My solo hotel weekend was off to a dubious start when the first thing the taxi driver said to me was, “You’re not going alone, are you?” I’d forgotten the defensiveness, the self-justification, that is demanded by being single – or, at least, by being a single woman of a certain age. It won’t be too long before some well-meaning relative asks, “So… how’s your love life?” à la Bridget Jones’s dreaded Uncle Geoffrey.
There are plenty of what my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard calls “microaggressions from the callous workings of the universe” – those quotidian triggers, the memories you didn’t know were memories. The first night I am wakeful, all too aware of my aloneness in a bed big enough for four, and when I sleep I dream – as I so often do these days – of my ex. I am separating my laundry from his (embarrassingly mundane), and when I recount this to my therapist she struggles to contain her glee over the symbolism.
Saturday morning comes, and I am beginning to feel I might quite enjoy this weekend, actually, sitting in the sun with a croissant and a copy of Empire, and planning my London Film Festival viewing. But then the coffee bar plays Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” (“I let my guard down/And then you pulled the rug”) followed by Lany’s “ILYSB” (“And you need to know/That nobody could take your place”) – the closest thing we had to “our song” – and it feels like a small act of bravery simply not to return to bed.
That evening I go for dinner at the kind of restaurant that has a five-course set menu and waiters who give you a tour of the plates. It is fancy enough that, out of self-consciousness, I trade the book I’m really reading – a tatty copy of Michael Crichton’s medieval sci-fi romp Timeline – for an intellectual-looking hardback I’m reviewing for this magazine. My table is, of course, sandwiched between two couples, both of whom are there to celebrate their anniversary. After the first course a waiter uses a tiny brush to sweep away the breadcrumbs, and I am reminded of a lunch my ex and I had together at Del Posto in New York: of whipped butter so light and perfectly balanced we declared it heaven, and of how the waiter laid a fresh tablecloth over any spillages, so you did not have to look at the mess you had made. Details inexplicably, uselessly, retained. How I wish I did not have to look any longer at this mess he has made.
There are moments of happiness, too – fleeting but full. Sunlight streams through my bedroom window on to the carpet so that I cannot resist lying in it, Nirvana in my headphones, like I used to as a teenager. I say yes to the decadences I would normally wave away, and so meals begin with olives and negronis, and end with espresso and sorbet. The woman who does my facial tells me about her puppy, Luna, and how she has her hair dyed to match her fur, and how her husband left her without explanation. She is so kind I could cry, and afterwards I wonder if it would have been a breach of GDPR to give her my number.
Best of all, though, is a pottery throwing class. I am surprised first by the force required to bend the clay to my will, my bodyweight thrown behind two fingers, and, later, by the lightness and liquidity of touch called for; how quickly it can all go wrong, fall apart. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. For two glorious hours my mind is full only of the brace of my elbows on my knees, the pressure on the pedal beneath my foot, the clay spinning between my wet palms.
Within days of returning home I am signed up for a regular weekend throwing class at London’s City Lit college – because, as anyone who knows me will attest, what I don’t have enough of in life is hobbies. My friends joke that I am in training for some sort of reality-TV housewife triathlon: competing on The Great British Bake-Off, The Great British Sewing Bee and The Great Pottery Throw Down. How grateful I am to have hands that work somehow independently of my mind. That, even when my head feels like a rattling kitchen drawer full of discarded receipts and unidentifiable keys, I can still produce works of beauty – wonky, wobbly beauty, but beauty all the same.
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age