The ISIS Short Essay Competition: “O tell me the truth about love” (W.H. Auden).

by | March 5, 2015

Picture a café on the High Street. A little place that serves coffee, loved by its owners, who bought the shop in 1985 having retired from their high-paid jobs in the city, because it’s what they always wanted to do, really, low income be damned. A couple sits in the corner; students, who met at a club last Hilary and have been inseparable since, embodying (in their minds) the traditional, Hollywood kind of love. To their circle of friends, who haven’t seen them all term, the couple’s eros has had negative effects on their pre-existing philia – the philosopher among them loves his C.S. Lewis. A few tables over sits a family in the nuclear mould. Of course, the parents show the deepest agape towards their children (there will be tears when the eldest leaves the nest) but at the moment the father would love little Jimmy just that little bit more if he would just. stop. whining. The daughter, all of class 4B knows, loves Mark Smith, football captain – at least from the safe distance of the other side of the classroom – but has recently been finding herself with strange feelings about Becky Roberts with whom she shares a bench in Chemistry. In a few years, their shared Chemistry may become, well, chemistry. And she will learn, hopefully without too much difficulty, that that love is okay too.

There’s the stressed finalist staring at textbooks about subjects which he thought he loved, three years ago, before collections and gobbets and dissertation title submission sheets manifested themselves; he will leave the café and return to the daily grind of submitting applications, where he will try to convince faceless Bosses in suits and ties that he loves the work they do and would love to be a part of it, and that it isn’t just the idea of a five-figure salary that he loves. They say it’s the heart that is the organ of love. Sometimes, it’s the brain, especially when hard decisions are involved. But the week will pass, and he will be there after Friday’s college bop, singing the traditional song about bashing St. So-and-So’s down the road because in 200 years there’s been no love lost between them, and because he loves his college crest, colours and creed.

The radio changes songs. “I love this one!” someone says, but reflects silently that it may be because it was played at every school disco since they were five, and really it’s a kind of musical Stockholm Syndrome. “I love your shirt!” another voice gasps, but the lingering on the words betrays covetousness, envy – I’d love to have it. Because love is not the open door certain film studios want us to believe; sometimes love is cruel. The couples staying together despite the harsh words and harsher blows, because honestly, nobody else will ever love you the way I do. It’s words left unsaid, because it’s kind to be cruel; it’s false hope and dreams, indulgent words and white lies to hide the truth that reality, unvarnished, hurts.

But take the rough with the smooth, and love is hopeful. It’s the boy who sees his epidermal rolls as unsightly eating his first full meal in weeks; it’s the child who always preferred robots to dolls, short hair to long, jeans to skirts, learning that they are not abnormal, atypical or alone; it’s the fresher who never really got what was so great about ‘hooking up’ after an entz feeling like they don’t need to try it, go on, just once, just to find out what they’re missing – because they love themselves. It’s not Narcissus and the river, but it’s love, all the same.

A little old lady enters and takes the seat near the window where she and her husband used to meet every Sunday, after church. Their love of God brought them together – a match made in heaven – and in a half-hour or so she will leave, pick up a bunch of tulips from the florist’s and leave them lying with her husband, because he always loved them, and she loves him still, and not all love is ‘till death do us part’. No one knows that more than Mum of Two and Hubby Number One, who still meet here occasionally despite the differences to let the kids love both of their biological parents as much as they love the new father in their life. Outside, a group with a bucket collects money to show some love for those families whose sons loved their country enough to lay down their lives in its defence. Love is compromise, love is sacrifice.

The truth is that love is humdrum. It’s there, in every waking moment, from the first cup of tea in the morning to the last tucking-in at night. It’s the notes passed between sweaty palms in lessons, the kisses, tender or sensuous or both, the rings, the hand-fasting, and the vows. It’s the hours put into that bestseller that’s been on the boil for years, the hobby that became a career, the pastime that whiles away an otherwise dull weekend. It’s gifts on birthdays, Christmas, or ‘just because’; it’s remembered anniversaries and last-minute meal plans, it’s ‘nobody picks on my little brother but me.’ But love is not boring. Sometimes we notice love, other times, it hides itself away. But if there is one truth about love, it is that if it were gone, it would surely be missed.

Love, like the world, goes round.

One day, we may find out if there’s a connection.


Runner-up in The ISIS Short Essay Competition, Hilary 2015

“Beautifully paced and locally realised contemplation of all the forms of love we know. Very well structured, witty and compelling.” – Stephen Fry

“It shows wit and warmth, and the writer demonstrates how much more potent storytelling is – even in an essay – than merely lecturing” – Andrew O’Hagan

“Callum Kelly’s essay stood out for me because he simply covered so much material and, I felt, in a highly nuanced and sophisticated way.” – Lynne Segal


Image by Jean-François Juteau