What does the average woman expect to receive on St. Valentine’s Day? Flowers, chocolates, and champagne come to mind, naughty knickers perhaps. At the very least, a card.

I haven’t lived in Great Britain for ages, and haven’t been there on that special occasion for thirty years so I can’t be sure how it goes down in the 21st century, but back in my day (I’m old) you could count yourself really lucky to get a bunch of daffs or a box of chocs. You were much more likely to get just a Valentine’s card, and these were sent anonymously–even if you were courting or married, your card wouldn’t be signed personally. “Someone loves you!” or “Guess who?” All sorts of trouble could ensue if a married person received more than one card because, well, who the hell sent the second one? I once stirred things up when I sent my boyfriend two cards as a lark: an “anonymous” card which was obviously from me, and a cheeky second card ostensibly from someone else. He dismissed my card immediately as duly expected, and spent the whole day waxing fascinated by the concept that “someone else” was keen on him. Moron.

In the mid 80s, I lived in North Africa–Tripoli, to be precise. St. Valentine’s Day, as you might imagine, was not big in Libya. There were no Valentine’s Day specials: no red and sparkly balloons, no chocolate-coated strawberries, no scarlet, frilly undies in shop windows, teasing panting lovers to splurge their well-earned dinars on their partners. And there were certainly no romantic, whimsical, kissy-kissy cocktails on Tripoli restaurant menus. If you found your regular bread, sweaty Emmental cheese and a coupla tins of sardines, you’d count yourself blessed.

This meant that on St. Valentine’s Day 1985, my fellow secretaries and I were feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. Some of the ladies still had boyfriends in the UK, and not a single one of those sorry twits appeared to have remembered the event. The overseas snail-mail came and went without a tell-tale red envelope. Actually, I’m not sure that red envelopes were the thing back then, but you know what I mean–an envelope that spoke of LOVE. Those of us with boyfriends among the British expatriate community in Tripoli held our breath for a while…until it was obvious that nothing was going to arrive to lift our spirits…I mean, we didn’t want to die. I sat at my desk wallowing in self-pity, and when Jackie, Sally, and Janice passed by my office, we all grumbled at our misfortune. The following thought did cross my mind, “What are you expecting? Hand-delivered home-made cards? Really? From Englishmen? From geologists?” but I wasn’t prepared to allow that thought to influence my self-righteous indignation.

When my boyfriend, Steve, eventually phoned me from his office on the other side of downtown Tripoli, it was clear that he’d no idea it was Valentine’s Day. I soon sorted him out. “How could you forget?” I said, “How could you?” though of course I was fully aware that unless a note had been pinned to his forehead with a thumbtack, there was absolutely no way he’d remember, and even then, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to him to have done anything. He was English, a geologist, and an ex-public school boy. Nothing I knew of his upbringing had led me to expect a romantic gesture of any sort ever. And yet, and yet….

I told him that the secretaries were upset, particularly the ones who regularly hung out with the geologists, and that he was to find a way to correct the situation, and quickly.

About half an hour later, my fax machine clicked and whirred, and I’ve attached what came through. When I called Steve to acknowledge its receipt, he told me I was to photocopy it and pass it around. Please note, I am not first on the list so either Steve didn’t create this masterpiece himself, or he liked Jackie more than he liked me.

As my mother would’ve said, “Well, darling, it’s better than a slap in the belly with a wet fish.”

I suppose so. But only a little.


From a Bunch of Geologists to a Bunch of Secretaries