When Mo had handed out the lists of people who needed lifts, it had seemed inevitable to Serena that she would be the one asked to drive Bernie. Since the weekend, she hadn’t seen much of her, just quick glances and waves from the far side of the church as they were sorting things out. So, Serena was really quite glad to have a chance to talk to Bernie one on one, even if the drive wasn’t very far.
And she knew exactly what she was doing when she spent more than an hour in her room prior to heading over to Bernie’s deciding what to wear and sorting out her make-up. It was tricky. How does one prepare for a winter’s evening in the countryside while also looking so devastatingly beautiful that it would take anyone’s breath away?
But as she turned the car onto Bernie’s road, she saw Bernie walking away from her house in the opposite direction. Confused, she drove up to her and stopped just in front.
“Bernie?” she said, winding the window down.
“Serena! What are you doing here?”
“Giving you a lift up to the moor…”
Bernie screwed up her eyes and let out a grunt of annoyance. “Oh, I forgot that was tonight. I’m really sorry but I’ve got a meeting I need to go to. Can you let the others know?”
Serena’s face dropped. She’d been so looking forward to spending time with Bernie and now this. “Oh. Okay. Of course.”
She started to wind the window back up before pausing. There was a way she could spend a little time with Bernie.
“Need a lift to your meeting?” she asked, “It’s not exactly warm out here tonight.”
Bernie smiled. “I’ll be alright. I’m tough.”
Serena raised an eyebrow. “Bernie you’re shivering already.”
“Ok fine,” Bernie relented. “But only because it’s sort of on your way.”
She opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, holding out her cold hands to the vents to warm up.
Serena grinned. “Right, where am I taking you?”
“St Francis church hall.”
“Bit Catholic for your usual tastes isn’t it? This some kind of churches together thing?” Serena asked. She’d never set foot in Holby’s Catholic church but the priest was a regular at the Remembrance Day parades so she knew him by sight.
“Something like that,” Bernie said.
She turned slightly in her seat so she was facing out of the window. Serena knew better than to try and continue that particular conversation.
“Any plans for Christmas?” she asked instead.
“Probably just head over to Cheltenham to see my parents after the morning service. The kids are with Marcus this year,” Bernie replied.
She shifted again in her seat and Serena sensed that she’d hit yet another awkward conversation topic.
Silence fell in the car and Serena hit the button to switch the radio on, not wanting it to feel uncomfortable.
It wasn’t long before they were pulling up in front of St Francis RC Church.
“Here you are,” Serena said brightly, “Hope your meeting goes well.”
“Thank you,” Bernie said but she didn’t get out of the car. She was twisting her hands together in a nervous gesture and Serena desperately wanted to reach out and stop her. Then Bernie spoke again. “I don’t suppose you want to come with me?” she asked in a small voice.
“To your meeting?” Serena clarified.
“I just… well… it’s hard to explain but I’d like you to.”
Bernie shot a small glance at Serena. She looked scared like a puppy in a thunderstorm. Serena was bad at saying no to Bernie in the first place, there was no way she could resist that face.
A smile eased Bernie’s expression. “Okay,” she repeated.
Serena smiled back at her and switched off the engine. She followed Bernie in through a side door into the small church hall where there were other people already there milling around the refreshment table. Some chairs had been set out in a circle in the middle of the room but no one was sitting down yet.
“Just a minute,” Bernie said as they entered, “I just need to check it’s okay to bring you.”
Serena nodded, still very unsure about what was going on. But if Bernie wanted her there then she would be there.
She watched from the side of the room as Bernie approached one particular woman in a red coat first, pointing over at Serena. There seemed to be some discussion and then some nodding. Then the pair of them split up and talked to the other people in the room. Serena just stood awkwardly in the doorway as everyone looked over at her. It was strange to be under so much scrutiny without any real idea why.
Finally Bernie returned to her.
“It’s ok. No one minds,” she said, clarifying nothing. “Coffee?”
