“Bernie, come on. We have to go - now!”
She shook her head minutely, barely more than the shiver of a horse shaking off an irritating fly.
“I’m nearly done here - I just need to close -”
“Bern, I mean it. We have to go - they’re at the gates already. If we don’t leave now, we won’t be able to get out at all.”
She swung around impatiently, her hand never leaving the man on the table.
“Fine - you go. But I’m staying with my patient. I’ve brought him this far - I’m not abandoning him now.” She turned back to the table, and putting the bone saw down, she selected what she needed from a suturing kit and got to work.
“Bernie, please! What would Serena want you to do?”
She stopped then, and turned to face her anaesthetist. It was a low blow and Alex knew it, but she was desperate. Bernie spoke quietly.
“Serena would want me to leave and be safe, but she would know that I have to stay. Go on - I mean it - you go, get the team out safely. If I -”
She broke off as a deep rumble started somewhere in the building, more a vibration than a sound.
“Tell Serena I loved her right to the end - tell her - tell her she was the love of my life. I’m sorry, Alex - for everything.”
She looked unflinchingly at her friend, her sometime lover, and her gaze was kind, but brutally honest, and Alex saw in that instant that Bernie Wolfe’s last thoughts on this earth would be not of her, the woman who had shared this last adventure with her, but of Serena Campbell, the fool who had let Bernie go - and nothing she could say or do would change what would happen now. Her heart breaking, she dragged a smile onto her face, and saluted her commanding officer one last time.
“In arduis fidelis, hey, Bern? You’re the truest of us all, and I’ll never forget you.” She turned to the little gaggle of clinical personnel who hung together, their fear paralysing them, and forced her training to override her emotions.
“Alright people - with me! Keep together, and do exactly as I say.” Without another glance back into the little operating theatre, she set off at a jog trot that the slowest of them could maintain, and she led the civilian surgical team out into the compound, where transport awaited them.
Major Wolfe of the RAMC turned back to the table, where her patient was starting to come round.
“It’s alright, Salim, we’re just going to be a little longer here. The operation’s gone well, but I need to give you one more little dose of gas. OK?” She turned the wheel on the tank that Alex had rigged up, and to her relief, saw him go back under without ever really coming back into full consciousness. At least he wouldn’t know what had hit him. She braced herself as the rumbling grew louder, and as she heard a high pitched whine, and the whumph that inevitably followed it, she covered his broken body with her own, and brought Serena’s smiling face to her mind’s eye.
“For eternity,” she thought fiercely as the ceiling fell, and the floor gave way beneath her feet.
She was sitting in a waiting room. It was bright and airy, with fresh flowers in a vase on the table, and a carafe of iced water stood next to several glasses. She poured some out and drank deeply - she couldn’t remember when she’d ever been so thirsty before. She wasn’t quite sure where she was or how she had got there, but it didn’t seem important. Presumably someone would come and call her eventually. She took another drink and lay back in the comfortable chair, and before long, her eyes closed.
“Bernie? Ms Wolfe? Bernie - come on through. We’re ready for you now.”
She knew the voice but couldn’t place it. She dragged a hand down her face to wipe the sleep away, and stood up. She felt lighter than she had done for a long time, and her back ache was gone. She put her hand to her throat - a habit she had almost deliberately cultivated in imitation of Serena - but her hand stopped its movement as it felt for, and missed, the raised ridge of skin at her breast, which was now as smooth as it had ever been.
“Bernie? It’s alright - trust me. It’s weird, but it’s okay.”
She looked up. Of course - that was whose voice she had heard - but no wonder it had taken her a moment: after all, it had been, what? - four years now? Five?
“Arthur? What’s going on? Am I dreaming?”
His smile was as kindly as ever, and he took her arm to lead her through the double doors.
“Not dreaming, no. It can feel a bit like it, though. Come on, we’re all waiting in here for you.”
