A zero score in tennis - from the French l'oeuf, "the egg" - or the keynote of the Valentine's Day celebrations. Depending on your point of view.
There are cards and red envelopes everywhere. Chocolates. Champagne or rather, something cheaper, fizzy wine. Restaurants have been taking bookings since New Year - tables for two, candles no extra charge. Menus groan under the weight of sensuality. Tender chicken breast. Juicy rump steak. Whipped mousse, whipped cream, whipped paté, melted chocolate - the ubiquitous edible signifiers of physical congress spread out before us with all the sense of expectation of a waiting, unoccupied honeymoon suite. All around the country, on 14th February, couples will fulfil their arrangements, pull up their chairs, take their places opposite each other for an evening of overindulged excess. Later, sated, they will adjourn to bedrooms - at home or in hotels - for the pre-packaged meetings with an agenda of pleasure. Chocolates artfully pushed aside from the pillow. One last glass of wine on the bedside table. The lights dimmed... something atmospherically unchallenging playing on the stereo, the volume low...
Must we all end up celebrating love in one identikit, shrink-wrapped night? Valentine's night makes me long for the true, real satisfaction of a good, honest argument. Not the twee ditziness of a lovers' tiff, with its quick-fix subtext - a proper, full-blown, expletive-hurling, arm-waving row. On Valentine's Day, suddenly, we don't count as people any more. We're defined less by what we're like than by whom we like and, all importantly, by who likes us, as though we're the subject of some kind of interpersonal customer satisfaction survey. He loves me; he loves me not; he's met someone thinner, funnier, prettier, cleverer, sexier, nicer...
And somehow, the red envelopes and the glossy cards and the ribboned gifts and the flirtatious texts and the damask tablecloths are supposed to encapsulate it. All the happiness, the sadness, the pain, the joy, the certainties, the doubts, the predictability and the repetitive hope of being able to be still surprised - the whole complex mess of love, of loving, universalised into a marketing strategy.
Among the expected array of the twee, the suggestive, the obscene, the cute and the euphemistic, I've seen a few Valentine cards which really made me pause: "Happy Valentine's Day to the cat"; "Happy Valentine's Day from the dog"; "Happy Valentine's Day to Mummy from her special little boy." What glorious excess of trans-genus, trans-generational romance was going on here? What would a cat do with a card; how would a dog buy one; what would Freud have said? I could feel laughter struggling with outrage in my mind as I left the shop before my reactions became public or inappropriate. And if we lay aside the jokes of litter-trays or barking or Oedipal fantasy, isn't this just marketing? We now, it seems, have to greet almost everyone we know - including animals, for God's sake - on this festival of crackling cellophane, as though we had a packet of lovehearts with an encased engraving for everyone we know?
And it's all so terribly prescribed. They've worked out what's romantic, the marketing men - what gets heartrates going, and what can prove our love. And it's no imaginative leap. It's underwear. Flowers. Chocolates. Fizzy wine. A compilation of middlebrow lovesongs. Perfume. Let's say a girl has an ultra generous partner. Let's say he buys her several items from this list - hell, maybe all of them. You see the problem? She eats the chocolates... then she won't fit into the underwear, because he'll probably have bought it a size too small as he'll want her to feel good about herself; she drinks the fizzy wine, and wakes up with a headache, which she comes to associate with him; she sees the flowers as a tribute to her beauty and then wonders, as she watches them wither, whether he looks at her and imagines her beauty or his feelings fading; she listens to the music and a nausea of blandness adds itself to the headache; she spritzes on the perfume and wonders whom he'd prefer her to smell like... Britney Spears? Kim Kardashian? She squints in nauseated horror, temples throbbing, at the label, and sees the terrible truth: he wants her to smell like... Tulisa???
But who am I to judge? I'm just the person who has never received the anonymous tribute of a secret admirer, or breathed in the velvety, red optimism of an out-of-season rose, or heard the heartbeat thud as the letterbox releases a countable tribute of blushing desirability. The dramatised perfection of a thousand advertising strategies makes me feel mildly inadequate this week. Still, I hope 14th February will bring a moment of quiet thought and recognition of love, and friendship, and shared laughter, and support, and trust.
Of all we need.