Serena nodded and followed Bernie over to the refreshment table. Bernie poured her some from a large coffee jug.
“Sorry it’s only instant but it’s better than nothing.
Serena nodded her thanks and took the warm mug off Bernie. The woman in the red coat clapped her hands at that moment and everyone else began to end their conversations and move towards the circle of chairs.
“You can sit here,” Bernie said, indicating a chair just to the side of the refreshment table. She smiled at Serena quickly and then headed to a chair in the circle.
Serena sat herself down, holding the mug between both her hands. From where she was sat she could clearly see Bernie’s face. Bernie kept glancing over at her. She wasn’t the only one. Although everyone else had claimed that they had no problem with Serena being there, there were a few slightly concerned looks being cast her way. If not for the fact that Bernie clearly did want her there, whatever this was, she would definitely have left by now.
Silence had fallen in the hall and Serena sat completely still, afraid to move and draw more attention to herself. Then the woman in the red coat began to speak.
“I see we have a couple of new faces tonight so I will introduce myself. I’m Anita and I’m a psychiatrist. These group sessions are part of your PTSD treatment programme and I hope they will be helpful. If nothing else, they should give you the opportunity to meet other people in a similar situation to you.”
Serena looked over at Bernie. Bernie was looking straight back at her, chewing on her lip. So that was the big secret? That Bernie was being treated for PTSD? It made sense now why Bernie had been so reluctant to talk about the army. Serena was gladder than ever that she had never forced the topic. She wanted more than anything to go over and give Bernie a hug. But she couldn’t right now. All she could do was to give Bernie a reassuring smile which was returned instantly, Bernie’s shoulder’s visibly relaxing.
As the meeting continued, Serena found she couldn’t take her eyes off Bernie. Bernie didn’t speak much but when prompted by Anita she gave some small details of coping strategies that she had used. It was clear quickly that all the participants were ex-services and some of them had clearly seen some awful things. Serena could see though that they took comfort from being around each other.
While the meeting lasted quite a while, Serena didn’t notice the time. It was only when the meeting finished and everyone began to put the chairs away that she registered that she was holding a cold cup of coffee.
Bernie approached her.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
Serena nodded and allowed Bernie to lead her back outside. It was unlike Bernie to be the one to initiate conversations like this and she clearly wasn’t sure where to begin.
“So you have PTSD?” Serena prompted.
Bernie nodded. “Yeah. After my last tour, well, things were bad. There was an IED…”
She didn’t continue so Serena reached out and squeezed her hand. Bernie squeezed back.
“When I got home I struggled with nightmares and flashbacks. The GP put me onto this group. There’s one to one sessions with Anita as well, and loads of support. It’s made a real difference to my life.”
She smiled and Serena smiled back. “Good. I’m glad.”
“I’ve never really told anyone before. I mean Reverend Hanssen knows about the appointments but he doesn’t know all the details. But I wanted you to know.” Bernie paused and looked straight up into Serena’s eyes. “I wanted you to know because you’re special.”
“Special?” Serena said, her eyes caught on Bernie’s, unable to look away.
“You must be or I wouldn’t be falling for you,” Bernie said in a whisper.
“Are you? Falling for me?” Serena said, her voice matching the softness of Bernie’s.
Bernie nodded. The look in her eyes changed to decisive and she grasped Serena’s scarf pulling her closer. Serena let herself move forward until Bernie’s lips met hers in a kiss. She let out a soft sigh and reached up a hand to caress Bernie’s cheek. The kiss lasted only a couple of seconds before Bernie stepped away, a look of alarm on her face.
“I… have to go,” she said and then turned on her heels and disappeared off down the road.
Serena stood there, in a state of shock, just watching her vanish round the corner. It was only the sound of the other people leaving the church hall that brought her back to reality. She reached a hand up to her lips and smiled to herself. Well she hadn’t expected that from the evening. She slowly made her way over to her car and climbed in. She started the engine before she considered what she needed to do next.
