It’s really beginning to look as though I have survived another winter. This is a trying season for the man exiled from his hearth; not only because it is cold and dark, and stepping outside for a cigarette is unpleasant, but because you are meant to be in your own, original home, cosy and protected from the wolves, when the sun sets at four. You also have the added burden of the Separated Parent Christmas which, as Will Self warned me, was “the real sucking-shit-through-a-straw-time for the divorced man”.
Last year I was saved from suicide not only by recalling E M Cioran’s aperçu that there is no point in killing yourself, because by the time you do it it is, by definition, too late, but also by an unlikely romance with The Finn, a woman of awe-inspiring beauty driven to distraction by her right-wing colleagues. I won her heart by writing for the Guardian and correctly guessing which socialist heroine she had been named after. (There aren’t that many.) That gave me a warm glow for a couple of months until I blew it in a rather instructive way.
After gently ribbing her for her habit of going to the gym (which, like Homer Simpson, I pronounce with a hard “g” and to rhyme with “time”), she asked me if I would still fancy her if she were 20 kilos heavier. I’m more of an imperial weights and measures guy than a metric one, but 20 kilos did seem like an awful lot of weight to put on, even in theory. And so, rashly assuming that I was being tested on my honesty rather than on my gallantry, I said “no”. I didn’t see anything much of her after that. Gentlemen, take heed. What’s annoying is that if she’d said ten kilos I’d have said “yes”. And I am haunted by the fear that she might actually have said “ten” in the first place. We were in a noisy pub, and my hearing isn’t getting any better.
This year I have been saved by the presence in the Hovel of my good friend J–. In the months we have been living together I cannot recall – despite extraordinarily straitened financial circumstances, the kind that drive a wedge between the happiest of married couples – a single trivial argument, let alone a serious one; and he’s a Spurs fan. He is certainly an improvement on the previous occupant of the Hovel, a serious-minded and taciturn Buddhist called T–, who would pointedly, and with considerably more effort than he was saving himself, lift out every unwashed item of crockery from the sink which he had not personally soiled, not even pouring out the water from the bowls. Remarkably, his assertion of the demarcation lines of washing-up duties applied even if there was only a single spoon in the sink. He and J– overlapped for a while, but not for long, particularly after J– made his own point by returning the unwashed plates to the sink and then carefully smashing them to bits.
T– got the message and went off to live
on a barge. I am sure he is much happier for it, and I wish him well.
But living with J– has been something of a revelation. At first glance, we are the Odd Couple: I look like some poncey, stringy French intellectual, while he looks as though his business name is “Razors”, but he can actually complete the Guardian crossword and correctly answers many of the questions on University Challenge, although not as many as I do, of course. Unlike a marriage, our relationship is characterised by and composed of myriad small mutual kindnesses. We buy each other soup. We watch Coronation Street together. Why had no one told me about this television programme before? It is excellent. We even do each other’s washing-up. If I come back in the evening to discover that he has drunk three bottles of wine at a sitting, I do not berate him for alcoholism and break down in tears asking, rhetorically, What I Have Done
To Deserve This, but instead cheerfully call him a greedy pig and look forward to his replenishing the stocks.
In short, I have gone back from being a family man to being a student. The parallels are uncanny. I look up from my book; here I am again, poring over Samuel Beckett with a pencil in my hand. The only differences are that I’m being paid for it, my hair is a lot greyer and I’ve got Haydn on in the background instead of Joy Division. The dog returns to his vomit as the fool to his folly; but, dammit, I like reading Beckett (that life at the moment resembles nothing so much as an indoor version of Waiting for Godot has its own piquancy).
And winter is being chased away. The very angle of the sun on the streets confirms this and gives us heart. Soon we will be able to stretch out at full length on the benches outside the Duke’s, and listen to the church clock count off the quarter-hours of our pleasantly futile lives.