In the dim light of a curiosity museum I saw and tripped over the following things: the skeleton of conjoined infants in a bell jar; the static poker game of a dozen badly taxidermied Walter Potter squirrels; a polar bear in a party hat, his frozen snarl pointed towards a shop door on Mare Street while unnameable things bobbed in jars of formaldehyde nearby; dozens of dead butterflies folded into rice-paper samosa coffins; and the stiffened torso of a threadbare lion joined for dinner by his guests: kittens with wings, a rubber penis mould, and a monstrous skeletal hybrid of bird, goat and horse. But the most horrifying thing I saw that night was what blinded me as I got off the bus to Bethnal Green: a florist’s window with the faces of teddybears flattened against the glass like doomed Jews in a train bound for a Auschwitz, their kin strung up by the neck with scarlet streamers, each of them clutching in their lifeless paws a stuffed red heart bearing the glittering words I Love You.
Later, three separate emails landed unwelcome in my inbox: Romantic Valentine’s breaks from the Airfare Experts! Exclamation point. Celebrate Valentine’s Day with Romantic Gift Poem Now! Exclamation point. Thorntons I Love Chocolate Valentine’s Hamper For Her!! Exclamation point. Exclamation point.
It’s not that I’m not a romantic person: Humphrey Bogart is best when he stands on a phonebook next to Bacall and when I look at the Moon I actually do want my own George Bailey to lasso it for me. When a couple has a good date on the Isle of Fernandos and arrange to meet each other again at the coach station in Wigan – I cry. Actual tears come out of my actual face while watching people I don’t know on Take Me Out. I am a big, soppy 6’1 unit full of feelings. Lady feelings and lady emotions. I just think there is something inherently bogus about Valentine’s Day.
These are my reasons.
In my twenty-something years I have received a grand total of three Valentine’s Day gifts. I’m not counting the doomed marriage proposal from Edwin Allen in the third grade, which he did in front of the class during Show and Tell in lieu of bringing in some Lego. As the class of eight-year-olds turned around for my answer I pulled the kind of face that eight-year-old girls pull when a boy called Edwin proposes a hitherto undiscussed union. It ended with me getting sprayed in the eye with his older brother’s mouth freshener, or to put it bluntly, maced. I spent the afternoon with my face plunged into a sink while the school nurse wrote this very story into my permanent record.
The first actual Valentine’s Day present happened when I was fifteen years old at an all-girls Catholic school where fitting in was not a thing I did. I had spent my morning sitting in the back of the classroom hiding my fat spotty face behind my Dan Clowes comic books, silently willing my teacher not to give in to the pleas of the other girls. They wanted to make Valentine’s day cards. They wanted arts and crafts activities to happen.
It continued in every class. In English they argued that they could write love poems instead of essays. In biology I was the only one willing to dissect the pig’s eyeball, and Rosie Newman actually cited “because eye goop will get on my uniform and I have to see my boyfriend after school?” as her reason for not wanting to. The others hauled out the age-old biology excuse “vegetarianism” with a freshly scrawled note “from their Mum”, which they’d written themselves while enjoying a squashed ham sandwich for lunch.
Every ten minutes there would be a phonecall from the secretary in administration telling the teacher to let some giddy teenager know that a dozen roses had just arrived. Screams and squeals would follow, and the girl would want to know who they were from. Can she go get them now? Can she please? “Oh come on Miss. You remember what it was like when you were young, don’t you?” Our teacher was probably, at most, 28.
As soon as the bell for lunch rang, mayhem would ensue. The recess bell acted like the doors of a department store on Boxing Day in the second before the stampede, elbows, and bloody noses begin. Hundreds of girls would run full-pelt to the office and line up for their roses, or chocolates, or dead-eyed teddybears, or all three.
But not me. Except that one year when I got a call too. There was no squealing from me or my no-friends, merely total confusion from both my teenage self and the woman in the office. I said to her, “There must be some mistake. Aren’t you confusing me with another Hayley?” I was born in the year of Haley’s Comet: every year there were at least four other Hayleys, usually freakishly blonde. No, she said, it was clearly marked to Hayley CAMPBELL. “The Campbell is even underlined for some reason,” she said.
