“So have you thought what song we are going to sing in the music festival next month?” Serena asked Edward as they drove home. It had gone dark outside already and the lights of the houses winked at them as they drove past.
“Thought I’d let you lot pick this year,” Edward replied. He reached a hand over and squeezed Serena’s knee.
“You say that every year. And every year we end up going with your suggestion anyway!” laughed Serena. “Give up the pretence and just tell me!”
“Not yet, my darling, not yet,” Edward said, smiling at Serena.
Serena looked out of the window as they passed the church.
“Wait a moment, what’s that?” she asked, pointing towards the church window. A light was clearly shining in the church. It looked like the beam of a torch.
Edward pulled the car into the side of the road and looked more closely.
“Hope it’s not burglars,” he said, looking a little worried, “You know how they like to take the lead from church roofs.”
“I think we should check it out,” Serena said as she began to climb out of the car, “See what’s going on.”
Edward followed her reluctantly. “Really Serena,” he said, “Wouldn’t it be better just to call the police.”
“And waste their time when it might just be Dom or Reverend Hanssen picking something up? I don’t think so.”
Serena strode purposely towards the church and Edward ran to catch her up.
“I’ll go in first then,” he proposed, “Don’t want some thug jumping out on you now do we?”
Serena shrugged and let him past. He pushed open the heavy, wooden door of the church and stepped inside.
“Hello?” he called, “Is anyone there?”
Serena followed him in. They walked through the atrium and into the nave of the church. Edward reached out and found the light switch just as Serena dashed past him and up the aisle.
“What’s going…” he started but stopped as he took in the sight in front of him. The church choir was all there at the front of the church and as Serena reached them she raised her arms and they burst into song.
Nobody does it better makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you're the best
I wasn't lookin' but somehow you found me
I tried to hide from your love light
But like heaven above me the spy who loved me
Is keepin' all my secrets safe tonight
Edward covered his mouth with his hands as he watched his wife lead his own choir in this fantastic harmony.
Nobody does it better sometimes I wish someone could
Nobody does it quite the way you do
Did you have to be so good?
The way that you hold me whenever you hold me
There's some kind of magic inside you
That keeps me from runnin' but just keep it comin'
How'd you learn to do the things you do?
Their daughter, Elinor, smiled at her dad as she sang. The rest of the choir, his friends, looked on happily.
And nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Edward gave them rapturous applause once they finished.
“That was amazing,” he said as Serena walked back down the aisle towards him. “Maybe you should take over as choir director.”
“Thank you dear,” she said and kissed him on the cheek.
“But I’m confused,” he confessed, “Why have you done all this?”
Serena swatted him playfully on the arm.
“Because it is our twentieth wedding anniversary of course.”
The look on Edward’s face told a story of its own. The surprise turned into shock which rapidly became worry and panic. He turned away from the choir and Serena and began to fiddle with something in his pocket.
Serena dropped her voice. “Don’t tell me you forgot,” she whispered through gritted teeth. It wasn’t like this was the first time Edward had forgotten their anniversary, or her birthday, or Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. She was pretty certain he only remembered when Christmas was because the shops didn’t let you forget that one.
“Course I didn’t darling,” he said, his back still turned, “I would never do something like that.”
Serena snorted in amusement. Edward spun back round to face her and the choir. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and waved it at Serena.
“Tickets to Paris for a romantic weekend away,” he proclaimed.
“Oh Edward,” Serena cried, wrapping her arms around his neck, all previous complaints about her husband swiftly forgotten. The choir cheered as Edward swung her round and kissed her firmly on the lips.
The party continued as various choir members produced plates of food and bottles of wine from hiding places around the church.
“Shiraz! Excellent,” cried Serena as Edward handed her a glass of red. She wrapped her arm around Elinor’s shoulder and held her tight.
“Thanks for all your help with this Ellie,” she said. Elinor had been the key organiser of most of the evening. She was worryingly good at keeping secrets from her father.
“No problem,” Elinor replied, “I wanted you both to have a great party. You deserve it, taking such good care of me and Jason for all these years.”
Serena smiled as she thought of the years she had with her daughter and her nephew as children. Elinor was 18 now and off to university next year. Jason, who was a couple of years older, was nearly finished at college and had started mentioning looking for jobs. Serena was concerned about this. Jason had Asperger’s and she wasn’t sure how well he would cope in a work environment. Edward was always encouraging him to try new things and get outside his comfort zone. Serena just wanted her sweet boy to be safe and happy and if that meant him staying at home with her then that was just fine by her.
Jason was, at this moment, sat by himself at the back of the church, his eyes focused on his tablet, headphones in. Serena let go of her daughter and went over to sit with him. She placed a hand gently on his arm and indicated to him to take out the headphones.
“Hello Auntie Serena,” he said, headphones removed, “Are you enjoying your party?”
“I am thank you Jason. Are you?” she asked.
“Oh yes. This episode of Doctor Who is one of my favourites,” he replied and showed Serena the screen of his tablet.
Serena smiled. Having looked after her nephew since he was tiny, she loved him like a son and was very used to his way of dealing with the world. Parties were not his sort of thing but he had learnt to cope.
“I’m glad,” she said, squeezing his arm a little.
The sound of the church door opening made her look up from Jason and Doctor Who. A woman stepped into the church, her shoulder length blonde hair falling in messy waves around her face. Serena stood up and walked over to her.
“Hello can I help you?” she asked.
The woman glanced around the church.
“Sorry, I just heard noises in the church and wanted to see what was going on,” she said, her voice soft and low.
“It’s just a private party,” Serena replied.
“Ok. Well I’ll be going then,” said the woman, smiling kindly at Serena. “I’m Bernie by the way. See you around maybe?”
“Maybe,” said Serena as she watched Bernie leave the church.
Bernie glanced back at Serena, smiling, as she opened the door and Serena felt a strange lurch in her stomach. Shaking it off, she turned and returned to her husband and guests.
“So when is our romantic weekend away?” asked Serena the next morning at breakfast. Elinor and Jason were sitting at the kitchen table tucking into large piles of toast and jam. Edward was making a pot of tea.
“When would you like it to be?” he asked in response.
Serena furrowed her brow. “But you have booked tickets haven’t you? They are in that envelope. When are they for?”
Edward looked sheepish. “I’m sorry darling, there was nothing in the envelope.”
“So you did forget,” Serena sighed. She knew it had all been too good to be true last night. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Elinor nudging Jason before they both stood up and left the room. They knew what was coming. Serena and Edward’s arguments were getting more and more frequent these days.
“I’m going to book us something tonight though. After choir rehearsal. Where would you like to go?” Edward said.
“Oh don’t bother. I’ve got too much on here anyway,” Serena snapped back at him.
Edward stood up. “Whatever you say dear. Wouldn’t want you to miss out on all your ever so important social occasions.”
“If you are suggesting that I do nothing useful with my life then I would like you to remember who suggested I gave up my career when I had Elinor,” Serena shot back. She’d wanted to continue medicine but once Elinor arrived, Edward had managed to persuade her to stop. It had been a blessing really, particularly once Jason arrived on the scene a couple of years later. Goodness knows how she would have coped with both the children with a full time job. And she got to see the pair of them grow up and blossom.
Edward’s face had gone bright red. “Well I am off to work. Things to do, people to save,” he said, picking up his briefcase and jacket and heading out of the front door.
Serena let her head fall onto the kitchen table as she heard the door slam shut. Elinor appeared at her shoulder a moment later and wrapped an arm around her.
“He doesn’t mean it, mum,” she said, “He’s just annoyed because he didn’t come up with the choir idea for your anniversary.”
“If only that was all it was,” Serena replied, “Anyway, hadn’t you better be getting to school? Do you need a lift or anything?”
“No thanks, mum. I’m fine. See you this evening at choir practice?”
“Of course dear. Have a good day!”
“Ok guys before we start, our beautiful secretary has a few announcements,” Edward shouted over the noise of a gossipy church choir. They settled quickly and Serena stepped forward.
“Right, Reverend Hanssen has asked us if we could help with the setting up of the church for the music festival next month. If anyone wants to volunteer, please come and speak to me afterwards. Also please invite all your friends and family. We want to see the church full.”
Serena consulted her list for a moment.
“The local Brownies are doing a unit about music and would love some of us to go along to one of their meetings and give them a demonstration. Again, see me if you are interested. And finally, we have some newcomers to welcome.”
Serena indicated a couple who were sat in the pews, looking rather nervous.
“This is Essie and Sacha and they’ve just moved in to Holby. I hope you will make them feel very welcome. Come and join us you two.”
Serena waved her arm at the couple and they stood up and walked to the front of the church to join the rest of the choir. She slotted them in next to some of the best singers and handed them the music.
“If that is all,” said Edward, tapping his baton on the stand, “Then let’s begin.”
It was near the end of the rehearsal when the door to the church was pushed open and a tall, blonde woman walked in. She stood and watched as they finished the song before taking a few steps forward. Serena began to walk down the aisle to greet her but Edward got there first. Serena didn’t realise Edward had even noticed her; his back had been towards her while they had been singing.
“Hello,” he said brightly as he approached the mystery woman, “Can I help you?”
“I just heard the beautiful singing and had to come and see what was going on,” said the woman, batting her eyelashes at Edward who smirked. Serena rolled her eyes. Edward was painfully predictable when it came to pretty young women.
“Well we are the St James’ Church choir,” Edward explained.
“Oh how wonderful. You sounded so good,” the woman exclaimed placing a hand on Edward’s arm, “And you must be the conductor.”
“Yes, yes I am,” Edward said leaning in closer to her, “Do you sing at all?”
“Just in the shower. I’m probably no good at all.” She giggled and Serena turned away in disgust. She couldn’t bear to see this woman flirting with her husband so openly.
“I’m sure you sound fantastic,” Edward replied, not taking his eyes off the woman.
“Thank you,” she said, squeezing his arm, “I’d love to join the choir. Do you have auditions?”
“No auditions. We take everyone that wants to. It is always good to hear you sing beforehand though so I know where to put you.”
“Well,” said the woman. She took a deep breath and then began to sing. She had a beautiful voice, strong and sure. Serena turned back around at the sound to stare at her. Who would have thought that this woman could sing so well? The rest of the choir also stood and stared, enraptured, until the song ended.
“Am I good enough?” the woman asked.
Edward opened his mouth to reply but no sound came out. He nodded instead and gestured to the rest of the choir. Serena took pity on her ridiculous husband and stepped forward.
“You were very good,” she said, not wanting to pile praise on her just yet, “Why don’t you come and join us in the sopranos?”
“Really?” she said, her eyes lighting up like a little girl’s.
Serena nodded and moved up so there was space next to her.
“I’m Serena,” she said as the woman stepped into place, “I’m the secretary. If we could meet quickly at the end we can sort out all the details.”
“I’m Liberty,” said the woman, “That sounds great, thank you. I didn’t realise everyone here was going to be so friendly.”
Edward seemed to have regained the power of speech. “Well here at St James’ we like to welcome everyone.”
Life went on as normal for the next week. Serena looked after the house and the kids as well as attending various meetings around town for all the committees she was a part of. Edward went off to work in the mornings and turned up at home late in the evening, finishing off the bottle of Shiraz Serena had opened. At the weekend Serena took Elinor shopping in town before taking Jason to the cinema to see the latest superhero movie. She went out for a meal with Edward on Saturday evening at the local pub, nothing special. He never brought up the idea of going on a romantic weekend again. Serena tried not to feel disappointed. It wasn’t like she had actually expected anything from him.
Choir rehearsal came round again and Serena kissed Jason goodbye before heading out to the church with Elinor and Edward. It was a pleasant walk over to the church in the warm spring air. Just as they reached the churchyard, Serena spotted a mop of blonde curls over the wall. She turned slightly to see Bernie walking past the church. She raised a hand in greeting and Bernie waved back, smiling, before carrying on her way. Serena had a sudden mad urge to run after her but she shook herself and continued on into the church.
“So I thought we would try a new female soloist for this next piece,” Edward said after they had run through the warm ups. He lifted his arm towards the sopranos. “I’ll keep Isaac as the male soloist but Liberty, would you like to have a go?”
Liberty shuffled her feet slightly next to Serena. Serena nudged her. “Go on, have a go. You can’t be worse than me!”
Liberty shot her a smile and then turned towards Edward and nodded.
“Great,” smiled Edward, “This is the piece I’d like to do for the music festival so I want everyone putting their best effort into it.”
Sat at the church organ, Mo played the first few chords and the rest of the choir joined in. Serena had to admit that Liberty was very good. Even with a completely new piece, she was hitting the notes perfectly although her timing was a little off. No worse than the rest of the choir though.
They ran the music through a few times before Edward called an end to the rehearsal.
“Good start,” he called over the chatter, “We need to keep working at it if we are going to win the music festival though. Can’t have Holby Ladies Choir beating us again.”
“Hear hear,” shouted Morven.
“Speaking of practising, Liberty and Isaac I’d like to do a few rehearsals with just the two of you to get the solos sorted. Can you both stay for a moment at the end so we can sort this out?”
Isaac grunted and Liberty nodded her head, already walking towards Edward. Edward’s eyes watched her as she approached. He placed a hand in the small of her back as he guided her to the side of the room.
“You better watch that,” commented Morven to Serena.
“Oh it will be nothing,” Serena replied dismissively, “You know Edward, he likes to look but he would be terrified if anything actually happened.”
Edward scheduled extra rehearsals almost every evening that week. They started out with Isaac and Liberty but Liberty asked for more help since she was so new to it all. Serena enjoyed evenings free of her husband. She watched what she wanted on tv, with only minor complaints from Elinor and Jason, and drank her way through whole bottles of Shiraz without having to share. Bliss.
Serena cooked a shepherd’s pie the night before choir rehearsal as usual. Jason liked the routine of the same food each week. She was just taking it out of the oven when Edward walked in through the front door.
“Shepherd’s pie of course,” he grunted as he stepped in the kitchen. He shrugged his coat from his shoulders and slumped down into a chair at the table.
“Would you like a glass of lemonade, Uncle Edward?” asked Jason, “Auntie Serena got it for us as a special treat.”
“Lemonade as a special treat,” Edward repeated, staring down at the table, “Lemonade as a special treat.”
“Dad?” questioned Elinor.
Serena glanced up from serving out the shepherd’s pie.
“Something wrong dear?” she asked.
Edward stood up suddenly, put his coat back on and walked back out the front door, muttering to himself.
“Where is he going?” asked Jason.
“I have no idea,” Serena replied, staring at the closed front door wondering the same thing.
It was late before Edward appeared back at the house. Serena was sat on the sofa in her pyjamas wondering whether she should wait up for him when she heard the front door open. She stood up and walked into the hallway. Edward stood there looking a bit worse for wear. Alcohol fumes poured off him and Serena assumed he had spent the evening in the pub.
“Serena,” he said in a mournful voice, “Serena.”
“Care to tell me what the disappearing act was all about?” she asked.
“Don’t you ever want something more out of life?” he continued, ignoring her question entirely.
“What do you mean?”
“Lemonade as a special treat? Is that the only excitement you want in life?”
Serena took a step towards him.
“Is something bothering you, Edward?” she asked, genuinely worried about him.
“Don’t you ever think about running away from this life, finding somewhere new, something exciting?”
“Not really,” Serena replied, “I quite like my life thank you very much.”
Edward just stood there staring at her.
“Come in and sit down,” Serena said, trying to lead him into the sitting room.
“I want something more.”
Edward lifted his head and stared up at the ceiling.
“I don’t know,” he said in a quiet voice, “I don’t know.”
“Can we talk about this in the morning?” Serena asked. She was hoping that his strange behaviour would wear off after a good night’s sleep.
“I have to go,” Edward announced, turning back towards the front door.
“I don’t know. Anywhere that isn’t this life.”
Serena froze. “Are you leaving me?” she whispered.
“We just got too comfortable,” Edward said, his back still towards Serena, “You got too comfortable. I need something more…”
He paused for a moment and then turned back to Serena.
“Something more interesting.”
Serena felt tears running down her cheeks before she registered that she was crying. Edward took one look at her tears and ran out the front door, slamming it behind him. Serena let herself slump against the wall. She couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Footsteps sounded at the top of the stairs and a second later Elinor appeared.
“Mum?” she said in a frightened whisper, “What happened?”
Serena looked at her and opened her mouth but she couldn’t bring herself to say the words out loud. Elinor came down the rest of the stairs and pulled her mum into a hug.
“Was that dad?” she asked, indicating the front door. Serena nodded as she wept into her daughter’s shoulder. More footsteps could be heard coming from upstairs as Jason made his way down towards them. Serena pulled away from Elinor and wiped the worst of her tears away. She knew it frightened Jason to see her upset.
“Everything’s okay Jason,” she called up the stairs, “Go back to bed.”
The footsteps retreated and Serena and Elinor headed into the sitting room. Elinor sat herself right next to Serena on the sofa and grabbed her hand.
“Mum, what happened?”
Serena took a deep breath. She supposed Elinor would have to find out at some point and it might as well be now.
“Your dad,” she said and then paused for a moment.
“He’s left me.”
“What?” Elinor’s face was the picture of rage. “How can he?”
“Apparently, I’m just not interesting enough for him,” Serena explained.
“Oh mum,” Elinor said pityingly as Serena’s tears started up again.
“Are you sure you want me to go?” Elinor asked, “I can stay here with you if you want.”
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” Serena reassured her daughter, “I don’t want you missing out on something you enjoy.”
Elinor shot one more look back at Serena as she left the house, music in hand.
“Seriously mum, I don’t want to leave you on your own. Choir really isn’t that important.”
“Yes it is. You have the music festival coming up soon. And don’t worry. I won’t be on my own. I was planning on going over to Raf’s instead.”
Serena walked forward and practically pushed her daughter out of the door and down the road towards the church. Then she headed up the stairs to check on Jason.
Jason was sat cross-legged on the floor of his room, back against the bed, headphones on, eyes fixated on his tablet screen. He looked up as Serena stuck her head around the door and removed his headphones.
“Hello Auntie Serena!”
“Hello Jason,” she said, smiling at her nephew, “Just wanted to check if you would be okay with me going round to Raf’s for a couple of hours.”
“I thought you had choir this evening?” Jason asked, confused about the change in routine.
“Yes, well,” Serena started. She took a deep breath. Elinor had already filled Jason in on some of what had gone on last night but she knew he would have questions.
“I don’t really feel like seeing your Uncle Edward tonight,” she said eventually.
Jason nodded sagely, “Because he doesn’t love you anymore.”
Serena fought back the tears that were threatening again.
“Does he love me?” Jason looked up at his aunt, a worried expression crossing his face.
Serena rushed over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Of course he still loves you,” she said forcefully, “And I’m sure he will be in touch soon to tell you himself. He just needs a bit of space.”
Jason nodded again. He reached for Serena’s hand still on his shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“So are you and Raf going to sit and talk about how horrible Uncle Edward is?”
A snort of laughter erupted from Serena’s mouth. “I think that is exactly what we will do Jason! I’ve got my mobile with me. Give me a call if there are any problems.”
Within seconds of Serena explaining to Raf why she was there, he had her sat on the sofa in the living room, blanket round her legs and a glass of Shiraz in her hands.
“Thanks Raf,” she whispered as she took a sip of the wine.
“What are neighbours for?” Raf replied. He’d lived next door to Serena for ten years and they had formed a solid friendship in that time, to the occasional annoyance of Edward when the pair of them drank too much wine and started dancing around the kitchen.
“So come on then, we both know you came round here to rant, let’s get started,” he said with a smile, nudging Serena’s shoulder.
“I just don’t understand. Since when was he bothered about interesting? And since when wasn’t I interesting?”
“You are plenty interesting,” supported Raf.
“He usually complains that I am too excitable, or too drunk. Not that he can talk about that. Just because he is a down in the dumps drunk doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t allowed to enjoy ourselves.”
Serena’s voice was getting louder and louder.
“And now I have to deal with two kids who don’t understand why he has gone. And I can’t explain because I don’t know myself. It isn’t fair.”
The last few words were shouted. Serena took a few deep breaths to calm herself down, then picked her wine glass back up and drank the whole lot in one go. As she placed her glass down on the coffee table, the living room door was pushed open a crack and a child peeked around it. Serena looked at the child, then back to Raf, her eyebrows raised.
“Umm Raf,” she said, “Since when did you have a kid?”
“What?” Raf looked confused for a moment and then glanced over at the door. “Oh Evie, what are you doing up?”
“I heard shouting,” Evie said. Serena coughed and looked over at Raf.
“Nothing to worry about sweetie. Just go back to bed now,” Raf said, standing up and walking over to the door, “Do you want me to come up with you?”
“No, I’ll be okay. Goodnight.”
Serena and Raf listened to Evie’s footsteps on the stairs and heard a bedroom door open and shut. Serena turned to Raf.
“One of my old uni mates is a bit down on his luck at the moment so I have him and his four kids staying,” Raf explained.
“Tell me about it.” Raf rolled his eyes. “Can’t usually move for children or their belongings.”
“And where is this uni friend this evening?”
“He’s at work. He’s a nurse at the hospital.”
Serena nodded. “So you are on babysitting duty.”
“Yep. And every other night this week,” Raf complained but Serena could see his eyes light up. He clearly loved these kids.
“Feel free to give me a shout if it all gets a bit much,” she offered, “I may not have had four but Elinor and Jason often felt like it.”
“Thanks,” said Raf.
“I’m serious,” she said, “I’ve nothing better to fill my time with at the moment. Maybe it will stop me being so boring.”
“Only a madman could call you boring, Serena.”
Serena drove Jason into college the next morning. Edward leaving had hit him hard and he was clearly struggling with it all. She wanted to help him any way she could and if that meant driving him through the worst of Holby’s rush hour traffic so that he didn’t have to get the bus, then that is what she would do.
They pulled up in the college car park in plenty of time. There were already plenty of teenagers hanging round waiting for their classes to start. Serena recognised a few as people Jason talked about or would occasionally bring home for dinner after college. She squeezed Jason’s hand as he climbed out of the car.
“I’ll pick you up this afternoon, if you want,” she said.
“No thank you. I’m going to the park with some of my friends.”
He climbed out of the car and was immediately waved over to a group of teenagers by a very pretty girl who Serena did not know. She smiled as he walked over to them happily. She knew Jason had sometimes had a hard time making friends so it was nice to see that he had some at the moment. She pulled the car out of the car park and set off home.
On the way she stopped off at Sainsbury’s. Throwing food into the trolley, she allowed her mind to drift. She wondered what Edward was up to right now. She hadn’t had any contact from him for the past couple of days. Elinor had spoken to him at choir rehearsal but she hadn’t got much out of him. He wouldn’t even tell her where he was staying. She didn’t care that Edward wasn’t speaking to her but it was really unfair what he was doing to the kids. He claimed to care but seemed to have just vanished into the aether. She just couldn’t understand what had come over him. And however much trouble he could be, she missed him around the house, and in her bed.
She rounded the corner into the bread aisle, mind still on other things, and crashed straight into another trolley coming in the opposite direction.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” she said looking up to see whose trolley she had hit. “Oh it’s you!”
Bernie smiled at her. “Don’t worry about it. Nothing broken.”
Serena couldn’t help returning the woman’s bright smile.
“Mind on things other than shopping?” Bernie asked.
“Just a bit,” Serena said. She had a sudden urge to tell Bernie everything. It was strange, she didn’t know anything about this woman other than her name. She looked closely at Bernie, noticing her expressive eyes.
“I know the feeling.” Bernie held her gaze for a few seconds before looking away. “Anyway, best get going. Nice to see you again…I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“A beautiful name for a beautiful woman.”
Serena blushed and looked away. There it was again, that weird feeling in her stomach she got when Bernie was near.
“Nice to see you again Serena,” Bernie said as she pushed her trolley past Serena’s. “No more playing bumper cars with the trolleys though.”
Serena laughed as she set off again down the bread aisle.
It was Elinor who dragged a worse for wear Jason through the front door that evening.
“Found him in the park,” she said, depositing him on the sofa as Serena looked at the pair of them in alarm.
“Jason?” Serena questioned taking in the cuts and bruises on his face and his torn jumper, “What happened, love?”
Jason turned away from her and pressed his face into the back of the sofa.
“Ellie?” Serena asked.
“I’m not sure. I didn’t get there in time. But I saw a group of teenagers running away from him.”
Serena stood up from her chair and sat down next to Jason on the sofa. She placed a hand gently on his shoulder.
“Jason this is important. Can you tell me what happened?”
He mumbled something into the sofa cushion.
“You won’t get into trouble Jason. I just need to know.” Serena squeezed his shoulder.
Eventually Jason turned around and looked at Serena.
“I thought they were my friends,” he said in a small voice. Serena’s heart broke and she drew him towards her, pillowing his head on her chest.
“What happened?” she whispered as she combed her fingers through his hair.
“They said they wanted my tablet and I said they couldn’t have it because I needed it to do my work and watch tv on. Then they tried to take it from my bag. I tried to stop them but there were more of them and they are better at fighting than me. Can I have fighting lessons?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Serena said as she tried to keep her voice calm. Inside she was seething with anger at these kids who claimed to be Jason’s friends. “Do these people go to your college?”
“Some of them do. Lola sits next to me in our English class.”
“I think tomorrow morning I need to go and have a word with your principal.”
“Please don’t” begged Jason, “If you tell on them then I won’t have any friends left.”
Serena held him tightly as he began to cry. “I know it will be hard Jason, but they aren’t really your friends. You don’t deserve to be treated like this.” She wished Edward was here right now. For all his faults, he was really good with Jason. He’d know what to do in this situation.
Elinor slipped out of the room and appeared a few minutes later with a tray of hot drinks. She handed Serena a cup of tea and Jason a large mug of hot chocolate. He had calmed down a lot and was now sat properly on the sofa.
“Thank you Ellie,” he said as he took a sip.
“I’ll always be your friend,” Elinor said seriously, “You do know that Jason?”
He nodded. “I’ll always be your friend Ellie.”
Serena drove Jason into college again the next morning. She glanced around the car park but she couldn’t see the group of kids that Jason was with yesterday anywhere.
“Come on,” she said kindly to Jason, “Let’s get this over and done with.”
Jason nodded and followed her out of the car and into the reception.
It wasn’t long before the principal was able to see them. Serena explained the situation and was grateful to find that the principal, who insisted upon being called Alan, was sympathetic. She really didn’t want to have to get angry again. She just wanted it all to be sorted out. She’d never expected to deal with something like this without the support of Edward. Jason was more open about what had happened than last night which Serena was grateful for. The teenagers responsible were soon pulled out of class and suspended.
“I’m going to make sure this never happens again,” Alan said to Jason, “They will be removed from all of your classes and won’t be allowed in the canteen at lunch time. Come and tell me if anything else happens, however small, and they will be immediately expelled.”
Jason nodded sadly. Serena squeezed his hand. She knew he was still feeling lonely.
“Would you like to go back to class now?” she asked, “I just need a quick word with Alan.”
Jason picked up his bag and trudged off towards his next class. Serena watched him go feeling guilty. She should have taken more notice of who Jason’s friends were. Should have made sure everything was alright. She clearly hadn’t been paying attention to any of the people she lived with recently. How else would she get into this position with a husband who had left her and a nephew being bullied?
Once Jason was out of sight she let her head fall into her hands.
“I should have done more,” she said in a muffled voice, “It should never have got this bad.”
Alan sat down in the chair next to her.
“You have no need to feel guilty. If anything, this is my fault. I should know what is going on in my college,” he said.
Serena looked up at him. He smiled at her. “We will get this all sorted out and get Jason back to being the happy person I know he can be.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
Then Serena spoke up. “He says he doesn’t have any other friends.”
“Well that is something we can try to help with,” he said firmly.
“How?” Serena asked, amazed at Alan’s confidence.
“Well, let’s get him involved in some kind of club. What does he like doing?”
“You mean apart from watching Doctor Who and World’s Strongest Man? I’m not sure.” The guilty feeling washed over Serena again. She should know what her nephew liked to do.
“How about both of us try to talk to him and find out? You have my contact details so give me a call next week. We can compare notes and see what might work.”
He gave Serena another smile which she returned gratefully.
“Thank you,” she said earnestly, “Thank you.”
Her heart felt a bit lighter as she left the college and drove back home.
“Do you know that one of your brake lights is out?”
Serena spun round in surprise at the voice as she climbed out of the car, knocking her head on the car door and nearly falling over.
Strong arms caught her. “Are you okay?”
Serena looked up into Bernie’s face and closed her eyes for a moment, assessing her pain levels.
“Yes I think so, just a bump.” She steadied herself on her feet again and Bernie released her arms. Serena felt a strange loss as the sensation of being wrapped in Bernie’s arms was removed. “What were you saying before I made a fool of myself?”
“I don’t think you are capable of making a fool of yourself,” Bernie murmured causing Serena’s cheeks to burn.
Bernie stepped round to the back of Serena’s car. She pointed at the right hand brake light. “Your brake light is out. Did you know?”
Serena sighed. “Of course it is. Why would anything just work like it is supposed to this week?”
“Do you have a spare?” Bernie asked.
“I think there is one in the garage. I don’t know how to fix it though. That was always Edward’s job.” Once again, the lack of Edward in her life made her feel bereft.
“Edward?” questioned Bernie.
“My husband, well for the moment anyway.”
Bernie looked at her with a puzzled expression. Serena only thought for a moment about how appropriate it was to spill out all your personal problems to a complete stranger before she began to speak.
