The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2016 Results

The Lost Letter of Valentinus

Copyright © Kate McManus 2016

I had never believed in love until the letter. Sex of course-what normal sixteen-year old male doesn’t spend most of his time thinking about 'it ' - but that other ridiculous idea, no. Love is a different country with its own customs. I think I read that in a story somewhere, Proust perhaps? Nah more like John Marsden. Well, that’s me always looking for an interesting 'turn of phrase'. The truth is I fell for my beloved at the same time as I came across the story of the blind girl and the saint. Forced to choose a topic for my final Latin dissertation, I had decided to stir things up a bit. There were only three of us left in the honours Latin class and my fellow students, Laurence and Simon, had chosen topics which were suitably lacklustre and therefore guaranteed to succeed. There was a sanctimonious quality to Laurence which brought out the worst in me. Simon, on the other hand, seemed to lack any of the interests of a normal teenager so I came to the conclusion that he was a zombie, particularly when he told me he had never played Battlefield Agra 4 and in fact didn't own a games console. Ok so now you know my covert predilection, zombies.

There we were locked in the Latin room on a glorious Friday afternoon on the verge of summer forced to choose a title for our final essay. Boredom was too tepid a word for how I felt.

‘On Catullus’ how to start a farm’ was Laurence’s choice: riveting stuff! But not to compare with Simon’s offering ‘The Development of the ‘Testudo’ (the turtle tactic) in Roman Warfare’. When Caesar’s minions were being attacked by those blue faced Celts, the legionnaires would band together like a rugby scrum with their shields on their heads and move slowly just like a turtle towards their goal. Worked every time apparently. Ho Hum. I didn’t consider this a topic to stimulate the imagination and enthral the reader. But then who am I? A favourite saying of Brother Timothy, he who prefers not to finish sentences.

‘Original Research from primary sources’ Brother Alphonsus had demanded for the 5,000 word essay and original it would be. The party line stated that Saint Valentinus had been martyred by the Romans for marrying couples in secret Christian services. However, I was going to shake up the image of that po-faced, weedy looking saint whose statue I had seen in Rome on 'Our Grand European Adventure' with ma and pa..

"If only you would put that insolent mind of yours in the direction of intellectual rigour, Cusack," Brother A. had all too often remarked. Standing in the centre of the room with a mournful expression on his liver-marked face he would slowly move towards me, the smell of coal tar soap arriving before the swift ‘Thwack’ on the head with his favourite Latin tome. It was worth every sadistic bruising to perturb that reptilian’s equanimity. I once replied to one of his cutting remarks with "Nemo me impugne lacessit," (‘No-one attacks me with Impunity’) and strangely, just for that one instance, he was lost for words.

What I really wanted to do was create doubt. The sin of doubt was considered one of the worst to members of the faith. What if I could prove that Valentinus, instead of being the pious stalwart of the church, was instead a randy brute who couldn’t keep his hands of that innocent and blind daughter of his jailer? I remembered parts of the story as told with florid articulation by the Italian tour guide. ‘Eff-er-ry day, she would come to visit the saint. The beautiful brown eyed Julia, she who was blind and ask-ed Valentino for God to make her see.’ Italians love romance don’t they? Even between a holy man and blind teenager.

But Julia... I wished it had been another name. I could have changed it but Alphonsus would have twigged and there would go my credibility. He wrote a begging letter to the blind Julia, not much going on upstairs then, and ended it with ‘From your Valentinus’. The ending was also the beginning of a multi-million dollar Valentine card industry, lasting centuries. The rest of the missive was lost so I decided to recreate it, giving an altogether different version of the saint’s words and intent.

Julia Agnes Mahoney. I fancied her from the instant we were forced together at the Year 15 formal dance. I ditched my partner, the red curly haired freckled-faced Joan McCulloch, as soon as was feasible and moved slowly towards the lovely Julia. We weren’t supposed to touch their waists but Julia didn’t mind and even laughed at my feeble attempts at a Latin joke. Her dark brown hair was so clean it squeaked and she smelt of something like violets, my mother's favourite perfume.

"Like my fringe?" she asked when she caught me staring at her luminescent green eyes. "I did it myself!" and all I could say was "Yeah, it's really.... straight..." before she revealed her small polished teeth and pink gums. When she turned around at the end of the night and gave me her soft smile and tiny wave I was sent spinning into a strange new world of yearning. And so the poor Julia whom I was about to turn into a martyr for being so casually raped by the evil Valentinus, bore the same name as my beloved.

I came across the book quite by accident at a local bookshop. Normally, I get all my information online via my new IPhone. But Mr Tarleton, the bookshop owner, was said to be ‘an iconoclastic Antichrist ‘ by the head brother, Gregory. Naturally such a place was perfect for my rigorous and highly original research. The title grabbed my attention: ‘A True Hagiography: The Scandalous Lives of the Early Saints’. The story of Valentinus was third last in the six hundred page book. Rapists, pirates, murderers, sodomites... you name it they were all there, every one a saint.

Here lay what I sought; an opposite view of Valentinus, the putative devout Christian ready to flaunt the might of Rome for the propagation of the faith. The book revealed how he had seduced the jailer’s daughter for a bit of fun before she snuck him the keys so he could escape.

I completed Valentinus’ letter of seduction in perfect Latin but half way through I realised it had become a love letter to my beloved Julia. My original work shone with catchy phrases like ‘You are simply beautiful... I love your smell’. Why does love shut down your critical faculties? I spent the night wrestling with words trying to make it sexy and depraved, instead it read like Romeo’s declaration of love for Juliet.

I turned it in the next morning as it was too late to start anything new. Two days passed before I received the summons to the Head’s office.

‘Perversion’ he called it. "To think that a sixteen year old boy from a good Catholic family... and your brother Phillip on retreat!" I tuned out because I knew what was coming and wanted to yell an ecstatic ‘Yes!’

After the expulsion it didn’t take long for my parents to place me in a new school, a state one that didn’t teach Latin. It was across the road from the girls’ school which Julia attended.

Sin pays, just ask any saint.