It was quarter past eleven in the morning, and Bernie Wolfe was on her knees by the side of her bed, shaking a tub of Whiskas Temptations and calling plaintively to a recalcitrant feline. It was a far cry from her previous life - front-line army surgeon, trauma expert, revered and respected medical professional. The IED that had blown her up had changed all that. Now she was just Bernie Wolfe: sporadic NHS locum, gay divorcee (in more ways than one) and - apparently - demented cat lady.
She glanced at her watch again helplessly. She thought she’d left plenty of time for the ordeal of getting her cat into the carrier, but she clearly hadn’t bargained for the fact that Bramwell was sharp as a tack and twice as sneaky. At the first hint of the carrier being brought down from the loft she’d dashed under Bernie’s bed and settled herself in the exact centre - just slightly too far from either side or the bottom to reach in and grab her. Hence the attempt to tease her out with the cat equivalent of junk food.
“Come on, girl,” she begged, shaking the tub a little more forcefully. “It’s only a vaccination. If you don’t have them you have to stay inside all the time. No more jaunts in the garden.” Catching herself, she rolled her eyes. “I’m trying to reason with a cat.” A ridiculous idea for, as all cat owners knew, they were not reasonable creatures.
Abandoning bribery as a bad job, Bernie ditched the Temptations and stretched out on the floor, reaching under the bed. Her back was screaming at her in exclusively four letter words, but she managed to grab onto a scruff of fluff. Bramwell shrieked like a banshee as Bernie hauled her out, her legs scrabbling in the air, eyes wide, spitting and hissing and trembling.
“Got you!” Bernie whooped in triumph as she finally forced her usually very placid and loving cat into the carrier. Then she saw the state of her hands and winced. “Shit.” Blood was beading along several long, deep scratches, and she was forced to lose yet another five minutes cleaning herself up and applying liberal quantities of elastoplast. Bramwell had largely calmed down by the time she emerged from the bathroom, but still shot her a poisonous look as she grabbed the carrier’s handle. “Oh I know, I’m an evil woman,” she said, walking briskly out the door and towards her car. “Making sure you’re safe and healthy. I’m just the worst.”
Luckily there were no speed cameras between her flat and the vet’s practice, and she was able to screech to halt in her MX5 (a post divorce present to herself; her knees hated her for it every time she had to haul herself out of it) with a whole forty seconds to spare.
“Bernie Wolfe and Bramwell,” she announced herself to the receptionist, only slightly out of breath. The young woman made a couple of clicks on her computer, then beamed up at her.
“Good morning Ms Wolfe. The vet’s just running a minute or two behind, so if you’d like to take a seat…?”
She gestured towards a largely empty area bordered by a half wall with the words ‘cat waiting area’ painted on the side. She wasn’t sure what made that particular area so special for cats, but she wasn’t about to argue. A quick sit down would be most welcome anyway - it would give her a chance to collect herself after the morning’s exertions.
She busied herself for a few moments sending a quick text to her kids, along with a picture of her war wounds from earlier. They were on less shaky ground these days and she was fairly confident of receiving a little sympathy after the inevitable laughter. It had been Charlotte’s idea for her to get the cat anyway - “you’re a lesbian now mum, embrace the love of pussy,” she’d said - so in Bernie’s mind her daughter was at least 90% responsible for the scratches all down her hands.
So engrossed was she in relating the tale of the stubborn cat and the claws of doom that she didn’t notice another pet owner had entered the waiting room until a shadow crossed her phone screen. She glanced up, her mind already moving on to the list of chores she had to get through later, and was met with the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. She had to exercise an immense force of will not to let her jaw drop and her eyes bug out.
She was maybe an inch or two shorter than Bernie, with dark, playful eyes and short silvering hair that Bernie immediately wanted to run her fingers through. Her lips were pursed in an expression of thoughtfulness, or possibly amusement. Bernie raked her eyes over her face, from her perfectly plucked and shaped eyebrows to her sweetly dimpled chin, and then quickly up and down her body, taking in an outfit of plain black trousers and a long flowing blue blouse that nevertheless hinted at curves Bernie could map for days.
