How do you sum up a whole lifetime together in just one card?
As the number seventeen approaches the bus station there’s a sudden rush of movement. Passengers jumping out of their seats, picking up bags and bundling children in front of them, intent on getting off as soon as the bus comes to a halt.
I stay seated until all’s clear before making my way along to the front.
It’s Friday and the town is busy, but then at this time of year it’s always busy. All these people jostling around, some doing the weekend shop, others intent on end-of-sales bargains.
Very few, like me, only here because of the date – and the fact that I hadn’t noticed it on the calendar earlier in the week.
I want to get a card, and choosing one is not going to be easy.
I need time and space to find one that’s just right.
I’m going to avoid the supermarket. There’s no way I want to be constantly nudged aside by people pushing overloaded shopping trolleys.
First Christmas, then New Year, followed by the sales. I sometimes wonder where all the money that’s being spent is coming from.
I walk slowly down the High Street until I come to the first charity shop. There must be at least six of these squeezed between banks and travel agents and various other businesses.
Whenever I’m in town, I try to call into all of them looking for bargains so I know they’ll have a few cards on offer for special occasions.
I’m in luck. As I walk through the door, I’m met by heart-shaped balloons hovering over the swivel display unit.
My hands fumble in the interior of my handbag until they close over the case that holds my reading glasses. I do the swap and start my search.
Hearts and flowers, half-naked cherubs aiming bows and arrows into nowhere and heart-rending requests to “Be My Valentine”. All made in a dizzying variety of scripts and embellished with sparkle and ribbons… but nothing really suitable.
My mind goes to George. It’ll be lunchtime in the home now and, no doubt, he’ll be having difficulty in remembering the name of the carer who’s on duty today.
I change my glasses back and smile at the woman behind the counter as I turn and leave.
I wonder what she’s making of it, someone of my age looking at Valentine’s cards.
I cross over to a newsagent chain, hoping I’ll find something a little less fussy.
It’s more organised here. Rows and rows of cards, all carefully divided into sections.
Of course, those taking up the most space for the present are a mixture of the traditional lovey-dovey sort interspersed with some offering a more cheeky, modern take on the occasion.
As I wander, my mind goes back to a bundle, lying almost forgotten now, at the bottom of a cupboard in the spare bedroom.
If I were to take it out and plough through the various anniversaries the contents represent, it would almost be a brief history of our relationship.
George and me.
Why, I ask myself, do we keep such a hold on these messages from the past when in truth from day to day we very rarely think about them?
I suppose, over the years, I’ve been the hoarder, religiously tucking away the cards… birthday, Christmas, anniversary… sadly, never any to celebrate the birth of a child.
I force myself to concentrate on today’s mission. The time has long gone to dwell on what might have been.
Instead, I focus on George. On the here and now.
I’m searching for something that will make him smile, something that might spark a memory of those times when we were together, when we believed that was the way it would always be.
Turning a corner, I come across a selection of cards that are blank. No celebratory messages – instead, country scenes, tasteful flower arrangements, pictures of animals, some cute and some just looking at the camera.
At last, I see the one that could have been made for this occasion. I queue patiently and then, with some sense of relief, make my way out and back to the bus station.
I’m in luck, as the number two hundred and one is already there and will be stationary for about ten minutes before it leaves.
There are very few other passengers already seated, leaving plenty of empty seats to choose from where I can sit and write a message on the card.
That done, I lean back, close my eyes and wait for the journey to start.
They’re always pleased to see me at Hadleigh House. The staff go out of their way to keep me up-to-date with what goes on in George’s life while I’m not there. Some days are better than others; it seems today is one of them.
Shirley is the one George has taken to and as we make our way to the day room, she updates me on his progress.
“George had a good night’s sleep and has found his appetite at last. A good breakfast and lunch and I’m sure he’d like to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while you’re here. We went for a walk round the garden this morning and he was telling me about the little garden his dad made for him when he was a boy.”
I spot George sitting by the window as we walk in.
“You go over, Mrs Brown, and I’ll go and make some tea.”
The walk across the room seems to take forever and it’s only when I’m close by that George turns towards me.
“Hello, George. It’s me again. Come to see you.”
I bend to kiss his cheek and he looks up, a smile wavering on his lips.
It will take a while for him to recognise me so I pull up a seat and start to tell him about my day while I wait for the tea to arrive.
“You’ll never believe how busy the town was today. There were shoppers all over the place.”
He nods in agreement.
“It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. You remember? All those sparkly cards we used to buy for each other?”
He nods again.
“Anyway, I shopped around and managed to find one I know you’ll like.”
I fumble in my bag for the envelope.
“Here. This is for you. Happy Valentine’s Day, George.”
I notice a slight tremor in his hands as slowly he opens the envelope and pulls out the card.
Then, from nowhere, his mouth stretches into a big grin.
He looks up at me, eyes sparkling and he holds up the card, his finger pointing.
“It’s Jessie. Look – Jessie.”
I try to swallow a lump in my throat, the tears in my eyes blurring the picture of a spaniel sitting, tongue lolling, on a grassy bank.
“Yes. When we took her for a walk on the Downs.”
“Can I keep it?”
“Of course. I chose it specially for you. I’ll get a frame for it and you can stand it on the chest of drawers next to your bed.”
When Shirley arrives with the tea George holds the card up to show her and she bends down to look at it.
“Is this your Valentine’s card, George?”
“Yes. It’s Jessie.” He turns towards me and puts a hand on my arm. “I’m right, aren’t I, Gwen? That’s our dog, Jessie.”
I’m unable to answer, treasuring the sound of him speaking my name, at last recalling a small fraction of the life we spent together.
I cover his hand with mine and lean forward to kiss his cheek, afraid for a moment that I’d misheard him.
Then I look at Shirley and she smiles.
“Better than a Valentine, then?” she whispers.
“Yes,” I say. “Better than a Valentine.”