See what I did there? Don’t worry, the title is just a pune, or play on words. At no point will I advise anyone to treat their partner like a rubber band, if only because I have literally no idea what that means. Anyway, if, like me, you’re fed up with the whole “so…are you seeing anyone yet?” spiel which tends to peak around about Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and if, unlike me, you’re actually going out on a date, here are a few things I’ve learned from my favourite literary couple which you might want to keep in mind when you’re deciding if your date is worth giving up valuable reading time for.
That’s right. Forget Elizabeth and Darcy, Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, and especially forget Bella and Edward. And not just because most of them are really messed up and end up committing suicide or “dying of a broken heart”, which we all know is the lamest death ever (hi, Padme!) No, if you want real love which lasts well beyond courtship and doesn’t end at “happily ever after”, then Sam Vimes and Lady Sybil Ramkin of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld are where it’s at.
First impressions? I laugh in the face of first impressions!
It’s fair to say that neither Vimes nor Sybil are conventional romantic leads. They’re not young, slim, ridiculously attractive or filled with madly brooding poetic angst. Unless you count the kind of brooding Vimes does while he’s face down in the gutter. Vimes, you see, is a sodden drunk. He is also captain of the Night Watch, which consists of him and two other guards, and is the laughingstock of the entire city. As for Sybil, she is known as “that mad Sybil Ramkin”, because she is kind of like a super rich cat lady, only with dragons. (She rescues and breeds swamp dragons. Everyone should have a hobby).
It’s not exactly love at first sight for them, either. When they first meet, in Guards! Guards! Sybil is wearing “huge and fearsomely-padded armour”, (so you can stop worrying about your outfit right now), since the swamp dragons she looks after tend to be a tad…explodey. Her first words to Sam are “ah, good man. Do you know anything about mating?” Vimes initially assumes she is some sort of sex-crazed murderess, which I bet makes your worst blind date look pretty good right now.
And yet, this meeting marks a huge turning point in both their lives. Not because they “fix” or “rescue” or “complete” each other, and certainly not because they settle for each other but because they choose to make changes for each other. Vimes is a smart man and gifted copper once he stops pickling himself, and it’s made abundantly clear that Sybil has not wasted her time pining away for a husband, as Sam notes when he sees her room for the first time: “it was clearly the room of a woman, but one who had cheerfully and without any silly moping had been getting on with her life while all that soppy romance stuff had been happening to other people somewhere else, and been jolly grateful that she had her health”. Speaking of seeing Sybil’s room…
Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need…rules
You know how we’re always told how we shouldn’t call back straight away (or text, or email, or send a Facebook request…ok the Facebook request thing is a little weird, maybe there is a valid point to be made there) and how we shouldn’t invite each other back for *ahem* “coffee” until after an arbitrary number of dates? Vimes only meets Sybil for the second time after waking up in her bed. Admittedly this is because he was hurt after falling off a privy roof while in pursuit of a dragon (not one of Sybil’s) rather than because of post-date sexy times, but they’ve not had so much as one official date before Sybil gets to cop an eyeful of his bum as she tends to his injuries: “I shan’t see anything I haven’t seen before. One backside is pretty much like another. It’s just that the ones I see generally have tails on.” I like to imagine that this is kind of like a 15 rated version of the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth gets to see Pemberley for the first time.
In fact I’m not sure that Sybil and Vimes have any traditional dates at all. They are brought together by serendipity, and a giant dragon. As Sybil says: “have you noticed how every time we meet, a dragon turns up? It’s a bit like having your own tune”.
Of course, Vimes and Sybil do eventually succumb to the inevitable. As, surprisingly enough, does the giant dragon Vimes has been chasing (this is not a metaphor), which turns out to be a magical lady dragon and flies off into the sunset with one of Sybil’s little rescue dragons. There’s a lovely moment when Vimes and Sybil are talking about the unlikely couple, but of course we know that really they’re talking about each other: Vimes asks “what’ll happen when the magic goes away?” and Sybil replies “most people seem to manage”. This is what so many romance stories get wrong; they end at the beginning. The real adventure isn’t the courtship, it’s what happens after the commitment.
It’s an ongoing theme throughout much of their early married life (Men At Arms, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant) that Sybil struggles a bit with Sam’s dedication to his job and the fact he constantly runs off from social events to fight crime (this is probably why Batman is single), and Sam struggles to balance his duties as a new husband with his responsibilities to the Night Watch, which thanks to his successes, is constantly growing. Vimes even briefly considers retirement since there’s no financial need for him to work anymore, but he and Sybil both come to the conclusion that he needs to be a copper; he isn’t happy unless he’s irritating a powerful person somewhere, and Sybil is wise enough to know that he is less himself and therefore less the man she loves when he tries to give it up.
