First published online by Marion McGilvary.
I come home from work. The lamp on a timer that has welcomed me back through the gloom of the last few months burns, unnecessarily, in the sunny kitchen. I’m reading a thriller, which is living up to its name. I sit down with my coat still on and return eagerly to chapter three.
Two hours later, I put the book down and realise it’s dark. The lamp provides the only pool of light in an otherwise pitch-black house. It’s also quiet, deathly quiet, without even the hum of the central heating or the swoosh of the washing machine to break the silence. Radio 4, also on a timer, tuned itself off before the Archers. The mobile phone on the table beside me is silent. It hasn’t rung, beeped or throbbed, probably since yesterday, maybe the day before. No calls, no emails, no texts, no Facebook notifications, no tweets, and there’s nothing blinking on the answerphone, because the landline hasn’t rung since December, except people in call centres who can’t pronounce my name.
All these methods of communication and yet nobody’s communicating with me.
There was a time when coming back to an empty house would fill me with pleasure – like a snowy day at school. I’d luxuriate in the extra, unexpected bonus of having the place to myself, and happily breathe in the peace and quiet. But now, as anticipated, when, two years ago I wrote here about my very empty nest – with the kids grown, gone, or not yet home from college – it’s just lonely. There, I’ve said it. I’m lonely.
We’re all so popular now, so connected. Social networking is the buzzword. We have all these new verbs – we blog, we Skype and tweet our thoughts in fewer than 140 characters. We post our status on Facebook and talk and surf constantly on our mobiles so that the trains or buses in the evening are a sea of heads, all bowed as though in prayer, worshiping their Blackberries and iPhones, tap, tap, tap – the rosary of the text message. It’s a mark of shame to have no friends, real or virtual, no followers, not to be linked-in to everyone you ever met for five minutes at a party – once – in 1974. So finding yourself at home, alone, with only 30 followers on Twitter, four of whom are the same person, a silent phone, and nobody you care to call must mean there’s something wrong with you. You’re unpopular, friendless, abandoned, alone. Lonely.
Surely somewhere there’s a party you should be at, a dinner you should be invited to, a partner who should be partnering you, a family who should be missing you?
In my case, I have four kids and my solitude is only temporary. In a week, a month, my newly graduated son and student daughter will arrive to re-colonise their bedrooms. For the next year or two, even without David Cameron’s edict, my semi-adult offspring will continue to be reluctant, economic refugees in the house.
Children need their parents, even grown-up children – but they just need them to be alive, they don’t need them in the same room. They want you to be uncomplainingly happy somewhere over there. In the background. Out of the way. And only to step forward when needed. They don’t want you to tag them on Facebook. This is as it should be. You raise them to be confident, caring, well-adjusted, independent adults with rich, fulfilled lives and friends of their own. You can’t whine about being lonely if they then do just that. If mine were still clinging to me for company, I would feel I had failed them. Like surely, I myself have failed at this popularity contest called life if I’m lonely; as, apart from Eleanor Rigby, the elderly and the recently bereaved, apparently I’m the only one who feels this way – alone in this club too.
It’s not as though I am an unfulfilled shut-in. I’m a novelist with a convivial job in a publishing company. My colleagues are sociable and fun. “So, can’t you call someone from work?” Mr Ex urged recently when a back injury transformed me from able to disabled in the course of a day and I realised, with horror, that he was one of the few people in my support system I could call on for help.
But no, of course I can’t. To quote the thriller I’ve just devoured in page-turning haste, work is not “the equivalent of adult daycare”, there to provide me with play dates and nursing care. Work is what people do to earn enough to facilitate their other “real” life of home and family and friends and leisure activities. I may spend more time with my desk-mate “office wife” than I ever did with my home husband, but I still can’t intrude on her private time. The fact that my private time is often all too very, very private, is my problem.
Not for others though. Oh, I long for time alone. I need my space. I love being by myself, people say, defensively – as though the mere suggestion of loneliness was like being incontinent, or having herpes. They’d rather admit to alcoholism than loneliness. And at least then, they’d have the meetings.
But also they don’t have time to be lonely. As Tim Kreider wrote in the New York Times recently, there’s also that “boast disguised as a complaint” of those who are so, so very busy all the time. Those who are too busy to fit you in for supper before May 2013 may well, as Kreider suggests, “dread what they face in its absence”, their busyness “a hedge against emptiness” – and why not? Emptiness is lonely. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” asked the Beatles. Not North Kensington where, surely, only sad losers get lonely. And none of us are sad – we’re successful, Pinteresting, we’re posting a link on Facebook, Flickring our holiday snaps, then tweeting about it so everyone knows how busy and relevant and overwhelmingly popular we are.
