Death is a regular occurrence in Bernie’s life. Being in the army gives you this sense of acceptance of death, surrounding you and your comrades. It never gets better, or easier, but as much as she hates to say it, she’s become somewhat acclimatized to it, slightly numb to the idea. She thinks nothing as bad as some of the things she has seen out in the field could ever be like that for her. She was wrong. How completely wrong she was.
Bernie comes home because when Serena left at the end of her shift there was something in her eyes that Bernie had never seen before. Raf lets her out early with the promise to call Sacha or Jac if he needs them, and she folds herself into her little car and drives home. With Jason moved back in with Alan because he found Serena too difficult to be around, Bernie can’t stop the worry she feels when she knows Serena is home alone, the worry that Serena will do something to herself gnaws at her stomach, despite the fact she feels guilty about worrying about a grown woman.
Serena hears the crunch of gravel in her driveway as Bernie pulls in. She knows its Bernie, even though her shift won't officially finish for another thirty minutes, she saw the look in Bernie’s eyes as she had left. She looks around to see if she’s left any evidence of what she’s been doing, if Bernie will notice. She throws the last bloodied gauze into the bin and pads back downstairs to the dining table, where paperwork is arranged in what looks like a productive work-line. She grimaces as she sits, realises that she, and her story, don’t look convincing at all.
“Just me!” Serena hears Bernie sing as she unlocks the door, thankful that at least Bernie is acting like nothing is different, nothing is of concern. “How’re you going?” she asks, poking her head round the door to the living room, smiling at Serena’s assortment of files. Serena nods and smiles a small smile back, not quite feeling up to conversing. “I was thinking of making some pasta for tea, that okay?”
“Course,” she manages, both of them knowing full well she will barely touch her food, no matter what Bernie makes.
They sit at the dining room table to eat, Serena’s paperwork pushed to one side, both merely pushing their food around on their plate. Serena doesn’t eat anymore, and Bernie doesn’t eat nearly enough because the sickening feeling in her stomach from worrying about Serena never really goes away.
The next day, Bernie wakes up in a cold, empty bed, pads across the landing to find Serena in her office, sitting on her chair, staring blankly out the window. Serena hears the creak of the door and spins around in her chair, greets Bernie with a numb smile. But Bernie can tell Serena has spent the best part of the night in here, crying.
“Can you tell me something, Bernie?” She asks, Bernie nods, smiles gently at her. “How do you live when a part of you has just died?” Bernie’s heart hurts, the lump in her throat similarly painful, she shakes her head, slowly makes her way to where Serena is sitting on her chair. She grasps Serena’s hands between her own and chews her lip.
“I don’t know,” she whispers. Because she doesn’t know. She has no fucking idea, and the not knowing is the hardest part, not knowing what to do, how to help Serena. “I’m so sorry Serena, but I don’t know.”
Bernie never sees them, the cuts, the burns. Bernie never sees how badly Serena is feeling because Serena doesn’t let her see, doesn’t let her care for her. Serena always changes in the bathroom, wears long pyjamas, never initiates or lets Bernie initiate any intimacy between them. They lie next to each other, in their bed, and Serena never lets Bernie touch her. So Bernie will never see them.
There were always good nights and bad nights, and Bernie will never forget them.
The first time she is there for one of the bad ones, is when she wordlessly drops to the floor of Elinor’s bedroom where Serena, on her knees, is violently sobbing, handfuls of old photographs clutched to her chest. Bernie wraps her arms around Serena despite her protests, tries her best to shush the piercing wails, but Serena won’t give in until the room is dark, and they have both fallen asleep in a slump on the floor, still curled round one another. Bernie wakes several times, always grasping Serena tighter for fear that she might break apart again, mumbles tearily, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know how to fix this,” into the quiet of the night.
The second time Bernie finds Serena in a state is the worst of them all. She doesn’t think she’ll ever forget it.
During the excessive drinking stage of Serena’s grief, she would drink two, sometimes three full bottles of red wine a night. This stage is not Bernie’s favourite. None of them are, but this was the most gruelling of all. Serena had pushed her away, no replies to texts or calls, told Bernie repeatedly in a drunken state that she never wanted to see her again, saying she didn’t understand why Bernie kept sticking around for someone like her, that she could be happier elsewhere with someone else.
At first, Bernie thought that it might be it for them and their relationship but later chastised herself for even thinking of leaving her, especially when the words coming from Serena were wine-fuelled and she clearly needed help.
Bernie offered Serena some space during this period, said she would move back into her flat for a week to see how it goes but promising to drop by every second night to check up on the house, on Serena.
“Is that it then? You’re leaving me?”
