Serena slams into their shared office and glares, and Bernie knows something is up.
‘What’s the matter?’ she ventures.
‘What’s the matter is that nobody in this hospital can mind their own business for five minutes! I mean, is it absurd of me to hope that our sex life might go uncommented-on for a day, just a single day?’
‘Oh God,’ says Bernie. ‘What now?’
It’s mixed up in a lot of swearing and asides about how in their day junior doctors respected their elders, but Bernie eventually gathers that Serena happened to overhear some of the AAU team as she went past the break room.
‘There’s some new… internet thing,’ she says. ‘Apparently. A challenge. You’re supposed to try not to have sex for seven days. One of the nurses had just done it, they were talking about it. Then Fletch said something about how there was no way we could ever do it because we’d never be able to hold out that long, because we’re all over each other, which is nonsense because we’re always very careful at work, so how would he know?’
Suddenly Bernie’s starting to feel a bit put out too. ‘He did, did he?’
‘I walked in after that, and they soon shut up, but really, is a bit of privacy too much to expect?’
‘Fletch thinks we couldn’t do it?’ Bernie asks.
‘What does he think we are, a couple of horny teenagers? We’re consultants . We’re professionals . We’re fully grown adults with impulse control!’
Serena tilts her head, and Bernie can tell she's going to say something about how they haven’t gone more than three days without sex since they got together, and mostly a lot less. ‘Bernie…’
‘No, Serena. This is personal now.’
‘And it wasn’t before?’
‘People gossip, that’s what they do. But this... ‘
‘Well, it’s not as though we can do anything about it.’
‘Of course we can. We’ll do the challenge.’
‘And then what, send round an email?’
‘We don’t have to tell anybody else… I just want to prove that we can do it.’
Serena’s looking at her with pity now. ‘Let me get this straight - you want us to abstain from sex for an entire week because you feel like we have something to prove, even though we’re not actually going to do anything with that proof once we have it?’
‘It’s a matter of principle now,’ Bernie says darkly, and Serena sighs.
* * *
Bernie does some googling, and it turns out that there’s more to the challenge than she realised, but it’s too late to back down now and she’s burning with righteous competitiveness, so she just pastes it all into an email and sends it to Serena to look at.
I found out what exactly this challenge involves:
Day 1 - no physical contact whatsoever
Day 2 - hands and faces can touch hands and faces, but no kissing
Day 3 - kissing only, no other kinds of touching
Day 4 - kissing, hands and faces can touch hands and faces
Day 5 - kisses, hands and faces, any touching other than genital contact, but only through clothes
Day 6 - anything but genital contact
Day 7 - anything goes
Does today count as Day 1?
Serena’s reply pings back within minutes.
Yes, you were already working when I got here and we haven’t had a chance to kiss hello yet. Let’s not add an extra day to this already ludicrous regime. Who sat down and came up with this? Are we allowed to masturbate?
Bernie does a bit more googling. Opinions are divided but she tells Serena yes because she fears for her patients and staff if she tells her no.
The rest of the day passes more or less normally - it’s not as if they touch each other all that much at work anyway, Serena’s very strict about that sort of thing - but the knowledge that they can’t is already starting to get to Bernie. In their office, her fingers itch to cross the table and meet Serena’s. When they gather their thoughts at the Nurses’ Station, she wants to stand close enough that their arms brush together. She starts thinking of all the ways they could be touching right now if Serena hadn’t happened to walk past the break room when she did. Even during the working day, there’s scope for a pat on the shoulder, a gentle elbow in the ribs. They walk past a storage cupboard together on their way to Pulses and Bernie has a sudden, vivid mental image of dragging Serena in there and pinning her against the wall. Not that Serena would have let her get away with that even before they decided to do this.
She starts to think maybe this is ridiculous - she’s not going to be told what to do by a silly internet trend that was probably invented by a teenager - but as she and Serena leave for the night, walking close but not too close, Fletch waves and wishes them a lovely evening, and her heart hardens.
At Albie’s, their fingers almost brush together as their wine glasses touch, and Bernie jumps back. Serena’s looking especially lovely tonight, and usually by now Bernie would have an arm around her, but they sit like prim schoolmistresses and Bernie steadfastly ignores the plunging neckline of Serena’s top, the sparkle in her eyes.
They leave Albie’s after one drink and go back to Serena’s, where they watch TV with Jason and have an early night. Bernie watches Serena, half-undressed, as she takes off her make-up, and thinks about how normally she would stop and kiss her bare shoulder on the way past to brush her teeth. They get into bed, where normally Bernie would slide her foot against Serena’s while they read by the light of the bedside lamp.
Serena reaches the end of her chapter, Bernie reaches the end of her article.
‘Ready for lights out?’ Serena asks.
Normally, right now would be their last goodnight kiss.
‘Ready,’ says Bernie. ‘Love you.’
‘Love you too,’ says Serena, and she switches off the light.
Bernie lies there, ramrod straight like she’s being inspected. She can sense Serena on the other side of the bed, doing the same. She’s only inches away.
Who really cares, anyway? This whole thing is ridiculous. What does it matter if they can’t keep their hands off each other? Why should she feel like she has to prove anything? She argues with herself for a few minutes, and then finally she decides that this challenge is more trouble than it’s worth.
She turns on her side, to whisper this to Serena, but the long day has already knocked her out. She’s sleeping. In the half-light from the street lamp outside the window, her face is peaceful. One of her hands is tucked under her cheek.
Bernie sighs. She wouldn’t wake Serena for the world, and it’s not fair for her to decide to give up for both of them, no matter how much she wants to stroke Serena’s hair back from her face and kiss her temple, and snuggle close to her.
Sleep eludes her for a long time.