Gavin, Helen and Carole all have their own reasons to dread Valentine's Day this year. Tim/Gavin, Helen/Carole. Rated mostly for some rather inappropriate Valentines sent to Gavin by his SlimTrim ...
Although we see the world through different eyes
We share the same idea of paradise
So don't search in the stars for signs of love
Look around your life, you'll find enough
- The Pet Shop Boys, se a vida Ã©
Chapter One: My Lovely Valentine
It was nice in the cupboard, nicer than Helen could have thought possible. Perhaps Carole's children weren't as badly off as they all thought, she decided muzzily, through the warm pink sparkly haze of the new pills. It was safe in cupboards, and drawers might be even more secure... Outside the Valentine's Day ball preparations were going on, but here there was nothing but the chimes of the twins' mobile and the gentle sounds of Carole's weeping.
She settled her head closer against Carole's shoulder, making comforting shushing noises in the back of her throat. Nice shoulder, too, even though it was currently shaking with sobs. Softer than most of the shoulders against which she had snuggled, and it wasn't entirely the consequence of Carole's raw silk jumper.
There was something so terribly maternal and comforting about Carole, despite her novel approach to parenting. Helen's own mother had never been much for snuggling. It was of course dreadfully inconvenient for her to have this little girl who had lost her the jam factory hanging around, and she was far too busy to have time for cuddling, Helen quite understood. She'd never really had much in the way of female friends, either. There had been girls to sneak out of class with for a smoke or... things... at school, of course, but they hadn't been as important as boys, and she hadn't seen much of them once she'd been kicked out. Sometimes there had been a next-door-neighbour who had seemed quite welcoming, but after a few of Gordon's complaining letters to the council about their hedge maintenance and a few weeks of emergency vehicles parked outside at all times of the night, they tended to suddenly find a fulfilling career in North-East Africa, and sell up. Then there had been Gordon's work-mates... but they never seemed inclined to socialize with him outside of work, for obvious reasons, and that lot at Aldershot had been stuck-up bitches, ostracising Helen simply for being friendly with the pool attendants... and the area manager... and the gardeners...
She'd always got along far more easily with men. Of course,, she didn't really have the knack of making friends with men, to be precise...
It wasn't until Gordon had found his niche at Whitbury that Helen had found much in the way of real friends. For all she was just a useless hanger-on, they actually seemed to like her, and in a way that didn't result in her knickers down the back of the couch in the Manager's office unless it was from, well, outside interests. Laura had been her first real girl friend, and then Linda, and when Julie had arrived... and, of course, Carole. Since Laura and then Penny left, Helen had spent more and more time hanging around reception, chatting to Carole and perhaps lending a hand with wedging a drawer or two shut.
"I'm sorry, Mrs Bri - Helen," gulped Carole. "I should go out... reception, you know... Mr. Brittas says an unattended reception is like a castle without a moat."
Helen felt a little lurch of loss, combined with a touch of panic at the thought of facing the outside world again. "Let's just stay here a bit, shall we, Carole? It's rather nice." That word again. "And I've missed you living at home." She didn't add that she had hardly missed Carole's monsters of children. Monsters flourished in small, dark places, Helen vaguely remembered from her own sons' picture books.
She leaned further around and reached her other arm around Carole's front to place her hand on her other shoulder, encircling her. This brought her head against Carole's front, in the warm place between her neck and the comforting expanse of her bust. Nice... really nice, especially when Carole hugged her closer. The point of the exercise was, of course, to comfort Carole and not herself, but there was a glow in the of Helen's stomach that was not entirely due to the latest change in prescription. So nice to be cuddled, without anything else expected of one... or to be more strictly accurate, without expecting anything more herself.
That was new, too. Even male friends were a novelty. It helped that Colin venerated Gordon as a kind of demigod of the leisure industry and foot hygiene, while Gavin and Tim were... not a problem in that sense. Although there was a tinge of regret there when she thought about Gavin... such a nice, sympathetic boy, and really quite good-looking.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Brittas," sniffled Carole, who was apparently incapable of referring to Helen or Gordon by their first names for more than once sentence at a time, despite having spent the last few months living with them while the Centre was rebuilt... again. "You must have better things to do. It's Valentine's Day, after all."
"Don't worry about it." Helen raised her head just enough to kiss Carole's cheek and then settled back into her embrace. "I always thought Valentine's Day was far more trouble than it's worth."