Bernie squinted her eyes. “No, Serena. This isn’t that. I think you just need time and space to deal with the grief in your own way, I think I’m just getting in your way but I’m always just a call away.”
Serena scoffed and turned her back to Bernie. She mumbles under her breath something that Bernie doesn’t quite catch.
“The last thing I need is to be alone.”
So Bernie goes. She gets in her car and drives back to her cold flat and tells herself she can’t help Serena if Serena doesn’t want it. It’s only a mere two days later that Bernie gets a text from Jason; a text and an image. The text reads: ‘What does this mean???’ and the image below it is a screenshot of a message Serena had sent to Jason. The text from Serena reads: ‘I love you darling, please look after yourself for me.” Alarm bells ring in Bernie’s mind, Serena never normally one to text like this, especially not towards Jason. It’s only a few minutes later that she recognises the buzzing in her back pocket, and she pulls her phone out quick enough to see a text from Serena pop up.
‘I’m so sorry for what I said the other day. It was unforgivable and I would understand if you couldn’t get past it. I was wrong, I do love you, and I know how much you love me. I will always be thankful for how you loved me, even when I couldn’t see it at the time. I don’t know what to do anymore, I’m fed up with myself and with Jason for moving out and with you for being so logical. I don’t know how to live like this anymore. I love you Bernie, so much, thank you.” Bernie can’t think straight, doesn’t know what Serena means by the text, can only think the worst.
She rushes round in her car, pulls in to Serena’s drive and is thankful when she sees the lights still on. She rings the bell, and Serena staggers to the front door, drunk from wine, but Bernie pushes past her and rushes to the kitchen to check the table for evidence, upstairs to the bathroom to see if anything had been taken, she runs back to downstairs and cups Serena’s cheeks tightly, shakes her a bit. “Have you taken anything?” She asks, but it looks as if Serena doesn’t understand, “Have you taken any medication?” She shouts, hating herself for raising her voice at a grieving mother. But it finally dawns on Serena, and she shakes her head and says that she thought about it. Bernie grabs her tightly and starts to cry.
Bernie sees three bottles of empty wine lined up, a bottle of sherry now opened and half poured into a glass. She takes it and pours it down the sink, fights Serena grabbing at her arms, shouting at her to stop because she needs it. Bernie shoves a glass of water into Serena’s hands. Serena throws it straight back into the sink with a smash and glares at Bernie.
A slanging match starts between them.
“If you carry on, you’ll kill yourself with this stuff, Serena!”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” Serena shouts. Bernie’s eyes pool with tears and she examines Serena, her face poker straight. “If you’d just leave me be this could be much easier for the both of us.”
“Please stop saying things like that.”
“Like what? It’s true, Bernie.”
Serena’s vigour now broken as her face crumples and she begins to heave giant sobs from within. Grasping at her stomach and chest as she drops to her knees right in front of Bernie. She screams and she shouts.
“I don’t want to be here,” she sobs, “I want her back.” Bernie kneels down and pulls Serena’s body against hers. “Please, just let me go,” Serena whispers.
Serena had sent her out to the shop to stock up the fridge. Usually, they’d shop together, but Serena insisted on staying at home to tidy the place up a bit. Bernie tries to keep the place together whilst Serena didn’t even want to open her eyes, let alone get out of bed, every day, but she isn’t known for her great housekeeping skills.
The curtains in the front room are drawn, the lamps Serena had dotted around the house are switched off, and the house is eerily cold as she opens the front door. It’s far too quiet for Bernie’s liking.
“Serena? Are you up?” She shouts up the stairs. There’s no reply.
Bernie shrugs it off, ignoring the vague sense of unease overcoming her, and ventures into the kitchen to put the shopping away, stopped instantly when she notices the door to the medicine cabinet has been left slightly ajar. Her mind was racing, maybe Serena just had a headache and needed quick relief or was coming down with a cold. She vaguely remembers her phone buzzing in her back pocket whilst trekking up and down the aisles of the supermarket, deciding to ignore it for whatever reason until she was back outside in the car.
Taking her phone from her pocket, she notices two missed calls, a text and a voicemail all from Serena, and she also realises she has been gone for over an hour. There was a ten-minute difference between the call and the text, the second call and voicemail coming in just 10 minutes after. Her heart drops, remembering this from a while back. Opening the text, it read:
" I love you Bernie, please always know that. I just couldn’t do it anymore.’
Bernie’s throat all of a sudden becomes very dry, and she swallows the lump. No. There’s no way. She walks up the stairs whilst dialling her voicemail.
“Serena?” Bernie almost sung her name, ignoring the niggling feeling of what she might be about to walk into. She hoped so much that Serena would shout her name back, but the silence was deafening. Her voicemail cut through her thoughts, telling her there was one new message.
