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7 July 2021

In my new single life, music, TV, films and books have become a ghost train of lurking frights

It is cruel that during a break-up, usual comforts are taken from you – including the person you would normally reach for in an emotional crisis

By Pippa Bailey

The afternoon I return to my flat, alone, I take photographs of my bed – which my ex bought and built for me – and list it on Gumtree. I am pleased by the symbolism and melodrama of disposing of this, our shared kingdom. Taking it apart, I curse his name at every too-tight screw. That evening I go to a bar with my oldest friends, and we hug for the first time in 15 months and later are told that we need to leave because we have drunk too much. The next morning a man from Gumtree comes to pick up my re-flat-packed bed and, meet-cute style, he turns out to be quite good looking. My new bed is grown-up and expensive, and when it arrives I build it by myself, hauling it together with a vaccine-sore arm. (Who needs men? I scoff to myself, 15 minutes before I am once again prostrate and sobbing.) These are the highs.

The lows – well, I’ve called my mum several mornings this week because I do not care about anything enough to get out of bed.

I have a feeling of second-album syndrome about this column – not because my previous was such a bestseller, but because I do not know quite how to follow it, whether to resume normal service as if nothing has changed. But this being “confessional” writing (though quite what I am confessing to I am not sure), I can only write about what is consuming me.

[See also: The man I have loved for four years is gone. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I write]

The cruellest thing about a break-up is that the person you would normally reach for in the midst of an emotional disembowelling is not only gone but is the person who did said disembowelling. Other comforts are taken from me, too. Music, TV, film and books have become a ghost train of lurking frights: memories, other people’s happiness. I can watch only Criminal Minds – hours and hours of serial murder so elaborate and disturbed its writers must be psychopaths themselves. It is formulaic and predictable; every episode closes with a barely related literary quote – Sophocles, GK Chesterton – which makes me smile a little; and any romance is soon ended by the madman’s knife.

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My flat is littered with books started and abandoned – the offending words a sex scene, a city we visited together, a character with the same name as his best friend. In the end, awake at 5am when all I want is to be unconscious for as many hours of the day as possible, I reach for Harry Potter – the early books, before they all start snogging each other. I know it so well I do not even really have to read the words.

I protect myself with the repeat button on iTunes, listening on loop to pre-approved, safe songs. Lany’s Malibu Nights, a perfect break-up record, has me convinced that my ex may in fact be Dua Lipa: “How am I supposed to move on if/You don’t even know what’s really wrong?” For guaranteed tears there’s Kodaline’s “All I Want” (“But if you loved me/Why’d you leave me?”), and for insouciant anger, Donna Missal’s “Just Like You” (“You flip a switch and then you turn your back/Like you’re so detached/It’s gonna get you when you least expect/Good f***ing luck with that”). For bursts of energy, there’s “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street – a film that I cannot watch as it is too full of Irish accents. And for everything else there’s My Chemical Romance, because the words are largely indeterminable and therefore cannot hurt me.

[See also: Surrounded by my son’s friends, I relish my status as The Only Non-Boring Father in England]

People repeat the same rote platitudes because they are easier than silence. They say, “He doesn’t deserve you,” and I can think only, “I don’t care.” They say, “Time heals all wounds,” and I know they are right, but I wish it wouldn’t move so interminably slowly. They say, “Everything happens for a reason” – and this I cannot believe. With hindsight we construct neat narratives to rationalise the pain. But sometimes people simply hurt each other, and there is no logic to it.

I find some small freedom in accepting that I simply do not have a choice but to go on; just one more day, I tell myself, day after day after day. I’m not sure this is mending, but it is coping, and perhaps they are the same thing. If this were an episode of Criminal Minds, it would end with a quote from The Bear Hunt: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it… We’ve got to go through it.”

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust