It's dreadful, it's dowdy, and it doesn't rhyme

Anna Maxted says it won't be the end of the world if you don't get a Valentine card on Tuesday. But it may feel like it

The figure standing forlornly in the middle of Woolworth's greeting card section turns out to be Michael Barnet, 24, from Hastings.

One man with crew-cut hair and a leather jacket against hundreds of delicate pink syrupy sweet coochy-coo Valentine cards, an army of chocolate lollipop lips encased in heart-covered cellophane wrapping, and several generations of furry little hugging teddy bears holding itty-bitty signs saying "Kiss Me". It's all a bit much. "They're just too sentimental," he mutters miserably. "I think I'll just send flowers."

Choosing a Valentine card is a difficult business. There is a great deal of choice, but sadly most of it is pap. Amid a vast range I spy an upholstered monstrosity featuring a love scene from Watership Down and the curly-lettered message "Somebunny loves you." This is a perfect card for any one of a couple who wear matching home- knitted mittens, communicate in silly voices and address each other in public as "Wusskin pusskin bottytoots." If however, your intended buys their mittens from Kookai, casually employs words such as "contraversy" and calls you by your Christian name, such a card is not for them. They will certainly expect something a little more funky.

Michael's girlfriend is a modern gal. She will not take kindly to a photograph of two labrador puppies snoring on a bed of roses. He opens a card with a watercolour heart and a splodgey flowers design. It reads: "A Valentine for the one I love, the one who does so much to give each day that passes by a brighter touch. Your love, your faith in me, your gentle understanding all make me realise how lucky I am to have your love and you." From his expression, one suspects that Michael would rather send his lover a letter bomb. "It's dreadful, it's dowdy," he splutters. "And the last bit doesn't rhyme."

The nature of your card depends on the stage of your relationship, and the character of your loved one. Michael finally chooses a sketch of a scruffy cartoon dog with the words "You stole my heart - I hope you realise this calls for a strip search." Cheeky but cute and sincere with a low slush-factor. The idea is to communicate your desire and affection without being too flippant or over-soppy. A foot-tall card illustrated with a long-lashed bambi and the declaration: "I'm happy to be giving my loving heart to you/ And Valentine it's wonderful/ To know you love me too" is perfect in its proper place (the bin) but foolhardy if its planned recipient is a fur-phobic conservationist with a bodybuilder boyfriend who isn't you.

You may, of course, wish to cover all options. Sarah Thompson, 26, from Camden, north London, has bought her boyfriend two cards. She says: "One is a cartoon of a couple snogging on the sofa in front of the TV and the caption is something like `Her heart leapt as he said those three magic words - Sod the football.' It's more or less the truth! I wanted to get a funny one because a big part of our relationship is having a laugh together." Her other card is from the Victoria and Albert museum. "It's Victorian style with cherubs and a poem," she says. "We've been together a while and I wanted to get him something more romantic than a modern card which he'd throw away the next week."

Laura Goldman, 29, from Newcastle, has splashed out on a £1.99 advent- calendar style card for the man of her life. It pictures a droopy-eyed dog sitting under the heading "Do you love me?" and contains 24 little heart chocolates behind windows bearing unique messages like "I thought I'd get you something expensive and special," "You have the body of a supermodel," and "Let's go down the golf course." Their relationship is, Laura explains, fairly casual: "There are some conventional messages there like `I can't stop thinking about you,' but I wanted to take the mick a bit, so I don't appear too stifling. He probably won't get me anything."

The rat! Yet this brings us to the million-dollar question; what if the unthinkable happens and you don't receive a single card? What will you say when your worst enemy crows "How many cards did you get? - I got 55 and he's taking me to New York on Concorde for dinner!" How will you cope when a mighty crop of red roses is delivered to the beastly girl who sits beside you in the office? Huddled alone in front of A Question of Sport with your microwavable shepherd's pie for one, won't you choke on the knowledge that every restaurant in the country is packed with twosomes gazing lovingly over the ketchup and feeding each other oysters?

Toby Robbins, a sports reporter from Leeds, is bracing himself for the worst. His love life is somewhat complicated. Having split with his long- term girlfriend, he'd formed an easy-going liaison with one of his flatmates. He then went on a lads' ski trip where he met a delightful blonde called Tina. Being an honest chap he told his flatmate, who didn't receive the news with whoops of joy. Toby had attempted to avoid 14 February by planning another holiday but this had to be cancelled because of work commitments. "I was up for about four cards, but it suddenly looks like it's down to nought." What about Tina? "She doesn't have my address."

Being a resourceful sort, Toby has several plans to numb the pain. One: make sure he is reporting on a match that night. Two: send himself a card. Three: get his sister to send him a card. Four: stay in bed (alone) all day and thus avoid potentially wounding comments from colleagues. One has to admit that plans number 2, 3 and 4 sound tempting. Yet Toby's fifth option is the real corker. "I plan," he announces, "to be pissed off at first, and then just pissed." Topping idea: two bottles of red wine go so well with shepherd's pie.

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