Jack Valentine's Love HeartsbyCleophila©
A Saint Valentine's Day Fairy Tale
'Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.' (Friedrich Schiller)
I remember when it was spring at this time of year. Or maybe I don't. It's always hard to tell with memories. My whole childhood life is bathed in a sort of warm sunny glow, but rational thought tells me that I can't have grown up in a time of forever summer. I remember coming here years ago during my school holidays. I remember running around outside in just a thin cotton dress, the grass that had been dormant all winter now brushing against my bare legs, but perhaps I'm mixing different memories together. Even so, the harsh cold light of my contemporary life has me thinking that it's unseasonably cold for the middle of February.
The wheels of my car crunch on the gravel driveway of my grandmother's cottage. I haven't been here in a few years, but seeing it now gives me a warming sense of familiarity. There's a lot of me here, or at least the me that once was, many years ago. Mentally I refer to it as my grandmother's cottage even though technically it isn't, not any more. She's been dead for five years. Actually, the last time I came here, I think now, was for the funeral. I guess it's my cottage now, at least in so much as it is anybody's. It belongs to the family jointly, but we tend to rent it out as a holiday let. I guess it's too cold at this time of year for any takers because it wasn't a problem to take it this weekend for myself.
I open the car door and am welcomed with a blast of cold, wintery air. My boot cracks on the white frosty ground as I step out and breathe the fresh air. It feels good to fill my lungs with it after hours in the car's stuffiness. Even more so after spending every day commuting across the polluted city and working in an ever grey office. The sky is a pale blue colour with white clouds draped coldly across it. A thin misty vapour snakes around my ankles. There is a slight breeze in the air, light enough but cold. It seems to blow through my thick dark red hooded overcoat right though to my bare skin and bones beneath.
In the distance, I can hear a single bird call in the air, optimistically awaiting the arrival of spring. Apart from that, there is a quiet lying across the tiny village that seems so unusual to my city girl ears. Glancing around as I open the boot of the car to get my suitcase, I cannot see anything or anybody out in the village's one little street. It is deserted, not populated by a single soul. Or so I think at first.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice somebody else, standing so still that at first he blended into the background. He is staring unashamedly right at me in a way that makes me feel awkward and embarrassed. I can't hold his gaze, but still feel his eyes on me as I pull my suitcase out of the car. I feel a flush of annoyance. I don't know this man but I know that I don't like him looking at me like that. It seems impolite, insolent even, to stand there watching, neither coming over to introduce himself nor turning away when his watching eye was noticed.
He is standing across the road, lounging languidly against the dry stone wall that encircles the front garden of the cottage opposite my grandmother's. His face displays an arrogant haughtiness, not helped by a wispy little beard and arched eyebrows. He is dressed in a long grey coat with a high collar. At first I thought he was a statue, standing so still and grey, but I look into his eyes and, although at first they appear dark, almost black, I now percieve a bright piercing blue, the colour of the skies above.
I turn my back on that bright, penetrating stare to slam the boot of the car shut with an aggressive motion that betrays how uncomfortable I feel being watched. I can't help but look back again, however, a second later, only to find that he has vanished. Still, I feel a little uncomfortable. I like to be alone sometimes, I enjoy my own company, but a part of me entertains a slight fear about what could happen to a young woman alone in the country. I half remember stories heard years ago about girls lost far from home and the strange men who could prey on them. There's a line of poetry playing on a loop in my head and I don't know where it's come from, more of a mantra perhaps than a poem.
'We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?'
I remind myself that I am not a stranger in a strange village, that I have not become lost in a dark wood. I spent so many days of my childhood here, it could be a second home. But my adult self still feels a little like an outsider, like I belong here and yet don't belong. Everything around the cottage is familiar, but not quite as I remember it through the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia. It's as if, looking over the cottage, it is itself the not quite fully remembered image, that the real cottage is just on the edge of my mind and, if I can only summon it up correctly, the one in front of me will become the happy home of my childhood holidays. Without my grandmother there any longer, however, it is, in a sense, a sad, empty place.
