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Goldrush Girl

A story to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Glyndebourne by Jeanette Winterson

When you meet someone for the first time, you forget it fast, or you remember it for ever.

We went to lunch.

It was an expensive restaurant with small tables angled to give the illusion of space. At small tables shamming space it is necessary to judge distances carefully – between wine glass and plate, food and fork, especially when you do not know your host/your guest, and especially when you have ordered food, not out of politeness, but because you are hungry.

I felt that the distance between us was immense and tiny. We didn’t know each other, and your life was quite separate to mine. We were polite, formal, we had our feet tucked back under our own chairs, and we made sure that each of us had enough room.

But seeing the way you cut into your sausages, I understood that you were someone who got hungry too.

We talked – what did we talk about? I forget. Whatever we said was lost under the pressure of everything not said. You cannot say to someone you have just met I want to kiss you. Sometimes it is as simple as that.

Not for long. But sometimes.

I wanted to kiss you in the way that I want to eat cherries from the greengrocer’s stall. I don’t want them in plastic boxes half dead from cold, I want them warm, slightly sweating, stalky, random. I want to eat them while I walk round finger-and-thumbing the limes and throwing handfuls of rocket into brown paper bags. I want the smell, the taste, the surprise, the disagreeable stone.

I smiled at you. I remember that, and that you blushed.

We drank pink wine; I remember that.

If I am going to tell the truth I can say that I was looking for a way out. I was married, I was elsewhere, I was solid, I was stable, I was waiting the way people wait for spring. There was nothing I could do about the winter but I was waiting for the sun.

So when I met you, and I felt what I had not felt in such a long time – simple desire – I did not want to let it go. We walked for a long time after lunch because we did not want to let go.

Sometimes life is simple and sad. There was a sadness even already because nothing in this life holds – the only chance is to move with the moment, to move with the flow of life, but that is hard. Already I was wondering what would happen, what would happen to us, and the mind moves ahead of the flow of life, and the heart hangs back, afraid, and the rhythm is wrong, and all you can trust is your body. And you do.

The golden of your skin was unexpected. I thought you would be pale like me and instead I looked like a white cat lying in a pool of sun. The spread of you, like sun on the steps, the climbing of you, step by step. The warmth of skin and the colour of skin and the most known thing in the world – a body, becoming like a pan of gold that has lain all this time on the riverbed, and now it’s in my fingers.

My own body was like a mine where the sun didn’t reach. A dark place, dug but not lit. Sun on me now, and the shine of it, and the colour of it, and the gold of it, and these riches.

Goldrush girl.

Minnie runs a bar high up in the Sierra Nevada. Her customers are rough miners trying to make a fortune. They are all in love with her, and each believes he is the favourite.

But Minnie doesn’t have a favourite; she loves all and none. When the snow is too deep to go out she teaches the men to read and write.

There’s a bandit called Ramerrez – big price on his head, WANTED posters everywhere. Minnie keeps the gold hidden in a barrel of water. He’ll never find it.

One night a stranger shows up at the bar – Johnson from Sacramento. He says to Minnie, Do you remember me? And she answers, If you remember me . . .

I decided to take you to the opera and Puccini seemed like a good choice, because he is shamelessly romantic, and because – and this is strange – Puccini is where opera usually begins for beginners, but less said is that after a long long journey round Mozart and Strauss and Handel and Britten and even Wagner, back you come to Puccini. But not Tosca, or Turandot, or Madam Butterfly, no, where you come back to is Fan­ciulla del West.

I am speaking personally, but how else is there to speak?

You knew a lot about opera. It was tricky going to the opera with you. Later, much later, when we were at
the end, I took you to Tristan and Isolde. I cried all the way through. You said that you didn’t like the set.

But this is the beginning, not the end, and there is a rush of gold to my head.

In spring, in the Sierra Nevada, the blue violets push through the snow. I was sitting next to you at the opera, feeling the blue violets pushing through me, and the force of new life, and the colour of new life, and remembering that in spring the sun warms the ground, yes it does, but as soon as that happens the ground warms itself too, by the energy of growth, the movement of roots and shoots.

I realised that the sun of you had warmed me to growing temperature again, and although I was still covered in snow, there were blue violets.

In the dark I held your hand.

Johnson takes Minnie’s hand. She asks him to come to supper in her cabin in the mountains. She’s excited. She gets out her Monterrey shoes and shawl and dresses up. The fire is bright. She checks her hair. The door opens and in he comes – wild, handsome, shy, the stranger who travels by the sun.

Do you remember me? Yes, if you remember me . . .

They want to talk to each other. I remember that. Memory is dialogue. When we talk the brain is prompted towards connection. I am a solitary person and I need connection. I have it with plants and animals, and all invisible things, but with people it is harder for me. I am not stand-offish, or too shy, it’s just that I don’t like superficialities. I can’t do small-talk. I would rather not talk at all.

You and I talked best when we had made love. Then both of us could talk. In fact, at other times, you were rarely there for me to talk to, and I was lonely. In my marriage I could talk but I didn’t want to. With you, I wanted to talk, but you wouldn’t let me. When you left me, you stopped talking to me altogether. You never returned my calls, or my calls for help. It was a shock, but in a way, it was only more of the same. Silence and separation.

In fact, you were always in love with someone else, but that was never going to work in the way that you had hoped. But your deepest self was not with me. You loved me, and sometimes you longed for me, but your deepest self was elsewhere.

Minnie knows that; it’s why she can’t marry rich Jack Rance or romantic Sonora. Her deepest self stayed with the stranger who rode out of Sacramento. She made a life. He made a life, but because of each other, they couldn’t make a life with anyone else.

