I know I seem shaky, these hands not fit for holding
But if you let me, I will see you around
Hiding - Florence and the Machine
“Hi Auntie Bernie. Is it okay if I still call you that? I know you’re not technically my Auntie and you weren’t married to Auntie Serena but I still called you that, but now you’re not together anymore I don’t know if I should.”
Bernie can hear the worry in Jason’s voice and she’s sure that it isn’t all to do with how he should address her.
“Hi Jason, it’s fine. No matter what happened between Serena and me, I’m still here for you so if you’d like to call me Auntie Bernie then I’m happy. What’s wrong?”
She hadn’t spoken to him much since the wedding other than for him to send her photos of Guin’s first Christmas. He was still taking hundreds, documenting every moment of his daughter’s life and she could almost feel his pride bursting out through the screen. She knew he preferred to message sometimes to allow him to think about his responses, so a call was unexpected.
“Greta’s had an accident. She’s in hospital but she will be fine. Auntie Serena operated on her and she is upset now. I have to look after Guinevere and I don’t always know how to make Auntie Serena feel better so I don’t think I should go round. I didn’t know who else to call, even though I know you’re in Africa, but the time difference is only two hours so I thought you would still be awake.”
He states it matter of factly but Bernie can tell he is worried, both about Serena and about whether he has done the wrong thing. She takes a breath, pushes down the pain and regret that rears its head. Jason shouldn’t need to call her, she should already be there comforting Serena.
“I’m glad you called me, Jason. Are you and Guinevere ok?”
“I’m at the hospital with Greta and Guinevere. I didn’t want to leave her, but I don’t think it’s a very nice place for a baby, she won’t go to sleep.”
“Okay. I’m actually still in Holby, I couldn’t get my job back in Nairobi, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I promise I will call Serena as soon as I’ve finished talking to you. Would you like me to come and pick up Guinevere and take her to Serena’s? Or I could look after her at your house if you like?”
“She would settle better at Auntie Serena’s, but she might not want to look after her right now.”
“I’ll come to the hospital anyway and we can decide then.”
“Okay, Auntie Bernie, see you soon.”
She inhales, preparing herself for the next task. She hasn’t spoken to Serena for weeks. The only people that know she is still in the country are Charlotte and Cameron, and now Jason. She dials, letting it ring as she gathers car keys, shoes, coat. No reply, but she isn’t surprised. She leaves a message, not wanting to delay things much longer.
At the hospital she avoids staff she knows. Luckily it’s the start of the night shift, a skeleton team and no one takes much notice of her, busy with their jobs. She collects Guinevere, agreeing to go straight to Serena’s, then to Jason’s if there is no response from Serena. Not that Bernie will be ignored.
She’s thought about seeing Serena again many times since the wedding. What she would say to her, whether they might accidentally cross paths due to work, if she could ever find the courage to knock on her door and look her in the eyes to tell her she made a mistake. She’d spent restless nights seeing flashes of deep brown eyes, a dimpled chin, short grey hair and Bernie’s name on her lips. Not that she would ever admit it to anyone. Charlotte had interrogated her before she let on that she might be missing Serena. She smiles fondly at the memory of their conversation.
“Mum, if you sigh that loudly one more time I’m going to put a bag over your head so I can’t hear it. I’m trying to read as you clearly aren’t in the mood for conversation.”
“Charming,” Bernie mumbled, gazing at her now stone-cold cup of coffee.
“Oh she speaks! What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she sighed and this time she could feel the glare from her daughter across the table. “Sorry, sorry. I’m fine, honestly.”
“No offence, but you clearly aren’t. The last time I was back from uni I felt like I had been found by the Spanish inquisition you asked that many questions.”
Charlotte always did like to exaggerate, she chuckled and looked her in the eyes.
“It’s Serena isn’t it?”
She thought she’d been doing a good job of hiding her feelings, but Charlotte wasn’t fooled. She nodded.
“Why don’t you let her know you’re still around?”
“I can’t. She’ll feel guilty that I gave up that job for her and then couldn’t get it back.”
“You and I both know you could get a job anywhere in the world if you really wanted to. But you’re still here. And don’t say it’s because of me and Cam.” She raised an eyebrow at Bernie, so similar to the disapproving looks that were Serena’s trademark. Her stomach clenched a little.
“Going back to Nairobi, or somewhere else, would just be… a distraction. Keeping busy. I’ve done travelling, it was a dream job but I don’t think it’s my dream anymore.”
“So tell her.”
“It’s not that simple, Charlie.”
“Yes it is. You both love each other. Sure it might take a while but it will take an eternity if you don’t even talk to her. I’ll drive you there myself and throw you out if I have to.”
