a glass of wine to her from the bar where she was entertaining a beautiful black woman who was younger than either of them. The flirty woman didn’t approach the table Bernie was sharing with Alex and others from their former military detachment but Bernie still felt like she was under a spotlight with all eyes on her.
Alex squeezed her leg under the table. “Okay, Bern?” Bernie’s breath stuttered in her chest the way it had for such a long time where her former anesthetist was concerned. That she fancied Alex was nothing new; she’d known for months. The difference was Bernie now accepted Alex wasn’t the exception, and Alex knew as well. That’s why Bernie had come. Spending an evening at a gay bar wasn’t usually Bernie’s idea of a fulfilling night. She was more of a Netflix documentary and takeaway girl herself—but when Alex asked her if she had ever been with a woman Bernie had tripped over her tongue saying she hadn’t. “Do you want to,” Alex had asked. Bernie hadn’t said no.
Keen wasn’t Bernie’s first queer-friendly hangout; she’d visited her share with her fellow squaddies who were proudly out and she’d had plenty of fun at it. This was a change from that. The wedding band she’d stuck in her jeans pocket scored the notch of her hip like a brand. Marcus was with her even here. She didn’t want him here, not before she fully understood why she already felt so at home. She was hesitant enough admitting it to herself.
“Who’s going to pinch her and risk a broken arm? And don’t say me!” Bernie leveled a quelling look at Alex’s girlfriend Polly, another army veteran out of Afghanistan. Alex was laughing her smoky hoarse laugh. She never laughed quite that hard for anybody else. Bernie hadn’t found Marcus anywhere near that diverting when she’d been twenty-six and convinced she could love Marcus forever. He had been her mate, smart as her, funny enough, and scarcely intimidated by all the dreams she had already laid claim to by her first foundation year. He was a catch by any measure, wasn’t he? Average height, dark-haired with dark eyes, stout and athletic as he remained to this day. Who Marcus was hadn’t altered, who Bernie wanted had.
“No need to pinch, though heaven knows you haven’t the nails for it!” Polly and Alex wiggled their fingers victoriously at one another, regardless of the fact they all sported short, clean nails for hygiene purposes. Bernie snorted. She felt warmly envious of the bond the two women shared. Together for years yet they had not sacrificed their sense of fun on the altar of longevity. They still liked each other. They still knew each other. Bernie was only just beginning to know herself and the person she had become couldn’t hope to love Marcus as a husband was meant to be loved. Bernie didn’t think she was meant to love a man at all. She rubbed at her eyes. That wasn’t the outcome she’d wanted out of her midlife soul searching. Wasn’t enlightenment meant to be a good thing?
“I’m out of my depth,” she admitted, cutting through the muddled chatter of tableside conversation like a warm knife through cold butter.
Dom, sat to her right slurping the dregs of a Blue Lagoon, rubbed her back. “Do we need to stage a gay intervention for you? Should I hang lesbian bunting?”
Alex read her mood carefully. “Not a happy occasion, eh?” Bernie had a husband and two children, not to mention a cat she never saw anymore. There was nothing more tragic than the realization she’d rather burn her family home to ashes than grow old there with her husband. Dom bumped her shoulder.
“We’ll figure it out, all right? Have a drink, dance with a girl, get shagged. None of us will grass you up.” The last he said to the tablet at large, partly in warning. They had supported each other through crises, professional and personal. This would be one more. “You’re in friendly territory. Let your eyes do the walking and your hands do the talking.”
“I don’t know, Dom-“
Alex interjected, “If you don’t pick someone, I’ll pick and you know you never like my taste in women.” Bernie slumped at Alex’s practiced jibe while Polly squawked in offense. Bernie traced shapes in the condensation on her glass to avoid arguing. Polly was mischievous fun, loving and warm. Alex was enamored of her to the strawberry blonde curl of her hair. Bernie burned wanting that, though whether it was Alex in specific she wanted or the freedom to be out as Alex was remained too convoluted to untangle.
“No more moping,” chirped Polly, already up on her feet. “Come along, Major. Time to put in a good word with the den mother.” She coaxed a reluctant Bernie from the table, past the sparsely populated dance floor to the bar. Polly hammered the bar top with a shout for someone called Serena. A grey-haired woman about Bernie’s age appeared from a back room carrying a case of wine under her arm. She stowed the wooden box behind the bar and joined at them at the end of the counter.
“You bellowed?” replied the woman of the hour in a velvety voice that suited her perfectly. Bernie prayed she wasn’t being set up for a date. She had a feeling Serena wasn’t a woman to disappoint.
