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Malachi O'Doherty on Valentine's Day: a day brimming over with romance, or just a reminder of being alone?

Malachi O'Doherty recalls the childish fun of sending secret Valentine's cards to his teenage sweethearts... but there is a downside to its romantic hearts and flowers image

I have been in love more often than perhaps was wise. The first time was when I was 14. I had noticed before then that the company of girls had somehow become less annoying than in the pre-pubescent years, but it was only then that I developed a full-on fixation on one girl.

There were some boys in my class at school who fell in love too though never, as far as I could tell, as rapturously and obsessively and as achingly as I did myself. For most of them football mattered more than snogging round the back of the shops and, for some of them, the snogging seemed not very interesting at all.

This interest was stirred every spring.

For not only did the lengthening of the evening and the rising of the sap prompt the annual hormonal uneasiness, it brought Valentine's Day, and the challenges associated with it.

The first challenge was to write rhymes, usually quatrains that started with Roses are red, Violets are blue ...

And boys being boys, these were not always romantic and tender rhymes.

'Roses are red, violets are blue,

When I need to boke I just look at you'.

The style of the time - and how would I know if it had changed? - was to scrawl dozens of these wee rhymes over the card.

Some of them were bawdy - some blatantly so, some more suggestive than plain dirty.

And I remember huddles in the classroom with boys, writing these rhymes together and learning from each other the rhymes passed down from older brothers and sisters.

Which is to say that Valentine's Day was a cultural event, a spur to creativity of the kind that teachers didn't know about. It was important. And it was not commercial, at least not very.

It cost the price of a card and a stamp.

The girls were probably in their own huddles in their classrooms composing rhymes too and discussing who they would send their cards to.

I suspect that a lot of them and a lot of us did not send cards at all. The game and the anticipation were the whole thing.

The other challenge of St Valentine's Day was to be sure you actually got a card from someone, and a nice one.

For, though we were coining coarse verses we didn't want to receive cards like that ourselves. We wanted real tenderness. We wanted to be loved.

Well, everybody does.

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I'm hugging my pillow and thinking of you.

I was into this game so young - for 14 was young then - that it felt like mischief and had to be a secret from parents.

That meant that you had to be hanging around the hallway when the postman called - pretty awkward if he came after you left for school.

And there was no way of pretending that the card that had been spotted was not a Valentine card, because there would be lipstick kisses on the envelope, and SWALK written on the back of it.

SWALK meant Sealed With A Loving Kiss.

And in those more religious times, the letters SAG might be there too - St Anthony Guide, Anthony being the patron saint who helped you find things that were lost.

And there were bawdy and downright obscene variants of these tags, too, which young lovers trusted parents would be too old and dowdy to have heard about or be able to decipher.

When I got a Valentine I was deeply chuffed. I took it as the most unwarranted compliment, as an authentic expression of love for me, as something wholly surprising and undeserved.

Those years when I didn't get a card, I felt despondent and rejected, not just by the one or two girls I might have hoped would send me one, but by the entire female population of Andersonstown and its environs. St Valentine's Day was that important.

And paradoxically so, for why would you be disappointed not to receive something that would have surprised you if you had received it?

Yet the gain and the loss weighed pretty equally in the balance.

And occasionally you got a card and could not work out who had sent it.

Now I am married and my wife and I exchange cards at breakfast time. That's nice but it's not so emotionally disruptive that you can't get through the rest of the day without dwelling on it.

All cards were anonymous then, but it was rare that somebody would fancy you from afar and not have already given you a clue.

Perhaps if I had worked out the identity of one of those mystery cards, I would have taken an entirely different course through life.

I suspect not.

In the naive years, I would not have suspected that one of them might have been sent by another boy, whose secret love really would have had to stay secret.

Valentine's Day then was very simple and complicated, too, which is to say that it was playful and serious, that it had the potential to lift your spirits or deflate them - it could be fun and it could hurt. It was like real life.

And what is it now?

Perversely this year it falls in Lent so some of those people booking tables for their candlelit dinners will be taking a break from their pledges to abstain, as they will on St Patrick's Day, too, which falls in Lent every year.

This must be hard enough, as it is, for people whose relationships are dimming. It virtually demands that they pretend they are still in love. It's bad for those who have no one to say they love them when that is now the least that you should expect on Valentine's Day. Yet some people are not loved and this only reminds them of that gap in their lives.

It's slightly awkward, maybe for people in the early days of a relationship, when a florid demonstration of devotion might be more than is warranted by a swell night in the pub and a couple of sleepovers.

There was nothing wrong with Valentine's Day when I was a teenager.

It was fun and it was creative and, on top of that, it condensed some of the hard lessons about growing up into a single brief festival.

I don't mind it. I will give my wife a card and I will tell her I love her.

I'd hate to feel I had to do that if I couldn't mean it.

Belfast Telegraph


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