Serena scowled as she took a sip from her flask, almost wishing she had added a little something extra to the coffee. 4 hours of standing in the freezing cold was not her idea of a fun Saturday. However, it was the county championships and Fletch, the head of the PE department had said it would be good to have a senior member of staff there to cheer on the kids, especially as one of the Year 11 boys, Cameron Dunn, had a very good chance of winning a medal. Henrik had claimed that it would be the perfect opportunity for Serena, as newly appointed deputy head, to represent the school and get to know some of the parents, and staff at neighbouring schools. This is evidently Hanssen’s way of staying warm and dry, she muttered to herself.
It made no sense as to why cross country had to be done in the muddiest fields on the coldest, wettest weeks of the year. Most of the kids looked pretty miserable, the parents even more so. Only Fletch seemed to have an unending energy and enthusiasm, which was starting to grate a little.
The firing gun went off for the senior boys’ race and she cheered them on. Cameron was in the front pack of runners, a couple had raced ahead but he looked determined, pacing himself. From what she knew of running it was a good tactic, conserve the energy and speed up towards the end. Fletch had said Cameron was familiar with the other boys’ tactics and strengths and had been studying long distance racing and training a lot at home.
“Urgh, I’ll be glad when the season’s over and I can get my Saturday mornings to myself again,” a deep voice spoke next to her. “It’s Ms. Campbell, isn’t it? Didn’t realise you were involved in the PE department as well.”
She let out a short laugh. “I’m not, but as it’s the county finals I’m here for a bit of support, to cheer our pupils on. I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Ah, you’ve been lucky and never had my son in your class. Marcus Dunn, Cameron’s dad.”
He extended a gloved hand to shake and Serena took it briefly, before wrapping her hands once more around the flask.
“No, I’ve not taught him, but he is quite a star from what I’ve heard. On course for top GCSE results, and being a talented runner. You must be very proud.”
Marcus huffed. “I wish he’d picked football, at least that’s more exciting to watch from the side when it’s cold. What’s the point of a few laps round a muddy field?”
“I take it he didn’t get the running genes from you then,” she raised her eyebrow in amusement.
Her smile was returned with a grunt and a terse “No” but before she could say anything else Fletch started bellowing from the other side of her. The runners were coming in sight and Cameron was catching up to the leader.
“FINAL PUSH CAMERON, FINISH IT STRONG! COME ON!”
Serena cheered along and Marcus let out a brief “That’s it, son” as he took the lead but there was no more excitement from him. She wondered how Cameron had got into running in the first place with this apparent lack of enthusiasm.
“Oh, and one last thing. Now you’re back permanently you can take Cameron to the bloody cross country you got him into. I’m not spending another bloody Saturday standing in mud freezing my arse off. Think of it as a way to bond with him.”
Marcus spat out the last words, and it felt like they were acid burning into her skin. In a few months her entire life had come crashing around her. She’d been blown up, lost her job, her husband had discovered her affair and her children were barely talking to her.
“The first one is next week. Pick him up at nine.” He handed her the last box and she nodded, taking one last look at the house, her two kids standing in the doorway looking disinterested.
It made sense, they’d grown up with Marcus, the house was perfect for them, it was her fault they were splitting up. But it still stung, and judging by his face, Cameron wasn’t happy that Bernie would be accompanying him.
“Serena, could you do me a huge favour?” Fletch’s voice was thick and croaky and she sighed. “I’ve come down with the flu and I can’t make it to the cross country today. Raf is having to look after the kids…”
“What about Ric?”
“It’s the first rugby match of the season,”
“Hockey, look you’re my last hope, no one else can do it,”
She scowled at the clock, she had been looking forward to a quiet morning.
“Fine, but you owe me. Big time.”
Serena couldn’t see Marcus, but Cameron was lined up ready to go. Perhaps he was going to collect him later, had decided that he didn’t need his dad cheering him on. She made her way over to the finish line, it would be a while before they came through but it was the last race of the day and most of the other children from Holby Grammar had gone home already.
