Ever since the change in the weather - since Halloween, in fact - Serena had taken to getting outside the hospital whenever she could. For reasons that she couldn’t explain, sitting on the bench just in front of Wyvern Wing she felt a particular kind of peace with the world, and recently her lunch break (whenever she managed one) was spent sitting out there, no matter the weather - a golf umbrella was a marvellous thing, she had discovered. If she had time to snatch a coffee break, there she would be on her favourite bench, and she had even taken to arriving at work early so she could spend a few contemplative minutes watching the world go by.
The end of her shift saw her there too, decompressing from the stresses of the day. She always left the bench feeling lighter in herself, more at ease with life. She wondered if perhaps Jason’s need for order and routine was rubbing off on her, and she found it a comfort to have this special place that felt all her own. Colleagues instinctively knew not to disturb her when she was out on her bench, though Dr Dunn occasionally looked slightly askance at her sitting here, shaking his head in bemusement, but with a small, sad smile.
So used to her solitude had Serena become, that she was startled and almost offended when the woman first appeared.
“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” she had asked, sitting down before Serena could reply.
Biting back a snarky “Free country, I suppose, ” Serena gave a tight smile that was as noncommittal as she could manage, and shuffled imperceptibly along the bench in a tiny insincere gesture of welcome.
“Nice here, isn’t it?” the woman said, “Peaceful.”
Serena glanced up at her. “Usually.”
“Funny,” the woman continued, obliviously. “You’d think it would feel all hustle and bustle, people coming and going, and the ambulances and so on - but I don’t really notice all of that. It’s as though we were the only two people in the world.”
Serena pinned her with a barely civil glare. “Yes, I often feel I can be completely alone here.” But the stranger didn’t bite.
Now that she looked properly at the stranger, there was something familiar about her, she thought, though she couldn’t place her. She was pleasant looking enough, she supposed, though somehow nondescript. Fancifully she thought she was like a character in a book that the author hadn’t known how to describe - was her hair blonde? Mousy? She couldn’t describe it. Her eyes - were they brown or green? Grey, perhaps. How odd that she couldn’t tell! And perhaps when she stood up, Serena would be able to tell if she were tall or short, full figured or skinny, but right now, she simply couldn’t get a sense of her. All the same, that feeling of familiarity nagged at her. How could someone impossible to describe seem familiar? She shrugged. Her mind playing tricks on her, she supposed.
“So you come here a lot, this bench? It sounds like a special place for you.”
In spite of herself, Serena found herself softening towards the clueless intruder, and realising that she wasn’t going to take the hint, she gave in to the pull of small talk.
“I do. I work in there,” - she gestured to the hospital - “and it gets a bit manic, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s good to come out here now and then and commune with what little nature we’ve got here.”
“Mmm.” The woman was looking at her encouragingly, clearly expecting more.
“I used to go to the Peace Garden,” she found herself confiding, “but lately it seems too full of ghosts.” She laughed shortly. “We’ve had a truly horrible run of bad luck here over the last few years - too many plaques and statues to people I loved here. At least this spot doesn’t have those sort of reminders.”
The woman glanced for a heartbeat at the spot of grass just behind the bench, and looked as though she were about to say something, but she shook her head, flicking her fringe away with a gesture that seemed so familiar to Serena - but it eluded her.
Her pager buzzed at her waist, and she glanced at it with weary acceptance.
“Sorry - they’re playing my tune. I’d better get back in there. Nice to talk to you,” and to her surprise, it was true. She stood to leave, then turned to the woman, holding out her hand. “Serena Campbell. Maybe I’ll see you again?”
“I hope so,” came the reply as she took Serena’s hand in her own, but she didn’t offer her own name in return, and after a beat, Serena headed back to AAU.
The rest of the shift passed in a blur - it was a busy time of year as the roads grew treacherous and the pavement slippery with ice, not to mention the usual winter illnesses that people thought merited a trip to hospital. Serena didn’t make it out of the building until well after her shift had officially ended, but as was her routine now, she put her umbrella up to brave the rain and headed to her bench. She needed to sit and simply breathe for a few minutes before setting off for home.
