Today's Reading

'Valentine's is crap though, isn't it?' she says.

'I don't mind it,' says Cathbad, waving to Michael who is about to descend the tubular slide. 'I like ritual and saints' days. And it's another way of marking the coming of spring. Like Ash Wednesday and Imbolc.'

Nelson had mentioned Imbolc, Ruth remembers. But she doesn't want to tell Cathbad about the new letter.

'When is Imbolc?' she asks. 'Beginning of February?'

'It's flexible,' says Cathbad, 'but usually the first or second of February. It used to be a feast dedicated to Bridgid, the goddess of fertility, but then it got taken over by Christianity and Bridgid became St Bridget. In Ireland children still make rush crosses for St Bridget's Day.'

Cathbad grew up in Ireland and was raised as a Catholic but, like the feast day, he is flexible, incorporating both pagan and Christian traditions into his belief system. Ruth sometimes thinks that what he really likes is any excuse for a party.

'Are you seeing Frank this weekend?' asks Cathbad.

'He's coming over tonight to cook me a meal.'

'That's nice,' says Cathbad. His expression is bland but Ruth thinks she knows what he's thinking.

She takes pity on him. 'It's going well with Frank. We've got a lot in common.'

'He's a good person,' says Cathbad. 'He has a very serene energy.'

There's a brief silence during which Ruth knows that they are thinking of someone who could never be described as serene. She says, 'Michelle's baby is due any day now.'

'I know. Judy says Nelson is worse tempered than ever at work. It must be the worry.'

'Or maybe it's just bad temper.'

'No, he has a good heart really.'

'Let's hope the baby isn't born on Sunday,' says Ruth, 'or he'll have to call it Valentine.'

'I like the name Valentine,' says Cathbad. 'It's got a certain power.' His children, though, all have names beginning with M, for reasons that are not entirely clear to anyone, even him. He also has a twenty-four-year-old daughter called Madeleine from a previous relationship.

'Valentine Nelson,' says Ruth. 'I can't see it.'

'Of course 2016 is a leap year,' says Cathbad. 'There's a certain power in being born on 29th February. Funnily enough, in Ireland leap years are associated with St Bridget. She's said to have struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men on one day of the year.'

'Bully for her,' says Ruth. 'I'm sure Michelle doesn't want to wait until the 29th to have her baby.'

She thinks about this conversation intermittently over the rest of the day. She doesn't envy Cathbad and Judy their relationship, or even Nelson and Michelle. By and large, she is happy with her life in her little cottage on the edge of the marshes with her daughter and her cat. If she has ever dreamed of a life with Nelson, the dream ended after the rapturous love-making and hasn't encompassed life in a confined space with a man who takes up too much room, literally and metaphorically. It's just that, on days like this, she does wonder if she'll ever have a romantic relationship again. But, at seven o'clock, there is Frank, bearing chocolates, wine and two steaks in a rather bloody bag. Kate has already had her supper but she insists on showing Frank her collection of Sylvanian animals and all her spelling/maths/reading certificates (this takes some time as Kate seems to win a new award every week). Eventually, though, Kate is tucked up in bed listening to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter and Ruth and Frank have their meal.

It's a nice evening. They talk about work and the idiocies of their relative bosses. They talk about Kate and about Frank's children in America. Even Flint sits next to Frank and purrs at him loudly with his eyes closed. But, at eleven o'clock, Frank picks up his car keys and sets off home. They kiss on the doorstep, both cheeks like acquaintances at a smart party. Ruth locks the door, turns off the lights and goes upstairs, followed by Flint. What is happening with Frank? They had once had a proper relationship, complete with extremely good sex. Is Frank now just a friend who cooks her meals and takes her out sometimes? Is he seeing someone else, a stunning classicist from Christ's or an economist from Girton with a PhD and a thigh gap?

But, as Ruth is about to turn out the light, she sees that she is not in bed alone. On her pillow is a card showing a fat ginger cat on a wall.

'Happy Vallentines Day Mum,' it says.

This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.
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