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Magnetic North

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Bernie takes the ticket from the printer.  Serena stares at it.  She is not impressed.  She looks up from the ticket.  Bernie has a slightly anxious expression.  Serena suspects Bernie knew she wouldn’t be too pleased with this holiday plan. 

“Why?”

The tone in which Serena utters that single syllable can only be described as ominous.  Bernie takes a breath.

“I was trying to be practical,” she says.  “You know, with the virus.  I thought it would be better to visit somewhere near rather than go jetting off somewhere miles away.”

“We aren’t jetting anywhere,” Serena points out.  “This is a ferry ticket.”

“Yes, that’s practical too.  I don’t think it’s a good idea to fly anywhere just yet.  We can socially distance more easily on a ferry, it’s big.”

Serena sighs.  She’d been dreaming about Madeira or the Azores, heat and a spa and romantic restaurants, not this.

“Where are we staying?”

“Well,” begins Bernie.  “I thought we could try somewhere a bit more traditional, see a bit of local character - “

“I am not going camping again!” Serena forcefully interrupts.  “If you think I’m spending one more night freezing my arse off on a glorified lilo with a field full of twenty-somethings doing god knows what between me and the nearest loo -"

“It’s not camping -”

“I’m not glamping either.  We’d have had a more glamorous weekend in the ward sluice than we had in that creaky wagon.”

Bernie feels slightly stung by this.  She had thought glamping was an excellent compromise between her own love of the outdoors and Serena’s desire for luxury.  The covered wagon surrounded by the troughs of colourful flowers had looked so pretty on the website.  She had thought it would be a romantic treat for Serena.  What the website had not shown was its proximity to the neighbouring wagons, the closest of which contained a family with young children.  As Serena had observed, their own wagon had been extremely creaky, which hadn’t lent itself to the pursuit of activities normally engaged in on a romantic weekend away.  The two nights’ enforced chastity had not helped either of them to de-stress and they had spent most of the weekend sniping at each other.

“If you’d let me get a word in – thank you,” Bernie scrolls through her phone.  “We’re staying here.  Best view in the house, peaceful seaside village location and off-street parking.”

She hands Serena her phone.

“McEntee’s Guesthouse, bed and breakfast.  Bed and breakfast!  Bernie, this is our summer holiday.  We’ve been working ourselves into the ground with this hellish fucking virus!  We deserve a decent break and what do we get? A ridiculously long car journey to a seaside B and B nearer the North Pole than we are already!  What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking we deserved a break completely away from everything,” Bernie replies.  “No, hang on, hear me out -”

Four and a half years of knowing Bernie have taught Serena that Bernie’s logical processes are always sound, even when she doesn’t agree.  She nods and Bernie continues.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable flying just now, and plane tickets are silly prices at the moment.  I’m not prepared to spend a shedload of money multiplying our chances of catching the virus, it’s been bad enough worrying about it at work and we had no option about that.  Secondly, this is the only place we can go out of the country without having to quarantine -”

“Technically it’s the same country,” Serena can’t resist.

“It’s across the sea, it’ll do,” Bernie says with admirable patience.   “Thirdly, we can take the car, so you can pack as much as you like and bring lots of presents back for Guinevere.  Fourthly, Jason is already working on our travel route and we can break up the journey with overnight stops.  He’s researching those for us as well.”

“Is there a fifthly?”

“It’ll be an adventure.  There are lots of fascinating things to do.  Jason’s printed out lots of information about local attractions.”

“Okay, but why are we going to Fawlty Towers? Why not a proper hotel?”  Serena isn’t going down without a fight.

“Because it’s got fantastic reviews on Tripadvisor and it’s reasonably priced.  And before you remind me that we are both consultants with more than adequate incomes and no mortgage I want us to go away in the winter if things settle down a bit.  With the impact the pandemic is having on the airlines and the tourist industry we don’t know what prices will do, so we don’t know how much money we’ll need to do that in style.  This way we get the best of both worlds, a, hopefully, less-risky, outdoorsy break with lots of peace and quiet now and then all being well some sun and luxury after Christmas when it’s cold and dark.  Good for the mental well-being.”

Serena feels herself melt inside a little, partly with the pride she always feel at Bernie’s problem-solving abilities, but more because she is reminded yet again that Bernie always has her back.

“The law lost a great mind when you went into medicine,” she says.  “But I’m glad it did.  Right then, let’s check out the weather so I know what to pack.”