“Oh,” said the woman, in a deep, mellifluous voice that made Bernie’s heart start to vibrate like a hummingbird, “aren’t you gorgeous.”
She dropped to her knees suddenly, and Bernie thought she might spontaneously combust. “Uhm…” she managed to mumble, further eloquence having deserted her and run halfway up the road screaming incoherently.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful cat,” the mystery woman went on. She smiled at Bramwell, who was pushing her face up against the wire of the cat carrier and purring so loudly it was probably audible from space.
“Oh,” Bernie mumbled. Of course. “Uhm, yes. This is my cat.”
The woman glanced up at her, eyes twinkling in amusement. “I’d gathered,” she said, her lips curving into a grin when she saw Bernie flush. Turning back to Bramwell, she went on. “And yet I find you in custody. What’s your crime, hmm?”
“She shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” Bernie replied, forcing herself to feel calm. She’d performed emergency surgery in war zones, for God’s sake. She could cope with a brief conversation with an attractive woman.
At least she thought so, until the other woman tossed her head back and laughed, and Bernie’s insides turned to watery jelly.
“Oh, she’s been a very bad girl, then,” the woman said in a low, conspiratorial tone as she straightened up, her eyes eventually meeting Bernie’s after a slow journey up her body that made Bernie’s face burn. “I’m Serena, by the way.”
“Bernie,” Bernie replied after a brief moment of inarticulate panic. “And this is Bramwell.” She gestured down at her cat, who was still pressing herself up against the wire of the carrier, trying to recover Serena’s attention.
“Like the TV doctor from the 90s?” Serena asked.
Bernie nodded bashfully. “Yes. People say I look a bit like her - not sure I see it.”
“Tall, blonde and beautiful with cheekbones that could cut diamonds - I don’t know, I think people might be onto something there,” Serena replied, her lips curling in a slow, dirty smile.
Bernie was forced to look away, her cheeks burning. Luckily, a very small and very cute brown and white spaniel chose that moment to jump up on her leg, gazing up at her with wide chocolate eyes. “Oh, what a lovely dog,” she exclaimed, leaning down to ruffle his ears. “He’s yours?”
“After a fashion,” Serena said. “My daughter bought him at great expense, but didn't think to check that her landlord would let her have a pet. He didn’t, so now Chandler here lives with me. He’s officially my daughter’s dog but...well…”
“But you’re the one who feeds him and walks him and does everything for him,” Bernie finished for her.
“Exactly.” Serena smiled warmly and took a seat in one of the empty chairs, glancing back at the receptionist as she did so. “Do you think I’ll get in trouble for entering the cat waiting area with a dog? I wonder what the punishment for that is.”
Bernie laughed. “I’ll hide you. They’ll never take us alive.”
“Oh, aren’t you chivalrous. More than I could have hoped for.”
Bernie could feel her cheeks reddening yet again, but she forced herself to smile. She wasn’t misreading the signals, was she? This was more than friendly banter between strangers. This was flirting. Serena was flirting with her - wasn’t she?
“And uh, what exactly were you hoping for when you came in here today?”
Serena leaned forward conspiratorially, waiting until Bernie did likewise before she lowered her voice to a purr that would have put Bramwell to shame. “Worming tablets,” she said, grinning.
Bernie blinked, her mind working frantically to come up with a rejoinder. Before she could manage to think of anything, she heard her name called.
“Ms Wolfe? The vet will see you now.”
Her head snapped up and she almost jumped. “I’d better…” she murmured apologetically, gesturing from Bramwell’s carrier to the vet now hovering in the doorway of the treatment room.
“By all means,” Serena replied, leaning back in her chair. “It was lovely to meet you.”
Bernie hesitated for a second or two more, then reluctantly stood and grabbed Bramwell’s carrier. She barely took in anything the vet actually said during the consultation and vaccination procedure, too busy thinking of how exactly one would go about asking for a woman’s phone number in this day and age. With men it would be easy - at least Marcus had made it easy. He’d just pursued her relentlessly until she said yes, in fact - on reflection, perhaps the fact she’d needed so much convincing had been a sign that he was barking up a lesbian tree. And she and Alex hadn’t exactly dated. Their relationship had been more of the clandestine snogging and frantic knee trembler variety. That was it - the sum total of her romantic history. None of it was helpful here.
