The school hall erupted with excited chatter as the Year 11 pupils burst forth, bringing with them the scent of designer perfume, musky deodorant and the fruity alcopops that had been glugged down on the sly before the party. It had been the same back in Heather’s day, but it had been Exclamation perfume for the girls and the boys hadn’t bothered much with grooming. The smell of alcohol came from bottles of vodka swiped from home. These days the girls were wearing short bodycon dresses or full-on prom dresses whereas back in the late 90s, Heather and her friends had sported combat pants and t-shirts or attempted to look grown up in spaghetti-strapped black dresses and wedged sandals. Heather didn’t usually show off much flesh but, keen to finally entice Paul out of the ‘friends zone’, she’d allowed her best friend to talk her into wearing a tiny cropped vest top with her baggy trousers. Very All Saints.
Heather had spent the evening feeling practically naked and it hadn’t worked anyway; Paul had ended the evening sucking the face off a prettier, more popular girl. Almost two decades later, she and Paul were nothing more than mates. Close mates, but mates all the same.
‘Hey, Miss Mitchel.’ One of Heather’s pupil’s staggered past on painfully high heels. She’d obviously been a participant in the alcopop-smuggling. ‘Mr Vickers is looking for you.’
‘Is he?’ Heather glanced around the room but she couldn’t see the PE teacher anywhere. Mr Shepherd was over by the DJ, trying to coax him into playing something with better lyrics, and Mr Hollows was searching the bag of one of the more unruly pupils, determined to find evidence of underage drinking. But no Mr Vickers.
‘Yeah, Miss.’ The girl’s friend nodded vigorously before turning slyly to her partner-in-crime. ‘I think he fancies you.’ The girls spluttered before grasping their stomachs as they shook with laughter.
Oh, ha ha. As if Mr Vickers, their hot PE teacher, could fancy nerdy Miss Mitchel.
The girls stumbled away, still giggling at their hilarity. Heather scanned the room again, just in case. He was supposed to be chaperoning the party too but Heather couldn’t see him in the dense crowd. She reached into the handbag looped across her chest, her fingers finding the sharp edge of the Valentine’s Day card that she’d found slipped under her classroom door that morning. Part of her – a tiny, delusional part – hoped that Mr Vickers had penned the note inside, even though it wasn’t his handwriting.
‘Don’t you wish you were young again?’ Valerie Kitts, head of maths, gave a sigh as she stopped next to Heather, folding her plump arms across her ample bosom. ‘Mind you, you are still young. What are you? Thirty? Thirty-One?’
‘Thirty-Two.’ Heather’s classroom was next door to Mrs Kitts’ but they rarely conversed. Mrs Kitts preferred to keep to herself, only leaving her classroom for comfort breaks or to head home. She didn’t gather in the staff room with the other teachers during breaks and she’d never accepted their invites to join them for a drink in the nearby pub to celebrate the end of term.
‘Thirty-Two.’ Mrs Kitts gave another sigh. ‘My oldest son isn’t much younger than you, though he still acts like he’s a teenage boy. I keep telling him it’s time he settled down and gave me a grandchild or two.’ Valerie narrowed her eyes at Heather, her head tilting to one side. ‘Are you married?’
Heather gave a tight smile. ‘No.’
‘No.’ Not even close. ‘I’m single.’
‘Single? That is a shame for you. Would you like my Tommy’s telephone number? He’s quite sweet, really.’ His insatiable need to pick up girls in clubs aside. ‘A sensible girl like you would be good for him.’
How could Heather say no thank you without causing offence? It was bad enough when her own mother, best friend and younger sister interfered in her failing love life without adding colleagues to the mix.
‘Heather! There you are! A quick word, please.’ Mr Vickers swooped in to save Heather’s mortification, sweeping her away from Mrs Kitts and her unanswered question. He stopped once they were out of ear-shot and his serious expression softened into its usual grin. ‘That looked intense. You haven’t been slipping booze to the kids, have you?’
