It’s Jason’s idea. His latest fascination is with finding out more about his local community. More specifically, this has led to him becoming a bit of a champion for local independent businesses. He starts making Serena drive out of town to the family-run garden centre rather than using the big chain branch nearby. Then he starts going to get their weekly sausages and mince from their local butcher. It’s only natural that his next logical step would be to contact a local milkman.
Serena tells him she hasn’t got time for leaving money under the doormat with notes inside bottles but Jason simply rolls his eyes.
“The independent milk delivery trade has modernised since you were a girl, Auntie Serena. Now it’s all done online. And it’s all fully recyclable because they take away the bottles and reuse them.”
He shows her the website for their local milkman. Apparently Grisel Dairies are their local independent supplier. They deliver three times a week and offer a friendly, value-for-money, organic service. Jason has already created an account and shows Serena gleefully how one simply adds or removes items to your order for different days depending on what you require. He’s already calculated how many pints of milk they’ll need on average in a week. Serena simply sighs and agrees. Milk is milk as far as she’s concerned.
The milk service is actually rather handy. They get fresh milk three times a week and Jason also experiments with adding other items to their order too: orange juice, cream, eggs. She’s actually rather glad that Jason has decided to do this; it means she doesn’t need to pop to the Tesco Express on her way home to grab some extra milk because they forgot to add it to the weekly shop. The milk is just magically dropped off on her doorstep and Jason puts it in the fridge. The milk tastes better out of a glass bottle too, though she has no idea why.
They’ve been using their local milkman for three months now, Jason Lord of the Dairy in their household as he adjusts the order based upon their schedules and meal plans each week. Serena has a rare day off; Hanssen has forced her to take some of the annual leave she’s amassed. She heads downstairs in search of coffee when she hears Jason talking outside. It’s still early and Serena wonders who on earth he could be talking to so she diverts and heads for the front door instead. As she gets closer, she swears she hears him mention Friesian cows.
Serena opens the door and nearly trips over. Sat on her doorstep are Jason and a blonde woman in a high-vis vest sipping out of a thermos flask. They are indeed talking about cows. Parked on the road is a little electric milk float, identical to the ones Serena remembers from her childhood. Jason looks up and grins.
“Auntie Serena, good morning! Meet Bernie. Bernie’s our milkwoman.”
The blonde stands and holds out a hand.
“How do you do?”
Serena shakes it dumbfoundedly.
“I. Ah. I thought you were a man.” Is all she manages to say. Jason frowns.
“That’s a bit sexist.”
“Sorry, yes Jason, it is. I just meant… I don’t know. Sorry. Why are you out here, Jason?”
“Because Bernie is my friend,” he replies easily. Serena raises an eyebrow.
“Bernie is my friend. When we first signed up, I came to ask her why the bottles don’t fall from her milk float and she answered and now she always builds time into her journey to come and have a chat with me. She’s told me all about her farm. Did you know Bernie owns Grisel Dairies? She’s built up the business herself and she even won Independent Dairy Farmer of the year last year.”
“Yes, when it comes to dairy, I’m quite a big cheese.” The woman winks, breaking the ice as Serena cannot help but laugh at the terrible joke. Bernie offers a sheepish smile. “Look, I pride myself on being friendly and it’s nice when a customer is so interested in the business. If Jason ever wants to come and meet the girls, I’d be happy for him to.”
“The girls?” Serena gapes.
“The herd. They all graze organically and are milked by hand. It’s a lot more time-consuming than the big commercial machines but I find it means I know that I’m getting a quality product.”
Serena could cry with relief. Of course Bernie meant her dairy cattle.
“Well, of course he could, if he wants.”
“I do want! Oh, that’d be brilliant, please can we arrange to go, Auntie Serena?”
“We?” Serena chokes. She can’t really see herself trudging through a muddy field to look at some cows. Bernie looks at her with soft eyes.
“I’d like it if you came too. I might even lend you a pair of wellies.” There’s a smile threatening to break out on her face again and Serena finds it altogether too endearing. Who is this cheeky milkwoman who has woken Serena up more than anything she could get from a cafetière? Serena rolls her eyes at the woman playfully.
“Oh, go on then. We’ll sort something out.”