She could feel the tears pricking behind her eyes. She stood, collecting the mugs and turned.
“I’ll think about it.”
And now here she is at Serena’s door, the car coming to a stop without any threat of being pushed. Although the familiar sight of gravel and a bright blue door make her wish her daughter was there for encouragement. She peers in the dim light and can see the door is ajar. Her natural protective instincts overcome her apprehension and she gathers Guinevere from her carrier.
She knocks out of courtesy but she can hear the shower running from where she stands. Guinevere shuffles slightly in her sleep, the drive had settled her down. She assumes the cot will be in the spare room and she plants a soft kiss to the baby’s forehead before ensuring the monitor is turned on.
There’s no delaying the inevitable now, and she knocks on Serena’s bedroom door. The shower is still going so she lets herself in. Memories flood her, she never thought she would see this room again and even in her wildest dreams the circumstances were very different from this. The last two surprise visits hadn’t been as successful as she might hope but this was not a romantic gesture, papering over cracks in a relationship stretched too far.
Bernie had thought for a long time that her words could never show love well enough. She got tongue-tied and said things she didn’t mean. She stuttered and stumbled and tried to be romantic like in the movies. Grand demonstrations which she thought meant well but could see now they weren’t how love should really be expressed.
The shower stops and she takes a deep breath.
“Serena?” She knocks on the ensuite door, the sound is reflected in her heart hammering in her chest. “Don't be alarmed — it’s just me. Your front door was open.”
“Bernie?” Serena’s voice sounds strained.
“You okay in there?”
“Be out in a second,”
She waits, her breath lost in anticipation. She feels odd hovering by the door, knowing that Serena is just on the other side. The room, which she had thought may become their room, suddenly seems to shrink and she feels like an intruder. She moves to the window as if it would relieve the claustrophobia.
The lock opens and she averts her gaze, but not before she sees clearly the rings under Serena’s eyes. Tiredness, redness from crying and some streaks of mascara that haven’t quite been rubbed off. Her heart clenches, a voice at the back of her mind taunting her. If she’d fought harder, she could have been there to wipe her tears and hold her close until she fell asleep.
It overwhelms her and the walls close in. All the memories press down on her and seeing Serena without being able to get close to her is too much.
“I - uh, should let you change - I'm sorry.” She stammers. She wants to stay but knows she should leave. She’s invaded her privacy too long.
Serena clears her throat, “I thought you left the country?”
She hopes it’s an unspoken invitation to remain in Serena’s presence a little longer. It was like a drug, the rush of being near her would only make the withdrawal worse when she eventually has to leave for good. She’ll deal with those consequences later.
“Locuming for the time being. I tried to ring this time. It wasn’t my intention to ambush you in your own home or the ward I -” Bernie stops, a stab of guilt that this was the third time her presence had caused an inconvenience.
“My battery died,” Serena interrupts “I haven't had a moment to check.”
“Right, of course.” She knows Serena is lying and she doesn’t blame her. She’s not sure she would have been able to pick up if it had been the other way around.
“Have you forgotten to pack something? I think you missed a few of your—”
“No - I promised Jason I'd pop in to check, you had him worried,” She tells a half truth. That was the prompt to get her here, the excuse that she had been waiting for all these weeks.
“I'm fine,” Serena dismisses her too quickly to be believable. “He needn't worry.”
“Bollocks.” Bernie isn’t the only one that doesn’t communicate when she needs to and she’s not letting Serena get past her so easily.
“You haven't slept in two days, and you just performed a complicated surgery on a family member. Are you sure you're alright?”
“Why wouldn't I be?”
“Well, you're doing a damn good job of telling me you are, but you're not fooling me.” She stands tall and stares at her defiantly
“Bernie, as lovely as this is — I’m fine, nothing a proper night sleep won't sort out. It's Jason that needs whatever it is you’re offering.”
“Why is it so hard for you to ask for help?” She winces at the directness but it works.
“It isn’t that simple!” She bursts in protest, a slight wobble in her chin. Bernie lets her face soften, glad she’s got through.
Serena is on the brink, either of spilling everything or pushing Bernie even further away. She’s about to say something but as always her actions take over and she steps towards Serena, as if daring her to push back. She meets no resistance and now all she can do is be close to her, support her. This is the closest she has been to anyone in the months since the wedding, not usually one for invading personal space, but in this moment it felt like no time had passed at all. She hovers over Serena’s shoulders but she isn’t sure if she should hold her. Although she knows people comfort friends with physical touch, it’s never something she has done. And it might just overwhelm her. She settles her hands on the bed either side of Serena, trying to be strong and hide the fine tremor she can feel starting.
