It's that time of year again where some of us celebrate February 14th and some of us don't! Some of my colleagues have posted lovely blogs about their favourite Valentine's Day, so I thought since I've been a single mum for most of the last ten years; I'd beg a little indulgence and write a mini romance story!
Hope you like my short story, especially for QVC fans finding themselves in the same boat as my heroine Grace. Enjoy it and let me know what you think.
Part one is below and part two will be posted on Friday.
Valentine's surprise – part 1
"What are you doing for Valentine’s Day, Grace?", my best friend Jean asked me, as I finished my third cup of Earl Grey from one of her best china cups.
"On your own all evening, watching sad films again?" She never pauses for breath, Jean. "If you are, I've got a really good one you can borrow. It's Harrison Ford in that remake of the old Audrey Hepburn film – what's it called?"
"Sabrina. And shut your beak missus, keep on about Valentine’s Day and you'll be one down for the pub quiz this week!" She smiled and dodged my gentle nudge.
"You wouldn’t! You know how close the Ancient Marines came to pipping us at the post last week – we can't do without old Mensa brain!", said Jean.
"Don't worry; I couldn't do that to you. Anyway, seeing the look on 'im next door's face when we beat them by two points was priceless!"
"Well he'd been giving you daggers before they announced the winner – he'd been doing it all night. If you didn't opt to sit with your back to him, you'd see."
"No thanks, I'd rather sit and look at your Nigel's pained expression than mister military. Anyway, do dig out that film just in case. But I've got plenty going on Valentine's weekend – don't worry about me. Cindy's pups will be going to their new homes that week, thank goodness, so no more puppy p…"
"Don’t finish that sentence! The thought of half an hour clearing up puppy mess each day makes me feel queasy. You should be doing something more special than all that. You know what I think? It's about time you were treated on Valentine's Day – you know a nice meal, nice show and a nice snuggle on the sofa afterwards!"
"Like I said, I've got Cindy!" I said and Jean laughed knowing I'm a lost cause where men are concerned.
We finished our gossip, mainly about Nora in number 19, then made a date for our next 'coffee and chat' or 'gossip and gateau' she calls it, before I made the short trip back up the road in the crisp late January sunshine.
I know why she's so concerned though. This year it will be ten years since my husband Don died. Jean's lucky her Nigel is always very creative for Valentine's Day. Weekends in Paris, riverboat cruises, a trip down the Nile – what I wouldn’t give for the occasional treat like that. Not with Nigel though. Sometimes, he's more about the originality and less about the romance. Like the time he decided they should play Heathcliff and Cathy up on the moors in minus four degrees… but that's another story. No, I'm OK. I'm used to contenting myself with my soppy movies and my fluffy pooch and, if I’m lucky, a grandchild or two to stop over. That and my Sky+ can see me through the darkest days!
Pushing open my little white gate, I noticed the first snowdrops peeping out from the soil in next door's carefully manicured front garden, and felt a little spring in my step. I love flowers, even 'im next doors'! I was looking forward to the begonia TSV from Richard Jackson on QVC that night – I knew I had to order it. Last year's had helped me win the road's Best Basket Award and I quite fancied myself carrying off with the trophy again this year. With a little bit of pizzazz, a dash of luck, and a sprinkling or two of Richard Jackson's magic plant food maybe I could. That'd show Mr High and Mighty next door who’s Top of the Pots!
"M-morning, Mrs Morris." Talk of the devil. He scared the blooming life out of me. Wonder if he caught me eyeing up his snowdrops? Hope not, I wouldn't want him to think I admire HIS garden. Where'd he spring from anyway? Still I smile, like the good neighbour I prefer to be.
"Good morning Mr Armstrong", I said fiddling with the key in the lock. He always makes me nervous. "Cold again, isn't it."
"Yes, I c-concur, it's very…" But I slammed my door, blocking out the rest.