“He left me. Says I’m not interesting enough. And now my life is falling apart around me. My nephew is being bullied, my daughter is trapped between her fighting parents and I don’t even get to go to choir to take my mind off everything.”
Bernie took a step towards Serena as she spoke.
“I can’t fix everything but I can fix your brake light if you want,” she said softly.
Serena looked at her, saw the gentle look in her eyes, and nodded. She felt her anger dissipate. “Ok. Yes. That would be nice.”
Bernie smiled. “Shall we go and look for the spare bulb?”
The garage was fairly well organised and it did not take long for them to locate the spare bulb. Bernie started removing the old bulb while Serena headed inside to put on the kettle. She brought out two mugs of steaming hot tea moments later to find Bernie finished.
“I didn’t realise it was that easy!” Serena said, handing over one of the mugs of tea.
Bernie took a sip of tea, looking over the top of the mug at Serena. “I’ve had a lot of practise.”
Serena’s stomach did a flip as Bernie continued to stare at her, her usual quick wit vanishing.
“So you, well, know how to, sort of, fix cars?”
Bernie just smiled and nodded, seemingly oblivious to Serena’s sudden lack of eloquence.
Just then they were interrupted by a small toddler shooting out of the open front door of the next house, heading straight down the garden path and running down the road past them. The toddler was closely followed by a man screaming as he ran.
“Theo! Come back!”
Quick as a flash, Bernie stuck out a hand and grabbed the back of the toddler’s jumper, causing him to stop still. Large eyes turned to see who was halting his escape attempt and his bottom lip began to tremble.
The man caught up to them and swung the toddler into his arms before the crying could start.
“Thanks,” he said to Bernie, “Theo can run pretty fast when he puts his mind to it.”
“I take it you are Raf’s friend? The nurse?” Serena confirmed.
“Yep that’s me. Name’s Adrian Fletcher, but everyone calls me Fletch.”
“Nice to meet you Fletch, and Theo,” Serena said, waving her hand at the toddler who was looking at each of the adults in turn, wondering what was going to happen next, “I think I’ve already met one of your other children.”
“Ah, so are you the scary shouty lady from the other night?” Fletch questioned. Serena blushed.
“I suppose I must be. Serena Campbell.” Serena could see Bernie looking at her again.
Bernie turned to Fletch and stuck out her hand. “I’m Bernie,” she said, shaking his hand.
“Well it has been very nice to meet you both but I think I should be getting this horror back inside now. We were about to do some washing before this one decided to make a bid for freedom,” Fletch said. Bernie and Serena waved at Theo as he walked back up the garden path and into the front door, closing it firmly behind him.
“Scary shouty lady?” asked Bernie quietly.
Serena turned to look at her, “I was ranting about Edward.” Bernie gave her a knowing look and nodded.
They finished off their cups of tea in silence, just enjoying the sunshine sat on the front door step. Serena tried not to let her mind drift back to thinking about Edward again.
“I should be getting going now,” Bernie said, placing her cup down to her side, “Thanks for the tea.”
“Not a problem,” Serena replied, “Thanks for sorting out my car. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“Oh I’m sure you would have coped, strong independent woman like you!”
Serena smiled at her. Bernie stood up and walked down the drive. She turned back to wave at Serena as she reached the pavement. Serena watched her go until she was out of sight at the end of the road.
Serena spent much of the next week trying to figure out what exactly it was that Jason liked to do. He’d always been quite secretive about what he spent his time doing. He spent so much of his time shut away in his bedroom. Serena snuck into his room while he was at college, being careful to replace everything in precisely the same place that she had found it. She questioned Ellie, who was as clueless as her. She even contemplated calling Edward to see if he had any ideas. She quickly dismissed that. Edward would probably be even more useless than her and Ellie. And it wasn’t like he would answer the phone to her anyway.
The only thing she had managed to discover was some of Jason’s sketchbooks. She had been amazed when she opened the first one. He was quite an accomplished artist. She wondered whether he would like to join some kind of art class or whether it was something that he liked to do my himself. The only way to find out was to ask him.
The following day, once Jason had got back from college, they had all eaten spaghetti bolognese and Serena and Ellie had finished clearing up, Serena climbed the stairs to Jason’s attic bedroom to speak to him. She was about to knock on the door when she realised she could hear something. She pressed her ear to the door, regretting having ever soundproofed his room, and heard Jason singing. He had a lovely voice, clear and bright. Serena realised that she had never heard Jason sing before. The rest of the family were singers, all in the local church choir for years, but Jason had never expressed an interest in joining.
Serena knocked tentatively at the door. Jason stopped singing and opened the door.
“Hello Auntie Serena,” he said, standing aside to let her in.
“Hello Jason.” Serena paused for a moment. She wasn’t sure if she should reveal that she had overheard Jason. In the end, she figured he wouldn’t mind too much. He’d probably hate it more if she kept it a secret from him.
“I didn’t know you liked to sing,” she said as she sank down onto Jason’s computer chair.
“I like singing a lot,” replied Jason, “Did you hear me?”
“Yes, you sounded beautiful.”
Jason smiled at her. “As good as Uncle Edward?”
“Definitely,” Serena replied. “Do you want to join his choir? I’m sure he’d be happy to have you.”
Jason shook his head, “No thank you Auntie Serena. I don’t like the music he sings. I don’t understand the words.”
Serena laughed. She was beginning to understand why she had never heard Jason sing before. All that Latin had been putting him off.
“Would you like to join a choir where they sing songs with words you will understand?” she asked, an idea beginning to form in her mind.
Jason tilted his head to one side as he thought about this. Serena waited patiently for him to consider.
Eventually he spoke, “Yes I think I would.”
Serena smiled. She could see a plan starting to come together that would solve more than one problem at once. She could give herself something to do in the evenings by leading a choir. Jason could make some friends, if she could persuade some other people to join in. She could even help out Raf and Fletch with all the kids by getting some of the older ones to join. And right in the back of her mind, a tiny little thought occurred to her that she might be able to get Bernie to join and then they could spend more time together.
She stood up and kissed Jason on the cheek. “Leave it with me and I will try and organise something.”
Cogs were already turning in her brain as she headed back down the stairs. As she reached the sitting room, she realised she was excited in a way that she hadn’t felt in years. A new project was exactly what she needed.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Sorry this has taken such a long time. I've been drowning in assignments for my degree and then to make things easier, I broke my foot and have been stuck at home for the past few weeks without my notes for this fic. I have since rescued the notes from my flat and with only my dissertation to go, I should have plenty of time to work on this. Next update shouldn't take so long!
It took a few days, numerous phone calls and a couple of house visits but eventually Serena felt like she was making headway with this project. It was nice to have something to take her mind off the situation with Edward. Alan had convinced a few of the teenagers from Jason’s college, having vetted them thoroughly beforehand. Fletch had managed to find a babysitter for the younger kids. Raf had dug out his guitar to accompany them. Serena had sweet-talked the vicar into letting them use the church one evening a week. The only flaw in the plan was the fact that she had no contact details for Bernie. She didn’t even know her last name. She had hoped she would run into her at some point but she’d seen neither hide nor hair of the woman since she’d fixed the brake light. Still, she was determined to go ahead with or without her.
Jason clung onto Serena’s arm in a way he hadn’t since he was a small child as they walked over to the church. She patted his arm gently to reassure him.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she said, “If it all gets a bit much, let me know and we can come straight back home.”
He clung tighter until they spotted a small group of girls from his college crossing the road across from the church. He let go of Serena’s arm and waved at them.
“I didn’t know Celia was coming,” he said, a distant look on his face.
Serena grinned. “Who’s Celia?” she asked, acting innocent.
“The girl in the red t shirt. She’s in some of my classes. She’s really kind.”
Jason’s eyes followed Celia as she crossed the road.
“I’ll go in and set up. Come inside when you are ready,” Serena said, leaving Jason and the girls on the pavement chatting.
Inside, Serena found Raf, Fletch, Evie and a boy Serena assumed to be another of Fletch’s children. He was sitting in the front pew, arms folding and a sulky look on his face.
“Mikey doesn’t want to be here. He feels that singing is too girly for a macho man like himself,” Fletch said with a grin, “However he also felt that being left with the babysitter was beneath him so here he is!”
“Well let’s hope we can change his mind,” Serena teased, ruffling Mikey’s hair much to his obvious annoyance.
By the time Serena had sorted through the lyric sheets and made sure that Raf was comfortable with the chords, Jason and the girls had come into the church. A few other boys from college had joined them as well. Serena was pleased to see Jason confidently leading the group to the front.
“This is my Auntie Serena. She is going to conduct us,” he explained, “And this is Raf. He lives next door to me and he is going to play the guitar.”
Raf raised a hand to wave at the group causing the girls to giggle and blush. Fletch nudged him and they smiled at each other.
Once the introductions were all complete, Serena lead the group through some simple warm ups before starting on their first song. Serena had got Jason to pick the songs to make sure they were ones he approved of. She felt a wave of happiness crash over her as she saw Jason smiling for the first time in a few weeks singing along with the group. Reluctant voices gained confidence and soon the choir was singing loud and clear. Mikey still sat in the front pew, refusing to join them but Serena could see that the enthusiasm was having an effect on him. Maybe he wouldn’t join in this rehearsal but she didn’t think it would be long before he was singing along with the rest of them.
“Thank you so much for coming along,” Serena said at the end of the rehearsal, “I hope you had lots of fun and that you will come back next week.”
She gathered in the lyric sheets and watched as the teenagers from Jason’s college leave. Raf put his guitar back in its case and turned to Serena.
“Thanks Serena. That was really great.” He put an arm around her. “You really are fantastic you know?”
Serena leant her head on his shoulder and sighed. “Could you maybe tell Edward that?”
“I’m not telling Edward anything of the sort. You are well shot of him!” Raf exclaimed.
They left the church together with Fletch, Jason and the kids in tow. Dusk had fallen and Serena was grateful for Raf’s presence to keep her thoughts drifting to all the times that her and Edward had left this church together after a rehearsal. Fletch filled them in on the mishaps of his children over the past few days and the gentle conversation caused Edward to leave her mind.
Ellie was in when they got back to the house.
“So how did it go?” she asked, handing Serena and Jason each a mug of tea.
“It was great. All these people came from my college and Raf played the guitar and we all sang and Auntie Serena was really good at waving her arms around and looking like she knew what she was doing.”
Ellie let out a snort of laughter as Serena glared at her.
“I do know what I’m doing Jason. I’ll have you know that I used to conduct a choir when I was at university. It might have been a few years but I am still perfectly capable thank you very much!”
“Watch out Jason, you might get thrown out of your own choir if you’re not careful!” Ellie joked.
It was Ellie who suggested it in the end. Serena and Jason had just got back from their second rehearsal when she brought it up.
“You know how the music festival is on in a couple of weeks?” she mentioned as they all sat around the kitchen table.
“Mmm,” replied Serena, trying to concentrate on the crossword in the newspaper.
“Well apparently there is still space for another group to sign up.”
“That’s nice dear,” Serena said, still distracted by the crossword. She clicked her pen a couple of times in an attempt to draw inspiration for a particularly challenging clue.
“I thought your choir might like to perform,” Ellie suggested.
“Mum, are you listening to me?”
“Of course dear,” Serena said while writing a clue into the crossword. She looked up at her daughter and smiled. “That sounds nice.”
“Mum! Seriously put that pen down and listen!”
Serena obeyed and raised her eyebrows at her daughter. “Ok Ellie. I’m listening. No need to get cross with me.”
“I was just saying that your choir should sign up for the last spot in the music festival,” Ellie said, exasperatedly.
Serena tilted her head to the side as she thought about it. It hadn’t crossed her mind before; after all they had only had a couple of rehearsals. Would they be ready for a performance? Could they come up with a song in time? Would Jason want to perform? After all, this whole thing had been set up mainly for him.
“Can we Auntie Serena?” Jason urged, “It would be just like being in a real choir.”
She smiled at him. If Jason wanted to, then any other problems could be sorted out. “Of course we can Jason. Shall I give them a ring now and get us all signed up?”
Jason nodded enthusiastically.
“Tell you what Jason, I’ll give them a ring, you start thinking of a name for our choir. We’ll need a name if we are going to perform on stage.”
“Hmm,” he said, clearly thinking it through carefully.
Serena went to fetch the phone while he was thinking. She’d just begun to dial the number when he shouted.
“I’ve got it!”
Serena put the phone down for the moment and turned to him.
“Serenity Sounds,” he said, eyes blazing, “Because serenity is a bit like your name and this is your choir and sounds is what we make and it is alliteration. Alliteration makes things sound better, my English teacher taught me that.”
He beamed at Serena who couldn’t help but beam back. “Ok. Serenity Sounds it is.”
She told the rest of the choir at the next rehearsal about the music festival, and apart from a few worried faces, they seemed really enthusiastic. Serena proceeded to answer numerous questions, mainly from Mikey who seemed to have decided that he would like to be part of the choir. They all seemed happy with the name Jason had picked for them as well. The next issue was deciding what song they should perform. After much debate, they decided on All the Small Things by Blink 182. It was a few years old but everyone there liked it and Serena knew they could perform it well. She immediately got them rehearsing it, modelling each part as necessary. By the end, she was confident that they would be ready in time.
“That last run through sounded amazing!” she exclaimed, “We still have next week to practise and then the music festival is on the Friday.”
She let everyone get on with packing away the music as she sunk down onto the front pew. She smiled to herself as she watched them. The rag tag bunch of people she’d pulled together were really coming together as a choir, and after so few rehearsals. She realised she was looking forward to the music festival in a way she hadn’t in years. She waved as they left the church, leaving only Raf and Jason.
Raf approached her, guitar safely away in its case.
“Serena?” he said, sitting down next to her. She turned slightly to face him.
“Have you spoken to Edward recently?” he asked in a gentle voice.
Serena shook her head. “He still hasn’t passed me on any contact details. Not that I want to be in contact with him.”
Raf placed his hand gently on her arm. She leant into him, thoughts of Edward clouding her previously happy state.
“I’m sorry Serena. I didn’t mean to bring it up. I just thought you should be aware.”
“Aware of what?” she asked.
“There’s been some rumours going around. I don’t know how true they are.”
“Spit it out Raf,” she said, eyebrows raised.
“Apparently, Edward is staying at Liberty’s. Rumour is they are a couple now.”
Serena took in a deep breath, willing the tears not to fall. Raf put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. After a moment, she was aware of Jason sitting down on her other side. She reached blindly for his hand and squeezed it. Then she dragged her hand across her face, stood up and turned to the other two.
“Well there’s no point in dwelling on all that it there?” she said, more brightly than she felt. “Time to go home I think. Lots to do before next week.”
It wasn’t until Ellie and Jason were both fast asleep, and Serena was in bed herself, that she allowed herself to think about Edward. Curled up in a ball underneath the covers she wept for the loss of her marriage. However many times she had wanted to strangle Edward, she still loved him, was starting to wonder if she always would. She longed to have him back in her bed, in her arms, even now. She missed so much. Those days when Edward would be feeling particularly romantic and would come home with flowers. The evenings they had spent wrapped up in each other watching the sunset. The nights, here in this bed, where they would spend hours worshipping each other’s bodies. And now Edward was probably doing all that with Liberty.
In the end, the memories of sharing the bed with Edward became too much. She grabbed the duvet and a pillow and headed down to the living room where she spent an uncomfortable night tossing and turning on the too narrow sofa.
To Ellie and Jason’s great credit, neither of them mentioned anything when they came down the next morning. Ellie placed a cup of tea down on the coffee table next to her, ran her fingers through her mum’s hair and told her that Jason was going to get the bus to college so there was no need to move anytime soon. Jason brought in a plate of toast just before he left and kissed his aunt on the cheek.
Once the house was empty, Serena pulled herself into a sitting position and ate the toast. She carried the duvet and pillow back upstairs and got herself ready for the day. She couldn’t afford to spend all day moping around. There was lots to do before next week. Firstly, she needed to make a start on costumes. It would look a lot better if they were all matching for the festival. She wanted them to look like a coherent and professional choir, not just a random group of people thrown together at the last minute. She refused to acknowledge the part of her thoughts that suggested she wanted to show Edward how capable she was without him.
The day of the festival seemed to come around in an instant. Serena invited all the members of the choir round for tea at her house beforehand, partially as a team building exercise, and partially so that she could make sure they were all on time, wearing the right clothes and knew what they were supposed to do. She was leaving nothing to chance. This was her one opportunity to show the rest of the world that she was worth something. To show Edward that she was worth something.
There were teenagers sat all over the kitchen. Fletch’s four kids were in the sitting room being entertained by Raf as Serena and Fletch rushed around distributing plates of spaghetti bolognese to everyone, Jason’s schedule being followed even in unusual circumstances. Ellie had already escaped the madness for a last-minute rehearsal with the rest of the church choir. Serena enjoyed the hustle and bustle of a full house though. It reminded her of birthday parties for Ellie and Jason in years gone by. Theo made many runs for the open door but found it impossible to get past all the people in the house.
“I need to invest in a cage for this little monster,” Fletch said as he caught him again.
Once the food was eaten and the plates stacked in the dishwasher, Serena gathered the choir together in the living room.
“Now I know this is the first time some of you have done anything like this,” she began as the whole choir looked up at her expectantly, “But there is no need to worry. Just go out there and have fun. That is the most important thing. There will be choirs there that have been performing for years but I don’t want them to put you off. You deserve your place in the festival just as much as they do. So let’s go out there are show them what we are made of!”
Fletch whooped as the rest of the choir clapped.
“Right we better get going now. Coats and shoes on everyone and follow me to the church.”
It was a few minutes before everyone was outside the house, Theo strapped into his buggy to prevent any more escape attempts. Serena led them all along the road towards the church. The church was busy when they arrived. Serena ushered them all into a row behind the church choir, ensuring that Edward was at the far end from her. Ellie spun round as they sat down.
“Nervous mum?” she asked.
From the programmes given out, Serena gleaned that they would be the final choir to perform. She hoped that this would not cause the choir any nerves. It could be hard to watch for so long knowing your turn had yet to come.
Reverend Hanssen stood up at the front of the church and welcomed everyone to the music festival before introducing the first choir, Holby Ladies Choir, the previous year’s winners. They were very good as usual with standout performances from the soloists. After that, a school choir from one of the secondary schools performed. It reminded Serena of her own school choir from years ago. She’d been the principal soloist in her final year and had loved every minute. She clapped long and loud once they had finished.
St James’s Church Choir were up next. Serena squeezed Ellie’s hand and wished her good luck as they filed out of the pews and up onto the stage. She averted her eyes as she noticed Edward kissing Liberty on the cheek. As Mo played the first few notes on the church organ and the choir began to sing, she found her eyes drifting back to Edward. She couldn’t see his face from here but she could tell he was enjoying himself, getting lost in the music.
Liberty’s solo was impressive, Serena had to admit, even if she hated every moment of watching that smug face staring into her husband’s eyes as she sang. She couldn’t help but feel that it should have been her up there on the stage, singing to Edward. She looked over to Ellie to find her staring directly at her, sorrow obvious in her eyes. Serena gave a small smile back and tried to focus on her daughter.
When they had finished, and the audience had stopped applauding, Ellie left the rest of the choir behind and slipped into the pew next to Serena.
“You okay mum?” she whispered as the next choir started setting up.
Serena nodded. “You were great Ellie.”
Ellie reached over and grabbed Serena’s hand. They sat, fingers interlocked, through the next few choirs’ performances, Serena trying not to look at or think about Edward and Liberty canoodling on the row in front.
Then, finally, it was her choir’s turn. Ellie moved up to sit with Theo and Ella as the choir took to the stage. There was an audible giggle from Liberty as she noticed Serena standing at the front of this group of mainly teenagers, all in the same outfits of jeans, white vests and colourful shirts (Jason’s idea. He wanted them to look just like they were in Blink 182). Serena noticed her lean over and whisper something to Edward that caused them to both burst out laughing. She took a deep breath and focused on the situation at hand.
She waved a hand at Raf and he played the first few chords of the song causing the audience to immediately fall silent. Gradually Serena brought in all the different singers as they performed their hearts out. Jason surprised everyone with a confident and assured solo in the middle that made Serena’s eyes well with tears.
As the final few chords sounded, the church was silent. And then came the thunderous applause. Serena spun round to face the audience and led the choir in a bow. The choir skipped back to their seats as Reverend Hanssen took to the stage again.
“Thank you to all the choirs that have performed tonight. You have left the judging panel a very difficult decision. I ask for your patience in this matter. While you wait for the results, refreshments will be served at the front.”
Tables of drinks and cakes were brought out onto the stage as the judging panel disappeared into the church office to deliberate. Serena was grateful to find a large glass of shiraz pressed into her hands by Raf. He sat down next to her and looked over towards where some of the members of the church choir were now sat. Isaac and Liberty were giggling over something. Their frequent glances over towards Serena told her everything she needed to know.
“They’re only jealous,” Raf said, nudging Serena, “You’ve done wonders with the choir. They wish that they got to sing songs as fun as ours and still sound so good.
Serena leaned over and kissed Raf on the cheek. “You’re too good to me Raf. Thank you.”
She sipped her wine and looked over to Jason, sat surrounded by friends. Whatever happened next at least she had been able to help him. She watched as Edward approached him and patted him on the shoulder. Jason smiled at his uncle and they exchanged a few words that Serena couldn’t hear. She was happy to see them communicating though. Jason and Edward had always got on well with each other and she would have hated to see that relationship falter due to the mess between her and Edward.
Reverend Hanssen called them all to order again about half an hour later. Jason sat down next to Serena.
“Do you think we will win, Auntie Serena?” he asked.
“I’m not sure dear,” she answered honestly, “Whatever happens though, I’m so proud of you.”
He grinned at her and turned back to the front.
“Well it has been the most closely fought contest I’ve ever had the privilege of judging,” Reverend Hanssen began, “Two choirs came out with two votes each from the judges. No amount of deliberation would break the tie. So I called in a neutral party to cast the deciding vote.”
He paused and looked towards a door at the back of the church where Serena could see the outline of a figure.
“This seems as good a time as any to introduce to you this neutral party, my new curate, Berenice Wolfe.”
Serena’s head shot up in amazement as she watched Bernie walk out of the doorway and onto the stage. Bernie was the new curate? She didn’t seem like the type at all. There were looks of confusion from other members of the audience as well.
“And I’m going to ask Bernie to announce the results of the contest herself,” continued Reverend Hanssen, ignoring the muttering from the pews.
“In second place, with a beautiful rendition of a choral classic, is St James’s Church Choir.”
Applause filled the church as Edward stepped up onto the stage to collect the trophy. He looked disappointed. Serena knew he had been aiming for a win this year. A small part of her was glad he hadn’t won. The rest of her remembered that her friends and daughter were part of the same choir and clapped for their achievement.
The applause died down as Edward took to his seat again.
“And in first place this year, showing the true spirit of the music festival with a more unusual choice of song, is Serenity Sounds!”
Serena stared at the stage in shock as applause rang out again. Her eyes locked with Bernie’s but she stayed still. It wasn’t until Bernie held out a hand towards her, and Raf gave her an extra push from behind, that she climbed the steps to the stage. Bernie took her left hand in one hand and passed her the trophy with the other. Quick as a flash, Bernie pressed a soft kiss to her cheek and whispered, “Well done. You were amazing,” into her ear. Serena flushed red at the praise and shook herself, remembering where she was. She turned to the audience and gestured to the rest of her choir to come up and join them. She didn’t even look at Edward, trying to focus on her choir.
“Thank you,” she said, addressing both the judges and the audience, “Thank you.”
The drinks continued after the results had been announced. Serena handed over the trophy to the choir, who were all busy taking selfies with it. Ellie had been over to congratulate them, along with various friends from the church choir.
Bernie came over to Serena and sat down next to her. Serena smiled at her.
“Thanks for voting for us, you really didn’t have to,” she said.
Bernie smiled gently at her, “You were the best ones out there.”
“Not everyone thinks so,” Serena said, indicating Liberty, Isaac and Guy all sat in the corner clearly still talking about her.
“Oh ignore them. They wouldn’t know good music if it smacked them in the face.”
Serena laughed, “Thank you. I needed that!”
“You are very welcome.”
Serena had just left the church with Jason when Edward approached them, Liberty following close behind. By the smell emanating from him, Serena could tell he’d had a few too many.
“Edward,” she said by way of greeting.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I suppose you’re pleased with yourself,” he said aggressively, “Got what you wanted now. Made me and my choir lose.”
“Edward please, I did not set up a choir just to beat you in the music festival. It was a nice bonus though!”
Edward took another step towards her. Jason backed away. He didn’t like it when his uncle got drunk.
“You couldn’t have just let it lie, you had to cause trouble. And gallivanting around with that pack of teenagers in those clothes! How old do you think you are? Having some kind of mid-life crisis, are we?”
Serena snorted with laughter. “As if you can talk about mid-life crises!”
Her laughter seemed to anger Edward even more. He snarled at Serena. “You’re just jealous that I have a life.”
He took another step towards her, trying to back her into the wall. Serena tried to stand her ground but Edward was large, angry and very drunk.
Just then, Bernie came out of the church.
“Everything alright?” she asked Serena, stepping between her and Edward. Getting little response from Serena, she turned to Edward.
“I think it is time you went home now Mr Campbell,” she said in a firm, commanding voice. Edward shuffled backwards, then turned to Liberty, grabbed her arm and set off across the churchyard.
Bernie turned back to Serena. “You alright?” she asked, placing a hand on Serena’s arm. Serena nodded and looked around for Jason. He was nowhere in sight.
“Jason’s inside,” Bernie said, gently manoeuvring Serena towards the church door, “He came to get someone to help. I think he was a bit scared.”
“Oh,” said Serena. She allowed Bernie to lead her back into the warmth of the church. Jason was sat on the pew, biscuit in hand, talking to Reverend Hanssen. He looked up and smiled as they came in.
“Has Uncle Edward gone away now?” he asked, “Did Bernie save you?”
“Yes, Uncle Edward has gone home. I don’t think he would have hurt me or you Jason. He was just a bit upset about the festival.”
“I know that. When he drinks he gets a bit angry sometimes. He always says sorry the next day though.”
“And I’m sure he will this time as well.”
“Can we go home now?” Jason asked. “I’m tired.”
“Of course,” Serena replied.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” offered Bernie, “Make sure Edward doesn’t try anything else?”
Serena smiled at her. “That’s very kind of you but we will be ok. Thank you for everything tonight.”
“Not a problem. See you around.”
Serena waved at Bernie as she and Jason exited the church again. Edward was long gone and the walk home was quiet and uneventful. No need for Bernie to be with them. And yet part of Serena really wished she had taken Bernie up on her offer. If would have been nice just to have her company for a bit longer tonight.
Warning for some domestic violence in this chapter between Isaac and Dom.
Also did I mention that this would turn into an ensemble fic? Because it is. Still with a definite focus on Serena and Bernie though.
Dom woke up alone in Isaac’s bed. He rubbed his eyes and rolled out of bed, stumbling towards the bathroom. He could hear the sound of the coffee machine and knew that Isaac must be up, probably reading the paper in the living room. He smiled to himself as he turned on the shower. He’d never thought, not in a million years, that he could be capable of getting a boyfriend as sophisticated as Isaac was. Not when he was so useless at everything. He had no idea why Isaac put up with him.
Rubbing shampoo into his hair, he began to sing, not one of the songs from choir but a pop song he’d heard on the radio. He sang loud and clear as he finished off his shower and pulled a towel around himself. He was still humming as he dressed and went through to the living room to join Isaac.
Isaac was sitting at the table, head buried in a newspaper. He pushed a bowl of fruit salad towards Dom as he sat down. Dom pulled a face at the fruit.
“Got any bread? I’ll make some toast,” he said.
Isaac dropped the paper down to the table and raised an eyebrow at Dom.
“Honestly Dom, you should really think more about what you eat. Don’t want that belly to grow any more than it already has.”
Dom dropped his eyes to the table and nodded. He pulled the bowl of fruit salad closer and picked up a spoon. Reluctantly, he ate a mouthful of fruit.
“Was that you singing in the shower?” Isaac asked from behind the newspaper again.
Dom nodded, his mouth still full of fruit salad. He swallowed it and opened his mouth to speak.
“You really need to work on your pitch,” Isaac cut him off, “A lot of the notes were very flat.”
Dom nodded silently and went back to his rather disappointing breakfast.
“You are so lucky that Edward doesn’t audition for the church choir,” Isaac continued, still reading the newspaper, “It’s very good of him to support those people whose voices are inferior.”
Dom dropped his spoon into the bowl. “Like me?” he asked.
Isaac put down the paper and looked at Dom. “Well you must know that most other people in the choir have much stronger voices than you.”
Dom swallowed and bit his lip.
“Hey, come on. You just failed to hold a tune in the shower! Even Zosia said something to you about your voice at the last rehearsal.”
“She was just worried that I had a cold,” Dom whispered.
“Worrying over nothing again was she? Very clingy, isn’t she? I don’t know how you deal with all her interfering.” Isaac’s voice was light and playful.
“She’s my friend,” Dom stated.
“I think she wants to be a bit more than that. She does know you’re gay right?”
“Are you sure? Sure you haven’t been leading her on?” The playfulness had gone from Isaac’s voice. Now there was a touch of anger.
Dom turned away. He really didn’t want to have this conversation right now. He didn’t want Isaac to shout at him again.
“How dare you turn your back on me?” Isaac retorted.
