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Valentine’s Day: Say it with flowers or a can of WD-40 or by guarding the loo door… but say it

© SYSTEMFiona and Jimmy Gibson on the shores of Loch Fyne
Fiona and Jimmy Gibson on the shores of Loch Fyne

“Let’s not bother with Valentine’s Day,” I said to my husband one year. “It’s a load of nonsense.”

“I’m glad you said that,” Jimmy agreed. “I was thinking the same actually.” Sweet relief! Our twin sons’ birthdays – and Jimmy’s – all fall in early February, and by the time V-Day rolls around I’ve always run perilously low on ideas, inspiration and cash. “It’s just commercial nonsense,” I added, actually meaning: ‘Please say I don’t have to go rushing out to the shops again.’

The day arrived. OK, we had decided not to honour it by mutual agreement – but I was furious. The night before, I’d gone back on my word and actually made Jimmy a card. It had seemed churlish not to. Yet he’d given me – the mother of his three children, who’d dealt with countless nit outbreaks and made something like 3,000 packed lunches over the years – precisely nothing in return.

Not even a rubbishy card from the corner shop! I’d had some disappointing presents in the past, from previous partners – like bath “flakes” that looked like pavement sweepings and took me a full half hour to scrub off the sides of the bath. One year I’d been given a can of WD-40 to lubricate my bike chain. But to not have Valentine’s Day even acknowledged felt like an almighty insult.

“What’s wrong?” Jimmy called after me as I clipped our dog’s lead on to his collar, ready for our walk.

“Nothing,” I shot back. “Absolutely nothing’s wrong!” And off I stomped, banging the door behind me.

It seems crazy now to be so upset. However, no matter how long a couple has been together, romance still matters hugely. I write romantic comedy novels for a living, so of course I believe in the importance of heartwarming gestures. Corny as it can seem, a Valentine’s card has a vital function in that most of us choose one only for the person who occupies a special place in our hearts.

Jimmy has occupied a special place in mine for more years than we’d probably like to remember. Set up on a blind date by a mutual friend in 1994, we got married two years later. That’s a lot of Valentines.

In long relationships we can so easily fall into taking each other for granted. However, every February 14th reminds us to express our love. In doing this we are saying: “You’re special to me. You’re not just useful for putting the bins out, reaching for something on a high shelf, or unloading the damp laundry from the washing machine before it starts to reek of cabbages.”

Of course, there’s no law that says we have to express all of this by means of a Valentine’s card. But it is important to be romantic now and again. In our early days, Jimmy and I were fans of the huge, showy gesture: bouquets sent to the office, a spa day booked not just for me but, as an extra surprise, my three best friends, too.

For Jimmy’s birthday one year I found an accordion in a dusty little shop in north London and had it fully restored for him. Just this week my friend John said: “Remember us running around record shops in Soho looking for 40 singles for his 40th birthday?” The idea was, we’d collect one released every year from Jimmy’s birth year to the present.

Admittedly, we don’t put in that level of legwork anymore. But small romantic gestures can be just as meaningful. It can be a sweet note, or picking up their favourite magazine at the newsagent’s, just because you spotted it. It can be flowers of course, although it certainly doesn’t need to be a huge bouquet. Romance doesn’t even have to cost a single penny. A little bunch of garden flowers can be extremely touching and say: “I saw these and thought of you.”

On their wedding day in 1996

In fact, my husband’s most romantic gestures are not about presents at all. They’re about thought and care and a little bit of effort. For instance, pre-loading the coffee percolator last thing at night, so in the morning all I have to do is press the button. Or, better still, bringing me a cup of coffee in bed first thing.

After almost three decades together, romance can come in the guise of Jimmy’s special hot toddy (hot water with whisky, lemon and honey) when I’m ill. It’s him saying: “You look lovely” when I’ve had my hair coloured and it’s come out a dubious shade of khaki. Most touching of all, it’s when he makes extra cheese on toast because, though I’ve sworn I don’t want any, when I catch a whiff of its delicious aroma I always snatch a piece from his plate.

Realistically, these days we’re not as giddily obsessed with each other as we once were. But there’s a lot to be said for knowing each other incredibly well. For instance, you know when the loo cubicle in a cafe or bar opens right on to the public area? I have a terrible fear that the door will fly open – no matter how firmly I’ve locked it – and every single person will swivel around and stare at me sitting there with my pants down.

Jimmy knows this about me. So, without being asked, he will “guard” the loo for the duration of my visit. That, to me, is romantic. OK, I had very different ideas back in the ’90s, when we were running around with bouquets and so madly infatuated that we could barely eat. But there’s a lot to be said for growing older together, as long as the little romantic gestures don’t stop.

As for that uncelebrated Valentine’s Day, as my friend Tania and I walked our dogs together, I heard about how she’d received roses and a home-made card, and was having dinner cooked for her that night. I felt wretched and taken for granted, and also extremely silly for making such a big deal out of what was “just a day”. I was a grown woman, for goodness’ sake – and there I was, bleating and crying like a thwarted teen.

By the time I’d arrived back home, Jimmy had hastily made a card, rushed out for flowers and even found a little book of love poetry in the charity shop. “Oh, thank you,” I said, instantly cheered. “I feel so silly being upset,” I added. “It’s just, when I said let’s not celebrate Valentine’s Day, I didn’t actually mean it.”

“Neither did I,” he said.

Fiona Gibson’s new novel, The Man I Met On Holiday, is published by Avon next month