Adventures in Love, Valentine’s Short Story Winner

Adventures in Love

by Jo Zebedee


I met him down by the market. He was one of the boys Ma would tell me to stay well away from – I could tell that by the way he moved, a swagger in place that couldn’t be faked. His laugh, too, hard and rolling, carrying enough of an edge to make people stop, for just a moment, and wonder what they’d done that was so funny. A laugh that died away, became intimate on his lips. Eyes that knew me from the moment I met him, that met mine across the street, so raw with life I couldn’t have walked away and left myself intact.

Besides, I’ve never listened to my ma. No, over I strolled, across the street, all fourteen and cocky and sure nothing bad could ever happen. I watch myself, seeing how I was faking the swagger, how I tried to look cool even though I was terrified. I see me taking the cigarette from his lips, putting it to my own, and inhaling like I did it every day and wasn’t choking with it catching in my throat. I watch all this and I want to be that girl again, to believe the world was a good place.

I close my eyes and when I open them, we’re gone, me and Nik, walked into the future when I take him home to my ma and, even tidied up with his best tie on and a box of chocolates in hand, she sees through him and she warns me.

“He’ll break your heart.” She had the kettle on to mask her whisper, but it carried to me in the brittle air of a winter’s day. “Look at him. He wasn’t made for the likes of us.”

And he wasn’t. He was something special, an exotic bird dropped into North Belfast to take centre stage, telling stories in the playground that drew half the class around him. He was daring, where we weren’t, taking fags to school and smoking them round the back of the bike-shed even when Mr Irwin was on patrol. I can see him, sixteen and laughing, caught by the lapel and held off the ground by Mr Irwin. I can see him being dragged into the school, his eyes meeting mine with a ‘well, this is new’ look, and he made me laugh, even though I ended up in after him and suspended for two days for cheek.

We spent those two days in his bedroom, and I learned more about life in those days than anyone had ever told me was possible. The touch of his lips on my spine; the soft fingers of invitation on my breasts; him leaning over me, telling me it wouldn’t hurt; me trusting him; the soft thrusts that did hurt, but didn’t matter. The silence after, spun through the house, the knowledge we’d crossed something together, shipmates on a sea that didn’t have a end, starting off on some adventure together.

That makes me smile, even now. To have the adventure Nik gave me. The marriage, held outside the church in a thunderstorm, rain rinsing through my hair, sticking my dress to me, him with his head thrown back, laughing in the rain. The look on my ma’s face as her hat was ruined; his ma’s look, resigned with a love that didn’t know what was coming next. I learned that from her. I see it in the mirror, sometimes, when I don’t know I’m looking.


He took me on honeymoon to Africa. Around the northern countries with their market stalls, the smells of heady spice. A safari in Kenya, entranced by the sight of a giraffe being born – plop, all legs and spindly neck. We had no money, and when I asked how we’d managed, he put his finger on my lips, and shushed me and told me not to worry. That was the deal: I could have him, but I could never go too far. I could have his heart but not his secrets.

I lived my life like that. Through buying our first semi, moving up to a detached at the edge of town when Andi was born, through the birth of Sam and his diagnosis, through his hellish death ten years later, when I felt ripped apart. I held Nik that night, in the hospital, waiting for the hours to pass and he’d sobbed against me. I’d never known him to cry – not before, not since – but that night he unwound before me so that nothing lay between us. I hoped, then, that the secrets would end, that I would come to know him as he knew me, the very centre of him, the part I’d never touched.

It didn’t happen, although I believed it had. It turned out he only told me the good things, the happy things, and forgot about the bad. Like that he was ill. Like that the doctors couldn’t do anything. Like that he was dying and we had weeks to say goodbye. Instead, he just went and died on me, his hand on his chest, his colour seeping from him.

I drop the rose from my hand, let it lie on the broken ground. I should be angry, but I’m not – I could never stay angry at him. Sam’s name blurs on the headstone, Nik’s a scar below it. I stare and stare, hating that my mother was right. He had broken my heart. I wished I’d walked past at fourteen, had kept going to find someone I could bear to lose.

Then, somehow I smile. He might have been the wrong boy, but he was my boy, and I wouldn’t have had an adventure with anyone else. No matter how much it hurts.


This competition was run on behalf of the Big Issue Magazine via the Blackstaff Press writers forum  Short story writing competitions are run on a monthly basis and are free to enter and we welcome writers of all levels from beginner to pro so feel free to stop by say hello and share your work or comment on others work 🙂

Cover Image: Pierre Auguste Cot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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