I watched the girls your age, longing for a boy to gaze at them, longing to be seen. Longing for the drama of romance. I remember it myself, the feeling that I could only exist if I was desired. And like drinking too much wine, it led to dangerous decisions. Dangerous decisions like A, the older man who expected me to say yes to anything he wanted. Or like M, with his blonde hair, his blue eyes, his hand on my wrist while he told me that he was the only one for me, just before he punched another boy for asking me out. How romantic, my girlfriends said – while I felt nothing but fear.
You’ve been so much more sensible than me. So much more contained. Now, here you are, swimming towards the horizon, a shadow slipping into the sunlight. I can’t watch over you. I am standing on the boat, wanting to shout endless warnings at you but now, I can’t: you have to listen to your instincts. That’s all I can teach you, all I can leave you with.
Standing on that threshold, watching you, I want to run back, hand you a list, a whole manual on ‘how to survive becoming a woman.’ Falling in love is thrilling, it’s wonderful. But, watch out, I want to say, watch out for the charming ones, the ones who only wake up because of you, who can’t survive without you, who don’t want you to survive without them. They might claim to worship you but their only true god is their own neediness, laced with their own entitlement.
But there is no manual. And I remember that moment when I watched you in the ocean, the shark in the reef and the way you calmly let it swim beneath you. I’ve spent the last two years writing about a girl in danger, and all the women warning her, so you’ll forgive me if I can’t quite shake my fear.
In your new student room, your smile slips a bit as you stand to hug me; I swallow fast to keep my own smile fixed. I say “You are precious.” Above your shoulder, I glance again at your bookshelf, at that line of female voices whispering to you, warning you, helping to keep you safe while you swim towards your own horizon.
Novelist Kathryn Heyman's latest novel explores a dangerous romantic relationship. Storm and Grace is in bookshops now and available to purchase online.