Polly propped her hip on a stool. “Bernie, meet one of the sexiest bartenders in Holby City and the owner of this fine establishment, Serena Campbell. Serena, this is Bernie, trauma surgeon and general purpose soft butch. Make friends.” Bernie and Serena shook hands. Polly hadn’t exaggerated. Serena was handsome (gorgeous, actually) with high, round cheekbones and a ready smile.
“Welcome to Keen, Bernie. Let me set you up with the good booze. Come morning you won’t remember your troubles and you might even have some mind-blowing orgasms to show for it.”
“That a drink you’ve cooked up,” quizzed Polly, tongue in cheek.
“I serve it both ways,” Serena deadpanned. Bernie would take it from Serena with a twist of lime were she offering. God wouldn’t I, she thought. Serena’s raised eyebrow sent a delicious swoop through her stomach and her smile a surge of heat lower still.
“Knew I liked you.” Polly grinned. “Serena, keep an eye on our lovely friend, she’s having a hard time. Think you can pep her up?”
Bernie coughed to hide her nervous laugh. “Erm, Polly, I’m sure Serena is too busy running this place to babysit me.”
Polly elbowed her, murmuring in an undertone, “She gives half-decent advice and she’s a little bit sexy. Take the bait, Wolfe.”
Serena began drying a pallet of shot glasses while they chatted among themselves. Her ears protruded from her cropped silver strewn hair. They were cute, round, a bit Tinkerbell meets Dumbo if Bernie were honest but they fit her. Like the dimple in her chin and the creases framing her mouth. Gorgeous and not a little endearing as well. Serena turned to stow glasses and then bent down to stock the wine fridge with fresh bottles. Her ocean blue blouse stretched snug over her backside, drawing Bernie’s eyes. A pretty face was evidently only one of her many impressive qualities. Her clothes couldn’t do justice to the figure underneath. Bernie let herself imagine if anything could.
“Reel that tongue of yours in, and get chatting,” Polly nettled. “Look at the rack on her, she’s worth the work.”
Serena glared over the bar at the pair of them. “One more crack about my rack and you’ll find your tab suspended and due in full.” She flapped an imperious hand at the younger woman. “Go away.” Polly raised her hands in surrender and withdrew. “You,” she addressed Bernie, “have a seat. Choose your tipple and tell me what’s eating you.”
“We don’t have long enough.”
Serena tutted in disapproval. “This is my kitchen, darling. I choose last call. Let’s assume we have time, hmm?” Bernie sat, stubbornly quiet, arms crossed. Some other patrons summoned Serena and she sighed. “Why do I even employ uni students? I can never find them during the rush. Give your drinks order some thought while I engage in a lovely tête-à-tête with my grateful public.” Bernie watched with pursed lips while Serena served her patrons with a well-received smile and a flirt as she manned the till. The music played at half-volume, and Serena’s voice was dark chocolate sweet, smoothly pitched above it. She came bearing a white wine at Bernie’s request and Bernie accepted it with a hint of a smile. “Bad breakup?”
“In my future, probably, but not yet. Still chugging along, us.”
“Married or dating?”
Bernie scrubbed a hand down her face. “Married. Twenty-five years, two kids.” Serena cocked her head in response, patient, waiting. “I looked up one day and there was this woman. She was everything—she made me feel how they say love is meant to make you feel for the first time.”
“How does that make you feel?” She sounded like one of the therapists Bernie had seen after the IED. Prettier by far than any of them had been.
“Lost. Alone. Wrong. Not because I think being gay is wrong,” she rushed to clarify, “but…”
“But it’s different when you’re the one that’s gay. It isn’t abstract anymore.”
Bernie felt compelled to explain further. “My husband isn’t a bad husband, not by any stretch. He can be demanding, stubborn, but so can I! He’s supported my career and cared for our children when I was away for work. He is a good father. He tries to be a good husband, and I thought I was capable of being a good wife, and then…Then, this.”
“You’ll make some lucky woman a hell of a wife, Bernie. Someday.” She patted Bernie’s hand. “It probably doesn’t seem like a remote possibility now, but you’ll get there. I know you will.” Serena made it sound plausible, yet all Bernie could see was the broken road required to reach such a destination, her family everywhere scattered along the way.
“Have you ever been married?” she asked. Idle chitchat to prevent Serena drifting down the bar to serve someone else.
Serena hummed, drying yet another glass. “Back in the Stone Age. Wasn’t for me.”
“You could say that. He was a cheating, lying drunk whose thirst for notoriety was matched only by his complete lack of obvious work ethic.” She gestured toward the bar and all its giggling, gay patrons. “Got this place in my contemptuous divorce. It was going to the dogs because he’d rather shag co-eds than count receipts or bartend or pay his employees.” Bitterness coated her lovely voice. Bernie didn’t envy her ex-husband the rage he’d induced.
