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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

On being alone

Every night, as I switch off my bedside lamp and wait for the melatonin to work its magic, I clutch one of my pillows and think: I am so, so glad that I have this bed to myself. As the Johnny Walker Black (a capful, neat) insinuates itself into my veins – insomnia requires a multi-pronged approach, and I reason that whisky is preferable to the tranquillisers I used to take in order to get any sleep at all – I reflect on how curiously nice it is to be alone. I feel round and smooth and self-contained, like a marble. There are no cracks in my surface vulnerable to infiltration by another, and this is reassuring.

I have discovered that I quite like being by myself. In fact, I like being alone so much that I have no interest in altering this state of affairs, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Is this a necessary form of selfishness? A survival mechanism, post-divorce and post-dumped? There once was a time when I could not imagine myself not being with somebody of some description, after all. Of course, I am not really alone, technically speaking: I have family and friends and occasionally my cat might permit herself to be coaxed into an approach, and almost turn herself inside out with the sheer quivering pleasure of being vryfed. I mean alone in the sense that most of us do: I am not in a relationship with a significant other.

Last month, my ex-husband wrote to me on the day of our ex-anniversary to tell me how hurt he felt that I started dating so soon after we decided to go our separate ways. I thought this was a bit rich, coming from someone who remarried and procreated within ten months of the divorce going through, but I offered him an explanation nonetheless. That both of us should have ended up with others so soon after the divorce went through was to be expected, I told him. When a relationship ends, especially a long-term one, we are cast adrift within ourselves. Our boundaries were defined by the presence of another: the body in the bed, the mug in the sink, the damp towel on the rail. Others leave impressions on us and we alter shape to accommodate them, like the saggy bit in a well-used sofa. Now, alone, we are lost. He had a wife-shaped hole in his life, so he filled it as quickly as he could. I, on the other hand, refilled those parts of myself that had become squashed and misshapen, and now I find myself unwilling to shape my self to fit around another.

I often worry that I spend too much time reflecting on my single status. After all, I am so many other things: blonde, asthmatic, short-sighted, neurotic; also sleep-deprived, a lot of the time. Some of my Facebook friends – bearing in mind that my Facebook standards are very low indeed – have commented (whenever I reflect on this in my status updates) that I am obsessed with my ex-husband and, in the words of one especially presumptuous twat, still in love with him. To talk about being divorced appears to be something that is not entirely socially acceptable: you are supposed to deal with it, move on, and maintain a diffident silence.

But the truth is that whether or not we are in a relationship with another person is one of the defining states of the human condition. To imagine otherwise is to fool oneself. For over nine years there was somebody else next to me in that bed, and the memory of that makes me want to hug my pillow and say: thank you, thank you, thank you, for the cool and pleasant thrill of having myself to myself.

It was not so long ago that I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone. Now I can’t imagine being any other way.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    April 13th, 2011 @08:22 #

    Enjoy how you draw out the complexities and nuance of divorce - which like much of life's experiences is not easy to pigeon hole.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    April 13th, 2011 @09:42 #

    "He had a wife-shaped hole in his life, so he filled it as quickly as he could. I, on the other hand, refilled those parts of myself that had become squashed and misshapen, and now I find myself unwilling to shape my self to fit around another." Sarah if you want to publish something - even a short series of vignettes about this process, Modjaji Books would be very interested in being the publisher. I think what you write about is so important and well-written. Brava!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 13th, 2011 @17:07 #

    As a dedicated marble who shudders just at the idea of the damp towel, I am fascinated by yr writing about recovery from divorce. Also delighted to discover that ours is not the only family to use the term "vryfed" to describe vigorous feline affection.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 13th, 2011 @21:35 #

    Beuatiful stuff Sarah, beautifully written. I've had two divorces and now live contentedly alone, without cats, but have now had a wonderful non-live-in ralationship for over three years. Single but committed I'm allowed to call it. And we don't try to make either shape around the other, rather we stand alone, proud and independent, and in love. Beautiful (again).

  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    May 10th, 2011 @19:27 #

    I don't know how I managed without the quivering, devoted, obsessive, demanding quirky little ball I call my Mui Mui. She snores so loudly not even two down duvets can silence her. But I aspire to one day be a self-contained marble.


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