On Saturday it will be her birthday, the day before Valentines. I haven’t bought a card in fifteen years. Where would I send it? I posted a Christmas card through the door at the last address I had for her. It was out in the east end, one of those ones with just the two flats. Hers was 8a. The door faced out onto the street, with a small hallway that meant I had to step inside and almost kneel on the tiles to get the envelope through the letterbox. I didn’t know what I’d say if she came out, or someone else did. The letterbox closed with a snap, but I couldn’t see anyone through the glass. I probably waited there longer than I should have. I was already regretting the letter I’d put in with the card. I stood up, got in the car and drove home, feeling like I’d taken a chance.
Sam’s stopped outside the card shop. He’s looking in the window, holding the handlebars of his bike. Waiting on me. Last year I’d have been ahead of him, probably pushing the bike too. We’ve been down the park all afternoon and the chill has worked its way deep into me. My heart is sore. I can’t keep up with him now. Clearly I’m not myself yet.
Finally, he says. He swings his leg over the bike seat.
Hold on, I tell him. I’m going to stop a minute.
I sit against a bollard and he takes off on his bike, legs going like short pistons, shooting away up the hill. I’m going to shout, tell him not to go on any roads, but he turns before the top of the street and starts weaving in and out of the bollards, before riding round the precinct in a big, lazy circle. He’s not getting in anyone’s way. I look in the window at the cupid dangling from a string, twirling like a weather-vane, his arrow keeps spinning round.
I wonder if Sam was looking for a Valentines card. I’ve seen him make them for his mum before, the glitter getting tidier and the kisses getting smaller every year. He’s eleven now – he doesn’t have a girlfriend yet but it’s only a matter of time. My Mum says he told her he was thinking of asking out a wee girl from his class. He wanted to take her out for a meal. I was thinking Di Maggios, Gran - he told my Mum. When she suggested McDonalds might be a better idea he said, do you think she’ll think I’m immature if I get a happy meal?
She will be 41 on Friday. I think she would tell people her real age. She only told lies when it was easier on you than the truth. Once she told me she was sorry we had never kissed. But we were on a bus at rush hour so all I said was sorry and she laughed at that and I was sorry then and I thought about why we never had. You never do the things you should when you’re young. How could you though, when you don’t understand yet what’s important and what doesn’t matter.
Are we still stopping for sweets? Sam says.
Gone are the days of yoghurt-covered raisins and dried fruit sticks. That lasted until he started getting his own pocket money to spend. We had to tell him the urine story to stop him bankrupting us during his pick ‘n’ mix phase. To be fair though, I’m quite looking forward to a bottle of juice or something now.
You can go ahead if you wait for me at the shop. I’ll watch your bike while you pick your sweets.
I’ll just walk up with you Uncle John, he says.
He gets off his bike and starts walking it up the hill, leaning on the handlebars.
A boy in my class is buying a teddy for a girl for Valentine’s day.
Is he? I say, tentatively. We seem to be veering into uncharted territory here. I’d much rather we were talking about Lego or comics.
If you want to get someone something for Valentine’s day we can go back down to the shop, I tell him.
I was thinking of getting a card for someone, he says, but I thought about it and I just bought new Yu-Gi-Oh cards instead.
I’m on firmer ground again.
I forgot I got you two new packs, but I left them in my house today. I’ll leave them up at Gran’s for you.
The girl in the sweet shop is clearly running out of patience long before Sam’s decided what he wants. I’ve got one arm snaking out the door, keeping hold of the bike. The smell is amazing in here – one of those old fashioned sweetshops with big plastic tubs wall to wall. I have a memory of high school, me pouring the last of a poke of choco-lick into my palm and she dipped her tongue right into it. She used to serve at the tuck shop when her auntie was volunteering and boys would try to get extra sweets off her.
Sam is harassing the girl - two of these, and five of those, no, the red ones – a face like fizz, my mum would say. She’s got a nice face, tanned or naturally dark, but it looks like a lot of work goes into it. I don’t look for long, or with any kind of interest. That moment you see your age reflected back at you in a woman’s eyes; it was a new pain I hadn’t found any defence against.
These days I can’t remember what she looked like. I’ve gone through all my mum’s old photographs. You’d think there’d be one. I remember her coming to my birthday party when I was seven. The one photo my mum has from that day is an old polaroid. There’s me in a blue knitted jumper with a boat on it. It looks itchy. I’m holding a chocolate cake with candles in it. I must have already blown them out. I can’t remember what I wished for, but it was probably superpowers. Around me are some girls from my class and a few boys. None of them are my friends today, not even on Facebook. And she’s not there.
Why do I remember her being there?
I’ve started accepting Facebook requests from old school friends, but I know that I’ve got ulterior motives. I added a guy I’d forgotten I hated. His first message said, Glad I’m not the only one who got fat. That was when I remembered who he was, but I didn’t delete him until after I’d checked through his friends list. Her brother had a profile for a wee while, but it was all pictures of him drinking with his mates and links to bookies websites. I thought about sending him a message, asking him how she was – anything could have happened in fifteen years though, she could have emigrated, got married, died.
No one else I’d ever spoken to was in touch with her. People asked me about her, assuming I’d know what had happened to her.
My sister was the last one to ask me. We were talking about old friends from school, mostly hers, when she just came out with it.
Do you ever hear from Claire?
Not for a long time, I said.
There was some family stuff, something with her dad, and then her brother – she cut herself off, I think, I’d heard that.
No one seems to know what happened to her. People from school, I mean, when I talk to them.
Is she not on Facebook too?
I don’t think so, I said. Maybe she changed her name, after her mum and dad split up. Maybe she’s married now as well.
I talked to my sister about her the way I would tell a story, the disinterested narrator. It was another line thrown out into dark waters.
James Connarty - February, 2016.