When I go to collect the keys to the cottage, the kindly older gent next door remembers me. He tells me how I've grown, how the last time he saw me I was barely knee high. This isn't true. He saw me at her funeral. I wonder briefly, as I take the keys from him and our concise small talk concludes, whether he remembers me there or if his whole impression of me is based on the time when he saw me as a neighbour every few months.
As he shuts the door, he makes a comment asking whether I've come alone. I infer that he expects a boyfriend, a husband or something. It's not a proposition or anything creepy, just genuine curiosity and a note of surprise, perhaps. I am reminded of the kind of incessant desire to see people paired off that is part of the reason why I have finally decided to take the opportunity to retreat to this pleasant little cottage I've been avoiding for so long.
I don't understand why society keeps trying to force me to find someone, like I'm not a whole or complete person on my own. It's as if everybody genuinely believes that having a lover would make all their other worries and problems disappear. I'm not an antisocial person, but I don't need somebody else with me always. Being alone is not something that I've ever felt overly troubled by. Well, except for the way people try and set you up and push you together to satisfy their own desire for neat romantic resolution.
Most of the time, these ideas seem to be buzzing around in the background for most people, chattering away amongst a million other hopes and fears. However, at this time of year, everybody seems to go crazy with it. People in relationships either seem smugly gloating or desperate to push their single friends into couplings of their own. Single people seem desperate to avoid being on their own at all costs. And all this because the greetings card companies and flower sellers tell them they should. People are so suggestible. People are so annoying. I'm better off alone, sometimes, I think as I leave the neighbour's cottage.
I slide the keys into the pocket of my overcoat, only to realise that I need them almost instantly as I walk up the path to the cottage. As I reach back into the pocket to fish them out from the mess old receipts, loose change, a button and a half eaten packet of mints, my hand closes around something unfamiliar. Or rather, something vaguely familiar, but which I can't place as something in my pocket.
I draw it out and examine it, pausing on the threshold of the cottage even though the cold is biting. It is a little flat disc, a sort of yellow-white colour. It looks a little crumbly. There is a design on the surface, a little embossed and coloured pink. I run my finger over it and trace a heart. There are words too, it says 'Eat Me', with echoes of Alice and her cake. It's not just that though, those two simple words conjure myriad meanings, the printed text offering no tone or emphasis. Is it simply making a pragmatic request, is 'eat me' insultingly dismissive or, perhaps, suggestive in a different way, a sexual way? I don't know how to take those words and it bothers me that much less smart people wouldn't be troubled by that.
I recognise it as a 'love heart', one of those chalky sherbet type sweets with little words and messages of fondness or flirtiness to share with a loved one. I haven't seen one in years, I'm kind of surprised that they still make them. I never remember them being the nicest, sweetest of treats. These days, they're apparently all printed in txtspeak anyway. Phrases like 'Me + U 4Ever' at least save on printing costs, even if it's hardly 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day, thou art more lovely and more temperate'.
Catching my thoughts being cynical and snobbish, I stop myself. I'm not bitter about love. It doesn't much matter to me that I've never met a man to share my interests with, to share my life with, to share myself with. I secretly doubt that there is such a man anyway, so why bother myself too much over it.
I look again at the sugary disc in my hand. It seems odd to see just one all alone. Love hearts usually come in packets, all matched up with others of their kind. This solitary candy piece seems almost lonely. A little lonely heart just like me. I did the whole lonely hearts thing once. Never again. That was not the path to meeting a sensible, normal guy. I contemplate this lonely heart's message and decide against taking up its offer. Instead I slip it back into my pocket and take the keys out.
Taking a deep breath, I open the door and step through the doorway into my grandmother's cottage. I don't know what I expect to happen to me and my memories of this place as I enter the cottage and shut the door behind me, but all I feel is a little empty, even a little disappointed that I don't feel some kind of grief. It's been a few years now, I guess I'm moving on. I take a look around and everything is solid and familiar, but it is as if I'm seeing it from a distance, as if through the wrong end of a telescope or like I'm seeing through someone's eyes but my own. I'm overthinking it again.