It’s a common enough problem, but neither of them let it cause them to lose sight of the fact that the good in their relationship far outweighs the less than ideal aspects. It helps that while Vimes loves the city, he is clearly devoted to his wife. It’s a gift from Sybil which motivates him when he falls back in time in Night Watch. He is extremely protective of her, and will do anything for her (well, except from wearing his duke outfit – like the man says:”there were a lot of things he’d do for Sybil, but if garters figured anywhere in the relationship they weren’t going to be on him” – it’s important to know your boundaries!) and when Sybil has a difficult time giving birth to their son, Young Sam, Vimes flies a broomstick to bring her a doctor he trusts. Yes, you read that right. He actually flies on an actual broomstick (possibly the one method of transportation missed out in Oleta Adams’ Get Here), and it saves her life. But then, he’s well aware how lucky he is to have her. He notes in Thud! that “he is married to a woman whose compassion, love and understanding he did not deserve”, adding later “she took such pride in him and he could never work out why”. As far as he’s concerned, her only flaw is that “she believed he was a man of hidden talents”. Well, that and her insistence that he eat more healthily by making him have LETTUCE, TOMATO and bacon sandwiches, rather than his preferred BACON, lettuce and tomato. Yes, even though she bacon-blocks him, he asserts “I’m a very lucky man, you know”, and he means it.
In The Fifth Elephant, Sybil reminisces about their wedding alone after Sam has gone chasing clues, but focuses on the positive, telling herself: “in many ways, she was very lucky. She was proud of Sam. He worked hard for a lot of people. He cared about people who weren’t important. He always had far more to cope with than was good for him. He was the most civilised man she’d ever met. Not a gentleman, thank goodness, but a gentle man”. At first she mostly tolerates his job, but she is consistently and unfailingly supportive of him until later on in The Fifth Elephant and in Snuff, when she accompanies him on diplomatic missions or holidays which turn out to be cases and plays an active part in helping him. This is a stroke of genius on Pratchett’s part, by the way – Sybil is not the kind of person to continue taking a back seat, and it allows us to see what a fantastic team they make. Alone, they are forces to be reckoned with; together, there is nothing they can’t accomplish. Which brings me on to…
Vimes, naturally, isn’t too keen on Sybil putting herself in harm’s way but she refuses to take no for an answer. Demonstrating the same courage she showed when she first impressed Sam way back in Guards! Guards! by staring down a dragon which was about to kill her and insisting it not be harmed, she says in The Fifth Elephant: “if it’s not too dangerous for Sam, it’s not too dangerous for me!”. She has absolute faith that Sam will take care of her when necessary (which he always does), and turn up when he says he will (which he does, apart from that time he got kidnapped, which as excuses go, is not half bad). It’s so refreshing that far from being a hindrance, or rescue-fodder, Sybil helps Sam on numerous occasions to navigate the murky, shark infested waters of politics (they even have a code for when Sam wants her to out-posh all the other posh people in the room), and saves the day not once but twice in The Fifth Elephant; first with the kind of negotiating ability that would make the entire Dragon’s Den lot run home to their mothers crying, and later on saving political relations by singing an aria from a beloved opera to make a point (it’s a dwarf thing). Vimes would be lost without her, and he knows it.
It’s not all hard work and compromise, though. It’s important to laugh, too and Sybil enjoys ensuring Sam doesn’t take life too seriously by gently teasing him, and we even learn in Thud! that she likes to keep the paper’s political cartoons which feature her husband and hang them on the library wall.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me
They’re both incredibly thoughtful towards one another in the kind of myriad little ways which can make or break a long-term relationship after the initial glitter and excitement has settled into mundane routine. Sybil cooks for Sam (really badly, but this is ok because Sam acknowledges he is a bad eater) and knits socks (also really badly), because she wants him to know how much she cares. For his part, Vimes keeps the incredibly irritating demon diaries she keeps giving him (the Discworld’s version of the Blackberry, powered by an imp) because he knows her feelings would be hurt otherwise, and wears the really badly knitted socks without complaint.
In fact, there’s a lovely passage about the whole sock thing in Snuff which pretty much sums up the meaning of love for me: “all his socks made his feet itch. For the hundredth time he considered telling his wife that among her sterling qualities, and there were many, knitting did not feature. But he would rather have chopped his foot off than do so. It would break her heart. They were dreadful socks, though, so thick, knotted and bulky that he had to buy boots that were one and a half times bigger than his feet. And he did this because Samuel Vimes, who had never gone into a place of worship with religious aforethought, worshipped Lady Sybil, and not a day went past without his being amazed that she seemed to do the same to him”. All together, now: ahhhhh!
Real love isn’t all butterflies, stardust, grand glamorous gestures or public declarations; it’s making an effort for your partner even when it isn’t something which comes easily, and it’s appreciating the effort your partner makes for you. It’s about not taking each other for granted, and it’s about being kind.
Happy Hallmark day, y’all! If you’re looking for love, then I hope you find your own Vimes or Sybil to fly a broomstick or knit lumpy socks for you. And if you’re not, then enjoy a night in with the realest, sweetest, most British romance ever written. To Sam and Sybil!
GS Guest Blogger: Boo