She picks up her phone and types in “Weather, August, Northern Ireland.”

 

 * * *

“Look at those hills Bernie, they’re beautiful! There are the Titanic gantries look, Harland and Wolff.  Any relation?  I say, they really are huge.  I had no idea Belfast was so stunning, I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this.  We really should visit while we’re here, apparently you can catch a train.  Oh here we are, Sapphire Stairs.  You’re still looking rather green, are you okay?

Serena has thoroughly enjoyed their journey.  They had shared the driving to Scotland the day before, changing places regularly so neither of them got tired. Jason’s route had, of course, worked out perfectly so they had not got lost.  As a result they hadn’t argued.  They had stopped overnight at a tiny bed and breakfast outside Dumfries (Greta had put a spreadsheet together to help them choose the perfect billet), the charm and comfort of which had prompted Serena to remark that she may have been a little too hasty in her dismissal of guesthouses.  The drive to Cairnryan that morning was picturesque and unhurried.  Serena snoozed the ferry crossing away in the lounge, emerging just in time to admire the vista as they sailed through Belfast Lough.  She and Bernie are now waiting with their fellow passengers in a well-spaced, mask-wearing queue for the chain across the stairs to be removed.  Bernie on the other hand has not had such a pleasant crossing, being confined to the ladies with sea-sickness.  The part of her face Serena can see over her face-covering is very pale.

“Do you think you could drive for a bit?” she asks.  “Tummy’s still a bit dicky.”

 

“It’s good to get that mask off.,” Serena says as they buckle themselves into the car.  “You’re not going to be sick again are you?”

“I don’t think so,” says Bernie from behind a tissue.  “It’s just the smell of diesel setting me off.  Always hated it, which was a bit awkward in the army when everything ran on it.  Have you got The Sat Nav there to get us to the motorway?”

“I have,” replies Serena, passing her a sheet of paper with Jason’s handwriting on it.  “Talking of the army, were you ever stationed here?”

“Northern Ireland?  No, they shipped me straight out to the desert when I’d finished training.  I served with some men who did though.”

“And?”

“They said it rained a lot.  Oh thank god, we’re starting to disembark.”

“There are some peppermints down there in my bag if that would help,” says Serena starting the engine.  “Fancy a big macho army medic like you being floored by a ferry crossing.  Have you always been a bad sailor?”

“Not usually this bad.”

“Good job it’s such a short crossing,” says Serena.

“Short is a relative term,” Bernie replies darkly.

 

“Belfast’s a bugger to drive through,” grumbles Serena as they pull on to the motorway.

“Not so stunning close up close then,” grins Bernie.  Her face is still pale, though the grey tinge has gone.

“I wouldn’t know, I only got to see what was six feet in front of me on the road, “says Serena.  “We’re definitely taking the train if we do decide to visit here.”

“How long is it up to the north coast? Will you need me to take over?” asks Bernie.

“Should be okay, it’s only about sixty miles.  You relax, I took it easy on the boat.  We’ll be there by teatime.”

Bernie doesn’t find the prospect of teatime particularly attractive.  She hopes they will arrive at there destination before the pharmacist closes so she can pick up something to soothe her stomach.

“Are you okay with the route now?  Would it be alright if I close my eyes for half an hour?” she asks.

“Of course,” says Serena. “Just leave The Sat Nav on the dashboard.  Once we’re off the motorway I can pull over and read it if I need to.”

Bernie smiles at her gratefully and reclines her seat.  She is woken by the awareness that the car has slowed.  She rubs her eyes and looks out of the window.  They are on a street of colourful cottages and quaint stone buildings.  Ahead of them the sea sparkles blue and silver in the late afternoon sun.  Further on she sees mountains and headlands.  She recognizes it from exploring Google Earth, but the reality is far more beautiful.

“Wow,” she breathes.

“Hello there,” says Serena.  “As you can see we’re here.  We just need to – oh yes, here we are, McEntee’s Guesthouse.”

She pulls across the road into a small, obviously private car park in front of a tall, white house, executes a snappy three-point turn, reverses the car neatly into a parking space next to the foot of the wide steps up to the front door and switches off the engine.  She turns to Bernie.

“Well, here we are.  Not a moment too soon, I’m dying for a cuppa.  Chop chop.”

 

Their host is a man of about their own age with a fine head of white hair and a sharply trimmed moustache.  He introduces himself as John McEntee and solemnly apologises for not shaking their hands and for his lack of a tie, citing the infection risk on both counts.

