For its 2017 Valentine’s Day issue, ShortList magazine asked me to imagine a dystopian world where every day is Valentine’s Day.
He was halfway into his second helping of mango-and-lime-marinated chicken wings when he realised the woman in the next booth was weeping. Should I say something, he wondered, just to check she’s alright? Any other day of the year, absolutely. But, let’s face it, on Monica’s Day it’s pretty mortifying to be seen in a restaurant with a member of the opposite sex.
Monica’s Day: named for the patron saint of difficult marriages and disappointing children. Best day in the whole bloody calendar. The one day when the 24-hour florists are closed, the dating app alerts go silent and the primetime TV schedule is all twisted crime procedurals or depressing Scandinavian films, instead of the usual rom-coms on high rotation.
His annual argument with Sophie had been an unmitigated success. It had started over their credit card bills and ended when he stoved in the windscreen of her Fiat 500 with a cricket bat. He’d bought her that car for her birthday – which happened to fall on Valentine’s Day, obviously. Because every day is Valentine’s Day. Except Monica’s Day.
Now it was after dark, and he was savouring every drop of joy he could squeeze from his last few hours of solitude, sat among the blissful singletons at the Nando’s near the bottom of the high street. After 364 romantic dinners – 364 evenings spent watching Sophie hunt for jewellery in her dessert – he wanted nothing but to sit here, alone, with a plate of wings and a podcast.
And yet. Even on Monica’s Day, he could no more ignore the discreet snuffles of a distressed woman than a baby wailing on a plane. He craned his neck to peer over the banquette. The weeper’s watery eyes threatened to drip into her spatchcock chicken platter. Her snot-drenched napkins lay scattered on the table like failed attempts to fold an origami swan.
“Why the tears? It’s Monica’s Day.”
The woman glanced up, startled. She looked a state – but then she smiled.
“Oh. Yeah, sorry. I’m fine. It’s just this Peri-Peri sauce. It’s so hot! I’m not used to it. My husband doesn’t like it. On my breath, y’know?”
Her husband. He and Sophie had been engaged six times. She always broke it off on Monica’s Day. Said being engaged was romantic. Being married? Not so much. Of course, they couldn’t wait forever. Soon they’d be too old to claim the tax breaks for couples with procreational potential, the free Swiss chocs and the subsidised biannual minibreaks to Bruges or Budapest.
“I’m Savannah,” the woman said.
“Huh. Like the great plains of Africa.”
She smiled again.
“I’m Finn,” he said.
“Ooo. Like a shark.”
“Yeah. Or an ending. In French.”
She furrowed her brow at that one.
“Never mind,” he said.
They got a Monica’s Day discount on one of the honeymoon suites at the Premier Inn, shared what was left of the bottle of Malibu in Savannah’s handbag and tugged hurriedly at each other’s clothes. At first he was distracted by the scent of bleach that lingered in the room. But eventually the cogs started whirring down below, and, before he could help himself, he’d jizzed in her hair.
He left while Savannah was still waiting for the water in the en suite shower to run hot. “Happy Monica’s Day!” she yelled, as the hotel room door swung closed behind him. It’s not every year you have an awkward sexual encounter with a total stranger, he thought. Result.
It was almost 11pm. He stopped in at a megaflorist. They never used to open until the morning after Monica’s Day, but now late capitalism demanded the sales begin before the stroke of midnight. He passed two drunks scuffling over the last cut-price bunch of roses as he made for the hydrangea aisle. Sophie liked hydrangeas.
He let himself into the flat. Sophie was splayed across the sectional in her trackie bums, watching Newsnight on iPlayer. The sitting room smelled of cigarettes.
“Has somebody else been here?”
“No,” she said, surly. “Why?”
She noticed the flowers.
“Christ, what time is it?”
He checked his watch.
She sighed, peeled herself off the sofa and disappeared towards the bathroom. He arranged the hydrangeas in a vase, using some of the water to smooth down his hair. He tucked in his shirt and laid out the tray on the kitchen counter – the tray he used daily to bring her breakfast in bed. He switched on the telly. A Kate Hudson marathon was starting on Film 4.
Sophie returned with her make-up on, her silk dressing gown cinched at the waist. They kissed. She tasted of peppermint. He tasted of mangoes and lime and coconut rum.
“Mmmm,” she said. “I love you, Finn.”
He gritted his teeth to make a smile.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he replied.