tagNovels and NovellasSquirrel Valentine

Squirrel Valentine

byoggbashan©

Squirrel Valentine - A reminiscence of the 1950s.

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Copyright Oggbashan January 2004

The author asserts the moral right to be Identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.

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I still think of Janice as a squirrel; a fluffy creature that moves in small darting movements flicking its out of scale tail to express itself. She is now a grandmother yet her every movement reminds me of her younger self.

Janice and I were civil servants in a large office. I sat on the right side of the room. She sat on the left side slightly forward of me so my most frequent view of her was her back or her profile as she turned towards her colleague Sally. Beside me was my girl chasing companion Tom.

Almost the whole office, except the dragon of a supervisor, were young because the department was newly formed and the first major civil service unit in our town.

The whole building was buzzing with excitement because the social club had organised a Valentine's Dance for Saturday night. Dates were being sought from all the eligible young ladies. I had asked Janice twice. Each time she had refused with a smile. The second time of asking she suggested that I would be better advised to go to the dance alone and take my chance. She would be going with Sally who had refused Tom's invitation. I had hoped for more because the Sunday would be my twenty-second birthday. I would have liked to spend it with Janice.

I loved Janice. Whenever my duties allowed I would watch her, cautiously to avoid a rebuke from our supervisor. Even when I wasn't watching I was acutely conscious of the flick of her high ponytail. It started high on her head and fell in a glorious curve of blonde hair with a slight reddish tinge. It was her natural colour because hair colouring then was harsh and obvious.

That ponytail was constantly moving with every slight change in Janice's position. Whenever she turned towards Sally the ponytail swayed one way and then swung back. Janice's ponytail impaired my working proficiency. If I hadn't been naturally a fast worker I would have been reprimanded for my slackness. As it was the supervisor was disappointed in me. She expected more than I gave and I think she knew that Janice was the cause of my distraction.

When Janice stood up and walked I couldn't work. She wore mid calf length dresses with the fashionable silhouette; a fitted bodice, a wide belt and a wide flaring skirt to mid calf. The skirt was puffed out with softly rustling taffeta and net. At the office Janice wore only two or three petticoats. The supervisor wouldn't approve or accept extremes of fashion from anyone. Janice went as close as she could to official disapproval. If she was going out after work she retired to the Ladies to increase the width of her skirt.

Her bust strained at the bodice in whichever dress she wore. I dreamed about the crease under her bosom and the small gap at her scooped neckline where the buttoned seam was pulled slightly apart.

Tom told me that I was a bore about Janice. I suppose I was. I told him over and over again how much I fancied her and wanted a date. He was nearly as bad about Sally. He wanted Sally. Did he love her? I don't think so. She was just another challenge. To me Sally was almost invisible as she sat beside Janice. Sally's only use to me was to get Janice to turn her head, bob her ponytail and display Janice's profile. I didn't mind how often Sally spoke to Janice because each time she did I saw Janice's face and watched her move.

Sally was a contrast. She and Janice were almost inseparable. They shared a flat and sat beside each other at work. Both were tall for women but shorter than Tom and I. Sally's dresses were in a similar style to Janice's but in a much larger size. Where Janice's breasts were two clearly conical shapes pushing against her fitted bodice, Sally had a broad soft bosom that had no obvious division. Sally's waist was half as wide again as Janice's. Her skirts were larger but not puffed so wide. Sally's brown curls spread across her shoulders with none of the animation of Janice's flicking ponytail.

Yet I could talk to Sally. In Janice's presence I was tongue-tied, blushing and overcome with emotion. Sally was a colleague. I knew more about Sally than I knew about Janice. Sally liked fish and chips from the paper. I didn't know whether Janice ate. She was my ideal woman; did ideals have digestive systems? I thought they didn't.

The week of the Valentine's dance started with Valentine's Day itself. I had bought a Valentine's card with a red squirrel holding a heart. Tom had bought a card as well. He didn't show to me the picture but he wrote my card and I wrote his. We addressed each other's envelope in block capitals, he wrote Janice's name on mine; I wrote Sally's name on his.

