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They never celebrated Valentine’s Day, “Such a load of nonsense!” she said as they held hands and laughed at others’ follies: boxes of chocolates, bouquets of red roses tied up in guilt, hasty dates at restaurants waiting to lighten the lovers’ wallets.
There were jewellery stores dripping diamonds with their adamantine facets, sharp enough to break hearts. Rubies as red as the blood of the nightingale’s heart in Oscar Wilde’s tale, that beckoned lovers into the stores. Emeralds as green as the eyes of a mistress when she sees her lover with his wife on his arm winked through the shop windows at passers-by. The temptations and offerings were everywhere, and so hard to resist.
“We show love every day, and that matters more than chocolates,” he said.
“It does,” she answered laughing that carefree laugh that comes from the heart of a woman who knows she is loved.
Their children teased them, “C’mon Dad, get with the times!”
He shrugged. She laughed
Yet, one year arrived when she wished - it was just a little wish, light as the last snowflake of winter that disappeared in the warmth of his smile - that they did something a little special on Valentine’s Day. They never had, so why start now? After thirty some years of a happy marriage, there was really no need for any special recognition of the day. The commercialisation of love on display seemed too garish for them. Yet the little wish persisted in her mind, no longer an ephemeral snowflake, more like a spangle from a Christmas decoration. So that year, on his breakfast plate she placed a small dollop of raspberry jam in the shape of a heart.
“Oh!” was all he said. His hazel-brown eyes crinkled at the edges and lit up with suppressed laughter. He finished his single fried egg, sunny-side up on toast and then followed it with his second toast and the little heart of raspberry jam melted on its surface, spreading its soft sweet jelly redness over his tongue.
She drank her tea and had her toast with cheese, as she always had. Watched his eyes and she knew that he knew.
Still, they didn’t do anything special for dinner or lunch. No bunch of flowers in his hand when he returned from work, then he stretched and changed out of his suit into loose pants and comfortable tee shirt.
The next year she made the little raspberry jam heart again. He didn’t say ‘Oh’ he just met her eyes and smiled. But he said ‘Oh!” again that night when he found the tomatoes in the salad cut into heart shaped rings.
After dinner they watched TV for a bit, then he leaned over to kiss her goodnight as he always did and slid a single finger down her throat to the little spot where the top button of her blouse was open. She blushed like the first time he’d asked her out. They made love that night rediscovering each other in ways they hadn’t done for years.
For the next ten years the little hearts turned up regularly on Valentine’s Day in surprisingly different forms, raspberry jam hearts, salad tomato hearts, a heart-shaped meatloaf, strawberry hearts on cake for dessert, little cream hearts in the soup, she was very imaginative with her hearts and he with his lovemaking every Valentine’s night.
Other nights their lovemaking was normal, cuddles and kisses but Valentine’s night they both began to look forward to in silent expectation. They even stopped making fun of it, though they did continue to eschew chocolates and flowers and jewellery.
“We don’t need those to show our love,” she declared as she slid into bed beside him and thrilled to the lightness of his touch as he drew hearts on her lips, her neck, her bosom and her back, as he pulled her close to him.
“We don’t,” he whispered back to her, drawing hearts with his tongue on her neck.
Ten years carried on with the quiet exchange of hearts and love, kisses and caring in a myriad of ways. She knew the way he liked his tea. He never let her carry heavy loads. She made sure his favourite bottle of scotch was always available in his bar. The hundreds of little things that declare love: even the scolding when she was late from a girl’s night out and hadn’t called to say she’d be later than usual.
One day in late July he came home early from work. In thirty-six years he had never come home early, with his regular routine he had also rarely been sick.
“What’s wrong? You look pale.” Her stomach tightened in fear.
“It’s a really bad headache like I’ve never had before.” He was sick enough for hospital.
The verdict was something they could never have imagined.
“It would be good to get your lives in order,” the doctor said. His dark eyes were serious. His hands nervous twitches as they flicked his tie. But he prescribed the usual chemotherapy and medication.
They went home, holding hands differently. Their silence filled with frozen tears. His hand had developed a little tremor. Hers held his more firmly.
“Our things in order,” his voice was gruff, but his laugh came out in a short, sharp bark as they walked through the door. “First we must call the children.”
His meticulous notebook, had all she needed to know, bank accounts, credit cards and passwords written in a code that only she could decipher. The keys to various cupboards and lockers were in a neat box labelled in the same precise hand that had delicately traced hearts all over her body.
The tears melted and they allowed themselves that one day of mindless weeping. Together they railed at the sky. “Why?” they asked, but got no answer.
The children arrived from their different homes around the country. They were a caring, consoling family, a normal family. No great tribulations or aberrations had dogged their lives. Like any family they’d had their shouting matches and their fears, their differences and their love. Why had the universe singled them out for this?
There was no answer. The treatments continued. The doctor remained serious and nervous every time he looked at the MRI. The lesion had grown into a tumour. They operated and removed it. But it was too late.
The following February they had the funeral. She thought of Valentine’s Day, this year there would be no hearts. She threw that first bit of earth down into the grave in anger. Her son and daughter put their arms around her and took her home.
Such an empty home, she thought. The children had their work and their families and had to leave.
“You’ll be alone on Valentine’s Day ma,” she said, “Do you want to come home with me?”
“No,” she was short, “You know we never did anything special any way.”
Valentine’s Day she woke earlier than usual. She was uneasy as she entered the kitchen, made her tea and poured in the tiny teaspoon of milk that she always had. Her hand shook and the teacup rattled as she suddenly caught a familiar scent, his aftershave. Where did that come from?
She carried her tea to the living room and sat down as the tears welled up. She squeezed her eyes and wiped them. “Such a load of nonsense.” She said aloud. But when she raised her cup the milk had formed itself unmistakably into a little heart.
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Click to see: Books by Rohini Sunderam.