After hurrying indoors before he could ask me questions about my plants, I peeped behind the curtain and saw him still looking over my fence. He's a tall chap – carries himself very upright. Some women would think he's quite presentable in a certain light. Some women – women who don't keep catching him nosing through my recycling, no doubt checking I've got the right thing in the right box. Cheeky blighter! He is a strange one. I stood there a while pondering. Maybe it was him that pinched my parcel from the step last spring?
It was the weirdest thing. Jean said there was a big parcel on my step early one morning, and as she passed she saw 'im next door bending down to look at it. But when I got home expecting to find my lovely Begonia Fragrant Fountain Mixed Corms, the parcel was nowhere to be seen. Couldn’t believe it! Then when we tackled him the next morning, he blatantly lied that I'd even got a parcel, despite a thorough dressing down from Jean. Anyway, I was livid that my long-awaited parcel had disappeared. They were all sold out so I wouldn't be able to get any more, and I'd planned a whole display around the peach colour as the centrepiece.
I just go quiet when I’m angry, but Jean didn't let him get a word in edgeways and he hasn't spoken to her since. But then, blow me down; the next afternoon when I came back from my coffee shop, lo and behold, it had reappeared. The parcel was back on my step! So either he did take it, then felt guilty and put it back, or else there's a plant thief out there who was so put off by seeing ugly corms instead of the usual pretty plug plants that he changed his mind.
He's a man of few words, is my neighbour, and most of them come out a bit at a time, so when he saw me holding the parcel, he merely nodded, stood up even straighter than usual, and went straight back inside, in an 'I-told-you-so' kind of march. Anyway, even if Jean was adamant he whipped them I couldn't be sure, so I let it rest. She doesn't have to live next door to him! ‘Polite and cold’ is better than not talking at all, especially if your neighbour's the one who's home when the postie comes, not you. My special deliveries mean a lot.
It's one of my great passions, my garden, second only to the patter of tiny paws and feet. It has to be said, I did go off gardening for a while after Don died. He was my childhood sweetheart – we had our wedding at 18, three kids by 24, and had grown thirty-six types of Daffodil by the time the grandchildren came along! Together we spent many a warm summer night, watering the plants, putting the world to rights and doing synchronised dead-heading.
I changed it all to turf when he went – didn't have the urge to do it on my own. Then a few years ago my daughter Sarah bought me some lovely lilies from that shopping channel, and bet me I couldn’t grow them as big as next door’s. So I did! Well, his were getting on my nerves because they were blocking the light in my porch. Mine were taller, stronger and bigger. Sure, I know Richard Jackson played a part, but 'im next door didn't have to know. So I was hooked again. Green-fingers Grace they call me now, well in between litters of Bichon Frise anyway.
Nowadays there's a bit of a competition in our street – most houses enter the annual competition, but the main contenders are usually Jean, her neighbour Dawn, Nora at number 19, and 'im next door. I didn't let on at first about the plant food but then I had to tell Jean and she told Dawn. Mr Armstrong and Nora could only smile through gritted teeth as our flowers all got taller and taller. I'm pretty sure he's trained his scraggy cat to 'go' on my borders in revenge. Rotten moggy – it's a vicious old thing. I swear it takes a swipe at my puppies if they get too near.
Anyway, another year, another trophy. And… another year, another Valentine’s Day, alone. Some people would be bothered in my situation but I've learned to cope. Changing light bulbs, mending fences; I’ve got used to being resourceful.
Nothing bothers me much any more I'm glad to say – you get like that at my age and I'm still in quite good nick for a late fifty something! Although the other day I was a bit surprised at what my little grandson said to me – it wasn't what you expect to come out of a three-year-old I can tell you! We'd been talking about what I was wearing in a photo they were looking at and he suddenly said,
"You're piti-ful grandma". "Oh, OK Ryan," is all I could manage.
There's me thinking maybe he'd overheard his mother say something. I was a bit hurt I must admit. But I put it down to her hormones – she's expecting their second one and I know what I was like when I was pregnant. You can be a bit ratty when you look and feel like a barrage balloon, especially when your first-born’s been giving you a bit of a hard time over it all. She's mostly lovely, my daughter-in-law Anita, but lately she's been almost as much hard work as little Ryan is! She laughed it off, and I let it go. I did wonder what he meant though, and I've put a bit of extra makeup on each day since.