Dom curled in on himself, trying to pretend he wasn’t in the room. He heard Isaac stand up and move towards his chair.
“Have you been cheating on me with Zosia?” Isaac asked from behind gritted teeth.
Dom said nothing. He pulled his knees up to his chest.
“Answer me Dominic.”
Dom still didn’t respond. Isaac grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the chair. Dom stumbled as he found his footing on the floor. Then Isaac pushed him against the wall of the flat.
“Answer me Dominic,” he repeated.
Dom cried out in fear. He could feel anger radiating off Isaac’s body. He tried to push Isaac out of the way but it just made him angrier.
With a shout of anger, Isaac drew back his arm and slapped Dom hard across the face.
“Get out!” he shouted, “Get your cheating, lying ass out of this flat right now.”
Dom pushed back off the wall, his cheek stinging from the slap and tears running down his face, and headed towards the bedroom to collect his stuff.
“Out!” shouted Isaac again, stopping Dom and physically pushing him out of the front door. “And don’t think I’m going to forgive you this time. You’ve gone too far.”
Isaac slammed the front door shut in Dom’s face and he sunk down to the floor. He had no idea what he was going to do now.
Serena was exhausted. On Jason’s suggestion, they had taken a trip over the weekend down to London. Jason had wanted to see the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library and Serena had figured they might as well make a weekend of it and visit some of the other museums while they were there. It had all been going so well, with a visit to the British Library followed by a look around the Wellcome collection on Saturday. She was fast asleep in the adjoining hotel room to Jason when her phone rang at 3am on Sunday morning. Blearily she answered the phone to find her very angry neighbour on the other end.
“Music blaring out, teenagers fighting in the street and throwing up in the gardens.”
Serena closed her eyes and tried to imagine that this was all just a horrible nightmare that she would wake up from in a moment.
“I’m so sorry Mr Hanney,” she replied, trying to calm the man down, “Please don’t call the police yet. I’ll ring Elinor myself and get her to sort it out.”
He hung up the phone and Serena pressed the button to call Elinor’s mobile. She cursed Elinor as she listened to the dial tone. She had assumed that at the age of 18, Elinor would be fine left in the house on her own. It appeared she had been sadly mistaken.
The phone rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail. Serena sighed. Of course her daughter wouldn’t answer the phone. Not when there was important partying to do. She thought about calling the police herself but she couldn’t bear to get Elinor into trouble, she’d been so good recently with all the issues with Edward and Jason.
She decided in the end to call the house phone. There was always a possibility that someone would pick it up, even if it wasn’t Elinor herself. She dialled the number and once again listened as it rang. Just at the point that Serena was thinking that no one would answer, the phone was picked up.
“Hello?” said a quiet, familiar voice.
“Bernie?” asked Serena, completely surprised. What was going on? Had Bernie been at the party?
“Bernie. What are you doing in my house?”
“Oh yeah, about that. I was out for a run, couldn’t sleep you see, and I heard all this noise coming from your house. So I went over to investigate and found your neighbour stood there shouting at all these teenagers. I gave him a hand getting rid of them and shutting the music down.”
“Oh.” Serena didn’t know what to say. Once again, Bernie was solving her problems for her.
“Did you want to speak to Elinor? She’s asleep on the sofa but I can wake her if you want.”
“No, no, leave her to sleep. I’ll speak to her in the morning.”
“Ok Serena.” There was a pause. Serena could hear Bernie’s breathing over the phone.
“Thank you Bernie,” she said eventually.
“You’re welcome,” Bernie replied quietly. “I’m sorry you got woken up. Mr Hanney said he’d called you.”
“Yeah. That’s the last time I leave Elinor in the house on her own.”
“I think she might have learnt her lesson. She was mortified when I arrived and started throwing people out.”
“I’m still grounding her for a month,” Serena muttered.
Bernie laughed on the other end of the phone. Serena smiled at the ridiculous sound.
“Well thank you again,” she said, “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there.”
“It really wasn’t a problem Serena.”
“Goodnight Serena. I hope the rest of your trip goes well.”
Serena smiled as she put the phone down, the anger she had felt towards Elinor dissipating and being replaced by the warm feeling she got whenever she spoke to Bernie. Thinking thoughts only of Bernie, she pulled the duvet back around her and fell asleep instantly.
Dom had spent most of the day wandering round town trying to figure out what he should do next. He thought about phoning Zosia but he couldn’t bear the questions she would inevitably ask and the look on her face when she found out what Isaac had done. She had told him that Isaac was bad news weeks ago but he hadn’t listened. Too stupid to listen. No wonder Isaac had thrown him out.
Mid-morning, once he knew that Isaac would be at work, he snuck back into the flat and gathered up a few belongings in a rucksack. Just before he left, he grabbed a sleeping bag. He had no idea where he was going to sleep that night but he could at least be prepared.
It was dark and cold before it occurred to him that he had a set of keys for the church. He often helped with the flowers on a Sunday and Reverend Hanssen had trusted him to let himself in and out. Knowing the church would be empty at night, he headed over. As long as he was gone early in the morning before anyone else came in, no one would ever have to know he was there. It seemed like the perfect plan. He set up his sleeping bag in the church office, set his phone alarm for early the next morning and fell into a fitful sleep.
Serena spoke briefly to Elinor in the morning after breakfast. She threatened her with further grounding as well as the removal of her mobile phone and laptop if the house wasn’t spotless upon their return. She spent the rest of the day concentrating on Jason. She really didn’t want to let the events of last night spoil the weekend she had set aside for him. They visited the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum before heading back to the station to catch their train.
It was late in the evening before they made it back to the house. Serena had expected to find a sheepish Elinor sat in the sitting room waiting for their return but the house was silent. She walked into the kitchen to find a note on the table.
You are treating me like a child when I am 18. I had a party. Big deal. You did it loads when you were this age. You have no right to ground me or take away my mobile. Until you calm down and start treating me like the adult I am, I will be at Dad and Liberty’s.
Don’t bother contacting me.
Judging by the state of the house, Serena reckoned that Elinor had written this note straight after their phone call this morning. She had clearly done no cleaning and had written the note in anger. She knew Elinor could be like that, like her. They both got angry and did things they regretted later. She expected Elinor to come crawling back in the morning, mumbling apologies and bearing chocolates. Serena took a deep breath and headed upstairs to check on Jason. She just hoped that none of the party mess had ended up in his bedroom. She couldn’t cope with one of his meltdowns at this point.
There was still no sign of Elinor in the morning. Serena dropped Jason at college and then set about putting the house back in order. She was just taking out another load of beer cans to the recycling bin when Bernie stopped outside the house.
“I take it Elinor didn’t do much cleaning then,” she said.
Serena dropped the cans into the bin. “Not as such.”
“Want a hand?” Bernie offered.
“I’ll be fine,” Serena replied. She wanted to spend time with Bernie but she couldn’t get her cleaning the house, not after she shut the party down practically singlehandedly.
“I’d like to,” Bernie said.
Serena looked at her. The offer did seem genuine. And she really could do with the help right now.
“Okay, that would be great,” she relented, “There is another pair of rubber gloves under the kitchen sink if you want.”
Bernie smiled at her and followed her into the house.
It was almost fun, cleaning with Bernie. It was definitely faster. Between the two of them, they had the downstairs clear of rubbish within minutes. Serena fetched the vacuum cleaner and Bernie got started on that while Serena wiped down all the surfaces, trying not to think about what the sticky messes might be. They chatted to eat other as they worked, mainly about what Serena and Jason had got up to at the weekend. Bernie seemed reluctant to reveal many details about her own life but Serena did manage to get out of her that she was divorced with two teenage children of her own.
“This isn’t the first house party I’ve had to clean up after,” Bernie said, smiling at Serena, “Cam could be a nightmare about it when he wanted to be.”
“Cam is your son?” Serena asked.
“Yeah,” confirmed Bernie, “He’s 19 now. And Charlotte has just turned 15.”
“They don’t live with you, do they?” Serena checked. She didn’t think they did, thought they might have met already if they did.
“No. They live with their dad in London.”
By the look on Bernie’s face, there was a lot more to this than she was saying. Serena didn’t push though. She didn’t want to scare Bernie away.
Once the house was tidy again, Serena offered Bernie a cup of tea.
“I’m sorry, I need to rush off. I need to prepare the accounts before the committee meeting this afternoon,” she said.
“I’ll see you there then,” Serena replied. She might have given up her place in the church choir, but she was still firmly on the church committee.
Serena opened the front door for Bernie. Bernie stepped out and then turned back to Serena.
“Here,” she said, handing Serena a piece of paper from her pocket, “It’s my mobile number. In case you need any more help removing teenagers from the house or changing lightbulbs or anything really.”
Bernie looked down at her feet. Serena smiled at the shy woman in front of her and took the piece of paper.
“Thank you Bernie, you’ve been brilliant.”
She reached out and squeezed Bernie’s arm. Bernie looked up and gave her a small smile before spinning round and heading off down the road.
Serena went back inside and programmed Bernie’s number into her phone. She shot her a quick message so that Bernie would have her number as well. Then she collapsed onto the sofa, intending on not moving until the church meeting that afternoon.
Serena passed Dom sitting on a bench outside the church. She waved at him but he didn’t appear to see her. He looked distracted, a large rucksack on the seat next to him. He cheek was slightly reddened. She made a mental note to seek him out later and check on him. She knew that however much he liked to seem grown up and in charge of his life, he was still a little boy at heart and needed care and attention.
The church committee meeting started as usual. Reverend Hanssen ran though the church finances and accounts; Bernie sat at his side passing him pieces of paper as necessary. Serena met her eyes across the table at one point and grinned at her. They went over the flower and tea and coffee rotas for the next month and Isaac read out a report from the church choir. Serena was grateful that Edward hadn’t shown up this month. While officially on the church committee, mainly because of his running of the church choir, his attendance was patchy at best.
Once they approached the Any Other Business section of the meeting, Serena spoke.
“I have had a request from the mother and baby group to use our church to meet in.”
“Definitely not,” said Isaac firmly.
“Their usual meeting place is undergoing repairs and they need somewhere to meet in the meantime,” Serena continued, ignoring the interruption, “It would be a good source of income for the church and would support some of the more vulnerable members of our congregation.”
“That’s the thing though. They are not members of our congregation. Sure, they turn up for the christening but then they disappear off again. Why should we let them use the church when they will never turn up on a Sunday?” Matteo countered.
“Christian spirit and friendship?” muttered Bernie under her breath. Serena smiled at her. At least one person in the room understood.
“I was always taught that the church was welcoming to everyone, not just those who turn up on a Sunday,” Serena said, trying to stay calm. She felt Bernie’s eyes on her. “I believe it is our duty to help out this group and any other groups who need a space to meet.”
“Hear, hear,” cried Morven as Isaac glowered at her.
Reverend Hanssen, ever the diplomat, called for a vote before the situation got too heated. Serena found that she had the support of Bernie, Morven and Raf. Unfortunately, Isaac, Matteo, Jac and Jasmine all voted against and Hanssen announced that the request would be denied. Serena was sure she saw a hint of sorrow in his eyes as he spoke. He clearly wanted to accept the request. The church committee was too strong for him to rule against however.
Bernie caught up with Serena as the meeting ended.
“Don’t call the mother and baby group quite yet,” she said, “I might be able to find a way.”
“Ok,” Serena replied.
“Give me until the end of the week to work on Hanssen and the rest of the committee.”
Serena nodded before standing and leaving the church. The bench Dom was on earlier was empty and he was nowhere in sight. She briefly considered going round to his and Isaac’s flat to check on him before dismissing it. She didn’t want to interfere where she wasn’t wanted. She’d just have to catch up with him another day.
This chapter is a bit Bernie and Serena light. Next one will have more interaction between them.
Dom woke the following day to the sound of the church doors opening. He sat up with a start and glanced over at his phone wondering why the alarm hadn’t gone off. The black screen indicated that the battery was flat and Dom noticed he hadn’t plugged in the charger last night.
Footsteps could be heard in the church as he scrambled out of the sleeping bag and pulled on his jeans. He tried to pack up all his stuff as quickly as possible and then slipped out of the church office and down the corridor. He caught a glimpse of blonde curls as he left through the backdoor of the church, only realising he had left his sleeping bag once the door had shut. He couldn’t go back now though. Bernie was there and she would know it was him. She couldn’t know. He couldn’t let her see how useless he really was. He zipped his rucksack shut and then ran off. He didn’t want anyone to see him near the church and connect him with the sleeping bag.
Bernie made her way through the church as usual, heading for the office at the back. She thought she heard a noise at one point but dismissed it as just the pipes. In an old building like this, they could be very loud.
She stepped into the church office and nearly tripped over the bright red sleeping bag on the floor. What on earth was that doing there? Glancing around the office, she spotted a few other things that didn’t belong there. A pair of socks was balled up under the desk and a toothbrush and toothpaste was sitting on the top. Unsure what to do next, Bernie picked up her mobile and phoned the only person she knew who wouldn’t just call the police.
“Serena, hi,” she said once the phone had been picked up, “Are you free to come over to the church this morning? There is a bit of a situation. Nothing serious but I would appreciate your input.”
Edward pushed his scrambled eggs around the plate mindlessly, his thoughts on other things. Liberty and Elinor watched him nervously from the other side of the table.
“Are you alright darling?” Liberty asked, noticing that Edward hadn’t taken a bite of food in the last five minutes, “Are the eggs ok for you?”
Edward glanced up at her, as though noticing for the first time that she was there.
“Oh, yes Lib, they’re great thanks.”
Liberty stood up and began massaging his shoulders. Elinor pulled a face and left the room. She didn’t want to see her father playing happy couples with Liberty any more than she had to.
“Eddy, tell me what’s wrong. I can tell something’s bothering you.”
Edward turned in his seat and looked Liberty in the eye.
“It’s just the festival,” he said.
Liberty nodded. “You’re still angry that Serena won.”
Edward sighed. It really had been the last thing he had expected, to be beaten by Serena’s so called choir. They had only formed a couple of week ago for goodness sake. How could they possible be any better than his choir?
“Well we won’t let it happen again,” stated Liberty.
“No. Because we know why we lost and we can fix it.”
Edward looked at her confused, “We lost because they had a more modern song. Are you suggesting that we start singing pop songs?”
“Goodness me no!” exclaimed Liberty, “We didn’t lose because of our song but because the choir doesn’t have enough ambition.”
“Yes. I can see that it has been lovely to have this little local choir that welcomes everyone, no matter how well they can sing, but this cannot go on if you want to have a serious chance of winning competitions. What we need to do is to push the choir further than it has ever gone before and weed out those who cannot keep up with the pace.”
“Weed them out?” Edward asked reluctantly.
“We need to hold auditions.”
Serena met Bernie at the door of the church. Bernie beckoned her inside and motioned towards the church office. She entered to find the items Bernie had discovered earlier.
“I think someone might be sleeping in the church,” Bernie said as Serena turned to look at her.
Serena ran her hand over the sleeping bag. “It does look that way. Any idea who?”
“Not so far. That’s why I contacted you. I thought you might be better at figuring it out. You’ve lived here much longer than I have.”
“Well whoever it is must be desperate. This floor is awfully solid. It would be really uncomfortable.”
“Yeah. I didn’t want to call anyone else. I was worried they would just call the police and I’m not having someone carted away to the police station just because they have nowhere else to go,” said Bernie firmly.
“I’ve no idea who it could be but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open. I suppose we better tuck these things away before anyone else sees,” suggested Serena
“I don’t know whether the owner will return for them. I think I scared them away this morning.”
“Well let’s just tidy them up into the corner. Then they can collect them later if they feel brave enough.”
Together they rolled up the sleeping bag and collected the other belongings together into a box that they placed in the corner of the office.
“I’m just glad that it was you and not one of the other members of the church committee that found this,” Serena commented once everything was tidied away, “If they weren’t willing to let a mother and baby group borrow the church for a few weeks, goodness knows what they would think about someone sleeping rough in the church.”
“Mmm,” Bernie agreed, “They’ve clearly never heard of the whole church as a place of sanctuary for the needy thing.”
Serena laughed. “No, to them going to church is about being better than everyone else. Nothing to do with religion.”
“Well I’ll have to see what I can do to change that,” promised Bernie.
“Auditions?” repeated Morven, staring at Edward in disbelief, “You’re holding auditions? For the choir?”
“Isn’t the whole point of this choir that it is welcoming to everyone? That it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are?” said Mo.
“Exactly,” agreed Zosia, standing with her hands on her hips looking rather stern.
“Well, let’s not call them auditions,” Edward said, desperately trying to placate his suddenly rather angry choir. “Let’s call them a chance for each of you to show me what you can do. No one is going to be forced to leave.”
“Well I think it sounds like a marvellous idea,” said Isaac, “If we want to become a better choir, then we need to know where our strengths and weaknesses lie.”
He looked over at Dom while he was speaking. Dom seemed to shrivel backwards behind Sacha.
“Well thank you Isaac,” Edward said, “So next week I want everyone to come ready to perform the first verse and chorus of this.”
He began passing around sheet music to the sound of loud muttering.
“Don’t worry. We will start practising this week so you all get a chance to see how the parts go. Then you can practise by yourselves over the week and be ready to wow me next week.”
The grumbling from certain members of the choir continued throughout the rehearsal and Edward was shot some very dirty looks as they all left the church. His guilt was soon assuaged by Liberty putting her arms around him and kissing him.
“Think of how fantastic we are going to be!” she gushed, “Serena’s little choir has no chance against us.”
Dom slipped into the church office once the rehearsal was over, partially in an attempt to avoid Isaac. He’d debated skipping choir to make sure he didn’t have to see him but the joy that choir gave to him was enough to make him think again. To his relief, he found that his sleeping bag and other belongings were there, neat and tidy in the corner. A note was attached, signed by Bernie, suggesting that the owner of the sleeping bag was not in trouble but might want to contact her so she could help. She’d written down her address and phone number and drawn a smiley face on the end. Dom stared at the note for a while, contemplating the situation, before stuffing it in his pocket, gathering up his things and leaving the church silently. He wasn’t going to stay there another night. He really didn’t want to get caught. Instead he headed for the park. It was dark now and the park would be deserted, no children playing on the playpark, no teenagers kicking a ball around, no joggers doing circuits. The benches may not be that comfortable but they were better than nothing. Using his bag as a makeshift pillow, Dom curled up in his sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep under the cold night sky.
“Edward’s really holding auditions? For the church choir?” Serena questioned Morven and Ric over a drink in the local pub.
“Well apparently they aren’t really auditions,” Morven replied, “It’s a chance to show Edward what we can do.” She spoke in a low voice, imitating Edward.
“Things have changed Serena, since you left,” Ric said, draining his glass of wine, “We miss you.”
“But auditions! Really! What does Hanssen think about it?” Serena asked. She couldn’t imagine the stern yet caring vicar liking the idea of auditions for his beloved church choir.
“I don’t get the feeling the idea was run past him at any point. I think this was a decision made by a committee of two, if you see what I mean,” Ric answered.
Serena did see what he meant. She saw exactly what he meant. This was something that Liberty had cooked up and goodness knows Edward never needed much persuading when a plan was suggested by a pretty blonde. She still couldn’t believe that he would have the gall to change the whole atmosphere of the church choir. It was supposed to be a welcoming environment where they all had a chance to do their best and have fun. Auditions definitely did not fit into this ideal.
“You’re well shot of him,” Morven said as she watched the anger grow on Serena’s face.
“I agree,” Ric said. He stood up from the table. “How about another bottle of Shiraz? This one seems to have vanished rather quickly.” He looked pointedly at Serena who smirked back at him.
“Go on then,” she said, “Not like I’ve got anyone to be getting back for. Jason’s away on a residential trip with college.”
Ric headed towards the bar leaving Serena and Morven alone at the table. Morven looked over at Serena who had slumped down in her chair.
“Elinor still with Edward and Liberty then?” she asked delicately.
“If it helps, she really didn’t look happy about it at choir. She spent the entire time avoiding Liberty.”
Serena sighed. “That girl is way too stubborn to admit she had made a mistake. I’m not expecting her home this side of Christmas, however much she hates living with them.”
Auditions came around quickly and soon the whole church choir was assembled in the church.
“So everyone will get a chance to sing on their own, with just me watching and Mo accompanying. If everyone can wait their turn in the side room, I’ll call you in when I’m ready.”
The choir trooped into the side room, various members looking extremely nervous. Mo seated herself at the church organ and placed the music on the stand. She looked at Edward who was fiddling with bits of paper at the front.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said.
Edward looked up at her in surprise.
“You could just cancel the auditions and hold a normal rehearsal instead. No one would hold it against you.”
Edward shook his head, “These aren’t auditions at all, Mo. Not really.”
“They are and we all know it. Just because Liberty suggests something, doesn’t mean you have to agree with her.”
Edward sighed. “She’s right though. We do lack ambition. And with a bit of a push, imagine how great we could be. How great all of us could be.”
“Fine, fine, carry on,” Mo said, holding up her hands, “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Edward shuffled his papers one more time and then walked towards the side room to collect the first singer. Liberty bounced out into the main church.
“I wanted to be first, Eddy,” she said, “Show the others that there is nothing to worry about.”
Edward smiled at her and kissed her quickly, much to Mo’s disgust. “That’s so kind of you Lib.” Mo pulled another face but neither of them noticed.
Liberty settled at the front and Mo played the first few chords for her. As expected, Liberty sang beautifully, hitting every note with precision and filling the whole church with her voice.
“Thank you Liberty. That was beautiful as ever,” Edward said as she finished.
“Thanks sweetie,” Liberty said, moving towards Edward to kiss him again. He obliged her, wrapping his arms around her waist until Mo cleared her throat loudly. Edward dropped his arms and took a step backwards.
“Will you go and fetch the next person please, Lib,” he said, avoiding Mo’s glare.
Isaac came out next and gave another strong performance. He was rapidly followed by Ric, Jasmine and Matteo who all performed well. Morven came out next, looking visibly nervous.
“Don’t worry, Morven,” Edward said, trying to calm her down, “Just pretend like it’s any other choir rehearsal and you’ll be fine.”
Morven gave him a small smile and then looked back at the music. She took a deep breath as Mo began to play and opened her mouth.
Edward tried not to wince as Morven sang the first few notes flat. He smiled to try and encourage her. He knew Morven wasn’t the best of singers but she could usually hold her own. She improved slightly as the piece went on but both of them knew that it hadn’t been a great audition. She ran off as soon as she had finished and Edward saw Jasmine follow her into the toilets. He hoped Jasmine could reassure her friend.
The rest of the auditions followed through quickly, with strong performances from Sacha, Jac, Ellie and Zosia. Essie and Ollie held their own despite having weaker voices and Edward was pleased with how hard they had worked.
Dom was the last to audition. He’d arrived late and looked rather dishevelled. He’d sat down in the side room as far from Isaac as he could manage and refused to speak to anyone. When Edward called him into the church, he walked in, shoulders slumped, and stood staring into the middle distance. Edward handed him the music and Mo started up with the opening chords. Dom looked at the sheet music in front of him and didn’t move, not even as Edward conducted him in. Edward waved at Mo to stop playing.
“Let’s try that again, Dom,” he said kindly. Dom looked up at him and nodded.
This time, when it reached the point that Dom had to start singing, he opened his mouth but nothing came out. Not a single note passed his lips. Edward sang the first few lines, in the hope Dom would just join in, but Dom didn’t. He just stood, stock still, in the middle of the church, tears running down his face. Mo stopped the music again and turned to Dom.
“Everything alright Dom?” she asked.
Dom shook his head. “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough,” he muttered. And then, eyes still full of tears, he ran out of the church.
Dom slumped down onto one of the benches in the churchyard and wiped his eyes. He put his head in his hands and reflected on what had just happened. It was stupid to think that he could sing in an audition. Stupid. Isaac had told him that he couldn’t sing and he was right. He wasn’t good enough to be a part of this choir anymore and it was stupid to think otherwise.
He registered someone sitting down on the bench next to him but he didn’t look up to see who it was, not until he felt an arm wrap around his shoulders. Instinctively, he pulled away and skidded to the other end of the bench.
“Dom?” Zosia questioned.
Dom forced himself to relax. It was ok. It was only Zosia. For one horrible moment he’d thought it was Isaac.
“What’s up with you at the moment?” she asked gently, “You haven’t been yourself for weeks. And I haven’t spoken to you in at least two weeks.”
Dom shook his head. “Nothing. It’s fine.”
“Well Edward wants us all back in the church to talk about our auditions. Come back in with me?”
“No point. Messed mine up.”
Zosia nudged his shoulder. “Edward knows what a good singer you are. He won’t be chucking you out any time soon. Come on, at least come in for me.”
Reluctantly, Dom followed Zosia back into the church and sat down on the furthest back row of pews. Zosia slid in next to him and gripped his hand. Ollie sat in front of them and turned round to smile at the pair of them.
“Pizza tonight once we get this over with?” he asked, “Come round to ours Dom, we haven’t seen much of you recently.”
Dom nodded. He hadn’t eaten a hot meal in days and maybe he could even make an excuse to stay the night on their sofa. As long as he kept quiet about Isaac, all would be well.
“I want to start with saying thank you to you all for coming along and trying so hard with the auditions,” Edward said, standing at the front of the church and looking over his choir. Half of them looked bright and happy, the other half looked slightly dejected. He wondered whether these auditions had been the right thing until he looked at Liberty, sat on the front row. She smiled at him and he remembered all she had said about having a choir with ambition. He took a deep breath and continued, “I’m going to call you in to the side room one at a time to talk about your audition and where we need to go next.”
Dom sat on the back row, hand still firmly gripping Zosia’s, as he watched the church gradually empty of people as one by one they entered the side room and came out smiling. Some of them hung around in the church afterwards whereas others disappeared off home. Ric came past and squeezed Dom’s shoulder as he went out, wishing him luck.
Soon it was Morven’s turn. She looked a little reluctant as she entered the side room. Within seconds she had stomped out into the church, Edward following her.
“No Morven, that’s not what I meant!” he shouted after her.
“You know it is,” she shouted back, “I’m leaving. I know where I’m not wanted.”
She grabbed her coat and stormed out of the church. Edward sank into the pew next to Liberty.
“You did the right thing,” she said, “If she’s not willing to work on her voice, then she’ll just hold the rest of us back. We don’t need people like that in our choir.”
Edward nodded. He stood up and headed back towards the side room motioning Ollie to follow him in. Ollie was out quickly, smile plastered across his face. He kissed Zosia and pushed her towards the side room leaving only Dom left to see Edward.
Zosia also reappeared quickly. Edward stuck his head around the door and called Dom’s name. Zosia pulled him to his feet and he walked towards the side room, feeling like a dead man walking. He entered the side room and Edward motioned towards the chair in front of him. He sat down heavily, eyes on the floor.
“We both know what happened earlier,” Edward said gently, “And we both know that you are a good singer.”
Dom shook his head. He didn’t understand why everyone kept saying that he was a good singer. He knew that he wasn’t, Isaac knew that he wasn’t, so why did everyone keep lying to him.
“You are a great singer, Dom,” Edward continued, “But I’m not sure that this choir is for you.”
Dom looked up at him, trying to blink away the tears. He really didn’t want to leave the choir. The choir was the only good thing in his life at the moment.
“It’s just that if the choir is going to push itself further, it is going to increase the pressure on you and I can tell you have struggled with the pressure recently. It’s for the best really. I don’t want to cause problems by stressing you out too much.”
Dom said nothing just dropped his gaze back to the floor.
“I’ll go and get Zosia,” Edward said as he left the room.
Zosia and Ollie came rushing into the room and Zosia wrapped Dom in a hug. Ollie glared at Edward as the pair of them helped Dom to his feet.
“Right back to ours,” Ollie said, “No arguments.”
Dom grabbed his rucksack, thankful that he had managed to stash his sleeping bag in some bushes at the park. He didn’t want questioning about why he was carrying it around. He followed Ollie and Zosia out of the church wondering how exactly his life had become such a mess.
Serena arrived at the church on Saturday afternoon, ready to sort out the flowers for the following day, to find Bernie sticking a poster up on the noticeboard outside. She stepped closer to read it.
“Church available for hire,” she read. She looked up at Bernie who was looking sheepish. “You’ve managed to talk round the church committee?”
“Not as such,” Bernie admitted, “I just decided to go over their heads. I’m planning to use a financial argument if they make too much of a fuss.”
Serena smiled. “You’re brave going up against the likes of Matteo Rossini.”
“He doesn’t scare me. I’ve met worse,” Bernie said as she held open the door for Serena.
“Well I’m glad you are doing this,” Serena said, slipping past Bernie into the church, “It’s nice to see someone standing up for their principles.”
Serena started sorting out the flowers while Bernie went into the church office. She came out with a pile of paperwork that she sat doing on one of the pews.
“That doesn’t look comfortable,” commented Serena, looking at Bernie, hunched up on the pew with paper surrounding her.
“Not exactly but I can’t bear doing paperwork all tucked away in that office,” Bernie replied, “Also it’s nice to have some company.”
Serena smiled at her and Bernie gave a shy smile back, head dropping quickly back down to the paper on her lap.
They both continued working in silence for a few moments.
“Did you ever find out who left the sleeping bag?” Serena said, breaking the comfortable silence between them.
“No. But whoever it was came back for it later. It was gone the next morning when I checked.”
