Mrs Down and Out has disappeared. So it is curtains for the old love life. Again

I am still unsure of what brought the relationship to an end, but maybe going out with the New Statesman’s own comedy Heathcliff isn’t much fun.

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It would seem that I am once again single. There hasn’t been any official declaration and there is a faint possibility that this is nothing more than a breakdown of communication, but I am not entirely daft and it really looks as though it is curtains for the old love life. Again.

And as the lady in question reads, or at least used to read, this column, if I have got the wrong end of the stick, then by the time she’s got to the end of this week’s page, the relationship will be over anyway. It’s like a quantum physics problem, along the lines of Schrödinger’s cat, only without any ambiguity as to the outcome: the cat dies.

I wonder what I have done this time. It was a long-distance relationship and these can always be tricky. I had one where the woman involved moved to Gothenburg – you might have seen a few columns where I railed bitterly against Sweden, its people, its culture and especially its cuisine. (The Flying Jacob, a nightmare concoction involving bananas, peanuts, bacon and cream, being the worst example.) There was the woman from Cambridge. I won’t say how that ended but I wonder if the distance involved had anything to do with it, or the fact that childcare arrangements meant we could only see each other every two weeks.

As it happened, the latest Mrs Down and Out and I could only see each other every two weeks, but each visit involved a rather blissful stay from Thursday evening until Tuesday morning, and then suddenly, at the beginning of May, the invitations dried up, on the grounds that they left her too exhausted to work for the following week, and with Covid restrictions being relaxed, her work was getting very busy and involved indeed.

Fair enough. The disparity between our working weeks was something of an issue between us. “How long does it take you to write a column?” she asked. “Oh, about an hour on average,” I’d say. “And do you have anything else on at the moment?” “Um, no, not really.” “So let me get this straight.” (I did not like the look on her face as she got things straight.) “You work one hour a week, while I…” I wanted to say: no, no, it’s not like that, there’s all the mulling over, the consideration of the week’s lived experience, the skills, finely honed over the years, the. . . I let it go. Then I started getting a few commissions to review books and that does fill the time up, if you intend to read the book that is, and I like doing that when I review a book. It gives the review a certain authority, know what I mean?

So, at least when I was reading a book for work I was obviously working, and once you factor in the reading time, it becomes clear that as far as hourly rates go, book reviewing is not one of the great cash cows of the modern age. And at least she stopped being aggrieved at how I was making my living.

Still, when I wasn’t visiting we were talking, every night, often for hours, and now the calls have dried up as well, and this pains me more than I can joke about. It is somewhat distressing, to put it mildly, that the two people one was most in contact with have suddenly ceased contacting you, one because he’s dead and the other because she simply doesn’t want to talk to you any more.

So what brought this all about? She once told me that her father joked about all her exes, fallen to the ground like so many spent cartridge cases, as he rather vividly put it. It is not nice to be a spent cartridge case. It makes one feel unfairly used. If I had done something terrible then I could try to make amends, but as it is all I have done is, like the example of Polonius, or Peer Gynt, or for that matter Popeye, been true to myself. (“I yam what I yam.”) And reasonably decent company too.

And it is not as if she had been unprepared for me: she’d been reading this column for years (thanks to, and the irony has escaped no one, an enthusiastic recommendation from the man she was going out with at the time). Then again, maybe going out with the New Statesman’s own comedy Heathcliff isn’t as much fun as I’d like to think it is.

So in the absence of anything else I can grasp hold of I shall blame not only my own flaws, whatever they are, but the long-distance nature of the affair. It is, after all, a long way from Brighton to her place (103 hours on foot without stopping, Google Maps tells me). God forbid that one day I should go out with someone who lives in the same town as me. But then the odds of finding someone who can put up with me for any length of time are somewhat stacked against me.

[See also: With any luck, I won’t perish in a blaze – but I fear my fire alarms might be the death of me]

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 09 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?

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