“That’s most reassuring Mr. McEntee.  I’m Serena Campbell, this is Berenice Wolfe.  We’re so pleased to be here at last, it’s been quite a drive.”

Serena turns what Fletch calls her “fog light intensity smile” on their host.  Bernie is amused to see the man pink slightly behind his face shield.  He shows them into the foyer and insists on carrying their luggage up the stairs.

“No problem with social distancing here,” he says.  “Plenty of space.  There’s a wee line at the top of the stairs to wait behind if somebody’s coming up.  Just round to the right there please ladies.”

“Wow!” says Bernie for the second time in fifteen minutes as they walk into their room.

“Look at that view!” exclaims Serena simultaneously.

Their host deposits their suitcases on the floor beside the door.

“The ensuite is through there and your hospitality tray is there.  The wi-fi code is in the welcome pack.  Breakfast is between eight and ten.  The dining room is downstairs at the back and I can assure you we’re completely Covid-19 compliant.  I’ll leave you to it ladies, you must be tired after such a long journey.  I hope you have a lovely relaxing stay. Please come to reception if there’s anything at all you need.”

“He seems nice,” says Bernie.  She sits on the end of the bed, kicks off her trainers and lies back.  “Oh this bed is amazing,” she groans in delight.  “Oh Serena, come and try it.”

“We’ve only just got here!” says Serena in mock outrage.  “At least let me have a cup of tea before I have to perform my conjugal duties!”

“There’ll be none of that until my tummy has settled down thank you,” Bernie says.

“Not even a quick welcome-to-the-holiday cuddle?”

“I think I can manage that.”

 

“When you said this place had the best view in the house I never dreamed it would be as dramatic as this,” Serena says as she flops into an armchair by the window.  Bernie passes her a mug of tea and sits down in the other chair.  She too is enchanted by the beauty outside.

“Not a bad choice in the end,” she agrees.

“Beautiful little village too,” Serena continues.  “I can’t wait to explore more.”

They have already done some exploring, venturing out almost as soon as they had finished unpacking.  The main street had proved unexpectedly busy with people evidently on walking trips.  Bernie was relieved to find the chemist shop opened between six and seven o’clock on Sunday evenings.  Serena lingered outside a local crafts shop admiring the jewellery in the window.  They both took note of a promising-looking coffee dock.  Serena pronounced the smell of the coffee “heavenly” and started heading towards the carefully distancing queue then changed her mind when she saw Bernie turn grey again.  Thinking fresh air might perk Bernie up Serena followed the street down towards the very impressive beach.  They eventually arrived at the village’s one hotel, “The Ship”.  Serena laughingly suggested Bernie should put on travel sickness bands before they went in.  She felt very guilty when Bernie replied with just a silent look.  The food was excellent.  Serena tucked into a vast Sunday roast with half a bottle of red while Bernie settled her fragile digestion with a comforting bowl of chicken soup.

“Shall we go back to the hotel for dinner tomorrow?” asks Serena.  “It was such a shame you couldn’t really enjoy that lovely food.”

“Yes, if you like,” says Bernie, nibbling a plain tea biscuit. 

“I’d love to try their seafood platter,” Serena goes on. “Did you see it when that gothy-looking waitress took some over to that table in the corner?  It looked amazing.”

“Not really,” says Bernie.  She wants to steer the conversation away from food.  “What shall we do tomorrow?  There’s masses to choose from.”

“That’s a no-brainer,” says Serena.  “It’s got to be the Giants Causeway.”

“Oh good,” says Bernie.  “I was hoping you’d say that.  Do you want to go out again, for another drink or something?  It’s still quite early.”

Serena looks at her.  She looks washed out.  Serena would love to go back to the hotel bar but she can’t bring herself to drag Bernie out again.

“No,” she says.  “It’s been a very long day.  Let’s just sit here and watch the sunset, then have a bit of telly in that lovely comfy bed.  Then tomorrow it’s Causeway here we come.”

 

* * *

“Mmmmm.”

Bernie stretches her legs in the deliciously warm bed.  She feels around on the bedside table for her phone.  She opens one eye – no point in using energy unnecessarily – and looks at the time.  5.52.  The room is dim and monochrome.  The bed is ridiculously comfortable.  She doesn’t need to pee just yet.  The familiar Serena smell draws Bernie like catnip, comforting and enticing at the same time.  In simple animal contentment she snuggles her face into the back of Serena’s neck and goes back to sleep.