“Well I really hope things get better for them. I just wish I knew who they were so I could help,” Serena sighed, “It’s a shame I’m not part of the church choir anymore. Some of them are always up on the local gossip. I bet one of them knows something.”
“You’re definitely better off out of that choir,” Bernie said, pen hovering over paper, “I expect you’ve heard about what happened at rehearsal this week?”
“Yes I was filled in on all the details. Poor Morven and Dom.”
“So how’s your choir going? Been winning any more music festivals recently?”
Serena laughed. “No. No more winning for us. It was lovely but that isn’t why I set up the choir. For now I just want to concentrate on us having fun with our singing.”
Serena’s home phone rang that evening as she was plating up the fish and chips for her and Jason.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hi Serena, it’s Zosia.”
Serena couldn’t remember Zosia ever ringing her before.
“Hi Zosia, what’s up?” she said.
“Well, it’s. I’m not sure,” Zosia said, her voice trembling slightly.
“Well tell me what you do know to start with,” Serena said kindly. She didn’t know Zosia well but she was always happy and polite at choir rehearsals.
“I wasn’t sure who to phone but then I thought of you and you are so good at the grown up stuff and so kind and I thought you might know what to do,” Zosia rambled on the other end of the phone.
Jason appeared in the kitchen and Serena motioned to the plates of food on the side. He picked his up and headed back into the sitting room, settling himself in front of the tv.
“I will try my best Zosia, but you need to tell me what the problem is,” she said gently.
“It’s Dom,” Zosia said.
Serena’s mind went back to that moment, almost two weeks ago now, when she had seen Dom sitting outside the church. She had meant to check on him later but the usual chaos of life had taken over and it had completely gone from her mind.
“Yeah,” Zosia continued, “I… well I think he needs help but I don’t know where he is.”
Serena heard her sob down the phone.
“Zosia, is Ollie there with you?”
“No,” Zosia said between sobs, “He’s out looking for Dom.”
“Ok. I need you to tell me everything you know.”
It took a while but between sobs and with a little prodding Serena managed to discover that Dom had been out of sorts for a couple of weeks. Zosia and Ollie had taken him back to theirs after Edward had kicked him out of choir. He’d stayed overnight but vanished the following morning. Zosia had gone round to Isaac’s to check on him the following day but Isaac told her that he’d moved out ages ago. She’d called his mum and all his other friends but no one had seen hide nor hair of him for weeks.
“I’m so worried about him,” Zosia sniffed, her tears calming slightly having now got the story out.
“I’m not surprised,” Serena said, “Do you mind if I call Bernie and let her know? Then I’m going to join the search.”
“Thank you Serena. Please do tell Bernie if you think she can help.”
“Ok Zosia. Have you got my mobile number? I want you to ring me if you hear anything or even if you just want to talk to someone. We will find Dom and we will sort out whatever problems he is having.”
“Thank you Serena. Dom’s my best friend. I just want to find him.”
“We will,” Serena promises, “We will.”
When Serena pulled up outside Bernie’s house ten minutes later, Bernie was already waiting for her on the side of the road. Serena waved and Bernie opened the passenger door, sliding into the seat.
“Any idea where to start?” she said, in lieu of a greeting.
“I was thinking the church,” Serena replied.
“The sleeping bag?”
“I’m assuming it was his.”
They fell into an agitated silence as Serena drove them to the church. She parked on the road outside and they both rushed across the churchyard. Bernie unlocked the door and they headed into the darkened church.
They checked the main church, the side room, the church office and every other nook and cranny they could think of but no sign of Dom.
“I think I really did scare him off last week,” Bernie said, mournfully.
“It’s not your fault,” Serena soothed, “How could you have known there was someone sleeping in here?”
She sighed. “If it is anyone’s fault, it is mine. I knew something was up. I saw him last week looking upset and dishevelled but I didn’t have time to talk to him. I meant to catch up with him later but I forgot.”
She sighed again and slumped onto the front pew. “I should have done something, talked to him or something. Then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Bernie sat down carefully next to her, leaving a small gap between them. She tentatively put her hand on Serena’s shoulder and squeezed.
“It wasn’t your fault Serena,” she said.
Serena leant her head back and looked up at the ceiling. “I just can’t bear to think of him, all alone out in the cold feeling so unloved. He’s only a boy.”
She blinked back a few tears and felt Bernie shift closer to her.
“We’ll find him,” Bernie muttered, “We will. You don’t need to worry.”
Serena let out a loud sob, bringing her hand up to her mouth to try to stifle it. Bernie shifted closer again, her hand brushing along Serena’s upper back until it reached her other shoulder. Serena allowed herself to be pulled into Bernie’s side, her sobs calming down.
“Come on,” Bernie said as she felt Serena calm in her arms, “Let’s carry on searching. We should try the town centre next, I think. He might have bunked down in a shop doorway.”
Serena nodded and stood, wiping her tears away on the back of her hand.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Bernie said, giving Serena a blinding smile which Serena couldn’t help but return.
They had no luck in the town centre, nor under the railway bridges. They tried the park but found the gates locked and neither of them agile enough to scale them. After driving up and down numerous streets, calling Dom’s name and checking each bench, Bernie and Serena were both exhausted.
“I think we need to call this a day and start again in the morning,” Bernie suggested. Serena nodded in agreement.
Serena’s stomach rumbled as she pulled up outside Bernie’s house. Bernie looked at her pointedly.
“When did you last eat?” she said.
“Lunchtime. Zosia called just as I was about to eat this evening. Thought this was too important and the food could wait. Although I think my fish and chips might be a bit cold by now!”
“Come in with me,” Bernie offered, “I was about to heat up some leftovers, plenty to share if you want.”
Serena knew that she should really be getting back to Jason. She’d explained to him where she was going and he was usually fine being left by himself but she didn’t like to do it too often. But the thought of sharing a meal with Bernie and seeing where she lived was just too tempting.
“Ok,” she agreed and followed Bernie into the house.
Bernie’s house was small and rather sparsely furnished. Serena removed her shoes and coat at the door and hung her coat on the coat hooks alongside Bernie’s jacket. She followed Bernie through to the kitchen where Bernie indicated the small table up against one of the walls.
“Please, sit down. I won’t be long.”
Serena sat obediently and watched Bernie route through the freezer, eventually pulling out a couple of Tupperware boxes.
“Curry alright?” Bernie asked, “Think this was supposed to be something fancy but ended up with whatever ingredients I could find in the cupboards.”
“Curry sounds great,” Serena said enthusiastically, “Jason isn’t much of a fan of spicy food. I don’t get to eat it much.”
“Well I hope this is edible,” Bernie said, placing the boxes in the microwave to defrost and pulling a packet of rice out of the cupboard above.
Once the rice and curry were both bubbling away on the hob, Bernie switched on the kettle and offered Serena a drink. They were soon sat at the table, sipping from large mugs of tea.
“How is Jason?” Bernie asked, “You mentioned that he was having some problems with bullying?”
“I think it has all died down, thank goodness,” Serena said, “He’s been making some new friends at choir and seems much happier.”
“Good. I’m glad. He seems like a lovely boy.”
Serena grinned at hearing her nephew praised. “He really is.” She took another sip of tea. “How are your children? Have you managed to see them recently?”
A glimmer of sadness crossed Bernie’s face briefly before she spoke. “Cam’s busy with uni but he managed to call last week. Sounds like he’s having the time of his life. I just he’s managing to fit some work in around his partying.”
“Elinor is going to be just the same when she starts! What’s Cam studying?”
“Medicine. Following in the family business.”
“Your ex is a doctor?”
“Orthopaedic surgeon.” It looked like Bernie had more to say but she clearly decided against it and they sat in silence, sipping tea.
The timer went off and Bernie stood up to drain the rice. She plated up the rice and curry and placed a large serving in front of Serena.
Serena picked up a fork and dug in.
“Oh wow this is amazing!” she exclaimed, “Where did you learn to cook like this?”
Bernie blushed, her cheeks turning a gentle pink, and bit her lip. There was a moment of pause where Serena felt Bernie was trying to decide how much of her life to reveal to Serena.
“Afghanistan,” she said eventually, “One of the local guides was a fantastic cook and showed a group of us how.”
“Afghanistan?” Serena questioned. Why would Bernie have been in Afghanistan? Unless…
“I was in the army,” Bernie confirmed, “In the RAMC. Trauma surgeon.”
“Oh.” Serena didn’t know how to respond to this information. She somehow couldn’t picture calm, kind Bernie in the middle of a warzone.
Silence stretched over them. Serena watched Bernie get more and more uncomfortable, shuffling in her chair, her eyes on the table and her hands clasped tightly on her lap.
“A fellow ex-medic then,” she said eventually, trying to relieve Bernie’s discomfort, “I used to be a doctor, had intentions of being a vascular surgeon, until I left to play housewife to a rather ungrateful husband.”
Bernie looked up at her, eyes wide.
“All those years of medical training put to use on applying plasters and dolling out Calpol to sick children.”
Bernie smiled at that, let out a short laugh. Serena grinned back at her, reached across the table and squeezed Bernie’s arm.
“One day I’d like to hear more about your time in the army but right now I think we should change the subject.”
Bernie nodded and Serena watched relief flood her body. “Tell me more about you choir,” she said in a small voice.
That was exactly the right choice of topic for Serena. Conversation flowed more easily when the focus was back on Serena, and off Bernie. And however much Serena wanted to find out more about her new friend, she really didn’t want to make her uncomfortable or force her into sharing anything she didn’t want to. The trust would come, she was sure, just not yet.
Jason went for a walk first thing in the morning. It was something he liked to do on Sunday mornings before church. He would walk to the park, walk around to look at the plants, and then walk to church via the comic book shop. Serena would meet him at the church having had a lie in.
It was cold but dry that morning and Jason wrapped himself up in a thick coat, hat and gloves. He left the scarf behind as he didn’t really like things around his neck. He walked up the road towards the park, waving at some of the people he saw. The park was not at its best this time of year. Most of the plants had died back for the winter but the evergreens were looking as good as ever and some of the bushes with bare twigs had a certain appeal. He was just finishing his lap around the park when he spotted a bright red something on a bench. He approached with trepidation. As he got closer, he realised that the strange lumpy thing was a person in a bright red sleeping bag. He edged closer and sat down on the next bench over.
“Hello,” he said to the lump.
A head poked out the top and looked around. Jason immediately recognised it as Dom’s head.
“Hello Dom,” he said.
“Jason?” Dom said sleepily.
“Auntie Serena was looking for you with Bernie last night,” Jason said, “She said you were lost. You don’t look lost to me.”
“Will you come and tell her that you aren’t lost? Then maybe she will stop worrying.”
“She’s worrying about me?”
“Oh yes,” Jason nodded, “She was so worried last night that she didn’t even eat her fish and chips. I had to finish them off for her. Although I think Bernie helped her not worry so much. She came back looking happier even though they hadn’t found you.”
“So will you come with me to see Auntie Serena?”
Dom shook his head. “I can’t Jason. I can’t let them see me. Not yet. Not now.”
“Ok.” Jason thought for a moment. “Can I tell her I saw you?”
“You can,” allowed Dom, “But please don’t tell her where I am.”
“Ok.” Jason reached into his backpack and pulled something out. “Do you want my apple?”
Dom gratefully accepted the fruit. “Thank you, Jason. You really are very kind.”
Jason smiled then stood up and headed off towards the church. He had to hurry now if he wanted to stop at the comic book shop on the way. He didn’t want to be late.
“Bernie!” Serena called as she ran after her. Bernie had left the church very quickly after the service, not hanging around for tea and biscuits like normal. She turned as she heard Serena calling after her.
Serena ran up to her, slightly out of breath from the short run, “It’s Dom,” she said between breaths, “Jason saw him.”
“Where?” Bernie asked.
“He wouldn’t say. Apparently, Dom asked him not to. But at least we know he is alright for the moment.”
“That’s good.” Bernie paused for a moment. “Look Serena I really have to go but call me tonight. We’ll come up with a plan to get Dom back somewhere safe.”
Serena nodded, was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to hug Bernie, and wrapped her arms around her tightly. Bernie let out a note of surprise and slowly wrapped her arms around Serena. Serena let go quickly.
“I better let you get going. I’ll speak to you later.”
She waved as Bernie walked out of the churchyard and headed off down the road. She smiled. It was nice having a female friend again. One her own age. It had been a while since she’d had one. Not since she had a falling out in the school playground over how some of the other parents were discussing Jason. She’d shouted rather loudly at a particular mother who had said Jason was weird and her daughter didn’t want to invite him to her birthday party. Since then, while perfectly civil to her, none of the other parents ever invited her over for a cup of tea like they did before. Serena didn’t mind. She was busy enough with looking after Ellie and Jason, and she had the choir and Raf to talk to. But since meeting Bernie she had enjoyed spending time with a woman the same age. She wondered what Bernie would have made of the other parents that day in the playground. She couldn’t imagine Bernie siding with them, not with how much care she took over Jason. It might have been nice to have just one person stood there at her side. She wandered back to the church, reminding herself that Bernie might not have been around then, but she was around now helping her solve new, more complex problems with her quiet compassion.
Serena waited until after her and Jason had eaten before she called Bernie. She made sure Jason was happily watching tv before heading back into the kitchen and picking up her phone. She felt a funny kind of giddy excitement as she dialled Bernie’s number.
“Serena, hi,” Bernie said, her voice bright and happy.
“Hi Bernie. How was your day?”
“Good.” There was a small pause so typical of Bernie. Serena waited for her to continue. “Really good actually.”
“Oh?” prompted Serena.
“Yeah, my um daughter called.” Bernie sounded pleased, shy but pleased.
“Yeah. She hasn’t spoken to me since the divorce. But she texted this morning asking to phone me after church. That’s why I rushed off afterwards. I thought she might not call me after all but she did and she talked to me about, well, about everything really.”
Serena had never heard Bernie talk about her life and the important people in it in such depth before.
“That’s really great Bernie. I’m so glad you got to talk to her.”
Serena smiled as Bernie went silent. She was clearly done talking about herself.
“So any idea how to help Dom?” Serena asked.
“You know him better than me. What does he like?”
Serena laughed. “It was only a few weeks ago I was being asked the same of Jason!”
Then it struck her. She’d set up the choir for Jason and herself, but it could definitely rescue other people as well. They’d already invited Morven along. Maybe singing could persuade Dom back to the church.
She explained her idea to Bernie, hashing out a few of the details. The main thing was making sure that Dom knew about the choir, Jason could see to that. Then they just needed to get him to come. That would give them the chance to talk to him, help him to see that he had friends who wanted to help, that he didn’t need to sleep rough whatever had gone on between him and Isaac.
Serena sat nervously at the next choir rehearsal. Everyone was there, Raf and Fletch with the kids, Jason and his friends from college, Morven, Bernie watching from the pulpit, even Zosia who had firmly stated that she wasn’t joining their choir and was only there for Dom, but there was still no sign of Dom. She paused before starting, wondered if Dom had picked up the flyer Jason had deposited on his sleeping body two days ago, wondered if he would actually turn up.
She couldn’t delay any further and she called the choir to order. They started up with the first song, Raf keeping them all in tune with his chords. They sounded good, those few extra voices making a big difference in such a small group. Serena allowed herself a small smile at Bernie who was watching her carefully. Serena waved at her, trying to persuade her to join in with them but Bernie shook her head and continued watching Serena.
It was near the end of the second song when the door to the church creaked open and Bernie’s eyes shot up. Dom peeked his head round the door, looking rather nervous. Bernie bounded up to him, handed him the sheet music and pushed him into the middle of the choir. He stood stationary for a moment before glancing at the music in front of him. Fletch helpful pointed to where they were and Dom’s eyes followed the music for a few lines. Then, in the final chorus, he opened his mouth and sang. Serena stopped conducting and just stood listening. She’d forgotten how fantastic his voice could be. It rang out, loud and clear, through the church. As she remembered to move her hands and begin conducting again, she saw a huge grin break out across Dom’s face and she knew they had him. She hadn’t seen him smile like that in weeks.
Dom stayed for the whole rehearsal, and even accepted a hug off Zosia during their break. The two of them sat huddled in a corner together, heads close, talking. Serena left them to it for the moment, she didn’t want to interrupt them right now. Instead she walked over to Bernie.
“You can join in you know,” she said as Bernie hopped down from the pulpit to greet her.
“Not really my thing,” Bernie said, “But you all sound great though.”
Serena felt her cheeks heat up at the praise. “We really do, don’t we?”
After the second half of the rehearsal, Bernie pulled Dom aside. The rest of the choir started to pack up and Serena checked with Jason that he was ok to walk home with Raf and Fletch and let himself in.
“I’ll be fine Auntie Serena. You worry too much.”
Serena smiled and was just about to go over to Bernie and Dom when the church doors swung open to reveal Edward, Liberty and Isaac. Dom looked like he was about to bolt and Bernie swiftly took him into the church office.
Serena marched right up to them, hands on her hips.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Extra rehearsals for my starring soloists,” Edward replied, glancing around the church at Serena’s choir.
“So if you don’t mind, you need to vacate the church as fast as possible,” cut in Liberty.
Isaac’s eyes fell on Morven. “I see that this is where the rif raf we kicked out of the church choir ended up. And was that Dom that just disappeared? I hope you know what you’re doing with him, he can be rather temperamental.”
Serena felt like she could scream at them. What right had they to invade their rehearsal and insult her choir members?
“Jealousy is an ugly colour on you,” she sneered.
“Jealous? Of this?” Isaac said.
And Serena snapped. “Throwing valued members of the choir out because you can’t win one poxy little music festival? Insulting the choir that managed to beat you fair and square? Scaring your boyfriend so much that he refused to turn to his friends for help? Even though he is one of the best singers I have ever heard? Yes I think you’re jealous.”
Edward stepped between Serena and Isaac. “Ok let’s calm things down. We will go and wait in the side room. Serena if you could have your choir packed up and out of here as quickly as you can that would be great. Then next time I’m booking the church, I’ll try to avoid this kind of crossover. Okay?”
It rankled at Serena to be told to calm down by Edward but she couldn’t deny that what he was saying was sensible. She nodded, spun on her heals and returned to her choir. She found them pretty much packed up and ready to go.
“I’ll see you all next week,” she said before heading towards the church office, hoping that Bernie and Dom were still there.
They were, Dom slumped on the floor, Bernie next to him, one arm around his shoulders. She lifted her other arm as Serena entered and she allowed herself to collapse on the floor next to Bernie and felt her arm pull her even closer.
“We heard what you said out there,” Bernie murmured.
“Oh.” Serena lifted her head to look at Dom. “I’m sorry.”
“You think I’m one of the best singers you’ve ever heard?” Dom asked quietly. Out in the church, they could hear Liberty and Isaac running through some warm ups.
“I do,” she replied sincerely, “I don’t know what went on between you and Isaac but I don’t want you thinking that you can’t sing. Because you really, really can.”
Dom sniffed and nodded. “Thank you.”
Serena felt Bernie grip on her tighten. “You are really quite something Serena Campbell,” she said.
Serena smiled, rested her head onto Bernie’s shoulder, didn’t question why this quiet moment sat on the floor of the church office felt so good and right.
“What are we going to do with you then Dom?” she asked.
“Bernie says I can stay in her spare room for a bit,” Dom replied.
“For as long as you need. Not like anyone else uses it. It will be nice to have some company around the place.”
“And you’ll keep coming to our choir?” Serena checked.
“I will,” Dom promised.
“Then that’s all settled,” Serena said, “Now I suggest we all sneak out the back entrance. I don’t know about you but I could really do with not seeing certain members of the church choir right now.”
Dom smiled and scrambled to his feet. Serena and Bernie tried to stand at the same time, bumped into each other and fell back onto the floor, laughing. Dom stood over them shaking his head. He held out his hands and pulled them both to their feet.
“It’s always good to know I’m not the most useless person in the room,” he said as they dusted themselves down.
The sounds of two voices mingling together perfectly drifted down the corridor as the three of them slipped out the back door and into the darkness. They walked across the churchyard together before turning their separate ways down the road. Impulsively, caught up in how good Bernie had been with Dom, Serena pressed a kiss to her cheek as they parted. It was too dark to see Bernie’s reaction and she turned away and headed back towards her home and Jason.
Sorry it has been a while. Dissertation stress has kicked in.
Edward clapped his hands to get the choir’s attention. When they were all silent he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and began to read out the announcements. It occurred to him that he really should get a new secretary elected since Serena had left. He just couldn’t quite bring himself to do it yet. Any of the tasks usually carried out by the secretary were being done by him with some support from Liberty. Since there had been no disasters yet, that was how he intended to continue for the meantime. Maybe he could persuade Serena back into the choir at some point?
“Ok so Mrs Holland from the Women’s Institute wanted to thank everyone who donated something for their raffle last week. They raised £300.”
There was a general murmur around the choir. Edward continued undeterred.
“Tom Graham and Sarah Peters are getting married next month and would like us to perform at their wedding. Any objections?”
“Well I think it’s just lovely to support a newly married couple at such an important time in their lives,” Matteo said. There was general agreement amongst the choir.
“Right I’ll get back to them and let them know. We can do the traditional wedding music so it won’t take much rehearsal, most of us have sung it before. I would like to make one small change though,” Edward paused, knowing this wouldn’t go down well, “I’d like Sacha to sing the male solo part.”
Isaac immediately stepped forward. “Edward I think you are forgetting that I always sing the male solos. If we don’t have much rehearsal time, it makes no sense to have someone learn it all from scratch.”
“It would be nice to allow someone new to have a go, though,” Ollie said, earning a look of pure hatred from Isaac.
“I agree,” said Ric, “Let Sacha have a go Isaac.”
Sacha, who throughout this exchange had just stood there silently, plucked up the courage to speak. “I don’t want to cause any problems. Just let Isaac sing the solo like normal.”
“Nonsense,” Edward said, “You have a really strong voice and I want other people to hear it. Isaac can cope without having the solo for one occasion.”
“Go on Sacha,” Essie said from the other end of the choir, “I know how great your singing is, let’s show everyone else.”
Sacha smiled and blushed before nodding. “Ok. I’ll do it.”
Isaac opened his mouth to protest again before thinking better of it and shuffling back into the ranks of the choir. Guy patted his shoulder as he returned. “Better luck next time. We all know who the best male in this choir is and we don’t need a solo as proof.”
Serenity Sounds rehearsed as normal the following day, with Dom firmly taking his place in the choir. Once again, Bernie was hovering on the pulpit, watching proceedings. Serena smiled up at her. She liked having Bernie there, watching over them all like some kind of guardian angel. Bernie smiled back, eyes focused solely on Serena.
When the rehearsal finished, Bernie hopped down off the pulpit and headed straight towards Serena.
“Fancy a drink?” she asked, eyes dropping to her shoes the moment the words had come out of her mouth.
“Love one,” Serena replied, “I’ve got a nice bottle of Shiraz waiting for me at home if you care to join me?”
Bernie looked up at Serena and smiled. “Sounds great. I’ll just let Dom know what’s happening and make sure he brought his key with him.”
She spun on her heals and headed over to him right away. Serena watched her go, her stomach twisting in knots. She didn’t understand why she was suddenly nervous; it was only a friend coming over for a drink. What was there to be nervous about?
Bernie was back at her side in moments. “Ok all sorted. I have given Dom permission to go home and play his terrible music at full volume.”
Serena laughed, “Living with Dom not all hearts and rainbows then?”
Bernie smiled at her. “He’s great but the twenty year age gap has led to some very different tastes in things.”
“Oh I can imagine. Most of Ellie’s taste in music and tv shows is atrocious. That is one benefit of her living with Edward.”
Jason came bounding over to them just then. “Auntie Serena, Auntie Serena, can Celia come for tea on Saturday?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Jason grinned. “Celia, Auntie Serena says you can come on Saturday,” he shouted across the church.
Celia grinned and gave him a thumbs up.
“Right let’s get you home Jason,” Serena said, “Bernie’s coming with us today.”
“Because she is my friend and I have invited her,” Serena replied, feeling a small blush creep across her face as she thought about Bernie. She didn’t turn to see a matching blush on Bernie’s cheeks.
They walked home together as a big group, Mikey running on ahead while Evie walked with Jason, Raf and Fletch bringing up the rear. Serena thought about how nice it was that Evie and Jason seemed to get on so well. Their mutual love of science seemed to bridge the age gap between them and they chatted happily all the way home. Serena linked her arm with Bernie’s as they walked, didn’t question her need to be closer to her.
Serena returned to the sitting room bearing a bottle of wine and two glasses to find Bernie and Jason deep in conversation about the episode of World’s Strongest Man on the tv.
“He really doesn’t have the best stance,” Bernie said, “If he went for more like this he would have so much more power.” She stood up and demonstrated in the middle of the carpet.
“How do you know all about this?” Jason asked.
“Oh,” Bernie coloured slightly and glanced up at Serena still stood in the doorway, “I had to train pretty hard to get into the army. Some of the guys at the gym gave me some tips on weightlifting.”
“So are you really strong? Could you be on World’s Strongest Woman?”
Bernie’s cheeks flared up even more and she sat back down on the sofa. Serena moved from the doorway and sat down next to her.
“I haven’t really done any lifting since I left the army,” she answered, her voice quieter than before.
“Why did you leave?” Jason asked.
“Now, now Jason,” Serena said, trying to rescue Bernie from the interrogation, “Let Bernie have a drink in peace.” She patted Bernie on the knee and passed her a wine glass.
“It’s ok,” Bernie said, her voice still quiet, “I don’t mind telling you.”
There was a pause and Serena took the chance to pour wine into Bernie’s glass. She smiled at Serena and took a small sip.
“There was an accident, an IED. It blew up the car I was in and I was hurt, badly hurt.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “They flew me back to the UK for surgery and I got a medical discharge.”
Jason nodded and turned back to the tv. Serena poured herself a glass of wine and shuffled closer to Bernie. Bernie seemed to be distracted; her mind elsewhere. Serena wondered if she was thinking back to the accident. She reached across and squeezed Bernie’s knee in reassurance. Bernie lifted her head and looked straight into Serena’s eyes. She gave a small smile before turning her head back to the screen. Serena was about to move her hand away when she felt Bernie’s fingers brushing over the back of her hand. Bernie gently placed her hand on top of Serena’s and linked their fingers. They sat there, fingers intertwined, until the programme had finished.
Jason announced that he was going to bed and headed up the stairs, leaving Bernie and Serena alone. Serena squeezed Bernie’s hand again before releasing it in order to pour more wine into their glasses. A comfortable silence fell as they both sipped their wine, occasionally sneaking glances at each other.
“I was thinking,” Bernie said, breaking the silence. Serena turned to her as she paused for breath, “the side room at the church doesn’t get used for much does it?”
“Not really, why? What did you have in mind?” Serena asked.
“Well I was thinking it might be nice to start up a little café in there, get people into the church during the rest of the week, not just on Sundays.”
Serena smiled. Bernie really did have some lovely ideas. “It sounds great Bernie, really, but how on earth are you going to get the rest of the committee to agree?”
“Ah yes well I think I might need your help for that.” Bernie stopped and leant closer to Serena, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Or we could just do it without telling them.”
Serena looked at Bernie to see her eyes glinting dangerously. “Bernie Wolfe, you are a rebel.”
“Takes one to know one,” Bernie countered, eyes still caught on Serena’s. “Anyway we seem to have got away with hiring the church out so far. Apart from a little bit of grumbling that is.”
“Just don’t go getting yourself sacked. I don’t want to handle that committee by myself in the future.”
“I’ll try my best.”
“So how are you feeling about singing a solo?” Essie asked.
Essie and Sacha were curled up on their sofa, a fire roaring away in the fireplace.
“Still a bit nervous but Edward’s been really great about making sure I know what I’m doing.”
Essie pulled Sacha in closer and kissed him. “You’ll be brilliant. You are an amazing singer.”
“Edward wants me and Liberty to go and meet Tom and Sarah after rehearsal next week,” Sacha said, “He wants to give them a chance to talk to the people singing at their wedding, particularly since we are both new to the community.”
“That sounds like a lovely idea. How about I meet you in a pub afterwards and you can tell me what they are like.”
“It’s a date!”
Celia turned out to be a rather charming girl and Serena was glad Jason had invited her round. It was fish and chip night so feeding an extra person was easy. She sent Celia and Jason out to get them on their own, proud that Jason was now able to do things like this. When he was little she had sometimes worried that he would never be able to cope on his own but now here he was, singing in a choir, buying fish and chip and making new friends. And all the business with Dom. She didn’t know he could be so kind and caring.
It wasn’t long before Jason and Celia returned with a bag full of fish and chips. She helped plate up the food and they all sat down around the table in the kitchen.
“You have a really lovely house Mrs Campbell,” Celia said.
“Thank you dear, and call me Serena.”
Celia smiled back at her.
“Auntie Serena did I tell you that Celia has a pet cat?”
“No Jason you didn’t. Why don’t you let Celia tell me about it?” Serena suggested.
Once they’d all eaten their fill, Jason managed to talk Serena into letting them eat ice cream in front of the tv. Serena peaked around the door to check that they were both happy once she’d cleared up before heading upstairs. She picked up her mobile and tried to ring Elinor. She’d been trying for a number of days now but Elinor still wasn’t picking up. She got the odd text message from her so she knew she was still alive but nothing more than that. Having given up on that front, her fingers hovered over Bernie’s name in her contact list. She really wanted to speak to Bernie but she couldn’t think of a good enough reason to disturb her. Eventually she turned off the screen and picked up her book instead, enjoying the fact that Jason was occupied downstairs and unlikely to interrupt for a while.
