A Spectrum Story for Valentine’s Day
By Caroline Smith
“Is there anything I can do to help you, sir?”
The man whom some called Captain Ochre turned to see the assistant in the card store smiling tentatively up at him. It was the same young woman whom he’d spotted standing behind the counter at the mall entrance when he’d walked into the store.
He’d felt damn near foolish - a feeling that didn’t improve as he trawled the rows and rows of cards, pulling one after another off the shelf, only to return them with a frustrated sigh.
Ochre glanced at her nametag involuntarily – a habit of a lifetime. Jeanette. It was a pretty name, a bit like the girl herself, with her shoulder-length bob and clear brown eyes.
He shook his head with a grimace. “Thanks anyway, but I don’t think you’ve got what I’m looking for.”
Why was he even here, anyway? It wasn’t as if he could do anything about the whole lousy situation. Not right now. And a stupid, worthless piece of stiffened paper wasn’t going to make a difference of one iota. What a dumb idea, he castigated himself mentally, even though he knew he had only the best intentions at heart.
He might have found the unintentional pun funny, in another place, another time. They surrounded him on all sides, in vibrant red, hot pink, lurid fuchsia. They were stuck on cards, on fat silky cushions, on the white vest of a big, brown Teddy bear that stared at him from eye-level on a shelf stuffed with all sorts of February 14th paraphernalia.
Be My Valentine. If anyone needed reminding, the legend was displayed on banners festooned across the walls of the store.
It was all so bitterly saccharine it made him want to throw up.
There would be no more Valentine’s Day for her. No cards, no bouquets, no teddies, no other overblown-overpriced reminders of the love that they’d shared.
For he’d left, like a thief in the night - to do the ‘sensible thing’. Only he could sound so goddam self-important in a way that made you want to punch his lights out, even when you knew the goddam-awful risk that lay behind the tight-assed way he said it.
Ochre almost jumped as the assistant’s voice broke into his reverie. She was still there, hovering at his shoulder.
“I’m sorry?” he said, almost stupidly.
She gave him a pitying smile. “Well, as our motto says, we have a card for everything.”
“Trust me; you won’t have one for this particular….situation.”
”Well, I certainly won’t be able to until you tell me what it is, will I?”
Ochre felt an errant smile tug the corner of his mouth. Oh, she was persistent, he’d give her that. He glanced around, there were only a couple of other customers in the store at this early hour, but that wasn’t the only reason he was reluctant to divulge his thoughts.
However, he was in civilian clothing, in a city where no one knew him, or the person he was thinking of buying the card for. Would it really do any harm to tell her his reasons for standing here, feeling like a goyim at a Jewish wedding?
“So, tell me, what are you looking for?” she insisted.
Ochre met her eyes. “Something for a woman who’s pregnant with another man’s child… only thing about it is….he’s missing in action, probably dead.”
Jeanette practically winced, and her eyes widened. “Oh, boy, that is a toughie,”
He finally gave in to a wan smile. “I warned you.”
“I’m so sorry,”
“It’s okay. Not your fault. Not anyone’s fault.”
“How did it happen?”
Ochre’s eyebrow lifted, and his reply was acerbic – another old habit that refused to come to heel, even in the most inappropriate of moments.
“Her getting pregnant?” he said bleakly, “Thought that might be obvious…”
She blushed. ”Don’t be silly, of course I know that. I meant how did he die?”
Ochre shrugged, ashamed of his truculence, even as he knew it was a way of getting back at her. For her ignorance. For being alive.
“I can’t really talk about it, you know. It’s…complicated.”
Not to mention classified.
Jeanette unconsciously smoothed her hands over her skirt. His cutting reply to her insistent interrogation had knocked some of the smarts out of her.
“Sure, of course, I understand,” she said.
Ochre kept his face neutral. How could she possibly understand? How could anyone? He wondered about Jeanette, what she did after she finished working her stint in this store. Probably caught the metro home, maybe stopped at the grocery store, fed the cat, watched some TV, went to sleep. Normality. A pattern shared by thousands, millions of other individuals and families, from Detroit to Delhi. Working, eating, shouting at the kids, watching sport, screwing, sleeping.
So few of them with any idea of what was going on behind the façade of that normality – the dark, dirty battle that had been waged on their behalf.
“This woman, is she a good friend?”
It was the way she said it, the unspoken sub-text, as if she could read his mind. His lips drew together in a line, even as he felt his heart beat, just once, out of time.
“Yeah, she’s a good friend.”
