Bernie Wolfe’s life is a mess. She can by this point freely admit this, at least in the privacy of her own thoughts. Who would’ve thought when the explosion hit three years ago that the IED would do more damage to her life than to her person? Not her, certainly. Her life was, well not perfect, but sort of great before the explosion. Okay not great . A closeted… Something married to a man and having a very illicit affair with a colleague was not quite where she expected to find herself on her 50th birthday. But she had been happy at the least. How very like her, really, to find happiness when making all the wrong choices. She can remember the white hot flash of pain that had overtaken her entire being at the moment of the explosion. She never thought she’d survive it. Now here she is, very much alive even if she doesn’t have much to show for it. Marriage ended. Lesbian love affair outed. Children estranged. She honestly can’t say why she didn’t just go back to the army. Perhaps because she had committed to civilian life and was determined to see it through? More likely because she just didn’t want to admit the shame of defeat. Bernie Wolfe does what she sets out to do, professionally at least if not personally. So she took on a locum at Holby, and the locum turned into a consultant job. After she managed to ruffle the feathers of every doctor on Keller, Hanssen handed her the keys to AAU. The ward was suffering from inconsistent and incompetent management at the time, was all chaos and disorder and Bernie thought it was a wonder they managed to help anyone at all. She threw herself into the job of reshaping it, imbued it with a little army rigor if you will, and in just a few months had a ward running in tip top shape if she does say so herself. What she wouldn’t give for proper trauma facilities, though. As it is, she runs it rather like a field hospital: they make do with what they’ve got. Her colleagues respect her, fear her, probably don’t like her. But they’re better doctors for her and likeability is a poor consolation prize compared to saving lives.
And Bernie, well… She works, a lot. All the time actually. She worked it out once to be about 115 hours a week, give or take. But there’s nothing for her at home and god bless the bureaucracy of the NHS there’s always some paperwork to be done here. She doesn’t sleep so much as lies down for a few hours a night, stares at the ceiling, and contemplates everything she’s done wrong in her life. It doesn’t matter, a couple of hours here and there are enough, bolstered by the occasional nap in an on call room, usually after hours and hours in surgery (for some reason she’s never figured out why it’s easier to sleep against the backdrop of the noisy bustle of her ward than it ever is at home), and sometimes—once a month, maybe she manages to drink enough whiskey to knock herself unconscious for 5 or 6 hours. Unhealthy? Probably. But she’s not pretending to be the poster girl for mental health. She’s surviving and that’s enough.
She stretches her back and cants her head from side to side, stretching out her neck. What she wouldn’t give for a good massage… Out of the corner of her eye she spots the looming figure of her boss and she looks up at him through her fringe.
“Mr. Hanssen,” she greets him. Why must he always loom so?
“Ms. Wolfe,” he inclines his head slightly, “you’re here early this morning.” Bernie glances at the clock and sees it’s 7:05, chooses not to mention that she’s been there since 3:30—last night was particularly bad.
“What can I help you with, Henrik?”
“I couldn’t help but notice I have yet to have received confirmation that you will be attending the charity gala on the 7th,” his tone is as usual faintly disparaging but Bernie ignores it.
“Right. Because I won’t be,” he’s her boss but she has earned the right to be terse with him.
“I haven’t attended for the past two years, what makes you think I’ll be attending now?” Bernie has, in fact, made it clear from the get go that fawning and personability should not be expected from her as a department head.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Wolfe, Brexit has not been kind to the budget of the NHS. We need donor money more than ever and as a head of department I need you to make an appearance. So this is how it will go. You will come, you will bring a date. You and she,” he pauses and coughs awkwardly and Bernie spares a moment to think it’s nice to know that gossip does make it’s way to the top after all, “they will make pleasant conversation and charm and laugh at all the awful jokes. And if you do a very very good job, you may get a proper trauma bay out of the deal.” That gets Bernie’s attention.
“Are you bribing me?”
“Incentivizing you, Ms. Wolfe, to work in the furtherance of our mutual benefaction. I have often thought of how much good you could be doing with the right facilities. Unfortunately, such facilities cost a great deal of money. Money that can only be found...”
“In the deep pockets of our donors. Very well, I’ll go,” and she hates it a little on principle, being so predictable, but she’s learned with Hanssen that sometimes it is easier to just give in. He saunters off, too smug by half. Bernie remembers suddenly his edict about her needing to bring a date and lets her head fall into her hands. “Fuck!”
She stays like that, cursing fate and Hanssen and everyone in between, until Raf comes in with some patient files that need her attention. Later that day, during a short lull she makes herself a list.
- Get a date
- Find an outfit
- Don’t fuck it up
She looks at it and wonders if a trauma bay is really worth this level of effort. 3 hours later she loses a teenager who fell from some height onto a piece of rebar at a construction site. She doesn’t know if better facilities would’ve meant he wouldn’t have died but she does know that they would’ve given him a much better chance. And so she is resolute: anything is worth it if she can save even one more life.
