They began to appear in February one year. Serena thought nothing of it at first. Ever since she had begun the charity Warm and Cosy, she had been sent squares that were clearly first attempts at knitting. They went into the pile anyway. Surrounded by better squares, they wouldn’t be noticeable and the people that received the blankets made from the squares were usually just grateful for the warmth. She did however notice these knitted squares as they were knitted from such lovely yarn. There were some in a khaki green colour, some in a pillar box red and others in a deep brown. The yarn was flecked with other colours and was as soft as a baby’s skin.
When the next batch in the same yarn came in, it was clear that the knitter had been practising. There was a marked improvement and Serena smiled to herself thinking of the mysterious donor who was getting better with every square. She checked the package for a note. If the donors sent their contact details, she liked to get back to them with a note of thanks but there was nothing. She was about to put the squares into the pile to be sown into blankets when she thought better of it. If this knitter was going to continue to produce squares in that yarn, it would be nice to make up a blanket of just them. She fished through the pile and dug out the previous ones that she had been sent.
She spent much of her spare time that summer sewing together other squares into blankets ready for the winter. It wasn’t just squares that were sent her way. She also received plenty of donations of knitted garments. She sorted them all into their types and sizes. Warm and Cosy had been going for almost ten years now so she had contacts all around the country who could get items to those that needed them. Anything particularly beautiful, she put to one side. She liked to take photos of them and put them up on the Warm and Cosy Facebook page before they got sorted. She found that it not only inspired her regulars to produce more but, since the photos got shared, it tended to bring new donors in. Not that she needed more donors really. It was hard enough balancing running the charity alongside her day job in the hospital but it was important to her so she made it work.
Every few weeks there would be another parcel full of the beautifully soft squares of khaki, red and brown. And each time they arrived, Serena would put them aside into a separate box. They came in so regularly and so many each time that Serena wondered whether the knitter had time to do anything else. She wondered what had prompted someone to start knitting and then, as far as she could tell, never put down the needles. And to be so generous as to send so much to charity rather than keeping their hard work for themselves.
By mid-September, there were enough squares in the separate box that Serena decided to start sewing them together. She laid them out making sure that the early ones were spread out amongst the better ones. The next issue was finding a yarn to join them togethers. She really didn’t want to ruin the lovely squares by joining them together with a substandard yarn. Hunting through her yarn collection, she pulled out lots of potential ones and then dismissed them one by one as just not being perfect enough. Usually she would have made a decision and just used one of them but there was something about these squares that made her want to do the best possible job. She sighed and picked up one square of each colour. It looked like she was going to need a trip to the wool shop in town for this one.
The young women on the counter smiled at Serena when she came in. She was a regular in the shop and found the place comforting. She smiled back and tried to remember the woman’s name. Charlene, she thought but she couldn’t be certain. After a quick hello, she moved towards the back wall to look more closely at the yarns. She ran her fingers over some of them, assessing their softness, when she saw some familiar colours. There, tucked away in the corner, were balls of khaki, red and brown complete with flecks. She moved towards them and picked one up. It was as soft as the squares. She pulled out one of the squares from her bag to check the colour and it was a perfect match. So this was the yarn her mysterious knitter was using. She looked at the price tag and raised her eyebrows. The knitter must be rich. This was expensive wool. And to be producing so much, they must have bought multiple balls of it.
She thought about whether she should just use one of the colours of the squares to join them together. Unconsciously she reached for a ball of brown when her eyes caught on another colour in the row above. She paused for a moment and then reached up instead. It was the same brand of yarn but it another colour. This one was in a sky blue. She held it up against the other colours and smiled. It was perfect. It still had the flecks of colour in that the other yarns had and it was just as soft but the contrast was perfect. In fact, she thought, she might use a crochet technique to make the border more obvious rather than using one of the near invisible borders like usual. She grabbed a second ball of the same colour. It would do no good to run out part way through.
Serena handed over the eye wateringly large sum of money to the woman, Chantelle maybe?, at the counter.
“Got some special plans for this wool?” the woman asked.
Serena smiled. “It’s going to finish off a rather lovely blanket.”
Of course the people that worked in the shop knew all about Serena’s charity. She’d talked to them when she’d first started and they always made sure to display posters about it. Serena always wondered how many of her donations came as a result of that publicity.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Well I’m sure it will be lovely then,” the woman said, “Particularly with such soft wool to finish.”