‘Bernie, if you’re listening to this I want you to know that I’m so sorry my love. The pain I’m feeling is just too overwhelming to bear anymore. I hope you can understand how sorry I am, how much I love you. Please look after yourself. I hope you manage to be happy.”
Bernie covers her mouth to stop a loud sob from escaping, the phone becoming looser in her hand as her heart feels like it shatters into pieces at the sight in front of her and the sounds of her love’s teary voice.
‘I love you so much, more than you will ever know. I’m so sorry.’
Her face is pale, her lips tinged a shade of blue-grey, her body lifeless. Bernie can’t think, she can’t see, her eyes glazed over with tears. The lump in her throat is so painful, but it doesn’t stop the screams and sobs wracking her body as she cradles Serena’s lifeless body. It’s not something she can comprehend, how Serena could have done this. She cries and cries and screams and her doctor instincts never kick in. She just sits on the bed next to Serena and cries. Eventually, when she has no tears left to cry, her throat hoarse and heart broken, she stumbles down the stairs. Walks numbly into the kitchen and stares out the window. She sees all the times Serena and her have shared a bottle of wine on the deck, sitting close together on the outdoor sofa. She sees the time they spent a weekend off gardening, fixing up the meagre arrangements of bushes and shrubs. She sees the time they both got thrashed at scrabble by Jason on a warm summer night. She sees the times she’ll never get back, the times she’ll never have.
She gets out a bottle of whiskey. Can’t bear to look at Serena’s alphabetised Shiraz collection. Can’t bear to think about who’s going to drink it now. Pours herself a generous glass and walks back upstairs. It hasn’t really set in yet, and as she sits on the floor leaning against the bed. Their bed. The bed that a lifeless Serena is laying on. She drinks herself to sleep, and wakes up after a few hours with a sore back and an even sorer heart.
How do you live when a part of you has just died?
Bernie doesn’t turn up for work the next day, hasn’t moved from her place on the floor next to Serena. Hanssen calls her and calls her, and she doesn’t answer, can’t bear to admit the truth, that Serena is gone. She never answers or texts back and eventually he sends Dom round at the end of his shift. He knows where the spare key is and lets himself in, follows the sound of sniffling and ends up upstairs. Bernie is slumped against the bed, and a figure he assumes is Serena is lying still in the middle of the bed. Bernie’s face is hollow, her eyes raw and lifeless. She looks up at him and he sees fresh tears appear, begin to stream down her face.
“She’s -” she starts, but a sob wracks through her body and she can’t finish. Dom gathers her up in his arms and holds her shaking body against his. He doesn’t need to ask to know what’s happened, he can see the overturned bottle of pills on the nightstand of Serena’s side of the bed, can see that Serena isn’t taking breaths. He feels tears well in his own eyes as he holds Bernie, his boss, his friend.
“If I had been here,” she croaks after what feels like an age sitting on the floor in Dom’s arms. “She called me I-” She feels like she has no tears left to cry, just a sore throat and dead partner. “If I had just answered.”
Dom takes her into the en-suite to wash her face, goes back into the bedroom and for the first time properly sees Serena. Covers her with the duvet and takes a moment to compose himself. He takes Bernie downstairs and presses her into the sofa with a glass of water and the promise of tea. Calls Hanssen and tells him what’s happened, tears of his own welling in his eyes. He doesn’t know how to do this, always on the other end of situations like this. Doesn’t know who you call in situations like this. He boils the kettle and stares blankly at Bernie sitting on the sofa.
How do you live when a part of you has just died?
Bernie almost doesn't go to the funeral. She stands in front of the mirror, staring blankly at the long black dress hanging on the back of the wardrobe. It’s only when she misses three calls from Charlotte because she has been waiting outside in the car for her that she slips the dress on, pads down the stairs to step into her heels before meeting an annoyed looking Charlotte at her car. The day speeds past in a sort of blur, she zones out of the numerous people offering their condolences, sits numbly and listens to the service. Cameron and Charlotte sit either side of her, Jason next to Cam. They sit like soldiers; stoic, holding each other up, holding her up when she crumples at Ric’s speech. She gets home to a house full of flowers and can finally understand why Serena had hated them so much after Elinor died.
She goes back to work only because Cam and Charlotte tell her they’re worried about her pottering around a big empty house by herself. What she doesn’t tell them is that the reason she hasn’t gone back to the hospital is because the memory of Serena there is the strongest. The hospital is the place they fell in love, the place they first kissed, but it’s also where she lost Elinor, where she eventually lost Serena. And she can’t bear to be there. But she can’t stop Ric telling Cam that he’s found her staring blankly at the wall in her office with tears in her eyes on three separate occasions in a week. Ric tells Cam and Cam tells Charlotte and then she can’t avoid talking about it anymore. They hijack her evening and metaphorically corner her until she has to talk about it.