“Oh! Hello again. Please tell me you haven’t been sitting out here in the cold all day!”
For there was the woman again - still? - sitting just where she had been earlier.
“Serena - hello again. No, of course not,” she laughed. “Just taking a breather before I go. How was the rest of your day?”
Serena eased herself down onto the bench, glad to take the weight off her feet after a long day’s work.
“Busy,” she said. “It always is at this time of year. I think I’m feeling it a bit more now, at my age.”
“I know the feeling!”
Serena looked at her curiously. “Do you?” she asked. It hadn’t occurred to her that the woman was anywhere near old enough to feel the effects of ageing, and looking at her more closely now, she had the same strange inability to pin her down. She could have been thirty or fifty: there was something almost childlike about her, but she carried a sense of wisdom about her as well. What a conundrum the woman was!
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I didn’t catch your name earlier. Silly to keep meeting up like this and not know your name!” There it was again, that funny unsettling déjà vu. What on Earth was wrong with her today?
Her new friend, as Serena was already thinking of her, blinked owlishly. “My name? Oh, didn’t I tell you this morning? It’s Elfie.”
Well, that seemed an appropriate name for this odd, slightly ethereal woman, Serena thought. A little bit otherworldly, but friendly and not at all frightening.
“Nice to meet you, Elfie. Do you work here as well?”
“Oh, I spend a lot of time here,” Elfie said easily, though not actually answering the question. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. I’d better let you get home now, though - it’s late.”
Serena stood, feeling as though she were being dismissed, but not minding in the least. Elfie was right - it was late, and she’d had a trying day. She’d be glad to get home, as long as she could stay awake long enough for the drive. She wished Elfie goodnight and set off for home.
She was less than a mile from home, her eyes drooping a little, when someone stepped out in front of her car, waking her with a shock and causing her to slam her brakes on. Who on earth was walking out in front of cars on a quiet street at gone midnight! She had caught only the briefest of glimpses of the figure: fair hair, perhaps, average height and build, wearing - what? She couldn’t say. She peered through the rain slicked windscreen - god, she hadn’t even realised it was raining, so sleepy was she - but could see no-one. Had she hit them? She hadn’t felt a bump, but she had been a bit dozy, and they seemed to have disappeared without trace.
Turning her collar up against the rain, she got out of the car to make sure that she hadn’t hit the woman (was it a woman? She wasn’t sure.), but there was no-one and nothing to be seen. Venturing beyond the bright pooling of her headlights, she thought she saw something a little further along the road. She couldn’t have hit her without realising and thrown her this far, surely? But when she approached the dark shape, she realised with a cold shock that it was a large tree that had fallen across the road. It was so dark and wet that she was certain she wouldn’t have seen it in time to stop: whoever had stepped out in front of her car had given her (and presumably themselves) a fright, but they had saved her from crashing into this solid obstacle, and in all likelihood, had saved her life.
She shook the rain from her eyes, and fished in the boot of the car for the reflective warning triangle, which she propped up in the road just where the car had stopped. That should keep other motorists safe until morning, at least. She turned in the road and drove carefully the rest of the way home via the back roads, and collapsed into bed.
It was a few days before she saw Elfie again.
“Did you get home alright the other night?” Elfie asked. “I was worried about you driving - you looked so tired.”
“Funny you should say that,” Serena replied, and told her about her near miss, and the disappearing pedestrian who had unwittingly saved her from crashing into the fallen tree.
“Well, whoever they were, they did you a big favour,” Elfie said with feeling. “I’m glad. How’s your day going so far?”
Serena gave an exasperated sigh and took the opportunity to let off a little bit of steam about a particularly troublesome patient, a Mr Skinner. Medically speaking he was not bother: he had been sent up to AAU with suspected appendicitis, but Serena had established that his late night dietary habits were of more concern than his internal organs, and an antacid and a lecture had done the trick, but as for the man himself... He had made no effort to hide his attempts to look down her blouse as she examined him, and had been making increasingly suggestive comments that she was struggling to ignore.
“He hasn’t tried it on, though? Hasn’t tried to cop a feel or anything?”
“Well, he’s tried, but I’m on the alert for it, and I’m pretty nimble. He’ll be gone soon - I just need to check him over one more time before I discharge him.”
“Let’s hope he has the sense to keep his hands to himself,” Elfie said. They chatted for a while, though afterwards it occurred to Serena that somehow, she had done most of the talking, and still didn’t really know anything about her new friend.
Back on the ward, Serena girded her loins and strode briskly back to complete Mr Skinner’s discharge forms. Keeping a careful distance between herself and the lecherous goat, she satisfied herself that there was nothing materially wrong with him that a bit more fibre wouldn’t solve, and turned to sign the forms on the table by his bed. She heard Donna raise her voice to its matronly sternest - “Mr Skinner - don’t you dare!” - but before she could even turn round, there was a terrible clatter behind her, and she turned to find the bed collapsed on the side opposite her, and peered over it to see Mr Skinner on the floor, clutching his elbow.
“Nurse Jackson, what on earth is going on? What just happened?” Serena demanded.
Donna was uncharacteristically uncertain as she tried to relay what had taken place in the wink of an eye: Mr Skinner had reached over the side of the bed, unmistakably intent on grabbing a handful of Serena’s rear end as she bent over, when someone had walked briskly through the ward and somehow knocked the corner of his bed, causing it to collapse and eject Mr Skinner with some considerable force.
Eyeing him distastefully as he cradled his elbow, she replied. “I see. I can’t say I’m surprised given his behaviour earlier. Where’s my clumsy saviour - I don’t know whether to thank them or bill them for the bed!”
But no-one could say where the visitor had gone, or who it had been, or even what they looked like.
“Tallish, brown hair, grey overcoat.”
“No, no, he had grey hair, and he was wearing - uh, he was wearing...”
“She was blonde and was wearing jeans and a hoody,” came the garbled responses from the staff.
Serena held up a hand. “Well, never mind that now - if they’ve gone, they’ve gone. Let’s send Mr Skinner down to A&E, please - an x-ray is order, I think. Tell them not to leave him alone with any female staff, hmm?”
Mr Skinner, now at least fifty percent less handsy than previously, was wheeled unceremoniously off the ward, and things returned to a relatively normal level of chaos. There was nothing wrong with the bed that anyone could find, and still curious, Serena wandered down to visit Security in a quiet moment. Looking at the CCTV footage didn’t clarify the incident at all: sure enough, there was Skinner the sinner leaning over, a gleeful look on his face as his hand reached out to sample the pleasures of her flesh, but before he could make contact, there was a blur as someone marched past, somehow catching a lever and knocking the leg out from under the bed. But as for who it was - the film went inexplicable grainy at just the moment the figure passed through the ward, only jumping back to clarity after they had left. How people had thought it was a man though... it was clear to Serena that it was a woman: a fairly slim woman, though it was impossible to tell hair colour or height from the film.
“Just another day at the asylum,” Serena said with a shrug, and as soon as she was back on AAU, she forgot about the matter.
Just as Serena had once looked forward to her moments of solitude at the bench, now she looked forward to seeing Elfie there, and their chats became more frequent, and Elfie, to whom Serena had told nearly everything, began to share more of her own story. She had been friends with someone who worked here a long time ago, and had taken to coming here to think of them, though she knew they were long gone. She didn’t seem sad, just nostalgic for a friend who had drifted away, and Serena sympathised with her. Although in anyone else this behaviour might have felt obsessive or stalkerish, Serena felt quite certain that Elfie’s affection for her lost friend was genuine and heartfelt, and without knowing why, she trusted her in a way that she had trusted few people in her life. She was so easy to talk to, to open up to, and she just got Serena in a way that felt comforting and reassuring.
“Do you think you’ll ever meet up with your friend now?” she asked one lunchtime, and the other woman shook her head, but she smiled a slow, contented smile that reminded Serena of - no, it was gone.