Serena worked at it over the next week. When she got home from work, the first thing she did was pick up the blanket and carry on joining squares. She loved the feeling of the soft yarn sliding through her fingers as she pulled it through with the crochet hook. She loved how the blanket was growing every day and how it would sit over her knees as she worked, keeping her warm against the coolness that was creeping into the house now that October was ending.
As the weather cooled, the hospital got busier and busier. The winter health crisis stretched out longer and longer each year causing Serena to work longer hours and eating into her time making the blanket. Alongside managing the rest of the running of the charity, dealing with donations, sending off parcels to where they were needed, checking the accounts, she barely had any time to get the blanket finished. Consequently it was almost November before she put in the final stitch and cut the yarn for the final time. She ran her hand over the blanket, still marvelling at its softness. It had come out really well, perfect even. She sighed. Every now and then a piece would come along that she just desperately wanted to keep for herself rather than sending on. This one was even worse than usual as she had put so much time and effort into it herself. But the mysterious knitter had donated the squares in good faith and so it would be unfair for Serena to keep it.
Still, this was definitely one for the Facebook page. She dug out her camera and laid out the blanket carefully on the floor. It was so large that it was difficult to get the whole thing into the picture. In the end Serena managed it by standing on a chair, the light carefully positioned so as not to show her shadow in the photo. Satisfied, she uploaded the photo to her computer for a final check and then headed for Facebook. She added the photo to the Warm and Cosy page with the caption “A beautiful blanket made with donations from a single knitter! Thank you to our mysterious donor, the recipient will be very grateful for such a soft blanket to keep them warm this year.”
The blanket sat on the top of her donation pile over the next week. Everytime Serena walked past it, she ran her fingers over the soft material and thought about the person who had knitted it, still wondering about the circumstances that caused it to be created.
About a week after she’d posted the Facebook post, Serena received a message on the page. She didn’t think much of it when she spotted a notification on her phone during a long shift at the hospital. It happened from time to time, usually just people asking about where the donations go or expressing their love of the knitting she was showcasing so she didn’t bother checking until she was home that night.
At home, she pulled out her phone and looked at the message. It was from a Berenice Wolfe who didn’t seem to have a profile picture. She opened the message.
“I wasn’t sure how to write this or what to say but I just wanted to say thank you for making my squares into such a lovely blanket. Bernie.”
Serena leant her head back on the back of the sofa and smiled. So that was some of the mystery solved. Her knitter was a woman called Berenice (or Bernie?) Wolfe. The name struck her as slightly familiar but she couldn’t place it. She lifted her phone back up to reply.
“H i Bernie. I should be saying thank you for knitting such lovely squares. It is your work that has made the blanket look so good. Am I right in saying that you are new to this knitting lark? Serena.”
She didn’t have to wait long for a response.
“ Yes. My daughter got me into it earlier this year. I’ve not really progressed past knitting squares though. I see the other donations you put on Facebook and wonder how they could possibly manage. B”
“It’s practice, that’s all. And having someone to show you the more complicated parts. Can you not ask your daughter to help? S”
It was a long time until the next message came through. Serena headed through to the kitchen and began cooking while she waited. When a couple of hours had passed, she began to wonder that maybe she’d accidentally insulted Bernie. It was a shame, she’d seemed nice and it was always good to chat to a fellow knitter. She clicked through to Bernie’s Facebook profile page but it was practically empty. There were no photos and she only had one friend, a Cameron Dunn. No sign of the daughter she had mentioned and no clues as to her life or location.
A message did come through eventually though. In the middle of the night Serena’s phone beeped. She shot upright thinking that she was getting a call from the hospital only to find a Facebook message sitting waiting for her.
“ For reasons I’d rather not go into, my daughter isn’t speaking to me right now. B”
Serena tapped her fingernails on her phone. She knew what it was like to have an uncommunicative daughter. It wasn’t like she’d heard from Elinor recently beyond a quick text message the other day to say that she was spending Christmas at her father’s.
“I’m sorry. I know how that feels and it’s rough. S”
“You’re awake? I didn’t expect that. Hope I wasn’t the one to wake you. B”
“It’s the curse of being an on-call doctor I’m afraid. I wake at the slightest noise worried I’m going to need to rush into work. S”
There was something about talking to Bernie that made Serena feel calm. She knew that she should be annoyed at being woken up in the middle of the night for no particular reason but she just couldn’t feel anything other than happiness at hearing from Bernie. She snuggled down under the covers, her phone in her hand.