She tried to distract herself from the creeping numbness in her toes by planning activities for the next week. As she was doing so, she noticed a woman stood on the opposite side of the ‘track’, apart from the other groups. She met her eyes and smiled briefly but she dropped Serena’s gaze, blushing as she did. Serena wondered if she was a teacher from another school, or a parent. She watched her for a little longer, her head was still down, she was staring at her phone intensely and her messy blonde waves fell in front of her face.
A few minutes later she glanced up again, immediately looking to Serena as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. She had a slight flush on her cheeks, from the cold, and a scarf wrapped haphazardly around her neck, tucked into her thick coat. Her long legs were clad in skinny jeans which couldn’t be keeping her warm but did highlight her toned calves rather well.
She’s beautiful. The thought came unbidden, taking her by surprise. She had admired women before, in films and on TV. But never a real woman. Stood in front of her. She shrugged it off, blaming the cold and the interrupted sleep.
Before she put any more thought into it there were cheers from a group of parents and staff stood at the final corner. The leaders were approaching the sprint finish and she turned to see who was in front, but not before she saw the blonde standing on tiptoes expectantly and shouting encouragement.
Cameron won by a matter of milliseconds but it was a great start to the season for him. Serena made her way back to Holby Grammar’s base where all of their bags were, waiting for Cameron and the other boys to finish their cool down. They appeared a few minutes later, the other parents congratulating Cameron before taking their own kids to the cars. Cameron hung around, still stretching and finishing his drink.
“Well done, Cameron,” Serena passed him his hoody and he huffed out a ‘thanks miss’.
“Are you waiting for your Dad to pick you up? I didn’t see him this morning.”
He shook his head and his expression turned sour. He glanced over Serena’s shoulder and she followed his gaze to see the blonde woman from the finish line hovering behind her.
Serena smiled and found herself walking over, hand extended. “Hello, Mrs Dunn. I’m Ms Campbell, deputy head.”
“Oh, it’s- uh, Ms Wolfe, actually, well call, call me Bernie,” she ducked her head and looked up at Serena through her fringe.
“Did you pull the short straw of bringing Cameron this morning then?” Serena wasn’t sure why she was still chatting when she could be on her way back to a coffee and warm bowl of soup. Just being polite.
Bernie chuckled. “I don’t mind it, gets me out of the house. It makes me wish I could still do it.”
Her hand subconsciously moved to the small of her back, and Serena noticed she was standing with her weight more on one side. She wondered what she meant, but Bernie didn’t elaborate and Cameron sighed.
“We’d better be going, do you want to go into town for lunch, Cam?”
He hitched his rucksack onto his bag and started walking. “No, Dad said he’d make something when you take me back. Bye, Miss. Thanks for coming instead of Fletch, sorry, Mr Fletcher.”
He stalked off and Bernie gave her an apologetic smile. “Nice to meet you.”
Cam slammed the car door as he dumped his bags in the back. He sat in the front with his arms folded, staring straight ahead.
“Ms. Campbell seems nice,” Bernice started but only got a ‘hmph’ in return. “Does she normally come to races?”
This was met with a snort. “No, Fletch was ill today. So, you won’t be able to chat to her again.”
His tone was short, but there was a smirk in his voice and she glanced sideways at him.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, nothing. She’s just, you know, similar age, divorced...single.”
Bernie blushed and cleared her throat. “Yes, I guess we do have things in common.”
She couldn’t help the slight disappointment that she wouldn’t be seeing Ms. Campbell again. But she was glad that there was a thaw in the awkwardness between her and Cam. She changed the subject, testing the waters a little.
“I’ve got a physio appointment next week and she thinks I’ll be able to start running soon. If you liked we could do some training together?”
Well, it’s a start.
“If you think you can keep up.” He flashed her a grin and she swatted his arm gently.
Serena couldn’t be more pleased she’d decided to wear her hat that morning. Elinor always rolled her eyes at it, called it “the badger” or some other animal, but her ears were cosy. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of her. Half an hour on a bus where one of the windows was jammed open, and another fifteen minute walk had left her fingers blue and her lips numb from the cold.
The journey home topped a completely terrible day. Her Year 9 class had managed to dispose of toxic chemicals into the normal bin, setting it on fire, then she’d interviewed five candidates for the new maths teacher post, none of whom were really suitable and two of whom had chatted her up. Her Year 11s were not ready in any way for their mocks and then she’d finished marking late to find her car had been stolen from the car park. Hence the bus journey home.
