Read by Gloria Sanders
Last year, I chose a pottery class, and Max spent most of the night outside, smoking. This year, it was his turn to choose our secret Valentine’s destination. Now we were in an Uber, and I was blindfolded, gulping prosecco from the bottle, getting it down my neck with every speed bump.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked. But secretly, I already knew. I’d been dropping hints about the Matthew Bourne thing at Sadler’s Wells for months, and the run ended in four days. I couldn’t wait. It was so sweet of him. Ballet wasn’t really his thing, but he knew how much I loved it.
He’d really pulled out all the stops this year, our tenth Valentine’s. He’d even bought me a dress. I tried it on in the bathroom and had to laugh silently, my hand over my mouth. It wasn’t so much a dress, it was more a collection of bright red knots. The whole look was Eurotrash prostitute meets upscale fishing net, and I was the gigantic tuna caught in it, bits of me bulging out in unexpected places.
But he’d put in such an effort, so I shouted to him that I loved it, then I Spanxed myself up, slapped on some make up, added a cardi for a bit of basic decency, and – looking like a librarian with a mid life crisis - ran downstairs to find him by the door, whistling, adjusting his cuffs, in a tux.
“Ready?” he said, smiling.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Shhh. It’s a surprise.”
When he led me out of the taxi, through a revolving door, and released me from my blindfold, I blinked. We weren’t in Sadlers Wells. We were in the lobby of an executive block of flats, all green marble and overhead lighting. My high heels clopped as I followed Max over to a lift.
“Ok, I’m lost.”
Then we were zooming upwards. I looked at our reflections in the mirror. Me in my oversized, woolly coat, hiding the fishing net underneath. Mike, with the corners of his mouth turned up - his winning-at-Scrabble smile. The lift pinged and we got out.
Max walked to the door of Flat 11.
“I don’t know. What am I supposed to be ready for?”
He knocked, and the door swung open. I wasn’t sure what I expected on the other side. But it definitely wasn’t a beaming woman, with cascading blonde hair and gym arms.
“Welcome. I’m Sigrid. Please make yourselves very much at home.”
She handed us glasses of bubbly, took our coats, and purred us into the living room, where more glossy people were standing around. I pinched Max.
“Who are all these people?”
One of them turned to us. “I’m Clare, this is Neil,” she said. “Let me guess, you’re newbies?”
“I guess so.”
“You’ll love it. I can tell.”
“Do you get it yet?” Max whispered.
I definitely didn’t get it yet. Glossy young professionals. Olives in bowls. General milling. Tinkly jazz in the background. I felt like I was at a work drinks for an upscale city law firm. I shot Max what the fuck? looks as more people joined our circle – a redhead, and her tall, serious looking friend. Now everyone was chatting about London property prices. Meanwhile it turned out that Neil worked in transport, and was keen to give me all the Crossrail ‘gossip’.
At the first opportunity, I dragged Max into a corner.
“What is happening?”
He smiled at me indulgently. “Look around you,” he murmured.
So I looked. Little bowls everywhere, full of Japanese snacks. Wait. No. Little bowls everywhere, full of condoms.
The penny dropped at roughly the same time as Neil’s trousers.
It’s quite amazing, I discovered, how quickly some people can segue from Crossrail chat to group sex. While I watched, Neil, Clare and the two girls all started undressing each other, and moving towards a bedroom door. As I stared, Clare came over to me, laughing.
“Neil’s German,” she explained. “He’s very comfortable in himself. He likes to get the party started. Coming?”
“Go on. Join us!”
She took my hand, and started stroking my palm with her finger.
“That’s sounds really… fun,” I said, my Englishness reliably springing up from out of nowhere, ready to mask all my actual emotions. “Maybe… in a bit?”
Then I shoved Max into a vacant bedroom.
“A sex party.”
“Now she gets it!”
“Valentine’s day, and you take me to a sex party.”
“New things! You said wanted to try new things!”
“Yeah, like making sushi. Or, I don’t know - landscape photography! Not fucking random Crossrail employees!”
Max looked genuinely baffled, and then hurt. “I thought this could be… an adventure.”
“Our fun little secret.”
I sat down on the bed. Picked a bottle of Divine Glow Aqua Lubricant off the bedside table, and sighed.
“Fine. Let’s go,” said Max. “Clearly it was a terrible idea. I’m sorry. I’ve ruined everything.”
He kicked the wall.
“Please don’t do that.”
“Why not? It doesn’t matter that I thought it would be fun, or how much the tickets cost. Let’s go.”
“Or… not,” I said, very quietly. I looked at him. Tried to imagine how he’d planned the evening. How he sincerely imagined me being delighted. Then I thought about the ride home. Him glowering and silent. The evening ruined.
“How about I go home,” I said slowly, “and you can have your night of freedom.”
He looked at me, trying to assess if this was a trick.
Was it though? I didn’t know if it was or not. What was one night? I had a feeling that if he chose to stay, that would be the end of us. Or maybe I was being melodramatic. Maybe it would be… just fine.
“Ten years together,” I said casually. “I figure you’re allowed one night off.”
“You’re really sure you wouldn’t mind?”
I shrugged. Of course I do! my mind blared. “Why should it matter?” I said.
He emptied his hip flask. He nodded. A decision made. “Well, at least let me put you in a taxi.”