“Ric told us what happened, mum, three times in a week, that’s not good,” Cam says, “You shouldn’t be there if it makes you sad.”
“I agree,” Charlotte says, confident in her opinion. “It’s not good for you.” Bernie nods and grimaces. She doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how she managed to raise two children so reasonable and wise.
“You’re right. I think it would be best if I left that place behind. There’s too many ghosts, too many echoes whenever I step foot through the doors.”
Cam and Charlotte look on solemnly, they know that the deaths of Arthur, Elinor and now Serena were a constant reminder on the drive to work every day and couldn’t begin to imagine how that would feel.
“Perhaps you could take a holiday?” Charlotte suggests. Bernie looks up at her in disbelief, a holiday? Sunning it up and partying abroad after the woman she loved has just died. She would not be Edward.
Bernie shakes her head.
“I could come with you?”
Bernie smiles at her daughter, feels lucky that they have both now forgiven her for her absence in their childhoods, they just want the best for their mum and for that, Bernie is grateful.
“I’ll think about it.”
It isn’t until much later when Cameron leaves to head back home for his early shift the next day, that Charlotte says she would like to stay with her mother, keep an eye on her. They stay up late watching reruns of old game shows, Bernie not really paying attention, finds staring at the photo of her and Serena on the mantelpiece is more comforting. Charlotte notices, isn’t sure what to do except curl into her mum’s side, resting her head on her shoulder, Bernie eventually pulling her tighter to her and dropping a kiss to her head.
Charlotte heads up to bed first, says they should get up early tomorrow morning for a long walk to clear their heads. Bernie seems unconvinced at first but realises her daughter is trying to look out for her, doesn’t want her cooped up in the house that surrounds her with bad memories all day long.
Bernie hasn’t stepped foot in what was once she and Serena’s bedroom, hasn’t slept in that bed since the night before the funeral. She hadn’t bothered washing the sheets or opening the curtains, doesn’t want to let go. Not fully. Not yet.
She tosses and turns in the bed in the spare room for a couple of hours, she just can’t seem to shift the image of finding Serena on that fateful day from her mind, it haunts her still. She sits awake, staring at the wall until she hears the soft hum of the television from next door. Charlotte.
Bernie pads through quietly, creaks the door ever so slightly to see her daughter sitting wide awake too, clearly finding it difficult to sleep.
Bernie enters the room, takes the remote from the bedside table and turns the TV off, slips into bed beside her daughter without any hesitation from her.
“You’ll be okay, mum. I promise.”
Bernie sniffs at that and cradles Charlotte close to her chest, stroking her hair as she once did to calm her after a nightmare as a child, funnily enough it calmed her too.
“I’m not sure I want to be here anymore.” Bernie explains through the lump in her throat.
Charlotte tensed, leaning back from her mother’s embrace. “Mum, you can’t think like that. I won’t lose you.”
Bernie, suddenly realising what she’d said and how that would sound to Charlotte, groans and shakes her head. “No, no. I mean, about the holiday, taking some time off. I think it would be good for me. I think I’d like to go by myself and then maybe you and Cam can come to see me? Jason too, if he likes?”
Charlotte lets out the breath she had been holding, nodding at her mother and lay back down in the safety of her arms.
“Where are you off to?”
Charlotte remembered Serena saying at Christmas how it was her favourite place to visit, if not for the beautiful scenery then most certainly for the vast variety of wine.
“I’m sorry I have to leave you again after I’ve only just got you back.”
“I understand. Cam and I both do. We don’t hold any grudges, life is just too short. Go off and find your happiness again, everything else can wait.”
The weeks turn into months and then the months turns into a year in France, and then she’s sold Serena’s big house - gave most to Jason and used the rest to get a small cottage over in the South of France - has had visits from the kids plenty of times, sometimes with Morven in tow, even Ric had come to spend the weekend to keep her company. Everyone who comes to see her says she seems lighter, more at peace with Serena and herself. They all say she seems much better than she was when she was back at Holby.
No one comments on the one piece of Serena she carries with her, they just look to the pendant hanging around her neck and smile sadly. She wakes every day and thinks of Serena, goes to bed every night and imagines how it would feel to have Serena here with her. Thinking of Serena is not something she will ever stop doing, and she’s not pretending she doesn’t sometimes sit on the front porch of her French cottage and weep for Serena, for Elinor, for her children who have inadvertently lost their mother again. But coming to terms with it is something she will do.
How do you live when a part of you has died?