A book, a glass of wine, but no thou

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THE PAST two weeks have been an unusual experience for me. I've been lonely. My partner, Tony, is in Zimbabwe making a film in a small town so remote that it doesn't have a fax machine, so our normal method of daily communication when he is away has been denied us. My elder daughter, who lives in the next street (I know: a rare privilege for a London grandmother), is on holiday with her family in France. My son has been filming in Prague. The remaining daughter is working flat out for some exams she has to retake.

In consequence I've spent much of the fortnight alone . . . Alone, that is, apart from my colleagues on the paper, the people with whom I work out in the gym, the shoppers in Sainsbury's . . . Not really alone at all.

But alone enough, all the same, to have passed melancholy evenings with a half-read book, a half-watched television, and an overstroked cat; with a cobbled- up supper on my lap accompanied by just one, all right, two, oh well, I admit it, three glasses of wine. No wonder people who live alone take to drink: a drink is the next best thing to company. Or rather, one imagines it is; in fact, there is something terribly depressing about solitary drinking. Self-pity deepens with every glass. At this rate I'd be an alcoholic in a year.

What exactly, I have asked myself, does this loneliness consist of? It certainly isn't isolation: only last week I was bewailing the excess of people who surround me. It isn't lack of conversation, either: I can ring people up and chat on the phone for hours. I don't feel abandoned; I have had lunch with four different sets of friends, and caught up on their news. I have had two - no, three - different people to supper. It isn't boredom: I've seen a play and a film and watched 10 times as much television as usual; read Chesterton's poems (in a marvellous new edition edited by Stephen Medcalf) as well as Bill Bryson's wonderful Made in America; and I'm halfway through Nicholas Mosley's autobiography, Efforts at Truth.

What I mean by loneliness - this present loneliness; there are many forms - is lack of intimacy. There is nobody to whom I can relate the small soap opera of my daily life. The trivial anecdotes, ('Do you know what I saw on the Tube today? Well . . .'); the office jokes, fragments of conversation or gossip; the petty successes and embarrassing failures; the disappointments or surprises, in short, the whole open-ended saga of Lambertian life. Equally important, Tony isn't there at the end of the day to tell me his. I don't lack deep conversation; I lack - who would have thought it mattered so much? - the shallow, ephemeral, but immensely reassuring validation of who I am and what I have done.

Ten years ago, when I imagined I would be on my own for the rest of my life, I laid plans, made various sensible adjustments, stopped depending on the imminent appearance of the hoped-for He and settled down to confront life as a solitary woman. I joined a couple of clubs - the excellent Institut Francais, just down the road from my flat, which had a full programme of events both social and cultural; and English PEN, a national organisation for writers, which filled most Wednesday evenings very enjoyably.

Then, out of the blue, just when I least expected anyone, along came Tony - and for the first time in 25 years I was one of a couple again. In the last eight years I've got used to that highly satisfactory state and seem to have lost the ability to be serene in my own company.

I know plenty of people who are, and I admire their dignity and discipline. An old friend of mine, a Hungarian lady of 87, has been on her own for 30 years yet lives with as much vigour as if she were at the centre of a salon. She is always perfectly dressed, she always cooks herself proper meals and doesn't just gobble a snack (while I have eaten more bowls of cornflakes in the past fortnight than I care to admit) and she keeps up with the news as well as with the latest books. This seems to me to demonstrate a high degree of self-respect, and I deplore its absence in my present self.

I have thought over and again, how do people bear it? Yet one person in four in Great Britain lives alone, and the percentage is rising. I realise this does not automatically mean that they are all lonely; many no doubt choose to live like that. My younger daughter has preferred to live by herself since she was 18, which she says is selfishness though I think it shows a remarkable strength of character.

In the end I have been compelled to realise that when I say I am missing intimacy, this is fudging the issue. Intimacy is a way of avoiding the real word for what I have been missing, which is love. For all the cheerful companionship of the office, the generous affection of friends, the lively chatter of my children on the telephone, I have come to the conclusion that I have been lonely because for these past two weeks I have been living without love. It seems that I cannot do it. Francis Bacon said the same in 1607: 'For a crowd is not company and faces are but a gallery of pictures and talk but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love.'

He gets back tomorrow. Welcome home.

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