“Think I can call my own Uber,” I said. “Seriously. Have fun.”
He gave me a hug – a thank you hug – and walked through the bedroom door, and out into the fray. And by now, it was a fray.
People were naked everywhere, chatting, kissing, or fucking - against the walls, on sofas, on tables, on beds. On my way out, I made an effort not to look for Max. In the hall, I asked Sigrid for my coat.
“But the night’s hardly started!”
“Yeah… it’s not really my thing.”
One glance at my face told her not to argue. So I followed as she went to collect my coat from a cupboard in one of the bedrooms. A pretty eventful bedroom, it turned out. It was hard not to look, as Sigrid offered me coat after coat, that wasn’t mine.
I decided to focus on a particularly bland watercolour of Venetian canal boats, while Sigrid offered me a succession of various coats. Purple. Leather. Long, black. Tartan. Nope, no, no. Sorry, no – as, a foot or two away from us, people moaned and sighed and tangled and came.
I had to admire her poise. It was an unusual working environment. While I waited, I couldn’t help but notice the different configurations of the eight - or was it nine? people on the bed. The way they pulsed and moved together. Eventually, Sigrid emptied the cupboard completely. My coat was gone.
“There is a possibility,” she said eventually, “and I’m so sorry about this. I may have left one or two coats out on the bed… Before putting them away. It’s the only thing I can think of.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
“So it may still be… there…”
We looked at the bed. If it was under there, I wasn’t really sure I’d want it back. Apart from the fact that my wallet and phone were in the pockets. I was stranded without out.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Just leave it to me. I will resolve this.”
While she did, I decided to try and find somewhere to wait where no-one was having sex. This wasn’t easy, but eventually, I found my refuge: the balcony. Too cold for copulation, even for this lot.
I thought it was empty, but when I stepped outside I saw a girl leaning against the railings, smoking and shivering, mascara running down her face.
“Hi,” she sniffed. “Sorry.” She wiped the tears off her cheek.
“Are you OK?”
“He brought me here, but he doesn’t want me,” she said. “And now he’s in there. And no-one wants me.”
“Shit. I’m sorry,” I swapped her some tissues for a cigarette, and a swig of champagne. “Valentine’s day. It’s a fucker.”
“He’s the fucker,” she said.
“Why don’t you have fun with someone else?” I said after a while. But she shook her head. “Are you joking? He’d go crazy. And anyway, who?”
“I don’t know. Everyone here seems pretty… friendly,” I told her.
Then I decided I wouldn’t let the evening be completely wasted. My own Valentine’s might have been ruined, but that wasn’t going to stop me from helping this young woman to find an orgasm, courtesy of some totally random strangers. Who might or might not work for Crossrail. So I took her to the bathroom to wash her face, and then we went in search of Clare and Neil.
Clare wasn’t hard to find. I bumped into her jumping out of a shower, having a little break, as she told me giddily, and she was very happy to be introduced to Tana, the no longer crying girl.
“Always room for one more,” she said cheerfully, and Tana’s whole face lit up. So. That was my good deed for the night. I felt proud, like a brownie. I wondered what the badge would look like, if you could get one for being a pimp.
“And you’re coming too,” said Clare.
“Me! No. No, no, no.”
“Come on. Look at that dress. It really doesn’t look comfortable.”
“It’s really not.”
“Well then. I think you would be a lot happier out of it.”
Her fingers were already undoing one of the knots. I considered the offer. My coat was lost. My wallet was in my coat. Sigrid hadn’t reappeared. What was I going to do, spend all night on the balcony, freezing my arse off and thinking about Max?
“Come on,” said Clare.
“I really can’t!” I told her. “Only if someone gets me something cold and fizzy and delicious to down, very fast.”
That request it turned out, was extremely easy to fulfil.
In terms of new skills, the night turned out to be much more educational than the pottery class. There was the pleasing anonymity. The surprising configurations, the unexpected tangles, the sheer animal warmth. I decided I liked group activities. I had thought about joining a choir, or maybe a netball team, but this was better. For one thing, I was crap at netball. And the people I met were much friendlier than your average Londoner.
Max, unfortunately, wasn’t so lucky.
I thought I was hallucinating when I heard his voice. I’d gone for a shower, and was just drying my hair. It could have been three in the morning, it could have been six.
“What are you doing here?” he gaped at me, looking like he’d just got back from the First World War.
“Max! Where’ve you been?”
He shook his head. “I just… couldn’t. I locked myself in one of the bathrooms,” he said. “I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I feel awful. Let’s go.”
He reached out and gripped my hands. It was lucky, I thought, that I’d had that shower.
“Mmmn… Maybe,” I said.
“It’s just, I’ve met all these really nice people. Why don’t I um, put you in a taxi?”
(c) Sarah Courtauld 2017
Sarah Courtauld is a screenwriter and award-winning author of children’s books. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and broadcast on Radio 4. She has frequent fantasies about becoming either a private detective or Gerald Durrell. Neither of these have worked out so far.
Gloria Sanders’s work includes audio-book narration for the RNIB and collaborations with Cabinets of Curiosity. She has performed her devised one-woman show with Hide and Seek Theatre, The Clock, at the Brighton Fringe, the Pleasance, Islington, and the Artscene Festival in Ghent. She is fluent in Spanish.