Tuesday 14 February

I turn the card over, looking for any clues on the back but there is nothing there. I bite my lip, wondering. For the third year in a row, a Valentine’s Day card has found its way into my handbag somewhere between leaving home and arriving at work.

The first year had been a surprise and I wondered if my partner, Roy, had unexpectedly and uncharacteristically decided to put some effort into our almost non-existent love. However, when he again came home late, very late from work with no flowers, chocolates or even a kind word, I decided that the card sender wasn’t him. So, at thirty-two I had a secret admirer: how intriguing! At least, I hoped I had and that it wasn’t a mistake and the card had been intended for someone else. The handwritten inscription read:


To the darkly golden girlie
With the gorgeous dove grey eyes.
I see you each day early
But you do not know my sighs.

‘The darkly golden girlie with the gorgeous dove grey eyes’ seemed to fit me; my eyes were grey and my once golden blonde hair had darkened considerably since the birth of my twin girls, Tina and Chloe, eight years earlier. Someone fancied me; what a thrill!

Last year I had wondered whether the same might happen again. Okay, I’ll be completely candid and honest: I hoped it would happen again. Things had really started to deteriorate between Roy and me, going from bad to worse and, while I had made some effort to maintain the relationship, I was getting to the point where I was beginning to feel it wasn’t worth the effort and it was simply inertia keeping us living together; that and the iron chains of a shared mortgage. My parents had never particularly liked him, not since the day we moved in together. That my parents had provided the deposit on the house and stood as guarantors for the mortgage probably didn’t help us form an equal partnership in that first year, particularly as my parents made sure Roy knew how much we were beholden to them.

Letting myself become pregnant and the birth of our twin girls (not that twins were what I planned!) should have brought us closer, or so I’d thought, but the opposite had been true. I know many new parents fight: the combination of tiredness, stress and having your world turned upside down by one, or in our case, two tiny people taxes any relationship. By the time the girls were in school our lives had settled into routines, with Mum picking up the childcare at each end of the day. However, no matter how settled and safe the routines seemed, Roy and I gradually drifted further apart. Worse still, Roy had less and less to do with the girls: out too early and home too late to see them during the week, golf and football at the weekends… I was their only real parent, with the help of my own parents.

So on Valentine’s Day last year I had resisted checking my handbag until I was in the office, my heart hammering as I opened the bag. Yes! A shiny red envelope, that had not been there when I left the house that morning, was tucked against one side where someone had slid it in. With trembling fingers I took it out and opened the flap, glancing around to be sure no one was watching me. The card was a typical bright red with a cute cartoon teddy holding a heart on the front. The handwritten inscription inside was… unexpectedly intense:


I don’t know
if you feel a spark,
but I feel FIREWORKS
whenever I see you!

The handwriting was the same as last year’s I was certain; rounded and with only a few letters joined up, the dot on the letter ‘i’ was a tiny heart, also as last year. The effect was youthful and feminine, quite girlie actually, but it must be someone determined that the handwriting would give no clue as to their identity.

And now this year as I shake my head partly in amazement and partly in frustration; I had been keeping an eye out this time, tracking every bloke that came close enough to try to put the card into my bag, but the sneaky bugger had still managed it. I suppose, given the crush on the train and the jostling on the platform, it wouldn’t have been impossible despite my vigilance; I had deliberately carried my bag as normally as I could, not wanting to scare the guy off attempting the card delivery. I felt I needed the reassurance that I was still attractive after Roy had finally walked out at the beginning of January, having just managed to stick it out through Christmas and New Year “for the girls’ sakes” apparently. They did miss him, a bit; I certainly didn’t by then and in just six short weeks, even Tina and Chloe seemed to be reasonably happy with just their Mum and Granny and Granddad as their family.

I look at the card once more. It is pink and red, unsurprisingly, with a Hello Kitty holding a heart on the front saying, ‘Hey there Pretty Girl, Will you be my Valentine?’ I open it and re-read the inscription inside for the twentieth time:


My beautiful, curvaceous,
golden haired Ishtar,
Always so seductive
in the swaying railway car.
Each day you lift my spirit,
should you sit or stand;
Oh I wish that I could win
your love, your heart, your hand.

