My Valentine

Valentine’s Day has become an elementary school tradition. Every kid has to make a card for every other kid, so a seven year old is faced with composing twenty or thirty ‘I like you because…’ messages in a form of early training for Performance Review torture. At least no one gets singled out as they did in the old Canadian system Mark described. You made Valentine cards only for kids you especially liked, and then gave them to the teacher, who doled them out so that popularity could be measured publicly. Those who got nothing watched stacks pile up on other desks.

I was a plain little girl. Straight brown hair and glasses were as good as invisibility shields in Limerick in 1983. So when I got three Valentine cards the year I turned eleven, I accused my parents of playing a joke. They goggled. I waved the cards’a homemade number, a pink-flowers job, and a fancy red one with a silver heart. The red one was inscribed with a poem in neat capitals:

    ‘LAST NIGHT I DREAMED OF SOMEONE
    WHO WAS LOVELY AND KIND AND TRUE
    WHOSE SMILE IS AS BRIGHT AS THE SUNSHINE
    AND THAT SOMEONE DEAR DERVLA IS YOU’

My parents found this hilarious, but they denied everything. I told my friends I didn’t know who’d sent them’and enjoyed the cachet of a good V-Day haul’but secretly I believed my parents had roped one of their friends into a project designed to embarrass me. After all, they lived for that.

The following year, more cards arrived. Same neat blue capitals and heartfelt poetry. And the next year, and the year after that, all the way up to sixteen or so. Even my father wouldn’t stretch a joke that far.

Paul Hickey was small and pale, and had curly brown hair. He was eager with answers in class, and he liked Maths and spellings. The grey v-necked sweater he wore every day looked boiled and itchy. Paul was from the Care House. We vaguely knew this meant he didn’t have a proper Mammy and Daddy, that he lived in foster care with a house mother, Mrs. Kite. The Care House boys were supposed to be wild’his older brother Dominic was the terror of the school’but Paul was gentle. When I was seven I sat in behind him for a whole year, and he loved to turn around to chat. The Care House taint was enough to turn most of the kids off, but I liked him more than the other boys, who lobbed mysterious insults at the girls. ‘Mammy, what’s a prostitute?’

The Pope’s visit to Limerick in 1979 may have the best thing to happen in Paul’s life. People came from all over Munster’from all over the country’to see His Holiness. Two kids were to be picked to present flowers to him. It was our First Communion year and Paul was one of those poor little Care House boys, and this was enough to get him the nod. Some little scrap of a girl was his companion, presumably from a foster house of her own. He talked about it for weeks beforehand. He was going to be on TV! He was going to present flowers to His Holiness the Pope! He was going to bow, and say ‘God be with you, your Holiness’ in Irish. Maybe he would kiss the Pope’s ring. He would be right up at the front of the crowd and he would meet the Pope!

He wore his Communion suit, which he’d inherited from one of the older boys in the Care House. It was brown. We saw him briefly on television. The pope kissed the ground, two small figures thrust a single bouquet at him, and then Paul’s shining moment was over. But he felt special for months.

The following year, when we were eight, his fate was sealed. We were doing Arts & Craft, a rare treat, when Paul started to squirm in his seat and whispered urgently to the teacher. She grabbed him by the elbow and marched him out of the class. He was hotfaced when he came back a few hours later, and the other boys taunted him.
‘Paul Hickey made a chocolate banana in his pants!’

Four years later, he wrote about his big day in the annual parish magazine. ‘The Day I Met the Pope, by Paul Hickey.’ I had a piece on the next page, a short story about an inexperienced alien who crash-landed in our village and ended up playing hurling for Mungret. By that time, Paul and I had long since sat at opposite ends of the classroom, and we didn’t talk much any more. He was growing lonelier. The other kids didn’t want to have anything to do with someone who was unlucky. I still smiled at him, but I’d found my own spot as that scourge of the disco, the prettiest girl’s plain best friend, and I wouldn’t risk it by being too kind to a spa. At eleven, it’s hard enough to survive without carrying someone else.

Paul, of course, was my Valentine. The cards continued to arrive, never fewer than two, often three. By secondary school, we were in different classes and never saw each other much. I suspected Paul, but preferred to nurse the possibility of a more dashing suitor. Finally, at sixteen, we walked out of school at the same time one day.
‘Was it you who sent me the Valentine cards?’ I asked. He nodded mutely, vigorously. He blushed. So did I.
‘Thank you,’ I babbled. ‘They were really nice. It was really nice of you. To send them. How did you know my address? From the phone book?’
I don’t remember ever speaking to him after that.

My second winter home from college, I learned that Paul was dead. He’d somehow got out to Cratloe, up in the hills near Shannon where my parents dragged us on Sunday walks. Maybe he took a taxi. He brought a rope. In the middle of the night, in November, he’d tried to hang himself from a tree. He fell, crawled away from the tree with the rope still around his neck and died before morning.
‘He made a right bags of it, the poor divil,’ said the teacher who told me, shaking his head.
He was twenty when he died. I don’t know if he was in college by then, or working, or drawing the dole. I don’t know who mourned him’Mrs. Kite? He must have felt ferociously alone and worthless. I remember him as a chattering little boy, brighter than the Mungret merchant princes who were attached more firmly to the earth. He needed very little, I think, but he got less.

I think about him more as I get older and the horror of sitting in a class watching some kids get a stack of cards from teacher while others get nothing seems less like an inescapabable rite and more like a sadistic, engineered system. Dear Paul, this year you are my Valentine.