She surfaces again to the sound of the kettle heating and the awareness that Serena is not in the bed.  The room is still dim.  A strip of light under the door of the ensuite tells her where Serena is.  She pushes the duvet down a little and rubs her eyes.  Serena comes out of the bathroom in her dressing gown with neatly combed damp hair.

“What’s with you getting up so early?” Bernie asks. 

“Good morning to you too Darling, yes I slept beautifully thank you.  It isn’t early, it’s five to eight,” says Serena.

“It’s practically dark,” says Bernie.

“It’s five to eight,” repeats Serena.  “It’s also pouring.”

Bernie gets out of bed and sticks her head around the side of the curtains.  The view is virtually invisible behind the quantities of water streaming down the panes.  Cold radiates towards her face.

“Happy first day of the holidays,” Serena says drily from behind her.

 

“Good morning ladies.  How are you this morning?  Rested well after your journey I hope.  I’m afraid you’ve some of our local weather to welcome you today.  It’s forecast to brighten up later.  Now, if you’d like to sit at this wee table here the menu board is on the wall.  Will you have coffee or tea?”

John McEntee ushers them to a table for two.  The breakfast room is delightful.  The weather outside the tall windows is not.

“I don’t see us going to the Giants Causeway today,” says Bernie forlornly. She knows the weather in Northern Ireland is very unpredictable, but this heavy rain on the first morning of their stay has made her feel deflated.  Serena feels a rush of affection for her.  Bernie has tried so hard to give them the break they so need, even taking a ferry knowing she would probably be ill.  Serena is going to do her damnedest to make sure Bernie’s first day is not a disappointment.

“We’ll find something else to do,” she says.  “In fact I have a suggestion you might like.  Why don’t we go to Bushmills and visit the distillery?  It’s on the to do list, it’s near and it’s indoors.  I’ll drive, then you can sample the wares.  If you think your stomach is up to it that is.”

Bernie brightens at once.

“Stomach’s fine thanks,” she says.  “Is there a bus?  We can both sample then.”

“Ah, now that is a good idea,” says Serena.  “Here comes breakfast.”

“Here we are ladies, two Ulster Fries.”

Their host places a huge plate in front of each of them.  Bernie’s spirits lift further.  Serena however is on a mission.  Bernie’s trained eye can see the exact moment the charm kicks in.

“Thank you Mr. McEntee, this looks delicious.  We’ve had to change our plans due to the rain. We were thinking of visiting the Bushmills Distillery.  Is there a bus?  We’d both like to get maximum benefit from the trip.”

“I’ve just the thing.  Wait a wee minute.” 

He leaves the room, then hurries back in with a small booklet in one hand and a box of disposable gloves in the other.  He offers the box to Serena.

“These are similar to the ones they use in hospitals,” he says.

Bernie clenches her jaw and concentrates on not meeting Serena’s eye. Their host continues.

“If you pop a pair on you’ll be safe to take this.  All the local timetables are in here.  The bus stop is on the main street.  You can’t miss it, it’s outside the Post Office.”

Serena thanks him.  He returns to the kitchen.  Serena graciously doesn’t mention the gloves.  She picks up her cutlery and looks down at her plate.

“Of course,” she says.  “No one in our profession should even think about eating this.”

“Waste is a sin,” says Bernie.  “Dig in.”

Serena does.

 

“Would you like more toast ladies?  Or a wee drop more tea?”  McEntee approaches their table.  Bernie notices he is smiling slightly too widely.

“No thank you.  It was all delicious” Serena says, rising from her chair.

Their host see them through the door back out into the hall, insists they keep the timetable, presses more gloves on them and wishes them a good day.

“Poor man,” grins Bernie when they are out of earshot.

“I don’t know what you mean. God, these stairs and Ulster Fries don’t mix do they.  Can we have a post- petit dejuner sit-down before we go for this bus?”

 

“Oh bugger, I think it’s starting to rain again,” complains Serena looking out of the window.

“Good job the bus was on time,” says Bernie.  “I’d just got nice and dry again.  Wasn’t that interesting, I did enjoy it.  Who’d have thought the flavour of a whiskey depended on what sort of reused barrel they put it in.  You were right, it was a great idea for a wet day, all lovely and toasty warm.  And the smells!  They were like – apple crumble, and sherry, and – and- roasting coffee -"

“Roasting coffee?” says Serena.  “I got the apples and the sherry, but not coffee.”  She narrows her eyes and regards Bernie appraisingly.  “You shouldn’t have had that second one.  Even you can’t do whiskey on an empty stomach.”

