Our mother didn’t believe in romance, not in any meaningful way, not in any hopeful way. I’ll give you an example. You know that song, tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree? Yes you do. It was everywhere in 1973, it was all over the place. It’s supposed to be about the Vietnam war, that was the basis of its astronomical sales, and according to Wikipedia it’s even been linked to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines ten years later, but if you listen to the lyric all it’s really about is a guy coming home from jail who wants to know if his girl’s going to be waiting for him. Or if she’s found somebody else. She mustn’t have written to him for a while, I don’t know. And that’s how she’s supposed to let him know, if she’s still waiting she’s supposed to tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree so’s he can see it from the bus. If it’s not there he’s going to stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me. Me being himself. It must have been a small town is all I can think, this ole oak tree must have been in the middle of the village green or the market square or some such place. He says he doesn’t mind either way, but you can tell he’s really hopeful. And our mother hated it, she hated that song. If it came on the radio, which it did a lot, in 1973, she would just turn it right off. Put on some Andy Williams or something. She said it shouldn’t be played in the afternoon, when children could hear it. With its reference to a man coming out of jail and expecting everything to be OK, expecting everything to be just as it was before he went in, three long years before, and we’re not even allowed to know what he’s done. What’s he done, he must have done something, she used to say. She called it morally ambiguous. But that wasn’t the real reason she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it because it was a love story with a happy ending, or at least the potential for one. She preferred songs like killing me softly with his song. Everything lost and lonely and unrequited. He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair. So tie a yellow ribbon was out. I grew up with the Carpenters and Peters and Lee. It fucked me up. It warped me. I can’t listen to that stuff now. I prefer don’t fear the reaper or the logical song.
So you can see from all this that my attitude to romance might be a little misshapen. I’ll say. I hate Valentines Day, always have. It’s a racket for the greeting card companies, but you probably know all that. When I was a kid and I didn’t know what it was about, Valentines Day, when I heard what day it was on the radio, I set about making my friend Jonathan Whiteman and his brother Richard, and their parents, Valentines Day cards all by hand. Red crayons, pink crayons, green crayons, the works. I thought it would be nice, I was that kind of kid. I used to pick our mother flowers from the fields walking home alone from school.
Our mother all but took the roof off. With the Valentines Day cards I mean, I think she quite liked the flowers, although she did seem to get bored with them quite quickly. Well, who wouldn’t? Day after day, buttercups and daisies. We’re not talking the Amazon rainforest or the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve here. But yeah, she all but took the roof off. Just with a look, she could do that. The eyes would flash, then the lids drop two thirds of the way down. A vein on her forehead stood up. The lips would purse. She’d take some breath in through her nostrils and just hold it there. All in an instant. You wished the ground would open up, you really did. She always held her breath for precisely sixty seconds. For as long as I can remember I timed it in my head, and it was always exactly that. Then she spat into the sink. You know, ph-tooh! I had already made the first card and was three quarters the way through the second, fingers all red and pink and green from the crayons. She grabbed the cards up and put them straight into the bin, then she emptied a load of old tea bags over them, in case our father saw. She used to keep all the old tea bags on the side of the draining board in an Ernest Hemingway mug she’d got as a souvenir from his house in Cuba, so’s she could use them twice. This was before recycling, this was 1974. So that was me and Valentines Day done right in, right then, right there.
Years later, and I’m sitting in this café in Islington, up at the Angel. Euphorium it was called, although I used to call it Euphonium as a joke, in order to impress the girls at the meeting next door, only it never caught on. By the time that I’d realised it was never going to, that I was just a lonely old fat bloke that they laughed about when I wasn’t around, or more likely, didn’t even think about at all, I had got into the habit of calling it Euphonium and couldn’t stop. I had created a new pathway for it in my brain. Like with that American malapropism, irregardless. I still say that now, irregardless. Anyway, I’m there in Euphorium. I’m early for the meeting next door so I’m drinking coffee that’s too weak and too hot, and it’s chucking it down outside. It’s February 13th, I remember that much. That’s important, keep it in mind. This old Buddhist guy who calls himself Chief Running Horse is sitting at the table next to me with one of his sponsees, laying down the law about the importance of step eleven and having a daily practice. The radio is advising us all to mind how we go. The new coalition’s cut welfare in half again, they’ve banned trade unions in the prison service, there have been civil disturbances almost daily for about three weeks. There’s talk of a temporary curfew but nobody’s taking it seriously, it would be bad for the recovery. Arsenal are at home tonight, it’s the second round of the Champions League. And as I’m looking up, the coffee still too hot and weak and burning my tongue, as I’m counting down from sixty to one, first once, then three times, then five, seeing how quickly the coffee will cool, I’m also looking out the window and into the rain. When this young guy hurries past in a business suit and a raincoat, head down, collar turned right up, clutching a bunch of flowers, all properly wrapped, you know, but with the heads exposed. With the heads getting battered by the rain. So he’s leaning over them, he’s trying to keep them dry, trying to protect them. And immediately I think, it’s not Valentines Day yet, where are you going with those flowers? He can’t be taking them home to save them for the next day, because by the next day, by Valentines Day, they’re going to be all wilted and shit. So he can’t be going home with the flowers for his one true love. His significant other. Well, maybe he’s going to take them home and hide them in the broom cupboard until midnight I think, maybe he’s going to surprise her at midnight with the flowers, but that doesn’t seem likely, because he’s wearing a business suit, he probably works in the city. The city is just down the road, it’s just down City Road. They’ll be all tucked up in bed and asleep way before midnight I think, he won’t want to wake her, if he wakes her they’ll have a row and the moment will be ruined. Destroyed. Ungetbackable.
Then two other things occur to me, almost in tandem. That’s how my thinking goes, in tandem. Sometimes even in triplicate, like the forms. The first thought is that maybe he’s married young and realised too late that it’s all been a terrible mistake, and in order to compensate for this he’s taken a lover. Not somebody from work though, that would be too risky, too much of a cliché, and anyway, if that were the case they’d be out somewhere together now. But maybe that’s where he’s going, to meet his lover. To give her the grand romantic gesture, with the flowers. But because of his domestic situation, she has to take second best. She has to take February 13th and not February 14th. She draws the short straw. There’ll be a quiet restaurant where nobody knows him, and afterwards a cheap hotel for some romantic sex. He’s knocked off work early but told his wife he’s working late on the Shanghai deal. But maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s something else. Nothing to do with February 14th. I take a sip at the still too hot coffee and almost burn the tip of my tongue. I wince. The counting hasn’t worked. And that’s when the other thought comes in, almost in tandem. The only other possible explanation is that he’s going to visit his mother, who is dying of inoperable cancer. Hence the flowers, and his desire to keep them from getting battered by the rain. He wants to give her something that’s alive, that’s not been destroyed by life, he’s not even thinking forward to the connotations of that. He hasn’t thought it through. I’m very excited now. I’m putting together the pieces of the puzzle. It all fits. And just like that, I’m on my feet. I’m out of there and I’m following him down the street. I’ll skip the meeting, I’ve been to one already today, the lunchtime one in Dalston. The Mildmay we used to call it, on account of its street address. I don’t go there anymore. I had a run-in with Loopy Liz. She never forgave me for that business with the carrots. I’m not allowed within two miles.