“You’re a doctor! How on earth do you find the time to do all your charity stuff? When I was working in hospitals I barely had time to see my children, let alone run a side business. You must be amazingly efficient. B”
“A fellow medic then! I can’t say it’s easy but it’s something I really wanted to do. I suppose the MBA from Harvard helps me along as well. S”
Serena didn’t question why she felt the urge to tell Bernie all about herself. It wasn’t like she usually detailed her qualifications to random strangers off the internet.
“That just makes you even more impressive. Anyway I’d better let you get some sleep. I’m sure you’ve got important things to do in the morning and don’t need an insomniac ex-medic keeping you awake all night. Sweet dreams Serena. B”
“Sweet dreams Bernie.”
Serena drifted back to sleep with a grin on her face. She knew so little about Bernie but she liked her already.
The messages continued over the next few weeks. Largely just inconsequential things about their days but Serena found that if she messaged Bernie late at night, she’d suddenly get much more open about her life. She learnt that Bernie had two children, the daughter that had got her knitting and then stopped speaking to her and a son training to be a doctor. Serena assumed that the Cameron Dunn from Bernie’s Facebook page was that son. She learnt that Bernie was the same age as her, give or take a few months, and up until recently had been a trauma surgeon in the army. Bernie hadn’t explained the reasons for her leaving the army or the reasons for her daughter not speaking to her and Serena wondered if they were related at all.
Then one morning she woke up to a message flashing on her phone. Unusually, it hadn’t woken her.
“I’ve been trying to work out how you joined my squares together and I can’t work it out. Would you be able to explain how you did it? B”
Serena crawled out of bed and headed for the kitchen to make some coffee before replying.
“I can try and explain but it’s quite hard without showing you in person. Have you considered finding someone local to help you? S”
“Please say no if this is too forward, but I think we’re both based in Holby. If you’ve got time would you consider meeting me and helping me? B”
Serena paused. She put her coffee cup down. So Bernie was in Holby? That was interesting information. And then it struck her why the name had been familiar. Wasn’t there a Major Berenice Wolfe that had been flown into Holby almost a year ago? She’d never seen her but there had been a lot of talk about how Guy Self and Oliver Valentine had saved her life.
Her fingers itched to send an immediate positive response but she made herself think it through before replying. Because however much she would like to meet up with Bernie, she really was short of time. But then again, she had a couple of days booked off work in the next week. She’d planned to get on with some Christmas shopping but with only Elinor to buy for this year, how long would that take? And Bernie was so intriguing. It had been a long time since she’d had a female friend her age. It would be good to know someone outside of the hospital.
Mind made up, she sent a reply.
“ Not too forward at all. I’d love to meet with you. I’m free this coming Tuesday or Wednesday if that’s ok with you? There’s a nice cafe just tucked off the high street called Apple Tree Tea Rooms if you want to get some lunch. It’s warm and cosy! S”
The reply came quickly.
“ That sounds great. Thanks Serena. I’m free Tuesday. Shall we say 12? B”
“Perfect. See you there. S”
By Monday afternoon, Serena was giddy with excitement at the prospect of meeting Bernie. Raf stuck his head round the door of her office to check on her at one point.
“Everything ok?” he asked.
“Yes, yes. Just excited about meeting someone tomorrow.”
Raf raised an eyebrow. “A date?”
Serena blushed. “No, no. Nothing like that. Just a potential new friend.”
“Right,” Raf said, disbelievingly.
As Raf let the door shut behind him, Serena thought about Bernie. This was just a friend thing right? Because however much she felt drawn to Bernie, she was still straight. Or she’d thought she was. But was it normal to be so excited just about a new friend? Who knew. Well whatever happened, she was just going to take it as it came.
Serena was early to the cafe in the end. She’d woken up early, excitement thrumming through her veins, and hadn’t known what to do with herself at home. She’d headed into town and bought a couple of gifts for Elinor. Goodness knows when she would see her to hand them over but she knew there’d be hell to pay if she didn’t get her anything. It was only about half eleven when she entered the cafe and found a table in the corner. She ordered herself a black coffee and settled in to wait.