Helen dreaded Valentine's Day, at least since her latest marriage. Gordon was always so insufferably complacent about it. He would make little lists of romantic gestures - flowers, candlelit supper, romantic declarations, not many chocolates because they were bad for Helen's figure, he would explain every year - and tick them off as he went, not quite surreptitiously enough. Of all the sadistic fates that could befall a woman, the worst was marrying a man who understood the importance of little gestures and rituals in keeping the romance in a relationship alive.
The worst, the absolute Lovecraftian extremes of horror, were reached when he made reservations in an intimate little candle-lit restaurant for them both. A room full of happy, romantic couples, serving staff, Gordon... and a lot of naked flames. They were still paying off the insurance excess from last year.
Still, Helen was feeling remarkably good on this particular 14th of February, as she ignored regulations and sipped over-brewed coffee in the staff rest room. It was the new pills, of course, that were responsible for the pink glittery blanket protecting her from the day. She wasn't sure where Susie had acquired them, but she was excessively grateful. And Gordon had decided to try a Valentine's Day Ball for the staff. It would be a disaster, of course, but at least it would be a disaster spent among people she liked, and Gordon had been kept happily occupied ordering glittery heart-shaped balloons and then sending them back because they were over-filled according to Euro safety regulations.
Helen was happy and content enough to spare some attention for Gavin's problems. He wasn't, she realised with drug-dulled sympathy, enjoying Valentine's Day any more than she did.
Even though his principle duties now consisted of trailing behind Brittas sporting a smart-looking clipboard and an anxious expression, there were still times even an Acting Senior Deputy was expected to don nylon and parachute silk in the name of world peace through leisure. The success of this was attested to by the pile of cardboard and wilting roses Julie had dumped on the staff room table in front of Gavin.
"This lot came for you, heartbreaker. My, we are popular with the ladies, aren't we?" Julie gave Tim a sidelong grin, obviously pleasurably anticipating fireworks.
Gavin shuffled the pile a little, avoiding the suspicious glare from across the table. Helen, who was having coffee in the staff rest room against all policies and who had been in a similar situation often enough, although probably with far less innocence, resisted the urge to applaud. Gavin had obviously been living with a possessive partner long enough to know how to give a credible impression of someone who was troubled and annoyed and not at all chuffed at receiving a pile of cards and flowers for Valentine's Day, his brow wrinkling with what looked like anxious distaste.
Of course, she reflected charitably, it was always possible that Gavin was sincerely flustered rather than covering up guilt of some kind. Helen turned the idea over in her mind like a novel object. Fidelity wasn't something she really understood, despite somehow managing to marry someone who not only made Mother Theresa seem like Othello, but who made Lassie look disloyal. The knowledge that she could shut Gordon up in a room of exotic dancers of mixed sex and come back an hour later to find him lecturing them on toning their stomach muscles as they tried to throttle him with their g-strings was a matter of bemused fascination to Helen. Gavin... well, no smoke without fire, she would normally think, and there must be some reason for Tim's insecurity, except that working in close proximity with Gordon turned all the rules of logic upside down and perhaps Gavin was just extremely unlucky.
Either way, Helen was on his side, out of principle. She patted his shoulder sympathetically as he cleared his throat and suggested in his diffident way that they were just a friendly gesture from, er, his SlimTrim class.
"'Course they are. I think every pink leotard in the class sent you something." Julie parked a shapely bottom on the table and flipped through some of the cards herself. "It's your caring and considerate nature, Mr. Featherly. And the shorts."
This was, of course, quite true, especially about the shorts. When Gavin had first made the move to nicely pressed white shirts and had stopped hiding his ties in a pigeonhole where Tim wouldn't see them, there had been some suggestion that his navy shorts should be retired, at least in the workplace. The problem was that what Julie insisted on describing on the staff rosters as the Lonely Housewives' Club was one of the few attractions the leisure centre had that could actually be described as such. While numbers weren't everything, it was nice to show the council that occasionally some people willingly passed through the shining glass doors, at least on the days the centre had not been closed due to fire, poison or criminal shootouts.
A few attempts had been made to replace Gavin at the SlimTrim helm, but they had been unmitigated disasters, even for a centre which customarily coasted on the top of the catastrophe curve. Tim had made a promising start, until Ms Worthington Smith had plaintively demanded where her own lovely young man Gavin had got to, and Mrs. McBain had added something else and... giggled. No one was exactly sure what had ensued next, except that by the end of the session half the SlimTrim group had been in hysterics of one kind or another, and it had taken Gavin quite twenty minutes to talk Tim into unlocking the door of the staff restroom.