Then we placed each card in an official reusable envelope and filled the next vacant address space with the girl's name. We had taken the official envelope from the stationery cupboard so that our names would not be immediately above theirs.

At the end of the day before Valentine's Day we put our envelopes in the general out-tray just before the elderly messenger's time for collection. They would be sorted by the time we started work tomorrow and should be deposited in the girls' in-trays on the first delivery. I noticed that the out-tray was unusually full for this last collection but paid no attention.

I was usually the first to arrive at work. This morning I came even earlier before the first delivery to the in-trays. I checked that my missive had arrived in Janice's tray. If I had thought about it I needn't have gone through the charade of addressing the cards. I could have dropped my card in Janice's tray, and Tom's card in Sally's before anyone else arrived. The addressing of the cards was really schoolboyish.

I walked round the whole office. Half the office staff is female, most under twenty-five. I was so infatuated with Janice that I barely noticed the others. Sally I noticed because she and Janice were together so often. Almost all the women's in trays had similar envelopes to those Tom and I had sent. Even our supervisor had two and she is forty if she is a day. I know she is single, again, but who would send her a Valentine? It seemed indecent. The men's trays were innocent of such things. Men were supposed to send the cards, not women, except in Leap Years.

That morning affected our supervisor strangely. She was obviously pleased with her cards. I thought the constant feminine twittering in the room might irritate her. She sat there with a smirk on her face. I feared an explosion but it never came.

Janice and Sally found their cards. Tom and I were watching them closely as they opened the envelopes. To my horror my card was only one of many, a dozen at least. Even Sally had a similar number. They showed the cards to each other and giggled at the verses inside. All around us the women were exchanging cards and comparing quantities.

Mary, the plainest girl in the room, sat immediately behind me. She had received the most cards. I'd sent Mary one. So had Tom. It looked as if every male in the office had done the same. She deserved them. Mary was the kindest person I knew. She was the one who organised flowers if someone was ill, calmed down the disagreements that happen in an office, organised the tea rota, and was a prime mover in arranging the Valentine dance. Mary was the oil that made things work.

Tom and I watched carefully for any sign of acknowledgement from Sally and Janice but none came. Disappointed, I applied myself to my work so diligently that my output for the morning was as much as two normal days. That received a 'well done' from the supervisor without the usual implication that I should as well every day.

At lunchtime Tom and I joined Sally and Janice at their table. We both asked again to be their partners at the Valentine's dance but got a definite refusal tempered by agreement that we could have at least one dance each. We had to be satisfied with that which was more than we had been offered before.

The rest of the week was the same as any other except for a slight crescendo of excitement at the office on Saturday morning as the dance was close. It wasn't just that it was to celebrate Valentine's Day. It was only the second social function organised at the office. The last had been the Christmas Party; a sad affair. The managers and supervisors had ensured that. The only drink apart from juices had been the fruit cup. We doubted that it had as much as half a bottle of gin in five gallons.

Under the fake mistletoe Sally had kissed me full on the lips. I had kissed Mary, who had responded cautiously at first, and then she had wrapped her arms around me in a hug. I had been startled when she kissed me again. She stood beside me for a few minutes with her arm round my waist before Janice approached. Mary had withdrawn so delicately that I didn't notice her go. Janice had given me a fleeting peck on the cheek, but no further encouragement since then, apart from the promise of one dance this weekend.

Tom and I took extra care with our appearance for the dance. Last night I had polished my dancing shoes. Saturday afternoon I bathed with an expensive soap tablet. I used a new razor blade. I had collected our best suits from the dry cleaners, ironed my shirt and tie and even my underpants and vest. A triangle of ironed handkerchief showed in my breast pocket. Tom had bought buttonholes for both of us and paid our bus fares. My contribution had been the dry cleaning, the soap and the packet of razorblades.


We presented our printed tickets at the door of the Church hall. We were early, too early. Our supervisor, dressed to the nines in a floor sweeping evening frock, ordered us to help set out tables and chairs around the edges of the hall. The band was setting up on stage. I recognised them as being the band who played for Old Tyme Dance afternoons that my parents had dragged me along to as a spotty teenager. The band looked the same, just older, but one of the grey-haired men was clutching an incongruous electric guitar as if he expected it to explode in his hands.