And he had been a lousy one. Insinuated himself into her head and body when neither of them needed that shit. But ah, it had been good, while it lasted. So good it had spoilt him for other women – for a while. And all the time he pretended it was nothing, inconsequential, something that happens when two attractive, sexually active people work too close together under pressure. He needed to believe that, to salvage his own stupid pride.
“I’m really sorry,” Jeanette was blathering on. “And I didn’t mean for that to come out like it sounded. It’s just… well, I see lots of guys come in here, just like you, they look a bit sheepish, and uncomfortable, all these cards, the stuff, they’re scary. I mean, not scary like someone dying…obviously…”
Ochre barely heard her, struggling with his own thoughts and an annoying lump in his throat. This was an idea of monumentally stupid proportions, and it was turning him a shade of maudlin that he didn’t like one bit. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his heavy jacket, insulation against the freezing weather outside, and stepped forward to leave.
“I appreciate your trying to help.” He felt he owed the girl a little civility, after his unnecessary jibe.
She placed a hand quickly on his arm. “Don’t go yet, I might have something that fits – the occasion – oh, you know what I mean.”
Something in her pleading made him delay his departure, and he followed her to a section near the back, his footsteps heavy on the carpet, like the weight that pressed down upon his soul. He watched as she quickly scanned the rows, and then pulled out a plain white card embossed with a picture of a simple, but beautiful, yellow rose.
“Yellow roses signify friendship, unlike red, so it’s appropriate for a – let’s say - delicate situation like yours.
He flipped it open. “It’s blank.”
Jeanette smiled and touched her chest, briefly, “Sometimes the best words are the ones that come from your own heart,”
Ochre blinked, still staring at the white card. Perhaps he’d been wrong about the girl. For all her youth, she was shrewd in the workings of the human psyche. Maybe, with her help, he could actually carry this off.
“You ready to check this out?” she asked him cheerfully.
Nodding, he closed his hand over the card. “Yeah, I am.”
She’d been tempted to go out. She knew she needed more clothes, her stomach was expanding at an alarming rate, but she couldn’t face trawling around the shops, faced with the ever-present reminders to exhort people to buy things for their lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands.
All of it – mocking her.
He’d always tried to make this day special for the two of them, and that wasn’t always easy. You couldn’t just wander into the Spectramart and buy a bottle of champagne, after all. But he was a master of invention, and Valentine’s Day was often a highlight, a series of happy punctuation marks in her life.
She winced as she felt a solid kick against the wall of her stomach. The baby just had to be a boy, she thought wryly, and most of the time he seemed to be wearing boots, the pummelling he gave her.
It wasn’t certain though, and although she could have had the answer in an instant, some whimsy stopped her. She couldn’t change anything about it, so she may as well keep the time-honoured and somewhat old-fashioned surprise when the time came. She hadn’t always been this accepting of course. But experience and circumstance have a cruel way of softening the edges, of demanding submission to the inevitable.
She passed a hand over her face, feeling a wave of sorrow so raw, so painful, that it almost left her breathless. Every day had been like torture, his loss so unbearable she wasn’t sure she could carry on. But carry on she did, with a quiet stoicism. She didn’t want to worry her ageing parents, who had so desperately longed for the grandchild that seemed never to arrive.
In a way, it was all so hideously ironic. Although history could not pin down exactly which one of the many saints called Valentine was commemorated on this particular date, they were all martyrs. Just like the man she had loved, and lost. Except that she didn’t even know if he was dead, and for her, that was the worst thing. The not knowing.
She leant both elbows on the desk, and pressed the heels of her palms against her closed eyelids, preventing the scalding tears from flowing.
He’d gone, with such high hopes for all of them, and although his last transmission was received when his ship landed on the red planet, there was still a belief that he would return, successful.
And indeed, success seemed to follow in the wake of that fateful journey. The threats stopped almost instantly. Naturally, at first there was justified caution; there had been lulls in Mysteron activity before, but when month passed into month, and those echoing, sepulchre-like tones ceased to boom through the loudspeakers, it looked as if the gamble had paid off. After so many desperate years of fighting against the odds, it truly seemed that the endless cycles of death and destruction were over.
There was disbelief, and celebration. And for those who knew him best, any jubilation was tainted with worry, then sorrow, when it became obvious that the man who had gone into space to save Earth from its implacable foes was not going to return to share that joy.
For her, the torture was doubled. Only a week after he’d left, she realised that her period was late. In the run-up to the mission, she’d been so up-tight, her usually rigorous planning had probably fallen by the wayside, and she soon found out that she was pregnant.
Fate was truly cruel, to play such a savage trick on her.