It is every bit as cold inside the cottage as it is outside. I get the feeling that there hasn't been anybody staying here in a little while. I flick a switch to bring the heating on and hear the boiler whir to life, but I know it's going to be a little while before the cottage is warm. It's a fairly small space with a low ceiling with wood beams, so it shouldn't take too long to heat up, but in this cold even that feels a bit of a wait. There's an old fashioned fireplace as well and I decide, even though I hadn't been intending to, that I should light a fire. The idea of a fire seems appealingly traditional, feels like it will make the place cosy with more than just the literal warmth of its glowing flame.
The ground floor of the cottage is small enough to be all one open plan room except for the little bathroom beside the stairs. The fireplace is at the heart of the living area, beyond that is a kitchen area with a gas oven and four gas burners. I'm glad that I've bought a carton of milk with me as the fridge is completely empty. I turn on the gas, hoping the blue flame will help the cottage heat up, and put an old metallic saucepan full of milk on to heat while I get the fire ready.
The kitchen window looks out onto the cottage's back garden, covered in crisp, bluish coloured frost. The sun is starting to set over it, the low lying light making the crystals of frost sparkly like fairy lights. I recall warmer, sunnier days and rushing around that garden playing at being a heroic knight errant, rescuing a beautiful damsel, also me, from a wicked witch, usually played by my grandmother. Beyond the low stone wall and tangled weeds and brambles at the foot of the garden, there is a path and a rather feeble stream beyond which there is nothing but low empty fens.
The fens, those damp, dirty marshes, always held a kind of scary fascination for me as a child. I was never allowed to play there, I was told that the wet marshlands were a place where a little girl could get lost all too easily, that the landscape was deceptively treacherous, that you would not know when you stepped on something that looked solid if it might in fact suck you in. On evenings like this one, the fens are shrouded in thin slivers of mist and seem to give off an eldritch light that has no discernible source.
I catch myself staring out at the fens, lost in my own thoughts, and make sure I go out to the coal shed. I leave the cottage by the rustic looking solid wood back door into the garden and go around to the side of the building where, as I remember, a little shed holds coal for the fire. There's a little stack of dusty black lumps of coal on one side of the shed, while a helpful local woodcutter had come over at some point and chopped up some logs. I grab a couple of these and fill the coal scuttle, covering my already dusty red overcoat with coal dust and woodchips, when I spot something in amongst the pile of black coal, something blue.
Putting the scuttle down, I reach to pick up this mystery object and let out a little sigh of surprise as it reveals itself. I brush the rest of the dark smudges of dust from it to be sure, but I was right, it's a little flat disc of pale blue sugar. Another love heart. I think that it's a bit of a strange coincidence after the one I found in my pocket earlier. I wonder how long it's been in the shed, it's dirty and dusty enough that it's hard to tell for sure. I know that sugar tends to keep without getting mouldy. It could be any age. I wonder if perhaps I was the one who lost it as a child.
The message written on the sweet with smudged red food dye is, however, not like any that I recall seeing on love hearts before. For a start, it has a lot more words than the simple phrases I'm used to seeing, so much so that I have to hold it up to the light from the cottage window in order to read it. The words are not exactly romantic, but then not exactly unromantic either. Mostly they're just cryptic. The blue love heart's message reads:
'When the wind has laughed and murmured and sung,
The lonely of heart is withered away.'
Lonely hearts again. It seems to me like the world is out to convince me that lonely is how I should be feeling tonight without a partner. Even the candy is against me! I feel almost like it could be protesting too much to insist that I do not particularly need nor desire the withering away of my loneliness. Or maybe it is suggesting that I myself will wither away due to my loneliness. Not the most pleasant thought there.