Heather batted him on the arm. ‘Of course not.’ She cringed. ‘She was trying to set me up with her son.’
Mr Vickers bit his lip in the vain attempt of controlling his laughter. ‘Her son? The one she brought to the Christmas party with the hunchback and greasy hair?’
Heather gave a shrug. ‘I have no idea but this isn’t funny. It’s alright for you – you have women flinging themselves at you all the time. Nobody feels the need to set you up on ridiculous dates.’
‘That isn’t true.’
‘It’s very true.’ Heather had lost count of the number of dates he’d been on since Christmas alone.
‘Well, maybe a teeny bit true.’ He gave a shrug. He couldn’t help it. ‘But none of them are more important to me than you.’
Heather rolled her eyes. She’d heard that line from him before, mostly when she was being cast aside for a hot date.
‘I’m serious. You’re my best mate. You know that.’
Best mate. Yes, Heather knew that. And she also knew that was all they’d ever be. Heather and Paul, Paul and Heather. Best mates. Nothing more, nothing less for the past twenty years.
Heather decided to change the subject. She’d humiliated herself at one school disco, she didn’t need a repeat performance. At least she was properly dressed this time and wasn’t showing off her midriff.
‘Do you recognise this handwriting?’ She pulled the Valentines card out of her handbag, its corners now slightly crumpled due to the limited space. She opened the card and flashed the message at Paul.
‘What’s this?’ Paul grabbed the card and studied the front. ‘A Valentine’s Day card, eh?’ He opened the card, a frown on his face as he read the message. ‘Not very romantic, is it?’
That teeny bit of hope that Paul had sent her the card evaporated.
Heather snatched the card back, a mean little part of her hoping it caused a paper cut. ‘It’s not overly romantic, no. But it’s quite exciting, isn’t it?’
Meet me outside the maths block after the disco x
It was full of possibility!
‘Who’s it from?’
Heather gave a shrug. ‘No idea. It isn’t signed.’
Paul grinned. ‘Maybe it’s Valerie Kitts’ son.’ Heather gave him a nudge. A hard one. ‘I was only kidding before, about the hunchback and greasy hair. I’ve never even met the dude. Valerie doesn’t even go to the parties herself, the miserable old crow.’ Paul rubbed at his arm. Heather was only small but she was feisty. ‘You don’t think it’s a pupil, do you?’
Heather’s eyes widened. She hadn’t even considered that possibility but she was now. What if it was a pupil?
‘The handwriting’s a bit girly too. Maybe one of the girls has a crush on you.’
Heather shoved the card roughly into her handbag. ‘That’s it. I can’t go now.’ The possibility of finding love vanished into the air, mingling with the scent of designer perfume, teenage laughter and the terrible music that the DJ insisted on playing despite Mr Shepherd’s protests.
‘Of course you have to go. I was only kidding about the pupil crush.’ Paul gave his friend’s shoulder a squeeze. He’d only been teasing her but could see now that he’d gone too far.
‘But it could be, couldn’t it?’ Let’s face it – who else could it be? None of the male teachers fancied her and who else would slip a card under her door at school?
‘It could also be the man of your dreams. The bloke you’re supposed to be with. The One and all that guff. Please, Heather. You have to go. I’ll feel awful if you miss out because of me.’
‘But what if it is a pupil?’ Heather didn’t know who would be more mortified – herself or the poor kid she’d have to turn down. Gently, of course. She’d been turned down enough times herself to know how much it stung.
‘Then you’ll deal with it.’
‘Will you come with me?’
Paul barked out a laugh. ‘Absolutely not. How would it look if the man of your dreams rocks up and finds me standing there?’
So there was still a possibility that it could lead to a viable – and legal – relationship?
Throughout the evening, Heather wavered between going to meet her mystery admirer and forgetting the whole thing and going home to her warm flat and comfy pyjamas. In the end she had to go. Whoever it was – pupil or not – they didn’t deserve to be stood up and ignored. Like Paul had said, she would deal with it.
