And so our little break is over, that time, in an inversion of the usual practice at Christmas, when the New Statesman wraps its regular contributors up in tissue paper, and puts them in a box in the loft. Three weeks later we are taken out again, and emerge, blinking, into the light. The first column of the year is always hard, because we have forgotten how to type, and have been in a box.
Actually, I did manage to get out of my box over Christmas, so to speak, and I went, as has been traditional since 2007, over to the family home to cook the lunch for the offspring and the Estranged Wife. That year was somewhat awkward: feelings were still on the raw side, and it was poignant, to put it mildly, to be back in the house from which I had been ejected. Things were beginning to change in terms of the décor, as if to highlight the start of a new regime: there was now wallpaper in the hallway, of which I could see neither the necessity nor the point; the cat had taken a dislike to it, and was in the process of tearing it off the walls, from which it hung in fronds. The cat was not a demonstratively affectionate animal, but she was always glad to see me, and I took her vandalism as a kind of protest.
But now all wounds are healed, more or less, and I have come to accept such changes as have happened. Besides, the two younger children live there still, so there is continuity. Instead of a cat there are two black Labradors, and that really does make a difference, but the elder one loves me (the younger one is very daft, and howls for loneliness when it is upstairs, for it has not yet, after some years, figured out that everyone else has gone downstairs). There is also the presence of the EW’s partner, a vicar, but I am well used to him by now. For an atheist, I seem to know an awful, perhaps I should say inordinate, number of people in holy orders.
The routine is to get there on Christmas Eve, have dinner, sleep on the sofa, and then the next morning, while everyone else is asleep, start on the stuffing, and then everything else. It is a five-hour operation, all spent on one’s feet, except for the occasional lull when one can sit down and have a glass of wine.
During one of these lulls I glanced over to the cookery book shelf and noticed, placed prominently, one of Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks. And, as always, I lapse into reverie, and remember the time when Nigella and I could have been a Thing. Let me tell you a story.
It is the early 2000s, and I am in Soho, attending a launch party for Christopher Hitchens’s latest book. Among the guests was Nigella, recently widowed (I had known her husband, the journalist John Diamond, not very well but well enough to know that he was a decent person). She was in black, but not widow’s weeds: instead, a tight-fitting lace-up leather bodice that, well, let’s just leave it there for the moment. Now at the time, she had yet to meet that sonofabitch Saatchi who [redacted, but you’ve seen the photos] at a restaurant in Mayfair. She and I were introduced. She was entrancing, funny, charming, utterly free from condescension; in short, as wonderful as private fantasy could make her out to be. She asked me where I lived.
“Shepherd’s Bush,” I said.
“Oh! We’re neighbours!” She asked me if I had children and I said yes and she said she did too and maybe we could go ensemble for walks in Ravenscourt Park. She got a piece of paper out – from where, I don’t know, there was no room in her bodice even for a Rizla; maybe she had a bag; but I was making an enormous effort to keep my eyes locked on to hers, and for my gaze to stray no lower. She wrote her address on it, and handed it to me.
In one moment a possible future unrolled itself before me, like a carpet: the weekly strolls that became daily, the invitation back for coffee that became wine; the companionable laughter that became deeper and then turned into something else; the walk back to the marital kitchen table and the brutal announcement, but made as softly as I could, that Daddy had found someone else, but that he would always love his children; the wife’s sobs; maybe even a cry or two of “Nigella f—–g LAWSON?”; the bitter divorce; and the new life. All this took about a second, as I put the paper in my pocket.
I never used that address. I wanted my marriage to stay. But every time I hear her name I think of what might have been.
As I was leaving the party, Christopher Hitchens put his arm around me.
“Nick,” he said, “don’t ever change.” I’ve always wondered what he meant by that.
[See also: I never experienced jealousy – until now]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously