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The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

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Bernie Wolfe was slumped against the bed frame on the floor of her room, at the pension house overlooking the infamous, but now closed down, Moulin Rouge. Her eyes were no doubt bloodshot and puffy from the endless sobbing, and her heart had stopped beating the second Serena's did all those months ago. The problem was that she was ostensibly still alive. She lets the bottle slip from her hand to clink with the others on the floor. It seemed that Bourbon and Absinthe didn't numb the pain of losing the love of your life, and God knows she'd drunk enough of both to test the theory.

Tell our story Bernie. Promise me. Promise me...

It had been Serena's dying wish, whispered between them with what proved to be almost her last breath. Bernie hadn't touched a typewriter since that day. She just couldn't. But she had promised her. That thought makes her step rather unsteadily to her feet and sway across the room towards her desk, wiping at her face with her sleeve. She runs her fingers over the keys and tries to remember a time when she had barely left the machine. Her mind can almost conjure Serena lying on the bed, covered by only a sheet, as they ran through all the pages she could churn out in the space between making love. The brunette's smile like the brightest star, as she relishes every word that Bernie puts together, looking at her like she was the centre of her universe. Nothing existed for them outside of the walls of their love nest and no one could touch them.

Bernie shuts her eyes as a fresh wave of tears hits, the brunette's laughter ringing in her ears as she pictures the memory of herself snatching the pages away playfully to throw them over her shoulder with abandon, as she leans down to crawl over the mattress and covers Serena's naked body with her own. Her hand reaches out in the empty room as if she can still touch the perfect curves that she had spent so many hours learning and she swears she can almost feel Serena underneath her fingertips.

She sits heavily at the chair in front of her typewriter and just stares at it for the longest time. You promised her, she wills herself to grab at the first blank piece of paper beside her and thread it into the roller. The words swirl and swim inside her brain, but don't quite reach her hands, as she hovers her fingers over the keys and tries to start writing.

Eventually the words start to flow, as the familiar, rhythmic tapping on the keyboard provides some small measure of comfort. She begins to tell the tale of how she came to Paris the previous year, to follow her dreams of becoming a writer in the Bohemian epicentre of Montmartre. Of the Moulin Rouge and the most beautiful courtesan in the world, Serena ‘The Sparkling Diamond.’ She lets the tears drop unimpeded as she types that she loved her. Of how she loved her. The woman I loved is dead....

One year earlier

Bernie had travelled from London to Paris, against the wishes of her overbearing and traditionalist father, who'd rather she settle down and be someone's wife, someone's mother. If only he could see me now. She hid her short blonde curls under a man's cap and dressed in more masculine clothing, ensuring it was always baggy to hide her curves. She knew she'd have more success as a writer if she was Bernard and not Berenice. Besides, corsets and long dresses seemed too oppressive and she couldn't stand their constrictive nature. Her ruse seemed to fool everyone so far and as long as she was careful, she'd be able to make it as a male writer here.

She could afford to rent a small room at a rundown hostel with a view of the quarter. The imposing Moulin Rouge facing her, not more than a stone's throw away. It was a meagre existence but it was all hers. Now all she had to do was write something to keep the earnings coming in. She sat at her typewriter in her dwellings and hoped for inspiration. She wanted to write about the Bohemian ideals: freedom, beauty, truth and love. The last one especially, only problem was she'd never been in love before...

Her inner musings are rudely and loudly disturbed by the crashing of a narcoleptic Argentinean through her ceiling, quickly followed by a sea of faces checking on their friend. She soon finds herself dragged up to their rehearsal for a play they were putting together, to read the Argentine’s part. The dwarf leader of these mismatched outsiders introduces himself as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

“I know you're a woman but your secret’s safe with me.” He whispers and winks conspiratorially as Bernie flushes, speechless.

It seems that in trying to offer her artistic input she accidently offends the play's writer Audrey, who quits and storms out. Bernie soon finds herself his successor, whether she wants the job or not.

Toulouse explains that they are working on a Spectacular Spectacular to sell to Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge. They would perform the show inside the cabaret house and become instant superstars of the Bohemian movement. He confesses that Harry will not be impressed that Audrey is gone, but he has a plan. They will dress Bernie in the Argentinean’s best tuxedo and top hat and she can pitch her ideas to Serena. She was Harry's best courtesan and if she liked Bernie's work, then she could persuade Harry to back them with their new writer. Bernie agrees because at least it was a job with the potential for steady income.

Once inside the Moulin Rouge that evening, the group are offered a small booth at the edges of the theatre and Bernie takes in her surroundings open mouthed. The entire place was pure decadent, opulent excess, she'd never seen anything like it. She tugs on the inside collar of her borrowed shirt, nervous of her ability to pull this off.