I didn’t line up at lunch. I waited ‘til the end of school, when everyone else had gone off to watch the boys’ college down the road play football and I went to pick it up my first ever Valentine’s Day gift. It was a single yellow rose with a card that read, in caps: “BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE WILL SEND YOU ONE HA HA” from a guy I was friends with solely because he had a Nintendo.
The second one was a flower chucked at me by a Halal butcher in Brixton. I walked past their stinking shop twice daily as I went to and from the tube station, and each day I avoided eye contact with the deceased chickens swinging upside-down by the door, stepped over the polystyrene box of pigs’ trotters and flies, and dodged the buckets of soapy water hurled at the gutter. I was proposed to about four times weekly as I did this, with almost but not quite as much skill as eight-year-old Edwin Allen. “EYY PUSSY! EYY POOM POOM! MARRY ME!”
The third was my favourite, a number-one-with-a-bullet favourite. It was the 14th of February. I had trekked back to Herne Hill to pick up the remainder of my things following a massive break-up the week before Christmas. We were ostensibly friendly, or at least civil enough to have an awkward short lunch at the fish and chip restaurant down the road – our local, Olley’s. It’s the one with the huge tarpaulin banner of Tom Parker-Bowles’ massive face across the entire frontage of the restaurant, with a quote about it being “the best fish and chip place in London” and just a shadowy hint of extra chins giving credence to the idea that Tom Parker-Bowles had tried them all. The owner, a basically insane Greek guy called George, had recently taken to branding everything in the restaurant: he’d got some Olley’s napkins printed; fitted his staff out in Olley’s uniforms complete with Burger King-style caps and polo shirts; he’d given them all incredibly difficult handheld machines instead of plain old order pads, thus making the whole ordering process a fiasco involving turning machines off and on again. The machines had stickers on them that said Olley’s. Everything said Olley’s. The toilet seat said Olley’s.
My boyfriend and I had been going there once a week for years, so inevitably one of the full-time waiters, a friendly Bangladeshi guy, had given us “our table.” At no point did I say “this is our favourite table and therefore we must always have this table, always.” I’d never displayed any favouritism at all towards this four-seater by the window. But the guy took so much pride in holding “our table” for us that we could do nothing but shovel thanks and praise on him when he did so. A couple of times we arrived late to find others at “our table” and the waiter’s lip wobbled in anguish as he squashed us in beside some old ladies having their fish supper special.
Forced chitchat followed between me and my ex, interrupted for a welcome moment when our waiter presented us with two glasses of Prosecco, on the house. He had no knowledge of what had occurred since we last fish and chipped months ago, that I had thrown hard, breakable things at this man’s head at 4 in the morning, that I had smashed a pint glass on the floor and had to be picked up and carried away because I was in bare feet. That we were two people who hated each other, and who had hated each other for some time. We were pretending everything was hunky dory for the benefit of the little Bangladeshi waiter whose heart we could not break. He grinned, we ordered, he disappeared, and we discussed splitting the cost of a cleaner before handing the flat back to the estate agent. Next the waiter brought out a rose. “Don’t punch me!” he said to my ex in mock defense. Fish and chips happened, we grimaced over our coffees and I asked for various computer cables back, pillow cases, blankets. The stuff you don’t grab as you storm out at dawn. We verbally divided the Stanley Kubrick box set (I kept everything, he got Barry Lyndon) and he kept custody his two sole and completely awful CDs – Neil Young’s Harvest, and something by Gomez because although no one legitimately likes the band Gomez, this guy somehow did.
We were about to leave when the waiter brought out two bowls of ice cream, strawberry pink for Valentine’s day — again, on the house. We thanked him, again, forced them down in awkward silence as he beamed from the sidelines, and when we stood to go he ran over brandishing a final parting gift. He handed it to me, all warmth and obliviousness, and I thanked him again because, Jesus, I am polite what else are you supposed to say? I walked alone to my bus stop with a rose in my left hand, and in my right a red, heart-shaped helium balloon. I let it go into the air, and as it sailed over Brockwell Park I wondered if it would deflate as completely as I just did. For about a minute I could still make out the words on its side: I’VE JUST ENJOYED THE OLLEY’S FISH AND CHIP EXPERIENCE!! Exclamation point. Exclamation point.