The disco ended with the obligatory slow dance and snog-a-thon and then the tidy-up began. It was late by the time the teachers could shuffle off home but Heather hung around, making sure they’d all left before she scuttled around to the maths block. She was relieved when she found Paul, leaning casually against the orange bricks.
‘So you decided to be a good friend and give me some moral support after all.’ She joined him at the wall but she was too pent-up with nerves to lean, casually or otherwise.
‘Nope.’ Paul pushed himself off the wall. He didn’t seem quite so laid-back without the support of the wall and didn’t know what to do with his hands.
‘Then why are you here?’
‘Why do you think?’
Heather didn’t dare think. Thinking was dangerous. Thinking gave you hope and the potential to be let down spectacularly. An image of Paul sucking Tara King’s face off at their school disco popped into Heather’s mind.
‘The card.’ Paul pointed towards the handbag still looped across Heather’s chest. ‘It was me. I sent it.’
Heather’s heart raced. It was happening. It was actually happening. She’d waited seventeen years for this moment but it was actually happening.
Why hadn’t she been more prepared for this moment?
‘You sent it?’ Heather was surprised she could speak - she could barely breathe.
‘But why?’ Clammy hands. Fuzzy head. Weak knees and racing heart. Yep, Heather was rushing ever closer to passing out.
Paul grinned at her. ‘Why do you think? Because I like you.’
It was the grin that broke the spell. The grin, Paul’s trademark, cruelly popped Heather’s bubble. Paul was always teasing her and this was just another example. She never should have shown him the card!
‘You didn’t send it.’ Heather dragged the crumpled card from her bag and shoved it under Paul’s nose. ‘It isn’t your writing.’ Heather had studied Paul’s handwriting. She’d studied everything about him over the years.
‘No, it isn’t.’ Heather expected Paul to burst into laughter. To nudge her and say ‘gotcha’. But he didn’t. ‘It’s my mum’s.’
‘Yep. My mum’s.’
Heather folded her arms across her chest, guarding her heart from further torment. ‘You got your mum to write out a Valentine’s Day card?’
Paul nodded. ‘I couldn’t write it myself, could I? You know me too well. So I got my mum to do it.’
‘Your mum?’ Heather was horrified. She’d always got on well with Paul’s mum (not well enough to recognise her handwriting, clearly, but still) but she was in on the prank too?
‘I don’t normally involve my mum in my love life, but I needed help. She’s always on at me about what a great girl you are so she was the obvious solution.’
His love life?
Heather shook her head. She didn’t understand. ‘What are you saying, Paul?’
Paul took a step forward, peeling Heather’s arms away from her chest and taking her hands in his. ‘I’m saying that I like you. That I’ve liked you for ages but have been too scared to say anything in case it ruined our friendship. Why do you think I took a job at this school?’
‘I thought it was because it was closer than St. Joseph’s.’ That was what he’d said at the time. ‘You said you’d be able to stay in bed for an extra half an hour if you took this position.’
‘What was I supposed to say? That I was madly in love with you and taking this job would mean I got to see you every day?’
Madly in love? With her?
‘You’re my best mate, Heather. You know that. But I want more and I hope you do too.’
Heather’s eyes darted around them, expecting to see faces peeping around corners, sniggering at Paul’s little joke. Mr Stott, Paul’s fellow PE teacher, would definitely be in on it.
‘There’s nobody here but us, Heather. I’m not kidding.’
‘How do I know that?’ Heather’s voice was a whisper. She didn’t want to break the spell. ‘How do I know you’re serious?’
When Paul kissed her, Heather was transported back to 1998. She was at the school disco, The Spice Girls playing in the background, her midriff on display despite her best efforts to cover the exposed flesh with her hands. And Paul was kissing her, not Tara King. The boy she had secretly fancied for over a year, who she thought she’d burst into a million pieces if he didn’t fancy her back, was kissing her.
I hope you enjoyed my Valentines short story. If you did, why not have a read of my other short stories? You can view them all here