A beautiful short story that made me think that in personal relationships, remembering to appreciate the present moment is key
I’ve been meaning to link to this for ages – a short story by Jeanette Winterson, in the 26th June issue of Stylist, the ‘freemium’ mag handed out on Tuesdays/Wednesday.
For all its obsession with fashion and shoes/bags/makeup/objects I wouldn’t buy even if I could afford them (depressing to know even good women’s magazines can’t seem to make ends meet without this), Stylist is also a reliable and regular source of that rare thing: a genuinely good feature.
None more so than this short story, which was part of the magazine’s “The literature special” (which asked writers to contribute a short story inspired by a perfume). It perfectly encapsulates and assuages some of my deepest fears about relationships – namely, that for every beautiful moment, there’s a niggling feeling that it could all end tomorrow. That’s not a reflection of my relationship – by definition, that’s just what’s always happened to me so far. Experience, if you like.
But this – I read it once; twice; three times, and still read it almost weekly (from its special place on my bedroom floor, underneath the dresser, yes, apparently I still live like a student).
The language is beautiful and melodic and brings tears to my eyes with its empathy. It seems a world away from Winterson’s most famous book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which, when I read it a good few years back, seemed harsh and angled only to shock (maybe it’s time for a re-read?).
The best thing about it? The happiness and calm that radiates from the words, which describe a woman in a new relationship. It resonates with me so strongly; its honesty and heart-on-its-sleeve-ness makes me shiver.
After years of thinking I’d never meet anyone, having had my heart not just broken, but also run over by an articulated lorry several years previous, I am currently in a relationship and have been for nearly a year.
I find that fact miraculous – it still feels new to me, and precious and uncertain, and fun, and there is a remarkable lack of drama – sometimes, the part of me that is prone to dramatics thinks that’s a bit boring, but actually, I’ve learned that when it comes to people, I would rather have a touch of boredom than frustrated tears and misunderstandings and lost hope and reams of pain.
I guess so far, we are basically managing not to take each other for granted (yes, yes, go ahead, throw up). Looking at it rationally, less than a year IS a very new relationship. So, I take each day, week, month as it comes; sometimes we have less time to see each other, which is difficult, sometimes we have more. And so far, so good.
But, in contrast, only a year into my previous relationship, it often felt old and dull and inevitable, like washing glasses in dirty dishwater and still expecting them to come out clean. The breakup came later than it should have done; a train crash in slow motion.
This time, things are different. I don’t know how it will end; if it will; I don’t know any of that. This time, so far, I generally don’t mind that I don’t know. I just know that so far, it’s good and as long as I remember that fact, things seem to pootle along quite nicely, and sometimes, fabulously.
This short story perfectly describes this feeling. Reading it as I did in the middle of one of my characteristic early-relationship panics about ‘where it could be/should be/might be/isn’t going’ (yes, urgh, I am only human) it felt like a cool reminder to treasure – not smother – these moments.
The phrase “You are not afraid of endings. I am” especially stung me – of course I’m afraid of endings – that’s what’s so terrifying (yet precious) about relationships. Easier, surely, to not be with someone at all?
But perhaps, the key is not to make endings happen unnecessarily by seeing them as inevitable. It’s in the line: “What we hold on to is fear, not love”. How true.
Ultimately, it seems to be saying, if a relationship is to thrive, we shouldn’t try and possess it or control it; we should live it, and – as long as it’s making us happy ‒ love it, and see where it takes us.
I think that’s a good metaphor for life, but it’s incredibly difficult to do, especially if, like me, you’re prone to over-thinking yourself into a very small hole, and feeling like you’re standing in the middle of a mental dual carriageway as a result.
Ultimately, I reckon that moments, and appreciation of them, are really all we have ‒ especially at the beginning of things, when decisions are yet to be made, or life is a little unsure.
Beautiful writing like this somehow makes it easier to remember that.
Quotes I love
- You were so new and I didn’t want to frighten you away. I didn’t want to frighten myself away.