Two days later she is out running at 10 pm, doing her best to tire herself out in a bid for some rest, when she is struck with inspiration. She remembers a conversation she once overheard between Ric Griffin and Sacha Levy. They had been in the break room on Keller joking around and Bernie remembers her mixed feelings at it more than anything, on the one hand she hates ‘locker room talk’ in all of its iterations especially in the workplace, on the other hand the tone of it had reminded her of the men she had served with in the army and she had felt a twinge of longing for the simplicity of her old life. Ric had been regaling Sacha with the tale of the time he had gone to some sort of reunion party and had brought an escort as a date. It’s the perfect solution for Bernie’s predicament. Why should she bother trying to find a woman to go with when there are professionals around? She thinks, briefly, that perhaps for decorum’s sake she should go with a man. But by Hanssen’s comments he doesn’t care and Bernie knows it’ll be a lot easier to be convincingly enjoying herself if she doesn’t have to pretend to be interested in a man the whole time. She tracks Ric down at work the next day, corners him in an empty room, and convinces him to give her the information on this woman. Somewhere in there is a fairly inventive threat involving his testicles and a rusty scalpel should he ever divulge the conversation to anyone and Bernie heads back to AAU with a business card and Ric’s fervent affirmations that he will keep her secret well.
It takes Bernie 4 days to work up the courage to actually make the phone call. It seems so… Oh salacious and taboo and really what does one even say in this kind of situation? But her other option is actually going out and meeting someone and, well, she snorts silently at the mere thought of that. So she grips the phone tight in her hand and hopes desperately that her voice doesn’t crack.
“Hi this is Serena.” Bernie is immediately struck by the warmth of the voice that answers her call. She doesn’t sound tawdry in the slightest. Sounds nice, actually. Like the kind of person you could talk to all night. “Hello?” Serena says again and Bernie realises she hasn’t replied yet.
“Oh. Um. Hi. Hello.”
“Hi.” Is that a smile in the woman’s tone? Bernie decides to ignore any potential ridicule and soldier on regardless.
“I… I’m calling because I’d like to hire you. For a party. I’d like you to be my date to a party, I mean. If you’d like to, that is…” She trails off and fights the urge to bang her head against the nearest wall. Serena’s respondent laugh is warm and doesn’t feel mocking in the slightest.
“I’m sure I’d love to. What’s your name, dear?”
“Berenice Wolfe. Bernie.”
“Which do you prefer? Bernie or Berenice?”
“Either’s fine,” Bernie replies lamely, her usual answer of ‘Bernie’ sticking in her throat. She hates her full name, or she always had until she heard it roll off this stranger’s tongue.
“Very well Berenice,” Bernie tries to stop the shiver that goes down her spine because really what the hell is wrong with her? “And when is this party of yours?”
“The 7th of next month. It’s some big benefactor’s do. Over-cooked chicken, over-priced drinks. I’m sure you know the type.”
“I’m familiar with the idea, yes. And what do you want out of the evening, Berenice?”
“A trauma bay,” the words slip out of Bernie’s mouth before she has a half second to think about them and she curses her stupidity because obviously that’s not at all what she meant.
“I am many things my dear,” Serena replies with a laugh, “but a carpenter I am not.”
“No, no. Sorry. That’s not what I—” Bernie pauses to take a deep breath and try again. “I’m a surgeon. A department head. At Holby City Hospital. My boss said that if we raise enough money from this event he would build a trauma bay in my department.”
“Ah, I see. Well that may just be within my capabilities.”
“I am somewhat of an expert at getting men to spend frankly ludicrous amounts of money, if I do say so myself.”
“Right. Of course.” Bernie’s quite glad Serena can’t see her fierce blush. She had forgotten, for a moment, that she was talking to a lady of the night.
“What will you be wearing to this event, Berenice?” Serena continues, apparently unfazed.
“Yes. We should look somewhat coordinated don’t you think?”
“I, um. I don’t know. So you’ll do it?”
“Mmmm, I do have space in my calendar. So?”
“Uh, right, uh I don't know.”
“Well I'll tell you what Berenice Wolfe, you have my number; how about when you do know you text me a photo of it and we can go from there, how's that?”
“Fine. Yes. Thank you,” Bernie rolls her eyes at herself, could she be any less smooth?
“We should probably meet up somewhere beforehand? Cement our backstory and all that?”
“Well yes, I am assuming that you mean for your colleagues to think that I'm your girlfriend or something of the sort and not an escort you hired for the evening?”
“Oh. Yup. Yes. That would be nice, um, good,” Bernie pauses to take a breath and mentally try to get a hold of herself, it was like she'd never spoken to a real human being before, “um, well it's being held in a hotel. I could just get a room?” She stops herself as soon as she realises what she just said. The implications therein. “Oh. God! No. No not that I, I mean. Um. Not that I wouldn't… But I don't… I mean I don't expect —”
“A room will do fine. Just text me when you know the details, okay?”
They hang up shortly thereafter and Bernie lets the phone fall from her grip, her cheeks still hot with shame. Could she possibly have been any more awkward? She wonders if she could maybe re-enlist after all. The army never made her do things like this.