She turned onto the park; her shoes would get muddy but it was the fastest way to heat and Shiraz so she was willing to sacrifice them. It was quiet, the lamps on the side of the paths bathing the park with a soft glow. She could see two runners approaching from a distance, shook her head in disbelief – she couldn’t understand why people didn’t just go to the gym if they were wanting to workout.
She found herself watching the profiles of the runners, a woman and a man it seemed. She couldn’t shake a sense of familiarity, although they were too far away to see details. The woman was slightly behind, taking long steady strides, her legs reaching a seemingly impossible distance with each step.
They were both speeding up, approaching Serena head on as she realised who they were. Cameron was going for a sprint finish, but his mother was catching him fast, overtaking him with a grin before coming to a halt over some imaginary finish line. Cameron was close behind, his face pulled into a sulk and breathing heavily.
“Beaten by a cripple, Cam, you’ll have to up your game,” Bernie chuckled as she began to stretch. It seemed neither had noticed Serena approaching.
“I was letting you win, you know. Going easy on you after…” he trailed off as he caught sight of Serena. “Oh, hi Ms Campbell.”
Bernie’s head snapped up and Serena faltered for a moment. She was stood under a lamp, the light glinting off her hair scraped back in a ponytail. A few strands had escaped, framing her face that was flushed, lips parted as she caught her breath. She coughed, realising she was staring, and turned to Cameron.
“Training is going well, I see?”
He nodded and gestured to Bernie.
“Easy one tonight, don’t want to tire myself out for Saturday. Mum seems to think she could keep up with me.”
“Just you wait until I’ve finished with the physio, you’ll be miles behind,” Bernie chuckled and Serena remembered the first time, she’d seemed injured. She didn’t want to pry but her eyes naturally moved to her legs, subconsciously wondering if there were any clues. If it was possible, they seemed longer than before, clad in skin tight lycra showing slim, sculpted calves.
“Yes well, I can see where you get it from, Cameron, you’ve certainly got the legs for running from your mother,” she felt the heat rise in her face and stammered. “I mean, you know, the enthusiasm for it and things.”
She didn’t notice the snort from Cameron, was too busy trying not to meet Bernie’s eyes. She fussed with her coat and glanced at her watch, more for something to do than actually wanting to know the time.
“Which way are you headed, Ms. Campbell?”
Serena snapped her head up at Bernie’s voice, her spine tingling and not just because of the cold.
“Please, call me Serena. I’m on Birch Close, not far,” she gestured vaguely in the direction of her house.
“That’s on the way to Marcus’s. It’s dark, I’ll – I mean, we’ll – walk you back?”
Serena pursed her lips to stop herself from laughing.
“You make it sound like you’d be protecting me.”
Bernie tipped her head, lips forming a crooked smirk.
“Well, I do know thirteen ways to kill a man with my bare hands.”
“And where on earth would you learn things like that?” One eyebrow raised she gestured towards the gates of the park, eager to get some circulation going. They fell in step, which surprised Serena considering the length of Bernie’s legs. Bernie coughed and dipped her head, staring at the ground.
“The army, I – uh, I was a Major. Medical Corps, until very recently.”
She presumed there was a story there, which probably explained the limp, but she didn’t pry. There was a mystery behind Bernie, but she was a pupil’s parent, as Serena seemed to have forgotten. Her pupil was stood on the other side of her. Somehow that didn’t matter to her, as the words slipped from her mouth before she could stop them.
“Oh, big macho army medic here to save a damsel in distress, are we?”
Yes it was flirty, but that’s just how she was. No harm in it, nothing meant by it. She bit her lip, it was her nature, but she always knew when it was appropriate. She was treading that line, almost toppling onto the wrong side.
“I’m sure you don’t need it, just give someone a look with that eyebrow and they’d drop dead,” Bernie chuckled.
“You’d think, but I’ve used it on my Year 9s often enough and they’re all still here,” she was going to continue but was cut off by what could only be described as a honk. Bernie had thrown her head back, laughing loud while Cameron covered his face, clearly embarrassed.
