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19 January 2016

What it’s like to be a single woman at 60

When I was a girl, my mother referred to a spinster who lived nearby as The Awful Warning – a kind of non-human. When I grew up, I got to see for myself what that life was like.

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson

In 2001, when my children were grown and living their own lives, I upped sticks and moved to London. Putting your stuff into storage and starting again is not what middle-aged divorced women are supposed to do. At least it’s not if you listen to other people. In a way I can see what they meant. Having missed out on university and the communal living that comes with it I now chose to squeeze myself into the smallest bedroom of an east London terrace I would share with 5 strangers.

Six months of endless rotas, fridge turf wars and sharing a bathroom later, I was beginning to feel the strain. The only light in this dark period was when I came home and there were no lights, meaning I had the place to myself. The gilt had thoroughly worn off the house-share gingerbread but by then I’d found my feet, revved up my career and I knew I would stay in London, at least for the foreseeable future. When I was out exploring one Saturday I found a tiny affordable flat to rent on the edge of Blackheath and there I stayed for the next 14 years, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. A year later my boyfriend of four years dropped me for being “too independent” and I began what I believe is called “a drought”. Now I’d call it a benediction.

It was a difficult thing to turn away from the model of womanhood I’d been brought up with. Those tenets of the 1950s and 60s that nudged me along the traditional path of school, work, a husband, babies and then… well, what? What is there to look forward to? Those values belong to a different age, an age when 46 per cent of marriages did not end in divorce. Painful as it was, that kick in the relationship teeth sent me down a road it was better I walked sooner rather than later.

I’m sure it was a good thing I was in London when we broke up because nobody really gave a toss about the etiquette of singledom and in a social group it didn’t much matter what you were. The big plus was that there were so many things to do it made my head spin, although I soon discovered the truth of feeling lonely in a room full of people, or a city full. I found that some activities I’d enjoyed as part of a couple were less welcoming when I was on my own.

For a start, eating alone in restaurants was awkward. Single older women of modest means were welcome nowhere. Seated singly at a table for two, more often than not with our noses in a book (the traditional singleton’s defence) we reduce profit margins. If I hadn’t been so bloody-minded I would probably have given it up – there are only so many times you can stand being parked at a draughty table by the toilets. Even in the early Noughties that’s mostly how it was: theatres quibbled about single tickets, prohibitive supplements clobbered the lone traveller and salesmen would still ask to speak to your husband. But then women had only been legally allowed in pubs since 1987 by the Court of Appeal – astonishing but true. The only thing to change in the intervening years is that no one assumes you have a husband to make decisions on your behalf anymore.

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The most significant practical issue concerning me was, and still is, money. Commerce is not geared for singles and with no one to share the bills it is necessary to shoulder big responsibilities but my little flat provided me with daily respite from the battle of a single woman’s life, somewhere I didn’t have to explain myself, get stroppy or be apologetic. Occasionally I was afraid. When sirens shattered the London hum or the man in the basement started shouting about setting fire to the ants infesting his kitchen I wouldn’t sleep. In the film Big there is a scene where Tom Hanks’s character, a child in a man’s body, hunches on an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, listens to noises he does not comprehend and sobs with fear and heartbreak. I can’t watch it. I had never lived so much on my own before or had to do everything for myself. I didn’t know where to find the motivation.

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In the years that followed I got better at it. I traversed the jagged landscape of a cancer scare with hope and tears. To keep the people who cared about me happy, I flirted with the idea of dating someone and occasionally someone would flirt with me – like the octogenarian actor who took a shine to me and very charming and funny he was too until he pounced and began snogging my face off. As it happens, the snogging part was not at all unpleasant but I couldn’t get past the fact that he was older than my dad and that answered something I’d always wondered about: whether I could shack up for money (financial ruin is a recurring nightmare for the pensionless women of my generation who live on worry and fresh air). This was confirmed some months later when I went out to dinner with a lawyer who, roughly 30 seconds after I’d sat on his sofa disappeared into the kitchen and re-emerged wearing only the tiniest pair of black pants I’d ever seen in my life and two mugs of coffee. Laugh? Of course I did but sadly he wasn’t joking. On another occasion a very nice gentleman got as far as the zabaglione before bursting into guilty tears about his wife, which was news to me. It had been flattering to be asked out, a recognition and reassurance perhaps that I was ‘still’ womanly, but I began to question why I was bothering to waste a considerable chunk of time in the company of men who, in the absence of any discernible chemistry seemed to expect sex nonetheless and were simply after a kind of housekeeper with benefits. It felt as though I was being thrust back into my younger self, sharking for a husband, and God forbid I should have to go through all that again.