Tim, Gordon had heavily declared, was a good man, but simply not a genuine people person. Nothing a few counseling sessions and a weekend course on dealing with the public couldn't sort out, of course, but for now, there were the SlimTrim classes to sort out.
Gordon had decided to try the feminine touch next. Linda had bounded into the gym the next Tuesday, bright-eyed and eager as a puppy dragging its elderly owner for a walk, and fired up her ghetto blaster. Within twenty minutes Ms Harkin-Meyers had passed out from exhaustion, Carole was trying to convince the cynical and overworked hospital staff to send an ambulance for Mrs. Unwin, and some of the ladies had quite ruined their makeup with perspiration.
Colin had nobly volunteered to give up some of his precious toilet maintenance time to maintaining the waistlines of the ladies of Whitbury, but after a few seconds thought it was discovered that he was barred from taking the class for insurance reasons.
Brittas' noble attempt to fill the gap himself, starting out with an inspiring motivational speech on the benefits of weight loss for women who risked losing their husbands' attention, led to him being taken to the hospital himself over the back of Helen's scooter, to have several inches of ghettoblaster arial removed from his body.
No, Gavin was indispensable to the SlimTrim classes, and Helen had no doubts as to why. He could always be relied on to be tenderly sympathetic about insensitive husbands and nagging fluid retention, to not push his ladies to do anything uncomfortably strenuous and, of course, he could always be relied on to wear very short shorts.
The success of this method was currently being attested to by the tokens of affections wafting cheap perfume and dying rose scent across the staff restroom.
"Oh, Julie, the poor things are half dead! "Gavin poked warily at one of the flowers, in a futile attempt to distract attention from the cards which Tim was grimly opening and reading as if they were dispatches from the war zone. "They must have been on your desk for hours. Couldn't you have put them in some water?"
Julie shrugged, parking a shapely bottom on the table and picking up some of the cards to flick through herself. "Couldn't be fagged. Had me own lot to deal with."
Helen brightened with curiosity, only slightly dimmed by the pale pink cloud on which she was currently floating. "Those fifty long-stemmed roses, then, they were for you, Julie?"
"From Alex, the berk. Always overdoes things. Don't know why he bothers, really."
"Maybe he's hoping that if you get back together you'll let him see his son sometime," Linda suggested mildly.
"Nah." Julie paused to reflect. "I think the orchids were from Stab, though. There was something on the radio about a florists' being broken into last night."
"Well, you must have encouraged her somehow," Tim was muttering somewhere near Gavin's shoulder. "Else why would she write something like /that/?"
"Really, Tim, I..."
Julie, apparently having dismissed the subject of her own love life from her mind and far more interested in that of Gavin, opened yet another card. "Aw, home-made poetry, isn't that sweet? /Roses are red, violets are twisted, bend over love, you're about/... ohmigawd!" Her delighted shriek hit the ceiling.
"What?" Tim managed to beat Gavin to the card by a split second. He glared at it until Helen was vaguely afraid it would burst into flames. "Who the hell sent this?"
"I - I don't think I recognize the, er, writing..." Gavin had descended into confused stammering. He reached for the card, but Tim snatched it back, muttering something about sending it off for handwriting analysis. Gavin watched him with a nervousness that Helen, experienced as she was, couldn't quite determine whether was induced by guilty knowledge or just the generalized anxiety that came from a jealous partner. She was lucky that way, she supposed. If Gordon caught her on the floor of the living room with the postman, he'd assume the postman had tripped over the doorstep while delivering letters and she was nursing his wounds. It was quite endearing, really.
"I must say the SlimTrim class are very open about things, aren't they?" She idly picked up a card herself. "Must be something to the healthy body, open mind theory Gordon is always going on about."
"Somehow, I don't think that one was from one of Gavin's lady friends, Mrs. Brittas," Julie said. She peered over Helen's shoulders at the card, which had come complete with photo. "Although I must say Mrs. Quentin seems to be rather... open."
"I think it's disgusting!"
"Not from you then, Tim?" Helen asked from the pink sparkly place inside her head.
"Why on earth would Tim send Gavin pictures of Mrs. Quentin like /that/?"
"I think she meant that sweet little love poem, Linda." Julie helpfully pointed out the cardboard clutched in Tim's fist, so tightly it was almost tearing.