It’s as if every muscle in Serena’s body loses tension as she collapses into sobs. Her voice sticks at the back of her throat, nothing she can say is going to make the situation any better. It seems like Serena needs the release. Eventually, Bernie doesn’t know how much time has passed, Serena stills and looks at her for the first time. Her eyes still filled with tears but still piercing straight to Bernie’s core as they always had done.
She holds out her hands, letting Serena know she is there but allowing her to make the choice. The warmth of Serena’s hands slipping into her own almost makes her cry especially when Serena clings on for dear life. She can see Serena scrutinising her, eyes flicking to her hair, back to her eyes. She knows the circles she sees below Serena’s are reflected under her own.
“I don't want to be a burden. Least of all yours, not after — not after everything that's happened.” She can hear the apology in her voice, not sure if Serena is referring to everything that happened after Elinor’s death, or more recently.
“You’re not a chore, Serena…” She reassures her quickly, because through everything that happened it was true. “You matter to me. Whatever it is we are, you're still my friend.”
The word sounds alien from her lips. She hopes they are, or at least could be, friends. God knows she needs them. But going back to friends and leaving so much unsaid between them seems wrong, especially now the logistics of their relationship have become simpler. Serena pulls her out of her reverie, stops her getting ahead of herself, with a simple question.
“Have we - have we been good friends?”
It’s a punch in the gut. They were, when things were simple. But the foundation of a relationship is friendship and communication and they had lost both of those somewhere along the way, when it became about surprise and snatched days together. “No, I suppose we haven't been.”
Could they get back to that? Rebuild the foundations which had crumbled to dust in the months apart. She feels Serena grip her a little more tightly and somehow she knows that they both want one thing. To be in each other’s lives, whatever that means for the two of them at the moment. Before she spirals any further, Serena speaks.
“I don't know what we are. But I can’t hope that you’ll be here tomorrow or the next day. I can’t ask you to stop doing what you love best or pluck you out of the sky. And I can’t keep asking you to wait for me forever, because I might never be ready to leave.”
There’s a glimmer of hope. Serena does want her, wants to be more than friends maybe, but in her mind Nairobi is still the stumbling block in their relationship. She wants to say that it doesn’t matter, she doesn’t have to wait, but something stops her. She takes a breath and looks at Serena, knowing that there are tears pricking in her eyes.
“You let me go, Serena. Not the other way around. But I’ll go if that’s what you really want.”
She bows her head, unable to stop the tears. She’s expecting the words from Serena, that it would be for the best, and prepares herself to leave but those words never come. It’s a silent affirmation to stay and she takes it. She takes Serena’s hands once more and presses a kiss to her knuckles. She sighs, inhaling the scent of her skin. She never understood the term touch-starved until she could no longer have that contact with Serena, and now there is an overwhelming urge to be close to her once more, refamiliarise herself with her softness, her warmth. Suddenly Serena is there in her arms, sobbing once more. She doesn’t know who closed the gap but she doesn’t care.
“I - I’ve missed you so much - and…”
“I know, love. I know.” Now is not the time for thinking about how they got to this moment. She bites a retort back and instead holds her tighter. She doesn’t know what will happen from here, but she makes the most of this moment. “I’ve got you.”
And she does. Even though she knows she isn’t strong enough she will do everything she can to keep her hands from shaking and hold on to Serena.
“I never wanted you to go.”
She understands. If it had been the other way round, Bernie probably would have done the same. She did do the same, thinking she was in the way of Serena’s family life and trying to remove herself from it. And Serena had been the one to bridge the gap then. For eternity. When the shoe had been on the other foot, Bernie hadn’t fought for her. She pulls back.
“You are the most selfless, and downright maddening woman I've ever known, Serena Campbell.”
Serena laughs and takes a deep breath. Bernie doesn’t know what she expected but it wasn’t the next words out of Serena’s mouth.
“I love you.”
Hearing those words clears some of the tension from Bernie’s shoulders. She didn’t want to be the first to say it, to make Serena feel guilty or think that Bernie had been pining. A barrier that neither realised had been there still lifts, and Serena tentatively tucks Bernie’s hair behind her ear, as she had done on so many occasions in the past. As Serena places her lips hesitantly on her forehead Bernie closes her eyes, preparing her next words.
“I love you too, Serena. And I want us to be good for each other.”
She knows they can spend the rest of their lives trying to ask for forgiveness, repenting for the heartache they have caused each other, but in the end they need to move forwards and find their place in each others lives. And she wants to try.