“No. No, we won’t meet again. But look, I’ve got new friends now - it’s been worth coming here to get to know you!”
Serena beamed back at her. “Well, I’m glad you joined me that morning, though I didn’t think so at the time. I was used to being here on my own - I’d not long since had a bereavement, and I didn’t want company, but as soon as we got chatting, I was glad you’d stopped.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. Death really is the oddest thing to come to terms with, isn’t it?”
Serena hesitated. As candid as she had been with Elfie, she still hugged Bernie’s memory close to her, the only intimacy she could have with her now. She was reconciled to the finality of things, but somehow to speak her name to someone who hadn’t known her would be to step further away from what they had shared, and she prevaricated as best she could.
“Very odd indeed,” she agreed. “It was someone very close to me - the love of my life, to tell the truth. I don’t really talk about it - you won’t think me rude if I don’t talk about it?”
“Of course not.” Elfie smiled warmly and simply pressed Serena’s hand. They shared a moment of understanding, and Serena was glad that she hadn’t pressed for any more details.
“Well, enough of that. I hate to leave on a sad note, but I’d better get back to it - I need to prepare for rather a significant operation.”
“Oh? Anything interesting?”
“To a vascular surgeon, yes! It’s a repair of a pseudo-aneurysm of the splenic artery - bit technical, but just my cup of tea.”
“Sounds exhausting just to say, let alone do. Will it take long?”
Serena described the operation to in layman’s terms and explained how long she expected it to take. Rising to her feet, she hesitated for a second.
“Thank you,” she said. “For - you know, before. Thank you for understanding. Perhaps I’ll tell you about her one day soon.”
Elfie stood as well, and took a tentative step towards her. “I’d like that, Serena - if you’d like to, I mean.”
For a moment, Serena thought the taller woman - oh! She is tall, how could I have not noticed that? - was going to hug her, but at the last moment, she just rested her hand on Serena’s sleeve for a moment.
“Hope the operation goes well. I’ll see you soon.”
As it turned out, the operation took longer than she had anticipated. It had been touch and go for a few minutes, but Serena had carried the calm confidence that talking to Elfie always seemed to give her into theatre, and she brought the patient back from the brink of death. It had been a good save, and she changed back into her own clothes with a sense of achievement for a job well done.
“Oh - Ms Campbell? Someone was looking for you just now - you just missed them. Here - they left these for you.”
Donna was at the nurses’ station, holding out a cup of steaming hot coffee and a paper bag, and when Serena opened it, she found a pain au chocolat, still warm. She felt a little pang of familiarity and a sudden stab of loss bloomed anew, but she shook it off, looking round.
“Who are they from? Are they still here?”
“Oh, they left a couple of minutes ago - could be anywhere now. I don’t know her name - tall, slim woman, with - erm, I don’t know how to describe her, really...” Donna trailed off uncertainly, but Serena recognised there description, as well as the difficulty Donnas was having describing Elfie.
“Ah - yes. I know who they’re from - what a kind thought. I’m pretty sure they’re from my friend Elfie - what a shame she didn’t stick around. I’ll thank her later. Right, what else have we got on our list? Cameron, update me on Mrs Byrne, would you? Come on, Cam, today, if you can manage it!”
Cameron shook off the slightly dazed expression he had suddenly developed and led her over to the patient in question.
Later, when she saw Elfie at their bench before she left work, she thanked her for the thoughtful gift.
“Funny - it was something we used to do for each other, me and... well, it was a lovely thing to find waiting for me after theatre - thank you. Really, you’re too good to be true - sometimes I think I must have dreamed you up!” She laughed, but there was more than a grain of truth in it. Sometimes she did almost wonder if she had imagined this odd, undefinable woman and her kindness, her easy manner.
“Oh, you’ve not imagined me,” Elfie laughed. “Goodnight, Serena. Sleep well.”
She held out both hands to Serena in invitation, who grasped them warmly.
