Today (29th February) is a very special date. It occurs only once every four years – and, in some cases, not even then. It is Leap Year Day.The origin of the Leap Year as we know it dates back more than two thousand years, to the time of Julius Caesar. The Earth’s orbit round the Sun takes 365¼ days, and it was Caesar who first decreed that to make up for the odd quarter-day which is lost every year, an extra calendar day should be added every four years. The extra day (Leap Year Day) is added at the end of February, which is the shortest month. A year is a Leap Year if its last two digits can be exactly divided by four.
Special though this day is, it has one obvious disadvantage. People who happen to be born on this extra day (Leap Year Babies) can only, strictly speaking, celebrate their birthday once every four years. This anomaly is used to great effect in the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. The hero, Frederick, is contracted to serve as a pirate until his 21st birthday – but he was born on 29th February, and so will not in fact reach this birthday until he is well into his eighties.
Sometimes, to add insult to injury, Fate deals Leap Year Babies a particularly bad hand. Adding a whole extra day every four years slightly over-compensates for the irregularity, so in order to keep the calendar in check, century years are leap years only if the whole year is an exact multiple of 400. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, and 2400 will be, but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not – so Leap Year Babies who were alive at those turns of the century (such as the composer Gioachino Rossini, who was born on 29th February 1792) would have to go without a birthday for eight years rather than four.The crime writer Ruth Rendell made good use of this little-known peculiarity in her short story When The Wedding Was Over. The key to the mystery centres on the fact that 1900 was not a leap year.
But Leap Year Day also brings one notable advantage, particularly for the girls. According to tradition, marriage proposals can only be made by the male partner in the relationship. But once every four years, on Leap Year Day, women are able to take a giant leap of faith and propose to men.
And they are in excellent literary company. In what is probably the world’s most famous love story, the first mention of marriage is made not by the hero but by the heroine – none other than Shakespeare’s Juliet.
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite,
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee, my lord, throughout the world.
Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene), lines 142-148
That marriage takes place in secret the very next day, with the connivance of Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s nurse. But almost immediately after the ceremony the story begins its dreadful downward spiral into tragedy. One catastrophic event follows another, culminating three days later in the young lovers’ maddeningly preventable double suicide.
I’ve always loved the story of Romeo & Juliet but have always hated the way it ended, and I’ve often wondered what might have happened if even just one of the events leading up to the tragedy had happened differently. This was what prompted me to take a huge leap of faith of my own, and write my first novel, The Ghostly Father.
The book is a re-telling of the original Romeo & Juliet story, told from the point of view of the Friar (the eponymous Ghostly Father), but with a few new twists and a whole new outcome. I originally wrote the book just for myself, because I wanted to give the characters a better chance at happiness – but judging by the number of people who have bought it, read it, and been kind enough to say they enjoyed it, it appears that I’m not by any means the only person who prefers the alternative ending.
The Ghostly Father is published by Crooked Cat Publishing, and is available from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and Apple iBooks.