It’s a dismally uninspiring collection of valentine cards. Peter has lingered for a while now, watching people come and go without making a purchase, none of them able to find anything appropriate from what’s on display. Even if he had someone in mind, he still can’t imagine himself selecting any of these cards. They’re all so unbearably twee. He’s beginning to suspect that he’s far from the only one who doesn’t understand how this love thing really works.
Nevertheless, Peter has enjoyed having people think that he has a girlfriend. He’s liked how that’s made him feel, confirming his belief that he’d rather like one – to try out at least. He certainly has no shortage of friends who are girls, just hasn’t a clue as to how to go about converting one of those into an actual girlfriend.
Actually, for starters, he wouldn’t mind just receiving a valentine card himself. That might help him feel better about a day that’s never held any happy memories for him. It’s always been associated with Valentino. Despite the thing having been gone for more than twelve years now, he can still feel its presence in his life. He wonders if he’s the only kid ever to have been terrorised by a teddy bear.
So the story goes, Valentino was originally a present from Peter’s father to his mother on their first Valentine’s Day as a courting couple. Mike was a bit of a romantic on the quiet. The bear acquired an appropriate name and became something of a symbol of his parents’ love for each other. It wasn’t long before his father proposed to Shona and the full white wedding ensued, with all the works, followed by a honeymoon in Rome during which Peter is pretty sure he was conceived – with Valentino as witness to the event.
That which started with such a flourish was somehow doomed not to last. His parents managed to keep their difficulties quite private from their only child, so it was a huge shock to Peter when one day his father just upped and walked away from the family home. Valentino was transplanted from its sacred position at the foot of his parents’ bed to the foot of his own. Without ever understanding the reasons, Peter was somehow aware of the significance of his mother not just throwing the bear out.
It was a very confusing time for Peter. It felt like a responsibility had been given to him, one he most definitely didn’t want. He was angry with his father and in Valentino found a sitting target for all that anger. All his frustration got projected onto the teddy bear. It became a symbol for everything that had gone wrong in his short life.
Mike had chosen Valentino because it was quirky rather than cute. It had a rather lopsided smile that Peter always found deeply unsettling, even before it came into his reluctant custody. He tried to ignore the thing but somehow that odd smile followed him around the bedroom. His first attempt to remove Valentino was simply to hide it in the back of his toy cupboard, but the very next day it had magically reappeared, with its smirk having grown a little more sinister in the process.
It subsequently got dispatched to other various places around the house, each a little more obscure and well hidden than the last. Each time it eventually found its way back, with a growing malevolence to be seen in its increasingly crooked smile. To Peter’s imaginative young eyes, it had started to become evil.
The situation escalated to a point where Peter started to plot against Valentino, formulating a plan to dispose of the thing once and for all. It had to be carefully executed; he well understood, at some level at least, that it had to be kept secret from his mother. The trouble was that it was hard to guarantee a sufficient amount of time when he wasn’t under her protective eye. An opportunity finally arose in the summer holidays when she got in a routine of doing a yoga practice in the late afternoon. Fortunately, that set period of time each day became precious to Shona. It was time purely for herself, a time during which she was happy for Peter to play quietly on his own without interrupting her.
The plan was to bury Valentino in the far corner of the garden, behind some shrubbery, out of sight of the back door. He used the time his mum was joining her mind, body and spirit together to excavate a deep hole, using just a knife, fork and spoon he’d secreted from the kitchen. It was a slow process but that wasn’t a big problem for him. There seems like all the time in the world when you are just seven years old.
Peter made good progress over a couple of weeks of intermittent effort. During each session he popped back into the house a few times to make a bit of noise and generally reassure his mother that he was happily occupied. He peeped inside the studio on a few occasions to witness her bending her body into some startlingly strange positions, rather distorted from those he could see she was trying to copy from the big television screen showing the video. He knew not to point that out. He didn’t want to discourage her in any way.
When he’d dug down as deep as he thought necessary to ensure the bear would never be exhumed, there was one last finishing touch left to be done. He waited until his mother was next safely locked in the lotus position, carefully removed the bread knife from its drawer in the kitchen, and set about sawing off Valentino’s head. If he couldn’t remove that evil smirk from its face he could at least disconnect it from the rest of its body. It was an act of revenge for all the emotional torture to which he’d been subjected.
He promptly took the decapitated bear out to the concealed grave in the corner of the garden, dropped the torso and head into the hole, and started to cover it with earth. It didn’t take anything like as long to fill the hole as it did to excavate it in the first place. He managed to restore the site back to its previous state the very next day.
Peter was confident that he’d seen the last of Valentino, but despite being wise beyond his years, it was several months before he stopped checking the foot of the bed each morning. He was also expecting his mother to ask questions, but she never mentioned the bear again. And he’s never felt able to ask her about it since. Their mutual conspiracy was buried as deeply as Valentino himself.
The only acknowledgement to Peter that he’d won the game was a subtle shift in the way he was treated. Shona was less inclined to try to mould Peter to normality, to her notion of how a boy of his age should be. A tacit truce was made, an agreement that the two of them were just too different to ever properly understand each other. There were still plenty of arguments, but she mostly left him alone to do his own thing, a freedom he very much enjoyed.
