She first sees Berenice Wolfe on the news, half a glimpse of messy blonde hair as she glances up from her phone and then back down again. She’s trawling the celebrity gossip sites and checking soap opera press releases, thinking about who she might book for next week, who might grace the famous sofa of her daytime talk show. She’s thinking about getting her PA to give Roseanne Marceau’s people a call in the morning to see if she wants to come on and talk about the latest dramatic and medically implausible plot her character’s been caught up in on what the BBC calls a hospital drama but everyone else calls a soap. But somehow she finds her mind drifting. She looks up again, starts to pay attention to the TV instead.
“You should get her on your show,” Jason says, as if sensing her interest. “She’s much more interesting than the people you usually have on.”
Serena bristles slightly at that - she knows The Serena Campbell Show isn’t high culture, but it’s hers, and she’s worked hard and dodged enough TV exec octopus hands in the 80s and 90s to get where she is that she can’t help but feel defensive of her little show. But she knows Jason well enough by now, a year since his surprising arrival into her life, and manages not to let what would be a subtle dig from anyone else sting too much.
“Who is she?” she asks, scanning her memory to see if she’s taken in any of the news item subconsciously. She draws a blank.
“Major Berenice Wolfe of the Royal Army Medical Corps,” he replies immediately. “She was blown up by a roadside IED in Afghanistan and risked her life to pull her comrades out of their vehicle. She even performed emergency surgery at the crash site and saved her anaesthetist’s life. And they found out later that she’d damaged her heart in the explosion and needed an operation herself.” He sounds like he’s memorised the woman’s heroic story, Serena thinks. He probably actually has. “She’s been awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. She’s the first woman to be awarded the VC, unless you count Elizabeth Webber Harris, but hers was just a replica.”
Serena raises an eyebrow. First woman, eh? She does like to champion women’s achievements on her show, and it’s not unheard of for her to get a slightly unusual guest on. She pulls her bottom lip between her teeth and ponders the idea for a few moments.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she says, to Jason’s obvious delight, then texts Fletch, her PA.
See if you can get in touch with Major Berenice Wolfe tomorrow, check her availability for an interview next week.
The reply is almost instantaneous.
She rolls her eyes.
Don’t you watch the news, Fletch? Google her.
When Fletch tells her that Major Wolfe’s agreed to come on the show it comes as something of a surprise. It’s a couple of days since she got him to call her, and she might have forgotten about it by now if not for Jason asking her twice a day if she’s heard from Major Wolfe, and can he come to the studio and be in the audience on the day of her interview, and will she let him meet her backstage afterwards? He’s as starstruck by her as any pop star or footballer, and Serena can’t help but find it endearing, thinks that if more people were as impressed by bravery and kindness as they are by dubious sporting gifts or autotuned voices that the world might be a better place.
“Excellent!” she says to Fletch when he tells her. “See if you can get her for next Friday?”
She texts Jason the good news and tells him yes, he can definitely come and meet Major Wolfe when she’s in the studio. She gets a string of emojis back, always the way when he gets over excited. He expresses himself much better with the tiny pictograms than he does with words, and she’s become proficient at them as well, thanks to him.
She puts Major Wolfe out of her mind for the moment, concentrating instead on pretending to be flattered and amused by her current guest’s rather obvious flirting. Robbie Medcalf’s been on her show a few times over the years promoting one storyline or another on the long running ITV cop drama The Fuzz. This time his character’s got a new love interest - a woman a good ten years his junior and much, much prettier than is really realistic for a man like Robbie, who’s using good tailoring and a neckbeard to hide the fact that he needs to spend more time at the gym.
THE DISPARITY IN THEIR LEVEL OF ATTRACTIVENESS IS QUITE PRONOUNCED, Jason texts her during the show. He uses caps when he feels particularly strongly about a topic. Like TOM BAKER WAS THE BEST DOCTOR BUT I THINK JODIE WHITTAKER WILL BE BRILLIANT or YOU SHOULD PUT LESS ONION IN THE SHEPHERD’S PIE. She sees his message once the cameras are off and she’s bid farewell to Mr Medcalf and his co-star. It makes her snort with laughter. Very true, she texts back. That’s TV for you. She adds a shrugging emoji and grins.