“It’ll wear off soon now I’ve eaten,” says Bernie.  “I’ll go for a walk if the rain eases off, that’ll do the trick.”

“You’ll go without me then.  It has to be one hundred per cent rain-free before I go for any walks.  Anyway, where would you go?  The village is tiny.”

“I was thinking of staying on the bus and going for a look at Dunluce Castle, then walking back,” says Bernie.  “It’s only a few stops past ours towards Portrush.”

“Jason said we should go there,” says Serena.  “Dunluce Castle, not Portrush.  Kiss Me Quick hats aren’t his thing.”

“We should visit Portrush though,” says Bernie.  “There’s supposed to be some really good restaurants there.  Anyway, I want to see if we can park near7 the station so we can take the train to Belfast and see the Titanic exhibition.”

“Are you okay to do a walk like that?  You won’t go falling off cliffs or anything like that will you?”  Serena suddenly looks anxious.  “Because if you aren’t quite sober enough I’ll come with you.”

“I promise I won’t step off the path and I promise I won’t take any cliff-top selfies.  What will you do?”

“I’ll read, in a comfy armchair, in a lovely warm and dry room with a hot cup of tea,” says Serena.

It is Bernie’s turn to look worried.

“You haven’t sneaked any work away with you have you?”

“Not even the latest BMJ,” says Serena.  “I’ve actually downloaded ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prej’ on to my Kindle, thought a couple of old favourites would be just the thing for the inevitable wet afternoon.  Does that meet with your approval?”

“Just what the doctor ordered,” sniggers Bernie.

Serena winces.  “It’ll serve you right if the heavens do open, making terrible jokes like that,” she says.

 

Bernie arrives back in the room to find Serena snoozing in one of the armchairs.  Her tablet is on the coffee table, as are her feet in their slipper socks.  Bernie gently picks the tablet up and checks what is on it.  Jane Eyre is telling Mr. Rochester she believes presents are generally thought to be agreeable.  Bernie puts the tablet back.  Serena stirs and smiles at her, then looks horrified.

“Bernie, look at the state of you!  You’ll catch a chill!”

“It rained again,” Bernie supplies, unnecessarily in Serena’s opinion as she is dripping on to the carpet. “I’ll warm up with a nice hot shower.”

She emerges from the shower to find Serena has made her a cup of tea.  There are two chocolate biscuits on a serviette next to it.

“Where did these come from?” asks Bernie.  “You didn’t actually walk over to the shop in the rain did you?”

“No, I got chatting with mein host.  He asked if we’d enjoyed the distillery.  I told him you’d enjoyed it so much you’d abandoned me in favour of tramping off through the rain to look at ruins, so I’d come back for a cuppa.  He offered me some chocolate biscuits to have with it so I saved a couple for you.”

“Thanks,” says Bernie.  “What else did you chat about?”

“Well thankfully he didn’t think I needed any more training in infection control.  It was quite productive actually, he was telling me about “The Ship”.  He and the landlord are pals.  They do a different thing there each evening during the holiday season.  On Mondays there’s a folk music session in the beer garden.  I thought that sounded fun, and I really do want to try one of those seafood platters.  Then tomorrow night it’s the weekly lamb roast.”

“That sounds good,” says Bernie.  “Can we go?  I never got a proper dinner yesterday, I feel like I’ve some catching up to do.  What about Wednesday?”

“We never got that far.  He told me I could call him John so I decided a polite withdrawal was in order.”

Bernie laughs. “A tenner says he asks you out before the end of the week.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” snorts Serena.  “He knows we’re in a room with a double bed.”

“A fantastically comfortable double bed,” says Bernie.

“Speaking of which -” Serena leans into Bernie’s space. “– we haven’t christened it yet.” 

She kisses Bernie on the mouth.  Bernie tries to reciprocate.  Serena pulls back.

“I’m not planning on a quickie,” she says.  They hold each other’s gaze for a moment.  “We’d better think about getting ready to go for a meal.  Sooner out, sooner back in.”

“I’m not rushing the chocolate biscuits,” says Bernie.