The light was dimmer in the board room, and she was feeling disoriented after her sleep, and so it took a while for what she saw to make sense. Seated round the table, but rising to their feet to welcome her, were people she had never thought to see again: Raf Di Lucca, his cheesiest grin a welcome sight despite her confusion; Roxanna MacMillan smiling warmly at her, and bounding up and down like an overexcited puppy was -
“Oh, Ms Wolfe, Ms Wolfe - is it really you? I can’t believe it!”
And Bernie found her arms full of the warm, solid mass of Jasmine Burrows, who had flung herself at her without warning, and was hugging her tightly. Bernie retuned the embrace briefly, but disentangled herself as soon as Jasmine relaxed a little, and held the young woman at arm’s length.
“Jasmine? I don’t understand. You’re - well, you died. I couldn’t save you - you died on my table. How can you be here?” She looked round the little group uncomprehendingly. “How can any of you be here? I am dreaming, aren't I?”
Roxanna came forward now and led Bernie to a seat. “Don’t rush yourself, Bernie - take your time. You'll get there.”
Bernie ran a hand through her hair. “What do you mean, I’ll get there? Get where? I’m in a room full of dead people - no offence - so where could I possibly be other than in a dream? Unless - oh!” She stopped short and looked round at them all: Roxanna, Raf, Arthur and Jasmine, and came to a sudden understanding.
It all came back to her after a while. The escalating tensions in Mogadishu in recent weeks; the rumours of insurgents operating in their district, and then she remembered only too clearly that last argument with Alex, about leaving. Alex had been right, of course: she should have left with the others, but she knew that she would always have felt that she’d let the ship go down without its captain. But she hated the mess that she must have left behind her.
“Do they know yet?” They were in a well appointed staff room now, and she was sipping a cup of the finest coffee she had ever tasted. “Cameron and Charlotte - have they been told? And Serena? Will someone let her know soon - today?”
“See for yourself - there's a knack to it, but it’s not difficult. Tell me about the last time you saw Cameron,” Raf said. By the time Bernie had even remembered when it had been, the vey fact of thinking of a specific moment had brought her right into the office where a military police officer was talking to Cameron. She longed to reach out to him, but that clearly wasn’t how things worked, and she watched helplessly as the news sank in. Her heart caught in her chest as she glanced through the window to see Serena coming along the corridor, but she was just as powerless to soften the blow for her, and her heart broke as she saw two of the people she had loved best in the world learn of her fate.
She longed to tell them what had happened, that she had not suffered, that they need not endure this not-knowing, but she knew instinctively that she could not break through the veil like this. She knew from talking to the others that they were in a waiting room between lives. Each of them would wait until they were joined by those whose presence would let them move on, and she wept at the knowledge of the long years ahead without her children, without Serena.
It was Arthur who told her about the dreams, and what she might be able to do.
“It works for me and Morven,” he said quietly, “but it doesn’t work for everyone. Raf can’t do it - he goes looking for Essie’s dreams but ends up in Fletch’s. But I think you and Serena… well, I’d be surprised if you can’t find her. You know how you can see them but not talk to them? When they’re asleep, you can visit them and wait to be sort of invited into a dream. You just need to wait and listen - you’ll know it when you feel it.”
It took her several nights to get it right. The very first night, she sat and waited for Serena to sleep, but sleep did not come, and she simply sat vigil at her bedside, following her to the kitchen in the small hours, relieved when Serena made a cup of chamomile tea rather than reaching for a bottle of wine. Serena dozed fitfully in the on call room the next day, but Bernie couldn’t seem to find a way in, and it wasn’t until after Serena had seen Alex that Bernie finally felt the curious tug that signalled a breach in Serena’s dreams. She gazed sadly at Serena’s tearstained face for a moment, then closed her eyes and stepped into the dream space.
She sat on the edge of the desk, and Serena did not seem surprised to see her. It wasn’t a long visit, but she managed to make Serena laugh, and she held her while she cried, and they rested together on the sofa that Serena rightly said would have decimated their productivity. It was there that Bernie soothed her into deeper, dreamless sleep, before tiptoeing out of the dream.