As it turned out, 14th Feb was their Sunday to visit. My three kids all take turns to come see me so I offered to babysit, so that she and my son Darren could go somewhere romantic for the evening. But at least I knew I'd have some company to cheer me up on Valentine’s Day instead of wishing for what couldn't be! That and seeing three of the fluffy little puppies off to their new carefully vetted families – nothing nicer than seeing the joy in little children’s faces when they're handed their brand new bundle of fluff to love and care for.
The days ticked by. 'im next door was curt but polite, sticking to "M-morning, Mrs Morris" and "E-evening, Mrs Morris". We were like two old records – "Morning Mr. Armstrong, evening Mr. Armstrong…"
The puppies got bigger and more boisterous and more of a handful so that in the end I let Cindy retreat into the lounge with me for little breaks. There we'd sit wrapped up toasty warm, my pooch in front of my fire and me in my slanket reading or watching TV by the light of my Tiffany lamps, with the fragrant smell of Midnight Jasmine and Honeysuckle Yankee Candles. Who says I watch too much QVC!
One week, at the pub quiz, the Ancient Marines were a man down and Nora from number 19 joined them. Jean reckons that was the only night she hadn't seen 'im next door glaring in my direction – apparently he kept whispering away to Nora, behind me. It even looked like they were holding hands under the table at one point Jean said. He's got such big hands too – don't know how he keeps them so neat given how often he's out tending his plants. What's worse is that they beat us that week! Probably explains why I felt in such a bad mood that night. I went back and bought myself four rose bushes and a new wind chime to cheer myself up.
Finally the 14th was here, and right on cue my lunch and dinner date arrived. In ran little Ryan, face aglow with excitement. "Hi Grandma, can I play with the puppies please, please?"
"Course you can darling, they’re with their mummy out in the back garden. Get your wellies on first though, it's a bit muddy."
"Thanks so much, Grace," said Anita, as Ryan dumped his little rucksack at my feet and practically flew towards the back door. "He’s been looking forward to this for days."
"Has he said anything else about the new baby on the way?"
"No still the same – walks off when I try to talk about it."
"He'll come round I'm sure. He’s probably just had his nose put out of joint because he can’t jump all over you any more."
“No he can’t – ooh, there’s another kick. Anyway, Darren says we'll pop back for him around ten. Is that OK? We’ll save you some profiteroles."
A loud beep sounded from the people carrier on the road – or rather a 'beep da da beep beep BEEP BEEEEEEP' to be precise. Darren inherited that from my Don – I find it quite endearing but it gets a bit annoying if he’s kept waiting too long. So I shooed Anita out the door.
"Go on, you get off and have a lovely time!"
"We will don’t worry," she shouted back over her shoulder.
"Oh and I’d prefer a bit of New York Cheesecake if you get the chance!" I called, "and give the waiter a wink for me." She laughed as she waddled through the gate. Darren gave me a wave and an extra long BEEEEP and they disappeared off down the road.
I watched them go, waving till they were out of sight, feeling proud that my eldest was building himself a happy little family, and turned, intending to go and join in the fun, chasing after six bundles of muddy fluff, all gambolling and tumbling after a giggling three year old, round and round the back garden!
Suddenly just before the door closed, there was a knock which made me jump. "S-sorry, b-but I…"A red-faced Mr Armstrong stood there, stumbling over his words as usual.
"I just, just wanted to say, Mrs Morris, that I heard your son b-beeping, and …”
I sighed irritably. I wasn't in the mood for 'im next door's complaints.
"…don’t tell me, let me guess – it disturbed you? He’s very loud, yes I know. Mr Armstrong, I’m very sorry my son was excited and couldn’t wait to take his wife for a romantic day out. Perhaps that makes some single people resentful on a day like this. But never fear, I promise I’ll ask him not to make it such a symphony next time. Now if you don’t mind, my grandson’s with me and I can’t stand here talking."
