I don’t care what they say about domestic gender roles: we smash them right out of the park in our house. Rewind a couple of days ago, and this is the conversation that takes place over a TV dinner:
Him: Shall we do presents before or after work on Valentine’s Day?
Me: We’re doing presents?!
Needless to say, I opt for after he finishes work so I can buy myself an extra day of time (thankfully it’s half term) and yet it slips my mind AGAIN until I leave the gym this morning and spot the decorated window display of an antiques shop advertising a Valentine’s special of 20% off anything pink or red. This could save me.
When I get to the door it is locked, but further along the shop front, a friendly face inside is cleaning the windows. I mime the question, ‘Are you open?’ and he ushers me to follow him to the door.
“Come in, come in,” he says, beckoning me through as though he’s been expecting me all this time. Without the reflection of the light on the glass, I can see him more clearly now. He is a huge, gentle giant of a man with a kind round face and pearly white teeth that fill his wide grin. “Nobody is here just yet; I think she opens at 11. What time is it now?”
“10:59,” I tell him, looking at my phone.
“Well you might as well stay. I’m sure it’s fine...but what do I know? I’m just a window cleaner…” and he picks up his squeegee to continue the job.
“You’re not just a window cleaner!” I remind him earnestly. “Where would we all be without clean windows?”
“Ah yes. Clean windows are the eyes to the world….” he says rather whimsically.
“Erm…Exactly.” That’s pretty deep.
I potter around the shop for a while, amid the random assortment of model telephone boxes, giant skulls and tin racing cars. Rene would love all this stuff, but the shop is situated on the edge of Hampstead Heath and everything inside it naturally comes with a hefty Hampstead price tag, so unfortunately he’s not getting any of it. Not wanting to disappear too soon, I wander upstairs while the window cleaner carries on downstairs and I tiptoe around the vintage glassware, metal shoes and other knickknacks in the attic.
Eventually I come back down and tell the window cleaner that unfortunately nothing takes my fancy.
“What were you looking for?” he asks.
“A very last minute valentine gift for my husband…” I confess.
He breaks into a hearty laugh before saying, “You mean thing! You mean you haven’t got it sorted already?”
“I know. I’m a terrible person. I didn’t think we were doing gifts…”
“We always say that! Don’t you know that by now? We say we aren’t buying you anything, but of course we do!” and he laughs his hearty laugh again.
That’s women, I think to myself. You’re thinking of women. If men say they aren’t buying gifts, in my experience, they probably aren’t buying gifts. But I laugh along with his joke anyway.
“So, do you have a valentine to woo?” I ask him, feeling like we’ve crossed a line that makes this perfectly acceptable.
“Oh no, not me,” he says sadly. “I did have. But that’s not to be, let’s just say…”
He doesn’t go into too much detail and I decide we’re not so far over the line that I can pry into his romantic failures.
“I was thinking of taking my cat out for a meal and sitting her in the chair opposite, but I don’t think the manager would like that very much.”
I tell him that’s not a bad idea. Anything that involves cats gets my vote.
“You just can’t escape it, can you? The hearts, the flowers, everything pink and red. It’s everywhere, reminding you that you’re on your own! I don’t care about birthdays and anniversaries. Valentine’s Day gets me every year. I used to love it when I had someone to treat, but not anymore…”
And my heart breaks a little bit when he says this. “Well in that case, buy yourself something!” I tell him all too cheerily. “Buy yourself some nice food, or a plant, or some flowers… show yourself some love this Valentine’s Day instead!”
It’s at this point that the chap who owns the adjoining carpet shop wanders into our conversation.
“He’s a diamond, is our Dexter. He’s been here for years. I’ve known him since he was a boy.”
And I look over at Dexter, who even though is clearly no longer a boy and probably measures well over 6ft 5’, has a rather endearing child-like quality. He beams sheepishly at the praise, and then introduces himself formally. He tells me how he started his business from scratch when he was 20, almost 30 years ago, and that he’s been doing it ever since. He had lived next door to an old man who ran his own window cleaning business and when the old man died, his wife (or “nan” as he used to call her) gave Dexter all his materials.
“I started out with a bucket and sponge and now I clean windows from Brixton to Watford!” he announces with that dazzlingly broad grin, and I can see in his lovely face that Dexter is a good old soul.
I tell him about my blog, and he allows me to take a picture of his shoes, although he clearly thinks I’m a bit mad.
“Not these old things!” he protests at first. “They’re soaking wet and full of holes!”
“Ahhh, but they tell a good story!” I insist.
I’m half way home when I realise I’ve forgotten something. Not the gift for my husband (I managed to pick up a rather lovely looking cactus from a local florist on the way back), but something else.
I turn around and sprint back the way I came, carrying the cactus in both hands and conveying to anyone who can see me that there must be some sort of insane Valentine emergency. Which there is! I pop into the Co-op and pay for a box of chocolates before sprinting back to the shop to find Dexter.
I am hoping to find him half way up a ladder so I can beckon him down and offer him the chocolates Romeo and Juliet style (I’m Romeo, obviously), but when I get back to the shop I’m told that he’s already gone. It’s probably for the best, as that could have been weird for us all, but the woman in the shop is fully invested in the gesture after I explain the conversation we’d had and she tells me he’ll be coming back later on so she’ll give the chocolates to him then.
“Great, just make sure that he gets them,” I insist, and I nod to the other staff member to secure her as a witness.
“I see old Dexter’s been working his Caribbean charm again,” she says with a wry smile.
Ahhh, clearly. But I’m a sucker for a happy ending and it feels like this one is well deserved.
Happy Valentine’s Day.