She solves the outfit issue the next day. She takes an extended lunch break, dashes into the nearest clothing store and pulls the first dress that looks halfway decent off the rack. She tries it on, it fits and doesn’t look awful and that’s good enough for her. Despite not really giving a toss about her appearance, Bernie is no fool and she realises that she will be expected to show up with her hair coiffed and face made up. She decides after some deliberation to ask for help, and well, reaching out to work colleagues probably isn’t the worst idea in the world. So when Raf pokes his head into the office with some paperwork for her she decides to take the plunge.
“Are you going to the benefactor’s party next month?” She asks after taking the stack of files he’s handed her.
“No, thank god. Why,” he pauses and cocks his head, “are you?”
“Hanssen wouldn’t take no for an answer, unfortunately. How did you get out of it?”
“Fletch is working so I’m taking care of the kids,” he says with an easy grin, “best excuse in the world.”
“Right. Well some of us aren’t so lucky, which brings me to my main issue. I need help with hair and makeup and I was wondering if you had any recommendations?” Raf’s brow furrows in confusion at her words.
“And you’re coming to me with this… Why?”
“Well you know I thought as a gay man you would know someone…” She trails off with a little wave of her hand and at Raf’s taken aback look begins to reassess why she ever thinks personal interaction is a good idea.
“Ms. Wolfe, I’m not gay,” he says after a moment.
“Okay, right, bisexual then, sorry,” she’s beginning to consider a hasty retreat, but she’s this far into it so she may as well just press ahead.
“No,” he bites his lip and hesitates for a moment, “I mean, I’m straight.”
“But you and Fletch?” Bernie is truly confused now. Raf and Fletch have been together since before she started working on AAU.
“We’re just friends,” he says it emphatically. He says it like he’s said it a hundred times before.
“You’re married, aren’t you though?” She knows that much from the paperwork. Or at least she thought she did.
“Oh that. Well that’s only technically. And only because after a couple of years living together we realised we get some pretty good tax breaks what with the kids and all.”
“I’m so sorry Raf,” and she really is because if it weren’t for the entire mess of trying to hire an escort earlier this week this would be going down as her most awkward conversation in months, “I just assumed. I just thought it was obvious, I mean the way you look at him and everything, and the living together and the kids...” Bernie trails off, wishing she had stopped talking ages ago. Actually, she wishes she’d never brought it up in the first place. Raf, on the other hand, looks like he’s just been punched. He sinks down onto the extra chair in the office and says in a very small voice,
“I didn’t think it was that obvious.” And oh Bernie is really wishing she had never brought any of this up now. She is not the right person to be having this conversation in the slightest. Maybe they can never speak of this again? Would it be entirely wrong for her to have Mr. Di Lucca transferred to another ward so she never has to see him again? But she feels bad, she really does like Raf. So she does her best to say the right thing. She remembers in medical school they were always supposed to ask ‘how does that make you feel’ to patients, until one of her teachers pulled her aside one day and told her she would never be able to make that turn of phrase sound sincere so she needed to find something else.
“Do you want to talk about it?” She says, which has always rolled off her tongue much better.
“Um, open up about my embarrassing unforetold gay crush to my boss? Wasn’t exactly what I had planned for the day,” he’s not really making eye contact as he talks but that suits Bernie just fine.
“Right, of course not. I have, um, been there before though. With the, um, crush and the late in life, uh, sexuality crisis,” she grins a little, “at least you’re not married to someone else?” He laughs a little awkwardly at that.
“True. Well, um, I think I’ll suffer in silence, thanks. And uh, for the hair and makeup thing you might want to ask Dr. Copeland on Keller? Much more up his alley than mine.”
“Okay. Thanks Raf,” she gives him a little smile as he leaves and then leans back in her chair and lets out an explosive breath. That had been… Unexpected.
She wonders whether or not she wants to bother trying to ask Dr. Copeland for help, but she figures she’s probably used up her quota for embarrassing conversations for the next while and, well, it can’t go worse than that just had, could it? So she stands up and squares her shoulders and heads to Keller to get it over with.
She doesn’t know much about Dom, they had interacted a little when she first got to Holby, she still feels a twinge of guilt for blaming him for her affair with Alex being outed, and she remembers the hubbub that had surrounded him last year when his boyfriend Dr. Mayfield plummeted off the roof to his death. But she needs the help so she finds him and pulls him aside and manages to ask him for help without stumbling over the words too much. His initial response is to grin like a 6 year old on Christmas morning but at her withering look he calms down (somewhat) and manages to give her a name and number for a friend’s salon with only a couple of mentions of how incredibly honoured he is that she came to him. Bernie wonders for about the umpteenth time that morning if all of this is really actually worth it.
It is though, definitely. Because even if she won’t quite admit to herself there’s an ever-growing part of her that wants desperately to impress Serena. She’s had one abysmal phone conversation with the woman, that’s it, but she can’t suppress the funny feeling in her stomach or how her mind keeps drifting to wondering what she’ll be like in person when they finally meet. She’ll be warm and calming and beautiful, just like her voice, Bernie thinks. Then tries not to think about it too much.