The bright lights had been switched off and the place was lit only by small windows. Then there she was — Stella — the top of her head highlighted as she looked down, reading. It never ceased to amaze him the thrill he got at seeing her. Catching her unawares.
From ‘Midwinter Break‘
by Bernard MacLaverty
Every time I read these words by Bernard MacLaverty, I feel my breath catch. That’s how it feels to see someone you love, isn’t it? That’s how those tiny, stolen glimpses feel.
The photo accompanying this post is one I took on my latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. It was very early summer, as you may remember: fan flower season. One evening just after sunset, as I wandered from the beach back to our campsite on the cliffs, I came to a fork in the path where there were fan flower bushes growing at every corner.
And there, in the dim glow of the early-evening sky, the petals of the fan flowers — which in the warm, bright light of the middle of the day are a strong, cheery blue — seemed to shine for a few moments: pale, spectral, luminescent.
Perhaps my talk of fan flowers seems an odd match for the words I began this post with. But this was another one of those tiny, stolen moments we’re given in life from time to time, and it seems to me a good way to honour Bernard MacLaverty’s lovely words …
PS One other thing: a quick shout-out to my mother, who celebrates her birthday today, and who is a person responsible for many lovely moments in my life ♥.
Stella had noticed that the woman in [the painting] ‘The Jewish Bride’ wore pearls. Also earrings. Maybe that was why she looked so intimately self-assured. Stella hadn’t had her ears pierced until her sixtieth birthday. She’d been squeamish about it but thought the pain would be balanced by the confidence the look would give her. She would become — finally — a woman taking her own decisions, a woman with authority over herself.
From ‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty
The year I turned fifteen, I grew up, physically. That was the year that I turned from a slightly plump, almost-flaxen-haired girl into an adolescent woman with breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t the kind of girl to celebrate any of these things: in fact, I wanted to turn back the clock. I didn’t want breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wanted something else. I wanted to look the way I thought I had once looked, but I knew that I couldn’t. Not any more.
The strange thing is that the way I’d thought I had once looked as a child wasn’t the way I had actually looked as a child. I’d thought — all my life I’d thought this — that I had been skinny and elfin and girlish. In fact, I hadn’t been that at all, ever. But it wasn’t until my mid- to late teens that I understood this.
When I did, I was deeply shocked.
Somewhere around the time of that realisation, and for a long time afterwards, I stopped eating enough. I’ve touched on this act of mine — of abstinence — before. In the early years, it was a conscious, deliberate act: an effort to force my body to a level of thinness that I thought had once been my natural state. Later, it became both a less strict and a less conscious act; indeed, it became more of a process than an act. I think that what I was trying to do, all those years, was to make abstinence a part of who I was, rather than all that I did.
It took a long to stop doing this, and even longer to stop trying to do it. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really allowed myself to eat without any kind of enforced abstinence at all, though by then the things I abstained from were barely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Still, if such a thing as recovery from an eating disorder exists, that’s when it happened for me — halfway though my thirties. Not before.
But though I did eventually lose the compulsion to abstain, to this day I have still not lost the shock I feel when I am confronted with the real image of myself — in photos, in the mirror — as opposed to the image of myself that I carry around in my mind. I still think of myself, unconsciously, erroneously, as skinny and elfin and girlish. As light and slender and ethereal. As pretty. I am not any of these things, and I never have been; but that’s not how I feel.
I think we all live with a certain level of disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually are. You know that feeling you get when you turn forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy) and you think, ‘But I don’t feel like I’m forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy); I feel like I’m still twenty-five’? That’s the disconnect I mean, right there. I am not sure that everyone experiences it as strongly as I do: for me, it seems to run through my entire perception of myself. I’ve always had it, and always will; adolescence was just the first time that I was confronted with it. Even now, each time I am confronted once again with my misperception of myself — with the difference between the ‘me’ that people interact with and the ‘me’ that lives inside of me — I feel the same shock anew.
I like to think that this sense of disconnect between perception and reality is what Bernard MacLaverty is touching on, very lightly, very deftly, in the passage I’ve quoted above. Sixty-year-old Stella tells herself that getting her ears pierced will give her confidence; she genuinely believes that her new look will enable her to become a woman with authority over herself. But the earrings do not bring about the sense of intimate self-assurance that she seeks. Of course they don’t. Stella never becomes — finally — the woman she seeks to be: the woman she believes she is capable of being; the woman, I think, she secretly believes she might already be.
Perhaps here I’m reading too much into MacLaverty’s words. If nothing else, there is an affectionate sadness in his words to which I respond. Still, on those days when I feel deeply disconnected from my two selves, from the interacting ‘me’ and the internal ‘me’, I find solace in passages like his. I like to think that — like Stella, like me — you, too, are puzzled by the rift between your internal you and your external you. I like to think that you, too, feel as though there is a different — a better, a lovelier, a lonelier — you inside of you than anyone ever sees.
I like to think this, because thinking it lessens somehow the sense of disconnect I have between your experience and mine: between your world and mine. That, at least, is a point of connection. And a connection is the opposite of a rift, after all: it is a kind of affinity.
Gerry sat down in an empty seat by the window and Stella went to the counter. Coffee places were so noisy. This one sounded like they were making the ‘Titanic’ rather than cups of coffee — the grinder going at maximum volume, screaming on and on — making enough coffee grounds for the whole of Europe while another guy was shooting steam through milk with supersonic hissing. A girl unpacked a dishwasher, clacking plates and saucers into piles. A third barista was banging the metal coffee-holder against the rim of the stainless steel bar to empty it — but doing it with such venom and volume that Gerry jumped at every strike. Talking was impossible. It was so bad he couldn’t even hear if there was muzak or not. And still the grinder went on and on trying to reduce a vessel of brown-black beans to dust. Stella had to yell her order.
Gerry looked out on to the square. Pigeons pecked and waddled after crumbs in between the green café tables and chairs. Stella eventually came to the table.
‘In the coffee shops of heaven they will not grind coffee beans,’ she said. ‘But coffee will be available.’
from ‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty
Do you know the kind of coffee shop Bernard MacLaverty describes in the passage above? I do. I had to smile when I read his words.
I took the picture below on my birthday a couple of months ago, after I’d taken myself off for a bike ride to my favourite bakery in Aldinga, a place somewhat unlike the one in the description above. I sat down on one of the stools on the verandah and sipped at a cup of tea. It was a dull, cold, end-of-winter day, but the coffee beans ground away quietly in the background, and the customers’ laughter was genuine, and the tea was (weak, but) hot.
So when I read MacLaverty’s words, I found myself thinking that in the coffee shops of my heaven …
In my heaven, there will be tea shops, not coffee shops. They will sell loaves of sourdough, and slices of homemade everyday cake, and pots of tea made with malty assam tea leaves, left to brew so long that the tea turns toffee-brown.
And the baristas will pour the milk into my cup before they pour in the tea.
And fresh pots of tea will always be available.
And I’ll be able to drink cup after endless cup, because caffeine won’t have any effect on me …