Her researchers give her a pile of biographical information to read about Major Berenice Wolfe before the interview and she and Jason spend a couple of pleasant evenings going through it all. She’s looking forward to meeting her by the time she’s read everything, and Jason is practically vibrating with excitement by the time they get to the studio, even though he’s had to get up much earlier than he’d like.
Major Wolfe’s already there when they arrive, looking nervous and a little sheepish. She’s come in her fatigues, with the VC pinned on almost as an afterthought. “I hate the dress uniform,” she explains as she shakes Serena’s hand. “Makes me feel like I’m in a Halloween costume.”
Serena holds onto her hand a little longer than strictly necessary. Major Wolfe is a striking woman. She’s seen her on TV, of course, and in pictures, but the woman in the flesh is...something else. Serena’s cheeks pink a little to match the blouse she’s chosen for the day.
A production assistant comes up to them holding a clipboard. “Can I get you a coffee Ms Campbell, Major Wolfe?”
Serena nods. “You read my mind. Double shot latte, quick as you can please - and an orange juice for my delightful nephew.”
The assistant scribbles the order down. “And you Major? We have latte, Americano, espresso, cappuccino, macchiato…” She trails off when she takes in the mild panic on their guest’s face.
Serena smiles. “White or black?” she asks kindly.
“Black,” Major Wolfe replies gratefully. “No sugar.” The girl returns with their drinks a few moments later and they both take an experimental sip. “Do you remember when coffee was just coffee?”
Serena grins. “Strong and hot’s all I care about at this time in the morning.”
Serena meets her eyes and their gazes lock for much longer than can be explained by this little getting to know you back and forth. Now this is the kind of flirting she enjoys - more subtle than Robbie Medcalf’s sledgehammer approach. Just a little frisson of something, enough to warm the chest and make the blood pump a little harder. Her eyes flick to Major Wolfe’s smiling lips and then back to her eyes. She thinks she detects a little blush of colour on her cheeks.
Fletch interrupts the moment by bundling her off to talk to Abi, the producer. She leaves Jason with Major Wolfe - “Bernie, please,” she insists - hoping he won’t be too much for her. He has his own list of questions he wants to ask her, having declared Serena’s not thorough enough for his liking. She glances over at them fretfully several times while she’s listening to Abi, but Bernie seems to be holding her own and Jason is absolutely enraptured. Not that she blames him. Bernie is a very impressive woman. Gorgeous too, she thinks with a blush.
She heads back over to them just in time to hear Jason asking what the most gruesome injury she’s ever seen was and puts her hand on his arm. “Bernie doesn’t want to talk about all that gory stuff right now, Jason,” she says gently. “She needs to go and get ready with the makeup people.”
Jason considers this for a moment, then nods. “I suppose,” he says, then turns to Bernie with shining eyes. “You can come round for dinner tonight and we’ll talk about it then.”
Bernie looks from Serena to Jason, wrongfooted and unsure. “Oh,” she murmurs. “Uhm...are you sure that’s okay with your auntie?”
“It’s my house too,” Jason counters. “I never need to ask permission to have friends over.”
Serena feels herself soften. Of course Jason thinks of Bernie as a friend. He knows a lot about her, he admires her, they’ve shared a drink together - what else is there? “That’s quite right,” she says. “Jason’s perfectly entitled to ask over whoever he likes.” She catches Bernie’s eye and smiles softly, trying to convey that she too wouldn’t mind seeing her again, that the little connection they’d shared over coffee is something she wants to explore.
“All right,” Bernie says, then remembers to look back at Jason. “I’d like that very much, Jason. Thank-you.”
Bernie’s the last guest before the programme ends. Serena feels the rest of the show dragging, keen to get on to what she’s privately thinking of as the main event. She can hear Jason applauding and hooting wildly when she finally introduces Bernie, but he settles down with the rest of the audience and she’s able to get on with the interview.
