"Robbie?" A melodious voice rang out behind her. Bernie turned on the barstool, looked over her shoulder. A beautiful lady, with grey short hair and wearing a black suit, folded her newspaper and pursed her brightly red lipsticked lips, a frown on her forehead.
Bernie quickly looked in front of her again, her hands wrung together on top of the bar.She tried to relax her shoulders.
"Can I get you anything?" the barrista asked her.
Bernie shook her head. "Not yet." and sighed as the barrista walks away to serve another customer.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the table next to the lipsticked lady. The table was covered in papers. Papers with her name printed on it, no doubt. She recognised that cheery young woman as an HR person the moment she stepped into the cafe, and it took all her courage to not turn on her heels and walk right back home.
She took a shuddering breath. God, get a grip. Marcus was right. It would be better for everyone if she didn't return to Afghanistan. The bubbly girl (because was she even in her twenties yet?) from HR had kindly suggested to meet her in a café close to home, to discuss her civilian career options. And she was almost crawling against the walls at home. She was no Maria von Trapp. She had to do something, work, anything, or she'd go mad. The high-spirited girl would help her.
It was the right thing to do. It was!
The girl would tell her what her broken body and ancient brain would still be worth for the economy. And the girl would smile. And she would call Bernie brave, perhaps. A brave, injured soldier. And it would cost all of Bernie's energy not to scream.
But it was the right thing to do.
She had only to get up from this barstool, turn around, smile - and then just play it by ear. Come on, Wolfe..! For god and country!
She got up, her back protested, and her injured leg stung. She took a deep breath, put her fake smile in place and turned around.
She looked into the face of the beautiful lady with the short grey hair. "Robbie?" she asked.
"Eh...yes..," stammered Bernie.
The woman raised one eyebrow. "Well," she said, looking Bernie up and down. Bernie blushed slightly. "Well," said the woman again.
Bernie could only look at the lipsticked lips wrapping themselves around the word. "Sit," they said, then formed a smirk. Bernie looked up. "Eh…"
"Sit," the woman said again, as she herself sat back down at her table again too.
The woman raised a finger, while reading the menu. "Not now." She set the menu back and leant back in her chair.
Now then? thought Bernie. But she had forgotten what she was going to say. Probably some sort of excuse. The woman seemed to not need any. And so Bernie was silent.
Behind Bernie the young HR person was rearranging her papers.
A waiter came to their table.
Bernie was about to order a cappuccino, but again the woman raised her finger. "Ah!" she said, looking at Bernie for a moment. Then she turned to the waiter and ordered two cups of coffee and a chocolate croissant.
"Can I..?" started Bernie.
"Best not," said the woman. She unfolded her newspaper, and started reading again. Bernie sat next to her in stunned silence.
A older man walked into the café, and walked right up to their table, his footsteps heavy. "Madame?" he asked out of breath. He seemed not to notice Bernie at all.
The woman looked up from her paper calmly, raised an eyebrow and waited.
"Eh..I'm late. Eh...I'm Robbie?"
"You've wasted my time, Robbie," said the woman. "You can go back home now."
"I'm sorry, Madame, there was a queue at the… nevermind...well, and…" he stammered.
She waved her hand. "I suggest you take my advice, Robbie."
He stood still for a moment, opened his mouth as if to say something, closed it and turned around.
The woman looked at Bernie, raising the one eyebrow again. "You're not Robbie."
The waiter returned with two cups of black coffee and a croissant. He sat everything down before the woman. She smiled kindly at him, them set the croissant and one cup of coffee before Bernie. "Bon apetit", she said.
Bernie reached for the sugar packet on her saucer, but the woman placed her hand on top of Bernie's. A jolt of energy raced from Bernie's hand to her heart. "Don't do that. Strong and hot, that is all you should care about. on a day like today. Eat your croissant." Her hand left Bernie's.
And Bernie ate her croissant. It was rather simple, really.
Then her phone rang.
Bernie took it out of her pocket in one swift motion and swiped left to end the call.
Behind her, she heard the HR girl sigh, then speak with a clear and bright voice: "Kimberly Jones from HR phoning for Berenice Wolfe! I'm at the Crown Café. Can you let me know if you are on your way over?"
She put her phone down.
Not a moment later a bleep indicated that Bernie had received a voicemail. A deep blush was rising up from her neck, flushing her cheeks. She glanced sideways. The woman had raised both eyebrows now, and smirked. "Well, well," was all she said. Then she pointed at the croissant, and went back to reading her newspaper.
Bernie shrugged. She bit into her croissant, and then drank her bitter, black coffee. This morning was going differently than she had thought.
When she had finished her croissant, and had shoved her plate away, the woman looked up from the newspaper. "Did you have breakfast this morning?" she asked.
"Did you," the woman looked Bernie in the eyes, and seemed to search them for truth, "have breakfast this morning?"
The woman clicked her tongue. Then she snapped her fingers.
"Two glasses of water, and a chocolate croissant," she said to the waiter that came hurrying towards her.
She then calmly sipped her coffee, as Bernie waited and listened to HR papers being shuffled behind her restlessly.
She got served her second croissant, and ate it, because apparently that was the thing to do. The woman smiled at her. A smile that warmed Bernie through and through.
"Drink your water before we go," said the woman, as she affectionately tapped a finger on Bernie's arm. Little hairs stood on end all over Bernie's arm.
"Off we go," announced the woman, as Bernie finished her glass. "Give me my coat," she stated. Bernie stood and held her coat out for her. "And my hat." Bernie handed her an enormous fur cossack hat, which the woman placed on her head like a queen would don a crown. She placed money on the table.
"You will carry that to the car," she said, pointing at two plastic bags and a sizable handbag. Then she resolutely walked out of the café.
"Uh..," said Bernie. Then picked up the bags, greeted the HR girl apologetically, and walked after the woman as fast as her legs and back allowed.
The woman stopped at a red convertible.
She turned and looked at Bernie. "It is very unwise, Berenice Wolfe, correct me if I'm wrong…" She seemed to taste each word with her lipsticked mouth. She had cocked her head slightly, and looked Bernie square in the eyes. "It is unwise, is it not, Berenice, to get into a vehicle with a stranger?"
"Serena Campbell, have we met?" She held out her hand, a twinkle in her eyes.
Bernie took her hand and smiled.
They held on a beat too long.
Then Serena took her hand away, and tossed Bernie the keys to the car. "Get in," she said. "We're going home."