Before their conversation can continue, Bernie’s pocket beeps and she pulls out her phone.
“Sorry Jason, that’s our time up for today I’m afraid. I’d best get to the rest of my round.”
She shakes Jason’s hand in what Serena assumes is a practiced gesture before leaning forward and pressing a kiss to Serena’s cheek. When she pulls back, the milkwoman is blushing and Serena feels her stomach flip.
“Maybe see you later on this week, then?”
“Until later this week,” Serena smiles.
Jason chatters excitedly to her as they re-enter the house and get some breakfast. He informs her of everything he and Bernie have been discussing in their little morning coffee chats. Serena finds herself more and more invested in what he has to say; it turns out the gentle milkwoman is clearly a shrewd and hard-working businesswoman. She’s rather impressed.
Serena starts getting up earlier and joining Jason and Bernie for their little morning coffee chats. She even spends a rare Saturday off having a personal tour of Grisel Dairies with Jason, wearing wellies loaned to her by the dairy farmer. It’s clear that Bernie loves what she does, she knows the name of every cow and greets each member of staff she has warmly. There’s something to be said for supporting small local businesses, Serena thinks. She’s also pleasantly surprised when Jason, normally loathe to get his hands dirty in favour of the more theoretical aspects of a job, agrees to have a cow at milking one of the gentler cows. Bernie sits next to him and shows him how to squeeze the udders just so so that the milk falls into the bucket below. Serena watches on with pride, pleased at how much her nephew has grown since she first met him.
Jason gets a job with the local council. His role involves building a website and offering IT support to local independent businesses. When he gets accepted, he is told that his knowledge and passion for local businesses was unmatched by any of the other candidates. Jason preens and Serena cannot help but feel proud. In order to work efficiently, Jason makes himself a schedule. The schedule involves him getting a full eight hours of sleep a night which means he will no longer be able to chat with Bernie every time she brings the milk. When Jason tells Bernie this she nods understandingly.
“That’s okay Jason, I’m really pleased about you getting the job. I’ll stop factoring breaks into my route then.”
“No!” Serena finds herself saying before she knows what she’s doing. Both nephew and milkwoman look at her, curiosity and hope etched onto their respective faces. “What I mean is,” Serena says in a quieter tone, conscious that it’s early in the morning, “I’d still like our little chats. It’s nice, seeing you every morning.”
Bernie smiles and it lights up her whole face.
“The feeling’s mutual,” she says bashfully, before heading back to her milk float.
Without Jason to direct the conversation, she and Bernie discuss all manner of things. As winter mornings creep in, Serena invites Bernie into the house for their chats. They sit in the warmth and, over time, the distance between them on the sofa lessens.
When Serena gets an email from Grisel Dairies regarding their Christmas operating hours, her heart sinks. Less deliveries means less Bernie. She’s come to rely on her early mornings with the milkwoman (and Jason, when he’s off work). It doesn’t help that she’s working longer shifts over the festive period so knows she’ll be in work when Bernie makes the last delivery for Christmas. Serena dithers and second guesses herself but finally decides it’s worth the risk. She can always cancel her order for the new year if it goes horribly wrong anyway.
When Bernie arrives on a brisk winter morning, she’s saddened when the door doesn’t open to reveal Serena’s sleepy smiling face. She looks at the present she’s got on her float, messily wrapped but chosen with love. It looks like she won’t get to give it to Serena in person. She goes to collect the old milk bottles to be recycled when she notices something rolled up in one of them. A note. Her heart beats wildly as she unravels it.
‘Sorry I couldn’t be there this morning. Got something for you to unwrap, if you’re interested. Call me x’
Beneath the short note is a sequence of numbers and Bernie beams.
On Christmas morning, Jason knocks on his aunt’s bedroom door before opening it slowly when there’s no reply. He’s surprised by what he sees. Tangled in the bed sheets is not one, but two women. He smiles. Auntie Serena and Bernie have clearly finally admitted their feelings for one another. He’s glad. He closes the door slowly, letting them sleep. Silence once again washes over the room, protecting the two figures in the bed and the two presents unwrapped at the foot of it: a warm woollen hat and a pair of wellington boots.