Bernie is a charming interviewee, humble and self-effacing and full of interesting stories about medicine and serving in the armed forces. She reveals she was surprised to be awarded the VC, and manages to convey both the magnitude of the honour and the frustration that it’s taken nearly a hundred years for a woman to receive it, since they officially became eligible in 1921.
“I certainly hope it won’t take another hundred years before the courage and valour of our female soldiers are recognised again,” she says, towards the end of the interview. “In my years in the RAMC, I’ve served with hundreds of exemplary soldiers. Many of them were women, and I’ve seen just as much bravery from them as from any of their male colleagues. In many ways, I consider this award as belonging as much to all of my female comrades as it does to me.”
Bernie finishes her speech, dipping her head shyly when the audience applaud, and Serena’s eyes shine. “Hear hear,” she says quietly, just loud enough for Bernie alone to hear, and pats her knee.
She tries to convince Jason to let her cook something a little special for their guest, but he’s firm. It’s Friday, that’s shepherd’s pie night, so shepherd’s pie they will have. But she drops by her favourite wine merchant and nabs a rather expensive bottle of Shiraz to go with it, and thinks that will have to do.
She finds she’s nervous as she gets ready, looking through her wardrobe with a critical eye, wondering what Bernie would like. In the end she chooses something similar to what she’d wear when filming, a flame red blouse and some dark tailored trousers, but made slightly dressier with the addition of jewellery and a little more makeup than she’d normally wear in the evening. “Some of your makeup’s congealed in your frown lines,” Jason comments when she comes downstairs.
“Bless you for that,” she murmurs, and uncorks the wine to let it breathe.
Jason’s frowning at his phone. “Auntie Serena, why would someone want to be stepped on?”
She does a double take. “Context?”
He holds up his phone and she sees a stream of tweets on the screen. “I was checking your hashtag,” he explains. “And this girl says Can someone please tell that big macho army medic on the #SerenaCampbellShow to come over and step on me immediately?”
Serena flushes several shades of red, but she’s saved when the doorbell rings. “She’s just being a little silly, Jason,” she says over her shoulder. “Don’t spare it another thought.”
Bernie’s shifting her weight from foot to foot on the doorstep when Serena opens the door, holding a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine, looking like she might turn and run at any second. But she smiles brightly when Serena invites her in, and her cheek is warm when Serena presses a kiss to it and takes her gifts.
She’s wearing a pale pink coat which Serena helps her out of before hanging it up in the hall cupboard. She feels comfortable, in control and confident in this hosting role, but when she turns to invite her guest through to the kitchen diner she has to take a moment because if she thought Bernie looked gorgeous in fatigues that was nothing to how she looks in dark skinny jeans and a white Oxford shirt with what look like RAMC cufflinks glinting at her wrists. “Oh,” she murmurs, almost without conscious thought. “You look rather dashing, Major Wolfe.”
Bernie glances down and smiles at her feet, then looks up at her through her fringe. “And you look beautiful, Ms Campbell,” she says, and Serena feels herself melt.
She keeps catching Bernie glancing at her as she puts the finishing touches on dinner, but she knows she’s only seeing the other woman looking so much because she herself can barely take her eyes off Bernie. She’s listening to all of Jason’s questions and answering them as best she can, never taking offence at his bluntness or seeming to find him odd in any way. Serena smiles at her as she listens to them talk, and thrills at the shy little grin she gets in return.
Jason continues to monopolise the conversation over dinner, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Their eyes do more talking than their lips, meeting over the rim of their wine glasses, holding while Bernie describes some aspect of her life in the service, shining with mirth when she makes a joke that Jason understands.
When the meal is over, Jason announces that he needs to go and watch the latest episode of a new Mary Beard documentary about Herculaneum. “Oh,” Bernie says when he invites her to come through to the living room and watch it with him. “Thanks, Jason, but I think I’d better help your auntie with the washing up.” He shrugs, seeming to accept that easily enough, and heads into the living room on his own.