Caught up in the whirlwind of Christmas planning, Serena didn’t see Bernie again over the next few days. But that didn’t mean she didn’t think of her. She found her mind wandering regularly and her hand moving up to touch her lips, unable to believe that Bernie had kissed her at last. It was a few days before she even remembered her reason for rejecting Bernie’s offer of a drink all those weeks ago. But with how Bernie had kissed her, and how she had helped her when Liberty was being tactless, there was no way there was anything romantic going on between them. She must have misheard or misunderstood or something. She put that out of her mind and concentrated on how to get Bernie to kiss her again.
She sent a couple of texts to Bernie expressing how glad she was that Bernie had shared her PTSD diagnosis with her. And another couple that tried to explain how she’d felt when Bernie had kissed her. But it was hard putting her feelings down in writing and Bernie hadn’t replied or answered the phone to any of Serena’s calls. She would have worried more if not for the fact that various other friends had seen Bernie out and about behaving normally.
Christmas eve came hurtling towards them all as usual. Elinor and Jason had finished school and college respectively for the holidays and Elinor had turned up with a suitcase of clothes and Prissy in her carrier. Serena, busy making mince pies in the kitchen, had barely glanced up at that until Jason asked if she was staying for long.
Elinor released the catch on the carrier and Prissy bounded out down the corridor.
“Well I think I’d like to move back in, if that alright with you, mum?” she said.
No longer caring about the fact that her hands were covered in flour, Serena ran up to Elinor and wrapped her into a hug.
“Of course, love, of course.”
Elinor brushed the flour off her clothes and grinned at her mum. “Need a hand with those mince pies?” she offered.
“Please. Lots to do before tonight.”
While Jason wrapped presents in his room, Ellie and Serena spent a pleasant afternoon baking in the kitchen. Jason joined them later to help make tea. After they had eaten, they all crowded onto the sofa and watched Christmas films until it was time to head over to the church.
The message had clearly got round the parishioners as almost everyone they saw on the walk over to the church was dressed in warm coats and sturdy shoes. The Christmas lights shone bright on the streetlights and various Christmas trees were visible through the windows. With a chill in the air, it felt really Christmassy and Serena wrapped her arms around Elinor and Jason, glad to have them close.
The church was busier than usual, full of people who only came once a year, and so they ended up in a pew near the back. Serena never resented those extra people though; it just made the celebration even more special. She said hello to a few people as they entered and the three of them squeezed up to let Jasmine sit with them.
“What have you done with your sister?” Serena asked.
Jasmine smiled, “Jac’s somewhere near the front. She was early as usual but she told me that she wasn’t saving me a space if I didn’t make the effort to be ready on time.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Never mind, I like sitting here. You get a better view of everyone’s Christmas jumpers!”
Serena patted her hand. “Yes you do.”
It was true. From here she could see that Ric was wearing a jumper with a grumpy elf on it and Fletch had clearly wrangled all his children into matching reindeer onesies. Even Raf had on some reindeer antlers as he held Theo who was fast asleep on his shoulder. Serena smiled as she remembered past midnight masses with two little children. Elinor in particular was very insistent that she wanted to stay up for it and neither Serena nor Edward had the energy to argue. There were several years where each of them had a sleeping child in their lap during the service. But at least it meant that they didn’t wake up too early the next morning which was always a bonus on Christmas morning.
Then Reverend Hanssen stepped up to begin the service with Bernie at his side and all of Serena’s thoughts were back on her. From this far back she could watch Bernie closely without the fear of being noticed by her. It was refreshing, this slight anonymity.
The service proceeded as normal until about fifteen minutes before midnight. Bernie stepped up to the pulpit and began to explain.
“I want to tell you about something me and Mo found in the church attic a few weeks ago.”
Bernie held up a yellowing order of service and explained about its age and significance.
