At least, I think that was his name. It occurs to me now that I never actually asked, because he was always just Val; but it’s the sort of shortened name there aren’t many logical roots for, when you’re a man in your seventies. There were four houses on the street where I did most of my growing up and one of those was, when I was younger, occupied by a “Mr Ballantyne” and I misheard his name, but beyond that I never knew another Valentine and I don’t suppose I ever will again.
Over the course of six and a half years, through studying for two degrees and some of the happiest and saddest times of my life, I did the 8am – 5pm shift in a supermarket in the town where I grew up. It meant that when I was a student I could rarely go out on Friday nights, and I was often too tired to go out on Saturdays, but that was fine because then – as now – I didn’t really like going “out” (in the sense that I generally understand it, which is nightclubs and drinking until you can’t stand up) all that much. Of the jobs that I have had it was probably the one I was happiest in, because it wasn’t too taxing and I knew what I was doing, so it didn’t drain all the energy I needed to conserve for my other interests and I had plenty of time to just smile at people and get to know the ones who came to our store on a Saturday as part of their weekly routines.
Val was one of those people: a kindly, older man in a green anorak and a tweed fedora, who lived in the sheltered housing complex across the street and popped in on a Saturday morning on his way home from Mass. He always made a point of coming through my till for a chat and I’m not quite sure how we became friends: maybe it was because he knew my Grandad, as just about everybody who went to St Margaret’s Church must have done; or maybe it was the connection with his own granddaughter, whose name is Lisa and who was in my sister’s class at school. He was a singer, a gorgeous baritone, and I’m sure he was in some sort of group as well as singing at Church. He’d always give me Christmas cards that he’d slip money inside even though I wasn’t supposed to take it, and he did the same when I left the store for my first job in the legal profession. I remember going round to his flat in the sheltered housing complex, where he lived with his brother, once after I left – I have a memory of bringing him strawberries, because it was a really sunny day, but it’s one of those really faint memories that could have been half-invented or confused with something else.
I remembered Val this week, apropos of nothing because I haven’t seen him for years. When I go back to my home town, which I do quite frequently, it’s to visit my mother – I’m never there when the old haunts are open, and many of them don’t even exist anymore. Like the supermarket where I worked, for example – it had traded under many names over the years, but when the company I worked for went out of business rather than sell the shop to a competitor they sold the site, and Lidl knocked it down and built a building that looks remarkably similar. I had no way of knowing if he was even living or dead, but I thought of him with fondness and pondered to myself how it is that our lives can change so dramatically over the course of a few years that the people who once meant the world to you can just disappear. I tended to be quite good at keeping in some loose form of touch with most people even before Facebook and the like, but I’m in so different a place now from where I was when I was 22 there’s a part of it that is understandable.
But I did have a way of knowing, and when he died this week my sister’s friend made sure that the news was passed on to me because I was “her papa’s wee pal”. When I found out I was in a hotel room in London, and it’s weird how the news completely floored me when a few days ago I had been wondering if it had already happened in a somewhat abstract way and the thought made me sad, but I was fine. Here I was though, a few hundred miles from home, sobbing my eyes out in an anonymous yet comfortable hotel room and glancing at my phone every five minutes for reassurance, both from my sister and in the form of Twitter responses to a somewhat cryptic message I had posted because who was I to grieve, really; and I was doing this even although I had been up since 5am and I knew I needed to sleep if I was going to get through work the next day. I thought then, as I think often when people die, how lucky we are to have been raised Catholic because despite the baggage and the institutions that anybody with a conscience and a sense of social justice has no choice but to rail against there are certain places your brain can go in situations where people without faith have to struggle for words and grieve lonely. There are certain prayers you say almost without thinking, and you can organise a Mass card for those whose bereavement is more raw and more real than yours, and of course it doesn’t make it better but as a mantra and a gesture it is safe, and it is comforting.
A few hours earlier I had met Helen for lunch and a long-overdue catch-up – we hadn’t seen each other in four or five years, we figured, although it didn’t feel that long. She said something about how she hadn’t been back to Edinburgh since she had graduated, and although she planned to make the time this year she didn’t know whether it would be worse to do so and discover that everything had changed, or that nothing had.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say here really, or how it all relates: other than rest in peace Val Knox, you meant so much to me and you will be missed.