I’m not an enormous fan of Valentine’s day, other than the fact that February 15th brings a lot of discounted chocolate (as you may remember from the blog post I wrote about exactly that). But I haven’t revisited Glenda and the Horsemen for a while, and for some reason, I started wondering how they’d interpret Valentines.
So I decided to find out.
Otherwise – read on! And tell me below – are you a Valentine’s type person? Why or why not?
Valentine’s at the Edge of the World
(A Glenda & the Horsemen Short Story)
The box had once been pink, but the bottom half had gone a deep crimson colour, and one corner was dripping as the man in the skinny jeans held it out to Glenda.
“I understand that these are appropriate gifts for this holiday,” he said. His skin was stretched dark and taut against his cheekbones, the hand holding the box all but fleshless. “I’m not very good with flowers.”
Glenda, who had watched a dandelion uproot itself and flee when the man’s shadow came a little too close, nodded her understanding but didn’t take the box. “What is it?”
The man dropped his shadowed eyes to the box, then looked up again. “A gift?”
Glenda sighed. “Well, the bow does rather suggest as much.” It did. It was a white bow liberally spattered with tiny pink hearts, and she was fairly sure that even in her long-ago teenage years she wouldn’t exactly have been swooning over it. It looked like the sort of bow a little boy in a comic strip might put on a box of chocolates for the little girl whose hair he pulled. Although she doubted that any of those gift boxes ever smelled quite so … well … fishy.
“Is the bow not right? I thought the bow was a fundamental part of the gift.”
“It’s very nice,” Glenda said, and clutched her tea cup a little tighter as she watched the box drip on the floor. “Shall we put it in the sink?”
“I take it by we that you actually mean I should.” He sounded faintly disapproving, but Glenda just smiled at him.
“I made custard creams.”
He looked at the biscuit tin, then at the box, then sighed and took it to the sink under the sweep of windows that framed vast fields rolling to distant mountains, the wildflowers unfamiliar and the sky a deep, hungry indigo. “They’re oysters,” he said, opening the biscuit tin and choosing a heart-shaped custard cream that was almost as big as his palm. “I went all the way to Tasmania for them. They’re meant to be the best in the world.”
“I told you shellfish were a bad idea,” the young man sitting at the kitchen table said. He had his own tin of biscuits in front of him, and they were looking a little green and furry despite the fact Glenda had only just finished putting them together. “Seriously, D, in what way does a squidgy, dying piece of marine life say “love”?”
D waved vaguely, scattering custard cream crumbs over his shirt. “Everywhere. It says that everywhere. I read it.”
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for you to be getting me Valentine’s gifts anyway,” Glenda said. “I’m not your girlfriend.”
“Burn,” the young man said, his grin dazzling.
D ignored him and took another custard cream. He pulled the biscuits apart, licking the icing off with a blue tongue. “I just wanted to get you something. You’ve become a most wonderful Horse, er, person, Glenda. We haven’t spent this much time together for centuries.”
Glenda rather thought that, given the classical reason for the gathering of the four Horse-persons, that was no bad thing. Aloud, she said, “Well. I appreciate the thought. But, um, oysters are a bit …” she thought for a moment. “Slimy. No. Allergic. I’m allergic.”
“Ha. I don’t even need to go near oysters to make them nasty,” the young man said with a grin. “I believe that was a fail, D.”
D hmph’d. “Tasmania,” he said again. “And all the magazines said they were wonderful for Valentine’s.”
Glenda patted his hand, skin cool under hers. “It was a wonderful thought.” She wondered if he’d read why oysters tended to be eaten on Valentine’s, and thought probably not. The Horsemen tended to be very focused, she’d discovered. So they saw everything and missed everything, all at once.
The young man leaned his muscled forearms on the table and frowned at the mould growing around the rim of his mug. “I can never get a decent cup of tea.”
“You get a decent cup of tea, Pest. What you do with it after that is entirely up to you.”
“I can’t help that it never lasts five minutes.” He gave her a sideways smile, all messy hair and blue eyes with crinkles at the corners. “Make me another?”
“No,” D said. “Make it yourself.”
“He only spoils the milk,” Glenda said, getting up. “And last time there was a plague of locusts in the tea caddy.”
