When he came back from the bathroom, there awaited two things on his neatly plumped pillow. An envelope, on which his name was written in black ink, in a familiar, scrappy hand. And laid over the top of it, diagonally, a single, long-stemmed, red rose.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and picked it up, holding it close to study its perfectly furled petals, the deep, velvety red of them, just starting to open. It had no scent, of course. Cultivated roses such as this rarely did. He raised it and lightly brushed the edge of one petal against his upper lip to test its softness. He was like a baby, he realised as he did it, testing everything with his mouth.
This was an offering of perfect beauty.
His brain probably held several dozen memorised poems right now that would be suitable for the occasion, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember a single word. His mind had been stunned into intellectual silence. There was only this triumph of Nature’s craft, left as a sign of devotion. It filled his whole soul, and pushed everything, good and bad, into the shadows with its loveliness.
He found that his eyes were stinging. He wiped the tears away with the heel of his hand. Silly, really. And yet, not silly. Because no one had ever, in all his thirty-seven long years, given him such a precious gift.
He slid his finger under the flap of the envelope and pulled out the card. There was a picture of two giraffes on the front, their long, sinewy necks entwined. It made James chuckle for a moment before he opened it.
Inside, more of that same, erratic writing that he had seen so many times before on reports and official forms:
I’m not much good at this sort of thing, as you know. You’d probably have a poem on the tip of your tongue to say just the right thing. The best I can do is this:
You’ve made me happier than I ever dreamt it was possible to be again.
So this year, will you make a miserable old bugger happy and be my Valentine?
There was a squiggle at the bottom which may or may not have been possible to interpret as an ‘R’.
He read it back to himself over and over again, lingering on the words:
You’ve made me happier than I ever dreamt it was possible to be again.
Was that really possible? That he, of all people, difficult, aloof, too clever by half, a smartarse as Lewis was always so fond of reminding him, could actually make the one he loved happy. Not just happy, but as happy as he had once been. Before. As happy as she had made him.
And yet here was this rose, a kind of proof.
He picked it up again and turned it carefully in his fingers to avoid the thorns on the side of the stem, examining its rich colour.
He really means it, doesn’t he, said the voice in the back of his head, the voice of doubt, the voice of desperation. This time, it’s for real.
He followed the curl of scent luring him to the kitchen with its promise of coffee. Good coffee, too, not that hideous instant rubbish Lewis usually offered. Steam was already winding out of the spout of the cafetiere as it sat on the table beside the window.
And there was Robbie, in nothing but a pair of checked, brushed cotton pull-ons that James himself had given him. Bare foot, and with that wide chest pale in the morning sun.
He had to allow himself a moment of delighted pride. When they had first begun their love affair, Lewis had still been attached to his pyjamas, the self-same, iron-clad, polycotton modesty that he had adopted when he became a parent all those long years ago. Persuading him to shed the pale blue armour had seemed like the task of Sisyphus. James had employed his method of testing everything with his lips to coax his lover into considering that nudity could be an advantage. Now Robbie often walked to and from the bathroom stark naked. And James had to admit he loved it. Far from being disgusted by Robbie’s figure, as his lover had expected, James couldn’t get enough of it. Especially that gorgeous belly –although even he had to admit that that part of Lewis’ anatomy had somewhat reduced after James took over the cooking. He still had a slight paunch, under which the waistband of those pull-ons clung, so deliciously satisfying to rub James’ face into, to nuzzle at night and snuggle against. James had a fraction of a minute to admire before Lewis turned around and caught sight of him, standing there in the doorway in nothing but his boxers.
James smartly took the stem of the rose between his teeth and sashayed up to his beloved, slipping his arms around his waist and bending him over backwards, as if in the passionate clinch of a tango.
‘You’re off your head, man,’ Robbie laughed.
‘I’m mad with love,’ James told him between clenched teeth.
‘Oh, give over,’ Robbie blushed. But he wasn’t above taking the opportunity to whip the rose out of James’ mouth to kiss him.
