Picture the scene: Keiran and I are sat smoking on the dilapidated bench that rests just outside our back door, the crisp corners of the evening are slowly blending into night, and the tips of my toes are aching for a bath. It’s a nondescript day, the kind that synthesises into every other day of the week; wake, work, eat, repeat. We’ve stolen a few moments from our reading and gaming to inch as inside as outside can be, exchanging a few stories and thoughts, but largely remaining quiet in each other’s company. The slats of old wood ache precariously beneath the weight of us both, and the sudden spark of the lighter reminds me again that a tub full of warmth is calling my name.
“Puppy, will you run me a bath?”
(Yep, that’s the moniker I seem to have landed on when it comes to addressing Keiran affectionately. He’s the human incarnation of a Golden Retriever and I love dogs, so it seemed a good fit. Marginally embarrassing for him when I’m calling puppy across the aisles of Asda, but he always answers, so *shrug emoji*.)
Fast forward thirty minutes, and the bath is run and the tea is brewed. I soak submerged up to the chin, luxuriating in that foetal feeling of full-body warmth. That sensation of sliding down, down into a bath, and feeling as if you’re expanding from within, an all-consuming deep sigh and cumbersome, heavy relaxation.
I love baths. I know they divide opinion, and for some reason some people see them as a glorified bucket of your own filth, but I’m a long-standing devotee. This is especially true in winter, when no amount of closing every door, drawing every curtain and furiously jabbing the temperature increase button seems to warm up the house. After a cruel or cold day, a bath is exactly what I need to uncoil, and all the better if it’s prepped and primed for me.
As I lay in my Pomegranate Noir pool, I started to think about the little love rituals that Keir and I perform for one another so often. I’m much more of a morning person than he is, so when the screech of the alarm hauls me into the bleak reality of 6am on a Monday morning, I’m the one who is more suitably equipped to usher us out of bed and prepare his sandwiches for the day. In the evenings, I’m tired and lazy and glutted like a piglet, and so he moves around the house for me, bringing me teas, heating up hot water bottles and rubbing my feet. We’ve instinctively found our way into the natural rhythms of our respective days: I balloon into the morning, albeit begrudgingly, and he ushers me into night, softy spoken and light-of-hand. Like jigsaw pieces, we’ve found a way to fit, and these love rituals - these iterations of adoration - form the unspoken baseline of our relationship. The bougie date nights and ‘oh my god, you remembered!’ gifts are welcome and recognised displays of affection, but those little acts which are so routine that they’ve become a part of our nature? Those shadows of selflessness are what keep the wheels turning.
These rituals of love are not exclusive to romance. They can be found in the soft reproaches of a matriarch to please get the back door fixed, the daily good morning texts from a devoted best friend, the concrete kinship of an older brother which allows you to repeat the same joke a thousand times over.
I have one of my own, an older brother. We’re inextricable as a pair. If you get one Plumstead, you’ll probably get the other too. Our friends, although initially independent, almost always overlap. Our holidays are often shared. Our locked-tight loot boxes, tucked quietly beneath the shelf of the personhood we put slip into everyday: off-limits to others, but never with each other. Somehow, a long time ago, we started calling each other by the same nickname. It’s Shrew (or more regularly, Shrewline). I have no idea where this started, although if my memory serves correctly (which it very rarely does), I think one of us made a joke about being as timid as a shrew, and the tag stuck from thereon out. Fast forward however many years, and I’ve even written a short story with Joe as the main character - a shrew, unsurprisingly - whose life-defining quest sees him battling some other ugly river critter for the safe control of his home, the banks. And it’s there, always: in every birthday card, every consolatory text, every whispered joke and nudge in the guts. A single, innocuous word, performing as a summary and re-emphasis of unquestionable care. An abbreviated ritual of sibling love.
For my Mum, it’s always the same: a ‘washing??? xxx’ text every Thursday afternoon. On the surface, she’s snooping into the status of my washing basket. Beneath that , where the roots of the ritual embed themselves to take shape, she’s asking if I need help. She’s asking if I’ve had a busy week, if I’m frantic and frazzled and as such, if I haven’t had a chance to wade through the medley of whites and darks that need to be cleaned. Asking for help with something so trivial can feel infantilising - in my mid-twenties, I shouldn’t be asking my Mum for the use of her tumble dryer, right? - but she skirts around this with a deliberate tenderness. It’s offering help without directly offering help. It’s picking up the IKEA bag I’ve gorged with my white wash, and returning it the next day, fresh, pressed, and smelling like Mum. It’s doing this as often as I need it, and never chiding, never judging, never questioning why or when other things will be done. It’s quiet and repeated, a materialisation of maternal love.
I see these little moments as a product of the kind of love which supersedes love itself. The kind of love which swells from the softness of its core, outgrowing its sweatshirt sleeves and growing far beyond the boundaries of birth. Next size up, please. The kind of love which is hard to articulate but effortless to communicate, which finds its form in the unremarkable, which routinely paves the way for more grandiose gestures of affection. These little love rituals are what maintain us, and connect us, and allow us to live in a love without ever having to try too hard.
Take a moment and think about your own. Which love rituals do you perform most often, and why?