Glenda leaned against the sink and stared out at the sweeping grasslands. The land was cold and high and alien, and she wondered why they couldn’t just get a nice little cottage with a pretty garden somewhere. With bedrooms. It wasn’t as if any of them slept, but she still felt that you couldn’t have a proper house without bedrooms. And all of these places they came back to – she still couldn’t bring herself to say lived, because that was wrong in both the figurative and literal sense – were just a series of vast, half-furnished rooms, some looking like someone had ordered them straight out of Architect’s Digest, others festooned with axes and shields, still others with sweating jars of unpleasant things floating in formaldehyde and bottles with skulls and crossbones on them. She had asked Death once why he didn’t have his own themed rooms, when the other two did. He had just smiled and said, “I am in every room, Glenda.”
She thought mortal Glenda might have had nightmares over that.
Now she took milk from the over-full fridge – because her room was, of course, the kitchen – topped up the mugs, and turned back to the table. There was a bag on it. It was very red, with black stripes and black ribbon handles, and she recognised the logo on the side.
“What on earth is that doing there?” she demanded.
“It’s from me,” Pest said, smiling broadly. He crossed his arms over his chest, and his shoulders threatened bodily harm to the seams of his T-shirt.
She put the mugs down hard enough to slop tea onto the table. “I’m not opening that.”
“Why not? At least it’s not dead, stinking marine life.”
“A classic gift for Valentine’s,” Death complained. “That’s what the articles all said. It took me ages to collect them all, and they ruined the nice gift box. I’m having doubts about those magazines, you know.”
“I know exactly what sort of clothing comes in that bag,” Glenda said to Pest, “and even Mr Holt wouldn’t have seen fit to buy me those.” She pushed the bag away with a fingertip.
“I don’t see why not,” Pest said. “They’re very pretty. The woman in the shop said they were her favourites.”
Glenda sighed. “You didn’t touch her, did you, Pest?”
“No.” There was a moment of silence, while Death and Glenda both looked at him. He took a gulp of tea and made a face. “Alright, so she might have touched me, but that is absolutely not my fault.”
“Honestly, Pest, you are awful.”
“I don’t think I gave her anything too bad. Just a mild rash.”
Glenda poked the bag again. “Well, they may be her favourites, but I’m not about to go scattering plenty around the world while dressed in a skimpy negligee.”
“I thought it’d make a change from the cardie and house shoes.”
She huffed. She was quite sick of her blue cardie, but it was what she’d been wearing when she died. It felt strange to consider changing, as if to do so would be to lose something more than just clothes. “My days of wearing scanty nightclothes are long behind me,” she said, tucking her hankie more firmly up her sleeve.
D frowned at her. “Why ever should that be?”
“One doesn’t wear such things at my age.”
“You don’t have an age now, G. Sorry, Glenda,” Pest added hurriedly when she frowned at him. “Anyway, who cares? We don’t.”
“It hardly seems appropriate.” She sipped her tea and touched the tight curls of her white hair, not that she thought it’d be messy. They could travel halfway around the globe on the wings of a storm and her hair looked just as it had when she’d died.
In the quiet that followed – Death dissecting another custard cream and muttering about misleading articles, Pestilence poking moodily at a particularly virulent fungus clinging to the wall of his mug – Glenda wondered how to explain Valentine’s Day to them. She could hear the faintest whisper of wind outside the windows, the creak of wood settling, and the murmur of the fridge in the kitchen. Last week she’d handed out baby-back ribs dripping with fat and sauce at a vegan conference, and stood outside a gym with a box of fresh doughnuts, powdered sugar dusting her fingers like a promise. Not with any vindictiveness, just because she honestly believed that people were missing out, were depriving themselves of the plenty in the world. She was too young to remember rationing, but she certainly remembered shortages, and the days when so many foodstuffs were luxuries not to be contemplated. Why wouldn’t one revel in the fact that you can buy almost anything just down the road these days?
She was terribly well-suited for her job, she had to admit, even if Pest had been doubtful and War still muttered about the good old days when Famine had been around.
“So,” she said finally, “Just so we’re clear. Valentine’s Day is about buying gifts for someone you’re in a relationship with, or want to be in a relationship with.”
“We’re in a relationship,” Death said.
“A romantic relationship. You know, someone you fancy.”
“Oh.” He thought about it. “But you made custard creams in the shape of hearts.” He held one up to demonstrate.