She quickly forgets everything else around her as the sweetest voice she'd ever heard fills the auditorium. She swallows thickly as a pair of stocking clad legs in heels appear from somewhere in the ceiling, followed by the rest of the most heavenly creature she'd ever laid eyes on.

“That's her! That's Serena!” Toulouse enthuses as Bernie looks on stunned.

She knew of her attraction to other woman, had never acted on it, but she couldn't look away from the woman now dangling from some sort of trapeze as it slowly made it's way to the floor, her seductive tones hypnotising the helpless writer.

Little did she know that she wasn't the only one watching, as the man sitting back to back with her in the adjacent booth studied the courtesan intently.

“I've arranged a private meeting between Serena and yourself dear Duke, after the show. Totally alone.” Zidler needed the wealthy man's financial aid to convert the Moulin Rouge into a proper theatre and what better to bargain with than his biggest asset. Serena.

“I've arranged a private meeting between Serena and yourself Bernie, after the show. Totally alone.” Toulouse explains to the petrified writer.

“Alone?” Bernie’s breath leaves her body in a rush of anxiety.

“You read her some of your poems and get her on side for the show. Zidler wouldn't refuse her anything.” Toulouse assures her.

Harold leaves the Duke and rushes off to take his place with Serena for his part in the number.

Toulouse is very energetically encouraging Bernie to sell their show when he knocks a tray of drinks all over the Duke.

“I'm so terribly sorry.” He flicks his handkerchief out of his pocket and starts to dry off the Duke.

Serena and Harry are huddled behind the skirts of the can-can dancers as she hurriedly carries out her costume change mid act.

“If you impress this Duke with your feminine whiles, he'll finance everything and you my little sparrow will be a real actress.” Harry tells her.

“A real actress.” Serena echoes wistfully. It was all she'd ever wanted. “Which one is he?” They jump out from their hiding place and Harry looks over to the Duke’s booth, not happy that Toulouse is bothering their potential benefactor.

“He's the one Toulouse is shaking his hanky at.” He notes annoyed.

Toulouse has soaked his own hanky through and reaches to take Bernie's as Serena looks over to see him waving it in Bernie's face.

“Really?” Serena thinks the man seems a little young and dishevelled for a Duke as she peeks over Harry's shoulder as she dances.

Zidler turns them in time to see Toulouse now fawning over the real Duke with the cloth. “Yes. Absolutely. That's him.”

She shrugs and continues on with the remainder of her song. When it comes to the part of the night where she can pick a dance partner from the audience, her choice is obvious. She heads straight over to Bernie and extends her hand to the startled blonde.

“I believe you've been expecting me.” She smiles down at the spellbound writer.

“Yes.” Bernie doesn't trust her voice to say anymore as she regards the outstretched hand with unmasked terror.

“Lady’s choice. Dance with me.” Serena wasn't backing down as she practically drags Bernie to the floor.

Zidler smiles smugly, unaware that the figure under the top hat is not really the Duke.

Bernie tenses from head to toe as Serena runs her hands down from her shoulders to her feet and back up again. She moans quietly as she feels her nipples stand to attention at the contact. She panics that Serena is sure to notice a couple of things that shouldn't be there and one that definitely should be, but that she doesn't have. If she is aware, she doesn't flinch and she never mentions it. Bernie sighs out, relieved that she hasn't blown her cover.

“I'm very much looking forward to getting better acquainted in my room later.” She purrs into Bernie's ear.

“Yes. I'm exited to share my talents with you. A private poetry reading.” Bernie smiles shyly.

“Poetry. Right. Is that what you want to call it?” Serena winks knowingly and Bernie thinks she's completely missed something. “I'll see you very soon.” She pushes Bernie back to sit in her seat and sashays off to finish her act.

Bernie is left breathless and staring unashamedly at the unrivalled beauty of the courtesan as she is lifted back up to the ceiling on her trapeze. She gasps out and almost rushes over to catch her as she watches the woman appear to fall from an alarming height, but thankfully she lands in the strong arms of one of the male dancers.

Zidler plays it off as part of the show to an explosion of applause as Serena is carried off backstage and tended to by Marie, who wakes Serena with some smelling salts. Serena puts her dizzy spell down to the restrictive costume, and doesn't notice the blood she has just coughed up into Marie's hanky, as the older woman speedily hides the item.

“How are you my darling?” Harry rushes in to check on his biggest seller. “Still up for your rendezvous with the Duke, I hope.”

“Yes Harry. I'm fine. I'm fine.” Serena pushes up from the cot she'd been placed on and walks off to her personal room to find a cautious Bernie pacing outside. “Come in. I'll just be a moment to change out of this costume.”

Bernie follows her in and keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the view of the landscape through the open air window as she hears the unmistakable sounds of Serena changing.

