For most of my adult life, I have been ashamed of being single. At weddings, I have felt my smile crack. I once walked out of a friend’s book launch when he gave a speech about finding the love of his life. I felt sick with envy, physically sick. But when I got home, what I felt most of all was shame. I didn’t understand why my friends had managed to succeed in an area where I had so spectacularly failed.
When I was a child, I thought it was easy. You fell in love, you got married in a lovely church, in a lovely dress, and then you had children. Probably three, but possibly just two. I had my parents’ example. They met on a hill in Heidelberg in Germany when my father was 21 and my mother was 18. It was, they always said, love at first sight. My father had just finished reading classics at Cambridge. My mother was just about to go and read languages at Lund University in Sweden. For the rest of their three-week German course, they wandered through the cobbled streets of the old town, quoted Goethe and talked about Kleist.
Their love letters were in German, but the telegram my father sent my mother, four months after they met, was in English: “Will you marry me?” My mother’s reply was one word: “Yes.” They married three years later, in the white church next to my mother’s grandparents’ farm. My mother carried a bouquet of cornflowers and pink roses. When my father died, 47 years later, he was still bringing her flowers.
It wasn’t an easy model to match. And there was a big practical problem to solve first. At my girls’ grammar school, none of us knew any boys. I joined a youth club to meet some, but the youth club was attached to a Baptist church and the boys, it turned out, had given their lives to the Lord. Soon I, too, gave my life to the Lord, and discovered the hitch. You weren’t allowed to touch the boys.
I was 26 when I told God to fuck off out of my life. I’m sorry about the language, but this is literally what I did. I’d had one boyfriend, for five weeks, when I was 19. Our kisses were electric, like the ones we read about in the Song of Songs, but kissing was all we were allowed to do. The night after the summer ball, where we danced and kissed as we watched the sun rise, he told me he was very sorry, but it was over. My father told me that it would “probably take years” for me to get over it. Which is probably why it did.
When I lost my virginity, a few months after I left the church, my main feeling was relief. For years, I had felt like a member of a quaint tribe – one of those tribes, perhaps, where you can’t really eat because you’ve got a giant ring inserted in your lip. Now I felt as if the ring had been removed and I was finally free to gorge on all I had missed. But I didn’t know how to have a relationship or even how to date. For years, I felt as if I was slithering around on a frozen pond, watching Olympic skaters whizz around, slicing secret codes in the ice. I didn’t understand how other people saw these signals I always seemed to miss.
In my 30s, I joined a dating agency called Drawing Down the Moon. I met a man whose breath smelled like a dog. I met a man who forgot everything I told him and then told me he’d had electroconvulsive therapy. I met a man who took his lapdog on gourmet holidays round the south of France. I sometimes felt I could do a PhD on the person I’d just met, and they’d be hard pressed to answer a single question about me.
When internet dating took off, it was at least cheaper. One man, with a ponytail and a bad rash all over his face, told me that he had bought vibrators for all his female friends, and then stuck a tongue down my throat that made me think of a lizard. One man told me, just after we’d had sex, that he was “determined to hold out for something good”. Another said goodbye at Leicester Square tube and then gave me a lecture on how to kiss.
There was at least some consolation in knowing that other women were going through this, too. As my friends paired off, and spent more time enmeshed in family life, I found more single female friends. Most hadn’t occupied their teenage years worrying that they hadn’t spent long enough on their daily “quiet time” of Bible study and prayer, but quite a few were struggling to find a good man. When Bridget Jones came out, it did make us feel less alone. So did Sex and the City, which made me realise that I was lucky that I had never yet been asked to pee on a man in bed. Bright, independent women in their 30s, it was clear, really were finding it hard to find men who were “in their league”.
Over bottles of sauvignon, we would swap stories from the frontline: of waiting in a bar for a man whose photo looked a bit like George Clooney, and then watching a grizzled wreck shuffle in. Or of being chased for weeks, and wooed with flowers and chocolates, and suddenly dropped. I once kept the whole upper deck of a bus enthralled with my phone call to a friend about the man who had asked to see me three times in one week, and then told me that he “hadn’t had the coup de foudre”.
For most of this time, I felt as if my friends with partners and families were proper grown-ups and I was not. Sometimes, at Christmas, I felt like an urchin waiting to be scooped up. When I got breast cancer, at 39, it was my mother who looked after me when I came out of hospital. It was my mother who looked after me seven years later when the cancer came back. I was deeply embarrassed to put her name as my next of kin.
It’s hard to say the exact moment when that feeling of embarrassment shifted. I saw a shrink for a while after that big operation, because when I found out I had cancer, I had just been dumped. It was yet another charming narcissist. It seemed a bit much to have to cope with a lost breast and a broken heart.
“I don’t think,” said the shrink one day, “that you actually want to meet someone.” I was shocked. I was really shocked. What do you mean, I don’t want to meet someone? What about all the dating? The bloody awful dating? What about all that sheer, exhausting, humiliating effort? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised he was probably right. The fact is that I often ran away because I was bored. When I’m on my own, I’m never, ever bored.
Three years before, on a slightly mad whim, I had made an offer on a tiny flat on a Tuscan hillside I hadn’t even seen. I was born in Rome and the tug of Italy, its sunshine, its beauty and of course its wine, has always been strong. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I thought they would say I was mad. But I remortaged and I did it anyway. It costs about £250,000 to bring up a child in London, apparently. I don’t have a child. I will never have a child. I worked out that my Tuscan folly cost about the same as a child’s leg.
Now I never need to worry about what I’m going to do on holiday. I have another life. I go to Italy to read, look out at a sun-drenched hillside and dream. I go to sip vermentino in the local bar, and eat pasta with sweet, ripe tomatoes, flecked with fresh basil. I go to Italy to write. In Italy, in fact, I started planning and writing the book I have coming out now, The Art of Not Falling Apart. It’s about how we cope when life goes wrong.
I decided to write it because I had just been made redundant and found myself facing my 50th birthday without a partner, a family, or a job. I didn’t know if I could still earn a living as a journalist, but I still had the skills, and I decided to use them to do the kind of interviews I had never done before. After years of interviewing famous people about their success, I wanted to talk to people about their losses and disappointments, to find out what has got other people through.
I talked to my friend Winston, who broke his back when he fell off a roof, through a glass ceiling and landed on a purple coffin. I talked to a friend of a friend who changed all her passwords to “BRUTAL” when she found out that her husband had been having a string of affairs. I talked to a woman I met at a workshop who left her abusive husband, but lost custody of her child.
In the process of talking to these people, I have almost literally felt a weight shifting that had been sitting on my chest. In their stories, I have seen great sadness, of course, but also beauty, flashes of humour and joy. It has left me feeling foolish for ever thinking that there was one way to live a life. Oh, and I’m through with charming narcissists – and I think I’ve lost that sense of shame.