 

The rain has finally stopped.  Twilight is settling in the beer garden.  The well-spaced tables are all full.  At the far end, a careful distance behind a line of yellow tape which extends across the concrete a three-piece band in denim shirts and a singer with striking blue hair have set up and are performing a sound check.  At their table near a fragrant tub of night-scented stocks Bernie zips her hoodie against the evening chill.  Serena finishes the last spoonful of her dessert, then unexpectedly burps and claps a hand over her mouth.

“Oh I am sorry,” she says in embarrassment. “A touch of over-indulgence.  I shouldn’t have had that panna cotta after the seafood.”

“Nothing to do with the local brew,” teases Bernie.  “It’s not like you to drink beer.”

“If every pub had a microbrewery that churned out stuff like this I might be persuaded to forego Shiraz once in a while.”

“It is good,” agrees Bernie.  “Just be careful.  A lot of these craft beers are quite strong.”

“Bernie I’m a seasoned wine-drinker,” says Serena.  “I don’t think a few halves of IPA are going to do me any harm.”

She is interrupted by an unpleasant screech as the blue-haired singer wipes her microphone.

“Good evening everybody,” the singer says in a strong local accent.  “Welcome to you if you are visiting our beautiful area, and to our regulars it’s great to see you.  I’m Annette, this is Jamie, Phil and Luke and for the next hour and a half we’ll be playing you a few wee songs.  We’ll open with an old favourite.” She nods at the band and begins to sing.

“ 'Where Lagan streams sing lullabies, there grows a lily fair -' ”

She has a clear, powerful voice and the song is haunting.  The diners clap heartily at the end.  She starts another.

“I know this one,” says Bernie, tapping her foot in time.

“Bernie, it’s a Beatles song, of course you know it,” says Serena.  She starts to sing along.  The black-haired waitress from the night before approaches to clear their table.

“Thank you.  Could we have two more beers please?” Serena resumes her singing. “ 'How can I even try, I can never win -' ”

Several songs later the group take a short break, announcing they will open the mike for a few numbers after it.  When they return a man takes the microphone and sings “Ring of Fire” reasonably well, then an older woman steps up.  Some of the audience clearly know her.

“Give us ‘Carrickfergus’ Ann!” calls a male voice from the other side of the garden.

The woman smiles and nods.  She has a deep, slightly gravelly voice.  The song is achingly beautiful, and to Bernie’s surprise she finds tears stinging her eyes. She tells herself firmly she has had too much beer.

“I hope they’ve disinfected that microphone,” Serena comments.  Bernie glances at her.  She looks fine, but Bernie notices she did not articulate the word “microphone” clearly.

“Yes, of course they did.  Didn’t you see?”                                   

“I was looking for the waitress.  Oh, there she is.”

The waitress is facing in their direction.  Serena signals to her for two more beers.

“I’m not sure I should have another,” says Bernie.

“You’re just being careful because you’re on a promise,” says Serena flirtatiously, rubbing Bernie’s thigh.

“Serena, this isn’t Holby,” Bernie says in a low voice.  “We don’t know how people here will react.”

“Love is love,” says Serena combatively, squaring her shoulders.

To Bernie’s relief the waitress, a different one, walks towards them with a tray.  Serena beams up at her.

“Can all Irish people sing?  Is it something genetic?” she says.

“Don’t ask me, I’m from Croydon,” the young woman replies, putting the bottles down on the table.  Serena finds this hilarious and starts to laugh loudly.  Bernie suspects this is less to do with any innate humour in the situation than with Serena being unused to drinking beer.  She dismisses their amorous plans for the evening’s end and resigns herself to helping Serena to bed with a glass of water.

* * *

Bernie drops her cigarette into the pot of water next to the bench.  The morning is still quite sharp, despite the early sun.  The garden is sweet with blossoming privet.  Bernie is filled with peace.  She realises how very tired she has been from the endless work and stress of the hospital during the pandemic.  No wonder Serena had drunk too much last night.  The front door of the guesthouse opens behind her.  She turns to see John McEntee starting to sweep the steps. Spotting her he stops almost at once and leans on his broom.

“Good morning.  It’s a lovely one.  Were you out for a wee morning walk?”

“Good morning.  Yes, I was,” Bernie replies.

“Naturally an early riser like myself,” observes their host.

Bernie is suddenly conscious of their late return the previous evening.  Serena had been very giggly, loudly repeating “dunnarsk me, I’m from Croydon” and ignoring Bernie’s pleas to keep quiet until they got to their room.