I’d had to Google ‘Ishtar’ who, it turned out, was the Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love, fertility and, curiously, warfare. My admirer was certainly ramping up the intensity and passion and had also told me that he was a fellow rail commuter… and one who saw me regularly… hmmm.

I always board the third carriage of the train on the basis that it is reasonably close to the front of the train, and hence the exit at the London Victoria terminus, but also gives the possibility of obtaining a seat two or three days out of five. I’m not the only creature of habit when it comes to the daily commute and there are a number of fellow travellers whom I have come to recognise over the years. We never speak, of course, save in the extremities of snow, gales, signal failures or industrial action that can trigger the traditional British ‘Blitz Spirit‘ of bonhomie and comradery in the face of adversity. This means, naturally, that I know no names and instead these regular characters have acquired nicknames, at least in my head.

There is Makeup Woman, who spends the whole journey on the process; Loud iPod GuyMr Umbrella with his ridiculously outsize golfing umbrella, rain or shine; Body Odour BoyLoud Tie ManAging Hippy with his CND badges and kipper ties; Dimple GirlMrs Knitting, clicking away with her needles; Sci-Fi BookwormMr and Mrs Cycling, always sitting together chatting in their cycling Lycra, and Crossword Man. The names have changed from time to time: Loud Tie Man became Mr eReader when someone took his taste in neckwear in hand and, presumably, bought him an eReader instead of a tie for Christmas. The girl with the spiky pink hair and punk-style clothing was actually nicknamed Dimple Girl (named, obviously, for the cute dimples she showed when she occasionally smiled) but became Vanilla Dimple Girl after I stood next to her and found she used the most gorgeous-smelling vanilla perfume or body lotion. Anyway, these are my cast of suspects in ‘The Case of the Sneaky Valentine‘ as I begin to think of it, after abandoning ‘Mysterious Valentines on the 7:48 London Victoria semi-fast train‘ as being a silly name.

So, some seven or eight men as the most obvious potential culprits for the Valentine, and two of them I really hope aren’t the sender! That leaves the question: what to do? All I can come up with is to watch and see who’s paying me extra attention.

Thursday 16 February

Okay, this is day two of the investigation into ‘The Case of the Sneaky Valentine‘ and so far… zip, nada, nothing! None of the men seem to be staring at me, no blushes or hastily averted eyes when I look at them. The only man who seems to look at me at all is Loud iPod Guy but, watching him, he seems to stare at all females under forty more or less on a rota, his gaze jumping from one to the next till he cycles back round.

I can see two possibilities. The first is that it actually is Loud iPod Guy and he gave Valentine’s cards to lots of the women. This seems unlikely, given the work involved, but the only way to disprove it would be to ask one of the other women. Vanilla Dimple Girl is the obvious choice; with the way she looks she must have every man she knows sending her a card. However, how do you go up to an attractive woman in her early twenties and ask her if she received a Valentine’s card without sounding either like a nutter or a lesbian stalker?

The second possibility is that I’m only looking at a few of all the men on the train on the basis that I know they travel every day with me. However, these are only the ones I’ve noticed, mainly because there is something distinctive enough about them to nickname. What about the others, the nondescript and unmemorable? They could have stood next to me last week and I wouldn’t have given them more than a glance… It is time to expand my surveillance.

Friday 17 February

Day three and it’s turned cold overnight, slicking the pavements with ice and turning the grass and bushes pale, dusting each leaf and blade with sugar crystals of frost; it makes my walk to the station unexpectedly beautiful, if a little treacherous in places. The train is particularly crowded this morning, making the air in the carriage a warm fug that is a stark contrast to the sharp, cold, dry air outside. I shuffle in and find that the carriage is so crowded that even Vanilla Dimple Girl hasn’t managed to obtain a seat. I move past a man who’s determined to stay close to the doors and shuffle down the narrow aisle between the seats. As the train pulls out of the station I begin scanning the guys once more; despite the crowded conditions I can see four regulars and two or three that I think I’ve seen before.