"No." Tim's face set bitterly. "You don't exchange cards with people you've lived with for years, apparently. Not exciting or romantic enough."
"I'm not sure what's so romantic about fi... I mean, some of these things," Helen said, hoping to soothe the flames a little.
"Well, it all depends on the circumstances, Mrs. Brittas," Julie said brightly. "I'm sure Gavin understands."
Gavin ignored them both. "Timmy, that's not fair! You were the one who said Valentine's Day was... was... a heterosexist plot to impose crass commercialism, or something. You said you hated it!"
"Tim! Valentine's Day is just lovely!" Linda protested, managing to glow a little in a restrained tomboy fashion.
"Now, now, what's this?" Gordon had apparently managed to take advantage of the fascinated audience the Centre's dirty laundy always attracted to enter the room unnoticed. There was a general guilty scraping of chairs and sitting up, and Gavin made a half-hearted attempt to push his Valentines into some kind of order. "Valentine's Day is a beautiful tradition dating back to at least Victorian times, Gavin. Linda's boyfriend has probably saved all his cards from then, eh?" He brayed with amusement at his own joke, unaware of the radiance suddenly snapping off as if someone had thrown a switch behind Linda's eyes. "Now, whose are all these?"
"They belong to Gavin, Mr. Brittas." Julie was always at her brightest and most helpful when discussing difficult subjects.
"Excellent. You should have no difficulty finding a nice girl to bring to tonight's little do then, Gav."
"Well, actually, Mr. Brittas...." Gavin began diffidently, but let it trail off. His heart obviously wasn't in it.
"But none for you, Tim?" Gordon raised an eyebrow. "I would have thought a good-looking young man like you, always hanging around the young ladies in the pool area in your swimsuit, would attract hundreds of Valentines."
"Apparently not, Mr. Brittas." Tim shoved his chair back sharply and strode out of the room, pausing to give a very nasty look back at Gavin who looked apologetically around and hurried after him. Helen watched them peaceably, her thoughts still tinged with a pink aura. It would be nice, she thought dreamily, to have someone who actually noticed your feelings and tried to do something about them. Tim was lucky.
"Now, where's he going, leaving the table like that? Gavin! You can't leave these all over the table, they're a fire hazard. Julie, please clean up this mess."
Julie ignored her boss with practiced ease, and went back to perusing the cards. "Tragic, really, innit? All this hopeless lust and passion, and they waste it on our Gavin."
"Indeed it is, Julie." Brittas frowned suddenly. "Most of these are from married ladies. It's very sad when wives give into the temptation that is everywhere. These poor women have husbands at home, oblivious to the dangers besetting their dream of a happy marriage when their helpmeet falls for a muscular pair of legs in shorts."
"Excuse me, I think I have to go and check on something in reception," Helen said, clambering to her feet.
"Very good, my love. You might want to check on Carole while you're out there. Doesn't seem to be anybody at reception right now."
Once the door had safely closed behind her, Helen leaned on the desk and practiced her deep breathing exercises (Advanced Counselling, Chapter Four.). She didn't deserve Gordon, she realised once again, with a kind of weariness that didn't involve any resolution to do any better. Tragic, yes...
She became aware of a faint sobbing from somewhere behind the desk, and turned, feeling faintly worried through her drugged serenity. Poor Carole...Helen was aware of a wave of tenderness that only partly came from the pills. She'd always been fond of Carole, and she'd become really attached to her when Carole and the children had stayed with the Brittas' while the centre was rebuilt. Carole had a kind of stubborn determination to make the best of things that Helen, all too aware of her own tendency to fall to pieces, rather envied. Carole, as far as Helen knew, never took refuge in anything stronger than a nice cup of tea and a couple of aspirin. In her position, Helen would be on the chemical equivalent of a lobotomy.
She leaned over the counter. "Carole? Carole, are you there?" She pushed aside some toys, as if Carole could be hiding behind a stuffed unicorn and a toy xylophone. There was no visible sign of her, only that faint sob... Helen wondered if she'd imagined it.
"Carole?" She slipped behind the desk and listened. There was faint movement coming from the largest cupboard behind the desk. The more she thought about it, the more sure Helen was that Ben and the twins were at playgroup. Which meant...
Helen leaned down and opened the cupboard. "Oh, Carole." She hesitated a moment, then slipped into the cupboard, firmly closing the door behind her.