She’d agonised about what to do, and some of her ‘friends’ even advised her to have a termination, but in the end, she knew that would be impossible. What on earth was the point of fighting for the human race, if one was so eager to destroy one tiny part of it? The child would become the memory of their love, however difficult raising it as a sole parent would undoubtedly be, and she would manage, with her parents’ help.
The chime made her start, pulling her out of the sombre recollections, and she realised that there was someone at the front door. She rose from the chair, and padded - she wasn’t quite at the waddling stage yet - off down to the front door to see who the caller was.
To her surprise, she saw a courier standing patiently on the welcome mat. He was a young lad, barely in his twenties, who gave her a bright smile as he shifted the large carton he held under one arm.
“It’s okay, it’s pretty light,” he said with a swift glance at her swollen belly, and obviously noting her uncertainty at the size of the package.
Nodding, she took it from him, and laid it on the floor in the hall.
“Sign here to say you’ve had the delivery, please?” he asked, and she complied with his polite request, somewhat bemused, for she hadn’t ordered anything online, and she certainly wasn’t expecting anything this large in the mail from anyone.
“Thanks, ma’am, you take care now.” Almost as an afterthought he gave her another smile. “Oh, and, Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” she echoed dully, and then she watched from the doorway, as he sauntered cheerfully back down the mews lane to where his white van was parked on the kerb.
She closed the door, and stared at the box for a few seconds. Ouch, another almost savage kick from the baby made her wince. She smoothed her stomach, trying to calm the child within, for perhaps the stress that she felt was in some intangible way, being transferred to the foetus. As if it knew it was going to be born fatherless, and was getting even with that un-caring world out there before it even came into it.
She sighed, and began to open the tall carton, tearing open the protective cellophane, and the clips that held it shut. When she drew out what lay within, she blinked in surprise, and a rush of emotion went through her.
A dozen yellow roses, every one a masterpiece of nature’s perfect design.
She stared at them, not knowing what to think. On this day of all days, that someone should send her roses - her favourite flowers.
She was almost afraid of finding out who had sent them, and why. Instead, she busied herself with automatic motions. Flowers needed to be treated properly, after all, almost as soon as they were received. She found a tall vase in the kitchen, filled it with clear, cold water, removed an inch from each stem with a paring knife, and placed each one artfully in the vase. Then she carried them through to the sitting room and placed them on the walnut low table between the couches.
Only then did she go back to get the box, and as she peered into its depths, found a plain white envelope tacked to the one of the tall sides. She pulled it out, and carefully slit it open with her bone-handled paper knife.
A card, embossed with a yellow rose.
Her heart thumping, she opened it up slowly to read the carefully handwritten note inside.
I know that this gesture is probably not going to take away any of the pain, and right now, you’re probably thinking I’m the crassest sonofabitch that you ever had the bad fortune to know. But I had to send you these flowers anyway, just to tell you that you’ve never been far away from my thoughts from the moment you left Spectrum. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everything all right, but I seem to be all out of wishes right now.
I do want you to know that I’m not giving up on him, and that goes for the other guys too. The World President is refusing to let any of us go to Mars; there’s a complete moratorium on the whole idea. They say that it’s better to let sleeping Mysterons lie, and that Paul’s memory is better served by the peace he’s brought to the world.
I can’t believe he’s dead. I won’t believe it. He’s survived an atomic explosion, for crying out loud! Like you, I can’t sleep nights thinking he’s out there, maybe waiting for us to do something to bring him back.
I’m resigning my commission with Spectrum, and I don’t think I’ll be the only one. We’re gonna fight this all the way, somehow, and maybe someday soon we’ll find the father of your kid.
Love and friendship, always,
Overwhelmed, the former Rhapsody Angel of Spectrum blinked through the stinging tears that blurred her vision and stared at the bouquet of yellow roses.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Rick,” she whispered softly.
This vignette was inspired by a very poignant story written by Keryn, called. I’d like to thank her and hope that she doesn’t mind me borrowing some of the ideas and incidents in her tale for me to explore down a slightly different alley. Here is the link to the story:
As in previous stories, the usual disclaimers apply. This story used characters from TV series “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” ©, which is the creation of Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson, and the rights of the series belong to Carlton International, and/or other organisations, and no profit was made from this fan-fiction whatsoever.
My thanks to:
Hazel Köhler, for kindly reviewing and beta-ing and giving me a title!
Chris Bishop, for running such a wonderful web-site for the fans and writers.
Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, for a wonderful show that still inspires curiosity and wonder 40 years on.
Any comments? Send an to the site