Serena couldn’t help it and started joining in, her tiredness and emotions from the day released in the mirth.
“Maybe I should come in to the school in my uniform, that might bring them into line.”
Serena barely registered the groan of “Mum” from Cameron, as her train of thoughts came screeching to a halt. What was it Edward had said? Who would have thought you’d have a thing for men in uniform? Well, maybe not men. She cleared her throat.
“That’s something I would very much like to see,” her mouth dropped open in realisation. “The year 9s being in line, of course.”
She let out a nervous chuckle, glad it was dark and her rising blush would go unnoticed. She glanced up with a sigh of relief, not daring to meet Bernie’s eyes. Or Cameron’s for that matter.
“Well, this is me,” she paused at the end of her road. “Keep up the good work with the training and everything.”
“Maybe see you around on the park again?”
She laughed, “Oh, that is a rare occurrence for me. I like to spend as much time as possible indoors in this weather.”
There was a small drop in Bernie’s expression, almost disappointment, and she found herself backpedalling.
“Although, I don’t trust my insurance company to send a courtesy car anytime soon, so looks like it’ll be the bus for the foreseeable future,” she bit her lip, aware she was about to start rambling. “Anyway, I won’t keep you out in the cold longer. Goodbye Cameron, Bernie.”
She nodded to each of them and strode purposefully away, acutely aware of the small knot of excitement brewing in her chest, bubbling into a wide grin by the time she reached her door. She let it stay for a moment, before shaking her head. She might have a crush, but that was all. Bernie was a parent. One of the most attractive parents she’d met in her time as a teacher, but a parent none the less.
Bernie was doing her best to take it easy with running, but now she’d been allowed to start for the first time in months, she’d rediscovered that glorious feeling at the end of a run. She itched to be going further, faster, but she couldn’t go too far without waking up with her back and hip stiff and unmoving the next day. The doctor in her knew moderation was key to maintaining her mobility and reducing the pain, but it was frustrating.
What was more frustrating, not that she would admit it, was that despite frequently running past the end of Birch Close and onto the park, she hadn’t seen a certain Ms Campbell. It wasn’t deliberate, of course. The park was handy for her, let her have a nice easy mile warm-up, and was safer than running along roads and uneven pavements which threatened to trip her up and set her recovery back no end.
She was at the far side of the park, half way through her run and about to head back when the heavens opened. It was typical, no way of cutting the run short, no shelter to hide under until it stopped. The clouds had come out of nowhere and within two minutes she was soaked to the skin. She pushed on, wanting to get back home as quickly as possible. It seemed the park gate was further away than usual, a tiny speck that never got closer no matter how much she ran.
Eventually she came onto the road and had barely got 10 steps before she heard a short blast of a car horn. She rolled her eyes, fully expecting a man in a white van to be leering out of a window, but the car slowly came to a halt and she heard her name being called.
“Bernie! What on earth are you doing out in this?”
It was Serena, the woman she had been trying very hard not to think about for the past few weeks. She stopped, stooped to the open window. What was another couple of minutes in the rain when she was already drenched?
“It looked fine when I left,” she started but Serena cut her off.
“Get in! You’ll catch your death, or did they not teach you about wearing wet clothes in the cold when you were at medical school?”
She stared for a moment, not quite sure how to respond.
“But your car...”
“Will dry, come on,” she patted the passenger seat and Bernie acquiesced.
“I honestly do not see the appeal of running, especially in weather like this,” Serena mused as she pulled away from the kerb. Bernie shrugged and pointed out the road to turn down.
“It’s a bit of a rush, you know? The feeling when your legs are burning but you’ve just finished a run and there’s a sense of accomplishment. I do prefer warmer weather, but after being stuck alone in the flat for two months, I want to be out as much as possible.”
She flicked the fringe out of her eyes to prevent water running into them and noticed Serena looking at her from the corner of her eye, a question on her lips. She knew what was coming, and usually she guarded herself, not wanting the pity. Somehow she was eager to share with Serena, trusted her to understand. She could see why the students liked her, she had an air of being a good listener.