“And so this year we are going to revive this old tradition, hence why you were all asked to dress in walking shoes and warm coats.”
A murmur started up around the church but soon settled down.
“Now the tradition, as far as we can tell, is that at midnight on Christmas morning, parishioners from the church would parade up onto the moors, lit only by candles, where a bonfire would be lit and carols would be sung. Anyone who would like to join us this year is very welcome. The bonfire has been built and candles have been sourced for everyone, including some electric ones for the children or those adults who are known to be clumsy!”
There was a smattering of laughter.
“So please, if you would like to join us, wrap up warm and let’s make a line outside the church. If not, please stay until midnight to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and maybe we will see you at the 10am service tomorrow?”
Reverend Hanssen stepped forward beside Bernie. “Our church is old; traditions get left behind and new ones form. But to me, this seems like the perfect way of welcoming the birth of Jesus Christ into the world in a thoroughly Holby way.”
He smiled at the congregation. “Now please gather outside, we don’t have long until midnight!”
By the time Serena got outside, Essie and Mo were already there trying to get everyone sorted.
“Serena! There is a basket of candles over by the wall there. Will you grab it and hand them out?” Essie asked.
“Of course,” Serena said.
Elinor had slipped away to stand with some school friends but Jason stayed with her and helped her dole them out. That was until they came across Celia and Serena suggested he stay with her and her parents.
She was alone when she reached the front of the line and handed out the last of the candles. At the front of the line was Bernie looking radiant as ever.
“Thanks,” she said, shyly, as Serena handed her a candle.
“Zosia and Dom are following behind me with lighters,” Serena said, not meeting Bernie’s eye.
“Ah yes. He’s been excitedly telling me about his role for the past week. Who knew that lighting candles was his dream job!”
“I think he’s just happy to belong. He’s not had an easy time of it recently so it’s nice to see him smiling.”
Serena looked up just as Bernie raised her head and they stopped, silently taking each other in for a moment until Dom bounced up to them with his lighter.
“Nearly midnight!” he said, brandishing the flame, “Light up!”
Broken from their trance, they both offered up their candles.
“Walk with me?” Bernie asked and Serena nodded.
As the church clock began to chime midnight, Reverend Hanssen wished them all a Merry Christmas before stepping out at the front of the parade. Serena fell into line beside Bernie, their free hands brushing against each other through thick gloves. The choir started singing Silent Night and soon everyone was joining in as they took the path behind the church up onto the moor.
The walk took almost half an hour and they had run through a great number of the most popular carols before they reached the bonfire. It was lit already, Raf and Fletch having driven up to get it started with the two youngest children in the car. Bernie helped to direct everyone onto the logs set out around the fire and Serena sat herself down at the edge. She closed her eyes and allowed the warmth of the fire to bring life back into her cold fingers as the carols around her continued. She felt someone sit next to her and opened her eyes to find Bernie there.
“Hi,” she whispered.
“Hi,” Bernie whispered back. Her face flushed and she looked away.
Bernie held up a hand and waved at someone on the other side of the fire. Serena followed her eyeline and saw Liberty sitting there arm in arm with Edward.
Bernie noticed Serena’s worried look and reached out for her hand. Serena let her take it, a bit reluctantly.
“Liberty?” she asked, needing to know what their relationship was now more than ever. Because this definitely felt like the start of something.
Bernie sighed. “She’s my sister.”
Serena nodded. “Families can be tricky.”
“Yes they can,” Bernie replied.
In the silence that followed, Serena moved carefully along the log until her leg was pressed against Bernie’s. The warmth of the fire, plus the late hour, had made her suddenly very sleepy. She was glad that Essie had had the forethought to arrange minibuses to take them back into town.
She yawned and Bernie dropped her hand in order to wrap and arm around her shoulders. Serena rested her head on Bernie’s shoulder and let her eyes fall shut, feeling safe in Bernie’s arms.