It’s the first time they’ve been alone together. For a moment it’s awkward, and then Serena breaks the tension by leaning forward and confiding in a low tone that they have a dishwasher.
Bernie laughs. “Of course,” she murmurs. “I suppose I’ve got out of the habit of thinking of things like that. Too many years in deserts, conserving water.”
Serena just shakes her head. “There’s something to be said for taking matters into your own hands,” she says, and smiles when Bernie’s eyes darken. “You wash I’ll dry?”
They work together in companionable silence, never getting in each other’s way. “We make a good team,” Serena remarks, finishing drying one plate just as Bernie goes to hand her another. “Sorry dinner wasn’t more interesting. Jason’s rather particular about what he eats.”
Bernie just shakes her head. “I’ve spent most of my adult life abroad, either eating whatever the locals eat or awful Army rations,” she says. “I used to fantasise about what we had tonight. So believe me, there’s no need to apologise.”
Serena finishes drying the last plate, watches as Bernie rinses her hands and carefully dries them before rolling her sleeves back down and putting her cufflinks back on. Now she’s had a chance to look at them closely, Serena can see that they are indeed in the style of the RAMC crest. “And what else did you fantasise about when you were over there?” she asks in a low voice, letting her eyes dip to the hollow of Bernie’s throat, and then down to the hint of exquisite collarbones below. She looks up up again when Bernie steps forward and rests a hand on her hip, pressing her gently against the counter.
“A few things,” Bernie replies softly, her eyes dark and liquid.
Serena leans forward first, sliding her hands into that messy hair she first noticed on the news last week. She breathes against her lips for a moment and then Bernie closes the gap, kissing Serena with a reverent gentleness that both surprises and inflames her. She feels Bernie’s hands slide round her back then onto her neck, like she can’t decide where she wants to touch most. Everywhere, Serena thinks. She’ll let Bernie touch her everywhere.
Their foreheads bump together gently when their lips part and Serena can’t help but exhale a tremulous, happy breath. Bernie’s smiling too and Serena thinks she’s never seen anything so beautiful.
“Do you have many of your guests home for tea?” Bernie murmurs, dipping her head to kiss her again, firmer this time, with more intent. Serena whimpers into her mouth, then feels the first touch of Bernie’s tongue and is lost.
Her breath is coming in fierce gasps when the kiss ends, but she has just enough wherewithal left to answer the question. “No,” she says. “Just the ones I want to keep.” She pushes a strand of hair back from Bernie’s eyes, hooking it carefully behind her ear. “That all right with you soldier?”
“Yes,” Bernie says, and kisses her again.
Jason wakes up at his usual Saturday time, 9am. His shower lasts four point two minutes, and then he dresses in jeans and a plaid shirt before heading down for breakfast. It’s pancake breakfast day, and he’s looking forward to his usual three pancakes with nutella and a glass of milk.
“Hello Auntie Serena,” he says as he enters the kitchen. He sits down at his usual place at the table and picks up the copy of Doctor Who magazine that he saves for Saturday mornings. “Hello Major Bernie,” he adds absently.
Serena places his plate in front of him then goes to stand by Bernie, resting a hand on her shoulder. Bernie’s wearing one of Serena’s t-shirts and a pair of yoga pants that are much too short for her. She also has what looks like a minor bruise behind her ear, but Jason decides not to mention that.
“Good morning, Jason,” Serena says. She sounds a little nervous. “Bernie stayed the night. Is that okay with you?”
He shrugs. “As long as she doesn’t eat all the nutella.”
Bernie barks out a laugh. It’s a rather extraordinary sound, a bit like a goose, and Serena’s looking at her like she’s never seen anything more wonderful in the world. “I’m more of a lemon and sugar girl, Jason,” Bernie says when she’s stopped laughing.
He nods. “So’s Auntie Serena,” he says. “I’m glad I found you for her.”
He just smiles at the surprise on their faces. He thinks Bernie’s going to fit into their little family very well.