“You don’t strike me as the sort of person who would enjoy being cooped up for that long,” Serena mused. She was probing, but also giving Bernie a chance to keep things private.
“No, I don’t, but after heart surgery, a neck fracture and a pelvic fracture, I thought it would probably be a good idea to listen to medical advice and take it easy for a while.”
She chuckled drily as Serena looked at her, mouth agape.
“How did that, I mean, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“IED, our jeep rolled. My, uh, friend pulled me out. She got a couple of cuts and bruises, lucky sod, I got a medical retirement.”
She indicated to her apartment building and felt a shiver pass through her, reminding her that she was cold and drenched. Serena’s company had warmed her, and she knew no amount of coffee in her flat would replace that feeling. Serena parked up, pulling the handbrake slowly and Bernie could only hope that it was to prolong their time together. She took a deep breath, suddenly nervous.
“Would you like to come in for a coffee? As a thank you for, uh, saving a damsel in distress,” she chuckled and it was probably her imagination but Serena’s eyes lit up at the suggestion.
“Only if you’re sure, that would be lovely.”
Once inside Bernie put the kettle on, excusing herself to get dried and changed into something more comfortable. Serena hovered in the living room, not wanting to make herself too comfortable. The flat was fairly impersonal, basic furniture with a bright blanket drawing the eye, and dotted here and there were photos in frames. Bernie with her children, one Serena presumed with her parents.
She paused at the third, Bernie’s face beaming out at her, surrounded by her regiment, with her arm thrown around the shoulders of the brunette next to her. She had a freeness about her in the photo, relaxed, eyes sparkling. She couldn’t begin to imagine the life of an army medic, the stress and lack of equipment, operating on friends, but also the satisfaction and adventure. Her heart filled with sympathy for Bernie, it couldn’t be easy being torn from that so abruptly and having to recover from injury at the same time.
She felt a presence at her shoulder, Bernie stood with two steaming mugs, her hair damp from the shower. She smiled sadly at the photo as she handed Serena a coffee. Their fingers brushed, and Serena found herself lingering, trying in some way to comfort her.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy,” she looked down, staring into the liquid.
“It’s fine, just made me think of things I’ve left behind.”
There was the vagueness again, as if she was about to open up but then thought better of it. Serena nodded, following Bernie’s vague gesture to take a seat on the sofa.
“Thank you for this,” she nodded towards the mug and Bernie shrugged.
“It’s nothing, nice to have company in the flat. The kids would rather I take them out places, mainly for food. I can hardly think why.”
Serena hummed in sympathy, even with Elinor living in the house, they didn’t spend much time together.
“Still holding a grudge about the divorce?” she probed, not sure how long they might have been split up, although she suspected it was recent, considering the lack of personality in the flat.
“Ha, and the rest. I suppose it will take them a bit of getting used to, but Marcus rather turned them against me to get custody. Not that I really stood a chance anyway – the divorce was my doing, I’ve barely been in the country and I’ve a tiny flat and no job.”
Serena’s heart sank a little for the woman in front of her, but she knew pity was the last thing Bernie wanted or needed.
“Don’t sell yourself short, I’m sure now you’re back on your feet you’ll find a job. It’s probably not going to be the same as the army, but the kids will come round. They always do, my Ellie managed to forgive her father very quickly after he moved out.”
Bernie’s eyes flicked up to meet hers, and it felt as if they both shifted towards each other on the sofa.
“You finished it?”
Serena took a gulp of her coffee, considering her next words. She didn’t want to sound too bitter after all.
“Well he was the one having the affairs so I felt quite within my rights,” she bit her lip, as Bernie let out a humourless laugh. “How about you, did you come back from tour early and catch him in bed with someone else?”
Her eyes flicked down to her mug, her voice barely audible. “No, no, nothing like that.” She took a deep breath and Serena could feel some sort of revelation coming.
“I ended it because I realised I wasn’t happy, had never been, really. Irreconcilable differences is what we said, which was fine until he….” She trailed off. “He found out about my affair.”
She glanced across the room at the photo on the mantlepiece. Her unit. There were tears in her eyes as Serena followed her gaze, putting two and two together. The brunette woman that Bernie was next to, close, practically hugging. Her arm around Bernie’s waist.
