Queen of Hearts by Jack Horne
I spluttered and my tea cup rattled on its saucer. “What did you just say, dear?”
Without looking up from her knitting, Vera repeated, “This year, I shall walk up and down the beach in my birthday suit.”
Walter’s eyes looked huge, magnified by his glasses. He scratched his threadbare head and studied his wife. “Do you think that’s…a good idea?” he asked, fiddling with his tie. “I mean – ”
Vera’s blue eyes twinkled as she looked up at us both. “Why not? I’ll be ninety this Valentine‘s Day. Life’s for living.” She continued knitting.
I glanced around the familiar cluttered lounge, while I struggled to think of something to say. Even Vera said the chintz was overpowering, but Walter loved it. The creaking of my friends’ wooden rocking chairs, the click-clack of Vera’s knitting needles and the ticking of the grandfather clock seemed very loud. I finally asked, “Is the beach full of naturists?”
“What, people who study wildlife?” Walter asked.
I sighed. “Nudists.”
Vera shrugged and unbuttoned her rainbow-coloured cardigan. “I don’t know. Who cares? At my age, one learns to do one’s own thing, Mavis. You’ll be the same some day.”
“I’m not far behind you,” I said, taking another homemade coconut bun from the plate on the coffee table. “I’m nearly eighty-nine.”
Vera sniggered. “Well, I can’t imagine you on a nudist site. You wouldn’t know where to look.”
I felt myself flush. “Neither would you.”
Walter chuckled. “Oh, she would. Nothing embarrasses Vera, you should know that by now.”
I sipped my tea, only vaguely listening to Vera’s smutty nudist jokes and Walter’s chortles. Was she really planning to parade naked along the local beach? I had a sudden vision of her riding along the sands on a donkey, like Age Concern’s very own Lady Godiva. No, surely even Vera wouldn’t do that.
I glanced at the photographs on the mantelpiece: Vera skydiving, abseiling, running a marathon and wing-walking on a Tiger Moth biplane. She had done something daring on each of her milestone birthdays. Her ninetieth wouldn’t be an exception.
Walter offered me another bun. I eyed the plate, biting my bottom lip. He was good at making them, but I really shouldn’t have a third.
“Go on,” he said. “Just another won’t make any difference.”
Vera nodded, her ginger wig askew. “It’s impossible to tell how fat you really are, with all that clobber you wear.”
“I feel the cold.” I sniffed and changed the subject…
At home, I ran a bath and viewed my plump nakedness in the full-length mirror. Everyone couldn’t be Venus or Adonis. With her thin legs and large bosom, Vera reminded me of a bird, but she was happy to bare all on a crowded beach.
Soaking in the steaming lavender-scented water, I thought about Vera’s birthday. I’d always been too serious. I wouldn’t even join her in karaoke, but it was time to change. I’d buy a thong and strip off on the beach beside her. Yes, a Valentine thong, covered in hearts! One to match Vera’s favourite dress. I smiled, imagining her surprise. Maybe I’d even get carried away by the moment and remove the thong too…
February 14th was a surprisingly sunny day, the sort that draws crowds to the beach. Sunbathers were everywhere and a group of teenagers were playing football. Vera and I strolled by the sea.
I stepped out of my sandals and woollen tights, the waves lapping my feet. I wondered when she’d remove her old outfit. Side-eyeing her, I shrugged off my cardigan. She didn’t seem to notice, until I removed my blouse.
“Are you feeling all right?” she asked, and then stared at my Valentine’s Day ‘heart’ thong as I pulled down my tweed skirt.
Ignoring the sniggering sunbathers around us, I unclipped my brassiere. I felt free as I swung it overhead and tossed it behind me. Someone cheered.
Vera looked concerned. “Have you been out in the sun for too long?”
“I’m feeling wonderful. As you’ve always said, who cares what anyone else thinks!”
A dog ran past with my bra in its mouth.
“I can’t wait to tell Walter!” Vera shrieked with laughter. “What’s got into you? I’ve always loved you like a sister, but I thought you were rather boring. I didn’t have any ambitions left but you’ve outdone anything I did.”
I swallowed. My mouth was suddenly dry. “But you said you were going to completely strip off.”
“Eh?” Vera frowned and then giggled. “Ohhh, my birthday suit. Walter thinks it’s too expensive to wear on the beach, but sand and salt water, even ice cream and seagulls’ muck, won’t really do much harm.”
I looked at the ‘hearts’ dress and matching jacket that, yes, she always wore on her birthday.
“Ohhhhhh,” I cried, my hands flying to my mouth and then I folded my arms to cover my chest. I looked round for my discarded clothing, conscious of every eye on me. I was sure even the seagulls were laughing.
“Good for you, miss! I like someone who dares to be different.”
I turned and noticed a grey-haired gent as he threw his cardigan onto the sand. His flannel shirt and herringbone trousers soon followed. A little paunch, spindly legs and knobbly knees, but he was in good shape for a man in his eighties (or maybe nineties). Beaming at me, he stood in his string vest and ‘heart’ Y-fronts and asked, “Will you be my Valentine?”