- Most days get swallowed up…but the days like these…return forever
- Life is so short…this walk on the beach before the sand covers everything we have done
- We were lying on the sand looking at the stars. They are all second chances. No…they are broken hearts. A broken heart is a second chance
- You are not afraid of endings. I am.
- And if you go? And if I go? Let it go. You are right. What we hold on to is fear, not love.
- Happiness is in the small things…not in the big declarations. Don’t say forever. Say now. Don’t say I do. Say I am.
- It is courage for the day that I seek. That when the light comes I will turn towards it. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.
Full transcript (from Stylist, here)
DAYS LIKE THIS
Words: Jeanette Winterson
The sea and lemon trees.
I remember a day by the sea and waking up early and the sharp scent of lemon trees and the wind that brought salt and olives into the bedroom like a fairy story where the feast is invisible.
Love is invisible but we track it like a dog on a trail. We know when we find it. And when we don’t.
You were asleep and your shoulders had sand on them because we had made love late on the beach and crawled in under the mosquito net. We hadn’t known each other long. We were still telling funny stories about mothers and lovers and everything we said and did delighted the other. Remember how it is in the beginning?
We had eaten on the beach outside our hut. I grilled the fish and you opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio and we drank it quick and cold out of thick old-fashioned tooth glasses. I was hungry but I was nervous. You were so new and I didn’t want to frighten you away. I didn’t want to frighten myself away.
You were chopping vegetables and telling me a story about a day in Mexico when you had seen turtles hatch in the sand. Not many of them make it to the sea, and once there, the sharks are waiting for them. Most days disappear and get swallowed up like that, but the days like these, the ones that make it, swim out and return forever. They are the beginning of a story and part of a story we will always tell.
Thank you for making me happy.
You gave me a present – a new perfume. What does that mean? Don’t you like my smell? Do you want to change me already?
No you said, but if this is the beginning of a story it should smell different shouldn’t it?
Yes. Beginnings don’t smell the same as endings. Our love is like the sun rising on a new planet still damp from its making.
When we make love, damp in this heat, and your smell becomes my smell and I don’t recognise us with my eyes closed because it is all new, then I know you are right when you say start again. Our bodies themselves are remaking themselves. We are our own evolution.
I sprayed the bottle into the air. You squeezed a whole lemon with one hand into a glass of iced water and drank it off. You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand and kissed me. You tasted of lemons and the sea. And that is what the perfume was – your body, fresh water, lemons and the sea.
Life is so short. This stretch of sea and sand, this walk on the beach before the tide covers everything we have done. Don’t wait. Don’t tell the story later.
We had the radio on low and we were lying in the sand looking at the stars. Do you see what they are? They are all second chances. No, I said, they are broken hearts. When a heart is broken it becomes a star; that is why the sky is full. You said, a broken heart is a second chance. If our hearts had not been broken before we would not be here with each other now.
And later? When we break each other? What then?
You took me in your arms. With one hand you fiddled around in my bag, got out the scent you had bought me and sprayed the night air. It was delicious. Then it was gone. You said what does it matter how it ends? This is the story and this is the telling of the story and if we tell it well it will always be our story, even if it ends.
You are not afraid of endings. I am. But why? The choppy grey tide that washed up my heart brought me to you when I was ready. You were there in the world long before I knew you. You were the scent-trail I was tracking.
And if you go? And if I go? Let it go. You are right. What we hold onto is fear, not love. Walk beside me, kiss me, let me brush the sand off your shoulders while you sleep. I love the smell of us.
Being with you is like a clean dive into salt water. The tang, buoyancy, lift and sting of you.
When I go to sleep with my head against your back I know that happiness is in the small things that happen every day and not in the big declarations. Don’t say forever. Say now. Don’t say I do. Say I am.
In this night-soaked bed with you it is courage for the day I seek. That when the light comes I will turn towards it. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.
And in the morning we will get dressed together and go.