It was almost 12 when she realised that she had no idea what Bernie looked like, nor Bernie her. She shot off a short message to Bernie detailing what she was wearing and where she was sat in the cafe. No more than a couple of minutes later, the door to the cafe opened and in came a blonde woman leaning heavily on a cane. Her hair hung in messy curls around her face and, despite the cane, she looked lithe and limber. She stopped in the doorway and looked around before spotting Serena and making a slow beeline towards her. Serena stood up to greet her, trying not to gawp at the devastatingly attractive woman heading her way.
“Yes,” Bernie said, her face breaking out in a grin. “And you must be Serena. It’s so lovely to meet you at last.”
“You too,” Serena said, smiling as well. She held out her hand and shook Bernie’s, marvelling at her firm grip.
Bernie sat herself down heavily in the chair opposite Serena’s.
“Thanks so much for agreeing to help me,” she said. She lifted her bag onto her lap and Serena could see more of those beautiful squares within.
“You’ve made more!” Serena exclaimed, reaching forward to touch them.
Bernie blushed and nodded. “I only donated half of what I made.”
“What are your plans for these?” Serena asked.
Bernie blushed some more. “Thought I might turn them into a blanket as a peace offering to my daughter for Christmas.”
“What a lovely idea. You said she’d got you into knitting in the first place?”
Bernie nodded. “Yeah. She gave me the wool and the needles and taught me the basics. That was before everything went…”
Bernie stopped talking suddenly and looked embarrassed. Serena reached over and patted her hand.
“You don’t need to tell me anything if you don’t want Bernie. Now the way that I was joining the squares is a little complicated but I know an easier way if you find it too tricky. How about we eat some lunch and then I’ll show you after we’ve done?”
A small smile returned to Bernie’s face. “Yes. I’d like that. Thanks Serena.”
As they ate, Serena made sure to stick to safe subjects, wary of upsetting Bernie again. Serena talked about the hospital and the operations she’d done recently. Bernie began to open up and talked about operating in field hospitals while on deployment. By the time their plates were clean, Bernie seemed to be more comfortable again. The waitress took their order for more coffees and cleared their table giving them the chance to spread out the squares on the table. Serena, ever the prepared Girl Guide, had some of the blue wool in her bag alongside a crochet hook. She showed a hesitant Bernie how to hold it and where to push the hook through the stitches on the square. Her first attempt at the stitches was uneven but she improved rapidly.
“You can tell you’re a surgeon,” Serena said, “You’re really good with your hands!”
Bernie blushed bright red at the comment.
The problem was that even after an hour, Bernie had only successfully joined three squares together.
“I’m never going to get this done by Christmas!” she said when she noticed the time.
The words were out of Serena’s mouth before she could think it through. “I’ll come and help you. Where do you live?”
Bernie gaped at her, as surprised as Serena. “You will?”
Serena nodded. There was a part of her brain shouting at her, trying to remind her that she never had any time to do anything extra, let alone help someone with their knitting project but she ignored it. Free time was overrated, particularly when the other option was spending more time with Bernie.
“I can come now,” she suggested, “If you’re free?”
“Ok,” Bernie said, her eyes full of wonder. “It’s a taxi ride away though.”
“My car’s parked in the multistorey,” Serena said, “If you’d like a lift?”
Serena paid up at the counter, refusing Bernie’s offer of money, and led them out of the shop. Bernie didn’t walk fast with her cane but she was steady. Luckily the multistorey car park was close by and in no time they were both settled in Serena’s car.
“Right. You’re going to need to give me directions,” Serena said.
Bernie directed her out of town into the suburbs not far from Serena’s house. They pulled up in front of a neat block of flats. Bernie hobbled up to the door and let them in before moving towards the lift.
“I’m on the third floor,” she explained, “Thank goodness this building has a lift.”
Bernie’s flat was rather empty, Serena thought when they got inside. The necessities were there but little else. She sat down on the sofa where Bernie indicated while Bernie went to rustle through the kitchen. She returned shortly with a packet of digestives clasped in her free hand.
“It’s all I’ve got,” she said, looking a little embarrassed again.
“Oh Bernie, we’ve just eaten. Stop worrying about being a good hostess and just come and sit down. Let’s see how much of this blanket we can finish this afternoon.”