Bernie grabbed Serena after church on Sunday while she was sat with tea and biscuits. Bernie was positively vibrating with excitement.
“Hanssen’s given me the go ahead on converting the side room,” she said, bouncing on her feet as she tried to stand still.
“That’s good,” Serena said, smiling at the woman in front of her who was doing a great impression of a small dog waiting for a ball to be thrown.
“So now I just need to get some quotes. Do you know any companies that do decorating?”
“Well, we usually just get Guy’s company to do it, since he’s been coming to church for years.”
“Ok. I’ll ask him.” Bernie paused for a moment, clearly thinking things through. “Wouldn’t it be better to get more than one quote though? For comparison?”
“I suppose it would. Actually I think Sacha does decorating. Why don’t you ask him for a quote? Then at least no one can complain that we are taking our business outside the congregation.”
Bernie’s bouncing got more pronounced. “Thanks Serena! I knew you would know what to do!”
“Right. Now would you get yourself a cup of tea and sit down for a moment. It’s making me dizzy watching you.”
Bernie grinned at her and Serena couldn’t resist grinning back. She watched as Bernie went to get some tea and came back to Serena, perching on the edge of the pew next to her.
“So I was thinking,” Bernie began.
Serena laughed. “You’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently!”
“Hey!” Bernie nudged Serena in the side. “Anyway, if we get the side room decorated and some café equipment brought in, we are going to need some help. People to serve the drinks, bake the cakes, tidy up, that sort of thing.”
“I’m sure we can drag a few volunteers in to help.”
“Yes I thought you would know the right people to ask. But I was also thinking that we would need someone to be in charge. Would you, I mean I don’t want to force you or anything I just think that you might be quite good and you know so many people and you are good at getting them to do what you want…”
Serena put her hand on Bernie’s arm to stop her rambling. “Are you asking me if I want to manage the café?”
Bernie nodded. “We’ll only open a couple of afternoons a week to start with, see what the demand is. And needless to say but we won’t be able to pay you to start with but maybe if business is good we might be able to in the future.”
“Bernie, there’s no need to sell it to me. Of course I’ll manage the café.”
Bernie’s face lit up.
“One condition though. I want an apron with manager written on it so that everyone knows!”
“Done,” replied Bernie, sticking out her hand for Serena to shake.
Bernie’s hand felt small and soft in Serena’s. Her long fingers wrapped themselves around Serena’s hand and she took a sudden intake of breath at the contact, a tingling sensation shooting up her arm.
“Pleasure doing business with you Ms Wolfe,” Serena said, trying to hide her reaction.
Sacha slipped into the seat next to Essie who pushed a pint of beer towards him. He kissed Essie on the cheek before turning to greet the other people at the table. Mo, Ric and Jasmine smiled back at him.
“So how were the happy couple?” Essie asked.
“Really lovely actually. Not that I expected any less, but they seemed so glad to meet us before the actual wedding.”
“Was this Tom and Sarah?” Mo asked.
“Lovely couple. Shame neither of them can sing for toffee!” Mo commented.
“I can’t wait for their wedding,” Jasmine said, “I haven’t been to a wedding since I was little. I bet it’s going to be super romantic!”
“Well if you want to know anything about weddings you should just ask Ric. How many has it been now? 5? 6?” teased Mo.
“It has been 5 as you well know,” Ric grumbled half-heartedly.
“What was your wedding like?” Jasmine asked Sacha and Essie.
An awkward silence fell as Sacha and Essie looked at each other, their cheeks burning bright red.
“We’re not married actually,” Essie said in a small voice.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I just assumed.” Jasmine looked distraught.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sacha said.
“Right. New topic. Who watched Strictly last weekend?” Ric said, taking charge of the situation.
The rest of the group chatted happily about last week’s episode. Essie and Sacha joined in a little but once they’d finished their drinks they said their goodbyes and headed out of the pub towards home.
Once they were out on the streets, wrapped up warm against the cool evening air, Sacha spoke.
“Do you ever think we should try this marriage thing again?” he asked.
Essie looked up at him. “Sometimes,” she admitted, “But it was such a mess last time we tried.”
“It wasn’t our fault though. You had no idea that your grandad was a, well, you know.”
“No I didn’t. And you know that I don’t think like that at all. I love you Sacha, faith and all.”
Essie pulled him close and kissed him.
“So should we have another go?” Sacha asked.
“Are you asking?” Essie replied, a cheeky smile on her face. The smile was soon removed as Sacha dropped down to one knee on the cold pavement.
“I think I am. Estelle Ava Harrison, would you do the honour of becoming my wife?”
Essie just stared at him. “Really?”
“Really. I don’t have a ring or anything but we can go into town at the weekend and get one. If you say yes that is.”
“Of course I’m saying yes, you idiot,” Essie said, her smile returning with force.
She pulled Sacha back to his feet and kissed him over and over again.
“We really doing it this time?” she asked.
“I think we are,” Sacha replied, “But let’s head home now. It’s freezing out here and I’m too old for hanging around on street corners late at night!”
Essie slipped her arm through his and they set off down the road again, both sporting wide, happy smiles.
I knew it had been a while since I had posted but I hadn't realised it had been almost five months! Oops! Thank you to anyone who is still reading this.
Elinor fiddled with her phone at the breakfast table, messaging her friends and flicking through Facebook. Liberty sat opposite her but Elinor refused to make eye contact.
“Up to anything exciting today?” Liberty asked, trying desperately to engage Ellie in conversation.
“Just school,” Elinor said. She spun her chair round slightly so she was facing away from Liberty.
“I bet you’ve got loads of friends at school,” Liberty said, “I remember getting up to all sorts with my friends when I was your age.”
There was no response from Elinor. She managed to bite back the response about that only being last year. She thought about getting in contact with her mum, apologising to her, just so that she could escape this ridiculous conversation.
“I’ve got a surprise for you when you get home tonight,” Liberty continued, seemingly obliviously to Elinor’s disinterest, “So hurry home after school.”
Elinor stood up and left the room. What hideous thing could Liberty have cooked up as a surprise for her? She sent a message to one of her friends asking if she could go round to hers after school. She was going to delay this surprise for a long as physically possible, mainly just to wind up Liberty.
Bernie caught up with Serena before that week’s Serenity Sounds rehearsal.
“I got the quotes from Sacha and Guy.”
“Sacha’s was way cheaper. And he included some pictures of his previous work. He’s really good,” Bernie continued.
“Well let’s go with him then. Want some help breaking the bad news to Guy Self?” Serena offered.
“You think it’s going to go that badly?” Bernie asked.
“Who knows? He’s always just got the job in the past. I can’t see him taking rejection well though,” Serena said.
“Hmm.” Bernie looked thoughtful. “Well I think I can manage on my own but I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“Staying for the rehearsal today?” Serena asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. She just enjoyed rehearsals so much more when Bernie was there watching them.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
It was late when Elinor eventually crept into the flat that her dad and Liberty now shared. All the lights were off and she breathed a sigh of relief, heading straight for her bedroom.
The sound of a throat clearing made her jump as she crossed the living room.
“And what time do you call this young lady?” Edward asked, flicking on the floor lamp next to him.
“What? Thought you could creep in here without anyone noticing? I had no idea where you were.”
“I’m sorry,” Elinor muttered.
“Liberty had a big surprise for you. She was so excited and then you just didn’t turn up,” Edward said, disappointment evident in his voice.
Elinor shrugged. “I didn’t want the surprise.”
“Well tough because you are getting it. I’ll go and see if they are still awake,” Edward said, standing up and heading out of the room.
Seconds later there was a strange noise from the corridor and Liberty burst into the room carrying what Elinor first thought was a strange fluffy bag. Then the bag barked and Elinor realised it was a dog. Liberty held out the dog and placed it in Elinor’s arms. The dog barked and tried to lick Elinor’s face.
“Eww,” Elinor said, screwing up her face.
“Oh look she loves you already!” Liberty said excitedly.
Elinor looked down at the ball of white fluff in her arms and sighed.
“Don’t you just love her?” Liberty asked.
Elinor was about to say something cutting but she caught the threatening look on her dad’s face. “Sure.”
Serena’s phone rang early the next morning. She rolled out of bed and picked it up.
“Hello?” she said blearily, not checking who it was that was calling.
“Elinor!” Serena said, nearly falling over in shock. She recovered and sat down on the edge of her bed. “How are you darling?”
“I’m alright. How are you?”
“Much better for hearing your voice, dear.”
“Mum, I was wondering, could I come over for tea sometime?”
Serena’s face broke out into a wide smile.
“Of course you can. You are welcome whenever. This will always be your home even if you aren’t living here.”
“Thanks mum. Can I come tonight? Spag bol Friday right?”
“Of course. Jason will be thrilled to see you.”
“Ok. I’ll see you later then. I’ve got to get off to school now.”
“Ok darling. Have a good day.”
Serena put the phone down and fell backwards onto the bed, smiling. She knew that Elinor hadn’t asked to move back in, or even apologised for the party, but at least she wanted to come over again. Apart from the odd text message conversation, or quick chat at church, Serena really hadn’t had a chance to properly speak to Elinor in weeks. Hopefully this would be the first step in bringing her home.
Serena was in the middle of town, arms laden with shopping bags, when Essie came running out of the fabric shop on the corner.
“Serena!” she shouted and Serena spun round to greet her.
“I’ve got some news. Fancy a catch up over a coffee?” Essie asked.
They were soon both seated in a coffee shop on the high street, steaming mugs in front of them.
“Has Sacha told you about Bernie’s plans for the church?” Serena asked, “Hopefully soon we can be sitting down in there for coffee.”
“Yes. Bernie said you’d told her to ask Sacha, thank you for that. The extra money will be very welcome right now.”
“Oh?” enquired Serena.
“Sacha asked me to marry him,” Essie whispered, blushing further, “We’re going to get married.”
“Congratulations!” Serena said. She smiled at Essie. “It’s nice to know someone’s love life is working out great.”
“Oh Serena I didn’t think!” Essie said, embarrassed.
“Don’t be silly. You and Sacha will be great together. I’m a little jealous but that is no reason for you not to be excited.”
“So when is the big day?” Serena asked, trying to get Essie to talk again. She was annoyed at herself for derailing her excitement.
“Well we went and spoke to Reverend Hanssen the other day and he’s had a cancelation in three weeks’ time.”
“Wow. That’s soon.”
“Yeah. He said that if we wanted to use the church, which we do, it had to be then or after Christmas. We didn’t really want to hang around and wait.”
“How are the preparations going? Do you need any help?” Serena offered.
“Actually, there is something you can do to help.”
“Well, I’m going to make my own dress. But I don’t want Sacha to see it before the big day. Could I bring it over to yours to make it? I’m currently all cramped up in the attic at mine and Sacha keeps threatening to come in at any moment!”
“Absolutely you can. I’m in this afternoon if you want to bring it over. I can dig out a spare key so you can come round whenever you are free without having to worry about me.”
“That would be amazing Serena. Thank you so much!”
Essie stood, rounded the table and wrapped Serena in a tight hug. “You really are amazing. That husband of yours must be mad to let you go.”
Serena let herself enjoy the closeness for a moment before she pulled back. She missed the simple human touches that you got when you were in a relationship. While Ellie would usually provide them, it wasn’t like she was around much. Jason wasn’t one for touch so he was no good. At least she had friends like Essie and Bernie to stop her from going crazy and hugging random people in the street.
The doorbell rang just as Serena was helping Essie to pin together the bodice of her wedding gown.
“I’ll just go and see who that is,” Serena said, handing the pin cushion to Essie.
She swung open the door to find Elinor on the other side.
“Ellie!” she exclaimed.
Elinor stepped forward and wrapped her arms tightly around her mother. Serena responded instantly, stroking her daughter’s hair and pulling her close.
“I’ve missed you,” said Elinor, her voice muffled by Serena’s shoulder.
“Missed you too, darling,” Serena replied, nudging the door closed with her foot. “You do know that you can just let yourself in, no need to ring the doorbell. This is still your home.”
Serena felt a dampness on her shoulder and realised that Elinor was crying.
“Hey, hey, it’s all okay,” she soothed. She edged Ellie towards the living room, smiling gratefully at Essie as she slipped past them into the kitchen, mouthing something about putting the kettle on.
Serena pulled Ellie down onto the sofa next to her and smiled as she curled into her side just as she used to as a child.
“Jason will be home soon,” she said, kissing the top of Elinor’s head, “Then we can all help make the food, just like old times.”
“Thanks mum,” Elinor murmured into Serena’s side.
The church was silent except for the sound of Essie’s footsteps as she set out the flowers for church the next day. It was the first time her name had come up on the rota and she was a bit nervous about getting it right. Serena had reassured her that there was no possible way of getting it wrong but she still spent extra time checking that each bunch was correct.
The sound of the church doors slamming open made her jump. She turned around to see who it was and found Isaac, Guy and Matteo converging on her. She smiled at them, wondering why they were here on a Saturday afternoon. Had there been an extra choir rehearsal she had forgotten about?
“Essie! So nice to see you,” Guy started. “Lovely job you are doing with the flowers.”
“Thanks,” she said, still confused. She turned and continued sorting out the latest bunch.
“We just wanted a quick word with you if that is alright?” Isaac said. Essie turned back to the three men and realised she had been backed into a corner.
“What about?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady. She didn’t want them to know she was afraid.
“It’s about Sacha really,” Guy said.
“I hear he is going to be painting the side room.”
Essie nodded. “Yes he is.” She tried to turn away again but Isaac grabbed her arm to stop her moving.
“Well you can pass this message on from us,” he snarled, “We don’t like it when newcomers turn up and take jobs from the local community.”
Essie stared at him. “Take jobs...” she began.
“Everyone knows that Guy’s company does all the decorating in the church,” Matteo said, taking a step towards her.
“And to think they gave the job to someone who isn’t even Christian.” Isaac didn’t release his hold on Essie’s arm. She yanked it from his grip and pushed past the men, anger building inside her. How dare they threaten her? Sacha had won the contract fair and square. It wasn’t her fault that Guy’s company charged the church over the odds.
“And how Christian is it to threaten defenceless women?” she muttered under her breath as she ran out of the church and straight into Bernie.
“Everything alright?” Bernie asked, holding Essie up as she teetered. Essie was practically vibrating with rage.
“Guy,” she spat out. “And his minions.”
“Ah,” Bernie replied. She paused for a moment. “How about a cup of tea in the office?”
Essie nodded and followed Bernie round to the back door. Bernie steered Essie into the office without a second glance into the church. She really didn’t want to see the men that had riled Essie up to this extent. Essie might be able to walk away from them without resorting to violence but Bernie wasn’t sure she could.
Essie took small sips of her tea, feeling her anger begin to retreat in the face of Bernie’s calmness. She slowly began to explain to Bernie what had happened.
“Thank you for letting me know,” Bernie said at the end, her voice calm but with a hint of cold anger through it. “I want to make it clear to you that Sacha will be continuing with the job, regardless of what other people might think.”
Essie nodded her thanks. “I’d better be getting off,” she said, “Sacha will be wondering where I am.”
Bernie took her mug off her. “Call me if anything else happens won’t you?”
Essie turned back and nodded before leaving through the back entrance again. Bernie sat back in her chair and muttered a quick prayer for strength, both for her and Essie and Sacha. This was the last thing they would need in the run up to their wedding.
Bernie slid into the pew next to Serena just before the service was about to start.
“Don’t you need to be somewhere else right now?” Serena asked pointedly.
“Nah. Henrik’s doing the whole thing solo today. Apparently I am to watch and learn. You looked like you had a good view.”
Serena couldn’t prevent a smile crossing her face that Bernie had chosen to sit by her. “It’s even better now,” she whispered as Henrik started to speak.
Bernie didn’t vocalise a response but instead shifted closer so that their sides were pressed together on the hard, wooden pew. Serena found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the sermon with her whole left side tingling. Her mind was reeling with what this actually meant. What was it that she was feeling for Bernie?
All too soon, the service was over and Bernie moved away to talk to some of the other members of the congregation. Before she left she reached over and grabbed Serena’s hand.
“Come and find me later,” she said, “There’s a situation we need to discuss.”
She squeezed Serena’s hand once and then dropped it, moving quickly into the crowd of people. Serena just sat for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. What was this situation that Bernie wanted to discuss? Was it something to do with the electricity she felt wherever Bernie was near? She wasn’t sure she wanted to have that kind of conversation in a church.
Jason, on her other side, eventually nudged her, asking for tea and biscuits. She smiled at him, broken from her revelry, and stood up.
She found Bernie sitting in one of the pews once most people had left the church. She felt her heart speed up as she approached her.
Bernie heard her coming and turned around, her face breaking out into a wide smile. “Serena!”
Serena sat, slightly nervously, on the edge of the pew. “What did you want to discuss?”
Bernie glanced around the church, as though checking for eavesdroppers, before dropping her voice to a whisper.
“It’s about the painting contract.”
Serena’s heart plummeted into her stomach. This was not the conversation she had expected to have. Half of her was disappointed and the other half relieved. She didn’t understand what she was feeling and wasn’t sure how to put it into words yet. A temporary reprieval was exactly what she needed, even if she didn’t want it.
“What about them?” she replied.
“Guy and his lackeys have been threatening Essie.”
“What really?” Serena was shocked. How could anyone threaten Essie?
“Yeah. So I was wondering, since you know them better than I do, whether you had any idea what to do next?”
Bernie’s big, brown eyes were wide. Serena couldn’t help but gaze into them.
“I’m not sure,” she said finally, “Let me have a think.”
Bernie smiled at her and Serena returned it.
“I hope Sacha hasn’t been put off the painting,” Serena said.
“Luckily he’s made of sterner stuff. Essie was a bit shaken initially but now she is firmly supporting him. I just hope this situation can resolve itself before anything worse happens.”
Sleep eluded Serena that night. She kept tossing and turning, her mind refusing to settle. She didn’t understand what this was that she was feeling towards Bernie. This urge to be close to her. The happiness that flooded her body when she saw her. If Bernie was a man, she’d have understood. But she’d never felt this way about a woman before. Was she actually a lesbian and she just hadn’t realised it before? Or was she deluding herself and really she just wanted friendship? Was this related to the menopause? Or her separation with Edward? She just didn’t know.
Eventually she tired of not sleeping and got up. She made it to the kitchen without waking Jason and made herself a large hot chocolate. She really needed to speak to someone about this. Raf maybe? He’d been so good when Edward walked out. She resolved to speak to him in the morning, preferably out of earshot of all the children.
Bernie had been sitting at a table in the corner of the coffee shop for half an hour before Liberty deigned to turn up to the meeting she had asked for. She’d worked her way through a mug of coffee already and was eying up the pastries when Liberty entered, her arms full of shopping bags.
“Bernie, darling,” she said as she sat down in the chair opposite.
Liberty waved over a passing waitress and ordered herself a green tea. It arrived promptly at the table and Liberty sipped it, appraising Bernie over the top of it.
“You’ve got a kind of glow about you today,” she commented.
Bernie sighed, “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
“Of course not,” Liberty replied. She reached over and took one of Bernie’s hands, her voice dropping. “Is it Serena putting that glow on your face?”
Bernie pulled her hand free. “What did you want to talk about Liberty? I have other things I need to do today.”
“Spoil sport,” she muttered. “Anyway, I wanted your advice on something.”
“Oh yeah? Your little plan not working out how you intended? New boyfriend not rich enough for you? Not good enough in bed?”
“Oh now come on. You are better than this Bernie. And you know I don’t care about those things.”
Bernie raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
“It’s the kids, Ellie and Jason,” Liberty continued, “They just don’t seem to be warming to me.”
“You mean you ran off with their dad, broke up their comfortable family life, and they don’t like you? Shocker.”
“You are reaping just as many of the rewards of this break up as I am Bernie. Don’t deny how much you like Serena. I know you. I remember what you were like with Alex.”
Bernie stood up. “This conversation is over. I don’t know why you decided to follow me here but I really wish you hadn’t. Now leave me alone.”
She flung some change down onto the table for her coffee and stalked out of the door. Liberty leant back in her chair, still sipping her green tea and smirking slightly.
Raf had taken one look at Serena when she turned up on his doorstep early that morning, her hair sticking up all over the place, dark bags under her blood-shot eyes, and wrapped her up into a big hug.
“Serena what happened? Is it Edward?”
She let him usher her inside without speaking. She slumped down on his sofa and gratefully accepted the mug of coffee placed into her hands minutes later.
Raf sat down on the sofa next to her.
“Come on Serena, please tell me what’s wrong?”
She looked up at him, took a deep breath and opened her mouth. No words came out so she promptly closed it again.
“Is it Edward? Or Liberty?” Raf prompted.
Serena shook her head. “No, no, nothing like that.”
She took another deep breath, hoping to steady her racing heart. “I think I might have feelings for someone else,” she said in a tiny voice.
“Okay. Do you think they might like you back?” Raf asked.
Serena sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe? Sometimes I think definitely.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It’s complicated.” Serena’s hand automatically reached up to finger her necklace.
“Because of Edward? I really don’t think you need to worry about him.” Raf gave a snort of indignation.
“No, no. Well yes but no I’m not worried about him. It’s just, well…” She stopped, suddenly worried about admitting to Raf that she might have feelings for another woman.
“Who is this lucky man anyway?” Raf asked, once it became clear Serena was not going to complete her sentence.
“It um… well it isn’t…” Serena stumbled over her words.
“Spit it out Serena. Like I’m going to judge. My love life is majorly dull so anything would be better than mine.”
Serena grinned at him. Somehow he always knew how to put her at ease. She leant close to Raf and dropped her voice to a whisper. “It isn’t a man. It’s Bernie.”
She looked up at him to try to judge his reaction. It was limited to say the least. “Are you not surprised?” she asked, slightly annoyed at how little her big secret seemed to have perturbed Raf.
“Honestly Serena, I’ve seen how you are around women. I always assumed you were bisexual. And I definitely know how close you and Bernie have got recently.”
Serena just stared at him.
“But…but…!” she stuttered as he smirked at her.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
Serena buried her head in her hands, the mug of coffee abandoned to the floor. “I don’t know whether she even likes women. She probably doesn’t. Most women don’t. And even if she did, I’m no catch. Caught up in a crumbling marriage with two stubborn teenagers to look after. And anyway, maybe it’s all a phase. Maybe I don’t really like her that way. Maybe I’m just confused because she is the first close female friend I’ve had in ages.”
Raf patted her on the back. “She would be a fool not to like you Serena. I think you should talk to her, tell her how you feel.”
“I can’t. What if it ruins everything?”
Jasmine’s jaw dropped as she set foot through the door into Liberty’s flat.
“Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nice place!”
Jac just raised her eyebrows at her sister and marched past Liberty into the living room.
“Well thank you Jasmine. I’ve put a lot of time and money into making it as nice as possible,” Liberty said, ignoring Jac’s attitude.
“Any particular reason you invited us over tonight?” Jac asked as she begrudgingly admired the view across Holby from the flat’s large window.
Liberty giggled. “I just thought it might be nice to get to know each other, you know, just us girls!”
Jasmine beamed and bounced across the room to the window.
“Oh look, you can see the church from here!” she said, pointing with one hand, “And the high street! Is that the pub where Essie is having her hen do next week?”
Jasmine looked round at the two other women. “Are you both coming to that? It sounds like fun!”
“Think I’m working that evening,” Jac said.
Jasmine gave her a pointed look. “Did you purposely timetable yourself on that evening so you could avoid the party?”
Jac just glared at her.
“Thought so. Ah well, your loss. Are you coming Liberty?”
“To Essie’s hen party? I might be able to put in an appearance.”
Jasmine sighed. “They are such a lovely couple. I’m really looking forward to the wedding.”
“I don’t get why they are holding it at the church though. Isn’t Sacha Jewish? How does that work?” Liberty asked.
“Oh I asked Essie about that, she said they’d done some research and found that anyone can get married in a church whatever religion they are. They said that the church had been so kind to them, even with Sacha begin Jewish, so they wanted to get married there. Sacha’s rabbi is going to give a blessing as well. Reverend Hanssen seemed really happy to arrange everything.”
Liberty just cocked her head to one side. “It just doesn’t seem right though. The church should be for people who actually believe.”
“Who cares,” Jac said, “It’s just a wedding. One day and then we can all get back to our normal lives.”
Liberty cornered Essie before the next choir rehearsal.
“Essie! It’s good to see you.”
Essie smiled pleasantly at Liberty but did not speak. She was happy to be polite to Liberty but she had no intention of becoming her friend. She’d seen the hurt in Serena’s eyes when her and Edward were brought up and she didn’t want to get into the middle of that.
“I just wanted a quick word if that’s okay?” Liberty continued, undeterred. She grabbed Essie’s arm and steered her unceremoniously into a secluded corner of the church.
“What’s this about?” Essie asked, pulling her arm free from Liberty’s grasp.
“I just wanted to talk to you about the choir,” Liberty said, her face the picture of innocence, “It’s just that now things are getting more serious, I wondered whether you were still happy to be involved?”
“Of course I am!” Essie said, confused.
Liberty hummed and then continued. “I know that you have been working hard, and you are improving, but your voice is never going to be as strong as other people’s is it? Wouldn’t you maybe be happier somewhere else?”
Essie took a step back. “Are you saying you think I should leave the choir because I’m not good enough?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I just thought you might find it easier in another choir, like Serena’s maybe? Particularly with all the wedding planning you must be dealing with. You must be exhausted.”
“Right. Well thanks for letting me know.”
Essie pushed past Liberty and headed back towards the rest of the choir, her blood boiling with anger. How dare she imply that she wasn’t good enough!
Sacha caught her by the door.
“You okay?” he asked, noting the look on her face.
She smiled, his presence helping her to calm down. Just because Liberty said she should leave, didn’t mean she had to. As far as she was aware, it was still Edward running the choir so until he said something, she was staying.
“Eddie bear, what have you got there?” Liberty asked.
Edward passed the stack of sheet music over to Liberty. “It’s the songs Sacha and Essie have requested for their wedding. I was just looking over the arrangements.”
Liberty flicked through the pile of music. “But Eddie, these are all pop songs!”
“Yeah,” Edward said. He looked at Liberty trying to figure out if she was pleased or not.
“We can’t sing pop songs! We are a serious church choir!”
“I just thought, as a one off…” Edward trailed off as Liberty cut in over him.
“We just can’t do it Edward. Not when we are supposed to be ambitious and working on the music for the next competition. This takes us away from our hard work. I’m not letting some silly pop songs ruin our chances in the next competition. And anyway since when did people have pop songs at weddings? Not in a church wedding anyway. I know Sacha is Jewish but it is no excuse for ignoring the strong tradition of hymns sung at church weddings.”
Liberty stopped suddenly, her arms crossed over her chest. “You do agree with me Eddie bear?” she asked, her voice suddenly higher and sweeter than before.
“Oh.” Edward paused for a moment. “I suppose so,” he said, resigned.
“Right. Well you’ll let them know that it’s the tradition hymns or nothing won’t you?”
Serena turned to find Bernie stood in the doorway to the side room with a sad expression on her face.
“Got a minute?”
“I’ve got the committee meeting in two minutes,” Serena replied, already making her way towards the church office. Most of the time she would have happily chosen Bernie over the church committee but she was still a bit raw from her conversation with Raf. What was she feeling for Bernie? And what did Bernie feel for her?
“Oh me too but this is rather urgent.”
Serena spun on her heels and looked properly at Bernie. Her eyes pleaded with Serena to come over and Serena found that her feet obeyed without her even thinking about it.
“What?” she asked as she approached.
Bernie stood aside to let her into the room. It was slightly chaotic with ladders and painting equipment all over the place. Sacha had clearly finished the ceiling and was in the middle of working on one of the walls. He hopped down from the ladder as Serena entered.
“Hi Serena, has Bernie told you?”
Serena looked at Bernie, one eyebrow raised. “Not yet.”
“Well it’s just that Sacha has found that some of his paintbrushes and other equipment has been disappearing.”
“What do you mean disappearing?” Serena questioned.
“I left a load of stuff here overnight the other night and it wasn’t all here in the morning,” Sacha explained, “And then the same thing happened again last night.”
Serena sighed, “So someone is coming into the church overnight to take your things. I think we know who is ultimately behind this.”
“I think some of my things have been taken as well,” Bernie commented.
Bernie blushed. “I don’t exactly keep my things in the order I should so I may have just misplaced them.”
Serena bit back the laugh that threatened to erupt from her at that. “Oh Bernie I’ve seen the state of your office, I can understand that.”
Bernie’s cheeks flushed an even deeper red.
“Goodness knows how you survived the regime in the army!”
“Yes thank you Serena,” Bernie said, “But hadn’t we better be getting to this meeting. I think we’d better tell them about this situation at once.”
The room was nearly full when Bernie and Serena arrived. They slid into the last two chairs around the table and Serena got out her notebook.
Jac, as self-appointed president of the committee, called them to order seconds later.
“Well since we are already five minutes late,” she shot a look of displeasure at Bernie and Serena, “I think we’d best get started. First on the agenda are the rotas.”
Multiple pieces of paper were passed around the table. Bernie’s fingers brushed against Serena’s as the sheets passed between them causing both women to blush and turn away. Raf grinned at them from the other side of the table.
“We have had a request from Sacha and Essie,” Reverend Hanssen cut in as they were all looking over the rotas. Serena looked up at him intrigued.
