Our youngest has gone on a school trip so this is the first whole week Ben and I have had the house to ourselves for nearly 20 years. Originally we’d planned to go abroad on our own mini-break but it got cancelled, for one reason and another, so instead we arranged an itinerary of London treats – the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican, the swings at Tate Modern, dinner with friends.
This all starts well, and on the Saturday night we go out to the London Film Festival screening of Here to be Heard, a new documentary about the Slits. In the audience are a smattering of die-hard old punks – spray-painted leather jackets, spiked hair, faded T-shirts, now stretched a little tighter. For some of us, it was a moment in time, for others, a way of life.
The film itself is a typical music biog, where the first half is more interesting than the second, but worth seeing if only for all the early footage – Ari Up skanking on stage, Viv Albertine high-kicking in a tutu and, the best scene of all, a crowded bedroom where Viv is looking on in concentrated awe at Chrissie Hynde showing her chord shapes on a guitar.
But after that night out, our planned excursions fall apart, due to us both getting stinking colds, coughing and sneezing in a manner that would be called overacting in a sitcom. One afternoon we totter out in thick woollies and a taxi, to see another film, The Party – but it’s about middle-aged people having affairs and terminal illnesses, and so doesn’t quite have the desired effect of cheering us up.
On the whole, we’ve been housebound, and by God the house is quiet. At night, the bedroom ceiling creaks occasionally, as it does when the daughter who sleeps above is home and walking about; but she’s not here and so I know that it’s just the house settling at the end of the day.
The youngest texts from his school trip with a three-word message – “OH MY GOD” – the very text you don’t want to get from a child who is abroad, and this one is followed by a pause long enough to chill the blood. I’m imagining various scenes of horror or disaster when, after a few minutes, the text is followed up. “I think Orange Juice’s ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ might be my favourite song of all time!”
So I curl up on the sofa with tea and tissues, and alternate between watching season 4 of Transparent and reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair.
I love Transparent, despite the melodramatic solipsism of its main characters. No, wait, I mean because of that. Everyone behaves so badly all the time, it’s actually refreshing, like an acidic palate cleanser. In this season the family go to Israel, so they can behave badly to Israelis too.
After a few episodes, I go back to The Sparsholt Affair, which reminds me a bit of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It has a similar time frame, starting in Oxford during the war, moving through the artistic and literary circles of bohemian London in the Sixties and Seventies, and up to the present day. The characters are writers and artists, they paint small oils, and are sketched by lovers; write memoirs of their affairs, and are outed by the press; meet and re-meet in large shabby houses and at private views, where, “For the guests it was really a private view of each other.” The years pass, the same characters recur, they blossom, fade and die.
The afternoon ticks by, and I notice it is growing dark. Hang on, though – this isn’t normal dark, and it’s only 2pm. I look outside and the sky has turned yellow, the clouds dark and jaundiced, and the birds silent as in an eclipse. A hurricane is grazing the edge of the country, dragging up dust from the Sahara and smoke particles from wildfires in Portugal. The sun burns bright red, and then vanishes behind the sepia clouds, throwing the house into darkness.
All of London Twitter simultaneously tweets about the apocalypse, although you can tell everyone is secretly thrilled, and using the sky as an excuse to do nothing but stare out the window. Which is what I’m doing.