The answer to how much of the blanket they could finish was almost half. With Bernie working on one side, slowly but surely, and Serena working more quickly on the other side, they were making good progress. And as they worked, they chatted.
“So what made you want to set up the charity in the first place?” Bernie asked.
Serena thought back to that day. “Do you remember the Christmas of 2009?”
Bernie shook her head. “I think I was in Afghanistan that year. Missed Christmas and didn’t even manage a phone call with my children.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Bernie waved her off. “It was a long time ago now, nothing to be sorry for. Go on with your story.”
“Well that Christmas was particularly cold and snowy. And as I was leaving on Christmas Eve I caught a patient leaving the hospital with a pile of stolen blankets. I confronted him and he ran. I was younger then, and much fitter, and this patient had only just been discharged after a bout of pneumonia so he wasn’t in great shape. I managed to follow him and found a group of homeless people camped out under a bridge. Turns out he’d stolen the blankets for them. It was bitter that night and not all of them even had sleeping bags. I was shocked at the time. I’d known that there were homeless people in Holby but I thought they had hostels to go to at night.”
“And this was back in 2009?” Bernie asked, “So before all this austerity business kicked in?”
“Yes. Luckily I had a contact in a nearby church. I rang her and together we managed to get them into emergency accommodation for the night. They took the blankets with them though. The emergency accommodation was apparently always short on blankets. I went home and tried to forget about it all. I’d done what I needed to do that night but I couldn’t forget what I’d seen. The next day I started knitting a blanket to donate to a shelter but one blanket was never going to be enough. So I set up Warm and Cosy.”
Bernie had stopped crocheting and put down her hook. She gazed at Serena with wonder in her eyes.
“Wow,” she breathed, “You really are amazing.”
Serena ducked her head. “I just did what anyone would have done. And the charity is only successful because people like you donate their knitting.”
It was late before Serena noticed the time. The afternoon had gone so quickly working away and chatting with Bernie. She reluctantly stood up and bid Bernie farewell.
“Thank you so much Serena. I’d never have managed this without you,” Bernie said. She leant against the wall in the hallway as Serena pulled her boots on.
“It was no problem at all. I enjoyed myself,” Serena replied. In her mind she was searching for an excuse to see Bernie again. Then she came up with something. “Are you free tomorrow?”
Bernie looked slightly puzzled. “Yes. Why?”
“Well I’m going to deliver some of the knitting donations locally and wondered if you wanted to come and give me a hand?”
Bernie looked down then waved her hand at her leg. “I’m not sure I’ll be much help with this.”
“You could keep me company,” Serena said, trying not to make it sound like she was begging Bernie. “And one of the blankets I’m delivering is your one. Fancy sending it off to its new home?”
That was enough to entice Bernie. She looked at Serena with a smile on her face. “Ok.”
“Brilliant. I’ll pick you up at nine.”
“Oh no, there’s no need. I’ll just get a taxi to yours.”
“Don’t be silly Bernie,” Serena said, “I’m not far from here so it’s basically on my route. I’ll be here at nine. Make sure you’re ready.”
“Yes ma’am,” Bernie said, giving Serena a salute.
“See you tomorrow Bernie.”
Serena reached over and squeezed Bernie’s arm. She trailed her fingers down Bernie’s arm to her hand and their fingers briefly intertwined before Serena stepped away and opened the front door. She turned back as she reached the lift at the end of the corridor to find Bernie watching her from the doorway. She raised a hand and Bernie raised one too. Then she pressed the button for the lift and disappeared within.
The next day was cold and Serena pulled on her fluffy hat before loading up the car with knitting. She’d taken a little extra care getting ready that morning and was wearing more makeup than she usually would. The thought of spending more time with Bernie made her heart skip in a way she wasn’t yet ready to think about the reasons behind.
She was in the car and heading to Bernie’s in good time though. There were a few places that she had been donating to since the start and she still liked to make these deliveries personally. Today’s round was a homeless shelter, a hospice just outside Holby and then the neonatal ward at Holby City. There were three boxes that went into the boot, each one labelled carefully. It would be no good if the hospice received a pile of baby clothes! She pulled up outside Bernie’s flat and noticed her hovering in the entranceway. Serena waved and Bernie walked over to her, noticeably more stiff than the day before.
Bernie climbed carefully into the passenger side of the car and reached into the back to stow her cane.