“They asked if it would be possible to use the Sunday flowers for their wedding on the Saturday. I have agreed to this request so could the person scheduled for the Sunday after next please put out the flowers on Friday evening rather than Saturday.”
Serena smiled. She had been impressed with how good Essie and Sacha were at budgeting. “Sound like a lovely idea.”
There was a small kerfuffle down the other end of the table between Guy, Isaac and Matteo and then Matteo spoke up. “Is it a good idea though?”
The rest of the committee turned to him, confused.
“I mean will the flowers really last for two days? It doesn’t seem fair if the flowers have wilted before the Sunday evening service.”
Jac tilted her head as though in agreement.
“And do we really want to be setting a precedence?” Isaac chipped in, “We don’t want everyone expecting to be able to use the church flowers at every wedding.”
“But Reverend Hanssen has already agreed!” Morven said, “We can’t go back on his word.”
“Sometimes we have to,” Guy said, leaning back on his chair with an air of indifference about him.
Serena felt the anger building up inside her about to explode. She stood up and leant over the table towards Guy, Isaac and Matteo.
“So we have this lovely couple who have joined our community and helped us out in so many ways and all they want in return is a nice wedding with flowers and their choice of music from the choir and we can’t even provide that? And don’t get me started on the whispering I’ve been hearing about the fact that Sacha is Jewish. So what? Who cares? Jesus was Jewish after all and if Sacha wants to be a part of the church community, I don’t care what he does or doesn’t believe. And now someone has been sneaking into the church in the dead of night to sabotage his painting, a project that has been designed to help the church and the rest of the community and all you lot care about is profit.”
Serena could have continued for hours she was so incensed but she was brought back to her senses by a gentle hand on her shoulder. She spun to find Bernie stood next to her. The look on Bernie’s face of understanding drained the anger out of her. The gentle but firm pressure on her shoulder brought her back into her chair and she turned to Reverend Hanssen, a sheepish look on her face.
“Sorry,” she muttered. The rest of the committee looked a bit shell-shocked.
“I think we’d better put it to the vote,” Reverend Hanssen said diplomatically, “And then you can tell us a bit more about this sabotage you mentioned.”
“Serena, hi, can you come down to the church right now?” The urgency in Bernie’s voice was obvious, even over the phone. Serena stood up from the sofa and headed into the hallway immediately.
“Everything alright Bernie?” Serena said, holding the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she fastened up her shoes.
“Not really. Please come quickly. You’ll be able to see when you get here.”
“I’m on my way,” she said as she slammed the door behind her and hurried off down the road.
It was obvious once she arrived. Sacha and Essie were in the side room staring at the wall. Serena joined them, looked up at the wall and gasped. Painted on the wall, in bright red paint, were a number of swastikas.
“This is too much,” Essie said, “I can’t get married in a church that treats my husband like this.”
Sacha seemed to be lost for words. His eyes were red as though he had been crying although it appeared the tears had dried up for now.
“I’m going to cancel the wedding. And maybe we should think about moving house? Find somewhere where this sort of thing doesn’t happen.”
Bernie bustled into the room carrying buckets of water and scrubbing brushes. She put them down by the wall and began scrubbing at the swastikas. Serena paused for a moment before stepping forward and joining her.
“You don’t have to,” Sacha said in a small voice.
Bernie spun round and looked him right in the eyes. “Yes I do,” she said, “I do because this is my church and I won’t stand for people acting this way in my church. You’ve been treated terribly by what I hope is just a small proportion of the congregation and it ends now.”
“Serena’s choir is going to perform at your wedding; just let them know your choice of songs.” Bernie glanced over at Serena for confirmation and smiled when she nodded. “And Morven has managed to get the florists where she works to give you a big discount on flowers so it doesn’t matter that the church committee are too caught up in themselves to notice when someone needs a little help. And I am going to clean this wall right now so that we have a beautiful new room in which to hold your wedding reception.”
Serena didn’t think she had ever heard Bernie string so many words together in one go. She just looked at her in awe. Bernie cared so much about the church, the community and Sacha and Essie. She really wanted to throw her arms around her and hug her but she settled for a hand on Bernie’s arm. She found Bernie was shaking from the adrenaline. She gentled guided her into a nearby chair as Essie thanked her.
“Bernie, you really didn’t have to do all this.”
“Just promise me you won’t leave, not now anyway. This community needs people like you and Sacha.”
Sacha stepped forward and spoke, his voice clearer and steadier than before. “I promise we won’t leave yet.”
“Well then we have a wedding to prepare for!” Serena said, picking up her scrubbing brush again and returning to the wall, “Do pass on your requests for songs so we can get them rehearsed.”
The wedding was beautiful. Serena dabbed at her eyes as she watched them exchange vows from the choir stalls. The church was full, despite the earlier grumblings from some people, and it was clear that Sacha and Essie were generally well liked.
Bernie caught her eye as she slipped out of the side door carrying boxes of confetti. Serena grinned at her, her heart leaping as Bernie returned the smile. She stood up and roused the choir to play the happy couple out of the church. Cheers came in through the open doors as the exited the church, confetti being thrown. Serena motioned to the choir and they followed everyone out of the church still singing and gathered on the steps. Flashes of camera bulbs were going off everywhere and Serena could see tears of joy running down Essie’s face. She wished them all the happiness in the world and hoped that their marriage would work out better than hers had.
Bernie had taken it upon herself to DJ for the reception. Serena had laughed at first when she had suggested it but the look on Bernie’s face had soon quelled that and since Sacha and Essie had accepted, who was she to disagree? The music Bernie was playing seemed to be a bizarre mixture of genres and time periods but the guests liked it well enough.
Having queued up the next few songs, Bernie edged towards Serena who was watching the dancing from the side of the room, glass of red in hand. Serena glanced up as she approached and smiled at her. She couldn’t help it. Every time she saw Bernie she just wanted to smile.
Bernie held out her hand to Serena. “Care to dance?” she asked in a quiet voice. She made eye contact for a second and then dropped her eyes to the floor, her hand following. Serena caught her hand before it reached her side.
“I’d like that,” she said, watching Bernie’s cheeks glow faintly pink and wondering.
Bernie led her into the middle of the dance floor and let one arm wrap loosely around her waist. Serena placed her free hand on Bernie’s shoulder and let herself be lead around the room in a giggly mess of footwork. The song playing had a quick tempo and they tried to keep pace, fairly successfully. Serena laughed out loud as Bernie stumbled, only staying upright by clinging onto Serena.
Then the music changed and a slower song came on. They paused, looking at each other, and Serena could see the blush returning to Bernie’s cheeks. She took a deep breath and then reached her hands around Bernie’s shoulders, pulling her closer. She felt Bernie’s hands grip her hips as they swayed gently. Her heart rate shot up with having Bernie at such close proximity and she dropped her eyes from Bernie’s face to look around the room in an attempt to calm herself.
Serena started as she noticed Edward in the corner. She knew he’d been invited but she hadn’t thought he would actually show up. His eyes were focused on Serena and Bernie and he was downing shots of what Serena assumed was whisky. Liberty was nowhere to be seen. There was a mournful look in his eyes.
Bernie turned to see what Serena was looking at and the grip on Serena’s hips tightened as she also spotted Edward.
“Okay?” she whispered to Serena.
Serena pulled her eyes away from Edward and back to Bernie.
“Yes, sorry, bit of a shock. Didn’t expect to see him after the whole choir debacle.”
Bernie smiled. “Would be more of a shock if my ex-husband appeared!”
“I suppose it would! I just wish he would stop staring.”
Bernie manoeuvred them around the other dancers until they were on the far side of the room, away from Edward’s gaze.
“Do you ever think you’d do this whole thing again?” Serena asked Bernie.
Bernie looked confused, “What? DJing?”
“No. Marriage, wedding, husband.”
“Oh.” Bernie blushed bright red. “No. Well, definitely not the husband part anyway.”
Serena’s mind was reeling. Bernie definitely didn’t want another husband. Did that mean what she thought it meant? She looked up into Bernie’s eyes but Bernie seemed to be regretting her words already.
Bernie was clearly panicking now. She started to pull away from Serena, shaking her head, her breath coming fast and shallow. Serena caught her hand and pulled her out of the side room and down towards the offices. Bernie protested a little before allowing herself to be taken down the darkened corridor. The noise of the party was muffled here and there were no other sounds.
“Bernie please don’t run from me. Speak to me. What did you mean?”
Bernie rested her forehead against the wall and tried to calm her breathing. Serena ran her hand up and down Bernie’s back and she gradually calmed down.
Bernie turned slightly, still leaning on the wall.
“I’m gay,” she whispered, keeping her eyes focused on the floor. When Serena stayed silent she risked a glance at her face. Serena was smiling at her.
“You, you don’t mind?” Bernie stammered.
“Course I don’t, silly.”
She pulled Bernie into a hug, feeling that rush from having Bernie close again. She thought about talking about her feelings with Bernie but she still wasn’t sure enough to properly vocalise them yet. And besides, Bernie needed her support right now, not to be burdened with her crisis of sexuality. That could be left until another day.
“What do you think of this colour?” Liberty asked, waving a paint sample booklet at Edward, “Isn’t it just divine?”
Edward glanced over the table at Liberty and smiled. “Lovely, dear.”
“Yes that’s what I thought. It will be perfect for the nursery.”
Edward spluttered on his morning tea. “The nursery?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m painting the spare room. So we’re ready when the baby comes.”
Edward stared at her. “You’re…you’re pregnant?”
Liberty laughed. “Oh no, not yet. But soon hopefully.”
Edward stood up and began pacing the kitchen. “You want to be pregnant soon?”
“Well I thought you might want to get on with it, since you’re not so young anymore.” Liberty paused and looked at Edward. “Was I wrong?”
He walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Liberty, I didn’t realise you wanted to have a child. I thought you were happy with it just being us.”
“And Ellie,” Liberty added.
“And Ellie. Not that I know where she’s been the past few days.”
“I am happy, Eddie bear, so happy, but wouldn’t we be even happier with a baby to share our joy?”
Edward sighed. “Liberty I already have one daughter and a nephew…” He sighed again. “Can we talk about this later? I’ve got to get to work.”
“Of course.” She stood up and kissed him on the cheek. “Have a great day darling. I’ll see you at choir practise this evening.”
“No! No! No!”
The choir abruptly stopped as Edward banged his fist on the music stand.
Silence fell in the church. Only Ellie ventured to speak.
“It’s just not good enough. Again. And this time try and put some effort into it.”
He raised his arms and the choir began again.
A loud crash stopped them once again in their tracks. Edward had kicked the music stand over.
“What’s wrong with you all tonight? Where’s the power in your voices?”
Liberty rushed forward to put the music stand straight again. “Are you okay Eddie?”
“I’m fine. It’s the choir I’m worried about. It’s just so quiet!”
“Maybe it’s the lack of voices?” Ric said, “Maybe we just aren’t that loud without people like Dom and Sacha to sing with us?”
Edward began to turn red. He looked as though he was going to kick the music stand over again.
“This rehearsal is over!” he shouted, “Come back next week able to sing or I’ll kick the rest of you out as well!”
The sounds of the rehearsal carried through clearly into the side room. Fletch, armed with a paintbrush, was having great difficulty not laughing out loud at the scenes in the main church. Essie had grinned when Ric brought up the missing Sacha. He was right there alongside her painting the ceiling of the side room.
“Bet you’re glad you joined Serena’s choir now!” Raf whispered, nudging Essie.
She smiled at him. “Oh yes. Choirs are supposed to be fun. Whatever that was, it was most definitely not fun!”
Leaving Essie and Sacha to finish off the last bit of wall, Raf and Fletch headed home. It was a cold night and Raf shivered in the night air.
“Here,” Fletch said, shrugging off his jacket and placing it over Raf’s shoulders. “You need it more than me.”
Raf bumped his shoulder with Fletch’s. “Thanks.”
They hurried home along the dark, empty streets before Fletch got cold too.
Evie was the only one still awake when they got in.
“Ella and Theo went to bed ages ago but Mikey took some persuading,” she said when Fletch enquired after his other children.
“Thanks Evie,” he said, slipping her a tenner. “I’ll try and get a babysitter next time.”
Evie hugged both Fletch and Raf goodnight before disappearing up to bed.
“You’ve got a good one there,” Raf said as she climbed the stairs.
“Don’t I know it,” Fletch said, smiling at his daughter. “Don’t know what I’d have done without her these past few years.”
“Come calling on me a lot sooner?” Raf said, laughing. “Come on, let’s see if there’s anything good on tv.”
They sat side by side on the sofa, the latest BBC drama playing out on the tv. It was late enough that the heating had switched off and the room began to get cold. Raf shivered and Fletch pulled the blanket off the back of the sofa and wrapped it around his shoulders.
“Thanks,” Raf said, “But what about you? Aren’t you getting cold?”
Fletch shook his head but Raf reached out and touched his ice-cold hand.
“Don’t lie to me Adrian Fletcher,” he said.
He shifted over on the sofa until he was pressed against Fletch’s side and moved the blanket so it was covering both of them.
“Much better,” he said, leaning into Fletch slightly.
A small smile spread across Fletch’s face as the heat of Raf’s body and the blanket began to warm him up.
“Much better,” he repeated.
Bernie was in the side room with Sacha when Serena arrived. She stood for a moment in the doorway watching as Bernie explained her ideas, waving her hands around. Sacha had a pencil and paper and was taking notes and making small sketches to show Bernie. They both smiled and laughed as they worked and it made Serena’s heart swell at how relaxed Bernie was. She hadn’t seen much of her since the wedding and Bernie’s confession so it was good to see that it hadn’t been weighing on Bernie’s mind.
Serena cleared her throat and Bernie turned to look at her, a wide smile crossing her face.
“Serena!” she called as she walked over towards her. She grabbed Serena’s hand and pulled her over towards Sacha. “Come and see our ideas for the walls.”
Bernie’s hand was smooth in her own and Serena felt her heart skip a beat. The discovery that Bernie was gay had amplified her feelings to the point that she wasn’t sure how to hide them anymore, or even that she should be hiding them. But more than anything she wanted Bernie to be comfortable so she wasn’t going to start anything unless she was sure that Bernie wanted it. Just because Bernie had come out to her didn’t mean that she wanted Serena to start coming on to her. They were friends and that may be all that Bernie wanted from her. With no evidence to the contrary, Serena was just going to be the best friend that Bernie had ever had.
“Have you seen this?” Fletch asked as Raf walked into the room.
Raf sat down in the chair next to Fletch and pulled the laptop closer so he could see the screen.
“South West Choral Heats…” he read from the screen.
“Well?” Fletch asked.
“Do you think we should enter?” Fletch said, rolling his eyes.
Raf leant back in the chair. “Are the church choir entering this year?”
“Ric said that they were. Apparently Liberty’s previous choir won a couple of years ago and she wants another go.”
“And therefore Edward is obviously going to let her!” Raf laughed. “He’ll give her anything she asks for.”
“So, do you think we should enter?” Fletch repeated, “I mean we beat the church choir last time, think we could do it again?”
Raf smiled at Fletch, then frowned. “I’m not sure Serena would go for it. She’s always saying that the choir is about having fun not winning competitions.”
Fletch sighed. “You’re right.”
He slumped down into his chair before suddenly sitting upright again with a big grin on his face. “Let’s not tell her then!”
Raf frowned at him.
“Well, not yet at least. We could ease her into the idea gradually.”
Raf stretched out his arms, nudged Fletch on the shoulder and nodded. “Fine, yeah, whatever. But you take the blame if she finds out.”
“Agreed. Now let’s see what this application form looks like.”
“Your idea of heaven?” Serena questioned as Bernie explained her ideas to her.
“Yeah, like what you like best in the world kind of thing.” Bernie’s enthusiasm was shining through, “Like Sacha likes boxing and Ric likes…”
“Wives!” Serena interrupted.
Bernie burst out laughing. “I’m… not letting… him put… that on the wall,” she got out between honks.
She took a few deep breaths and got hold of herself.
“What are you putting up on the wall?” Serena asked Bernie once the laughing had stopped.
Bernie blushed. “I’m not sure. Maybe raspberry ripple ice cream?”
Serena raised an eyebrow.
“What? It is the greatest flavour.” Bernie looked offended but only for a moment. “What about you anyway? What’s your idea of heaven?”
“Eddie bear, can you come here a moment?” Liberty called from the kitchen table.
Edward reluctantly extracted himself from the sofa and wandered over to her. On the table was a grid, maybe a calendar. He couldn’t make head nor tail of it.
“What’s this?” he asked, hoping that she’d let him get back to the football soon.
“It’s my conception plan,” Liberty said. “Look, these are the days that I’m most fertile, so we should really be making love lots of these days, and these are the best days to take a pregnancy test to see whether we’ve managed to conceive that month.”
Edward took a step backwards, then another one. “Liberty…”
“So anyway, if you look here, my fertile days this month start tomorrow so maybe we should start trying tonight, just to make sure. I’ve stopped taking the pill now and we can dispense with those condoms of yours. We won’t be needing those for a while!”
Edward stood stock still, his mouth opening and closing but no words coming out of it.
“Eddie bear?” Liberty asked.
“I… have to go out. Now. Shops. Bank.”
Edward grabbed his coat and shoes and shot out of the door like a rocket leaving Liberty calling after him. Not for the first time, he wondered what he had got himself into.
“I’m…I’m not so sure I believe in heaven,” Serena said after a moment of contemplation. Her hand covered her mouth as she realised that she had just said that to the curate of the church she attends. “Not that I don’t believe or anything… just that… well…”
Bernie reached out and grabbed her hand. “Serena I don’t care what you do or don’t believe as long as you are a good person. This church community is about welcoming everyone. Look at Sacha here.”
Sacha waved as he sat, sketching out some ideas for the wall.
Serena calmed quickly. “Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.”
It hadn’t escaped Serena’s notice that Bernie was still holding her hand. It was nice, stood here with her, feeling like they were the only ones there, only the scratch of Sacha’s pencil breaking their bubble.
Bernie tugged them over to some chairs covered in dust sheets. Serena sank into one gratefully, dropping Bernie’s hand.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Bernie started, “What do you believe?”
Serena rested her head back against the back of the chair. “I’m not really sure. I think I believe that there is some form of God up there but I’m not sure how much influence they have in any of our lives or deaths. I just try to do the right thing because it is the right thing, you know, not because it might help me get into heaven.”
Bernie nodded. “That makes sense.”
A gentle silence fell over them. It was comfortable, sat there with Bernie. Serena debated taking up Bernie’s hand once more but then thought better of it.
“I know what you believe in,” Bernie said after a while.
Serena looked over at her confused.
Bernie smiled at her. “You believe in your kids, and in this community. You believe in people, however rough it gets, however much they let you down, you believe that people will turn out good in the end.”
Serena just looked at her in amazement. Bernie patted Serena’s arm and then stood up again.
“Best get back to helping Sacha,” she said. She took a couple of paces before turning around and speaking again. “We’ve got the coffee machine coming tomorrow. Will you come and help me figure out how to work it?”
Serena nodded. “Of course.”
“Brilliant. It’s due at 10 but feel free to come along anytime. I’ll be here all day.”
“What’s all this?” Elinor asked.
She’d just got back from school and was about to sit down at the kitchen table to start her homework when she discovered it was covered in paper already.
Liberty came running over. “Nothing, nothing,” she said as she swept up all the paper into her arms.
Elinor plucked the last piece of paper up from the table and stared at it.
“Top ten positions for conception. Eww!” She dropped the paper and shuddered. “I do not need to know about yours and dad’s sex life.”
Liberty spun around and started heading for the bedroom with the paper.
“Wait. Conception? Are you and dad planning on having a BABY!”
Liberty’s cheeks coloured as she turned to face an increasingly angry Elinor.
“Seriously! Are me and Jason not good enough for you two? Were we just dad’s trial run and now he wants to have another go?”
“I think maybe you should talk to you dad about this,” Liberty said, trying to defer the anger.
“And where is he? Hiding? I haven’t seen him all day.”
Liberty took a step back as Elinor advanced on her. “I’m not sure. He went out. Shops I think.”
“Ugh. Well I’ve had enough of this.”
Elinor, mirroring her dad’s actions from earlier, grabbed her coat, handbag and shoes and left the apartment in a rush. Once more Liberty was left alone.
Fletch was just about to head off for his evening shift at the hospital when Raf ran down the hall towards him waving his mobile phone.
“I’ve got the confirmation!” he said, slightly out of breath.
Raf passed his phone over to Fletch. “For the choral heats! We’re in!”
Fletch looked at the screen of the phone to see the email. There it was in black and white. Serenity Sounds had a confirmed place in the heats in two weeks’ time. He looked up at Raf to see a huge smile splitting his face. Fletch grinned right back at him and pulled him into a hug. He squeezed tightly as he felt Raf’s arms wrap around him.
“Now who’s going to tell Serena?” he said into Raf’s ear.
Raf laughed and pulled back.
“You get off to work now and let me worry about that.”
Raf leant in once more and kissed Fletch on the cheek.
“Now away with you. Don’t want you being late.”
Fletch gave Raf a final squeeze to his arm before turning and opening the front door.
“Will you remind Mikey to get his homework done tonight?”
“Of course. Now go!”
Elinor burst into the house just as Serena was settling down to watch the news with a cup of tea. The banging of the door made her jump and spill the tea down her front. Swearing, she leapt up and ran into the kitchen, pulling off her shirt as she went.
Elinor followed her mum into the kitchen.
“You’ll never believe what dad and Liberty are planning!” she started without prompt.
Serena took one look at her daughter and realised she was in for a long rant. Elinor had that gleam in her eye that meant she was out for blood.
“Elinor, darling, can it wait until I’ve dealt with this spillage?”
“Huh?” Elinor looked at her mum properly for the first time and noticed that she was stood in the middle of the kitchen in just a bra and trousers, her tea-soaked shirt in her hand and a reddening mark on the bare skin of her chest. “What happened?”
Serena raised an eyebrow. “Well your rather sudden entrance caused me to spill my nice cup of tea all over myself.”
Serena dumped the shirt in the sink and ran some water. “You’re lucky that I’d added so much milk that it wasn’t too hot. No damage done except to the shirt. Now can I go and get changed or is what you have to say of too great importance?”
“Go get changed. I’d prefer not to have a conversation with my half-dressed mother.”
“Thank you darling,” Serena said, kissing Elinor on the cheek as she passed. “By the way, it’s lovely to see you.”
“You too, although next time I’d rather not see quite so much of you!”
Serena climbed the stairs and quickly changed into clean, dry clothes before heading back downstairs. She found Elinor in the sitting room, two new mugs of tea on the coffee table.
“Too make up for the one you spilt,” Elinor said as she entered the room.
“Thank you darling,” Serena said, picking up the nearest mug. “Now what did you need to tell me.”
Elinor picked up her own mug and sipped it. “It’s so horrible mum, I’m not sure I can put it into words.”
“You’re good with words, I’m sure you can manage somehow.”
Elinor sighed. “It’s dad and Liberty. They’re planning on having a baby.”
The shock almost caused Serena to spill her second tea of the evening.
“I know. It’s disgusting. Dad’s far too old to have a baby.”
Serena tried not to take that as an insult to her age. After all, she was only a couple of years younger than Edward herself.
“And what does he want a baby for anyway?” Elinor continued, “Are me and Jason not enough for him?”
Serena reached over and grabbed Elinor’s hand. She tried to think of words that would reassure her daughter but none were forthcoming. Her mind was full of thoughts of Edward and Liberty with a baby. Edward who only started becoming interested in Elinor when she began to talk. Edward who always told Serena that it was her job to raise the children. Edward who had never been interested in babies at all. Surely he didn’t want another one now. Or maybe he did. Maybe it was Serena that had been the problem. Maybe he was so much happier with Liberty that he now actively wanted a child with her.
But she couldn’t think like that. It would just depress her. So she just pulled her only daughter close to her and listened as she ranted, making understanding noises in the right places. Instead she tried to focus on the fact that she would see Bernie again tomorrow. That out of this mess she had made a solid friendship. And if the way Bernie acted with her today was any indication, maybe something more.
Serena struggled to sleep that night, her mind refusing to relax. She wasn’t sure whether she was worried about something or just excited to see Bernie again in the morning, but whatever it was, she only managed a couple of hours before she was wide awake again. She tossed and turned in bed for a while before giving up on sleep and heading downstairs for a large mug of coffee.
Elinor came down the stairs not long afterwards, rubbing her eyes. Serena put the kettle on again to make more coffee for them both. Elinor shoved some bread in the toaster and then flopped down onto one of the dining chairs.
“Mum? Could you drive me over to Dad’s before school? I’ve left my French homework there.”
“Sure love,” Serena replied, pushing a mug of coffee towards Elinor, “Just let me check Jason’s okay to sort himself out this morning.”
Elinor nodded and sipped at her coffee. “How is Jason?”
Serena sat herself down in the chair next to Elinor. “He’s doing so much better now. Has he told you about Celia?”
Elinor smiled. “He mentioned something about her. Is it serious?”
Serena shrugged. “Who knows. But she’s been over a few times and he seems happy. It’s nice to see him making those connections.”
“The bullying’s stopped then?” Elinor asked.
“Yes, thank goodness. Having a little group of friends around him seems to have really done the trick.”
The toaster popped and Elinor stood to butter her toast. “Got any jam?”
“Should be some of the homemade stuff from the summer in the fridge,” Serena said.
Ellie grinned. “My favourite.”
By the time Jason came downstairs for his own breakfast, both Elinor and Serena had showered and dressed. Serena put a bowl of porridge in the microwave for him while he poured himself a glass of orange juice.
“Jason are you okay to get yourself on the bus today?” Serena checked, “Only I need to drive Elinor over to her father’s.”
Jason nodded. “I can walk to the bus stop on my own. Then I can sit next to Celia on the bus.”
“Celia gets the same bus as you?” Elinor asked, looking up from her mobile.
Jason nodded again. “She gets on five stops before me though. So she gets a good seat and saves the space next to her for me.”
“That’s really nice of her.”
“She is really nice. She’s the nicest person I’ve ever met,” Jason said.
Ellie raised her eyebrows and looked at Serena. Jason didn’t notice. He accepted the hot bowl of porridge from Serena and sat down at the table.
“Thank you Auntie Serena. I think you are almost as nice as Celia,” he said before picking up his spoon and digging in.
Elinor snorted and Serena shook her head. “Well thank you Jason. What a compliment.”
They left Jason at the breakfast table and headed out in the car. Serena pulled up in front of the sleek steel framed building that Edward and Liberty lived in and Elinor hopped out.
“Won’t be a minute!” she said as she slammed the car door shut and disappeared through the revolving doors into the lobby.
Serena sat in the car and stared up at the imposing building, wondering which balcony belonged to their flat. It was such a contrast to the comfortable semi-detached that she lived in that she wondered how anyone could live in such surroundings. Both Edward and Elinor seemed to have decided that they preferred life here than at home though so it must have something going for it. Unless that thing was the lack of her. She leant her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. She couldn’t think like that, it would drive her crazy. And anyway, it looked as though Elinor might be considered moving back home.
True to her word, Elinor wasn’t long. Less than five minutes later, she reappeared at the car clutching her French folder in one hand and in the other hand, a large basket.
“What is that?” Serena asked, eying the basket sceptically when Elinor opened the car door with some difficulty.
“Now don’t be mad mum,” Elinor started.
A barking came from the basket.
“Elinor is that a dog?” Serena questioned.
“Yes,” Elinor said, “And I have a favour to ask you.”
She lifted the basket so that Serena could peer in through the opening. Serena caught sight of a ridiculously fluffy white dog.
“Liberty’s going out today and she wondered if you would be able to look after her today while I’m at school,” Elinor explained.
Serena raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Please mum! Haven’t you always wanted a dog?”
Serena let out a laugh. “I’ve no idea where you’ve got that idea, darling! Always thought dogs were more hassle then they were worth!”
Elinor shrugged her shoulders. “You’re not wrong there. But it still remains that someone needs to look after this one today and you are the only person available. So please. Pretty please.”
Elinor gave her best innocent look and Serena relented. “Does she have a name?”
“Liberty called her Princess Candyfloss,” Elinor said with a grimace.
“Oh dear. What on earth did she do to deserve a name like that?”
“I call her Prissy. It seems to fit,” Elinor explained.
A whining sound came from the basket.
“Well let’s hope that if your father and Liberty are going to have a baby, that Liberty doesn’t get any input into the baby’s name,” Serena said.
She put the car into gear and drove off in the direction of Elinor’s school. She hoped that Prissy wasn’t too difficult to deal with. What did she know about looking after dogs?
It was still well before 10 when Serena arrived at the church. She’d delayed as long as possible after dropping off Elinor. She’d walked Prissy around the park for a bit and grabbed a few bits and pieces for lunch at the co-op. But she couldn’t think of anything else to do, and realistically didn’t want to delay seeing Bernie any longer. And hadn’t Bernie said that she could arrive at any time?
The church doors were already unlocked so she didn’t need her key to get in. She walked through to the side room with Prissy wailing in her basket. She would have brought her in just on her lead except that she had no idea how well behaved Prissy was and she wasn’t going to risk her making a mess of the room just when they had sorted everything out.
Bernie was already in the room, clearing a space for where the coffee machine was going to go. She spun round as Serena entered the room and broke out into a wide grin.
“Serena! And who do we have here?”
She bent down on the floor to look into the basket, wiggling her fingers through the grate.
“Hello, little one!”
“This is Prissy,” Serena explained, “Elinor’s dog. I’m in charge for the day.”