Apart from our supervisor, plain Mary was the only woman present. When the band struck up a waltz I asked our supervisor for a dance. Tom asked Mary. The few other men present looked at us as if we were mad.

Our supervisor was an accomplished waltzer. She made us look as if we knew what we were doing but without making it obvious that she was in charge. Ethel, for that is her name, complimented me on my dancing. I was trying to avoid treading on the flying hem of her skirt. I managed to respond suitably and I admitted that I appreciated her skill.

Tom was dancing with Mary, better than I was with Ethel. He didn't have to contend with a long skirt. Mary was wearing the fashionable cotton shirtwaist but with so little under the skirt that it hung in dejected folds.

At the end of the waltz we swapped partners for the foxtrot. I thought a silent thanks to my parents' foresight. Mary and I were demonstrating how a fox trot should be performed when Janice and Sally arrived. At the end of that dance the band started a tango, rather early in the proceedings I thought since we were the only couples on the floor, but Mary threw herself into it with fake South American fervour. Mary's long straight mousey hair was shedding hairpins across the floor. Her unencumbered full skirt billowed out as she twisted and turned.

I was enjoying the dancing and the baffled expressions on the other men. Apart from Sally and Janice who were claiming a table with their coats and adjusting their dresses to flare their petticoats, there were no other women present. Tom and I had claimed all those available.

As we passed I saw that Tom was embarrassed by Ethel's animation. She was wrapping herself around him and tangling his feet with her skirt. Mary was equally enthusiastic; as she was young with curves in the correct places I was enjoying myself and I think she was too. At the end of that tango a ripple of applause greeted us.

I led Mary to a table and prepared to sit the next dance out with her. She had just pinned her hair up again when she was asked for a dance. Tom was relieved of Ethel by one of the senior managers. I hoped to ask Janice but she was already on the floor. So was Sally.

Janice's ponytail was flying around her head as she twirled. Her skirt was packed so full of taffeta and net that it seemed starched into a bell shape that barely dented against her partner's legs. Sally's skirt flared and twirled showing flashes of petticoat. I watched Janice and her ponytail much more than Sally. Even so I appreciated Sally's bouncing breasts and the glimpses of her legs as her skirt swung. Mary's skirt lashed her partner, winding round him before a reverse turn swung it away.

I didn't get a chance to get near Janice until most of the guests had arrived. As I approached some other blighter beat me to her. I turned to Sally who accepted my invitation graciously.

I danced another waltz with Sally. As we could waltz competently we were able to talk. She startled me.

"Harry, you are wasting your time with Janice," Sally said abruptly.

"Why am I?" I retorted.

"She isn't interested in you."

I didn't ask how Sally knew that. Sally was Janice's flatmate, colleague and best friend. If Sally was telling the truth then she was the best person to know how Janice felt about anything.

"Can you tell me why not? Do I have bad breath? Pimples?"

Sally seemed to change the subject.

"You haven't got any sisters, have you?

"No. Nor brothers." I was puzzled.

"Any female cousins?"

"No. All my cousins are male." I wasn't sure what Sally was implying.

"That probably explains it." Sally announced.

"Explains what?"

"Why you see Janice the way you do."

"And how do I see Janice?" I was getting irritated. I think it showed.

"Can we sit out the next dance together?" Sally asked. "I think this conversation will be important to you. Please?"

"OK."

At the end of the dance she led me by the hand to her table. We sat down. The girls' coats occupied all nut two chairs. Sally had left me a chair with its back to the dancing. I offered to get her a drink but she declined with an impatient shake of her head. I noticed that her brown curls swayed attractively.

"Bear with me for a while, Harry. I may seem to be off the point but I think you need to think about how you feel about Janice."

I nodded cautiously.

"I didn't need to ask you about sisters or cousins. I knew. Before I knew Janice and I had guessed. You don't act as if you know much about girls or women."

I must have looked insulted. She held up a hand to stop any protest.

"Do you know what sort of books Janice likes to read? Or if she reads books at all?"