It was several dreams later that Bernie discovered that Alex had put her own spin on the message she had left for Serena, but before she had decided how best to resolve things without making it worse, Alex had come clean, and that night Bernie came to Serena with open arms and words of love, and there was healing for both of them.
There came a spell when she couldn’t find her way into Serena’s dreams, and she was glad at first, hopeful that Serena’s sleep was deep and peaceful, but when the boardroom door creaked open and Serena's tousled head peered round it, she realised her mistake. Serena’s sleep had not been peaceful: it had been drugged, deadened, and Bernie had to think quickly, work quickly to keep her safe. She was thankful beyond measure that Raf had somehow convinced Jason to act upon a dream - a miracle in itself - and it wasn’t until afterwards, when Serena was out of danger, that she asked herself why she had fought to keep her alive, rather than bringing her home.
“It wasn't her time,” Raf told her. “We both know that. There’s still some joy in the world to be had for her, even if she doesn’t know it right now. And sometimes it’s… different, if you come here by your own choosing.”
He didn’t go into detail, but from time to time she saw him talking kindly to a tall young man with a tortured expression, and she wasn’t surprised when Arthur explained that it was Fredrik, Henrik Hanssen’s son. She wondered where Fredrik went when he wasn’t with Raf, but she knew not to ask - and she knew without a doubt that she had been right to send Jason to Serena.
There were times when she visited Serena every night, and several times during the day, but as time went by, she found that there were nights, then whole weeks that she stood and waited at Serena’s bedside without feeling the tug of the dream world.
There were some days that she knew she would always spend in Serena’s dreams: on birthdays, anniversaries (both good and very, very bad), and she was always there when she was needed.
The years passed, and while there was never a year without a visit, now there might be whole months, and Bernie wondered sadly if Serena would one day forget her altogether.
Bernie began to spend time outside her Holby found family, and visited other parts of this strange afterlife: she saw colleagues who had been promoted to glory; friends who had survived active service only to succumb to illness or accident, and she made her peace with her parents as they eventually joined her, but before long they moved on, and she knew she would not see them again here in this Betweenworld.
All the parts of her life seemed resolved, completed, and she watched as other colleagues came and went. She was saddened and joyful in equal measure when Ric showed up, and was escorted on almost immediately by his long lost son. She had known for some time that Roxanna had been visiting Henrik in his dreams, and when their old CEO found himself back at the head of the conference table, she watched with deep gladness as Raf brought Fredrik to meet him. Together with Roxanna, the two men took a grave farewell and walked out of the board room through the door that was only there Sometimes.
It was in Serena’s eighty-seventh year that Bernie began to feel the tug again, at first somewhat sporadically - a night here, an afternoon there - but within a few weeks, it had become her nightly habit to sit next to Serena’s bed and step lightly into her dreams. Together they remembered the times they shared back in the first flush of their romance, and now, after all this time, Serena found she was finally able to forgive Bernie for going off and dying.
One afternoon, Bernie sat at her feet as she dozed off in front of daytime television, and Serena ran her fingers through her hair, over and over, just as she had done when they were together.
“Why did I ever let you go?” she wondered out loud, but Bernie turned her face up to her sweetly, and replied, “You never did, though, did you? I’m still here.”
Serena smiled a little tearfully, and apologised. “Sorry, I seem to weep at everything these days. It must be something about old age.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Bernie said archly, and just as she had done down all the years, she punctured Serena’s maudlin mood with a great laugh that still echoed “like a goose in a train tunnel,” as Serena said through tears of laughter.
There wasn’t a day after that moment that didn’t see Bernie sharing a glass - small, now - of shiraz with Serena, or playing cards, or gleefully criticising the inaccuracies of the medical soap operas. One morning, Serena woke late, and grumbled, knowing that she had missed the bin men, but when she got up, she found that the bins had already been put out, and her bedroom slippers were neatly lined up next to the empty kitchen bin.