“Well, yes. But that’s just … festive, you know? Like making stars at Christmas.”
“I don’t get that,” Pest said. “There are stars all year.”
“Alright. Snowmen, then.”
“There’s always snow somewhere.”
Glenda pushed her fingertips into her temples. “We were talking about hearts.”
“I’m pretty sure people have them all year, too.”
“But if today is when you buy gifts for someone you have a romantic relationship with, when do you buy gifts for people you have other relationships with?” Death asked.
“Yes! Is there an enemy’s day, when you send poisonous gifts to people you have bad relationships with?” Pest asked, his eyes bright.
“Don’t be foolish, Pest,” Death said.
“What? I know there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day. There must be lots of other days.”
“Ye-es,” Glenda said. “There are.”
“Children’s day?” Death asked.
“Least favourite person day?” Pest suggested.
Glenda thought that if there was one, she had a good candidate for it. “There’s really just Valentine’s Day.”
The two Horsemen thought about it, then Death said, “That seems rather silly.”
“Yeah,” Pest said. “I think Enemy’s Day would be really popular.”
“Are you angling for War’s job?” Glenda asked.
“I mean,” Death said, in the sort of voice that indicated he intended to be listened to, “It seems silly not to have a day to celebrate friends. If you’re going to make such a fuss about a romantic relationship, I think you should make at least as much of a fuss about your friendships.”
Glenda opened her mouth to say, it doesn’t work that way, then stopped. He was right. It should work that way. Romances came and went, but friendships were constant, and the best romances, the ones that were bigger on the inside, were at their heart friendships with a twist. She looked at the rapidly emptying custard cream tin, then took two of the heart-shaped biscuits out. She handed one to Death, and one to Pestilence.
“You have a point,” she said.
“Does that mean you’ll open your present?” Pest asked, eating the biscuit as quickly as he could.
He opened his mouth to argue, spraying rapidly deteriorating biscuit crumbs everywhere, and was drowned out by the sudden clamour of hard-soled shoes on the wooden floor. Glenda smiled at War as he hurried toward them, his suit jacket straining around his pudgy middle and a bag over his shoulder. “You’re just in time,” she said, and held a custard cream out to him.
He scowled at her. “A custard heart? Custard?”
“For Valentine’s Day,” Death said. “We’ve just discussed it, and have decided it extends to friendships as well.”
War looked at him blankly. “It didn’t before?”
“No, apparently you could only give presents to people you fancied.”
Pest looked at the bag. “I’m suddenly starting to see how those might not make an appropriate gift.”
“Well done,” Glenda told him. “A nice scarf next time, maybe.” She waved the biscuit at War as if tempting a dog with a treat. “Do you want one? Only they’ve already eaten most of them.”
“I just need to get this straight.” He pushed thinning hair off his face. “We are giving gifts to friends? Because I absolutely don’t fancy you.”
“Thanks,” Glenda said. “And yes.”
“Good,” he said. “It took me ages to find some decent ones, then when you started waving biscuits about I thought I’d got the wrong end of the stick.” He dumped the bag on the table.
“Oh,” Glenda said, watching blood ooze softly out onto the old wood.
“Kittens are too bloody quick,” he said. “And I’m allergic to flowers, so hearts it is.” He clapped Glenda on the shoulder in the awkward way of someone who isn’t quite sure how to go about being nice. “You– you’re different to Famine, but, you know. Good job and all that.”
“Right. Thank you.”
Death sniffed. “Oysters from Tasmania.”
Glenda watched the blood staining the table and hoped the hearts had already been finished with before War took them, then wondered if she could turn them into a casserole. A nice big casserole, with potatoes and carrots and dumplings and lashings of gravy, all loaded with butter and followed by a nice fat slice of cake.
A dimension away, ovens turned on and pans started rattling, and people rushed to the shops, driven by a sudden hunger to give, to feed, to care. They were stocking up for a storm that they couldn’t see, and couldn’t prepare for even if they could. All they knew was that no one must be without, no one must be hungry.
No matter what it took to fill them.
No matter where the food came from.
No matter what the cost to get it.
There just had to be plenty.
Do you celebrate Valentine’s, lovely people? Or are you an avoider like me? Let me know below!
And should you like to treat your Valentine (or yourself) to an odd little gift, you could give the gift of many, many short stories with Oddly Enough, which is out now in all the usual places.