On living alone in lockdown
It helps that I live near a prison. When I go for my daily run in the common, I glance up. I am thankful my daily exercise is on this side of the wall. You become accomplished at counting blessings, when you live on your own in lockdown.
It helps that I’m an introvert. I am a social introvert, I enjoy company; but I don’t need it as much as some folk.
It helps that I’m a writer — but only up to a point. The narratives that run around my head, unspoken and untested, may reach the page, or entertain myself, but sometimes they cry out for challenge through debate. Ideas become stale without response from people who think differently, folk who are smarter than me (most are, I think, though I’m a stubbornly original thinker in some ways). I have been moderately creative in lockdown, but there are many hours when I do not wish to type on a computer or read a book; when my brain is full of words and I want to empty it, go for a run or stare at a tree. The TV just offers more stories, and sometimes I want a break. On occasion, I sit upright on the bed and look at the guitar (so much easier than playing it…) or out of the window, in a bittersweet state of semi-contentment, mid-way between meditation and self-pity.
It helps that I’ve been lucky with work; I’ve received enough paid commissions to keep me with a healthy income right through 2020, and I can work from home. It’s easy to save during lockdown. I have interesting and rewarding work.
I have good friends, and wonderful siblings. Nearly all social contact is by typing online, or looking through the Zoom window, but we have a laugh sometimes, and a drink.
There is opportunity, too much opportunity, for reflection. Both times I married, I went slightly out of my league: independently minded, attractive women who were restless, curious about new experiences, not wanting children. Eventually, the new experiences did not include me. Should I have married someone calmer, kinder? Perhaps, but she wasn’t who I was looking for, and when you’re young you don’t have the insight of an older person, because you’re young. I had some great years.
Both times I was dumped for a musician. Now, in my bachelor pad, I live directly above a pianist. What are the chances? This twist of fate is slightly cruel — but also, I have to admit, funny.
The second time I became involuntarily single, my wife and new beau were in the same small town we had lived in for 18 years, so I retreated to the county of my birth. I don’t have a wide social network here, because my family had moved around the country as I was growing up, so I don’t really have a home town.
A year or so ago I tried online dating, with mixed experiences. I have to contemplate the possibility that my love life is in the past. That feels a little early, before I’ve turned 60, but there is nothing like the restlessness and shame I felt when I was single for a couple of years in my mid-30s. A better choice since becoming single was renting a desk at a shared office for freelancers — but of course it is thinly populated during lockdown, and I rarely venture in myself.
I have developed a lovely online relationship with a woman who also feels lonely at times, who lives a long way away. She has caring responsibilities, and relatives who have to shield, so we have been unable to meet during lockdown. She is sensitive, kind, imaginative, thoughtful. I’m not sure if we will become a couple, but that conjecture matters less than our daily contact. Every evening, we ask each other if we have had a good day. Apparently, that does not happen in an unhappy marriage.
And in the past few years I have got to know my daughter, who was raised by adoptive parents. She got in touch with me as she turned 30. Please don’t judge me too harshly: my girlfriend and I were penniless volunteers in the shelter when she fell pregnant. My daughter has forgiven me and we have created quite a close bond. In a triumph of genetics over nurture, she is by some distance the person on the planet most similar to me: not just in mannerisms and taste in food, but in ways of thinking and developing an argument — on one occasion finishing my sentence for me, getting it spot on, word for word (a moment that was mildly annoying, yet also rather magical).
My very first conscious thoughts that I can recall, at the age of four, included an awareness of the loneliness of being; how I could only be me, and how I could keep my thoughts private. So a sense of inner loneliness; its power and its limitations; its compensations and frustrations, has always been with me. As the middle child in a large family, I could escape unnoticed into my own world.
I’ve learned to lean in. Loneliness comes with quietness, and that means peacefulness and a certain freedom. I have transformed my attitude to household chores. In my previous life, I adhered to a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos, so chores were a tedious irritant, to be disposed of in as little time as possible, so that I could return to life’s principal activities of learning, career advancement and hedonism. Now, I find solace in the ritual of hanging out the laundry, or painting a skirting board. I have learned to sew: repairing torn pockets in my jeans, and sewing on buttons to my winter coat, filled me with as much pride as my first published article. Chores are indeed time-consuming — but sometimes I am glad of a way of passing time that doesn’t involve the word or the screen.
The main problem is sleep. I fantasize about sleep the way I used to fantasize about sex. Since I became single nearly three years ago, my sleeping patterns have been awry. A common problem is waking at 3am for a couple of hours, giving up trying to return to slumber, then cooking a large breakfast and crashing out for an hour or two afterwards. There’s an over-the-counter pill that works wonderfully, but the doctor advises that it may become ineffective with nightly use, so I ration myself. Taking one at bedtime is a bigger treat than a glass of the finest champagne.
Demand for my work has held up. My freelance writing career, which has lasted for 20 years now, has flirted with both triumph and disaster, ending up on a middling path. I have been shortlisted for awards, come close to prestigious commissions and a TV adaptation of my novel, just missing out each time. Against that, whenever work dried up for a while and a future of penury loomed, a new contract arrived to enable continued solvency — if at times, only just. I used to crave fame and recognition, now I wonder if I would be suited. I don’t receive adulation in my current role, but I don’t get trolled, either.
Most of my work is ghostwriting nowadays, and life in the shadows suits me quite well. This summer after lockdown, a new client abruptly had to cancel a project owing to an unexpected cash crisis. The very same day, just a few hours later, another confirmed — who has turned out to be a dream client: fascinating story, great guy to work with, pays on time.
Counting my blessings requires more than the number of digits on one hand, if not two. And living in an age of plague, I feel smugly superior to my fellow citizens stung by enforced social retreat. For me, lockdown had less impact. I would swap 2020 for the year of my break-up, any day. And not meeting anyone means not encountering the virus.
When I hang up an item of clothing, I like to stretch out the creases while it’s still damp, creating a certain neatness and order that has proved impossible in my private life. I can only control what I can control. And I get to write for a living — on the more spacious side of the prison wall.