Peter’s relationship with his mother has improved since he’s been at college. The distance has actually brought them closer. Now they’re no longer living on top of each other and continually pushing each other’s buttons, they find themselves talking about real stuff as opposed to just resolving conflict. With Valentine’s Day approaching, recalling those early memories, Peter feels an urgent need to ask his mum the question he’s never felt able to ask before.
He leaves the shop, thankful that he actually has no need to choose a card, and finds a quiet place to give her a call. He’s aware of being nervous, anxious even, but now the thought has been planted in his head, he needs some kind of resolution. For once, he’s happy when she answers right away. He normally hopes she won’t, so at least she knows he’s tried and he can then miss her return calls for a few days and avoid having to go through the motions of small talk. Just like his dad, Peter detests small talk.
They exchange the very briefest of pleasantries before he cuts straight to the chase.
“Mum, there’s something I need to ask you. Do you remember Valentino?”
“Well … yes,” she replies, a little hesitantly.
“Why did you keep returning him to the end of my bed when it was perfectly obvious I didn’t want the thing there.”
“Oh …” she simply replies, trying to gather her thoughts. “That was a very long time ago.”
“But you do remember though.”
“Yes, I do, of course, but there’s no simple answer … if I have an answer at all. I’m not sure I even know myself.”
“But you must know.”
“Look … you need to understand that when your dad left it was just as confusing for me as it was for you. I still loved him. I still do.”
This catches Peter a little by surprise. His mother had never told him that so straightforwardly before.
“I couldn’t throw the bear out,” she continues. It was a symbol of our love for each other. But I couldn’t have it on my bed.”
“Why did it have to be on mine?” he asks, raising his voice for the first time.
“It was supposed to be a reminder that your father was still there for you. I knew you weren’t going to see him for long periods of time. I didn’t want you to forget him.”
“And I was supposed to understand that at seven years old?”
“Well, you seemed to understand pretty much everything else then. Why not?”
“But why keep returning it whenever I hid it somewhere?”
“I knew you were upset with your father. It was to let you know his love for you was still there, that you couldn’t make that go away. We talked about it, your dad and me. It was what he wanted me to do. If you want to blame someone, you should blame him.”
“Did you talk about what the devil ever happened to him?” he snapped.
“Of course. That was very disturbing. We had no idea what to do. We were really worried.”
“About the bear?” he asks in puzzlement, half-believing that she was indeed referring to Valentino.
“No, silly, about you. I was watching you know, the day you cut off its head with the breadknife. I remember I was doing some yoga, but I got this hit that something was wrong. I went to check and just caught sight of you in your moment of triumph. There was a look on your face I will never forget. You really scared me that day.”
“But you never said anything?”
“What could I possibly have said? Your dad and I decided just to forget about it.”
“Thanks for that at least. I suppose you could have dug him up, stitched his head back on, and returned him to the foot of my bed again. That would have given me nightmares I’d still be having now. Please tell me you weren’t tempted.”
“Dig him up?” she queries, a little confused.
“From his grave.”
“What grave? When you went out into the garden I just presumed you threw the bits in the rubbish bin.”
Peter then explained the full story, all the effort it took to dig the hole with just some cutlery, all the subterfuge to avoid being spotted. Shona listens attentively until he’s finished, pauses for a moment to take stock, then bursts into a fit of wild laughter, the sound of which he’s sure he’s never heard from her before. And he bursts out laughing too. By the time they eventually get off the phone, over an hour has passed. He thinks it’s possibly the best time he’s ever spent with his mum. He was even able to tell her about his wish to get a valentine card, and try out having a girlfriend.
Five days pass and he barely registers the fact that it’s February 14th. He has no lectures in the morning so he’s idling time away at his student house when the doorbell sounds. It’s the postman. There are three items for him no less. There is a small parcel and, most remarkably, two cards. He opens the cards first. It doesn’t take him long to deduce that one is from his mum, and the other from his dad.
Shona hasn’t put a lot of effort into disguising the fact the card is from her. The postmark is the biggest giveaway. Mike has taken more care, cleverly engineering the postmark to be a local one. However, Peter knows his dad’s handwriting well from all the letters he’s written over the years so, although he’s altered the style, there are signature touches that give the game away. Peter thinks he’ll pretend not to have worked it out. He might pretend in the same way to his mother – but only because he suspects that she actually wants him to know it was from her. Old habits are going to die hard as far as she’s concerned.
He then starts to open the parcel. He has no idea what it could possibly be. He opens the external packaging and then starts peeling away at layers of bubblewrap. As soon as a characteristic shape is revealed he realises what it is. Valentino eventually emerges, its head neatly stitched back onto its grubby torso. It’s been through the wash, but still shows signs of where it’s been hiding for so many years. The odd thing is that its smile doesn’t seem at all creepy now.
Peter can’t stop smiling myself. Sending the bear to him had obviously been his dad’s idea, but kudos to his mum for going and digging it up. He realises that they’re clearly talking in depth, possibly even a little in love with each other still – whatever that really means. He feels good about them both. Peter then becomes aware that he feels good about himself too, and also about Valentine’s Day itself. He has a whole year now to select the girl that will be sent his card. He might try to find a quirky looking bear to send her too. Or perhaps not.