The one where I recall a Valentine’s Day mystery

Happy Valentine’s Day. I said this to my 15-year-old daughter this morning and was met with a muttered response of ‘But I’m single’. I can completely understand why she said that because it would have been my reaction too when I was 15 and for a long time afterwards.

I used to dread Valentine’s Day. I never had a boyfriend at school. Too fat apparently. Gosh, I wish I was still ‘enormously fat’ aka size 12-14 now! We digress…

At college, I had two extremely short-term boyfriends – we’re talking only a couple of dates here – but one of those did coincide with Valentine’s Day. He was a friend of a friend. He fancied her, she didn’t fancy him, I met him and told her that I thought he was quite sweet, and somehow we ended up on a date. Cue absolute torture about the type of card to buy for someone I’d only recently met. Cue even greater discomfort when he presented me with a soft toy gift that my friend had previously told me he’d planned to give to her. Perhaps explains why it didn’t last long.

The university years were a little different. In my first year, I had a boyfriend. For both of us, it was our first serious relationship and he made a big fuss about Valentine’s Day, presenting a card and gifts at midnight. I was therefore a little surprised later in the day when I nipped out of my room in our halls of residence to make a cuppa and returned to find another card and gift on my bed. Not from the boyfriend. The lad living in the room next door to me had decided to use Valentine’s Day to tell me how he felt about me. He knew how serious things were between the boyfriend and me because he was part of our friendship group. Eek! Hadn’t seen that one coming. The friendship between him and the boyfriend was a little strained from that point.

In my final year at university, I was stunned to find a whopping four Valentine’s cards in my halls pigeon hole. I’d been expecting one from my female bestie in the room next door. Both single, we’d decided to exchange cards to celebrate friendship which was lovely. The other three were a big surprise. My bestie had a surprise card too and a male friend who lived on our floor in our halls of residence admitted to sending us one each, also celebrating friendship. What a star. My third card was a fun one, tracked down to a lad I’d had a bit of an on/off flirty thing going with but the fourth was a mystery which I was determined to solve.

My mystery card had these words in it: Why is it girl that when the world is lit by lightning that I keep telling you that I love you? It sounded to me like a song lyric but I couldn’t place it. These days, this would have been resolved in seconds by a trip to Google but this was 1994 and the tech didn’t exist.

My friends all agreed that it sounded like lyrics. A few thought the words were familiar but couldn’t get to the next part of the song. Most didn’t recognise them at all and it was driving me mad.

The sun went down on Valentine’s Day came, the mystery card-sender hadn’t revealed themselves and I was annoyed that I couldn’t place those lyrics. There was one person I thought might have sent the card. His name was Pete, he was a first year, and we’d seen each other for about a week the previous term but it had fizzled out as quickly as it started. We were still friends so I asked him if he’d sent it. He wanted to know why I thought that but I couldn’t come up with a reason and he refused to confirm or decline unless I gave one. The mystery continued.

The lyrics constantly played in my mind and I began to wonder if it was a Deacon Blue song. I adored Deacon Blue and had their brilliant 1987 album ‘Raintown’ and more recent 1993 album ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ in my CD collection at the time. I knew all the tracks on both really well and it wasn’t from either of them although I had to have a proper listen to both again to make sure.

So the mission then became tracking down someone who had the two Deacon Blue albums I was missing in their collection: ‘When the World Knows Your Name’ (1989) or ‘Fellow Hoodlums’ (1991). And that’s when I came up trumps. I was right about it being a Deacon Blue lyric, from a song called ‘When the World is Lit by Lightning’ on their 1989 album. The song hadn’t actually been released as a single so no wonder I’d struggled and several friends hadn’t recognised it at all.

Yay! I’d finally confirmed my suspicions that it was a song and now I knew which song. And it didn’t help me one iota. I’d assumed that identifying the song would give me a clue about my mystery sender but it didn’t. So I confronted Pete again on a night out with friends and he said the same as before: Why do you think it’s from me?

