Single living: Security anxiety, talking to magpies and the biscuit thing
I’m sitting in my kitchen at the computer, trying to find a way to start this article. I stop and listen. Once the clicking of the keyboard fades, there’s nothing to hear but the faint, throaty hum of the fridge.
In the next room, the carriage clock clinks, marking the turning of an hour. Otherwise, nothing.
It can go on for days, this quietness. It would drive many people stark, staring bonkers. The first time I experienced it, I thought it would drive me bonkers, too. My daughter had gone to start a new life with her fiancé – now her husband – in Sydney. The months beforehand had been a jumble of packing, plans for visits in both directions, baggage-allowance calculations and visa complications.
Now there was just me, in a silent house. I knew that living by myself would be a change but I hadn’t anticipated the sudden onset of Extreme Security Anxiety. Every time I dropped off to sleep that first night, I snapped awake again. Omigod, I never got spare keys cut! Omigod, I’ll have to get the house alarm serviced! Oh, my God.
I can see now that those first dreadful hours had more to do with grief and loss than with the actual fact of living alone. It seems likely that for many people in Ireland, where the notion of the couple is so firmly entrenched as the “norm”, the first taste of the single life comes on the heels of some kind of loss – bereavement, divorce, empty nest, or whatever it might be.
It takes a while to separate the shock from the singledom. I used to get upset every time I went into the bathroom and found one lone, pathetic toothbrush in the ceramic holder. Then one day I thought, “Oh for goodness sake”, went straight from bathroom to supermarket, bought a fistful of toothbrushes , and crammed them into the wretched thing. It worked. I didn’t get upset any more. Or else the very act of buying them was a sign that I was beginning to recover my equilibrium.
I love living alone. You can read in bed and at meals. You don’t have to have the TV on if you don’t want to. You can become a vegetarian. You can go swimming on a rainy summer afternoon. If you wake up at 3am and the night is clear and frosty, you can pull tracksuit bottoms over your pyjamas and go out stargazing in the park without anybody turning a hair.
Of course, there are downsides. I may not have become fearful, but I have become fearfully disordered. Once congenitally tidy, I now drop coats and gloves and “to do” piles of random stuff wherever they happen to land, and never clean up except when it’s absolutely unavoidable (ie, when visitors text to say they’re on their way).
And there’s the biscuit thing. In someone else’s house I’m quite capable of accepting one or, if pushed, two biscuits with a cup of coffee. It wouldn’t even occur to me to reach for a third. At home, that sticky hand won’t stop returning to the packet. I also, I noticed the other day, talk to magpies as if they could speak English.
It’s not for everyone, the solitary life. On a recent TV documentary there was a segment about the Bolivian altiplano that showed a high, desolate, windswept landscape. I suddenly remembered that, as a teenager, studying the geography of South America while staying in an all-girls boarding school, I longed to live on the altiplano. Even at that age – when the human animal is usually at its most sociable – a place where nobody else lived sounded like heaven to me.
I still miss my daughter. And although Skype and FaceTime technology is fantastic, the blank screen at the end of the call doesn’t get any easier to deal with as time goes by.
The trick, I’ve discovered, is to close my eyes, ignore that awful emptiness and just listen. Yep: there’s the fridge, there’s the clock, there’s somebody shoving yet another takeaway pizza flyer through the letterbox. I’m home. It’s good. And I’ve only locked myself out once. So far.