Petrol station flowers

Is Valentine’s Day a good thing? Or can it be harmful? Does it make people happy, or is it a celebration that we should consign to the past? I can only draw on my own experiences, which are sadly minimal, but I can and will extrapolate.

When I think of Valentine’s Day, I immediately picture a supermarket aisle, filled with pink and red cards. Some are sweet, some are funny, and some are downright suggestive. Then my thoughts shift, and move to an advert – any advert – on the big screen at the cinema, but definitely one where a man and woman, both impossibly beautiful, are eating dinner, gazing mistily into one another’s eyes. Interestingly, there’s usually a fair bit of glamorous drink involved, so perhaps not surprising that things get misty. My third scenario involves scenes of middle aged men with desperate eyes, clutching limp petrol station flowers which even they know will not be enough.

Not very romantic so far, you might say, and I’d agree. What strikes me though, is that it’s all about courting, never about the consummation or indeed the reality of love. It’s not a celebration of long years of love, although it should be. It should perhaps be many different things, a celebration of love between all those who love each other, in all the ways that we can love, but it usually seems to focus on the pink and the unpromised. It can sometimes seem predatory.

When I was in my teens, at high school, Valentine’s Day cards had more of a quantitative then a qualitative appeal. Frankly, I was lucky if I got one – I think there was one good year when I got two – and you never quite knew whether they were genuine or not. I didn’t have the kind of mother who would send me a sympathetic Valentine, although some did. And then there was the worse fear that your Valentine might be a joke, so you had to pretend that it probably was, or that you didn’t care, to avoid catastrophic humiliation. But there were always a few girls who effortlessly attracted Valentines, both the cards and the boys, and we, the unchosen, would gaze at them in confusion and envy. Some people would say they had received Valentines, even when it seemed unlikely, and sometimes there would be mutterings that they had sent them to themselves. Better not to get one at all than to do that.

As we matured and left school, attitudes changed a little. There were those who scorned Valentine’s Day, and they became more numerous and more vocal – commercial and ridiculous, they said. I agreed, of course, but there was a little bit of me, left over from my earlier years, that would have liked an ostentatious Valentine, a symbol of apparent love or desire. A big card, that people would notice, and think – she is worth that to someone. Fortunately, perhaps, I never did get one. I am more a recipient of petrol station flowers.

But perhaps those garage flowers are worth more than their apparent haste and thoughtlessness, perhaps they show a particular type of love and devotion. These are the flowers bought by someone who is happy with their partner, someone who doesn’t see the trashy supermarket cards and restaurant deals. They are the flowers bought on the way home by someone who has realised – too late – that they have forgotten, but still can’t quite bring themselves to disappoint. They don’t believe in Valentine’s Day – but still don’t want to disenchant entirely. And they are better far than those who say – ‘I know you think Valentine’s Day is commercial, so I didn’t get you anything’ – because those are the ones who use principles not to bother. They are the ones who never bring garage flowers, either then, or on any other day.

Each little celebration in the year matters, whether you believe in them or not. We live through symbols and representation, whatever we think, and it is part of what makes us human. Valentine’s Day is a time to think of whatever love means to us. It doesn’t have to be romantic desire. It can be a time of great yearning, a time of content, or a time of sadness. I don’t think I’ll ever buy a Valentine’s card again, not one of those pink supermarket ones, but I’ll always remember Valentine’s Day. I think, for many, it’s a harbinger of spring, a realisation that winter will soon end.

I had a friend once, whose partner gave her a red rose. She kept it, long after it had faded and died, and I remember thinking how very beautiful it was, of a love that didn’t die. I will never forget her, or her rose. We all have our own symbols that mean different things to us, and they are not items that you can order online. The giver is as important as the gift, and what may seem like nothing to someone is priceless to another.

I will wait for my petrol station flowers, and it doesn’t matter when they come.

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