I’d love to say I worked it out for myself but Pete could obviously tell I was never going to get there and decided to put me out of my misery. Yes, it had been him, and he was disappointed I hadn’t worked out why. When he told me the logic, I was disappointed in me too.

When we’d started seeing each other, we’d had a conversation about his name – Peter Deacon – and he’d told me he’d always imagined that, if he ever sent someone a Valentine’s Day card, he’d write a Deacon Blue lyric in it as a clue to who it was from because of the connection to his name. It wasn’t just his surname Deacon that had a connection to the name of the band. With the first name of Peter, there was a connection to ‘blue’ through the children’s TV programme Blue Peter. Blue Peter / Deacon Blue. Genius. I felt so awful because I’d genuinely forgotten that conversation although, once he reminded me, I did recall it. To this day, I have no idea whether he sent the card for a bit of fun, perhaps intentionally to create a mystery, or if he was hoping it might trigger us trying again. If it was the latter, I messed it up by forgetting an important conversation.

I never felt the same way about Valentine’s Day after that. I felt like I’d hurt someone who I cared about and that made me uncomfortable. I thought about how much tension the incident in my first year had caused when my next door neighbour shared his feelings for me and how awkward that moment in college was when my new boyfriend gave me the gift intended for my friend. I’d always thought that Valentine’s Day was uncomfortable when single and card-less but it struck me that Valentine’s Day could be just as uncomfortable when in a relationship or when cards came and the sender was unknown. I also realised that what had made me the happiest were the two friendship cards I’d received and that’s how I see Valentine’s Day these days – a celebration of love and friendship in all its forms.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece for a national newspaper group about why I loved Valentine’s Day and I had to laugh at the assumption that, just because I was a romance author, of course I’d love it. So I wrote about the celebration of friendship instead and gave some suggestions for how those who were single or in a struggling relationship could embrace their friendships, love for family members, their pets and, very importantly, enjoy a little self-care.

I’ll be celebrating my 17th wedding anniversary in September and my 19th anniversary since meeting my husband in July. In all that time, we’ve never been out for Valentine’s Day but we always exchange a card and sometimes he gives me flowers of a fun gift. This year we couldn’t go out even if we’d wanted to as I tested positive for COVID earlier in the week and he tested positive yesterday so we’re both isolating. Fortunately we’d been organised this year. I’d got him a card a couple of weeks ago and he’d spotted this little fella on the supermarket shelves. Isn’t he just the most adorable and absolutely perfect for me?

Whether you’re loved up, single or somewhere in-between, Happy Valentine’s Day to you. Wishing you a day filled with love from a partner, friends, family, pets, your favourite teddy, a bar of chocolate, a film or a book.

Ooh, and if you’re looking for a warm hug of a book, I have 14 in my collection out now which I can highly recommend! For those who know my writing, you’ll know what a strong emphasis I place on the importance of family, friends and community in my books. There’s always a romance story but the other threads are just as important and I’ve often wondered whether my early experiences of Valentine’s Day and my fairly disastrous love life until I met my husband (when I was 31) have influenced my desire to write about so much more than romantic love. I think they have. In my mind, love is all around (as the song says!) and it really doesn’t have to be of the romantic variety.

Big Valentine’s hugs
Jessica xx

It’s that marmite time of year again

_MG_0218It’s Valentine’s Day today. That marmite time of year. Do you love it? Or do you hate it?

As a romance writer, it might follow that I love Valentine’s Day. Hearts, flowers, declarations of love, proposals. All fabulously romantic and lovely and just what a romance writer would adore, surely? Who wouldn’t love 14th February? Well, me actually.

Sorry to say it but I’m not a fan. I know that there are many people who hate it because they think it’s an overly commercial day designed just to make card companies, chocolatiers, and florists a wad of cash. They may have a point but retail is a tough business (she says having run her own shop) and I don’t begrudge them the opportunity.

There’s also the belief (sometimes held by the same people) that there shouldn’t be one day of the year set aside on which you must specifically show you love someone; if you love someone, you should demonstrate it all year round.

