The Romance Audit

    When I was fifteen my German language class went on an exchange trip to Cologne. We stayed with separate families at night and in the days we hung out together taking classes and doing activities. On one of those days we went to a public swimming pool. Was it Valentine’s day? My decimated memory won’t allow this detail but something about the day compelled my boyfriend at the time to acquire a red rose, clamp it between his teeth and swim up to me in the middle of the pool to present it to me, like a dog with a newly fetched stick. Looking back at this scene now, him treading water in front of me with the rose between his teeth, I am struck by how outrageously brave a gesture it was to make in front of a large group of awkward teenagers. But I was mortified at the time, to the point that I asked my friend to hold the rose for the rest of the day. That was my first indication that the traditional ideas of romance were not ideas I felt particularly comfortable with..

    My husband and I have already decided that we won’t ‘do’ Valentine’s day this year, whatever that means. To quote a recent tweet from the iconic Irish drag queen Panti Bliss,

‘I’m married and I love my fella very much but Valentine’s Day this year can get in the bloody sea’.

    It’s no time for all that schmaltzy shite. In a post-pandemic world, romantic relationships if you’ve managed to find them, are hard. If you’re in a new relationship then chances are you can’t be in a room together. If you’re in an old relationship then you can’t escape being in a room together. There’s no respite from the presence of our chosen partners. All their idiosyncrasies have lost their charm and small domestic chores are blown up to exaggerated proportions of meaning.  Whether your partner has loaded the dishwasher or not can feel like a huge, seismic thing. Let’s not turn up the heat on the pressure cooker of romantic relationships in 2021.

    Not that those traditional tropes of romance even come into my marriage anymore. I married a Yorkshire man. On asking him about his views on romance for this piece he replied, “it’s bullshit”. He puts a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a bowl of porridge in my hand in the mornings. Sometimes, when the right song comes on at the right time, we’ll dance around the kitchen together in our pyjamas. That’s the extent of it. But is that enough? That’s another reason why I resent Valentine’s Day. For all these new expectations of romance it brings, and all the new opportunities for disappointment that come with them. For forcing us all to hold our relationship under a microscope and do the romance audit.

    I asked my friends about what parts of their relationships they think are romantic;

“When he unloads the dishwasher.”

“He knows what supplements I need in my smoothies.”

“Knowing what each other’s Deliveroo orders are without having to ask.”

“Having him take control.”

“When he notices my progression at things and compliments me on it.”

"When he puts a hot water bottle in by bed for when I get home after my night shift.”

“Valentine’s = companionship and companionship actually comes from the French words for sharing bread, so I’m quite up for starting a new tradition of Valentine's being a day you can get a really bloody good loaf of fresh bread and eat the lot in one day.”

    Now Bread Day I could really run with. That last one is from Liz who says good carbs are her soulmate. I have been trying to remember my soulmates so I can pinpoint some definitive experiences of romance from past relationships. I have searched and searched. I even read my old diaries. Only two memories really stick out.

    An ex boyfriend in my early twenties drove us both to the sexual health clinic on his moped after we realised we shared the same STI. No shame. Just grown up pragmatic action. Sitting on the back of his moped as he drove us through Soho felt like the most romantic thing I had experienced to date.

    There was a trip to Sardinia. A week long stay in a tiny wooden chalet at a water sports resort. A barbecue with chicken from the local resort shop. I woke up in the morning feeling horrible, only to spend the next few hours violently excreting food and liquid from all ends in the tiny cupboard toilet. When my boyfriend woke he banged on the door but I was slumped against it from the inside, passed out from dehydration. He pushed himself in and pulled me up onto to the toilet, and shouted in my face and I came to and for some reason I couldn’t bear the loudness of his voice. I told him to fuck off. He screamed out the window until a German man who was a doctor came in and they lifted me and lay me on the bed and put my feet up and in a couple of minutes I had total clarity. I lay there feeling dizzy and mortified, sipping tepid water, while my boyfriend wiped me clean of all the vomit and shit. Then he cleaned the bathroom.

    Romance for me, clearly, is not about money spent. It’s not about cards or flowers. It is certainly not a heart shaped thing. It’s more of an amorphous blob, taking on different shapes of what thoughtfulness looks like. It’s mopping up sick and liquid shit. It’s taking on STI’s together as a team and then laughing about it lots. It’s taking the time to make a sandwich just the way I like it. It’s definitely not Valentine’s Day.

    I told my friend Mary that we weren’t going to do anything this year. No gifts or gestures. She works as a doctor for the NHS in London and lives on her own right now because her girlfriend is vulnerable to illness and back home in Ireland. I said sure it’s not fair on all the people who are alone this year, forcing them to remember they’re not with the people they love. She said she would be more lonely this Sunday if it wasn’t for Valentine’s. That she grew up with Valentine’s Day celebrating not just romantic love but everyone you love. It turns out that Mary’s Mother held a ‘love’ dinner every year on the day, and used to cut out hearts and put them in her and her siblings shoes, their pencil cases, school bags - with messages written on the hearts ‘we love you, love mum and dad’. Mary has carried on this tradition, and sends Valentine’s to her best pal, her siblings, her girlfriend, her girlfriend’s parents. She loves that it’s originally a pagan holiday celebrating fertility and the onset of Spring.  It’s ‘good vibes all round’.

    And now I’m thinking differently. Once you take this expectation of romance away from Valentine’s Day it all makes a lot more sense. I’m reminded of the cards my Father and I used to send each other when I was younger and I think how it might be nice to give my two sons some chocolate and cards this year. Of how lovely it would be for Sunday to feel like a day of some significance, something to help mark and measure this long sludge of time we’re living in. To quote my bread loving friend Liz,

“Chinese Lunar New year, Valentine's, Pancake Day, Six Nations weekend this coming week - do the lot! We need every little bit of joy and differentiation we can, however you choose to interpret each particular festival for yourself.“

    That’s the lot then. Joy and differentiation. A full loaf of bread or a perfectly made bespoke sandwich. An empty dishwasher. A freshly brewed cup of coffee. No expectations. No disappointment. Do it your way. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Annie Macmanus

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The Romance Audit