“Um, I hope we didn’t disturb anyone last night,” she says.  “We’d been to the music session at the hotel and my - friend isn’t used to beer.”

“She wouldn’t be the first to fall foul of Andrew’s brew,” says McEntee.  “And we’ve all had a difficult few months.”

Bernie thinks their experiences of the past few months are likely to have been poles apart.  She smiles and excuses herself.

 

Serena sips her orange juice delicately.

“That’s welcome.”

“Giants Causeway today then?” suggests Bernie, enthusiastically cutting her bacon.

“No bus though,” says Serena.  “I think it’s your turn to drive.”

“You really will feel better if you eat your fry,” Bernie says.  “And you’ll be able to take some aspirin when you’ve eaten something.”

“I know,” sighs Serena.  “It’s like swimming though isn’t it.  You know you’ll feel great once you start, it’s just that first plunge into the cold water.”  She picks up her knife and fork.  “Here goes.”

 

Bernie gestures towards the sea, reading from one of the many sheets of information Jason had provided.

“So that’s the Giant’s Boot over there look.  It says here that Finn McCool lost his boot running away from the Scottish giant and that somebody or other calculated it would be a size ninety-three and a half.  Go and sit in it and I’ll take a photo for Guinevere.”

Serena picks her way over the pebbly grass and curls up on the rock.

“I hope we never have to give this chap an MRI,” she says.  “Cheese!”

“That’s come out well,” says Bernie as Serena steps back on to the path.

“Let’s see.  Mmm, not too bad I suppose.  At least I look all action-womany in this jacket.”

“You look lovely in it,” Bernie says fondly. 

They walk a little further.  Serena takes Jason’s sheet from Bernie.

“Apparently that’s the Giant’s Organ,” she says, pointing at a rock formation high up in the cliff in front of them.

“Well ding dong!” grins Bernie.

Serena rolls her eyes.

“You are so predictable.  I’m sure the Victorians, or whoever it was who called it that meant a pipe organ, not an anatomical one of an intimate nature.”

“Nothing intimate about something that size,” Bernie says.

“Will you stop!” says Serena.  “I’m trying to get into the magic and myth and you’re going all adolescent on me!”

“Sorry,” says Bernie, though Serena knows she is anything but.  “Actually I think there’s a Tolkien thing going on there.  That’s like my mental picture of the gates of Moria.”

“Is that the ‘The Lord of the Rings’? I watched one film, wasn’t keen.  Good theme tune though.”

“The books are better,” says Bernie.  “Marcus bought them for Cam when the films came out.  He never touched them.  Marcus didn’t like them either, he said it took Tolkien a page to describe one leaf. I took them on tour with me.  I’ve loved them ever since, such beautiful prose.”

“I’ll take your word for it.  Wizards and magic rings leave me cold.  This walk is longer than I expected.”

“Worth it though,” says Bernie.  “It’s amazing.  I’d love to do the cliff-top route.”

Serena doesn’t reply.  Bernie doesn’t press it.  They continue round the bay until they reach the famous hexagonal pillars.

“Wow!” says Bernie.

“ ‘Wow’ is really your word of the week this holiday,” Serena says with a warm smile.  “It is pretty incredible though isn’t it.”

“It’s almost impossible to believe it’s natural,” says Bernie.  “It looks – built.”

“I know what you mean, yes,” says Serena.  “Up on one of those stones with you, it’s my turn for photos now.”

They take touristy pictures of each other posing on the rocks, then Serena takes a selfie of them both with the Causeway behind them.  The air carries the green smell of seaweed and the refreshing nip of salt.  The clouds stream across the sun and the light changes suddenly, the huge cliffs darkening.  The waves, the seabirds and the shrieks of some excited children provide the soundtrack.  Despite Serena’s earlier dismissal of magic they both feel the wonder of this place.  It is spectacular.  They are together.  Work is another world.

 

“I’m dying for the loo,” says Bernie as the Visitors’ Centre appears at the top of the hill.

“I think I’m just dying,” pants Serena.  “I really thought I’d got better at this hearty walks thing since I’d been with you.”

Pausing just to use the hand sanitiser and cover their faces they hurry in to the building.  Bernie makes a beeline for the ladies while Serena goes to the café to get tea.  On her way back to join Serena Bernie pauses in the gift shop to look at possible gifts for their great-niece.