I can see both of these points but neither are the reason why I don’t love Valentine’s Day. I don’t love Valentine’s Day because Valentine’s Day doesn’t love me.

Let me explain…

_MG_7511My very first brush with Valentine’s Day was making a homemade card for a lad I fancied at primary school. I can’t remember whether there was a postbox set up or whether I sneaked it into his tray but I vividly remember him being unbelieveably disinterested in it. He made no enquiries to find out who’d sent it. He didn’t care. Boys eh? Needless to say, I didn’t get any cards that year. Or any other year at primary school.

When I was about fourteen, I was thrilled to receive a card and a heart-shaped chocolate in the post. My very first Valentine’s card. And it came with a gift! It was from a lad that I’d befriended on an adventure holiday the previous summer (I knew because he’d signed it). I went into school all excited… only to discover that he’d also sent one to my best friend who’d been on holiday with me and another girl we’d befriended there. It was a gesture of friendship. Nothing else.

I was eighteen before another card came my way. This time it was from my boyfriend in my first year at university. We’d been to the Halls of Residence bar on the evening of the 13th February with a couple of friends. One of them lived on the same floor as me and kept me up close to midnight, asking if I liked surprises. I thought this was a little strange. As midnight struck and Valentine’s Day arrived, the doors to the floor burst open and my boyfriend came running round the corridor dressed in nothing but boxer shorts covered in hearts, carrying a bottle of wine, a card, and a red rose. I’m going to sound so awful saying this, but my recall (many years later) was that it was a bit more embarrassing than romantic! Plus, I had lectures the next day and I was really, really tired! I didn’t want to drink wine and be romantic. I just wanted to go to sleep.

P1060175I had a free period later that morning and propped open my door and wandered into the kitchen to make a cuppa. When I came back, there was a card and a Sad Sam (remember those? Puppies with big, sad eyes that were all the rage in the late 80s/early 90s) sat on my bed. The lad in the room next-door (with whom I was friends) had put them there. Apparently he’d fallen for me and, even though he was also friends with my boyfriend, he seemed to think it was okay to share his feelings too. It was Valentine’s Day after all! I can’t remember whether I guessed it was him or whether he told me, but I somehow found myself sitting on my bed with him confessing his undying devotion to me and telling me that he’d be there for me if I ever wanted to ditch the boyfriend. Please keep remembering that the boyfriend and he were friends. Not so much after that. You see, the boyfriend knew I had a free period so came to see me and found me on the bed having a heart-to-heart and holding a card and a Sad Sam that he hadn’t given me. He understandably wasn’t too chuffed with my neighbour’s bold declaration of devotion. It was quite a fraught free period and I have never been so relieved to have an Economics lecture to attend as I was that morning; perfect opportunity to escape the tension!

The boyfriend and I went out for a romantic meal that evening. Only it wasn’t at all romantic. He was livid about the incident with the next-door neighbour and, even though he knew I didn’t feel anything for the lad, the betrayal of friendship hung in the air. Great.

P1060177In my final year at university, I was stunned and delighted to receive three Valentine’s cards, especially as I was single at the time. One was from a good friend who wanted to cheer me up, one was from a lad with whom I’d had one date but who’d made it clear that he didn’t want another date or a relationship as he was on the rebound from someone. Not really sure to this day why he sent me a card. The third was a mystery, though. It contained some song lyrics and I knew I recognised them but I absolutely couldn’t place them. These were the days before t’internet. I couldn’t just Google them. I was sure I knew who’d sent me it – a lad who I’d dated for about a week the term before – but he demanded to know why I thought it was him. I had to solve the clue in the lyrics. I finally sussed the song but I still couldn’t work out the connection to him. By the time I worked it out (the name of the band was connected to his name), it was a week or so later, and the moment was well and truly lost. He admitted that it had been him but I think he was annoyed that I hadn’t worked out why as, when we’d been dating, he’d told me that, if he ever sent someone a Valentine’s card, he’d put the lyrics of a song by this particular band in his card. Clearly I’d forgotten that conversation which suggested I’d never been listening to him in the first place and had therefore been a pretty rubbish girlfriend. Oops!