“I hate the cold,” she muttered, rubbing her hands together, “It just makes everything harder.”
Serena reached out and turned up the heating. “Don’t worry, we’ll warm up in no time.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes before Bernie spoke again.
“So where are we heading today?”
“The homeless shelter on St John’s Street, Roundway Hospice and then Holby City neonates.”
Bernie nodded. “Which one is getting my blanket?”
“Well,” Serena said, “I thought I’d leave that one up to you. It’s probably a bit big for the neonates but either the homeless shelter or the hospice would be very grateful for it.”
Bernie fell silent. Serena risked a quick glance over and saw that she was deep in thought. Eventually she spoke again.
“I think I’d like to give it to the homeless shelter.”
“Ok. Any particular reason?” Serena asked.
“It’s how this whole thing got started isn’t it?” she said, “You told me about it yesterday.”
“It’s clearly a cause you are passionate about and I’m partly doing it as a thank you to you for all your help.”
Serena swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “You don’t have to do that…”
Bernie turned to her and smiled. “I know but I want to.”
“Ok.” She glanced over at Bernie again. “Thank you.”
There was a small car park round the back of the homeless shelter, ostensibly for the staff. Serena parked the car in a free space before hurrying round the car to give Bernie a hand climbing out.
“I’m ok,” Bernie said.
Serena raised an eyebrow as Bernie struggled to her feet. “Really?”
“Well, maybe not ok but used to it. My physio taught me some good techniques.”
Serena nodded and went to lift the box out of the boot of the car. Bernie then followed her into the building, leaning heavily on her stick.
There was a cheery receptionist sat at a desk inside who greeted Serena with a huge smile.
“Hi Serena, got more of your goodies for us?”
Serena dumped the box on the desk. “Yes plenty, Harriet. And I’ve got a helper with me today.” She stood aside so Bernie was in full view. “Mind if I give her a bit of a tour?”
Harriet nodded. “Yes, if I could just get you both to sign in first. There’s a support group in the conference room so as long as you don’t disturb them, that’s fine.”
She pushed the visitors’ book towards them and the dutifully filled in their details. Visitors’ badges were pinned to their fronts and they were ready to go.
“I’ll leave the box in the laundry room like normal?” Serena checked and Harriet nodded.
“Thanks Serena. It makes such a difference to us.”
“Well it’s not just me, it’s all the knitters and crocheters that produce the wonderful items. Bernie here made enough squares for a blanket all by herself!”
Bernie blushed as Serena lifted out her blanket for Harriet to admire.
“Oh wow it’s so soft!” she exclaimed. “I know just the person for this one.”
She smiled and then leaned back in her chair to tap at the door behind her. “Paula, come here for a moment.”
The door opened slowly and a woman came out, pushing herself along in a wheelchair. She smiled at Bernie and Serena.
“Paula, come and look at the blanket Bernie has made for Serena’s charity,” Harriet said and Paula edged forward, reaching out a hand to touch it.
“Hi Paula,” Serena said, “Been a while since I’ve seen you. How’ve you been?”
“Not bad,” Paula said, “They’ve given me a job here, sorting out the mess that is their filing system. I’m hoping that with the regular pay I might be able to get a place of my own soon.”
“That’s fantastic. You look well too. Leg still bothering you at all?”
“Only at night when it’s cold. I talked to the doc and he just said to keep it wrapped up warm.”
Bernie shifted her weight. “I know that feeling,” she said and Paula smiled at her in sympathy.
Harriet beamed. “Well I thought you might like this blanket to help you stay warm.”
“Really?” Paula said, “That would be amazing.”
“Of course,” Serena said. “In fact Paula, are you busy at the moment? Fancy giving us a tour of the place?”
Paula glanced at Harriet.
“Oh the paperwork will wait. Go give these good people the insider’s view of this place,” Harriet said, ushering the three of them off down the corridor.
The tour didn’t take long as the shelter wasn’t large. Paula explained how there were a number of different sites around the city run by the same charity. This was the main base with the rooms for activities as well as a few rooms for residents upstairs.
“Thank goodness they have a lift!” she said. “Bet you’re glad too, Bernie!”
There was a large hall used for sports and large group activities. Stacked at the side was a pile of foldable beds.