Bernie tipped her head. “Your husband ran a gay club?”
“Not as such. It was more of an all-around pub when he was ran the place, not much geared toward our crowd. When I…when I needed a change of pace, I took a more hands-on role in the bar’s day to day operations, and that’s when it all began to change. The menu, the décor, the clientele. Nothing I sought, granted, but I was never unhappy about it. It was one more change in series; at least I got a date out of this one.” Her lips stretched in a grin that was equal parts bawdiness and mystery. Bernie would love to hear the stories this woman could tell.
“Had you been with women before then?”
“Hadn’t even kissed one.” Serena gazed off into the clutch of patrons gravitating toward the dance floor. Some were already entwined in each other’s arms, others shyly holding hands. Bernie felt another pang of longing, realized she’d been suffering those same hunger pains all her life. “I have rectified that oversight many, many times,” Serena clarified. She winked at Bernie. Bernie flushed and smiled back. Polly was right, Serena was a bit sexy. More than a bit.
“What was it like?”
“Wonderful. I can’t wait till you get to try it.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“I find Hello usually works as an opening.”
“Hello, I’m an ex-soldier with a husband, two grown children, and a moderate to severe case of PTSD. What do you say to a snog in a dingy hole in the wall?”
“Ehem, less of the ‘dingy’ please!”
“Sorry.” Bernie grimaced. “It’s a nice place, really. The seats are comfortable,” she finished lamely, wincing internally at how she’d only made the already awkward situation worse.
“Who knew a girl named ‘Bernie’ would be so hard to please? Guess my backside can’t make up for everything, though nobody else seems to mind.”
“I don’t mind. I’m out of sorts and saying the wrong things. I don’t know what to do.”
Serena covered her hand, all offense forgiven. “Accept the support of your friends and be brave. Everything else will fall into place.”
Bernie began to spend more time at Keen after her first visit as a questioning woman. She tended to skulk in after work before heading home to join Marcus for a late dinner. She’d make directly for the bar for a glass of whisky or white and a chat to shed the day’s concerns lest she carry them home. Often it was Serena running the show, but other times it would be unfamiliar faces, usually uni students looking to earn a few quid between course assignments. Them, Bernie left after one drink; for Serena, she might linger over two. She’d opened a tab her first night and was yet to be charged again.
“Shouldn’t I be paying you for all this,” Bernie asked one evening, on a very good night after a no good, bloody awful day. Serena wiped the top of the bar to shining, keeping her hands busy between shifting down the way to pour other drinks and coming back to chat up Bernie some more.
“You’re the first soldier I’ve ever known to protest free drinks.”
“Are you flirting with me?” Bernie asked plainly.
“I never do anything else. Problem?”
“Not for me.” Heaven forbid Bernie turn down a bit of banter from Serena who hadn’t once failed to elicit a slip of a smile from Bernie when she was after one.
“What’s hacked you off, darling?” The endearment had become Serena’s calling card. It left Bernie hot under the collar and suddenly shy whenever she heard it.
“Admin and hospital budget cuts.” Loneliness, she left off the list. Wanting someone to touch as she saw other women touch and kiss as they were kissed. The more she was exposed to women able to openly love women, the smaller her house felt and the more futile her efforts to save her marriage. She was a prisoner of her own damnable fear. She could not be sicker of it.
Serena refreshed her whiskey. “Numbers and paperwork make the world go round. You should see the sheaves of permits and accounts sheets I trawl through every year. Good thing I get to use my MBA for something.”
“I knew I was wasting my time treating injured combatants and civilians oversea for twenty years. I should have gotten an MBA.”
“It wasn’t a waste. Even the perfectly imperfect Berenice Wolfe has a weakness. There isn’t any shame in that.” She reached over to bar to squeeze Bernie’s bicep. “But at least you’ve got a body that won’t quit. Hair’s not bad either despite the hairbrush aversion.” Bernie sucked in several hasty breaths. Serena shook her to her toes, her voice and touch both. That was her real reason for returning to Keen any day she could manage: Serena was true North and Bernie merely followed where she’d point. Evidently, the direction she beckoned again and again was toward herself.
She eyed Serena contemplating several cases of wine and a dolly for loading with trepidation. She wasn’t eager to see the other woman throw her back out.
“Can I help?”
“This? No need to fret, I can lug my body weight in Shiraz. Don’t let the silver fool you, there’s life in the old dog yet. But you’re welcome to load a couple of cases of Guinness on the spare dolly if you’re looking to feel useful.” Bernie dutifully did as requested, keeping up her end of Serena’s casual patter, filled with the day’s more exciting events, or what passed for exciting as a queer establishment—much more than Bernie was expecting.
She liked it here. She belonged here. Serena was the reason she was starting to believe it.