“You too, Elfie. Thank you again.”
They were smiling at each other, and it felt so warm and lovely, and it was all Serena could do to stop herself reaching out to tuck those messy blonde curls behind Elfie’s ear. How on earth had she ever thought her hair was mousy! The blare of an ambulance siren as it pulled into the bay broke the spell, and Serena stepped away reluctantly.
“Well, this is me, I suppose - goodnight.”
She did sleep well that night. She dreamed of Bernie: wonderful, happy, contented dreams, and when she woke, that sense of contentment still hung around her like a cloak, and she wore it to work with her.
She practically floated through the day, but when she went outside for her hometime rendezvous, there was a surprise for her. She could see Elfie waiting for her on their bench, but Cameron stepped out in front of her before she could even cross the road.
“Serena - sorry, I know you’re on your way home, but I just wanted to ask - are you ok?”
She stared at him, nonplussed. “I’m fine, Cameron, why on earth wouldn’t I be?”
He glanced uneasily over to the bench. “It’s - I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It’s just that you spend so much time out here, this bench, and then yesterday, that name - it just made me wonder if you felt alright. Sorry, sorry, I’m being ridiculous - I just - well, it’s just that you’re always here, you know?”
“Always here? Cameron, sweet boy, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where is here, exactly? The hospital? It is pretty much the entire basis of my job description that I be here very nearly every hour the gods send us.” She nudged his elbow playfully.
“No - here. Her bench.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Cameron, whose bench?”
He stared at her.
“Well - Mum’s, of course. I thought you must know, and that’s why you were here so much: it’s where I scattered Mum’s ashes.”
Serena felt her heart lurch, and her mouth felt all funny. “You left her here? Why on - no. No, I didn’t know that. What an odd coincidence. But honestly, that’s all it is. I’m glad I know now.” She gave him a quick, fierce hug, over as soon as it had begun. Cameron was skittish about these things.
“Oh - what did you mean about yesterday? You said something about a name?”
He shook his head and blushed. “It sounds silly now. It’s just that Mum used to tell us about her childhood friend Elfie. It’s an unusual name, and I thought maybe... But that’s ridiculous.”
Serena had a sudden thought. “It might not be ridiculous, you know - Elfie - my Elfie - said she had a friend who once worked here, but they’d lost touch. I’ve never really talked about your Mum with her, not by name, anyway. Maybe it is the same Elfie?”
Cameron, reassured now and feeling much more certain shook his head emphatically, and laughed. “No, it won’t be the same one. Elfie was Mum’s imaginary friend when she was little - she used to tell us about all the things she got up to with her. When she was a bit older, she learned about anagrams and worked out that an anagram of Bernie Wolfe was Elfie Browne, so that’s how she thought of her.”
Serena stared at him, mouth agape.
“I’m so sorry, I just - it was weird, you know? I’m glad you’re alright. Ignore me - I’ll let you get home. Your friend’s waiting for you, look. I’m glad you’ve met someone, I really am.” He blushed furiously, and before she could put him right, he hurried away.
“Sorry about that,” Serena said slowly as she neared the bench. She stopped a few feet away, trying to marshal her thoughts. “That was Cameron, my partner’s boy. Bernie’s boy. But I think you knew that, didn’t you?”
Elfie nodded, looking cautiously at Serena.
“Shall we introduce ourselves properly this time? Hello, I’m Serena Campbell. And I think you must be Elfie Browne. I’m right, aren’t I? You’re Bernie’s imaginary friend - that’s why I couldn’t see you properly when I first met you? But you’ve become clearer and clearer to me - more real. And I don’t think you’re imaginary any more. I’m not even sure that you’re Elfie any more.”
And, seeing that Serena wasn’t scared, and wasn’t angry, Elfie Browne smiled a wide, bright smile, laughed with a great honking laugh, and eyes that could only be described as the richest, deepest brown sparkled at Serena. As Elfie slid into the passenger seat of Serena’s car, she looked back fondly at the hospital, then spoke a single word that filled Serena’s heart with joy.