At the next station, the woman beside me squeezes past to alight and I find myself next to Vanilla Dimple Girl. She has the same lovely vanilla scent and, as she’s three inches shorter than me, I can see over her head, with its short, spiky blonde hair and fuchsia-pink highlights, to continue my investigation. The carriage becomes even more crowded when the train stops at the next station, the last before the long run into London Victoria, and we are all packed closely. Commuting in London is definitely not for anyone with personal space issues.

There is a slight tap on my arm and I glance down to see Vanilla Dimple Girl looking at me. “Um,” she begins hesitantly, keeping her voice low, “you do know that the way you keep staring at blokes is, er, a bit… weird?” I feel the colour rising in my cheeks; it never occurred to me that what I was doing would be noticeable.

“Oh shit!” I gasp in embarrassment. “Look, I’m not checking them out or anything,” I reply quietly and hesitate; how do I explain? “This is going to sound odd but the thing is someone put a Valentine’s card in my handbag last week and I’m sure it was someone on this train, one of the regulars…”

“And you’re trying to see if any of the guys are eying you up, yes?”

“Erm, yes. You, er, you didn’t get a card did you?” I ask nervously.

“No!” she smiles, and those dimples appear. “I don’t carry a handbag so maybe the mysterious card deliverer couldn’t give one to me. Or maybe it’s just that they think you’re the most gorgeous woman on the train.”

“Yeah, as if!” I laugh and she grins. I’m tempted to add a comment to the effect that there are plenty of women more attractive than I am but I’m afraid it might seem that I’m fishing for a compliment or reassurance. Instead, I lower my head and whisper, “There are definitely a few blokes I hope it isn’t, like…” I surreptitiously point towards Body Odour Boy.

“Oh god, Stinky Pete. That would be horrible!” she says, keeping her voice down.

“Is his name Pete?” I ask and she bursts out laughing.

“No! Well, it might be but I really have no idea. It’s just what I call him in my head. You’re going to think I’m bonkers but I look at people and give them names and try to make up stories about who they are… see, you’re grinning at me like I’m crazy.”

“No,” I reassure her, “I’m grinning because I do the same: I nickname those I see regularly too, though I don’t make up stories. Stinky Pete I call Body Odour Boy, and over there is Makeup Woman sat next to Aging Hippy.”

“Dare I ask if I have a nickname?” she enquires gently and now I’m really blushing.

“Um… okay, but you’ve got to do the same and tell me your nickname for me… and the story, okay?”

“Okay, deal. So what is it? It must be something embarrassing.”

“It’s…Vanilla Dimple Girl,” I blurt out. “When I first saw you it was just Dimple Girl but then I smelled your perfume.”

The Body Shop Vanilla Body Butter, actually,” she smiles. “That’s a sweet nickname, thank you. I thought I was going to be ‘Punk Girl‘ or ‘Goth Chick‘ or something.”

“Well it might have been but I, er, well I’m a bit of a sucker for dimples,” I confess, surprising myself by my candour. “Kate, my best friend at school, had dimples and since then I’ve always found them almost unbearably cute on, um…” Shit, my mouth has run on too far and this is now officially embarrassing.

“What?” she asks, intrigued.

“Um, well, I find them cute, especially on a girl or woman, if you must know. Anyway, now you really have to tell me your nickname for me… and the story you made up!”

“Okay, you were Sally Single-Mum; you work as a secretary or PA in a big company, possibly to someone quite senior, you have children, er, probably girls, at home that you love and while you quite like your work you miss the kids. You’re not married and I’ve only ever overheard you on the phone to your Mum, so no probably partner either. Oh, and something happened at Christmas: maybe you met someone, you know, like a new friend because you seemed a bit happier.” She looks at me and gives a lopsided grin triggering a single dimple, “How did I do?”

