Last week I was in Bequia in the Grenadines on my hols. I went into the little town and bought four pretty postcards and stamps to send to my four granddaughters. How caring, how thoughtful. Except I’d forgotten their addresses.
I sat there, licking my pen. I know one lives in a street beginning with an L and it’s number 96, or could be 76. As for postcodes, no idea. How could I not know, when they all live just a few streets away from my house, have done for many years?
The answer is that my dear late departed wife Margaret [the writer Margaret Forster] did all that. Just as she knew all their phone numbers and mobiles and dates of birth. In her head, she carried about 50 phone numbers and about 50 dates of births, including all the royal family’s. Gone, all gone.
Yes, I know it’s mental laziness, but in a long marriage of 55 years, you divvy up the jobs. I got… now, what did I get?
Oh yes, the garden, driving the car, as she did not drive, paying all bills and financial stuff as she had no interest in money. She did almost everything else. Hence I flooded the downstairs lavatory when I first tried to use the washing machine after she died a year ago. As for cooking, what a bore that is. It’s such a faff, thinking of what to have, buying it and cooking it and clearing up, then all you do is eat it – and have to start all over again next day.
Knowing where to park all the trivia, that is one of many minor hardships of being on your own. On that holiday, I was longing to discuss all the people I’d met during the day: “Goodness, what she was wearing”; “What a bore that bloke was”; or “I shouldn’t have had the mahi mahi. You chose well, pet, picking the barracuda. My fish was horrible…” On your own, nobody knows, nobody cares.
I’ve always specialised in overheard conversations, bringing them back from bus stops or train rides, or bits of chats picked up while meeting folks. I acquired so many on my hols, but I couldn’t unload them. They were piddling, nothing, and in 24 hours I had forgotten them anyway. Eating alone, I don’t find that such a hardship, at least not when I’m on my annual January trip to the West Indies.
I go to the same hotels – Cobblers Cove in Barbados and the Bequia Beach Hotel, which are full at this time of the year with regulars, who always invite me to join them at supper. The trick – if you do find yourself alone in a hotel restaurant – is to get in early. The waiters will make a fuss of you, serving you quickly, as they want you out sharpish, not cluttering up the place, looking pathetic and setting the wrong tone. Pretending to read a book is also pathetic, but writing occasional stuff in a notebook is good. The waiters worry that you might be a management spy.
Sleeping alone is of course sad. On the other hand you have all the bed and don’t get wakened by someone snoring. She did, but she always denied it.
Hunter Davies in 1976
Probably the best thing about having a hol on your own is that you’re always open to offers. If someone suggests something, anything, I always say yes. My wife’s first response to almost all social invitations was to say no, coming out with an immediate and totally convincing lie about why she couldn’t make it.
Because I say yes, at once, I constantly find myself not just double-booked but triple-booked, either having to rush round like an eejit or being forced to cancel one of them. You can go off without consulting your partner if someone suggests a jaunt, a sail, a walk, an expedition, another rum punch.
You have no one else to consider or point out that you’ve already had two rum punches today, and it’s only 11 in the morning.
On your own, however, there is the burden of having to sparkle, to entertain, to pay your way by being good company. With your loved one you can just slump, or drone on about the same old subjects: “Do you think I’ve put on weight?” “I think my tan is peeling” and “I’m sure this filling has come out. I’ll open wide. Please have a look. I’ll be your best friend.” My wife did often ask me to do her a favour and not talk for the next half-hour.
I met so many new people, went to so many places, but of course now that it’s over, I’ve no one to share the memories. I can go on forever reminiscing about events that happened just half an hour ago. The postcards to my granddaughters have not arrived yet, but they’ll remind me of where I’ve been. I did post them. I sent messages on my mobile to my son and two daughters saying, “Quick, what is your address and full postcode? I want to catch the post.”
My wife could not have done that, nor of course would she have needed to. She never used a mobile, or a computer, sent an email or text in her life. All her writing was done with a fountain pen and ink. So, I did have my uses, in this modern, techie world…
Losing Margaret is on Tuesday 11.30am Radio 4