My ten-year-old daughter is home from school bursting with excitement: Conor James – CJ – from her class wrote a letter to Joanne McCaffrey and it had a big heart on the envelope! He sneaked into the classroom in the morning and put it in her tray.
I imagine the back-story: the boy is in love with Joanne, although he doesn’t fully understand what this means. There is nothing physical about it, beyond the desire to hold her hand and maybe press his lips to hers, like his parents do. It is more a thing of the mind; an obsessive tenderness. He thinks about her constantly, wonders how to get her attention. Eventually, Valentine’s Day provides him with the perfect opportunity, and he decides to write her a letter. After school one day, he follows her home; he is curious to see what sort of house she lives in, and he needs to get her address. She does not see him.
Back at home, he rushes to his room and starts to write; it is difficult to comprehend his feelings, never mind put them into words, and he agonises over it. The letter is full of phrases like ‘you are lovely’ and ‘I think you are brilliant.’ He finishes it off with ‘I LOVE YOU,’ signs his name, and draws a Cupid’s Heart on the back of the envelope before he seals it with a kiss. He writes s.w.a.l.k. to let her know it has been done properly. Cupid’s arrow is a wee bit wonky but it will have to do; he cannot bear the idea of having to go back over it. There is still a week to go before the missive needs to be delivered, so he stashes it in his secret place. Around the house he is quiet, his appetite low. His mother worries about him, asks if he is being bullied. He did not expect love to be such a painful burden: on TV it seemed to be an amazing, joyful thing. Not for CJ. He must carry this crushing weight alone; he tells his mummy he is fine, just not really hungry.
At school he watches her in the playground. She is a bright, quiet girl; slim, with blue eyes and fair hair. She doesn’t mix with the boys, but when Daniel O’Hagan talks to her she smiles sweetly and chats for a minute. CJ’s heart stops and a thrill of anxiety courses through him: Please God don’t let her be in love with that idiot he implores. O’Hagan is a good-looking boy, sporty, and confident; CJ laments his lack of prowess on the track and his tongue-tied awkwardness more keenly than ever. Three days before St. Valentine’s he realises that he cannot post the letter: her family will see the heart. He returns it to its place of hiding. It stays there for weeks, then months: he dithers, fails to summon up the courage to deliver it. In class he answers as many questions as he can, trying to impress her, and snatches covert looks at her, desperately watching for signs that this alternative strategy is working. There are none: when she catches him looking, she merely gives him a bemused half-smile and returns to her work.
The season has turned; it is warm now, and the litter-bin on the corner of the wall in the playground is alive with wasps that have come to feed on the apple-cores inside. The game is to kick the bin and see how many of them you can get to come out, then run away before they sting you. The teachers shout to try and stop the boys, but do not go near the buzzing bin to empty it. Normally CJ would be there, kicking away and shouting with the rest of them, but today is different. This morning he had made up his mind, gone in early, and left the letter in Joanne’s tray.
It is break time; she should have read it by now. He sits on the steps at the entrance, quivering in love’s splendid isolation, to await her response. Joanne’s classmate Theresa is the first to come out. She goes straight over to him, shouting CJ wrote Joanne a letter with a big heart on it! Nobody notices: her words are lost in the playground cacophony. His mortification is subsumed by the consuming need to know what Joanne will say; nothing else matters. He ignores Theresa, who goes off to deliver her gossip to the girls. Finally Joanne comes out and sits down carefully beside him. His heart is bursting, his nerves jangling. There are tears in the corners of his eyes as he turns to look at her. It was really nice of you to write me such a beautiful letter, she says, you’re lovely, but I don’t want to be your girlfriend. We can be friends though, if you want.
He smiles. Ok, then. Without a backward look, he runs whooping over towards the other boys and gives the bin a heroic and mighty dunt, raising cheers as the angry wasps swarm out.