“Well,” I smile, “it’s Sarah, not Sally, Sarah James. I guess I am now a single mum since my useless and now ex-partner finally pissed off just after New Year, which did make me happier. The job and missing my twin girls were spot on, so well done you!” I say, genuinely impressed. “So you are? Unless you prefer the nickname I gave you, of course.”

“Zoe, Zoe Fletcher. I have to confess, I did cheat a bit with your story, Sarah: the advertising firm I work for is on the top floor of the same office building that your insurance company is in. I’ve seen you ahead of me quite often in the morning, and I’ve followed you in the evening too sometimes, when we’ve left at the same time. You’re happy enough going to work but always noticeably happier going home.”

“Ah but, Zoe, how did you know that I had kids? They’re too old for the tell-tale milk stains of babyhood.”

“I saw their photo in your purse one day when you took your ticket out to get through the barrier at Victoria. They’re identical twins, aren’t they? They’re very pretty and sweet looking.”

“Yes, and I love them to bits!” I suddenly remember that the two of us are stood in the middle of a crowded train but chatting as if we’ve met for coffee. Surprising as this is, it is nothing compared to the fact that, despite her spiky, pink hair, dark eyeliner and mascara, blood red lipstick and punk clothes, I actually think Zoe and I could become good friends as, underneath it all, she has a warm, friendly, fun and engaging personality. “Zoe, do you know I’ve been doing this journey for the best part of five years and you’re the first person I’ve spoken to apart from to share grumbles about delays or the weather.”

“We’re all too British, that’s the problem,” she laughs. “Still, I’m glad we’re talking; it means I’ve got a train buddy now.”

“Yes, me too,” I agree as we continue to chat.

Sunday 19 February

Following Roy’s note yesterday saying that, as he’s no longer living with us he won’t be paying into the mortgage account, it’s been a rather depressing day with Mum and Dad. I can’t cover the repayments on my own so I’ve had to ask them to help us. They were very good about it but it’s frustrating to have to go cap in hand to them.

Dad was quite indignant about Roy not paying any maintenance payments for the girls. I know what he means, though part of me feels that, since he’s not paying, I haven’t any worries about him demanding access and visits to the girls; knowing him, he’d be late or simply not turn up at all, which would upset Tina and Chloe.

Still, money is going to be a bit tighter, unfortunately. Perhaps I will have to insist on him paying; he ought to be able to pay a hundred or a hundred and twenty quid a month at least.

Monday 20 February

I have to admit to a new interest, perhaps even a little excitement, heading to the station this Monday morning: my new friend, Zoe. It’s bloody annoying, therefore, to find that Zoe is sat towards the centre of the carriage but the press of people mean that I can get nowhere remotely close to her. Even when a few people leave the train at the next two stations I cannot get much closer so, in the end, I wait for her to alight on the platform at Victoria. “Hi, Sarah!” she says brightly. “I really thought you’d get a seat this morning and then the station before yours the train really filled up.”

“Oh, well, maybe tomorrow,” I reply as we shuffle down the platform amid the pressing crowds towards the ticket barriers. “So where’s your station because you almost always get a seat?”

“Ravensborough, two stops before yours, so not that far. You go first, Sarah,” and Zoe ushers me ahead of her through the ticket barrier. Once through we resume chatting. “So, any luck spotting your mystery card sender this morning?” Zoe asks.

“No, though I must admit I wasn’t really looking; your warning about how I was appearing has put me off a bit. Anyway, it was lovely to think that some guy fancies me. I haven’t had someone tell me that they find me attractive in quite a while.”

“That surprises me,” Zoe tells me. I look at her, wondering if she’s teasing but all I see is an open honesty and friendliness in her face.

Wednesday 22 February

“Hi Sarah,” Zoe greets me as, for the first time, I get a seat next to her.

“Hello, Zoe. Mmm, the luxury of a seat!” I sigh.

“Any luck with the Valentine’s thing?” she asks.

“You mean my investigation into ‘The Case of the Sneaky Valentine‘?” I reply and Zoe laughs.

“That should have been followed by some dramatic music: dum, da dum dum, derrrm!” she sings.