What would you give for a day on your own? Fifty pounds, £1,000, a toe? Perhaps that feels offensive: it depends, of course, how you have spent the past 365. You might sacrifice a digit for a soft body to slump against on the sofa, for the hot, heavy weight of a sleeping child numbing your arm or a hand within reaching distance when the night-time dread sets in. There is an epidemic of loneliness: 36% of Americans in a recent survey reported feeling lonely at least “frequently” during the pandemic; in the UK, the same percentage felt loneliness “sometimes” or “often”. But it is not the whole story: one of the frustrating things about pandemic life is the inequitable distribution of warm bodies.
There are lots of them here, using my bath oil and favourite mug and dusting every surface with protein powder, having thoughts and expressing them loudly. I really love them, but I recently found a slightly incoherent note I had written (presumably at a trying moment I have managed to forget) that reads: “It is possible to love your children fanatically and also to wish they would go away for long enough so you can feel that love in peace.” I stand by that – and would extend it to my partner, even though he is the only person I would ever choose to live with and the past year has been surprisingly harmonious (thanks to his forbearance and good humour while I have been my usual disagreeable self).
Like so many, I have not had more than a few hours alone since last March. A year is 8,760 hours: if Malcom Gladwell is right and it takes 10,000 to master a skill (he is not), I should have almost nailed togetherness by now. I haven’t, though. I just want some time by myself, because I can think only on my own.
I know how pathetic that sounds. People manage – thrive, even – in busy, challenging environments. I have watched them achieve things this year that I could barely dream of, even while they are being used as a climbing frame by toddlers or having to make a motte-and-bailey castle out of yoghurt pots. Because, apparently, I enjoy the hot burn of shame and inadequacy, I follow a woman on Instagram who has five children – five! – and who has written her third book in lockdown. I could claim there is “no more sombre enemy of good art” than a husband with a speakerphone and a packed schedule of shouting into it, but what kind of “good art” am I creating, exactly? This is hardly War and Peace.
Even so, without alone time, my intellectual capacity has shrivelled. My thinking happens only when I am brushing my teeth or walking the dog (and only if I don’t run into the chatty garage owner who has strong opinions on side panels). Apart from that, I am reduced to tabbing between email and Twitter, mouth hanging open slackly, saving videos of funny animals to watch later. Sometimes, I look up spartan monastery retreats with single beds and starched white sheets, or read about the Amsterdam Begijnhof, where women coexisted peacefully, productively – solo, but side by side.
I got my wish last week, sort of. My younger son was at school, the elder at work and my husband spent a day poking some ominous boards in our future home. I was alone at last, just me and the freaked-out dog, who had forgotten what it was like not to live in a pack 24/7 and sat in the wardrobe. It was amazing, the quiet house and the sense of space in my head more luxurious than any spa break. I watched all the internet videos I had saved; I located the good nail clippers and hid them; I stared into the fridge and tidied a cupboard.
Did I get any work done? Ah, well. Not really. Perhaps I was actually, finally, missing background noise. As fellow Garbos know, the Easter holidays start this week, so I will get the opportunity to test this theory properly all too soon.