_MG_0221After that, I had years of being single and I seemed to go through a phase of being away with work on Valentine’s Day. I was exceedingly self-conscious about dining in the hotel alone as it was. Throw into the mix a restaurant full of couples gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes and it was excruciating.

I’ve now been with hubby for eleven Valentine’s Days. When we first met, we exchanged cards and a few silly gifts (I remember buying him some Purple Ronnie socks, for example) but I’ve never had any flowers, teddies, or anything particularly special from him on Valentine’s Day. Several years ago, I declared that I only wanted a card. I’ll admit this was more of a defence mechanism; declare that you only want a card and you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get anything else and will be pleasantly surprised if you do! I sometimes wish he’d surprise me and present me with some flowers. Or perhaps something that’s even more me… like a romantic novel, some heart-themed stationery, or a film. Or all three but that’s just greedy! But would I really want this on Valentine’s Day? When I see my Facebook feed later today full of friends and family declaring, “Look what I got” and posting pictures of bouquets, champagne, teddy bears holding hearts, posh meals out, and so on, I know I’ll get envious (because I do every year) and wish I was on the receiving end of all these lovely gifts. But then I remind myself that past experience has made me dislike this day because of the pressure and disappointment it brings, whether you’re single or not. Why, therefore, would I want to acknowledge this day?

Perhaps I am more with the school of thought that showing you care should happen all year round; not just on February 14th. The problem is, my husband isn’t romantic. He doesn’t buy me flowers. In nearly twelve years together, he’s never sent me a bouquet. He’s bought me some flowers home from the supermarket on a handful of occasions, along with the weekly shop. Not quite the same thing. The thing is that I don’t really want flowers on Valentine’s Day. I object to the inflated prices. But it would be nice to have some at another time of year. Perhaps.

Hubby doesn’t surprise me with romantic meals either. I can’t remember the last time we went out together, just the two of us. Or even as a group. To be fair to him, we were meant to go out between Christmas and New Year as a six. One of the group was ill so that couple pulled out but the other couple then cancelled as the plan had been to go out as a six. Hubby and I could have gone out as a two but I couldn’t be bothered. I’m not very good at dealing with changes to plans and a takeaway in front of the TV seemed so much easier than getting all dressed up and braving the cold.

P1060118So hubby doesn’t do meals and flowers but he does do other things that show he cares. He spends ages choosing the right cards with the right words in them and he always adds some of his own instead of just signing his name. He lets me lie in on a weekend and brings me a cup of tea and some breakfast in bed. He reads my bootcamp blog without fail and is really proud of me when I achieve my goals. He bought me a necklace one year (for birthday or Christmas) with a pendant of St Paul on it, the Patron Saint of Writers. I went on a girly trip to York last month with my mum and sisters-in-law and wasn’t going to buy anything because we’re trying to save some money. He insisted I treated myself to a teddy bear for my collection as I’d been really down about work last year when I thought I was going to lose my job yet again. And I mustn’t forget coming home from my shopping trip to discover that he’d been creative and designed a photo for the launch of my debut novel. I hadn’t asked him to. We’d never discussed it. He just did it.

10933962_422724554553053_2755676624398073407_nIt’s not over the top displays of romance but, when I break it down, it’s all evidence that he’s thinking of me and he cares. Isn’t that what romance is? Especially the little things that he does regularly like reading my blog and making me breakfast in bed. Do I need bouquets of flowers when I have this? Hmm. Well, maybe not constantly but once in a while would be lovely 🙂

Whatever you’re doing today, I hope it brings you happiness, whether you’re in a great relationship, a relationship on the rocks, or single. Find something that makes you happy. For me, it’s a script-writing workshop at our local theatre and tea with hubby and the munchkin. What a fabulous way to spend a Saturday. Watch this space for a future blog about the script-writing workshop.

Happy weekend 🙂

Jessica xx