“For the emergency winter protocol,” Paula explained when Bernie asked about them. “When the temperature drops below freezing, we take basically everyone who needs a bed for the night. It’s basic accommodation but far better than being out in the snow.”
Paula showed them her own room. It was just about large enough for her to turn her wheelchair around in and was decorated with paintings clearly done by Paula herself.
“Art therapy has a lot to answer for!” Paula said when she noticed Bernie looking at them.
Leaving the box with the rest of the knitting in, Bernie and Serena said goodbye to Paula and Harriet once the tour was complete and headed back out to the car.
“A worthy recipient of your blanket?” Serena asked once they were settled.
Bernie nodded. “She seemed nice. And I understand the problems with the cold. Do you know what happened to her for her to end up here?”
Serena shrugged. “I only know a little. I think it is a story like many others though of falling through the cracks. There aren’t many council properties fitted out for someone in a wheelchair so if the worst happens, losing a job, credit card debts, whatever, then many people just end up without anything. It never takes much to end up on the streets.”
Bernie nodded. “Can’t help but be grateful for my army pension and my little flat now. I don’t have much but at least I have that.”
The hospice was a few miles away just on the edge of the city. Once again Serena pulled the car into the car park and fetched the next box out of the boot. Then she noticed that Bernie hadn’t moved.
“Everything alright?” she said, opening Bernie’s door.
Bernie nodded. “Yeah. Just a bit achy and tired after all that walking round the shelter. Mind if I just wait for you in the car?”
Serena reached over and patted Bernie’s shoulder. “Of course. I won’t be long.”
She closed the door and headed into the hospice at a pace, mindful that she didn’t want Bernie waiting too long in a cooling car. It didn’t take long at all. She spoke briefly to the receptionist and left the box with them to sort out. Within minutes she was back at the car. Bernie smiled at her as she approached and she felt warm inside despite the chill in the air.
“One more stop and then back to mine for some lunch?” Serena offered.
“You don’t have to Serena, if you just drop me back at mine. You’ve put up with me for a long time over the past couple of days.”
“Bernie I want you to come to mine for lunch. Nothing fancy, just soup and bread. That’s if you want to come?”
Serena looked over at Bernie, suddenly worried that she’d pushed this burgeoning friendship too far. But Bernie raised her head to look at her and smiled.
“I’d love to if you’re sure.”
Serena grinned back and batted at her arm. “Of course I’m sure, silly woman. I like spending time with you. And you coming home will make the house less empty and quiet.”
It wasn’t long before they were both sat at the dining table at Serena’s house with a bowl of steaming tomato soup in front of each of them. Serena has dashed up to the neonatal ward at Holby City to drop off the last box leaving Bernie in the car once more. Then they had headed straight back to Serena’s house. Bernie had admired the kitchen as Serena bustled around it heating up the soup and slicing some fresh bread.
“Thank you for letting me come today. Sorry I really wasn’t much help,” Bernie said.
Serena reached across the table and gripped one of Bernie’s hands. “You were fantastic company. And like I said, that’s what I needed, not physical help.”
Bernie looked up at her and their eyes met and held for what felt to Serena like an eternity. She rubbed her thumb over the back of Bernie’s hand and thought about how beautiful Bernie’s eyes were.
She was interrupted from her reverie by Bernie’s phone beeping. Bernie jumped and then pulled her hand out from beneath Serena’s to pull her phone from her pocket. She read the message and gave a small, sad smile.
“Everything ok?” Serena asked.
Bernie nodded. “Just my son letting me know that his rota has come out and he’s working Christmas Day. Looks like I’m going to be on my own this year.”
The words came out of Serena’s mouth before she realised what she was saying. “You could come here. For Christmas.”
Bernie looked at her confused. “Serena, no. You hardly know me.”
“I know you enough. How long have we been talking for now? And anyway I’ll be on my own here as well. No point us both being lonely. Please come.”
Serena was aware that she was straying into begging territory now but she didn’t care. Suddenly the most important thing was that Bernie was with her for Christmas.
She stared at Bernie and watched as the other woman processed the words.
“Ok,” Bernie said after a moment. “If you’re sure. But you must let me help. I’m no chef but I can make a passable roast.”
“Agreed,” Serena said. She stuck out her hand and Bernie shook it. “You’ll come round and we can share the cooking.”
Bernie smiled at her. “Looking forward to it already.”