“Ah,” was all she could say. She couldn’t fully understand, not really, but she tried her best not to let judgement flood her thoughts. Bernie didn’t strike her as some rampant philanderer like Edward, and she had tried to end things with the minimal amount of hurt.
Bernie glanced at Serena, almost apologetic.
“Alex and I… we kept it absolutely secret. We were in this amazingly happy bubble, and then the IED hit, and I was blown back to reality. I tried to make it work with Marcus, honour that commitment I made to my family but all I could do was think of her. I was still in denial, living a life that I knew deep down was a lie.”
They had got closer on the sofa, legs brushing, and Serena reached out, hand gently placed on her knee.
“Sorry, sorry,” she sniffed, blinking back tears and shaking her head as if to rid herself of thoughts and memories. She stared at her lap and Serena couldn’t help but lean in, try and get her to meet her eyes.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,”
“Ha,” Bernie let out a huff. “I’m not ashamed of who I am, but of the hurt I’ve caused. Marcus, the kids, Alex. I’ve destroyed so much, when all I wanted to do was keep people happy. Sorry, I don’t really know why I’m telling you all this.”
The fact that they were essentially two strangers only now dawned on Serena. She felt as though she’d known Bernie all her life, a strange kinship. From what she could see, Bernie needed a friendly face and a listening ear, which Serena was happy to provide.
“Don’t apologise. It’s good to let it out. You know, your kids are doing fine. Families are messy, life is messy. They’ll understand, as long as they can see you love them, and you’re happy. You don’t have to be Maria Von Trapp to be a good mother you know.”
The corner of her mouth twitched into a smile, then she sighed.
“I know, I know. But being there is a fairly big part of it.”
Serena reached over and clasped her hands in her own.
“There’s no right way, and you’re here now. They are teenagers, they all rebel and say they don’t want to talk to you and that you’re the worst mother in the world. Trust me, I do know a thing or two about them. It is sort of my day job,” she smiled as Bernie’s eyes met hers. She was acutely aware of how close they were, practically able to count her eyelashes. She watched as Bernie’s expression changed, from worry to almost determined. Serena’s heart rate jumped as Bernie tangled their fingers together and leant in, eyes flicking to her lips.
Despite the speed, Serena felt time slow. Thoughts flashed through her mind: Bernie was a woman, Bernie was a parent, she’d never done this before, Bernie was gorgeous, and exciting, and she wanted this. She didn’t pull back, instead closed the gap and felt the air leave her as their lips met. It was hesitant, delicate and so soft and she lost herself, needing more of the messiness, the clash of teeth, the sweet taste on Bernie’s tongue.
She didn’t know how much time passed, only that Bernie was parting far too soon.
“Sorry, I, uh,” she could see Bernie searching for a sign that she’d done wrong, overstepped the mark. Her stomach was in knots but she hoped her expression was softer. She cleared her throat, preparing to reassure her, but she was stopped by the buzz of her phone, no doubt Elinor requiring her taxi services.
“I’d better…,” she gestured towards her bag.
“Yes, yes, of course, sorry, I’ve kept you too long,” Bernie looked deflated, worrying her bottom lip. Serena took the plunge, before she quite knew what she was saying.
“Maybe we could, go for a drink sometime. So, we don’t get interrupted?”
Bernie smiled softly. “Yes, I’d like that.”
Once again, Serena was clutching a flask, stopping the numbness creeping into her fingertips as she waited for the senior boys to come into view on the final stretch. The county championships had come round again and Cameron was looking to hold onto last year’s win. Fletch was still disgustingly enthusiastic considering the weather, and Henrik was still absent. Oh, but you did such a good job last year of representing the school. Headmaster’s privilege, she supposed.
She heard cheers from spectators further down the course, and they turned expectantly to see who was ahead. Cameron flew past in a sprint finish and this year his family support was raucous. Serena was practically deafened by Bernie’s cheering, she couldn’t help but smile at the look of sheer pride on her face.
Serena remained mystified by people who enjoyed running in the cold and rain, but being a spectator was far more enjoyable when she thought about warming up, cuddled against Bernie later.