Given that I had just pulled it from an old coal shed, I decide not to eat this one either. I slip it into the pocket of my red hooded coat with the other, neither such lonely hearts now, before picking up the logs and coal scuttle and returning to the cottage. As I do, I continue to wonder about the coincidence of discovering these two similar sweets together within minutes, two of a type of candy I hadn't thought about in years. Probably not since when I used to come here as a child. I ponder once more whether it could have been me leaving things here.
A memory comes back of being here about twenty years earlier, in this garden, on this same night of the year, and being given a shiny pink tube shaped packet of just these love hearts, albeit with more conventional slogans. Although, come to think of it, I wasn't really given them. They were left on the doorstep. I remember my grandmother telling me a little story, a fairytale, about Jack Valentine.
According to my grandmother, Jack Valentine was the Valentine's fairy, but rather than being a cupid figure spreading romantic love with his arrows of desire, he was more of a Santa Claus type. Every year, on the night of February 13th, Jack Valentine would come from over the fens and knock on the door of every child in the village. He would leave a small gift or some sweet things on the doorstep and then, just as the child opened the door, would snatch it away.
Just as the door was shut on the now empty doorstep, Jack Valentine would knock again and the present would be there again, only for it to be snatched away once more when the child went to get it. How many times this ritual went back and forth seems to have varied from household to household depending, I now suspect, on the commitment to the story of the parents or grandparents. However, in the end, the child would have got his or her little packet of sweet candy and the story would have ended quite happily.
I don't know why, but part of me always found Jack Valentine a little bit of a sinister character. The idea of this strange fairy creeping across the weird fens to come knocking at my door, leaving me anonymous sweet gifts, made me quite uncomfortable. I had always felt safe and secure in the cosy surrounds of the cottage, but on this night it had seemed that it was not such an impregnable stronghold as I had imagined, that it could be penetrated by the fairy trickery and magic from across the fens.
I shudder, partly at the fact that I am still standing in the cold, partly at the memory of how what should have been a special treat as a child had actually given me the creeps. I shut the door behind me, shutting out both the cold and my childhood fears, and dump the coal and logs by the fireplace. The pan has boiled and I pour the hot milk into a mug and stir in some cocoa powder until it goes a thick brown consistency. Sipping the chocolatey drink, finally starting to feel warm inside, I kneel in the fireplace and clear it of the ash of past fires.
The knees of my old jeans are getting covered in soot, but I'm not overly bothered. I plan on shutting myself in the cottage in front of the fire, drinking my cocoa and burying myself in a good book. I have no intention of leaving the growing warmth of this small space tonight and, thus, have no concern about looking my best. It's quite a pleasant, liberating feeling.
Despite this, I brush a little coal dust from my coat as I drape it over a chair and put a match to the kindling and coal I have arranged in the old fireplace. I feel a triumphant jump in my stomach as the flame ignites first time and soon I am warming my hands over its orange glow.
I sit myself down in a comfortably ragged armchair by the fire and pull my knees up to my chest protectively. My shapeless knitted sweater is too long for my arms after being put through too many washes, but I enjoy the sense of its frayed sleeve covering my hands, one wrapped around the warm mug of cocoa, the other leafing through the book I have taken from my bag.
Choosing appropriate reading material for this trip proved surprisingly tricky. I turned my nose up at romantic stories about soul mates finding each other and living happily ever after. And yet picking stories with no romance in them seemed once again to be trying too hard to avoid thinking about my own single status. In the end, I decided that all the true classic love stories are tragedies anyway, and that I had a plentiful choice by dipping into some of the delightfully leather bound books with yellowing leaves that I had inherited from my grandmother.
The story I am reading is 'Tristram of Lyonesse', the classic tragedy of Tristram and Iseult as written in that era of Victorian King Arthur enthusiasm. Before too long, I find myself lost in the world of mediaeval heroism, chivalry and courtly love. I linger on the passages that describe Iseult and her noble rescuer Tristram drinking the love potion intended for the lady and her husband and the yearning feelings of mixed desire and fear before they consummate their union.