They’ve been conspicuous for weeks now. Along the greeting card aisles, in the floral displays at grocery stores and markets – valentines! Like almost every holiday, Valentine’s Day is a mess of commercialism. A meal in a restaurant that costs a certain amount every other day of the year, suddenly is priced double. Bottles of champagne, chocolates and long-stemmed red roses are thrust front and center of every grocery store display, forcing you to reckon whether your sweetie is worth the splurge (the answer, gents, is always yes…) Even children too young to even know what month it is, pass around little favors to classmates and friends. Not too much candy though!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against a tradition of reminding friends and lovers how much they mean to you, so long as it is heartfelt. I hate feeling brow-beaten into doing something – I think it cheapens the whole experience. Therefore, as an antidote to the rank commercialism (and at the risk of extreme self-mortification), I thought that I would share a long ago story of love’s first blush:
The first time that I received an actual Valentine from someone who hadn’t been coerced into sending me one.
It was 1984. I was in the 4th Form (approximate to High School Freshman) and I was 15. In the UK back then, secondary education ranged from 1st Form through to Upper 6th, so kids ranging from 11 to 17 were all in the same school; i.e. no separate Middle/ Junior High, or High School. Consequently, impressionable young girls could gaze out of the Common Room windows at the older, grown up Sixth Form boys. It was within this hothouse of angst, that my gaze fell upon the high-cheek bones, blue eyes and ruffled dark hair of Jonathan Berry.
Let me re-phrase that. My gaze did not so much fall upon him so much as my entire self, having been violently pushed from behind in the main hallway where Jonathan was a Prefect. (All the Sixth Formers were required to monitor the school’s various hallways and stairwells, in order to help maintain some kind of discipline as the rabble of kids moved around the school). If my memory serves, I had been pushed by one of the boys in my class who was actually aiming for someone else. Nevertheless, I tripped headlong, head butted Jonathan in the stomach and collapsed in an untidy heap at his feet. Like a paperback romance cliché, I felt myself being gently picked off the floor, my bag handed to me and a kind voice asking if I was OK.
Well, that was that! I had literally fallen head over heels in love with a Hall Prefect. Henceforth, whenever it was reasonable, and sometimes when it wasn’t, I used that hallway to get around school. Sometimes, Jonathan would catch my eye and give a small smile, mostly, he chatted to his buddy, Simon, who shared the hallway duty. Stupidly, I confided in my friends, who giggled like idiots every time we passed him either in the hallway or around school. I was mortified.
The Christmas holiday came and went. Even cold, wet, January could not cool my heart, warmed as it was, by the occasional glimpse of my hero. February arrived. Unbeknown to me, a couple of “friends” had decided that it would be amusing to let Jonathan know that he had an admirer. As Valentine’s Day approached, unsubtle hints were dropped about “surprises”. As exciting as it sounded, I began to get nervous that something would happen and I would have to *gasp* speak to him, tongue-tied as I was.
The Big Day arrived. The school was abuzz with gossip – who fancied who, which losers didn’t get anything, who was a big slapper, etc. I tried to ignore the whispers and giggles but upon reaching my classroom, I discovered a (real) red rose, along with a crimson envelope, on my desk. My classmates huddled around, puzzled as to why a dweeb such as I had received such a genuinely romantic gift. I felt physically sick.
“To The Cutest Girl. Love, S. xxx”
Someone snatched the card out of my hands and began to pass it around. I sat down, stunned. My friend, Kathryn, sat down next to me. “S? Who is S?”
I was without speech.
“Oh my God!” she said suddenly, “It’s from Simon!”
A fresh wave of nausea washed over me. Slowly, I began to put snippets of images and comments together. Jonathan and Simon, the Hall Prefects. Guarding each side of the double doors. Shy smiles. The softly spoken “Hi’s”. I had been so aware of Jonathan that I had barely noticed tall, bespectacled Simon.
“What are you going to do?” Kathryn asked.
“I think I’m going to die.”
As it happened, nothing much came of the whole episode. After a brief period of 4th Form celebrity (I had received a card from a 6th Former after all!) and a half-hearted “date” after school, the tiny rosebud of love was stomped under the soles of my Doc Marten boots. I was crushed and oddly flattered all at the same time. For the rest of the year, I avoided the main hallway and stayed far away from the part of the school where the Sixth Form lessons were held. Both Jonathan and Simon left for university at the end of the school year and I refused to speak about either of them again.
Looking back, I can see the whole delicious melodrama as a reflection of the nauseating turbulence and drama of teenage life. As a much older and (hopefully) wiser woman, I find myself wistful for a time when the mere glimpse of someone was enough to buoy you through the tedium of the day. It is easy to forget how black and white life was during those last few years of childhood – and how precious the time – before the shifting waters of responsibility and adulthood turned everything a deceptive, murky grey.