“Hello Prissy!” Bernie said, still peering into the basket and wiggling her fingers. It was rather endearing.
Then the cogs turned in Bernie’s brain and she looked up at Serena. “Wait, this is Elinor’s dog. Does that mean…”
Serena smiled. “She’s not moved back in or anything yet but Ellie stayed the night last night.”
“Oh Serena, I’m so glad,” Bernie said, standing and wrapping her arms around Serena, “I’m sure it won’t be long before she decides to move back in properly.”
“I do hope so,” Serena said, “Even if it does mean that this fluffball has to come with her.”
“Not a dog fan?” Bernie asked, stepping back from the hug much to Serena’s disappointment. She could have stayed wrapped in Bernie’s arms all day.
“Not particularly. And neither is Elinor. Goodness knows why Liberty thought this was a good idea. Or why Edward didn’t stop her.”
“Well I love dogs so if you ever need help with her, just call me,” Bernie said.
Serena smiled at her. “Thanks.”
Serena treated Bernie and Sacha to soup and sandwiches for lunch knocked up in the church kitchen. They sat on one of the new table and chair sets that Bernie had bought for the café and enjoyed a nice break from their work. Bernie smiled at her over the table and complemented the food.
“You really are multi-talented Serena Campbell,” she said as she put her spoon down in her empty bowl, “If you cook like that every day I might just move in with you myself.”
Serena tried desperately not to think about the concept of Bernie living with her. Of Bernie shared her house, her life, her bed with her.
Raf turned up at the church after lunch with three of Fletch’s kids in tow.
“Hi, thought you might need a hand,” he said as they all walked in.
Evie immediately sunk into one of the chairs and wrapped her arms around her stomach. Raf released the straps on Theo’s pushchair and he clambered out and began running in circles around the room. Ella hung back, one hand firmly gripping Raf’s trouser leg and the other thumb in her mouth.
Serena raised an eyebrow. “You thought we might need a hand or you thought you needed a hand dealing with this lot.”
Raf shrugged. “Bit of both?”
Bernie caught Theo and swung him high. He squealed in delight and Serena couldn’t help smiling at her.
“Well it’s nice to see you,” she said, “I think the next job is to start building the rest of the tables and chairs. Bernie bought them flat pack.”
She indicated a pile of boxes in the corner marked with IKEA logos on the sides.
Raf rolled his eyes but set about opening up the top box and reading the instructions.
Serena was about to go and help him when Evie groaned from her chair.
“Evie, are you alright love?” she said, approaching her.
Evie shook her head but said nothing.
“She’s been off colour all day. Didn’t want to send her to school in this state. Think it’s her stomach,” Raf said.
Serena bend down next to her and put a hand on her forehead to check her temperature. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
Evie glanced around the room at all the people and shook her head. Serena picked up on the problem immediately.
“Shall we go find somewhere quiet?” she asked and Evie nodded.
Serena took Evie’s hand and led her out to the church office. It was, as she had hoped, empty. Reverend Hanssen must have been out somewhere.
“Right. What’s the matter with you then?” she asked once the door had closed behind her.
Evie leant forward to whisper in Serena’s ear. “Period pains.”
“Oh love,” Serena said, “You should have said.”
Evie blushed. “Didn’t want to tell Uncle Raf,” she mumbled.
Serena nodded understandingly. “I get it. It’s times like this you must really miss your mum.”
Evie nodded and allowed Serena to pull her into a hug, tears starting to fall.
“If you ever want to talk about something like this with a woman, you can always come to me okay?”
Evie nodded against Serena’s chest.
“I’ll give you my mobile number. Then you can call or text me whenever you need me. But right now we need to help your tummy feel a bit better. I’ve got some ibuprofen in my bag. Can I tell Bernie about this and see if she has a hot water bottle anywhere around?”
Evie gave her permission and they went back into the side room. Serena pulled Bernie aside and discretely told her of the problem. Bernie nodded and disappeared out of the room, returning shortly with a warm wheat sack.
She handed it to Evie. “I usually use this for my backache but it’ll do the job for you as well.”
It wasn’t long before Evie was feeling much better. Bernie had her on her feet as soon as possible and was showing her how to use the coffee machine. Serena broke from her table assembling to watch Bernie interact with Evie.
“Just like that. You’re a natural. We’ll have you whipping up coffees for the whole congregation in no time!”
It was lovely to see Bernie with Evie. It made Serena wonder about Bernie’s relationship with her own children and what that was like. She knew it had soured in recent years but there must have been times when they were younger when they were close. Bernie was so good with Fletch’s children. She wondered whether Bernie’s sexuality was the cause of the estrangement. It couldn’t be easy finding out that your mother was gay. That was if they knew. She wasn’t sure whether Bernie had told anyone else apart from her.
Bernie looked up to see Serena watching her. Their eyes locked for a moment and Serena had to look away to deal with the intensity of the stare she had received, her heart beating at double time. She looked back up to find Bernie’s eyes still on her but the gaze had softened.
“Not tired are you Campbell?” she said, “Didn’t take you for someone lacking in stamina.”
A blush formed on Serena’s face. “No. I just…”
Bernie grinned at her. “Serena you’ve done loads today. You are very much entitled to a break. Why don’t me and Evie whip you up a coffee of your choosing?”
“Well I won’t mind an Americano if you think you’re up to it,” she said, directing her comment to Evie. Looking at Bernie right now was producing unwanted reactions.
“Which one’s that?” Evie asked, turning to Bernie.
Bernie explained and Evie started to make it up. Once it was done, Serena was presented it at the newly made table by a very pleased Evie. Serena took a sip of it and sighed.
“Ah yes. Strong and hot. Just as I like it.”
Serena didn’t raise her gaze to Bernie so she missed the blush creeping across Bernie’s face.
The flat was quiet when Elinor got back from school. She picked up her phone, meaning to ring her mum and tell her that she could bring Prissy back now when she noticed her dad sat there on the sofa just staring into the middle distance.
Edward jumped and turned to look at her. “Oh Elinor, it’s you.”
“You okay?” Elinor asked.
“Hmm, oh yes. I’m fine.”
He turned and went back to staring out of the window. Elinor sighed and went to sit down next to him.
“Dad can we talk?”
“Sure honey. What about?”
“About Liberty. And the baby.”
“There you are!” Fletch exclaimed as Raf walked in through the front door. “Thought you’d all run away or something.”
“Like we’d be so lucky,” Mikey shouted from the living room.
“Oy. No shouting in the house,” Fletch shouted back causing Raf to raise his eyebrows as he helped Ella remove her coat and shoes. “Sorry.”
“Bernie showed me how to make coffee,” Evie exclaimed. She wrapped her arms around her dad. “Bernie’s so kind. And Serena too. They looked after me really well. Next time I’m poorly, can I stay with them?”
“Uncle Raf not good enough for you?” Fletch questioned.
“It’s not that,” Evie said. “It’s just, you know.” She paused. “They just understand more about me.”
Raf ruffled her hair. He’d be subtly filled in on the situation by Serena earlier. “I’ll explain later,” he said quietly to Fletch.
“Right well I’ve got sausages in the oven and potatoes on the hob. Bangers and mash in ten minutes?” Fletch said.
“Thanks Fletch,” Raf said.
The kids all disappeared into the sitting room to find out what Mikey was watching on tv. Raf followed Fletch into the kitchen. He perched himself on one of the kitchen surfaces while he watched Fletch chopping broccoli.
“So what’s up with Evie?” Fletch asked.
“Oh. Period pains.”
“Ah. Yes I see how Bernie and Serena might be more qualified!” Fletch sighed. “I do worry about Evie sometimes. And Ella. And the boys too. They don’t have much of a female presence in their lives and I’m worried that I just won’t be enough for them.”
“Hey now,” Raf said, jumping down off the surface to approach Fletch, “You are enough for them. More than enough. And we have so many friends around, female and otherwise, that I’m sure the children will not suffer.”
Raf placed a hand on Fletch’s forearm and squeezed. “You are doing a brilliant job with these kids in a very difficult situation. Never doubt yourself.”
Fletch looked at him and smiled. “Thanks Raf. Couldn’t do it without you though.”
“Are you actually serious about Liberty or is this just some bizarre midlife crisis?” Elinor asked.
Edward leant his head back on the sofa. He said nothing.
“And if you can’t even answer that, then why on earth are you even considering having a baby?”
Elinor looked at her dad in surprise. “You’re not?”
“No. I’m not.” Edward opened his eyes and looked determinedly at his daughter. “I’m not. I don’t want a baby. I have children already. I have you and I have Jason. I don’t need any more and I certainly don’t want any more.”
“Have you told Liberty this? Because she seemed very determined yesterday.”
“I tried. It’s hard. We’re at such different stages of life.”
Elinor huffed. “That’s what you get when you run off with someone almost young enough to be your daughter!”
The poster for the Choral Heats caught Raf’s eye as he was washing up after dinner.
“Hey Fletch. We still have to figure out how to tell Serena about the competition,” he said.
Fletch looked up from his laptop and grinned. “Oh don’t you worry about that. I’ve got that all under control. Although I do have to admit I’m down £50. My children drive a hard bargain.”
“I’m not sure I even want to know,” Raf said, smiling. He turned back to the washing up.
“It’ll all become clear come the next rehearsal,” Fletch promised, “And don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
“So can we go?” Mikey asked, bouncing eagerly in front of Serena.
Evie hung back slightly but held out the flyer for Serena. She took it off her and glanced over it.
“A singalong? For local choirs?”
Evie and Mikey nodded.
“Why not? That sounds like fun!” Serena said. “But let’s put it to the rest of the choir.”
There was a general consensus on going to the singalong and Fletch and Raf even volunteered to make all the arrangements to get them there and back.
“Thanks you two. That’ll be a great help,” Serena said.
She smiled as they whispered to each other at the back of the choir. It was lovely to see them like this, supporting each other.
She tapped her baton on the music stand for quiet and introduced a new song, also suggested by Mikey and Evie. They must have had their thinking caps on this week coming up with so many ideas of the choir.
“I can’t believe she fell for it so easily!” Raf exclaimed once they got outside, “She never even questioned anything!”
“Ah well, I do have a way with these things and my children have clearly inherited my gifts,” Fletch said, a knowing look in his eye. “Now we just need to get these costumes sorted and the new songs rehearsed and we’ll be good to go.”
“Essie said she’d sort the costumes if everyone could give her their measurements. Apparently she’s got some fabric she’s been saving for just this occasion,” Raf said.
Fletch grinned. “Brilliant. And everyone else agreed as well?”
“Yes. Even Jason, although he didn’t like keeping Serena in the dark.”
“South West Choral Heats here we come!” Fletch shouted. Raf hushed him. Serena was still in the church and they hadn’t yet left the churchyard.
A noise from behind her startled Serena as she packed away the last of the music. She’d been deep in thought, wondering where Bernie had got to. It wasn’t like her to miss a rehearsal, even if all she did was sit in the pulpit and watch over them.
The music scattered across the floor as Serena practically jumped out of her skin. She spun round to find Edward standing in the doorway looking apologetic.
“Sorry. Just wanted to collect our new rehearsal schedule from Bernie. She around?” he said.
Serena shook her head. “No. Not seen her tonight.”
Edward walked over to her and helped her to gather up the sheet music. “Still singing pop music?”
Serena nodded. “Yes. And sounding better and better everyday.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
“What about the church choir? Are they doing well?” Serena asked, breaking the awkward silence. She wished that someone else had stayed to help her clear up but she had shrugged off any offers of help tonight. It wasn’t that she was worried about being alone with Edward, just that it wasn’t the most comfortable of situations to be alone at night with your husband who left you for a younger model.
“They’re fine.” He paused for a moment, gripping the sheet music tightly in his fists. “We miss your voice.”
Now Serena paused. What was he saying? “That’s kind of you Edward.”
Edward was staring at her now. He reached out a hand to touch hers and she allowed it.
Serena said nothing. She didn’t know what to make of this situation. She wasn’t sure what she wanted or didn’t want to happen.
“Serena I think I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have let you go.”
She stayed silent. Inside she was screaming about how he didn’t ‘let her go’, he walked out on her leaving her to deal with the fallout. But she refused to let him think he was making an impact on her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, his eyes boring into Serena’s.
And at that Serena decided she’d had enough of this conversation. She pulled the last pieces of sheet music from Edward’s grasp, nodded at him and stood. She put the music neatly back into the folder, pulled on her coat and walked out of the church, refusing to even look back at him. A small smile played upon her lips as she left. So it looked like Edward might want her back. Nice to know. But she wasn’t sure whether she was interested in taking him back. It would certainly take way more than one measly apology to fix their marriage.
The pub was crowded when Serena and Raf pushed through the doors on Friday night.
“Shiraz?” Raf asked, eyebrows raised.
Serena smiled and nodded at him. “Thanks Raf. I’ll get the next round.”
She left him to grapple with the crowds at the bar and headed over to the back of the room where a group of her friends had claimed a table. Essie waved as she approached and moved along the bench to let her sit down.
Serena sank down onto the padded bench and slipped off her coat.
“No Raf or Fletch?” Sacha asked.
“Raf’s at the bar getting drinks,” Serena explained, “Fletch is on babysitting duty tonight. He didn’t want to make Evie do it again.”
“How many kids has he got?” Ric asked, “I know I’ve met some of them.”
“Four,” Serena said, “Evie, Mikey, Ella and Theo.”
“Blimey. How on earth does he cope with them all?” Ric commented.
“No worse than you with your collection of ex-wives!” Mo teased, elbowing him in the ribs, “And goodness knows how many kids you have. They are forever appearing out of the woodwork.”
Ric crossed his arms and glowered at Mo. “Well at least I don’t have to look after them alone.”
“Ah well he’s not alone is he? He’s got Raf,” Essie said. She smiled and sipped her drink. “Do you think there’s something going on between them? I mean they’re awful close.”
Serena leant back on her seat. “I don’t know,” she said. She thought for a moment. Raf had never given her any indication that he was gay but then again hadn’t she herself just found out something new about her sexuality?
“I don’t think they’re gay,” Dom said, “And I am the expert.”
“I don’t know. You should have seen them at the last choir rehearsal. I could have sworn they were holding hands when they arrived,” Morven said.
“Well they’d make a lovely couple,” Essie said, “Raf’s very handsome and so kind. He deserves to have someone to love.”
“Hey Serena,” Dom said, laughing, “Raf’s house is the same size as yours, right? So three bedrooms, four children and two adults. Now I’m not great at maths but to me that means that Raf and Fletch are already sharing a bed!”
Serena reached over to smack him on the arm. Everyone around the table was laughing. And then suddenly the laughter stopped and Serena turned her head to find Raf stood there, a pint of beer in one hand and her glass of Shiraz in the other. He stared open mouthed at the table, then put the drinks down and ran out of the door.
Serena stood and took a moment to glare at Dom before running through the pub and out of the door following Raf.
She found him walking steadily down the road towards home, wiping tears from his eyes as he went.
“Raf! Raf! Wait!” she shouted.
He turned to look at her but carried on walking.
“I don’t think so Serena. I don’t really want to talk to you right now.”
“I know. I get it. I’m so sorry Raf. But I think we should talk about it,” she said, out of breath now from walking quickly.
“What’s there to talk about? Sounds like you all did plenty of talking about me in the pub.”
Serena caught him up and slowed her pace to match his. “I’m so sorry Raf. That shouldn’t have happened. It was awful of us.”
“I’ve been so supportive of you with all the Edward stuff and then you just throw it all back in my face,” Raf shouted, “I would never, ever gossip about your love life in a crowded pub like that.”
“Raf…” she caught his hand, “You’ve been brilliant. I’m so sorry that I haven’t been a good friend to you. You deserve better.”
“I do. I really do. You don’t even know everything I’ve been doing recently.”
“Then tell me Raf. Talk to me.”
There was a bench coming up on the side of the road and Raf sat himself down on it with a thump. Serena perched on the edge of it and looked at him expectantly.
“Me and Fletch. We lied to you. About the singalong. It doesn’t exist. We entered the choir into the South West Choral Heats even though you didn’t want to. But the rest of the choir did so we did it anyway. And we’ve organised the songs and the costumes and the transport.”
Serena was taken aback. “You’ve done all that? Wow!”
Raf turned to her. His anger was clearly abating now and he looked a little nervous. “Are you mad? I know you didn’t want us to be competitive like the church choir.”
Serena smiled at him. “No. No. I’m not mad. It’s a lovely idea. Thank you so much for sorting it out.” She reached out a hand and patted his arm. “You really are a brilliant friend Raf Di Lucca. I’m so lucky to have you.”
Raf grasped her hand and squeezed. “I’m lucky to have you Serena.”
“The others, they care about you too, you know? We shouldn’t have talked about you but honestly, they just wanted you to be happy.”
Raf sighed. “I know. It’s just all so confusing. They hit on a bit of a sore spot with me and Fletch.”
“Talk to me Raf. Maybe I can make it a bit less sore.”
Raf paused for a moment before nodding. “Ok. Right. Well. I’ve liked Fletch for, oh, years and up until recently I never thought he could feel the same way but…”
“But now you’re not so sure?”
Raf nodded. “It’s been so good having him here with the kids. And he’s been really affectionate. It might just be him being friendly but, I don’t know, maybe he might feel the same?”
Serena smiled at him. “Well there’s only one way to find out. I’m going to throw your advice to me about Bernie back in your face and tell you to talk to him.”
Raf laughed. “And have you followed my advice yet?”
Serena blushed. “Not as such. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good advice.”
Serena shivered in the night air. “Right good talk but I’m getting cold. So your decision, back to the pub or head home?”
Raf pulled her to her feet. “I think I just want to head home for the evening. I’m not mad at the others anymore but I don’t really feel like sitting in a pub chatting to them right now.”
The morning of the heats soon came upon them. The coach was waiting in front of the church when Serena, Raf, Fletch and their collection of children arrived. Fletch ran in front of them to go and speak to the driver and Raf and Serena headed over to where a small group from the choir huddled by the gates trying to avoid the cold wind. Serena was glad for her thick, red coat to wrap around herself.
“Everyone here?” she asked and Raf produced a list of choir members out of one of his pockets and began reading out names. Everyone except Dom was there so she started loading everyone onto the coach, making sure to keep an eye out for Dom. If he didn’t arrive in the next couple of minutes she thought she’d phone to check on him.
Essie squeezed Raf’s hand as she passed him. “I’m sorry for the other day. It was awful of us to talk about your personal business like that. Won’t happen again.”
Raf smiled back. “Thanks Essie.”
Everyone was sat on the coach and Serena was just fishing her phone from her bag to give Dom a ring when he ran around the corner, cheeks red with exertion and Bernie in tow.
“Blame her,” he said as he climbed onto the coach, “She couldn’t decide what to wear.”
Serena raised her eyes at Bernie. That didn’t sound like the Bernie she knew. Not that she’d even known Bernie was coming today.
“Decided to join the choir after all?” she asked as Bernie sunk into the spare seat next to her at the front of the coach.
Bernie grinned. “No but I thought since I’d been to most of our rehearsals, it would be a shame to miss out on the actual competition. I’ll be your good luck charm.”
She slipped off her coat and Serena gasped at the tightly fitted white shirt underneath. It looked so good on Bernie.
“Is my outfit alright?” Bernie asked, blushing, “Dom’s telling the truth. I really couldn’t decide what to wear.”
“It’s perfect,” Serena couldn’t help but reply. She reached out a hand and smoothed the wrinkles on Bernie’s arm, “Just perfect.”
The South West Choral Heats were being held in a concert hall in the middle of Bristol. Once their coach had fought its way through the heavy city centre traffic to reach the venue, they didn’t have much time before the competition started. Serena hurried them all through to the dressing rooms, glad that she had told them all to arrive in their costumes. A few last minute tweaks and some touching up to make up and they were ready for action. She was about to leave the room and get them lined up in the corridor ready for their appearance when Bernie caught her arm.
“I just wanted to give you this,” she said, holding out a metal badge.
Serena took it and looked at it. It appeared to be some kind of coat of arms. She looked back up at Bernie questioningly.
“My regimental badge,” Bernie explained, “It always felt like it gave me good luck. So I want you to wear it for the competition. To give you luck.”
Bernie blushed and looked down at the floor. “It’s silly I know. You don’t have to take it.”
Serena’s heart burst with affection for Bernie. She carefully pinned the badge to her dress and then took a step towards Bernie. Before she registered what she was doing, she’d placed a lingering kiss on Bernie’s cheek, millimetres away from her mouth.
“Thank you Bernie. It’s a lovely gesture.”
Bernie looked at her, a shy smile on her face. “Now go. I don’t want your choir to have to go on without you.”
Serena reached out and squeezed Bernie’s hand in thanks before going out to join the rest of her choir. She watched as Bernie gave her a quick wave and disappeared off to find a seat in the concert hall. Serena felt a sudden urge to run after her down the corridor but she resisted. She had a choir to concentrate on. She couldn’t go running after romantic dreams right now.
They were the third choir on stage. The first two were both church choirs from different towns in the local area singing typical choral music. Serena had to admit they were both good but they were not doing anything that hadn’t been heard a million times before. She heard the applause from the audience for the second choir and she gave her choir one final check over. They politely applauded the choir themselves as they filtered off stage past them and then they walked onto the stage themselves. Serena placed her music on the music stand at the front, her back to the audience and tapped her baton. The rest of the choir found their rows and stood looking at each other. Serena resisted the urge to turn to the audience and try to spot Bernie. Instead she waited for the signal from the judges before counting them in.
The song they had chosen was the one subtly suggested by Mikey and Evie a few weeks ago. Serena had wondered at the time if they had gotten into Raf’s old CDs because she wasn’t sure how else two children would know about Blink 182’s What’s My Age Again? Still, it worked really well once she had arranged it for their voices and the harmonies sounded even better with the acoustics of the concert hall.
Bernie sat at the end of one of the rows of seats, her eyes fixed on Serena. She smiled as the music built up and Serena clearly started really enjoying herself. It was lovely to see.
Edward watched from the other end of the same row, the rest of the church choir behind him. He watched his wife and laughed as the rather inappropriate lyrics to the song were belted out in perfect harmony. He didn’t even notice Liberty slip away part way through the song.
Ellie smiled to see her mum happy up on stage. A large part of her longed to be up there with her, having fun with singing rather than stuck with her dad’s increasingly strict church choir.
Serena was just getting into the last chorus when the room was suddenly plunged into darkness. In the pitch black, there was mutterings from the audience and her choir stopped singing in a jumble. She stood stock still, wondering what to do next. Then the emergency lighting kicked in. It was dim but it was enough to see the people in front of her. Shrugging her shoulders, she tapped once more on the music stand and brought her choir in to sing that last chorus one more time.
It was strange, singing in the dim light, more intimate somehow. The audience settled down once the singing restarted and they applauded wildly once Serena brought the choir to a finish and turned round to bow. The lights came back on all of a sudden, blinding Serena momentarily. She didn’t see the figure slipping back into the concert hall but Bernie did. Serena instead turned back around, picked up her music and lead her choir into the wings.
“Well, that was a little different!” she commented, once they were all safely back in the dressing room, “But well done, you all did fabulously.”
“It’s you we have to thank,” Sacha said, “We had no idea what to do when the lights went out. Thank goodness you kept your head!”
“Three cheers for Serena!” Morven shouted and there were shouts of “Hip hip horray!” from all over the room.
At the interval the stage manager came to find Serena.
“I’m so sorry about the lighting problem. It looks as though someone accidently pressed the isolation switch for the hall during your song. I’m going to find out how this happened and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
“Thank you,” Serena said.
“Do you want to perform again? I’ve spoken to the judges and they are happy to hear you once more at the end.”
Serena looked around at her choir, all currently enjoying the half time refreshments. “I think we performed our best out there even with the issue. I don’t think we can really improve on that.”
The stage manager slipped away and Serena went to find herself a glass of wine. Goodness knows she needed one after all that! She was just approaching the table when something caught her eye. She looked through the doors to see Bernie and Liberty talking in the deserted corridor. It was too far away for her to hear properly but she could see Liberty holding Bernie’s head in her hands and Bernie allowing it. Then after a moment Bernie stepped away set off down the corridor away from Serena.
“Don’t you love me anymore?” Liberty shouted, loud enough for Serena to hear. Serena pushed the door ajar so she could hear Bernie’s reply.
“Of course I love you Liberty. I always will. But I wish you weren’t so cruel.”
Serena let the door swing shut, causing Liberty to look her way as it banged into position. She smirked as she walked down the corridor and through the door, straight past a frozen Serena.
Bernie sat outside in the fresh air seething at Liberty. How could she purposely try to sabotage Serena’s choir? Just because she was scared that they would beat her again. She desperately hoped that they would. Liberty needed taking down a peg or twelve. She still didn’t seem to understand the destruction that she caused wherever she went. And Bernie was forever having to pick up the pieces. It wasn’t fair.
The church choir was performing in the second half. Serena sat with her choir near the back of the darkened auditorium to watch. She hadn’t seen Bernie since overhearing that conversation and she was glad. She needed this time to think things through. What was going on? Were Bernie and Liberty having an affair as well? Was Liberty going to take everything away from Serena again? Before it had even started? And how come Bernie hadn’t thought to mention any of this to her? It would have been a courtesy to Serena to say, hey I’m in love with your husband’s mistress or something surely. They were supposed to be friends at least.
Serena clapped as the St James’ church choir finished performing. She tried to smile as her daughter walked off stage but couldn’t draw her eyes away from Liberty. What was it about that woman that drew everyone in?
They had a short wait for the judges to confer before the results were announced. With the kids being entertained by the rest of the choir, Raf took the opportunity to grab Fletch and drag him into an abandoned dressing room.
“What’s this about then?” Fletch asked as Raf kicked the door firmly shut behind them and slipped the lock into place.
“We need to talk,” Raf said. He sunk down onto one of the chairs by the mirrors and Fletch sat down next to him.
“Are you okay?” Fletch asked. He reached out a hand and squeezed Raf’s. “You’ve been out of sorts for a week or so now.”
Raf looked down at Fletch’s hand holding his. Slowly, he turned his hand over and interlinked their fingers, marvelling at how well they fit together.
“Raf?” Fletch said, his voice quieter now.
Raf looked up at him. Looked at his kind, gentle eyes. Looked at his beard and thought about how he wanted to feel what it felt like against his cheek. Looked at his lips and wondered how soft they might feel against his.
“Fletch,” he said, his voice wavering, “I…I love you.”
A flash of confusion crossed Fletch’s face. Raf tried to snatch his hand away and run but Fletch kept tight hold of him.
“You do?” Fletch asked, “You love me? You’re in love with me?”
Raf nodded, ducking his head towards the floor.
Then a huge smile took over Fletch’s face. He used his free hand to lift Raf’s chin so their eyes met once more.
“Raffaello Di Luca I’ve loved you since the moment you opened your house to this useless lump and his four kids.”
Raf stared at him. “Really?”
“Really,” Fletch said. He ran his thumb over Raf’s cheek and then leant forward and kissed him.
It was short and sweet and Raf felt like he was falling when the kiss broke.
“Oh,” he said.
Fletch laughed. “That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Raf blushed. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey now. Nothing to be sorry for.”
At that moment the bell sounded in the dressing room making the pair of them jump.
“Results must be ready,” Fletch said. He pulled Raf to his feet and went to unlock the door. “Can we talk about this more tonight? When the kids are in bed? Because I’d really like it if this could go somewhere.”
Raf nodded. “I’d love to.”
The coach home was raucous. Morven and Dom waved the trophy between the two of them and sang all the way back, joined by most of the rest of the choir. Serena had sat herself next to Evie near the back of the coach to avoid having Bernie next to her. Bernie had sat next to Mikey and seemed to be exchanging war stories with him.
Evie pointed out Raf and Fletch sitting a few rows in front of them.
“I think somethings happened,” she said. “I think Uncle Raf and Dad might have finally talked about how they feel.”
Serena craned her neck to see. It did indeed look like Fletch’s hand was high up on Raf’s leg. Maybe he’d taken her advice after all.
“You don’t mind?” Serena asked, a little surprised. After all, it wasn’t that long since Evie’s mother had died.
Evie shook her head. “All the people at school seemed to think that they were together when they weren’t. Might actually make it easier if they are together. No one likes being called a homophobe.”
Serena smiled. “You will tell someone if there are problems at school, won’t you?”
Evie nodded. “Yeah. It’s not been easy changing schools but I know which teachers I can trust. And there’s you and Bernie as well. I know I’ve got people watching out for me. I’m just happy if Dad and Uncle Raf can be happy too.”
“Sensible girl,” Serena said, patting her hand.
Serena waved everyone off the bus and sent them home. Jason went with Raf and Fletch and Serena took the opportunity to check the coach for lost property before it left. She was just checking under the seats when she heard footsteps behind her. Assuming it was the driver she stood up smiling.
“Nothing left as far as I …”
She stopped when she found Bernie stood there in the aisle of the coach.
Serena straightened up properly and brushed down the front of her coat.
Bernie looked down at the floor. “I was just wondering, you don’t have to or anything but I just thought that you might want to come out for a drink? With me? Now?”
Serena took a hard look at Bernie. She couldn’t get to the bottom of her at all. Just hours ago she was proclaiming her undying love for Liberty and now she was asking Serena out for a drink? And judging by how nervous she was she definitely meant it as a date. Just what was Bernie playing at? Well whatever it was Serena wanted no part of it.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea, do you? Maybe you’re better off going and seeing to your darling Liberty.”