"No..."

"Which radio programmes does she listen to?"

I shook my head.

"What films she would like to see?"

I shook my head again.

"What she would like to do on her holidays?"

Another shake.

"If I asked you the same questions about Mary, would you know the answers?"

"Yes, probably. What I don't know I could guess reasonably."

"And about me?"

"Yes. You like Agatha Christie..."

"Enough! Do you see what I am getting at?"

"Not really."

"You don't know anything about Janice..."

That time I opened my mouth to speak. Sally pressed her hand lightly over my lips.

"Let me finish. Then you can speak." She lifted her hand away.

"As I was saying, you don't know anything about Janice. You like what you see and think you are in love..." Her hand poised to cut off my response. "...but you are not. At least not with Janice. You are in love with a fantasy that is not her. It is like a crush on an older woman. You imagine Janice to be an angel, a divine being who walks on air, not a woman with failings. Is she your first real love? You can answer that."

"Yes." I said very softly.

"It shows. But she isn't. She isn't who you think she is. She is Janice: not your ideal woman. Don't get me wrong. I like Janice. She's my friend but I know the good and bad about her. She knows as much about me. Do you ever think that 'your' Janice could have smelly feet?"

The idea horrified me. "No!"

"She has. She wears her stockings for too long each day. She should take them off when we get back to the flat. She wears them until she goes to bed. That makes her feet sweaty and smelly. We argue about it sometimes. She complains about some of my habits as well. I won't tell you about them. Maybe you'll find out one day. They won't matter to you as much as Janice's smelly feet. Why? Because I'm not your ideal woman."

"I think you are being unfair," I retorted.

"Am I? Have the smelly feet dented Janice's halo? Tarnished her image?"

"Yes."

"That is the point. If you loved the real Janice they wouldn't matter. You might join me in persuading her to wash her stockings more often but they wouldn't affect your love for her. The fact that they do is proof that you DON'T love Janice. You love an image of her that you have created."

She paused looking at me carefully. I thought about what she had said. The smelly feet, true or not, had changed my vision of Janice.

"Now will you please get me the drink you offered earlier? We need to talk some more, don't we?"

"Yes, Sally. I'll get the drink."

I started to walk across to the trestle table where the drinks were on sale. I stopped after a few steps and turned back to Sally.

"Sorry, Sally, I didn't ask what drink you would like."

"Well done, Harry. That's a start. Cola, please."

I nodded and went for the drinks. A start of what? I returned with the drinks. The next dance was starting and Janice was still on the floor, ponytail swinging. That didn't seem so important as it had. She had promised me a dance. I knew she would keep her promise. The conversation with Sally had made me think. Did I love Janice?

We sat sipping our drinks.

"Thank you for the Valentine Card, Harry," Sally said.

I nearly choked on my drink.

Sally laughed.

"Don't worry. I know you didn't intend to send me a Valentine. But you addressed the one to me, didn't you? Tom addressed your squirrel to Janice."

I didn't answer. What could I say?

"How do I know? Mary sits just behind you two. She can see and hear everything you do. She's a friend, not just mine but yours too. She's worried about your attitude to Janice otherwise she wouldn't have said a word. She hasn't, not to Janice, but only to me. Did you know that you two were so tactless that you even discussed the cards you were sending to Mary?"

"We didn't!"

"You did."

"I'm sorry. We didn't mean to. We like Mary."

"So does almost everyone. It's a shame that nobody loves her. Maybe that will come sometime. She appreciated that you were sending her a Valentine because you like her, not because you were sorry for her, nor because you want to go to bed with her. Dancing with her as you did just now was a good way to compensate for your lack of tact. You danced well together and seemed to be enjoying it. You were, weren't you?"

"Yes. Mary is a good partner."

"And I'm sure sometime she will make a good wife. Her husband could always put a paper bag over her head."

"That's cruel, Sally."

"Is it? Mary overhears that sort of comment frequently, I admit not from you or Tom but from some of the others. That's one of the reasons why she wants to help you. She knows what it is like to be judged on your appearance. That's what you have been doing to Janice. She doesn't like it, just like Mary doesn't like it."

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