Believe it or not, Chipping Norton has a covey of posh restaurants nestled together in an upscale section of the Main Street. I haven’t told you about them because I never dine in any of them, and neither does anyone I know. They are mostly for the tourists who come to town for its quaint antique shops and its picturesque mountain views. But today is Valentine’s Day, and I have made reservations for Mary Robins and myself at the best of the posh restaurants, a place called Harfleur.
Harfleur is meticulously cozy with a pleasingly fussy wait staff. It smells faintly of lavender and starched linen. I imagine for a moment that I should like to be a regular here and hear the hostess say, “Good evening, Mr. Greene! Your usual table?” But that is before the waitress hands me a heavy menu bound in supple leather and filled with descriptions of food I cannot afford. I sneak a quick glance at Mary Robins – who tonight is truly exquisite – hoping she did not see me grimace at the prices. I reckon I shall need to sell at least five cases of expensive organic energy drinks to pay for this meal. No matter – tonight is a very big night. We order drinks and Mary Robins settles into her seat contentedly, an enormous smile upon her face.
“What is it?” I ask.
“This is very nice,” she replies. “I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me out for Valentine’s Day! It’s one of my favorite holidays, you know. When I was a kid, I looked forward to it like Christmas. We would always have a big party at school, and everybody would exchange cards. I loved that part. That was back when we would make our own cards. It used to mean so much to me that my schoolmates would put so much of themselves into making those sappy little cards. I used to call it Valen Times. Silly, huh?”
Mary Robins looks off dreamily into a world of her own – a far away, nearly forgotten refuge of innocence and idealism. It had always seemed to me as though the Higginses lived in a sort of fantasy world, free from the cynicism and smallness of modern life; but I realize now that that isn’t true. There was once a world we shall never get back: we have lost it all, the good and the bad, forever. And it occurs to me that perhaps it’s a good thing, every now and then, to remember Valen Times, and pray that some part of it will return to us some day.
I watch Mary Robins as she drifts slowly back to Earth, her eyes soft and warm, her attention now focused pleasantly on me. She reaches across the table and takes my hands in hers. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my consciousness I hear a Vivaldi adagio. Perhaps a candle flickers. I reach into my shirt pocket and fish out a small, velvet box.
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