“Now. You must be thirsty after the show. Champagne?” Serena gestures to the tray of refreshments.

Bernie's eyes trail over the brunette's form in what can only be described as almost see through lingerie. “Uh...” She looks gorgeous and Bernie's brain short circuits.

“Are you hungry?” Serena continues to smile as Bernie looks down at the floor flushed and embarrassed.

“I'd rather just get on with it.” Bernie means the poetry. Serena thinks she means something entirely more intimate and is surprised by the bluntness.

“Alright. Won't you join me on the bed then?” Serena drapes herself alluringly over the bedding.

“I'd rather stand.” Bernie blurts out, not sure why she's being invited to the bed. “But stay there if you wish.” She adds when Serena moves to get up. “I can do it from here.”

Serena raises her eyebrows in shock. “Can you?”

Bernie nods and starts to pace the room, searching for a topic to come up with a poem about.

“Are you nervous?” Serena watches the Duke rather amused and strangely touched by his shyness.

“It just sometimes takes a while for inspiration to come.” Bernie explains apologetically.

“Oh well. Let me help you with that.” The courtesan saunters over to the blonde and moves her hand to grab for ‘his’ crotch. Bernie jumps back alarmed when she sees the brunette's intention. She didn't have anything to hold onto in that area.

“It's a little bit funny. This feeling inside...” Bernie starts her poem, keeping out of reach of Serena’s hand.

“What are you doing?” Serena’s brow crinkles in confusion.

“A poetry reading. Is this ok? Is it what you wanted?” Bernie's face drops, she was going about this wrongly perhaps.

“Ok...yes. Poetry.” Serena is puzzled but she has to play along she guesses for the sake of the money.

“I'm not one of those who can easily hide.” Bernie continues shakily, unsure if this was right or not.

She jumps clean out of her skin when Serena starts writhing and screaming as she rolls around on the floor in apparent arousal. Bernie breaks into song as she carries on with her poem and watches the courtesan very confused.

Serena stills as she hears the rest of Bernie's words and studies her awestruck, as she serenades her with the most beautiful poem she'd ever heard.

Bernie finishes and looks timidly over to Serena, waiting nervously for her critique.

Serena walks slowly over to the other woman and wraps her arms around Bernie's neck. “I can't believe it.” She looks deep into the Duke's brown eyes and Bernie's breath catches in her chest. “I've fallen in love with a young, handsome, talented Duke.” She leans in to kiss the blonde.

Bernie beams at Serena's declaration of love and moves to meet the kiss when she realises what the brunette said.

“Duke?” She repeats confused as Serena nods. “I am not a Duke.” She still has her arms around the courtesan’s waist.

“What?” Serena pulls away shocked. “You're not?”

“No. I'm a writer.” Bernie clarifies, forgetting herself and removing the top hat.

“You're a woman.” Serena exclaims as she takes in the soft blonde curls. How could she have missed it? The cheek bones, the softness of the skin on her face, absent of even a hint of stubble, the gentle voice and those eyes. Of course she was a woman.

“Please. Don't tell anyone. I just want to be a writer and they won't take me seriously as a woman.” Bernie begs the brunette. “Haven't you ever had a dream?” She glances up at Serena through her now revealed fringe.

Serena flushes and thinks of her own dream to be an actress. She wouldn't tell anyone. “You're one of Toulouse’s writers.” Serena guesses. “I'll kill him!” She fumes when Bernie nods.

Toulouse and the others had been spying outside and he blanches at Serena's threat and moves further out of sight.

“You need to leave. The real Duke will be here any minute.” Bernie tucks her hair hastily back under her hat as Serena opens the door and almost falls over the man himself. She slams the door in the Duke's face to avoid discovery. “Hide!” She hisses at the blonde, who ducks behind the food tray.

The Duke knocks on the door again, a little annoyed by the courtesan’s actions.

“Dear Duke. Forgive my rudeness, you startled me. You’re quite the imposing figure, I'm sure you know.” Serena gestures for the man to enter the room as Bernie cringes at Serena's flirtations.

“No harm done.” The Duke moves to pour some champagne for them both and most likely find Bernie the process.

“Don't!” Serena shouts and the Duke turns to her. “ just love the view.” She adds and takes them further into the room towards the window.

The Duke hums his tepid agreement and heads back to the tray.

Serena does the only thing she can think of and trails the Duke on top of her onto the bed. “Oh dear Duke. I knew you felt it too.” She pulls the man down to her bosom and signals with her hand over the Duke's shoulder for Bernie to use the window. “Oh you are a naughty boy!” She waves Bernie away mouthing ‘Go!’

Bernie fixes her with a wounded look that inexplicably makes Serena feel compelled to stop this going any further.