The steam curled from the surface of the coffee in each mug, sitting on the bedside table beside the giraffe card, the solitary rose sitting in a glass of water, and the card James had bought, white with an elegant silver embossed slogan:
MY TRUE LOVE HAS MY HEART AND I HAVE HIS
‘Poetry, of course,’ Robbie had huffed when he opened it. And then covered James’ face with kisses.
Now they lay, cuddled up under the duvet, James pressing his nose into that soft, comforting pectoral muscle, sniffing the delicious, spicy musk that characterised Robbie’s body first thing in the morning.
‘How did you know?’ He rubbed his cheek against Robbie’s shoulder, despite the rasp of stubble.
‘Don’t come that! You know! That today was important.’ James propped himself up on his elbow so that he could look down at his lover. Lewis’ eyes twinkled with mischief.
‘I’m half a decent detective, me,’ he reminded James. ‘I worked it out, all on me own.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ James laughed, realising he was not going to get anything much of a sensible answer. He couldn’t help looking though. Letting his eyes feast on that face that he had loved in silence for so many years, the tender crinkles around the eyes, evidence of so much wry laughter, the jowls and softness of the jaw, the forehead scored horizontally by surprise and disbelief. And those lovely lips. God, how he loved those lips!
Having proved yet again how much, he lent back to take a breath, and asked, ’Seriously, how did you know it mattered so much?’
Robbie reached up and stroked the pad of his index finger along the line of James’ own jaw.
‘Had to, didn’t it? You’ve had so few people see the value of you. So few that wanted to make a fuss of you. Well, today I’m going to make a fuss of you, even if it makes you cringe with embarrassment. Because you deserve it.’
‘I promise I won’t cringe,’ James whispered, laying his head on Robbie’s shoulder.
They lay there for a while, quiet, warm in each other’s arms. James loved these moments of stillness. Unlike Robbie, he had never known the simple pleasures of intimacy, the quiet joy of being with the one you love. It had been a revelation to him, and these days, he found he couldn’t get enough of it. Yet after a while, he began to realise that Robbie was in one of his contemplative moods. Some new confidence was coming. James snuggled closer to Robbie’s side and waited, knowing as he always did that if he gave the older man enough time, something beautiful would emerge.
‘Me and Val never much bothered with Valentines,’ Lewis began, gazing up at the ceiling, his eyes bright with memory. ‘At first it was just that we didn’t have two pennies to rub together. It seemed daft to waste money we couldn’t afford on cards and flowers. And then we just didn’t think about it. Even on our anniversary. She used to say every day was Valentines day with me.’
He rolled over to face James, who looked back at him from his own pillow. Robbie stroked James’ cheek tenderly.
‘Twenty-eight years we did that. Twenty-eight years she made excuses for me being a thoughtless oaf and a skinflint. And then suddenly she was gone, and oh, how I wished I could get every one of those days back, every one of those anniversaries and Valentines days, and do it properly, and make sure she knew, really knew, just how much I loved her.’
‘I’m sure she knew,’ James tried to comfort.
‘So am I, but that’s not the point. When you’ve been together a long time, you take it all for granted. You know the other person loves you, so in the end, you don’t say it. And it’s too important not to say. Even if every day is Valentine’s Day, the point is that you take those opportunities to make sure. It’s the gesture. It’s being thoughtful. It’s showing that you don’t take anything for granted. It’s making the other person feel extra special that day, even if you think they are special every single day. Because it matters.
‘Maybe I’m not explaining this too well, but the thing is, the important thing, is that I really regret that I didn’t show her how much I loved her on those special days. It’s the one real regret that I have. And I’m not going to make that same mistake with you.
‘And perhaps it’s different with a bloke, but I don’t think it is. Especially not with you. So I’m going to tell you every chance I get. And I’m going to make sure you feel special on the special days. Because it matters.’
James looked into those cornflower blue eyes, so vivid with conviction, and felt overcome, as he so often was, with awe that such a loving heart could be his.
‘Thank you,’ was all he could manage to say.