“There are some lovely things for Guinevere,” she says sitting down and removing her mask.

“I got us a scone each,” says Serena.  “What did you see?”

“Cute little tee-shirts with leprechauns on, picture books, colouring books, cuddly sheep.”

“We’ll have a look after this.  Do you want jam?”

“Yes please.  There’s a book about the science of the place I thought Jason and Greta might be interested in too.”

“Plenty of facts and figures?”

“Drier than one of Henrik’s memos.”

“Sounds perfect,” chuckles Serena.  “What do you think about the lamb roast tonight?  Can you stand the place three nights in a row?”

Bernie indulges in a brief fantasy of a sizzling, steaming leg of lamb, fresh from the oven and aromatic with rosemary.

“Definitely,” she says.

“Damn,” says Serena peering past her to the window. “It’s raining again.”

 

“Do you want that last piece of Cashel Blue?” asks Bernie.

“Couldn’t eat another crumb,” says Serena.  “I had no idea Irish cheese was so varied.  And that lamb! Wonderful! Do you want another coffee?”

“Better not, not this late,” says Bernie.  “I won’t sleep.”

Serena’s eyes twinkle suggestively.  Bernie immediately signals for the bill.  They leave the hotel.  All signs of the rain have passed.  Apart from a few golden streaks to the west the sky is clear with a shell-pink tint. 

“Shall we have a little stroll along the beach before we go back?” says Serena.  “It’s such a lovely evening.”

“That would be nice,” says Bernie.  “Mind the steps, there’s a puddle there, don’t slip.  And watch that seaweed.”

They scramble down to the sand.  The tide has not long receded and their footprints shimmer slightly behind them.

“You know I was disappointed when you booked here.” Serena muses.

“I did gather that, yes,” says Bernie.

“I wanted something different and wonderful food and drink and romantic walks along amazing beaches, and we’ve had them all, even if it is with sweaters not sarongs.  It was a wonderful choice Bernie, thank you.”

“And we’re only halfway through,” says Bernie.  “Lots more to do yet.”

They walk in silence.  The light becomes even more beautiful.  Serena moves closer to Bernie and links their arms.

“I’m so glad you came back to me Bernie.  I don’t say it enough.  Thank you for waiting until I was ready.”

“I promised I’d wait,” says Bernie, kissing Serena’s temple gently.  “I was always going to come back to you Serena.  You’re my magnetic north, you’ve always drawn me to you and you always will.”

Serena is unable to reply due to the sudden lump in her throat.  She squeezes Bernie’s arm and leans the side of her head against Bernie’s. Once she trusts herself to speak again she lets go of Bernie’s arm and takes her hand.

“What if one of us had died during the pandemic? What is one of us still does?  It’s not over.”

“That’s a strange thing to say in the middle of a romantic walk.”

“I was thinking,” falters Serena.  “What if – you know, end of life concerns.  We aren’t each other’s next of kin.  I’d like to think that if something happened to me you’d know my wishes.  And vice versa, obviously.  Then there’s knowing you’d be there for Jason and Greta and Gwinny, as indeed I would be for Charlotte and Cameron.  Oh I’m really not making a good job of this.”

Bernie stops walking and turns to face Serena.

“Are you proposing?” she asks.

“I’m not sure.  I don’t quite know what I mean.  I’m certainly not going down on one knee in these trousers.  I just think maybe we should discuss the possibility of some sort of legal arrangement, whether that’s marriage or something else.  You came back to me after everything that happened to you and everything I did.  We’ve avoided the virus so far.  All things considered it’s amazing we’re both still here.  I’d like to plan for our future.”

“I don’t need a piece of paper to prove my love for you Serena, it’s a given.  I think you are right though, we should consider the practical stuff, we do need to talk about it.  But not now, not in the middle of an impossibly romantic walk along the most stunning beach I’ve ever seen.”

“With the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen,” says Serena.

“Flatterer,” says Bernie.

Serena steps even closer to her.

“And where will flattery get me?” she asks.

Bernie looks into Serena’s eyes and feels a visceral surge of desire.

“Everywhere,” she replies.

“We’d better hurry back then,” Serena smiles impishly.

They turn around and set off back towards the steps.  The light from the sinking sun makes a golden path across the sea towards them.  Bernie thinks this is one of the most perfect moments of her life.  Serena links their arms again.

“Look at this,” she laughs.  “We actually are walking into the sunset.”