“Yes. You're right, Duke. Of course we should wait until after opening night.” She catches the blonde's eye with a ‘happy now?’ expression, as Bernie smiles relieved, and hides out of sight as Serena ushers the Duke back outside. Serena slumps exhausted against the inside of her door.

Bernie comes back into the centre of the room and Serena meets her there.

“You need to go now. Please.” Serena gasps and then passes out as Bernie catches her before she falls.

“Serena?” Bernie panics as she tries to shake the woman awake. “Serena?” She looks frantically around for something that might help. Coming up empty, all she can do is shuffle them over to the bed and the force of throwing the brunette onto the covers pulls Bernie down on top of her with a huff.

“Excuse me mademoiselle. Forgot my hat.” The Duke reappears in time to find them in the compromising position, just as Serena comes round. “Foul play?” The Duke is livid.

Serena springs into action then. “Oh no dear Duke. Seeing you tonight left me so inspired that I just had to call an emergency rehearsal for the play.” Serena smiles as she indicates Bernie. “This is our writer...”

“Bernard Wolfe, sir. Bernie, if you prefer.” Bernie interjects when she sees Serena flail, she hadn't given her name.

“You really expect me to believe that?” The Duke would not be made a fool of.

Toulouse saves the day by coming out of hiding and making a fuss about the Duke interrupting their run through.

Even Zidler bursts in when he sees the crowd disturbing Serena and the Duke from his spy hole.

“It's alright, Harry. The Duke knows all about the impromptu rehearsal and Bernard, the new writer.” Serena pleads with her eyes for Zidler to play along.

“Ah yes! Bernard lad. Fine writer, this one.” Harry slaps Bernie on the back almost winding her.

“What's the story?” Panic descends as the Duke poses the question that none of them had the answer to.

“It's about love.” Bernie finds her inspiration from the items in Serena's room. “Set in India. A young courtesan falls for a penniless writ...sitar player. She mistakes him for a wealthy maharaja. She wasn't tricked on purpose, he was dressed as a maharaja for a play he was appearing in.” Bernie looks over at Serena with a small smile. “The real maharaja is an evil, old man who forces the courtesan into a relationship. But the young lovers continue to meet in secret, right under the maharaja’s nose. There is a magical sitar...”

“Played by me!” Toulouse pipes up.

“...that gives the game away. It can only speak the truth. But the couple manage to escape and live happily ever after.” Bernie concludes.

“Generally, I like it.” The Duke approves to huge cheers all round.

Bernie and the Bohemians head back to their lodgings to celebrate. While the others drink and party, Bernie sits at her typewriter trying to get started, but her mind and her eyes keep wandering to Serena. She can see the courtesan going about her routine from her window and finds herself heading back to the Moulin Rouge to see her. Unbeknownst to the blonde, Serena had also been watching her, thoroughly intrigued by the striking writer.

Meanwhile Harry and the Duke sign a contract that means that the Duke will fund the project but in exchange, Serena belongs exclusively to him and will come to him as soon as the curtain closes on opening night. He also insists that he hold the deeds to the Moulin Rouge as collateral. Zidler all too willing signs Serena over to the Duke without the woman even knowing about it.

Bernie climbs silently up the side of the structure until she reaches the roof terrace she'd last seen Serena sitting in.

Serena jumps as she suddenly notices the woman behind her.

“Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.” Bernie holds up her hands, letting the courtesan know that she came in peace.

“You shouldn't be here.” Serena stands to go back inside.

“I just wanted to see you... I wanted to ask...” Bernie stumbles over her words. “You said that you loved me.” She glances up at Serena and then back to the ground.

“I'm a courtesan. I'm paid to make men believe what they want to believe.” Serena crushes her hope under her heel.

Bernie realises what she'd said. “What about a woman?” She hazards feeling a little glimmer of courage inside herself.

“What?” Serena doesn't understand the question.

“You said ‘men.’ I'm not a man though, am I?” Bernie challenges.

“I can't fall in love with anyone.” Serena affirms, ready to leave again.

“Can't fall in love?” Bernie echoes incredulously.

Serena nods sadly and looks off to some point in the distance with a harsh sigh of resignation. “You'd be wasting your time to fall in love with me. I'm stuck here until the highest bidder comes along or I can pay my own way out.”

Bernie steps closer to the brunette and waits for Serena to turn towards her. “What if I'm already in love with you?”

“Bernie.” There is a warning in the courtesan’s tone. “You can't...we can't -”

Bernie cuts her off with a brush of her lips against Serena's. Serena tries to resist but she knows her own heart too well. She was already falling in love with Bernie. It seemed so irrelevant that they were both women. That simple brushing of lips had made Serena feel more for Bernie, than all the men she'd been with put together.

“You're gonna be bad for business. I can tell.” Serena grins and leans in for a deeper kiss.