Gradually, over time and without me really noticing my priorities began to shift and the motivation I’d found so hard to pin down surfaced, changing the way I lived my life: I stopped worrying so much about what other people thought and how they expected me to behave and live. I began to like myself a lot more, to do what I wanted to do and not make excuses, to make things better for me. I decided that yes, it would be nice to find someone to kick around with who liked the same things as me but was I prepared to make substantial compromises, endure the cattle market of internet dating. No, I was not.

Once that balance had tipped, London on my own stopped being bleak and became an interesting challenge. I had control of my life and no one to answer to except myself. I stopped noticing my aloneness and not being someone’s “other half”. In restaurants I refused to be seated in the “naughty corner”, I argued for tickets to the performances I wanted to see, I arrived at and went home from parties all by myself. What others found unbearable and isolating I found liberating. I developed my own strategies for dodging social adoption by well-meaning people. Things went wrong from time to time but with patience I could work it out and carry on. The first time I went on holiday on my own I took a self-catering apartment on a quiet green island in the Aegean (late booking, no supplement). My ex-boyfriend warned me of terrible consequences as though I was a child. I was clearly doomed. The first day was terrifying but on the ferry back to Piraeus a week later I wept quietly as Poros receded into blue remembered hills. The gift I came back with was the knowledge that everything that week threw at me I had coped with. I had learned self-reliance and resilience and that the world would not end if I didn’t have instant coffee or soft loo roll. That’s a big thing for a woman of my generation. Every year since then I have been on holiday alone. I’ve gained far more on solo holidays than I ever did as part of a couple.

I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to discover all this but as a girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I’d been trained for a lifetime of modest femininity, of caring for my future husband and children and putting myself last (“no one’s looking at you, dear”). My mother referred to a spinster who lived nearby as The Awful Warning – a kind of non-human. Neither a wife nor a mother what was her purpose? Given such ingrained beliefs I’m not at all surprised my father couldn’t comprehend my single state and thought I should have a “somebody” to look after me. The subtext being that I couldn’t look after myself.

With the benefit of hindsight and my own experience I’m not altogether convinced that marriage is a state that should be regarded as one of 100 per cent copper-bottomed “happiness” and nor, for that matter, is living with someone. I suppose much depends on whom you choose to marry or live with but why in the event of finding ourselves alone are we in such a desperate hurry for a replacement? What’s wrong with taking time to acquire the art of being that mysterious thing ‘comfortable in your own skin’? There is, I suppose, the celibate elephant in the room but as fictional detective Aurelio Zen remarks when asked if he doesn’t like sex, “oh no, I remember it very fondly” and anyway, priorities change, as does what makes me happy. Why fight it? Is anyone curious about my apparent celibacy? The answer is apparently not. The ridiculous notion that sex stops at 50 persists. Having been called a “dried up old cunt” (in the street if you please) I wonder why we don’t discuss it more. At the age of 60 I have become aware that there is much more to my femininity, to my sexuality, than whether I’m worth fucking.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m so happy with a situation that society and other people continue to regard as self-indulgent, vaguely tragic and sometimes, downright dangerous. I am a cliché – an older woman living alone with a cat. I am that notorious thing – a loner. But single doesn’t always mean alone. There are family and friends and sometimes strangers who play a role in supporting me and that support is welcomed and reciprocal but aren’t we ultimately always alone? You can talk things through but what you think and feel are not anyone else’s thoughts and feelings – you know your own mind. The trick is learning to trust it. I remember thinking about this while I waited at the station for a train to take me back to London on the day my father died. I felt alone but not lonely. My private thoughts were not thoughts of loss and grief – that came later. No one was telling me how sad I must have been feeling and my recollection was that this time on my own was precious. So much of death is taken up with other people. Me, I was simply glad that my father had been my father and that he had had as good a life and death as any of us can hope for. On the other hand, I did feel a tug of fear that the store of knowledge and experience I had come to rely on was no longer there. I remember a similar feeling when the stabilisers were taken off my first bicycle by the same steady strong hands. Perhaps I’ve finally grown up.

Doris Lessing said, “I do not think marriage is one of my talents. I’ve been much happier unmarried than married”. Having quietly just celebrated my 60th birthday and continuing to be very much single I have to say I agree. More than that, if I ever got a tattoo then that would probably be it. It’s not that I haven’t tried the alternative – I’ve been married, had children, got divorced and enjoyed relationships – and nor have I closed the door on it because who knows what life might push my way, but while I have friends who move heaven and earth and dating websites to find the next care project I continue to enjoy my “drought” and reinvent my life. It really is a benediction.