"Can you hold my book on Hitler, while I go change into my running leggings?" asks my ex-boyfriend, standing outside a large row of toilets.
So started one of the least romantic nights London has ever seen.
Let me explain: to mark the coming of Valentine's Day this year, I have decided to spend a cold, February night on a "Champagne Experience" around the London Eye with my ex-boyfriend, who hates both heights and wine.
Perfect, right? To be stuck in a small, slightly juddering, locked glass box hundreds of metres above a grey and freezing Thames with a man I lived with for six years before the saddest breakup I have ever known. What could be more romantic? Honestly. Name me one thing that could possibly be a more perfect celebration of the cellophane and bullshit fiesta that is Valentine's Day than to watch a 6'3" tower of sober, male unease as you peer out at the winking lights of New Scotland Yard and Wembley Stadium?
I had the time of my fucking life.
Things start, down at ground level, with a stroll through the "4D London Eye Experience."
"What's the fourth D, do you think?" I ask Nick. "The smell of fear?" he ventures, as I pose beside a life-sized mannequin of either Angelina Jolie or Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (who can tell?). It turns out to mean that, as well as wearing a pair of 3D glasses to watch the video of a seagull soaring above pods full of dancing Indian families and hen parties, we would also be treated to the occasional huff of a smoke machine and a light falling of snow.
"Holy shit, check out these Ds!" hollers Nick. Along with a family of six Spanish tourists standing next to us, we are being gently sprayed with water.
"I wonder if they're here on a Champagne date too," I whisper, trying to break any possible ex- tension with the comforting thought that at least we're not committing incest.
At precisely 6 PM, we stroll across the pale grey pavement outside the Jubilee Gardens and onto the London Eye departure platform, behind a man in a red Coca-Cola fleece who drags along a silver box of what could be either records, power tools, or Champagne.
"Just step in," says another Cola-Clad woman. Our pod slides down the giant wheel in front of us.
"Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck," mutters Nick as he tries to step onto the moving floor without actually shitting his running leggings. (The running leggings, by the way, were a result of the fact that he had organised to run home, immediately after our Champagne experience, with his new girlfriend. Of course.)
As we slowly grind up the circumference of London's largest bike wheel, the silver box is flipped open and out come two black plastic trays, eight plastic Champagne flutes (nobody wants to get glassed 500 metres above sea level), a small pub mixer bottle of orange juice, and three bottles of chilled Pommery Champagne. Here was the stuff. Here we go.
Because Nick doesn't drink wine, I down his before we even reach the second storey. I notice he is wiping his hands on his jacket every couple of seconds and standing studiously away from the edge.
"Oh God, look at those bolts," he murmurs as I start on my own plastic beaker of fizz. "I don't know whether it's better to look down, in, or out."
He is doing a frowny-smile usually seen on the faces of small children as they do a particularly rough shit.
"Let me get a photo of you two!" says the man topping up our glasses.
We both freeze. A couple next to us are, at this point, full open-mouth snogging, their hands kneading each other's buttcheeks like an Italian grandmother making bread. On the other side of the pod, a man in tweed jacket and wedding ring stands alone, taking selfies with the shutter sound at full volume, the maternity wards of St Thomas' captured in the background. Never one to let things get awkward, I throw myself into a full Wayne's World thumbs-up for the photo, as Nick "does the fingers" above my head. I would genuinely love to know what the man taking that photo thought was going on between the two of us. Especially when the text message from "My Boyfriend" flashes up on the phone he is holding.
The great thing about the London Eye Champagne Experience—apart from the opportunity to get lightly buzzed in a standing-room-only plastic capsule above the river described by Wordsworth as "gliding at his own sweet will"—is the sheer quantity of Champagne. Especially if you take the precaution of booking with someone who doesn't drink. By the time we neared the 360-degree view at the apex of the wheel, I'm three glasses in and laughing like a hyena. My boyfriend who, of course, is also called Nick, is by now sending through at least one inspirational quote per minute, alongside good luck messages for Old Nick.
You can do it Nick he says in a little grey comma, following up with a picture of man holding a balloon, walking along a rope in front of the moon. The caption reads: FEAR has two meanings: Forget Everything And Run OR Face Everything And Rise. I'm laughing so hard I worry the pod might start to shake. So is Nick. A little.
I down the last of my Champagne and look out across our crumbling seat of democracy. From here, at least, the Houses of Parliament look magnificent.
"So, do we need to talk about stuff, now we're up here?" asks Nick, holding his empty plastic flute a little less fiercely now we were on the home run.
"Oh, um, ha! OK. So, why did we break up?" I joke, looking down the curve of the Thames towards the lights of Hammersmith Bridge.
"Ha! Because we moved into different stages," says Nick, also smiling. "Oh look, that's where she dies in Sliding Doors!"
The reason I decided to go on a Champagne Experience around the London Eye this February, in truth, was simple: because love doesn't belong to one day, in one way. When I was single, Valentine's Day could, if I let my guard down, make me feel like a failure. Unloved, unattractive, unwise, and unwanted. Watching people drink Champagne in candlelit restaurants or walk arm-in-arm along the river would make my heart howl and my eyes flood my quivering face.
But Valentine's Day isn't about love—it's about money. It's about chocolate hearts and roses and shit compilation albums and disappointing dinners. It's amateurs' night and it tells us nothing of the reality of feeling. Real love—everyday, prosaic, blinding, and benevolent love—comes in more forms than we have words. There is the love of a friend, of someone who has known you since you were a child, the love of a stranger who cheers you up on a sad bus journey, the love of a man who still comes round to fix your mum's telly even though you broke up three years ago. Once I realised this, I realised how to cope with Valentine's Day.
So, in truth, the reason I decided to lock my ex-boyfriend in a plastic prison metres above the ground over an immoderate amount of wine was to show you, dear reader, that nothing you do this year can be that bad. Nothing. It really can't. I mean, sure, I like my ex-boyfriend. Of course I do—I went out with him for six years and wouldn't willingly share the majority of my twenties with a dickhead. I really like his new girlfriend, too. And, of course, I love my actual boyfriend more than I ever thought possible. But it is important, from time to time, to remind yourself just what a spider's web of bullshit our cultural notions of romance actually rest on. To bite your thumb at it as your soar through the London sky. To do something "romantic" and laugh at its stupidity.
Whatever you do on February 14, however awkward, however anticlimactic, however boring or disappointing I want you to remember this: I spent £37 to drunkenly grind through the night sky with my ex-boyfriend, who hates heights and doesn't drink wine. And we still had fun. Loads of fun actually. And so, I believe, can you.
Just make sure you have a wee before you start.