But look, I’m busy too: I volunteer, I write, I belong to a choir, a quiz team, an evening class and Chelsea football club. It’s not that I don’t have enough pastimes, it’s that I have too much past – all of it full of people who aren’t here. Furthermore, I was a latchkey kid – I grew up in an empty house, idling away the hours with dreams and books. I like my own company – but frankly, even I’m not that scintillating. Still, I don’t want to turn every hour, every evening into a whirlwind of displacement activity. I enjoy indolence and know how to manage it. I never said I was bored or without inner resources. I said I was lonely. It’s not the same thing.
I miss my old life – the dull, companionable drone of marriage and the analgesia of motherhood, my chattering, once ever-present younger children and their ever-present needs. I miss the noise of footsteps followed by an ominous crash overhead. I miss the sound of competing CD players, the clash of a computer game battle, the dissonant ringtones of four mobiles, the silence of bedtime when everyone was safe inside a circle of which I was the centre.
I miss my dead parents, and the extended family seated around my equally extended table that turned meals into an episode of the Waltons with mince. Now with distance, death and divorce, everything has contracted. The table has only one leaf, and dinner is often just me eating salami on Ryvita, standing by the fridge. Of course, I could have a glass of wine at one of my three tables, set with linen and crockery from my several sets of 12. I could light a candle to make it special. But it’s not special. It’s miserable. My life is too big for me. I’ve shrunk in the wash. I’m a desperate housewife, without the rest of the cast.
I do entertain. I cook. I invite. But I’m actually not that sociable. I’m not the life and soul. I also have a long-term lover. So, I’m not lovelorn. I have children who care about me. So I’m not unloved. I really am not alone. But as Margaret Mead said: “One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder when you are coming home at night.” And David Archer really isn’t that fussed. The partnered-up don’t appreciate the quality, or indeed, the quantity of “me” time that exists when I survey the desert of the evening stretching before me, and wonder why I hurried home from work. What for? What to? I’m a blunt pencil. I have no point.
Of course, I do have friends. Some. A few. The ones who aren’t too busy seeing plays that haven’t opened yet, the last people to leave the party after my marriage broke up who got stuck with me in the split. But despite my evening classes and my Girl Guide range of worthy preoccupations, it’s hard to make new friends. It’s like waiting to be picked for a team when everyone else is already paired up. All the good players have gone. I’m a substitute. No dinner invitations come from couples we used to see. I get the odd off-peak coffee, or lunch, outside zone 1 weekend socialising hours (women only) but mostly I’ve fallen into the black hole of divorce. Anyway, I don’t need someone to go out with, I need someone to stay in with. So what to do? It’s too late to suddenly turn myself into the most popular girl in high school at 54. Especially as I can’t just sleep with the football team.
Well, I could. Now the house is empty, I could finally be the hedonistic slut that propriety and good-girl morals prevented me from being in my youth. OK, I don’t know where the bars are that my fortysomething American sitcom sister frequents in her little black cocktail dress when she wants to pick up a man. But I don’t want a one-night stand. Loneliness has nothing to do with libido. It’s far easier to find love, or at least sex, online than it is to find a new BFF. If only there were a match.com for friendship. But as nobody admits to needing any friends, who would join? And who wants to meet another lonely loser like yourself? If you were halfway interesting, or as vivacious and funny as you think you are, then you’d be Dorothy bloody Parker, and Truman Capote would be inviting you for the weekend. You wouldn’t be spending it with a box set of Grey’s Anatomy and barely quenched panic. Your dry goods wouldn’t all be labelled in glass jars in your pantry.
And anyway, as I mentioned, as well as alphabetised lentils, I already have a lover. But a lover doesn’t keep the wolf of loneliness away from the door – it doesn’t skulk off into the night for just anyone. Loneliness is a curiously fussy companion for someone who doesn’t have 387 Facebook friends.
I’m lucky. I’m not old. Yet. I am ambulatory again and not drowning, or even paddling, in self-pity. I’m more embarrassed than distressed. I don’t feel sorry for myself, only ridiculous. I count my blessings – I have many. I just get lonely. But it’s not a character defect. It just is. You probably didn’t even know I had it. It’s my superpower. I’m like a comic-book hero with a double life. By day I go about my business and by night – I sit at home, and disappear by myself.
Though I also have a cat. But you probably guessed that.