“Cheeky thing,” she chuckled, though Bernie professed ignorance later that afternoon when Serena inevitably dozed off in front of some gardening programme or other.
Arthur and Raf cornered her in the staff room.
“Haven’t been seeing much of you lately, Major,” Raf said pointedly, but he was smiling. Arthur had a knowing look on his face, and it was nothing but kind and glad.
“I don’t think we’ll be seeing all that much more of her now either, Raf,” he said.
“Where's she going? Bernie, where are you going?”
All these years later and Jasmine was still a puppy, forever a twenty-something year old whose bright optimistic light nothing could dim. Her life had been short and hard, and her death - Bernie still didn't like to remember Jasmine’s death, but the girl was made of sunshine, she thought. She wondered what or whom Jasmine was waiting for - perhaps she would be the eternal welcoming party.
“I’m going home, Jasmine. That’s what these clowns are getting at. I’m going to fetch Serena, and then we’re going - wherever home is after this.”
“Oh.” Jasmine sounded sad at the thought of Bernie’s moving on, but she brightened again almost immediately. “Will you bring her here first? I mean, maybe this is home?”
Bernie smiled at her.
“Yes, I’ll bring her here. She’ll want to see all of you, I know she will. But I don’t think she’ll stay for long. She’ll need to find Elinor,” she said, as kindly as she knew how. But Jasmine was unfazed.
“She waited for me, you know, Elinor? Told me it wasn’t my fault. Said she’d tear a strip off her mum when she got here for blaming me. She’s probably calmed down by now, though. No-one really takes grudges to the grave, do they?”
Raf caught Bernie’s eye and coughed, muttering, “Like mother, like daughter, eh?” but aloud, he said, “I think it’s time now, Bernie. You’re with her almost all the time, and we all know that means it’s very near. What’s she doing right now?”
Bernie closed her eyes, though these days she barely had to do that to sense Serena.
“She’s at home. She went to visit Jason in the home earlier, and Guinevere was there with Marjorie and baby Callum. She’s tired, but I haven’t seen her so content in a long while. I think you’re right - I’m going to go to her. We’ll see you soon.”
Her voice was as strong and steady as ever, but there was a brightness in her eyes and a colour to her cheek that betrayed her, and on the brink of leaving, she turned and rushed back to them, the little band of people who had loved Serena in their own way, and hugged them tightly, holding Jasmine close for a long time.
“I don’t know how I’d have managed these years without you,” she said, choking on the words.
Jasmine smiled at her through happy tears, put her hand up to Bernie’s forehead and swept it down over her eyes, and before she knew it, she was standing in Serena’s bedroom. Serena was not asleep, not yet, but she saw Bernie as clearly as she had ever seen her in their dreams, and she smiled at her.
Bernie looked round one last time at the room that had been their meeting place for so long, taking in the photographs of Serena’s family: Elinor; Jason and Greta, their children and their first grandson, and there on Serena’s bedside was the photo of Serena and Bernie that someone had snapped in Kenya, just before Serena had come back to Holby.
She held her hand out to Serena, and watched with reverence as the life faded from Serena’s body, into her new self, standing before Bernie as she had done one morning long ago in Holby. Then, there had been nothing between them but Bernie’s fear, but that was long gone. This time, it was Bernie who stepped forward, and drawing Serena close, she kissed her with all the love she had kept for her down the decades.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for years,” she said, and when Serena opened her eyes, they were in the waiting room.
Bernie poured Serena a glass of water.
“Drink this,” she said, “and sleep. I’ll be here when you wake, and then there are some people who want to see you.”
Serena’s eyes drifted closed, but she fought off sleep for a moment longer.
“You promise you’ll still be here when I wake up?” Waking from sleep had always brought pain after Bernie’s dream visits, but Bernie smiled at her, so brightly that Serena had to close her eyes at last.
“I’ll be here, Serena - and I really mean this - for eternity.”