Serena was still in the waiting room when she emerged, waiting for her turn. She was called just as Bernie was paying, and she smiled as she passed. “She really is a beautiful cat,” she said, leaning down to fuss over Bramwell one last time.
“Thanks,” Bernie murmured, and then Serena straightened up and disappeared inside the consultation room along with her gorgeous little spaniel.
And that was that. The chance, if there ever had been one at all, was gone.
The world seemed a little more glum when she left the vet’s, the clouds a little greyer. She threw her MX5 into gear and drove back home at a more sedate pace than she’d employed earlier. “Typical,” she muttered to Bramwell. “The only pussy getting any attention around here is you.”
She let Bramwell out of the carrier as soon as the door was shut behind them, watching as she slunk off to her bed. She was always sleepy after a vaccination, and usually spent the rest of the day passed out on Bernie’s duvet, her legs twitching like she was dreaming of mice. Bernie left the carrier where it was and went off to make herself a mug of tea and a ham sandwich, slumping down in front of an old episode of The Chase on cable TV. She wallowed in her bad mood for a while, shouting at the telly, complaining to no-one about how thick all the contestants were.
“Not as thick as you, though,” she murmured to herself. “Just letting her disappear like that.”
She sighed, remembering the easy back and forth, the way her heart had leapt at the sound of Serena’s voice, how her cheeks had flushed to see her smile. She hadn’t had such a strong reaction to a woman in...well, ever.
“No use dwelling on it,” she said to the empty flat, dragging herself to her feet. She washed up the plate and cup she’d used for lunch, then grabbed the cat carrier, ready to put it back in the loft. But when she looked at the carrier more closely, she frowned.
“What…?” she murmured, reaching inside, her fingers grasping onto a piece of torn off notepaper that had obviously been shoved through the grille. Frowning, she unfolded it and read the few lines that had been scrawled on the paper.
I don’t normally do things like this, the note read, but I was admiring more than your cat. Call me sometime? Serena xxx
There was a phone number under the signature, its digits clearer than any of the words, any ambiguous numbers drawn carefully. No chance of mistaking an 8 for a 3 or anything like that. Serena obviously wanted to make sure there was no room for error.
Bernie pulled out her phone, grinning so hard it almost hurt. For a second or two she thought about Cameron’s advice, when she’d mentioned she might like to try dating sometime. “Never call right away,” he’d said. “Wait a day, even two. Don’t look desperate; women hate that.” Her fingers hesitated briefly as she considered his words.
Then she shook her head, laughing slightly as she tapped in the number. Sod that. She was excited, and she liked Serena. She saw no reason to pretend otherwise.
The phone rang three times before Serena answered. “Hello?” she said, a little breathlessly, like she’d made a dash for the phone.
“Hi,” Bernie replied. “Uhm...it’s Bernie here, we met at the vet’s earlier?”
“I remember,” Serena said, her voice low and silky. “I’m so glad you called.”
Bernie’s heart tripped over itself and she smiled. “Me too…” she said, and relaxed.
“I was wondering what you were doing later,” Serena went on. She sounded very confident. Bernie wondered if any of that was an act - perhaps she’d ask her one day.
“Oh, I’ve got a big night planned,” Bernie said, leaning against the wall. “I’m going out with this gorgeous woman I met at the vet’s this morning.”
There was a tiny intake of breath on the other end of the line. “Just met this morning and going on a date tonight? My, you do move fast.”
Bernie smirked. “You think that’s forward? The first thing this woman did was admire my pussy.”
Serena’s laugh was everything Bernie could have hoped for - warm, throaty, rich, almost unbearably sexy. “Oh, I’m stealing that line if anyone ever asks how we met,” she said.
“Be my guest,” Bernie replied magnanimously. She wandered through to her bedroom, perching on the end of her bed, stroking Bramwell’s fluffy head absently as they began to plan their first date.