Every Sunday, Ledford brought three lady servants down the mountain in the larger of the Bornholdts’ carriages so they could do some walking and shopping in the village with him as chaperone. If ever there were more than three who wanted to go, he took whoever had not been down the mountain in the longest time. Frugal as I was, I’d never before taken the opportunity, so on the Sunday I asked to come along I was readily seated with Lucette and Mrs. Davies in the carriage.
The ride to the village was mostly quiet. Only Mrs. Davies spoke, huffing and complaining when a bump in the road jostled the carriage. Not having anything to say to Lucette, I watched the trees, my mind on what might make a good gift.
The village main street was nothing like what I’d seen of London when I left Parish Street. One moment we were passing rowhouses, and the next we were passing shop windows—and I could see, at the far end, where the rowhouses picked up again. Ledford stopped the coach in front of a building with POST OFFICE stenciled large over its facade. Mrs. Davies and Lucette went right in, but I didn’t like to follow them. My errand felt intimate, and I wanted to do it in some privacy if I could. So I went farther down the street, careful to stay in Ledford’s line of sight.
The shoppers were spread thinner than they were in London; a couple coming toward me moved aside, and we passed without brushing. “The sun found its way out,” the woman said, and “yes, it’s balmy now,” her husband replied, his voice slipping away into the general patter of feet and talk. A man with a crutch under his arm asked another fellow, who was passing, “Shine your shoes, sir?” The passing fellow slowed, and I went around him.
To my right there was a tinsmith’s, with all manner of tableware in the window, but I didn’t stop. Giving Valentine a tin cup when he was surrounded by fine silver—which he had to polish endlessly—seemed cruel as well as unimpressive.
There was a public house on the other side of the street, and a hat shop beyond—but even if I got a good cap, there wouldn’t have been any opportunity for him to wear it except of a Sunday.
The next shop on my side was a butcher’s, and if I had not already been worried about going too far from Ledford, the smell would have repelled me. I turned back, frowning.
The young man I’d passed was kneeling on the walk, his crutch set against the brick of a shop wall. He’d taken off his coat and laid it on a box so the man he’d hailed could sit and read his newspaper.
The shushing of bristles made me look closer, slowing down as I approached. The shoe-shiner had a brush in each hand, and he buffed both sides of one shoe at once, moving in quick, precise circles. It struck me how earnest he was—his motions practiced, his eyes and mouth set—even though his customer didn’t supervise him. He was fastidious not for the benefit of the other man, but for himself.
“Everything all right, there, Osley?” Ledford called.
I jerked back into motion. “Yes, thank you.”
He gestured to the post office. “Better go in if you mean to. I think the others aren’t much longer for it.”
I nodded and turned in.
The post office was bigger inside than I expected, and better-kept—with a shine to its floor. A man was stationed behind a counter with all manner of stationery and its complements, and behind him was a wall of square slots with mail pieces in them. But he apparently sold other things as well: there were foodstuffs and toiletries set out on tables—here some vegetables, there tooth powders and soap. I went straight to a pile of blue boxes, drawn by the yellow bows tied around them.
They were candy boxes from Cadbury, the script said. Candy was a fine gift, not so expensive as to suggest I meant anything serious by giving it. But even as I picked one of the boxes up it made me feel silly—silly and strangely naked. I returned it to its place, glancing about to see if I’d been observed. But Mrs. Davies was reading the label on a jam jar, and Lucette was stretching to reach one of the cards up front.
I made my way about the perimeter of the store. There were things for children at the back: a crib, a ball, a slate, a short chair. I sighed. I didn’t know what I’d expected to find, but I was disappointed all the same.
Lucette was still at the counter, by the stationery. Perhaps whatever interested her would interest me, so I went over to where she stood. But she was contemplating tobacco. I shuddered.
Then, as I was turning, I saw the word Valentine. I stepped closer to the stationery—too close for Lucette, apparently, who clicked her tongue against her teeth and moved away. I didn’t even glance after her. I was staring at the card. Valentine.
The card was stuffed at an angle behind a uniform set of cream and pink cards, the top right edge stuck out. I tugged it free. It was not a rectangle like the others in front of it, but cut in the shape of a wreath, with blue flowers drawn all around its edge. Inside the floral border were drawn two fair-headed children, looking at each other, holding hands under the arch of a garden gate—one boy, one girl. It said: Will you be my Valentine?
I traced the letters with my finger. “What is this?”
“Show it ’ere,” the man behind the counter said, not unkindly. He was older and had an overgrown moustache.
I turned the card to face him.
“Ah,” he said. “Thought I put all ’ose things away in March.” He reached out, wiggling his fingers.
I held the card closer to me. “I’d like to buy it.”
His brow furrowed as he lowered his hand. “It’s a long wait to the next Sain’ Valentine’s, miss—an’ if you come back in February, you’ll ’ave a selection besides.”
I looked down at the card again, smiling at the children. “So it’s for the saint’s day? We marked it at the workhouse, but we didn’t have cards.”
“Well, you wouldn’, miss,” the man said, more gently. “They’re for sweethearts to hand over to their lovers.”
I blushed deeply, and I must have given the man quite a look.
“Here.” This time, he spoke with an air of pity. “I’ll take it back.”
“No, I—” I smiled. “I do want it, still.”
“What’s the delay?” Lucette asked, behind me. “Mrs. Davies is in the coach. We’re all ready to leave but you.”
“One moment,” I said, and then, to the man: “How much is it?”
But he didn’t look at the card. He only studied me. “It’s not the season to be sellin’ it to you,” he said finally. “Jus’ take it.”
“Really?” I blinked. “But—I can pay, sir.”
He fixed me with solemn eyes. “I know workhouses a bit, miss. You paid already.”
Deep warmth touched me at the shoulders then, as if his hands clasped me there. “Thank you, sir,” I said.
Back in the coach, my mouth dry, I wondered what I meant to do next. Actually give the card to Valentine? Could I do that?
It didn’t have to be about love, if I did.
It was a lark more than anything, I thought, studying the card—a silly joke. And it was all right that it made me weepy, because there was a sweetness to it. Because—because he was called Valentine, and he was my dear friend, and so he would always be “my” Valentine. He couldn’t help it if he tried; it was not a question, but a fact.
It could be about friendship. If he preferred. I traced the illustrated garden gate with my finger. Lucette huffed—but when I looked up from the card she was gazing fixedly out of the window on her side of the coach.
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