Closing the door abruptly as he started to speak again, I went back in and prepared a lovely lunch for me and my little man. Two of the families came and collected their puppies whilst Ryan was finishing his food, and he was a bit perplexed about the missing ones when he came back out again. I explained that they’d gone on an exciting journey to their new homes, so that other children could be as happy as he was to play with their new pet.
"But I like the puppies," he told me, "I like them all. I want the little one. Can I keep him?"
"Well the little one is the little sister, a girl doggy darling, and I’m afraid she’s been promised to a new family too. A little boy is coming to pick her up tomorrow. Till then she can play with her brothers, but the one with a little white bit on his paws is going to be collected later on.”
His little face fell and for a moment I wondered if having him here today was such a good idea.
"Don’t worry about them they’re both very excited to be the only doggy in their new homes, because they’ll get all the love, and all the attention. But they won’t be all alone because I make sure every family I send them to has a little boy or girl to play with them."
Ryan’s little brow furrowed and he seemed deep in thought. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a scene, and suddenly a thought occurred to me.
"Like you will have when the new baby comes along." It seemed like a little light bulb had gone off inside his head, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes and said, "Will the puppy have her own bed in the new home?"
“Yes, and their own food so they won’t have to fight over it all."
"Will they play in a nice garden?"
"I’m sure they will," I replied and he seemed deep in thought, looking over at the sleeping pups.
"And will I be able to watch Ben10 later."
"Oh, yes of course you can," and I ruffled his hair, glad he’d forgotten all about them. Or so I thought.
Jean popped by in the afternoon while Ryan was having his nap and couldn't wait to tell me all about this year's Valentine's surprise Nigel was planning for her. Over our usual Earl Gray, I told her all about the little drama with 'im next door at lunchtime.
"So he just stood there, bold as brass, having a pop about your Darren’s beeping? Who does he think he is the noise police? What a liberty!" We laughed, knowing she'd just done a Catherine Tate impression. She's just like that 'Nan' character, is Jean.
"Well maybe the beeping interrupted another one of his lunchtime sonatas he’s always listening to, I don’t know. I've got to admit, it would have woken the dead, it was quite loud." I suppose the way Jean was carrying on, one of us had to stick up for the man!
"I’d have given him a piece of my mind."
"He’s still smarting from the last piece you gave him, Jean! I’d like to tell him to poke his nose out too, but it would take too much to clear the air again afterwards. Mind you, it would be nice to go back to having a proper relationship with a next door neighbour."
“A proper relationship, eh? Maybe deep down you’ve got a secret crush on our Mr Armstrong. Perhaps you’d like his arms to be strong around you!" I made a face at her attempt at a joke but a weird little tingle happened inside my tummy when she said it. I shook myself.
"Ha ha, not funny. We’ve got absolutely nothing in common, except plants. But it’s clear he hates me. And he’s so reserved and standoffish… And I’ve got a Bichon Frise and he’s got a cat. So, keep trying Cilla!"
"Well, stranger things have happened. You never know, maybe the new man of your dreams has been right under your nose and you never knew it!"
“Oh my god! Remind me to avoid you this time next year – Valentine’s Day obviously does weird things to your brain. Anyway, tell me where you’re off to this year?"
"You’ll never guess. Nigel’s going to be King Arthur and I’m Queen Guinevere at a Medieval banquet tonight in St Katherine’s Dock!"
“Oh no, free-flowing mead in a half pint jug. By the end of the night you’ll be wishing you could go trade him in for Lancelot!"
We laughed and chatted for a bit longer till Jean was collected by Nigel of the Round Table. She takes the mick but she loves it all really.
Then it was time for me to check in on my little knight in shining armour – all that fresh air and running around must have worn him out, he’d been asleep for an awfully long time.
But when I looked in on him, he was nowhere to be seen. A cold feeling of foreboding washed over me. How long had I been chatting? There hadn’t been a sound. Even the puppies had been silent – fast asleep in their box in the kitchen. Surely he hadn’t gone out? But no matter where I looked, he was nowhere to be seen…
Check back on Friday for the final instalment.