Serena pushed past Bernie, nodded to the bus driver, and set off towards home at a quick pace. She didn’t check to see if Bernie was following her. She didn’t turn to see Bernie’s shocked and disappointed face watching her go from the coach window.
I'm including a link to the song being performed on the All the Small Things tv show as it is well worth a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDZxZzNk848
“Serena, can we talk?”
Serena turned her head to find Bernie coming towards her across the churchyard.
“I’m very sorry Bernie but I’ve got a lot to get on with today. No time to stop and chat. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other friends to talk to after all.”
She hurried off down the path away from the church, resisting the urge to look behind her at Bernie. She was still harbouring a fair amount of jealousy about Bernie and Liberty and wasn’t in the mood to deal with the woman she thought might be something special right now. Besides, she had Jason to get back to and he didn’t like his routine to be disturbed.
The cold air bit at Serena’s face as she tried to fight back the tears that were threatening to fall. God she was pathetic. Crying over a woman! She was straight for goodness sake. She really shouldn’t care about who Bernie was sleeping with. And maybe it was a good thing it was Liberty. Maybe it would break up Edward and Liberty and Edward would come crawling back to her.
She shook her head at the thought. Because even though she knew a part of her was still in love with Edward, she didn’t think she would ever be able to trust him enough to let him bac into her life like that. She had thought she trusted Bernie but it seemed that once again she had put her trust in the wrong person.
“Ellie around?” Edward asked, dropping his coat onto the arm of the sofa.
Liberty tutted at him as she picked it up and hung it on the coat hook. “Not seen her since breakfast. I think she mentioned something about going over to a friend’s tonight.”
Edward slumped into a chair. “Shame. I haven’t had a chance to talk to her properly for ages. I don’t know where she spends her time at the moment but it certainly isn’t here.”
Liberty sat down next to him and reached out to take his hand.
“I miss her Lib,” Edward said, “And Jason. I miss my family. I think I might have made a huge mistake.”
“No, no, Eddie bear. You haven’t made a mistake. You just have to give them a chance to see that this is for the best. They’ll come round.”
“You think so?” Edward asked, his eyes mournful, “Because I’m just worried that they’ll never speak to me again. I mean Jason hasn’t even come round to visit me here yet. All I see of him is quick conversations at church.”
“So let’s invite him round!” Liberty said, bouncing out of her seat, “Let’s invite him round for a family dinner. We’ll get Ellie on board too. It’ll be just like you used to have.”
The energy in Liberty buoyed Edward up and he smiled.
“Yes, let’s do that. Thanks Liberty.”
She grinned at him and then placed herself on his lap, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
“Anything for my Eddie Bear.”
Bernie was already sat in the front pew when Serena arrived for the next choir rehearsal. She stood as Serena approached and tried to take some of the sheets of music off her.
“I can manage on my own, thank you very much,” Serena said, snatching them from her.
Bernie shrunk back. “Sorry,” she muttered.
The rest of the choir began to filter into the church, giving Serena the opportunity to completely ignore Bernie. Bernie didn’t leave though, she noted. She moved to the back of the church but she stayed there, listening to the rehearsal go ahead as usual. Serena felt her skin prickle with the knowledge that Bernie was there. It was as though she could feel her eyes on her. She wished that she wasn’t so affected by her.
Serena threw herself into the singing, trying to forget that Bernie was there. It almost worked. The choir were sounding better and better. With Christmas coming up, they’d added some carols and Christmas into the mix. Serena had plans to ask around local shopping centres to see if they could do a bit of busking over the festive period. They could raise some money to help towards costumes and travel for the South West Choral finals that were scheduled for the new year. They’d have to up their game for that and she didn’t want anyone worried about how they were going to finance the competition.
During the break, Serena chanced a glance at Bernie. Bernie’s head was down and, craning her neck, Serena could see a pew copy of the Bible open on her lap. Bernie’s lips moved as she mouthed the words from the verses she was reading. Serena felt a sudden urge to run up to her and kiss her as she watched those rosy lips move. But she didn’t. She took a deep breath and turned back to the rest of her choir, allowing herself to get dragged into their conversations about what they were up to for the holidays. Only Raf seemed to notice that something was up. He glanced between Serena and Bernie and pursed his lips.
At the end of rehearsal, Bernie was still there. She didn’t move as the choir tidied up and began to leave the church into the cold night. Serena, as usual, was one of the last to leave. She watched as Fletch left with his children and Jason in tow. Raf stopped behind them for a moment.
“Serena?” he asked, “Everything ok?”
Serena looked up at him and then her gaze drifted over to where Bernie still sat, engrossed in her Bible.
“Did something happen?” Raf asked, “Between you and Bernie?”
Serena sighed. “Nothing happened. And nothing will happen.”
Raf raised an eyebrow. “Care to tell me more?”
Serena shook her head.
“Right then I have no choice but to march you straight round to mine and ply you with Shiraz until you feel more cooperative!”
Serena smiled a weak smile. “You are a good friend Raf but not tonight. Maybe the weekend?”
She linked her arm through Raf’s as they left the church. Bernie’s head lifted and she watched them walk out but she said nothing.
Ellie was sat on the sofa doing homework when Serena got in.
“Good rehearsal?” she asked.
Serena nodded and shifted some of Ellie’s books so she could sit down next to her. “Yeah. You nearly finished?”
Ellie nodded. “Almost time for QI isn’t it? Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten how loud Jason can be when he watches! I’ll be finished in time.”
Serena reached up and brushed Ellie’s hair off her face. “Of course you will be, my brilliant daughter.”
“Hey, leave me alone and let me get on then!” Ellie laughed, pushing Serena away.
Serena stood, smiling to herself, and went into the kitchen to make all of them hot drinks. It was nice seeing much more of Elinor. With both her and Jason around, it really felt like a family home again. She didn’t need anyone else, not Edward and certainly not Bernie. Just her two beautiful, intelligent children.
Ellie’s phone buzzed partway through QI. Serena thought nothing of it to begin with. Elinor was a typical teenagers, forever messaging her friends. But Ellie read the message and then pushed her phone away, a look of disgust on her face.
“Something wrong?” Serena asked in a whisper, mindful of Jason.
Ellie rolled her eyes and shook her head. She unlocked her phone and then passed it to Serena. There was a text message visible on the screen.
Hi Ellie me and your dad were thinking and we thought it would be nice to have a family meal here on Saturday. Invite Jason too, I’d love to get to know him better.
The content feeling that Serena had had all evening washed away. How dare Liberty try to take the rest of her family away. Wasn’t her husband enough? But then she remembered how much Jason had been missing his Uncle Edward. And this was the first time Liberty had tried reaching out to him properly.
“You should go,” she said to Ellie, “And take Jason.”
Ellie gave her a pained look. “He’s your dad and his uncle. You should give him, and Liberty, another chance. It’s one meal, how bad can it be?
Liberty was busy setting the table when they both walked in. She’d dressed up and clearly forced Edward to do the same as he was in suit and tie.
“Welcome, welcome,” she cried as Elinor pushed the door open and walked in, Jason following her closely behind.
Edward stood up and wrapped his arms around his daughter. “Elinor. Have you been hiding from me? I thought you must have moved out without telling me!”
“Not yet,” Elinor muttered, not quite under her breath.
Edward released her and moved onto Jason. He shook his hand firmly. “It’s so nice to see you Jason. I’ve missed you.”
“Thank you for inviting me to your new home Uncle Edward. I’ve missed you too.”
Edward smiled at Jason. “So, come and sit on the sofa and tell me all about what you’ve been up to. I want to here more about this girlfriend of yours.”
Elinor watched them go, Jason talking ten to the dozen trying to fill his uncle in on everything he had missed in the last few months. She sat herself down at the table instead and watched as Liberty bustled around the kitchen finishing off the preparation.
“Won’t be long,” Liberty said brightly, “Then we can all sit down together as a family. Won’t that be nice?”
Elinor just raised a single eyebrow and said nothing.
“Why don’t you go and see Prissy?” Liberty suggested, “I think she’s been missing you what with you being so busy recently.”
There was a ring on Serena’s doorbell soon after she’d seen the kids off. She’d just settled herself down on the sofa with a cup of tea and was trying not to dwell on the fact that her daughter and nephew were playing happy families with their father and another woman tonight while she had no one to spend it with.
Groaning, she stood up and went to open the door, expecting Jehovah’s Witnesses or a salesman. But Evie stood on the other side of the door.
“Evie!” Serena said in surprise.
“Hi Serena. Dad and Raf have invited you over for food and wine. They said I had to come and get you because you wouldn’t say no to a kid.”
She grinned at Serena and Serena laughed. Whatever was happening in her life at the moment, she was very glad to have Raf and the rest of the gang next door looking out for her.
“Give me a moment love and I’ll just grab my coat and shoes. Why don’t you come in out of the cold while you wait.”
Evie stepped into the house and pushed the door closed behind her.
“Raf said that Ellie and Jason are out this evening,” she commented as Serena pulled a thick coat off the hook.
Serena nodded. She’d mentioned as much to Raf in a text message late the night before when she was feeling sorry for herself.
“Yes. They’ve gone to see Edward and Liberty.”
She pulled a pair of shoes out of the cupboard and pulled them on.
“Raf said you were sad about it,” Evie said, “But that you would feel better once you spent the evening dealing with all of us. He said that we could make anyone glad to be on their own for a bit.”
“He said that!”
Evie nodded. “I think he was joking though. His eyes were sparkling when he said it and I know he loves us really.”
Serena wrapped an arm around Evie’s shoulder. “He does, he really does. Thank you for coming to get me Evie.”
On Liberty’s instruction, Edward, Ellie and Jason all sat themselves down at the table and waited for Liberty to bring the food out. She carried the plates, two at a time, and laid them down in front of them.
“Looks lovely, darling,” Edward said as she sat herself down next to him and kissed him on the cheek, “You’ve outdone yourself.”
Jason stared at his plate. “I don’t understand what this is,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to eat this. I don’t know what it is.”
Ellie looked from him to the plates of food to Liberty. “I told you that Saturday was fish and chips night,” she said, her glare boring into Liberty.
Liberty looked at her, shocked. “But this is fish and chips. I just made it a bit fancy for a treat.”
Edward was watching Jason closely. “Would you like me to explain the food Jason?”
“I don’t see why it needs explaining. I did what you asked,” Liberty said. But Edward ignored her.
“The chips are made from sweet potato,” he said, “So they will taste a bit different. And the fish is salmon. Liberty has cooked it without the batter on that you are used to so it looks very different. And the green vegetables are spinach and asparagus.”
Jason nodded again. “This isn’t like normal.”
“No it isn’t,” Elinor said forcefully, still glaring at Liberty.
“I don’t think I want to eat it.”
Edward reached over and patted his hand. “How about we make a deal Jason? If you try a little bit of everything on your plate and you still don’t like it, I’ll buy you some fish and chips from the shop when I drive you home.”
Jason nodded but Liberty looked aghast. “I don’t see why you have to coddle him Eddie. He’s an adult.”
Elinor looked ready to shout but Edward looked at her warningly and she huffed out a sigh before picking up her fork.
It was a bit of a squish in Raf’s dining room. The four children were crowded round one end of the table with the three adults at the other end. In the middle were four large pizza boxes delivered soon after Serena had arrived.
“Hope you don’t mind but today was a bit too busy to think about home cooking,” Fletch said, looking a bit sheepish having invited Serena round.
“Not a problem at all. Particularly if you’ve ordered some good toppings. Jason never lets us get anything except margaritas.”
The children chattered away about nothing and everything while playfully fighting over the slices of pizza. Serena laughed along with them as they tried to steal pizza off her plate.
“Thieves, the lot of you,” she despaired as Raf grabbed a piece of hers, “I’ll never get anything to eat and I shall starve and it will be all your faults.”
But by the end of the meal, they had all had their fill and there was even some left to go in the fridge for tomorrow. Serena also realised it had been a long time since she had eaten such a joyful meal. Even when she had both Elinor and Jason home at the moment, they were too grown up for anything other than eating and chatting about their day. It wasn’t miserable but it wasn’t the happy mess that it had been when they were both younger. She wondered for a moment how it was going over at Liberty’s flat and then decided that she didn’t care. If it was going well, then her children would be happy. Going badly, and Elinor and Jason wouldn’t want to go again which would suit her, and them, fine.
The table was cleared away and Mikey and Evie made a start on the washing up. Raf took Ella to the living room to watch a bit of tv before bed and Fletch grabbed a squealing Theo.
“Time for a bath young man,” he said.
“No, no!” cried Theo.
“Yes, yes!” Fletch repeated, “You are covered in pizza grease and I don’t want to change the sheets.”
Theo pointed a fat finger at Serena. “You come.”
Fletch looked at him. “You want Serena to help with your bath?”
Fletch raised his eyebrows at Serena and she nodded. “I’ll help. Been quite a while since I bathed a toddler but I remember the general idea.”
“Okay then, come on up.”
Jason stood up and put his coat on as soon as the others had finished eating.
“Can we go home now Uncle Edward?”
Edward nodded and went to fetch his own coat. Elinor carried the dishes into the kitchen and began stacking the dishwasher.
“You staying here tonight?” Liberty asked.
Elinor shook her head. “I’d better go and make sure Jason is alright.”
She turned away from Liberty and continued filling the dishwasher.
Edward stuck his head round the door, coat and shoes on. “I’m assuming you’re sticking with Jason tonight Ellie?”
Ellie nodded. “Best to. You know what can happen.”
“I don’t know how you cope with him,” Liberty put in, “He’s so weird, how do you manage?”
Elinor turned to her, eyes ablaze. “He’s not weird, he’s got Asperger’s. And we’re not coping, we’re not managing, we’re just doing the right thing for him. It’s called being a family. Something you wouldn’t know much about.”
Liberty looked shocked. She opened her mouth as though to say something but nothing came out.
“Come on dad, let’s go take Jason to get his fish and chips before the shop shuts,” Elinor said, pushing past Liberty and finding Jason waiting by the front door.
Edward shot a look at Liberty before following his daughter out of the kitchen.
Serena was completely soaked by the time Theo was out of the bath and into his pyjamas. Evie had to be sent round next door with a key and instructions about where to find dry clothes for Serena. She returned shortly with a clean, dry set of clothes and Serena thanked her profusely.
“No problem,” Evie said, “It was nice to see your bedroom and all your clothes.”
Serena smiled at her, remembering that her and Ella were very outnumbered in this rather male household. “I’ll have to invite you around sometime when Ellie is here. She has some lovely clothes that I’m sure she’ll let you try on and maybe some make-up too.”
Evie’s eyes lit up. “Really!”
Jason sat in the front of Edward’s car and ate his fish and chips in silence. Ellie tapped her dad on the shoulder and indicated for him to get out. She climbed out after him and, shivering in the freezing air, they walked a little way down the road.
“You need to have a word,” Elinor said.
“Because there is no way I’m having Jason be exposed to someone like that. You’re just lucky that he was out of earshot when she called him weird.”
Edward nodded again. “I know. I thought she understood but clearly not.”
He leaned on a fence and stared down the street.
“I really don’t know what you are still doing with her,” Elinor said.
It was getting late by the time all the children were in bed. Serena tried to leave, pleading tiredness, but Raf steered her back into the sitting room and placed a glass of wine in her hand.
“You’re not going anywhere until you’ve told me what’s going on with you and Bernie.”
Serena squirmed in her seat and looked over at Fletch.
“Oh don’t be so silly Serena. I told him ages ago that there was something going on, and anyway, he has eyes.”
“That I do,” Fletch agreed, “You two are not exactly subtle.”
Serena blushed. “Well there isn’t anything going on. Not anymore. I’ve realised that she isn’t the woman I thought she was.”
“Don’t think you can just leave it there Serena. We need details. There is no way you go from lovey-dovey to this without something having happened. I’m not letting you leave this house until you tell us the truth.”
Elinor and Jason’s shoes were in the hallway when Serena got back home, a carrier bag of her damp clothes in her hand. The lights were all off downstairs but Serena thought she could hear soft voices from upstairs. She removed her own coat and shoes and tiptoed up the stairs.
The door to Jason’s room was ajar and a sliver of light escaped. Serena knocked on the door and pushed it open to find Elinor and Jason sitting together on his bed.
They looked up at her as she entered and she instantly knew something had happened.
“Hello Auntie Serena,” Jason said. He tried to smile at her but it didn’t meet his eyes. “You’ve been out. Where did you go?
“I was just at Raf’s house.”
“I’m tired now so I’m going to go to sleep.”
“Okay love,” Serena replied. She kissed her fingers and then pressed them against his forehead, “Sweet dreams.”
Elinor climbed off the bed and let Jason lie down, pulling the covers up to his chin.
“Thank you Elinor for explaining everything to me,” he said.
“I always will,” Elinor said, “You only have to ask.”
She smiled at him and then, taking Serena’s hand, led her out of the room and down the hall to her own bedroom.
“Something happened,” Serena said as soon as the door was shut and she knew she wasn’t disturbing Jason.
“Was it Edward? Because I’ll kill him.”
“No. Dad was fine. A bit naïve but he fixed the problem as best he could.”
Serena breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t want Jason to have his faith in his Uncle Edward shattered.
“I think you need to fill me in,” she said, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jason so out of sorts.”
Serena sunk down onto the soft cushions of her sofa and sipped her wine. Idly, she picked up the remote and started flicking through channels, relishing the fact that she could watch what she wanted with no interruptions from the kids. Even so, she paused for a while on the channel showing one of Jason’s quiz shows. Having watched them with him for so many years, there was a lovely familiarity in seeing the same format repeated each week. She supposed that this was one of the things Jason liked about them.
A knock at the door made her jump and she nearly spilled her wine. Groaning, she glanced at her watch wondering who would be calling round. Ellie and Jason had gone to the cinema with Evie and Mikey and weren’t due back for ages. Raf and Fletch had said earlier that they were busy tonight when she had mentioned the free house this evening. From the looks they were shooting each other, she didn’t wonder too much about the nature of their plans.
She pulled herself to her feet, placing the wine glass on the coffee table, and padded down the hallway to the door. She swung it open, desperately hoping it wasn’t a salesman or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and almost shut the door again. Because this was almost worse than a salesman. Bernie was stood there on her doorstep.
“Serena,” Bernie muttered, not daring to glance up at her.
Serena swayed in the doorway while she tried to figure out what to do. She opened and closed her mouth a few times but nothing came out. Had Bernie come here to apologise again? It wasn’t like her to just turn up on the doorstep without warning.
“What are you doing here?” she managed to say eventually.
“Mo asked…” Bernie began, her voice trailing off when Serena still looked confused, “Didn’t she ring you? She said she was going to…”
Serena creased her forehead. “I don’t understand.”
Bernie blushed bright red. “Oh. Well. I’m not sure I’m the best person…”
She was saved at that moment by the sound of a car pulling up outside the house. Serena peered over Bernie’s shoulder and saw Mo climbing out.
“Serena!” she cried as she marched up the path, “Why aren’t you answering your mobile?”
Mo greeted Bernie and pushed past Serena into the house, Bernie following on behind.
“The others will be here any moment,” Mo said as she slipped off her shoes and coat and walked into the sitting room, Serena gaping at her.
Shaking herself, Serena headed into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa next to Mo. Bernie hovered in the doorway for a moment before sitting down on the edge of one of the chairs.
“Right. Care to tell me why I’m being invaded this evening?” Serena asked Mo.
“Of course. Well it’s a bit of a long story. You see me and Bernie were sorting through some of the old files in the church attic earlier today…”
She broke off as Serena’s doorbell went again. Serena sighed and pushed herself to her feet.
Mo tried multiple times to start the story but was repeatedly interrupted by the front door. Eventually, just as Serena had decided there was no more room in the living room for another person, Mo looked around and announced that everyone was here. Serena breathed a sigh of relief perched on the edge of the sofa she was sharing with Ric and Mo. Sacha and Essie were squished into one arm chair, Essie half on Sacha’s knee. Bernie had the other chair to herself and Dom, Morven, Ollie and Zosia were sat on the floor.
“Right Mo, I think it’s time you told me why I have half the parish in my living room?” Serena said.
“Just one second, I’ve forgotten a couple,” Mo said. Serena groaned by Mo pulled a laptop out of her bag and set it up on the coffee table. Soon the smiling faces of Raf and Fletch were visible on the screen.
“Sorry guys, we would join you but it was a bit short notice for a babysitter. We’re only next door though so if you shout loud enough we’ll probably hear you anyway.”
“Ok then since I think we now have everyone here, I’ll fill you in,” Mo said. “So this morning me and Bernie were sorting through the rubbish in the church attic and trying to figure out whether anything in there was at all worth keeping.”
“Most of it wasn’t,” Bernie put in, the first words she’d spoken since she’d sat down.
Mo snorted, “You’re not wrong! But while we were filling the black bin liners, we came across some old orders of service from Christmas services held between the wars.”
“Shows how long it is since anyone bothered tidying up there,” Ric said.
“Exactly, but that wasn’t the interesting thing. The interesting thing was what the orders of service actually said. Because we read them, and in fact I have some with me,” Mo continued. She reached into her back and pulled out a file filled with yellowing sheets of paper. “You see it looks like there was a tradition at Christmas time that was repeated throughout the interwar years, and probably before that. It seems to have died out during World War Two, possibly due to the fact that, as we know, the Holby regiment lost such a large proportion of its soldiers. Maybe there was too much grief afterwards; maybe key people died or moved away; maybe they wanted to make new traditions with less painful memories. We don’t know the reasons but what we do know is that we fancied reviving the traditions this year.”
“Reverend Hanssen has been briefed and he is fully on board with our plans,” Bernie said, “Under normal circumstances I would have just brought it up at the church committee meeting.” At this point her gaze met Serena’s and she paused for a moment.
Serena coughed and looked away and Bernie continued. “But the committee has been difficult recently, vetoing any decision that goes against what they know.”
“But this is history and tradition!” Morven said, “Surely they would like that.”
Bernie shrugged. “I thought it was too big a risk to take. So instead me and Mo figured we’d set up our own church committee.”
“Ooh a shadow committee!” Dom said, his eyes shining with glee.
Bernie raised her eyebrows but Dom just wiggled his and she broke down. “Fine. You are all now members of the shadow church committee. Our plan is to recreate the old traditions as best we can in secret. The whole congregation will be invited in the end but only at the last possible moment so as to avoid anything getting sabotaged. We all know what happened with Sacha’s painting. We don’t want a repeat of that.”
“And Reverend Hanssen is fine about this?” Essie questioned.
Mo nodded. “Yes. He trusts Bernie, and us.”
Essie smiled. “Then I’m in.”
There were a series of affirmations from around the room until only Serena hadn’t spoken. Everyone looked at her expectantly.
“Well I would say I’m in but I’m a bit concerned about what I’m letting myself in for. You haven’t told us anything about the actual traditions. I’m not down for midnight skinny dipping in the river or anything like that!”
Bernie’s face turned red as a tomato and Mo just let out a huge guffaw. She passed the file of papers to Serena.
“Take a look at these. I promise you we are not signing you up to anything like that. Although now you mention it, anyone up for a New Year’s dip? Skinny dipping optional of course!”
It had been late before Serena had managed to clear her house of all her guests. They’d spent the whole evening making plans, figuring out what needed to be done, deciding who was going to do what and when, and also drinking copious amounts of tea. Jason and Ellie had reappeared at some point and both of them had joined in too.
Once the front door was firmly closed and the key turned in the lock, Serena sank down into the sofa and closed her eyes.
“Okay mum?” Ellie asked.
Serena groaned. “So much for my quiet night in with the two of you out of the way. How long is it going to be before I get the chance for another one?”
Ellie patted her arm. “Nice to know how much you love us!”
“Oh Ellie, you know I love you, both of you, but I do, just occasionally, like to have a little time to myself to fully appreciate a nice glass of Shiraz.”
Ellie grinned. “I know mum. And we love you too. And as it happens, I had a text message tonight from dad. Liberty wants to have another go at this “family meal” thing.” She made air quotes with her fingers.
Serena sat up straight. “Another go! Another go at upsetting Jason!”
“I know mum. I haven’t said yes yet. I wanted to talk it through before I said anything.”
“Does Jason know?”
“Not yet but if I decide it is a good idea, then I will ask his opinion.”
Serena nodded. “So go on then, tell me what your dad said.”
Ellie picked up Serena’s arm and wrapped it around her shoulders, snuggling close. “Well apparently Liberty understands what she did wrong last time and she wants to make amends. Apparently dad is going to check over all her plans before they go ahead.”
“Hmm. I really would like Jason to maintain some kind of a relationship with his uncle, whatever happens.”
Serena paused, thinking it through. She didn’t want Jason to be hurt again like last time. But she knew that she couldn’t just cut him off from the world, and certainly not from his family, to save him from that.
“When do they want to do this meal?” she asked.
“Soon I think. Before Christmas.”
Serena nodded. “Well it’s up to you darling, but I do think it might be a good idea. As long as Liberty knows how to behave.”
“I’ll keep her and dad in check,” Ellie promised.
“Oh and speaking of Christmas, what are your plans for the day?” Serena asked. Her heart was in her mouth even though she kept her voice calm. Because what if Ellie didn’t want to spend Christmas with her? What if she wanted to spend it in Liberty’s soulless flat instead?
Ellie just wrapped one arm around Serena’s waist. “I’ll be here mum. With you and Jason. Just like always.”
Serena relaxed and tilted her head to kiss her daughter’s brow. “I’m glad Ellie. So glad.”
A thick frost covered the ground the following morning. Serena shivered in her winter coat as they all walked to church. She especially loved church services this time of year; the carols, the advent candle, the tree, the hopeful passages from the Bible all came together to make such a lovely atmosphere. Ellie skipped off to join the rest of the choir when they arrived and Serena and Jason took up their usual pew. Jason picked up the hymnal and began putting bookmarks in for the carols they were singing that day. Serena nodded hellos to various members of the congregation.
They all fell silent as Bernie climbed up onto the pulpit. Despite herself, Serena’s eyes ran over Bernie’s figure, stood there in her cassock and surplice, tippet over her shoulders. It had been months now since Bernie had started at the church and though she usually just helped Reverend Hanssen and gave a few readings, she always dressed properly and smartly. Even her hair was less of a mess on Sundays than on other days. Serena felt slightly wrong admiring the way Bernie looked in her vestments but she couldn’t help it.
And as Bernie welcomed everyone to the service and asked them to stand for the first hymn, Serena found her anger at Bernie wafting away. She still didn’t know what was going on with Bernie and Liberty. She still didn’t know what Bernie felt about her. But there, with Bernie leading them all in song (although Serena was fairly certain that she was just mouthing along), in the candlelit church during Advent, she found she just couldn’t be angry any more. There was too much anger in the rest of the world to allow herself to be angry with this beautiful, kind woman any longer.
Liberty approached Serena as she was manning the coffee machine after church. The café was doing a thriving business and with the donated cakes and biscuits that arrived every day from various members of the congregation, there was plenty of food to go round.
“Hi Serena,” Liberty began, a wide smile on her face as though she was addressing a small child who needed to be kept appeased.
“Hello Liberty.” Serena groaned internally wondering what Liberty wanted now.
“Can I have your tuna bake recipe?”
Serena started. That really wasn’t what she expected Liberty to say. “Umm. Why?”
“Well Ellie tells me that tuna bake is what Jason likes to eat on Mondays and tomorrow is Monday.”
Serena tried to catch up with what Liberty was implying. “Is Jason having dinner at yours tomorrow?”
Liberty grinned. “Yes. Isn’t it wonderful? And I want everything to be right this time so I thought I’d ask you for the recipe.”
“Oh. Of course. I mean I don’t have a recipe as such but I can write down what I usually do.”
“Thank you Serena! That’s so good of you. I want this to be a lovely family meal.” Liberty was practically bouncing.
Serena raised an eyebrow. “If you hang around, I’ll write it down once I’m done with the café.”
“Of course! Eddie is sorting through the choir music so he won’t mind waiting for me!”
Serena faked a smile hoping that Liberty would get the message and leave her alone now. But no such luck.
“Hey, Serena, why don’t you join us tomorrow? Then it really will be one big happy family meal.”
Serena’s hand involuntarily clenched into a fist. She took a deep breath before speaking. “Liberty, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“You really have no idea what you are doing do you?” Serena said, her voice wavering as she fought to stay calm.
Liberty was about to answer when a hand fell on her shoulder.
“I think it’s time you let Serena get on with serving the other customers now don’t you?” Bernie said.
Serena jumped. She hadn’t noticed Bernie approaching. Bernie smiled at her and then turned back to Liberty.
Liberty muttered something under her breath and then walked away clearly heading off to find Edward.
“Thanks,” Serena said as Bernie took a step closer to the counter. “How much did you hear?”
Bernie grimaced. “I mainly just caught the bit where she wanted you to play happy families with her and Edward.”
“I’m sorry. Liberty’s never been known for her tact.” Bernie said.
Serena was about to be brave and just ask Bernie about her relationship with Liberty when Reverend Hanssen appeared wanting a word with Bernie.
“See you later?” she said instead and was gratified to see Bernie’s eyes crinkle into a smile.
“Yes. Later,” Bernie replied. She reached out a hand towards Serena and, despite herself, Serena found herself reaching across the counter to squeeze Bernie’s hand. It was only a moment but it was the most contact they had had since the competition and it felt like a step in the right direction.
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.