In the cabin it starts to snow, and Minnie gets her bedding out and says that she will sleep by the fire and Johnson can sleep in her bed. She doesn’t want him to leave. She doesn’t want him to stop talking. He wants to make love to her but her gold is her own, and he can’t take it by force.

The men are all out searching for the bandit Ramerrez . . . when . . .

When the door bursts open and Johnson has only just time to hide, and there’s Jack Rance telling Minnie that her precious Mr Johnson is Ramerrez himself, and the trail ends at her cabin . . .

The stranger is never what he seems. Never what we imagine he’ll be.

I wasn’t what you thought I’d be, though I was the miracle you needed. You weren’t what I hoped for, though you were as glorious as May time, and as rich and full.

The stranger is always a trickster.

Walk home with me, the music in our heads. Sleep with me, the music in our bodies. In the night give me courage for the day. In my dreams, sneak out of your body and come into my head. Stand there. Call out. Find me.

In the night the softness and the darkness are reassuring. I feel safe. I feel happy. I needed this whatever the cost, whatever the price of gold I have to pay it. Sometimes life is so close to running dry that any price is worth paying for thawed rain, for the sun on the water, for the river that runs, for the clear, cool moisture that was locked in the earth and nothing grew.

The buried treasure is really there, but buried.

I didn’t think it would cost so much to find. It costs everything.

Minnie is so angry. Ramerrez the bandit came to steal the gold. Johnson the runaway lover came to steal her heart. But Minnie doesn’t want to be stolen from; she wants to give. It is hers to give, not his to steal. Ramerrez runs out of the cabin, guilty, confused. Minnie slams the door against his back then she hears a shot. He falls back inside, bleeding, wounded, and she hides him in the loft.

Sheriff Rance is at the door now, and in spite of Minnie’s dissembling, Ramerrez is bleeding, and his blood is dripping slowly from the loft. The blood falls on Rance. He knows what Minnie is up to now. Now there is another price to pay; she has to stake her own life for Ramerrez. She and Rance play poker for him. If she loses, Rance gets her for good.

She cheats. She wins.

But nothing of any value is ever won that way. At best there is a reprieve, and then the true price has to be paid.

But that’s how we end it, at the curtain of Act Two. Minnie has won her man at cards.

You and I went out for an interval drink. I was so nervous I ate crisps. I was nervous because I knew the stakes were high, but I didn’t understand what I was playing for – not really – or how much it was going to cost.

I had the feeling of something important and simple, blindingly obvious, like a kiss or a wanting to kiss. My heart was beating too fast. I was gambling the lot. I was going to lose my house, my marriage, and I wouldn’t be winning you, because you were not to be won. It was myself I had to win. That is very hard, and there are no cards to hide in your skirt. You play you win, you play you lose, you play.

How long have we got? you said. Not meaning the interval.

Will you stay with me? I said. Not meaning the night.

The rhythms are wrong – the mind runs ahead towards the inevitable end. The heart holds back out of fear. Only the body, only the body, only the body stays true. Poor body, faithful body, that so often must do the work of both head and heart, like an animal made to carry much more than it should.

Act Three. The snow is deep. The gibbet is ready. The miners have caught Ramerrez and he isn’t Minnie’s any more. Hang him quick before she comes.

He’s brave. It’s cold. He thinks about love, and how for one brief lit-up moment he found it, true gold, unstealable, gift only. She loved him. She risked her life for him. He slipped out one night, his wound half-healed, to save her, to let her start again. He misjudged it because he’s a long-haul bandit who can calculate a raid, but he’s only just a lover, and so he can’t measure a gift. He doesn’t know that the gift is so big that there is no measurement.

You take it or leave it. Love is not barter. Love is not theft. Love is not cards, though it is a gamble. Love is a gift. Take it . . .

Minnie woke up, alone at dawn, once more betrayed, one more betraying man, but love is real and not so easily cheated. This is not a game at all.

As they push him up the frozen gibbet, his hands tied, the men hear her voice offstage, and there she is, running through the snow, through the past, through the impossibility of love to make love happen. She’s standing there, in his head, and in his body and in the world as it is, and as she claims him, she says, This man is mine.

Up on the gibbet, standing beside him, she asks the men one by one to forgive – and to each man she tells a story – a story of the night she sat up with him when he was sick, a story of how she taught him to write, a story of a letter, a story of a window iced with snow, and a fire she made on her knees, a story of love, because this is a love story . . .

Is it?

My goldrush girl, we rescued each other with a pot of gold of the rainbow kind, and the lit-up days were real. But you had a person and I had a past and we got trapped somewhere and I was wounded.

I guess I could not judge the distances right; we both got too close, and yet stayed too far away. I guess you could not accept the gift. Love is such a difficult gift to accept.

Minnie has to leave everything, right there and then; her bar, her home, all the life she had made. And Ramerrez the bandit, she tells the men, died that night in her cabin. It’s true, he did, but not by a bullet. Love’s renewal never happens without a death of some kind.

She takes his hand and their tracks disappear in the snow.

After you left me it felt for a long time as if the world had darkened. I slowed, I was cold, I was underground again. But anyone who strikes gold can keep it. And the sun-gold that warms the ground is faithful and fiery. Whatever is found well is found for ever.

I didn’t want you to go because in spite of everything that was wrong, you felt right to me. I have been in mourning, and mourning is dark and shrouded. But the dark and shrouded place that is mourning is not the same as the dead place where there is no life.

I don’t know if I will see you again. And if I do what we were will be long gone, the tracks in the snow disappeared.

But the sun will come again.

And there are blue violets.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009